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Movie Reviews 2015

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5 Stars= It's Simply the Best 

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

99 Homes

Greed is good ****

Why is it that sometimes honest, hardworking people end up out on the streets while immoral, deceitful people live comfortably in mansions? There’s really no easy answer except that life isn’t always fair. We’re often taught to do the right thing and be compassionate towards others no matter what. In a dog eat dog world, however, occasionally people have to abandon their ethics to survive. That’s something we rarely see demonstrated in movies. "99 Homes" isn’t afraid to go there, though, and pulls no punches in blunting showing the audience the grim side of human nature.   


Andrew Garfield gives one of his best performances as Dennis Nash, a single father who lives with his mother (Laura Dern). Dennis tries to provide for his family through construction work, but nobody ever has any jobs for him. Unable to pay the bills during the 2008 housing market crisis, Dennis’ family is evicted by a greedy real estate agent named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). He’s a total SOB who has no qualms with ruining people’s lives and then profiting off their misfortune. In an ironic turn of events, Dennis finds himself working for Rick and learning the ways of his business. Dennis eventually becomes Rick’s protégée, making more money than he ever thought possible. In the process, though, Dennis completely loses sight of his morality.  


Following Rick, Dennis comes across numerous people that have been hit hard by the economy and took out loans they can never pay back. Although he’s committing the ultimate act of hypocrisy, Dennis plays a hand in kicking all of these people to the curb. Naturally, we feel empathy for the poor individuals who become homeless in the blink of an eye. We also feel empathy for Dennis, who’s simply doing whatever it takes to give his own family the life they deserve. What’s fascinating about "99 Homes," however, is that we even find ourselves identifying with the conniving Rick.


Michael Shannon is a marvelous actor and he brings great depth to a character that could’ve merely been a one-note villain here. There’s little doubt that Rick Carver is the devil and Dennis has sold his soul to him. At the same time, though, Rick is so charismatic and convincing that we can’t help but buy into his cynical philosophies on how the world works. We may not be proud of ourselves, but it’s hard to deny that Rick’s cunning, manipulative ways have made him a success. People may ask Rick how he sleeps with himself at night. If the tables were turned and we found ourselves in Rick’s shoes, though, most of us would be tempted to secure our own success at the expense of others.


Director Ramin Bahrani has made an unsettling picture that won’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Yet, "99 Homes" is truly a provocative film with something daring to say about humanity. It also takes a few turns that you might not expect from a morality tale such as this. Let’s just say that one character’s conscience does eventually get the best of them. That doesn’t mean they’re rewarded for their moral redemption, though, or that they even necessarily made a wise decision. It just goes to show that life isn’t always as crystal clear as we think, especially when we’ve observed things from multiple perspectives. 

The Age of Adaline

Not to be confused with Age of Ultron ***1/2

How much do you want to bet that next weekend somebody will try to get a ticket for “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and accidentally purchase one for “The Age of Adaline” instead? It’s got to be more than a coincidence that these two movies are coming out within a single week of each other, right? Of course if real life were anything like “The Age of Adaline,” implausible coincidences would be natural occurrences. Whether you see it purposely or by mistake, this romantic fantasy is still a pleasant alternative to the swarm of action blockbusters on the horizon.

Blake Lively has done mostly solid work over the years in “The Town” and those “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” flicks. Here she’s elegant, charming, and a true shimmering star as the title character. Adaline is well over a hundred, but doesn’t look a day over thirty. How is this possible? Decades ago, Adaline crashed her car into a freezing lake during a snowstorm. Her car was struck by lightening and somehow this renders Adaline immortal. Um…are you guys sure this isn’t a superhero film because that’s about as feasible as Electro’s origin story.

Over the years, people start to notice that Adaline is aging even better than Elijah Wood. Out of fear of getting taken captive by the government, she’s forced to go on the run and continually change her identity. The only one who Adaline maintains contact with is her loving daughter (Ellen Burstyn), who now looks much older than her mother. Adaline finally lets her defenses down upon meeting a charismatic man named Ellis (Michiel Huisman). The two fall madly in love, but Adaline isn’t sure how to inform Ellis about the significant age difference.

Things only get more complicated when Harrison Ford enters the picture as somebody from Adaline’s past. Without giving too much away, there’s a twist in the film’s second act that’s going to have the biggest sourpusses in the audience rolling their eyes in disbelief. There are quite a few moments in “The Age of Adaline” that really don’t make much sense logically, even if it does try to work in some scientific jargon. A movie like this doesn’t need to be governed by logic, though. It’s a modern fairytale where the planets are aloud to miraculously line up. The question is whether “The Age of Adaline” is truly magical like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or an abra-catastrophe like “Winter’s Tale.”   

Thanks to the skillful direction from Lee Toland Krieger, universally heartfelt performances, and some nicely written scenes, this is a sincerely romantic movie. Such a film is difficult to come by in an era of Nicholas Sparks and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but “The Age of Adaline” keeps you invested every step of the way. Even though some plot points can come off as forced and manipulative, the emotion here is 100% genuine and the characters all feel surprisingly authentic. It’d be especially easy for a film like this to throw in a one-note villain. Yet, everyone is essentially a sympathetic, caring human being that deserves to a live long, long, long, happy life.

American Ultra

An American reject **1/2

There are parts here and there that function. Sitting through the film, though, you can’t help but wish you were watching "Kick-Ass," "Grindhouse," "Wanted," or "Kingsman" instead.

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Must resist bear rape joke ****

Although "The Revenant" certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s also riveting entertainment that only a truly masterful filmmaker such as Alejandro González Iñárritu could have brought into fruition.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Not to be confused with Age of Adaline ***1/2 

There’s an instance towards the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” where a character says, “Nothing lasts forever.” That seems to be the case for everything except for popular film franchises. Considering the level of quality and variety the Marvel Cinematic Universe has exemplified over the years, however, this is one ongoing series that could deservedly stick around for some time. Even if not every outing is triumphant, fifty more “Avengers” movies sounds much more promising than one more “Transformers” picture.

While the original “Avengers” broke all kinds of box office records, the film’s true achievement is that it got made at all. The fact that Director Joss Whedon lived up to the hype further cements the blockbuster’s place as one of the best summer movies of the past couple decades. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” isn’t as fresh as its predecessor. It’s not as funny as “Guardians of the Galaxy” or surprising as “Captain America: The Winter Solider” either. It is a solid follow-up, however, that continues Marvel’s winning streak.

Although Tony Stark destroyed his mechanical suits at the end of “Iron Man 3,” he simply couldn’t resist teaming up with his Avenger buddies another time. Stark’s need to protect the planet blows up in his face, though, after Dr. Banner and him accidentally invent an A.I. called Ultron. Originally conceived as a global defense program, Ultron has plans of his own: Eradicate the human race and start fresh. Thus, earth’s mightiest heroes must assemble once more.

The standout performance comes from James Spader, whose voice couldn’t be more perfectly matched to Ultron. Philosophical, funny, and menacing enough to make a “Pinocchio” song sound terrifying, he simply steals the entire show. Granted, Ultron’s plan to “save” the human race is ridiculous. If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that madmen will always justify genocide by claiming its for the greater good. In his metal pinky, Ultron still has more class than Megatron has in his entire being.

As for our heroes, it feels tedious to go over every character and actor. Let’s just say that virtually all major players and supporting players from the previous Marvel films appear, from Thor, to Nick Fury, to Falcon. They even introduce a few newcomers in the form of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Godzilla.” Like the first “Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” surprisingly never feels overstuffed despite its extensive cast. Everybody is given just the right amount of screen time. The problem is that not every subplot clicks.

For example, we get a romance between Black Widow and the Hulk that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Not to sound like a shipper, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to hook up Black Widow and Captain America given their chemistry in “The Winter Solider?” This pairing just feels so random, not even amounting to any particularly romantic moments. There’s also a hallucinogenic subplot that doesn’t amount to much and a couple action sequences in the second act that come off as forced.

For every scene that doesn’t quite mesh, however, there’s a terrific scene waiting around the corner. Hawkeye gets some nice development and Tony Stark’s actions raise some intriguing ethical dilemmas that parallel real world issues. The characters are the key to “Age of Ultron” and all the other successful Marvel movies. Whether taking on a robot army or making banter over a few drinks, these people are just so enjoyable to watch. You could make a movie where they blackout in Vegas and it’d probably be awesome. They’re the reason to see this movie.

With a lovable ensemble and colorful action, Director Whedon gives us pretty much what we want again. Yet, he doesn’t really raise the ante. That might sound weird for a film that builds to a climax involving a floating island, but the first film just might have been too grand to top. With that said, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t lower the ante or rehash any tired plotlines. It furthers the story leading up to the Infinity War and has a lot of fun in the process. For a sequel and technically the eleventh film in a saga, that’s not half bad.

Batkid Begins

It might be complicated if he wants to be Superman, though ****

"Batkid Begins" does an impeccable job at summing up the spirit of Miles’ incredible story. It’s corny, it’s lighthearted, and it’s impossible to walk away without being even a little bit inspired. It also demonstrates that the key component to making any dream come true, whether you wish to become a superhero for a day or get a movie off the ground, is effort.

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The Big Short

For richer or pooer ****

The best way to describe this film is "The Wolf of Wall Street" meets "Moneyball." This shouldn’t come as surprise seeing how Michael Lewis, who wrote the source material for the latter movie, also wrote the source material for "The Big Short."

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Black Mass

We can like Johnny Deep again! ***1/2

In "Black Mass," Depp gives his most hard-hitting, unpredictable, and audacious performance in years. Watching him here, we’re reminded what a chameleon of an actor Depp can be. While Depp is nothing short of fantastic, it’s a bit of a shame the film itself isn’t quite on par.

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Black or White

 No, that little girl isn't Quvenzhane Wallis ***1/2

There are two movies currently in theaters about American heroes. One of them is “American Sniper,” which centers on a white American hero. The other is “Selma,” which centers on a black American hero. “American Sniper” has exceeded all expectations with its box office results and Oscar nominations while “Selma” has done just okay. While both of these movies are great and important achievements, they seem to have created a wedge between some people. Given this controversy, it’s appropriate that we’d get a movie like “Black or White” right about now.

Kevin Costner gives one of his strongest performances in a while as Elliot Anderson, a lawyer raising his biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell). Elliot’s daughter died in childbirth and his wife was recently killed in a car accident. Octavia Spencer is right at home as Rowena, Eloise’s other grandmother who doesn’t think Elliot can raise her alone. With a big family and steady job of her own, Rowena hires her lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie) to get full custody. Things only get more complicated when Eloise’s druggy father (André Holland) returns and Rowena pushes him to take responsibility for his daughter. What ensues is a bit like the interracial version of “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

The reason “Black or White” works is because its characters are never, for a lack of better words, black and white. None of these people as bad, but they all have human flaws. Although he loves his granddaughter with all his heart, Elliot isn’t sure how to be a single parent and often turns to the bottle for answers. That doesn’t mean Rowena has the right to take Eloise away from Elliot either. As nurturing as she is, Rowena doesn’t always know what’s best. After all, the woman did raise a crack addict who she forgives one too many times. “Black or White” is all about finding the middle ground when it becomes to race, family, and simply doing what’s best.

With powerful performances, honest characters, and wise commentary, there are times where “Black or White” demonstrates the makings of a great picture about race relations. There are a few problems, though. For starters, the humor can occasionally feel awkward and out-of-place. Sometimes the comedy works, particularly the scenes involving Mpho Koaho as a tutor always equipped with credentials. But then we get an uneven scene such as when Elliot tells Eloise about her grandma’s departure and the conversation is partially played for laughs. A film like “The Help” did a much better job at juggling drama and comedy, despite what some say about that infamous pie scene.

Also, for a film about the dynamics between black and white people, we spend a lot more time with Costner’s character than any of the African American ones. They’re not underdeveloped per se, but a few more scenes told from Rowena’s point of view definitely would have elevated the story. Even little Eloise is kind of overshadowed at times, although the film does effectively develop her relationships with all her parental figures. This is actually one of the few custody movies where we see the adults talk to the child involved about who she wants to live with. At the very least, Eloise is a significant figure here and not just a tool.  

Then there’s the film’s final act. Without giving too much away, “Black or White” leads to an action climax in which two characters butt heads. It’s forced, it’s cheap, and it just seems tacked on. As unnecessary as the climax is, it still doesn’t ruin the experience. Writer/Director Mike Binder’s film might not be a transcendent story about race, but it is a solid one that will hopefully encourage more pictures like this. Considering how divided people sometimes feel, we can never have too many movies about compromise.

The Boy Next Door

No, we can't. It's wrong. *1/2

Almost thirty years ago, Adrian Lyne directed “Fatal Attraction.” His film took a fairly basic thriller premise and distinguished it with Oscar-caliber performances, a well-structured screenplay, and legitimate terror. Since then, we’ve gotten numerous retreads like “Swinfan,” “Obsessed” and now, quite possibly the dumbest of all, “The Boy Next Door.” Even if “Fatal Attraction” never existed, though, “The Boy Next Door” would still be a downright embarrassing standalone movie. How embarrassing is it? So embarrassing that the audiences for “General Hospital” and “Days of Our Lives” would boo it off screen.  

In some of the most rushed flashbacks of recent memory, we learn that Jennifer Lopez’s Claire is separated from her cheating husband (John Corbett). Enter Ryan Guzman as Noah, a young man who recently moved in next door. He’s there to help his dying, elderly uncle, who only pops up when it’s convenient for the script. Helpful, handy, and handsome, Noah seems about as perfect as a Disney prince. The one catch: He’s completely insane!

Claire unfortunately doesn’t realize this until after she shares a night of passion with Noah and tries to call things off the next morning. Noah doesn’t take the news well, going from charming to cuckoo in a snap. He thus partakes in all the typical stalker clichés like showing up at Claire’s house announced, making a shrine to her in his basement, and blackmailing her with a video of them doing it. Hey, once you’ve had J.LO’s cookies you gotta come back for more.

Oh, and if you’re not into lazy stalker clichés, don’t worry. “The Boy Next Door” has a variety of other clichéd characters. Like how about Ian Nelson as Claire’s annoying teenage son who wants his parents back together one minute then decides he hates his dad when they finally start to work things out. He’s being harassed at school by some obnoxious skater bullies that have no personalities outside of being obnoxious skater bullies. Gee, I wonder if Noah will teach them a lesson later? The movie even manages to work Kirstin Chenoweth in there as Claire’s comedic best friend who seems to belong in another movie.

Actually, it wouldn’t be that surprising if “The Boy Next Door” were initially conceived as a comedy. The sex scenes are unintentionally hilarious. The attempts at disturbing the audience are unintentionally hilarious. Heck, the film produces more laughs per minute than “The Wedding Ringer” did. I’m not sure whether the actors deserve Razzies for their inexplicable performances or blue ribbons for maintaining straight faces while uttering lines like, “We can’t. It’s wrong.” If Adam Wingard of “The Guest” and “You’re Next” had gotten ahold of this material, maybe “The Boy Next Door” could have worked as a dark comedy. As a legitimate thriller, however, it’s a failure on every conceivable level.

Bridge of Spies

Stuck in the middle ****1/2

We’ve seen movies about the Cold War before. What’s so absorbing about "Bridge of Spies," though, is how Screenwriters Matt Charman and the Coen brothers observe matters from a middle-of-the-road perspective.

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A Brilliant Young Mind

Not to be confused with "A Beautiful Mind" ****

Asperger syndrome has been traced back to some of history’s most brilliant minds, such as Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. The notion of Asperger’s, however, has merely been around for a couple decades and it’s only been in recent years that we’ve seen the disorder explored in media. There have been a few movies centered on characters with Asperger’s, like “Adam. There are also several characters on television than demonstrate signs of having it, like Abed Nadir from “Community” and Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory.” “A Brilliant Young Mind” not only offers one of the best portrayals of a person Asperger syndrome, but it’s furthermore a great film about human communication.


For those that don’t know what Asperger’s is exactly, it’s an autism spectrum disorder that affects one’s social skills. While people with Asperger’s often suffer from communication issues, many of them are brilliant in their own, unique way. Young Nathan Ellis, played by Asa Butterfield of “Hugo,” is a mathematical wiz who sees the world in numbers and patterns. Yet, he’s unable to properly function in the physical world around him. He rarely speaks to others, requires his meals to be served a particular way, and becomes overwhelmed with anxiety when others try to shake his hand.


The one person who was able to reach Nathan was his childlike father, who died in a car crash. Nathan’s patient mother, beautifully played by Sally Hawkins, loves her son more than anything and desperately wants to make a connection with him. Her efforts prove futile, however, as Nathan resists opening up to her. The closest thing Nathan has to a friend is Mr. Humphreys, his cynical teacher with Multiple sclerosis played by Rafe Spall. Where Nathan feels emotionally unable to have a meaningful relationship with anybody, Humphreys feels physically unable to have a meaningful relationship. Of course Humphreys’ condition also takes a toll on his personality, always having something smartass to say.


Nathan is used to being the smartest person in the room, or at least the weirdest. That changes when he lands a position on the British team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. Surrounded by other geniuses and even another young man with a form of autism, Nathan finds that he’s painstakingly average. He begins to realize that mathematics is a universal language and, more importantly, there’s more to life than studying. He goes on to befriend a Chinese girl named Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), who is also competing in the Olympiad. Through their friendship, Nathan comes out of his shell and discovers feelings he doesn’t entirely understand.


“A Brilliant Young Mind” is the first fictional film from director Morgan Matthews, who’s previously only directed documentaries, and the feature film debut for screenwriter James Graham. Along with an exquisite acting ensemble, they’ve made a tender and sincere story that addresses the communication barriers we put up, be they personal barriers, physical barriers, emotional barriers, or language barriers. Breaking these barriers down may be harder for some. Once they do, however, they can start to see the world in a whole new light. 


Once upon a time in America ****1/2

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. 2015 has been one of the best years ever for women in film. From Brie Larson in "Room," to Carey Mulligan in "Suffragette," to even Charlize Theron in "Mad Mad: Fury Road," there’s no shortage of worthy contenders for this year’s Best Actress statuette. Another name that mustn’t be forgotten come awards season is Saoirse Ronan. At the age of 13, Ronan established herself as one of our most gifted up-and-coming performers with her Oscar-nominated work in "Atonement." At the age of 21, Ronan demonstrates remarkable depth with her magical performance in "Brooklyn."


Illuminating the silver screen like a young Meryl Streep, Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, an Irish woman who leaves her family behind for a better life in America. Upon arriving in Brooklyn, New York, the shy immigrant immediately becomes homesick for her native land. She has a rough time warming up to her landlady (Julie Walters), boss (Jessica Paré), and fellow boarding house residents (Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin). Eilis starts to come out of her shell, however, when she meets a handsome Italian man named Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). Reminiscent of Marlon Brando in his prime, Tony helps Eilis to see the big city for the enchanting fairytale land it is.


Happily ever after once upon a time in America doesn’t come that easily for Eilis and Tony, however. Tragedy strikes Eilis’ family in Ireland and she travels home to support her mother, who has no other living relatives. Eilis tells herself that she’ll return to Tony, but is pressured by the community to move back permanently. She only becomes more conflicted after getting setup with a kind, patient, and considerate Irishman, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Not entirely knowing what she wants anymore, Eilis begins to question where her heart and home reside.  


On paper, "Brooklyn" almost sounds like something out of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. With its love triangle and several characters that could’ve been one-dimensional villains, the film is given so many opportunities to come off as discount melodrama. Rather than being a contrived soap opera, though, director John Crowley and Nick Hornby have made a lovely slice of life picture that feels completely genuine.


Whether you grew up in the 1950’s or are growing up in today’s world, anybody can identify with the critical juncture Eilis must confront. Playing her role with impeccable empathy and honesty, Ronan keeps the audience guessing where Eilis will choose to put down her roots. I won’t dare give away the answer to this question. Let’s just say that Eilis ultimately walks away from the experience a stronger, smarter, and more independent person.


That may sound like an obvious final destination. The way "Brooklyn" reaches its final destination is anything but obvious, however. The film tackles coming of age themes with great subtly, in addition to great humor, romance, and wisdom as well. It not only empowers young women everywhere, but it encourages us all to choose who we are and where we belong in this world.


And then there's Carol ****

2015 has brought us so many great movies that celebrate feminism and homosexuality alike. "Carol" is no exception, telling a beautiful story of two women that fall in love. Todd Haynes’ film is based on "The Price of Salt," a revolutionary 1952 novel that’s resurfaced in popularity over the past decade. Writing a romance centered on two lesbians isn’t as bold today as it was in the 50’s. Given how far filmmakers have recently come in depicting women and gays, though, now feels like the perfect time for Patricia Highsmith’s book to meet the big screen.


Rooney Mara gives one of her best performances as Therese, a store clerk trying to figure out what she wants out of life. Therese finds what she’s been looking for in an older woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett). From the second they meet in a toy department, the two share an instant connection. Although she doesn’t entirely understand these feelings at first, Therese is compelled to grow closer to this mysterious woman. Carol, who’s going through a difficult divorce, forms a powerful friendship with the lonely shopgirl that evolves into something much more.  


Blanchett and Mara make for an enchanting match in one of the year’s most absorbing love stories. Carol is deprived of the sappy dialog or overblown moments one would expect from a romance such as this. A fair deal of the movie simply consists of subtle, understated moments between these two individuals and that’s all the audience requires. We always know what’s going through their heads based on body language and eye contact. Sometimes a character can say so much more through a single facial expression as apposed to a grand speech. "Carol" takes full advantage of the visual medium, showing two people making a connection.


Carol rings 100% true, avoiding any cheap shots or stereotypes. The closest thing there is a villain in the film is Carol’s soon-to-be-ex-husband (Kyle Chandler), who threatens to take away his wife’s beloved daughter. Even he’s not a totally one-dimensional bad guy, though. We understand his frustration and can see why he would take extreme measures to gain custody of his child. Like everyone else in this movie, all he really wants is to be happy. He can’t find that happiness with Carol, however, as her heart belongs to Therese.


The film refreshingly takes its time planting the seeds of Carol and Therese’s relationship. The two don’t even kiss until about the halfway point. When they finally do come together, it’s a genuinely tender, sexy, and romantic moment. There isn’t a second between them that comes off as forced or unearned. The leads completely convince us that these ladies are meant for each other, faultlessly demonstrating what true love is.


Lady Rose and Robb Stark, together at last ****

Chances are you either love or hate last year’s “Maleficent” and Tim Burton’s 2010 remake of “Alice in Wonderland.” Personally, I’m split on them. Both films have some dazzling visuals, standout performances, and inspired ideas. Compared to their animated predecessors and even as standalone films, though, neither fully materializes on a storytelling level. Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” is the first live-action Disney remake to get things right, staying true to the original classic while offering something new too.

For the most part, this is the same Cinderella story that’s been passed down for generations. Girl loses parents, girl gains evil stepmother, girl meets prince, girl gets glass slippers, girl loses prince, girl loses glass slipper, girl and prince find each other again, and they live happily ever after. Since this is such a familiar narrative, there really wasn’t any need for Disney to make another version. Watching Branagh’s “Cinderella,” however, you occasionally feel like you’re hearing this fairytale for the first time.  

Just as Branagh made the best looking interpretation of “Hamlet” ever put on film, he’s done the same for “Cinderella.” Everything from the colorful costumes to the stunning sets pop out at the audience, immersing us in a truly magical storybook world. What’s more, Branagh does a wonderful job at staging every scene, whether it’s an extravagant ball with hundreds of extras or a more intimate conversation between two people in a small room. This is such a visually grand piece that you must see it on the big screen.

As great as the presentation is, the beauty of Branagh’s picture is far from skin-deep. Cate Blanchett gives a pitch perfect performance as Lady Tremaine aka Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Often hiding her malevolence behind a cunning grin, Blanchett manages to be so cruel and calculating with the tiniest of actions. She’s a villain we love to hate, but Chris Weitz’s screenplay gives her a little more depth than you might expect. While Tremaine never becomes an entirely sympathetic character, Blanchett does have a dynamite scene in the final act that offers a glimpse of why this woman is such a miserable witch.

We additionally get some fine work from Derek Jacobi as the King, Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as the ugly stepsisters, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. Yet, the movie appropriately belongs to Lily James’ Cinderella. James shines as the iconic princess who’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, firmly believing that courage and kindness are the essential components of life.

Many have debated in recent years whether Cinderella encourages a negative moral seeing how she basically just sits around and waits for her prince to come. Nevertheless, the best portrayals of Cinderella understand that there’s more to this character than a sheltered little girl. While not as modern as a princess like Elsa, Cinderella is hardworking, compassionate towards others, and remains strong even during the darkest of times. As Cinderella, Lily James encompasses the very best of humanity and everything that’s right with the world. How could anybody like that not be a good role model?   

Of course we also get a touch of romance between Cinderella and Prince Charming, played by Richard Madden from “Game of Thrones.” Once again, they meet and almost immediately fall in love. Given the incredibly chemistry between these actors, good pacing, and some nicely written dialog, though, you really believe their instantaneous connection. That’s more than can be said about the lovers in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

If you’re going to introduce your child to the story of Cinderella, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated masterpiece is still the best. The fact that this “Cinderella” earns a worthy comparison is still an achievement, however. In Branagh’s hands, this remains a delightful, exciting, and timeless story that will never get old. Walking out of the theater, you’ll not only feel more hopeful, but inspired to spread goodwill everywhere you go next.


Chappie Five is alive **

While “District 9” was indeed a good film, it’s possible that we might have overhyped it back in 2009. The story of a man who suddenly finds himself siding with “savages” in an oppressive society had been done countless times before. It’d even be done again a couple months later when “Avatar” came out. Nevertheless, Director/Co-Writer Neill Blomkamp did distinguish the familiar story with empathetic characters and a strong atmosphere. “Chappie” doesn’t necessarily have a revolutionary narrative either, but unlike “District 9,” the characters here are all cheap cutouts and atmospherically it feels like backwash from Blomkamp’s previous efforts.

It’s a high-tech future where robots have replaced humans as law enforcement, but video game consoles still haven’t evolved beyond the Play Station 4. Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, the creator of these police droids who believes he can make a robot capable of freewill. Deon’s boss, played by Sigourney Weaver in a wasted performance, isn’t exactly sold on his proposal. Nevertheless, he goes through with the experiment anyway and breathes life into a robot named Chappie, voiced by Sharlto Copley. Innocent Chappie is exposed to a harsh life of crime, however, when he imprints on three criminals looking to pull off a heist.

Every person in this movie can pretty much be summed up based on their initial appearances. Contrasting Patel’s wide-eyed, peaceful scientist, Hugh Jackman plays a gung-ho, ultraconservative inventor who wants to line the streets with his giant battle mechs that look like the ED-209 from “RoboCop.” If that villain isn’t clichéd enough for you, we also get South African rapper Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja, as a cartoonish gang leader who wants to use Chappie as a weapon. Then there’s Brandon Auret as a crime lord with such poor English-speaking skills that his lines need to be accompanied by subtitles. So why didn’t the filmmakers just have him speak in his native tongue?

There are only two performers that manage to overcome their poorly written parts. One of them is Yo-Landi Visser as a gang member who develops a motherly attachment to Chappie. Granted, her parental instinct does come out of nowhere and is kind of hard to buy. Her scenes with the robot are quite sweet, regardless. The other standout is Copley, who supplies Chappie himself with a delightful childlike charm. Still, the character honestly isn’t any different from Johnny Five, the Iron Giant, or Data from “Star Trek,” not to mention E.T. We get it. Robots are people too…sort of.

Blomkamp’s greatest error with “Chappie” is that the tone is all over the place. We immediately go from one scene involving Chappie comically talking like a street thug to a brutal scene in which the poor robot is senselessly tortured. The film doesn’t arrive to an original idea until the final five minutes, which does bring matters together in a clever fashion. By then, though, it’s too little too late. Blomkamp definitely has the potential to make another solid picture like “District 9.” Between this and the just okay “Elysium,” however, he needs to go back to the drawing board.


Don't forget your helmet ***1/2

For the eye-opening truths it reveals, "Concussion" is a well-made, insightful picture that’s likely to intrigue any football fan. It’s just too bad that director Peter Landesman’s vision isn’t quite in the same league as Smith’s performance.

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The Danish Girl

Ex male ****

"The Danish Girl" is another beautifully told love story with a profound performance from Redmayne at its core. The film further demonstrates that he’s one of the most gifted young actors of our generation. Let’s just pretend "Jupiter Ascending" never happened.

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Nerds n the Hood ****

“Dope” is probably the most loving tribute to the 90’s that’s actually set in contemporary America. In many respects, it doesn’t matter what era “Dope” is set in since its themes of race, social class, and self-discovery are multigenerational.

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Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’

I will make this whole planet suffer! ***

Resurrection ‘F’ isn’t great, grand, or even epic, but for what it is, the film is testosterone filled fun. Now that’s what people seek Dragon Ball Z out for.

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Duffman can't breathe! Oh no! ***1/2

Hollywood gives many actresses the impression that if they’re not a perfect ten, they’ll never be more than a voiceover performer. Mae Whitman has done some marvelous voice work in shows like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” As far as her live-action roles go, though, Whitman is usually restricted to playing the weird outsider or the butt of a joke, most notably Anne Veal (aka Her?) from “Arrested Development.” While she excels at playing those parts, it’d be nice to see a character actress like Whitman score more complex roles. She finds the perfect star vehicle for herself in “The DUFF,” a film that asserts just because you aren’t considered a ten doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful.

Whitman plays Bianca, the short, stout, overall-wearing best girlfriend of two high school knockouts. Bianca begins to worry that she’s the DUFF in her circle of friends. If you don’t keep up with modern acronyms, D.U.F.F. stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Determined to be more than a player on the bleachers, she seeks guidance from Robbie Amell’s Wesley, the hunky jock next door. From there, the plot is a bit like “She’s All That,” but infinitely smarter.

“The DUFF” features some winning secondary performances from Ken Jeong as Bianca’s teacher, Bella Thorne as a classic mean girl, and Allison Janney, who’s perfected the quirky mom archetype down to a T. This is Whitman’s movie, however, and boy does she shine. Whitman stays 100% committed to whatever the filmmakers throw at her, but she’s never mean-spiritedly humiliated or degraded. This movie respects its main character and doesn’t try to change who she is. Whitman thus creates a heroine that’s identifiable, awkward, and lovable in every way.

At times, “The DUFF” demonstrates the potential for a great high school comedy such as “Mean Girls” or “Easy A.” There are a few problems, though, with Josh A. Cagan’s witty, yet familiar, script. We have to put up with a ton of lame conventions involving misunderstands, seemingly nice guys that turn out to be jerks, and Bianca creating some forced tension with her friends. Then there’s the climax at homecoming, which does admittedly lead to a nice, heartfelt conclusion. Of course you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how the movie will resolve itself.

It takes talented people to make clichés like this work. Fortunately, Whitman and Director Ari Sandel, who won an Oscar for his short film several years ago, are more than up to the task. Although it doesn’t provide groundbreaking commentary, “The DUFF” is a funny, earnest, and insightful picture about being yourself. This can be especially hard in an age of cyber bullying and size zero models plastering billboards. That’s just one of the reasons why we could use a movie like “The DUFF” and a star like Whitman right about now.


Bros Before Hoes **1/2

So…yeah…“Entourage”…a lot of people really like this show, huh? Okay, this should probably be made clear upfront. I could never get into the HBO series. In my eyes, the characters were all tools, the dialog was never very witty, and the overall tone was, for a lack of better words, douchey. My biased opinion aside, there is a diehard “Entourage” fan base out there that will probably enjoy this feature film continuation fine. As for me, well…at least it’s not a “Girls” movie.

The entire gang is back with Kevin Connolly’s Eric, a talent manager who sleeps with countless women who are all taller than him, Kevin Dillon’s Johnny Drama, a washed-up pervert, Jerry Ferrara’s Turtle, a former assistant who’s gone from chunk to hunk, and Adrian Grenier’s Vincent, an actor who’s life is perfect in everyway. Vincent isn’t content with just being a successful movie star, though. He wants to direct his next film, which will cost over $100 million to make. This would be a potentially interesting concept if only these individuals were more appealing.

Here’s the problem with the entire “Entourage” franchise. In addition to being good-looking, famed, and talented, Vincent already has everything. With a limitlessness supply of money, yachts, cars, mansions, and women handed to him on silver platters, he makes Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle look modest. It’d be one thing if he had to fight for everything he has, but Vincent basically just allows his manager turned studio head, Ari Gold, to do all the heavy-lifting.    

As with the show, Jeremy Piven’s neurotic Ari is the saving grace here. That’s primarily because he’s the only one making sacrifices and dealing with setbacks. This leads to some inspired scenes with Travis McCredle, a billionaire investor’s son played by Haley Joel Osment, who apparently gained all the weight Turtle lost over the past decade. Although this obnoxious Texan doesn’t know jack about movies, he still feels the necessity to give Ari notes. If “Entourage” was solely about Ari trying to maintain his job, marriage, and sanity, this may have been something special. Sadly, he’s only in 20% of the movie. While Ari’s out soaking up all the humor, the rest of the guys casually deal with minor relationship troubles that aren’t as fascinating as they think.

“Entourage” is often described as the male version of “Sex and the City,” which presented a glamorized, unrealistic version of New York life for women. With the “Sex and the City” series and even the first movie, though, there was at least some legitimate conflict the four leads had to overcome that amounted to entertaining comedy and drama. “Entourage” is nothing more than a man’s fantasy where everyday is a party, the ladies are all sex objects deprived of personalities, and you never have to take responsibility for anything. If you look past the beautiful Hollywood landscapes and the even more beautiful celebrities, you’ll find that there’s little substance.

A few funny moments and cameos aside, “Entourage” isn’t for people seeking an insightful, well-structured comedy. It’s for people that want to step into the shoes of the rich, famous, and shallow. That’s why the characters are mainly empty shells with few identifiable dilemmas. If that sounds cool to you, head out to the theater. Everyone else, stay home and watch “Silicon Valley.”


Should've climbed the Matterhorn instead ***1/2

In a way, "Everest" almost feels like two movies. One encompasses the majesty of Mount Everest. The other encompasses the mercilessness of the mighty mountain. Both, however, effectively capture this natural wonder’s dominating presence.

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Ex Machina

Don't ask me how to pronounce, "Machina" **** 

Over the past month or so, two movies about artificial intelligence have been released. In March, we got Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie,” which was clunky, recycled, and obsolete. Now we get Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” which is slick, inventive, and a total upgrade in every way. It’s like comparing an iPod to a Zune. Both products basically have the same foundation, but one is plainly a better purchase than the other. Where “Chappie” will fade from your memory as fast as the Zune’s shelf life, “Ex Machina” will stick with you for some time.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programmer who’s selected to participate in an innovative experiment. He travels to a secluded dwelling in the mountains where he meets his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Drunk on wine, beer, and his own genius, Nathan informs Caleb that he’s made a breakthrough in technological evolution and human evolution too. Nathan has invented a functioning android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s job to test the humanoid machine on both an intellectual level and emotional level. The closer he gets to Ava and Nathan, however, the clearer it becomes that neither is what they seem.

Alex Garland distinguished himself as a gifted writer with films like “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine.” His directorial debut has the essence of a stage play, relying more on absorbing dialog than in your face visuals. Of course the special effects here are striking nonetheless, despite only having a limited budget to work with. It also helps that Garland has a superb ensemble to give his characters heart.

This is a transcendent turn for Vikander, who brings Ava to life with captivating body language and speech. Ranging from cold and brooding to curious and affectionate, you’re not sure if Ava is developing real feelings for Caleb or is just manipulating him. Just as enigmatic as Ava is Isaac’s Nathan, who obviously isn’t telling his underling everything. At the center of it all is Caleb, either the smartest man in the room or the biggest fool.

Garland has made a film with the ambiguity of “Under the Skin,” the craft of “Blade Runner,” and the gripping storytelling of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. His script goes beyond forcing a cliché narrative down our throats about man playing god. At its core, this is a movie about ideas that will get the hamster wheel in anybody’s brain running. The audience is constantly guessing everyone’s motive and who can be trusted. All of these characters are rats in a maze, even if some don’t realize it. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t spell out whom we should be routing to find the cheese. “Ex Machina” demonstrates that we might be able to draw a line between artificial intelligence and intelligence itself, but drawing a line between good guys and bad guys can be much more difficult. This helps to not only make its characters more believable, but more human as well.

Fifty Shades of Grey

He doesn't hang dong once? ***

Even before “Fifty Shades of Grey” hit theaters, everybody seemed to have their own preordained opinion about the eagerly anticipated adaptation of E.L. James’ bestseller. Those who couldn’t put the book down said it would be the sexiest movie ever made. Those who couldn’t get through one page said it would be the most unintentionally hilarious movie ever made. It turns out “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a bit of everything. It’s steamy, it’s ridiculous, it’s trashy, it’s elegant, it’s fun, it’s dumb, but is it any good? If you’re in the right mindset, it kind of is. If you’re not, it’s kind of awful.

Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, who has the classiest porn star name imaginable. This college student scores an interview with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a billionaire businessman we never see conduct any real business. Although Mr. Grey could have any of the fembots in his office, he sees something in the ordinary, plain Ana. Mr. Grey doesn’t do romance, however. This tortured soul is only into kinky S&M and wants Ana to accompany him on his journey to Pleasure Town.

It’s impossible to discuss “Fifty Shades of Grey” without bringing up the film’s depiction of sex. It’s even more impossible to sit through these lovemaking exploits without giggling like a kid in health class. As hysterical as some of the sex scenes might be, they are admittedly well shot, set to fitting music, and, in their own right, pretty hot. Most importantly, Director Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn’t incorporate any of the laughable narration from E.L. James’ novel. She understands that film is a visual medium and it’s better to show rather than tell.

That being said, is this anything more than the most expensive porno of all time? For a film based on “Twilight” fan fiction, there is a touch more artistic integrity to “Fifty Shades of Grey” than you might expect. Taylor-Johnson is actually very clever with her use of colors, making Ana’s environments lively and messy while Mr. Grey’s environments are dark and clean. It’s a terrific film to look at full of beautiful people.

As for the performances, Dakota Johnson is surprisingly really strong as Ana. She easily could have settled for making this character an empty shell like Bella, but Johnson brings a fair deal of humor and charm to the role. The same can be said about Jamie Dornan, who fortunately doesn’t play it too straight as Mr. Grey. Both of these actors know the only way to get through this movie is to acknowledge how silly the source material is. They do this with great chemistry and great dedication.

This is probably the best adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” we could have hoped for. That still doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie, though. The plot is absent, the supporting characters are inconsequential, the sexual innuendos couldn’t be more blatant, and the leads have very little character to work with. Mr. Grey in particular is nothing more than a sexual caricature solely designed for women to fantasize about. Somebody that’s rich, hansom, and will solve all your problems, but still needs a lady in his life to help him change.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” makes no attempt to analyze sexual obsession like “Shame” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Then again, that’s not what it’s supposed to do. This is good-looking, brainless entertainment and sometimes a little mindless relief isn’t the worst thing. Whether you’re in it for the hot action or the cringe-inducing dialog, the film will likely satisfy. It’s more self-aware than “Twilight” and more fun than most Nicholas Sparks pictures. So in a strange way, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is something of a guilty pleasure.

There’s just one other elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has a ton of risqué female nudity while we never get so much as a peek of Mr. Grey’s goods. As a heterosexual male, I’m not complaining. For an interpretation of an erotic novel that was mostly read by women, though, you have to admit it’s a peculiar omission.


 Will Smith regains his focus ***1/2

“Focus” is a slick con flick that’s occasionally reminiscent of David Mamet’s tragically overlooked “House of Games.” It’s not as smart as that 1987 buried treasure. It is, however, about as much fun as the best films in the “Ocean’s” trilogy. That’s not at all a bad class to be among. Above all else, “Focus” understands exactly what a good con movie should be: Thrilling, witty, and constantly keeping the audience on their toes.

Let’s just forget Will Smith was ever in “After Earth” and “Winter’s Tale.” In “Focus,” he’s back on track as Nicky Spurgeon, a conman who’s been in the game since he was a street rat. As an experienced scam artist, Nicky can see right through Margot Robbie’s Jess Barrett, a smalltime crook that tries to pull one over on him. Nicky believes that Jess has the makings of a first-rate hustler, nevertheless. As he shows her the tricks of the trade, the two get a little too close for Nicky’s taste. After going their separate ways, the loner Nicky plans to swindle a billionaire named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). The sting gets complicated, however, when Jess reenters the picture.

From Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” to Christian Bale and Amy Adams in “American Hustle,” movies like this all depend on the chemistry between the leads. Luckily for “Focus,” it’s two stars light up the screen every second they’re together. Cool, charming, and charismatic, Smith couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Nicky. Robbie, who previously shined as Jordan Belfort’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” brings a lot of humor, elegance, and lovability to her femme fatale. “Focus” also manages to work in a few standout supporting performances, most notably Gerald McRaney as a senior henchman who just might be the smartest man in the room.

All of the actors, as well as the screenplay, do a wonderful job at keeping the audience guessing what’s a con and who’s scheming who. The film is full of exciting moments that build rising tension, ultimately delivering with an unexpected payoff. Granted, some of the twists are a little too convenient to fully buy into. This is one of those movies where it’s best not to call out the filmmakers’ bluff and just go along for the ride, though. On that basis, “Focus” is thoroughly entertaining throughout. It also at least makes more sense than “Now You See Me.”

The writing/directing duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa share a résumé that ranges from children’s animated programs like “The Angry Beavers,” to dark comedies like “Bad Santa,” to romcoms like “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Like a good conman, they can play a variety of different rhythms and adjust well to their surroundings. While this is somewhat new territory for them, they transition to the genre quite nicely with great finesse and of course great focus. They’ve made a film that knows what it wants to be and their vision goes off without a hitch.

Furious 7

Lucky number 7 ****

When “The Fast and the Furious” came out almost a decade and a half ago, nobody probably thought it would spawn six sequels. While the franchise’s longevity is surprising, what’s even more unexpected is its boost in quality over the years. Most series officially run out of gas by the third entry. “Fast & Furious,” on the other hand, somehow manages to keep giving audiences exactly what they want in an inventive, well produced, and insanely fun manner. Rather than aging like convenience store beer, the movies have aged like convenience store wine. Maybe that’s because they had nowhere to go but up, although it’s at least more than can be said about “Transformers” or other soulless blockbusters.  

Soul has actually become a key component of these “Fast & Furious” flicks. For a premise that essentially started as car porn meets “Point Break,” these characters have remarkably snuck up us. Okay, Vin Diesel’s Dominic and his rebellious crew will never be deeply analyzed in film classes. They do share a powerful family bond, though, that’s shockingly effective. For all the idiotic, mindless escapism these movies provide, they’ve also created people we genuinely care about. It’s truly saddening to think that “Furious 7” will be the late Paul Walker’s final ride as Brian O’Conner. He goes out on a high note, however, with the biggest, most over-the-top, and most involving “Fast & Furious” movie to date.

Considering his roles in “Crank,” “Death Race,” “The Italian Job,” and the “Transporter” trilogy, it’s a sin Jason Statham’s only just now appearing in a “Fast & Furious” picture. He’s right at home here as Deckard Shaw, the older brother of the previous film’s villain. Now Deckard wants retribution for his crippled bro and targets Dom, Brian, and the rest. Deckard even succeeds in offing Sung Kang’s Han, whose death has been preordained since “Tokyo Drift.” For a story that obviously wasn’t mapped out in advance, “Furious 7” does a clever job at bringing everything full circle.

Of course the story is the last reason why people are going to line up for this movie. We’re geared up for the mind-blowing car chases, fights, and stunts. With “Fast Five” and “Fat & Furious 6,” Justin Lin strived to be as shamelessly ridiculous as ever. Director James Wan defies all logic here as our heroes parachute their cars out of planes and drive out skyscraper windows. Whether the action set pieces leave you applauding or laughing hysterically, they’re clearly doing something right.

What keeps us invested in these cartoonish exploits is that the characters are so likable. Almost every major player from the previous films is given time to shine. The only one we could have used a bit more of is Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs, but he still easily steals the movie’s best one-liners and macho moments. We also get a few notably new additions like Kurt Russell as a slick agent without a name, Djimon Hounsou as a mercenary without a moral code, and Nathalie Emmanuel as the most beautiful hacker on the planet.

“Furious 7” ultimately remembers that this series all started with the friendship between Dom and Brian. While some of the CGI required to complete Walker’s unfinished scenes can be distracting, the film still leaves these two guys parting ways with a perfect final image. It’d be truly fitting is this was the final “Fast & Furious” film we ever got. Since the franchise has become an ironic metaphor for an endless road, though, we can count on plenty more ludicrous races, ludicrous heists, and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges. And you know what? That doesn’t sound too bad.

Get Hard

It's a hard knock life ***

“Get Hard” is about as hit and miss as comedies get. Some jokes hit it out of the park where others crash and burn. This isn’t a movie people are going to be revisiting and quoting years from now. Actually, it’ll likely be completely forgotten over time. For a few sidesplitting scenes and two well-matched leads, though, it doesn’t deserve to be entirely overlooked. Assuming you’re in the mood for a comedy like this and have 100 minutes to spare, “Get Hard” is an enjoyably stupid waste of time. How’s that for a recommendation?  

Will Ferrell is James King, who, like every character Ferrell plays, has everything going for him. He’s a millionaire, just became a partner at work, and is engaged to a smokin’ hot, yet despicable, woman played by Alison Brie. James’ world is turned upside-down when he’s framed for tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison. Desperate to survive in the big house, he turns to Darnell Lewis, an African American car-washer played by Kevin Hart. While James believes otherwise, Darnell has never been to the slammer. Since the businessman is offering 30 grand for tutoring, though, Darnell decides to play along.

Beyond that, there isn’t any plot whatsoever. The setup is just an excuse for Ferrell and Hart to engage in a series of outrageous scenarios and exchanges that don’t exactly play into a grander story. It’s all filler, but a fair deal of “Get Hard” will have you laughing out loud. The best bits include Ferrell mastering the art of hiding a shiv, a fake riot with all too real repercussions, and a lesson in oral sex. Some scenes aren’t as funny as they could be, like Ferrell trying to blend in with a ghetto gang. Other scenes aren’t funny at all, such as when the guys have a run-in with white supremacists. Although it’s often given the opportunity to be more, “Get Hard” doesn’t say anything new about race relations or incarceration.  

Nevertheless, Ferrell and Hart are terrific together through the good times and the bad. Ferrell has such a natural gift for comedy that he can make horrible material mediocre and mediocre material passable. He has undeniable chemistry with Hart, who’s yet to star in a great buddy comedy. Regardless, “Get Hard” is a notable step up from “Ride Along” or “The Wedding Ringer.” Ferrell and Hart give it their all here and, in a testament to their talents, those efforts pay off. The two are kind of like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” if that movie had a lot more needless rape gags.

If you require your comedies to have a little more substance and wit, stay home and rent an old classic from Woody Allen or a new classic from Wes Anderson. Oh, and of course “Trading Places” is always a safe bet. For the modest smiles “Get Hard” will provide, however, it’s just barely worth your ten dollars. See it, have a few laughs, and immediately move on to something else…assuming they don’t try to make a sequel. We really don’t need any more time added to this sentence.  

The Girl Queen

Hail to the Queen ***1/2

Kristina of Sweden was an absorbing figure with the potential to inspire a great biopic. "The Girl King" isn’t necessarily a great account of her life, but it does have moments of greatness. It’s unfortunate that the film’s strong suits are occasionally offset by overblown melodrama, giving it the essence of a TV movie. However, the film does excel in the most important department: it’s leading lady. While the rest of the film is far from perfect, she makes "The Girl King" too enticing to pass up.


Malin Buska owns the screen as the Queen of Sweden, who becomes heir to the throne at age six after her father dies. She’s raised by Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, played by Michael Nyqvist of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Kristina blossoms into a resilient, educated person who knows how to command a room and answers to no one. As Kristina fights to modernize her country, though, virtually all of her subjects resist change. What’s more, she finds herself torn in a war between the Catholics and Protestants while also being pressured to produce an heir. As numerous men offer their hand to Kristina, she finds herself drawn to her foster mother, countess Ebba Leijonhufvud (Sarah Gadon).


The primary focus of "The Girl King" is Kristina’s gender identity and sexual identity. This is where the movie really shines, depicting her relationship with Ebba, who she refers to as Belle. Kristina knows how to set a bear trap and clean a musket, but has trouble expressing herself romantically. As confused as Kristina is, she’s also 100% certain of her passion for Belle. The scenes between Buska and Gadon range from uncomfortable to genuinely sexy. You completely believe these two are discovering their feelings for one another. With all eyes on Kristina, however, it appears impossible for the queen to follow her heart or brain.


From a performance and character standpoint, "The Girl King" is a compelling picture. However, it isn’t too compelling from a filmmaking perspective. While Mika Kaurismäki’s direction is by no means awful, his film never feels all that cinematic. Screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard adapted this material from a play he wrote and it really shows. The staging is restrained and the editing can fell awkward at times with abrupt scene transitions. For a period piece like this to stand out, it could’ve used a director like Kenneth Branagh, Joe Wright, or even Amma Asante of "Belle."


Although "The Girl King" doesn’t entirely function as a film, it does work as a character study. The movie understands the subject at its center and presents her in a thought-provoking light. This is largely thanks to Buska, who captures all of Kristina’s strength, forward thinking, and stubbornness in a multi-layered portrayal. Even when her dialog becomes a little too sappy, she totally sells it. Something like Todd Haynes’ Carol may be a much more complete feminist movie, but "The Girl King" is still a memorable film about a woman who mustn’t be forgotten.

The Good Dinosaur

The good, but not great, Pixar movie ***

In 1993, "Jurassic Park" took a bite out of the summer box office and became a global phenomenon. Later that November, the animated "We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story" came along and immediately faded into obscurity. In 2015, "Jurassic World" proved to be the summer’s top moneymaker and is currently the 3rd highest-grossing movie ever. Now Pixar’s "The Good Dinosaur" hits theaters just in time for a Thanksgiving release. Talk about a major case of Dino Déjà Vu.


"The Good Dinosaur" will leave a greater impression on audiences than "We’re Back" did, although that isn’t saying much. It’s not in the same league as "The Land Before Time," "The Lion King," "How to Train Your Dragon," or several other films it obviously borrowed from. Even if it won’t challenge "Inside Out" for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, though, "The Good Dinosaur" is undeniably cute and fun. Just don’t expect anything revolutionary.


The film takes place in a universe where the dinosaurs never went extinct. The prehistoric beasts continue to evolve over time, eventually able to talk and grow crops. Among a family of Apatosaurus farmers is a little runt named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Small and easily frightened, Arlo longs to make his mark and earn the respect of his parents (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand). When Arlo gets separated from his family, he befriends a young caveboy and names him Spot (Jack Bright). From there, it’s a road trip movie with two unlikely companions searching for home.


We’ve seen numerous movies about man connecting with beast. What’s interesting about "The Good Dinosaur" is how it reverses the roles. Arlo is truly the human here where Spot is more like a lost animal. The rapport they share is sweet and sincere, impacted by some beautifully animated sequences that fortunately show rather than tell. If "The Good Dinosaur" cut out the dialog altogether, we probably could’ve gotten something as powerful as "The Rite of Spring" segment from "Fantasia." Unlike the "Ice Age" gang, however, at least the characters here don’t constantly bombard us with pop culture references.


Where the leads have enough charm to carry the film, the same can’t be said about the supporting cast. Sam Elliot, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley voice a trio of T-Rex’s, but they don’t really contribute anything to the plot. Steve Zahn leads a flock of psychopathic Pterodactyls, although they’re totally tacked on villains with zero development. The film’s director, Peter Sohn, also provides the voice of a dazed Styracosaurus who could’ve been cut out entirely. The film has a fair deal of pacing issues and that’s mainly because it never knows what to do with its secondary ensemble. They seem to only exist to sell more toys.


What matters above all else, though, is the bond between Arlo and Spot. While certain elements of their journey are all-too familiar, it’s hard to deny this tale of a dinosaur and his human. "The Good Dinosaur" is elevated by its stunning visuals, wise morals, and big heart. Considering that Pixar has given us so many innovative movies over the years, however, one can’t help but wish for something more ambitious from this premise. For example, what if the story jumped ahead 65 million years to a future where dinosaurs and modern men live side by side? It could’ve been the good version of "We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story."


Viewer beware, you're in for a scare...or at least a good laugh ***1/2

Whether you’re an older fan or a new fan, "Goosebumps" knows what it’s supposed to be and gives its target audience what they want.

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Lily Tomlin just gets better with age ****

This has arguably been the best summer for women in film ever, making "Grandma" an especially fitting dramedy to close out August with. Writer/Director Paul Weitz has made a wise film about mothers and daughters that empowers women everywhere. It additionally empowers homosexuals everywhere, which is only made more relevant due to the recent legalization of same-sex marriage.

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The Hateful Eight

The crazy 8 ****1/2

"The Hateful Eight" drips with Tarantino’s passion for filmmaking and his flare for dialog that can’t be replicated by anyone else. Intimate while being bombastic, familiar while being fresh, and brutal while being beautiful, it’s a film unlike anything else you’ll see all year.

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Hot Pursuit

Hot on the outside, unfunny on the inside **

“Hot Pursuit” is exactly like every action/comedy road trip movie that’s come out since “Midnight Run.” Discussing the plot is hardly necessary. You all know what’s going to happen solely based on the poster. Two opposites will be forced to hit the road together. Along the way, they’ll bicker, undergo costume changes, get chased by bad guys that are more menacing than funny, and maybe even learn something about one another. Then as a testament to how lazy the movie truly is, the filmmakers will tack on some excruciating bloopers over the credits.

The only reason to see a film like this is if the stars can bring something special to the table. There’s no doubt that Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara are capable comedic actresses. Where the rest of the film doesn’t try hard enough, though, the stars try way too hard to make this effortless material work. In the end, we just have a desperate attempt to polish a turd.

“Hot Pursuit” is as by-the-books as its main character, Cooper, a police officer played by Witherspoon. She knows police protocol like the back of her hand, but is completely inept in the line of action and everyday conversation. Witherspoon puts on a Texan accent so thick that she actually makes Sofía Vergara sound less like a cartoon character. Vergara plays Daniella Riva, a drug dealer’s trophy wife who’s set to testify against a drug lord. Cooper is charged with escorting Riva to the trial, but the gals get sidetracked after some obviously crooked cops set them up. Thus, Cooper and Riva go on the run and yada, yada, they become friends.

With films like “Pleasantville,” “Election,” and “Legally Blonde,” Witherspoon demonstrated early in her leading lady career that she has an unparalleled charm. Here, however, she’s stuck playing a fickle character that’s street-smart one minute then a bumbling oaf the next. There’s a fine line between being a lovable scatterbrain and simply being inconsistent. As for Vergara, this is yet another forgettable film role to add to her résumé along with “The Smurfs” and “New Year’s Eve.” Both seem to think that acting as energized as possible and screaming their lines will somehow result in laughter. They might as well have gotten down on their knees and begged us to laugh.

Director Anne Fletcher is a gifted choreographer and has made a couple descent flicks like “The Proposal.” There’s nothing neither she nor her stars can do to salvage David Feeney and John Quaintance’s script, though. It takes no chances, few one-liners or setups standout, and there are countless superior buddy movies available as an alternative. From “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” to “The Heat,” you can do a lot better than “Hot Pursuit,” as can Witherspoon and Vergara.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

The end of the end ****

"Mockingjay – Part 1" was a worthy entry to "The Hunger Games" series, but let’s be honest. The film was basically a stepping-stone towards bigger, better things. In "Mockingjay – Part 2," director Francis Lawrence delivers the grand finale we’ve been patiently waiting for. The endgame hits its target with striking production values, powerful drama, and riveting action. While "Catching Fire" remains the franchise’s most complete adaptation, this fitting conclusion still leaves Katniss Everdeen on a high note.


When it was first announced that Jennifer Lawrence would be playing The Girl On Fire, everybody seemed to be against the casting decision. Just as Katniss defied all the odds, however, Lawrence proved her doubters wrong. Since then, she’s captivated the entire nation. Lawrence gives one of her best performances here, caught up in a web of war, politics, and love as the revolution draws to a close.


The fate of Panem relies on Katniss and her allies infiltrating District 13 to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Our leading lady is once again accompanied by Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, who’s looking to finally move out of the friend zone. The problem is that Peeta’s still brainwashed into wanting to kill Katniss. Talk about a love-hate relationship. It doesn’t help that Katniss hasn’t quite let go of her torch for Liam Hemsworth’s Gale.


If "Twilight" has taught us anything, it’s how insufferable love triangles can be. The love triangle in "The Hunger Games" has admittedly had its ups and downs. In this final chapter, though, it amounts to some genuinely tender scenes and strong character growth. Whether you’re for Team Peeta or Team Gale, the outcome is undeniably touching and satisfying. Although personally, I always thought that Katniss had better chemistry with Jena Malone’s Johanna than either of the boys.


Aside from our leads, pretty much the entire cast is given time to shine. The film is full of wonderful character moments from Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks’ Effie, and Mahershala Ali’s Boggs. Julianne Moore in particular does great work as President Alma Coin, who turns out to every bit as twofaced as Harvey Dent. The only one who’s sort of sidelined is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch. Seeing how Hoffman tragically died before completing his scenes, however, it’s not like there was much the filmmakers could do.


Where the previous film was sorely lacking in the action department, "Mockingjay – Part 2" compensates with several stirring set pieces. What makes the action so effective is that there are characters we care about at the center of everything. The danger they face is real, as are the consequences. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are a few major deaths and at least one of them is bound to hit you hard. It’s Katniss’ strength and bravery that ultimately gets us through all the gloom and doom.


Katniss Everdeen is often thought of as one of the best female characters of the past decade and she truly is. Part of that’s largely because she’s not always confronted with easy choices in a world that’s rarely black and white. Katniss is constantly thinking of her loved ones and desires to do the right thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be rewarded for her sacrifices. "Mockingjay – Part 2" eventually works up to an edge of your seat climax where Katniss must make her most difficult choice yet. Her daring decision defines why we admire Katniss and why we admire these movies so much too.  

Inside Out

Best therapy session ever! *****

After hitting Bull’s-eye after Bull’s-eye for almost a decade and a half, there’s been something off about the past couple Pixar movies. “Brave” was descent, but not extraordinary, “Monsters University” was fun, but not really necessary, and “Cars 2”…well, the less said, the better. The good news about “Inside Out” is that its not only Pixar’s best film since “Toy Story 3,” but one of their funniest, saddest, and most imaginative to date.

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Be an original...or at least be like The Maze Runner **1/2 

It’s ironic that “Divergent” encouraged its viewers to stand out from the crowd when the film was so clearly trying to be like “The Hunger Games.” For what it was, “Divergent” at least had some striking visuals and a likable central character. “Insurgent” is another good-looking, well-acted entry to the series. The problem is that this sequel doesn’t just feel like more or less of what we already got in “Hunger Games.” It feels like a retread of the previous “Divergent” picture too.

Shailene Woodley is back as Tris Prior, a Divergent who’s been singled out in a society separated into five factions that only diehard fans of Veronica Roth’s novels can remember by name. She’s still on the run with her much older boyfriend Four, played by Theo James. They find an ally in Four’s estranged mother (Naomi Watts), who wants to start a rebellion against the corrupt Erudite faction. Oh yeah, because we don’t have nearly enough young adult adaptations about teenagers fighting the big, bad government. What the rebels don’t know is that Jeanine, the Erudite leader once again portrayed by Kate Winslet, has come into possession of a mysterious box that can only be opened by a pure Divergent. Gee, wonder who that could be?

Woodley is one of our most promising up-and-coming actresses and one of the few people on the planet who can pull off a pixie cut. Although she’s not given an extraordinary character to work with on paper, Woodley does bring a great deal sympathy, depth, and strength to the role. Her chemistry with James still isn’t anything breathtaking, but we fortunately don’t have to sit through any love triangles or will they/won’t they tension. The supporting cast additionally does fine work with Miles Teller as Tris’ rival Peter, who keeps switching sides, and Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb, who also keeps switching sides. Sadly, they’re all stuck in a meandering story.

Most of “Insurgent” simply comes off as filler until next time. The same could be said about “Mockingjay – Part 1,” but the filler in that film did make leeway for some strong character development and political commentary. Here, you’re constantly waiting for the plot to take off when matters just keep going back and forth. There are so many pointless scenes, most of which come in the form of dream sequences that give the climax of “Breaking Dawn – Part Two” a run for its money. Even the virtual reality action set pieces, while exquisitely rendered, can get old rather quickly. At nearly two hours long, “Insurgent” easily could have been cut down to forty-five minutes.

It’d almost be worth sitting through the more redundant parts if the ending were full of shocking revelations. Without giving too much away, though, the big reveal is no different from the endgame twist we got in “Maze Runner.” Exactly how many other books can this franchise rip-off? Nevertheless, the film’s conclusion does leave things open for some potentially intriguing further adventures. Seeing how the narrative is already starting to feel dragged out, however, it’s hard to get especially excited about the next two chapters. If this series really wants to stand out from the crowd, maybe it should just produce one more sequel and bring back traditional movie trilogies.

The Intern

Not to be confused with "The Internship" ***1/2

“The Intern” is a romantic comedy that refreshingly puts emphasis on friendship over romance. The film is still formulaic and predictable. After all, it’s a Nancy Meyers production. At the same time, though, “The Intern” is pleasant, sweet, and offers some endearing performances from two immensely appealing actors. The fact that we don’t have to sit through any love triangles or will they/won’t they tension is an added bonus. 


Robert De Niro gives one of his most likable performances as Ben, a 70-year-old who’s retired, widowed, and bored to death. Sick of keeping himself occupied through traveling and hobbies, Ben decides that he wants to go back to work. He applies to a senior intern program for an online fashion site and finds himself reporting directly to the CEO, a determined young career woman named Jules (Anne Hathaway). Jules seems to have it all as she runs a major company while simultaneously raising an adorable daughter with her loving husband. As Ben’s relationship with Jules becomes more personal than professional, however, he finds that she’s having a much harder time keeping everything together. 


The Intern frequently makes commentary on Generation X vs. Generation Y as we see how Ben differs from his much younger co-workers. Where he insists on wearing a suit to work everyday, the millennials dress casual with t-shirts and sweaters. There are a few really well written moments that demonstrate the potential for a great film about this generation gap. For the most part, though, Meyers goes the sitcom route as Ben and his new hipster buddies get into wacky shenanigans. You know, like breaking into a house to delete an angry email.


While that’s kind of a missed opportunity, Meyers’ screenplay truly shines whenever the focus stays on Ben and Jules. Their rapport is sincere, charming, and fortunately never evolves into a love story. It’s a mentor/mentee relationship where the mentor is ironically the intern. At the same time, Jules teaches Ben plenty about our changing world in the workplace and at home. De Niro and Hathaway share a marvelous, natural chemistry together, forming a mutual bond that encompasses the best aspects of yesterday’s businessman and today’s businesswoman.


“The Intern” is given numerous opportunities to slip up. There’s a particular individual who does something pretty despicable in the third act. In another movie, this character would simply become the irredeemable villain. Yet, Meyers is a wise enough writer to realize that sometimes there are no bad guys in life. Sometimes people just make poor decisions under stressful circumstances. Although the film is largely grounded in a lighthearted sitcom universe, these people all feel human and are treated with respect. In the end, they just want to be happy and we want to see them happy too. That's the key component of a feel-good movie such as this.

In the Heart of the Sea

Does it blow? ***

Like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "A Christmas Carol," "Moby-Dick" is a classic novel that’s been adapted quite a few times, but there’s never been a definitive film version. It’s such an iconic piece of literature that bringing "Moby-Dick" to the silver screen in this day and age almost sounds like a thankless task, even with a great director like Ron Howard behind the camera. "In the Heart of the Sea" offers a unique approach to the story, however. This isn’t a straightforward retelling of Herman Melville’s work, but the true story that inspired his magnum opus. Howard delvers a visually stunning film that’s often thrilling, although it doesn’t stand out as a great American epic.


Ben Whishaw plays Melville, who meets with an old man named Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Nickerson recounts his days as a young lad at sea where he’s played by Tom Holland, aka the new Spider-Man. On a whaling expedition, the cabin boy is taken under the wing of First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and commanded by Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). As you can probably guess, the crew bites off a little more than they can chew when a massive sperm whale attacks their ship. From there, the film follows the men as they’re shipwrecked, stranded at sea, and resort to unspeakable methods of survival.


By far the best character in the movie is the whale white. Brought to life by state of the art special effects, this colossal beast just dominates every scene in it’s in. The problem is that there actually isn’t too much of the whale in the picture. Much like Jaws, it doesn’t show up until about halfway through "In the Heart of the Sea." Even then, Monstro only pops up a few more times.


For the most part, the humans are the focus here, which would be great if they were unforgettable characters. There just isn’t really much too the crew, though. They certainly aren’t bad characters and performances are strong across the board. However, they’re survivors first and characters second. While we don’t want to see any of them die, the audience never really forms a strong emotional connection to these people either. There are also certain character dynamics that could’ve been fleshed out more, namely the rivalry between the Hemsworth’s First Mate and Walker’s Captain.


So in a rather bizarre way, "In the Heart of the Sea" has the same strengths and weaknesses of the most recent "Godzilla" movie. It delivers in the monster department and offers some incredible action set pieces. Then when it comes to the humans and their struggles, the film is just all right. Nevertheless, the sheer scope of the movie is undeniably exhilarating and it is interesting to see where Melville got the idea for one of the most famous books ever written. If you’re looking for a big, exciting adventure with some history to it, "In the Heart of the Sea" does have just enough good stuff to go around. If you’re looking for something with complex characters and the same level of depth as Melville’s novel, though, keep in mind this is more style over substance.

Irrational Man

How to get away with murder ***1/2

"Irrational Man" may not be a great Wooden Allen picture, but it an entertaining little footnote in his illustrious career.

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Jem and Holograms

Not very outrageous *1/2

If you’re a little girl who isn’t looking for anything more than an unrealistic fantasy, you’ll probably like it fine. If you grew up with the original show and are really forgiving, maybe you’ll get a kick out of it. Everyone else should just be grateful it’s not the Bratz movie.

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Joyous ****

Joy Mangano is yet another character Lawrence embodies with unparalleled charm, humor, and honesty. Her performance is just one of the many reasons why "Joy" is such a delightful movie.

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Jupiter Ascending

Wachowski's descending *1/2

When the Wachowski’s came out with “The Matrix” over a decade and a half ago, it looked like they might be the next Spielberg and Lucas. Then they made “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Matrix Revolutions,” and “Speed Racer.” While the duo reclaimed some of their creditability with “Cloud Atlas,” they’ve taken another huge step backwards with “Jupiter Ascending.” Where their previous duds were at the very least ambitious to an extent, this film simply blends into the crowd. Looking like every other science fiction picture and reading like every other young adult story, “Jupiter Ascending” is arguably their most forgettable outing to date.

Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, an ordinary woman with an unordinary name. Stuck cleaning toilets for a living and waiting to be swept off her feat, the screenplay blatantly compares Jupiter to Cinderella. Of course where Cinderella was actually hardworking and lovable, Jupiter is mostly lazy and boring. Jupiter’s prince does eventually come in the form of Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who was genetically spliced with human and wolf DNA. Of course he looks more like a Vulcan than anything else. Caine informs Jupiter that there’s royal Midi-chlorians or something in her and she’s the heir to the Earth. There are others royals, however, that want to claim our world as their own. In order to do so, they’ll have to give Jupiter a Shakespearean sendoff.  

Eddie Redmayne has a real shot at becoming an Oscar-winner for his performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Hopefully the Academy doesn’t see him in “Jupiter Ascending” before marking their ballots. He plays Balem Abrasax, one of three siblings trying to get Jupiter out of the way. Redmayne speaks all of his lines as if he’s suffering from strep throat, except when he screams random lines like somebody with Tourette’s. Whether Redmayne is actually trying here or not, he completely devours the scenery in a performance that makes Xerxes from “300” look like a subtle villain.

What about Mila Kunis? She’s one of the most charming actresses working in movies today. Surely she can bring this sci-fi tale down-to-earth? Sadly, the only thing in “Jupiter Ascending” more stinted than Kunis’ performance is her dynamic with Tatum’s Caine. Keeping with the Cinderella story theme, they instantly fall in love after sharing one conversation. You’d never know these two were in love based on their interactions, though. Mistaking analyzing feelings for actually expressing feelings, a pair of pet rocks would have more chemistry than them.

Like many of the Wachowski’s films, “Jupiter Ascending” is one half action and the other half longwinded dialog about philosophy. Yet, the movie certainly won’t trigger the imagination like “The Matrix” did or trigger any intriguing chats like “Cloud Atlas” did. The dialog in particular is about as exciting as a pretentious college lecture or talking to a desk clerk at a government agency. Heck, there’s even a scene where the characters go to the intergalactic equivalent of the DMV. Maybe this is the filmmakers’ attempt at comedy, but it just goes to show how bland the script truly is.

Pioneering a generation of stunning blockbusters with the original “Matrix,” you’d think the Wachowski’s would at least offer some dazzling eye candy here. While “Jupiter Ascending” certainly isn’t a poorly crafted movie, it isn’t a visually unique one either. Instead of distinguishing itself with an original style, the film just looks like a hodgepodge of elements borrowed from “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “The Fifth Element,” “Mass Effect,” and “The Hunger Games.” Some of the aliens do admittedly look imaginative, though, excluding Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a half-human with Ross Perot ears.

If there’s one film “Jupiter Ascending” should have taken a page from, it’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Although that film had plenty of silly moments, it also had a sense of humor, strong characters, and a heart. Furthermore, “Guardians of the Galaxy” knew when to stop taking itself so seriously. “Jupiter Ascending” takes itself as serious as a Christopher Nolan movie, but doesn’t have the ideas or characters to keep the audience engaged. The Wachowski’s are talented filmmakers, but their latest attempt at winning back mainstream audience is sadly full of hot air.

Jurassic World

I've decided to endorse your park ****1/2

A forth “Jurassic Park” movie has been in production hell for so long that eventually interest faded. Actually, after “The Lost World” and “Jurassic Park III,” most people likely didn’t have much interest to start with. When the trailer for “Jurassic World” hit, though, they started to sing a different tune. Not only did it look like this could be a worthy successor to “Jurassic Park,” but the most tremendous movie in the entire franchise. “Jurassic World” lives up to its mind-blowing trailer, not to mention its title.

Back in 1993, blockbusters didn’t get any bigger than “Jurassic Park.” While Steven Spielberg’s glorious creature feature is still probably the best in the series, “Jurassic World” manages to make its setting feel grander than ever imaginable. From the second we enter the park gates with John Williams’ iconic theme booming, the audience is overcome with a chilling sense of nostalgia and enormity. Especially on the IMAX screen, the dinosaurs harbor a vast presence that ranges from awe-inspiring to frightening.

Chris Pratt broke out as an unlikely action hero last year in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He continues to shine here with the perfect balance of everyman, wise guy, and badass as Owen, a Jurassic World employ who’s succeeded in training a pack of raptors. When a genetically engineered dinosaur called Indominus rex breaks loose, Owen is the ideal candidate to round the beast up. Accompanying Owen is the park’s workaholic operations manager, Claire, who is simultaneously stuck up and lovable thanks to Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance. When her nephews (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) are put in danger, she goes from tightly wound businesswoman to maternal survivalist.

“Jurassic World” revisits many of the original picture’s themes, such as scientists playing god and parenting. At the same time, the film explores numerous new intriguing themes, like animal instinct and the bond people can develop with beasts. There’s also plenty of modern technology integrated into the plot, although it is odd that dinosaur cloning existed before smart phones in this universe. Director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly of “Safety Not Guaranteed” along with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver of the exceptional “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” penned the screenplay. They give us everything one would want from a “Jurassic Park” sequel over twenty years in the making with great moments of depth, wonder, clever callbacks, and subtle humor.

Of course what people want above all else all from “Jurassic World” is dinosaurs. It totally delivers in that department through incredible buildup and payoff. The filmmakers go beyond simply having the characters run away from these prehistoric monsters. They think of a ton of inventive scenarios involving Gryospheres, aerial pterodactyl assaults, and a final showdown that’ll have you applauding. Every time you think “Jurassic World” has topped itself with one set piece, it’s awesomeness keeps accumulating until the film plays its trump card.

Some blatant product placement and a cliché villain played by Vincent D'Onofrio aside, this is stellar summer entertainment from start to finish. Lately, we’ve been getting countless remakes, reboots, and belated sequels. “Jurassic World,” as well as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” is a textbook example of how to revive a franchise, paying homage to predecessors while also being fresh. The park has been officially reopened and chances are you’ll want to go for a second ride immediately after.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

The Kingsman's Speech ****

Daniel Craig and directors like Sam Mendes have done an exceptional job at reinventing James Bond with a grittier, more serious tone. As superb as some of Mr. Bond’s recent outings have been, particularly “Skyfall,” a part of us all will always long for the days when James’ adventures were full of excessive gadgets and one-liners. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a marvelous throwback to old school British spy thrillers. While an obvious homage to early James Bond, the film also adds a few modern twists with a self-aware sense of humor and colorful violence that makes “Hot Fuzz” look toned-down by comparison.

Colin Firth is probably the last person that comes to mind when people consider the word, “badass.” If he proves anything here, though, it’s that he could have made for a terrific Bond fifteen or twenty years ago. While that ship has sailed, the 54-year-old Firth is still tailor-made to play the role of Harry Hart, a senior agent employed by an international intelligence agency known as the Kingsman. Rarely cracking a smile and delivering every line in a dry manner, Firth creates an endlessly witty character reminiscent of somebody out of “The Avengers.” For the record, I’m referring to the 1960’s spy series, “The Avengers,” and not Marvel’s mega-blockbuster.

Harry sees great potential in Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), the troublemaking son of a fallen agent who could do anything if he just put his mind to it. Eggsy is invited to fill a Kingsman position, but faces stiff competition against other potential candidates like Sophie Cookson as Roxy. Through arduous training involving flooded rooms and jumping out of airplanes, Eggsy and Roxy form a strong friendship that refreshingly doesn’t blossom into a romance. Of course they might be saving that for the sequel.

“Kingsman” has no shortage of memorable supporting performances, including Michael Caine as the head of the secret organization, Mark Strong and a blunt trainer, and even Mark Hamill putting on his English accent as a professor. A movie like this is only as good as its bad guy, however. “Kingsman” finds a brilliant one in Richmond Valentine, a billionaire genius played by none other than Samuel L. Jackson. Although he might not seem intimidating with thick glasses and a lisp, this eccentric entrepreneur has an improbably devious plan to level off the human population. He’s aided by Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle, one of the most inventive henchwomen of recent memory with a pair of artificial legs to die for.

Director Matthew Vaughn of “Kickass” was the perfect person to breathe life into this unique concoction, which is equal parts classic espionage adventure, living comic book, and loving satire. His latest film wisely never takes itself too seriously, but still keeps the audience emotionally invested when a major character is shockingly killed off. On top of that, the action is some of the most fast-paced and well choreographed in a long time, most notably a church brawl in which Firth introduces an army of religious fanatics to their maker. While not as graphic as “Kickass,” “Kingsman” still earns its R-rating and might prove a little too over-the-top for some. For everyone else, the film is simply a blast from start to finish.

The Longest Ride

Must resist "Brokeback Mountain" joke *1/2 

Have you seen any of the other nine films inspired by Nicholas Sparks’ relentlessly popular novels? Then you’ve seen “The Longest Ride.” Seriously, it is astonishing just how cookie cutter each movie associated with Sparks is. Even the posters for his screen adaptations do nothing to hide the fact that these sappy melodramas all come off an assembly line. The only way to stomach a picture like “The Longest Ride” is by playing a drinking game. Of course if you take a shot every time the film recycles another generic cliché, you’ll probably have alcohol poisoning once it’s over.

There’s little reason to review a movie such as this. Let’s just delve into the plot and you’ll know why it stinks. Britt Robertson plays Sophia, a generic small town girl with big city dreams. She takes a break from studying art one night to see a rodeo show with her generic giggling sorority sisters. There she meets Scott Eastwood’s Luke, a generic blue-collar bull rider with a complicated past. Cue the generic scenes where the two leads go swimming in the lake, get caught in the rain, and make the audience want to throw up in their mouths.

Oh, and don’t worry if that doesn’t sound generic enough for you. “The Longest Ride” has two generic romances for the price of one. On their first date, Sophia and Luke save a generic grumpy old man named Ira (Alan Alda) from a burning car. Alda looks half asleep throughout most of the movie, but this kind of works to his advantage since Ira is bound to die by the third act. Via a series of generic love letters, Sophia and Luke learn about Ira’s courtship with a woman named Ruth (Oona Chaplin). It’s practically love at first sight, but the two are driven apart by a series of generic dilemmas such as war, infertility, and death.

Jack Huston plays Ira in these flashbacks and he at least shares some resemblance to Alda, which is more than can be said about James Marsden and Luke Bracey in “The Best of Me.” Compared to that infuriatingly awful Nicholas Sparks adaptation, “The Longest Ride” isn’t quite as pandering, manipulative, or, that’s right, generic. It has a couple minor saving graces. The actors all give competent performances and the leads have acceptable chemistry. We also fortunately don’t have to put up with any one-dimensional villains or disapproving parents. Still, the cons outweigh the pros here by a metric ton.  

Being the tenth entry in Nicholas Sparks’ theatrical library, you should know exactly what you’re going to get with “The Longest Ride.” It’s a cheap soap opera. In all fairness, a daytime soap can either be trashy fun or unbelievably boring. This film strips away any insane plot twists and instead plays up the dull scenes where our lovers just lie in bed together. That might be tolerable for forty minutes. At well over two hours, however, this truly feels like the longest ride.

The Last Witch Hunter

And hopefully the only witch hunter *1/2

Fantasy movies have come a long way over the past decade and a half. After being considered a lesser genre for years, mainstream audiences are finally starting to realize that fantasy can be smart, sophisticated, and even important. For every movie that pushes the limits of imagination, though, we get something along the lines of "The Last Witch Hunter." Much like "Dracula Untold" and "I, Frankenstein," this film can never decide whether it wants to be taken seriously, or just serve up some campy fun. In the end, it fails miserably on both levels.


Vin Diesel once again demonstrates his incredibly limited acting range as Kaulder, the last witch hunter in question. Of course it’s never really explained why this last witch hunter can’t just enlist more witch hunters, but we’ll be here all day if we discuss every plot hole. 800 years after being cursed with immortality by the dreaded Witch Queen, Kaulder learns that a new plague is rising in New York City. On his journey to save humanity, our hero gets some assistance from a young priest, played by Elijah Wood, and a young witch, played by Rose Leslie. Kaulder is also hell-bent on finding the ones that cursed his closest ally and friend, played by Michael Caine.


You’re probably wondering right now how an actor from "The Lord of the Rings," an actress from "Game of Thrones," and frigging Michael Caine ended up in this dreck. It makes about as much sense as Sir Ben Kingsley starring in Uwe Boll’s "BloodRayne." To give "The Last Witch Hunter" credit, it is a step up from any of Uwe Boll’s movies. Well, maybe more like HALF a step up from Uwe Boll territory. Let’s just say that it’s about on par with a Syfy original movie. In other words, it’s still pretty abysmal.


The only thing that saves "The Last Witch Hunter" from being bottom of the barrel fantasy is its cast. Almost everybody here seems to know that they’re in a dopey flick. While nobody’s bringing their a-game to the table, at least they try to inject some soul into the picture. An occasional wink to the camera isn’t enough to save "The Last Witch Hunter," though. The only way this movie could’ve worked is if it had gone completely over-the-top like one of Diesel’s "Fast and Furious" movies.


It might have also helped if Guillermo del Toro had taken over as director for Breck Eisner. Through the "Hellboy" films, "Pacific Rim," and "Blade II," del Toro has proven that he can add great humor, style, and passion to the silliest of premises. There’s absolutely nothing about "The Last Witch Hunter" that stands out, however. It’s all too retrained and straightforward, making any of the "Underworld" movies look ambitious by comparison. The premise is stale, the production values are recycled, the characters are wooden, the CGI is horrendous, and the plot makes no sense whatsoever. Watching it, you get the sense that almost any fanboy in the audience could make a more entertaining movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Ho...Lee...Shit! ****1/2 

The “Mad Max” trilogy takes us back to a time when sets were handmade, people performed stunts, and CGI wasn’t around to provide shortcuts. There’s no doubt that CGI is a marvelous tool that’s made once unfilmable stories possible. When almost every blockbuster is solely relying on the technology, though, one can’t help but long for the real deal.

The good news about “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that it doesn’t commit CGI overkill like “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” or “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.” Director George Miller stays true to the look and spirit of his original films, utilizing practical effects roughly 90% of the time. Then when Miller does turn to CGI, it’s as seamless as the effects in either of the “Babe” pictures. The final result is one of the most dazzling summer movies ever produced and arguably the first film to truly capture the thrills of a rollercoaster from start to finish.

Tom Hardy takes over for Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky, a road warrior still wandering the post apocalyptic world. His lovely day takes a turn for the worse when he crosses paths with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is leading five sex slaves across the desert to freedom. Hot on their trail is the tyrannical King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), his vicious army, and even some kickass musical accompaniment.

How to describe a film like “Mad Max: Fury Road?” Imagine if every character from a drive-in B-movie came to life. Then imagine if every drawing from a heavy metal album came to life. Now imagine all these bizarre creations entered a death race that makes “Furious 7” look like “Driving Miss Daisy.” That wouldn’t even begin to describe just how insanely awesome this movie is.

Basically one giant car chase of epic proportions, the film ups the ante with every passing moment. A rally with trucks, explosions, and a rockin’ guitarist doesn’t sound extreme enough? Let’s throw a monstrous dust storm into the mix just to kick it into gear! The difference between the nonstop action here and something like “Transformers” is that Miller’s vision is never mindless or dull for a second. Every shot offers something visually unique and the film almost never hits the breaks. Even when “Mad Max: Fury Road” does provide its characters some breathing room, it still feels like the movie just downed an entire pot of coffee.

This is such a revelation of art direction, effects, makeup, stunts, cinematography, editing, and choreography that it’ll be easy for people to overlook the performances. Credit should go to the entire ensemble, however, which also includes Nicholas Hoult as a jittery psychopath that sounds like Gollum meets the Crypt Keeper. It isn’t easy fleshing out people that have little dialog and fairly basic goals. With what they’re given to work with, though, everyone makes their characters interesting and even empathetic in some cases. We genuinely want to see our heroes survive this dementedly hyper experience on a road of redemption, salvation, and, of course, fury.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E

Say uncle! ***1/2

It’s too bad the story is at times muddled and forgettable, although movies like this are really more about style over substance. That may sound shallow, but sometimes a little colorful escapism is good for the mind. That’s why people go on vacation and that’s exactly what "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." often feels like.

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The Martian

In space, nobody can hear you scream...unless you have a way to contact NASA ****

"The Martian" doesn’t quite rank up there with the all time great space rescue movies like "Apollo 13." Parts of it are drawn out and occasionally it calls to mind one too many other similar movies. At the same time, the film still stands on its own with strong performances, convincing visuals, and a killer soundtrack (assuming you enjoy Disco).

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A generic boy and his generic dog **1/2

If there’s even a little bit of a cynic in you, then prepare to be at war with yourself watching “Max.” On one hand, this is a heartfelt, innocent family film with solid life lessons. On the other hand, it’s so cliché, corny, and manipulative. If you’ve ever seen a movie about a boy and his dog before then you’ve seen “Max.”


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Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Hunger Games Light **1/2

Pretty much everyone had the exact same thought after seeing the trailer for the original "Maze Runner": “So, it’s just 'The Hunger Games' light?” And…yeah, it kind of was. Comparing "The Maze Runner" to "The Hunger Games" is like comparing "Harry Potter" to "Percy Jackson" or "I Am Number Four" to "Twilight." Actually, "I Am Number Four" might have been slightly less horrible than "Twilight," but you get the idea. Nobody wants the wannabe young adult adaptation when they can have the young adult adaptation that started the trend.


To give the first "Maze Runner" credit, though, it did have just enough mystery and atmosphere to stand on its own despite so many overused tropes. "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" on the other hand, suffers from the same problems as "The Divergent Series: Insurgent." This sequel is just more of what we got in the first movie and other popular stories. It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It’s basically just filler until the next entry in the saga, which hopefully won’t be split into two movies.


Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends have escaped from the Glade and are looking to resolve several questions. How did the world become an apocalyptic wasteland? What is the organization known as W.C.K.D. after? Why were they put in the Glade to begin with? The answers all reside in the Scorch, which is every bit as deadly as the desert planet from Dune. Much like the initial film, "The Scorch Trials" does a good job at luring the audience in with its sense of mystery. What Thomas ultimately finds in the Scorch, however, is nothing special.


In a nutshell, the land turns out to be overrun with infected beings known as Cranks. We might as well just call the Cranks zombies or mutants, though, because that’s what they are. Aside from borrowing from "The Hunger Games," "The Scorch Trials" also rips off every outbreak story known to man. It’s "The Walking Dead." It’s "The Last of Us." So in addition to numerous young adult clichés, such as a big bad government and a young rebel protagonist, we get scenes where characters are chased by the infected, bitten by the infected, and put out of their misery to avoid becoming the infected.

Such familiarity could be overlooked if "The Scorch Trials" had great characters to compensate. While the characters aren’t necessarily terrible and the performances are strong, everyone is pretty forgettable. You can’t remember a single individual based on their personality or even their name. Even great character actors, like Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Lili Taylor, and Patricia Clarkson, leave next to no impression. Watching the young leads, you can’t help but wish it were the Goonies embarking on this adventure.


"The Scorch Trials" is a movie that basically just exists. Nobody will go crazy for it, but nobody will get furious over it either. For what it’s worth, the actors are all talented, the production values are nice, and occasionally we get a cool action set piece. For something destined to live the shadow of "The Hunger Games," "The Scorch Trials" is better than it has any right to be. That doesn’t really make it a good or necessary movie, though.

McFarland, USA

How do I reach these Keedz? ***

Why do we keep going to see sports movies like “McFarland, USA?” We all know what’s going to happen. A down on his luck coach finds himself teaching a ragtag team of misfits. At first they won’t be any good, but with perspiration and inspiration, the underdogs will become unlikely champions. Along the way, the coach will teach his kids something and maybe they’ll teach him something too. Cue the epilogue where we get a brief description of what happened to each player and roll the credits.

So what is it about this formula that resonates with so many people? Is it because we love sports, underdogs, and seeing the same “true story” repeated over again? To an extent, but sports movies dig a little deeper than that. Sure, we knew exactly how “Remember the Titans,” “Glory Road,” and “Coach Carter” would play out. Nevertheless, those were all well made, well acted, and moving films. The inspirational sports genre is essentially comfort food with some nutritional value. At least that’s more than can be said about most romantic comedies, action blockbusters, or sequels, which are overly familiar and lack any value whatsoever.

“McFarland, USA” is another sports flick that doesn’t bring much new to the story, but still stands out thanks to its solid performances, direction, and life lessons. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a former high school football coach who is forced to relocate his family to McFarland, California. Suddenly, White is the minority in a community of mostly Latinos, stray dogs, and chickens. With several students being exceptional runners, Jim sees potential for a cross country program. Pretty soon he assembles a team comprised of the kid from broken home, the pipsqueak, the wiseass, the fat kid, the two brothers, and the other kid.

Niki Caro’s film does a fine job at developing Costner’s character and his relationship with his students. However, the narrative might have benefitted from a few more scenes told from the players’ perspectives instead of mainly focusing on the coach. It’s interesting that “McFarland, USA” would come out just a couple weeks after “Black or White,” another film about race relations where a character played by Kevin Costner overshadowed most of the ethnic actors. While neither film is extraordinary, both still effectively make commentary on social issues without turning anybody into a stereotype.

There isn’t much else to say about “McFarland, USA” except if you’re looking for an inspirational sports picture, this will get the job done. If you’re a sourpuss who’s seen one too many of these movies, you can probably sit this one out. While you can’t fault a person for disliking a film that doesn’t offer many surprises, it’s best to view this genre as if you’re a P.E. teacher. Your students might not take home any trophies, but as long as they sincerely put their best possible effort into the game, give them a passing grade and call it a day.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Good times with cancer ****1/2

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” explores the darkest reaches of Cancer and the moments of humor that make the experience a little less unbearable. Like “50/50” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” it’s a beautiful film for any young person that’s been affected by the disease in some way. What’s more, it’s a film for anybody that adores cinema.

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Mission: Impossible - Rouge Nation

See Tom Run ****

In an age where many blockbusters are mainly concerned with building cinematic universes and sounding important, it’s good to know that "Mission: Impossible" hasn’t lost track of what makes a great summer action movie.

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Miss You Already

See it or miss it? ***1/2

"Miss You Already" is the very definition of a chick flick. It has all the tropes one would expect: a powerful sisterly bond, a comedic road trip, a little romance, and a tear-jerking cancer subplot. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, keep in mind that "Mad Max: Fury Road" is out on DVD. As far as movies like this go, however, "Miss You Already" is elevated by some wonderful performances and a few genuinely bittersweet moments. None of its revolutionary, but there is just enough intelligence and charm here to stand out.   


Drew Barrymore is Jess and Toni Collette is Milly. The two become best friends as grade-schoolers and remain best friends well into their late thirties. Both of them have loving, dedicated husbands. Jess and her husband (Paddy Considine) want to have a baby, but can’t seem to get pregnant. As they try to bring a new life into this world, Milly and her husband (Dominic Cooper) receive some life-altering news. Milly has breast cancer and chances are the chemotherapy won’t be the worst of it. Even though their lives are on completely opposite tracks, Jess and Toni continue to support each other through thick and thin.


Sometimes a film is salvaged almost solely based on the chemistry between the leads. Like Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in "Practical Magic" or the four young actresses in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," Barrymore and Collette are what make "Miss You Already" something special. You completely buy their everlasting friendship and the two make for an extraordinarily appealing pair. There is some forced conflict towards third act where they’re briefly driven apart. Although this plot point kind of causes the story to lag, it fortunately doesn’t last too long.


The film also effectively portrays cancer without ever becoming shamelessly sentimental or condescending. It’s kind of like "Terms of Endearment," except focusing on a relationship between two friends as apposed to a mother and daughter. "Miss You Already" isn’t on the same level as that Best Picture winner. It also falls behind other recent movies that have found the drama and comedy in cancer, such as "50/50" or "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." Nevertheless, the film does ring true more often than not.


"Miss You Already" was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who had an impressive feature film debut with "Thirteen" back in 2003. She took a major step backwards when the script for "Twilight" landed in her lap, though. If you think that was her career low point, don’t forget that she also made "Red Riding Hood." "Miss You Already" reminds us that Hardwicke can still make smart, honest, touching movies with interesting female characters at the center. She just needs to stay away from the vampires and werewolves.

Mistress America

This weeks much better American movie ****

Greta Gerwig is one of the most underrated talents working in movies today. Not only has she given one great performance after another, but she’s also consistently taking on roles that define Generation Y. She acted as the co-writer and star of “Frances Ha,” playing a woman with high ambitions that are often shattered by the cruelty of reality. She reunites with director/co-writer Noah Baumbach in “Mistress American” to play Brooke, a character that’s very different from Frances Halladay. In many respects, though, the two ladies actually have a lot in common.


Frances Halladay basically danced through life with a clear goal, but little direction. Brooke, meanwhile, seems to have her whole life figured out. She’s a social butterfly who always has a fascinating new story to share and a new creative project in mind. Behind that confident facade, however, Brooke is being evicted, has no money, and can never see an endeavor through. Both Frances and Brooke demonstrate what it’s like to be a young person trying to make it in New York, but constantly hitting roadblocks. Whether those roadblocks are caused by a lack of funds, a lack of guidance, a lack of perspiration, or a lack of practicality, we can all identify with such disappointment.


The movie belongs just as much to Lola Kirke as it does to Gerwig. She plays Tracy, a college freshman and aspiring writer that will become Brooke’s stepsister once their parents marry. The two hit it off upon meeting, sharing an instantaneous sisterly connection. Being chattier than one of the Gilmore Girls, Brooke sometimes doesn’t let Tracy get a word in edgewise. Even when Tracy is allowed an opening to talk, it’s unclear if the preoccupied Brooke is listening to her. Nevertheless, Tracy is still drawn to what a cool and outgoing socialite her future stepsister is. Brooke, meanwhile, delights in taking a protégé under her wing, although she’s the one who could use a life coach.


Both Gerwig and Kirke play off each other to perfection, making their relationship feel 100% genuine. The two especially shine in the film’s second half when they take a road trip to pitch a restaurant idea to a potential investor. The entire segment plays out like a great stage production, additionally working in some highly funny performances from Matthew Shear as Tracy’s crush, Jasmine Cephas Jones as his jealous girlfriend, Heather Lind as Brooke’s estranged friend, Michael Chernus as her sleazy husband, and Cindy Cheung as a pregnant woman caught in the middle. Truths are revealed, dreams are shattered, and everybody walks away looking at each other in a new light.


As strong as “Frances Ha” was, “Mistress America” is an even better collaboration between Baumbach and Gerwig. Particularly in this film, the two seem to be channeling Woody Allen with witty dialog and New York acting as a real character. Their work speaks more to a Millennial audience, however. “Mistress America” shares numerous valuable insights regarding a generation struggling to grow up and find their place in the world. It presents these themes through laughs, charms, and brutal honesty.

My All-American

From American Horror Story to My All-American ***1/2

If you’re officially tired of the sports movie formula, My All-American isn’t going to blow you away. However, it’s still a hard movie not to enjoy and admire.

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The Night Before

Deck the halls with booze and drugs ***1/2

Even if it doesn’t balance comedy and touching moments as well as something like "Home Alone," "The Night Before" is a fitting companion to go with a glass of spiked eggnog.

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Our Brand is Crisis

Could've used a game change **1/2

If you’re looking for a much better movie about the messy political game, check out out The Ides of March. Compared to that film, "Our Brand is Crisis" is basically what Bernie Sanders is to Hilary Clinton.

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Paddington Abbey ****1/2

“Paddington” is a rare treasure: A modern family film that isn’t dependent on constant pop culture references or innuendos. Instead, it relies on good, old fashion storytelling reminiscent of “Mary Poppins,” “Willing Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” or “Babe.” The result is an instant classic that exceeds all expectations, being as funny and charming as it is timeless.

Director Paul King and co-screenwriter Hamish McColl capture all the warmth of Michael Bond’s classic books with stunning art direction and magical effects. The most impressive visual creation in the film is Paddington himself, a talking bear with a red hat, blue coat, and unquenchable thirst for marmalade. Comprised of wide eyes and fur that practically seems tangible, he somehow feels equally animated and lifelike. Affectionately voiced by Ben Whishaw, Paddington leaves his natural habitat in Peru and winds up at a London train station. In any other movie, a person might question why and how there’ a small, talking bear freely wandering around. “Paddington” is in the spirit of a Hayao Miyazaki picture, though, where people just casually accept the impossible.

Five of the most crucial people to enter Paddington’s life are the Brown family. Although Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is skeptical and always fears the worst, Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) sees that the lonely bear is in need of a home. Accident-prone Paddington immediately causes trouble upon arriving at the Brown household as he interacts with their bathroom accessories. This might sound like lame slapstick we’ve seen a million times before, but the way Director King stages and times this scene makes for some of the funniest physical humor in some time. The same can be said about Paddington’s other misadventures involving returning a wallet, breaking into a facility, and taping a piece of paper back together.

Bonneville and Hawkins hit just the right notes, as do young Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin as their children and Julie Walters as the eccentric grandmother. Unlike the human actors in “Alvin and the Chipmunks” or “The Smurfs,” nobody is just phoning it in so they can add a children’s movie their résumé. They take every word of the script seriously while having a ton of fun at the same time. Nicole Kidman particularly shines as a wicked taxidermist who wants to add Paddington to her collection. In a role that could have only existed to provide an action climax, Kidman fashions a villain who’s crafty, dignified, and quite humorous.

It’s truly amazing how much effort was put into “Paddington” to make the best movie imaginable. Every second that passes by, the filmmakers go the extra mile to turn a good scene into a great one. For example, there’s an instance in which Paddington is simply describing the Brown family members. King could have just cut between each character as Paddington narrates, but the way the scene is set up and shot through the frame of a dollhouse adds another whole level of atmosphere.

At the center of “Paddington” is a human tale about being a foreigner in a new land. Sure, the film’s lessons and final destination might be obvious. The journey is so exciting and marvelously crafted, however, that nothing feels recycled. No matter what the story or circumstance, you want to soak up every minute you have with these incredibly enjoyable characters. In short, “Paddington” is as filling and satisfying as a marmalade sandwich.   


You aren't the Pan! **

A few minutes into Joe Wright’s "Pan," you might think you’re in store for one of the most magical interpretations of this immortal character. Instead, it ends up being one of the most clichéd and forgettable.

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Paper Towns

Life moves pretty fast ****

"Paper Towns" shows us that high school isn’t about the final destination, especially since you have your whole life ahead of you. It’s about the friendships you form, lessons you learn, and the risks you take on the unforgettable journey.

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The Peanuts Movie

You made a good movie, Charlie Brown ****

Unlike the theatrical adaptations of "Garfield" and "The Smurfs," "The Peanuts Movie" is one nostalgic property that understands its source material.

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Pitch Perfect 2

 Everything sounds so much better with an "aca" added in front of it ****

The original “Pitch Perfect” was a solid box office success, but it’s popularity spread like Gangnam Style on DVD. If your fifteen-year-old daughter isn’t singing along to the “Frozen” soundtrack, chances are she’s playing the “Pitch Perfect” soundtrack over and over again. With strong crossover appeal between female and male audiences, there was little doubt the aca-awesome comedy would spawn a sequel. Does this franchise really have anything else to sing about, though, or is it the most overhyped one-hit wonder since “Glee?”

Like “22 Jump Street,” “Pitch Perfect 2” is a rare sequel that surprisingly comes close to topping its predecessor. What makes this especially surprising is that the plot’s basically a rehash. The Barden Bellas, an all-female musical group that made a capella cool, is now being lead by Anna Kendrick’s Beca and Brittany Snow’s Chloe. Subsequent to winning regionals or sectional or whatever for the third year in a row, the Bellas lose their voice when Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy suffers a wardrobe malfunction. The fact that the incident took place with President Obama in the audience doesn’t help. The only way to save the Bellas is if they win an international a capella competition, a feat no American team has ever achieved.

So why is it that the stock plot works in “Pitch Perfect 2,” but not in sequels like “The Hangover Part II” or “Horrible Bosses 2?” Maybe its because the plot in the first “Pitch Perfect” was already pretty inconsequential. The dialog was so witty, the musical numbers were so lively, and the characters were so likable that the story was an afterthought. The story doesn’t really matter in “Pitch Perfect 2” either as the film delivers more consistently hilarious one-liners, aca-amazing music, and all the characters we adored from the first film simply interacting with one another.

In addition to the original players, “Pitch Perfect 2” naturally introduces several newbies too. Along with cameos from Snoop Dog and the Green Bay Packers, we get splendid supporting work from Keegan-Michael Key as a hotshot record producer, David Cross as the worlds biggest a capella fan, and Hailee Steinfeld as a wide-eyed freshman who just might takeover the Bellas someday. Screenwriter Kay Cannon also deserves credit for developing a legitimately funny group of bullies in Das Sound Machine, the German a capella team that pose a genuine threat to our heroines.

Speaking of entertaining antagonists, Adam DeVine returns as Bumper Allen. Previously depicted as an enjoyable jackass and rival, here he rises up as a love interest for Fat Amy in a romance that’s as funny as it is charming. Even if the backdrop can seem familiar at times, “Pitch Perfect 2” plays with its characters in new, fun ways. The film is given a ton of chances to take a cliché, meandering detour like when Beca almost storms off from the group. Instead of dragging out their reconciliation, however, the scene ends with a huge laugh and leads into one of the series’ more poignant moments.

After winning a Razzie along with twelve other directors for “Movie 43,” Elizabeth Banks is given a second chance to prove that she has a real eye for filmmaking. Banks raises the stakes with several musical set pieces, most notably the ultimate riff-off, and makes great use of her entire ensemble, which includes herself as commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden. She’s made a delightful picture that even works in messages about inevitable change and sisterhood without going overboard in the girl power department. With a ton of passion in front of and behind the camera, what else can be said except, “Insert aca pun here.”


Futurama did it! ***1/2

There’s a reason why video game movies are usually dead on arrival. You rarely get the impression that anybody involved really cared about video games. Movies like “The Wizard” and “Super Mario Bros.” were basically just sellouts that wanted to cash in on Nintendo’s brand name. If Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” proved anything, though, it’s that making an awesome video game movie is possible when passionate storytellers are involved. “Pixels” is another movie that overflows with passion for video games and filmmaking too. Who would have thought such a creative and inspired picture would come from the likes of Adam Sandler.

Like a majority of video game movies, Sandler’s most recent comedies have all been severely lacking in effort. “Pixels” is easily his best mainstream film in years, complete with a funny script, inventive action sequences, and likable performances. Sandler plays Brenner, who was an arcade champion back in the 80’s. Three decades later, however, he’s a washed up tech guy who can’t comprehend modern games. His best friend since childhood is Will Cooper (Kevin James), who has somehow become president of the United States. That may sound far-fetched, but we have elected less qualified people to office.

When aliens intercept a time capsule containing images of video games, they mistake the footage for a declaration of war. Using their technology, the aliens pixelate various arcade icons into reality and invade the earth. Now humanity’s only hope is Brenner and his unparalleled gaming skills. This is basically the same plot as a certain “Futurama” episode, but fully realized.

Frogger, Donkey Kong, Q*bert, and various others make appearances throughout the film. “Pixels” doesn’t merely exploit the fact that the studio got the rights to these classic video game characters, though. The filmmakers come up with numerous clever ways to integrate them into thrilling action set pieces and moments of humor. There’s an adrenaline-pumping chase through New York involving Pac-Man that encompasses the spirit and strategy of the game on an epic scale.

More importantly, the human characters are all a delight too. Josh Gad gives another winning performance as Ludlow, an arcade wiz and conspiracy nut who believes JFK actually shot first. Peter Dinklage kills it as Eddie, an egoistical gamer who dreams of a three-way with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. Michelle Monaghan, who easily could have been saddled with a straightforward love interest role, shines as a weapon developer that has a surprisingly charming chemistry with Sandler. Even Brian Cox gets a few good laughs as a clichéd military antagonist.

Chris Columbus, who wrote “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” before directing the first two “Home Alone” and “Harry Potter” pictures, was the perfect man to breathe life into this premise. His film is essentially a love letter to the 80’s, referencing retro music and TV shows in addition to video games. Most impressive of all, Columbus has really captured the wacky, yet smart, spirit of an 80’s summer movie like “Ghostbusters” or “The Last Starfighter.” Although it might not top those nostalgic classics, “Pixels” definitely deserves to be used in the same sentence.


Who ya gonna call...someone else *1/2

Have you ever wanted to see a remake of “Poltergeist” that was less intense, more CGI reliant, and presented in needless 3D? Of course you don’t, but they made it and its existence is about as warranted as the remakes of “Total Recall” or “RoboCop.” You’d think with a talented director, cast, and even Sam Raimi as a producer, this new “Poltergeist” might be able to stand on its own feet. Compared to the original and new paranormal classics like “The Babadook,” though, it doesn’t have a solitary scream. It doesn’t even have an eeep!

Instead of the Freeling family, this version focuses on the Bowens. Sam Rockwell plays the slacker father who responds to everything sarcastically, even when in life-threatening danger. Rosemarie DeWitt plays his dedicated wife and mother of three. Their offspring are comprised of Saxon Sharbino as their iPhone-addicted teenage daughter, Kyle Catlett as their astute son, and Kennedi Clements as their youngest daughter who gets a little too close to the TV. They buy a nice suburban house at a great price. The realtor neglected to mention, however, that it was built on an ancient burial ground and the spirits don’t take kindly to squatters.  

Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” still holds up as a creative, creepy flick with strong build up and even stronger payoff. This poorly paced “Poltergeist,” on the other hand, builds little suspense and fails to deliver any genuine thrills. If you’ve seen the first film, you know all the stops this one’s going to make, from the eerie tree to the demented clown doll. Even if you haven’t seen its predecessor, this remake practically spells out what’s going to happen early on. Then when the alleged frights come, you just kind of shrug them off. The irony that a PG film from 1982 is scarier than a PG13 film from 2015 really says something about the current state of horror and the rating system.

What makes the new “Poltergeist” even more disappointing is that it was directed by Gil Kenan, who made the wickedly entertaining “Monster House.” Actually, that animated feature felt much closer to what a modern “Poltergeist” should be than this movie. With Kenan behind the camera, we at least get a mostly well-crafted picture full of superb cinematography and lighting. Kenan also finds neat ways to work contemporary technology like iPads and drones into the action. Kenan falls short whenever he utilizes computer-generated images, though, which simply look lame and fake when stacked up against the original’s immortally impressive practical effects.

The performances are uniformly solid, but the only one who really stands out is Jared Harris as a supernatural expert. He’s not as memorable as Zelda Rubinstein’s pintsized spiritual medium, but Harris does have fun in the performance and makes it his own. Yet, most of the performers have the disadvantage of playing irresponsible idiots. When a character is stupid enough to put his arm in a hole in the wall of a haunted house, it’s clear that the filmmakers aren’t trying that hard.

On top of all that, “Poltergeist” often seems unsure what tone it exactly wants to set with an uneven mix of cliché jump scares and comedic scenes out of a bad sitcom. Is it trying to be scary? Is it trying to be funny? Why was this movie even made? If they were aiming to bore the audience, however, then they definitely hit their mark.

Regular Show: The Movie

You know who else reviewed Regular Show: The Movie? MY MOM! ***1/2

Seeing how "Regular Show" drapes itself in old school nostalgia, it’s only appropriate that its feature film would tackle the past, present, and future.

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The Revenant

Must resist bear rape joke ****

Although "The Revenant" certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s also riveting entertainment that only a truly masterful filmmaker such as Alejandro González Iñárritu could have brought into fruition.

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Ricki and the Flash

Don't you mean Arrow and the Flash? ****

In “Juno,” Diablo Cody told the story of a teenage girl who ultimately grows up. In “Young Adult,” she told the story of a 30-something-year-old who refuses to grow up. In “Ricki and the Flash,” she tells a story about a senior woman who acts like it’s still 1988.

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No, not the Tommy Wiseau movie *****

All you need to know is that this is an extraordinary, life-affirming motion picture about the bond of love.

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Run All Night

Run, Liam, Run! ***

Virtually everyone had the same exact thought when the trailer for “Run All Night” hit: “Isn’t this the same exact movie Liam Neeson’s been making for the past seven years?” The short answer is basically yes. Jaume Collet-Serra previously directed the serious actor turned action hero in “Unknown,” which came close to being decent, and “Non-Stop,” which was decent enough to check out. “Run All Night” falls somewhere in the middle of those two flicks, putting it just on the fence. Whether or not you enjoy the film will come down to how much you enjoy seeing Neeson shoot up bad guys, grumble his lines, and run for his life.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a veteran hitman who’s spent a majority of his life at the bottom of a bottle. He works for Ed Harris’ Shawn Maguire, a mobster that wants to go legit. This becomes progressively difficult when Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) gets on the bad side of a powerful drug lord. Danny kills the rival gangster, but Jimmy’s estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), catches him in the act. To protect Mike, Jimmy is forced to kill Danny. Now Shawn is hell-bent on spilling Jimmy and Mike’s blood, even if it takes all night.

While Neeson can essentially do this role in his sleep, “Run All Night” mainly works because he was a proper supporting cast to work off of. The father/son animosity between Jimmy and Mike has been done in numerous other films like “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Mike wants nothing to do with his deadbeat dad, constantly calling him by his first name. By the film’s conclusion, though, how much do you want to bet Mike will come to recognize Jimmy as a father again? Yet, the actors still do a solid job at conveying a complex and convincing relationship with strong chemistry.

Harris is equally effective as a brokenhearted father who’s blinded by vengeance, but empathizes with Jimmy’s need to protect his boy. We also get some good work from Vincent D'Onofrio as the only honest cop in New York and Common steals the show as a hitman that always gets the job done. A few characters are almost randomly thrown in the mix, however, most notably a very haggard Nick Nolte as Jimmy’s brother. Other characters are just there to move the plot along, like Aubrey Joseph as a street kid who pops up when it’s most convenient.

The action sequences are fun for the most part, although sometimes evoke déjà vu. How many other action set pieces have taken place in burning buildings and rail yards? As for the story going on between all those chases and shootouts, you know what’s going to happen. Even if you’ve never seen a movie like this before, the obvious foreshadowing sets everything up like bowling pins. To buy into the plot, you really need to overlook some unbelievable coincidences that are farfetched even by thriller standards.

For all of its faults, though, there is a passable movie here about the bond between fathers, sons, and family. If you’re officially Neesoned out and want to see him go back to making more ambitious pictures, you can skip this one. If you’re on board for a little more Neeson action, “Run All Night” will satisfy with competent performances, direction, and action. Plus, at the very least, it is better than either of the “Taken” sequels.

San Andreas

Sadly, it's not based on the "GTA" game *1/2

If “San Andreas” came out in the late nineties, it’d simply blend into the explosive shuffle of “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact,” and “Twister.” The only thing that distinguishes “San Andreas” today is that it’s coming out in a summer of much more creative blockbusters like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and even “Tomorrowland.” That’s hardly a complement, though. Even if you’re looking for a movie with a lot of buildings crumbling, there are a handful of superior alternatives still playing at your local Cineplex. Thus, this movie has no purpose whatsoever.

So what’s the story? Well, there’s a giant earthquake in California and that’s about it. The plot isn’t important in a movie like this. It all depends on how involving the characters are. So who are our heroes? Dwayne Johnson is an ultra manly recue-chopper pilot, Carla Gugino is his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Alexandra Daddario is their Megan Fox wannabe daughter who’ll need to be rescued multiple times, Ioan Gruffudd is Gugino’s wealthy boyfriend who turns out to be a conniving coward, Hugo Johnstone-Burt is Daddario’s charmingly nerdy love interest, Art Parkinson is a wisecracking little kid, Paul Giamatti is a scientist doing his best Jeff Goldblum impression, and Archie Panjabi is a news reporter wishing she was back on “The Good Wife.”

Wow…just…wow! There’s not a single original character in this entire lineup. It’d be one thing if they were fun, memorable stereotypes like the supporting cast in “Pitch Perfect,” but everyone’s the cheapest cutout you can think of. The only thing this cast has going for it is that nobody’s unbearably annoying. Regardless, would it have really killed the filmmakers to try something new with any of these archetypes? What if it turned out Johnson was the whimpering chicken and Gruffudd was the daring hero? What if Daddario had to save her father for a change? You people put so much thought and effort into the effects that surely you could have put some into your characters.

Now with that said, “San Andreas” is certainly a well-crafted movie from a production standpoint. The action is intense, the visuals are mostly convincing, and the scope always feels huge. At the end of the day, however, you’re just watching people you don’t care about run away from destruction for almost two hours. There isn’t any art or skill to depicting that.

Interspersed throughout the nonstop chaos, we get every below the belt cliché you can think of: The scene where somebody sacrifices himself to save a little girl, the scene where somebody performs CPR on another character who obviously isn’t going to die, and countless scenes of forced exposition. The screenwriters seem to think that giving the characters some basic backstory also gives them personalities, but it’s just a lazy copout to actually developing them.

By the time the credits roll, you half expect Michael Bay’s name to pop up. Actually, “San Andreas” was directed by Brad Peyton, the same genius who made “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.” Whether or not he’s a step up or a step down from Bay is hard to say. In any case, he’s made a disaster movie that is in itself a disaster. Unless you’ve never seen “2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Core,” “The Towing Inferno,” “Dante’s Peak,” “Earthquake,” and “Sharknado”…well, then you should still avoid “San Andreas” like a tidal wave.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Worth a merit badge ***

"Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" is far from the first movie to put a comedic spin on zombies. We’ve seen this before in "Shaun of the Dead," "Zombieland," and "Warm Bodies." This satire of sorts isn’t as smart or funny as any of the comedies listed above. If you’re looking for a gorier alternative to "Goosebumps," though, "Scouts Guide" is a fun way to spend your Halloween night. It’s also a much more competent film than something like "Zombie Strippers," although a zombie stripper does actually make an appearance here. 


Our heroes are the typical teenage geeks you’d expect to see in a movie like this.  Tye Sheridan from "Mud" plays Ben, the most well-rounded of the bunch. Logan Miller is Carter, the foulmouthed one who’s obsessed with getting laid. There’s also Joey Morgan as Augie, the designated fat kid. They’ve all been in scouts together since grade school, meaning that they’re prepared for anything. Accompanied by Sarah Dumont as a stripper cocktail waitress with a heart of gold, the three put their scout training to effective use when zombies attack and rise up as unlikely heroes.


While the story isn’t anything special, Director Christopher Landon of the "Paranormal Activity" movies knows how to set up a creative action set piece. Any film that manages to work Dolly Parton’s "9 to 5" theme into a zombie attack is clearly doing something right. There’s also an entertaining sequence involving Cloris Leachman as a zombie cat lady and her zombie cats. Along the way, we get all the blood and guts a horror junkie could desire. A severed penis is additionally thrown in for good measure.


The best gags in "Scouts Guide" are visual. The dialog isn’t quite up to snuff, although the screenwriters do a solid job at capturing how crude teenage boys talk. There just aren’t as any great one-liners as one would hope. Imagine if the people behind "Superbad" got ahold of the script. Then this probably could have been a horror/comedy classic.


"Scouts Guide" may not be a masterpiece. If anything, it starts to wear out its welcome a little by the third act. For what it is, though, there is just enough humor, violence, and passion to appease the target audience. Think of it as a hard-R version of "The Monster Squad." Of course "Monster Squad" was already only a couple more swear words and some nudity away from an R rating.


Sisterly love ***1/2

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are one of the greatest comedic duos of this generation, always a hoot together on "Saturday Night Live" and whenever hosting the Golden Globes. Yet, they’ve surprisingly only crossed paths a couple times on the silver screen. The two had cameos in "Anchorman 2" and supporting roles in "Mean Girls." 2008’s "Baby Mama" notably allowed them to take center stage. While that film did exemplify their individual talents and undeniable chemistry, it wasn’t exactly the strongest comedy from a directing or writing perspective. In "Sisters," however, Fey and Poehler are given much funnier material to work with and thus unlock their full potential.


Poehler plays Maura Ellis, a divorced nurse who’s always thinking of others at her own expense. Fey plays Katie Ellis, a single mom who’s constantly flaking out on others at their expense. As you probably guessed from the title, they’re both sisters. Upon finding out that their parents are selling their childhood home, Maura and Katie take a nostalgia trip back to Orlando. With the house virtually empty, the Ellis sisters decide to throw a big party and invite all their old friends. Among the attendees are Bobby Moynihan as a would-be class clown, Rachel Dratch as a Debbie Downer, and Maya Rudolph as a total Queen B.


That’s pretty much all there is to the film’s plot. It may not sound like much, but that’s actually all we really need. The whole may just be comedians hanging out and cracking jokes, but who cares as long as a majority of those jokes are funny? "Sisters" delivers the goods thanks to Paula Pell’s consistently humorous screenplay, a few strong supporting performances, and director Jason Moore making the most out of a constrained setting. Of course it’s our leading ladies that make this movie a success above all else.


Fey and Poehler are such wonderful comedic talents because neither is restricted to playing one type of role. Poehler’s Maura is clearly more responsible where Fey’s Kate is more of a livewire, but neither of these characters is one-note. It would have been easy for Sisters to just give us a female version of "The Odd Couple." The film wisely switches things up a little when the party gets underway, though. Maura decides she’s going to cut loose for once while Kate agrees to stay sober for the night. As the party and Maura spiral out of control, however, Kate isn’t sure if she can prevent her guests from bringing down the house. We get to see both of these characters in different lights, demonstrating what diverse range Fey and Poehler have.


At almost two hours, Sisters does admittedly run on for about twenty minutes too long. Even when the film starts to drag, though, the stars never give any less than 100%. Fey and Poehler are practically sisters in real life, which really shows here. As different as Kate and Maura may be, they still share a special bond that’s identifiable and even kind of sweet. You believe every interaction between them and the film does ultimately say something about the power of sibling relationships. This makes "Sisters" slightly more than a just laugh riot, but the comedy is the main reason why audiences will see this movie. Sisters is sure to put a smile on your face and lord knows people will need a good chuckle if all the screenings for "The Force Awakens" are sold out. 

Son of Saul

Better call Saul ****

"Son of Saul," this year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, doesn’t shy away from the horrors prisoners faced at concentration camps. That’s not the focus of the movie, though. The real focus centers on our resolute protagonist, who refuses to give up his cause despite the evils that surround him.

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Live and never let the franchise die ***1/2

After listening to Sam Smith’s "Writing’s on the Wall," the main theme for "Spectre," a lot people had the same reaction: “Meh, that was pretty decent I guess. It doesn’t hold a candle to Adele’s "Skyfall" theme, though.” Ironically, you can say the same thing about "Spectre." This is a worthy Bond movie with some amazing action set pieces. When stacked up against the masterwork that was "Skyfall," however, Sam Mendes’ follow-up isn’t everything it could have been.


Daniel Craig returns for his fourth outing as James Bond, who’s now under the command of Ralph Fiennes’ M. As usual, James isn’t exactly taking orders from his superior. Upon obtaining a cryptic message, 007 goes rogue to uncover the secrets behind Spectre. Of course the fact that Spectre stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion should be a dead giveaway. As Mr. Bond digs deeper, he finds that Spectre has ties to his past and everything has been building up to him confronting the organization’s head.


There’s a point in "Spectre" where somebody says there are two James Bonds. There are also two types of James Bond fans: People who prefer old school Bond and people who prefer the new, grittier Bond. "Spectre" actually does a commendable job at mixing together elements of both old and new James Bond, practically in the action sequences. The film opens with a truly rousing chase taking place on Day of the Dead, paying homage to "Live and Let Die." The problem is that "Spectre" doesn’t really distinguish itself from previous Bond pictures. Where "Skyfall" took so many chances with its characters and plot, "Spectre" sticks to the classic formula and never excels.


One notable aspect of the film that feels especially by the numbers is Léa Seydoux ("Blue Is the Warmest Color", "The Grand Budapest Hotel") as Madeleine Swann. As the designated Bond girl, Madeleine plays a key role in unraveling Spectre and naturally becomes the object of James’ affection. Seydoux does fine here, but she’s far from the coolest, funniest, or sexiest lady to tango with James. If anything, James has more chemistry with Monica Bellucci in a brief scene.


Does "Spectre" at least compensate for its Bond girl with its villain? To an extent. Christoph Waltz of "Inglourious Basterds" was born to play a Bond baddie and he perfectly fits the bill as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. You can tell Waltz is having a ball as this devious puppet master. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see nearly enough of him. "Spectre" keeps dragging out Bond’s big showdown with Blofeld and it ultimately feels kind of too little too late by the third act. The fact that the film has so much needless padding in its running time of two and a half hours doesn’t help.


"Spectre" is said to be Craig’s final Bond picture. While "Spectre" has some shortcomings, it would be a respectable way for Craig to go out. It cleverly brings many plotlines full circle and leaves our hero on a fitting final note. This isn’t the best Bond movie to star Craig. As a matter of fact, it’s not even the best Bond movie to come out this year. "Kingsman: The Secret Service" and "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation" both felt like the awesome James Bond movies Eon Productions never produced. Even if "Spectre" falls short by comparison, there are just enough strong moments to earn a shaken martini. 


Will Oscars shine their spotlight on Spotlight? *****

Spotlight may be the best movie of its kind since All the President’s Men.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A new hope *****

Only time can tell if "The Force Awakens" will rank up there with "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back." For now, though, it’s everything one could ask for and, in some regards, even more.

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Never give up the fight ****

It’s easy to believe in a cause. It’s even easy to support a cause. To actually fight for a cause, however, is easier said than done. We regrettably live in a world where equality is rarely attained without great sacrifice. Being a rebel might sound more glamorous and noble than being a slave. When given the option, though, most people would choose to do nothing rather than stand up to oppression.


"Suffragette" tells the inspiring story of women who were brave enough to fight for their rights to vote. Taking place in the United Kingdom during the late 19th century, the film centers on a woman named Maud Watts. Played by Carey Mulligan, Maud is a fictionalized character who was inspired by several foot soldiers during the British women’s suffrage movement. Throughout her life, Maud is told that she’s a daughter, a wife, a mother, and nothing more. Maud accepts this belittlement until voting rights for women start to become a real possibility. She’s compelled to join an underground group of rebels that are willing to break the law to get justice. To gain the rights they deserve, though, these women risk giving up everything.


This is one of Mulligan’s most captivating performances as a woman torn between doing the right thing and surrendering to the system. She has multiple run-ins with an authority figure named Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who tries to silence the rebels at every turn. Thrown in jail and beaten by the police, Maud additionally loses her husband, her son, and her dignity. She’s often tempted to give up the fight, contemplating whether the cause is worth the sacrifice. Mulligan couldn’t be more powerful in creating this empathetic character, making the audience wonder what we would do in her shoes.


Maud is encouraged to continue fighting through the friendships of several key suffragettes. We get some strong supporting work from Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn and Natalie Press as Emily Davison, two women who were willing to pay the ultimate price for equality. The only performer who’s shortchanged is surprisingly Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst. Given Streep’s caliber as an actress and Pankhurst’s impact on feminism, one would think this role would’ve warranted more than a mere cameo. With that said, Mulligan’s emotional work is more than enough to carry the film.


"Suffragette" isn’t exactly subtle in getting its message across. Then again, perhaps that’s fitting seeing how the real suffragettes weren’t subtle in their approach. They knew that in order to open people’s eyes to injustice, sometimes its necessary to go to certain extremes. While "Suffragette" can be obvious, it never feels manipulative. Rather, it reminds us of the important influence these women had on their generation and generations to come. While women would eventually achieve the right to vote in Britain, it’s hard to believe that they’ve only had this right for less than 100 years. What’s even more shocking is that there are still countries that prohibit votes for women. That just gives us more reason to never give up the fight.


Second life's a charm ***1/2

“Self/less” echoes classic “Twilight Zone” episodes, “Total Recall” and especially John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds.” Its ideas and themes are familiar, but that’s every contemporary sci-fi thriller for you. What’s important is how the film goes about presenting these concepts in a new light. In the case of “Self/less,” Director Tarsem Singh has made an absorbing, well-structured entertainment that’s often a pleasure to watch unfold. 

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Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep first appeared in the Oscar-winning stop-motion short, “A Close Shave.” After stealing the show from Wallace and Gromit, Shaun went on to get his own spinoff television series. There’s no doubt that Shaun is a winning supporting character and has proven himself capable of carrying a seven-minute episode. Can he really carry a feature length film, though? With the inventive minds at Aardman Animations herding him in the right direction, yes he can.


Living a laidback, yet occasionally chaotic, life on a farm, Shaun and his fellow sheep grow board of their normal routine. They wish to take the day off and hatch a breakout reminiscent of “Chicken Run.” After distracting the farmer and his faithful dog, Bitzer, for a little while, their holiday takes a turn for the worse and they all wind up in the big city. This leads to several fun misadventures involving memory loss and a ruthless animal containment officer bent on skinning the sheep.


Aardman can certainly write brilliant dialog, as demonstrated in movies like “Arthur Christmas.” The highlight of any Aardman production, however, is the visual humor. These filmmakers pack jokes into almost every shot of their movies, some of which are blatant and others you’ll have to look closely to catch. Even if every joke doesn’t leave you laughing out loud hysterically, each one will put an irrespirable smile on your face. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is no exception, but the film takes the studio’s visual humor to another level.


Outside of some occasional gibberish and animal noises, this film is entirely dialog free. The feature length silent picture has essentially been dead since the birth of talkies, excluding the Best Picture winning “The Artist” in 2011 and Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” in 1976. “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” much like the first thirty minutes of “WALL-E,” exemplifies that animation is truly the ideal medium for silent movies. Few living performers could ever match the same levels of energy, timing, or creativity as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. In the realm of animation, though, you can do just about anything and “Shaun the Sheep Movie” takes full advantage of the art form.


The film explores many of the same themes as other Aardman features, such as animal cruelty and a person’s affection for their pets. The narrative never tastes like stale, old cheese, however. Every time “Shaun the Sheep Movie” starts to overstay its welcome, the filmmakers throw in new clever twist, character, or gag that makes you wish it were even longer. It might not be the most epic or complex animated film you’ll see this year, but it does offer a jolly good time through its simple charms and big heart.

Sleeping with Other People

We'll gladly sleep with Allison Brie, thank you ***1/2

Even if the film doesn’t end up being as bold or original as it could’ve been, "Sleeping With Other People" is still one of the better romances of the year.

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The southpaw redemption ***

“Southpaw” is like two inspirational sports movies for the price of one. The protagonist not only needs to prove himself a better fighter, but a better father in the process too. The film doesn’t just want to be a tearjerker, though. It wants to beat the audience in the face with emotion until they cry. While “Southpaw” does have a lot of heaving hitting moments, the movie may have been a little stronger if it held back occasionally.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives another outstanding performance as Billy Hope, a light heavyweight champion who started from nothing. Now Billy has a perfect life with a perfect wife (Rachel McAdams) and a perfect daughter (Oona Laurence). There wouldn’t be a movie, however, if tragedy didn’t suddenly strike Billy. Blinded by ego and pride, he instigates a brawl with a rival boxer. A gun is fired and Billy’s wife is killed in the midst of the chaos. Turning to drugs and alcohol, Billy falls into a pit of despair and loses control of his finances. Soon enough, his mansion is taken away and his daughter is taken in by social services.

Director Antoine Fuqua of “Training Day” establishes once again that he’s not afraid to get gritty. Often utilizing close-ups, the audience feels every punch Billy takes both in and out of the ring. The most powerful punch to the gut is McAdams’ death early on, which captures a real sense of shock, sorrow, and hopelessness. For every scene in “Southpaw” that hits it out of the park, though, there’s a scene that comes off as kind of forced.

While it’s understandable that Billy would be distressed after the loss of his wife, some of his self-destructive actions feel less like natural behavior and more like screenplay requirements to prompt conflict. We also have to sit through a ton of cliché scenes, like the judge throwing the book at Billy and a motivating pep talk from Billy’s trainer (Forrest Whitaker). There’s even a pretty farfetched finale where Billy challenges the boxer who was semi-responsible for his wife’s death. Still, none of it’s as contrived or overblown as the low points of the “Rocky” sequels.

Although “Southpaw” is manipulative and overbearing at times, it’s an undeniable crowd-pleaser that will have you cheering for these people. The drama doesn’t always feel genuine, but the heart and depth that the actors bring to their performances do. Gyllenhaal, who’s gone through an incredible physical transformation since “Nightcrawler,” gives a fiercely dedicated portrayal of a broken man seeking redemption. We believe all of his relationships with those closest to him, from his wife, to his trainer, to his daughter. McAdams, Whitaker, and young Laurence all deliver equally authentic supporting work. The late James Horner’s musical score additionally hits just the right note throughout. The outcome is a close call, but the talent in front of and behind the camera gives “Southpaw” just enough fighting spirit to prevail.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

Is it sponge worthy? **1/2

You want to hear something that will make you feel old? “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” came out just over a decade ago. If that doesn’t make you feel old, how about this? The “SpongeBob” Krusty Krab Pizza episode came out a decade and a half ago! The goofy sponge has demonstrated miraculous longevity, as many of his current fans weren’t even alive when his cartoon first hit the airwaves.

While “SpongeBob SquarePants” remains popular with younger viewers, the general consensus among older audiences is that the show officially hit rock bottom after season three. Maybe I’m getting old like everyone else, but I too must admit that “SpongeBob” has lost much of its humor and charm. Like “The Simpsons,” the series really should have jumped ship a long time ago. What’s profitable is profitable, though, and it would seem this franchise is here to stay. Thus, now we get “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” a cash grab that’s harmless, inoffensive, and mostly just a waste of time.

The film opens in live-action with a pirate named Burger-Beard, played by Antonio Banderas, trying to steal an ancient book. He’s cartoonier than the actual cartoon characters, but at least Banderas appears to be having fun in the role. We then cut to the animated realm of Bikini Bottom where Plankton is once again trying to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula. The filmmakers seem to forget that Plankton successfully stole the formula in the last movie, although to bring continuity into “SpongeBob” at this point is futile. When the formula mysteriously vanishes, everybody believes Plankton is to blame. Everybody, that is, except SpongeBob, who joins forces with his foe to find the real culprit.

From there, “Sponge Out of Water” literally makes itself up as it goes along. The sea world becomes an apocalyptic warzone straight out of “Mad Max,” SpongeBob goes back in time, and an all-powerful dolphin pops up out of nowhere. Oh, and there’s also a message tacked on about teamwork, although nobody cares about that. The question is whether the latest “SpongeBob” movie is actually funny. Toddlers are bound to be giggling throughout and there is the occasional gag that will make grown ups smile. This is purely a film marketed to kids, however, which is disappointing seeing how “SpongeBob” once had such universal appeal. Compared to “Phineas and Ferb,” “Gravity Falls,” “Adventure Time,” and other cartoons that cast a much wider net, this just isn’t sponge worthy.

The movie’s trailers, poster, and title have mainly played up the animation/live-action hybrid scenes, but SpongeBob and his friends don’t even reach the surface world until the final act. This is where “Sponge Out of Water” starts to get desperate and condescending, turning the SpongeBob gang into superheroes. It all feels like something cooked up by focus groups to sell Happy Meal toys. The fact that they work delicious-looking burgers into the climax only makes their merchandising tactics more blatant.

“Sponge Out of Water” will do a substandard job babysitting your kids when it comes out on DVD in a few months. One can only hope Nickelodeon will use the film’s profits to produce more ambitious animated features like “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Rango.” Even some of their more recent animated shows like “The Legend of Korra” and the CGI “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” have great big screen potential. Heck, why not write Craig Bartlett a blank check so he can finally produce “Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie?” Just please put SpongeBob out to sea for a while.


I spy with my little eye, something funny ****

A satire of spy movies is nothing new. Between the “Naked Gun” and “Austin Powers” movies, you’d think that the concept would be officially exhausted by now. If Director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy taught us anything with “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” though, it’s that you should never judge a movie by its poster. “Spy” is yet another pleasant surprise that injects new life into a familiar premise with a compelling leading lady, a winning supporting cast, and one great one-liner after another.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who spends her days in a rat/bat-infested basement. Although she’s never been in the field of action, she acts as the eyes and ears for a dashing, debonair spy named Bradley Fine (Jude Law). While Susan guides Fine on a mission to locate a nuclear device, it’s discovered that a group of terrorists have the names of all the CIA’s top agents. With everyone else’s cover blown, Susan decides to step up to the plate and stop the bomb herself.

Whether in a mediocre comedy such as “Identity Thief” or a hilarious comedy such as this, there’s no denying that McCarthy has an unmatched gift for bringing down the house. McCarthy’s role here is perfectly tailored to her ability to be husky and crude while also being athletic and witty. Every second that goes by in “Spy” she’s trying to make us laugh and almost every time she kills it. McCarthy aside, the film also comes equipped with a dozen other players worthy of their own spinoff.

Helping our heroine are Miranda Hart as Susan’s colleague/best friend, Allison Janney as her sardonic boss, and Peter Serafinowicz as a slimy Italian contact with a slippery tongue. Rose Byrne previously established in “Bridesmaids” that she has a knack for playing characters that are lovable despite being mean-spirited. She brings that special charm to the role of Rayna Boyanov, a femme fatale looking to sell the nuke and eventually becomes a frenemy of sorts to the undercover Susan. A buddy comedy about Susan and Rayna would blow away “Hot Pursuit” any day.  

Stealing the show is Jason Statham, who’s been in virtually every action picture of the past decade and a half. He has a ton of fun playing with his tough guy persona as a rogue spy so shamelessly hardcore that he’d make El Macho from “Despicable Me 2” raise an eyebrow. There isn’t a killjoy in the entire ensemble. Even the characters that are mostly played straight, such as Bobby Cannavale as a devious businessman, manage to get a couple good laughs.

Feig fires on all cylinders as a writer and director with inspired dialog and zany action sequences. What’s more, he avoids many of the excruciating tropes you’d expect from a movie like this. You keep waiting for a scene where Susan’s boss tells her to hand over her badge and gun or something, but Feig is too smart to rehash a cliché like that. Along with “Pitcher Perfect 2,” “Spy” demonstrates that female-centric comedies are mostly hitting it out of the park nowadays where male-centric comedies like “Entourage” fumble. This should only get us more excited for Feig’s “Ghostbusters” picture, which will star the likes of Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and of course McCarthy.

Steve Jobs

Think different *****

Just as he did with Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network," Aaron Sorkin doesn’t pin down every little detail about Job’s life. Rather, Sorkin does something much more impressive. He pulls back the emerald curtain and provides a captivating character study.

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Straight Outta Compton

Behind the music ****

A couple familiar beats and an overly long running time aside, Straight Outta Compton is a powerful biopic about artists expressing how they see the world.

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Taken 3

It ends here...until Liam Neeson needs another quick paycheck **

“Taken” is like “The Hangover” of action thrillers. The first one was a pleasant surprise, the second one was a lame retread of the original, and the third one does what it can to reinvent the franchise with mixed results. There are brief moments in “Taken 3” where we see potential for an entertaining sequel. Even with a change of scenery and some new characters, though, it still feels like the same old thing over again.

Just as “The Hangover Part III” didn’t really have a blackout plot, “Taken 3” doesn’t have much of a kidnapping plot. Instead, Bryan Mills, played once again by the aging Liam Neeson, is framed for the murder of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen). The highly resourceful Bryan easily gives the authorities the slip and sets out to find her true killer. The film isn’t a rehash of its two predecessors so much as it is a rehash of “The Fugitive.” Then again, all of these movies are retreads to an extent, but “Taken 3” does nothing to spice the formula up.

The supporting cast leaves little to no impression. Bryan has a band of fellow aging spy buddies who are all interchangeable and expendable. Maggie Grace is back as Bryan’s 31-year-old teenage daughter Kim, who gets saddled with a dull pregnancy subplot. Dougray Scott meanwhile takes over for Xander Berkeley as Kim’s stepdad, Stuart. I’d complain that Scott and Berkeley look nothing alike, but Stuart has been such a useless character up until this point that nobody will likely notice the switch. The screenwriters attempt to tie him into the story, but his role ends up being more predictable than shocking.

Aside from Bryan, the only interesting person is Forrest Whitaker as an inspector charged with bringing him in. This character easily could have been written as a by the books idiot that never listens to reason. Yet, he’s actually portrayed as a fairly competent law enforcer. From the get-go, he seems to realize that Bryan is innocent and that his men stand no chance at catching him. Since Bryan is his only lead, however, he’ll still try everything in his power to catch him.

Other than the dynamic between Neeson and Whitaker, “Taken 3” is tired and bored with itself. The action is trite, the plot is trite, and everyone involved seems to know this. If you just want to see mindless entertainment that won’t challenge your intelligence at all, it should get the job done. Everyone else, save your time and money. 

Ted 2

The thunder buddies strike twice ***1/2

“Ted 2” is one of those sequels that only got produced because the first one made a lot of money. Unlike the slew of other lackluster comedy sequels that disappoint, though, this one is a pleasant surprise. It’s not as fresh or funny as the 2012 hit, but it does continue to explore the humor, whimsy, and even the drama of being a living teddy bear amongst humans.


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Terminator Genisys

Insert "I'm back" pun here **

Maybe with a talent like Joss Whedon behind the camera, the “Terminator” franchise might see the light of day again. As for “Terminator Genisys,” though, this is definitely the darkest timeline.

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The children are our future ***1/2

Like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Haunted Mansion,” and “The Country Bears,” “Tomorrowland” is inspired by a popular Disneyland attraction. Where the latter films take place in worlds where Disney doesn’t necessarily even exist, however, “Tomorrowland” finds a way to work Disneyland into its narrative. Right under the It’s a Small World ride is a portal that can take you to a real futuristic wonderland. You conspiracy nuts thought Disney was harboring unbelievable secrets already? Walt’s frozen head was only the tip of the iceberg!

Britt Robertson gives a charming performance as Casey, a teenager who would rather spend her time shaping a brighter future rather than dwelling on past mistakes. Casey finds out that she can indeed make a difference upon picking up a mysterious pin and receiving a glimpse of Tomorrowland, a place where our greatest hopes for the future have come true. She soon meets Athena, a sophisticated little girl played by Raffey Cassidy, who’s reminiscent of Lindsay Lohan before she…um, “matured.” Eventually they team up with George Clooney’s Frank, a surly inventor who’s lost confidence in humanity’s fate. Together, though, these dreamers might realize the World of Tomorrow today.

Tomorrowland itself is a wonderful interpretation of what EPCOT thought the future would look like in the 1960s. While a lot of it is brought into fruition by obvious CGI, Director Brad Bird’s vision is always energized, vibrant, and complete with a thrilling musical score from Michael Giacchino. You can just completely lose yourself in this awe-inspiring environment. The downside is that “Tomorrowland” spends much of its time in our present, which isn’t nearly as exciting by comparison. Even in its modern set pieces, however, “Tomorrowland” does offer plenty of creative action, innovative ideas, and fun performances.

While “Tomorrowland” will never have you checking your watch, it does occasionally leave you wanting more. The film has a good sense of humor about itself, but it’s not consistently laugh out loud funny. The characters are all likable, but they aren’t timeless heroes. The story is ambitiously awesome, but the pacing can feel unbalanced. The message is an inspirational one for young people, but it’s sometimes presented in a The More You Know PSA fashion. There are also several plot points that don’t make a ton of sense even by retro sci-fi standards, but I’ll let CinemaSins nitpick those little details.  

Seeing how Brad Bird’s flawless track record includes “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” just to name a few, we expect the world from “Tomorrowland.” Bird doesn’t deliver the world this time, but he does give us smart, heartfelt, inventive family fun. That’s more than can be said about “Jupiter Ascending” or “John Carter,” which won’t jog anybody’s imagination. It’s a good flick overall and, much like Disney’s “The Rocketeer” or “Flight of the Navigator,” has real potential to get even better with time. Until then, heed this movie’s morals: Think about today to make tomorrow better and also buy some “Iron Giant” merchandise while you’re at it.


She's out of control! ****

In a summer that’s brought us several female-centric hits like "Pitch Perfect 2" and "Spy," "Trainwreck" just might be the best example of how women are dominating the comedy scene like never before.

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There's a great movie in there ***1/2

Dalton Trumbo was one of the most fascinating writers to ever work in Hollywood. A filmmaker would have to go out of their way to make a movie about his life that wasn’t at least intriguing. Jay Roach’s "Trumbo" is indeed an intriguing picture, although it’s never flat-out brilliant. The film does capture Trumbo’s spirit and everything he stood for, ultimately doing him justice. Seeing how the real Trumbo won two Academy Awards for his screenwriting, however, one can’t help but wish that this biopic would exemplify the same level of storytelling.


Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo, who’s either smoking a cigarette or typing up a storm in every other scene. Although he’s one of the hottest screenwriters in the business, Trumbo is targeted as a communist and shunned by the community. Eventually, he’s blacklisted and imprisoned along with several other communist writers, including Louis C.K. in a strong performance as Arlen Hird. After that, Trumbo continues to write screenplays under different names, winning Oscars for "Roman Holiday" and "The Brave One." Since he can’t take credit for his work, though, Trumbo can’t receive the recognition or compensation he deserves.


Cranston brings zealous energy to his performance, depicting Trumbo as a man who refuses to give up his beliefs or passion in life. There are moments where it almost seems like Cranston is going to go too over-the-top, but he restrains himself just enough to remain grounded and convincing. The supporting cast is just as seamless in their roles. We get some dead-on portrayals from David James Elliott as John Wayne, who was one of the most outspoken anti-communists, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, a journalist known for naming names, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, an actor too afraid to go public with his political views. Plus, how can you go wrong with John Goodman as a foul-mouthed studio head?


While the cast is mostly first-rate, a few characters don’t really go anywhere. There are subplots involving a feud with an intolerant neighbor and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as a prison inmate that didn’t really need to be included. One subplot that could’ve used more focus was Trumbo’s relationship with his family. Diane Lane is virtually cast aside as Trumbo’s wife, excluding one memorable conversation. The only dynamic that’s really studied is Trumbo’s rapport with his neglected daughter (Elle Fanning), but even that could have dug a little deeper.


That’s essentially what holds Trumbo back from greatness. John McNamara’s screenplay presents all the facts, but could have been a much richer character study if it examined it’s subject closer. With that said, this is still a highly interesting and important story about one of Hollywood’s darkest eras. At the center of it was a man willing to stand up for free speech and separating an artist from the art. This film effectively and entertainingly conveys the morals Trumbo embodied.


There’s a point where our title character talks about an early draft of Spartacus with Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman). It’s noted that the screenplay doesn’t entirely work, but there’s a potentially strong movie somewhere in it. With another rewrite, "Trumbo" might have been elevated from a good movie to a terrific one. As is, though, this a fun, absorbing picture that Dalton Trumbo would have been gratified to put his name on.

Unfinished Business

Is Vince Vaughn's comedy career finished? **

Ten years ago, Vince Vaughn peaked as a comedic actor with “Wedding Crashers,” subsequent to several other memorable roles in “Swingers,” “Old School,” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” Then he made “Fred Claus,” “Four Christmases,” “Couples Retreat,” “The Watch,” “The Dilemma,” “The Internship,” and “Delivery Man.” Did I miss any other stinkers? Oh well, you get the point. What happened to Vaughn? Is he incapable of saying no to a script or is he just not as funny as we built him up as?

Vaughn can still salvage his comedy career with a well-written role in a smart movie. Ken Scott’s “Unfinished Business” isn’t that movie. Just get a load of the character Vaughn’s saddled with playing. He’s Dan Trunkman, a workaholic who doesn’t get to spend as much time as he’d like with his family. Oh yeah, because we haven’t seen that archetype in a million other comedies! After quitting his job, Dan sets out to start his own business. The only employees he manages to attract are an elderly worker named Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson) and a smiling idiot named Mike Pancake (Dave Franco). Hopefully you find Mike’s last name hilarious because it provides the basis of several jokes.

Walking out of this movie, you likely won’t remember exactly what line of business these businessmen are supposed to be in. Maybe they’re just like President Business from “The LEGO Movie.” Their occupation is really just an excuse to send them on a business trip to Europe. Oh yeah, because we haven’t seen a million other comedies set in Europe!! It’d be one thing if this premise amounted to a lot of hilarious exploits, but most of the gags just meander with nowhere to go. The setups are there, such as when Dan is put on display at a museum. The filmmakers never deliver with a punch line, though. There are more plugs for Pepsi and Dunkin' Donuts here than there are laughs.

Vaughn is merely going through the motions, probably saving his A-game for the second season of “True Detective.” Wilkinson looks like he’d rather be doing the sequel to “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” than this dreck. The only one who brings something fun to the table is Franco, who’s done solid supporting work in recent years and can pull off a dead-on Robert De Niro impression. He scores a few good chuckles as a stuttering fool with a heart of gold. Even he starts to get old after awhile, however, which is the case with most one-dimensionally dimwitted characters.

In addition to simply not being funny, the audience is also forced to sit through some shamelessly sentimental scenes involving Dan’s family. Although it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, Steve Conrad’s script incorporates a subplot concerning cyber bullying and the effects it has on kids. While its heart is in the right place, this material feels tacked on, manipulative, and uneven with some of the film’s raunchier moments. A comedy can be heartfelt and raunchy. “Unfinished Business” isn’t either in any of the right ways.


Feardotcom ***1/2

Just as “The Blair Witch Project” was far from the first movie to employ the found footage gimmick, “Unfriended” isn’t the first movie to be told through a webcam. We’ve seen this premise done before in “The Den,” “Open Windows,” and even an episode of “Modern Family.” Like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” “Unfriended” is likely to be praised for its “innovations” upon initial released. Then after getting overexposed, audiences are bound to label it as overrated. Hype and inevitable backlash aside, however, this is actually a pretty fun ride.

Shelley Hennig plays a high school student named Blaire. Again, is this movie trying to draw comparisons to “The Blair Witch Project?” While chatting with her BF and four BFF’s on Skype, a mysterious seventh guest joins the party. The unknown user has seemingly hacked into the account of Laura Barns, a party girl who committed suicide one year ago. As the friends receive more messages and videos, it becomes clear they’re not dealing with a run-of-the-mill hacker. As each person loses their connection, they also lose their life.

Director Levan Gabriadze does an exceptional job at portraying the mystical realm of the desktop, crowding every scene with Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Chatroulette, iChat, and email. The way Blaire is constantly typing one thing then rethinking her post before sending it is also a nice touch. Even the Universal logo leading into the film has a glitchy charm to it. As well made as “Unfriended” is, none of it would matter if the story had nowhere to go. Surprisingly, the film does amount to an involving narrative with something to say.

This premise provides a lot of inspired commentary concerning privacy, social media, the current state of human communication, and, above all else, cyberbullying. Most movies and TV shows aimed at teenagers strictly differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. As our protagonists are forced to share secrets with each other, though, we see that bullying can come from the most unexpected sources and people. In the end, there isn’t really a villain in “Unfriended.” There’s just a group of naïve kids that make some stupid choices via a tool that far too many people have utilized to promote ignorance.

Even with its underlying themes, “Unfriended” never takes itself too seriously like “The Purge” or “Saw” movies. The film knows that it’s an absurd popcorn flick, embracing its silliness with inventive frights, twists, and laughs. Some will call it groundbreaking while others call it just dumb. Much like Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” it’ll be interesting to see how a film like this plays in another decade or two. For now, though, it’s a friend request well worth accepting.


Does the new vacation stand on its own? **

John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein have written some funny movies such as "Horrible Bosses." In their feature film directorial debut, however, they basically go through the motions. They clearly have an admiration for the original classic and sometimes do an admirable job at paying homage to it, but they never figure out how to distinguish the new "Vacation."

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Just one more take **1/2

With a final running time of 138 minutes, it’s kind of ironic that this one-shot feature film could’ve used more editing.

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The Visit

The Shyamalan Redemption ***1/2

What can be said about M. Night Shyamalan that hasn’t already? Most people would agree that his earliest films (“The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”) were great while almost everything he’s made since (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth”) has been awful. “The Visit” is full of numerous trademarks we’ve come to expect from Shyamalan, such as uncomfortable dialog, awkward moments that seem pointless, and a tacked on message. Unlike Shyamalan’s previously films, though, “The Visit” doesn’t come off as unintentionally hilarious. You often get the sense Shyamalan is trying to make us laugh this time and he surprisingly succeeds in a welcome return to competence.


Olivia DeJonge plays Becca, a precocious fifteen-year-old girl who talks more like a cartoon character out of “The New Yorker.” She’s an aspiring director who decides to make a documentary about a visit to her estranged grandparent’s house. Yep, it’s another found footage movie, but the shaky cam is fortunately much more restrained here than in “The Blair Witch Project.” Joining Becca on this trip is her younger brother Tyler, played by Ed Oxenbould of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” He’s a wannabe rapper who curses the names of pop singers rather than swearing with four-letter words. Um…that’s weird, but whatever.  


Upon arriving, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem perfectly nice. As the week goes by, though, the kids realize that something isn’t right with their grandparents. In the daytime, they attack random strangers, ask Becca to get inside the oven, and just generally act bonkers. They then go completely insane after 9:30 pm when the children are sent to bed. The entire movie is almost like that one infamous sequence from “The Happening” with the crazy, old lady played by Betty Buckley, but “The Visit” is much more self-aware.


Shyamalan’s movies have been known for trying to sound profound and important, which ultimately results in them just sounding dumb and boring. In “The Visit,” Shyamalan seems to be acknowledging that he’s taken himself too seriously in the past and decides to simply have a little fun. You’re not always sure is Shyamalan set out to make a horror movie with a comedy element or a comedy movie with a horror element. For the first time, however, you do get the impression that Shyamalan is in on the joke.


Silliness aside, does “The Visit” work as a thriller too? While you’ll find yourself laughing throughout much of it, the film also possesses a genuine sense of dread. You’re constantly left wondering exactly how unhinged these people are and where the story will go. It amounts to one of Shyamalan’s best twists, which actually adds up, leaves you legitimately chilled, and doesn’t throw in anything supernatural. Shyamalan creates an unnerving atmosphere and never allows the found footage approach to become gimmicky. Even if he recycles a few jump scares we’ve seen from him before, they get the job done nonetheless.


The absolute best aspect of the film is its performances, which is a true blessing considering how Shyamalan previously sucked the talent out of Mark Wahlberg and Will Smith. The actors all hit just the right notes here, particularly the gifted young DeJonge and Oxenbould. The dialog they’re given to work with doesn’t sound natural in the slightest, but they do create characters that are funny, likable, and share an identifiable sibling bond. Dunagan and McRobbie meanwhile have a good time letting all their crazy out. We also get some effective work from Kathryn Hahn as Becca and Tyler’s loving single mother, who had a falling out with her parents for reasons unknown.


“The Visit” isn’t the most focused film Shyamalan has ever made. If anything, it’s schizophrenic, but that oddly works to the movie’s advantage given the insanity and uncomfortable nature of its supposed antagonists. For the most part, Shyamalan does keep the focus on what’s most important: our connection to the characters. We truly fear for Becca and Tyer’s safety, wanting to see them overcome this bizarre ordeal. Whether you’re laughing or jumping out of your seat, the emotional investment is always there. The film may not be an instant comeback for Shyamalan, but it does demonstrate he’s at last taking a step back in the right direction.

The Walk

On top of the world ****1/2

"The Walk" is not only worthy of companion to "Man on Wire," but a great film in it’s own right too. It’s furthermore an exciting heist movie, a rousing family picture, and a loving salute to the spirit of Philippe Petit.

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A Walk in the Woods

Take the road less traveled **

In the end, we have a film that often feels like listening to one of your grandpa’s boring, old stories you’ve already heard a million times before. You know all the wisdom he’s going to impart, you know all the jokes he’s going to tell, and you know that he’s not going to offer anything new.

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The Wedding Ringer

Can't Buy Me Friendship **

“The Wedding Ringer” follows the same formula as other romantic comedies like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “The Proposal” where two people need to pretend they’re in a relationship. The only difference is that instead of a man and a woman pretending to be in love, it’s two guys pretending to be best friends. This is an intriguing premise that might have made for fun buddy picture in the spirit of “Wedding Crashers” or “I Love You, Man.” As its mid-January release suggests, though, “The Wedding Ringer” is beyond lazy despite its capable cast.

Josh Gad, who is best known for voicing Olaf in “Frozen,” plays Doug. He’s a chubby outcast who has no friends but somehow managed to convince Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting’s Gretchen to marry him. Hey, if Leonard can land Penny anything is possible. Worried that his fiancée will think he’s a loser, Doug meets with Jimmy Callahan, played by Kevin Hart. He’s a bit like the bachelor party equivalent of Hitch, posing as the best man for friendless saps at their weddings. He agrees to take on the persona of Bic Mitchum and find several groomsman for Doug. Jimmy makes it clear upfront that him and Doug can never become real friends, though, because…the film never actually gives a reason.

From there, we get all the predictable hijinks you’d expect from a movie like this, such as a dance montage, Doug’s penis getting bitten by a dog, a football game against retired players, smoking pot out of a coconut, and numerous scenes where the guys need to a keep up this pointless ruse. Among them all, there is one admittedly funny moment in which Gretchen’s grandmother (Cloris Leachman) is set on fire. Other than that, “The Wedding Ringer” is mostly just talented people trying to make lemonade out of lemons, stale lemons.

Kevin Hart has all the charisma and quick comedic timing of a born movie star. Him and Glad have great chemistry, despite not having much to work with. Cuoco-Sweeting does what she can with an underwritten character that suddenly shifts from being loving fiancée to whiny brat in the second act. Even the bizarre groomsmen Jimmy finds for Doug give inspired performances. As hard as everyone tries, they can’t compensate for the lack of effort on Director/Co-Writer Jeremy Garelick’s behalf.

“The Wedding Ringer” is obvious, inconsistent, and just didn’t do it for me. Then again, I also didn’t care for Kevin Hart’s big hit last January, “Ride Along.” “The Wedding Ringer” is pretty much in the same ballpark of mediocrity, which means it will probably please mainstream audiences. But no matter how much money they make or how many sequels they inspire, movies like “The Wedding Ringer” and “Ride Along” are bound to fade from our memories fast. Don’t believe me? Well let’s just see if anyone is still laughing at jokes about putting the pot in the coconut another year from now.