31 (2016)

31 (2016)

Directed by: Rob Zombie. Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips. Runtime: 1h 42 min. Released: September 16, 2016.

On Letterboxd, I’m participating in a scavenger hunt there for the month of May where you make a list of 31 films by answering prompts to watch in the month of May. The link to the original host’s scavenger hunt with the prompts can be found here. My list can be found here, too.

I started my scavenger hunt by reviewing Rob Zombie’s film 31 for Prompt Number 19 which was to “watch a film where characters play a game, but it’s more than just a game.” In Rob Zombie’s film, five carnival workers are kidnapped and held hostage in an abandoned compound where they’re forced to participate in a violent game, the goal of which is to survive twelve hours against a gang of sadistic clowns.

I watched this film first so I could say I’ve now finished Zombie’s filmography. It’s almost happened by accident because he only has seven feature films, but for me, he’s a consistent filmmaker. That’s not a good thing – I’ve only liked one of his films and that was 2007’s Halloween. I didn’t like Halloween 2, I hate his Firefly trilogy (I tolerated The Devil’s Rejects the most), didn’t like Halloween 2 and just hate, hate, The Lords of Salem. Then there’s 31, which I hated as well.

The laziest thing about it might be the title itself, merely called 31 because it takes place on Halloween in 1976. Sure, he can’t call the film Halloween for obvious reasons, but at least try with the title. The game is also named 31 because it’s played annually on Halloween. The concept is why I wanted to watch this because I love battle royale kind-of films, and this felt like a horror battle royale. As a concept, the set-up is fine.

A trio of wealthy aristocrats, led by Malcolm McDowell, decked out in Victorian era costumes tell our heroes they’ll play a game called 31. They inform our heroes of their odds of survival, as if people are betting on the outcome but that’s barely addressed, where the women of the group are given 500 to 1 odds of survival and the men given 60 to 1 odds of survival, because that’s just how Rob Zombie sees the world.

For the most part I just didn’t care about how the main characters played the game because I didn’t like them. They’re a group of carnival workers traveling to their next city – I guess – but it’s not that well-developed and the five characters that survive to the game of 31 are generally boring or unlikable. I frankly found the only one of note to be Charly, played by Rob Zombie’s wife and muse, Sheri Moon Zombie. She can’t act, but she’s also never been given a strong character.

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Jane Carr, Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson in 31. (IMDb)

She gets some terrible dialogue, as does everyone else, and my biggest problem with Rob Zombie as a filmmaker is just the blatant sexism and how he sees women. I don’t like his view of the world or the worlds that he creates – Halloween was the most tolerable of all his films because it’s someone else’s character. Zombie’s characters don’t talk like real people and the way they interact with each other, even outside of the game, is gross because they’re horrible to each other. It’s expected in a Rob Zombie film and maybe I’m being too Canadian, but it’s just so off-putting.

As a concept, I think 31 is a good idea but Zombie’s style and dialogue kills it. I also like violence in film when there’s a purpose or it feels fun, and 31 is neither of those. In writing, I thought the staging of the film and pacing was solid as instead of a whole gang of clowns coming to overpower them, the five players face clowns in different stages. The first clown theatrically introduced to them is also the most annoying – it’s a clown called Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a Spanish little person dressed as Adolf Hitler. The dialogue he gets makes him more excruciatingly annoying than threatening.

His sequence is also where the film looks at its most– the colour palette is so flat and dull this might as well have been in black and white. It’s so lifeless and that’s how I generally feel while watching a Zombie film, just dead inside. The big bad of the film, called Doom-Head and played well by Richard Brake, is the main boss who has a perfect murder record because he’s a Terminator-esque killing machine. He’s obviously a horrible human being, but his third act portion would be more fun if we actually cared about any of the players.

I tolerated this film for 20 minutes when a pair of chainsaw-wielding clowns came out to play. Their scenes are somewhat fun and well-shot, despite the still consistently off-putting dialogue. It’s also a little fun when E.G. Daily shows up as we see a wild side of Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls. Unfortunately, in her moment to shine, it looks so ugly because a strobe-light sort-of effect above makes it so hard to see and makes it so irritating.

I honestly think Zombie’s horror writing in his action is solid, but it’s his visual style that consistently compromises it. His films are also ruined by someone opening their mouth because they so often just spout vitriol at one another. It’s maddening to watch this happen time after time, and I’m truly ecstatic to be done with his filmography because it was an ordeal.

Score: 25/100

29 Days of Romance, Review #20: The Love Witch (2016)

29 Days of Romance, Review #20: The Love Witch (2016)

 

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Directed by: Anna Biller. Starring: Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise. Runtime: 2h. Released: November 11, 2016.

In The Love Witch, a modern-day witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), uses spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her, with deadly consequences. Elaine is alluring enough on her own that she doesn’t need love potions, but she uses them anyway. This is an sexy, erotic horror where she fulfills men’s deepest fantasies after drugging them and doing a strip tease. Their love eventually becomes very overpowering. It’s like a cautionary tale for these fantasies.

Writer, director and producer Anna Biller’s film is also a feminist horror film and satire about gender norms, where after Elaine doses men with her love potion, she talks about how they become too clingy and emotional, as we see when one of her mates, Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), cries through the night hollering Elaine’s name.

What Biller says about love is interesting, especially during a scene featuring two contrasting voice-over narrations from the male and female perspective. Elaine talks about showering your counterpart with love and affection, and a detective named Griff (Gian Keys) narrates that the more love showered upon you, the less you care.

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Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch. (IMDb)

The aspect with the detective is the closest the film gets to a story-line. There’s not much here in terms of plot, and the film starts to drag 90 minutes in. This is a part of my 29 Days of Romance marathon because it’s horror and romance, and I love horror, but I don’t like style-over-substance films. Unfortunately, this is style-over-substance in the second half but I like a lot about this film.

There is great humour here, and Samantha Robinson is brilliant. The film’s an ode to 1970’s and 1980’s horror and the dialogue is stiff on purpose. The performance and writing are brilliant once I realized it’s bad on purpose, and the biggest hint for this is how she delivers “poor baby” when men talk about their emotions. It’s a tongue-in-cheek performance, like she’s starring in her own sitcom with her own personal laugh-track.

Robinson seems like a naturally good actress so the fact that she plays it like a 80’s slasher with terrible line delivery is impressive. It seems like a harder challenge for a good actress to just be bad and Robinson sells it as the fascinating Elaine. All the actors deliver their lines like they’re in a 70’s porno and they might as well be. It’s hard to judge the acting when they’re all so awful – and since it’s the point, it’s incredibly well-acted.

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Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch. (IMDb)

It’s all in the name of satire, but part of me wishes I could see Samantha Robinson be great in a film where she’s allowed to be great. The charm and comedy of the unnatural dialogue also starts to feel dull in the second half. I think the reason this is great is because it’s gorgeous. It’s a technicolor ode to films like Suspiria, and it’s a love letter to films of that era, even if this is never particularly frightening as horror. It’s filmed in a beautiful 35m, and the look of the film is so authentic it could have been in theatres at the same time as Friday the 13th in the May of 1980. Instead, it’s a 2016 film and more impressive for it.

It has a great visual style (with cinematography by M. David Mullen) with a great use of colours.  The costumes are also stunning and I love the shot of Elaine in the pink hat. Anna Biller is the writer/director/producer, but she wears many colourful hats here as she also does the music, editing, production design, art direction, set direction and costume design. She does all of these jobs perfectly, though I think the film could be shorter and this lacks story. I find aesthetic can only take a film so far, but its vintage look and Robinson’s performance is what makes this spellbinding. If a film could be great for the strength of its aesthetic, it’s this one.

Score: 65/100

 

 

29 Days of Romance, Review #8: The Lobster (2016)

29 Days of Romance, Review #8: The Lobster (2016)
The Lobster poster
IMDb

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden. Runtime: 1h 59 min. Released: May 13, 2016 (first US theatrical release date).

This review may contain spoilers

The Lobster is one of the many films I’ve been meaning to see since it came out but simply haven’t… Honestly, the four years I waited to watch this was worth the wait. This is one of the weirdest films I’ve seen and that’s because of the premise alone. In this near future, single people are sent to the Hotel where they’ll stay for 45 days and try to find a mate. If after 45 days they don’t find anyone suitable to be with, they’ll be turned into an animal and will have to live in the woods. It’s dealer’s choice, so you can be whatever animal you want to be.

The fascinating world alone hooked me from the beginning because of its bizarre, strange and creative idea. It’s a world obsessed with co-dependence that’s a parallel to the animal world of mating. Some of the ideas are just fascinating, too, like when the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) tells our main character David (Colin Farrell) that his choice to become a lobster is a fine one as everyone chooses something basic like a dog. She says this as she looks at David’s dog, who is his brother.

She mentions that this is a reason so many unique animals are endangered because no one chooses to become them and I think that’s a fascinating idea. Still, I didn’t fully understand some concepts of this world, like why these pairs need to have one specific defining trait that makes them a perfect pair, and I think that kept me from completely understanding the third act. It’s like a world obsessed with those compatibility tests you’d take in high school but taken to an extreme.

The writing itself, by director Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, is the strongest aspect of The Lobster in a film that has so many good things about it. The film’s humour is dry and monotone, but so clever. Half of these characters feel like they don’t have a filter and just say what they’re thinking, so that creates a lot of comedy. The dialogue is just naturally funny and it’s the cast that make it amazing, Colin Farrell especially. Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly are also highlights in the first half, as is Jessica Barden as a character prone to constant nosebleeds.

The comedy in this is exactly my sense of humour. I like all kinds of comedy but the writing and dry comedy here just worked wonders for me and my face got sore from laughing. The energy of the scenes at the Hotel have made this film one of my favourites. It’s nice of the second half to take a break from non-stop laughs when the film really jumps the shark in a particular scene. The film kicks into the romantic part of its story when David meets a character simply called Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz). Weisz is brilliant for her performance and monotone narration, and I can’t remember a time where narration worked so well for me. Her narration depicts David’s inner thoughts throughout the film and it is hysterical.

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John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw in The Lobster. (IMDb)

There’s still some humour in the second half, but it feels like a different film as David meets a group of Loners, led by a character played by Léa Seydoux and her presence is memorable. Farrell and Weisz’ chemistry shines in the second half as it turns to a forbidden romantic drama. That’s one fascinating thing about this and the contrast of the two halves of the film – at the Hotel, you need to find a mate. With the Loners, you need to stay alone.

It’s two extremes of the spectrum that Lanthimos utilizes brilliantly. The Hotel half is care-free and hilarious under the stress of needing to find a mate (and it’s truly cutthroat as Ben Whishaw’s character explains his wife died five days prior and now he’s being forced to find another match), and the conditions of the stress seems cutthroat. But if you find a match when you’re not supposed to, it’s a more dramatic second half with stronger stakes.

Truly, Seydoux as the Loner Leader is a fascinating character and how she makes this group survive, like how they can’t even dance with each other and how they all individually listen to EDM music. That, by the way, makes for one of the funnier scenes of the second half.

It’s just a tonally different story and great for very different reasons than to why I enjoyed the first 50 minutes of the film so much. I believe if the film was set strictly at the Hotel throughout and maintained that energy throughout the film, this would be one of my absolute favourites. The atmosphere and humour just worked wonders for me, and that almost makes it disappointing that it jumps the shark so much into a different tone.

The direction Lanthimos takes it is brilliant and the way he tells the story feels realistic for its characters, especially David. Farrell’s comedic timing and how he plays the more heartbreaking moments makes this one of his best performances. He’s why this is one of my new favourites. It’s something I’ve never seen before and it’s so refreshing finding something so damn original.

Score: 90/100

When the Bough Breaks (2016)

When the Bough Breaks (2016)
When the Bough Breaks
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Released: September 9, 2016. Directed by: Jon Cassar. Starring: Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Jaz Sinclair. Runtime: 1h 47 min. 

When the Bough Breaks, Screen Gems’ third September thriller with stalker, manages to be almost memorable because it’s so awful and such a poorly executed Fatal Attraction knockoff.

John and Laura Taylor (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) have realized they can’t have a baby after Laura’s had three miscarriages, so they decide to hire a surrogate mother. They find the seemingly perfect candidate in Anna Walsh (Jaz Sinclair). After moving into their guest house, she eventually becomes obsessed with John and interferes with his personal and professional life.

She asks inappropriate questions but of course, John doesn’t say anything. This whole situation could be avoided if he would just tell Laura that Anna’s being a creep and trying to seduce him. It becomes a stranger situation because she has their baby in utero and it threatens to become a hostage situation – legally, it’s her baby – so that’s a way it offers a fresh turn on the Fatal Attraction plot. Unfortunately, that’s where any originality begins and ends.

You’ve seen every twist and turn before and it unfolds in an unsurprising way. The writing’s basic from first-time writer Jack Olsen. Morris Chestnut’s John is an ambitious lawyer who loves his wife and doesn’t want to cheat. Hall’s Laura is a traveling chef or something, and she really wants to start a family. The two stars try their best in one-dimensional roles, and they deserve better.

Jaz Sinclair is the nutty Anna and she’s given the most to work with as the over-the-top stalker. She’s whiny and bratty, and Sinclair plays the bratty side believably but it’s unintentionally hilarious when tries to be totally crazy.

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Jaz Sinclair and Morris Chestnut in When the Bough Breaks. (Source)

She’s silliest and most over-the-top hilarious when she screams and flails her hands in a fit in her car, which makes her looks like a pre-teen brat throwing a temper tantrum. The tantrum could be a clip from the MTV show My Super Sweet 16 because the birthday girl didn’t get the car they wanted.

The performance is not good. When she’s told to be innocent, she just smiles excessively and is annoyingly cutesy. At one point she watches John and Laura kissing, and it’s creepy and robotic –  it’s like she doesn’t quite know what they’re doing. It’s awkward.

In all fairness, the character’s just awful. There is a gem of a scene under the dreck where Anna sings “Rock-a-bye-Baby” in the bathtub. She attempts to be menacing (it doesn’t work), as she cuts her leg with a razor blade. Its presence is so random that it enters unintentional hilarity, and the scene only seems to serve to establish where the film gets its name. It really is unfortunate director Jon Cassar just didn’t make this a stalker comedy.

It’s baffling this is billed as a horror film, because there’s nothing scary about it and the writing and Cassar aren’t able to conjure up any kind-of suspense. Its PG-13 rating also makes it incredibly tame. Nudity is avoided when John watches a video of Anna on his computer and before she can disrobe, he hastily shuts his laptop in the nick of time. No nudity, no gore, no scares: No entertainment.

Score: 25/100

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Assassin’s Creed (2016)
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Released: December 21, 2016. Directed by: Justin Kurzel. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons. Runtime: 1hr., 55 min.

I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed video games, so I’m not sure if I would have been able to follow the Apple of Eden storyline better. But since I hadn’t played the games, I was pretty damn confused throughout.

Marion Cotillard’s psychologist character Sophia Rikkin tells us throughout that if they could acquire the Apple of Eden, they could rid the world of violence – because whoever has it controls free will. I didn’t really get the reasoning that if you have the apple, you would control free will, and it seemed like the writers assumed viewers would know that the Apple has mind-control abilities (which is fair, because most people who see this have likely played the games). I thought the explanation was murky, and the story suffered from a lack of clarity.

The story also suffered from just being generally uninteresting. Callum “Cal” Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death by lethal injection for murder – they never elaborate much past that – and since he’s legally dead, he’s taken in by Abstergo Industries (led by Jeremy Irons, father to Marion Cotillard’s character) for an experiment. Turns out, he’s the descendant of a Knights of the Templar member, Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender), and is taken through his movements and memories in 1492 Spain to see what happened to the Apple of Eden.

The most compelling parts of the story are definitely the scenes during the Spanish Inquisition that writhe with style, and you know when they’re in 1492 because of a transitioning crow flying through the air. The scenes are action-oriented, and are the most exciting parts of a largely boring feature. The costumes of the time are pretty awesome, too.

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Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed (Source)

Michael Fassbender is good in a dual performance. It’s an athletic one and the fact that he kept a straight face during a manic and rather hilarious (I’m unsure if the hilarity was intentional) rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” was impressive. That’s where the good of the movie starts and ends.

The character of Cal, or any other characters, aren’t interesting. Michael K. Williams made an appearance as another descendant within the Order and his characterization was slack, to say the least. His dialogue was rather cryptic. Cal’s characterization was alright – his mother was killed and it made him an angry person – but he was boring. Irons and Cotillard’s characters who were searching for the Apple were also nothing memorable, and were simply driven by the prospect of eradicating violence.

The whole screenplay just felt like the writers spent more care on the action sequences and fight choreography than crafting a competent story of any kind, with any characters you might even want to slightly root for.

I found the editing annoying when Lynch was plugged into Animus, the device that let him see his ancestor’s memories, since the scene alternated between Aguilar in 1492 back to Lynch in 2016. Perhaps it was trying to remind us that it had happened and now he was just living through the DNA memory, learning assassin skills as he went.

Whatever Aguilar does, Lynch does in 2016 – and the edits of him in Spain actually fighting real people was more interesting than Lynch in a huge room fighting ghostly holograms. It felt unnecessary to switch back and forth so many times, just because Fassbender’s playing both people and we know they’re doing the same exact thing but in different settings.

Cinematography-wise, everything was either too bright or really dark (at least when seen in 3-D). Fight and chase scenes were hectic, making things harder to follow at certain points on who was killing who. The frantic editing also helped avoid showing basically any blood whatsoever, which was ridiculous at one point when there definitely should have been blood. It apparently comes in the territory of adapting an M-for-Mature rated game franchise into a tame PG-13 movie that’s not nearly gritty or interesting enough to be good.

Score: 30/100

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

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Directed by: James DeMonaco. Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson. Runtime: 1h, 45 min. Release date: July 1, 2016.

As the U.S. Election just wrapped up the other day, I thought it would be fitting to post a review of “The Purge: Election Year”. I wrote this review back in August and did not post it, so I had to edit the end bit of the review about Donald Trump ever-so-slightly. 

“The Purge” franchise keeps getting better with each film. Perhaps writer-director James DeMonaco designed it that way – debuting the franchise with a disappointing original that executed its concept poorly, with a huge focus on politics. The one-house setting with a focus on one family was restricting and damning.Now DeMonaco has a formula set where the politics are briefly recapped and then gets right to the carnage. “Election Year” suggests he’s now realized the franchise’s fullest potential, delivering the most focused tale yet.

It’s Election year in 2025 in a very different America, where all crime is legal for 12 hours on a night a year in the Annual Purge, a holiday (for some) introduced by the New Founding Fathers of America to let Americans unleash anger and cleanse their souls, which also reduced crime rates.

It was also a way for the government to put more money in their pockets by thinning the herd and letting the rich kill America’s lowest classes who can’t protect themselves – meaning the government saves money because there are less people on welfare.

Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a voice for those impoverished, running for president to abolish the Purge, largely because her entire family was killed in 2007’s Purge Night in a darkly amusing scene.

The NFFA fears she’s gaining ground in the race against their candidate Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), so they use Purge Night for some “spring cleaning” to take out their enemies, specifically the Senator. To do so, they take away the protection of Level 10+ government officials, so it’s now perfectly legal to kill them.

On the politics side, learning more about the New Founding Fathers is intriguing. The Washington, D.C. setting is opportune for more characterization, and they’re like nutty people blindly following a crazy cult leader.

Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), the only actor appear in all three films, has taken over the role of Michael K. Williams’ Carmelo Johns as NFFA’s main oppressor. Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, the head of the Senator’s security detail and her main hope of survival through the Purge. His ability in combat supersedes the character himself, as he’s a badass protector with little depth. Mitchell is great as the Senator, though her morals get in the way of certain events which gets irritating.

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Mykelti Williamson, Frank Grillo, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel and Elizabeth Mitchell in The Purge: Election Year(Source)

New low-class characters include Joe (Mykelti Williamson), a deli owner who has to protecting his deli himself after his insurance company raises prices on Purge night. Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel) is a new character who drives around on Purge night helping those who can’t protect themselves. It’s noble and one of the film’s best concepts.

“Election Year” has horror in its veins thanks to creepy masks and many jump scares. It’s also scary for the low-class citizens who can’t defend themselves on Purge night. The great action and violence from “The Purge: Anarchy” is prominent, and the action sequences are fresh enough to satisfy fans of the franchise and newbies alike. The deaths are cool, especially one by guillotine. The characters are also some of the best yet, in terms of heroes.

The NFFA are cool villains, despite their baffling beliefs. There are neo-Nazi mercenaries who are good, but the main baddie, Earl Danzinger (Terry Serpico), is merely a menacing caricature. That’s what all the villains in “Election Year” feel like – caricatures of the bat-shit craziness of the America portrayed, just bloodthirsty animals wanting to purge.

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A main villain, a bratty rich girl named Kimmy (Brittany Mirabile) with two puffs on her hair and a bedazzled rifle, is over-the-top and deliriously annoying – and her motivation is looting for a chocolate bar that Joe wouldn’t let her steal. She’s written in such a way that makes you impatient for her to die.

The characterization of the villains makes me believe the Polite Stranger from the 2013 original won’t be bested. The chilling performance by Rhys Wakefield made him one of the most memorable aspects. DeMonaco’s screenplay is still very good, but his villains have become forgettable.

There was an opportunity to create strong villains with murder tourists, who come from different countries to experience the Purge. Their scene is stylish and frightening. They could have been great – as they’re so prominent in marketing, decked out in patriotic masks of Presidents and the Statue of Liberty. Their potential was squandered when they started babbling about their love of America, and how they really want to kill people.

They were a disappointment, plus, they have the wrong idea: If the Purge ever became real, and it feels like it could with Trump as President, they should leave America on Purge night, not go to it.

Score: 80 out of 100

(This review originally appeared on the Movie Buff.)

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

Now You See Me 2 (2016)
Now You See Me 2 (1)
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Released: June 10, 2016. Directed by: John M. Chu. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson. Runtime: 2hr, 9 min.

After a year in hiding from the FBI, the bank-robbing-magical-vigilante Four Horsemen return to the spotlight in Now You See Me 2, to publicly expose a technology company called Octa for unethical operations.

After their enemies are a step ahead of them for once, forcibly whisked away to China to perform another impossible heist for tech genius Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe).

One of the sequel’s ways to freshen its premise is one of its finer magic tricks – turning Isla Fisher’s Henley into Lizzy Caplan’s Lula. Fisher wasn’t able to reprise her role due to her pregnancy.

While likable, Henley was a weaker link among the Horsemen in terms of entertainment. Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas and Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney got the funnier lines and Henley’s most memorable moment was the escape from the piranha water tank.

Caplan’s Lula doesn’t have a truly memorable moment like the piranha tank, but she’s funny and her excitement to join the group is relatable. She has amusing distractions and tricks and sight gags – but Henley was the way more amazing magician.

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Woody Harrelson as Merrit McKinney in Now You See Me 2. (Source)

Jesse Eisenberg returns as the arrogant Daniel Atlas, still sarcastically witty and amusing but arrogant as ever. At least it helped me forget his performance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice somewhat.

Harrelson is doubly funny as the mentalist McKinney, he’s having a lot of fun and it’s contagious watching because he’s so hilarious. An aspect of his diverse performance is a surprise I don’t want to spoil. Dave Franco returns as Jack Wilder – the trickster whose specialty is playing card tricks and sleight of hand.

In NYSM, audiences were shown too often how the film did its trick by magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). He can’t debunk so much now from a jail cell. In NYSM2, tricks are only explained when it’s detrimental to the story. It’s more mysterious and more like a magic show when we don’t know how they do what seems impossible.

The sequel balances comedy and strong well-edited and well-directed. Jon M. Chu takes the director’s chair from Louis Letterier – maintaining the similar visual style but a stronger focus for the story. They’re still vigilantes in some capacity, but they’re more-so trying to survive against their enemies.

It helps that they’ve gained a new horseman in Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, who recruited the horsemen but was also chasing them in the last film.

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Jesse Eisenberg controls the weather as J. Daniel Atlas in Now You See Me 2. (Source)

Learning more about his backstory is intriguing as I liked learning more about the mystery of Lionel Shrike. I thought it was uninspired when Agent Cowan (David Warshofsky) automatically assumes he’s playing both sides even though there’s not much evidence to support the claim. I mean, he is playing both sides but is it just blind intuition?

The FBI are still after the Horsemen, this time led by Agent Cowan and Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan, Alien vs. Predator), who is one-note.

There’s not as many big twists this time, but the writing feels more concise and not as confusing. There’s still a wow factor with many of the tricks and the magic is maintained.

It’s a delight to see Daniel Radcliffe return to the wizarding world, this time in a different dynamic as the villainous Muggle, Walter Mabry. He employs the Horsemen to steal a powerful device from a heavily guarded lab for him. He’s a welcome addition to the ensemble.

The heist scene where the Horsemen attempt to steal it is compelling and well-edited, and one of the film’s coolest sequences. The practical effects are also really great. The heist caper still has enough magic up its sleeve to entertain for this sequel.

Score: 75/100

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016)
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Released: April 15, 2016. Directed by: Jon Favreau. Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley. Runtime: 1hr, 45 min.

Director Jon Favreau brings his vision of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story of The Jungle Book to the big screen – telling the story with fantastic visuals and a stellar cast.

It’s a coming-of-age tale about Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a man-cub finding his place in his world with animals in the Indian jungle. In fact, Mowgli is one of the film’s only live-action actors with any substantial contribution to the story.

Seethi is given a high task to carry the film as the only live-action actor. His performance is remarkable, capturing the bravery and charming curiosity of Mowgli, as well as his inventive personality.

He’s the heart of the film and he shows a great maturity as the character. It feels like he’s been performing for years – but this is his first theatrical film, his only prior experience was in a short film called Diwali.

While Seethi is virtually the only live-action actor on display in the core cast – the world between the human Mowgli and the motion-captured, computer-generated animals blend together so seamlessly, it feels like he’s truly interacting with real animals.

The visual effects are flawless and so is the attention to detail in how the animals are rendered. It’s really as great as Life of Pi in terms of creating realistic, visually striking animals. The landscape portrayed is vivid and adds to the film all around. The way the actors capture animals’ behaviour and movements adds a heightened realism.

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Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book (Source)

The voice performances for the classic characters are also great. Bill Murray encapsulates Baloo – his laziness is relatable and he’s a fun character.

Ben Kingsley portrays Bagheer, the panther who found Mowgli as an infant in the jungle. He’s also tasked with bringing him to safety to return to his own kind when he is threatened by Shere Khan, the fearsome Bengal tiger. Idris Elba is menacing as the primary villain and doesn’t like Mowgli in the jungle because he is a human and doesn’t trust them. A human gave Shere Khan his scars. This adds a layer to Mowgli, who at times has to question if he could be destructive like that, too.

Also notable is the presence of Christopher Walken as King Louie. He’s changed from an orangutan to a gigantopithecus, to make it native to India. It also gives the scenes with Louie a much grander feel and breathtaking scale because he is so hulking. He’s actually scary here, in a refreshing turn from the original.

His rendition of the original Disney’s “I Wanna Be Like You” serves as one of the feature’s many high points.

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Neel Sethi as Mowgli and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) in The Jungle Book. (Source)

Murray also sings “Bear Necessities” and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa sings “Trust In Me” through the end credits. That’s it for the songs used from the 1967 animated musical.

Jon Favreau chose to tell the story of how Mowgli got on his own when Kaa (Johansson) was hypnotizing Mowgli, instead of having her sing the song. The slithering character is seen in only one scene – but she’s memorably chilling.

The choice to cast Johansson and gender-swap the character was to done to add another female to the cast, where the only other primary female cast member is Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha.

It is one of the film’s only disappointing aspects that Kaa only has a small role, almost a cameo – as the more utilized “red flower,” fire to the animals, is more utilized as a villain here. The animated Disney flick basically only mentioned “red flower” in passing, so Favreau was more faithful to Kipling’s use of the element.

The way the story is structured is strong and the narrative is so engaging and entertaining. It also handles the iconic characters so, so well. This adaptation was penned by Justin Marks, who shows a great adapting ability. His two other prior screenwriting credits were a television movie (Rewind) and a video game adaptation (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li).

It might not have songs at every turn, but it handles its own very well as a film with a few violent moments. The third act is a great finale, and the film maintains a compelling pace – peppering comedy, drama and stunning action set pieces throughout. Some of the action even kept me on the edge of my seat at times.

Favreau perfectly finds a difficult balance of capturing the Disney magic, as well as making a mature adaptation that is unique and memorable. I think parents will be bugging their kids to see it so they have an excuse to watch it. And then watch it again. It’s truly great.

Score: 100/100

The Boss (2016)

The Boss (2016)
The Boss
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Released: April 8, 2016. Directed by: Ben Falcone. Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage. Runtime: 1hr, 39 min.

R-rated comedienne Melissa McCarthy and hubby-and-director Ben Falcone take a second shot at co-writing a screenplay together with The Boss after their first botched attempt in 2014’s Tammy. The good thing is this is a much funnier collaboration.

The basic story follows Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), the (fictional) 47th wealthiest woman of America. The film glosses over how Darnell makes money, simply billing her as a CEO of three Fortune 500 companies. It’s a poor-to-rich story, as Darnell grew up in the foster home system.

Her life gets ruined after she’s imprisoned for insider training. All of her belongings are seized and her house foreclosed, she learns when she’s released. She then stays with her former assistant and single mother Claire (Kristen Bell), basically the only person on who will give her a place to stay because no one is answering Michelle’s calls.

The story feels like Darnell is on a path to make money again, rather than redeeming herself as a person – which just comes out naturally. Her new business venture is a brownie company called Darnell’s Darlings.

She gets the idea after knowing the demand of Dandelions girl guide cookies, after taking Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) to one of the meetings. Claire is the baker for the company because she has a good recipe – and her motivation for helping is to get Michelle off her couch.

Michelle gets more likable throughout. But that’s easy considering her obnoxious introduction at a sold-out arena show about telling people how to make money – where she comes down on a golden phoenix to sing “All I Do Is Win” with DJ Khaled.

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Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell in The Boss. (Source)

The Boss is great example of how the essential falling-out of characters can ruin a film’s momentum. The clichéd moment arises because of Michelle’s lack of a family and fear of getting close to people.

The poor narrative is the film’s worst aspect. It feels like the jokes were written first, and then a story was shaped around them. To the credit of Falcone, McCarthy and Steve Mallory, there are many clever jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. That’s the redeeming part that makes this an entertaining film.

A flaw of the film is the fact that Melissa McCarthy gets almost all of the funny jokes. The film suffers when she isn’t on-screen. The character who misses the most is Peter Dinklage’s Renault, an aspiring samurai, or something. He’s obsessed with ex-girlfriend Michelle, where revenge is mostly on his mind, but he still has the hots for her even after she screwed him over.

His banter with his assistant Stephan (Timothy Simons) is simply awkward, but sometimes so stupid it’s almost funny. The character’s so poorly written that Dinklage just has to do his best with the crappiness he is given.

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Kristen Bell’s Claire is simply boring – she only has a few good laughs to offer. She’s the set-up for McCarthy’s Darnell, characterized as a single mom who works hard for her daughter. We’re supposed to see Darnell as a really mean boss, but she’s not as bad as any boss in the Horrible Bosses franchise. Maybe we caught her on a nice week?

But Claire just keeps getting stuck with bad bosses, getting stuck with Dana Dandridge (Cecily Strong) when Michelle goes to prison. She’s supposed to be mean, but she’s cringe-worthy and awkward, ribbing Claire for being three minutes late at one point. Tyler Labine as Claire’s love interest is supposed to add a layer in Claire, but all it does is set up a funny scene when Claire prepares for a date.

The characters don’t work, and McCarthy is the best part about this. That’s high praise from me – since I’m not a McCarthy fan. Since everyone else is lackluster, it should be blamed on bad writing and directing from Ben Falcone. It feels like the next time the couple write something together – they should just hire a competent director.

Despite my problems with The Boss, I enjoyed myself and laughed a lot. That’s what counts here. While it may be weaker than any of the three McCarthy and Paul Feig collaborations – Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy – it’s a lot better than Tammy or Identity Thief.

Score: 65/100

 

The Bronze (2016)

The Bronze (2016)

 

The Bronze poster
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Released: March 18, 2016. Directed by: Bryan Buckley. Starring: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Haley Lu Richardson. Runtime: 1hr, 40 min.

Written by Melissa Rauch (TV’s The Big Bang Theory) and her husband Winston Rauch, The Bronze appears to rely on the idea that since the 4-foot-11 sweet-natured Melissa Rauch is foul-mouthed and aggressive here, it would be so ironic that it would result in big laughs.

The thing is – it’s not funny, and the way it throws a mix of swear words together never amounts to anything hysterical. Which is disappointing, considering it is a passion project.

Rauch stars as Hope Ann Gregory, a local celebrity who brought back an Olympic bronze medal from Rome to Amherst, Ohio. But though she is from Ohio, she has an accent that’s like a bizarre Chicago and Minnesota hybrid.

She gets whatever she wants in the town – from free food to a reserved parking spot next to her favourite diner. She still always wears her Olympic Team USA tracksuit from 2004 – and after an injury ended her gymnastics career, she’s embittered that her 15 minutes of fame is way behind her.

With her life stalled, her former coach commits suicide. (I know what you’re thinking: She doesn’t commit suicide because Hope is such a b–ch, but because it’s needed to advance the plot.) She requests, in her will, that Hope coach Olympic hopeful Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson) to greatness, and if she does, she will get $500,000.

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Not even Haley Lu Richardson’s smile could save this. (Source)
A problem with the film is the fact that Rauch’s Hope Ann Gregory is plainly unlikable. She’s a bratty 30-year-old misanthrope that sincerely acts like she is still 17 years old. The point of the character is for her to be unlikable – but it is never funny.

We first meet the embittered Gregory in an ode to her large ego – in her bed masturbating to the video of her bronze medal win. Her huge ego definitely surpasses her size, and also feels like an ego of a gold medalist – not a bronze medalist. She’s eventually characterized as being scared of being forgotten.

But even with that and a forced love interest, there’s never a moment where where we root for Hope. There was really only one time I liked her on a mild level, when she was teaching Maggie stage presence. She smiles a lot and she is like a different person – which might be why I liked her in that moment.

She’s hard to relate to and she’s mean to her core, a character aspect that doesn’t work for Rauch’s kind demeanor.

The character we’re rooting for is Maggie – depicted as humble and a bit unrealistically innocent. We want her to win because she seems like a genuinely nice girl. Haley Lu Richardson’s performance is super likable and bubbly as the character. Both Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch and Sebastian Stan round out the main cast – but they can’t even save this turd.

A writing choice at the end of the film turned this from simply a bad film to a disaster for me. It felt like a last-ditch effort to make Hope more likable. Character decisions made me think that the Rauch writing pair either didn’t understand their characters or just wanted to rush the ending. Either way, it made the characters feel more like caricatures of their huge egos – or results of bad writing – than actual people we might relate to.

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Melissa Rauch as a foul-mouthed, bratty bronze medalist in The Bronze. (Source)
The feature has good cinematography (kudos to the only winner here, Scott Henriksen). I liked the gymnastics of it, but we’re treated to more training scenes and not given enough cool scenes when Maggie is actually competing towards the end.

A sex scene between Rauch and Stan is overtly dark, likely to hide the super obvious Cirque du Soleil stunt doubles for Rauch, and quickly edited and a weaker aspect of the cinematography.

But the coitus feels longer than Maggie’s final display of gymnastics. It threatens to take over the rest of the film in terms of memorable raunchiness – which is saying something.

There’s a lot of raunch from the Rauch couple, but I think the only time I even chuckled was when Ben was having a bad twitch. Otherwise, I was questioning why it was billed as a comedy.

The film itself is mean-spirited overall, with Hope’s actions against everyone. But kudos to Rauch for branching out from her sitcom fame and bringing another unlikable, female antihero asshole to the big screen – as they’re so often portrayed by men. But it just isn’t funny, which is particularly disappointing.

It has none of the (slight) charm that worked for Jason Bateman’s Bad Words. I think that worked to a degree because Bateman actually has the comedic ability and sarcastic wit to believably portray a foul-mouthed, grown up spelling bee contestant.

But with The Bronze, Rauch doesn’t sell it. The language is raunchy, but it doesn’t make it funny. She isn’t believable as being foul-mouthed or aggressive – she looks too innocent. It really fails in almost every aspect and it’s a box office disaster for good reason: It sucks.

Score: 30/100