Reviews

Review: Stray Bullets (2016)

Stray Bullets
2016

© Screen Media Films & Glass Eye Pix

© Screen Media Films & Glass Eye Pix

Directorial debuts often prove to be some of my favorite movies. There's something truly exciting about seeing a new and upcoming talent, and it generally manages to strike a solid chord with me. Over the past few years, I have made it a mission to keep first-time directors on my radar in the hopes of finding someone new to follow. More often than not, these movies come from filmmakers in their twenties and thirties, but once in a blue moon, we can find someone that predates them all. That's the case with Jack Fessenden, the teenage director of Stray Bullets

The film follows Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Fessenden), two friends making their way into the woods across town to clean out Ash's father's trailer. Upon reaching their destination, however, the find that a trio of thieves on the run has taken to hiding. Cody (James Le Gros) and Dutch (John Speredakos) quickly take the boys hostage in the midst of fretting over their boss Charlie's (Larry Fessenden) mortal injuries. Ash and Connor soon learn that the men's car has broken down, leaving them stranded in the middle of the woods. In the hopes of ensuring their safety, the boys offer their assistance in acquiring medical and mechanical supplies to aid the gang in their getaway. 

I gravitate towards directorial debuts for a few reasons. First, they give an audience the chance to see an unknown artist experiment with their own personal style. So many seasoned directors fall into their set routines which makes new takes all the more exciting. While Fessenden isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the table with Stray Bullets, he definitely exudes a clear confidence behind the camera; you would simply never believe that a sixteen-year-old directed this flick. Jack grew up on film sets with his father and learned from him first-hand. With that kind of background and personal education, I believe that Jack may just be getting his feet wet with this one. 

The kid does need a little bit of work in his writing. Oftentimes we see feature debut directors working with their own screenplay, and the same goes for Stray Bullets. So many of these feature debuts are passion projects for the filmmakers, and when everything clicks, we can see the passion ooze off the screen. Unfortunately, I think Fessenden's age shows glaringly in some of this script's miscues. While there's a great skeleton of a story here, it just doesn't have the meat on its bones to be a fully-fleshed experience. The story itself proves rightfully simple, but the lack of depth and overall clarity raise a few red flags along the way. We get a few scenes that stray from the storyline that almost feel like an attempted subplot that was never fully realized; with a scant eighty-three minute runtime, I still felt that those particular scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor. I think that Fessenden will be learn and craft his writing with time, but this is still a valiant effort for a first-time writer. 

The cast does a decent job keeping pace and pulling what they can from the muddled screenplay. Young Jack and Asa Spurlock prove to be the weaker elements of the cast, but their adult counterparts aren't exactly revelations either. The elder Fessenden hams it up as the mortally-wounded leader of the gang, and he's flanked by the semi-convincing badass Cody (Le Gros) and the somewhat dimwitted Dutch (Speredakos). Although the individual performances don't amaze, their chemistry works. We're given a look at the aftermath of a heist gone wrong, and we do see the characters begin to flesh out enough to make us care about them by film's end. Truthfully, the story revolves around the trio rather than their teenage counterparts who just happen upon the situation and prove to be observers more than anything else. 

Ultimately, Stray Bullets proves to be a flawed but fine debut for this young director. Teenage directors don't come along all that often - the first one that comes to mind is Emily Hagin's low-budget zombie flick Pathogen - but what they lack in experience their certainly make up for in passion. I can't quite say that Stray Bullets has flashes of brilliance, but a lot should be said about Jack Fessenden's skill behind the camera. This may not be the best movie, but it certainly gives me hope for Fessenden's future. 


Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast
2017

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Over the past few years, Walt Disney Studios has found financial success in remaking a slew of their animated classics as live-action fare. The results have been relatively mixed, with films like The Jungle Book and Pete's Dragon meeting critical praise while endeavors such as Maleficent and the Alice in Wonderland franchise have been relatively panned. The most recent attempt at breathing new life into an animated classic hit theaters this past weekend in the form of Beauty and the Beast

The film opens with Belle (Emma Watson), a beautiful and learned outcast in a small French village, who dreams to leave her quiet life behind in the search for adventure. When her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is taken hostage by a mysterious beast in a hidden castle, she pleads with the Beast (Dan Stevens) and elects to live a life imprisoned in her father's stead. She initially attempts to escape the Beast's gruesome clutches, but as time begins to pass, she learns that he is a cursed figure with a heart of gold hidden deep beneath his rough exterior. As the two grow closer, Maurice returns home and informs the villagers of the creature's existence. A ravenous mob led by the villainous Gaston (Luke Evans) surges toward the castle in an attempt to murder the Beast and rescue Belle from his seemingly wicked grasp. 

Each one of us can make our own determinations about whether Disney should be remaking these animated classics, but the fact that none of these films has stuck a perfect landing should give pause to moviegoers. On one hand, Disney's remakes bring these age-old stories to a younger generation that has become accustomed to fast-paced, computer-generated blockbusters; kids of the twenty-first century simply may not have the patience for a classic two-dimensional cartoon. Those like myself, on the other hand, must sit idly by as these nostalgic stories from our own childhood continue to be rehashed and recreated time and again, and while none of these attempts have been absolute bombs, they all pale in comparison with their animated counterparts. Unfortunately, this new rendition of Beauty and the Beast could not break that cycle. 

Let's start with a little bit of history. The animated Beauty and the Beast was the last of the Disney animated films to feature a cast predominantly drawn from the stages of Broadway. As a result, the musical atmosphere of that film works every step of the way as we know that the women and men behind the characters truly hold the talent and vocal chops to pull off these performances. With this new iteration, however, some of the principal cast seems to have been chosen for name recognition rather than necessary talent. I had my reservations about the cast going into the film, yet little did I know that the one person I assumed would do well would prove to be the film's faltering point. I don't know of anyone who would readily compare Emma Watson to Paige O'Hara, but considering the circumstances of the remake, I believe it has to be done. This new film doesn't take long to showcase the immense disparity between O'Hara's talent and Watson's seeming lack thereof. Emma proves serviceable in her acting moments, but as musical's central protagonist should not be resigned to offering an auto-tuned performance. This is a glaring miscast that will surely rekindle the recent discussion about casting for name recognition rather than for inherent ability. 

Watson aside, the rest of the cast performed admirably. The underrated Dan Stevens plays the titular Beast well but is certainly aided by a motion capture performance and CGI retrofitting. Josh Gad, who seemed like the most solid casting decision as the bumbling LeFou, provided a few good laughs early but ultimately seemed to overstay his welcome and suffered from a loosely thrown together character arc meant to make him redeemable. The true standout of the film has to be Luke Evans, whose casting was initially the most worrisome to me as my only recognition of him stems from his villainous turn in Fast & Furious 6. He took the Gaston character and crafted a performance that echoes his animated counterpart while allowing for just a little bit more sleaziness. He even nails his limited singing moments, so a true round of applause for him. We also get some decent performances from the likes of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, and the aforementioned Kline; still, the rest of this ensemble could not hide the fact that the film's lead simply couldn't keep up. 

I have already discussed some of the film's music as it pertains to the vocal performances of the actors, but it's worth mentioning that Alan Menken came back to recreate the score he crafted over twenty-five years ago. The orchestral score still flows as beautifully as it did in 1991, and the cast follows it well enough with those aforementioned exceptions. Menken also added a few new songs to the mix, but I myself was left wondering throughout whether they came from the Broadway production (which I have not seen). I have been told since watching this film that these unfamiliar songs were, in fact, original compositions, but it did add some confusion in deciphering this new music when so much of this movie was resting on its nostalgic roots. 

For the most part, the film follows the same basic storyline and plot structure that its predecessor set forth. The animated version finishes in just under ninety minutes whereas this new version pushes just past the two hour mark, and honestly, it feels a bit bloated at times. As can be imagined, little bits were added to expand the storyline here and there. Certain aspects of these additions benefit this new version as we get more in-depth backstories into some of our principal characters that the much-shorter animated classic simply isn't able to give. Our two leads receive complementary backstories that serve to bring them even closer together. The also offers some pressing questions many have had since 1991 (i.e., why don't the villagers know about this gigantic castle a mere nightly walk away?).

Still, a few moments falter. The aforementioned addition to LeFou's instrumentality to the plot ultimately falls on deaf ears. Much hullabaloo has been made about certain revelations surrounding the character's sexual orientation, but the overall process of presenting LeFou's arc does not give the character nor that reveal any true justice. My biggest gripe with the film as a whole, however, stems from the iconic finale; in this new version, the ending has been tampered every so slightly but in such a way that it changes the very outlook of those climactic moments and very nearly negates the importance of a central plot device. As a result, the breath has been taken from the romantic power of those final moments.

In regards to the Disney live-action remakes, the jury may still be out, but Beauty and the Beast has helped push me towards my own verdict. While this film is nowhere near the worst of the bunch, it certainly stands as the most disappointing. The 1991 animated classic stands as a true masterpiece and holds its place in history as the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The brilliance of that film lies far beyond its nostalgic power; it simply proves to be a beautiful cinematic endeavor that stands the test of time. I very much wanted to conduct this review in a void without having to compare it to the original, but such is the nature of Beauty and the Beast considering the well from which they draw. All that said, I may be in the vast minority with my criticisms and opinions: the audience in my screening gave the film a rousing ovation as the credits began roll while I quietly wondered what they had seen that I did not. 


Review: Patriots Day (2016)

Patriots Day
2016

© Lionsgate

© Lionsgate

In today's Hollywood, we have seen a seeming abundance of films based on true-life stories. I have groaned at the constant claim that a movie is "based on real events," and I spend the rest of the film trying to decipher whether the story being presented is factual. We have become so inundated with these real-life stories taking creative and artistic liberties that it proves incredibly refreshing when we finally get one that seems to be authentic in its portrayal. 

Patriots Day presents a dramatic retelling of the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt in the days that followed. Centered somewhat around an embattled detective (Mark Wahlberg) and an FBI terrorism specialist (Kevin Bacon), the story delves into the grittiness of the chase to find the bombers before they can strike another target. 

My initial reservations with the concept of Patriots Day stemmed from the recency of the portrayed events. Any time a real-life story rushes to the big screen, it leaves itself open to claims of cashing in on recent headlines or, in this case, a tragic event. Wahlberg and the rest of the film's producers, however, seem to have done their due diligence in crafting a film that presents the story accurately while paying tribute to the victims, the first responders, and the law enforcement involved rather than falling into the trap of creating an exploitative piece. 

Patriots Day marks Peter Berg's second true tragedy tale (following Deepwater Horizon) within a calendar year, and he does his best to bring an effective thriller to the screen. Between those two films and his 2013 hit Lone Survivor, Berg may have found a niche for himself as the go-to guy for true-life, action-oriented stories. This one offers a good amount of tension throughout, doing enough to keep the audience invested as the events slowly unfold. The scenes of the bombing itself prove to be the best-executed moments of the film. Despite seeing news reports at the time, I never truly understood the gravity of the situation. The scene takes us into the very real terror of the moment and its immediate grisly aftermath. Let the feint of heart be warned: the scene does put forth some graphic imagery. It proves to be a visceral moment that left me absolutely breathless. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the film falters a bit, falling into a somewhat tense slog. While certain moments of the manhunt work, the constant bounce between the eclectic set of characters and storylines make it difficult to latch onto anything concrete. I'm not saying that the movie itself is difficult to follow, but I found it nearly impossible to relate to - or even like - any of the characters in the second and third acts. 

This all comes despite the principal cast marking a fine set of performances that almost keep us grounded within the story. In addition to the aforementioned Wahlberg and Bacon, we have a slew of big names featured - John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Michelle Monaghan round out the most familiar faces - yet its some of the lesser-known but just as crucial characters that manage to stand above the rest. Credit to Jimmy O. Yang and Alex Wolff who offer some of the stronger performances; I'll be keeping my eyes out for them in the future. 

The real glaring issue with Patriots Day unfortunately comes with its main star. While I believe that Mark Wahlberg has shown a wider range of emotional depth in his Peter Berg collaborations - he had an amazing breakdown moment in Deepwater Horizon, for example - he definitely proves to be a disservice to this particular film. That's not to say he doesn't give a good performance; rather, Wahlberg's real-life, pro-Boston persona leaks too heavily on-screen and makes him more of a caricature than anything else. Marky Mark has become so synonymous with the city of Boston that his constant overt affection for Beantown starts to come off as obnoxious. I'm all for hometown loyalty, but in this situation, I think Patriots Day would have been better served leaving Wahlberg only in the producer's chair. 

Despite its flaws, Patriots Day did manage to win me over with its epilogue that featured a number of interviews with the real people who had just been portrayed on-screen. These testimonials tug at the heartstrings and provide a genuine Boston flavor that none of the cast could provide. It's a nice little bow on an above-average flick, and it shows that the filmmakers certainly did their best to keep Patriots Day from becoming exploitative fare. 

Review: Blue Jay (2016)

Blue Jay
2016

© The Orchard

© The Orchard

My first introduction to Mark Duplass came a few years ago as I double-featured Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed and Duplass's own The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. The two films offered an interesting insight into the man's résumé: the former showcases his acting prowess while the latter illustrates his abilities as a writer and director. While the two films didn't do quite enough to make Duplass an immediate must-watch individual, they certainly forced me to keep an ear to the ground. Then came 2014's found footage gem Creep, which once again allowed show off his acting chops in the midst of a story he also wrote. This moment cemented him as a true under-the-radar force, so when I received a number of recommendations about his newest venture, I readily took a chance on Blue Jay

The film centers around Jim (Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson), high school sweethearts who happen to cross paths in their hometown's grocery store. After an awkward initial reaction, the two agree to sit down for coffee. They immediately begin to feel more at ease with one another, venturing down memory lane and recanting their adolescent exploits. As their day slowly turns to night, however, some long-simmering emotions start to boil to the surface, forcing the two to face their life's greatest regrets.

While first-time director Alex Lehmann certainly deserves some credit for his ability to craft a quietly-tense atmosphere that leaves you hanging on the characters' every word, Blue Jay succeeds as a result of Duplass's screenplay. He bore the story out of a simple idea - two former lovers meet later in life - but Duplass has managed to weave an intricate and dialogue-based script that fleshes out the characters in realistic fashion. His story allows for organic development, giving you small bits of information about both Jim and Amanda over the course of the film. This slow burn builds to an emotional third act that includes a bit of a twist I never saw coming. Duplass does the groundwork from the film's very start that ultimately allows the finale to ring as true as the characters he creates.

To complement his screenplay, Mark Duplass puts forth arguably his best performance to date as a broken man struggling with long-subdued feelings. The emotion he brings to the character offers a complex individual attempting to hold onto and process years-old emotions in the midst of his immediate surroundings. We see his walls begin to break early in the film. We see an internally-broken man trying his best to get through every day, knowing that the best parts of his life have seemingly been lost. Enter his former flame, and a new stock on life appears on the horizon. Duplass's performance would be wasted were it not for the incredible work from Paulson. She stands toe-to-toe with her co-star, maintaining her composure for a little longer before falling for the whims of nostalgia. As the two reach one another's emotional level, the true power of their performances break through. Their characters feel real and relatable, giving them a true connective power to the audience. 

At just over eighty minutes, Blue Jay offers a streamlined but engaging story that doesn't overstay its welcome. Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson make the characters their own and present relatable individuals with emotional depth rarely seen in mainstream films today. With this film, Duplass continues to prove himself a force with which to be reckoned. I will anxiously await his next foray, be it as actor, writer, or director. He has proven to be adept in each. 


Review: Tig (2015)

Tig
2015

© Beachside Films

© Beachside Films

We've all had those days where it just feels like everything is going wrong. Life presents us with moments of struggle to test our resolve, but when it feels like those obstacles come in a consistent wave, it can be difficult to find a way through. I have had those days and those moments on more than one occasion. One thing that I will do to help myself through those moments of strife is remind myself that no matter how difficult my current situation may be, there will always be someone out there suffering from much worse than whatever I might be enduring. If you ever needed a stark reminder of the validity of that statement, then do I have the documentary for you.

Tig revolves around stand-up comedian Tig Notaro as she prepares for an anniversary show at the Largo in Los Angeles. In 2012, Notaro suffered a number of personal setbacks: she was hospitalized with a rare but deadly stomach condition; her mother passed away; and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. With everything in her life seemingly stacked against her, Tig started to see a comedic vein running through her situation. She performed a now historic set at Largo where she used her recent diagnosis as a fodder for comedy. Tig became an overnight sensation as word of her set spread like wildfire over the Internet; as a result, she had to find a way to handle her newfound success while balancing her personal life and medical struggles to the best of her ability.

I have to concede that before hearing about this documentary, I had never actually heard of Tig Notaro herself. I feel as though I had seen her somewhere before, but the name definitely wasn't ringing any bells. I certainly had no real inclination as to what she has done within the realm of stand-up comedy. At some point, someone recommended that I watch this film, and I can easily say that I am glad they did. Tig offers an in-depth look at someone trying to claw their way back from the brink while attempting to maintain a certain level of success within their career. I could spend time in this review discussing the details of her story, but I believe that the best way to experience it would simply be to watch this flick. 

Her story is definitely engrossing, and it does enough to draw you into the film itself, but I believe that an individual's overall enjoyment of Tig will rely on whether you enjoy our titular player herself. Notaro presents a very deadpan and monotone approach both in her stand-up and in her everyday life, and it's a type of humor that can be incredibly polarizing. I, for one, enjoy the dryness of her demeanor, but there will surely be some who need a flashier personality with which to connect. The inherent problem with single-subject documentaries is they oftentimes need to rely too heavily on their sole focus. While a few other characters - including some big names in the comedy world - appear from time to time, this movie ultimately revolves around Tig. Because I enjoy that brand of humor, I was able to connect with Tig on the personal level so needed in a film like this. While the film itself portrays her story in a very paint-by-numbers fashion, the colors that story exhibits definitely shine brightly. 

Tig ultimately portrays a story of resilience and one woman's determination to fight past the obstacles that have been placed in her path. We as the audience get to experience the highs and lows with Notaro, and anyone who has experienced anything remotely difficult in their life will surely find someone on which to cling. The film presents an emotional story in very straightforward fashion, but it at no point ever starts to feel stale, which I take as a testament to the power of Tig's story. For those of you struggling with any obstacles in your life, give a gander to Tig Notaro. She just might inspire you to keep pushing. 

Review: The Final Member (2012)

The Final Member
2012

© Drafthouse Films

© Drafthouse Films

In today's cinematic landscape, it seems as though so many movies tell the same predictable stories time and time again. As we watch these movies, we can be constantly reminded of the previous films that have used the same ideas and plots in the exact same manner. We see sequels and remakes and reboots galore, and we wonder just why Hollywood can't create new and exciting tales to satisfy our hunger. Luckily, film lovers have been able to fall back on the rise in documentary features, crafted by filmmakers eager to tell true and engaging stories that a screenwriter simply may not be able to imagine. One such tale revolves around the one-of-a-kind Icelandic Phallological Museum. 

The Final Member follows museum curator Sigur∂ur Hjartarson, a man who has been collecting specimens of mammalian genitalia for over three decades. In that time, he has come into possession of every mammal species know to man, save one: man himself. Eager to complete his collection amidst failing health, the curator receives permission from Páll Arason, a famed Icelandic explorer, to obtain possession of his genitalia upon his death. The elderly man shows no signs of slowing down in his old age, however, leaving the door open for someone else to beat him to the throne. Enter middle-aged American Tom Mitchell, who submits his own penis as a potential donation, and he just might be willing to part with it before his soul leaves his body. 

If the above synopsis hasn't done enough to grab your attention, let me continue by saying that The Final Member is a solid and entertaining film. It weaves a seemingly quirky idea with a very straightforward storyline that almost plays like an offbeat thriller. The story itself takes a number of twists and turns that one would expect from your average Hollywood fare, but the idea that the real-life events happen right before our eyes makes it all the more fascinating. I can't quite figure out whether the directors tried to play the situation for laughs or if the scenario itself allows for its own comedic sensibilities, but I can tell you with fair certainty that you will be hit with numerous fits of laughter as a result of either the topsy-turvy story or the three men bolstered at the center of it all. 

This particular story would be absolutely nothing without intriguing and entertaining central characters, and The Final Member offers us three from which to choose. Curator Hjartarson is a sensible man whose eccentric hobby started as a joke but soon grew to be his life's passion. We see a multi-faceted individual whose goal in life proves to be more than just finishing his collection; rather, he uses his little bit of infamy to help break down the taboos about openly discussing male genitalia. The individual we spend the least amount of time with is our Icelandic explorer, who slowly ages right before our eyes. He's a tall tale of a man whose personal story is so rooted within the story of the Icelandic landscape that his status as a living legend only helps to bolster the idea of the film and his right to his potential resting place inside the museum. If anyone truly steals the show, however, it has to be our American compatriot, who will stop at nothing to ensure he is the first man to be immortalized within the confines of this one-of-a-kind mausoleum. A true exhibitionist at heart, we see the lengths to which he is willing to go to cement his place in history. Regardless of whether you agree with his methods, you have to admire his tenacity and determination to his increasingly ridiculous cause. 

The Final Member may not be the greatest film the documentary world has ever seen, but it still manages to be incredibly engaging and entertaining through every step of its absurd journey. I can say with certainty that you will not soon forget some - or all - of these characters, and for that reason alone, The Final Member should warrant a watch. As for me, I'll be looking into just how quickly I can find my way to the small town of Husavik to stop in for a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. 

Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad
2016

© Warner Bros.

© Warner Bros.

Earlier this year, DC Films started its serious attempt at creating an expanded universe to combat the one that rival Marvel Studios already has in place. They kicked things of with the critically-maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in preparation for their upcoming Justice League films. I sat through that two-and-a-half hour slog, actually finding myself somewhat drawn to the storyline and to the characters we have seen portrayed on-screen time and again. I ultimately blasted the film for its climactic bait-and-switch which took away any possibility for DC to make a bold statement within the superhero film genre that would have stood in stark opposition to the seemingly happy-go-lucky Marvel fare we have seen over the past eight years. One of the key crosses that DC bears in the creation of its films is this idea that they must be the darker alternative to their more light-hearted counterpart. As a result, their films have lacked a true sense of fun and adventure, but the studio hoped their newest installment might be the one to break that dreary mold. 

Suicide Squad opens with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a military operative attempting to craft a plan for keeping America safe from future meta-human threats in the wake of Superman's death. She plans to assemble a team of dangerous criminals forced into taking high-risk missions on behalf of the government. The team, emotionally led by an elite hitman known as Deadshot (Will Smith) and a deranged psychiatrist named Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), must fall in line behind Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) as an ancient menace begins terrorizing Midway City in a plot that could spell doom for the entire world. The group of hardened and seedy individuals must then decide whether their own personal proclivities overpower the needs of the rest of the world before time runs out. 

Let's just cut to the chase: Suicide Squad is a terrible movie. I'll get more into the specifics in just a moment, but the film simply illustrates a summation of cataclysmic factors that generate one of the worst filmgoing experiences I have seen in quite some time. Below-par movies oftentimes manage to have some sort of silver lining or saving grace, but Suicide Squad earns the rare distinction of being an all-around stinker. Let's figure out just what fails, shall we? 

If a film can only be as strong as its screenplay, then Suicide Squad must have been made with particle board. I'll discuss the issues and concerns with the movie's cast and stylistic choices momentarily, but every aspect of the film ultimately suffers as a result of an abysmal script that simply doesn't allow the actors or the story any room to breathe. The film opens with an overly long introductory segment in which Viola Davis's character runs through the members of her brand new "bad guy" task force. These rapid-fire cut scenes play like the lineup introduction during an NFL broadcast, complete with a list of stats and misdemeanors for each and every character. Rather than allowing the audience to meet the characters organically over the course of the film, we are given a rush-cut of their personas and ideals right from the start in the hopes that skimming through these introductions will allow the main storyline to hold the film's focus. The film's opening feels sloppy and rushed, but I hoped that the lack of attention to these introductory moments might give way to a decent storyline filled with the lighthearted humor that a DC film so desperately needed. What we get instead, however, is a plot so ridiculously muddled that it seems as though the characters themselves can't keep it straight. 

The cast does its absolute best to elevate itself above the atrocities the screenplay presents them, but there's only so much an actor can do with awful material. Will Smith plays himself here, bringing a little bit of his personal flavor to the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold character we have seen so many times before. Margot Robbie portrays a perfectly adequate Harleen Quinzel, and to her credit, she seems to be having the most fun with her character. Aside from the lack of true characterization, my biggest gripe with her performance lies in the fact that her accent slipped on more than one occasion throughout the film. As you may have heard, Jared Leto has infamously taken on the Joker persona, portraying the character on-screen for the first time since the passing of the late Heath Ledger. All of the marketing for Suicide Squad played as though the Joker would be a central figure throughout the film, but in the final cut, he's simply resigned to chasing after his honey bunny Harley. In the few scenes in which Leto actually appears, he hams it up, leaving his performance feeling over-the-top and borderline pretentious. Reports have surfaced that a number of his scenes were cut from the final film product, and perhaps a more fleshed-out Joker would have presented a stronger performance. As it currently stands, however, it feels more like piecemeal than anything else. We can round out the stars of the film with Viola Davis, who brings a seemingly strong character out of the muck. Her screen presence alone makes her a minor shine in the film, but everything else just leaves her star power dwarfed. 

The remainder of the cast rests on a spectrum ranging from under-utilized to absolutely atrocious. Jay Henandez's Diablo just might be the film's best-written character, receiving an actual arc over the course of the story. In contrast, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Killer Croc might receive the slightest amount of background information; all I gathered about the character was that he is some sort of mutated individual who now eats other humans for fun. Jai Courtney shows up and actually plays against type (in that his normal "type" is stoic and dull), but I never really got a sense of his character's motivations. Cara Delevingne plays both sides of the field, but that simply means she offers her awful performance to both the good guys and the bad guys in what culminates in the movie's worst performance. Joel Kinnaman, Kara Fukuhara, and Adam Beach round out the principal cast, but each proves to be either mediocre or forgettable. Again, most of the blame of this film must lie with the screenplay itself, but even so, this cast offers up a slew of poor performances. 

Suicide Squad also offers a number of peculiar stylistic choices that don't necessarily work with the end result. The cinematography can be characterized as colorfully murky, presenting a grimy world that still hopes to show some bright flash aimed at keeping viewers invested. Suicide Squad does take a step away from the full-on dreariness that Zack Snyder has crafted with his Superman entries, but this one never feels like it does quite enough to bring it completely out of that darker atmosphere. The musical choices also left me scratching my head. The film takes a page from the Guardians of the Galaxy playbook by offering a number of catchy and recognizable rock and pop songs meant to draw the viewers interest. Unlike its Marvel counterpart, however, these song selections are not used to enhance the film or add to the storyline; instead, they seem haphazardly placed simply as a veiled attempt at keeping the audience engaged. 

All of its flaws aside, Suicide Squad simply proves to be a slog of a film. I know that I have been an outspoken opponent of the superhero genre in general, and I know that I clearly do not fall into the key demographic for this realm of movies. In addition to the diehard comic book fans itching to see their favorite characters on-screen, studios mainly market these movies to adolescent boys looking for explosions and edgy - but not inappropriate - humor. I'm sure that plenty of people in that group enjoyed Suicide Squad, but I also saw a thirteen-year-old in a seat near me fall asleep halfway through the film. Suicide Squad is a boring, muddled mess of a movie, and all you DC fans deserve so much better. 

Review: The Family Fang (2015)

The Family Fang
2015

© Starz Digital Media

© Starz Digital Media

Two years ago, Jason Bateman transitioned from the realm of acting to the world behind the camera. He released his debut feature, Bad Words, to fairly positive reception and success. Bateman directed himself playing a character who had found a loophole into a children's national spelling bee, and through the course of the film, we begin to understand the past traumas that have caused this man to stage such a spectacle. I recall the film being shot in a dreary sort of manner, but it still managed to offer some fun and a few laughs here and there. Would Bateman's sophomore effort expand on his directorial vision?

The Family Fang follows Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter Fang (Jason Bateman), two siblings raised by a pair of infamous performance artists who constantly made them the center of their artistic pieces. As they two grow up, they start to see the affects that participating in these incredibly macabre visions has had on their respective psyches. Annie now struggles as an aging Hollywood starlet while Baxter fruitlessly attempts to complete his third novel. After Baxter has an accident that sends him to the hospital, he is sent to recover under the supervision of his parents Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett). Annie, needing a break from the limelight, elects to take time off and stay with them as well. When the two siblings refuse to join their parents in yet another artistic venture, the elders leave on an impromptu vacation only to soon be found missing in what looks to be a homicide. Annie and Baxter must then piece together the clues to determine whether their parents have actually been harmed or if they are simply trying to create one final elaborate hoax. 

If this movie succeeds in any way, it's that it shows us just what kind of directorial vision Jason Bateman wants to bring to the screen. So far, he has used his opportunities to attempt to bring some sense of comedy to two very dreary lifestyles, and while it mostly worked with Bad Words, it simply falls flat with The Family Fang. Bad Words had a charm about it that revolved around Bateman's on-screen chemistry with Rohan Chand, his child star counterpart. This new movie doesn't offer any real chemistry between any of the characters, and when the emotion of a film stems from the very way that the individuals affect and have affected one another, then a lack of chemistry can certainly spell doom for any venture. A very interesting and original story lies hidden within the confines of The Family Fang, but Bateman's near-solemn atmosphere doesn't allow for any comedic aspects of the situation to slip through the cracks. Instead, it simply feels like a step-by-step progression to a rather predictable conclusion. 

The characters themselves seem to be ripe with emotion and desire, but the actors simply are not given enough with which to flesh out these individuals fully. Bateman and Kidman are fine as our leads, but I never truly bought them as siblings nor did I feel as though they were ever truly invested in the situation presented to their characters. They play individuals frustrated with their down-on-their-luck livelihoods, and although they seemingly want to escape the struggles of their day-to-day, they approach it with a palpable boredom that oozes off the screen. Even the always stellar - if truly one-note - Walken can't manage an exemplary moment here or there; instead, his character is left stifled by the constructs of a character that leaves him as the broken-down shell of a once charismatic artist. If anyone manages to break the monotony, it's Kathryn Hahn and Jason Butler Harner, who portray the younger versions of Camille and Caleb in flashback sequences. In these moments, we get to see an off-kilter family with a true sense of life in their eyes as they attempt to create these profound artistic visions. I longed to stay with these younger versions of the characters rather than constantly be thrust back into the tiring lives of their older counterparts. Bateman may have been vying for that dichotomy, showing just how someone can lose the fire in their belly as time continues to pass, but it simply doesn't translate well for someone trying to ingest what the movie is trying to say. 

When all is said and done, The Family Fang ultimately commits a film's greatest cardinal sin: it's boring. Bateman takes a somewhat fascinating storyline and manages to bring it down into the depths of tedium by focusing on the emotions of the tired and aging versions of lively and fascinating characters. Give me a story about these four trying to create their greatest - and most dangerous - piece rather than letting me sit with the monotony of their whining as they grow older. Despite the best efforts from a cast of award winners, The Family Fang simply cannot pull itself out of the doldrums it sets for itself. Hopefully Bateman can bring a little more life to his next endeavor. 

Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic
2016

© Bleecker Street Media

© Bleecker Street Media

While you may not immediately recognize the name Matt Ross, you have more than likely seen him grace the screen at one point or another. In addition to appearing on numerous episodes of recent television hits like "American Horror Story" and "Silicon Valley," he has also snuck on-screen in big-budget film fare like Twelve MonkeysAmerican Psycho, and The Aviator. To this point, Ross has enjoyed a long, if subdued, acting career in Hollywood, but the past few years have seen him start to slip into the world behind the camera. He created a few shorts before delving into his debut feature - 2012's 28 Hotel Rooms - which met mixed reception from both the critical and audience communities. His sophomore effort, Captain Fantastic, looks to be the film that shows he can be adept in the director's chair as well. 

Captain Fantastic centers on Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a hippie-ish father of six raising his family in the wilderness depths of the Pacific Northwest. He teaches his children daily, running them through training exercises that craft both their body and mind while they live off the grid. When the family learns that their mother (Trin Miller) has suddenly passed away, the children beg their father to let them head into the everyday world in the hopes of attending her funeral. Ben initially resists after being told by his father-in-law (Frank Langella) that should he come near the ceremony, he would have Ben arrested. Despite his reservations, Ben's troupe makes their way towards the New Mexico service, learning from and interacting with a slew of individuals along the way. 

While I have not seen Ross's previous directorial endeavors, if he were to be judged solely based on this most recent effort, I would say that we have a fascinating new voice in the realm of cinema. The writer/director has crafted an elegant story about a man trying to keep his off-kilter family afloat amidst a sea of outside forces pounding against them. Both Ben and his wife make the decision to move their family into the wilderness, but after losing her, Ben must decide whether he alone can continue to keep his family safe without the structure that a normal, everyday life could bring. Ross packs an incredible amount of emotion into the film, and that emotion stems from a number of sources. The story itself offers a number of highs and lows, but it is in the individual characterizations that the family truly comes to life. We see a constant shift of emotion as one may grieve while another comforts, and this cycle continues from the film's start to finish. Handling the emotion of one character can be challenging enough, but Ross has created a movie where the emotion ebbs and flows from character to character over a two-hour run-time in a beautifully graceful manner. 

Writers and directors can craft and create beautiful stories with amazing characters, but the cast must still rise to the occasion to bring those characters to life. Since becoming a household name through the Lord of the Rings franchise, Viggo Mortensen has channeled his fame into a string of amazing performances in smaller-budget dramatic fare. From A History of Violence to Eastern Promises to The Road, Mortensen has managed to put forth strong outing after strong outing for over a decade, and his performance here in Captain Fantastic might just be his strongest yet. The story calls for his character to be the family's rock, and he does a wonderful job balancing all of his childrens' emotions while we can clearly see he's barely holding himself together. This energy wells behind his eyes from the start of the film, and his moment of release proves to be powerfully moving. Mortensen's Ben is the emotional and moral center of the film, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. 

While the adult supporting cast of Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, and the aforementioned Langella do well with their respective roles, the real treat opposite Mortensen's brilliance lies with his on-screen children. Each actor brings forth a unique and definable performance that complements everyone else in the group. Shree Crooks offers an encyclopedic intelligence while Charlie Shotwell gives us a youthful innocence. Nicholas Hamilton brings fury and anger while Annalise Basso illustrates a wild and independent spirit. Samantha Isler presents a thoughtful adolescence while George MacKay shows us a boy standing on the precipice of manhood. Each character belongs to one particular moment of childhood, and through them all, we see the full spectrum of life and learning. Individually, the film presents a set of truly beautiful characters, but when the sextet blends together, we just might be seeing one of the most cohesive and complete family units every put to the silver screen. 

In the midst of telling his story, Matt Ross performs a balancing act by showing both the positive and negative aspects of the life lifestyle that Mortensen's Ben has created. In certain moments, we feel drawn to his character's ideals, believing him to be showing the audience the way, the truth, and the light. When other characters stand in opposition of his principles, they sound outrageous and insane. As time continues to pass, however, the rose-colored glasses fall off our faces, and we begin to see the flaws in Ben's experiment. Just as the on-screen individuals begin to question their own livelihoods, we too start to wonder what would be best in the situation and how we might act and react were it to happen to us. Captain Fantastic does a wonderful job in portraying both sides of the coin, allowing the viewer to determine just where they stand. Ross presents this opportunity deftly, showing the steady hand one would expect from a more seasoned director. 

Much of the film's events take place as a result of one character's complications with bipolar disorder, but the movie itself also uses the bipolar concept as a template. We experience the drastic highs and lows alongside Ben and his family, and we feel the swings of emotion as we join them on their journey. Captain Fantastic is ultimately about life and death, but it's also about love and hate, right and wrong, and pain and forgiveness. The depth of the characters will draw you to them, and the depth of their emotion will pull on your heartstrings as you laugh and cry with this off little family. For a pure, emotional experience, Captain Fantastic will simply be hard to beat. 

Review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond
2016

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

When J.J. Abrams took the helm of The Force Awakens, Star Wars fans around the world rejoiced. Having seen what he had done with reinvigorating the Star Trek franchise, many believed him to be the perfect fit for George Lucas's universe. Trekkers, on the other hand, started to worry about their beloved franchise that Abrams had brought back from the brink. For the first time in years, it seemed as though Star Trek could be a viable film franchise, but with their director's departure, it let the series in a state of limbo. A number of names were tossed into consideration for the job, but no one knew whether Abrams's successor could bring the same quality of film that the previous two installments had brought. 

Star Trek Beyond follows the continuing adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise, led by the fearless Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). Three years deep into their five-year mission, Kirk has started to grow tired with his life in space and looks to seat himself behind a desk for the remainder of his career. When a distress signal sends he and his crew into the depths of a nebula, the Enterprise is suddenly and deliberately attacked by an alien force led by the evil Krall (Idris Elba). Stranded on an uncharted without a ship, Kirk and his crew must improvise to the best of their abilities to escape their captivity and return to the Federation. In the process, however, they soon learn that Krall's plot may spell doom for the entire galaxy. 

The success of the first two films ensured that the franchise would need a fitting replacement in the director's chair. The studio ultimately landed on Justin Lin, who brought an eye for action from the Fast and the Furious franchise. Would he be able to juggle that grounded, streetcar action with the sci-fi element so desperately needed in the Star Trek universe? Fortunately, Lin was blessed with a solid screenplay from Doug Jung and Simon Pegg which surely helped him in his endeavors. 

Star Trek has long been the franchise that delves into intelligent science fiction with a solid basis of social commentary. While I feel as though these movies have strayed a bit from the latter, they have still offered fans their legitimate dose of sci-fi, even if the ships and gadgets don't wow us the way they must have amazed audiences in the 1960s. Jung and Pegg easily slide into this vein, bringing a story rife with action, drama, and a true sense of adventure. The story itself kept me guessing, and I was so engrossed with the film that I found myself shocked with some of the twists and turns it took. That's a true testament to the filmmakers' storytelling ability. What really sets this franchise apart, however, is its ability to craft complete and believable characters. While most of these characters have a long and storied history through the television show and the previous films, but I believe that these characters have adapted for the grander universe in which they now live, bringing slightly different nuances to the table. This installment also felt much more team-oriented than its predecessors; while the last two films centered around the Kirk and Spock characters, Beyond gave the rest of the cast the opportunity to show off their character's individual skill sets. If Justin Lin brought anything over from the Furious franchise, it was the ability to demonstrate effectively the best qualities of a team through its individual members. We definitely get a sense of that with Star Trek Beyond. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have their screen-time but don't dominate the story; instead, we get to see a little bit more of Pegg's Scotty, Karl Urban's McCoy, Zoe Saldana's Uhura, John Cho's Sulu, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov as they play integral roles in saving the galaxy from destruction. 

I could easily spend plenty of time on the cast's effectiveness within their individual roles, but most of the returning players meet the splendid status quo they have achieved in the past two films. Instead, I want to focus on the franchise newcomers in Sofia Boutella and Idris Elba. Boutella, who most might remember from her supporting role as an assassin in last year's Kingsman, does a fantastic job playing opposite Montgomery Scott for most of the film's duration. She brings to life a multifaceted character who is given plenty of time to showcase her incredible physical prowess while still delving into slightly dramatic moments while talking about her character's past. Elba, who has been all over the cinematic map this year, takes on the nefarious villain Krall and does so incredibly effectively. Despite being hidden beneath layers of makeup, Elba still manages to bring a menacing ferocity to the character and just might cement himself as the best villain in this particular saga. 

I do want to take a moment to mention the two members of the Star Trek family have passed since the release of 2013's Into Darkness. The legendary Leonard Nimoy, who originated the Spock character and reprised him in these most recent films, was given a fitting sendoff, and the filmmakers used their love and admiration for him as a sort of springboard for Zachary Quinto's Spock in this film. The world more recently lost the young Anton Yelchin, and it proved to be incredibly difficult for me to watch him on the screen knowing that we would never be able to see just how far his potential would take him. I felt as though his character receives more screen-time in Beyond than he had in the previous installments which I believe is a testament to the fact that his star power was on the rise. The two received simple but fitting tributes as the credits rolled, and I personally had to hold back the waterworks as their names flashed by. While there will be more posthumous performances from the young Yelchin, seeing him one last time in the biggest of his adventures solidified his place in Hollywood lore. 

While I can't quite say that this is the best entry in the newest Star Trek saga, Beyond serves as an incredibly enjoyable film from start to finish. Justin Lin picks up exactly where J.J. Abrams left off, and Star Trek fans should have faith with the direction the franchise now seems to be heading. If you're looking for a smart, exciting, and adventurous blockbuster, you'd be hard-pressed to find something better than Star Trek Beyond playing in theaters right now.