Movie Review ~ Long Shot


The Facts
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Synopsis: An unemployed journalist battered by his own misfortune endeavors to pursue his childhood crush and babysitter, who now happens to be one of the most powerful and unattainable women on the planet.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Don’t look now, but we may actually be in a small scale renaissance of the mid-range romantic comedy. There were rumblings that it was coming back when last year’s Crazy Rich Asians made a splash, only to be followed by the popular streaming releases like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Set Up. So far this year, we’ve had the modest hit Isn’t it Romantic and soon after Long Shot’s May release there’s still The Sun is Also a Star to look forward to and Last Christmas for the holidays…plus several more Netflix offerings along the way. It’s not a full scale rebirth of the genre but it definitely gets a healthy dose of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation courtesy of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot.

Originally conceived as more low-brow comedy titled Flarsky, the script from Dan Sterling attracted the attention of Seth Rogen after it got good buzz on The Blacklist, the infamous Hollywood insider-y annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Rogen brought in screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) who gave the film a good polish, making the starring female role more of real person and creating more equality between the lead protagonists. With a new title and Rogen’s friend Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) in the director’s seat all they needed was a star. And boy did they get one.

Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the real reason you should be buying a ticket to see Long Shot and is the film’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, you may be a fan of Rogen, romantic comedies, or just need a solid two hour film that is worth your time but Theron is by far the main selling point Long Shot has to offer. Already adept at playing any genre she’s thrown into, Theron dives headfirst into a role that requires the actress to convince us her gorgeous buttoned-up Secretary of State could fall for Rogen’s lumpy (but lovable) political journalist, all while keeping her composure as she plots out an environmental treaty to lay the groundwork for her presidential run.

Recently fired from his grassroots publication, Fred Flarsky (Rogen, This is the End) is drowning his sorrows with his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton) at an upscale benefit when he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron). Flarsky may have written a few popular pieces on the internet but Field has done considerably better for herself; she’s the youngest Secretary of State under a dim bulb President (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) who was elected after playing the Commander in Chief on TV for years. When the President decides not to run again and offers to endorse Field, she gets early reports (from a too-brief cameo by Lisa Kudrow, Friends with Kids) that the public doesn’t think she has a sense of humor. Running into Flarsky and reading his material gives her an idea: why not hire this guy who knew her back in the day and see if he can punch up her image?

For Field, this starts as a business proposition. For Flarsky, this is a chance to get closer to a girl he has had a crush on since he was a pre-teen. Even more than that, he believes in her as a politician and gets behind her as a potential presidential nominee. As they make their way around the globe gathering support for her environmental protection plan, the two get closer…much to the horror of her staff members (June Diane Raphael, Girl Most Likely and Ravi Patel, Master of None) until they become an unlikely item.

It really is on Theron to sell us on her character falling for Fred and Rogen and Levine help her get there (with no small assistance from Hannah’s script) by keeping Charlotte aware of their differences but following her heart anyway. That’s what makes it all work because, unlike other Rogen vehicles where he’s paired with beauties just…because, here he initially winds up with the girl by winning over her brain first before anything physical happens.

Clocking in a tad over two hours, the movie comes in just a hair too long and a wiser editor could have excised more of Jackson’s unnecessary scenes as Fred’s friend that don’t wind up informing the action on anything we don’t already know. As good as Raphael and Patel are, they only work in small doses and their business could be trimmed as well because we really want more time with Theron and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rogen.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Serkis (Black Panther) popping up in a truly bizarre role as a publishing magnate with ties to Charlotte and Fred.  It’s not that the role is bizarre, it’s that Serkis is under heavy layers of make-up to render him unrecognizable.  Why?

The film almost makes it across the finish line without resorting to gross out gags but can’t resist a fairly atrocious bit of toilet humor that cheapens things up at the wrong time. Honestly, I get why they inserted it in the grand scheme of things but it sinks the film to a different level that I thought it was rising above.  Still, that and a rather perfunctory ending can’t erase the fun of the previous 100 or so minutes and any movie that prominently features Roxette’s mega-anthem “It Must Have Been Love” on more than one occasion already scores high in my book.

Movie Review ~ Hellboy (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Hellboy and his closest allies battle an undead sorceress who has the intention of destroying the world

Stars: David Harbour, Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Sophie Okonedo, Brian Gleeson, Alistair Petrie

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I believe it’s best for me to out myself right at the top of this review. I was not a comic book kid so have never been well versed in the mythology of the characters that have turned up in the pages over the years. From Marvel to DC to the Dark House imprint that published the Hellboy comics, it was just never something that I found any traction with so I was left to be a happy fan that would see these characters come to life for the first time on the big screen. I mean to show you how out of the loop I was, when The Avengers was first announced I thought it was another remake of the UK series from the 1960’s.

I give this disclaimer at the beginning of my review of Hellboy because I’m coming at this with no knowledge of what the characters SHOULD be or what the tone of the comics was. All I can report back on with my modicum of authority is the quality of this rebooted product taken as an outsider. Though it starts off with some verve and vigor, far too soon it becomes packed with the kind of noise and shoddy CGI that overwhelms the audience instead of impressing them.

The road to this Hellboy restage has been a long one, with plans for a third film under director Guillermo del Toro’s watch being abandoned in favor of starting fresh. That meant del Toro (who would wind up winning an Oscar for The Shape of Water) and original star Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim) were out and director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Tales of Halloween) and David Harbour (Suicide Squad) were in. Further separating this film from the 2004 original and its 2008 sequel was a desire to bring the character back to his darker roots and away from the more outwardly heroic (and PG-13) character del Toro and Perlman created. This new Hellboy was going to be an R-rated brawler pitted against a host of ghastly foes.

Marshall makes it clear from the opening that his approach will be different. The first shot of the film finds a crow picking the eyeball out of a corpse while Ian McShane (Jack the Giant Slayer) narrates a prologue littered with foul language. It’s here we’re introduced to the evil witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), known as The Blood Queen, who is defeated by King Arthur and cut into pieces that are spread around the world so her powers can never again be restored. Jumping ahead to introduce Hellboy as he searches for a missing agent within a nest of Tijuana vampires, the bloodletting continues.

These early scenes kick off the movie with some semblance of charm and hint there is some playfulness afoot in Andrew Cosby’s screenplay that mixes Arthurian lore with tales of vampires, witches, giants, and various other ghoulies and beasts. It’s when Hellboy’s dad (McShane) sends him off to England to assist members of The Osiris Club take down a trio of ugly giants that the film begins its gradual decline into less interesting territory. It’s also when the two weakest links in the film are introduced.

Daniel Dae Kim (Allegiant) and Sasha Lane (American Honey) become allies of Hellboy as he hunts down Nimue and her warthog henchman and you’ll wish he were working alone. As Ben Daimio, an agent harboring a dark secret, Kim barely registers as Hellboy’s opposites attract sidekick who starts off trading barbs with the red devil before softening the more he gets to know him. While Kim may struggle with his British accent it’s nothing in comparison to the abysmal effort from Lane as Alice Monaghan, a woman abducted by faeries as a child that has the ability to speak for/as the dead. Everything about Lane is wrong, from her atrocious accent (when it’s there) to her basic line readings that often arrive without inflection – if ever a single performance could ruin a movie, this is it.

As our main guy, Harbour brings the requisite attitude to the proceedings, with his Hellboy a more tortured soul haunted by his past than Perlman chose to play him. I feel like Perlman still has the edge on the role, though Harbour makes his Hellboy wholly separate and his own. The person that seems to be having the most fun and who recognizes what movie she’s actually in is Jovovich as the villainous Blood Queen seeking to find a king to rule alongside her. Reaching out to Hellboy as a possible contender for the throne, Jovovich manages to find some strange sparks with Harbor – it’s not exactly sexual chemistry but something a little more meaty and wicked. Jovovich has been relegated to Resident Evil sequel hell for years and it’s nice to see her show up in something different.

Most of the practical make-up effects are quite impressive, from Hellboy’s detailed horn stumps to the truly terrifying character of Baba Yaga. Their meeting in a nightmare-scape is a highlight of the film and I wished that Baba Yaga was given more screentime, though it feels like the studio is holding onto her for intended future installments. It’s the CGI effects that are uneven throughout. Some of the visual effects look downright terrible, a few notches up from something you would see on the SyFy channel. We’re supposed to be immersed in this world yet the sub-standard effects keep jarring us back into the reality we’re in a theater. Some late in the game scenes of extreme gore (think innocent Londoners literally ripped in half) are kind of a hoot but wind up so fake looking that the impact isn’t what the filmmakers intended.

I’ll be interested to hear what fans of the Hellboy comics think of this new film and if it aligns more with their vision of the character. Two post-credit scenes signal intentions on keeping this franchise going and if a sequel ditches Kim and Lane, improves the effects, and maybe uses make-up that is more practical than computer generated it might smooth out some of the rough edges of this reboot.

Movie Review ~ A Simple Favor


The Facts
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Synopsis: A mommy blogger seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Bouncing back nicely from the unfortunate misfire of the Ghostbusters reboot, director Paul Feig wisely cleared his stable of familiar players and cast Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 3) and Blake Lively (The Shallows) in this supremely fun adaptation of Darcey Bell’s mystery novel.  It’s a darker, edgier film for Feig and one that doesn’t rely on silly humor for its amusement.

Kendrick is a do-it-all divorced single parent befriended by Lively’s chic married professional.  The two become fast friends over afternoon drinks during their kids playdates and while Kendrick’s character is a bit of a wet blanket at first, Lively gives her some good advice on how to get what you want by speaking  up.  When Lively disappears and doesn’t seem likely to return, a national search is enacted by her husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) and Kendrick who grow closer the longer she is away.  There are twists aplenty as dead bodies are found and skeletons in closets are uncovered, leading to a solution to the mystery that’s intriguing and competently executed by Feig and company.

Apart from keeping the movie floating along with ease, Feig has filled the film with a great color palate and wonderful supporting characters (Jean Smart is a riot in a small but pivotal role), not to mention snazzy costumes for all.  Kendrick leans into the complexities her character is given but it’s Lively who has the most interesting material to work with.  To say more might tip you off as to what transpires in the second half of the movie but just when you think you’ve figured out what’s happening a new wrinkle is tossed in to throw you off balance.  This was one of the most fun movies I saw in 2018 – a highlight to be sure.

31 Days to Scare ~ Hell Fest (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A masked serial killer turns a horror themed amusement park into his own personal playground, terrorizing a group of friends while the rest of the patrons believe that it is all part of the show.

Stars: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Tony Todd

Director: Gregory Plotkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’ve always been a fan of haunted houses and a few years back I had the chance to step behind the scenes and be a part of one of them in my hometown.  As much fun as it is going through a creepy maze or demented house of horror I have to say that when you’re the one doing the scaring the enjoyment factor is raised several notches.  On the flip side, it makes it hard to go back to the other side of the scare which is why movies like the otherwise respectable Hell Fest don’t have quite the same impact on me now.

Though it possesses little in the way of actual scares, director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) has crafted a good-looking movie that hums along nicely for it’s brief running time.  Plotkin has assembled a cabal of fresh-faced actors that do fine with the material and even at times elevate it from the paint-by-numbers schlock it most certainly is.  That’s not to say the script from Seth M. Sherwood and Blair Butler is total hogwash because there’s an interesting concept here: killer blends in among the revelers at Hell Fest, eventually targeting a woman and her friends as they work through mazes and rides that take them deeper into frightening territory.

Arriving in town just in time to accompany her friends to Hell Fest, Natalie (Amy Forsyth) isn’t much for scares but is interested in seeing potential love interest Gavin (Roby Attal) who has secured VIP passes for everyone.  Best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) and smart-acre Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) have their own boyfriends in tow so it becomes a triple date that’s quickly interrupted by a masked killer that starts to pick people off one-by-one as the night progresses.  Instead of heeding her own gut instincts, Natalie writes off her fears she’s being stalked as just a part of the price of admission in being scared but realizes too late she’s right on the money in feeling like her neck is on the line.

A few things don’t quite pan out here.  We’re told Hell Fest is so popular the entire run of dates has sold out yet nothing ever seems too busy.  Anyone that has ever been to an even marginally popular haunted attraction knows you are almost always packed shoulder to shoulder with other guests; that Natalie and her friends seem to have plenty of room to move about (and hang out in) these spaces is far-fetched.  Also, everyone seems to brush off the impending threat of death without much fanfare.  I know it’s a “busy” night and scares are the name of the game but is no one actually working at these places were bodies are left and discovering the gooey remains?

Those quibbles aside, this is a strange R-rated feature that doesn’t go all the way with its rating.  The kills are relatively tame and a few characters are disappointingly dispatched without much of a send-off.  With the size of the cast you would think that the writers and director could have come up with more showcases of gory offings just to please those looking for something a step up from a PG-13 rating.  Only a death by mallet and a guillotine sequence manage to stir some creative juices but they aren’t enough to help separate Hell Fest from other low-impact horror flicks available.  For reference, seek out The Funhouse from 1981 instead, it isn’t great either but that one at least makes good on some smart kills.

Even so, I’m giving this one a partial recommendation on the basis that it’s more than decent in production quality with respectable performances.  Also, I for one liked seeing the different attractions the gang screams their way through.  I can only imagine what those VIP tickets cost to the fictional Hell Fest of the movie but gaining entrance to Hell Fest at your local theater is worth a $5 matinee admission.

Movie Review ~ Early Man


The Facts
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Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

Movie Review ~ The Commuter


The Facts
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Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.

The Silver Bullet ~ Leatherface

Synopsis: in Texas, years before the events of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in the early days of the infamous Sawyer family, the youngest child is sentenced to a mental hospital after a suspicious incident leaves the sheriff’s daughter dead.

Release Date:  October 20, 2017

Thoughts: At this point, I don’t know where the hell we are in the vast landscape of the sequels, prequels, sequels to prequels, and reboots of sequels and their prequels as they relate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Last time Leatherface was seen on screen was back in 2013 with Texas Chainsaw 3D and while that was an enjoyable watch it didn’t seem to make a dent in the box office.  It’s rumored that Leatherface will swing by a few theaters before going to DirectTV On Demand but with interesting character actors like Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) and Stephen Dorff (The Iceman) taking roles in this I have to say I’m a bit intrigued.  Couple that with direction from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo who delivered the stomach churning but impressive Inside and my intrigue turns into full blown curiosity.    

The Silver Bullet ~ Jigsaw

Synopsis: Bodies are turning up around the city, each having met a uniquely gruesome demise. As the investigation proceeds, evidence points to one man: John Kramer. But how can this be? The man known as Jigsaw has been dead for over a decade.

Release Date: October 27, 2017

Thoughts: We’ve been lied to!  After seven films, the Saw series was said to be over and done with back in 2010.  Well, it’s not the first time we’ve been told that a franchise was ending only to have greedy studio execs drum up another sequel…but why do I get the nagging feeling that Jigsaw might represent a neat little surprise for all the naysayers?  It’s probably my willingness to give any horror sequel a shot in the hopes it won’t be another cheaply made retread of previous entries.  I’m hopeful already seeing that Jigsaw is being directed by The Spierig Brothers who haven’t helmed any blockbusters but have made some vastly underrated pics.  If you don’t believe me, do yourself a solid and seek out Predestination.   

Movie Review ~ Now You See Me 2

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’m just as surprised as you are that 2013’s Now You See Me did well enough to warrant a sequel seeing that I left my screening frustrated at its cheats and wholly averse to its attempts to charm. Still, someone thought it was smart move to assemble the old crew again three years down the line and aside from a new female in the mix, not much has changed about the film or my opinion of the series as a whole.  What could have been a slick summer mea culpa sequel is just another time-wasting sleight of hand.  It’s not that we can see what the actors and filmmakers have up their sleeves, it’s that we don’t care in the first place.

If you haven’t seen the first film you’re going to get some spoilers so if you don’t mind having the final twist of the original spoiled for you keep reading.

In the years since the Four Horseman took down a wealthy mogul (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) and a shady secret spiller (Morgan Freeman, Lucy) they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, Warm Bodies) haven’t gone far though and as they’re readying another elaborate trick to expose a cell-phone hacking scam they’re joined by Lula (newcomer Lizzy Caplan, Bachelorette, replacing Isla Fisher as the lone lady in the bunch) who was recruited by their leader, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo, Spotlight).  A mole in the FBI agency, Rhodes has been leading his colleagues on multiple wild goose chases, until it all catches up to him and his Horsemen when the tables are turned and they’re split up.

The Horsemen wind up in China, face to face with elvish Daniel Radcliffe (What If) who has grown a beard to show he’s not Harry Potter any longer. There’s some jibber jabber about an all-powerful computer chip Radcliffe wants and a rather lengthy sequence where the Horsemen break into a high security company to retrieve said chip. Hiding the wafer thin treasure on a playing card, director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) takes, no kidding, nearly five minutes showing the Horsemen passing the card between each other to avoid being caught by guards that are frisking them. It’s an exhausting passage of time that isn’t nearly as impressive as anyone involved thinks it is.

Meanwhile, Rhodes has to bust Freeman’s character out of jail because only he knows who’s behind the mystery.  A personal vendetta between the two men quickly resurfaces and becomes a focal point for several head-scratching plot twists down the road. When the Horsemen and Rhodes are reunited, the final truth of who the man behind it all is and though the mystery is ostensibly solved, there’s still a good forty-five minutes left.  It’s in these forty-five minutes that I officially checked out as it’s just a series of parlor trick moments that are less than magical.

As I’ve said before, magic tricks onscreen just don’t work for me because there’s no sense of disbelief one can reasonably hold.  When magic is done live and in person, it can be an impressive experience because you learn to not trust your eyes.  On film, when I see a trick being performed in the middle of multiple edits and angles I’m just wondering how many takes and lighting set-ups it took to get it to look right. It just doesn’t work for me.  At all.

Performances here are in line with the broad script.  God love him, Ruffalo acts the hell out of his role and for that I thank him. If only his co-stars had found a way to do the same. Eisenberg is as nebbish and stilted as ever, Franco is disarming but not given much to do, Caplan starts off with spunk but gradually gets reduced to ninth banana, Radcliffe as usual is having way more fun than we are, and Caine and Freeman are just there to cash their checks (at least Freeman is required to both stand up and walk in this film…unlike London Has Fallen).  And poor Harrelson pulls double duty as Merritt and his offensively fey twin.

Capping off with another finale that throws some random turns in at the very end, Now You See Me 2 is slickly made and moves fast but is superficially bland and all together hollow.

Movie Review ~ The Choice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Travis and Gabby first meet as neighbors in a small coastal town and wind up in a relationship that is tested by life’s most defining events.

Stars: Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Maggie Grace, Alexandra Daddario, Tom Welling, Brett Rice, Tom Wilkinson, Sharon Blackwood

Director: Ross Katz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I fought The Choice.  I mean, I fought it hard.  And if you’re like me, you’ve tired of your long ride on the Nicholas Sparks emotional merry-go-round film adaptations where true love is easily won and tragically lost.  It also didn’t help that The Choice has, without a doubt, the worst marketing and trailers for any Sparks film to date.  I warmed slightly to 2013’s The Lucky One, disliked 2014’s The Longest Ride, and was buckled in for another trite trip through a gossamer North Carolina doomed romance. Surprise! I liked it, finding it the most enjoyable Sparks film since The Notebook (that’s seven movies ago, in case you were wondering) and, while imperfect, a decent addition to the modern romance genre.

To be fair, it’s rough going for the first 20 minutes.  Screenwriter Bryan Sipe (Demolition) uses that old chestnut, The Flashback Framing Device, to bait us into waiting 90 minutes for an answer to a question posed in voiceover by our leading man.  Traveling seven years back in time (and making sure we know it by the hauling out a crude Blackberry) we’re plopped on the deck of a North Carolina boat where Travis Parker (Liam Neeseon look-alike Benjamin Walker, In the Heart of the Sea, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is sweet-talking some bikini-clad extras.  While he’s not painted as an outright d-bag, Walker certainly gives off the ‘won’t call you back’ red flags that would send any female with half a brain running in the opposite direction.

He meets his match in Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer, bouncing back nicely from a wasted turn in 2015’s Point Break remake), a headstrong medical student nearing the end of her rotations that’s renting the cottage next door to Travis. Their ‘meet cute’ moment is anything but, with Walker and Palmer awkwardly stammering their way through the first of many squabbles eventually leading to a passionate session on top of Palmer’s dining room table.

Ah…but there’s a problem.  She’s already spoken for, the trophy girlfriend of another doctor (Tom Welling, Draft Day, looking positively inflated to the point of bursting in his child’s size clothes) and he’s managing an on-again, off-again romance with a girlfriend (Alexandria Daddario, Texas Chainsaw 3D) his friends have dubbed Boomerang because she keeps coming back.  When her boyfriend goes out of town and his girlfriend simply vanishes from the film without much fanfare, the path is cleared for Travis and Gabby to get all handsy as they drift around the picturesque Carolina shores.  But wait…this is a Nicholas Sparks film after all so there has to be an obstacle (or obstacles) to overcome.

Like the spoiler-free reviewer I am, I’ll stop there because while the film may be lacking in overall surprise, it’s in the execution of the predictable happenings that pepper the final 1/3 of the film that helps to set The Choice apart from other Sparks yarns.  Walker and Palmer overcome their initial misalignment and find some genuine chemistry which helps them both fuel the fire needed for the final act.  Walker, especially, is quite good.  Though at first I felt he was doing a great Matthew McConaughey impression with his country-fried twang and winking flirtations, he comes through in a big way and carries the film through some rough waters.

In retrospect, Sipe’s screenplay leaves more than a few loose ends hanging: Gabby makes a big stink about studying for her final tests only to never hear from them again once she locks eyes with Travis.  It’s like her career and ambition evaporate in favor of a warm embrace. To each their own but it reduces Gabby to being a follower.  There’s also some talk of Gabby coming from wealth and apart from an amusing trip home, little more is made of this diversion after milking out some laughs from a comedy of errors.

In addition to Walker and Palmer, director Ross Katz (who also helmed the excellent HBO film Taking Chance) has cast the film well.  Tom Wilkinson (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) seems uncommonly relaxed as Travis’ dad, maybe because he doesn’t have to do any seriously heavy lifting.  I’m still not a fan of Maggie Grace (Lockout) but she has a few nice moments as Travis’ wise sister…though it’s a shame she has to do it in one of the most hideous wigs (at least I hope it was a wig) I’ve seen onscreen in some time.  Special mention must be made for Sharon Blackwood (Magic Mike XXL), a riot as an ever so slightly meddlesome receptionist.  Oh, and there’s a cute dog that elicited the appropriate amount of coos from audience members.

Bring a hanky for the finale but know that you’ll have enough time to dry those tears because the film doesn’t really know when (or how) to end…so it just sort of keeps puttering along until it finds a way to close out the proceedings.  It’s a too long wrap-up that starts to weigh the picture down instead of keeping it afloat.   An overall sense of good will makes this extended good-bye easier to stomach, even for this reviewer so averse to schmaltz.  Arriving just in time to be a smart Valentine’s Day, um, choice, this is an above average effort that’s a whole lot better than its own studio would have you believe.