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26 August 2016

Brendan Hay was a writer on "The Daily Show", as well as one of Jon Stewart's Oscars telecasts and an episode of "The Simpsons". Now, he's the showrunner for DreamWorks Animation's "Dawn of the Croods", which debuts Season 2 on Netflix this weekend. Hay discussed it all (and even made picks for this year's Oscar Host - or hosts), in this LCJ Q&A.

In Theaters

Hands of Stone (R) B-

Hands of Stone (R) B- - Movie Reviews for Kids

Boxing movies, always a popular genre, have been a “main event” in Hollywood over the past few years. The latest on the card, “Hands of Stone”, is a lightweight compared to most fight films. But it does have an element of “class” and tone that provide for a satisfying viewing.

This is the story of Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran (played by Edgar Ramirez, most recently seen in “Joy” and “Point Break”). Much of the early portion of “Hands of Stone” focuses on Duran as a poor young boy with the urge to fight. We flash-forward seven years and Duran is making a name for himself in the ring - and wooing school girl Felicidad Iglesias (played by Ana de Armas, who audiences JUST saw in “War Dogs”).

With classic (“Raging Bull”) and campy (“Grudge Match”) roles as a fighter under his belt, Robert De Niro takes-on the duties of trainer here, playing Ray Arcel, who comes out of forced retirement to work with Duran, who he sees early-on as a future champion. In recent boxing films it’s the trainer that’s become the coveted role - from Christian Bale in “The Fighter”, to Forest Whitaker in “Southpaw” and Sylvester Stallone turning the tables on Rocky Balboa in “Creed”. De Niro’s presence and performance give “Hands of Stone” the weight it needs to be worth the price of admission.

Most sports fans over 45 likely know the saga of Duran’s professional career. The script treats his career highlights in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward fashion, so boxing experts and fight fans expecting new, interesting layers to this story will be underwhelmed. As someone who knew nothing about Duran, his bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard or the impact of “No Mas” until this movie, I found all of it interesting.

“Hands of Stone” doesn’t pack quite the same punch in the second half as the first, but it’s never dull. The political tensions of the time between the U.S. and Panama over the Panama Canal, and the drama surrounding the two Duran/Leonard fights (especially the rematch) kept me in the flow. Sugar Ray, by the way, is played by R&B superstar Usher (as Usher Raymond IV). The role doesn’t require a lot acting, but the singer handles himself quite well.

“Hands of Stone” isn’t emotionally dominant, but it’s not intended to be your typical “underdog crowd-pleasing sports film”, regardless of the final five minutes. Instead, Duran is depicted as maybe the most unsympathetic on-screen boxer in recent memory, and I give the film bonus points for that approach.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Hands of Stone” gets a B-.

Mechanic: Resurrection (R) D

Mechanic: Resurrection (R) D - Movie Reviews for Kids

"Mechanic: Resurrection" is the sequel to 2011's action/thriller "The Mechanic" (which was a remake of a 1972 film of the same name, starring Charles Bronson). Buried in January, "ME1" only grossed $29 million in the U.S. This sequel opens at the end of August, the dreaded period of the movie year when studios dump films not good enough for the legit Summer schedule or Awards contention later in the year. But every Summer needs a bad action movie to wrap things up, and "ME2" certainly fits that bill.

Jason Statham has made a career out of killing people - on screen. And as Arthur Bishop in "The Mechanic" and again here in "Mechanic: Ressurection", he's so good at it that he makes assassinations look like accidents. The hitman gets lured out of retirement ("Jason Bourne"-esque) and is tasked with killing three of the most dangerous arms dealers in the world or his kidnapped girlfriend will be "eliminated". Gina is played by Jessica Alba. In press interviews, Alba said she took the role because it isn't the typical "damsel in distress" part. But that's EXACTLY what it is - aside from a few times she gets to kick guys in the groin.

"ME2" begins with a laugh-out-loud opening sequence, in which Statham either stabs, shoots, or does things I can't describe in print, to at a least a dozen bad guys. The body count by the film's end approaches 100 - and he takes them all down single-handedly. Enjoying the variety of killing methods the assassin uses does provide a level of entertainment. However, as a whole - from the visuals to the sound effects and the performances - "Mechanic: Ressurection" is an exercise in cheese.

Speaking of "Jason Bourne", Tommy Lee Jones, who a month ago was seen tracking down that title character, adds to the level of camp with a 3rd act appearance as Bishop's final target - Max Adams. Tommy Lee Jones looks nothing like a Max Adams. What he does look like is a bit bizarre, even for TLJ: short haircut, goatee, Ozzy Osbourne sunglasses and earrings, a black T-shirt, leather jacket and ripped jeans. His best line comes after he and Bishop secretly escape a life-threatening situation, with those watching the surveillance video presuming he's a goner: "I never realized dying could be so exhilarating." Not as exhilarating as cashing the paycheck from being in this mess.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mechanic: Resurrection" gets a D. Of course, the final scene sets-up a "Mechanic 3". Let's hope someone takes his tools away before that can happen. 

Hell or High Water (R) B-

Hell or High Water (R) B- - Movie Reviews for Kids

"Hell or High Water" has a very simple premise: a couple of bank-robbing brothers are looking to rob more banks so they can pay-off...the bank - and save the family ranch. A sheriff on the verge of retirement and his longtime partner are out to catch them.

Complete with his Texas "True Grit" twang, Jeff Bridges plays that elderly sheriff, Marcus Hamilton. His targets: Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who also braved violent ocean waves together in "The Finest Hours" earlier this year). The Howards aren't looking to hit the biggest banks, and they aren't gunning for the largest wads of cash. They have a specific plan: modest "withdrawals" from several branches of the same bank - and the money quickly adds up.

Hamilton thinks he's figured out the boys' plan, and he makes tracking them down his final mission. His Native American partner (played by Gil Birmingham from "The Twilight Saga") believes Hamilton is using this case to hold-off retirement a little bit longer.

All four central characters have positive characteristics and nearly just as many flaws. This conflict in values is one of the strengths of "Hell or High Water", as it challenges you to decide who, exactly, you should be rooting for. Actually, the real enemy in this tragic saga isn't revealed until very late in the film. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario") has crafted a solid, modern day Western heist movie, that definitely holds your interest. However, the ultimate resolution is underwhelming.

The actual bank robbery scenes are well-staged and nerve-wracking to watch, and the performances, with Bridges leading the way, are noteworthy. Katy Mixon ("Mike & Molly") has a small role as a waitress who, in one of the movie's best scenes, squares-off with the Oscar winner and takes him down (no gun necessary).

There's a lot to like about "Hell or High Water", and enough meat on the bone to warrant a recommendation. I just wish there was one unique twist, or another interesting layer, to complicate things a bit. Once it becomes clear where this story is headed, you realize that's it's not going to end well - for anybody. 

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hell or High Water" gets a B-.

War Dogs (R) C+

War Dogs (R) C+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

While promoting “War Dogs” on “Live!”, Kelly Ripa asked star Jonah Hill, “Did you get to meet the person you play?” Hill replied, while chuckling and with a smile, “No. He’s, like, suing us and stuff. I probably shouldn’t talk about it.”

“War Dogs” has some legitimate controversy behind it, with the man Hill portrays, Efraim Diveroli, indeed, suing Warner Bros. over the rights to the film’s screenplay, which is based on a Rolling Stone article. It’s no surprise, then, that the typical “While the film is based on true events, liberties were taken…” paragraph appears fairly early on in the closing credits.

The magazine piece that inspired “War Dogs” appealed so much to “Hangover” trilogy director Todd Phillips, that he reportedly became “obsessed” with it and quickly optioned to turn it into a movie. Bradley Cooper came on board to co-produce it, and similarly to the entrance of his character midway through “Joy” last year, the appearance of his shady businessman, Henry Girard, in “War Dogs” provides the film with more of an edge and moves the narrative in more interesting directions.

Miles Teller plays David Packouz, who in 2005, quit his job as a male masseuse in Miami Beach, to join Diveroli, his best friend from middle school, as arms dealers for the U.S. military. They work the phones and the internet, and even travel to Baghdad at the height of the Iraq War, making weapons deals for ridiculous amounts of cash. Teller also serves as narrator, and, appropriate to his name, tells us everything that went on, legal and illegal, in a very informational, “matter-of-fact” style.

The first two-thirds of “War Dogs” feel like two dogs, literally, are at war with each other - one fighting for this film to be a comedy, the other equally determined to produce a drama. There are some occasional tense moments, but Hill’s over-the-top character, a role reminiscent of his pal Leonardo DiCaprio’s in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, is clearly intended to be funny. Phillips finally settles on a serious tone for the final act, which is the right choice. It’s here when we finally get a sense of the dynamic between Diveroli and Packouz, without the many predictable side elements that only serve to clutter the script for the first two-thirds of the film.

Hill is very convincing, Teller is solid, and Phillips has compiled one of the best soundtracks of the year. I just wish “War Dogs” didn’t feel so conventional. This movie could have used a Wolf or two - to add some much-needed Bite.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "War Dogs" gets a C+.

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"Kubo and the Two Strings" review

What's Next?
  • "The Light Between Oceans" - Sept. 2
  • "Sully" - Sept. 9
  • "Snowden" - Sept. 16
  • "Bridget Jones's Baby" - Sept. 16
  • "The Magnificent Seven" - Sept. 23
  • "Storks" - Sept. 23
Best @ the Box Office
  1. "Suicide Squad"  $20.7M
  2. "Sausage Party"  $15.3
  3. "War Dogs"  $14.3
  4. "Kubo and/Two Strings"  $12.6
  5. "Ben-Hur"  $11.4
  6. "Pete's Dragon"  $11.3
  7. "Bad Moms"  $8.1
  8. "Jason Bourne"  $8.0
  9. "The Secret Life of Pets"  $5.8
  10. "Florence Foster Jenkins"  $4.3
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LCJ and Mackenzie Foy

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