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" 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 assasin 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 surveilance video presuming he's a goner: "I never realized dying could be so exhilirating." Not as exhilirating 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" 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-.
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+.
In the opening narration of “Kubo and the Two Strings”, our young hero asks of us, “If you must blink, do it now.” Turns-out - it’s difficult to take your eyes off the screen while watching one of the most visually striking and emotionally intense movies of the year.
“Kubo” is the latest stop-motion animated adventure from Laika, the makers of “Coraline”, “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls”, all of which received Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations. “Kubo” deserves to be on this year’s ballot. It’s the studio’s most ambitious and moving film to date.
This fable is set in ancient Japan. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is an 11-year-old boy who had his left eye taken from him as a baby. By day, Kubo tells stories in his local village, enchanting the townspeople with origami characters that come to life when he plays his magical shamisen - a traditional Japanese instrument. At night, he returns to care for his ill mother. They live in a nearby cave, and she shares stories with him about his heroic father, who died protecting him.
When Kubo is threatened by his evil Vendetta aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), his mother uses the last of her powers to bring a small ape figure to life, who will guide Kubo on a quest to find his father’s legendary suit of armor, which will protect him from his relatives, who want his other eye. Charlize Theron is excellent as Monkey, and Matthew McConaughey is equally strong as Beetle, a giant warrior and archer who they meet on their journey.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a visionary triumph. Not only is the animation breathtaking, but the screenplay is heavy and mature, with so much weight and symbolism concerning love and loss. “Kubo” is not for kids - more so than all of Laika’s previous movies. Yes, little ones will enjoy the few funny slapstick breaks and the action scenes, and there is some comic dialogue solely added to lighten the dramatic tone (most lines work - a few feel out-of-place). But there are also a handful of frightening mystical sequences mixed with issues such as what we believe happens to us when we die and close family members trying to gouge a little boy’s eye out that certainly aren’t intended for moviegoers under 12, especially those who’ve spent the summer with Dory, Scrat, Birds and cute household Pets.
Once again Laika takes plenty of risks. There are a couple of twists - one I saw coming, the other took me by complete surprise. Like Disney’s “Zootopia”, “Kubo” often has the look and feel of a live-action movie in animated form. The editing is a bit choppy in spots, and I didn’t love that the significance of the “Two Strings” is revealed very late.
However, when it comes to the ending (Kubo remarks that every story needs one), the final act contains bold, daring material centering on the power of memories and the need to have loved ones who have moved-on to the next life with us when we yearn for them the most. It’s incredibly effective.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Kubo and the Two Strings” gets an A-.
"Pete's Dragon" is Disney's latest re-imagining of one of their past favorites. However, the 1977 original isn't actually regarded as being on the upper tier of the Disney catalog, so it was definitely an interesting, if not risky choice. But director and co-writer David Lowrey ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints") took a serious, old-fashioned and sincere approach to the boy/dragon story - and struck gold.
The jarring opening scene sets the mature, largely sophisticated tone. At only 4 years old, Pete is the lone survivor of a car accident that claims the lives of both his mother and father (this may the fastest parents have ever been killed-off in a Disney film, and that's saying a lot). He flees into the woods with a book he was reading in the car and soon encounters a giant green dragon. The creature protects him from a pack of wolves and the two become fast friends. Pete names his dragon Elliot, the name of the dog in the book.
Following a six-year fast-forward, Lowrey devotes a large chunk of time to establishing this relationship, which will be the backbone of the film. We get a good 10 minutes of Pete (played by Oakes Fegley) and Elliot interacting in a variety of ways, allowing us to fully understand their bond. Comparisons can instantly be made to the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the "How to Train Your Dragon" films, and similar "animals protecting a boy" elements of Disney's own re-telling of "The Jungle Book" from earlier this year. What helps us buy into the Pete/Elliot friendship is the rugged, anti-cute appearance of the dragon. The CGI design decisions and execution make this one of the most believable fantasy creatures seen on screen in recent memory. Pete doesn't speak much, and Elliot doesn't talk at all, so their facial expressions and quick gestures often serve as their means of conversation. And unlike the original, there are no musical numbers used to liven things up.
Shot entirely in New Zealand, "Pete's Dragon" is set in Millhaven (or what Disney enthusiasts would call your typical Small Town, USA). The lumber business is what generates the revenue in a community that still uses cord telephones and record players. The idyllic, wholesome setting only enhances the throwback vibe. This movie could have been made in 1977. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace, and Robert Redford (who recently took "A Walk in the Woods", where he didn't find a dragon but did deal with with Nick Nolte) plays her dad, Meacham. For decades, he's told the tale of how he once saw a giant, green dragon in the forest - but very few people believed him. A new generation of town kids aren't sure what to think of the story, either. And they can't try to search for it on their phone or IPads, since the digital age hasn't yet reached Millhaven.
"Pete's Dragon" has a simple, majestic feel to it, though still with a bit of an edge. Pete and Natalie (Oona Laurence from "Southpaw"), the daughter of the owner of the lumberyard, are placed in peril throughout much of the movie due to successfully sneaking-off from the adults. This device is used multiple times in order to move the story along, which did bother me. But it's Disney peril, which means you know nothing bad will really happen to them (that only happens to parents), and the lack of imagination in the script doesn't detract from the calm, almost elegant rhythm. The editing is smart and Lowrey avoids getting trapped into predictable "save the trees/environmental message" territory I feared was coming.
While Elliot is the visual star, the cinematography of the wilderness scenes in particular are impressive. And there's a nice surprise in the final few moments to guarantee that everyone, in the film, and in the theater, goes home happy.
This is a step-back-in-time Disney family film. You can envision Walt, himself, introducing this on his "Wonderful World" TV show with a wide smile. It's "Spielbergian" in a way that Spielberg's own "The BFG" failed to be. When you hear older generation movie fans say, "they don't make movies like that anymore", you can now correct them and say "yes they do."
Refreshing and engaging from start to finish, on The Official LCJ Report Card, "Pete's Dragon" gets a B+.
Here’s the list of ingredients for every Seth Rogen adult, raunchy comedy:
- 15% original, funny, clean material
- 20% original, funny but inappropriate material
- 25% unoriginal, unfunny, inappropriate material
- and 40% filler
His latest - “Sausage Party” - follows this recipe exactly - oh, and it also includes the most pornographic 5-minute sequence in the history of animation.
The movie opens with an original song and production number called “The Great Beyond”, written by Disney legend, Alan Menken. It’s a psychedelic, profane and sexually explicit version of “Be Our Guest” - and it sets the tone for one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen, with Rogen at his most unapologetic.
Yes, the premise is unique: grocery store items that are actually “alive”, learning the real true about what happens when they are bought, or “chosen”. The lead characters are voiced by Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Danny McBride and more of Rogen’s regular posse. They could’ve taken “Sausage Party” in a bunch of different directions …and they chose to go in all of them.
The relationship at the center of the story involves Frank, the sausage, and hot dog bun Brenda. They desperately hope to be chosen by a customer and taken home, so they can finally get out of their packages and - umm - get together. They get separated and each go on a quest throughout the aisles of the store, meeting a variety of other products along the way. There are some genuinely clever and well thought-out moments of parody, political humor and even “spiritual insight” sprinkled in throughout the script.
However, the majority of the good stuff in “Sausage Party” is clouded-over by excessive use of profanity in the dialogue. Practically every sentence contains multiple F-bombs and a cornucopia of sexual references. And that’s NOT an exaggeration. This gets very old very quickly. There’s also a food vs. humans action movie subplot that allows Rogen to inject his trademark drug humor, which, again - “Been there, smoked that”. Someone needs to tell this guy that “Stoner Comedy” - even when the stoner sees his food coming to life - isn’t exactly cutting-edge material anymore.
“Sausage Party” literally has no filter. Every idea Rogen, Hill, Evan Goldberg and others on the team had in meetings was put into this movie - and clearly no one, including Sony execs, ever asked them to cut anything out.
Movies can be raunchy and also be very entertaining. Another Seth, Seth MacFarlane, proved that with his “Ted” movies. But even he knew when to draw the line, and he crafted legitimate stories around a wacky, “out there” premise. Like ALL of Rogen’s films, “Sausage Party” unnecessarily takes everything to the extreme to get the cheap laugh, and in the case of the final sequence, simply shock and stun the audience. And there are plenty of dull stretches, including a tacked-on ending, simply to get to the required 90-minute runtime.
Have to mention Edward Norton’s spot-on Woody Allen impression as the voice of Sammy Bagel, Jr. But is “Sausage Party“ worth “Checking-out”? Maybe if you have coupons and realize that some of it is well past its expiration date. Oh - and don’t even think about bringing the kids.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Sausage Party” gets a C-.
She’s sung Abba, Sondheim and Springsteen. Now, The Greatest Actress Alive, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, tackles Opera as Florence Foster Jenkins. In the history books, Jenkins is defined as “The World’s Worst Singer”. But even though that was a headline used to sell papers in the 40s, and a slogan that will be used to sell tickets to this movie, Streep and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, “Philomena”) prove she was much more than that…or at least they try to.
Jenkins’s real life story was not a comedy, and yet, “Florence Foster Jenkins” attempts to be one - with Streep giving her most campy performance of the past decade. Set in 1944 in NYC (though the film was shot entirely in the UK), it begins with Florence and her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant), performing theatrical skits at the Verdi Club, which Florence founded a quarter century earlier. Streep makes a grand entrance - floating down from the top of the theater as “The Angel of Inspiration”. At the end of the evening, she tells the audience that “Music has always been - and is - my life.”
But Florence thinks it’s time to return to singing on the stage (and without St. Clair, a longtime actor, delivering an opening monologue). They soon look for a new piano accompanist for Florence’s daily vocal exercises with one of the city’s top coaches and find their talented young man in Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg from “The Big Bang Theory”).
The first time you hear Streep sing, the extremely high-pitched tone may make you laugh a bit in shock. Frears spends the next 10-15 minutes solely on Florence’s singing lessons. The audience at the screening I attended couldn’t stop laughing out loud as she kept belting-out out-of-tune notes.
But here’s the thing, Florence believes she has a wonderful voice. To continue to laugh at her throughout these scenes, instead of trying to understand her delusion, completely misses the point. All those around her in the movie react that way (except her close circle of friends), realizing that she’s a terrible singer. But it was a mistake for Frears to steer audiences to think like that, depicting this woman and her life the wrong way. This film is more of a tragedy, which becomes clearer as we learn bits and pieces of Florence’s past.
St. Clair, who calls Florence “Bunny”, has a full-time job trying to hide all the negativity from her, whether it’s paying for good reviews or preventing hecklers from attending her concerts. At times, the script, by Nicholas Martin, takes these elements to the extreme, entering into conventional territory by the climax.
The first hour of “Florence Foster Jenkins” is largely devoted to set-up and subplots involving a host of uninspiring supporting characters and, primarily, St. Clair. Grant may actually have more screen time than Streep. It’s not until a scene involving Streep and Helberg at the halfway mark when we finally start to understand how Florence feels about who she is, why she sings and her love for life. Her optimism and perseverance are exuberant, but are put to the test, as shown in the final 10 minutes.
As for Ms. Meryl, she makes the most of a role in which she doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Outside of the singing, which is impressive (Streep does it all - mimicking Florence’s vocals perfectly), it’s not as immersive, showy or fearless as some of her recent work. But she does captivate during a few quiet scenes, including a well-handled finale.
Though interesting to watch and discussion-worthy, with an off-key script and unfocused direction, “Florence Foster Jenkins” fails to hit the high notes.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Florence Foster Jenkins” gets a C+.
“Suicide Squad” was supposed to be DC’s big-budget superhero ensemble action dramedy extravaganza answer to Marvel’s high-energy, highly entertaining “Guardians of the Galaxy”. And while it tries really, really hard - it fails to live-up to expectations.
The biggest buzz surrounding the production and anticipation of “Suicide Squad” was Jared Leto’s portrayal of The Joker, coming just eight years after the late Heath Ledger captivated the silver screen with his Oscar-winning performance in “The Dark Knight”. But, oddly, The Joker hardly has a presence in “Suicide Squad”, with Leto on screen for only about 10 total minutes. And in the midst of wacky editing, psychedelic visuals and a different retro, pop or techno song blaring every other minute - it’s difficult to appreciate him - or practically everything else director David Ayer attempts to do.
The only standout character and performance in “Suicide Squad” is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It’s a role filled with freedom - as “The Wolf of Wall Street” star gets to play an over-the-top, unstable bad gal forced to be good - and she nails it. It’s my favorite role of hers to date because it’s genuinely fun, and she shows a nice range, particularly in a handful of quiet, non-violent moments.
Harley is one of a small group of specialized convicts who are the best at what they do - killing people. The government recruits them to be the last defense against supernatural enemies human armies can’t stop. When an ancient witch returns to Midway city to retrieve her heart and begin an apocalyptic reign, they get called into duty. The fact that this is all the writers could come-up with for a villain is embarrassing - and Cara Delevingne (“Paper Towns”) was a terrible casting choice.
Will Smith, hoping to pull a Robert Downey, Jr.-type move by starring in a superhero movie and re-launching his career, plays Deadshot. Unfortunately, even with a shaved head, I felt like I was watching former Box Office King Will Smith shooting down bad guys.
Viola Davis has the most interesting “normal” role, playing the Pentagon agent who brings the “Suicide Squad” together. At times, Davis showcases her “How to Get Away with Murder” flare. But this goes along with the entire feel of “Suicide Squad”. The film is filled with bits and pieces of “daring” and “unique” - hidden in large blotches of “predictable” and “safe”.
This isn’t the dullest action film of the year, but it never gets into a rhythm. And the fact that Batman’s much-more-than-a-cameo appearance was given away in the marketing also eliminates what could have been a much-needed injection of “cool”.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Suicide Squad” gets a C.
"The Little Prince", a co-American/French animated feature based on the classic 1943 children's book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, proves that animation remains one of the most powerful forms of cinematic storytelling. Directed by Mark Osborne ("Kung Fu Panda") and featuring a stellar, star-studded voice cast, this is a magical gem.
Paramount was originally on track to distribute "The Little Prince" theatrically back in March, following an overseas release in 2015 (including a screening at Cannes). Why the studio changed course one week from its scheduled release date and dropped distribution plans altogether has never been fully explained. Netflix "instantly" stepped in, taking control of the fate of "The Little Prince", with the intention of giving the film the special treatment it deserves. That decision should carry the film all the way to Awards Season, possibly providing the online service its first Oscar nomination.
If you're familiar with the story of The Little Prince - about a little boy who travels to various planets in his plane, encountering animals, humans and a rose - a faithful adaptation of that tale is at the heart of this film. But "The Little Prince" movie is so much more. There's a wonderfully modern framework - about a friendship that forms between a wide-eyed little girl (voiced by "Interstellar"'s Mackenzie Foy), who moves-in next door with her uptight mother (Rachel McAdams), and an elderly, eccentric neighbor (voiced by Jeff Bridges) who used to fly a plane.
Mom has designed a "Life Plan" for her daughter (scheduled down to the minute) of what the girl needs to accomplish in order to get into the best private school and eventually become a productive and successful grown-up. But The Little Girl yearns to still be a kid. The old man sees this and soon the girl is spending more and more time with The Aviator while mom is at work. He tells her the story of The Little Prince, in which the young boy discovers the importance of exploring and using one's imagination.
Growing-up is something everyone HAS to do, but it's not getting older that's tough, it's the forgetting. Having the ability NOT to forget the people we cherished from our youth, the places we've been and the experiences we've had - what it feels like to be young and in awe of the world with the hopes of exploring it in various ways. This theme is at the heart of both parallel stories, providing incredible meaning to the characters in them and anyone watching this masterpiece unfold. The multi-layered script incorporates funny, creative and heavy material - often all three simultaneously - summarizing all the raw realities of life.
Animated films, especially those with a child as the main character, don't often explore subjects such as obsession (structure and perfect order aren't always healthy), complex family relationships (The Little Girl's father left her and her mom because he was focused more on his job than them; at one point, in a burst of anger, The Little Girl asks her Mom when she's going to leave her), sadness, illness and death. But Osborne had the guts to go there, and the results are inspiring. There are a few scenes, even before the rewarding final act, that punch the emotional well-being right out of you. They're that real.
"The Little Prince" features both CGI (the world of The Little Girl, The Mother and The Aviator) and stop-motion animation (The Little Prince's literary adventures). The result of this combination of styles is one of the most visually enchanting animated films I've ever seen. And on top of the terrific Bridges, McAdams and Foy performances, James Franco, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd, Benicio Del Toro, Marion Cotillard, Paul Giamatti, Albert Brooks (in his third animated film appearance of the summer) and Osborne's own son, Riley, round-out the splendid voice ensemble.
Each character embodies a different personality, often relatable to someone we know, or may have known, who we should always remember. Even a hand-sewn fox doll adopted by The Little Girl is packed with symbolism. Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, highlighted by a wonderful "tick-tock" score, and his collaboration with French singer Camille, on the catchy, charming song, "Turnaround", are the perfect accompaniment.
There are times when "The Little Prince" reminded me of a couple of Pixar films - "The Incredibles" (the look of the humans and their environments) and "Up" (a similar "Spirit of Adventure", older man/kid storyline). But this film is an original in every sense, providing all that anyone looks for in a great movie: uniquely memorable characters, humor, drama, excitement and a deep emotional impact.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Little Prince" gets an A.
In a recent interview, “Jason Bourne” co-writer and director Paul Greengrass revealed that Matt Damon’s title character only has about 25 lines of dialogue in the entire film. After seeing this fifth “Bourne” installment - he wasn’t exaggerating! Damon delivers short, declarative sentences on just about 25 occasions. So, in honor of this achievement, the following review is made-up of 25 (mostly) short, declarative sentences:
“Jason Bourne” is a two-hour cat-and-mouse game. And that’s ALL it is. Nine years after “Ultimatum”, Bourne is back on the grid. He’s angry, seeking revenge and looking for answers. Bourne wants to know why he became a CIA assassin in the first place. If he has to kill a few more people in order to get what he wants - than that’s exactly what he’ll do.
CIA director Dewey (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and his young internet prodigy (played by Alicia Vikander) are out to find him. The outlaw Bourne reunites with old friend Nicky (Julia Stiles). Meantime, a Silicon Valley tech giant is launching a new surveillance service. All isn’t what it seems. The creator (played by “Nightcrawler”’s Riz Ahmed) is in over his head. Not original.
The story is ultra-basic instead of ultra-modern. The screenplay is so mindlessly thin it screams “Franchise Revival Money Grab”. For a film with a main character who’s constantly on the run, “Jason Bourne” feels so stable, stagnant and stale. It lacks energy and the willingness to go deeper to provide the audience with some substance, instead relying, almost solely, on chase scenes.
I had a lot of problems with 2012’s “The Bourne Legacy”, with Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross. Like “Jason Bourne”, it was really, REALLY talky. But at least “Legacy” had other elements (including a romance between Renner and Rachel Weisz) that kept your interest.
Greengrass’s trademark close-ups brought me back to my experience watching “Captain Phillips”. Once again I felt a little seasick. Filming locations include Athens, Berlin, D.C. and London. The climactic Las Vegas strip car chase sequence is fantastic. Otherwise, “Jason Bourne” is a bore.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Jason Bourne” gets a D.
Free Speech, internet shaming and the right to be "offended" are hot topics in society these days (and ones I'm not totally unfamiliar with). They're also at the center of an informative and fascinating new documentary "Can We Take a Joke?" At only 75 minutes, director Ted Balaker (who previously tackled this topic in his 2013 short "Don't Cage My Speech! A Student Schools His College") uses comedians - past, present and future - as his messengers, and they provide enough thought-provoking material on how we, and others, react to what we say to generate lively debates long after the credits roll.
Celebrity comics, including Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Corolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Heather McDonald, along with comic/magician Penn Jillette each bring their perspective to the problems that not only performers, but everyone in our society faces today when it comes to voicing an opinion or trying to be funny in a politically correct world.
This doc also provides a fascinating history lesson on legendary comedien Lenny Bruce, who's credited with paving the way for all comediens who followed to be able to use profanity in their act and not worry about being thrown in jail. Bruce worked back in the 50s and 60s with police officers just off stage, ready to take him away if/when he uttered a "dirty" word, which was often. He was eventually sentenced to prison for using expletives and sexual references in his act and not long after died of a drug overdose. In 2003, nearly 40 years after his death, Bruce was pardoned by then NY Governor George Pataki. The Bruce narrative, and how the he provided the freedom for all the controversial comics who have followed him, is one of the strongest elements of the film.
But if the First Amendment provides performers the freedom from legal prosecution, "Can We Take a Joke?" makes it clear that NO ONE - comics, students or regular citizens -are free from societal prosecution. It only takes one person to claim they're "offended" by a joke, comment or tweet, and within minutes all Hell can break lose. In the film we see the results of this phenomenon in a montage of "apologies" from celebrities who were accused of crossing the line. The filmmaker and his subjects constantly point out that comedy, at its heart, is about crossing the line, but that's much easier said than done in the current climate in which we live.
"Can We Take a Joke?" has a very clear point of view: Free Speech trumps all, firmly believing that saying things that may be deemed as offensive betters our society as a whole because it creates a dialogue. And the alternative - censorship - is unacceptable. However, while the negative side of the issue is explored in detail (Gottfried getting fired by Aflac for online jokes following the 2011 Japan Tsunami is just one example), the film's perspective is a bit one-sided. The "offended" are simply shown as hecklers and fanatics. What it feels like to be one of the offended, and WHY they feel offended, is not examined. If people have a right to say anything that's on their minds, they have just as much of a right to be upset with anything they hear. A little balance on this issue would have been welcome.
Are people, as a whole, a little uptight when it comes to how we treat certain material? Yes. In a news clip during the opening montage, Jimmy Kimmel tells a protestor, "I can't apologize every night." Comedians and talk show hosts aren't going to please everyone, and the film does a nice job of explaining that the U.S. has the best policies when it comes to performers (and all citizens) being able to express themselves freely.
"Can We Take a Joke?" does feel a bit scattered in its storytelling structure, bouncing back and forth from comics to colleges to Bruce and back again. And I would've liked to have gotten perspectives from two other iconic "attack" comics: Kathy Griffin (who's the first female that comes to mind in this category) and Don Rickles, who pioneered the craft of insult comedy 70-years ago (and does have a Twitter account).
Overall, I can say that not since "Blackfish" three years ago has an issue documentary inspired me to think this deeply about the pros and cons of its subject matter.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Can We Take a Joke?" gets a B.
"Nerve" is based on a 2012 novel by Jeanne Ryan. And that makes perfect sense. There's a heroine at the center of a Hunger Games-esque, high-tech reality game called Nerve, which is, essentially, an extreme version of Truth or Dare, with teen and 20-year-old contestants tackling various challenges in hopes of winning cash, gaining followers and becoming internet celebrities. However, Nerve is also the ultimate game of "Press Your Luck", with the Whammy being Death. As the dollar amounts increase, the dares get more and more dangerous.
The concept is intriguing, but as the movie unfolds, it’s impossible not to think how illogical it all is. No one is allowed to tell the Police about Nerve or else they're considered a snitch, which has its own set of consequences. Nerve has supposedly gone on for years, with tens of thousands of "Watchers" and "Players" across the country, and during that time, no one in authority OF ANY KIND has found-out about the game? That’s simply ridiculous.
Plus, practically every high school and college student (along with some adults bored at work) watches Nerve on their device of choice - basically doing NOTHING ELSE with their lives - and yet no one on any of the OTHER Social Media Platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat are talking about it? We all know - in the real world - there are no secrets online.
Those are big flaws when it comes to the Nerve game. And there are just as many problems with "Nerve" the movie. Emma Roberts plays Vee, a high school senior who’s looking to go to college at CalArts, though her mom (played by Juliette Lewis) wants her to stay home. Vee's best friend, the "ambitious" Sydney, is really into Nerve, hoping to earn a lot of money and become “insta-famous”.
Accused of being boring, Vee decides to try Nerve, and she’s quickly teamed-up with motorcycle-riding fellow player Ian (Dave Franco). They take to the streets of New York City, executing the “dares” they’re presented with, which start innocent and quickly become life-threatening. "Nerve" does give equal time to exploring the three side effects of the game: the impact on the players, the bystanders who proudly record the action on their phones, and those who think they're all absolutely insane. With the lengthiest PG-13 MPAA rating explanation of any movie this year, the title should've been "Nerve - or Kids: Don't Try This At Home".
Roberts and Franco do make a cute couple. And there are some minor elements that work. During a scene in which Vee is recording herself trying on a flashy, $4,000 green dress in a department store changing room, comments from Watchers appear on the side of the screen. Some complement or criticize the dress, others do the same about Vee's body in offensive and improper ways. The scene sums-up today's Social Media behavior to a tee. And the growing tension between Vee and Sydney doesn't feel forced.
But, while "Nerve" is the most "Modern" movie of 2016 (filled with tech, pop music, and flashy graphics), it isn't suspenseful enough to be exciting nor groundbreaking enough to be thought-provoking. The lessons the film is supposed to teach us, presented blatantly in a few climactic speeches, are obvious and pretty corny.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Nerve" gets a C.
If ever there was an animated franchise that's been milked for all it's worth, it's "Ice Age" (though I'm not sure if you could actually milk Wooly Mammoths). What began as a noble and heartfelt, Oscar-nominated original back in 2002 (the first feature from Blue Sky Studios) is now four sequels, three shorts and two TV specials deep. "The Meltdown" ('06) and "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" ('09) were satisfying follow-ups, but 2012's "Continental Drift" proved the series had lost its edge. Now, "Collision Course" leaves no doubt that "Ice Age" is worthy of cinematic extinction.
The most, or rather, only, amusing element in "Collision Course" are the Scrat vignettes. This time, our acorn-loving saber-tooth squirrel has gotten himself "lost in space", and, as we learn from narration by scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has caused an asteroid to head straight towards Earth. The decision by the writers to bring back Buck, a great character from "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (voiced by Simon Pegg), was smart, but he, and practically everything in the movie, is too much to handle this time.
As for the plot - it's Buck who informs all the others (Manny, Sid, Diego, etc., etc., etc.) that the asteroid will end life as they know it unless they find a way to stop it. And there's a theme about dealing with change, as Manny and and Ellie's daughter Peaches is getting married and moving out. It's all as basic as that.
Of course, Mammoths, Ground Sloths and Saber-Tooth Tigers (et al) no longer exist. But, even though "Collision Course" is promoted as "The Defining Chapter" of this saga, unfortunately FOX doesn't stick to history, though I wish they had. Frankly, it's the only humane thing to do at this point in the series.
While "IA5" is expected to underperform in the US, it's already a monster overseas, just like its predecessors. That's the reason Blue Sky keeps investing time and energy into churning-out new chapters of the franchise. It's a bit of a surprise that the focus hasn't shifted to turning this into a TV series. The "Collision Course" script is worthy of a 22-minute cable/web treatment and the show would likely be very popular.
In a "nutshell": "Collision Course" is colorful and cheery, with rambunctious, non-stop, off-the-wall energy for 90 minutes. The dialogue is dull and there are fifteen-minute stretches without a single chuckle. New additions to the voice cast: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jessie J, Adam DeVine, Nick Offerman, and even Kelly Ripa's TV ex, Michael Strahan don't raise the entertainment level an inch.
A five year-old girl sitting in the row behind me loved all the action and hijinks. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, older than her will find themselves rooting for the asteroid.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Ice Age: Collision Course" gets a D+.
After a successful “Star Trek” reboot in 2009 and an even stronger 2013 sequel, J.J. Abrams handed control of the Starship Enterprise over to “Fast & Furious” director Justin Lin - who has now destroyed it, in more ways than one. Literally, the Enterprise gets demolished early in “Star Trek Beyond” - which features dazzling visuals and elaborate action scenes, but also, 50 years after the iconic TV series began, the big screen franchise has become, well, ordinary.
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew are back. While on year three of their five-year mission, the gang runs into some trouble and a new foe in Krall (played by an unrecognizable Idris Elba). He and his army separate the Starfleet members, who must work their way back together throughout much of the movie if they have any hope of saving mankind. Simon Pegg, who returns as Scotty, co-wrote the script, and he infuses some quirky humor that’s hit and miss.
Kirk (played again by Chris Pine) remarks at the start of the film that he’s tired of the same ol’ routine - that the voyages are getting “episodic”. The “Star Trek” TV series really was episodic, with a good vs. evil, rescue mission plot every week, garnished with new aliens and situations to keep things interesting and fun. But what really kept millions of viewers coming back to the show and turning it into a cultural phenomenon? The core characters.
Abrams’ first two films took us deeper, with a serious, character-study approach, and some real drama and emotion. “Star Trek Beyond”, on the other hand, has the blatant feel of an extended TV episode. It’s also the most “commercial” entry of the new incarnation. This isn’t just an action movie, it’s an all-action movie, with Lin hardly making any effort to take it “beyond” the level of his “Fast & Furious” style.
Trekkies will no-doubt enjoy the non-stop action. And, don’t get me wrong, “Beyond” is far from a bad movie. The likable cast members bring their A-games, the makeup is spectacular and the effects are worthy. And there are some nice references to the Star Trek legacy, along with appropriate acknowledgements to the late Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin in the closing credits. But what hooked me about this new vision of “Star Trek” was that it didn’t need to succumb to the formalities of other blockbusters in this genre in order to prosper. It was the hip, cool outcast in the galaxy. “Star Trek Beyond” diminishes the franchise by boldly going where practically every other sci-fi series has gone before.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Star Trek Beyond” gets a B-.
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