Now You See Me 2

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Should really be titled “Now You Don’t”, because you shouldn’t see it.
★½
Movie Review #1,080

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Distributed by Summit Entertainment. Action, Adventure, Comedy. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence and some language. Released June 10, 2016. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Screenplay by Ed Solomon, from the characters by Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt. Story by Ed Solomon & Pete Chiarelli. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman.

This is what happens when you hire Jon M. Chu, the man who directed both of Justin Bieber’s concert movies, to helm the sequel to a great movie. And forgive me for continually comparing “Now You See Me 2” to its predecessor, but it would look even worse if it stood on its own. Instead of another clever movie that twists and turns everywhere you least expect it, you get a movie that plays out like a bad romcom. And Mr. Chu isn’t the only one at fault. The script, written once again by Ed Solomon, is fairly predictable and all too cheesy. Worse yet is the film’s sense of humor. Rather than the occasional smart-people chuckles offered in the first movie, this sequel constantly aims low for cheap laughs. You feel like you’re watching the Disney Channel, except there’s more eye-rolling and more pity laughs.

The premise of this sequel, on paper, isn’t half-bad. We’ve got the Four Horsemen returning, now assigned to take down a corrupt entrepreneur who steals computer software for his own benefit. Helping them on this mission is Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), a former business partner to the subject. Radcliffe might be the best part of this movie. His performance is enthusiastic, clever, and refreshing. None of the rest of the cast holds a candle to him. I pity Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, and Woody Harrelson for their performances in this film. “Now You See Me 2” is out of their league. These three are more than decent actors and they deserve better material to work from. Then there’s Lizzy Caplan. She’s not the best actress, but I never thought she’d stoop so low as she did here. Caplan replaces Isla Fisher as the Fourth Horseman, possibly because Fisher was smart enough to not sign on for a sequel. In all fairness, I wish she had signed on, because Caplan is almost unwatchable. She gives a taller and skinnier version of what we saw Joe Pesci do in the “Lethal Weapon” sequels, except Joe Pesci’s garrulousness was actually funny and he knew when to shut up.

“Now You See Me 2” will soon enough be another movie on FX that we find while we’re flipping through channels, and I doubt we’d be inclined to stay past the first commercial break. The film is a barrage of one corny joke after another, but its worst moment comes at the end. I don’t know if Mr. Solomon or Mr. Chu were trying to blow my mind, but the utter stupidity of the last-minute twist ending certainly did. For a film that seems to be nothing more than a dumb excuse to show off bad humor and underwhelming special effects, I suppose you have to give them credit for actually attempting to be smart, but then again, “Now You See Me 2” serves as a reminder that watching stupid people try and act smart can be quite excruciating.

Captain America: Civil War

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The best Marvel movie yet.
★★★★
Movie Review #1,079

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Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem. Released May 6, 2016. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Based on the Marvel comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brühl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, and Alfre Woodard. With cameos from Ann Russo, Stan Lee, and Joe Russo.

Oftentimes I tend to believe that the growing popularity of superhero movies is a complete manifestation of film as a form of entertainment, with little contribution to film as a form of art. Now and then, a great film will come out and convince me that superhero movies can be extraordinary as both art and entertainment. A great example of that is Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Being that I’m not exactly a fan of the Marvel movies, I certainly wasn’t expecting that “Captain America: Civil War” would be the next film to remind me of how freaking great the genre can be. If every new yarn that the Marvel Cinematic Universe spins out is truly just another superhero film, “Captain America: Civil War” is something more than that. I will say right off the bat that this is a refreshing film for anyone like myself who ever thought the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be overrated. This is a smart, exciting, political film, exceedingly well written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the pair behind the two previous “Cap” movies, as well as “Thor: The Dark World”.

“Civil War” is essentially a third “Avengers” film, marketed as a third “Cap” film. The plot is brilliant, and its translation onto celluloid even more brilliant. As the film opens, it has been about a year since the Avengers defeated Ultron, and the Avengers are struggling as a peacekeeping force. On their newest conquest in Lagos, Nigeria, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses telekinesis to displace a bomb but ends up accidentally killing several humanitarian workers. The Avengers, as a whole, assume responsibility. Following the incident, the United Nations prepares to ratify the Sokovia Accords, which would establish a panel to keep the Avengers in check. This instantaneously causes a deep divide within the team. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, opposes any such regulation of the Avengers; while Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, thinks they need regulation to keep them from hurting any more people and being seen as an enemy to the world.

The character development here is nothing like Marvel has ever done before, particularly for two characters that will be featured in their own respective films within the next year and a half. One of them is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), otherwise known as Black Panther. T’Challa is the son of T’Chaka, the king of the nation of Wakanda, from which the workers killed in Lagos hailed. Initially, T’Challa seems like a peaceful, diplomatic individual. That’s up until the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), an ally to Steve Rogers, kills his father. Watching T’Challa join forces with Tony Stark is powerful. Later on in the film, Stark recruits our other new character: Peter Parker (Tom Holland), better known as Spider-Man. We’ve seen him have five of his own films from two different actors, and Spidey’s never been put onscreen as well as he is in “Civil War”. Tom Holland is a clever and enjoyable Spider-Man who, for once, strikes us as an actual teenager, not as a twentysomething. I won’t give away any spoilers, but let’s just say that the concise backstory offered for the character in “Civil War” is far better than anything we saw in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy or either of the “Amazing Spider-Man” movies.

“Captain America: Civil War” has just about everything we look for in a movie. It’s engaging. It’s exciting. It doesn’t feel like something we’ve already seen, and it offers itself the liberty to take innovative spins within its story. It runs for nearly two and a half hours, but it’s so entertaining you won’t even notice the time going by.

Sully

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With a decent screenwriter, this could have been a great film.
★★
Movie Review #1,078

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Distributed by Warner Bros. Biography, Drama. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language. Released September 9, 2016. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Todd Komarnicki. Based on the book “Highest Duty” by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg and Jeffrey Zaslow. Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Anna Gunn, Laura Linney, Molly Hagan, Cooper Thornton, and Patch Darragh. With a cameo from Katie Couric.

Right off the bat, the best thing “Sully” offers us is Tom Hanks. The man never fails to please his audience. He channels his character, real-life Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, as a softspoken, humble individual. In 2009, Sully successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, after an attack from migrating geese that damaged both propellors on the plane. The public praised him as a hero thereafter, and dubbed the event the “Miracle on the Hudson.” However, Sully immediately came under fire from US Airways, who tried to prove that he could have landed the plane safely at LaGuardia Airport, from which it had departed shortly before the accident. Sully is a hero in the public’s eye, but as he sees it, he was just an ordinary man doing his job. It’s a beautiful irony that this makes the movie feel all the more triumphant.

Unfortunately, that’s just one aspect of “Sully”. From Clint Eastwood, the man who directed “Gran Torino” around the time that this film is set and “American Sniper” just a year and a half ago, the film is rather disappointing. However, it’s by no fault of Eastwood’s that “Sully” is so imperfect. It’s the screenwriter, the hardly-established Todd Komarnicki, who is responsible. Much of the dialogue in the film is weak. It often feels as if the background information we need is forced into the characters’ dialogue at inconvenient times. The way it comes from their mouths, they might as well be acknowledging they’re in a movie, because much of the dialogue is that self-conscious. What’s more, some of the action that takes place in air traffic control feels overdramatized. In real life, these people are trained to remain calm and focus on doing their job well, but what we see in “Sully” is people behind the scenes crying and panicking. The film also has a habit of jumping from place to place within the story as it sees fit. Komarnicki enjoys throwing us into flashbacks at times where a flashback is not only unexpected but also illogically placed, and sometimes even unnecessary. At one point, we’re thrown into a random, five-minute sequence nostalgically showing the hero learning to fly a plane at a young age. If you happen to think that any excuse for warm-and-fuzziness in a movie is a good excuse, then this scene is rather important to the overall film. Otherwise, you might find it an opportune time for a bathroom break.

The saddest thing about “Sully” is that it might have been great if it weren’t for the script. You know the director has to be doing something right when you see passengers being evacuated in the water, and you yourself start shivering. If the film’s dialogue and its action had been as powerful as those sensory details that we not only see but feel as we watch the film, or as robust as Tom Hanks’s lead, this might have turned out a shoo-in during the forthcoming Oscar season. My suggestion to Eastwood: please don’t hire Komarnicki back for your next film.

Sausage Party

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Starts out as brilliant satire, then devolves into a vulgar, pointless mess.
★★½
Movie Review #1,077

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Distributed by Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing. Animation, Adventure, Comedy. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Rated R for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language, and drug use. Released August 12, 2016. Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon. Screenplay by Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg. Story by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg & Jonah Hill. Starring the voices of Nick Kroll, Edward Norton, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Iris Apatow, Michael Cera, James Franco, Bill Hader, Salma Hayek, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Greg Tiernan, and Conrad Vernon.

The moment I got up to leave the theater after seeing “Sausage Party”, one question was begging my attention: What the f—k did I just watch?  To tell you the truth, that question is still on my mind, and that is exactly the reason that it has taken me over several weeks to come up with a review for a movie.  There are adult cartoons, and then there is “Sausage Party”, the first CGI movie to ever receive an R rating, or the first R-rated movie to ever feature CGI animation, depending on how you prefer to look at it.  If there’s one compliment I can give the film, it’s that it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.  But that in itself is also a bit of a negative statement, as well.

The cast of characters consists largely of grocery store items; humans have speaking roles but are reduced to the role that the family cat might play in any other movie.  We learn from the very beginning that all of the products are eager to reach the Great Beyond—that is, the world beyond the double doors of the grocery store that they call home.  Frank, a hot dog, has a girlfriend, a bun, and hopes that a customer will buy both of them together so that he can live inside her (literally) in the Great Beyond once they are unpackaged.  At one point, a can of honey mustard is returned to the aisle and he tries to warn all of the items of his revelation in the Great Beyond.  Shortly before jumping from a shopping cart to his death, the honey mustard tells them that they have been indoctrinated with a lie; that there is nothing good about the Great Beyond; that their fate is to be cooked, boiled, cut, sliced, skewered, you get the picture.  However, the rest of the food items aren’t so quick to believe this.  It’s only later, once they see the Great Beyond for what it really is, that many of the items successfully escape.  But it’s not so easy to run and hide when at the same time, a vaginal douche is on the warpath.  This douche was in a shopping cart on his way to the Great Beyond, but was the only item returned at the cash register.  He feels singled out, and he wants vengeance, so he is “juicing up” with whatever he can find, and hunting down the grocery store items that have survived.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were the masterminds who wrote and directed “This Is the End”, but they’re also the morons who wrote and directed “The Interview”.  In terms of quality, “Sausage Party” seats itself comfortably between those two.  Rogen and Goldberg wrote the script, but passed the baton to another duo, Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon.  However, there’s no doubt that the script dominants this film.  Its atheistic, apolitical commentary works for a while and then falls flat.  Starting out, the premise is quite valuable: we shouldn’t believe everything we hear until we have proof that it’s true.  Soon enough, the message becomes more blatant: religion sucks and all faiths are stupid.  It comes off not so much as insulting, but rather as daring satire.

What does come off as insulting is the latter half of the movie.  It’s obvious that Rogen and Goldberg were just having too much fun with the story.  Their brilliant satire quickly disintegrates as soon as the douche becomes a prominent figure in this story.  Now it’s no longer about bashing religion and faith; it’s just about meaningless vulgarity.  The second half of “Sausage Party” consists of boring misadventures in the “Great Beyond.”  To boil it down (no pun intended) to three key plot points, there’s a douche on the loose, a lazy bum on bath salts who is supposed to save them all, and a plot the food items form to drug everyone in the grocery store to make them realize that the food they eat is real and has feelings.  What seems like an ostensibly normal film for the first forty-five minutes, spends the next forty-five minutes becoming the most revoltingly absurd sight I have seen in quite a while.  To top all of that off, the film ends with the food items engaging in a weird sex orgy.  Unfortunately, that was five minutes of my life that I’m never getting back.

Zootopia

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Preachiness aside, this is a good movie.
★★★
Movie Review #1,076

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Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Animation, Action, Adventure. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action. Released March 4, 2016. Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore. Co-director: Jared Bush. Story by Byron Howard & Rich Moore & Jared Bush & Jim Reardon & Josie Trinidad & Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee. Screenplay by Jared Bush & Phil Johnston. Starring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Shakira, Raymond S. Persi, Della Saba, Maurice LaMarche, Kath Soucie, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Octavia Spencer, and Alan Tudyk.

Wouldn’t we all love a world where everything is perfect and everybody loves each other for who they are? Sure we would. The message that “Zootopia” delivers is that even in a city that is meant to be utopic, you’re going to fail at implementing that. It’d be silly to act like equality is just going to happen overnight, or even over a matter of a few years. It’s good to see a movie, particularly a Disney movie aimed primarily at kids, get real with this sad truth. However, it’s clearly pushing toward a different reality. I don’t want to come off as anti-equality when I say that “Zootopia” is pushing equality on us. Equality is a great thing if it ever comes to being, but nobody likes having anything shoved down their throats, even if they agree with it. That’s precisely where “Zootopia” falters most critically. The theme of everybody treating everybody equally is something we can’t really appreciate, even ostensibly, when it’s delivered in a preachy manner.

Not since “Crash” has a movie promoted equality so sanctimoniously. “Zootopia” is also equally overrated, but I grant you it’s not so much of a disaster as “Crash” was. There’s a decent plot here. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit from Bunnyburrow who has always dreamed of becoming an officer at the Zootopia Police Department. Everyone from her peers to her parents have discouraged her from this. No bunny has ever become a police officer; it’s almost laughable to pretty much everybody but her. Regardless, Judy pursues her dream, and soon enough, she has become the first-ever rabbit police officer. Her biggest surprise is that Zootopia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The city was built with the intention of being a place where everybody is equal, but when she arrives there, she realizes that the reality is far from that. She realizes that foxes, in particular, face heavy discrimination. From her past experiences with foxes, as well as their history as predators, she should be most afraid of them. But instead, she chooses to embrace one particular fox (Jason Bateman), who takes up her invitation to work alongside her in a certain investigation, involving an animal who has gone missing.

“Zootopia” is an entertaining picture. It’s the kind of wholesome animated feature we want from Disney. The voice cast is terrific. Between the chipper personality of Ginnifer Goodwin, relatively unknown to the cinematic world, and the wit of Jason Bateman, there’s pretty great duo fronting the rest of the cast here. Let’s not forget Idris Elba as Zootopia’s chief of police, a stern, hardheaded buffalo, and J.K. Simmons as the city’s mayor. The film delivers a number of great performances, but those four stand out above everybody else here. Putting aside how preachy it can get, the script is also fantastic. Jared Bush and Phil Johnston have worked as a team for Disney before, with “Wreck-It Ralph”, and now their clever writing shines once again. Disney Animation’s lifelong goal has been to make family movies, not kids’ movies. It’s easy to confuse the two, and the difference is that a family movie can be enjoyed by kids and parents alike. Again, perhaps the overtness of the overall message “Zootopia” presents might put parents off a little, but that aside, this is a pretty decent example of a true family movie.

Jason Bourne

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Not exactly a necessary sequel, but it’s a solid return for Matt Damon.
★★★
Movie Review #1,075

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Distributed by Universal Pictures. Action, Thriller. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language. Released July 29, 2016. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse, from the characters by Robert Ludlum. Starring Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, and Scott Shepherd.

It’s good to have Matt Damon back.  The last movie, “The Bourne Legacy”, was essentially the “Halloween III” of the Bourne movies.  It didn’t star Matt Damon, and while I do recall giving it a halfway decent review, it has grown worse and worse in my mind over time.  The first favor “Jason Bourne” does for the series is it thoroughly renders “Legacy” irrelevant.  Instead, this is a direct sequel to 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum”.

And what better a name for this entry than the name of the lead character himself.  “Jason Bourne” takes a dive not only into the continuing Bourne story, but also into some of his backstory.  We get a sense of what makes him tick in this movie.  This fifth entry in the series isn’t an entirely necessary sequel, but it’s still a fun story.  Jason Bourne is finally recovering from amnesia and is starting to regain a sense of just who he is.  He now wants to dig into the various documents and events that dictate information about his father’s involvement in Operation Treadstone, the black ops program that has been in effect since “The Bourne Identity”.  On his side is Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), the ex-CIA operative who had accompanied Bourne in the first three films, as well.  Meanwhile, CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) has set up a new program, with the help of agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), to stop Bourne.

Most of the film offers some of the best action choreography I’ve seen in a long time.  In terms of action, “Jason Bourne” is a return to form for the series.  I can’t remember a single moment in Jeremy Renner’s movie that matched any bit of any of Matt Damon’s movies.  The action sequences in “Jason Bourne” are almost always lots of fun.  They are as exciting as, and sometimes superior to, anything we saw in the first three films.

However, the finale arrives as if out of a different movie.  It is absolutely ridiculous.  We start seeing Team Bourne and Team Dewey chasing each others vehicles down the highway, going the wrong direction through heavy traffic.  First of all, when you’re crashing that many cars and injuring that many people, that is called domestic terrorism, and it should not be glorified in any movie.  Second of all, it’s so far over the top that we can no longer take the movie seriously.  In almost every situation, perfection demands restraint, and despite what we might think, a car chase demands restraint, too.  “Jason Bourne” is a solid action film, but it’s this ending that kills all the fun.

Café Society

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The ideal Woody Allen movie: beautifully shot, cleverly written, and marvelously acted.
★★★½
Movie Review #1,074

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Distributed by Lionsgate and Amazon Studios. Comedy, Drama, Romance. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking. Released August 5, 2016. Directed by Woody Allen. Written by Woody Allen. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Schackman, Jesse Eisenberg, Corey Stoll, Kristen Stewart, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’lyn, Tyler Reid, Blake Lively, and Tony Sirico.

Woody Allen’s newest film, “Café Society”, is a collage of great performances. Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart both prove to us once again that when they’re dealing with serious performances, they’re fantastic. However, it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s talent that really shows. Of all the Woody Allens that have appeared onscreen, Jesse Eisenberg reincarnates the one we miss the most. That’s the first thing that makes “Café Society” such a great film. Allen’s script presents the very character that he himself used to play. The young, neurotic, awkward, Jewish New Yorker who existed during the 1970s and 1980s. Arguably, this character has been AWOL since “Deconstructing Harry” (1997). Kenneth Branagh tried to bring him back in 1998 in “Celebrity” but failed miserably. Recalling Eisenberg’s weak performance just four years ago in Allen’s “To Rome with Love”, I would’ve expected the same of his lead in “Café Society”. However, it’s just the opposite. Eisenberg’s interpretation of the classic Woody Allen is no impersonation. It’s a transformation.

Given that Allen operates on a one-film-per-year basis, it’s hard to predict whether the next film is going to be a hit or a miss. As with any of his best films, “Café Society” introduces a familiar plot in a completely new light. The film is anchored in 1930s Hollywood, and it certainly offers the genuinely old-timey feeling that we might imagine. The story revolves around a love triangle, consisting of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young New York Jew trying to make it in Hollywood; his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a highly successful talent agent; and Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). They seem to comprise an emotional triangle of sorts, as well. Bobby is heartbroken, Phil is confused, Vonnie is torn. In its most basic form, this is about a guy who loves a woman whom his uncle also loves. In execution, however, Allen’s newest film is never so basic. The story operates on a heavily intriguing and engrossing level, hysterically, and at times, quite poignantly.

“Café Society” is a beautiful movie, not just narratively but also visually. Vittorio Storaro enhances the narrative by painting a picture we’ve never seen in any Woody Allen movie: a bleak, dreary New York and a lively, sunny Los Angeles. We see these two cities as diametric opposites, amid the hero’s departure from the Big Apple to reap the opportunities in the City of Angels. As Allen’s first film shot digitally, the film also delivers strikingly. We haven’t seen this sort of visual poetry in a Woody Allen movie since “Manhattan”. Back in February, the prospects for “Café Society” were slightly worrying. The news that Allen had departed from Sony Pictures Classics after seven films, and had sold the distribution rights for his newest to Amazon Studios, who has so far only distributed two other films, was less than exciting. However, the results turn out to be all the more surprising.

Fifty Shades of Black

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Fifty shades of blech.
½
Movie Review #1,073

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Distributed by Open Road Films. Comedy. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Rated R for strong crude sexual content including some graphic nudity, and for language throughout. Released January 29, 2016. Directed by Michael Tiddes. Written by Marlon Wayans and Rick Alvarez. Starring Marlon Wayans, Kali Hawk, Fred Willard, Affion Crockett, and Jane Seymour.

“Just because you touch a penis doesn’t mean you’re gay. Especially if it’s for money for crack.” – Marlon Wayans in “Fifty Shades of Black”

What a lazy, lazy movie. What Gus van Sant’s 1998 “Psycho” redo is for remakes, “Fifty Shades of Black” is for parodies. It’s a “shot-for-shot spoof,” if you will. Marlon Wayans’s script doesn’t send up “Fifty Shades of Grey” as a single work, and that’s where it first fails. “Black” plays out as if Wayans had the original “Grey” script laid out on the table right beside his computer as he typed up the script. In the end, any sense of a plot seems to have been forsaken in the name of god-only-knows-what. Almost every scene in “Black” is way overlong, due to the amount of tangential crap we’re given: dumb jokes about sex (and scenes depicting it in the utmost ridiculous fashion), drugs, race, pop culture, and combinations of any of the above.

At its least embarrassing, the film exhibits a man using a condom that expired in the 1980s, and forced pop culture references like “Are you Donald-Trump-running-for-President drunk or Donald-Trump-hates-Mexicans drunk?”. But even those more tolerable moments are still major eye-rollers, and they come far and few. At its absolute most embarrassing, “Fifty Shades of Black” exhibits a hardware store employee rubbing a pencil around in her mouth loudly and orgasmically. This scene lasts a full minute, and once it’s over, we feel like we’ve been violated. The gravest fact to face at the end of this scene is that we still have an hour of the film to endure.

If you’ve seen “Scary Movie”, then you’re probably aware of Marlon Wayans’s capacity to be both very stupid and very funny. But that was 16 years ago, and his humor seems to have virtually faded. Wayans’s performance as Christian Black in “Fifty Shades of Black” is perhaps the most poorly executed and thoroughly unconvincing attempt at character comedy since Eddie Murphy had to keep his mouth shut in “A Thousand Words”. Wayans leads us to believe that his co-star, Kali Hawk, who offers absolutely nothing to her performance as Hannah Steele, actually has talent. But let’s be honest: these two could have been the finest actors in Hollywood (as unrealistic a scenario as that is), and “Black” would still suck. The movie was doomed from the very beginning. A script is a film in its embryo stage, and what we have here is a severely deformed embryo. When the film is a catastrophe that early on, it’s bound to be a catastrophe once it’s finished. I assume that Wayans is fairly pro-life, because it would have been in his best interest to abort “Fifty Shades of Black” while it was still an embryo.

Star Trek Beyond

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A major step down from the two previous movies.
★½
Movie Review #1,072

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Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Released July 22, 2016. Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, from the television “Star Trek” by Gene Roddenberry. Uncredited writers: Roberto Orci, Patrick McKay, and John D. Payne. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Joe Taslim, and Deep Roy.

If Donald Trump were to watch “Star Trek Beyond”, he’d label it a “disaster.” Which, in anyone else’s terms, simply means it’s not completely awful, but it’s still pretty bad.

It’s important that every filmmaker think not only as a filmmaker would, but also as an audience would. Personally, I like to be entertained by movies. If director Justin Lin is truly thinking like his audiences would, then he would probably beg to differ. “Beyond” is the third in a reboot series that, up until now, has operated under the helm of J. J. Abrams. Lin’s entry shouldn’t be just another entry in this canon, but unfortunately, it’s precisely that.

The approach to “Beyond” is an exemplar of style over substance. The way Lin seems to have approached the film is akin to a baker who takes a cake out of the oven when it’s only halfway done, tops it with a ton of icing, and hands it over to a customer. It’s a bit disappointing to walk out of a “Star Trek” movie, or virtually any action movie, realizing that the most interesting scenes where those that focused on the relationship problems between Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). The fact that the film lacks an interesting story is bad enough. But what’s even more insulting is the fact that the film is trying to stuff us with so much eye-candy that by the time the movie ends, we are at the risk of eye-diabetes. Between the unnecessary ambush of visual effects and the constantly moving, dizzying camerawork, I was about ready to vomit by the end of the film.

“Star Trek Beyond” offers a story that Trekkies might enjoy a bit more than the rest of the theater. From the very beginning, the film feels more reminiscent of the 1966-69 series than resemblant of the two most recent films. However, it also deviates from both bodies in some way. Director Lin has stated that in honor of the series’ 50th anniversary, his new film introduces 50 new alien species to the Star Trek universe. These include Krall (Idris Elba) and Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), both of whom give great performances. But even so, the very presence of significantly more aliens in “Beyond” makes it feel out of touch with the previous entries.  Plus, we now have to meddle with a whole new species of little green alien thingies that don’t appear to have been given a name.  I wish I could say they were simply ugly Tribbles, but no Tribble is as ugly nor as boring as these disgusting creatures. In terms of how it fares with its two predecessors, “Star Trek Beyond” is essentially “Return of the Jedi”.  It’s a step down from the first two films, and there’s too many damn Ewoks, so to speak.  The difference, though, is that “Beyond” is a much, much larger step down than “Jedi” was.

Hail, Caesar!

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The Coen brothers strike again, but this time not quite as hard.
★★
Movie Review #1,071

hail_caesar

Distributed by Universal Pictures. Comedy, Mystery. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. Released February 5, 2016. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, and Jonah Hill.

“Hail, Caesar!” is quirky and surreal, like any Coen brothers movie. If you’ve enjoyed the Coens’ work, you’ll likely find their newest to be sufficiently entertaining, if far from perfect. However, this isn’t exactly the best starting place if you’re not familiar with the Coens. I might suggest visiting their older work, such as “Fargo” or “The Big Lebowski” before viewing their newest, which, at best, is acceptable and, at worst, is uninteresting.

The film satirizes the moral scrutiny that impounded Hollywood during the 1950s. Back then, whenever a possible scandal would arise, it was the job of a “fixer” to make sure the public didn’t hear about it. “Hail, Caesar!” focuses on a real-life fixer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix is trying to hide two particular scandals. One involves Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of a “Ben-Hur”-like epic called “Hail, Caesar!” (hence the title) who, after being drugged by extras during the production of one scene, has been kidnapped. The other scandal involves DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an unmarried New York actress who has unexpectedly become pregnant while in the filming stage of her new movie.

However, that’s not a full encapsulation of the plot. Somewhere around 30 minutes in, “Hail, Caesar!” begins to veer off-course, and eventually, the story turns into one big, convoluted mess. Watching it all go down is like being on a road trip with someone who’s first headed to Indiana, but then gets distracted from his route and goes through Ohio, New Jersey, and Virginia, before finally running out of gas and realizing that he’s now stranded and can no longer make his way to Indiana. That said, if ever a film with ADHD there was, “Hail, Caesar” is one, because, because: Many characters are added to the story throughout the movie, knotting the story so many times that we just about give up on trying to follow it. Joel and Ethan Coen, on the slight chance that you’re reading this, why sacrifice a comprehensive storyline for the sake of having a large A-list cast?

That cast is hit-and-miss. Josh Brolin is great as Mannix, but he’s also playing the same sort of character he’s been playing for years. A charismatic, straight-talking, tough-guy role like Mannix is othing outside of his comfort zone. Meanwhile, George Clooney isn’t the most compelling lead. As far as I’m concerned, he just looks like some actor in a suit, which, by the way, looks a bit stupid on him. Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, is great as the feisty, unwed New York actress. Her lines are ostentatiously written, and her delivery is hilarious. But perhaps the peak of the cast is Alden Ehrenreich. He plays a young, heartthrobby actor, who in turn plays a singing cowboy in a movie called “Lazy Ol’ Moon”. In its technical areas, the movie doesn’t particularly do the best job of bringing us back to the period it covers, but Ehrenreich’s performance helps out a bit with that.