Baywatch: Movie Man Jackson

Defend the bay, at all costs. Lifeguard “lieutenant’ Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) is the longtime protector of Emerald Bay, keeping its denizens safe and the bay the place to be, along with Emerald lifeguard veterans Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ (Kelly Rohrbach). He and the others take their jobs seriously, which the community thanks them for.

Buchanan’s team has three openings on it, and they are filled by the sassy Summer (Alexandra Daddario), the dorky yet persistent Ronnie (Jon Bass), and the bad-boy, two-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Matt Brody (Zac Efron). The latter addition tests Buchanan’s patience. While the initiation of the newbies is occurring, shady activity and dead bodies are proliferating on the bay, and it seems to suggest that new beachfront owner Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) may be connected. Though this is a job clearly for the authorities, who better to crack the case than the lifeguards of Emerald Bay?

 

There’s value in setting the bar low. Or adapting from something in which the bar happened to be so low. That bar I’m talking about is Baywatch 2017, of course adapted from the 90’s television show. I certainly do not remember anything about the show, or recall watching one episode in full, but the slo-mo beefcakes and buxom beauties is as ‘Merican as apple pie. This iteration of Baywatch provides that, yet unfortunately, little else consistently to be a memorable comedy, even with a low bar.

It wouldn’t be Baywatch without gratuitous slow motion (a spectacular opening scene uses it the best) featuring shots that focus on both male and female anatomy. On that front, director Seth Gordon (Identity Thief, Horrible Bosses), succeeds. There’s ample eye candy for all moviegoers. Seth Gordon is in on the joke…at least for the first 30 or so minutes, focusing on the absurdity of it all. There’s a turning point however, that occurs around this 30-minute mark that makes Baywatch not completely serious, but more serious than one may anticipate.This is the point in which all of the lazy editing, sometimes horrid CGI, and boring action sequences are noticed and the near two-hour runtime felt. At least there’s a nice soundtrack.

So the direction isn’t great, but Gordon isn’t the biggest issue in Baywatch. That would be the writing. Is it as bad as CHiPs? Not a chance. However, the story, though clear with no frills, plays out as an uninteresting murder mystery. “Mystery” is a bit of a misnomer, as all the trailers have outlined each puzzle piece and how they fit. What’s left is some crude R rated humor—most of it unfortunately sinking like an anchor—and Johnson’s character making a lame running joke throughout by not calling Efron’s character by his name, instead referring to him as “Bieber,” “*NSYNC,” or some other similar boy band/group. Gets old fast.

This should be better just by the presence of the two leading men. Everyone knows Dwayne is charismatic (he still is here), and Zac has found his career destiny in comedies playing some variants of hollow, douchey, yet somewhat still layered guys. But, their chemistry and timing isn’t completely tight; then again, they’re not given much to take advantage of. The lines they’re asked to read and the skim characters they’re asked to play simply do not allow for much comedy to be delivered.

Out of the rest of the cast, the most humorous moments are actually delivered by Jon Bass and Kelly Rohrbach. As far as the other women go, Daddario and Hadera fill roles of love interests with little else, and Chopra’s character, despite the movie trying to build her up as an intelligent villainess in an industry full of men, is extremely one-note the moment she appears on screen. It’s a shame, too, for as much diversity as the film carries in its cast, none of it translates to interesting, or at least consistently amusing, characters.

Perhaps old television shows should just be left alone and untouched at sea. This new Baywatch isn’t worth stopping for or staring at.

D+

Photo credits go to movpins.com, fromthemovie.com, and slashfilm.com

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword-Movie Man Jackson

Hear ye, hear ye. Born in a brothel, the streets of Londinium has become home for young Arthur. The streets have molded him into a tough, confident, yet still honest individual who does the right thing more than not. Now older, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) gets by as a Robin Hood-esque character of sorts, providing for his hometown what they need and dispensing justice where applicable.

One particular incident puts Arthur in the path of King Vortigern (Jude Law), who has ascended to the throne via treacherous means. Knowing of Arthur’s royal lineage (unbeknownst to Arthur, he’s the son of the deceased king Uther (Eric Bana)), Vortigern looks to exterminate him. Wanting no part of this, Arthur so wishes to go back to his normal life, but he who has the strength to draw the fabled sword Excalibur from the stone must use it, and topple Vortigern once and for all.

Unless you’re The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, medieval/Middle Age/mythology movies and productions have a tough go at drawing audiences to the theaters, at least here in America. From a critical perspective, they might as well be poison in most cases now (see Seventh Son, Clash of the Titans, Warcraft), with people often making up their minds as to the actual quality of them and refusing to be wavered in thinking anything different. Most aren’t great, but every now and then the genre is fresh enough to deliver some legitimate fun. Enter the latest telling of King Arthur. By no means amazing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword ends up being, all in all, an energetic summer movie.

Holding the directorial sword in King Arthur rebooted is Guy Ritche. Ritchie is an individual who brings a noticeable imprint to any movie he does, and that doesn’t really change here. Expect a whizzing, hyperactive camera to intercut whenever characters deliver exposition, or give context to (what is supposed to be) pertinent information. It isn’t nearly as funny as Ritchie thinks it is. This style doesn’t 100% work in the movie, but does keep the energy up, and sort of makes up for a story that can feel stretched at times, especially in the latter third before the climax.

 

However, from an action perspective, Ritchie’s style does work in the world that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is composed of. The 180 pans, stop-start shots, and the like just goes well with all of the magic and supernatural elements. Save for some questionable CGI near the end that stands out in a negative way, there’s a real sense of “epicness” that Guy brings to the proceedings in various scenes. But, the real MVP of Legend of the Sword may be composer Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs), who creates a standout score that goes against sonic genre type and truly elevates the film.

Only two characters really receive proper attention and development in this King Arthur fable. Of course, one is the titular character portrayed by Charlie Hunnam. Arthur is a little more grittier and less proper in this retelling, and Hunnan is the perfect fit, providing physicality yet everyman likability to make a character worth rooting for. His opposition is played by Jude Law, clearing having a good time while getting some scenes to showcase his range and flesh out his despicable king.

As the supporting cast goes, the enigmatic Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) is the most intriguing individual; there’s a lot of potential with her if future movies come to fruition. Unfortunately, most who make up the fabled knights of the roundtable come off as generic spacefillers, even Djimon Hounsou. At least he’s not playing a secondary antagonist like he’s been doing as of late (Furious 7, Seventh Son, The Legend of Tarzan).

After the financial performance of King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, it may be long time until the sword is removed from the stone again. Though far from perfect, it’s a shame. I for one, wouldn’t mind seeing another Excalibur stab taken at expanding this tale.

B-

Photo credits go to liveforfilm.com, blastr.com, and warnerbros.co.uk.

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The Wall: Movie Man Jackson

I’ll let someone else make a witty connection between this film’s title and the 45th president of the United States of America. In 2007, the Iraq War isn’t exactly over, but the pullout of American troops is beginning. Called to lookout after U.S. contractors building a pipeline are killed, Army sniper “Eyes” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and spotter Sergeant Matthews (John Cena), make a move away from their protected positions to scope out the site. It’s been 22 hours, and they’re ready to be evacuated.

Shortly after inspection, all hell breaks loose. Scrambling from the open space fire, Issac finds protection in the form of an unsteady wall. Desperately trying to request help, his radio is not only damaged in the attack, but tapped by the enemy sniper. It becomes clear that Issac and Matthews are in grave danger, but their stalking assailant wants to play wretched mind games before launching a fatal salvo.

In the vein of 2016’s lean thrillers such as The Shallows and Don’t Breathe is The Wall. Director Doug Liman’s most recent film uses the backdrop of Iraq and the war to provide a movie that is technically a war movie, but sharing much more in common with those aforementioned films than a Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, and the like. The Wall ends up summer 2017’s first 100% lean thriller.

Liman, who knows his way around big-budget features in The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, seems to relish in directing on this minuscule scale that The Wall carries, reportedly made somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-5 million dollars. The minimalist approach is deployed, and it does immerse the viewer into its setting rather quickly. Music is entirely absent in the movie; one may forget they’re watching one. Swirling winds, the desert heat, and just the general fear of being in a person’s literal crosshairs make for a harrowing viewing experience, and Liman chooses to give little away as it pertains to his villain’s position. It’s a clever use of space, illustrating that distance between characters may be far, but still very claustrophobic.

However, even at a tight 81 minutes, I’d be lying if I failed to say that The Wall did not meander occasionally. Gradually, the audience does find out more about Issac and his reason for still being in Iraq as the war is winding down, giving a little bit of an emotional component. As the film goes on, some attempts are made to parallel—and in the case of the antagonist, somewhat humanize—the characters who lie on each side of the wall divide through Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare lines. At best, these parallels are broad, at worst, nonexistent. Not exactly painful-to-listen-to dialogue, but the type of dialogue that doesn’t accomplish as much as it wants to, either. As for the ending, it’s a bold direction, if a little farfetched for a realism-focused movie.

Keeping up his hot momentum after his marvelous turn in Nocturnal Animals is Aaron Taylor-Johnson here. His performance isn’t so much character-driven, but draws more upon the overall fatigue and hopelessness, mental, physical, and emotional, soldiers may find themselves into. This is unequivocally his movie, with the bulk of the camera focused on him, though John Cena provides adequate dramatic support in what is easily his best dramatic performance to date. Laith Nakli is the standard, sinister voice that’s needed for this type of feature when a mysterious character is unseen, think Kiefer Sutherfland in Phone Booth and Ted Levine in Joy Ride.

The first real surprise of the year? With a pretty limited script, a good director and strong performances keep The Wall from toppling over, ultimately making for an efficient war-set thriller.

B-

Photo credits go to Youtube.com, muscleandfitness.com, and liveforfilms.com

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The Dinner: Movie Man Jackson

This stuff never happens during brunch. The Lohman family—politician Stan (Richard Gere), his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), Stan’s brother Paul (Steve Coogan), and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), are getting together one night for dinner at an upscale restaurant. It’s a busy time for Stan, who’s hoping to get a bill passed and retain his public office role.

But, matters need to be attended to that involve the respective sons of these families. They’ve done something that can land not only themselves in hot water, but undo all of the goodwill and public standing the Lohman family has. Over the course of a few hours, a five course meal is served, but that’s merely a backdrop for a conversation to ascertain what actions—if any—should be taken with their children.

First World Problems? White Privileged? These could also be titles for The Dinner, albeit pointed ones. Director Oren Moverman takes a look at a family in disarray, while asking some questions about parenting, affluenza, and even mental health. These are elements that could make up a compelling movie overall, but, The Dinner isn’t really so.

It’s no surprise that The Dinner is driven by dialogue. Dinner tables have often served for many uncomfortable conversations, and Moverman nails that quality very easily, using the upscale locale and dim lighting to create a stuffy atmosphere. The atmosphere, pretentious and artificial, comes to serve as the representation of the bulk of the four characters. At the actual table is where The Dinner is most intriguing and a tasty bite.

 

Whenever The Dinner leaves the table—not literally, but figuratively—is where the film loses its storytelling and structure. Based off a Dutch novel with the same name, I imagine certain plot points and moments come off better in written word compared to the silver screen. As stated, the mental health of one particular character is a pretty important piece of this film, and at times, the story is told from this character’s viewpoint.

There are a lot of prolonged flashbacks that are designed to give context to characters, but end up breaking the pace and flow. Maybe Moverman was going for a disjointed approach to mirror the mental health issues the character was having, narration is occasionally used as well, but it becomes hard to follow. One flashback in particular involving a Gettysburg memorial visit may be up there as one of the more painful scenes in recent memory, making one question why it was left in the final cut (and it goes on and on and on). The Dinner also seems to struggle a little with point of view, initially beginning with one character, but switching to another in the final act. With that said, the ending isn’t bad, but it would have been nice to see a little more aftermath of it.

The Dinner may be arriving in theaters with little fanfare, but, it does possess an impressive cast to boot. Sadly, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall can do much more than what they’re gifted with here, which essentially amounts to entitled ice queens. But, each does get a moment or two in the last act to show off their talents. Much of the meat belongs to Richard Gere and Steve Coogan. Gere should run for office; he’s easy to buy into as a politician, and is the one character out of the foursome who garners some sympathy from the viewing audience. Coogan, who may be known more for comedy in some circles, does good as darker details are revealed about his Paul. But the biggest issue may be simply finding one person to truly side with in this morality story, and no amount of solid acting can overcome this.

All of this leaves The Dinner feeling like it should have been prepared more in the kitchen before being served on a plate. Some aspects on it are tasty, but most others are overcooked/undercooked.

D+

Photo credits go to IMDB.com, YouTube.com, and Ew.com

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Unforgettable: Movie Man Jackson

What will Unforgettable teach a person? Have a Facebook account, Twitter account, something. For Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), everything seems to be fitting into place. She’s just taken the next step in her editorial career, moving to the sunny West Coast. Her personal life couldn’t be any better, finally meeting the man of her dreams, David (Geoff Stults), and set to be a stepmom to his daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).

Julia has an unfortunate past that she’s managed to put behind her. If only others, such as David’s ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) could possess her resolve. Instead, Tessa seems consumed with trying to win David back and disparage his new flame (often subtly) at every opportunity. This suburbia ain’t big enough for the three of them.

As I’ve stated before, one of my guilty pleasure film subgenres is that of the psycholover-ex thriller variety. Most never do reach the heights of, say Fatal Attraction or Play Misty for Me, but they can be—sometimes—enjoyable and ridiculous diversions. Well, except for The Boy Next Door, and now, Unforgettable.

There’s an unofficial theory that yours truly has subscribed to when it comes to what makes these types of these movies successful, or at least worthy enough of a Saturday afternoon Oxygen/Lifetime view. It all comes down to the individual playing the antagonist, and how adept they are at playing crazy. Are they easy to buy as being bonkers? Do they find that early movie sweet spot where there’s something just a bit off about them, but still feel enough like a real person and not a caricature?

Being the antagonist in Unforgettable, this pressure falls unto Katherine Heigl to make this fun and…ahem…unforgettable. Sadly, she will not get a gold star for her work here. Not all of the failure in making this enjoyable falls at her feet, as some of the dialogue is tough for any actress to deliver confidently. But for most of the runtime, Heigl comes off more as a spoiled, privileged, word that rhymes with “witch” as opposed to a terrifying psychopath. And she does nothing memorable to try to be dynamic.

As a result, Unforgettable quickly becomes a dull affair with the typical moments befitting a film like this, with the only slight difference in storytelling being an in media res start from first-time feature director Denise Di Novi (producer of Edward Scissorhands and Crazy.Stupid.Love). It would be one thing if the movie and/or some of its stars recognized some of its schlock and just went with it (à la The Perfect Guy and Michael Ealy), but everything is played so rigid one does wonder the point of its existence.

It’s a shame to see Rosario Dawson in such a tepid production. Still, she manages to play her role as best as she can, providing an adequate protagonist to get behind with a little bit of interesting character backstory. Her chemistry with Geoff Stults is fine, Stults being the average man who is laughably oblivious to just how insane his ex is. There’s the occasionally amusing line from comedian Whitney Cummings, but by and large, characters do and say exactly what you think they would, which gives everything a overly mechanical feeling.

What does Unforgettable even mean in the context of this film? Not sure, but outside of it, it’s a horrid title. Even removing the “un” and calling this Forgettable is probably being too nice.

D-

Photo credits go to collider.com, dailymotion.com, and etonline.com.

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Table 19: Movie Man Jackson

There’s the devil’s rejects, and there’s the wedding rejects. Eloise (Anna Kendrick) was slated to be the maid of honor for her best friend’s wedding, but a recent messy breakup with the best man in all of the proceedings,Teddy (Wyatt Russell), has left her in a bad way. Not wanting to attend, she decides to, only because it’s her best friend getting hitched.

No longer being a central part of the ceremony, Eloise is relegated to Table 19, where all of the people who have only the slightest connections to the bride and groom take space at. These people include the rocky Jerry & Bina Kepp (Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow), awkward Walter (Stephen Merchant), preteen hormone raging Rezno (Tony Revolori), and retired nanny Jo (June Squibb). They are the forgotten at this wedding, but rest assured, by the time this ceremony is over, they’ll make their presence felt.

 

The Breakfast Club at a reception table? Or maybe the Suicide Squad (hyperbole) at a reception table?That’s kind of what Table 19 comes off as. Just without the memorable characters or honest feel-good aspect of the John Hughes classic. Popular acting names and a tight runtime can’t save this production from feeling predominately forced.

Independent movies can be cool sometimes, offbeat and charming enough to compensate for real flaws. And other times they can be just as lazy, if not more so, than their big budget brethren, relying on being an indie movie for artificial heart. From the get-go, something feels off with Table 19. Maybe it’s the song used, or how the meat of the story is set-up, essentially in a montage that does little to expand on its characters. In about five minutes’ time, the rejects are brought together and the story starts. Very haphazard it is, and director Jeffrey Blitz seems to rely on the novelty of the idea to sell what happens rather than any real solid writing. While some characters’ backgrounds are delved into at the table (Kendrick, Robinson, Kudrow—the focus is primarily on them), some are not (June Squibb, Tony Revolori, Stephen Merchant).

 

One of the biggest—if not the biggest—issue with the comedy-drama Table 19 is that it isn’t competent in any of its tagged genres. Save for Stephen Merchant, who is funny more times than not, the movie fails badly to tickle the funnybone. This shouldn’t be hard with Craig Robinson, Lisa Kudrow, and to some extent Anna Kendrick as known quantities in comedy, but I can’t remember laughing once legitimately to anything their characters said or did. Most of them are written to be annoying or flat out uninteresting. One can see why each of them was relegated to the table no one would really notice. The drama is written so thick and melodramatic it’s hard to take seriously. There’s some meaning of “people not being right for each other yet actually being right and that’s love” that is just as messy as it sounds.

Doesn’t help that Blitz edits Table 19 in an odd way, for a significant period in the runtime cutting between the reception and serious moments with the outcasts all alone in a hotel room. It’s distracting, and does little, if nothing, to connect more with the characters. 2017 is still young, but an early contender for Worst Scene of the Year award has emerged in Table 19, featuring a shirtless Robinson entering a shower with a bare Kudrow trying to find the spark again set to awful background music. Not romantic or heartwarming, just awkward and embarrassing. The “happy ever after” ending doesn’t exactly come out of left-field, but is not earned.

Outside of a briefly fun premise and an amusing Merchant, Table 19 doesn’t do anything well. Even if you could sit at this table, you wouldn’t want to.

D-

Photo credits go to justjared.com, out.com, and YouTube.com.

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Logan: Movie Man Jackson

loganstub

Father time is forever, and will always be undefeated. In the future (2029, to be exact), the famous/infamous X-Man Logan (Hugh Jackman), spends his days in relative isolation on the Tex-Mex border, working as an Uber-driver of sorts. He takes care of a physically and mentally debilitating Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), still seen as a weapon by the U.S. government. His goal is to make enough money to get away from all of this and spend their lives in peace as the last known mutants on Earth.

Professor X is declining in health, but so is Logan. The Wolverine no longer has the rapid healing factor he once possessed, and each enemy encounter takes longer to recover from. His path crosses with a woman who needs his assistance getting a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to the border of U.S./Canada for her safety. Why, Logan does not know, but he soon finds out that many bad people want Laura for unknown reasons, and unfortunately, he’s connected in all of this. He has to do something, reluctant as he may be.

professorx

The X-Men, and by the associative property, Logan/Wolverine, have been around for 17 years now. And yet, people never really talk about them or their characters in the same vein like they do an Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, or Batman, despite that 2000 film sort of paving the way for modern day superhero movies. Box-office wise, mutants haven’t carried the same monetary reward like their aforementioned brethren have (though this past weekend, Logan has posted quite the number at 85 million plus, making $400+ worldwide a damn near certainty). My point is, with regards to the characters of the X-Men universe, perhaps we should talk about them in the same vein as those others. Or at least Logan.

James Mangold (The Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma) returns to direct (and this time, write) Wolvie’s latest outing after redeeming the character from 2009’s disappointment, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The Wolverine was a good start really expanding its title character’s warrior/samurai backstory/parallels, only succumbing to “comic book-ness” and poor CGI in its final act. But Logan fully capitalizes on the 17 years most of us have seen Jackman as Logan. There’s a reason this is called Logan and not The Wolverine 2 or something similar. This is a very mature, character-focused production that does like to take its time (occasionally, plodding so) in telling its story and relationships.

Of course, there are many scenes that feature the usage of superhero/villain powers, but honestly, Logan never really feels like a superhero movie. And that’s a good thing. It’s integrated with the X-Men universe, but barely. Mangold and Jackson seem to want to have nothing to do with the X-Men universe. I made a point before about how the traditional Western is a thing no longer, but that that modern Western of nowadays and likely, the future, is a genre that is fused with other ones.

caliban

Logan is, unofficially, a Western. The old, world-weary outlaw in the middle of nowhere, facing odds that are slim to none for survival against a heaping of mostly faceless opposition, defending something or someone because it is ultimately the right thing to do. Certainly not an original story (shades of Midnight Special and The Last of Us are apt comparisons), but the attention to detail and minimalist scenery Mangold uses to tell this story for a traditional superhero comes off as fresh. Logan, crazy to say, is relatable, in ways most “superhero” movies aren’t.  Sacrifice, pain, and duty are all words floated in many a comic book movie, but in Logan, they seem tangible.

And then there’s the biggest talking point of the Logan movie: Its R Rating. Not much more can be said by yours truly that one hasn’t heard at this point in time, but it bears repeating. This is absolute brutality the likes of few, if any, comic book movies have ever possessed on the silver screen, with amazing sound effects. But it, and the heavy tone in general, feels necessary, a natural progression for the characters of Logan and Professor X making their final stands. Some of the F bombs (and hit/miss humor, for that matter) do feel more like “Hey, we’ve got a R Rating now, let’s throw this around just because!” instead of natural, but most do end up sounding fine.

For over a decade, Hugh Jackman’s been turning in excellent performances as Wolverine, and yet, this is easily his best one as this character. Probably because he has more to do as Old Man Logan. Jackman sells the emotional and physical pain we are witnessed to from the get-go; it honestly hurts to watch him limp everywhere. Likewise for Patrick Stewart, who still serves as a father figure to Logan despite the worsening conditions he’s dealing with. It’s a relationship the duo have always had since the very first X-Men, but finally, it’s fully realized on both ends, as both assume the role of father and son throughout.

Brand new youngster Dafne Keen fits well with the established thespians, not being forced to do a ton dramatically until the end. Too early to say she’s a star in the making (not much to really go off of), but is believable for this part. No one else stands out all that much, even the villain(s) and Boyd Holbrook, not written with much meat, but passable for the plot at hand.

roadtrip

Balls out, claws out. The last iteration of Hugh Jackman as Logan does just that, culminating in an emotional ending that ties any loose ends or lingering matters. A real downer that this is it for Jackman in a role he’s made iconic, but it’s always best to go out on top.

B+

Photo credits go to comicvine.gamespot.com, ign.com, and bustile.com.

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Fifty Shades Darker: Movie Man Jackson

50shadesdarker

She’s just a sucker for pain. When the world last saw Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), she had had enough of billionaire Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) penchant for pain during intercourse. Ana has left Christian behind, and started to focus on herself, acquiring a job as a secretary for one of Seattle’s biggest publishers, SIP.

Christian isn’t ready to leave Ana behind, though, and reappears in her life offering to change. No contracts, or nothing she isn’t comfortable with. As the two attempt to navigate a more “vanilla” relationship, Christian’s complicated past makes this endeavor difficult.

car-ride

Call me an idiot or just too nice, but I was one of the people who didn’t believe that Fifty Shades of Gray was the worst thing modern cinema ever created. That’ s not certainly not to say it was a good or even passable movie, but it was watchable enough in stretches to go into the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, with a relatively open mind. That didn’t last long. Working with a bigger budget, Fifty Shades Darker ends up being a much smaller and flaccid movie package.

One thing the first Fifty Shades of Grey possessed was fairly good cinematography and direction from Sam Taylor-Johnson, and a decent score and solid original music tracks. The actual production wasn’t that bad. But this go-around, “FSD,” directed by James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), doesn’t stand out much from the average ABC Family or Oxygen film, minus the subject matter. It’s a very lifeless looking production that does nothing to titillate or stimulate, and the music chosen to accompany these “sexy” scenes ranges from corny to cringey. It’s bad the first time, by the 6th time, you’ll feel violated.

leila

The two lovebirds in Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan return, with passable chemistry, but not the white hot chemistry this movie needs to be effective. As in the previous movie, Dakota Johnson is by far and away the braver of the two stars once again, putting her entire body out to bare in embarrassing situations. If only her character was as strong as Dakota claims her to be, Fifty Shades Darker may have something.

Dornan bares a little more this go-around, and is a tad better than before with some more character meat. Unfortunately, his American accent slips pretty noticeably here and there, to the point where that’s all I was looking for. With that said (for better or worse), they are the best things about this sequel. Everyone else looks bored to be there (Bella Heathcote, Kim Basinger), or a little over-the-top (Eric Johhson). His role into the story is seen from a mile away; not sure if it is supposed to be.

One can get on the stars and the cast for lackluster acting, but the realization is, these aren’t talentless thespians. Two films deep now, probably not much of a stretch to say that the source material for the Fifty Shades novels is extremely shoddy. Some stories are better left in the book. The dialogue is almost always agonizing to listen to. I simply don’t believe there’s someone out there to make this sound even average, but couldn’t someone else be allowed to take a stab at the screenplay who wasn’t the author’s husband? One thing to exercise artistic control, another to not want to take any suggestions from other, possibly more experienced, people.

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As yours truly pressed on through Fifty Shades Darker, there was one thought that went through the mind: The emotional and physical pain that Ana experiences from Christian’s unconventional desires are nowhere near the levels of pain I experienced watching it unfold.

D-

Photo credits go to variety.com, eonline.com, and yahoo.com.

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Hidden Figures: Movie Man Jackson

phenson

Numbers are indiscriminate. Relatively speaking. The year is 1961. The United States of America is in a race with Russia to put an astronaut into space. But, they are hitting quite a few snags in the process. They simply do not have the manpower, or possibly the mindpower, to break through.

Three brilliant African-American females mathematicians in Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are assigned to various departments to helm Langley’s efforts to launch one of its own into the stratosphere. All are qualified, but each face difficulties in getting their peers to accept them as equals. But the mission takes precedence, and hitting its intended target means putting aside any hate and coming together as a unit.

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Needing for a Disney-live movie that isn’t made by Disney? Hidden Figures does the trick, a true story that pays good tribute to amazing women. Well, relatively true. It’s sound in all areas without being extraordinary in any, either. Nothing wrong with playing it safe and filling a purpose.

The title of Hidden Figures serves as a double meaning. The movie’s core plot revolves around finding the math that doesn’t yet exist to propel a shuttle into space. But on a more figurative sense, for myself, I sadly had never heard of these women, but I suspect a good deal have not, either, effectively making these women almost ghost-like in the annals of history. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) takes the quarterback manager approach here. There’s little that catches the eye cinematically, but it’s certainly competent. Producer Pharrell Williams provides a few high spots with original songs that fit the 1960’s setting perfectly.

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Melfi lets the story of Hidden Figures, adapted from the nonfiction book with the same name, tell itself. However, there are obvious embellishments and prints of Hollywood that are left on the production. Hidden Figures does a good job at showcasing the institutional racism that permeated the time period, the small things that made life difficult for African-Americans, and women in a male-dominated field. But, Hidden Figures becomes hokey at times with specific moments and certain characters who didn’t exist. This is not the film to get hyper-accurate history from.

Still, the lead characters of Hidden Figures provide some insight into these troubling times, and though they all work towards the same mission, all three women have their own storylines that the film addresses. It helps that each of the three actresses pull off great performances to make their characters likable and believable. Taraji P. Henson is the standout of the entire picture, and now seeing the list, it is a little disappointing to not see her get a Best Actress nomination; she’s that good with the requisite award scene that plays for a nominee that feels completely natural in the movie. The surprise is Janelle Monáe, who was good in Moonlight but has more to do here, and might be more deserving of the supporting nod than the über-consistent Octavia Spencer who did receive the nod.

As for the rest of the supporting cast, most end up playing the evil white person or misguided white person who thinks they mean well but actually do not. At least for many of the central characters at Langley, this applies. As such, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are playing parts and not so much characters to give life to, though Dunst is a little more impressive with what she is given. On the other side of the spectrum of characters at Langley lies Kevin Costner’s (no one’s going to accuse him of having questionable views in Hollywood!), just a guy who’s about the job regardless of skin color. Costner’s character is good, even if a scene borders on being the aforementioned hokey. Aldis Hodge and Mahershala Ali provide solid yet unspectacular work as stock husband/love interest. But, it’s nice to see these up and coming actors of color in a high-profile movie.

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Hidden Figures is the sum of great lead performances to tell the stories of three women who didn’t get the recognition they deserve until now. Everything else in the film, facts included, is secondary, but it does end up equaling a feel-good watch.

B-

Photo credits go to aceshowbiz.com, denofgeek.com, and filmandnow.com.

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La La Land: Movie Man Jackson

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Dreams, dreams, dreams. Los Angeles, California is the place people go to achieve their dreams. However, it is also the place where many a dream unfortunately go to die. For aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), and old-school jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), only failed auditions and small-bit gigs have come from their hard work. Both do not have much more effort to give to their aspirations.

But, their batteries are recharged after chance run-ins continue to bring them together. Romance arises out of it. And luck actually begins to change for both of them. Their careers appear ready to take off, but the relationship they’ve built together could be undone if so.

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Much like Hail, Caesar!, La Land Land is a love letter to something particular. Whereas the former film was a love letter to old Hollywood, the latter film is much more specific in its scope, writing a letter to a particular genre of film. That genre of film being the musical. Its simplicity and uncommon-ness in today’s day and movie age makes for a fascinating and fresh watch.

Yours truly never looks forward to watching a musical, and I was a little skeptical of La La Land for this very reason initially. My skepticism was put to bed rather quickly, as director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) opens the movie with an astonishing set piece on the actual LA freeway. What Chazelle does here is simply amazing. The music happens rather organically, rather than overly manufactured. Though the pieces become significantly smaller scale-wise as the film progresses, that doesn’t make them any less impressive. In fact, it allows the cinematography to shine brighter, making for a beautiful-looking movie. This obviously isn’t a three-dimensional feature, but it pops a lot more than most do. It’s impossible not to appreciate all of the technical hard work and cinematic skill that’s on display. Underrated aspect of the movie? Cool to see the City of Angels not as a dunghole of despair, but—ahem—a beacon of hope and opportunity.

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But, La La Land isn’t purely a musical. It is basic romance between two characters that initially start at odds, the common backbone for many a film. He also takes stabs at a few themes that hit emotionally, mainly the idea of taking destiny in one’s own hands and the internal fight an individual has with remaining true to their artistic values, versus cashing in and providing stability.

Chazelle also wisely veers away from falling into overly cheesy mode or the happy Hollywood ending, and it gives more credence to the story. Perhaps 10-15 minutes could have been trimmed off in the middle, but otherwise, the film moves at a brisk pace, and an engaging musical number is seemingly right around the corner when things ever so slightly bog down.

I like to believe that the strongest romantic on-screen chemistry between stars makes a viewer believe that off-screen, the two could easily be an item that plasters the front pages of the tabloids and leads the E! nightly news. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have that kind of chemistry, surely cultivated from previous movies, scintillating from the initial crude beginning on the freeway to the touching ending. Neither is classically trained in the art of song and dance, but their commitment is evident. These aren’t easy roles to nail even with extensive research or hours upon hours of practice. It speaks to the raw skill that each person has that their performances come off pretty effortless.

Sound and unmemorable work is turned in by supporting castmates John Legend, J.K. Simmons (pretty much a cameo), and Rosemarie DeWitt, but they do their jobs. Their roles aren’t written to be meaty, just to provide more meat to the characters Gosling and Stone occupy. Outside of Stone, Gosling, and Chazelle, the biggest star of the film is the unseen choreographer Mandy Moore (to my surprise not the singer). If Chazelle wins Best Director, Moore’s got to be right beside him or mentioned at the top of the acceptance speech.

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Liking the musical genre does not need to be a prerequisite for appreciating La La Land. To qualify it as only a musical would be a disservice to it. There’s more than enough in this particular number for anyone who just likes film.

A-

Photo credits go to reddit.com, ew.com, comingsoon.net, and popsugar.com.

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