Murder on the Orient Express: Movie Man Jackson

Everyone is a suspect…and connected by six degrees of separation. After a demanding case solved in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh)—the world’s greatest detective—is allowing himself some R&R in Istanbul. The best laid plans never go according to plan, as durign his time away from work, Poirot is called to London to investigate a case.

With no travel plans readily available, Hercule turns to his friend Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman), who helps run the Orient Express, a train on the path to London. While vacation is cut short, at least the detective can relax by reading some Dickens for a few days.

Again, the best laid plans never go according to plan, as the train is derailed from its course, and during this derail, someone on the train has killed a passenger. There’s a Murder on the Orient Express and said murderer is still on the train. Only one man can solve this.

Ahh, the whodunit mystery. It is a movie genre that can be pretty limiting when one thinks about it. Often, there isn’t a ton of depth under the initial mystery to make for anything unforgettable, whether the production is loosely defined as an “original” (à la Happy Death Day) or a remake adapted from an Agatha Christie novel, which Murder on the Orient Express happens to be. Summed up, this remake is probably unnecessary but is certainly impressive to look at, have a little fun with, and never think about again after an initial watch.

The first thing noticed about “MotOE” is the well-done cinematography, commitment to the respective time period via costumes/setting, lighting, and just the mostly strong direction from director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Cinderella) shot on 65mm. Very easy to feel transported into 1934. Along with a fitting score by composer Patrick Doyle, it all adds to the old-school feeling. Stylistically, this is a classic movie made in 2017. In ways, the last-generation video game LA Noire comes to mind, from style to execution. While this Orient Express is far from original, there is a small feeling of freshness, because this type of production isn’t that common. As a basic whodunit, those who have never been exposed to prior iterations (like yours truly) may be surprised at how everything shakes down. While the actual culprit reveal isn’t something I’m completely pleased with, it did keep me guessing for the bulk of the runtime, doing the job on that front.

While Murder on the Orient Express’ highest plus is that of the technical work behind the screen, it isn’t without a little fault. The murder scene in particular which the movie is built around is rather rushed and isn’t really treated with the gravitas one would be led to believe. The medium shots from outside the train peering into the glass in voyeuristic manner is nice to look at, but probably a bit overused as well after so many times without amounting to much. As inane as this may sound, the white subtitles were a little easy to miss at times with some of them being shown against backgrounds (walls, dress shirts) that also happen to be white. Small, but some of this dialogue is critical and easy to miss.

What isn’t easy to miss is that mustache Kenneth Branagh sports as the famed detective. It stands out among everything, like his performance among the rest of the cast. Call Murder on the Orient Express ‘The Kenneth Branagh Show’ as director, lead actor, and producer. He is an interesting character with some internal depth and Branagh does a great job with an intro scene that makes Poirot easy to buy into as the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective. Where Branagh (and screenplay writer Michael Green) struggles is with the repeated stabs at humor. A few are effective, most are not. Same can be said for the interrogation scenes. Half seize attention, but others can actually be dull.

A cast this beefy shouldn’t be predominantly forgettable though. Yet, that’s accurate for this film. Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo all blend into each other. Honestly, I can’t remember who was the countess and who was the cook! Others like Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Johnny Depp, and Michelle Pfeiffer do make a little more of a lasting impression, but to call them fairly detailed would be a tad too generous. This is Branagh’s baby and his alone.

It is Branagh as the conductor, engineer, and bellhop who leads Murder on the Orient Express to a destination of Finesville. Choo-choo.

C+

Photo credits go to cinemablend.com, highsnobiety.com, and filmandtvnow.com.

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The Strange Ones: Movie Man Jackson

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think. Two young travelers in Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Jeremiah (James Freedson-Jackson) are making their way across what looks to be the American heartland. It’s a vacation of sorts…or so it is to be believed.

No one knows exactly why the two are being nomads. Even Jeremiah doesn’t really know what the deal is. Regardless, there are hidden depths and secrets that may prove to be the key as to who these young men are, and what their aim is.

Along with it being an independent film, hearing a movie titled The Strange Ones perked the intrigue level for yours truly. Carrying the genre descriptors of drama and thriller only seemed to hint at the possibilities of something truly unique. Alas, The Strange Ones is part mesmerizing and part mundane, making for a product that exists in a gray area of meh.

There are two halves to The Strange Ones, co-directed by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein. The first half relies on the mysterious relationship coupled with the open-world, frontier-like setting. Little hints in pieces of dialogue serve to build expectations for a worthy story reveal. It can be frustratingly slow and tough to latch onto any one individual, but, Radcliff and Wolkstein do a strong job of keeping interest levels high via confident technical direction and a dingy (in a positive way) cinematography that amps up the mystery along with another ambient score by Brian McOmber (It Comes At Night).

The first half is undoubtedly stronger than the second half. As the reveals and the reasons for the brothers being on the run and the nature of their relationship are brought to light, the film loses its vice grip on the audience. To hopefully spoil nothing, there seems to be a lot wanting to be said about trauma/coping, perception, and growing up, however, the execution is lacking and left a little too vague. Perhaps it is here where the troubles of adapting what was originally a 2011 short movie into a full-length feature are evident. From a thrilling aspect, The Strange Ones disappoints as well, serving much more as a drama and mystery than anything truly white-knuckled or unnerving.

There’s a chance that more clarity could be gained from an additional re-watch. However, the detached story begets detached characters that ultimately makes for an empty experience. There are a few atrocities and disturbing moments that are striking, but it is hard to say they garner any emotion. Unfortunate, too, because the two lead performances are quite sound in Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson. Pettyfer—probably known more for his physique and difficulties with Channing Tatum than his acting chops—blends easily into a role that should launch him into other meatier roles. But the standout is the young Freedson-Jackson (Cop Car). The way he delivers specific dialogue and holds his gaze when recollecting things is spectacular. One scene early on in particular is haunting. With stronger scripts, the youngster should have ample future opportunities to become a rising star.

And maybe that’s the best way to look at The Strange Ones, a production featuring actors and directors who show obvious talents that have yet to be fully realized. It’s a half-empty one and a half-full one.

C

Photo credits go to imdb.com, indiewire.com, and filmmisery.com.

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Daddy’s Home 2: Movie Man Jackson

The dads are back in town. After going to war over who would be the rightful dad to Dusty’s (Mark Wahlberg) kids, stepfather Brad (Will Ferrell) and biological father Dusty have reached an understanding and one could even call them friends. There’s a clear understanding of schedules and needs, and everything’s working out, aside from Christmas-time. To make for a more enriching X-mas, Brad suggests a “together Christmas” between the two families with everyone around to celebrate the holiday in the same house.

The only thing that could screw this up is the presence of their dads. And what do you know, Dusty’s dad, macho Kurt (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s dad, mushy Don (John Lithgow) arrive. The basic Christmas has turned into an elaborate cabin vacation getaway at the push of a phone button by Kurt. All the great progression Brad and Dusty made turns into regression, and threatens to ruin Christmas and their friendship forever.

If it feels like we just got Daddy’s Home 2 last week, it’s because we did. Technically, this is the same movie give or take as A Bad Moms Christmas, only flipping the genders. Neither sequel should really exist, but Bad Moms 2 at least feels a little more inspired and carries a little more of a good time. The same cannot be said for the sequel to Daddy’s Home. Comparisons or not, this is simply a bad, low-rung comedy.

Nary a plot exists in Daddy’s Home 2. There’s the whole dysfunctional parents and a “will they, won’t they” breakup aspect between Dusty and Brad, but most of the movie’s runtime is comprised of various slapstick moments fluffed with bad writing. For every OK-to-good line of funny dialogue, there seems to be two or three lines plus an unfunny/telegraphed/callback sight gag that fails to do the trick. At least the word “scoff” is used liberally. Par for the course for many of these Christmas movies, the themes of family and forgiveness are prevalent and made to be wrapped up and addressed via a “heartwarming” finale that speaks to the holiday season. It happens so fast, however, that the effect is lost, further speaking to the cash-in feel of the movie.

Returning writer/director Sean Anders (Horrible Bosses 2) had to know this, which is perhaps why the sequel is beefed up with a bigger cast, with Gibson, Lithgow, and John Cena (very underutilized, by the way) of course being the main attractions after Wahlberg and Ferrell. Problem is, there are too many characters for the film to get into a comedic groove. It’s weird, too; it’s hard to really consider Daddy’s Home 2 an ensemble movie, but throw in Gibson, Lithgow, Cena, Ferrell, Wahlberg and Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, and an additional three to four other kids and it just gets to be way too much. Easier to overlook if more of the comedy did the job, which it doesn’t.

 

Most of the coal goes to the script or lack thereof, but that doesn’t mean that the cast is absolved of all holiday sins. Of the cast, Lithgow probably has the best moment or two. Ferrell and Wahlberg have obvious chemistry, but it alone cannot elevate what is present. The other big name in Mel Gibson screams miscast and/or laziness. Mel’s been funny before as the smug, masculine asshole with an underlying heart (see: What Women Want), but that ship likely has sailed, and put more succinctly, there’s no heart at all in his character in Daddy’s Home 2.

What’s left is Gibson spouting annoying insults and statements going on about what makes a man a man. I wonder if the two grandfather roles in Gibson and Lithgow would have made for more comedy if they were flip-flopped and had each actor go against type. He kind of epitomizes another huge problem with the sequel. It’s darker than it needs to be, with two scenes played for laughs yet being more disturbing than intended. As for the rest of the cast, there’s too many of them as previously stated to build comedic chemistry and worthwhile scenes.

And so, enough scoffing been said about Daddy’s Home 2. There are other funnier and heartwarming films about the Christmas time that don’t leave the viewer in a depressed state.

D-

Photo credits go to collider.com, itunes.apple.com, and hellogiggles.com.

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Thor: Ragnarok-Movie Man Jackson

Ah-ah, ah! After the events of Sokovia, The God of Thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), has been busy scouring the Earth for Infinity Stones. He’s been hell-bent on prepping his city of Asgard from a destruction known as Ragnarok, a feeling he possesses as a result of his reoccurring visions of this event. Believing that he has prevented Ragnarok from happening after defeating Surtur the fire demon, the hero returns home in good spirits.

But, those do not last long, as the defeating of Surtur wasn’t the catalyst to stopping Ragnarok. In truth, Ragnarok has already begun, and the Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), announces it with an impact arrival, obliterating Thor’s legendary hammer and banishing him, along with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to a foreign planet called Sakarr. Led by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), it’s a place where fatal battles are fought for entertainment, and Thor is forced to enter and fight an old friend in The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). To get back home and save his home, Thor must fight, and somehow get the help of Banner, Loki, and even a mysterious nomad by the name of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to drive out Hela.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it’s fraying, re-coat it. Terrible similes aside, the two Thor movies showcasing the God of Thunder weren’t exactly broken, but the fact is, they are two of the more forgotten or rather, nondescript movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to fans, especially The Dark World (truthfully, yours truly is rather fond of 2011’s Thor). So with Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has certainly left behind a movie that won’t be considered “nondescript.” Has he left a movie behind that many are calling one of Marvel’s best? That’s up for debate.

The direction is certainly worth taking note of and remembering. The style the trailers promised is front and center throughout. Asgard has never looked better, but it’s the world of Sakarr—a trippy, futuristic hue of neon colors and post-apocalyptic feel—that stands out the most. It makes the somewhat bumpy first 20 or so minutes worth sticking around for. Waititi’s action, visual flair, and predominately 80’s inspired score/soundtrack coalesce to create something so unlike what has been seen in the MCU up to this point. Even the movies that Ragnarok will be most compared with in Guardians of the Galaxy volumes 1 and 2, the third chapter of Thor is substantially different than those.

One main thing Ragnarok shares with those movies is an appetite for humor. It wouldn’t be out of line to consider Thor: Ragnarok comedy first, action/adventure second. And for the most part, the comedy hits more than it misses. Seriously, there are some very funny jokes and awesome delivery found in all characters. But honestly, it can get to be a bit much. The story, while functional, kind of seems to be written around the jokes (apparently 80% of the film is improvised). Absolutely nothing is wrong with a lighter superhero film, though going so light while still trying to generate emotion can undermine some of the more dramatic moments of the production. In a few “big” moments, Ragnarok seems to struggle with this, wanting to immediately cut to the next visual gag or joke from something with a serious or vice versa.

With that said, one does have to commend those in charge who say they’d like to flip the script and actually achieve in doing it. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a Jason Bourne, a franchise in which director and lead actor said they’d never do another unless they could do something else—only to proceed with doing the same thing they had done three movies prior. The changes in Ragnarok seem to revitalize the main holdovers from the prior installments in Hemsworth and Hiddleston. Both seem to really be having fun like never before, and the machinations of the story allow them to take advantage of their natural chemistry. Those who wanted more Hulk get their wish granted; the not-so-jolly green giant has a load of screentime and Ruffalo handles the two parts of the beast and Banner like only he can.

Newbie to the MCU Tessa Thompson brings a great new character into the fold as Valkyrie, the foundation and backstory being laid for her own potential standalone journey. As for other newbies, their characters don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but in the ride that is Thor: Ragnarok, they fit right in. Anytime a wide-eyed Jeff Goldblum is cast (save for Independence Day: Resurgence), it can only amp the fun factor up. There are some disappointments, but not due to performance. The villainous Hela is introduced wonderfully and played up wonderfully by Cate Blanchett, only to be forgotten in long stretches of the movie. Karl Urban, always a joy to watch, is a little underutilized as a basic henchman. Taika Waititi probably possesses the biggest laughs lending his voice to Korg, a rock-based gladiator-turned-gatekeeper of the battle arena.

 

Thor: Ragnarok is a sugar rush in the most positive and negative of ways. But Marvel does deserve some praise for wanting to tweak its formula and try a few new things with one of its less beloved lead Avengers. No matter what…Marvel, uh, finds a way.

C+

Photo credits go to collider.com, polygon.com, and comicbook.com.

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A Bad Moms Christmas: Movie Man Jackson

Tis the season to be jolly—errr, overworked. The threesome of friends in Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) is up to their limits in stress. Why? It’s Christmas season, which means a lot hustling here and there, cooking, and being responsible for every gift and event. All the ladies want is a relaxed, lowkey time of year with their loved ones.

Those best laid plans go to the wayside when each of their moms come in ahead of schedule to complicate matters even further. There’s Amy’s mother (Christine Baranski), the perfectionist, Kiki’s mother (Cheryl Hines), the suffocator, and Carla’s mother (Susan Sarandon), the deadbeat. To take Christmas back, the three younger mothers need to be the strong women they are and stand up to the ones that birthed them into this world.

It’s easy to see why one wouldn’t necessarily be excited at the prospect of A Bad Moms Christmas, the sequel to last year’s surprise hit Bad Moms. The state of recent affairs as it pertains to mid-to-big budget comedies over the past few years isn’t exactly a laughing matter. And there’s the whole sequel aspect that many movies—especially comedies (looking at you, Dumb and Dumber To, Zoolander 2, and Hot Tub Time Machine 2) —drop the ball on. It’s with surprise, then, that A Bad Moms Christmas is the rare comedy sequel that is on par with and possibly better than the first.

Co-directors and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore return to direct the mothers finding themselves under immense stress again. Bad Moms rightfully tapped into an audience that was underrepresented in a movie-going audience, and achieved in becoming a sleeper hit. But intentional or not, it did feel a little too narrow on the four-quadrant movie scale. Not so with A Bad Moms Christmas. The broadening of scope to the holiday season generally makes for a more enjoyable time and an easier connection for a wider viewership, as we’ve all been there—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandmas, and grandparents—experiencing the stresses of the St. Nick season. While not for all ages, it’s easy to see this becoming a staple in Christmas rotations and top 10 Christmas movie lists.

A Bad Moms Xmas is kind of dark. Not dark in a dark comedy sense (the vulgarity is doubled this time, for better and for worse), but thematically, tackling parenting issues of negligence, perfection, and attachment and seeing how these pressures can manifest down to the next generation of parents in a family. Some of it is forced, but this does give a little more emotion and depth to the storyline on this go-around. As for more heavy negatives, “Bad Moms 2” shares some of those common ones found in the modern R comedy, namely an over-reliance on montages, being vulgar for vulgar’s sake, and a runtime that runs long in the final act.

But overall, A Bad Moms Christmas delivers more than not on what it’s designed to do: Make an audience laugh. That is somewhat attributed to the returning threesome of Kunis, Bell, and Hahn, clearly having fun to the point where they seem to be legitimately laughing during the back-and-forth between their characters. But, they, along with everyone else, happen to be honestly overshadowed by the “Golden Girl” trio of Cheryl Hines, Susan Sarandon, and Christine Baranski in what happens to be amazing casting. Hines is gloriously twisted from the get-go, and Baranski has moment upon moment of excellent lines and running jokes delivered to stoic perfection. Of the three, Sarandon’s character is the distant third as Hahn’s mom, “Isis,” a little too mean-spirited to earn consistent humor as Hines and Baranski do, but nonetheless, at least she’s not in Tammy.

Whether a product of very disappointing big comedies or low expectations equated to sequel-itis, it comes as a surprise that A Bad Moms Christmas is not only competent but actually worth some real hearty laughs. Joy to the (comedy) world.

B-

Photo credits go to imdb.com, YouTube.com, metacritic.com, and collider.com.

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Marshall: Movie Man Jackson

Justice isn’t guaranteed, it’s earned. Young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) makes his living fighting injustices. He’s a traveling lawman for the NAACP, defending people of color who have been wrongfully accused of crimes they never committed. His latest assignment brings him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who’s been charged with the rape and attempted murder of his provider, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Things take a turn when Marshall isn’t allowed to take the lead. Rather, the defense lead is given to the man who briefed him on the situation, Jewish insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who is reluctant to take the responsibility for fear it’ll tarnish his business. With Friedman having no experience in the criminal realm, Marshall has to lead from the side while Sam takes point, navigating a slanted judge and jury while being the only hope an innocent man has in avoiding life behind bars.

The latest biographical movie, Marshall, follows the trend of late for Hollywood biographical movies and/or events. That trend being, to focus on a specific period and/or event instead of the overarching life and/or story. This approach does streamline things and allows a sometimes-staid genre to be less conventional. At the same time, there’s a little missing in the way of character building when going about a “biography” this way. Marshall sees both ends of this double-edged sword, but the good largely outweighs the bad.

There’s a reason “biography” was put in quotations, not because of loose facts, but what the idea of a biography conjures up; i.e. a relatively deep and possibly somber dive into a subject. Director Reginald Hudlin (The Great White Hype) and writers Michael (real life Bridgeport attorney) and Jacob Koskoff choose to place much of the focus not on the meat of the lead characters, but the trial that they are a part of. Marshall is great as a courtroom drama, which happens to be most of the movie’s runtime. To spoil bits of it would be a disservice, as the case being one of Marshall’s first ones makes it likely (at least for this viewer) that only the history nuts will know of the verdict and all the twists and turns. Watching this with a bit of uncertainty makes for a relatively gripping finale.

The case that the writers have selected from Marshall’s catalog is an intriguing one that places all attention on the legal proceedings, but in the process, does marginalize Marshall the man to an extent for a few reasons. This serves as a very surface level—almost Disney-like—look at Thurgood; those expecting great depths into the man’s everyday life and character will be very disappointed.

There’s a running joke going around many parts of the Internet that the film’s title should be Marshall & Friedman (aptly sounding), but it serves the point that Marshall is really a co-star and even a secondary player at times in a production named after him. The film itself takes on more of a buddy cop feel than foreseen, especially in tone, and the light one can be problematic. The levity is appreciated in spots, yet simultaneously undermines some serious moments, as does the mostly hokey score. Certain jokes simply do not need to be here. Whether delivery or timing, some dialogue is a bit odd-sounding and juxtaposes the noir-like recounts told by people on the stand.

After playing notable African-American individuals in Jackie Robinson and James Brown in 42 and Get on Up, it’s no surprise that Chadwick Boseman can carry the acting responsibility of portraying one of the greatest lawyers in history. The difference in his role, however, is that it seems to rely more on Boseman’s natural charisma and screen presence than those other two. He gets a lot of reign to show swagger and confidence that makes Marshall more of a dynamic watch than a history lesson. The dynamic he shares with Josh Gad is again an odd one in spots, but it works. Gad isn’t the strongest comedy guy turned serious actor, but he’s largely solid and better as the movie goes on. Rest of the cast is filled out by steady talent in Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Roger Guenveur Smith, Dan Stevens, and James Cromwell. A few characters can border on caricature, however; by and large the cast grounds them into enough realism.

The jury (of one) ruling on Marshall? Not a definitive introspective look at the man who would become the first African-American Supreme Court judge, but, a lighter-toned, relatively solid entertaining courtroom drama.

B-

Photo credits go to comingsoon.net, blackfilm.com, and algemeiner.com.

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Happy Death Day: Movie Man Jackson

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is birthday time for “Tree” (Jessica Rothe), a college student and sorority girl who pretty much epitomizes the worst of those stereotypes. She’s awaken from a drunken night in the bed of Carter (Israel Broussard), an old classmate. So college.

Her birthday takes her through the basic minutiae of any other day: Walks across campus, house meetings with her equally witchy sorority members, and a visit to see her professor for after-hours study. Being her birthday, it culminates with her going out to celebrate…only she doesn’t make it because she’s slain by a masked buck-toothed, baby-faced assailant.

But the next day, Tree wakes up—in the same bed of Carter’s—to the same alarm. The cycle repeats itself, with Tree dying again and again and again to the same assailant. To get to tomorrow, she’s got to solve the mystery as to why someone wants to kill her and possibly reexamine herself while doing so.

Starting like every other piece that will be posted, you can’t watch Happy Death Day without thinking about Groundhog Day. The time loop narrative is well-worn at this point, but at the same time, it is a narrative that honestly always seems to have some juice. Throw in a murder mystery with repeating the same day over and over, and Happy Death Day makes for a perfectly enjoyable movie that doesn’t care to ascend to lofty heights but rather content to be a fun, in-the-moment diversion of time.

Blumhouse Productions, the predominantly horror movie studio which sometimes whiffs and other times knocks grand slams with its horror movies (but always does so on a budget designed to maximize profit) is the home of Happy Death Day. Fright-wise, their latest installment pales in comparison to their own recent productions such as Get Out and Split. Happy Death Day itself is only a horror for, say, the first 30 minutes of runtime. While there are some extremely basic yet passably effective jump scares set up by director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), Happy Death Day evolves more into a mystery/thriller and even comedy the longer it goes on.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds. Horror-wise the PG-13 rating, in this case, does sanitize any substantial scares that could have been present (the trailer did no favors, either). On the mystery front, however, Landon and writer Scott Lobdell do present enough characters with legitimate motivations to offing Tree to keep the audience guessing until the actual reveal. The reveal itself, even for a film that is as self-aware as this, is a little underwhelming and even disappointing. But as it is often said, the journey is better than the destination. A caveat, though: Like Groundhog Day, do not expect any proper explanation as to why this day repeats.

Like that film, the day existed to serve as a redemption of sorts for its lead character. The same approach follows here. Despite the short runtime, writer and director do a good job in delving into Tree’s backstory and allowing her to grow organically in the midst of a bizarre scenario. This allows lead actress Jessica Rothe to showcase her burgeoning talent. Rothe does a lot, transforming from insufferable to comedic to emotional and bringing the audience in and along each moment of the way. She pairs nicely with the likable Israel Broussard; their friendship creating an unforeseen emotional aspect that keeps Happy Death Day enough on the straight and narrow path and providing Tree a reason worth living for. As for the rest of the cast, most fall into sometimes entertaining but mostly par-for-the-course side characters who slide in and out as the pieces in Tree’s day of death are altered.

 

In a specific subgenre in which every movie always gets compared to the Bill Murray original classic, Happy Death Day doesn’t reinvent the loop. But, it does add a fun wrinkle or two within it.

B-

Photo credits go to joblo.com, newsweek.com, and commonsensemedia.org.

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Blade Runner 2049: Movie Man Jackson

Things were simpler in 2019. In 2049, Los Angeles is even more of a dystopia than before. Once under the all-watching eye of the Tyrell Corporation, scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has bought the company and put money towards new NEXUS replicants. The NEXUS-9’s are more obedient, and phase out the NEXUS-8’s. The few remaining 8’s are hunted once again by the Blade Runners; one known as “K” (Ryan Gosling) is quite adept at his job.

On a mission not out of the ordinary, K literally unearths a revelation that has wide-reaching ramifications for each party on alternates sides of a teetering proverbial “wall.” K’s investigation leads him to the legendary Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who may possess the clues to piecing together this mystery.

Ahh…Blade Runner. The aftermath of that movie released in 1982 is arguably more noteworthy than the actual movie itself, which is in no way a slight to Ridley Scott’s original. But, the aftermath and the second, third, and fourth lives of Blade Runner are why Blade Runner 2049 exists today. A 35 year release gap between productions would seem to be problematic, but not when there’s there’s this high level of talent assembled and involved. Blade Runner 2049 is an extremely impressive piece of work that mostly lives up to its substantial hype.

The pressure and expectations of delving deeper into the dystopian setting of 2019 LA thirty years later would crush many a working director in Hollywood. But Denis Villeneuve isn’t an average director. He’s a dynamic director, one of the best—if not the best—working today. Great sci-fi features depend a lot on visual storytelling, perhaps more so than any other genre. It’s impossible not to be sucked into the extravagant world of Blade Runner 2049 and not believe it doesn’t exist, or rather, won’t exist.

Clearly being inspired by Scott’s vision, Villeneuve keeps that neo-noir style but improves upon it in lighting, ambiance, CGI, and all of the above.The dynamic duo he forms with cinematographer Roger Deakins makes for the best looking film of 2017, bar none. Oh, and the composer collaboration of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch makes for a great atmospheric accompaniment to everything on-screen.

And then there’s the story. Co-written by Blade Runner‘s original writer Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (Alien: Covenant, Logan), the focus remains on what it means to be human. Is “feeling” still feeling if those feelings are technically artificial? The specific theme that ties into those bigger ones is purpose.To not spoil anything (hopefully), I’ll just say that the film answers this question through the fascinating main character arc. At two hours and forty-three minutes, Blade Runner 2049 tackles a lot and deals with the volume pretty efficiently with a slow burn pace.

However, Villeneuve and company do unfortunately leave a few characters and intriguing narrative threads with little to no resolution, especially in the final act. Chalk it up to an unclear direction—not in the literal sense, but a figurative one. There’s enough here to suggest that Blade Runner 2049 could spawn at least another installment, maybe more (a lower than projected opening box office weekend may put an end to that, though). But at the same time, one gets the feeling that there were multiple people working on this that would like this to close the book on Phillip K. Dick’s story for good. As such, Blade Runner 2049 ends well enough but without that complete level of satisfaction.

What is undeniably satisfying is the cast, starting with lead Ryan Gosling. His character of K is compelling, and seeing how Gosling reacts as the story unfolds around and within him is spectacular. He’s flanked by a rising Ana de Armas, a consistent Robin Wright, and an opening scene-stealing Dave Bautista. The build to Harrison Ford is worth it, the veteran chewing up real estate once he appears. All make for great characters; the only ones who feel a little underwritten on first watch appear to be Jared Leto’s and Sylvia Hoeks. No fault of their own, both deliver great performances; but their motivations seem a little hazy. Still, this cast is spectacular, night and day better than the thespian work in Ridley’s original.

More standalone film than pure sequel, Blade Runner 2049 does nothing to dull the memories of 1982. But it takes those memories as inspiration and makes something that can stand alone well enough, leaving one of the 2010’s best science-fiction films behind.

A-

Photo credits go to liveforfilm.com, cnet.com, and rollingstone.com

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American Made: Movie Man Jackson

Stuff is only illegal if you get caught doing it. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) makes his living as a TWA pilot in the late 1970’s, raising a family along with wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Always something of a free spirit, Barry’s one of the best in the world but deep down desires more.

Enter Monty Schaefer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who offers Seal the opportunity to fill that wild spirit void—and to make solid coin—by taking airborne pictures of Central America for reconnaissance purposes. It doesn’t take long for Seal to attract the attention of the locals, particularly the powerful Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who quickly approach Seal and ask him to smuggle their product into the U.S. With the CIA looking the other way, Barry is allowed to live large while increasingly taking on more improbable and dangerous missions.

There’s always those few movies that come out around the fall movie season that feel more like light summer fare. Director Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) latest in American Made is one of those movies. Despite the traditionally dark and gritty treatment the subject matter often generates in cinema, Liman and star Tom Cruise go the other way, opting for a telling that is breezier and fun—if empty.

Honestly, the term “movie” barely fits American Made. That’s not a complete negative or indictment as some of it is intentional. Liman goes for a documentary-esque approach in even the most elementary of scenes, and the narrative framing relies on voiceover from Cruise done through grainy videotape to spur the on-screen events forward and add the occasional necessary exposition. It works solidly enough, the ol’ “style over substance” approach.

Emphasis on style. Because, American Made has little in the way of meat to chew on. Even compared to similar-minded, relatively light films based on unbelievable and/or embellished real-life individuals in War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, American Made kind of makes those films look like thought-provoking works. Perhaps it’s due to the telling of the story, which comes off as a series of increasingly insane events stitched and put together rather than real story cohesion. No real pronounced act structure exists; the time frame of the events will often jump years ahead without warning. Maybe it’s just representative of it’s whimsical main character, a dude living for the thrills without thought given to anything else.

Sometimes being a mega-star is a bad thing that renders a viewing audience unable to distinguish the star from the part they’re playing. This is one of the reasons The Mummy 2017, starring mega-star Tom Cruise, failed. Whereas some roles and films benefit from a lesser name, others depend on it.

Resembling in no way, shape, or form Barry Seal, it doesn’t matter much because Tom Cruise gets across Doug Liman’s vision of him. It’s hard to see many deliver the charisma, swagger, and “don’t go away because you might miss something outrageous” feeling Tom does here. Seal’s a guy with questionable morals at best, yet hard to despise significantly. Obviously, he’s not the only performer that appears in American Made; Domhnall Gleason and Sarah Wright are perfectly fine, but they’re definitively overshadowed by Cruise. Love or hate him, the man still has the undeniable “it” factor.

Firmly in the group of biopics made to entertain first and educate second (if at all), American Made is a middling romp, but a romp raised in quality by Cruise.

C+

Photo credits go to slashfilm.com, laineygossip.com, and gq.com.

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle-Movie Man Jackson

Yet another reminder to stay away from drugs. Fully settling into his role as a Kingsman secret agent, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), balances protecting the free world with being a serious boyfriend to Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), the woman he saved in his initial mission. Things are going well until an old foe resurfaces, and as a result, the UK headquarters of the Kingsman are reduced to rubble and ashes.

Suffering mass loss of life, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), seemingly the only Kingsman who survived, are left to find aid in their United States brethren known as the Statesman. There, they are introduced to the group’s leader Champagne (Jeff Bridges), and agents Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), Tequila (Channing Tatum), and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal). They’ve all been targeted by an equally secret major drug organization known as The Golden Circle, led by Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a woman looking to finally get the respect she deserves as an entrepreneur even it means putting the entire world’s population in danger. Of course, it’ll come down to Eggsy and company to save the world and look dapper doing it.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn’t going to convert those who disliked Kingsman: The Secret Service. It does carry some of the pitfalls of being a sequel, which can be summed up as “too much (fill in the blank)” Bloated-ness, ‘been there, done that,’ shock value and other words come to mind. But, at the core, this is still the same irreverent movie in the same vein in the same style. Make of that what you will.

It’s fair to wonder if some of the dislike towards The Golden Circle can be attributed to what its trailer suggests. What is suggested is a fairly big role for the Statesman, especially Channing Tatum, that never materializes. On that front, the sequel is disappointing, and the presence of Tatum thrown to the wayside. However, Matthew Vaughn returns to direct and co-write the sequel, and that is a good thing. Admittedly, there’s a lot to take in on this second dip, and without a doubt, 2:21 is a tad bit long for this production. But despite the number of subplots going on that include parallels to a particular commander-in-chief, amnesia, and betrayal to name a few, Vaughn and Jane Goldman manage to tell a story that gels just enough to avoid becoming incomprehensible.

While the franchise is only two films deep, it is clear that one doesn’t come to the Kingsman franchise to get realism. Vaughn’s quick-cuts, 180 pans and fast/slow framerate show up again, and arguably make the action just as good overall, if not better than, the first film. Gadgets once again are in plentiful supply, and no stone is left unturned on that front. The only real piece of this film that could be classified as “grounded” are the relationships, mainly of Eggsy, Merlin, and the returning Harry (Colin Firth).

Their scenes give Kingsman: The Golden Circle an unforeseen amount of emotion. It’s a shame then, when Vaughn and company go towards shock value to get a rise out of the audience. Akin to the final scene from the first installment, two scenes in particular aiming for dark laughs stand out as just crude and disgusting without serving anything upon further review to move the narrative forward.

Like many sequels, the cast in The Golden Circle is beefed up considerably. Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal, Jeff Bridges, and the previously mentioned Channing Tatum all appear. Unfortunately, though their presences are appreciated, only Pascal gets anything to do of note, regulating the rest of these talented individuals to what essentially amounts to glorified cameos. Julianne Moore puts in a fun performance, but the writing for her character leaves something to be desired. Her megalomaniac entrepreneur needed a layer of menace to be memorable; instead, Moore more often comes off as a basic psycho b**ch.

The Golden Circle, despite the addition of the Statesman, still belongs to the Kingsman and their troika threesome. Taron Egerton is super-comfortable as likable as Eggsy, Mark Strong—ahem—strong as Merlin, and Colin Firth playing his amnesia-riddled Harry with the requisite uncertainty. The question rages on of whether Harry’s return should have been better hidden (it should have), but there’s no debate that this franchise benefits from having Firth.

Gold is still gold, even when tainted. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is definitely not 24 karat quality, but shines enough to still be relatively valuable and occasionally captivated.

B-

Photo credits go to YouTube.com and collider.com

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