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+

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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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The Fate of the Furious: Movie Man Jackson

Racing may have left the franchise, but bald heads never will. With Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) finally remembering everything, she and husband Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) are spending some much needed R&R time in Cuba, thinking about what the future holds for them in making a family of their own. It would appear that the Dom certainly doesn’t miss the bullets like Brian once did.

Unfortunately, the bullets and high-risk scenarios always seem to find him; this time, via an enigmatic woman known as “Cipher” (Charlize Theron). Cipher, having secret information on Toretto that puts who he loves at risk, forces him to carry out her dangerous plans by using his own team/family to capture a world-altering device…only to take it from them and deliver it into her hands.

Being crossed, Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Letty, Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) are left to pick up the pieces. And that means going after Dom and figuring out why, with an uneasy ally in Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) added into the fray.

If Fast Five was Universal doing Marvel’s The Avengers before that movie happened, the latest in the F&F universe, The Fate of the Furious, feels a little like Captain America: Civil War, or The Avengers 3 or whatever. How so? It manages to bring back almost everyone of note while introducing new characters that are sure to play roles in future offerings, and flips the script a little in making a central character a major antagonist. It definitely lacks the emotional aspect of Furious 7, as well as and the large stakes, character moments, and insane thrill ride that was Fast Five. But, “F8,” though skidding more on the road than past predecessors, doesn’t completely wreck itself.

At eight films deep, the Fast and Furious universe has lore. Lots of it, and the eighth installment uses every inch of trunk space it has to accommodate it. In other words, it has continuity…in a way. Thought God’s Eye was just a MacGuffin to never be seen or referred to again? Put to actual good use here! Believed Elena would just slip into the background? Think again. Everyone knows how ridiculous this franchise can be, proudly wearing that ridiculousness as a badge of honor. But credit to where it’s due; writer Chris Morgan continues to draw up new scenarios that give mileage to the universe.

Don’t mistake that praise as complete support for The Fate of the Furious‘ script. It does enough to get by (a poor man’s version of Civil War, even with a bit of The Winter Soldier), with a familiar theme and intriguing reveal. But for some reason, its story holes and matters unexplained actually make one think about them more in a logical way. That’s not supposed to happen with a F&F movie! And as stated before, the continuity generally works, but the end scene (as well as a few others) does betray much of what the prior movie(s) established in the way of character relationships, making it hard to accept that some sins in this world are somehow forgivable.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, Friday) makes the third new different director in the last three Fast and Furious movies to helm the film’s physics-defying action. Having some experience in action with The Italian Job, Gray, like Wan, mostly impresses. It’s hard not to be impressed with the massive set pieces, in large part done practically. CGI gets a little iffy at times for such a big budget production. Like Wan, however, Gray comes up short compared to Lin on a hand-to-hand combat level. Not quite shaky cam, but the angles used can sometimes be disorienting. Still, he makes a case to direct the next one if need be.

Perhaps Vin should give directing a shot, with the amount of power he seems to be wielding as of late. Performance-wise, Diesel simultaneously serves up a surprising job in spots, as well as an unintentionally funny one, often in the same scenes. Unfortunately, Paul Walker is missed, not necessarily in the action scenes where he more than held his own, but in the slower scenes. He brought an everyman presence that is lacking here, especially as the lengthy movie grinds to a halt in spots.

The real news coming into F8 was the legit beef between Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with rumors being that Vin wasn’t happy with Dwayne stealing some franchise thunder. After seeing F8, I can see why. Johnson is the clear star of this series now, bringing his trademark energy, dead-eye one-liners, and larger-than-life persona to the Hobbs character. Jason Statham eclipses Vin as well, his dry and rugged Deckard meshing well with Hobbs and generating interest in a future teamup. Out of the newcomers, Charlize Theron is the most menacing villain the franchise has ever had, if only her Cipher wasn’t as vague in her motivations. Scott Eastwood and Helen Mirren add name value, little else, but they’re fun enough. Returnees Ludacris, Tyrese, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kurt Russell get little spots to shine, though ultimately take backseats to Johnson, Diesel, Statham, and Theron.

If the Furious series is a mile represented by 10 movies at 1/10th of a mile each, it’s not inconceivable to think it hit top speed a few movies ago, and is decelerating as it approaches the purported finish line. One thing’s for certain, though. There’s no stopping before that line comes, and every drop of gas will be used before it comes.

C+

Photo credits go to irishexaminer.com, birthmoviesdeath.com, and moviepilot.com.

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Blade Runner (The Final Cut): Movie Man Jackson

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Man’s creations will eventually rebel against their creators. Los Angeles, 2019. The City of Angels is a place that has seen many of the world’s greatest technological advances. One of these advances is the creation of “Replicants,” androids who look and feel like everyday humans. Proven to be dangerous after an uprising, the remaining replicants are banished outside of Earth and relegated to slave labor.

A few escape, and land back on Earth in search of their creator, whom they believe can help extend their life expectancy. They need to be “retired,” no ifs, ands, or buts. Taken from the shadows is Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an individual who specifically tracks and eliminates replicate threats. Upon the course of his investigation/manhunt, he gets romantically involved with an experimental model replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), who believes herself to be human. Deckard’s involvement with Rachael forces him to confront his humanity, as well as those of whom he is hunting.

Almost 35 years after its release (as of this writing), it’s impossible to talk about Blade Runner without acknowledging the impact it has had on the science fiction genre, mainly on the technical side. Almost 35 years later, it’s still one of the better-looking science fictions movies in history.

The dystopian future is a lynchpin of many a feature in the genre, but few, if any, have topped the fully realized vision that director Ridley Scott employs here. Los Angeles circa 2019 world feels authentic and lived-in, and draws one into the film immediately starting with the first interrogation utilizing the Voight-Kampff machine. Production is absolutely stellar, from the way Scott sets up shots, to the impressive score and sound design. Clearly, a sci-fi, however, it doubles as a film-noir (earlier versions feature Deckard narration, thankfully removed) in its use of lighting and plot elements.

Even as a visual tour-de-force, Scott’s Blade Runner is a slow moving film, mainly for the first half. Not until the second half do the themes start coalescing and things become more balanced with action and narrative. Scott tackles issues of oppression and corporate control, but being mainly concerned with what makes someone human. With the protagonist narration removed, Ridley leaves this question open to interpretation for the viewer. 

With all of that said, Blade Runner doesn’t resonate like envisioned, even after two viewings. I look to Scott’s characters as to a reason why, and mainly, his protagonist. Rick Deckard, even as more of his backstory is hinted at, is rather bland and nowhere near as compelling as he should be. As such, Harrison Ford ends up sort of being forgettable. Compare his character to that of Peter Weller’s in RoboCop (a movie that has similarities to Blade Runner but better pacing and memorable central characters to carry out its themes through), and Deckard feels…there. No real reason to get behind him and care about his journey. Why is he a blade runner? Why is he pulled out of retirement to hunt these replicants down, as opposed to someone else?

The replicants actually steal the show, in particular Rutger Hauer as the central leader Roy Batty of the escaped crew inhabiting Earth. Looking the part of an unstoppable killing machine, Hauer and Scott peel back the onion to show that there’s more to his character than that, and ends up being arguably the best character of the entire movie. Another argument can be made for Rachael, played by Sean Young who gives the character multiple layers as well. Rounding out the replicants are Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah, and Brion James—each getting adequate screentime to further sell this created world—but amounting to little in actual people generating feelings from the audience. 

More impressive from the production and vision aspect than a storytelling and character one, Blade Runner is a little disappointing from the latter front. But is it still quite the sci-fi-experience in totality? Absolutely, and for that alone, it’s a mandatory watch for anyone. 

B

Photo credits go to qz.com, rogerebert.com, and dkillerpondworld.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com. 

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Life: Movie Man Jackson

Let’s have the rapper Big K.R.I.T tell the people what he has to say about life. All aboard the International Space Station resides a crew of six individuals. In their space exploration, the crew recovers a probe from the planet Mars. This probe ends up containing extraterrestrial Life.

Tests show that this tiny organism—dubbed “Calvin”—is multi-celled, reacting to stimuli quickly and evolving rapidly. However, a specific test ends up making Calvin “aggressive” in ways that cannot be believed. With the crew’s safety compromised, they have to contain the threat and eliminate it before coming back to Terra firma. Good luck.

With the arrival of Life in theaters, I think we’ve officially reached peaked space disaster survival movie levels, if we haven’t already. They’ve always been present, but, pun intended, they always felt spaced out release date-wise from one another. From Gravity to Interstellar to The Martian to Europa Report to Passengers, all may be slightly different in the questions they pose to audiences (sometimes, none), but they are kind of the same when boiled down to the core. This is a way of saying Life has some solid good thrills and chills, good direction, and yet is still sort of underwhelming.

All of those aforementioned films are survival films to an extent, but Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), carries a noticeable horror lean, which slightly separates it from its like minded brethren, even if ever so slightly. Taking cues from Alien, Espinosa creates palpable tension and a real feeling of isolation once s*** officially hits the fan. It’s a good looking movie overall, too, incorporating much more CGI than anticipated, but it blending seamlessly with the real-life cast. Some moments truly do stand out.

Generally speaking, yours truly likes his sci-fi to be thought-provoking, and raise a question or two. In the case of Life, that sadly never happens. Scriptwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick opt for the extremely conventional route here, settling into a (I hate this phrase, but it applies) by-the-numbers affair. Remove the organism, replace it with Jason, and voila! You’ve got Jason X. That’s not to say things aren’t still tense, but more predictable. The ending certainly leaves things open to more installments, though the prospects of this happening with the projected box office are slim to none at the moment.

Life boats three big name leads to carry matters, and they all do relatively good work despite being pretty flimsy. At times here, the great Jake Gyllenhaal looks like he’s sleepwalking through the proceedings, as a result of not having much to latch onto from a character perspective. But he, like all of the cast, still sells the fear that arises in being in space on a derelict ship with an unpredictable entity effectively.

This is a film that doesn’t concern itself with character information, just the scenario its characters find themselves in. The highlight of the movie is easily Ryan Reynolds, who brings levity to the situation without undermining it (in addition to having the most memorable scene). All of the cast members feel right at home as doctors and crew members in space, which does a lot for the believability aspect. Don’t expect to connect with any, though.

The fact of Life? It generates a passable pulse, taking similar jolts from other films to make a competent, if unspectacular, horror in outer space.

C+

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John Wick: Chapter 2: Movie Man Jackson

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Time to make another dinner reservation. After exacting revenge on the people that brought him out of retirement before, the assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) makes another attempt to leave his old life behind.

Unfortunately, a contract killer sometimes has contracts and obligations to fulfill. An old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) arrives at Wick’s front step demanding Baba Yaga’s services, a binding agreement the two made years ago. Having no choice but to comply, John goes back into the criminal underworld as a hunter to take out Santino’s target. But in the criminal underworld, no matter the carried-out fulfillments, the hunter can quite easily become the hunted.

rome

What is the biggest takeaway yours truly has after watching John Wick: Chapter 2? If there were a hypothetical battle royale deathmatch featuring the preeminent action film characters over the last 15 years or so that I had to bet my life on, I’d take John Wick every day of the week, and not think twice about it. Sorry James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, Robert McCall, and Bryan Mills, but John is a man of focus…sheer will…and determination that surpasses you all.

OK, done with the hypothetical and into the reality. Or at least the reality that John Wick inhabits. One half of the John Wick co-directors in Chad Stahelski returns to helm the sequel solo. The long takes, impeccable stunt work, precise camera angles ,and stellar action pieces are on on display again, doubled really. The setting of Rome lends itself to amazing cinematography (horror-esque at times) and scale. The music of Tyler Bates and how it adds to the proceedings shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. After a relatively slow-paced first third (mind you, after an explosive 10 minute start), the second John Wick ups the ante on the action front. Set pieces here might be a tad underneath the WHOA level of the Red Circle club scene, but not by much. And the fact that there’s simply more action present pushes the sequel past the first from an action perspective.

fishburne

John Wick’s 2nd chapter is a symphony of violence, and the movie does revel and glorify in it. That doesn’t mean that the carnage isn’t beautiful, but it needs to be noted. Thankfully, the tone seems to recognize this and seems to know when a casual-but-not-wall-breaking wink to the audience is needed. Chapter 2’s script works good from an expansion standpoint, fleshing out the lore that the first installment hinted at.

As for an emotional standpoint, Wick’s 2nd outing doesn’t quite resonate like before, driven more by duty than desire. This certainly aids the world and rules that Baba Yaga is a part of, but not the character. In a way, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a victim of John Wick’s surprise out of “nowhere-ness.” Before, John Wick felt vulnerable, and as spectacular as he was, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility he could die; part of that feeling existed because we didn’t know what the endgame was with the first. Now, with a trilogy all but certain, John’s might as well be Wolverine with adamantium coursing through his veins—at least in Chapter 2. He still takes damage, but he’s gonna survive it.

However, the Wick character is still a blast to watch, because of Keanu Reeves. With all apologies to Neo and Ted, this may very well be the role people remember him most for once his career comes to a close. At 52, he hasn’t lost a step, and Wick still plays to his strengths while limiting his deficiencies. Couldn’t see anyone else having the success he’s had in the role.

As supporting characters go, most do well. Ian McShane’s returns as the NYC Continental hotel manager with expanded screentime and positioned to be a major future factor, Laurence Fishburne has a nice extended reunion scene with Reeves. Common more than holds his own as an assassin. Then again, it’s a role he has played  more than a few times. And Riccardo Scamarcio is one note but relatively effective. Unfortunately, a big misfire is Ruby Rose, who looks more like someone trying to pose as a threat as opposed to being one.

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All in all though, John Wick: Chapter 2 cements John Wick as not a flash-in-the-pan action character, but a legitimate one that deserves to be mentioned with other iconic characters in the genre. Chapter 3 is coming, and whenever it does, it’ll be on my viewing hitlist.

B+

Photo credits go to uproxx.com, screenrant.com, and futurepreviews.com

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Split: Movie Man Jackson

split

If a crazy person tells you something’s real, believe it. Shortly after a party held by one of her high school classmates, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) gets a ride from the party host, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), accompanied by Claire’s best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Before even making it out of the parking lot, they are attacked by an unknown assailant.

Upon waking in what appears to be an underground lair, the trio of girls discover that the assailant is Kevin, certainly an off-man simply because he took three girls in broad daylight. But quickly, Casey, Claire, and Marcia realize that Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, and each of his 23 personalities mean a different interaction each time. They’ve been abducted for a reason. A 24th personality, which Kevin’s therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) doesn’t believe to exist, could spawn, and this could mean trouble.

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Having back-to-back successes isn’t a streak, but it does point the proverbial arrow up, or at least stabilizes it. With 2015’s The Visit and now Split, it would appear that director M. Night Shyamalan is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, or a “Shymalanaissance” as everyone seems to be calling it. Outside of the awards circuit, Split is a reason to hit the local cinema when typically the month of January doesn’t provide many, if any.

Yes, Split is a film aided by a view in the theater. Much like in the vein of 2016 features like Don’t Breathe and 10 Cloverfield Lanealmost all of the events that take place in the runtime are confined to one location. The feeling of claustrophobia runs at a pretty high level throughout, and Shyamalan captures the various chase scenes and perspectives of his antagonist brilliantly with differing high-low camera angles. Simple things such as conversations take on a higher level of importance here, and the camera fixates itself in extreme close-up mode often to display what characters are thinking, or transitioning into/out of. The score composed by West Dylan Thordson (Joy, Foxcatcher) is rather minimal, but one track in particular becomes etched into the brain and invokes a sense of dread.

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Another reason to simply watch in theaters is the likelihood that the longer one goes without watching opens the chance of the movie being spoiled. This really deserves to be watched without any knowledge of what the major reveal is. With any M. Night movie, obviously, there’s the twist and/or ending. I’m honestly torn on how I feel about it. While being as un-spoilerific as possible, I’ll say I love the execution, but am not so psyched about where the ending strongly suggests things will go.

Regardless on how a person feels about the final moments, Split carries an efficient script. Weak in spots, sure, and not that deep considering the subject matter of Dissociative Identity Disorder, but it holds interest throughout. It is very reminiscent of 2003’s Identity, without the slightly deeper look at DID that movie possessed, but way more engaging and a much less dopey ending.

Split features better acting than that movie had from its leads, however. Can’t really say that James McAvoy carries this, but without his impeccable talent switching, sometimes mid-scene, this would be a feature that would probably split apart at the seams. McAvoy doesn’t get to act out all 24 personalities, but he probably could. The few he does show are all different and feel like full-on characters, He dials up humor when the script needs it, but transitions into menace effortlessly. He’s an obvious standout, but Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley create a triangle of great performances.

Taylor-Joy’s work takes a little while to appreciate, if only because it takes a while to see how she fits into everything, but she has an amazing arc that provides Split with a real emotional component. With some roles, believability is everything, and from the moment Ms. Buckley appears on screen as a therapist with a wealth of information, she has a way of making the audience believe everything that comes out of her mouth. Unfortunately, the roles of the latter two girls played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Lula go nowhere, to the point where one does wonder if the movie could have still been written without them.

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After a long stretch of poorly-received films that could make one believe that a once-promising director could have lost his mind (or at least his passion and skill), I think it is safe to say that with the conlusion of Split, a directorial beast has re-emerged, and his name is M. Night Shyamalan.

B

Photo credits go to movieweb.com, broadwayworld.com, and joblo.com.

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xXx: Return of Xander Cage: Movie Man Jackson

xandercage

If Letty can come back from the dead, so can Xander. Previously thought to be dead, former government agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) lives life as an off-the-grid, Robin Hood-esque character of sorts. His old handler, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), is still heading the xXx program, recruiting individuals with enough extreme to combat threats America doesn’t even know exist.

Her latest threat is a device known as Pandora’s Box. It’s a tool that controls orbiting satellites and uses them as projectiles, and its already caused the deaths of many. The people who have control of said device are no match for normal suit agents. As such, Xander is located and pulled out of his self-imposed exile by CIA government handler Jane Marke (Toni Collette). This isn’t a one man job, however, and Cage is joined by deadeye sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), infiltrator Nicks (Kris Wu), and wheelman Tennyson (Rory McCann). Their objective? Take it back, all while figuring out if there’s more to the objective than what is given.

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If Vin Diesel can revive one action franchise in The Fast and the Furious, why not try his luck and go after another, right? About 12 years have passed since an xXx installment, almost 15 if one discounts the State of the Union sequel without Diesel. So, the world gets xXx’d again with the Return of Xander Cage, which ends up playing out like a poor man’s (read: sometimes very poor man’s) Furious/Marvel/superhero movie.

Despite being firmly in the “movies you turn your brain off for” category, Return of Xander Cage is a little odd. On one hand, director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia) and producer/obvious lead Vin Diesel seem to be all-in on aiming low and merely achieving competency in some aspects of the movie. This is fine. The story is relatively competent for an action, with a predictable twist rooted around the race for the MacGuffan. Occasional call backs to the original xXx work OK, such as Xander ordering his favorite drink or needing his obnoxious-looking fur coat.

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On the other hand, Xander Cage’s return carries with it an inflated sense of ego, importance, and worth. Caruso and Diesel are awfully concerned with letting people know that Xander is THE MAN! He can do it all, extreme in the streets and in the sheets, bedding about 8 women (five at once!) in the span of roughly 20 minutes of runtime. Kind of hilarious, sure, but also annoying. It wasn’t so bad in 2002 because it was easy to believe, but unfortunately, Diesel’s Cage’s age, which is never touched upon or alluded to in the film as to how long he’s been gone. hurts him here. He does look more ridiculous and less “cool” than he was before. He should be relaxing in Bora Bora somewhere with a hot wife, not trying to prove how extreme he is with people he has a least a decade on.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a mixed bag when it comes to the one thing it should hang its hat on: Action. Every now and then, good set pieces are present, but much of it is hard to follow, whether motorbikes on water or standard hand-to-hand combat. $85 million isn’t all that high for an action budget, but, one would think it would buy better CGI. The film’s two biggest moments suffer from beliveability, not from a “That couldn’t happen” sense, but a “That doesn’t look like it’s happening” sense. Ears should be prepped for an onslaught of EDM/techno music. I liked some of it because I don’t mind the genre, but it can be kind of nauseating after a while.

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One of my concerns going into this movie was the “Torettofication” of Vin Diesel’s Xander. What is Torettofication? When a character Vin Diesel plays in a non Fast and Furious movie begins to feel a lot like Dom Toretto. Diesel doesn’t quite reach that level here, but, the energy and hit/miss humor that he possessed in the 2002 version is absent. It’s not Dom, but by the end it becomes tougher to distinguish between the two characters. He is joined, à la Toretto, by a crew, some shining brighter than others.

IP Man himself Donnie Yen is rather good, and he outshines Diesel by such a wide margin, to the extent that I wondered if xXx would have been better if this was more of Diesel passing the torch to Yen and co-starring instead of starring. Ruby Rose isn’t bad; she’s got a look that’ll carry her well in specific action roles. The wild card is Nina Dobrev, playing the role of M more or less as Becky. Many who decide to watch will find her annoying; yours truly actually found her enjoyable and the most amusing thing about the movie that is actually intentional. The rest of Xander’s crew is extremely forgettable, and/or written to be complete idiots, especially Tennyson and Nicks. Toni Collette’s just picking up a check.

Return of Xander Cage brings the world back into the Xander Zone. Though the ending teases more future mayhem that Xander and company will have to extinguish, let someone else get the girl and look dope while doing it.

C-

Photo credits go to phase9.tv, cinemablend.com, and comingsoon.net.

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Sleepless: Movie Man Jackson

sleepless

What happens in the casino, stays in the casino. Las Vegas officer Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) spends a little too much time in the muck of Sin City, seemingly more interested in self-serving than serving and protecting others.

Internal Affairs officer Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan) is dedicated to ridding Vegas of its corruption, and she believes that starts with Downs. One of Vincent’s selfish actions while on the job backfires, and his teenage son, Thomas (Octavius J. Johnson) is taken from him in broad daylight from the people he ripped off. With Thomas held up in a casino with people who won’t think twice about killing him, it is truly a race against time for Vincent to get his son back, and evade punishment.

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I don’t believe it when people say that Hollywood is out of ideas. But, my belief in that isn’t exactly supported when Hollywood opts to make remakes of good international films that don’t warrant them. Few, if any, are clamoring for U.S. updates of District B13 (Brick Mansions), or Secret in Their Eyes, to name a few. The latest movie to follow this trend is Sleepless, remade from the French film Sleepless Night. The remake is as generic as its title would indicate.

Sleepless seems to exist for one main reason: To serve as an igniter for a potential mid-career redesign for Jamie Foxx as an elder action star. Much like a Liam Neeson in Taken, the entire movie revolves around the main character’s efforts to find his child from bad people. To that extent to positioning Foxx as an action star, Sleepless does do its job, though it isn’t as action-packed as one may think, at least for a the first half to two-thirds. Still, director Baran bo Odar showcases Foxx in two pretty good fighting sequences. Don’t expect any super-long takes, but the choreography is less haphazard than many big-budget actioners, and Jamie shows he’s game and able to do his own stuff. There may be something here in the next few years for him in the B-ish movie genre.

And he does carry the movie in a way that a lesser star probably couldn’t. His character receives a little bit of backstory, also, and though technically enough is there as to what side of the morality scale he falls on, it’s not entirely so, and it does give Sleepless a level of plot intrigue.

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For the movie taking place in Las Vegas (though some of it shot in Atlanta), however, Odar doesn’t take much advantage of the scenery, or at least The Strip. 75% of it takes place at the casino, which is where the “Die Hard in a casino” comparisons are coming from. A casino should be rife for awesome shootouts, but instead, much of the runtime consists of characters posturing against other characters, making real or thinly veiled threats, or running stakeouts to locate their targets. Some of these scenes carry tension, but others do not. Oftentimes, the score (not a bad one) pops in and swells to crazy volume levels, and it becomes a little distracting to the events on screen.

Foxx is good, but everyone else generally falls into cliched roles. Michelle Monaghan’s Jennifer plays the resistance to Foxx’s Downs on the law side. Her character has a reason for being so hardened, but she’s overly so, and in the process, becomes kind of unlikable. Gabrielle Union and Octavius J. Johnson are simply the estranged wife and the child-in-distress, and their actions are dictated by whatever the script needs at a particular moment. Rapper T.I., Scott McNairy, Dermot Mulroney, and David Harbour all encompass stock characters seen in many crime films, leaning towards caricature. However, they aren’t always afforded with the strongest dialogue either, which plays a role in that.

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There are better movies to cure insomnia; Sleepless is too competent and entertaining enough to doze off on. But then again, it’s not going to be a movie where people are going to say it was slept on, either.

C

Photo credits go to rottentomatoes.com, and sleeplessmovie.com.

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