Fist Fight: Movie Man Jackson

fistfight

Today is not a good day for high school English teach Andy Campbell (Charlie Day). At Roosevelt High, it’s the last day of school, and pranks are abound. As the mild-mannered pushover, Campbell is an easy mark for students to take advantage of. Doesn’t help that everyone in the high school is up for review, which means possible job losses. Not something Andy needs with a newborn on the way.

A most unfortunate situation that Campbell has with the volatile History teacher Strickland (Ice Cube) leads to the latter getting terminated. Fuming, Strickland challenges Campbell to an old school Fist Fight. Come 3pm in the parking lot, the entire school is going to see faculty members come to blows. Campbell worried about losing his job, but he needs to be worried about losing his life.

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Unbeknownst to yours truly, Fist Fight is an unofficial loose remake/re-telling of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, and even 2001’s Joe Somebody. That alone should tell anyone that isn’t a movie that is looking to reinvent the wheel, just provide some moderate entertainment. Moderate entertainment might not have been seen in the trailer, but Fist Fight is moderately surprising in its comedic effectiveness.

Written by Van Robichaux, Evan Susser, and New Girl’s Max Greenfield, Fist Fight’s plot isn’t something to heap a ton of praise on, and the premise, taking place in one day, can get a little stretched in places. But, there’s nothing wrong with being simplistic. And, the writers deserve one gold star with the overall setup. By placing the film in an end-of-the-year, anything-can-be-done scenario, it allows the movie to be accepted in all of its zaniness much easier. And though there’s the requisite R rated penis jokes and toilet humor, some legitimate physical comedy hits the mark along with improvisational dialogue here and there. Any implied statements about today’s state of education falls flat, though. Blackboard Jungle, this is not.

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Thankfully, Fist Fight delivers on its title. Spoiler alert: There’s no bait and switch. What’s advertised actually does happen, and quite honestly, it’s better directed than the average Hollywood fisticuffs action scene. I hesitate to say that it is reason alone to give the movie a view, but, anyone wanting an Ali-Frazier throw down (which will be most of the paying audience, myself included) will get one and likely be very pleased with it. Hearkens memory to the 1995 end fight in another Ice Cube comedy, Friday. Not a bad way to kick off a silver screen directorial debut, Mr. Richie Keen.

The cast in Fist Fight doesn’t do a whole lot differently from what they’ve been known for in their careers. Good, if you’re a fan, bad if not. We all know Cube for being the angry, mean-mugging expletive-laden character in everything he does, and we know Charlie Day for being the loud, eccentric, weird sounding passive wimp. They resume these characters here, and are good for what they are, playing off of each other well. Of the two, the story is told from Andy’s perspective, and he gets more of a character arc, albeit a fairly rushed one in the last 20 or so minutes.

Side characters are a mixed bag. Tracy Morgan impresses in his first role back on-screen as an oblivious loser coach, and Silicon Valley‘s Kumali Nanjiani delivers straight man humor. Much like the leads, Jillian Bell has a style and delivery that can grate on a viewer, or ingratiates herself to a viewer. Personally, not a big fan, but fits in enough here. The odd person out of all of this is Christina Hendricks, more weird than hilarious.

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By no means does Fist Fight score a comedic knockout. But by the end of the film’s runtime, laughs hit enough to score a split decision.

C+

Photo credits go to darkhorizons.com, movieweb.com, and ca.sports.yahoo.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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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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