CHiPs: Movie Man Jackson

The only question to be asked is “Why?” In Los Angeles, the California Highway Patrol welcomes in two new members, Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña), and Jon Baker (Dax Shepard). Their reasons for being in the CHP differ. Ponch, a successful yet difficult-to-deal-with Miami FBI agent, has been assigned to work undercover within the department, while Baker is a rookie who has been accepted into the force on probationary status. Once a champion motocross rider whose injuries have taken a toll on the body, Baker is now in a failing marriage with Karen (Kristen Bell), and feels that becoming an officer is the only way to save it.

Ponch’s task while undercover is to figure out if there is some corruption going on in the department, as it is suspected that a few officers know something about a robbery in which millions were stolen in broad daylight. His partner on the case is Baker, since he’ll generally stay out of the way. Immediately the two do not click, but they’ll have to in order to solve the case in which they may be the only two clean cops on the roster.

The tagline “Chip happens” may be the lamest tagline a 2017 major movie release possesses. It serves as a sign of what’s to come. The 2017 feature movie re-imagining of CHiPs, from the late 1970’s TV drama series, is pretty lame. If this were a police test and CHiPs were a prospect looking to pass, they would fail, and I’m not even confident they’d be asked into the compound to take said test.

Where to start? Dax Shepard wears a lot of hats for this one, in charge of writing, directing, producing, and co-starring. The writing’s pretty abysmal, especially when one considers that 21/22 Jump Street have provided the perfect template for these types of remakes to succeed, or at the very least, be mildly entertaining with some meta-humor and/or self-realization of their existence.

What Shepard concocts here turns out to be a crime movie that is simultaneously predictable (corruption) yet still jumbled (extraneous details and leads that make little sense). Doesn’t help that it feels like at least a fourth of the dialogue consists of the words “dude,” “man,” “homey,” or “bro.” I’m often against having too many cooks in the kitchen from a writing standpoint, but maybe Dax could have used another hand to bounce ideas off of. All of this makes an average length runtime much longer than it is.

The action area is one area where CHiPs isn’t completely deficient. While nothing is spectacular, the few scenes do manage to be mild “high points” in a movie devoid of them, in particular, the vehicular chases, which surprisingly feature more carnage than one might believe. Maybe Shepard should just direct a traditional actioner, because it still comes back to the humor, or lack thereof.

Oftentimes, a buddy cop movie will succeed in spite of its shortcomings if its two leads have a good on-screen rapport and comedic timing. Peña and Shepard don’t have enough of it to elevate the material. Peña, who can do a lot in Hollywood, in particular feels handcuffed by Shepard’s writing. Little of this seems improvised. He’s trying, but the best humor garners little more than a chuckle or two, if that. He was funnier and more endearing in End of Watch. Little can be said that’s positive for the rest of the cast, either. They all fill the most basic thinly sketched characters, be it a shady lieutenant (Vincent D’Onofrio), a witchy wife (Kristen Bell), or love interests for our heroes (Jessica McNamee, Rosa Salazar).

At the start of the movie, there’s a disclaimer stating that the real life California Highway Patrol doesn’t endorse anything that happens in CHiPs. Neither should you.

D-

Photo credits go to IMDB.com, digitaltrends.com, and collider.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+

Photo credits go to Youtube.com and Comingsoon.net.

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Kong: Skull Island: Movie Man Jackson

The king stay the king. In 1973, the Vietnam War is winding down, and the United States is beginning to pull all of its assets out of it. While this is going on, a small government organization known as Monarch makes a pitch to its higher ups about exploring an uncharted territory known as Skull Island. Monarch’s leaders William Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have their reasons for wanting to go, but all they’ll say is that this is for geological purposes.

Going to a place no one has traversed before means Monarch is going to need an expedition squad. Led by former British military operative James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his unit, Monarch is able to make their way unto the island and conduct research. Immediately, King Kong himself appears, defending his home from these intruders. Little do these people know, Kong is actually protecting them, for what lies on the island is just as dangerous—if not more so—than Kong is.

 

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Or in Hollywood’s case, hoping to make money. Having a shared universe is all the rage now, starting with Marvel’s first stab at it almost a decade ago and now Warner Bros’ attempts with the DC Extended Universe and a “MonsterVerse.” Why a universe needs to exist for what only looks like two main characters in King Kong and Godzilla, I’ll never know, but we have it. Kong: Skull Island is here, and…it’s a passable, relatively entertaining, blockbuster.

Even though the two share a genre and now a universe, in many ways, Skull Island is the inverse of the Godzilla we saw in 2014. That monster movie was so methodical in its approach, it almost wasn’t a monster movie, and it chose to hide its star well into the runtime, which divided some people. For those looking for mayhem immediately, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers on that front quickly.

Kong smashes. Kong pounds his chest. Kong causes massive collateral damage. Simply put, Kong does what one expects him to do, and he does it well, he’s rendered well, and it looks well. The fictional island serves as a good playground to showcase Kong, despite its lack of verticality. Not all of it looks stunning; some of the monsters Kong does battle with look a tad cheap, and a massive set piece hazed in green fog gets a little wonky, but as a whole, Kong: Skull Island features solid cinematography.

The script, penned by Nightcrawler writer Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, is another story. No, it’s not deplorable, but it’s hard to tell if they wanted the story to be more than it is. Which isn’t much. On one side of the prism, Kong: Skull Island aims low, simply providing a vehicle in which a 30-something foot tall behemoth can wreck things, people, and other large creatures, with some mostly poor attempts at humor thrown in for good measure. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are moments where it feels like this movie is aspiring to be in the vein of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, etc., and it doesn’t possess those movies’ narrative/character impact.

Many of the characters that land on Skull Island are rather bland, which is surprising for a cast that features such big names in Hiddleston, Goodman, and Larson, along with up and comer Corey Hawkins. Not to mention other fairly notable names such as John Ortiz, Toby Kebbel, and Shea Whigham who end up being fodder or take space. Three characters that stand out a little are Samuel L. Jackson (refreshingly not in complete SLJ mode until arguably the end), John C. Reilly (great backstory), and Jason Mitchell, mostly due to his charisma. Unfortunately, the glut of characters featured gives Skull Island a feeling of overstuffedness. Just five or six less could have given more attention to the ones that mattered.

As it stands though, Kong: Skull Island does its part in laying a nice base foundation for The Eighth Wonder of the World, placing him on a collision course with The King of the Monsters.

C+

Photo credits go to birthmoviesdeath.com, toofab.com, and movieweb.com

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Table 19: Movie Man Jackson

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

D-

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

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Logan: Movie Man Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B+

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

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Get Out: Movie Man Jackson

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Tell em, Jojo.  Meeting the parents is always a nerve-racking moment for any couple. That time has come for Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris is Black, Allison, White. Not a big deal, but Chris, nonetheless, is nervous about what her parents may think.

Immediately upon setting foot on their estate, something doesn’t seem right. Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener), are overly accommodating to Chris to prove they are fine with their daughter dating him. And then there are the “keepers” of the land, each African-American, which looks a little suspect despite Dean giving reason why they are there. Could it all be in Chris’ head? Or is there legitimate reason for him to Get Out of this place immediately?

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No matter what color a person is, race and effects of it exist on a daily level, especially for minorities. Occasionally it is overt, but it often isn’t. The comedy sketch show Key and Peele did a lot of interesting and hilarious things, one of them being race relations and the minuteness of matters, especially from the perspective of black men. Now, first time director Jordan Peele takes a prolonged aim at black/white race relations in Get Out, using the horror/thriller genre as a lens for satire. It’s very well done as a whole, even if it falls short of top-notch greatness horror genre greatness.

In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, it’s evident from the first shot that he knows what he is doing. Key and Peele consistently featured a high level of camera work and cinematography not often befitting of a sketch comedy show, and though Peele himself never officially directed, what he was exposed to technically carries over here. He builds a bevvy of memorable scenes with minimal cuts, a harp-heavy score (fitting, actually), appropriate camera angles, and good lighting. Get Out couldn’t be called a pure horror, but for two-thirds of it, there is a real notable atmosphere and mystery (and the requisite jump scare here and there) that compels the viewer to keep watching and feel uneasy.

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From a true horror movie sense, the scares that will keep someone up at night don’t really exist in Get Out. From that sense, it is a little of a disappointment. But, it is frightening in a sense because the scenario Peele exhibits is rather spot on. It’s a fear aspect. Relating just a bit to the main character, the small things, like being the only minority in a room, representing an entire group, or people saying how much they like something to appeal to one’s emotion registers the most—well—emotionally. Serious look, but also a legitimately humorous one that utilizes a good mix of humor and thrills for much of the runtime.

But, then there’s the last act. While still very entertaining, it comes off as feeling pretty Key and Peele-ish. Less like a feature film in this part, and more of a sketch. Again, this does not take away from the film’s enjoyment—especially in a packed house—it just prevents it from being truly classic in my opinion.

There are a couple of star-making performances in Get Out. Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington is a great protagonist, written with a nice backstory. He’s asked to do a lot more than trailers and TV spots would indicate, selling the psychological toll that this place may or may not be having on him. There are some really difficult moments that Kaluuya pulls off easily. His chemistry with Allison Williams doesn’t feel cheap or forced, either. Williams, especially, does a job that may go unappreciated until after multiple watches. Tons of analysis can and will be written with regards to her.

Everyone contributes to the humor, written of course by Jordan, but don’t underestimate the delivery and timing aspects that can mar good humorous dialogue if executed poorly. Wouldn’t be surprising if Lil Rel Howery went on a Kevin Hart-esque run after this, he steals scenes whenever he’s in front of the camera. Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Keith Stanfield, and Milton Waddams himself (okay, Stephen Root) may not have big time roles, but they do not take away from the movie. They keep the focus on Kaluuya but always maintaining presence.

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A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Thankfully, Get Out doesn’t waste the viewer’s. Impeccable horror it’s not, but biting social commentary (with some horror thrills mixed in), it is.

B+

Photo credits go to BET.com, blumhouse.com, and bollywoodreads.com

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Fist Fight: Movie Man Jackson

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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

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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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The Comedian: Movie Man Jackson

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Ha. Ha. Ha. Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is a icon in the world of comedy, making his name as “Eddie,” a famous television character he played years as. It’s all anyone wants to see when he does stand-up now. When he just performs as Jackie, no one cares about his reinvention, and his routine often suffers for it.

The aging comic ends up getting physical with a audience heckler, and is forced to serve 30 days in jail. Upon coming out of imprisonment, he meets Harmony Schiltzstein (Leslie Mann), a woman who is attempting to reinvent herself. What starts out as simple friendly company for unwanted responsibilities and social functions ends up becoming a more solid companionship then the two realized was possible.

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One could mistake The Comedian, the latest movie featuring Robert De Niro, as a Dirty Grandpa clone without Zac Efron. It’s almost as crass, but a lot less juvenile. So if the similarities to that movie are there, why is this one a better watch?

For one main reason, The Comedian is a lot more believable. Believable isn’t something a film has to be (much less a comedy), but let’s just say that a crude old man chasing youth and an endless supply of sex and drugs on spring break stretches the realm of possibility. In The Comedian, director Taylor Hackford (Ray, The Devil’s Advocate) places De Niro’s Jackie into a world where his character is fictional, but most around him are not. It gives Jackie more credence as a older comic when he interacts with people like Jimmie Walker, Hannibal Buress, and Billy Crystal, and he’s treated like an equal. The world here and structure feels a little like Chris Rock’s feature a few years back, Top Fivewith a jazzy soundtrack/score that evokes a bygone era.

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De Niro himself is probably the funniest he’s ever been since Meet the Parents. That’s not to say that there aren’t low points in his performance, as some of his jokes are too one note and surface-level, but they’re few and far between. He commands the stage and showcases a level of charisma that hasn’t been seen in most of his recent movies. The spotlight is clearly his here, but others play prominent roles.

Leslie Mann shares good chemistry with De Niro, and the two become intertwined in something that looks to be predictable and then, is not. She’s not playing too much different of a role than what has become typical of her, but it works well enough regardless. Names like Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, and Patti LuPone make appearances, mainly in an effort to round out De Niro’s character.

As a comedy, subjectively speaking, The Comedian nalis more times than not. But, it’s not a perfect movie because it isn’t purely a comedy. Really, The Comedian is a character study, or at least fancies itself as one. Intriguing questions about 21st century fame and the nature of comedy are posed. However, the screenplay never answers or goes deep into them. Furthermore, most character studies often feature a noticeable arc that the main character goes through. Come the end of the film, it is debatable as to how much Jackie truly evolves, if at all, and it ends up leaving the film not as resounding emotionally as I believe it intends to be.

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Still, The Comedian provides De Niro with his best feature vehicle in quite some time, which kind of deserves a small round of applause. Not a flawless routine, but not a joke, either.

C

Photo credits go to spicypulp.com and Youtube.com.

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