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Reviews

28 Jul 2016
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Three years ago, director David F. Sandberg made Lights Out, a great short about a woman, home alone at night, who kept noticing a dark figure when she switched off the light. The payoff was both hilarious and scary as shit. So, of course, producer James Wan got hold of Sandberg, and now there’s a full-length feature film based on that light-switch premise. Writer Eric Heisserer takes the idea, fleshes it out, and comes up with a pretty good story to go with Sandberg’s strong horror-directing abilities. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is an angry woman with mommy and commitment issues. Her mom, Sophie (Maria Bello), recently lost her husband and has fallen into a depression; she is talking to herself. Rebecca’s younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is seeing a strange dark figure when the lights go out. It all leads up to a finale during which flashlights are very valuable, and…
28 Jul 2016
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While it’s been more than 20 years since the great Frank Zappa left the planet, surprisingly little in the way of films and other media have focused on about his life and times. With Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, director Thorsten Schütte finds a nice way of getting Zappa back in the public eye, making a solid documentary featuring Zappa interviews, concert footage and appearances. Like The Beatles Anthology before it, Eat That Question tells the artist’s story by using his own words. I’m a big fan, so I’ve seen some of the footage Schutte utilizes, like Zappa playing music with bicycles with Steve Allen, and Frank’s final interview before dying from cancer. Thankfully, Schutte (with help from the Zappa Family Trust) has also unearthed a lot of rare footage—footage with which even the most ardent fan might not be familiar. This isn’t a concert film,…
28 Jul 2016
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Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his foster parent, Hec (Sam Neill), escape into the New Zealand bush after the death of Hec’s wife, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), destines Ricky for a ticket back to juvenile hall in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Hec and Ricky don’t like each other all that much at first, but they warm up to each other as the film plays out, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. Directed by Taika Waititi, who made a very funny vampire movie with What We Do in the Shadows (and who makes a very funny appearance in this one), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is proof that Waititi has more than laughs up his sleeves. This film has genuine warmth, great performances and, yes, some good laughs. Neill, unrecognizable at first under his big gray beard, delivers perhaps the best performance of his career as an old codger who has…
28 Jul 2016
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While Star Trek Beyond could use more soul and a more cohesive story, the film scores high on the zip factor, and introduces a creepy new villain. The latest film in the franchise’s reboot might be the weakest of the three featuring the newish cast, but it is still a lot of fun. J.J. Abrams stepped down to direct his revamped Star Wars, relegating himself to a producer’s role. In steps Justin Lin, best known for making cars jump between skyscrapers in the Fast and Furious franchise. It’s no surprise that Lin’s take lacks a certain depth that Abrams managed to bring to his two installments. It’s also not a surprise that some of the action scenes motor along with the efficiency of a Dodge Challenger Hellcat. The film picks up with James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew in the midst of their five-year mission. Kirk (as he…
21 Jul 2016
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The first Ghostbusters was a magnificent movie miracle. Some of the greatest comedy actors of the time (Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis and Dan Aykroyd) joined forces under the guidance of a hot director (Ivan Reitman, coming off Stripes and Meatballs) to merge horror, science fiction, comedy and big-budget special effects. They balanced these elements perfectly—and turned out a classic. I was not expecting anything near the brilliance or originality of the 1984 original from Paul Feig’s reboot/remake/whatever-you-want-to-call-it entry into a movie franchise that has remained dormant since the miserable 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters 2. Considering the cast that Feig assembled—Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones—I did expect to have a good time. That didn’t happen. I was bored … super bored. I laughed a total of 2 1/2 times at the new Ghostbusters, and I did not laugh once due to anything the headliners did. It’s…
14 Jul 2016
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A bunch of comedians lend their voices to some cartoon characters, and the results are moderately entertaining. The Secret Life of Pets is good for a laugh or two, and the occasional wacked-out moment makes it a semi-original animated movie. Yeah, this is not a ringing endorsement. Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell terrier who loves his master, Katie (Ellie Kemper, of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), with that undying loyalty that makes dogs so damn cool. However, when Katie brings home a new brother for Max, a big, brown shaggy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), it creates turmoil in the household. This leads to that, with Max and Duke eventually winding up in the hands of Animal Control, and eventually fending for themselves inside the sewers of Manhattan. There, they become enemies of the Flushed Pets, a group consisting of alligators, lizards, snakes and furry critters, all led by…
07 Jul 2016
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Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate army medic, decides he’s had enough—and deserts. He returns to Mississippi, where his people are being harassed by looting soldiers. He winds up in the swamps with escaped slaves, where they form a pact—and eventually create a militia to rebel against the Confederacy. Free State of Jones is based on a true story, and director Gary Ross definitely shows the brutality and terrors of the Civil War. McConaughey is powerful in the central role, as is Mahershala Ali as Moses, leader of the escaped slaves. However, the film stumbles a bit when it tries to do a little too much: There are courtroom scenes taking place 85 years after the Civil War, when a relative of Knight’s is in a civil rights dispute. These scenes feel completely out of place, and they sort of muck up the film’s ending; things just come to an…
07 Jul 2016
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With The BFG, the startling run of Steven Spielberg duds continues. After delivering two of the dullest movies of his career (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies), Spielberg has done the seemingly impossible: He’s made Roald Dahl completely boring. Oscar winner Mark Rylance delivers a motion-capture CGI performance as the central character—the Big Friendly Giant—that results in more yawns than smiles. His giant captures dreams and blows them into the sleeping residents of London. On one of his excursions, he kidnaps Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and takes her to the land of giants. Most giants are meat-eaters; luckily, BFG is a vegetarian, but he’s being bullied by a group of bad giants, led by Jemaine Clement, in what amounts to the film’s most fun motion-capture performance. Despite a winning performance from Barnhill, a true star in the making, the film drags on and on, trying to get by on big special effects rather…
07 Jul 2016
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Swiss Army Man, like the dead corpse at its center, serves a variety of purposes. It’s a story about the wild things starvation and desperation can do to the brain, including the strange visions that play in one’s head while losing it. It’s a story about how a deranged stalker deals with the end of his life. It’s a story about how funny it would be if somebody’s farts could propel himself, like a jet ski, across the ocean, and how funny it would be if his erect dick were a compass. I’ve made my choice what this movie is about to me, but you could walk away from it thinking something completely different. That’s the beauty of a movie like Swiss Army Man. As Hank, Paul Dano gets yet another nutty role. He’s seemingly stranded on a desert island and at the end of his rope—literally. Just before killing…
05 Jul 2016
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Netflix original movies are popping up more and more—some with big stars in them. For example, The Fundamentals of Caring stars Paul Rudd. It’s not a bad movie at all. It’s actually almost good—but not quite. Rudd plays Ben, a distraught, grieving novelist mourning the loss of his son and going through a divorce. In order to get himself out of a rut, and perhaps start writing again, he takes a course to become a caregiver. He gets a job caring for Trevor (Craig Roberts), a young man suffering from muscular dystrophy who doesn’t have long to live. Trevor is a bit caustic, and the two men develop a strange sort of antagonistic friendship. They wind up on a road trip during which they pick up Selena Gomez, who curses a lot. Road-trip wackiness ensues. The Fundamentals of Caring uses all of the familiar road-trip tropes; unfortunately, Gomez takes the…
30 Jun 2016
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I enjoyed the goofy, funny, balls-out alien-invasion movie that was Independence Day. The film was dumber than a stoned golden retriever in a Harvard calculus class, but Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Randy Quaid made the grandiose stupidity fun. Twenty years after the original, Independence Day: Resurgence has finally arrived, sans Smith (who probably didn’t think the check was big enough) and Quaid (who has gone even more bonkers than his deeply disturbed Independence Day character). While the original was a stupid blast, the sequel is the equivalent of a nasty two-hour alien fart. Goldblum, Bill Pullman and Brent Spiner return for alien nonsense that is fast-paced, yet dull and utterly devoid of laughs. It’s evident within the first 10 minutes that the movie will somehow manage to be lethargic, even though the editing is frantic, and lots of things are exploding. Returning director Roland Emmerich is clearly not on…
30 Jun 2016
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Blake Lively, whose best role until now came when she played the secretary in that Saturday Night Live “Potato Chip” sketch, is terrific in The Shallows as Nancy, a medical-school dropout who goes to a secret beach in Mexico in the wake of her mother’s death. Nancy sets out for a day of surfing and reflection in what she thinks is a completely solitary setting (with the exception of a couple of other friendly surfers). However … turns out there’s a huge great white shark there, and this is its part of the planet—and no trespassers are allowed, even if they are as pretty as Blake Lively. As shark movies go, this is a good one, with decent CGI effects, a couple of tense shark attacks, and a constant level of terror that never lets up. The only thing keeping this from being “very good” rather than “decent” is the…

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