Film Review: “Super Troopers 2”

Starring: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske
Directed By: Jay Chandrasekhar
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sometimes you shouldn’t give the fans what they want. But the Broken Lizard comedy troupe put themselves in no-win situation by teasing for years and years that they were working on a “Super Troopers” sequel. It became a reality for thousands when they started an Indiegogo fundraising campaign. By the end, they had doubled their original crowdfunding target goal. Now that the sequel has arrived, some of those 54,609 backers might keep their wallets in their pocket next time Broken Lizard comes around.

“Super Troopers 2” isn’t a complete misfire, nor is it devoid of joy or humor. So in some regards, it’s the best case scenario for a comedy sequel that comes 17 years after its predecessors and nearly a decade after the last Broken Lizard film. The way the crew gets into this film’s main plot is a bit odd and unnecessarily lengthy. When we last saw the former Vermont state troopers, Thorny (Chandrasekhar), Foster (Soter), Mac (Lemme), Rabbit (Stolhanske) and Farva (Heffernan), they had quickly shifted into their new roles as immature local police officers. This film begins with the exposition that they’ve been fired and relegated to mediocrity as lumberjacks or home construction workers.

But a new opportunity arises when a border dispute between the U.S. and Canada reveals that Vermont’s border actually stretches farther North, encompasses a small Canadian town. So the five disgraced troopers are brought in by their former Captain, John O’Hagen (Brian Cox), to set up a new patrol station and make sure the town transition is smooth. It’s a complicated and unnecessary set-up, only meant as vessel for cheap Canadian jokes, north of the border sight gags and some bad accents.

As I said, the movie isn’t completely devoid of chuckles. I was pleased to see that the film didn’t pull an “Airplane II: The Sequel” and simply rehash every quotable joke from the first film. They can’t help but regurgitate some of the more memorable jokes, like them saying “meow” and Farva’s “liter of Cola” bit, but they’re so minuscule compared to the deluge of jokes this film throws at you. You’re likely to forget how the writers were along the way. But because the jokes are so relentless, when the film does pump the brakes a little, a lot of the film’s weaker elements blossom.

The first film felt like a cast of goofballs carrying out their wildest pranks in a reality where law and order is still a thing. This film seems to live in an alternate universe where common sense and international law doesn’t exist, as if it’s a fan-made film. There are certain elements that feel more like Indiegogo requests rather than natural comedic beats for these characters. The original also had a semi-realistic plot with a passable villain while this one feels cartoonish and intentionally over-the-top. Within that 17 year timespan, the Broken Lizard game may have lost touch of what made their characters originally loveable to more than just the stoner crowd.

A good comedy sequel isn’t impossible to make. In some regards, it can be better by embracing what works best and improving upon the film’s previous faults. But because “Super Troopers” is inherently a cult classic, it could never really live up to that status. The sequel feels more like “Anchorman 2” or “Ghostbusters 2.” While “Super Troopers 2” may scratch that itch fans have been feeling for over a decade and a half, that itch won’t go away because of how unfulfilling this film is when compared to the original. Even if you enjoy yourself, you won’t be quoting this film 17 years from now or asking for “Super Troopers 3.”

Film Review: “Rampage”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Malin Akerman
Directed By: Brad Peyton
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

I remember several quarter eating games from my childhood. Most of them were first-person shooters like “House of the Dead” and “Carnevil” where it didn’t matter how good you were or if you were a sharpshooter, the game was designed to kill you so you’d have to keep pumping in change. Most other games that I would spend endless hours playing at the arcade were fun for a five-year-old boy to play, but inherently dumb because of its repeating pattern and repetitiveness. There were side-scrollers like “X-Men” and smash and destroy games like “Rampage.”

21st century video games are championed for interactive gameplay and in-depth storytelling. The games of the late 80’s and early 90’s could be crowned as mindless time wasters. That’s “Rampage” in a nutshell. How they made a movie out of that is genuinely impressive. One, because it should be towards the bottom of the list for potential big screen adaptations and second, there’s honestly not much to adapt other than the idea of giant monsters smashing buildings, something that’s already been done multiple times.

“Rampage” is like a melting pot of any Kaiju film, “Mighty Joe Young” and that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson charm we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade. Johnson plays beefy anthropologist Davis Okoye, who relates more to primates than he does his human co-workers at a San Diego wildlife sanctuary. The introverted scientist can fly helicopters, has a military background, and communicates with a massive albino silverback gorilla, named George, like it’s his frat brother.

The movie quickly picks up steam when George is infected with an experimental gas. The mutating fumes are from the remnants of a company space station that was experimenting with DNA. The gas acts like a steroid to all of George’s senses, turning him into a monstrous creature overnight. He’s bigger, stronger and angrier. He’s not the only creature to get hit with a dose of plot as several other canisters of this harmful gas have landed in rural Wyoming and some Florida swamplands, infecting a wolf and crocodile.

“Rampage” is a tad too long, padding it’s runtime with a lot of unnecessary character backgrounds, silly exposition, and a quick shoehorned message about poaching. It doesn’t help that the show stopping fight between all the monsters, in downtown Chicago, feels like it takes forever to get to. The pace that it moves at feels more like a painful tease rather than an actual build-up. Johnson, like he is in most of the other sub-par films he stars in, does give an otherwise limp noodle script a bit of life.

While in 2017, we learned he’s vulnerable to a complete inadequate script (“Baywatch), 2018 seems to prove once again he can do a lot with very little. While everyone merely acts scared of the CGI monstrosity that is George, Johnson brings some warmth to a cold creature and seems to be genuinely interacting with it. Johnson, along with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Naomie Harris, provide a likeable trio of heroes looking to save lives and the life of George. But after watching scores of service men and women die while civilians flee in terror in the final act, shouldn’t George be lumped in the same category as Superman in “Man of Steel?”

When it wants to be light-hearted, “Rampage” is quite fun, but when it wants to be dark with jump scares, and scenes of death and destruction, it’s off putting to the overall vibe the movie’s trying to establish with George and his nurturing human savior, Davis. There’s fun to be had in “Rampage” as long as you understand that this is a bad movie. But just like the old “Rampage” arcade game I played in my youth, I don’t necessarily feel like I should ever revisit this one or reflect on it as anything more than a cash grab.

Film Review: “Isle of Dogs”

Starring the Voices Of: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin and Edward Norton
Directed By: Wes Anderson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 101 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Since bursting on to the scene in the mid-90s, Wes Anderson has had a steady and solid film catalogue. Even his average movie has an enchanting whimsical nature to it and is never visually boring. He may have a few blemishes, but none of his films had me believing the film was a complete misfire. So there shouldn’t be any kind of flirting on my end with you, the reader, on whether or not I enjoyed “Isle of Dogs,” because I did.

In Anderson’s alternate universe, a dog-flu virus has spread throughout the population, and not just the canine one. The solution, by authoritarian leader Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), is to have all dogs banished to Trash Island. The isle is a culmination of man-made disasters, mankind’s carelessness with experimentation, and of course, trash. Making his way onto the island, via a small makeshift aircraft, is Atari (Rankin), who’s looking for his guard dog, Spot.

Helpining Atari around the island is Chief (Cranston), Rex (Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum); a pack made up of alpha dogs with their own individual quirks. Like most Anderson films, the cast is filled with a who’s who of Hollywood’s past and present. Some of the surprising ones are Harvey Keitel, Liev Schreiber and Yoko Ono. While each voice may not seem recognizable at first, their character certainly brings a flash in the pan of joy, humor or bite to the scene they’re in.

While Trash Island is its own visual character, the nearby Japanese city of Megasaki looks like a tourist greeting card. It may be off putting to some viewers because there are no subtitles for our Japanese characters. Sometimes we only understand the human characters because of stylish visual storying telling, or an English translator for the moments of broadcast news (which seems odd that a Japanese TV station would have an English translator, but I could easily be wrong about that). I can’t speak to the authenticity some of the film’s culturally significant moments or the settings, having never grown up in Japan and having a basic American public school system understanding of the island nation.

Even though the stop-motion animation screams “kid’s movie,” it’s not. The deliberate peculiarities in the film add to its charm or help build the sinister undertones running beneath Kobayashi’s leadership. The film’s subtlety mainly makes remarks about unity and loyalty, and how both of those can be good to the extreme, but on the same scope, be used to pursue evil endeavors. As to whether or not that message has been adapted to fit a more contemporary narrative, instead of a universal one, is unseen.

Visually, “Isle of Dogs” is one of Anderson’s best. Narratively, it’s sometimes deflating, but still overwhelmingly charming and loveable. The film’s sentimentality and warmth is thoroughly earned. On a basic level, “Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s straightforward love letter to man’s best friend. Some of the individual tics for each of the characters are something dog current and former dog owners will pick up on. Even cat lovers might find something to smile at by the time the film ends.

Film Review: “Midnight Sun”

Midnight Sun

Starring: Bella Thorne, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Rob Riggle
Directed By: Scott Speer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Open Road Films

“Midnight Sun” has the makings of an eye-rolling romantic drama. Katie Price (Thorne) suffers from an incredibly rare genetic disorder that makes sunlight deadly. So she spends her days and nights trapped inside her home, pining for a life outside those confines. For years she’s been watching the cute neighbor boy, Charlie (Schwarzenegger), that she wishes she could talk to, but instead she’s only been able to communicate with her lone friend, Morgan (Quinn Shephard) and her widowed father, Jack (Riggle). It’s set-up like some predictable coming-of-age tale with a terrible “Boy in the Plastic Bubble” twist lurking on the horizon. Thankfully it doesn’t play out like that.

There’s a happy middle ground that this film finds itself in. It’s caught between the polar extremes that we’ve seen in films like “The Space Between Us” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” and it’s not a bad spot to be in. It’s able to use a lot of familiar tropes, some of them annoying, to keep the story flowing along, but it takes a lot of the stronger assets, like unpredictability and charming leads. It’s also hard to hate a movie with a lot of good intentions.

“Midnight Sun” is a movie I would generally nitpick to death, but it managed to take me out of my sardonic element. It isn’t a great love story, but it’s still a worthy entry into the teen romance genre because of its broader message on love and life. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t my favorite genre because of how overly sappy it usually is, but I sometimes find myself forgiving the fatal flaws because of how enjoyable the characters are to watch. And two of the main cast members in this film are surprisingly strong.

Thorne, who I’ve only seen in “Blended,” which honestly isn’t saying much, is quite magnetic as the mousey Price. Price’s disease has matured her character beyond simplistic teenage angst when it comes to the film’s conflict. Riggle, who’s known for his comedic bit parts in films and shenanigans on “Fox NFL Sunday,” legitimately shines here in a role that doesn’t require him to be overly dramatic by dipping into his real-life military experience. He’s a sympathetic father dealing with a horrific circumstance, by wearing a smile on top of his heavy heart. However, everyone else seems like a filler. Schwarzenegger, whose last name should be self-explanatory, is slightly believable in his role, but he comes off as wooden. There are also moments where he smiles and looks like the spitting image of his father, which nearly took me out of the film multiple times.

“Midnight Sun” follows some predictable beats in terms of character growth throughout the film. There’s nothing unique about the relationship that develops on-screen, but their likability is nearly off the charts. You forget about the casual, and sometimes sloppy, narration because of how much enjoyment you get out of spending time with Katie and her close inner circle. “Midnight Sun” doesn’t reach any new highs or lows, but its good enough excuse for those who want to shed a tear or feel something warm in their hearts.

Film Review: Terrifier

Starring: Catherine Corcoran, Jenna Kanell and David Howard Thornton
Directed By: Damien Leone
Rated: R
Running Time: 82 minutes

The past two decades have seen a lot of evil clowns enter the realm of pop-culture. In video games, there was Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal.” In television, there was Twisty from the third season of “American Horror Story.” We’ve also had plenty of evil movie clowns, from the reimagining of Pennywise in “IT” to Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s films. Now enters Art (Thornton), a homicidal clown that may or may not have supernatural powers.

After a night out, Dawn (Corcoran) and Tara (Kanell) are grabbing a slice of pizza when a black and white painted and dressed Art the Clown enters, with a bag of unknowns in tow. Even with his grotesque smile and creepy hand emotes, he’s made even sinister by the fact he doesn’t utter a single word and seemingly doesn’t make a single sound. His pantomiming is sometimes meant for humor, but mainly meant to menace the two young girls on Halloween. The situation sours when the girls are stranded alone at night after their bizarre encounter with Art.

There’s not much to the story and there’s certainly not much to the plot. “Terrifier” is a vehicle for Damien Leone’s crew to exhaust their violence and gore budget. “Terrifier” is shot much like the violent grindhouse films it’s paying homage to. In moments of pitch black you notice a lot of grit in the picture quality. But in brightly lit scenes and in quick shots, you really appreciate the even grittier practical effects as Art lays waste to a naked woman or an unsuspecting bug exterminator.

The director manages to milk a lot out of his script, which is set in one night at one building. It’s helped by Art’s unquenchable bloodthirst. While he’s sometimes satisfied with the simple pull of a trigger, other times a bonesaw or knife are a lot more intimate and satisfying for the clown. We see the pleasure that Art derives from the senseless, brutal murders, thanks to Thornton’s creepy smile and gleeful silence while dancing in place.

It’s almost as if Art’s muteness is a reflection of everything about this movie, all substance with very little, if anything, to say. It’s entertaining in the midst of chaos as Art navigates through an old building worth of potential victims, but its rewatchability isn’t on par with other horror films because the characters aren’t sympathetic, relatable or distinctive outside of one note jokes. That’s not any of the actor’s fault, but that blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the director. Art the Clown had the potential to be a lot more terrifying.

Film Review – “The Death of Stalin”

THE DEATH OF STALIN
Starring:  Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Risebourough, Rupert Friend and Jason Isaacs
Directed by:  Armando Iannucci
Rated:  R
Running time:  106 mins.

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

In the Soviet loop. Armando Iannucci brings his breakneck quips and futile power plays to Stalin’s final days in The Death of Stalin, a darkly hilarious take on a moment in history handled by a collection of top notch actors.

In 1953 Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) sits atop a well oiled oppression machine. He doles out hit lists to his gulags on a daily basis and even among his closest confidants he wields terrifying power. Steve Buscemi’s sycophantic Khrushchev takes personal notes on what jokes bombed in his company so as not to repeat his mistakes. Inconveniently Khrushchev and company find their leader face down and on death’s door in a puddle of his own piss. With no official recourse for succession, the jockeying for power—and chewing of the considerable scenery—begins.

Filling out this Stalin’s cabinet with Buscemi is a dream team lineup of Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin (my favorite Python!), Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Isaacs. To Iannucci’s credit none of the actors in this film are asked to adopt any sort of Russian or even any shared accent which only adds to the air of chaos in the party and likely is what frees up these actors to stay absolutely focused on the script’s fast and fierce comic timing. Additionally just when you’re getting the rhythm of this first set of yes-men, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are imported in as Stalin’s wayward offspring to inject even more manic energy into the proceedings. Friend in particular is a revelation as Vasily, a bellowing drunkard who arrives landing insults with surgical precision and more often than not, departs by being wrestled physically from the frame.

I had some hesitation going into this film being pretty much unaware of the specifics of this moment in history and wondered whether that would impact my experience however this turned out not to be the case. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the pettiness of men are always ripe for political farce especially from the likes of the man behind “Veep” and this spectacular cast.

Film Review: “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time

Starring: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon
Directed By: Ava DuVernay
Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Disney has had no problems taking a few risks here and there, especially since their Marvel and Star Wars properties guaranteeing the studio an easy half billion dollars (at the very least) every time one is dropped. So it’s understandable that they can make a calculated gamble or two on tricky creative properties. With “A Wrinkle in Time,” the movie studio certainly rolled the dice with a very well-known, but difficult to transcribe, story. Unfortunately, Disney has rolled snake eyes.

By no means would it be easy for anyone to take the most frequently challenged pieces of literature of the 20th century and turn it into a big budget visual delight for mainstream audiences. The book’s blending of Christian spirituality and grounded science are a complicated combination that creates a fear for movies producers when it comes to potentially upsetting several groups. Writers had to not only conjure something enlightening and mentally stimulating, but have it be void of controversial thesis statements about life. Of course if you don’t know anything about the book, you’ll be confused on how the film handled that narrative regardless.

Meg Murry’s (Reid) father, Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), has been missing for several years. Many believe he simply abandoned Meg, her brother Charles (Deric McCabe), and their mom. But others believe something planetary happened because of Dr. Murry’s pursuit and interest in interdimensional travel. He had a theory about the brain being able to traverse universes and being able to move from locale to locale with the use of the mind’s focus. It’s a lot of exposition and scientific theory to take in already; it doesn’t help that “A Wrinkle in Time” quickly ushers in three astral travelers, each with a specific quirk and power.

At about the halfway mark, I began to wonder if “A Wrinkle in Time” was more concerned with telling rather than showing. I also questioned the film’s direction because at this point, I felt nothing for any of the characters on their journey. Sure Meg and Charles feel slighted by their father, who they’re ultimately searching for, but outside of those abandonment issues, there’s not much there for viewers to latch on to. It doesn’t help that much of the emotional core of the movie is derailed by having to shoehorn in a new character every five minutes.

The movie really doesn’t work until the final act, after we’ve had to suffer through a lot of confusing tone changes, half-hearted story beats and dead end CGI spectacles. I believe the final act only works because the movie finally embraces the concept of alternate realities and begins treating Meg like the adult she’s maturing into. Although it could have paid off more if we got more time with the characters being themselves instead of reciting exposition and acting wooden in the face of extraordinary circumstances.

I remember reading “A Wrinkle in Time” back in sixth grade as an assignment. It came after a class reading of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” My recollection of the book itself is fuzzy, but I remember having to reread an entire chapter because I felt like I had just tried to digest algebra for the first time. Disney tried to adapt “A Wrinkle in Time” back in 2003 and it was met negatively. It looks like they’ll have to try for a third time in about 15 years.

Film Review: Victor Crowley

Starring: Parry Shen, Kane Hodder and Laura Ortiz
Directed By: Adam Green
Rated: R
Running Time: 93 minutes

As director and writer Adam Green said himself, the “Hatchet” trilogy was a segmented, yet complete story. So there was never a need for a fourth “Hatchet,” yet here we are with “Victor Crowley.” Green can be forgiven for going back to the monster that made his career, especially since it’s taken on a life of its own and worked its way into the hearts of horror aficionados. Luckily, unlike others who’ve returned to their roots, Green has found a worthy amount of gory content and vicious fun to justify this fourth time around.

Picking up 10 years after the event of “Hatchet III,” the sole survivor of Crowley’s massacre, Andrew (Shen), is promoting a new book detailing how he survived. While many line-up to get an autograph or buy the book from him, an equal amount take the time to ridicule him for cashing in on death or accusing him of committing mass murder under the guise of the supernatural. What mainstream public could actually believe 40 people were killed by a disfigured Hulk-like entity in a swamp?

Of course it wouldn’t be a “Hatchet” movie without returning to that very swamp. Andrew is suckered back in, with the promise of more money on his book tour campaign. Getting mixed up eventually is an aspiring crew of filmmakers and the people transporting Andrew back to the site of the decade old massacre. Of course, the key component, Victor Crowley (Hodder), needs to be summoned to go on another killing spree.

The actually summoning is one of the few hiccups in an otherwise funhouse blood fest. Once Crowley shows up, “Victor Crowley” rarely lets up, spending the second half of the movie being relentlessly savage and overwhelmingly sadistic. But it’s equally funny, at least for those with an ounce of black humor in their funny bone. There’s a lot of fan service, within the own franchise as well as several nods to the horror community, that sometimes distracts from the core content.

I can’t give too much away because “Victor Crowley” is meant to be experienced instead of hearing my pitch as to why you should see it. Those who have already gone along for the trip will certainly check out “Victor Crowley,” and without a doubt I can say they’ll fall immediately in love with it. Very rarely does a sequel, much less the fourth of a franchise, live-up-to and exceed the expectations set by previous films, but “Victor Crowley” does. If this is the beginning of a new storytelling trilogy, it’s set the expectations for future films ridiculously high.

Film Review: “Ruin Me”

Starring: Marcienne Dwyer, Matt Dellapina and Chris Hill
Directed By: Preston DeFrancis
Rated: R
Running Time: 87 minutes

Any horror film buff would certainly take part in a Slasher Sleepout, a 36-hour experience that’s a mishmash of elements from escape rooms, haunted houses and a weekend camping trip. Is this actually a thing? I’m genuinely curious and would probably splurge on it if it existed. At least the six characters in “Ruin Me” did. When we meet the, they have this giddy excitement, that I’m sure I would have before a weekend of cheap scares alone in the woods, solving puzzles. Well, five out of six of those characters at least seem cozy to the idea.

Alex (Dwyer) is lukewarm to the concept. She’s begrudgingly going with her boyfriend, Nathan (Dellapina), who received the experience as a birthday gift from a pal, but his buddy couldn’t go so Alex is his fill-in. You’d think he’d have gone with another friend, or at least someone who’s favorite movie isn’t “Dirty Dancing.” The four other people joining them are all about horror though. There’s the awkward loner who rattles off horror movie references, the stoic weird guy, and an obnoxious Goth couple that has done these kinds of hodgepodge horror getaways before.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true horror movie if something didn’t go wrong, and things go south quickly. At the beginning everyone plays along with the fake blood, fake mutilated body parts and hooded men in the forest stalking them, but it’s not until people start disappearing and the fake blood becomes real blood. “Ruin Me” has a bit of fun playing with the audience expectations about when things will take a nosedive and how far our characters are still willing to believe that they’re just being toyed with by 21st century carnival ride operators.

“Ruin Me” has a lot of twists and turns after the midway point. Some of the surprises are earned and are actually rewarding while others feel like concepts shoehorned into the script without actually fitting into the overall narrative. Alex, being the focal point of misery as the film progresses, has a lot of the believable twists to her character arc. Some of Alex’s reveals appear sloppy at face value, but they are a lot more believable in hindsight when everything is finally tied together.

“Ruin Me” is a midnight movie romp, which pays off for viewers who love watching characters trapped in sadistic head games. The argument could be made that Alex’s misery and the film’s head games don’t go far enough. It’s a fair point because “Ruin Me” seemingly makes a 180 degree turn in terms of tone at one point, without justifying the pivot. The “fun weekend gone wrong” trope could have easily sustained the movie, but it seems like the intentional swivel was an attempt to subvert. “Ruin Me” isn’t about to spawn a new genre or rewrite the horror movie rules, but it maintains a sense of mystery and excitement for those willing to go on the overnight with the characters. If nothing else, the writers might be on to something with this Slasher Sleepout.

Film Review: “12 Strong”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and William Fichtner
Directed By: Nicolai Fuglsig
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Analyzing and critiquing films centered on America’s soldiers can be a difficult task. Too much criticism can draw ire from those who bleed red, white and blue. You can even take heat and be called unpatriotic for not heaping tons of praise on it. “12 Strong” is so-so. It’s beautifully shot, narratively confusing, decently-acted, but predictable. Sure it’s a story that isn’t well-known, but casting Chris Hemsworth as the lead ensures there won’t be anyone who will need to bring tissues into the theater with them.

The film begins quite literally on the morning of 9/11, sure to conjure up emotion from any viewer who lived through that day. Captain Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth) springs into action, demanding to see combat so that he can bravely lead his men into battle. It’s noble, but unnecessary when anyone who’s seen “Thor” or knows of Hemsworth’s star power, knows the actor wasn’t cast to file paperwork and sit behind a desk throughout the movie.

Nelson gets his wish and is shipped off to the Middle East. There he leads a group of Green Berets in mid-October into Afghanistan to assist the Northern Alliance, a collection of Afghan warlords and soldiers who are mainly playing defense against the oppressive Taliban. The Berets’ goal is to loosen the Taliban’s grip and to destabilize the terrorist organization. Assisting, as well as being assisted by, the Green Berets is General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), one of the leaders making up the broken and embattled Northern Alliance.

The politics of the Northern Alliance as well as the covert operations are a lot more fascinating than what is actually on-screen. After watching the film I went home to do some research and became engrossed in the history of the battle before U.S. televisions began broadcasting bombs being dropped. It was also fascinating to read about Afghanistan’s shattered (and still is) political structure that barely holds the country together. None of that really comes across in “12 Strong” that tried to simplify the history books.

Exposition usually comes across in wooden dialogue, as well as speeches that feel unnatural. The movie also loses track a few times of where our Green Berets are supposed to be or what town they’re currently entrenched in or liberating. The final battle sequence comes off as a rush with a visually silly sequence of men on horseback shooting wildly at Taliban in tanks like some kind of over-the-top boss battle in a video game.

For all its flaws, “12 Strong” does commendable jobs in some of its smaller moments. General Dostum, who’s drastically underplayed throughout the film, provides necessary insight into how the Afghans view the U.S. intervention, saying at one point that the Americans will be called cowards if they leave, but invaders if they stay. He says it in all seriousness, realizing that the U.S. is in a no win situation with the hearts and minds of Afghanistan, but with his eyes expressing sympathy for that unfortunate scenario.

We also get a sense of camaraderie amongst the troops of the Northern Alliance and the Green Berets more than amongst the Green Berets themselves. It says a lot about the heart of America’s troops when the first person a Green Beret searches for in the aftermath of a bomb explosion is his young Afghani counterpart. “12 Strong” shows the horrors of battle without glorifying them or giving excuse for their brutal necessity.

It’s hard not to think about the political ramifications of what we’re watching on-screen, especially since we’re still in the war-torn country. The movie never takes a stance, as it shouldn’t. 17 years later, it’s still hard to find that political middle ground that would appease both sides of a frustrating war. “12 Strong” does a passable job telling a story about unsung heroes in the early days of that war, but there’s the lingering feeling that the soldiers portrayed in the film deserved a much better retelling of their struggles.

Film Review: “Phantom Thread”

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Focus Features

It’s difficult to say negative things about a Paul Thomas Anderson film. They’re so meticulously groomed by the writer and director that you could say even a bad movie on his end is still gorgeously filmed, well-acted, and rich in metaphor. His films generally aren’t for casual audiences and are geared more towards cinephiles. He’s had a previous fascination with broken individuals looking to redeem themselves or allowing audiences to watch them further wallow in self-pity and self-harm. “Phantom Thread” finds itself once again in that territory, but instead of praising it alongside other cinephiles, I find myself siding with casual audiences.

The flawed individual in “Phantom Thread” is Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a 1950’s fashion designer for rich Londoners. Like any self-proclaimed master artist, he obsesses over his work, to the point where he becomes infuriated if the dress buyer doesn’t wear the outfit right. His army of elderly female assistants packs into his townhouse silently helping craft his latest masterpiece, but they know him better than anyone, remaining silent and doing as they’re told. Despite ruling with an unspoken iron fist, Woodcock is a bit of romantic. Just a bit.

He enchants a waitress, Alma (Krieps), but what makes him attracted to her isn’t necessarily her looks or her obedience, it’s her rebellious nature. He seems to enjoy her possessiveness, when she’s sometimes intentionally obnoxious and the fact that she’ not about to run out the door when he drops a mean retort or insults her. It’s a relationship that borders on abusive, for both sides, and sometimes makes the argument these two are so crazy, they’re simply meant to be together. It’s an unhealthy bond that should be a thrill to watch, but it doesn’t fester fast enough.

As the film progresses, it’s almost as if Anderson isn’t concerned about whether or not we’re still paying attention. He lingers on long uncomfortable silences, focuses on facial distaste by the characters, and sometimes lets inconsequential dialogue envelop the scene. Some of these moments are played for guilty laughs or showcasing Woodcock’s self-absorbed nature, but the relentless nature of it between genuinely interesting scenes are sure to push anyone’s patience. It’s almost as if “Phantom Thread,” unlike its main character, isn’t self-confident enough in its own craft.

Instead of establishing mood or creating drama between conflicts, “Phantom Thread” likes to show instead of tell. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that because that’s what a good filmmaker does, but sometimes what it shows us, tells us nothing. The final moments of this film seem to justify a lot of the build-up, but never the snail’s crawl pace of storytelling. Despite only being a hair longer than two hours, its flow felt like it was heading for a three-hour marathon. By the time it seems to have its stride, the credits begin to roll.

It’s unfortunate that one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen will end his career on a less than memorable film. Day-Lewis’ performance, as is any other film he’s ever been in, is the true highlight of the film. Much like his other performances, he stretches the skin of his character over his body, immersing himself in this narcissistic fashion designer. Outside of Day-Lewis’ performance, Anderson’s keen directorial vision, and a deliciously twisted ending, “Phantom Thread” is sometimes tedious and a bit too full of itself.

Film Review: “The Commuter”

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson
Directed By: Jaume Collett-Serra
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes
Lionsgate

Sometimes the best compliment you can give to absolute schlock is that it’s alright. “The Commuter” doesn’t try to be more than it is. It manages to be mildly thrilling, sometimes genuinely intriguing, but mainly remains over-the-top. Sometimes bad movies sacrifice entertainment for the sake of attempting to become logical, or God forbid, taking itself too seriously. But luckily “The Commuter” is as fun as it is forgettable.

The fun begins after Michael McCauley (Neeson) is fired as an insurance salesman. Not looking forward to delivering the news to his wife, he sits quietly on the train ride home, attempting to push his troubles out of his mind. In comes a mysterious woman, calling herself Joanna (Farmiga), offering the recently fired and down on his luck Irish immigrant a chance at $100,000. $25,000 is offered up front if he accepts her strange quest and the rest comes if he completes it. His mission is to find a passenger named Prynne and plant a tracking device in their luggage.

“The Commuter” does a decent job establishing that Michael is desperate for money, and not just with his firing. He has a son at home who’s about to head to college and back in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, he and his wife nearly lost all their assets; so $100,000 dollars seems very tempting. Of course as Michael unravels the mystery around him, he finds that his task isn’t easy as it originally appears and there’s more at stake.

Consistently hinting at powerful men, evil that’s pulling the rods behind the curtains and other allegorical bad men, “The Commuter” never really fulfills on what should be a promising solution to the puzzle. Maybe the socio-political commentary was there, but scratched out in a noble attempt to make “The Commuter” sillier than it was originally attended. There are plenty of solid laughs intentionally written in, but an equal amount of unintentional chuckles at the absurdity of it all.

However, when “The Commuter” buckles down for drama, it wrings out a lot of tension from Michael going back and forth through train cars, as well as some surprising twists and turns. Neeson commands a lot of these scenes, conveying checked anger and frustration, as well as general bewilderment at the unfolding scenario. The movie does shoot itself in the foot when several other actors, like Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill, distract from the plot more than provide to it.

Without Neeson or director Jaume Collett-Serra, “The Commuter” would have certainly been a stumbling mess. The moments of mystery, amplified by Neeson’s willingness to go along with it, are what keep this train moving. There are moments that feel cliché and contrived, but they never actually feel like they’re beneath the 65-year-old actor. It’s a testament to Neeson’s body of work that he can still make the silliest of premises believable and fun without going full on Nicolas Cage with his performance.

Film Review: “Downsizing”

Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Paramount Pictures

The most positive thing I can say about “Downsizing” is that you’ll never be able to guess where it’s headed. Even as the film hit the homestretch, I kept waiting for that “a-ha” moment or the singular statement that the movie looked to deliver. I never got that moment and in a way I left the theater in disappoint. But what lingered was uncertainty. Even after weeks of thinking on it, I’m still unsure about the message in “Downsizing” and whether or not it’s a peculiar sci-fi reflection on humanity or a tonal misfire.

Environmentalism is at the forefront in the opening minutes as we watch the Norwegians at work in a lab. They’re looking for a solution to the world’s overpopulation crisis. A solution comes in the unlikely form of shrinking. They’ve developed a way to shrink fully-grown humans down to five inches tall. This mean that the tiny humans will produce less waste, take up less space, and use less energy. Thinking long-range, they say in a few centuries they hope that all of humanity is down to a miniature size to help save Planet Earth.

Fast forwarding a few years after this scientific breakthrough, we meet Paul (Damon), who’s manages to persuade his wife, Audrey (Kirsten Wiig), to sell their assets and move to one of the biggest downsized communities in America. The pint-sized world, smack dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, presents an opportunity for the lower middle-class couple from Omaha to be millionaires in the miniature world, since you can stretch a dollar farther when your house is the size of Barbie’s Malibu dream home. Of course, not everything goes to plan.

Like I stated at the beginning, “Downsizing” is unpredictable because it manages to take every possible detour away from its original comedic premise of Paul attempting to adapt to his new life in a tiny world. It soon becomes a film about societal constructs, then organized crime amongst elites, then refugees, then class warfare, and then back to environmentalism. There’s the possibility I’m forgetting a few themes that Director and Writer Alexander Payne manages to wring out of his script. It’s a bold, bizarre endeavor that pays off sometimes.

But because of the constant gear shifting, there were moments I found myself bored and wondering if I really should get invested in any of the characters introduced, especially with how disposable most are outside of Paul. The sprinkling of humor sometimes keeps the movie grounded in its roots, but when it branches out it pokes you in the eye rather than enlightens. “Downsizing” may be a fun movie to discuss after watching, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an entertaining film.

Film Review: “Darkest Hour”

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James
Directed By: Joe Wright
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Focus Features

Earlier in 2017, Christopher Nolan gripped audiences with a land, sea and air telling of the evacuation of “Dunkirk.” While I personally wasn’t wowed with Nolan’s WWII film, I appreciate his craft at conveying fear and desperation in the eyes of thousands of Allied soldiers looking to escape the stranglehold of the German army. For those, like me, who were looking for a little bit more in narrative substance, “Darkest Hour,” might scratch that itch.

“Darkest Hour” begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister after multiple failures by Neville Chamberlain. Despite commanding respect from the House of Commons, his blunt speak and unorthodox approach quickly draws enemies behind the scenes. Lending their ears to the embattled Prime Minister is King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (James). While showing passion for defense his homeland, Churchill becomes increasingly difficult to work with as Hitler’s grasp on Western Europe grows bigger and tighter.

“Darkest Hour” tries it’s best to summarize a turbulent short span of time between Churchill’s ascent into one of the most difficult positions at the beginning to WWII to the formulation of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk. While narratively confusing sometimes, white lettering telling us the specific date keeps things in line as Churchill digs in heels and sticks to his guns against confrontations with his enemies and his allies.

Thanks to history books, and “Dunkirk,” we do know how the story will play out, but the drama and emotional turmoil behind the decision making makes for a fascinating retelling. The war room, that Churchill manages to glide through at his brittle age, is always buzzing and the potential for a “negotiated peace” with Germany sheds light on the diplomatic crisis at hand as the body count for the good guys mounts.

Underneath heavy makeup, Oldman is able to capture Churchill’s warmth, impatience, generosity and unpredictability. At times his tongue slips and we hear a little bit of the actor’s voice come through, but overall his mannerisms, matching Churchill’s voice, keep him in a grounded and highly believable role. Oldman’s performance is just as commanding as Churchill’s presence in the face of insurmountable odds.

History junkies may like this straight-forward and poignant approach to political discourse during war. But that’s not to say that movie goers will find themselves entranced by Oldman’s performance and this unique history lesson. Not only is the Oscar hype real about Oldman’s performance, but it’s a refreshing reminder about the power of genuine men and the power of their words during a world at crisis.

Film Review: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black
Directed By: Jake Kasdan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Sony Pictures Entertainment

In 2015 there was a collective gasp by 90’s kids after Sony confirmed long held rumors that the studio would be making a sequel to the much-beloved “Jumanji.” The 1995 film is just one of the many reasons Millennials fondly remember Robin Williams, so creating a sequel for it over two decades later for a new generation is no easy task, even if their the goal is to cash in on nostalgia.s

The new film picks up in 1996, where an unnamed boy is given the classic Jumanji board game by his father. He tosses it aside and proceeds to play a video game instead. Sensing its expiration date, the board game creates a video game cartridge for the unnamed boy to pop in. Tripping ahead 20 years later, we meet four teenagers, stuck in detention with a mundane task, and looking for an escape. That’s when the Jumanji video game rears its ugly head, with those iconic jungle drums, entrancing the high schoolers to plug it in.

Whereas the original brought the jungle to our realm, the new Jumanji transplants it’s victims into its realm. The teenagers take the form of video game avatars, played by the surprisingly charismatic and charming hodgepodge of Johnson, Gillan, Hart and Black. Their comedic strengths (except Gillan) are somewhat subdued so that there’s a lot more group improvisation and camaraderie so that no one overwhelms or steals a scene.

With five screenwriters, there are moments where “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” seems to understand video game clichés and utilizes them while at other times it seems to be written by a middle-aged man who believes video games are the death of creativity. In some ways you could say this movie suffers from the pitfalls of other video game movies where there’s not enough time to flesh out exposition and the action sequences suffer from rushed conflict resolution. But when the movie embraces video game tropes, it genuinely excels as popcorn entertainment and parody.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” benefits from a fun cast, willing to embody their absurd characters and the even more ridiculous plot. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t without its flaws. The third act is weak, sometimes neglecting established plot points and making little use of the actual jungle. I’m also curious as to how well it’ll be received and understood by those who grew up without the film or are unaware of the previous flick. For those looking for a healthy dose of nostalgia, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a passable film, but it doesn’t make the case for a potential franchise or another sequel.