Sarah Knight Adamson is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and a voting member for the Critics Choice Awards for Movies.

Sarah Knight Adamson and Jessica Aymond are both Members of the Chicago Film Critics Association

Film Rating Code:

★★★★ Outstanding Film- Run, don’t walk to the nearest movie theater.

★★★½ Excellent Film- Highly recommend seeing the film in a movie theater.

★★★ Very Good Film- Recommend seeing the film in a movie theater.

★★½ Good Film- Wait for the DVD, the film is still worth viewing.

★★ Wait for the DVD and proceed with caution.

★½ Wait for the DVD the film has major problems in most areas.

★ Can’t recommend the film.

Category :

Life (R) ★★½

Ryan Reynolds as Rory Adams in LifePhoto credit: Columbia Pictures

A decent but forgettable thriller that adds nothing new to the Doomed Space Crew genre.

Are you a space scientist?

I’ll assume you’re not and proceed to ask you this: “Not being a space scientist, do you nevertheless have an opinion as to whether it would be a good idea to mess with a newly discovered life form from Mars that you’ve brought aboard your ship that’s growing at an unbelievable pace and, as one of your very smart crew members observes, is ‘all muscle, all brain, all eye?’” What’s that? You would NOT think that poking, prodding and otherwise annoying such a creature would be a good idea? OK. Then we’re on the same page.

One of the biggest flaws in Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s (Safe House) Life, which follows what happens to the crew of the International Space Station after they discover the first evidence of extraterrestrial beings, is that lead biologist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) seems to immediately throw all common sense out of the window and get emotionally attached to the thing they’ve brought on board, despite really REALLY glaring warning signs that the alien is highly intelligent. At least other people, such as Ryan Reynold’s wisecracking space mechanic Rory, attempt to talk some sense into Hugh. Olga Dihovichnaya’s Russian cosmonaut Katerina is another who stays level-headed when others lose it.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Beauty and the Beast (PG) ★★★½

Emma Watson as Belle in Beauty and the BeastPhoto credit: Disney

This live-action remake may not be necessary, but it’s still a lot of fun.

I usually try to review remakes (or prequels or sequels, for that matter) on their own merit as standalone films, but it’s impossible for me to do so with Disney’s live-action remake of its 1991 animated take on Beauty and the Beast. I’ve had a 26-year love affair with that film: I’ve seen the stage version and the Disney Hollywood Studios version in Orlando, I have the DVD, I have Belle-themed dishes (that my 18-month-old daughter uses now, I swear) . . . and though I have no idea how many times I’ve actually watched the movie, it’s enough that I know every single word by heart.

You know the story, too, right? The Beast (Dan Stevens) was once a spoiled prince who was mean to an enchantress, and she got her revenge by turning him into a big hairy creature—and all of his staff into various objects. They’ll only be returned to their original forms if the Beast learns to love (and earn someone else’s love in return) before the final petal of an enchanted rose falls. Belle (Emma Watson) is from a nearby village and is eventually held prisoner in the Beast’s (Dan Stevens) castle after bargaining with him to let her father (Kevin Kline) go. The narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans) is hell-bent on marrying Belle, and thinks if he can kill the Beast and rescue Belle, she won’t be able to refuse his proposal.

I’m happy to say that my knee-jerk reaction to this remake was positive. I loved seeing the story brought to life, I loved singing along again, and I was relieved that director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Chicago) didn’t ruin my memories of the “original” (I know the 1991 version isn’t really the original, but you get what I mean). But upon further reflection, I’m not sure how much of that reaction was due to the fact that I could still recite almost all of the film in my head (much of the dialogue is the same), that I will always love its songs (except for the new ones, which added nothing), and that Condon knows his way around a lavish musical. Beauty and the Beast looks spectacular—it’s gorgeous from beginning to end, whether Belle is belting out her desire for adventure in “the great wide somewhere” from atop a mountain, or being charmed by the many creatures in the Beast’s opulent castle.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Kong: Skull Island (PG-13) ★★★

All is not what it seems on Skull Island. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Kong: Skull Island is a blast.

Almost exactly a year ago, my husband and I ran around the Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando. We passed by a large barricaded area surrounded by high fences and halfway covered by tarp; signs informed us that it was the future site of the Skull Island: Reign of Kong attraction. I remember thinking, “Hmm, they’re making a huuuuuge bet on a movie that doesn’t even seem like it’ll be a sure-fire hit.”

I don’t know if Kong: Skull Island will do well enough at the box office to justify its $185-million-plus production budget on top of a dedicated park attraction, but what I do know is that I went into the film pretty skeptical . . . and came out feeling like the Summer 2017 film season had just kicked off three months early. It’s directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who is THE COOLEST (especially because he’s come to the Chicago Critics Film Festival twice, first for his wonderful 2013 indie The Kings of Summer and then for his hilarious 2014 documentary Nick Offerman: American Ham), but hadn’t ever worked on something of this scale, so I hoped against hope he could pull it off. Now we can count him as part of the growing trend of celebrated indie directors making the successful leap to tentpoles, along with others like Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed (one of my all-time favorites) to Jurassic World) and Gareth Edwards (Monsters, to Godzilla, to Rogue One). Kong is the definition of a great “popcorn movie”: an A-list cast, a familiar franchise, crazy action sequences, a huge budget that supports an exotic location and top-notch effects (which include tons of explosions, of course), a rockin’ soundtrack, nothing too deep to ponder over story-wise, and a couple of excellent one-liners thrown in for good measure.

I’m tempted to stop my review right there and be like, “Just go see it, you know the plot doesn’t even matter.” But I will carry on for those of you who remain as skeptical as I was.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Logan (R) ★★★½

Hugh Jackman stars as Logan/Wolverine in Logan. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein.

Logan is the tenth X-Men movie . . . and might just be the best.

When I review a film from any franchise that has what might be described as “rabid fans”—be it Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or anything from the Marvel or DC universes—I feel the need to confess my level of fandom up front so that readers know where I’m coming from. In Logan’s case, I need to talk about where I stand on both X-Men and an entire genre: Westerns. The truth is that I’ve never been that into X-Men films. I’ve enjoyed most of them (I even liked Apocalypse more than most people, it seems), but I don’t get excited for them in the way I do about a new Star Wars installment, and I pretty much forget about them until the next one comes out. And Westerns have never been my thing. But the weird truth is that Logan could be described as director James Mangold’s attempt at an X-Men Western . . . and the even weirder thing is that it works fantastically.

The year is 2029, and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is some sort of Uber-like limousine driver. He’s bitter, grumpy, usually drunk, and also appears to be popping pain pills as his regenerative healing ability is failing and his leaking Adamantium skeleton is now slowly killing him. But his claws still work, and we get up-close and brutal proof of that in the opening scene, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. And that tone is dark, dark, dark. To the point where I was totally stunned at certain parts, thinking, “Wow, did they really need to do that?” So in case you’re wondering: no, don’t bring your kids.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Fist Fight (R) ★½

Charlie Day and Ice Cube square off in Fist FightPhoto Credit: Warner Bros.

Hey comedy directors: when your end-credits blooper reel is funnier than the rest of your movie, you’ve failed.

Fist Fight should have at least been decent; its trailers gave me hope. It stars the high-strung, squirrelly Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses) as Andy Campbell, a minds-his-own-business high school English teacher who witnesses a destructive in-class meltdown by his colleague Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube). After Campbell rats on Strickland in order to save his own job, Strickland challenges him to a fight after school on the last day before summer break.

Unfortunately, I knew I was in for a painful hour and a half within the first ten minutes of this movie. The film opens with seniors playing ridiculously extreme “pranks” that are not even remotely funny, like letting a meth-fueled horse run around the school or replacing a prized baseball bat with a laptop playing pornography. Almost all jokes fell flat—there was complete silence in the screening room for nearly the entire film. Tracy Morgan’s offbeat brand of humor was squandered as Campbell’s friend Coach Coward. He served hardly any purpose except to stand around looking clueless while his students did things like shaping a crude scene onto the grassy playing field with a lawnmower. Even worse was Jillian Bell (Office Christmas Party) as Holly, a guidance counselor who was trying to help Campbell prepare for his fight but kept getting sidetracked by her attraction to teenaged students or conversations about her drug problem. Yet another misfire came from wasting Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) in a bit role as a school security officer. Morgan, Bell and Nanjiani are naturally funny people! It actually takes effort to make them UNfunny. That pretty much sums up the overarching problem with Fist Fight.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

The Lego Batman Movie (PG) ★★★

Will Arnett at Batman in The Lego Batman MoviePhoto credit: Warner Bros Pictures

The Lego Batman Movie is fun (and funny), but not quite as awesome as its predecessor.

 

The Lego Movie surprised everyone in 2014. Nobody expected it to be good, much less one of the best films of the year—animated or not. I distinctly remember walking out of its screening and looking around at other critics like, “Did that just happen?” However, the writing-directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are only back as producers for The Lego Batman Movie, which may be the reason why this spinoff lacks the universal relatability and appeal of its predecessor. Or it could just be that a film focused on Batman—even if he’s in Lego form—is never going to be able to conjure up emotional memories from childhood (or parenthood) for everyone in the theater. We’ve all played with Legos, but not everyone knows Batman lore (especially younger children). Nor could The Lego Batman Movie ever be as peppy and uplifting as a tale featuring Chris Pratt’s optimistic Lego everyman Emmet; Batman is somber, dark and gritty by nature. And, let’s face it, there was no way any movie was ever going to have a catchier theme song than “Everything Is Awesome.”

So that’s the bad news.

The good news is that The Lego Batman Movie isn’t trying to be its predecessor, and it’s fun, funny and memorable in its own weird way. Will you (or your kids) be able to fully appreciate all of its jokes if you’re not familiar with older incarnations of Batman or his overall mythology? No. In fact, one of the highlights of the film is a series of quick flashes to previous versions of the caped crusader that prove just how ridiculous his small-and-big-screen journey has been. Another is its treatment of the villain Bane (Doug Benson), as infamously portrayed by Tom Hardy in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Split (PG-13) ★★★

James McAvoy in SplitPhoto Credit: Universal Pictures

James McAvoy helps save M. Night Shyamalan from himself in Split.

Like many others, I have been frustrated by M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Since I am a big fan of his first five movies—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs … and yes, even The Village and Lady in the Water—I was stunned by just how wooden and uninspired The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth were. I didn’t see 2015’s The Visit because generally I cannot handle horror, but I know that it was the first time in thirteen years where a film of his wasn’t critically panned.

For the same reasons I didn’t see The Visit (read: because I’m a huge scaredy-cat), I was hesitant about watching Split. But I thought to myself, “Would James McAvoy really be involved with something horrible?” In my book, he hasn’t made a major career misstep yet. I was curious to see if this would be his first, and that curiosity overpowered any other qualms I had.

The good news is that for anyone else out there who doesn’t want to see a horror movie, Split is not a horror movie. Is it a thriller? Yes. Is it very scary in parts? Yes. Do blood and guts make an appearance? Only for a few seconds. But if this wimp can handle it, you can handle it—trust me.

The plot revolves around Kevin (McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder—which was once called multiple personality disorder. Four of those personalities are most prominent during the film: Dennis, a not-so-nice guy with OCD; Patricia, a polite and proper British woman; Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy; and Barry, an effeminate clothing designer. Dennis abducts three teenage girls—Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—and is keeping them prisoner in a windowless and locked room. Some of his personalities know this is wrong and are trying to reach Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who also starred in The Happening), a psychiatrist who has gotten to know Barry and some of the other personalities well over the past decade. However, as days pass, the situation grows more desperate for all involved, and Dr. Fletcher begins to suspect that Kevin’s more volatile personalities are gaining the upper hand and planning something awful.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Patriots Day (R) ★★★½

Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman in Patriots Day Photo Credit: Karen Ballard, AP

Patriots Day is a powerful reminder of this country at its best.

As I left for the Patriots Day screening, my husband asked me to remind him what I was seeing. After I told him, he replied, “Seems like it’s too soon for that.” Other friends had made similar comments—either about the timing of the film, or whether it was right to make a movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing at all. I walked into the theater unsure of whether I wanted to see the tragedy unfold once again. This wasn’t going to be like Sully, where there was a happy ending for everyone. I lived in Boston for two years, and while I wasn’t there for that marathon, once you’ve called a city home—or if it’s always been your home—local tragedies obviously hit harder. I also remembered how one of the bombing victims was a child, which made me especially nauseous. I had read several articles, even recently, about survivors who had lost their limbs. But to be honest, I had forgotten much of the rest of the story, even though—like the rest of the United States—I had been glued to my screen during the four-day hunt for the bombers.

The memories started flowing back as director Peter Berg introduced his main character, Sergeant Saunders (Mark Wahlberg, representing a composite of several real policemen), a hotheaded officer who’s recovering from a knee injury and griping about being stationed at the race’s finish line. In the hours leading up to the marathon, we see what several other people are doing in addition to Saunders. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), police sergeant of nearby Watertown, picks up a muffin for his wife. (Anyone from Boston knows there had to be a Dunkin’ Donuts shout-out in this movie, and there it was). A young couple exchanges work stories from the day before. A teenager from China who’s at school in Boston video chats with his parents and flirts with a restaurant worker. A young MIT campus patrol officer scores a concert date with a student. A family leaves home with their toddler to go cheer on the runners. And brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) watch TV, play with Tamerlan’s infant daughter … and then begin to pack up homemade bombs to transport in backpacks to the city. The older Tamerlan is clearly a psychopath. Dzhokhar comes off like a shallow, bratty follower. Both actors had tall orders to fill in representing these evil terrorists, and their performances are as commendable as they are chilling.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Live By Night (R) ★½

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live by Night Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Ben Affleck’s really weird gangster film is a dud.

“What. Is. Happening?!?”

While watching Live by Night, I turned to the person next to me and asked this question several times. She was equally perplexed. It’s not that the film is hard to follow, it’s just that writer-director-star Ben Affleck took the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to telling the two-hour-plus story of fictional mobster Joe Coughlin, and it didn’t work. Which is quite a monumental failure considering the cast includes Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Brendan Gleeson, among other top-notch talent; the screenplay was based on an award-winning novel by bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, Mystic River); and the action spans several tumultuous years in U.S. history.

When we first meet WWI vet Coughlin (Affleck) in Prohibition-era Boston, he’s a not a full-blown gangster just yet, but he is the mastermind behind several high-profile robberies and has fallen for an Irish mob boss’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller). The two lovebirds decide to escape Boston so that they can be together. However, at the end of one of many unmemorable shoot-‘em-up sequences, it appears that Emma didn’t make it. So Coughlin heads south to Florida with a new plan that involves building an empire that will eventually help him to take down the mobster he blames for Emma’s death.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Erika’s Favorite Movies of 2016

Arrival tops my list. Photo credit: Jan Thijs/ Paramount Pictures

 

I make my annual Top 10 list based on my favorite movies—which are not always the films that I think are the “best” (read: award-worthy). I consider which movies I know I’ll return to in the future (or that I’ve already watched more than once), as well as which films had the greatest impact on me emotionally—the ones that I’m still thinking about despite weeks or months passing since I first saw them.

 

So with that in mind, here’s my list!

 

10. Denial – This is a true story that continues to haunt me, especially as fake news and the alt-right movement have wielded a terrifying amount of influence this past year. Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and historian who calls out British Holocaust-denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) and then is accused of libel and sued by him in the UK courts. Because of how the British legal system works, the burden is on Lipstadt to prove that she did not libel Irving because the Holocaust did indeed happen. I sat through this film stunned by Irving and his followers’ ignorance and hate, and distraught by how easily some people will believe lies just because they coincide with their worldview. I saw this film in September and left the theater with a sense of foreboding. It hasn’t gone away.

 

9. Nocturnal Animals – I still can’t believe how much I liked this film. It’s sooooo dark, and that’s usually not my thing. Amy Adams plays Susan, a wealthy art-gallery owner whose ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript for his upcoming novel. Let’s just say that he’s working out some anger issues and resentment through his story, which we see played out on the screen as Susan reads page after page with increasing alarm and dread. Michael Shannon is hilarious and unforgettable as a detective in Edward’s story—a light spot in an otherwise disturbing tale. Perhaps I can’t shake this one because as a writer myself, I believe in the power of words. Or perhaps it’s because director Tom Ford makes everything look gorgeous. Or perhaps I just like seeing awful people taken down a notch. The final scene is subtle and quiet, but it sums up everything I loved about this film.

 

8. Zootopia – In addition to its theme song—Shakira’s “Try Everything”—I adored the positive message of this Disney movie about a bunny who’s determined to break down stereotypes and become the first rabbit police officer. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references (The Godfather! Breaking Bad!) and clever at every turn. Bravo!

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Posted in Movies 2016, Movies 2017

Arrival (PG-13) ★★★½

Amy Adams in Arrival Photo credit: Jan Thijs/ Paramount Pictures

When is an alien invasion movie not about an alien invasion?

Some of my favorite films (Looper, About Time, Safety Not Guaranteed, Back to the Future, Predestination) and novels (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Life After Life) have a clear theme in common: time. The passage of time, the manipulation of time, hopping around in time—I eat it all up. As a big X-Files fan I also tend to enjoy anything related to aliens. So you could say Arrival falls squarely into my sweet spot: it’s a brainy alien invasion film that deals with the effects of time on the grieving process, as well as humankind’s tendency to work against time.

Aliens show up in gigantic metallic-looking half-egg thingies at twelve locations around the world. No one can figure out why they’ve chosen the spots they’re hovering over. No one can figure out why they’re here. Everyone, of course, assumes the worst.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to join the team at the U.S. location in Montana to see if she can communicate with the spaceship’s inhabitants because she’s a renowned linguist. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is a physicist on the team who’s doing whatever it is physicists would do during an alien invasion. The three of them, along with a few other military types, go up into the half-egg at designated times to face the beings they call heptapods (that’s a hint about what they look like) and try to get the answer to one question: “What do you want?”

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

The Accountant (R) ★★★

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck in The Accountant Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

This movie is nuts.

The trailers for The Accountant would lead you to believe that it is a tense thriller in which Ben Affleck plays a high-functioning autistic man (Christian Wolff) who is both the go-to financial whiz for Really Bad Guys . . . and an international assassin. You would assume that Anna Kendrick (as Dana Cummings) was his innocent co-worker of sorts, and that J.K. Simmons (as Ray King) was a government agent tasked with figuring out who and where Wolff is and bringing him to justice. And all of that is pretty much the case. What you would not expect is that this movie would go so completely OFF THE RAILS in its third act that you’d be laughing out loud at its obvious and not-so-obvious twists and wink-wink-we-all-know-this-is-cray-cray banter between characters. It’s one of those movies that is SO bonkers that I walked out of the theater a bit dazed by everything that had transpired in its final thirty minutes.

The Girl on the Train is another currently-in-theaters film that unravels near its conclusion, ruining what could’ve otherwise been a decent mystery-thriller. Whereas The Accountant—which becomes even more ludicrous than Girl is as it nears its climactic finale—somehow still works. I think the difference is that The Accountant’s director and cast are in on the absurdity of it all and completely own it. They’re not taking anything too seriously. And for that reason, this is a film that you will either love or hate.

I surprised myself by being on the “loved it” side, because usually I have no tolerance for silliness within thrillers, and typically my base requirement is that they have to make SOME sort of sense. So I have to hand it to director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) for looking at Bill Dubuque’s script—filled with characters like The Clichéd Gruff Guy About to Retire Who Just Needs to Solve This One Last Case, along with a martial-arts-trained autistic boy who grows up to be a strip-mall-working, fine-art-collecting Jason Bourne-meets-Will Hunting—and still be like, “Yep, I can do something with this.” Connor cuts away to a flashback whenever we need to understand something else about why Wolff is the way he is, and even though most of those flashbacks are pretty unbelievable in their own right, they keep things moving and—perhaps more importantly—keep you from thinking too much about the rest of the messy plot.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Sully (PG-13) ★★★½

Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks in Sully. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Sully is the movie America needs right now.

Time is on Sully’s side.

But it wasn’t on Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s (Tom Hanks) side on January 15, 2009, when a flock of Canadian geese took out both engines on the Airbus A320 he was piloting out of LaGuardia. Three minutes into US Airways Flight 1549, Sully and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) had to make life-or-death decisions under extreme duress as their plane lost power.

Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, should not be seen by anyone who is already afraid to fly. It’s an understatement to say that its multiple sequences depicting what happened on that doomed flight were harrowing. They were downright terrifying. I was straight-up bawling each time Eastwood revisited the 208 seconds in which Sully decided his best bet was to guide the plane down to the water below. Bawling. I could not contain myself. Which is especially crazy because we all know this story has a happy ending! Maybe it’s because I spent three years of my life flying in and out of LaGuardia every few weeks for work. Maybe it’s because I could understand what the mother holding her baby must have felt like when she heard “Brace for impact” come over the speaker. Or the family members who were separated by several rows. Or the person traveling with an elderly wheelchair-bound relative. Maybe it’s because I remember being glued to the screen that fateful day, amazed to see 155 people emerge from a plane ON the Hudson River.

Or maybe it’s because the world—and the United States in particular—seems like an especially scary place right now, so the sight of dozens of people who didn’t know each other but were willing to help each other in an emergency is what I was really shedding tears over. Sully shows this country at its best, and we’re in dire need of such a reminder.

So I would recommend this film for those sequences alone. In the moments I wasn’t losing it, I was fascinated to learn exactly what happened in the plane, the cockpit, the radio control tower (which was also surprisingly moving), and elsewhere along the river as the flight began its descent.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

War Dogs (R) ★★½

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as real-life arms dealers in War Dogs. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

War Dogs doesn’t know what it wants to be.

When I heard Todd Phillips was directing War Dogs, I became uneasy, even though I’m a huge fan of Old School and the first Hangover film (his other movies . . . not so much). I assumed that if Phillips was behind the camera, the true story of two guys who duped their way into becoming successful arms dealers would be given his typical “bros behaving badly” comedy treatment. I don’t know about the rest of you, but these days I just don’t feel like laughing about anything having to do with guns, ammo, war and violence.

It turns out that War Dogs isn’t really about any of those things. Instead it focuses more on exactly how screwed up the U.S. military’s weapons-purchasing system was in the very recent past. So much so that Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill)—a fast-talking, drug-loving twentysomething—figured out a brilliant way to win certain types of government contracts for guns and ammo. In 2005, he returned to his hometown of Miami Beach, just as his best bud from junior high, David Packouz (Miles Teller), is hitting rock bottom. David’s barely making a living as a masseuse for creepy rich dudes, his girlfriend is pregnant, and then he loses all of his money on a lame get-rich-quick scheme he dreams up. David needs a savior, and Efraim needs a partner he can trust. After the two friends reunite, it’s not long before Efraim brings David in on his hunt for government scraps.

Their business, AEY, grows and grows, thanks to bold moves the guys make, such as personally delivering weapons to a U.S. base in Baghdad (which didn’t actually happen, but was still one of the best parts of the film). They get richer and richer. Of course they can’t stop there—they have to try their hand at bidding for high-ticket contracts. And of course they end up winning one: a $300 million order for 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo, among other things, for our troops in Afghanistan.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Pete’s Dragon (PG) ★★★½

Elliott the dragon and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete’s Dragon. Photo credit: Disney Enterprises

Yes, it’s true! Dragons and honest-to-goodness family-friendly films still exist.

I love dragons. I was “the mother of dragons” (Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen) for Halloween, received “Dragonology” books for past birthdays, love the dragon-centric Eragon novel series, have little dragon figurines decorating my workspace, and proudly wore my Bay of Dragons t-shirt and sported a “year of the dragon”-inspired purse to the screening of Pete’s Dragon. And of course I was a fan of the original 1977 film. How many of you actually have Helen Reddy’s “Candle on the Water” from the old soundtrack on your phone right now? I rest my case.

So, as I am with all remakes of movies I loved as a kid, I was trepidatious about Disney’s 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon. Its first few minutes made my heart sink—as we watch a station wagon carrying a five-year-old boy and his parents flip over and crash, leaving the parents dead and the scared little boy alone in the forest, soon to be chased by FREAKING WOLVES—and I was like, “Whhhhhyyyyyyyy??????!!!! Curse you, Disney!” in my head. Rest assured that the parents aren’t actually shown after the crash, but I knew the scene was disturbing enough that I wasn’t going to be able to let my 4.5-year-old son watch it at the theater. (Other kids might not be bothered by that sequence, but I know my little guy would.)

A silent, furry green dragon scares the snarling wolves away and rescues the boy, whose name is Pete (Oakes Fegley). Then the film fast-forwards, and we see that Pete has continued to live in the forest with Elliott (named after a character in Pete’s favorite book) for the last several years.

Aside from the fact that there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott in both, the 1977 and new versions of Pete’s Dragon have pretty much nothing else in common, storyline-wise. Truth be told, now that I’m an adult and think about all of the dark overtones in the original, the remake is quite mild by comparison.

This time around, Pete’s curiosity about forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and lumber mill crews led by Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) leads to both him and Elliott being discovered. Gavin represents “humans that suck” in that he immediately gets his gun and tries to shoot and capture Elliott in the pursuit of fame and fortune. Whereas Grace, who hasn’t actually seen Elliott but still doesn’t discount Pete’s claims thanks to her dragon-legend-believing dad (Robert Redford), just wants both the boy and his supposed mythical beast of a friend to be safe.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Equity (R) ★★½

Equity. Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

A compelling financial thriller, but still not the “women on Wall Street” film I was hoping for.

As possibly the only film critic in the world who has two business degrees, used to work in the financial services industry, has been through tech IPOs and also happens to be female, I approached Equity with great interest. There have been several memorable financial thrillers over the years, but I can’t recall any that were directed by a woman, written by women, produced and financed by women and revolved around female characters.

Equity kicks off by introducing us to Naomi Bishop (the always fantastic Anna Gunn), a seasoned investment banker who’s reeling from being blamed for screwing up the deal of the decade. Now she’s desperate to rebuild her once-sterling reputation by landing the IPO for the Next Big Thing, an online privacy firm called Cachet. Naomi often relies on a younger and equally ambitious banker, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also helped develop the story), who may or may not have her own All About Eve-ish agenda.

The problems pile up quickly: Cachet has disgruntled employees who might want to throw the company under the bus. Cachet’s CEO is an arrogant tool. Naomi’s boyfriend Michael (James Purefoy) is being pressured by his hedge fund buddies to get insider intel about the Cachet IPO. Naomi’s old college friend Samantha (Orange is the New Black’s Alysia Reiner) is now investigating sketchy Wall Streeters (like Michael!) on behalf of the U.S. government. The cast is excellent, the plot is easy to follow (but still intriguing to those who understand the industry), and I found nearly every single thing about the film to be completely realistic. The problem is that even if every single thing a film portrays is realistic, it still doesn’t mean that those things should all be in the same film together.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Suicide Squad (PG-13) ★★

Jai Courtney, Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Joel Kinnaman and Jay Hernandez star in Suicide Squad. Photo credit: Clay Enos/Warner Bros

Suicide Squad makes very little sense.

When I was at Comic-Con a few weeks ago, I couldn’t believe there were hundreds of people—many of whom were in full Joker or Harley Quinn costumes and makeup—standing in the sweltering San Diego sun for hours, waiting to get into the Suicide Squad virtual reality experience. “People are really that into Suicide Squad?” I asked my friends. (Never mind that we were across the street in a five-hour line for the Game of Thrones exhibit, because that’s totally different.)

And then like some sort of Forrest Gump, cluelessly trying to make my way around the massive Comic-Con Exhibit Hall a few days later, I wandered smack dab into Will Smith, Margot Robbie and the rest of the Suicide Squad cast as they arrived at the DC booth for autograph signings. I have to admit, that got me a little pumped. (See photos at the very end of this review.)

But I still went into the film with hardly any expectations, and I had only watched its trailer once, more than a year ago. I am aware there are DC vs. Marvel fandom wars going on right now and that the angriest of DC diehards want to shut down Rotten Tomatoes because of the film’s negative reviews. Quite frankly, I just don’t care about any of that. All I was hoping for is pretty much what I’m always hoping for when the lights go down in the theater: to totally forget about reality for a few hours.

Suicide Squad failed in this mission, because about every 20 minutes I had to lean over and ask a fellow critic if I’d missed something. (Sorry, Dave!) I’d been mostly digging the opening act, which shows how and why Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) brings together a group of “bad guys”/“metahumans”—Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne)—to act on the U.S. government’s behalf, should there ever be another Superman-like figure who isn’t so friendly. I’m a sucker for flashbacks and origin stories, so to learn the background of each member in the self-named Suicide Squad was fun. The soundtrack was a fairly nonstop playlist of catchy songs, and there were some inventive pops of animation here and there. I was enjoying myself. Who cares if the flashbacks that were supposed to explain things like the ride-or-die romance between Quinn and the Joker (Jared Leto) seemed full of holes? Surely this stuff would become clearer later in the movie. I just had to be patient.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Life Animated (Documentary) ★★★½

Image caption: Owen Suskind in Life, Animated. Photo credit: The Orchard/A&E IndieFilms

An inspiring, hopeful documentary about one family’s experience with autism.

I knew what Life, Animated was about before I saw the film, and so I was not surprised to find my eyes welling up only five minutes in. This documentary is based on journalist Ron Suskind’s memoir about his autistic son Owen, and it details how Ron’s family learned to communicate with the once-silent Owen through Disney movies. Now Owen is 23 and preparing to move into an apartment of his own in an assisted-living complex. To tell the story of how Owen made it to this point, director Roger Ross Williams switches between present-day interviews and scenes of the family getting ready for their big transition, old family footage of when Owen and his brother Walt were young boys, and fantastic animated sequences (by visual effects company Mac Guff) that bring Owen’s thoughts and stories to life.

As a parent, my heart broke for Ron and Cornelia Suskind when they recounted Owen’s early years. At age three, he completely stopped talking—Ron described it as if Owen had been “kidnapped.” For a full year, he did not say anything intelligible. One day when he was four and continually wanted to replay part of The Little Mermaid, Cornelia realized that a jumbled phrase Owen always repeated was actually a line of dialogue from the film.

They rushed to Owen’s doctors with news of the breakthrough, only to have their hopes crushed again. They were told that this sort of mimicking (termed “echolalia”) was common with autistic children. Read more…

Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Genius (PG-13) ★★★

Colin Firth and Jude Law hard at work in ‘Genius.’ Image credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions

If anyone can make the editing process interesting, it’s Colin Firth and Jude Law.

I love it when a film can expose me to something—a historical figure, a place, an idea, an event—that I would have had no idea about otherwise. That’s exactly what Genius did. It focuses on the relationship between Max Perkins (Colin Firth)—“editor to the literary stars,” if you will—and his full-of-life client, the somewhat eccentric author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Although I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, I feel it’s important to note that if, like me, you’ve never read Wolfe’s novels, you won’t be at a disadvantage; the point of the film is how much the two men needed each other in very different ways. Wolfe was verbose, poetic, wild and rambling… whereas Perkins, was… well… let’s just say that Firth was the perfect actor to portray such a stuffy, serious and kinda boring devotee to the art of editing.

Perkins reins Wolfe’s writing in and helps him publish two highly lauded literary masterpieces. It’s impressive that first-time director Michael Grandage and his leading men somehow manage to make the not-at-all-exciting process of editing actually compelling in a few key sequences, including one that shows how Perkins pushed Wolfe to cut down pages of descriptive text into just three standout sentences. In return, Wolfe shows Perkins how to loosen up and enjoy life more. While the film is set in the dreary 1930s and is dominated by damp gray and brown tones, Law plays Wolfe as the desperate burst of color Perkins (and the world?) needs in order to reexamine both his family life and his career. In the opening scene of the film, first-time director Grandage depicts this quite literally, with a bustling Manhattan in black and white—until Wolfe appears. Read more…

Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Now You See Me 2 (PG-13) ★½

Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson have lost their magic. Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment, Jay Maidment

It’s extra sad when a sequel about magicians delivers absolutely nothing magical.

The 2013 “heist… with magicians!” film Now You See Me had plots issues, sure, but overall I found it to be a whole lotta fun. Plus, I liked its characters. And when I’m having a whole lotta fun at a movie and become vested in its characters, I can usually forgive its other problems.

Unfortunately, Now You See Me 2 is no fun at all, and that means that all of its (many) problems stare you straight in the face—for more than TWO HOURS. It’s the first film in a long time that made me so angry to have completely wasted 129 minutes of my life that I left the theater seething. Perhaps the fact that I enjoyed the first film made the failure of its sequel that much worse.

This time around, we learn that the Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg’s Atlas, Woody Harrelson’s Merritt, Dave Franco’s Jack, plus Lizzy Caplan as the bubbly Lula after Isla Fisher dropped out) have been in hiding for a few years, but finally have a shot at starting over on the other side of the world in Macau if they can steal “the stick”—an all-powerful computer chip… or something like that—and deliver it to the dastardly tech guru Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) so that he could do evil things with it. You know, the usual: stealing everyone’s information, invading everyone’s privacy, blah blah blah. Read more…

Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

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