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 :

Cars 3 (G) ★★★

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) faces new challenges in Cars 3 Image credit: Disney•Pixar

The Cars franchise is back on track. KA-CHOW! 

I know exactly when I achieved the pinnacle of parenting. Yes, my son was only three at the time, but I’m confident that I will never top what I did for him that day: I took him to meet Lightning McQueen.

The proof is in this picture taken at Cars Land in Disney’s California Adventure in 2015—if you zoom in, you will see the definition of pure joy on my son’s face. Lightning is REAL!

Image credit: Erika Olson

I had seen Cars before I had kids and loved it, so it wasn’t solely my son’s obsession with the film that endeared me to the inhabitants of Radiator Springs. But now that I have watched the movie countless times and can recite every word by heart, it has earned a truly special place in my heart. It’s yet another Pixar creation that holds up well over multiple viewings and the passage of time.

But we shall not speak of Cars 2 . . . no, we shall not. Except to say that whoever thought it was appropriate to have these beloved characters shooting at each other and talking about killing each other (on top of Mater’s disastrous cultural insensitivity) should never work on a children’s animated film again.

Needless to say I was nervous about Cars 3. Thankfully there was no reason to be. This installment strongly harkens back to the original, even going so far as having the climactic finale revolve around an important lesson Lightning (Owen Wilson) learned from his mentor Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman) about helping others. (Doc has a fairly significant presence in the film thanks to unused dialogue and outtakes from the original.)

The set-up this time is that Lightning McQueen finds himself blindsided by a rookie racecar—Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer)—and other high-tech “next generation” cars like him. These sleek racing machines train in state-of-the-art facilities and reach speeds over 200 mph, and Lightning just can’t compete.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (PG-13) ★★

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales Image credit: Walt Disney

Only for diehard franchise fans.

A month ago, Disneyland guests on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride were treated to a cool surprise when Johnny Depp popped up on the attraction in place of the animatronic Captain Jack Sparrow. If you didn’t see clips of it already, I recommend looking them up online—it was pretty hilarious.

Unfortunately, that little stunt was more entertaining than the majority of the film Depp was at the park to promote: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (or POTC5 as I will call it from here on out).

So, yeah… any time we’re talking about the FIFTH film in a franchise, I feel like most people’s expectations are going to be pretty low, and mine certainly were. The bad news is that POTC5 failed to recapture the original film’s spark, and a lot of its story felt recycled. And clearly nothing is going to be able to recreate the weird mix of confusion and delight most felt when seeing Depp as Sparrow for the first time in 2003. But I will say that POTC5 is at least much better than the last two installments in the franchise.

It opens with a great flashback of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann’s (Keira Knightley) young son Henry sneaking out in the middle of the night, reconnecting with his cursed father under the sea and promising him that he’ll find the trident of Poseidon in order to break the spell. At this point I thought that perhaps the totally new writing and directing team (Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg as co-directors and Jeff Nathanson in charge of the screenplay) was going to breathe new life into the franchise.

Then we move ahead nine years and see a grown Henry (Brenton Thwaites) trying to warn his shipmates against sailing into the dangerous Devil’s Triangle—but they of course don’t listen and incur the wrath of a zombie crew of pirates and their leader, Salazar (Javier Bardem). Henry learns that Salazar wants revenge on Sparrow for leading his ship into the Triangle decades ago, and Henry promises to deliver that warning to the perpetually drunk Captain. Eventually, Sparrow’s old nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) shows up and says he’ll help Salazar track down Captain Jack.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Alien: Covenant (R) ★★½

Katherine Waterston stars in Alien: Covenant.Image credit: 20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant < Prometheus. Yeah, I said it.

I was thoroughly frustrated by Alien: Covenant and was actually mad when I left the theater. Aside from Michael Fassbender in dual roles and the cast itself, there was absolutely nothing new about this sixth installment (and second prequel) of the nearly forty-year-old Alien franchise. I am usually one of those people who never sees a film’s twists coming. With Alien: Covenant, I not only predicted every single thing that was going to happen, but I was also bored out of my mind.

A cool prologue involving trillionaire CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and the synthetic from Prometheus, David (Fassbender), gave me hope at the very beginning that Ridley Scott was going to pull off an Alien trifecta (Covenant is the third film he’s directed after the original two). But it was not to be.

We flash forward to ten years after the events of Prometheus and are aboard the Covenant, whose crewmembers are all deep-dozing in pods as they travel on a years-long mission to colonize a distant planet. But their on-board upgraded synthetic, Walter (also Fassbender), gives them a harsh wake-up call after the ship’s systems start going haywire. The captain is killed during this emergency, and the moment we find out who the captain was, I was immediately taken out of the film. All I’ll say is that it’s a well-known, goofy actor whose presence in flashbacks was as a huge distraction and served no purpose other than making the new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) have a weak reason to constantly seem unsure of himself.

Now that the entire crew is awake, they decide to investigate a human transmission coming from a nearby planet and see if that planet is a better bet for colonization than the one they were supposed to reach in seven more years. Spoiler alert: IT’S NOT.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (PG-13) ★★½

Charlie Hunnam stars in King Arthur: The Legend of the SwordImage credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

To take on the legend of Excalibur, Guy Ritchie sticks with his usual love-it-or-hate-it style.

The Knights of the Round Table. The Sword in the Stone. The Lady of the Lake. Merlin. Ah, I just love the King Arthur legend. But I usually do not love director Guy Ritchie’s signature filmmaking style—one infamous for quick cuts, stylized slo-mo scenes, and brutal, fast action sequences heavy on hand-to-hand combat.

So there’s good news and bad news about this latest spin on the Excalibur tale. For some, it will be very bad news that Ritchie (who co-wrote King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword with Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram) stays in his lane with this film; if you didn’t enjoy the look and pace and overall vibe of other Ritchie movies, such as Snatch or Sherlock Holmes, then you might feel that his often jarring and visually exhausting style could overpower the strong performances from a great cast.

The good news is that if—like me—you love everything having to do with Arthurian mythology, you’ll likely be able to tolerate Ritchie’s dramatic flair and will appreciate a fresh look at the epic story.

In fact, there are parts where the film actually benefits from the crackling pace—the first being near the beginning, where we’re treated to a montage that shows Arthur growing up on the streets of Londinium, after having been pushed down the river in a boat as a toddler by his soon-to-be-murdered father Uther (Eric Bana). We later see how the grown Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) accumulated his group of friends—including Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Goosefat Bill (Game of Thrones fan favorite Aidan Gillen)—who will eventually back him in his fight against his power-hungry uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law, at his slimiest). Read more…

Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (PG-13) ★★★

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures

More of the same, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s 44 degrees in Chicago as I write this, but make no mistake—summer is here. I know this because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters today and meets all of the “summer blockbuster” criteria: it has a huge budget, is part of a mega-franchise that has already announced another chapter, boasts an A-list cast and lots of CGI and action sequences, and has been dominating every marketing channel for quite some time. (I’m pretty sure Chris Pratt has cloned himself because he is everywhere.)

So the biggest question on everyone’s minds is not whether the film will earn a gajillion dollars, but rather whether it lives up to its joyful (but in a sarcastic way) 2014 predecessor, whose success was by no means a sure thing since it hinged upon the masses caring about comic book characters who don’t have ‘-man’ at the end of their names.

The answer is that Vol. 2 almost lives up to the hype, and the biggest fans of the franchise will likely love it just as much as the first film. Since the whole gang is back and once again led by Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt), you can expect more of the original’s near-constant bickering and one-liners, literally colorful characters and can-you-top-this action. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is still bright green, is still the smartest one of the group and is still in denial of the “unspoken thing” she has with Quill. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still treating us to the inventive ways he can come up with to dispatch bad guys—and still has a chip on his shoulder. Drax (Dave Bautista) still has no filter and provides even more of the laughs this time around. And Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is still as ridiculously cute as when we last saw him. His childlike naiveté is the source of some of the funniest scenes, from the opening battle sequence, where Groot grooves obliviously to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, to Rocket’s random search for tape near the end of the film (which is Groot-related, but I won’t spoil it), to the best of the five (yes, really) post-credit scenes.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

Colossal (R) ★★★½

Anne Hathaway stars in ColossalImage credit: NEON

You’ve probably never seen a movie quite like this.

I adored Colossal. It’s my favorite film of 2017 so far. I want to campaign for it at every theater across the country. I want to shake people standing in line to buy tickets for [INSERT LATEST BIG-BUDGET SEQUEL HERE] and shout, “No! Don’t give those guys your hard-earned money! Go see this unbelievable, uncategorizable indie instead—you can thank me later!”

Coming to us from new studio NEON and Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo is the story of Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an aimless alcoholic mess whose boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) finally gets fed up with her hard-partying ways and lack of ambition and kicks her out of his Manhattan apartment. So Gloria heads home and reconnects with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who gives her a job at his bar.

As Gloria tries to get her life together and hold down her new waitressing gig, an otherworldly terror begins to wreak havoc halfway around the world in Seoul. A gigantic monster is trampling citizens and knocking over skyscrapers, and with each new attack, Gloria starts realizing she may somehow be connected to the beast’s actions.

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Posted in Movies 2017, Reviews

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

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