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American Assassin (review)

American Assassin (review)

This is the latest CIA scramble to save the world from nuclear disaster. Dylan O’Brien plays a new recruit who continually goes rogue, nothing new here. Even the strict leadership of his hardened trainer (Michael Keaton) doesn’t stop his fearless determination to destroy terrorists. While the story isn’t original and there are moments that strain credibility, the film is well paced, the action scenes are full of hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat and the final showdown packs a wallop. Mindless, but entertaining.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

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Beach Rats (review)

Beach Rats (review)

An aimless young man (Harris Dickinson) hangs with his buds at a Brooklyn beach, but spends his nites cruising online for older men. He even scores a girlfriend to help him deny his inevitable attraction. This film feels foreign in style: scenes play out in real time with minimal activity or dialogue, there’s no musical accompaniment and lots of lingering close-up shots of Dickinson’s inner conflict. Dickinson has a model’s beauty and build, but it doesn’t distract from his genuinely compelling performance. Still, the lackadaisical pace and lack of narrative thrust hinder the full appreciation of this intimate, moody character study.

 

3 Stars (3 / 5)

 

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It (review)

It (review)

This is the first half of the Stephen King novel: A group of prepubescent nerds takes on the evil clown that’s killing kids in their small town. The overall mood of this story is creepy. Most of the rest of the cast is either cruel, mean or sinister, so the sense of menace pervades the film. The creature effects are inventive and effective, but it’s never really scary. The kids provide some fun with their innocence and smartass dialogue. Comparisons to the youthful camaraderie in “Stand By Me” (based on a King novella) are obvious, but this is a much darker world. Their performances are compelling and director Andres Muschietti has crafted a convincingly weird adventure. Don’t expect any shocks and just enjoy the threatening mood.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Home Again (review)

Home Again (review)

I’m sure she hates seeing this, but the apple doesn’t fall far: Writer/director Hailey Meyers-Shyer is the daughter of Nancy Meyers (The Intern, What Women Want, It’s Complicated) and their rom-com styles are similar. As usual, it’s female centric with Reese Witherspoon turning on the charm, as a newly-separated mother of 2, who ends up with 3 twenty-something men living in her guest house (and 1 ending up in her bed). The inevitable complications arise when the husband (Michael Sheen) crashes this unique family arrangement. While it’s infused with the expected sincere emotions and lighthearted interactions, the actual comedy is sparse. It’s more about the characters and the entire cast creates likeable individuals. I’m sure Meyers-Shyer made her mamma proud, but this amiable movie is not taking the genre in any new directions.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Patti Cake$ (review)

Patti Cake$ (review)

Danielle Macdonald ably plays an aspiring, gifted rapper who suffers setbacks from her struggling home life (including an unsupportive mother), her job uncertainties and her insecurity about her weight. Her quest for fame follows traditional storylines, but the affecting performances make it involving. The directorial debut by Geremy Jasper is sometimes flashy, but he manages to capture the frustration and energy of his characters’ world (the music’s not bad either). While some might compare it to “8 Mile,” this film is less gritty and more spunky in style and approach. It’s enjoyable and even a bit sweet with a sincere, spunky edge.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Tulip Fever (review)

Tulip Fever (review)

17th century Amsterdam saw the explosion of the tulip bulb market, which provides the backdrop for this film’s amorous intrigue. Alicia Vikander plays a woman who’s sold to a rich merchant (Christoph Waltz), but falls for the young artist hired to paint her portrait (Dane DeHaan). The plots lines swirl around each to generate a vortex of dramatic complications that would make Shakespeare proud. As expected, the era allows for some lovely visuals, but also exposes the grittier side of the period. Even through the complex storytelling, the actors create compelling characters and elevate the narrative to a more acceptable level.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Birth of the Dragon (review)

Birth of the Dragon (review)

This is not another Bruce Lee biopic, but a narrative that focuses on one seminal event. When he was just starting to get noticed, Lee was frowned upon by traditional martial arts artists because he taught non-Chinese. As a result, a great kung fu master traveled from China to California to challenge him. The fight scenes are skillfully choreographed, but there’s nothing skillful about the plodding plot between them. The dialogue is written on a level below the prosaic style of a Lifetime movie. Adding a major Caucasian character to the mix is a ridiculous attempt at widening the film’s audience. If you’re just interested in hand-to-hand (and legs) combat, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re looking for insight into Lee, this embarrassingly-written movie won’t provide much.

 

1.5 Stars (1.5 / 5)

 

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard (review)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (review)

Ryan Reynolds plays a bodyguard assigned to protect hitman Samuel L. Jackson, who’s the chief witness against in an international trial. Their trip to the Hague alternates between some pretty cool car chases (especially the one thru Amsterdam’s canals), a few highly active but not special fights and too much talk. The interplay takes advantage of each actor’s style: self-depreciating, offhand wry comments from Reynolds and profanity-laden, raucous attitude from Jackson. To make this work, the chemistry needs to be there…it’s OK.  Without their special delivery, the terse chatter would fall flat. Meanwhile, the bodyguard’s relationship with his ex is trite and dull. Still, there’s sufficient energy and a fun attitude that makes it passable, but quickly-forgotten summer action fluff.

 

3 Stars (3 / 5)

 

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Logan Lucky (review)

Logan Lucky (review)

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play brothers who decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. They bring on a safe cracker (Daniel Craig) and his brothers to round out the crew. Anyone who’s seen director Steven Soderbergh’s “Oceans” movies will appreciate the elaborate machinations of the heist, only this time the crooks aren’t slick. Everybody’s having fun with their thick Southern accents and even thicker skulls (Driver turns in an especially subtle but winningly deadpan performance). This translates into enjoyment for the audience too. While the energy lags during parts of the heist, the rest of the film is entertaining, especially the dimwit characters and the actors who are having such a good time playing them.

 

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

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Wind River (review)

Wind River (review)

Jeremy Renner plays a stoic, steely-eyed Fish & Wildlife agent who discovers a corpse frozen in the snowy wilds of the titular Indian Reservation. The FBI agent that’s sent from Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen, sufficiently wimpy, then sturdy) is literally out of her element. She recruits him to help track the murderer. The first hour sets up the characters with slow scenes of dialogue, then a riveting encounter happens to intensify the tension. The bleak Wyoming environment (actually shot in Utah) creates a forceful presence that adds layer of stark stress. It was refreshing to see such a strong supporting cast of Native American actors. While the outcome is compelling, the lead up takes patience.

 

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

 

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Annabelle: Creation (review)

Annabelle: Creation (review)

This is a prequel to the 2 earlier films and the origin story of the creepy killer doll. A group of orphan girls is transferred to the home of the doll maker and his wife, where they uncover the creature’s demonic presence. The plot is sometimes confusing and the evil seems impervious to logic. Still, there’s a steady sense of tension and a few genuine jump scares. The overbearing sound effects do a lot of the heavy lifting. This sort of ghost story is a popular genre, but it’s cheap thrills don’t appeal to me. That didn’t seem to matter to most of the audience, who seemed caught up in the fun.

 

3 Stars (3 / 5)

 

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The Glass Castle (review)

The Glass Castle (review)

You’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting another free spirit family like CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. This film is about an oddball nomadic family that’s lauded over by an abusive, alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson). Unfortunately, since his character (and performance) aren’t especially sympathetic, it’s hard to feel much empathy. An excellent Brie Larson plays one of the children who has become a successful writer in NYC. The narrative moves between her adult character and the formative events from her difficult youth. Her continued strife with the patriarch keeps dragging this movie into repetitive and unpleasant territory. While everyone is earnest, the drama moves too slowly, revels in dysfunction and never creates much emotional impact. (Criterion Cinemas only)

 

2 Stars (2 / 5)

 

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