Going in Style (2017)

 

Released: April 7, 2017. Directed by: Zach Braff. Starring: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin. Runtime: 1h 36 min. 

Joe (Michael Caine), Willy (Morgan Freeman) and Albert (Alan Arkin) are retired, lifelong friends who are losing their pension after the company they worked for is bought out. To make matters worse, Joe’s in danger of losing his home because of a mortgage payment plan he was sold.

He discusses that with a sleazy banker (John Pais) in the film’s first scene, and it’s saved from being boring thanks to a funny bank robbery.

If Joe loses his home, he, his daughter Rachel (Maria Dizzia) and granddaughter Brooklyn (Joey King) will be homeless within 30 days. He rallies Willy and Albert to rob a bank so he can save his home and stick it to the banks. They figure they’ll take what would have been theirs in pension payment, and at the tail end of their lives – they don’t have much to lose and they’re going out in style.

Surprisingly, Going in Style doesn’t actually have a lot of style. It’s basic filmmaking and the direction’s unremarkable. This is Zach Braff’s third film (at the biggest budget of $25 million), but it doesn’t have the quirkiness of his writing featured in his first two films Garden State and Wish I Was Here. The film’s written by Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures), based on the 1979 film of the same name. The writing’s formulaic at best.

It’s a predictable caper but it’s so heartfelt and enjoyable. Its heart is always in the right place and it’s a benign tale about loving life and making the best of everything, no matter your age.

It’s also very funny, too, and the cast have great comedic timing and make the best jokes hit their mark. The best part of the film is having Caine, Freeman and Arkin share the screen. Their presence is what makes it special, even this isn’t as good as it should be – like the way that it’s great at the time but it’s forgettable.

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Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in Going in Style. (Source)

Still, they’re so charming and they help make this a good time at the movies. Their chemistry is great, and you can feel like these guys have been friends their entire lives. They’re all mostly the same age, but their development feels diverse, especially in terms of motivation for the robbery.

Joe’s motivation is pure since he’s trying to provide for his family. His friendship with granddaughter Brooklyn (Joey King) is sweet and one of the reasons I was most invested in Joe. Brooklyn’s really the only family of the trio that have a good role – and even Joe’s daughter could be written out entirely since she’s there for two scenes.

Willy’s motivation is so he can have enough money to see his family more than once a year. Albert’s the curmudgeonly guy of the group – suiting his delivery – and he’s content being alone. The bachelor gives into the heist because he’s tired of being broke. He also meets a new lady, Annie, who gives charisma to his development – and she’s played by the delightful Ann-Margret.

Its third act has some clever moments inside and outside of the heist, and the training they get from a criminal insider (John Ortiz) is fun. Though, it could benefit from more action.

It’s understandable that there isn’t since they’re a trio of good guys who don’t want to hurt anyone. It sucks out some excitement out of the heist – even though it still feels tense. It’s nice that there’s two heists and the main one is fun – but the one at the beginning is funnier.

I liked that they’re trying to rob a bank at a geriatric age and it makes for a different sort-of heist caper. It has low-speed chases instead of high-speed chases, like when they have a practice theft at a grocery store and hijack an old lady’s motorized shopping cart. It’s one of the funnier moments, and it’s scenes like these when you know it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s better for it.

Score: 70/100

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Gifted (2017)

Released: April 14, 2017. Directed by: Marc Webb. Starring: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan. Runtime: 1h 41 min. 

Marc Webb’s first return to indie after directing the two Amazing Spider-Man films is remarkable, and it’s also refreshing that Chris Evans does intimate indies like this in between his Captain America outings.

In Gifted, a sweet family dynamic is explored as a single man Frank Adler (Evans) is raising his niece in a small Florida town. His niece, seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) isn’t like other children at all; she’s a child prodigy in mathematics. She’s been homeschooled the first part of her life after her mother died, and now Frank is realizing she doesn’t have great social skills and puts her in first grade in public school.

Frank’s drawn into a custody battle with his estranged mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), because once Evelyn learns that Mary’s a prodigy – she wants to bring her into a life dedicated to mathematics.

The custody battle drives the plot and it’s interesting because there’s merit to both arguments. Evelyn doesn’t want Mary’s potential to be wasted, and Frank’s fighting to give Mary a normal childhood even though she’s an extraordinary little girl. Lindsay Duncan is great as Frank’s mom, the character’s hard but she has good moments in the role, and even though she’s the opposition of the custody battle, it’s so well-written that there’s still some sympathy for the character. It’s intriguing seeing the backstory of her relationships with her children.

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Mckenna Grace and Chris Evans in Gifted. (Source)

As for the main cast, the chemistry between Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace is magical. You wholly believe they’re uncle and niece and the development of their relationship and characters is great. Their fights tug at the right heartstrings and the film’s a true tear-jerker. The chemistry also helps a predictable story become one of 2017’s most charming films.

Mckenna Grace is also a great young actress, and since she lost her two front teeth before filming, she’s that much cuter. She’s funny and captures the sass and attitude in the role. It’s funny when she’s sassy not because she’s adorable, but that the lines are so good and she has so much energy that it’s so much fun watching her. She’s just like a real kid having fun, and like her character, just trying to be a kid. She also has a convincing emotional range.

The character makes math fun because she’s so passionate about it and when Frank tries to close her homework so she plays outside, she just opens another book. Her hunger to learn is almost contagious.

Chris Evans is also fantastic. The character’s strong because he’s vulnerable and realistic, since he doesn’t know what he’s doing but he’s trying his best. He wants what’s best for Mary, and he’s trying to raise Mary how he thinks his sister would have wanted. He’s fighting for normalcy for her. I also loved how he doesn’t try to influence her when forming opinions and wants her to choose things for herself and grow her independence. He’s becoming a bit of a new superhero, fighting for his niece.

There’s a scene where Frank and Mary are silhouettes in front of a sunset on a Florida beach (well, it’s filmed in Georgia) and Frank is holding her hand and Mary’s walking up his legs. They’re having a conversation that shows that Frank doesn’t want to influence her beliefs in anything. Their chemistry and Marc Webb’s direction make this little charming scene because it’s so intimately done and so human. It’s engaging and unique, and it works so well because their relationship feels so convincing.

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Octavia Spencer and Mckenna Grace in Gifted. (Source)

It’s also little scenes like this and scenes like Mary singing with neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) that make this so damn charming and memorable. The movie’s a drama and while it’s sappy, the sentiments ring true and you get lost in everything the characters go through.

Some of the film’s heartbreaking and there’s a lot of funny material and some big laughs. It’s one of those films that I can say made me laugh and cry, and it has a surprising ability to do both at the same time. This is just such an engaging custody battle and a story about trying to be a good parent and doing what’s best for your kid.

The supporting cast’s also memorable. Jenny Slate (Zootopia) is Mary’s teacher Bonnie and she’s part of some funny moments. Octavia Spencer is good friends with Frank and Mary and their landlady. She has a lot of big laughs, too, and she’s a delight to watch. There’s also a one-eyed cat named Fred that’s a scene-stealer.

The story’s sometimes predictable but it has a few surprises, and the performances and engaging story it tells make it a film not to be missed – even if math bores the hell out of you.

Score: 90/100

Life (2017)

 

Released: March 24, 2017. Directed by: Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds. Runtime: 1h 44 min.

A crew at the International Space Station – two Americans, two Brits, a Russian and a Japanese dude – are tasked with retrieving a sample from Mars that could contain the first proof of extraterrestrial life, and the first evidence of life on Mars (hence the title of Life).

After it gets on board, things go awry – and they still have to get it home because of what it means for science. The cute little guy does look like the parasite at the beginning of The Faculty, and the life-form is given the name Calvin by an elementary school.

Sounds cute enough, right? Don’t let names fool you because it becomes quite frightening when it starts bulking up.

The British biologist on the crew, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the only one who actually calls the little thing Calvin, as he spends his time studying it. He nearly seems fatherly to it, which brings up interesting dynamics because others are extremely wary of it. They’re afraid of the unknown thing – and for good damn reason.

I liked Hugh’s story because there’s a heartwarming aspect that he’s wheelchair-bound on Earth, but when he’s in space he can float around and do almost anything his heart desires.

The rest of the crew includes Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American medical officer, whose story is cool, too, because he likes the hum of space. The other American is system engineer Rory Adams, played by Ryan Reynolds.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Britain’s other representation Miranda North, who’s in charge of keeping the specimen in quarantine. Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) is the Russian crew commander of the International Space Station. The crew pilot is Sho Murakam and is played by Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada.

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Ryan Reynolds in Life. (Source)

The cast assembled makes an impressive ensemble. So much screen time is shared that they’re all supporting performers more than leading, even though Gyllenhaal, Ferguson and Reynolds are the most recognizable of the bunch. Gyllenhaal and Ferguson also offer the most compelling performances. No one’s wearing the redshirt from Star Trek per se, but there are people who feel more expendable. Talents don’t get wasted – but some are less utilized than others. Naturally, the cast’s chemistry is good since they’re stuck on a space station together.

They all have nice banter and the dialogue’s well-written. It’s witty and best fit for Ryan Reynolds since it’s from the minds of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (writers of Deadpool and Zombieland). The writing pair also bring in a smart amount of scientific dialogue that’s so nerdy, you’re thankful that some characters dumb it down for us.

The story of Life wears its homage to Alien on its sleeve and while it is nothing new, it’s an entertaining and unnerving ride. It takes a hardcore horror route and it’s surprising in its brutality and it packs relentless, edge-of-your-seat thrills. It’s quite scary, and that’s what helps it be a great addition to the trapped in space genre.

The premise is just so terrifying, when they’re trapped with something they can’t permanently escape from, and it’s a hell of a long phone call away from Earth. It’s just freaky that they can’t be helped, and it shows how much can go wrong in the limitlessness of space. Some of the cinematography’s a bit too dark to see some aspects, but otherwise the visuals are great.

The only part of the writing that doesn’t compel is the beginning because it’s plainly trying to get into the story, but it’s helped by smart dialogue. When the carnage begins, it comes with a force that doesn’t let go. It makes at least an hour of this a lot of fun and scary, and the writers find a way to breathe fresh life into a premise we’ve seen before.

The writers can do it all when it comes to foul-mouthed superheroes, zombie horror comedies and now bat-shit craziness of astronauts being trapped in space with Calvin. He might not go down in the same infamy as the Xenomorph from Alien, but he’s memorable and I won’t be going to space anytime soon.

Score: 75/100

Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Niki Caro. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh. Runtime: 2h 4 min.

The WWII era makes for some fascinating films. I sometimes like them more when they have different perspectives or depict main conflicts other than with the German Reich.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the former, offering a woman’s perspective on the war from a heroic woman, which makes this unique. It tells a behind-the-action tale set during Germany’s Invasion of Poland, also offering a point-of-view of the war from those affected in Warsaw, Poland.

Antonia (Jessica Chastain), a sympathetic animal lover, and Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), the zoo director, are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, one of Europe’s most thriving zoos in the 1930’s.

Their world changes in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland, as bombs damage the zoo and kill many of its animals. As Polish resistance collapses, German forces began to use the zoo as a base and it effectively closed the zoo.

Despite the Nazis being in their backyard, they essentially created a temporary haven for Jewish people to evade German forces.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautiful because of the Zabinski’s sheer bravery – and director Niki Caro earnestly captures their humanity. Their humanity is not only the focus but the film’s beating heart, and it doesn’t flatline.

The film’s a celebration of Antonia’s bravery. Caro directs a stellar cast, and Chastain is the strongest link. She gives a performance that’s sympathetic, earnest and moving. She’s fantastic and elevates the forgettable screenplay to new heights.

Johan Heldenbergh is good as Jan, though you don’t get to know his character well enough – and he feels like an extension of Antonia’s bravery and humanity. The female characters are stronger, and Antonia’s the star of the show. I liked scenes that express her sympathy for animals and general compassion. It’s a shame that the film about her life feels so unremarkable.

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Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

Daniel Brühl plays Dr. Lutz Heck, the film’s antagonist and Hitler’s zoologist, who is the keeper of the Berlin Zoo. He’s forgettable and I just call him the Nazi zoologist. Brühl is good, but Heck isn’t a good villain.

He has compassion one minute, like bringing the prized animals of the Warsaw Zoo to his zoo in Berlin since it has more resources. Then out of the blue he’s cruel and comes back to the zoo and shoots a beautiful eagle and casually tells a soldier to have it stuffed and mounted.

Creative choices done for his character are bad fictional aspects. The addition of the Hollywood fiction weighs it down, since Zabinski’s story seems fantastical enough on its own.

Though, one of the strongest aspects is the depiction of getting the Jews out of the Ghetto – and it’s a good creative choice because the real way is plain. These scenes are tense and exciting, with a heist-like vibe.

One of the main problems are random scenes that feel like they come right out of left field. Developments come with little introduction and granted, it might be because it’s fitting six years of story into two hours of film, but the editing disjoints the storytelling.

In one scene the Zabinski’s have hanky panky and when you’ve forgotten that, she’s nine months pregnant when we see her again and going into labour. There’s not even a discussion of the pregnancy or anything. I was questioning if I’d missed something or if it was some sort-of immaculate conception.

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Johan Heldenbergh in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Source)

There’s a lot that happens in the film but it’s unraveled slowly and pacing becomes an issue. It would have been great if everything moved faster, and the dropping of boring sub-plots would have brought it well under two hours. At least it has really cute lion cubs.

The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t have the impact a film like this should possess, and feels light because of it. The story’s beautiful but it’s a shame that the writing doesn’t match the passion and beauty of Antonia’s story, as it ends up feeling unremarkable. There are a few moving scenes – namely when they get a glimpse into the scope of how many people they’re helping.

It also doesn’t feel mature enough. There are moments that could depict human horrors which would have packed a heartbreaking punch. Chastain delivers a monologue about how people are evil and animals are great, and it would have made the scene have even more impact if we could have seen some of the human evil that she’s talking about. Instead, the film shies away from moments, and it feels like it’s missing out on great opportunities.

Score: 60/100

What’s your favourite WWII film?

April Fool’s Day (1986)

Released: March 28, 1986. Directed by: Fred Walton. Starring: Amy Steel, Deborah Foreman, Ken Olandt. Runtime: 1h 29min.

April Fool’s Day is a 1980’s slasher only notable for its ability to put a spin on a basic story.

Muffy (Deborah Foreman) has invited eight of her college friends to a weekend getaway on April Fool’s weekend to her family island. These people are kind-of weird in the first place to make April Fool’s Day a weekend celebration.

There are nine main characters for the getaway and that’s a lot of characters when the usual getaway vacation slasher has five or six characters so it doesn’t get crowded.

Kit (Amy Steel) is the main blonde goody-two-shoes character who wants to go to convent school and is dating Rob (Ken Olandt). Chaz (Clayton Rohner) carries around a camera a lot to videotape things for some reason and he’s with the blonde Nikki (Deborah Goodrich).

Skip (Griffin O’Neal) is simply characterized as Muffy’s cousin. Harvey (Jay Baker) is super preppy and wants to be called Hal but no one ever calls him that. There’s so much characterization to go around to everyone that a bookworm named Nan (Leah Pinsent) feels like a useless character, and the majority of them feel one-dimensional.

The comic relief comes from Thomas F. Wilson (Biff in the Back to the Future trilogy) who plays Arch, and he has some of the funniest moments as the ladies man. He’s the only actor I recognized in this. He and Deborah Foreman give the most memorable performances as Arch and Muffy, respectively.

The acting when they’re asked to be scared – mostly just Amy Steel and Ken Olandt – is bad, and Olandt’s screaming is almost annoying as the crickets that are constantly chirping. The general chemistry of the whole cast is good, and Chaz and Arch have some of the funniest moments together.

The comedy is better done than the horror itself – because it’s never actually scary, even as far as slasher films go. The setup at the beginning is good and some of the April Fool’s pranks are childish but most of them are funny.

When the killing begins, the fun stops because all of the kills actually suck because they show the bare minimum of the kills, removing a lot of the violence and it makes it really disappointing to me as a horror fan. Half of the kills literally happen off-screen and when someone wound up dead I wondered if I had missed something.

In that way it definitely sets itself apart from other slashers but it’s one of the reasons it’s not a good movie for horror fans, and a lot of it isn’t entertaining. When they don’t show the bit of what makes a horror movie successful – the kills – it feels a lot like when someone tells a story that ends with “you just had to be there.”

It’s a competent mystery because the story is developed somewhat well and there’s characters that just start acting strange.

It gears up to an interesting ending that filled in plot holes and some of the film’s major faults, and made it feel like an exercise in making an ending first and then just thinking up everything else in between. It makes it feel all a bit pointless.

It also would have been great if it were scary. April Fool’s Day is unique in the way that the comedy of the beginning is the best part even though it’s not billed as a comedy, and everything goes downhill when the killing comes, because that’s supposed to be the fun part of horror.

Score: 40/100

Mr. 3000 (2004)

Released: September 17, 2004. Directed by: Charles Stone III. Starring: Bernie Mac, Angela Bassett, Michael Rispoli. Runtime: 1h 44 min.

I decided to review this because I’m about to reach 3,000 tweets on Twitter and I thought this would be a review of a movie with ‘3000’ in the name would mark the occasion. 

Bernie Mac stars as the very, very self-confident (fictional) Stan Ross in Mr. 3000. He got the name by reaching 3,000 hits playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. He thinks the name is synonymous with greatness and he talks about the name like it’s his big-headed alter ego or superhero name. Granted – Stan Ross would make a boring movie title.

He’s so obsessed with the name that the moment he achieved 3000 hits, he quit the game and abandoned the Brewers in July in the middle of a pennant race (even for fiction that’s totally unacceptable). Now it’s nine years later in 2004 and he’s the owner of the Mr. 3000 Shopping Centre and desperately wants into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Fact checking uncovers that he’s only Mr. 2997 because of a clerical error. Since his name simply loses meaning, the 47-year-old goes back to the MLB to try to get his 3,000-hit crown back.

Interestingly, if Ross were real, he would be tied for 30th on the career hitting record list with Roberto Clemente, who finished with 3,000 hits over 18 seasons, ending with a .317 batting average. The film’s writers did some research since they say Ross finished with a .314 batting average and if we assume he started playing at 20 – he’d have played about 18 seasons.

I think his ego would have prevented him from retiring when he did since he would have had a couple of good years left. Since he wants to be the best – you’d think he would just keep climbing up the hitting leader boards instead of being content with 30th. I digress and accept that he quit so he can have the name, just since the premise is amusing.

The baseball realism was lacking since he was brought up with September call-ups into the big leagues without doing spring training or any sort-of rehab games. I know he’s one of the greatest (fictional) hitters of all-time, but the guy hasn’t played pro ball in nine years.

He basically has a month to just get three hits, and when he starts striking out left and right it’s hard to believe since he was one of the best hitters of his time. Even though it’s about bringing old school into new school and trying to show how much the game has changed, I’m not believing that he’s going to be hitting like Mario Mendoza (one of the worst hitters in history).

It’s only plausible he stays in the Majors because the Brewers are fifth out of six teams in their division and because his presence sells tickets. High stakes are removed for the Brewers because they’re in a terrible position and the only thing they can play for is a respectable finish. It just leaves Stan to root for, but that’s hard because he’s such a jerk – plus, since he has a month to get three lousy hits, the stakes aren’t that high.

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Stan Ross (Bernie Mac) demands his 3,000th hit ball back from a fan at the film’s beginning. (Source)

It’s an entertaining film and Bernie Mac is believable as the title character; he’s touching at times and keeps the Ross from always being unlikable. Still, the character and his arrogance is the film’s biggest hurdle. It doesn’t help that there’s another Brewers player – Rex “T-Rex” Pennebaker (Brian White) who’s just like Stan. Rex needs a slice of humble pie, but Stan needs the whole bakery.

If you can get past Stan’s arrogance, it’s fun because Mac is funny as the character when his ego’s in check. One of my favourite moments is when Stan is working out and he looks like a fool because he’s so out of shape. It’s delightful that he’s put in his place, and his silence is nice. Then he’s fit again and his cockiness returns. It’s not good character work if one of my favourite aspects is the main protagonist looking like an idiot.

Angela Bassett’s a highlight as ESPN reporter Mo Simmons. She’s one of Stan’s old flames, and brings a natural charm to Mr. 3000 and keeps the man himself grounded. He is way easier to tolerate when she’s around. Before she’s there, he’s an ass – even with the charming Bernie Mac playing him. Some of his worst moments are calling his new team little leaguers.

There are a few memorable laughs, especially a joke that Japanese pitcher Fukuda (Ian Anthony Dale) doesn’t know how to swear properly. The pay-off’s funny when teammates try to teach him. Some of the jokes about how old Stan is fall flat, but there are a few funny ones including one about Viagra.

It’s a mediocre feature but it becomes an entertaining sports movie at the literal halfway point. Before that it had a handful of chuckles but it never gets fun until Stan starts enjoying the game of baseball, too, and learning that it’s not all about him.

Score: 60/100