Miracles from Heaven (2016)

Released: March 16, 2016. Directed by: Patricia Riggen. Starring: Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson. Runtime: 1hr 49 min.

Thank you, Miracles from Heaven, for finally showing me why I haven’t been thoroughly entertained while going to church all these years.

It’s because there’s never been a Christian rock band at my church to get me in the spirit of things. Apparently they have all the fun in small Texas towns.

Miracles from Heaven, based on the memoir by Christy Beam, follows the Beam family in Burleson, Texas, as the 10-year-old daughter, Annabel (Kylie Rogers) is diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder for which there is no cure.

The family prays for a miracle and it gets answered in a big and rather bizarre way. If it wasn’t a true story, it would be pretty far-fetched, but I won’t spoil it here in case you haven’t seen the trailer. The film is really about the journey and perseverance throughout the disease, and her mom Christy’s (Jennifer Garner) perseverance into getting Ana the best help available.

Garner is great as the mom in an emotionally powerful performance – crying her way through the film, but doing so in a believable way. She may cross the line of crying one too many times – as it seems like she could have filled a Jacuzzi with her tears. Kylie Rogers as Ana also holds her own very well.

The power is in the characterization, as well, and the fact that the pain her daughter is going through makes Christy question her faith. There’s a laughable moment where people at her Church ask if Ana hasn’t been cured yet because of the family’s sins. It’s laughable for me, but evidently not for Christy.

Anyway, faith is a big thing touched on the film, to a point where it is, admittedly, preachy, but not in the same proselytizing way God’s Not Dead is – trying to force the beliefs down its audience’s throat. That’s the difference between God’s Not Dead’s really bad writing and the fact-based writing of Miracles from Heaven that goes between melodrama and some strong heartbreaking and emotional moments.

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Queen Latifah, Kylie Rogers and Jennifer Garner in Miracles from Heaven. (Source)

There’s really just something works about this movie by the end of it all. It’s charming and Eugenio Derbez is amusing as Dr. Nurko and balances entertaining Ana and being a serious doctor dude well, even while wearing an Elmo tie. Queen Latifah is also quite a welcome player in the film, adding a lot of humour.

Martin Henderson is a good supporting player as Ana’s father, he adds a sense of optimism to the film, actually thinking everything will be okay. There’s a lot of money troubles since he’s started a new animal clinic business and they had to put all of the home’s equity into it.

That adds a new element to the film. He’s working and taking care of his two other daughters, the youngest Adelynn (Courtney Fansler), and the oldest daughter Abbie (Brighton Sharbino, TV’s The Walking Dead). They don’t get as much characterization as Ana or Christy, which is okay since those two are the core, but there could have been a bit more effort to make the supporting players have more dimensions.

The film’s cinematography is strong, and the sequences in Heaven look nice – there are a lot of bright colours and lots of butterflies. It looks unique enough, basking in outdoor settings instead of a Church like in Heaven is for Real. The two films share producers T.D. Lakes, Joe Roth and Derrick Williams.

I think this was more effectively handled having the miraculous happening a bit after the halfway mark instead of Colton Burpo in Heaven is For Real having his near-death experience at the beginning. That film’s main conflict was the skepticism of it – but this has a more natural conflict of a longer lasting disease. The skepticism is touched on really just once in Miracles from Heaven and then is forgotten with one of the film’s most moving moments.

I did like the aspect of the film that suggested miracles aren’t always huge, but can sometimes be found in simple kindnesses. The film has a good soundtrack and the Beam family is an inspiration. It’s feel-good throughout, particularly so in the last 25 minutes, which was the film’s strongest area. The journey there takes long, but the pay-off is great.

Score: 70/100

 

 

 

 

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Triple 9 (2016)

Released: February 26, 2016. Directed by: John Hillcoat. Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie. Runtime: 1hr 55 min.

In John Hillcoat’s latest film Triple 9, he brings us into the world of criminals and corrupt cops being blackmailed by the Russia mafia in Atlanta, Georgia, a location that is never exactly clear.

After the criminal crew rob a bank to get to a safety deposit box and Irina (Kate Winslet) doesn’t pay up, the rag tag group of criminals is forced to do another job so a Russian mafia boss can be released from prison.

To perform the tricky job, they have to kill a cop across town to get the police force on the other side of town.

The funny thing about Triple 9 is that the final result is incredibly “meh” but the opening 20 minutes is seriously really awesome. Heist films are really one of my favourite sub-genres. I love the intensity of them.

And Triple 9 had a really great opening, especially the getaway. When they bring out the red smoke with their red clothing and masks looking all like Deadpool; the look of it is super intriguing.

I thought when we learned what they stole – just information from a safety deposit box – wasn’t that high-stakes. But when we learn that the Russian mafia seriously mean hardball, the stakes get higher.

But since the crew are essentially being forced into these jobs, and based on the contents they’re stealing, it doesn’t feel like an honest heist film. It feels like that took a backseat where just general gangs, crime on the streets and corruption drive the car.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., and Anthony Mackie in Triple 9. So. Damn. Dark. (Source)

There’s one totally enthralling gang bust scene in the film and that, and the beginning, are the high points. Otherwise, it feels super mediocre. There is a lot of carnage and violence that makes it look ultra-stylized but the writer, Matt Cook, who is writing his first feature film screenplay, seems to be looking for a point throughout.

He never seems to be able to find strong pacing in the feature and it’s a bit confusing at times. The characters also aren’t interesting enough to engage us in the end. The cast is super impressive, however. Chiwetel Ejiofor heads the criminal team as Michael Atwood, a career criminal and family man.

Norman Reedus (Darryl from The Walking Dead) and Aaron Paul portray brothers Russell and Gabe Welch, respectively, and we don’t get much time to know Russell and Gabe is an annoying, rattled and paranoid druggie. The emotional range isn’t much different than how he portrayed Jesse on Breaking Bad.

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Norman Reedus in Triple 9Source

Clifton Collins Jr. and Anthony Mackie round out the corrupt cops as Franco Rodriguez and Marcus Belmont, respectively. Casey Affleck is a focal point of the film as Casey Allen, a new-to-the-streets cop and Belmont’s new partner.

Kate Winslet’s Irena is super uninteresting and just shows that she should never don a Russian accent ever, ever again. The accent is awfully inconsistent and she just phones everything in. Woody Harrelson is the lead sergeant Jeffrey Allen on the bank robbers case, sporting false teeth – but the drunkard adds a cool investigative aspect to the film. All of the characters, though, are restricted to very basic profiles.

It’s a well-acted saga of police corruption and blackmail, and the violence is well done.  But as far as technical aspects go, the film looks terrible. It’s super murky and downright hard to look at. Even in pure daylight – it’s far too dark.

When they’re inside, it looks like the budget couldn’t afford electricity of any kind. When you can’t see anything, it’s hard to tell what’s happening in the story. This contributing element makes it more average.

Score: 50/100

Dumb and Dumber To (2014)

Dumb and Dumber To, IMDbReleased: November 14, 2014. Directed by: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly. Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Laurie Holden. Runtime: 1 hr., 49 min.

In 1994, ignorance was bliss for Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey). In 2014, it’s still endearing, and they maintain the same level of innocence but they are more obnoxious. They make arm fart noises and try to get the crowd to call the speaker a nerd at a sort-of TED talk. It misses, though the joke could be their harsh misjudgment of the situation.

Harry (Jeff Daniels) is still the innocent one. Daniels is able to fall back into his character, even though he seems rusty until ten minutes pass. After twenty years, that’s expected. Lloyd still puts his needs before anyone else, dead or alive. Carrey is occasionally over-the-top, but he has a blast portraying the character. The film is kept alive by the actor’s chemistry when there are periodic, unfunny lulls.

After twenty years, a Lloyd, who now looks like a hermit, is at a mental hospital. He’s upset about not getting with Mary Swanson and he has been sitting in a wheelchair with a blank stare into nothingness. It turns out, he has been joking this entire time to prank Harry.

Harry needs a kidney and thinks he needs it from a family member and not just a blood type match. When he finds a letter from old flame Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) that states she is pregnant, he sets off to find the daughter he never knew. And meanwhile, he can hit her up for a kidney.

Lloyd is attracted to the daughter and decides to tag along. They find her in El Paso, Texas, after stopping in Maryland at her house. They meet her adoptive father and have to hand deliver an important invention that she forgot to bring. The pair get mixed up in a murder plot where they are one of the targets.

It’s formulaic, but in the spirit of the original film. I can understand that the Farrelly brothers want to emulate the intense success of the original cult pleasure, but comedy sequels have proven time and time again that it’s difficult to recreate the magic twice. The writers actually repeat five jokes from the original. They largely follow the original’s premise to a tee and it disables any room for innovation because of that.

Some repeated choices are charming – particularly the repeated song of the Apache Indian’s “Boom Shack-a-Lack”. It’s a pleasant, nostalgic moment. I do like some music decisions by the film’s composer, the band Empire of the Sun. Songs like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” are obvious, but effective. They tie scenes together.

Harry gets a fantasy sequence which depicts what type of father he would have been to Penny. Lloyd’s fantasy sequence is just as violent as the first one – where his fantasy of being with Penny mirrors his one with Mary Swanson.

The defense of his girl’s honour is still creative. The daughter, Penny, portrayed by Rachel Melvin, is dumber than a doornail. Melvin can’t display much talent because she is give a character with very little depth. The character’s stupidity isn’t endearing – it is more often annoying.

Lloyd and Harry treat Fraida Felcher with a distinct meanness, which just isn’t in good spirits. The joke is that the beautiful young woman experienced the reverse ugly duckling and changed into one. The Walking Dead’s Laurie Holden portrays a character named Adele who is married to Pinchelow. She doesn’t get any depth. She works with a sneer throughout but doesn’t get any laughs.

Rob Riggle is the main villain. He plays two characters – a handyman named Travis and then his twin brother, Captain Lippincott, a military figure who has camouflage expertise. This enables cool displays of make-up and great attention to detail.

When the film’s humour misses, it’s awkward – like a kid trying too hard to be funny. It’s frustrating when the Farrelly brothers take the joke too far, it’s like they don’t know the boundaries of utter grossness. They might be going for a shock factor but it’s unnecessary.

The humour doesn’t have that shadow of intelligence behind the stupidity like the original. Much of the jokes don’t flow as well as the original because the plot isn’t quite coherent.

The most negatively astounding thing about the film is that the entire narrative falls apart at the end within a matter of ten minutes. It’s frustrating because many plot aspects are forfeited for either convenience or for a half-assed joke. It makes the road to the end completely irreverent. It’s a creative decision that I will never be able to get behind.

Score60/100

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Source: IMDb

Source: IMDb

Released: August 1, 2014. Directed by: James Gunn. Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel. Runtime: 2hr., 1 min.

If a time traveller had told me that the writer of Scooby-Doo, James Gunn, would co-write and direct one 2014’s most enjoyable films, I would be hesitant to believe them.

But with co-writer Nicole Perlman, he does so with Guardians of the Galaxy. And it hits a perfect strike in every aspect. The Marvel comic book films’ humour fits this film like a glove.

Its laugh-out-loud funny consistency suits the film’s easy-going tone. The humour is clever and often literal. The simplistic story follows Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), subject of a manhunt after he finds a powerful orb. The orb has caught the eye of Ronan the Accuser (a strong Lee Pace), who is to deliver it to the powerful Thanos.

Ronan, a Kree who takes the beliefs of his people very seriously, has been pillaging planets motivated after his people signed a Peace treaty with the planet Xandar. Djimon Hounsou portrays one of Ronan’s henchmen. His villainous side is fun to watch.

Also on Peter’s tail is Yondu, portrayed by The Walking Dead‘s Michael Rooker, leader of the Ravagers and the man who abducted Peter 26 years ago. His deadly power allows him to control a tiny spear with varying whistles.

Even with the two crews are after him, the film doesn’t feel over-crowded with multiple antagonists. Impressively, this introductory film has great pacing. The characters fit superbly into the Marvel universe, in between the characters of the Avengers group.

I prefer this crew over them, which surprises me because I don’t usually favour these space movies. Peter Quill is a great character and an outlaw who calls himself Star Lord. He’s an average hero with cool gadgets and a great sense of humour.

Chris Pratt brings his charisma and training to the role, after losing sixty pounds to take on the role. There is a familiar character arc with Quill where he has a letter and gift from his late mother that he doesn’t open. Though, he does like music from the 1970’s and 80’s, which enables this to be my favourite soundtrack from 2014.

Gamora, Zoe Saldana, is like a living weapon who works for Ronan. She is also the adopted daughter of Thanos, and her sister, the villainous Nebula, portrayed by Karen Gillan, is badass in her own right.

Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper who only vaguely sounds like himself, is a bounty hunter driven by money. The character is given poignancy through the fact that he is the only one of his kind – half-machine, half-raccoon, the result of an illegal experiment.

Vin Diesel portrays Raccoon’s best buddy Groot. “I am Groot” is a phrase he regularly says in varying volumes and emotions, actually recording the phrase about one thousand times. Groot is among a species of walking trees who could have just come out of Middle Earth. The quiet character is surprisingly funny. Rocket is like a translator of Groot’s tones. Diesel is just as effective as he was when he voiced the titular Iron Giant back in 1999, also a character of few words.

The final piece of the group is Drax the Destroyer, a great Dave Bautista, who is driven by vengeance for his wife and daughter. Ronan killed them. Money is the group’s main drive, but Groot seems like he’s just along for the ride. Their drives make them relatable, and they work so well because they’re an unlikely cast of characters.

The make-up specialists, in special effects and in general, outdo themselves, especially with Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace and Karen Gillan. The story’s heart in such a compelling and easy-going film is just astounding. Due to the film’s great visuals, top-notch writing and its ability to surprise its audience, it just has to be seen.

Score100/100

World War Z (2013)

World War ZRelease Date: June 21, 2013

Director: Marc Forster

Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz

Runtime: 116 min

The zombie sub-genre is a successful one. (And The Walking Dead shows it’s wildly successful on television, as well.) We saw that with Warm Bodies earlier this year, that brought about a unique film to the the zombie sub-genre. World War Z is a more straight-forward zombie movie that doesn’t try to reinvent anything. Apparently movie-goers don’t tire of watching zombies or the world end, either, as this is the second zombie movie and umpteenth apocalyptic flick of 2013.

United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.

World War Z mashes genres of action, drama and horror together in this zombie feature that’s a little more in the vain of 2007’s I Am Legend  and less TV’s The Walking Dead. If your favourite part of any zombie movie is all of the blood, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The only blood presented are in the form of cuts and bites from the zombies, for the most part. Even when the zombies are shot, there’s hardly a realistic shot of blood – mostly because the majority of the zombies are CGI-animated. It is never, ever gory.

Half of the kills even happen off-screen. That could take half of the fun out of the movie for fans of people getting mauled by zombies. The movie is surprisingly human. That isn’t saying that the zombies themselves are human, even if some have senses of humour. Some tease their victims by clacking their teeth together like Pac Men. It’s funny, yet menacing. Anyway, the human part of this is in Brad Pitt’s character. He, Gerry Lane, is an average UN worker, who others think could play a critical role in stopping this epidemic. His motivations are driven by his family. He wants to find a cure, or at least something to save some of the human population, as quickly as he can so he can keep his family from turning into those monsters. I really like Brad Pitt’s honesty in his portrayal.

One might get the vibe from the trailer that all of of the zombies will be in the form of CGI. Thankfully, that is not the case and there are quite a few humans actually playing the zombies. This movie probably does hold the record for tallest CGI-zombie doggie pile. Generally, the visuals are decent. Some of the movie suffers from shaky cam, which just shouldn’t be present in a big budget movie – because, really, one would think they could pay for cinematographers without Parkinson’s disease. The majority of the scenes are in the dark, and a lot of the camerawork is generally busy. A few scenes, generally near the beginning at the start of the hectic epidemic, are eye sores. I don’t see how 3D visual effects would add anything to the movie; it might even make the movie more excruciating to the eyes.

The story’s a good one, as far as ‘find the cure’ movies go. This film is adapted from the book of the same name written by Max Brooks. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on any similarities or big differences. All I can say is, it’s a story that plays well on the screen. I like that Drew Goddard has a hand in the screenplay; because he has talent. It’s a traditional ‘find the cure’ type of film, that doesn’t become complicated. If you do miss a few lines of critical dialogue, however, you might be out of the loop for a few minutes. Director Marc Forster brings his A-game, but he could be more aware that his movie suffers from shaky cam. It doesn’t add to the experience at all. Nor would the 3D; but this is the film industry, so they want to make money.

The make-up for the zombies is good, at least those who are human. I wouldn’t exactly call this a horror movie. You might jump once or twice, but not constantly. There is a constant tense and suspenseful atmosphere. You’ll appreciate how the screenplay keeps you guessing (but it’ll be less predictable if you haven’t read the book – I’d assume). The cast is good. James Badge Dale and David Morse are memorable in petite roles. Mireille Enos has been appearing on the small screen since 1994, but this is only her second movie role. Nonetheless, she performs well. Even if her character makes a few unfortunate decisions, that don’t exactly affect her.

The entire feature won’t stand out prominently in memory by the end of the year, but there’s one particular air plane scene that is good, intense fun; if not entirely realistic. This movie isn’t exactly a good horror movie, per se, but it does have scary aspects. It’s mostly just an effective actioner. I also like how it is character-driven and is never boring. For a big-budget action movie, the cinematography is too shaky. I wasn’t anticipating this heavily – so it’s a nice surprise.

75/100

Snitch (2013)

snitchReleased: February 22, 2013. Director: Ric Roman Waugh. Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal. Runtime: 1hr 52 min. Tagline: How far would you go to save your son?

Snitch, a film based on a true story, opens with a young man, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), talking to a buddy on Skype. The best friend asks if he can ship drugs to Jason’s address, and tempts him by saying he can try some if he wants, and the skeptical Jason says he’ll talk to him later about it. When the drugs get to his door, DEA agents track the package and bring him into custody.

It seems that his so-called best friend has set him up by sending drugs to his house, and by doing so, his own sentence will be reduced. The only option for Jason is to do the same, or face a minimum sentence of ten years in prison. His integrity is too strong to do so, so he’s left to sit on his hands. Though, his construction worker father, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) can’t let that happen. John and Jason’s mother are divorced, and Jason wants little to do with his dad.

John chooses that the only one to save his son from prison is to become an informant himself. With help from one of his ex-con employees, Daniel Cruz (The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal), he is able to get an introduction to a drug dealer in order to take down a cartel, participate in a drug deal, and in turn, reduce his son’s sentence.

Snitch is a decent-enough film. The feature takes a fairly simple plot and attempts to make it a little more complex than it has to be. With this, it manages to write in a few surprises for the audience. The characters are also one of the best parts of the film.

First of all, the supporting legal players who help John out are pretty good. Susan Sarandon plays an attorney who doesn’t have that big a heart for John, as she would be willing to risk John’s life for a bigger arrest. In the first place, it’s not extremely easy to believe that the DEA would be willing to let this man get involved with this drug world. She seems to be the face of greedy lawyers everywhere, but she isn’t entirely despicable, as this is an intense situation. Barry Pepper’s character is also good, and he embraces his stereotype of traditional DEA agent, while sporting a long beard. Seriously, you’ll want to grasp that hair and take some scissors to it.

John attempts very hard to connect with his son, but it proves difficult since Jason doesn’t want anything to do with him. The fact that Jason feels abandoned makes some of the concepts very real and, frankly, rather profound. John’s just really a family man risking his life, and the future of his own family. Though, it’s admirable that he’d go to these extreme measures to help him and rescue him. The fact that he is a construction company owner also makes it logical to the drug dealers, since they see it that he’s merely trying to save a company that he’s worked hard to get off the ground. Dwayne Johnson plays him fairly well, and even though he feels miscast because he sometimes has to act wimpy while he’s so huge, he makes the best of it, and he ends up being pretty good. Daniel Cruz’s motivations are, like John’s, for his family. Some of his character’s actions are stereotypical ‘former ex-con trying to make good for himself, but he ends up falling in with the wrong crowd’, but he’s just trying to make money for his family. He embraces his stereotype and does a good and believable job with it, and it’s just satisfying enough to make me think he can do well outside of The Walking Dead.

Since these men are trying to fend for their families and their motivations are very real and rather understandable, we all can become easily invested in them. The story manages to get in more surprises than one would expect, but the goings-on to the end are often surprising; the actual end, one could see coming from the opening credits. The story is just average at best. The character’s genuine motivations make us care for them, and since one could easily be invested in them, the characters are the thing that makes one engaged in the film, not strictly the story itself. We don’t want to see these families destroyed, we need that happy ending. The story is never extremely exciting, but it’s never particularly boring.

The film is falsely advertised. It feels more like a genuine crime drama with solid characters, and not a mindless action film like Johnson’s many vehicles. There isn’t much action as much would expect. Yes, there is some, but if you think about it as a crime drama with the flair for intensity and action, you’ll like it a lot more. If you go in expecting balls-to-the-wall action, odds are you’ll be sorely disappointed. The film is fairly slow and lengthy, with maybe three to five action sequences. When the action shows up, the sequences are pretty good, but the cinematography is very dizzying and it makes it hard to follow who’s getting pushed off the road or what’s happening exactly. That’s one of its major flaws.

The film is also fairly slow and lengthy. Another flaw is, though it offers a solid time during, there isn’t a lot of memorable content. By the time December rolls around, one might struggle saying what Snitch is about, exactly. Dwayne Johnson (who is the size of a small truck) in a semi-truck, narcotics, a few car crashes, and dizzying scenes might come to mind. It’s rather forgettable, and if you do indeed struggle to remember this at the end of the year; no, it is not a sequel to Snatch.

Score: 71/100