He SAID: Give ’em Hell

Scott F. Evans

It has been a rather bleak summer for movies in 2016, filled with expendable remakes and banal sequels. As a matter of fact, most of the better films of the season have actually been smaller, original pieces. One of the best might just be Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie, with a script by Taylor Sheridan. It’s a terrific little crime film layered over a character study and social commentary. If that’s not enough, it’s also a modern day Western.hell or high water 2

In a nutshell, Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers who rob banks across West Texas, while on the run from a pair of Texas Rangers. On the surface it’s a fairly simple story, but once you begin to peel away the layers, the film becomes considerably more complex. It’s not some high-octane thriller, nor is it completely plot driven. The film succeeds at both, and presents some stunning character work by the entire cast. Mackenzie offers solid but unobtrusive direction. He and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens shoot beautiful vistas that pay homage to John Ford, while presenting the moral and literal bankruptcy of the New West.

Sheridan’s screenplay is what really drives Hell or High Water. The plot teeters right at the edge of convolution, but the characters are interesting enough to keep the audience engaged and willing to go along for the ride. Sheridan includes some witty wordplay that is unquestionably offensive, but perfectly suited to the the nature of the characters.

Hell or High Water is also an actor’s piece. The cast provides the final element that makes this film work so well. Chris Pine does some of the best work of his career as Toby Howard, the younger of the two brothers. He anchors the film with a somber, thoughtful performance. Ben Foster is the elder Tanner Howard. Foster exercises precise restraint to keep from coming completely unhinged and falling into shtick.

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Jeff Bridges nearly resurrects Rooster Cogburn  (True Grit) as the aging Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Although Hamilton is a collection of clichés, Bridges elevates the character to keep him from becoming just another trope. Rounding out the cast is Gil Birmingham as Hamilton’s long suffering partner Alberto Parker. He and Bridges get some of the best lines in the film.

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Hell or High Water is definitely worth a watch on the big screen. At just over 90 minutes, it delivers more story and character than films with twice the run-time and ten times the budget.

RATING: Theater

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He SAID: Stroking Seth’s Sausage

Scott F. Evans

If you are easily offended by, well, anything, Sausage Party probably isn’t the movie for you. The R- rated, 3D animated film is equal parts racist, sexist, violent and juvenile. It’s also thought provoking and keenly hilarious. The film’s main cast are all anthropomorphic food items so it also works as an adults-only spoof of Pixar movies.

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Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, Sausage Party looks and sounds almost exactly like a big budget Pixar or Dreamworks animated film, even down to the celebrity voice work. But that’s where the similarities end because from practically the opening frame, this cartoon is not for kids. The screenwriting team of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter pen a script that’s both a nonstop smorgasbord of sex and drugs gags and a sharp critique of modern organized religion. It cynically skewers our various faiths and examines how these philosophies only serve to divide and limit us as a species.

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The cast boasts almost every A-List comic actor working today and every one of them turn in top notch, if typical, work. Rogen and Kristin Wiig voice the lead characters Frank, a hot dog (get it?) and Brenda, a bun. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play Frank’s hot dog buddies Barry and Carl. James Franco cameos as a human junkie experimenting with bath salts. Ed Norton, does a spot on Woody Allen impersonation as a bagel named Sammy. Craig Robinson plays a box of grits named, you guessed it, Mr. Grits and Bill Hader voices a bottle of liquor called Firewater. And yes, he gives the bottle a stereotypical Indian speech pattern. Like I said, this thing is aggressively un-pc.

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I’ll keep this review short. While I recommend seeing it (even if you decide to wait for the home video release), this movie is definitely not for everyone. You have to be both thick-skinned and tolerant to really get into Sausage Party. And while the message it’s trying impart has merit, it can also be a tough sit for the sensitive.

RATING: Theater

He SAID: DC Commits Suicide

Scott F. Evans

David Ayer’s Suicide Squad is the second Warner Brothers/DC Entertainment release this year, following the March theatrical release of Batman V Superman. And just like that film, Suicide Squad is a mess.

Ayer wrote and directed Suicide Squad. He allegedly cranked this script out in six weeks. It shows. There are a few good ideas here and there, but this feels every bit like a first draft. Main characters get multiple introduction scenes while others just get carelessly thrown into the works. After the lengthy intros, the flimsy, derivative story finally kicks in.

Guess what? The threat is yet another ancient evil, bent on eradicating mankind.

Yawn.

None of it makes much sense and it’s so perfunctory that by the end of the film, you forget what all of the hubbub is about. The pacing is choppy, and I’m being kind. Right after said ‘Ancient Evil’ is unleashed, the film comes to a dead stop to reintroduce the team in another scene that’s too long and filled with awkward comic bits. Then, about three-quarters into it, just as things should really be getting frantic, the film slams on the brakes (again). Suddenly the characters find the need to explain their motivations.

In a bar.

Seriously.

Anxious over Batman v Superman’s lower than expected box office and poor critical reception, Warner Bros./DC spent millions on last minute re-shoots to try and lighten the original somber tone of Suicide Squad. As a result, the movie is downright schizophrenic, featuring wild tonal swings from serious to incoherently comic.

Ayer is known for gritty, lower-budgeted, violent films like End of Watch and Fury, not family-friendly romps like this. You can feel him being restrained by the studio-mandated PG-13 rating. With a rumored budget of at least $175 million dollars, you can’t exactly blame the suits. Besides, the studio interference is also a direct result of the already-lost race against their direct competition, Disney/Marvel. Humor and Heart are a Marvel staple, but to date have been lacking in all of the DC offerings. So someone got the bright idea to try and shoehorn both into Suicide Squad, and the effort falls flat.

I’m not even sure that $175 million was spent on. With more than twice the budget of Fury (which had excellent, visceral and propulsive action sequences), the action here is all bland and lazily staged. It’s just one repetitive, inconsistent shootout after another with a few equally unoriginal fight scenes thrown in for good measure. Even the CGI isn’t particularly impressive. Some shots look like they were created with decades old technology. I’ve seen better effects on television shows.

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On the up side, Suicide Squad has a mostly solid cast. The de facto leads, Will Smith (Deadshot) and Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), work overtime to bring some heart and whimsy into this dour film. Jay Hernandez gives us some genuine pathos and almost steals the picture as Diablo. Viola Davis turns in a decent, if one-note performance as Amanda Waller. She seems a little bored and embarrassed to even be seen in such horrible writing, and I can’t exactly blame her. She isn’t given much more to do other than glower and deliver exposition. None of these performances are enough to save this film. Suicide Squad oversells Harley Quinn… Robbie accepts the challenge by chewing scenery at every turn. Smith is saccharine with charm. It’s like he refuses to be unlikable, even when playing a bad guy. As good as Hernandez is, Ayer sidelines him for far too much of the film.

And that’s not even the worst part.

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Jared Leto got crammed into this film as a new version of the classic Batman villain Joker. His interpretation is trite, boring, and completely unnecessary. Had Ayer given that screentime to Hernandez, the actor’s subtle choices may have been enough to counteract Robbie’s broad performance. Or not.

Warner Bros./DC just can’t seem to get it right. For a studio and comic company that have been making these films since the 1970’s, they miss far more than they hit.

Suicide Squad is a definite miss.

RATING: Television

He SAID: The (CG) Art of War(craft)

Scott F. Evans

The good news is that Warcraft – the Duncan Jones helmed adaptation of the massively popular video game – isn’t a complete train-wreck.  The bad news is that if you’re not a fan of the game, the movie is nearly impenetrable.  It’s so fan-centric that it almost repels casual viewers.  Jones and screenwriter Charles Leavitt play hard to the base and expect the rest of us to play catch up.

Or not.

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The problem with Warcraft is that we’ve seen all of this before.  We’ve seen the knights and the magic and the computer generated creatures.  We’ve been watching this movie since Peter Jackson kicked off his Lord of the Rings/Hobbit Trilogies way back in 2001.  Game of Thrones has been doing it every week since it debuted in 2011.  The only thing that Jones has done differently is give equal screen time to his lumbering Orc protagonists.  That’s fine, but after we get finished marveling at the insane amount of work the FX team did to bring these characters to life, we still have to suffer through a stale predictable script. There’s not an original moment or fresh take in Warcraft’s entire two hour run-time.  Even the sympathetic non-human story-line has been done (better) with the revamped Planet of the Apes franchise.

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As hard as most of the cast tries, they can’t elevate this hilariously somber script.  There are a few moments of forced levity (which this film desperately needs) but they’re mostly at the expense of one character. The rest of the cast play this like Warcraft is a piece of high-minded theater.  Maybe to hardcore fans of the game, it is.

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As this film preaches to its already converted masses, the rest of us remain disconnected.  Warcraft is not a good film. It’s indulgent, banal and more than a little impressed with itself. But it’s not a terrible film either. It’s just so laser focused on satisfying its gamer audience that it forgot to entertain the rest of us as well.

RATING: Wait for it to hit home video.  Maybe.

He SAID: Apocalyptic Fail

Scott F. Evans

Can we all just finally admit that the X-Men franchise isn’t very good?  This is the eighth film in this way-past-its-expiration-date series. Of that eight, maybe two of them are decent.  Maybe.  Fox has been cranking these things out since the beginning of the century with spin-offs and even a midway reboot followed by another reboot which basically did away with the previous films.

The studio started with the first three X-Men films, X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand in 2000, 2003, and 2006 respectively.   Director Bryan Singer jumped ship before Last Stand started shooting and was replaced at the last minute by Brett Ratner.  The fourth film, X-Men: First Class was released in 2011 with Matthew Vaughn directing and a completely new cast of younger actors.  First Class was set in the 1960’s and served as a reset to the series.  This was followed in 2013 with another Wolverine sequel titled, simply, The Wolverine.  The Wolverine takes place directly after The Last Stand and doesn’t reference First Class at all.  Singer returns in 2014 to helm X-Men: Days of Future Past.  It was designed specifically to straighten out the franchise’s confusing timeline.  By the film’s end, it had basically erased the first three X-Men films and both Wolverine solo projects.

Or created a separate timeline.

Or something.

Point is, this franchise is a mess and needs to be put down.

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Singer returns with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, a few of the First Class cast, and several new faces for X-Men: Apocalypse. Even with the new additions, it’s become painfully clear that everyone involved has run out of things to say. Magneto, played for the third time by Michael Fassbender, has the exact same character arc from every X-Film he’s been in.  This time he gets a family in an attempt to switch things up, but the result is the same old story. To Fassbender’s credit, he’s such a great actor that I can’t tell if he’s just phoning his performance in or really trying to elevate the stale material he’s been given.

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James McAvoy, in his third outing as Professor Xavier, is also an excellent actor.  But you can see him desperately fighting to make something out of this exhausted screenplay.  He always seems to be just on the verge of tears. Honestly I’m not sure if the text calls for such emotion or if McAvoy is just that frustrated.

Conversely, the top-billed Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through this.  This is also her third time playing Mystique and it’s clear that Lawrence is over it.  She’s rarely in the character’s signature blue appearance and delivers her dialogue with the least amount of effort possible.  As bored and detached as she is, you’d think that Singer and Kinberg would either recast or write the character out. Nope! Instead, Mystique is shoehorned into this plot and about as useful here as Wolverine was in Days of Future Past.

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Evan Peters, who stole the show in his initial appearance in Days Of Future Past, is back with more to say and do. While his function is no different than it was the first time, his scene is longer and still as enjoyable.

Poor Oscar Isaac bows as the evil Apocalypse. If ever there was a disservice done to a stellar actor, it is this.  Buried under pounds of prosthetic makeup and hobbled with hackneyed comic book dialogue, Isaac is criminally miscast as the titular villain. The role could have been played by a bodybuilder with his lines dubbed in by any voice actor and it wouldn’t have mattered one bit.

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Final thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse… it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before. The story is painfully simplistic and filled with superfluous emotional flourishes that want desperately to  be significant.  None of the performances stand out enough to justify investing two and a half long hours of your time. The spectacle, which features more destruction than all of the past superhero movies combined, is so common now that it’s become tedious.

Just like this entire franchise.

RATING: Cable

 

He SAID: War of Marvels

Scott F. Evans

Marvel Studios continues its winning streak with Captain America: Civil War.  If nothing else, Marvel/Disney knows how to pick its talent.  After triumphing with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russo Brothers return to helm what may very well be the best superhero movie ever made.  They’re assisted by returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.  This cinematic dream team seems to have taken the Marvel formula and redefined it, to make two of the best entries of the genre.  Forget Nolan.  Forget Whedon.  Forget Singer.  This squad has the superhero thing down to a science.

Civil War somehow manages to pull triple duty. It functions as the third in the Captain America franchise, addressing situations created in The First Avenger and continuing through The Winter Soldier.  It can be seen as the third Avengers film, following through on scenarios created in both of those earlier editions.  Civil War also works as a fourth Iron Man movie, with Tony Stark evolving beyond just Cap’s foe.  It also introduces two new major characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther and the studio’s version of Spider-Man.  These two heroes will headline their own solo films in the next couple of years.

Even as it juggles a massive supporting cast (every character gets at least one shining moment) Civil War is Cap’s story.  Markus and McFeely boldly present the character with a situation so personal, that he behaves in an uncharacteristic but completely believable way.  The film tackles some weighty issues: responsibility, duty, friendship, loyalty… and has a fair amount of pathos.  But it never becomes ponderous. Even with a run time of two and a half hours, it never drags.  Civil War is a serious film that knows it’s still a comic book.  The Russo Brothers keep the pacing breezy, and pepper in enough action to more than satisfy fans of the genre.

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The cast is key. Most of the players from practically every Marvel movie make an appearance.  Chris Evans turns in another excellent performance as Captain America.  He nails this character each and every time.  Robert Downey Jr is (as always) so good as Iron Man, that you almost forget that he had a decades long career before landing this iconic role.  Maybe it’s the script, but he feels even more dialed in than before.

Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson once again lend their expert support as The Falcon and Black Widow.  This is the fourth time both have played these characters so it’s no surprise that they handle the roles with aplomb.  Johansson has shined as Black Widow since her debut in Iron Man 2, with her best performance coming out of Winter Soldier.  She’s just as good in this one but isn’t afforded as much screen time.  Mackie absolutely resonates as Falcon. He was good in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.  But in Civil War, the filmmakers give Falcon much more to do, and Mackie relishes every moment of it.  Returning as Bucky Barnes, Sebastian Stan finally gets to show off his acting chops.  He’s been good in all of the Cap movies, but this time he gets to show that he’s more than just an action figure.

Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland nearly steal the show, bowing as Black Panther and Spider-Man respectively.  Boseman brings a fierce nobility to the role.  And even with his limited screen time, Holland already shows signs of being a better Spider-Man than previous iterations.

I could continue to gush about Captain America: Civil War, but I think you get the point.  On its own, it’s a great film.  As part of a specific genre. it’s easily in the top five.  As the last of a trilogy, it makes the Captain America series arguably one of the best, most consistent franchises in recent cinema history.

RATING: Theater