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Gavin Grades The Movies

Black Mass

Johnny Depp is an actor who was once not given nearly enough credit, then he was given a little too much credit and now he's back to not getting enough again.  Sure, he was just another forgettable albeit pretty face in A Nightmare on Elm Street but shortly after that he started to fight against that by choosing challenging films and unconventional roles.    It seemed like he changed his appearance so much that he tried to get audience members to not realize he was even in the movie.  Sure, he got an Oscar nomination for Ed Wood but he never got credit for playing against type in almost everything he did.  Then Pirates of the Caribbean came out and everyone hailed him as a genius, which he is.  Captain Jack Sparrow, which earned him another Oscar nomination, was one of his best performances and the start of a losing streak.  He's done 16 movies since the first Pirates film and none of them were great by any means.  Black Mass, however, is here to change all that.

Director Scott Cooper is a difficult artist to love.  Black Mass is only his third film but all of them have been really good and have moments of genius.  The good news is that just like with Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, Cooper manages to perfectly capture the low income environments they represent.  In this case it's South Boston as it tells the story of "Whitey" Bulger, who was one of the most wanted gangsters in America.  Cooper fills his movies with the depressed faces of regional non-actors as both speaking parts and background set pieces to create an authentic feel to that part of America.  Once again, he also crafts wonderful, heartbreaking and Oscar-worthy performances from his cast.  The sad part is that all his films move at such a sluggish pace that they feel an hour longer than they actually are; Black Mass is no exception.

You can tell when you watch this film that it was longer at one point.  That's the sign of a really bad editing job.  Certain scenes feel chopped at awkward moments.  Other scenes involve storylines that don't seem to go anywhere or get resolution.  Worst of all, there are talented actors playing what seem like important characters, that have such  limited screen time that they must have been sliced because the full version was feeling like a four-hour epic.  Not only is that a frustration while watching Black Mass but it makes it confusing at times too.  I brought my wife with me who knew nothing of the true story of Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang.  Because of the sloppy editing, she was lost often and had to ask for clarification several times.

Despite an amazing cast that involves Joel Eggerton (The Gift, The Great Gatsby), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, The Hobbit), Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey, 21 Jump Street), Kevin Bacon and many more, this is all about Depp.  He's in almost every single scene and thank God for that.  His performance is absolutely chilling.  In other gangster movies the stars drift back and forth from charming playboy to vicious killer, but not Black Mass.  Depp portrays Bulger as the sadistic animal he was rumored to be.  There are no fancy suits.  There is no seduction of women.  There isn't even a shot here and there that makes him look handsome.  Depp disappears in this performance as he does with most of characters he's played.

Black Mass is exactly what the trailers told you it was...gritty, unflinching, violent and suspenseful.  You may have to do a little research into the story before you see it but it's worth it.  I don't expect to see Black Mass show up on any Oscar lists this year; partly because it's slightly not good enough to be and Depp often gets overlooked for performances that deserve the attention.  Regardless though, if gangster movies are your cup of tea but you're in the mood to see one that looks and feels less glamorous and more real...Black Mass does the trick.

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Fantastic Four

Our heroic foursome stands together in the final scene of the movie and playfully comes up with stupid names for their super group.  Just as they nail it, the movie's over and credits roll.  That's how it ends and the reason I'm saying that is because after that is the best part of the film.  Not only is the climax that moment because the agony of this shameful attempt at a film is finally out of its misery but because it's the most dramatic.  See, I sat there through all the credits because I've been trained like a dog to do so now at comic book films in hopes that there's an extra scene at the end. There isn't one in Fantastic Four, thank God, but as I sat there and watched the thousand or so names go by of every person who work on it, I felt sad.  So many people gave a portion of their time for that movie and it turned out so tragically.  What must it feel like to be one of those people who worked for months making sure that the rock skin on The Thing looked real just to have it finalized in a complete product so massively awful?  It was the only emotion I felt while watching it and it was empathy for all those poor a-holes.

Even if you're someone who casually pays attention to movies, you may find yourself feeling deja vu with the release of Fantastic Four.  You'd be right and it was less than ten years ago that we already had our last attempt at this franchise turned into two different films.  They starred Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd (San Andreas, Horrible Bosses), Chris Evans (Captain America, The Avengers) and Michael Chiklis (The Shield, American Horror Story) and was directed by Tim Story (Think Like a Man, Ride Along).  They were absolutely awful and no one liked the first one and couldn't figure out why they even made a second one.  As unforgivably bad as those movies were (Rotten Tomatoes: 27% and 37%), this one is impressively even worse.

Fantastic Four is a comic franchise that I thought was stupid even as a child when your gauge for what's stupid is very, very forgiving.  Without going into it, it's a super group made up of scientists, named Mr. Fantastic, Mrs. Fantastic, The Human Torch and The Thing, who get super powers after returning from an alternate dimension.  They suck; they always have and they always will.  20th Century Fox needs to accept that and stop torturing us with new reboots.  No matter how young or hip or dark you make them, it's still the same basic story that made even 11-year-old Gavin say, "a guy who can stretch?  This is dumb."

Perhaps the worst part about this movie is who they brought down with it.  Miles Teller is on a hot streak and one of Hollywood's fastest rising stars.  He was in the Oscar-winning Whiplash last year but also in the Divergent series as well.  The guy is actually talented but somehow comes across as stiff, dull and so terrible you feel like you're watching someone have sex for the first time, in that you feel bad for them because they're trying but it's a total failure on all fronts.  The same can be said for Michael B. Jordan (Fruitville Station, That Awkward Moment) and Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer, Filth).  Both are good performers but are staggeringly awful in Fantastic Four.

The fault of the whole project falls on director Josh Trank (Chronicle).  He made the most boring superhero movie ever made.  The magic trick of making a 100-minute-running time feel like 300 is an illusion that hasn't been done so masterfully in a long time.  Even more impressive is that he made a reboot that was even worse than a first miserable attempt and ended up making the worst movie of the year, despite Adam Sandler releasing something in the same year.  That deserves a slow clap.  How you can make an action film devoid of action and nobody notices is either something that should kill your career or seriously make you rethink why you do what you do in the first place.  Fantastic Four is a failure and so freaking far from fantastic it's not even funny.  Alliteration!

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The Nightmare

Horror movies are a passion of mine.  Documentaries are a passion of mine.  However, in all my years of watching both, I don't think I've ever come across a horror-documentary.  There have been disturbing documentaries like Grizzly Man, The Cove, and The Act of Killing.  And, of course, we all know how many horror movies have been made to feel like documentaries.  But there is something very unique about a film that is 100% true accounts documenting the lives of subjects that was made for the sole purpose of scaring the s**t out of you.  That's The Nightmare and it succeeds big time.  The night after I watched this, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling unable to fall asleep...or perhaps it was unwilling to fall asleep.

The Nightmare is about eight people from around the world who have no connection with each other but all suffer from the sleep paralysis.  That is a disorder that makes a person's brain misfire when they sleep and they are unable to move, unable to speak, unable to wake up and, worse of all, get subjected to the most horrific hallucinations you can imagine that feel entirely real to them while they're experiencing them.  It has no cure.  It has very little knowledge about it.  And accounts of what a sleep paralysis sufferer sees is not only what horror films have pulled influence from for decades but might also be where we get the concept of demons and what they look like.

Director Rodney Ascher is a mad genius.  He enjoys making films that are dark and about mental disorders.  His previous documentary was called Room 237 and is also an absolutely excellent film.  In that, the subjects are never shown and only offer voice over.  Each of them are allowed to spill every nutty conspiracy theory and valid observation they have about Stanley Kubrik's version of The Shining.  I know that sounds monotonous but it's a rabbit hole of insanity that starts to make sense after a while.  You think it's a movie about The Shining but it's actually a wonderful documentary about obsession and how that can make a person insane.  Ascher has also directed several short horror films that are fictional but what's the most interesting is that prior to horror, both real and fake, he was respected as a comedy director of several shorts.  All of his passions come to a creative head in The Nightmare, which has just a pinch of humor in it to break the tension.

Besides the terrifying true stories that these people share about their nightly battles, there are the surreal recreations Ascher makes.  The narrative continues but the visuals bounce back and forth from interview with the subject to creepy and graphic recreations of what they're saying.  It's effective but at times it feels like a film version of any paranormal TV show like Unsolved Mysteries, Haunted America or stuff like that.  Sure, the recreations are scarier than what you'd see on TV but they're almost unnecessary.  The stories that the people are telling is enough to make your hairs stand on end and icy chills cover your skin.  The actors in the recreations are better quality than cable shows but it's still not enough to shake that feeling that there's gonna be a commercial break at any second.

Saying that something is scary is even more subjective than saying something is funny.  What scares me may not scare you.  The Nightmare is one of the first films that I'm pretty confident saying is universally scary.  Granted, it all depends on when and where you see it.  It's available on iTunes at the same time as in limited theaters.  I watched it on iTunes and sat in my house alone at night, which is perfect for making something creepy.  I recommend that approach but I'd imagine that even if you make it all the way through and don't think it's scary at all; later that night you'll run through some of what you saw and heard and rethink that.

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Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Spy movies have never really done much for me.  Never got into James Bond.  Never even saw the Bourne films.  Mission: Impossible is a spy franchise that has been around as feature films since 1996.  I remember seeing the first one with my friends in high school and we loved it.  It's hard to believe that almost 20 years later, they're still making them and they're only getting better.  Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation wasn't a film I was looking forward to seeing but it was one of the most exciting movies of the summer.

One thing that amazing about the Mission franchise is that every installment has been made by a different director.  Normally that's a sign of a franchise in trouble but not in this case.  On top of that, every single film has been made by directors that are masters.  Brian De Palma (Scarface, Carrie) did the first one.  John Woo (Face/Off, The Killer) made the second.  JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Super 8) did the third.  Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) did Ghost Protocol.  Which brings us to the director of Rogue Nation.  His name is Christopher McQuarrie and he's not so much a major name.  He's done a lot of writing (like The Usual Suspects) but this is only his third movie he's directed and the other two aren't very good.  I don't know if it's because Cruise is a good luck charm but you can't tell that McQuarrie is an unremarkable filmmaker for a second because this is the best in the series.

It was a trending story when it came out that Tom Cruise does a stunt in Rogue Nation where he's hanging on the side of a plane as it takes off and then flies around.  It wasn't CGI.  It wasn't a stunt man.  It wasn't even a tiny plane that flew slowly a few hundred feet over the ground.  Cruise is on the side of a plane that is going full speed and flying over the earth.  It's a stunt that is so amazingly spectacular it takes your breath away and made the audience in my theater burst into applause at the scene's conclusion.  That scene is at the very beginning of the movie; like, before the opening credits.  How ballsy is that?!  You take the scene everyone is talking about and show it right away.  What's even more impressive than all that is that it's not even the most exciting sequence in the film.

Rogue Nation is a reminder that doing practical stunts will always be better than CGI...always!  Some of the action scenes are so breathtaking, I had trouble watching them.  Not only are they all super fun but they're done so well.  The colors, the photography, the scenery, everything in all of them is stellar.  McQuarrie nails it not only as the film's director but writer as well!  The script is complex and filled with peril but still manages to have the perfect amount of humor at the right places.  Cruise is at his best as well and reminds us why he's the top shelf star in the first place.  Besides great performances from the returning cast of Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, American Hustle), Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead) and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek) there's the addition of Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules) and Sean Harris (Prometheus, '71).  Ferguson is sexy and dangerous.  Harris is a creepy presence despite having a serpentine voice that makes him hard to understand.

I don't know if it's because Mission Impossible is a franchise from 20 years ago.  I don't know if it's because it's based on a TV show from the '60s.  I don't know if it's because it stars Tom Cruise and he is a superstar who isn't as popular as he used to be.  Something about the franchise feels a little stale.  I don't know many people that get excited for it and it's not something that is guarenteed to rocket it to the #1 at the box office.  However, Rogue Nation is a thrilling and fun film that shined brighter than all the other action movies of the summer.  Not too shabby for clunky, 20-year-old vehicle.

Want to see an advanced screening of Mission: Impossible - Rogue NationEnter for your chance to win HERE!

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It's cliche at this point to say that Judd Apatow movies run too long.  It's actually becoming a joke unto themselves.  "Hey, I'm going to see the new Apatow movie."  "Oh yeah?  Well, hopefully you took a nap before because it's a long one."  Listen, no doubt the man has his place in modern American comedy.  He's the reason for so many of the A-list comic actors that we have today.  But really, he's only directed two really funny films.  The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up are both arguably hilarious.  But Funny People and This is 40 are both massive disapointments.  Trainwreck was supposed to be his sign of hope.  He handed the reigns of writing over to Amy Schumer entirely.  It was a risky move and, sadly, it did not pan out.

Schumer is funny.  Her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer is not only hilarious but doing important work addressing important issues, mostly around the treatment of women, and still managing to do it in a funny way.  Because of that success, I can understand why Apatow would put so many eggs in her basket.  I would expect a funny, smart, edgy, feminist romantic comedy from Schumer and what she ended up writing was a funny-ish, dumb, edgy, cliche romantic comedy.  Not only is it unoriginal, it's exactly what we've seen hundreds of times.  All that Schumer did was take every single element you'd see in every romantic comedy and simply swapped the sexes of the two leads.  She couldn't have even made it from a woman's perspective because the woman in the film, played by Schumer, has all the cliche characteristics of the male lead in every romantic comedy.

Apatow is no help either.  He leans so heavily on improv that lines make no sense and scenes go on too long.  It's like he's being allowed to do whatever he wants without a single Hollywood producer saying "Hey, maybe you should end the scene five minutes earlier and cut out that whole segment that is 15 minutes long and a complete distraction from the story."  And trust me, I don't like Hollywood creeps mucking with directors' films but in the case of Apatow, somebody has to do it since he doesn't have the "enough-is-enough" gene in his body.  The other thing that he goes to again is casting wacky non-actors to catch us off guard.  Wrestler John Cena and basketball star LeBron James both have big roles in the film.  Sure, they both do great with what they have but it doesn't make any sense for the story and it's distracting.

The one thing that Trainwreck has going for it is a great performance from Colin Quinn (SNL, Grown-Ups).  The comic does a decent performance as Schumer's ailing father who's suffering from M.S.  Even though his storyline is completely unneeded for the plot, it is touching and certain scenes show that Schumer really has a wide range of acting ability.  Bill Hader also stars as the role that is typically played by a woman and everything about his performance makes that abundantly clear.  Hader is one of the funniest people to come out of SNL and kills it in almost everything he's in.  Why you would waste that talent on a part that doesn't do anything funny in the entire movie, that's longer than two hours, is beyond me.

Don't get me wrong, Trainwreck has some scenes that are very funny.  The scenes in-between, however, are irritating, unfunny, paint-by-number and dull.  The movie is far from an actual trainwreck but it's also far from an actual success.  Considering this is his fifth feature film and it's continuing the trend of dissapointment, I have to say that I'm no longer looking forward to Apatow projects.  He seems like a good, ernest guy who cares deeply for comedy and social causes but it might appear that his best is behind him.  I hope I'm wrong about that but I'm not holding much hope for his future.

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When I went to the screening of Southpaw, I took my wife.  On the way home, the movie Rocky came up in conversation, as you could imagine.  My wife has seen Rocky once and she didn't really like it.  I know, I've already played out how that would look to our families as justification for divorce.  She enjoyed Southpaw more than I did and what was driving me crazy was that everything she liked about it was already done in Rocky but done better.  Sure, Rocky has become played out and material for endless parody but it is the greatest Boxing movie of all time and possibly the greatest sports movie of all time too.  So I have sympathy for anyone who tries to make a film about boxing because they're gonna cover a lot of the same ground that the greatest already did.  That'll make your film look weak, no matter how well you do it.

Southpaw stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a world class professional boxer at the top of his career who gets kicked back down to the bottom after tragedy strikes his family.  It's basically Cinderella Man but a lot more raw, emotional and untrue.  Gyllenhaal puts in a performance that we've grown to expect from him now.  He has clearly proven himself to be a top shelf performer and someone who is long overdue for an Oscar (the fact that he wasn't even nominated last year for Nightcrawler is a goddamn crime).  Southpaw probably won't win anyone any awards but Gyllenhaal doesn't know that and turns in a gut-wrenching performance that feels as brutal and grievious as any one he's done so far in his career.  Not to mention the fact that dude beefed up an extra 25 lbs. of muscle and got pretty damn good at pretending to box like a boxer.

Director Antoine Fuqua is one of the great action filmmakers working today.  Sure, he's paid the bills with some pretty terrible films but those are mostly the fault of shotty screenplays and hack actors.  But what Fuqua does so well is kick ass with action while never losing sight of drama.  Training Day is still one of my favorite movies and last year's The Equalizer was one of the most shockingly excellent films of 2014.  His directing in Southpaw is no different.  He puts us squarely in the ring and, with the help of superb sound editing, makes us feel like we're not just throwing fists but getting hit as well.  But that's easy compared to getting raw emotion out of your actors.  The pivotal scene in which tragedy strikes Gyllenhaal's character stays in the moment a minute too long and makes you feel like you're a helpless bystander that should look away but simply can't.  

The rest of the cast turns in performances that are good but not great.  Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris, The Notebook), Forrest Whittaker (Panic Room, The Butler) and even 50 Cent are all decent enough to keep the film from getting too heavy resting on Gyllenhaal's shoulders.  But the supporting player who steals every scene she's in is young Oona Laurence.  She may not have many films to her resume but this New York-based 13-year-old already won a Tony Award and she might have thrown her hat in the ring for an Oscar nomination too.  She is absolutely heartbreaking as the daughter of Gyllenhaal and McAdams who turns in adult-sized emotion in every scene.

The problem with Southpaw is that it's nothing new, like at all.  It's incredibly predictable and cliche at this point.  The other issue is that Fuqua brings us down so far and so hard with Gyllenhaal's fall from grace that it's excruciating to watch.  It feels like sadness is over half the movie.  I'm fine with that but if you're gonna bring me down that far, you have to bring me up even higher and over the same amount of time.  That's not what happens.  The scales are tipped in a way that's not favorable to the story.  There's so much time spent showing how far our hero falls that when his inevitable return to the top comes, it goes too quickly and feels rushed, therefore feeling unsatisfying.  Southpaw is fine and serves slightly more than what most expected from it.  More importantly to some, it could be the greatest boxing film you've ever seen...if you don't like Rocky...but if that's the case, you've got terrible taste in movies anyway.

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The dream of every young filmmaker is to get your stuff seen and hope someone thinks it's good enough that they hire you to make big-budget, fancy Hollywood feature films.  In the case of Patrick Jean, I wonder if he regrets having that dream come true.  Five years ago he made the short film Pixels, which was about old school '80s video game characters coming to life and destroying the planet.  The whole thing was only two minutes long and was uploaded to YouTube but it became a viral sensation...at least in the nerd world.  Among the people who saw that was Adam Sandler, who made Jean an offer to buy the story from him and let him (kinda) work on it as a producer for a feature film version.  What we have is what I reviewed and it was terrible.

Besides Sandler, I'll bet Jean was pretty excited about the team assembled for the movie.  Kevin James, Peter Dinklage (HBO's Game of Thrones, Death at a Funeral) and Josh Gad (Frozen, The Wedding Ringer) were cast as well as Chris Columbus coming on as a director.  I mean, the guy was responsible for Home Alone, Harry Potter, and Mrs. Doubtfire.  Plus, Seth Gordon came on as a Executive Producer.  He's responsible for Horrible Bosses, ABC's The Goldbergs and one of the best documentaries of all time, The King of Kong (which is about the race to get the all-time high score in Donkey Kong).  It's not exactly a dream team of Oscar winners but you could do a lot worse.  However, with the exception of Gad, everyone was off their game with Pixels.

Sandler is a mystery to me.  I'm not sure what blackmail he has over all of Hollywood but he still makes movies despite the fact that he hasn't made a good one in nine years and that's even being nice and saying Click was a good movie.  Adam Sandler is so awful that he manages to spread his suck like a virus on otherwise talented people.  Kevin James seemed funny enough until he buddied up with Sandler and then he made movies that make you feel bad for him.  Dinklage is an award-winner for Christ's sake and he's virtually unwatchable in Pixels.  His character is groan-inducing and makes you wonder what drug he was on while making this that would distort his reality so much it would make him think he was turning in a good performance.  

The only saving grace is Josh Gad.  The man is one of the funniest people working today, despite having one persona.  He is the only reason why this can still be considered a comedy.  There are scenes where his performance had me belly laughing until it was ruined by someone else in the movie opening their mouth.  Everything else that goes for laughs falls flat if Gad isn't involved.  The only other reason to possibly check out Pixels is because the action sequences are actually fun.  Columbus does a decent job of making video game characters that don't register with anyone under the age of 18 still seem cool.  If this stirs a resurgence in Defender, Pac-Man and Centipede that would be pretty cool.  At least something positive would come out of this.

So as you can see, Pixels is a failure for the most part.  Now imagine you're Patrick Jean.  How does it feel to have this happen to something you worked so hard to create?  I don't know.  I guess he could be thrilled he got a decent pay day on something that turned out to suck or does he feel devastated that someone took his baby and turned it into a mess.  Who knows?  I feel bad for him.  But if Pixels taught us anything it's that perhaps a 2-minute-long film doesn't have enough meat on it to be stretched out by another 88 minutes.  Or maybe it's just that the Sandler virus continues its reign of terror of cineplexes everywhere without a cure in sight.  Either way, it's a problem Hollywood needs to solve.

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The road to the big screen was a very rocky one for Ant-Man.  The original writer and director was Edgar Wright.  For anyone who doesn't know Wright's work, he's the genius behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs.The World and The World's End.  The man hasn't made a bad film yet and they all have a crisp, frenzied comedic pace so the idea of him helming a Marvel film made every fanboy embarrassed to stand up in front of a crowd for a bit.  Everything was going well in development, or so we thought, until it was announced that Wright was leaving the project after her butted heads with Marvel.  This was devastating but it got worse when his replacement was announced to be Peyton Reed.  Besides inspired TV comedies early in his career like Mr. Show and The Weird Al Show, the man has made crap romantic comedy after crap romantic comedy, such as The Break-Up, Down with Love and Bring It On.  I'm very pleased to say that, although Ant-Man isn't perfect, it's far better than most of us feared it would be.

When something stars Paul Rudd, it's a safe bet that it's going to be funny.  Sure he might be in some bad movies from time to time but Rudd is consistently funny.  That is no different in Ant-Man.  He was a brilliant casting and to Rudd's credit he finds a way to be a different kind of smooth-talking, funny hero hunk than Chris Pratt's Starlord and Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man.  What's even better than Rudd is the cast that surrounds him.  Michael Douglas is back in his first big movie since his cancer scare and his presence on the screen reminds us of why we loved him to begin with.  Corey Stoller (FX's The Strain, This Is Where I Leave You) is one of the scariest villains Marvel has had in a long time.  Maybe not so much when he's Dr. Darren Cross, but more so when he dons the Yellowjacket suit.  Evangeline Lilly (ABC's Lost, Real Steel) is great as the strongest female character they've had since Black Widow.  But the scene-stealer is Michael Peña who makes me laugh with every line he delivers.  His performance is a reminder that he can kill it in comedy just as well as he can kill it in dramas like Crash and End of the Watch.

The other collaborative star of the film is the writing team that put together this killer script.  Wright still gets credit as one of the writers since the foundation for what we see was his story and script.  Rudd even joined as one of the writers as well.  Wright's writing partner on his original script was Joe Cornish who made the indie British sci-fi comedy Attack the Block that was quirky and smart and his collaboration with Wright really shines through.  But the biggest contribution, and most shocking as well, was Adam McKay.  He's the comedic guru behind Anchorman, The Other Guys, Step Brothers and Funny or Die.  He's fantastic and bringing him in on a Marvel film was genius and paid off in spades.  Ant-Man is actually more funny than it is thrilling.  That will disappoint some who are looking for another comic book popcorn-chomper but it almost works more as a comedy than action.

One element to Ant-Man that will get overlooked a lot is the amazing musical score composed by Christophe Beck.  The guy has done so much amazing work doing the music for films like Frozen, The Muppets and Pitch Perfect but this might be some of his finest work.  Despite the fact that Ant-Man is set during modern times, the music is VERY throwback to the spy thrillers of the '60s.  It's jazzy, fast and feels totally out-of-place for a comic book film...and that's why it's so perfect.  See, after a slow-paced first half, the rest of the film turns into an Oceans 11-type heist.  None of the characters are smooth James Bonds by any means but the story tries to be.  Beck's soundtrack is this weird dichotomy between a goofball superhero's team of burglars and slick corporate takedown.

It's true that Ant-Man is slow at first and takes a while to ramp up but that's all somewhat necessary in an introduction film.  Ant-Man is a character almost as obscure as The Guardians of the Galaxy and even more ridiculous.  In order for the American public to buy into something as silly as Ant-Man, you have to have a lengthy build-up.  Because of that, the movie feels plodding.  It's also way more on-the-nose sliding into the Avengers world than any other first installment in the Marvel universe.  That's not totally a bad thing and it fits the tone of the film.  (Make sure you stay till the end of the credits since a very short but important scene sets up an important Civil War film, coming soon.)  Ant-Man is fun, cute and will generally please audiences on a mainstream level but may dissapoint the Marvel die-hards that are looking for epic battles.  Depending on which camp you fall into will determine your level of enjoyment.

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To be fair, I need to say that I've not yet seen either Despicable Me films.  However, Minions is a prequel to those and one of the signs of a well done prequel is that you don't need to know anything about the others to enjoy it.  Minions doesn't seem to have anything in it that is crucial information from the others.  In fact, it's a backstory for secondary characters that people loved so much from the first one, that Illumination Studios decided the world needed an entire film about them.  We didn't.  The reason why secondary characters are so lovable is because they get just the right amount of screen time.  Imagine if there was a whole show about Kramer from Seinfeld or a movie that was just about Bubba from Forrest Gump.  Sometimes we want just a pinch of lovable characters because too much can put a bad taste in our mouths.

Minions is a bad movie but what's interesting about it is...I'm not exactly sure why.  I've seen hundreds of movies as a critic and rarely am I stumped as to why a movie sucks.  Usually you can point to bad directing, a lousy script or piss-poor acting but this is a kid's movie.  Outside of Pixar, no one goes to see a movie made for children and expects to see Oscar-worthy cinema or prepares to have their souls quaked.  I can usually look past movies like Home and The Smurfs and say, "Well, I'm not their target audience."  But I brought my son to see Minions and he was even bored by it.  But again, I'm not sure why.

One possibility is that Minions was a needless moneygrab by a studio trying to squeeze blood from a stone.  I've heard good things about the first Despicable Me and I can understand a sequel to it.  They even have a third on in the works.  I get all that.  But trying to branch off and make a whole movie about characters that are cute and funny to some and horribly irritating to others while also keeping the Despicable franchise going seems greedy and the movie comes off like that.  It doesn't serve a purpose and feels phoned-in from the crude animation, stupid plot, jokes that don't seem to appeal to any generation and predictable like I've never seen a movie before.  I guess all that falls on the shoulders of directors Pierre Coffin, who directed the other two Despicable Me films, and Kyle Balda (The Lorax).

The one thing that I'll give Coffin is that he does the voice of all the Minions.  I know, I know...they all sound the same.  Sure, but that's not what makes them impressive.  Minionese, the language they speak, is actually not gibberish.  It's a combination of several different languages that's written and performed impressively.  I will say that doing an entire feature film about characters who don't speak English is ballsy but it's still too much.  After about an hour, you're ready for them to take a backseat to some other characters, like they should, but they never do.  That wouldn't have helped anyway because the other characters are equally annoying.  Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm are the human stars and Hamm especially is impressively even more annoying that the Minions.

I understand that Minions has a built-in audience and I am not that guy.  Perhaps my first exposure to them should have been in the first film where their screen time is limited to an adorable amount.  That's giving this film the benefit of the doubt though.  The truth is that this is a movie that wasn't thought out well, nor executed properly.  It will make tons of money, which is probably all the studio cares about but it might be a Pyrrhic victory.  You know what that is?  It's when someone wins a battle but at such a cost that it's actually a defeat because they can't carry on.  With Despicable Me 3 on the horizon, will Minions do so much damage to the franchise that no one will care or want to see it?  Or maybe they'll just be too burned out on the characters by then.  I predict that might happen.  

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The Gallows

Backstory on this film is that the writing/directing team of Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing are local boys from Fresno.  I love supporting local artists wherever I can and I heard from the studio behind The Gallows as well as the guys' family members who reached out to me that they really wanted to do an interview.  I was excited to help these guys out and I was proud of them (despite never meeting them) for making a feature film that was getting nationally released.  I went into the screening of The Gallows excited, optimistic and really hopeful that I was about to see the birth of a brand new horror franchise and then be able to be part of the support system to shoot the film and local artists to stardom.  Well, after I saw the film, I called the studio and canceled the interview; not to be mean but because I don't know what I could say to them when they asked me how I liked it because I didn't want to hurt their feelings...it's that bad.

Before you think that The Gallows is the first and last attempt Cluff and Lofing will ever have in Hollywood, I sincerely hope that isn't so.  This film has a very interesting premise despite not being very original.  Anyone who's ever done live theater has looked out into a dark empty audience or walked around the quiet backstage area and freaked themselves out.  The Gallows plays on that premise that a high school theater is haunted by a vengeful ghoul that lives in the rafters.  If that sounds like Phantom of the Opera without the music, you're right.  What's not unoriginal is implausible and hackneyed.  The film's villain is the spirit (yet it grew up to be an adult somehow) of a high school student who accidentally died during a production of the fake titular play.  A few decades later, the school is doing the same play again because that's a totally believable thing a public school would do.  Yes, this is where anyone that's even remotely thinking rolls their eyes.

As if all of that isn't bad enough, we've got another "found footage" disaster on our hands.  I know this genre has been around since 1980 when Cannibal Holocaust invented it but when The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, that was when it became the genre that wouldn't die.  There are some movies that have come out that have used this in very creative, very effective ways.  But a massive majority of "found footage" films are total garbage and it makes me sad that The Gallows is one of the worst examples of it.  Not only is it ludacrous why anyone would be filming what's happening in the film the entire time, it's not even done effectively or believably.  

One of the crucial components of a "found footage" film is stellar improvisation acting from the cast.  The Gallows features a team of young unknown actors (one of which is Kathy Lee Giffords' daughter) playing the high schoolers trapped in peril.  To help them act naturally and feel more like classmates, the directors even had each of them play characters that share their real names.  On their own and in other projects each of them might be somewhat decent but in The Gallows, they were all terrible.  There was no chemistry between them, horrible dialogue that doesn't ring authentic for a second and acting so bad you'd expect to see it in an actual high school production.

Now see, there I go...I feel bad.  I really am proud of Cluff and Lofing for actually accomplishing something that 99% of people never even get close to doing.  The premise is spooky and interesting, despite being ridiculous and unlikely. The ending is predictable but still clever and cool.  The scare jumps, which is all this movie has to lean on, are well placed for the most part.  And they did a good job of making it PG-13 even though the MPAA gave this an R-rating for absolutely no freaking reason at all (so much so, I'm shocked they didn't challenge that rating considering there's no swearing, blood or nudity).  I know this was their first try but it's really bad even for a first try.  I'm willing to say they deserve another chance to learn from their mistakes.  They seem to have traces of talent as filmmakers and I'm excited to see what they do next...or maybe that's just giving them a free pass cause they're local.  Who knows.

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