BARE BONES: PEPPERMINT (2018)

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PEPPERMINT (2018)

Loving wife and mother RIley North (Jennifer Garner) watches in horror when she sees her husband (Jeff Hephner) and daughter (Cailey Fleming) gunned down by members of a drug cartel on her daughter’s birthday. After a failed attempt to bring the thugs to justice, Riley disappears. Five years later, members of the cartel start dying and it seems Riley North has transformed into an avenging angel and revenge is exactly what she is back for!

Film is directed very by-the-numbers by Pierre Morel from an extremely lazy script by Chad St. John. Lazy because the most important aspects of the story, such as Riley’s transformation from mom to vigilante and even the killing of the three men actually responsible for her husband and daughter’s deaths, occur off-screen. We jump five years after the ineffective trial to RIley’s war on the cartel in midstream. All we get is some FBI babble about her spending time in Europe and Asia and being a cage fighter to a gun store theft with Riley taking some very specific weaponry. Riley is now wiping out cartel members like a widowed Rambo and becoming a folk hero on the mean streets in the process. Where did she acquire her arms training? Her knowledge of guns and ammo? She’s outmaneuvering and mowing down men who have spent their entire lives with guns and in gangs. When we last saw Riley she was a banker. What really happened to her in those five years aside from what little we are told? That’s what’s important to give the story some needed substance, but St. John’s script gives us scraps and more clichés than Riley delivers bullets. Even an 80s style training montage would have supplied more information. At least Garner is very effective as Riley and it’s too bad her soulful anti-heroine isn’t in a much better movie that the actress’ work deserves.

-MonsterZero NJ

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BARE BONES: VENOM (2018)

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VENOM (2018)

Comic book based flick finds intrepid reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) investigating the Life Foundation and it’s CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who unbeknownst to Eddie has just retrieved some symbiotic organisms from space. Eddie gets infected by one of those organisms when sneaking into the foundation headquarters and now he and the alien creature become one as the anti-hero Venom! Can they stop Drake, who has acquired his own sinister symbiote and plans to help them invade the Earth?

Film is directed well enough by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), but from a mess of a script by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel. What story there is, is all over the place and the tone of the film goes back and forth from serious Sci-fi thriller to absurd comedy, sometimes in the same scene. Hardy can be a hoot at times, though, with an eccentric performance and the relationship between he and Venom can be amusing. There are a few decent action sequences, but the human villains are boring and Venom and his adversary Riot are obvious cheesy CGI creations and have no real weight or presence. Overall it’s a silly film, with sub-standard SPFX and is possibly the worst Marvel flick since the equally messy and tonally challenged Iron Man 3. You’d think with the success of the R-rated Deadpool, they’d have gone for something a lot edgier considering the subject matter.
A schizophrenic and forgettable first solo venture for the Spider-Man villain turned anti-hero, though box office returns will probably earn it the sequel the mid-credits scene sets up. Also stars Michelle Williams as Brock’s long suffering girlfriend Anne and a cameo from Woody Harrelson as a familiar face from the Venom comics.

-MonsterZero NJ

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REVIEW: SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

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Latest Star Wars flick is an unnecessary origin story for iconic pilot Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). It gives us brief glimpses of his life as a street thief, to his days as an imperial trooper, to meeting Chewbacca and finally his start as a smuggler, including his legendary Kessel Run. And as far as a story, that’s kinda it.

Written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan, the film was a troubled production that saw original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller leave the project to be replaced by Ron Howard, who did a lot of re-shoots. While the resulting film is not the mess once might anticipate, it’s also an underwhelming flick that never finds it’s footing or feels like the making of a legend it should. First problem is that actor Alden Ehrenreich never evokes Han Solo. If not for Chewbacca standing by his side and eventually getting in the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon, he could be any generic space hero. Secondly, with all the iconic moments that are presented, such as getting his name and his gun and meeting his famous furry co-pilot, none of them are presented with much weight. The story also seems to be a bunch of set pieces strung together and thus we have no emotional involvement as the rebooted Han goes from place to place, meeting scoundrels like Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), villains like Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) and his sweetheart turned criminal arm-piece Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). It’s almost like they were making it up as they went along. None of it has any emotional resonance and aside from a few fun action scenes, none of it is very memorable. It rarely feels like a Star Wars film though having a bit of a different look and a grittier tone, was, at least, refreshing.

The cast all try hard, but no one really shines in what probably was a difficult shoot. As stated, Alden Ehrenreich never evokes the legendary character he plays and is a bit too much of a pretty boy to be the space pirate we all know and love. Harrelson phones in his Tobias Beckett, which is a shame as Woody is usually the one to add life to a movie. Clarke is pretty, but doesn’t generate much heat or make her character very memorable. She’s a generic love interest trying and failing to be a bit of a femme fatale. Her character just comes off as flat. Bettany is also very bland as villain Vos. He could be a generic gangster from any movie. The only person who generates some life is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian and he, sadly, isn’t given all that much to do.

So, it’s not quite the disaster early word was predicting, but is still disappointingly mediocre. Rebooting a character this iconic has to be done just right…like J.J. Abrams Star Trek casting. Here Alden Ehrenreich falls short. The rest of the cast, Glover aside, phone in their performances and the story is too thin to get one emotionally involved. There is some fun action, though the film fails to make it’s iconic moments…well, iconic. A disappointing attempt to prequelize one of cinema’s most beloved scoundrels.

-MonsterZero NJ

  2 and 1/2 Millennium Falcons.

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BARE BONES: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

Intense drama tells the story of angry mother, Mildred Hayes (an amazing Frances McDormand), who sees, what she believes, to be a lack of effort on her local sheriff’s (Woody Harrelson) part in catching the man who raped and murdered her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton). In response, she puts up three billboards on the outskirts of her small town calling the police force out on their failings. This not only sets the town against her, as they sympathize with a sheriff dying of cancer, but also puts her, and those affiliated, in the cross hairs of his ignorant and hateful second in command, Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, this is a powerful film, that not only illustrates what anger and hatred causes folks to do, but the consequences of those actions. The film is not really about Angela’s murder, but the effect it has had on her family and the town they live in, mostly on the rage coming from mother Mildred. The film also delivers some surprising transformations as the effects of all this anger and hatred changes people, some for the better, others for worse. McDonagh gets some fantastic performances out of his cast, especially McDormand and Rockwell and his script gives some intense dialogue and material for the cast to work from. Maybe the film isn’t perfect, one wonders if this town arrests anyone for anything at times, but it is a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Also stars Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Samara Weaving and Abbie Cornish.

-MonsterZero NJ

three and one half stars rating

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REVIEW: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Third installment of this series, that acts as both prequel and reboot, joins the war between humans and apes two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that started it. The war is starting to turn against Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the apes due to the aggressive methods of a psychotic colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar suffers personal loss and while on a mission of revenge, the apes are captured and enslaved by the colonel and his troops. Can Caesar free the apes and get them to a safe haven across the dessert before the colonel sees them all dead?

Second sequel is again directed by Matt Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback. As with Dawn this is an intense film both in terms of action and emotional depth and it’s all expertly directed by Reeves. Like his last go around, Reeves really gives his characters a three dimensional-ity and that certainly includes his motion capture CGI simians. This might be the most dramatically intense of the three films and when the action does come it’s a fast and furious spectacle that evokes some of the best war films. There are also some very subtle but clever nods to the original series, such as a mute little girl with a very familiar name.  The score is again by a returning Michael Giacchino and it adds atmosphere to a very solid entry in this clever re-imagining.

The cast are all strong, even though most of the principles are motion capture. Andy Serkis is once again very good as the ape leader Ceasar. He gives the character a lot of emotional depth through his body language and dialogue and it might be his best performance as the simian hero. Harrelson delivers another solid performance as the cruel, ape hating colonel. While he is most certainly the villain here, the script allows Harrelson to give him a human side, one built on fear and loss, so that he is not a two dimensional monster, but a human driven to hatred and cruelty due to his own inner pain and fear. Despite his heinous actions and cruel behavior, there is a person under the layers of anger and brutality. The supporting characters all do good work, too, from Karin Konoval as ape Maurice. Steve Zahn as the eccentric “Bad Ape” and little Amiah Miller as the mute Nova.

So, another top notch entry in this reboot series from Matt Reeves. It was as emotionally strong as it was filled with intense action. There was a good script and solid direction to go along with some very strong acting both from those playing humans to the motion capture performers behind our simian characters. A really good movie in a very solid series. If it is the last one, it is a fitting climax.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Caesars.

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REVIEW: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)

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Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) has always walked to the beat of her own drum…and it hasn’t made life any easier when it comes to school and making friends. Her dad was one of the only people she felt understood her and he passed away four years earlier. She is jealous over her super popular older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), especially when her one and only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating him. Feeling betrayed, Nadine sets out to find her place in the world with a little help from her cynical teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and Erwin, a nerdy classmate (Hayden Szeto) who might be what she’s been looking for all along, but is too absorbed in her own drama to notice.

Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this is a poignant, feisty and sometimes very funny coming of age story with a firecracker performance from it’s leading lady. One of the things that makes this comedy/drama so enjoyable is that Craig uses the familiar tropes that we expect from these movies, yet keeps them fresh, so they don’t quite come across as the well-worn clichés they are. Her script paints a portrait of a spirited and slightly eccentric young girl who is just trying to find her place. She doesn’t quite feel comfortable with most of her peers and is sort of left to wander once she feels she’s lost her best and only friend. Nadine embarks on a funny and heartfelt journey of discovery both in herself and in those around her. Sometimes what you are looking for is right in front of you and Nadine needs to find that out for herself. There are some very funny scenes and some well written and sometimes cleverly raunchy dialogue, especially for Steinfeld’s Nadine. If the film, stumbles a little it is that a scene where Nadine goes on a ‘date’ with a boy she’s crushing on, goes perhaps a tad too far in making it’s point that this guy isn’t what she needs. It’s a bit rough and uncomfortable and sticks out somewhat when the rest of the film had a nice balance to it between comedy and drama. Nadine also seemed a bit too smart to make such a dumb mistake and it seemed a little out of character for the socially inept girl even if she was confused and frustrated at this point. Despite some minor flaws this is a well written and directed tale of a young girl trying to become a young woman who remains herself, yet doesn’t feel so isolated in the world around her.

As for the actors, Craig gets good work from a good cast. Hailee Steinfeld gives a spunky and spirited performance as Nadine. The character of the sarcastic loner has been seen before, but Steinfeld injects her with her own personality and really plays well the emotional confusion of being at that age between teen and adulthood. She delivers the lines with a cynicism of an older person, yet portrays a girl not quite old enough to handle some of the things she’s feeling. At that age you overreact to some things and under-react to others and the script and actress nail that very well. Hailee Steinfeld is a star in the making. While it is a one woman show, to a degree, there is some great supporting work. Harrelson once again proves he has become one of the most consistent and durable actors around with his cynical, yet caring performance as Mr. Bruner, Nadine’s favorite teacher and the one she comes to when she needs guidance or someone to rant to. Harrelson deftly captures the balance of a man who knows that sometimes teens need to figure these things out for themselves and yet, sometimes they need a little help. Solid work from an actor who has become a reliable performer in a variety of roles. Kyra Sedgwick is good as Nadine’s self absorbed widow of a mom. She gives us a women who wants to have a better relationship with her daughter, but is frustrated as to how to achieve that. Hayden Szeto is charming and likable as Erwin, a boy Nadine befriends who is a quirky film nerd and may be what Nadine needs, if only she stopped looking past him to realize it. Haley Lu Richardson is likable as the Nadine’s best friend Krista, who is difficultly caught in the middle of Nadine and her brother when she starts dating her popular sibling. Rounding out is former Glee actor Blake Jenner, who adds some nice depth to what could have been the stereotypical popular jock as Nadine’s brother Darian. A very good cast that make a good script come to life.

Overall, I really enjoyed this coming of age flick for taking the clichés and adding a feisty coat of paint to them. It had some nice emotional depth, some heartfelt humor and some delightfully, witty dialogue, even when being a bit raunchy. It stumbles a bit with a scene that was maybe a bit too uncomfortable for it’s own good, but that sequence had a purpose and did serve it, thought bluntly. Otherwise filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig delivered a spirited and empathetic movie in a film sub-genre that can be crass and crude while forgetting the emotional turmoil of this sensitive age…one thing The Edge Of Seventeen does not overlook.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Nadines.

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REVIEW: OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

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OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

Out Of The Furnace is a very intense and well-acted drama that only makes one glaring plot mistake in an otherwise solidly written film by Crazy Heart’s Scott Cooper. The film takes place in the run-down steel town of  North Braddock, PA. and tells the story of brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) Baze. Russell is a good natured and hard working man who, like his ailing father, works at the steel mill and earns a meager but honest living. Rodney is a traumatized Iraqi war veteran whose inner rage prevents him from finding peace with a normal job and turns to gambling and illegal fighting under the guidance of small town crook, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). A tragic accident sees a tired and mildly intoxicated Russell hit another car and kill the mother and child within. This sends Russell to prison while Rodney’s inability to take a fall when required, leaves him in growing debt. Once his time is done, Russell is released to find his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) has left him for the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), his father has died and Rodney in deep with the sleazy local gangster Petty. But despite his efforts to set his brother straight and get his life in order, Rodney forces Petty to get him involved with an illegal bare-knuckles fight run by vicious backwoods gangster Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) in the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. Rodney hopes this big payoff will clear his debt with Petty and clear Petty’s debt with DeGroat. But Harlan DeGroat is a devious and vile person and despite taking the fall he was told too, Rodney and Petty do not return home. The law’s inability to pierce the veil of silence around these mountain-folk and exact justice sets the mild-mannered Russell on a vengeful collision course that will put him face to face with a very dangerous man.

Make no mistake, as directed and co-written (with Brad Ingelsby) by Scott Cooper, this is a strong and sometimes powerful drama about a man who wants to live a simple, peaceful life, but is forced by circumstance to put his good-naturedness aside and take vengeful action. During the 80s this kind of plot might have been a far simpler film starring the likes of Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal, but under Cooper’s guidance, a simple revenge flick becomes a powerful story filled with multi-dimensional characters. And it is the characters that are the focus of this tale and not the minimal gunfire or occasional violence…though that has it’s own intensity as well. Which does bring me to my one gripe….

…As this film does choose to focus on the characters and the effects the film’s events has on their lives, I found it very hard to believe that Russell would put innocent people in harm’s way and in one instance, get someone killed for his own personal revenge. I understand he is driven by anger and frustration, but especially after seeing how torn-up he was after his car accident cost two innocents their lives, the fact that even now he would again put lives in danger, other than his own, is hard for me to accept. It’s the only major flaw I find with this otherwise engrossing drama. I don’t believe Russell would put his quest for payback before the lives of others and here he does not once but twice. To discuss it any deeper would be to present plot points important to the story, so I won’t go any further, but it doesn’t make sense coming from the character we’ve gotten to know.

And as we are discussing the characters, it’s only fitting to mention the great cast that brings them to life. Bale is once again near brilliant as the simple, kind-hearted Russell and portrays his slow burn path from simple steelworker taken by the events around him on courses that shatter the quiet life he seeks and has him turn against his very own moral code. Casey Affleck is a rage-filled powder keg and despite his anger and inner pain, we do feel sympathy for a man who fought through a nightmare for his country and now feels lost and abandoned by it. He and Bale have some really intense scenes together and I do mean intense. Defoe is solid, as always, as the sleazy, yet somehow likable small time crook Petty. He seems like the type of small fish criminal who doesn’t understand that he shouldn’t play in the bigger pond until it’s far too late. Harrelson again delivers the goods with his portrayal of  Harlan DeGroat. He is intense, frightening and a little intriguing as the backwoods drug dealer and crime-lord with very little morality or sympathy. He’s a monster, but one with multiple dimensions and not a cliché or caricature as the role could have been in a lesser film. Saldana shows she is more then a pretty face as Lena, but her character seems to disappear for the most part once the meat of the plot gets in motion. She is good in her scenes, but the character all but disappears in the last act and seems forgotten. Rounding out the cast is Forest Whitaker doing his usual good work as the sheriff with whom Russell has personal issues involving Lena and Sam Shepard, who can sit in a chair and ooze character, is very likable in a small role as the Baze boys’ uncle.

So basically we have a simple story made into a powerful drama by a skilled writer/director and a simply great cast that is able to overcome a glaring plot flaw to retain it’s strength and impact by the time the credits role. Not quite a great movie, but a really damn good one with some top notch acting by a first rate cast.

3 and 1/2 bulletts.

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REVIEW: THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

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THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

I have to start out by saying that I have never read the Hunger Games books and therefor am taking the movies for what they are. That being said, I enjoyed the first film, it was no classic but, it was entertaining and Jennifer Lawrence gave a strong performance as usual. But, sadly the second film based on this trilogy of popular books is a moody and bleak disappointment. Catching Fire picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) about to embark on their victory tour to be paraded like show ponies through the districts. But, Katniss’ act of defiance that provoked the unprecedented two winners in the 74th Hunger Games has sown the seeds of dissent throughout the 12 districts and is seen by The Capitol as a symbol of rebellion. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) himself visits Katniss to warn her to play nice on the tour or her family and friends will suffer the consequences. Meanwhile Katniss is suffering from the horrible guilt of having to kill and watch others she bonded with die and no matter where she goes, she finds herself being looked up to as a symbol of hope against the totalitarian government and her own contempt for The Capitol grows each day. Snow’s new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) proposes a solution to their woes… to make the 75th Hunger Game a battle between selected former winners of the games from each district and to make sure Miss Everdeen is not amongst the winners this time. Now, as the wind of rebellion is starting across the districts, Katniss and Peeta must fight once more and this time against proven killers. Will the shell shocked Katniss survive once again or will the country’s hope for freedom be crushed with the death of their symbol of defiance. Catching Fire is this time directed by Francis Lawrence who gave us the moody and bleak fantasy flicks Constantine and I Am Legend and brings that same dark and grim atmosphere to this middle chapter of the book based trilogy and to be honest little else. Fire is a rather dull and by the numbers sequel with a very sedate and bleak look to go along with it’s oppressive atmosphere. I realize this is a story of a land governed by a cruel and iron fisted government who are planning to basically execute the peoples’ first glimmer of hope so, I didn’t expect rainbows and unicorns but, when a movie like this’ best scene involves a dress, then you know there’s not much going for it. Even with Katniss being inserted into another combat, the 75th Hunger Game provides very little action and literally no suspense as it focuses on Katniss and group of allies commiserating in the jungle arena with very little threat save some poison gas and some foul tempered primates. Their actual foes rarely put in an appearance, save when their pictures are displayed above in the sky to signal their demise… most of which prompted this reviewer  to ask “who the hell was that?” And that’s also a problem, we only get to know the participants that are crucial to the plot and the rest are just fodder to try to give the game some urgency and body count… and it doesn’t really work because, we never really care about these people and some we have never even met. To be honest save for a few moments, such as the before mentioned dress scene, I was pretty bored with what was going on. Katniss never seems to be in control like in the first film and spends most of the film pouting or having combat flashbacks and we never get endeared to or behind her like in the first flick. She seems to have lost the strength she gained at the end of the last film. Here she seems to stew in her unhappiness and let others around her do all the work till literally the last few moments of the film. And it’s not until the very last scene do we finally see the fire back in the eyes of the girl on fire… then we are left with an open ending leading into the third flick. Sorry, but for someone who hasn’t read the books, this was completely unsatisfying. The cast all perform their roles just fine with Harrelson once again standing out and giving a strong turn as Abernathy… he has become one of the best actors out there… Sutherland is appropriately slimy and singer Lenny Kravitz also impresses as Cinna. As for leading lady Lawrence, she is good and gives the part a lot of emotional depth but, since most of those emotions require her to pout, cry or have a screaming out-burst, it’s just hard to warm up to Katniss this time. And as for her co-star, like in the first flick , Hutcherson recites his lines with does eyes making his every scene appear like he’s posing for a velvet painting. And does Katniss really love him or the hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Thor’s brother) because, I am confused at this point and not sure I care. So, in conclusion, this second Hunger Games failed to get my interest or emotional involvement in the story because, it was just too dark and bleak and gave us a lead character who, instead of being a symbol of hope, looked like she was ready to climb under a blanket on the couch and pout with a gallon of ice cream and a bottle of scotch. And after watching this moody second installment you might want to too! At least the sets and FX were top notch and Harrelson and a few others elevated their performances above the dark cloud that hovers over this flick. Very disappointing.

2 and  1/2 J-Laws!

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