Movie Review: “Spectre”

Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista
Sam Mendes

“Spectre” is like a brand-new greatest hits album from that band that your parents loved. Only the hits have been re-recorded… with a new lead singer. It’s new in that it was recently created, but everything about it feels old and outdated, the legacy brand struggling for relevance in a world that has passed it by. The worst part is that they have no one but themselves to blame. The Broccoli family, who have owned the rights to Ian Fleming’s stories since time immemorial, has always been risk-averse when it came to messing with the James Bond formula, and they largely got away with it because they were the only spy thriller in town. With the debut of the spectacular “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” they’re lucky to lay claim to being the fourth best spy franchise in operation, even lagging behind the currently-dormant Jason Bourne.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in Mexico City to investigate a posthumous tip from his former boss M (Judi Dench), and in the process prevents a massive terrorist attack. Even better, he steals a ring from his target, one with a curious insignia engraved on its side that ultimately opens several doors in terms of useful intel. Unfortunately, Bond also made worldwide news with his stunt, and the new, living M (Ralph Fiennes) suspends him. Bond, of course, continues following the trail, which leads to seducing the wife of the man he killed in Mexico, and using the information he acquires from her to crash a top-secret meeting of international bad guys, who plan to manipulate governments via terrorist attack to join together for the purpose of sharing intelligence, ultimately putting the bad guys in complete control of all information.

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Blu Tuesday: Inside Out and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Inside Out”

WHAT: When young Riley (Kaitlyn Davis) is uprooted from Minnesota and moved to San Francisco for her father’s new job, her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) – struggle to adjust to her new life, creating havoc inside her mind where her memories and personalities are stored.

WHY: For a movie studio founded on innovation, it’s been awhile since Pixar has created something truly original, which is why it’s so great to see the animation outfit return to those roots with “Inside Out.” Featuring all the touchstones of a typical Pixar film – it’s funny, charming, clever and touching, often at the same time – “Inside Out” is one of the studio’s most unique features to date, and arguably its most mature as well. Though it borrows generously from the Woody/Buzz road-trip plot of the original “Toy Story,” the movie is incredibly sophisticated, dealing with big-picture ideas that kids may not completely understand on a conceptual level, but can still identify with thanks to the way co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen have deconstructed it. Amy Poehler is also smartly cast as the voice of Joy, although surprisingly, it’s Phyllis Smith (best known for her role on “The Office”) who is the real standout as Sadness. The other voice actors aren’t given as much to do, and the film has a habit of oversimplifying its treatment of Riley’s emotions (which were clearly inspired by the work of Robert Plutchik), including some manufactured conflict that’s a bit flimsy, but it makes up for those minor blemishes with boundless levels of creativity that win out every time.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen and producer Jonas Rivera, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the movie’s evolution, featurettes on sound design, film editing and creating the emotions and the inside of Riley’s mind, as well some deleted scenes, the short film “Lava” and an all-new short titled “Riley’s First Date?”



WHAT: When Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) realizes that his family’s annual vacation is in desperate need of a little shakeup, he finds inspiration from his own childhood and plans a cross-country road trip to Walley World. But just like his vacation to America’s favorite family fun park as a kid, things don’t go exactly as planned, as the Griswolds must contend with thieving rednecks, psychotic truck drivers and their own extended family.

WHY: Though the original “Vacation” featured its share of lowbrow comedy, the 2015 sequel/reboot is so embarrassingly dumb that it makes the Harold Ramis/John Hughes classic seem decidedly highbrow by comparison. Nothing that happens in this film makes a shred of sense, while the Griswolds themselves are so naïve that it’s a miracle they’re able to function in their daily lives. In fact, they’re such miserable company that it’s hard to recall a single laugh in the movie earned by any of the family members. Fortunately, the supporting cast steps up to save the film from being a complete waste of time. Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day are both funny in their respective roles, while a scene involving a standoff between the different state police officers in charge of patrolling the Four Corners Monument is the funniest bit in the entire movie. It hardly makes up for the stupidity on display in the rest of the film, however, because “Vacation” goes for the cheap and easy joke every time, and although some work well, most of them are so lame that it’ll make you wish the franchise stayed dead after “Vegas Vacation.”

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette and interviews with the cast about honoring the legacy of the franchise, there are some deleted scenes and a gag reel.


“The Final Girls”

WHAT: On the anniversary of her mother’s death, Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends attend a special screening of “Camp Bloodbath,” the ‘80s slasher film that starred Max’s mom (Malin Akerman). But when the theater suddenly catches fire and Max cuts through the projector screen in order to escape, the group is mysteriously sucked into the cult horror classic where they must team up with the movie’s fictional characters in order to battle its machete-wielding killer.

WHY: There’s been a surge of meta horror films released over the last few years, but while Todd Strauss-Schulson’s “The Final Girls” boasts a really clever premise and a solid cast, it doesn’t succeed on the same level as other recent entries like “The Cabin in the Woods” and “You’re Next.” Though it has a lot of fun playing with slasher tropes and cinema in general (showing the way Max and her friends are affected by elements like musical cues, monochromatic flashback sequences and slow motion within the fictional movie), the film isn’t funny or scary enough, ultimately becoming a victim of its own satire due to its insistence on preserving the genre’s traditionally bad acting and writing. Additionally, the movie only follows its established rules when it’s convenient for the story, creating several plot holes in the process, while the funniest cast members are killed off too early. Diehard horror fans will still find plenty to love about “The Final Girls” in spite of these flaws, but it’s definitely not as good as it could have been.

EXTRAS: There are three different audio commentaries – one with director Todd Strauss-Schulson, another with the cast and crew, and a third with writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller – as well as featurettes on visual effects and previsualization, and some deleted scenes and alternate endings with optional director commentary.



Movie Review: “Our Brand is Crisis”

Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thorton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan
David Gordon Green

With the 2016 U.S. presidential election already garnering plenty of media attention, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a film like “Our Brand is Crisis” to remind everyone that politics is just a big sham. Loosely based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name (which detailed the marketing tactics employed by a team of American consultants led by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election), the movie delivers a watered-down version of those events that audaciously tries to get the audience to identify with its morally corrupt protagonist. The fact that she’s portrayed by America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, is a genius piece of casting, because the actress could play Hitler’s mother and still come across somewhat likable, but it doesn’t mask the film’s tonal inconsistencies and lack of direction.

Bullock stars as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a disgraced campaign strategist who’s been out of the political game for six years after a string of losses credited to her self-destructive behavior. But when Bolivian presidential candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) hires an elite American management team to run his campaign, only to find themselves 28 points behind in the polls with 90 days to go, Jane is approached in a last-ditch attempt to turn the ship around. It’s apparent to Jane within minutes of meeting Castillo that he’s a lost cause, but despite the seemingly impossible odds of closing the gap on populist candidate Victor Rivera (Louis Arcella), she agrees to take the job after discovering that the competition has hired its own American strategist, longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s beaten her in every previous contest. For Jane, this is personal, and though Castillo’s Bolivian consultants strongly advise against running a negative campaign – they just don’t do that in their country – she convinces him that playing dirty is his only chance of winning.

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Movie Review: “Steve Jobs”

Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katerine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Ortiz
Danny Boyle

Most biopics go to great lengths to humanize their subjects, to show that even the great ones are flawed in some way. “Steve Jobs” sets its subject on fire, and then pokes the body with a stick for 122 minutes. They make it clear from word one that Jobs was a sociopath, blinded by ambition and seemingly incapable of empathy or love. He was an insufferable boss and an even worse father, yet the son of a bitch changed the world.

And the thing is, those are all okay elements to include in the film of someone’s life. More often than not, though, those pieces aren’t the whole story. Here, they are, and it’s framed within a narrative that seems designed to make the audience even more uncomfortable. “Steve Jobs” is well written and well-acted, but it is not an easy movie to like, let alone love. It challenges the audience, and that is an admirable thing, as long as they’re willing to suffer the consequence that people may ultimately decide that they don’t like the movie because the supposed protagonist is an unrepentant jerk.

The film covers three product launches, peppered with a few informative, non-linear flashbacks, over the course of 14 years. The first one takes place in 1984, where Jobs is about to launch the Macintosh. Ridley Scott’s “1984” ad during the Super Bowl had everyone talking, and now it is up to Jobs to deliver. The only problem is, the Mac isn’t ready, and yet he still tells the press that he anticipates record-shattering sales. Before he makes his presentation, though, he has to deal with Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), mother of Jobs’ daughter Lisa, though he refuses to acknowledge Lisa as his daughter. Next up is Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the man with whom he invented the first Apple computer in a garage, and the two are still quibbling over what turned out to be game-changing innovations that Jobs rejected out of hand.

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Movie Review: “Bridge of Spies”

Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell
Steven Spielberg

Certain things go together. Peanut butter and chocolate. Jack and ginger (yes, ginger, not Coke. Try it). “Bridge of Spies,” on the other hand, is proof positive that Steven Spielberg (the film’s director), and Joel and Ethan Coen (the film’s co-screenwriters), absolutely do not go together. In fact, this would have been a much better movie had the Coens directed it themselves. There are these subtle, effective and surprisingly funny moments that are clearly the Coens’ work, and then Spielberg steps in and drowns everything else in syrup. That it remains a watchable movie is in spite of Spielberg’s efforts, not because of them.

It is the late ‘50s, and Cold War paranoia is at an all-time high. The FBI captures Brooklyn resident, and Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), and the government assigns a local law firm to represent him. The case is assigned to James Donovan (Tom Hanks), even though he is primarily an insurance lawyer. James quickly realizes that no one is interested in giving Rudolph a fair trial, which only leads James to fight even harder to get him one, regardless of the hardships that may mean for him and his family. He loses, but successfully lobbies to pardon Rudolph from getting the death penalty, arguing that the U.S. would be wise to keep him around as a bargaining chip.

Sure enough, James proves to be right, as American pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured after his U-2 spy plane is bombed out of the sky by the Russians, and he is sentenced to hard labor in a Russian prison. The U.S. government asks James if he can negotiate an unofficial trade with the Russians to swap Rudolph for Powers. James is game, but he wants to sweeten the deal by also getting the Russians to convince the German Democratic Republic – who are building the wall between East Berlin and West Berlin as these events are taking place – to also release Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an economics student that the GDR has falsely accused of espionage in the hopes that they will get invited to the political big boy table.

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