Movie Review: “The Purge: Election Year”

Starring
Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor
Director
James DeMonaco

It’s very rare for a movie franchise to get better with each successive installment (especially in the horror genre), but that’s exactly what writer/director James DeMonaco has done with the “Purge” series, refining the concept each time by carrying over the elements that worked best. Though “The Purge: Election Year” inherits many of the same problems from 2014’s “The Purge: Anarchy,” chief among them the absurdity of the Purge itself, it also builds on its strengths to produce another John Carpenter-styled action thriller that’s equal parts cheesy B-movie and pulpy fun. It’s not necessarily a good film, but what “Election Year” lacks in quality it makes up for with a deft understanding of its audience.

Two years after choosing not to murder the man who killed his son in a drunk driving accident, former police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now working as the head of security for Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a fast-rising politician who watched her entire family get massacred during Purge Night 18 years earlier. Senator Roan has been gaining ground on the current presidential frontrunner thanks to a campaign built on ending the Purge once and for all, and the NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America, a.k.a. the rich white guys behind the Purge) wants her gone before the election. After lifting the immunity clause on all government officials for the upcoming Purge, the NFFA plots to eliminate Roan by attacking the senator at her well-guarded home in Washington, D.C. Forced to go on the run when a trusted staff member betrays them, Leo cautiously teams up with some fellow survivors – including corner shop owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and reformed gangbanger Laney (Betty Gabriel) – in order to protect Roan by any means necessary.

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Movie Review: “The BFG”

Starring
Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Bill Hader, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Penelope Wilton
Director
Steven Spielberg

It’s easy to see why filmmakers are drawn to Roald Dahl’s work. He liked placing his stories in our world while adding something most definitely not from our world, with several of his stories coming with a new language. “The BFG” hits everything on the Dahl checklist, but it has trouble getting out of second gear. It’s sweet, it’s beautifully shot, and it sports another fine performance from Mark Rylance (who, last time he worked with “BFG” director Steven Spielberg, won an Oscar for his work in “Bridge of Spies”), but let’s point out the elephant in the room, shall we? Wes Anderson wrecked the curve for Roald Dahl adaptations with his stop-motion masterpiece “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Following in that movie’s footsteps, even seven years later and multiple generations of technological advancement – something that is clearly prioritized here – “The BFG” didn’t have a prayer.

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage at a time that is at first undetermined, but we later learn is the early 1980s (Dahl’s book was released in 1982). She has trouble sleeping, and it is on a sleepless night that she sees a giant walking the streets. The giant (Rylance) sees that he’s been spotted and, out of concern that she will tell the authorities and make things difficult for him, he snatches Sophie and takes her to his home in a faraway land. Unlike the giants he lives with, he has no intentions of hurting her (the others love eating children, and would devour her on sight), and he even takes her as he goes to work catching dreams. The other giants are much larger and meaner than Sophie’s giant – whom she calls BFG after he remarked that he’d like to be known as the Big Friendly Giant – and they bully him relentlessly. Sophie encourages BFG to stand up for himself and comes up with a plan to put the giants in their place.

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Blu Tuesday: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Eye in the Sky 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 social media with your friends.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

WHAT: In 2003, cable news producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) leaves behind her banal, dead-end life in New York to accept a daring assignment covering the war in Afghanistan. Dropped into a chaotic war zone without the comforts of home, Kim befriends a fellow female reporter (Margot Robbie) and a charming photojournalist (Martin Freeman) to help navigate her strange new surroundings.

WHY: Based on journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle,” about her experiences reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2004-2009, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a tonally confused war satire that struggles to find the right balance between drama and comedy. This isn’t the first movie of its kind to run into that problem, but it handles the juggling of the two genres better than most thanks to a solid script by Tina Fey’s longtime writing partner, Robert Carlock (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), and some deft direction by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy Stupid Love”). Though the decision to cast non-Afghan actors in prominent roles is disappointing, Christopher Abbott’s local fixer, and the relationship he forms with Kim, is one of the best things about the film. (Alfred Molina’s government official is more problematic, although that has more to do with the character itself than who’s playing him.) “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is equally as hit-and-miss on the whole, but it’s nonetheless a fun if slight tragicomedy that benefits greatly from its talented cast.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a behind-the-scenes look at making the movie, four additional featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “The Shallows”

Starring
Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge
Director
Jaume Collet-Serra

Jaume Collet-Serra is a director who can generally elevate whatever material he’s working with. The “Non-Stop” and “Orphan” director makes B-movies – films that, in less capable hands, wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as they are. The same can be said for his newest film, “The Shallows,” an enjoyable and often exciting thriller that rises above a somewhat inconsistent script.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) heads off to paradise to surf on a secluded and mostly unknown beach that her mother, who recently passed away, told her about. With the exception of a few visitors, she’s completely isolated. On Nancy’s second trip into the water, she comes across a dead whale and quickly realizes she’s truly not alone; there’s a great white shark in the shallows. Bitten and nearly killed, she’s left stranded on a rock too far from the shore. For the most part, “The Shallows” is a one-woman show, although Nancy does befriend a seagull.

Anthony Jaswinski’s script doesn’t stretch the premise out too much. For the most part, “The Shallows” is a refreshingly efficient and cleanly structured summer movie, one that runs under 90 minutes – a rarity this time of year. There’s little fat to this story. At the start of the film, Nancy is already on her way to the beach, so Jaswinski kicks things off running, for the most part. There is a minor exposition dump at the start, but it’s quick and clean, and it helps that the opening scene features two actors (Blake Lively and Óscar Jaenada) that have a natural and charming rapport, so the information goes down smoothly.

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Movie Review: “Free State of Jones”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers
Director
Gary Ross

Gary Ross’ movies are nothing if not sincere and, generally speaking, kindhearted. This time around, the writer/director behind “Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit” and the first “Hunger Games” tackles far tougher material with “Free State of Jones,” a biopic mostly about Confederate Army medic Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). The film is often unwieldy, narratively speaking, but it’s also not without passion, telling a story that is frequently more brutal than inspiring.

The year is 1963, and though Newton has apprehensively signed up to fight in the Civil War, he opposes slavery and the ways of the Confederate Army. After his nephew is killed in combat, Knight becomes a deserter, sick of fighting in a war that he doesn’t believe in. He returns to Jones County, where he’s hunted by Confederates, and eventually flees with his wife Serena (Keri Russell), who ends up leaving Jonestown altogether. While hiding out in a swamp, Newt meets a group of escaped slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali) and his future wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), both of whom he develops close bonds to. Newton, Moses and others lead a rebellion against the Confederates, which is only the setup to a story that covers more time than one would think.

It’s easy to imagine the “white savior” version of “Free State of Jones,” but this isn’t that story, and Ross doesn’t treat it as such. The side characters, mostly Moses and Rachel, are at the forefront of this story almost as much as Newton Knight. Their arcs and struggles are the emotional backbone of the film. Of course, Jones is the lead, but this isn’t only his story. As for whether this is a white savior story, this is a film filled more with loss and pain than it is with Newton saving the day, and the characters he’s surrounded by often find the courage in themselves to stand up without his assistance. Most of the tropes linked to white savior stories are not present in here. Newton Knight is an inspiring figure, but he’s no more inspiring than Moses and other supporting characters.

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