Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to January

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As if the winter months weren’t already miserable enough, the January movie slate definitely won’t be one to remember. Though recent years have seen a slight increase in the quality of films being released during this time, 2016 will remind audiences why it’s long been considered a dumping ground for bad movies. There a few potential surprises from the likes of Michael Bay and Gavin O’Connor, but you’d be better off catching up on all the awards contenders (and maybe seeing “Star Wars” a third or fourth time) instead.

“The Forest”

Who: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa and Eoin Macken
What: A young woman searches for her twin sister in a Japanese forest, only to find herself surrounded by paranormal forces.
When: January 8th
Why: Believe it or not, “The Forest” isn’t a remake of a Japanese horror flick, but rather an original story whose makers somehow thought it would be a good idea to cast mostly white actors in a movie about a real-life problem in Japan. Cultural insensitivity aside, “The Forest” looks like your typical supernatural horror film circa 2005, when retooling Asian genre movies for American audiences was all the rave. Though it’s nice to see Natalie Dormer in her first Hollywood leading role, the “Game of Thrones” actress is far too talented to be wasting her time on low-rent projects like this.

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

Who: John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber and David Costabile
What: An American ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya as a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
When: January 15th
Why: Michael Bay’s “smaller” movies always interest me more than his effects-driven blockbusters, like this adaptation of bestselling author Mitchell Zuckoff’s book about the 2012 Benghazi attacks. Though Bay’s romanticism of the U.S. military can be a little irritating at times, he’s one of the best action directors around, and “13 Hours” is shaping up to his own personal “Black Hawk Down.” The film also boasts a solid ensemble cast led by John Krasinski and journeyman actor James Badge Dale, but its success will depend largely on whether Bay can tone down the pro-American flag-waving and just focus on telling a good story.

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Blu Tuesday: Sicario, The Walk 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.

“Sicario”

WHAT: FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by a government task force led by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to help bring down a Mexican drug cartel whose grisly business has bled over into the U.S. But Graver and his mysterious colleague, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), operate under a completely different set of rules, leading Kate to wonder what she’s gotten herself into.

WHY: “Sicario” isn’t the first movie to tackle the illegal drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s easily one of the best, a relentlessly suspenseful crime thriller that offers a merciless look behind the curtain of the real War on Drugs. The film rarely takes its foot off the gas, continuing director Denis Villeneuve’s excellent form with a masterclass in building tension that will tie your stomach in knots. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as stunning as ever, somehow finding the beauty in an ugly situation, but it’s the performances from the three leads that really elevate the material. Benicio Del Toro is especially good, delivering his best work in over a decade as the silent but deadly consultant – a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing who eventually bares his teeth and claws in the explosive final act. Though a few missteps prevent “Sicario” from true greatness, it’s an outstanding, white-knuckle thriller that will leave you mentally and physically exhausted in the best way.

EXTRAS: There’s a trio of featurettes on the film’s origins, its visual design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, as well as some interviews with the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“The Walk”

WHAT: When Paris street performer Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sees a concept photo of the Twin Towers in a magazine, he immediately becomes obsessed with walking between them on a high wire. Several years later, Philippe’s dream comes true when he travels to New York City with a small team of conspirators and they sneak into the under-construction buildings to pull off the artistic crime of the century.

WHY: Philippe Petit’s death-defying walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974 was previously spotlighted in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.” But for as compelling as that film was, it lacked a key element: actual footage of Petit’s performance. Recognizing an opportunity to recreate that once-in-a-lifetime moment on the big screen, director Robert Zemeckis gives Petit’s famous high-wire act the Hollywood treatment with this adaptation of the unbelievable true story. Though “The Walk” is far from a perfect movie – the fourth-wall-breaking narration is distracting and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cartoonish French accent takes some getting used – when it’s time to deliver the goods, Zemeckis doesn’t disappoint. The planning and execution of the “heist” makes for some thrilling moments, but it’s the titular climax that’s the obvious highlight, and Zemeckis squeezes every drop of tension and delight out of it, redefining the phrase “end on a high note” with a sequence that will leave you breathless and wanting more.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes featurettes on the film’s visual effects, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wire-walking training and the supporting cast, as well as a handful of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: Bone Tomahawk 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.

“Bone Tomahawk”

WHAT: When his wife is kidnapped by a tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) joins Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), “backup deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox) on a perilous mission to rescue her.

WHY: S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has divided audiences since premiering at Fantastic Fest earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why. Though it boasts a solid cast and an intriguing premise, “Bone Tomahawk” is poorly executed, marred by some amateurish direction and terrible pacing. The film is a slow burn in the worst possible way, failing to utilize the quieter moments to build suspense or further develop the characters. In fact, apart from their names and some general background info, there’s very little character development at all, which makes it difficult to care what happens to any of them. The unexpected genre shift from Western to horror in the final act is even more disconcerting, almost as if Eli Roth took over directing duties midway through production, and although it’s a unique twist, it doesn’t quite pay off. “Bone Tomahawk” had the ingredients to be a fun little genre movie, but apart from Kurt Russell’s grisly performance and some excellent comic relief from Richard Jenkins, it never quite comes together.

EXTRAS: In addition to a Q&A with director S. Craig Zahler and the cast from the film’s premiere at Fantastic Fest, there’s a short making-of featurette and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Hitman: Agent 47″

WHAT: A genetically engineered assassin known only as Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) teams up with a mysterious woman (Hannah Ware) to track down her father – the creator of the Agent program – before the sinister organization Syndicate International finds him first.

WHY: After unsuccessfully adapting the popular “Hitman” video game series with the 2007 film of the same name, 20th Century Fox decided to give it one more go by rebooting the franchise with a brand new cast. (Sound familiar?) But while “Hitman: Agent 47” is an improvement on its predecessor, the first movie was so awful that it’s like comparing a rotten apple to a slightly less rotten apple. Though the film does a better job of capturing the spirit of the “Hitman” franchise with violent, stealth-based action sequences, it’s bogged down by a cheesy and predictable script that shackles its titular character to Hannah Ware’s human MacGuffin for no other reason than because Agent 47 would be an emotionally detached bore on his own. This is the kind of movie that keeps making up rules as it goes along, praying that it will all make sense in the end, and while it will likely deliver some thrills for fans of the video game, they’d be better off playing the real thing.

EXTRAS: There’s a brief making-of featurette, a look at the stunts, an onscreen counter of all the movie’s kills, some deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Heist”

WHAT: Unable to pay his daughter’s growing medical bills, casino dealer Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) partners with a hotheaded co-worker (Dave Bautista) to rob their gangster boss, Pope (Robert De Niro). But when the heist goes horribly wrong, they hijack a city bus filled with hostages in order to fend off the police and Pope’s right-hand man (Morris Chestnut).

WHY: Robert De Niro may be choosing better scripts these days, but he’s not immune to appearing in bad movies, as evidenced in this direct-to-video thriller that plays like a mix between “Speed” and “John Q.” Director Scott Mann and writer Stephen Cyrus Sepher have created an incredibly predictable crime flick that uses just about every cliché in the book, from the desperate father trying to save his child, to the villain with a crisis of conscience. There’s even a twist ending that, no matter how clever it may seem in the moment, doesn’t make a shred of sense. Of course, neither does the fact that the hostages are more than willing to help the robbers despite not knowing any of the details regarding Vaughn’s situation. It’s an illogical mess made even worse by some second-rate acting and a lack of genuine thrills. De Niro and journeyman actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan class up the film just enough to make it watchable, but “Heist” isn’t nearly as exciting as it could have been.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Scott Mann, writer Max S. Adams and actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as well as a making-of featurette, additional cast and crew interviews, and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

2015 Year-End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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It seems like every December, someone laments how mediocre of a year it’s been for cinema, and while it’s hard to argue that point, the movies that were good were really freaking good. Though 2015 was arguably the year of the sequel, with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Creed” and others performing well both critically and commercially, it was also the year of the book adaptation, several of which are featured on this list. But no one or nothing had a better year than Irish-born actor Domhnall Gleeson, who appeared in four movies in 2015, with three of them landing a spot in my Top 10. (For the record, the fourth fell just outside the bubble in my Honorable Mentions). It’s hard to say what that means, if anything, other than Domhnall Gleeson has really good taste in films.

Best Movies of 2015

1. “THE MARTIAN

Although it’s the third film in as many years about astronauts in distress, “The Martian” is a smart, captivating and humorous adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel that covers very different narrative and emotional territory than “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” For starters, it’s a lot more uplifting than most sci-fi fare, eschewing the usual doom-mongering for a story about the power of optimism and perseverance that also doubles as one heckuva recruitment video for NASA. (Who knew science and math could be this much fun?) Matt Damon is perfectly cast as the Everyman astronaut forced to “science the shit” out of his seemingly impossible predicament, while the supporting cast – including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejifor and Jessica Chastain – is absolutely stacked with talent. This is hands down Ridley Scott’s best movie since “Gladiator,” and it owes a lot to Drew Goddard’s screenplay, which takes a lighthearted approach to the high-stakes drama in order to produce one of the most purely entertaining crowd-pleasers in years.

martian

2. “SICARIO

“Sicario” isn’t the first movie to tackle the illegal drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s easily one of the best, a relentlessly suspenseful crime thriller that offers a merciless look behind the curtain of the real War on Drugs. The film rarely takes its foot off the gas, continuing director Denis Villeneuve’s excellent form with a masterclass in building tension that will tie your stomach in knots. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as stunning as ever, somehow finding the beauty in an ugly situation, but it’s the performances from the three leads that really elevate the material. Benicio Del Toro is especially good, delivering his best work in over a decade as the silent but deadly consultant – a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing who eventually bares his teeth and claws in the explosive final act. Though a few missteps prevent “Sicario” from true greatness, it’s an outstanding, white-knuckle thriller that will leave you mentally and physically exhausted in the best possible way.

sicario

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2015 Year-End Movie Review: David Medsker

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I am not a difficult person to please when it comes to movies. There is a big joke among the film critics in town that we are either film critics or movie reviewers, meaning that film critics dissect everything at a subatomic level, while movie reviewers talk about whether or not they liked the film. I am squarely in the latter category.

This year, however, something was off. There are films getting a ton of film group buzz that I just didn’t get, and even worse, I found myself enjoying what was widely considered to be the worst movie of the year, but more on that later. First up, the movies I liked.

Movies I Liked

1. “SPOTLIGHT”

Nothing comes even close to this one. This expertly-paced account of the Boston Globe’s expose on the Catholic Church’s systematic covering up of abusive priests is top-notch storytelling, one in which the city of Boston becomes not just the backdrop, but the main character.

2. “KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE”

Ten bucks says Daniel Craig likes this film more than any of the Bond films he’s done, and with good reason. “Kingsman” is the most entertaining spy movie I’ve ever seen, and it earned this spot on my list for the church scene alone.

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3. “THE REVENANT”

The bear attack. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. Alejandro Inarritu’s film about life in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s is every bit as hostile and unforgiving as the landscape in which it is based. There is a scene, though, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gets his hands on some raw meat (the first he has seen in a while), and he scarfs it down, even though there is a fire burning nearby. Dude, put it on a stick and cook that thing!

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