by Jeff Walls

Live by Night is a new gangster drama from writer/director Ben Affleck.  The movie is based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the book that Affleck turned into his first directorial effort, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone.  The novel Live by Night is not especially long, only 432 pages, but judging from the movie version it packs a lot into those pages.  Unfortunately, that becomes the problem as the movie that feels like it tries too hard to fit every bit of the story into a 128-minute movie.  This results in a movie that feels bloated and inconsistent, while never really settling into any kind of a rhythm.

In addition to writing and directing the movie, Affleck also stars as Joe Coughlin.  He was once a good man, his opening narration tells us, but we are never really shown that good man.  The first time we meet him he is robbing a local mobster’s poker game.  He is also dating the mob boss’ girlfriend on the side, an error in judgment that would have fatal consequences if it were not for the perfect timing of his policeman father. He is sent to prison as an accomplice to the murder of policemen and when he gets out, he is hired by another local mob boss—the rival of the man whose girlfriend he romanced—and sent to Tampa to set up shop down there.

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in Live by NightIn Tampa, Joe hooks up with some Cuban bootleggers and begins a rum empire at the height of prohibition.  This leads to him having trouble with the KKK in addition to rival mobsters.  He also wants to get a gambling business going, but the powerful words of a young preacher woman has turned against him those who might help him fund such a venture.  And whenever something like this goes wrong for Joe, he has to beware of the boss sending someone down to replace him just as he was sent down to replace the previous head of the Tampa organization.

Right from the beginning, the movie seems to get off on the wrong foot.  Affleck’s voiceover narration is awkward and fails to successfully set up his character.  His character is going to be our hero and even though he is an anti-hero, there still needs to be something in the beginning of the movie to make us connect with this guy and want for him to succeed throughout the film, but that does not happen.  Instead we meet a humorless petty criminal whom we are supposed to understand was turned to a life of crime by the horrors he experienced in World War I… without actually seeing the horrors he faced.   He is also a bit of a doofus, not even having enough sense to take the mob boss’ girlfriend to a secluded place as part of their affair, instead having dinner openly in what appears to be the very center of a popular restaurant.  It is no surprise that he gets caught and almost killed.

As an audience, we are then led by this poor protagonist through a movie that seems out of sorts.  At first we are worried about the Irish mob, then the KKK becomes the enemy, followed by the church, before finally having to face off with the Italian mob.  It is a lot to get through and the movie seems to bounce around between each a little too haphazardly.  There are also seemingly crucial scenes that do not feel properly set up.  Chief among these is a reunion that occurs at the end where Joe tells someone about how he struggled for years due to something that happened, only to have the audience scratching their heads as the movie never really showed us this struggle.  For a 1930s era gangster movie, too, the film lacks any real flair in terms of its visuals and production design, with the exception of a few pretty sunsets and one cool dolly in on a bullet hole.

The movie has a great cast, but most only have small roles and those with bigger ones, such as Chris Messina and Sienna Miller, tend to go a little overboard with their performances.  Affleck is at his most dull here, with the exception of two brief moments when a little bit of Chucky from Good Will Hunting sneaks into his performance.  For instance, watch him approach Zoe Saldana’s Graciela to make a move and tell me it does not echo back to the moment in the Harvard bar when he went to hit on Minnie Driver and her friend.  These moments seem totally out of character for Joe, but they were also my favorite Affleck moments in the movie, so maybe his performance could have benefited by going a little bigger, too.

Affleck has had an impressive directing career to date.  His first two movies, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were both critically well-received and also well-received by fans.  His third film, Argo, took him all the way to the Oscars where the movie won the top prize, even though Affleck himself was ignored in the directing category.  With all this success so early in his career as a director—and a screenwriter, for that matter—it is a bit of a shock that Live by Night never feels like the director had a firm grip on it.  Even the best directors have hiccups in their career, though, and I fully expect Affleck to recover.

Live by Night is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

As I pound away at this review, Academy members have already begun filling out their ballots for the Oscar nominations which are to be announced on January 24th.   As usual, the list of expected Best Picture nominees is chock full of heavy-hitting dramas.  It is a good batch of films, to be sure, as it has been a fine year, but what the Academy really needs is a crowd-pleaser, a movie your average moviegoer will want to tune in to the awards show and root for on the night of the ceremony.  There is La La Land, a movie that I love, but as a classic characters-break-into-song-and-dance musical, that movie has already lost a good chunk of the general public who simply aren’t a fan of the genre.  Enter the wild card, Hidden Figures, a PG-rated true story that had the audience at the advance screening cheering and breaking into rousing applause at multiple times throughout the film’s runtime.

Hidden Figures tells the little known true story of three women who played a major role in helping put an American into space.  Katherine Johnson is a physicist and mathematician who is responsible for computing the formulas for the trajectories of the rocket’s takeoffs and landings, Mary Jackson is part of the engineering team responsible for creating a capsule that will not burn up on re-entry, and Dorothy Vaughan acts as a supervisor, even though the color of her skin is preventing her from actually being paid and treated as one.  All three women have been held back due to their sex and their race, but for such an important moment in American history, these are issues that need to be set aside in favor of teamwork and an all-out effort to orbit a man around the Earth.

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden FiguresThe movie makes sure to emphasize, though, that it is not just necessity that allows these women to break through color and gender barriers.  These women are smart, determined, and hard-working, willing to go above-and-beyond to succeed.  They do not simply accept their current place in the world, but they work to push beyond that to a better place.  If they need more clearance in order to do their job, they are going to make sure they have it.  If they need to take classes at an all-white school in order to advance, they are going to go to court to make it happen.  Your job is endangered by the new IBM computer?  Train yourself to use that computer and make yourself indispensable.  The events of this movie took place at the height of the civil rights movement and just as important to the movement as the marches and the sit-ins were these women who simply did their job to the absolute best of their abilities.

When it boils right down to it, this is exactly the kind of movie that the Academy loves.  It tells the story of one of the landmark moments in American history and does so by dealing with some of the most important social issues in that same history and it does so in both a respectful and entertaining way.  The fact that the movie proves to be a crowd-pleaser of the first order is simply the icing on the cake.

Director Theodore Melfi, in only his second feature following the Bill Murray starrer St. Vincent, crafts a remarkable movie in every detail.  The production design and costumes instantly and convincingly transport the audience back to the early 1960s and yet at the same time we feel like we are watching a movie that is relevant to the issues of today.  And although there are big moments, the movie never feels like it is driving its point home too hard.

The movie is pretty much flawlessly cast.  Taraji P. Henson steps away from her showy role as Cookie Lyon on TV’s Empire to play the quiet, brainy Katherine Johnson, a woman who graduated from college at the age of 18 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97.  Henson is perfect in the role, as are her two co-stars Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.  Spencer again finds herself in a role that seems tailor-made for her.  She commands every scene that she is in as Dorothy Vaughan.  And Monae has proven to be one of the breakout stars of the past year with remarkable performances in both this and another Oscar favorite, Moonlight.  Monae’s Mary Jackson is the flirt of the trio and provides some of the movie’s comic relief, but she can get very serious when she needs to and her scene in front of a judge is one the best moments in the movie and inspired one of those rousing ovations from the audience.

Whether or not Hidden Figures finds itself in the Oscar race is yet to be seen, but there should be little doubt about the movie’s chances to succeed with moviegoers.  It tells a fascinating story wrapped in a package that will appeal to a wide audience.  And in the current political and social climate, the timing of its release could not be more perfect.  We need a movie like this to remind us of how far we have come, how far we still have to go, and how we can get there if we all work together as one.

Hidden Figures is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Writer/director Damien Chazelle was an unknown before he burst onto the scene two years ago with Whiplash, a tough, but thrilling drama about the challenges a young drummer must face to fulfill his dream of being the best.  The movie was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The movie also made quite a profit, earning 50 million dollars with a budget of only 3.3 million.  The success of that movie afforded Chazelle the opportunity to bring his dream project to the screen with La La Land, a charming musical that pays homage to the classic Hollywood musical while at the same time reinventing the genre.

La La Land introduces us to Mia and Sebastian.  She is an aspiring actress who works in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot while suffering through disastrous audition after disastrous audition.  He is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club one day, but is currently struggling after being cut out of a deal by a previous business partner.  They meet by chance again and again until they eventually fall in love as only characters in movie musicals can do.

Damien Chazelle, director of La La LandThe two lovers challenge each other to continue the pursuit of their dreams, but the pursuit of those dreams takes them to places that challenge their relationship.  He takes a steady gig, but that means he has to travel around the country with the band to promote the record they have hope of making.  At the same time, she hopes to showcase her acting talents with a one-woman play, but is having a difficult time getting anyone to come see it.  We in the audience can do nothing but hope that it works out as we quickly come to love these charming characters.

Mia and Sebastian are played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, two of Hollywood’s brightest stars, so bright that they feel right at home when one of the movie’s dance numbers literally takes them to the stars.  This is the third cinematic romance for Stone and Gosling, so it should come as no surprise that their chemistry is right on point.  The two work so well together in this movie, especially during the movie’s fantastic dance numbers, that it is crazy watching it to think that there was actually a point in the film’s production when different actors were cast in the roles.

Emma Stone has been receiving most of the kudos for this movie during its run through the festival circuit and deservedly so.  Not only does Stone show off some impressive singing and dancing skills, she also carries the emotional weight of the movie in her eyes.  There are multiple times in the movie when the camera is focused solely on her and she carries the movie in those scenes, in particular a powerful solo ballad near the film’s final act.

Gosling’s performance should not be overlooked, though.  In a sense, it is a role he has been destined for ever since he sang a little song for Michelle Williams in the middle of 2010’s tough drama Blue Valentine or maybe further back when he was a youngster on the Mickey Mouse Club.  His dancing skills are a revelation and it is a shame that one scene with him on a pier which looks to be his big solo moment is cut a little too short.  Gosling also continues to impress this year with his comic timing, something he also showed off earlier this year in The Nice Guys.

As good as Gosling and Stone are, though, the true star here is Chazelle.  Although the basic idea of this movie—artists doing what they need to do to achieve their dream—is similar to that of Whiplash, the styles of the movies could not be more different.  La La Land is a visual delight with bright colors and some fantastical sets that are reminiscent of the era of musicals that brought us classics like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, even while taking place in the modern day.

The song and dance numbers are incredibly staged, most notably the opening number that takes place in one seemingly unbroken take, while the hilltop dance underneath the streetlamp that inspired the movie’s poster is pure filmmaking delight.  The song and dance numbers are so delightful that it is somewhat of a shame that there were not more of them as the second half of the movie focuses a little more on the narrative and features less set-piece musical numbers.  With characters this delightful and charming, though, following their narrative is a welcome joy.

La La Land is a delightful, original movie that stands out above the crowd of sequels, remakes, and reboots that dominates Hollywood these days.  What Hollywood really needs is more movies like this.

La La Land is now playing at the AMC Pacific Place 11. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Most people who work in an office environment know about office holiday parties.  They are often fun, sometimes stressful, and every once in awhile they can be embarrassing.  After all, people tend to let their inhibitions go a little when the alcohol starts flowing and they forget that they are partying with people whom they will have to see every single day after.  The holiday office tradition is taken to the comedic extreme in the new movie Office Christmas Party, which hopefully won’t have too many people leaving the theater thinking “that reminded me so much of my office.”

The office in question is the Chicago branch of a tech company run by Clay Vanstone, the son of the recently deceased CEO, and someone who has always been better at throwing parties than running a business.  When his sister as the newly appointed CEO comes for a visit and threatens to fire half of the staff, Clay and his Chief Technical Officer Josh Parker decide that they must throw an epic office party in order to win over a potential client.  The party starts small, but when the alcohol starts flowing and the cocaine snows down from the sky, the party very quickly gets out of hand.

T.J. Miller as Clay in Office Christmas PartyThe plot of Office Christmas Party is paper thin and clearly exists only as a reason to put a cast of funny actors in a room and let them improvise most of their dialogue.  It is easy to spot these movies, because the end credits almost always feature outtakes of the actors tossing out various versions of the same jokes in hopes that one will stick.  Sometimes they hit, sometimes they don’t.  There are plenty of laughs in this movie to keep an audience entertained for its 105 minute runtime, but few, if any, that will stick with you after you’ve walked out of the theater.  It does not help that despite there being plenty of debauchery throughout the movie, there are not really any moments that prove truly shocking, those moments you wish you could unsee even while you are laughing your head off.

As for the extensive cast, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston join forces for the fifth time in this movie, but unfortunately their characters feel very “been there, done that.”  At times, it is even easy to forget which movie we are watching and think instead that we walked into another Horrible Bosses movie.

The highlights in the cast are T.J. Miller as Clay and Kate McKinnon as the office’s overbearing HR lady Mary.  Miller, the star of HBO’s Silicon Valley, has terrific comedic timing and also plays the guy with good intentions who always manages to mess things up to perfection.  McKinnon’s performance gets even more enjoyable as the movie goes on and her character begins to shed her uptight shell.  Having now stolen the show in three different movies this year—Ghostbusters, Masterminds, and this—the Saturday Night Live phenom seems ready for a starring vehicle, something in which an original character she creates is given the spotlight a la Ace Ventura or Anchorman.  Perhaps the recently announced The Lunch Witch will be just the thing.

Office Christmas Party has some good laughs, but it is missing the heart of some of the best holiday comedies and the plot is far too thin to give the movie any real staying power.  Bottom line, it was fun, but not the most memorable of parties.

Moana is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

The new Disney animated film Moana may just be the movie that finally proves once and for all that Dwayne Johnson can do anything.  The wrestler-turned-actor has done action well, he’s done comedy well, and now he has added singing a catchy tune in a Disney movie to his resume.  Johnson’s performance as the demigod Maui is one of the highlights of this fun adventure of a movie.

The movie’s prologue tells that Maui used his magical powers to steal the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, which causes a horrible darkness to spread across the oceans.  The movie then introduces us to the title character, the daughter of the chief on the island of Motunui where the darkness has not yet reached.  Moana is expected to stay on the island and take over as chief from her father, but all her life she has felt as if the ocean was calling to her.  When the darkness reaches her island in the form of rotten cocoanuts and fishless seas, Moana takes it upon herself to sail out beyond the reef, find Maui, and get him to restore the heart to save her people.

Dwayne Johnson voices Maui in MoanaWhen Moana finds Maui, she finds him less than helpful.  He has lost his magical fishhook, the source of all his powers, and without it there is no way they could defeat the evil lava monster which guards their destination.  With the help of the ocean itself, Moana manages to drag Maui along and together they must brave not only the oceans, but also the mysterious Realm of Monsters where his hook is being held hostage.

Dwayne Johnson only has one song in the movie, but it is one of the film’s highlights.  Singing about how powerful his character is and how lucky Moana should feel to have met him, the number is reminiscent of the Genie’s introductory “Friend Like Me” number in Aladdin, which is fitting considering both that film and Moana were directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker.

Moana is the first computer animated movie to be directed by the team of Clements and Musker; their last film being the underrated hand-drawn film The Princess and the Frog back in 2009.  The pair has lost none of their magic touch in the transition to computer animation, however, as every square inch of Moana is a stunning work of art.  The water effects are especially impressive.  Pixar has already dazzled us with water effects in the Finding Nemo/Dory movies, but most of that was under the water.  This movie easily sets a new standard for animated fair taking place above the surface of the sea.

The directing duo have not forgotten the art form that got them here, however, as one of the cleverest things they do in this movie is make full use of the various tattoos on the giant body of Maui.  The tattoos were created using traditional hand-drawn animation instead of a computer.  The tattoos act as an additional story-telling device as well as Maui’s conscience as they move over his body and even interact with him and Moana.

Moana is voiced by Auli’i Cravalho in her first and to date only movie performance.  The actress was only 14-years-old when she began working on this film, but you would never deduce her youth and inexperience from her performance.  She very much holds her own against her larger than life (both animated and real-life) co-star.  She is every bit the classic Disney heroine who dreams of adventure and finds it.  She denies being a princess, only the daughter of the island chief, but Maui insists that she must be a princess because she wears a skirt and hangs out with animal sidekicks.  That is one of a few self-referential moments where the movie references the studio’s long history of animated film success.  Make sure to stay until the end of the credits for one of the better references.

By hitting the open oceans and exploring Polynesia, Moana ventures where few other animated films have journeyed.  The result is an entertaining adventure full of comedy, action, and magic.

Moana is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Mel Gibson’s career as a director reached a high point in 1996 when the director took home both the directing and producing Oscars for just his second film, Braveheart.  He returned to the director’s chair in 2004 and had a controversial box-office hit with The Passion of the Christ.  He followed that up two years later with the lackluster Apocalypto.  It was around that time that the star’s off-screen behavior caused a serious fall from grace and he disappeared from the cinema, both in front of and behind the camera.  He returned as an actor in 2010 and has been steadily working since.  Now he is back in the director’s chair for an incredible true story with Hacksaw Ridge, his first English-language film as a director since Braveheart.

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw RidgeHacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor for his battlefield heroics during World War II despite not carrying a weapon.  After a brief battlefield opening, the movie introduces us to Doss and his brother as the young sons of an alcoholic former soldier.  After seriously wounding his brother while fighting, Doss swears off violence.  Fast-forward a few years and America is returning to war.  Despite his anti-violence stance as a Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss feels that it is his duty to join the war effort and signs up in hopes of serving as a medic.

In boot camp, Doss is labeled as a coward by both his fellow soldiers and his commanding officers for refusing to pick up a weapon.  He is denied leave, punished with latrine duty, and even beaten.  Never wavering in his belief, however, Doss continues forward and eventually wins his court martial hearing and is allowed to proceed into battle without a weapon to protect him.  It is fortunate for the army that they allowed Doss to join the fight because his heroics and bravery on the battlefield led to an estimated seventy-five American lives being saved.

The story of Desmond Doss is an incredible one that needed to be told and the story is in good hands with Gibson at the helm.  That is especially apparent in the movie’s central battle sequence after Doss and the rest of the Army’s 77th Infantry Division land on Okinawa and attempt to take the titular ridge.  In what may be the longest and most intense war battle put to film since the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, Doss and his company push forward against an enemy that they cannot see.  Brutally violent and intense, the sequence emphasizes the horror and insanity of war while showing the bravery of the men who fought for our freedom.  At the end of the initial battle, most of the men have returned down to the bottom of the ridge for the night, but not Doss.  Doss stays up top tirelessly searching for wounded soldiers that he can rescue and return to safety.

Doss is played terrifically by Andrew Garfield.  Garfield nails every aspect of the character, from the awkward romantic courting his soon-to-be-wife Dorothy to the determined-to-stay-true-to-himself Private overcoming great pressure to maintain his convictions during basic training, to the soldier resolved to save as many of his fellow men as he can all while under constant threat of death.  And Doss did not discriminate, even rescuing a few Japanese soldiers as well.

Doss was a very religious man and it should come as no surprise that this is an emphasis in a film directed by Mel Gibson.  Doss carries a Bible with him at all times and during his long night on the ridge he continuously asks for God’s assistance in helping him “save just one more.”

Although the movie is a winner from start to finish, it is not without a few flaws.  There is at least one glaring continuity error and at times the computer-generated blood on the battle field looks a little too fake.  The movie also suffers from a severe overkill of slow-motion at times.  But that is about all you can say wrong about this intense and thrilling war movie that shares important messages of faith and following your convictions.  It also reminds us that there are many different forms of bravery which could all possibly lead to heroics.

Hacksaw Ridge is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Having already been much talked about on the film festival circuit and after taking home both the grand jury prize and the audience award at Sundance, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation seems primed for an Oscar run.  In the same vein as Oscar winners like Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave, its subject matter is often difficult to watch, but it is an important story that needs to be told and its director has done a terrific job of telling it.

That director is Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation is his first feature, making for one heck of a debut.  Parker wrote and produced the movie, as well, while also spending nearly the entire film in front of the camera, starring as real-life slave Nat Turner.

birth-of-a-nation-insetTurner is an educated slave and preacher whose owner finds himself strapped for cash and in danger of losing his plantation.  To make some extra cash, he loans out Turner to other slave owners where he is expected to deliver a sermon promoting the values of obedience and servitude.  While traveling from plantation to plantation, Turner witnesses the atrocities faced by his fellow slaves.  The horrors hit close to home, too, when his wife is beaten and raped by white slavers.  He rebels, slowly at first, before finally leading a full-on rebellion.

The relationship between Nat and his owner Samuel, played by Armie Hammer, is perhaps the most interesting in the film.  They were playmates as young boys and while they grow to become slave and master, there is still a certain level of mutual respect between the two.  This slowly fades as the movie progresses as Nat observes Samuel witness these horrible acts that are performed against other slaves, but do nothing about it except dive into the bottom of a bottle.  It continues to worsen as Samuel’s financial struggles force him to appease the other slave owners by allowing them to commit horrible acts against his own slaves.  The relationship eventually crumbles to the point of no return and it is at this point when Nat decides he needs to take action.

Whether by accident or intent, the movie is structured very much like 1995’s Oscar-winning epic Braveheart, so much so that in the end, I was half expecting Nat Turner to belt out a shout for freedom.  The comparisons between the movies make sense.  Both movies are about a rebellion in pursuit of freedom.  And as historical epics go, there are few better movies to emulate than Braveheart (factual inaccuracies aside).

The Birth of a Nation does not shy away from its harrowing subject matter.  There are some scenes of slave brutality that will be a challenge for anyone to watch, but ultimately the movie is a story of hope, something that is very clear in its final image.  Despite how challenging some of the scenes in the movie can be to watch, they are always incredibly photographed.  The cinematography in this film is stunning, filled from wall to wall with poetic and religious imagery.  There is one specific shot that starts with a close-up of a butterfly that will break your heart.

Religion plays a major role in the film.  Nat is a preacher who has great faith and believes that leading the rebellion is a mission given to him by God.  One compelling scene has him explaining to his fellow slaves the words of the Bible and that for every verse the slave owners use to justify enslaving them, there is another condemning them for it.  This certainly rings true not only in the slave culture of America in the 19th Century, but for today as well.  Religion is often used to justify horrifying acts.  Perhaps that is due to individuals focusing on the verses that serve their value system while ignoring the overall message.

The Birth of a Nation is a compelling historical drama that is incredibly well made.  It is a tour de force accomplishment for Nate Parker, who deserves to earn Oscar nominations for his directing, writing, and acting.  The movie itself should also find itself competing for the top prize.  It is well worth seeing, but be prepared for a sobering dose of what reality was for slaves in the early 1800s.

The Birth of a Nation is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

In April 2010, the off-shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, leaving oil gushing from an underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico for eighty-seven days.  It is considered to be the biggest oil disaster in U.S. history.  While the ongoing spill and the attempts to cap it got headlines for months, what was lost in the shuffle was the horrifying experience of those working aboard the rig when it happened.  The movie Deepwater Horizon is here to remedy that.

The movie opens with audio from the hearings investigating the cause of the disaster.  The voice we hear is the true voice of electrician Mike Williams, a man whose story of survival served as inspiration for the film.  We are then introduced to the on-screen Mike, played by Mark Wahlberg.  Mike says goodbye to his wife and daughter before leaving to spend what he thinks will be the next three weeks aboard the oil rig of the title, but what will turn out to be only one horrible night.

deepwater-horizon-insetUpon arriving on the rig, Mike and others learn that the executives at BP have decided to skip a standard test in fear of falling further behind than they already are on the project.  They insist that the project is ready to go and although Mike and others have their doubts, the company men get their way.  The results are disastrous.  High-pressure methane gas from the well expands into the drill and floods the drilling rig where it ignites and explodes.  The entire rig bursts into flames and the 126 crew members onboard find themselves fighting for their lives.

The movie narrows down those 126 crew members to focus mainly on three: Mike, rig operator Andrea Fleytas, and supervisor Jimmy Harrell (aka Mr. Jimmy).  We meet a few other characters, but none of their backstories are as fleshed out as Mike and Andrea’s.  There is little mentioned about Mr. Jimmy’s backstory, but since he is played by star Kurt Russell and given so much screentime, we come to identify with him anyway.  Mr. Jimmy essentially acts as the Deepwater Horizon’s conscience: the conscience the suits refuse to listen to.  The “bad guy” role is taken up by John Malkovich, who plays BP executive Vidrine, the man who makes the fatal go-ahead call.

Mark Wahlberg also played a survivor in director Peter Berg’s last film, Lone Survivor, and he is perfect for this kind of role.  Despite being a former music star and underwear model, the actor still manages to feel like an everyman in roles like this.  His character’s professionalism and sense of humor in the movie’s early scenes make him an easy one to root for and because he is very much a guy’s guy, we buy that he might survive an insane ordeal like this.

And what an insane ordeal it is.  After building up the tension with the conflict between the crew and the BP executives, the movie erupts in the middle and throws us as the audience directly into the chaos.  Unfortunately, it gets a little too chaotic and it becomes nearly impossible to follow the geography of what is happening around us.  There are rapid cuts showing characters thrown into walls and piping or into the fire, but it is often impossible to tell what just happened and to whom. This is likely intentional, forcing the audience to feel the chaos and insanity that the real-life characters depicted in the film had to go through, but other movies have been able to successfully do this while letting the audience understand what is going on.  The D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan is the prime example.

Although the audience may feel lost during this central sequence, the movie never really loses them.  The entire sequence is intense and engrossing, making the film’s 107 minute runtime just fly by.  It is aided by some incredible special effects which make all of the horror seem that much more terrifying.

Although some of the actual crew members who lived through this disaster have been outspoken against the film, it feels like a story that needed to be told.  It is not sensationalized and helps us in the audience to better understand the horror that these men lived through on that fateful night in April 2010.

Deepwater Horizon is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is being adapted for the big screen by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, whose previous films Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines have won him some critical praise and indie cred, but have not yet broken him through with most audiences.  The subject matter given to him by the novel combined with the A-list cast he has assembled makes this movie an instant Oscar contender on paper.  Oscars are not won on paper, though.  They are won on the silver screen and this movie does not shine quite bright enough.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a veteran of World War I who returns home to Australia and accepts the solitary job of an island lighthouse keeper.  After all of the horrors he has seen during the war, he is looking for the peace and quiet that comes with such a secluded position.  While nearby on the mainland, he meets Alicia Vikander’s Isabel.  The two immediately fall in love, get married, and travel together to live their life with each other on the island.  Their family grows when a baby washes ashore in a stray rowboat.  They decide to informally adopt the girl as their own.  They name her Lucy.

light-between-oceans-insetProblems arise when they return to the mainland and come across a woman named Hannah whose husband and baby girl went missing at sea about the same time as Lucy washed up on their shore.  They are faced with a huge moral decision of whether to admit that Lucy is not theirs and return her to her real mother or to keep the truth a secret and go on living as if the girl is their own.

The plot sounds like it could be a set up for a thriller or an investigation drama with Tom and Isabel trying desperately to stay ahead of the police investigation into the missing girl while the audience sits breathlessly on the edge of their seats.  For better or worse, though, that is not the direction in which writer/director Derek Cianfrance decided to take it.  The movie moves deliberately through its paces and the key plot points are revealed quietly and simply as opposed to being driven home hard to the audience with an accompanying clang on the musical score.

The positive in this approach is that it allows the actors to control the emotions of the film.  Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander deliver excellent performances in the leads, even though Vikander’s role sometimes seems as if it is screaming “Oscar bait” a little too loudly.  The third lead is Rachel Weisz, who plays the mother mourning the supposed loss of her baby girl.  Much like her role in The Lobster earlier this year, Weisz does not show up until about an hour into the movie, but when she does, she delivers.  It is turning out to be a banner year for the actress who has two more movies coming out in the next couple of months.

The negative to the approach is that the movie moves at an incredibly slow pace, which is somewhat ironic considering that before you know it the story has already passed through a time period of five years or so.  I was constantly waiting for something to happen and when it did, it did not come with the impact that one would hope for after such a wait.  It is an interesting story with intriguing moral decisions, but the plodding pace makes sticking with it a challenge in patience.

The Light Between Oceans feels like a movie that will not hit with most audiences, but some, especially those who can somewhat identify with what the characters go through in the movie, may find it very emotionally compelling.  For the rest of us, though, the deliberate pacing makes it a very difficult film with which to connect.

The Light Between Oceans is now playing at the Century Federal Way and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Disney has no shortage of movies in their catalogue to remake and it appears as if they plan to go through them all.  The animated Jungle Book was given an update earlier this year and now Disney brings us a remake of their 1977 live-action/animated hybrid Pete’s Dragon.  Director David Lowery has made it clear that the movie is not so much a remake as it is a “re-imagining.”  Gone are the songs and much of the plot, but what remains is the heart of the film, a story of a young orphan boy and his friend, who just so happens to be a dragon.

After a short prologue, we are introduced to Pete and the dragon he calls Elliot frolicking in the woods north of a small logging community.  When the logging business starts closing in on their home, Pete goes to check it out and after being injured, he wakes up in the hospital in town.  He is befriended by a girl his age named Natalie and is taken into her home by her father and soon-to-be mother-in-law.  Pete tells them about his friend Elliot, but they begin to wonder if it is just an imaginary friend.

In his attempts to find his friend, however, Elliot was seen by some of the loggers who are now intent on hunting him down and making money off the incredible discovery of the world’s first dragon.  It is up to Pete, Natalie, and an old hunter named Meacham who once experienced the “magic” of the dragon and would very much like to experience it once more.

The special effects in this movie can also be described as magical.  The computer-generated Elliot is brilliantly done and the dragon feels like a real part of the world in which this movie takes place.  Never does he feel like a special effect in his interactions with Pete or anyone else.  The decision to make Elliot a furry dragon rather than the typical scaly dragon we usually see was an inspired one.  Even though he is large with a mouthful of giant teeth and we can see why the townsfolk would be afraid of him at first glance, we can also easily see how Pete could form a friendship with him.  He is like a giant dog.  Man’s—or boy’s, in this case—best friend in dragon form.

The story is simple, but a more complex story is not necessary.  It features a good cast and tells a heartwarming story most audience members will surely be able to get behind.  There are definitely some logic holes that the movie chooses just to skip over, but in a world in which a young boy is best friends with a giant dragon, I think we can afford to suspend our disbelief enough to let those go.

Really the only time I questioned what the filmmakers were doing was with some of the musical choices.  Maybe because the original movie was a musical they felt compelled to use songs instead of score over some of the scenes, but it did feel strange having something close to a ballad playing over scenes involving action.  An adventurous or suspenseful score might have felt more appropriate in those moments.

Those few moments are the only ones in the film that took me out of the story, though, and they do not ruin the overall enjoyment of the movie.  I am not a big fan of remakes in general, but because of the decision to make this more of a re-imagining than a remake, the movie felt like its own thing and not just a copy.  Pete’s Dragon is solid family entertainment.

Pete’s Dragon is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

The first film to introduce moviegoers to the character of Jason Bourne was 2002’s The Bourne Identity, directed by Doug Liman.  That movie was moderately entertaining, but the series really excelled when Paul Greengrass took over for the second and third movies in the franchise, completing a trilogy that did an excellent job of wrapping up the overarching Jason Bourne plotline that was introduced in the original.

After Greengrass and star Matt Damon moved on to pursue other projects, the studio tried to keep the series going by introducing a new hero in 2012’s The Bourne Legacy.  That was only a few short years ago, but already that movie has all but been forgotten as audiences clamor for the return of Matt Damon’s titular hero.  Thus return both Damon and Greengrass for the fifth entry in the action series, this time simply titled Jason Bourne in an obvious effort to make it very clear to audiences that their hero is back.

Jason Bourne did not want to be back in the spotlight.  He continues to live off the grid and would have loved to continue things that way, but when his former associate Nicky Parsons shows up having just been caught hacking into the CIA’s servers, he finds himself thrust back into the agency’s crosshairs.

jason-bourne-insetFollowing the arrest of the corrupt CIA Director at the end of the last film—and by that I mean Ultimatum, not Legacy—Robert Dewey has taken over the position and he is pretty much up to the same tricks that got the last guy thrown in prison.  He has restarted the black ops program that had previously been shut down and has also reached an under-the-table deal with a social media entrepreneur who has created a popular social media program that sounds eerily similar to Facebook.  That means for all you privacy settings conspiracy theorists out there, this is the movie for you.

In addition to Dewey and the Mark Zuckerberg-like Aaron Kalloor, played by Tommy Lee Jones and Riz Ahmed, respectively, Bourne also introduces a new asset played by Vincent Cassel and the CIA’s top cyber security agent Heather Lee, played by recent Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander.  Lee is ambitious and looks to bring Bourne in to hopefully help her own career, while Cassel’s asset is bent on destroying Bourne for personal reasons.

The plot surrounding the social media forum’s privacy conspiracy is an intriguing one, but unfortunately it exists within a Bourne movie plotline that feels contrived and unnecessary.  The problem the movie faces right from the get go is that Jason’s search for his identity and why he was turned into a weapon was very well resolved at the end of the The Bourne Ultimatum.  That movie answered most, if not all of the questions that were raised the moment Bourne was pulled out of the Mediterranean with amnesia in the first film.  To keep the story going, this movie introduces us to a character whose involvement in Jason’s past was never even hinted at in the original trilogy.  Although that is not in and of itself bad, this character and his relationship with Jason is never fully fleshed out leaving it to feel like it was tacked on only to give Jason another hazy memory to unravel. Furthermore, this movie opens with Jason telling us in voiceover that he now remembers everything.  Why this hazy memory, then?

With Jason’s plotline feeling so much less interesting than the surrounding plotlines, it often feels as if he is a side character in his own movie.  He can still kick butt, though, and the action scenes are once again crazy.  Filled from wall to wall with extras, it is amazing the detail and planning that must go into filming some of the scenes in this movie, most notably the Greece fight/chase that takes place in the middle of civil unrest.  And busy action scenes do not get much busier than a car chase down the Las Vegas strip; thankfully, SWAT vehicles are seemingly indestructible.

The action in the movie is entertaining at times and is certainly classic Bourne, but the stakes never seem as high as they were in the original three movies, making this one that much less engrossing.  In the end, this movie feels too much like the same thing as the previous movies, bringing little new to the Bourne table.

Jason Bourne opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

The new reboot of Ghostbusters is the second movie this year to get totally trashed by Internet commenters prior to anyone actually seeing the movie.  Whereas Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did not do much to save its reputation upon release, Ghostbusters is likely to fare much better.  Why? Principally because it is full of a crucial entertainment element that the DC Comics film just failed to provide: fun.

The movie starts out very much like the 1984 original: three scientists encounter a ghost, lose their jobs at a University, and start their own business as sort of a ghost removal service.  In this case, the trio consists of childhood friends Erin and Abby, who have studied the paranormal and once published a book on the subject, along with Jillian Holtzman, a wacky nuclear engineer in charge of building their ghost-busting contraptions.  They are soon joined by an MTA worker named Patty who has encountered a ghost herself and essentially invites herself onto the team.

ghostbusters-insetThe foursome soon notices an escalation of paranormal activity in the New York City area that turns out to be the work of Rowan, a janitor who works at the hotel which happens to be located at the crossroads of the ley lines that carry paranormal energy.  To borrow a term from the original film, he works at “spook central.”  Rowan is determined to release all of the trapped ghosts in New York City in order to gain revenge for the bullying he has put up with his whole life as an outcast.  The newly minted Ghostbusters must step up to save the city despite the resistance of local government and Homeland Security.

It goes without saying that the original Ghostbusters movie will never be replaced in the hearts of its fans, but just because there will never be another Johnny Carson does not mean that Jimmy Fallon cannot find success as the host of The Tonight Show.  The new Ghostbusters movie establishes itself early by just being fun.  A lot of the credit for this goes straight to the cast.

Each of the new Ghostbusters brings something unique to the franchise.  Early on, I found myself wondering who was the new Egon and who was the new Venkman, et cetera, but even though there are a few personality traits shared here and there, none of the characters can be pigeonholed as “the new” whomever.  Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are both good in roles that were clearly tailor-made for them, but it is Kate McKinnon who steals the show as Holtzmann.  There is no real movie character to whom she can easily be compared; she’s a fresh, unique creation and it is impossible to look away from her no matter what her character is doing.  Leslie Jones is also very good as Patty.  As the lone non-scientist in the group, her character is granted a skill that can contribute to the group—her uncanny knowledge of New York history—as opposed to her counterpart non-scientist Winston in the original film, who basically just existed as a helping hand.

Although the movie and its characters quickly establish themselves as their own thing, the movie does not forget to pay tribute to its predecessor.  With the exception of Rick Moranis, each of the lead human players from the original movie make cameos here (blink and you will miss the bronze bust of the late Harold Ramis on the Columbia University set), while Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man also put in appearances.  These brief scenes are fun moments in a movie that clearly respects its source material, but as they are spread throughout the entire movie, they might distract a little too much from the movie’s efforts to create something new and stand out on its own.

The visual effects in Ghostbusters are state of the art and it is one of the few movies to be released in the past few years where I would actually recommend seeing it in 3D.  For 3D showings, the movie is shown in letterbox format which allows for some of the special effects to literally pop out of the frame.  It is not a new technique (this April’s The Jungle Book also did this), but rarely has it been used so effectively.

That said, the movie is also a good example of how technically better special effects do not always equal special effects that are more charming and compelling than the less polished ones (see also Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake).  That is most clearly evident with Slimer, who appears less like an apparition and more like a disgusting physical being, causing the character to lose some of its charm.  But cheers to him, though, for finding himself a lady-friend.

The movie loses itself a little bit in the final act when it focuses more on action and destruction than humor, and the big baddie looks a little too much like a rip-off of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas (although his origin is pretty clever).  Perhaps if the movie would have stuck to the original idea of the giant spirit-possessed flash mob that we get a glimpse of during the closing credits it would have been just that much more original.  Either way, we are treated to an entertaining remake that, despite what you’ve heard on the Internet, won’t ruin your childhood.

Ghostbusters opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Author Roald Dahl published his children’s novel The BFG in 1982, the same year filmmaker Steven Spielberg released his classic film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  Now thirty-four years later, those two powerhouses combine for the movie version of The BFG.  Spielberg is directing from a script by the late Melissa Mathison, her first produced script in nearly twenty years.  Mathison, by the way, wrote the script for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Like the 1982 classic, The BFG is about a young child who meets a mysterious stranger who brings a certain level of magic into her life.  The young protagonist is Sophie, an orphan with insomnia, who early one morning finds a giant outside her window.  She is whisked away by this giant to Giant Country.  At first she is frightened, expecting him to be a mean, monstrous ogre who eats little children, but she soon learns that he is a sweet giant.  She names him BFG, an abbreviation for Big Friendly Giant.

bfg-insetBFG is the exception to the rule, however, and he explains to her that all of the other giants in Giant Country will eat her first chance they get.  After witnessing the cruel way in which the other giants treat BFG, Sophie decides that they must fight back.  To do so, she decides that they need to recruit the help of an army and she knows just the person who could help them with that.

The BFG has been in production for nearly twenty years, waiting for cinema technology to catch up with the story’s vision.  Now, in the age of motion capture technology, the time is right for little girls and giants to exist in the same shot.  The result is a visually impressive film that features an incredible motion-capture performance by Mark Rylance.  While working with Rylance on last year’s Bridge of Spies—a role that would earn the actor an Oscar—Spielberg instantly identified him as the perfect actor to play the BFG.  He was right.

Even though the character is visually created in a computer, the motion-capture process allows the performance of Rylance to shine through.  Anyone who has seen the actor either in Bridge of Spies or something else will instantly recognize his face in the character.  He is able to act using both subtle expressions and big movements, which allow the character to feel very real and present in every moment.  His voice work is also an excellent choice for the character, warm and grandfatherly.  He also handles the character’s playful dialogue with ease as BFG has his own lovable understanding of the English language.

The rest of the giants, however, are a little too goofy and not as well characterized.  Even though BFG tells us all of their names, with the exception of the one primary antagonist, none of the rest are ever clearly identified.  It would have made them much more interesting as characters and villains if we could identify them as clearly as, say, the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  They also come across more as annoying rather than scary, which doesn’t help the movie any.

Although the movie wastes no time in introducing the two main characters, little else happens in the first half of the movie and it feels quite slow until the main plot is finally revealed in the second half. Having not read the book, I found myself wondering during this first half just where the movie could go and was quite surprised to see where it eventually went.  Most of the more entertaining moments come in the second half, but since so much time was spent in the first half, the climax actually felt quite rushed.  What seemed set up to be a fantastic action scene is over in the blink of an eye.

The BFG cannot come close to matching that earlier Spielberg movie named after its character’s initials, but it is a colorful, funny, and entertaining movie that should delight most kids.  It is worth seeing if only for the latest in what is an ever-growing stable of great motion-capture performances.

The BFG opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and Regal Parkway Plaza 12. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Unless they star a toy cowboy and his space ranger pal, sequels to Pixar movies have been somewhat underwhelming.  Cars 2 and Monsters University were both moderately entertaining, but neither of them came close to approximating the magic of their respective originals.  Now the animation giant is revisiting one of their most beloved movies, Finding Nemo.  Although it has been a full thirteen years since that movie first hit theaters in 2003, and Finding Dory may be late to the party, it is well worth the wait.

finding-dory-insetAs Pixar does so well, the movie tugs at your heartstrings immediately.  A wide-eyed baby Dory is separated from her parents and due to her short-term memory loss, her frantic search to find them falters as she soon can’t even remember whom she was looking for.  Her forgetful search goes on for years until she bumps into a clown fish named Marlin who is looking for his son Nemo.  Suddenly, Dory’s search has purpose again.

A year later, Dory has become part of Marlin and Nemo’s family, but she still does not remember her own family.  While watching stingray migration, Dory gets caught in the undertow and hits her head.  Suddenly, a memory comes rushing back to her in the form of a location in California.  She convinces Marlin and Nemo to join her on an adventure across the ocean where she hopes to be reconnected with her long lost parents.

Finding Dory is a delightful follow-up that is every bit as entertaining as its predecessor.  Dory is a wonderful character, brilliantly voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.  The actress earned raves and even some Oscar buzz for her vocal performance in the original movie and she is no less entertaining here.  Albert Brooks also returns as Marlin and Hayden Rolence takes over as the voice of Nemo from the now thirteen-years-older Alexander Gould, who does have a small cameo.

The movie gets all of its callbacks to the original movie out of the way early by briefly reintroducing us to characters like the teacher Mr. Ray and the father-son sea turtle duo of Crush and Squirt, but then lets them go in order to introduce us to whole new cast of characters.  Key among them is a mischievous, camouflaging Octopus named Hank, voiced by Ed O’Neil.  O’Neil’s Modern Family co-star Ty Burrell is also on board as a Beluga whale named Bailey and Kaitlin Olson voices a whale shark named Destiny.  Hank is the most crucial new character to the story and Bailey was my favorite by the time it was all said and done, but a pair of sea lions voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West inspire the movie’s biggest laugh-out-loud moments.

The movie’s visuals are stunning with the animators absolutely nailing the murky fog of the undersea and contrasting that with the clearer, brighter colors of everything going on above the surface.  There are also some terrifying visuals in this movie, such as when Dory and Hank find themselves trapped in a touch tank.  Few scenes in either this movie or the original do a better job of letting us see things from the perspective of the fish than this terrifying scene that has giant human hands exploding through the surface of the water to attack the poor sea life trapped underneath.

Finding Dory is a wonderful story about learning your strengths and overcoming your weaknesses that reminds us everyone has the ability to find their way back home.  It is a funny, charming, and exciting movie that will have you by the heart from the very first moment that baby Dory encourages herself to “just keep swimming.”   For these reasons, Finding Dory stands out as Pixar’s first truly great non-Toy Story sequel.

Finding Dory opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Hollywood veteran Shane Black got his start writing the screenplays for the Lethal Weapon movies in the eighties and nineties before finally directing his first feature with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  He then joined that movie’s star Robert Downey Jr. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by writing and directing Iron Man 3, one of the franchise’s most contentious entries to date.  His new movie, The Nice Guys, is a return to the buddy-cop action comedy genre in which he first made his name.

This movie’s “buddies” are Jackson Healy and Holland March.  March is a recently-widowed alcoholic private eye with a penchant for squeezing more money out of his various clients than is necessary to get the job done.  He has been hired by an elderly woman to find her niece, who recently died in a car accident, but whom her vision-impaired aunt swears she has seen still alive.  March soon learns that the woman she saw was not the niece, but rather an aspiring actress named Amelia.  He sets out to find this Amelia, who turns out not to be the easiest person in the world to find.

the-nice-guys-insetEnter Healy, more muscle-for-hire than licensed detective, who is hired by the mysterious Amelia to discourage the men who have been following her.  The only name she has is March’s and so Healy pays the detective a visit.  After giving March something to remember him by, Healy himself is visited and threatened by the other men who have been pursuing Amelia.  Not a fan of being on the other end of the beatings, Healy then decides to hire March to continue his investigation into Amelia and the two soon find themselves involved in a scandal well over their heads.

Aside from the fact that Shane Black is one of the more interesting writer/directors out there, especially when it comes to the action comedy genre, the intriguing draw to The Nice Guys is the stars.  Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are both big stars with Oscar nominations to their credit—including a win for Crowe—but neither of the actors has ever really tackled a movie with such a goofy comedic tone as this one.

Crowe has a the blander role of the two—the straight man of the comedic team—and for this reason his performance comes off as much less inspired, but Gosling shines and provides much of the movie’s humor.  He shows off a talent for physical comedy in this movie that has not really been seen in his previous work, where his characters are usually in more control of their actions.  When he is confronted in a bathroom stall and tries to simultaneously keep a gun on his confronter, while trying to avoid being burned by his cigarette and keeping his swimsuit parts covered, Gosling has the audience in stitches.  He also has some wonderful reactions to the craziness that is going on around him in this movie, including possibly the best high-pitched squeal ever heard from a movie tough guy.

The movie has a lot of the elements that have come to make a Shane Black script a Shane Black movie.  The movie opens with narration from each of its protagonists, although that quickly dissipates, and the dialogue is witty and unique.  The plot also has numerous seemingly unrelated plot threads that all tie up together in the end.

The movie is not without its weaknesses.  A crazy shoot-out involving Matt Bomer’s hitman goes a little too over the top and doesn’t feel very consistent with the rest of the violence in the movie, and the bad guys are underdeveloped.  The plot threads also could have been tightened up a bit as the movie feels like it meanders at times.

Those flaws are easy to overlook, though, given that the movie is just so darned entertaining.  The visuals are crazy, the characters are fun, and the comedic moments perfectly fit with the tone of the movie.

The Nice Guys opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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by Jeff Walls

Earlier this summer, movie audiences were treated to a long-awaited superhero matchup with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie which felt a lot like a desperate attempt by Warner Bros. to quickly catch the DC Comics movie universe up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The result was a movie that was almost universally panned by critics and—despite decent box office—audiences.  As if that weren’t enough, here comes Marvel’s new movie, also featuring a matchup between two of its main heroes: Iron Man and Captain America.  With the two movies having a surprising amount of plot elements in common, Captain America: Civil War feels as if it is Marvel slapping DC right across the face, because everything DC got wrong, Marvel gets oh-so-right.

After a brief prologue giving audiences some more backstory for Steve Rogers’ friend-turned-enemy The Winter Soldier, the story takes us to Africa where Captain America is leading his new Avengers team on a mission to capture the villain Crossbones.  Something goes horribly wrong, though, and innocent people are killed.  This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the large portion of the population who believe that masked heroes are unchecked vigilantes who need to be reeled in.  General Ross, last seen trying to contain Bruce Banner’s alter ego in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, arrives with a proposal to have superheroes registered with and under the authority of the United Nations.

captain-america-civil-war-insetThe Avengers are immediately divided.  One faction, led by a recently shaken Tony Stark, decide that signing up for the program is the only option.  Those who refuse the agreement, led by Captain America, must either retire or find themselves with a warrant out for their arrest.  The rift between the two sides is made wider by the series’ new villain, Zemo, who is busy manipulating the strings from behind the curtain.  As the title of the movie suggests, this leads to a civil war between the two sides, forcing former friends to do battle against one another.

Without delving into deep spoiler territory, one of the ways this movie excels when directly compared to Batman v Superman is that directors Anthony and Joe Russo knew that the battle between its two main heroes would need to be what the movie was most about.  Whereas Batman v Superman had another large, loud, and special-effects dominated action sequence follow its one-on-one fight between the title characters, the fight between Iron Man and Captain America is the climax of Captain America: Civil War.  There is little but maybe five minutes of epilogue after its two leads go head-to-head.  And the fight here is so much more meaningful because we have already spent years and multiple movies getting to know these characters and see their often conflicting personalities interact with each other.  Because of this, we feel as if there is so much more on the line in this battle than we do in the DC movie.

This movie is not without its big, special-effects driven action sequence, but in this film it comes before the climactic one-on-one match.  Featuring just about every major character that Marvel has introduced us to so far in their cinematic universe as well as two new key characters, this battle is arguably the greatest action sequence Marvel has pulled off to date.  And here is the key: it is fun!  The high-stakes action is blended perfectly with humor making it the kind of action scene that you watch with both wide eyes and a bright smile.  What Zach Snyder and his team at DC Comics don’t seem to understand but Kevin Feige and his Marvel group certainly get is that the more fun and entertaining the characters are, the more powerful are the dramatic moments that follow.

The two new major characters who are introduced in this film are Black Panther and Spider-Man.  Although there may have been a slight concern going in that fans would not be ready for yet another Spider-Man so soon after the Andrew Garfield reboots, those worries are immediately put to bed as soon as Tom Holland’s new Spider-Man turns up on screen.  He is terrific and provides a large portion of the fun in that previously referenced action sequence.  The movie also seamlessly introduces him and hints at his backstory without getting weighed down with exposition.  It helps that Holland and Robert Downey, Jr. have instant chemistry in Peter Parker’s first scene.

Black Panther’s introduction is also seamless and the character instantly feels at home in the cinematic universe.  The audience is given bits and pieces of the character’s backstory as the movie goes on, but again, the movie never weighs itself down to spoon-feed the audience.  The character is also terrifically played by Chadwick Boseman with the regality of a character who must be both masked superhero and king of a nation.

There is hardly a misstep in Captain America: Civil War.  The movie is highly entertaining and engrossing from start to finish.  It is full of surprises and all of the action sequences are clever and creative.  Action movies do not get much better than this and it proves that, if there was any doubt, Marvel Studios is still the undisputed king of the superhero movie genre.

Captain America: Civil War opens today at the Century Federal Way, AMC Kent Station 14, and AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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