Quick Movie Review: Black Mass (2015)

black mass

Black Mass is the best kind of biopic. One that tells a very specific story. It doesn’t just exist in order to tell about a person for the mere sake of retelling their life story. We’ve all seen those before. At the end, you say to yourself that you feel like you know the person, but you’re not really sure why you needed to learn about arbitrary snippets from their life.

This film is about Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp), a Boston crime lord, whom you can assume had some acquired some fairly heady anecdotes over the course of his reign. But Black Mass doesn’t just start from his childhood. It focuses mainly on the latter half of his life–after he was already established as a feared man in the city of Boston. The film details how he becomes an FBI informant who helps end the Mafia invasion in his territory of rule. But it never really paints him as a saint. In fact, it shows him more as the villain he is. One who is ruthless and merciless and only cares about his own power. Towards the beginning, before a series of events happen that takes away most of the people he cares about, we see flickers of a loving person. It’s after that when he becomes a monster.

There is a secondary lead, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who works for the FBI but also grew up with Bulger. He has always been enamored with the criminal and secretly wants to be like him. He is in denial. Things start to change in his life when the FBI becomes fed up with Connelly always creating excuses for Bulger–a trend that may prove to work against him rather than for him.

But Black Mass never chooses a protagonist for us. We root for certain characters, but then realize that they all may very well have faults of their own that make them unrootable.

Depp is seriously phenomenal in his portrayal of Bulger. It may very well be his best performance in years, maybe ever. You forget it’s him because it is so far gone from the typical roles that he takes on.

The film is gripping from beginning to end. It proves how there are different levels of nefariousness and depicts Bulger’s second tier of villain perfectly.

Twizard Rating: 97


Quick Movie Review: Fading Gigolo (2014)

fading gigolo

I can’t say that there’s much to love in Fading Gigolo. Maybe it’s because I can’t relate. A quarter-life-crisis, sure, but not a midlife one. But to say that the movie is bad would be largely incorrect. The film, for the most part, is harmless. It’s a sex comedy for older men, but it doesn’t do much to offend. It even purposely keeps it classy by pervading lounge jazz in the background the entire time. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of silence in the film, now that I think of it.

Fading Gigolo stars John Turturro, who also writes and directs, as Fioravante, a florist who becomes strapped for cash and is counseled by his good friend, Murray (Woody Allen), into becoming a male prostitute while Murray manages him. Turturro plays his character as a man of few words, and Allen–well–plays a version of himself of course. This time, his normal insecure idiosyncrasies take on a slightly more sordid personality.

Narratively, it starts up quickly, but meanders a bit after the first 30 minutes or so. One of its biggest weaknesses is the dialogue, which is very stiff when any character besides Woody Allen is speaking. It’s not so much the verbiage, but the characters’ rote delivery of it. The banter between Turturro and anyone else (sans Allen) feels routine and phony. It’s actually painful at some points.

The highlight would have to be Woody, who provides us with the comic relief amongst otherwise arid characters. Not that they don’t have depth–they’re just all written as very laconic.

It takes some odd turns here and there, and doesn’t quite seem to know where it wants to end up. There are some brief touches of surrealism throughout which actually give the film much of its character.

But overall, it’s a movie that has a purpose. You have to commend it for trying to reach a certain audience–one that isn’t so often approached.

Twizard Rating: 72

Quick Movie Review: Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (2015)

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Besides the several plot holes–which I now know come standard in a Maze Runner film–the main reason why I don’t love the first Maze Runner as much as I could have is because it ends so abruptly. It leaves us hanging with little-to-no answers. But if I had the opportunity to watch the sequel directly afterwards, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. The first installment is really enjoyable. They keep you stringing along with this giant mystery, and the process of getting you there is creative.

The sequel, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, answers a lot of questions posed in the first film, but keeps enough hidden to make us want to know more. This film takes place just after Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the rest of the Gladers have escaped from the maze. They are taken to what they think is a safe haven. They don’t know what to believe after they discover weird things happening behind closed doors. After escaping, they must figure out what the next step is while they try to survive the elements of nature, along with mutant humans who are trying to eat them.

Although enjoyable, the first film features a lot of talking and standing around, which makes its charisma all the more impressive. Maze Runner: Scorch Trials is none of that. It is constantly moving. It’s a road movie, really. And the tone is different from the first, too.

The plot holes in this one, while not necessarily as detrimental to the end result, are still distracting enough to take notice of during the movie. However, there is one that may partially unravel the final 15 minutes of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the filmmakers sure know how to keep the audience involved, but sometimes it borders on manipulative. Certain situations are included that unnaturally move the story in a certain direction.

If it weren’t for the rampant porousness and the directorial mishaps that led to it, this would have been one of my favorite films this year so far. However, I still loved the movie. After the last Hunger Games installment, this Maze Runner series is becoming my new favorite young adult post-apocalyptic film franchise.

Twizard Rating: 87

Quick Movie Review: A Walk In the Woods (2015)

walk in the woods

There are many movies that come along that we like the idea of better than we actually like. While A Walk In the Woods isn’t the most prime example of that, it is still an example.

Two septuagenarian friends take it upon themselves to hike the Appalachian Trail–a 2100 mile trek through the mountain wilderness. After attending a funeral of a friend, the cynical writher, Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), is faced with a late-life crisis. He is compelled to take the journey of a lifetime, but can’t find anyone to go with him. Finally, he gets a phone call from a long lost friend, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), with whom he has purposely lost touch with. Stephen is very rough around the edges and doesn’t know when to draw the line most of the time (telling Bill’s grandchildren about a sexual exploit that Bill experienced in his youth). With everyone objecting to the idea of them going on this excursion–especially Bill’s wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson)–they are motivated even more to take the trip and prove their youth.

Never is it apparent that the movie isn’t great, until the end when you realize that nothing really happened. Before that you just keep waiting for that moment when the whole thing clicks. But there just isn’t nearly enough conflict, and at no point do I feel like their lives are in danger. You start off thinking that the characters have a lot to lose–such as their lives–but when it’s over you question why you even thought that.

The script is just about as transparent as its characters. Towards the beginning, Bill and his wife are attending a memorial party and Bill wants to leave. Catherine tells him that he should stay and try talking to people. But Bill responds with, “I don’t like talking to people.” But why? They’ve been married 40 years, shouldn’t his wife already know this? It was obviously added to inform the audience, but we aren’t that dumb either. We can clearly see that his character is curmudgeonly.

This film was originally supposed to star Paul Newman alongside Redford. Sadly the film didn’t get made in time. But we can’t complain about Nolte’s antics gracing the screen. Not that the two leads play anyone other than themselves, but it’s still refreshing to watch.

They do have a fun chemistry and there are some scenes that are pretty enjoyable. It’s a completely harmless movie–which, much of the time, is its downfall.

You really want to love this film, but it just feels like an excuse for the actors and crew to film a movie in the Appalachians. However, with that said, it’s never a bad watch, and one I could even see again.

Twizard Rating: 71

Quick Movie Review: We Are Your Friends (2015)

we are your friends

We Are Your Friends is about a young amateur DJ, Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who is trying to pursue his dream of performing on the big stage. He, along with his three best friends, are also dealing with the reality that they need an actual steady income in the meantime. Carter happens to befriend a world famous veteran DJ, James Reed (Wes Bentley), who takes him under his wing and mentors him. Things get complicated when Carter becomes attracted to Reed’s girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski).

First off, I would like to say that I am an aspiring musician. I’m a part of a songwriting and production team who, up until recently, hasn’t seemed to be getting our career off the ground. There’s a lot of push and pull. When you have big dreams and talent, you’re not always guaranteed easy access to the fame and fortune. I once had someone tell me that getting your foot in the door is easy. The hard part is getting through the door. I like We Are Your Friends because I completely relate to it. But the film’s biggest downfall is that not many people will.

Unless you live in Los Angeles and surround yourself with the electronic music scene, you probably won’t have any affinity towards this film. You actually might hate it. You might think that it’s filled with a wealth of self-importance–like it’s placing their whole music subculture on a pedestal. Why should you think this is momentous when there are much more significant things people could be aspiring to? Much like when you watch rich kids whine about not getting the exact sports car that they want. So what if you don’t become a famous DJ? Well, the best part about this film is it touches on those exact themes. It acknowledges that there are more important things in life than being famous. I’ve learned this myself through struggling with my own career. You have to learn to enjoy the process as well as where it gets you. If you lose yourself on the way there, then why does all this other stuff matter? Some may say that it still does. That when you get the money and the fame and the power, that nothing else matters. But are those people truly happy with themselves?

But I know I haven’t really touched upon the film itself. The script could be better. It lacks some conflict and a lot of the movie is predictable. Filled with situations we’ve seen before. But it never strays away from its purpose. Its esoteric nature may be another turnoff for some, but it gives us a lot of information about the topic in a way that’s not overwhelming. It sort of reminds me of Cocktail–another film that I happened to like way more than the critics did.

It does borrow a lot, dramatically, from films before it, but the music themes are what set it apart. Reed quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson by saying “Imitation is suicide.” It makes sense. He who tries to imitate someone else loses sight of their own identity. As much as We Are Your Friends strikes a resonant chord for me, and will with many others, sadly most will chalk it up to just being derivative.

Twizard Rating: 84

Quick Movie Review: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

wet hot american

Satire films are difficult to review. Do we judge them simply based on how well-written the jokes are? Or how good the story is? Already, they have to be given a handicap because there are some aspects of ordinary film that, by nature, they usually don’t possess–like character depth or a traditional narrative.

But on top of it all, they’re supposed to be funny. And while this one may not be laugh-out-loud for everyone, it definitely has its moments. The style of humor is consistent. It never tries to be something it’s not. And for those who enjoy its irreverence, they will get a lot out of this one.

Wet Hot American Summer takes place on the last day of camp, during the summer of 1981. But instead of it being about the campers, it’s about the counselors and how they all try to make the best of their final 24 hours.

With a cast that reads off more like a very odd Garry Marshall holiday-themed film, one would think that this was the comedy event of the year (consisting of Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Banks, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Ian Black, A.D. Miles, et al). But unfortunately, most of the talents went underutilized and nobody gets nearly enough screen time.

And despite this being a summer camp themed movie, there are not a lot of archetypes. The characters are all pretty much the same type of stupid, with not much varying in personalities.

There are some really clever bits, but it’s mostly just a massive compilation of jokes without any real overarching linearity. It resembles some sort of modern-day Airplane! but even Airplane! had us invested in how it would end.

But oddly enough, the movie’s best moments all involve the kids in some way–although the film is meant to be about the counselors. And the highlight is the penultimate scene at the End of Summer Talent Show, where we are treated to an MC that echoes a demented Henny Youngman.

As much as I laughed, I was hoping this movie would be something a little different. With not a lot of good coming-of-age summer camp movies out there to choose from, Wet Hot American Summer misses an opportunity to really touch upon the nostalgia of going to camp. There are some really great scenes and story arcs that it doesn’t capitalize on.  As a former camper-turned-counselor, a lot of my own memories from growing up happened at camp, and I just wish that the filmmakers weren’t so concerned with making it a satire. It’s not like there’s some overindulgence of these type of films for a satire to be warranted. It has the ingredients of a really great, meaningful film, but sacrifices this for the sake of irreverent jokes–albeit a few, I admit, I laughed at.

Twizard Rating: 68