Mini Reviews (January 2018)
The Greatest Showman, Father Figures, Proud Mary, Insidious: The Last Key, Den of Thieves, Spice World, Molly's Game, 12 Strong
The Greatest Showman (January 3/18)
An impressively engrossing contemporary musical, The Greatest Showman follows Hugh Jackman's P.T. Barnum as he opens a circus populated with oddball characters and must subsequently balance his newfound success with his personal life. Filmmaker Michael Gracey does a fantastic job of immediately drawing the viewer into the briskly-paced proceedings, as The Greatest Showman kicks off with an energetic and completely irresistible musical number that effectively (and instantly) sets a tone of larger-than-life escapism - with the pervasively affable vibe perpetuated by Gracey's flamboyant visuals and a series of thoroughly charming performances. (In terms of the latter, Jackman's typically spellbinding work is matched by a strong supporting cast that includes Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and a scene-stealing Zac Efron.) The movie's propulsive narrative does begin to crumble apart upon heavy (or even light) scrutiny, admittedly, and the various protagonists aren't quite developed beyond their most outward attributes, and yet The Greatest Showman grows more and more engrossing before reaching its expectedly over-the-top finale - which certainly does confirm the picture's place as a far better-than-expected bit of family-friendly entertainment.
Father Figures (January 3/18)
Father Figures follows siblings Peter (Ed Helms) and Kyle Reynolds (Owen Wilson) as they embark on a journey to find their birth dad, with the trip bringing the mismatched pair face-to-face with a whole host of quirky characters (including J.K. Simmons' Roland Hunt and Christopher Walken's oddball Walter Tinkler). There's nothing terribly fresh or original about Father Figures and yet the movie does remain fairly watchable throughout, with the charismatic work of leads Helms and Wilson generally anchoring the somewhat lazy narrative (ie the film is at its best when focused on the low-key banter between the two). It's just as clear, though, that the picture could (and should) have been so much better, with the most obvious issue here a meandering narrative that's compounded by a head-scratchingly overlong running time. There is, for example, a padded-out and entirely pointless subplot involving a wacky hitchhiker (Katt Williams) that contributes heavily to the second act's flabby feel, and it's impossible not assume that Father Figures would've been far better off had it been shortened and streamlined. It's no small feat, then, that the movie builds to a final stretch that's actually far more compelling (and even heartwarming) than one might've anticipated, with the end result a sitcom-like cinematic endeavor that's inoffensively entertaining virtually from start to finish.
Proud Mary (January 19/18)
An incoherent mess, Proud Mary follows Taraji P. Henson's title assassin as she begins looking after the young son (Jahi Di'Allo Winston's Danny) of a past victim - with problems ensuing as Mary's boss (Danny Glover's Benny) and cohorts become suspicious of her activities. Filmmaker Babak Najafi has infused Proud Mary with a decidedly low-rent sensibility that's reflected in its various attributes, including less-than-professional visuals and a choppy, disjointed storyline that rarely makes sense - with, in terms of the latter, John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin delivering a narrative that's missing key elements like clear plotting and character development. (There is, for example, a sequence in which Mary arranges the killing of a colleague, with her motivations for doing so left bafflingly unspoken.) It's consequently not surprising to note that the movie suffers from an almost total lack of momentum, while Najafi's ongoing efforts at establishing a convincing bond between Henson and Winston's respective characters prove fruitless (ie there's never a point at which Mary's affection towards Danny makes any real sense). And although the film admittedly does boast a small handful of effective action sequences - eg Mary takes on a warehouse full of armed goons - Proud Mary ultimately comes off as a misbegotten endeavor that'd be more at home within the realm of straight-to-streaming trash.
Insidious: The Last Key (January 21/18)
The weakest of the Insidious movies, Insidious: The Last Key follows Lin Shaye's Elise Rainier as she reluctantly agrees to investigate a possible haunting in her childhood home - with the character, who is helped by her loyal assistants (Leigh Whannell's Specs and Angus Sampson's Tucker), eventually drawn into a spooky scenario involving her estranged brother (Bruce Davison's Christian) and his daughters (Caitlin Gerard's Imogen and Spencer Locke's Melissa). Insidious: The Last Key announces its less-than-engrossing intentions right from the get-go, as the movie, directed by Adam Robitel, opens with a fairly tedious prologue exploring Elise's tragic, abusive adolescence and her first experiences with the paranormal - with this stretch suffering from an overt lack of interesting elements that proves fairly disastrous. And while the movie doesn't improve much once Elise begins that aforementioned investigation (ie it's all just so familiar), Insidious: The Last Key benefits from a comparatively engrossing second half that boasts a handful of compelling sequences (including a strong scene in which Elise communicates with a whistle-blowing apparition). The film's overlong climax, however, feels as though it could've emerged from any of the installments in this rocky series, and it's it's ultimately clear that the Insidious franchise is slowly-but-surely starting to palpably run out of steam.
Den of Thieves (January 22/18)
An erratic yet ultimately rewarding actioner, Den of Thieves follows an experienced criminal (Pablo Schreiber's Merrimen) as he and his crew attempt to pull of a seemingly impossible heist - with their efforts complicated by the continuing interference of several less-than-above-board L.A. County Sheriffs (led by Gerard Butler's Nick). The degree to which Den of Thieves improves as it goes along is actually rather staggering, as the movie, written and directed by Christian Gudegast, gets off to a less-than-engrossing start that doesn't inspire much confidence - with the introduction and development of Butler's almost laughably grizzled character indicative of the film's initially hackneyed bent (eg the sardonic, sarcastic figure, in his initial appearance at a crime scene, chews out a well-meaning FBI agent and eats a donut off the ground). And although it's similarly riddled with underwhelming elements in its first half, Den of Thieves reaches a point at which such concerns essentially become moot - with the turning point a fairly fascinating sequence in which Schreiber's character lays out the plan for the complicated heist that's to follow (and it certainly doesn't hurt that virtually the entirety of the movie's final hour is devoted to said heist). Gudegast does an effective job of infusing this portion of the proceedings with an engrossing, tense feel, while the climactic shootout, which is as exciting and visceral as they come, ensures that the picture ends on an impressively positive note - thus confirming Den of Thieves' place as a strong heist thriller that runs just a little too long (ie this probably should've topped out at two hours).
Spice World (January 23/18)
Exceedingly silly yet generally entertaining, Spice World follows the Spice Girls (Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Geri Halliwell, and Victoria Adams) as they travel around London in an oversized double-decker bus and get into a series of misadventures - with the narrative eventually detailing the quintet's efforts at making their way to a pivotal show at Albert Hall. Filmmaker Bob Spiers has infused Spice World with an energetic and briskly-paced sensibility that does, for the most part, compensate for its rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, with the movie certainly benefiting from the central figures' relatively strong work and its proliferation of catchy musical numbers (although, in terms of the latter, it's ultimately clear that the film could've used even more of an emphasis on the Girls' songs). The screenplay, credited to Kim Fuller, doesn't exactly boast a whole lot of depth or character development, with Fuller instead layering the episodic narrative with a series of thoroughly hit-and-miss comedy sketches (ie for every amusing set-piece or cameo there are about five more bits that simply don't land). Everything comes together with all the depth of a garden-variety music video and yet it's ultimately difficult to resist Spice World's charms, though, by that same token, there's little doubt that the movie palpably runs out of steam in the buildup to that aforementioned show (ie was the subplot about the pregnant friend really necessary?) - with the end result a fairly fun little time capsule that fares better than one might've anticipated.
Molly's Game (January 27/18)
Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game follows Jessica Chastain's title character as she parlays a personal-assistant gig into a recurring high-stakes poker game frequented by actors, athletes, and businessmen - with the movie detailing Molly's astronomic rise and inevitable fall. Filmmaker Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay, does an admittedly stunning job of immediately drawing the viewer into the proceedings, as Molly's Game opens with a blisteringly-paced prologue detailing the protagonist's catastrophic injury during a qualifying event for the Olympics - with the narrative subsequently exploring Molly's initial exploits as a poker-game hostess and, in scenes set in the present, her collaboration with the lawyer (Idris Elba's Charlie) hired to defend her from various intimidating charges. It's interesting stuff that's elevated by Chastain's often riveting turn as the title character, with the actress' strong work matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes Michael Cera, Chris O'Dowd, and Kevin Costner. The film's partial downfall, then, can be attributed primarily to its absurdly overlong running time of 140 minutes, as Molly's Game suffers from a seriously bloated midsection that's rife with padded-out and downright needless sequences - with the cumulative impact on the narrative nothing short of disastrous (ie the movie's momentum is obliterated, essentially). Sorkin does manage to stave off total tedium by incorporating a handful of standout sequences (eg Charlie goes on a fairly epic rant regarding Molly's character, Molly reconciles with her father, etc), and yet there's little doubt that the movie fizzles out to a rather demonstrable (and disappointing) degree - which ultimately confirms Molly's Game's place as a decent debut that could and should have been so much better.
12 Strong (January 30/18)
Based on true events, 12 Strong details the exploits of the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 - with the film following the crew, led by Chris Hemsworth's Mitch Nelson, as they encounter a wide variety of obstacles en route to their objective. It's actually remarkable just how thoroughly and completely 12 Strong manages to alienate the viewer over the course of its punishing 130 minute runtime, as the movie suffers from an almost total dearth of positive elements that's compounded by a bland visual sensibility and a hopelessly uninvolving storyline - with, in terms of the latter, scripters Ted Tally and Peter Craig delivering a repetitive narrative that skimps on character development and plot in favor of generic action sequences (ie there's absolutely nothing here to connect to). And although filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig has blanketed the proceedings with recognizable, reliable actors (eg Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, William Fichtner, etc, etc), 12 Strong's pervasively middle-of-the-road approach prevents the movie's many familiar faces from establishing fully-formed, three-dimensional characters (ie there's just a palpable sameness to all these people). The movie's complete and total failure is cemented by a seemingly endless action-oriented climax, with its inability to stir even a micro-second of enthusiasm from the viewer indicative of the picture's status as a massive, colossal trainwreck. (This is ultimately a strong contender for producer Jerry Bruckheimer's very worst movie, which is certainly no small feat.)