MOVIE REVIEW: Upgrade

UPGRADE (2018)

I’m really going to miss Movie Pass. I’ll understand when it goes away. It makes sense that it would fail. But I’m going to really miss going to see a movie I’d never even heard of on the spur of the moment because it’s already paid for. Without Movie Pass, I never would have seen Upgrade.

Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade takes place in the near future and tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green in a performance that will help me finally stop confusing him for Tom Hardy), a man who has just witnessed his wife’s murder and been paralyzed and left for dead by his attackers. When he’s given the opportunity to regain the use of his arms and legs thanks to an experimental new technology called STEM, he uses his new lease on life to hunt the people responsible for his wife’s death while attempting to stay one step ahead of the cop assigned to the case (Betty Gabriel). But it’s starting to look like there’s more to this STEM technology than meets the eye.

Upgrade is a tense, violent thriller with solid action and a dark sense of humor. While it’s not scary, it’s not difficult to see that Leigh Whannell cut his teeth in the horror genre as the film slowly builds to it’s frenzied third act. It creates a fascinating future world that feels real and lived in thanks to some cinematography by Stefan Duscio. You don’t have to suspend disbelief to buy into this being the way the world looks in just a few years. When you put those two together with a solid performance from Marshall-Green, it adds up to my favorite movie of the summer thus far.

If you’re suffering from franchise fatigue and craving an original, self-contained story outside of any cinematic universes this summer, you could do a lot worse than Upgrade. Did I mention it’s only 95 minutes long? It’s great! Thanks Movie Pass!

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Deadpool 2

DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

I think it’s time to change our perspective. In the world of comic book movies, there are no new stories. We’ve told them all. I don’t want to read another criticism that a film in the genre failed to tread new ground because there isn’t new ground to cover. We don’t need new stories, we need fresh ones. The original Deadpool was a fresh story. There weren’t any beats that were new, but Ryan Reynolds and company were able to inject enough fresh life into the old superhero origin story to make it the surprise hit of 2016 and guaranteed that we’d see the Merc with a Mouth on the silver screen again soon. The only question that needed to be answered was whether or not a sequel could stay fresh or if it would be nothing but a retread of its successful predecessor.

David Leitch’s Deadpool 2 puts us back in the world of Wade Wilson (Reynolds) at a time in his life where he has it all. He’s quite successful at his job and his home life couldn’t be better. But as is wont to happen in films like these, this bliss is short lived as one day, while Wilson and his wife Vanessa (Morea Baccarin) cuddle up on the couch in their Old Navy khakis and pastel sweaters discussing the expansion of their little family, some unfinished business changes his world dramatically and sends our beloved Pool on another journey of self-discovery. And all of this happens before the opening credits. From there the film embarks on what is essentially a “Would you kill baby Hitler if you could go back in time” kind of plot as DP assembles a team of mutants, the X-Force, to protect a child (and apparently future monster) caught in the crosshairs of the mysterious time-traveling Cable (Josh Brolin). That’s a pretty bare bones description, but I don’t want to give anything else away because what follows is 2 hours of violence, surprise cameos and laughs with a surprising amount of heart sprinkled in.

Unsurprisingly, Reynolds is the star of this show. Wade Wilson is the part he was born to play and he slips into Deadpool’s red pants with ease once again. Josh Brolin is very good as Cable, a man who has some very compelling reasons to do a really bad thing. Zazie Beetz was the highlight of the supporting cast as Domino, a mutant whose super power is simply good luck. While that doesn’t seem like the most cinematic of powers (at one point Deadpool criticizes the power for just that reason), Leitch and his team find a way to really make it work. My only complaint about the cast is that TJ Miller’s part wasn’t re-cast in the light of the numerous allegations about his behavior towards women. In a self-aware film of this nature, one that outright references the #MeToo movement with a joke or two, his presence sticks out like a sore thumb.

But does it stay fresh? In this reviewer’s opinion, it absolutely does. By leaning into the self-referential humor made the first film so successful, upping the ante on the action and violence and making effective pauses in the action and comedy to give itself real emotional depth, Deadpool 2 continues the trend set by the original of making the old feel new. Is it perfect? No. Some of the tonal shifts are jarring, there are some lulls in the action that last a bit longer than they ought to and a few of the jokes don’t land (but with as many of them as there are flying at the screen, the amount that do is quite impressive). Everything else adds up to a worthy continuation of the franchise that might even compete with the original. In short, if you enjoyed your first ride with Deadpool, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t love this one as well.

PS. This film has the best mid-credits stinger(s) in cinematic history. Enjoy!

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Breaking In

BREAKING IN (2018)

With Breaking In, director James McTiegue makes an effort to give a fresh take on the well-worn home invasion sub-genre. It attempts to be fresh by flipping the script and having the protagonist infiltrating her own home where the antagonists have her children held hostage. Well, God bless him for trying, I suppose because this is an undeniably terrible movie. It’s poorly edited (I counted at least 3 instances where the dialogue was visibly dubbed over, presumably to attain a PG-13 rating), contains multiple instances of odd and out of place slow-motion, and has some of the blandest villains you’ll see in any film this year.

It’s quite a shame, because I’ll be damned if Gabrielle Union didn’t just absolutely bring it (yeah I did) in her role as Shaun, the aforementioned mother. She gives the character a measure of believability both as a loving mother and a woman who isn’t to be messed with. Another bright spot was Aijona Alexus, who plays Shaun’s daughter Jasmine. Believably making the transition from frightened to fierce, she has the talent to be a bright spot in more films for years to come.

Also of note is Richard Cabral’s role as the bad guy crew’s resident “badass.” You know the type. He’s the one in the group who takes matters into his own hands first, escalating the situation beyond peaceful resolution. He’s not noteworthy for anything good, but rather for his performance being laughably bad and his presence sucking the tension out of every one of his scenes. His character is not at all comedic in nature, but there were snickers in the crowd whenever he appeared on screen. Every facial expression, every gesture and every word that came out of his mouth was so unbelievably awful that it threatened to steal the show. While the other bad guys were completely forgettable (lead by Billy Burke, who probably ought to stick to TV), Cabral’s Duncan was just flat out bad.

Although Breaking In arrived just in time to give you and your mom a different type of movie to go see for Mother’s Day, I’d suggest looking elsewhere if you’re looking to take her to the theater this weekend.

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Blockers

BLOCKERS (2018)

Teen sex-comedies used to totally be my jam. When I first saw American Pie, I was brought to tears with laughter. But as I’ve gotten older and become a parent, I can’t help but spend most of my time irrationally concerned with the consequences that these teens will experience the morning after their “best night ever.” Apparently, I’m not alone as this feeling drives the plot of Kay Cannon’s Blockers.

Blockers follows Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz as three estranged old friends who stumble onto their soon-to-graduate daughters’ pact to lose their virginity on prom night. It’s a fun twist on the genre that takes the focus off of the perspective of the teenagers and points it towards their parents and their mission to stop the girls before it’s too late. As you might expect, hijinks ensue.

The film is at its best when it’s following the parents. Leslie Mann is one of the most underappreciated comedic actors of her generation. She makes every movie she’s in better, and Blockers is absolutely improved by her performance and comedic timing as Lisa, a single mom worried about what her life is going to look like when her little girl leaves for college. Cena is someone I look forward to seeing in films like this. While his acting ability is limited and usually restricted to one note, I appreciate how he’s always game to play against type if the role calls for it. He plays Mitchell, a dorky dad who would be intimidating if it wasn’t for his inability to keep from crying. In my opinion, Ike Barinholtz steals almost every scene he’s in as the screw-up Hunter, who ruined his family and his relationship with his daughter several years earlier when he had an affair with the babysitter. He’s very funny and his storyline with his daughter provided the most emotional depth in the film. With the three of them together, the movie really sings. When the focus shifts to their daughters and their prom dates, it’s just mediocre to poor teen-comedy fare that bogs down the story.

It’s a pretty funny concept that’s pulled off pretty well, but like a lot of films in this vein, it runs to the well of gross-out humor a bit too often to really stand-out. It’s a shame too, because when the actors are allowed to play off of one another in their race against time, it’s quite funny. I’m not opposed to that type of humor if it’s serving the story, but that’s not what is happening here.

Despite its faults, Blockers is worth seeing simply because it’s a fun new take on a pretty tired old genre with good performances and a surprising amount of heart. But there’s no need to get out to the theater for this one, wait until you can watch it at home where the popcorn is a lot cheaper.

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Game Night

GAME NIGHT (2018)

Game Night

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that I was ever adequately prepared to be a grown up. And at the risk of sounding like a whiner, I’ll just come out and say it, adulting is hard. And when 5 days of work, children’s activities and other responsibilities get followed up by a Saturday full of work around the house, there’s really only one thing that can get me to put my pants back on after my Sunday afternoon nap. That thing is game night. Who doesn’t love game night? Whether it’s a group of old friends from college getting together to play Pitch and swap stories deep into the night, a cup of coffee and a game of Ticket to Ride or driving 90 miles an hour headed straight for downtown to beat a friend to the next clue in a scavenger hunt that would consume my every waking thought for weeks, I love to hear those five little words, “Game night at our place.” Game night is one of life’s little pleasures. It’s like a 2-4 hour oasis where you get to forget about what’s going on in your world and try to beat your friends into submission.

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s film Game Night, in theaters this weekend, shows its audience a game night that is quite different than any you have likely experienced. Largely about an evening gone awry, the film is two hours of unbridled, crazy fun that left me feeling like I do during an actual game night. All of the ingredients are there: the super competitive couple that always wins (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), the couple being a little too open and honest about a marital spat (Lamorne Harris and Kylie Bunbury), the idiot who is terrible at games but a lot of fun to have around (Billy Magnusson), the guy who is only invited because he heard about game night from someone else (Jesse Plemmons), the moments of tension broken up by intense laughter and the three bags of Tostito’s Scoops.

The plot is fairly straight forward. Max and Annie (Bateman and McAdams) are the weekly hosts of game night. But Max’s spotlight stealing older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town and promises to up the ante on game night at his place. Within an hour, he says, someone will be kidnapped. The team that finds that person first wins. The winner gets his cherry red Corvette Stingray. This is serious. When the kidnappers show up and take Brooks in a manner that’s a little too convincing, our three couples have to figure out what is real and at is just part of the game.

To say more would be a disservice to the film. It’s a movie that starts fast and keeps moving at a break-neck pace for its entire runtime. The twists and turns and special appearances along the way are surprising and fun. Daley and Goldstein, who also wrote the script, seem to revel in creating a narrative that defies audience (and the film’s characters’) expectations at every turn. At one point, about halfway through, when it seemed that the movie was turning more into an action thriller than a comedy, the film instead steers right into the absurdity in its premise and delivers another load of belly laughs.

The cast is obviously having a great time. Jason Bateman plays Jason Bateman. I’m not saying that to complain. I love every minute of it. He has great chemistry with Rachel McAdams, who has great timing and delivery in the rare straight comedic role. Kyle Chandler is another guy who you don’t get to see be funny very often. He doesn’t get a lot of time in this one, but he takes advantage of every scene he gets. He’s good enough in his comic situations that you almost forget that he possesses that Coach Taylor paternal charm when he turns it on during the more sentimental moments of the film. The comic MVP of the film is Billy Magnusson. On the surface, his character is that of the stereotypical idiot friend (think of him as a blonde Joey from Friends) but man, does he sell the hell out of it. Jesse Plemmons is freaking creepy as the next door neighbor policeman who hasn’t gotten invited to game night since his wife left him, who was the person in the couple that people liked.

Game Night is not a perfect film by any means. I’m sure if you spent some time trying to figure out exactly how everything works out the way it did, you could probably make your head hurt. So don’t do that. It’s already been a stressful week. You need a break. Put some pants on, even if it’s just your sweats, and go have a couple of hours of fun. It’s Game Night.

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter  to be notified when new content is posted.

Jeremy’s Top 10 Films of 2017

2017 was a great year for me as far as movies go. I was able to see more new movies than ever before, and thanks to Aaron and Patrick, I was also given the opportunity to write about them from time to time. I’m not a critic. I’m never going to talk about how the director’s use of color helped to invoke a sense of whimsy or anything like that, because I don’t know what that even means. I’m glad there are people out there who do know, because I like to listen to them talk about movies and hopefully get a little smarter while doing so. But I’m just a guy who likes movies and watches way too many of them. All in all, I was able to watch 107 movies that had release dates in the United States in 2017. The following are my ten favorite, not necessarily the ones that I thought were the best films. Enjoy!

10- Logan

This is the first of two films on this list that were released last winter but managed to hang out in my top ten all year. I’ve long been a fan of Hugh Jackman and his portrayal of Wolverine in the X-Men films, but like many others, I had hated the individual Wolverine films up until Logan. So my expectations for this film were quite low. I was completely blown away when James Mangold managed to create the perfect send-off for not one, but two characters in the X-Men universe, all the while making an emotionally satisfying film about legacy and family.

9- The Greatest Showman

If you would’ve told me 10 years ago that I’d be getting super into musicals in my late 30’s, I never would have believed you. But here we are. I really like this movie, but I completely LOVE the soundtrack. I recently got a Google Home Mini for Christmas and thus far it’s basically been a Greatest Showman soundtrack playing machine. I could be nitpicky and talk about its faults, but I kind of just want to dance in my living room to This Is Me instead.

8- Dunkirk

I’m a pretty big Christopher Nolan fan (it’s one of the requirements to be a Feelin’ Film contributor) so I was pretty excited to see this one from the moment I heard about it. Its tension really puts you in the headspace of its characters and while some saw the timing differences in the three different story threads distracting, I thought it was brilliant and served to heighten the imminent danger in the film. It’s not my favorite Nolan, but it’s still really good.

7- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This one hit me in all of the right places. I thought the story and dialogue were both funny and heartbreaking with excellent performances by the all-star cast, with Sam Rockwell standing out. This film is a lot darker than what I am usually into. but I really enjoyed the realistic way in which it portrayed positive change in its characters, even characters as unlikable as the ones that McDonough gives us.

6- Wonder Woman

I don’t have a whole bunch of words to say about Wonder Woman, I just really loved this movie. The scene where Diana emerges from the trench at No Man’s Land is one of my two or three favorite scenes of the year. Gal Godot perfectly brings the Amazon goddess to the screen, giving her a perfect amount of naivety, beauty and compassion without sacrificing her fierceness as a warrior. It immediately became my favorite entry into the DCEU even though I’m a guy who really likes all of the films in that universe (besides Suicide Squad, but that goes without saying).

5- The Big Sick

I went to see this one afternoon this summer after hearing Feelin’ Film contributor Don Shanahan gush about it for a few days. He wasn’t using hyperbole. I loved this film. It’s funny and sweet and heartbreaking and thought-provoking, often achieving all of those things in the same moment. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano give my two favorite supporting performances of the year in this stand-out film.

4- Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

So my wife went and had a baby on the day I was to go to the 10:00 opening night show of SW, meaning we’d still be in the hospital when the second showing I had tickets to came around. The timing of the birth of my son (whom I love and with whom I hold no grudges about the time and date of his arrival) meant that I wouldn’t be able to see the film until almost a full week after its release. But I really think that this ended up being a good thing. I was somewhat careful to avoid spoilers, but I saw enough to know that the critics were loving it but that a lot of the fans were pretty upset. I think this helped my mindset going in as I started to expect the unexpected. Because of that, I came out of the theater completely in love. I think the story went places where it needed to go to move the universe beyond the family tree of the Skywalkers while also adding a satisfying chapter to Luke’s legend. The new characters continue to impress and the old ones have absolutely brought their A game to the new trilogy as well. This movie has already moved to number three in my Star Wars rankings and by this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at the top. I can’t wait to see what Rian Johnson has in store for his new SW trilogy.

3- Lady Bird

Lady Bird is another movie that I wouldn’t have seen (at this point, anyway) if it weren’t for the relationships I’ve been able to build at Feelin’ Film. After spending a couple of hours chatting with Aaron and Patrick about Edge of Seventeen (episode 86 of the podcast), Aaron suggested to me that I’d like Lady Bird. He wasn’t wrong. Beautifully acted and casted and directed and performed, Lady Bird is one of the best coming of age stories I’ve seen on screen. What’s the opposite of a back-handed compliment? Like when you’re playfully bashing on something that you actually love? Is there a word? If there isn’t we need to invent one to accurately capture Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s funny and heartfelt love letter to her home.

2- Get Out

This movie was the number one film on my list for more time than any other movie this year. I saw it because I’m a fan of Jordan Peele from Key and Peele and I thought that if he wrote a film, it would probably be pretty fun. As an experience, it was one of the most enjoyable times I had at the theater all year. As a film, I found its themes to be something that has challenged my thinking even more on repeat viewings. It’s one hell of a directorial debut and I’m looking forward to what he’s got up his sleeve next.

1- Brigsby Bear

Sometimes a movie comes along that just hits you in the right place at the right time. Brigsby Bear did that for me. It’s a quirky comedy (described by Filmspotting’s Adam Kempenaar as Be Kind, Rewind meets Room) that can be enjoyed on its surface, but that also has a lot to say about friendship, family, moving on from tragedy, the joy of creating art and what makes us love the things we love if you want to engage with it on a deeper level. I’ve seen it three times now and each time something new stands out for me to think on for a while. Kyle Mooney is perfect as our main character man-child James and Mark Hamill gives my favorite performance of his in 2017 in a supporting role. This will be a movie that I watch often and might just end up being one of my favorites of all-time.

The films that almost made this list but just didn’t quite make the cut are:

  1. War for the Planet of the Apes
  2. Baby Driver
  3. Justice League
  4. Spiderman: Homecoming
  5. Wonder

And if you want to see my ranking of all 107 movies that I’ve seen that were released this year, check out my Letterboxd list. Notable movies I haven’t had a chance to catch up with yet are Darkest Hour, I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist, Phantom Thread, and The Post. I look forward to many more movie conversations here in the new year. I appreciate you reading and hope that 2018 holds great things in store for you and yours.


Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2017)

We live in a world of remakes, reboots, reimaginings and rebrandings. Sequels and franchises dominate the box office. If a studio sees any opportunity to squeeze a dime out of something you loved as a child, chances are it’s already in production. While they’re not all terrible, even the best of them are merely well-produced retreads that lack innovation and imagination. But every once in a while, a sequel or a reboot comes along that surpasses its source material with a fresh take that injects life into the property. This Christmas, we’re lucky enough to have one of those rare diamonds in the rough in Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a standalone sequel to the 1995 hit Jumanji, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt and a young Kirsten Dunst that spawned an animated television series and multiple video games. Boasting cutting edge CGI for its time, the film told the story of four players stuck in the middle of a mystical interactive board game where you win or you die. I’ve been excited for this film for a while due to my fond memories of the original and the casting of Dwayne Johnson in the lead role. Anyone who knows me knows that the easiest way to get me into a theater is to cast The Rock.

The film picks up almost exactly where the original left off in 1996 with the board game being discovered on a beach where it washed up after Robin Williams’ Allan Parrish attempted to bury it in the bottom of a river in 1969. The man who discovered the game gives it to his son Alex who has no interest in board games but is an avid video gamer. The game transforms itself into a video game and after we see some green flashing lights from outside Alex’s window, the film fast forwards to the present day where four high schoolers discover the video game while cleaning out an old storage room and they one by one get sucked into the world of Jumanji. Having been transformed into the bodies of their avatars (Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black), the four students must find a jewel that’s been stolen and return it to its sacred resting place before the perils of the jungle take their lives.

If the plot sounds simple, that’s because it absolutely is. There are a couple of mostly predictable twists and turns along the way, but this film works because of the solid chemistry of its cast. Continuing the on-screen chemistry that was forged in 2016’s surprising comedy Central Intelligence, Johnson and Hart play off of each other well and are the source of a lot of the film’s biggest laughs. Jack Black is as funny as he’s been in years as a self-obsessed teenage girl trapped in the body of a middle-aged man. Karen Gillan is perfectly awkward as an awkward teen suddenly trapped in the body of a stereotypical female video game heroine. The four of them clearly seem to be having a lot of fun together and each character is given their chance to shine.

There are a lot of films out there to see this time of year that will be mentioned come awards season. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is absolutely not one of those films. It’s ridiculous and over the top, but if I were making a list of the most enjoyable movies of the year, it would definitely be in the top five. I enjoyed the action, it made me laugh and there was a surprising emotional punch at the end that I didn’t see coming. If you’re wanting to go out with the family* to have a good time at the movies this holiday season, I have a hard time believing that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle would leave you disappointed.

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*This is a film with PG-13 humor unlike the original that catered to wider audiences. There is some content that might be objectionable to some with younger children. I’m glad I saw it on my own before taking my children who are all under the age of 12.


 

Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter  to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Roman J Israel, Esq

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Going to see a Denzel Washington movie is as sure of a thing as there is in the film world. Even when the movies he stars in are sub-par, you can count on his performance to always be top notch. I’ve never seen a performance from Washington that feels phoned in. His performance as the titular character in Dan Gilroy’s new film Roman J. Israel, Esq. is no exception. Denzel is fully committed to the role and even though he’s one of the most recognizable faces in cinema, he’s able to create a character that doesn’t simply feel like Denzel Washington playing a lawyer. Roman Israel is a brilliant legal mind who is admittedly no good in the court room. Having spent his entire career doing civil rights litigation work behind the scenes while his partner was the public face of their firm, he’s suddenly thrust out of his comfort zone when that partner is incapacitated. I’m not a doctor, and it’s never mentioned in the film, but Roman is almost certainly somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Washington gives him a cadence and tone along with distinctive ticks and mannerisms that lets us know it’s more than just a distaste with the court system that has kept him from the public eye all these years. What he lacks in social ability he more than makes up for in legal knowledge. He’s labeled both a savant and a freak by those who witness the extent of his knowledge of case histories, legal precedent and the code of law. He’s an engaging and intriguing character that I’d love to watch in a case of the week style lawyer show, brilliant and inadvertently funny.

The film’s main conflict lies within Israel himself. He’s torn between continuing his life’s work, an almost impossible task given his financial situation and the lack of interest in his services by people that matter, and enjoying the perks that come with “selling out,” which to him means life in a large and expensive firm. He’s pulled in both directions by Colin Farrell, a slick and successful lawyer offering a life of luxury, and Carmen Ejogo, the director of a civil rights non-profit and admires Israel for his years of work in the field.  Both are very solid in their roles, but Farrell stands out. As a former student of Roman’s idealistic partner, Ferrell’s George Pierce is too slimy to love, but too human to despise. It is with great regret, though, that I have to inform that these three solid performances are wasted on a film that is unfocused, uninspired and critically unsure of what kind of story it wants to tell.

When a movie comes out that stars Denzel, I know that it’s something I’m going to see, but it’s not always something I see right away. Flight, Fences, The Equalizer, etc. are all films that I had on my list, but waited to see until I could watch at home. Roman J. Israei, Esq. would have also fit into that category if it weren’t for the fact that it was written and directed by Dan Gilroy (well that, and Movie Pass and not having anything to wake up early for during the holiday weekend). Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, was an outstanding film that was as confident as it was creepy with a great story and career best performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Unfortunately his sophomore effort suffers from a lack of focus, an abundance of contrivances, and a jarring change in tone for the final 20 minutes of the film.

There are 2-3 different movies happening simultaneously in this one, and a focus on any of these threads could have yielded a much better film. As it is, I found myself alternately confused and bored, spending much of the last hour checking my watch and wishing I had remembered to check the runtime. If you’re looking for a great performance and could care less about how it fits into the larger narrative, by all means, give Roman J. Israel, Esq. a watch. It’s a fine but flawed film that has its moments of intrigue. I’d recommend seeing something else on your holiday weekend though, and waiting on this one until it only sets you back $1.50 at the Redbox.

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter  to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Star

The Star (2017)

Just in time for the Christmas season, this week sees the release of The Star, the new animated film from director Timothy Reckart that tells the well-known story of the Nativity of Jesus from the point of view of the animals in the stable. We see the events through the eyes of Bo, a small donkey working in a wheat mill who dreams of better things. He’s injured in his escape from the mill and stumbles into the courtyard of the recently married Mary and Joseph where a pregnant Mary tends to his wounds. When the time comes for Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Bo and his bird friend Dave join the young couple on the journey. Along the way they meet Ruth, an enthusiastic little lamb, and the trio takes it upon themselves to protect the couple from a plot that threatens to end the life of the Christ child before he’s even delivered. And of course, as you would expect in a film about the nativity, everything wraps up around a manger.

While it isn’t great or an instant classic, there’s a lot to like about The Star. The animation is merely fine. It isn’t noticeably bad but it has the look of a film that could have been made ten years ago. The soundtrack is full of remixed Christmas classics that are entertaining to listen to, but are often oddly placed throughout the film. Even though The Star is a movie for children, unlike your average Pixar films that aim to entertain the whole family, my wife and I were never bored. All of the credit for that goes to the impressive and talented voice cast including Keegan Michael Key, Oprah Winfrey, Zachary Levi, Tyler Perry, Aidy Bryant and Tracy Morgan. They elevate the script so that humor that would be rote and laughless still manages to entertain. And as for how it works to children? My kids had a blast.

You can file my main complaint under the banner of pet peeves. I’m not a huge fan of sanitizing stories to appeal to the sensibilities of children. For example, you won’t find any Noah’s ark toys or coloring books among my kids’ possessions. That’s because the story of Noah isn’t a sweet story about a cute old man who goes on a boat trip with a bunch of friendly animals. It’s a story about the entire population of the planet, save eight people, drowning in a massive flood. In the same way, I wasn’t a fan of the way this film portrays the events found in the book of Matthew commonly known as the Massacre of the Innocents. In The Star, this event is represented in the character of a soldier and his dogs, who have been sent by King Herod to find Mary and Joseph to kill her soon to be born child. My problem is that the efforts of this soldier are often thwarted in ways that are played off for comedy. I’m not advocating that a children’s movie be used to teach kids about an event involving the murder of all children under the age of two. That’s not my point. As a parent, I find the dumbing down and prettying up of horrific event like this to be offensive. The story of the birth of Christ has enough drama and conflict to sustain a 90 minute movie. Given that the record that we have of this event shows that it happened after the rest of the events in the film, I feel this particular aspect of the narrative could have been avoided altogether.

Placing my personal pet peeves aside, overall, I’m impressed by The Star. I did not expect to enjoy a faith-based animated film as much as I did. It has humor and heart and made for a fun evening out with my family. It also briefly used the vocal talents of one Kelly Clarkson, which is a quick way to ingratiate yourself to me. The challenge of telling the tale of the birth of Christ in a memorable way is daunting, but The Star manages to be a somewhat fresh take on one of the most well-known stories on the planet. If you’re looking for a film that you can view with children of all ages this holiday season, The Star will be an early gift I think you’ll enjoy.

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter  to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Wonder

Wonder (2017)

Last night at about 6:15 they showed up. There were two firetrucks, an ambulance and half a dozen police cars. They parked in front of my house and rushed in to the house across the street. Roughly two hours later, the stretcher came out of the house. It was empty. After packing up their gear, the firemen and paramedics left the scene. A large number of police officers remained for another hour or two, taking pictures and talking out on the porch. Once a County Sheriff arrived, the policemen also packed their gear and slowly filed out of the neighborhood. My wife and I watched for a while longer as the Sheriff walked around the living room, wondering what was going on. Finally, roughly five hours after it had all begun, a car from the mortuary arrived, and I watched as my neighbor’s body was put in the back of a van and driven away. Because of poor timing, I, myself, was hopping into my vehicle as the Sheriff locked the door to the vacant house and walked to the car. It was a weird time for me to think, “Hey, I’m going to go to the movies,” but I knew I wouldn’t be falling asleep anytime soon anyway, and movies tend to be the way I cope with or escape from difficult life situations. As it turns out, I don’t think there could have been a better time for me to see Wonder.

Wonder, the Stephen Chbosky film based on the popular R.J. Palacio novel, is 100 minutes of being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold winter day. It’s the story of August (Augie) Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a 10-year-old boy with a disfigured face due to mandibulofacial dysostosis, and his experiences attending school for the first time as a 5th grader at Beecher Prep. Because of his illness, he’s had more than 30 corrective surgeries to help him hear, see, and to attempt to fix the deformities in his face during his short life. These experiences have knit the Pullmans close together as a family that includes Augie, his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), his father Nate (Owen Wilson) and his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic). Isabel is an illustrator who put her life on hold to care for Augie and homeschool him for his first ten years. Via is in high school and is facing challenges of her own as her best friend Miranda suddenly has no interest in her. She loves her brother, but is also jealous of the attention that he gets from her parents. While the plot mostly revolves around Augie, a significant amount of time is also spent with Via at her school as she navigates her relationship with Miranda, meets a boy, joins the drama club and works on the school production of Our Town. Nate is the most thinly drawn character in the family, but he’s shown to be a caring and engaged father whose quick wit cuts through otherwise tense situations between his wife and children.

The film begins 24 hours before the first day of school, follows Augie through 5th grade, and culminates at 5th grade graduation. Through the year, Augie meets friends, is betrayed by friends, gets bullied, makes new friends and through it all, excels at school. Wonder is funny, heartwarming and manages not to feel manipulative in its attempts to elicit emotion from the audience. Performances are great all around. Tremblay is an 11-year-old powerhouse. The chemistry between Roberts and Wilson makes their relationship and their home feel lived in and real. Vidovic shows a vulnerability behind Via’s outer façade of resolve. Mandy Patinkin makes the most of limited screen-time as the unfortunately named middle school principal Mr. Tushman.

My favorite character is Augie’s homeroom teacher Mr. Browne played by Daveed Diggs. He’s given little screen time, but the time he has on screen provides the film with most of its thematic weight. Mr. Browne preaches the virtue of kindness through a series of “precepts” that he introduces to his class. I’ve been unable to get his precept from the first day of school out of my mind. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” It’s a beautiful insight that I rarely follow. When we insist on being right, even if you’re able to do so without succumbing to the level of discourse that’s typically reserved for YouTube comment sections, we lose the ability to be kind. Hate is not dispelled when we simply choose to refrain from being hateful. Kindness dispels hate and changes hearts. Kindness builds bridges. It does in a beautiful way for Augie in Wonder. While Augie was born looking different than everyone else, it’s ultimately his kind-heartedness that makes him stand out from his peers.

And as I drove home from the film early this morning I couldn’t help but think about my neighbor. Death has a way of making us think about missed opportunities. I thought about how we’ve lived 50 yards away from each other for over ten years, but our relationship never grew further than superficial chats about the weather at the mailbox. I thought about how I chose to avoid him for the first few years because his house happens to look like a setting for a Wes Craven film. I thought about the weeks he was away with health issues and how I never took the time to offer him a meal. I thought of the times I was annoyed at the overgrowth of weeds in his yard, but never offered a helping hand. And it broke my heart that I had run out of time to show him kindness.

Wonder is not a perfect film. It goes off on weird tangents where it follows neither Augie nor Via, but rather their friends Jack and Miranda. It feels like an effort to be faithful to the novel, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. Unfortunately, there’s also a time or two when the movie revels in bullies getting their comeuppance in a way that runs contrary to the overall theme. That feels like picking nits. What I’m going to remember about Wonder is that it was a well-acted and heartwarming story that served as a good reminder about the importance of showing kindness to others. I’m looking forward to watching this in the future with my wife and kids. If you’re looking for the perfect film to see as your food digests this Thanksgiving, look no further than Wonder. You could even invite your neighbor to come along.

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

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Jeremy Calcara is a contributing member of the Feelin’ Film team. In addition watching as many movies as he can and writing reviews for Feelin’ Film, Jeremy consumes an unhealthy amount of television and writes about it weekly in his Feelin’ TV column.   Follow him on Facebook and Twitter  to be notified when new content is posted.