Review of “Office Christmas Party”

I don’t know about you but where I work used to throw a very nice Christmas party. We would dress up, go to an off-site location, like a restaurant that closed for us or a ballroom, have a great spread of food, open bar, karaoke and prizes for employee of the year and gift cards for the staff would be passed out. It was quite a shindig that would be talked about for days after. Now things are a bit more laid back. We gather in a conference room at work, have a potluck lunch and play a few games for gift cards. There’s no bar, no catering and, much to my chagrin, no karaoke. I’m not complaining as we probably get far more of a holiday treat than most. Still, I miss the parties that sometimes got a little wild and how we would talk about “that” co-worker that passed out in his chair or puked on the dancefloor from too much holiday cheer. No matter how excessive our get-togethers became, they look like a Boy Scout Jamboree compared to the events in “Office Christmas Party.” While I think I would feel wholly out of place and very uncomfortable at such a massive drink-and-drug-fueled bacchanalia I did enjoy watching it in movie form.

The Chicago office of tech/server company Zenotech is managed by Clay (TJ Miller), son of the late company founder. His sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is the interim CEO which may be made permanent at the next board meeting. Clay and Carol have a strained relationship as he was coddled and protected by his father, allowing him to skate through school and life, while she worked hard and made herself into a smart and shrewd business executive. Chief Technical Officer for the Chicago office is Josh (Jason Bateman) who has just finalized his divorce. His immediate underling Tracey (Olivia Munn) thinks Josh plays it too safe and she has been working on a new method for wireless internet access that could revolutionize connectivity. Josh thinks the plan is far from ready. Carol storms into the office and calls a department head meeting where she announces layoffs of 40% of the staff, no bonuses and cancels the Christmas party. Clay and Josh tell her they are about to pitch a big server contract to Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) who handles tech purchases for a giant company. If they can land the contract Carol, who is leaving that night for London, agrees there won’t be any layoffs and bonuses will be paid. Clay, Josh and Tracey meet with Davis but he fears Zenotech is more concerned about the bottom line than its employees, citing the recent closing of another branch. Clay ensures Davis Zenotech is more like a family than a company and invites him to the office Christmas party despite it being cancelled by Carol. He agrees to come giving Clay, Josh and Tracey only five hours to throw together a massive blowout from scratch.

“Office Christmas Party” is a pretty typical R-rated raunchy comedy. There is some nudity, some drug use, some hidden attraction between a couple of characters that slowly is exposed, a quirky member of the staff that goes from being hated to being loved, family rifts are mended, etc. Looking at what makes up the story, the film is a convoluted and overstuffed mess. Judging it by how much I laughed, it’s a holiday miracle.

“Office Christmas Party” is filled with lots of funny people: TJ Miller, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Karan Soni, Matt Walsh and more. Some of these folks, namely Miller, were allowed to improvise on set extensively. A surprisingly high percentage of what stayed in the film works. It’s one of those rare comedies where the actors were allowed to just play and see what happens and it actually came out funny. There are a lot of laughs in “Office Christmas Party.” Many of them are cheap visual gags and tasteless sexual humor but funny is funny so who cares.

A surprising comedic performance is turned by Courtney B. Vance. Better known for his dramatic roles in a couple of the “Law & Order” series and most recently in “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” for which he won an Emmy outstanding lead actor in a drama limited series, Vance starts out serious and straight-laced; but an encounter with a face full of cocaine accidently put through a snow blower releases the party animal within the character. It is a wildly different role for Vance and he performs it with abandon and glee. You actually feel his character is relieved to let loose and have fun for once. Granted, it ends somewhat badly for that character but still, Vance’s performance is so energetic it almost makes his injuries worth it.

Kate McKinnon also turns in another brilliant supporting performance as Mary, the head of human resources. Constantly reminding people about the risks they run for enjoying themselves too much at the party (including telling them they need to have any party sex off the work property and in the parking lot next door), McKinnon plays Mary like a volcano about to erupt. She wants to do the things she warns others not to but lacks the confidence and fears what her co-workers would think of her. She shouldn’t worry since none of them like her for her constant reminders about following proper office protocols and the dress code. McKinnon might be getting pigeonholed as the eccentric supporting player but she tears into this one with enormous gusto and fearlessness. I’m sure we’ll discover she is a brilliant dramatic actress one day but I do enjoy her performance here as the odd duck that finally finds her place.

The story of “Office Christmas Party” is overly complicated and takes a few odd turns while still being rather predictable. I won’t get too specific about the details but it seems to not be sure exactly how to get to the inevitable happy ending so it keeps throwing in complications for the main characters while juxtaposing it with the increasing insanity of the party. The ever increasing alcohol abuse, drug use and office casual sex reaches such an overload it isn’t realistically sustainable. I know it’s a movie and there wasn’t any actual substance abuse and rampant unsafe sex but there comes a point where its onscreen depiction exceeds the audiences’ ability to accept or believe it. The same can be said for the complications piled on complications that show up for our heroes. The speed with which they are solved also makes the weak and overloaded story that much more threadbare.

“Office Christmas Party” is rated R for drug use, crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language throughout. Pot and cocaine are shown being freely used in the latter half of the movie. Alcohol overindulgence is also a major part of the story. There are several brief views of topless women, a very brief view of male genitalia and an equally brief view of a couple having sex on a desk as well as many bare backsides of both sexes. Foul language is common throughout.

It may not become a family holiday tradition to watch the DVD of “Office Christmas Party,” but it is a fun way to kill a couple of hours if you want to take a break from holiday shopping in your local multiplex. The laughs are as free flowing as the alcohol at the party of the title. It isn’t for the easily offended and those that can’t take a joke at the expense of the holiday. If you have your big boy Santa hat on, this might be just the relief from the holiday hassle you are looking for.

“Office Christmas Party” gets five stars.

This week we get a visit from death, love and time plus we return to a galaxy far, far away. I’ll see and review at least one of the following and who am I kidding as we all know what I’m going to see:

Collateral Beauty—

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—

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Review of “Incarnate”

There are few things that signal a movie in which the studio has no faith than its release date. Any movie released in the first few weeks of January is probably not very good and isn’t expected to make much money. Labor Day weekend is also a bit of a dumping ground. Plus movies released in an incompatible season; for instance, films where a holiday is prominently featured but its release date is nowhere near that holiday. To a lesser extent, scary movies that come out near Christmas tend to be really, really bad. That’s what I expected when the only movie in wide release the weekend of December 2, 2016 was “Incarnate” and I wasn’t all that excited about seeing it. It may not be great but it surprised me.

An 11-year old boy named Cameron (David Mazouz) hears a noise in his kitchen late one night. Walking through the apartment he shares with his recently divorced mother Lindsey (Carice van Houten), Cameron winds up in the kitchen where he notices dirty footprints on the floor and hears a hissing sound coming from the ceiling. Looking up, Cameron sees a homeless woman he noticed earlier outside his building is floating above him. The woman falls from the ceiling and attacks Cameron. The woman is possessed by an evil spirit and it transfers from the woman to Cameron. When the transfer is complete, Cameron snaps the woman’s neck. After an attempt by the Catholic Church to exercise the demon fails, the Vatican sends its representative named Camilla (Catalina Sandino Moreno) to contact Dr. Seth Ember (Aaron Eckhart), an exorcist that uses non-religious means to cast out demons. Dr. Ember calls what he does evictions of parasitic non-corporeal entities. Either way, Cameron needs his help but Dr. Ember is reluctant unless whatever has Cameron is one specific demon he calls Maggie. Dr. Ember learned as a child when he went to sleep he could enter the minds of possessed people. He tried to ignore his ability and live a normal life but one entity seemed to seek him out. Driving with his wife and 11-year old son, Dr. Ember’s car is hit head on by a drunk driver named Maggie but the woman is actually possessed by a demon that promises to hurt everyone Ember loves. Ember’s wife and son died in the crash and Ember is confined to a wheelchair. He now hunts for Maggie in every person he helps. Ember uses drugs to lower his heart rate and breathing down to REM sleep levels and enters the mind of the possessed. He only has seven minutes to get the job done or his heart could stop. Convinced Maggie has taken over Cameron, Ember risks an eternity of torment for his chance at revenge.

“Incarnate” isn’t a great movie but its far better than it has any right to be. Released just before Christmas from Blumhouse Productions and WWE Studios, neither of which are exactly known as quality film houses, the movie would appear to be just another cheap “Exorcist” knockoff that hopes to make a profit off a micro-budget of $5-million. Most of the action takes place in dimly lit rooms with sparse and generic furnishings. Special effects are minimal and consist mostly of fuzzy images and spotlights. At times it looks about as cheap as its budget but somehow, for me anyway, for the most part the movie works.

Some of the acting looks a bit like a high school production of “The Glass Menagerie” with sudden loud voices and grand, sweeping gestures; but a few performances stand out. David Mazouz as the possessed Cameron actually gave me the creeps on occasion. Speaking in the voice of the demon, Mazouz’s facial expressions and mannerisms perfectly conveyed the contempt and superiority Maggie feels towards Dr. Ember. It is a far more convincing and nuanced performance than Mazouz gives in his regular role as young Bruce Wayne on the TV show “Gotham.” Perhaps that show is trying to present the future Batman as having his trademark stoicism from an early age and not allowing Mazouz to show a wider range of expression. His work in “Incarnate,” which was filmed nearly two years ago, shows a much broader range of ability than we see every week on “Gotham.” Perhaps the makers of that show should loosen up their interpretation of the character a bit as Mazouz obviously has the ability.

In a smaller role, Matthew Nable is interesting to watch as Cameron’s father Dan. With limited screen time, Nable shows his character actually grow and learn from his mistakes. It is nice work given how Nable isn’t on screen for very long.

The story takes a few weird turns here and there. A subplot involving a priest with a taste for the finer things in life and an interest in some bizarre, hands-on research that aids Ember’s work seems to have been tacked on to provide a few more characters and explain a plot point late in the film. The movie also doesn’t follow its own rules that it takes a generous bit of time explaining to the audience. I realize it is creating a world of demon possession and exorcism taking place directly within the mind but still, if you say THIS must happen and it does but what was said would result doesn’t, it feels like the filmmakers believe the audience is stupid and won’t notice. I hate that.

“Incarnate” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements. Some of those possessed spew black goop and have solid black eyes. We see one character’s neck broken and another character’s arm broken. We see a character burst into flames after a crucifix is shoved in its mouth. An insane character is shown behind a glass door and running into that door. A character has his throat slashed. We don’t see the actual slashing but we see blood spraying on another person. The sensuality is very brief and early in the film. Foul language is widely scattered but there is on “F-Bomb.”

While it isn’t that scary, it doesn’t always follow its own rules and some of the acting could have been better, I don’t believe “Incarnate” is as bad as most of the “real” critics claim. It tells an effective story, it works as both a horror/thriller and a procedural, and there are some really good performances from David Mazouz and Matthew Nable. It won’t win any awards are break any box office records but it is entertaining and that all I really ask.

“Incarnate” gets four out of five stars.

The new movies this week involve holiday hijinks and political dirty pool. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Miss Sloane—

Office Christmas Party—

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Reviews of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Moana”

It was a magical weekend at the movies for me as I saw both “Moana” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” While there is the shared notion of things beyond our understanding working in the background or shadows, the events of one film are far darker than the other.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just arrived in America from his native England carrying a suitcase filled with magical creatures. When one of them escapes, he struggles to find it and, in the confusion, accidently swaps his suitcase with that of a cannery worker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Kowalski opens the case at his apartment and some of the creatures escape, threatening to expose the wizarding community in America. A magic cop named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) sees Scamander, realizes he’s a wizard, and brings him in to the offices of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) where she plans on charging him for being an unregistered wizard. When they open his case and see only pastries inside (Kowalski is a wannabe baker), Goldstein is dismissed as being incompetent. Meanwhile, a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is trying to convince people witches and wizards are practicing in America and the group wants to establish witch trials with those convicted being executed. The group points to a recent rash of building destructions done by a dark amorphous force with no apparent explanation. To complicate matters more, there is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard that believes non-magical people (No-Maj’s in America, Muggles in England) should be ruled over by the magical and has been eliminating those that oppose him.

While it may not have the joy and whimsy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” does provide a pleasant entry into the adult wizarding world. It contains more magical animals than probably all the “Harry Potter” films combined along with a complex story that teases darker times to come. The entry of a younger version of a beloved character is mentioned and will likely be the focus of future films. Potter fans are probably clutching their wands in glee (which sounds dirtier than I intended).

Another pleasing aspect of the story is the introduction of a non-magical main character. While he is often comic relief Jacob Kowalski, as played by Dan Fogler, provides a relatable human character that proves helpful to his new wizard buddies frequently by accident. Kowalski also gets the first love story in this new franchise and it plays like a high schoolers first crush. It is painfully cute to see Kowalski and Tina Goldstein’s sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, making doe eyes at each other. Assuming the next film in the series doesn’t focus on completely different characters, it will be fun to see how a no-maj and a magical person deal with their differences as their relationship grows and as they face whatever peril comes their way next as Grindelwald is likely to be the baddie through the entire series.

The visual effects are overall spectacular with a few minor glitches. There is one particularly large beast that is featured near the end of the film and with which Newt physically interacts where the CGI was flat and the contact between the two looked awkward. Otherwise, the creatures and their effect on the physical environment is believable. The destructive force that is tearing up and through the streets of New York rarely looks the same twice and that’s the way it is meant to be as it is chaos personified. It is a great boss (to borrow a gaming term) since it is sometimes invisible, seemingly unstoppable and totally unpredictable. I look forward to seeing more magical creatures.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence. People are shown being thrown around by various magical events. One character is shown shooting electrical bolts from his wand and shocking another character. A couple of people are killed by the unknown violent force and their faces are shown turned grey and with various cuts. Kowalski is bitten by one of the creatures in the suitcase. There are other scattered acts of mayhem.

“Harry Potter” fans will find much to enjoy in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” but those who are unfamiliar with wizards, muggles, Hogwarts and the like will probably be lost and refuse to invest the time to acquaint themselves with this magical realm. That’s ok as it means more popcorn at the theatre for the rest of us.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” gets five stars.


Ever since she was a small child, Moana (voiced by Auli’I Cravalho) has heard the story from her grandmother Tala (voiced by Rachel House) about how the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the Heart of Creation, a magical stone, from Te Fiti, the creator of all islands. Stealing the stone leads to a creeping blackness that spreads death wherever it touches. Moana’s father, Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison) dismisses the stories as legends and urges Moana to prepare herself to become the leader of her people on their beautiful Pacific island. Between the coconuts and other crops growing on the island and the plentiful fish in the reef-protected lagoon, there is no need for Moana’s people to travel past the reef into the dangerous open ocean. But soon the coconuts and crops are turning black and there are no more fish in the lagoon. With her dying breath, Tala gives Moana the Heart of Creation that she has carried in a seashell locket around her neck and tells her to find Maui and replace the Heart of Creation to save their people.

“Moana” is an uplifting tale of facing your fear, going from being a child to an adult and learning to live with others shortcomings as they have to live with yours. In short, it’s your basic Disney animated film. It also looks spectacular and has some very nice songs as well. It’s also another Disney animated film with a strong lead character that’s a female. It won’t go unnoticed by some that the male characters are largely stubborn, unyielding and far too proud to admit they are wrong until it is shoved in their faces and they are unable to deny it any longer. While films of this nature often deal in absolutes (and in life there are none save death) “Moana” manages to dish out its message in a pleasant way without sounding too preachy.

Visually, the film is beyond spectacular. From the island vistas to the vast ocean views, “Moana” is a feast for the eyes. The ocean, which is a character in itself, sparkles and shimmers in the sun in a hypnotic way. It will remind anyone that’s been to the beach of that one perfect day on vacation. I almost felt the need for sunscreen after seeing the film. There are undersea creatures and monsters that seem to jump off the screen even in the 2D version I saw. A giant lava monster may actually be too intense a visual for some younger members of the audience as it exudes an anger and dread that is transmitted directly into the nightmare region of your brain.

While your mind is dealing with what you are seeing, there are the songs that soar with anthems of hope and a dream for a brighter future. One song, sung by Dwayne Johnson’s Maui character, is a comic showstopper. There isn’t a super catchy tune like “Frozen’s” “Let it Go” (which I’m sure will come as a welcome bit of news for parents burned out on that ear worm) the songs are fun, uplifting and pleasant in a way that might not cause hours long repeats in the car.

The voice cast is amazing with a special kudos going to Rachel House who voice Moana’s grandmother Tala. I could listen to Tala tell stories and offer advice from now until the end of time. While I doubt it will happen, I wouldn’t mind seeing a spin-off film of the adventures of young Tala narrated by old Tala. House is able to wring every bit of joy, sadness and every emotion in between from each of her lines. It’s a great performance that needs to be experienced by anyone that’s a fan of good voice acting.

“Moana” is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. The grief over the loss of a loved one is shown. Violent storms are shown throwing around Moana’s canoe. There are fights between Maui and a couple of mythical creatures, including the lava monster. That lava monster is shown crawling on all fours in an effort to attack one character. There are small coconut-looking creatures that are described as pirates and killers shown attacking Moana and Maui.

“Moana” is a nearly perfect animated film with plenty for both the kids and their parents. It’s the kind of movie adults won’t mind sitting through until it is released on DVD or on streaming platforms when your children will demand to watch it over and over again. Even then for the first several viewings you’ll find little nuances in Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui that may keep you entertained for a few seconds. There are certainly worse films you could be forced to watch again and again.

“Moana” also gets five stars.

There’s only one new film in theatres this week. Unless something very interesting shows up at me arthouse cinema, I suppose I’ll be seeing the new horror flick “Incarnate.”

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Review of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

In 2004, Army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) and his unit are caught in a vicious firefight in an Iraqi village. Part of that battle was captured by a news crew’s abandoned camera. It shows Lynn going to the aid of his sergeant who goes by the nickname Shroom (Vin Diesel) after he is hit by insurgent gunfire. Despite Lynn’s efforts, Shroom dies. Lynn and the other members of his unit are considered heroes for their actions and Lynn is awarded the Silver Star. The Army sends the unit on a publicity tour around the US to build civilian morale and put a face to the soldiers serving in Iraq. Lynn and the rest of the squad are hoping to sell their story to be made into a movie and are accompanied by an agent named Albert (Chris Tucker) who is constantly on his cell phone trying to get Hollywood interested in making a deal. The last stop on the publicity tour is an appearance at the annual Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, Texas, where the unit will be on the field at halftime with Destiny’s Child. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) welcomes the soldiers and puts out a lavish buffet for them and his other VIP guests. Lynn catches the eye of a cheerleader named Faison (Makenzie Leigh) and the two find an instant connection in their limited time together. Lynn and a couple other soldiers in the unit have symptoms of PTSD and Lynn’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) believes he could get an honorable discharge if he will see a doctor she knows. With the loss of his beloved sergeant, all the pressure from the tour, the feeling like everyone is just trying to use the soldiers for their own gain and his feelings for Faison, Lynn is beginning to question whether staying with his fellow soldiers is worth continuing to put his life on hold.

The plight of American soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dealing with PTSD and a less than helpful Veterans Affairs Administration has been documented in the news media and even was an issue in the recent presidential campaign. While politicians make speeches and promises about supporting the troops and fixing the problems in the VA nothing much seems to get done. While other movies have been made about war and the toll it takes on those sent to fight it, none has been done on quite the scale or with a well-respected director like Ang Lee as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” Unfortunately this film seems more concerned with how interestingly the story is told and the movie and message suffers for it.

Ang Lee made the film using a very high frame rate and 3D. The version I saw was digital 4K and 2D so I cannot speak to how some critics found the bells and whistles to be distracting and unnecessary considering the subject matter of the film; however, there are choices Lee made in shooting the actors and how they delivered their lines that reduce the impact of the story.

For instance, the actors speak directly at the camera instead of being in a shot with the other character or looking just off camera as is the norm. Sometimes it is effective but more often I felt like I was a child being talked down to. It gets annoying after a while as character after character delivers a speech to the camera. Some are impassioned while others are deadpan responses to questions. It grates on the nerves after a few times and begins to feel intrusive as if you were involved in a conversation you desperately wanted to end.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters come across more like caricatures. An example is a brief appearance by a Texas oil man played by Tim Blake Nelson. He comes to the table where the unit is eating and begins with the usual platitudes then starts a sales pitch for his company that uses frakking to extract oil from shale. The speech makes no sense in the context of the story (this is one of many that don’t) and it feels like an attempt to shoehorn in a message of some sort. The sad part is, I’m not sure what the message is supposed to be. The scene quickly becomes uncomfortable as the unit’s commanding officer Sgt. Dime, played by Garrett Hedlund, starts a speech of his own. This may have been an attempt at humor and a message of a different type. It is mildly funny but once again the message is lost in the delivery.

If anything, the moral of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is everyone is out to get something from you. Whether it is to bask in your glory, to make money from you or to gain prestige merely from being in your presence, everyone is interested in you only to get what they can then they are gone once the well dries up. Whether it was meant to be that way or not it’s a cynical message that sucks the life out of the movie. It would be different if many of the characters weren’t so transparent in their obvious desire to profit from the soldiers but they are all about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

Despite my feelings about the story, there are some very good performances in the film. First-time star Joe Alwyn gives a subtle and moving performance as Billy Lynn. Alwyn does a good job wrangling a passable Texas accent even though he’s from England. While he has done theatre, this is his first movie and it is an impressive job. Billy sometimes comes across as a little dumb but he’s actually merely assessing the situation and determining his response. It is a quiet bit of acting that would have been better showcased without the trickery of the production.

Steve Martin is deceptively slimy as the billionaire football team owner Norm Oglesby. While the script may show his hand a bit too soon, Martin manages to keep you guessing about Oglesby’s true motives towards the soldiers until late in the film. It almost made me sad that Martin was playing a bad guy in the movie as I can’t help but see him in my mind as that wild and crazy guy from back in his standup days or from his characters in films like “The Jerk” and “All of Me.” Of course, Martin has proven his acting chops over the years and it’s good to see him on screen again.

In a limited role, Vin Diesel surprises as the philosophy and religion quoting Shroom. It is a surprisingly calm and laid-back performance that actually made me want to see more of the character. He is the father figure to the men in his unit and he takes that role seriously. Shroom’s death is the catalyst that opens the eyes of some members of the unit as to how fleeting and delicate life is. I just wish the events that followed and the way they were portrayed had been more respectful.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is rated R for language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use. The battle in Iraq is pretty intense with a brief scene of hand-to-hand combat that leads to a bloody death. We also see various people shot. There are a couple of fist fights that are brief. The sexual content is Billy having a fantasy about Faison. There is no nudity but we get a brief view of a sex act. A couple of characters are shown smoking pot. Foul language is fairly common.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” could have been a very heartfelt and powerful movie; however, the weird way the film is shot and somewhat ham fisted storytelling effort makes the film often painful to watch. I wanted to like it but the movie gets in its own way too much to be an enjoyable experience.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” gets two guitars out of five.

Four new movies open up this holiday week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:


Bad Santa 2—


Rules Don’t Apply—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to



Review of “Arrival”

Are we alone in the Universe? It’s a question that has been asked practically since the first conscious human looked up at the night sky filled with stars. Throughout history the answer has varied between “we are alone” to “maybe there’s someone out there.” Now after the discoveries of thousands of planets orbiting other stars by the Kepler space probe the answer is almost certainly “there must be other intelligent life out there.” With hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe each with hundreds of billions of stars the probability of at least one world with intelligent life must be high. It makes speculating about what that life might look like, how it would communicate, how far has their technology advanced and the myriad other questions rather overwhelming. Just as head spinning is contemplating how our world would react to the sudden appearance of intelligent extraterrestrial creatures landing in various locations around the planet. Would we welcome them with open arms? Would we prepare for war? Would there be panic in the streets and suicides of those that see the visitors as harbingers of the End Times? With the vast distances between stars and the apparent impossibility of faster than light travel we’ll probably never know for sure if there’s someone up there looking back in our direction wondering if there’s anyone else in the universe. But what if that question was answered for us with the appearance of 12 otherworldly spacecraft showing up in random places around the world? What would we do?

The world is thrown into a panic by the appearance of 12 unidentified flying objects landing in 12 different areas on the planet. Every 18 hours a door opens at the bottom of each craft allowing access to the interior. A breathable atmosphere and appropriate gravity is provided for those that wish to enter. One of the spacecraft has landed in Montana and the Army and CIA have set up a research base nearby. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by the Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the government decipher the strange language of the aliens. They bring her and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the site and tell them to get to work on figuring out why the aliens are here and what they want. Starting slowly with simple words and concepts, Banks and Donnelly begin to figure out the complicated symbols the aliens use for communication. Other countries around the world are also working to figure out how to communicate with the creatures, referred to as Heptapods because of their seven legs, and all the scientists are connected and sharing information. When the Chinese translate a message from the Heptapods as “use weapon” they take it as a threat and plan on destroying the ship. Other nations also begin preparations for an attack and communications is cut off amongst all the scientists. Banks believes the alien language is far more complicated and “weapon” could mean “tool” depending on the context. Banks is also experiencing vivid dreams and hallucinations. She must work fast to decipher what the aliens mean in order to prevent a possible war.

“Arrival” is a complex film that almost defies description. This is in part because too much information about the story will ruin what is a deliciously complex narrative structure. While it seems perfectly normal to start, the longer the movie goes the more confused you may get. All I can do is encourage you to stay with it and pay attention as the payoff of all the twistiness is well worth it.

“Arrival” has no death ray guns and no space battles but what it does have is the kind of speculative and smart science fiction that is difficult to pull off and far too rare. This is the kind of movie that knows it will split the audience into two camps: Those that love it and those that hate it with very few people in the middle and I definitely fall on the love it side.

For all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the story is far more personal and down-to-earth than one might expect. The focus of the film is how this experience is taking an emotional toll on Banks and in a broader sense the rest of the world. Banks is buried in her work and ignoring all the political pressure building around her until the world is about to boil over in violence. Fear of the unknown other also affects the soldiers at the base leading to an act of violence. It is a less than subtle metaphor for the political situation in some countries forced to deal with the realities of Syrian civil war refugees, terrorism and the rise of nationalism. If filming hadn’t taken place in mid-2015 you’d think it was a product of the times.

Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are all fantastic in their roles. None is flashy or over the top in their portrayal of people faced with a situation for which none of us could be prepared. The acting is subtle, controlled and believable. You may not like the decisions or attitudes of the characters all the time but you can’t argue that any of them behave in a way that isn’t consistent with the story or with what we know about them.

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. There is only widely scattered foul language.

I like how the story of “Arrival” doesn’t explain everything even when we reach the end. There are questions to contemplate about how any of us would deal with the outcome of our first alien encounter as well as the larger questions posed by the movie. A person in the audience at the showing I saw asked the people she was with, “What was this movie about?” If she had asked me I would have said it’s about practically anything your mind wants to construct from what you’ve seen. For many far less well constructed films that would be a negative; but with “Arrival” it is a compliment. It’s the kind of film that could have multiple meanings figured out with each viewing. A movie that makes you think beyond its running time: What a bizarre concept.

“Arrival” gets five guitars and I insist you see it immediately!

There are five new movies in theatres this week running the gamut from coming-of-age angst to post-war stress. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—

Bleed For This—

The Edge of Seventeen—

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—


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Review of “Doctor Strange”

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He takes on cases that are difficult but he feels he can help the patient recover and live while turning down cases he is concerned might besmirch his perfect record. His former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a trauma surgeon in the same hospital. While they are no longer in a relationship they are still friends. While driving to an awards banquet in his honor, Strange has a car crash that severely damages his hands. The nerve damage is so severe he can no longer operate. Strange is lost and searching for some kind of remedy while at the same time driving Christine away with his self-pity and lashing out. His physical therapist tells Strange about a former patient of his named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had a spinal cord injury that confined him to a wheelchair but had found a treatment that let him walk again. Finding Pangborn playing basketball with his friends, Strange begs to find out how he was cured. Pangborn tells him to go to Kamar-Taj in Tibet. As Strange is walking through the streets of Kathmandu asking people if they know where Kamar-Taj is, he is seen by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Saving Strange from some street thugs looking to rob him, Mordo takes Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a teacher of the mystic arts. Showing Strange there are other realities besides the one he knows, Strange begins to study and soon is able to cast spells that conjure shields and weapons as well as open portals that allow instant transportation to just about anywhere on the planet. The Ancient One also teaches Strange about the dangerous realms where creatures of great evil dwell and to avoid being seduced by their power. She tells him of one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was tempted by a dark power and is trying to use a forbidden spell stolen from The Ancient One’s library to open our world up to being taken over by this evil creature. Kaecilius and his followers have attacked and destroyed one of the three sanctums that protect the Earth from threats of the metaphysical kind. It’s now up to Strange to use his newfound powers to protect the Earth from Kaecilius and a dark evil from another dimension.

“Doctor Strange” is a middling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” of even the first “Iron Man” film. It has some interesting ideas about realms beyond this universe and terrific performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. It also has some of the same problems as many other comic book movies.

My biggest issue with the movie is the miscast villain. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor as he has shown in the TV show “Hannibal” and numerous movies. Kaecilius is a role that doesn’t allow Mikkelsen to use his great ability of quiet menace. Kaecilius is a flashy villain that casts spells and makes a big show of his power. While Mikkelsen does an admirable job of portraying Kaecilius as both thoughtful and ruthless, the part doesn’t match up to the actor’s strengths. Either the role needed to be written with less action, allowing Kaecilius’ acolytes to do all the fighting and running and he gets to be quiet and menacing, or another actor should have been cast. The part of the action villain doesn’t really fit Mikkelsen.

The story also lacks emotional heft. It never made me feel like the characters were the kinds of people that I was concerned for. At times, I wanted worse things to happen to Strange as after the accident he becomes even more self-obsessed and cruel, especially to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer who shows him nothing but concern and compassion. I realize the character has to be portrayed as selfish in order for him to come around and be a hero but the script by director Scott Derrickson along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill does almost too good a job at making Strange a monster before putting him on the path or redemption.

Speaking of McAdams, she is criminally underused in the film. While her character, which shares the name of a comic book character known as the Night Nurse, might have a recurring role in future films, it will likely be either as a damsel in distress or as a love interest for the hero: In other words, more of the same for women in comic book movies. McAdams does a great job in the limited time she has on screen but both the actress and the character could have done a great deal more other than being a stereotypical doormat for Strange.

Aside from those problems, “Doctor Strange” is at times a visual acid trip. While I’ve never personally used a hallucinogen I can’t imagine the sights being much different than those when The Ancient One sends Strange on a quick journey into the multiverse. Between that and when Strange and Mordo battle Kaecilius and his followers in what looks to be a M. C. Escher-inspired New York landscape, “Doctor Strange” has some of the most inspired visuals of any MCU film. The non-acid trip parts of the movie look great too, including the car crash that ironically starts Doctor Strange on his journey and the introduction of the Cloak of Levitation which seems to have a personality that both matches and clashes with the wearer. There are some genuinely amazing sights to see in “Doctor Strange.”

I saw the IMAX 3D version and while the added dimension really never pops off the screen in an entertaining way, the larger format certainly made the movie feel more immersive. Still I don’t know if the added cost was worth it.

“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The violence is both fantastical and intense. Kaecilius and his followers conjure spears that look like glass. There is also a whip that is made of orange energy that looks like it burns. While it isn’t directly shown, one character is beheaded. Another character appears to lose an arm. There are numerous fights of both the magical and non-magical kind. Blood is minimal. The car crash, while clearly computer generated, might scare smaller children. Strange is shown being thrown around inside the car and his hands being crushed. Foul language is scattered and consists of words often heard on basic cable shows.

For all its mind-bending visuals and talk of the multiverse, “Doctor Strange” is a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Stephen Strange is a flawed character that needs something extraordinary to open his eyes to the world (and worlds) beyond his knowledge. Most who become super beings from relatively normal beginnings bring along some kind of flaw or issue that needs to receive an other worldly kick in the pants to straighten them out. Much like Tony Stark and Thor Odinson, Stephen Strange was presented with a problem he couldn’t fix and had to set aside his ego to become a better person. As superhero origin stories go “Doctor Strange” isn’t breaking any new ground. It also doesn’t give us an emotional connection to the characters that would set this film above the middle of the Marvel pack. It isn’t great but it is pretty good.

“Doctor Strange” gets four magical stars out of five.

This week, the holidays arrive early, the help arrives to find strangeness afoot and the aliens just arrive. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Almost Christmas—


Shut In—

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Review of “Ouija: Origin of Evil”

It’s 1965 and the Zander family is having a rough time. Mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is raising her two daughters alone following the death of her husband. Teenager Paulina (Annalise Basso), Lina for short, is a bit rebellious and likes to sneak out at night to hang with her friends. Doris (Lulu Wilson) is nine and is frequently picked on at school. Alice is a palm reader and works out of her home and, when they aren’t in school, the girls help with the con. At a friends’ house one night, Lina and the others play with a Ouija board and Lina suggests to her mom the next day to add it to her palm reading bit. Alice sees one in a store and buys it. She rigs the pointer so she can move it from under the table with magnets; but when she uses it to try and contact her husband in the parlor downstairs, Doris seems to go into a trance upstairs and answers the questions her mother is asking. Feeling a pull from the Ouija board, Doris comes down in the middle of the night and plays with it herself. She makes contact with the spirit world and looking through the lens in the pointer sees someone in the room with her. When the bank posts a foreclosure notice on their front door, Doris once again uses the Ouija board and gets a message about money buried in the wall of their basement. She finds it, gives it to her mother and shows her how she is able to use the board and make the pointer move without even touching it. Referring to the voices she hears as her friends, Doris once again uses the board in the middle of the night but this time, a dark, malevolent spirit invades her and takes over. What plans does this spirit have for little Doris and why does this spirit haunt this house?

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a prequel to 2014’s “Ouija.” A sequel/prequel was inevitable after the first made $100-million on a $5-million budget. That kind of return on investment in Hollywood is like blood in the water for sharks. The original film was poorly reviewed and even audiences seeing it only gave it a middling “C” on an A+ to F scale; however, the filmmakers have managed to fight off the urge to slap together something repetitive and actually given us a cheap horror movie that is superior to its predecessor.

While “Ouija: Origin of Evil” may be a bit hamstrung by the first film, limiting it in what could happen and being locked in to the ending, the writers have managed to give us some interesting characters and a story that makes far more sense than it should. Despite going a little off the rails during the ending and leaving an unanswered question or two, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” manages to be entertaining even if it isn’t terribly scary.

There are only a couple of jump-scares and the tension isn’t terribly thick through most of the film. Despite that, the movie works mostly because of the performances of Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson. Each actress transforms their character over time due to the circumstances each faces.

Basso’s Lina begins as a headstrong teenage girl exploring her boundaries and struggling against her mother’s rules while also trying to process the loss of her father. As the strangeness in the house increases, Lina becomes a caring daughter and sister reaching out to the closest thing she has to a father-figure, the principal at her Catholic high school, Father Tom (played by Henry Thomas). It feels like an honest and realistic portrayal of a bizarre situation. She isn’t a scream queen and she isn’t paralyzed by fear but there is both terror and bravery in Basso’s performance.

Lulu Wilson is amazing as the cursed Doris. Starting out as a sweet, innocent and sometimes goofy little girl, once Doris is possessed she becomes the epitome of the creepy kid. A speech she gives reciting what it’s like being strangled to death is done with seriousness punctuated by a cherubic smile. It’s the kind of performance that will make her friends look at her with a bit more concern in the future. Doris also is shown opening her mouth far more wide than his humanly possible. It’s a simple effect but it looks creepier each time you see it. Her descent into darkness is quick and more than a little bit painful to watch as this cute young girl is manipulated by forces beyond anyone’s control to take the lives of anyone close to her. It’s an incredible performance coming from someone so young.

It’s good that the movie has an interesting story and great performances because you won’t see “Ouija: Origin of Evil” because it is scary. It has only a few moments when it catches you off guard and none are the kind of scares that make you jump from your seat. You can see the scarier bits coming from a mile away. The way the shot is framed and the positioning of the characters telegraphs all the frightening points in the film. Actually one of the best scares comes early in the film and it has nothing to do with spirits. I’ll not spoil it for you but I think you’ll know it when you see it. It seems to be a difficult bit of alchemy to put together a good story AND some truly scary scenes in modern horror.

The ending of the film feels like an effort at grounding the movie with a sense of history. Again, I’m not going to give anything away but the writers have chosen to use an easy villain to blame for all the evil in the house. There were probably only a couple of ways they could go: What they chose, house built on a cemetery or Native American burial ground, cursed Ouija board or something else along those lines. Picking what they did certainly explains all the unsettled spirits in the house but it also feels a little lazy.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements. There is very little blood in the film in what is an effort to keep its PG-13 rating. We see a few people get thrown around by unseen forces. Teenagers are shown drinking alcohol. Skulls and bones are shown near the end of the film. One character dreams her mouth seals up by itself as she watches in the mirror. There are a couple of deaths shown on screen but none is grizzly. There is very little if any foul language.

A brief post credits scene ties this film to “Ouija.” Anyone who is coming into this movie that hasn’t seen the original won’t really understand what’s going on and doesn’t need to set through all the credits to see it. It is a nice nod however to fans of the first film and to the actress Lin Shaye who has made a thriving career from supporting roles in several recent horror films. I wouldn’t have been nearly as willing to stick around if the movie wasn’t much good; but despite a lack of scares and some questionable choices for the ending, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is a surprisingly engaging and entertaining horror film.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” gets four stars out of five.

This week there is only one new film opening in theatres so I suppose this is what I will review next:


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