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Out in Theaters: ‘READY PLAYER ONE’ 

Ernest Cline’s 2011 dystopian YA novel ‘Ready Player One’ struck a nerve with self-described fanboys, sending readers into a tizzy of nostalgia-fueled nerdgasms. Many gyrated over the book’s overindulgent references to 80s pop culture, from coin-op arcade games to deeply engrained new wave synthpop cuts to the nerdcore iconography of John Hughes films. I personally found the book dull, monotonous and underwritten; reference-laden light reading that worked more as a pop culture checklist than an actual story. Worse yet, Cline’s book functioned as an unchecked celebration of deep-dive fandom in a time where fandom has become hostile, exclusionary and often vile.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘DARKEST HOUR’

Darkest Hour is built like an antique grandfather clock. Each element a carefully placed necessity, working dutifully towards a larger schema; every cog, screw and dial essential to its almost impossibly precise workmanship. Ticking and tocking in a grand manner, Darkest Hour is an expertly paced and admirably assembled sample of good old fashion filmmaking gifted with a lead performance from Gary Oldman that will almost certainly not just be remembered come next year’s award’s season but is sure to be a well-endowed frontrunner. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY’

Many Bothans may have died recovering the plans to the second Death Star but nabbing the blueprints to the original moon-sized, planet-destroying weapon was no cake walk either. Just ask Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones ably commanding), the unlikely leader of a ragtag group of anti-heroes tasked with the improbable task of securing said plans in Gareth Edwards’ reverent and darkly-tinted Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  
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‘ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY’ Trailer is F**king Amazing

Breathe people breathe…Ok I can’t hold it in. My god, it looks so glorious. So absolutely glorious. From the sights (AT-ATS in action, a semi-complete Death Star, new Stormtroopers), sounds (that iconic dark side score, that blaring alarm, that sweet zap of blaster fire) and new characters (Felicity Jones‘ already amazing rebel protagonist, Ben Mendelssohn as an evil Empirial commandeer, Forest Whitaker going all Ghost Dog (is he a Jedi? Please say he’s a Jedi), Donnie Yen going full samurai), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story looks so f***king good! Directed by Gareth Edwards, this eighth Star Wars feature focuses on the rebellion squadron tasked with stealing the infamous Death Star plans and offers the Star Wars universe its first chance to veer from the path of the traditional trilogy. It will function as a standalone spin-off and I cannot wait.

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Out in Theaters: ‘MISSISSIPPI GRIND’

*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.

There are some people who just can’t help but roll the dice. No matter how far ahead or behind they are, they just need to have one more go at the “big win”. And as any longtime gambler knows, the win is incomparable elation. Though in the long run, this mentality always loses. Statically, a lifetime of gambling is bankrupting. It leads to broken relationships, distrust and disquieting desperation. With some, the influence to bet it all becomes a certifiable addiction the likes of crack or caffeine or Lost. Those able to delude themselves blindly forgo the notion that the odds are never in their favor. The house always wins. Read More

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Sundance Review: MISSISSIPPI GRIND

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There are some people who just can’t help but roll the dice. No matter how far ahead or behind they are, they just need to have one more go at the “big win”. And as any longtime gambler knows, the win is incomparable elation. Though in the long run, this mentality always loses. Statically, a lifetime of gambling is bankrupting. It leads to broken relationships, distrust and disquieting desperation. With some, the influence to bet it all becomes a certifiable addiction the likes of crack or caffeine or Lost. Those able to delude themselves blindly forgo the notion that the odds are never in their favor. The house always wins.

Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is one of these people. Though affable and a confirmed good time, even Gerry knows he’s not a good guy, and he’s willing to tell you the truth of it. A lifetime of horse tracks, slot machines, poker tables, greyhound races and blackjack has left him penniless, alone and in debt to most he knows. He hasn’t spoken with his daughter in years and his ex-wife wants nothing to do with his devious, sock-drawer-thieving ways. Even while Gerry attempts to portray a glass-is-half-full image, it’s understoof that his cup hath runneth dry.

Enter Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a shamrock of a drifter with an immeasurable penchant for knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. At a small-time Texas Hold ‘Em tourney, the implacable Curtis squares off against Gerry, throwing a crux to Gerry’s audiobook-trained read on rival players. Woodfords are ordered and shared and Curtis’ hard-working mouth extends just enough outsider anecdotes to win over the small-town folk, most especially Gerry. A night of darts cement their favor for one another. A post-Woodford stabbing proves that sans Curtis, Gerry is a man shit out of luck.

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In a last ditch effort to reconcile his outstanding debts before the squeeze becomes too much to bear, Gerry teams up with his new good luck charm Curtis on a hunt for a big score in New Orleans. What follows is a Tom Sawyer-nodding tramp down the Mississippi in which we can’t quite place who is Tom and who is Jim. As their odd-couple road trip ambles down the banks of the surging river, they stop off at various intersections – here a upscale whorehouse housing an old flame, there a familiar casino where Curtis once held VIP status.

Each terminal casts glimpses into the perennial migrant that is Curtis, without giving him away before the final card is dealt. As Curtis remains a bit of a mystery throughout – providing a curious counterpart to Gerry’s transparent distress – he becomes a bit of a noble savage of the open road. But Reynolds handles the character better than most, injecting Curtis with just the right amount of playboy charm without trotting into the obnoxious snark that too often characterizes him as an actor.

As the duo near their final destination, Gerry’s unconscionable side sees the light of day and Mendelsohn is able to work the character into empathic though despicable territory. With a losing streak this hot, we pity Gerry rather than cheer him to a win because we know that one win inevitably leads to five losses.

Strong chemistry between Mendelsohn and Reynolds ease the more predictable elements from taking hold and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck‘s ability to slam the occasional magical surrealism into his pragmatic sentiment makes Mississippi Grind a well-played victory, if not a chip-sweeping royal flush.

B-

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Out in Theaters: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

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If there’s one thing Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings gets right it’s the amount of hairstyles Christian Bale can rock in one movie. I stopped counting after about the eight iteration of mangy hair/trim beard to mangy beard/trim hair transformation. Eventually some gray enters the mix. It’s very life affirming.

That ever changing facial hairiness belongs to Moses, the badass war commander from the Bible. See you may mistakenly remember Moses as a peace loving, water-parting, commandment-carrying lover of all things Hebrew but Scott’s film reminds us of his true roots: slicin’ and dicin’ Barbarian hordes. Because what is a Ridley Scott movie without scene of “civilized” warriors running down rudimentary inferiors? In 3D, it’s all the more punishing.

Moses starts the film as a Prince of Egypt, a devout servant to the Egyptian throne and underling to the one and only Jesus (John Turturro with drawn on eyebrows). Moses is the cousin to hairless heir Rhamses, an antagonist with a serious case of the Charlie Browns and an even worse case of miscasting. Moses advices Rhamses in matters of … uh…  untold things? and tries to quell his overly developed Commodus qualities by being sword twinsies. Plucked right from Gladiator, Jesus (ok fine, Turturro’s real name is Seti) tells Moses he wishes that it could be him who takes the reins after his demise, but alas! that vexing bloodline thing! After a fraudulent Ben Mendelsohn ousts Moses as a Hebrew with a birthright (that being a birthright to drown in a river like all those other pesky Hebrew babies), Rhamses throws a hissy and gives Moses the boot from his kingdom of pyramids and cat statues. Plagues follow.

For what feels like forty days and forty nights, the film is as much of a slog as its title implies. The diaspora of narrative is as thinned out as Moses’ herd of hungry hungry Hebrews. No stone is left unturned as the screenplay by committee (four credited screenwriters) make room for just about every uninteresting element in Moses’ 120 year long life. See Moses struggle with leaving his (Muslim?) family, Moses trekking there and back again and then back again and then back again, Moses’ teach his flock to rise and rise again until lambs turn to lions and, finally, Moses waiting horrified in the wings as God unleashes a lashing of super gnarly pandemics.

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Squatting somewhere on a fence between super-naturalism and realism, Exodus never can make up its mind about how pragmatic it wants its divinity to be. The whole celestial curse comes with a footnote of “How the Plagues Could Have Actually Happened” (narrated by the film’s best Ewen Bremmer lookalike) that mostly involves alligator fights and acne. As things heat into a realm of “don’t mention it” magical realism, a deathly hallow of blackness consumes the lives of first borns a big fat dementor. When Scott gets around to revealing God as a neatly shaved, petulant child with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, things get laughable.

Bale, as always, is up to the task, even if the film itself is not. He gives his all to Moses. Both the battle-worn soldier and the identity-confused harbinger of commandments are juicy with Bale’s overzealous commitment to character. The rest of the performances are disposable at best. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who FEELS NO PAIN!!!!) peeks around corners and catch Moses in the act of talking to God (aka talking to a bush like a madman) not once, not twice but a heaving four times.

Ben Kingsley shows up because it’s a movie about Egypt so Ben Kingsley has to show up. Signourney Weaver is stuffed inside some horrendous Egyptian dress to spout out some vitriol about something or other and then never reappear. But it’s Edgerton who suffers most under the weight of Rhamses’ stupidly whitewashed part. The character is dumb enough before draping itself in pale yellow anacondas.

To watch Exodus is to endure exodus. At 150 mins, it’s easily one of the most taxing films of the year and surely one of its least inspired blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky struggled to find his footing in Noah and misstepped more than once, but at least there was some kind of palpable driving force behind that film. Here, it’s a challenge to make heads or tails of the intent. It seems like a $140 million dollar tax write off starring Christian Bale’s hair-growing abilities.

D+

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