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Review: “The 15:17 to Paris” Stops More Often Then Starts

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The story of three Americans who stopped a terrorist on a train in 2015 is a heroic one. But is it noble enough to be worthy of a film? While director Clint Eastwood indeed finds enough character in the three heroes and plenty of high drama in the violent encounter they faced, there’s undeniable padding to fluff this story up to hit that 90-minute running time.

EastwoodBefore we get to the shooting on the 15:17, teased throughout the picture, we get to know our three brave men. Alek Skarlatos of the Oregon National Guard is a big guy that strove through many hardships of weight and time management to become a soldier. Spencer Stone of the US Air Force served his country in Afghanistan. Anthony Sadler is a college student that has been best friends with the other two since Catholic school. Oh, also on the train was British businessman Chris Norman who helped on the train as well, but we don’t learn his story. Not in Eastwood’s patriotism guzzling version of the story.

has created a nearly ironclad defense for the actors playing the three Americans since they’re all played by themselves. You can’t call them bad actors because they’re not actors. You can’t say they’re wrong for the roles because they’re playing themselves. That being said, Eastwood still could have used Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler in a more professional manner where they’re not awkwardly stumbling through most scenes.

Where the three work best is when they are in their element. When Skarlatos attends military training, he takes it seriously, and with a real determination and knowingness, you can see in his eyes. But when he’s just hanging out with his friends to have a beer and have a laugh, the off-acting becomes far more noticeable when they need to dominate the screen. This leads to many situations that I’m sure were hilarious between the trio, but don’t translate very well to the screen. I would have overlooked these issues if only the film didn’t have us spend so much time with these characters goofing off and having fun. It also doesn’t help when you have the stronger comedic talents of Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White in supporting roles to act as comparisons.

The story becomes far too analytical with detailing these three lives. The movie begins with them in the Catholic school where they all first meet. Their school days are nothing groundbreaking; just a regular suburban life, even when one of them moves away. They grow up to attend college where Skarlatos sets his sights on the military, inspired by a serviceman that ambles into a Jamba Juice. He goes through heavy weight training to become worthy of the service, but we don’t see much of it past a quickly-edited montage with motivating narration and music, perfectly assembled for a Nike commercial. Spencer Stone was in the field in Afghanistan, but his scenes of working with his unit during operations are so dull that even Stone himself admits to the monotony of it all.

Oh, but you don’t know monotony until you’ve seen the film slam on the brakes for the extended showcase of the boys on their European vacation. Watching this section of the film has all the allure of watching your not-so-interesting friend put on a slideshow of their trip. We see everything these three do to an absurd degree. We watch them check in to their hotel, go sightseeing, take selfies, go on boat rides, take more selfies, eat gelato, go to a museum, more selfies, and go to a nightclub where they drink too much. Nothing all that funny or exciting happens during these scenes unless Eastwood is trying too hard to weave the ennui of these heroes into the narrative. But, to be fair to the actors, they did seem natural; I believed their subtle level of interest in the pivotal scene where they enter a gelato shop, buy some gelato, and then leave without saying too much.

Thankfully, after a crawl through the desert of unnecessary vacation footage, the film finally picks up steam when we arrive at the moment on the train everyone has been waiting for. Eastwood’s direction is at its best in these moments that treats the attack with real energy and grit, but low on theatrics. The music is kept to a minimum, and the camera is held close. Eastwood’s almost clinical approach to the events work, keeping perspective on the situation rather than draw out more drama. On its own, this is a profound short film that does well with both paying tributes to the heroes and letting them naturally shine on the screen.

As surprising as it is to watch Eastwood take a Richard Linklater approach to examining the lives of American heroes, there’s an underwhelming lack of flow, coherence, and complexity to this story. Just look at his previous film, Sully, which let us understand the mindset of Chesley Sullenberger and the specifics of what went down on that flight. Not much is divulged about the situation on the train, including the attacker which is portrayed as a faceless bad guy. Not much is worth knowing about Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler, all of which seemed to be relatively easy-going young men.

But I’m sure the relatively inert scenes of the three guys, in addition to them being in the right place at the right time, will inspire any American to know that they can be a hero as well. And while I do like these three men and find their heroism commendable, their film treatment comes off with a certain hollowness of giving a passing a grade to the high school quarterback failing English. The real story of Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler is a great example of American heroism; their movie counterpart is just not as inspiring or entertaining.


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Review: “The Predator” is a Humorous Homage, Sometimes Fun

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Shane Black’s The Predator is simultaneously the most no-nonsense and all-nonsense entry of the series. It does away with a lot of the fat for its story, skipping briskly through its introduction so that gory action of a human-hunting alien arrives quickly. It also doesn’t try to take itself seriously, favoring a comedic format to its writing so high on the goofiness it may as well be labeled a parody of the previous films. This odd assembly prevents such a generically titled film from becoming just another tired retread of a dug-up franchise, hit or miss though it may be.

In order to get the bloody gears grinding, Black throws a lot of inexplicably odd actions at the screen. I didn’t set my watch, but I’m pretty sure it was less than a minute before the first Predator marches onto the screen, crashing onto Earth and going about its secret mission. Encountering the Predator and his arsenal is sniper-for-hire and former Army Ranger, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who not only takes to the Predator tech quickly but also takes the risk of swallowing some of it so it can’t be found. To cash in on newly acquired treasures from outer space, he decides to ship the rest of the alien technology to his mailbox. Seems like a ridiculous idea, but it needs to be done so that the story can arrive on schedule to include a Predator-savvy scientist (Olivia Munn), a greedy government villain (Sterling K. Brown), a savant of an autistic kid with a smart mouth (Jacob Tremblay), and a team of mercenaries that includes a jokester (Keegan-Michael Key) and one with Tourette’s syndrome (Thomas Jane).

L-r, Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan Michael-Key, Thomas Jane and Augusto Aguiliera in Twentieth Century Fox’s “The Predator.”

I could detail the elaborate scheme of the Predators and the tactics used by the human characters, but does it matter? There are convoluted plot elements for sure, including the most ridiculous use of Asperger’s Syndrome as a plot twist, but all that this amounts to is the self-aware knowledge of a goofy gore fest. The script, co-written by Shane Black, always seems careful never to go overboard with exposition without a joke in between. A key scene that could have been a bore is the initial alien dissection scene, its purpose to describe the new Predator and decipher his visit. Munn harps on why the scientists have called the alien a Predator when his purpose seems more akin to a big-game hunter.

While the choice to favor knowing comedy or dark action is a smart one, it’s not exactly a home run of ideas. The first act, in particular, has some rather stale nostalgic callbacks that one would expect from a lesser retread. Variations on some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic lines from the first film about choppers and the ugliness of the Predator felt so lame that I started gripping my seat, bracing for the entire film to be this adrift of inspiration. But the film thankfully proceeds down its own silly path by the second act, turning into a non-stop bloody bonanza of alien-on-human action. The gore goes for the gusto so heavily that it becomes just as strong as the comical banter between Holbrook and his team of gun-toting good guys, trying to stop the Predator from killing a kid and the government from killing them first.

The Predator in Twentith Century Fox’s THE PREDATOR. Photo Credit: Kimberley French.

There’s a lot of dumb and messiness in The Predator, but the constant winking from Black’s director and the all-star cast save it from being another PG-13 snoozer of a repeat. Armed with machine-gun speed comedy, violence more than worthy of an R rating, and a giddy sense that is always present, what could’ve been a merry-go-round turns into more of a roller coaster experience of a Predator movie. Black doesn’t exactly rework the Predator mythos into something new or even more akin to its quality camp roots, but he does have fun with the material. And when you’ve got a multi-mouthed alien with braids turning humans into hamburger, you’ve gotta have some fun mocking the spectacle, especially after so many films that take themselves far too seriously.


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“The Nun” Scares Up Strong September Box Office

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September has its first box office champion to topple August’s hit of Crazy Rich Asians, and by a substantial amount at that. The Nun, a spin-off and prequel to The Conjuring 2’s scary nun ghost in the painting, has earned an impressive $53.5 million for its debut weekend. That’s an exceptional premiere to warrant the film’s budget of $22 million, rather high for horror. The future is looking bright for The Conjuring franchise. Still, Crazy Rich Asians is still going strong as the romantic comedy of the year, grossing another $13.6 million for a domestic total now sitting at $136 million. With plans for a sequel already in the works and a chance at hitting $200 million, the film may very well carry deep into fall considering it’s still in the top five after four weeks.

Also debuting to a decent take for the weekend is Peppermint, an action-oriented thriller starring a revenge-seeking Jennifer Garner. The film made $13.2 million in its first weekend which may be a bit disappointing for a $25 million budget, but it may have decent enough to legs to make a profit depending on how September shapes up.

Plenty of the returning films are holding on strong. The Meg, the shark movie with Jason Statham, has remained in the top five long enough to clear its budget, with a domestic total now at $131 million. Also sticking around is the social media thriller Searching, dropping only 25% to make $4.5 million for the weekend, the domestic total sitting at $14.3 million. And BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s comedy about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, is still hanging in the top 10, making another $1.5 million for a domestic total of $43 million, stunning results for a $15 million film in somewhat limited release.

View the full box office weekend results below.
The Nun ($53,500,000)
Crazy Rich Asians ($13,600,000)
Peppermint ($13,260,000)
The Meg ($6,030,000)
Searching ($4,515,000)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($3,800,000)
Disney’s Christopher Robin ($3,196,000)
Operation Finale ($3,043,000)
Alpha ($2,505,000)
BlacKkKlansman ($1,565,000)

Next weekend will be a battle of a returning alien hunter and an odd thriller. The Predator, a remake of the alien franchise directed by Shane Black, will be in 3,900 theaters while A Simple Favor, a thriller directed by comedy director Paul Feig, will hit 3,000 theaters. Of the smaller releases are Pure Flix’s latest religious picture Unbroken: Path to Redemption and the Matthew McConaughey starring cop drama White Boy Rick. There’s little doubt that The Predator will swoop in to claim the weekend.


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Review: “The Nun” Offers Few Scares and Fun

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And from The Conjuring another spin-off cometh, presenting origins we didn’t really need to know for spooky supporting demons. If these films weren’t already showing cracks, The Nun comes crumbling, struggling to find scary and fun stuff to do with a nun that looks like she went to a goth concert. She looks great with the contrast of white and black that blends perfectly in the darkness. She’s unfortunately squandered in a film that is such a mess it dips between horror, comedy, and adventure.

The setting is 1952, Romania, where a nun has just committed suicide by hanging. To investigate this dark matter, the Vatican sends a ragtag duo of a priest and a nun familiar with the area and the demonic. The priest is Father Burke (Demián Bichir), having previously performed an exorcism and struggling to make himself boring with a crossword puzzle hobby. The nun is Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a yet-to-have-taken-her-vows woman that is a bit of a rebel around the convent with her talk of dinosaurs and not wearing her habit. They venture to Romania, and with the help of a French-Canadian farmer going by the name Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), they’ll discover the dark secrets of the church turned haunted house.

The scare playbook from The Conjuring universe appears very dusty in this film. The majority of frights rely on the cheapest and tiresome of stagings: see something potentially scary in the distance, look away, it’s gone. Irene thinks she spots a nun in the shadows; turns away, turns back, gone. Burke thinks he spots the child he was unable to save from his previous exorcism; there one shot, gone the next. The other overused scare tactic is that of slowly venturing towards something scary. The demons are hoping our holy heroes will be dumb enough to follow every come-hinder spooky trap, to the point where Father Burke is being led by a bell being dragged on a string.

There’s a lot of disbelief suspension required to go along for the ride. There are visions of previous nuns of the church, but they’re staged as unconvincing twists that require the priest and nun to accept the answers of a faceless nun at (no) face value. A scary nun shrouded in black with a sinister voice recommends they spend the night. Surely nothing spooky will happen come nightfall. But, surprise, spookiness on cue! They investigate more and some other nuns they meet recommend staying another night. I’d think about breaking out the good book and a cross on that second sleep considering all the haunted hijinks. The Romanian haunted church comes complete with a graveyard of many crosses, where crows caw during the day and mist mysteriously crops up at night. Oh, and snakes.

Speaking of snakes, the film seems to grow so bored of its by-the-book haunted house method that it slips into Indiana Jones territory. Consider how Frenchie comes to the rescue in the third act as the comical action hero, chopping off the heads of zombies and shooting them with a shotgun. He seems to only come back when it’s time to explore underground passages with torches, searching for a religious artifact that can stop demons from hell. This adventure angle makes Jonas Bloquet the best part of the film, even if it feels like he’s a character that became lost on his way to the set of another tomb.

The Nun delivers the bare bones of what we’ve come to expect from this Warner Bros horror franchise. There’s some decent camera work and some technically sound frights here and there, despite some rather poor editing to keep everything on schedule and twisty. One aspect I could always count on enjoying was the audience reactions during these movies. They didn’t let me down. One viewer was so spooked by the silence after a nun’s cracked neck that he exclaimed “WTF” during the screening. It was the biggest laugh of the movie and one of the few reasons I have left to keep returning to this style of horror because there’s not a whole in The Nun itself to keep me satiated with terror or fun.


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