Movie Mayhem – Split

M. Night Shyamalan came onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, an explosive film that blew the minds of most movie goers with one of the most shocking, clever twists in movie history. This quickly made his name synonymous with the big twist, setting a bar so high for himself, it was going to be near impossible to vault it. And though his next two films, Unbreakable and Signs, both delivered in one way or another, the quality of each consecutive film continued to drop until he hit an all-time low with the unwatchable mess, The Last Airbender. It’s no wonder he dropped out of sight for three years before returning with After Earth, a movie that refrained from promoting Shyamalan’s name in any of its marketing. Two years later, he took the reigns of his career by teaming up with Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions to formally reinvent of his brand. And if 2015’s The Visit was a return to form for Shyamalan, Split, his new psychological thriller, is the stamp that should reignite audience adoration for such a fascinating filmmaker. Read Full Review

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IndieBook Review – Gemini Gambit

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Gemini Gambit — A Novel by D. Scott Johnson

I’m a sci-fi geek. I can admit that. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the idea of aliens and other worlds, futuristic technology and time travel. I believe it’s because they tend to explore the human condition while having the liberty to traverse strange new worlds and are provided the freedom to turn everything upside down on a whim without being branded impossible. That’s because science fiction  is inherently unrealistic — until it isn’t. The best sci-fi writers have a tendency to predict the future, the best of which have already innovated new technology before its time. Others have seen the future, or created technology and got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any less worthwhile. It’s a way to study the what-if of human nature, to explore the tendencies of mankind and provide a unique opinion on what might happen if we continue down the road we all travel at any given point in time. And for me, it’s one of the greatest roads a man can travel to free his imagination. Read Full Review

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Movie Mayhem – Monster Trucks

Movies may not change, but tastes in movies do. Sometimes you’ll love a movie when you first see it, only to be disappointed with it years later. Other times, you may find a movie doesn’t whet your whistle when you first see it, but your tune changes for the better when you stumble upon it on TV. One major example of the latter is Drop Dead Fred, a movie I loathed when I first saw it, but thanks to a little sister who couldn’t get enough of it, the more I watched it, the more it latched onto my marrow and bled my resistance like a tick, until I couldn’t get enough of its wild breed of insanity.

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Monster Trucks — 2017; Directed by Chris Wedge; Starring Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Thomas Lennon, Rob Lowe, Barry Pepper and Holt McCallany

A more recent example — and less dramatic — is the 2007 buddy road trip movie, Wild Hogs. On first viewing, I thought the humor felt a little worn and the characters were just going through the motions. There was nothing inherently bad about the film, but nothing stood out enough to really grab my attention either. Fast forward a few years and while catching a scene or two here and there on cable, the film has grown on me. The jokes seem to land better with repeat viewings and the bonds between characters is much deeper than I remember when I originally saw it.

For whatever the reason, I can see this same scenario happening with the new kids film, Monster Trucks. On the outset, the movie is unable to find any time to build a strong foundation in plot or character, and plays it as safe as it can when it comes to the world it creates. At the same time, the movie is enjoyably meaningless, a combination that could lead to me warming up to it should I ever catch it again on the boob tube.

Tripp (Lucas Till) is a seemingly lonely high school senior with a penchant for both destroying and fixing cars. His father (Frank Whaley) left him and his mom (Amy Ryan) for some unknown reason and his mom’s boyfriend, Rick (Barry Pepper), the sheriff in their quaint middle-America town, constantly butt heads with him — again, for no apparent reason. The one friend he has, Sam (Tucker Albrizzi) is only a friend when Tripp needs help with something, because I don’t see the two (one a hunky brooder, the other a lackey nerd) forming any type of friendship based on the end of the film… not the best example for impressionable kids. Then there’s the love interest, Meredith (Jane Levy), another relationship that’s sort of a non-starter, as it begins with hardly any build-up whatsoever. It’s just kind of there and never really evolves.

His life gets turned upside-down when an oil company (which has basically paid off the town in order to drill on the land by Reece Tenneson, your typical ruthless oil baron oddly played by the Grinder… I mean, Rob Lowe) hits a pocket of water that unleashes a trio of creatures from within the depths of the earth’s crust. Two of them are captured right away by Reece and his scientific companion, Jim Dowd (Thomas Lennon), who quickly discovers how intelligent they are and how they communicate with one another.

The third somehow hides inside of a truck that’s destroyed during the melee and is towed to the local junk yard where Tripp works. When the pair discover one another, both are reasonably frightened at first, but quickly bond when they discover that neither is out to harm the other. All the creature (which Tripp names Creech) wants is food (in this case, gallons of oil) and all Tripp wants is a friend — wait. That’s wrong. All Tripp wants is a truck that will carry him out of town once school is over, which means, much like Sam, the creature is used by Tripp to get what he wants.

One of the major issues I have with the film — and this is an issue that a lot of kids films have — is that there are no repercussions for the protagonists. When Reece sics his corporate goons onto the world to find Creech so that they can kill the whole lot and keep from having the oil field shut down, Tripp tweaks out an old truck he’s been working on so that Creech can become the engine. At one point, he feeds Creech gasoline from a gas station, which, with all of its additives, causes him to get high. In the course of his acid trip, he crushes various cars in a used car lot as if he was a monster truck in a sports arena. The scene is meant to be funny, but plays like a cartoon.

Creech is also setup to be an extremely smart character, but at times it feels as if he’s a little too smart. Director Chris Wedge doesn’t spend enough time with Tripp and Creech at the beginning to warrant the friendship they build to the point where the two basically understand the other without being able to speak. It could be because of some type of psychic connection the two have, or maybe it’s just a convenient way for the director to make a lot of the movie work. The point is, it goes to show the lack of character development that kept me from feeling any sense of justice when the good guys triumph and the bad guys find their comeuppance. One set of characters in particular, the requisite bully that doesn’t do anything to warrant that title except have an extravagant truck and his girlfriend who may or may not have a crush on Tripp, are treated like nothing but glorified extras who the director uses to elicit manufactured drama (and laughs).

With all of that said, the special effects are serviceable, the action sequences well done, and Creech is a likeable little alien slug who deserves more than this selfish kid that doesn’t think much about anyone but himself. I’m not sure Tripp has learned any lessons from his adventures with Creech by the end, and believing that the relationship with the too-nice Meredith is going to be anything but a failure is foolish. But there’s something about the film that lingers… something that sparks an interest and makes me feel as if I’m wrong about the film. Who knows; maybe some day I’ll see Monster Trucks again and find it far better than I remember when I first watched it. But until then, all I can say is the movie isn’t great, nor is it bad. It’s simply a harmless piece of family entertainment.

My Grade: B

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Next week, new movies include xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Split and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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Movie Mayhem – Best and Worst of 2016

For various reasons, my goal for 2016 was to attend less movies, hopefully avoiding the bad in favor of the good. And though I did skip some movies that in years past I probably would have gone to because they were there, the inevitable stinker still crept into my viewing addiction. And at 107 movies, I only saw 3 less than I did in 2015 (though those three would probably have ended up on my worst list). So much for that resolution. But, with 58 movies graded at an A- or above, this year’s crop still managed to be on the higher end in one way or another. So, what were some of the most awe-inspiring (and some of the stinkers) from the past year? Let’s find out.

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My Goals (and Challenges) for 2017

Now that 2016 is in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to look ahead and see what 2017 may bring. There are a lot of things I wanted to do in 2016 (which include some of my 2016 resolutions) that sadly remained on the bottom of my to-do list from when the idea was born to the end of the year. I’m hoping to rectify that and pull those projects to the top and complete them in the first half of the year… if not sooner. Check out all of my Goals and Accomplishments

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Movie Mayhem – Passengers

There are movies that wow you. There are movies that disappoint you. And then there are movies that underwhelm, giving you a taste of wow, but never fully delivering on that promise. Passengers, the new space adventure starring lovable every-man Chris Pratt and playful hard-ass Jennifer Lawrence, falls into that latter category. The film is swarming with good ideas, stellar acting from all three of its leads, terrific visuals and a somewhat bittersweet love story, but when all is said and done, and the final credits roll, I couldn’t help but wonder… was that all? Read Full Review

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Movie Mayhem – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Even though it’s just as important to the quality of a film, production design isn’t talked about a lot when it comes to what makes a movie great. Bad acting keeps the viewer from investing in the emotion of a character, poor cinematography turns the film’s visual appeal sour, and bad sound design can make one’s ears bleed, but mediocre production design will make an entire film feel inauthentic. Like all aspects of a film, production design enhances the story, adding visual cues to character and location that are absorbed by the viewer throughout the film, adding layers to characters, locations, and mood that we didn’t even know we needed. The items placed in a bedroom, the wardrobe worn by extras, the color palette of a city landscape — they all hold meaning within the world the filmmakers are creating, and if just one thing is out of place or doesn’t make sense, viewers will notice, even if only subconsciously. I bring this up because Rogue One, the first of many standalone entries in the ever-expanding Star Wars saga, must rely heavily on the production design to make this fun, intense chapter fit into the massive world correctly. Read Full Review

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Movie Mayhem – Nocturnal Animals

As the credits started rolling for Nocturnal Animals, a slow burn thriller that puts aggravation to the test, the response among my fellow patrons tended toward, “Well, that was a waste of two hours.” The sentient, I believe, was in regards to how writer/director Tom Ford (based on the novel by Austin Wright) ended his unusual study of pain, regret and the power of grief, which left a very open-ended nuance to an otherwise stellar interpretation. From what I can gather, those who were quick to judge the ending simply wanted an entertaining time at the movies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as there are plenty of films out there that can be watched (where viewers receive a clear-cut, and usually happy ending), a film like Nocturnal Animals must be ingested. That is to say, the film’s message isn’t presented on a silver platter with a nice, clean bow; it’s up to the viewer to discover the subtle clues to find their understanding of the material. Read Full Review

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IndieBook Review – Fragment

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Fragment — A novel by Alvin Atwater

There seems to be a lot of debate on social media when it comes to whether someone, especially an author, should write and/or publish a bad review (as in, a 1 or 2 star review). For me, I’ve never been one to coddle anyone. As an author, I know I can’t please everyone, and there are going to be those who hate my work. But for a reader to refrain from providing a bad review simply because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or because they feel they are helping the author somehow, remember: it’s always better to get an honest review (especially if it points out exactly why a reader thought it was bad) than to have zero reviews or get a lot of fake reviews simply to bolster the rating. In my opinion, if an artist publishes a book, releases a piece of music or puts out a new film, they are ready to receive criticism, both good and bad. Nothing is perfect. There isn’t good without evil. There isn’t yin without yang. Heck, not everyone loves The Godfather. With that being said, prepare yourself, because as you may have guessed, my review for Alvin Atwater’s novel, Fragment, isn’t going to be all honey and roses.   Proceed at your own risk

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Movie Mayhem – Moana

Disney Animation has always been a roller coaster of a company, rising to the peaks of imagination for a few years only to dip into the valleys of banality for a few more, then returning to the top once again before dropping and… you get the idea. Before the most recent uptick in creativity, the last peak era was between 1989 and 1995, when some of the greatest Disney films outside of the original run of films were released (including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King). Somewhere in the late-90s, though, Disney began to falter once again (yes, there were some decent films, but nothing on the scope of the previously listed behemoths), giving way to a much more creative endeavor known as Pixar, which stole every bit of Disney’s once dominant thunder, even as Disney distributed those very same Pixar films. Read Full Review

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