REVIEW: “Hail, Caesar!”

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I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.

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While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.

I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.

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But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.

It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.

Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “The Hateful Eight”

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Quentin Tarantino. A mere mention of that name sparks a fire in the hearts of his devoted and vocal fanbase. It immediately brings praises of excellence, grandeur, and eminence. It evokes a level of enthusiasm within fans that no level of criticism can quell. Quentin Tarantino is considered by many to be a cinematic master, the greatest working filmmaker, a peerless screenwriter, America’s premiere auteur. Considering all of that, why is it that I still haven’t bought into the Tarantino hype?

Make no mistake, Quentin Tarantino is an auteur. He has defined himself with such a heavy yet specific style of filmmaking that genuinely feels foreign to all other visions. He dabbles in all sorts of genres and his love for cinema, all kinds of cinema, finds its way into every one of his pictures. But he has such a strong allegiance to the aforementioned style and I often find his films rely too heavily on it. And the response to his style is overwhelmingly positive which leads to Tarantino often getting passes when it comes to his shortcomings particularly in his writing.

Still, no one can deny that a new Tarantino release is an event filled with pomp and pageantry and that brings me to “The Hateful Eight”. It’s Tarantino’s eighth or ninth feature film (depending on how you look at it) and his second western in a row. As with every one of his pictures “The Hateful Eight” draws inspiration from all directions. Where “Django Unchained” drew from the spaghetti western genre, Tarantino says this film takes more from the television westerns of the 1960s although I would say very lightly.

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The story is broken up into six  chapters although that is more of a stylistic choice. Individually each chapter is more or less the same. It opens shortly after the Civil War with a rough and surly bounty hunter named John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) on a stagecoach escorting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the Wyoming town of Red Rock to be hanged. Along the way he meets an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Once the two meet Tarantino wastes no time developing a racial tension that will permeate his entire film. It is only magnified when they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a Yankee-hating Confederate renegade claiming to be Red Rock’s soon to be new sheriff.

With a strong blizzard approaching, the three men, the prisoner, and the stagecoach driver (James Parks) take shelter in a remote lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside are four other characters seeking refuge from the storm. A Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) is watching over the place while Minnie is visiting her mother. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a chatty Englishman who also happens to be the territory’s hangman. General Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a cranky old Confederate officer. And then there is Joe Gage, a soft-spoken cowboy on his way to see his mother for Christmas.

The title is a reference to these eight men trapped in the lodge together until the storm blows over. It’s here the story becomes somewhat of a mystery after John Ruth randomly discerns that someone in their company is there to rescue Daisy. The film then begins its looooong trek to discover who isn’t the person they claim to be. And when I say long I do mean long. The majority of the film is confined to this big one-room lodge so Tarantino can’t fall back on his vivid visual style of storytelling. Therefore his script has to carry much of the load and, as with some of his other films, that is the movie’s greatest weakness.

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In a nutshell “The Hateful Eight” is insanely overwritten. Tarantino can undoubtedly write good dialogue and there are exchanges here that are fantastic. At the same time he bogs his movie down with pointless and sometimes repetitive back-and-forths that drag the movie to a halt. I didn’t see the full 187 minute roadshow version, but the 167 minutes I did sit through definitely had its lulls. Even more surprising were some fairly obvious plot holes particularly in a pretty important flashback segment.

And some of his dialogue is certainly suspect. Again, I’ll grant that Tarantino wants to make some kind of statement on racism, but frankly his constant flippant use of the N-word didn’t offer me any meaningful commentary and what may be there is thinly represented. I give filmmakers a ton of room for expression, but I can easily see where his use of such incendiary language could be offensive. Same with the brutality towards the main female character some of which is played for laughs.

Also QT’s obsession with jarring, over-the-top content is here as well which in this case isn’t a positive. We get it through sudden bursts of gratuitous violence some of which was just too silly to appreciate. And the worst comes in one absurd flashback sequence narrated by Major Warren. It’s a bizarre and over-the-top scene that felt much more at home in “Pulp Fiction” than “The Hateful Eight”. It took me out of the moment and felt terribly out of place.

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But so as not to completely slam the movie it’s worth noting the positives. The film looks really good. Again, I didn’t get to see the 70mm roadshow but this version had plenty of nice visual flare even though the majority takes place in a one big room. I also loved what we got of Ennio Morricone’s original score. Unfortunately he isn’t allowed to score the entire film, but what he does is superb. And despite my misgivings with much of the script, Tarantino gives us some wonderfully unsavory characters that each have their moments.

I also think all of the performances hit the right notes. Jennifer Jason Leigh is getting a lot of awards buzz and she’s really good despite mainly serving as Tarantino’s physical and verbal punching bag. Kurt Russell is a surly hoot sporting the burliest of handlebar mustaches and Walter Goggins is surprisingly great in what is one of the film’s meatier roles.

It may not sound like it, but I do appreciate many of the ideas Quentin Tarantino plays with in “The Hateful Eight”. Unfortunately those ideas are weighted down by an indulgent and overblown script that wastes too much time trying to be clever and edgy. Even Tarantino’s signature humor misses more than hits its mark. I’m sure Tarantino die-hards will love it, but for me “The Hateful Eight” comes across as an hour’s worth of good material stretched well beyond its limits.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS 

2.5 stars

REVIEW: “Jupiter Ascending”

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It took some time but I have finally come to an unimportant realization –   I am not a fan of the Wachowskis. I’m not sure why it took me so long to admit it because I’ve never had the best experiences with their films. “The Matrix” was a good movie, but I never saw it as the monumental classic others have. It’s sequels interested me less. “Speed Racer” was an unwatchable mess. “Cloud Atlas” was one of the most laborious theater experiences I’ve ever had. Yet despite these not-so-stellar reactions I always find myself watching whenever a new movie comes around.

The latest from the Wachowski siblings is “Jupiter Ascending”, an ambitious science fiction romp that has all the ingredients to be yet another slog. Six years ago Warner Brothers approached the Wachowskis about creating an original sci-fi franchise. Lots of money and resources were put behind the project in hopes of producing a profitable series. That hope looks unlikely. The film barely recovered its production costs and it found very little critical support. But here is the big surprise – it’s not a terrible movie. That being said it is another Wachowski movie whose ambition is only surpassed by its flaws.

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The story isn’t nearly as intelligent as the Wachowskis probably think, but it’s also not as incoherent or convoluted as some critics proclaim. In fact, at times it is pretty basic stuff, but at other times it’s just downright silly. The story is basically a melding of Cinderella and the Wizard of Oz thrown into a big, vibrant science fiction world. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young woman who housecleans for wealthy Chicago elites. But actually Jupiter is the reincarnated heir of planet earth.

Make sense so far? Probably not so here’s the deal. Earth and a number of other planets are owned by a powerful alien royalty called the House of Abrasax. The Matriarch of the royal family has been murdered leaving the ownership of the planets split between three siblings: the power-hungry sociopath Balam (Eddie Redmayne), the conniving playboy Titus (Douglas Booth), and the sweet but equally devious Kalique (Tuppence Middleton). The planets are considered harvest grounds by the aliens and Earth is the most profitable. Jupiter’s existence means the siblings can’t control Earth and therefore the profit so she finds herself stuck in the middle of one big family squabble.

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Thankfully there is Channing Tatum as the ridiculously named Caine Wise. He is a genetically engineered “splice” – a half human and half….ahem….wolf. Yep, you read that right. To add to the character’s absurdity, he speed skates through the skies with a pair of rocket boots and has a penchant for eyeliner. His main contribution to the story is to constantly rescue Jupiter from various states of peril in the nick of time. We also get Sean Bean as Caine’s buddy Stinger. He is half human and half honeybee but do we really need to get into that?

I will say the Wachowskis know how to world build. The creativity behind some of the effects are impressive and the locations are a lot of fun. For example to get to Balam’s “refinery” you enter through the big red spot on Jupiter’s surface. On the flipside not all of the action sequences work as well. Watching Tatum skate through the sky or fly around in these bird-like ships is cool at first but the movie milks them and they grow tiresome. The movie relies heavily on its CGI which is both good and bad.

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But the film’s problems don’t stop there. The story is built upon a pretty interesting mythology and foundation but most of it is told through a ton of exposition. Rarely does the film show us anything. Also for all of the cool and interesting things the story does, there are also too many moments and details that are beyond. And then there are a couple of key performances that don’t work at all. Tatum is cold, emotionless, and uninteresting. Some of it is the role but Tatum does it no favors. And what on Earth is Eddie Redmayne doing? His husky mumbling and sudden outbursts are laughably bad at times.

In a weird way “Jupiter Ascending” was a nice surprise. After my past experiences with the Wachowskis I was expecting the worst. But this is a watchable bit of sci-fi and often entertaining. Unfortunately some of its ideas are shockingly silly, it relies too heavily on its special effects, and a couple of the more important performances hurt the film. So while this may be better than some Wachowski films, it’s only marginally better and definitely not enough for me to call myself a fan of their work.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

REVIEW: “Foxcatcher”

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Director Bennett Miller may not make a lot of movies, but when he does his films seem destined for attention. He only has four to his credit including the critically acclaimed “Capote” and “Moneyball”. His latest is “Foxcatcher” and it has already caught the attention of critics and won several prizes on the festival circuit. Miller seems drawn to a special type of biopic. “Capote”, “Moneyball”, and now “Foxcatcher” are biographical dramas about people or relationships that are outside of the normal box.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are close-knit brothers who have each won Olympic gold medals in wrestling. Mark, who seems a bit slow, lives in his older brother’s shadow. There’s an early scene where Mark is giving a less than rousing speech at an elementary school. Afterwards we get an exchange between him and the school secretary revealing that it was actually David who they invited to speak. David is the only person in Mark’s otherwise rudderless life.

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Enter Steve Carrell as millionaire and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont. Carrell is almost unrecognizable in his facial prosthetics and awkward mannerisms. Du Pont invites Mark to join his Foxcatcher amateur wrestling team where he will coach and train for the Olympics. He will receive a big salary and his own lavish home on du Pont’s humongous estate. David declines to go with him, but he encourages Mark to go, believing it could be a really good thing for him. Mark joins Team Foxcatcher and over time develops a close relationship with du Pont.

A big chunk of the film focuses on the relationship between Mark and du Pont. Mark finally finds a place where he feels needed and important. He begins to see du Pont as a loving and caring father figure. On the other hand du Pont’s actions and motivations always seem a bit dubious. There is a disingenuous and self-serving air that follows him and at times Mark seems to be his personal and emotional experiment. Du Pont often manipulates and toys with the fragile-minded Mark.

The story shifts a bit after du Point turns on Mark and embarrasses him in front of other wrestlers. Du Pont then seeks out David and convinces him to join Team Foxcatcher which causes Mark to distance himself even more. The rest of the movie centers around the various conflicts between these three personalities – the butting of heads, the frustrations, the lack of trust. Miller presents the unfolding drama slowly and methodically and for the most part it works. The narrative is driven by these three characters and its easy to get caught up in this odd twisted story.

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And since the film is driven by these three key characters, good performances are a necessity. We certainly get that. Carrell shows an entire new side and a diversity that he has hinted at in the past. Ruffalo has become one of Hollywood’s steadiest actors. Here he gives the most grounded performance of the three. But the big surprise for me was Channing Tatum. I know the guy has a huge following, but I have yet to be convinced that he is a good actor. Well, that was until now. He does great work handling a complex and pivotal character.

“Foxcatcher” isn’t a perfect movie but it’s a very good one. There are a couple of slow patches and the film doesn’t completely stick the ending. At the same time the story is always compelling and watching Carrell, Tatum, and Ruffalo engage this material is a treat. “Foxcatcher” has given Bennett Miller yet another chance to define himself as a filmmaker. This is a movie that definitely fits within his comfort zone and I just wonder what strange and unusual true story Miller is going to tell us next.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “White House Down”

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Who would have thought that 2013 would be the year of the ‘terrorists take over the White House’ action movie? Well, that is if two movies about a White House terrorist takeover warrants such a title. The first of these films was “Olympus has Fallen”, a straightforward old school action picture that I liked due to its clear idea of what it wanted to be. Now we get “White House Down” – a mess of a film that lacks the focus and material to be memorable or even slightly worth watching.

“White House Down” is a bad movie. It’s filled with one contrivance after another and it hasn’t an original bone in its entire 130 life-draining minutes. I actually had to look up the running time because it felt like a 3 hour movie. It’s slow, laborious, and director Roland Emmerich never seems to know when to pull the plug. It would be fine if the story was engaging or the action was exhilarating. Unfortunately it isn’t either of those things, and an action movie that lacks excitement already has one strike against it.

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The story is pretty basic. Channing Tatum plays John Cale, A US Capitol police officer with aspirations of joining the President’s Secret Service team. He’s a divorced father on the outs with his daughter Emily (Joey King). So he tries to win her over by taking her to the White House where he is interviewing for a position. Unfortunately he picks a day when a group of politically correct terrorists take control of the White House, kill a bunch of people, unveil their master plan, yada yada yada. I think you get the drift. Jaime Foxx plays President James Sawyer and forms the film’s ‘buddy cop’ team with Tatum. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a Secret Service head. Jason Clarke, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, and Lance Reddick are also present.

For the most part the performances are terrible. Tatum is as unconvincing as ever and his attempts at being a cool macho-type don’t work. Jaimee Foxx probably gives the worst performance. At times he shows slight bits of believability but then he destroys it with some goofy line or ridiculous delivery. Jason Clarke runs around like a madman and seems wildly miscast. Reddick is laugh-out-loud bad as a stiff and grunting General. Gyllenhaal may give the best performance of the group but even she is eventually smothered by the weak material.

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As bad as the performances are it’s the script that is the biggest problem. It’s hard to believe that James Vanderbilt, the man who wrote “Zodiac” from 2007, penned this garbage. The jokes are hokey, the reveals are predictable, and the dialogue is sometimes painful to endure. And then there is Roland Emmerich who has a history with inflated underachieving action pictures. He misses nearly every target he aims for. He drags scenes out too long. He wallows in corny melodrama. And the action (his bread and butter) falls flat. With the exception of one sequence, which entertains despite its silliness, Emmerich’s action is repetitive, hackneyed, and not the least bit exciting.

I do get the argument that “White House Down” isn’t aspiring to new things and it’s just trying to be an old-school action romp. Heck I used that same defense with “Olympus Has Fallen”. But this movie stretches my tolerance level for dopey dialogue, dull action, and poor filmmaking in general. None of the characters have appeal and the movie is littered with poor performances. This was a $150 million mess and I have to believe Columbia Pictures could have gotten a better movie with that kind of money.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”

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One of my great joys growing up was reading the G.I. Joe comic book series. The action figures, the vehicles, the cartoon series – G.I. Joe equaled big money in the late 80s and early 90s. But my favorite remained the comic book. I read it for around 100 issues and I loved the way it treated its characters, their relationships, and their storylines. So imagine my frustration when “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” hit the big screen in 2009. It was a movie ripe with potential but full of crap. The shoddy acting, the overt political correctness, and the ridiculous story supplied enough reasons to dislike the film. But for me its biggest vice was the butchering of the characters that I’ve loved since my childhood. Whether it was poor research or poor creative decisions, I don’t know. But I do know I despised that movie.

Four years have passed and now Paramount Studios have given us a sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”. This time around they dangle Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis like a carrot in front of a horse, trying to convince us that this movie aims to be better. Well, actually it is better but I’m not sure that’s saying much. One thing that stood out was that it did attempt to be a little more faithful to the comic book source material than the previous movie. There are several tips of the hat and even a side story straight from the pages of the print series. Unfortunately the side story will make absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t read it and this leads to the biggest problem with this entire project – the lame and often times amateurish writing.

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The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film. Zartan is masquerading as the President of the United States while Cobra Commander and Destro are in some sort of cryogenic stasis in an underground government prison. But Cobra has a bigger plan at work that of course includes world domination and extinguishing the G.I. Joe team. Meanwhile, the Joes are out doing what they do, thwarting terrorist attacks, retrieving stolen nuclear warheads – you know, standard Joe stuff.

Duke (Channing Tatum) is back and he’s the man in charge. He shares a bromance with his best friend and team heavy machine gunner Roadblock (Johnson). We also get the seemingly loose cannon Flint (D.J. Cotrona) although they completely abandon his loose cannon angle. Then there’s the gorgeous but able Lady Jaye (played by the gorgeous and occasionally able Adrianne Palicki). And of course there’s the super cool and personal favorite Joe of mine Snake-Eyes (Ray Park). After the team is decimated by a Cobra attack sanctioned by the bogus president, the few surviving Joes are forced underground where they must put together a plan to expose Cobra and avenge the death of their comrades.

The movie is really just a series of action set pieces linked together by a few strands of plot. But did anyone honestly go into a G.I. Joe movie expecting anything deep? The story is adequate enough to move this action-oriented film along. It’s when the story tries to branch out into side stories that things begin to get messy. The most obvious example is a side story dealing with Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, and the events of their connected pasts. As a fan of the comic series I smiled as I remembered reading this story from the books. But in terms of this movie, its incorporation into the main story is horribly done. It comes completely out of the blue and instead of gelling with the main narrative, it violently collides with it. There’s no sense of place and there’s no real connection at all.

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The poor writing also shows itself in some of the character’s underwritten subplots and in some of the corniest dialogue you’ll hear all year. Some of the jokes and attempts at humor are nothing short of cringe-worthy. There were times, particularly in the first half of the film, where these lines felt so awkward and disingenuous. Then there was the macho military banter, again mostly in the first half of the film, that was so incredibly silly and fake. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting this on paper and thinking it sounds good. It’s also hard to take any of these characters seriously while you’re constantly face palming due to the goofy dialogue! Thankfully a lot of this subsides as the movie goes on.

As with many of this year’s movies we’ve seen so far and that are on the way, the action is the big focus. It’s pretty relentless so be prepared to be bombarded with bullets, blades, and explosions. For me, this was the film’s strong point. I thought the action sequences in the first film did nothing to save it from its serious flaws. The action sequences in this film are actually pretty good and they did help me get past some of this movie’s shortcomings. They also translated well in 3D, something that was a pleasant surprise considering my usual dislike for the technology. But like other movies with such heavy dependence on CGI, things sometimes feel too synthetic. There’s a wildly entertaining ninja showdown on the face of a huge mountain. But as fun as it is, it’s still hurt by its absurdity and obvious computer generated visuals. The action is also helped and sometimes hurt by Jon Chu’s direction. Now I was happy to see a new director on board after the first debacle. But I’m hard-pressed to believe that a director known for the “Step Up” series and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” was the best choice.

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The Rock is intended to be the big draw here and while he’s big on charisma, he’s not when it comes to emotion. But is that just something that comes with casting him or was he handcuffed by the material he’s given? Another draw was Bruce Willis but this is clearly a check cashing role for him. His short screen time adds a few mild snickers and he serves as a plot hole filler (kind of) but that’s about it. Tatum is as forgettable as usual but again the material does him no favors. I think Jonathan Pryce may be the most fun actor to watch in the film. He plays around and has fun as both the president and Zartan posing as the president.

So after all of that what’s my conclusion on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”? Is it as awful as I anticipated? Nope, not even close. Is at a good movie? I don’t think I can go there either. Let me just say it’s a better movie than its predecessor and at times can be entertaining. I enjoyed the attempt to add a pinch of realism to the story and I liked some of the money moments such as Snake-Eyes vs Storm Shadow. But in the end “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” seems content to be a better movie rather than a really good one. Granted it’s aimed at an audience made up of teen boys and nostalgic men and it’ll score some points there. But nostalgia only carries me so far.

VERDICT – 2 STARS