Don’t Breathe

I don’t typically watch horror movies at all, let alone at the movie theater. However, there was something interesting about Don’t Breathe, the story of a would-be victim who turns the tables on some trespassers in his home. The film begins by introducing us to the main characters and their motivation. If we were to feel any sympathy for what they shall endure, it would help to establish an emotional connection with the characters first.

Friends Rocky, Alex, and “Money” are looking to make an easy score. They’ve had luck hitting a few homes, but now they need one more job before packing up and moving to California. Rocky (Jane Levy, Suburgatory) wants to provide a better life for her little sister, Alex (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners) is smitten by Rocky and would do anything to please her, and Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows) is just your typical criminal opportunist. Money tells the other two about a prime target, a blind veteran who lives alone in a largely abandoned neighborhood. He has $300,000 somewhere inside, and the trio of miscreants feel only a brief twinge of guilt at the notion of robbing a blind man blind.

It’s said that when a person loses one of their senses, the remaining four senses overcompensate for the loss by becoming more heightened. Alex, Rocky and Money have bitten off more than they can chew, preying upon a seemingly vulnerable target without realizing they are the ones entering the lion’s den. The blind man knows his house like the back of his hand, and he is uniquely advantaged compared to his intruders, despite his apparent handicap. After he gains the upper hand, I’m torn in my emotional allegiance. Do I feel sorry for these kids, or did they bring this on themselves? I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and the tension was heart stopping. It was fascinating to watch them scramble like caged animals, unable to make a sound as the blind man moved just inches away.

Don’t Breathe is aptly titled, as you will find yourself holding your breath in terror throughout this frightful film. The premise is a good, realistic one, and I liked the moral questions posed by the anti-heroes’ own greed. If you enjoy the genre, you will definitely be pleased. Grade: A.


It’s been a relatively lackluster year at the movies, so when I started to hear buzz about Sicario, I figured it might be a sleeper. The trailer promised a taut political action drama featuring an accomplished cast, including Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) and Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice). The film focuses on the US government’s efforts to thwart the Mexican drug cartels and their encroachment across the border. The opening sequence is a heart-stopping raid that results in tragic casualties for the FBI, and the Bureau is left reeling.

Blunt stars as Federal Agent Kate Macer, tough but rather naïve in her approach to neutralizing the cartel. She has bought into a self-righteous way of doing things, earnest but green. After she and partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya, Kick Ass 2) narrowly survive the aforementioned raid, she’s offered an opportunity to join a task force comprised of various intelligence agencies, military personnel and assorted covert types. Heading the task force is Matt Graver (Brolin), a CIA analyst liaising between the Agency and the Bureau. Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro) is attached to Graver, who introduces him to Kate as a DoD consultant. She’s immediately suspicious of him, and neither man provides much clarity about just what his function is on the team.

The task force must travel to Juarez, Mexico to extricate a witness, all the while flying under the cartel’s radar. Corpses line the streets of Juarez, swaying to and fro as a reminder of what happens if you dare cross them. Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) held me at rapt attention, as the film was peppered with one jaw-clenching scene after another. Graver and Alejandro are at the forefront of every operation, mysteriously speaking in hushed tones while furthering Macer’s suspicions. Sicario is Spanish for hitman, and from the film’s outset it was clear that Alejandro is a questionable character with shaky allegiances. Macer and her partner are in over their heads, as everyone else seems to be privy to a secret that they know nothing about. The film follows Macer as she pieces together Alejandro’s identity and her questions her own principles.

Sicario is one of the better films of 2015. Usually movies like this have a lull at the midway point, after becoming mired in plot minutiae. However, I was genuinely enthralled throughout. The pacing was superb, and while director Denis Villeneuve hasn’t surpassed the suspense of Prisoners, he has crafted a very good film. Benecio Del Toro was quietly menacing, conveying a great deal while saying very little. Blunt continues to impress me with the emotional quality she brings to her performances, as well as the impressive physicality and bravado characterized by roles like this as well as in other films like Edge of Tomorrow. This is definitely one to check out. Grade: A

The Best Man Holiday

I’ve always enjoyed ensemble movies.  They’re entertaining and usually characterized by good chemistry amongst the cast, as well as layered performances.  Fourteen years ago viewers were introduced to a group of college friends who were reuniting for a wedding in The Best Man.  Lance (Morris Chestnut, Kick-Ass 2) and Mia (Monica Calhoun, Love & Basketball) were college sweethearts tying the knot after a fulfilling but trying relationship that tested Lance’s fidelity.  The titular best man was Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, Between Us), best friend of Lance and good friend to the couple.  In the days leading up to the wedding, friendships were tested, but love prevailed.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the friends have experienced a large measure of success.  Jordan (Nia Long, Mooz-Lum) has become an even more powerful television producer, though she is still unmarried.  Harper and Robin (Sanaa Lathan, Contagion) have married and both have enjoyed success as a best-selling author and chef, respectively.  Julian (Harold Perrineau, Snitch) and Candace (Regina Hall, Think Like a Man) are married with children and have opened a charter school for children.  Shelby (Melissa De Sousa, Miss Congeniality) is hilarious as one of those fame-hungry “Real Housewives” that the Bravo network has made famous, and Quentin (Terrence Howard, Prisoners) has also made his mark in the entertainment industry, irreverently charming as ever.  Once again, Lance and Mia are requesting the honor of everyone’s presence.  This time they are inviting everyone and their families for a holiday weekend of fun at their New York estate.

In a group of friends, you will find all sorts of emotional dynamics at play.  Usually at least one person will have entertained a romantic or lustful thought about another friend.  In the movie, Jordan and Harper have a history, and Harper and Mia have a history.  There are residual emotions that have lain dormant over the years, including envy and guilt.  Secrets abound, as everyone isn’t quite as successful as they appear to be.  Harper’s last novel flopped, and he’s suffering from writer’s block.  Julian’s school is in financial trouble, and Jordan seems like a commitment phobe destined for a life of solitude with her blackberry, despite having a handsome boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian, Good Deeds).  Most significantly, Lance hasn’t truly forgiven Harper for old transgressions.  He and Mia seem to be hiding something, even though by outward appearances they have it all.  When the gang is reunited, old insecurities (and drama) resurface.

Although I’ve mentioned the original film, I don’t think it is a necessary prerequisite for viewing the sequel.  Director Malcolm Lee masterfully referenced the original movie in the opening credits, neatly updating the audience on all that has transpired since 1999.  Brief but pertinent flashbacks to The Best Man created the perfect opening scene, from both a functional and artistic perspective.

The performances were solid, with Taye Diggs turning in the most impressive effort, in my opinion.  In the original movie, Terrence Howard stole the show and has subsequently had the most commercial and critical success, but here it was Diggs whose performance touched me most.  The storyline called for some emotionally draining subject matter, and the movie takes a melodramatic turn in its third act.  I liked the weightiness and relevance of the storyline, but it did get a little corny towards the end.  I’m really only thinking of one scene in particular, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think it detracted from the movie.

I hate to sound like a cliché, but I laughed and I cried.  I was entertained throughout, and I thought Lee recaptured much of what made the first movie so enjoyable.  The characters had distinct, relatable personalities that were clearly drawn and familiar.  The cast enjoyed a chemistry with one another that made viewers feel like they were catching up with old friends themselves.  While I don’t expect The Best Man Holiday to unseat Thor as the #1 movie in America, I know that most who saw it found it immensely entertaining.  I was looking forward to this one, and I wasn’t disappointed one bit.  Grade: B+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

Ender’s Game

Sometimes a movie takes you by surprise.  I had no desire to see Ender’s Game until a friend suggested it.  The science fiction genre isn’t a real draw for me, and neither are kid-themed movies.  That being said, Ender’s Game was darn good.  Based on a novel of the same name, the film chronicles the development of Ender, a young boy who is destined to save Earth.

The movie begins at an unspecified future date, after the planet has narrowly survived an intergalactic battle about 20 years prior.  The military believes that the best defense is a good offense, and looks to the best and brightest children to form the army of tomorrow.  This underlying premise was fascinating to me.  There’s something creepy about viewing children in adult-like settings and situations rather than the protective lens through which they are usually portrayed.  Here, the characters behaved like adults, displaying both callousness and wisdom beyond their years.  Despite their maturity and the responsibilities with which they’re tasked, the viewer never forgets that these are just kids – even if they don’t act like it.

Among the gifted recruits, young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) quickly distinguishes himself.  Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, Paranoia) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis, Prisoners) of the army identify leadership qualities in Ender.  He is compassionate without being weak, strategic rather than emotional in his decision-making.  When provoked, he will defend himself, but he does not need to intimidate others.  He is gifted but humble, secure that his abilities will speak for themselves – thereby precluding the need to best his classmates.  Ender is the perfect balance of compassion and aggression.

After identifying the best of the best, Colonel Graff and his collection of multi-culti super kids head to space for training.  Ender’s abilities may have Graff and Anderson hooked, but they do nothing to endear him to his peers, who are envious of all the attention he receives.  Eventually he wins over the other recruits by showing that he will stand up for himself and challenge authority.  To put it simply, some people are natural born leaders, and Ender is special.  This was highlighted in a really great scene where Ender masterminds a winning strategy in a critical training exercise.  While Ender goes through his training, Graff and Anderson keep a watchful eye on their prized pupil.

In the movie’s final act, Ender must complete his training successfully before being entrusted with command of the International Army.  The fate of humanity depends on his readiness to protect Earth.  I won’t spoil the movie’s resolution, but hopefully I’ve said enough to entice you.  I enjoyed the psychological elements of the movie; from the way Ender expertly navigated the social pitfalls posed by the other recruits, to the manner in which Graff and Anderson dissected his behavior.  Asa Butterfield was a charismatic leading young man, and he embodied the character well.  I was so taken by the movie that I thought about naming my kid Ender if I ever have a son.  Yeah, I’m buggin’.

Grade: B+