Review: Jurassic World

Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jake Johnson

Review: Entourage

Starring Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Dillon

Review: San Andreas

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino

Review: Ex Machina

Starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson

Review: Pitch Perfect 2

The Pitch is Back!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: Sucker Punch

When you walk into a movie directed by Zack Snyder – he of "300" and "Watchmen" fame, you more or less know what you are going to get – a highly stylized film loaded with digital effects. In this regard, “Sucker Punch” does not disappoint. In this film, Snyder immerses us into a dark world that snakes its way between reality and fantasy with a stunning brand of visual bravado. While this film differs from his last two live action jaunts in that it does not come from comic book source material, its roots lay in the genre and pander to every fetish and whim of that segment of fandom.

What works about this film is the action. Say what you will about Snyder, whether it involves the clanging of razor-sharp blades or the rat-a-tat-tat of semi-automatic firearms, the man knows how to frame a fight scene. In “Sucker Punch” we have a film that revolves around four major action sequences that have the complexity of a cutting edge PRG video game with the accompanying near visual overload. While at times it felt like Snyder went a little too John Woo/Michael Bay with the slow motion, his attention to detail in these scenes is his ultimate strength.

What does not work about this film is that the characters seem like mere vehicles to deliver four action sequences. The plot that threads these pieces together is contrived. Taking a group of individuals – each bearing a layer of catastrophe, does not add depth to the proceedings. Of course this can be easily remedied if the major players develop throughout the narrative, but unfortunately more attention has been paid to the visual than the cerebral. Cinematic gravitas only bears true weight when one is invested in the character of the protagonists and this is hard to do when the filmmaker himself pays little attention to such details.

As for the cast, Emily Browning as Baby Doll is bland and unconvincing; Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone inject a bit of genuine grittiness to the sense of noir that underlies the sets; Hudgens and Chung are pure eye candy; Oscar Isaac plays a stock heavy; while the presence of Jon Hamm and Carla Gugino serve only to provide a modicum of credibility to the cast.

I did not hate this movie, though I did not particularly like it. It feels a lot like “Scott Pilgrim versus the World”- a movie I really enjoyed - without the humor and no way near as fun. Throughout this film, I spent most of my time wondering (and worrying) how Snyder’s style would translate to his next project (produced by WB golden boy Christopher Nolan) – Man of Steel.  At the end of the day, if you liked Michael Bay’s Transformers movies then you will find entertainment value here via Netflix or On Demand. If not, then you should steer clear. This one has “caveat emptor” written all over it.

Notable Performance: Jena Malone of Life as a House fame outshines the rest of the cast.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: The Best and the Brightest

If someone had told me that Barney Stinson, Shooter McGavin, and the stuffy dude who played Guitar Hero against Vince Vaughn in "Couples Retreat" were making a movie together, I would have run out to the local cinema with my AMC Stubs card in hand. The good news is that no one told me. The bad news is that when I did find out that the aforementioned Neil Patrick Harris, Christopher McDonald, and Peter Serafinowicz were in “The Best and the Brightest” together, no one told me how bad it was.

The movie aspires to be “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” meets “Old School” wrapped around the premise of a young couple trying to get their five-year-old daughter into a highfalutin school. The film wants to take a satirical peek at the culture surrounding overbearing privileged parents; deliver heartfelt commentary about reconciling one’s past against one’s future; and it wants to inject a bit of raunchy humor into the proceedings. Unfortunately Josh Shelov and Michael Jaeger leave us with a film that lacks the conviction and wit to do so.

Bonnie Somerville – a vanilla cross between Monica Potter and Bonnie Hunt, plays the first lead and lacks the panache or the chops to carry the film and while Neil Patrick Harris normally would be up to the task of injecting life into a moribund script, he is sorely miscast a milquetoast everyman. To make up for the blandness of Somerville and Harris’ characters, the filmmaker opts to amp up the absurdity that surrounds them. But no amount of dirty text humor and physical comedy can keep this plot from spiraling into a morass of mediocrity.

As for the rest of the cast, Christopher McDonald plays a caricature of Shooter McGavin, Amy Sedaris delivers her typical stock performance, while Serafinowicz shows a glimpse that perhaps with some good material, he could provide a winning comedic performance. There is very little to like about this film, as there is one quality glaringly absent from the proceedings – namely comedy. I suspect that even a couple with aspirations of placing their child in a fine academic institution would be hard pressed to find anything in this film to identify with.

Ultimately, this is a trap film. Die-hard fans of “How I Met Your Mother” could happen upon this title, read the cast and a brief synopsis, and decide to give it a try. That’s the only reason why films like this ever see the light of day. But under no circumstances do I recommend this film unless you are struggling with a bout of insomnia in which case it might do the trick. If it is more NPH you crave, hold out for the November releases: “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” and “The Muppets.”

Notable Performance: Peter Serafinowicz shows promise as a comedic actor.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens – the name alone seemed to promise a rollercoaster ride of a movie with two distinct film genres colliding on one screen. And with Jon Favreau directing Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde, this film promised a raucous redefining of both genres. I could not help but imagine an amalgamation of “The Quick and the Dead” and “Independence Day,” each time I walked through Times Square and glanced at the gigantic billboard featuring Daniel Craig along with the following statement: “From the Director of Iron Man.”

What the billboard should have read was, “From the director of Iron Man 2,” because despite the presence of Han Solo and the best James Bond-to-date, the film never takes off. Steve Spielberg may have received producing credits for this project but it feels like he directed it – and not in a good way. For most of the film, Favreau seems intent on slow playing the audience – a dramatic shift from a director who usually keeps plots moving at a brisk pace (i.e. “Elf” and “Iron Man”). For a movie such as “Jaws” or “Signs” in which there is a big reveal, deliberate pacing works. This is not that kind of movie.

Where the film ultimately falters though is in the character department. Favreau and screenwriters Orci, Kurtzman, et al ask us to like a group of characters that are not likable and the few characters that connect with the viewer (i.e. Beach’s Nat Colorado), are not significant enough to make one emotionally invested in the plot. By the time the leads make their dramatic turn towards redemption, I would venture a guess that anyone still watching this film has probably begun to turn their attention towards the exit sign.

I think the writers missed the boat on this film, because they crafted a script that takes itself entirely too serious. Sure, it has the gravitas and grit associated with the western genre, but sorely lacking is the bombastic flash that headlines sci-fi movies. The cantankerous quality that permeates this film is exasperated by the fact that Favreau has at his disposal two actors in Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell who have mastered the art of infusing sharp wit into long action sequences, and he fails to utilize their talents. As a result, the film we are left with is one that is lacking as a western, as sci-fi adventure, and as a summer tentpole flick.

I am late in reviewing this film, as both the critics and the public have spoken ($89M domestic gross against a $163M budget), but I thought I would chime in because it is easy to get drawn into a vehicle that features so many accomplished performers. I really cannot recommend viewing this film in the cinema or home and suggest you steer clear in lieu of pretty much anything else.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Review: The Kids Are All Right

I hadn’t seen “The Kids are All Right” during its theatrical release, but while I was working at NBCUniversal, there was a lot of buzz internally for it. So given the water cooler talk, the quality of the cast, and its Golden Globe and Oscar nods, I assumed this was a strong film that I’d eventually get around to watching. Sadly, I found it extremely mediocre, though one can tell that writer/director Lisa Cholodenko desperately wants it to be something more. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is mind-boggling that this film garnered four Oscar nominations.

If ever there was a script where the writers mixed a bunch of hot button/edgy topics into a pot and then threw it up against the wall to see what would stick; this is that film. Same sex married couples? Check. Urban hipster community gardens? Check. Fresh fare organic kitchen restaurant owned by sperm-donating college dropout? Check. And while Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg try their best to craft a script that screams “The L Word” meets “Life as a House,” ultimately what makes it onto screen is a story that lacks genuine heart.

In the film, when a sperm donor suddenly becomes present in the lives of a same sex married couple only to wreak havoc on their version of suburban bliss, we, the viewers, are allowed to peak behind the curtain and find that upon closer view, families of all shapes, sizes, and orientation can be rife with warts. Sadly the film lacks the heart to carry us through the overwrought melodrama. As important a message as it may be - that same sex couples and their respective families are no different than those of heterosexual couples, the film fails to compel and entertain. A key component to challenging convention is to break down the notions of what is considered conventional. This film instead screams of compliance and tries to pigeonhole its characters accordingly.

The script and direction give the appearance that three accomplished actors in Moore, Benning, and Ruffalo as well as the up-and-coming Wasikowska are sleep walking through the film because their respective characters are paper-thin. Giving someone a drinking problem, or making them rebel against their lesbian parents does not provide them with substantive depth.

I really would not recommend this film unless there are no other options. There are other cinematic efforts out there that address these subject matters with much more authenticity. The only way I can reconcile the fact that this film garnered so many accolades is what I like to refer to as the “Philadelphia” (starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) effect – recognized for its perceived edge-factor more so than its cinematic merit.

Notable Performances: Joaquin Garrido as Luis adds a bit of levity to the mundane.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: Arthur (2011)

It has been slim pickings for On Demand lately. As a result of, I’ve been half-heartedly circling around three movies for some time now: “Arthur,” “Limitless,“ and "Sucker Punch." With the city being pounded by rainstorms of seemingly biblical proportions, I was forced to take the plunge. “Arthur” was the film of choice for no better reason that it begins with the letter “A” and thus required less effort to find in the On Demand menu.

This movie is another in a long line of Hollywood remakes that in no way was screaming for a refresh. The original - starring the affable Dudley Moore and the grating Liza Minnelli – was just barely entertaining enough for a 1981 B-movie punch drunk with sentimentality. The same can be said for the update, which stars Russell Brand as a drunken millionaire man-child who must make the ever-popular-in-film choice – “for love or money.”

If you liked Russell Brand’s turn and return as Aldous Snow in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” then you will find some entertainment value here as clearly Jason Winer has directed him to play the same character only with the juvenile-factor amped up ten fold. You spend half the movie waiting for Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, or any other Judd Apatow cohort to walk on screen at any moment.

The straight man to Brand’s man-child follies stands in the form of a nanny played by Helen Mirren. Despite the fact that this project was an obvious cash grab for the accomplished actress, she reminds us that she does in fact know how to act. Her thawing in a lot of ways mirrored my own as I watched the movie; eventually succumbing to the inevitable swelling of sentimentality that marks the third act. As for the rest of the cast, Jennifer Garner and Nick Nolte’s respective characters are absolute clich├ęs and Greta Gerwig, as the down-to-earth love interest, does a very poor man’s imitation of Zooey Deschanel.

I would not recommend you go out of your way to see this movie. Put it on your Netflix queue somewhere near the bottom and let it stay there until you run out of good movies to watch. The film really screams TBS, USA, or FX. And as a movie playing on cable in the background while you’re doing some work on your computer or drafting your fantasy football team is where it provides the most value.

Notable Performances: Helen Mirren still has great screen presence.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Review: Friends with Benefits

For the last three months, this movie has provided me with a joke that I have been working ad nauseum. Basically it would unfold as follows:

A trailer or television spot for “Friends with Benefits” would run with clips of Mila Kunis as her typical neurotic self and Justin Timberlake doing his best Joseph Gordon Levitt “500 Days of Summer” imitation to try to make us forget he was once the front man for N’Sync. As said trailer fades to flack, I would turn to the whomever was with me and say: “Oh, I already saw this movie a few months ago when they called it ‘No Stings Attached!’” [Insert fake laugh track here.]

t was a fair assumption to make on my part given that I had been bamboozled in the past by carbon copies masquerading as distinct cinematic works (i.e. Armageddon vs. Deep Impact and Lambada vs. The Forbidden Dance). Still, like a moth to flame I ventured out to the local AMC waiting to be duped yet again. For once, I was glad that I did because other than a problem with pacing during the second act, I found the film both entertaining and engaging with just enough self-deprecation in its tone to make the inevitable schmaltz palatable.

In all of Timberlake’s previous jaunts into the world of celluloid, I found his presence disarming – a break in my “willing suspense of disbelief.” When last I saw him in “The Social Network,” my resounding thought was: “Oh that’s Justin Timberlake pretending to be someone who worked with Mark Zuckerberg.” Much to his credit, this film represents the first time he is able to shed his crooner baggage and immerse himself into the plot of the film.

As for Kunis, historically I have not been a big fan. Yes, I was one of the few who preferred Kristen Bell’s Sarah Marshall to Kunis’ Rachel Jansen. But in this film, she delivers a great quirky/off-beat/wounded character performance grounded with an in-your-face east coast aggression that makes her very endearing. In a most unique twist for a romantic comedy, the two leads actually have chemistry as not only paramours but also as friends. It is in this aspect it exceeds its doppelganger – the aforementioned “No Strings Attached.”

As for the film itself, when it is taking not-so-pointed jabs at friendships, sex, and relationships, it is poking fun at pop culture (sorry iPad, T-Mobile, and flashmob enthusiasts). Director Will Gluck makes good use of NYC and Los Angeles as backdrops to this story that will make you laugh when it is not tugging at your proverbial heartstrings. I would definitely recommend this as a date movie – if not in the cinema, then in the comfort of your own home.

Standout Performances: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The first time I saw the trailer for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the crowd at the L.A. Live AMC cinema erupted into laughter. I have to admit, that amidst the mass chortling, I myself let out a semi-audible groan. I could not fathom why 20th Century Fox would want to revisit the franchise when this latest entry into the series would star James Franco – who is plenty competent as an actor, but incredibly difficult to take seriously after some of his well-publicized shenanigans; and because the film would inevitably evoke memories of the disaster that was Tim Burton’s foray starring Mark Wahlberg back when people were still (for good reason) referring to him as Marky Mark.

My expectations for the film were low and perhaps this was a mitigating factor in my reaction to the movie, but I found it entertaining. The first plaudit I have to lay upon the film is that the digital effects are seamless. We know that great CG can make a movie (Avatar) and bad CG can cripple one (Green Lantern), but I think CG is most effective when you are not even aware that you are watching it. And such is the case here and what makes this fete even more impressive is that the protagonist is all-digital. And this leads into my second accolade for the movie.

The next best thing I can say about the film is that James Franco is not the star. Instead he plays a supporting character, albeit an important one because the star of the film – Caesar – is a silent one. To me, this is the kind of role where Franco excels – as key figure to plot advancement without the weight of the entire film on his shoulders. As for the rest of the cast, Lithgow and Cox are solid in limited role; Tom Felton plays a cheap man’s Malfoy without the accent; and Freida Pinto serves as little more than a pretty face.

I would recommend seeing this movie at the cinema, because there are some magnificently framed shots that deserve a proper viewing and as I mentioned before, the digital effects are great. Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job of inserting a few cookies in the prequel to place it within the “Planet of the Apes” timeline, but I suspect that it was done so with a trilogy in mind – especially so since the film has spent its first two weeks in release atop the box office.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: Crazy Stupid Love

I had it in my mind when I woke up Saturday morning that I was going to see “Crazy Stupid Love” in the evening. On tap before that was a trek off the island to Brooklyn into hipster central for a food flea market that is aptly and oh-so-cleverly dubbed “Smorgasburg.” If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around this, think a gated dirt lot, a cluster of booths peddling culinary delights, and a parade of V-necks. This waistline-challenging excursion proved to be quite the foreshadowing moment as my entertainment for the evening proved to be a smorgasbord of a movie.

“Crazy Stupid Love” has something for everyone and - like most of its predecessors that aspire to feed the masses, it struggles with pacing. I have to admit that I have a bias against films that have a slew of intertwining plot lines like “Crash,” Valentine’s Day,” and the soon-to-be-released “New Year’s Eve.” I would rather see one or two good storylines woven into a film and fully fleshed out rather than one good plotline orbited by four mediocre ones. CSL isn’t necessarily one of the aforementioned films with an ensemble cast that seems to feature 40 people, but at times it has that quality of being three different movies rolled into one.

With that being said, it is a very entertaining film and it is at its riveting best when Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling share the screen. The dynamic of their interactions is reminiscent of “Hitch” (Smith and James) and if you look closely you might see a little Vaughn and Favreau from “Swingers.” The respective performances of those two actors made the film worth the price of admission. As for the rest of the cast, kudos to Jonah Bobo for being the heart of the film, while Julianne Moore and Kevin Bacon deliver pedestrian performances and Emma Stone spends far too much time off screen.

The bottom line is that you’re getting three films in one. When the movie operates as a buddy flick, it is at its best; when it reverts to its rom-com roots, it is very paint-by-numbers; and when it panders to its ABC Family–watching contingency, warm and fuzzies ensue. I would definitely recommend this movie for date night, but one would probably draw best value viewing it on Netflix, On Demand, Vudu, et al. It does not have the visual effects or the grand sweeping epic feel of a Thor, Captain America, or Harry Potter that demand a cinematic viewing.

Standout Performances: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling