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!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: Midnight in Paris

Of all the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Midnight in Paris may be my favorite.  I should preface this by saying I am something of a Woody Allen fan, having really enjoyed a number of his directorial efforts including Whatever Works, Match Point, Hollywood Ending, Everyone Says I Love You, and of course Annie Hall.  So I do have a predisposition towards his brand of filmmaking.   In regards to his most profitable work ($148M theatrical gross worldwide), I would say there is an awful lot to like about this film.

The story of an artist (Owen Wilson’s Gil) perpetually enamored with an era long since passed is not particularly original, but adding the element of time travel to the proceedings allows Allen and his cast to have fun with the premise, and in doing so take viewers on a fantastical journey.  This is of particular interest to me, because the plot involves some of my favorite literary giants (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot).  And while weaving time travel into the fabric of a film can often be extremely difficult to reconcile with the rules of logic, Allen handles it with such a light-hearted touch so as to encourage the viewer to fully suspend their disbelief.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the film is the casting.  Owen Wilson is his usual onscreen self, but it serves him well as a hack Hollywood screenwriter aspiring for something more – a near direct parallel to his acting career.  Marion Cotillard is charming as the female lead, acting as a mirror to Wilson’s personal crisis.  Rachel McAdams channels her inner “Mean Girls” as Gil’s wife Inez.  She and Michael Sheen’s Paul are utterly grating to the senses and set up a fantastic contrast between present and past.  As for the rest of the cast, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll, Kathy Bates et al do a fantastic job of breathing life into a lineup of literary and artistic giants in a way that is both comedic and authentic.

This movie is a must see.  It is charming, heartbreaking, and funny.  Paris serves as the ideal backdrop for a movie that straddles the line between reality and fantasy.  Woody Allen films do not always play well to mainstream audiences but good storytelling does.  Midnight in Paris definitely falls into the latter category.

Standout Performance:  Tom Hiddleston of Thor fame does an amazing job of disappearing into the role of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Apollo 18

Apollo 18 is yet another entry into the “found-footage” genre that started with The Blair Witch Project, but really took off with Paranormal Activity.  This film – like some of its recent predecessors (The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 3) – does a decent job of using the mechanisms of the genre to create the veneer of authenticity and a sense of tension, but ultimately fails to deliver a worthwhile payoff.

It’s hard to really put my finger on what I did not like about this film.  On the surface it seems promising as a horror movie with a Red Planet sci-fi vibe thrown into the mix, but so often what sounds great in theory ultimately fails in execution.  Apollo 18 is one such case.  One of the problems with this movie is that the cast is fairly non-descript.  While we get a bit of a backstory on each, the astronauts (played by Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, and Ryan Robbins) are essentially interchangeable parts.  This is especially problematic in a horror movie, because it builds its suspense on the assumption that you care about the respective fates of the protagonists.

Without ruining the plot of the movie (I’ll leave that to the movie itself), the antagonist (or the source of all the lunar chicanery) is not particularly interesting or terrifying for that matter.  This leaves you with a film about astronauts you do not care about, facing a menace that does not scare you.  The scariest part about the film is that they managed 86 minutes of running time out of this set up.

It truly was difficult for me to watch this film – this coming from someone who has great appreciate for both the horror and sci-fi genres.  It was so difficult in fact that I quit watching before the closing credits.  I left it to the fine people who contribute to Wikipedia to let me know how things wrapped up.  I found the plot played better in plain text than it did as a visual piece.  As a kid my parents used to preach to me not to start something that I would not finish.  So I pass this advice on to you.  Don’t watch it.  Ever.  If however “found-footage” really floats your boat, be on the lookout for Chronicle.  It is generating some positive buzz.

Standout Performance:  None.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: The Grey

If you haven’t noticed, Liam Neeson has carved himself a nice niche as an action star.  In a genre where chiseled jaws and artificially augmented biceps inflict most of the damage, Neeson (Taken, A-Team, and Unknown) is showing that grey beards can still kick butt on screen and at the box office.   His latest flick - The Grey - is two hours of mental and physical warfare expertly captured on screen by Joe Carnahan.

The plot places a spiritually broken Ottway (played by Neeson) stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a battered group of rough necks after a plane crash.  Stranded and lost, the band of misfits must overcome brutal weather conditions, deep physical injuries, and packs of vicious wolves to ensure their survival.  It’s the mental and physical fight to live that defines the plot and makes this film not only about the men themselves, but also about the loved-ones they’ve left behind.  You never see them onscreen in the present, but their presence in the stricken psyches of those men is strongly felt.

Liam Neeson does a fantastic job of playing a damaged man teetering on the edge.  You can almost see the baggage he is carrying embedded within the creases of his weathered face.  As for the rest of the cast, Dallas Roberts, Dermott Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Frank Grillo and Joe Anderson serve as Neeson’s fellow plane crash survivors.  Each do an admirable job infusing distinct personas into characters that could have easily become faceless mechanisms for plot advancement.  Grillo as Diaz particularly stands out for taking his character through the full spectrum of emotions associated with death. 

From top to bottom, The Grey is a well-made movie.  The challenge of the elements and the ever-present sense of danger are palpable – so much so that the film feels like a visual form of punishment.  By time the credits rolled, I felt fatigued and a bit of despair.  Whatever a feel-good-movie is to you, this film is the exact opposite.  So if you are wondering if this is a quality movie, then the answer is a resounding yes.  As for whether it is an entertaining one - that is best left to be decided by the individual and his/her preferences.

Standout Performance: Kudos to Dermott Mulroney for starring in a movie that does not have the word “Wedding” in the title.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Footloose (2011)

There are some movies that should never be re-made; Godfather, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark – movies that through a confluence of great casting, directing, and cinematography have produced truly iconic cinematic experiences.  Then there are those that should never be given a second look for an entirely different set of reasons – Date Movie, Hudson Hawk, and anything by Adam Sandler post Spanglish.

Then there’s Footloose, a movie that was an immediate classic in its time, but because of its dated music and dance has not really aged well.  Worse still is that its premise – breaking a small town ban on dancing – does not translate well to the present day.  And yet somehow, an updated version of this movie made its way into cinemas in 2011 and - even worse - found its way onto my red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York City.

The movie plays like Step Up meets Friday Night Lights as over wrought dancing collides with teen angst in the fictional small town of Bomont, Georgia.  A forray into the deep south was inevitable as Footloose’s predecessors in the teen dance genre (Save the Last Dance, Take the Lead, etc.) had exhausted the urban backdrop.  So what else is wrong with the film besides the antiquated notion of a ban on public dancing, the hammed up southern drawls, and the uncompelling melodrama and rebellion found at every turn?  The fact that none of it comes together to form an interesting narrative from start to finish.

Kenny Womald would have been merely pedestrian in the lead role as Ren MacCormack, but his weak Boston accent tips the scales towards bad. Julianne Hough is at her best when she is dancing, but lacks any kind of charisma as an actual actress, making one wonder if it was a wise career choice to leave Dancing with the Stars. Dennis Quaid’s Reverend Shaw Moore is cantankerous enough and Andie MacDowell does little to distinguish herself as Moore’s wife.  The requisite gaggle of friends played by Miles Teller, Ser’Darius Blain, and Ziah Colon add a bit of life to the proceedings, but do not get enough to work with to really make a difference.

When I first saw this trailer, I thought that Footloose was a movie to be avoided like the plague.  A bout of insomnia on a cross-country flight has helped to reassure me that my first inclination was right.  If it is a mix of dance and drama that you crave, watch the original, wax poetic about an era long since passed, and then play a rousing game of 6-Degrees-of-Kevin Bacon

Standout Performance:  Miles Teller’s Willard injects a bit of comic relief to the otherwise melodramatic proceedings.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review: Real Steel

While watching Real Steel, I couldn’t help but feel like director Shawn Levy, and writers John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Jeremy Leven were pick pocketing Sylvester Stallone.  Seriously, Real Steel is a complete amalgamation of Rocky and Over the Top with a little bit of Iron Man thrown into the mix.  In fact, I bet that’s how the project was pitched to the higher-ups at DreamWorks.   If Sly isn’t getting a cut of this action, then he absolutely should be.  After all, I spent half the movie waiting for robot Adrian and drunk-robot Paulie to run into the ring.

With that being said, the movie itself is by no means extraordinary, but there are a few things it gets incredibly right that make it a highly entertaining narrative.  Like Rocky, the movie is about a man - down on his luck and cast as an underdog, who is out-classed and out-gunned in every literal and figurative fight that comes his way; ditto for Atom the robot.  As protagonists, this makes Jackman’s Charlie and Atom very easy to root for.

The second thing the movie gets right is that it draws upon the relationship between an estranged father and his son – a near carbon copy of Over the Top’s premise.  The physical and emotional journey undertaken by Jackman and Dakota Goyo’s Max tugs at the proverbial heartstrings and adds an additional layer of likeability to the two principle characters that keeps the viewer engaged.

Jackman and Goyo have genuine chemistry as father and son and it is this dynamic that drives the film.  Kevin Durand, Olga Fonda, and Karl Yune do just enough to add a bit of menace to the proceedings, while Evangeline Lilly serves as the requisite token love interest.  But ultimately, the film rests on Jackman’s shoulders and as is most often the case (X-Men Origins:Wolverine notwithstanding), he delivers.

It’s not a cinematic masterpiece and not a thrill-a-minute action flick.  When you strip away the robots and the hand-to-hand pugilism, what you are left with is a narrative that centers on matters of the heart.  Real Steel is a great rental – a downright feel good movie that is great for any occasion.  And as the closing credits begin to roll, don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for the phone just to give your dad a shout (a la the courtroom scene in Big Daddy).

Standout Performance:  Nice job by Dakota Goyo working opposite a seasoned veteran in Jackman.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Review: Drive

Imagine your reaction to watching a movie called “Attack of the Killer Bats” only to find that there’s no attacking, no killing, and hardly a bat to be found throughout the film’s proceedings.  That’s precisely what I experienced while watching director Nicolas Winding Ref’s Drive.  The title in itself is basic if not direct and yet the film is not quite what it is billed as.  Other than two major sequences, there is remarkably little actual action-packed driving to be found.  This begs the question as to what exactly the movie is about.

It’s a character driven movie (pun intended) that centers on an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who is engaged in an awkward unspoken love triangle with Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her convict husband played by Oscar Isaac.  Also swimming in these murky waters are Irene’s son, Bryan Cranston’s Shannon, and some seedy low rent mafia types played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.  It all comes together to form a narrative that is one part awkward courting, one part deranged camaraderie, and one part gratuitous violence.

Perhaps the oddest part of the film is that it plays like a rip in the space-time continuum – as if a slice has been cut out of the 1980’s and interjected into the present.  From the hot pink/purple font used for the movie title, to the highly synthesized soundtrack, to the lighting and cinematography, I almost expected Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas to storm onto the screen in pastel colors while Phil Collins croons in the background. 

As for the cast, no one stands out as particularly good or bad, but this may be the product of the script, as all the characters seem flat and one-dimensional.  Ryan Gosling’s performance is perplexing to me as I was hard pressed to identify why it generated such positive buzz.  Cranston, Perlman, and Brooks – all accomplished veteran actors – seem at times to be going through the motions.  Of the entire cast, only Carey Mulligan does a fair job of acquitting herself although truth be told, very little is asked of her.

To be fair, the movie is a decent rental, but definitely not a must-see priority.  If you have low expectations, you’ll watch for two hours and be left scratching your head while at the same time feel moderately entertained.  If however you’re expecting a fast-paced hard action film deserving of all the praise that was heaped on this project, you’re going to wish you had those two hours of your life back.  If you really want to see a good Ryan Gosling movie, go back and watch Remember the Titans

Standout Performance:  Carrey Mulligan.  Look for her in The Great Gatsby opposite Leo DiCaprio to be released December, 2012.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Contagion

I usually don’t like those films that feature a huge ensemble cast – a la Valentine’s Day and New Years Eve (the latter of which seemingly features half of Hollywood).  In Contagion, we have a film driven by a large ensemble cast, but is entirely different from the two aforementioned movies.  I need to start by saying I am fairly neutral in the world of Man vs. Germ.  I take one shower a day and wash my hands at all the key moments (such as before meals and after restroom stops).  For the most part, I rely on @JennieBFit to tell me when I need some Purell hand sanitizer.

I do however have two friends – Coach and Chew – who are disciples of the David Puddy School of Germ Phobia complete with germ pendant dangling from the neck.  If you fall into this segment of the population, Contagion is a film you must avoid.  Like Paranormal Activity is to teenage kids (and my buddy Jeff), and Sex and the City 2 is to most men, Contagion will scare the heck out of those who fear a simple handshake or a game of Beer Pong.

A film that features a pandemic disease as its lead, is probably not the easiest sell - although Outbreak was fairly entertaining.  But the film does a nice job of showing the global interconnectivity that exists and how easily a virus can travel across boarders.  It also pokes a bit of fun at conspiracy theorists that constantly clamor against government agencies and their suspected top-secret machinations (including yours truly who still has some reservations about the first lunar landing).

I can’t say that I enjoyed the movie (I don’t know that one is supposed to enjoy it), but I was very interested in following it to its conclusion.  The film does not always visually capture the magnitude of what is occurring in the context of the plot, but there are some great performances that ground all the gravitas in reality.  Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, and Jennifer Ehle blended perfectly into their roles, while Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Gould, and Lawrence Fishburne deliver solid performances.  Ultimately, it is the cast that differentiates this film from other ensemble vehicles, because in such films actors often are left to play caricatures – most likely the result of limited screen time.  The only person of significance in Contagion who falls into this trap is the highly overrated Jude Law.

The movie is worth renting, just not on a date night, when you’re under the weather, or if you are in a good mood.  When you do watch it, be sure to keep the hand sanitizer nearby and reserves of soap on hand.  I guarantee you that by the end of the film you will start counting the number of times you touch your face in an hour.  Germophobes, you have been warned.

Standout Performance: Matt Damon and Kate Winslet are particularly good.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 Movie Rankings

I watched 51 new release films during 2011.  There were some hits and a bunch of misses.  From this list of 51, I ranked the movies based on their entertainment value.  On paper, 2012 is shaping up to be a great year at the cinema, so here's hoping at the end of next year I am ranking a better crop of films.

The List of 51:

51. Johnny English Reborn (Universal)                    
50. The Best and Brightest (N/A)
49. The Dilemma (Universal)                   
48. The Change-Up (Universal)
47. Red State (SModcast)
46. Scream 4 (Weinstein)
45. Your Highness (Universal)
44. Take Me Home Tonight (Relativity)
43. I Don’t Know How She Does It (Weinstein)
42. Rio (Fox)
41. Prom (Disney)
40. Just Go With It (Sony)
39. I Am Number 4 (Buena Vista)
38. Cowboys and Aliens (Universal)
37. Green Lantern (WB)
36. Source Code (Summit)
35. Insidious (FilmDistrict)
34. The Rite (WB)
33. Sucker Punch (WB)
32. Limitless (Relativity)
31. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney)
30. Hall Pass (WB)
29. Immortals (Relativity)
28. Battle Los Angeles (Sony)
27. Arthur (WB)
26. Paranormal Activity 3 (Paramount)
25. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon (Paramount)
24. The Ides of March (Sony)
23. The Muppets (Disney)
22. Super 8 (Paramount)
21. The Hangover Part II (WB)
20. Unknown (WB)
19. The Green Hornet (Sony)
18. No Strings Attached (Paramount)
17. Fast Five (Universal)
16. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (WB)
15. Horrible Bosses (WB)
14. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox)
13. What’s Your Number? (Fox)
12. Bad Teacher (Sony)
11. Friends with Benefits (Sony)
10. Captain America the First Avenger (Paramount)
9. Crazy Stupid Love (WB)
8. Bridesmaids (Universal)
7. Moneyball (Sony)
6. Midnight in Paris (Sony)
5. Our Idiot Brother (Weinstein)
4. X-Men First Class (Fox)
3. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Paramount)
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II (WB)
1. Thor (Paramount)