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!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

April Movie Guide

Official Synopsis: In the comedy American Reunion, all the American Pie characters we met a little more than a decade ago are returning to East Great Falls for their high-school reunion. In one long-overdue weekend, they will discover what has changed, who hasn’t and that time and distance can’t break the bonds of friendship. It was summer 1999 when four small-town Michigan boys began a quest to lose their virginity. In the years that have passed, Jim and Michelle married while Kevin and Vicky said goodbye. Oz and Heather grew apart, but Finch still longs for Stifler’s mom. Now these lifelong friends have come home as adults to reminisce about—and get inspired by—the hormonal teens who launched a comedy legend.
Why You Should See It: Nostalgia…and to see if Stifler can steal the show one more time…but mostly nostalgia.
Why You Should Avoid It: The last two movies in the series (The Deuce and Wedding)
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Sure...why not.

Official Synopsis: Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen.
If you think you know this story, think again. From fan favorites Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard comes The Cabin in the Woods, a mind-blowing horror film that turns the genre inside out.  Produced by Whedon and directed by Goddard from a script by both, the film stars Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.  Lionsgate presents a Mutant Enemy production.
Why You Should See It: An early preview to a Joss Whedon and Chris Hemsworth collaboration before the release of the much anticipated The Avengers.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the last horror movie that promised to turn the genre inside out was Scream 4.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Yes.

THE LUCKY ONE - April 20th
Official Synopsis: U.S. Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault returns from his third tour of duty in Iraq, with the one thing he credits with keeping him alive—a photograph he found of a woman he doesn't even know. Learning her name is Beth and where she lives, he shows up at her door, and ends up taking a job at her family-run local kennel. Despite her initial mistrust and the complications in her life, a romance develops between them, giving Logan hope that Beth could be much more than his good luck charm.  Based on Nicholas Sparks' bestseller The Lucky One, Zac Efron stars alongside Taylor Schilling and Blythe Danner in this romantic drama directed by Academy Award®-nominated writer/director Scott Hicks.
Why You Should See It: It will earn you goodwill with your significant other so that the next time there’s a good sports game on TV, maybe she’ll let you watch it.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because it is based on a Nicholas Sparks’ novel (e.g. The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John)
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Heck no.

Official Synopsis: The director and writer/star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall reteam for the irreverent comedy The Five-Year Engagement.  Beginning where most romantic comedies end, the new film from director Nicholas Stoller, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Rodney Rothman (Get Him to the Greek) looks at what happens when an engaged couple, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, keeps getting tripped up on the long walk down the aisle.  The film was written by Segel and Stoller.
Why You Should See It: Jason Segel – Jeff, Who Lives At Home not withstanding – is a good actor and very reliable comedic talent while Emily Blunt is incredibly charming.
Why You Should Avoid It: The last movie Judd Apatow produced was Wanderlust.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Definitely.

Review: Jack and Jill

There are a lot of people who are too young to remember Mike Tyson as something more than an awkward caricature that randomly shows up on Funny or Die and the Hangover movies.  He was once a fierce athlete with a singular focus of inflicting damage.  As the pre-eminent pugilist of his generation, Tyson’s fights were must-see events.  After a plethora of personal troubles that culminated in a three-year stint in prison, Tyson returned to the ring.  He struggled however to recapture that greatness and over time increasingly amassed embarrassing losses to pedestrian fighters.  I remember watching, waiting, and hoping to see the moment where things would click again for the former champion – where he would bob and weave; and land the haymakers that he was missing wildly with.

So you may be asking, what does any of this have to do with Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill?  Well, that is precisely how I feel nowadays when it comes to Adam Sandler.  I remember his pinnacle – The Wedding Singer, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison – when he was appearing in some wildly entertaining comedies.  But now I keep watching his films (Click, Grown Ups, Just Go With It) wondering if the next film will be the one where he recaptures the magic that built his Happy Madison empire.  Well, I am ready to say that his demise is complete as Jack and Jill is the proverbial nail in coffin. 

Jack and Jill is one of the worst movies I have ever seen – no doubt about it.  I wanted to turn it off so many times, but kept watching for the sole purpose of being able to write a skewering review.  So you may be asking yourself what makes this movie so bad.  Let’s start with the most glaring issue – twice the dosage of Adam Sandler.  It is always precarious when an actor plays two leading roles of different genders in a comedy (see also Norbit starring Eddie Murphy).  Sandler is in rare form in this film about twin siblings going through some kind of crisis that I am sure absolutely no one cares about.  The plot is inconsequential and the sight gag that is Sandler dressed as a woman wears thin about five seconds in. 

The worst part about this film is that in his quest to reach new depths of awfulness, Sandler takes down a bunch of likeable actors with him.  Maybe it’s the memory of Dawson’s Creek at work, but I still really like Katie Holmes and think there is something very endearing about her.  Yet now, the stink of this film will be difficult to wash off.  Ditto for Allen Covert’s Otto (the caddy).  They should have left the memory of him bathing in a water hazard (in Happy Gilmore) intact.  And worst of all, Al Pacino decides to make sure that his legacy remains completely tarnished (a process that commenced with Gigli, 88 Minutes, and Righteous Kill). 

Every celebrity that appeared as a cameo in this film (Johnny Depp, Shaq, Regis, Jared from Subway) should petition IMDB to get his or her respective names removed from the cast list, because everything about this movie is embarrassing.  Nothing can save this movie – not even an angry Johnny Mac (John McEnroe).  I think it goes without saying that you should not see Jack and Jill under any circumstances.  If enough of us adhere to this, maybe Sandler will stop appearing in movies.  Then again, if he stopped acting, he might produce more movies (i.e. Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, Zookeeper, and Grandma’s Boy).  Ugh.  Either way, we lose.

Standout Performance: Dana Carvey – because even though he is listed as a member of the cast, I don’t remember seeing him.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Young Adult

Most films that are character driven have a seminal moment for the protagonist in which the proverbial light goes on upstairs and everything changes.  Flaws get ironed out, burned bridges get rebuilt, and life gets that much better.  Jason Reitman films don’t fall into that category.  He, the director of Up in the Air fame, has no problem starting a film off in a dark place and constricting all movement to within that space.  In Young Adult,  that is precisely what he and writer Diablo Cody deliver to us.

The movie is about Mavis, the author of a soon to be completed young adult series who has locked herself in a perpetual state of distorted young adulthood – lacking any self-awareness and a detachment from the world around her.  This manifests in her desire to rekindle a romance with her high school paramour Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is happily married and a new father.  I could go on ad nauseum about the cliché plotlines that are dissected in this film such as that of a person trying to escape the small town blues; or an individual who can’t let go of their glorious high school past; et al because the plot is loaded with dysfunction and they are all cleverly embodied by Charlize Theron’s Mavis.

Theron carries the movie – absolutely owning the role and reveling in the complete lack of sense and sensibility that pervades each and everyone one of Mavis’ actions.  The dynamic she shares with Patton Oswalt’s Matt is one of the key driving forces to the plot.  He serves as a most unlikely sidekick for Mavis on her twisted journey down memory lane and acts as a moral compass to a person upon whom morality has no bearing whatsoever.  The movie itself ultimately hinges on the depths to which Mavis will plunge to feed her delusion versus the question of whether or not her character can be redeemed with Oswalt’s Matt immediately in tow.

This film is not for everyone.  It is dark and the comedy is wry.  It works that they take someone as beautiful as Charlize Theron and make her far less attractive as a person.  It is just not necessarily pleasant to watch.  If you’re looking for the feel good movie of the year, you should go watch Moneyball.  But if irony, angst, and cynicism are your cup of tea, then this film should suit you just fine.  With this caveat in mind, I would recommend Young Adult as a rental - although I would advise against viewing it on a happy occasion.  This one may leave you feeling a bit dirty after watching it.

Standout Performance:  Charlize Theron does a nice job of completely disappearing into the role.  Look for her next in Ridley Scott's much anticipated sci-fi project, Prometheus.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

Let me start by saying that I didn’t read Suzanne Collins' books; I wasn’t one of the people in the cinema who cheered when they showed a teaser for the next Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2; and I wasn’t one of the few who openly sobbed when one of the more likeable characters in the film died.  So now that I have identified myself as a male over the age of eighteen – and thus provided a context for this review – I can tell you that The Hunger Games was not a bad movie.  It just wasn’t an evenly balanced one.

As twenty-four million of you already know (per circulation numbers for the novels), The Hunger Games is about an annual battle royale to the death involving twenty-four teens in a semi-post apocalyptic country.  The goal of this annual ritual/television show is to hold back the masses from outright rebellion.   My understanding is that the novels skew towards the young adult market while the movie aspires to reach a broader audience.

Why I say the film is unbalanced is because there is two distinct feels to the movie - the setup to the games and then the games themselves.  To me the first half of the movie (the set up) stands out as the more interesting half.  It centers on Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, her relationships in District 12, and the dynamic she develops with the team assigned to prepare her and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta for the games.  This half of the movie focuses on character development and also happens to feature polished performances delivered by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz.  The trio helps Jennifer Lawrence establish Katniss as a girl who is strong and smart enough to survive the demands of the games, but at the same time has that quality of vulnerability that makes her the underdog. 

In sharp contrast, the second half of the movie – specifically the actual games – falls short of my expectations.  The action sequences are sparse; the performances of Alexander Ludwig, Amandla Stenberg, and Leven Rambin as fellow tributes fall short of the standard set earlier in the film; and the competition is shockingly tame and sterile.  The set up frames the games as utter brutality in harsh conditions, with skilled killers from the top districts.  However, the scenes play out like a glorified Search and Rescue club out for a R-rated game of Capture the Flag.

As a stand-alone film, I think it was entertaining, but perhaps not deserving of all the hype.  Having talked to people who are familiar with the book and learned of some of the nuances missing from the film, it is clear that some of the motivations and machinations – as well as the perplexing love triangle that may or may not really exist – could have been fleshed out more.  In a lot of ways, it feels like director Gary Ross made choices with his direction that take for granted that many viewers have read the book.

Whether you have read the book or not, I would recommend The Hunger Games.  The film has a good premise and a good cast (including Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, and Donald Sutherland) to match.  I don’t think you will walk away salivating for the next installment the way one did after The Empire Strikes Back, but it may compel you to pick up the second novel in the series.

Standout Performance:  Woody Harrelson.  There was undoubtedly more to the character than what makes it onto the screen, but Harrelson does a nice job with the role. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: My Week with Marilyn

When an actor receives critical acclaim for portraying a public figure in a biopic or film based upon true events, I wonder if such praise is really warranted as a number of questions spring to mind.  Should that performance be considered acting or impersonation?  Is there a difference between the two and/or should there be a distinction?  For instance, Jay Pharoah does amazing impersonations of Will Smith and Denzel Washington, but is that great acting?  The guy can barely get airtime on SNL let alone an Academy Award nomination.  So with all due respect to Will Smith in Ali, Jamie Foxx in Ray, and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, to me such performances are a step down from those that require creating and inventing a character from the bare bones of a script.

Don’t get me wrong.  Michelle Williams is good in My Week with Marilyn.  She does an interesting job portraying a toxic mix of narcissism, neuroticism, and probably a bunch of other –isms that I am not learned enough to expound upon.  The film itself is built around a strong cast, who like Williams, expertly walk the tightrope that is the delicate balance between the immense self-importance and incredible insecurity that run rampart throughout the thespian community.  And that is really what the movie is about – the illusion and the fragility embodied by Marilyn Monroe as seen though the eyes of Eddie Redmayne’s Colin Clark.

Clark is a young man from wealth determined to make his own way in the movie industry and scores a gig as an assistant on Olivier’s production of The Prince and the Showgirl.  While on set, he forges a short-term relationship with Marilyn Monroe.  It’s a slice of life film about a week in the life of a love struck young man caught up in the crossroads of “Olivier wanting to be a great movie star and Monroe wanting to be a great actress.”  Nothing runs deep in this movie, but that is how it is meant to be- considering the major players in the film and the waters within which they wade.

What makes this film go is the cast.  As I mentioned before, Michelle Williams is good as Monroe, capturing a bit of what made the tragic figure so captivating to the public eye.  Redmayne as Colin Clark is affable and enough of an unknown to sell the youth and naiveté that defines the protagonist.  For Kenneth Branagh, it is in no way his strongest performance, but he portrays a weaker side to Sir Laurence Olivier that rarely was shown in public.  While Julia Ormond, Judi Dench, and Emma Watson are strong in limited screen time as female contrasts to all that is Williams’ Monroe. 

This movie is definitely not for everyone.  It is a film where things happened over a short period of time and when that time has passed, everyone moves on.  This brand of slice-of-life storytelling does not appeal to the traditional movie viewer who has been conditioned to have a certain set of expectations.  Likewise, I found myself oscillating throughout the film between being utterly engaged and completely bored.  Like me, you may find that after watching this movie, you won’t find yourself loving or loathing it.  As for whether you will feel entertained – well to borrow a sports-book term, this one is a Pick ‘Em.

Standout Performance: Judi Dench is strong as Dame Sybil Thorndike.  Her character has depth and complexity that underlies her outwardly courteous and respectful demeanor.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Review: The Muppets (2011)

My girlfriend and I watched The Muppets with my niece (7 years old) and my nephew (5 years old).  Of the four of us, I can firmly state that I enjoyed it the least.  You have to keep in mind however that I am the person who on my first day as an intern at The Walt Disney Company told everyone in the group that I don’t like animated movies.  So you can imagine that I might be biased against movies featuring puppets (original Yoda excluded of course).  Believe me when I tell you that no one at Disney is losing sleep over the fact that I (as well as my male counterparts above the age of 30) was not enthralled by the new adventures of Kermit and his cohorts.  I am most definitely not in their target audience, but rather just the vehicle by which their target audience can get to the movies (and later purchase their consumer products).

The preceding paragraph makes it sound like I am about to go on a diatribe against all things Disney, but to the contrary I am going to say that the film, which made it onto screen (and soon to be on Blu-Ray) is a tribute to Jason Segel because according to most accounts, the project was a labor of love for Segel that took years to bring to fruition.  Furthermore, both he and Amy Adams do an admirable job of placing themselves in the world of the Muppets as both actors and singers.  Not too far behind is Jack Black who is completely off the wall in this film and clearly has a ton of fun playing himself – channeling that same energy that he brought to School of Rock.  As for the other live principle cast member - Chris Cooper, at times he is awkward and a bit over the top even for a movie such as this one, but he does just enough not to fumble the ball.

So you might be wondering then, why I am so lukewarm about the movie.  Let me explain.  I would venture a guess that right up until the opening credits roll, most people are not aware that Disney had bought the rights to all things Muppets.  I would also venture a guess that after seeing the movie, most people still don't know this.  I wonder if possessing this bit of information in advance of the movie resulted in something akin to the placebo effect, because I could not shake the feeling that something was missing in the first Jim Henson-less Muppet production.  The voice work by Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, et al is solid if not very good and the song numbers are fun.  Director James Bobin and company even throw in a ton of celebrity cameos as cookies for the adults viewers (i.e. Ken Jeong, Sarah Silverman, Emily Blunt, NPH, and David Grohl).  I suspect that what may have been missing is the love and passion for the Muppets that could only be mustered up by the man who created them.  In looking back, it was most obviously the key to the Muppets' success.

At the end of the day, it is by no means a bad movie.  Kermit, Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, et al are up to their usual tricks.  Kids will enjoy the hijinx and adults will experience a nice sense of nostalgia as the creative team has made sure to include all the song you'd expect to hear while mixing a few new ones.  I don’t know that I would heartily recommend renting or buying this movie (available on Tuesday, March 20th) for an adult only audience, but if you have children, nieces, nephews, and/or grandchildren, it is a nice way to spend two hours and a good transition into talking about some of your own experiences from your salad days. 

Standout PerformanceAnimal (Eric Jacobson).  The suddenly tame drummer gets all the best lines.  Honorable Mention goes to The Moopets.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I am going to cut to the chase in regards to my review of Jeff, Who Lives at Home.  Either it was a horrible piece of filmmaking or I absolutely did not get it.  If you’re a betting person, put your money down on the latter, because from start to finish this movie feels like a very poor man’s Our Idiot Brother sans any laughs whatsoever.  And as I was watching the film, eagerly anticipating a wit-inspired chuckle here or a gut-buster there, I realized that the writer and director team of Jay and Mark Duplass were cleverly trying to educate the viewer with some existential lesson on life, love, and happiness buried into the subtext of their plot.  The problem is that their message was complete nonsense and their delivery neither clever nor subtle. 

The gist of the plot is that everyone in the Thompkins family has an unsatisfying life.  The patriarch of the family died at forty-four and some fifteen years after his passing we find that his widow (Susan Sarandon) is a lonely single mom in need of companionship; his oldest son (Ed Helms) is a complete douche with marital problems and a midlife crisis, and his youngest son (Jason Segel) is an idiot who lives in his mother’s basement.  Fortunately for this family, Segel’s Jeff is actually an idiot savant who on his fate-guided path to find " a KEVIN" and enlightenment just might be able to resurrect his family from the malaise of mediocrity.  If that doesn't sound funny, then you're getting the picture.  Even if you make the assumption that the movie was poorly marketed because of the presence of Segel and Helms and frame it as a dramatic piece, it still fairs poorly.  The plot fails to flesh out the depths of apathy and resentment that have gripped this family to create any true sense of catharsis in the final act.

As for the cast, Segel absolutely sleep walks through this film, but I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that it may have been by design.  I am guessing it was his attempt at playing quirky though the problem with that approach is that he's not Zooey Deschanel so he can't pull off that kind of quirky.  Ed Helms does a great job exuding utter low rent douchebaggery.  It’s too bad the thinness of the script makes you not care, and care even less that his wife (Judy Greer) is cheating on him.  Susan Sarandon adds very little value in her role as the lonely mother and the slight plot twist with her character arc can be seen coming from a mile away.

I want to say that the movie unravels at the end but really that happens right from the start.  The best thing that came from seeing this film is that the staff had technical issues with the projector and so the fine people at AMC gave everyone in attendance a free pass.  Without the promise of a free movie pass, I can't recommend a film that starts with everyone’s life completely sucking at the outset and then sucking a little less at the close.  This may be an attempt to authentically portray real life in the eyes of the filmmakers, but for me it takes a more than a mysterious Kevin, a bad goatee, and a lesbian turn to call something entertaining (believe when I tell you that last sentence made the movie sound far more interesting than it is).  In lieu of this film, rent Our Idiot Brother – similar concept with better writing and acting.

Standout Performance:  Judy Greer.  Her characters tend to be loud, obnoxious, and/or neurotic, but in this film she hits the right notes of desperation and it makes you sympathize with her in as much as one can with an adulteress.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)

I think we all get the drill when it comes to movies based on old television shows that have long since disappeared from syndication.  They usually aren’t done very well as they rely far too much on nostalgia as opposed to things like a solid plot and good acting (i.e. Bewitched, Miami Vice, Lost in Space).  And when they try to take a dramatic television show and transform it into a comedy, well…its usually twice as bad (Dukes of Hazzard).  So my expectations were fairly low for 21 Jump Street.  How could Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum possibly follow in the footsteps of Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, Dustin Nguyen, and Holly Robinson (let’s pretend Richard Grieco never happened) AND be funny?

This is in no way hyperbole when I say that this movie represents the most fun I have had at the cinema in months.  At first glance the plot appears to cast Tatum (Jenko) and Hill (Schmidt) as the typical popular jock and dork respectively, but the film cleverly manufactures role reversals while poking fun at the conventions of the present juxtaposed against those of the past.  And Hill and Tatum are up to the task of delivering this brand of comedy.  You would think that most of the comedic chemistry between the leads would be attributed to Hill, but surprisingly it is Tatum that drives the laughter bus, as he is far more entertaining when thrust into roles that prevent the actor from taking himself seriously.

As for the supporting cast, it is solid led by Ice Cube as Captain Dickson.  He completely steals the show, as his scenes are some of the best in the movie.  Whenever he is berating Jenko, Schmidt, and the rest of his team, Cube delivers the sharpest one-liners; many of which produced genuine laugh-out-loud moments.  Rob Riggle (The Hangover, The Other Guys) is solid as a gym teacher with his usual shtick of idiotic amped-up machismo that at times can be hit or miss, but in this film completely works.  Dave Franco (Fright Night) is adequately annoying as Eric Molson - BMOC, and Brie Larson (who was amazing in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) does a nice job as Hill’s love interest.

Writer Michael Bacall definitely does not pull any punches with his script as the movie truly earns its R-rating and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller do an adequate job of framing together action sequences to remind you that despite the plethora of gags and jokes, the film still boils down to one about cops and drug dealers.   If you liked the television show, you will enjoy this movie, as there are some great surprises that I won’t spoil.  And if you have never head of the show before seeing the trailer, fear not.  There is a lot to like about this movie.  You won’t have to do a lot of thinking during the two hours that you’re watching it, but you will definitely do a lot of laughing.  Korean Jesus alone makes the film worthy of a $12 price of admission.

Standout Performance: A tie between Ice Cub and Korean Jesus.  To me, it’s the best scene in the movie.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: Fright Night (2011)

While watching Fright Night (2011), a punch line comes to mind that was uttered by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, while he was speaking with Jon Bon Jovi about his participation in the movie Vampire: Los Muertos.  Specifically, he said to Bon Jovi: “Finally, a role that requires you to suck!”  That one line perfectly captures how I feel about Colin Farrell’s turn as a blood sucking fiend from beyond in a film that can best be described as Disturbia (which is a cheap man’s Rear Window) meets The Lost Boys.  However, I have to admit that despite some bad CG, for once Farrell is not terrible – and I think this is because for years casting directors have been trying to place him in leading roles that require the audience to like him.  To the contrary, this role works precisely because it capitalizes on the unlikeable qualities that seem to pervade his public persona.

So going into this movie, I really did not want to like it.  It had been sitting on my iPad unviewed for over a month.  Only a cross-country flight could bring me to watch it.  This movie has a lot in common with the aforementioned Disturbia, which was not a particularly good movie.  One major reason it surpasses its doppelganger is that it features a protagonist that the viewer can root for.  Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Like Crazy) is solid as a high school kid looking to maintain his perceived tenuous grasp on popularity and on his attractive girlfriend Amy, played by Imogen Poots.  You watch him on screen and find him believable as a sneaker-head/closet geek who is painfully aware that he is dating up and worried that some day his significant other is going to realize this.

Farrell's Jerry Dandridge is a good antagonist to Yelchin’s Charley.  While he may not be the most authentic vampire incarnation to make it on screen (actually far from it), Farrell smugness is so palpable that viewers can find themselves rooting against him regardless of the thirst-for-blood associated with his role.  Toni Collette is adequate as Charley’s single mom and David Tennant offers a nice tonal change of pace as the enigmatic illusionist Peter Vincent.  Of the group, Christoper Mintz-Plasse is the biggest miss as Evil Ed Thompson, though part of me wonders if it is because to most he will always be McLovin.

At the end of the day, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare here as there is nothing terribly original about a plot that involves a vampire terrorizing a semi-isolated small community – even when you throw the bright lights of Vegas into the mix.  But the movie is meant to put you on the edge of your seat and director Craig Gillespie does a fair job of building tension while intermittently opting for the cheap scare.  In a genre that is notorious for churning out low budget gore fests, Fright Night rates above average in regards to character development.

I do have to say that the film unravels a bit in the third act and that detracts from the overall tone of the movie, but I still consider Fright Night a fair horror rental - especially if you are looking for a moderate amount of suspense.  It may be a bit mild for hardcore enthusiast, but there is just enough there to keep everyone entertained.

Standout Performance: Imogen Poots does a nice job of channeling Sarah Roemer’s Ashley in Disturbia and Elisha Cuthbert’s Danielle from The Girl Next Door.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes - released back in 2009 - is a fun take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed sleuth. Holmes is portrayed brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr. as an enigmatic savant who shares an antagonistic brotherly camaraderie with Jude Law’s Watson.  The film does a nice job of teasing the emergence of Moriarty by slowly revealing him as a shadowy figure tacitly pulling the proverbial marionette strings from behind a curtain of anonymity.  In doing so, it lays the groundwork for the inevitable sequel (because of a $522M worldwide gross).  It’s like setting up the bowling pins, and then knocking them down.

Only in the second installment – Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Guy Ritchie and crew roll a gutter ball.  Okay, so maybe the movie is not that bad.  Maybe it is something more along the lines of a seven-ten split, but then I think that would be taking the bowling analogy too far.   So you may be wondering how things could have gone so awry when Downey Jr. and Law fall right back into step with their rapid witty banter without missing a beat and just in time to take on the evil genius who is bent on profiting from the destruction of Europe?

To me the problem boils down to the script.  Specifically, writer Michelle Mulroney attempts to get too clever with the plot.  A battle of wit and mental acumen between two brilliant people like Holmes and Moriarty lends itself to the written word, but not so much to motion pictures.  It can be challenging enough to take viewers on a journey through the mind of one genius who is mentally superior to the common person.  When you try and do that times two amidst a barrage of plots turns and twists, one is most assuredly going to fall victim to the trap of “aspiring for so much and achieving so little. “

Further exasperating the problem is that the esteemed cast does little to mitigate the shortcomings of the script.  Rachel McAdams is the weak link in the first movie as Holmes’ love interest Irene Adler, and she still feels out of place in limited screen time during the second outing.  Noomi Rapace is pedestrian as the gypsy Madam Heron whose significance in the film continually diminishes until she is rendered completely insignificant.  Jared Harris lacks the polish to portray the professor-by-day-evil-genius-at-night antagonist that Moriarty represents and he serves as a reminder that it takes more than a British accent to make one seem sophisticated.  And sadly, nothing about Stephen Fry’s Mycroft Holmes works for me in the film.  His presence is a case of subtraction by addition.

However, the action sequences are impressive and that is where the entertainment value lies.  If you’re looking for a film with gunfire, loud explosions, and hand-to-hand combat; and you can overlook cerebral shortcomings, you will definitely enjoy the movie.  Even if you’re not, I suspect that watching Robert Downey Jr. work will be worth the price of either the purchase or rental.  You won’t feel cheated if you invest time and/or money into this film.  You just may not feel fully satisfied.

Standout Performance:  Downey Jr. and Law have collectively mastered the art of witty repartee.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary – the opening credits flash, the plot advances, the scene fades to black, and then the closing credit roll.  I am guessing that for most people, the movie will soon after be completely forgotten.  It is unfortunate, because director Bruce Robinson puts forth a movie that is very stylized in its depiction of 1960’s San Juan with Johnny Depp running point man for the narrative as a burned out journalist who takes a dead end job in San Juan as a means to escape life in 1960’s America.

The problem with the film I suspect is the source material.  Based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson, you get the impression while watching the film that you are watching a movie based on Thompson’s own experiences in P.R., especially given, (Depp) Kemp’s affinity for alcohol, his left-ward leaning tendencies, and the way he becomes an active participate to the very story he is trying to report on.  It is no surprise then that Thompson was unsuccessful in getting the novel published until some thirty years after it was written.

The film is set in the 1960’s in San Juan – a stone’s throw from Cuba and Miami.  This infuses an electric vibe into the proceedings since in a historic sense, it was an interesting time in the Northeastern Caribbean given the  delicate political balance and the abundance of change in the air.  However, that is also a contributing factor as to why the film feels like such a disappointment.  As the lead, Depp’s character is not engaging so when he takes his dramatic turn and decides to become an activate participant against the swindle that is afoot, it is hard to really feel invested.  His performance is as empty as the rum bottles his character leaves in his wake.  As for the rest of the cast:

Aaron Eckhart is sufficiently nefarious, but there is a notable absence of any real consequence to crossing him, which effectively neuters him as the big-bad of the film.  Amber Heard is stunning as Chenault, but lacks screen time to truly develop into a love interest for our protagonist.   Thus it feels flimsy when she serves as part of the catalyst for Depp’s social awakening.  Michael Rispoli is adequate as an ex-pat; likewise for Richard Jenkins whose Lotterman is the epitome of a manic boss. 

Ultimately, I can neither recommend this film nor dissuade people from seeing it.  There is no better way for me to articulate it then to say it is just a movie.  You will watch it, be neither terribly entertained nor terribly annoyed, and then you will probably not think about it again until the next time you catch it on cable television.  If you are looking for your Hunter S. Thompson / Johnny Depp fix, I would suggest Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas instead. 

Standout Performance: Giovanni Ribisi – but not in a good way.  I cannot for the life of me figure out the purpose of his role or what he was trying to achieve in his approach to portraying it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: Project X

As I sit at the keyboard, I have officially published thirty-nine movie reviews on this blog.  When I finish this write up about producer Todd PhillipsProject X, that number will remain at thirty-nine, because what I watched today can only in the loosest sense be referred to as something that vaguely resembles a film.  Full disclaimer – I am not in the target demographic for Project X.  This much is obvious.  The question I want to ask is, what are the target psychographics they considered when they hatched this idea?  Because although it’s been a while since I rocked a J. Crew anorak around Andover, I find it hard to believe that the seventeen year-old version of me would have found this entertaining.

Here is a quick synopsis of what exactly transpires onscreen.  Three unpopular guys want to be popular so they throw a “game-changing” party in North Pasadena that rages out of control.  Texts, drinking, drugs, sex, and anarchy ensue until a man with a flame-thrower shows up to retrieve a garden gnome. Lucky for us (insert dripping sarcasm), they decide to record everything that happens.  Voila!  A found footage film is born.

This continues a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studios distribute these faux found footage films because they are cheap to make and/or cheap to acquire.  The increased popularity of this genre is not unlike what we witnessed ten years ago on TV when Survivor opened the floodgates that led to a glut of ridiculous reality television shows (i.e. Temptation Island, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire).  Networks kept pumping these out (and still do) because they could be produced at a fraction of the cost of a scripted series.  But in the end, you always get what you pay for - a lesson that obviously has not been learned.

So what we get in Project X is a “movie” with no plot.  The mere act of writing a synopsis (as I did two paragraphs ago) is giving it far too much credit as a narrative.  The film is nothing more than a collection of visuals cut and edited in way to celebrate the brand of misguided teen angst that exists in today’s society.  But no slick soundtrack or grotesque sensationalism can mask the simple fact that Project X is ninety minutes of visual and audio noise.  As for the cast, the most I can say is that there is one – comprised of a bunch of D, E, and F-level faces that are vaguely familiar, but none of which should receive acting credits for appearing in the project.

I don’t think I need to spell out at this point whether or not I am going to recommend Project X.  I think I let the cat out of the bag pretty clearly in the preceding paragraphs.  I’ll just close this out with a riddle.  What do you call it when a lot of things happen, but when you add them all up, they amount to nothing?  I call that Project-X.  (ba-DUM-Tsssh!)

Standout Performance: The Garden Gnome.
Interesting Attached Trailer: Neighborhood WatchVince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and Jonah Hill join forces in this film that promises to be either comedic genius or epically bad.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: Safe House

It was Ben Franklin who once espoused that death and taxes are the only sure things in life, but that’s because he never saw a Denzel Washington movie.  Because the one thing that we can all be sure of is that Denzel always delivers a strong performance that is both complex and loaded with conviction.  Crimson Tide, Training Day, Remember the Titans, Philadelphia – he consistently makes good choices as an actor.  Heck, the man is even entertaining when he is being parodied (as in this skit).

With Ryan Reynolds…not so much.  It appears to be feast or famine when it comes to movies featuring the man formerly known as Van Wilder.  And coming on the heels of two very subpar movies in The Change-Up and Green Lantern, Reynolds was definitely in need of a hit.  So as I settled into my seat to watch Safe House, I wondered if this was going to be more of a Denzel movie or more of a Ryan Reynolds movie.   

And the answer is…a fair amount of both.

All the usual elements are present in this CIA-centric action flick - rogue agents, foreign assassins, double crosses galore, and a young idealistic protagonist.  Director Daniel Espinosa does a decent job of keeping these plot pieces moving via high-speed car chases, hand-to-hand combat, and a hailstorm of bullets.  There seems to be a sense of motion that perpetuates throughout the film.  My major beef with the cinematography is the overly gratuitous use of the unsteady camera.  In moderation, it serves a purpose.  When abused, it induces nausea.  In Safe House, the filming technique was definitely abused.

As for the cast, overall the principles do a good job.  Washington and Reynolds mesh well as there is a complex duality that underlies the contrast between their respective characters - namely veteran vs. newbie and cynic vs. idealist.   Likewise, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard do a nice job portraying CIA suits whose ethics rely on the "varying degrees of gray" scale.  Really though, the driving force in this film is the intense action sequences.  

On the strength of those sequences alone, I recommend this film although I could do so with more conviction had things not unraveled a bit at the end.  It really is unfortunate that the answer to the whodunit question can be seen from a mile away and that the payoff to the film asks for a little too much suspension of common logic.  However, watching Reynolds and Washington fight would-be assassins and each other proves worthy of your time and money.  Big screen or in the comfort of your own home you really can’t go wrong either way.

Standout Performance: Ruben Blades delivered some fantastic lines during one of the few respites from the action.