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!

Monday, May 28, 2012

June 2012 Movie Guide

Snow White and The Huntsman - June 1st
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth.
Why You Should See It: Hemsworth is fresh off his appearance in Marvel’s The Avengers and Charlize Theron is starring in the forthcoming Prometheus.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because Snow White didn’t fare so well in Julia Roberts’ Mirror, Mirror less than two months ago.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Game time decision.

Prometheus - June 8th
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba
Why You Should See It: Ridley Scott is back in the sci-fi saddle and toying with the universe he helped establish in Alien.
Why You Should Avoid It: Only if you are not a fan of epic sci-fi movies loaded with large action sequences and intense suspense.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  IMAX, ETX, or any other theatrical presentation.

Rock of Ages - June 15th
Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Hough, Malin Ackerman, Diego Boneta
Why You Should See It: Because the movie is loaded with 80’s rock anthems.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the movie is loaded with 80’s rock anthems.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  This is a no-go for sure.

That’s My Boy - June 15th
Starring: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Eva Amurri, and Leighton Meester
Why You Should See It: Andy Samberg is hilarious.
Why You Should Avoid It: Adam Sandler’s recent resume – Jack and Jill, Grownups, Just Go With It, Bedtime Stories, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, etc…
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Try like hell to avoid this movie (but really you know you will watch it at some point.)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - June 22nd
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Dominic Cooper
Why You Should See It: Because it is a fantastical take on one of the most beloved political figures in U.S. history.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because it cast Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Too close to call. 

Ted - June 29th
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, and Seth McFarlane
Why You Should See It: Because Wahlberg is surprisingly good in comedy as evidenced by The Other Guys.
Why You Should Avoid It: The premise looks like one of those all-or-nothing hit or miss prospects.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Rental.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Review: J. Edgar

I had spent the better part of the last two days jousting with Excel Spreadsheets so I was looking forward to catching a flick last night.  There were three readily available options: Men in Black 3 at the cinema, The Woman in Black via On Demand, or my most recent Netflix disc - J. Edgar.  I let my girlfriend choose, because I wasn’t partial to any of those options.  Her choice was J. Edgar, which clearly turned into a “be careful of what you wish for” moment, because she ended up walking out of the room before the end of the film utterly bored.

I concur that the movie was rather mundane, but I do not think it was a total waste of time. I should however qualify that statement by revealing that I am a bit of a history enthusiast, so for me a film about the life of the former director of the FBI was somewhat interesting on two distinct levels.  On the first level, I followed the narrative, placing it within the context American history as I understand it while cognizant of the fact that Hollywood is rarely ever historically accurate.  The second level was in regards to the choices made by the creative team in depicting Hoover’s life.  Details about his personal affairs have been greatly debated since his passing as much of what is known has been disseminated through rumor and innuendo.  In this film, credible sources have been ignored; questionable ones accepted; and vice versa.  So I watched with interest to see what choices the creative team made in this narrative in regards to facts.

On paper, this is a strong cast headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio, Judy Dench, Naomi Watts, and Armie Hammer, but in a lot of ways all of the major players are as bland as muted as the plot and cinematography.  In the film, there are times where I felt like DiCaprio was absolutely channeling the complexities of Hoover and then there were other times where it all seemed off.  I am a fan of DiCaprio and his movies, but in all honestly, he does not possess a great amount of range as an actor.  He is at his best when he stays within his comfort zone.  In my opinion, this film and this role are a bit too much of a stretch for him.  His was a very uneven performance that is emblematic of the problems that plagued the film as a whole. 

As for rest of the principles, Armie Hammer as Clive Tolson (Social NetworkMirror Mirror) does little more than stand around in bad makeup and carefully tailored suits, casting longing looks at DiCaprio’s Hoover.  Judy Dench makes some painfully odd choices playing Hoover’s mother that are a little too creepy for comfort and the usually feisty Naomi Watts relegates herself to a sullen existence throughout the two hours of running time.

At the end of the day, the problem with this film is that not a lot of substance manifests onscreen and what does is not necessarily something that appeals to a general audience.  Furthermore, Hoover is an irredeemable character that would not be able to draw empathy even from the late mother Theresa.  So when you add this all up, you are left with a film that is neither engaging nor entertaining.  It’s the worst kind of biopic in that it has no real purpose embedded in its narrative.  I am going to recommend you take a pass on this one and hope that DiCaprio fares better in The Great Gatsby due out in December.

Standout Performance: Josh Lucas did a decent job in portraying Charles Lindbergh in very limited screen time.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: Contraband

There is no beating around the bush.  Contraband was a disappointment, although you can never really be sure what you are going to get when it comes to Mark Wahlberg.  For every hit like The Fighter, The Departed, and The Perfect Storm, there’s a bunch of misses like The Happening, Max Payne, and Planet of the Apes.  Still, with Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas, and Kate Beckinsale rounding out the cast, it was hard not to feel optimistic - especially given the fact we fans of action movies demand very little from filmmakers.  Fisticuffs, a solid car chase, some semblance of a love interest, and a double cross usually do the trick.  Yet sadly director Baltasar Kormakur fails to deliver a film that entertains.

The premise of the movie is in no way ground breaking.  Wahlberg plays Chris Faraday, a former smuggler turned straight, who is dragged back into the sordid business because of family.  If you are picturing Gone in Sixty Seconds minus the parade of exotic sports cars and Nic Cage's hairline then sadly you are on the right track.

So What Made This Film Not Work?

First and foremost the biggest slice of humble pie has to go to Marky Mark Wahlberg.  To me, Wahlberg is like Channing Tatum.  They are both cut from the same cloth.  They have limited range, an inability to truly emote, have a desire to bring some urban street cred to every role they are in (even when it’s not relevant to the plot), and overt machismo and this combination of qualities makes it extremely difficult for me to take either actor seriously.  Like Tatum in 21 Jump Street, I think Wahlberg is at his best when he is doing comedy as in the highly underrated The Other Guys, which exploited Wahlberg’s mediocre acting skills to set up great punch lines.

A piece of blame pie also has to go Giovanni Ribisi, who since The Rum Diary seems intent on portraying his characters with a very high pitched nasally tone that makes you want to press the mute button.  Ribisi has been in some great movies (Avatar, Lost in Translation) but unless he was directed to portray a generic mundane low-rent drug dealer with a really annoying voice, Ribisi really misses the mark here.  He fails to bring any real menace to the screen except when he is picking on women and children, which makes us wonder why we should care about Wahlberg’s machinations. 

The biggest culprit in the failure of the movie is the set up of the double-cross.  You will see it coming about five minutes after the opening credits and spend the next hour waiting for it to materialize.  For a movie that desperately wants to be a clever heist film the way Ocean’s Eleven is, this is a major indictment and the ultimate failure of the movie.  Because the action sequences are neither big nor impressive and the acting is not top notch, so without that impact of a “big reveal,” the proceedings completely fall flat.

I don’t recommend this film, but I am not going to completely dissuade people from seeing it.  I am sure there is a segment of the population who just wants to watch my fellow Bostonian flex his muscles as I am sure that there is another segment that does not mind watching a blonde Kate Beckinsale.  I really would not suggest you go out of your way to watch it.  Perhaps you can catch it on TNT in about a year when you have nothing better to do.  Under those conditions, it might play like a cheap man’s Italian Job.    Here’s hoping Wahlberg recaptures some of that comedic magic in Ted, his next theatrical release that just got bumped up to June 29th.

Standout Performance: Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) turns in a convincing performance as Wahlberg’s screw up brother-in-law.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: What to Expect When You Are Expecting

I did not want to see What to Expect When You Are Expecting.  No man does and if he says otherwise then he is either lying because his significant other is within earshot or the person he has been dying to go out with, finally said “yes” and in an act of sheer cruelty chose this movie.  So then you may be wondering why I plunked down thirteen hard earned dollars to see this movie.  The simple answer is The Dictator.  A wise person once told me that relationships are all about compromise and since my girlfriend gave in on that movie, I had to give in on this one.  Having seen What to Expect, I can tell you that both of us left the cinema absolutely disappointed because I wanted the movie to be short and she was expecting to laugh.

Based on the novel of the same name, the title of the plot kind of says it all.  The movie is about a bunch of couples that are pregnant or expecting to welcome a new child into their respective homes.  They all face a different set of problems as they move towards the big day and somehow all amazingly end up at the same hospital at the same time for the same reason.  Fear not, the credibility of this movie has completely evaporated long before you ever reach that implausible point in the plot.

I have mentioned it in this space before, but I really don’t like these movies that have ridiculously large ensemble casts and trace a number of loosely connected storylines (i.e. Valentine’s Day and New Years Eve).  What to Expect When You are Expecting has definitely reinforced my distaste for this disturbing trend.  Forget about all the things that are annoying about this type of filmmaking (stunt casting, poor character development, et al), the central issue with this project is that it is simply not funny.  Don’t be fooled by the presence of Chris Rock and the daddy crew as their jokes are as bland and neutered as their characters.  This paucity of laughter could have been forgiven if only the plot of the film tugged at the proverbial heart strings, but the only time it elicits any kind of reaction from viewers is when a newborn baby is paraded across the screen.

As for the cast, they are for the most part uninspired.  There are too many people in this group and an overabundance of weak performances to address, but there are a few who stood out as particularly subpar.  Chris Rock had to be laughing all the way to the bank when he cashed the check for this movie, because clearly he mailed it in.  He is not funny and he is clearly not trying.  Likewise to Elizabeth Banks who often does good work, but fails to bring any sort of charisma to a very significant role.  If there is one person who acquits herself, it is Rebel Wilson who essentially reprises her character from Bridesmaids and in doing so provides what few laughs there are to be had.

Needless to say I do not recommend this movie.  Avoid this movie at all cost.  If someone should give you a copy of the DVD for your birthday, then throw it away (and de-friend that person on Facebook).  If you happen to see it on TV, change the channel.  There are a million better ways to spend your time than watching the cinematic equivalent of a root canal.  In lieu of this movie, watch anything else.  You’re more likely to be entertained.

Standout Performance: Rebel Wilson is the lone source of laughter in this purported comedy.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

May 2012 Editorial: Who's Hot. Who's Not.

As we all know, stars rise almost as quickly as they fall in the revolving door, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world that is Hollywood.  So here’s quick look at which actors and actresses are trending up (Who’s Hot) and down (Who’s Not) with the help of some friends.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Because he is about to appear in The Dark Knight Rises after some  great performances in 500 Days of Summer and Inception.
NOT: Taylor Kitsch.  Because he starred in two movies this summer (John Carter and Battleship) with budgets of $200M that will represent huge busts for Disney and Universal.

Robert Downey Jr.  Because he is the lead player in the ensemble cast headlining the record shattering The Avengers (as evidence by his $50M payday) and because I expect him to be just as great in Iron Man 3.
NOT: Reese Witherspoon.  Because she has traded in the innocence and charm that made her famous in Legally Blonde, Just Like Heaven, and Four Christmases for more traditional starlet roles in Water for Elephants and This Means War.  Why go away from what is working?

Jeremy Renner.  Because he was great in The Hurt Locker,  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and in The Avengers.  I look forward to seeing him in the Bourne Legacy.
NOT: Nicolas Cage.  Because of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Drive Angry, Season of the Witch, and the list goes on and on.

Zac Efron.  Because he has successfully made the transition from child/adolescent roles to adult roles as evidenced by his recent performance in The Lucky One.
NOT:Alec Baldwin.  Because 30 Rock and his annoying Capital One commercials – while once great – have clearly gotten old.

Charlize Theron.  Because she is coming off in an interesting turn in Young Adult, and is appearing next in Snow White and the Huntsman, and the much anticipated Prometheus.  And also because she is Charlize Theron.
NOT: Jason Segel.  Because he is coming off  three lukewarm performances in The Muppets, Jeff, Who Lives atHome, and The Five-Year Engagement and because this past season of How I Met Your Mother was the worst yet.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: Chronicle

As I have mentioned in this space before, I have very mixed feelings about found footage films.  When they work, they are great (Paranormal Activity) and when they don’t, they are epically bad (Project X).  These movies aren’t going away any time soon as studios love the bargain basement cost associated with this brand of filmmaking so I am sure we’ll continue to see this trend spill into other genres.  With the turn of the calendar, 2012 has already witnessed the release of two such films - Chronicle and Project X.  I saw the latter in the cinema and was ridiculously disappointed to find that it amounted to nothing more than the destructive indulgence of teen anarchy.  As for the former, I recently had the opportunity to view via digital rental.

The plot of Chronicle follows three high school students who come upon a strange cave – presumably of extraterrestrial descent and come away from the experience with a set of telekinetic abilities.  The interesting aspect of the film is to see how the development of these newfound abilities (which include flying) affects each individual given their respective set of experiences and personal baggage. 

My issue is that it so often feels like they are stretching the limits of reason to have a camera readily available and in place to capture events as they unravel, which in a lot of ways breaks the reality of the movie.  Also, besides being cheap, the found footage aspect of movies ads value as a vehicle for suspense and as a means to leverage the use of time as a storytelling tool.  Neither of these mechanisms is significant to Chronicle and thus it makes the whole convention feel gimmicky.  I would argue that Chronicle would have been better served by traditional filmmaking methods to better capture the experiences of the three protagonists.

The cast is for the most part relatively unknown to the general public, which is common for most found footage films.  Cheap casting is always a huge component to cheap filmmaking.  Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan are only adequate as the three super powered teens but that is all they really need to be.  Director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis have set it up so that the star of the movie is really the fusion of a superhero narrative and the found footage genre, and that is where my disconnect with this movie resides. 

If you don’t like found footage films, you will want to steer clear of this film.  More so than any other film of this type, I found myself looking for a more coherent style of storytelling.  I liken it to the experience of watching a pro football or basketball game live – where you find yourself looking for commentary to provide direction and insight as a soundtrack to your viewing.  However, if you have no predetermined bias, then Chronicle is a decent rental.  It is a unique take on a superhero movie that stands in sharp contrast to what we have seen in recent years from Marvel and Warners.

Standout Performance: Michael B. Jordan is the most polished of the super-powered trio.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: The Dictator

I have to preface this review by saying that I have not been a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. In fact, the only movie that I have seen him in is Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  I enjoy raunchy humor just as much as the next guy, but there are limits to the depths of lowbrow comedy that I can appreciate before it becomes a series of tasteless stunts.  For this reason, I had chosen to steer clear of Baron Cohen’s work.  However, the trailers for The Dictator were edited very well – almost too well as it made me wary that the funniest parts of the movie had been already revealed.  Still, I decided to roll the dice and give this movie a look.

As a movie, an exercise in filmmaking, a coherent and compelling narrative, this is an exercise in total mediocrity.  It is paint by the numbers cinematic story telling at its worst.  But that’s okay, because that is not what the movie is about.  As a vehicle to entertain, it is very good.  It pains me to say this.  I almost feel embarrassed.  If there were an equivalent to writing this sentiment as a whisper (like maybe typing it in a smaller font), I would do it, because the humor is mean, degrading, racist, sexist, and a bunch of other “ists” that I cannot think of, but it works because everyone is fair game – and there is an odd sense of equality in that.

The fool is a fantastic vehicle to poke fun at the foibles of society and to ridicule social norms and Baron Cohen’s Aladeen is a total fool up to the task.  As a man in a vacuum, he is a walking bag of discrimination and insensitivity that plays like a destructive force against all that we consider right and proper.  But before you get the impression that this is some intelligent commentary on society, let me reassure you that it’s all mostly about generating raucous laughter.  In fact there is only one  moment when Cohen tries to stand on the proverbial soapbox, and that is precisely the same moment when the film comes to a screeching halt.

As for the rest of the cast:

Anna Faris is not at her dynamic best.  She sheds her usual spunky and vacuous persona for an overly zealous activist who is eerily similar to a girl I met many years ago from Wellesley College who was angered because I referred to myself as a freshman instead of a first year. 

Ben Kingsley is present in this film, which is the best that I can say.  Seeing him in this movie, I feel the same way I did when I saw him in The Love Guru (Mike Myers at his worst) – which is to wonder “why.” 

John C. Reilly and Ed Norton make small appearances in the film, but special kudos goes out to Megan Fox for finally finding a role that suits her perfectly.

But really the cast beyond Baron Cohen is just window dressing, because The Dictator is a one-man show.  I would recommend this movie even though there is going to be a segment of the population that will be turned off by the humor.  If you can appreciate a free-for-all mosh pit approach to comedy where no joke is off limits and everyone is fair game, then you will definitely enjoy this movie.  It is not as good as 21 Jump Street, but it is one of the better comedies that I have seen thus far in 2012.

Standout Performance: Jason Mantzoukas as Nadal – Baron Cohen’s partner in crime – is a great straight man to walking punch line that is Aladeen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

I remember at the outset of The Adjustment Bureau’s theatrical run, some moviegoers had a negative reaction to the film.  It wasn’t so much about the quality as it was about the movie failing to meet consumer expectations.  Having finally seen it, I now understand why.  I believe this disconnect was directly tied into the theatrical marketing for the film, which in hindsight looks like a  textbook example of the good ole “bait and switch.”

The movie is built on the premise that there is a secret organization –The Adjustment Bureau - of men who work for the grand architect (a non denominational way of describing angels and God respectively) who make sure the events of the world follow a master plan.  When things go awry, these men who appear as dopplegangers of the stereotypical G-man of the 60’s) can stop time, erase minds, and alter the course of events.  Matt Damon’s David Norris, an aspiring Senator, has a penchant for going off plan especially when it comes to Emily Blunt’s Elise Sellas and thus the events of the movie are launched. 

While the premise is not wholly original, it has enough sheen that the marketing folks at Universal billed it as this mind-bending film.  Throw-in a series of carefully cut trailers leveraging Matt Damon’s action cache and the “based on a novel by Philip K. Dick” tagline for sci-fi fans, and the message that reached the public was that The Adjustment Bureau is cut from the same cloth as The Matrix.  But really, the movie has far more in common with The Notebook than it does that or any other sci-fi/action film.  With that being said, it is an entertaining film.

There are three key elements to create a successful romantic narrative:
1. Two protagonists who are engaging and dynamic.  They must share the kind of chemistry that will draw empathy from the audience
2. The presence of significant obstacles that legitimately threaten to derail the budding romance.
3. Closure -  good or bad.

Damon and Blunt are up to meeting the challenge of the first element creating characters that have depth and building a genuine sense of tragedy that their characters have been kept apart by powers they cannot fully comprehend.  The rest of the cast accounts for element number two as Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Terrence Stamp, and a slew of other actors dressed in trench coats and an array of hats (bowler, fedora, bowler, et al) bring life and gravitas to faceless agents who for the most part wield their authority against the protagonists void of emotion.   As for the third element, director George Nolfi does a decent the job of bringing closure to the plot even though it is a bit telegraphed.  Still, it makes  the final statement of the film palatable for the viewer. 

Is it a groundbreaking film?  No.  Is it an interesting story?  Yes.  I would suggest seeing it especially since it’s been out on DVD for a while and can also easily be found on pay cable channels.  As long as you go into the film with your expectations aligned to the actual product, you should find yourself reasonably entertained.

Standout PerformanceAnthony Mackie does a nice job as the third most pivotal character in this film and as a moral compass. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: Haywire

What do you do when you cast an incredibly green actress in Gina Carano best known as a Mixed Martial Artist as the lead in your espionage action film?  If you have the clout of a director like Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11, Contagion), the answer is to surround her with a highly accomplished cast loaded with players that possess the acting wherewithal to impact a film in limited screen time.  The net result is a film narrative that is brisk and entertaining, albeit somewhat thin on the character development side.

The movie starts in medias res and focuses on a double-cross gone wrong.  Carano plays Mallory Kane – an ex-Marine working as a private contractor in the world of espionage, who must piece together the who, what, when, and where in hopes of answering the question of why she was double-crossed. 

The plot of the film is as no nonsense as Carano herself.  Right from the outset, it takes off at a brisk pace and never stops to take a breath, dote on unnecessary details, or engage in extraneous storytelling right up until the closing credits.  Carano’s onscreen presence, the work of the supporting cast, and Soderbergh’s direction contribute to a finished product that fuses the raw brutal physicality of The Bourne Identity with the stylized feel of Ocean’s 11.  And as is usual with Soderbergh’s brand of storytelling, there is an element of cool sophistication that makes you feel like you are watching a film that is far more cerebral and highbrow than it really is.

As a lead, Carano is limited.  She is nowhere near a polished actress, but she doesn’t have to be as her character does most of her communicating with fists and guns.  In fact, the movie itself is prone to long stretches without dialogue and when a meaningful line needs to be uttered, Soderbergh leaves that heavy lifting for one of the more seasoned veterans. 

What really works about this film is the supporting cast.  Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender play the most complex characters – duplicitous and nefarious – and whereas Carano drives the brute physical action, these two actors are catalysts for the more cerebral aspects of the plot.  Grouped with Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton, the cast ensures that there is no shortage of twists, turns, and bad guys for Carano to dominate. 

Where the film is lacking is in character development, although part of me believes this is by design.  The movie isn’t about life lessons, liminal moments, or catharsis.  It’s about the business of soldiers-for-hire  and one specific double-cross.  Anything that falls outside this scope is of no consequence to the film.

I would recommend this movie, although I offer the caveat that it is not for everyone.  Films are often incredibly chatty.  This is not a bad thing, as it’s a way for writers to flex their creative muscle.  So if you are a fan of witty banter or emo soliloquies, then Haywire is not the film for you.  But if you are fan of a more subtle and authentic brand of action as the driving force of a film, you will definitely enjoy this movie.  It is a solid rental, worthy of a Saturday night.  Should you find yourself a fan of Carano by time the end credits role, look for her next in The Fast and the Furious 6 opposite Mark Vincent Diesel and Paul Walker.

Standout Performance:  Amongst a strong supporting cast, I particularly enjoyed seeing Bill Paxton’s in a feature film again.  It wasn’t on par with his work in Aliens, but his work does bring some emotional elements to the movie.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Drive Angry

It used to be a running joke that no actor could seamlessly go from an Oscar nominated movie to an utter piece of rubbish like Nic Cage.  It felt like he was literally alternating between critical acclaim and public scorn, but when he is good, he is very good.  I guess in a lot of ways, much of what I wrote about Adam Sandler during my Jack and Jill review (which you can read here) applies to Nicolas Cage.  It’s hard not to remember his work in movies like Leaving Las Vegas, The Rock, and It Could Happen to You, but sadly nowadays all you get are exercises in mediocrity (or worse) like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Bangkok Dangerous, and Next.  Having watched Drive Angry, I can tell you that we can put another mark in the bad Nic Cage column and maybe it should count as two, because this film may be his worst ever.

The plot feels like a cross between Ghost Rider and Red State (director Kevin Smith’s worst movie) written by someone with a muscle-car fetish.  It focuses on Cage’s John Milton – (perhaps an attempt a not too clever literary allusion), who escapes from Hell (a glorified after-life penitentiary) to avenge his daughters death and save his infant granddaughter from a satanic cult.  Along the way he recruits the very lovely Amber Heard to aid him, because well…the casting directors probably felt Nic Cage would not be enough of a draw to peddle this nonsense (see official movie poster for verification).

This is movie is such a morass of awfulness that it is hard to know where to begin.  The plot is incredibly contrived and total drivel from start-to-finish with clever writing nowhere to be found.  I suspect that director Patrick Lussier (White Noise 2 – yes, they actually made a second one) knew this and decided to go over the top with explosions, gunfire, sex, violence, and bad southern accents to mask these deficiencies.  I am sure this plays in the 17-20 year old male demographic, but I am going to go out on a limb here and say most of kids in these circles are fast forwarding through 95% of this flick.

For Nic Cage, this is yet another movie where he plays someone with an association to hell seeking vengeance on someone with satanic ties.  I am no expert but if I were one of his advisos, I would tell him that it is time to move on.  But then I am sure a lot of his acting choices are driven by his much-publicized financial problems.  As for the rest of the cast, Amber Heard (The Rum Diary) is an amazingly attractive woman, but she is not much of an actress.  She has been cast in a couple of interesting roles, but has failed to make the most of her screen time.  As for the rest of the cast, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, and David Morse seem like they are trading off of their respective resumes as supporting actors in action films for one more paycheck. 

Well if you haven’t figured it out yet, I am not recommending this movie.  Not only should you leave it off your Netflix queue, but you should also run like the wind should the DVD even cross your path.  And if you are dating some who made the epically poor decision to see this movie, then you should break up with them.  It really is that bad. Here’s hoping Cage gets back to the National Treasure franchise at some point since it was good light-hearted fun, unless of course Cage’s Ben Gates’ next quest for treasure takes him to the depths of the underworld.  In that case, all bets are off.

Standout Performance: The cars since they can't be held responsible for the actions of the people driving them.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: The Big Year

If you were the coach of a football team and you had Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers on your roster, would you suddenly decide to switch their positions and play them all on defense?  Do you think this would be a recipe for success? I think for about 99.9% of the population (that 0.01% for those who have no idea who any of the aforementioned trio are), the answers to both questions would be a resounding NO.  One person you can count in the extreme minority who might say yes is director David Frankel (Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me).

The reason I suggest this is because Frankel takes three renowned comedic actors in Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson  and casts them in the light-hearted drama (yes, oxymoron intended) The Big Year as three men determined to be the best bird watcher in the world.  And did I mention it is a straight-laced approach to bird watching (is there any other kind?) – hold the punch line?  My best guest is that Frankel envisioned combining the Marley & Me version of Wilson wit the Shopgirl version of Martin and The Holiday version of Black to create this cinematic world populated by dramedy-friendly male leads.

The plot of the movie focuses on these three men as they stand at crossroads in their respective lives and uses The Big Year – an annual bird watching competition – as a vehicle to highlight the choices the trio of protagonists have made and the ones they face as they move forward in their lives.  The premise alone is not terribly gripping, but the inclusion of the three veteran comedians creates expectations.  Unfortunately those expectations are for hilarity to ensue, which the film by design cannot deliver. 

The bottom line is that this is a cinematic version of the defunct TNT show  - Men of a Certain Age, which focused on three men battling mid-life crises.  Like that show, the plot of this film has a very limited market.  And I know – as hot and riveting as the desire to be the greatest bird watcher may sound (note: dripping sarcasm), it really is not a compelling vehicle to hitch your storytelling wagon to.  Having just watched it less than twenty-four hours ago, I am hard-pressed to name one or two scenes that made an impression with me.

This is an avoid-at-all-costs movie, but not because it is horrible, vapid, poorly written and directed.  To the contrary, it is a fair exercise in the rules of cinematic production.  The problem though is that the other half of the filmmaking equation is to entertain and that is where this movie is sorely lacking.

Standout Performance: Rosamund Pike is solid as the dramatic heavy in the film.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Review: The Avengers

I think when Joss Whedon signed on to direct The Avengers, he knew it would be a juggling act.  The film features three stars from active franchises, one CGI-driven protagonist from a franchise twice rebooted, a bow and arrow wielding lead of the soon-to-be-released Bourne Legacy, a person twice voted sexiest woman alive, and Samuel Jackson who has been in pretty much every movie ever made.  That’s a lot of “material” to cram into two and a half hours – let alone craft into an epic narrative.  I am happy to say that in another life Whedon could have been a circus performer because he pulls off an epic juggling act, because The Avengers is a very entertaining movie that flat out delivers.  It’s not a perfect movie, but considering that Whedon was not only trying to balance an ensemble cast, but really a collection of franchises, it is about as strong and exhilarating an effort as one could hope for.

The movie wastes no time getting into the plot and never lets up until the second of two after the credit scenes (the last of which was one of the best scenes in the movie).  The third act is punctuated by the kind of action sequences between a set of heroes and villains that for so long has been relegated to ink stained funny pages.  But before that, we get a narrative that is engaging with some surprisingly fantastic comedic moments.  The one sticking point to the movie is that in the second act, the pacing gets bogged down in some character development.  As necessary as this is, it feels slow in comparison to some of the huge action sequences that lead up to it.

As for the cast, here is how the principles performed:

I am hard-pressed to think of an actor who embodies the character they portray more than Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man.  RDJ’s deal gives him as much input (if not more) on the character as the writers themselves, and because of this it so often feels like he is playing himself.  And this is a very good thing, because in The Avengers Downey Jr. delivers his typical sharp quick-witted commentary and keeps the dialogue entertaining even when the plot slows down during exposition.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America is strong as the iconic straight-laced hero and sets up a perfect contrast to Downey Jr.’s Stark.  This is no easy fete as at times in The First Avenger, Evans’ Rogers suffered from what I have dubbed the Superman/Batman syndrome.  Superman is a character people should aspire to be.  Batman is a character that people can relate to.  In the times we live in, a large percentage of the population gravitates towards the latter than the former.  Evans’ Rogers is definitely more of the former than the latter – but this is a good thing as agent Phil Coulson reminds us while swooning over the presence of Mr. Stars and Stripes.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor is to me the character they had the most trouble reconciling with the plot, which is confusing since his character has the strongest ties to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  Hemsworth easily slips into the role of the Asgardian warrior as he did in Thor (the woman seated behind me who could not stop gasping every time he showed up on screen no doubt agreed), which made it disappointing that he was relegated more to the background in this jaunt.  His scenes with Hiddleston’s Loki though are some of the most conflicting and intense and definitely tease a number of possibilities for Thor 2.

Hulk in a lot of ways steals the show in the third act as Whedon has figured out that he can be heroic, comedic, and highly entertaining – in small doses.  As for the man who portrays Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo does a very good job of bringing a sense or reluctance to the role.  He excels where Eric Bana and Ed Norton before him failed and this is particularly important in this film, which is already loaded with alpha males.  Ruffalo’s sheepish demeanor brings a sense of balance to the proceedings.

Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner – the dual assassins – expertly portray the roles in which they are cast.  Johansson clearly has seen better days but for once her droll delivery is perfect as Romanoff/Black Widow.  Likewise, Renner’s rugged appearance and gruff demeanor fit Clint Barton’s persona to a tee.  While the two are portraying b-level members of the group, they are well suited to add support to the larger than life personalities that they share the screen with.

If there is a weak point in the cast, it is Samuel L. Jackson who has a track record of being the weak link in epic action movies (see Star Wars episodes I,II, and III).  There are other ways they could have gone with this casting, but unfortunately the proverbial die was cast over four years ago in the post-credit scene of Iron Man.  S.H.I.E.L.D.’s on screen representation however is greatly redeemed by Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and Cobie Smulder’s Agent Hill.

Then there is Tom Hiddleston as the antagonist, Loki.  No action movie can be great without a worthy villain.  Hiddleston brings a menacing depth to Loki that permeates every smile and stare he casts at his adversaries.  Never is this more evident than the scene he shares with Johansson’s Romanoff.  To me his villainous work here is on par with anything Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight.

The Avengers is the movie fan geeks of all ages have been waiting for long before Downey Jr. ever donned the Mark I suit.  It is fun, exhilarating, and will make you want to cheer out loud.  I would most definitely recommend seeing this on the big screen.  The colors are vibrant, the action is fast, and the scale is enormous.  The only downside to watching this film is that you have to wait at least a year before Iron Man 3 makes back to the big screen.

Standout Performance:  There are a lot of great performances but I really enjoyed Gwyneth Paltrow in the film.  It is a very nice touch.