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, July 31, 2012

Review: Goon

Goon made it onto 241 screens during its theatrical release and at first glance most people would say that was 241 too many.  We all know what a good sports comedy flick looks like – Slap Shot, Happy Gilmore, Wildcats – and for much of the film, this one resides on the opposite end of the spectrum from those movies.  The script is sophomoric; vulgar for the sake of being vulgar; and void of any real humor.  To say that it plays like one of those terrible direct-to-DVD American Pie sequels would be overly generous, and mainly because it appears that director Michael Dowse, and writers Jay Burachel and Evan Goldberg have no idea what kind of movie they are really trying to put together. 

The film - based on a true story - follows Seann William Scott’s Doug Glatt  - a simple man with a gift for fisticuffs, who finds his way onto a minor league hockey team as an enforcer.  The film chronicles his search for a purpose to life as it coincides with his team’s search for an identity.

So I say that the creative team behind this film has no idea what kind of film they are trying to put together, because it truly is an exercise in cinematic schizophrenia.  From one scene to the next, the movie seems to play like its living in a different genre as if the writers consciously decided to throw a bunch of garbage against the wall to see what would stick.  One moment it’s a guy flick flush with vulgar sexual references, and the next it’s a movie about familial dysfunction and disappointment.  Lest that not cover enough ground, a bit of romantic comedy comes into play before rounding out the project with a series of sports clichés.  To some this sounds great – like there is something for everyone, but if you can envision a buffet featuring watery spaghetti, crusted egg rolls, dry mashed potatoes, and something resembling meat loaf sitting beneath the drab yellow glare of heat lamps, then you are beginning to grasp how this movie plays.

In regards to the cast, this is clearly a case of the talent playing down to the level of the writing.  Seann William Scott has done an admirable job of forging a career out of his less-than-ten-lines-total appearance in American Pie.  It seems with each successive role since, he has gone more over-the-top than his original portrayal of Stiffler.  However, in Goon, he portrays a man of few words and the truth to be told, this film proves that the less the man speaks, the better his performance. As for Liev Schreiber, he plays legendary hockey enforcer Ross  Rhea who lurks in the background of the plot and like his character who is at the end of his career and thus demoted to the minors, Shcreiber has definitely seen better days.  As for the rest of the cast, Eugene Levy (American Pie), Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League), and Alison Pill (Midnight in Paris) clearly are in it for the paycheck and maybe to add a link onto their IMDB resumes, because it’s hard to figure out why else they would agree to appear in this movie.

To be fair, it’s not all bad.  The back end of the last act picks up a bit as the movie moves into full-on sports flick mode.  After all, who doesn’t like the part of a sports narrative when a team desperately tries to come together to defy the odds?  Now are those feel good moments enough to elevate this movie into the “watchable” category?  Sadly, no.  When ninety-percent of a movie is terrible, there are very few endings that can overcome that.  And if some perfect storm of an ending exists that can overcome such mediocrity, the cast and crew do not discover it in Goon.  They say that studios don’t make sports movies anymore because such projects do not attract audiences in the international market, which have become an increasingly bigger piece of the theatrical revenue pie.  But if they ever need to look for a second reason why sports movies are extinct, they probably need look no farther than the quality of a film like Goon.

Standout Performance: Me, for making it through this film.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

August 2012 Movie Guide

Celeste and Jesse Forever – August 3, 2012
Starring: Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, Emma Roberts, Elijah Wood
Why You Should See It: Because it seems to have a nice indie flair and sensibility about it.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because it’s being marketed as a RomCom, but upon closer inspection, I get the feeling that it will play more like a Debbie-Downer-drama.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Girlfriend rules are applicable here.

Total Recall – August 3, 2012
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel, Bill Nighy
Why You Should See It: Kate Beckinsale.
Why You Should Avoid It: Colin Farrell
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Probably – but with low expectations.

The Bourne Legacy – August 10, 2012
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Joan Allen
Why You Should See It: Because Jeremy Renner is on a roll and the supporting cast is strong.
Why You Should Avoid It: No Jason Bourne (Matt Damon).
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Definite Yes.

The Campaign – August 10, 2012
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott
Why You Should See It: Because Ferrell and Galifiannakis are two of the funniest actors in the business.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because this movie reeks of one where the comedic vision steers into an area that is so awkward and quirky that it fails to be mainstream funny.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Rental

The Odd life of Timothy Green – August 15, 2012
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton, Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, Common
Why You Should See It: Because the only other new release that weekend is The Expendables 2.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the kid in the story is born from a tree.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  No. Can. Do.

The Expendables 2 – August 17, 2012
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris
Why You Should See It: Because never has there been a greater collection of steroids and botox assembled together in one movie.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because never has there been a greater collection of steroids and botox assembled together in one movie.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Maybe a rental, but no one will ever know, because I’ll never admit it.

Premium Rush – August 24, 2012
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jamie Chung, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez
Why You Should See It: Because Gordon-Levitt is coming off a great performance in The Dark Knight Rises and to get a preview of what kind of villain Michael Shannon makes in advance of The Man of Steel
Why You Should Avoid It: Because this feels like it’s loosely based on the Kevin Bacon movie Quicksilver and the last remake of a Kevin Bacon movie (Footloose) was not good.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Leaning towards yes.

Lawless – August 31, 2012
Starring: Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Shia LeBeouf, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain
Why You Should See It: Because Tom Hardy is a beast with an established track record of very good work.  Ditto to Jessica Chastain.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because Shia LeBouf hasn’t made an entertaining movie sans Optimus Prime in a very long time.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Good cast, mundane premise - a definite maybe.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: Friends with Kids

Friends with Kids is a textbook example of the good ole bait and switch.  Trailers, one-sheets, and other marketing materials feed the consumer with a steady diet of Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, John Hamm, and Chris O’Dowd.  The goal clearly is to create an association between this film and the quartet’s last project together - Bridesmaids.  In doing so your expectations align to that film experience – the laugh out loud humor, the witty repartee, and just the right amount of sentimentality. However, in reality you are getting something completely different with this movie.  Instead of the aforementioned four, you are getting Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt weaving their way towards parenthood in a overly contrived plot that tries to take aim at the conventions of parenthood and relationships.  Instead of humor, you get soapbox preaching. In lieu of charm, you get drab.

The film provides us two protagonists who believe the traditional concepts and conventions of parenthood are silly and frivolous after watching the mundane lives of their friends and so they decide to platonically have a baby together.  Even as you are reading that last sentence I would venture a guess that you have already figured out how this movie will end for our two protagonists.  The problem then  is that before we - the viewers - can get to that incredibly telegraphed conclusion, you must first endure the plot.

If the movie had only one message to disseminate and if it were actually a useful one, then there might have been value in the almost two hours I spent watching it.  But sadly the plot takes off in so many directions and tries to address so many different relationship issues that it all gets lost in a morass of social angst.  What truly exasperates things is that by the third act, you realize that there are no real answers to be had, no anecdote that makes all the onscreen drama make sense.  Like a dog, the plot seems to be chasing its own tail in one big circle. 

The cast in this movie does very little to acquit itself or the film.  Jennifer Westfedlt and Adam Scott star in this movie but in all honesty are not suitable-for-primetime-players.  Their best work clearly is as bit parts.  That the duo is supported by a group of very successful actors makes their lack of star panache more glaring.  As for the aforementioned  supporting cast, the four Bridesmaids alums are sadly underutilized and appear void of the dynamic qualities that define each of their respective talents.  It’s not so much that they are not trying but more that their respective characters are one-dimensional.  Everything they do feels so bland and muted.

I am going to be honest and disclose that this movie put me to sleep for about 10 minutes between the first and second acts.  That alone makes this movie no better than a C- though even that grade may be a bit generous.  I don't think the movie is an abomination or anything to that extent but it is inconsequential and sterile with no one good redeeming quality. I would be hard pressed to recommend this film even if it were on network TV, because it is just not entertaining.  If these kinds of movies really are your cup of tea, then I would recommend you keep an eye out for This is 40 starring Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann.  Hopefully director Judd Apatow can stem the tide of his Sandler-like descent into mediocrity.

Standout Performance: Megan Fox. She may not be able to act, but she is carving out a little bit of a niche channeling her real-life persona into some smaller roles.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Lockout

Here’s the deal with a project like Lockout.  With some decent script rewrites, a director with an eye for visual flair and a special effects budget to match, as well as an A-list talent attached to this project, what you might have on your hands is a summer tent-pole.  And without these elements, what you’re left with is a few vaguely familiar faces going through the motions in a stale forgettable film that barely warrants a short theatrical run in January.  Given that the only thing you might remember about this movie is a cleverly edited trailer, I am going to leave it to you to figure out which of the two aforementioned avenues the creative team took in making this movie.

Honestly, Lockout is the kind of script that doesn’t really get shot anymore.  It feels like a leftover project from the days when studios would green-light almost anything knowing that it would turn a profit downstream on the Home Entertainment (DVD) side of the business.  Still, Director James Mather and Producer Luc Besson seem at ease with the knowledge that clearly this is a B-level movie that will not even be memorable enough to be panned for its mediocrity.  At times they seemingly allow the cast to revel in this awareness.

As for the plot of Lockout, it is very straightforward.  Guy Pearce’s Snow has been set up for a crime he has not committed and in the interest of completing his mission and clearing his name, he agrees to rescue the first daughter from a super maximum-security penitentiary.  The catch is that his jailhouse resides in orbit around the earth.

There’s not a whole lot of meat on the bones of this film to truly disect.  Guy Pearce is a very good actor who has made a few very poor film choices (of late) but I am still trying to figure out if his performance in this film is a stroke of genius or just a matter of coincidence.  Throughout the film, Pearce acts like he does not care in the least about all that is going on, but ironically, his character is required to act like he (wait for it) does not care in the least about all that is going on around him.  Thus, as he spits out painfully contrived dialogue, I am left to wonder if his lack of conviction is born from disdain for the poorly written script or if he is in actuality playing things straight.  I will say that the mix of apathy and really cheesey dialogue makes Pearce’s Snow the only remotely entertaining aspect of the movie.

As for the rest of the film, it is a disaster.  The movie is littered with people you vaguely recognize cast in roles that are similar to others that they’ve played in the past.  So you can’t help but feel like you are watching a series of recycled performances.  Peter Stormare, Lennie James, Peter Hudson, and Vincent Regan clearly are not worried about being typecast.  And as for Maggie Grace, there is nothing about her performance that feels genuine and the moment she first appears in the film, it becomes apparent that her only purpose will be to trade barbs with Pearce’s Snow in a futile attempt to drum up some sexual chemistry.

Sadly there are no special effects or clever twists that can rescue this film and almost zero entertainment value to be found between the opening and closing credits.  I would tell you to avoid this movie at all cost, but I suspect that the film is so inconsequential and forgettable that the likelihood that a project like this is actually on your radar is nil.  If you’re looking for Guy Pearce to turn things around, then there is hope.  He is set to appear opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3 due out next summer.

Standout Performance: Guy Pearce...maybe.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises (With Spoilers)

My review of The Dark Knight Rises in no way panders to that segment of comic book fans who have far too much invested in and an odd sense of entitlement over iconic superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spiderman, et al.  Those fans are nearly impossible to please unless filmmakers deliver the exact film that these zealots have envisioned in their minds’ eyes.  Most often this does not happen and those individuals are left to rant and rave across message boards about how director X,Y, or Z epically failed to remain true to original cannon.  But no matter what BatFan5789 posts online or John Doe at the local comic shop tells you, the truth is that while the general structure of origins may exist, there truly is no one right version to any of these heroes.  Over the last seventy plus years since Batman’s first appearance, the character has been brought to life in many different incarnations with each storyteller lending their own respective creative nuances to the character.  So in considering the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it is not about whether he got things right in this movie, but really about whether you enjoyed the final chapter to his version of that story

The short answer for me is that I did.

I am not a Nolan apologist though I am a huge fan of most of his work.  I did not walk out of the The Dark Knight thinking it was on par with The Godfather Part II, but I thought it was a very entertaining movie.  So I did not go into The Dark Knight Rises expecting a movie that would redefine the genre and sweep the Academy Awards.  And while the movie is not perfect, it is an incredibly well shot and extremely entertaining story that finds Bruce Wayne a recluse 8 years after his last appearance as Batman.  Gotham is enjoying prosperity in his absence under the watchful eye of Commisioner Gordon and the false memory of Harvey Dent.  But a new threat is rising up that threatens the city’s newfound prosperity that requires the return of Batman.

So what doesn't work in this movie is that it falls victim to the “3rd Leg of a Trilogy” syndrome.  So often it seems that directors feel compelled to stuff as much as possible into the last leg of a three-part story even to the point that film’s plot seems metaphorically to be bursting at the seems (i.e. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Spider-Man 3, et al).  In a lot of ways, I think this is born from the creative team’s desire to leave its loyal fan base completely satisfied.  What happens though is that the bloated plot begins to feel loose, the focus drifts, and the pacing gets thrown off.  The Dark Knight Rises suffers this a bit during its transition into the third act, but at the same time I cannot fully complain as I could not think of a set of details that I would absolutely have wanted removed from the film.  Still, it did make the film feel less lean and less nimble than its predecessor. 

As for what works, there are many things.  As you watch the film unfold, Nolan’s cinematic style is operating at its best and this is evident by the cuts between scenes, the attention to detail, and the devotion to character development.  Nolan has a distinct way of telling stories and as you watch the frames unfold, you know that you are watching a master at work.  The brilliance of this particular story is that while on the one hand you are watching the last chapter of Bruce Wayne’s Batman, at the same time you are unknowingly witnessing the origin story of John Blake.  And as much as this is a Chris Nolan/Christian Bale movie, it is almost equally a Chris Nolan/Joseph Gordon-Levitt film.

Speaking of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he stands out from the cast by delivering the strongest performance of all.  As detective John Blake, Gordon-Levitt's presence in the movie is very much like the young and up and coming star on a basketball team of aging veterans, who injects youthful exuberance into the proceedings.  Gordon-Levitt has shown himself in the past to be a performer with great range, and in this film it seems as though he has elevated his game to a new level.  There is an interesting mix of anger, defiance, faith, and hope in his performance that makes it fitting that he is the last person you see on screen in the movie.

The second standout performance in the movie is delivered by Anne Hathaway.  It is no easy task to portray a character that has to be alluring and at the same time a legitimate physical threat, but she does so with flying colors while exuding the moral ambiguity that defines the character of Selina Kyle.  We have seen curious portrayals of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer) and we have seen what it looks like when the performance goes terribly awry (Halle Berry), and in understanding how difficult it could have been to make this character fit properly into Nolan’s Gotham City makes Hathaway’s perforamce all the more admirable.  She truly delivers some of the best scenes of her career.

The third standout performance belongs to Tom Hardy.  He has already established himself as a dynamic actor with his performances in Bronson, Warrior, and of course Inception and his work in this film is another notch in the belt.  It is no easy feat to deliver a compelling performance onscreen with much of your face concealed, but Hardy expertly leverages posture and other forms of non-verbal communication to bring the menacing character Bane to life.  His physical transformation into this bruiser is admirable.  Over the course of the film he allows the layers of his character to peel away culminating with a single touch of his mask from Miranda Tate.  It is a masterful performance.

It feels funny to have gone this far into the review without discussing the man beneath the cowl, but Christian Bale is solid as Bruce Wayne.  He slips into the character the way most of us slip into an old pair of sweat pants from college.  It is not an exceptional performance, but it is a very good one.  The same can be said for Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman – the men who have played the heart and moral compass for Bale’s Batman.  The three very accomplished actors finish the trilogy as they started – expertly applying their craft in a way that elevates the movie from a very good movie to a great one.  In a lot of ways, they represent the viewers in the film, watching the exploits of Wayne/Batman and emoting in the ways that we the fans react.  As for Marion Cotillard, hers was the performance amongst the principle cast that left me a bit underwhelmed.  This is partly due to the fact that she has set the bar so high in some of her other performances (Inception, Midnight in Paris), but also because of the nature of her role and the various other mechanisms that exist in this film.  She is not bad.  She just is not great. 

I have already been asked a number of times how I feel this movie stacks up to The Avengers.  It is not a surprise question because of the proximity of their respective releases and their shared genre but it is not an apples to apples comparison.  The Avengers is an incredibly fun movie that celebrates all that is good about the comic book genre while also acting as a groundbreaking venture combining a number of franchises under one umbrella.  Nolan’s Batman trilogy has always been an attempt to ground a comic book character in the “real” world by telling a narrative that demands to be viewed (and not disregarded) as something more than a genre film.  However if I had to make a choice, I think I prefer The Dark Knight Rises ever-so-slightly over the The Avengers.

The best compliment I can pay a movie is to say that while leaving the theater, I found myself wishing it did not come to an end, and that's how I felt as Joseph Gordon-Levitt stood on that platform as the screen drew to black.  The third act of the movie is amazing and the last ten minutes of the film are the best ten minutes I have seen on the big screen all year.  It truly is a fitting end to one story and a fantastic beginning to another.  We know that there are no more sequels no matter how the movie may leave one asking for more.  But then the point of Nolan's movie has always been (As Bale's Wayne eloquently reminds us) that anyone can be the person behind the mask because the Batman is more than just a man – he is an ideal.  For Nolan, his story to tell was Bruce Wayne's participation in this enduring ideal and thus, the story will live on in whim and imagination...or at least until 2016 when WB reboots the franchise.  My guess here is that if you read this review, you have probably seen the movie, and if so my advice is to see it again.  I guarantee that you will see something you missed the first time and that it will make you love the movie a little bit more.

Standout Performance: To the director Christopher Nolan for having a vision and seeing it all the way through with each film surpassing its predecessor.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

July 2012 Editorial: Top 30 Superhero Movies of the 21st Century

My favorite superhero movie of all-time is Richard Donner's Superman starring the late Christopher Reeve.  It isn’t a perfect movie, but no actor has ever personified a character lifted from the funny pages better than Reeve as the Man of Steel.  I would like to think that the movie has aged very well these past three decades but I am sure there are plenty who would disagree as superhero narratives – the way they are written and shot, the caliber of special effects, and of course the budgets – have come a very long way.  With the release of The Dark Knight Rises a few days away, I thought it would be an interesting time to rank my top 30 movies based on characters from MarvelDC, et al that have been released theatrically since the turn of the century.

30. Elektra (2005)
29. The Punisher (2004)
28. Daredevil (2003)
27. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
26. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
25. Green Lantern (2011)
24. Hulk (2003)
23. The Fantastic Four (2005)
22. Ghost Rider (2007)
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
20. Blade II (2002)
19. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
18. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
17. Watchmen (2009)
16. Blade: Trinity (2004)
15. Kick-Ass (2010)   
14. X-Men (2000)
13. Constantine (2005)
12. Superman Returns (2006)
11. Spider-Man (2002)
10. Iron Man 2 (2010)
9.   X-Men: First Class (2011)
8.   Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
7.   The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
6.   Batman Begins (2005)
5.   Thor (2011)
4.   Spider-Man 2 (2004)
3.   Iron Man (2008)
2.   The Dark Knight (2008)
1.   The Avengers  (2012) 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Wrath of the Titans

One scene in Ted that really resonates with me is when Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane describe the 80’s cult classic Flash Gordon as “so bad but so good.”  I don’t know if a movie has ever been more accurately described in five simple words.  Another movie that I think falls into that category is the original Clash of the Titans starring Harry Hamlin.  The earnest attempt at special effects and the hit-and-miss acting all came together to produce one for the ages.  So when they released a remake in 2010 starring Sam Worthington, I had an inclination that I would be disappointed.  And I was.  The movie was unremarkable in every way.

The $493MM worldwide theatrical gross of course warranted a second installment - Wrath of the Titans - and to quell the worries of a somewhat disappointed fan base, the message was put out that part two would be better because it would not be encumbered  in the same way Clash was by the original film.  A canonical origin story is always an easy target for the blame game.  Having seen Wrath of the Titans, I think that the freedom to flesh out Perseus, Zeus, and the other Greek deities in an original script by Dan Mazeau is more a detriment than a strength, because Wrath is a flimsy story populated with one-dimensional characters, logic leaps, and what generally feels like lazy writing.

This is particularly disappointing to me because I love classical studies.  So much so, that I minored in it at THE Brandeis University.  The literature, mythology, architecture, and linguistics – I studied it all as an undergrad so whenever a movie grounded in classical literature gets produced, it always piques my interest.  Part of the problem is that as of late there have been too many of these films – Clash, Wrath, Immortals, and to a much lesser extent Percy Jackson – and they’ve all begun to blend together into one nondescript mass of long hair, generic gods, and British accents.

The movie is not terrible, it is just not good in any way.  In the movie, a hollow threat brings cause for the principle characters to get back together to take up arms.  Unfortunately, the cast appears to be going through the motions as they try to sell the plot.  As I mentioned in my review of Man on a Ledge, I believe Sam Worthington is a very limited actor and should not make any more movies not directed by Jim Cameron.  His listless approach seems to have spread throughout the cast like a pandemic as Liam Neeson and his typical middle-aged badass bravado is sorely missing, while Bill Nighy, Rosamund Pike, and Ralph Fiennes – three very good actors – bring absolutely nothing to the table.

There really isn’t much more to say about this film.  I feel like I have already spent too much time trying to find an interesting way to say this movie stinks and that you should not rent it.  There are countless other movies that can take you back to the days of gods and humans without lulling you into boredom.  As for the movie's beleaguered star, here’s hoping Sam Worthington turns things around as 5 of the last 6 movies I have seen starring him have been overwhelmingly underwhelming. 

Standout Performance: No one in this film warrants distinction.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Savages

When I think of Oliver Stone movies, I think of Kevin Costner’s voice saying “back and to the left; back and to the left,” while the same set of frames from the Zapruder film are shown repeatedly.  Sure, Stone has directed over 20 films, but it’s his films associated with some sort of political or social agenda for which he is best remembered.  In regards to his latest movie, Savages, I’ve seen it written that Stone has seemingly made a movie  - free from his typical ideological agendas – designed only to entertain.  Having seen it, I caution you not to believe that hype. 

Savages is a movie about two friends, Ben and Chon (played by Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch respectively) who are independent marijuana producers at risk of being absorbed by the large but fledgling Baja cartel from Mexico.  When they refuse to acquiesce to the demands of the cartel – Elena, the leader of the cartel played by Salma Hayek – uses Blake Lively’s O as the ultimate bargaining chip against the two men.  Violence ensues.

The premise of the film is interesting enough at face value, but things begin to fall apart a bit as the film fleshes out dynamics of the curious love triangle that exists between Kitsch, Lively, and Johnson.  When you add to this mix the chicanery of John Travolta’s corrupt DEA agent Dennis, the grotesque perversion of Benicio Del Toro’s Lado, the out-of-nowhere familial strife of Salma Hayek’s Elena, all against the backdrop of a Meixcan cartel war, it is easy to understand how the key points of the movie get swallowed up by this morass of subcontext to the point where one loses track of what’s at stake.  I liken it to being lost at sea when you can no longer see the shore and thus have lost track of where you were, where you are, and where you are supposed to be heading. 

When the movie pays less attention to this peripheral noise and gets back to the business of people with guns enforcing their agendas, it is at its best.  Oliver Stone does some very good work building tension into the plot and paying that off with sound action sequences.  Unfortunately even that gets diminished at times when Stone breaks the reality of the film by occasionally plugging what amounts to a jambalaya of his poli-social inclinations – everything from going green, to building waterways in Indonesia, to education technology, to legalizing marijuana, and of course government corruption.  While some of these movements are good things, the feeling that Stone is pushing this laundry list of causes breaks the reality of the film.  It is however hard to hold it against him, as the man simply cannot help himself.

The thing that surprises me most about the movie is that Taylor Kitsch delivers a very good performance.  He carries the weight of a war veteran to the role as the iron hammer of the group.  He is a one trick pony as an actor but it just so happens that this one gear suits this role.  Aaron Johnson is also very competent playing the lover to Ktisch’s fighter.  The contrast between the two leads is one of the strongest aspects of the movie.  Blake Lively continues to prove she is not much of an actress and that hers is the voice that narrates the film is in no way a good thing.  Benicio Del Toro is especially strong as the antagonist as his character’s grotesque perversion is palpable and lends credible weight to the proceedings.   As for John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, and Salma Hayek, the best I can say is that each of their performances is adequate but not remarkable.  

I have mixed emotions about the film.  I liked it more than I thought I would, but that doesn’t necessarily mean It was a particularly good movie.  I think at the end of the day Savages is best left for a home entertainment viewing as it is a flawed film and there are plenty of other alternatives in theaters now.  It has issues with tone, pacing, and logic and at times loses its way, but Stone is a well-accomplished director who does just enough with the action sequences to keep the film entertaining. 

Standout Performance: While this is in no way an award-winning performance, Benicio Del Toro turns in what is his most compelling work since Traffic.   

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review: One for the Money

Plenty of blogs, blurbs, and columns have in the past dedicated a fair amount of space to detailing the diva attitude that goes hand-in-hand with Katherine Heigl’s lack of range as an actress.  My response to this dirt sheet stuff has always been apathy, because I have a better reason for disliking her – namely her work.  Believe me when I tell you that I have seen most of her movies from My Father the Hero, to 27 Dresses, to Life as We Know It and rare is the occasion where I walk away from a viewing feeling entertained.  Oddly enough, the one movie of hers that I actually enjoyed – Knocked Up – she decided to trash in the media for its portrayal of women.   

So I recently had the opportunity to watch One for the Money and my initial reaction was that it must felt like a huge betrayal to her hardcore fans (if she has any).  Clearly, her bread and butter is the RomCom, so her dalliance with a film that skews more towards action clearly represents a break from the norm.  The film follows the plight of an unemployed Jersey girl (Heigl) who takes a job as a bounty hunter for her cousin’s bail bonds business in order to make ends me.  And in the interest of eschewing any sort of realism, her first task is a big case involving a former lover who is now an ex-cop on the run for murder.  In lieu of bridesmaids’ dresses, pregger references, and beds of roses, Heigl spends her time navigating drugs, guns, gang bangers, and corpses.

I know this won’t come as a huge surprise for anyone, but the movie is not good.  You only need go as far as the Heigl’s fake Jersey accent to surmise this.  Most of the cast either does a credible job with the accent or pulls a George-Clooney-Perfect-Storm and eschews it altogether.  Unfortunately, Heigl is caught somewhere in between – randomly fading in and out of the distinct pronunciation pattern.  Not since Bruce Willis in Armageddon or Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, have we seen this kind of verbal snafu.  It is at times hard to discern if she is a bad actress or if she is simply not trying.

Despite the shortcomings of Katherine Heigl in the lead, the supporting cast represents a bit of a bright spot.  With all due respect to Janet Evanovich and her novel, Stacey Sherman’s adaption falls well south of Francis Ford Copolla, but despite this setback, Jason O’Mara and Daniel Sunjata are credible as the muscle in the movie and Sherri Shepherd, John Leguizamo, and Debbie Reynolds all hit their marks.  Still, none of this really registers because this is Heigl’s show and the movie's fortunes (misfortunes would be more accurate) are riding on her shoulders.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that this movie is a miss and that you should probably do yourself a favor and avoid it altogether – even on free television.  I want to say that there is something redeeming about the film, but the plot is fluff, the action weak, and the payoff both predictable and underwhelming. To be honest, I felt hard-pressed to write an interesting review about the movie, because it is simply bad.  Heigl’s next film is The Big Wedding and while I am guessing that I will not enjoy that film, the mere presence of the word "wedding" in the title should make her fans excited.

Standout Performance: Daniel Sunjata does a decent job of playing Ranger – an experienced bounty hunter who takes Heigl’s Stephanie under his wing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: To Rome with Love

If you have never been to Rome, you will long to visit the eternal city after watching To Rome with Love.  And if you’ve been before then you will find yourself itching for a return trip.  Woody Allen’s latest film does an amazing job of framing captivating visuals of some of the most tourist-friendly parts of the city.  As one who has been a few times before, I found myself easily navigating the geography of the city during the movie and recognizing small boutiques and cafés where I passed the time between monuments.  Had an Italian tourism office commissioned the film, it would have been deemed a smashing success.  Unfortunately, it is a movie and as a narrative, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m on record as not being a fan of movies that follow multiple disconnected storylines (Valentine’s Day, et al), because what you end up with is a collection of smaller stories that are not fully developed in lieu of one strong cohesive narrative that is both complete and driven by character depth.  Quality always trumps quantity.  But I digress.   Allen’s latest film follows four completely self-contained stories with Rome-as-a-backdrop the lone shared thread.  These glorified vignettes follow the plight of a newly wed couple, a retired music producer and his newfound vocalist, an American man reliving his salad days, and an overnight celebrity sensation.

The problems with this film begin and end with the plot(s).  All of Allen’s recent films share a whimsical nonsensical quality that at their best play charming and at their worst feel like neurotic dissections of minutia.  Always though, his films leave you with a nugget of insight - some key takeaway - that justifies the narrative.  In To Rome with Love, the plot is more nonsensical than whimsical, and thus far less charming and the typical Woody Allen brand of neuroses swells into self-indulgence.  And since the movie features four plots instead of the one, we - the viewers - are treated to four sets of useless takeaways, thus leaving the film feeling incredibly didactic.  The two hour rudimentary lecture – or at least that’s what the movie feels like – could have been redeemed had any one of the stories' morals produced a Eureka moment, but sadly no such moment ever materialized.

The performance of the cast is adequate at best but in all fairness, each is handcuffed by limited screen time and poor pacing.  No one is given ample opportunity to shine.  Of the group, Roberto Benigni and Alessandra Mastronardi stand out as best, while Ellen Page is strikingly miscast as an alluring struggling actress.  In his first appearance as an actor since 2006 (Scoop), Woody Allen’s self-deprecating stream of consciousness shtick wears thin very fast and is perhaps the most troubling of all.

I wanted to love this movie like I loved Midnight in Paris, but everything that Midnight in Paris was, this movie is not.  Midnight in Paris feels like it takes you within the inner walls of Paris with wit and charm and gives you this protagonist in Owen Wilson's Gil that you can invest in emotionally.  To Rome with Love constantly reminds you that you are an outsider – a viewer of a jumbled mass of events from behind a glass window.  In lieu of charm, you get a soapbox and the constant nagging question as to why any of this matters.  That perhaps is the biggest indictment of the movie.

I don’t recommend this movie, but I think that at some point you should see it – perhaps on Netflix or on cable.  Allen as a writer and director at his worst is still better than a lot of other individuals who are currently working in the world of film.  In his next project, Allen has cast Andrew Dice Clay and Vinnie from Doogie Howser M.D. so at the very least, that should be interesting.  Here’s hoping that he recaptures the magic and stays behind the camera from here on out.

Standout Performance: Fabio Armiliato as Giancarlo shows why he is one of the renowned vocalists in all of Europe.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: Man on a Ledge

The trailers for Man on a Ledge really did nothing for me.  The supporting cast looked excellent on paper with Eddie Burns, Elizabeth Banks, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, and Jamie Bell, but Sam Worthington as the lead dulled my interest.  I know he has a big following post-Avatar, but this is the same person who was the lead in Clash of the Titans, The Debt, and Terminator Salvation.  So in my mind, a Sam Worthington movie without James Cameron’s name splashed somewhere across the one-sheet is more likely to be a miss than a hit.  Unfortunately, in the case of Man on a Ledge, I am right.

The plot of the movie focuses on Worthington’s Nick Cassidy – a cop who has been sent to jail for stealing a diamond from Ed Harris’ David Englander.  One jailbreak and a couple of twists and turns later, we find Worthington on the ledge of a high-rise verbally jousting with Elizabeth Banks’ Lydia Mercer – a down-on-her-luck police negotiator.  If by now you are envisioning the movie The Negotiator starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey then you are on the right track.  Only it’s a lot less hip.

So here is the problem.  When the majority of a film’s scenes are shots of a man standing on a ledge engaging in dialogue, the action on the periphery has to make up for the protagonist’s relative inertia.  Sadly, the schemes, machinations, and physical jockeying amongst the stellar supporting cast drop the ball.  The plot is too generic, the process too thin, and the payoff too predictable.  To remedy this, it feels like director Asger Leth and writer Pablo F. Fenjves try to inject a bit of sexual tension between Worthington and Banks to no avail.  Their chemistry feels forced.

I feel that movies such as these, where the plot is not particularly original and the twists not inspired, can get rescued by strong character acting.   On paper, Man on a Ledge has the pieces in place to pull off something that at the very least is entertaining.  Unfortunately, too much of the film relies on Worthington, who seems to be a one trick pony as an actor – surly.  The dour demeanor and low rumbling vocals can carry you a long way as an antagonist, but not so much as the lead.  Sure Ed Harris is solid as the heavy and Anthony Mackie, Jamie Bell, Elizabeth Banks, and Eddie Burns turn in solid workman-like contributions, but at the end of the day it’s all for naught because Worthington - burdened with script limitations - is not up to the task of elevating the movie.

I don’t want to be overly harsh in my write up of this movie.  It has a handful of solid tension-filled moments and a couple of nice action scenes that utilize the physical space of the film well.  Should you happen to see the film, you will find entertainment value.  I just would not suggest you plan your social calendar around it.  It’s a bottom-of-the-queue Netflix movie that will one day in the future help you pass two hours of your time.  However, I would guess that soon after you put the red Netflix envelope back into your mailbox for its return trip, you may never think about it again. 

Standout Performance: Ed Harris.  It is by no means his best performance, but Harris is a pro and knows how to hits all the right notes to deliver a credible performance.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: The Vow

I think anyone who has read my blog may have come away with the sense that I don’t like movies focusing on matters of the heart.  That’s simply not true.  Some of my favorite movies are completely relationship driven like (500) Days of Summer and When Harry Met Sally.  I just don’t like poorly done romance flicks.   Unfortunately, there is no shortage of those (thank you, Nicholas Sparks).  So when I first saw the trailer for The Vow, I quickly tried to change the channel because I knew my girlfriend would want to see it.  Sure, there was no way I could enforce a month-long media blackout, but I had to try.  So when the movie’s theatrical run had ended without incident, I thought I was in the clear.  Thanks to the home entertainment market, I was wrong.

The Vow is based on the true story of a woman (Paige) who suffers partial amnesia and forgets the portions of her life that surround her marriage.  The plot follows her quest to rediscover herself, and her husband’s (Leo) crusade to rekindle their relationship.  It’s a semi-interesting concept as amnesia is usually a good movie mechanism to build a plot around, but it’s nothing overly groundbreaking.

So here’s the deal.  The movie had a ton of problems.  It could have been a more robust narrative but director Michael Sucsy seems so intent on loading the movie with those contrived scenes that are marked by diabetic-shock inducing dialogue that key plot turns are glossed over and obscured by cheap sentiment.  It’s pandering at its worst.  It doesn’t matter how the film gets from point A to point B as long as you get those shots of Channing Tatum’s Leo staring longingly at Rachel McAdam’s Paige.  That the two actors are incredibly miscast as a hipster recording guru and a lawyer-turned-vegan-sculpture respectively thus takes a back seat to the lack of real story telling.

The one thing the movie has going for it is that the characters you are supposed to despise – Sam Neill as Paige’s sleeze bag father and Scott Speedman as her ex-fiance – are incredibly easy to loathe.  Of the cast, these two seem to best fit the roles for which they have been cast and in doing so, their performances cast Tatum’s Leo in a favorable light.  However, that’s where my plaudits for the movie pretty much end.  Most troubling for the film is that McAdams’ Paige skews towards the annoying and is very difficult to empathize with.  This prevents the movie from redeeming itself in the third act with a fresh coat of sentiment.  Thus, things never really come together.

As for the rest of the cast, no one really stands out.  They are stock characters moved around the screen like pawns on a proverbial chessboard to facilitate the game.  And while a pawn can greatly affect the outcome of a match, none of the supporting players in the film are up to the task of stealing the show.

I want to be fair here and say that while I would never recommend this movie, I am sure that it works for some people – those movie lovers who can find sentiment even in the weakest of scripts despite mediocre acting and poor directing.  For those viewers I say that you should absolutely rent this movie on a lonely Saturday night when it’s raining and it’s just you, your snuggie, and a warm cup of cocoa.  For everyone else, I recommend you take a pass.  There are countless other movie titles out there that will provide you with that sentimental fix.  If it is more Channing Tatum you seek, then I would suggest 21 Jump Street.  And for you Rachel McAdams fans, I suggest you go old school and treat yourself to a viewing of Mean Girls.

Standout Performance: Sam Neil – very few actors can successfully alternate between playing noble characters and complete douche bags.  Neil is one of those actors.