Review: Jurassic World

Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jake Johnson

Review: Entourage

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

Review: San Andreas

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino

Review: Ex Machina

Starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson

Review: Pitch Perfect 2

The Pitch is Back!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Looper

No matter how well a movie involving time travel is done, it is inevitably going to have plot holes.  There’s just no way to properly navigate a theoretical construct that defies one’s linear sense of time.  Back to the Future, Frequency, Twelve Monkeys – they are all riddled with such immense inconsistencies that if one were to stop and flesh out those problems, these otherwise entertaining narratives would completely derail.  And while Looper, from writer/director Rian Johnson, is not without a paradox or two, it remains an interesting exercise in telling a time bending narrative while staying true to the film’s own inherent sense of logic.  But like many others of this genre, it leaves you with as many questions as it does answers.

This film is a tough one to tackle without revealing spoilers, but what I can safely reveal is that thirty years from the film’s present day, time travel will be invented and for reasons explained in the film, criminal organizations send undesirables back in time for execution at the hands of low rent assassins called loopers.  The loopers perform these duties while knowing that one day they will be sent to retirement on the day they are faced with assassinating their future self – an act dubbed closing out the loop.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper whose life unravels when he not only fails to assassinate his older self (played by Bruce Willis), but also finds that his future self is a man with a very specific plan. 

Based on who you talk to, Looper is either an incredibly complex and highly layered narrative loaded with parallels, innuendoes, philosophical ruminations, and clever plot twists; or it’s another in a long line of action filled time travel movies loaded with a bunch of red herrings designed to trick the viewer.  I am inclined to agree more with the former than the latter.  Is it as complex as some would have you believe?  No, but there is a circular nature to the plot of the movie that not only begs you to ask a bunch of questions, but demands that you not watch the movie passively as a single straight-line narrative.  It’s not as complex or mind bending as Inception or Matrix, but it is a sound writing effort that leaves just enough loose ends (as well as the chicken and the egg paradox) for you to formulate your own conclusions.  It’s the kind of movie that you will discuss with your friends after the fact, and will send you across the web looking for those hidden clues you might have missed.

The best part of this movie hands down is the acting.  Most everyone of significance in the cast deliver strong performances.  Like many actors before him (Pacino, DeNiro, Stallone), Bruce Willis has long since started down the path to becoming a caricature of himself, but in this film it feels like Willis is turning back the clock to deliver  a strong performance as a complex and conflicted character.  Truth be told, it is the first time in a long time that it feels like he cares about a role and movie; it appears as though Willis is actually trying.  As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he proves once again that he is one of the better actors working today.  He does a great job of channeling Bruce Willis, not to the point that it feels like a straight impersonation, but just enough so that it feels like his Joe and Bruce Willis’ are separated by a deep chasm born from thirty years of experience.

As for the rest of the cast, Emily Blunt does a great job of exchanging her lovely British sensibilities for a midwestern accent, farm attire, and a double barrel shotgun, almost completely disappearing into the role of Sara.  Jeff Daniels is very good as Abe; his scenes opposite Gordon-Levitt represent some of the best dialogue in the film.  Paul Dano continues to carve out a niche playing the same bumbling sympathetic sad sack always destined for disaster and Noah Segan and Piper Perabo physically embody the decay of the dystopian present in which the plot unfolds.

While I believe that the writing is layered and cleverly open ended and the acting very good, I feel as though this is one of the films where the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.  There are choices made in this film that are admirable, but those choices alter the tone of the film a bit and throw off the pacing in the second act.  Still, the work of the cast more than makes up for these shortcomings.  While I did not walk out of the theater as enamored with the film as many other people (and some of this is probably born from lofty expectations), I found the film to be entertaining and would feel compelled to see it again.  Something tells me that a second viewing would lend clarity to the questions I have been mulling since seeing the movie.  I would definitely recommend this for a theatrical viewing (and probably a second viewing on DVD), but caution you to be ready to think.

Standout Performance: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  There is very little that he and Bruce Willis have in common in regards to looks, voice, mannerisms, and persona, and this makes it all the more impressive that he could stand opposite Willis in this movie and completely sell himself as a younger version of the man.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Dredd

When last we saw Judge Dredd on the big screen, Sylvester Stallone was wearing the helmet and shield flanked by Diane Lane and Rob Schneider for two hours of glorious campy action circa 1995.  Needless to say, no Oscars were awarded for the performances in that film.  Some seventeen years later, Dredd makes his return to the big screen in a movie best described as an amalgamation of various action plots all rolled up into an unapologetic B-movie package.  Less slick and less tongue-in-cheek, Karl Urban’s version of the gun wielding judge is a grittier and more violent take on the character.

The film is set in Mega City One, a crime riddled place nestled in the northeast corner of the U.S. where the only thing standing between the guilty and the innocent are street patrolling judges, who not only act as judge, but also serve as jury and executioner.  The plot finds Judge Dredd on a day when he is charged with evaluating a rookie, Judge Anderson played by Olivia Thirlby.  While investigating a triple homicide, the two protagonists find themselves caught in the crosshairs of a drug cartel.

Based on a comic property from IPC Media, the movie is set in a post apocalyptic world rife with urban-warfare conditions and features such action movie elements as ruthless drug cartels, massive gun play, and the veteran and rookie cop dynamic between the protagonists.  Clearly this is a melting pot of action genre plot mechanisms loaded with allusions to a handful of other films ranging from Training Day to New Jack City, which at times makes it feel like a collection of borrowed plot points.  What works for this film is that it is a B-movie at its core and director Pete Travis and his creative team embrace this.  While there are moments when it borders on low rent and at times directorial short cuts are apparent, the lack of the prototypical Hollywood polish adds to the gritty quality of the film and reinforces the sense of decay that permeates the sets.  This isn’t a lavish story or an intricate plot with twists and turns.  This is a tense, violent, straight line narrative that is taut and well paced.  Sure, no awards of excellence will be lavished onto this version of Dredd either, but then that is clearly not the objective of Travis and his crew.  Theirs is an exercise in action and suspense.

In some ways, the nature of the title character makes it difficult to judge Urban’s performance as Dredd.  Such is always the case when an actor wears head gear that conceals his/her face throughout a performance.  And while he clearly is adept at holding Dredd’s signature snarl, the helmet prevents you from seeing Urban’s facial expressions and this disconnects the viewer from the protagonist.  That Dredd is more of a doer than a conversationalist exasperates this chasm.  Playing opposite Urban is Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson.  Of all the characters in the movie, hers is the only one that undergoes a personal journey – the only one who is not static.  Because of this, by time the end credits role, the film feels almost as much hers as it is Karl Urban’s.  Of the principle cast, her work stands out as best.

As for the rest of the cast, I found Wood Harris (Remember the Titans) and Warrick Grier as nefarious henchman to be adequate and not at all remarkable, while Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the clan techie strikes a sympathetic chord.  My biggest disappointment with this movie is with Lena Headey as the prostitute turned drug lord Ma-Ma.  Heady (300) has in the past turned in some strong performances, but her work here in this movie can best be described as a cracked out version of Sarah Clarke's Nina Myers from 24.  Her character is paper thin and in no way compelling and the iron grip she possesses over the men in her cartel does not feel credible.  The only threat she poses to our protagonists comes in the form of obedient henchmen with guns and once that is stripped away, you begin to wonder what the fuss is all about.

When you look at the film in its totality, it is an entertaining albeit flawed movie.  What makes it entertaining is that there is a simple narrative with a clear objective and mechanisms in place to keep the plot rolling forward.  The locked down high-rise and the wave of goons keeps the tension amped up enough to keep viewers engaged even if the inevitable outcome is telegraphed.  At the end of the day, the cast and crew make no apologies for Dredd being a violent B-movie (nor should they), so I don’t feel compelled to do so on their behalf either.  While the movie may be a bomb at the box office ($6M opening weekend), I would still recommend this as a rental.  Action movie enthusiasts will find entertainment value in it, while those looking for deep character development and emoting will perhaps not.  Still, it’s worth a look.

Standout Performance: Olivia Thirlby.  She rebounds nicely with Dredd after appearing in one of the worst movies I have seen in the last year, The Darkest Hour.

Monday, September 24, 2012

October 2012 Movie Guide

OCTOBER 5, 2012 
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen
Why You Should See It: Because Liam Neeson is back as Bryan Mills with his “very particular set of skills.”
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the butt-kicking Liam Neeson shtick did not work quiet as well in Unknown and The Grey.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  A must see movie.

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Elizabeth Banks, Rebel Wilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Why You Should See It: Because Anna Kendrick is a good actress who usually makes good choices.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because it looks like a bad episode of Glee masquerading as a feature film.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Pray that your significant other has no interest in this one.

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Juliet Rylance, Clare Foley
Why You Should See It: Because the trailer is terrifying.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the trailer for Woman in Black was terrifying and look how that turned out.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Probably another in a long line of moderately creepy but forgettable films.  A rental at best.

Other theatrical releases:  Frankenweenie, V/H/S, The Paperboy

OCTOBER 12, 2012 

ARGO
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Taylor Schilling, John Goodman, Philip Baker Hall
Why You Should See It: Because Ben Affleck has proven himself to be a very good director.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because Ben Affleck has not always shown himself to be a good actor.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  If Oscar buzz is any indication, then this movie is an absolute must see.

Starring: Kevin James, Salma Hayek, Henry Winkler, Greg Germann,
Why You Should See It: Salma Hayek – and because it looks like a goofy feel good movie.
Why You Should Avoid It: Kevin James’ resume which includes Zookeeper, Grown Ups and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Rental all the way.

Starring: Colin Farrell, Abbie Cornish, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken.
Why You Should See It: Because if you subtract Colin Farrell, this is a dynamite cast primed to tell a quirky LA based criminal underworld narrative.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you can’t simply subtract Colin Farrell from the movie.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Because this is one of those films that is a bit off beat, it will only play to certain sensibilities.  Proceed at your own risk.

Other theatrical releases:  Nobody Walks, Smashed, Atlas Shrugged: Part 2

OCTOBER 19, 2012 

Starring: Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Brady Allen
Why You Should See It: Because even when the Paranormal Activity movies are bad, they are still usually frightening.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the whole found footage phenomenon has been done to death.  
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Embrace the Halloween season and go watch it at the cinema.

Other theatrical releases: Alex Cross

OCTOBER 26, 2012 

THE BIG WEDDING
Starring: Robert De Niro, Amanda Seyfried, Katherine Heigl, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon.
Why You Should See It: (Silence).
Why You Should Avoid It: It’s a movie with wedding in the title and with Katherine Heigl in it.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  My fate is already sealed so I don’t really have a choice but here’s hoping the rest of you can avoid this one.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon
Why You Should See It: Because the combination of the Wachowskis and WB resulted in The Matrix.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the combination of the Wachowskis and WB resulted in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Early indicators suggest that some will love this while others will hate it – which means game time decision.

Other theatrical releases:  Chasing Mavericks, Fun Size, Silent Hill: Revelation

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Coming of age stories come in all shapes and sizes.  The great ones feel unique and give you the sense that you are privy to an incredibly personal story.  Despite the singular details that set each of these stories apart, there is broad appeal and universality to these types of narratives because they are easily relatable.  The need for self-discovery, rites of passage, and relationship angst are just a few of the many experiences each of us encounter on our way to adulthood.  While The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about this type of journey it is also something very different – a very dark something different.

Set in 1991, Logan Lerman plays Charlie a painfully shy young man trying to navigate his way through life as a newly minted high school freshman.  Saddled with some intense emotional baggage, he struggles to find nary a friend nor a niche until he befriends Patrick and Sam (played by Eza Miller and Emma Watson respectively) – two seniors who march to the beat of different drummers.  The relationships Charlie develops with his newfound friends becomes increasingly challenging as the three teen protagonists struggle with different sets of difficulties.

Writer (of both novel and screenplay) and director Stephen Chbosky weaves an engaging tale that is funny, maddening, uplifting, and heart breaking in much the same way that those formative years can feel to a teen.  It is also a very dark story that fleshes out the troubling issues that plague Charlie.  In doing so, the story allows the viewer to easily invest in the protagonists and (judging by the reaction of others in the cinema) to experience the emotional roller coaster that is Charlie’s life.

To tell such a story in a meaningful way, the work of the cast has to be strong.  In this regard I have to give credit where credit is due.  When last I saw Logan Lerman, he had just turned in a terribly inept performance as D’artagnan in The Three Musketeers.  In this film, he pulls the acting equivalent of a 180.  His Charlie is shy, awkward, troubled, yet likable.  It is not easy to play someone that seems placid and drab with an entitrely different stream of thoughts flowing beneath the surface, but Lerman pulls it off incredibly well.  Equally as good in this film is Ezra Miller as Patrick – a gay teen engaged in a secret relationship.  To play a person who is both eccentric and  outgoing while secretly nursing inner heartbreak and self-doubt is an equally tricky feat, but Miller pulls it off with flying colors.

Emma Watson, as the third member of this trio, has the difficult task of shedding her cinematic baggage as Hermione Granger, but it only takes a few scenes to recognize that the young actress is up to the task of taking on a role that is something entirely different.  While Watson occasionally stumbles a bit with her American accent, she is soulful and charming and makes it easy to believe that Lerman’s Charlie can be so taken with her.  As for the rest of the cast, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Nina Dobrev, Johnny Simmons, and Mae Whitman do a very good job in limited screen time in helping to put together the pieces of Charlie’s life.  They each come to represents points of support and/or points of pain for Charlie making the narrative feel three dimensional and that quality sets it apart from the usual run-of-the-mill teen angst driven films.

 It’s not a perfect movie as it runs a bit long and in the third act the pacing falls off a bit, but it is a very good one.  The story is engaging; the acting very good; and the soundtrack featuring both New Order and The Smiths is excellent.  I would definitely recommend this movie, especially so to my fellow Gen-X’ers who can relate to a high school environment far less tolerant of those who are different.  Of all the things I can say about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the best is that it has a ton of heart – a quality that has been in short supply at the cinema lately.

Standout Performance: Ezra Miller.  His performance is a dynamic one that shows the greatest range of all the principle characters.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: End of Watch

Ninety percent of all action movies are just different iterations of the cops and robbers narrative.  Whether it is superheroes, spies, or soldiers, the paradigm remains the same - good guys chasing bad.  While it has been a while since I have found a straight-forward, meat and potatoes, boys-in-blue film to be truly entertaining (The Departed), it doesn’t mean this genre within a genre has become completely obsolete.  End of Watch is good reminder of this.  While I don’t know enough about wielding a gun and shield to say that the film is an accurate portrayal, it is gritty and raw and exudes a sense of authenticity.

The story tracks two partners in the LAPD – Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) as they work their beat in South Central Los Angeles.  Through a combination of cameras built into the plot and the traditional third person view, we are privy to a slice of their lives as partners and friends as they stumble upon Mexican cartel activity in Los Angeles. 

What works best about this movie is the buddy aspect of the film.  A lot of the plot is driven by the interactions between Gyllenhaal and Pena, establishing their camaraderie and fleshing out the personal aspects of their lives that influence the way they police the streets.  Relatively young and full of bravado, it becomes evident that as their lives mature the sense of invincibility with which they man their jobs can and will eventually erode.  The sense of family they extoll as members of the police force must be balanced by the sense of family that exists in their home and rubbing elbows with ruthless cartel flunkies threatens this equilibrium. 

The movie in tone feels something like Training Day most likely because David Ayer serves as both writer and director.  He does an admirable job though my one complaint is the use of cameras built into the story.  Sure, I am not the biggest fan of overused unsteady cameras, but I particularly found the transition from entrenched cameras to third person shots to be distracting and confusing.  While it may have sacrificed a bit of the grittiness, the movie could have been equally as effective (if not more so) with traditional cinematography and would have lessened the burden of trying to reason the presence of a video camera in nearly every shot.

As for the acting, Gyllenhaal and Pena knock it out of the park.  The strength of the movie is fueled by their relationship as partners and friends and it is left to the two men to construct this visually through banter and verbal exchanges.  The chemistry that the two actors share is impressive and in the scenes where they muse about their lives while driving the streets of L.A., leaves you feeling like you are participating in a genuine ride along.  Gyllenhaal clearly takes on a physical transformation to disappear into the role of a headstrong cop with a military background.   Pena excellently balances this out by playing the heart of this partnership - the married man with a baby on the way who bears a close connection to the streets they patrol.  Not to be lost in the action and drama is the well-timed comedic relief that manifests naturally in the exchanges between the two actors.  It is a necessary layer that truly amps up the feeling of  authenticity.

As for the rest of the cast, Natalie Martinez (Gabby) and Anna Kendrick (Jane) each perform admirably as the significant others of Pena and Gyllenhaal respectively.  Limited in screen time, the actresses do a great job of helping to lay depth to the protagonists and remind the viewers what’s at stake every time the officers take to the streets.  Frank Grillo, David Harbour, and America Ferrera aren’t given much heavy lifting as fellow members of the force, but add another layer to this portrayal of life as a police officer in South Central.  As for the baddies, they are for the most part faceless and at times border on caricatures, but that is more out of necessity than anything else.  This film is about Gyllenhaal’s Taylor and Pena’s Zavala and rightfully so.

If you’re not a fan of unsteady camera work or if you find it gives you headaches of nausea, you may want to wait for this as a rental.  Rarely do you find a perfectly steady shot in this movie.  Otherwise, I would definitely recommend this film for a theatrical viewing.  It is gritty and it is raw and the streets of Los Angeles show well in this regard.  The action is fierce and besides a few hiccups the pacing is brisk and steady.  This isn’t merely a pedal to the floor action flick nor is it huge in scope.  What it is, is a very personal story and one that will leave you feeling as though you really know the characters, and that is the definitive sign of a well-told story.

Standout Performance: Michael Pena does some of his best work to date in this movie displaying a wide acting range seamlessly moving from gravitas to emoting to comedic relief.  In a movie with some very good performances, his is best.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

Love or hate him, the one thing you can say about Johnny Depp is that he makes interesting choices.  The lineup of characters that he has played is a veritable rogues gallery of the eccentric.  Sure, there is the occasional John Dillinger (Public Enemies) or George Jung (Blow), but more often than not Depp has been covered in wigs, makeup, and outlandish costumes – especially when Tim Burton is involved.  There have been some signature performances along the way, but there have also been some incredible misses.  Before ever seeing a single frame of Dark Shadows, I was prepared to label it the latter.  Now having seen the movie, I am not exactly sure under which category this performance belongs, but this is oddly appropriate since few have been able to properly grasp the scope of the movie itself.

Dark Shadows (2012) - based on a fantasy horror TV show from the late 1960’s – is the story of Barnabas Collins, a cursed vampire who returns from a 200 year absence to find his family’s fortunes in decay.  While vowing to return the Collins family to prominence, he must also deal with the haunting loss of his former love, with his unquenchable thirst for blood, and with the witch who has cursed his family.

If you can believe it, this movie was originally marketed as a comedy.  This means that either the film was wrongly marketed or poorly executed.  Sure there are a few chuckles that come from the fish-out-of-water set up of having a vampire wake up two centuries later smack dab in the middle of 1970’s Maine, but that novelty fades quickly along with any sense of humor.  What’s left is a jambalaya comprised of soap opera caliber familial melodrama, cheesy Goth, and 1970’s d├ęcor – not necessarily the most appetizing cinematic combination.  I did not however hate this movie like I thought I would, but I was left wondering why anyone would make this movie and why anyone would go out of their way to see it.  While it’s not terribly executed, there’s no purpose or appeal to this project – hence the relatively modest $238M worldwide gross (or roughly a $35M loss for WB).

In the film, Tim Burton’s direction is surprisingly subdued by his usual outlandish standards and I actually like the way he and his creative team capture Maine.  This goes ditto for the cast.  Johnny Depp knows how to play weird and eccentric and Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, and Jackie Earle Haley absolutely exude the decay that has taken hold of the Collins estate.  Likewise, Bella Heathcote does a nice job as the pretty but detached Victoria Winters.  Sadly, disappointment with the cast came from two very unlikely sources in Eva Green and Chloe Grace Moretz.  Both have shown themselves extremely well in the past in Casino Royale and (500) Days of Summer respectively, but their performances in this film seemed off kilter and a little too camp for my taste.

So then what this adds up to is a decently directed and decently acted movie with a clunky premise and an awkward plot, which just kind of makes all the effort seem for naught.  While Dark Shadows is not really a terrible movie, I can’t find any one good reason to recommend that you see it.  This is a bottom-of-the-Netflix-queue kind of movie that you will probably never get around to seeing because the continuous stream of new releases hitting the market.  However, should you find yourself sitting in front of the television on a Wednesday night with the movie onscreen, you won’t completely loath yourself for watching it.  For all you Johnny Depp fans, here is hoping he finds better luck in his next feature film as Tonto in The Lone Ranger.  I, for one, am not optimistic.

Standout Performance: Bella Heathcote.  It is a fine line to playing a slightly detached   character from as such a performance can easily be construed as cold and robotic.  Heathcote pulls it off well and maintains a strong semblance of likability.

Review: Hop (2011)

I think it comes as no surprise that Hop is a movie geared towards children.  Wait – let me rephrase that.  Hop is movie made with the intent of getting parents to spend money on their children (as if that isn’t the case for all such movies).  You see, not all live action kids movies are created equally.  Some actually have a plot like The Mighty Ducks, while others are just vehicles to sell tickets, DVDs, and merchandise.  This one is definitely more the latter.  I can almost imagine how this movie came to be - someone over at Universal perusing a calendar looking for a holiday to exploit since Christmas and Halloween have been done to death, and stumbling upon a weekend in April.  And voila!  The movie's born.  So you may be wondering then, how it came to be that I crossed paths with this film.  I chalk it up to the cumulative effect of USC losing to Stanford, to the Patriots losing to Arizona, and to the remote control just plain being lost.  Had any one of these conditions been different, I probably would have been able to muster up the effort to change the channel.

The plot of Hop tells the story of E.B. - the soon-to-be anointed Easter Bunny – who dreams of being a rock drummer and thus runs away from his home on – that’s right, you guessed it – Easter Island to pursue his dreams.  Along the way he crosses paths with Fred O’Hare (played by James Marsden), a young man in a life rut who is having difficulty finding a proper career much to the dismay of his family.  The movie details their unlikely friendship as they help each other find their respective niches in the world.

For anyone over the age of ten, this movie is a complete write off.  There’s nothing in this for you unless you are absolutely enamored with James Marsden or Kaley Cuoco.  Even then, your devotion will definitely be put to the test.  For kids under the age of ten, you could probably do a lot worse.  The movie has the requisite lessons on morality – following your dreams, don’t be selfish, et al – and is for the most part void of inappropriately mature humor.  Unfortunately that’s about all the good I can say about this movie.

The members of the cast certainly do not do the film or themselves any favors with their respective performances.  James Marsden is certainly trying in this movie, but it’s hard to discern what exactly it is he is trying to do.  He should be at a point in his career where he is passed playing this type of man-child, but maybe he just really needed a paycheck.  That could also explain his appearance in the deplorable Bachelorette.  And if James Marsden is possibly in the midst of a money grab, Russell Brand (as the voice of E.B.) most definitely is.  With Hop, Arthur, and Rock of Ages, he is on a run that would make even Nic Cage envious.   And on a side note, I found it a curious choice to give the Easter Bunny a British accent.  Since Easter Island is a property of Chile, wouldn’t it have been more accurate to give him a Chilean accent?  But I digress.  As for the rest of the cast, there is not much to report.  Hank Azaria, Kaley Cuoco, Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins, and Hugh Laurie are present and accounted for and deliver their proper lines.  That’s about all there is to say about their performances.  In their defense however, not much is asked of them so little should be expected.

So what else can I say?  Should you watch this movie?  Absolutely not.  Should you worry about letting your kids, your younger siblings, or your nieces and nephews watch it?  Probably not.  A best-case scenario is that it holds their attention for an hour and a half and gets them excited for jellybeans and Easter egg hunts.  A worst-case scenario is that the kids get really bored mid film and decide to tear up the living room while you’re not paying attention.  Just know that everyone in this movie probably participated in this project for one reason only – money.  So try and resist the temptation to throw your hard earned dollars at a project like this and hopefully the next time the powers-that-be attempt to exploit a holiday, they’ll at least produce a film on par with Jon Favreau’s Elf

Standout Performance: David Hasselhoff.  His appearance in this movie makes no sense whatsoever and adds zero value for the target audience, but the Hoff is playing a caricature of himself, which is the only role that he is ideally suited for.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Summer Superlatives 2012

The summer of 2012 has come and gone and like any summer there have been some hits and misses.  No matter how good those hits may have been, the stigma surrounding movies released between the months of May and August will prevent most (if not all) of these films from receiving significant recognition come awards season.  With that in mind, I have put together my list of summer superlatives.  This isn’t a ranking of the top movies as that can be ascertained simply by looking at the letter grades in each review.  This is a different spin on the best efforts of the last four months.  Hopefully it will aid you in making some rental decisions as these movies start dropping on DVD over the next few months.  Enjoy.

BEST REASON TO ABOLISH MOVIE TRAILERS
















Prometheus.  We all know that a great trailer can make even the worst movie look good, but that doesn’t stop us wanting so badly to believe that two minutes of careful editing can serve as a reliable barometer for the larger work.  The trailers for Prometheus were masterful with their quick cuts, sleek cutting edge sci-fi visuals, and sharp techno sampling.  This coupled with some clever viral marketing campaigns truly worked film enthusiasts into a frenzy as the film seemed to promise an endless litany of possibilities – an Alien prequel, secrets to the origins of humans, the next Ridley Scott masterpiece, a scantily clad Charlize Theron doing push ups.  And because of this, I am hard pressed to think of a set of trailers that promised so much for a movie that delivered so little – leaving some so disillusioned and locked into a state of denial that they looked for meaning where there was none (what I like to call the Matrix Reloaded syndrome).

BEST POLITICAL CANDIDATE














Cam Brady – The Campaign.  Will Ferrell’s Cam Brady is funny and unlike real political figures, he is intended to be so.  As much as his antics in the film are absurdly over-the-top, both the role and the movie hit a little closer to home than most want to admit.  It only makes sense that an actor playing a political figure should shine at the box office in an election year since politicians have increasingly tried to emulate actors – obsessing over narcissism, overly relying on their proficiency in delivering scripted lines rather than yielding substantive results, and indulging a troubling obsession with celebrity.  That the role is so cleverly satirical tells you a lot about the actual reality.

BEST ARGUMENT FOR BECOMING A SCIENTIST





Gwen Stacy – The Amazing Spider-Man.  No matter how many times you watch Revenge of the Nerds or the The Big Bang Theory, the novelty of the geek getting the girl never wears out.  This premise of awkward guys with pocket protectors who like to spend their days in science labs, winning the heart of the cheerleader or the pretty girl next door seems to be the premise that keeps on giving.  Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone) represents a new wrinkle to this equation; a woman who is both the scientist and the girl next door – incredibly intelligent and equally attractive in a skirt or a white lab coat.  Who wouldn’t want to spend the day working with Bunsen Burners opposite the likes of Gwen Stacy? 

BEST ARGUMENT FOR BUYING SHARES OF DISNEY STOCK














Marvel’s The Avengers.  On my first day at Disney, an executive explained the company’s head scratching $4B acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. The way they saw it, Disney had a gap in the way they were operating.  They were losing boys around the age of ten and were not getting them back until the age of twenty-five – at the behest of their wives and children.  Translation – they weren’t making enough money off of males.  After $621MM at the domestic theatrical box office and $886MM internationally, Marvel’s The Avengers has grossed over $1.5B worldwide and that’s before a single toy, thermos, mug, Halloween costume, or other licensed product gets sold.  If Phase 2 of Marvel’s theatrical rollout follows suit, the acquisition will represent a huge boon for TWDC (if it hasn't already).  Now, if only they could stop making movies like John Carter…

BEST ARGUMENT FOR DEMOCRACY















Aladeen – The Dictator.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s Aladeen is an over-the-top imbecile who is politically and socially incorrect.  There is however equanimity in the way that he offends that makes his act humorous and loosely satirical as he cuts up various contemporary conventions by callously and carelessly wielding power.  Much of the humor is born from the fact that Aladeen is  far removed from reality and out of touch with society.  Still, as cartoonish and entertaining as he is, his foibles are a hilarious reminder that while the rule of many is not without its imperfections, it has great merit.

BEST ARGUMENT AGAINST SOCIALISM

The Dark Knight Rises.  If it wasn’t the best movie of the summer then it was a very close second to The Avengers.  There was so much to like – a city under siege, a worthy adversary, a cunning cat burglar, a heroic last stand, and of course, Marion Cotillard.  It was a worthy ending to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  Despite this, the movie was not without its critics and surprisingly some came from the political arena.  There was a segment of people that drew parallels between Bane’s revolution and the tenets of socialism and felt compelled to speak out against whatever political statement they felt was being made by Batman’s crusade against the social terrorist.  I doubt that there were political machinations embedded in the plot of the movie, but regardless; I think I am in the majority when I say that as the movie moved towards its climax, I was rooting for the Caped Crusader.

BEST REASON TO STAY IN SCHOOL












Premium Rush.  I will be the first to say that working a job that involves doing something you love, offers you a flexible schedule, and let’s you spend most of the day outside is far more preferable to putting on business casual and sitting somewhere in the middle of a corporate hierarchy.  In Premium Rush, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Wilee eschews a law degree from Columbia to spend his days indulging in his cycling fetish while delivering freight as a New York City messenger.  And what does this bohemian lifestyle get him?  Broken ribs, a gun shot wound, one damaged bike, and the future General Zod in Man of Steel (Michael Shannon) hunting him throughout the city.  It makes a career practicing law (or anything else for that matter) seem all the more appealing.

MOST COMPELLING ARGUMENT FOR STAYING SINGLE














Lori Quaid – Total Recall.  Who doesn’t have that crazy ex who refused to give back your Dolce & Gabbana scarf or who stole your Nintendo Wii?  I think we all have that person(s) on our respective dating resumes that we would like to take the proverbial whiteout to.  Kate Beckinsale’s Lori Quaid takes the concept of the crazy ex to a whole new level in Total Recall.  Not only is her relationship with Colin’s Farrell Quaid built on a mound of perpetrated lies and deceptions, but she also spends the duration of the movie trying to kill him by any means necessary – proving that not only can love hurt; it can also kill.


BEST REMINDER TO BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR....















Ted.  This talking stuffed bear is both a blessing and a curse.  If you have to ask why, then you haven’t seen the movie and if you haven’t seen the movie, be sure to check it out when it drops on DVD.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: The Descendants

When George Clooney is focused on being an actor/entertainer, his movies tend to be very good.  And when he is more interested in pushing other agendas (i.e. political), those films tend to be bland, didactic, and not nearly as intelligent as some knights of the keyboard would have you believe.  But then again, I tend to be skeptical when those who hardly reside in the real world step down from the mountaintop to lecture us common folk on how we should view our real world problems (see also, Sean Penn).  And so Clooney’s career has metamorphosed from obscure mediocre television actor to grounded and gracious television and film A-lister, to self-important pseudo intellectual sensationalist.  But that doesn’t mean the man can’t still participate in a good movie every now and then, and that is precisely what The Descendants is – a good movie.

I know I am really late on this film, but like I mentioned before, Clooney’s films are very hit or miss for me so I am almost never in a rush to see the latest from Stacy Keibler’s lesser half.  Fortunately, this one earns him a checkmark in the plus column as it is a compelling story featuring strong acting, good directing, and nice cinematography.  The plot of the movie finds Clooney’s Matt King juggling the imminent death of his comatose wife, her recently discovered marital indiscretion, his disconnect with his two rapidly maturing daughters, and an impending real estate deal that will greatly affect the local economy in Hawaii.  Clearly, the man has a lot on his plate.

So what works best about this movie is Clooney and his ability to shed his celebrity baggage and immerse himself into a role that runs counter to everything that people tend to admire about him.  His Matt King is a conflicted man running short on both confidence and bravado, seemingly lost and vulnerable on many fronts both personally and professionally.  Though the plot of the film is highly layered and very unique, the sense of self-doubt and the tormenting search for answers that Clooney’s King endures is a profoundly universal experience and that is what is so engaging about this movie.  Reinforcing this inner struggle is the Hawaiian Islands as a backdrop as the confines of this geographical region heightens the sense of isolationism that permeates King’s life.

One of the other challenges to this film is the importance of Patrice Hastie as Elizabeth King.  Since her entire body of work in this movie involves lying motionless in a hospital bed, it is left to the supporting players to lend a voice to her character and create depth.  Robert Forster, Rob Huebel, Mary Birdsong, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, and Nick Krause perform admirably in this capacity and add color to Clooney’s struggles through the portrayal of their own respective coping mechanisms.  As for Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), she is perfectly cast as Clooney’s petulant and defiant teen so much so that you wonder whether the seams between performance and reality actually exist.  Hers is the right character to act as the sidekick for Matt King on this emotional journey and their relationship acts as one of the key elements of catharsis.

Now having the seen the film, I have to admit that I am not sure it is worthy of all the platitudes lavished upon it during last year’s awards season.  Don’t get me wrong.  Writer/Director Alexander Payne has put together a well-executed film that is constantly tugging at your emotions and sensibilities.  But I think the film is just that; a good (not great) movie that tells a very personal story, with solid direction, and some very strong acting.  None of this is a bad thing, but in some ways I think the critical masses convinced themselves that they were seeing something in this film that wasn’t necessarily there - as I believe was the case with Clooney’s last critically acclaimed movie – Up in the Air.  Still, if you have not seen this one, I would definitely recommend renting it since well-executed films have been in short supply as of late.  This one may not be a game changer, but you will most definitely find yourself engaged and invested.

Standout Performance: George Clooney.  I am partial to his work in Ocean’s Eleven and in O Brother, Where Art Though? but he does a very good job of disappearing into this role.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: Bachelorette

Bachelorette is one of those films first released via On Demand and Electronic-Sell-Through before a very modest theatrical release.  Back in the day when people were buying DVDs like bread and milk before a big storm, such movies were distributed Direct-to-DVD.  In other words, those movies stunk.  So I find it curious that some have described Bachelorette as a cross between The Hangover and Bridesmaids, because the latter two are actually quite entertaining. 

The plot of the movie chronicles the missteps surrounding three high school friends - Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher) – who reunite as bridesmaids for the wedding of their friend, Becky (Rebel Wilson).  Selfish and mean-spirited, their respective behaviors cause problem after problem and ultimately threatens to derail the wedding.

The problem here is that writer/director Leslye Headland is trying to capture that R-rated comedic magic that others have seemingly bottled with movies such as Bridesmaids and Ted, but unfortunately she neglects the three key elements to successfully creating a solid R-rated romantic comedy – likability, humor, and some semblance of redemption.  Here is how I think she and her film fared:

1. Likability of the cast.  At some point in the past I liked most of the individuals in this cast; Isla Fisher in Definitely, Maybe; Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On, James Marsden in Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, and so on and so forth.  Unfortunately, I loathe all of them in this movie and that goes ditto for Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan (Parkey Posey 2.0), and Kyle Bornheimer.  Most everyone in this movie is unsavory and worse still is that nearly every actor in this movie is clearly mailing it in.  As a result one cannot help but feel ambivalent about whether or not the movie’s emotional strings (romantic and otherwise) end up tied in a neat bow.

2.  Humor.  Simply put, there is none.  Someone forgot to tell Headland that cocaine humor stopped being en vogue in the 90’s.  In all seriousness, I cannot recall one scene that elicited anything more than a mild chuckle.  Completely void of any semblance of wit, most attempts at a punch line come off as cruel and mean-spirited.  Sure, having protagonists who make snarky comments can play in a movie, but only when those characters are either likable or have redemptive qualities, which leads me to my third point.

3.  Redemptive qualities.  In a film, redemption comes form the journey where the characters emerge from the events of the plot transformed – finding themselves in a better place from whence they came.  In an R-rated comedy, this also means having the sensibility to straddle the line that divides adult humor and cras vulgarity, so as to ensure that no matter how far the protagonists stray into mean-spirited douchebaggery, viewers can all walk away from the film feeling good about the protagonists.  The trio of Dunst, Kaplan, and Fisher not cross that line, they aslo emerge from the journey (if there actually was one) unchanged.

So in taking stock of this film, it becomes obvious that Headland and her creative team swung and missed on all three criteria.  It should come as no surprise then that I am not recommending this film.  The purported romantic comedy is neither funny nor emotive, thus this is a film to be avoided  at all costs.  There are too many films in this raunchy comedy space that execute this formula infinitely better to waste your time on this one.  You have been warned.

Standout Performance: None.

 
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