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, March 31, 2013

Review: Spring Breakers

Sometimes something is so bad that it’s actually starts to seem good; or so outrageous that it actually makes sense.  And for about two seconds in the middle of Spring Breakers, I started to wonder if this was one of those instances.  But then James Franco went on a ten minute monologue about guns and Calvin Klein Escape and I was reassured that this was nothing more than cinematic refuse.  In fact, this film is so bad that there is no lens I can think of, through which this movie can be rationalized as anything more than terrible.  Sure, there are the apologists and contrarians who will look at the bright colors and the gratuitous sexual innuendo and convince themselves that this is art nouveau on crack, but then those are probably the same people who think dog poo smeared across a blank canvas is artistically meaningful.

The plot of the movie follows four incredibly misguided youths (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) as they go to extreme measures to participate in the annual rite of spring break in Florida.  When a local drug dealing wanna-be-rapper (James Franco) bails them out of jail, they embark on a low-rent-low-level crime spree that puts them on a collision course with a local heavy. 

The problem then with the synopsis in the preceding paragraph is that it gives the impression that this movie has an actual plot when it is in fact a muddled mess of graphic sexual exploitation and every ignorant stereotype that you can come up with.  That is not the fatal flaw of this movie, as many a movie have been built on rocky foundations but still managed to entertain.  No, the problem here is that it looks and feels as though director Harmony Korine simply has no idea how to direct, cut, and score a feature film.  So then it should come as no surprise that this is his first time in the big chair. 

Rather than a movie, this set of scenes plays like the fetish fantasy of a seventeen years old boy who takes too many drugs and plays too many video games.  The visuals are a cheap rip off of Miami Vice with neon and pastels and the dialogue is so amateurish that the crowd spent half the film laughing through scenes that are unintentionally funny.  The edits are incoherent and sloppy, and the musical score completely bungled. 

As for the cast, James Franco follows up his subpar effort in Oz with a performance that is even worse.  I give him credit for taking a risk and going for it, but this character Alien is an unbelievable caricature of ten outdated stereotypes.  The stench of his performance may be as much a product of Korine’s writing as it is his performance, but there are just too many cringe inducing scenes to give Franco a pass.  As for the cast of former tween stars headlining this movie, Selena Gomez gets the nod for worst in show.  I’m not going to mince words here.  She simply cannot act.  Regardless of film or role, she simply does not have enough talent to convince anyone of anything.  My guess here is that her biggest claim to fame going forward will be as Bieber’s on-again-off-again girlfriend until his five minutes of fame mercifully come to an end.

Then there is the trio of Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.  The three of them essentially delivered the same performance.  When they weren’t naked and participating in some kind of erotica, they were desperately overacting to convince viewers they were street ready and hardcore.  Was it embarrassing?  Yes.  Were they worse than Franco or Gomez?  No.  So in this context, that has to be viewed as a win.  As for the rest of the cast, there were a bunch of exaggerated stereotypes walking around with guns, bongs, and bibles but none of them bring anything to the table and thus are not worthy of a mention.

In my experience I have come to find that voices that are the most loud and obnoxious tend to have the least meaningful thoughts to express and that’s what this movie is.  It’s loud, bombastic, and over-the-top but it doesn’t have anything important to convey and doesn’t really have a compelling story to tell.  This movie is nothing more than a director (and I use that word loosely) indulging his own personal fantasies onscreen and does not need to be seen let alone paid for.  Watch pretty much anything else (yes, even Project X) and you will find yourself far more entertained.

Standout Performance: Anyone who passed on this movie.

Friday, March 29, 2013

April 2013 Movie Guide

APRIL 5, 2013

Starring: Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore, Jane Levy
Why You Should See It: Because there are no other major nationwide releases that weekend.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because it's a remake and 99.9999% of the time, remakes are inferior.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Never.

Other theatrical releases:  Jurassic Park 3D, The Company You KeepTrance

APRIL 12, 2013 
Starring: Ashley Tisdale, Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Terry Crews
Why You Should See It: Because you've seen the first four and you don't want to break up a good streak.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because each successive movie in the series has been exponentially worse than its predecessor.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Never. Ever.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, T.R. Knight
Why You Should See It: The story of Jackie Robinson is a compelling tale that holds a lot of historical significance.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because there are so many better places to go for historical accuracy than a hollywood production.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Game time decision.

Other theatrical releases:  To the Wonder

APRIL 19, 2013 
Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman
Why You Should See It: Because there hasn't been a decent action movie in months.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because Tom Cruise has been very hit or miss lately.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Sure, why not.

Other theatrical releases:  Home RunThe Lords of SalemDisconnect

APRIL 26, 2013 
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Tony Shalhoub, Bar Paly
Why You Should See It: Dwayne Johnson and Marky Mark can be pretty entertaining.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because Michael Bay is a mixed bag as a director.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Yes.

Starring: Katherine Heigl, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton
Why You Should See It: Ehh....
Why You Should Avoid It: Katherine Heigl.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Just say no.

Other theatrical releases:  MudAt Any PriceThe Numbers Station

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: The Call (2013)

Sometimes when you watch a movie, you just know that creative threw a bunch of stuff against the wall and went with whatever muddle mix of ideas happened to stick.  The Call starring Halle Berry is precisely this type of movie.  Forget that it’s almost a direct rip of Cellular (Chris Evans), because that alone would not have warranted someone opening his/her checkbook in order for this movie to be made.  No, this movie is more like five parts Cellular, and one part Silence of the Lambs and Kiss the Girls, with a little of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 sprinkled in.  The problem here is that none of these mismatched parts is done particularly well.

The plot of the movie focuses on Halle Berry’s Jordan Turner, a 9-1-1 operator who becomes embroiled in the machinations of a serial killer when she accepts a call from Casey Welson (Aibgail Breslin), a girl who is kidnapped from a mall parking lot.  The plot plays out like a game of cat and mouse as Berry and Breslin work together to try to stop the killer (Michael Eklund) before it is too late. 

Though this has been done before, the premise has a few things working for it – a clear objective, the feeling of time constraints, lots of enclosed spaces; all the tools one would need to build a taut suspenseful narrative.  And that’s what makes director Brad Anderson directing miscues all the more glaring.  To be fair, this movie is a low budget B-level film and thus should come with tempered expectations, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell a compelling story.  Sadly, writer Richard D’Ovidio seems content to pick pocket elements from other films and does a shoddy job of sewing them into one meaningful plotline.  The story is so week that you could have watched the entire film with the mute button on and not have been any worse off.

Still, I am going to throw a ton of blame for this debacle at the cast.  When you are making a B-level movie, much of the onus to elevate the narrative falls to the acting talent.  Despite some of the acclaim that Halle Berry has received, I’ve never been high on her acting abilities.  Still, regardless of where you stand on this debate it is undeniable that her recent filmography leaves a lot to desire.  So to me, her work in The Call is the continuation of a steep decline.  I found her performance lazy and unconvincing and the delivery of some of her lines downright cringe inducing.

As for her co-star Abigail Breslin, her work was a pedestrian paint-by-numbers damsel in distress performance.  You could have gotten this (or more) from half the actresses at an open casting call, but my guess is that she was placed in this film for whatever bump at the box office her slight name recognition might contribute.  Still her performance probably could have graded better had Michael Eklund brought a bit of menace to the table.  It is not hyperbole when I tell you that he is probably one of the least intimidating villains I’ve ever seen in a film from the thriller genre.  His performance is total amateur hour.

So to recap, the plot is an amateurish amalgamation of a bunch of mismatched films; poorly written and directed; produced on the cheap; and features a cast that brings nothing to the table.  I don’t think this needs to be stated, but I am going to say it anyway.  Do not watch this movie.  Ever.  It is a supreme waste of time and/or money that can be spent on more interesting activities like mowing your lawn with nail clippers or…breathing.  In lieu of this, watch Cellular.  By no means is that a cinematic masterpiece, but Chris Evans and Kim Basinger are ten times better than the aforementioned cast of this film.  And as you move forward in your life, I highly recommend that you avoid all movies that feature Halle Berry as the lead.  Consider yourself warned.

Standout Performance: Morris Chestnut.  He wasn’t terrible.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

When did the Die Hard franchise officially “jump the shark?”  Was it in the second film, when Bruce Willis’ John McClane jumped onto the wing of a movie 747?  Or was it in the third film, when he survived an underground flood by being harmlessly thrusted out a manhole.  Surely, by the time he was paired opposite Justin Long to stop an imminent cyber attack against the U.S., you were well aware this was no longer the John McClane you knew and loved.  Still, many critics have opined that the problem with A Good Day to Die Hard is that the film betrays its roots – that John McClane should be an everyman who not only survives but also overcomes realistic circumstances through grit and determination.  Realistic?  Really?  What about the last three movies has seemed at all realistic?  No, the real problem with the fifth Die Hard is that it’s a pointless excuse to smash a bunch of cars and blow up stuff.

The plot of the movie finds McClane off to Moscow to find his son, who has apparently found himself in a bit of trouble.  As in the previous films, we are reminded repeatedly that McClane has been a horrible family man and is hoping to mend fences with his son.  Sending him to Moscow adds the fish-out-of-water layer to the plot but that only manifests in a few re-hashed American cowboy jokes.  The rest of the plot plays out with McClane repeatedly schooling his son, so much so that I was waiting for him to break out into a rendition of “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie.  It all gets tired really fast.

If I could make an analogy to illustrate what ails this film it would be that director John Moore and writer Skip Woods gives us the cinematic equivalent of a BMW 1-series.  People may call the 1 series a BMW, slap the logo on the hood, and pay BMW prices, but nothing under the hood suggests that it is a real BMW.  That’s the deal with Die Hard 5.  Other than casting Bruce Willis and giving it a title that not-so-cleverly uses the words “Die Hard,” there’s nothing about this movie that looks or feels like Die Hard.  The plot is generic and uninteresting.  And save for one or two way-over-the-top scenes, the action sequences are pretty unimaginative.  And in a movie like this, if you don’t have top not action then you don’t have anything.

Where I knew things had gone wrong was when the plot took us to Chernobyl.  Having seen Chernobyl Diaries before this film, I can safely say that I hope no other film ever uses this as a backdrop to a fictional plot.  It doesn’t play.  Not even “Looper” Bruce Willis or “Moonlighting” Bruce Willis could have overcome the stink of this whole Chernobyl plot line.  But worry not, because Willis doesn’t bring his A-game to this movie.  He treats it like a paycheck movie.  I have come to realize that Die Hard has become the cinematic equivalent of “fat sweat pants” to Bruce Willis.  It lulls him into not even trying.  As a result, his work in this movie is even worse than his work in Armageddon.   Ouch!

Working opposite Willis is Jai Courtney as his son, Jack.  Courtney recently played the heavy in Jack Reacher and after seeing these two performances I can tell you that he has the screen presence of an uncooked potato - Yes, uncooked.  The issue here is that not only is he a bad actor, but I suspect that he may also be a boring guy. My guess is that he is probably not the person you want to station yourself next to at a cocktail party.  His lack of charisma is a huge issue for this film since he receives as much screen time as Bruce Willis.  As for the rest of the cast, Cole Hauser (Pitch Black), Yuliya Snigir, Sebastian Koch, and Rasha Bukvic are adequate at best and could have been easily replaced by any other actor.  That Mary Elizabeth Winstead is only used in a cameo capacity is one of the more egregious offenses committed by the creative team.  She is a good actress who would have brought a lot more spunk to the narrative than anyone else in this cast.

So, I suspect that there are some who are going to watch this movie regardless of what anyone says.  You’ve seen the first four so you’re pot committed.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  I am right there with you.  But for those of you on the fence, you probably don’t need to see this movie, even if you are an action/adrenaline junky.  There are titles upon titles upon titles that will give you more bang for your buck (or your time) sans the curmudgeonly old man jokes.  At best, it is a FX, TBS, TNT movie but even then you’ll probably regret losing those ninety-one minutes.  If you are a huge Bruce Willis nut, go rent Looper - his best work in the last ten years.  And if you’re a Jai Courtney fan, well then I guess there’s no accounting for taste.  

Standout Performance: Me for not using a joke like this one in the review: “The only thing that needs to Die Hard is this movie.”  ZING!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Who doesn’t love a comeback, right?  I guess that’s why we have so many stories of redemption put to print and screen.  Blood and guts, sweat and tears, gut busting laughter – whatever the packaging the plot mechanisms remain the same: a meteoric rise to the top, out right acts of hubris, a disgraceful descent into ruin, and after the appropriate amount of suffering a return to top form with a newfound sense of humility.  Take a look at your Nook, your iTunes, and at your DVD shelf and you will see that paradigm all over the place.  Its latest big screen incarnation comes wrapped in the magical packaging in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

The movie follows Steve Carell’s Burt as he goes from bullied child in grade school to the pinnacle of the magic world as a headliner at Bally’s in Las Vegas.  Along for the ride is his childhood friend and fellow magician Anton (Steve Buscemi).  But after years of working together performing the same routine day in and day out and living a life of excess, the two magicians lose their popularity and have a falling out.  The movie goes on to detail how Carell’s Burt deals with his plight and his attempt to recapture that former magic.

Going into this movie, you know two things: that the movie is not going to be a cinematic masterpiece; and exactly where the plot is going to take you.  So I am not going to tell you about the cinematography, the directing, and the level of believability.  None of that matters here and people who say otherwise are cinema snobs.  The only thing you really need to know is whether writers Jonathan Goldstein and Jon Francis Daley can make you laugh with the inevitable slew of punch lines aimed at Criss Angel, David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, et al.  And the answer to that question is…a bit.

I went into the movie with tepid expectations even though the cast is littered with some very funny acting talent.  Carell, Buscemi, and Carrey each on their own are capable of delivering an entire film’s worth of laughs so the prospects of the three of them together made me wonder if this would be to the world of magic what Anchorman is to television journalism.  Still, given the release date and WBs recent track record (very poor), I had the feeling this one would be quite forgettable.  Judging by the sparse crowd for 7 PM on a Friday night, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

So much of the film feels pedestrian.  The plot really doesn’t matter much as ninety percent of the movie feels like filler between the occasional big gag, some of which are quite funny.  In this way, I liken most of the narrative to commercials that run during sporting events.  You sit tolerate them until the action starts.  Needless to say, this is not a ringing endorsement for the film.  There are however a few times when the comedic bits make the down time worthwhile but that is more the exception than the rule.  More often than not, the gags fall short of the mark - especially Jim Carrey’s.  Clearly his role in this movie is to deliver a series of grotesque sight gags that get played out very early on.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Carrey is Alan Arkin, as retired magician Rance Holloway.  If it feels like he is the only one really trying in this movie, it’s because he probably was.  He’s the moral conscience of the film, but at the same time he is incredibly funny.  Arkin’s an absolute pro and that especially shows opposite some of his underperforming cast mates.  If Steve Carell could have bottled some of that magic, this film might have been a letter grade higher, but Carell doesn’t give you anything you haven’t already seen in The Office or Get Smart

As for the rest of the cast, Buscemi is mostly window dressing and never gets to stretch his chops in this movie, which is disappointing.  When he is on his comedic game, he can steal the show.  James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, and Brad Garrett are in this movie, but probably dropped their funniest lines on the way to cashing their paychecks. And as for Olivia Wilde, I am not always the biggest fan of her work, but I found her character in this movie very likable.  It was a nice turn for the actress.

I am going to be frank and tell you that there is no way you should pay to see this movie – not at the cinema, not at as a purchase, and not at a Red Box kiosk.  You will regret every single penny spilled.  At best it’s a middle-of-the-queue Netflix movie, but probably better left to a random viewing on HBO, Starz, or MAX.  With low expectations and little investment, you will probably appreciate the humor a bit more.  This is a movie that could have been better, but it also could have been worst.  So take it for what it is and you’ll probably achieve the best entertainment value.

Standout Performance: Alan Arkin.  He is the best of the cast hands down.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Raise your hand if you’re fan of Sam Raimi, he of The Evil Dead, The Quick and the Dead, and Spider-Man fame.  I too once was a fan of his work especially after Spider-Man 2 – a movie, which at the time I considered to be the pinnacle of superhero films.  Then the colossal disaster that is Spider-Man 3 happened; a movie loaded with scenes that made me cringe as if an army of fingernails were raking across a giant chalkboard.  When he followed that up with a pedestrian effort in Drag Me to Hell, I completely lost interest in his work.  But really, the damage had been done as the stink of that one huge debacle had completely soured me on the director’s work.  So when I first heard about Oz the Great and Powerful, I had very little interest in seeing it.

So does Raimi acquit himself with this movie based on Frank Baum’s novels?  Not quite, but he doesn’t exactly embarrass himself either.  The plot of the movie is set some twenty years before The Wizard of Oz and details Oscar Diggs’ journey from Kansas to Oz.  When he arrives in the mythical land he finds that a wicked with is tormenting the land that the natives believe him to be the wizard who will free them from their plight. 

Despite the fact that there are a number of things that could not appear in the film (footage from the The Wizard of Oz, the ruby red slippers, certain design specs of the yellow brick road), because of WB’s ownership rights, the latest Disney cash cow ($84M opening weekend) plays very much like an homage to its predecessor with a number of winks and nods.  I have to wonder though if Raimi makes the same mistake that Bryan Singer made with Superman Returns.  While I understand the desire to create this palpable connective tissue between the two films, this almost dogmatic approach to evoking images from the past makes things feel familiar but dated.  More importantly, I think it represents a missed opportunity to build out a fresh new approach to some very familiar source material.

Obviously, I am not exactly in the target demographic here as this film is clearly family fair.  But I do think that the movie slow plays a bit too long for any demographic and as a result, the first two acts feel like one big set up – albeit one unfolding at a snail’s pace.  Normally, this would not completely spell doom for a film, unless said movie features James Franco in the lead.  Once upon a time, Franco was an up-and-comer lauded for wanting to improve his craft.  Then Spider-Man 3 happened (and subsequently Pineapple Express, hosting the Oscars, Your Highness).  Coincidence?  I think not.  In this film, Franco hams it up as the con man Oscar Diggs but unfortunately he is not fooling anyone.  Of the cast, his overacting is the worst performance by a mile.

The damage of Franco’s ineptitude could have been mitigated had the three witches dazzled onscreen.  Unfortunately, those three performances were very much a mixed bag.  At times, Michelle Williams (Glinda) is electrifying onscreen.  Then there are those moments where she is muted and disconnected.  Rachel Weisz (Evanora) seems to be channeling a bit of Charlize Theron from Snow White in the Huntsman, but fails to tap into that unbridled rage, which made that performance work.  And Mila Kunis (Theodora) seems sorely out of place in this film.  Everything about the way she speaks and moves is so contemporary that through the proceedings, you are constantly aware that you are watching someone play a character from the fantastical past.  And that is not a good thing for a movie that demands the suspension of disbelief.

Rounding out the rest of the cast is Zach Braff (where have you been?), Joey King, Bill Cobbs, and Tony Cox.  Each is competent in limited roles, but it is of no consequence as the stink of James Franco permeates this entire film.  I will say that the narrative does pick up in the third act as all the moving pieces come to a head.  It was at this time that I finally became engaged by the plot.  Unfortunately, it is a bit too little and way too late, because when you know where a film is going to end up (based upon the beginning of The Wizard of Oz), the journey has to be as good as the payoff.

So in considering all this I would give this movie an extremely mild recommendation as a Netflix rental only.  There are some strong visuals and a few fun moments (especially if you have children), but not enough to warrant paying cinema prices or going out of your way to view it.  Anything more than that and you will come away from the movie disappointed.  Talk has begun in regards to a sequel (perhaps sans Raimi) so here’s hoping James Franco suddenly remembers how to act in the interim or that they pull the ole switcheroo.

Standout Performance: Michelle Williams.  She is not always great, but she is my favorite in this movie though this may be a function of her character more than anything else.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: Life of Pi

For years, a number of filmmakers have been interested in bringing Life of Pi (the novel by Yann Martel) to the big screen, but were unable to find a reasonable way to create a visual depiction of the story.  Only recently had technology advanced to the point where translating the novel to film seemed plausible.  So when Ang Lee committed to the process, my interest in the project increased immensely as that ensured the film would be visually stunning.  The question remained though, could the CG realistically capture the vision without sacrificing realism and could the structure of the narrative lend itself to the conventions of cinematic storytelling.  After watching the film, I am of the opinion that the movie is a bit of a mixed bag.

The plot of the movie is a survival narrative wrought with isolationism.  Think Tom Hanks in Castaway except the protagonist is a young man named Pi who along with his family must move from India to Canada.  As part of the move, his father must transport animals from their zoo in order to sell them at their next destination.  When a ferocious storm sinks their ship, Pi is forced to battle the elements and survive the perils of the open ocean.

It should come as no surprise that Ang Lee absolutely delivers with stunning visuals.  The scenery is magnificently framed and an uninterrupted sense of motion permeates the film to almost no end.  Likewise, the rich use of color makes it difficult to take your eyes from the screen.  Unfortunately, there is another side to filmmaking that has to do with meat and potatoes storytelling and that is precisely why I consider this film a mixed bag.  I found myself feeling at various points of the movie that it shifts from being very good to very mediocre, from riveting to filler, from having a singular focus to losing its way.  I suspect that this partially due to the source material as it is meant to be a bit of a slow burn.  Unfortunately, this results in highly uneven pacing.

If director Ang Lee is the most important person involved with this film, then Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel is the second most significant.  In much the way that Tom Hanks had to carry Cast Away, Sharma has to bear the weight of much of this movie.  He does a nice job in the role canvasing the broad range of emotions associated with Pi’s plight.  His work is complemented nicely by Irrfan Khan’s performance. As adult Pi Patel, Khan does a fantastic job as the present day narrator and greatly enhances the film by lending a robust layer of color to the narrative.

As for the rest of cast, Adil Hussain, TabuVibish SiavkumarRafe Spall, and Gerard Depardieu are all competent in their roles, but do not receive nearly enough screen time to impact the film significantly.  The most significant supporting player in the movie is the tiger, Richard Parker, who shines as a stunning example of CG.  This is no small detail as the misuse of CG can derail even the best of efforts.  That such a strong connection can be made between the protagonist and this animal is a testament to Lee, his technical team, and to Suraj Sharma.

At the end of the day, I liked the movie.  My issue here is that the plot necessitates Lee slow play his hand in telling the story.  This completely grinds the movie to a halt and allows the creative team these moments of self-indulgence where plot advancement is sacrificed for visual style and flair.  And in those moments, my interest in the movie waned and I found myself wanting to fast forward to the conclusion.  This is an unfortunate turn for a film that at times is flat out brilliant.

Despite some of these shortcomings, I would absolutely recommend the movie.  Though he would not have been my choice for the Academy Award, Ang Lee is a fantastic director, who does an admirable job with a project that many deemed impossible to film.  I don’t think you will walk away from this movie thinking it the best of the year, but there will be times when you find yourself unable to pry your eyes from the screen. 

Standout Performance: Irrfan Khan.  Through words and no action, Khan is not only able to emote effectively, but his performance resonates throughout the film from start to finish.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: Hitchcock

During my undergrad days at Brandeis, I took a course that focused on Hitchcock’s filmography.  Most enrolled in this class because they thought it was a lay up; I took it because I love movies.  For the next three months I had the pleasure of watching more than fourteen of his films and delving into a series of interviews conducted between Francois Truffaut and Hitchcock himself.  After twelve weeks and three term papers, I came away with an appreciation for the master of suspense, so it was with a curious eye that I watched Hitchcock starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.

The plot of the film finds Hitchcock some thirty plus years into his career searching for his next great endeavor.  When he comes upon Psycho, a gruesome novel about a trouble young man, he decides that it should be the basis of his next film.  Unfortunately, the esteemed director has trouble getting studio backing, thus the plot of the film focuses on his endeavors to finance, produce, and direct the controversial project himself.

I liked the film, but I readily admit that it’s not for everyone.  A movie about making a movie doesn’t exactly scream, “Must see!”  So if you have never had an interest in Hitchcock, his movie Psycho, or gaining a small window into the history of movie making this film is not going to do much for you.  Let me be clear though in this one regard, Hitchcock (the movie) isn’t a biopic or a documentary-style film, but instead a clear dramatization of real life events that at times panders to the lowest common denominator in regards to Hitchcockian associations.  Even still, director Sacha Gervasi spins a decent yarn about the man’s efforts to bring the violent offbeat story of Norman Bates to life.

What elevates this movie above others of this ilk (i.e. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) is the work of Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville respectively.  Their attention to detail, their chemistry as a couple, and the way they cultivate the flaws in their respective characters makes this film an interesting character piece.  That you can at times forget you are watching a story about an iconic director and instead focus on the nature of the relationship between a husband and wife is a credit to their crafts.

Also in the plus column is Scarlett Johansson.  I love Scarlett Johansson, but that doesn’t mean I think she is a good actress.  The last time I thought she was really extraordinary onscreen was way back when in Lost in Translation.  While her work as Janet Leigh is nowhere near that stratosphere, she does a nice job with the character.  Likewise for Toni Collette who absolutely disappears into the role of Peggy Robertson – Hitchcock’s production assistant.  In a lot of ways, this movie is about the women in Hitchcock’s life and Collette does a great job of making her character feel important.

Unfortunately, it’s not all pluses across the board in the acting department as Jessica Biel continues her unimpressive run of underwhelming performances.  Looking both pouty and sleepy at the same time seems to be one of her go to acting moves, but she has yet to realize that it simply does not work.  As Vera Miles, she fails to add anything to the narrative besides apathy.  Danny Huston also turns in a pedestrian performance as Hitchcock’s antagonist, but more than anything he seems like a walking cliché straight out of a bad episode of Mad Men.

The best way then to frame a movie like Hitchcock is to think of it as the gambling equivalent of a pick ‘em.  Is it good movie?  Sure.  Is it well acted?  For the most part.  Will you like it?  Maybe not so much, depending on your sensibility.  The premise is niche and the pace is slow and this will be a major turn off for most.  If however, you are a fan of cinema of Hitchcock himself, I would recommend giving this one a look.  There are no big reveals or stand out moments, but it is well acted and films with good acting have been in incredibly short supply lately.

Standout Performance: Helen Mirren.   She does a great of delivering a nuanced performance as Alma, who represents the heart of the film. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: Lay the Favorite

There is a grand tradition of movies associated with gambling set in rich locations like Las Vegas or New York City with seedy characters, ambiguous morality, and the threat of financial windfall and ruin – movies like Rain Man, Rounders, and The Colors of Money to name a few.  Then there is that next tier of gambling movie that appeals to the degenerate gambler in each of us, but does n’t give much of a cinematic payoff (Two for the Money, 21).  Then, of course, is that third tier of movies; the ones that would stink no regardless of the subject matter but just happen to have people making bets and money exchanging hands.  That is precisely where Lay the Favorite resides, amongst those very films that have long since been forgotten.  But since you've probably never heard of this movie, should this come as any surprise?

The reason you have never heard of this flick is because it made a whopping $21,000 in its theatrical release.  Based on the autobiographical novel by Beth Raymer, the film stars Rebecca Hall (The Town), Bruce Willis, and Catherine Zeta-Jones and follows Hall’s Beth as she ventures from Florida to Las Vegas only to find herself immersed in the world of professional book making under the tutelage of gambling guru Dink Heimowit (Bruce Willis).  When things turn sour for the protagonist, the outcome of the film hinges on her ability to take command of her own life and display true emotional maturity.

Autobiographical or not - this movie plays like a series of clichés.  The stripper backstory, the seedy underbelly of Vegas, New York bookies, it’s as if they have been taken straight from the cookie cutter for your viewing displeasure.  Almost nothing about this movie feels real from the relationships to the machinations and this is born from the creative team’s paint-by-number approach to filmmaking.  Emotions are tossed around loosely like a football at a picnic and relations turn on a dime for reasons unknown.  The dull washed-out quality that permeates this film not only ensures that you do not understand what motivates the principle characters, but also that you absolutely do not care.

This movie is Rebecca Hall’s show and unfortunately I think the role falls outside her wheelhouse.  I mostly like Hall’s work in the past – specifically in The Town and to a lesser degree in Vicky Christina Barcelona, but in my opinion, the kind of role that suits her best is the type that she played in the aforementioned The Town.  Smart, thoughtful, and down-to-earth seems like something she could pull off in her sleep.  As a stripper turned bookie who has a good heart but is sorely lacking in street smarts, her performance is uneven, unconvincing, and clunky.  This makes her character difficult to root for.

Her cohort Bruce Willis isn’t bad as career gambler Dink.  He is just not good.  It’s a different kind of turn for Willis as his character is a superstitious man riddled with the uncertainty that any professional gambler would struggle with and Willis has moments where he nails the role.  They are just not enough to offset those other times when he reverts back to his typical shtick.  While this is not a memorable performance by the actor, he certainly does not embarrass himself.  As for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Willis’ wife, she serves as the biggest cliché of all and could easily have been replaced by almost any other actress with little or no consequence.  Is this her fault?  No, but she does nothing to improve the situation.

As for the rest of the cast, Frank Grillo does little more than pump his fist and overact.  Josh Jackson spends most of the movie alternating between looking love struck and hemming and hawing, essentially reprising his role as Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.  And as for Vince Vaughn, well, it’s another sad turn for this former A-list actor who once used to be a guaranteed laugh-a-minute.  He seems to have ventured passed the line (as so many other comedians do) that separates funny and weird. 

I don’t think it should come as any surprise that I do not recommend this movie.  Now is the point in the review where I would normally go into my usual spiel about how you should avoid it at all cost but I am pretty sure that if you live your life of normalcy, this movie will never cross your path.  It made $21,000 at the box office and essentially was a direct-to-dvd movie in a market that no longer really supports that kind of title.  So yeah, if you read this review (and I have no idea why you would) then thanks for reading and here’s hoping that Vince Vaughn recaptures his comedic genius opposite Owen Wilson in The Internship.  The odds are long but one can always hope.

Standout Performance: The nod goes to Corbin Bernsen, because his character pulls the ripcord early in the plot.