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!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: The Hangover Part III

When I think of a great movie that was really damaged by the last two legs of its trilogy the first one that comes to mind is The Matrix.  All that was good about that first film (and there was a lot) was compromised and marginalized by the overwrought cinematic trash that followed.  Even now when I catch the original Matrix film in passing, it’s hard to separate that movie from the painful dialogue, the silly plot twists, and the uninspired acting that dominated Reloaded and Revolutions.  Sadly, having watched The Hangover Part III, I can now say the exact same for that franchise.  As good a comedic adventure as the first film was, the second and now the third have ensured that it will no longer be remembered fondly.

Part three of The Hangover trilogy finds the Wolf Pack looking to take Alan to a facility in Arizona to assist him with his own emotional well-being.  Along the way, they get caught in the cross hairs of a Vegas wise guy who is desperate to find Leslie Chow, who has recently escaped from a Bangkok prison.  When the wise guy (played by John Goodman) takes Doug captive (of course), Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) are forced to chase down Chow in order to make things right.

Here’s the thing, when you’re making a sequel loaded with beloved characters, you are playing with house money as fans already have a built in affinity for your protagonists.  And that’s what makes it all the more painful when a writer/director like Todd Phillips takes that good will and flushes it down the toilet.  Sure, he had already inflicted a ton of damage to the franchise with The Hangover Part II (a point-by-point copy of the first film sans the fun), but with The Hangover Part III, it’s as if he wanted to pound the proverbial nail into the coffin.  How he chose to bring about such destruction was to make a comedy that is not at all funny.

The quickest analogy I can make to this movie is the series finale of Seinfeld.  Those of you who watched the last episode will remember that far too much time and effort was spent ensuring that every bit player who ever appeared on the show would be paraded across the screen, rather than doing what they did best; setting up jokes and then delivering the laughs.  That represents part of what is wrong with The Hangover Part III.  Far too much time is spent setting up this cameo and that cameo and returning to this location and that.  Sure, it’s a nice cookie for hardcore fans of the franchise (if there are any), but not when it sacrifices screen time that would be better served setting up witty jokes or hilarious sight gags.

The second half of what goes wrong in this film is the same problem that befalls pretty much every comedian/comedic property in Hollywood.  The longer anyone (or anything) funny exists in this industry, the more inevitable it becomes that he/she begins to take himself/herself far too serious.  Part III epitomizes this notion.  The script is dark, the peril real, and the talent in the cast, well some take themselves far too serious and seem to consider themselves above the source material.  And because of this, all that is fun and charming about the first film seems like less than a distant memory.

In regards to the work of the stars, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms seem to be going through the motions in this movie.  Clearly, the film represented a healthy paycheck to the duo and nothing more.  If either actor had a legitimate comedic moment during the film’s two hour running time, then I am hard-pressed to remember it.  On the other hand, Zach Galifianakis to his credit seems to be giving a better effort than his co-stars.  But trying to sell tired jokes and playing the funny man without a legitimate straight man along for the ride (thanks to Cooper’s and Helm’s apathy) is an unbalanced formula which amounts to delivering punch lines without setting up the jokes.

As for the rest of the cast, Justin Bartha remains an under utilized bit player (what else is new); John Goodman does nothing more than show up; and Jamie Chung, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike Epps, and Melissa McCarthy show up on screen long enough to register as nothing more than a blip.  Of the supporting cast, Ken Jeong clearly stands out as he is afforded the most screen time and does an admirable job of trying to bring Chow to life from this lifeless script, but by films end even Chow comes off as bland and neutered.

So by now you have probably surmised that I would not recommend this movie.  There’s just so little to appreciate about it, no matter your expectations, that I feel hard-pressed to justify any kind of viewing scenario.  I understand that desire to watch the movie in order to complete the cycle and get “closure” for this trilogy as that was very much my own motivation for heading out to the cinema, but I must warn you that watching this movie is going to greatly devalue your affinity towards the Wolf Pack.  Take a pass on Part III and try and forget Part II.  Maybe then you’ll be able to enjoy the next time you catch The Hangover on TV.

Standout Performance: Based on effort alone, Ken Jeong gets the nod.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: Fast & Furious 6

All who thumbs their noses at the Fast & Furious franchise just don’t get it.  Everyone from the suits to the creative team to the cast and crew know that these films aren’t Weinstein material and that no Awards Season campaign is going to be launched for an Oscar push.  The movies have and will always be about fast cars, big action sequences, and just enough sentimentality to make you care about the characters.  Each film has gone bigger than its predecessor and at times less believable, but that’s part of the fun and why it is a billion dollar franchise for Universal.  The latest entry in the series - Fast & Furious 6, proves to be the biggest and best of the lot.

The plot finds Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs seeking out Vin Diesel’s Toretto for helping in capturing an international arms dealer played by Luke Evans.  The hook to this deal is the reappearance of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto’s former paramour who was thought to be deceased.  With an offer of immunity on the table, Toretto and O’Conner (Paul Walker) reassemble their team to assist Hobbs’ manhunt and to bring their lost friend Letty home.

If it sounds like heavy stuff to you, then you’re wrong.  No matter what gravitas may seem to hang over the heads of the protagonists, this film is paced far too fast to take notice.  No, what the premise actually is, is a good launching point from which to thrust the crew onto an adrenaline-infused ride.  Since director Justin Lin first jumped into the franchise with the underrated Tokyo Drift, he has done a masterful job of framing the action steering this cast away from its racing roots towards heist narratives.  The continuity between franchise and director over the last four films shows itself well in the way that Fast & Furious 6 continuously ties back to its predecessors; something ardent fans of the franchise will appreciate.

And while Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Dwayne Johnson get top billing, Fast 6 is very much an ensemble film.  One could in fact make the argument that some of the best scenes unfold while the big three are off camera.  Thus each member of the cast deserves a bit of ink (and an individual grade):

Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto (B-): Diesel has played this role in just over four films spanning well over a decade.  While it seems like at times he is it on cruise control, it doesn’t affect his performance because: a.) It’s a roll that he could probably play in his sleep and b.) it’s not like the he is being tasked with playing Hamlet.

Paul Walker as Brian O’Connor (B-): The one constant throughout Walker’s career has never been his inability to act well.  There’s one role and only one role that he can play – Brian O’Connor.  This may be a product of his playing it fives times or because the writers tailor it to his persona.  Regardless, there’s not a lot of heavy lifting for him in this film and that allows him to be adequate.

Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs (B): If you tracked all the cringe worthy lines in this movie most would have to be attributed to Johnson’s Hobbs, but that is partly a byproduct of how his character is written.  He’s big; he’s militant; he’s over the top; and Johnson goes all in to portray him.  And as always, Johnson is downright entertaining.  Seriously, when was the last time you saw one of his movies and were not entertained?

Tyrese Gibson as Roman Pearce (B+): As usual, Gibson provides the comic relief and gets some of the best lines in this film and what he does with those lines is absolutely steal the show.  While no one will ever convince me that he is a good actor, I admit that he is very good at precisely the brand of shtick he brings to this franchise.

Sung Kang as Han (A-):  If Gibson is 1A in this movie, then Kang is 1B.  Try as the film does to make Vin Diesel’s and Paul Walker’s storylines serve as the heart of the movie, it’s Kang’s Han storyline that really drives that train.  Kang runs the acting gamut from comedy to physicality to emotional sensitivity and in doing so delivers the most complete performance in the movie.

Gal Gadot as Gisele (B): She’s not given the most robust role in the film but Gadot shows she is more than eye candy this time out.  She, along with Sung Kang, provides a different element to this movie, because in a franchise that constantly brings the same characters back into the same kind of fray each time out, Gadot (along with Kang) bring their characters on a journey that has a beginning, middle, and an end. 

Jordana Brewster as Mia O’Connor (C): Brewster is fairly irrelevant in this movie and serves as barely more than window dressing.

Chris Ludacris Bridges as Tej (C+): See also Jordana Brewster.  Okay, that’s a little harsh as Ludacris has his moments to shine occasionally, but in a robust cast with big personalities, his Tej falls a bit by the wayside.

Michelle Rodgiquez as Letty (C-):  I was never been a big fan of Michelle Rodriguez as an actress because I have always thought of her as a one trick pony.  Judging by her work in this film, she still is.

Luke Evans as Shaw (B-): I have seen Evans in some mediocre films (and roles) and despite this I have remained convinced that he is a very good actor.  After watching Fast 6, I am still waiting for him to prove me right.

Gina Carano as Riley (C-):  Carano is a beast.  Her MMA background and her work in Haywire says as much, but every time she speaks a line I am reminded that she is not an actresses.

So with all this being said, I will tell you that Justin Lin’s last hurrah in this franchise is a worthy send off.  The best films happen when the director loves the source material and respects its fan base and that is precisely what is happening in Fast & Furious 6.  It’s not a deep narrative and there are a few big plot holes and leaps in logic, but if you buy a ticket to this film looking for taut coherent storytelling, then you are stepping into the wrong theater.  If you are a fan of this franchise or looking for some good summer popcorn fare, then you will absolutely enjoy this movie on the big screen, as as there are some very impressive action sequences.  If you’re more of a “This is 40” or “Crazy Stupid Love” fan, then you may want to wait for this title on Netflix or maybe take a pass altogether.  And for all you hardcore Fast & Furious fans, fear not.  Number seven is already slated for a July 2014 release.

Standout Performance: Tyrese Gibson for the reasons mentioned above.  Honorable mention goes to Sung Kang.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

June 2013 Movie Guide

JUNE 7, 2013

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne, John Goodman
Why You Should See It: Because you just loved Wedding Crashers so much.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because of every other movie Vaughn and Wilson have done since Wedding Crashers.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Game time decision.

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane
Why You Should See It: It's a moderately interesting premise.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because it looks like a carbon copy of The Strangers and countless other home invasion thrillers.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says: Rental.

Other theatrical releases:  Violet & Daisy, Rapture-Palooza, Much Ado About Nothing

JUNE 14, 2013 

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner
Why You Should See It: Because it's a Superman movie.  'Nuff said.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you’re a hater.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  The must see movie of the summer.

Starring: Emma Watson, Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Leslie Mann
Why You Should See It: Because of Emma Watson and director Sophia Coppola, but really just Emma Watson.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you saw Spring Breakers and you're afraid this is in the same vein.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Yes to Emma Watson.

Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Burachel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson
Why You Should See It: Because there are a lot of funny people in this film.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because this movie wreaks of a self-indulgent, self-congratulatory project with far too many inside jokes.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  A flip of the coin.

Other theatrical releases:  Twenty Feet from Stardom, Hatchet III

JUNE 21, 2013 

Starring: John Krasinski, Steve Buscemi, John Good man, Billy Crystal, Helen Mirren
Why You Should See It: Because you just loved the other Monsters, Inc. movies.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you’re an adult.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  No.

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Matthew Fox, James Badge Dale
Why You Should See It: Because you love all things zombie related.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because of Brad Pitt's Chanel commercial and the massive rewrite and delays associated with this movie.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Take a pass.

Other theatrical releases: A Hijacking

JUNE 28, 2013 
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Marlon Wayans, Taran Killam
Why You Should See It: Because the odd couple formula tends to be a winner.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because the prominent Melissa McCarthy is in a movie, the quicker her schtick wears out its welcome.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Pick 'Em.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Jason Clarke, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins
Why You Should See It: Because you're one of ten people on the planet who think both Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum are great actors.
Why You Should Avoid It: Because you already saw it 2 months ago when it was called Olympus Has Fallen.
And the Magic 8 Ball Says:  Not even as a rental.

Other theatrical releases:  Byzantium, I’m So Excited

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Snitch

Judging by his recent box office success, everyone knows Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – action star.  With his imposing physicality and sharp charisma honed on a live microphone in front of a WWE crowd, he has very much earned the reputation as a franchise rehabilitator.  What gets overlooked is that Johnson has worked at his craft and turned himself into a decent actor.  In Snitch, you get a look at his improvement as he checks the fast cars and big guns at the door (for the most part), and delivers a performance that is a bit more character driven.

The plot of Snitch finds Johnson, the concerned but estranged father of an eighteen year old who mistakenly gets caught up in a drug transaction and as a result finds himself in jail and facing a ten-year sentence.  In order to reduce his son’s jail sentence, Johnson’s John Matthews strikes a deal with the District Attorney to assist in a drug bust in exchange for a reduced sentence.

As in any Dwayne Johnson movie, there are indeed gunfights and car chases, but this film is more about a father’s relationship with his son and the lengths that the father will go to protect him.  There is absolutely nothing new in this movie that you have not seen in a father/son narrative or even one centered on drug busts.  It’s pretty formulaic in both regards, but director Ric Roman Waugh does a decent job of turning out a fair B-movie action drama.  The plot and pacing remain taut as most of the fat trimmed off in the editing room.  The result is a steady growth in tension leading up to the film’s climax.  This helps offset what is for the most part an uninspired script.

Johnson’s work in this film as a concerned father is solid.  He effectively dampens his trademark over-the-top charisma to play a subdued everyman and it works just enough to make his character believable.  It’s not his most entertaining work nor is it his most impressive, but he ably carries the film on his shoulders.  I would liken his work in this film to the performances he turned in with Walking Tall and Gridiron Gang than any other in movie on his resume.  Is it a performance that saves the film from relative mediocrity?  No, but this one would by no means land him in any hall of shame. 

As for the rest of the cast, Susan Sarandon as the District Attorney is incredibly banal.  Clearly just a paycheck film for Sarandon, you almost get the feeling that she is reading her lines directly off cue cards (a la SNL).  Jon Bernthal (as an ex-con roped into helping Johnson infiltrate a drug ring) is satisfactory at best.  He seems to tap into every possible stereotype associated with his character and never elevates his performance beyond that.  Rafi Gavron, Melina Kanakaredes, and Nadine Velazquez portray various members of Johnson’s family, but none of the three do very much with the limited screen time they’ve been afforded.

The best performance from the supporting cast is delivered by Barry Pepper (as DEA Agent Cooper).  It’s not a shining example of the craft, but Pepper immerses into the role and gives it a good effort in a way that most of his fellow cast mates do not.  What his character lacks in substance and depth, he somewhat makes up for with conviction.  Still, his work is not enough to help Johnson make this film something more than just run-of-the-mill.

Ultimately, this movie has FX, TBS, TNT, et al written all over it.  Snitch is not atrocious, but there’s just not anything good enough about the movie to warrant making an effort to see it.  Even the most ardent Dwayne Johnson fan would have to admit as much.  You could literally replace this film with dozens upon dozens of titles based upon drug busts and not see any palpable difference.  Forget about this movie for now, because I am sure at some point you will run into it while flipping through the channels.  The movie should feel satisfactory, as a spur-of-the-moment viewing to offset extreme boredom.  Here’s hoping Johnson’s new movie, Fast & Furious 6 plays much better.

Not-So-Standout Performance: Benjamin Bratt.  I didn't even realize that he was in the movie.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Wreck-It Ralph

I’m not an animated movie guys.  I’ve properly stated this about a hundred times in this space, but every once in a while I will run out of things to watch or there will be an animated film that my girlfriend wants to see that will necessitate my giving one a look.  In the case or Wreck-It-Ralph, both scenarios came into play.  After one hundred and eight minutes of eye popping pastels and fluorescents, I came to the conclusion that Wreck-It-Ralph slots itself somewhere towards the upper end of the scale of the animated movies that I’ve seen - meaning I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it, but I also didn’t want to throw the remote at the television.  So what does this mean for you?

Well, let’s start with the premise.  The plot of the film tells the story of a video game villain named Wreck-It-Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), who has grown tired of playing the bad guy and aspires to become a hero.  When he sets out across the virtual world of his arcade to win a medal and achieve his dreams, he find that his journey wreaks havoc and threatens the fabric of all the games and the very arcade in which he resides.

A bit of a backstory to this movie involves Disney’s acquisition of Pixar.  Back when the deal went down, a lot of industry insiders wondered allowed if Pixar would be “Disnified” and if as a result, the onscreen product would suffer.  This was a legitimate concern given Disney Animation's recent history of spotty theatrical releases.  However, Pixar has for the most part been left to run as its own entity and judging by Tangled and Wreck-It-Ralph, has in fact effectually influenced Disney Animation.

The result then is a sleek movie with visuals that pop off the screen.  The animation is top notch and no stone is left unturned to foster any character that can provide a financial windfall for the Disney Consumer Products Group.  The story is creative-enough with just enough likability to grab both children and adults alike with such universal themes as friendship and loyalty and the plot provides a payoff worthy of the time invested. 

What stood out best about this movie is the voice work of John C. Reilly as Wreck-It-Ralph.  His voice, inflection, and timing lend itself perfectly to the character, who is a physically intimidating, but softhearted guy who always finds himself on the outside looking in.  Reilly’s ability to capture that with his voice work really keeps the film afloat.  Another aspect of the film that really worked was the appearance of some video game characters from classic games long past their prime.  Their respective appearances were a nice nod to the gaming community and provided some of the best comedic moments in the film. 

What didn’t work so well was the voice work of Jane Lynch (as Calhoun – a soldier) and Sarah Silverman (as Vanellope – a race car driver).  Lynch has a distinct very dry delivery that lends itself to blunt sarcasm and portraying mean streaks and in a lot of ways, her casting makes sense for what director Rich Moore was trying to achieve with this character.  But her work always feels out of place in the reality of this film and I could not help but always be aware that it was Jane Lynch speaking.  This proved damaging for the character.  As for Silverman, while her work never took me out of the reality of the film as she did a better job of disappearing into the character, I found her tone, inflection, and some of the choices she made very grating on the sense.  Her character is a key element to the film and for a film that banks on likability for its success; I found hers to be the least likable of the protagonists.

As for the rest of the cast, Jack McBrayer (Fix It Felix), Dennis Haysbert (General Hologram), Ed O’Neill (Mr. Litwak), and Alan Tudyk (King Candy) do a decent job of vocally bringing the members of this digital world to life – with Tudyk, of Dodgeball fame, standing out as the best of the rest.

In the end, I think that most people will enjoy this film. It has a moderately creative story with the right amount of sentimentality to keep you engaged with the characters’ plights.  If you have children this is a must see, but if you’re like me and not the biggest proponent of animated films, you may want to catch this on free television on a slow night.  While I haven’t changed my stance on animated films, I like the direction that they are going towards and should this trend continue, will look to put a few more on my movie queue.   

Standout Performance: John C. Reilly.  He does a great job of capturing the essence of Wreck-It-Ralph and ably carries the film.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Rest easy Star Wars fans.  If Star Trek Into Darkness is any kind of indicator, then the fate of a galaxy far, far away is in very good hands.  In what is clearly a down year at the cinema, J.J. Abrams’ second entry into Gene Rodenberry’s universe is easily the best film I’ve seen this year.  Sure, there are plot elements in this film that are sure to enrage the guys who dress as Klingons for Comicon every year, but to those who are not wedded to some sense of cannon or are relatively new to Star Trek, this film will absolutely delight and entertain. 

When last we saw Abrams’ version of the Enterprise crew, all things Trek had been turned upside down with a nifty reboot.  Some four years later, we find Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the team exploring and observing civilizations on different planets.  When a mysterious figure named John Harrison emerges from the shadows to wage a one-man war against Starfleet, Kirk and crew find themselves caught between a web of dueling machinations executed by the aforementioned Harrison and Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller).

To say anything more about the plot, would venture into spoiler territory and you want to stay as spoiler free as possible going into this film.  There are twists and turns that unfold throughout the film that not only manipulate the plot but will also play with your emotions.  Does everything stand up to compulsive scrutiny?  No, there are a few logic leaps, but mostly the kind that should be checked at the door for a sci-fi action film.  Abrams and his team of writers (Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof) weave a tale that is as much about space travel and war as it is about family and friendship.  It’s not easy to balance hand-to-hand combat and bombastic explosions with character development, but the creative pulls it off. 

The cast that you came to know and love in the Abrams’ first Trek is back and each slip into their respective roles as though no time has passed.  Chris Pine’s Kirk is still cocky and defiant showing glimpses of the sensitivity and compassion that brims beneath Kirk’s bravado.  Zachary Quinto brings the same consistent effort to the role of Spock this time out and expertly elevates the character when the script calls for a new emotional layer for the beloved Vulcan.  Karl Urban as Bones remains a great sidekick to Pine’s Kirk, playing a great straight man for Pine’s sarcastic barbs.  But of the original crew Simon Pegg as Scotty steals the show by being the most likable of the bunch, adding the perfect amount of comedic relief to offset the grave tone of the second and third acts. 

As for the newcomers, it is hard not to be impressed with Benedict Cumberbatch.  The role of Harrison requires him to move seamlessly from cold and calculating to unbridled brutality and he does so admirably with the kind of presence that is necessary to be one of the key driving forces of a plot that is so large in scale and scope.  As for Peter Weller (Admiral Marcus), I found his work to be satisfactory at best.  Weller is no stranger to sci-fi action films and that may have contributed to his casting, but there are a large number of actors who could have easily brought a lot more to this role.  And rounding out the newcomers is Alice Eve as Carol Wallace.  Eve (from She’s Out of My League fame) is a nice actress who is very easy on the eyes, but she isn’t given much to do in this film beyond serving as a wink, wink to hardcore Trek fans.  Unfortunately, in a film with so many interesting characters, Eve’s Marcus get lost in the shuffle; a fate she shares with returnees Zoe Saldana (Uhura), John Cho (Sulu), and Anton Yelchin (Chekov).

The long and short of it is that Star Trek Into Darkness is a really fun action movie.  The film takes the crew of the Enterprise on a harrowing journey that not only provides huge cinematic moments punctuated by expertly framed action scenes, but also allows for character development.  Perhaps the greatest trick Abrams’ pulls off is to make the movie feel like a stand-alone product while at the same time bridging it to its predecessor in a way that shows growth and the continuation of the reboot that defined the first Star Trek (2009).  In a year that has produced very few must see movies, Star Trek is the best of the bunch and a must see on the big screen.  Going forward, here’s hoping J.J. Abrams and company can bring this kind of storytelling to Star Wars Episode VII.

Standout Performance: Simon Pegg.  There were a lot of capable performances in this movie, but in my opinion, Pegg hits every mark with just the right touch.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

When Snow White and the Huntsman had a modicum of financial success, you knew it wouldn’t be the last time we’d see Hollywood dip their toes into the pages of children’s literature in search of another tale that could be spun into a commercially viable action narrative geared towards an adult audience; hence the production and theatrical release of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.  That the movie was released in January is a telling sign of how the execs at Paramount felt about the film, but it still managed to pull in a respectable $223M worldwide.  But does that mean Hansel & Gretel is actually a good movie?  Not necessarily.   

The movie kicks off by retelling the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel and using it as the origin story for the witch hunting adult version of the siblings (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) we are introduced to onscreen.  The plot finds Hansel and Gretel hired by a village to stop a group of witches from kidnapping their children, but as the duo investigate the occurrences, Hansel and Gretel uncover a deeper more nefarious plot that may ultimately shed some light on their long lost family.

So it’s not the absolute worst premise, but what little hope there might be is critically damaged by some curious choices on the part of the creative team.  Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, the tone of this film makes you feel like no one from top to bottom is taking this movie seriously.  There’s always a tongue-in-cheek/ wink wink vibe that gives the impression that the entire production is one inside joke, and Jeremy Renner’s natural inclination towards wry sarcastic delivery only fans these flames.  As a result, the movie feels off kilter, unbalanced, and makes it a difficult narrative to digest.  It’s like eating food during a blind taste test; you’re hesitant and distracted because you’re not really sure what they are feeding you.

Where this film truly falters though is in its failure to get you to invest in the characters.  Orphaned, traumatized, always venturing perilously close to death, and yet it is near impossible to care for the protagonists and their cohorts in the least.  The blame for this has to falls on the shoulders of director Tommy Wirkola and his inability to flesh out the characters and build tension and suspense into the plot.  Besides getting the film in the can on budget, ensuring those two elements were probably his primary points of emphasis, so it’s hard to view his work as anything but a failure.

Jeremy Renner does him absolutely no favors as Hansel.  Renner is very good in certain roles, but I don’t think he is the fountain of acting talent that many claim him to be.  He’s a one-gear actor limited range and this role resides far outside his wheelhouse.  His Hansel costume looked more suitable for a bad SNL and rendered him every bit the fish out of water that Mila Kunis seemed in Oz The Great and Powerful.  While he does provide the occasional entertaining moment, his work for the most part feels clunky and awkward.

If there is a redeeming quality for this movie it has to be Gemma Arterton as Gretel.  She may not be significantly more successful than Renner at disappearing into her character, but she does perform most of the heavy lifting in regards to advancing the plot and does so with an impressive screen presence.  I am guessing that Arterton could read the pages of the phone book and make it sound like a canonical piece of literature with her voice inflection and accent.  It’s a quality that is not lost on the viewer despite the morass of incidental nonsense taking place on the big screen.

As for the rest of the cast, Famke Janssen reprises the role of Jean Gray from X-Men: The Last Stand only this time she is supposed to supposed to be Muriel, a wicked witch.  Unfortunately, the performance is as weak this time out as it was six years ago in the Brett Ratner directed fiasco.  Peter Stormare as Sheriff Berringer also recycles the past as he delivers the exact same performance that he has put forth in last ten movies.  Sooner or later someone is going to figure out that they can just edit his past performances into each subsequent movie and save him the trouble of showing up to the set.

So what you have then in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a movie with a soft of premise, poor directing, uninspired acting, and moderately entertaining action scenes – all of which collectively induce apathy.  I don’t think the movie is a complete write-off as there is just enough to keep you occupied on an extremely slow night, but in order to appreciate this film, you will have to approach it with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and very low expectations. It’s not a purchase or a rental and maybe not even a pay cable channel movie.  My best suggestion is to forget about it until that one day you randomly happen upon it while flipping the channels.  Those conditions probably give you the best chance of enjoying this film.   Under any other circumstances, it is probably a “no.”

Standout Performance: Gemma Arterton.  She’s not the best actress of her generation and at times she may not even seem like a very good one, but she has an indefinable screen presence – something sorely lacking in today’s cinema.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: The Last Stand

If you enrolled in the kind of film school that runs advertisements on the inside of a match book and took a class called Action Films 101, then The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger would be your first case study.  The latest in a recent trend of movies featuring a way-over-the-hill action star, The Last Stand is a paint-by-numbers approach to adrenaline movie making with very few pretensions and some tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that manages to moderately entertain without really telling much of a story.  But then when was the last time anyone watched a Schwarzenegger vehicle and cared about the story.  Terminator 2?

The happenings of this film center upon an event that is about to occur - drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) breaking out of federal custody and making a run for the border.  Standing in the way of he and his goons are a small town Sheriff (Arnold Schwarzenegger), his deputies, and some townies.  Each has his/her own micro backstory, which serves as some semblance of a plot, but the film is entirely about the skirmish that is brewing - noting more and nothing less.

What Went Right:

The Action.  The scope of the movie is small, but the action sequences still deliver what you would expect from the setup - chase scenes, gunplay, and fisticuffs.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about the way these scenes are framed, but the visuals are clean and give the actors the opportunity to be actively present in the shots – one of the major advantages to avoiding the perils of an unsteady cam.

The Humor.  While no one will mistake this for an episode of Seinfeld, there is a self-awareness with this film (that Arnold is practically calcifying before your very eyes), which allows the film and its cast to poke fun at itself. Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville  do a nice job of adding non-AARP levity to the proceedings, ensuring that at no time does it feel like director Jee-woon Kim is taking the source material too serious.

What Went Wrong:

The Cast.  We know who Schwarzenegger is as an actor so it feels absurd to judge his performance, especially since they are all exactly the same.  The rest of the cast, however, gets no such pass.  Forest Whitaker is too good an actor to accept roles as the third star in a mindless action flick only to completely disappear.  And Jaimie Alexander fails to show the same charisma that made her a fan favorite in Thor.  Genesis Rodriguez, Rodrigo Santoro, Peter Stomare, and the rest of the cast – from top to bottom each delivers one dimensional performances that are substandard even for a movie of this ilk.

The Writing.  Jee-Woon Kim is a good director who knows how to frame a shot and tell a story, but unfortunately writer Andrew Knauer has not given him much to work with.  The bread and butter of this movie is its action, but that doesn’t mean some ink can’t be shed for the purpose of fleshing out the characters.  Without those details, it is nearly impossible to become invested in the peril unfolding onscreen.

The Final Verdict:

At best this is a rental, especially if you are an action movie enthusiast but for those who are more casual about their movie preferences, this is an FX, TNT, USA movie all the way.  So much of what goes on is completely forgettable and will be forgotten about fifteen minutes after you turn off the television, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an adequate way to pass a bit of spare time – unless you are one of those people who owns all of Nicholas Sparks’ books, in which case you will most likely loathe everything about this flick.  The choice then is yours.

Standout Performance: Zach Gilford.  For those Friday Night Lights fans out there, it was nice to see Matt Saracen onscreen again.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Texas Chainsaw 3D

As a youth, there were a few movies that truly terrified me – movies like Amityville Horror (1979)Psycho (1960), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  Each did so in different ways using suspense and raw gore to varying degrees, but of the lot, the latter stood out as the most frightening.  The roar of the chainsaw and the gritty visuals made watching that film was an abusive assault on my nerves.  Unfortunately, since the film’s initial release the brand has been greatly watered down with sequels and reboots, all of which I’ve avoided for a myriad of reasons (i.e. Jessica Biel).  However, that recently changed with the forthcoming release of Texas Chainsaw 3D on DVD.  In the end it was not slick marketing or extreme boredom that made me cave in, but instead it was a fellow movie enthusiast's over-the-top gushing about the movie’s lead, Alexandra Daddario.  To hear him speak, you would think she was a mix between Emma WatsonSalma Hayek, and Jennifer Lawrence, of which she is not.  Any by the way, the movie’s not any good either.

The plot of Texas Chainsaw 3D starts with a quick trip down memory lane for the purpose of introducing a cousin of Leatherface that we – the viewing audience - were conveniently never aware of.  Fast-forward to the present, long lost cousin Heather (Alexandra Daddario) learns that she is adopted and has recently been willed an impressive inheritance.  When she travels back to Texas to take possession of the estate, she finds that there is a deep dark history between her biological family and the town in which they resided.  Bloodshed ensues.

There’s not a lot to say about the plot.  It’s your typical flimsy low rent horror premise with idiot youths, poor decisions, and dirty authority figures lining the narrative like people along the route of a parade.  I will say that while the movie starts out really bad, director John Luessenhop and writers Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan prove that they are not content with that.  In the second and the third act, they make some interesting choices to ensure that movie continues to get significantly worse with each frame; culminating in a WTH ending that will leave you scratching your head. 

As for the cast, it is comprised of a bunch of people who don’t matter in the least.  Going into a horror flick, you know that the people orbiting around the protagonist are nothing more than cattle being led to the slaughter.  The only question is how relevant these individuals are to the advancement of the plot.  The group of friend circling around Alexandra Daddario’s Heather may be the most useless entourage in the history of the horror genre.  Trey SongzTania RaymondeKeram Malicki-Sanchez, and Shaun Sipos may all be gifted actors (though I am guessing they are not), but one could not tell from this film as they bring absolutely nothing to the table.  Whether it was a matter of wasted screen time or wasted talent, the bottom line here is that their characters are a complete waste.

And so that brings us to Alexandra Daddario, the film’s protagonist/heroine.  I have to admit that I found her work in this film south of uninspired.  For the duration of the film, it seemed like she had one go-to look and turned to it every time there was an important (and I use that word lightly) moment in the plot.  With only one gear as an actress and limited onscreen charisma, her performance felt predictable and one-dimensional.  There just wasn’t much going on behind those steely glares, and while that look may have been very easy on the eyes, it grew painful to watch her try to sell her poorly written lines.  While I won’t go so far as to say she is as bad as Elisha Cuthbert was in House of Wax, she’s definitely in that neighborhood, and that’s not good for anyone.

Needless to say you should absolutely leave this one off the list of movies to watch for Halloween or any other occasion that might push you towards the macabre.  It’s an incredibly inferior product trying to trade off of the name of a movie that once upon a time was very relevant.  If fright and terror are what you seek, I would recommend that you shun these post-Saw era hollow gory updates, and go back to the raw classics when horror and terror were inspired by clever camera angles and taut storytelling.  They represent a better brand of frightful storytelling and will offer you far more entertainment value.

Standout Performance: Dan Yeager as Leatherface.  The mask fit him and he ably carrie around the chainsaw so I guess that’s a win.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

Is it possible to be a superhero movie, but then not really be a superhero movie, but really be a superhero movie all at the same time?  Confused?  Don’t be.  After watching Iron Man 3, this will all be crystal clear and so will the direction of Marvel Phase 2.   It’s easy (and lazy) to label movies like Iron Man 3 as “superhero flicks” because their protagonists are born from the funny pages, but Kevin Feige and his Marvel cohorts are about to challenge you on such preconceived notions.  Iron Man 3 is not a movie about Iron Man per se but more a whodunit tale driven by a really smart protagonist that happens to have a really expensive suit.  With Game of Throne’s Alan Taylor directing Thor 2 and the political intrigue storyline framing the plot of the next Captain America, what you’re going to see is Marvel immerse their characters in very specific subgenres.  It’s a clever move designed to give these characters a longer shelf life.

As for Iron Man 3, the plot finds our quit witted protagonist dealing with the aftermath of the events that unfolded in The Avengers. Struggling with some form of post traumatic syndrome, Stark is forced to deal with a mistake from his past that may or may not have some connection to the Mandarin, a ruthless terrorist who is hell bent on unleashing attacks against the United States.  With the lives of those he cares about hanging in the balance, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) must find a way to discover the mystery behind the Mandarin and put an end to his reign of terror.

It’s seems like a pretty straight forward action premise, but what is most striking about Iron Man 3 is that it feels strikingly different than its predecessors.  Writer/Director Shane Black brings his brand of storytelling to the franchise and gives it a feel reminiscent of his work with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the Lethal Weapon movies (think whodunit with some elements of buddy cop flicks mixed in for good measure).  That Downey Jr. spends more time out of the suit weaving his way through the plot is a surprise – one that pays off nicely.

Any discussion of this film cannot go long without talking specifically about the work of Robert Downey Jr.  It has gotten to the point where one must ask the question of whether Downey Jr. is portraying Tony Stark or if Tony Stark is just an extension of Downey Jr.  He is quick witted, quirky, and able to oscillate between humor and gravitas seamlessly on the turn of the dime and these qualities may have been the biggest drivers of success for not only the Iron Man franchise but also he entire Marvel cinematic universe.  That he is no longer under contractual obligation to the company no doubt has a few Disney executives losing sleep.

Once again joining RDJ onscreen are Gwyneth Paltrow, Jon Favreau, and Don Cheadle as Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, and James Rhodes (Iron Patriot) respectively and each is given heavier lifting this time around.  I am not sure if it’s the business casual suits or the snappy chemistry she shares with Downey Jr., but I have never found Paltrow more likeable than I do in these Iron Man films.  She tends to embody the heart and sentimentality in each of the movies, but in this outing Paltrow does a decent job of flexing a bit of muscle. 

What Jon Favreau brings to the film is a decent measure of the campy but endearing humor that we have come to expect from the actor/director.  Sometimes bumbling but always good-natured, Favreau’s portrayal of Hogan won’t make any highlight reels but he capably keeps the tone light while advancing the plot.  As for Cheadle, he plays Colonel James Rhodes to satisfactory results and nothing more.  While I like Cheadle as an actor, I have always found his work in this franchise less than stellar.  It may be the result of acting choices or his chemistry with Downey Jr. but I don’t think he has really hit the right pitch with the character. 

As for the newcomers to the franchise, Guy Pearce is fair but unremarkable as Aldrich Killian – a man with questionable intentions.  He doesn’t hurt the movie by any means, but I could also have envisioned any number of people stepping into the role of an eccentric unbalanced scientist to produce the same if not better results.  Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin is solid and makes some very interesting choices, but his actual screen time is not hugely robust as it is more his characters “presence” than his actually being present that impacts the plot.  Bringing up the rear for this trio is Rebecca Hall as genetic botanist Maya Hansen.  I found her performance weak and unconvincing and at times she felt painfully out of place in this movie – most glaringly in the second act.  There are many other ways the creative team could have gone with this character (and plot thread) and I can’t help but think one of the other choices would have been better.

So what you have then is an Iron Man film that is more about the man than the armor – one that wisely lets RDJ occupy the driver’s seat.  It’s not a perfect film as at times the pacing loses its way and there are some logic leaps and character decisions that have and will infuriate the overly zealous comic book purist.  But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what you expect from a summer action movie.  If you are looking for a decent plot with big visuals that is fun to watch, then this is a movie you should definitely run out to the cinema to watch.  If you are looking for something more than that, then Iron Man 3 may be a roll of the dice for you.  Regardless, this is easily the best movie thus far in what has been a somewhat weak year at the cinema.  Up next on the Marvel slate is Thor: The Dark World (November 8, 2013).

Standout Performance: Robert Downey Jr. - plain and simple.