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, June 17, 2015

Review: Blackhat

When you think of director Michael Mann, you think of gritty films with raw grainy visuals that not only ooze machismo and bravado, but also pay a healthy amount of respect for each film’s respective cityscapes.   Heat, The Insider, Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice – each boasts Mann’s signature film making style, and - with the exception to Miami Vice - each of these films is quite good.  From cops-and-robbers, to tobacco industry whistle blowers, to the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Mann sandpapers that glossy Hollywood sheen off the silver screen to welcome the viewer into a world that feels like it could exist right outside the cinema doors.

Thus, the prospects of teaming Michael Mann with Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Rush) and Viola Davis (The Help, Suicide Squad) seemed to promise a worthy new addition to his mostly impressive resume.  But like so many no brainer pairings and can’t miss prospective projects, Blackhat falls incredibly short of those expectations.  It’s always easy to point to any one or two specific reasons as to why a film fails (as I am going to do shortly), but ultimately, I think the problems that plague this film are more the result of an extensive series of choices and missteps - resulting in a film that can best be described as one that feels like an amateurish attempt to make a cheap knock-off of a Michael Mann movie.

Piece one of the blame pie has to go to the writing.  I am always quick to say that writers are underrated and are the backbone of any great movie.  Thus, when things go awry, I have to place culpability upon the screenwriter.   Morgan Davis Foehl’s script feels like he spent a weekend binge watching a bunch of espionage/action movies and then picked out his favorite elements and mashed them into one script.  The result is a narrative that is an unsightly amalgamation of mismatched parts – a la Frankenstein.  Computer hacking, gunfights, explosive devices, stock market manipulation – it’s all in there, but sadly the one key ingredient to this jambalaya of plot mechanisms is missing – namely cohesion.

The second biggest problem with this movie is the casting.  Chris Hemsworth is a good actor with more range than one would initially think after watching Thor, but Blackhat requires the actor to play a role he simply does not fit into – that of a tech junky world-class hacker.  Because Hemsworth very much has the look of the Norse God he plays in the Marvel cinematic universe, it is an incredible stretch to sell him to the public as this mad genius of a hacker who does most of his work with fingers on keyboards.  That his character is also able to take on militant global terrorist with guns and fists alike in the second and third act serves as the crippling blow to the credibility of his performance and the plot of the film.  It’s the proverbial moment when you realize that this movie is nothing more than a creative team throwing everything against a wall and seeing what sticks.  And just to be clear, what sticks in this film, absolutely stinks.

What do I say about the performance of Viola Davis, Wei Tang (as love interest Chen Lien), or anyone else in the movie?  Two words – who cares.  No one in this film really matters.  Any danger they encounter, any turmoil they experience, any pain that they feels, it all feels so inconsequential.  Not a single performance is compelling enough to make the viewer feel empathy, sympathy or any other “-athy” towards anyone in the movie.  And that’s catastrophically problematic when you are in the business of storytelling.

These problems along with so many other smaller ones add up to a film that will go into the vault of forgotten movies only to be resurrected as a 5 second clip buried in a montage of other movie clips should Mann’s or Hemsworth’s respective careers ever get the lifetime achievement treatment.  So do yourself a favor and take a pass on this one - No OnDemand, no Netflix, no Red Box, no iTunes, no nothing.  There are so many mediocre action movies in the marketplace that are at the very least moderately entertaining, that this movie should never have to make its way onto your screen of choice.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: Jurassic World

There’s no denying that the original Jurassic Park was a cinematic game-changer - a shining of example of who Steven Spielberg once was as a director back when he was still Steven Spielberg.  In the original Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs and the musical score were very much the stars, much more so than the cast, which featured solid but not spectacular leads in Sam Neil and Laura Dern, and the finished product was a grand epic that would define a generation of action films.  In the twenty-one years since the original, Universal has produced a couple of less than inspired sequels that have found a myriad of reasons to bring viewers back to this world, but those films were void of the majesty and wonder associated with the original - opting instead to focus on destruction and mayhem.  The best thing I can say about director Colin Trevorrow's Jurassic World, is that it successfully brings back some of that original magic.

The second best thing going for the movie is that the set up makes sense.  There are no plans to bring the dinosaurs to the U.S. or some elaborate far-fetched setup in which a kid gets lost on an unregulated island of dinosaurs.  In fact, this film more or less ignores the events of the last two outings.  In Jurassic World, big business is the driving force and why wouldn’t it.  And if you miss the parallels between the machinations behind Jurassic World and the Parks and Resorts group at The Walt Disney Company, then you are not really paying attention.  All the merchandising and Disney-fying of Jurassic World aside, as as the camera moves through the park and the score builds to a crescendo, it’s hard to not feel a bit of that original wonder.

One of the main differences between Jurassic World above Jurassic Park is that the casts are more the stars in this film.  Chris Pratt, who is suddenly (and deservingly so) one of the biggest action stars in the industry, is very much the lead of this movie.  He has the look and feel of the kind of protagonist who can carry a film of this size and scale on his shoulders.  Sadly, it seems like Pratt has been reigned in by director Colin Trevorrow's direction, as his performance is mostly void of the goofy tongue-in-cheek sarcasm that has been the staple of his best work.  Don’t get me wrong.  Pratt is good, but he could have been even better.

Bryce Dallas Howard is a nice contrast to Pratt.  No stranger to action films, Howard knows how to hit the right notes in expository and action scenes alike.  There are some choices that are made in her character that are curious and my sense is that there are tidbits of backstory that were left on the cutting room floor.  If those sacrifices are made for the sake of pacing though, then it is well worth it, because the first act is an intentionally methodical reintroduction to the all things Jurassic, and to linger in this place a minute longer than it does would have been too long.

And no discussion of the film would be complete without talking about the dinosaurs.  This is where the film runs into a few problems, but mostly because it uses the dinosaurs as a melting pot for hot button issues (i.e. genetic manipulation, weaponization, corporate greed).  The waters become so muddied that it all feels a bit sloppy and flippant.  Still, the effects look great and the dinosaurs make for great theater, ultimately redeeming all that ails the film.

I had fairly moderate expectations for this movie going in, but I came away from it very entertained.  It’s not the game-changer the original was, but it is big and fun, and stands out against a slate of movies this summer that have been uninspiring.  Go see it if you haven’t already - Jurassic World has scored the biggest global opening ever – on the biggest screen you can find.  Get the big popcorn, the vat of soda, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Entourage

Entourage is one of those movies that the viewer knows is going to be bad even before he or she sits down in their seat.  It’s also the rare occasion where the viewer is okay with that, because the act of paying for a ticket to go watch a movie that is an extension of a TV show that ended four years ago (but actually wasn’t that good for its last three years), is an act of acquiescence.  That’s not a judgment.  It’s a statement of fact.  It’s why a person goes back to a long lost ex even when that relationship ended poorly – to forget about all the warts and shortcomings in exchange for the comfort of something familiar.  And like any short-lived reunion with a former paramour, Entourage (the movie) offers a little bit of closure without any real catharsis.

The show had a run of about 20 episodes where it was as good as anything on television.  A show bathed in self-congratulatory narcissism, excess, and winks and nods aimed at those on the lunatic fringe of Hollywood, ultimately was a story of enduring friendships.  The opening act of the movie takes us back to this place and catches us up with a where-are-they-now set of scenes.  The phones are different (adieu, Blackberry), the cars are Cadillacs, and Turtle is skinny, but other than that, everything looks and feels the same.  And there is a sense of vacuous shallow comfort to be found in the status quo.

As for the rest of the movie, it feels like a ten-episode season crammed into ninety minutes.  An exhaustive Congo line of celebrity cameos and references to every celebrity fad that has hit during Entourage’s absence almost make you forget that there is a plot to the film and a goal to be met.  Like every Entourage season, friendships are challenged, lovers are found and lost and sometimes found again, parties are thrown, and somewhere along the way four bumbling fools from New York manage to make things come together.

Watching this play out is like forgoing the ice cream sundae and eating the whip cream straight from the can.  It’s not good; it’s not substantive; but it’s absolutely a guilty pleasure.  And if you loved the show, you will enjoy the movie.  Not because it has evolved or breaks new ground, but because it will take you back to a time and place where things are light and feel-good and for a couple of hours you’ll get to see some characters that you devoted thirty minutes of your Sunday night to.  And if you’re not a fan of the show or never watched it, then not only is there no reason for you to see the movie, but there’s also no reason for you to be reading this post.

If this were another movie, I would be typing snarky reference after snarky reference about how much of a waste of time, money, and effort this movie was, but I was a fan of the show.  I was an east coaster who had just moved out to Los Angeles when the show started airing; and many of the places that made LA seem so magnificent onscreen on those Sunday nights, were the very things that made me love this city.  So watching the movie was enjoyable to me even though I knew I was watching a film that is very much on par with those movie-of-the-week productions that Drama was always trying to get.

So if you were a fan of the show, you should definitely watch it.  It’s not going to change how you felt about the show when it went off-air some four years ago, but it will give you some closure as you find out whatever became of Ari, Vince, et al.  It’s not a movie that has to be seen on the big screen.  In fact, I would recommend watching it via a more economically friendly distribution channel, but it deserves a look.  If this is the last we see of the crew (and judging by last weeks box office, it is) then it is a nice ending for Vinnie Chase and the Chasers.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Review: San Andreas

Anything you (or anyone else) can do, the Rock can do better.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at his resume and you will find that it is littered with projects that have re-imagined and re-engineered other films simply by turning up the volume on the action and infusing Johnson's larger than life screen presence into the plot.  The results at the box office have been nothing short of impressive.  They don’t - after all - half-jokingly refer to him as The Franchise Viagra.

The plot of Johnson’s most recent movie, San Andreas, follows three simple steps.  First, establish the credentials of the protagonist.  Second, unleash unfathomable disasters of epic proportions on an unsuspecting public.  Third, follow the protagonist as he/she sets out to save endangered family members.  If this also sounds like the plot of The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012, you would be correct.  In fact, this is the plot of nearly every disaster flick ever created.  So what makes San Andreas worth watching?

For starters, the visuals are epic.  Major kudos go to the artists involved with the special effects, who really utilized the vast majestic California landscape to paint a sweeping disaster scenario that is both horrific and breathtaking.  It helps that the scenario feels incredibly real.  Whereas most disaster films tend to depict radically accelerated climate change incidents that could only manifest on the silver screen, San Andreas fictionalizes an earthquake scenario that could occur at any moment.  That’s not to say, the film’s account is accurate and grounded in sound science (because it’s not), but the notion of it is quite real.

Still, if special effects was the sole criteria upon which the quality of a movie measured, then the second Star Wars trilogy would have surpassed the original trio.  No, it takes something more and in this case, Johnson is just that something more.  His ability to bring credibility to lines that on paper must be cringe inducing is one of his greatest skills.  It’s an ability he no doubt crafted during his WWE days, delivering over-the-top one liners to live crowds with unwavering commitment and conviction.  So when Johnson makes a daring declaration or an ill-timed comment about getting to second based while facing insurmountable odds, it allows the audience to both groan and chuckle.  And that he has a larger-than-life presence, allows the audience to suspend just enough disbelief to buy-in.

However, none of this means that San Andreas is a great movie, because ultimately it’s not.  Some might say it’s not even good.  What most could agree on is that it’s entertaining.  Watching the California coast - from the glitz of the Hollywood hills to the nouveau riche technological epicenter that is San Francisco – crumble to the ground offers a horrifically exhilarating backdrop to the perfectly melodramatic chemistry between Johnson, longtime screen veteran Carla Gugino, and Alexandra Daddario.  More simply put, it’s watching good-looking people survive or not (no spoilers!) a stunningly visual disaster.  And who could possibly decry a gluttony of eye candy.

So long story short, it’s worth a watch.  The summer slate has been and will be fairly tepid this for the remainder of 2015 and the list is short on films that really bask in being an unapologetic popcorn flick.  The visuals are massive and worth that big screen treatment and will provide you with a nice break from having to think, process, or decipher.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Conceptually speaking, A.I. can be a scary thing.  No, I’m not talking about Allen Iverson – though the former NBA player’s crossover could be frightening for a retreating defender.  What I’m talking about is artificial intelligence – a term that can mean very different things depending on the layperson.  To some, it’s what makes their video games really difficult to beat; and to others it’s a fantastical concept born from the funny pages of the 1950’s.  Then of course there are the doomsayers, who see A.I. as the next step in evolution – an ill-conceived attempt on the part of humankind to play god – that will lead to the demise of human beings.  Does that seem over-the-top?  Yes.  Far-fetched?  Probably.   So far off in the future that it shouldn’t register as a blip on the alarmist radar?  Sure.  After all, back in 1985, Marty and Doc in Back to the Future had us all convinced the world would have flying DeLoreans by now.  But I digress.

Films like Terminator, I Robot, Alien, Terminator, and countless other movies have featured some manifestation of artificial intelligence as significant plot mechanisms and have done so with varying degrees of success.  This is a trend I am confident will continue in perpetuity until Skynet goes live and takes over the world (Terminator reference for the uninitiated).  In the interim, Hollywood will keep pumping out movies featuring A.I. once or twice a year and we’ll keep on watching them.  Given this context, what makes Ex Machina any different than its numerous predecessors?  The simple answer is “not much.”  The film asks all the typical questions that audiences have come to expect from movies with this premise.  When does programming and coding end, and actual consciousness being?  What are the implications of “playing God” and what are the consequences?

In writing this, I realize that I have not yet offered up a compelling reason for you or anyone else to rush out and watch this movie – a movie that I actually think is quite well done and absolutely worth your time.  But really, the merits of the film have less to do with artificial intelligence (though it is a compelling enough hook) than one would surmise from a distance.  Instead, what makes the narrative compelling is the use of space and time to create this sense of claustrophobia that pervades the protagonists’ fundamental struggle to find truth and authenticity while laying in a bed of lies.  Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Ex Machina is very much a textbook suspense/thriller wrapped up in a cloak of science fiction and to writer/director Alex Garland’s credit, he does a nice of job of dropping layer upon layer of conflict and misdirection in very small spaces.

A movie like this can only truly be successful though if the acting is up to snuff and Oscar Isaac (as Tech genius/mogul Nathan) and Domhnall Gleeson (as computer programmer Caleb) do a good job of establishing a dynamic in which their respective characters share a sphere of common interest but come to that place from polar opposite positions.  If their relationship is where the seeds of mistrust are sown, then their respective interactions (or lack of) with Alicia Vikander’s (Ava) is where the fundamental tension of the film is cultivated.  Vikander’s Ava uses her innocence to evoke a subtle foreboding sensuality that muddies what is already an incredibly polluted pool.

The pacing is methodical, like an iron on low heat slowly burning its way through a collared shirt.  The dialogue is smart but never aspires to answer unanswerable questions.  The direction of the film maintains its singular focus of telling a taut suspenseful tale.  The combination of these three elements makes the film very much a win for all involved, and one that is worth a look.  For Star Wars fans, it has the added appeal of featuring two actors (Isaac and Gleeson) who will be starring in Star Wars Episode VII at year’s end.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (The Pitch is Back!)

The Pitch is Back.

And it will be back for a third installment.  You can carve that in stone after we learned this weekend that the only thing that can beat Mad Max is the Bellas of Barden University to the tune of $70M at the domestic box office (to Mad Max: Fury Road’s $44M).  Between Pitch Perfect 2 and Furious 7, it’s been a good year at the cinema for Universal and all this success no doubt has left their deep pocketed but suddenly frugal neighbors down the street in Burbank feeling green with envy.

But all the financial success aside, Pitch Perfect 2 is very much the same movie as its predecessor only it’s different.  The movie is different from Pitch 1 in that the plot and its characters are meaner, more cynical, and thus a little less likable.  And it’s the same as its predecessor in that the creative team knows the film’s audience, knows what that fan base loves about the first movie, and gives them the exact same formula – fluffy story lines and snarky pulp references dressed up with catchy acapela mashups of pop hits from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

There is something to be said for the ole saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but there’s a lot of truth to the caveat of “going back to the well one too many times.”  And while I muster up every possible cliché in the book to describe the experience of watching this movie, what I am trying to say is that this movie is not fun enough and its characters not likable enough to offset the been-there-done-that feeling that pervades this film.  See formula below:

Act 1: Bellas find themselves in a bit of a pickle. 
Act 2: Bellas try to come together but have a falling out while trying to remedy the issues in Act 1.
Act 3: Bellas reconcile and put things back together to deliver a rousing musical performance.

Like I said, been-there-done-that.  In a lot of ways, Anna Kendrick’s careers arc is emblematic of Pitch Perfect’s in that Kendrick used to be the cool plucky underdog in Hollywood on the fringe of the big-time churning out good performances here and there in movies such as Up in the Air and 50/50.  Then somewhere along the way (really, after the first Pitch Perfect), she became a big star not only for her acting skills, but also for her vocals and social media savvy.  And as her star shined brighter and brighter, her sharp sarcasm started to play less charming and more the product of unwarranted ego.  In much the same way, Pitch Perfect 2 feels less charming and more obnoxious – no doubt the product of the cult status its predecessor received during its post-theatrical life.

That’s not to say that the movie is not funny.  There is a lot of fun to be had with the supporting cast – Rebel Wilson (Fat Amy), Adam Devine (Bumper), Snoop Dog (Snoop Dog), and Keegan-Michael Key (Becca’s Boss) supply plenty of laughter, but Kendrick’s Becca is the rock upon which this foundation is built and whether its her performance or the way the character is written, it never really comes together for her.  She’s no longer the too-cool-for-school outsider who realizes that friends do matter, but instead the too-cool-for-school insider who decides maybe they don’t matter as much until maybe they really do. 

But very little of what I has to say here really matters, because if you were all in on the first movie, then nothing will really change how you feel, especially if you are anything like the Kool-Aid drinking crowd that I watched the movie with – a crowd that buzzed with anticipation when even David Cross came on screen.  And if you are someone who has to see the movie because the person you are with wants to see the movie, then well, you’re going to see it and endure it because you have to.  Just don’t expect a “Cups” moment or any originality.  This one’s for the congregation and there’s no need to preach.  They’re going to love it.  And for the non-believers, well, not all the music is rubbish so there’s that.

Since movie will be an A+ to those who really want to see it, and a D to those who really don’t, I’ll Split the difference and call it a C+.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Should We Care About Deflategate Anymore?

Tell me why I am supposed to care about Deflategate anymore?  And don’t tell me because it hurts the integrity of the NFL and the game.  Any sense of integrity was tossed down the garbage chute when Roger Goodell – the ultimate carpetbagger – was named commissioner.  We’re talking about a commissioner so inept and duplicitous that he makes David Stern seem like Honest Abe Lincoln.

The cynic (and realist) in me knows this story has been packaged into television programming designed to bridge the gap from the NFL Draft to the NFL Preseason.  And make no mistake about it - the league and the networks are loving it.  If you don’t believe me, look at the gallery of rogues and jokers they’ve paraded in front of the camera.  The next time Shannon Sharpe has anything cogent and intelligible to say, it will be the first time. 

Full discloser, I am a Patriots fan.  I grew up in New England and love the sports teams, but I have never been a Brady sycophant.  My loyalties have always been with the QB who helped build Gillette Stadium, Drew Bledsoe.  So with that being said, let’s get into it.  Did Brady have a general idea that these guys were working to get the ball inflation down to the lower end of the scale?  More probably than not (to borrow a line from Ted Wells).  But the problem with this investigation as with any that is headed up by an attorney, is that:

1. It is trying to assign blame rather than to discover.
2. It is trying to make black and white something that is incredibly gray.

Think about it.  It is trying to connect the dots to formulate a direct chain of events that reveal a precise systematic operation to manipulate footballs, when really, there seems to be very little that is precise in regards to how teams and the NFL handle the footballs on game day (right down to the ball pressure measurements).  Look at the skeleton buried in the footnotes of the Wells Report, and you will find plenty of cause to question the whole process.  Because really, it seems like this whole ball pressure thing was something no one REALLY cared about (i.e. $25K fine for an infraction), until suddenly someone cared.  I am of the belief that every QB has different football preferences and they let that be known to low-level (and low paid) equipment guys.  To varying degrees, Aaron Rogers, Eli Manning, Jeff Blake, and Brad Johnson have admitted as much.  But let’s not get high and mighty about the integrity of the game and a level playing field when we are talking about a game that is predicated on cheating.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s have a look.

Do you think 300 lbs. men naturally have 4% body fat and can run a 4.4 40 yard dash naturally?  Make no mistake about it.  The league has a PED problem, but the powers-that-be and the fans-in-the-stands (myself included) turn a blind eye to it because that would ruin our Sundays from September to February.  And contrary to popular belief, the Patriots were not the only team to videotape signals.  They were the team that Goodell decided to reprimand.  Ask Jimmy Johnson, Bill Cowher, or the video evidence of other teams doing it, which Bill Belichick provided to Roger Goodell.  Oh wait.  We can’t check that evidence, because Roger Goodell had it destroyed.  Even the pinnacle of integrity, Mr. Football himself Jerry Rice, admitted in a video documentary that he used Stickum on his hands, when it was explicitly against the rules.  Unfortunately for Rice, that was revealed after he had ripped the Patriots for Deflategate.  Funny, I missed the NFL and ESPN running that on a constant loop in their news crawl. 

And that leads me to the BIG reveal.  It’s because this whole thing hasn’t been about deflated footballs.  It’s been about the league versus the Patriots.  The report, which Goodell and his puppet Troy Vincent claim is indisputable because Ted Wells has an impeccable reputation, states that Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and the coaching staff have no guilt in the matter.  Yet, the team was fined one million dollars and a first and fourth round pick.  What would the punishment have been if they were guilty? Would the Patriot then be playing for the Gray Cup next year in the CFL? 

For a bit of context, let’s look at some of the punishment doled out this offseason by Goodell.  The Falcons organization pumps in noise during games and as a result, the team is penalized a late round draft pick.  The Browns GM Farmer sends illegal texts to the sideline during games and the team gets fined $250K.   Jets Owner Woody Johnson tampers with and ultimately signs Darelle Revis and the team is fined $100K.   Meanwhile, Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and his staff do nothing wrong and get fined $1M and lose a first and fourth round pick.  Ridiculous.

I would respect Goodell, his puppets, and some of the GMs around the league more if they just admitted that this is a witch-hunt rather than express their incredibly hypocritical self-righteous sense of indignation.  As much a hit as Brady and his reputation has taken, it really is not about him.  That four game suspension will be argued down to two if not none by the time the NFLPA and Jeffrey Kessler are done dominating the league and the league knows this.  This is about trying to knock the Patriots down – something very few in the league have been able to do these past fifteen years. 

How the rest of this plays out, I have no idea, but if I were a betting man (another thing the NFL allegedly does not condone though it forces teams to produce injury reports for the purposes of sports gambling), I would bet that the league and the networks will continue to milk this story for all the ratings and web clicks it is worth and the Patriots will ride the negativity straight to Super Bowl 50.

See you in San Francisco.