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.