Monday, December 30, 2013

Pwaters' Top Ten of 2013!

2013, 2014, 20-whatever, it's another year, another top ten list.  Again, keep in mind, I haven't seen EVERY movie that was released this year, this is a personal "favorite" list that should not be held on a sacred pedestal, and I do this for my own enjoyment, not to make you happy with my choices.  If anything, what I want most is to expose any lowlife reading this blog post to a movie or movies they may have overlooked.  Based on a five-second mental calculation I'd say I saw roughly 80 films that came out this year, so I'm hardly a true source of authority.  But if you're interested, here you go:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Pwaters' 2013 Superlatives!

Hello readers, wherever you came from.  I did this last year and enjoyed it, so here it is again - some hand-picked superlative-winners chosen by yours truly.  Because I'm unoriginal they're the same categories as last time, but with the addition of 'guilty pleasure.'  I hope a smidgen of happiness crosses you as your eyes glaze this blog post in a lackadaisical stupor (and feel free to write in the comments any categories you'd like to see for next year).

BEST ACTOR - Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

I've always been a fan of DiCaprio's work, and he remains an unjustified non-Oscar winner (sharing that title with Gary Oldman, Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Cruise, and countless others). I think his performance of Jordan Belfort in Scorsese's fantastic foray into the excessive lives of Wall Street stock brokers is definitely his best.  DiCaprio is a force of nature in this film: hilarious, insane, living life to its extreme highs, but always remaining the smartest guy in the room.  He's a "bad" guy that you can't help but watch and root for (evoking Ray Liotta in Goodfellas).  In a span of three hours he conveys the rise and fall of an ambitious man, whose desire for the "American Dream" catches up with him.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street

It's almost the end of 2013 and I'm basically cramming for my Top Ten of the Year right now.  I'm just going to give a paragraph per film, because I'm simultaneously working on the aforementioned top ten and my annual superlatives list, plus all the "real life" stuff I have to do.  So, here, quickly, are some reviews.  I'll probably have one more of these "quickie" grab bag posts before the end of the year, so look out!

Dir. Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne's beautiful and bleak black and white Nebraska is a fantastic look at a depressed region, where the meaning of life stops at the make and model of the car you're driving.  The 77-year-old Bruce Dern delivers a career-best performance, which deservedly earned him the Best Actor award at Cannes, as the alcoholic Woody Grant, who in his state of dementia believes a million dollars awaits him in Lincoln, Nebraska because of a scam flyer he got in the mail.  I wasn't sure who in the cast were actors or just real-life yokels taken from their corn silos to shoot a film; Nebraska is authentic, strangely heartwarming, tragic, and hilarious at the same time.  The definitive tragi-comedy of the year.

                                                            Rating: A-

Saving Mr. Banks
Dir. John Lee Hancock

Walt Disney had notoriously fought with PL Travers, the original author of Mary Poppins, for years trying to get the rights for the film.  Saving Mr. Banks is the "Disney-fied," sentimental re-telling of that struggle, complete with unnecessary flashbacks and a sickeningly sweet score.  Although Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks give great performances, the film is too light for its own good, and a subject this interesting is more deserving of a well-produced documentary than a narrative tale about father figures.

Rating: C+

American Hustle
Dir. David O. Russell

With one of the best-assembled cast lists in a film this year (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and two "surprise" roles I won't divulge so as not to spoil them), I was pretty excited for this film, but I have to say this was a complete disappointment to me.  Maybe it's just me, but I found it to be unnecessarily hard to follow, I never really got into this story, and the "twist" at the end was lame and broadcasted a mile away.  Besides one of the aforementioned "surprise" actors, the only actor that I felt fit the role was Christian Bale.  Jennifer Lawrence's New York accent felt really unnatural to me and Amy Adam's faux British dialect didn't connect at all (don't mistake this for "bad acting," I just think it was miscast).  I'm not really sure what the critics are seeing that I'm not, but I thought this was tough to sit through.  It's a movie about con men - an overcrowded subgenre that has seen better.

Rating: C-

Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better in Scorsese's latest, taking the structure of Goodfellas and applying it to Wall Street 1%-ers.  The film is his freshest in years, and the 3 hour run time goes by quickly.  This big and excessive film reflects the big and excessive lives led by these ecclectic stock brokers, who got their start scamming people into buying penny stocks and working their way up.  The film is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing, sexy and ugly, and it couldn't have been released in a more relevant time than now.  DiCaprio is an absolute force of nature in this film, and I believe he deserves to win the Academy Award for the role (if he's not nominated there is something seriously wrong).  Loved the film, though some of the "excess" may get in the way of your enjoyment of the movie.

Rating: A-

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Her: Love at First Byte

Dir. Spike Jonze
120 Minutes
Rated R
Watch Trailer

I don't have a grasp on the year, but I distinctly remember when I first used Cleverbot, a website that allows you to hold a "conversation" with a computer program.  The surprise and novelty of it was pretty astounding at the time, but as you continued to use it, it became clear that there were limitations to its understanding and capabilities.  In Spike Jonze's Her, that is no longer a problem.  Set in the not-too-distant future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), still getting over the separation from his wife (Rooney Mara), is a lonely soul whose only avenue for romantic expression comes from his job writing phony sentimntal letters between lovers.  When a new product is released, the first artificially intelligent operating system, the lovelorn Theodore installs it and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the female personality created in his computer, who he soon becomes romantically involved with.  With a concept fit for either a horror or light comedy, Her is a refreshingly melancholy, honest look at the possibilities of technology and loneliness, if they advance enough.

Blue is the Warmest Color: The best possible movie to see with your parents

Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
187 Minutes
Rated NC-17
Watch Trailer

Since its premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Blue is the Warmest Color has gathered a swarm of controversy.  The film, from French director Abdellatif Kechiche (don't ask me how to pronounce that), is basically a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story from the perspective of high schooler Adele (played by Adele Exarchopoulos, in her feature film debut), who just can't connect sexually to the boys around her.  But then enters the blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux), whom Adele meets at a lesbian bar and slowly they become the object of each other's affection.  The film, being the first at Cannes to ever be awarded the coveted Palme d'Or for both its director and lead actresses, has received positive and negative criticism for its depictions of no-holds-barred, hardcore lesbian sex.  Coming from a straight-male director, and one that apparently treated his actresses badly on set, some have said that the film comes off as voyeuristic and exploitative, while others have touted it as a daring, artful masterpiece.  I personally think that the sex (which is basically as graphic as pornography) shouldn't overshadow the brilliant performances from the leading actresses, which is really where the film shines.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Frozen, Philomena, Out of the Furnace Reviews

Dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

The tale of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen is one of those properties that has been kicked around the Disney animation studios for decades (since the 1940's) and finally, after some 70-odd years, they've finally cracked the code to adapting the story.  With music and lyrics coming from the same team that brought Broadway hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to life, and clever writing and direction from Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), Frozen will not leave you cold (sorry I had to).

Although there are love interests in the film, the crux of the story does not revolve around a "Prince Charming," but rather on the relationship between two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel).  When they were children, Elsa, who has the power to create snow and freeze things, accidentally hurt her sister with her ability.  Since then, in Rapunzel fashion, she was shunned from any outside activity in her room, slowly waning the sisters' bond.  But as Elsa grows older and finally becomes queen, the two have a misunderstanding, resulting in a fight, leading to Elsa accidentally creating an eternal winter and running off into the mountains.  It's up to Anna to go on a quest to get her back, and along the way she meets friends and sings with them (a la Wizard of Oz), including a mountain-man named Christoff and Olaf, an animate snowman with ironic dreams of the summer.

The songs, while not being quite as instantly memorable or catchy as the top-tier Disney films of the 90's (Aladdin, Lion King), are very well constructed and feel appropriate for a Broadway presentation.  They always move the story along and/or develop the characters and range from hilarious ("In Summer") to powerful ("Let it Go," which is probably the showstopper of the film; Idina Menzel nails it).  In Disney fashion the humor works for both kids and adults, with Kristen Bell's awkward and sincere Anna feeling very relatable, and although he only appears halfway through, Josh Gad's Olaf the Snowman practically steals the film as soon as he's introduced.  It's a charming film, even if it follows the Disney formula to a T.

You'd think the decades-long stint of development hell would spell disaster out for Frozen, but it really was a fantastic film - and if the world is rotating on its right axis should be rendered a current classic in the Disney canon.  It's funny, heartfelt, has an amazing musical score and soundtrack, and although it succumbs to the traditional Disney schmaltz we expect, it still ranks among their better features as of late.

Rating: B

Dir. Stephen Frears

At the beginning Philomena, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist without a story, is presented with an option of following Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an aging woman whose long-lost son she has been searching for for fifty-odd years.  He responds something to the effect of 'human stories are small minded and bullshit.'  In many ways this was sort of my attitude going into this film.  I didn't necessarily think I'd care about this story, which seemed rather slight in comparison to the other year-end "Oscar-contending" films - but I, just as Martin did, was brought and sucked into this absolutely fascinating story with many layers, unraveling the truth behind Philomena's past and present.  Philomena will come at you very subtly, until you realize you're holding your breath at what will happen next.  It's undeniably a comedy (as its poster protests), but it's so much more than that.

I loved almost everything about this film.  Coogan and Dench are the best screen pairing I can think of this year, and their relationship is incredibly sincere. The culture gap between the two birthed many genuinely funny scenes, and their developing rapport gave the latter half of the picture a lot of heartstring-pulling moments.  The story goes in places you wouldn't necessarily expect (at least I didn't), and I definitely could have cried if I wanted to.  Also worth noting is the brilliant score by Alexandre Desplat, whose soft, lullaby-like music strikes this perfect balance between sweetness and sadness, perfectly encapsulating the feel of the film and Dench's brilliant performance (one of the best of the year).

Other than absolutely trivial nitpicks (such as the over-use of home movie footage of the lost boy during transitions), I loved everything about this movie.  It deals with themes of aging, religion, guilt, and self-discovery, all wrapped in a neat little bow by co-screenwriter Coogan with his fantastic script.  Also, the cinematography, especially around Ireland and Washington DC, was stunning as well (from Fish Tank's Robbie Ryan).  I would recommend this film to just about anyone.

Rating: A

Out of the Furnace
Dir. Scott Cooper

Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award in 2009 for Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart as a grizzled, down-and-out country singer - and in many ways Out of the Furnace is a logical follow-up to Cooper's first theatrical film.  Russell Baze (Christian Bale), is always looking out for his baby brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), as economic times are crumbling in the old steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.  Rodney eventually goes off to Iraq, and comes back a changed, angry man - and takes out his aggression in violent fights set up in the backwoods countryside by the violent DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), which obviously doesn't bode well.

Out of the Furnace does a great job establishing its atmosphere, and the actors are all top notch (just looking at the cast list is impressive: Bale, Harrelson, Shephard, Affleck, Whittaker, Dafoe - this may be one of the best "casts" in a film this year), but the film ended up too predictable and melodramatic to be much more than an acting showcase.  It's pretty much The Deer Hunter in a more modern setting, showing the devastation of coming back from war, and turns into a kind of revenge flick.  The post-war stuff in the beginning works much better in my opinion than the straightforward second portion.  It's a fine film with some great moments and great performances (Harrelson in particular sticks out), but never really comes together to make something special.

Rating: C+

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Catching Fire, Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave Reviews

Hey folks, sorry I haven't been keeping up with my blog lately, but I've been inundated with schoolwork this whole month.  Keep on the lookout at the end of the year though, as I'll be posting both my annual movie superlatives (including a new category: Best Guilty Pleasure) and my Top Ten of 2013 - which is going to be a bitch this year because of all the fantastic films I've seen and yet to see!  As always, thanks for reading, and I hope your holiday plans include watching a movie or two (or twelve).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Dir. Francis Lawrence

Although it has the general reputation as being the next "Twlight" or "Harry Potter," I think The Hunger Games series is a much richer young adult sci-fi series.  It deals with government regimes, brainwashing media, violence against children, and being caught in a literally life-or-death love triangle.  It's almost as if Battle Royale and Brazil had a teenage daughter.  I enjoyed reading the books, and while its budget was noticable, I thought the first Hunger Games film was a serviceable adaptation to the book.  However, I think Catching Fire is not only a great adaptation, it's a much better film than the original.

Catching Fire doesn't fuck around with telling you what happened last time - it drops you right into the world we previously left off in (something I love in sequels).  District 11 is still a wasteland, but the ridiculous shaky-cam stuff is all gone, and in its place is absolutely gorgeous cinematography from Jo Willems (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy).  Also back is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Academy Award win for Silver Linings Playbook, and totally gives an equally powerful performance, if you can believe it.  In fact I think Lawrence is not just great at playing her character, but her own life parallels that of Katniss Everdeen - she's constantly having to put up a front for the media, and though she's remained a relatively "normal" person by Hollywood standards, she's been thrust into the jungle of show business and forced to survive (only without the poisonous fog or killer baboons).

For a movie that's almost 2.5 hours, it moved extremely fast. Maybe it's just because I'm so used to these books being broken into a billion parts to milk more money out of them (ahem...The Hobbit), but I was engaged the whole time, and the only problems I had with the film were problems I had with the source material (such as the logically questionable, but still satisfying ending).  The special effects are clearly better, with almost double the budget of the first - $130 million vs. the original's $78 million - and the cast and crew really made this into something more than what you'd expect from a young adult novel brought to the screen.  This is a fantastic sequel and as soon as it ended I was excited for the next one.

Rating: B+

Dallas Buyers Club
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

Matthew McConaughey continues his winning streak in Dallas Buyers Club, the film in which he lost 38 pounds to transform into the rough-and-tough Texas bull rider Ron Woodruff, who contracts the AIDS virus during its height in the 80's.  Doctors tell him he has 30 days to live, and the drugs they're prescribing are making matters worse.  Taking a cue from Walter White, Woodruff gets in the drug business, acting as a back-door pharmacist for meds not yet approved by the FDA, but have proven to ease the symptoms of the virus.  While the subject of the film is fascinating, and McConaughey gives one of his best-ever performances, the film fell a little flat for me on certain levels.

First off, Woodruff's projected journey is supposedly taking this violently homophobic man and turning him into a more sympathetic person.  But the film makes this shift so suddenly; one second he's pinning a doctor to the wall for "insinuating" that he might be gay, and the next he's playing a friendly game of cards with a man in drag (Jared Leto), who will soon become his business partner.  This issue is at its worst during a scene taking place in a grocery store.  Woodruff at this point has been cut off from his friends and job (because AIDS was synonymous with homosexuality), and bumps into his former work buddy.  Now instead of having some sort of deep psychological conflict between the two, they just get into a short brawl and Woodruff forces his friend to apologize to Leto's character.  Moments ago Woodruff would have beat the shit out of some guy for hinting at his being gay, and now he's defending a drag queen at the drop of a hat - it's just too much too soon (made even worse by the big jumps in time via title cards, e.g. 28 months later).

Everything in this movie is played for the most obvious beats, and we don't really get a close perspective on the AIDS epidemic (if you wanted that check out the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague).  McConaughey is magically cured after he takes the unapproved drugs from Mexico, and he might as well not have even had the disease.  And Jennifer Garner was pretty much wasted as one of the few "good" doctors and also acts as a sort of forced love interest.  Still, Dallas Buyers Club is never boring, and like I said, McConaughey is worth price of admission alone - it's just that this could have been a spectacular film, and it's merely a good one.

Rating: B

12 Years a Slave
Dir. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) took on a monumental task for his third feature film. 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of a first-hand account, written in 1853, of a free man and virtuoso violinist, Solomon Northup, who was captured and forced into slavery for 12 years of his life - taken away from his wife and children.  12 Years a Slave is McQueen's biggest film yet, with an ensemble cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and of course Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a "give-this-guy-an-award" performance as Northup himself.

We've seen many films about slavery as it is, and at this point in time, you may ask if it's even relevant to make a film about the horrors of slavery when everyone in their right mind knows it's wrong.  But 12 Years a Slave is definitely not just an ambitious exploitation feature; this film, for the first time, truly put me in the mindset of a slave in the antebellum south.  In much the same way Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan gave you a visceral experience of WWII, 12 Years a Slave is just as brutal and beautiful.  There are certain shots in this film that will probably never leave me (including one long take that snakes around the building where slaves were bought).  It is not an easy film to sit through, but it's an important historical document, and it shows the depths of human depravity without getting preachy.  The film knows how to make you feel something without turning to sentimentality; a lingering shot of Northup's face tells you all you need to know.

I thought everything in this movie is worth adoration, and it's probably the best film on this subject matter.  Hans Zimmer's score was also pretty impressive, always adding to the scene without making too much of an impact (Zimmer isn't normally one to be subtle).  The end of the film hit me hard and I could've cried if I wanted to.  12 Years a Slave is a serious achievement in film.  It's not at all fun to watch and will probably take a lot out of you, but to me it's necessary viewing for this year, or any year, in film.

Rating: A

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Captain Phillips, Machete Kills, The Counselor, Bad Grandpa

Captain Phillips
Dir. Paul Greengrass

Perhaps best known for his directorial work on the Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass' style pretty much defined action thrillers of the 00's.  Captain Phillips, based on the true account of an American cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, is his latest, with Tom Hanks assuming the role of the titular captain, making a serious comeback from a somewhat dwindling career recently.  And making his film debut is Barkhad Abdi, convincingly playing the pirate "captain" (let's just say you won't see Abdi in a Calvin Klein ad).  Captain Phillips, like Gravity, is a claustrophobic thrill ride filled with all the set-pieces you could imagine coming out of the limited scope of a cargo freighter.  The filmmaking is great, I loved the contrast between the respective "captains," and it's hardly boring considering it takes place almost entirely on a boat.  The "message" of the film is a little too blatant, and due to the trailers/based-in-real-lifeness it's pretty predictable, but other than that, I think it's a great true-life thriller.

Rating: B+

Machete Kills
Dir. Robert Rodriguez

I think this series has worn out its welcome.  I was a huge fan of Grindhouse from 2007, the criminally under-seen double feature from Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, of which "Machete" was a fake trailer at the beginning.  Soon thereafter Rodriguez directed a standalone Machete film, with Danny Trejo back playing "the wrong Mexican to fuck with." While entertaining for what it was, I felt the film marked the end of Machete's novelty.  Even with the sequel's exciting cast lineup, including Cuba Gooding Jr, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Demian Bechir, and Lady Gaga, Machete Kills just falls flat.  It wasn't clever enough, it wasn't outrageous enough, and it wasn't nostalgic enough.  At first these films seemed like a sincere return to a previous era's style of filmmaking, now it just feels laborious.  Machete is just not that interesting of a character.  At least other "silent-but-deadly" action heroes like Schwarzenegger's Terminator or Eastwood's 'Man with No Name' had epic stories that surrounded them.  It really just doesn't feel edgy anymore, just rehashing the same shit.  "Grindhouse" has become a stock style at this point (just look at this Ruffles commercial), and it's not enough to simply emulate for the sake of it.  I think Rodriguez is an amazing director, and I'm still cautiously awaiting his Sin City sequel, but I'd rather take a shot from Mel Gibon's "inside out" gun than watch this again.

Rating: D

The Counselor
Dir. Ridley Scott

If you ask me what The Counselor was about, I seriously wouldn't know what to tell you.  Michael Fassbender plays a guy who we never learn about (including his name - everyone just calls him "the counselor").  He wants in on the world of the Mexican border drug game...or something...despite the fact that he's boning Penelope Cruz (whom he has zero on-screen chemistry with) and could lose her.  A cowboy hat-wearing Brad Pitt and a spiky-haired Javier Bardem warn him not to get involved, but he does anyway.  Then there's Cameron Diaz who has two pet cheetahs for no reason.  Other than that it's just all long pieces of undecipherable dialogue that thinks it's poetic intermingled with un-erotic sex and uninteresting violence. Just what the fuck is this movie?  This marks 80-year-old Cormac McCarthy's first foray into screenwriting (best known for his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road).  For whatever reason this just flat out didn't work on any level, and it's clear that the actors involved were in it just for the prestige of working with Ridley Scott/McCarthy.  I don't even know how to review this, it didn't even make sense.

Rating: D-

Bad Grandpa
Dir. Jeff Tremaine

I've always been a big fan of Jackass, the show and the movies, and the pranks were always the funniest bits, for me anyway.  In Bad Grandpa Johnny Knoxville reprises his role of 86-year old Irving Zisman, this time getting the "Borat" treatment in a docu-comedy format.  Unlike previous Jackass features there is an actual narrative to follow, though it's loose enough to allow for the disconnected pranks to work.  And they're as funny as ever.  Basically Irving is on a road trip to drop his grandson off with his dad after his mom is sent to prison, and along the way they get into crazy hijinks (mostly in an effort for Irving to score some "tail"). The kid, played by 9-year-old Jackson Nicoll, has a surprisingly mature sense of humor and he plays really well off Knoxville (never caving or laughing during the pranks).  If you've enjoyed the Jackass adventures thus far and have that type of humor, Bad Grandpa is a ton of fun.  It's sophomoric, it's full of fart jokes, and you get to see an old man's genitals wagging around on the big screen.  What more could you want?  Knoxville knox it out of the park here (sorry, I had to).

Rating: B+

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity, Don Jon, Rush, Enough Said Reviews

Again, sorry for the short reviews (not that anyone really cares).

Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

If movies have taught us anything, it's that space is scary.  But Gravity proves that it can be just as scary without the Aliens.  Set entirely in zero-gravity, this is one of the most unique thrillers to come out in a long time, suspending the audience along with the characters in space - and you will feel like you know what it feels like to float among the stars.  Featuring some gorgeous shots of the Earth, we're introduced to everything we need to know in the first 17 minute-long "unedited" sequence (it was edited digitally but appears to be one fluid shot), where we meet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a smooth-talking veteran astronaut and his new medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), still getting acclimated to being weightless.  Within moments, they are alerted by mission control (Ed Harris - who coincidentally played mission control in Apollo 13) that debris from another satellite is rocketing their way.  The ship is destroyed, effectively leaving them stranded in outer space.  Talk about stakes!

As imagined coming from Cuarón, this is a spectacular movie that perfectly balanced horror with beauty, sure to placed in many 'Top Ten' lists at the end of the year.  The special effects look as good, if not better, than Avatar.  Sure there may be some iffy moments here and there, like Clooney's face under his helmet looking a little too CGI-like, but considering the scope of the film it's still awe-inspiring.  Plus, somehow he managed to make it just as much about the characters as the thrilling set-pieces.  Everything about this movie was great, if somewhat simplified compared to his previous masterwork Children of Men.  I don't want to give anything away, but I'm happy that it stuck to the 'hard science' angle as well.  If Danny Boyle could have only realized you don't necessarily need an alien for every movie set in space, Sunshine could've been this good.  Seriously, if you're a fan of movies at all Gravity should already be at the top of your watch-list.

Rating: A

Don Jon
Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is definitely one of the best young actors working in Hollywood right now (I mean, just look at Brick, 50/50, Looper, The Dark Knight Rises, etc), but Don Jon marks his first time as a writer/director/star.  It's pretty much about this New Jersey meathead, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) whose favorite pastimes include working out, objectifying women, and watching an unhealthy amount of pornography.  Then enters Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen), a "princess" type who sports a shit-eating-grin whenever she watches a romantic comedy.  Don instantly falls for her after seeing her ass in a red dress, and she falls for Don, unaware of his "nasty" habits.  The heart of the film examines how media influences gender expectations in a negative way, and how we set unrealistic standards for the opposite sex.

It wasn't all that deep of a movie, but considering this is a first-time directing job (granted Gordon-Levitt has grown up in the industry), the pacing and the story were handled really well.  As awkward as a Jersey Shore-type porn addict movie may sound, the explicitness wasn't gratuitous and was shown purely to advance the story.  Also, in the middle of the film the always wonderful Julianne Moore shows up and completely changes the dynamic of the story and characters, which helped save the movie from going into monotony (the film intentionally repeats imagery to show Don's routine, but once it you see the same "sister-on-the-phone" gag for the fourth time it can get repetitive).  All in all, despite it sort of condemning sappy romantic comedies, it actually is one by the end.  A solid one that was able to show the potential of a new actor/director by the likes of Ben Affleck, but still your typical stuff.

Rating: B

Enough Said
Dir. Nicole Holofcener

Kind of an ironic title for the last film featuring James Gandolfini (best known for playing Tony Soprano).  In this indie-romantic comedy he co-stars with another famous TV icon, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss (Seinfeld's Elaine - as if I have to tell you these things).  She's a masseuse with a kid going off to college, he's a TV historian with a daughter in college, they're both single parents, and they hit it off.  The only problem is that one of Dreyfuss's clients, whom she begins to form a strong friendship with, is Gandolfini's ex-wife! Oh, the tension.  Enough Said really isn't a challenging picture, but I thought it was a touching and sweet final performance for a man known for playing tough guys.  The two veteran actors held fantastic chemistry together, and is one of the better movies about finding love at an old age that I've seen.  There are some eye-rolling unfunny moments here and there, but this is just such a quaint little movie, it's impossible to root against it.  Another movie that almost made me shed a man-tear.

Rating: B

Dir. Ron Howard

To me, Ron Howard has no discernable "style" that sets him apart from any other director.  If you look at even his best films back to back (let's say Cocoon, Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind), there's no way you'd be able to tell it was from the same director.  He's kind of bland, I'm sorry.  So I wasn't really excited for Rush, one of the few movies to come out set around Formula One racing.  I assumed it would be just like any other sports drama.  Aaaand...that was still the case here.  But the relationship between the two rival racers was well-handled.  The film follows real-life racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), a Tony Stark-like cocky dude, and Niki Lauda, a calculating German relying on precision more than speed.  Unlike other sport films, where we'd follow one character and hate the other, this film truly shows the story from both perspectives, making the races mean a little more than, say, the Podracing sequence in The Phantom Menace (don't know why that's the example that came to me).

But even with a strong central relationship, I thought Rush was exceedingly "OK."  In the end it was a loud, fast-paced, turn-off-your-brain sports flick with not much to rave about.  Every other character is terrible, especially Olivia Wilde's, playing Hunt's wife; milling around for no reason, she should have just left him a long time ago (in the words of Hemsworth "Don't go to men who are willing to kill themselves driving in circles looking for normality").  Just another "Ron Howard" film to dump onto his pile of other inspirational "whatever" movies.  Frost/Nixon, anyone?

Rating: C

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Prisoners, Insidious: Chapter 2, Riddick


Just how far would you go to do what you think is the "right" thing? This is the question that torments all the characters in Prisoners, the latest thriller from Incendies director Denis Villeneuve.  Hugh Jackman gives an amazing performance as a father whose daughter has been kidnapped and is now missing, along with his neighbors' daughter (played by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard).  On the trail of the kidnapper is Detective Loki, a tattooed Jake Gyllenhaal.  Now, I don't want to give any more away although the trailer spoils a ridiculous amount of the plot. If you plan on seeing this: STAY AWAY FROM THE TRAILER.  But I really thought this was a great film with a great cast that goes all in.  The dread was palpable and I was seriously getting nervous at various points in the film.  It also has just some great "shots" (like when Gyllenhaal inspects an RV at night in the rain, with the only light source coming from his flashlight). It was a beautifully disturbing picture, although I do think it loses some steam with its final "reveal" - not that it was bad or unearned, but simply felt a little hokey.  But seriously, this is a pure and simple, well-crafted thriller.  And god damn Hugh Jackman is the best.

Rating: B+

Insidious Chapter 2:

James Wan must be on top of the world right now.  After The Conjuring scared up $136 million dollars this summer (on a $20 million budget), Insidious 2 made $41 million opening weekend (the second-highest September opening over), AND Fast and Furious 7 will have his name on the director's chair, I'd say he knows what he's doing.  But how did this sequel, sandwiched between two of his biggest projects, both compare to the original and work on its own?  Well, for this particular horror nerd it was a mixed bag.  On one hand it did have some creepy moments, it worked well within the mythology the first created, and Patrick Wilson channels his inner Jack Torrance - but it ultimately felt forgettable and lacked the more nuanced horror of the first.  This one was much more garish, feeling more like a 70's giallo than a haunted house flick.  It was just so "alright" I almost would've rather seen a terrible movie.  Against what everybody else thinks about it, I actually liked this more than The Conjuring and even though it had all the typical tropes, there were some cool new visuals to chew on (like the "Ouija dice" and a creepy sequence involving ghosts wrapped in white sheets - imagine that).

Rating: C+


Nobody was asking for more Riddick after The Chronicles of Riddick, a boring, overlong "space opera" way worse than the Star Wars prequels (Vin Diesel was nominated for a Razzie, but lost to George Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11).  But Vinny D was hell-bent on keeping his glowy-eyed badass in theaters, and pushed this sequel into production.  Not being a huge fan of the original films (other than the Xbox game Escape from Butcher Bay), I didn't really care one way or the other if I saw it, but I think Riddick is marginally best of the three films so far, sneaking past the first by a fraction.  This time around it's back to basics - just Vin Diesel doing what he does best and kicking things' asses.  No more of that space epic BS that plagued Chronicles. I loved the opening 15 or so dialogue-free minutes of Riddick, reminiscent (in a good way) of Pixar's WALL-E with Vin Diesel going around a barren planet and surviving waves of different wildlife out to eat him.  That opening sequence is enough to recommend the film for me, but after that it starts to go downhill.  You don't care about the characters and you just start to grow numb to the fights after a while.  It's a solidly put-together action/sci-fi film, but totally forgettable.

Rating: C

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A few quick reviews...

Sorry, but time is catching up with me and I didn't have a lot of time to write four full-length reviews. But in keeping up with my movie-watching journey I'll just post a paragraph or two on the last few films I've seen theatrically.  May have to do this a few times during the school year - but I promise I'll try to keep these to a minimum!

You're Next:

I wanted to hate this movie.  The title is dumb, the plot is dumb, the acting is terrible - nothing about the trailer made me want to see it other than the fact that it was a rated-R horror film.  But honestly, after actually watching You're Next, I can place this away in my 'guilty pleasure' vault alongside Green Lantern and The House at the End of the Street. It wasn't great by any stretch, but it was a totally watchable slasher flick with some interesting deaths (that may or may not have been intentionally hilarious) and a twist that somehow works despite being on the same intellectual level as an episode of Scooby-Doo.  I was pleasantly surprised in that I didn't want to kill myself while watching it.

Rating: C+

The Spectacular Now:

Coming from the writers behind (500) Days of Summer, I was pretty surprised by how low-key and unsentimental this coming-of-age film was.  Shailene Woodley (who you may recognize from The Descendants)  won an acting award at Sundance for her role as the "good girl" Aimee Finecky, who falls for the more popular flask-toting Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) one summer during her routine paper route.  Both young actors do an absolutely fantastic job, even if their relationship took me a little time to warm up to.  Both are totally authentic in their quirks and flaws, and they were just fascinating characters to watch on screen.  But as great as those two are, Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) in a supporting role was the highlight.  He only has a couple of scenes, but they were huge turning points in the script, and considering he's usually typecasted as the "perfect dad," he was brilliantly playing against type in a fairly risky role.  Overall a fantastic film with great performances all around (keep an eye out for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bob Odenkirk) and a really tight script.

Rating: A-


In high school I was given an assignment to write a report on any book between these certain dates in history and on a whim I chose "The Catcher in the Rye," knowing only that it was a "classic" novel and nothing more.  That book, like with most teenagers, turned into my all-time favorite and I similarly felt that JD Salinger just "got it."  Even for something written 50 years ago, it was easy to connect with Holden Caulfield and his angst against the phony adults around him.  But the reclusive author just disappeared after the book was published and has remained a mysterious figure for years.  This documentary was supposedly going to be the answer to all our questions about the man - but instead it was pretty much your standard biography.  The film itself wasn't too organized.  It would not only jump from re-enactments to talking heads to a sort-of "hunt" for Salinger, but it would jump around in time without a care (going from the 40's to current day to 70's to 50's).  Within the film there was so much repetition with both the facts and the photos/footage it became a little laborious to watch.  Still, die hard fans of Salinger should learn some interesting nuggets about his past life in the army and his many ex-wives, but for those unaware of Salinger or his genius you won't get a real sense of it here (unless you count the unnecessary/awkward montage of teenagers holding up copies of "Catcher in the Rye" and smiling).

Rating: C

Short Term 12:

One of the biggest hits to come out of the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, Short Term 12 is about a foster-care facility supervised by Grace (Brie Larson) and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr).  The kids in the program all have their own traumas they bring over, and Grace has her own past she is dealing with.  The film has the same "unsentimental" feel as The Spectacular Now (which ironally also features Brie Larson), making the heartstring tugging all the more raw.  The writing is spot on, the acting, even from the kids, is authentic and should make you fall in love with Brie Larson.  I guarantee this girl will be a big name in the next 5 or so years.  If you're not emotionally devastated by the "Octopus Story" you might have checked your soul at the door.

Rating: A-

Friday, August 30, 2013

RESULTS: Summer 2013 Box Office Predictions

Damn, didn't the summer just fly by?  Both figuratively AND literally (due to all the superheroes).  You might remember that little game I started back in May, trying to predict the summer movie box office - and like my last Oscar prediction blog, kind of dropped the ball.  I thought for sure Johnny Depp's star power would make The Lone Ranger a big hit, and I TOTALLY underestimated those friggen minions.  Despicable Me 2 beat a Pixar movie!  My gamble with The Heat did pay off though, which turned out to be the biggest comedy of the summer (though the insipid Grown-Ups 2 almost cracked the top ten).  If you played along, write in the comments how you did and what your score was, and how you felt about this summer in movies!  Stay tuned for Oscar season!  And here's the points system if you forgot:

- Pick 1-10 movies you think will top the summer box office (May through August)
- 13 points for getting 1 or 10 exactly correct
- 10 points for getting 2-9 exactly correct
- 7 points if movie was one spot away
- 5 points if movie was two spots away
- 3 points if movie was anywhere the top ten
- 1 point for each dark horse (pick three)

Actual (Domestic):

1. Iron Man 3 - $408.6 million
2. Despicable Me 2 - $351.9 million
3. Man of Steel - $290.3 million
4. Monsters University - $262 million
5. Fast & Furious 6 - $238.5 million
6. Star Trek into Darkness - $227.4 million
7. World War Z - $198.9 million
8. The Heat - $156.6 million
9. The Great Gatsby - $144.8 million
10. The Conjuring - $132.4 million


My Predictions:

1. Iron Man 3 (+13)
2. Monsters University (+5)
3. Man of Steel (+10)
4. Star Trek Into Darkness (+5)
5. The Lone Ranger
6. The Hangover Part III
7. The Heat (+7)
8. Despicable Me 2 (+3)
9. Fast and Furious 6 (+3)
10. Pacific Rim

Dark Horses:
World War Z (+1)
The Wolverine
The Smurfs 2


Thursday, August 29, 2013

In a World... Review: Gender-bending the voiceover industry

Dir. Lake Bell
93 Minutes
Rated R
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In a World... begins with a brief introduction to Don Lafontaine, perhaps the biggest name in trailer voiceovers of all time, whose deep-voiced phrase "In a world" became the go-to trailer cliche for years.  The film tells the fictional story of Carol Solomon (Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed the movie), a vocal coach at a sound studio, whose big, hairy, abrasive father (Fred Melamed) is the current "king" of voiceovers.  Now his daughter wants in on the industry that previously catered only to male voices - and once word on the street goes that the "in a world" phrase is making a comeback in the latest big-budget sci-fi 'quadrilogy,' the two must put their relationships on the line for the coveted voice spot.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blue Jasmine Review: Woody Allen's unofficial "Streetcar" remake is a true acting showcase

Dir. Woody Allen
98 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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Woody Allen has always been hit-or-miss with me, even with his most critically-lauded works (Midnight in Paris just wasn't my kind of flick), but the casting choices alone got me excited for his latest, Blue Jasmine - especially Louis CK and Andrew Dice Clay, two comedians not necessarily known for their subtle performances.  But Allen knows how to work his cast, and Blue Jasmine has some of the best performances I've seen all year.  Cate Blanchett is the "Blanche," Jasmine, a neurotic debutante who lost everything after her millionaire husband (Alec Baldwin) was sent to jail for scamming people out of money. She books a flight to New York to dorm with her sister (Sally Hawkins), a lower-class mom with two kids and a blue collar boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale).  The film depicts Jasmine's mental descent both seriously and humorously to great effect, and shows that the now 77-year-old Allen still has creative juice left in him.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The World's End Review: Inebriation of the Body Snatchers

Dir. Edgar Wright
109 Minutes
Rated R
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Gary King is living in the past.  He's out to re-live the infamous pub crawl that he and his high school buddies never finished back in the day.  Although Gary (Simon Pegg) hasn't moved on from his younger days (riding the same car, rocking to the same cassette, wearing the same black overcoat), his friends take some persuading to come along, including Peter Page (Eddie Marsan), Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and especially the now-teetotaling Andy Knightley (Nick Frost).  The guys all eventually agree to join Gary on this nostalgic trip, reminiscing over past loves (Rosamund Pike), bullies, and teachers.  But something is off in their hometown, and without going into too big of spoilers, the guys must literally fight their way through to reach the end of "the golden mile."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 Review: Tries to recapture the spirit of the first, but gets its ass kicked

Dir. Jeff Wadlow
103 Minutes
Rated R
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Kick-Ass 2 takes everything that made the first film good and literally pukes and craps all over it.  The original, directed with care by X-Men: First Class helmer Matthew Vaughn, balanced ultra-violence with offbeat humor in a great dismantling of the superhero genre.  The second was directed by Jeff Wadlow, the man responsible for such hits as Never Back Down and Cry_Wolf, who either doesn't "get" what made the first so great, or just failed at recapturing that same dark/funny tone of the first.  Simply copying what's come before (in a much less exciting way, no less), won't have the same impact.  The movie is all over the place with its message, its characters, its plot, even what its trying to be.  Kick-Ass himself has no motivation this time around; he puts the costume on again simply out of boredom.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Elysium Review: Occupy Wall SPACE!

Dir. Neill Blomkamp
109 Minutes
Rated R
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It's 2154 and Earth is a shithole.  All the rich people left the planet to live on Elysium, a ring-shaped space station with mansions, trees, and magic health machines that will heal everything from a papercut to a grenade-to-the-face.  Back on Earth, however, things are run by mean robots and everybody lives in shacks.  Matt Damon, ever since he was a little kid, wanted to leave Earth to live on Elysium, and a nun told him it was his destiny.  One day on a factory job, he gets locked in a radiation chamber and finds out he has five days to live.  So might as well go on a suicide mission to Elysium in an attempt to provide free health care to everyone - including the obligatory love interest's little girl with Leukemia.  Elysium, while it sticks its toe in the pool of good ideas (parallels between immigration, health care, class systems), it pretty much devolves into a mindless action film with no rhyme or reason to the story or characters.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Way, Way Back Review: A great light comedy gem in the middle of blockbuster season

Dir. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
103 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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"On a scale from 1 to 10, what do you think you are?  I think you're a 3."  The Way Way Back had me from the very beginning, with Steve Carell posing that question to his step-son during a trip to their summer beach house.  The film follows an awkward pubescent teenager, Duncan (Liam James), as he's dragged along on vacation with his mother (Toni Collete), sister, and step-dad.  Feeling like an outcast every step of the way, he finally finds a home at a job at Water Whizz, a local water park, where he meets the brash and fun-loving Owen (Sam Rockwell).  The story may not break whole new ground in the coming-of-age genre, but it was incredibly well written, with plenty of fun and interesting side characters (Allison Janney is a scene stealer as the neighbor who's had her fair share of margaritas before 10am) and some well-earned emotional moments.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine Review: Logan battles with his toughest foe yet - chopsticks

Dir. James Mangold
126 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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Typically it's around the time a franchise heads to Japan that it's really reached the end of its creative rope.  Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, You Never Live Twice (the Bond film that first went into full on "Austin Powers" camp), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Bad News Bears goes to Japan...the list goes on and on.  It's a quick way to instantly make a sequel more "exotic" and lazily make the protagonist(s) feel out of their element.  With the simply titled The Wolverine, from Walk the Line director James Mangold, we see our favorite clawed hero lost and brooding in the 'Land of the Rising Sun' in Hugh Jackman's sixth on-screen portrayal of the character.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fruitvale Station Review: A poignant final day in the life of a young black male

Dir. Ryan Coogler
90 Minutes
Rated R
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Fruitvale Station
, from first-time feature director Ryan Coogler, not only swept up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, but earned Coogler the "Best First Film" award at Cannes.  The movie retells the tragic events on New Year's Eve 2009, which ultimately led to the untimely death of a 22 year-old Oscar Grant at the hands of a police officer at the BART train station in Oakland, California.  Taking a cue from "one day" films like Do The Right Thing and Gus Van Sant's Elephant, it all takes place within the 24 hours before his death - which ironically happens on the cusp of a new year and his mother's birthday. The story mostly focuses on Oscar as a human being, living life with all his flaws.  The results to me were especially effecting considering the ridiculously good timing with the whole Trayvon Martin incident; it's a story that will leave you with a powerful understanding of how unfair the world can be.  Damn trigger-happy cops!

The Conjuring Review: True story, my ass!

Dir. James Wan
112 Minutes
Rated R
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The Internet has spoken: The Conjuring is apparently one of the freshest horror films of recent memory.  With a solid 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and a better-than-predicted $41 million box office take, it was clear audiences were eating it up. As a self-appointed geek of the genre I could not wait for this film.  I'm a big fan of both Saw and Insidious, and I was looking forward to what all the fuss was about.  Based on the overwhelmingly positive reactions, I was hoping James Wan would hit it out of the park again, showing us what a true original horror picture can be.  Sadly, The Conjuring, besides some unexplored hints and ideas of a better movie, features more cliches and overused scares it will make you want to bash your head against the wall repeatedly.  Granted, Wan's technical ability behind the camera is impressive, and the cast gives it their all, but I was simply bored and felt I had seen all of it before.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim Review: Guillermo Del Toro delivers huge-scaled action in this poorly written and acted clobberfest

Dir. Guillermo Del Toro
131 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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Guillermo Del Toro, despite having a pretty hit-or-miss filmography, is still one of my favorite guys working in the movie business today.  His Spanish-language horror fables are all incredible (from the alt-vampire flick Cronos, to the incredible ghost story The Devil's Backbone, to his masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth) but his American movies usually lack that same level of artistic vision.  Pacific Rim is by far his biggest film to date - an ode to Japanese monster movies featuring giant Kaijus from the center of the Earth and huge man-controlled robots sent to fight them.  The mechs, called Jaegers, need two pilots to control them using a "neural handshake" where you share all your memories with the other person.  Despite that heady concept, for those hoping this would be Del Toro's take on serious sci-fi you may be disappointed.  Pacific Rim is like watching a child mash their $180 million action figures together for 2.5 hours.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Lone Ranger Review: Gore Verbinski's return to the western genre is a disappointing mess

Dir. Gore Verbinski
149 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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The Lone Ranger seems to be on track to be yet another underperforming live action Disney outing.  The studio has had some trouble recently, with John Carter and Pirates 4 racking in less than stellar numbers (although The Avengers certainly helped), and this upcoming weekend will likely be dominated by Despicable Me 2.  This latest flick had its own share of production problems, with a budget that ballooned up to an estimated $250 million.  It got to a point where the director, the actors, and even Jerry Bruckheimer all deferred their salaries by 20% just to stymie the cost.  Despite all the issues I remained optimistic; Gore Verbinski knew how to breathe life into a film based off of an animatronic pirate ride and made, in my opinion, one of the best westerns of the past few years with Rango.  But even with Verbinski behind the reigns, The Lone Ranger falls disappointingly flat.  There are many great ideas sprinkled throughout, but it adds up to nothing in this boring, over-long, over-produced Western checklist.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

White House Down Review: Roland Emmerich blows up the white house...again

Dir. Roland Emmerich
137 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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Known for his over-the-top disaster films like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich just loves to see America deal with catastrophic situations.  In White House Down, the stakes are just as high as any other of his works; a band of homegrown terrorists led by James Woods take over the white house in an attempt to launch some nukes triggering World War III.  Yup, you read that right.  Jamie Foxx is the president and Channing Tatum is a down-on-his luck father who wants to prove himself despite not having the credentials for a secret service position.  The story is as cliched as anything you'll see all year, and the nearly two and a half hour run time will leave you numb with action, but with lowered expectations, it's a totally "OK" movie with some likable performances.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Heat Review: Without a doubt the funniest movie of the summer

Dir. Paul Feig
117 Minutes
Rated R
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**Update: I apologize...I made a big mistake - Bridesmaids was not Paul Feig's first directed film.  I promise I will check all my information in the future.  Sorry if anybody was upset about this...**  

Paul Feig's feature film debut, Bridesmaids, came out a couple years ago to a staggering amount of critical and financial success, especially for being an R-Rated women-centric gross-out comedy.  It gave a huge boost to Feig's notoriety and showed that Kristen Wiig was more than just a funny lady on SNL (and netted her an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay to boot).  But one certain supporting actress, Melissa McCarthy, was perhaps one of the least expected overnight Hollywood success stories to have come out of the film.  In a mere two years McCarthy has gone from a no-name sitcom star to a household name that can open a summer blockbuster, in large part to her role as Megan in Bridesmaids.  The Heat marks Feig's return to female-centered comedy and brings together McCarthy and Sandra Bullock for a more vagina-laden take on the buddy cop genre.  Similarly to Bridesmaids, The Heat proves that the ladies can be just as funny and disgusting as the guys, and that Feig might be one of the best comedic directors working today.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Monsters University Review: Pixar gets back on track with its first prequel

Dir. Dan Scanlon
104 Minutes
Rated G
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As of late Pixar's critical scorecard has been disappointingly low, with its last two movies, Cars 2 and Brave, being obvious low points in the company's filmography.  With so much competition in the animation marketplace, and the recent merge between Disney and Pixar, some people believe the hit-making mega-studio could be on the decline. As they announce more and more sequels, which is no doubt a move to make a bigger profit in merchandising, that amazing string of original films from Ratatouille to Up seems like an unrepeatable achievement.  But of all their properties, Monsters Inc has one of the biggest, untapped worlds to delve into.  Monsters University, despite not having that factor of originality, is the Monsters prequel you didn't know you wanted.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

World War Z Review: The biggest zombie movie of all time is an even bigger missed opportunity

Dir. Marc Forster
116 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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It's no secret that World War Z has had a difficult journey on its way to theaters.  Brad Pitt, assuming the roles of both actor and producer on the film, wanted to make this a big new franchise for himself, but reportedly there was a lot of off-set drama between Pitt and the director Marc Forster, the budget got way out of control, and the entire ending, including a 12-minute action sequence was scrapped then re-written and re-shot to make more sense (they got Damon Lindelof of all people to change the ending...because his track record of endings is real solid...).  And all that for a film that completely disregards its source material - a critically acclaimed novel from Max Brooks which to my knowledge has no connection to this movie.  The cards weren't exactly stacked in its favor, but somehow the final product doesn't feel like a pasted together mess.  World War Z is a serviceable, but completely forgettable, horror-action film that managed to overcome its production issues.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel Review: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a reboot!

Dir. Zack Snyder
143 Minutes
Rated PG-13
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To say a lot is riding on Man of Steel is a massive understatement.  At this point Marvel is completely dominating the superhero marketplace with their Avengers setup in place for years and years to come, and DC is struggling to maintain the same momentum towards the inevitable Justice League movie.  Man of Steel is the first film, DC's Iron Man if you will, to establish this world unlike The Dark Knight where it would be possible for god-like aliens to fight each other.  Zach Snyder took the demanding task of rebooting a franchise that not only will set in motion likely all of DC's films in the foreseeable future, but also to make Superman relevant to today's audiences after the relative critical and financial disappointment of Superman Returns.  But Snyder is no stranger to taking on difficult projects (as seen with the previously deemed 'impossible to film' Watchmen), and Man of Steel was everything I could've hoped for.  It fires on all cylinders and reinvents Superman into our world without disrespecting his comic book origins, all while delivering non-stop action and even some philosophy along the way.

Friday, June 14, 2013

This Is the End Review: The apocalypse for the pop culture-savvy

Dir. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
106 Minutes
Rated R
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Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen began their filmmaking journey together when they wrote Superbad at the tender age of 13 and have collaborated on a number of projects since, including Pineapple Express and The Green Hornet.  This Is the End marks both of their directorial debuts however, and they shot for the sky (literally) with this apocalyptic R-Rated raunchy comedy.  The cast joins together comedy superstars Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, and Danny McBride, who, along with a smattering of cameos, play alter-ego versions of themselves as they shack up in Franco's place during the end of the world.  It's kind of surprising to see how "end of the world-y" it actually gets, but the plot itself is pretty flimsy.  The magic of the film lies in how these celebrities play off each other, often using their fame and careers as a springboard for comedy.  Without a good sense of pop culture, it'll be a real slog, but for those "in the know," This Is the End is a fun, but flawed, summer action-comedy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Purge Review: Screw it, I'm moving to Canada

Dir. James DeMonaco
85 Minutes
Rated R

Last weekend saw the release of the horror flick The Purge, a box office hit that made its budget back in midnight screenings alone, meaning a sequel was put in development right away.  The film is set 9 years from now in 2022, where America is now under rule by the "New Founders of America" and one night a year for 12 hours, all crime, including murder, is legal.  Ethan Hawke is a well-to-do father of two who sells home security systems that essentially turns your whole house into a big panic room to protect yourself from the purging going on outside.  Unfortunately, his son (who bears a striking resemblance to Christina Ricci), takes pity on a scared homeless man and lets him inside - but a bunch of creepy mask-wearing purge-people want him.  The following is pretty much your typical home invasion movie with some social commentary thrown in.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What Maisie Knew Review: A very real insight on divorce as seen through the perspective of a six year old

Dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel
93 Minutes
Rated R

What Maisie Knew has been making the rounds here and there in a limited release, a contemporary re-telling of a novel written in 1897 by Henry James told from the perspective of a young girl observing her dysfunctional family and the divorce of her parents.  The film stars Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as Maisie's feuding parents, each flawed in their own right, and newcomer Onata Aprile as the titular Maisie.  The film is a brilliant portrayal of a broken family life as seen through the eyes of an innocent child, and at times can be hard to watch.  Although the whole custody battle/divorce plot line has been done to death, What Maisie Knew brings a fresh twist on the genre with a wonderful script and amazing actors.

After Earth Review: Will Smith wants to make his son proud, if only he felt the same about the audience

Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
100 Minutes
Rated PG-13

Oh how the mighty have fallen.  M. Night Shyamalan, a director once touted as "the next Spielberg," now has such a negative reputation that his name was hidden on all the promotional material for his latest strike-out, After Earth.  It's unclear if either Sony Pictures or M. Night himself was the reason for not letting the public know this was 'from the director of The Sixth Sense,' but really this felt more like Will Smith's latest attempt at making his child into a movie star than the standard twist-filled Shyamalan fare.  The plot pretty much just focuses on two characters: Cypher Raige (Will Smith), a legendary fearless warrior called a 'ghost,' who returns home to his family to father his son Kitai, who is following in his dad's footsteps, training to be a Ranger.  During a voyage together, Cypher and Kitai's ship crashes on Earth, now a Class-1 quarantined planet, evacuated 1000 years ago.  The only people alive are Will Smith and his son, and Will's legs are broken.  It's up to Jaden to travel across the dangerous forests of Earth to retrieve a signaling device for help, or else they both will DIE.  Sounds like a plateau for a solid survival/sci-fi father/son story, but pretty much every aspect of the film, from the writing to the pacing to the acting, was completely incompetent.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Hangover Part III  Review: Todd Phillips indulges on his worst instincts in this nearly joke-less sequel

Dir. Todd Phillips
100 Minutes
Rated R

The first Hangover film to me is sort of the definitive modern comedy.  It took an ingeniously simple premise - piecing together the previous night after a hangover - and ran with it using lots of  gross-out moments and a solid cast.  Based off of its crazy success, Todd Phillips signed on for two sequels to be made.  Part II, while a success at the box office, was considered a lazy, pandering follow-up.  Beat-for-beat, the entire story followed the exact same path as the first (to an extreme degree), only the gags were less fun and the overall tone was much more serious.  But Todd Phillips must've heard the fans' cries for something different for the third and "final" adventure with the wolf pack, because he did indeed go in a completely different direction for Part III.  The only problem is he pushed it further back into the wrong direction Part II was heading in; this film is the least funny and pointlessly "serious" of the three and shouldn't even be classified as a comedy.

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