Reel Opinions


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Smurfs 2

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Maybe I am easily amused, but every time the little cat Azrael showed up on the screen in The Smurfs 2, I found myself smiling. Fans of the cartoon (and the hit 2011 live action adaptation) already know that Azrael is the long-suffering henchman (hench-cat?) to the evil, yet frequently incompetent, wizard Gargamel, once again brought to life by Hank Azaria, who comes closest to becoming a live action cartoon character than I've ever seen.  Gargamel's plans to capture the little blue Smurfs always seem to be set for disaster, and Azrael seems to realize this.  The photo-realistic CG feline doubles over with laughter whenever his master's plans lead to Gargamel getting smashed or maimed, or simply shakes his head in embarrassment.  This was cute, and I kind of wanted to see more of it.

picThe cat was an island of amusement in a movie that was virtually a sea of pleasant blandness.  There's nothing particularly wrong with The Smurfs 2.  As kid's entertainment, it does its job, and it never offends.  I just find very little to get excited about when it comes to the Smurfs themselves.  They're cute little blue creatures with puffy hats who like to sing and dance all day, and well, that's about it.  They mostly have names that describe their one-note personality (Clumsy, Brainy, Greedy, etc.), which makes it easy for kids to identify them, I guess.  This time, the movie's emphasis is on lone female Smurf, Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry), who we learn is not actually a Smurf at all.  She was originally a "Naughty", a pale-skinned Smurf-like creature created by Gargamel to infiltrate the mushroom village of the little blue creatures.  But wise old Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters, in his final performance) found a way to turn Smurfette blue and good, and she's been living amongst them ever since.

picAs Smurfette's birthday approaches, her past has been haunting her a lot lately.  It doesn't help her mood that everyone in the Smurf Village seems to have forgotten her birthday. (In reality, they're planning a surprise party.) Meanwhile, the evil Gargamel has created two new Naughties, which he hopes to use to capture the Smurfs, and lure Smurfette back to his side.  The Naughties capture Smurfette and take her to Paris, where Gargamel has been living recently, doing a successful magic act.  The Smurfs follow her trail, and must once again rely on the help of their human friends, Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays), from the last movie.  Patrick's somewhat-estranged stepfather, Victor (Brendan Gleeson), also comes along for the adventure, so that there can be some tender father and son bonding moments along the way. 

picCompared to some other recent cartoon to live action adaptations, like Alvin and the Chipmunks and the dreadful Yogi Bear, The Smurfs 2 is a small step above in quality.  I liked Patrick.  I liked Grace.  I liked Victor, even when he gets briefly turned into a duck by Gargamel's magic.  I was even amused whenever Gargamel and Azrael would get into little arguments, with Azrael "talking back" to his owner in cat-speak, which is sometimes accompanied by subtitles.  I just find the Smurfs themselves boring.  The Naughties were kind of bland, too, and are about as safe and as unthreatening as cartoon villains can get.   Of course, none of this mattered to the kids at my screening.  They were enthralled by the antics of the little blue guys.  More power to them, and I can relate.  I remember waking up Saturday mornings as a kid to watch the Smurfs cartoon.  I guess their charms just kind of fade as you get older. 

picThe human cast seem to be working tirelessly with the material they've been given, and at least have a lot of energy.  Neil Patrick Harris may not exactly be using all of his talents as the nice and supportive Patrick, but at least he doesn't let on.  Jayma Mays has a slightly reduced role from the last film, but she's likable as well.  Even Brendan Gleeson, that fine Irish actor, doesn't show that he's slumming it here.  But, just as in the last Smurf movie, it's Hank Azaria as Gargamel who gets the most attention.  He throws himself so into the character, it's amazing.  It's a highly energized cartoon villain performance, and as his character made numerous pratfalls, tumbled from heights, and was crushed by cars, I started to realize that Azaria is basically playing a live action take on the Coyote from the old Looney Tunes shorts.  He's relentlessly pursuing his prey, as he is constantly crushed and humiliated in his various efforts to catch the little Smurfs.  His performance deserves some kind of recognition for just how fully he tackles this character head on.

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Is it strange that I found myself enjoying this movie a little bit more whenever the Smurfs weren't on the screen?  I think that just means the little guys aren't strong enough to carry a full movie, let alone two of them.  Good thing the five credited screenwriters seem to realize this, and give the human characters plenty of opportunity to take center stage.  The Smurfs 2 is not the worst kids movie out there, but there's a lot better ones out there, too.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine

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James Mangold may seem like an odd choice to be the director of a movie like The Wolverine.  After all, he's more known for directing intimate dramas like the 3:10 to Yuma remake, or Walk the Line.  But, watching the film, I started to understand.  This is definitely a more character-driven superhero movie than we're used to, putting more emphasis on relationships and drama, than on big action set pieces (though there's plenty of that, too).  After the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this is a vast improvement.

picSet chronologically sometime after 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine finds our hero Logan (once again played by Hugh Jackman) living an isolated existence in the Canadian wilderness.  With his Grizzly Adams-style hair and beard, and his nightmares constantly haunted by the memory of his former love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Logan doesn't exactly strike us as the kind of guy who's going out of his way to win people over. (Not that he ever has been in this movies.) During one of his rare ventures into the civilized world to visit a nearby town, he is picked up by a mysterious woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who claims she has been sent by an old friend of his named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), who is close to death, and is waiting for Logan in Japan, wanting to see him one last time.  We witness in the film's opening prologue how the two met, when Logan happened to save his life during the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Japan back in World War II.

picShortly after arriving in Tokyo, Logan finds himself caught in the middle of a battle for control of Yashida's vast corporations and fortune after the old man eventually passes away.  It seems that Yashida's beautiful young granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is being targeted for a kidnapping plot by the Yakuza, and Logan becomes her unlikely bodyguard as the two try to stay ahead of gangsters and other mysterious assailants, as well as attempt to learn the answers as to what they want with the girl.  The young Yukio (who, it turns out, is Mariko's oldest friend) also joins in as a sidekick of sorts to Logan, as she is fortunately quite skilled in martial arts, and is able to fight off the various pursuers.  As our heroes race about Japan searching for clues, they are being closely watched by a man with a connection to Mariko's past named Kenuichiro Harada (Will Yun Lee), as well as a mysterious mutant who calls herself Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

picOutside of a thrilling action sequence where Logan battles some Yakuza thugs on top of a speeding bullet train, and an extended climax in a secret lab which holds a giant mechanical samurai (which is not quite as thrilling, and is kind of generic, actually), The Wolverine is really more of a Japanese crime drama, where the main character just happens to be a guy who has long knife-like blades that shoot out of his knuckles, and has Mutant healing powers.  The focus is on the family drama, and the fight for control over Yashida's company after his passing.  It's certainly not the kind of thing we expect to see in a big budget superhero movie, but it also sets it apart.  As the plot starts to fall into place, it does get pretty convoluted, and the wrap up as mentioned is a little bit of a disappointment.  But, before all that happens, the intimate drama and the more character-driven plot is handled well by Mangold and his screenwriters.

picAs it has been with just about every X-Men or Wolverine movie, it's Hugh Jackman who serves as the driving force behind this film.  There's a reason why the character of Wolverine shot him to fame when it came to movies.  He is completely invested, bringing pathos, rage, and small bits of sarcastic humor to the character.  Outside of Robert Downey, Jr. in the Iron Man films, I can't think of an actor who stands out better as the hero in a recent comic book movie.  His female co-stars, Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima (both newcomers to acting), hold their own, as they are both not only beautiful, but capable talents.  The only weakness in the casting comes with the villains, and that's largely because they are underwritten.  The mysterious Mutant Viper has the potential to be an interesting character, and even holds the ability to rob Logan of his healing powers.  But, she's not given much to do outside of wearing skimpy outfits, and spewing toxins at the good guys from her mouth.

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Still, thanks to its dramatic and slightly more human approach, The Wolverine stands out from some of the other comic book movies out there.  Another way it stands out is the violence.  This can be a surprisingly brutal movie in certain moments, and had me wondering if some scenes had to be trimmed in order to secure the "golden" PG-13 rating.  Whatever the case, this is still a very satisfying movie.  And to those who are smart enough to stay in their seats when the end credits start, they'll be rewarded with a satisfying pay off that ties into the next movie as well.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

R.I.P.D.

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I'm sure at some point, R.I.P.D. had some spark of inspiration behind it.  But, either through studio tampering or just a plain bad script, the inspiration got diluted, and now the end result is a failed summer blockbuster made out of the bits and pieces of more successful films.  The premise immediately brings to mind the Men in Black films, only with lost departed souls terrorizing the Earth instead of aliens.  The relationship between its two stars, Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges, brings to mind many a mismatched buddy comedy, only done horribly limp here.  Even one of the film's villains kind of resembles a CG version of Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies.  Is there anything in this film that wasn't borrowed?

picThe movie (based on a comic book) tells a simple story that I can picture working with a different approach than the one employed here.  Ryan Reynolds plays a Boston police officer named Nick.  Through hurried exposition, we learn only two things about him - He has a pretty young girlfriend living at home with him (Stephanie Szotak), and he recently helped his crooked partner on the police force, Hayes (Kevin Bacon), steal some gold from a drug dealer during a recent bust.  Nick's been having second thoughts about the gold lately, and tells his doubts to his partner right before they're about to raid another dealer's warehouse.  This leads to Hayes shooting and killing Nick in the middle of the drug bust.  Nick's soul heads to the afterlife where he is immediately recruited to the R.I.P.D. (Rest In Peace Department) - a supernatural police force that keeps dead souls that haven't yet crossed over, and remain on Earth causing trouble, in line.

picHis new job teams Nick up with another member of the force, an Old West lawman named Roy (Jeff Bridges, who slurs his lines so much that some of them are unintelligible).  The two head back down to Earth to investigate a plan by the evil lost souls to gather the pieces of an ancient device that could open a permanent doorway between Earth and the afterlife, and allow the souls to conquer the world.  The main running gag of the film is that whenever Nick and Roy are down on Earth, they look like other people.  Nick is seen by others as an elderly Chinese man, while Roy appears as a beautiful blonde female supermodel.  Apparently, this is so no one on Earth will recognize them, since they're supposed to be dead.  I can understand why this would be necessary for Nick, as he just recently died.  But Roy's been gone for over a hundred years.  Surely no one would recognize him. 

picOf course, we're not supposed to be thinking about things like that while watching the movie.  And I wouldn't be thinking about it if R.I.P.D. gave me something to think about, other than how lame the whole thing is.  While it moves by at a fairly brisk 95 minutes, it never truly engages our interest.  The jokes fall flat, the action is trite and forgettable, and the chemistry between Reynolds and Bridges is virtually non-existent.  They act like they barely want to spend time with each other, and as the film wore on, I started to sympathize with them, as I didn't want to spend any more time with either of them.  Even the special effects fail to impress, and that's one element you'd expect a movie with a reported budget of $130 million to at least get right.  The creature effects are lame, and the afterlife is depicted as nothing more than a bland-looking office space.  Ho hum.

picWhere did the budget go for this thing?  Surely it wasn't the script, or the actors, or the special effects.  Just about every element that went into the making of this film is bland and immediately forgettable.  Clearly the studio knew this, as they released it quietly this past weekend without screening it for critics.  The question then becomes, why waste a valuable July summer date on a movie like this?  This plays like a film that should have come out over Labor Day weekend (routinely one of the lowest grossing weekends for movies), where it would play to mostly empty houses and disappear quickly.  Instead, by releasing it in the midst of the big summer movies, you only draw attention to the film's faults, and make it a bigger disaster than it needed to be.

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R.I.P.D. seems to have been mishandled in just about every area you could think of - Planning, execution, and even its release.  It's clear that no one had any faith in it, so the fact that they're now asking audiences to pay to watch it is kind of cynical.  I also just learned that the movie is also being shown in 3D (it wasn't in my area), so I guess the attempts to make it a total cash grab went all-out.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

RED 2

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2010's RED (an acronym for Retired, Extremely Dangerous) was a surprisingly entertaining little film that worked thanks to its mixture of action, comedy, and the sight of Helen Mirren kicking ass.  It didn't set the world on fire, but it didn't need to.  Now here is RED 2, and while it still has all the elements that made the first entertaining, it doesn't feel as satisfying of a movie.  Maybe the formula's just not as fresh the second time around.  Or maybe this is yet another sequel that we didn't need.  The cast is up there on the screen, giving it their all, but it just doesn't feel as fun as before.

picBruce Willis is back as retired CIA agent, Frank Moses.  He's still trying to lead a quiet life with his new girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), but is forced back into action when his old friend from the agency, Marvin (John Malkovich), approaches him and informs Frank that someone has set him up, and now people are coming to kill him.  It seems someone has leaked plans to a top secret nuclear weapon on line, and Frank has been pinned with the blame.  Now he has to go on a globe-spanning mission to not only clear his name, but also find out who is in control of the dangerous weapon.  Also back from the first movie, and aiding Frank in his mission, is ice-cold MI6 killer, Victoria (Helen Mirren).  There are some new faces joining the cast this time around, including a crazed scientist who helped invent the weapon years ago (Anthony Hopkins), a Russian femme fatalle (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and a Korean contract killer (Byung-hun Lee).

picThe storyline makes little sense as it sends the characters careening from one location to the next (Russia, London, Kansas, Paris...) with little rhyme or reason.  But hey, the plot for the first movie didn't make all that much sense, either.  What made that film work was its sense of humor, and how everyone in the cast seemed to be in on the joke.  This time around, there's still fun to be had, but also some long stretches where the audience grows restless.  I think a big part of this is outside of Frank and Sarah (who all but steals the movie, thanks to Parker's expert comic timing), a lot of the returning characters are given little to do, or anything that's all that memorable.  And the new characters introduced in this film do little to impress.  At first, Hopkins' character seems like he'll be a lot of fun, but a plot twist I will not reveal (it's predictable to begin with) changes him from being interesting to a generic type.

picThere are also way too many moments in RED 2 that left me scratching my head.  A character appears to die in one scene, but comes back a couple scenes later, as it turns out they faked their own death.  Okay, this is fine and good.  But the movie never explains exactly how they did it, or how they survived the murder attempt in the first place.  It feels like the screenwriters couldn't come up with a valid explanation as to how the character survives, so they just skim right over the obvious question, hoping the audience doesn't notice.  In another instance, a helicopter carrying some of the main characters is shot down and it crashes, yet the characters simply walk away without a single mark on them.  The movie could have easily had fun with this, or maybe made a joke out of it, but once again, it feels like the writers just have them survive out of desperation.  And since the movie is PG-13, the violence has a heavily edited and largely bloodless quality to it, where it feels like certain scenes were toned down in post-production.

picThat's not to say that the movie is a total disappointment, as there are some laughs to be had here.  As I mentioned earlier, Mary-Louise Parker gets to really stand out this time around with some funny back-and-forth dialogue with Willis, as well as a couple individual moments where she tries to prove she has what it takes to stand out in her boyfriend's former field of work.  John Malkovich also gets some sharp one liners, even if he does seem to be sitting on the sidelines a bit more than the last movie.  Heck, everybody who walks into this movie seems to be having a great time.  It just doesn't carry over to the audience as strongly as it did before.  That's because the convoluted and nonsensical plot keeps on getting in the way.  The actors were able to rise above the material last time, but this time, they get beaten down just a little.

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RED 2 is not a terrible sequel, but it definitely kills any desire I may have had to see a third installment (which, I must admit, was very small to begin with).  It obviously understands what made the original work, but it doesn't implement these elements as well.  What we get is a movie with brief flashes of comic inspiration, and a lot of action that feels like warmed-over summer leftovers.

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The Conjuring

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If only the Perron family had listened to Sadie.  She was the Perron's dog, and as soon as the family moved into their new dream home, Sadie was frightened to even set foot inside the place.  It's not like she didn't try to warn them.  She stayed outside the house all night, barking wildly, as if she was trying to warn them about the paranormal entity that dwelled within.  Alas, they didn't listen, and by the next morning, it was too late, as Sadie had mysteriously died, presumably at the hands of whatever evil force haunts the house.

picThe Conjuring is an expertly made horror movie by James Wan, a filmmaker who certainly knows his way around a haunted house by now, having directed Insidious a couple years ago, as well as its upcoming sequel. (He also created the Saw franchise.) What surprised me the most about this movie is that Wan is not really making a traditional haunting movie, although all the usual trappings are there, like ominous noises in the middle of the night, and doors to creepy cellars opening by themselves.  Instead, his main focus is on the human and romantic drama created by real-life paranormal investigation couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Their love for each other, and their desire to protect one another, is what really drives this film, not whatever happens to be haunting the Perron house.  They also have a young daughter of their own that they are trying to protect.  The fact that the movie puts its focus on this family dramatic first is what raises this film above the usual horror claptrap.  While the stuff about the haunting is well done, it does feel pretty familiar,  and will feel especially so to fans of the Poltergeist or Exorcist movies. 

picThe Warrens are played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who both manage to create a believable and loving relationship on screen.  The movie actually starts out by showing one of the earlier cases the Warrens investigated, involving a doll named Annabelle that had a demonic spirit living within it.  Anyone could take one look at that doll in this movie, and not be surprised that it harbors an evil entity.  The creepiness factor on this thing is so off the charts, it makes the infamous Chucky doll from the Child's Play movies look like a cherished Christmas toy!  After introducing us to the Warrens and their line of work, the movie switches over to the Perron family, who in 1971, moved from the city to a quaint little house in the country.  The family includes the father, Roger (Ron Livingston), who works as a truck driver, so he has to leave his family alone in the haunted house for extended periods of time.  The mother, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), becomes frightened for the safety of everyone within the home, and soon becomes the central target of whatever is haunting them.  Finally, there are their five daughters, who are the initial targets of the spirits before Carolyn.

picAs is often the case, the paranormal activity starts out subtle, with things like all the clocks in the house stopping at the exact same time every night, or the smell of rotting meat permeating in certain rooms.   When the haunting becomes more aggressive and seems intent on harming certain family members, Roger and Carolyn contact the Warrens, hoping they will perform an investigation.  This is actually a good call, as the Warrens come across as not only people who know what they're doing, but also very sympathetic to the family and what they're going through.  I like that the film portrays the Warrens as intelligent individuals who don't try to frighten the family when they come to investigate.  We even get a scene where the Warrens are investigating a different case of a presumed haunting, and they debunk it by giving a rational explanation to the sounds the family keep hearing (it's the old plumbing in the house).  These people take their work seriously, and are not grandstanding before their clients.  And when they realize that the Perron house truly is haunted and that the family is in danger, they go out of their way to protect them.

picWhat makes The Conjuring so effective is Wan's directing style.  He gets off some interesting shots, particularly during a sequence when one of the Perron daughters, Christine (Joey King from the recent White House Down), looks under her bed when she starts to hear strange noises in the middle of the night.  He also allows us to savor the atmosphere.  There are no rapid edits or quick cuts like you find in a lot of recent horror films.  Even when there is a jump scare, he seems to linger a bit longer before to build up tension, and afterward, so we can take in what's there.  I also admired how he uses practical effects for his scares.  This is not a high tech horror film, and that kind of helps create the right atmosphere, since this film is set mostly in the early 70s.  He also gets some strong performances out of his cast.  Not only are Wilson and Farmiga credible as the paranormal investigating couple, but the actors playing the Perrons create a believable family bond.  Sure, the daughters tease one another, and Roger and Carolyn sometimes have their differences, but you can sense their love for each other.

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Should this movie prove to be a success at the box office (and early reports, as well as the audience I saw it with on a Friday night, seem to prove it will), the studio is apparently planning to make it into a series of films covering the different cases that the Warrens investigated in their career together, until the real life Ed passed away back in 2006.  I can see this idea working, and I look forward to Wilson and Farmiga strengthening their on-screen chemistry in future films.  If anything, it would be kind of nice to have a horror franchise that is driven by the human characters at the center of it all, rather than a slasher monster who keeps on coming back from the dead.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Turbo

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There's not a whole lot to say about Turbo.  It's a garden variety animated film with middle of the road voice acting, and a ludicrous premise that I just didn't buy for a second.  I know, I know, it's a movie for kids.  Really little kids, if the parents struggling to stay awake at my screening is any indication.  But even for a kids film, this idea of an underdog story about a snail who becomes a racing champion after an accident involving nitrous oxide just doesn't come across as very appealing to me.

picMaybe snails just don't make good stars for animated films.  Let's face it, there's not a whole lot you can do with snails in a movie.  No, I'm not forgetting the snail who was in the recent animated film, Epic.  I kind of liked him, actually.  The thing is, he was a side character - the comic relief.  In Turbo, we get a whole cast made up almost entirely out of snails, and it's just not that interesting, even when one of them starts speeding around like a little superhero.  Maybe the problem is the filmmakers make a lot of these snails realistic, instead of giving them interesting or original personalities.  We spend the first half hour or so of the film in a community of garden snails, who pluck tomatoes, and try to avoid being detected by hungry crows flying overhead.  One member of this community, a plucky little guy named Theo (voice by Ryan Reynolds) has a dream about going fast.  He likes to sneak into the homes of humans, and watch race car competitions on TV, much to the chagrin of his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who wishes the little mollusk would stop dreaming about racing, and accept his way of life.

picOne night, Theo makes his way to a highway overpass, where he takes a fall and winds up inside the racing engine of a street racer.  He is doused with the nitrous oxide from the engine, which somehow enters his bloodstream, and apparently turns him into a car-snail hybrid.  His eyes can act like headlights, his shell now has an alarm, and most importantly, he can zip around at incredible speeds.  Theo becomes an outcast in his community because of his new abilities, but he is quickly snatched up by a taco truck driver named Tito (Michael Pena), who just happens to be involved in underground snail racing competitions. (Does such a thing exist?) When little Theo shows off his speed on the racing track, he earns the nickname "Turbo", as well as the respect of his fellow racing snails.  Tito gets the crazy idea that Turbo could compete in the Indy 500, builds up the money to compete with some of his friends, and before you know it, our snail hero is swerving in and out amongst professional race drivers, and competing against the top racers.

picI can buy a lot of things when watching an animated film.  I've been shown dragons, tooth fairies, Minions, and even talking animals, and have not raised an eyebrow.  But, I don't know, I just could not get behind the idea of a snail racing against all those professional drivers.  Maybe it's because Turbo gave me very little to think about while watching it.  None of the characters are memorable, there's no witty bits of dialogue, and not really any jokes that are bound to fly over the heads of kids in the audience.  Since there was nothing really for me up there on the screen, I was forced to focus all my attention on its premise, and it was a hurdle I just couldn't mentally cross.  It was just not an appealing idea to me for whatever reason.  Maybe there are people out there who think the idea of a professional snail racer is hilarious.  To those people, I say go and enjoy.  You may get something out of this that I certainly didn't.

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This is the second misfire in a row for Dreamworks Animation, after the disappointing The Croods.  I can only hope they get back on track.  With the sly and funny Despicable Me 2 currently winning over families at the box office, and the sweet Monsters University still in theaters, you have to wonder how Turbo can make it, let alone how it made it to theaters in the first place, when there's nothing that really stands out about it.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Grown Ups 2

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So, I had settled in to watch Grown Ups 2.  I had my small snack.  I had my regular sized soda.  And the theater's air conditioning was set at the right level, so that the room didn't feel bone-chillingly cold.  All was right with the world.  Then the movie started up, and literally one minute in, I was watching Adam Sandler getting urinated on by a deer who had snuck into his house when his young daughter left the front door open overnight.

picYes, ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the realm of Adam Sandler.  It's a place where toddlers walk around with bulging diapers (The first time, the diaper is concealing a hidden anniversary present.  The second time, it's...something else.), spaced-out stoners do their business in the display model toilets at K-Mart, there's a running gag about "burpsnarting" (it's a combination of a burp, a sneeze, and a fart), and cops urinate while swimming in private pools.  Despite being 46 in real life, it doesn't look like Sandler feels the need to move beyond his trademark juvenile humor.  And yet, there were a couple sweet moments thrown in amongst the toilet humor that I kind of liked.  This automatically makes Grown Ups 2 better than his last two films.  That's not saying much, though, when you consider his last two films involved him dressing in drag (Jack and Jill), and playing a 40-something man-child who raped his teacher back in middle school (That's My Boy).

picThe film is a sequel to Sandler's 2010 hit comedy, and reunites him with most of the cast of the original. (I say "most", as one of the first film's stars, Rob Schneider, decided to sit this one out.) The first Grown Ups was pretty much a chance for the stars to goof around in a series of scenes loosely connected by a paper-thin plot.  The sequel follows a similar formula.  This time, Lenny Feder (Sandler) has moved his wife (Salma Hayek) and kids back to his hometown.  His best friends and their families apparently decided to do the exact same thing at the same time he did.  They include Eric Lamonsoff (Kevin James), Kurt McKenzie (Chris Rock), and Marcus Higgins (David Spade).  Just like before, the four friends hang around and reminisce about childhood days, and each of them get their own minor subplot that is neatly resolved by the time the end credits come around.

picFor example, Lenny is nervous that his wife is hinting that she would like another child.  Eric feels he's not getting enough attention from his wife (Maria Bello), so he's started hanging out at his mom's house, watching soap operas.  Kurt's wife (Maya Rudolph) forgot their anniversary, and his teenage daughter has recently started dating a local boy.  Finally, Marcus has recently discovered that he has a son from a one night stand years ago, and when the kid comes to visit, he looks and behaves like a 20-year-old serial killer.  Believe it or not, this movie is so light and breezy, it can fit in even more plots about first dates, school bullies, over-zealous police officers, a group of psychotic frat boys who torment the four main characters (and whose leader is played by Taylor Lautner), and even an 80s-themed house party.

picGrown Ups 2 is frequently crude, and about as deep as a puddle.  But, it's just so lightweight, you really can't get too angry at it.  It looks like the movie is simply a chance for Sandler to hang out with his friends both on and off the camera.  You would think this would lead to some funnier jokes.  The camera could follow these actors around, just letting them be themselves, and would probably deliver more laughs than the scripted material they're working with here.  Still, their friendship does create a certain on-screen chemistry, and I did smile from time to time.  There's just nothing really that stands out about the film.  Unless you were really taken by the first film, and are anxiously awaiting to catch up with these characters after three years, I can't see anyone viewing this as being anything more than inconsequential.

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I'm certain the movie will make more money than it probably should at the box office, and Sandler will continue his reign as the low-brow king.  I'm still hoping to see another movie from him along the lines of Punch Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me, or Funny People.  But, since those films never seem to find an audience, I'm sure he'll be sticking to what he's known for.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

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There's a certain joyful giddiness that carries Pacific Rim up to a point, but not far enough to make the entire film satisfying.  You can see the passion up on the screen from director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro.  He's obviously having a ball with his multi-million dollar tribute to the giant Japanese monster movies he grew up watching as a kid.  But that passion doesn't add up to anything all that memorable this time around.  Take away the giant robots and giant monsters that stomp about the film, and you're left with a bunch of talented actors spouting cliched lines, and reenacting Top Gun.

picWhat surprised, and disappointed, me the most about this movie is just how unmemorable the kaiju ("giant monsters") are.  Oh sure, they've been brought to life with the finest CG available, and they certainly are massive enough to be impressive.  But there is nothing outright memorable about them.  My screening got out less than four hours ago, and if someone tested my knowledge by asking me to draw a picture of one of the monsters in this film, I would probably flunk that test.  In a Guillermo del Toro movie, unmemorable monster design is the last thing I expect.  Remember the wondrous creatures he created for Pan's Labyrinth, or the oddball demons in his Hellboy movies?  Now those are creature designs I'll never forget.  It certainly doesn't help that all of this film's biggest action sequences are shot in the dark, in the rain, or in murky underwater depths.  I don't even want to think about how washed out these scenes look in 3D. (I saw it in standard 2D.) It's not so dark that you can't tell what's going on, but it is an odd and distracting choice.

picSo, the movie throws us right into the middle of the plot, almost as if we're watching the sequel to a film that we somehow missed.  Through exposition, we learn that a hole has opened up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, releasing giant monsters from another dimension .  They've already wreaked havoc on most of the world's major cities.  Mankind has decided to fight back by constructing giant massive war robots.  You have to wonder if that was mankind's first choice.  The monsters have massive building-smashing limbs, and can shoot massive electrical charges from their gaping maws.  The robots (or "Jaegers", as they're called, which is German for "hunters") are armed with hi-tech weaponry like rocket fists and arm cannons.  However, the Jaegers can only be operated by two human pilots whose minds are connected in a process known as "the dirft", which allows the two humans to meld their minds together into one, so that they can basically act as one entity.  Don't worry, it makes about as much sense in the movie, as well.

picOur hero pilot is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a Jaeger pilot with a restless streak.  He doesn't follow orders very well, and likes to do his own thing on the battlefield, which makes him tough to connect with most pilots.  He used to be teamed up with his brother, until he was killed in battle.  Raleigh has left his past as a robot pilot behind, when his former Air Marshall (Idris Elba) recruits him once again for a new mission.  Raleigh may be a rebel, but he has a lot of spirit.  As he rejoins the team, Raleigh is required to link up with a new partner, a soft-spoken Japanese woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi from Babel), who has her own personal reasons for fighting against the creatures, as well as a private history with the Air Marshall.  As we're introduced to the team of robot pilots, it feels like the movie is checking off a list of cliches.  There's the hot-tempered young pilot who thinks Raleigh's reckless ways are trouble.  There's the older pilot who dispenses wisdom at a moment's notice.  And there are a pair of scientists whose constant bickering is supposed to provide comic relief, but they kind of irritated me.

picOnce the characters and their predetermined paths have been set into place, Pacific Rim finally gets to what we came here to see - giant robots fighting even bigger monsters.  These are fun for a while, but as I mentioned, the murkiness of the fight scenes diluted my enjoyment.  And then there's the fact that the movie just doesn't seem to know when to stop.  Once the action begins, we are pretty much bombarded non-stop.  Thank goodness, it doesn't reach the headache-inducing levels of Man of Steel.  But, as the battles began to make up almost the entirety of the film's last hour or so, I did start to find myself wishing that the thing would just wrap itself up already.  The human characters are too underdeveloped for us to root for.  And the monsters are kind of generic, and not that memorable.  So, where is our interest supposed to lie?  For a while, I was able to admire the technical craft of the fight scenes, but eventually, it all started to look the same to me.  I guess if you've seen one massive kaiju being slammed by a giant robot, you've seen 'em all.

picYou obviously don't go to a movie like this to enjoy the dialogue, and for good reason.  If anything, the screenplay by Travis Beacham and del Toro is proof of this.  The actors do what they can with the cliched and corny lines they're given, but honestly, there's little they can do with them.  I'm not expecting Oscar-winning dialogue and character development in a big budget kaiju movie, but couldn't there be at least one interesting character?  To be honest, there is, but he's not in the movie for long.  That character a sleazy black market dealer who specializes in selling the organs and pieces of dead monsters once the battles are over.  He's played by Ron Perlman, and whenever he's on the screen, I wished the movie was following his story, instead of the pilots.  Perlman injects his scenes with so much life, it's a shame he's introduced so late in the film, and doesn't stay around for very long.  Should this movie inspire spin offs, I want one devoted to how this guy got into the business, and got to where he is when we first meet him.

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I'll admit, I did have fun with Pacific Rim up to a certain point.  The movie just wasn't able to sustain that fun and interest for its entire running time.  When all is said and done, I have a feeling this movie will be a very small blip on a much better career for del Toro.  He will make more movies, and they will be much better than this.

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Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Lone Ranger

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There's no denying that Disney's massively budgeted (the film alone reportedly cost $250 million, and that was before publicity and advertising) update of The Lone Ranger is a big mess of a movie.  But, in my eyes, it's an entertaining mess.  Not all of it works, but when it does work, you are watching something truly sensational.  For my money, the film's two big action set pieces (both of them set aboard runaway trains) are worth the price of admission alone.  You can literally see the money up there on the screen with the special effects, stunts, and production design.  I've seen blockbusters that cost more than this, and it didn't even look like it.

picIt's easy to see what the studio is trying to do with this film.  They want to do for Westerns what Pirates of the Caribbean did for pirate movies.  So, they got one of the former franchise's stars (Johnny Depp), its director Gore Verbinski, and even two of its screenwriters.  However, I'm not sure if this movie will find the same success that Pirates did.  The Lone Ranger is severely schizophrenic in tone, ranging from broad silly humor that makes the movie feel like it's a PG-rated Blazing Saddles at times, to extremely dark and brutal violence (the film's villain is a cannibal who tears out the hearts of his victims, then eats them).  It can sometimes be hard to know who this movie was made for.  And yet, I'm giving it a marginal recommendation, because a lot of the jokes made me laugh, and there's some wonderful action.  Maybe I won't look so fondly back on this film in the future.  But for now, I'm giving it a tepid thumbs up.

picWhat we have here essentially is the origin story of the Lone Ranger, as told by Tonto.  The approach is easy to understand, when you realize Tonto is played by Johnny Depp.  The Lone Ranger may get his name in the title, but Tonto seems to get more screen time, and better one liners.  The movie actually opens in the early 1930s, where an elderly Tonto (who is still played by Depp, unrecognizable under mounds of old age make up) works at a sleazy carnival, and tells his story to a wide-eyed little boy.  We then flashback to the 1860s, where an idealistic young lawyer named John Reid (Armie Hammer) arrives in an old west town to help his Texas Ranger brother uphold the law.  The two go on the trail of an escaped convict named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), only to get ambushed by Butch's gang.  John's brother is killed in a surprisingly brutal fashion for a movie bearing the Disney Studio logo, while John himself is left for dead.

picThe dying John is discovered by Tonto in the middle of the desert, who revives him, and starts him down the path of being a masked hero who will not only seek out his brother's killer, but also promote justice in the largely untamed West.  If that synopsis sounds a bit cut and dry, it's because I'm leaving out the shady railroad tycoon (Tom Wilkinson), the wife of John's brother (Ruth Wilson) and her little boy who are constantly placed in peril, the potential war that's brewing between the settlers and a Native American tribe, a scheme to steal massive amounts of silver, and the brothel madam with a wooden leg, complete with a hidden gun (Helena Bonham Carter).  Even for a movie that runs two and a half hours, that's way too much plot and characters to successfully squeeze in.

picThat's not to say the movie doesn't make a valiant effort.  Verbinski and his team of screenwriters are constantly juggling plots and characters, and at least manage to hold our attention.  Aside from a slightly dull mid-section where things threaten to slow down to the point of tedium, I was never bored by The Lone Ranger.  In fact, I kind of admired the movie for trying so hard.  This is a handsomely mounted production, with beautiful scenery, breathtaking special effects, and at times a true sense of wonder.  When you see the attention to detail and the effort that went into one of this film's spectacular set pieces (especially the jaw-dropping climax), you really do appreciate the effort.  There are reports that Disney tried to shut this production down early when its budget started to run out of control.  They were probably right to be cautious, but at least you can see every dollar that was thrown into this thing right up there on the screen, and it's quite the spectacle.

picHeck, if this movie had been trimmed down to a much more manageable running time of 100 minutes or so, I'd probably be calling this one of the better adventure movies of the modern era.  You can certainly see the potential, it's simply buried underneath a meandering narrative that keeps on losing focus.  Whenever the movie is focused on the relationship between John and Tonto, or one of the amazing action sequences, it left me giddy.  This is a film that's too ambitious for its own good.  But, at least it actually has ambition.  I just can't believe how simple it would have been to make this project truly work.  Just trim out a few of the unnecessary side characters, and the plots and scenes that don't go anywhere, and you'd have a great little adventure movie.  As it stands, it's a lot of good ideas jumbled together with some stuff that just doesn't work.

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Already The Lone Ranger is taking a beating at the box office, thanks to bad word of mouth.  It certainly deserves some of the criticisms it's got so far, but I just can't bring myself to hate this movie.  For every scene I didn't like, there was usually one coming up that made me happy again.  It's uneven, and it's more than a little sloppy.  But, I'd be lying if I didn't say I had fun with this.  Don't expect the Lone Ranger to ride across the screen again, though.  I have a hard time picturing this movie making back its monster budget, and that's sort of a shame.

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