Reel Opinions


Monday, June 30, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

We're four movies into the Transformers series, and I have no idea who these films are supposed to be intended for.  They're certainly not for children, as they're too violent and crude for most.  They're not for adults, either, as they're simply too crass and stupid.  That would leave the fans, who grew up on the toys and the earlier cartoon series.  Again, I find myself hitting a wall here.  I, for one, count myself as a fan who still holds the original toys, cartoon and even the 1986 animated movie (which I saw at the theater opening day) close to my heart.  Speaking as a fan, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the worst experience I've had at a theater this year since A Haunted House 2.

This is an aggressive movie in so many ways.  It's aggressively bad, and seems to have been written in such a way that the characters do intentionally stupid things in order for there to even be a plot.  It's aggressively long, with a torturous running time of almost three hours.  It's aggressively loud, with endless and mindless action sequences emphasizing noise over comprehension.  Finally, it's aggressively ugly.  The Transformers themselves still look like towering piles of junk, and are about the most unappealing CG creations in memory.  Michael Bay returns to the director's chair, and hasn't seemed to have learned much from the past films.  Why should he, with each movie breaking box office records?  He says that these movies are for the kid in all of us.  As long as that child has the attention span of a gnat, and holds absolutely no desire other than to see things blow up and CG junk run across the screen, then yes, I agree.  I just remember wanting more from movies, even back when I was a kid.

Now, I can enjoy silly entertainment as much as the next person, even the ones based on a toy line.  Remember, I'm one of the few who actually liked G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  That at least worked as a guilty pleasure, and left me with a goofy grin on my face.  Age of Extinction is an entirely soulless experience that seems designed to bring misery upon an audience.  The human characters are dumber than a pile of rocks, and the giant CG robots are even dumber.  How dumb are the Transformers in this movie?  When the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime (voice by Peter Cullen), rides into battle on the back of a giant, fire-breathing robot T-Rex, what does he do?  He almost immediately dismounts it, and fights on his own.  Any child could take the image of a giant robot riding on the back of an even bigger dinosaur robot that breathes fire, and create something awesome.  But due to the bankrupt imagination of the filmmakers, we're forced to see the robots fight separately.  Even more lack of imagination - No one responds to the sight of the giant dinosaur that suddenly shows up.  I was expecting someone to at least utter a "holy crap", but nope.

For those of you who actually care about continuity in this franchise, the film is set five years after the events of 2011's Dark of the Moon, and employs a new cast of human characters.  Gone is the young hero of the first three films, Sam Witwicky, and in his place is Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a failed inventor and a single dad with a sexy teenage daughter named Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and a goofy comic relief sidekick named Lucas (T.J. Miller).  He is soon also joined up by Tessa's boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor).  Cade manages to come across the broken down Optimus Prime (in semi truck mode), fixes him up, and soon finds himself on the run from some government agents who are hunting down the Transformers after the attack on Chicago at the end of the last movie.  The government agents are led by the slimy Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), who is aiding an alien bounty hunter named Lockdown (voice by Mark Ryan), who in turn is working for the aliens who created the Transformers in the first place.

Because we don't have enough characters or plots that don't go anywhere, we also have a billionaire robotics designer named Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who has figured out how to build his own Transformers, and is helping out the government also.  He's figured out the material that makes up the giant robots, which he has oh-so originally named "Transformium". (I kid you not.) The government wants him to build Transformers that they can control and use to fight in wars.  His prototype goes by the name of Galvatron (voice by Frank Welker), and seems to hold a striking resemblance to the age old enemy of the Autobots, Megatron.  Cade, Optimus, and his human friends must track down the few remaining Autobots who have not been captured or killed by the government, which includes Bumblebee, Hound (voice by John Goodman), Drift (voice by Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (voice by John DiMaggio), and tell Joshua Joyce to stop his Galvatron experiment before it is unleashed upon the world.

Don't let the above fool you into thinking that Age of Extinction has a plot that can be followed, or is worth following.  This is an insufferable and endless experience of poorly realized special effects, explosions, gunfire, and dialogue that consists mainly of screaming and urban slang.   Just as in the previous entries, the giant robots are visitors from beyond the stars, who possess the mental and verbal capacity of a 14-year-old boy. (The obvious target audience.) And despite the new human cast, they exist to fill the same purpose as the old human characters did - To stand around, shoot at stuff, and provide lame comic relief when the CG robots can't be bothered to.  Now, Mark Wahlberg is a fine actor, but he is not the kind of actor who can rise above bad material. (See The Happening, if you need proof of that.) All the role of Cade Yeager requires him to do is stand and react to what's going on around him.  He's up to the task, but he doesn't give any more that is required.  The one actor who does occasionally rise above the material is Stanley Tucci, who at least gets one or two funny lines.  But even his great talent can't work with a character who is barely there.

Bay's directing style seems to be based on bludgeoning the audience with explosions, special effects and noise.  There are many moments where the movie seems to be packed with so much visual and aural stimulation that you simply cannot keep track of it all, so you just stop trying.  This much stimulation stretched to almost three hours seems like an endurance test.  What is Bay trying to do?  I can appreciate a thrill-a-minute action film, but when it just keeps on going seemingly without end, it stops being thrilling, and gets monotonous.  There are also a lot of slow motion shots of the heroes (both human and robot) outrunning explosions, or hurtling themselves through buildings and trucks.  The series' tradition of entire cities being laid to waste continues.  Chicago once again gets stomped on, and Hong Kong gets thrown in also.  Of course, given all the chaos and too tight camera angles, it all looks the same.

The Transformers films have proven time and time again to be moronic and mindless cash grabs, yet they keep on making money, even though the outcry from critics and even some audiences seems to get stronger with each passing film.  Despite this, the movie will make a fortune this summer, and there will be another sequel in a couple years.  Anyone who complains only has themselves to blame. 

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood's film take on the acclaimed Broadway musical, Jersey Boys, is probably not what you are expecting.  Unlike most musical adaptations, it's not showy in the slightest, and there are no exuberant or fun numbers until the very end.  This is a quiet, somewhat muted movie.  It's relaxed, it's assured, and it's sedate.  Some may see this as the wrong approach, especially for a musical, but it kind of works here with the material he's been given.

Anyone who knows Eastwood's directing style knows that he is a quiet director, who likes working with washed out colors and dialogue that seems very calculated.  I'll understand if you can't see this style working with a musical.  In most cases, I would agree.  But the reason it works here, I think, is that this is a nostalgia piece.  The film is the equal to an old record that takes you back to a place in your mind as you listen to it.  I think that's the feeling Eastwood is going for here.  The film was originally set to be directed by Jon Favreau, who probably would have given us a glossier film, but backed out of the project early on.  Rather than the splashy and glitzy production we usually get, this movie is gentle, with a soft sense of humor.  Mind you, this is not a great Eastwood movie, as it often feels like it is skimming the surface of the story and the characters (something the stage musical glosses over better than the movie does).  But, I think it still works.

The original stage production of Jersey Boys is more or less a concert that tells the story of the rise and fall from fame of the musical act, The Four Seasons.  The movie follows a much more traditional narrative, and is probably better for it.  One thing that has carried over from the stage is that the characters constantly break the fourth wall to directly address the audience.  This could have been a deadly mistake, but the screenplay knows how to make this approach work in a way so that it's not obtrusive to the story being told, nor does it take us out of the action.  Another smart move is the casting, and how some of the actors here played the characters on Broadway.  In particular, John Lloyd Young (who reprises his Tony-winning performance as lead singer, Frankie Valli, here), is masterful - both in his actual performance, and in recreating Valli's distinct signature singing style.  Really, the closest thing to a "name" in the cast is Christopher Walken, who is quietly hilarious and oddly warm as a mob boss who takes Valli and his bandmates under his wing.

The film's recount of The Four Seasons' career will seem awfully familiar to anyone who has seen a music bio-picture before.  There's the scenes with the band coming together and forming, their struggle to break into the music industry and be taken seriously, the rise to fame and TV appearances, friction within the group, and personal and domestic problems at home, usually caused by being on the road so much and away from the families.  This movie hits all of those notes, and you can always tell what's coming up next.  But, the movie's unique style and the performances hooked me enough that I was willing to go along with it.  When we first meet Frankie, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick (Michael Lomenda), they are essentially low-level Jersey punks and hoods, making their way through various prisons as they struggle to find their musical sound.  A young Joe Pesci (played here by Joseph Russo) introduces them to a songwriter named Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), and they soon discover their distinctive musical style that eventually brings them chart-topping success.

Naturally, there are problems within the band over time (Tommy falls heavily in debt with local mobsters), and the constant pressures of performing on the road puts a strain on Frankie and his family back home, particularly with his young daughter, his relationship with whom creates a tragic subplot.  This is actually one area I wished that Jersey Boys had spent a little more time on, as the film kind of seems to gloss over their relationship, making the ultimate outcome not hit quite as hard as it is probably intended.  Regardless, every time the Four Seasons take the stage to perform one of their famous numbers, the movie comes to life with some wonderful recreations of the classic songs.  Whenever we see Valli and the boys on stage, everything seems right, from the costumes of the era, to the singing, and the performances.  Here, we can see Eastwood's eye for detail and music, and it really does serve the film well.

And yet, I can definitely see how this could not be a film for everyone.  The intentionally slow pace was able to hold my interest, but I can see how it could turn off some.  Also, the movie never goes as deep into the relationship of the four people who made up the band as it probably should.  On stage, where the whole point of the experience is the thrill of a live performance, it doesn't come across as strong.  But in a film, where the narrative has a stronger sense, it does seem a bit flimsy at times.  We get just enough information, but we could have used more.  The film's most fatal mistake, however, comes at the very end, when the band reunites in 1990 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, and we get to see the actors in very unconvincing old age make up.  This was a problem that also plagued Eastwood's earlier film, J. Edgar.  He either needs to hire a new make up artist, or stop being attracted to scripts where he is forced to age his actors.

So, Jersey Boys is definitely a flawed film, and I can see how it will turn off some audiences.  But, I liked its style and its gentle humor.  It's not a substitute for the original stage production, but it does its job well enough.  I have a feeling your appreciation for this film will also tie into your appreciation to the music of the time, and for Eastwood's signature tone and atmosphere.  This is not a lively or a fun movie, but it is quiet and nostalgic, and I think it fits the tone of the story being told.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Think Like a Man Too

While it's never unwatchable, and even has a couple good laughs, Think Like a Man Too cannot overcome two key problems.  The first is that it is an unnecessary sequel to the pleasant original film from two years ago.  The same cast is back, and they're as energetic and as likable as ever.  However, the script does nothing to advance the characters, or make us stop questioning why we're revisiting them.  The other key problem is that, much like the recent Adam Sandler dud Blended, this is essentially a paid vacation for the cast and crew.  We watch the movie, and we're glad they're having fun.  We just wonder why we're being asked to pay money to see them go on vacation.

The 2012 film (based on a self-help book about relationships by Steve Harvey) followed a group of young couples, and their various trials and tribulations regarding love and communication.  This time, the couples are reunited for a party weekend in Vegas.  Two of our heroes, Michael (Terrence J) and Candace (Regina Hall) are getting married, and the whole gang has gathered for separate guys and girls nights out before the big day.  The first movie actually followed these characters and gave them personalities.  This time, we get to watch them party for a good portion of the film.  You can probably already tell how this is a step down.  They cruise the Vegas strip, they dance on bar tables, they gamble, and they even stage a music video sequence that comes out of nowhere and goes on too long.  All of this adds up to a simple fact - It was probably more fun to make this movie than it is to watch it.

The main reason for this sequel's existence seems to be to cash in on the rising popularity of comedian Kevin Hart, who gets an expanded role from the first film.  Not only does he narrate the film, but he more or less drives what little plot there is, and gets way too much time devoted to his motormouth comic delivery style.  His character, Cedric, is one of Michael's best friends and is set to be the Best Man at the wedding.  Recently single, he decides to live it up in Vegas by overspending on a flashy penthouse suite, and micromanaging his night out with his friends.  All this movie's extended emphasis on Cedric and on Hart's performance proves is that a little bit of his act goes a long way.  Hart seems better suited to controlled supporting roles, as in About Last Night from earlier this year.  When he's given total control of a film, his act gets old fast.

There are a couple subplots that show up throughout the film, but none of them have any weight or consequence.  Michael, it seems, is still under the thumb of his overbearing and scheming mother (Jennifer Lewis), who is still trying to come between her son and his bride.  Ladies man Zeke (Romany Malco) keeps on running into angry former flames while in Vegas, which does not sit well with his current girlfriend (Meagan Good), whom he is trying to propose to.  Another young couple, Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) and Dominic (Michael Ealy) have both been offered high paying jobs that will force them to relocate, and they don't know how to tell each other.  All of these plots are pretty much brought up only when the characters need something to talk about, and are more or less pushed to the side for a majority of the running time.

Think Like a Man Too is the kind of sequel that feels like it can barely figure out why it was made in the first place, other than the fact the original was a surprise hit at the box office.  I have my doubts this one will do as well.  It's an all around lazy project, and while the actors are as likable as before, they're given less to do this time around.  The first movie certainly wasn't anything great, but it at least had something to say.  This sequel is just pure corporate greed, and has nothing to say about anything.  The movie doesn't even have a proper narrative, and just seems to move the characters from one location to the next - a pool, a blackjack table, a strip club, a jail cell, etc.

At the very least, the film is energetic, and never is dull.  It's just sad to see this much energy and flash wasted on such a flimsy script.  When it was over, I felt like I had spent the past couple hours watching someone else's vacation video.  You're glad the people in the video are having fun, but you sort of question why you're watching it in the first place.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

22 Jump Street

It's hard to review 22 Jump Street, because the movie does such a great job of critiquing itself.  It's aware of itself, and calls out the fact that its essentially an unnecessary sequel, that the budget is unnecessarily bigger and that the plot is virtually the same as the very clever 21 Jump Street adaptation from two years ago.  Ordinarily, this kind of meta humor where the characters constantly point out the flaws and cliches of the movie they're in drives me bonkers.  But directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) and their team of writers find a way to make it work here.

No, this Jump Street movie doesn't have as many big laughs as the first.  But it still holds more laughs than any other movie this year since...Well, the last movie Lord and Miller did.  As we rejoin cop partners Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), they are involved in a rather conventional drug bust scene, with shootouts, a car chase and perilous stunts.  To show that the filmmakers have some creativity, they do manage to throw an octopus in the mix somehow.  When the expensive, stunt-filled drug bust ends up being a disappointment, the stern-faced Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) tells them point blank that the new formula isn't working, and that the two cops should just go back to doing the same thing they did last time.  Our heroes are not happy about this.  Jenko even suggests they could try being secret service agents trying to save the President. (A funny dig at Tatum's White House Down from last summer.) But the Chief is adamant.  He flat up admits that Schmidt and Jenko are going back to basics, only going undercover at college this time instead of high school.

Naturally, this time around the boys will be working with a bigger budget ("as if that could double the profits", the Chief scoffs), and also out of a new headquarters, which is located across the street from the building they were at last time.  This new building is pointlessly sleek, with an expensive but useless high-tech office for the returning Captain Dickson (Ice Cube).  Schmidt and Jenko are given orders to infiltrate a college campus, and find the source of a dangerous new drug that recently killed a student.  And yes, the movie is aware that this is the exact same plot as last time, and has some fun with this.  Wisely, the script does throw in some new complications, such as Jenko becoming best friends with a college football hero (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt), and the bond between them becoming so strong that it threatens to break up the partnership he shares with Schmidt. ("Maybe we should investigate different people", he tells him.) There is also a love interest for Schmidt (Amber Stevens), who comes equipped with a hilariously sarcastic and deadpan roommate (a scene-stealing Jillian Bell).

The original 21 Jump Street proved that the odd pairing of Hill and Tatum was actually quite a brilliant one, and that Tatum had a strong gift of comic timing.  This is still true of the sequel, which gets by a lot on the charm and chemistry of the two leads.  Even if the material doesn't always work, we're not bored, because Hill and Tatum are giving it their all, and make us smile with their effort.  The movie also has a new secret weapon with returning cast member Ice Cube, who gets an expanded role this time, and is frankly hilarious.  This is the kind of movie that fools you into thinking it's going down the same path as the previous entry, and then surprises with some kind of new comic invention.  Oddly enough, the funniest moment in the film comes during the end credits.  I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, but I will say don't get out of your seat when the movie is over.

Unfortunately, the momentum of the laughs and the charm of the actors isn't enough to carry the film for the nearly two hours or so it runs.  Like a lot of recent comedies, it easily could have been trimmed to around 90 minutes with little sacrificed.  The movie would probably be faster and a bit funnier with some more editing.  Also, the moments where the pacing sags and the jokes don't quite hit as hard seem a bit longer than I remember them being in the first.  It's not enough to sink the film, but it's still noticeable.  Still, for the most part, the movie stays afloat, and I am recommending it.  If you were a fan of the last one, you're guaranteed to find something to like here.  After all, as the movie itself freely admits, it's more of the same.

I read an interview where Hill and Tatum stated this will likely be the last Jump Street movie, as they're not sure where the filmmakers could go.  I certainly agree, as the joke would be stretched pretty thin with more sequels.  Heck, it's amazing that the filmmakers got a successful movie out of this idea, let alone two of them.  I say quit while you're ahead.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2

2010's How to Train Your Dragon was one of that year's genuine surprises.  To this day, it's a film I return to, and still stands as one of the better animated films of the past few years for me.  So, when a sequel was announced, it was met with much anticipation and hesitation.  The hesitation came from the fact that outside of the Toy Story sequels and Kung Fu Panda 2, there's not really a lot of animated sequels that feel like genuine follows ups to the original.  They either come across as a marketing cash cow (like the endless Ice Age series), or cute, but rather unnecessary.

So, with that said, let's get the two big questions facing How to Train Your Dragon 2 out of the way.  Is it a strong sequel?  Actually, yes.  The movie evolves its world and its characters just enough that it feels like a genuine follow up, rather than a retread of the first.  The tone of the film is darker, and the characters seem older and a little wiser than last time, which makes it feel like time has passed and that the filmmakers are trying to create a fantasy world that actually expands over time.  Now, onto the second question - Is this one better than the first?  For me, the answer is no.  While I appreciate the film greatly, I don't feel it has quite the impact of the original.  It has a much more conventional plot structure, along with a rather generic villain who left little impact.  What I enjoyed so much about the original Dragon is that there was not a true villain in the story.  It was simply a story of friendship and discovery.  This film is a bit more attached to a formula.  It works fine enough, and there are moments of greatness.  But there were also some moments where I found my attention waning just a little.

Don't let that dissuade you from seeing it, as like I said, this really is a strong follow up.  As we rejoin the reluctant and scrawny young viking, Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel), and his flying Night Fury dragon, Toothless, they are exploring the world together and charting unknown lands on an ever evolving map of the world that Hiccup is creating.  In reality, the young hero is somewhat running from his stern father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), who wishes for his son to take his place as the chief of the viking village that the two call home.  Hiccup doesn't see himself as a leader, and is still rather unsure of himself, despite the encouragement of his young girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera).  She supports his dreams of flying out to see the world, but also thinks he would make a great leader.

While Hiccup and Astrid are out flying their dragons, they are attacked by a small group of "Dragon Trappers" who work for a mysterious villain with the rather generic villain name of Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou).  I don't know if that's his birth name, or if he changed his name when he decided to become a supervillain.  Whatever the case, with a name like that, of course he's going to be a villain.  Either that, or a pro wrestler.  Drago and the Trappers are going around stealing dragons.  Their goal is to build a massive dragon army.  What they plan to do after that was a bit unclear to me.  I guess they plan to take over the world, or something.  As animated villains go, Drago is about as stock and underdeveloped as they come.  He's dark colored and dresses himself in a cloak of dragon scales, which makes him instantly look threatening to the kids in the audience.  I could go on a small tirade about how I'm tired of animated films using darker skin tones to represent a character being evil, but I won't.

Returning to the village after his encounter with the Dragon Trappers, Hiccup learns that his father has a history with Drago, who warns his son not to get involved.  Hiccup, however, is convinced that he can change the villain's mind, and work out a peaceful compromise.  Naturally, things don't quite work out that way, as it wouldn't be an exciting movie if the characters just sat around and talked out a peace treaty between warring parties.  There are plenty of big, epic battles between the vikings and Drago's army, all of which is impressively animated.  But most important is the reveal of Hiccup's mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has been believed to be long-dead, but has actually been living in a sanctuary full of dragons that she has been protecting from Drago's forces.  And no, the reveal of the hero's lost mother is not a spoiler, as it's pretty much been plastered all over the film's ad campaign months before it came out.

According to the filmmakers, the Dragon series will one day be a trilogy.  At the very least, they play their cards right for the most part with this second installment.  Even if I do not feel it is quite as good as the original, it still feels like a natural follow up.  They acknowledge the years that have passed between the two films, and have aged them accordingly.  Young Hiccup, while still smaller than every other viking in his village, looks more mature than he did last time.  It brought to my mind how seldom it is we see characters age in animated films over the course of a series of films.  Outside of Toy Story, I can't think of another example.  We also get to see more of the film's fantasy world, which I also appreciated.  The scope is bigger, and the world these characters inhabit seems much more fleshed out. 

The tone of the film has also changed.  While the original was largely the story of a young man coming into his own, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is basically an adventure film.  There are a lot of big battle scenes, armies of villains, and lots of aerial combat sequences with the dragons fighting rampaging soldiers.  As a note to parents with small children, I should say that this is a darker and slightly more violent film than the first, and that the movie is not afraid to deal with the subject of mortality from time to time.  With that said, all of the action and battles are executed quite well.  The movie even opens with a fun little sequence where the vikings are playing a sport that revolves around flying on the backs of dragons, and comes across like something Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowlings, would have dreamed up. 

The increase in action is also what added to my mild disappointment this time around.  While it's all done great, it gets to be a bit much, as the movie seems to rely so much on the fast paced action and battles.  At times, it feels like it's the action that drives the story, not the characters.  While there are plenty of heartfelt character-driven moment throughout the film (mainly dealing with Hiccup and his family), it doesn't come across as strong as it should.  I would have liked for the movie to slow down just a little, and deal with Stoick and Valka being reunited.  They get a nice moment or two (particularly a sequence where they sing a Celtic love song together), but it still feels shortchanged.  Again, I'm not trying to emphasize the negatives here, as this is a very enjoyable film.  It just never quite reached the grand heights of the first for me.

For me, the strongest element of Dragon 2 is that it feels like a complete movie.  Should it become a trilogy, at the very least, this doesn't feel like one big set up for another film, nor does it end on a cliffhanger like so many second entries of a trilogy do.  Should by some chance the film disappoint at the box office and there not be a third, at least fans won't be left hanging.  As any fan would tell you, leaving the story unfinished is one of the worst feelings in the world.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Chef

If Chef were as delectable as most of the food that's displayed during the film, it'd be a home run.  Sadly, it's not.  Oh, it's not a bad movie by any means.  It's actually kind of charming and very pleasant.  But that's really all there is to the film.  It unfolds, we smile a couple times, and then it sends us on our way with no real lasting impressions of the characters or the story.  All we remember is the food.

Jon Favreau (who directed, wrote, and produced the film) plays Carl Casper, a highly regarded gourmet chef who is stuck in a creative rut.  He's the head chef at one of L.A.'s hottest restaurants, but he's been working off the same menu for the past 10 years.  On the night that a noted food critic (Oliver Platt) is set to eat, Carl wants to change up the menu, but the owner of the restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) shouts him down, and insists on serving the old favorites.  This leads to a scathing review from the critic, and sends Carl into a spiraling breakdown.  The end result is Carl getting into a heated shouting match with the critic when they meet in public (which happens to go viral on the Internet), and him walking off his job and unsure of what to do with his life.

In a subplot, Carl has a young son named Percy (Emjay Anthony).  The kid is living with Carl's ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), and when father and son get together on weekends, they have trouble connecting or communicating.  They start to bond a little when Percy teaches his dad how to send tweets on line.  They bond even more when Carl finally figures out his path in life.  He buys a battered down food cart, and father and son fix it up together, and decide to take it on the road during a summer road trip.  They sell Cuban sandwiches, which Carl teaches Percy how to make.  As they journey from Miami to L.A., they build memories, and we're supposed to be happy watching them get closer together.  I was happy.  I liked these characters.  Unfortunately, most of the bonding is pushed aside in montages and music performances, so we're kept constantly at a safe distance from these characters we're supposed to be growing to love.

This is Jon Favreau's return to making smaller, personal films after spending the past few years working on studio blockbusters.  He obviously used some of that studio clout to get some pretty big names to do cameos in his film.  Aside from the already mentioned Dustin Hoffman, we also have Scarlett Johansson as the hostess at the trendy restaurant Carl starts out at, John Leguizamo working in Carl's kitchen, and even a brief appearance by Robert Downey Jr.  All of them are fine, and play their parts well.  Really, there's nothing wrong with Chef.  I just couldn't drum up any excitement about what I was watching.  The characters are nice, but never developed beyond the bare minimum that's required.  There's nothing really here that got me involved.  The movie starts at pleasant, and then pretty much stops there, thinking that's enough.

I wanted Favreau and his screenplay to go further with these characters.  We're supposed to want to see Carl bond with his son, and we're even supposed to want to see him patch things up with his ex-wife.  The strange thing is, I never got a sense that he and his ex-wife still had feelings for each other, or were supposed to.  Sure, they're cordial with each other when he shows up to pick up his son, but by the end of the film, we're supposed to want to see them get back together.  It feels sudden, as they haven't really spent much screen time together.  Likewise, when Carl sits his son down to tell him how much he's enjoyed spending time with him, it feels a bit forced, as most of their bonding seems to happen off camera or during montages.  There are some nice father and son scenes throughout the film, but they either needed to be stronger, or there needed to be more of them.

Chef is an odd film to judge, as I can't really recommend it, but I'm not exactly opposed to it either.  I smiled a few times, but never laughed out loud.  I liked the characters, but still felt like I was being kept at a distance.  I found it easy to watch, but not very exciting.  It's the kind of movie where, if you see it, you might reflect on it fondly, but you probably also won't be able to remember much about it.

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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

If Edge of Tomorrow ends up disappointing at the box office, I'll know that the blame lies with the ad campaign, which is attempting to sell the film as yet another apocalyptic Sci-Fi thriller with the gimmick that its main character gets a chance to repeat scenarios and learn from past mistakes if he happens to die in battle.  The ads throw a lot of CG, and Tom Cruise gunning down faceless aliens.  What they don't show is just how smart, energetic, and at times witty the film can be.

Set during an unspecified time in the near future, we find that Earth is under invasion by a hoard of aliens called Mimics.  The Mimics are big, have lots of tentacles, and love to rely on that age-old battle strategy that aliens in movies love to employ - Mainly, jumping in front of human soldiers and screaming at them.  You would think an advanced alien race could come up with a better plan than hiding under ground, popping up, then screaming for a few seconds, giving the enemy ample time to blow them away with their high-powered mech suits and weapons.  However, the Mimics do have one big advantage in battle.  They are controlled by a massive brain that hides itself away somewhere, and can learn from its own mistakes.  It holds the power to turn back time, so if a battle doesn't go well for the alien forces, the brain can literally reset time to before the battle begins, and be prepared for any strategic assault the humans may launch.

So, the humans are largely fighting a losing battle.  In order to keep morale up, the government employs an army publicist by the name of Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) to go on TV, and generally act as a "talking head" on news shows, selling the war effort.  Cage's job is to highlight any positives in the war effort, and right now, his main job is to celebrate and highlight a war hero by the name of Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt).  This is the way Cage prefers things, staying away from the battlefield, and smiling for the cameras.  So, naturally, he is horrified when a military General (Brendan Gleeson) tells him that he is going to be going on the front lines with a camera crew to document a major upcoming battle plan.  Cage tries to go AWOL, gets caught, and finds himself not only demoted, but stuck right in the middle of an infantry group that's going to be in the thick of war.

Plain and simple, Cage is a coward on the battlefield.  He also has no idea how to actually use any of the weapons he's given.  Seeing Cruise play this type of character (and earning some big laughs in the process) is a nice change of pace.  It's interesting seeing him playing against type, and running away from the enemies for once during his early scenes.  During the big battle, Cage is eventually killed by a special kind of Mimic that glows blue (an "Alpha Male"), but not before he is splattered by the glowing blood of the alien creature.  This blood somehow transfers inside of him, and grants him the ability to be reborn to an exact moment every time he dies. Each time he falls, he wakes up again at the infantry camp, reliving the same experience, and being shipped off to battle.  He doesn't understand any of this at first, obviously, and neither do we.  But the film does have some fun with his confusion, and once again, Cruise is able to squeeze a lot of dark humor out of some of his failed attempts at surviving. 

Eventually, Cage gets Rita's attention, who seems to know a lot about what's happening to him, and why he keeps on being sent back to an earlier time.  Each time Cage starts the loop over, he must track down Rita, and explain what is happening to him.  And each time, they work toward changing the flow of war, so that they can track down and destroy the massive brain that is controlling the Mimics.  It may sound complicated, but unlike a lot of Sci-Fi films that deal with time travel and paradoxes, Edge of Tomorrow is fairly straight forward.  Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) also knows how to tackle the issue of Cage reliving the same scenes over and over, without making them repetitive.  He knows when to repeat, and when to skip ahead to a different outcome of a similar scene, so that the flow of the story never slows down.  It may be a gimmick, but the movie knows how to use it.

Besides, the central gimmick of death and rebirth is not the main thrust of the story.  There is also the growing relationship between Cage and Rita, which is complicated by the fact that each time Cage restarts, Rita does not know who he is.  He retains memories, and grows close to her, while he remains a stranger to her.  How the two resolve their differences and work things out is one of the more interesting aspects of the screenplay, and makes for an uncommon lead couple relationship.  Also impressive is how completely Emily Blunt has transformed herself for this role.  Usually known for comedic and quiet roles, she is completely believable here as a battle-hardened veteran who slowly softens as Cage works on building her trust.  As for Cruise, he has a chance here to show his charisma, action prowess and comedic skill with his role.  It's not exactly anything we haven't seen from him before, but it's an effective performance.

Edge of Tomorrow doesn't really break any new ground with any of its ideas, but it doesn't have to.  All that matters is what it does attempt it does very well.  Walking in, this was not one of my more anticipated films, as the ad campaign had done little to capture my attention.  Therefore, I was surprised by how quickly it was able to grab my attention, and to hold it all the way through.  This may not be one of the top blockbusters of the summer, but I hope it's not ignored by audiences, either.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Friday, June 06, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

With each movie I see her in, I find myself more drawn to Shailene Woodley as an actress.  Even though she mainly appears in mainstream teen films (her last film, and now this, are both based on Young Adult novels), she does not go after roles that portray her as a simplistic heroine or damsel.  Her performances are thought out and often complex.  In The Fault in Our Stars, she plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a young cancer survivor with a sarcastic tongue (which helps her appeal to adults) and a deeply romantic heart (which helps her appeal to the teen girl demographic the film is after).

Young readers who have made John Green's novel a runaway best seller can rest easy with this film adaptation.  It's a surprisingly faithful retelling, with little cut out or sacrificed.  Just like the book, the movie is a mostly successful and simplistic romantic fantasy, with likable characters and a quick sense of humor that prevents it from being the garden variety tearjerker it easily could have been.  What the movie adds are two very good lead performances from Woodley and Ansel Elgort, both of whom appeared together in Divergent back in March.  They get more screen time together here, and show some wonderful chemistry.  Any problems I have with the narrative (there are some truthful moments throughout, mixed with some heavy handed manipulative ones) are carried over from the source novel, so I can't really blame the filmmakers.  If anything, I can only complement them for finding a strong cast that helps make these characters seem more believable to me than they were on the written page.

Hazel (Woodley) and Augustus "Gus" Waters (Elgort) are different from your usual teens, in that they are well aware of their mortality, and both know that they are not long for this world.  They live in worlds where their parents constantly fear about them, and they are identified more for the diseases they carry, than for who they are or their hopes.  They have both come to terms with their circumstances.  This is not a story of teens realizing that they're going to die sooner than they'd like, as they have realized that long before the story opens.  Instead, it's a story of these two coming together, and trying to have a normal romance with each other, despite everything standing in their way.  For the most part, the film handles this in an honest way.  It's only during the last half of the movie that the manipulations start flying left and right, and you get the sense that director Josh Boone is desperately trying to wring tears out of his audience.

The two meet at a cheesy church support group for teens going through cancer.  Hazel is forced to lug a small oxygen tank around with her to prevent fluids from filling her lungs, while Gus seems to be in remission from his cancer, despite the fact that he lost a leg from the disease, and is only in the group to support a friend.  The two strike up a conversation outside of the church after the meeting, and build an instant bond.  Before long, they're exchanging text messages, having lengthy and flirty conversations on their phones and in person, and sharing books that are important to them.  For Hazel, that book is a story of a girl fighting cancer written by a reclusive author named Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).  When Gus arranges for them to take a trip to Amsterdam to meet the author, the two bond even closer, and begin to fall in love, even though Hazel is strongly against the idea.  She knows that she is going to die, and doesn't want to be a "grenade" that will destroy Gus when the inevitable happens.

I'll understand if after reading that you bush off The Fault in Our Stars as yet another teen melodrama.  What does help set it apart is that the movie is somewhat self-aware, and manages to poke fun at some of its own conventions, and features characters who are a little brighter than the norm.  Even the parents of the two teens in love are smarter than we expect.  We're so used to parents in these movies either being clueless, being strongly against the young couple being in love, or dumber than a bag of hammers.  Here, Laura Dern gets to give an intelligent and sympathetic portrayal as Hazel's mom.  I also like that Hazel and Gus often act like real teenagers, instead of pawns in a tragic love story.  They play video games together, they egg the car of a mean girl who broke the heart of a friend, and when they're just talking about their lives or what's on their mind, the dialogue often sounds heartfelt and real.  This is not the mechanical, assembly line romance you might be expecting.

Well, for the most part, at least.  To be fair, Gus does come across as being a bit saintly and faultless at times.  At least it's not so bad that it completely destroys the realism of the character, but I did keep on waiting for him to slip up at least once or say the wrong thing, and it never happened.  Like I said before, this is the way the character was written in the book, so I can't really blame the film for being faithful.  Any wrong steps the screenplay or the narrative may take, the actors are able to rise above it with their performances.  Speaking of the performances, Willem Dafoe has two very powerful scenes as a drunken and reclusive author who starts out as Hazel's hero, and ends up being pathetic.  His character reinforces the idea that sometimes the people we build up in our minds are not who we think they are.  It's a small role, but Dafoe makes the most of his scenes, and he's wonderful.

I can't imagine any of the legions of fans of the book being disappointed with this, as the filmmakers have included just about everything the novel offered.  Even newcomers are likely to be sucked in by the strong performances.  And to those who loved the book or this movie, I even have a recommendation - Go check out a little film called 50/50.  It came out in 2011, and it didn't get a lot of attention, but it deals with a lot of the same themes this film does, and also uses humor to tackle the difficult subject of cancer.  In my personal opinion, it's an even better movie than this. 

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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