Reel Opinions


Saturday, May 30, 2015

Aloha

Cameron Crowe's Aloha has been the victim of bad buzz for about half a year now.  It all started when the film (which was originally set to be released last Christmas) became a victim of the Sony hacking scandal, with private e-mails leaked stating that studio heads were not happy with the film, and had its release date pushed back.  Later on, groups protested the film's "whitewashed" cast made up of Hollywood celebrities, early word of mouth from test screenings were not kind, and the movie had its reviews held back until almost the last minute.  By the way, those reviews did not turn out very kind.

So, after all that, is the movie really that bad?  Honestly, Aloha is a mess and is probably the most unfocused movie that Crowe has ever made, but it's far from unwatchable.  In reality, the worst thing that happened to this movie is the obvious studio tampering it has gone through.  The film that is playing on screens right now does not feel like the vision of the director.  It comes across as a severely hacked and edited version that's being released out of desperation.  Certain moments and character motivations make absolutely no sense, and yet I don't blame this on Crowe.  It feels like huge chunks of the narrative that were once there are now gone.  I'm sure this movie was more than a little troubled in its original form, but the version that's been released for the public sometimes feels like it's been put through a paper shredder.  There are some nice individual moments, but the movie feels completely disjointed, and never creates a cohesive end product.

The cast that's been assembled includes Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, and John Krasinski.  With that kind of talent, you would expect some great performances, but the end result is terribly uneven.  Cooper doesn't seem to be trying hard enough, Stone sometimes seems to be trying too hard (while at other times finds a nice balance), and Baldwin doesn't seem to know if his performance should be going for laughs or taken seriously.  As for Bill Murray, he seems to be a victim of the severe editing the film went through.  Despite being top-billed, he has less than 10 minutes worth of screen time, and only gets to stand out in one scene where he shares a dance with Stone to a Hall and Oates song.  I would not be surprised to learn if over 90% of his role wound up on the cutting room floor.  Only Rachel McAdams hits a consistent tone with her performance.  A lot of the cast seem to realize they're stuck in what will eventually become a troubled production.

Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a military man who was wounded in Afghanistan, and has now been shipped to his former air base in Hawaii to help with some kind of project that a billionaire named Carson Welch (Murray) has set up involving a satellite.  For a good part of the film, the true nature of Gilcrest's mission is kind of murky.  We don't know why he's been picked, for example, to go around and convince the natives of Hawaii to support the military project.  The main focus of the film is a love triangle that develops.  Brian meets with his former love, Tracy (McAdams), who is now married to a military pilot named Woody (Krasinski) and has two children.  There is obviously something still there between them, which threatens the life that Tracy has made for herself.  Not only that, but Brian has been teamed up with Captain Alison Ng (Stone), who starts the movie off as a serious and strict military woman, but evolves into a cute as a pixie romantic comedy lead without any real explanation as the film goes on.

The romantic aspect of Aloha works best when it is dealing with Brian and Tracy, as Cooper and McAdams have genuine chemistry.  Unfortunately, the relationship that Brian has with Alison makes up a majority of the picture, which is a mistake, as Cooper and Stone never click with the right chemistry that make us want to see them get together.  Oh they get some nice moments, but a lot of their relationship gets tossed aside in montages where Hawaiian music plays over them shopping or buying funny hats.  All the while, there doesn't seem to be much of a point to the film.  Yes, it's been photographed beautifully, but the relationship angle isn't strong enough to carry the entire film.  That's when Crowe throws in a tacked on plot about a military cover up, where the project Brian is working for isn't what it seems, and he has to decide if he will go along with it, or follow his heart and refuse.

The movie often feels like it is trying out different formulas, seeing if one will stick with the audience.  It's largely a romantic comedy, but it also wants to be a drama about life choices, and a movie that is critical of the military, and praises those who are tuned in to their spiritual side, as a couple of the characters in this film love to talk about Hawaiian culture and spiritual beliefs.  The end result feels a bit too unfocused, which is probably what caused the studio to get scared when they screened the early version of the film.  But by editing it to such a severe degree, it becomes not just unfocused, but at times completely confused.  We need more than what the film gives us in order to bridge some of the huge gaps in the narrative.  A movie this busy needs to have more to link it together.

The trailer for Aloha actually comes across as being a lot more focused and sure than the final film that's playing in theater.  There's a belief that the trailer represents the movie that the studio wishes they made.  In this case, I would have to agree.  There are moments where we get to see examples of Crowe's trademark wit and gift of dialogue, but they are drowned out by a movie that is largely unsure of itself.

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Friday, May 29, 2015

San Andreas

There was a time when San Andreas would have been a cheesy B-movie, with fake explosions and cardboard debris raining down on a cast made up of washed up celebrities who would recite dialogue that only a screenwriter could love.  In 2015, it's a big budget summer tentpole movie with the best special effects out there, and a cast of recognizable faces.  At least the quality of the dialogue hasn't changed.

You know what you're getting with a movie like San Andreas.  The movie looks like it cost a fortune to make, but it ends up being the cinematic equivalent of watching money burn, because there's nothing really to get behind here.  The lead performances are likable, but they're not given any characters to play.  This is the sort of movie where the characters should all be wearing name tags that describe their basic character trait.  Such tags would include, "I'm the hero with the haunted past" (Dwayne Johnson), "I'm the ex-wife of the hero who still has feelings for him" (Carla Gugino), "I'm the hero's attractive teen daughter, who's going to get in a lot of dangerous situations, but never mess up my make up or hair" (Alexandra Daddario), "I'm the wealthy jerk who puts his needs before everyone else, so naturally something nasty will happen to me before this movie is over" (Ioan Gruffudd), "I'm the nerdy earthquake specialist who would have been played by Jeff Goldblum if this movie came out 20 years ago" (Paul Giamatti), and so on.

These character types...sorry, people...are brought together by a catastrophic earthquake that levels L.A. and San Francisco through a series of fires, floods, and tsunamis.  We actually get two different storylines, that never really intersect or meet.  In one, Dwayne Johnson plays a heroic rescue pilot who becomes determined to save his ex-wife (Gugino) and daughter (Daddario) when the ex-wife's new jerk boyfriend (Gruffudd) ditches them at the first sign of trouble.  The daughter is lucky enough to be teamed up with a handsome young British man (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who comes equipped with a cute little kid for a sidekick (Art Parkinson).  As Johnson and his ex search desperately for their daughter by helicopter, truck, plane and boat, they begin to rekindle their relationship, which I guess is what's important when people are dying all around you.

That's the thing I noticed about this movie.  It doesn't seem interested in anything that's not happening to its main characters.  We get a few fleeting glimpses at some random extras meeting their end (an elderly couple are walking down the street, see a wall of water racing toward them, and embrace each other in their final moments), but the destruction and chaos are really just treated as special effects happening in the background as the main characters race to safety.  We never get a true sense of the tragedy of the situation, because the movie just stays with the characters that we know are going to be all right.  I'm not saying the movie should be sadistic, and kill off random innocent people every few minutes.  Just that a little more sense of loss would have added to the drama, instead of making it feel like a gruesome spectacle.

In the film's second plot, a college professor who is working on a device that can accurately predict earthquakes (Giamatti) tries to get his message out and warn the people about the danger.  Fortunately, he happens to have a TV crew with ties to CNN in his office when the destruction starts.  Giamatti's character shows a lot of promise, but the movie kind of drops him once he makes his dire television warning.  He comes back near the end of the film, saying this his work has been vindicated by the lives that were saved thanks to his warning, but we don't really get to see any of the after effects of this.  His character also doesn't feel fleshed out, as he exists simply to make doomsday warnings, then give a satisfied sigh when it's all over.

San Andreas has been made by professionals.  The production is first rate, and the lead actors are all likable with the types they are charged with playing.  Nothing ever offends, and some of the early effects shots are thrilling.  But I slowly realized that the movie wasn't really going anywhere, and was just hitting the familiar beats of the many disaster movies from the 1970s, such as Earthquake or The Towering Inferno.  Yes, everything has been done well, but it almost feels like the script doesn't deserve this level of effort.  It's underwritten, cliched and only cares about getting its characters from one set piece to the next without much thought.  I understand that we're supposed to be swept up in the action and special effects, but they never stood out enough that I could completely shut my brain off and enjoy this movie on the mindless level it so obviously wants to be enjoyed at.

If you want a pure action adrenalin summer thrill ride movie, I will have to recommend Mad Max over this.  San Andreas does it's job, but not well enough to stand out.  I wasn't exactly expecting a great movie walking in, but I really wasn't expecting the destruction of a large chunk of the West Coast to leave me feeling kind of indifferent.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

Based on the classic novel by Thomas Hardy (which was also previously adapted into a film back in 1967), Far from the Madding Crowd is a beautiful and welcome alternative from the kind of films usually hitting the multiplexes during the summer months.  Simple, beautifully filmed, and with a first-rate cast, this should appeal to those looking for a little old fashioned romantic melodrama, and for those who seek out smaller art films.

This is an understated film that stays close to the ideas of the original novel.  It focuses on Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, a wonderful stand out here), a woman who inherits a family farm, and becomes determined to run it her way.  Her first order of business is to fire the man in charge of the workers, who has run the property into the ground.  The film briefly follows her as she sets about making it in what is largely a man's world at the time.  This was fascinating to me, and I wish the film had spent a little more time on it.  Regardless, the central focus of the film is on three suitors who are hoping to win her heart.  Bathsheba is not completely closed to the idea of love, but also wants to succeed on her own, and do things her own way.

Her first suitor is the handsome Shepherd, Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), who proposes marriage to her back when she is living a simple life before she inherits the farm.  He hits hard times early in the film, wanders for a while looking for work, and eventually ends up working for her, so he is a constant presence in her life.  Next is Bathsheba's wealthy neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who can promise her financial security for the rest of her life.  Finally, there is Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a British soldier, and the man who ultimately earns her affections and marries her.  However, as time passes, Frank turns possessive and frequently gambles away his fortunes, putting the farm in jeopardy, and their love in doubt. 

Far from the Madding Crowd is a literate movie that doesn't really stand out in any way, but still entertains, thanks to the strong performances, and beautifully shot British scenery.  This is the kind of movie that the production team of Merchant-Ivory used to make, with a 19th Century British setting, lush sets and backdrops, a sense of old fashioned romance, and fine performances.  This kind of filmmaking has gone out of style over time, but it may make somewhat of a comeback after this.  The movie more or less stays on target as an adaptation of the original novel, albeit abridged.  Many of the class issue themes that were present in Hardy's work are absent here, opting instead to focus on the romantic aspects.  The movie is stately and proper, but never dry and dull.  In fact, it's roughly two hour running time seemed to run by faster than most recent fast-paced blockbusters I have seen lately.

When it comes to the performances, Carey Mulligan is the main attraction here, giving a strong and confident turn here which immediately draws us to her Bathsheba, and makes us want to see her succeed.  It helps that she has wonderful chemistry with two of her male co-stars.  Both Schoenaerts and Sheen come across as capable and sympathetic, especially Sheen, whose portrayal of William is a bit softer and sympathetic than both the novel and the earlier film adaptation.  Where the movie stumbles just a little bit is with Tom Sturridge.  His performance comes across as a bit weird and off-putting, and we have no idea why she would choose him over the much more likable Schoenaerts, who initially tries to warn her about getting involved with the soldier.  There is so little passion between Mulligan and Sturridge during their early scenes together that we don't buy their relationship.  They are, however, able to sell the drama of their broken marriage just fine.

From the simple yet beautiful photography, to the sets and costumes, Far from the Madding Crowd is that kind of period drama that truly transports you to another time.  Even more so, the performances draw you into the characters and the simple romantic melodrama of the plot, which may have come across as hammy or overwrought in the wrong hands.  This is a beautifully constructed film that does not necessarily surprise in anyway, but is still tremendously enjoyable, and is well worth seeking out if you need a break from the typical summer movie experience.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tomorrowland

I wholeheartedly agree with the ideas expressed within Tomorrowland.  With so many movies and books (many of them targeted at teens) set in gloomy, dystopian future societies like The Hunger Games or Divergent, here is a movie that gives us an optimistic outlook at what the future could possibly be.  Hollywood has been so keen on hard-selling a bleak future to today's youth that it makes this movie's quaint and upbeat view of what it can be almost novel.

So, the ideas behind the movie are sound.  It's the narrative that kept me at a distance.  Outside of the brief glimpses of a bright future of invention made up of jetpacks and other wonders, Tomorrowland is an oddly shapeless film.  The movie promises technological wonders, and instead gives us a muddled plot revolved around two people with very different views on the future.  One of them, Casey (Britt Robertson from The Longest Ride), is a relentlessly upbeat teenage girl.  At school, she listens all day to her teachers talking about war, the polar ice caps melting, and how the future is all but doomed.  When she asks the simple question, "What can we do to fix it?", her teachers are stumped.  All the talk of hopelessness she hears does not deter her enthusiasm, however.  The other person at the center of the story is Frank Walker (George Clooney), who once shared Casey's enthusiasm for tomorrow, until something happened in his life, and he's now a reclusive shut in who does nothing but wait for the world to end.  And yes, he knows exactly when that's going to happen.  He even has a clock in his house that ticks down to our final moments.

How does Frank know this, and how did he lose his faith in tomorrow?  The film actually opens in a flashback in 1964, when a young and idealistic Frank (Thomas Robinson) attended the World's Fair with an invention of his own - a jetpack that would allow him to fly - Not for any specific purpose, mind you.  Just for the fun and wonder it would bring him to be able to fly.  His invention catches the eye of a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who believed in his invention as well as his ability to dream, and helped lead him to another world known as Tomorrowland, a place where the brightest minds in the world would be free to invent and make their wildest fantasies come true.  But, somehow, the dream behind Tomorrowland became corrupted, and Frank was exiled from the utopia.  Now Frank is bitter and jaded by his own past failures, and it's up to Casey to reawaken the spirit that once was inside of him, and revive the dream of Tomorrowland, which can possibly save the very world itself from a worldwide natural disaster that is set to wipe out humanity.

It is Athena, the mysterious child from Frank's past (who is still a child in the present day, for reasons I will not reveal), who brings the two together.  She has been searching for someone who had the imagination and the spirit to revive the dream of Tomorrowland, and thinks Casey may be that someone.  She gives Casey a mysterious pin that, when she touches it, allows her to see a glimpse of the scientific wonder and hope that Tomorrowland could be if the dream it once was was restored.  Casey becomes driven by this vision of a hopeful tomorrow, and is told to track Frank down if she wants to see it come true.  However, mysterious men in black (who are actually mannequin-like robots) start chasing after and harassing Casey as she tries to uncover the truth.  Who are these evil robots?  They work for a character who played a minor role in Frank's flashback, and suddenly is now an evil tyrant who has turned Tomorrowland into a decrepit and dying society.  Why is the villain doing this?  I don't know if even the movie itself fully knows for sure, and that is part of the problem.

Tomorrowland is a movie that loves to go into great detail about its own plot, yet at the same time, leaves a lot of loose story threads hanging that never come together.  The movie hits you over the head with dry, lengthy speeches about the virtues of invention and imagination.  Hey, these are great ideas to build a movie around, but director and co-writer Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) just has the characters talk about these ideas, instead of actually implementing them into the screenplay.  The ad campaign for the film suggests a wonderful adventure in a far off futuristic society in another world or dimension.  However, these moments only take up less than 10 minutes of the film's two hour plus running time.  The majority of the movie is trying to get to this world, and when the characters finally get there, all we get is a long-winded villain, and a ludicrous climax involving oversized Rock 'em-Sock 'em Robots.

So yes, I agreed with the ideas and views expressed in this film.  I also enjoyed the performances - Clooney makes for a likable curmudgeon, and Robertson is a wonderful wide-eyed optimist.  I even liked the special effects and set designs.  I just could not get into the story the movie was telling, because it feels like the movie is biding time with numerous scenes where the characters just talk endlessly, while nothing of importance happens.  For all of its ideas and visual wonder, the whole thing ends up feeling kind of endless, because the movie takes forever to get to where it's going.  There's never enough momentum for us to feel engaged.  Oh, there are great individual moments, such as when the heroes launch an antique rocket ship out of the base of the Eiffel Tower, but it never becomes a completely satisfying movie because of the long stretches of dead space between the stuff that does work.

I suppose I could also praise Tomorrowland for being an ambitious movie in a summer filled with sequels, remakes and superheroes.  The three people credited to the film's story (Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof and Entertainment Weekly film critic, Jeff Jensen) obviously had a lot of ideas and a grand vision for this movie.  What they don't have is a way to put these ideas in a story that grabs us.  When it was over, I still wasn't certain how certain elements fit into the movie.  I felt like I had watched something with a lot of potential that just didn't know how to pull itself together.  I'm sure I will remember many of the sights of the futuristic society dreamed up by the filmmakers, such as swimming pools that supposedly float in mid air and on top of another pool of water, so that the swimmer can dive from one pool to the one below it.  But if someone were to quiz me on the plot a week after seeing this movie, I would probably fail it.

I kind of feel bad not recommending this movie, as it's one I really want to.  But I cannot, in any good conscience, do so.  It's simply too messy and too flawed at a narrative level.  I'm not sorry I saw Tomorrowland, but I won't be going out of my way to watch it again anytime soon, unless there's a way I can skip around to my favorite moments.

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Poltergeist

In 1982, we got Poltergeist - A horror film that was vibrant, funny, suspenseful and made by filmmakers who truly wanted to tell the story they were telling and were inspired by its imagination.  In 2015, we have a remake where the filmmakers have apparently treated the movie like a brand name.  They knew they could draw in audiences with the familiar name, and they figured they didn't need to go much further than that.  It attempts to recreate the feel of the original, and despite some talented people involved both on and behind and the camera, this movie falls flat in just about every way imaginable.

This is a remake made by a corporate committee that doesn't even seem all that interested in remaking Poltergeist in the first place.  It's workmanlike in the way it rushes through the familiar and famous sequences from the original (scary clown doll, hallucinations involving a melting face, a creepy old tree), while at the same time delivering absolutely no impact upon the audience.  There is no audience for this movie, far as I can tell.  Those who have never seen the original will come expecting thrills, and end up bored.  Those who view the original as a classic of modern horror will watch with disinterest, if they choose to watch it at all.  This remake is passionless and generates no emotional response at any time.  That's what horror films are supposed to do after all, create a response from the viewer.  The great ones can create a wide variety of emotions, such as the original film did.  This update is as interesting as cardboard.

The new film dutifully follows the plot of the original, only now with unimpressive CG effects and characters written in such a slipshod manner that they feel completely off.  A typical American family moves into a suburban home after struggling through some hard times lately.  The dad (Sam Rockwell) was recently laid off, and the mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a struggling writer.  Naturally, the new home is haunted, and the kids are the first to experience this in different ways.  Youngest daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements) starts talking to invisible people in her closet, and has a strange fixation on the TV in the living room.  Middle son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) becomes afraid of the old tree outside his bedroom window, as well as the box of clown dolls he finds in the crawlspace in his bedroom.  Oldest daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino) experiences strange interference with her high-tech devices, and before long is being dragged into a puddle of black goo that has mysteriously formed in the garage.

The parents finally become concerned about all this when little Madison is pulled into her closet by the malevolent spirits and disappears, though her distorted voice can be heard through the television.  Actually, come to think of it, the parents never come across as concerned as they really should be over the fact that their child has been abducted to an alternate dimension that lies somewhere between life and death.  They seem more irritated by this fact, rather than hung up over the fact that they may never see their daughter again.  Some paranormal researchers show up, led by a guy (Jared Harris) who hosts a reality paranormal show on TV.  The researchers actually come across as being more concerned about the situation than the family does, but that doesn't mean they've been given any personalities by the undercooked screenplay.  As everyone struggles to find a way to the other dimension in order to save the girl, it all climaxes with a lot of special effects that seem dated and uninspired.

This new Poltergeist was directed by Gil Kenan, who made his debut a few years ago with Monster House, an animated film about a haunted house that manages to be much better than this.  He's going through the motions here, both when he tries to set up his scares, and in getting performances from his cast.  The script is credited to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire, whose mind was obviously on other things when he was writing this.  The dialogue he has created is so perfunctory, you wonder if it could ever have been delivered by any actor with any emotion.  The lines spoken by the cast are uninspired and have no life, not even when the movie is trying to be funny.  Maybe the cast sensed this, and that's why they seem to act like they don't care that they're supposed to be locked in a battle with a supernatural evil.

There's not a whole lot else I can say about this bland new take on Poltergeist.  It seems destined to be forgotten before the summer is over, while the original will continue to be a classic.  This is what happens when the filmmakers only care about the famous brand name of a movie, and make no effort to truly update it, or even bother to make an argument for the remake's existence.  You end up with something as bland as vanilla, and with none of the substance of the earlier film.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

Let me start off by saying that I can see the appeal of Pitch Perfect.  I'm not a fan, but I can understand why others would be.  The movies are light, fluffy entertainment, and to be perfectly honest, some of the musical numbers contained within are a lot of fun.

With that said, may I ask a simple question?  Why does Pitch Perfect 2 have to be so inconsequential?  Just because the movie is fluff doesn't mean the movie has to have no real plot.  And what are we to make of these characters, who are so dull that it's hard to get invested in them whenever they're not on the stage performing?  Nobody in this movie is allowed to have a personality, outside of a basic character trait (i.e. One's fat, one's a lesbian, one's shy and mousey, etc.).  The women who make up the acapella choir at the center of the film are played by the likes of Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow and Hailee Steinfeld.  These are great actors who should stand out in a comedy like this.  Instead, they barely register, and we never get a sense of their relationship with each other.  I understand that in a movie like this, the plot is second to the musical numbers.  But here, the movie has almost forgotten anything resembling a plot, and seems to be casting around for filler material.

As we rejoin the "Bellas" musical group, they are riding high off of their win at the end of the first film, and have been invited to perform at the Kennedy Center for the President's birthday, where we see awkwardly placed stock footage of Barack and Michelle Obama watching a performance of some kind spliced in with the footage of the Bellas singing.  A wardrobe malfunction happens on stage to "Fat Amy" (Rebel Wilson), and the ensuing media hype over the failed performance causes the Bellas to be dropped from their tour, and to be replaced with a sleek and professional acapella choir from Germany.  The only way the Bellas can win back the respect they've lost is to beat the German group (and a bunch of other competing countries that don't matter to the plot) at a world singing competition.

That might make it sound like Pitch Perfect 2 is an underdog story, but in reality, the Bellas don't seem to be all that concerned about winning, since we never really see them rehearse or practice together.  Instead, the movie fills itself with frivolous subplots, such as Beca (Anna Kendrick) taking an intern job at a recording studio, and being afraid to tell the other girls about it, as she's afraid they'll think she's not part of the group anymore.  Strange thing is, the movie seemed as uninterested in this plot as I was.  It does not allow Beca to develop a personality outside of the music group, as you would think, and it seems to exist solely to give rapper Snoop Dogg a cameo, only to have the screenplay forget to give him anything to do or say.  Speaking of cameos, David Cross turns up as an acapella fan who holds music battles in his massive basement, and even select members of the Green Bay Packers turn up as a singing group in a competition. 

This is a largely formless movie that doesn't seem to know what to do with itself when the girls are not on stage, or competing.  The script keeps on trying to find ways to cut to a musical number, even if it has nothing to do with the plot.  Early in the film, while the Bellas find out they've lost their tour, the movie randomly cuts to Freshman orientation, so we can see another musical group perform for the students, only to cut back to the Bellas as soon as the number is over.  It doesn't help that the returning stars seem somewhat bored here, especially Kendrick, who can hardly suppress the fact that she's only back for the paycheck.  Of the main girls, Rebel Wilson seems to get the most screen time, since her Fat Amy character was a big hit with fans of the first.  But again, the movie gives her little to do but spout off random one liners, and perform pratfalls where she tumbles down the stairs.

In a year that's sadly been filled with a large number of unnecessary and sloppy sequels, Pitch Perfect 2 is far from the worst of the lot, but it proved to be a big disappointment to me.  Sure, the first movie didn't win me over, but I was willing to give this one a chance, and was ready for a good time.  I smiled during some of the musical numbers, but that was about the extent of my enjoyment.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

I know it's only halfway through May, but I'm going to go out on a limb, and say we won't find better action sequences this summer (and possibly this year) than the ones on display in Mad Max: Fury Road.  This is not just a successful reboot/sequel of a franchise that's been dormant for 30 years, it's the very definition of high octane summer entertainment, mixed with some of the most stylish direction I've seen in a blockbuster in a while.  For those of you who were wowed by the implausible and downright ridiculous CG-aided car stunts in Furious 7, this is the real deal, and you have no idea what you're in for.

Here, at long last, is a non-stop action movie that doesn't come across like a hyperactive video game, or an extended technical demo.  In returning to the characters and world that he created with the original Mad Max film back in 1979, co-writer and director George Miller gives us a vast world that seems real and lived in.  It's full of imagination, wonder, interesting characters, and action sequences that put pretty much everything that compares to it to shame.  The movie is essentially a nearly two hour long chase (with a 15 minute sequence in the middle where the characters stop and rest), but what keeps the movie fresh is that Miller has filled his movie with enough visual wonder and stunts we haven't seen before to fill two summer blockbusters.  And unlike your typical Michael Bay film, there is weight, consequence and a sense of drama to the characters involved with the action.  This movie is a true cinematic miracle - It's the fourth entry of a film series, and yet it feels as vibrant and alive as the first film in many action franchises.

Even though the movie almost throws us right into the middle of the action as soon as the studio logos fade out, it's easy enough to pick up on the story and the world, even if you are not familiar with the earlier entries.  The world has become a vast, barren desert where water and gasoline are two of the most precious resources, the second because everybody drives around in souped up vehicles that are unlike anything you've seen, and each are a marvel of design.  One is equipped with a massive sound system on top of the car itself, complete with a man playing the guitar strapped overhead.  One low riding car has various spikes coming out of it, making it look almost like a mobile porcupine.  Each vehicle that makes up the chase scenes in this film are individually designed, and part of the fun is marveling at the individual details, which could lead to repeat viewings.

Tom Hardy steps into the role of Max Rockatansky this time around - A lonely drifter in the post-apocalyptic world who is haunted by the memories of his past, particularly the death of his wife and daughter.  This time, Max gets involved in a struggle against an evil warlord (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who rules a small community of people with an iron fist.  One of the warlord's followers, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has betrayed him, and escaped with his five wives who he uses for breeding purposes, to keep his colony prosperous.  Furiosa's hope is to guide the five wives across the vast desert to the home she grew up in, a land that is still green and filled with life.  Aided by Max and another one of the warlord's former soldiers, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), Furiosa must stay one step ahead of a vast array of pursuing forces who are aligned with the colony they are fleeing from.

Mad Max: Fury Road feels gritty and raw, because the movie was done with practical effects, instead of CG animation.  This gives the film a sense of realism you just do not get in most big budget movies.  Even more stunning, even though the movie is rapidly shot and edited, every image is crystal clear.  There's not a single instance where the audience finds themselves trying to keep up with the action, and wondering what they're looking at.  This is a downright beautiful film, filled with some of the best stunt driving and stunt work I have ever seen, and a sense that the action is taking place in a world that is lived in and fleshed out.  These characters, while not exactly deep, are fascinating and more than capable of driving the story.  Tom Hardy effortlessly steps into the role of Max, a role previously occupied by Mel Gibson.  The thing is, not once while watching it was I comparing Hardy to Gibson, or even thinking about the older movies.  This is the rare reboot that stands well enough on its own that you're not even thinking about the past entries while watching it.

In terms of the performances, the two standouts are Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult.  Theron creates one of the strongest female leads in an action film since...Well, quite possibly ever.  She comes across as strong without being objectified, and is also sympathetic without lessening the hardened edge of her character.  It's a great character, and Theron gives a female action performance for the ages here.  As for Nicholas Hoult, he is covered in albino-like make up for most of the movie, and constantly seems to be close to flying off the edge.  And yet, he too finds a sympathetic and human part to his character, making his performance surprisingly nuanced.  While no one will argue that this is an "acting" movie (the stunts and special effects are definitely the stars here), we still get some strong performances, and characters that we can actually get behind.

I don't know quite possibly how to stress just what a rush of adrenalin Mad Max: Fury Road is.  It's the kind of action movie where you just forget about everything around you, and are completely absorbed.  It's thrilling, visually amazing, and exciting as hell.  All this from a series that hasn't seen an entry in 30 years.  It's not as if George Miller had lost interest in the franchise.  He had wanted to make this movie for years, but various circumstances have stood in his way.  Now that he's had the chance to make it, he has brought us something so visceral and enormous in its scope, you just have to wonder what the other upcoming blockbusters are going to do to compete.  Am I gushing?  Of course.  But it's hard not to after witnessing a film this much fun and powerful.

Not only is Mad Max the first great summer movie of 2015, it's also the first great movie of the year, as well.

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

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Little Boy

Here is a movie with a great big heart, but unfortunately it lacks the brains to go with it.  Even more unfortunate, the heart at the center of the film is gooey, cloying and artificial.  Little Boy so desperately wants to warm our hearts and wring our tear ducts that by the end, my emotions felt like they had been assaulted.  In order for something like this to work, it has to come from an honest place, and I could find no honesty in the screenplay.  Just non-stop forced sentiment.

The story is set in one of those picturesque little 1940s towns that you only find in the movies or Norman Rockwell paintings.  It's the kind of movie small town where everybody knows what the main character is doing, and it's all they ever talk about.  It even comes with an warm old man to narrate the story, who points out the obvious in a folksy tone that sounds like he's trying to emulate the old man narrator from A Christmas Story.  The hero of the film is Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), a boy of about seven or eight who is very short for his age.  He is constantly picked on by local bullies, who call him "Little Boy".  Pepper's only friend is his dad, James (Michael Rapaport), who shares the boy's love of comic books, movies and dreaming up imaginary cowboy and pirate adventures.  The two are inseparable, until World War II breaks out, and James is forced to go and fight overseas in the place of his oldest son, London (David Henrie from Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2), who was rejected from serving in the military due to his flat feet.

Poor Pepper is devastated and mopes about, until he attends a magic show and gets to go on stage with the magician.  He helps perform a trick, where the boy supposedly moves a glass bottle across a table with the power of his mind.  This gets Pepper to think if he can movie a glass bottle with his mind, why can't he will his father back home from the war?  He decides to visit a local priest (Tom Wilkinson) for support, and he gives the boy a list of good deeds he can do that may help his wish for his father to come back faster.  These include things like giving a homeless person a place to sleep, or clothing a naked person (Pepper learns to knit a shirt for a pregnant woman's future baby).  But the most important thing on the list is to befriend a Japanese man who lives on the outskirts of town in a scary old house named Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).  Earlier in the film, Pepper and his brother London had thrown rocks through the man's window after they found out their father was missing in action, and presumably being held in a Japanese prison camp.  Pepper feels bad about his actions, and the priest encourages Pepper to make friends with the man and show him kindness.

A majority of the film is devoted to Pepper and Hashimoto becoming friends, with the kid learning about the man's culture, and Hashimoto helping Pepper with his bully troubles, as well as helping him do the other items on the priest's "good deeds" list.  Their friendship is supposed to carry the film, but I never really felt it as strongly as I should have.  That's the problem with Little Boy in general.  It has good intentions, but it doesn't know how to carry them through, or present them in a way that is dramatically interesting.  The film feels inert and endless.  These are all nice people, but that's all they are.  They are not allowed to express any emotion except gentle warmth and apathy.  The bullies and local drunks who eye Hashimoto suspiciously because of his nationality never come across as a serious threat, because the movie is not interested in them other than as one-dimensional villains.  Little Boy wants to be about tolerance and forgiveness, but it tackles these issues merely at face value. 

The movie also throws in a lot of subplots that don't really go anywhere.  There's a lonely local doctor played by Kevin James (yet another Paul Blart veteran), who tries to get involved with Pepper's mom (Emily Watson) when it looks like her husband won't be coming back from the war.  The character is completely inconsequential to the plot, and the movie would be no different with or without him.  There's also a plot surrounding the older brother, London, and how he feels about Pepper hanging around with Hashimoto.  His opinion on the Japanese man seems to change from scene to scene.  One moment, he storms into the house with a shotgun and threatens to kill Hashimoto when he sees him sitting at the table, having dinner with his mom and little brother.  A few scenes later, when a mean drunk beats Hashimoto nearly to death because the drunk's son was killed in the war, London suddenly and without explanation feels empathy toward him, and helps Hashimoto.  These characters are solely at the mercy of the screenplay, and act according to it.

You know, I kind of feel bad criticizing Little Boy.  The movie is genuinely harmless, and is as eager and ready to please as a puppy.  All it wants to do is warm the hearts of its audience.  But the way it wants to do so is just so calculated and manipulative, and it doesn't earn the emotions that it wants to create.  The movie is blunt and shameless with its manipulations.  From the way the movie depicts small town life through a soft-focus lens in order to create nostalgia, to the sappy music score that spells out everything we're supposed to be feeling, the film is relentless and seems to be trying to earn its emotions through brute force.  In order for a movie like this to work, there needs to be a sense of honesty, or characters who seem genuine.  Director and co-writer Alejandro Monteverde wants to shove these warm feelings down our throats, rather than earn them through strong storytelling and writing.

This is a movie for people who don't care what they're watching, just as long as it has a happy ending and nothing bad happens in it.  Despite scenes of war and the subject of hatred and racism, everybody generally ends up okay in the end.  The movie has been rated PG-13, but it's quite possibly the gentlest and most timid movie to ever be given that rating.

No info found on Amazon - Sorry.

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