Reel Opinions

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 8th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

As the final hours of 2013 tick down to the new year, it's time for a little tradition I have here at Reel Opinions.  It's time to take one last look back at the films that stole my time, and the time of anyone else unfortunate enough to watch them.  It's time to list the worst films of the past year, as well as the dishonorable mentions, and the individual awards I give every year to "honor" what I feel were the worst pieces of cinema that I forced myself to sit through.

To be honest, this year may have one or two controversial choices on my list.  These are movies that I know a lot of people liked, but I just absolutely despised.  If you enjoy these movies, more power to you.  Please keep an open mind about my opinion, just as I will about yours.  After all, that's all this is, opinions.  No need to threaten to run me down on the street if you should ever meet me in person, just because I didn't like the same movie you did. (I'm serious, someone actually e-mailed me and told me this, because I did not like a certain Adam Sandler movie one year.)

As always, my "best of" list is still in the works.  There are still some major movies stuck in limited release, and will expand throughout January, so I'm holding off on it for just a little while.  I usually wait until the morning of the Oscars to post my "best of" list, but this year, I may do it sooner - maybe toward the end of January, due to the fact I think I have seen most of the major big films, and there's only a few left.

So, with that all said, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys, and hope that everyone involved with them gets to do a good movie in 2014.


10. MAN OF STEEL - I kick off this year's list with one of those choices some people may strongly disagree with.  I know that there are a lot of people who absolutely loved Man of Steel.  However, I also know that there are just as many who hated it as much as I did, if not more.  Seriously, did any movie from this past summer divide audiences as sharply as this one did?  Like I said before, if you happened to enjoy this, more power to you.  As for me, I found it to be an endless assault on the senses, and one of the bigger disappointments of the year.  Superman, that defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way comes across here as a sullen, depressed and violent jerk who does nothing but fly around, punch people, and destroy everything in his path.  He has no personality, no chemistry or interesting dialogue with Lois Lane, and winds up doing more destruction to the people of Earth that he's supposed to be protecting than the evil General Zod does.  The special effects looked like they were stolen from other movies, the performances were disappointing, Kevin Costner (as Superman's adoptive Earth father) gets the worst death scene I've seen in a movie in years, and the entire last hour of the movie is non-stop mindless action and destruction with no weight or consequence.  This was a murky, joyless experience, with the only moments of amusement being the awkwardly placed product placement for Sears, IHOP, and other establishments during the big action scenes.  This movie depressed me to no end.

09. GETAWAY - What could have been a fun little piece of action escapism turned into one of the more incompetent films of 2013, thanks to the clueless direction of Courtney Solomon (best known for bringing the world the 2000 Dungeons and Dragons film), and the single worst editing of any movie this year.  Ethan Hawke plays a guy who comes home, finds his wife has been kidnapped, and now is being forced by a mysterious villain (Jon Voight) to drive mindlessly around the city in a car, and cause massive damage on his way to save his wife.  Along the way, Hawke picks up a teenage girl played by Selena Gomez, who in 2013, was on a quest to shed her "good girl" Disney Channel image.  She does that in this film by swearing up a storm, the script giving her dialogue so many forced and awkward four letter words, it almost starts to get comical.  Getaway might have worked if it had a different script, director, and an editor that knew how to hold onto an image long enough so we could tell what the heck we were looking at. 

08. R.I.P.D. - I'm sure Ryan Reynolds would not only like to forget this movie, but the summer of 2013 all together.  He had two movies open the same weekend in July, and both of them crashed and burned with critics and audiences.  One of them was Turbo, an animated misfire that you will find down in the "Dishonorable Mention" category below.  And then there was this.  R.I.P.D. (which stands for Rest in Peace Department) has Reynolds playing a cop who gets murdered by his crooked partner (Kevin Bacon), and is sent to the afterlife, where he is recruited into a spectral police force where dead lawmen fight to keep the Earth safe from evil spirits who want to take over the world.  He's teamed up with an Old West lawman (Jeff Bridges, who slurs his words and mumbles throughout the whole film), and wacky hijinks supposedly ensue.  This was supposed to be a Men in Black-style action special effects comedy, but thanks to a troubled production, and heavy editing on the final product before it was released in theaters, the movie wound up being mainly incoherent and dumb.  The two stars act like they don't even like being in the same room with each other, the special effects are lame, and the whole thing pretty much rolled over and died as soon as it hit theaters, guaranteeing we'll thankfully never see a sequel.

07. PARANOIA - How this bomb was able to rope in the talents of Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman will forever remain a mystery to me.  At least they got paid, so they had a better experience than anyone who got to watch this.  Paranoia is a beyond dumb thriller about a cocky and arrogant jerk (Liam Hemworth), whom we hate about two minutes after meeting him, so of course he's the main character.  He works for a technology company, where his boss (Gary Oldman) hires him to perform industry espionage.  It seems that Oldman's chief rival (Harrison Ford) is developing a new hi-tech smartphone that will revolutionize the industry, and is set to reveal it in only a few months.  Oldman wants Hemsworth to pose as an employee at Ford's company, and steal the prototype.  What follows is one of the laziest thrillers I've ever seen, with a cast who don't even seem involved in the material, and action sequences that don't thrill in the slightest.  Not even the sight of seeing old pros like Ford and Oldman being catty with each other during the two scenes they share together is enough to save this stinker.  Paranoia has an attention-grabbing title, but that's about it.

06. WALKING WITH DINOSAURS - Based on a popular TV documentary from the late 90s, the feature film version of Walking with Dinosaurs was a full-out misfire right out of the gate due to two inexplicably bad decisions on the part of the filmmakers.  First off, the dinosaurs talk in this movie, even though their mouths never once moved.  I have been informed by a couple of my readers that this movie was not supposed to have voices, and that they were added in later on due to studio interference.  It shows, especially when the dinosaurs up on the screen are just sitting there, looking at their feet, and the voices of Justin Long and John Leguizamo are chattering away non-stop on the soundtrack, as if something is supposed to be happening.  The second bad decision was to have the dinosaurs talk endlessly, and never once shut up.  It's almost as if Walking with Dinosaurs is afraid that if it gives us a quiet moment or a chance to think for ourselves, it has somehow failed us.  From the inane and juvenile dialogue, to the inappropriate pop songs that show up on the soundtrack, this is the worst animated film of the year, and an example of a film studio pandering to the lowest common denominator. 

05. SPRING BREAKERS - Okay, here's another choice of mine that may be controversial, as I know quite a few people thought this movie was some sort of artistic masterpiece, or a brilliant social commentary on the shallowness of youth.  Me?  I found Spring Breakers to be incredibly dull, extremely tedious, and as blatantly obvious as a sledgehammer to the skull.  The one and only saving grace of the film is the wonderful and terrifying performance of James Franco, who plays a slimy guy who manipulates a bunch of morally corrupt college girls on a beach Spring Break vacation into being violent and murderous thugs. (Not that they were angels to begin with, having knocked over a diner in order to get money for their trip.) This was the other movie Selena Gomez did in 2013 to try to shed her child-friendly image, and the movie actually received a lot of controversy pre-release, as the girls were played by a lot of former Disney Channel and teen-friendly stars.  Look past the controversy, the sex, and the violence, and you have a simple minded film whose entire point was spelled out in the two minute trailer, so the full movie just kind of winds up hitting the same points over and over again.  Franco's performance is the only thing that stands out about this shallow, underwritten bore.

04. THE COUNSELOR - Here is a movie that sounds like a home run on paper, but the final result was so dense and boring, it turned off audiences and critics in droves.  Before it came out, The Counselor seemed like a dream team of talent.  You have the usually reliable Ridley Scott directing.  The screenplay is written by acclaimed novelist, Cormac McCarthy.  And the cast includes such talent as Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem.  There were signs of trouble when the trailers and ads pretty much focused solely on the talent, and didn't really tell us anything about the movie itself.  In this instance, it was a case of 'If you can't say something nice...".  Many had a hard time following the plot, or even figuring out what the plot was.  And those that did follow it were bored by the endless droning dialogue.  The highly paid and talented cast just sat there, droning on about nothing in particular, while the movie itself never really went anywhere interesting.  The Counselor was one of 2013's most crushing disappointments.

03. SCARY MOVIE 5 - The spoof or parody movie has pretty much been dead for years, and that is nowhere more evident than in the latest, and easily worst, entry of the Scary Movie franchise.  The days of Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Hot Shots are far behind us, and it's time for Hollywood to accept this.  It's also time for audiences to just stop going to them, and expecting anything better than scenes from recent movies recreated, only with fart and bodily fluid jokes added in.  Scary Movie 5 combines the plots of Mama, Paranormal Activity, Black Swan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and even the Evil Dead remake from this year, and wastes every opportunity for laughs.  This was a cheaply made, badly acted, and horribly executed mess that didn't even feel like a theatrical release.  It felt more like something that was sloppily thrown together in a couple months, then the filmmakers tried to con audiences into seeing it.  You can find better movie parodies by amateur filmmakers on Youtube.

02. AFTER EARTH  - As much as I hated Man of Steel, it was nowhere even close to matching what I feel was one of the worst summer movies I have sat through in a long time.  After Earth was a Sci-Fi vanity project gone wrong dreamed by Will Smith as a star vehicle for his young son, Jaden.  The two Smiths play a father and son who live on a distant planet, and have a hard time connecting with each other emotionally.  While on a bonding space journey, their ship crashes on an abandoned and hostile planet Earth, which is populated by some of the worst realized CG animals I have ever seen in a big budget film.  Seriously, I have seen video games with better realized CG than the various animals that threaten young Jaden as he tries to find an emergency beacon so that he can signal someone to come rescue them.  Will and Jaden Smith not only have the worst chemistry of any pair I saw on screen this year, they both give absolutely horrible individual performances.  Will Smith is stiff and wooden, while the young Jaden screeches and screams his lines to the point that I just wanted to scrape him right off the screen, and replace him with a different child actor.  The movie rightfully died at the box office almost right out of the gate, and the only person involved who came out on top was director M. Night Shyamalan, who had his involvement with the film all but hidden, due to a string of costly flops.  Sure, he made this crap, but at least few people realized it.

01. MOVIE 43 - It was not hard for me to decide what was the single worst experience I had at the theater in 2013.  Ever since I saw Movie 43 back in January, it earned an instant spot at the top of my "worst of" list, and it never left.  This sketch comedy film boasts 13 directors, some 20 writers, and a grab bag of Hollywood talent that includes the likes of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Richard Gere, Dennis Quaid, Liev Schrieber, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Kate Bosworth, Uma Thurman, and a whole slew of talent that, I can only imagine, were blackmailed into appearing in this film.  The skits in this movie range from funny ideas that had absolutely horrible execution, or ideas that never could have worked in any way, shape or form.  This is the very definition of bottom of the barrel filmmaking.  If you've ever wanted to see Hugh Jackman play a guy who has a tiny pair of testicles hanging from his chin, Halle Berry participate in a disgusting game of Truth or Dare, or Josh Duhamel as a guy who has a very sick sexual relationship with his pet cartoon cat, then this is the movie for you.  Oh, and you should probably seek help immediately.

Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!


A Haunted House, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Bullet to the Head, Identity Thief, 21 and Over, The Call, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Evil Dead (2013), The Big Wedding, The Internship, Turbo, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Family, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Runner Runner, Carrie, Free Birds, Delivery Man, Grudge Match


Scary Movie 5

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

John Cusack's laughably bad portrayal of Richard Nixon in The Butler

Jaden Smith in After Earth



Robert DeNiro in The Big Wedding, The Family and Grudge Match
Justin Long in Movie 43 and Walking with Dinosaurs
Chloe Grace Moretz in Movie 43 and Carrie
Ryan Reynolds in R.I.P.D. and Turbo
Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers and Getaway
Vince Vaughn in The Internship and Delivery Man
Owen Wilson in The Internship and Free Birds
Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head and Grudge Match
Tiya Sircar in The Internship and Walking with Dinosaurs

Will and Jaden Smith in After Earth

The Butler, and its distracting celebrity cameos playing the various Presidents of the United States.

Sony Entertainment, who through their various companies, brought us After Earth, The Call, Evil Dead (2013), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and Carrie.

Well, that's the worst of 2013 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2014, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!


Monday, December 30, 2013

47 Ronin

Already deemed a flop before it hit theaters in America, 47 Ronin seems to be Hollywood's new favorite whipping boy, the likes of which we haven't seen since The Lone Ranger stumbled across screens this past summer.  It's got an out of control budget, behind the scenes stories of massive reshoots, a muddled script that awkwardly mixes Japanese legend with out of place fantasy elements, and a lead star (Keanu Reeves) who hasn't headlined a major film since 2008, and seems to have been shoehorned into this one without much thought.  So, the movie is riding into theaters on a wave of massively bad publicity.  But is it really that terrible?

To be honest, the film is just too goofy for me to truly hate.  Oh, it's a mess, there's no doubt about that.  It's awkward, overlong, and nowhere near the spectacle that it was obviously intended to be.  But, there were a lot of moments where I found myself watching the film with a big, goofy grin on my face, or I found myself laughing - Mostly unintentionally, I must add.  This is a bad movie, but it's not a boring one.  For that, I am grateful.  This is such a gloriously silly movie, with a little more effort, it could have been a comedy.  But then, the fact that it takes itself so deadly seriously is what caused me so much pleasure in the first place.  And then, right in the middle of it all, you have Keanu Reeves, giving the wooden performance of his career.  He says very little (I think, in the two hours or so the film runs, he has maybe 10 minutes or so of dialogue total), and spends the rest of the time staring aimlessly at the camera, almost as if he doesn't know what he's doing in the film.  He displays the same amount of emotion (i.e. none whatsoever), whether he is holding his lady love close, or battling a giant CG dragon who is actually a witch in disguise.

Reeves plays a "half breed" named Kai, living in ancient Japan.  He was raised by demons, escaped for reasons that the narrative is kind of murky on, and has since been watched over by the kindly old samurai Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), although Kai is not really accepted by anyone in the village, except for the lovely young daughter of Lord Asano, Mika (Ko Shibasaki).   Tragedy strikes when Asano is disgraced and framed by the evil Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) during what was supposed to be a friendly visit between their two kingdoms.  The Shogun ruler of Japan orders that Asano take his own life so that he can die with honor, and Kira ends up getting not only the entire city, but also the hand of Mika in marriage.  All of this was due to the efforts of a shape-shifting witch (Rinko Kikuchi) whom Kira employed to carry out his devious deed.

With Asano gone, his samurai now have no one to serve, and are scattered across the countryside as Ronin, warriors without a home or a master.  The leader of Asano's former samurai, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) vows vengeance, and gathers up whatever men and weapons he can in order to bring down Kira's rule.  One of the men he tracks down happens to be Kai, who after being sold into slavery shortly after Asano's death, is now forced to fight in a pit with a giant CG monster who looks like a rejected design from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  And no, we get no explanation as to what this creature is, or why it exists in this historical epic.  Kai and Oishi team up, along with their followers, and begin a journey that really isn't all that grand in the slightest, but is lifted up by some spectacularly goofy moments, such as the scene where the evil witch (who has hair like Medusa, and can manipulate it to do her bidding) tries to force feed the frightened Mika by having her snake-like hair pick up pieces of food and place it before her mouth.

It's a miracle that 47 Ronin manages to come across so sullen and serious when it has moments like the one I just described above that cry out to be over the top and ridiculous.  It has all the earmarks of a troubled production, especially the bizarre tone that never quite settles on a consistent mood.  Sometimes the movie seems to want to be taken as seriously as a Japanese art house film, while in others, a giant CG monster will suddenly come out and attack our heroes with no explanation as to what it is, or what it has to do with the story.  There have been reports that the film was severely tampered with during production, and that nobody really knew if they were shooting a serious Japanese-style epic of the famous legend that inspired the film, or a big budget CG spectacular.  The final film on display shows that a decision was never reached, so the filmmakers obviously decided to split the difference with hilariously disastrous results.

If I were a better critic, I would be recommending 47 Ronin, just for the sheer fact its probably the silliest epic we're likely to get in a long time.  However, I can only recommend this to a certain audience, and that would be to the crowd who like to talk back to inept films, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style.  With the right crowd and circumstances, I can almost see how this movie could be a blast.  But in a regular theater setting, you're just going to have to sit there and stifle your laughter, which just isn't that much fun.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

What we have here is a screenplay that lacks conflict.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very pleasant little movie.  It's about a nice guy named Walter who lacks confidence in himself, hasn't really done anything with his life, and lives vicariously through his daydreams of going on amazing adventures.  I liked Walter.  I liked Ben Stiller's performance of Walter.  I even liked the sweet relationship he slowly builds with the woman at his job (Kristen Wiig).  There's just not a whole lot to this movie other than just being very nice.

The movie is a remake of a 1947 film, which itself was loosely based on a short story.  Maybe that was my problem with the movie, it feels very old fashioned.  There's no real sense of conflict or danger.  And while there is an antagonist in the film for Walter to face off against, he's really just more of a jerk who likes to flick paper clips at the guy when he's daydreaming.  Heck, this movie is so nice, not even the jerk has anything all that bad happen to him in the end.  This is a movie for people who don't care about anything when they go to the movies, other than there's a happy ending, and nothing all that terrible happens during the course of it.  And yet, I did find quite a bit to enjoy at the same time.  As I said before, I liked the characters and the performances.  I also thought the visual look of the film (also done by Stiller, who directed the film) was beautiful, particularly during Walter's elaborate fantasy sequences.  There are even some good actors in supporting roles like Shirley MacLean (as Walter's mother), Sean Penn (as a traveling photographer), and Adam Scott (as the jerk).

I just couldn't get into the story the movie was trying to tell.  Walter, the meek daydreamer, works at Life magazine where he develops photos.  The last print issue of the magazine is looming, and Walter has been given the photo that will serve as the cover for the last issue.  When the photo ends up going missing, Walter must go on an adventure for the first time in his life as he travels to far off places like Greenland, Iceland, and the mountains of Afghanistan in order to track down the photographer who took the picture.  Surprisingly, it's when Walter leaves his safe and ordinary world behind and decides to go on this global adventure that the movie becomes unsure of what to do with itself.  Up to that point, the movie had been a likable sort of romantic comedy, with Walter trying to work up the courage to talk to a woman at work.  I liked the chemistry between Stiller and Wiig during these scenes.  When he leaves everyone behind for his adventures, the movie loses steam, as not much happens.  Yes, we get some beautiful scenery of far-off places, but it ends up working better as a travelogue, rather than an engaging narrative.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty runs for almost two hours, but it could have easily been trimmed to a lean 90 with nothing lost.  There are just too many moments where we're looking at nice scenery or images, and it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels or stalling for time.  The journey Walter takes to track down the photographer doesn't generate much excitement.  I understand that Stiller is aiming for a low key approach to his film, but I think he plays it just a little too laid back.  Given that the movie is so low key, it's strange that the studio is marketing this as a holiday movie for the whole family.  While there's certainly nothing inappropriate, I think young children would be bored by what's up on the screen, or not all that involved in Walter conquering his mid-life crisis.  Older viewers are bound to get more out of this one.

I guess the best way to sum up my reaction would be to say as much as I liked certain moments and performances, it never really builds to a complete whole.  There are also some elements I found needlessly distracting, such as the blatant product placement throughout the film.  The movie manages to work not one, but two, major brands into the plot of the film.  Okay, I can sort of understand how the eHarmony website can fit into the plot, given Walter's search for love, as well as the film's overall theme of technology overtaking the old ways of doing things (which is much better expressed by the theme of the magazine Walter works for going from print to digital).  But then, the movie tries to not only work in a product placement for Papa John's pizza, but also awkwardly ties it into the main character's own past, and having it connected to painful memories of his father who died when Walter was a teenager.  There's a shot of Ben Stiller looking painfully at a Papa John's cup, and we are supposed to get the feeling that it is bringing up memories for him.  But, given the angle of the camera, all I could focus on was the corporate logo printed all over the cup.

At the very least, though it is flawed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an ambitious movie in a lot of ways.  It just takes too many wrong turns, and never resonates as much as it should, even though I did agree with a lot of the points the movie was trying to make.  This is a film that I really was ready to embrace.  There's a lot to like here.  I just was ready for it to be over long before it was.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Grudge Match

I feel like I've seen this movie before.  Grudge Match gives us Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro playing variations of characters they've played before, as they tell jokes that aren't exactly fresh to start with.  Mixed in with the stale sitcom dialogue are some ineffective heart-tugging moments, and a climactic boxing match we don't have much investment in.  I have no doubt that this movie could have been fun with a different approach, but thanks to the generic screenplay, it comes across as overly safe and bland.

Stallone and De Niro play former professional boxers named Henry "Razor" Sharp and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen, respectively.  We learn that at the height of their careers, the two were bitter rivals both in and outside the ring.  But then, 30 years ago, Henry dropped out of a fight and retired over reasons he has kept to himself to this day.  These days, the two men lead very different lives, with Henry working in a steel mill, while Billy tries to hold onto his past glory with celebrity endorsement deals, while managing a bar and an auto dealer on the side.  It's about this time that a struggling boxing promoter named Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) approaches the two men with an offer to come out of retirement and hold one final fight to settle their age-old rivalry once and for all.  Billy is immediately up to the idea, but Henry requires more motivation, and has to be talked into it by his aging former trainer Louis "Lightning" Conlon (Alan Arkin).  Also worked into the plot is an old flame of Henry's (Kim Basinger) who wants to mend their past, and a son for Billy (Jon Bernthal) that he never knew he had.

It isn't that Grudge Match is unwatchable, it's that the whole enterprise feels so lifeless.  Director Peter Segal (a veteran of many Adam Sandler comedies) shoots the whole thing at such a lethargic pace, none of the jokes ever hit.  I know the movie is supposed to be about two over the hill boxers, but keeping the energy level this low is dangerous for a movie where we're supposed to be having a great time.  Not even Stallone and De Niro seem to be having that much fun up on the screen.  That's probably because the movie not only wastes their talents, but it completely misses any opportunity for satire that's literally staring the filmmakers in the face.  With these two actors in a boxing movie together, we obviously walk in expecting some references to Rocky and Raging Bull.  And while there are a couple nods to Stallone's franchise, they're not really parodies, they're just reminders of things he used to do in those movies. 

And why couldn't this be an honest or a witty comedy about two guys coming out of retirement for one more round at each other?  The situations, jokes, and dialogue are so stilted and unnatural, we don't buy anything that happens.  All of the crises and problems that the screenplay throws at these characters feel forced and contrived.  The movie is so desperate to be a crowd pleaser, it even throws in a cute little kid for De Niro to interact with in certain scenes.  Too bad the movie forgets to give them any kind of real relationship that we can relate to.  At least this is consistent with the rest of the film, which contains not one genuine character, or remotely plausible emotional moment.  There are moments when the film feels like a 30 minute sitcom that's been squeezed and stretched into a two hour running time.

Not even the performances can help breathe life into these characters.  Stallone mumbles and shuffles his way through the film, as if he can't wait to get his paycheck so he can leave.  De Niro is basically giving one of his bad comedy performances that audiences have already started to get tired of.  Kim Basinger pretty much seems to be struggling to show the slightest bit of emotion in her scenes.  The worst offender, however, is easily Kevin Hart, who not only manages to not get any laughs, but seems to think that the louder he shrieks his lines, the funnier he is.  This is a grave miscalculation on his part, and it only made me groan a little to myself every time he showed up on screen.  Of the main cast, I guess I can say that Jon Bernthal (who can also be seen in this weekend's The Wolf of Wall Street) is at least trying, but he's fighting a losing war against a bad script.

I don't know why Grudge Match decided to play it so safe and dumb.  There's plenty of opportunity here for a fun little movie, yet it somehow manages to make every wrong move imaginable.  Not even the climactic fight scene manages to generate much thrills.  If you can put Stallone and De Niro in a ring, have them go at each other, and not create excitement, you're not doing your job right.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is almost certain to divide audiences this holiday season.  I personally saw it as a darkly comical story of greed and corruption.  And yet, the film is so blatant and unwavering in its depiction of graphic sex, drug use, and just flat out hedonistic behavior, I can understand why the movie would turn some viewers off.  If anything, this movie proves that it's next to impossible for a high-profile project like this to get an NC-17 rating, as it frequently pushes the limits the R-rating it received.

This is a movie that pulls no punches, and is all the better for it.  Even with a running time of three hours, this is a highly energized and completely entertaining film that would seem too bizarre to be true at times, if we didn't already know that some of the stuff depicted on screen actually happened.  We know this, because the film is based on the personal memoir of Jordan Belfort, a guy who became an overnight success story in his 20s mostly through illegal stock trading, and was arrested for fraud and money laundering.  Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth film with Scorsese) portrays Jordan as an ambitious young man who starts his career on Wall Street on October 19th, 1987, otherwise known as Black Monday - the date of the biggest market crash since the Depression era.  Desperate for any kind of real work, he takes a small job dealing in penny stocks, where he trades in the business of semi-worthless companies for a huge commission.

Building on his success dealing essentially with junk stocks, Jordan decides to expand and start his own Wall Street firm, largely dealing with illegal operations, and big commissions on mostly worthless stocks.  He starts out with a small band of followers who dream of becoming rich quick, including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who quits his job selling children's clothing on the spot when he sees the car that Jordan drives and learns how much money he makes, eventually becoming his right hand man in the operation.  The firm grows into a massive success story, and with that growth, comes incredible wealth, beautiful women from all walks of life, and a lifestyle build around excess and every hard drug imaginable, with Quaaludes playing an especially big part in Jordan's reason for existing on a daily basis.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a fascinating study on how Jordan divided his time between making a halfhearted attempt at being a family man in his luxurious home, and then goes to a job that frequently resembles an out of control frat party, with sex and people doing lines of coke at their desks being a regular sight.  Much like the atmosphere in these scenes, the pacing of the film itself is relentless.  The tone of the movie is reckless, wild, and frequently hilarious.  There are some moments that may not seem funny in reality, but we laugh because we can't believe what we are seeing.  One such moment would be the sequence where Jordan has to drive his car home while under the influence of powerful drugs, in an effort to stop a friend from making a phone call after he learns his phone has been tapped by the F.B.I., who have been investigating him and his shady deals.  We laugh not only because of the seemingly-implausible situation, but also from the physical humor in DiCaprio's performance as he tries to drag his heavily sedated body down a flight of stairs to his car.  The scene builds brilliantly as it mixes suspense and uncomfortable humor.

It is to the movie's credit that it makes no bones about who Jordan and the people he surrounds himself with truly are.  It doesn't try to soften him, or let us understand him, it simply throws us head-first into his world of hard living, money, and drugs.  One of the first times we see Jordan, he has arranged a contest in his office where employees toss little people at a Velcro target board for cash.  He seems to completely devalue human life and decency, and it is to DiCaprio's credit that he does not try to soften the character, while at the same time completely mesmerizing his audience so that we go along with him through the entire three hour journey the film runs.  With his combination of smooth, oily charm, plus a sort of comedic incompetence once things start to fall apart, His performance, combined with Scorsese's energized direction, are what keep us so engaged.

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you get the sense that Scorsese just decided to go all out.  In all fairness, this is the closest he has come to making a thrill ride movie.  It's so captivating, so fast-paced, and at times so funny, you almost forget that at its center, it is a rather tragic story of a man who loses nearly everything because of his own greed.  By taking this approach, we are not only drawn into the world of Jordan Belfort, but we almost begin to understand it and see why it appealed to him so much.  We may not be very fond of the guy, but we have to admit we've enjoyed the time we've spent with him.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

The ad campaign for Saving Mr. Banks is selling the film as a behind the scenes docu-drama about the tribulations that Walt Disney (portrayed quite well by Tom Hanks) went through in acquiring the rights to film Mary Poppins from its fiercely protective author P.L. Travers (an equally good Emma Thompson).  And while that certainly is the main thrust of the film, there is a whole other story and star that the ads only hint at.  This is bizarre, as not only is this other story the heart of the film itself, but the performance that has largely remained hidden in publicity is the best one in the film.

That performance belongs to Colin Farrell, who has seldom been as good as he is here.  He appears in flashbacks set in early 20th Century Australia, as the father of the woman who would go on to write the Mary Poppins stories.  He is Travers Goff, and as Farrell portrays him, he was a man with great imagination and love, but little knowledge of how to get ahead in the world.  He was also addicted to drinking, which ultimately proved to be his downfall.  In the series of flashbacks (which routinely break up the main story), we see how he moved his family out to a battered down home as he tried to make his fortune.  For his young daughter, Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley), it's a great adventure.  His wife (Ruth Wilson) suffered in silence for the sake of the children, but grew increasingly concerned as her husband's performance at work suffered, and his dependence on alcohol became stronger.

Through these flashbacks, we learn how young Ginty (who would go by the name of P.L. Travers as an adult, in honor of her father's name) wrote her stories not only loosely based on her own experiences as a child, but also as a way to keep her father's memory and imagination alive.  That is why, in 1961 as the film and the main storyline begins, we find a middle-aged P.L. Travers dreading an upcoming flight to Los Angeles to possibly negotiate a film deal for her books.  We learn that Walt Disney has been trying to buy the rights to her stories for some 20 years, ever since he was introduced to the books by his young daughters.  After decades of refusing every offer Disney has sent her way, we now find Mrs. Travers a woman on the verge of defeat.  She has not written any new material in years, and her residuals from book sales have dried up.  The best, and seemingly only, chance for her to make some money is to sign over the rights for a movie.

But, as we learn, she may be on the verge of defeat, but she is not going down easily.  She flies out to L.A. pretty much with the intention to turn Mr. Disney down, and to make the negotiation process as difficult as possible for the filmmakers who have to work with her.  These include the screenwriter, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), and the in-house studio music composers, Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) Sherman.  (The real life Richard Sherman served as a consultant during the shooting of this film.) Not only does Mrs. Travers insist on script approval, but she also makes outrageous demands, such as not wanting the color red to appear anywhere in the film, and becomes upset when the the filmmakers show her drawings of the home the main characters live in, and they do not match her personal vision of what the home should look like.  During the process of negotiations, Travers finds herself haunted by her own childhood memories, as exploring the very essence of her characters and where they came from creatively forces her to confront some personal demons concerning her father.  As for Walt Disney, he gradually learns just why the author is so attached and protective of her stories, the role they have played in her life, and begins his attempts to convince her that he will honor her characters and her stories in his film.

The two narratives that run throughout Saving Mr. Banks are both good enough to stand out on their own as an individual feature, and thanks to a running time of just over two hours, both stories feel fleshed out, effective, and dramatically strong.  And while the film does deal with some heavy subject matter such as alcoholism and a suicide attempt at one point, the tone is kept mostly at an upbeat and entertaining level, without losing any of the seriousness of the situation.  It's a difficult balancing act to pull off, but director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, manage to find the right approach that is sweet and uplifting, but doesn't feel like the harsher edges of the story being told haven't been sanded off too much.  Sure, the highly publicized account of how Mrs. Travers pretty much shunned Disney after the film was released has pretty much been skipped over, but this still feels like a mostly factual and accurate account of the working relationship these two had in the early stages of the classic film's development. 

And while I have already signaled out Colin Farrell's charming and heartbreaking performance, the rest of the cast of also equally worthy of mention.  While Tom Hanks doesn't look much like the real Walt Disney, he has the mannerisms and the essence of the man down.  Emma Thompson plays Mrs. Travers not as a cranky woman with a heart of gold, but rather as a woman who is fiercely protective of her work, as most artists are.  She doesn't try to play up our sympathies, and instead comes across as a natural character who evolves in an intelligent way during the course of the story.  I also greatly admired the music score by Thomas Newman, and how it incorporates different Disney tunes in subtle ways.  This is a first-rate production in just about every aspect, right down to the end credits, which feature some of the fascinating actual recordings left behind with conversations between the real life Mrs. Travers and the filmmakers.

Naturally, Saving Mr. Banks will appeal the most to fans of the Mary Poppins film musical, but I think the added family drama provided by the flashback story will ensure that just about anyone who watches it can take something away from the movie.  This is a wonderful film - charming, dramatic, and loyal to the story it is trying to tell.  While the idea of a behind the scenes story of a Disney film that's being released by the Disney Studio itself may sound like a guaranteed fluff piece, it's amazing just how effective, smart, and informative this movie turned out to be.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Walking with Dinosaurs

The filmmakers behind Walking with Dinosaurs have made an inexplicably bad decision by giving the dinosaurs the ability to speak...Well, they sort of speak.  They never move their mouths, yet they are able to talk, as well as hear and understand one another.  Maybe this wouldn't be so bad, but the speech the dinosaurs have is generic sitcom speak.  They talk in catchphrases like "You just got served", and the like.  They trash talk one another, spout lame one liners, and revel in poop jokes.

Why do this?  The whole reason why kids love dinosaurs in the first place is that they are so mysterious, and that there is nothing on Earth truly like them anymore.  By taking away that mystery and wonder, and handling the dinosaurs like they're cheap Saturday morning cartoon creations, you're not only giving children less credit than they deserve, you're robbing them of what could have been a fascinating experience.  Come to think of it, the filmmakers have made another inexplicably bad decision when it comes to the talking dinosaurs -  THEY NEVER SHUT UP!!  Not once.  Ever.  It's like the movie is afraid that if it has a single quiet moment, or allows us to think for ourselves, it has somehow failed us.  And so the voices yammer constantly, despite the fact the mouths never move.  And when the voices are not droning away, the movie will throw in a pop song on the soundtrack.  It all adds up to a stupefyingly dumb children's movie, and one of the worst times I've had at the theater this year.

But before we even get to the obnoxious dinosaurs, we're treated to a pointless live action sequence that bookends the film.  In it, a paleontologist (Karl Urban) is taking his young niece and nephew on a fossil expedition in Alaska.  The nephew (Charlie Rowe) is not interested in what his uncle has to teach him, and would rather mess with his hi-tech smartphone device.  But then, a talking bird (voiced by John Leguizamo) shows up, and decides to teach the kid that fossils can hold amazing stories behind them.  The bird then morphs into its CG prehistoric form (an Alexornis named Alex), and begins to tell us the story of a Pachyrinosaurus named Patchi (voice by Justin Long).  Not only is Patchi the runt of his litter, but he also has a hole in his head caused by a predator when he was very young.  This causes him to be constantly bullied and ridiculed by his bigger and stronger brother, Scowler (voice by Skyler Stone).  The plot sputters along to nowhere in particular as Patchi learns to stand up for himself, become stronger, and win the heart of the female dinosaur Juniper (voice by Tiya Sircar).

To cover up the fact that there is literally no plot or point to this film, the movie will occasionally pause the action to teach us some tidbits about the dinosaurs that we see in the movie.  Not only is this annoying, but the facts we learn are probably already known by the kids in the audience who are nuts about these creatures in the first place.  Take away this halfhearted attempt at educational content, and Walking with Dinosaurs pretty much loses all reason for existing.  I'm aware that the film is based on a popular documentary that played on TV in the late 90s.  Its goal was to give us a recreation of what life must have been like for these creatures back then.  This movie betrays that goal by not only having the dinosaurs talk, but to have them talk about things that didn't even exist in their time!  When brave little Patchi tells Juniper that he is as stealthful as a ninja, my immediate question was how does he even know what a ninja is?

I know, I know, this is a movie intended for very small children, and I shouldn't be nitpicking little details like that.  I couldn't help it, though.  The movie gave me absolutely nothing to think about while I was watching it.  It's been written at such an insultingly juvenile level by screenwriter John Collee (Happy Feet), I think even some older kids will be bored by what's up on the screen.  The whole thing has been written on a very basic level, and while kids under the age of 8 may like the dinos and the bright colors, they are likely to learn even more about their favorite creatures just by cracking open a book, or spending 15 minutes on a website.  At least there, the kids won't be bombarded with fart jokes and pop culture.

Walking with Dinosaurs has its heart in the right place, but the brain is completely absent.  This is one of the dumbest movies I've seen all year, and easily the worst animated film to hit in 2013.  Sure, the photo-realistic movement of the dinosaurs can be kind of fun to watch at times, but the non-stop annoying voices drown out any wonder the movie might have held.  When it comes home on DVD, this may be the rare movie that's helped by the presence of the Mute button on your remote.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

American Hustle

I'll admit the problem is perhaps with me, but while I have been able to find a lot to like in a lot of films by David O. Russell, I just can't fully embrace them.  His last two films (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) were hailed to the skies by critics, and showered with awards and nominations.  And while I certainly found plenty to like, I also found them very overrated.  Now here comes American Hustle, which just happens to combine some of the main casts of his last two films.  Once again, it seems destined to get numerous award nominations, and is being praised to the heavens by the nation's top critics.  And once again, I must say it's a good little movie, but certainly nothing earth-shaking or one of the best things I've seen all year. 

Let's focus on the one thing I do agree it deserves to be recognized for - the performances.  Here we have another great performance from Christian Bale (his second in a very short time, after Out of the Furnace from just a couple weeks ago).  Amy Adams has never been as beautiful or as sexy as she is in this performance.  Bradley Cooper is convincing as an overly eager guy in over his head.  And Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress, giving a funny and oddly sympathetic performance.  As long as she keeps on turning in performances like this, she can push out as many of those cash cow Hunger Games movies as she wants.  It's true that David O. Russell has worked with all four of these actors before, but he uses them beautifully, and manages to get a different performance from them each time.  As long as the movie is centered on these performances, it works.

The plot, and the way it is told, is where my problems start.  The story is told out of sequence at times, through different voice over narrators, and generally seems to be in no hurry to get to where its going.  It's a wandering and somewhat unfocused tale of an overweight and balding con artist named Irving (Bale) who learned early on in life how he could manipulate business and customers. (When his father's window business wasn't doing too hot back when Irving was a kid, he went around, smashing people's windows with rocks to help drum up business.) He now runs a chain of laundromats, and does some shady art dealings on the side.  He finds a kindred spirit in Syndey (Adams), a stripper who learns how to seduce much wealthier men in a different way through Irving's schemes.  She soon becomes his partner in crime, as well as his love.

If only Irving wasn't married to Rosalyn (Lawrence), things would be perfect.  He clearly doesn't love her, and the only reason he's with her is because of the son they share.  We get the sense that Rosalyn is not exactly the kind of woman who should be left alone with a kid, seeing as she has a bad habit of starting fires around the kitchen. (Something she casually brushes off, as if it's not a big thing, each time it happens.) Later, she becomes a woman so desperate for excitement in her life, she's willing to put her husband's life in danger to get it.  Lawrence really plays up the somewhat vapid, dangerous nature of her character to great effect, which makes her the stand out performance here.  The early moments of the film deal with Irving finally having a woman he can truly love in his life when he meets Syndey, and how he balances his life with her, and his life at home.

There's a much bigger problem keeping Irving from finding happiness, and that would be young, ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper).  He busts Irving and Syndey on one of their scams early on, and this gets the guy's mind racing with possibilities of going after even bigger con men.  Specifically, he wants to go into white collar crime, and go after politicians willing to take shady deals and bribes.  He forces Irving and Syndey into working for him, setting up a job to help him catch New Jersey politician, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  As they start to go after even bigger politicians, and as Rosalyn starts getting involved and screwing up the best perfectly laid plans, the mob even gets involved, putting Irving's life on the line.  It certainly sounds like a plot that could accompany a truly great and captivating story, but I don't know, I was never completely taken in by the plot.  While I liked the characters and the performances, the plot never seems to pick up to the speed it's supposed to, and remains quiet and casual when it should be gripping and intense.

American Hustle seems to put too much emphasis on its characters, and not enough on the story it's trying to tell.  This created a strange experience for me, where I was interested in these people and enjoying myself, but never fully wrapped up in the story they were in.  A story like this needs to hold some weight, yet it kind of disappears as soon as you walk out of the theater and into the parking lot.  I remembered certain moments and lines of dialogue, and I remembered the performances, but the plot surrounding it all seemed curiously mute.  I also think the movie could have benefited from a somewhat edgier tone.  The tone of the film is kept fairly light, even when the stakes are being raised, while a darker approach may have helped the story stand out a little more.

This is a strangely lightweight movie all around.  It raises some interesting questions about corruption, relationships and people, but never really provides any answers.  It's a fun, if not diverting little film, and it has a lot of good times with its 1970s fashions and soundtrack choices.  But there's just not that something extra that I expect in a truly great film.  I found myself admiring the actors more than the movie they were in.  I'm recommending the movie, because it does have a lot to admire, and it is generally very well made.  I just once again find myself walking out of a David O. Russell film wondering what the huge deal is.  I'm still hoping to one day join in the chorus of raves his films tend to get on a regular basis.  But for now, I'm going to have to say that there's a lot to like about American Hustle, but it falls short of greatness.

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