Reel Opinions

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Other Woman

Man, did this movie frustrate and irritate me to no end.  Is The Other Woman as unwatchable as A Haunted House 2?  Fortunately, no.  But, it's bad in a completely different kind of way.  It's a cinematic dead zone from which no joy can escape from within it, and completely wastes the talents of two gifted comic actresses, Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann.

I lay the blame for the film completely at the feet of the idiotic screenplay by first-time writer, Melissa K. Stack.  It doesn't have a shred of originality or wit behind it.  It's also another one of those disposable movies that depicts supposedly successful middle aged women as shrieking and obnoxious morons who can't walk without tripping over themselves, or falling into something as a result of some tired pratfall.  The humor plays at the lowest possible level.  It starts at dog poop jokes, and works its way up to a scene where a guy violates a toilet with a fury of the brown stuff, as extremely loud and exaggerated fart and poop sound effects blast on the theater speakers.  Is this really the best script that these talented actresses could find?  Sadly, knowing the state of recent comedies, I'm going to say yes. 

The plot: Cameron Diaz plays a successful New York lawyer named Carly Whitten.  Because she's a successful New York lawyer, she hardly has to do any work in the office, and gets to spend most of her time talking to her secretary (Nicki Manaj) about her new boyfriend, and give her all the details on her sex life.  That boyfriend would be Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a lying sleaze who has been wooing Carly for the past eight weeks, but hasn't told her he has a wife back home.  His poor wife, Kate (Leslie Mann), doesn't know about his affair either, and is blissfully ignorant until Carly tries to pay a sexy visit at the man's home to make up after she had a brief argument with him.  Carly and Kate quickly both realize that the man they love has been playing them, and form a friendship in order to mend their broken hearts.  As the two women try to figure out what to do, they learn that he has yet another woman that he's been sleeping around with.  Eventually that third woman joins up in their little group also.

This third woman would be Amber, and she's played by swimsuit model Kate Upton.  This is not Miss Upton's first movie role, but it is her first leading role in a film.  How is she up against veterans like Diaz and Mann?  Well, I don't really want to judge her based on this, because the movie literally forgets to give her a character to play.  She has the least amount of dialogue of the three leads, and the screenplay cannot be bothered to give her a personality or character traits.  It's as thankless of a role as I have ever seen.  There are moments where the movie seems to be telling us that she's supposed to be "the dumb one" of the three, such as the scene where they're spying on Mark, and she briefly looks through the wrong end of the binoculars.  Honestly, you could replace her performance with a cardboard cutout of Kate Upton, and the audience probably wouldn't be able to notice.

That's not to say that Diaz and Mann get to play rich or developed characters here.  To be honest, these are probably some of the worst comic performances I've seen both of them give.  Mann, in particular, comes across as shrieking and annoying, instead of the sympathetic character she's supposed to be.  The movie seems to think it's funny to constantly have her go through nervous breakdowns, where she wails, cries and rolls around on the floor, as she contemplates throwing herself out the window to her death when she learns her husband is cheating on her.  They even give her character a massive dog, just so that she can be dragged around by the giant animal through some of her scenes for no reason other than the movie is under the mistaken assumption that the image is funny.  Diaz often comes across as shrill and unlikable here.  We're supposed to get behind these women as they bond together and take revenge on the man who wronged them.  Problem is, I didn't like any of these women separately, and I hated them even more when they teamed up.

The Other Woman is bad in so many ways.  I hated how it made its three female stars into clueless, oblivious morons until the script allowed them to get a hint.  For example, the movie never explains how these women never knew that Mark was cheating on all of them, when he frequently flirts and picks up other women right in front of them in the open.  It's not until they know what a louse he is that they actually notice it.  I hated the half-baked romantic subplot between Diaz and Kate's brother (Taylor Kinney) that goes absolutely nowhere.  I hated the unoriginal soundtrack that employed obvious and overused songs for every scene.  I hated how much contempt this movie has for both men and women.  But what I think I hated the most was the film's awful climax, which not only turns the previously cool and calm Mark character into a screaming over the top villain, but it employs physical violence for laughs to the point that the character's face is bloodied and shattered.  I don't remember when I have despised the final scene to a movie more.

This is a detestable movie, but it's the only film playing at theaters right now that's targeted at women, so it will probably make a fortune at the box office.  It's a shame that this movie decided to play at such a juvenile level with its jokes, ideas and dialogue.  A smart comedy about intelligent and likable women coming together could have been really something.

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Brick Mansions

With a little more effort, Brick Mansions could have worked as a comedy.  As it is, it's an energetic little action movie that gets by a little bit on some of its goofy charm.  Films like this are why I don't have a star rating system for the movies I watch.  I wouldn't know how to rate movies like this - movies that are undeniably trash, yet left me with a silly grin on my face.

The movie is a remake of a French film called District B13, but will forever be remembered as the final film Paul Walker completed before his death last November.  Here, we get to see Walker pretty much do what he did best in his career - play a fairly bland straight man in an over the top action film filled with colorful characters.  It's a role he perfected in the Fast and the Furious franchise, and he pretty much gets to do the same here.  He does get to pull off some impressive stunts and a few funny one-liners, but unfortunately for his fans, he's constantly in the shadow of his co-star, David Belle, who also starred in the original film, and is making his English language debut here.  Just watching Belle perform his physical and martial art stunts in the film's stunning opening action sequence automatically lets you know that this is pretty much his movie.  Is it sad that Walker is constantly being shown up by his co-star in what would be his last completed film?  Kind of.  But at least he has some good action buddy chemistry with Belle.

Walker plays Damien Collier, an undercover police officer working in Detroit in the not-too-distant-future, where massive city walls have been built around the housing projects of the city, hoping to keep the criminals and drug lords locked inside.  This section of the city, known as the Brick Mansions, is ruled over a drug lord named Tremaine Alexander (rap artist RZA), who has recently gotten his hands on a missile, and plans to blow up part of the city unless his demands are met.  The missile, of course, comes with one of those big red digital timers on the side of it, that counts down how many minutes there are until it takes off.  Why a missile would need something like this, I don't know.  Then again, logic has no place in this movie.  Damien is sent into the projects undercover to shut down the weapon, and must team up with a convict named Lino (Belle) if he wants to survive.

Turns out both men have a reason to go after Tremaine.  Damien has been hunting him down for years, because the guy killed his father.  As for Lino, Tremaine has recently kidnapped his ex-girlfriend (Catalina Denis) that he still has feelings for.  The two guys argue and banter comically the whole time they're being blasted at by Tremaine's army of thugs that patrol the streets.  A lot of the dialogue between the two is pretty dumb, but some of it is intentionally funny, which hints that screenwriter Luc Besson knows just how off the wall his story is.  There is some good action throughout, though nothing quite as good as the opening scene, where Belle leaps over bad guys, tosses himself through windows, and hurdles across city rooftops.   There's a catfight or two between Lino's girlfriend and Tremaine's lead female thug, a lot of gunfire and explosions, and a few scenes where Paul Walker has to get behind the wheel of a car that might make some audience members uncomfortable in hindsight.

Is Brick Mansions art, or even a good movie?  Far from it.  But I'd be lying if I didn't say I enjoyed myself just a little.  It moves at a brisk pace, it has some well executed stunts, and while it may be pretty dumb, it has enough of a sense of humor for me to think the movie is in on the joke.  If you want a movie where the good guys do a lot of fighting with their fists and feet, and teach the bad guys a lesson by the end, you can do a heck of a lot worse than this. 

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Friday, April 25, 2014

The Quiet Ones

John Pogue's The Quiet Ones is a "One-Trick Pony" movie.  It repeats the same scenes, and the same loud noises on the soundtrack in order to get a jolt out of its audience, that the whole experience becomes tiresome rather than suspenseful.  You can see potential throughout the film, with its secluded setting, unexplained happenings, and a somewhat creepy backstory behind the paranormal events.  But the filmmakers don't trust these atmospheric elements, and instead bombard us with loud noises and a shaky camera that turns scenes of terror into a blurry mess.

One sure way to note that you are not watching a confidently made horror movie is when it constantly intensifies everyday sounds, so that the popping of a cork, or even two people having sex in the other room sound just as loud and as threatening as the ghostly shrieks and wails that eventually start echoing down the halls.  The film's constant attack on the theater's sound system, combined with the repetitive and turgid pace of the story, all but guarantees that audiences will find little to remember here.  And just like seemingly every other horror movie out these days, it's "inspired by actual events".  I have no doubt that the set up of the story has some truth to it, but by the time it's over, the notion that this really happened is more than a little hard to swallow. 

As the film opens, it's 1974, and an Oxford Professor by the name of Joseph (Jared Harris) wants to perform an experiment on an orphaned girl named Jane (Olivia Cooke).  We learn that Jane has lived with various families over the years, who would adopt her, and then become terrified when strange and paranormal events started to happen around her.  She constantly talks about an evil doll that is actually alive named Evie as the source of her problems.  Joseph hopes to draw out her negative energy, and prove that the supernatural is just something we create ourselves with negative emotions.  He has a handful of students helping him on the project, including his cohorts Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), as well as the newest member of the group, Brian (Sam Caflin), who is hired to videotape the experiment.  This means we get to spend large parts of the movie watching the action through Brian's camera lens, making part of the film a "found footage" movie, and the other part a traditional narrative movie.  At times, it's almost as if the movie can't make up its mind.

Joseph's funding for the experiment gets pulled by the college, so he gathers up Jane and his crew, and relocates them to his secluded house in the middle of the woods to continue the experiment.  As Joseph and his young team settle in, we get some halfhearted attempts at character development between them that really goes nowhere.  While veteran actor Jared Harris gets off a couple good scenes with his slightly more colorful role, the younger cast is not given enough to do, or enough personality for us to get attached.  There are moments that hint at deeper personalities for the young students working under Joseph, but they usually end up being underwhelming.  As for Olivia Cooke as the haunted Jane, the movie basically requires her to do nothing but look off into space with a vacant stare for most of her scenes. 

And despite four credited screenwriters, The Quiet Ones seems to lose inspiration fast, as it makes us watch the same kind of scenes and listen to the same dialogue over and over.  It gets to the point that you can almost set your watch to the film.  There will be five to ten minutes of quiet, followed by a loud jolt or a spastic camera shake, signifying that something is supposed to be happening all of a sudden.  If the movie had used this trick only once or twice, it might have been effective, but it's the only move in the film's arsenal.  So, even though the film has been made with some amount of care, we just aren't invested.  The movie is constantly toying with us, thinking that its lulling us into a sense of safety, only to jolt us out.  The thing is, after the second time this happens, we're ready for it, and constantly ahead of the film.

With a different script, one that actually was interested in creating genuine atmosphere instead of jolting us every ten minutes, I could see this idea working.  The fact that the film becomes a slave to second-rate horror cliches ends up sinking any potential it may have had.  Instead of feeling shaken or nervous when its done, we feel kind of frustrated and annoyed.  Maybe the movie should have taken its title a little more literally, and been a bit more subtle.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Haunted House 2

At one point of this film, Marlon Wayans laments, "Why do they keep on making Scary Movie sequels without the Wayans Brothers?  They all suck now!" This is an obvious jab at the horror spoof franchise that Marlon himself helped create back in 2000, but was booted off of after one sequel.  I would like to say that I have seen all five Scary Movie films, and yes, most of them have been terrible.  However, they are nowhere near as bad as A Haunted House 2.  Nobody involved with this film has the right to criticize any other film, because chances are, they are better than this.

I know it's only April, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this will be the worst comedy of 2014, and easily one of the worst of the year.  There's no way another movie can reach the levels of just not trying that A Haunted House 2 does.  The movie surpasses being merely bad, and achieves a certain level of cinematic torture that I hope never to have to sit through again.  Am I exaggerating?  Well, let me tell you, that's all I could think to myself during the scene when Marlon Wayans spots a creepy doll named Abigail (a spoof of the Annabelle doll from The Conjuring) sitting on his bed, and he immediately throws off his clothes, and starts having wild sex with it for a good three minutes straight.  And then, later on, we get to see him do it to the doll again.  By the third time the movie was forcing me to watch him violate the damn doll, I was willing to pay someone good money as long as they would promise me I'd never have to look at Marlon Wayans' naked rear end ever again.

Wayans' idea of comedy may not mirror your own.  Do you find animal cruelty funny?  Well, you'll crack up when his dog is crushed to death by a safe, and when his family tries to surprise him with another dog to replace it, he winds up viciously murdering it.  How about police brutality?  There's a scene where I think the gag is supposed to be that the police show up, and start beating the life out of a character for no reason.  Tired, insensitive racial humor about blacks, Mexicans, and white people?  This movie's got it by the boatload.  Does the sight of people having rough sex with each other leave you in hysterics?  You may bust a gut by the time this movie's over.  Given his performance in this film, Marlon Wayans seems to think that screaming his lines and constantly mugging at the camera like a child on a sugar rush is the height of comedy.  I'm sure he's capable of more, but he refuses to show it here.

Is there a plot?  Does it matter?  The answers to those questions are "kind of" and "no".  Set one year after the events of the first movie, Malcolm (Wayans) has moved on from his demon possessed girlfriend, and is now living with his new girlfriend, Megan (Jaime Pressly), and her two kids.  As soon as they move into their new home, the paranormal activity starts up again, with their teen daughter becoming obsessed with a mysterious box she finds in the house, and the young boy hanging out with an "imaginary friend" named Tony, who inspires the boy to have tea parties and dress in fairy princess clothes.  Malcolm also discovers some old films up in the attic, which display an evil demon attempting and failing to kill innocent people in various ways.  What is the connection?  Nothing, really, other than it's a cheap way to tie together elements of Paranormal Activity, Sinister, The Possession, The Last Exorcism Part 2 and the previously mentioned The Conjuring.

Look, I've long resigned myself to the fact that parody movies no longer actually parody elements of films, but rather just borrow famous scenes from them, and then add jokes about oral sex and bodily fluids.  But this movie doesn't even seem to be trying in any way.  There are no rules to the game that this movie wants to play.  It's just a series of scenes based on other movies, and the filmmakers hope we will laugh out of recognition, and then laugh even more when Marlon Wayans starts having nasty sex with something or someone.  We don't laugh, but the movie just keeps on trying, almost as if it thinks we're missing the point.  This kind of repetition is fatal to a comedy, and doubly so for a spoof.  Imagine if Mel Brooks just kept on doing the same jokes over and over in his movies.  Do you think Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein would be remembered as classics today?  Those movies were smart, and knew what satirical targets they were aiming for.  This movie doesn't even know what it's trying to do most of the time.

There is not one single second of A Haunted House 2 that is worth watching.  Not one joke that draws a laugh or a smile.  It is incompetent, it is ugly, and it is mean-spirited.  Just writing about it is only going to draw more attention to the film, so I'm going to seize the moment, and stop talking about it right now.

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Calling Bears a Nature Documentary may be an overstatement.  I'm sure even very little kids won't learn much about the animals by watching this film.  However, it is beautifully shot, and entertaining in its own way.  It may be light on content, but it can be a lot of fun to watch.

The film follows a mother bear and her two newborn cubs as they spend a year together in the Alaskan wilderness.  The filmmakers have dubbed the mother Sky, and the cubs Scout and Amber.  We witness as they fend off wolves, rival bears, and even face the dangers of an avalanche and starvation, when it looks like Sky may not be able to find enough salmon to feed herself in order to keep on producing milk for her cubs.  But concerned parents needn't worry.  The film is G-rated, and the worst thing that happens is a wolf steals a fish from a bear.  The film may be sanitized and shy away from some of the harsher realities of the wild, but that's not to mean it doesn't create some form of tension.  When you see the mother Sky dangerously thin from a lack of food at one point, your heart can't help but go out to the creature, and you might even find yourself a little bit involved as I did.

To further add to the cuteness factor of the film is the often goofy narration supplied by John C. Reilly.  He not only narrates the story of Sky and her cubs, but he also often comments on the action, or provides voices for the bears on the screen.  When Scout and Amber are born, he greets the two with a friendly, "Hi, guys!".  And when we catch a glimpse of a lazy bear lounging in the grass, he comments, "He looks like my dad when he falls asleep in front of the TV".  Whether its telling us what Scout is probably thinking when he gets his claw stuck in a clam shell, or ridiculing another bear for "not having any game" when it's unsuccessful at wooing a female, Reilly obviously is improvising a lot of this stuff.  In a more serious documentary, his commentary would be an awkward fit.  But it works well enough in a kid's movie, which is precisely what Bears is.

What will keep the adults in the audience captivated is the scenery shot by directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, who directed the earlier Disney nature documentary, African Cats.  There are some amazing time lapse shots of nature changing through the seasons during the course of the year, as well as some spectacular nature shots.  During the end credits, we get to see some behind the scenes footage of how some of the scenes were filmed or obtained, and it's worth staying in your seat so you can watch them.  It does make you want to see what this team could do in a more gripping documentary, however.  At the very least, it will make you want to look up photos and videos of the Alaskan wild when you get home.

Based solely on the simple level it strives for, Bears is effective.  Just don't expect to learn much.  But do expect to be awed by the beautiful shots, and to smile more than once while watching it.  Watching the film, I know I was being manipulated the entire time, and this was the Disney-friendly version of nature.  What's amazing is that I didn't care.

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Friday, April 18, 2014


What a shame.  Transcendence is a movie full of big ideas, but it lacks the focus to really concentrate on them, or the heart to make us care about them.  This is an oddly impersonal movie, filled with talented actors giving off key performances.  As the story played out, I realized its biggest problem - For all of its grand ideas, there is absolutely no soul to the film, nothing to make us connect with it.  It's all concept and no execution.

A strangely mute and indifferent Johnny Depp plays a computer genius by the name of Will Caster.  For years, he and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), have been making strides in the field of artificial intelligence.  Now, Will believes that he is on the cusp of creating a truly sentient artificial intelligence that can think for itself.  His work has its share of critics, and soon draws the attention of a tech-terrorist group who think that Will is crossing into dangerous territory with his experiments.  One of the members of this extremist group sneaks in while Will is hosting a conference about his work, and shoots him with a bullet that's been laced with radiation poisoning.  The poison slowly starts to kill him, and the doctors tell Will he only has four weeks to live.  At first, Will seems resigned to his fate, but Evelyn and Will's other partner in the experiment, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), believe there may be a way to save him.  They will upload Will's consciousness to an advanced super computer, so that his mind can live on after his body expires.

The real test of any Science Fiction film is does it allow the audience to completely follow its technology and premise, far-fetched as they may seem?  For a while, I was intrigued, and wanted the movie to tell me more about this process.  Unfortunately, once Will is hooked into the computer, the movie takes a predictable turn into thriller territory.  The Will who speaks to Evelyn through the computer is cold and power-hungry, and immediately wants to be uploaded onto the Internet, so that he can have access to all the world's information.  Max immediately senses something is wrong, fearing that it is not the real Will coming through the computer.  Evelyn ignores this completely rational concern, something she does an awful lot in this film for the sake of plot convenience.  Seriously, even when she herself seems to start worrying that Will might be going a little bit too far in his plans, she still stands by his side, even though it makes little sense for her to do so.  By the time she finally wises up (thanks mostly to another character slipping her a piece of paper advising her to "run away"), it feels a lot later into the movie than it should have been for her to put two and two together.

And yet, I know why she stays, or why she is supposed to be staying by Will's side, even when he goes potentially mad with power.  Her love for him is supposed to keep her bound.  However, due to the fact that Rebecca Hall and Johnny Depp never share a single ounce of traceable chemistry on the screen, it makes it harder to buy that she would stay with him for so long.  This romance, which is so central to the plot, never comes across as strong as it should.  This is what I meant earlier when I said the movie has no soul.  We don't feel any connection to these people, and we don't sense any connection between them when they are on screen together.  Not even that most reliable of acting veterans, Morgan Freeman (who has a supporting role as a computer expert), can breathe much life into his role, mainly because he is given next to nothing to do.  Why waste valuable talent like this?  Was first-time director, Wally Pfister (a cinematographer best known for his work with Christopher Nolan), just intimidated behind the camera or working with these people?  As a director, Pfister gets off some good shots (which should come as no surprise), but seems to be at a loss on how to get his actors to emote.

Transcendence also suffers from its story structure.  The film opens some years after the events have happened, and the main plot is told in flashback.  The opening sequence set in the future kills whatever tension the story might have had, showing us who survives, and also pretty much spelling out how it's going to all be resolved.  There is no need for the opening scene and narration.  I can understand why first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen would want to end his story in this time frame, but to open his story with it is simply mind boggling.  For all the talent on and behind the camera, this is a startlingly amateurish film.  And yet, it's clear that a lot of money and effort went into it to make the look and the effects be top class.  I don't understand why studios spend so much money on films, while ignoring its basic flaw - the script doesn't work, and doesn't have a human essence.  If they had spent as much time doctoring the script as they did making it look great, we'd have a heck of a film here.

As I think back on the film, I have no idea who this movie is going to reach.  It's not a mindless film, but at the same time, it's too dumb and underwritten to be compelling.  It's ultimately an ambitious film that's just not ambitious enough.  This leads to an awful lot of wasted potential and talent up on the screen.  What a shame, indeed.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Heaven is for Real

While it's not perfect, Heaven is for Real is easily the best of the recent Christian-based dramas that have been hitting theaters lately.  Compared to the overblown and bombastic Noah, this film is sweet, small and easy to relate to.  Compared to the irritatingly simplistic and moronic God's Not Dead, this movie is sharper and better made than you would expect.  It also helps that the movie has a strong cast and a sense of humor about itself to help it get along.

The film is based on the book by the pastor Todd Burpo, and chronicles what he and his family went through when his four-year-old son, Colton (played by newcomer Connor Corum), claims he left his body and saw heaven while he was being operated on for appendicitis.  The thing is, the doctors claim that Colton never died on the operating table.  Was it all a hallucination brought on by the anesthesia the boy was under?  It's one of the questions that the movie does ask.  When the movie shows us Colton's vision of heaven, it's quite cheesy.  We see glowing angels who float before the child and sing heavenly music, but they apparently don't take requests. (Colton asks if the angels will sing "We Will Rock You".  They don't.) We also get to see Colton meet Jesus, even though we don't get to see his face during Colton's vision.  Near the end of the film, we do get to see a painting of what Colton claims Jesus looked like to him, and he looks uncannily like 80s pop star, Kenny Loggins.

The film is much better when it is down to Earth, and dealing with Burpo's conflicted reactions to the stories his son tells him.  Todd is played in the film by Greg Kinnear, who gives a wonderful and low key performance here.  It is his internal struggle as to whether or not to believe what his son is telling him that makes up most of the successful drama.  At first, he is amused by his son's stories of Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse and singing angels.  But then, little Colton starts talking about things he couldn't possibly know about.  The boy claims he met a little girl up in heaven who had no name, and who died within Colton's mother.  Sure enough, we learn that Todd's wife (Kelly Reilly) did indeed have a miscarriage at one point.  It gets to the point where Todd becomes obsessed with learning what really happened to his son, but the movie asks a very good question in its own dialogue when Todd's wife asks "why can't it just be a mystery"? 

Does Colton's journey need answers?  Can it be seen as just a vision of heaven that was manipulated by the images and ideas pumped into a young boy's head as to what heaven is like?  These are the questions that co-writer and director Randall Wallace (Braveheart) asks in his movie.  He doesn't seem to be leading us to one simple answer, as so many Christian-based dramas seem to want to.  He offers up some other possibilities as to what may be happening, and while he does definitely steer in one clear direction by the end, it doesn't seem quite as overbearing or as heavy handed as you might expect walking in.  That's because this is a low key movie filled with honest and heartfelt performances.  In the central role, Kinnear makes the struggle that Todd is dealing with seem real.  And while young Connor Corum has a cherub-like face, the movie is smart not to play up the cuteness of the kid to the point that it affects the gag reflex.  He has an honesty to his performance as well.  When he talks about heaven, he never seems to be overselling it.  He's simply a four-year-old recalling something that happened to him.

Heaven is for Real may not be a well-rounded film, but it does give some time to those who have more rational opinions as to what happened to Colton on that operating table.  Some of these even include those who attend Todd's sermons at the local church, who fear that the boy's stories will draw some unwanted media attention to their small town.  Even Todd himself casts some doubt, such as when Colton tells him that Jesus' eyes were green and blue, he takes it that his son got it from the fact that he and his wife have green and blue eyes, respectively.  And while the movie may get preachy at times, it is never overly so.  It also helps that it includes a better-than-average cast, which includes actors like Thomas Hayden Church and Margo Martindale, as locals and Todd's friends with differing opinions on what has happened.  I also liked that those who seek a less faith-based explanation for Colton's journey are not portrayed as villains, except for the occasional school bully or two.

If the movie had kept this open-minded approach all the way through, I would have been appreciative.  Sadly, one of the last shots of the film tells you exactly what you are supposed to think.  Still, this is a strong, well-acted drama, and it has nothing to offend.  This movie's not only better than you might expect, it's smarter too.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Draft Day

Here is a movie that doesn't do anything wrong, while at the same time, not really doing anything all that great.  Draft Day is completely watchable, but just as easy to forget when it's done.  Even as I sit here writing this sentence, I can feel the film fading from my mind.  But, for you, dear reader, I will do my best to drum up some thoughts for the sake of this review.

The movie's obvious inspiration is 2011's Moneyball, which worked because it was a real life drama that was in love with the details of what goes on behind the scenes in baseball.  Draft Day is not based on a true story, and at times feels like a nearly two hour advertisement for the NFL.  Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, Jr, the general manager of the Cleveland Browns.  As the clock ticks down the final hours before Draft Day, when the teams pick the college hopefuls to play on their team, Sonny finds himself torn both in his private life and on the job.  Both of these elements are supposed to fuel the drama behind the film, but they lack conviction, and the actors hold no chemistry.

Let's take this for an example - Sonny's personal life is in turmoil, because he has a much younger co-worker and girlfriend named Ali (Jennifer Garner), who tells him early in the film that she is pregnant.  Not only does this revelation hold little dramatic weight during the course of the film (Their relationship is supposed to be a secret, but supposedly everyone who works with Sonny knows about it.), but Costner and Garner just hold absolutely no romantic chemistry whatsoever.  When they're alone, they never once come across as a couple.  They look like two actors reciting lines back and forth to each other, nothing more.  Both actors can be very likable, and have been in other roles, but here, I don't know.  We just don't see the spark of chemistry we expect whenever they're on screen together.

Sonny's relationships on the job don't hold much dramatic weight either.  He's constantly at odds with the team's outspoken coach (Denis Leary), who clearly disagrees with Sonny's way of picking players, and wants to do his own thing.  There is also the team's millionaire owner (Frank Langella), who is pushing Sonny into his own agenda.  These relationships with both men are just barely touched on.  We never know what they truly think about Sonny, or what he thinks about them in turn.  We never get a true sense of a working relationship between these guys, which kind of kills the realism of the movie.  I know it's a work of fiction, but the filmmakers obviously intended this to be a behind the scenes look at what goes on when it's time for teams to pick their players.  With this approach, it often feels like the movie is just barely scratching the surface.

The only moment when Draft Day comes alive is in its final half hour, when Sonny has to make some last minute deals in order to get what he wants, and to make everyone on the team happy.  Here, finally, we feel like the movie knows what it's talking about, and is actually showing us the process.  Oh, I have no doubt that this is much more contrived than what actually happens, but it still feels more honest than the rest of the movie.  It's here where the movie finally starts to build some tension, and we actually get involved and behind Sonny.  If only this had happened a lot sooner.  As it stands, it's enough to end the film on a relative high, but not enough to save everything that came before it.  We would need to be more invested in these characters in order for that to happen.

The film's director is Ivan Reitman, who was known back in the 80s for his big budget comedies like the Ghostbusters films.  Maybe a smaller, more personal film like this was not a good match for him.  He uses a lot of distracting gimmicks, like non-stop split screen, and fancy computer graphics displaying the team names when we're in their respective cities.  It feels like a lot of unnecessary flash for a film that should have had a stronger human element in order to work.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rio 2

I wonder if the four credited screenwriters behind Rio 2 just weren't sure which plot they were supposed to be focused on.  Here is a movie so overstuffed with plot, and loaded with characters (many returning from the 2011 original film, many more new), that there's just not enough time to focus on anything.  Even the main characters get ignored this time around.  The movie looks really good, and there are some fun musical numbers, but there's absolutely nothing for the audience to concentrate on or get behind.

This time around, our feathered blue macaw heroes, timid Blu (voice by Jessie Eisenberg) and the lovely Jewel (Anne Hathaway) are building a happy family with three little kids of their own (none of whom are given any personality, or anything to do by the undercooked screenplay).  Jewel, who grew up in the wild, is worried that Blu is overly-domesticating the kids by teaching them how to enjoy blueberry pancakes, watching TV, and relying on a GPS device instead of their natural bird instincts.  When their human friends, Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), discover a whole civilization of blue macaw birds living in the Amazon jungle, the family flies off so that Jewel can be reunited with her strict father (Andy Garcia), who is not happy to see his daughter hanging around a "pet" bird who values the domestic life over a free one.  This leads to a number of Meet the Parents-style moments, with Eisenberg's Blu in the Ben Stiller role, and Garcia doing his best De Niro imitation. 

In the earlier Rio movie, we got to spend time with Blu and Jewel, and see their mismatched partnership form into a loving relationship.  This time around, they barely seem to get any screen time at all, as they are pushed aside by one too many subplots competing for our attention.  Off the top of my head, I can remember plots concerning Linda and Tulio dealing with some evil loggers who want to cut down the forest that the blue macaws call home, a rival for Jewel's affections in the form of an old lover that she is reunited with (voiced by recording artist, Bruno Mars), a soccer match between the macaws and a clan of wild parrots, returning comic relief characters Rafael (George Lopez), Pedro ( and Nico (Jamie Foxx) holding auditions for a singing competition, returning villain cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) seeking revenge on our heroes for defeating him in the last film, and Blu trying to figure out if his place is in the wild with his family, or back home.

Of the many, many new characters vying for our attention, the only one who manages to stand out is Gabi, a brightly colored little frog with the voice of Kristin Chenoweth.  She's a lovesick amphibian who has developed a crush on the evil Nigel, and follows him around wherever he goes.  The musical number that she sings early in the film, "Poisonous Love", hilariously spells out her dilemma - She would like to get close to the guy, but she fears she's a poisonous frog, and that her touch would kill him.  Chenoweth brings so much energy to the role, and easily gets the film's best lines.  It's a shame the movie keeps her off camera for a good chunk of it.  Whenever she is on screen, she brings a jolt of inspiration to a largely uninspired and unnecessary sequel.  It got to the point where I was waiting for her to show up again.

Rio 2 obviously exists simply because the first one made nearly $500 million worldwide.  In an attempt to make it into a franchise, the filmmakers were obviously at a loss, and so decided to throw as many ideas as they could into the project, without really focusing on one thing.  The end result is a movie that feels like it's been largely padded out.  Even with so many plots and characters, the movie throws in some lengthy musical numbers, as if it somehow thinks it doesn't have enough to support it.  While the original wasn't anything great, it at least had a unique setting, and an original angle by touching on the poverty situation in Rio de Janeiro.  This film, despite the title, doesn't even take place in Rio, except for the opening 10 minutes.  The fact that the filmmakers couldn't think of anything more to do in their exotic location makes this movie seem even more like a sequel that just did not need to be made.

I have no doubt that very little kids will find much to enjoy in Rio 2.  It's beautifully drawn, and just like the first, it's one of the most colorful animated films I've ever seen.  Adult animation fans, however, will likely be bored by the aimless plot and thin characters.  It's not unwatchable by any means.  It just doesn't serve any purpose other than being a quick cash grab.

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