Reel Opinions

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Begin Again

Eight years ago, writer-director John Carney made a wonderful little indie film about the music industry called Once.  The film went on to great acclaim, and even became the basis of a Tony-winning Broadway musical.  Carney returns to the music scene with his latest film, Begin Again.  This is a much sleeker, studio production, and while it doesn't have quite the same spark that his earlier film had, it still has plenty of heart and smart dialogue.

Begin Again is actually the story of two lost souls in New York City who happen to find each other, and come together through music, although not romantically as you might initially expect.  At the outset, we meet Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a strung out and constantly hungover co-owner of an independent music label.  Dan is disheveled and basically a mess of emotions when we first see him.  His wife (Catherine Keener) divorced him years ago, and whenever he tries to spend time with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), she acts like she can barely hold back her contempt for him.  Things do not improve when he is fired from his job.  Drunk and contemplating suicide, Dan happens to stumble into a music bar where he hears a young woman named Gretta (Keira Knightley) perform.  Her song inspires hope and inspiration within him, and we sense it's the first time he's been excited about music in a long time.  He tries to sign her as an act, and while he doesn't make the best first impression, they start to spend time together and become friends.

Gretta, we learn, is also having a hard time lately.  She came to New York from England with her singer-songwriter boyfriend, Dave (Adam Levine).  They were a struggling songwriting team, and after one of Dave's songs happened to be used in a movie, the major music labels started calling.  They moved to the city together to start his career, and while things were great at first, Dave eventually ended up having an affair with someone at the music label.  She's been living with her friend (James Corden) since then, and is contemplating flying back home to England, as well as giving up her dreams of music.  It was Gretta's friend who happened to get her up on stage to perform that night, which strikes up the partnership between Dan and her.  He wants to help her make an album, and although both of them have little money, they find clever ways to track down talent through Dan's past connections in the music industry, and use the city itself as their recording studio.

The scene where Dan first hears Gretta sing is one of the best moments in the film.  As Gretta sings alone on the stage, Dan begins to hear the musical accompaniment in his head, and we get to see it for ourselves, as the abandoned instruments up on the stage start to play along to Gretta's song.  It's one of the few scenes in recent memory that truly captures the wonder of music, and how a great song can inspire our imaginations.  From there, the movie basically becomes one giant love letter to the city of New York, and how it can inspire art.  As the two tour different locations, they not only dream up new songs together, but also new ways to perform and record them.  Since they don't have the money for a proper studio, they record in different locations around the city, using their surroundings for inspiration and even musical accompaniment. 

Begin Again is light and frothy entertainment, but unlike the recent And So It Goes, this movie is actually about something, and has characters we can get invested in.  It has plenty of conventional elements, but it's smart in how it uses them.  Even though Dan has an angst-filled teenage daughter, she's not the walking teenage cliche that we expect her to be.  And even though Dan and Gretta become very close in their relationship, it does not build into a conventional romantic love story.  This spares us the misunderstandings when Gretta's ex-boyfriend re-enters the story halfway through, trying to get back into her life.  The movie is too smart for such cliches, and wisely avoids just about every one.  I also love how the screenplay uses the city of New York as not just a backdrop, but almost as a character in the story itself.  This is one of those films where the setting is integral to the plot at hand.

This being a film about the music industry, we can only hope that there be good original songs for the characters to sing, as well as some classics on the soundtrack.  Again, the movie impresses on both counts.  Much has been made of the fact that Keira Knightley sang all of her own songs in the film, and she certainly does a fine job here.  But what impressed me more is that the original songs that were written for the film are so good - good enough that I will likely hunt down the soundtrack eventually.  There's no one stand out number, like "Falling Slowly" from Once, but they are all of the highest quality.  There's nothing worse in a music-based movie when a character is supposed to be talented, yet she is saddled with terrible songs.  This never happens here.

Begin Again is simply a joyous movie, and one of the few films that will leave you humming as you exit the theater.  It doesn't break any new ground in its storytelling, and it doesn't have to.  It's a simple story, told wonderfully, and with strong performances all the way around.  It even manages to wrap itself up just about perfectly.  I don't think it gets much better than that.

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And So It Goes

Rob Reiner's And So It Goes is a light and frothy sitcom starring two talents that are much bigger than the material deserves - namely, Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton.  Is there anything wrong with these actors tackling a light and frothy comedy?  Of course not.  It's just that when you dream of a project that would team up great actors like Douglas and Keaton, a feature length TV sitcom would probably not be your first pick.

The movie is yet another story about a sarcastic and grumpy old curmudgeon who is forced to open his heart a little for the first time, and winds up winning everyone over.  You've seen the character type before in films like As Good as It Gets, Something's Gotta Give and The Bucket List.  And yes, I realize that all those movies starred Jack Nicholson as the curmudgeon.  In fact, I have a strong hunch that the male lead in this script was written with Nicholson in mind, as well.  Considering that this film's screenwriter Mark Andrus also wrote As Good as It Gets, it's probably not much of a stretch.  But, Nicholson is more or less retired, so Michael Douglas takes on the curmudgeon role this time, while Diane Keaton plays the woman who wins his heart.  At least she has experience with these kind of films, as she starred alongside Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give.

Douglas plays Oren Little, a crusty and ornery old real estate agent on the verge of retirement who lives in a cute little fourplex filled with colorful characters, a couple of adorable kids, and a dog.  Of the people who share the building with Oren, the only one who matters or is developed on any level is his next door neighbor, Leah (Diane Keaton), a struggling lounge singer who is still hurt deeply over the passing of her husband years ago, and can't get through singing a romantic song without thinking of him and breaking into tears.  Oren and Leah are not on good terms with each other at the beginning of the movie, so we know with absolute certainty that they will sleep together by the middle of the film, and be a couple by the end.  This is not a spoiler, rather it is the predetermined path that the screenplay is required to take with such characters.

The plot kicks off when Oren gets a visit from his estranged adult son, Luke (Scott Shepherd).  Turns out Luke is a recovering heroin addict, and even though he's clean, he must serve a short prison sentence.  While the son is gone, he wants Oren to look after his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerin).  Oren tries to refuse, but there's little he can do but let the sad-eyed little moppet into his life.  Obviously, he has no idea how to look after a little girl, so Leah steps in to help and becomes a grandmother figure to the little girl.  This is when the barrier between Oren and Leah gradually breaks down, and we also get to see Oren warm up to little Sarah.  All of this is told in a rather perfunctory fashion, as if the screenplay itself knows how cliched these characters and situations are, and can't muster the enthusiasm to make us care about them.

And So It Goes is pleasant enough to watch, and I smiled a few times, but it never strives for anything greater.  The characters start at stock, and pretty much stop there.  There's no effort to make them more human, or make them stand out.  I wouldn't mind being able to predict every turn the screenplay took if I could detect some passion in the dialogue, or maybe an interesting character quirk or two.  Sadly, it never deviates from its rigid course.  Douglas and Keaton are fine in their roles, and obviously have some nice chemistry.  But this comes solely from their performances, not anything that's been written for them.  They are probably giving this material more effort than it deserves.  Outside of their performances, nothing really stands out.  Even the little girl Sarah, while cute and likable, is about as bland as a child character can be written.  The movie even forgets to give her a scene where she truly bonds with Grandpa Oren.  The most we get is a moment where they watch Duck Dynasty together.

This movie is yet another step down for director Rob Reiner, who once made wonderful movies like This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and Misery.  It's not terrible by any means, but given his track record, you expect more than a vanilla offering such as this.  Sadly, given some of the more recent movies Reiner has given us, maybe it is time we expect something like this.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014


Just six months after the box office bomb, The Legend of Hercules, came and left from theaters with hardly anyone noticing, Hollywood tries their luck again with this big budget take on the tale.  To be fair, this movie has two advantages over the last one we got.  For one, it has a better Hercules, in Dwayne Johnson.  Let's face it, the guy was born to the play the role.  Second of all, the movie does at least know how to kid itself once in a while.  And while these are notable elements, it doesn't particularly make this movie good or even worth remembering.

As directed by Brett Ratner, Hercules ends up being about as generic and forgettable as all get-out.  Instead of giving us epic and exciting battles and sword fights, the movie mostly gives us formless army battles where hundreds of faceless extras slaughter each other in heavily edited and bloodless PG-13 combat.  Instead of imaginative quests and daring heroics, we get a pretty substandard plot about a kingdom at war.  Instead of the glorious monsters of myths and legends, we get third rate CG creatures that don't quite integrate well with the live actors.  And instead of the script basing itself on the actual story of Hercules, it instead finds inspiration from a comic book that re-imagines the legendary strongman as not so much the son of Zeus, but a noble mercenary who lives off the legend that has been built around him over time.

This idea of a very skilled and strong man living off the far-fetched legends that have been built around him is an intriguing one, and Dwayne Johnson does a good job playing a noble, yet flawed hero who not only fights for the people, but also uses his own legend to inspire the people.  Sadly, the screenplay never makes use of this idea like it should, not does it explore it enough.  In this movie, Hercules is a mercenary who travels with a small band of loyal followers who fight alongside him.  These warriors all are given proper backstories or reasons to fight along Hercules (one's an Amazon whose village was destroyed, one is Hercules' nephew who helps spread the legend, one doesn't talk, one wants enough money to live the good life, and one can see visions of the future), but they are not given personalities of any kind.  They ride into the kingdom of Thrace, where its ruler (John Hurt) is tangled in a civil war for control of his land against a traitor who may or may not be skilled in sorcery.

Thrace's army consists mainly of farmers and peasants, so it is up to Hercules and his friends to train and inspire the men for the battles to come.  Along the way, there's time for a half-baked romantic subplot that doesn't really go anywhere, as Hercules makes wooing glances at the King's daughter, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), who has a little boy who idolizes Hercules the same way a little boy today may idolize Spider-Man or Captain America.  There's also the occasional glimpse into Hercules' tragic past, which involves the murder of his wife and three children.  But before we can get to any of that, we need a bunch of training montages, and a couple big army battles that end up being not all that exciting.  The last half hour clumsily throws all of these elements together with a lot of last minute plot twists and revelations that end up having little impact.  Like a lot of summer movies, the ending seems to hint at a franchise which, given the quality on display, may be wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers.

It's not so much that Hercules is outright bad, so much that it never really comes together, nor does it excite like it should.  As I mentioned earlier, there are bright spots to be found, especially in Dwayne Johnson's likable performance.  There are even some flashes of wit in the dialogue that lets us know the writers understood not to take this material too seriously.  That's all well and good, but it's not enough to stand out when the action completely falls flat in just about every regard.  From the unconvincing special effects, to the strangely uninvolving battles, right down to the numerous last minute revelations that seem more desperate than thrilling, nothing really grabs our attention here.  It's obvious that a lot of money was spent in this production, but it wasn't used wisely.  When we witness Hercules facing off against a seemingly-invincible lion, or a pack of ravenous wolves, we should be on the edge of our seats.  But thanks to the fact that the attacking predators don't look convincing, or even seem to fit into the live action setting, it's impossible to get involved.

The movie does boast some impressive acting talent, with Ian McShane (as one of Hercules' followers) and John Hurt showing up, and making the most out of what they can with what little they're given to do.  Sure, these actors could do the roles that they are playing in their sleep, but you appreciate the effort.  Seriously, though, I just couldn't get over the fact that I wasn't enjoying myself as much as I thought I should be.  It never comes together, and it doesn't kid itself enough to work as a guilty pleasure.  I'm sure that the young boys this movie is being marketed at will find something to like, but even so, I can't see this becoming a favorite with anybody.  It's not afraid to cut loose and have fun, but it never seems to have as much fun as it needs to.  This movie only gets the occasional chuckle, when it should be a full-on riot.

Hercules isn't as bad as it could have been, and maybe that's the problem.  It lacks any sort of identity, and instead ends up just being one of the more forgettable movies of the summer.  The movie is also being shown in 3D, but honestly, I saw nothing in the 2D version that would have benefited from an extra dimension.  Any way you cut it, this movie may not be a bore, but it is sort of a drag.

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I won't pretend that I understood all of what happened in Lucy, or even some of the stuff that was talked about.  I don't think it matters, anyway.  This is a taut and tightly executed screenplay that, yes, doesn't always make a lot of sense, and is often quite goofy.  However, it is lifted up by the talented Scarlett Johansson and especially Morgan Freeman, both of whom know how to sell this kind of material and make it work.

Lucy was written and directed by Luc Besson, who has been making action thrillers for years now, and mainly specializes in movies that have a simple hook or gimmick that instantly draws the audience in, such as in the Taken franchise with Liam Neeson.  This movie still has an effective hook, but it's a bit more ambitious than usual for Besson.  At its core, this is essentially a superhero story for adults.  Its heroine is a young woman who, at the start of the story, is constantly being manipulated by the men around her.  But then, through the aid of an illegal drug that accidentally enters her system, she unlocks parts of her own brain she never knew she had, and is also able to develop psychic and telekinetic powers in the process.  Yeah, it's all a bunch of hooey, and the movie knows it.  Fortunately, we have Morgan Freeman as a Professor who specializes in the brain and its untapped resources to explain it all for us.  It may still be hooey, but when it's coming from the mouth and voice of Morgan Freeman, somehow it's a lot easier to buy.

Scarlett Johansson plays the titular character, who develops these great brain powers, with great responsibility, of course.  The drug that gave her these powers is also slowly taking her life, so she only has a limited amount of time to find out what's happening to her, and take revenge on those responsible.  Johansson has to pull off a tricky balance with her performance, as she must be sympathetic, while at the same time passing herself off as someone who is not afraid to kill in an instant if it means getting help or answers.  In one scene, she storms into an operating room while a patient is being worked on.  She needs the doctors to operate on her, but they are obviously busy with the current patient.  Using her mental powers, Lucy quickly deduces that the current patient has no chance for survival, so she draws her gun and shoots the person dead, then takes their place on the operating table.  She explains her actions to the doctors with a certain cool detachment.  She is not a soulless killing machine, but as her brain capacity grows, she does start thinking in some very scarily rational ways.

At the outset, Lucy is a typical American student living in Taiwan.  She's made the big mistake of hooking up with and dating a shady individual who has ties to the mob.  He manipulates and eventually forces her to take a briefcase with mystery contents into a hotel where a crime boss (Choi Min-sik) is waiting for the delivery.  Within moments, Lucy finds herself surrounded by mobsters, her boyfriend is dead, and the crime boss has knocked her unconscious.  When she awakes, the mobsters are planning to use her as a drug mule.  They have already cut open her stomach, placed a bag of experimental drugs within, then sewed her back up.  The drug is a synthetic version of a human growth factor, and when the bag within her breaks open accidentally after a struggle, the drug enters her bloodstream, and that is how she gains her heightened senses and mental abilities.

The movie tracks her evolutionary progress, with title cards representing how much more brain capacity than normal she is now using.  At only around 30% or so, she can manipulate TVs and phone signals, as well as develop powers that allow her to see that her best friend is suffering from kidney failure, just by touching her.  The mobsters quickly find out about Lucy's abilities and how she is on the loose, so they obviously want her dead.  The police get involved in the chase as well, while Lucy tries to track down the other people who are being used as mules to deliver the experimental drug to different parts of the world.  This is also where Morgan Freeman's character comes in, as he and his colleagues try to help Lucy control her abilities and use them for the progress of science.

Running by at a very brisk 90 minutes, Lucy is a strong example of action carrying the story.  The movie literally throws us right into the action almost as soon as the studio logo fades away, and forces us to discover what's going on alongside its heroine.  This is a movie that is very driven by special effects and stunt pieces, but Besson's screenplay does allow for a couple effective quiet moments, such as a surprisingly poignant scene where Lucy calls her mother on the phone, and she realizes that this is the last time she will likely talk to her, while her mother remains unaware of what's really going on.  Since the movie is mainly driven by action, it's a good thing that it is handled well, and edited cleanly, so we can always keep a handle on what's going on, no matter how chaotic it gets.   The plot gets pretty chaotic as well, and eventually reaches a point where it's in danger of not making much sense.  Fortunately, the honest performances by Johansson and Freeman help keep the film grounded and prevent it from flying completely off the rails.

By the time it is over, the plot has reached some pretty grand Sci-Fi ideas about existence and technology.  I'm not sure how audiences will react to the way Besson chooses to end the story.  I obviously won't reveal it here, but I will say it's not in the way you might expect.  The studio is trying to sell this as a straight-out action thriller, and obviously are trying to cash in on Johansson's recent success in the Marvel films, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers.  However, the movie itself is not just a simple action film.  While it definitely has enough shoot-outs, car chases, and fighting to qualify, there's more going on in the plot itself.  The movie makes it clear early on that Lucy's enhanced abilities are also slowly killing her, so there is a sense of urgency to the mission.  It not only creates sympathy for the character, but creates a more somber mood than the action escapism we might expect from the commercials.

Lucy is a more ambitious movie than you might expect.  With so many generic action films already clogging the cinemas, that alone makes it worth your attention.  Fortunately, it's also expertly made and well-acted.  Even if I didn't really buy the science that the movie was trying to sell me, I found myself willing to go along for the ride, and glad that I did when it was over.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Planes: Fire & Rescue

For kids up to a certain age (I'd say ages 6-10 would be just about perfect), Planes: Fire & Rescue should make for great entertainment.  I was less enthused while watching the film, but then, I have not been 6-10 for a long time.  The movie is harmless, colorful and kind of cute, just very slight.  I smiled a couple times, and there is one laugh out loud line.  But that line doesn't come until almost the end, and it's not worth sitting through the whole movie for.

If you are in the age range I mentioned above, or the parent of someone in that age range, then you probably saw last year's Planes movie.  This sequel continues the story of that film's hero, a spunky little plane named Dusty Crophopper (voice by Dane Cook), who as the film opens, has achieved his dream of being a championship racing plane.  But one day, while out flying with his friend Skipper (Stacy Keach), his engine malfunctions.  Turns out Dusty has a broken gearbox, and it's not going to be easy to fix.  Unless his friends can track another gearbox down, Dusty may never race again.  The little town of Propwash Junction that Dusty calls home is also facing its own problems.  The town's over the hill fire engine truck, Mayday (Hal Holbrook), is too old to perform his duties, and because of this, the entire town might be closed down right before the big corn festival hits.  Dusty decides to step in and train as a fire fighting plane, and goes to get certified at Piston Peak National Park.

Dusty is thrust right into his new job as a firefighter, under the watchful eye of the gruff chief plane, Blade Ranger (Ed Harris).  He is teamed up with a cute and goofy plane named Lil' Dipper (Julie Bowen), who holds a not-so secret crush over Dusty, and also gets the film's one laugh out loud line.  Much of the plot deals with Dusty's training to put out fires, Blade Ranger's secret past, and a greedy hotel manager who doesn't want to cancel his fancy grand opening party, even though there is a massive forest fire approaching the grounds.  Even for a movie targeted at very little kids, the plot is flimsy stuff, and it can barely hold up this movie, which only runs about 75 minutes, not counting the end credits.

The animation in Planes: Fire & Rescue is a little bit better than the last film, but you also have to remember that Planes was originally intended to be released straight to DVD, whereas this was a planned theatrical project from the beginning.  It's still not up to the level of Disney's animated A-material, but it gets the job done.  There are a couple pop culture references that are likely to fly over kids' heads, including a reference to Howard the Duck, but they're never quite used to their full effect.  Really, the movie exists simply to keep the kids quiet for a little over an hour.  If that's all you want from this movie, you'll be happy.  Just don't expect any more.

As far as kid's stuff goes, this one's not bad, but there are better options out there.  I'm sure that the toys this movie inspires will sell well, and we'll see Dusty and his friends on the big screen again.  Whether or not that's good news depends on how old you are.

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The Purge: Anarchy

You certainly can't blame writer-director James DeMonaco for making the best of a good situation.  After his low budget thriller, The Purge, became a surprise hit last summer, the studio wanted a rapid fire sequel to be released just one year later.  With a bigger budget to work with, DeMonaco gives us The Purge: Anarchy, a much more ambitious sequel than its predecessor.  When so many filmmakers are content to repeat a successful formula in a sequel, it's kind of admirable that he has decided to truly open up the idea he had last time, but didn't have the budget to pull it off.

But my admiration for what he has done goes a little bit deeper.  This is a tighter, tenser, and much more suspenseful film than the first.  The original Purge movie was a simple and largely ineffective home invasion thriller.  This time, the action takes place on the streets, there's a larger cast of characters, and there's even multiple plotlines.  What's most surprising is that DeMonaco doesn't just give us some generic stereotypes with his characters.  Oh, they're not deep, and they barely reach two dimensions.  But at least we don't feel like we know exactly what's going to happen to these people as soon as they walk on the screen.  They also don't exist solely to be victims, or to die in really gruesome ways.  They're sympathetic, and I liked all the performances.

Just like before, the movie is set in a near-future where every year on March 22nd, all crime, including murder, becomes legal for 12 hours.  This annual event, known as The Purge, has supposedly led to a reduction in crime and unemployment.  But as this movie reveals, it's really an opportunity for the wealthy to "thin the herd" of the poor and impoverished.  During the Purge, people either hit the streets to kill and do anything they want, or they board up their homes and wait it out until its over.  The dark satire behind the idea of the Purge is a bit clearer and pointed this time around.  Yes, the concept is still very hard to swallow, but at least its better used here than last time.  The film's central concept is a simple one, where a small group of strangers find themselves out on the street during the middle of the Purge, and must rely on each other in order to survive.

The central character is an unnamed man, referred to only as "Sergeant" in the credits, and is played by Frank Grillo.  He is a tortured man and, of the main characters, is the only one who intends to be out on the streets when the Purge starts up.  He's seeking vengeance for a past pain that we don't learn about until late in the film.  As he drives down the street on his mission, he comes across an innocent mother (Carmen Ejogo) and her adult daughter (Zoe Soul) in trouble.  They have been ripped from the safety of their apartment, and are being loaded into a van by masked men for some unknown purpose.  Against his better judgement, the Sergeant save the pair, and agrees to help them get to safety.  His load becomes even more crowded when he picks up a married couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez), who had their car break down just as the Purge was about to start.  The five characters must find their way to a safe house, while the Sergeant tries to keep his eye on his real purpose for being outside this night.

The Purge: Anarchy takes a straightforward action approach, and it's quite effective here.  There is no real central villain to the story, rather our characters must overcome one challenge after another, whether its a bloodthirsty motorcycle gang, some maniacs armed with flamethrowers who are "cleansing" the subway tunnels of poor people seeking shelter during the Purge, or a lunatic gunman up on a roof who is just shooting at anyone passing by.  The movie does create a certain level of suspense that it carries through to the end.  Since the main characters are not the walking stock figures we expect, it does create a certain amount of tension as to which of these characters will live to see the next day.  Wisely, the movie also doesn't get so bogged down in character and dialogue that it slows the movie down, either.  I think DeMonaco finds a good balance.

When the movie decides to get political, it can be quite blunt.  Sometimes I think it is used for dark comedic effect, such as a scene when our heroes find themselves up for auction in front of a room of wealthy people, who place bids on the people they want to kill.  But, in other moments, the movie's political message is heavy-handed and kind of laughable in a bad way.  Fortunately, this does not happen too often.  The movie decides to mainly play itself up as an action thrill ride, and on that level, the film works.  There's more than enough scenes where we find ourselves much more involved in the action than we might expect.  Of course, your enjoyment of the film is probably related to whether or not you can buy the premise behind the Purge itself.  I wasn't able to last time, but this time around, the action and suspense won me over enough that I was able to put it in the back of my head.

The Purge: Anarchy is no masterpiece, but it's successful at what it tries to do.  At the very least, DeMonaco shows that he's not only able to go bigger with a sequel, but also make a lot of noted improvements over the first.  This isn't what I would call a smart movie.  But it's more fun than you might expect.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Sex Tape

It's never nice to laugh at people less fortunate than you, and that's probably the main reason I never laughed once while watching Sex Tape.  The people in this movie are dumber than dirt, and I guess we're supposed to be amused by that fact.  Now, obviously, people in the movies are never really as smart as they are in real life.  But nobody here seems to have a shred of intelligence, or acts like a person would in such a situation.

The movie stars Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz - two actors who can be very likable with the right material, but not so here.  You can't really blame them completely, as nobody would be able to survive the stuff they're forced to do.  Segel often looks bored, like he's aware he's stuck in a turkey.  I learned that both he and his writing partner, Nicholas Stoller, were hired to punch up the script and add more laughs.  If this is the case, I would hate to see what the script looked like before they were involved with it.  As for Diaz, this is her third major bomb in a row, after last fall's The Counselor, and The Other Woman from three months ago.  Unless she gets a little smarter about the scripts she signs on for, she's going to need a career intervention before too long.

The two play a married couple named Jay and Annie.  We see how they met back in college, and yes, it is awkward to see Segel (who is 34 in real life) and Diaz (close to hitting 42) trying to pass themselves off as college students.  Back when they were young and in love, they used to have sex all the time, and just about anywhere they wanted.  Now they are married with two kids, have careers, and hardly have time for sex at all.  Annie writes a successful mommy blog, which is on the verge of being bought by a major corporation.  Jay works in the music industry, though we're never really told exactly what he does.  To celebrate Annie's success with her blog, the two decide to send the kids off to grandma's for the night, and partake in the wild sex they used to enjoy.  This results in them making a three hour sex video on Jay's new iPad, where they perform every move in the Joy of Sex book.  When they're done, Annie tells Jay to delete the video, and naturally he forgets.

Not only has Jay forgotten to delete the video, but he has also unwittingly sent the video to all their friends, family members, neighbors, business clients and even the mailman.  Within a few days, he gets a mysterious text message from a phone number he doesn't recognize, saying that the mystery person behind the text has seen their sex tape.  Wanting to find out who sent the text, and also wanting to prevent anyone else from seeing it, Jay and Annie race mindlessly around town, trying to steal everyone's iPad.  It's at this point that the audience starts to wonder if the filmmakers even understand how technology works.  As the movie drags on, Jay and Annie come across as blithering morons as they race about and get into one contrived and unfunny situation after another, as they try to stop people from watching their video.

Consider one of the dumbest scenes in Sex Tape - Annie worries that the video has wound up on the iPad of her potential boss who might be hiring her soon.  So, they show up at the door of the boss (Rob Lowe), saying that they are collecting for a charity.  Jay wants to start searching the house for the iPad while Annie distracts and talks to the boss, so he says he needs to use the bathroom and leaves.  While investigating the different rooms, he comes across an attack dog, which chases him throughout the house, and leads to an overly long and desperately boring slapstick scene where Jay just can't shake this persistent dog.  While this is happening, Annie's future boss invites her to join him in snorting cocaine, which she does.  Not only is this scene incredibly stupid, but it makes no sense as to why Annie and the head of the company can't hear Jay and the dog tearing the house apart just the next room over.  How many ways can one single scene manage to go wrong?

The ultimate sin the movie commits is not just that it's unfunny, but it's also not very sexy or racy to begin with.  That's the one thing you think the filmmakers would get right, but nope.  We don't even really get to see the video to begin with, and what little we do get to see boils down to more lame slapstick.  And just like a lot of recent R-rated comedies, the last 15 minutes or so are devoted to a lot of moralizing, with a character spelling out the ultimate message of the movie to the audience.  This time, the character is the owner of a porn video website (played by an uncredited Jack Black), who sits Jay and Annie down, and gives them a very forced speech about love and relationships.  This is after Jay and Annie (and their kids, for some unfathomable reason) try to break into the porn video website's headquarters, so they can destroy the central computer before their sex tape is uploaded to the site.   Uh-huh.

Sex Tape is a bafflingly idiotic movie, with characters who are too stupid to live.  This is one of those films that gives you a bad feeling early on, but you do your best to stay positive, and not let early fears sway you.  Then it just gets progressively dumber and less funny, and your heart just kind of sinks.  When it's over, you wish you could turn back time to before you bought your ticket, put your wallet back in your pocket, and walk out of the building.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I think what impressed me the most about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that this is the first blockbuster we've gotten this summer that's aimed squarely at adults.  Sure, we've had some comedies aimed at adults, but this is a big budget special effects spectacle that's smart and powerful.  It can also be quite violent, perhaps too much so for the kids I saw with their parents at my screening.  There are plenty of viewing options for kids this summer.  This isn't one of them. 

The movie is a continuation of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and continues to chronicle the events that led to the original films.  Just like before, the apes themselves are brought to life through stunning CG and motion capture performances.  The lead ape, Caesar, is once again played by Andy Serkis, in a performance that is stunning in just how much emotion he can get out of just his movements, and limited speech. (The apes started to talk near the end of the last movie.  Their vocabulary has expanded when this film picks up.) Serkis has brought many characters to life through motion capture, including Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong.  Caesar is definitely his crowning achievement, the perfect blend of an actor's physical performance and CG technology.  Given the work he does here, as well as his previous achievements, I would say some kind of honorary Oscar is well over due. 

Serkis is so vital to this film, as it is Caesar who drives a good part of the story.  We don't even get to see a human actor on screen until a good 20 minutes or so into the movie.  It is the apes who are the real stars of the film, and thanks to the technical wizardry of the motion capture, they are easily able to hold our attention.  The apes more or less are ruling society, after the disease outbreak that closed the last movie wiped out a good portion of humanity.  There are, however, small pockets of humanity that are struggling to survive.  The one we are eventually introduced to is located in the ruins of San Francisco, and is led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), and lead survivalist, Malcolm (Jason Clarke).  Their society is running low on power, however, and only has two weeks worth of fuel left.  If this small society wishes to survive, they must make their way into the forest which the apes have made their home, and reactivate a dam that can supply electricity.

Malcolm ventures out with a small team, which includes Ellie (Keri Russell), Alexander (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo).  Naturally, both the humans and the apes don't trust one another, despite Malcolm's efforts to earn Caesar's loyalty.  Over time, Caesar is somewhat willing to cooperate with the humans, but there are some within the ape community who would rather seek out war.  After all, before the apes became intelligent and started their society, many of them were tortured or mistreated within labs.  There will inevitably be violence between the two sides, and even war within the ape tribe itself, as some go against Caesar's decision to aid the humans.  As the plot falls into place, we can see the pieces that will ultimately form the overall storyline of the series.

There is a tragic element as Caesar finds himself torn between wanting to help these humans who are only seeking to survive, and his overall distrust of humans in general.  As some of his own kind, even those within his family, begin to turn against his ideals of a peaceful society, we can sense and see the pain and anguish he is feeling.  Again, this is thanks to the extraordinary performance that Serkis provides, as well as the brilliant effects work.  Unlike, say, in the Transformers films, these are effects being used to tell a story, rather than effects being used to distract us from the fact that there is not much of a story to be had.  They are being used to create real characters with empathy and emotion, and truly come across as being tangible.  Not once did I feel like I was watching an effect that was added in later to replace an actor's performance.  I simply was focused on the characters - human, simian, and computer generated.

I also appreciated how director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) gives the film a fresh look.  This is not an assembly line summer movie, with shots that look like they were stolen from other films.  When the army of apes storm the human compound, it is grand and terrifying.  It manages to capture the chaos of battle, while at the same time keeping a steady lock on the action, so that we can keep track of it all.  The way that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also made me care about just about everyone on the screen is also not a small feat for any summer movie.  Sure, some of the human characters are underwritten, but again, this is not really their movie.  It is the apes and their hidden world that they are building that draws us in.  This is a movie that actually cares enough to create a new world we haven't seen before, and then invites us to explore it, before the explosions and action sequences take over.  It takes its time, it builds our interest, and it pays it off with a satisfying conclusion, as well as a promising lead in to the next inevitable film.

This is not only the best movie of the summer so far, but also the best film in the Planet of the Apes franchise in quite a while.  The series has found a noted filmmaker in Reeves, and the screenplay by Rich Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback trusts in and rewards our intelligence.  I hope the series is able to hold onto this talent, and that they continue down the same road they took with this film.  This is more than just a summer spectacle.  It's an emotional experience not soon forgotten.

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