Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Watch (2012) - Movie Review

By now I'm sure you've heard about how the title for The Watch was changed from Neighborhood Watch after the Trevon Martin thing.  However, you'll realize in the opening moments that this has nothing to do with that situation - AT ALL!  Even if you haven't seen the trailers, it will be clear that this is an alien invasion movie.  Also, it's not like they stopped calling it the 'neighborhood watch' during the movie.  Were they going to go back and reshoot every scene where that was said?  Change what their jackets said, too?  I think it was an overreaction.

So, yeah, The Watch is about an alien invasion.  Ben Stiller stars as Evan, the manager of his local, suburban Costco.  Speaking of Costco, I wonder how much money they paid or got paid to be such a large part of the movie.  Half the movie takes place in or around a friggin' Costco.  The Watch has some of the most obvious product placement I've ever seen in a film.

Anyway, after the nightwatchman of Evan's Costco is brutally killed, he decides to form a Neighborhood Watch to protect the neighborhood and find the killer.  His enthusiasm isn't shared by most of the town and the local police, and he's only joined by Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade).  The other guys don't take the watch as seriously as Evan though, and are more interested in a group of guys to pal around with.  As they investigate they find a strange device and eventually encounter an alien.  That's pretty much all there is to it.

The whole movie kind of hinges on how much you like the cast.  I thought they all played off each other very well.  I know Ben Stiller isn't everyone's cup of tea these days, but if you're annoyed by the types of roles he usually plays, you might like him here.  He's pretty much the straight man to the rest of the cast.  Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill are pretty much on point and it felt like they got opportunities to improvise.  I really enjoyed Richard Ayoade, but I'm not familiar with The IT Crowd, so he was a newcomer for me.  I understand from fans of the show that they were disappointed he didn't get a chance to show what he can do, but I though he held his own against the rest of the cast and is someone you can expect to see in many more comedies.  Will Forte was funny as well.  Was Danny McBride not available?

Throughout the movie, I got a real 80's vibe from it.  Not that it was set in the 80's, but to me it had a similar feel to other sci-fi comedies from that era.  The humor in the movie for the most part is silly and raunchy.  It might be a little too vulgar for vulgarities sake, but it didn't really bug me.  The Watch was directed by The Lonely Island member and SNL writer Akiva Schaffer, who also directed Hot Rod, which is a favorite of mine.  I think his direction might be why I got the 80's vibe that I did.

Originally written by Jared Stern, but then Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were brought in to re-write and punch up the script.  The movie's crude humor may remind you of some of their other movies like Superbad or Pineapple Express.  If that kind of humor isn't appealing to you, then this won't be for you either.

Maybe with all the negative reviews I had my expectations lowered heavily, or maybe I was just in a good mood, but I enjoyed The Watch.  To hear some critics talk about this movie, you would think Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn came over to their house, drank all their beer and kicked their dog.  Sure, it's a dumb movie, but I had fun with it.  I laughed a bunch and enjoyed the cast.  I haven't said this in a while, but here's a good example of a movie better enjoyed if you rent it with a few friends and get a few six packs.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) - First Impressions

Hey everybody.  I just got back from seeing The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX.  I'm still recovering from surgery, so I need to lay down after the length of the film, but I thought I'd just get some initial thoughts up.  I'll get a more detailed up review once I'm feeling better.

First off, see it in IMAX if you can.  The sound was amazing!  There was a moment where an explosion went off in the background and the ground shook a bit, well, it also shook in the theater.  It made for a nice effect.  A good portion of the film was actually shot in IMAX format, so many of the best action sequences take full advantage of it.  I think I might have to enjoy this in D-BOX once I'm feeling up to it.

The performances are all great.  I was especially impressed with Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway.  For those of you worried about how Hathaway would do with Catwoman, you can stop worrying.  She's sexy as hell, but they gave her character some depth and more to do than just vamp and look hot in the catsuit.  I also really enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt and liked what they did with his character.

I did think Tom Hardy was good as Bane, but you will hardly recognize him.  Even with them re-dubbing the voice from the trailer (it didn't even sound like Hardy's voice), I still thought there were a few parts of this dialog that were hard to understand.  Also, while I thought Christian Bale was good, I wish he would have toned down his Batman-voice.  You can see how he manipulates his mouth to do the voice and it's still a little off-putting.

As much as I was looking forward to Bane, I didn't think he was that memorable.  Heath Ledger's Joker is just too hard of an act to follow.  He's not one dimensional, but between not being able to see his face and the voice, it was hard to really get into his character.  Bane does have some really great moments to show you how brutal and driven he is.

It is a little long and I felt there were a few things that could have been trimmed, but the movie had a good pace to it.  When you consider the pain I'm in when sitting down, that I never felt bored or had the need to check my watch should tell you something.

There really aren't any surprises here as far as the story.  It's pretty straightforward.  However, I did feel like they skipped over things, and there were encounters that happened that were too convenient.  You might find yourself going, 'Hey, where did you come from?' or , 'How'd you get there so fast?'  Characters seem to be in multiple places at once, and I have to think this was due to poor editing.

Hans Zimmer's score felt a little repetitive and like it was beating you over the head a bit.  I didn't hate the score, but it was a little much at times.  Sometimes you don't have to have music punctuating every single scene.

Overall, I still thought The Dark Knight Rises is a very good and entertaining movie.  It's not perfect, but it's a fitting conclusion to the Nolan trilogy and did good job of tying the previous two movies together.  I watched both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight again leading up to this, so they were fresh in my mind and I think it helped with keeping everything straight when watching TDKR.  I would say The Dark Knight is a better movie, but could anything really live up to the expectations set by that?

4 (out of 5) Death Stars for now...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Savages (2012) - Movie Review

Did you know what "savages" meant?  Well, neither did I!  Fortunately, the latest Oliver Stone movie, Savages, defines it for you, so you get some learnin' with your early images of decapitated bodies.

Savages follows the threesome of Ben, Chon, and O, which is short for Ophelia, and not Oprah as you'd expect.  Also, before I get into it, "Chon"?  Throughout the movie I kept wondering if they were just saying "John" weird.  A few times I honestly thought they were saying "Tron".  Who the hell names their kid "Chon" anyway?   Please don't tell me this is going to become one of those trendy, middle-class names.  It was very distracting every time I heard it.

Anyway, Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the Buddhist, hippie-type, yet has degrees in business and botany, that creates the drugs; Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a former Navy Seal, is basically just there to be the muscle; and O (Blake Lively), is both of their girlfriends.  She also doubles as the corny narration throughout the film.  After she establishes that she's sleeping with both of them, she makes a comment about how we probably think she's a slut.  This was met with a collective, agreeing laugh from the audience.

Ben and Chon have been best buds since high school, but I have a hard time believing any friendship strong enough to share a woman.  It's just too implausible to get behind in the first place.  Taking a page from Breaking Bad, Ben's skill in botany has allowed them to create the best marijuana on the planet.  This has made them rich and in great demand.  They take a meeting with a Mexican drug cartel ran by Salma Hayek, and her right-hand man, played by Benicio Del Toro.  They make a simple offer: teach us how to make marijuana and we'll make you even richer.  It's clear that saying no to these guys would be bad.  What do these geniuses do?  They not only say no, but insult the Mexican drug cartel in the process.   There's no surprise as to where this is headed now.

The frustrating thing about a movie like Savages is that it has all the right things going for it, but it becomes clear that the movie is going along a fairly predictable path, and the actions of the characters are just head scratching at times.  Then, you have terrible pacing issues where it takes almost an hour before anything substantial happens.  You spend almost half of this 130-minute movie following three characters that you don't care about or find anything to identify with.  These guys have the life: they live in a huge house on the beach, have tons of money, have sex all the time and seem to have very little risk as they work with medical distribution places.  I don't find that very interesting, and the story drags whenever it focuses on them.  Their only conflict is the one they created themselves by refusing the cartel's offer.  The 'bad guys' in Savages were more interesting and entertaining, and I found myself rooting for them more than the supposed protagonists.

Savages was based on a book of the same name by Don Winslow, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno.  I've heard good things about the book, but I feel like something got lost in the adaptation.  It also doesn't help there's some really awful dialog throughout the film.  The narration by O's character is so bad that it made me wince at times.  The story felt convoluted, and it's one of the worst endings I've seen in a while.  Talk about a cop out.  I won't spoil it, but if you've seen Funny Games, then know that it's pretty similar.

It's not all bad though.  Savages is very brutal and dark, two things I normally enjoy about drug related films.  However, some of the violence felt thrown in for shock value, as if they didn't know what to do, so they would just linger on a violent scene.  A guess a movie called Savages should have lots of savage violence in it to maintain title integrity.  It's a good looking film as well, but again, it feels like there's more style here than substance.

The performances work for the most part.  I really enjoyed Selma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta.  Hayek was really over-the-top, but I thought it worked well for the character.  Travolta is great as the sneaky DEA agent playing both sides.  The standout is Benicio Del Toro though.  He feels like a caged, rabid animal, and you never quite know what he's going to do next.  Most of the highlights of the film involve either him, Hayek or Travolta.  I also enjoyed Emile Hirsch as Ben and Chon's techie/money laundering guy.  I like him in smaller roles like this.

Aaron Johnson, who you might remember from Kick-Ass, was the most interesting out of the threesome, but that's mainly because you actually got to see his character evolve as the movie went on.  While I didn't have a problem with Taylor Kitsch or Blake Lively, I felt their characters were totally flat and really not given any depth to them.

Oh, and here's a huge pet peeve of mine: I can't stand it when there are sex scenes in a movie where everyone keeps their clothes on.  It doesn't seem realistic to me at all.  At one point they are in a bathtub having sex with clothes on.  Who does that?

Savages is violent, dark and has some great performances.  Unfortunately, those great performances come from the characters you aren't supposed to root for.  It takes way too long to get started and is betrayed by a terrible ending.  I just wasn't into it.  It's interesting that the poster for Savages already looks like a Blu-Ray cover, because that's how I suggest most of you watch this.  It's a rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

To Rome with Love (2012) - Movie Review

Has it always been a theme in Woody Allen films that regardless of whether or not a character is in a relationship, they'll sleep with pretty much anyone they are currently in the room with?  I've noticed this in some of his recent films and it's been bugging me.  Not everyone sleeps around.  Some people still believe in things like monogamy or being faithful.  Anyway...

Spoilers ahead...

To Rome with Love is the latest Woody Allen joint.  Rather than a central story, you get several short stories told in a very choppy style.  At the beginning, it's natural to assume that all these stories will come together at the end, and you'll get some kind of satisfying payoff, but neither happen.  They are completely independent of one another, so the storytelling is very disjointed.  It doesn't help that some are in English and some are subtitled, so you're constantly having to switch how you're viewing the movie.  Also, the stories are of varying levels of quality, so some you have no interest in.  Just when you get invested in one story, it switches to another you don't care about.

One vignette features Roberto Benigni, a man who wakes up one morning and is suddenly famous.  Nobody knows what for, but he is followed everywhere by the media, reporting on every detail of his life.  This could have been a funny commentary about the nature of celebrity, but it's really not fleshed out.  It's played more for a gag than anything.

Penélope Cruz is featured in another as a prostitute, Anna, that meets up with Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi).  It appears to be a case of mistaken identity, as Anna is really intended for someone else, but Antonio goes along with it anyway.  Their entire plot could have been removed, as you don't really care about his character at all.  The resolution to their story is one of the things that bugged me the most with regards to sleeping around.  Antonio finally sleeps with Anna, and then you recall that he's married.  Meanwhile, his wife, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), had a short story involving her sleeping with some celebrity, but interrupted in their hotel room by a robber.  However, she ends up just sleeping with the robber.  What the hell!?  Maybe because of all the jumping around with the stories, or maybe this was when I stepped out to use the bathroom, but I don't remember that they established that Antonio and Milly were married, so this was a surprise to me.  Either way, I though their whole story was very clumsy and hard to believe.  I will say that for the short time she had in the movie, Alessandra Mastronardi just lights up the screen.

One of the longer stories is of Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) being met on the street by John (Alec Baldwin).  In one of the more fantastical elements of the film, you realize that John is not actually there and appears to be the older version of Jack visiting his younger self.  As first, you think John just may be a figment of Jack's imagination, as he appears randomly and has conversations that nobody seems to notice, but then other characters interact with John.  So it's very unclear as to what John is.  It's also unclear if he's trying to prevent Jack from making the same mistake or just revisiting a part of his life.  Another thing that took me out story was that if John was, in fact, interacting with the younger version of himself, why didn't they cast an actor that looked the part or acted in any way like him?  It didn't fit at all.

Also, once again, we have a story about cheating.  Jack's in a stable, happy relationship with Sally (Greta Gerwig), but is tempted by a visiting friend, Monica (Ellen Page).  I thought Ellen Page was totally miscast here.  She's supposed to be this sexually open woman that Jack is just drawn to, and her character is described explicitly as being sexy, but that was the last thing I thought of when watching her performance.  While you can be sexy without being a bombshell, Page still looks like a child, and no point did I find her seductive in any way.

Woody Allen seems to have saved the best story for himself.  Allen plays Jerry, a retired music producer that travels to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet the family of Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), the man his daughter (Alison Pill) plans on marrying.  He finds that Michelangelo's father (played by real life opera singer, Fabio Armiliato), has an amazing singing voice, but can only sing when in the shower.  This leads to Jerry pushing Michelangelo's father to pursue singing and looks for creative ways to get him on stage.  This story ended up being the most interesting and the only one that felt complete.

After last year's Midnight in Paris, I think many might have heightened expectations going into To Rome with Love, but this doesn't have the same charm or humor of Paris.  Rome has too many undeveloped stories, characters and ideas.  Many of the jokes felt stale.  Despite that Paris is essentially a fantasy movie, its characters and situations felt more realistic than Rome's.

I know it sounds like I hated To Rome with Love, but I actually didn't.  It's the very definition of a mixed bag.  Some of it works, some of it didn't.  It's a bit of a mess, but a watchable one.  It suffers from a lack of focus and too many undeveloped stories.  Rome is a disappointing follow up to Midnight in Paris, but that's a tough act to follow, even for Woody Allen.  Save it for rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Magic of Belle Isle (2012) - Movie Review

Sometimes the Magical Negro needs to be helped by the Wise Beyond Their Years Kid.  Two tropes come together in The Magic of Belle Isle, the latest film from Rob Reiner.  It seems like Reiner has been in a decline for a while now, so is The Magic of Belle Isle a return to form?

Morgan Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, a popular Western novel writer.  However, he's struggling with alcoholism and lost his motivation to write.  He moves to a lakeside house in Belle Isle, next door to Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters.

Monte is a broken man, both physically (he's wheelchair bound), and spiritually.  He seems to oscillate between wanting to be left alone, but not exactly pushing anyone away that interacts with him.  While not completely rude, he's very set in his ways, especially with regards to things like manners.  As you might also guess with someone so old school, Monte's also a Luddite, refusing to use phones and writes on an old typewriter, eschewing use of a computer.  He's so stubborn that he even renames the dog he's house sitting to 'Spot', as his existing name, 'Ringo', was unbefitting of a dog.

Early on, the middle of Charlotte's three daughters, Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), makes an arrangement with him to mentor her on writing and imagination.  As Monte schools Finnegan, he also takes an interest in Charlotte, as she's an attractive woman going through a divorce.  Will Monte bond Finnegan and Charlotte and regain his passion for writing?  Will he be cured of his alcoholism?  Oh, the suspense!

While there are some mildly amusing moments, this really isn't a funny movie at all.  I was surprised by this with Reiner directing and co-writing it.  He's also joined by screenwriters Guy Thomas and Andrew Sheinman.  It's not that the script is a mess, the characters are cute, but there's not a lot of substance there.  The screenplay takes no chances and is very predictable.  There's never any doubt as to how things are going to turn out.

While not one of Morgan Freeman's best performances, he's always been one of those actors that's impossible not to like.  He's presence and charisma always comes through.  Even when playing a character that has a hard edge, there's always an underlying sweetness and wisdom that he just can't hide.  You know the icy walls are going to melt and he's going to come around.  Virginia Madsen was fine, as were her daughters, the oldest and youngest played by Madeline Carroll and Nicolette Pierini respectively.  Keenan Thompson and Fred Willard also have small roles.  I thought Emma Fuhrman stood out among the cast with Freeman and her scenes with him were what I enjoyed most.

I really don't have all that much to say about it.  The Magic of Belle Isle is a safe family drama that doesn't do anything new. It's harmless, inoffensive and ultimately forgettable.  This seems like something that could have been made for TV, and that's probably when most of you will end up seeing this, on the Hallmark Channel.  Is there a Hallmark Channel?  I guess it doesn't matter, since I wouldn't watch that channel if it existed.  Save it for cable.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Take This Waltz (2012) - Movie Review

Is a romantic drama about a happily married woman that won't stop flirting with her creepy neighbor actually romantic?

Margot (Michelle Williams) is supposedly a happily married woman.  Her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), is a cookbook writer that loves her very much.  However, she finds herself torn when she meets an attractive stranger on a trip, and finds he lives across the street from her.  What a funny coincidence, right?

Spoilers ahead, so skip to the end if you plan on seeing this.

Whey they meet, she informs Daniel (Luke Kirby) that she's married, but he continues to flirt with her and seems to be around every time she leaves the house, as if he was stalking her.  Even though Margot tells him she's happily married and doesn't want to her her husband, she never stops flirting and spends large amounts of time with him.

I've often complained when watching romantic dramas that you have to wonder about who is supposed to identify with the characters, their values or behavior.  Margot starts this affair after a chance encounter that really didn't seem all that remarkable, and they've given you no reason to think she's unhappy or reason to dislike her husband.  You know, reasons she might be looking to cheat.  Lou is going along blissfully unaware that his wife is carrying on this affair with her neighbor, and worse yet, he figures it out before she has the stones to tell him.  Daniel even meets Lou a few times, and Lou goes out of his way to be nice to the guy, yet Daniel still carries on.  So Daniel is a creepy, stalker douche bag, and Margot is an emotionally immature 28-year-old, so now you have a movie centered around two people I cannot like in principle and wouldn't want to know.

Daniel is a walking, indie-movie cliche.  He's a hipster artist that drives a rickshaw to make money, while wearing capri pants.  Yes, he's a rickshaw driver.  I guess cost of living must be very cheap where they are based in Canada, or being a rickshaw driver pays very well, because he never seems to have difficulty affording a nice place to live.  At a certain point in the movie, he moves and settles in an impossibly large loft that seemed way beyond his means.  Overall, his character came off as very slimy to me.  I don't know if that's due to Luke Kirby's performance or how the character was written or directed.

Take This Waltz is languidly paced, and overly long at nearly two hours.  A huge pet-peeve of mine in romantic movies are endless music montages where nothing happens, and you get plenty of that here.  It became very tedious to watch the longer it went on.  When a movie is needlessly long and poorly paced, but then you have all of these sequences that could have been removed and still told the same story, it comes off as self-indulgent to me.

There's a surprising amount of nudity in the movie.  I had actually heard about a scene before watching where several women are showering together after an exercise class.  They are all just talking about their lives and shaving their legs.  It's totally non-sexual, and I guess it's meant to show women in a casual, non-flattering, but realistic way.  However, it simply wasn't necessary, and the same dialog could have been done in any situation, like having coffee.  Later in the movie, you have lots of nudity in yet another music montage of Margot and Daniel having all kinds of sex and engaging in threesomes.  Two guys or two girls, it doesn't matter.  Leaving your husband unleashes your inner freak, I guess.  Also, I'm not sure if this was a choice by the director, or the cinematographer has a fetish, but it seemed like there were lots of shots of feet and legs in the movie.

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, much has been made of her first effort, Away From Her.  I haven't seen that, but this feels like it must be a step back.  Judging by all the positive reviews, I guess I'm in the minority on this one, or maybe it's an example of critics wanting to like a movie because they liked their previous work.  While I think Polley demonstrated skill as a director, I think her writing suffered here, particularly with the characters.  There's some funny, natural dialog, and I felt most of the scenes between Margot and Lou felt very real.  However, some of the dialog ends up being unintentionally funny.  Early in the movie there's this really creepy scene where Margot asks Daniel to tell her what he would do to her, and then describes in excruciating detail exactly how he'd have sex with her.  A little later, Margo has an emotional breakdown when Lou is just trying to cook for his book and she comes off like a crazy person.

It has one of these ambiguous endings that's very frustrating after watching almost two hours of this melodrama.  So is she really happy at the end after everything she did?  Are we to believe that she screwed up?  I guess it's left for us to decide.  It's like they were saying, let's make this movie super-indie and fill it with metaphor and you figure it out.

The movie does feature some good performances.  While I didn't really care for Michelle Williams character, I thought her performance was very emotional.  I also liked Seth Rogen playing a character out of his comfort zone.  He came off as very sympathetic to me and was pretty much the only person in the movie I rooted for.  Lastly, I thought Sarah Silverman was great as Geraldine, Lou's alcoholic sister.  She was my favorite thing about the movie and easily had all the best dialog and scenes.  I wish she would have been in it more, but the movie wasn't about her character.

Take This Waltz is one of those indie films that just comes off as too hipsterish and vague for it's own good.  While there are some very real moments and themes here, it's overlong and centers around two characters that you don't like or root for at all.  Other than some good performances by the cast, I can't recommend this to anyone.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) - Movie Review

The Amazing Spider-Man is the 'untold' story of Spider-Man, except kinda sorta.  Didn't we just get told the story of Spider-Man ten years ago?  Spider-Man 3 was only 5 years ago, but I guess it's time for a reboot already.

If'you're wondering why we are getting a reboot so soon after the previous trilogy, it comes down to one thing: money.  Basically, if Sony doesn't have a Spider-Man movie out or in production by a certain date, the rights will revert back to Marvel/Disney, and they can't let that happen.  The same is also true with the X-Men franchise and Fox, which is why X-Men: First Class was rushed out so quickly. Because of this, we get a totally unnecessary reboot of the Spider-Man franchise just a few years after Spider-Man 3.  After watching The Amazing Spider-Man, I hope Warner Brothers rethinks their idea to reboot Batman after Nolan's trilogy

This review might be a little spoilery, but to be honest, if you've seen the trailer and you've seen any of the other Spider-Man movies, I really won't be spoiling anything to you.  I feel like only minor details have been changed.  Some for the better, and some for the worst.  Also, I'm not someone that's intimately familiar with the Spider-Man comics (I was more of an X-Men and Superman guy), so I won't be making a lot of comparisons there, just the things I've aware of from over the years.  But again, since I'm talking largely about the plot, you might just want to skip to the end if you plan on seeing this soon.

The movie begins by introducing you to Peter Parker's father, Richard (Campbell Scott).  After discovering a break-in to their house, he and Peter's mother scramble into hiding, leaving Peter to be taken care of by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).  We fast forward to Peter (Andrew Garfield) now in high school, who's more of a brooding loner now.  He's bullied by many of the students, including Flash Thompson, and has a huge, borderline stalker crush on classmate, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

When cleaning out the basement, Peter finds his father's old briefcase and documents that link him back his former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who works at OsCorp.  Peter goes to OsCorp and is bitten by a genetically modified spider.  Peter almost instantly starts to develop his abilities and becomes Spider-Man.

This part felt dragged out as it's a good hour before anything substantial happens in the movie.  When he does start to develop his powers, they seem to gloss over many details very quickly, like the creation of his costume, and his mechanical web shooters.  Much was made about the fact that in the first Spider-Man trilogy, he has organic web shooters, rather than the mechanical shooters from the comics.  The significance of this was Peter Parker in the comics had a genius-level intellect and invented both the web shooters and the web formula.  However, in the movie, while he invents the shooters, the web formula he stole from OsCorp, so it seems odd that they would go the mechanical web shooter route, but then not have him responsible for the actual web formula.  One of consistent themes in the Spider-Man books has been Peter running out of web-fluid or having issues with his web shooters at crucial times, but they don't take advantage of that in The Amazing Spider-Man either, so again, it just a minor point that they brought back the mechanical web shooters, and then not use them as used in the comics.

As an aside, Peter Parker was always portrayed has having limited financial means, and I believe there was an issue where I think Tony Stark advised Peter that he'd be rich if he would just patent and sell some of his inventions, his web fluid being one of them.

Anyway, back to the story.  When meeting with Dr. Connors, Peter shows him an equation from his father's work that helps Connor's current project.  They are able to regenerate the missing limb of a rat, and this has particular interest to Dr. Connors, as he is missing part of his right arm.  Connors is forced to experiment on himself and becomes The Lizard.

The Lizard is one of the weaknesses of the film.  Once Dr. Connors becomes The Lizard, he has some kind of plan, but they never really go into details about it.  They don't show you much about his motivation and you don't really care.  I didn't find any fault with Rhys Ifans' performance, but there's just not enough of a backstory between him and Peter Parker to make for their fighting to have any weight or significance.  It all just felt like an afterthought. Plus, I thought the CG-for The Lizard looked really bad in parts.  The Lizard's face didn't look menacing at all and kind of silly at times.

I didn't mind Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but I felt his character came off poorly.  Besides the brooding, I never felt like he was the nerdy everyman that you got with Tobey Maguire's portrayal.  Garfield's Parker wasn't as sympathetic and seemed unlikable in many ways.  He was always kind of biting everyone's head off when talking to them, and didn't seem to have much of a bond with his Aunt and Uncle.  When Uncle Ben dies, it just doesn't have the same weight.  Also, Uncle Ben's death is done in a way that's less tragic and Peter really isn't responsible for like he was in the first film.  Peter seems to be motivated solely by revenge for most of the movie, where in the first trilogy this is reconciled much sooner.

I thought Emma Stone was great as Gwen Stacy though. She really carries the chemistry between her and Garfield, where I thought Garfield was too awkward at times.  I do think this is where Marc Webb's direction came into play.  I was a big fan of (500) Days of Summer and I thought he would at least get the young romance right and I feel like he did.  Overall, I think Marc Webb did a good job directing, but I think he was victim to an underwritten script.  The screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Cloves (once again, three writers...ugh) is too uneven and misses many of the points that made the first Spider-Man work.  While many of you may be happy that this does feature more of Spider-Man's during-fight banter, the movie as a whole is missing the fun and innocence of the earlier films.

As far as the rest of the cast, I also thought Dennis Leary was good as Captain Stacy, and I really enjoyed Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May.  It seems like it's been a few years since we've seen Sally Field on the big screen and it was good to see here back up there.

Oh, and I hate to keep bringing up 2002's Spider-Man (I'm watching it as I write this review), but did you realize that True Blood's Joe Manganiello played Flash Thompson?

One of the upgrades to this reboot is that technology is better now, so they were able to have a much more realistic and fluid looking Spider-Man.  The action sequences are very good.  Also, they used something called the RED camera, which is a high-end, digital, HD camera.  The colors are super vibrant and you really can see every detail.  Overall, the movie looked great.  I just wish there had been a little more action here to sink my teeth into.  The movie was too slowly paced to tell a story we are already familiar with.  I actually found it kind of boring at times.

Oh, and a friend asked me to count how many times Spider-Man removes his mask.  Here's what I recall:

1 - Removes it while saving a kid to ease the kid's fear.  (Acceptable to me)
2 - Casually removed while waiting in the sewers for The Lizard to show up.  (Lame but at least no bystanders would be able to see him.
3 - Removed voluntarily while in a fight with The Lizard at a school where there are potentially lots of people around still. (Dumb)
4 - Removed by the police when captured.  (Maybe don't get captured next time.  Don't you have, like, super-human abilities?)
5 - Removed by the Lizard during a fight.  (Seemed unnecessary as The Lizard was already aware that Peter Parker was Spider-Man at that point)

Additionally, he reveals to Gwen Stacy almost right away that he's Spider-Man, at then she seems to pursue him more than he pursues her.  So much for using your secret identity to protect those close to you.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a great looking film, with a nice cast, some decent performances and action, but it's just too soon for a reboot.  The characters are underwritten and movie is too slowly paced.  It seems inexcusable to reboot a franchise after such a short period of time, and then not really do anything new or particularly great with it.  If you've never seen a Spider-Man film, it's an okay place to start, but this is not an upgrade over Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2.  I'd say it's worth a matinee if you're dying to see it, but I think this better suited to watching at home on your HD-TV.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Magic Mike (2012) - Movie Review

I've heard numerous complaints that this movie is a bit of a bait and switch.  I'd have to say after watching Magic Mike that they are right.  At no point in this movie did I see the use of magic anywhere in the film!  How do you have a movie with "Magic" in the title and have none of the typical fantasy elements?  I feel duped...

I kid, but I can see why some might feel a little let down.  The advertisements made it look like it was going to be more of a wild party movie, and while there is plenty of eye-candy with all of the hairless, glistening abs, what you got was a deeper look at the life of someone actually trying to get out of the business.  Oh, and there's just as much eye candy for the men as for the women.  In the opening moments of the film, you are treated to a topless scene from Olivia Munn.

You see, Mike (Channing Tatum) realizes that stripping is just a means to an end; that end being starting his own custom furniture business.  Sure, he has fun with the stripping, but it doesn't define him and he understands that there's a shelf life on doing it.  You can see from his interactions with the other strippers that his motivations are bit different.  Although, it seems that every stripper you talk to is really a student, or just kind of fell into it, but Mike seems to actually have a definite plan to get out.

Mike has money saved up, but is having a hard time getting a business loan. As most of his jobs are cash based, he doesn't exactly have the best credit.  He works multiple jobs, doing consturction during the day, which is how he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer).  Adam's kind of a screw up and basically quits after his first day on the job.  Mike brings Adam along to one of his shows, but circumstances force Adam into the spotlight and ends up stripping.  Adam has fun with it though, and sees how much money he can make, so he decides to go with it.   His sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), doesn't seem to be too wild about his new employment, or Mike for that matter, but Mike promises to take care of him.

The first half of the movie you spend more time watching these guys dance and party, and it's easy to see why they love what they do.  It looks like a lot fun!  The dance numbers were actually entertaining, even for someone that had no real interest in seeing that initially.  About halfway through, there is a shift, and it starts to focus more on Mike trying to get out of the business, his budding romance with Brooke, and Adam's screw ups.  This is where movie gets a little gritty and you see more of the seedy underbelly of the business.  You may have heard comparisons to Boogie Nights and I'd say that's a pretty close comparison.

I've been really, really hard on Channing Tatum in the past.  I don't have anything against the guy personally, but I've just never thought that much of his acting.  However, between Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street (he was even decent in The Vow), I think it's time take the guy seriously.  He certainly has charm and charisma on screen.  If you've seen the Step Up films, we already know he can dance, but as someone that spent time as a stripper, it's a role he's familiar with.  I'm sure being able to identify with the character so well is what drew him initially to the project, and it it's clear he was able to draw from his own experience.  What can I say, you finally won me over.  Good job!

Steven Soderbergh has always been very good about getting the most out of his cast, even when working with actors not known for their skill.  He continues that trend here, getting great performances out of people like Tatum, Pettyfer and even Olivia Munn.  However, there's always an exception to the rule, and this time it's Cody Horn as Brooke.  She was just a blank slate, possessing no charisma the entire film.  It felt like she was literally reading her lines off a page without any emotional weight.  It's hard to believe why Mike would be interested in her, other than convenience, and it makes it hard to care about that aspect of the film since there's no chemistry.  It's odd because Mike's other main interest in the film is Olivia Munn's character and they seem to have much more chemistry in their short time together.

Matthew McConaughey plays what appears to be the grown up version of his character from Dazed and Confused.  You even hear him say, "All right, all right, all right..." several times in the film.  He's really great though as the sleazy club owner.  He seems to be going through a bit of a career revival recently with stuff like The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie, but Magic Mike might just be his finest performance yet.

You've also got guys like Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello and even the WWE's Kevin Nash as part of the crew, but they aren't given much to do other than have a few lines of dialog, dance and take their clothes off.

As you'd expect from Soderberg, there's some really interesting camera work and the movie as a whole is visually appealing. But like in Haywire, the entire film has this yellow tint to it.  His direction otherwise is great though.  He keeps taking chances and doing different types of movies, but even with his weaker ones there's something enjoy to take away from them.  The screenplay by Reid Carolin is smart, with sharp, and sometimes very funny dialog. I applaud them for making something that wasn't just all about sex or titilation, and could have been trashy like Showgirls or Striptease.

My only real complaint about the movie, once again, is the length of it.  This is close to two hours and could have been edited down a bit.  I didn't really mind the shift in tone, but the first half of the film is certainly more fun.  I think either removing the love story between Mike and Brooke, or recasting the role of Brooke with someone more interesting, would have helped.  Their romance dragged the movie down due to the chemistry problems mentioned earlier.

I can't help but wonder if Magic Mike might have sold better to a general audience with a different title.  If you can get past that and are comfortable with the fact that it's still about male strippers, Magic Mike is actually an intelligent and entertaining movie.  If you had bet me a week ago that I would have liked this movie, I would have told you to take a hike, but I was pleasantly surprised.  I don't have any problem recommending this as a matinee.  There's a lot of fun to be had here.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Sunday, July 1, 2012

People Like Us (2012) - Movie Review

It's interesting how a movie titled People Like Us, doesn't actually have people like anyone I know in it.  But People Like Them or People Like Who? don't really work, do they?

Chris Pine stars Sam, a salesman that finds himself in trouble both financially and legally, as he gets news that his estranged father has passed away.  With his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) in tow, he heads home.  He's so against going home that he (unsuccessfully) attempts to sabotage his travel plans.  This causes him to be late to the funeral, which upsets his mother, Lillian, greatly.

After the funeral, his father's lawyer hands him a bag with $150,000 and a note that asks him to give it to a boy named Josh.  Sam is torn, because the money would really help him and debates keeping it.  He does track down the boy and his mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks).  It doesn't take long before Sam realizes that Frankie is his half sister and she has no idea who Sam really is.

Frankie has her own problems as a recovering alcoholic.  Since she works all hours of the day as a bartender, she has very little control over Josh, who's always a step away from being expelled. Sam quickly bonds with Josh, but Frankie takes a little more time warming to him as she's unclear on his intentions.

The strength of People Like Us is all in the performances.  This is the best dramatic work I've seen out of either Chris Pine or Elizabeth Banks, and I thought Banks, in particular, really stood out.  She's both vulnerable and feisty.  I've always felt her strength has been in her comedic roles, so it was nice to see a different side of her.

Michael Hall D'Addario is also very good as Josh, but is desperate need of a haircut.  These messy, boy haircuts are a trend I hope fades out soon.  I also enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam's mom.  Is it just me, or is she still sexy as hell?  Mark Duplass, who's in everything lately, has a small role here as well.

Much like last year's Roadie, People Like Us features a nice sampling of older, lesser known music.  As Sam's father was a musician and music producer, it works in the context of the film.

This is the directorial debut of writer Alex Kurtzman, who's joined once again by co-writer Roberto Orci.  These are the guys have have written movies like Star Trek, Transformers and Mission: Impossible III, so People Like Us is a totally different direction for them.  The movie states that it's based on real events and apparently Kurtzman drew from some of his own life experiences.  I hope his real experience didn't play out like this movie did.  The characters are well written though, and you at least understand their motivation and what they are going through.

The main problem with the movie is that is does run on a little too long at almost two hours, and is paced a little too slowly.  There's a subplot revolving around Lillian's health that wasn't really necessary and felt tacked on to add even more drama.  Perhaps the biggest flaw of all is that it could have been a good 20 minutes shorter if Sam would have revealed who he was much sooner.  While I can understand not wanting to just come right out and tell Frankie up front, there's no reason to postpone telling her for as long as he did other than to string the movie, and us, along.  The delay in telling Frankie nearly leads to a "Luke and Leia" moment towards the end, and you see it coming from a mile away.  Yes, there's nothing like almost accidental incest in a family drama.

It does have a very sweet and sentimental ending that, once again, may have people reaching for the tissue.

People Like Us is a bit long and melodramatic, but it's saved by great performances from it's cast, especially Elizabeth Banks.  Its characters are interesting, sympathetic and you can't help but like them.  It also serves as a change of pace from all the Summer action films and comedies out there now.  However, I'd put this more in the rental category.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars