Friday, August 31, 2012

The Possession (2012) - Movie Review

Did you know that a demon will show up on an MRI?  Neither did I, and as The Possession is based on a true story, you can take that as a fact.

Have I mentioned before how much I hate when a horror film starts with "based on a true story?"  When you watch The Possession, (not to be confused with The Apparition, which only came out last week), there's never a point where you'll say to yourself, "Oh yeah, this totally could have happened."  Another thing that I'm getting irritated with are possession stories where the 'possessee' is a child.  Why do demon spirits always aim the bar so low for victims?  Why not possess a rich athlete or actor, or better yet, a world leader?  Anyway, they do explain that the demon needed someone pure, hence the need for a young child, but that doesn't mean this isn't a tired cliché.

Anyway, enough ranting.  Let's get to the movie, shall we? Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a recently divorced father. He's a college basketball coach, which apparently means that he hasn't always been the most present husband and father.  He shares custody of his two daughters, and desperately trying to connect with them.  In keeping with the clichés, the oldest daughter (Madison Davenport) is one of those bitchy pre-teens that you can't help but dislike a little.  Clyde's ex-wife (Kyra Sedgwick), oscillates between getting along with Clyde and then absolute hating him.  She's dating a new guy that's also a bit of a tool.  The Possession could have been called "The Comedian vs. His Unlikable Family".

Clyde has the kids for the weekend and takes them to the nice new home he just purchased, which the pre-teen hates because it's in the middle of nowhere, I guess.  While driving around, they come across a yard sale, and his youngest daughter, Em (Natasha Calis), is drawn to an old, wooden box.  The films prologue shows a bit of the backstory of the box, which involved an invisible force beating the shit out of an old lady.  As more is revealed later, this scene makes less sense as you learn that the point of the box was to contain a demon.  It doesn't seem like this box does a very good job of containment if it can kill people when the box is still sealed.  What's the point?

As Em plays with the box, her behavior becomes increasingly odd and violent, while weird things happen in the house.  Clyde investigates, and finds this box was used to contain an ancient Jewish demon called a Dybbuk.  So, the only new twist to The Possession is that the demon is Jewish, instead of the Catholic demon we normally see.  It's interesting to note that the family's religion was never brought up during the movie, so you have to wonder if this demon need a Jewish person to possess.  Clyde finds a Hasidic Jew (Matisyahu), that's willing to help him with an exorcism.

This movie had a serious volume problem.  At times the sound would be normal or even muted, which I thought was a nice touch at times, but then out of nowhere the music would get oppressively loud or an ear splitting scream or sound would be used after a quieter moment.  This was done even when there weren't scary things going on.  For example, an abrupt drilling sound was used to seal up a doggie door in the house after they though a raccoon got into the house.  It was a very cheap way to get a jump scare and I found it very irritating and the movie progressed.

It does have nice performances.  I've been a big Jeffrey Dean Morgan fan ever since his role as "The Comedian" in Watchmen.  Here he shows a little more range emotionally, and I did find myself sympathizing and rooting for his character.  I hope he can get more roles.  I also thought Natasha Calis had moments where she was creepy.  I couldn't figure out why Kyra Sedgwick's boyfriend was so familiar until I saw the credits roll and realized that it was Grant freaking Show.  I haven't seen that guy since the original Melrose Place.  On another note, has Kyra Sedgwick gotten into yoga or something?  Early in the movie she's wearing a sleeveless shirt and her arms and shoulders looked pretty cut.  Keep up the good work, Kyra!

The reality is that I love horror films.  I love the rush you get from the scare or even the anticipation of what's about to happen.  When a movie can give me genuine chills, there's almost nothing better.  Unfortunately, The Possession is not one of these films.  I'm especially disappointed because Sam Raimi produced this and it's missing all the humor and campiness you'd expect with his involvement.  It's not a bad effort from director Ole Bornedal, but there's just nothing new here.  Writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White are the same team that's brought you other lackluster films like Knowing and Boogeyman, so you can add this to their resume of lackluster films.

The Possession is just another middle-of-the-road possession movie.  It tries to cover for not being original or scary by using a lot of loud noises and cheap jump scares.  It had a few creepy moments, but overall this is very forgettable and not the kind of thing that will give you nightmares. Save it for rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lawless (2012) - Movie Review

I guess with the popularity of Boardwalk Empire we shouldn't be surprised if we see a trend of prohibition-era films.

This review might be a little spoilerific, so be warned.

Lawless is about the Bondurant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who were moonshine bootleggers during the prohibition. The story is based on the book The Wettest County in The World by one of their descendants, Matt Bondurant. I've never heard of the Bondurant Brothers, so they could have been based off the Bing Bong Brothers for all I knew.

Right away, I can tell you that this movie suffered from not deciding on what type of movie it was going to be.  It never focuses on one character or element enough, and even the tone of the movie is all over the place. Sometimes it's brutally violent, then it's funny, and at other times you aren't sure if you should be laughing.

Forrest, um, I mean Bondurant, while being a little unclear as to whether or not he's the eldest Bondurant, is clearly the boss of them.  At first you think this is going to be a bad ass movie about him.  He's kicking ass and telling the new lawman in town (played by a 'dastardly' Guy Pearce) to piss off, but then something happens to him.  This gives Shia the Beef an opportunity to prove to his brothers he has what it takes.  Then, you might think this turns into a revenge flick, but The Beef basically makes a bunch of moonshine runs with his pal, Cricket (Dane Dehaan), laughing all the way.  He's got a little more business sense than his brother, so he's making them more money, but not as much common sense, as he's just spending money all over the place.

While Forrest recovers, both he and Jack have their own romances, but neither added anything to the central plot.  It's shame because I really like both Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, but they weren't give much to do, especially with Wasikowska, and it felt like both characters where thrown in there just to give the main characters something to do during their down time between moonshine runs.

Gary Oldman shows up for early in the film, and you get a glimpse of what appeared to be another bad ass character, but that's all you get, a glimpse.  He's gone before you even get a chance to blink.

Even though many characters are underused and underwritten, the strength of the film are the performances.  I've been critical of Shia the Beef, but I thought his performance worked very well in contrast to the tougher nature of his older brothers.  I did think it was odd that his main characteristic seemed to be that he got his ass kicked in nearly every scene though.  Tom Hardy was a badass, but for the second time this summer, he plays another character that speaks with a voice that's difficult to understand at times.  Also, it seemed they missed another opportunity with his character, as the fable of Forrest Bondurant was that he couldn't be killed, but it's treated a little more than a gag and kind of glossed over.

Guy Pearce's character, Charlie Rakes, is this silly, over-the-top villain.  It seemed like a caricature of a villian from an old cartoon.  The only thing he was missing was a twirly mustache and cigarette holder.  Pearce appeared to have a lot of fun with the character though, and I thought it was a good performance.  Pearce is one of those actors that I think can do pretty much anything, but hasn't quite gotten that one killer role that he'll always be remembered for.  I hope he gets that chance.

Directed by John Hillcoat, who's directed much darker movies like The Road and The Proposition. I hoped this was going to be similar in tone to those movies, but it simply wasn't.  I never felt any real tension or like the characters were in any real danger.  He teamed up again with writer/musician Nick Cave. The screenplay is extremely straightforward and seems like something you could have seen on TV.  Lawless doesn't take any risks or do anything you haven't already seen before.

What couldn't have been on TV though were the visuals.  There are some really bloody, violent moments and there's also lots of nudity (thank you, Jessica Chastain).  It's a well-made movie as far as how it looks.  The sets are great and the setting felt authentic, but again, there's something in the details that just felt odd to me.

Speaking of which, here's one of the attention to details the bugged me.  Early on, Jack gets worked over pretty hard by Rakes.  He punches him several times on the left side of his face pretty hard, but in the subsequent scenes, he's face is bruised on the right side.  There's also very little swelling.  It was funny to me, because while Jack was getting his ass kicked in the scene I would have bet you any amount of the money that Jack's face wasn't going to look all that that bad after the beating he just took.  When a movie blows a detail like that, it kind of takes me out of the movie.   

Lawless is still an entertaining film, but I can't help but feel a little disappointed in it.  With the cast and all the window dressing, it had the potential to be something special, but it wasn't greater than the sum of it's parts.  It's suffers too much from lack of focus and inconsistent tone that makes it hard to completely get into, and at times it wastes its extremely talented cast.  I'm right on the edge between a matinee and rental on this one.  If you're really interesting in seeing this, then I'd say to check it out on matinee, but if you're on the fence, save it for rental.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ruby Sparks (2012) - Movie Review

How much easier would dating be if you could just dream your ideal woman/man into existence?

When we first see Calvin (Paul Dano) wake up in his very nice, Los Angeles pad, I was worried that this was going to be yet another movie where someone is somehow living in an expensive place well beyond their means.  This has always been a huge pet peeve of mine in movies. That's actually not the case here, as we learn that Calvin is an author that had the fortune of writing a very successful novel at a young age.

Calvin lives alone, and recently had a bad break-up.  His only real friend is his brother, and he went as far to get a dog to help him socialize.  This hasn't helped though, as his dog is scared of strangers.  His therapist (Elliott Gould), trying to help him through a bad case of writers block, gives him a simple writing assignment.  Calvin's been having a recurring dream about a mystery woman, so he begins to write about her.  Newly inspired, he flushes this character out to the point where she feels real and starts to fall in love with her.

One day, he wakes to find this girl, Ruby Sparks, in his kitchen having breakfast.  The movie never explains how or why, other than basically explaining away it away as magic.  They don't really fixate on this though, and the movie just asks you to go with it.  Calvin initially thinks he's going insane and Ruby is a product of his imagination, but he quickly realizes that she's real and is exactly how he's written her.

Writer Zoe Kazan, who also plays the title character, took a pretty interesting concept and played around with it.  She took the indie movie trope of the quirky, dream girl and put her in a normal relationship.  Things are great until you realize that Calvin really isn't all that great of a boyfriend. He's possessive, socially awkward and not very outgoing.  Ruby starts to get bored and attempts to make her own friends and do things on her own.  Unable to deal with this, Calvin tries to change Ruby.  At this point, the movie takes a turn for the dark and a little creepy.  You genuinely feel bad for Ruby the more Calvin interferes.

The film gets a nice boost from all of the supporting characters.  Calvin's brother, Harry, played by Chris Messina, has a lot of fun being the only other person that's aware of Ruby's true origins. There's another great part of the movie where they all go visit Calvin's mother (Annette Bening) and her current boyfriend (Antonio Banderas).  They are all just having fun enjoying life, except for Calvin, who does nothing but read and seem embarrassed by his family.  It's really hard to like Calvin at this point.  Steve Coogan has a small role and I always enjoy seeing him.

Paul Dano is an actor I've never quite been able to get into.  I just don't see what it is about him. However, I think this was a role tailor made for him and he did a good job with the rule.  I also came away really liking Zoe Kazan's performance.  Her script forces her to be all over the place as her character changes, and she showed a lot of range.  While not 'conventionally beautiful', she has a special quality about her, and it's hard to take your eyes off her anytime she's on screen.

One of the cool things about Ruby Sparks is there are a lot of different ways you can look at this movie.  It's very smart in that regard.  For me, the movie was as much about how flawed Calvin is and his idea of an ideal girl, as it is about Ruby.  Nobody is perfect, not your current girlfriend, and not your ex, even when she's "Baby Jessica" from True Blood (Deborah Ann Woll).  Trying to forcibly change them never has good results.

After a six-year hiatus from directing Little Miss SunshineJonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are back to direct Ruby Sparks.  I'm not sure why they took so much time off from directing, but I hope they continue to make films.  This is someone from someone that is in the small minority of people really didn't like Little Miss Sunshine.

My biggest problem with the movie is that it leads up to an ending, which while cute, didn't feel earned and I think it undermined the film a bit.  I would have preferred an ending that was a little more in line with the rest of the film's tone.

I really enjoyed Ruby Sparks.  It's one of those movies that kind of sticks with you, and I'm still thinking about it days after.  This is one of the smarter, and despite the magic element, more realasitc looks at romance and relationships that you're going to see this year.  Sure, it can be a little dark at times, but it's still something you can have fun with.  As this is in limited release, most of you likely won't have a change to see this in the theater, unless you have access to a place like The Vine.  It's worth a matinee, but I highly recommend renting this otherwise.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Premium Rush (2012) - Movie Review

I need to start riding my bike more.

I was a little worried about seeing this. First, it's a late-August movie, and with a name like Premium Rush, you might think this was a movie about surfing or a new flavor of Mountain Dew. Even when a movie stars two of my favorite actors, The JGL and Michael Shannon, you have to wonder if this is just a late-summer paycheck. Actors have to pay their mortgages, too. Plus, the trailers didn't really look all that compelling. I mean, it's a movie about a mike messenger getting chased all over.

Fortunately, Premium Rush is an entertaining film. It's a throwback movie if there ever was one. Veteran director and co-writer David Koepp managed to take a pretty basic premise and turn it into a fun, fast-paced thriller.

The title does serve as a double meaning, as it's both a reference to rush delivery (actually mentioned by name in the film), and the rush you get from riding your bike at high speeds where the wrong move can get you killed. Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a recent law school grad, has no interest sitting behing a desk all day or wearing a suit. He prefers to chase the rush he gets from riding, and makes a meager living as a New York City bike messenger. He has a philosophical view of his riding and enjoys the risk. He's such a purist that he rides a low tech bike with no gears or even brakes, because breaking gets you killed.  Wilee wouldn't have it any other way.  His fellow co-workers, and girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), all think he's nuts and needs to slow down.  He's the best at what he does though.

A friend of his, Nima (Jamie Chung), contracts him to make a small delivery, but this immediately puts him in the cross hairs of Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who really wants what he's delivering.  Monday relentless pursues Wilee with the tenacity of a Terminator, and Wilee doesn't understand why he wants it so bad.

As far as thrillers go, you aren't going to get any real surprises here.  The story stays on it's bike path from beginning to end.  More is revealed through a series of flashbacks that show you the events leading up to now, but also give you a break from the action.  You do get a rush from the film, as it's extremely fast-paced and you get invested in what is going on.  Similar to what I said in my The Expendables 2 review, I left this movie wanting to dust off my bike and take it for a spin. I'm not going to be doing any of the crazy moves seen here though.  The bike stunts here are great, and the way some scenes were shot you do get a real feeling on the speed and danger of it all.

Another really cool thing they did is at times they'd show some scenarios where Wilee would have to map out his route or plan out which way to go when it looks like he was running out of room.  Then they show you how each scenario would have played out.  It's similar to stuff you've seen in Sherlock Holmes or even Next.  They don't overuse this, so it doesn't get old or feel like too much of a gimmick.  I thought it was a nice touch.

It's ironic that main character's name is Wiley, as in coyote (he even makes a joke about it), as he's really The Road Runner being chased around.  He's always narrowly escaping, while pulling of moves that would get a normal person killed.  It felt like something you used to watch on Saturday morning. In addition to being chased by Monday, Wilee is also pursed by a bicycle cop, and harassed by a co-worker, Manny (Wolé Parks), who not only wants to prove he's better than Wilee, but he wants his girlfriend, too.

Speaking of his girlfriend, that's one of the elements that felt forced here.  From the opening moments, there's conflict between Wilee and Vanessa, and it just felt thrown in to add drama. They do a really weak job of explaining why they are having issues, and by the end everything is fine again without any discussion between the two.  Also, the way some of the characters were related to each other was a little clunky.

What makes this movie stand out is that is does have a good cast and the performances are strong.  The JGL always delivers and this is no exception.  I absolutely loved Michael Shannon's performance.  His character is totally ridiculous, but he's so completely over the top and corrupt that it was just fun to watch.  It's the kind of role where I don't think a different actor would have been able to pull it off.  I also enjoyed Wolé Parks as a foil for Wilee.  He's another character that could have felt thrown in there and unnecessary, but it worked.  Former The Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi has a small, but funny role as the dispatcher for the messenger service.

After I saw The Apparition a few days ago, another moviegoer expressing his disappointment in that movie simply said, "I should have gone to that bike movie instead."  Yes, we both should have.

Premium Rush is fun film with lots of great action, some unexpected humor and good performances.  If you've ever wondered a Road Runner cartoon acted out by humans looked like, this would be it.  It caught me by surprise and I enjoyed it.  It's a nice movie to catch if you're bored this weekend and just want something fun to watch.  Totally worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Apparition (2012) - Movie Review

I try to give every movie the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes you can tell 15 minutes into a movie that you're watching something horrible.  The Apparition, is a special kind of horrible.  It's so incompetent that I cannot believe it exists.

The movie's prologue shows of a group of people in the 1970s doing some kind of paranormal experiment.  It consisted of them standing around a table and proving it can move if you can't see what their feet are doing. At the end they take a group picture, and everyone is all smiles, so you're left to wonder what the point of that was.  It doesn't setup anything ominous.

Then, we fast forward to present time and a group of college kids are trying to replicate the same pointless experiment even though the last one proved nothing. This time 'something' gets out though.

We now skip to a young couple, Kelly and Ben (Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan), moving into a new home. You get to spend time watching them run errands to Costco and do chores around the house.  The dialog that these two have is so terrible that you question how they are even a couple.  The shots of the housing development are clearly trying to clue to you in to the fact that something is coming, you know like a 'poltergeist' or something. but the movie just won't get on it it.  It's scary to think how much time this movie wastes even though it's barely 80 minutes. There's maybe 5-10 minutes of actual story here.

The Apparition was written and directed by Todd Lincoln, and this was not a good feature film debut.  I can't imagine how this got pitched.  I think it might have been something like this:

Idea Guy:  "Okay, I have an idea for a movie.  It's called The Apparition."

Moron that Green-lit the Movie:  "What's it about?"

IG:  "It's about a young couple that gets haunted in their house by an apparition."

MTGTM:  "So, it's like Paranormal Activity.  People like those movies."

IG:  "Yeah, but towards the end, we'll have the girl from The Grudge show up randomly."

MTGTM:  "Even better!  What else happens?"

IG:  "Well the apparition does all kinds of mean stuff like open doors and move furniture when they aren't looking, mess up their closet, make loud sounds all throughout the house, and cause all kinds of black mold."

MTGTM:  "So this apparition is kind of a dick then.  What else happens?"

IG:  "That's pretty much all I can think of."

MTGTM:  "I think we're gonna pa..."

IG:  "Oh wait!  We can have Ashley Greene from Twilight spend half the movie walking around in next to nothing..."

MTGTM:  "She's hot!  I'm sold!"

IG:  "...but never actually get naked.  We can even have a gratuitous shower scene that reveals nothing."

MTGTM:  "Ah shit!  I already said 'sold', didn't I?"

IG:  "Yes, you did.  No takebacks!"

That pretty much sums up the whole movie.  There's nothing remotely scary about the film, and all it does is borrow ideas from other films.  Everyone acts illogically throughout.  For example, once they've been haunted for a day or two and terrified, instead of getting out of the house and getting a hotel, they decide that the best thing to do is pitch a small tent in the back yard.  Yes, I'm sure that will protect you.

Later, it becomes clear that Ben is part of the earlier experiments, and his former partner is desperately trying to warn him, but he refuses to acknowledge it.  As if ignoring everything will make it go away, even though you are clearly seeing that something's wrong.

When they do catch up with his former partner, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, I'm sorry), he proceeds to explain what is going on with a string of nonsense that just makes you roll your eyes at its ridiculousness.  The made up words he said in the Harry Potter films were more realistic.  Then, he has a plan to stop the apparition, when it's clear he never understood what he was dealing with in the first place.

The apparition itself is inconsistent.  Sometimes, it's merely harassing people, and other times it has the ability to instantly fuse matter.  If it's that powerful, then what's the point?  Just kill everyone.  Yet, at one point, it attempts to kill by smothering a person in a bed sheet.  Yes, death by bed sheet.

I feel bad for Ashley Greene.  I'm sure she's trying to get out from the shadow of the Twilight films, but movies like The Apparition are not going to help.  If anything, the only people that might be scared by this film are little kids that like Twilight and go see it because of Ashley Greene.  I'm sorry Ashley.  You're a gorgeous girl and I hope you get a chance to do something better next time.

It's one of those movies that turns unintentionally funny a third of the way through the film.  It says a lot when the largest laugh of the movie was when someone in the audience yawned.  However, "Your house killed my dog" has my vote for the funniest line of the year.

The Apparition is simply one of the worst films of the year.  It's one of the most boring, pointless and nonsensical films I've seen in a long time.  There is absolutely nothing redeeming about it on any level.  Just forget it exists.

0.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hit & Run (2012) - Movie Review

It's been a while since I've seen a good, old-school, car chase movie. I wasn't quite sure what to expect before I saw Hit & Run, but a good, old-school, car chase movie is exactly what I got.  I guess with a title like Hit & Run, I shouldn't have been surprised.

Annie (Kristen Bell) and Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard, and yes, named after that Charles Bronson) have a fairly simple life living in the middle of nowhere. Annie is a professor at a local college and is offered a huge opportunity in Los Angeles.  The problem is that Charlie is living in witness protection and can't exactly leave, and worse yet, LA is the scene of the crime.  However, time is of the essence and love trumps the risk, so he decides to drive her down there.

Unfortunately, a jealous ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum) figures out who Charlie really is and lets the criminals he ratted on (led by Bradley Cooper) know where he is.  The chase is on now between Charlie and his ex-gang, the ex-boyfriend that doesn't want Annie to leave, and the bumbling U.S. Marshall (Tom Arnold) assigned to protect Charlie. Annie isn't clear on all the details of why Charlie is in witness protection, but it doesn't take long to figure out what his particular skill set is.

Sometimes simplicity is a good thing, and that works for Hit & Run.  It's not bogged down with too many characters, cumbersome dialog or needless plot points.  Once the chase starts, there's very little rest until the movie is over.  However, you still get enough personality from the characters to care about what's going on.

If you're a car lover, you get to see a variety tearing it up.  I'm sure Adam Carolla or Jay Leno would appreciate this.  I'm not a huge car guy, so don't ask me what the makes and models were, but seeing some of these cars race around made me we want get a old muscle car and take it for a spin.  The car chases are fun and fast paced.  In fact, the whole movie just raced by.  I was shocked when I checked my watch and realized I was well past the halfway point in the movie. The chases are shot well too, as you're never confused about the action or what is going on.  I heard an interview with Shepard a few weeks back where he talked about how they made this with a very low budget.  If that's the case, then you can't tell by what's on the screen.  This looks better than a lot of big budget action films I've seen this summer.

One thing I liked about Hit & Run is how natural the dialog felt.  The dialog between Annie and Charlie is very cute and flirty, and the chemistry between the two is obvious.  I guess it should be though, since Shepard and Bell have been a couple for about five years.  They really are adorable together.  When you first meet Bradley Cooper's character, you think he's going to be a certain way, but then ends up being pretty level headed for someone that wants to get back at Charlie. People don't talk over each other or shout.  It felt very rational despite all the craziness of what was going on.  There's some raunchy stuff in here and much of the humor skews that direction, but there's plenty of funny moments throughout.  Much of the comedy relief is provided by Tom Arnold, and this is the best I've seen him since True Lies.

It's odd that I watched True Romance (R.I.P., Tony Scott) over the weekend as that's the movie Hit & Run reminded me the most of.  Not because of the car chases, but more just the general vibe. At times the original score sounded like something pulled right out of True Romance.

I've always liked Dax Shepard.  He has a casual charm about him and can be hilarious.  He's an avid car buff, so in addition to doing his own stunt driving, he also wrote and co-directed Hit & Run, (with David Palmer).  I'm impressed with his work here and hope he continues making films.  To keep the budget low, Shepard called in some favors based on some the cameos, but that's not a knock on the cast as it's a fun group.  Bradley Cooper was great as the bad guy.  He's played some asshole characters in the past, but this is a different look for him.  Kristen Bell really came out of this looking great, too.   I've always enjoyed Michael Rosenbaum, and have never figured out why he hasn't taken off since Smallville, but I always think he's funny doing comedy.  The always adorable Kristin Chenoweth has a small, but funny role, as well.

Hit & Run is a simple, charming and funny movie.  It has some high octane car chases that should please the car lovers out there and the pace of the movie never lets up.  If you were someone that was annoyed by the fact that last year's Drive didn't have enough actual driving in it, then you should enjoy this.  I really recommend checking it out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Expendables 2 (2012) - Movie Review

Do you like big guns?  Do you like 'splosions?  What about really big guns?  Wait, I said that already.  How about bad guys that can't shoot for shit?  Do you like testosterone fueled madness?  If you answered 'yes', then The Expendables 2 is the movie for you.  The Expendables 2 delivers on the promise that The Expendables didn't.  It's a blast from the past, combing all the actors and elements you used to love about 80's action films.  Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and the gang are back, and they're here to blow you up!

The story is typical action fare.  Ross is contacted by Church (Bruce Willis) to do 'one last job' and then they're finally even.  However, things go wrong, there's weapons of mass destruction involved, and now it's up them to fix it.  To add motivation, the youngest and newest member of the team dies in the process (sorry Liam Hemsworth), and of course, this was going to be his last job, too.  So, now they want revenge.  Typical stuff, right?

Stallone wrote and directed The Expendables, but this time around, Simon West was brought in to direct.  I guess you need the director of Con Air to handle the large cast and over-the-top action. The script by Stallone and Richard Wenk isn't what you'd call good, and it's not surprising that where the movie bogs down is basically any scene where there's no action.  There's some really awful, and in some cases unintelligible, dialog. But to be fair, you aren't watching The Expendables 2 for great, witty dialog. You just want to see how many bad one-liners they can throw into the film. Plus, it's really hard to hate a movie that goes out of it's way to make fun of itself.

Besides the dialog, there's a lot of poor editing.  They are constantly cutting between different characters and it sometimes is tough to keep track of what is going on during some of the busier action scenes.  There are seemingly endless waves of bad guys coming from all directions.  You'll see a guy get shot on a balcony only to see another guy pop up seconds later.  Where'd that guy come from?  Didn't they just get killed a second ago?  Is there a bad guy dispenser hidden somewhere?  It's like playing the video game 'Gauntlet' where if you don't kill the monster generator, they keep spawning.

There's not much of a point talking about the 'performances'.  These guys aren't really playing roles as much as they just being life-sized action figures.  You pull the string on their back and they say one of their trademark catch phrases.  They try to develop a few of these guys a little bit, but it was awkward for the most part and not necessary to the plot.  However, I did really enjoy Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain.  I think he missed his calling not playing more bad guys in his career.  He seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, and continues the rule that it's more fun to play a bad guy.

While not as bad as the first film, there were still a few guys that were underused.  Randy Couture felt like he was barely in it.  Jet Li checks out after the opening scene.  Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham appered to have the most to do, but Lundgren seemed like he was sleepwalking at times. Maybe that's just his demeanor these days.  We also get a lot more Terry Crews and finally the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Yes, he's back.  Chuck Norris also appears as a teleporter, who had the ability to be in any place at any time.  This is Chuck Norris we are talking about though. Lastly, you have Nan Yu as the techie/sorta-love interest, but I felt her character was totally flat and unnecessary.  If they needed to have that character, I think it would have been better to cast that role with more of a smart ass, sarcastic type that wasn't capable of taking part of the action.

I know it might sound like I'm being hard on the film, but now we're finally at the good part.  The Expendables 2 brings it in the action department.  The opening scene is such a frenzy of awesomeness that I could barely contain myself.  Everyone was having a good time, cheering, high-fiving each other.  It slows down for a bit, but then picks up and has several scenes, including the climax that should satisfy anyone looking to have fun watching crazy action.  It's über-violent and bloody, but the use of CG-blood at times kind of bugged me.  It's a minor complaint though. The movie has so much testosterone in it that you probably shouldn't take a drug test for a few weeks after.  Remember when you used to watch a martial arts flick as a kid and you'd leave charged up wanting to take karate?  That's how I felt after The Expendables 2.  I wanted to go lift heavy shit, work the heavy bag, and then drink some beer.

The Expendables 2 is dumb, loud, but most importantly, it's a lot of fun.  If you're a fan of old school action films, there's a lot to like about it, and it's great to see all these guys back on the big screen together doing what they do best.  It's a nice way to end your summer with a movie you can just shut your brain off and enjoy.  Normally, that's a quality that I don't like to boast about, but this time I didn't mind.  Get the guys together, catch a matinee, and then go do some Strongman training.

Somewhere, Steven Seagal is sitting by his phone patiently awaiting a call...

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, August 20, 2012

ParaNorman (2012) - Movie Review

On the surface, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) seems like a pretty normal kid.  However, he has odd ability: he can see and communicate with the dead.  This has made him an outcast. He's bullied at school, and even his own family gives him a hard time and wishes he would be 'normal'. His only friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), is just as much of an outsider as he is.

Norman continues to have visions that something terrible is coming, and when the small town you live in has a witch theme and history of witch executions, you know that can't be good.  He's warned by his uncle (John Goodman) that he must perform a ritual by sundown or the dead will rise.  Norman is joined by his sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Neil's older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), and Alvin the bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to stop the threat before it's too late.

The first thing you'll notice about this movie is its unique design. Everything from the houses, the cars, and even the character's faces, are a little off-center and asymmetrical.  It's simply a gorgeous movie, and the best stop-motion animation I can recall. I was initially concerned about seeing it as sometimes my eyes have difficulty focusing when the animation stutters, and it didn't help that the theater's projector was way too dim.  Replace your projector bulbs!  My initial concerns about it went away quickly once my eyes adjusted though.  One of the things I really loved about the use of this type of animation was that it gave the film a tangible quality.  The characters and sets had more weight and depth compared to how a CG-animated movie sometimes feels.

I was also surprised at how funny the movie was.  There's lots of referential humor to other horror films and sight gags that made me laugh.  Some of the humor felt directed at older audiences though.  While this is a movie that all ages can enjoy, some parts might be a little too scary for really young kids.  I saw a lot of kids sitting in their parents laps during some tense moments.  It's not bloody and there aren't any jump scares, but use your own discretion as to whether you think your kids can handle it.  Most of the kids in the audience seem to have adapted to the movie about halfway through.

The voice acting by the cast is great.  Outside of a voice or two, one of the things I love about an animated film is when they use recognizable actors, but you still can't quite place who the voice belongs to.  The voices all fit the characters well and you aren't distracted by them.

Sometimes I don't notice the score of a film, but the music of the movie was another aspect of ParaNorman that really stood out to me.  It fit the movie perfectly.  Plus, any movie that manages to squeeze in Dizzee Rascal's "Fix Up, Look Sharp", scores points with me.

It has a very powerful ending. At it's heart there are some poignant messages about acceptance, bullying and being an outcast. The movie doesn't hit you over the head with its message though. The basic story is one that's been told a ton of times, where the oddball/misfit/outcast is the one that has the power to save us, but with ParaNorman it felt fresh and it builds to a satisfying payoff. You have to credit writer and co-director Chris Butler with his work here.

I liked ParaNorman a lot more than I was expecting to. It's a funny and great looking film that everyone can enjoy. The voice acting is top notch and the film gives you a nice message that's important, especially for kids.  This is worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) - Movie Review

It's nice when the title of a movie doesn't mislead you. The Odd Life of Timothy Greenis an odd movie. Young Uncle Owen from the Star Wars prequels and Sydney from Alias...wait a second, I'm already getting off track. I'm starting over...

Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy (Jennifer Garner) are a young couple living in a small town that is "The Pencil Capital of the World."  Jim works for the local pencil factory and Cindy works for the town's pencil museum.  As the entire town revolves around pencils, you know these guys see a lot of excitement and know how to party.  So, Jim and Cindy have been trying unsuccessfully for some time to have a kid.  However, the movie begins with them getting the bad news that it's just not going to happen.  Rather than adopt, they basically decide to get over it, but before doing that, they write down their wish list of what their child could have been.  They take these notes and bury it in a box in their garden, like you'd do with a dead hamster.  Can you imagine the outcome if they had flushed it down the toilet like a goldfish?

So magic happens, and they wake to find that a child, Timothy (CJ Adams), is now in their lives. The magic is never explained, and movie just basically asks you to 'shut up and go with it.' Not only did they never bother explaining the magic, they didn't even bother explaining to anyone how they have a kid now. "We adopted him, or something. Why are you asking so many questions? Are you a cop?"

Anyway, the magic, garden boy's obvious physical quirk is that he has leaves growing out of his ankles.  It's clear that Timothy knows something about the significance of these leaves, but leaves (haha...get it) everyone in the dark about it. From the first meeting, he addresses Jim and Cindy as mom and dad, and there doesn't seem to be any confusion on his part about his role or where he came from.  To protect him, he now has the tortured existence of having to wear socks everywhere.  However, they take comfort in the fact that he will always have a built in Halloween costume as Poison Ivy and will fit right in at toga parties when he reaches college.  Okay, maybe I made that part up.

One of the attributes they wished for him was to be honest to a fault, so he aways seems to know the right thing to say, giving him that 'wise beyond his years' trope.  As the same time, his knowledge seems to be completely limited to what they wrote on the cards, as he's extremely naive and lacks basic knowledge at times. When needed, the script will have capable of something he showed no aptitude for previously.  As with all magical children, he's here to solve everyone's problems, too. Throughout the film I got more of a vibe that he was an alien, rather than a magic child. There's a part that will give you a real Superman vibe.

Everything felt so forced.  Jim has this strained relationship with his father, Jodie Foster's dad from Contact (David Morse).  Jim goes on and on about how he wasn't a good dad, but the extent of his terrible parenting seemed to be that he never hung around for all of Jim's soccer games.  I can't say I entirely blame him, as I tend to find soccer boring and zone out, but it felt like Jim needed get over it.  He even admitted that he wasn't very good at soccer.  It just felt thrown in to add drama and really wasn't necessary at all to demonstrate any motivation about Jim's need to be a good parent.  I was able to buy a little easier into the relationship between Cindy and her sister (Rosmarie DeWitt) because it seemed more of a natural sibling rivalry of two people with different values.

It's not an issue with the performances.  I thought everyone was doing a good job and the leads had their charm.  I think Joel Edgerton might have been trying a little too hard, but that would have also been due to Peter Hedges direction.  The screenplay from Hedges, with story by Ahmet Zappa, is fairly predictable and is too cliched.  It really takes no chances at all.  There's musical number that got a good laugh from the crowd, but I thought was so cheesy I could barely watch it.  I'm a little surprised at this as Hedges has written or directed some much better films (Pieces of April, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy).

Dianne Wiest plays the nasty boss of Cindy and I felt like her character was your typical mean old lady role.  I did like Ron Livingston as the pencil factory owner.  He plays a jerk boss, but I felt like he tried to milk some humor out of his part.  In another movie, it would have been more effective. Again, I'm not blaming any of the actors; their characters were all underwitten.

Timothy forms a relationship with Joni (Odeya Rush), and I think this the part of the movie I enjoyed the most.  I think if whole movie would have focused more on their friendship, like maybe a less quirky version of Moonrise Kingdom, it would have been a stronger film overall.  I think both kids had nice performances, and I think Odeya Rush is one to watch for in the future.

The ending was very abrupt and it sapped most of what emotion it should have had out of it.  I felt nothing from it, and was left wondering what the point was.  I don't mind a family drama, they can even be moving, but when the movie's ideas are so underdeveloped it's hard to get into it.  It's a shame because I liked the cast and it felt like were trying hard, but again, they weren't given much to do.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is one of these sweet and harmless family dramas, but it's also very sappy and contrived.  Maybe I'm being too hard on a family film that's basically a kid's fairy tale, but it's just too simple and predictable.  There are too many missed opportunities to do better things with the characters or flesh them out in a more satisfying way.  This is suitable for everyone though, and is something you can watch with your kids without hating it.  I didn't hate the movie, but it just didn't work for me.  I did like the performances, but there wasn't enough to the story to really recommend.  It's a rental, and probably one your kids will watch over and over.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Campaign (2012) - Movie Review

Hooray for low expectations.  I have to admit that The Campaign was yet another movie I was not looking forward to watching.  The trailers looked too silly, and I didn't think this was going to amount to much. Fortunately, The Campaign, while not a particularly good movie, managed to be much funnier that I could have hoped.

Will Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a North Carolina congressman that's had the good fortune to have been running unopposed for several terms.  He's had his share of slip-ups though.  Two wealthy business owners (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) have plans for the area and see Cam's current weakness as an opportunity to back a candidate they can manipulate and essentially buy the election.  They decide to back the odd son of a friend of theirs, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).

Marty is naive, and a little weird, but he genuinely cares about his community and thinks he can do some good.  With some coaching, he gains support and moves up in the polls, which throws Brady into attack mode.  The mudslinging begins!

The Campaign does take some shots at our system with regards to dirty campaigning, rhetoric and political manipulation.  However, it doesn't have quite the bite of other political satires, but I don't think you watch a movie starring Ferrell and Galifianakis and expect it to be heady.  One thing I did enjoy about the movie, is while Brady is a Democrat and Huggins is a Republican, the movie is free of any partisanship.  They don't talk about any issues, and I didn't see any shots taken at either side.  This genuinely sticks to 'the campaign', and not much else.

Like many comedies, The Campaign is a mixed bag and the humor has varying levels of success. I imagine when filming, there was lots of improvising and throwing stuff out there until they found something that either stuck or worked well enough to get by. This is rated R, so you do get a lot vulgar and goofy humor, but it has its laugh out loud moments. This is what I expected from director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers series, Meet the Parents), and he sticks to what he knows.  I think the movie would have benefit from a stronger screenplay though (written by Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy).

If you're worried that this is just about the leads doing voices and not much else, it's a little more than that. Zack Galifianakis actually played a character, and I enjoyed him where I was initially worried he might annoy me. Will Ferrell's basically doing a variation of his George W. Bush impression, but not quite as dumb.  You pretty much know what you're going to get when it comes to Ferrell.  Fortunately, I'm a fan, so it worked for me.

One thing I always enjoy about movies like this are how you always seem to get a few standout or scene stealing performances from the supporting cast.  For example, Dylan McDermott has a great role as a campaign manager who's job is basically to make Huggins 'not suck'.  He has many of the best moments in the film and was a character I wish they could have found more ways to use.  Karen Maruyama pops up from time to time in a hilarious role as a maid.  I always like seeing Jason Sudeikis and he has a straight-man role as Brady's campaign manager.  Much of his best moments simply come out of him being the voice of reason.

With how John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd's characters were always trying to manipulate behind the scenes, I got a bit of a Trading Places feeling from the movie.  It probably doesn't help that Aykroyd was in Trading Places.  I'm not saying The Campaign is anywhere in that league though.

Much like I said about The Watch, it all depends on how much you like the cast or movies like this.  If you've grown tired of Ferrell's man-child shenanigans, or aren't a huge fan of vulgar humor, then there's probably nothing here that's going to win you over.  For fans, The Campaign has enough funny moments that made it worth watching.  It's also a shorter more, only 85 minutes, so it lets you off easy by not dragging the movie out or running it into the ground.   While I think this is more in the rental category, it's one you can watch with a few friends and have a good time with.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Bourne Legacy (2012) - Movie Review

Rental month continues with the latest installment to the Bourne franchise.  I guess it would have to be a franchise now, as The Bourne Legacy is neither a reboot nor a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum.  The events of Legacy seem to take place around the same time of the events of Ultimatum, but I'm not entirely positive of that, as it's been a while since I've seen any of the previous Bourne films.  In fact, I would strongly recommend that you refresh with at least Ultimatum before seeing Legacy if you have the time.

The movie starts with a shot of Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross in the mountains retrieving an object.  Then, you're taken back to Stacy Keach and Edward Norton talking about shutting programs down and containment.  There are lots of callbacks and references to the previous films as they are doing this.  There are tons of code names and terms being thrown arond and it was tough to keep it all straight without a cheat sheet or something.  This goes on for a large portion of this 135 minute movie.  At times I felt like you could have called this The Bourne Meeting.  It really felt like much of this movie was Edward Norton's character talking about shutting things down, ordering people around and trying to do damage control.

While this managed to keep my interest, since it is a good cast and it's well acted, I kept wondering when they were just going to get on with it.  There are very few action sequences in the entire movie and most of the early scenes with Aaron Cross are very short.  It's not until almost the last 20-30 minutes until it really takes off.  I just wish there had been more of it or maybe quickened the pace the first hour or so.  They simply took too much time to tell the story they did.

Cross's main motivation in the film is to get more chemicals.  They explain that there are two types of chemicals these agents take: a green pill and a blue pill.  Once enhances the body, and the other their mind.  The catch is, if you don't take them at regular intervals or run out, your abilities degrade rapidly.  They mention these 'chems' a lot, and with all this talk of greens and blues, I couldn't shake the craving for M&M's throughout the film.  I had to pick up a bag after the movie.  Bring M&M's if you plan on seeing this.

Anyway, so Cross runs out of drugs and is simply trying to get more so he can retain his abilities.  That's it.  He's not trying to expose anyone, there's nobody he wants to kill, or anything like that.  This leads him to seek out Rachel Weisz, one of the scientists that used to do work with the agents.  Weisz is also on the run once the cover up operation is in effect and everyone starts getting killed.

What keeps your interest are all the performances.  Jeremy Renner is focused as Cross.  Renner is one of those actors that you just can't take your eyes off of even when he's not saying anything.  The scenes with him and Weisz were very interesting.  Edward Norton was good too, but they didn't really give him much to do and it kind of felt like he was just playing Edward Norton.  There's not much to any of these people as far as character development or personality.

It's unusual that this is called The Bourne Legacy when the screenplay by Tony and Dan Gilroy (Tony also directed) has very little to do with the the actual Bourne book of the same name.  The story is after the original director backed out of Legacy, Matt Damon did too - MATT DAMON! - so they went back to the drawing board and decided to do another movie set in the same universe, but not actually about Jason Bourne.  I actually don't mind that they did this.  It opens up the possibility of bringing in other actors or going down different paths if they do additional movies.  At the same time, they could have simply continued with the Bourne story and just cast different actors, similar to what they do with Bond.  Oh well...

While I don't think The Bourne Legacy is a bad movie, I was a little disappointed.  It's strong cast keeps you interested, but there's too much behind the scenes action and not enough focus on the main character.  It's slowly paced and doesn't have the same punch (literally) as the previous films.  This is something much better suited for a rental.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, August 9, 2012

2 Days in New York (2012) - Movie Review

Imagine watching an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia only it's based in New York and some of the characters speak French.  Maybe even throw a little Woody Allen in there.  That's the feeling I got when watching 2 Days in New York, the latest effort from writer/director/actor Julie Delpy.

Delpy stars a Marion, an artist that has an upcoming show where she is selling her soul as a concept piece.  She's in a relationship with Mingus (Chris Rock), a writer and radio talk show host.  They each share custody of a child from a previous relationship.  Things seems to be fine until a visit from Marion's father, sister and boyfriend throw their lives into a 2 day whirlwind of crazy.

Marion's father (played by Deply's real-life father, Albert) is passionate, a little nutty, and is difficult to communicate with as he only speaks a handful of English.  Her sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), is sexually aggressive and seeks to push Marion's buttons at every moment.  She also has no issue with casual nudity.  Rose's boyfriend (Alexandre Nahon) is an absolute buffoon, acting pretty much on any impulse that pops into his head.  As soon as he's introduced, he declares he was Marion's ex and tries to bond with Mingus over 20-year-old music (Salt-n-Pepa).  The look on Rock's face is priceless.

You're basically watching Marion deal with the increasing craziness of her family and going from situation to situation over the 2 days.  Sometimes it's very funny, and other times it can be a little uncomfortable to watch.  Imagine knowing a group of people that just say whatever is on their mind without any regard for the appropriateness of it or who they are saying it to.  These are self-absorbed sociopaths we are dealing with here.  Mingus seems like the only sane person and you're watching the film from his perspective.  He's just as stunned at their behavior as we are.  As much as he'd like to just put them all on the next plane back home, you have to deal with the in-laws when you're in love, right?

Chris Rock was the highlight of the movie for me.  His performance was witty and had some nice nuance in his delivery.  It's a much different Rock than what you're used to seeing.  This is the type of stuff I'd like to see him stick with moving forward.  He's better than the silly comedies he's been stuck with since transitioning from SNL and stand-up.  The entire cast was very good and played off each other well.

Delpy directed and co-wrote the screen play with Landeau and Nahon.  They did a good job juggling all the characters and conversations without it feeling too hectic or busy.  It's not hard to follow at all.  While the movie is very funny, it's a little bit of a mixed bag.  It's like they tried everything, but it didn't always work.  As exaggerated as some of the film felt, it never felt unbelievable though.

This is a sequel to Delpy's 2 Days in Paris, which is a movie I haven't seen, but now wish I had after watching 2 Days in New York.  I imagine I might have enjoyed the movie even more with a little more familiarity with the characters.

If you like watching family comedies dealing with uncomfortable situations and dialog, then 2 Days in New York is for you.  You'll be entertained by watching someone deal with their family the only way they know how, but at the same time be glad it's not you.  It's witty and smart, but a little uneven.  This is one of the limited release films, but it should be available On Demand now.  It's nothing you have to rush out to the theater to see, but I recommend it as a rental.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hope Springs (2012) - Movie Review

Okay, remember how I just said in my Total Recall review how August is a lame month for movies?  Well, it still is.  In fact, I call this month "Junior Varsity for movies", but sometimes movies come out that surprise you.  August will have some sleepers, and Hope Springs is one of them.

It's a very basic story.  Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have been married for 31 years, and are going through the motions.  Kay cooks same breakfast every morning, he heads to work, and then comes home to dinner and watch golf until he falls asleep.  While Arnold is just fine with the status quo, Kay is concerned that things are headed in the wrong direction.  The magic is gone, and they've been sleeping in separate bedrooms for years.  Kay books a counselling session from Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) to try and repair the relationship.  Arnold reluctantly comes along, complaining all the way.

Once again, you have a movie where I feel like the trailer kind of misrepresents the movie.  While this is actually a dramedy, the movie is fortunately free of humor taken from silly or obvious jokes.  Nobody falls down for a laugh and there aren't any lame sex jokes or anything like that.  Sometimes the humor comes from just a simple look, or watching Tommy Lee Jones struggle through his frustration at the situation.  While you think the presence of someone like Steve Carell would signal a comedic role, he plays the role with a serious and calm demeanor.  You actually buy that he's this successful couple's therapist.  If he had spent the movie saying uncomfortable or inappropriate things, basically playing Michael Scott, the movie wouldn't have worked.

Despite the huge names playing the roles, you quickly forget who you're watching and actually believe that these two are a couple that's been together for decades.  There's nothing left to be said about Meryl Streep.  She's simply the best.  Tommy Lee Jones impressed me the most here.  He has such a surprising vulnerability, and you can see it with every close up of his face.  So much is said without saying anything.  I felt like I was watching a master class in acting.

After a while, you get this weird feeling like you're watching your parents or grandparents.  I'll have to warn you, there are some moments in the film where it might feel a little 'icky', like I would imagine how you'd feel if you caught your parents or grandparents going at it.  It's all relative though.  For some of you this won't be an issue it all, but younger audiences might get that feeling.  At the same time, I think the familiar feeling you get watching them is what makes this work.

Hope Springs was written by Vanessa Taylor, who's mainly written TV up to this point (including some episodes of Game of Thrones).  Her screenplay doesn't have any surprises, but the dialog and situations felt natural.  Joined with director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), they brought a movie that felt real and honest.  Honestly though, with these two actors, did he really have to do much more than just say 'action' and 'cut'?

Hope Springs is a nice change of pace from your typical Summer film.  If you like watching two great actors show a softer side, it's worth watching simply for the performances.  At it's heart, it's a sweet film about a couple rekindling their romance and remembering why they are in love.  I was pleasantly surprised by this and I think it makes for a nice date movie.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Movie Review

Every once in a while you see a movie that's difficult to talk about because it defies description and you spend hours or days thinking about it afterwards.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies.

Beasts... follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old living in 'the Bathtub'.  The Bathtub is a small area south of the levees in Louisiana forgotten by everyone else.  I'm guessing this is meant to take place after Katrina, as the events appear to be set in modern times, but time or dates are never mentioned.  The survivors have rebuilt their community, cobbled together from spare parts, and living off the land as best they can.  They are under constant threat of either being evicted by the government if discovered, or being flooded again, but they are either too proud, or too stubborn, to leave.  This is their home.

Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), who's trying to prepare her for the day he's no longer around and will have to fend for herself.  He's tough on her, but you understand why.  They even live in separate trailers, further building her sense of independence.  Wink explained to Hushpuppy that her mother swam away and hopes that one day she'll return.

For most of the movie you are just watching how they get by, and you'll see their strong sense of community.  Listening to the narration by Hushpuppy, she considers the Bathtub to be a magical place.  You'd think people living in these conditions would be miserable, but they are always celebrating, drinking, and appear to be happy.  For someone like Hushpuppy, she's never known another way of life.

Where the movie takes a bit of a fantasy turn is when a melting glacier releases a pack of ancient beasts called aurochs that are headed towards the Bathtub.  Throughout the movie I wondered if these creatures were a figment of Hushpuppy's imagination, or some kind of metaphor that was just beyond me.  I won't say how it plays out, but the movie leaves many things up to you.  Despite this fantasy element, the rest of the film has a very real and gritty feel to it.  The look of the film almost makes you think this could have been a documentary about people living in post-Katrina events.

As with many independent films, you have a large number of first timers or unknowns in the film.  This was an impressive debut for director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin.  This was co-written and based off a play called Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar.  This effort in many ways reminds me a lot of last year's The Tree of Life.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is just as ambitious as Malick's film, and has that same feeling of being transported into these people's lives and watching what they are going through.

The performances Zeitlin got out of everyone is impressive.  Quvenzhané Wallis was incredible as Hushpuppy.  Despite only being six-years-old at the time of filming, she plays the role with a mix of innocence and toughness, but also has that 'wise beyond her years' quality.  This is the kind of performance that kids win Oscars for.  Dwight Henry was also great as Wink.  It's interesting that Henry was a baker before making this movie, and apparently doesn't have much of an interest in an acting career.  However, he's a Louisiana native and having lived through Katrina I think it allowed him to bring something to the role that another actor might not have.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of those movies that will mean different things to different people, and I don't think anyone will be wrong in how they want to interpret it.  You can watch this many different ways and get something different out of it each time.  It's an impressive vision from a first time director, and has wonderful performances from a small group of unknowns.  I highly recommend checking it out.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, August 3, 2012

Total Recall (2012) - Movie Review

Well, it's August already, so it's time to start dumping out the films that can't compete with the big boys of Summer.  I know that sounds a little harsh, but we're starting the month with a totally unnecessary remake of a film that many of you already own on DVD.  I guess you could say there are spoilers here, if you haven't seen the original.  Otherwise, nothing that happens in this new Total Recall is going to surprise you.  In fact they seem to reference the original movie constantly to the point where you're like, "Why don't I just watch the original instead?"

If you're totally unfamiliar with the story, Colin Farrell takes over for former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid.  Quaid is a factory worker married to Lori (Kate Beckinsale), and has a very basic life.  However, he continues to have nightmares and can't shake the feeling that he's meant for something else.  He decides to go to Rekall, a place were you can get memories implanted to experience different things.  He chooses to have memories about being a spy, but before anything happens, a SWAT team bursts in and Quaid manages to kill them all.  He returns home to find Lori isn't actually his wife and reveals that he actually is a spy.  Then he goes on a series of chases, eventually joined by a resistance member (Jessica Biel), who tries to help him stop the evil Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) and foil his plan.  Cohaagen's evil plan involves creating an army of the robots from I, Robot to take over.

Both this and the original were based on a Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale".  Initially, we were promised a more faithful adaptation to the original story, but what we got here was just a remake of the original film with a few slight changes.  Gone in this version are the references to Mars.  Instead we're introduced to a world ravaged by war, where there are only two habitable areas left on opposite sides of the planet.  To travel between the two, they've built a giant train that travels through the core of the Earth.  You can try and wrap your head around that one, but this is Summer film, so if I can buy in to the premise of a colony and travel to Mars, I guess I have to accept a giant elevator travelling through the planet.  Although, travelling to Mars seems like the more realistic scenario these days.

Unfortunately, I just don't have all that much to say about Total Recall.  I saw the same movie 20 years ago, and I still have a fondness for it.  It didn't need a remake.  Sure, the original was silly and it doesn't hold up great, but it had one crucial thing that was missing here: fun.  This remake is just too serious and dark.  Plus, it's missing all of the mind games I felt the original had, but maybe that's due to the fact that I'm too familiar with the story.

The cast is fine, but it seemed like everyone was just going through the motions, and I just wasn't all that interested in any of the characters.  There's never any suspense or a moment where you think that Quaid is in any real danger.  I think part of the problem is that in an action film like this, you need someone with the presence of Schwarzenegger.  It's not that Colin Farrell did a bad job, he's clearly a better actor, but I just didn't get the same feeling from the character that I needed to truly be invested in the story.  It's a shame they get people like Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston to be in this and just don't give them that much to do.  I think Kate Beckinsale was probably the highlight for me, as she has most of the best scenes, but this shouldn't really be a surprise as she's married to the director.

Director, and Fremont native, Len Wiseman (nice shout out during the movie to my home town) did a decent job.  From his previous films like Underworld and Live Free or Die Hard, he seems to do well directing action and big action sequences, which are the best parts of the film.  He just didn't do enough with the story, and instead filled it with tons of action sequences, which to be honest, started to get kind of boring and repetitive as the movie wore on.  I felt like the movie lost steam about halfway through.

The effects were pretty good though and it's a nice looking film.  You can see where they spent most of this films budget.  However, there were some times, especially when they did wider shots of the city, where I thought some of the details looked really bad.  Like it needed just a little more polish.

I guess it's kind of ironic that a movie with recall in the title reminded me of so may other films.  You'll watch this and be reminded of stuff like I, Robot, Minority Report, Blade Runner, and even The Core.  They are all just mashed up together.

As a standalone action film, Total Recall isn't terrible, but if you've seen the original, there's nothing here that you haven't already seen before.  Watching it feels like playing a familiar video game, just with different graphics and skins.  It's a rental.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars