Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The To Do List (2013)

I love a good sex comedy.  I love Aubrey Plaza even more.  The To Do List is a movie I had circled on my calendar for a while now.  "Sigh...", was my reaction after watching it.  Here's why...

After high-school graduation, class valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) prepares for college.  Her two best friends take her to a party where she gets drunk and almost has sex with a college guy named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).  Brandy realizes her lack of sexual experience hurt her chances of closing the deal, so like all super smart, highly organized people she makes of list of sexual things she plans on accomplishing over the summer, with the end goal of losing her virginity to Rusty.

She takes a summer job as a lifeguard at a community pool, where Rusty happens to work, as well a bunch of goofballs like her socially awkward friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons), who's clearly in love with her; Derrick (Donald Glover), and her boss Willy (Bill Hader).  They are all silly and weird.  Like, Willy drinks a lot and can't swim even though he manages a pool.  Hilarious and ironic, right?

The To Do List is set in Boise, Idaho in 1993.  This allows the use of 90's references and music.  Some may appreciate that they don't beat you over the head with the 90's, like how Adam Sandler does with the 80's in many of his films.  Many of the references are subtle, and I wondered why they even bothered setting it in the 90's, and then it dawned on me: NO INTERNET!  It's a lazy way to explain away why someone wouldn't be aware of commonly used sexual terms.  What excuse would an 18-year-old in 2013 have for not knowing what some of them meant, especially if they were genuinely interested in learning?  That's why urban dictionary exists.  They even went as far as to have a lame montage where Brandy actually tries to look up 'the shocker' in a dictionary, ponders that 'teabagging' must be a English thing, or that 'motorboating' should be easy to accomplish as she knows someone with a boat.  I can understand someone being naive, but this is bordering on extreme stupidity.  Plus, a lot of the things mentioned in the film were definitely not part of the vernacular back in 1993.  I graduated high school in 1991, and had frequent access to actual porn, and didn't hear many of these expressions back then.  Trust me, if teabagging was a thing back when I was in high school, it would have been a frequent occurrence at drunk parties or part of jock hazing.  Granted Boise is a little more conservative than the Bay Area, but even if Brandy wasn't aware from her own lack of experience, her sexually active friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) should have clued her in at some point.  I also thought it was a little odd that a valedictorian would not be aware of what foreskin is, unless Boise schools don't have sex education.

Part of me had trouble accepting the premise in the first place.  It seems odd to me that anyone would think this a good or safe idea, let alone someone that clearly idolized Hillary Clinton.  I wonder if writer/director Maggie Carey thought she was making an empowering story about a young girl taking charge of her sex life, but a lot of what happens here is actually irresponsible.  For instance, nobody, including her best friends and own mother, tell her it's okay to be a virgin, or that there's nothing wrong with waiting or not rushing into sex if she's not ready.  Her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) gives her shit for being a virgin in front of her family.  I would think her parents would be relieved to know this, especially considering her older sister's behavior.  Instead, there are lots of awkward sex conversations between Brandy and her mother (Connie Britton) where Amber asks them to stop talking about it or her father immediately leaves the room due to him not being comfortably.  There's lots of unnatural dialog throughout the film.  There's another weird joke where her mother says to Brandy that if she's going to have sex, then make sure to have lube.  Not protection, or birth control, but the concern is lube.  The lube joke is mentioned more than once.

I think all of this irritated me more by the fact that at the end they force in a message about how for some people sex is a big deal and very emotional, but for others it's more about fun.  If you haven't had it yet, it's a big deal and weights on your mind until you do.  No shit.  So you're really saying that, "sex means different things to different people".  Well, thanks for that brilliant insight.  I guess it's a good thing that this is rated R, so that younger kids won't be exposed to this.

I know sound like an angry, old dude again, but I'm just bummed out at what a mess this is.  Compare this to something like The 40-Year-Old Virgin that handled someone losing their virginity in a much sweeter, and way more hilarious fashion.  Most of the jokes in The To Do List are tired or just don't go anywhere.  Many of the situations feel forced.  For an R-rated, sex comedy I was actually surprised at how it tame it actually was.  I chuckled a handful of times at best.  If this movie came out 10 or 15 years ago, then some of this stuff might have been fresh, but many of the gags here have been done before.  They also make several jokes about how Brandy has small boobs, and do a bit where her top falls off in the pool more than once.  Nearly everyone picks on her about her chest.  Have fun with your body image, ladies.

There's a Caddyshack reference that fell really flat, not just because was gross, but because only Brandy was aware of the fact it was from Caddyshack.  The naive Brandy has seen Caddyshack, but none of her goofy co-workers?  Remember this was set in 1993.  This joke could have worked if the film had been set in the present day, where Caddyshack would be a 30 year old film, and it made sense that younger kids weren't familiar with it.

It's such shame because The To Do List has such a talented comedic cast.  If you had told me that there was a late-Summer, sex comedy coming out with April Ludgate, Agent Coulson, McLovin, Young Neil, one-half of Troy and Abed, Andy Samberg, Maeby Funke, and Stefon from SNL, I would have bet on it being a homerun.  Adam Pally, who's great on Happy Endings, is in maybe two scenes and then gone.  Clark Gregg plays Brandy's dad, and it seems the only reason his character is in the film is to repeat that he's a judge over and over.  There's no payoff to this at all.  Why even mention his profession if there's no relevance to it, or no joke planned?  His character also forgets who Cameron is on multiple occasions despite that he's one of Brandy's oldest friends.  There's another running gag about the girls watching Beaches that I found no humor in, and there didn't seem to be any point to.  Beaches came out in 1988, by the way.

I think the most disappointing thing is that I had really hoped this would be the vehicle to really propel Aubrey Plaza into more lead roles.  I'm a big fan of hers and one of the legions of geeks out there that has a nerd crush on her.  She even stepped out of her comfort zone a bit by not playing Brandy with her usual deadpan demeanor.  I do need to mention that it took me a little out of the film to have a 29-year-old playing a recent high-school graduate, with a 31-year-old playing her slightly older sister that still lives at home.  I actually thought Rachel Bilson was kind of funny though.  I can forgive the age disparity a little bit, as it's always been something movies have done. However, I've praised several recent movies for casting younger actors that actually looked age-appropriate, so this seems like a step backwards in that regard.

I think a lot of what didn't work about the film could have been improved simply by changing the setting to Brandy being a senior in college and away from home.  She's been buried in her school work and doesn't have a lot of friends.  Realizing that her college experience is about to pass her by, she decides she wants to experience a bunch of things, like alcohol and sex, before graduating and getting out into the real world.  Basing this on someone just out of high school was a real mistake.

As much as I was looking forward to The To Do List, it pains me to say that it's a real disappointment and kind of a mess.  It a sex comedy that isn't sexy, creative or push any limits.  It wastes a talented cast with stale, unfunny jokes that go nowhere.  I really can't recommend it to anyone except for die hard fans of Aubrey Plaza.  Even then, it's barely a rental.  Better yet, skip this movie and rent Easy A instead, a much funnier and creative film about a girl dealing with sex in high school.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, July 29, 2013

Fruitvale Station (2013)

I've been looking forward to watching Fruitvale Station for a while, but was a little more nervous about writing my review.  I wasn't worried about how the material was going to be handled, but more that I tend to avoid politically charged discussions, especially on the internet.  Let me get all my disclaimers out of the way.  I don't want anyone to think that I'm condoning the actions of the BART police, nor that I know anything about Oscar Grant as a person.  The events of that night were a series of unfortunate mistakes that let to the killing of a young man.  It's simply tragic.  I'm sure I'm not the only one that watched those video clips of that night and said, "F-ing cops!", or, "Hey man, just shut up and stay seated.  Stop trying to stand up and argue with them."

For those of you that don't know me personally, you may not be aware that I live and grew up in the East Bay Area.  I've ridden that very same BART train for most of my life.  I passed through the Fruitvale Station more times than I can count.  It's one of the many stops on the way when going out to San Francisco to watch movie screenings or hang out with friends.  I remember all the news reports and clips of the Oscar Grant shooting as it happened, as well as a lot of the aftermath.  I'm not going to get into the trial or anything like that, and try as much as I can to stay away from editorializing too much here.

As far as the film, it was interesting seeing BART and the Bay Area from a perspective that I normally don't see.  I also appreciated the fact that it was actually filmed in the Bay Area, and not some other location and then passed off as from here.  I recognized too many places for them to have faked it.  However, despite living here all my life, I've never had a reason to get off at Fruitvale Station.  I think a lot of people you'll talk to from the Bay Area haven't been there either.  You only get off there if you live there.  It's not a place to hang out or shop.  I actually had this very conversation with someone at a bar the night before seeing the film.

Again, this isn't to let the BART police off the hook in any way, but BART is no picnic sometimes.  I can tell you from my own experience that I've seen fights break out, panhandling, homeless people pissing on trains and in the station.  It's well known that if you plan on drinking and going to San Francisco; or an A's, Warriors, Raiders or Giants game and don't want to drive, then you take BART.  I've been on packed trains full of angry, drunk people.  Sometimes you have try your hardest not to make eye contact with anyone.  I recently witnessed a toothless man shout at people that he was going to kick their asses, and half the train clearing out to avoid any trouble.  This was on a random, Tuesday afternoon.  There's part of me that understands the quick and aggressive reaction from the police on a night like New Year's Eve, when they run the trains later than normal.  New Year's isn't the only time I've seen the BART police react in force to an event night.  Also, note that I have good friends that are cops.  I also have friends that are from that part of the Bay Area.  They are all good people.  Sure, there are some bad eggs out there, but I'm just trying to say that it's not all black and white, and I understand some different perspectives.  So much for me trying to not be political.

Fruitvale Station begins with one of the many cell phone clips of that fateful New Year's Day back in 2009.  If you weren't familiar with the events as the movie began, you know right from the start how it's going to end up.  As a result, there's a cloud of dread that hangs over the story throughout as we follow the last day of Oscar Grant, played in the film by Michael B. Jordan.

One thing that struck me was that the film didn't paint Grant as some kind of saint. You're watching him argue with his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz) about his sleeping around with another woman, and then he hides a bag of pot when his daughter (Ariana Neal) comes to the door.  I don't really care if he was selling pot.  That's not a big deal to me, so I didn't look at this as something that made him a bad person.  Through some flashbacks, we also see that Oscar was a convicted felon that spent time in prison.  Shades of grey.

As we watch the events unfold, we see that it's Oscar's mother's (Octavia Spencer) birthday.  He spends a good portion of his day running errands and communicating with family and friends while planning her birthday dinner, and then what they plan on doing for New Year's Eve.  We also see him struggling with keeping a job and how to best raise his daughter.  The movie does a great job of making Oscar a sympathetic character.  You could argue that it's heavily embellished or attempts to manipulate you in this regard, but I never got the feeling that's what writer/director Ryan Coogler was trying to do.  It's not heavy handed like that, or has a cheesy musical score that forces you to feel a certain way.

I say embellished because Oscar spends a lot of this film by himself, so I can't say how much of this is just guesswork, artistic license or dramatization.  I'd like to know if Ryan Coogler was able to sit down with Oscar's with family and friends to get a little more insight into him.  What you get from the film is that Oscar was a young guy that's made some mistakes, but wants to turn his life around.  Again, even if Oscar had done some bad things in the past, he was still a man that didn't deserve what happened to him.  Plus, the cops couldn't have been aware of his record at the time.  One of the saddest things about Fruitvale Station is that I came away saying, "What if?"  What if the cops had handled that situation better?  Would Oscar have been able to turn his life around?  We'll never know.  How is this going to affect his daughter going forward?  If her family is as loving as what we get from the film, I think she'll turn out just fine.

Even if this wasn't based on a true story, it would be just as tragic and heart wrenching to watch.  I'm willing to admit that I teared up at the end a little.  It's that powerful and emotional.  Octavia Spencer is great and has few moments that are going to pull on the heartstrings a bit, but Michael B. Jordan's performance is truly amazing.  I've been impressed with him for a while, but this is really a breakout role for those unfamiliar with him.  There's no way you can watch Fruitvale Station and not feel something for Oscar Grant because of Jordan's performance.  Despite knowing how this is going to end, I couldn't help hoping it was going to turn out differently somehow.

I'm shocked to see that this is a first time effort from Ryan Coogler.  I'm absolutely blown away at the effort from a 27-year-old.  I'm glad to see that he's also a Bay Area native.  However, I was kind of surprised to a see a film written by a native where he allowed characters to refer to San Francisco as "Frisco".  Unless something has changed recently and I didn't get the memo, it's always been frowned upon to call it "Frisco".  Around here it's The City, SF or even sometimes San Fran.  This is a nitpick as far as the film goes, but I've seen people have angry or violent reactions to the use of the term "Frisco".

I also have to give some credit to Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray for playing the BART cops on that night.  Durand, in particular, is an actor I like quite a bit, but they had to have known going in that they are playing two guys that are generally hated.  I felt that was kind of gutsy on their part for taking on the roles, cause you're going to watch Fruitvale Station and think they are dickhead cops.

Powerful, emotional and wonderfully acted, Fruitvale Station puts a human face on a recent tragedy.  It reminds you of how short and tragic life can be.  The film also highlights Michael B. Jordan as a future star and director Ryan Coogler as a filmmaker to keep your eye on.  I would not be surprised to see multiple Oscar nominations for the film, and it's easily one of the year's best.  You need to see this.

5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, July 26, 2013

Red 2 (2013)

Is this summer of sequels nobody was expecting or asking for?  There was Grown Ups 2 a few week ago and now we have Red 2.  The difference is that I at least enjoyed Red.  I'm struggling trying to remember anything about it though.  I had to look up if Morgan Freeman was in it, and even then I still couldn't remember anything about his character or what he did in the film.

Sadly, Red 2 is even more forgettable than Red.  The way I feel about Red 2 is the way I feel about a lot of family oriented comedies or TV shows.  It's silly and harmless.  I'm actually at a loss as to why it was rated PG-13.  There's barely a drop of blood in it, and I don't recall any objectionable language.  I saw families bringing younger kids with them and nobody seemed to have any issues.  All I heard was laughter at the silly humor.

We pick up with Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) as they are shopping at a Costco.  Frank is trying his hardest to have a normal life, but Sarah seems to be a little bored.  Marvin (John Malkovich) tracks them down and warns that people are after them again.  As they were leaving Costco, Marvin's car explodes, but there's no suspense to this as we're only five minutes into the film and know that Malkovich is in the movie more.  It just seemed like pointless misdirection and even in the film nobody is fooled by it.

Also, I had to call B.S. as Frank and Sarah leave Costco empty handed, despite seeing them load up a shopping cart in the previous scene.  Nobody leaves Costco empty handed.  NOBODY!  It's was nothing more than one of many examples of product placement throughout Red 2.  There's also Papa John's and probably the most creative use of Pringles I've ever seen on film.

Anyway, Frank is brought in for questioning in his relation to an operation called "Nightshade", but Frank has no recollection of this.  During the questioning, a group of people led by Neal McDonough, barge in killing everyone, before Frank gets away.  I was still invested at this point as I always seem to enjoy McDonough's performances.  He's become one of those delightfully creepy, scenery-chewing actors in the mold of William Fichtner.  I love it when you can tell an actor enjoys playing a villain.  Unfortunately, he's not given much else to do in the film beyond this point.

The trio hop from place to place trying to figure out what's going on.  Besides McDonough, a top contract killer is on their trail, as well as Victoria (Helen Mirren) who is hired by MI6.  The contract killer, Han (Byung-hun Lee), was previously screwed over by Frank, so he's extra motivated to kill.

Then, they run into a Russian agent that Frank used to have a relationship with (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and track down an information broker called "The Frog" (David Thewlis).  They eventually find out that Nightshade involved smuggling a nuclear bomb into Russia, and was related to a physicist named Dr. Bailey (Anthony Hopkins), who Frank and Marvin used to protect, but believed was killed.  Dr. Bailey is actually alive and has been locked away in an asylum for the last thirty years.  They break him out to find where the bomb has been hidden.  Are you still with me?

Besides the overall silliness, the main problem I had with Red 2 is that the plot is ridiculously convoluted.  There wasn't a real need to have a story this all over the place.  Simple is fine when you have this many characters and settings.  Maybe even trim a few of them to make it easier to follow.  This is compounded by having character allegiances that change on a whim, people with unclear motivation, and all kinds of backstabbing.  We finally learn that the bomb was actually made out of something called red mercury, which is supposed to be some kind of super weapon, but it's not clear why.  They said something about it having minimal fallout, but wouldn't that make it slightly less dangerous or minimize collateral damage?  SPOILER - They let the bomb explode at the end and nobody seems too concerned about it, so what was the big deal?

There's another moment at the end where something happens that makes absolutely no sense, and there was no explanation as to how.  Wanna know why there was no explanation?  Cause it couldn't have happened unless Frank had magical powers.  There's no Oceans Eleven type scene that clarified it after.  Here's another thing that bugged me.  How come bad guys never shoot at the ground?  When you start firing into a room at waist or chest level, you have to know the people inside are going to drop to the ground.  Maybe all the gunmen could alternate shooting high and low.

I think even the film was worried you might not be following along.  They show an establishing shot of The Pentagon and actually bothered to put "The Pentagon" on the screen, as if anyone watching the film wouldn't know that you're looking at The Pentagon or be unfamiliar with the general shape.  I kept expecting them to put up other obvious things like "Outside" or "Costco".

I have to blame the script more than the direction.  These are the guys (Erich and Jon Hoeber) that wrote the masterpiece that was Battleship, after all.  I don't get it, you write a piece of shit like Battleship and they hire you to write more movies?  I guess Kevin Smith was right when he said in Hollywood you fail upwards. I actually like director Dean Parisot, as I think he's done some fun movies and shows, and I think that's what he tried to do here.  Just keep it fun, and the cast seemed like they were having a good time and playing off each other well.  Even Bruce Willis seemed to be enjoying himself more here when compared to his performance in the last Die Hard.  There are a few fun action scenes, so it isn't all bad.  I didn't even realize this was based on a DC Comics series until I saw their logo at the beginning, and once I realized that I forgave a lot of the cartoony action.  I also liked how the scene transitions were done in a drawn, comic book style.

As I've said earlier, the humor of the film is very tame and silly.  There are a lot of repeated jokes and gags that weren't really funny in the first place.  I will admit that I laughed a few times overall, but I cringed at the bad jokes even more.

Red 2 is a bit of a mess and too silly at times, but it's harmless enough.  It tries to get by on a good cast and a few entertaining action scenes, but tonally it's all over the place and just kind of lazy.  You'll forget you saw this movie after a few days.  I didn't hate it, but I can't recommend it as anything other than a rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Wolverine (2013)

"Hey bub, don't forget about me!  I'm still here!" - Not actually said by Wolverine.  Oh sorry, it's The Wolverine now.

I kind of feel bad for old Logan.  A few years ago he was at the top of the food chain as far as superheroes go, but then Fox decided to piss all over the comics and nearly destroy the franchise.  He's had to resort to uncredited cameos and sneaking a movie in at the end of July.  Despite all the trailers and commercials, a good number of my friends weren't even aware there was a new Wolverine movie coming out.  Judging by the lack of attendance at the theater, I'm guessing that the public at large was either unaware or staying away.  It's a shame because The Wolverine is actually a decent movie.  It's certainly a step up from either X-Men: The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  That's not saying that much though.  You should have filmed Hugh Jackman pooping on the street, and that would have made for a better film than either The Last Stand or Origins.

I wish I would have
saved this issue.
I was a little hesitant to see this one myself due to all the delays and different directors attached at various points.  It was a few years ago when I last saw Darren Aronofsky doing interviews about it before dropping out.  The most encouraging news I'd heard was that The Wolverine was going to be based on the Chris Claremont Wolverine limited series from the 80's when Logan was in Japan.  That was the definitive Wolverine series when I was a kid.  That's when he became cool to me and my friends.  In fact, that series is what got me into reading comics and into the X-Men in the first place.  We'd trade those around and read them over and over.  The irony is that I barely remember anything about it.  I can say that while The Wolverine does focus on his time in Japan, I'd say it's pretty loosely based on that series.  Some liberties were taken, but that's fine with me though.  It's nothing like the liberties taken in the latter half of Origins.

Taking place sometime after the events of The Last Stand, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living isolated in a cave up north.  Haunted by visions and dreams of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), he's having difficulty getting past things he's done.  I was having issues with this, too.  I thought we had all agreed that The Last Stand never happened.  I liked that The Wolverine began with him dealing with his internal conflict, I just wish the previous films allowed for a better starting point.  I don't like that the X-Men's movie-universe has already killed off a character like Jean Grey.

Logan heads into town to confront some hunters for poisoning a bear, but before things escalate Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mysterious swordsman, intervenes and asks Logan to accompany her to Japan to meet her boss.  She reveals that her employer is Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the head of a large technology company.  Logan saved a young Yashida back in WWII when the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki (which we see in a cool flashback).  Yashida is extremely sick and wishes to repay his debt to Logan before dying.  What he proposes is to take Logan's healing factor and transfer it to him, giving Yashida immortality and allowing Logan the opportunity at a normal life.  Logan actually refuses this, and Yashida dies that night.  As this happens, Yashida's "oncologist" (Svetlana Khodchenkova) infects Logan with something.

Later at Yashida's funeral, the Yakuza attack and attempt to kidnap Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto).  During the escape, Logan is injured and finds he's not healing like normal.  Whatever that oncologist did to him has affected his healing factor.  Mariko and Logan go into hiding together while they try to figure out who's after her and why.

About halfway through The Wolverine it dawned on me that I wasn't watching a superhero movie anymore.  While the setting gives this more of a general martial arts feel, it's more about Logan continuing to struggle with his past and trying to move on.  After the first 30 minutes, there's not a lot of action either, yet I found myself more engaged despite this.  It's much more interesting to watch Logan deal with his failing powers and internal conflict while still trying to protect Mariko.  The fact that he's no longer invincible makes him more human and compelling.  It's also way more satisfying when things eventually turn back to his favor.  Director James Mangold did his best work with these character moments.

The real weakness to The Wolverine is that the plot itself isn't all that developed.  When we find out what these people want with Mariko, it's not all that convincing or even very interesting.  Many of the characters appear to be playing both sides or have unclear goals, but since we don't know much about them it's difficult to understand why or care.  Mark Bomback and Scott Frank's screenplay needed some punch up and fine tuning.  It's frustrating because just a few tweaks here and there could have put this over the top.

There are some great action scenes though.  The highlight is one that takes place on the top of a speeding bullet train.  I was a little worried about the look of it based on the trailer, but it really stands out as the best in the film.  The action scene prior to this could have also been a great scene, but it suffers from bad editing and too much shaky cam work.  It's getting really frustrating that action films continue to employ this when I don't know anyone that likes it.  A later fight scene has too many cutaways and would have been better served to have some wider and static shots.  Part of the issue is that they were going for a PG-13 rating, so they had to avoid showing all the stabbing and excess blood.  It isn't bloodless, but I wouldn't call it bloody.  You do see a few scenes of swords going through people, but it felt like cartoon violence.  Also, you may struggle a few times wondering how a sword or knife is impaling parts of the anatomy where Wolverine's unbreakable adamantium skeleton should have prevented it from happening.

Despite all this, it's not until the very end when it finally succumbs to dumb, comic book movie action, where you've got lots of CG and improbable physics.  Additionally, a friend of mine who knows his metal, pointed out a bunch of inconsistencies regarding the general physical properties of metal during the climax.  It's not enough to ruin the film, but it's hard to ignore when you think about it.  The special effects overall are good though and definitely an improvement over Origins.  I saw this in 3D as I didn't have a choice.  It didn't ruin the film, but didn't add anything to it either.

A few words about Hugh Jackman before finishing up.  I love how seriously he takes this character, but still seems to have fun with it.  I also really respect how seriously he takes getting in shape for the role.  He's in another league as far as preparing yourself physically for a role.  I've seen other actors turn their backs on superhero roles, or not dedicate themselves to the physical demands, but Jackman understands what Wolverine has done for him.  It's hard not to appreciate that he still cares after all these years.

Oh, one last thing.  There's a great post-credit scene that totally made me geek out.  I was already looking forward to X-Men: Days of Future Past, but now I'm really looking forward to it.  There's nothing at the very end though, so you don't have to sit through all of the credits.

The Wolverine is a comic book film that tries its hardest to not be one, but ultimately still suffers from some of their faults.  The dialog and story are little muddled, and it has some bad camera work coupled with a typical big, dumb action climax. Where it works is when it gives us a little more depth into Wolverine as a character.  It's definitely a big step up from X-Men Origins: Wolverine and I think fans of the series will ultimately enjoy it.  Worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Only God Forgives (2013)

Since "Only God Forgives", does this mean I don't have to cut Nicolas Winding Refn any slack for this head-scratcher of a movie?

Coming into Only God Forgives, I was already on the fence regarding Refn.  I was a huge fan of Bronson (that was based on a true story though), but could barely get through the slog that was Valhalla Rising.  Despite all the critical acclaim and even my own initial love for Drive, I've since soured upon it after realizing many inaccuracies regarding cars and the plot.  If you make something called Drive and can't get your facts straight about cars, it kind of comes off as arrogant to me.  Then, I heard about how he called Carey Mulligan "chubby", and was like the guy is kind of an ass.  Having said all that, I watched Only God Forgives with a fairly open mind, and even though I can't say I liked it, I'm still willing to watch future films of his.  I'll give him credit for doing something different.

At least Only God Forgives has a general plot, but bear with me as I'm going to have to get into some spoiler territory to explain it all.  Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his older brother Billy (Tom Burke, who looks like a poor man's Michael Shannon) run a Thai boxing gym in Bangkok.  They are also criminal drug dealers.  Billy, in particular, is a real piece of work.  He rapes and kills an underage prostitute, but is caught by the police.  Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the father of the prostitute to beat Billy to death, but then cuts off the father's arm as punishment for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute.  It wasn't clear to me at first that Chang was even a cop.  Based on his behavior and methods, I thought he might be some kind of rival crime lord.

Their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives to take care of the body, but she also wants revenge.  She's disappointed to learn that Julian has already let the father go once he found out that Billy raped and killed his daughter.  "I'm sure he had his reasons", she said.  While unintentionally hilarious, it illustrates the kind of person Crystal is.  Later we see that she had a very bizarre relationship with her sons, so it kind of makes you understand how these two didn't go down a good path.  I enjoyed Scott's performance the most though.  She's so creepy and horrible.

Crystal hires a series of hitmen to take out Chang, but he's always one step ahead of them.  Chang is ready with his magical "Sword of Justice" to deal out the punishment.  I call his sword magical, because it always seemed to come out of nowhere.  You'd see shots of Chang from the back where he didn't appear to have a sword on him, but he could reach behind his head and unsheathe it when needed.

I'll say this for Refn, he doesn't shy away from brutal violence.  This features bashed-in heads, forced amputation, and people sliced open.  It's gorier than a lot of horror films I've seen lately.  I also kind of got a misogynistic vibe as well.  Billy's opening moments are asking if he can have sex with a 14-year-old, and then beats up a different woman before finally raping and killing the 16-year-old.  He's quite the psychopath.  Then we see Julian have a prostitute tie him down to a chair while watching her masturbate.  Later he forces that same prostitute to remove a dress he bought her after taking her on a fake date.  Don't even get me into the weird shit that happens on later in the on between Julian and Crystal.  I'm still trying to figure out what the hell one of the final scenes was supposed to mean.

At times it gets all metaphysical with several dreamlike sequences that either flashback or foreshadow events in the story.  It's a little confusing and hard to watch at times.  It also doesn't help that Refn doesn't seem to be a big fan of dialog.  Ryan Gosling has one word, not even a full line of dialog, but one word spoken in the first 23 minutes.  I don't know what it is about Gosling, but he seems to be on a recent streak of movies that don't really demand him to speak all that much.  You can practically count the number of lines of dialog said by the main characters on a hand.  Is Refn's next film going to be called Stoic?  You don't get any emotion from anyone.

Only God Forgives is shot after shot of people stand and staring, or walking slowly past doorways.  I've often heard that every scene of a film should advance the plot or develop a character in some way.  I can't say that happens here.  There's one scene where Gosling stares at his fists and then turns the light off at his gym.  What was that scene trying to say?  When Chang isn't doling out justice, he sings karaoke.  This happens several times.  Is this to show how dispassionate he is about what he's doing?  I get that you can tell a story visually without dialog, but several times I found myself scratching my head wondering what the hell was going or what was trying to be said.

There are some interesting themes regarding family, justice and honor though.  While watching you may change your opinion over who the bad guys are.  I started thinking that Chang was the bad guy, but was rooting for him by the end.  I also looked at Julian as a grey character.  Despite being a criminal, he does have a code of honor, and couldn't completely dislike him either.  The best moment is a showdown between Julian and Chang that I actually had to rewind and watch several times I enjoyed it so much.

Refn does have a very interesting visual style and I like the way he framed many of the scenes.  Even though I don't always like the story, I at least appreciate his films for their look.  While I liked the soundtrack to Drive quite a bit, I thought with Only God Forgives at times it sounded a plane passing overhead.  Later I was reminded of something from a creepy horror film.  It's very moody.

A challenging movie, Only God Forgives is not going to be for everyone.  It's pacing and lack of dialog will make this feel longer than its 90 minute runtime for most.  Some may not even be able to finish it with all the weirdness and violence.  While beautifully shot and there are some interesting themes, there's only a handful a moments that made this watchable.  Even the most die-hard Ryan Gosling fans are likely not going to be able to enjoy this one.  I can only recommend this one if you are a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn, and even then it's a rental at best.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

Haunted house films have been played to death, haven't they?  I'm surprised they keep making them, because what else can they do?  However, every once in a while someone makes one that has an interesting style, twist, or is simply well made.  The Conjuring is one of these films.

The Conjuring grabs you in a unique way right off the bat.  Instead of getting simply meeting the family the story is ultimately about, we actually begin by being introduced to a pair of paranormal investigators.  Fairly well known and respected, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) explain how they solved a previous case they worked on.  It's like a separate short story featuring a creepy-ass doll.  Beginning the film this way allowed them to setup some of the rules and background without hamfisted exposition later on.  It also establishes the Warrens as a capable duo that really believes in what they are doing.  They genuinely want to help people that think they are being haunted or possessed, and are not trying to take advantage of people or exploit them.  You don't see the Warrens as frauds or anything like that.

We move on to the Perron family as they move into a new home.  Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lily Taylor) have five girls, which could be a separate horror film by itself.  Wasting no time at all, they start noticing strange events around the house.  Things like clocks stopping at the same time every night, weird smells and noises, seeing things in the dark, and Carolyn starts getting random bruises.  Things continue to get worse and worse, leading to the Perrons contacting the Warrens for help.

The Warrens bring a team and setup cameras and equipment around the house to capture any events that occur.  This part of the film reminded me of Poltergeist a bit.  I also liked the fact that one of the members of their team was a local cop (John Brotherton) that didn't believe in this stuff.  Even the Warrens were a bit skeptical and reluctant to check out the house at first.

More events happen after the team arrives and they begin to have an idea of what's causing these disturbances.  I liked that as they discovered more it didn't become ridiculous or convoluted.  It's a standard haunting/possession.  Sometimes keeping it simple works and the film is smarter because of it.  They even address the trope of why the family didn't move out when it was clear something bad was going on.

Another really strong aspect of The Conjuring is that you actually have a reason to like the Perron family.  They're just a normal family that you could sympathize with.  Plus, they don't do any of the typical stupid things that make you want to pull your hair out in typical horror films.  I also appreciated that they stuck to the rules the established in the beginning of the film.  Too often you see a horror film not being consistent with its own rules as the movie goes on.  I have to give credit to Chad and Carey Hayes for their screenplay.  The Conjuring is based on true events, which is something I'm always skeptical of, but this is one of the times where I was so invested in what was going on that I didn't even think about it.

The performances are all strong too.  Farmiga, Wilson, Taylor and Livingston are always solid and nobody was overdoing it.  Even the kids, played by Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy and Kyla Deaver, all gave fine performances.  There's no weak links in the cast and everyone treated it seriously.  You really felt how terrified they were as a result.

The Conjuring has a genuinely creepy and eerie tone throughout the film.  While there are a few jump scares here and there, it doesn't resort to cheap scares or lots of blood.  Many times it relies on simple noises, or tricks with shadows and darkness, allowing your imagination to get the better of you.  I'm not embarrassed to admit it got me to jump more than a few times and I got the chills several times as well.  This was while watching in a fairly full theater, but it would be even scarier to watch this at home with the lights off and a good surround system.  I always know when a horror film gets to me when I walk upstairs to my bedroom and I check over my shoulder a few times.

Lastly, I was also really impressed with James Wan's direction.  It seems like he learned from his experiences with Insidious and applied that to The Conjuring.  I thought with Insidious the story got away from him a little bit towards the end, but with The Conjuring he actually managed to keep the tension level very high.  I also liked the attention to detail.  The film is set in the late-60's/early-70's and it really felt like a film made back then.  Not just in it's overall look, but in the style of the film.  This would fit right in with a marathon of films like The Omen or The Amityville Horror.   I had to kind of laugh at one scene where you're in the Warren's home and you see all this red carpet and really awful wallpaper everywhere, and said, "Yep, this is the 60's/70's".  The period helped with the creepiness as well.

The Conjuring is an old-school horror film.  It manages to be consistently scary by setting a creepy and eerie tone, without having to rely on special effects, excess blood or cheap jump scares.  It also has a smart, consistent story and strengthened by good performances that actually make you care about what's going on.  Easily one of the best horror films of 2013 and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants a good scare.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

R.I.P.D. (2013)

It's natural when seeing the trailer for R.I.P.D. to compare this to something like Men in Black, and I'm sure that's what the makers were counting on.  The problem is that R.I.P.D. is missing all humor, fun, and chemistry of M.I.B.  It's a shame because with a few script tweaks and punch up, this might have been a fun watch.

Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is a Boston detective that's killed in the line of duty.  In the afterlife, the head of the Rest In Peace Department, Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker), gives him the choice to either face judgement or join the force.  While not a dirty cop, Walker hadn't exactly been keeping his nose clean, so he takes the deal.  Plus, he hopes this will allow him to contact his wife (Stephanie Szostak).  Walker is paired with a veteran R.I.P.D. officer, Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges), to show him the ropes.

I appreciated the fact that they don't take a long time to get the story going.  Everything mentioned previously takes place in the first 5-10 minutes.  The problem is they rush through it so fast that they don't really establish their own mythology that well.  The rules regarding the dead are just glossed over.  There's a whole thing involving how the dead react to spicy food and Cumin that is used several times, but never really explained well.  The dead have all kinds of effects on the outside world that aren't fully explored in any kind of fun way.

Even the powers the R.I.P.D. lawmen are just kind of waved off as they happen.  The biggest gag regarding the lawmen is that they appear differently to the outside world.  We find (and this is shown in the trailer) that Pulsipher is seen to outsiders as a hot blond (played by model Marisa Miller) and Walker is an old, Chinese man (James Hong).  I'm kind of shocked to see this was Marisa Miller's first movie role.  You'd think she would have been in a ton of films by now, even if she was just cast as eye candy.  Anyway, I would have liked to see a little more of her (and I don't mean in the flesh) and James Hong together, just to play on how the outside world perceives them, and to have to gags where Miller and Hong are doing Bridges and Reynolds impressions.  There's a lot they could have done with this, but they only use it to show people either staring at Marisa Miller or whistle at her.

The R.I.P.D. is comprised of the greatest lawmen in history.  That they don't take advantage of this at all is one of the biggest wasted opportunities of the story.  There's not a single reference to any historical lawmen.  No Wyatt Earp, Eliot Ness,Wild Bill Hickok, etc.  Hell, you could have tried to get Timothy Olyphant to reprise his role as Seth Bullock from Deadwood.  Just a small cameo would have been great.  Even if the makers of the film had said this is fantasy world, they could have had fun referencing fictional lawmen instead.  Wouldn't it have been cute to hear references to detectives and cops from old TV shows and movies, like Dirty Harry or Joe Friday?  The fact that there aren't even fictional references is all the more noticeable by the fact that Jeff Bridges is basically doing his Rooster Cogburn act from True Grit.  Why didn't they just make his character be Rooster instead of "Roy Pulsipher".

As much as I love Jeff Bridges, I really wish he had gone a different direction with his performance.  Again, I'm sure this is something the makers of the film thought would have a big appeal.  We'll get Bridges and have him do Rooster again and people will eat it up.  It didn't feel original, and then half the time you can't understand his dialog because it sounded like he's got a big wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth.  Ryan Reynolds, on the other hand, didn't appear to even want to be there.  That's likely because there's very little to his character.  He doesn't have any good lines, and he doesn't get a chance to showcase any of his normal, fast-talking delivery.  I didn't get any chemistry at all between the two.  Kevin Bacon tries to have some fun with his character, but again, he's not given much to do either.

Most of the attempts at humor fall so flat that I wasn't even sure if that's what they were going for.  It was frustrating to sit through this waiting for something to make me laugh, or anything interesting or clever to happen.  Characters and relationships are so poorly developed that they just become a series of repeated lines.  Pulsipher makes constant references to how he died, and there wasn't any point to it.  His character oscillated from weirdly sensitive to gruff, and you could never get a handle on what he was about.  There's also a strained relationship between him and Proctor that seems like they are setting it up for some kind of payoff, but it never does.

Director Robert Schwentke seemed to have difficulty finding a tone for the film.  It's never silly enough to be campy, but it's still difficult to take seriously.  I'm sure it didn't help that the script was brought to you by the writers of other smash hits such as Aeon Flux and the Clash of the Titans remake (Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi).  This was based on a comic book by Peter M. Lenkov, which I haven't read, so I'm really curious as to what the tone of the source material was.

It's interesting to note that they had originally cast Zach Galifianakis in the role, but he pulled out due to scheduling conflicts.  I think that would have been an interesting way to go, but it's a shame that we'll never see what could have been.  At least with Galifianakis in the role, it would have been a given that it was going to be a comedy.

The special effects weren't very good.  Most of the dead characters looked rubbery or computer game looking.  It actually looked like a film made 5-10 years ago.  Due to available showtimes, I got stuck seeing this in 3D, and it was totally useless 3D so you can skip that.  The action itself was pretty uninteresting as well.  It's just a series of ho-hum chases and shootouts.

R.I.P.D. is an interesting enough premise and could have been a fun film, but it ends up being a total bore.  There's no charm, wit or anything memorable about it.  It's a totally unremarkable and forgettable film.  I'm really surprised this came out in mid-July is this is something better suited for a late August or early September release.  If you have to watch it, save it for cable or cheap rental.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Grown Ups 2 (2013)

Wait, say that again?  There's a sequel to Grown Ups?

I was surprised as anyone the first time I saw the trailer for Grown Ups 2.  Did anyone actually like it?  I don't know anyone that does, but maybe that's because they're afraid of being Force-choked for admitting that in my presence.  Good taste aside, I guess the first made enough money because there's no way they'd make another one otherwise.

I guess the beauty of Grown Ups 2 for the studio is that it couldn't have taken more than a week or two to make, and the budget couldn't have been spent on much else than the actor's salaries.  I know they didn't spend money on writers or an editor.  Grown Ups 2 doesn't even have a plot.  Seriously, I defy anyone to watch Grown Ups 2 and tell me what it's about.  It's just a bunch of short sketches and gags.  I think this is what frustrates me about Adam Sandler and Co. so much.  With these guys being SNL alumni, you'd think this would be their strength.  Also, we've all seen guys like David Spade, Tim Meadows, Kevin James, Chris Rock, and even Nick Swardson be much funnier in their own standup routines, other movies and TVs shows.  Yet somehow combining all of these guys amounts to a bunch of lazy, uninspired comedy.  Is it that they don't care, have total contempt for the audience, or genuinely think this stuff is funny?  I can't help but watch Grown Ups 2 and think that if they had just put even a modicum of effort into the writing, then we'd genuinely have a funny movie on our hands.  I can forgive a lack of plot if the movie is hilarious otherwise.

A lot of the humor is based on things that simply can't happen in reality.  The opening scene is the one you see in the trailer where somehow a deer gets into the house and up to a second story bedroom without anyone noticing or waking up.  I guess it was a stealth deer.  This leads into a stupid pee joke that wasn't funny in the first place, but looked awful because they did it with bad CG.  They do this pee joke twice!  Why is this even in the movie?  They could have not put this in the movie and saved the money on the bad CG.  Cause F-you, that's why!

At least I didn't find the humor as mean spirited as in Sandler's more recent films.  However, if you aren't into poop, fart or throw up gags, then there's a lot you aren't going to like.  I'll admit there's a part of me that still can laugh a good fart or burp, so when Kevin James does his burp-sneeze-fart I couldn't help but chuckle a little.  I also got a giggle out of some of the various cameos sprinkled throughout the film.  The thing is a cameo isn't a joke by itself, and many are dependent on you even knowing who these people are.  Like if you don't recognize older SNL cast members, ESPN anchors, or lesser known comedians, their appearances will likely go unnoticed by you.

The rest of the film is lame fratboy humor, or making fun of characters that aren't aware they are the butt of the joke.  There's a running gag where Tim Meadows and family just go "Whaaa?!" anytime they are insulted.  There's no comeback, just "Whaaa?!"  It doesn't go anywhere, and it's a non-joke.  Lots of these scenes ended abruptly when it wasn't working.  It didn't seem to be working on the audience either as I heard muted laughter at most of these things.

As with all Sandler films, his obsession with the 80's continue.  We get our normal fix of 80's music, but the film ends with a 80's themed party.  I wonder who's idea that was?  It's just another lame reason to shoehorn more 80's references into the movie.  I love the 80's as much as the next guy, but this is gone way past being old.  Although I did think it was kind of funny to see Chris Rock dressed as 80's Prince.

Lastly, I'm glad they had the good sense to get rid of that scene about getting wasted and tricking the kids into thinking it had something to do with ice cream  "I'm wanna get chocolate wasted!"  Did a child actually write that?  Ugh...so much of this film is just cringeworthy.

Grown Ups 2 is lazy, uninspired, childish, unfunny and directionless.  If the name Adam Sandler wasn't on the top of the poster, I don't see how this film sees the light of day, let alone gets made.  The only reason I'm not giving this a zero is that I chucked a few times at the cameos and I haven't completely outgrown burp and fart humor.  There are some genuinely funny films in theaters right now.  Grown Ups 2 isn't one of them.  Don't pay to see this film in any format.

.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

The Kings of Summer (2013)

Three teen boys decide they're done with their parents, run away and build a house in the woods.  That's pretty much how you'd sum up The Kings of Summer.  If that were all there is to The Kings of Summer, then I could understand how this might have a limited appeal.  The good news is that once you get past the premise and opening moments, The Kings of Summer is a sweet and often hilarious coming-of-age story.

As summer vacation approaches, Joe (Nick Robinson) becomes increasingly frustrated with his father's attempts to get him to be responsible.  He encourages his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who's also grown tired of his overbearing parents, to join him.  A wild card named Biaggio (Moises Arias), whom the other two barely know, also tags along.

I do want to get a few things out of the way though.  As it began, I almost wasn't able to buy into the film, as it was really hard to understand Joe and Patrick's reasons for wanting out of their homes.  Joe's father, Frank (Nick Offerman), only seems to be on his case for not being more responsible.  Frank gets mad at him for things like taking an hour long shower and not picking up after himself.  A total monster, right?  Then, Frank has the audacity to schedule a family game night with his new girlfriend, and Joe's older sister (Alison Brie) and boyfriend.  Joe acts like a twerp, embarasses his father, and calls the police just to mess with him (which he apparently has done several times before).  This also has the end result of ruining things between Frank and his new girlfriend.  Lastly, Joe doesn't exactly seem to be the most motivated student either.  Is painting your main character as a dumb, lazy, entitled brat the best way to start your film?

Patrick's parents biggest crime seemed to be that they were a little smothering, and really nerdy.  Not exactly reason to run away either.  Biaggio didn't seem to have any motivation at all other than he didn't have any friends, and the other two let him tag along.  I'm sure people that grew up in households with real problems wouldn't have much to sympathize with here.  How would Joe handle real abuse or if Frank had been an alcoholic?  Look, I get that these are dumb kids and when you're a kid you think your parents are terrible even if they aren't, are and your problems are the worst in the world, but I just thought that was a little weak.  Anyway, the film gets past this part pretty quick, as if even they knew it was the flimsiest part.  Another thing masking this is that the opening of the film is peppered with humor.  When I'd start to scrutinize something, Nick Offerman would have a one of his many great moments, and I'd forget about it.  It's best to just think of the whole film as a boy's fantasy and it makes it a little easier to get past.

The trio finds a space in the woods where nobody can find them and build a place.  The enjoy their newfound freedom and learn to live off the land.  Another thing that was a little off was that the film starts with Joe building the world's worst bird house, so the idea that he could build a house (even with help) that could stand up on his own was a little goofy to me.  Plus, he also seemed to have professional level skill at making maps and designing floor plans.

Despite these flaws, the film takes off once they begin this adventure and it's a lot of fun to watch.  It doesn't take long to like the the kids and become invested in the story.  When I was their age my friends and I used to talk about taking a summer and building a fort or half pipe, so this is something that did speak to me on that level.  The trio have great chemistry, and the performances of Robinson, Basso and Arias really help sell that.  All three came off as very natural together.  I also appreciated that all three of them actually looked like they were the right age for their roles.  They all had that awkward teen look.  I was also impressed with how mature Robinson and Basso's performances were.

While the kids are gone, Frank and Patrick's parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) haven't given up looking for them.  Despite what the kids think, their parents are genuinely concerned and care about them.  Mullally and Jackson are great, but the real star here was Nick Offerman.  If you're a fan of Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec, then you'll love his performance here.  Imagine Ron Swanson but even crankier.  He has some epic lines, particularly when dealing with two local cops (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch).  Another thing that makes this a great performance from Offerman is that we find out Frank is dealing with his own issues that explain why maybe he's been a little too hard on Joe.  You see some growth from him and he eventually has a nice reconciliation with Joe.

Meanwhile, the boys are having the time of their lives, but eventually a wrench gets thrown into the mix when Joe invites his dream girl Kelly (Erin Moriarty) out to hang out with them.  Joe hopes to impress Kelly with what they've done, but things don't always work out the way you hope.  Watching Joe's heartbreak will pull on your heartstrings a little bit, and you'll see how this affects the group and their friendship.  At times I saw a lot of my younger self in Joe, so as the movie went on I couldn't help by sympathize more and more.

Your enjoyment of The Kings of Summer is largely going to depend on how much you like these quirky, indie, hipsterish kinds of comedies.  I've heard this kind of film referred to on Adam Carolla's podcast as a "quirkedy".  I can't remember where I heard this first - might have been Anderson over on The Film Vault when he described his thoughts on the film - but I got a distinct Wes Anderson-vibe from film.  Think of it as Wes Andersen-lite.  Where The Kings of Summer differs is that I felt it had more of a sardonic tone about it.  Maybe also a tad less pretentious or hipsterish.

This leads me to another thing I loved about the film which was Moises Arias as Biaggio.  He's certainly a distinct looking person, and that works well to contrast the other two.  I guess the best way to describe him would be to imagine a teenage Kramer from Seinfeld, but then shrunk in half and mixed with a Sleestak.  Nearly everything he says is random or bizarre, as if he wasn't scripted.  Sometimes overuse of non-sequitur really bugs me, but here I thought it was funny every time.

Even if Biaggio's dialog wasn't scripted, I thought the script by Chris Galletta was extremely funny.  This was Galletta's first movie, so I'm really excited to see what comes next.  If director Jordan Vogt-Roberts set out to make a more cynical Wes Andersen-like film, then I think he succeeded.  This appears to be his first feature as well, so it's a nice way to start out and great collaboration between the writer and director.  Interestingly enough, like another recent coming-of-age-tale Mud, this also features some foreshadowing with a snake.  I really hate snakes, so that kind of stuff sticks with me.

Oh, one last thing before I wrap this up.  Something that kind of took me out of the film was that Patrick was wearing a cast the entire film.  The mention he's a wrestler, so I'm assuming his broke is ankle, but the movie seems to have forgotten he was wearing this.  He walks around for miles, you see a scene where they are sprinting, and then they dive into a lake.  They are out in the woods for weeks, but he was never concerned about his leg or re-injuring it?  I understand that kids will do stupid things like that, but it just seemed odd that a guy with a cast on would do all of these physical activities without any outward concern for further injury or showing any ill effects from continuing to push himself on it.  I know it's a nitpick, but I kept noticing it.

The Kings of Summer is a sweet, quirky and hilarious coming-of-age tale.  If you can buy into the fantasy, then you're in for some fantastic performances from Nick Offerman, Nick Robinson and Moises Arias.  This is one of the few films I've seen this year that I was upset when it was over and wished it had been longer.  I'm looking forward to watching it again just for all the scenes with Nick Offerman.  It's still in some select theaters, so I highly recommend checking it out soon.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Frances Ha (2013)

I kind of feel odd writing this review.  I actually saw Frances Ha several weeks ago. and for some reason really struggled to get any notes down about it.  Even as I write this, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to write much.  I think this is mainly due to the fact that I don't have a critique of Frances Ha.  I've often said in conversation that sometimes when I really like a film, I don't have much more to say about it than, "I really liked it!"  France Ha is a movie that's stuck with me in the weeks since seeing it, and it's likely to end up in my top 10 best films of 2013.  Hell, it's probably in my top 5 so far.

Another reason I had time getting my thoughts down about it is because like Seinfeld, Frances Ha is about nothing.  Well, not exactly "nothing", but it's not a plot driven story.  It's also set in New York, so I'm wondering if there's some kind of indie film rule that movies about single people in New York have to be character studies.

This isn't a bad thing as long as it's about an interesting or likeable character.  France Ha follows the life of a 20-something woman in New York as she deals with friendship, finding work and a place to stay, and just generally trying to find her place in the world.  Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a dancer, yet can't find work beyond teaching the occasional class.  She has money issues and difficulty with her living situation as a result.  As the film begins, Frances breaks up with her boyfriend, so there's that, too.  To her credit, she didn't really seem too into the guy and didn't dwell on their breakup, so I appreciate that.  Her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) on the other hand, is the opposite of this.  Her career is taking off, her relationship is getting more serious, and the two of them begin to drift apart.  Frances deals and struggles with all of these issues as the movie goes on.

Frances Ha is sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes it's both.  What makes it all work is that it's easy to relate to Frances, whether you know someone just like her, or see a lot of yourself in her.  Who hasn't dealt with money issues, or watching your friends drift away after getting serious in a relationship?  I know I've gone through some of these things over the course of my life.

At one point, Frances fibs her way through a conversation, and you want to be mad at her because she's full of shit and lying for no real reason, but then I can recall times when I've flubbed my way through a conversation to either save face or act like I knew what I was talking about.  Later, she takes an impulsive trip to Paris in an effort to catch up with someone.  While there, her best friend finally calls her and invites her to a party.  Frances tells her she can't make it, but never mentions she's in Paris.  Why doesn't she just tell her where she is?  When you see Frances do stuff like this, she comes off as that classic person that can't get out of their own way.

Despite all of this, Frances manages to be likeable.  It's not like she's mean or a bad person.  She'd be a fun person to hang around with, although there are other times you want to shake her violently in the hopes that it gets her to straighten up.  I had a love/hate relationship with Frances.  Much of the reason why you're able to still like Frances is due to the performance of Greta Gerwig.  If it had been a different actress, it might not have worked.  As the character isn't always flattering, I was surprised to see that Gerwig co-wrote the film with director Noah Baumbach.  You get the feeling that she put a little of her own life experience in Frances.  It's also her finest performance to date.  I've always thought she had an endearing awkwardness about her, and that's really on display here.  Let this be a lesson to Hollywood on why dramedies or romantic comedies starring people like Katherine Heigl don't work.  You have to actually believe the person in the role or have a reason to relate to them.  Being clumsy or eating junk food is not an endearing character trait.

Noah Baumbach seems to have a knack for making honest, funny, uncomfortable films that don't always feature the most likeable people.  I strongly recommend watching The Squid and the Whale if you haven't seen it yet.  He's becoming one of my favorite writer/directors out there.  I also really enjoyed the choice to film this in black and white.  Much like how I felt about it in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, it really makes you focus on the dialog and emotion, rather than get caught up in the visuals.  Whether it was the use of black and white, the film's setting, or the music used, I also got a real Woody Allen vibe from the film.

Oscillating between hilarious, uncomfortable and frustrating, Frances Ha is always interesting.  One of the better films I've seen this year, it's a real and honest look at a woman struggling with friendship and transitioning into adulthood.  It's likely out of theaters by the time you read this, so I strongly recommend renting this.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

I spent much of my youth watching Godzilla, Ultraman, Voltron, Giant Robo, Mazinger Z and other various Creature Features.  I had tons of these toys, and still own about 10 Godzilla films on DVD at present.  I've long wished for that big budget epic of any of these properties, and no, Roland Emmerich's Godzilla does not count.  I do have hopes for the upcoming Godzilla film though.  You can imagine my excitement when seeing the various trailers and spots for Pacific Rim.  I finally get to see giant robots fight giant creatures in the way I've always dreamed!

The kid in me loved Pacific Rim on that front.  It delivers on exactly what it advertised.  However, if you watch Pacific Rim and come away from it thinking it's an awful piece of shit, then I wouldn't be able to disagree with you.  Nearly every other aspect of Pacific Rim is a mess (I'll get to that).  Some of this is a byproduct of the style though.  Pacific Rim is basically a big budget B movie or Midnight Monster Movie.  It's nothing more than a kids film, and it even feels like a toy commercial at times.

If you're hoping this may lead to a influx of more of these films, this is where I think Pacific Rim was a missed opportunity.  It doesn't do anything to transcend the genre.  I don't see many guys that will be able to drag their wives or girlfriends to this.  There just isn't any appeal outside of fathers and sons.  I had hoped that Guillermo del Toro would have tried to reach out to a wider audience, but those looking for a better story or interesting characters won't be able to get past the general cheesiness.

The entire backstory of Pacific Rim is laid out in the opening prologue.  Aliens opens a dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean and begin to send giant monsters, called Kaiju, through it on a regular schedule.  There doesn't seem to be any purpose to it other than to cause destruction.  The monsters progressively become larger and more powerful, so the world's governments put aside their differences and coordinate to build giant robots called Jaegers.  Initially these were controlled by a single pilot, but it's found that the neural load was too much for a single person, so they are operated by pairs of people that have their minds linked together, called "drifting".  This is not to be confused with Tokyo Drifting.

The action picks up several years into the conflict and things aren't looking good for humanity.  The Kaiju are getting stronger and attacking more frequently, and we're running out of Jaegers.  In a last ditch attempt to stop them, the remaining Jaegers are pooled and a plan is formed to close the rift.  Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a former Jaeger pilot that's moved on after the death of this brother is asked to step back into his old Jaeger.  That's pretty much the entire plot.

While I liked that Pacific Rim didn't waste too much time with backstory and throws us right into the action, I also wanted to see more of the early days of the Jaeger program and successes.  There were several generations of Jaegers, but you don't get to see all of them or learn what they improved with each version.  By the time of the events in Pacific Rim, there are only about five Jaegers left.  It would have been awesome to see a large force of these all on screen at once fighting multiple monsters.  I realize the budget of the film might not allowed that, but even a short, wide shot of an early epic battle would have been a sight to behold.

Instead, we're coming into to the story as the Jaegerr program is being shut down due to decreasing effectiveness.  These Jaegers don't last very long in a fight.  Some are so ineffective that it's hard to understand why they ever went this direction in the first place.  Wouldn't it have been more efficient to use the same resources to build up a large arsenal of huge missiles, mines and other weaponry to combat them?  Things that didn't require pilots or could be controlled remotely?  Yeah, I know that's not as fun, and there'd be no movie otherwise.  Forget it.  We came to see giant robots versus giant monsters!

Again, this is the success of Pacific Rim.  The action and special effects are fan-friggin-tastic!  Everything is colorful, the Kaiju and Jaegers all have interesting and unique looks about them.  You get to see robots vs monster action throughout the film, and there are some great, creative fights.  However, this brings me to one of the things that bugged me about Pacific Rim.  There are more than a few times where you can't tell what's going on.  It's not as bad as something like Transformers, but most of these battles occur at night, and in water, and are shot too close.  You never really get to have a good, long look at either the Kaiju or the Jaegers.  With all the design that went into them, it would be nice to be able to appreciate that more.  Just pause on a wide shot for an extra second or two.

As I've mentioned, there's not much to the plot and it's a pretty self-contained story.  There's no attempt to setup or even hint at a sequel or something coming next.  Part of me appreciates that, but when discussing after with my friend, we both thought the movie would have been better if it had been framed similar to how The Princess Bride was told. You could have had a retired Jaeger pilot telling his son or grandson the tale as a bedtime story.  At the end when the kid says something like, "Wow!  That was amazing!"  They could end the film with the pilot saying something like, "Oh yeah?  Well, wait until I tell you about what happened next!"  Then you could pretty much go crazy with anything you want in the sequel.  It doesn't mean they won't make one if it does well enough, but it felt like another missed opportunity to me.

I don't mind the thin plot since I wasn't watching Pacific Rim for that, but I was annoyed by all the various and unnecessary character threads.  This really drug the middle part of the film down, and didn't add anything or made me care about the characters.  Just get to the next fight scene.  Pacific Rim is over two hours long and it shouldn't have been.  There were times I got a little impatient waiting for the action to pick up again.

That's not to say if the characters were interesting or their development was done well it wouldn't have been appreciated though.  They behave in ways that make no sense or have no motivation behind.  There's another Jaeger pilot that absolutely hates Becket for no real reason.  They're working together to stop the apocalypse (oh, and we'll get to the "cancelling the apocalypse" thing), so you'd think they'd have some kind of bond or camaraderie.  There's a pair of scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn (Burn?) Gorman, that were meant as comic relief, but their antics and behavior were plain silly.  I did enjoy Charlie Day though, but that's probably due to more to being a fan of his in general.  Ron Perlman has a small role as this ridiculous black market seller of Kaiju parts that I couldn't help but laugh at, but not in a good way.  There's a lot of unintentional humor, and I didn't seem to be alone in laughing at the film.  At least this will make for a great Rifftrax.

The characters are so one-dimensional that many of them aren't even referred by name.  Even Charlie Hunnam's character is only mentioned by his last name, and he only ever referred to his brother as "my brother".  When the credits rolled, we were surprised to see they were named Raleigh and Yancy.  This also gave us a laugh, because aren't these girls names?  Why go through the trouble of coming up with unusual names for your characters if you don't bother using them?  Anyway...

Nearly everything about the plot is telegraphed.  It's every action cliche you can imagine.  There's even a young, aspiring Jaeger pilot, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who is the best candidate to be Becket's partner, but Idris Elba won't let her.  There's a relationship between the two of them that's undeveloped as well, but the whole thing seemed like a pointless conflict and build up, as we all know she's going to end up in a Jaeger at some point.  Many parts of the film very melodramatic.

The dialog is pretty terrible, and it's not just that it's awful, but it's how it's delivered.  Characters shout for no reason.  Charlie Hunnam had a constant sneer even when he didn't have a reason to be angry.  Idris Elba at one point says, "don't let my calm demeanor fool you", yet he was one of the guys shouting most of his dialog.  I didn't find him calm.  Everyone seemed to be way overdoing it and it felt very cartoonish.  Maybe that's what Guillermo del Toro was going for with all the overacting and melodrama, to evoke those kinds of shows and cartoons that are silly and overdone.  I was just a little disappointed to see someone like Idris Elba made to look like an average actor.  If this was your first experience with him, you'd wonder what the big deal was.  You could say that about almost everyone in the film though.

Regarding all the shouting, I'm not sure if this was a problem with the film's sound mix or the theater I saw it in, but a lot of the dialog had an echo which also made it hard to make out.  Much of the dialog I couldn't understand because it was drowned out by other noise in the film.

Now it's time to "Cancel the Apocalypse".  I'm really getting tired of the trope of the dramatic, motivational speech that happens just before the climax.  It's unnecessary most of the time, but in an effort to not sound like all other speeches, they say things that aren't very natural.  In Pacific Rim, Idris Elba is forced to deliver an uninspired speech where he says, "Today, we cancel the apocalypse!"  If they make Pacific Rim 2, is someone going to say, "Tonight, we reschedule the Doomsday to a date to be determined later!"  Please let this happen.  My friend was starting to comment about the length of the film, and was unsure how much time we had left, so I said, "Well, he hasn't cancelled the apocalypse yet, so we still have a ways to go."  Then when the scene finally started, I sat up and said, "Oh sweet, he's about to cancel the apocalypse!"  It's a good thing the theater was mostly empty.  Lastly, I thought it was funny that you hear someone say in the film that it was a good speech.  It wasn't.

Pacific Rim is light on story, cheesy, over-acted, and terribly written.  You might think then that I hated it, but you're wrong!  It's still very entertaining and a lot of fun.  It absolutely delivers on the giant robots vs. monsters mayhem that was advertised.  The kid in me was delighted by what I saw, but still came away a little disappointed that it could have been more.  If you don't want anything beyond some mindless and great looking action, or are someone like me that needs your Godzilla fix, then it's definitely worth a matinee.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Bling Ring (2013)

Kids you don't have any reason to like steal from a bunch of celebrities you don't have any reason to care about.

That might be one of the biggest problems with The Bling Ring.  When I see a bunch of bored, entitled Southern California kids steal from someone like Paris Hilton, I find I have a hard time caring about any of it.  Not that Paris Hilton deserves to be stolen from, but if these kids really broke into her house that often and took that much stuff from her without her noticing, it's hard to argue that any of it had much value to her, or that she doesn't have "too much".

Let's not get into that though.  The Bling Ring is Sofia Coppola's latest film based on a series of real Hollywood buglaries that occurred a few years ago.  Despite watching a lot of movies, I don't follow celebrities all that much or invest myself all that much into their personal lives.  Even then, I was pretty aware of the events depicted in The Bling Ring.  I saw plenty of news reports, and even casual watchers of E!'s The Soup can likely recall clips shown about then.

In fact, I was kind of surprised they bothered to change the names of the characters for the movie.  Maybe they had to do this for legal reasons, but even I knew Pretty Wild's Alexis Neiers and Tess Taylor were two of the people involved in "The Ring".  Pretty Wild chronicled Neiers' arrest and trial during its single season run.  It's not like this knowledge is a secret.  Hell, taking a page from the actual Bling Ring, you can do a quick Google search and find out just about anything you want to know about them if you so desired.

After transferring to a new school, Marc (Israel Broussard) meets Rebecca (Katie Chang), and they become friends.  Looking for something to do, they break into an acquaintance's home while they are away on vacation.  Since their first attempt was successful, they set their sights higher and look for celebrities that they know are out of town making films or doing promotions.  They are able to Google their current whereabouts and addresses, then simply go there, hang out and just take what they want.  It's actually kind of interesting to see how rich celebrities must have felt secure to not really bother with alarm systems or even locking their doors.  Maybe they figured that living in a gated community or an affluent area was security enough.  Lesson learned for them, I guess.  Again, I'm not saying these people deserved it.  Even if you don't like some of these celebs, they are still the victims.

Marc and Rebecca brag to friends, more of them get involved, and that's pretty much it.  It starts out interesting enough and it does manage to be entertaining, but it's pretty one dimensional.  You really don't learn anything about these people or have any reason to like or sympathise with them.  It's basically a series of montages of kids breaking into homes, and then spending the money at clubs and doing drugs.  If there was more going on than that, then it might have been compelling.  There's a message about these kids not having any conscience and being so obsessed with celebrity that they'll do anything to be a part of it, but it's just on the surface.  The Bling Ring isn't much deeper than the actual people involved.

This is naturally going to get a lot of comparisons to Spring Breakers, and it makes sense.  Both feature a group of sociopaths doing bad things.  I definitely was not a fan of Spring Breakers, and while I don't think The Bling Ring is a great movie, or even a particularly good one, I enjoyed The Bling Ring for several reasons over the former.  Rant mode on:

  • It's based off real events that I'm actually aware of.  This isn't someone's Spring Break fantasy.
  • I'll take the acting of Emma Watson and cast over Vanessa Hudgens and co. any day.
  • The Bling Ring didn't make me feel like an old pervert while watching it.  There's no nudity or half naked girls prancing around.
  • It's message isn't as heavy handed.  I get what these movies are trying to say, but thing is, I'm almost 40.  I've seen and been around a good amount of stuff.  I've experienced some of these things first hand and dealt with the consequences of them.  There's not much movies like The Bling Ring or Spring Breakers say about the world that I haven't already seen in other films for years or had my own thoughts regarding.
  • There's actually consequences to the actions in The Bling Ring.  These people were sentenced to jail time.  Some have even reformed since then.  Spring Breakers ends with two bikini-clad women shooting up a house and killing people with automatic weapons, without reloading or taking an single hit, and then driving away in a Lamborghini without any care in the world.  At least the kids in The Bling Ring  aren't murderers.
  • I didn't think The Bling Ring was nearly as pretentious.  Spring Breakers had more style and a better aesthetic about it, but I was annoyed as shit by its repetitive and non-linear storytelling.  The Bling Ring has style too, but Spring Breakers was more memorable in that regard.

As far as those performances go, there are few good ones.  I though Israel Broussard was nicely nuanced in his role as Marc.  There are times where he does come across as a decent enough kid that's gets caught up in these events in order to fit in.  He admits to being in love with Katie Chang's Rebecca and I liked her as well.  Leslie Mann as a clueless mother that lives her life by The Secret was another bright spot.  Of the cast I enjoyed Emma Watson the most. She really nailed the sound and affected speech pattern of a vapid, Southern California teen.  You forget that she's English.  My only complaint about her is that she's not in the film more.  With her being arguably the biggest name in the film, it seems odd they didn't give her more screen time.

One thing I was a little curious about was the sexual orientation of Marc.  I don't recall if it was implied that he was gay, but if not then I find it really weird that he never tried getting on any of these girls.  He's around them while they are drinking heavily and doing coke.  Plus, they are always changing around him.  Seems like he should have been rolling in it, unless he didn't swing that way.  He did seem to know a little too much about fashion though, so I guess that's my answer.  There's nothing wrong with Marc, but if it were me I would have been taking every opportunity to get somewhere with any of these girls.

Another disappointment for me was that I thought The Bling Ring was going to be more of a dark comedy.  The trailer was very funny, but it's another case of all the funny scenes being spoiled by the trailer.  In the actual film, those scenes fell kind of flat.

The Bling Ring is a fairly entertaining film about a series of real life crimes, but it ultimately doesn't dig deep enough behind them or the people involved to have all that much to say.  Aside from a few good performances, there's not much memorable about it.  It would make for a good rental along with Spring Breakers (and I know I'm not the only person to suggest this) and then you can make your own comparisons between the two.  You may even come away from watching both with an even worse opinion regarding our declining values and celebrity-obsessed culture.  Sounds like a party, right?

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars