Archive for the 'Reviews' Category



13
Jun
14

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dragon riders assemble!

Dragon riders assemble!

A big reason why I love movies so much is that I like being transported to a place or invested in a story that I wouldn’t normally be able to. That’s why I think film is such a powerful medium. Like other types of art forms, film can move you and take your breath away. With DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, it can also make it seem like a seaside Viking village with dragons does exist.

The sequel to 2010’s How to Train your Dragon, the film picks up a couple of years after the events of the first film. The Viking village of Berk has changed, and dragons are an everyday part of life. While life is good, the boy that brought all of this change to his village, Hiccup, is facing a huge struggle: follow the path his father lays out for him to take over as chief, or make his own path even though he might not know what that might be. On his journey to find the answer, Hiccup is joined by his dragon, Toothless, and the rest of the supporting characters from the first film. However, Drago Bloodfist, a self–appointed “dragon god” who has an army of humans and dragons at his disposal, threatens the peaceful existence that Hiccup and the village folk of Berk have worked so hard to build.

Don't tell this guy about the mother of dragons.

Don’t tell this guy about the mother of dragons.

The past few years DreamWorks Animation has upped the ante in terms of animation quality and I thought that some of the scenes in last year’s The Croods were simply majestic. With How to Train Your Dragon 2 the animation is very good and while it’s at a high level, there wasn’t anything groundbreaking in terms of animation quality. Aside from a few spectacular scenes where we get to see a plethora of dragons, the animation is not why you should see the film. It’s the story, characters, and the way the movie is crafted that make the film really entertaining. The medium of animation is just a means to tell this story. Though it still is a very beautiful, very nuanced, and really colorful means to tell a story.

I will say that the 3D is really well done. Granted animated films already have a leg up on their live-action brethren when it comes to 3D environments looking good on screen, but the creators did a really good job of providing great environments to immerse us in. If you’re adverse to 3D at all then you’ll be fine seeing it in 2D. However, I will recommend you see it in 3D as it does provide a more immersive experience.

While many people believe animation is just for kids, Pixar has shown us that the medium can be used to entertain a wider range of people. That being said, while the kids will have fun watching Hiccup, Toothless, and all the dragons in the film, it also provides entertainment for adults as well. While the shenanigans of Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut, and Ruffnut continue to provide a good source of laughs, this time around we get similar laughs from the dragons in the film. In a really fun scene that I’m sure most dog owners will relate to, Eret, a dragon trapper that we are introduced to in this film, tries to throw away Hiccup’s sword. Each time however, Stormfly (Astrid’s dragon), flies off and dutifully retrieves it and brings it back to Eret as if it were some game. The interaction alone is funny in itself, but the reactions on Eret’s face are what make the scene simply hilarious.

"Oh yeah." -Ruffnut

“Oh yeah.” -Ruffnut

Along similar lines, I’m sure any pet owner that sees the film will see some part of their pet in Toothless. The Nightfury’s mannerisms are so smart and dead on that it’s uncanny how similarly Toothless acts like a real animal. The speaking with his eyes, the awkwardness he feels when he’s around new dragons, the playful nature he has when he’s annoyed with Hiccup–all of that came from somewhere and I wouldn’t be surprised if Toothless is modeled after pets owned by DreamWorks animators.Though Toothless doesn’t speak, part of the charm of the film is determining what kind of a character Toothless is from seeing his actions.

In line with the great character work that DreamWorks Animation put into Toothless and all of the supporting dragon characters in the film, they also do a really good job of mixing comedy and drama. The emotional beats of the film revolve around Hiccup and his family. In one of these scenes, Hiccup’s father, Stoick, is introduced to a character he hasn’t seen for a while. It’s a very simple scene of two characters meeting, but it’s the expression on Stoick’s face and the look he has in his eyes that make this meeting really touching.

Who is this mysterious figure?

Who is this mysterious figure?

There are a few more small moments like this in the film where love and the bond of family are put on display. Though some of these moments are telegraphed, it doesn’t make them any less powerful when you see them happen on screen. Your heartstrings will still be tugged on since the film makes these characters feel like real people, which transforms the film into more than just your regular animated comedy. In much of the same way that Pixar gets us to invest in their characters, DreamWorks Animation does the same here.

Like in the first film, everything comes back to Hiccup, and he is the heart and soul of the film. The movie sets up that in order for this new found life with dragons that Hiccup built up in the first film to continue, he needs to get ahead of the looming confrontation that Drago Bloodfist will bring. This is part of the journey of discovery that Hiccup has to go through. While some of these issues may seem similar to the ones he faced in the first film, the introduction of new characters does put a different spin on things, which in turn changes things up and makes the audience a lot more invested in what’s going on. When Hiccup does reach the conclusion of his journey, we’re fully invested and happy with the person that he chooses to be.

I believe I can fly.

I believe I can fly.

While I did see the first How to Train Your Dragon, I wasn’t lucky enough to see it in a theater. Unfortunately I caught it after it came out on home video. While I did like the first one and was entertained, I wasn’t over the moon about it as I know a lot of people are. I think a big reason for that is because I didn’t experience it in a theater. Though I can’t say for certain, I’m sure I would have loved the first How to Train Your Dragon more had I seen it in a theater under optimal conditions and I will dare to say that the sequel bests the original.

How can I be so certain? Because I simply loved How to Train Your Dragon 2. From nuanced characters like Hiccup, Toothless, and Stoick, to great storytelling that gives us an engrossing plot, to the animation and visuals on screen that can make you “oh” and “ah” when someone riding a dragon soars through the air, it’s simply the best movie I’ve seen this summer. Like I stated at the top, a really good movie can transport you to a far off place to see and experience things that you can only imagine. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is just such a movie.

Cinematic Scene: This is Berk

“Cinematic Scene” is a new element to reviews. In an effort talk about some of the more technically creative and/or emotionally charged scenes in the film I’ve decided to break off a specific section at the end of each review to discuss these noteworthy scenes. Whether it’s fancy camera work, brilliant use of special effects, or heart wrenching acting; I will pick one notable scene from the film that you should definitely pay attention to.

“Cinematic Scene” is a new element to reviews. In an effort talk about some of the more technically creative and/or emotionally charged scenes in the film I’ve decided to break off a specific section at the end of each review to discuss these noteworthy scenes. Whether it’s fancy camera work, brilliant use of special effects, or heart wrenching acting; I will pick one notable scene from the film that you should definitely pay attention to.

Right at the very beginning of the film we are introduced to the seaside village of Berk. As Hiccup is providing backstory via monologue, we essentially get a dragon’s perspective of flying over and through the town. Starting out at sea and flying by the majestic stone guardians that define the boundaries village, the sweeping shots of the opening are simply breathtaking. The rich animation and awesome use of 3D is put on display front and center as the camera goes swooping over the water and into Berk. Diving, weaving, and soaring through the village; we not only re-orient ourselves to the setting, but get an exhilarating feel for what it must be like to be a dragon. The open sequence beautifully sets the tone for the entire film.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is now playing in theaters everywhere.

5 out of 5 stars // PG // 1hr 42min

06
Jun
14

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

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In a summer where sequels, superheroes, remakes, and reboots are the norm, a sci-fi time warp movie based on a Japanese manga and starring Tom Cruise is the closest we get to having an “original” movie these days. And while Edge of Tomorrow is essentially based off of a graphic novel, the basic premise of the story so intrigued me that after X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow was the next movie that I couldn’t wait to see this summer.

Caught in a mysterious time loop that restarts him the day before a crucial operation against alien invaders, Major William Cage (Cruise) through a chance encounter ends up reliving the operation over and over again. The more Cage relives the same day, the more knowledge he gains about the battle, the alien invaders that are seemingly unstoppable, and the power that is causing him to live, die, repeat.

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If you’ve seen Groundhog Day, then you have a pretty good idea of how the movie is going to work. Just swap Bill Murray for Tom Cruise. At first we see Cage experience many of the same things over and over again: him awakening to a yelling drill sergeant, being made fun of by his squad, and his first moments in battle up until he dies. All of the repetition serves to not just show us what Cage is going through, but to make the audience experience it as well. After a while it does get a little tired, but thankfully once we get a good handle on how the time loop works, the film cuts back on the repetitions and shoots us to the same point in the next iteration–but with Cage doing or learning something different.

To break up the monotony of rehashing some of the same scenes, the screenplay does inject some pretty creative tricks like using humor to mix things up and keep the audience interested. In one particular sequence, Cage is trying to sneak away from his squad who are doing drills and at a very precise moment he makes a very calculated move, but ends up getting killed in a rather unexpected way. Humorous moments like these where Cage uses his knowledge to improve, but ends up failing and starting over again inject much needed laughs right before a particular scene starts to get tired.

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL
Another great convention that the film uses to break up repetition is when we are shown new scenes or versions of a timeline. Since it’s new to Cage, it’s new to the audience as well. However, the film flips this convention upside down later in the film, not just to deceive characters in the film as deception because he’s tired of always running into the same outcome, but to deceive the audience as well. With Cage the storyteller of the film, you always have to ask yourself if he is being a reliable narrator by determining if what we’re seeing is what he sees, or if it’s what he wants us to see.

What initially drew me to the film was the conceit of Cage reliving his day over and over, gaining more experience, and hopefully, to a positive outcome. With that in mind you would think that he could endlessly keep going through the day, exhausting every outcome until he can account for every action and reaction until he can claim victory. Needless to say while that would make for a pretty nice ending, there’s no real stakes involved with that scenario and thankfully the film sets up a limit to the time loop “power” that Cage has. With a countdown of sorts imposed on him, Cage (and the audience) comes to realize that he does have a limited time to figure out a way to capitalize on the power that he has, which brings a sense of urgency to Cage’s actions in the film.

0606_05-Rite
Believe it or not, last time we saw Cruise was in a similar role in last year’s Oblivion. He’s again sort of playing the same role here of reluctant hero who literally stumbles into the situation he’s in. Maybe it’s because Cruise can play these types of roles so well or maybe it’s because this is how Tom Cruise really is in real life, but I was on board with what Cruise was selling. We’re not seeing a breakthrough performance or anything here, but the story is so tight and packed with action and humor that we don’t need to dwell on his motivations–it’s all up there on screen.

You’ve also got Emily Blunt as Rita, aka the Full Metal Bitch and highly decorated war hero, and Bill Paxton as Cage’s sergeant who tries to keep him in check. Both do a pretty serviceable job in their roles; Paxton provides comedic moments, while Blunt’s character not only teaches and guides Cage, but provides some emotional moments to the film as well. Again, on the whole, the entire acting corps in the film does a good enough job to keep us invested in the film.

0606_03-BluntCruiseField
As for the effects and 3D of the film, for the most part the effects were fairly solid with the 3D experience being passable at best. The only times you might be a little taken out of the film by the effects were in scenes where you get close-ups of the aliens (aka “mimics”). Sure they’re aliens so they look different to begin with, but there are some shots where they just don’t blend seamlessly with the live action elements of the film. It’s not a huge deal though because the pace of the film is pretty brisk, so you don’t have time to think about it. As for the 3D, it hardly added anything to the moviegoing experience. I wouldn’t characterize it as bad, but I would say it was unnecessary. Save your money and see it in 2D.

Overall I was pretty entertained by Edge of Tomorrow. The film delivered on it’s time loop premise and mixed up the repetition in entertaining ways that kept me invested throughout the film. I’d actually like to pick up a copy of the Japanese manga that it’s based off (All You Need is Kill) just to see the differences between the two. In a summer loaded with familiar characters on screen, Edge of Tomorrow does provide a great break from all the familiarity and is definitely something you should check out.

Cinematic Scene: Dropping Into Combat

I’m always fascinated by the futuristic portrayal of warfare. While watching ships battling it out in space is always cool to watch, more interesting to see is how ground troops are used (and deployed in battle). In a similar fashion to Starship Troopers, the ground soldiers in Edge of Tomorrow are ferried in on small drop ships. However, where these two films differ is that in Edge each soldier is literally dropped by a wire directly into battle without the ship landing.

In his very first experience of being dropped into battle, as Cage hits the switch to release himself the camera follows him down for a continuous ten seconds or so while revolving around him and giving the audience a full view of how the battle looks to Cage. While the scene is almost entirely CGI, just the way it’s setup, choreographed, and shot really make for an awe inspiring view of the battle. Almost putting us in Cage’s armor with him, we feel the dizzying extent that he’s falling to the ground while at the same time seeing sprawling expanse of the battle before him.

Edge of Tomorrow is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

4 out of 5 stars // rated PG-13 // 1hr 53min

28
May
14

Review: Chef

Get ready for a trip to flavortown.

Get ready for a trip to flavortown.

Chefs and filmmakers are both creative professions and are similar in many aspects to one another. Getting a bad review from a food critic is almost the same as a filmmaker getting a bad review for a movie; with both involve getting derided for a profession they essentially love. It is a critique on an artist’s work that sets off a chain of events and leads the protagonist, Chef Carl (played by Jon Favreau), on a quest to rediscover his culinary mojo in Chef.

When we are first introduced to Favreau’s title character, it’s the day of a big review at his restaurant. Carl is diligently preping a special menu when he clashes with the restaurant’s owner. “Do what you do best” is the line that that puts him on the path to staying with the status quo: the restaurant’s long time and established menu. When the review comes in, Carl gets slammed for playing it safe and is described as losing the creative touch that brought him notoriety. After verbally sparring with said critic on Twitter and in person, Carl decides to lay low and travels to Florida to figure out what to do next. What he comes up with . . . making simple food that he loves, that people like to eat, and serving it up from a food truck.

0528_02-IngredientsMarket

You can definitely feel the passion that his character has for food and for his profession. From the focus on ingredients, to technique, to the feeling that you get when you create a dish (ie: a work of art), to the high standard that chefs have for their food . . . Favreau does a great job of telegraphing the nuance of the profession.

Though I can’t honestly say if Favreau is the one acting in all of the cooking shots, the ones you do see him in do provide credence to the role he’s playing. From constructing a grilled cheese sandwich to making a batch of pasta to developing an entirely new menu; in each of these scenes we see Favreau playing the conscientious chef, masterfully putting together dishes with zest and verve. These moments are well laid out as it shows a level of authenticity if not the passion that makes you believe his character really loves cooking.

0528_03-CookingTruck

Probably the best moments in the film are the ones that develop the relationship between Chef Carl and his son Percy. This film could have just been about a chef getting back to his culinary roots. Instead, the father/son bonding gives the film an emotional anchor and makes Carl no just a chef, but someone we can relate to as well.

While Carl is hesitant to have his son be involved with his latest endeavor; driving the truck back to LA allows him to make good on a promise to take his son Percy on a road trip and affords him the opportunity to share with his son (and the audience) his love for cooking. From refurbishing the food truck to selecting the ingredients, and cooking the food; at every step of the way Carl explains why each step in the process needs to be executed in a certain way and what it means to be a chef.

0528_04-TruckMenu

While the story of the film is entertaining, watching it I couldn’t help but feel that it was a metaphor for Favreau’s career. Just look at the parallels: Chef Carl being given an ultimatum by the owner of the restaurant mirrors Favreau leaving the studio system after Cowboys & Aliens bombed; Favreau making Chef (a smaller personal project in the vein of his first film) after a big Hollywood flop could be compared to Chef Carl starting up a food truck–cooking and serving food that he wants to on his own terms. Both stories are about artists looking to get back to their roots so to speak and find some of the magic that made them love what they do. Though I can’t be certain, the similarities are there.

Through it all Chef remains a labor of love for Favreau. He’s not doing anything that will blow you away or is flashy. There’s no fancy camera work or overuse of CGI in any of his shots. And while there are two Avengers in it (Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johannson); they are just friends helping a buddy out. No, Favreau is here to tell a story that he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell it. For that, I take the film at face value. With a simple story, no special acting performances, and a lot of good looking food; I was entertained. While I don’t think it’s quite on the level or as personal as his first film Swingers was, I hope it does help him to get his creative juices flowing again.

Cinematic Scene: How To Make a Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Chef is all about the title character rediscovering his culinary mojo, but no other scene in the film illustrates Chef Carl’s love for food than in this scene where he constructs a grilled cheese sandwich for his son. It’s not shot in any fancy way, but this is where you get a sense of what kind of chef Carl is.

We’ve all made a grilled cheese sandwich, but in this scene we really see the care and attentiveness that Carl puts into this simple dish. From use of ingredients, to construction of the sandwich, to seeing how he maneuvers his spatula; at each step in the process you can see the look of determination on his face to make sure what he’s serving is prepared in just the right way. He doesn’t speak hardly any words, yet his craftsmanship speaks volumes. The scene doesn’t go on for too long, but it does follow him from raw materials to a finished ooey-gooey grilled cheese sandwich . . . yum!

“Cinematic Scene” is a new element to reviews. In an effort talk about some of the more technically creative and/or emotionally charged scenes in the film I’ve decided to break off a specific section at the end of each review to discuss these noteworthy scenes. Whether it’s fancy camera work, brilliant use of special effects, or heart wrenching acting; I will pick one notable scene from the film that you should definitely pay attention to.

Chef is currently playing at Consolidated Ward 16, Consolidated Kahala, and Regal Dole Cannery 18.

3.5 out of 5 stars // rated R // 1hr 55min

23
May
14

Review: Blended

Oh no you didn't Adam Sandler!

Oh no you didn’t Adam Sandler!

I don’t think anything makes me roll my eyes more than when I hear that another Adam Sandler movie is coming out. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the stuff he did in the mid-to-late ‘90s (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy) when he was fresh of his stint with Saturday Night Live. The guy really had some funny stuff that fit perfectly with the times we were living in back then.

Somewhere along the way though, Sandler didn’t grow up and evolve like the rest of us did. Not since 2009’s Judd Apatow-directed Funny People (some would even say not since 2004’s Spanglish) has Sandler offered up anything interesting or remotely outside of his comfort zone. For the last five years his shtick has consisted of him playing crude cavemen-like roles with the love interest in his films somehow falling for him. While a lot of his films in recent history do have their moments with a couple of really good jokes or a few heartfelt moments that bring some pathos to his characters, most of the time these types of scenes are few and far between and ultimately don’t even out the rest of the bonehead decisions his character makes.

That brings us to this year’s Adam Sandler movie, Blended. The basic setup . . . two single parents and their respective kids are unexpectedly thrust together on an African vacation. What will pique your interest as soon as you see any of the promotional material for the film is that Sandler is for a third time paired up with Drew Barrymore. The Wedding Singer has a soft spot in the hearts of many and their relationship felt pretty enchanting in 50 First Dates, but can lightning strike for a third time?

The look moviegoers have on their faces when they realize how long the movie they just sat through was.

The look moviegoers have on their faces when they realize how long the movie they just sat through was.

Sadly like many of Sandler’s cohorts that join him in other films, it feels like Barrymore is just another one of Sandler’s friends who’s here to have a good time with him in the movie rather than emote. Barrymore’s character plays the role of the love interest, but from the very first sequence in the film where the audience is introduced to both leads, it’s very obvious that these are just two friends riffing off their lines and not actually behaving as normal people would if they were on a real blind date. The scene is instead played for total laughs, and while the audience I was with totally ate it up, I just couldn’t help but think how no one would ever act like that in a real situation. So goes a lot of the performances from many of the other adult characters in the film–everyone is here to clock in, say or ad-lib funny lines, and then call it a day.

Probably the most egregious aspect of the film is that it is littered with wasted potential, first and foremost being the African locale. Sure the change of scenery provides Sandler and company a number of jokes to mine, but the African setting wasn’t really utilized in any meaningful way. No real animal interactions other than some questionable ostrich riding, no real African culture, and lots of cartoonish portrayals of African people. That’s not to say that there were times when the running gags of a singing Terry Crews or Abdoulaye NGom’s concierge Mfana addressing Sandler with another bogus name were quite hilarious. But those jokes were so one note that they eventually got tired after a while.

Undulating pecs are always good for a few laughs.

Undulating pecs are always good for a few laughs.

The heart of the film revolves around Sandler’s and Barrymore’s kids seeing the relationship grow between their two parents and ultimately overcoming their own personal struggles. These were the times when the film tugged at my heartstrings and made me actually feel something for all of these characters. But even then, sometimes in the very next scene, you would see these kids get into some really harebrained situations that washed away all the credibility that had been built up previously.

Overall Blended isn’t a bad film; it’s just not a very good one. Probably the most disappointing thing I can say about it is that it has a lot of potential to be a good comedy but squanders that opportunity away with cheap laughs. Not even the great chemistry that Sandler and Barrymore built up in their two previous films together is enough to help the film. Add to the fact that the film is just way too long. Clocking in at just under two hours, there were a lot of jokes and storylines that could have been edited out; and while it might not have helped the film, at least it would have been shorter. If you really do want to go for some cheap laughs over the Memorial Day weekend, then by all means, Blended is the film you’re looking for. If not, steer clear of the Sandler train. That’s the only way we’ll make it stop.

Blended is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

2/5 stars // PG-13 // 1h 57min

 

05
May
14

PostView: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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PostViews are off-the-cuff thoughts on specific aspects of a film that we would like to address. They may not cover all the broad strokes of a film and will appear in lieu of a full review.

I really, really, want to love director Marc Webb‘s new Spider-Man reboot, but when I watched the first film two years ago, and the sequel now in theaters, all I’m reminded of is a cash grab by Sony. While this latest Spidey film is at times exciting to watch, many times I found myself asking “what exactly is going on here?” (both narratively and technically). In the end, everything really did circle back to this post-Avengers world that moviegoers now live in where multi-film franchises are now the norm and all superhero properties must do world building to continuously provide movies for studios pump out. Here are a few thoughts that I had after taking in the latest Spidey film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

CGI Gone Amok

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Thrilling as this sequence is to watch, it’s one of the many in the film that proves the saying ‘too much of a good thing.’

Within the first 10-15 minutes of the film I was immediately taken out by the obvious and overuse of CGI. Now don’t get me wrong, superhero films necessitate the need for CGI effects. I mean, you can’t have Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk or larger than life helicarriers without an visual artist magically crafting these images on a computer. However, in the opening sequence of the film Spider-Man uses his amazing agility to catch about a dozen vials as they get dislodged from their container and go bouncing around the truck they’re being carried in. While I know Spidey is that good, the scene plays out lightning quick with him grabbing and web shooting each and every vial at an inhuman pace. Visually, I know Andrew Garfield is not moving that fast, but nonetheless there is Spider-Man moving at breakneck speed. While it fits with what the character can do, it didn’t fit or feel right within the realm of believability. In short–it looked fake.

Yes, when watching a superhero film, you do need to suspend some disbelief. However, movie magic and visual effects behind a film should transport you to another world; not take you out of it. While there are many fine and believable uses of CGI throughout the film, there are a number of sequences, similar to the one in the opening sequence, where it looks too fake. Though I did lament this point in Iron Man 3 overall Marvel is pretty good with their blending of practical and CGI effects work for their characters. I don’t know if Sony could have done any better if they had more time or put more money into the effects, but I think they should have changed some of these scenes to accommodate more “real” and practical effects work.

Relationships Highlight the Film

Just two kids looking for love in a topsy turvy world.

Just two kids looking for love in a topsy turvy world.

As with the first film, I thought that the relationships again were the highlight. The chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone was great and every time there was interplay between their characters it just felt really authentic and kept drawing me back into the film. Stone is always solid with relationship roles, but combine that with Gwen’s knowledge of Peter’s secret and you have a dynamic that’s interesting because of the tension that it causes between them. One thing that got tired in the Sam Raimi series was all the angsty drama that resulted from Mary Jane never knowing Peter’s secret identity for nearly two films. Unencumbered by that here, Gwen and Peter’s relationship is actually strengthened by her knowing his secret and the film is all the better for it.

Another great relationship, though is a bit short lived, is the mother/son relationship between Peter and Aunt May. Probably more so than in the last Amazing Spider-Man film I thought this relationship was really well presented in the film. While there is just one big scene which pretty much sums up the extend of the relationship, it’s still very heartfelt and very well acted by Garfield and Sally Field. Not even in Raimi’s version of Spider-Man did I feel this kind of relationship between Peter and Aunt May, so overall, great job by Webb in developing these relationships and making them really shine.

Spider-Man 3 Villain Syndrome?

Clobberin' time it ain't.

Clobberin’ time it ain’t.

One thing I think a lot of people were worried about (myself included) was the much alluded to battle/joining of forces between the purported three villains that were showcased in all of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s promotional material: Electro, The Green Goblin, and Rhino. In Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 its trio of villains essentially overpowered the film and chopped up several story lines which didn’t give the film cohesiveness and led to the downfall of that picture. Again, going in, I was worried if Webb and Sony even knew what they were doing by putting three villains in another Spider-Man film. Could they make the same mistakes again?

While some may say that Sony hasn’t learned their lesson with including too many villains in a film, I’m going to say that they handled the three villains in a more responsible and measured way this time around. Without venturing into spoilers, there really is only one villain in this film with another just along for the ride and the last of three not really needing to be included save for table setting for the Sinister Six film (more on this in a bit).

While the two main villain plot lines become intertwined, I felt that they were handled fairly well and there was enough room in the film for everyone’s story to breathe and not be bogged down by having two many arcs run rampant and not given them their due. In this sense, Sony did learn their lesson and essentially and toned down the villain count to make the overall story of the film more cohesive than in Raimi’s Spider-Man 3.

Sony vs Marvel

Just like Peter Parker alone on a rooftop, Marvel Studios looks out at Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros as they try to jump on the superhero bandwagon.

Just like Peter Parker alone on a rooftop, Marvel Studios looks out at Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros as they try to jump on the superhero bandwagon.

Finally, perhaps my biggest gripe against this film is the way it made me compare what Sony is doing with Spider-Man to what Marvel is doing with the Avengers. I touched on this in my intro, but I’ll be more specific here; there are a number of times in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 where things are done for no other reason than to set the table for future Sony films involving Spidey and other characters from this world–which I think is a detriment to this film.

I couldn’t help but make these comparisons to what Marvel is doing because while Marvel is very smart about their world building and uses a lot of subtlety and nuance, Sony uses a hammer and hits you over the head with their table setting. While Sony has come outright and said that they will be developing a Sinister Six and Venom films, this does not excuse them from leaving blatant setup and plot points for those films in this one. In many ways The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could be considered the Sony equivalent of Iron Man 2 with all the world building that they’re doing here.

Case in point, with their in-credits and post-credits scenes aside, the entirety of a Marvel film is strictly dedicated to a self contained story arc. While the results of each Marvel film affect future films, there aren’t really any direct influences from one film to the next. Past events are referenced, or flashed back to, but nothing in a Marvel film blatantly setups anything in future films. In fact, after you watch a Marvel film, it makes you want to go back to see how far back in past films Marvel started planting seeds.

With Sony, they basically come right out and tell you that “hey, a couple of us bad guys in this film, we’re going to be in the next film.” While it’s no secret that large events in the comics are making their way into the films, you’d like to think that it would be presented in a way that’s organic and seems natural. As a result, there are quite a number of elements that are left unresolved at the end of this film and though not necessarily bad, I just personally think it’s lazy storytelling. There are ways to hint at things without specifically stating them or leaving them open ended. Only films that have parts (ie: Part I, Part II) should be able to get away with that.

At the end of the day I felt that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a mixed bag. On the one hand there are some very well choreographed scenes and fights with some great emotional moments with Peter and Gwen and then again with Aunt May. But on the other side of the coin is overuse of CGI that took me out of the film numerous times coupled with the obvious table setting that Sony is doing for future installments. In many respects my concerns mirror the complaints of many critics who have been saying that the film is essentially more flash than substance. While not totally off base I do see what a lot of them are saying.

Like it or not the Sony machine will be pumping out Spidey films for the foreseeable future, with Webb along for at least one more go around. As other studios do their best to mimic the Avengers model with multiple character movies leading into mega-team up films, only time will tell if Sony can course correct and learn from the misfires from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in much the same way they learned from their mistakes with Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. I won’t be holding my breath.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

3/5 stars // PG-13 // 2h 21min

21
Feb
14

Review: The Wind Rises

Does Hayao Miyazaki's latest (and maybe last) film take flight? Or does it get declined with the pattern being full?

Does Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (and maybe last) film take flight? Or does it get declined with the pattern being full?

Coming aboard the Hayao Miyazaki train fairly late in his career (the first film of his that I saw was Princess Mononoke), I’ve really enjoyed the imaginative worlds and engrossing stories that he has put forth to date. The Miyazaki that I love is at his best when he’s dealing with fantasy elements and natural/spiritual worlds. It was with this background in mind that I was really hopeful for what is being called his final film, The Wind Rises. While tons of critics everywhere are heaping a huge amount of praise on the film, I found myself feeling a little disheartened after walking out of the theater.

In many respects The Wind Rises is a biopic, and I would even dare to say his most accessible film to date. It follows the journey of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer who would go on to design the Mitsubishi A6M Zero — Japan’s deadliest carrier-based fighter plane during World War II. From dreams during his youth and as a result of debilitative eyesight, all Jiro aspires to do is build planes. The journey to do so leads him to school, his job at Mitsubishi, a trip to Germany to study German aeronautics, and to the love of his life, Naoko.

Naoko and Jiro.

Naoko and Jiro.

The film plays with a melancholy vibe throughout as Jiro struggles to create the ideal aircraft–one that he has envisioned in his dreams, yet seems impossible to attain despite his best engineering efforts. Adding to the pensive theme of the film is Jiro’s relationship with Naoko. They meet early on and are then separated for a good chunk of the film. When they do reconnect, their relationship weighs on Jiro and adds a wrinkle to his professional life.

For a Miyazaki film, The Wild Rises is fairly straightforward. While a lot of the elements are based on historical events, there are some trademark Miyazaki fantasy flourishes. Throughout the film Jiro has recurring dreams in which he appears with Caproni, a famous Italian aeronautical designer, on a flying airplane. These sequences are always somewhat fanciful as Caproni and Jiro sometimes appear walking or standing on the wings of an airplane as it flies through the air. Serving as a way to analyze his current situation and obstacles, these dreams guide Jiro on a path to creating his airplane.

Say 'hi' to all the people going to see The Lego Movie again.

Say ‘hi’ to all the people going to see The Lego Movie again.

The Wind Rises has all the trademarks of a Studio Ghibli film: wonderful animation, great characters, funny moments, and an interesting story. Though it has all of those touches, that was never enough for me to be fully engaged by the film. I had heard beforehand that this Miyazaki film was based on historical events, but that didn’t really prepare me for how different it would be. What was missing for me was that wonderment you get from being in an imaginative world with colorful characters, a sense of awe by something you haven’t seen before. None of that was present for me in The Wind Rises. Instead I felt like I was watching a dramatized history lesson. While it was interesting, it just was not as enjoyable.

I have heard that the reason Miyazaki chose to develop this project was because he identifies himself with the main character Jiro. Miyazaki did feel the effects of World War II as he has stated that a memory that will live with him forever was when he fled his burning town after an air raid when he was just four years old. Whatever his motives were, I can’t help but think of the grim picture the film paints if Miyazaki does see his life paralleling that of Jiro. The eventual fallout from Jiro’s creation is a machine that is used by the Japanese military as an instrument of death. And this is what gives me some pause regarding the Jiro/Miyazaki parallel–if this is the case, what is Miyazaki trying to say about the legacy that he leaves behind?

Is that Jiro, or Hayao Miyazaki riding off into the sunset?

Is that Jiro, or Hayao Miyazaki riding off into the sunset?

I think you owe it to yourself to see The Wind Rises if you’re into cinema in general, like anime, or are a Hayao Miyazaki fan. If you’re just an average moviegoer looking for something to take the kids to this weekend, this probably is not it. While there’s nothing that I think kids under ten years old would find scary or would be offensive for them to see, I think the bigger issue kids will have is that there is not enough going on for them to hold their attention. With the fantasy aspect gone and no real killer visuals, the movie is a drama that takes the audience on a journey with the main character to build a plane–not the kind of fodder I see little kids really getting into. When you factor in that a majority of the showtimes will be in Japanese with English subtitles, that’s not something kids usually like having to do.

While I wouldn’t call myself a Hayao Miyazaki devotee, I do like many of his previous films and was hopeful for this one. With the shift in direction, in both theme and content, The Wind Rises was a bit of a letdown for me. If this is Miyazaki’s last film, I’m just happy that he got to go out on his own terms with something that was a project dear to his heart. I can always go back and watch his older stuff for the fantastical Miyazaki that I love and will remember him by.

The Wind Rises will be playing exclusively at Consolidated Ward 16 Theatres this weekend with both Japanese and English versions before expanding to more screens next weekend.

Rating 3/5 stars // PG-13 // 2h 6min

07
Feb
14

Review: The Monuments Men

Clooney and the boys go huntin' Nazis (that stole a bunch of art).

Clooney and the boys go huntin’ Nazis (that stole a bunch of art).

When you hear the names George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and John Goodman, one of the first things you think of is that this is a good group of actors. Some of them have Oscars while the others have been nominated for them. They’re respected in their craft, and you expect high-quality performances from them. And herein lies part of the issue that many people will have with The Monuments Men, Clooney’s fifth directorial film; with such a heavy-hitting cast your expectation level for the film may be a wee bit too high.

The Monuments Men tells the story of a platoon of artistic-minded men who are put together and tasked with locating and preserving artwork in Europe that have been stolen by the Nazis during World War II. A lofty goal to be sure, yet one that is indeed factual as the film is based on actual people and events.

The fact of the matter is that with the big names and the humanitarian premise of the film, what we hope for the film is not what is delivered. What we do get is an interesting story with actors that are not utilized to the best of their potential. Don’t get me wrong; I like almost everyone in this film, and while they all do a good job, there’s just not that much in the screenplay to make any of them really shine.

Damon really stepped in it on this one.

Damon really stepped in it on this one.

What compounds this issue is the fact that this movie is more of an ensemble piece rather than focused on any one character. You get great one-on-one relationship development between everyone as they break up and venture across Europe: Murray’s and Balaban’s characters encountering a lost German soldier, Goodman’s and Dujardin’s characters getting shot at outside of a church, Damon’s character trying to win over Blanchett’s. While we see all of them bond together and buy into the mission in both comedic and emotive ways, nothing really sets the screen on fire. I almost felt that other potentially less recognized actors could have just as easily been in these roles.

The bigger story with The Monuments Men is the story itself. Clooney is out to shine a light on this little known piece of the war. While the story is interesting, the film only really scratches the surface of its central theme: Is art more important than a man’s life? You have to imagine now that this is taking place during the middle of World War II. Allied forces have just landed in Normandy, and the main focus is on defeating the Germans–not saving art. Any resources or personnel dedicated to an ulterior objective doesn’t make sense to most military minds when there are Nazis to fight.

The making of another Hitler Downfall video in progress.

The making of another Hitler Downfall video in progress.

While Clooney’s character Lt. Stokes gives several monologues during the film to this central question, I thought it was one or two moments from the film that really illustrated an answer to this question. This is a film that is set during World War II, so it shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to say that people die in this movie. It’s how they die and what they die for that really answers the question. Towards the end of the film Stokes is directly asked this question, and while I won’t reveal the answer, how he responds is made pretty obvious from the events that took place in the film, and I wish there were more of these thought-provoking moments to be had.

Overall, there’s nothing really bad about this film. The performances are all good and entertaining, but they don’t really reach epic proportions. The story of these men and the story of what the Nazis were trying to do are definitely the emphasis as a lot of it really makes you wonder how much artwork we did end up losing to the war. If the worst I can say is that I lament the lost potential for a film like this, then while it’s not great, it ain’t bad either.

The Monuments Men is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Rating – 3/5 stars // PG-13 // 1h 58min


06
Feb
14

Red Band Redux: Jan 2014

0206_01-JanRedux

January. The first month of the year usually doesn’t have all that much to offer at theaters since the studios pretty much just dump anything on us in favor of focusing on their awards plays and Oscars. For me, January is usually focused on catching up with stuff from the previous year that came out in late December or other films from the previous year that I’ve heard good things about, but just didn’t have the time to see. All told there were still some decent flicks to check out in January.

The Wolf of Wall Street

It's about the Ludes old sport!

It’s about the Ludes old sport!

I’m always down for a Scorsese flick since Marty consistently puts out a good product. Though I definitely like some of his films (Goodfellas, Casino, Hugo) more than others, I can’t help but marvel at the myriad types of projects the man has decided to undertake. While I didn’t quite know what I was in for with The Wolf of Wall Street, with Scorsese’s track record I was fairly confident that I was going to be entertained. And boy was I.

The film hits you from the get-go with Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character Jordan Belfort snorting cocaine out of a prostitute’s anus. Talk about audacity. From there the outrageousness doesn’t stop and only gets amped up for the duration of the film.

Speaking of DiCaprio, I thought that this was one of his best performances to date. The way he portrays Belfort as this savvy and brash stock broker who is bent on being as rich as he can possibly be was pretty amazing. In one scene he’ll be in total control, inspiring and pushing his brokers to sell, and in the next he’ll just be bat-shit crazy hopped up on cocaine, ludes, or both. Yet in other scenes where he has to deal with his wife and family, he’ll be totally tortured by the way his wife makes him feel. Though Leo faces stiff competition in this year’s Oscars, I’d love it if he took home a statue.

While Leo is quite good, the story itself is fascinating to watch. Here you have a guy who pretty much builds himself up from nothing into a multimillionaire with a lucrative brokerage firm. Of course the way that Belfort goes about acquiring all this isn’t the most ethical or legal and that’s where the film does raise a lot of interesting questions: For a guy this smart and this savvy, why resort to illegal activities? With a wife that hot, why still have sex with prostitutes? In the beginning of the film Belfort is advised that these types of activities are necessary to do this type of job. Maybe it’s just me being naive or totally not understanding of this type of world, but while I was internally shaking my head at it all I couldn’t look away as it was all so interesting to behold.

Leo is of course supported by some great performances in the film, most notably from Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s early mentor, Jonah Hill as Belfort’s faithful yet awkward right hand man, and Margot Robbie who plays Belfort’s wife. I totally loved McConaughey and wish he had a larger role. The lunch scene with him and DiCaprio was one of the high points for me. McConaughey sort of plays his typical self, but only way cooler and with a lot more style. Hill has been turning in real solid work as of late and though I thought this performance was a little forced, he was still pretty good lending a lot of comedy to the film. Robbie meanwhile stood her ground pretty well with DiCaprio, specifically in the scene where she goes to throw a glass full of water into Belfort’s face–totally in control of the entire situation.

With a great story and a phenomenal cast, The Wolf of Wall Street is one of Scorsese’s best films in recent memory.

4.5/5 stars (One of the best films from last year. See it if you haven’t!)

—-

The Legend of Hercules

Are you not entertained by my sword?

Are you not entertained by my sword?

I never go into movies hoping for a bad movie, but sometimes you know a movie is not going to be great from the trailer, subject matter, actors in the film, and the studio or distributor that is releasing the film. Such is the case with The Legend of Hercules.

I think the best thing I can say about this film is that it is not bad. The highlights: some great fighting scenes that crib a little from 300, but there’s enough that they do different to make it fun to watch.

The lowlights: With films like Gladiator and 300 firmly imbedded in our hearts and minds, this film unfortunately has way too many similarities to those films, from 300-esque Spartan fight styling, Gladiator-esque arena fight styling, and with the plotline of Hercules being sold into slavery and then winning his freedom though the arena; many times it seemed as if nothing was original.

What’s unfortunate is that there’s definitely franchise building going on here and it really affects the film in the sense that there’s hardly anything from the Hercules mythology which in and of itself is so rich. The film instead gives us the scorned brother/father storyline which made Gladiator so dramatic, but here makes this film seem tired.

Finally there’s Kellan Lutz. Yeah he’s good looking (so I’ve been told), and that’s about it. The ladies might love him for that in the film, but acting-wise, he didn’t bring anything to the table for me in that department. While his Hercules mirrored Maximus, he did had none of the authority, intensity, or badassery that made Maximus so good.

All in all while it looks like I’ve been bagging on the film, nothing in here is egregiously bad. I wouldn’t rush out to theaters to see it or even buy it on blu-ray. Maybe one day in the future if it was on TV, I might have it on in the background while I was working on something else. It’s totally a ‘have on in the background’ kind of movie.

2/5 stars (I guess if you’re into Greek mythology you’d like it)

—-

Lone Survivor

0206_04-LoneSurvivor

Even though I like this film, there was something missing from it that didn’t make me put it with other current war films that I truly love. It’s not something that I can really put my finger on, but it definitely doesn’t fit with the vibe I get from other films such as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker.

Regardless, Lone Survivor is still a great movie. The film does a really good job of putting you in the right frame of mind from the very beginning with the introduction of the training that the SEALs go through. Right away you know, for the guys that eventually move on to become SEALs, it will take A LOT to bring these guys down. I mean, during the film you definitely feel these guys’ pain as they get shot up and throw themselves down a mountain to escape the Taliban. With their backs up against a wall (quite literally) these guys never stop giving it their all.

“Put some dirt on it and suck it up!”

The performances from everyone all around are pretty solid. You might think the four leads (Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch, Foster) are just there for looks but once shit hits the fan and their characters fall back on their SEAL training, they make you seem like you’re there on the mountain with them dodging gunfire and painfully falling on rocks.

I think that with the outcome of the film right there in the title, that could be a big reason why I’m not as high on this film as with others in the genre. Granted, like Black Hawk Down, Lone Survivor is also a film that depicts an operation where our military didn’t have a victorious outcome. With Black Hawk though, even though that was based on a real event and I could have looked up what had happened, with Lone Survivor the idea that only one of them would make it was always at the end forefront of my mind. Which one of them would be the one? How did the others die? There’s a certain sense of helplessness I felt since I had already knew the general outcome of the film.

4/5 stars (Worth your time if it’s still in theaters)

—-

American Hustle

0206_05-AmericanHustle

I don’t know what it is about David O. Russell, but man is this guy on a role. Not only does he assemble the heavy hitting actors that he’s used from past films, but he always gets a ton of mileage out of them as well. All of the leads in the film do a really great job with their characters with Bale and Lawrence all but disappearing into their roles.

All the time these people were on screen I just had to think that I was watching an acting clinic going on. It was a joy to watch Bale with his character’s ‘oh-so cool’ attitude wax poetically about how their business should be conducted. The scene where he describes how he’s like the Viet Cong had me smiling. Lawrence on the other hand, she’s just so good as a New Jersey housewife who really knows how to give Bale’s character a hard time–I mean she’s like scary good (science oven fire anyone?). Adams was solid with her British con woman persona and brought emotional heft when she needed to. Cooper, though pretty good here, I felt did a much better job in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. In Hustle he was a little all over the map, especially in those scenes where he had to freak out.

The actors and their performances were definitely the highlight of the film. Even when the story goes a little off the rails a bit, the performances is what kept me in it. Ok, so it doesn’t go off the rails so much as gets a little confusing when Richie (Cooper’s character) gets way too over zealous and complicates things by going after bigger crooks.

Having said all that I really enjoyed all the period flourishes in the film from the clothes, to the hairstyles, and all the music in the film; it really makes you feel that you’re in a particular place and time. Overall a real fun movie with a lot of great talent in it.

4/5 stars (Again, another top film from 2013. Definitely see it.)

—-

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

0206_06-JackRyan

Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck have all taken on the role of Jack Ryan; arguably Tom Clancy’s most hallowed literary creation (I discount his Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell series since I’ve never played them). Now Chris Pine gets his shot in the reboot of the long standing Jack Ryan cinematic franchise.

With the exception of Sum of All Fears, I’m actually quite fond of the Jack Ryan series of films. More of a thinking man’s James Bond who works from behind the scenes rather than out in the field; Jack Ryan is sort of your smarter than average everyman who just happens to work for the CIA. In this incarnation of the CIA analyst, the plot is a Hollywood original unlike the previous four films that were adapted from Clancy’s books. This could be why the story seems a lot tighter and leans on more of the action aspects of Ryan’s background as opposed to more of his analytical background that seemed more of his style in the previous films.

As far as action films go, Shadow Recruit does a pretty good job of delivering the goods. There are two major operations in the film that give both a sense of ‘edge of your seat suspense’ with a good amount of butt kicking action. Nothing groundbreaking, but entertaining nonetheless.

One thing I liked but also didn’t like at the same time; the introduction of Jack’s wife Cathy into his mission. While we always get the secret agent who keeps his work a secret from his significant other, here we get the conflict of the two of them having to deal with the life that Jack has chosen. On the opposite side of that I found it a little unbelievable that the CIA would put an untrained civilian right in the middle of an important operation to aid in the thwarting of a terrorist attack. Bad storytelling choices aside the only other thing bugged me was the near Siri-like way that Jack deduced where the final target was. I know he’s a pretty smart guy and he had the CIA database at his disposal, but I just found it a little hard to believe that he came up with everything that fast.

On the acting side, everyone was just okay here. Chris Pine wasn’t as cheeky as his role on the bridge of the Enterprise, but he did show the most spark out of everyone on screen. I was actually a little disappointed with Kevin Costner’s role as Ryan’s commanding officer; he didn’t really bring all that much to the table in regards to character or personality.

When trying to decide where in the filmic Jack Ryan canon this film stands with me, it’s either gotta be in the third or fourth spot (out of five films). It definitely doesn’t have the cerebral and intense chess match-like suspense from The Hunt for Red October (my first favorite Jack Ryan film) or the intriguing SEAL Team war on drugs like Clear and Present Danger (my second favorite film), but it does have enough action and analyzing to put it near the middle of the pack.

3/5 stars (There’s been better spy movies. Wait till it hits Netflix.)

—-

That Awkward Moment

0206_07-AwkwardMoment

I was really pretty stoked to see this film as the trailer provided a pretty enticing premise: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, and Zac Efron as a bunch of guy friends who swear off getting girlfriends. While the premise isn’t anything all that new in the rom-com genre, I really like Teller and Jordan and was intrigued to see what this movie would be.

And for the most part the movie does deliver on what the trailer is selling, guys being guys, guys finding romance, and testing of their relationships both with each other and their prospective love interests. As expected Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan are pretty good. They don’t have too much heavy lifting acting wise in this film while Zac Efron is playing your typical Zac Efron-y character (the cool player type that doesn’t want to be tied down). However, Teller’s and Efron’s characters aren’t the most lovable guys. I mean, yeah sure they’re playing the typical single guys who are trying to play the field and will sleep with as many woman as they can; so you expect that behavior from them. I just didn’t think they earned the relationships they got in the end, or maybe I just didn’t fully believe it.

The humor in the film will give you some funny stuff to laugh at with the jokes throughout the film being hit or miss for me. There were definitely times where jokes didn’t land well and it seemed like they were really trying too hard to come up with that specific joke or kept ad libbing for too long.

At the end of the day That Awkward Moment is a fun little comedy that will entertain you, if you’re not looking for anything too serious or a real relationship from a film.

2.5/5 stars (It’s a fun date movie.)

—-

Also reviewed last month: Gimme Shelter.

23
Jan
14

Review: Gimme Shelter

The results are in, and it ain't good for Vanessa Hudgens or Gimme Shelter.

The results are in, and it ain’t good for Vanessa Hudgens or Gimme Shelter.

type·cast v. (ˈtīp-ˌkast): 1. to always give (an actor or actress) the same kind of role
2. to cause people to think that (an actor or actress) should always play the same kind of role.

There are some actors that are perfect for playing one particular type of role. Michael Cera as the awkward out-of-place white boy or Samuel L. Jackson who seamlessly plays badass mofo all the time. It’s when an actor tries to break the mold they’ve been put into that they tend to run into trouble. When an actor does decide to try a different type of role, how willing are we as an audience to see them in another light?

I pose this question because the biggest issue I had with the Gimme Shelter was the actress in the lead role, Vanessa Hudgens. You remember Hudgens from High School Musical, don’t you? Typecast as the “cute teenage girl” in those Disney Channel days, she’s tried to shed that persona in films such as Sucker Punch and Machete Kills. However, the roles she played in these movies did not serve her well in preparing for Gimme Shelter.

A small faith based theme runs through the film, hence the church.

A small faith based theme runs through the film, hence the church.

Hudgens plays Apple, a pregnant teen who flees the housing of her welfare-collecting mom, tries to connect with her Wall Street father, but finds that neither is the right place for her. Untrusting and hardened by a system that has let her down, Apple finds hope in a shelter for teen mothers.

Needless to say that the world Apple lives in is not that of High School Musical. I bring this up because while I don’t think that’s the only type of role Hudgens can play, she just did not have enough gravitas to make me fully believe in her character. She may have looked rough and talked tough, but what you get though is a feeling of emptiness. While the cutesiness of her Disney Channel days did not affect how she appeared here, the entire time she was onscreen her emotions did not feel genuine and as a result I hardly felt sympathy towards her. Since many things hinge on her performance as the lead who is supposed to be carrying the film, Gimme Shelter as a whole just does not work.

0123_03-WithDad

Encino Man is her father.

Hudgen’s unconvincing performance is further hindered by a supporting cast that easily out-acts her. Rosario Dawson gives a frightening performance as Apple’s mom, who shows us just how messed up she is in a few scenes where she terrorizes Apple. Her father is played by Brendan Frasier, who may not be the most consummate thespian, but he still plays a decent well-off-yet-regretful father (hey, the guy showed some chops in With Honors and School Ties). Finally there’s Ann Dowd, who plays the coordinator of the shelter Apple comes to stay at and who you automatically feel immensely sympathetic for when she goes toe-to-toe with Apple’s mom. All the performances from the established actors supplanted Hudgens’ acting and ultimately her character’s believability in the film.

Not even Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, who has a supporting role as a priest, could help the film. In fact, I felt Jones’ appearance in the film actually hurt it since I just cannot take the guy seriously ever since he started doing those Sprint commercials (Totes McGotes!).

It's amazeballs!

It’s amazeballs!

The lack of believability wasn’t just restricted to Hudgens. The feeling that I got from the teen shelter did not feel authentic as well. While I understood the plight of Apple and the other girls that were there, nothing really drew me into their world to make me sympathize with them. Maybe it stemmed from Hudgens’ performance, or maybe it’s the fact that Short Term 12 did it better–way better. Combine all that, and at the end of the day I just could not for the life of me feel any emotion for anyone in this film.

Let me be clear on one thing though: Hudgens wasn’t bad; she was just unbelievable. Yes, there’s a difference. I just do not think that this was the right role for her. It’s not that I do not think she can break away from the typecast roles she’s known for. In fact she had a pretty good turn as a “bad girl” in last year’s Spring Breakers. No, it’s that she simply does not have enough acting chops (at this point in her career, at least) to really sink into a role like this. At least with Spring Breakers that role fit her persona. Here in this film she is just out of her depth.

Gimme Shelter has a positive message that gets bogged down by the inexperience of its lead actor, plain and simple. The highlight definitely is the supporting roles in the film, but even then, that is hardly enough to warrant the price of admission. In the end, it might be best if you seek shelter with another flick.

Gimme Shelter opens Friday, January 24 at select local theaters.

Rating – 1.5/5 stars // PG-13 // 1h 40min

06
Jan
14

Review: Saving Mr. Banks

0106_01-MrBanksDOM

Not even a personal tour of Disneyland with Walt Disney himself could turn that frown upside down.

Sometimes the story behind how a book or film was made is a much more interesting tale than the thing that was created. All of the things we like about our most beloved stories had to have come from somewhere, so naturally we’re intrigued by the genesis behind elements of a story that we’re all familiar with. Hollywood knows this, of course, as it continues to pump out origins stories when a franchise has been milked dry of sequels. We also love to know how our favorite things came to be from a behind-the-scenes perspective in more of a true origins story, and this is what Disney’s latest goes for with Saving Mr. Banks, a look at the creation of the classic film Mary Poppins from director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie).

Saving Mr. Banks portrays author P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) having serious trepidation about signing the film rights over to Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks). Keep in mind that this is Hollywood circa the 1960s, not 2014 when book adaptations, sequels, and remakes run wild. Back in those days, people had the foresight to think about their decisions on what kind of movies would be made, and Travers is ever the watchdog of her story that she holds with deep reverence.

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You gotta call him Walt.

The disdain Travers shows Walt at first glance seems like the dilemma of an author worried about the adaptation of her book becoming too commercialized and part of the Disney machine, which would give us a nice allegory about the big conglomerate machine assimilating yet another small and original story. However, as the film goes on we get a deeper understanding into why Travers is so adverse to the Disney adaptation through a series of flashbacks on her early life as a child growing up in rural Australia as well as a number of conversations Travers has while dealing with adapting the film.

What starts off seeming like being protective slowly turns into oppressiveness that paints Travers as the kid with a ball who won’t let anyone play with it. At a certain point in the film I became sympathetic to Walt’s point of view and started thinking what in the world is Travers doing. Throughout the process Walt is very accommodating with all of her demands and yet nothing is good enough for her. Then as things progress we start to get to the heart of why Travers is so protective of her work.

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Dad just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich.

In many flashback sequences that are interspersed throughout the film, we come to realize Travers’ protectiveness as well as the genesis of the character of Mary Poppins. The main heart of the film centers around understanding Travers’ defensiveness for her creation and the ultimate realization and resolution to let the film be made (spoiler alert: yes, P.L. Travers did let Walt Disney turn Mary Poppins into a movie).

In the end, what gets the film made isn’t so much a proper depiction on screen or a good translation from book to film; it’s more about realizing that sometimes the things we hold onto the hardest, things from our past, need to be let go in order for us to move forward and live our lives.

Performance-wise, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are solid as always. While Hanks had a much better performance earlier this year in Captain Phillips, he’s perfectly fine here playing the energetic and friendly Walt Disney. Hanks’ version of Disney, while not being overly showy or impression-like, does give you enough to see him as the former mogul. The real star is Thompson as P.L. Travers. She plays the defensive author with great wit and inner torture to make you as frustrated as the filmmakers working with her on Mary Poppins while laughing at her remarks and jokes at the very same time.

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They’re the best . . . around. Nothing’s gonna ever keep them down.

Saving Mr Banks also features a couple of decent supporting turns from Colin Farrell as Travers’ father in flashback sequences and Paul Giamatti as Travers’ driver while in Los Angeles. These two get the meatier of the supporting roles while BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Jason Schwartzman are sidelined by playing the filmmakers tasked to work with (and get pounded by) Travers.

On the whole I felt the payoff of why Travers was sidelining production of the film wasn’t quite worth the journey. Granted the explanation is emotional and genuine, I just didn’t feel it matched with everything that had come before it. Ultimately it had me going “Was that all this was about?” at the end. However, you know the old adage: “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” The sum of all the parts of Saving Mr. Banks are actually better than the whole–with the performances of the film leading the way. While the story was interesting and the performances were very good, it just wasn’t quite all there for me in the end. Maybe it needed just another spoonful of sugar.

Saving Mr. Banks is finishing up its run and playing at select local theaters.

Rating 3/5 stars // PG-13 // 2h 5min




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