Thursday, February 27, 2014

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Film Review

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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Paul Greengrass really knows how to direct films with tension like few others.  I really tend to avoid super high-tension films like that when I am aware of it before going in.  Greengrass's UNITED 93 is another one like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS that I waited to see on DVD because I just knew going in that the tension was going to a bit much for me.  I think I chose correctly in both those cases.  Watching them for the first time at home on the smaller screen and distractions made the intensity easier to bear.

It is an excellent film. I was never bored by it and got fully wrapped up in the events unfolding and that relentless sense of inevitability to the outcome.  I know many will have gone into this movie already knowing the story, but I am not one of those.  The 24-hour news cycle is not something I choose to partake in so when this even actually occurred I was only peripherally aware of it and was completely unaware of the specifics of how it ultimately resolved.  Everything other than knowing that Capt. Phillips was in charge of a boat taken over by Somali pirates was all I knew.

There is no attempt to justify the pirates' actions but there is humanity to them.  There is some sense of futility to their lives that earned them pathos and empathy as I was watching it.  Tom Hanks earned himself this year's Oscar nomination in this performance which felt honest and real all the way through. 

The film is excellent, but I wouldn't say it was the Best Film of the year but I can see why it got the nomination.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Monday, February 24, 2014

POMPEII & RIDE ALONG: A Review of Two Comedies

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This is a tale of two comedies -- both cliché-ridden boilerplate movies with zero creativity.  One intentionally funny; the other unintentionally hilarious.

RIDE ALONG introduced me to Kevin Hart, who now accepts the crown of "Most Annoying Presence In Film" from Chris Tucker, as a policeman wannabe who goes on a "ride along" with his streetwise police detective and future brother-in-law played by Ice Cube.   Along the way we are treated to one more unnecessary buddy-cop movie where the two guys hate each other at first and then come to like each other by the end.

There's a couple of clever moments involving the use of Hart's online gaming friends and a bullet wound to the leg incident, but other than that this was pretty predictable Hollywood fare with nothing to distinguish it from any other buddy copy movie.

I really don't think I can fully describe how flippin' annoying Kevin Hart is.  And oddly enough this actually helps the movie work a little bit because at least his character is supposed to be irritating the living hell out of Cube's detective character.

The main saving grace for the movie is Ice Cube, by the way.  His dead serious straight man to Hart's Jerry Lewis impression made me laugh a lot.  Laurence Fishburne appears in the movie and seems to be exploding.  I swear his face is swollen up twice as big as Barry Bonds and his body is starting to look like Herman Munster.  John Leguizamo and some other actor I recognize from lots of movies get totally wasted in this movie.  But hey, a paycheck's a paycheck, right?

No way should you pay full price for this movie.  It's probably funnier if you just wait and Redbox it.  As it is, it's mostly lame and predictable but I laughed...or rather chuckled and smiled.  It is at least intentionally funny and succeeds at that....barely.

Now POMPEII on the other hand?  This movie is hysterically funny!

I started giggling 5 minutes in and was laughing out loud by the mid-point.  This thing is nothing but a mess of bad storytelling, bad acting, shitty special effects, and most of all bad directing.  Every single person in this movie was miscast but a special miscasting Oscar must be won by the horrifically awful Kiefer Sutherland as a pompous Roman senator.  The degree of bad cannot be overstated.  Kiefer is strolling around throughout this movie with his bony knees poking out below his skirt and above his knee socks boasting his 24 haircut and speaking with this affected high English dialect that I could not keep from chuckling at.  Maybe I'm just so used to his Batman voice from 24 that I didn't realize quite how...."fabulous"...his voice actually is.  Also, seriously people, with the modern advances in dentistry just why are we getting saddled with these actors who must have ill-fitting upper plate dentures that lead them to "shhhhh" all there "s" sounds????  First Old Spock's overwhelming upper-plating in STAR TREK, then Michael Shannon's Zod in MAN OF STEEL, and now Kiefer Sutherland in POMPEII.  It's maddening!!!  It's becoming the film version of fingernails on a chalkboard for me! 

Get a better dentist, Kiefer.

As to the film itself, it really has to be seen to be believed.  I so wish Mystery Science Theater 3000 could do this movie.  Oh how I wish it could happen.  The awful is just so much that it's hard to even know where to start.  I could start with our hero, Milo.  Yes.  Milo.

Milo. 

Milo is a Celtic warrior. 

Stop laughing.

He is also, essentially, Conan the Horse-Whisperer....with nicely gelled and coiffed curly hair.

There's a girlfriend, sort of, for Milo who looks like a waif weighing about 60 pounds and 20 of those pounds are her bobble-head.  There is an inept attempt to craft a love story, in one day, between Milo and this waif-girl like what James Cameron did with TITANIC, but in case you guys didn't realize it, the director of RESIDENT EVIL and DEATH RACE ain't quite James Cameron.   Oh yeah, and Mr. Eko from LOST appears as a slave gladiator who in one day becomes Milo's bestest buddy.
I laughed out loud at everyone attempting to play act in their costuming. Nobody looked or felt authentic.  It was almost like the director, Paul W.S. Anderson was actually striving for inauthenticity. It's like he was seeking to replicate the worst of the worst of those old Hercules films from the 60s.  There was every possible attempt to tug emotion from the furtive glances of the ingénue to the predictably forced overwrought dialogue and roars of rage.

The destruction as Mount Vesuvius erupts is so monstrously ridiculous I can't even adequately describe it. Just think of the most absurdly predictable sorts of Hollywood mass destruction you can think of and then add a dollup of stupid to push it right over the top.  It's all so hopelessly hilarious -- the attempt by Mr. Eko to save the little girl from a tidal wave, or the tidal wave being stopped by a boat plugging up a doorway. 

Are you laughing yet? 

Our heroes are also really strong.  How about Mr. Eko not only surviving a sword through his gut but is so strong he can break the sword handle off while the sword stays in his gut?  Or Milo, who can...using his bare hands, just....break a horse's neck? 

The amount of running and horse-riding and leaping and fighting while fire and brimstone rain down from the sky is also part of the huge hilarities in the movie.  It's so fun watching everyone else get pelted and smashed and burned and buried while our Hollywood heroes and villains miraculously dodge harm until it's time for the dramatic death moment. 

Because, you know, you don't go into a movie called POMPEII and actually expect anyone to make it out alive.

But you sure do expect them to try!  And that's where the ending becomes the funniest part of the movie.  Don't read any further if you don't want to know....

Milo and waif-girl are the only survivors as the firey ash and lava flow are overtaking the city.  They are riding away from the city on a horse when it bucks them.  But the horse doesn't ride off.  Rather than the two of them getting back on and giving it one more effort to outrun the death flowing after them, Milo tells waif-girl to get on the horse and leave him behind.  She says "NO!" and smacks the horse on the butt to send it scurrying away. And so they embrace and start slo-mo tongue-kissing while the lava flow overtakes them. Then it's a dramatic cut to their ash-covered bodies frozen in a kiss.

Cue dramatic closing music.

Cue the laughter from the audience as we all murmur together "Oh come ON!"

RIDE ALONG
★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

POMPEII
★1/2 out of ★★★★★
(the 1/2 is special bonus 1/2 star for unintentional hilarity)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

ROBOCOP Film Review

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ROBOCOP

To answer your first question: This remake is different enough from the original to justify it's existence.

To answer your second question: It depends on what your expectations are going in.

I expected the movie to be a total waste of my time and instead I found it inoffensive and good enough to sit through without getting bored. It's not particularly clever and is completely devoid of any sense of humor about itself (so it is already in very different territory t...han the original and its sharp satire just because of that). This film is not satire and is more of an exploration of what it means to be human than the original. It also explores the current state of politico-media demagoguery in ways that make it an effective enough commentary on today's cultural climate. Samuel L. Jackson's bombastic asshole TV pundit "Pat Novak" of "The Novak Effect" with its conflation of Bob Novak, Pat Buchanan, and Bill O'Reilly into one guy is about as clever as it gets -- and that's about as clever as a 90's era Image comic. Gary Oldman is very engaging as the doctor who saves Officer Alex Murphy by putting him in the prosthetic robot suit. Michael Keaton is his usual hyperactive lisping self (with terrible haircut). Robocop himself is played by Joel Kinnaman (from TV's THE KILLING). He isn't bad but I don't find the actor to be very charismatic. Original Robocop actor Peter Weller has an unbilled cameo during the final act.

For those who don't know, the plot is very simply about a near-future world where an American corporation wants to bring it's robot police drones onto the United States soil so they take a police officer blown to bits and connect him cybernetically to a robot body. This way they can convince the public and the politicians that there is still a human element to the drone program. Robocop is the "beta", so to speak.

Along the way there is a lot of super-hero style action but without any of the gore and violence that was a trademark of the original (well other than seeing his face, esophagus, and lungs working while the suit is removed a couple of times). And that is really key to the potential success of this movie. It's not a sci-fi satire but a super-hero movie now. So it fits the current moviegoing public's tastes pretty well I expect. Not one thing in the storytelling was surprising or unexpected; in fact, the entire movie is totally predictable but always slides just slightly under the bar of smart. There's even a line at one point by the evil corporation CEO where he says "You know what's better than a hero?" And I leaned over to my wife and muttered "A martyr" one second before he said "A dead hero."

And I just laughed.

Bottom line: It's a standard popcorn flick. Don't expect too much and don't overthink it. You'll have a good time. If you can't check your brain at the door or not compare it to the original you should probably avoid it. But I thought it was decent enough. Not awful. Not great.

★★★ out of ★★★★★

WINTER'S TALE Film Review

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WINTER'S TALE

I don't have a freakin' clue what I just saw.

By the end I found myself trying to figure out how such an esteemed cast (Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly, Eva Marie Saint, and more) could all have been conned into being a part of this mess of confusion masquerading as profundity. Then it all made sense when the credits rolled and I saw that it was written and directed by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman....

Here's the problem, though. Yes, that's right Russell, Akiva wrote A BEAUTIFUL MIND for you. Yes, that's right Will, Akiva wrote I AM LEGEND for you. However, need I remind all of you that he also wrote....BATMAN AND ROBIN and those awful DAVINCI CODE movies. 'Nuff said.

Maybe it depends on his sobriety levels or something, but clearly his screenwriting swings like a bi-polar wrecking ball in terms of quality or coherence.

I'll give you a snapshot of the massive incoherence. None of it is spoilers because you aren't going to go see this movie and even if you do there is no way I can spoil it worse than it spoils itself.

You have a baby set adrift in the ocean in a boat in the late 1800s, like a modern day Moses, who apparently grows up an orphan in New York City and a thief, named Peter Lake, working for a demon named Pearly Souls who is in a human form and speaks with a nearly indecipherable Irish brogue.  While the film is set in the early 1900s he works for Lucifer, played by Will Smith sporting a 2014 wardrobe, earring, and haircut.  When Pearly gets mad his face splits apart like the old Fantastic Four villain, The Molecule Man (see pic).  

Make sense yet?

Apparently stars may not be giant balls of gas after all but really humans who die and become angels and choose their starlike wings to sit in the heavens. And humans all apparently have one "miracle" they are supposed to perform during their lifetime and Pearly's sole purpose on Earth is to mumble gibberish and stop these miracles from happening. Of course, we never really see any other miracles other than the miracle Peter's supposed to perform and Pearly is obsessed with stopping that miracle.

Oh yeah, and there's a spirit dog who magically appears as a glowing white Pegasus. I shit you not. It is a dog......that looks like a....horse......with angel wings.

And I learned that "consumption" (Tuberculosis) causes your body temperature to be so high that it melts snow and you have to sleep on a roof in a tent during winter so that you don't die. And if you breathe in and breathe out slowly and then quietly name some stars while breathing out that will lower your body temperature.

Good to know.

This thing is a mess. It's trying so hard to be meaningful and tell a magical story of a true love, lost love, and a Divine purpose that spans lifetimes. But what got lost was any ability to thread these pieces together into a story that could be followed, with themes that really connected on a deeper level, and most of all delved deeply into the characters so that we actually cared about what happened to them.

I sat there with a confused and furrowed brow from start to finish. That's never good for a film and is crushing for a film with the pedigree of this one.

Avoid at all costs.

★ out of ★★★★★


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

THE LEGO MOVIE Film Review

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THE LEGO MOVIE

This is my favorite movie of the year so far. Perfectly conceived and executed. The computer generated animation is photorealistic to the point that I immediately had to go online to find out if it was actually stop-motion. But no, this is mostly CGI with some surprise live-action and stop-motion integrated into the story. The voice cast is so incredibly perfect that I think the casting director should win a special Oscar just for herself. In particular, Will Arnett slam dunks the funniest Batman performance ever. His “Dangit” is already a part of my own repertoire now. Jonah Hill’s Superman-sycophantic Green Lantern had me rolling everytime he opened his painted Lego mouth. Chris Pratt’s vocal performance as “Emmett” the generic Lego construction worker who might (or might not) be a little more special than he realizes. Oh and a couple of unknowns named Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman have parts as well.

Here’s the bottom line about this movie, it is absolutely appropriate for children of any age and it is brilliantly funny and clever enough that it is fully enjoyable for parents as well. My wife and I were the only 2 adults in the theater who were not there with kids but I’m going to encourage everyone, whether they have kids or not, to go see this movie. It is that good. Fun, funny, smart, and solidly entertaining from start to finish. If you are still on the fence, let me tell you that The Lego Movie is….essentially….THE MATRIX….with Legos. You watch it and tell me I’m wrong!

I will admit to some sarcastic mockery in me when I first saw that there was a Lego movie coming out. It’s such an obviously cynical cash grab and games/toys translated to the big screen do not have a spectacular history. Sure, THE TRANSFORMERS have been a financial goldmine for the studio but in terms of quality of storytelling, nobody is going to claim they’re anything more than just an excuse to watch robots causing mass destruction. Maybe this movie began its life in a crass and cynical way but the screenwriters and the directors transcended that to create a story with archetypal underpinnings and emotional depth deceptively hidden behind these brightly colored building blocks. The Lego Movie is the lovechild of nostalgia and childlike imagination.

Oh, and the ironically hilarious earworm-from-Hell song “Everything is Awesome” will stay with you for days and days and days and days…..
 
What's next?  THE JIGSAW PUZZLE MOVIE?
 


★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Sunday, February 9, 2014

THE MONUMENTS MEN Film Review

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THE MONUMENTS MEN

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE this ain't.

It ain't OCEAN'S ELEVEN either. 

So, I hope you aren't planning to see it because you liked either of those classics.  The movie is technically well done. The details are good. The actors all are well-coiffed and moussed all spiffy in their uniforms.  The scenes are framed well. The cast is spectacular.

And yet....it plods along as dull as dull can be and thematically all over the map.  Even the soundtrack seems schizophrenic like it can't figure out what the tone of the movie is supposed to be.  Is it supposed to be clever and quirky? Is it supposed to be light and funny?  Is it supposed to be serious and emotional? Is it supposed to be sad and thought-provoking?  Is it supposed to be a rah-rah pro-America propaganda piece?

It's actually all of those things at various times with the rah-rah pro-America propaganda piece front and center most of the time.  Apparently, Uncle Sam is the only trustworthy country in the whole of the world to take the art of other countries and actually return the pieces to their rightful owners. 
It's not that the movie is bad.  It's not bad.  It's just not any better than middling good.  None of the actors really gets a chance to really create a character who is memorable; well, except maybe for Bob Balaban and his character.  Part of that is how the film is cut together in such a way that I could tell I was supposed to care about these guys but didn't spend enough time getting to know them so that when "war" stuff starts happening and the art-saving plot kicks into high gear I'm just not invested in them as people.  It's a bit of a crime that Bill Murray is restrained so much here rather than letting him and Balaban just start riffing off each other improvisationally and create a memorable duo out of their pairing.

Everyone is likeable and all, but...aw hell, this thing should've been so much better. George Clooney's directing was lackluster with no panache and his performance was stilted and flat.  I compare this to the performance Alfonso Cuarón was able to get out of him in GRAVITY and I'm tempted to say maybe Clooney shouldn't be directing himself again anytime soon.

I appreciated the efforts to save the paintings and statues that the Nazis were hoarding and I appreciate that Clooney and his crew all obviously worked really hard to tell this story.  It's an interesting story.  I wish the manner in which the story was told had been as interesting.

I think I understand why the studio released it in February rather than, say, during the Oscars run near the end of the year.  The biggest problem with a mediocre film like this is that it will just politely disappear out of the public's memories fairly quickly.

★★★ out of ★★★★★

VAMPIRE ACADEMY Film Review

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VAMPIRE ACADEMY

Have you ever wondered what you would get if you took a little bit of HARRY POTTER, mixed it with BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, tossed in a dash of TWILIGHT, VAMPIRE DIARIES, and BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, then wrapped it all up in a CLUELESS tortilla?

No? Well, I suspect it would be something a lot like this movie I just watched.

I'll admit, I really just went to see it because I knew my daughter would be into it (vampires and teen angst are her movie bread and butter). And I will also say that the opening few scenes are so exposition-heavy I was starting to doubt whether I could sit through it. I have a hard time with films that start out with lengthy exposition. To me it is like a clanging gong to tell me that this screenplay is going to suck, otherwise they would find a way to tell me this information organically through the story.

So, yes, this is not the greatest script in the world. Do not go into it expecting....say....something on par with William Goldman's brilliant script for THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

However, this film has something going for it. It has a cast of extraordinarily charming and likeable young actors that make even the most cringe-inducing dialogue (of which there is some) not only tolerable but increasingly interesting as the movie putts along.

The story involves a not-so-complicated mythology about a sub-society in our world of good vampires, evil vampires, guardians of the good vampires, and some sort of not-werewolves but psy-hounds (I'm assuming that's how you spell it). There is a Hogwarts-style school for the vampire kids (hence the title of the movie) and we have a royal teen vampire princess and her bff guardian, Rose who start out on the run but get returned to the school at the beginning of the movie. And that's about all you really need to know. Time for some love, betrayal, intrigue, action, and some subdued scenery chewing by Gabriel Byrne (as opposed to Jeremy Irons chewing up the scenery and spitting it back out only to chew it right back up last year in BEAUTIFUL CREATURES)

The biggest kink in the potential success of this film probably will be owed to the fact that it came off more to me like an extended episode of a TV show and less like a big-budget film franchise. For that, I'll have to fault the director. But I would be lying if I didn't say it was better than I expected. In fact, I really enjoyed it. They could have definitely used a Joss Whedon script polish job, but it was still fun and I laughed and liked the characters and would be interested in seeing the next installment as it ends on a slight cliffhanger.

★★★ out of ★★★★★



Sunday, February 2, 2014

NEBRASKA Film Review

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NEBRASKA

Before discussing this film, I wanted to say a few comments about the last week or so in embarking on my Movie-Pocalypse.

It's an interesting thing about the usual disconnect between the Hollywood elites and the general public that often amounts to a lot of grousing around the time of the Academy Awards. I know that in the last 20 years or so, most years I find I have either seen only 1 or 2 Best Picture nominees and even some years where I have seen literally non...e of them. And as my friends and family know, I see a lot of movies. I love movies. But quite often what garners the attention of the Academy somehow runs contrary to my own tastes and/or interests.

This year is an exception.

This year is one in which I am interested in seeing every single one of the Best Picture nominees. As a result of that, it has been intentional to frontload this first run with MoviePass with screenings of the Nominees I had not already seen.

In the past week or so I've seen JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, HER, I FRANKENSTEIN, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, THE BOOK THIEF, AMERICAN HUSTLE, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, and tonight NEBRASKA. Four of these are Best Picture nominees. JACK RYAN, THE BOOK THIEF, AUGUST, and FRANKENSTEIN are not. However, BOOK THIEF and AUGUST both are up for Academy Awards in other categories.

Here's what's interesting, when going to see the four Best Picture nominess (plus AUGUST) my wife and I were literally the only people in the theater. The ONLY people. And yet, by contrast the I FRANKENSTEIN screening was a sell-out.

There is something seriously wrong when these amazing movies starring some of the greatest actors of this generation giving performances that are on levels rarely ever achieved on film. These are sublime movies that are as good as every other great classic award winners of the past. And there we sit in empty theaters while we fight for a seat to see one of the stupidest and lousiest turds ever to grace a movie screen.

This world is seriously topsy-turvy.

On to NEBRASKA though. An excellent movie. I went into it completely cold. I had no idea what it was about at all. I only knew it had Bruce Dern in it and something about the black and white simplicity of the movie poster generated a desire in me to see it.

The movie is very simply about an elderly man (Bruce Dern) teetering on the brink of dementia obsessed with redeeming one of those bogus "You've Won $1 Million Dollars" letters. He sets off on a road trip with his youngest son (Will Forte) to drive to Lincoln, Nebraska to "redeem" that letter.

Along the way, the movie turns into a peek inside all of our lives and our families and examines the choices that we make (and don't make) and how they impact us in the present. Everyone who has ever gone and hung out with distant relatives they only see every decade or so is going to be uncomfortable sympathetic with Forte's character, Dan.

Speaking of Forte, both he and Bob Odenkirk who plays his older brother, are unexpectedly exceptional in this film. Whoever thought to cast against type for these two was inspired. In fact, the casting for this movie was brilliant all the way through.

This movie, while deeply affecting is also quite simple on the surface. I also laughed out loud a number of times. There is great humor in here but all of it is real and occurs organically from the characters and the moments. The beautiful black and white cinematography and the minimalist score enhance the reality of every moment making it all the more effective.

Simply wonderful.

★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★