Thursday, May 29, 2014

CHEF and MALEFICENT Reviews!

Entertainment


CHEF
★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Very succinctly, this is the most charming and legitimately funny comedy so far this year.

I don't want to say too much about this one because I just want everyone to go see it and enjoy it like I did. This movie is so perfectly put together that watching it is like sitting down to a full course dinner topped with a nice after-dinner wine.

Chef Carl Caspar has spent the last 10 years of his career subjugating his own dreams and desires to the over-controlling owner of a posh Los Angeles restaurant. In this metaphor for everyone else's mid-life crises, we watch his career (and self-confidence) implode as he is pushed to rediscover his passion and his true self. His path to fullness is paralleled in a food truck trek across the country with his son, who he had previously been at best an absentee dad after his divorce.

Along the way we are inundated with real belly laughs that arise out of honest circumstances and true character moments. Damaged relationships are repaired and the path to happiness is restored as a hard truth takes hold: Happiness and satisfaction will always elude those who never pursue their dreams.

Also, there is absolutely no way to walk out of this movie without a craving for a Cubano sandwich. Thankfully, we have an excellent foot truck in Austin, Texas that serves Cubanos.

One other note, I went to see this film at a local theater in Austin and I wish that director and star Jon Favreau could've been in there because the audience was enthralled. They were interactive and reactive through out the entire film and especially when the road trip made its way into Austin and the truck pulled up to Austin's famous Franklin's Barbeque (voted best barbeque in the entire country by The Foodist at Bon Appetit). There were cheers and whoops of enthusiasm throughout the entire Austin segment.

This movie exemplifies so much of what is missing from so many Hollywood-based comedies. There is a renaissance of independent film happening right now and if you aren't seeking out gems like this you are missing out. You want more? How about Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, John Lequizamo, and Robert Downey Jr.? If that doesn't get you in the door then I dunno what else to say.

‪#‎chef

Monday, May 26, 2014

MEMORIAL DAY 7-FILM MINI-REVIEW ROUND-UP!

Entertainment
 

MEMORIAL DAY 7-FILM MINI-REVIEW ROUND-UP:


X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
The first fully-realized X-Men movie that finally takes its cues from the successful Marvel Studios AVENGERS franchise and successfully adapts a clas...sic storyline from the comics. Surprisingly smart and deftly shifts in tone and pacing between the decades. Best of all, director Bryan Singer did something that the directing of Amazing Spider-Man 2 should take a cue from -- he lets the character moments breathe and allows the actors to do their thing. When you surround the story with actors of the caliber miraculously assembled for this film, you better damn well let them act.

The heart of the film is the younger version of Xavier, who has lost his sense of purpose at that point in his life. Most interesting of all was the emphasis on Mystique/Raven who becomes the singular most important mutant on Earth and whose actions lead to the dystopian deadly future (10 years from now) the X-Men are trying to prevent from coming into being by sending Wolverine's mind back in time to his younger body.

Much has been made about the "reset switch" ending, but even without spoilering the details on that, I have to admit that I am completely okay with it. I have always enjoyed the X-Men films but they have suffered from a lack of cohesion and long-term vision. The benefit this film has is that now Marvel Studios has demonstrated that you can approach these super-hero franchise films with an eye towards building a larger universe and with longterm planning. It does not completely remove the other films from continuity for without them occurring, then the events that happened to rewrite history would never have happened. So, they are important pieces of a future that will never happen now (or will be different).

FIRST CLASS plus this film set up a future successful franchise with a closer adherence to the spirit of the comics themselves and I am glad to see it. This was a movie that was a hell of a lot better than it had any right to be.

#xmendaysoffuturepast


THE GERMAN DOCTOR
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 
A chilling Argentinian film (with subtitles) about the infamous psychopathic Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele after he escaped to Argentina after World War 2. The story itself is fictional but it is wrapped up in actual history, specifically about a female Nazi hunter working for the Mossad who tracked Mengele down to Argentina around 1960 and was found dead after Mengele escaped capture.

The film is about a young family who open up a lodging home in the mountains so that the artisan father can focus on his baby doll design work. Their oldest daughter is a teenager who has a genetic disorder preventing her from progressing into puberty at a normal pace. A mysterious, but charming, German Doctor comes to stay at their lodge and becomes interested in her and her family. As he over-involves himself in their lives he becomes somewhat obsessed while crafting a co-dependency between all of them.

What makes this film so chilling is the charismatically charming performance of Àlex Brendemühl as Mengele. He captures the mind of a true psychopath replete with the magnetism and cold, but not dangerous demeanor. When things fall apart and his self-control begins to slip so we catch glimpses of the evil in him it is both fascinating and repulsive. We hate ourselves for liking him and getting drawn into his web.

An excellent film that just flows smoothly like a well-written novel.

 #thegermandoctor


NEIGHBORS
★ out of ★★★★★
 
There is nothing redeeming in this film. It only earns 1 star because there are a couple of laugh-out-loud slapstick moments. The movie assumes that every person on the planet is just a huge pile of excrement with no value, no morals, and no character.

The two worst parents on the planet suffer the indignity of having the worst fraternity on the planet move next door. What follows is just a series of patently unfunny bullshit in which I wanted to call CPS on them after the third or fourth time that their baby was simply left at home alone in her crib all night.

Revolting.
#neighbors


ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
 
Fascinating vampire movie by director Jim Jarmusch and starring Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt. Really, that pedigree is enough to justify going to see this one.

It's slow-moving and eccentric. It felt less like a vampire movie and more like one of those odd little short stories you get in the occasional vampire anthology book. It really is not about vampires but is using vampires as a plot device to comment on the human condition. It's no mistake that Hiddleston's character is holed up a decaying brick home in the abandoned urban Detroit area. The modern decay is reflective of his own spiritual decay.

The movie is not "beautiful", but there is dark beauty in it. It is mostly absurdly funny in the blackest of black comedic ways. I enjoyed the love between Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) and it was interesting to see how they were stronger together than apart.

This film is not going to set the world on fire, but it is definitely worth your investment of time if you get a chance.

#onlyloversleftalive


THE RETRIEVAL
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 
One of the best films of the year. It's a gut-wrenching film set during the Civil War with a young black boy who is used by a white Bounty Hunter gang to retrieve escaped slaves and bring them back for a fee.

He gets sent, with his unscrupulous uncle, to retrieve a freed slave for a huge retrieval fee but over the course of long trek back they bond together and the boy is put in an excruciatingly difficult position.

The directing and the acting in this movie are fantastic and emotionally real. It is painful to watch at times but only because you, as the viewer, are so caught up in the boy Will (Ashton Sanders) and his youthful guilt and shame. He is being forced to grow up faster than his heart and mind can keep up.

Highly recommended.

#theretrieval


PARTICLE FEVER
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
 
Very simply the best documentary about the launch of the Large Hadron Collider you'll probably ever see.

For a science nerd like me, I couldn't really ask for more. The film follows the lengthy years-long process of getting the Collider built, and the key scientists involved in it. Before long, and through some quite clever opportunities for explanations to us lay-people, we find ourselves emotionally caught up in the moment when they finally discovered the almost mythical Higgs boson (or God Particle).

If you just said to yourself "What's the Higgs boson?" then I suggest you should be required to watch this movie. You can thank me later.

#particlefever


TRANSCENDENCE
★ out of ★★★★★
 
One of the worst films I've seen this year. It makes the fatal flaw of being relentlessly boring and just plain stupid.

This emotionally overwrought sci-fi flick just makes poor story choices after poor story choices after poor story choices in an attempt to engage us in its cautionary tale of the Singularity -- when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. In this case, it starts with the death of a visionary scientist played by Johnny Depp whose brain patterns were captured and incorporated into a computer program.

As he evolves, all manner of stupid stuff happens. The movie also stars Paul Bettany, Amy Adams, and Morgan Freeman but they're all wasted on a ridiculous script saying obscenely stupid dialogue. Really, don't waste your time on this one unless you need something to help you battle insomnia.

#transcendence

Saturday, May 17, 2014

GODZILLA Review

Entertainment

GODZILLA

Giant monsters tearing up Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco with crazy good special effects.  That's about all you need to know in this reboot of the GODZILLA franchise for the American stage.

Apparently there is a huge Godzilla fan community locally because when we went to see this movie Thursday night the theater was a sell-out crowd (98% male) full of vocal Godzilla fans.  They gave a lot of loud "in the know" vocal reactions to the basically familiar Godzilla tropes that appeared in film including the use of a silly acronym like M.U.T.O. (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) to give us a name for the new monsters that battle the massive behemoth.
They also erupted into a huge round of applause at the end.

That definitely made for an...interesting movie-going experience.  My background with Godzilla is really just that I used to watch the movies on TV when I was a kid and I've gone to see GODZILLA 1995, GODZILLA (1998), and GODZILLA 2000 in the theaters.  Essentially, the basic set up for most of them (in my memory) is that (a) in 1954 Godzilla tore up Japan then disappeared (b) new monster(s) appear and start tearing things up (c) the humans somehow pull Godzilla into the mix to kill the other monster(s) (d) in the end, the grateful humans look on as Godzilla disappears into the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.

So, essentially this is every other Godzilla movie ever made but with substantially better structure and effects (and star power) than ever before.  However, they still did that one thing that drives me crazy about every giant monster movie these days (JURRASIC PARK to PACIFIC RIM and every monster flick in between) is that they couch much of the monster f/x in the middle of a rainstorm.  Time for that cliche' to be done.  But make no mistake, I thought the monster f/x was incredibly well-done.  Godzilla has never looked better and the Mutos were outstanding as well.  The idea of a radioactively mutated bug species that consumes radiation and defensively set loose a pwerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) worked quite well in updating the idea of monsters for 2014.

The opening sequence, set 15 years ago, with Bryan Cranston and his wife, Juliette Binoche, effectively established an emotional connection to the monster dramatics that kicked of the movie quite well.  In fact, the film might be criticized for it's over-emphasis on the human drama to the point of downplaying the Godzilla stuff a bit.  However, the biggest fault for this film in doing that was refocusing the film's narrative off of Cranston when it shifts to the modern day and onto Aaron Taylor Johnson who plays Cranston's now grown son.  I wonder if the filmmakers' choice of "Brody" as their surname was an insider's nod to Sheriff Brody of JAWS fame. 

There was something emotionally lacking in Johnson's performance, which prevents the emotional resonance of Cranston's obsessively emotional overload.  A balance between the two of them would have been better for the film, which is interesting considering the approach to the monster they have chosen for this reboot.

In this version of Godzilla, he is a force of nature.  He exists merely to rise up when needed and in a predatory way chase, confront, and battle whatever new monster(s) that appears and upsets the natural balance of co-existence.  The King of the Monsters is apparently the only monster the earth can support. 

It's all quite absurd and full of entirely preposterous coincidences to make sure that Johnson's character is always right there with the action.  In a film like this, that's just part of my expectations going in.  Ken Watanabe's scientist character, Dr. Serizawa, is completely wasted in what could have, and should have been, an integral role in dealing with these monsters.  Maybe it was the filmmakers' way of making sure we understood quite clearly that this is going to be an American franchise. I don't know.  It's not a dealbreaker, but it was disappointing.

Overall though, I would say (as a friend well-described it) this is an A-version of a B-movie.  It really is, for me, the "greatest" GODZILLA movie ever. That doesn't make it a great movie but it certainly makes it the greatest of the GODZILLA movies.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

#godzilla

Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 Film Review

Entertainment
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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

I laughed; I cried; I cringed.  AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is a mixed bag that I mostly enjoyed a lot.  The biggest stumbling block to reaching it's goal lay in absolutely everything in it relating to the primary villain, Electro.  Before I talk about what they did right, I'm going to talk about Electro because Electro is so awful that had they not gotten Spider-Man so absolutely perfectly this film might have killed the entire franchise like Schwartzenegger's turn as Mr. Freeze in BATMAN AND ROBIN.

There was not one thing that worked with Electro, even the special effects stank on ice.  While the cgi Spidey was indistinguishable from the live-action Spidey, everytime Electro was cgi it was on par with a sub-standard video game.  But that's not the least of the problems with Electro.  As established early on in the film, electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is a clown.  He smacks of the caricaturish performance of Jim Carrey as The Riddler in BATMAN FOREVER.  In fact, it almost seemed like it was an ill-conceived homage.

Max's life is saved by Spider-Man and, reacting like some mentally defective man-child, he convinces himself he's Spidey's best friend and has imaginary conversations with him in his apartment.  All the while slapstickey musical cues play every time he's on screen.  Max claims to have invented the entire power grid system for New York City; the power grid being a product of his employer OsCorp, of course.  However, there is no way that we can believe that this cartoonish imbecile could have done that, and especially not within the context in which nobody at OsCorp even knows he exists.  There is such a thing as being a cog in the corporate machine, but there is no way the person we have met has ever been given that sort of position.  In fact, he is treated more like a janitor than an engineer.  It all really makes no sense.  And the circumstances that lead to his accident giving him electrical powers also makes no sense. 

This film, and this particular series, makes such efforts to lend some level of scientific believability to the fantastic.  In fact, the underlying subplot of Peter Parker's father's scientific experiments are deliberately laid out for us over this and the previous film so we believe it is entirely possible for a man to have gained the powers of a spider.  The same goes for the Lizard in the first film and the Goblin and the Rhino in this film.  But for Max becoming Electro, there is no logical basis for it.  An introverted nerd gets massively electrocuted and then falls into a vat of electric eels who shock and bite him.  And the powers he gains aren't the powers of eels. He gains the power to drain all electricity and power himself up like a battery.  He gains the ability to turn completely into electricity and then miraculously reform into a solid body -- and retain his clothes.  Even in the world of super-heroes, this becomes a stretch when, again, there is such an effort to attach a rational basis for buying into the fantastic.

The biggest problem beyond all the illogic and absurdity is the wholesale personality change in the character.  They hint that there's some sort of rage enhancing aspect to his powers, but that does not explain his total loss of inhibition, his sudden rise in the ability to communicate coherently, and most of all his intelligence.  Whereas before the accident he claimed to be smart but conducted himself like an idiot who hero-worshipped Spider-Man, now he is conducting himself like a super-smart villain who wants to kill Spider-Man for, y'know, taking him down after he destroyed Times Square. 
Oh yeah, they also added some goofy distortion to Electro's voice which made him sound ridiculous and hard to understand.  Put him in a room with Bane and you'd need subtitles to figure out what they were saying to each other.  Also, after Max turns into Electro they shift from his slapstick musical cues to some odd urban gangsta sound along with what sounded like Max muttering to himself inside his head.  However, once again, it was so muddled I couldn't really understand much of it.  Dr. Kafka, who tortures Max at the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane is also a ridiculous over-the-top cartoon better suited for a MAD Magazine parody than a serious film.
So, bottom line, Electro sucks and he sucks bad.  And that's unfortunate for the film because he's in it for a good portion.

HOWEVER....

There has never been a more perfect presentation of Spider-Man himself onscreen ever before.  You will absolutely believe a man can websling.  I loved his bantering and joking.  His attitude is perfectly in the spirit of the character.  Spidey's interactions with the police and especially the people on the streets is flawless.  Both the Batman and Superman franchises could learn a lot from this film's efforts at showing the lengths a true super-hero will go to save even one innocent life.
The movie picks up with Peter and Gwen's graduation from high school and the events of the film play out over the summer, and thankfully, it looks like a mild summer for NYC.  The soap opera aspect of Pete and Gwen's relationship felt real.  At times, it was overwrought, but we are talking about 18 year-olds.  They tend to have these dramatic bents to their relationships.  I believed it.  I also believed in them as two young adults deeply in love with one another but caught in an untenable set of circumstances.  "It's complicated" is an understatement.

There's mystery and intrigue with a flashback sequence with Pete's parents where we do find out what happened after they disappeared (as shown in the first film).  There's a reunion and trauma surrounding the return of Pete's childhood buddy, Harry Osborn.  The relationship with Harry might have benefited, emotionally for the viewer, if it had been allowed to have been developed over 2 films rather than crammed into one, but it mostly works.  Paul Giamatti's "Rhino" character serves mostly a purpose at giving us a glimpse of the future path of the films. Since Sony recently announced a "Sinister Six" spin-off film on the horizon, this is no surprise.  We get a tease of J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle and will surely see him in all his glory in the next film.  Suck it up guys and get J.K. Simmons back for that.

For me, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are the heart of the film and their struggles and pains are what I feel -- especially Pete's.  We are rooting for them to succeed and when they don't, it hurts.  We are privy to what the world around Pete does not see.  They see Spider-Man and assign all their confidence and hope in him.  Behind the mask we see a young man struggling to do what's right and figure out how to love and be vulnerable to the possibility of hurt.  "How can I love?" may be the second most common story theme after "Who am I?"  So, it makes sense to follow up the first film's theme with that.  The set-up is there for the next film and beyond and I am ready to see what happens next.

Unfortunately, Electro will forever be a pockmark on an otherwise excellent film.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

#amazingspiderman2