Thursday, July 31, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Review: 9 out of 10 (Space Opera meets Summer Blockbuster)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the latest superhero film added to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) from a fairly arcane source.  The comic is known to attract only the uber-nerd of comic book readers--and certainly attaches a strange sort of humor to it as well.  After all, one character is a talking raccoon and another is a green skinned female super assassin.  Directed by James Gunn (SUPER), it features an ensemble cast including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael RookerDjimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benicio del Toro.  This film has a large marketing machine behind it and has been hyped for a little over a year now.  With a sequel already announced, Disney is banking on a new strong franchise branch to the growing super hero family tree.

...and a tree is starring in this film, and might just be the best thing about this

Chris Pratt stars here as Peter Quill/Star-Lord--a renegade space pirate who is out to capture a mysterious orb to sell on the galactic black market.  However, it doesn't take long for other bounty hunters like Saldana's green skinned Gamora, a talking raccoon named Rocket, and a walking tree named Groot to hunt down Quill in order to collect the bounty and sell off the artifact for themselves.  Dave Bautista plays Drax the Destroyer--a tattooed warrior out for vengeance who is added to the mix as well.  However, as their paths meet, they realize that their common goals are aligned like stars in the galaxy.   Meanwhile, the super villain Ronan knows the secrets of the orb--and wants it do use for his own plan to destroy the planet of his sworn mortal enemies.

It is all pretty high end space opera, to be sure.  The film just *nearly* has too much narrative for its own good, and there are certainly some characters, including the villain Ronan himself, whose own backstory seems barely sketched out.  His motivations are even less sure than the nameless and faceless hordes of THE AVENGERS.  At some point, it is just easier to accept the idea of "those people bad, these people good" and move on.  Fortunately, our heroes have enough screen time, action, and jokesy dialogue to keep the ride fun and engaging.  The key to this film is tone and balance.  It could have jumped off the GALAXY QUEST kitschy side, gone off the stranger deep end of THE FIFTH ELEMENT or even spun more melodrama into the film like EVENT HORIZON and ended up a bit heavy.  Instead, the film holds itself together with the right balance of humor, action, and a heavy vibe of cool. Yeah--between the 70s music, pop culture references, and deadpan delivery, this movie just oozes cool.  And to be clear--it is space opera--with tragedy, sacrifice, and high stakes.  What is here really works.  It all comes together to create a funny, action packed, *badass* film.  And for today's dearth of really good science fiction films, I'll take it.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a fun ride with some great characters and an equally satisfying payoff.  Chris Pratt has just cashed in his action hero card, and the supporting cast of this movie will likely keep the toy industry flush with cash well through Christmas.  It certainly works as the major must-see summer blockbuster that 2014 has been waiting for.  Highly Recommended.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

LUCY Review: 4 out of 10 (Sentiently Stupid)

LUCY is the latest action film from writer/director Luc Besson, starring Scarlett Johansson as Lucy along with Morgan Freeman playing Professor Norman.  The marketing for the film suggests a slam bang action pic with ScarJo running around the globe kicking butt after her body is infused with a new synthetic street drug.

But in recent years with Luc Besson, one needs to get used to disappointment.  The director of previous action films like LA FEMME NIKITA, THE PROFESSIONAL, and the wild Sci-Fi adventure THE FIFTH ELEMENT have all employed strong female leads to push the action and story.  One might argue that LUCY is interesting.  That may be.  But interesting doesn't always equate to a great movie.  And by the time this one is done, your interest might have turned to the bottom of your popcorn bag, the door of the theater, and your lighter wallet for having spent money on such a strange and laughably awful movie.

At the film's opening, Lucy is conned by her boyfriend into delivering a briefcase full of drugs to an Asian mobster. So, at least we know Lucy isn't exactly smart to begin with.  Soon after, Lucy is kidnapped and forced to "mule" the drugs overseas by having them surgically implanted in her body--to be removed by mobster connections overseas later.  The film states that they are on the way to the airport.  However, after this she is not delivered to the airport--but a concrete cell (?!?) where she is summarily kicked  by an Asian gang flunkie and the super drug begins to leak into her body.  This drug immediately expands Lucy's brain capacity and gives her superhuman powers... to read minds, control matter, and apparently turn an action film into a pretty dull and head shaking ridiculous affair.  At one point, the drugs wear on her physical form to the point of destroying her body in ways that are completely unexplained.  Though Besson likes to preach about science, mankind, and the meaning of life throughout the film--most of it fails to explain what in the world is going on up on screen.   The only choice Lucy has is to continue to infuse more of the drugs into her body--pushing her brain capacity higher and higher--and the action of the film lower and lower.    What also comes along with that is a robotic performance choice by Johansson.  Since her new sentient qualities have removed both pain and emotion, we are left to watch ScarJo's dullest role ever.  As she tracks the other human mules overseas to get their share of the drugs, it seems inexplicable that the only plot point driving this movie forward is that Lucy is consuming drugs to expand her brain even further and further.  After connecting with neuroscientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) Lucy wants to share her expanded knowledge with the rest of mankind.  Fortunately, Lucy can manufacture all the world's past present and future knowledge into one mystical looking thumb drive.

However, she does seem to have limitations... like...getting from place to place by driving a car.  If you are sentient--can control magnetic and electrical waves, read people's thoughts, travel in time,  and can manipulate matter--wouldn't you also, I don't know... be able to FLY?   Also, for the mobsters trying to catch Lucy and get their drugs back... why doesn't one of them infuse all the superdrugs into their own system so they can go one on one with the super sentient in an all out brain battle?  Wouldn't the professor or one of his cohorts be willing to also sacrifice their own temporary human body to be sentient like Lucy?  Also--why don't the Asian mobsters just give up on those drugs?  I mean, you can make more, right?  Don't you have your own blue crystal making Walter White there in Tokyo?  Is this just a prequel to HER and ScarJo's other sentient AI character?

These are the questions one asks when watching a fairly ridiculous movie that grows more and more dull as it moves on to its anti-climactic ending.

Throughout the film, as if the premise wasn't dumb enough, Besson opts to inter cut the film with shots of cavemen, a mouse near a mousetrap, cheetahs stalking their prey, as well as other imagery...all to reinforce the action on screen.  About as subtle as a sledgehammer.  Besson seems too busy philosophizing to create anything worth watching.  The style is slick--but the substance is stupid.  LUCY is a movie that wants to be smart and play with some big ideas.  But the only smart idea that this film advances is to choose another movie instead. 


Friday, July 25, 2014

HERCULES Review: 9 out of 10 (Better than it Ought to Be)

We all have a bar of expectation we set when we see a movie. That bar is set due to the marketing of that movie--the trailers, posters, etc.  It is set based on the stars of the film.  It is set on the genre of the movie itself: rom-com, action, drama and others.  Some films we think will be great just because of a director, the stars attached, and the budget. In this way, a film can create its own pedigree of sorts.  Others movies come and go--lesser film projects--and we adjust that bar of expectation accordingly.  Sometimes a movie can surpass that bar and be far better than expected--and we leave with a smile on our face.  And rarely--very rarely-- a movie can absolutely jump leaps and bounds above that preset bar of expectation.  Maybe it is our own nostalgia that the film captures; perhaps it delivers a film beyond what it was marketed to be; Or maybe it just caught us in a good mood.  But when it happens... we relish it.

For this reviewer, in the Summer of 2014, HERCULES is that film.  It may not be the best film of the year, and it probably won't even have the highest critic's score from me all summer either.  But it may be the most enjoyable experience... and those aren't always the same.  This movie is just *flat-out fun.* Directed by Brett Ratner the movie stars Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Joseph Fiennes, Rufus Sewell and John Hurt. It is based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars.  Opting for a more human story, the film surprisingly drops the mythos of the character, suggesting that Hercules is just an ancient sword-for-hire of sorts, who secretly has a team of fighters that has helped him on all his tasks.  His own nephew Iolaus (Reese Ritchie) hypes the mythical legend of Hercules with incredible stories of a lone man, son of Zeus, who accomplishes all these mighty deeds.  But the reality is that Hercules is just a great warrior surrounded by other great warriors--and has allowed the mystique of his legend to frighten his foes and raise the asking price for his work.  When he is asked by King Cotys (John Hurt) to cull a rebellion and unite the country of Thrace, Hercules agrees.  However, the task is far greater than Hercules and his team of mercenaries can imagine.  Hercules has to decide if he is willing to accept the mythos about himself--and truly become a hero.

Hercules' own violent entourage is certainly part of the film's fun factor.  Rufus Sewell (DARK CITY) plays Autolycus--a skilled fighter and Hercules' closest friend.  Aksel Hennie (HEADHUNTERS) is a brooding silent warrior.  But it is Ian McShane (DEADWOOD, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN) who steals the show as a fun loving, wise cracking seer who can see the future--even his own death.  There are some over the top action scenes, epic battles, and plenty of wit and banter sprinkled throughout.  Dwayne Johnson continues to impress--and this is likely the role he was born to play.  The film must have delicately teetered on the line of PG-13 and R with the level of action violence here--much of it all in good fun.  For those who appreciate Arnold's CONAN films of the 80s and the tongue in cheek cult classic THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, there is plenty here to enjoy.  A nice blend of action, humor, and fantasy--HERCULES is a film I enjoyed more than I should have and maybe more than others might.  But for those looking for a raucous good time and some revisionist mythology, you might just walk out with a surprised smile on your face after seeing HERCULES. After all... I did.

And I'm OK with that.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

PREMATURE Review: 5 out of 10 (a Poor Imitation of the Real Thing)

PREMATURE is an indie teen comedy directed by Dan Beers and starring John Karna, Katie Findlay, and Craig Roberts (SUBMARINE).  The movie certainly is channeling (better) adolescent movies of the 1980s--feeling like a mashup between the early 80s sexcapade teen flicks and the later post AIDS teen comedies of John Hughes.  A sort of SIXTEEN CANDLES meets PORKY'S if you will--with a large helping of GROUNDHOG'S DAY. Karna stars as Rob--a high school senior who has a big day with a college interview with Georgetown.  He wakes up in bed after a sex fantasy and having a "wet dream." The day is filled with a long list of events that go from bad to worse, but ends with a sexual encounter with the local high school floozie and another premature sexual release.  The moment that it occurs, Rob is teleported back in time to that morning, his bed, and his previous sexual emission: a sort of teenage horny time loop.  Rob also realizes that this loop is not limited only to those previous sexual encounters of the day, but discovers that every time he has an orgasm, his day resets.  Rob's relives the day over with his two best friends Stanley (Roberts) and Gabrielle (Findlay) who are oblivious to his problem.  But as Rob begins to relive the day over and over again, he changes his approach to relationships, his friends, and his own life choices.

The "groundhog's day" effect is a pretty lazy device to offer a film about a teen that needs to make better choices and find the love of his life that has always been in front of him.  More aptly used to advance a Sci-Fi plot in the recently terribly underrated and underseen EDGE OF TOMORROW, here it just seems to offer up the idea that life lessons come from masturbation--not blindness.  For Rob, every time he wants to do something differently, or make a different choice, he simply ejaculates and BING-- a do-over.  Not exactly high-brow.  There are some funny moments, where Rob seems to have an immediate need to want to reset the day, and has to figure out how he can have a self-pleasing moment *right now*, though after seeing John Karna's "O" face for the ninth time, the movie loses a bit of the rub--if you know what I mean.  The film opts for an inexplicable explanation for the time loop which might have been very interesting to pursue, but is flung aside in favor of the tried and true life lessons of falling in love with the person who has always "been there." If Andie, Duckie, and Blane had all been in a similar time loop, maybe PRETTY IN PINK might have ended as it should.  And maybe that is all we can gather from a movie like PREMATURE.  That--and 17 year old boys can ejaculate at will.  For fans of teen comedies, there are some laughs here, as well as some 80s nostalgia.  However, this is a lesser representation of better films that have... come... before it.  It may be an OK film to see at the time, but is a poor substitute for the real thing. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

THE PURGE:ANARCHY Review: 8 out of 10 (Subversive Dystopian Social Commentary)

In 2013, I said of the first film THE PURGE that it didn't really go far enough with some of its ideas of social commentary.  However, if you accept the premise of the film--it works as a good matinee.  (Read my full review HERE)

THE PURGE: ANARCHY works to take its original premise and moves away from the home invasion sub-genre and broadens itself to a cityscape.  Along with that, the movie works to leverage so much of the ideas of social justice issues that the first film only hinted at.  As a result, this film feels very much like a dystopian project that John Carpenter might have made 30 years ago.  Yes, its that good. James DeMonaco returns here to write and direct the sequel.

Frank Grillo stars as Sergeant Leo Barnes, one of five different protagonists that are trying to live through the 12 hour "PURGE" of a new America where all crime--including murder is allowed.  Barnes has his own mysterious reasons for being out on such a hellacious evening by choice.  The other victims are there by terrible fate.  One couple is trapped on the streets after a pre-purging gang sabotages their car--leaving them as victims on the streets.  Another mother and daughter are kidnapped from their apartment in the projects by a mysterious group of armed militia.  When Barnes crosses paths and decides to save the other four, it becomes a game of survival for them all.  This is easily Grillo's best work to date--and may propel him further as an action star.  But it is the ideas behind this "New America" that make the film itself far more compelling. 

Television programs advertise that thanks to the Annual Purge legislated by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) both unemployment and poverty are at record lows while prosperity continues to increase.  What subversive ideas the film has at its center is the truth behind this yearly crime spree. The reality is that these improvements in economic statistics are not because of the psychological healing that results from ordinary citizens cleansing their negative emotions by becoming violent for 12 hours per year.  Rather, it is due to highly trained and heavily armed secret government paramilitary death squads using the chaos of the Annual Purge to systematically kill a certain percentage of the nation's poor and thereby reducing the population of "have not's."  Some upper class elites also hire gangs to kidnap and deliver ordinary citizens to their mansions, where they auction the victims to the highest bidders who kill them in the safety of the gardens inside the compound.  Others offer high fees to dying family members to be killed by the super rich as a sort of Purge/assisted suicide.  In the middle of all of this lies a violent social justice militia, an emerging group of resistance fighters who challenge the Annual Purge and take action to counter these injustices.

This nation's love of guns, skewed view of justice, and the continued challenges of income inequality are all here in this dystopian Americana.  THE PURGE: ANARCHY is willing to consider them through the lens of an above average thriller--but leaves the viewer asking themselves: what would you do for those 12 hours of an annual Purge?  Compelling, thrilling, with some subversive ideas about the outliers of our society.  Recommended. 


Friday, July 18, 2014

SEX TAPE Review: 4 out of 10 ( A Flaccid Comedy that doesn't Measure Up)

Another comedy about really, REALLY stupid people. 

This is starting to wear thin.

SEX TAPE is the latest "comedy" directed by Jake Kasdan and stars Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper and Rob Lowe.  It is a film that lays out the entire essence of the plot in its movie trailer, and I would say if you have seen *that* you have essentially seen this movie.  Save your cash.  Diaz and Segel play Jay and Annie--a 30 something couple whose sex life has suffered due to kids, busy schedules, and work.  Annie is a blogger and Jay works in the music industry, somehow (?) that isn't really explained.  However, based on their house, cars, and single income, Jay clearly is doing very well for himself.  He is in constant use of IPads and the film opens with him purchasing 3 at a time.  He swaps out music playlists and trades them out like socks.  The older ones he just gives away to friends.

Yeah--this guy is doing *really* well if he just hands out $600 IPads to his buddies.  However, apparently he doesn't wipe them clean--but leaves his music and playlists all over them as part of the "gift." I bet Apple would have something to say about that.  It is this sort of nakedly unbelievable contrivance that sets this entire film into motion.  A guy that gives away IPads to friends but leaves his own personal information on them; who works in the music industry making big money buying IPads three at a time, but apparently knows nothing about sync technology.  And even though his express purpose for giving these tablets to friends is to share music... he doesn't think that a sex video with his wife might also be there on file to be shared.

My eyes rolled so far back during this movie I could see the people behind me in the theater.

Why not create a premise where the sex tape is actually leaked world wide and the couple has to deal with the shame?  Why not actually explore why a couple's sex life suffers with family, busy schedules, and life's interruptions?  Or-- if you are going to take an easy route with more than a few terribly over-written plot contrivances, why not go for broke and make a smutty, raunchy, subversive sex romp?

Nope.  What is here instead is a 90 minute movie about "one crazy night" where Jay and Annie race around trying to get all the IPads back... later to realize they could have just erased them remotely.  DUH.  When the video is threatened to go viral, they take their young kids with them in the middle of the night (really?) to break into the warehouses of YouPorn to destroy their servers.  It is here that a cameo appearance offers the film's most interesting character who gives the couple his own brand of porn king wisdom.  They should have made a movie about *that* guy.

There is very little to like here and Diaz and Segel have nearly nothing to work with.  Corddry and Kemper have a nice turn as the best friends who join them on their quest to collect all the tablets, and Rob Lowe has yet another turn in a comedy where he is just a really odd dude who commissions paintings of himself added to scenes from Disney films.  Strange and random, but funny.  There are some laughs to be found when these other characters are on screen--as well as the unnamed executive of the porn site who confronts the couple at the film's climax.  However, these tangential characters are far more interesting than Jay or Annie.  SEX TAPE is the exact opposite of what it thinks itself to be.  Just don't be one of those taking a walk of shame to your car after having spent money on a ticket.

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE Review: 5 out of 10 (Enough spark for the kiddos)

PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE is the latest animated feature from Disney Animation Studios.  The movie is a sequel to a spinoff—with the original PLANES released just last year, being a spinoff of Pixar CARS franchise.  Honestly it seems as if Disney is stretching the animated “vehicle” vehicle a bit thin.  Being that this film was originally scheduled as a direct to DVD/VOD release, the decision to move to a theatrical release seems to work as a cash grab.  However, with the dearth of family film options in the Summer of 2014, it is hard to argue with their logic.  That is until 2015 brings us BOATS: COAST GUARD.  I am kidding.  (I hope)

Comedian (?) Dane Cook returns here as the voice talent for Dusty Crophopper—a world champion racing plane.  However, it seems his racing has caught up with him—and a faulty gearbox is keeping him from pushing the speed envelope.  However, after a fire accident happens at the local airfield, Dusty volunteers to train as a SEAT plane—to aid with fire and rescue in his home town.  Dusty leaves to train with a veteran rescue helicopter named Blade Ranger and voiced by Ed Harris.  He works in what appears to be a lodge up in an animated fictional Yellowstone National Park.  We are introduced to an entirely new cast of animated vehicles, including Wes Studi voicing a Native American helicopter, several overly cute all-terrain vehicles, and other SEAT planes who drop all that flame retardant on forest fires.  Of course—FIRE happens.  When it does, Dusty has to face his own fears, push the envelope of his own failing parts, and help save the vacationers, the lodge, and the whole forest!

It sounds better than it is.

But PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE does have a few things going for it.  Most of those things going for it appeal to a targeted market of 3-8 year olds.  But I have to admit, when one lightning fire cropped up so all our new rescue friends could go fight it… and AC/DC’s Thunderstruck hit—I did crack a smile.  The rest of the film is cute enough for the crowd and will probably sell the intended number of corresponding toys, backpacks, and T-shirts.   It certainly is no animated classic.  In fact, it feels very much like what it was intended to be—a formulaic sequel.  But there is some cuteness, a bit of peril, and the animation of the forest vistas does offer some eye candy.  PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE is probably enough of a stop gap of a movie to fill the square until the next, likely better, family film arises.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

AND SO IT GOES Review: 3 out of 10 ( the actors in the film)

It is clear to me now that around 1996, just after GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI... Rob Reiner gave up.  You might could say he sold out--since some of his films have continued to make money.  However, the director who brought us THIS IS SPINAL TAP, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, STAND BY ME, MISERY, and FOR A FEW GOOD MEN, as well as the aforementioned commentary on American civil rights is now a shadow of his former self.  With audience pleasing pabulum like RUMOR HAS IT and THE BUCKET LIST, Reiner continues a streak of uninteresting and forgettable cinematic vanilla with AND SO IT GOES.  Actually, that is offense to vanilla--which actually is a flavor.  Instead, this film is more like a Knox Gelatin of unflavored forgettableness. The film stars Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton and Sterling Jerins who essentially are playing themselves in a movie you wouldn't be that interested in if it were playing on the Lifetime network while you were folding laundry.  Keaton is Leah, a widow who is grieving one minute and all smiles the next.  She is a lounge singer(?!?) who apparently likes to wear hats, and runs around in that Keaton-esque style of manic quirkiness unable to finish her own sentences.  Meanwhile Douglas plays Oren--a widower who is grumpy, acts like a ladies' man, and generally comes across as a pompous jerk.  If only he could be the character from SOLITARY MAN here--this film would really have something.  Instead, Douglas is just limp... worn out.  These two live next to each other--and absolutely grate on each other's nerves.  In a fairly large contrivance of his son's own drug abuse and prison sentence, Oren's granddaughter Sarah (Sterling Jerins) is dropped off on his doorstep to live with him.  A 10 year old actress playing a 10 year old that invades a grumpy old man's life--along with his lonely pining widow next-door neighbor.

You see where this is going?

Yeah... so does EVERYONE.

Look, AND SO IT GOES is harmless.  But it also isn't interesting.  It is a movie that feels like you have seen it before, because you have.  Though Douglas' own real life dealings with his son and his addiction problems might seem to hit too close to home, there is very little here that this film does to leverage that intensity.  Instead, the film is full of Diane Keaton singing to octogenarians in what appears to be a Sizzler, while Douglas complains and tries to sell a frown through his most recent facelift.  There is even a chance for the film to offer some really interesting ideas about sexual intimacy between older, grieving adults that might have turned this movie into something original.  Alas, it is a few scenes played off for laughs, even though the situation isn't altogether that funny.  In fact, I am not even sure what genre this movie would be.  It isn't a comedy--there isn't any laughs.  It isn't a drama--because the movie never gains any momentum.  There is no build, no climax, no narrative structure.  Is it a romance?  It could have been, but barely tries to touch on what could have been a very interesting idea of older adults exploring new love.

AND SO IT GOES is, instead, an apt title that describes more of the same from director Rob Reiner.  Just a film that operates on a sort of perpetual motion.  No fuel to drive it, no sizzle, no drama, no moments of tenderness.  Just a tired film with tired actors with absolutely nothing to do on screen.