Monday, April 30, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 4/30

Will Smith and Denzel Washington have joined Adam McKay's remake of Uptown Saturday Night. This marks the first time these two leading men have starred together and it sounds awesome. 

Pixar has announced that the studio's 2015 release will have a Latin theme and center around the Day of the Dead. Sounds a bit darker than standard Pixar fare but I doubt that will stop many of us (read: "me") from digging it. 

There's a rumor floating around that Star Wars Land will open in Disneyland Paris in 2015 and suddenly I have a desire to go to France. 

My pal Terrence over at The Focused Filmographer has an awesome series on The Avengers happening on his site. Be sure to check it out!

It's been up for a couple of weeks but I missed it until now so check out Movie Muse's list of the Top 10 Movie Prisons. 

Weekend Box Office Results
Sooooo…apparently all of you are saving your money for The Avengers. None of this week’s new movies pulled in an especially healthy return and somehow Think Like a Man grabbed first place again despite, you know, being terrible. The Raven and Safe did about as expected but Pirates: Band of Misfits and 5-Year Engagement significantly underperformed. Pirates was always going to pull the majority of its overall haul overseas but 5YE really surprised me. It has been the beneficiary of an aggressive marketing campaign and coming off the ridiculous success of Bridesmaids, I honestly thought this would be a shoe-in to grab the lead this week. Maybe Jason Segel isn’t as bankable as Hollywood thinks he is. It did, however, get my money and I quite enjoyed it (review to come). In other news, The Avengers made $178 million overseas and has yet to debut in China or (obviously) the US. At one point this weekend, advance tickets for Avengers accounting for 60% of the overall domestic box office take. We could be looking at the highest grossing opening weekend ever (a record currently held by the final Harry Potter).

1. Think Like a Man - $18M ($60.86M)
2. The Pirates! Band of Misfits - $11.4M
3. The Lucky One - $11.32M ($39.97M)
4. The Hunger Games - $11.25M ($372.45M)
5. The Five-Year Engagement - $11.15M
6. Safe - $7.72M
7. The Raven - $7.25M
8. Chimpanzee - $5.46M ($19.15M)
9. The Three Stooges - $5.4M ($37.14M)
10. The Cabin in the Woods - $4.5M ($34.66M)

New to DVD
What I’ll Be Renting This Week
Haywire - Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender
I wasn’t too interested in Haywire when it made its theatrical debut in January but it’s the perfect film for a DVD rental. Guns, neck chops, and some semblance of a plot are all I really need from an action movie like this and I expect it will deliver. Plus, you never know what you’re going to get with director Steven Soderbergh. He may not always turn out a great product but he’s always capable of doing something different and I respect that.

What I Hope None of You Will See
New Year’s Eve - Ashton Kutcher, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Biel
I took a bit of sick pleasure in this movie, one of the most blatant examples of money grabbing in recent memory, not only received an 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but also failed to make much of an impact at the box office. Look, there are plenty of movies that come down the pipes that I’m not interested in or that I think will be terrible but that I recognize a market for (see: Twilight). But honestly, dear readers, there is absolutely no reason for anyone who is not in this movie or related to someone who is in this movie to see this movie.

Also New
Joyful Noise - Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton
W.E. - Abbie Cornish, James D’Arcy
George Harrison: Living in a Material World - George Harrison
Covert Affairs: Season 2 - Piper Perabo, Christopher Gorham
Suits: Season 1 - Patrick J. Abrams, Gabriel Macht

New to Blu Pick of the Week or Whenever I Feel Like It
Definitely, Maybe (2008) - Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher
Upon my first viewing of this movie, I came away very impressed. For what it is (a sappy-but-lighthearted romantic comedy), I thought it was very good. Since then, though, I’ve talked myself into being a bit ashamed of my (relative) affection for this movie and assumed it probably wasn’t very good (due in part to the series of crappy movies Ryan Reynolds has been party to over the last four years). But you know what, I watched Definitely, Maybe again for the first time in a long time just last week and I’ve got to say, it’s pretty stinking good (again, for what it is). I’m standing by this statement to my dying day.

Also New to Blu
Men in Black II (2002) - Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones (One of the worst sequels ever)
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) - Robert Redford, Will Geer (A movie I definitely have to see one of these days)
Clueless (1995) - Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy (My wife’s favorite movie *Sigh*)
Meet Joe Black (1998) - Brad Pitt, Claire Forlani, Anthony Hopkins (Remembered only because the first trailer for The Phantom Menace was attached during its theatrical debut)
About a Boy (2002) - Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult (Also a, “Solid for what it is” sort of movie)

Coming to a Theater Near You
Much like its box office grab, The 5-Year Engagement underperformed with critics a bit (63% fresh rating versus my 75% prediction) while Safe actually did a bit better (52% vs. 30%). But I nailed my predictions on both The Raven (21% actual vs. 23% prediction) and Pirates (86% exactly). This week is rough sledding if you’re not into superhero movies. Similar to the competition The Hunger Games faced a few weeks ago, competing studios are steering clear of this blockbuster, a smart strategy in my book.

The Avengers - Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Tom Hiddleston
When a power-hungry god (Hiddleston) threatens to take over the world, humanity’s fate rests in the hand of a group of heroes known as The Avengers. This is, without question, the mother of all superhero films and represents one of the biggest undertakings in the history of film. Really and truly, bringing together several film franchises and setting them up to fold into one giant film the way Marvel has is a tremendous accomplishment and if it works (SPOILER ALERT: it will), we should expect to see more attempts at this in the near future. For my part, I am very much looking forward to this one and can’t wait to sit down for my midnight showing. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 92%

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkerson
Four British retirees head to an Indian hotel advertised as a luxurious living space but soon find that it’s not at all what they expected. Obviously I’m not the target audience for this film but I have heard only good things to this point. And hey, you have to respect all of those actors. What a cast. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 73%

Also new: First Position follows a group of dancers trying to make it in New York…LOL stars Miley Cyrus and has that inane title so that’s all I really need to say about it…and A Little Bit of Heaven centers around a woman (Kate Hudson) receiving life-altering news.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: "The Other Dream Team"

EDITOR'S NOTE: This film is currently making the rounds at various festivals after drawing attention at Sundance. I have no idea when or where it will open in your town but I implore you to seek it out whenever it does roll around. I only play the, "Go see this movie" card once or twice a year (the last one was Crazy, Stupid, Love which I think I was proven to be correct about) and I'm dropping it here: GO SEE THIS MOVIE. I could have written 2,500 words on its merits and I expect just about everyone would appreciate it. It is very similar in tone to the 30for30 series ESPN has been doing over the last couple of years and even my wife, a non-sports fan, loves that series. So, just go see the movie.

It’s fair to say that my two biggest passions in life (at least when it comes to pop culture, hobbies, etc.) are movies and sports. I’m a big fan of music, books, and eating large amounts of fatty foods, too, but they don’t quite compare to the level of affection I hold for movies and sports, particularly basketball. The combinations of those two passions often feels like someone in the world is secretly reading my hypothetical diary at night and creating programming just for me. Such is the case with The Other Dream Team, a powerful and insightful documentary that I imagine will stick with me for quite some time.

For many basketball fans, the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain are considered special, maybe even sacred, as the team assembled to represent the US Men’s Olympic basketball team was unquestionably the greatest collection of talent in the history of the sport. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and eight other legendary players (plus Christian Laettner!) came together to form the Dream Team, annihilating every opponent that stood in the way of earning the gold medal and spreading the gospel of basketball to the world along the way. But while the Dream Team captivated a worldwide audience, there was a much more dramatic and significant story unfolding in the background. A group of players representing the small country of Lithuania which had only recently regained its independence in the fall of the USSR worked their way into the third place game and faced off with the Unified Team, the remnants of the squad they had been forced to compete with during the Communist reign. Weaving together the happenings on the basketball court with the rebirth of a small nation, The Other Dream Team expertly displays the importance of sport and the ways it can be used to inspire.

Going into this film, I had a basic understanding of what took place on the basketball court throughout this story. Like many other men my age, as a kid I was fascinated by the Dream Team. We’d never seen anything like that team and we never will again; they were literally that good. The Lithuanian team, though, always stuck out to me partly because they appeared to actually be good at basketball (whereas some of our other opponents looked like a bunch of middle school girls) and partly because their top two players, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, were tremendous talents. In this summer’s Olympics, virtually every team that qualifies to play will have at least one or two NBA-caliber players but in ’92, that wasn’t the case. Sabonis and Marciulionis, along with Croatia’s Drazen Petrovic, were undoubtedly the best players in the tournament who weren’t on the Dream Team.

I did not know, however, the tumultuous background from which these players came from. At the time of the Olympic Games, Lithuania had only been an independent nation for two short years, two years which were trying to say the least. Amazingly enough, it’s tough to get a new country off the ground when you’ve spent 46 years under Communist reign (shocking, I know). The Other Dream Team heartbreakingly digs into the deeper elements of this fight for independence and paints a dark (and truthful) picture of what it was like to live through this period, both before and after Lithuania received its freedom from the Soviets. There are some truly devastating visuals and descriptions at play here and the film pulls no punches in ensuring that the audience understands not only what the players were going through but what every citizen of the country was going through. As such, the Lithuanian basketball team is simply the medium in which the filmmakers work to bring their story together.

By showing us the awful conditions which the players (and by proxy, their countrymen) lived through while under Soviet control and the immense struggle that was the fight for independence, director Marius A. Markevicius sets us up for a dramatic and deeply satisfying third act. Defeating the Russians to win the bronze medal was nothing compared to the hope their triumph gave a young nation and this is illustrated exquisitely through a mix of tear-inducing behind-the-scenes footage and touching interviews with both players and spectators. This is one of the more genuine sports documentaries I can remember and one that seems to really understand the significance of the subject matter it concerns itself with. It is a touching, at times quite funny, and beautiful example of the power of sport that will absolutely hit home for sports fans and non-fans alike. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review: "Lockout"

The similarities between Lockout and 2008’s Taken are so abundant that it almost seems lazy to make the comparison (notice, however, how that will not stop me). Both come from the Luc Besson School of Filmmaking, both feature Maggie Grace in desperate need of some life savin’, and both center around tough guys who can kill you with a neck chop just as easily as with a machine gun. In theory, these two films are so close, in fact, that I’ve been referring to Lockout as Taken 1.5 or Taken in Space for several months. Really, besides the outer space setting, the one real difference between these films is that Taken is good and Lockout is not.

Snow (Guy Pearce) is the prototypical anti-hero. He’s a bit of a loose cannon who plays by his own rules and he still smokes so you know he’s cool. After he is framed for the murder of his CIA superior, Snow is sentenced to a prison term on MS One, a prison that resides in orbit around the earth and houses the world’s worst criminals. But before Snow can be transferred to his new residence, an uprising begins on MS One and soon the prisoners have control of the space station. To make matters worse, the president’s daughter, Emilie (Maggie Grace), just happens to be aboard the station and is being held hostage along with a host of less important civilians. Given an opportunity to earn his freedom, Snow agrees to take on the rescue mission, though he has a much more important agenda for getting on board the station.

What you have to love about Lockout is its brazenness. There’s no pretense involved with this movie; if you ever saw one of the trailers, you know exactly what you’re getting. Much like its counterpart Taken, Lockout doesn’t take itself seriously whatsoever and as such, it invites the viewer to step into a world of complete absurdity in which we’ll have a few laughs while watching things explode. More often than not, that’s an invitation I can’t resist. And for its part, Lockout does its best to live up to the low-quality, high-fun standard it set for itself.

The problem is that that brazenness (which was Taken’s second greatest strength behind Liam Neeson) becomes this movie’s downfall. Lockout is rife with bad shots, overdone supporting characters, and abysmal special effects. All of this is presented in a, “Yeah, this is terrible, so what?” sort of way that bothered me. I didn’t expect a Nolan-esque approach to action but there’s a limit to what I should be asked to accept from a film in the way of corner-cutting. The effects in particular were a tremendous letdown. With this sort of film I anticipate bad dialogue and paper thin characters but that those issues will be at least partially covered up with spectacular action sequences. The graphics within Lockout are some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie. And by mainstream, I mean anything higher in quality than the straight-to-DVD knock offs that find their way onto Netflix Instant a week after a big action flick debuts (see: Transmorphers). While Lockout wouldn’t work if directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger had attempted to turn in a more significant, hardcore action piece, much of this movie comes across as if the filmmakers didn’t care about turning in a decent product.

That’s a real shame because Guy Pearce is an absolute riot in the lead role. Snow is irreverent, overly confident, and brash and completely unapologetic which, of course, makes him exceedingly appealing. Pearce hits every mark perfectly and he gives the character a lighter edge that works well in this setting and keeps Lockout from becoming too one-dimensional. I expected Snow to be Pearce’s interpretation of Liam Neeson and while that might not have been a bad thing, what we’re really treated to is a character that is part Neeson (in any action movie) and part Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s got a Sparrow-like flowiness to him and while you can’t exactly call his one-liners witty, they are delivered with a pinpoint precision that drives the jokes home expertly. It’s unfortunate that this performance comes in a movie that doesn’t really deliver much else in the way of value but it is still a fun turn for a great actor and one that keeps Lockout from becoming a total loss.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Trailer Spotlight: Lawless, Brave, Ruby Sparks

Brave (June 22) - Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson
Frequent readers of this space (hypothetical though they may be) will know that this is at least the third time I've posted a Brave trailer. I promise, this is the last time. Can you blame me for being excited, though? Last year brought with it Pixar's first flop (Cars 2) in the studio's illustrious history and therefore it feels like forever since my life has been enriched by the animating geniuses. Have a look at the full, expanded trailer for this one.

Ruby Sparks (July 25) - Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
I hadn't heard much about this one before now but I must say, I'm intrigued. A combination of Stranger Than Fiction and Little Miss Sunshine seems like a too-easy comparison but that appears to be exactly what we're dealing with her. If the concept is executed correctly, this could be great. And if nothing else, it's nice to see Paul Dano being given a leading role of substance to work with.

Lawless (August 31) - Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman
Finally, feast your eyes upon the long-awaited first look for John Hillcoat's Prohibition Era epic Lawless. I will say this preview is slightly over-the-top compared to what I was expecting but it still has a chance at being a truly special film even if it does star Shia LaBeaouf. Perhaps Oldman and Hardy can bring out the best in LaBeouf. I'm definitely willing to give it a shot.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review: "Goon"

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is the real-life personification of the term, “Black Sheep.” Coming from a family of well-respected doctors, Doug is a less-than-cerebral tough guy who works as a bouncer specifically called upon to rough up unruly customers. His luck begins to change, however, when his friend Ryan (Jay Baruchel) takes him to a minor league hockey game during which he lays a beating on an opposing player. This catches the eye of the team’s coach and soon Doug has suited up and become a local celebrity. Even more remarkable, Doug is soon called up to a real minor league team and tasked with protecting Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), a young hotshot who has lost his way since a violent on-ice hit from longtime enforcer Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber). While Doug initially struggles with his role as a goon who isn’t valued as a hockey player, he and his teammates come together with a playoff berth on the line, setting up a dramatic confrontation between the old veteran (Rhea) and the young upstart (Doug).

There isn’t just a whole lot that can be said about Goon other than this: it is fun. Not an excessive, “I can’t wait to see that again” amount of fun but a reasonable, “This just popped up on HBO and I have 90 minutes to kill” amount of fun. The movie doesn’t have much of an agenda and there isn’t much of a plot to speak of, but it sets out to cover the life of a minor league hockey enforcer and it does that quite well. I’ve never been much of a hockey guy so I have no idea where this movie ends up on the “realistic” scale but it is at least as believable as The Mighty Ducks which is, I think we can all agree, the gold standard for hockey movies. (I’m half kidding there.) Goon is predictable and overtly paint-by-numbers but it is not without charm and it handles its subject matter with a light-hearted affection.

What is not predictable about this movie is the strength of the performances provided by the leads. Scott is, in my opinion, one of the more underrated comedic actors of his generation. He’ll never be taken all that seriously because his most widely-known character (Stifler from American Pie) is an over-the-top, offensive buffoon but I’ve always been impressed with his timing and his ability to make a movie or scene funny when it really shouldn’t be. (Case in point: Cop Out.) Here he turns Doug into a likeable and appealing hero, a very important aspect in an underdog sports movie. Baruchel’s hockey fanatic with a Wayne’s World-like cable access TV show is ridiculous and absurd but he is nonetheless an entertaining and dare I say essential part of the film’s equation. And Schreiber, truly one of the great character actors of our time, contributes a solid and believably menacing performance that provides the genial Doug with a much meaner counterpart. I’m not arguing that Scott, Baruchel, or Schreiber should be given consideration during award season but the truth of the matter is low-rent comedies like this one are often rife with mailed-in, half-hearted performances. Instead, Goon offers stars that seem invested in the material and the film benefits substantially from their interest.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be

I don't often do the plug for an upcoming review thing but I'm making an exception in this case. I saw a fantastic documentary last night called The Other Dream Team. I'll have a review coming later this week but in the meantime, if this film shows up in your area anytime soon (it may be making the rounds on the festival circuit), I highly recommend it. Much more than just the typical sports story.

After a contract dispute with Gary Ross, Lionsgate has turned to Francis Lawrence to helm Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. I'm not nearly as disappointed with this selection as some of my colleagues are. I'm a moderate fan of his work on Constantine and a great supporter of another one of his films, I Am Legend. He wouldn't have been my first choice but then again, Ross wouldn't have been my choice for the first installment and I think he did an outstanding job. We'll see but I think it's a bit absurd to write him off this early in the game.

The great (and often underrated) Guy Pearce has joined the cast of Iron Man 3 which will begin shooting next month. Awesome addition to RDJ's final romp in the suit.

Charlize Theron has signed on to star in Agent 13, Rupert Wyatt's follow up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. My recent viewing of Young Adult reminded me of what a great actress Theron really is and I'm excited to see what she can do with both this and Prometheus.

Weekend Box Office Results
I don’t think there’s anything more depressing, as it relates to this column, than browsing through the box office reports and finding that the top two entries for the weekend were both panned by critics. Think Like a Man found at least a modicum of positivity in some reviews but pretty much everyone with access to a computer made it clear that The Lucky Ones is awful. We’re better than this, America. In the meantime, The Hunger Games finally released its death grip on the wallets of American moviegoers, though it is still pulling in monster bucks on foreign soils. Lastly, Chimpanzee pulled in the highest opening weekend total ever for a nature documentary. Not too shabby.

1. Think Like a Man - $33M
2. The Lucky Ones - $22.8M
3. The Hunger Games - $14.5M ($356.9M)
4. Chimpanzee - $10.2M
5. The Three Stooges - $9.2M ($29.35M)
6. The Cabin in the Woods - $7.75M ($26.98M)
7. American Reunion - $5.2M ($48.3M)
8. Titanic 3D - $5M ($52.82M)
9. 21 Jump Street - $4.6M ($127.06M)
10. Mirror Mirror - $4.11M ($55.2M)

New to DVD
Yeesh. The bad thing about the theater schedule heating up is that the DVD release calendar slows down DRAMATICALLY. At this point in the year, we’re mostly treated to the underwhelming movies of January/February and the smaller movies from the end of the previous year that didn’t grab much attention. I hope you have a full DVR because the next few weeks don’t offer just a whole lot in the way of quality rental options.

What I’ve Seen and Didn’t Hate, I Guess
(How’s that for a resounding recommendation?)
Contraband – Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster
The problem with Contraband is that it isn’t as much fun as it should be. In fact, there are parts which are downright boring. That’s not what you want from a Mark Wahlberg joint, you know? There are some cool plot points within this movie and I’m a little bit fascinated by smuggling in general (thanks a lot, Han Solo) but still, I think Contraband would be best in a late-night HBO setting rather than spending money for a rental.

Also New
The Innkeepers – Sara Paxton, Pat Healy
Pariah – Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans
Dark Tide – Halle Berry (making, as ever, great use of her Academy Award), Olivier Martinez
11-11-11 – Timothy Gibbs, Michael Landes
Cinema Verite – Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini
Return – Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, John Slattery

New to Blu
Camelot (1967) – Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) – Alec Guinness, Michael Jayston, Anthony Bate

Coming to a Theater Near You
Last week was quite stellar for me in the, “Predicting Critical Response” category. Think Like a Man exceeded my expectations (49% versus my 40% guess) but still came in rotten; The Lucky One was slightly worse than expected (21% v. 25%); and Chimpanzee not only pulled in a solid opening weekend total but also made me look smart by grabbing a 77% rating as opposed to my 78% prediction. I’d also like to take a moment to ask the women of America to please stop seeing the films of Nicholas Sparks. They are truly terrible and I think deep down you know it. I’m willing to speak for my gender and offer the films of Nicholas Cage in return. No more relevant Cage films in exchange for no more relevant Sparks films. Think about it and get back to me.

This week has a handful of potentially theater-worthy films to offer.

The Five-Year Engagement – Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Alison Brie
The title is pretty self-explanatory but just in case: a couple (Segel and Blunt) endures the shenanigans associated with a long term engagement. This is a reunion for Segel and Muppets screenwriter Nicholas Stoller who also collaborated on Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I’ve got high hopes for Engagement and if it can avoid the second act doldrums that tend to weight down Apatow productions, it could be a big hit with both critics and audiences. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 75%

The Raven – John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve
Edgar Allen Poe (Cusack) is brought into the investigation of a mass murderer who uses the author’s darker works as inspiration for his killings. The early reviews haven’t been kind which is disappointing seeing as the concept, if done correctly, could be very interesting. Alas, John Cusack just cannot make a good film. I’d like to believe there’s an alternative universe in which Cusack makes brilliant career choices and is currently entering his middle-aged years with a long list of great films on his resume and maybe even an Oscar nomination or two. I think he is a talented actor and a genuinely cool guy. But man, most of his movies are rough. *Sigh* Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 23%

The Pirates! Band of Misfits – Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Salma Hayek
A foolhardy pirate captain (Grant) takes his crew on a thrilling adventure in his quest to win the Pirate of the Year award. I’ve never really gotten into the Wallace and Gromit bit but I must say, the trailers for Pirates have done an excellent job in terms of piquing my interest. I wouldn’t have expected it but I’m totally in on this movie. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 86%

Safe – Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Chris Sarandon
An ex-cop/cage fighter (Statham) is the only hope of a young girl (Chan) who is being pursued through the streets of New York by a variety of unsavory characters. Perhaps I should have offered to trade the end of Statham movies in exchange for the end of Sparks movies. But no, I don’t think I could it because though his films are often miserable, Statham has an uncanny knack for making truly horrible films enjoyable in a sheepish, “I can’t help it” kind of way. The best part about Safe is that if someone removed all mention of Statham’s name, altered his voice, and blindfolded you, you could still guess that it’s a Statham film just by the setup. If you’re going to be a niche actor, I guess this is a pretty good niche. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 30%

Also new: A journalist gets sucked into the cult he is investigating in Sound of My Voice…a strange mortician (Jack Black) befriends an old bat (Shirley MacLaine) in Bernie…and a single mom (Eva Mendes) struggles to connect with her quirky daughter in Girl in Progress

Friday, April 20, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Young Adult"

Once upon a time, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) had everything. She was the most popular girl in her small-town high school, she had she was dating school heartthrob Buddy (Patrick Wilson), and she was “going places.” But when Young Adult picks up, we find that Mavis’ life didn’t quite turn out the way she wanted. Having lost Buddy sometime after high school, she is now a recent divorcee, a raging alcoholic, and the nearly uncredited writer of a soon-to-be-finishing teen fiction series. In short, her life is going nowhere and despite her outward protestations to the contrary, she seems to know it. After learning that Buddy has recently become a father, Mavis spontaneously packs her bags and heads back home to Mercury, Minnesota with an eye on breaking up Buddy’s seemingly happy marriage. As her plan unravels, however, she finds an unlikely friend in Matt (Patton Oswalt) and begins to question her life choices.

Young Adult represents the reunion of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, both of whom burst onto the Hollywood scene with 2007’s Juno (a personal favorite of mine). You can see hints of Juno sprinkled through this collaboration, though its charm is decidedly different than the pair’s previous effort. Whereas Juno took a serious situation and brought a light, quirky interpretation to the table, Young Adult takes a less significant subject matter (that being everyday life) and runs it through a humorous but much darker wash. It’s an interesting mix that doesn’t always work but also never really flounders. In essence, Young Adult finds a center groove and it stays there throughout the runtime, coming together for a quality film that perhaps does not reach its potential. I could make the case that this is the worst of Reitman’s four films but that’s really more a testament to the strength of his other than it is a mark against this piece. Perhaps its greatest failure is that it lacks the inspiration of Juno or Up in the Air and becomes mostly just a well-told story.

The greatest difference between Young Adult and Juno is, of course, the protagonist. Mavis’ embittered, cold nature is the polar opposite of Juno’s upbeat, hipster mentality and yet she is no less likeable.  (Okay, maybe a little less likeable. I’ve got quite a soft spot for good ol’ Juno.) Theron pulls no punches in creating an immature and somewhat dark character but she always displays a twinge of insecurity even in her most diabolical moments. She isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure but the lack of self-worth which shines through in every scene makes her human and allows the audience to stick with her throughout the film. You may not necessarily root for Mavis but you also don’t root against her. This is what makes Young Adult a worthwhile experience when compared to, say, Bad Teacher, another 2011 film that featured an unflinchingly miserable leading lady. I openly rooted against Cameron Diaz’s morally reprehensible teacher in that film while Mavis seems to have a chance at becoming a good person, even if she never really attains redemption, which creates a bit of appeal. It’s a great performance from Theron and it shows off the incredible range she truly has. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how great Oswalt is in his role as a poor unfortunate soul who’s never gotten the attention he deserves. Not only is he hilarious but his almost poignant portrayal is what brings Mavis’ humanity to the surface. It’s an understated but nonetheless powerful role and Oswalt absolutely nails it while providing the perfect contrast for Theron to work off of.

In the end, Young Adult comes out as a good, perhaps even very good, dramedy that doesn’t quite have the aspirations that I might have expected. It is entertaining and well-acted but ultimately forgettable, the kind of film that you enjoy once through but don’t seek out again in the future.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Home Viewings: "The Way"

Tom (Martin Sheen) and his son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), have had their differences. Tom is a well-respected dentist with a traditional lifestyle while Daniel has always embraced a more free-spirited, nomadic life. The two have a healthy respect for each other but clearly that has not always been the case. But when Tom learns that Daniel has died while on an adventure in France, he begins to seriously question the way in which he related to his son. After retrieving Daniel’s ashes, he decides to hike the Camino de Santiago, a trek that takes experienced travelers weeks and sometimes months to traverse. Along the path, he comes in contact with a rag tag group of fellow travelers, each with their own reasons for making the journey and each looking for companionship and closure in one way or another.

Everything I liked about The Way boiled down to the performance of Martin Sheen. Sheen has certainly done better in his esteemed career but this is the type of showing that serves as a strong reminder of how good a given actor really is when he wants to be. This is a very complex, vulnerable character and Sheen is able to display a great range of emotion without ever allowing any of them to become overdone or to even take precedence over the other. Tom is in constant conflict with himself and Sheen brings that to the forefront beautifully. It’s a meaty, heavy role that offers Sheen a chance to shine, an opportunity of which he takes full advantage. I only wish that some of his contemporaries would give us a similar sign of their respective abilities. (Are you listening, De Niro and Pacino?)

Unfortunately for Sheen, virtually every other aspect of this movie is a mess. Estevez makes some brutally generic choices regarding the narrative of his film and the post-production decisions were even worse. Case in point, the soundtrack (something I always focus on for better or for worse) feels like a, “Recycled Collection of Hits from the Early 2000s”, like Estevez has kept a journal of his favorite songs from movies he’s seen over the last decade and wanted to cram them all into his film. Perhaps I’m being overly picky but this rubbed me the wrong way and cheapened the overall impact of The Way.

These troublesome choices behind the camera, though, could be overlooked if not for the painful missteps taking place on screen, courtesy of Sheen’s supporting actors and their excruciatingly cliché characters. Yorick van Wageningen (as a loud-mouthed, chubby Dane) and James Nesbitt (as a haunted travel writer) both have scenes that aren’t horrible but these are few and far between and they are always trumped by the cringe-inducing way in which Deborah Kara Unger (an embittered divorcee) sulks through every single scene. I haven’t seen enough of Unger to know whether this is typical of her acting abilities or if she was just following orders but regardless, this performance would have ruined a great movie, let alone a borderline acceptable one like this. All of these characters are as paper-thin as you can get and all of the actors seem to be in a competition to determine who can turn in the most unrealistic, forced delivery of a would-be sympathetic backstory.

I came away from The Way feeling almost angry for Sheen, who routinely has his legs cut out from under him by his surroundings. There are some appealing landscape shots here and there but again, the journey through the French countryside isn’t worth it if you have to travel with infuriating companions. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: "The Cabin in the Woods"

I’ve never been one to follow with the crowd. In fact, if something it popular, it’s far more likely that I will oppose it rather than join in the love fest just out of principle. At the same time, however, I hate it when I don’t like a film that all of my colleagues seem to adore. When this happens (which isn’t very often), I always feel like I’m missing something or that I didn’t understand the film which, in turn, makes me feel like a moron. In these situations, it takes everything in me to stand by my initial reaction and deny the peer pressure that would have me reverse course and join in the love fest. So let’s get it out of the way up front: I did not care for The Cabin in the Woods.

Needing some rest and relaxation, Dana (Kristen Connolly), her best friend Jules (Anna Hutchison), and Jules’ boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), retreat to a remote cabin recently purchased by Curt’s cousin. The trio is joined by stoner-buddy Marty (Fran Kranz) and scholarly Holden (Jesse Williams), a friend of Curt’s who Jules would like to set up with Dana. The cabin, while a bit on the rustic side, seems to be the ideal spot for the group to chill out and let loose. But before long, a hidden cellar full of creepy and mysterious artifacts is discovered and when Dana reads from an old journal, she unwittingly unleashes a terror upon the cabin that comes straight out of a nightmare that perhaps none of them will survive.

To write a completely spoiler-free review of Cabin seems borderline impossible but I will try my best to stay away from the important facts. The behind-the-scenes concept of what is really taking place at the cabin is one of the cooler ideas I’ve seen in a film like this in quite some time. Someone or something pulling the strings in the background is not entirely unique within this genre but writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (also the director) bring a fresh take to the idea and make it their own beautifully early on. The happenings which take place away from the cabin (the spoiler-rific portions I shan’t get into here) were BY FAR my favorite parts of the film and really left me wanting more when it was all said and done. By cutting back and forth between the events taking place at the cabin and those going on unbeknownst to our protagonists, Goddard creates a fun contrast through the first half of the film and gives dials up a sense of self-awareness that I almost loved for a while.

But before long, I found that Cabin had no sense of true identity. Or rather, that its identity isn't one that I want to get to know. I think the point of the film is to both poke fun at the horror genre while at the same time creating enough gore to satisfy genre enthusiasts. At times, Goddard and Whedon succeed in this but over the course of the film, I felt that instead of mocking the typical hallmarks of a horror film in hopes of creating a laugh in the midst of the scares (see: Scream), the duo only succeeded in laying the ground work for their own demise. That is to say, the film goes out of its way to point out the generic pratfalls that you could to expect from a slasher film and then deliberately falls directly into those traps over and over again. In essence, the film ends up becoming exactly what it sets out to make fun of in the early going. As a result, almost all of the jump-out-of-your-seat moments have been hamstrung by the Goddard telegraphing what was about to happen for the sake of the self-aware jokes. At the same time, I didn’t find the film to be consistently funny enough to play as a real comedy (see: Shaun of the Dead). To be clear: there are some truly brilliant, witty moments and more than a few laugh-out-loud pieces of dialogue but not enough to keep the comedic ball rolling for 90 minutes. I think Cabin wants to be both a capable slasher film and a hilarious R-rated comedy but for me, the mix comes off almost as a half-hearted spoof.

I think that all of that would have resulted in a three star, “totally acceptable entertainment”-type review from me had it not been for the fact that the vaunted twist which has had so many critics and viewers in a titter is really not that big of a deal. Again, I won’t spoil anything but you can guess the basics of the twist within the first 15 minutes of the movie. (I promise I’m not one of those people who says, “I could totally see the twist coming” or, “I knew Bruce Willis was dead the whole time”; this is just a onetime thing.) I kept waiting and waiting for a real turn to catch me off guard and not only did it never come, that waiting took away from my enjoyment of the back half of the film. So while the whole, “Don’t tell anyone the secret!” marketing campaign got me into the theater for a movie I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise, it also caused me to come out feeling extremely dissatisfied with the finished product.

Believe me when I say, I wanted to love Cabin in the Woods. I wanted to write about Joss Whedon had reinvigorated the horror genre. And maybe more importantly, I wanted to see what all of my colleagues saw in a movie that almost everyone seems to love. But while the concept is fantastic and there are some definite and delicious Whedon-isms that play out through the course of the film, I just could not get completely on board. You may now begin to cast stones. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 4/16

I intended my post-Spring Break-break to last three or four days. Instead, it extended out to ten. I usually try my best to avoid gaps like that in this space but my real world job (the bane of blog productivity) got insanely busy and the time off was necessary. And honestly, it was good for me to take a little break. So thanks for sticking around and here's hoping I can get back on track over the coming days!

Movie News and Links
Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford, and Liam Hemsworth have all signed on for Paranoia, a corporate thriller based on a bestseller from 2004. The idea of Ford and Oldman working together is pretty insane and Hemsworth impressed me in The Hunger Games. I'm already looking forward to this one.

Sin City 2 somewhat unexpectedly began production this weekend, to which I say: "Meh." Didn't care for the first one.

It was announced late last week that Alfonso Cuaron's next film, Gravity, which stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, will open with a 17-minute shot. Must say, I'm totally geeking out about this. Cuaron's last film, Children of Men (which I highly recommend), features one of the greatest long-shot sequences I've ever seen. This sounds AWESOME.

Ben Kingsley has been confirmed as the villain in the third Iron Man movie, due next May.

Steve Carell is in discussions to star in a screen adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day which was unquestionably my favorite book as a child. Great choice, Steve!

Ruth over at Flixchatter participated in Fandango Groover's Movie Year blog-a-thon and picked one of my favorite years for film, 2000. Check out her selections!

Matt at CinemaSlants dives into what could have been with the 1995 film Dead Presidents, a movie I quite liked when I was 15 and quite dislike now.  

Weekend Box Office Results
What a run for Jennifer Lawrence, Lionsgate, and everyone involved with the colossal smash-hit that is The Hunger Games! Hunger holds on to the top spot at the box office for the fourth consecutive week and crossed the $500 million threshold worldwide. Not bad for a March film made on a $78 million budget. And with another group of lackluster premiers on deck for the coming weekend, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that we’ll see Hunger in this same spot next week, too. As for this week’s new offerings, The Three Stooges played moderately well with audiences but was panned by critics while The Cabin in the Woods (which got my money) scored big time with critics and pulled in a solid, if unspectacular, box office number. Lockout, meanwhile, failed to find favor with either group, marking it as one of the more disappointing movies of the year so far. I didn’t expect it to grab a $35 million opening but I also didn’t think $15-20 was out of the question.
1. The Hunger Games - $21.5M ($337M)
2. The Three Stooges - $17.1M
3. The Cabin in the Woods - $14.85M
4. Titanic 3D - $11.62M ($44.14M)
5. American Reunion - $10.7M ($39.9M)
6. Mirror Mirror  - $7M ($49.46M)
7. Wrath of the Titans - $6.9M ($71.25M)
8. 21 Jump Street - $6.8M ($120.56M)
9. Lockout - $6.25M
10. Dr. Suess’ the Lorax - $3.02M ($204.48M)

New to DVD
What I’ve Seen and You Should, Too
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner
I must say, dear readers, I’ve been looking forward to this day for several weeks now. You simply cannot ask much more from an action movie than what MI4 has to offer. It serves as a reminder of both Tom Cruise’s ability to carry a film and how awesome action flicks can be when given a worthwhile plot to work with. If you haven’t seen Ghost Protocol, it is an absolute riot and comes highly recommended.

Also New
Shame – Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
The Divide – Michael Biehn, Lauren German
Eight is Enough: Season 1 (1977) – Dick Van Patten, Lani O’Grady
Born to Be Wild – Morgan Freeman
American Dad: Volume 7 – Seth MacFarlane, Wendy Schaal
Treme: Season 2 – Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters
Bob’s Burgers: Season 1 – H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz

Coming to a Theater Near You
The one bad thing about skipping out last week was missing the chance to smash on The Three Stooges throughout the course of the week. Actually, it was probably better this way. I still can’t believe that project got the green light. Also, does anyone remember when the Farrelley Brothers made comedies that were, you know, funny? What a waste. Moving on now…

The Lucky One – Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner
A young veteran (Efron) journeys to North Carolina in an effort to meet the woman who he believes saved his life during his tour of battle. They fall in love and stuff. Obviously I’m not the target audience for this sort of movie but good grief, this looks especially painful, even in comparison to the other Nicholas Sparks movies. I would be alright if this brand of film was stricken from the record altogether but alas, I don’t have the power to make it happen. Good luck, ladies. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 25%

Think Like a Man – Chris Brown, Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Gabrielle Union
After discovering their respective girlfriends are using a relationship guide book to manipulate them, four friends decide to use the information in their favor. Apparently I’m in the VAST minority but I do not understand the appeal of Kevin Hart. I’ve yet to laugh at any of his shtick and I can’t imagine sitting through an entire film of it. It’s possible, though I would hate to admit it, that I’d rather see The Lucky One than this movie. I really don’t want to think about having to make such an awful choice but I’m not sure I could take Think Like a Man. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 40%

Chimpanzee – Tim Allen
Disney’s newest Earth Day adventure focuses on a young chimp who is separated from the group is taken in and cared for by a lone male chimp. This documentary series is far from hard-hitting but they’re always very well made and touching and this one looks to be no exception. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 78%

Also new: Meryl Streep narrates another Earth Day special, To the Arctic…Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline fight over a lost dog in Darling Companion…Sarah Bolger suspects her new boarding schoolmate is a vampire in The Moth Diaries…and director Kevin Macdonald takes a look at the life of the Reggae superhero in his documentary Marley.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Post-Spring Break Break

I'm more than a little swamped with work right now and don't have the time that I'd like to spend on writing. Rather than plague your mindgrapes with even more sub-par content than you've become accustomed to, I'm just going to take a short leave of absence and come back with a vengeance next week. I leave you with this very cool and totally non-cliche (that can't be a word but I'm going with it) Gone Fishin' picture. If I die over the weekend, this picture will be my unending legacy and serve as my final contribution to the Internet. Which is awesome. Thanks for sticking around. See y'all in a few!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Immortals"

Long after the famed battle between the gods and the titans, a new terror threatens to rip the world of ancient Greece apart. The mad King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) will stop at nothing in his search for the Epirus Bow, a weapon of great power, and as such, he sails from place to place, killing and enslaving the people and ransacking the land. In the midst of this stands Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant from a fishing village, who catches the eye of Zeus (Luke Evans). Theseus sets out on a suicide mission to bring down King Hyperion and keep the world from being overrun by the blood-thirsty titans.

There are three things I wanted from Immortals, a film for which I held very limited expectations:

1.) I wanted to see Henry Cavill show me what he’s capable of in an action capacity leading into next year’s Superman film, in which he will play the title character;
2.) I wanted a fun, entertaining film that I could watch while working and enjoy myself;
3.) I wanted some outstanding visuals to counter balance the inevitable plot holes and weak dialogue I expected from a film of this ilk.

Unfortunately, this film fails on all three counts (and virtually every other measure that you might judge a quality film by). I’m willing to extend a pass to Cavill in this situation. Though he doesn’t do anything overly impressive here, I don’t think he was given much of anything to work with. This is a throw-away role in a movie that won’t be remembered in five years if Cavill’s career takes off. On the other hand, 300 (which I believe Immortals aspires to be) gave a Gerard Butler a very similar role which he seized by the horns and rode to industry notoriety with great charisma. Cavill displays no such charisma nor does he fully embody the action-centric role the way I might have hoped. I admit, at this point I’m quite nervous about his turn as Superman but time will tell.

I’m less willing to extend to director Tarsem Singh the courtesy than I’ve given Cavill. Michael Bay has built a ridiculously luxurious career out of creating shallow-but-pretty blockbusters that bring nothing to the table except stylish effects and somewhat enjoyable. It’s easy to rail against Bay and his contemporaries but at least he has the decency to make his movies entertaining, even if it is low-level entertainment. Immortals can’t even do that. It is neither fun nor entertaining, engrossing nor in any way, shape, or form enjoyable. The visuals, marketed, quite frankly, as the film’s greatest strength, are mostly unappealing and sometimes downright shabby. Perhaps it would have made a difference to see the print in a theater but many of the film’s bigger action sequences were almost unwatchable due to a horrendous color balance mixed with mediocre-at-best effects. I don’t expect every film to have awards-caliber post-production elements but let’s be honest here: the only reason anyone went to see Immortals was because of the action. If the action sucks in an overtly action-oriented movie, then what are we left with? In this case, we’re left with a boring, dark, and jumbled mess highlighted by color-by-numbers acting and generic plot points. Do yourself a favor and skip this one entirely. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 4/2

Weekend Box Office Results
A couple of months ago, I think Lionsgate would have been only marginally disappointed if their tent pole feature, The Hunger Games, came out with $61 million on its opening weekend. Seeing as how that’s the total it brought in during its second week of release, I’d imagine the people at Lionsgate haven’t yet stopped partying. It’s not inconceivable, given the relatively mediocre new releases headed our way this week, that The Hunger Games will come out on top again this time next week, a huge achievement for the film and a major milestone for the studio. Very cool story in my opinion. On the opposite end of the spectrum, both of the mainstream new releases this week underperformed significantly, especially when considering their respective budgets. Wrath of the Titans came in well below the $61 million in sales its predecessor pulled in on opening weekend in 2010 and came away with little to show for its $150 million budget. Likewise, Mirror Mirror didn’t really find much of an audience at all and looks to be a long shot to recoup its $85 million price tag, at least domestically. We probably could have all seen those failures coming a mile away but then again, when the calendar was set, I don’t think anyone in Hollywood quite understood the gold mine that The Hunger Games would turn out to be. Otherwise, we might not have seen many films attempt competition this early in its theatrical run.

1. The Hunger Games - $61.1M ($251M)
2. Wrath of the Titans - $34.2M
3. Mirror Mirror - $19M
4. 21 Jump Street - $15M ($93.1M)
5. Dr. Suess’ The Lorax - $8M ($189.6M)
6. John Carter - $2M ($66.21M)
7. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - $1.27M ($3.17M)
8. Act of Valor - $1M ($67.76M)
9. A Thousand Words - $915K ($16.52M)
10. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island - $835K ($98.48M)

What I’ve Seen and Wasn’t Totally Sold On
War Horse – Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson
We Bought a Zoo – Matt Damon, Scarlett Johannson, Thomas Haden Church
To be quite honest with you, I’d really rather not see either of these movies again and that makes me sad. Of all the great directors in the world, Steven Spielberg and Cameron Crowe are two of my very favorites and I generally look forward to whatever project these two put their minds to. Both, however, did much better work in 2011. Spielberg’s War Horse is a decent enough movie that I had trouble relating to and investing in while I absolutely loved The Adventures of Tintin. Likewise, We Bought a Zoo represents Crowe’s most disjointed effort, a family film for which he was not equipped to make, while I found his documentary Pearl Jam 20 to be superb. Both of these movies are probably worth a viewing if you are so inclined but neither was all that impressive in my book.

Also New
Torchwood: Miracle Day – John Barrowman, Eve Myles
Being Elmo – Kevin Clash (Also available on Netflix Instant)
Tyrannosaur – Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan
The Big C: Season 2 – Laura Linney, Oliver Platt

New to Blu
Chinatown (1974) – Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985) – Sarah Jessica Parker, Lee Montgomery, Helen Hunt

Coming to a Theater Near You
I had a much better week predicting the critical reception of last week’s films than any of them actually had at the box office. Mirror Mirror had me scared for a while as some of the early reviews were shockingly positive but by the end of the weekend it wound down to a nice 41%, not far off from my 49% prediction. And Wrath of the Titans was by all accounts just as bad as expected, dropping in at 24% (equal to its predecessor) while my prediction was 25%. Goon surprised me, though, finishing with a robust 79% Certified Fresh rating. I’ll get a chance to see Goon later this week and I’m more excited about it than I would have thought.

American Reunion – Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Chris Klein
The title is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? The old gang from American Pie gets back together for their high school reunion and crazy things happen. I’m not interested in this movie (especially considering the previous two installments were worthless) but I’m not convinced it’s going to be completely horrible. If nothing else, I will say that if you’re going to do a reunion-type movie like this, you better get every single member of the cast from the original film and that’s exactly what they did here. Not that most of these actors have anything else to do anyway but still, it’s something. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 51%

Titanic 3D – Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winsley, Billy Zane
The second highest-grossing film of all-time gets yet another theatrical run, this one in full 3D. I hate this movie. I really, REALLY hate this movie. Titanic ruined my childhood obsession with what actually happened that fateful night with its overwrought romance, its mediocre dialogue, and its wretched, wretched song. I’m sorry, I’m just never going to get over this. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 80%

Also new: Morgan Spurlock’s newest documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope takes a look at the inside world of Comic-Con…and The Hunter features Willem Dafoe tracking the last of the Tasmanian tigers.