Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sweat the Small Stuff or Why "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is Just the Worst

Last year, in conjunction with the massive youth sports league I run through my church, I started a small mentoring program that provides me with an opportunity to work individually with a few of the kids who come through the doors. We go to movies, eat at CiCi's (only the finest foods, of course), and talk about life and stuff. I've got a core group of 5th-7th graders that take part in these events on a regular basis and over the last few months, we've developed quite a rapport. One of the topics we always discuss, in addition to sports, spirituality, and YouTube videos we all dig (“Guy on a Buffalo” is quickly gaining steam in popularity), is movies. These kids are genuinely interested in what I’ve seen lately, what my favorite movies are, and what my opinion is on just about every film they’ve ever heard of. This is due in no small part to this blog and the fact that they haven’t quite figured out yet that virtually everyone has a blog or has had one at some point or another. Unlike the masses of hypothetical Internet readers, they actually care about my opinions, which is both empowering and sobering at the same time. If there was a market for film criticism aimed at 12 year olds I would be to that field what Dave Grohl is to the Foo Fighters.

This relationship, however, presents two problems.

1.) I always have to be aware of my audience. The Shawshank Redemption is unquestionably the greatest movie of all-time (no, I said it’s unquestionable so there’s really no need to debate this) but it’s not exactly a family friendly movie that I can encourage a group of impressionable boys to seek out on Video on Demand. I mean, obviously I told them to go watch The Hangover but Shawshank is a little out of their range at this point.

2.) It can be hard to know when to burst their bubbles and when to swallow down my hardened opinion and let them learn their own lessons over time.

Most of the time when one of them expresses a ridiculous opinion or makes a totally indefensible statement, I let it slide. At most, I might poke a little fun in the direction of whoever made the statement and say, “At your high school graduation, I’m going to remind everyone that you once said The Tooth Fairy was your favorite movie.” (This is an actual statement from one of these kids. Don’t judge him too harshly.) Sometimes, however, I feel it is my duty as both a would-be film critic and someone they look up to (not to mention a decent human being in general) to provide a little guidance and hopefully keep them from making a horrible life choice, like holding the opinion that Cars 2 is the best Pixar movie.

One of these situations presented itself tonight.

On our way home from a baseball game, my truck jam-packed with five teens/pre-teens and my friend Jason, the movie topic was inevitably broached. First we discussed Batman as Jason and I explained the concept of multiple franchises within one universe. (To sum up: Adam West Batman, Michael Keaton/Tim Burton Batman, and Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Batman are all Batman but the differences are vast.) I was afraid this might have blown their minds but instead it led to a discussion of other films which have seen a revamp, reboot, or years-later sequels/prequels. Then one of the kids brought up the Indiana Jones series and hinted that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was his favorite from the franchise. At this point, I very nearly ran my truck into a traffic barrier.

I couldn’t let that one slide. It’s one thing to love Tooth Fairy or to sing along with Miley Cyrus songs at a baseball game. These are the trappings of youth, the errors of younger souls that will be corrected later in life when they discover witty rhetoric, the films of Christopher Nolan, and the Beastie Boys. But it somehow felt important that I convey to these kids that it was not okay to hold any affection whatsoever for Crystal Skull, let alone to think it better than the original trilogy.

My friend and I both reacted immediately with similar statements to the effect of, “That movie is so bad that we have to pretend it doesn’t exist in order to keep from getting angry about it on a daily basis” (in not so many words). The collective response was, “What’s so bad about that movie?” My friend and I struggled with how to answer, partly because we didn’t want to make any of the kids feel bad for liking a terrible movie (and hey, they probably haven’t even seen Raiders of the Lost Ark so how can they properly judge Crystal Skull?) and partly because the verbiage needed to truly describe the wretchedness of that movie would be both inappropriate for kids and probably over their heads, anyway. My friend and I both struggled for words until I made the following analogy:

“Imagine that you’re 8 years old and you have a favorite toy that you absolutely love. And you play with that toy every day and take it with you everywhere you go. And then imagine that one day, your brother forcibly takes that toy from you, breaks it over his knee, throws it on the ground, and then spits on it while laughing maniacally. And then when you ask your brother why he did that, he responds by telling you that the toy is better broken, that it’s supposed to be broken, and that you didn’t really appreciate the toy before the way he does now. And then, while you sit and cry because your brother broke your toy, your brother then proceeds to walk around your room breaking the rest of your toys. That’s why Crystal Skull is that bad. Because they took a film franchise we all loved and broke it forever.”

I could lie and tell you that all of the kids fully grasped what I said and we all took a pact to never again speak of Crystal Skull. In truth, I’m not sure they all completely understood what I mean. But if even one of them now has the correct opinion that Crystal Skull is an abomination, then I feel like I’ve made the world a slightly better place. And really, isn’t that what working with kids is all about? Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a coach, the idea is to impart a bit of important knowledge to the kids in a way that they won’t forget, to make them better, smarter, and more well-rounded individuals and if the world is improved in the process then that’s all the better.

Basically what I’m saying is, when working with kids, you should sweat the small stuff, that it’s important to remember the little things and the way the little things build upon each other. Getting that group of kids to understand that Crystal Skull is a crime against humanity or that KE$HA is the worst thing to happen to music since hairspray in the ‘80s may not be the equivalent of teaching them the core concepts of algebra or revealing to them the vast mysteries of the universe, but those small, seemingly insignificant bits of knowledge may very well be the foundations for greater things as these kids mature and become the people they’re intended to be. Keep up the good work, parents, employees, and volunteers and make sure you tell your kids just how bad Crystal Skull really is. Because really, the 6.4 rating it has on IMDB is just embarrassing. 

NOTE: Thank you, dear reader(s), for allowing a brief break from our regularly scheduled, surprisingly mediocre film coverage. We'll get back to the standard stuff that no one reads tomorrow. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Red Tails"

As America’s involvement in World War II deepened, military leaders became more desperate to find an edge and finish the fight. As such, the Air Force turned to a group of black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Having been previously shunned and denied the right to fight for their countries, these pilots, under the command of Colonel AJ Bullard (Terrence Howard), had been pushed to the limit and trained harder than virtually any group in the military. Finally given an opportunity to serve, the Tuskegee Airmen were thrown into the midst of the fray and given the most dangerous missions the war had to offer through which they were able to not only make a name for themselves in the sky but also to demonstrate the ignorance behind the discrimination they faced on the ground.

Most people these days know a thing or two about the Tuskegee Airmen. They are some of the bravest men this country has ever known and their legacy is one that will live on long after they themselves have gone on. They deserve much better than Red Tails.

There are only two positive things I can say about this movie:

1.) The dogfights are, at times, quite stunning. The vast, VAST, majority of the movie’s $58 million budget was clearly spent on special effects and while these shots don’t exactly operate with much realism, they are visually compelling.

2.) Red Tails tries hard. It is, if nothing else, an honest effort to honor the pilots and illustrate just what they went through. This is most readily evident in the earnestness of the narrative and the performance of Howard and a couple of others in the cast.

The problem is that everything else that does not involve this film’s special effects or its laborious effort is an absolute bloody disaster. Even for a George Lucas production, the dialogue is particularly atrocious in both actual terminology and general approach. It is perhaps the thickest, most heavy-handed script I could possibly imagine. Red Tails desperately wants you to know that these men faced a tremendous amount of racism and boy, does this movie lay it on thick when it wants to get a point across. Virtually every line spoken by a non-Airman is stripped down to its most basic level with no allowance for exposition or a differentiation in tone. Even the German pilot who vexes the Red Tails for a time speaks entirely in mono-syllabic, monotone terms, including such gems as “Those pilots are African.” In all honesty the worst dialogue from the Star Wars prequels is better than what Red Tails has to offer, a shocking statement that I never thought I’d never get to make.

Just like the script, the characters at work within Red Tails are overly earnest and paper thin. Nate Parker is decent in his role as the squadron’s leader but no favors are thrown his way by the rough plot points he has to work with. Most of the other actors, however, measure up to the level of the narrative and at times it was all I could do not to turn the TV off. I can’t really blame David Oyelowo, Gerald McRaney, Cuba Gooding Jr. and the rest for the various lackluster turns the actors provide as any movie that can make Bryan Cranston look bad probably wasn’t going to work even with Oscar-caliber performances. But at the same time, these portrayals are often cringe-inducing and they certainly do nothing to pull this movie up from the muck it seems all too content to slide around in. It really is a shame because, again, these soldiers deserve to be memorialized on film in ways that Red Tails can’t possibly hope to attain. In truth it really doesn’t get just a whole lot worse than this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: "Men in Black 3"

There are a number of issues and questions that pop up when you set out to make a sequel or prequel to a franchise that hasn’t seen a new entry in a while. Do you reintroduce the characters to those who haven’t seen the previous films or do you dive in and pretend everyone in the audience understands the narrative? Do you jump the timeline forward a few years or start from where the last film left off? Do you mature your characters and plot points to reflect the years gone by or do you continue to harp on the same strings that worked so well before? Men in Black 3 wrestles with each of these questions and manages to come out relatively unscathed on the other end.

It has been 14 years since Agent J (Will Smith) joined up with Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) as a member of the Men in Black, a covert agency that serves as both an embassy for alien visitors and protection from extra-terrestrial attacks. The dynamic between the two is much the same as it always has been: J still plays the part of the wise-cracking young upstart while K serves as the crotchety old-timer. Things take a turn, however, when an old enemy of K’s, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement), escapes from a prison on the moon and jumps back in time to kill K, an event which in turn leads to the destruction of earth. As the only person who remembers K in the present, J has to jump back to 1969 and re-team with a younger K (Josh Brolin) in order to track down Boris before he can accomplish his mission.

The early scenes of MIB3, in which the audience is reintroduced to the characters, are at best misguided and at worst painful. This reintroduction is a necessary endeavor given that the first Men in Black debuted 15 years ago and everyone likes to pretend the sequel never happened since it is BRUTALLY bad but the execution in this phase is poorly written to say the least. There’s a distinct disconnect between Smith and Jones and whether that was done purposely to show the distance between the characters or not, it doesn’t work. At times during the first 15 minutes, it feels as if Barry Sonnenfeld and the numerous writers who worked on this project couldn’t decide whether to set the film years after the original or as more of a direct sequel taking place shortly after the ’97 film. As a result, the two main characters treat each other as if they’ve only been partners for a few months while the narrative is clear concerning the timeframe. I had a hard time getting past this disjointedness and began bracing myself for a disastrous 103 minutes.

Thankfully, however, MIB3 finds its groove when J jumps back to 1969 and from that point on it’s a fun ride. Throwing J into a drastically different environment brings about some interesting plot points and the film gets plenty of laughs based simply on the difference in technologies and attitudes. The handheld Neuralizer (the “flashy thing”) that J is used to in the present is actually a giant MRI-type machine in the early days of the Men in Black and of course J immediately gets himself into a spot of trouble pertaining to his race in a not-so liberated time period. The plot isn’t always the brightest spot of the film but it does do an admirable job of managing its own time travel mythology, a task which often proves too difficult for many films that revolve around the concept.

But as fun as the storyline and general hijinks of MIB3 are, the real value of the movie can be found in the cast. Sonnenfeld lets Will Smith be Will Smith and that boisterous enthusiasm that has marked his career plays well within this setting. At the outset, Smith almost seems rusty, though perhaps that’s just my subconscious taking over given how long it’s been since we’ve seen him on screen. As the film finds its groove, so too does Smith and before long he’s giving off the old vibes that have made him such a treat to watch over the last 15 years. But with all due respect to Smith, he is thoroughly overshadowed by his surrounding cast. Brolin is, simply, put, incredibly awesome in this role. His impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones is flawless but through a few plot points, he is able to make the character his own in ways that I didn’t expect. He demonstrates great chemistry with Smith that is wonderfully reminiscent of the original film. There are spots within MIB3 in which the novelty of Brolin being Jones working with Smith takes precedence over the plot but I found myself more than willing to accept this dynamic. Beyond Brolin, though, MIB3 is littered with strong supporting work from Will Arnett (brief but great), Bill Hader (whose appearance marks a strong turning point for the film), and most importantly Michael Stuhlbarg who steals every single scene in which he participates. Given his work here and his small role in last year’s Hugo (one of my ten favorite performances of the year), Stuhlbarg is becoming one of my very favorite character actors in Hollywood today.

It isn’t always the smoothest ride and some of the jokes fall flat (though perhaps that’s more a sign of my matured sensibilities) but the blend of action, comedy, and surprisingly good sci-fi makes MIB3 a solid, worthwhile film. Add in a thoroughly unexpected touching moment of genuine heart and it’s even enough to make on forget Men in Black 2 ever happened, a sentiment I think we can all get behind.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Collected Works: Will Smith

It has now been four years since Will Smith last appeared in a film. For me, this has been a dark period of cinema as I’ve missed his smiling face and energetic brand of playful comedy. The longer Smith has been away from the camera, the more acceptable it has become to question his ability as an actor and that’s not okay in my book. Now to be fair, as a male in his later 20s, I have been in Smith’s key demographic for the entire length of his career and I admit at least part of my appreciation for the man is due to the memories of how awesome his movies were when I was a kid. Regardless, however, I’m of the opinion that Smith is an insanely talented guy with more range than he’s ever given credit for. Yes, he makes his most indelible marks by doing his standard thing and yes, he is certainly guilty of playing it safe rather than taking the chances that some of his contemporaries have jumped at. But at the end of the day, Smith brings an insane level of enjoyableness to his films and still belongs on the ever-shrinking list of truly bankable stars. With Men In Black 3 debuting today, I felt it pertinent to revisit an old standard, The Collected Works, and rank each of the films from Smith’s career. Enjoy.

(If you’re unfamiliar with The Collected Works, the object is to rank every film a given actor or director has worked on from the worst to the best. These ranks pertain to the films first and performances second.)

Movies I haven’t seen: Made in America (1993), Six Degrees of Separation (1994)

16. Men in Black 2 (2002) – Agent Jay
By Smith’s own admission, this movie (and the number 14 movie on this list) represents a career low. Coming off the unsuccessful Ali (his first dramatic role), Smith reverted to the safety (and paycheck) of a role that he knew. No one involved with this movie wanted to be on set and that showed in the finished product. In my mind, MIB 2 is one of the worst movies of the decade.

15. Wild Wild West (1999) – Captain James West
Because anytime you can build an entire plot around a giant mechanical spider tromping through the Old West, you have to do it. I can’t blame Smith for this one. On paper, Wild Wild West should have fallen right in line with Independence Day and Men in Black as a fun summer blockbuster with a wide range of appeal. Instead, it was a complete and utter disaster, though it did turn a healthy profit. I hold this movie responsible for creating a fear of Westerns in Smith and leading him to turn down a role in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained.

14. Bad Boys 2 (2003) – Detective Mike Lowery
Bad Boys wasn’t awful (more on it in a moment) but this sequel was as much of a money grab as MIB 2 was and really doesn’t bring anything to the table worth discussing. It’s a bloated mess (147 minutes long!!!) that should have been a signal of what was to come in Michael Bay’s future Transformers franchise. Smith’s character is unquestionably the best part of this movie but that’s not saying just a whole lot.

13. Shark Tale (2004) – Oscar
Smith’s only foray into the world of animated features didn’t provide much to write home about. It is a prime example of the DreamWorks animation method: develop a decent idea, assemble a great cast, and piece together a soulless film that kids will watch and parents won’t hate but no one will really care about.

12. Bad Boys (1995) – Detective Mike Lowery
This one has some really strong moments and some great action sequences (the hallmark of a Michael Bay film, of course). It was also a pretty smart career choice for Smith who was wrapping up his run on the family-friendly Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and was provided an opportunity to show a little edge in the R-rated Bad Boys. But while the action is great, the movie as a whole it fairly lackluster. I will, however, watch portions of this one if it pops up on HBO while I will flip the channel immediately if the sequel comes along.

11. Ali (2001) – Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali
This one still hurts me. As a sports nerd, there are very few athletes who are more fascinating than Muhammad Ali. As a film nerd, the idea of combining Michael Mann (director of Heat, one of my ten favorite movies) and Smith was overwhelmingly awesome. And then the film was kind of a beating. I think Mann tried too hard to appeal to everyone (critics and moviegoers alike), probably due in part to the bloated budget ($107 million) and the Christmas release date. Ali is convoluted and boring and that’s a real shame because Smith’s portrayal is OUTSTANDING. This one should have been a great movie tied together with a great performance and instead it became a great performance in the midst of a middling movie.

10. Hitch (2005) – Alex ‘Hitch’ Hitchens
Hitch loses points in my book because it becomes less and less enjoyable with each viewing. In 2005, this was a solid date movie. Now that we’re seven years down the line and TNT replays it ad nauseam, I’m a little bit tired of Hitch. Smith is good, though, in his only romantic comedy to date and his charisma comes through in spades.

9. Seven Pounds (2008) – Ben
I’ve only seen this movie once and to be honest, I’m no longer sure of how I actually feel about it. At the time of my viewing I was completely haunted by both the film and especially by Smith’s performance. Since that time, I’ve seen many scathing reviews of the film that have become mixed in with my own interpretation. What I do know is this: Smith KILLED IT in this role. Pretentious as the film may be, the performance was one that stuck with me for a very, very long time.

8. Hancock (2008) – John Hancock
I could have moved this one up or down the list several spots. There are parts of Hancock that I absolutely love. And then there are parts that beg for the cutting room floor. It is a slightly darker role for Smith which I greatly appreciate and that, plus a fun back-and-forth with Jason Bateman, makes this a solid movie on most days and if you’re in the right mood, it can be downright awesome.

7. Enemy of the State (1998) – Robert Clayton Dean
If this isn’t the prototypical Tony Scott film then I don’t know what is. By putting Smith on the run and teaming him with Gene Hackman, Scott gave the star a break from summer blockbuster fodder and put him a more serious (though still action-oriented) role. What holds Enemy back is the fact that I’ve always felt like Smith had trouble keeping up with Hackman and the movie suffers as a result. It has been a while since I’ve seen this, though, so perhaps it’s due for a review.

6. I, Robot (2004) – Del Spooner
I, Robot is the antithesis of Hitch for me. Whereas I enjoyed Hitch quite a bit initially but have grown tired of it over the years, I wasn’t all that enamored with Robot when it debuted but I’ve grown fonder of it since. I think the biggest issue for this one is that it was slightly ahead of its time. Many of the special effects shots just don’t work that well and with the $120 million operating budget the movie was blessed with, much more could have been done only a few years later. The storyline is strong, however, and Smith gives a good accounting of himself in a role that isn’t as easy as it might look.

5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Chris Gardner
If you think it is an uplifting tale about the power of the human spirit, then I say you’re right. And if you think it’s a cloying, over-emotional sap fest then I say you’re also right. It is both of those things and whether or not you like this film is dependent on how you respond to both sides of that coin. I personally fall into the prior group as I find Pursuit to be heartfelt and touching in spite of its obvious nature. It also brought Smith his well-deserved second Oscar nomination.

4. The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) – Bagger Vance
If anyone ever read this space, I’m sure I’d catch hell for listing Bagger Vance so far up this list. There’s a very good chance that my dad and I are literally the only humans on the planet who like this movie. Bagger Vance has been lambasted for its failed Oscar aspirations and perceived dullness but nevertheless it speaks to me. I find it to be an eloquently written, beautifully shot film that is flush with quality performances (Smith’s is GREAT in my opinion) and powerful themes. I love this movie. LOVE it. (What say you to this, mythical readers?!)

3. I Am Legend (2007) – Robert Neville
These last three could have come in any order. I Am Legend gets docked points because the special effects are weak and it doesn’t hold up quite as well after multiple viewings. What does hold up is Smith’s performance. Really and truly, I believe this is Smith’s finest work. He’s basically working alone for 70 minutes and he completely owns the screen. With better effects, I think Legend is much more well-remembered film than it is.

2. Men in Black (1997) – Agent Jay
The great thing about MIB, and what makes it hold up 15 years later, is its intelligence. At times it gets lost in all the ridiculous entertainment and wise cracking but this is a smart, smart movie. It also has a nice touch of darkness to it that I think set it apart from the average summer blockbuster of the time. Director Barry Sonnenfeld probably deserves a great deal of credit for getting Smith to expand his range a bit and accentuated his intelligence. In truth, MIB is very close to a GREAT movie.

1. Independence Day (1996) – Captain Steven Hiller
All cards on the table: I have emotional attachments to Independence Day that prevent me from looking at it objectively. I’ve been ridiculed for the high place I give this movie before and I’ve tried to look at it from its detractor’s viewpoint but I just can’t do it. I was 12 or 13 when the marketing for this movie started to make the rounds and by the time it finally opened, I was more excited for it than any other movie ever (with the exception of Jurassic Park). I still remember sitting front row on opening weekend with my cousins and when Brent Spiner popped open the alien’s chest cavity on the operating table, my brother literally jumped up and ran out of the theater in fright. It. Was. AWESOME. As such, I love this movie. I love the anachronisms (Jeff Goldblum’s computer was SUPER advanced for 1996), I love Bill Pullman’s cheesy speech (“That’s right, President Whitmore! We WON’T go quietly into the night!”), and I looooovvvvve Smith’s ridiculously fun performance. If you weren’t 13 in 1996 then I completely understand not appreciating this movie but to this day it remains on my list of favorite films and I’ll stop down to watch it just about every time I stumble across it.

So there are my rankings. Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In Home Viewings: "The Three Musketeers"

In the midst of the French Renaissance period, a young swordsman named D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) travels to Paris with the hopes of becoming a Musketeer. Brash and headstrong, within an hour of arriving in town, D’Artagnan draws the ire of Athos (Matthew Macfayden), Aramis (Luke Evans), and Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and schedules duels with each of them. Only afterward does he realize that all three are former members of the ranks he so badly wishes to join. Through a serious of exciting events, D’Artagnan soon finds himself allied with his heroes and before long, they soon discover a plot designed by Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) to destroy the delicate peace between France’s King Louis (Freddie Fox) and England’s Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). With the interest of their country in mind and an eye on settling a score with an old nemesis (Milla Jovovich), the Three Musketeers (and their new recruit) undertake a dangerous plan that will put all of their lives on the line.

Everyone knows the tale of The Three Musketeers and whether you are more familiar with Alexander Dumas’ literary work or any of the prior cinematic adaptations, you get the gist of this movie. There’s not much that is new here in the way of story and if you’ve seen the 1993 Disney movie of the same name starring Keifer Sutherland, then you should definitely know what to expect from this version. In fact, this Three Musketeers appears to be based far more faithfully on the script from 1993 than it is on Dumas’ novel. At times it plays like a shot-for-shot remake with exceedingly worse actors in the lead roles. I’m not universally opposed to remakes but I quite enjoy the ’93 version for what it is and see no reason why it needs to be updated. This begs the question: Why make this movie in the first place? Ah, but that brings us to the gimmick! In order to trick the movie up enough to give it that new car smell, the people behind The Three Musketeers have introduced outlandish technology and fighting styles to the story! By throwing in Matrix-like special effects and stuff like giant zeppelins that carry Buckingham to and from England, Paul W.S. Anderson and his team of writers bring some supposed freshness to an otherwise rehashed vision. Now it’s a brand new movie that everyone will want to see…in 3D!!!

Now here’s the rub as far as I’m concerned: I’m cool with a re-imagined take on a classic story. If Anderson and his cronies wanted to jam-pack the Three Musketeers narrative with modern technology and hip dialogue, then I would have been fine with that. (I probably wouldn’t have liked it but I could at least accept it as a nice try.) But instead of an alternative history-type film, we just get these random pieces of technology and out-of-place special effects that muddy the water and basically create an atmosphere in which the film cannot be taken seriously as either a period piece or a modern re-imagining. Very easily, The Three Musketeers could have been turned into a steampunk vision of the classic tale and at the very least that would have been worth trying. As it is, it lacks the balls to reach for anything other than what it is: thoroughly mediocre, late-night-cable, throw-away entertainment.

There are some decent moments here and there and honestly, I expected much worse in the dialogue department. This script really isn’t half-bad and it would have been enough to make The Three Musketeers at least passable if the cast wasn’t so lacking in charisma. But just as the concept lacks boldness, the actors are irritatingly middle-of-the-row. Stevenson, Evans, and Macfayden are all capable actors, while Waltz can be truly magnificent but here they are all going through the motions. (To be fair, they are light years ahead of what Lerman brings to the table. Sheesh. That kid cannot act.) There’s no charm to what they’re doing and a little charm would have gone a long way in this situation. All of this makes The Three Musketeers a sloppy, heartless endeavor that serves little purpose other than to fill a blog post during a slow week.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Trailer Spotlight: Skyfall, The Master, The Great Gatsby

Wow. This is a doozy of a week for trailers. I bring you a vast assortment of teasers, feature length, and even a faux trailer today, all of which hold some value. Let's dive right in.

Prometheus Story 3 (Never, Unfortunately)
We begin with an ingenious mix that both sates my Prometheus appetite for another week and reminds us all of the brilliance of Toy Story. Behold!

Skyfall (November 9) - Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes
In the vein of the teaser trailer for The Bourne Legacy, this first look doesn't give us just a whole lot to go off of. Still, I love the cast that Sam Mendes has brought together to surround Craig and I expect this to be outstanding. I think this is supposed to be Craig's last outing as Bond and while I found Casino Royale to be excellent, Quantum of Solace was misguided. I'd like to see Craig end his run (if in fact this is his last film in the franchise) on a high and Skyfall has that capability.

The Master (October 12) - Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
The latest from the mind of PT Anderson (There Will Be Blood) has been garnering rave reviews from the Cannes film festival and this brief clip shows why. This is Anderson's stab at either summarizing or mocking Scientology (not sure which yet) and despite how early it is, it looks like a near shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination. Phoenix is an insane talent and in the hands of a guy like Could be amazing.

The Great Gatsby (December 25) - Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Milligan
Now comes the part of the column when I get grumpy. The Great Gatsby is one of my five favorite books of all-time. Baz Luhrmann is not one of my five favorite directors of all-time. I'm going to do my best to hold out hope for this one but I'll be honest: the trailer makes me more nervous, not less.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In Home Viewings: "J. Edgar"

In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) became the director of the Bureau of Investigation and quickly began making his indelible mark on the country’s justice system. Hoover founded the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935 and maintained dictator-like control on the agency until his death in 1972. Told through the lens of an aging Hoover describing his career to an autobiographer, J. Edgar details the controversial and sometimes blatantly illegal measures Hoover took during his rise to power and paints a (literally) dark picture of a man history doesn’t look upon fondly.

If you ever want to enrage the masses of critics and amateur critics that plague the Internet these days, the surest way in which you can achieve your goal would be to create a piece of failed Oscar bait. Nothing gets a critic hot under the collar like a film that aspires to win awards but doesn’t bring the goods required to secure such attention. Even if said Oscar bait turns out to be a half-way decent film, that won’t matter because it intended to be more and therefore should be held to a higher standard. I usually rail against this viewpoint as I feel a film should be judged based on what it is not what it isn’t. In this case, however, I’m jumping on the bandwagon and will now proceed to lambast J. Edgar.

Like any year, 2011 brought us a number of truly bad films. Everyone agreed that Priest, In Time, and The Change-Up were terrible and I especially despised The Sitter. But I would contend that the makers of each of these films knew they weren’t working on the next Citizen Kane and they each gave us a movie that was up to par with the time, effort, and money spent on the project. So while one could argue that there’s no way J. Edgar is worse than The Change-Up, I would argue that given its pedigree and the maddening ways in which it wasted my time in an effort to be “substantial”, this is the worst movie of the year (or at least the worst I saw). I’m not as universally on board with Clint Eastwood’s directorial decisions as some of my colleagues are but even still, I expect a great deal more from a filmmaker of Eastwood’s ability than what he provides here.

J. Edgar is a haphazard attempt at shedding light on a controversial figure but focuses so squarely on being revelatory and shocking that it forgets to actually tell the story it sets out to tell. As a result, J. Edgar comes across as virtually toneless and painfully dull while at the same time layering itself in a pretentious importance that doesn’t measure up to the film’s protagonist (or at least he protagonist as portrayed here). The narrative, which jumps back and forth between Hoover’s last days and the events of his younger days, is structured in the most convoluted way possible. It’s as if Eastwood took the script, cut it into tiny pieces, threw it into a bag, and then pulled the pieces out one at a time and forced them together into a jumbled jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t make a lick of sense. It isn’t even that I couldn’t follow the storyline, it’s that after about 10 minutes I didn’t want to. Eastwood does nothing to make Hoover a compelling character which creates a Grand Canyon-like distance between the audience and the subject matter. On top of that, Eastwood chose to wash virtually all color out of his film resulting in a look that thoroughly matched the film’s dull tone. It is overly dark and ugly and it feeds directly into the grumpy old man perception younger viewers have of Eastwood.

For his part, DiCaprio brought his A-game to his performance and the role will do nothing but cement his stature as one of the industry’s very, very best. He appears to be all-in here and it’s just too bad that he’s completely and totally overshadowed by the miserable way in which this film is presented. Point blank, this is an awful film and only a great lead performance keeps it from taking up residence on the list of “Worst Movies Ever.” 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 5/21

The big news of the weekend was the firing of showrunner Dan Harmon from Community, the show he created in 2009. This increases the likelihood that next season's 13 episode order will be the show's final run. I'm bummed about the loss of Harmon. However, there were a number of fans across the Internet reacting to this news as if the show couldn't possibly be good without Harmon. To those fans I say, let's just wait and see. I'm not saying it's going to be great (and it certainly has been GREAT of late), I'm just saying let's watch an episode or two before passing judgment.

Aaron Sorkin has agreed to pen the Steve Jobs biopic for Sony. Now THAT is a tremendous combination. 

He may have been left out of the The Avengers but Ant-Man may receive his very own movie soon, courtesy of Edgar Wright. 

The upcoming Blade Runner film has been officially termed a sequel with original screenwriter Hampton Fancher putting together the story. The internal battle within my brain ("We don't need a Blade Runner sequel!!!" versus "Gosh, Blade Runner is amazing!!!") is beginning to pick up in intensity. 

Dan over at Fogs Movie Reviews did an excellent write-up on Jurassic Park as part of his "Movies Everyone Should See" series. Check it out!

Finally, the season finale of Saturday Night Live was this weekend and it featured a fantastic send off for Kristen Wiig who will leave the show for the greener pastures of a post-Bridesmaids world. In my opinion, Wiig is one of the most talented and versatile performers the show has ever employed and she will be greatly missed. Check out the classy farewell which brought both Kristen and myself to tears (sue me). 

Weekend Box Office Returns
The records keep piling up for Marvel’s The Avengers. The superhero flick is now the fourth highest-grossing film of all-time, bringing its total up to just over $1.18 billion worldwide along with grabbing its third straight domestic box office title. Now the only question is whether or not it can unseat Avatar and become the highest-grossing movie ever. I’m of the opinion that it cannot achieve this feat. Avatar took in over $2.7 billion during its theatrical run and $760 million on US soils. So while what The Avengers has done is EXTREMELY impressive, it would need a real boost to make a run at more than doubling its money. (I’m not entirely sure if it has debuted in all of the major worldwide markets, however. That could be just the boost I’m talking about.) Avatar also received a substantial bonus in terms of overall viewership from all the awards buzz it generated, something that I doubt The Avengers will receive. I would love to be proven wrong, however, and it’s going to be quite interesting to keep an eye on a movie I absolutely love.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers behind The Avengers and The Hunger Games continue to make their contemporaries look bad as yet another would-be blockbuster (Battleship) struggled mightily in its debut. Having not yet seen this movie, I will continue to stand my assertion that, like John Carter before it, Battleship isn’t that bad but never stood a chance given its absurd budget ($209 million). Maybe these failures will lead Hollywood to reexamine the movie-making process when it comes to this sort of film. The Dictator also underperformed relative to its budget and I guess What to Expect did about as well as it was expected to.

1. The Avengers - $55.05M ($457.07M)
2. Battleship - $25.3M
3. The Dictator - $17.41M
4. Dark Shadows - $12.77M ($50.9M)
5. What to Expect When You’re Expecting - $10.5M
6. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - $3.25M ($8.25M)
7. The Hunger Games - $3M ($391.63M)
8. Think Like a Man - $2.7M ($85.88M)
9. The Lucky One - $1.76M ($56.92M)
10. Pirates! Band of Misfits - $1.07M ($27.06M)

New to DVD
What I’ll Probably Watch at Some Point I Guess
Red Tails (2012) – Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo
*Sigh* I’d like to believe there’s a bizarro universe out there somewhere in which Red Tails is a good movie. I guess for that to happen this alternate universe would also have to include a version of George Lucas who didn’t lose his mind in 1984. The Tuskegee Airmen deserve a good movie, though, and unfortunately I cannot expect this to be that movie even if the special effects are enough to make me just interested enough to rent it at some point.

What I’m Looking Forward to Catching Up On
Sherlock: Season 2 (2012) – Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman
Next week I’ll be writing a column on the shows/movies I plan to watch over the summer. This will be involved. Stay tuned.

What I’ve Seen So You Don’t Have To
This Means War (2012) – Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy
Look, if you’re searching for a date movie that will be passable for both sexes, you could probably do worse than This Means War. (You could also do decidedly better but that’s beside the point.) It has some decent moments (most of which do not involve Witherspoon) but even at its best, it plays like a bland, mid-season episode of Chuck and while I like Chuck as a TV show, I’m not pining for it to become a movie. If you do decide to check this one out, just don’t expect much in the way of…well…anything, really.

What I’ve Seen and Quite Liked
The River: Season 1 (2012) – Joe Anderson, Bruce Greenwood, Leslie Hope
It never really found an audience during its brief run this spring but having watched all 10 episodes of The River, I think it would play quite nicely on DVD/instant streaming. The character development is nothing to write home about but the concept is very interesting and there are some genuinely scary moments throughout the series. It also wrapped up nicely, providing a satisfying conclusion while still leaving itself open for a second season pickup (which never came). If you’re a fan of Lost and need a fix this summer, I recommend a viewing.

Also New
The Secret World of Arrietty (2012) – Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Bridgit Mendler
The Woman in Black (2012) – Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciaran Hinds
Rizzoli and Isles: Season 2 (2011) – Angie Harmon, Sasha Alexander
Perfect Sense (2011) – Eva Green, Ewan McGregor

Coming to a Theater Near You
Our trio of newcomers last week didn’t fare so well at the box office but received mix reviews from the critics. Battleship made me look smart, finishing on Rotten Tomatoes with a 36% rotten rating (35% predicted). The Dictator started out the weekend in the 75% range but dropped down to a barely-fresh 60% at the time of this writing (70% prediction. And What to Expect When You’re Expecting was worse than I could have imagined, grabbing a Valentine’s Day-like 22% rating (38% prediction). I should have seen that last one coming. I have failed.

This week we get three more new offerings to the gods of Marvel. Good luck, newbies.

Men in Black 3 – Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin
After the disappearance of Agent K (TLJ), Agent J (Smith) travels back in time to the ‘60s in an effort to stop a mischievous alien. Full disclosure: I love Will Smith. I fully believe in his talent and most of his movies are a ridiculously fun. Men in Black actually holds up really, really well 15 years later and has some darker edges that make it an excellent experience. The sequel, though, is one of the worst movies of the last decade. Chances are this installment winds up somewhere in between those two extremes but if I had to guess, I’d say it’ll probably come in closer to the sequel than to the original. And that really bums me out. It’s been four years since we’ve seen Smith on the screen and still he refuses to take real chances. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 61%

Moonrise Kingdom – Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton
After a pair of pre-teens (Gilman, Hayward) run away together, a small New England town organizes a haphazard search party and executes the search accordingly. I don’t really know what else to say about Moonrise Kingdom except that I’m really, REALLY excited about this one. It’s been five years since Wes Anderson directed a live-action film (though The Fantastic Mr. Fox was excellent) and I’m looking forward to seeing the way in which his trademark style works with a bit of a different narrative. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 88%

Chernobyl Diaries – Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Dudley
A group of adventurers has their fun spoiled when they are attacked during a guided tour of Chernobyl. More often than not the combination of found-footage and the horror genre turns into a gimmicky waste of time. And yet, I find myself somewhat interested in this, in part because of the success of Chronicle (which reaffirmed my belief in the filmmaking technique) and in part because I have always been extremely interested in Chernobyl. I won’t be heading to theaters for this one but I imagine I’ll check it out at some point. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 51%

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Home Viewings: "The Sitter"

After getting kicked out of college, Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) finds himself aimlessly laying around his childhood home more often than not. When his mother’s friend needs a babysitter in order to get a night out, Noah begrudgingly takes on the task of caring for Slater (Max Records), Blithe (Landry Bender), and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez). But when his would-be girlfriend Marisa (Ari Graynor) asks him for a favor, Noah packs the kids into the family minivan and embarks on a foolhardy night of misadventures and self-discovery.

I expected very little from this film going in. I hoped for the standard “C+” level of comedy that seems to plague the industry these days and I would have been satisfied with that sort of return on my investment. After all, you cannot ask too much from a bottom of the barrel, “I’ve seen every other movie available for rent so I guess this will do” sort of movie, which is what The Sitter was for me. With expectations that low, I really didn’t think I could be too disappointed.

I was so very, very wrong.

Truth be told, this is one of the worst movies I’ve ever made it all the way through. The formula is simple: take Adventures in Babysitting, add in elements of School of Rock and then subtract all semblance of humor, fun, or general entertainment value and voila, you’ve got The Sitter. The plot is predictably brutal and paper thin but I could have accepted that if only the absurdities that Noah and his cohorts encounter throughout the course of the night had been even slightly humorous. Instead, the comedy within The Sitter plays like a film comprised of the awful moments edited out of the very worst Adam Sandler movies. As the night progresses, Noah’s shenanigans become more and more outlandish while the consequences seem to become less and less significant. I’m not opposed to ridiculous plot points in a movie like this and again, I wasn’t expecting an awards-caliber film. But what The Sitter turns into is a hodgepodge of stupid plot twists that are only vaguely connected and are never wrapped up sufficiently. It’s as if director David Gordon Green forgot about the various circumstances he puts his characters in then got bogged down in post-production and just said, “Ah, screw it” and sent it to print. (Of course, what else should I expect from the genius who brought us Your Highness and Pineapple Express?) According to this film, cherry bombs have the power to blow up a jewelry storefront but no one will be held accountable for such actions as long as the kids are in bed by 1 am. Clearly there was no point in the making of this film in which someone, anyone, stopped to think if any of this made even the slightest amount of sense. Or more importantly, if any of this was worth memorializing in film form in the first place.

The Sitter is rife with bland, sleepwalking performances that certainly do nothing to help the movie become passable. Hill is particularly uninterested but in all honesty, I can’t blame him. This was a train wreck from the moment it received the green light. Somehow, The Sitter is only 81 minutes long (it felt much closer to 256) and yet I spent the entire runtime begging myself to put an end to the madness by any means necessary. Do yourself a favor and stay far, FAR away from this shamefully stupid “film.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: "Dark Shadows"

Frequent collaborations between lead actors and directors are always a risky proposition. For every De Niro-Scorsese, there’s a Sandler-Dugan. Even when the collaboration is working, at some point both parties have to step back and question if they are working together to make great movies or if they are working together because it’s comfortable. For Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, that point is Dark Shadows.

In the mid-1700s, the son of a wealthy Maine fishing magnate, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), scorned the wrong woman, a young housekeeper named Angelique (Eva Green). Angelique, it turned out, was a witch and as a form of revenge, she destroys everything Barnabas loves, curses him to be a vampire, and then gets the townspeople to bury him in a coffin on the outskirts of town. 200 years later, Barnabas is unearthed by an unsuspecting construction crew and he returns home to find that his descendants have been reduced to only four dysfunctional members and their business has been all but obliterated by a rival company run by none other than Angelique. Seeking revenge and a way around his curse, Barnabas undertakes the task of returning the Collins name to prosperity while coming closer and closer to a woman (Bella Heathcote) who resembles his lost love.

On virtually every level, Dark Shadows is a failure. The few laughs that come along with Johnny Depp being Johnny Depp are often cheap and half-hearted, as if they were stumbled across accidentally. Every performance outside of Depp’s marginally effective turn ranges from below average (Jackie Earle Haley) to overdone (Chloe Grace Moretz) and even all the way out to full-on depressing (Michelle Pfeiffer). Honestly, Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter both present their characters with a level of devotion usually reserved for those “$1 million for one scene” roles like Marlon Brando was rumored to get at the end of his career. The script, however, is substantially worse, continually presenting the audience with lackluster dialogue and BRUTALLY BAD plot points. The overall structure of Dark Shadows is equally bad, leaving me to wonder if this was some sort of passion project for a bedridden youth whom Burton took pity on. It is an absolute mess but worse still, it is a lazy mess.

Dark Shadows is a perfect example of what happens when a filmmaker becomes complacent and stops taking chances. There is a decisive lack of the trademarked “Burton Magic” that makes films like Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and even Big Fish such enjoyable endeavors. Instead, Dark Shadows plays like someone imitating Burton. Even the darker elements, which Burton usually does so well, are so bland as to come off as borderline kitschy in the worst way possible. Worse yet, Burton’s boring and stupid film brings Depp down to that same fat cat level of complacency, miring one of the industry’s best actors in a role that has no more ambitions than to simply exist. It isn’t a bad performance and whatever good that can be taken from Dark Shadows is there because of Depp and Depp alone but it is so perfunctory that I found myself questioning whether Depp would have taken the role if it wasn’t being offered by his pal Burton. Unfortunately, this is what comes with comfort: instead of pushing themselves to achieve more, Burton and Depp have chosen to make bad movies together rather than good movies apart. In essence, there’s no difference between Burton and Depp making Dark Shadows and Michael Bay’s next blockbuster, except Bay is at least honest about the sort of movie he’s trying to make.

I’ve never seen an episode of any of the various Dark Shadows television series’ so I won’t speak to its merits in terms of whether or not it held to the tone of the show. I will say that if this is in keeping with the show, I have no idea why it was made into a movie in the first place. I was more irritated, even offended, by this movie than I have been in a long time simply because talents like Burton and Depp should not be wasted on terrible productions like this one. Dark Shadows is pointless, brainless, and worst of all ambitionless and manages to make two hours seem like a week and a half as it wallows in the apathy of going through the motions. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 5/14

This weekend was big for me, along with many other TV nerds, as NBC renewed both Community and Parks and RecreationCommunity will receive 13 episodes (which many pundits speculate will be the last of its run) and Parks will surprisingly receive a full 22 episode order. For my money, these are the two best sitcoms on television and the best network shows, period. It would have been a real shame to see either one come to an untimely end.

Both Kurt Russell and Sacha Baron Cohen have dropped out of their roles in Tarantino's Django Unchained. Walton Goggins will replace Russell. I must say I'm becoming a little concerned about this movie. Scheduled for a Christmas release, it has now lost three of the members of its impressive cast (Joseph Gordon Levitt dropped out a few weeks ago) and we're getting awful close to make-or-break time.

Jon Hamm has agreed to star in Disney's Million Dollar Arm, the true story of a sports agent who sought out Indian cricket players and brought them over to the US to play baseball. Shockingly, this will be Hamm's first starring role on the big-screen. Incredible.

The great and thoroughly underrated Sean Bean has agreed to star in a series of films based on the "Devil's Peak" trilogy of books. I'm excited for Bean not only for grabbing a starring role in a mainstream movie but also because I assume he will live through at least the first two movies which would be the longest streak of his career.

Cinema Blend gives us a pretty great list of heroes who should see playing time in the sequel to The Avengers.

My colleague Matt at Cinema Slants did a really nice piece on "The Migration of the Epic" from film to television. Check it out.

Weekend Box Office Results
The hits keep on comin’ for The Avengers. After its record SHATTERING opening weekend, the film added another $100 million to its total on these shores and crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide. That places it at the eleventh spot on the list of all-time, highest grossing films and it has only been out for 15 days. One more little fun fact: the $103 million that The Avengers scored in this, its second week in theaters, would have registered as the 19th largest OPENING WEEKEND ever.

So now my question is: When does Firefly season two kick-off?

1. The Avengers - $103.16M ($373.18M)
2. Dark Shadows - $28.8M
3. Think Like a Man - $6.3M ($81.91M)
4. The Hunger Games - $4.4M ($386.9M)
5. The Lucky One - $4.05M ($53.72M)
6. The Pirates! Band of Misfits - $3.2M ($23.1M)
7. The Five-Year Engagement - $3.1M ($24.37M)
8. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - $2.65M ($3.72M)
9. Chimpanzee - $1.62M ($25.58M)
10. Girl in Progress - $1.35M

New to DVD
What I’ve Seen and You Should, Too
Chronicle (2012) – Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan
It’s been swallowed up by all the hoopla surrounding The Hunger Games and The Avengers but Chronicle was the first hit of the year. This is a very, VERY well made film and perfectly exemplifies the way in which the found footage technique should be used. This is by far the most worthwhile rental option to come through this space in a while.

What I’m Not Sold On
The Grey (2012) – Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo
There are a lot of critics I really respect who went head over heels for The Grey when it debuted in January. I can understand the appeal as this is a much deeper experience than what you might expect after seeing the trailers. But while I thought there were some great moments, I wasn’t as impressed. In fact, it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that has gotten worse over time. Neeson is great, the concept is ambitious but the finished product isn’t a favorite of mine.

What I Hope None of You Will See
One for the Money (2012) – Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, John Leguizamo
This is the second time in three weeks that I’ve used the “What I Hope None of You Will See” moniker, the last usage referring to New Year’s Eve. Katherine Heigl was in both of those movies. I’ll let you connect the dots.

Also New
Albert Nobbs (2012) – Glenn Close, Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska
The Devil Inside (2012) – Fernanda Andrade, Simon Quarterman, Evan Helmuth
Rampart (2011) – Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver
Hell on Wheels: Season 1 (2011) – Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common

Blu-Ray Pick of the Week or Whenever I Feel Like It
Father of the Bride I and II (1991, 1995) – Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short
These films are a little on the fluffy, cheesy side of things but I’ve got a soft spot for both of them, mostly due to the combination of Martin and Short which is always (ALWAYS) top-notch. I caught part of the first movie on cable recently and I thought it held up pretty darn well for being 20 years old.

Also New to Blu
Being John Malkovich Criterion Collection (1999) – John Cusack, Cameron Diaz
Romancing the Stone/Jewel of the Nile (1984, 1985) – Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner
Before and After (1996) – Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Edward Furlong
White Squall (1996) – Jeff Bridges, Caroline Goodall
Duets (2000) – Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis
Bringing Down the House (2003) – Steve Martin, Queen Latifah
There were a number of Blu-ray selections this week that ranged from “thoroughly mediocre” to “downright awful” in nature. Be sure to check Amazon if there’s a horrible movie you’ve been waiting for on Blu-Ray; this might be your lucky week.

Coming to a Theater Near You
Dark Shadows put an end to my recent hot streak, finishing with a Rotten rating at 41% (compared to my 61% prediction). Having seen it, I think 41% is pretty generous because (SPOILER ALERT) I found it to be a lazy piece of trash. Ugh.

This week, three new mainstream challengers will step up to the plate and I suspect The Avengers will send them all away in ruthless fashion.

Battleship – Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Rianna
A fleet of Navy ships is the only thing that stands between a massive alien force and the destruction of the world as we know it. Battleship is basically Peter Berg channeling Michael Bay. I can’t imagine any way that this movie will be GOOD but I will say this in its defense: I believe at least a third of the hatred being thrown in the direction of this movie would disappear if it wasn’t “based” on a board game. Seriously, if the origins weren’t so simple and ridiculous, would anyone get up in arms about Battleship weeks and months before it even opens? I don’t think so. Regardless, it can’t be good but I imagine I’ll find myself at a showing before it’s all said and done. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 35%

What to Expect When You’re Expecting – Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Chris Rock, et al
A group of couples experience the ups and downs of having a child. The only positive thing I can say about this movie is that it doesn’t look as bad as Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. I realize that’s not saying much but it’s all I can muster. I really wish I could go back in time and prevent the genuinely talented people involved with this film (Anna Kendrick, Chris Rock, Elizabeth Banks) from signing on. I don’t know, I guess it could be alright, I just hate this type of film. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 38%

The Dictator – Sacha Baron Cohen, Ana Faris, Ben Kingsley, John C. Reilly
The well-known dictator (SBC) of a hypothetical country in the Middle East is stranded and forced to do menial tasks in New York City. For months, I have operated under the assumption that there’s no way The Dictator could possibly be good. And yet…here we sit, on the eve of the film’s debut, and darnit if it doesn’t look better and better with each trailer. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 70%

Friday, May 11, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Haywire"

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is not someone you want to mess with. A freelance special agent who performs a wide assortment of dangerous jobs from assassinations to rescue missions, Kane is one of the world’s best at what she does. After a job in Barcelona goes somewhat awry, Kane is immediately sent on a follow-up mission along with fellow covert agent Paul (Michael Fassbender). But as the job winds down, Kane realizes she has been double-crossed and that her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), has tasked Paul with killing her. Kane escapes her fate and returns to the US with nothing on her mind beyond revenge.

What you have to appreciate about director Steven Soderbergh is that, for better or worse, you never know what to expect from him. In a span of nine months, he will have released three films (Contagion, Haywire, and the upcoming Magic Mike) and all three are dramatically different. Contagion was all about narrative (even if it was a narrative I found to be exceedingly boring), Haywire is a straight action movie, and Magic Mike is…well…the weirdest career choice Soderbergh could have possibly made. The point is, Soderbergh isn’t a director that has a distinct style that you can pinpoint from the beginning of a given film and he’s always capable of turning out a fantastic, unique experience.

Haywire isn’t exactly that transcendent film that I always feel like Soderbergh is capable of but for what it is, it’s not half bad. What you see in the trailers for this movie is what you get: all action, all the time. There is very little here in the way of plot or character development and from that perspective, I think Haywire succeeds in doing what it set out to do. It lives up to its promise to be exactly the type of throw-away action movie that you want to watch at home after a hard day’s work. Nothing gets in the way of Carano cracking skulls and beating down dudes twice her size from the outset and there’s no time wasted on mixing in the lazy plot points that you might expect from this sort of movie in the hands of a lesser director. For this, I am appreciative.

For their part, each member of the cast gives a quality performance. In addition to the aforementioned headliners, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, and Channing Tatum all lend themselves to Haywire for a few minutes and each plays his role well. There’s nothing spectacular taking place on screen but for me it was enough that the actors didn’t seem to be mailing this in. Haywire always seemed like a “between projects” sort of movie that was thrown together in a relatively short period of time; those movies usually come across as paycheck jobs but this one displays solid effort from both the on-screen and off-screen talent. Even Carano, a professional MMA fighter with no prior acting experience, gives a better experience than I could have ever expected. I’m not sure you can really call it “acting” since she’s basically just doing her MMA bit against actors instead of actual fighters but she displays a bit of charm and a knack for bringing realism to her role. Add in a score reminiscent of the Ocean’s movies and you’ve got a decent-enough action film that doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t and which packs a modest punch.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Trailer Spotlight: "Gangster Squad", "Argo", "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Beasts of the Southern Wild (July 5) - Quvenzhane Willis, Dwight Henry
I must admit, I have no idea what the crap is happening in this trailer...but I'm intrigued. A festival darling that tore it up at Sundance, Beasts has garnered a great deal of attention for itself of late and if the early takes are to be believed, little miss Willis is just fantastic. Most of us probably won't get a chance to see this until it hits DVD or Netflix Instant but I'm looking forward to it.

Argo (October 12) - Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman
There's no doubt that Argo is a bit of a risky project. The story isn't one that most people (read: "anyone") are familiar with, the plot is a bit convoluted, and it represents the first time Affleck has taken a film outside of Boston. But after watching the trailer, let me give you three reasons why I'm excited about Argo: 1.) Ben Affleck makes good movies. Say what you want about him as an actor, his previous directorial efforts (The Town and Gone Baby Gone) are both excellent. 2.) John Goodman is a boss. We need more John Goodman in our daily lives. 3.) You have to love a movie that uses "Dream On", one of the greatest rock songs of all-time, in the trailer. I'm in.

Gangster Squad (October 19) - Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Wow. Talk about ambitious! From the director of Zombieland comes...well...a really hardcore but stylized gangster movie. Movie nerds like myself have been looking forward to our first look at this one for a while and now that I've seen it, I'll say the same thing I've been saying about Gangster Squad since it was announced: if Ruben Fleischer pulls this off, it will be a game changer. It's the type of film that could send Hollywood scrambling to greenlight similar projects. But will it work? It's hard to say. Fleischer has directed two films: the aforementioned Zombieland, which I love, and last year's 30 Minutes or Less which is a bloody disaster of a film that gets worse every time I catch a minute of it on Starz. Plus, we've had a fair share of these dark, noir gangster-related films over the years and many of them haven't fared well. But I am in love with this cast (fantastic job on that front) and this trailer gives the impression that Gangster Squad could be outstanding.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: "The Avengers"

The formulation of The Avengers represents one of the greatest undertakings in the history of the industry, that being the tying together of five films and four separate franchises into one, cohesive, behemoth of a movie that combines elements from all of the previous entries. It was a risky formula but one that has clearly been proven worthwhile and could (read: “will”) change the landscape of how studios approach their tentpole franchises while forcing critics and would-be critics like me to reevaluate what the term “summer blockbuster” really means.

We begin shortly after the events of Captain America at a secret facility operated by SHIELD, a government agency tasked with preserving the world’s safety from otherworldly attacks. Enter Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a Nordic demi-god cast out of his home in Asgard, who uses an ultra-powerful device to transport himself from the depths of space in order to exact his revenge upon the earth. Sensing a need for greater allies, SHIELD leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) implements “The Avengers Initiative” which calls the universe’s greatest heroes to action. Fury assembles a team that includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and tasks them with bringing down Loki before his evil plans can come to fruition. But with Stark and Thor clashing and Banner and Rogers unsure of their gifts, the question becomes whether or not anyone can put a stop to the lurking menace that Loki would bring into our world.

The amount of nerdy awesomeness contained within The Avengers is almost too much for me to handle. Like a good film adaptation of a beloved book, The Avengers works in concert with the preceding films of the Marvel universe while providing enough information to keep anyone unfortunate enough to have missed out on the other films from being left completely in the dark. Our reintroductions to Stark, Thor, and the rest are concise, providing a catch-up with where our heroes have been since last we saw them and laying the groundwork for the challenges ahead. But while character development is a key to why this movie works (more on this in a bit), I greatly appreciate the fact that writer/director Joss Whedon (and his writing partner Zak Penn) doesn’t spoon feed the audience with an hour of lead-up to establish the characters. Instead, he starts us where each character left-off and trusts that anyone who hasn’t seen the previous films is smart enough to pick up on their various personalities and abilities. As a result, The Avengers is able to get right down to business and spend 140 minutes rocking the audiences’ collective face off.

Basically from the word go, this movie is a rapid-fire thrill-ride that wastes no time in jumping right into the fray and mixing it up with Marvel’s biggest names. We jump from place to place as Loki wreaks havoc and the Avengers come together and quickly come to the big question at the center of the film: can all of these guys come together as one or are their combined powers simply too volatile to be put together? As pointed out by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg in his near-iconic role), they need a rallying cry, a unifying event, which they receive when Loki attacks the SHIELD headquarters and nearly destroys the team before they can ever come together. From that point on, The Avengers turns into a smorgasbord of rip-roaring action sequences that would make Michael Bay salivate but is peppered with the witty, genuinely hilarious dialogue that keeps the laughs coming almost as frequently as the CGI explosions.

The thing that really sets The Avengers apart from virtually any other lighthearted popcorn flick that has come down the chute is the near-perfect script that Whedon and Penn put together. All of the previous Marvel films (the Iron Man films in particular) have featured comedy as a major part of their respective make-up but Whedon takes that to all new level. He never misses a chance to insert a joke and his cast delivers them in such a way that even the would-be cheesy one-liners come across as inspired. As King of the Nerds, it’s obvious that Whedon not only understands the universe in which his film takes place but also the psychology of each of his characters and maybe more importantly, the mind of the nerd, his constituent. Even still, instead of relying on the fanboys to be the sole source of support and gearing his film entirely towards that audience, Whedon crafts a beautifully paced, highly entertaining film that should appeal to just about anyone who isn’t AO Scott. Likewise, the cast of The Avengers appear to be completely invested in their characters and the film as a whole. Each actor is fully on-board for the ensemble-like approach to creating this film which is absolutely vital to its success. All of them (and I really do mean every single player in the main cast) give performances that are worth noting individually.

I had two big question marks concerning the cast and characters coming into The Avengers. For one, I wondered about the addition of Mark Ruffalo. I’ve never been a big fan of Ruffalo and The Hulk almost seemed like a cursed character coming in. But from the outset, Whedon and Ruffalo work in conjunction to turn Banner/Hulk into a much deeper, more impressive character than I could have ever imagined. In truth, for me The Hulk is probably this film’s most bankable player, a shocking statement considering how highly I think of RDJ and Tony Stark. The Avengers almost represents a story of redemption for a beloved comic book hero who’s never had much luck on the big screen. Second, I was genuinely concerned about whether or not Loki was up to the task of hanging with this team. In 2011’s Thor, I thought Hiddleston gave a good performance but that his character was weak and as we all know, a great superhero is only as good as the villain who opposes him. With a remarkable group of heroes like this one, you need a compelling villain and while Loki isn’t up to par with the best of the best, he is more than capable of holding his own in this setting. I give Whedon a great deal of credit for taking a lackluster character and making him substantially more relevant and menacing and this stands as just another example of how impressive Whedon’s work here really and truly is.

Any way you slice it, The Avengers is a massive achievement that will have a decisive impact on the culture of Hollywood in the years to come. Like Inception and The Dark Knight before it, this is a film that seems to suggest that it’s no longer enough for a film like Transformers to provide a bunch of explosions and grab a chunk of cash while drawing the wrath of critics and audience members alike and still be deemed a legitimate blockbuster. The Avengers is an absurdly entertaining film that forcefully lays claim to its spot among the elite summer blockbusters, along with the aforementioned Nolan films, Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park.