Monday, December 22, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - 1 1/2 stars

The third movie in the Hobbit trilogy is like watching someone else play a video game.  It’s maybe 20 minutes of story stretched into a two and a half hour movie.  Most of the running time consists of a giant battle between dwarves, elves, humans, and orcs.  The entire time, I just kept wishing Bilbo Baggins would just quietly sneak away and go home. 

When we left Bilbo and company in the last movie, The Desolation of Smaug, they had found their way into the mountain and awakened the dragon Smaug.  Now Smaug is attacking nearby Laketown and killing everyone he can.  Bard the Boatman is the only one who can stop Smaug, and he’ll have to break out of prison first. 

The fight with Smaug is the most exciting part of this movie.  Unfortunately, Smaug is dealt with in the first 10 minutes.  After that, the survivors of the town need a place to stay.  Bard decides that the Lonely Mountain is the best place for them.  Also, Thorin promised them he would split the treasure with them so they want some of that.  But Thorin is starting to develop dragon sickness, which basically means he’s paranoid and thinks everyone else wants to steal the treasure for themselves.  So he refuses to let the humans in.  Then the elves show up, and they want some of the treasure too.  Just as the humans and elves are about to attack the dwarves, an army of orcs show up.  They fight for a couple of hours and then the movie mercifully ends.

Remember how cool the Battle of Helm’s Deep was in The Two Towers?  That was something we’d never seen before.  The scale of it was incredible, and the special effects were amazing.  But it didn’t go on for too long, and we cared about what happened to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.  Then Peter Jackson thought he had to top that battle in Return of the King.  So we got the battle for Minas Tirith which went on way too long  But once again, we knew and cared about the characters involved.  And the movie was about more than just that battle.  We had Sam and Frodo’s journey to get back to.
In this third Hobbit movie, there’s nothing else going on.  The battle is it.  And Bilbo was just in the background most of the time.  It’s hard to care about the outcome of a battle when you barely know the characters involved.  I’m not even sure who the five armies are.  There are humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs. 

I’m sure Peter Jackson wants us to care about the love triangle between the dwarf, the female elf, and Legolas.  And I’m sure he wants us to care about Thorin Oakenshield and whether he’ll come to his senses.  But I didn’t.  I just wanted the movie to end.

As with the first two Hobbit movies, the laws of physics don’t apply.  Characters jump and swing 30 feet in the air and land safely.  If something big is about to fall on our heroes, it misses them by a few inches.  At one point, Legolas is on a collapsing bridge.  As he runs, blocks are falling out underneath his feet, but he is still able to run and jump to safety.  The blocks are suspended in the air just long enough for him to step on them.  You’ll know it when you see it.  The movie has turned into Super Mario Bros.

I remember an interview where Peter Jackson was talking about the challenges of writing The Lord of the Rings.  He said whenever they were unsure how to structure the movies, they just focused on Frodo.  His quest to destroy the ring was the central focus of the movies.  Bilbo Baggins should have been the focus of these Hobbit movies.  But it seems like he was just a supporting character, which is a shame because Martin Freeman was a great choice for Bilbo.  I would love to see all three of these movies edited down to a 100 minute movie with Bilbo as the focus.  I’m sure someone will create a fan edit on youtube that will be way better than this trilogy.

The more I think about this movie, the more annoyed I get.  The first two were overly long, but at least the characters were on a journey.  There was a story there, and I wanted to find out what was coming next.  This time, the story feels wrapped up when Smaug is killed.  Then we have to sit there for two hours and watch these armies fight.  I’m not anxious to watch the first two movies again, but I could never sit through this one again.

Annie - 2 stars

Instead of the 1930s, this Annie is set in Harlem in 2014.  Annie (Quevanzhane Wallis) is a tough kid living in a foster home with several other girls.  The foster home is run by Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who doesn’t do much but drink all day and yell at the kids.  Instead of Daddy Warbucks, Annie is taken in by cell phone tycoon Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), who’s also running for mayor.  His staff thinks that taking in a foster kid will help his image.

One of the things that bugged me in this movie was the music.  First of all, they didn’t include very many of the songs from the original.  A few are there, but they’ve been remixed and given more of a hip hop beat.  Most of the songs were written for this version, and they aren’t very memorable.  And none of these actors should be doing a musical.  Wallis is cute and sounds ok, and Jamie Foxx has a good voice, but the rest are embarrassing. 

The story isn’t bad, and the scenes between Annie and Will Stacks are sweet.  Of course he starts off as kind of a jerk, and by the end he loves Annie.  Their scenes together have heart and there are some genuine laughs.  But aside from that, the movie doesn’t have anything else going for it.  Stacks’ assistant (Rose Byrne) has a crush on him for some reason, and his campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) is a boring jerk.  When a couple pretends to be Annie’s parents show up and take her away, it takes like five minutes before she’s rescued.

But the worst thing about this movie is the casting of Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan.  Diaz is a good actor when she’s given the right material, but she’s all wrong here.  Anyone they cast would have had a hard time comparing to Carol Burnett, but Cameron Diaz?  Really?

Wild - 3 1/2 stars

Based on the bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, this is about how Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles by herself as a way to overcome her demons.  After losing her mother to cancer, she became a heroin addict and ruined her marriage.  So the hike was like a form of therapy or a spiritual cleanse for her.

Reese Witherspoon gives her best performance in years as Cheryl.  As the movie opens, she’s sitting on a mountain and taking her boots off.  Her boots are too tight, and one of her toenails is almost completely ripped off.  She accidentally loses a boot, and after yelling a very appropriate obscenity, she hurls the other boot down the mountain.

As she hikes along the Pacific Coast Trail, we learn about her past through flashbacks.  We see her relationship with her mother, and we see how devastating a loss that was for her.  We see her starting to hook up with random guys and getting into drug use, and the effect that has on her husband. 

She wasn’t an experienced hiker when she began the journey, and she does things like bringing the wrong kind of fuel for her camp stove or running out of water.  But the most dangerous encounters are with other hikers.  Some are friendly and happy to help, others not so much.  As a man, I don’t normally give much thought to what it must be like to be a woman and on your own.  But watching this movie, I felt her fear whenever she encountered a man and had to figure out his intentions.  The encounter that sticks with me the most is when she ran into two hikers right after running out of water.  A couple of simple jokes about her being by herself and very attractive make her nervous and uncomfortable, and she can’t relax until she’s sure they have left her alone.

The movie did a good job of showing Cheryl’s transformation without hitting you over the head with it.  There’s no big emotional moment where the soundtrack swells and she has some profound realization, like in Eat, Pray, Love.  Although to be honest, I don’t remember Eat, Pray, Love that well but I’m pretty sure there was some sappy over the top stuff like that. 

In this movie, I don’t even remember much of a soundtrack.  Sometimes less is more, and this movie has a stripped down quality, that makes it even more profound and life-affirming.  This is a really good movie.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 - 3 1/2 stars

This is the third movie in the Hunger Games series.  Based on the first half of the third book – the second half, and fourth movie, will be released in a year – this is the best Hunger Games movie so far.  The games are over and now the rebellion is preparing to go to war against the capital.

I wasn’t a big fan of the first movie.  I thought the story idea was good and I enjoyed the buildup to the games, but once they got to the actual games, I started to lose interest.  The games just weren’t exciting enough to live up to all the buildup.  The second movie was ok, but once again, the second half of the movie was just more games. 

In this movie, things start to get really interesting.  Katniss has been saved by the rebels after she destroyed the arena in the last movie.  She’s taken to District 13 where the rebels have been living and hiding under the direction of President Coin (Julianne Moore).  The rebels are trying to mobilize the districts to unite and fight against the capital, and they want Katniss to be the Mockingjay, the symbol that will unite and inspire everyone to fight.

At first, it doesn’t go well.  Katniss realizes they want to use her the same way President Snow used her, as propaganda.  She hates President Snow, but she’s more concerned about the safety of her friends and family than she is with the upcoming war.  More than anything, she wants to rescue Peeta, who was captured after the events of the last movie. 

After giving President Coin some terms, she finally agrees.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to direct Katniss for a propaganda video.  She’s supposed to be holding a flag and giving a speech after being in a battle, and it just doesn’t feel authentic.  Katniss may have been through hell, but she can’t really act.  Heavensbee soon realizes that they’re going to have to film her in actual dangerous situations in order to get what they want out of her.  As the message gets out, the districts start fighting back. 

I really enjoyed this movie, and I wasn’t expecting to.  Once again, Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of carrying the movie.  Katniss is an interesting character and it’s easy to empathize with her situation.  And even though this is only the first half of the last book, it has a beginning, middle, and end.  It doesn’t feel like they stretched it into two movies just to make more money off the franchise.

For the first time, I am looking forward to the next Hunger Games movie.  I just hope MockingJay – Part 2 can live up to expectations.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To - 2 1/2 stars

It’s hard to review a movie like Dumb and Dumber To.  I like the first movie, but partly that’s because I’ve seen it so many times over the years.  The characters and their lines are familiar to me.  I don’t know if I would like it as much if I hadn’t watched it over and over with friends.  It’s one of those movies that my friends and I can quote to each other.  It’s kind of like The Big Lebowski in that respect.

Supposedly the studio wanted to make a sequel in the early 2000s, but Jim Carrey wasn’t willing.  So instead we got Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.  Remember that movie?  Me neither.  So now we finally get to see Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey reprise their roles as Harry Dunn and Lloyd Christmas.   

Harry needs a new kidney, and at first he turns to his parents to see if they’re a match.  To his surprise, they tell him that he’s adopted.  They’re Asian, you see.  Then he finds out that he has a daughter he never knew about.  So he goes to find his daughter to reconnect, but also to ask for a kidney.  So we have another road trip, and Harry and Lloyd get mixed up with a scientist whose wife is trying to kill him. 

But the plot doesn’t really matter.  Did you ever care about whether Mary Swanson’s husband was alright?  No, we just want to see Harry and Lloyd do and say funny things.  There is a lot of that in this movie, but not as much as there should have been. 

I thought Carrey and Daniels did a good job.  They still look like these characters, although Jeff Daniels looks like he’s aged more than Jim Carrey does.  They throw themselves into these parts and it’s nice seeing these characters again.  But there were too many scenes where I was waiting to laugh and the jokes just didn’t land.

I guess I can’t quite recommend this movie.  If you love the first movie, you’ll probably like this one.  It isn’t as good, but there’s fun to be had here.  Just lower your expectations a little.  But if you don’t like the first movie, I don’t think you’ll like this one much either.

Force Majeure - 2 stars

A Swedish family is on a skiing vacation in the French Alps.  One day during lunch, they’re caught in an avalanche.  The mother grabs the two kids while the father grabs his cell phone and sunglasses and runs for it.  It turns out it was a controlled avalanche, and they weren’t in any danger.  What they thought was a mountain of snow coming towards them was mostly snow dust which dissipates within a minute.  But the damage is done. 

After the event, the family is quiet.  No one says anything, but they all know something big just happened.  It’s not until the parents are having drinks with another couple that the wife says what’s been on her mind.  She can’t believe that her husband’s first instinct was to save himself rather than his children. 

For the rest of the movie, they continue to discuss what happened.  There are long stretches of beautiful scenery – this movie really makes me want to visit the French Alps – but nothing much happens.  Sometimes there’s a good five minutes with no dialogue.  At some point, I started to get really bored with this movie.  It seemed like I was watching them have the same conversation over and over without really getting anywhere.

The performances were good.  It’s really interesting to watch these characters change.  At the start of the movie, they looked like the perfect family.  By the end, both parents are a mess.  At one point, the mother wants to go spend the day skiing by herself so she can get away from her husband and think. 

I feel like this would have made for a good short film.  There’s maybe enough here to sustain 10 or 15 minutes.  But the movie is two hours long, and it was really a chore to get through.  

Interstellar - 3 stars

In the near future, Earth is slowly becoming inhabitable.  Dust storms seem to happen all the time, and it’s getting harder and harder to grow crops.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) used to be a NASA test pilot but now he’s a farmer.  His wife died some years before, and now his father in law (John Lithgow) helps him raise his kids. 

One day Cooper and his daughter Murph discover the secret location of NASA.  It seems in this future society, all resources are devoted to growing crops, so the public isn’t interested in funding for NASA.  They also aren’t interested in electronics anymore, so Apple is probably no longer a going concern.  Anyway, NASA asks Cooper to join their mission of going into space and looking for a new planet.  They know it won’t be long before all life on Earth is dead, so if the human race is to survive, it needs a new planet to inhabit.

First off, I’ll mention what I didn’t like about this movie.  The first half hour felt really clunky to me.  It would have been nice to learn more about what life is like for these people.  Cooper lives in what looks like a small farming town in the Midwest.  But what is life like in big cities?  What was the transition like from the early 2000s to life in this movie?  How far in the future is it?  It seems like it’s only 20 years or so, since Cooper can remember a time when people were interested in things like electronics and looking up to the stars. 

Also, the people don’t look like they are living in any kind of a dystopian future.  Their clothes are clean and look brand new, and their teeth are white and straight.  Besides discussing what crops won’t grow, it seems the only problem they have to deal with is wiping dust off the table now and then.

The dialogue was bad and the first part of the story was very rushed.  The way they discover NASA and their plan seemed way too simple.  NASA already has a plan for the mission, and when Cooper shows up, they say “Oh, you were the best pilot we ever had.  Now that you know what’s going on, you need to lead the mission.”  If it was so important to have him on board, wouldn’t NASA have tried to find him and ask him to join? 

Once they leave Earth, the movie gets much better.  They plan to use a wormhole to get to another galaxy, and they already have potential planets in mind that they’re supposed to visit.  They don’t really know where the wormhole came from, but they know where it’s going to take them.  In order to get to the wormhole, which is located near Saturn, they’ll have to travel for two years.  I won’t spoil anything that happens after that. 

The effects in this movie are incredible.  The scene where they pass through the wormhole is just cool.  It made me think of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In fact, there were a lot of things in this movie that made me think of 2001.  I’m sure that was a big inspiration to Christopher Nolan, and while this movie isn’t up to that level, it’s still pretty well done.  It’s a very intelligent science fiction movie. 

I have my reservations, but I’m still recommending the movie.  It really demands to be seen on the big screen.  I’m reminded of the way I felt the first time I saw Avatar.  It’s an incredible achievement, but the story could have used a little work.  It’s long and exhausting, but I’m glad I saw it.

Big Hero 6 - 3 stars

Based on the Marvel comic, the story is set in the futuristic hybrid metropolis called San Fransokyo.  A young robotics prodigy named Hero and his robot Baymax uncover a criminal plot and pull together a team of inexperienced crime-fighters to defeat a masked supervillain.

It’s an interesting idea to make a Marvel superhero movie as a Disney animated movie.  If it were live action, I’m sure Baymax would not be quite so cute and huggable.  But Disney knows that Baymax will be a huge selling point to young kids.  For slightly older kids, they’ll get a kick out of the action and technology.  The members of the team don’t have superpowers.  Instead, Hero invents suits they wear that give them their abilities. 

As a superhero movie, it wasn’t terribly original.  After all the super movies we’ve been getting over the last several years, I felt like I’ve seen the movie before.  It’s no surprise who the villain turns out to be, or what his plan is.  However, I did like the twist that the heroes were kids.  I think kids will be able to identify with Hero and his friends easier than someone like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne.

The powers they get are pretty cool.  One has these discs she uses as wheels and as weapons.  One has laser swords that come out of his arms, and they look like the sword in Halo.  And one has a suit that looks like Godzilla, with claws and fire breath.

As an animated movie, it worked.  It had a good amount of humor and action.  I took my nieces and nephews (ages 5 to 10), and they all loved the movie.  Personally I have a hard time getting that into animated movies, but this one kept my interest.  Probably my biggest complaint was that it was too long.  It was two hours, and animated movies usually work best when they’re under 90 minutes.

Overall I enjoyed the movie.  It’s definitely a good choice if you’re taking the whole family.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - 3 stars

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up Hollywood actor.  He played the superhero Birdman but walked away from the franchise after three movies.  Now he’s trying to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. 

The movie takes place over a few days while the play is in previews.  When a cast member is injured, he brings in the famous method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who Riggan can’t stand.  He’s also dealing with his girlfriend who may be pregnant, his high strung agent (Zach Galifianakis), and his daughter (Emma Stone), who resents him for being an absent father most of her life.

There are a lot of things I liked about this movie, most of all Michael Keaton’s performance.  He’s appeared in some supporting roles over the years, but this is the first big starring role he’s had in years.  And he’s great in this movie.  He has a lot of emotions he gets to play.  Sometimes he talks to himself, and this is portrayed by his Birdman character talking to him.  Sometimes we just hear the voice, sometimes Birdman appears in the scene with Riggan.  It could easily look ridiculous, seeing him having a serious conversation with a guy in a bird costume.  But Michael Keaton pulls it off.

I also liked the behind the scenes stuff.  Most of the action in the movie takes place in the dressing rooms or backstage, so we get to see a lot of the actors walking around the sets and rehearsing the play.  The fights between Riggan and Mike were also pretty funny.  Mike is such a method actor that if he’s drinking in a scene, there better be real alcohol in his glass.  If Riggan points a gun at him in a scene, he better not be able to tell it’s a plastic gun.

I did have some reservations though.  For one thing, the movie is shot in such a way that it looks like it’s all one take.  It was actually a bunch of long takes cut together, but those shots sometimes get tiring.  We’ll be in the dressing room with Riggan, then he walks out into the hallway and the camera follows him through the hallways.  Then we might pass by Mike walking the other direction and the camera will start following him.  It will stay with Mike as he enters another room and starts talking to someone else.

This is all very cool, but after a while it distracted from the story.  It feels too much like the director was trying to show off and cover for the lack of plot.  There’s enough plot for a 90 minute movie, but this was just over two hours, and it could have been shorter.  I got bored a few times, and I was ready for the movie to end at least 20 minutes before it did.

Also, I think the movie was made to be really grand and dramatic.  The music, camera angles, and the stuff that happens at the end is supposed to be really emotionally impactful, and it didn’t have that effect on me.  The movie is nowhere near as deep as it’s trying to be, and I wish the director hadn’t tried so hard to make it so big.  I think the word I’m looking for here is pretentious.  I guess in the end, the movie just left me cold.

It’s a close call, but I’m still recommending the movie despite my reservations.  It’s original and interesting, and Michael Keaton’s performance is enough to make it worth watching.

Before I Go To Sleep - 1 1/2 stars

Every morning, Christine wakes up with no memory.  She doesn’t know where she is, and she doesn’t know the man in the bed next to her.  Each day, her husband Ben explains to her that she has a form of amnesia.  Every night when she goes to sleep, she loses that day’s memories.  It’s been like this for 10 years, since she had a bad accident.

When he goes to work, she gets a call from a doctor.  He explains that he’s been treating her.  He tells her to go to the closet and find the camera.  She’s been recording a diary for herself every day so she can bring herself up to speed.

This is a good story idea, but it’s terribly executed.  The movie really drags and it has no good scenes.  I kept waiting for something interesting to happen.  The only thing that kept my interest was wanting to know how it turns out.  As she learns more about her situation, she starts to think that her husband may be lying to her. 

One thing that bugged me was the doctor’s role in all this.  Where did he come from?  Who hired him?  More importantly, who’s been paying him?  He doesn’t seem to know anything about [leaving out the spoiler] so how did he get involved? 

Think about that if you see the movie.  But don’t see the movie.  It isn’t very good.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ouija - 1 1/2 stars

Is it too much to ask for an original horror movie?  Or at least one with characters that are actually three dimensional?  With dialogue that doesn’t suck?

Here’s the story:  a girl uses a Ouija board, summons an evil spirit and is killed.  Then her friends decide to use the same Ouija board to try and contact her.  They summon the same evil spirit, and they’re killed off one by one.  Along the way, they consult a crazy old woman in an insane asylum who knows what’s going on and how to stop it.  This involves finding a hidden room in the basement of the old house where many years before, a family was killed …

After the initial killing, the movie is really boring for about a half hour.  There are a couple of minor scares, but mostly we’re watching forgettable characters with nothing interesting to say to each other.  The climax of the movie is exciting for about five minutes, and there was one thing that happened that really freaked me out.  But otherwise, I was just bored.

It’s funny how out of nowhere, the main character’s old housekeeper knows exactly what to do.  We’ve only seen her a couple times in the movie and we get no backstory on her.  But because every horror movie needs a character like that, she’s the one who can tell the kids how to stop the evil spirit.

If all you’re looking for is a scary movie to make you jump a few times, this will do the trick.  But that’s all the movie has going for itself.

John Wick - 3 stars

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired assassin.  He settled down and got married.  As the story begins, his wife has just died.  Before she checked out, she got him a puppy as a gift.  Now that puppy is all he has left in the world.  Well, that and his car.  When Russian mobsters (isn’t it always Russian mobsters?) steal his car and kill his dog, he’s going to get revenge. 

This movie was a lot of fun.  There’s a ton of shooting and bloodshed, and it’s all done with a great visual style.  Keanu Reeves plays this type of character really well.  He doesn’t have to emote much, just grunt and look pissed off. 

There were so many things to like in this movie.  There’s the crew that comes in to clean up the bodies after a shootout.  There’s the way he has a stash of gold coins, and that’s what he uses to pay everyone.  There’s the hotel where gangsters and criminals go to socialize.  The hotel is like a fraternity, and one of the rules is no business is to be conducted on hotel property.  Ian McShane has a couple of nice scenes as Winston, the enforcer at the hotel.

But my favorite scene is the one where Viggo Tarasov (the head of the Russian mobsters) finds out it’s John Wick who’s after his son – his son Iosef is the one who killed John’s dog.

I know I’m sometimes hard on movies if they aren’t original.  This is definitely a story I’ve seen before.  If it was made in the 70s, it would star Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.  But this movie was so stylish and fun, and it had such a good sense of humor about itself, that I didn’t mind how predictable it was.  And I wouldn’t mind at all if they made a sequel.

Men, Women & Children - 2 1/2 stars

Men, Women & Children follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways the internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives.  But it’s very heavy-handed about it …

There are a lot of characters in this movie.  Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don (Adam Sandler) are stuck in a loveless marriage, and each of them is thinking about having an affair.  Don uses his son’s computer to view internet porn.  His son has been addicted to internet porn since he was young, and he’s gotten so desensitized to normal sexuality that his first sexual experience with a real girl doesn’t go well.

Jennifer Garner plays Patricia, a mother who does nothing but worry about who her daughter is chatting with online.  She has nothing to worry about, but that doesn’t stop her from monitoring everything her daughter does.  Every night she logs into her daughter’s computer and phone and reads every message and text.  This becomes a problem when her daughter gets a boyfriend, a nice guy named Tim.  Tim is addicted to online gaming and his mother recently split for LA.  His newly single father Kent isn’t interested in dating again until he meets Joan.

Joan Clint (Judy Greer) is obsessed with helping her daughter Hannah become a celebrity.  She helps her by taking pictures of everything Hannah does and posting them to a website.  The website was originally intended to be like an online resume for Hannah’s acting ambitions, but Joan discovered that there’s money to be made in a “member’s only” section of the website …

There’s also a girl who used to be fat but is skinny now, and she’s determined to have her first kiss with the football player who made fun of her last year. 

There are some good stories here and I wasn’t bored watching this movie.  There were some cool effects used to show everyone on their phones.  When we see a hallway full of students getting out of class, they’re all on their phones.  Above their heads, we see the various screen shots of their text, facebook chats, and other stuff.  It’s a cool device to show how each person is in their own little world instead of interacting with each other.

Despite the good stuff, the movie falls flat.  It feels like it’s trying to be too important and profound.  We know the dangers of online dating and that we need to be aware of what our kids are doing online.  These are good themes for a movie to explore, but I think this movie bites off more than it can chew.  And the movie keeps cutting back to scenes of the Voyager spacecraft exploring the solar system and referencing Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan.  Profound stuff but the movie’s not that deep.

The Best of Me - 1 1/2 stars

There’s a formula to a Nicholas Sparks movie.  First, you take two pretty white people.  There has to be an obstacle that makes love between them impossible, but then they fall in love anyway.  Then, an exploitative disaster happens that turns the romance into a tragedy.  Someone has to die, and you have your movie.

In this movie, the pretty white people are Dawson Cole (James Marsden) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan).  The obstacle is their family situations.  Her family’s rich and he comes from a family of criminals.  There’s even the obligatory scene where her father offers to pay Dawson if he’ll stay away from Amanda. 

The love story is told mostly in flashback.  Young Dawson (Luke Bracey) and young Amanda (Liana Liberato) meet in high school and fall in love, despite their differences.  Early on, Dawson runs away from home and is taken in by Major Dad, I mean, Tuck (Gerald McRaney).  Tuck’s wife died recently and taking in a runaway is exactly what he needs, I guess.

Tuck’s death is what brings old Dawson and Amanda back together.  We know right away that they didn’t end up living happily ever after, so for most of the movie, we’re just waiting to find out why they split up.  When we do find out, it’s because of … wait for it … a manipulative disaster where someone dies.  Now that the late Tuck has arranged for old Dawson and Amanda to reconnect, will they fall back in love, or will they remain apart?  Or will there be ANOTHER disaster where ANOTHER person will die? 

I tried to cut this movie some slack … oh, who am I kidding.  I knew the movie would suck, and it didn’t disappoint.  It’s badly written, it’s manipulative, and it’s way too long.  There’s a reveal in the last five minutes of the movie that had the entire theater laughing. 

Nicholas Sparks is a menace and he needs to be stopped.  Don’t waste your time seeing this movie.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day - 3 stars

Alexander’s terrible day is only the setup to this movie.  He does have a pretty bad day, but that’s only the first 5 or 10 minutes of the movie.  Before going to bed that night, he wishes that his unsympathetic family would have a bad day of their own, so they would understand what he’s gone through.  The next morning, it’s his family who has a horrible, no good day.  His day actually goes pretty well.

Each member of the family has something really important going on today.  Dad is an out of work rocket scientist, and he has an interview with a video game company.  Mom works for a publishing company, and she’s in charge of a big celebrity book reading that day.  Alexander’s older brother Anthony has both his driving test and junior prom that day, and his sister Emily is playing the lead in the school’s production of Peter Pan. 

I had pretty low expectations for this movie going in, and I was pleasantly surprised.  Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner play his parents, and they provided plenty of laughs.  And Ed Oxenbould does a pretty good job playing Alexander.  Jennifer Coolidge shows up as a crazy driving instructor, and it’s always nice to see Dick Van Dyke in a movie, even if he only shows up for 30 seconds or so.

I’m probably going too easy on this movie.  I’m sure I could pick it apart if I wanted to.  Why would the school hold this big play and junior prom on the same day?  None of the characters really grow or learn anything, and everything kind of works itself out just by dumb luck. 

But it’s a good movie to take the family to.  It’s not too long (only about 80 minutes), there are laughs for the kids and adults, and everything works out for everyone in the end.  

Kill the Messenger - 2 1/2 stars

Based on a true story, Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb, a reporter for a small newspaper.  He accidentally discovers evidence of the CIA’s involvement in the crack epidemic.  Basically the CIA worked with crack dealers back in the 80s, and they used the profits to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua.  When Webb writes the story, his paper runs it, and then the trouble starts. 

It’s hard to talk about a movie like this without referencing All the President’s Men.  There are a lot of similarities – a reporter out of his league, his editor pushing him to get sources and make sure the story’s tight, intimidation from the government, and exposing national corruption.  For the first hour or so, that’s where it seemed like this movie was going, and I was really enjoying it. 

But late in the movie, there’s nowhere for the story to go.  The investigation is done and the story is published, and the CIA stops going after him.  There’s a good 20 minutes where nothing much happens.  The focus shifts to Webb and his family, but the movie doesn’t do much with that.  There are a couple of good scenes showing the tension his family is under, and there is a really good scene where Webb is confronted by his son for a past indiscretion.  But most of the time, I was bored.

Part of the problem is the story is anticlimactic.  I’m not sure what they could have done exactly to make the last half hour better.  I am glad they didn’t add anything like a car chase or shootout that didn’t happen in real life.  But at the same time, it makes for a less exciting movie.  

The Judge - 3 stars

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a hot shot, big city lawyer.  His mom dies and he has to go home to Small Town, Missouri (or wherever it is) and face his dad (Robert Duvall).  His dad is a well-respected judge in the town, and the two of them hate each other.  When his dad is accused of murder, Hank has to convince his father to take him on as his attorney.

This movie is trying to be several things at once.  Most of the time, it’s a dysfunctional family drama.  From their first scene together, we can tell the relationship between Hank and his father is not good.  But then his father is on trial, and we meet the slick prosecuting attorney, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).  At this point, the movie becomes a courtroom drama.  Hank is also dealing with his ending marriage and pending custody battle over his daughter.  The movie also finds time for a little romance between Hank and his high school girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga).

The first 20 minutes or so of the movie are pretty rough.  It feels sloppily edited, and I thought the trailer did a much better job of conveying the emotional beats that the movie is going for.  In fact, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.  The only things you’re waiting for in the movie are why do Hank and his dad hate each other so much, and will his dad be convicted of murder.

But the reason to see this movie is the performances.  It’s a lot of fun to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall bicker and argue the way they do.  As the movie progresses and we learn more about the pain they’ve gone through, the scenes get deeper and more intense.  There’s some real powerful stuff going on in their scenes together.

Besides those actors, Vincent D’Onofrio does a good job as Hank’s brother, Glen, who’s kind of the anchor keeping the family together.  And Dax Shepard gets some laughs as a lawyer / antique dealer who’s not at all up to the challenge of a murder trial. 

The movie is 2 ½ hours long, and it feels it.  I think it would have been a good idea to cut at least one of the storylines out, or cut it down.  The most important story in the movie is Hank’s relationship with his father, and I really didn’t care that much how the trial turns out.  And there’s a really unnecessary scene at the end where we see Hank back in the same bathroom he was in at the start of the movie, having a conversation with the same lawyer.  The scene is showing us how much his character has changed by the end of the movie, and it was too on-the-nose. 

But despite my reservations, I enjoyed the movie enough to recommend it.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl - 4 stars

Based on the book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), Gone Girl is directed by David Fincher, who is probably my favorite director working today.  Almost every movie he’s directed has ended up as one of my favorite movies of the year.  Zodiac, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Game, Fight Club, and Se7en are movies I can watch over and over again.  Those movies are so well cast, the performances are all great, the stories are interesting, but my favorite element is hard to explain.  It’s something about the look and atmosphere of those movies.  Fincher just has such a great eye for cinema, and every shot looks great.

Anyway, enough about the director, let’s talk about this movie.  Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, and Rosamund Pike plays his wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne.  As the movie begins, Nick doesn’t look happy.  He goes to the bar he owns with his twin sister and hangs out with her for a while.  When he returns home, there are signs of a struggle and his wife Amy is missing. 

As the police and volunteers start searching for Amy, we see flashbacks of how Nick and Amy fell in love.  Their marriage seems almost too perfect for a while, then things start to bad.  See, Amy’s from New York City but Nick is from Missouri.  He’s living in New York when they meet and get married, but two things cause them to move back to Nick’s home town.  First the recession hits and they both lose their jobs.  Then Nick’s mother gets cancer and he wants to move home to take care of her. 

As their story progresses, we see Nick and Amy grow further apart.  She’s not happy living in this small town and he starts changing.  In her eyes, he isn’t the same guy she married in New York.  By using her diary as narration, we get a pretty good picture of a marriage falling apart.  Add to that the fact that she’s rich, owns the bar he and his sister run, and Amy made Nick sign a prenuptial agreement. 

The movie cuts back and forth between the history of their marriage and the current investigation into Amy’s disappearance.  The movie does a great job of keeping us guessing.  Nick may have snapped and killed his wife, or he may have had nothing to do with it.  There are other surprises as the movie goes along, but the less you know about that, the better.

This is the best work Ben Affleck has done in a long time, but even better is the performance by Rosamund Pike.  She’s been in quite a few movies, including Die Another Day, An Education, Jack Reacher, and The World’s End.  But she didn’t really stand out in any of those.  In Gone Girl, she gives a career making performance.  There’s a lot to this character and she does a really good job.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she got an Oscar nomination for this movie.

Besides the two leads, there were a lot of other really good performances.  Carrie Coon plays Nick’s sister Margo, and she’s kind of the conscience of the movie.  Neil Patrick Harris is an ex-boyfriend of Amy’s and he’s surprisingly creepy.  Kim Dickens is the detective investigating Amy’s disappearance, and she was a lot of fun.  I think my favorite scenes were when she was on screen.  She’s a feisty woman with a southern accent, and she reminded me a lot of Holly Hunter’s detective character in Copycat.  She’s always in control of a crime scene and ordering all the other cops around.

But the biggest surprise is probably Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, the most famous and expensive lawyer in the country.  Perry has already made a name for himself with his Madea movies.  I haven’t seen very many of his movies, but he was really entertaining here. 

This is a great movie.  It’s a really interesting who-done-it crime drama, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s satirizing the media and our obsession with reality TV.  It’s commenting on post-recession America and how that affected people.  It’s making a statement about the complexity of marriage.  And as of early October, it’s the best movie of the year.

Annabelle - 2 stars

Annabelle is kind of a prequel to The Conjuring, which was a really good horror movie from last year.  I say “kind of a prequel” because the doll Annabelle wasn’t a big part of The Conjuring.  If you remember that movie, when we first met paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), they had just finished the case involving Annabelle.  The doll was kept in Ed’s room full of cursed objects for most of the movie.

Set before the events of The Conjuring, Annabelle starts with John Gordon giving his pregnant wife Mia a creepy looking doll.  Scary stuff starts happening, the couple moves from their house to an apartment, and scary stuff keeps happening.  So it isn’t the house that’s haunted but something else.

The story of this movie is very predictable.  If recycles ideas from better horror movies, including the wise old lady who owns a vintage bookstore.  The store just happens to have just the right book to explain demons and possession, and the old lady just happens to be an expert.  Another problem is the characters John and Mia are really boring.  All Mia does is sit around the house all day waiting to be tormented by a demon.  All John does is go to work, come home and disbelieve his wife.  The performances aren’t bad, but the script gives them absolutely nothing to work with.

The only things this movie has going for it is its connection to a far better horror movie and some good scares.  And I admit those scares are pretty good.  There’s a sequence in the basement of their apartment building that really freaked me out.  Some creepy stuff happens, Mia gets in the elevator, the doors close, and when they open she’s still in the basement.  This continues for a few minutes, and it was really effective.  There are some other good scares that made me jump, but that’s it.  When nothing scary is happening, I was just waiting for the next scary thing to happen.  Nothing else happens in this movie. 

So overall, the movie is boring with a few good scares.  And that doll is really creepy.

The Equalizer - 3 stars

Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall.  Robert follows the same routine every day.  He gets up, goes to work at the hardware store, then at night he goes to a local diner where he reads The Old Man and the Sea.  We can see that he’s got OCD because of the way he arranges his napkin and silverware just so, and he brings his own teabag to the diner.  While there, he chats with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young call girl working for Russian gangsters.  He doesn’t approve of the way they treat her, and eventually he’ll have to get involved.

We’ve seen this kind of movie before.  McCall is a guy everyone thinks of as a mild mannered nice guy, but he has a secret past, and he has a very special set of skills.  You can tell right away that when he’s pushed and has to start fighting, he will have no trouble kicking some ass.  

What makes this work is Washington’s performance.  In the hands of a lesser actor, this could have been a boring character.  But Washington is so good that he’s even interesting when he’s doing nothing but watching others.  It takes a while for the action to start – it was a good 20 or 30 minutes in before he has his first confrontation with the Russian gangsters.  And the confrontation is a bloody one.  He uses whatever is in the room, including corkscrews, to dispatch half a dozen of his attackers.  

One problem I did have was that he never seemed to not be in control.  We never see him get hurt or make a wrong decision.  At some point, it loses the excitement when every time he encounters some more bad guys, he dispatches them without hardly batting an eye.

On the other hand, that’s part of the fun too.  We watch in slow motion as he looks around the room and sizes up the threats.  Then he goes to work.  The climax of the movie takes place in the hardware store, and I may never look at a drill the same way again.
The movie is too long, and I started to get bored in the second half.  For a while, the movie has nowhere to go and we spend a lot of time watching the main villain, Teddy (Martin Csokas) looking for McCall.  They could have easily cut a good 20 minutes out of this movie.

But that aside, I enjoyed it.  It’s always fun to watch Denzel Washington in ass kicking mode, and the story was compelling enough to recommend the movie.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Maze Runner - 2 1/2 stars

It’s been a month since we had a dystopian movie based on a young adult fantasy novel.  Based on the book by Utah author James Dashner, The Maze Runner is a pretty good story idea.  

The movie opens with sixteen year old Thomas waking up in The Glade, a forest area surrounded on all sides by massive stone walls.  He has no memory of who he is or why he is there, but there are about 30 other boys in the same state.  Once a month a new boy arrives, and they have established a community in The Glade.  

It turns out they are in the center of a giant maze.  Every morning the door to the maze opens, and every night the door closes.  Runners are sent into the maze to try and find a way out, and they have to return before the door closes because there are dangerous creatures in the maze.  The creatures are called Grievers, and no one has ever seen them and survived.

That’s a pretty simple setup for a story, and the movie keeps us guessing until the end about why they are there and what’s going on.  Are they being punished?  Are they part of some experiment?  They know someone is in control, because every month supplies arrive along with a new kid.  

One thing that was surprising was the level of violence in this movie.  It’s PG-13, which means we don’t see any blood, but there are still quite a few deaths in this movie.  When the creatures from the maze attack, it’s reminiscent of Starship Troopers.  Those things are quite vicious, and we see a number of the boys stabbed by their deadly tails.  

There were things to like in this movie, but I was disappointed by the lack of character development.  All the characters were flat and two-dimensional.  Thomas is the hero of the story, but we don’t learn much about him other than he is more anxious than any of the others to explore the maze and get out.  And Gally (Will Poulter from Son of Rambow) is the antagonist.  At first, he seems distrustful of Thomas and always walks around with a scowl on his face.  He doesn’t seem to have a problem with the runners trying to find a way out of the maze, but he does have a problem with Thomas fighting the Grievers.  By the end, his motivations don’t make sense, and he’s causing trouble just because the movie needed a villain.

Another problem is the lack of humor.  It doesn’t matter what genre a movie is – every movie needs a little bit of humor.  The characters were so serious all the time, and it got tedious.  Also, the dialogue isn’t bad but it does nothing other than serve the plot.  It would have been nice to see these characters have some fun or have an interesting conversation.  And there are too many scenes of the characters talking earnestly to each other.  The movie is chock full of earnestness.  

The other big problem is that this is going to be another franchise.  Like every other one before it (Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent), this is the first of a series.  Instead of being a standalone movie, it mostly serves to set up the rest of the series.  The finale is a real letdown because of this.  When we find out why the kids are in the maze, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But it’s also trying too hard to set up the next movie in the series.

The story would have made a good Twilight Zone episode, but it doesn’t quite work as a movie.  It’s almost good enough to recommend, but not quite.  If you’re a fan of the books, you’ll probably like it better than I did.

This Is Where I Leave You - 2 stars

When their father dies, the Altman siblings come home for the funeral.  They are Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Phillip (Adam Driver) and Paul (Corey Stoll).  Their mother is played by Jane Fonda.  Once they’re all gathered at the family home, their mother informs them that their father’s dying wish was for all of them to sit Shiva.  This means they all have to stay at the house for seven days and mourn while friends come by to offer condolences.

Each of the siblings has some drama going on.  Judd recently discovered his wife has been having an affair with his boss.  Wendy is dealing with the guilt of leaving her ex-boyfriend who suffered a brain injury years before.  Paul and his wife are having trouble conceiving, and Paul’s wife used to date Judd.  And Phillip is the black sheep of the family.  He shows up driving a Porsche and dating an older woman who also happens to be his therapist.

This is a dysfunctional family comedy that isn’t really much of a comedy.  All the best jokes are in the trailer, but they work so much better in the trailer.  When I saw the same scenes in the movie, they didn’t make me laugh.  The timing was all wrong, and I wish that whoever edited the trailer had also edited the movie.

The lack of jokes wouldn’t be so bad if the movie wasn’t trying so hard to be a comedy.  I got tired of the jokes about Jane Fonda’s boob job, or the kid who’s potty training, and always carrying his little potty around to different areas of the house to poop.  And there are so many stories going on with these characters that it takes the movie a long time to develop them.  I was bored for probably the first hour of the movie.  After that, I was interested in the characters enough that I started to enjoy the movie, but that’s a long time to wait for a movie to grab you.

Bateman, Fey and Fonda were all disappointments in this movie, but Adam Driver was fun to watch.  The movie got entertaining every time he was on screen, and I wish his character had been on screen more.  There is one really fun scene where the brothers sneak away during temple to get high.  

In the hands of a better director, this might have been a pretty good movie.  The material is there and these actors are really good.  But Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel) isn’t the right director for this kind of material.  Big disappointment.