Five Favorite Films of Robin Williams

My introduction to the manic world of Robin Williams came in 1991 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. I imagine most people my age have a similar story to tell. I came out of that film convinced that Rufio was the coolest movie character this side of Luke Skywalker, a little bit in love with Julia Roberts, and mesmerized by the guy who brought a truly magical restoration to a character that had never really interested me previously. The next year we got Aladdin, still one of my three or four favorite Disney movies of all-time, which introduced me to the world of voice work and how someone with great talent could transform and give life to a film without ever actually appearing on camera. And in the following year, a cross-dressing, Scottish nanny made landfall with Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie that was consumed an unhealthy number of times in my household (though it was probably a TV edit taped off of TBS or something similar). robin_williams_52187

There are likely better, and perhaps much better, performances on Robin Williams’ resume than Pan, Genie, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I’ll highlight another one in a moment. But it was those three movies, back to back to back, over the course of my formative years (8-10 years old) that stand out and illustrate how insanely talented and moreover, how incredibly versatile Williams really was. He’d win an Oscar a few years later (again, see below) and received three other Academy nominations over the course of his career, all of them deserved, and his legacy as a stand-up comedian is untouchable, but it is those films that introduced him to a new generation and made a major impression on any number of youngsters, yours truly among them. He was a unique performer, a guy who owned whatever stage he took to for a solid 30 years. Charisma is not quite the right word for what he had, though it is also applicable, but he had a presence that many have emulated and very few have matched. There will never be another Robin Williams, which makes his untimely death all the more tragic.

When tragedy strikes, in the interest of memorializing the dead, sick, or downtrodden, we tend to not only skip over the person’s faults but erase them altogether and pretend we have just lost an actual saint. I have no stomach for false eulogizing. Williams had a well-established history with drugs and he struggled mightily with the depression that ultimately did him in. And his last decade of work was disappointing to put it nicely. In recent years, he seemed almost desperate to me, like he wanted to reinvent himself once more but wasn’t sure what the next phase was and the irrelevance was eating at him. That happens a lot. It is really difficult to be the “funny guy” for 30 years and even the very best comedians, a group in which Williams is surely counted, have to either come to grips with being slightly less funny than they once were or do something different. Whether that’s where Williams was or if that’s just my own brain trying to grapple with this stuff I don’t know. Regardless, none of his issues, personal or professional, diminish the great work he did along the way. So as my own small tribute to Robin Williams, let me briefly discuss my personal favorite films from his catalog. Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.

5. Good Will Hunting (1997) This is an excellent film featuring some outstanding work (not the least of which is the script that won an Oscar) but it is Williams’ performance, an understated piece of work that again put the man’s versatility on full display, that holds the whole thing together. That’s fitting, given that his presence in the film gave it the credibility it needed in order to catch the attention of both the critics and the masses. Williams picked up an Oscar for his troubles.

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4. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) If you put virtually anyone else in the lead role, this movie is an unmitigated disaster. The whole thing is completely ridiculous, like something that would have been cut out of an episode of Full House, yet somehow Williams made it not only watchable but incredibly re-watchable. No one else could have brought both the kinetic energy and completely shamelessness to the role that Williams did.

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3. Hook (1991) Until recently, I had no idea that apparently grown-ups hate Hook. I assumed all humans were swept away by the sheer wonder of this reinvented universe the way I and all of my friends were. Shame on you, grown-ups, for missing the boat on this one. It’s insane but once again, Williams makes it work.

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2. Aladdin (1992) There’s a very large group of actors who’ve voiced characters for subsequent Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar films who should’ve been sending some of their money to Williams each week. There had been great voice work done before Aladdin, to be sure, but Genie was such a cultural phenomenon that I think it’s fair to say it changed the game for animated features. He’s magnificent.

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1. Dead Poets Society (1989) I hadn’t seen Dead Poets Society in years until recently and I was completely taken aback by how powerful it remains and how deeply profound Williams’ performance is. It’s a tremendous performance within a great film and its emotional relevance still resonates 25 years later. The “Oh Captain, My Captain” desk-standing scene is iconic, to be sure, as is the room-spinning scene in which Williams helps a young Ethan Hawke overcome his stammer. But the scene that has always been my favorite, and that recently regained popularity thanks to an excellent iPad commercial, is the one in which Williams excitedly but pointedly asks his young pupils, “What will your verse be?” I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about. Truly a masterful piece of work.

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Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap2 Synopsis: In the aftermath of the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers aka Captain American (Chris Evans) struggles to find his place in a world that he wasn't born into and he finds that his old school beliefs don't necessarily match those of S.H.I.E.L.D. or its director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But when Fury becomes the target of a shadowy assassin known as the Winter Soldier, Cap is suddenly embroiled in a clandestine battle that threatens the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. With the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap pulls at a dangerous thread and wages war against an old enemy.

What I Liked: The post-Avengers Phase II of Marvel's grand universe of superhero properties, consisting of the good-not-great Iron Man 3 and the thoroughly boring Thor: The Dark World, hasn't lived up to the spectacle of Phase I. The Winter Solider, however, puts the series right back on track by delivering what very well might be the best of the standalone films in this franchise. I'm partial to the original Iron Man but at the very least, I think Soldier gives it a serious run for its money.

Directors the Russo Brothers (known best for their work on Arrested Development and Community) display a great understanding for how to use Rogers/Cap both within this universe and within our modern world. Moreover, whereas Cap felt a bit lost within the grandeur of The Avengers when compared to Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk and against a demi-god opponent like Loki, the stakes are lowered a bit in Soldier and Cap fits here much better. In this context, you get a full dose of Evans' charisma and the character's strength and the entire film plays to his abilities. The action sequences involve a great deal of extremely well choreographed hand-to-hand combat against fellow human opponents and because of this, you get a real sense of Cap's power. He's basically a roided-up Jason Bourne with a sweet shield and boy, is it fun to watch him in action. Likewise, in the less action-centric scenes, the Russos give the character a chance to develop into something more than a symbol of Good Old Days syndrome like he came across at times in the first Captain America movie. Through all of this, what you now have in Rogers/Cap is a superior character to almost any within the Marvel universe and a guy that I personally would be thrilled to see in action again and again. It doesn't hurt, either, that Soldier uses its supporting characters better than any of the other standalone Marvel movies have done to this point. Johannson and Jackson especially make the most of the opportunities afforded their characters and Mackie, too, proves to be a worthy addition to this world.

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What I Didn't Like: I have very, very few complaints about Soldier as a whole. It is a bit overstuffed at times as plot points come bursting forth at a rapid pace in the second act. Also, it appears that the central plot will have a big role in the future of the Marvel properties (including or perhaps especially the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and I'm not sure this development lends itself as much to inspired writing and plot development as it does to easy writing and plot development but obviously this remains to be seen. At some point, the Marvel minds are going to have to introduce something new to build upon rather than routinely returning to the devices laid out in the first series of films but perhaps that day will come later rather than sooner. It should be noted, too, that Robert Redford's performance is incredibly droll and lifeless and if he was replaced by a crash test dummy, Soldier wouldn't suffer in the slightest. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

In Conclusion: What some saw as the weakest franchise within the Marvel universe is now suddenly one of its strongest assets. Soldier gives Cap an edge he was lacking in his first two appearances and the surrounding story lets him fully display his greatness. I'm a huge fan of Tony Stark/Iron Man but after Soldier, if Marvel announced tomorrow that they were only going to make standalone films for one character, I'd be disappointed if they didn't choose Captain America.

Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for comic book violence and a bit of language)

For further thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a great deal of fun, please check out the Mad About Movies podcast here or here.

Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2013 - Part II

I have been writing this column every year for quite some time now and it’s one I always enjoy putting together. At some point I started breaking the list up into two parts, one for the first half of the year and one for the latter half, and that not only allows me to bring attention to more films, but it also helps prevent embarrassing mistakes wherein I get all excited at the beginning of the year for a film that comes out in November only to shudder when the first trailer hits and I realize it’s going to be terrible. Part one of this year’s list went fairly well as I’d say 7 of the 10 films I spotlighted came through at least relatively well and my top choice (Star Trek Into Darkness) would probably rank as my favorite big studio release of the last six months. So now that the second half of the year has begun, let’s jump into what I’m looking forward to the most through the rest of 2013. Honorable Mention Group #1: A Handful of Indie Projects Nebraska (November 22) – Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb Fruitvale Station (July 12) – Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz All is Lost (October 18) – Robert Redford Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (August 16) – Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster The Spectacular Now (August 2) – Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh Each of these five indie films hold some serious value for me and a couple of them are likely to be major factors during Award Season. I eliminated them all of them have been released at the various film festivals and therefore have already been reviewed by many of the bigger film outlets, so I feel like it’s cheating to put them on the list.

Honorable Mention Group #2: The Big Blockbusters That Might Tank Thor: The Dark World (November 8) – Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins Ender’s Game (November 1) – Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (November 22) – Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth I would say I’m more “interested” in these movies than “anticipating” them because I think with all three, there’s a fairly decent chance of stinkage. The Thor trailer is very unimpressive to me and I’m not sure how much I care about his story as a whole. Ender’s Game is a literary classic but one that may very well be unfilmable. And while I very much enjoyed the first Hunger Games film, the book on which the sequel is based is very, very bad, and I’m concerned that the film is going to end up getting closer to Twilight than it should be. I’ll be there opening day for all three but I’m not sold.

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10. Lone Survivor (December 25) – Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster Based on the true story of Seal Team 10 whose mission in Afghanistan went horribly wrong, leaving only one man alive. Lone Survivor certainly doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the most uplifting movie of all time but the cast is superb and I’m looking forward to director Peter Berg redeeming himself after the critical debacle that was Battleship.

9. Rush (September 20) – Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde Another film with a factual basis, Rush tells the story of the rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Bruhl). The trailer for this film looks amazing, Hemsworth is becoming a true movie star, and I always trust Ron Howard to deliver a well-crafted movie as long as he stays away from Dan Brown adaptations. The only thing that holds me back is the release date. This is a relatively packed Oscar season ahead of us but you would think if Rush was a true contender it would have found a place later in the year.

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8. The Christian Bale Double Feature Out of the Furnace (December 6) – Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck  American Hustle (December 25) – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro I’m always in for a Christian Bale film and since these two debut within a month of each other, I’m just going to throw them both together. In Furnace, Bale plays a former convict who delves into the criminal world of the depressed Rust Belt in order to find his brother (Affleck). Bale in a gritty, grimy thriller opposite Woody Harrelson sounds fantastic. This’ll be Scott Cooper’s first film since he served as writer/director for Crazyheart, which of course won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. In American Hustle, Bale reteams with David O. Russell as a con artist who is forced to work with a federal agent (Cooper) and rat on fellow crooks in order to save his own skin. This looks like the middle ground between Russell’s last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook and that middle ground should be delightful. Plus, this cast is phenomenal.

7. Captain Phillips (October 11) – Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini Apparently I’m a sucker for movies that are “based on a true story” right now. This one tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks), who was at the helm of the cargo ship that was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. The story is interesting enough and Paul Greengrass is the perfect director for the project. But mostly, I’m just excited to see Tom Hanks back in a meaningful role and one that doesn’t involve the aforementioned works of Dan Brown.

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6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (December 13) – Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage The second act in the story of Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) and his dwarven comrades takes the group to the Lonely Mountain and the lair of the great dragon, Smaug. Last year the first chapter in The Hobbit series was atop my most anticipated list. Really, it’s been atop my most anticipated list since I was 5. But I think, more than anything else, the first film proved that we wouldn’t be able to completely appreciate this series until all three parts have come together. So, while I’m still very excited about the next installment, my expectations have been tempered a bit.

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5. Anchorman: The Legend Continues (December 20) – Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd The saga of TV newsman Ron Burgandy (Ferrell) continues in this much anticipated sequel. Anchorman is without question my favorite comedy of the last decade and quite possibly the most quotable movie of all time. So, yeah, this is kind of a big deal.

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4. Elysium (August 9) – Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, William Fitchner In a future in which the wealthy have relocated to a space station known as Elysium and the poor are left to fend for themselves on earth, one man (Damon) seeks to force equality between the two castes. Man I love smart science-fiction. Neill Blomkamp made one of the great entries into this new golden age of sci-fi with 2009’s District 9 and I can’t wait to see what he can do with a big budget to work with. The trailer is phenomenal and Damon is always a major draw for me as well. Can’t wait!

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3. The Wolf of Wall Street (November 15) – Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey A young and ambitious stock broker (DiCaprio) takes Wall Street by storm before his risky business practices put a target on his back. Based on the trailer the tone of Wolf of Wall Street is much different than I expected to be but that has done nothing but add to my anticipation level for the film. Scorsese reteaming with DiCaprio is another huge draw and given his recent lack of success with the Academy, I think we’re about to see DiCaprio’s master work.

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2. Gravity (October 4) – George Clooney, Sandra Bullock A pair of astronauts get stranded in space above earth’s atmosphere. When the trailer for Gravity debuted, my wife turned to me wide eyed and said very firmly, “I do NOT want to see that.” She’s been a little stressed out about the tension-filled situation presented in this trailer ever since. That’s exactly why I DO want to see this film. The degree of difficulty on this movie is insane, which means it could it crash and burn or it could turn out to be a complete masterpiece. Alfonso Cuaron isn’t a prolific director, preferring instead to spend years crafting his films to his exact specifications and that looks to have paid off with Gravity, which is the early front runner in the race for Best Picture.

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1. The Monuments Men (December 18) – Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett In the midst of World War II, a team of art historians work to recover and secure some of the world’s greatest works of art before Hitler destroys them. If George Clooney is directing a movie and co-staring with Damon, Murray, Blanchett, John Goodman, and a bunch of other great actors, I’m extremely interested even if the movie is about the process of putting together an IKEA bookshelf. But on the heels of last year’s Argo, which Monuments has already drawn comparison to, my excitement level goes through the roof. You can probably go ahead and mark this one down for about 500 different award nominations.

In Home Viewings: Rise of the Guardians

Since the day he awoke with no memory and a powerful ability to manipulate winter weather, young Jack Frost (Chris Pine) has felt like an outcast. No one knows him, no one thinks about him, and most importantly, most kids (the target audience he most wants to please) don’t believe in him. But when a dark being known as Pitch (Jude Law) begins terrorizing the world’s children, Jack’s role in the world shifts from mischievous prankster to a member of the Immortal Guardians, along with Santa (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Sandman. The Guardians must pool all of their talents to foil Pitch’s evil plan and prevent his reign of terror from spreading before the world is literally thrown into darkness. For all the faults in the production of this film (extreme budget issues, confusing marketing, etc.), Rise of the Guardians is actually a smart and highly enjoyable children’s movie that stands above almost every other animated film 2012 had to offer (behind only Wreck-It Ralph in my book). The characters are remarkably fresh given their familiarity and I found Santa being represented as a tough, tattooed Russian to be a cool change of direction. Likewise, the voices behind the characters are all excellent and they blend seamlessly with their onscreen counterparts. The casting director for this film deserves a bonus because truly, Rise of the Guardians is nearly perfect in this regard.

From a narrative standpoint, Rise of the Guardians is fairly uninspired but first time director Peter Ramsey keeps his film on track throughout while getting the most out of the script. The freshness of the characters doesn’t quite translate to the plot, though, and the film definitely could have used a touch of that. One of the big plot points in the waning moments definitely seemed forced and the conclusion itself felt a bit rushed. In the grand scheme of things, however, these are relatively minor issues. The animation is strong and the visuals compelling which made me wish I had made the time for this one in a theater. Moreover, the tone of this movie is such that it allows for the exploration of the dark corners of a villain like Pitch without becoming too intense or scary for younger viewers. All told, I found Rise of the Guardians to be incredibly entertaining and wholly enjoyable.

Rise of the Guardians Director: Peter Ramsey Cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law Rated: PG (occasionally intense themes) Recommended For: Any viewer ages 4 and up

Review: The Croods

At the end of the age of cavemen, one little family known as the Croods still inhabits their once fruitful land. Led by Grug (Nicolas Cage), the family’s patriarch whose extreme caution keeps them safely locked away in their cave, they have carved out a place for themselves when most other cavemen have become extinct. But Eep (Emma Stone), the oldest of Grug’s children, has a strong desire to see the unknown and one night this curiosity gets the best of her, leading to a fateful encounter with Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a more evolved human with big ideas. Guy implores the Croods to head for high ground before the earthquakes that have been ripping the land apart get to them and when their cave is destroyed, the family embarks on a journey that will truly take them into a brave new world. For me, most DreamWorks animated features find a place in the proverbial same boat: they’re usually acceptable, harmless family films that don’t bore but rarely excite and stay far away from the ambitious, inspired work of Pixar (and the better Disney films). Most of the time, I watch the movie with relatively few complaints, give said movie a “B” or “B-“, and then immediately forget it. (See: Puss in Boots, Monsters vs. Aliens, the Madagascar sequels, etc.) To be honest with you, dear reader, I expected this feeling to be the best case scenario for The Croods. A mid-March DreamWorks cartoon with somewhat unattractive characters with a voice cast led by Nicolas Cage…not really something I would usually hang my hat on. But rather than the typical ho-hum fare I expected, I was treated to a much smarter, much more enjoyable animated romp than I could have ever imagined.

First of all, let me comment on the stunning visuals that dominate the majority of The Croods. While the characters themselves are (purposefully) a bit less than aesthetically pleasing (they are cavemen after all), the world surrounding the Crood family is beautiful and filled with incredibly vibrant colors. The flora and fauna created for this film are imaginative and unique, which only adds to the gorgeous landscape that serves as the background. As an ardent opponent to the 3D movement, The Croods stands as one of the very few films that actually made me wish I would have sought out a 3D showing. Even in 2D, however, the colors jump off the screen and the contrast between the Croods and their surroundings is a notable bonus.

In addition to the visuals, however, the talent of the voice cast is not only substantial but also very well utilized. To say that this is Cage’s best performance in a decade or so seems a bit absurd but if truth be told, it probably is. When you’re not staring into the man’s creepy eyes or focusing in on his receding hairline, Cage’s presence works quite well in this role. Stone and Reynolds mesh quite well together (Reynolds steals the show more often than not) and the additional voices added by Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, and Clark Duncan all hit their respective marks. In short, this feels like an actual cast of actors working together rather than the assemblage of voices that seems to the DreamWorks M.O.

Perhaps the best aspect of The Croods is the sheer simplicity of the narrative. Some reviews I’ve seen have pointed to this simplicity as a negative but in my opinion, it serves the film quite well. There are only one or two themes in play here (it mostly boils down to the family dynamic, especially the father-daughter relationship, and the struggle to survive) and as such, the movie stays ever on its course, never straying from the path and allowing for a full immersion in the world, just like the Croods themselves. From the opening credits on, The Croods has a vintage feel to it that carries over to the very end. I felt like I was watching an old school Disney movie heightened by relevant animation pushed forward by a gloriously subtle score that adds a playful tone to the entire affair. There are hearty laughs, emotionally impactful moments, and a few remarkably gorgeous scenes, all of which makes The Croods one of the better animated films of the last few years.

The Croods Directors: Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders Cast: Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds Rated: PG (some dramatic themes, one utterance of the word “sucky” but otherwise completely clean) Recommended For: Families with kids of pretty much any age

Review: GI Joe Retaliation

A few years after the events of Rise of Cobra, Cobra Commander has been stored away in secret prison and the Joes have come under the leadership of Duke (Channing Tatum) and his right hand man Roadblock (Dwayne The Rock Johnson). But after completing a mission overseas, the Joes camp is attacked and almost all of our heroes are killed. The president of the United States, who literally does not have a name (Jonathan Pryce), tells the world that the Joes were responsible for a number of treacherous acts and calls for the global eradication of nuclear weapons. But the president isn’t who he says he is and the task of stopping him falls to Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki), DJ Cortona (Flint), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park). I’ve decided to keep things fresh around here by coming at GI Joe: Retaliation from a pros and cons standpoint. Now, I’m about to take this movie out back and beat it with a shovel until I have exacted my revenge for the 110 minutes it took from me, but in the interest of fairness, let’s start with the positives.

PROS 1. The Rock is pretty solid. He does his dead level best to raise the material he was given to work with and he does a more than adequate job of dressing this proverbial pig up with a pretty bow. Some of the best parts of the movie involve the back and forth between Johnson and Tatum.

2. I find Adrienne Palicki extremely attractive and perhaps because of this (or my blind loyalty to anything related to Friday Night Lights) I didn’t think her performance was horrible.

3. There’s a five minute fight scene between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) that is ninjatastic and highly enjoyable even if it is almost immediately ruined by the following sequence.

4. Any time Walton Goggins shows up, your project jumps up a notch.

5. GI Joe Retaliation is not quite as bad as Rise of Cobra, due entirely to the aforementioned presence of The Rock.

CONS NOTE: This list is basically the scratching of the surface of the issues I had with this movie but I’ve lost track of some of them due to the lobotomy I gave myself upon walking out of the theater. NOTE TWO: There might be a tiny spoiler in here somewhere. I think it’s pretty obvious from the trailer but if you don’t want the suspense of such a terrific film ruined, then turn away now.

1. There are approximately 756 plot points within GI Joe Retaliation that make absolutely no sense. Now I am aware that it’s not like this film was made out to be Schindler’s List and I can look past some holes in the interest of enjoying an action movie but this goes far beyond the acceptable level of what a man can overlook. My favorite was when the Joes essentially allow London to get blown to bits in order to out Cobra Commander. Hey Britain, I know you’ve been our ally for years and all, but we’re betting you probably won’t miss London.

2. Director Jon M. Chu has NO IDEA how to shoot an action scene. Most of the sequences are too fast and blurry for the eye to keep up and half the time I literally couldn’t tell what was happening on screen. I don’t know what I expected from the man who directed not one but two Step Up movies.

3. Ray Stevenson’s accent is appalling.

4. While Cobra Commander is ostensibly the main villain, the focal point of the film is Pryce’s president and the character ranks up there with the worst villains in a blockbuster movie ever. I think he was supposed to be a sort of sly, cool bad guy but instead he just comes off as cheesy and cliché riddled. Some of this is the writing but let me be frank: Pryce does NOTHING to help the situation.

5. Speaking of the script, it’s bloody wretched. Not only is the plot a total mess, the dialogue is (as expected) cringe-worthy, and perhaps most importantly, it’s extremely dated. I know this film was pushed back by a year but it goes far beyond that. GI Joe Retaliation feels like it was written by an 8th grader who was sent to the future from 1999. So many little things jump off the screen as out of place because it’s all so antiquated.

6. The scuttlebutt around the Internet was that this movie was bumped from last year to allow for some reshoots that would play up Channing Tatum’s role. Well…not so much, as his character dies within the first 15 minutes. A year ago I never would have imagined I’d write something like this but if you’ve got Channing Tatum in your movie, you probably want to play his character up rather than kill him off.

7. Speaking of Duke, his death is so nondescript as to lead to immediate speculation that he’ll make a remarkable comeback for the inevitable third film. I’m calling my shot now!

8. Throughout the movie, the characters seem to have knowledge that they shouldn’t have. It’s almost as if the characters were given copies of the script before they were thrown into these trying situations.

9. There’s an inherent stupidity to much of what happens throughout this movie. I didn’t expect it to be overly cerebral but it’s like Chu and his cronies go out of their way to make sure the characters do and say idiotic things. The satellites Cobra uses to destroy the world doesn’t launch or shoot its missile but rather it simply “drops” the projectile from space and allows “gravity” to do the rest. Nope.

10. There’s just about nothing that any of these actors could have done to bring GI Joe Retaliation up from the dregs that the script and direction place it in, but it’s possible that no actor has ever given a worse performance in a big budget movie than what RZA has to offer us here. As the sensei for Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, he serves as a sort of narrator over a particularly worthless tangential storyline and the excruciating pain that his portrayal brought on is akin to one of the lesser levels of hell. STOP TRYING TO ACT!!!

All that to say, GI Joe Retaliation is the worst movie I have seen in this young year and it should be avoided at all costs. I mean that. If someone breaks into your house and demands that you either give him your life savings or watch this movie, you should hand over your valuables and consider yourself lucky.

GI Joe: Retaliation Director: Jon M. Chu Cast: The Rock, Adrienne Palicki, Jonathan Pryce Rated: PG-13 (cartoon violence, some mild language) Recommended For: Pre-teen boys and Guantanamo prisoners

In Home Viewings: This is 40

Not too long after the events of Knocked Up, This is 40 takes us back into the lives of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), a regular couple who are barely hanging on. Pete’s business is failing while Debbie is struggling with middle age and they have both settled into a rut, individually and in relation to one another. With a myriad of real world problems surrounding them, Pete and Debbie must find a way to keep their family afloat while rekindling their relationship. If you read that description of This is 40 and thought, “Wait, I thought this was a comedy” then you have stumbled upon one of the two HUGE problems with the film: it struggles mightily to be funny. Now, consider that carefully. I did not write that the film is unfunny which is why it fails; I wrote that it struggles to be funny. As a drama, This is 40 would be fairly effective and relatively realistic look at marriage and middle age. But since Judd Apatow insists on his film working as a comedy, it spends far too much time trying to flesh out the funny. As a result, the authenticity of the drama aspect is rendered devoid of any pop. Apatow seems to want his film to be an accurate representation of his subject matter but he also desperately wants you to laugh at the world his characters operate in and the two parts of the film do not blend naturally.

The second big issue that This is 40 has working against it is the extreme bloat that inhabits virtually every second of the film. Apatow’s unwillingness to edit his films is widely known but in many cases I have found the extra content, the fat that would have been cut in a normal film, to be appealing even if the result is a much too-long runtime. Case in point: in the hands of most directors, I think it’s fair to say that the Pete and Debbie characters would have been cut down to the bare bones in Knocked Up and yet their added screentime made them popular enough to warrant a spin-off/sequel. In this case, however, the fat needed to be trimmed oh so badly. In fact, if Apatow had cut out literally every other character beyond Pete and Debbie and replaced them with background actors with limited lines, it would have been for the better. Some of the side characters are decent enough (shockingly enough, Megan Fox’s portrayal might have been the best of the bunch) but Apatow crams in about a dozen of his buddies whose characters have LITERALLY no bearing on the film in any way. For about 15 minutes it’s fun to play the, “Oh, look! It’s Jason Segel!” game but that allure wears off quickly and as the film drags on (and on and on and on) you start to hate these little asides that only serve to stretch the film toward the two and a half hour mark.

The only truly redeeming qualities of This is 40 (and the reasons why I consider it a passable film) are the portrayals by Rudd and especially Mann. I loved Pete and Debbie in Knocked Up and as long as they are on screen here, the film works (to varying degrees). They have a natural chemistry and they work off of each other quite well even when the sequences are uncomfortable. But the second one of the ancillary characters steps on to the screen your attention begins to wane and you lose focus on what the movie is about in the first place. All in all, This is 40 is not a complete waste of time but unfortunately it’s much closer to that level that it needs to be.

This is 40 Director: Judd Apatow Cast: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, every other actor in Hollywood Rated: R (strong language, nudity, some drug use) Recommended For: Very strong-willed Apatow loyalists

In Home Viewings: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Synopsis: After being told that they will never be able to conceive, Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) return home with heavy hearts. To deal with their grief, the couple starts describing their perfect child and dotting down their hopes on post-it notes which they ultimately collect and bury in their garden. During the night, a freak storm rolls by their house and the Greens awake to find a 10 year old boy named Timothy (CJ Adams) in their home. After the initial shock wears of, Jim and Cindy begin to realize that Timothy is the embodiment of their hoped-for child and come to understand that his purpose is much greater than it initially seemed. What I Liked: I initially stayed away from The Odd Life of Timothy Green because, with my wife and I having gone through a miscarriage earlier in the year, the material hit too close to home. When I finally got around to checking it out, I was impressed by the direct but sympathetic tone the film took in regards to the struggles of the parents. It isn’t overdone nor does force feed fake emotions to the viewer and instead these issues are presented in an honest, natural way from the beginning and that carries over through the rest of the film. As such, Edgerton (of whom I am quite fond) and Garner bring their characters to life with strong subtlety, striking the right balance of hurt, wonder, and determination to make their family work. While both provide solid performances, I felt Edgerton’s was the driving force of the film, though my bias toward him as an actor may have swayed that opinion. Adams, too, gives a strong portrayal and handles the somewhat difficult material with skill beyond his years. The narrative of Timothy Green is generally sweet and appropriate for the overarching story.

What I Didn’t Like: While not the main focus of the film, one of the secondary subjects of Timothy Green is the way in which Timothy affects the lives of those around him. That’s all well and good but in the process of painting the picture of what kind of help the supporting characters are in need of, the film grinds to an absolute halt. Virtually every character outside of the three leads is a one-dimensional, borderline unbearable caricature of a given trope that needs to change. The overbearing, often absent father/grandfather (David Morse); the obnoxious aunt (Rosemarie Dewitt) who brings everyone around her down in order to build her kids up; the lazy boss (Ron Livingston) who tries to steal ideas from the Green family. It’s nice that Timothy tries to help those around him but all of these supporting characters are insufferable from the very beginning to the point that you honestly don’t want to see them improve as people. If Timothy could have helped his parents realize that everyone around them is a miserable jackwagon and that they should move to another state and never look back, I would have enjoyed Timothy Green far more.

Verdict: It’s not flawless and there is a certain oddness to the story as a whole that might turn off some viewers. But overall (and in spite of the BRUTAL supporting characters), I found The Odd Life of Timothy Green to be a touching family film that is worth your time.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green Director: Peter Hedges Cast: Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Garner, CJ Adams Rated: PG (mildly adult themes, possibly a little language) Recommended For: Families with kids 6+

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

When determining what sort of grade I will bestow upon a given movie, I go through the following process: 1.)    I weigh my initial reaction as to whether I liked or disliked the film; 2.)    I consider the rewatchability of the film (unless it’s a film like Schindler’s List that is clearly one of the greatest movies ever but I never want to watch it again); 3.)    I run through the pros and cons of the film and dig deeper than just the general “like” or “dislike” feelings I mentioned before.

It’s far from a science (which is why the grades I give initially are sometimes changed by the time my end of the year list makes its debut) but more often than not, I can talk myself into a greater appreciation for a film that left me cold initially (Beasts of the Southern Wild) or into a lower grade for a film that dazzled me originally but won’t hold up long term (Avatar). Sometimes, however, I run across a film that defies my less-than-scientific process and forces me to give a grade I really don’t want to give. So it is with Oz the Great and Powerful, a film that has about a quarter million flaws to work around that I still managed to enjoy quite a bit more than I thought I would.

We open (in black and white, of course) on turn-of-the-century Kansas in the midst of a traveling circus. It is here that Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) plies his craft as a small-time magician who dreams of becoming the next Houdini. When Oz runs afoul of the circus’ strong man, he makes a grand escape in a hot air balloon, only to be sucked into an otherworldly tornado that deposits him in the colorful land of Oz. Here he is met by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a kind witch who informs Oz that he represents the fulfillment of a prophecy that will install him as king. In order to stake his claim to the throne (and the vast piles of gold that go with it), however, Oz is informed by Evanora (Rachel Weisz) that he must first defeat Glinda (Michelle Williams), a wicked witch who is running amok around the kingdom. But Oz’s journey to destroy the witch takes a turn and soon he finds himself in the midst of a civil war that threatens to rip the kingdom apart.

Right off the bat, let me tell you that I was not, in any way, excited about Oz the Great and Powerful. I was intrigued when Robert Downey Jr. was signed on for the lead but by the time Sam Raimi got down to Franco (at least his third choice), my interest was completely gone. The trailers have done nothing to raise my anticipation, instead bringing to mind memories of Alice in Wonderland which I despise. Moreover (and I’m well aware that this opinion is uncommon), I’m not all that much of a fan of the original Wizard of Oz. I completely understand its greatness and the lofty status it holds with most film fans; it’s just not a film that I personally love or care enough about to desire a sequel/prequel. These issues didn’t exactly put Oz the Great in Powerful in a great place with me going in and readily admit that these feelings played a part in my reception of the movie.

Still, the first 30 minutes or so of Oz did absolutely nothing to change my mind. Franco annoyed me a bit and certainly didn’t do much to bring me over to his side, which is basically the same feeling I get in just about every one of his movies. I never can pinpoint exactly what it is I don’t like about the guy, especially in a leading role, but there’s simply something about him that bothers me. (Dave, if you’re reading this, maybe we could grab a coffee or something so I can figure out why I don’t like you. Call me.) He gets better but in the early going I was unimpressed. Likewise, the basic setup of what transpires within Oz is a jumble of half-baked clichés. Just once I would like to see a fantasy film that doesn’t rely upon a prophecy or the discovery of the chosen one. I’m not saying that’s not a viable plot point but it has become a massive crutch in Hollywood (and literature for that matter) that seems to find a place in almost every one of these films whether it fits or not. The dialogue is BRUTAL in the early going and often times it is delivered in the most robotic, uninspiring way possible. I think this is a bad script but the leading cast members (Franco, Kunis, Weisz) could have and should have brought more life to the words, even if at times the lines read like they were written by a fourth grader.

In the second and third acts, however, Oz finds a groove and while there are still a lot of problems to contend with, the film was enjoyable enough to win me over. The visuals are spectacular and vastly superior to those of the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland that might have been this film’s inspiration. It really is a beautiful film for which Raimi and his team deserve a great deal of credit. Oz also holds true to the spirit of The Wizard of Oz and at least in this way pays appropriate homage to that beloved film. It’s not always lighthearted but it manages to touch on the tougher angles of its subject without reveling in the darkness, a quality that is shared by the original. It also benefits from some excellent ancillary characters who often supersede the merits of the leads. This applies particularly to China Doll (Joey King) and Finley (Zach Braff), both of whom are memorable and extremely likeable even when Oz and the various witches are not.

To be clear, it’s not as if the final two acts of Oz are perfect or that the flaws fade away once the setup is complete. There are a ton of plot holes, the lengths to which Raimi goes to play to the 3D gimmick will sicken haters of this technology, and quite honestly Kunis’ performance is a mess. She’s all over the place, much too muted in the early going and WAY over the top in the back half and at no point did her I feel like her character was on the right track. But the last two thirds are enjoyable and satisfying enough to make one look past the stink of the first third and make Oz a relatively worthwhile venture.

Oz the Great and Powerful Director: Sam Raimi Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams Rated: PG (dramatic themes) Recommended For: Moviegoers with responsible expectations ages 7 and up

In Home Viewings: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Freshman year can be tough for anyone but it is especially so for Charlie (Logan Lerman). An extreme introvert whose only real friend committed suicide over the summer, Charlie has a ton of problems fitting in at school until he meets Sam (Emma Watson) and her step-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), a pair of seniors who take him under their respective wings. Through his new friends and the special interest of his English teacher (Paul Rudd), Charlie begins to discover himself as well as the art of fine culture. But as his feelings for Sam develop, Charlie runs into a series of walls within his own mind that force him to confront a painful event from his past that he’s locked away. Based on the novel of the same name that has attained a cult following over the last decade, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a true coming of age story that hits all the highs and lows of what high school is all about. First love, heartbreak, rejection, the monotony of schoolwork, the discover of music and film, friends, and dealing with difficult things at a time when you’re really not emotionally mature enough to do so are all themes that the movie delves into and virtually everyone can understand them on some level. This easily appealing nature of the film itself and, in particular, the protagonist is what makes Perks such a success. Charlie doesn’t really fit into any of the cookie cutter movie tropes that we tend to apply to characters in high school-related movies and because of that, you can see yourself in him no matter where you fell on the social spectrum. Even jocks, a label that certainly does not apply to Charlie, can probably find some common ground with Charlie and as such, appreciate his story. The surrounding characters, too, are deep and multi-faceted and the way in which they relate to one another is quite genuine. There’s a reason why the novelized version of Perks has gained such a huge following over the years and that appeal comes leaping through in the film adaptation.

The performances within Perks are superb. Lerman has garnered most of the attention and deservedly so as his is the most important key to the film’s success. I doubted Lerman’s abilities going in due to his lackluster portrayals in The Three Musketeers and Percy Jackson (blerg) but Perks puts his many qualities on full display and he delivers a poignant, direct, and authentic piece of acting that should provide him with a clear career path outside of bad franchises. It is Watson, however, who continually drew my attention. This is a role that requires both confidence and subtle frailty, a balance that Watson strikes perfectly while bringing immense charm to the character. This is excellent work that further proves Watson’s intelligence when it comes to selecting her roles post-Harry Potter.

Perks is not always a particularly easy or comfortable viewing. By its very nature, the film covers some very difficult and sometimes depressing themes and its climax is quite sobering. High school was a tough time for many people and while Perks doesn’t revel in that (and by the way, congratulations to writer/director Stephen Chbosky on that front), it certainly doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. As such, this is not a film for everyone and if I’m being honest, it’s not one that I want to watch a dozen times over. But if you can handle the difficult conversations that Perks looks to bring about, it is well worth your time.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Director: Stephen Chbosky Cast: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd Rated: PG-13 (language, drug use, some sexuality, and general mature themes) Recommended For: Ages 13 and up

Review: Snitch

I have never been a fan of The Rock. I understand his appeal, mind you, but he’s never been a key force in my movie viewing life and I typically shy away from his films. I have yet to enjoy him in a comedic setting, I find the allure of professional wrestling to be baffling, and I have long taken the stand that I would not refer to The Rock as any other name until he proved that he could actually act. Well, the day has come, for while Snitch may not be anything to write home about, Mr. Dwayne The Rock Johnson gives what I would consider to be his finest (and perhaps first) example of real acting. Congratulations on your new title, Mr. Johnson. Please don’t beat me up. John Matthews (Johnson) is a hardworking construction company owner who has become estranged from his teenage son, Jason (Rafi Gavron). Jason gets caught up in a federal sting operation when he accepts a package of pills from a friend and since he has no knowledge to parlay, he finds himself facing 10 years in prison. Desperate to help his son, John convinces Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con who works in the construction yard, to put him in touch with a local drug dealer. Through this association, John is able to broker a deal with the district attorney to get his son’s release upon the arrest of a major player in the drug game. But while he proves proficient at his job, John winds up getting closer than he ever expected to the cartel’s leadership, a move that puts everyone in his family in great peril.

Snitch is the antithesis of the typical movie you would expect to find Johnson involved in. It has a slow pace, there is very little explosive action until the final sequence, and while the writing isn’t particularly special (more on this in a minute), the story is definitely the driving force behind the film as opposed to any other element you typically get in a Johnson movie. Somehow, however, Johnson finds a groove within the world of Snitch that I really don’t think he’s hit in the past. He isn’t trying to be humorous at all (always a plus in my opinion) but much more importantly, he’s actually playing a character. Johnson’s filmography is filled with examples of characters who are just The Rock in a different costume. The Rock as a cop, The Rock as a bodybuilder, The Rock as a hockey player turned fairy tale entity (*cringe*). In Snitch, however, I actually felt like I was seeing a real person on screen rather than another roided-out persona. John Matthews is a dad, a blue-collar worker, and most of all, a man, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that from Johnson before. Moreover, he’s a man who is severely out of his depth in a world he doesn’t understand or fit in and that comes through quite clearly. In short, there’s very little of The Rock being The Rock and beating the snot out of bad guys because he’s The Rock. And I quite like that change.

Now, much of the rest of Snitch is mediocre at best. As hard as the film works to push its story as the main course rather than a paltry side dish, it is weak and sometimes horribly heavy-handed. Most of the supporting characters are painted with some extremely tired colors and the actors who play them do little to shed those clichéd and exhausted skins. Sarandon in particularly comes across as bored and uninspired; she can’t have spent more than five days filming her part. The aforementioned slow pacing isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it was unexpected and I found myself checking the time and wishing things would gear up. In addition, too many of the important events happen in quick bursts when a sustained build would have suited the film much better. John’s family could have been developed rather than explained (a pet peeve of mine in a story-centric action film like this one is trying to be) and I could have used way more of Barry Pepper’s undercover cop. Note to Hollywood: Barry Pepper makes everything better (except Battlefield: Earth). Give this man some screentime already.

As it stands, Snitch is something like a half-finished project with some strong moments brought to life by Johnson that are surrounded by some incomplete thoughts that could have and should have been refined. Even still, it’s a fine performance by Johnson and that alone makes it worth a viewing, a sentence I never thought I’d have occasion to write.

Snitch Director: Ric Roman Waugh Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal Rated: PG-13 (violence, drug use, and surprisingly little profanity) Recommended For: Fans and Haters of The Rock Alike, ages 11+

In Home Viewings: Side by Side

Narrated by Keanu Reeves, Side by Side is, at its core, a study of film and the methods that are used to create film. The documentary begins with a comparison between digital filming and traditional filming and proceeds on to discuss such topics as to 3D or not to 3D, editing, and the advancement of special effects. In each shot, Reeves sits down with a different filmmaker and discusses the industry as a whole as well as the preferred methods of each person. In this way, the audience is treated to a small conversation with a number of well-known directors, editors, and others involved with the process, such as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan, all of whom share not only a taste of their own personal styles but also what it is they love about film in the first place.

I confess I don’t know just a whole lot about the filmmaking process. I like to think I know a great deal about movies, to be sure, but as far as actually making a film, I’m far less educated than many of my critical brethren. Side by Side raised my level of knowledge quite a bit and managed to do so in an interesting and enjoyable manner. It is a fascinating documentary that takes its subject matter seriously without becoming pretentious or full of itself. That is to say, there is a distinct art to making a great film that Side by Side makes every effort to highlight but this is done with a light, conversational tone that makes this film unceasingly appealing. Director Christopher Kenneally (through his proxy, Reeves) takes the time to explain what his subjects are talking about but does so concisely and eloquently so that all viewers, whether veteran filmmakers or complete novices like myself, may remain on the same footing. If you don’t know much about the way film editing was accomplished before computers took over the world, Side by Side will explain it to you and then allow a veteran editor to tell you why the new techniques are better or worse. Simultaneously, the film takes a good hard look at the age of digital filmmaking and allows for an argument regarding its merits without passing judgment or ever taking a definitive side. In this manner, Side by Side truly lives up to its title.

Personally I have no beef with digital filming and couldn’t begin to make a legitimate argument as to why it is better or worse than shooting on film. But you know who does have an opinion? Christopher Nolan does, as do David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, and virtually any other director who has ever made a film, whether a great blockbuster or a tiny student project. To hear these men and women discuss their methods and the techniques they use to make film in such an open forum is a unique experience that the average moviegoer isn’t often privy to. As such, Side by Side is one of the more enjoyable movies you’re likely to see and if you’re a fan of film at all, I highly recommend a viewing.

Side by Side Director: Christopher Kenneally Cast: Keanu Reeves, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, James Cameron Rated: Not rated (some language in interviews) Recommended For: Any film fan, ages 13+ Available on Netflix Instant

Review A Good Day to Die Hard

Like every other breathing human male in the world, I love the original Die Hard. 25 years and four sequels after its debut, it is still the greatest action movie of all time and in my opinion it’s laughable to even debate this declaration. But somewhere in that time period, the essence of Die Hard and more importantly the essence of John McClane have been lost. In the immortal words of Michael Scott, “…John McClane was just this normal guy. He’s just this normal New York City cop who gets his feet cut and gets beat up. He’s an everyday guy. In Die Hard 4 he is jumping a motorcycle into a helicopter…in the air. He’s invincible. It just sort of lost what Die Hard was. It’s not Terminator.” If Michael Scott could see A Good Day to Die Hard, he’d probably start retooling Threat Level Midnight into Die Hard 6 immediately because it might just get the big screen treatment. A Good Day to Die Hard begins with John McClane (Bruce Willis) in search of his prodigal son, Jack (Jai Courtney). McClane tracks Jack down on the eve of his trial for a murder in Russia and immediately heads overseas to provide any help he can. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that Jack is actually a CIA operative and soon father and son are caught up in an explosions-filled trek across Moscow in an effort to protect Russian businessman Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) and the secret file he keeps. Shenanigans ensue.

I am 95% confident that A Good Day to Die Hard did not start out as a Die Hard movie. It reeks of a script written to be a throwaway action movie that was ill-fittingly converted into a Die Hard movie in order to (hopefully) get it streamlined into production. Perhaps this assumption is just my naïve hope bleeding through into this review as it pains me to believe that someone actually wrote this movie with John McClane in mind. Regardless, among its many sins, the biggest issue with A Good Day to Die Hard is in its inexplicable and callous disregard for everything that John McClane has stood for over the last 25 years. McClane is a regular Joe, a man with a handgun who happened to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and whose greatest moves came in his use of packing tape and a sharpie. He is brash but not cocky, funny but not silly, and hard but not unbreakable. You could see the transition from anti-hero to superhero in 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard but I think the core idea at the heart of that film was the clash between old school and new school, a subject that suited McClane well. This movie is a horse of an incredibly different and unappealing color.

A Good Day to Die Hard holds nothing in common with any of the previous Die Hard films other than the title and the name of the leading character. It is rife with epic, explosive violence that serves to fill the holes leftover by the paper-thin plot and bland dialogue and while I enjoy a good action movie as much if not more than the next guy, this one seems to be cobbled together with the spare parts leftover from a myriad of mediocre 90s movies. I half-expected Wesley Snipes to pop up at some point. It’s a bad script by Skip Woods (the genius behind Wolverine) and the direction of John Moore (of Max Payne fame) is abysmal. Moore seems to have no control over what anyone is doing on screen, least of all Willis, and his dramatic timing is nonexistent. Moreover, neither of these men  have any idea of what the Die Hard franchise is supposed to be. In fact, the company that cut the trailer for this film displayed a much greater understanding of the mythology of this series than those actually involved in the making of the film. Maybe those guys should be given a crack at the sixth installment.

For their parts, Willis isn’t awful in his role, though he’s definitely in this for the paycheck more than the legacy, and Courtney isn’t a bad companion to McClane. And if none of this had anything to do with Die Hard, if it could be looked at as a Mission: Impossible knock-off instead of an extension of a tremendous film, I might concede that it has enough enjoyable parts as to remain at least watchable if not entirely worthwhile. But since the studio behind this film decided to drag the Die Hard name through the mud, then I find it necessary to point out that A Good Day to Die Hard is big, dumb, loud, and faceless, all adjectives that the real John McClane would never stand for.

A Good Day to Die Hard Director: John Moore Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch Rated: R (language, violence) Recommended For: Fans of big, dumb, loud, faceless action movies, 14+

In Home Viewings: The Queen of Versailles

Originally designed to be a look into the lives of the 1%, The Queen of Versailles became something much more fascinating when its subjects fell on hard times. At the outset, David Siegel and his wife Jackie were on top of the world. David, the head honcho for Westgate Resorts, the largest time share company in the world, was worth billions of dollars and Jackie enjoyed spending it. They were in the process of building a 90,000 square foot house that was to be a replica of the Palace of Versailles. But shortly after the filming of this documentary began, the economy crashed and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield became much more interested in how these people would adapt to a more restrained life style (as it were). First off, The Queen of Versailles is fascinating from beginning to end so you might consider putting away your computer now and just pulling it up on Netflix. It is as straightforward as documentaries come (a quality I greatly appreciate) and personally, I think the way Greenfield presents her subjects is perfect. She seems perfectly content with letting the Siegels hang themselves and likewise allows the viewer to form his/her own opinion about the subjects rather than forcing the narrative in a certain direction. It is a remarkable story and even more remarkable that the Siegels allowed the cameras to keep rolling after their fortunes turned. As such, I felt like the film comes across with much more humanity than I expected and I actually felt some sympathy for the family (at least for Jackie and the kids; David is a miserable jackass who deserves any misfortune that has or will befall him). That’s a rather remarkable feeling, really, given how far the Siegels go out of their way (albeit unintentionally) to make themselves unlikable.

At the time that construction began on their palace, the family was living in a 26,000 square foot house. Obviously these digs weren’t enough, since they needed a home with 17 bathrooms, a basement ice skating rink, and a baseball field that doubled as a parking lot for their many galas. So they began the replication of Versailles, a home that was only half-way finished when the recession hit and looks like something created in a VHX room for a post-apocalyptic blockbuster. The scenes shot inside the would-be palace are downright eerie. In an early shot, Greenfield asks Siegel why he was building such a huge house and his response is simply, “Because I can.”

But the most intriguing aspect of The Queen of Versailles is the difference between David and Jackie when it comes to handling their new lifestyle. David becomes almost unresponsive, sliding more and more into depression to the point that I wondered if the film might end with his funeral. He is destroyed by his loss of status and cannot accept that his own stubbornness has led him to this point. He shuts down and becomes very embittered toward Jackie, their eight kids, and just about everyone else. Jackie, meanwhile, fluctuates between feeling the grips of their lesser means and pretending that nothing has changed. She tells her kids that they might actually have to, you know, go to college and find a job someday in one scene and then employs a limo for her trip to McDonald’s. She worries that the family may not be able to stay in their present home (let alone move to the palace) and then asks an Enterprise rental agent why her economy class car doesn’t come equipped with a driver. She cuts the household staff down from 19 (19!!!) to four but then goes on a Wal-Mart shopping spree that requires four cart loads of stuff, including a bike that is LITERALLY stacked on top of a collection of I would guess 50 unused bikes in the family’s garage. This is a woman who has lost touch with reality and that in and of itself makes The Queen of Versailles an engrossing viewing that I would recommend to just about anyone.

The Queen of Versailles Director: Lauren Greenfield Cast: David Siegel, Jackie Siegel, Virginia Nebab Rated: PG (some mild language, the horrific sight of seeing Jackie receive botox) Recommended For: Anyone who isn’t a member of the Siegel family

In Home Viewings: The Cold Light of Day

While vacationing with his family in Madrid, Wall Street trader Will (Henry Cavill) makes a routine trip into town to make a phone call. When he returns, his family has disappeared and the sailing boat they were staying on has been ransacked. Before he knows what’s happening, Will is waylaid and only avoids capture when his father, Martin (Bruce Willis), comes to the rescue. It turns out that Martin doesn’t have the cushy embassy job he’s talked about for years but he is, instead, a special agent. Soon Will is caught between two groups of intelligence troops, both after a briefcase Martin recently passed off and both threatening to kill his family if he doesn’t get them what they want. The Cold Light of Day is the sort of movie that reminds you that if everyone is saying something, it is probably true. When it opened to less than $2 million dollars and a horrid rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I had this misguided feeling that it couldn’t be as bad as people were saying it was. I mean, Bruce Willis is involved so it can’t be all that bad, right? Man oh man, was I wrong. Within the first two minutes of putting the DVD in my player, I knew I had made a mistake and my punishment for such an egregious error was to sit through the next 90 minutes and try not to yell and throw things at the TV. I barely made it.

But what makes The Cold Light of Day so bad, you ask? In a word, everything. LITERALLY. Everything. Its star, Cavill, gives absolutely no indication that he is capable of taking over an iconic character like he will in Man of Steel. Will is a bumbling fool and Cavill’s attempts to make his foolishness appealing are dreadful. Repeat: Dreadful. In fairness, he gets very little support from the established actors around him, partly because they all have limited screentime and partly because it’s very clear that all of them only came to the set because their agents couldn’t find a way out of their respective contracts. The narrative is as paint-by-numbers as you can get as almost any viewer could predict exactly what is going to happen and when right on down to the final line of the movie. Scott Wiper and John Petro must be very proud of their work on this script. And Mabrouk El Mechri provides direction in such a way that I began to wonder if he never wanted to make an American movie again and therefore sabotaged himself. It’s that bad.

If The Cold Light of Day has any redeeming quality, it is the fact that it is mercifully short. IMDB has it pegged at 93 minutes but it’s much closer to an hour-twenty and if I’m being honest, 93 minutes might have been the death of me. At least the filmmakers got one thing right. This aside, however, The Cold Light of Day is devoid of entertainment value of any kind and I pray you’ll learn from my mistake and just stay away.

The Cold Light of Day Director: Mabrouk El Mechri Cast: Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver Rated: PG-13 (violence and language) Recommended For: People who hate Henry Cavill and want to see him suffer

In Home Viewings: The Imposter

In 1994, a young boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his San Antonio, Texas neighborhood without a trace. All attempts to locate Nicholas proved futile and eventually the police stopped looking. Almost three and a half years later, the Barclay family received the call they had always hoped for but never expected: Nicholas had been found in Spain. Nicholas’ sister immediately flew to Spain, identified her brother, and brought him home where the family attempted to assimilate him back into their lives. It was a made-for-TV tale that suffered from only one problem: it wasn’t true. The man claiming to be 16 year old Nicholas was actually 23 year old Frederic Bourdin, a French fugitive wanted by Interpol for countless counts of identity fraud. The story only gets wilder from there as Bourdin, with his lie unraveling around him, begins to suspect the family may know where the real Nicholas is after all.

Told through the eyes (and words) of Bourdin himself, The Imposter is far more riveting than most of the thrillers that have come down the chute in recent years. The audience is made aware of the vague outline of the story (including Bourdin’s deception) right off the top and yet Bart Layton is still able to keep the suspense alive by presenting the material in a dark and twisty way. My heart was racing throughout the bulk of the film as Bourdin laid out his plan and the many ways in which it went awry. You get a great sense of the type of person Bourdin is and I found myself feeling sorry for him even though what he did to this family was appalling. Here’s a guy who received no love or affection as a child and has been permanently hamstrung as a result. He would make a fascinating case study for any psychologist and The Imposter serves as a sample of such a study.

Bourdin, however, isn’t the only one who could be examined in a psych class. The Barclay family is almost just as interesting. Nicholas’ mother, Beverly Dollarhide, and sister, Carey Gibson, accepted Bourdin unquestioningly, despite the fact that he looked nothing like Nicholas and spoke with a serious accent. In the film’s final moments, Dollarhide makes mention of the fact that throughout this ordeal, she simply tried not to think in order to preserve her belief that her son had returned. To be honest, no one in the Barclay clan comes off as particularly bright but even they had to have questions deep down, questions that they buried immediately. It took an investigation by newsman Charlie Parker to bring any real suspicion to the case and only Nicholas’ brother, Jason, seemed in the least concerned that Bourdin wasn’t who he said he was, which in turn led to a wildly speculative but wholly engrossing tangent that consumes the film’s final act.

There’s one real problem with The Imposter and that is the absurd amount of production value added in to “spice things up.” There are dramatizations and strange scene changes as well as an overexposure of Parker, who comes across as a sleazy reporter only one step up from a paparazzo. I’m a fan of the straight forward approach to documentary filmmaking and in this case that technique would have been much more fitting. The Imposter is a gripping story that doesn’t need any dressing up to make it worthwhile. The dramatizations in particular are a waste of time and serve no purpose other than to make the film seem like something that could be found on basic cable rather than a feature length documentary. Still, this is such a wild and engrossing tale that I found myself on the edge of my seat and thoroughly locked in on the events as they unfolded.

The Imposter Director: Bart Layton Cast: Frederic Bourdin, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker Rated: R (language, serious intensity) Recommended For: Anyone who likes a good mystery, ages 13+

Review: Identity Thief

Synopsis: Just as his life is finally beginning to take off, Sandy Patterson’s (Jason Bateman) path to the top takes an unexpected twist when he is arrested and charged with a litany of offenses. He is only cleared when it is discovered that his identity has been stolen by Diana (Melissa McCarthy), a ne’er-do-well with an extensive credit fraud history. With his new job on the line and the Denver police proving worthless, Sandy heads down to Florida with the intention of finding Diana and bringing her back home to answer for her crimes. But Diana is into something much bigger and soon the two of them begin a hijinks-filled cross-country trip that might just result in friendship. What I Liked: Truth be told, I expected Identity Thief to be an all-around miserable experience. The trailers are HORRIBLE, McCarthy is getting old rather fast, and as much as I love him, Bateman is seriously hit or miss. So maybe my expectations were so low that I couldn’t be disappointed but there is a lot more to like with Identity Thief than I would have ever dreamed. Bateman’s character is more likeable and less pathetic than many of his other characters have been of late and Bateman sells it quite well. And while McCarthy is just doing the same thing that she does in every role, it’s slightly more reined in than you might think and most of the time her performance works. The two leads have decent comedic chemistry and when Identity Thief is at its best, it’s usually just banter between Bateman and McCarthy. I fully expect that the next McCarthy film, April’s The Heat, will push her into complete overexposure but as this movie progressed, I found myself chuckling along with her more and more often. The story also has significantly more heart than I anticipated and Seth Gordon uses that in the right measure. There are similarities between Identity Thief and 2010’s Due Date but whereas the latter was one of the more mean spirited, heartless comedies of the last few years, the former comes in with a little warmth that harkens back to the John Hughes classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

What I Didn’t Like: The biggest issue I had with Identity Thief is the putrid script. I can honestly say I wasn’t familiar with writer Craig Mazin’s name so I was completely unbiased. Looking at his IMDB page afterward, I discovered that he is responsible for such masterpieces as The Hangover Part II and not one but two Scary Movie sequels. That sort of pedigree definitely comes through in Identity Thief which requires at least a dozen MacGuffins just to get the plot rolling. It’s a messy, sloppy execution of a premise that isn’t entirely worthless. I would say that Gordon did his best to make the script work but there’s only so much you can do when you’re dealing with a lazy screenplay like this one is. In addition, many of the supporting actors are miscast or misused, and this applies most notably to rapper-turned-actor T.I. who plays a gangster searching for Diana. Having now seen T.I. in three films, I feel good about saying that there has never been a person in the history of the cinema who had less talent than T.I. does. He should never, EVER, be allowed to appear in a movie again. Not even home movies.

The Verdict: Perhaps my extremely limited expectations set me up for this, but I found Identity Thief to be mildly enjoyable and altogether harmless. I don’t want to see it again but it’s not a completely worthless endeavor when it’s all said and done.

 

Identity Thief Director: Seth Gordon Cast: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Genesis Rodriguez Rated: R (some strong language, one comically graphic scene of sexuality) Recommended For: People with low expectations age 16+

Review: Warm Bodies

Going into Warm Bodies, I was torn between genuine and overt excitement and sincere dread over the execution. This is a high concept and one that has tremendous potential but if history has shown us anything, it’s that Hollywood is very skilled at ruining high concept films. As the film’s release date grew closer, the one thing that calmed my nerves was the presence of writer-director Jonathan Levine, the man behind 2011’s 50/50. 50/50 has quickly asserted itself as one of my favorite movies ever and the craftsmanship that went into it is such that I immediately became a hardened endorser of Levine and all of his work. I’m happy to report that my newfound faith in this relatively inexperienced filmmaker was well deserved. In a world full of zombies (known as Corpses), R (Nicholas Hault) marches to the beat of his own drummer. He spends most of his time wandering around an abandoned airport trying to remember who he was and collecting artifacts from a now bygone age. But something happens to R when he comes in contact with Julie (Teresa Palmer), an actual human looking for medical supplies. Instead of eating her, R saves Julie and gets her out of harm’s way and over the next few days, their relationship causes a change in R: his speech begins to return, he engages in human activities like driving a car, and his heart begins to beat. Other corpses who see R and Julie interact begin to change as well and soon Julie realizes that the key to curing the zombies psychological, not medical. But with her father (John Malkovich) about to lead the human army into war, her revelation may have come too late.

From the start, Warm Bodies is a refreshing and unique experience. The voiceovers done by Hoult effectively take you into the mind of R and show him to be a thoughtful, intelligent being beset upon by unfortunate circumstances. Almost immediately, I found myself rooting for R and supporting his character. This is a crucial step in the success of the film as a disconnect with the audience early on would have turned Warm Bodies into yet another entry in a long line of sci-fi/fantasy films with a cool concept that couldn’t get off the ground. Instead, the movie starts strong and carries from there, bringing you closer and closer to understanding R and his comrades. Levine doesn’t spend any time on breaking down the origin of the disease and as such, makes it clear that this isn’t about zombies at all but rather the humans they once were and perhaps can become again. In this way Warm Bodies is really rather poetic, though this doesn’t get in the way of simply having a good time.

Much of Warm Bodies isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny but it is continuously humorous. The pacing sags a bit in the second act and stalls slightly but even in its weaker moments there’s an inherent enjoyableness to the film that stems not only from the concept but also from the lead. An up and comer in Hollywood, Hoult has tremendous charisma even when speaking in monosyllabic grunts and made up to look like the walking dead. His performance is easy and understated but he demonstrates the characters desire for redemption in an earnest, heartfelt way. The relationship between R and Julie is downright poignant at times and the combined efforts of Levine and Hoult keep it from becoming either too silly or too serious. Palmer isn’t anything special opposite Hoult but she also doesn’t take anything away from the film and it is, after all, clearly Hoult’s show to run and Palmer is just along for the ride. As a whole, Warm Bodies is a well-written film that balances a mix of genres quite well and while imperfect, it is certainly worth your time.

Warm Bodies Director: Jonathan Levine Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rod Corddry Rated: PG-13 (mild zombie related violence, some language) Recommended For: Sci-fi and fantasy geeks, date night participants, and teenagers 13 and up

Review Parker

I’ve written before about the “Jason Statham Cycle of Shame” (formerly known as “The Statham Cycle”). It’s a psychosomatic condition wherein the afflicted (namely, me) recognizes that Jason Statham’s movies are mostly awful and goes out of his/her way to avoid them until finally succumbing to the need to see Statham rock one liners and kicks to the head and justifies the viewing by saying something like, “I know it isn’t good but it’s kind of fun, right?” The viewer then feels bad about his/her choices and vows never to give in to the power of Statham again…until the next Statham movie comes around the cycle starts all over again. I’ve gone through the Jason Statham Cycle of Shame so many times that for once I decided to get a jump on the illness and headed straight to the theater to see Parker on opening weekend. I regret my choices in life. Parker (Statham) is a career thief with a simple motto: he does what he says he’ll do and he expects those around him to do the same. Parker’s partner Hurley (Nick Nolte) sets him up with a big time gig and a new crew, led by Melander (Michael Chiklis), an old friend with a secret connection. After completing the job, Melander double crosses Parker and leaves him for dead in a ditch. Miraculously, Parker survives and tracks Melander’s crew to Palm Beach where they eyeing the score of a lifetime. In order to figure out the scheme and provide cover for himself, Parker begrudgingly brings down-on-her-luck real estate agent Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) into the fold and begins the task of seeking his vengeance.

Based on a book in an apparently popular series of novels by Donald Westlake, Parker is riddled with potholes that hinder what should have been an enjoyable, if insignificant, movie. The biggest issue for me was the seemingly all-encompassing struggle between allowing the film to become a no nonsense, hardcore action film in the vein of Safe (maybe Statham’s best movie) and shoehorning in a comedic, lightweight mentality to play on Statham’s inherent charisma. Parker tries to hit all points of the action spectrum and the result is a mishmash of clichés and a watered down narrative that doesn’t make just a whole lot of sense. Moreover, this is one of the few movies in which Statham doesn’t come across as charming. Director Taylor Hackford may have some worthwhile titles to hang his hat on (namely, 2005’s Ray) but he demonstrates no understanding of how to use Statham’s abilities to the film’s benefit. Statham seems to struggle with the film’s lack of flow and his attempt at a Texas accent is truly abysmal. The character itself is somewhat lackluster as well. At times it appears Hackford and company are striving to make him a more human action star who may or may not make it through this fight and then suddenly he becomes super human and goes full Chuck Norris. Parker is difficult to connect with, difficult to understand, and difficult to care about. And that’s not typically what you get with a Statham character.

There are other flaws with Parker but the cast deserves special mention. Nolte looks and sounds like some sort of creature brought back from the grave by the Resurrection Stone. I’ve long been a fan of Chiklis but his performance is reminiscent of a Vic Mackey knockoff and he comes across as someone who is just cashing a check. And then there’s Lopez who, while not horrible, does not fit at all and displays no chemistry with Statham (or anyone else for that matter). That’s somewhat fitting, though, seeing as how her character has almost no importance to the story and does next to nothing throughout until the very end when she almost ruins everything for Parker. Combine these missteps with some of the worst special effects you’re likely to see in a major motion picture this year and the script’s insistence on making ill-fitting jokes at random intervals and the result is one giant and uninspiring misfire.

Parker Director: Taylor Hackford Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis Rated: R (language, bloody violence, random nudity) Recommended For: Statham purists

In Home Viewings Hotel Transylvania

Synopsis: After the tragic death of his wife at the hands of the horrible humans, Dracula (Adam Sandler) undertakes the task of protecting his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), from a similar fate. To do so, he builds a world class resort/castle that is beyond detection of humans where he and Mavis welcome only their monstrous friends like wolfman Wayne (Steve Buscemi), Frankenstein (Kevin James), and mummy Murray (CeeLo Green). Dracula’s plans to protect Mavis go awry, however, when her 118th birthday is crashed by an unsuspecting human named Jonathan (Andy Samberg). Jonathan’s arrival brings forth in Mavis a desire to see the world and Dracula is forced to choose whether or not her safety is more important than her freedom of choice.

What I Liked: Overall, Hotel Transylvania is a decent enough family film. The artwork is solid, the plot line is sufficient, and the characters are enjoyable. Sandler brought his regular cast of buddies to the movie and they all serve their characters admirably and adult viewers could have a good time playing “Whose Voice is That” bingo as the movie progresses. Director Genndy Tartakovsky and his crew did a good job of bringing the classic Universal monsters to life in a non-threatening, market appropriate manner and keeping the plot from becoming too complex. There’s a fun energy to Hotel Transylvania that should please younger viewers and won’t make adult companions hate themselves.

What I Didn’t Like: The terms that come to mind when pondering the merits of Hotel Transylvania are as follows: “Acceptable.” “Not bad.” And, “Harmless.” That is to say, it’s very middle-of-the-row and average in just about every way. There’s nothing for an adult to love or really, REALLY enjoy about it and while it isn’t a painful experience, it’s also not one that I’m apt to sit through again. It has fun moments but I wouldn’t say it is funny and there isn’t just a whole lot for adult viewers to latch onto. While it’s unfair to hold any animated film to the standard of Pixar, even the majority of the DreamWorks features bring with them some adult-oriented humor that older viewers can latch onto. Hotel Transylvania does not and as such, I imagine if my future hypothetical child wanted to watch it multiple times, it would grow old rather quickly.

Hotel Transylvania Director: Genndy Tartakovsky Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez Rated: PG (mildly scary images, probably a couple of adult-themed jokes that I’m forgetting) Recommended For: Kids, ages 6 and up