Mini-Movie Reviews Catchup

So it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to write anything in this space. I had shoulder surgery in November and it turned out to be more serious than I might have hoped. I was rendered a one-armed man for a while and typing with only left hand was just silly. My injury didn’t keep me from seeing movies, of course, and thus, today’s collection of mini-movie reviews to help you make good movie decisions this holiday season. I’ll be back tomorrow with a Cooper-centric post so fret not, those of you who only come here for tales of my ridiculous child. BigHero6

Big Hero 6 – Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, James Cromwell Rated PG for thematic elements and comic book violence One sentence synopsis: A teenage genius teams up with some fellow genius and a robot to take on a mysterious villain in San Fransokyo. The first combination of Marvel and Disney animation, Big Hero 6 comes off as a smashing success both financially and creatively. This has the look and feel of a Pixar movie but with a superhero origin story mixed in for good measure. The visuals are lavish and beautiful and while the story isn’t all that original, the characters are strong to say the least. I think Disney has a certifiable star on their hands in the form of the robot Baymax, an iconic character that could likely carry a successful sequel on his own. Big Hero 6 should be a winner for kids and grownups alike and the obligatory short before the movie will likely force any pet owner to become a puddle of tears. Grade: A- (Podcast here)

Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton Rated R for language and violence One sentence synopsis: A nut job discovers the high paced world of new stringing in L.A. and takes his new found occupation to psychotic levels. Serious question: does anybody like Jake Gyllenhaal? I don’t mean, “Does anybody think Jake Gyllenhaal is a good actor?” He’s clearly extremely talented. I’m just wondering if anyone gets excited about a Jake Gyllenhaal movie because I find him nearly unbearable and it seems like most of my friends agree. That said, his performance in Nightcrawler is superb and will likely earn him a very well deserved Oscar nomination. His character is thoroughly unlikable but just as thoroughly compelling and that’s due entirely to Gyllenhaal. I found the film as a whole to be only alright but it is shot wonderfully in a style reminiscent of Michael Mann, Grade: B+ (Podcast, sans my involvement thanks to a sick child, here)

Wish I Was Here – Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad Rated R for language and thematic elements One sentence synopsis: A struggling actor tries to keep his family together in the midst of his father’s terminal illness. Remember Zach Braff? Once upon a time he was one of the hotter up-and-coming names in the industry who probably stayed with Scrubs too long and missed his big break, then kind of disappeared for a while. Wish I Was Here is his third directorial effort and it is both pleasurable and frustrating. On the one hand, Braff knows what he is good at: the movie is dark and melancholy at times but always hinges on light humor, the soundtrack plays a big role, and the cast is solid. On the other, in the 10 years since Garden State, Braff hasn’t grown much as a filmmaker and still allows his movies to drift in and out of competence. When he’s good, he’s VERY good but when he’s not, his movies come off as film school-level. This movie is likable enough but not loveable and that’s a bit disappointing. Grade: B-


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I – Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences One sentence synopsis: Fresh out of the Hunger Games arena, Katniss becomes the face of the rebellion in Panem while struggling with the loss of Peeta, held captive in the Capital. I’m a much bigger fan of this film series than I am the books and this entry definitely has its merits but falls short of the high standard set by the previous films. Mockingjay simultaneously improves upon the source material while being hamstrung a bit by the lack of literary foundation (straight up: the “Mockingjay” novel is bad, let’s be honest). The movie drags a bit in parts and I think that illustrates why it shouldn’t have been split into two parts. But that said, the elongated runtime allows for more opportunities for its stars to actually acts and all of them, particularly Lawrence who is truly a movie star at this point, perform quite well. Grade: A- (Podcast here)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman – Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter Rated PG for mildly intense themes I guess? Do G-rated movies even exist anymore? One sentence synopsis: A genius dog and his adopted human son travel through time in the Wayback Machine. The two important questions I ask myself when grading most non-Pixar animated features (and the very best of Disney and Dreamworks, too) are: 1.) Is it harmless/appropriate for kiddos? and 2.) Is it tolerable for adults? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then great, the movie gets a “B.” Mr. Peabody and Sherman hits both marks but succeeds so well on both counts that I think it actually deserves some extra attention. This was a pretty stinking fun little movie and one that even my five-second-attention-span kiddo locked in on for a solid 30 to 40 minutes. It helps that it draws from some great source material but the visuals are good, the cast is strong, and there’s some fun moments that kept my attention as well as my kiddo’s. It’s been a strong year for animated films so this one is going to get left behind but for those of you with kids at home, it’s worth your time. Grade: B+


Exodus: Gods and Kings – Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley Rated PG-13 for violence and intense images One sentence synopsis: Moses clashes against the Pharaoh Ramses in order to free the Hebrews from slavery. The most frustrating part about Exodus is that it SHOULD be a good movie. Unlike Noah, which has a lackluster source material to pull from (89 verses in the Bible and a LOT left to the imagination), the story of Exodus is detailed and incredibly interesting (even if you’re not a believer) and moreover, there are so many theatrical elements within in. Unfortunately the movie just misses on so many levels. The casting is bad (Bale is alright but not great and most of the other actors feels extremely out of place), the script is messy, and about half the time I found myself wondering if Ridley Scott was even awake during production. Once upon a time Mr. Scott was a great director and maybe one day he’ll regain that form but too much of Exodus just felt like an exercise in lazy, voiceless directing. Moreover, the film dances around the subject of God and Moses’ struggle as a man without ever really picking a track to travel down. For all of its faults, at least Noah had the guts and ambition that Exodus lacks. Grade: C+

Dumb and Dumber To – Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Kathleen Turner Rated PG-13 for language, gross-out humor, and general awfulness One sentence synopsis: 20 years after the events of Dumb and Dumber, Harry and Lloyd reunite to track down Harry’s daughter. Ooh boy. Like all American males from my generation, I love the original Dumb and Dumber. It’s stupid and juvenile but it’s also insanely quotable and stands as one of the few comedies that holds up from an era that doesn’t look so good in hindsight. What it NEVER needed and what it DEFINITELY doesn’t need 20 years down the road is a sequel. Dumb and Dumber To is a painful and at times desperate attempt to regain the magic from a long-gone era during which all parties involved enjoyed much greater success (with the possible exception of Daniels though The Newsroom might suggest otherwise). It comes off as a cheap knock-off that cheapens the original. Grade: F (Podcast, sans my involvement thanks to the aforementioned surgery, here)

The Signal – Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Laurence Fishburne Rated PG-13 for some language and sci-fi freakiness One sentence synopsis: After tracking a rival hacker to Nevada, three college friends encounter a power that may not be of this world. I’m a big fan of good sci-fi done on a low budget and The Signal fits the bill. It straddles the line between horror and sci-fi quite well and manages to keep the audience on their toes without falling into the trap of opening up a thousand questions that can’t all be answered. I’m not sure that everything within this movie makes sense and it definitely jumps around a bit toward the conclusion but still, it’s a solid little movie that will make for an enjoyable Netflix viewing at some point. Grade: B


St. Vincent – Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher Rated PG-13 for language and dramatic elements One sentence synopsis: A grumpy old man with a complicated past becomes friends with his new neighbor, a pre-teen boy. I saved the best for last so we can end on a high. I’ve been looking forward to this one for months and not only did it not disappoint, it blew my expectations away. There is so much more to the story within St. Vincent than you would guess from the trailer, which is kind of frustrating because in a down year for awards contenders, this film could’ve had a shot at some consideration with a better marketing campaign. Regardless, St. Vincent is wholly charming and emotionally impactful and I loved it. Murray gives his best performance in a decade and the chemistry he develops with newcomer Lieberher is superb. Lots of laughs, plenty of tears, and an all-around, highly enjoyable movie. Grade: A

Movie Review: Interstellar

interstellar_banner In the future, a blight has run rampant across the world, killing off a large portion of the population and much of our food supply. Once an engineer and an astronaut, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), like many other former professionals, has been relegated to life as a farmer, a life that doesn’t suit him well. When an astronomical anomaly attracts the attention of his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain), Cooper follows a set of coordinates and discovers a hidden NASA compound. Here he is reunited with an old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who asks him to pilot an interstellar space flight into another galaxy in search of a new home for the human race. But as the state of earth worsens, Cooper’s task proves even more difficult than he might have imagined and as he wrestles with massive decisions in life-threatening circumstances, his ultimate goal of reuniting with his kids becomes his driving force.

I’ve been looking forward to Interstellar with great vigor for a very long time now and it was easily my most anticipated film of the year. I love Christopher Nolan, I love Matthew McConaughey (I’m still not used to saying/writing that without doing a double take), and I love space. Bringing all of those things together is like Hollywood coming directly to me and asking me what I would wish for in a movie then granting that wish. Thanks, Hollywood! I won’t tell you that all of those aspects came together to create a perfect film, much less the masterpiece that I might have quietly hoped for, but a great deal of this movie worked very, very well for me overall.

Interstellar borrows elements from a wide variety of sources, from films as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey to Field of Dreams to M. Night Shyamalan’s criminally underrated Signs as well as any number of science fiction novels, most notably (in my mind) The Forever War. As such, you can’t call this film all that unique on its surface. But the ambitions of Interstellar, and ultimately that of Nolan and his writing partner/brother Jonathan, lie in the task of bringing all of these ideas, concepts, and plot points together into a cohesive and, dare I say, staggeringly beautiful whole. It is by far Nolan’s most sentimental film and while that may come across as heavy-handed to some, I found it to be a very personal narrative and a much more earth-bound point of focus than what the director usually goes for. The sentiment and the emotion of this film, while not overpowering, hit the mark for me and brought a sense of purpose that I think often times gets lost in a piece of science-fiction, especially one of this magnitude. And make no mistake, Interstellar is a HUGE movie with fantastic cinematography that puts on full display just how wonderfully real a film can be. The space sequences in particular are dizzying, powerful and gloriously loud. It’s intense and at times heart-stopping and left me completely riveted to the screen.


The performances take a back seat to the scope of the visuals and the complexity of the narrative, but at one time or another, virtually every major cast member within Interstellar is called upon to carry and scene or two and I can’t say I was ever disappointed. McConaughey does more serious work on the non-verbal side of things than he usually does and in the film’s most vulnerable moments when he has to bring the emotion home, he does his job quite well. Chastain, another favorite around here, is as majestic as ever. Even Anne Hathaway who always seems to aggravate me (and, it seems, much of America agrees) gives a solid performance, albeit in a role that could’ve been played by two dozen actresses. It’s unlikely that any of the talent cast members will receive award attention but each of them holds their own.

There are certainly flaws to be dealt with within Interstellar. As mentioned previously, much of the story is borrowed from a variety of sources which tempts the viewer to disengage and write off a plot point as a knock-off. That didn’t happen for me but I understand the potential for derailment is there. The dialogue at times is iffy and there’s a ton of exposition to be dealt with, though I felt like Nolan did an excellent job of navigating through those exposition-y spots with as much momentum as possible. And, without spoilers, almost all of the plotting hinges on a moment in the third act that is designed, quite pointedly I think, to force the viewer to buy in or get out. That great scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Red finds Andy’s map and Andy implores him to, “Come a little further” comes to mind in the final act of Interstellar. The relationship between science and theory is certainly tested in Interstellar but I took it as an invitation from Nolan to come a little further and fully invest in his vision. Some won’t be able to do that. As a result, this is bound to be a divisive film and one that will inspire outright love and total hate. So be it.


All told, I think Interstellar is worth the price of admission based solely on the stunning visuals and its substantial ambition even if, in the end, you can’t get on board for the full ride. In the end, though, this is not a movie that you see so much as it is a movie that you feel and whether or not you can find its rhythms and share in its emotionalism will dictate how well it works for you. I went in for the full Interstellar experience and I loved it. I hope you will too.

Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some language and many intense sequences)

NOTE: A film of this scope deserves to be seen in the setting it is meant to be seen in. Much like Gravity last year, I fear if you see this on DVD, you will not be seeing the same movie. Get to the theater and moreover, get to an IMAX screen or a theater showing the film in 35mm. This is the rare film that's worth the added expense or inconvenience.

Movie Review: Fury

Fury Synopsis: In the waning days of World War II, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned a seat on Fury, a Sherman tank under the command of Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). Don's crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, and John Bernthal) are hardened soldiers who've fought and killed Nazis together across three years and numerous countries while Norman is new to the horrors of war. They're forced to bond quickly, however, as Fury is put through a series of difficult missions, culminating in a final stand that finds the tanks and its crew the only barrier between the Allied supply train and an army of zealous SS soldiers.

What I Liked: I'm a big fan of writer/director David Ayer and his unflinching, committed style of film making. His stuff isn't always great but he's very persistent (maybe even stubborn) when it comes to identifying what his story is all about and sticking to it completely. With Fury, he's attempting to show the ways in which a horrible war takes its toll on the humanity of those involved. Using a tank crew to tell this story is an interesting and somewhat unique concept and one that, at least on the surface, allows for some separation between this film and its war-related contemporaries. No one wants to make a movie that sits in the shadow of Saving Private Ryan and I think Ayer does his best to keep Fury from falling into that comparison.

For his part, Pitt turned in a quality performance, though one that borrowed more than a little from his turn in Inglourious Basterds. I quite like Pitt but he's not a limitless actor and he sometimes struggles in a leading role trying to do too much. Here, though, he stays within his range and it works. He is outclassed, however, by LaBeouf who absolutely shines in a smaller role that I desperately wanted more of. There are small moments in which LaBeouf absolutely makes the film and I left wondering if this might be the turning of a page for him.

And while some of the action sequences are only mediocre, there is a pivotal scene in which Fury takes on a German Tiger tank that had me on the edge of my proverbial seat. It's an extremely tense sequence that reminded me of something you might see in an old submarine movie. Really great work.


What I Didn't Like: As I said above, Ayer is completely committed to whatever road he sets out on and I think that got the best of him this time around. Fury is a bleak affair and one that almost drowns in its own grimness. I don't need my World War II movies to be happy-fun-time but this one could've used a touch of light here or there just to break up the monotony of dark and depressing. You rarely sympathize with Fury's crew, mostly because they're all already so broken that they've lost their humanity. To be a true study in the horrors of war, Fury needed to take place a little further back up the road before all the characters had been completely changed. As it is, it just becomes exhausting, especially in scenes that drastically needed to be edited down. One scene in particular, set inside an apartment post-liberation, is excruciatingly uncomfortable and threatened to make me check out altogether.

Some of the effects are a bit firework-y which seems out of place in a realistic war film and Fury doesn't always avoid the classic beats of the genre, resulting in a story that feels a little paint-by-numbers at times. And almost all of the characters are one-note cliches, leaving their success or failure completely in the hands of the actors. Pitt and LaBeouf succeed, Bernthal and Pena fail, and Lerman bounces back and forth on the pass/fail line. I think we might need to be done with the Bernthal experience and I've yet to be impressed by Pena. Everyone tells me he's a good actor and I'm not saying he's not, I'm just saying I still haven't seen him do anything that made him click for me.

Conclusion: Fury has some excellent moments but ultimately, it's a disappointment. It lingers too long in the wrong places and skips around those that might lead to a little more depth of story, character, and even tone. It isn't a total waste or even a complete misfire, it just doesn't reach the goal it sets out for itself.

Grade: B- (Rated R for war violence, language, sexual references and overall grimness)

Many Mini Movie Reviews

It’s been a long time since I wrote a movie review. I know most of you don’t really care about this as you’re only here to see pictures of my cute kid. But I tend to write less about all subjects when I don’t have movies to write about to get the blood flowing, as it were. Frankly, though, there just haven’t been any films I’ve really wanted to see let alone write about over the last six weeks. Even for the podcast, we’ve had to resort to reviews of films from years past because, I mean, what are we going to do, spend an hour on Let’s Be Cops? Come on. But finally there were movies out this week that I wanted to see and so I saw all of them. ALL OF THE MOVIES! So here’s a quick recap of these films that ranged from “pretty stinkin’ good” to “one of the worst movies ever.” thedrop

The Drop – Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace Rated R for language and violence Dennis Lehane (whose books have inspired films like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River) wrote the script for The Drop based on one of his short stories and boy, does it feel like a Dennis Lehane film! The Drop is grim and gritty and features characters that thrive in the dark even as they attempt to make a go of it in sunnier pastures. The story here is thin (maybe there’s a reason it was a short story) but it is held together quite nicely through some terrific performances. This film will go down as James Gandolfini’s last, which is fitting since his character operates somewhere in the same realm as Tony Soprano might. The whole movie, however, belongs to Hardy and his portrayal of Bob Saginowski, the mysterious barkeep whose quiet demeanor just barely keeps his truths at bay. You know throughout The Drop that something is coming, that something is going to break, but the film plays it slow and lets that feeling sink in before allowing the movie itself to fully engage the elephant in the room. Grade: B+ Lesser performances would have left this movie to become a middling affair but Hardy is worth the price of admission by himself. It’s the sort of solid, adult-oriented drama that is often lacking from the theatrical release calendar.


Lucy – Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked Rated R for violence that could’ve easily been toned down to PG-13 level I’m not a very good artist; otherwise, I might just skip the writing part of this review and just draw a picture of me setting myself on fire. That might be less painful than digging through this colossal mess again. I have one simple rule when it comes to science fiction: Create rules that work within your world and then stick to them. Well, according to Lucy, if humans could somehow learn to use 100% of their brains, they would be able to exercise mind control on other humans, travel through digital wavelengths, and spread across the world like a computer virus. I think. Nothing, NOTHING, within this movie makes an ounce of sense even in a crazy sci-fi universe and while I’m usually okay with, “Leave your brain at the door” entertainment, Lucy felt like an assault on my brain on every single level. If I could use 100% of my brain, I would just strike the memory of this film entirely. Grade: F Somehow this movie is fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and has made over $300 million worldwide. I don’t understand how either of those things are possible.


The One I Love – Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss Rated R for absolutely no reason, seriously, there’s like two curse words in the whole movie To accurately describe The One I Love would be to ruin it completely. It’s sci-fi…sort of…with some…comedy-ish moments…with an edge of…horror that’s not actually scary but you feel like it might get scary at some point… I don’t know. A couple on the verge of divorce heads to an out of town retreat to reinvigorate their marriage and weird things happen. That’s all I can say about the plot. It’s a quirky, off-putting little film produced on a shoestring budget and featuring two actors who both commit completely to a bonkers storyline. I’m thoroughly impressed with all involved. Grade: A- The One I Love isn’t going to be for everyone but I found it to be extremely charming even in its stranger, borderline creepy moments.


A Walk Among the Tombstones – Liam Neeson, David Harbour, Brian Bradley Rated R for language, violence, and general horrific imagery I wonder how many people went into this movie thinking, “Oh it’s about Liam Neeson taking down kidnappers. This’ll be a riot!” and came out a bit shaken. Yes, while A Walk Among the Tombstones does involve Liam Neeson tracking down a pair of kidnappers, it is a far cry from the ridiculousness of Taken, Taken 2, Taken on a Plane, and the other films he’s starred in over the last few years. This is a grim affair and while it pulls a few punches in terms of the on-screen violence, it’s certainly not, shall we say, an enjoyable film. Neeson, though, is good at this sort of thing and plays his role well even if most of the surrounding work is average at best. The plot, too, requires the surrounding characters to make too many dumb choices in order to work and thus leaves the whole film feeling somewhat hollow. Grade: B A Walk Among the Tombstones is dark and dreary and while it gets its job done effectively enough, it’s not a film that you’re going to remember in a month.


This is Where I Leave You – Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver Rated R for language and sexual situations Oh man. This one is tough to review. I have very rarely wanted to love a movie the way I wanted to love This is Where I Leave You. I read the book and found it to be heartbreakingly authentic in almost every way and could not have been more excited about the film’s cast. But it BADLY needed steadier hands at the helm than what director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and writer Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the book). In truth, this movie is a complete mess that is just BEGGING for someone to pump some air into the room and let it breathe a little. It moves far, far too fast in an effort to touch on all the beats of the book and as a result, it almost always feels rushed. From a purely filmmaking standpoint, This is Where I Leave You is a massive misstep. But…the cast is so good and the source material is so personal and honest that you get a dozen or more moments throughout the film that actually matter and ring completely true when they probably should fall flat. I think this is why critics hated it and audiences seem to appreciate it. It’s like a song that you know is bad but you keep singing along anyway because even though it sounds wrong, for some reason it feels right. I completely get why This is Where I Leave You has failed with critics but there’s a part of me that can’t toss the whole thing out in spite of its many flaws. Grade: B I guess? The stronger moments will resonate with me for a long time I think but the low points are supremely low and frustrating. Read the book and then maybe appreciate the movie just for Bateman and Driver if nothing else.


The Maze Runner – Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario Rated PG-13 for violence, language and thematic elements Another entry into the growing list of “young adult novel turned film franchise” properties, I was fairly unfamiliar with The Maze Runner having never been able to get through the book’s first couple of chapters. But for what it is, I actually quite liked this movie. The host of young actors are all fairly solid in their roles (it’s always a tricky proposition when you have this many young and unknown cast members) I was very impressed with the world director Wes Ball built. It’s a much more engrossing film than I might have expected. I can’t say The Maze Runner is up to the caliber of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games but I think it’s significantly better than most of the other YA adaptations that have made their way into theaters over the last few years. Grade: B+ I can’t there’s anything truly special or remarkable about this film but it’s an interesting concept that is fleshed out fairly well.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians Synopsis: 26 years after being abducted from earth, Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) comes into possession of an artifact so valuable and dangerous that soon the entire galaxy is on his tail. In order to keep the item from falling into the hands of the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace), Quill joins forces with a ragtag group of misfits, including a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, and together they take on the impossible task of saving the universe.

What I Liked: I could probably just type a big "EVERYTHING!" and be done with it, but where's the fun in that? Guardians is a massive departure, both in tone and subject matter, from the rest of the Marvel universe and while I'm a huge fan of said universe, this movie felt like that first cool evening at the end of a burning hot summer. While Guardians does tend to follow the standard blockbuster blueprint in terms of narrative structure, it's got this wild, undeniably fun spirit that guides the ship through the most exciting route a movie could hope to take while still staying on the requisite path. It is fresh, it is energetic, and it is confident, with that last part standing out as perhaps the most important. James Gunn (Slither, Super) totally embraces the film's spirit and infuses it with a certain hipness that made it undeniably endearing to me. Guardians is not just funny but legitimately hilarious and while the jokes aren't always particularly witty, neither are they low and they fly fast and free. For that matter, the film as a whole moves at a much more rapid pace than any of the previous Marvel entries, a quality I quite enjoyed. It is also undoubtedly the edgiest film in this universe and I think Gunn succeeds in adding a layer of grit and grime to his film without making it altogether dark, which is no small task (just ask anyone invested in the DC universe).


Guardians also succeeds in bringing forth characters that are truly likable because of who they are rather than what they represent. That's one of the big knocks on the Marvel films: their lack of strong, relatable characters that stand on their own merits. Tony Stark/Iron Man is great but in truth, that's where the list ends. We like Captain America because of what he stands for. We like Bruce Banner because he transforms into a monster. We like Hawkeye because...I'm just kidding, no one really likes Hawkeye. The point is, the majority of the Marvel movies are carried by their themes, their exciting action sequences, and a group of likable actors who carry their sometimes-lackluster characters through with charisma. But with Guardians, you get a whole handful of characters that you can't help but love. This is partly due to the cast, all of whom are excellent. Chris Pratt is a star, you guys, and as a day one fan of Parks and Recreation, I couldn't be happier for him. Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, and most surprisingly, former WWE star Dave Bautista are all great as well.

But the characters themselves are so much more enjoyable and exciting than just about anything else that exists in the Marvel universe, due in no small part to the fact that they all have actual personalities. Both Rocket Raccoon (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel), created out of thin air through the magic of CGI, have more personality than just about any other character in this series of films. That's an impressive feat. And I can't ever recall a film that featured magnetic chemistry between two CGI characters but darned if Guardians doesn't hit that mark square on the head.

What I Didn't Like: There are two chief complaints regarding Guardians. One, as guardians2mentioned previously, it follows the Marvel road map with little deviation. This is a small issue in my mind as I don't particularly dislike the pre-established safety that this road provides but with a movie as unique as this one is within the Marvel universe, it would've been nice to see it strike out on its own from a narrative standpoint. Second and much more importantly, Guardians lacks a compelling villain. This is a big problem within the Marvel universe. They've thrown all manner of bad guys at us and while some have worked marginally well (Loki in Avengers, Red Skull in Captain America), none have come close to matching up with their heroic counterparts. Guardians is chock full of villains and semi-villains, most notably Ronan, but none of them seem to truly matter. This entire franchise is building to an eventual battle between The Avengers (and compatriots) and Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) but so far it's a bunch of smoke and mirrors and if it fails to pay off, this whole thing is slightly diminished. Here's hoping this issue gets remedied sooner rather than later.

Conclusion: Small issues aside, Guardians of the Galaxy is the comic book movie the genre desperately needed. It's an absolute blast, the sci-fi elements are strong, and did I mention the soundtrack is spectacular? If The Avengers is the best of the Marvel movies (which is now debatable in my opinion), Guardians is by far the coolest and quite possibly the most memorable when it's all said and done.

Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for language and violence)

Movie Review: Boyhood

boyhood-poster Synopsis: Boy is this one hard to summarize properly. Beginning in 2002, Boyhood charts the growth and development of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 5 to 18. Mason bounces around the state of Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater), with his (at times) estranged father (Ethan Hawke) always a step or two behind. Throughout the 12 year journey, Mason endures poverty, a host of stepfathers, and a perpetual lack of stability all while attempting to discover who he really wants to be. Boyhood was filmed over the course of this 12 year period, in short installments each year, and thus, each of the cast members remains constant throughout the entirety of the film. In this way, you are actually seeing a boy grow up on screen before your very eyes.

What I Liked: Movies like this, films that are thoroughly profound and universally significant, often leave me feeling inadequate. As in, "how am I supposed to critique something this monumental without seeming like a complete moron?" It also doesn't help that there are any number of essays on the merits of Boyhood which have already been published by much greater minds than mine (and much better writers, too). To add my very meager endorsement to the list of accolades this film has already garnered, let me just say that Boyhood is simply something that you need to experience for yourself. It isn't exactly entertaining nor is it easy to watch; in fact, there are moments that are downright painful. But the point of the film is to illustrate life itself in the most realistic terms possible within this medium and as we all know, life can be quite messy at times, can't it? There is a forthright dedication to authenticity that overruns virtually every other aspect of Boyhood and kind of forces you to think about your own adolescence as Mason goes through his. I found myself reliving, or at least reviewing, my own youth (which is further away from me than I care to admit) and running through all of the feelings that come with that. As such, this a less-than-consistently-comfortable day at the movies but it is without question a wholly unique experience that I dare say will never be replicated.


From a straight up movie perspective, there are some glitches within Boyhood (see below) but they are almost always trumped by the sheer magnitude of what is taking place before your eyes. Coltrane proves to be perhaps the perfect fit for this role in that nothing he does overpowers the rest of the film but he always seems up to the task of whatever situation director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) puts Mason in, which makes this a very appropriately even performance. The narrative is simple but Linklater uses it quite efficiently; we move from year to year in Mason's life without much pomp or circumstance and then we are simply shown a day or a week in the life of a typical child. People come in and out of Mason's life, for better or for worse, and we see the way Mason's decisions, as well as the decisions of those around him (particularly his mother), impact his "character arc" (as it were). Anchoring each shift and change in Mason's life is his father, whether he's actively involved in his son's life at the time or not, and through all of this Hawke absolutely SHINES. Coltrane is the star of the film and has deservedly drawn the most attention but in my opinion it is Hawke, and his interactions with his unknown, novice counterpart, that truly bring Boyhood its greatest depth. I would like for him to receive all of the awards in a few months.

What I Didn't Like: While Boyhood is ALMOST perfect, there are a few bumps in the road that seem to pop up in the most inopportune of moments. For starters, while Hawke is a centering and genuine force within the movie, too often Arquette comes across as too wooden or perhaps just more actor-y than the part calls for. Many times I found myself treating Boyhood like a documentary only to be taken out of that mindset when Arquette popped up again. It's not a BAD performance, it's just slightly off from what I think the role called for.

In addition, some of the ancillary characters turn out to be far more caricature-like than the leading characters, leaving a bit of a cliche aftertaste in the midst of a narrative that really goes out of its way to avoid cliches. It also, I think, spends a little too much time focusing on the hardships in Mason's life and misses a few opportunities to bring some genuinely positive influences in to offset a bit of the negative. That's not to say Boyhood dwells in the dark or ever becomes actually depressing; but there are times when I think the story was begging for someone, anyone, besides the dad to step into Mason's life and be a decent human being. And look, I know this is a VERY minor complaint, but when a movie is jumping from year to year and asks you to use context clues to figure out where in the protagonist's life we've landed, your musical choices need to be accurate. Coldplay's "Yellow", which was released in 2000, opens the movie that starts in 2002 and there are several other musical interludes that took me out of the film for just a second as I tried to work out what year we were in. Again, very minor, but when the entire film is built on staying in the reality of the film, you don't want to be pulled out of it every time a song cues up in the background.

In many ways the blips on the Boyhood radar are very small and do little, if anything, to hinder the film. That said, this blemishes are so small that they're almost more frustrating than if the movie was rife with holes and screw ups. I wanted Boyhood to be a masterpiece and it absolutely has the opportunity to be so but these tiny little missteps keep it teetering right on the edge of perfection and ultimately, for me, keep it from becoming the greatest version of itself.

Conclusion: Simply put once more, Boyhood is like no other film you are every likely to see. Linklater (one of my absolute favorites who will almost undoubtedly find his name listed at just about every award he is eligible for this winter) has created something that exudes life with every frame and provides a thoughtful and almost completely unique view of growing up. It's not an easy watch but then again, some movies are meant to entertain and some are meant to make you think and five days after viewing Boyhood I'm still thinking about it. I could not recommend this one more highly.

Grade: A+ (Rated R for language, drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references)

Movie Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

x-men-days-of-future-past-movie Synopsis: In the future, giant robots called Sentinels have all but wiped out the mutant population and the world has became a dark, grim place gripped by constant war. In order to win a war that cannot be won, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) devise a plan to put a stop to it before it has even begun. Using the powers of Kitty Pride (Ellen Page), Professor X sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 and tasks him with uniting the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to destroy the Sentinel program before it ever gets off the ground. But there are massive complications with this plan and as time is running out in the future, Wolverine runs into major problems centered on Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who is dead set on the very course of action that will begin the winner-less war.

What I Liked: As I was preparing for X-Men: Days of Future Past, I went back and watched all of the previous X-Men films and rediscovered how much I truly love this franchise. As a kid, I watched the Saturday morning cartoon religiously and collected the action figures and I think the highs of this movie franchise are on par with any superhero movie out there. But the lows (like 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and ESPECIALLY 2006's Last Stand) leave a bad taste in one's mouth and in some ways cheapen the achievements of the superior films. Without going into spoilers, what I love most about Days of Future Past is director Bryan Singer basically pushing the reset button and striking those lesser films from the X-Men canon. This is an incredibly ambitious film that cuts back and forth between two far distant time periods but Singer weaves it together wonderfully and presents an almost surprisingly cohesive whole that gives fanboys like myself an easy out to completely forget about those films that have been the source of discontentment in the past. The fact that the storyline is even remotely understandable given all the time jumping is an achievement on its own but when you take into account that Singer also had a ton of established but often contradictory background to work around, you really have to applaud the guy's efforts and recognize his excellence as a director.

Days of Future Past is highly enjoyable, a summer blockbuster through and through. XmenPosterThere is weight to the story but it doesn't feel entirely heavy the way many superhero films have felt of light in the post-Dark Knight world. That is not to say, however, that the performances are somehow less significant. Jackman is always a treat in this role, Lawrence is excellent as usual, and somehow McAvoy continues to be quite good in this role despite the fact that I've never liked him in any other role he's taken on. But as with almost every movie he's been a part of in the last few years, Days of Future Past belongs to Fassbender. You simply cannot look away when he's on screen and the sheer pull of his dynamic-but-frightening charisma is palpable. (I really tried HARD to resist making a "magnetic" pun there. Please pray for me.) There are few actors in the industry who exhibit such force on screen as Fassbender does. I love what he brings to this role.

What I Didn't Like: One of the best things about the X-Men universe is the understanding of scale as it applies to the balance of power. X-Men stories are inherently more interesting than Superman stories because Superman is such an all-encompassing, powerful being that there's never really anything at stake because there's not anything that could ever really beat him. But with the X-Men, there is a limit to the power of even the greatest mutants. I felt like there were moments within Days of Future Past in which Singer didn't hold to that tenant and the universe as a whole suffers a bit because of this. At one point Magneto rips RFK Stadium out of its foundation and flies it to The White House. If you can do that, there's very little anyone can do to you to maintain the balance of power and therefore the stakes. Singer reels it back in a bit toward the end but once the cat is out of the bag it's hard to get it back in. There are also a few very minor plot points (such as the indication that JFK was a mutant) that play a bit heavy-handed and some logic leaps that I felt could have been avoided without any detriment to the plot as a whole. Small issues to be sure but worth noting I think.

Conclusion: This isn't a perfect movie by any means but Days of Future Past is incredibly enjoyable and it puts the franchise as a whole in a far better place than it has been in a long time. The X-Men can go almost anywhere Singer wants from here on out and that leaves me even more excited about the future than I already am for this current film.

Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some language and violence)

Movie Review: Godzilla

Godzilla Synopsis: 15 years after the tragic accident at a Japanese power plant that claimed the life of his wife, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) return to the quarantined site to finally learn the truth of what happened on that fateful day. But they soon discover a secret research facility that is home to a winged, ancient horror that suddenly threatens to send our planet back into prehistoric times. As this creature begins to wreak havoc across the Pacific, another great beast arises from the deep: Godzilla, King of the Monsters. But is he here to vanquish our common enemy or will he, too, attempt to destroy life as we know it?

What I Liked: When this movie was announced, I completely ignored it. I've never really cared about this character (as it were) and any interest I might have had in a Godzilla reboot was eradicated by the 1998 Matthew Broderick masterpiece. But that first teaser trailer was fantastic and brought with it a buzz that stayed with me so long that I might have been looking forward to this movie more so than any other this summer. So somewhat surprisingly, Godzilla had a great deal to live up to and thankfully, it did not disappoint.

In short, Godzilla is almost a perfect summer blockbuster. It's got pretty much everything you could want this time of year: Action. Explosions. Great visuals. Multiple giant monsters that like nothing more than destroying cities. One of the Olsen sisters (not one of the Olsen twins, mind you, but instead their supremely talented non-twin, Elizabeth). EVERYTHING. But hidden among all the standard blockbuster fare is a smart plot handled by a rising star in the directing world, Gareth Edwards, who understands exactly what his audience wants and how to play with that. Godzilla finds the right balance between action overload and disappointment, due in large part to Edwards handling of the great beast. You don't see Godzilla himself until an hour into the movie and during that time, Edwards builds his mystique incredibly well, leading to a tremendous sense of thrill when he does show up. There was a wave of energy that rolled through my theater when we finally got a good look at the monster and man, is he a sight to behold!

The visuals within Godzilla are outstanding, complete with some of the best CGI I've ever godzillacranstonseen. Moreover, the creature design, which I think is often overlooked in a movie like this, is gloriously well done. That is to say, Godzilla looks AWESOME, powerful and terrifying but with a touch of grace that is usually missing in this setting. (Last year's Pacific Rim, which I enjoyed just fine, could have been improved tremendously with this sort of visually appealing creature design.) He also sounds awesome and the masterfully crafted audio elements of this movie should not be overlooked. And the actors, while definitely playing second fiddle to their rather large CGI counterpart, are all solid. No one here is being asked to carry a film, of course, but far too often, actors in these sorts of rolls turn in performances that border on cringe-worthy and the film suffers. Not so here, as Cranston, Taylor-Johnson, Olsen, and the rest all bring something to the table.

What I Didn't Like: There are times when Godzilla almost feels like it is two movies being compressed into one. Much of the back story and plotting is touched on in a very choppy manner as we move from place to place and even year to year. On the one hand, I appreciate this commitment to keeping things moving as the movie clocks in right at two hours in an era that routinely sees summer blockbusters roll on and on for 150 or 160 minutes. On the other hand, I actually really dug the origin portions of this story and could have done with more time in that area. There is not much room for character development within Godzilla either and I think some of the more emotional moments suffer because of this. At the same time, the movie expends very little effort in banging the emotional drum so perhaps that angle just wasn't much of a concern. Regardless, there are some pacing issues that I think are indicative of a young director who hasn't had this sort of time or money to work with before. Even still, these are minor issues for me and didn't hinder my enjoyment of the movie overall.

Conclusion: All told, Godzilla is a highly enjoyable, thrilling film that I honestly can't wait to see again. Edwards makes a 300 foot dinosaur far more appealing than he has any right to be and left the audience wanting more. Godzilla embodies the spirit of the summer blockbuster wonderfully, setting a high standard for the summer films that are to come.

Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some language and a devastating amount of destruction)

NOTE: I went in for a 3D screening, which I rarely do, and regretted. It's not the terrible, retro-fitted 3D that we've seen in the past but it simply adds nothing to the movie as a whole. Good old fashioned 2D will do the trick and save you some money, too. You're welcome. Also, Gareth Edwards' first film, Monsters, is available on Netflix and is worth your time. Great accomplishments on a nothing budget.


Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

SpiderMan2 Synopsis: After the events of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds himself struggling to find balance in his life. The time he spends fighting crime takes its toll both on his own body and mind and on his relationships, particularly with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and his Aunt May (Sally Field). Things only become more complicated when a new enemy called Electro (Jamie Foxx) begins wreaking havoc upon New York City and Peter's old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns home to take control of Oscorp, the company Peter's father worked for before his mysterious disappearance. All of these factors converge to force Spider-Man into choices he doesn't want to make and threaten to destroy the world he so badly wants to protect.

What I Liked: There are moments of true greatness within The Amazing Spider-Man 2, most of which center on the character interactions and developments. Garfield has matured into his dual role quite well and the writing for his characters here is excellent. He has a talent for an almost manic brand of wisecracking sarcasm that fits this role nicely and indeed that talent is constantly put on display. Likewise, Garfield's chemistry with Stone is palpable and the Parker-Stacy relationship is highly enjoyable every time the characters interact. While at times the dialogue is as comic-book-movie-cookie-cutter as you can get, there are spots in which screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci give the actors tremendous material to work with, such as a the touching speech that Aunt May delivers to Peter in the second act (and coming from someone who really does not like Sally Field, this is really saying something). And whereas the first film in this franchise felt like a completely unnecessary rehash (which is was), Amazing Spider-Man 2 fully sets the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire franchise aside and sets out, thankfully, on its own path. This includes a stake-raising event near the end of the film that has the potential to up the ante, in a good way, moving forward.

What I Didn't Like: As good as this movie can be in the small moments, when Peter/Spidey interacts with another character, it is just as bad when it comes to plot development and world building. There's a decisive been-there-done-that feel to most of the action sequences and the film seems incapable of maintaining momentum. Every time I started to really dig in, director Marc Webb took me away to work on a plot point I didn't care about or introduce yet another superfluous character or to stop down for a montage sequence backed by the power of Phillip Phillips. Yay! Moreover, I think Amazing Spider-Man 2 lacks identity. At times it is a fun comic book movie, at times it drifts into darker, grittier territory and at times it plays the youth adult fiction card far too heavily. As a result, the movie never feels completely committed to any one course of action and thus it suffers. No aspect of the film drives this point home harder than Hans Zimmer's HORRENDOUS score that perpetually and insufferably drives the tone of the film in the complete opposite direction of whatever is happening on screen.


My biggest complaint, however, is how ridiculously overstuffed the entire movie is. Webb BOMBARDS the audience with new character after new character over and over again which only adds to the lack of flow within the film's development. There are more characters in play here than in an episode of Game of Thrones and outside of Peter/Spidey and Stacy, none of them are well developed. One of the biggest complaints about the first Spider-Man trilogy was the overabundance of characters, both villainous and virtuous, so you would think Webb would learn from this. Instead, Amazing Spider-Man 2 falls right into the same trap, resulting in villains without any bite and leading me to the point where I really couldn't care less about any of them, I just wanted it to be over. 

Conclusion: This was an extremely frustrating viewing experience, partly because of the up and down nature of the film itself and partly because you can see the foundation of something good that never quite comes to fruition. Instead of picking a path and sticking with it, Amazing Spider-Man 2 tries to appeal to everyone and as a result, I found it to be extremely uneven and somewhat forgettable in spite of a few fantastic sequences.

Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for comic book-y violence)

Movie Review: The Monuments Men

MonumentsMen Synopsis: At the tail end of World War II, art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is tasked with preserving and rescuing much of Europe's great art, sculptures, and buildings from the retreating Nazi forces. He assembles a crack team, known as "The Monuments Men", consisting of artists, architects, and playwrights and the group of aging men head overseas. Once stationed on the front lines, James Granger (Matt Damon) must persuade French historian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to trust him and reveal her knowledge while the rest of the group spreads out across Europe in an attempt to locate the thousands of stolen pieces before the Nazis put them all to the flame.

What I Liked: It's hard not to get excited about a cast like this. Clooney and Damon are great in and of themselves but when you add in American Treasures John Goodman and Billy Murray and the criminally underrated Bob Balaban in supporting roles, you know you're bound to see some excellent work no matter how the finished product turns out. And that's what sticks about most about The Monuments Men. You get these bright moments of greatness from one of these performers or another and often the best sequences involve two of them working off of one another. Clooney and Damon have an obvious easy chemistry with each other, Murray and Balaban work delightfully in tandem for quite some time, and Goodman and Jean Dujardin make the most of their time together as well. (Very little of this film includes all of the Monuments Men which is a real bummer obviously.) I think it's fair to say that when The Monuments Men shines, it is because of the rich stock of talent that makes up the cast, though the story itself is interesting and worthy of being told.


What I Didn't Like: I think we're at the point where we have to say that George Clooney as a director can no longer be considered a draw. His first two films (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck which earned him an Oscar nomination) were of the highest quality but his subsequent efforts have fallen off significantly. Leatherheads is horrible and while The Ides of March had its moments (and even brought a nomination for writing), its pursuit of greatness was hamstrung almost from the beginning and the direction had a lot to do with that. Monuments Men is much the same. Great cast (as noted), interesting story, lots of good vibes going in but ultimately it doesn't come anywhere close to achieving its goals. I think all the right pieces are here but the assemblage of said pieces is wrong. The tone is uneven and usually seems slightly off, the first hour is incredibly choppy, and the movie routinely tries to cash in on emotional checks it hasn't yet earned. We're supposed to be invested in Stokes' attachment to a certain piece of art but the development of this plot point (and many others) fails to deliver the same amount of attachment that the character feels. There are numerous, "Oh that's nice" moments that are played for, "This will stick with you for the next 20 years." The score is horrendous and often drives the tone in just enough of the wrong direction that I had trouble staying attuned. And when The Monuments Men works, it seems almost always to be a result of the great talent of the cast and almost in spite of the poor direction.

In Conclusion: I'm not willing to call The Monuments Men a bad movie but it is a far, FAR cry from the classic film that I, and I think everyone involved with this movie too, expected it to be. To me, it's like a puzzle that has been twisted and turned into an assembled whole but the final picture is all wrong. The Monuments Men is passable and decently entertaining but that unfortunately makes it quite a disappointment.

Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some language and violence)

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside-Llewyn-Davis Synopsis: Singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) bums around 1961 Greenwich Village, toiling in the folk music scene and couch surfing with anyone who will have him. Davis is a talented musician but not truly a great one and after the death of his singing partner, he drifts through life believing that he is better than his circumstances but unwilling or unable to change them. He travels from New York to Chicago and back and has interactions with a number of more successful, "together" friends, usually while transporting a cat, and whether or not his experiences leave him a changed man or not is left to the discretion of the viewer.

What I Liked: One of the things I love most about the Coen Brothers is their undeniable style that oozes through every film they make. You never watch a Coen Brothers movie without coming out knowing that you just watched a Coen Brothers movie. But at the same time, they never beat you over the head with their Coen-ness. Each of their movies centers on a drastically different subject or subject matter (though this one shares some obvious connections to O Brother Where Art Thou?) but there's this sense of familiarity that goes hand in hand with everything they do. That, I think, is why they can take chances and piece their movies together in strange ways and still expect the audience to buy in, because there's an existing comfortability that comes along with each project.

Inside Llewyn Davis is sort of the quintessential Coen Brothers movie. They've chosen a InsideLlewynDavisFirstTeaserposter1interesting but perhaps not all that accessible character and then they throw the audience right into a week in his life with very little build up but we immediately buy in because it all seems familiar (assuming you've had some experience with previous Coen works). This lets them really put you in Davis's shoes and helps to make him a much more likable character than he really has any business being. He's a melancholy, grumpy bum in many ways but the movie lets you (or perhaps forces you) to see the world through his eyes and it works beautifully.

Isaac is a tremendous medium for the Coen's particular brand of darkly comedic art. Davis is at the same time witty, sulky, and subtly charismatic and Isaac hits each mark perfectly. It doesn't hurt that he is an outstanding musician and every time he picks up his guitar is a glorious trip into the heart of 60s folk. Seriously, this is absolutely perfect casting. And the supporting players, featuring the typically strong batch of great actors in small roles we've come to expect from the Coens, take turns setting Isaac up to shine. Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, F. Murray Abraham, and John Goodman, among others, all have some glorious moments and all serve to further Davis' progression through his own personal Odyssey. Inside Llewyn Davis is also near-perfect from a technical standpoint and the cinematography, while a little understated, is superb.

What I Didn't Like: Um, that it ended?

In Conclusion: I've been looking forward to this one and building it up in my mind for a year now and somehow it still managed to exceed my expectations. Inside Llewyn Davis is smart, it has a strong emotional core, and like most Coen movies, it is darkly hilarious in just the right ways. It is a brilliant, heart-achingly genuine piece of filmmaking. This is one of the very best movies of the year for me and I've had the soundtrack playing on repeat for three days now. If I had had the opportunity to see it before I wrote my Top 10 list and Top Performances list, the movie would have come out third or fourth and Isaac's work would have been top five. Love, love, love it.

Grade: A+ (Rated R for language and some sexual references)

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a negative asset manager at TIME Magazine who spends more time lost in his vivid daydreams than he does in real life. Once an outgoing, rebellious teen, Mitty longs to break out of his shell but struggles to find the right motivation to push him into gear. This motivation comes when he loses the negative that is to serve as the cover photo for the final issue of TIME. Desperate to track down this lost treasure, he gives in to his internal call to adventure and embarks on a crazy journey to find Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), the photographer who took the shot. His journey will take him to Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan, and back again but soon the focus of his travel shifts and Walter begins to truly rediscover himself.

I rarely feel the need to challenge the establishment, as it were, when it comes to the general critical consensus on a given movie. Art is subjective and while I often like or dislike a film more than the established critics, I don't feel the need to lead the charge of rebuttal. However, having seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, having taken note of the film's Rotten Tomatoes score (currently sitting at 48%), and having browsed through a number of negative reviews, I feel the need to lead said charge.

Most of the bad press I've read regarding Walter Mitty has boiled down to one of two responses: either the writer took issue with the film's expansion upon the original short story (written by James Thurber and published in The New Yorker in 1933) or the writer felt the film was reaching for heights, trying to connect to emotions, that it didn't get to. In regards to the first complaint, having recently read the original story, I feel good when I say it is excellent and also it absolutely would not translate to a full length feature in 2013. With this film, Stiller held true to the spirit of the book and expanded upon it in what I would say is a very fitting manner. And as far as the second complaint goes, I would much prefer a film have the ambition to reach for grander goals and fall short than to sleepwalk through a story without attempting to become anything bigger. I had no problem in the slightest connecting with Mitty and while it didn't end up as the iconic film it wants to be, it's still a stinking good film.

Simply put, I really, really liked Walter Mitty, to the point of outright love. It's a MittyPosterpredictable story but one that is told with great flair and an even greater passion that I found infectious. Ben Stiller truly cares about this film and I think that bleeds over into virtually every frame. Mitty takes the viewer all around the world and the visuals throughout are absolutely stunning. I'd say this movie is worth seeing just for the camera work and the outstanding overall look of it all. All of the actors are engaged in the story and while nothing here is deserving of award contention, I found all of the characters to be likable and the performances to be solid. Penn is perhaps most noteworthy in a tiny role that reminded me just how ridiculously good that guy can be when he's invested in the movie. Kristin Wiig could've been given more to work with but I think she played her role well and there's an awkward chemistry between her and Stiller that suits the film. Mitty is also seriously fun to watch and highly enjoyable and for me, that general likability covers over most of its flaws. Lastly, there's a timeliness to the film that embraces the love for things that are rapidly headed toward extinction. The chosen medium here is TIME Magazine and the magazine industry as a whole but it could just as easily be book stores, film, or just about anything else that we hold on to in the midst of the turning tides of technology.

Maybe it's just me and my affinity for nostalgia. I have long said that I will probably be the last person to ever shop in a brick and mortar book store or to buy a physical CD and that part of me certainly identifies with the romanticism of Walter Mitty. But even if my heart was completely frozen toward that aspect of the movie, I would think there would be more than enough herein to make me respond favorably to the whole thing. Mitty is a warm, feel-good, highly enjoyable movie that the cold-hearted critics are straight-up wrong about. Grade: A- (Rated PG for a little language)

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

HungerGames2 A year after her boat-rocking victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has discovered that the world outside the arena is even more dangerous than the one inside. The stunt that saved both her and Peeta Mellark's (Josh Hutcherson) lives also put her squarely in the crosshairs of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the leader of Panem. As a repercussion of her actions, Katniss and Peeta see their names called to return to the arena in what amounts to an all-star competition in the 75th Hunger Games. But there's more at stake here than just the fight for survival and soon Katniss is embroiled in something far bigger than just herself.

I think a lot of people were surprised by the quality of the first Hunger Games movie last year. The books, in my opinion, range from "solid" to "tired" and contain just enough of a teen romance subplot to make me skeptical about the Twilight-ification of a movie adaptation. But the first film turned out quite well for me and became one of the year's biggest hits. That movie laid a solid foundation for what was to come and gave me hope for what was to come in further adaptations that, quite honestly, don't have the quality source material to draw from that the first one did. Even with heightened expectations, I couldn't have expected Catching Fire to be anywhere near the outstanding blockbuster it turned out to be.

Two big things happened in the time between The Hunger Games and Catching HungerGamesPosterFire. One, directorial control shifted from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence. Now, I am in the minority but I thought Ross did an excellent job with the first film and I was bummed to see him exit the project. But Lawrence turned out to be the absolute right man for the job. He adds an edge to Catching Fire that was missing in the first film and this bite, if you will, brings home the realism of the travesties the film depicts. As such, this film is a significantly more emotionally charged film than The Hunger Games ever aspired to be. Lawrence, I think, had a stronger understanding of the material and that shows in the finished product. (To be fair, Ross' job was to lay the groundwork whereas Lawrence's was to expand upon that.)

Two, in the time between the release of The Hunger Games and the start of production on Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence became a willing movie star. She's always been a terrific actress (in this case, "always" means "since 2010 when she burst on to the movie scene") but in interviews leading up to the first film, you got the sense that she wasn't all that comfortable in this setting and I think that came through the screen at times. Now, however, Lawrence is fully embracing both the character and the direction her career is taking and this makes her performance all the more invigorating. It isn't just Lawrence who seems more comfortable in her skin. Hutcherson is legitimately good in Catching Fire (I've always found him to be only average to this point) and the character is much the better for this. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch gets some added meat to his role, Sutherland actually has an opportunity to act rather than simply stalk through scenes menacingly (which, admittedly, he is very good at), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a perfect addition to this cast. In general, this is a superb cast and each escalates the performance to match the escalating stakes of the film. But make no mistake, this is the Jennifer Lawrence show and she comes through beautifully.

Visually, Catching Fire achieves its goal by both highlighting the stark contrast between the lavish capital and the downtrodden districts and by bringing to life a more elaborate arena than what was at play in Hunger Games. The effects are simple and believably and you never get the eye-stabbing CGI overload that you could very easily expect to get in a movie like this. Francis Lawrence paints a lush picture that only serves to heighten the strength and emotional relevance of the film as a whole. Catching Fire is perhaps the best big budget blockbuster you are likely to see this year and leaves one only wanting more from the sequels yet to come. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for some serious violence and general intensity) 

Movie Review: About Time

abouttime On New Year's Day in the year in which he turns 21, Tim's (Domhnall Gleeson) father (Bill Nighy) sits him down and delivers a startling revelation: all the men in the family, dating back for generations, have been able to travel through time. There are some limitations to this power, of course, but essentially, Tim has the ability to jump back to any moment in his life and do as he please. It's a remarkable skill that allows the awkward, lanky lawyer an opportunity for a second chance at some of his most horrifying experiences (most of them involving interactions with women). Soon afterward, he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) who will become the love of his life after some embarrassing stops and starts and before long, Tim's ability takes on all new meaning as he discovers his time travel no longer impacts only him but also his wife and kids.

About Time has been billed as a romantic comedy with a twist and while that's not entirely incorrect, it's only part of the equation. Don't get me wrong, the quirky/awkward romance between Gleeson and McAdams that masquerades as the film's central focus is strong and if that's all the film gave us it would be a breath of fresh air within a genre (the date night romantic comedy) that has become so stale as to almost completely die out. But at its heart, About Time is much more concerned with relationships, particularly that between father and son. And on this front, the film leaves its true mark. Gleeson and Nighy exhibit an easy, compelling chemistry that immediately draws the viewer into their unique relationship and gives the film an emotional power that is both delightful and heartbreaking at the same time. To put it simply, I would happily watch a film that was dedicated entirely to the Gleeson-McAdams relationship but I would just as happily sacrifice the entirety of this plot line in order to get more of the Gleeson-Nighy plotline. And that, my friends, is saying something.

Writer/Director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill) has a very distinct, simple style that is on full display here. He sets the stage, he puts his actors into great positions within the setting, and then he lightly hits the beats to keep the film moving. Little time is spent on the complexities of the plot (particularly the hows and whys of the time travel element) but this just allows the film to focus on what it values rather than bogging down in the details that ultimately don't matter all that much. The cast members are all essentially playing themselves (or versions of themselves) but this sense of realism/familiarity leads to a comfortability on screen that works brilliantly with Curtis' measured but leisurely pacing. That's a fancy way of saying that when it's at its best, About Time makes you forget you're watching a movie and lets you think you're watching real people in real relationships interact.

None of the performances within About Time are likely to earn awards attention but all of them are strong and worth mentioning. Gleeson, whom I only recognized from smaller roles, is doing his best Hugh Grant impression but he does so to great affect and with tremendous poise. Nighy reminds us that when he's given something to work with, he's a bloody brilliant performer whose timing is nearly unparalleled. And McAdams is, well, McAdams, as charming and enchanting as ever. (My bias towards Rachel McAdams probably knows no bounds so perhaps I cannot be trusted on this front.) The supporting players are all very Curtis-ian and each gets a moment to shine, often in some of the most impactful moments of the film. Moreover, Curtis highlights each cast member's strengths wonderfully and puts them on display with a subtle flair that works perfectly with the film's narrative.

On top of all that, the core message of About Time is refreshingly pure and straight forward. I won't call it so much "life changing" as "life-affirming", which honestly left me feeling a bit lighter upon exiting the theater than I was when I walked in. Just an all-around beautiful film. Grade: A (Rated R for some language and sexuality that is more suggested than displayed. Honestly a very light R rating.)


Movie Review: Gravity

gravity-poster For those of you who know me or follow my work, you know that my recommending the 3D version of a film is a shocking departure from my normal stance. It is fair to say that I am vehemently opposed to the technology as a whole. But every so often a movie comes around that uses the technology not as a crutch or a gimmick but as an actual story-telling device that works with rather than apart from the rest of the film. To date, I have attached this exception to three films: Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi. Gravity now becomes the fourth member of that group while simultaneously setting itself so far apart from those films as to make me feel foolish for ever applauding their merits.

While on a final spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), debris from a Russian satellite explosion rips through their orbit, destroying their space shuttle and leaving them stranded. With a limited oxygen supply and only a thruster pack with which to operate, Stone and Kowalski must make their way to the International Space Station before the debris comes through again and ruins any chance they might have at survival.

In an industry that is becoming increasingly dominated by home viewing options, it has become important (at least to me) to identify the films that need to be seen in a theater and those that can wait for your flat screen at home. A movie like The Way, Way Back which I love can be viewed and appreciated just as much at home as it can in a theater but some movies beg to be seen on the big screen. Gravity takes this a bit farther in that it demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can possibly find and in 3D no less. I’ll go so far as to say that if you wait until this film reaches DVD/Blu-Ray before you see it, you won’t even be seeing the same movie I partook in on Thursday night. It is THAT important that you get to Gravity as soon as possible.


Gravity’s plot could not be any simpler and yet writer-director-genius-visionary Alfonso Cuaron is able to wring more out of it than most directors pull from the most complex of narratives. This is all about the human will to survive, it just happens to be set against the backdrop of the most incredible starscape (possibly a word I just made up) you will ever see. Cuaron’s actors are both outstanding (and yes, I said both because there are basically only two characters in this film) and deserve special mention. Clooney’s is much more of a supporting performance than you might guess but he is his usual, charming, ridiculously focused self. And Bullock, I believe unquestionably, will see her name on just about every Best Actress award list the industry has to offer. This is by far the most human Bullock has ever seemed and as a result, her performance is powerful and reflexive. But with all due respect to both Clooney and Bullock, Gravity’s stars are Cuaron and his camera.

The shots Cuaron puts on display are some of the most outstanding examples of what you can do with a camera that I have ever seen. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that Gravity is propelled by the best cinematography I have ever seen in a film. Ever. EVER, you guys. I’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands, of space-related films and Cuaron does things in this movie that don’t even seem possible. If you didn’t know better, you might think Gravity is a documentary shot with the most advanced camera ever invented. Cuaron uses his setting to great and sometimes devastating effect, creating an insane level of intensity that jumps off in the opening moments and carries over literally to the very last frame of the movie. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be stranded in space, Gravity has the answers for you and they are chilling and haunting but nonetheless breathtaking.

All of this makes Gravity an unquestionably strong film. I would take it a step further. If I had to choose right here and now, I think I would feel good about calling Gravity one of the ten best movies I have ever seen. Given the scale of the film, given the difficulty of the subject matter, given the way in which Cuaron brought it all together with the best camerawork I have witnessed to date, it belongs in a special category. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. But again, this brilliance absolutely will not translate to a 42 inch Samsung. Find an IMAX screen and pony up the extra cash for a 3D showing and buckle up for a ride that is just as much experience as it is movie. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for seriously extreme intensity and some language)

Movie Review: Rush

RUSH In 1976, there were two names in Formula 1 racing: James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Hunt was the quintessential party guy while Lauda was the meticulously dedicated student. Hunt had charisma but Lauda won the most races. Their rivalry not only fueled the sport but also each other, pushing each driver to the limit of their capacities and beyond, eventually leading to a near catastrophic crash that left both men scarred in different ways.

The biggest thing I took out of Rush is that the world of cinema is a better place when Ron Howard is relevant. Coming off a near decade of sub-par work (minus 2008's Frost/Nixon which is superb), Howard returns to prominence here and reminds you that when he is at his best, he makes tremendous films that resonate no matter the subject matter. Case in point: In my 30 years of existence, I have at no point given a second thought to Formula 1 racing and yet, he made me care about the sport, if only for a couple of hours. His knack for story development is on full display within Rush and his camera work is even more spectacular. He uses practical effects whenever possible instead of relying on CGI and the result is a pulse-pounding, real experience that you would never guess cost less than $40 to produce. The action sequences have appropriate scale to the "story first" nature of the field but they are nonetheless exciting and thoroughly entertaining. Essentially what I'm saying is, Ron Howard makes blockbuster movies for adults and Rush is a prime example of what he does best.


That's not to say that Howard doesn't have a lot to work with. Bruhl gives a phenomenal portrayal as the serious-minded, borderline tortured Lauda and you could certainly talk me into his deserving a place within the Best Actor award conversation. He's great and this is just as much his movie as it is Hemsworth's. It just so happens, however, that Chris Hemsworth is becoming a movie star before our very eyes and watching his maturation is a sight to behold. There's a big difference between "great actor" and "movie star" and in a world that has become increasingly reliant on franchise/property value, the number of true movie stars has dwindled. Hemsworth can officially count himself among that group as far as I'm concerned. His charisma is endless and he seems born to play the role of playboy Hunt and yet he brings more depth to the character than I might have expected. Bruhl's is the performance that deserves adoration but it is Hemsworth's that will be talked about.

Though there are some issues that sprout up along the way (most notably, more exposition than we really need and an exceptionally annoying track announcer that narrates the action far too frequently in the closing stretch), Rush is a powerful and compelling film that I expect we'll hear more from come award season. Grade: A (Rated R for language, nudity, drug use, and some graphic surgery-related scenes that will scar you for life)

Movie Review: Elysium

ElysiumPoster In the future, the earth has become overpopulated, polluted, and stricken with disease. To combat this, the world’s wealthier residents build and flee to a ritzy space habitat known as Elysium, leaving earth and the rest of its inhabitants to rot. Max (Matt Damon) always dreamed of leaving earth but when he is given only five days to live, he becomes desperate to reach Elysium and the instant-healing med bays that propagate every home. In order to do so, however, he must take on an extremely dangerous job that draws the ire of Elysium’s secretary of defense (Jodie Foster) and her psychotic security agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

I’ve been looking forward to Elysium for quite some time now as it combines two of my favorite things: science-fiction and Matt Damon. It certainly didn’t hurt that the entire concept came from the mind of Neill Blomkamp, who is responsible for 2009’s Oscar-nominated entry District 9 and who stands as one of the rising stars in the genre. I’m not sure that Elysium quite measures up to District 9 but it is still a strong film that holds a place as one of the better entries of the summer. Blomkamp’s strengths as a sci-fi visionary are on full display here and he makes excellent use of the $100 million budget he had to work with by limiting the film’s scale and preventing it from becoming the CGI overload it very easily could have been. Max isn’t particularly challenging or memorable but in true Damon fashion, he makes his character likable and brings the appropriate frenetic energy that the role calls for. Copley is an excellent counterpart for Damon to the point that you find yourself wanting more of their rivalry. And Blomkamp builds an interesting world in which his characters operate, taking Elysium beyond becoming just another sci-fi concept film.


There are definitely flaws that pop up along the way. Foster’s character is poorly written and underdeveloped and the speech pattern that all of the Elysians speak with is maddening. The plot doesn’t always come together seamlessly and Elysium falls into more clichés than I would have liked. But even at its worst, it is still better than most blockbusters of this sort. What really sets the film apart is Blomkamp’s commitment to the development to a rather simple plotline (a desperate man trying to find a way to survive) in a complex environment. The film is not as gritty or dark as District 9 but it’s still telling a weighty story. As such, Elysium retains a measure of power in relation to the central narrative while still maintaining a high entertainment value. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language, violence, and some gruesome imagery)

Movie Review: Mud

mud After the flood waters in a small Arkansas river town recede, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) locate a boat stranded in a delta’s tree line. With an eye to fixing the boat up and claiming it for themselves, the boys climb up only to discover that it is occupied by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud seems like a good ol’ Arkansan and so the boys agree to help him secure everything he needs to fix the boat in exchange for Mud’s pistol. Soon, however, Ellis becomes aware that Mud is on the run from the authorities and finds himself caught up in a serious situation centered on Mud’s longtime love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

I saw Mud several weeks after it was released due to the arrival of our baby and by the time I got in the theater, the anticipation was killing me (this also would have shocked me at any point prior to 2013). The trailer was fantastic and writer/director Jeff Nichols’ previous film Take Shelter is tremendous and thus, Mud had my interest. Still, however, this exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. If at any point in the last 20 years, you had told me that in 2013, my favorite movie of the year would star Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, I would have either laughed in your face or attempted to punch you, depending on my mood. And yet, that is exactly what has come to pass.

Mud tells a simple story that continuously stays on point for its entirety, diverting only when Nichols feels it is absolutely necessary to build upon the main narrative with a subplot. It is, I think, this determined focus that keeps the film on track when it could have easily deteriorated into something that is only “good” instead of “great.” Having grown up in the South, Nichols has an incredible grasp of his subject matter and treats small town life with great reverence while still displaying the hardships therein. In essence, he picked a familiar setting and inserted a compelling story into the midst of that setting and stitched it all together masterfully. The tone is dark and reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel but it doesn’t dwell in the darkness and actually goes well out of its way to highlight the better aspects of humanity. It’s such a beautifully structured film that I believe it would have succeeded even without the outstanding performances that are play here.

Specifically, Sheridan and McConaughey deliver award-caliber portrayals. Sheridan’s is a less complex character than the one that brought an Oscar nomination for Quvenzhane Wallis in last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild but I found it to be no less emotionally relevant. Sheridan brings a quiet subtlety to the role, exploding into pre-adolescent rage in just the right way at the appropriate moments and you can see that the kid is oozing with talent. It is McConaughey, however, who really brings Mud home. His performance is natural and relaxed but with an edge that betrays Mud’s darker qualities. He is powerful yet fearful and the unfolding inner conflict within such a simple man is a sight to behold. In short, McConaughey is magnificent and he pushes Mud to incredible heights. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for language and violence)

Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

waywaybackposter An awkward 14 year old with an extreme lack of self-esteem, Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged to a sleepy Massachusetts beach town along with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), to spend an extended summer vacation with Pam’s new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent’s daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan does not get along with Trent who is trying to assert his authority as a father figure before he’s earned the right and Pam’s infatuation with Trent leaves Duncan feeling even more alienated and alone than he’s ever been. With no friends to hang with and a great desire to be as far away from Trent as possible, Duncan winds up absentmindedly sneaking into a run-down waterpark called Water Wizz and becomes acquainted with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s underachieving manager. Owen takes Duncan under his wing, giving him a job, a new sense of purpose, and some friendly prodding to bring him out of his shell, and as things in Duncan’s life become even more tumultuous, the life he has begun to establish at Water Wizz becomes a beacon of brightly lit hope in a world that looks increasingly dark.

There are no words to properly describe how much I loved The Way, Way Back. I am a sucker for this sort of coming-of-age indie drama but rarely does one of these movies meet all of my expectations. There’s always a side-plot that I don’t care about, a prime supporting character that I hate, a sense of melodrama that grates away at me, or some other flaw that ultimately leaves me wanting. Not so with The Way, Way Back. This is EXACTLY the movie I wanted it to be and as such, stands out as one of the most satisfying movie experiences I’ve had in quite some time. It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, an honest look at life that touches on real subjects and yet still remains a triumphant endeavor. In a summer that has been filled to the gills with overwrought action and mediocre blockbusters, The Way, Way Back is exactly the breath of fresh air that I so desperately needed.

Much of The Way, Way Back’s success is due to its superb collection of talent. Carell plays against type and again proves to be one of the most subtly commanding actors in the business. Trent is a total jerk but rather than letting his jerkdom become the character’s only personality trait (which happens all too often in a film like this), Carell paints him as a much more layered character, a guy who’s trying to be a good person even if, in the end, he can’t get out of his own way. Collette perfectly embodies the hardworking, goodhearted single mom who trusts too easily and falls into the same traps over and over again. James’ performance is perhaps less nuanced than that of his adult counterparts but his work is no less important to the atmosphere of the film and since his character is the central focus of the film, he is asked to give it much of its emotional resonance and he rings that bell quite well. The supporting actors, including Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, Nat Faxon, AnnaSophia Robb, and many others, provide a rich landscape of important people in Duncan’s development and all of them work well, especially Allison Janney who is, unsurprisingly, absolutely hilarious as a desperate and borderline alcoholic neighbor.

At the end of the day, though, The Way, Way Back is Rockwell’s world and we’re all just fortunate to be around while he plies his craft. One of the most well-respected and yet criminally under-appreciated actors in the industry, Rockwell has delivered outstanding work in small roles for many years without ever being given the opportunity to completely break out. I cannot call this his best work as his turn in 2009’s Moon was unquestionably some of the best work I have EVER seen in a movie, but what he’s doing here is no less impressive and I would say much more accessible. This could have easily been a fun-but-weightless role in the hands of another actor and instead, Rockwell transforms Owen into a multi-layered, fascinating character who is an absolutely perfect match for Duncan. It is unlikely that his name will be listed among the Oscar nominees when award season comes around but I am willing to say here and now that I do not believe I will see a finer performance this year.


In the places in which the actors do not carry the load, the remainder of The Way, Way Back’s success relies on the near-flawless writing and direction of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who took home an Oscar for writing 2011’s The Descendants. The material here is lighter than that of The Descendants but perhaps the defining stroke of genius is simply allowing the film to be less weighty. That is to say, too often in this sort of coming-of-age drama, the film tries too hard to make the issues of one outcast boy or girl take on the weight of the world and the film ends up drowning in the melodrama. Here, though, we remain tied to the micro rather than expanding to the macro and as such, you can really and truly become invested and engrossed in Duncan’s life. You feel for this kid, you hurt when he hurts, you cheer when he has even a modicum of success, and you root desperately for him to break out of his shell once and for all. It's not unique ground that we're covering here but it is the way in which the film touches on that ground that makes it such a treat. What sets The Way, Way Back apart is its joyous outlook on life that prevents it from getting bogged down in the darker edges of its story. The film touches on real, genuinely difficult issues and yet the tone manages to remain gloriously and remarkably uplifting, which is a feat in and of itself. And if all of that isn’t enough for you, the soundtrack is immaculate and might just be worth the price of admission in and of itself. This is a fabulous film, EASILY the best movie I’ve seen this summer, and one that I plan on watching many times over. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for a bit of language, innuendo, and drug use)

Movie Review: Monsters University

Monsters-University banner Long before Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) ever revolutionized the scare industry, they were just your average, run of the mill college student monsters. Mike was the typical bookworm, a hard worker with an academic approach to scare tactics and Sully the naturally talented but lazy prodigy who doesn’t put in much effort. Their rivalry results in their mutual expulsion from the Monsters University School of Scaring and their only path back to the course of their assumed destiny is the Scare Games, an intramural competition between the school’s fraternity and sorority houses. But while they both believe their own abilities will carry the load, they soon learn that winning in the Scare Games will require the sort of teamwork that both of them have struggled with in the past.

While Monsters Inc. might not be able to crack my top five Pixar films, it is, I believe, one of the better examples of the studio’s ability to bring real human emotions to otherwise foreign settings. In fact, aside from Up, it might be the most easily accessible Pixar film from an emotional level. I’ve always had a great soft spot for Monsters Inc. and its main characters are some of my favorite in the Pixar universe. That said, I’m not so sure that we needed a reunion with Mike and Sully. Their story is one that stands up beautifully on its own but I’ve never thought of it as a tale that needed to be added upon in either sequel or prequel form. Monsters University didn’t exactly change my opinion on that but at the very least I must give Pixar credit for developing an interesting premise while keeping the film in line with the spirit of the predecessor.

Much like the last two Pixar films (Cars 2, Brave), Monsters University is geared much more toward the kid audience than anyone else. Unlike those films, however, it also provides a good bit of content from the adult audiences. This element is what has always made Pixar the best in the business and while this movie is still a far cry from the best of the studio’s work, it is, if nothing else, a step in the right direction. College is, I think, an entertaining if not altogether original, setting for a film such as this and allows for a few moments that harken back to Animal House and the like and these little dalliances helped to keep my attention through all of the “Just be yourself” sentimentality that is aimed squarely at the kid audience. The supporting voice talent, featuring Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Helen Mirren, and more is excellent and of course Billy Crystal and American Treasure John Goodman do their jobs quite well. The biggest improvement, however, on the last two Pixar entries is Monster University’s extra measure of heart. It may lack the ambition of Toy Story, The Incredibles, etc. but it does feel like this is a story director Dan Scanlon and Pixar wanted to tell whereas Cars 2 and (to a lesser extent) Brave felt more like cash grabs than anything else. It’s still a little too cute for my tastes but at the very least, I think Monsters University represents a step in the right direction and the beginning of a second era of incredible original content. Grade: B+ (Rated G)