Archive for May, 2015

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

May 25, 2015

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron
Director: George Miller (Mad Max, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Happy Feet)

Bottom Line: I felt it necessary to watch the original Mad Max and it’s sequel The Road Warrior to prime myself for George Miller’s 2015 update of his defining franchise. I can assure you, these films are not essential prerequisites. I liked them okay, particularly The Road Warrior, but they have little to do with Fury Road.

Actually, Fury Road is the Mad Max world on steroids – it’s Barry Bonds. George Miller waited thirty years to update this franchise and Fury Road wastes little time establishing itself as the new bar for cinematic action. We are briefly introduced to Tom Hardy’s version of Max Rockatansky before being plunged into a chaotic post-apocalyptic world and a heart-stopping vehicle chase. Miller leaves it up to us to figure out the who and the why as the story develops… and I’ll tell you, I can’t remember being so entertained by a movie where I have almost no idea what’s going on. Fortunately, there is time to fill in the blanks later as Fury Road adds a bit of character development in between its absurdly intense action sequences.

Fury Road is big time cinema at it’s finest. Miller’s world is meticulously crafted – from the costumes, to the set designs, to the vehicles, to the score – it’s all top notch and perfectly executed. It may be grimy, but Fury Road is a truly beautiful film. No dollar in this budget was wasted. Mad Max: Fury Road may be all George Miller, but his cast does great also. Tom Hardy is good enough in the Max role to make you forget about Mel Gibson and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the story’s true hero and Theron knocks it out of the park.

Calling this movie a sequel or a reboot is really doing it a disservice. It pays tribute to the concept of the original run of films while improving on them in every possible way. Perhaps it’s not so bad for Hollywood to constantly rehash old ideas if it’s capable of occasionally producing something as awesome as Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller has quite possibly crafted a modern classic.

Replay Value: I’d watch this again in theaters and it feels like a must own for the blu-ray collection.
Sequel Potential: Mad Max: The Wasteland has already been announced with Tom Hardy attached to star and George Miller writing, but if Miller isn’t directing mark me as skeptical.
Oscar Potential: Fury Road should have no problems scooping up nominations for some of the technical aspects, particularly costume and set design, sound, editing, etc., and it may have an outside chance at Best Picture and Best Director.

Grade: 8.5/10 (Excellent/Blew My Mind)

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Pitch Perfect (2012)

May 25, 2015

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson
Director: Jason Moore

Bottom Line: I’m not going to waste of bunch of time thinking about what I want to say about a movie that came out three years ago, so I’ll be quick: I liked Pitch Perfect. I’m a fan of well done musicals (think Moulin Rouge or Chicago) and I even enjoyed the first season of Glee. Pitch Perfect feels like a mashup of those two worlds along with the common cinematic theme of a group of ragtag wannabes overcoming their differences to achieve greatness. It’s funny, the musical numbers and singing are well done, the acting is… mostly decent and, by gosh, you actually want to root for these girls. Anna Kendrick has been mostly forgettable to me up to this point in her career, but Pitch Perfect propels her to star status as I loved her in this movie. Rebel Wilson is also great. Consider me a fan and sign me up for the sequel.

Replay Value: Fun movie that could be seen again.
Sequel Potential: In theaters now…
Oscar Potential: None.

Grade: 6/10 (Recommended)

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The Gambler (2014)

May 24, 2015

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larsen, John Goodman, Jessica Lange
Director: Rupert Wyatt (Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes)

Bottom Line: “One man, two lives.” More like no life. And there’s very little life in Rupert Wyatt’s remake of 1974’s The Gambler starring James Caan. Mark Wahlberg plays a college literature professor who not only seems to get off on gambling for high stakes, but also on belittling the people that deal the cards. He treats his mother like she’s another loan shark and makes sure his students know they are unimportant in the grand scope of the world. He borrows money liberally and paying it back is of little concern to him – he’d rather borrow more and take a shot with it. And his style of betting is pretty detrimental. If you bet everything you have and then double your bet every time you win, there’s only one possible outcome: eventually you will lose it all. Because of this, there is very little tension during the gambling scenes. You know what’s going to happen and, even worse, you want it to. Because this is a man that no one could possibly ever want to root for. You want a good, tense gambling scene? Watch In America and wait for the family to go the fair.

I find Mark Wahlberg’s acting to be pretty hit or miss and, for me, The Gambler was a miss. Perhaps it’s a function of a weak script, but I had a really hard time taking his character seriously in this movie. The performance pretty much amounts to strutting around with a smirk on his face and acting like he’s better than everyone else. This guy is at rock bottom and you’d never know it if you were an outsider. He asks someone in his class “do I look happy?” and even though the answer is supposed to be an implied no, he actually seems pretty content with his situation. As one character says to him: “you want to lose” and it sure seems true.

As someone that has had gambling and alcohol dominate their life to the point of bottoming out on multiple occasions, The Gambler just didn’t feel very authentic to me. I can relate to the compulsion of gambling my last dollar and I can even relate to borrowing money to gamble while worrying about how I’ll pay it back later. But what I can’t relate to is a man with no glimpse of humanity. There isn’t a second in this film where they show you even a morsel of someone with a soul. I just never got the feeling that he felt the true gravity of his situation or that he even cared. And if he doesn’t care, why should we?

Replay Value: I can’t imagine watching this again.
Sequel Potential: None.
Oscar Potential: Shut out at the Oscars.

Grade: 4.5/10 (Forgettable/Watchable)

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Gotham Season One

May 23, 2015

I just finished season one of the Fox television series Gotham and as one of the world’s biggest Batman fans, I feel compelled to share my feelings on it. Spoilers below.

I can’t say I loved the idea of a Batman show without Batman, so although intrigued, I was mostly skeptical about how Gotham was going to turn out. I felt like the first season was very up and down. It started out a bit corny – Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney was borderline intolerable at first – but somewhere around midseason it picked up and became the show I was looking forward to watching the most… and then it got a little lackluster towards the end again.

One of the biggest problems with Gotham is that the creators don’t seem very prepared with the grand scope of the show. I get the feeling they are making it up as they go and really have no idea where it’s headed. Most of Batman’s rogues gallery exist because he exists – but on Gotham, most of his major villains are going to be fleshed out long before Bruce Wayne ever dons the cape and cowl. Bruce is maybe 12 years old in this show – a good seven to nine years before Batman might make his first appearance – but by the end of season one, the Penguin is already the crime boss of Gotham City, Carmine Falcone is retired, and Sal Moroni is dead. So the latter two characters – crucial to Batman’s world – are already out of the game; and Bruce is 12.

Obviously the show must take some liberties with the Batman mythos to function as something watchable, but that’s why it was a problematic concept in the first place. Bruce and Selina Kyle already have a strong friendship and some attraction towards each other. In Gotham, Catwoman won’t be a product of Batman’s existence, she’ll be a lifelong friend – and Bruce will never wonder about her true identity. Tommy Elliot, a childhood friend of Bruce’s that eventually becomes the supervillain Hush, is merely a school bully that inspires Bruce to ask Alfred to teach him how to fight. This is a pretty strange gloss over considering this is one of the relationships Gotham could have fleshed out without rubbing purists the wrong way. How about The Riddler working with the GCPD? Again, when The Riddler comes to fruition, the whole police department will know who he is.

And then there’s Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney or as the the trailers for the show described her: “the mother of all villains.” But is she though? Somehow every Batman comic, movie and television episode had managed to be written up to this point without the existence of Fish Mooney. Something tells me Oswald Cobblepot could have become The Penguin without her. I have to say I hated the character at first. Jada was giving a really over-the-top performance for the first several episodes and it was unbearable. Now, I can’t say if I got used to her acting as the show progressed or she actually toned it down as the season went on, but Fish Mooney grew on me. Still, I can’t help but feel that this character exits because the showrunners felt compelled to include something original, but when Fish plummets to her presumed death at the end of season one, you have to wonder: what was the point?

Gotham did plenty of things well in its first season. I really like Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon. He’s the focal point of the series at this point and the writers have done a great job of making him the hero even though we know who is waiting in the wings. Robin Lord Taylor crushes his role as The Penguin, who is by far the most interesting villain on the show. The Penguin is the perfect antagonist for a pre-Batman Gotham, as his rise to crime boss has very little to do with The Caped Crusader. Taylor does a great job of toeing the line with The Penguin – he can be helpful, cunning, feign weakness, cold-blooded, back-stabbing – and shows no limits as to what he’ll do be Gotham’s top boss. Sean Pertwee as Alfred and David Mazouz as a young Bruce are amongst the other cast highlights.

Season one of Gotham wastes little time introducing core Batman characters. Off the top of my head, season one included appearances from Batman, Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, The Joker, The Flying Graysons, Two Face, Scarecrow, Hush, The Red Hood, The Dollmaker, Victor Zsasz, Copperhead, The Electrocutioner, and possibly some others that I’m overlooking. Season two plans for even more introductions. It all seems like too much too soon and Bruce is simply too young. Most of Batman’s rogues gallery is going to be completely fleshed out by season 3 or season 4 and Bruce will probably be in his mid-teens at that point, pre-Batman.

Overall, I enjoyed watching Gotham but the show feels rushed and unorganized. I’m curious to see how everything is handled in the future because it seems like the writers haven’t thought it through entirely. I just have a hard time imagining all the Bat-villains roaming Gotham long before Batman ever shows up.

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The Imitation Game (2015)

May 17, 2015

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Director: Morten Tyldum (Headhunters)

Bottom Line: It was interesting timing for me to watch The Imitation Game considering I just watched director Morten Tyldum’s excellent Headhunters last week and a few weeks before that I saw Ex Machina, whose plot is largely centered around something called a Turing Test, which evaluates if a machine can exhibit intelligent behavior similar to that of a human being. I knew nothing of The Imitation Game plot prior to watching it so it was a pleasant surprise to discover it is the story of Alan Turing, a highly regarded British mathematician and cryptanalyst for whom the Turing Test was named after.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives his typical wonderful performance as Turing, a man whose awkward genius and social ineptitude isn’t that far removed Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes portrayal on his BBC series. He plays Turing with a touch less narcissism and quite a bit more vulnerability. Indeed, Turing was a homosexual in a time (the 1940s-1950s) when such a thing wasn’t just frowned upon, it was prosecutable. While the film spends time detailing his arrest for gross indecency and flashes back to his schooling as a youth and the formation of his first meaningful relationship with another boy, the majority of the film highlights his time at Bletchley Park, a British codebreaking centre, working with a team of fellow geniuses and trying to crack Enigma, a machine used by Nazi Germany to send coded military messages.

The Imitation Game is an amazing and heartbreaking story, in which one of the greatest (unknown) heroes of World War II is later vilified by his country for something we now view as socially acceptable. The film combines drama and humor exceptionally well. Turing is portrayed as a flawed, often self-centered human being, but still someone that is quite easy to root for. Cumberbatch is worthy of his Oscar nomination and Keira Knightley is also great as one of his fellow codebreakers and continues to solidify her status as what I consider to be The Next Kate Winslet.

The Imitation Game delivers on all levels with a great story and top notch acting. Alan Turing is a man whose time and contributions to our world should never be forgotten. The posthumous pardon he was granted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2009 was long overdue.

Replay Value: This is definitely a film worth watch again and probably worth owning.
Sequel Potential: N/A
Oscar Potential: Won Best Adapted Screenplay. Cumberbatch and Knightley received acting nominations, Tyldum a directing nom, and the film was also nominated for Best Picture, film editing, production design, and score.

Grade: 8/10 (Excellent)

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Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)

May 14, 2015

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy)

Bottom Line: I have to admit: Fifty Shades Of Grey is a worthy homage to Twilight but… that’s not a good thing. Bella Swan is the worst character I’ve ever encountered in literature and the Twilight series as a whole did nothing but bore me, so when I heard that Fifty Shades Of Grey initially started as Twilight fan fiction – the resulting books and this film never had a chance.

It’s hard to believe that a movie that is essentially all about sex could be so boring, but Fifty Shades Of Grey lacks balls – literally. There is no envelope-pushing here. I’m not even sure the film is rated a hard-R. In between relatively tame sex scenes – all things considered – we get an absurd amount of mundane dialogue.

And very little makes sense in this film. Anastasia Steel is a virgin? Really? But even more importantly, why? Does it make things even remotely more interesting? I feel like it’s a detail meant to spice things up, but it feels contrived, and the script forgets this little factoid soon after it is mentioned. Christian Grey talks himself up as a womanizing monster, but all he does is treat Anastasia with respect the entire film. Also, like Twilight, I don’t get how either of these characters are interesting or likable. Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey is a permanent scowl and little else. I’d be curious to see what Charlie Hunnan would have done with this role – I can only imagine his casting would have boosted the movie’s draw considerably – but Hunnan is better off having not been involved. Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia at least has a hint of charm and humor, but I certainly don’t get why she’s attracted to someone like Christian Grey. There is zero depth in this film.

Fifty Shades Of Grey amounts to little more than high quality soft core porn… and you can find that for free on the internet… if that’s your thing.

Replay Value: So boring… no way.
Sequel Potential: I can’t believe there is three books of material here. There wasn’t even two hours of material in the first film. I don’t want to see more. With apologies to Rhianna, whips and chains do NOT excite me.
Oscar Potential: I’d bet on Razzie awards. Dakota Johnson might escape unscathed, but I doubt anyone else does.

Grade: 1.5/10 (Torture Material/Horrible)

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Headhunters (2011)

May 10, 2015

Starring: Aksel Hennie, Synnove McCody Lund, Nikolaj Colste-Waldau
Director: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Bottom Line: My parents have been hassling me to watch Headhunters for months, bringing it up every time I see them and posting on my Facebook page, so I was going to have to raise hell if it wasn’t any good. They’ve been known to put some staunch praise on questionable films (see: August Rush) so it’s not like Headhunters was a lock to be awesome.

I am happy to report that it is – very awesome. It’s a 2011 film that hails from Norway and is directed by Morten Tyldum, whose The Imitation Game was recently nominated for Best Picture. Aksel Hennie, who looks like a Norwegian cross between Billy Crystal and Christopher Walken, stars as Roger, a short man that works as a headhunter – someone that recruits suitable candidates for open positions at various corporations – and steals valuable paintings in his spare time. I say he is short because the whole film seems to revolve around this insecurity. He states at the beginning of the film that he “overcompensates in other ways,” and uses the extra income he gets from stealing paintings to project a lavish lifestyle he otherwise could not afford. It all helps make him feel worthy of his trophy wife played by Lund. It’s a system that seems to work for Roger until he steals a highly valuable painting from Jamie Lannister (of Game Of Thrones), who quickly turns Roger’s world upside down by having an affair with his wife and trying to kill him.

From there, Headhunters quickly becomes a game of cat and mouse (and dog), with Roger on the run for his life. And it gets absurd – fantastically absurd. Part of the reason Headhunters works so well is because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s listed as a crime thriller, but comedy could easily be added to its genre specifications. As awful as the situation was at times, I couldn’t help but laugh at Roger’s elusive tactics. There’s a scene that involves an outhouse that makes the one in Schindler’s List seem tame by comparison.

Headhunters is smart, funny, and plenty entertaining. The acting is good in general, but Hennie is particularly amusing as Roger, although he probably wouldn’t make the best poker player. For someone with so many secrets, he wears his displeasure plainly on his face whenever he is unhappy about something – such as running into a law enforcement agent who is tracking art thieves. I’m not surprised that this film propelled Tyldum to Hollywood success. It’s an enjoyable ride and somewhere in this crazy movie there’s a message about being yourself, but it’s difficult to take away anything serious from such a fun film.

Grade: 7.5/10 (Must See/Excellent)