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28 September 2014

ABC felt confident enough to release the pilot episodes of two of their new Fall shows online and On Demand weeks before their premiere nights. I've already reviewed the inaugural installment of the drama "Forever". Now it's time for my thoughts on Episode 1 of the romantic comedy "Selfie", which airs this Tuesday, September 30th at 8pmET.

50 years ago, the movie musical "My Fair Lady" was released in theaters, and it went on to win the Best Picture Oscar, beating-out fellow iconic nominees "Mary Poppins", "Becket", and "Dr. Strangelove". The film starred Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Dolittle and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins, and was based on the play 'Pygmalion'.

A half-century later, ABC, for some reason, thought they could successfully put an ultra-modern spin on this classic with "Selfie". Less than three minutes into watching the pilot and it was impossible to not only want to turn this off, but to search YouTube for a clip from the film to wash-away any memory of this bomb. Karen Gillan ("Doctor Who", "Guardians of the Galaxy") stars as Eliza Dooley, a Twitter/Facebook/Instagram obsessed 20-something who works at a pharmasutical company. We get to witness her completely fall apart aboard an airplane (including an extended vomiting scene). She realizes that, while she has plenty of internet "friends", she has no real-life friends or social skills. Looking to change her image (not on her profile), she begs for help from her company's marketing guru, Henry (played by "Harold & Kumar"'s John Cho). He's great at makeovers, but is a bit of a loner. Of course, they will now team-up and help each other.

"Selfie" does a great job of offending just about everybody in this first episode. The script is filled with racial and gender "jokes", which are simply embarrassing for everyone involved. There are no actual funny lines or situations, nor many opportunities for them. And there's no authentic  commentary or insights on the social media phenomenon.

Series creator Emily Kapnek, who also wrote the script, tries to make every situation cute and bubbly. But with awful musical placement and several uncomfortable moments (including a squirm-inducing rendition of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance"), "Selfie" makes for #MustAvoidTV. The final segment is the best of a really bad batch, with Eliza and Henry realizing that love may be in the air. But because the premise is so basic and predictable, and the execution is so poor, there's little chance the show will survive long enough for anything to blossom - and certainly no one will be watching if it does.

After sitting through 32 minutes of "Selfie" on my DVR (can't FF through the commercials) there was one thing I couldn't wait to do - hit DELETE.


In Theaters

One Chance (PG-13) A-

One Chance (PG-13) A- - Movie Reviews for Kids

Chances are you've heard the title "One Chance" in movie news stories often over the past year or so. The musical comedy based on the true story of wannabe opera singer Paul Potts, who eventually won Simon Cowell's "Britain's Got Talent" TV competition show, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2013 and was released in England the following month. The US limited release was originally set for last Christmas Day. But The Weinstein Company, notorious for shifting release dates, had other ideas.

The studio decided to move "One Chance" to February 7th, 2014. This, obviously, would take the film out of the '13 Awards Season race. However, Awards Season voters, including yours truly, received a screener of the movie before this change was made. And so the Taylor Swift song, "Sweeter Than Fiction", featured in the closing credits of the film, was nominated for the Best Original Song Golden Globe, going-up against "Frozen"'s "Let it Go" and losing to U2's "Ordinary Love" from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" (another Weinstein release).

Then things got even crazier when the release date was moved to March 14th and then to the cinematic death date of August 29th. I'm sure Mr. Cowell (a producer on the movie) and director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada", "Marley & Me") were not very pleased. Than finally, TWC announced that they would put "One Chance" out in time for a second Awards Season go-around (if that's even possible) on October 10th and "premiere" the film ten days earlier online on Yahoo! Screen.

Well, I watched my screener of "One Chance", back on January 2nd, making this the longest time I've ever had to hold (and significantly update) a review. And I've been very supportive of this film, through all of the delays and difficulties, because it's delightful, charming, and absolutely worth seeing.

James Corden, from "Begin Again", the upcoming "Into the Woods", and Craig Ferguson's successor as host of "The Late Late Show" shines as Paul.  Bullied as a kid, Paul now works as a cell-phone store employee in South Wales, but he has dreams of becoming a world famous opera singer. His first true love is Julz (played by Alexandra Roach, the young Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady"). They met on the internet and she is his biggest supporter, along with his caring but sensitive mum Yvonne (Julie Walters). Paul's strict father Roland (Colm Meaney) would rather see him working in the coal mines.

As you'd expect, Paul faces many obstacles as he pursues his dream. These test his spirit and determination. But he keeps his eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel, resulting in some incredible opportunities.

Both the acting and vocal performances in "One Chance" are very strong. Corden and Roach have authentic chemistry, resulting in one of the best on- screen relationships we've seen in years. Mackenzie Crook, as Paul's cell-phone store boss Braddon, stands-out amongst the supporting cast with some irresistibly funny deliveries of lines from this very sharp script. "One Chance" doesn't always go for the big laughs. The rather subtle, offbeat style of humor really works. And the cinematography, in particular when the story moves to Venice where Paul attends opera school, is beautiful.

Surprisingly, the "Britain's Got Talent" portion of the story is saved until the final 20 minutes. The actual video of Cowell and the other judges is nicely mixed-in with Corden's audition as Potts. As it turns out, "One Chance" isn't about the competition itself or Potts' run on the show, but rather the inspiring, incredible journey of Paul Potts as he strives to prove to the world, and himself, that he is a star. It's "Rocky" meets Rigoletto. Find it. See it. Watch it. And you, too, will say - "Bravo".

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "One Chance" gets an A-.

"One Chance" is available for free viewing on Yahoo! Screen from September 30th-October 9th. It opens in select theaters on October 10th.

The Equalizer (R) C+

The Equalizer (R) C+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington re-teams with "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua to bring the 80s TV series "The Equalizer" to the big screen. It's an action film with such over-the-top and unpredictable violence that it's hard to imagine this version will ever make it onto broadcast TV.

Sony is clearly counting on "The Equalizer" becoming a big money franchise. When you've got a commanding lead who brings the credibility and gravitas to a role that could easily have landed in the wrong hands, and a director who's not afraid to show a little...let me rephrase that...A LOT of blood, I can understand why audiences (though maybe not those over 65) will embrace this character and be happy to see him do his thing again and again. Hey, if Liam Neeson can rescue his abducted family members over and over and over, and do big box office in the process, Denzel can certainly continue to help those in need of his "services".

Washington plays Robert McCall, a widower who lives in Boston and works at a Home Depot-like store. His days are fairly quiet and ordinary, and are topped-off with late night visits to the corner diner, where he reads the current entry on his "100 Greatest Books of All-Time" list. After learning that a young prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz is excellent) is trying to turn her life around, but can't escape the Russian mobsters who are controlling her, Robert (who just happens to be an ex-black-ops commando) decides to "help".

He kills-off the first layer of bad guys (the "stopwatch" scene from the trailer) but unknowingly sets-off a firestorm. The narrative of "The Equalizer" is very episodic. It's one twenty-minute story after another involving Robert and a supporting character, intertwined with the continuing main plot (Robert vs. evil, and I mean EVIL, Russian mafia leader Teddy, played nicely by Marton Csokas, who could also play Kevin Spacey in a biopic). This style is too basic and obvious, and I have specific problems with several decisions made by Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk.

"The Equalizer" is wild, wacky, unintentionally funny, stagy and long. The plot, as it is for most vigilante/revenge films, doesn't provide any surprises. Instead, those come from the graphic ways Robert goes about killing-off everyone in his way, highlighted by a climactic 20 minute sequence in the "Home Mart" store, which is so ridiculously violent you'll be looking for Quentin Tarantino's name in the credits.

Unfortunately, while the "The Equalizer" succeeds in the area of creative bloodshed, it simply isn't very entertaining. It tries to shock more than achieve suspense the old fashioned way - through well-written scenes and dramatic situations. However, for Denzel fans, it's a must-see. I can't think of too many other veteran, A-list actors who could pull-off this role. And my guess is we'll be seeing more of Robert McCall in a few years, and probably a few years after that. I only hope those scripts provide Washington, and the rest of us, with more of a challenge.  

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Equalizer" gets a C+.

The Boxtrolls (PG) B+

The Boxtrolls (PG) B+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

"The Boxtrolls" is the latest stop-motion animation film distributed by Focus Features and brought to life by Laika, the makers of "Coraline" and "ParaNorman". Both of those movies were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and I'll be very surprised if "The Boxtrolls" isn't on the ballot this year. What, on the surface, appears to be a cute family adventure about a boy and his best-friends - mythical monsters who live inside boxes on and under the streets of a fictitious England village, is actually a serious relationship drama with some deep themes and political messages, sprinkled with a good deal of offbeat British humor. "The Boxtrolls" is not for young kids, but rather, for the kid in all the rest of us, who longs for excitement, love and a purpose in life.

Set in Cheesebridge, where its namesake food is the most prized possession, the story is centered on young boy called Eggs, who the townsfolk believe was taken from his family as a baby by the feared Boxtrolls. Eggs (voiced by "Game of Thrones"' Isaac Hempstead Wright) grows-up thinking he is a Boxtroll, acting, talking and living just like them, inside a cardboard box. And he learns from them how to build things and make incredible machines from discarded parts thrown away by humans. His best friends and father-figures are Fish and Shoe.

But as the years go by Eggs gets too big for his box and he soon realizes that he's different from the rest of his "family". And when he meets a girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning is excellent) he learns he is really a human boy.

These two become friends and work together to try to stop four exterminators (led by the voice of an unrecognizable Sir Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher) from capturing The Boxtrolls, who wander into town at night in search of new junk they can use for their inventions. And they aren't monsters at all - but kind, loving and caring creatures. Snatcher's ultimate goal is to kill every last Boxtroll so he can earn an esteemed white hat and become a member of the town's elite, who not only get to make all the rules, but also eat all the exquisite cheese in the land. Winnie's father, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris, who played Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") is their leader.

"The Boxtrolls" is packed with fun and funny characters, including Snatcher's three assistants: the crazy one with the off-kilter one-liners is Mr. Gristle (voiced by Tracy Morgan). The other two, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout (Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost), are more sensitive, and as the story progresses, these two begin to question if they're really the good guys or the bad guys.

But the script also has a lot to say - at least I think it does. Were the writers really making statements about class warfare, social status, immigration, economics, family relationships - all inside an often silly animated film? Or, were they simply going for laughs? Clearly there's a lot going on below the surface of "The Boxtrolls" (pun intended). I thought more about this film, upon leaving the theater, than any I've seen in recent memory.

Yet, the narrative itself is very straightforward and provides very few surprises. This is the film's major weakness. There's really only one "wow" moment, and it comes in the closing credits (and is the best closing credits sequence of the year, by far).

However, everything else about "The Boxtrolls" exceeds expectations. The stop-motion animation is triumphant, especially in the difficult to create, over-the-top slapstick moments. It took the filmmakers 18 months to create one, two-minute elaborate and very sweet ballroom sequence. And directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring genuine emotion to several of the scenes involving Eggs and the Boxtrolls. The ensemble voice cast also includes Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, and Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum as Boxtrolls, characters adapted from the 2005 book "Here Be Monsters!". The dialogue among the humans is very sharp. And the beautiful score by Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli is nomination-worthy as well.

Most impressive, within the basic story, are the challenging, multi-layered messages. Not too many films, particularly in this genre, delve into the mature topics we get here, such as a child's feelings about family, security and the fear of daring to break out of one's own box and become somebody. There's symbolism everywhere.

"The Boxtrolls" is rated PG for some action/violence, rude humor and a little peril. With good intentions in all the right places, this is a daring and satisfying animated feature that's just as unique and special as its many characters, who teach us that there's nothing wrong with being a little square.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Boxtrolls" gets a B+.

The Maze Runner (PG-13) D+

The Maze Runner (PG-13) D+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

At every county fair there's a challenging, exciting and exhausting corn maze. It's filled with twists and turns, giving those who dare to enter the feeling that there's no way out. "The Maze Runner" presents a lot of questions early on. And after going in circles for nearly two hours, the only way I hoped to come out of the theater with a sense of satisfaction was to get some believable answers. Instead, the final 20 minutes of "The Maze Runner" are simply packed with corn, leaving me dazed, confused and completely let-down.

Of course, I can't give much away, not wanting to ruin some big "surprises". But I can say, "The Maze Runner", based on the first in a series of popular tween/teen novels, is completely unoriginal from start to finish. It's "The Hunger Games" meets "Survivor", with some "Amazing Race" and a little "Lord of the Flies" tossed in. And I'm sure there are a few more I'm leaving out.

Thomas (played by Dylan O'Brien of "The Internship") wakes-up one day to find himself in a crate elevator in the middle of a large field. He's greeted by a group of 30 or so guys, ages 12-25. The "glade" is enclosed by giant walls, and they're trapped inside. One of the walls opens-up every day, and over the course of three years, a few members of the group (the "runners") have ventured in and discovered a large maze. But with dangerous, albeit cheesy-looking, monsters lurking in the night ready to kill them, no one has been able to find a way out.

A new male is sent to join the group every month, and a sense of rules and order has been established. None of them remember anything about their past, except their names. But all Thomas cares about is getting out. For some reason he's the first one who is motivated to figure out what's really beyond the maze and why he and all the others have been sent there. This leads to some risky situations. And when a girl named Teresa arrives, that really shakes things up.

"The Maze Runner" is Wes Ball's feature film directorial debut, which comes as no surprise as the narrative is all over the place. The action scenes are underwhelming (including a moving doors sequence that's much tamer than the one in "Monsters, Inc."), and the performances are showy, with every dramatic and emotional scene feeling forced. The basic plot is intriguing and the story is good enough to hold your interest for a while, but as if stuck in a maze, midway through, the script just has nowhere to go. And by the final act, you really don't care what happens to this group of stereotypical characters. I do give Ball credit for surprising us with a very bizarre ending. It's just too bad that none of it works.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Maze Runner" gets a D+.


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