How do you craft a truly exciting and emotional action movie? After seeing "Star Trek Into Darkness" I have the answer to my own question: You simply following the example of director J.J. Abrams. His 2009, "Star Trek", a resurrection of the classic TV series, was a wild ride and a whole lot of fun. This sequel is a near-masterpiece.
Abrams wastes no time getting us hooked. The movie begins with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) running from weird-looking inhabitants of a distant planet while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is attempting to stop a volcano from erupting and destroying their world. There's more pure energy in this opening scene than most recent sci-fi films provide in two-hours.
Decisions are made by both Kirk and Spock that lead to Kirk losing command of the USS Enterprise and Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) taking back control of the ship. But before that can happen Starfleet is attacked by one of their own members, a man named John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, best known as TV's "Sherlock"). And Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew are sent to hunt down Harrison and kill him. Obviously, there's a lot more that takes place in the set-up, but I'm not going to face the wrath of fans by revealing anything else. What I will say, and it's one of the many strengths of "Into Darkness", is the script is complicated enough to keep you thinking and guessing throughout and yet you have no problem following what's going on. Much like a well written TV series. Imagine that!
It's unfortunate that "Star Trek Into Darkness" is being overshadowed this movie season because it's sandwiched between "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel". In reality this is the definition of a true Summer blockbuster. It's just over two hours of non-stop action, drama, suspense and laughs. There's nothing more you could possibly want out of a popcorn movie.
The ensemble cast is excellent. Zoe Saldana returns with all the others from the original as Uthura, along with Karl Urban's Bones, "Harold & Kumar"'s Jon Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin's Checkov and British actor Simon Pegg, whose Scotty, once again provides some of the movie's lighter moments. Alice Eve ("Men in Black 3") and Peter Weller (the original RoboCop) have good supporting roles. And Abrams treats all of these iconic characters with both the respect that diehard "Star Trek" fans demand, but also gives the actors the freedom to make these characters their own. The romantic relationship between Spock and Uthura is a perfect example. At one point during "Into Darkness" I was thinking to myself: "I would watch stories involving these people every single week". I can clearly see how the Trekkie phenomenon began.
It seems odd that Abrams is now going to switch "Stars" and direct the next installments of "Star Wars" instead of sticking with this franchise that he's become such a master at steering. With "Into Darkness" he not only crafts great action sequences but is able to draw pure emotion out of every character and situation. There's a dramatic scene following the big opening sequence that catches you a bit off-guard and Abrams continues to weave serious themes throughout the film, which is also enhanced by effective quiet moments and a perfect score.
High grades go to the visuals and effects as well. On the negative side, occassionally things get a little wordy (including Spock's analogies and Bones' metaphors) and the final few minutes are basically thrown away, but considering everything that comes before I can forgive Abrams for that.
"Star Trek Into Darkness" is rated PG-13 for the sci-fi action/violence and some adult language. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. Fans of the TV show - Gotta see it. Fans of the first film - Gotta see it. And even if you've never been exposed to anything "Star Trek" before - I still say - Gotta see it. It's intense science fiction with both humor and heart.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Star Trek Into Darkness" gets an A-. It's my favorite film of 2013 so far.
Director Baz Luhrmann's films always seem to generate wildly mixed reactions, from his 1996 version of "Romeo + Juliet" to Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman's romantic drama "Australia". And who can forget the Oscar winning "Moulin Rouge!" Luhrmann's latest, his take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, The Great Gatsby, was supposed to be released last Christmastime as a primary Oscar contender. How would awards season been different if "Gatsby" had been in the mix against "Argo", "Lincoln", "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables"?
We'll never know. Instead, after a five-month delay due to weather issues in Australia, a 3D post-conversion and the addition of musical coordinator/producer Jay-Z, "The Great Gatsby" is finally in theaters. When I know a film based on a book is coming out I like to avoid reading the book so as not to interfere with my enjoyment of the movie. I was advised to read the first two chapters of The Great Gatsby, to get a feel for the setting and the tone of the story. But just from those 30 pages, it's clear to me that Luhrmann wanted to stay somewhat true to Fitzgerald's work.
If you're not familiar with "Gatsby" - maybe haven't read the book since high school - it's set at the height of the Roaring Twenties, on Long Island. In both the book and the movie the story is told by Nick Carraway. In the film, however, Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) is telling his tale to a Doctor from inside the mental ward of a hospital and is actually writing the novel. This devise by Luhrmann will upset fans of the book and didn't seem necessary.
There are only a handful of characters you need to know about: Nick is Daisy's cousin. He's come to New York to work on Wall Street. Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan), is a rich socialite who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton), who's both wealthy and arrogant. He has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who's married to George, who owns a drug store.
Oh, I'm leaving someone out: Yes old sport, it's Jay Gatsby. For awhile he's simply Nick's mysterious neighbor, who he hears rumors about but who no one ever sees, even during the wild parties he throws at his enormous mansion. But then we're introduced to Gatsby. Leonardo DiCaprio embodies the character as a man who has everything in life except the one thing he wants the most. Nick, the ultimate outsider, gets caught-up in a high-tempo, unraveling saga with Gatsby, the Buchanans, the Wilsons and a few others that plays-out like very much like a soap opera: filled with love, hate, betrayal, power and revenge.
There's no question that Luhrmann's direction, the visual effects and overall look of "The Great Gatsby" make this version of Fitzgerald's novel quite unique. Many who see "Gatsby" will embrace it - others will tear it apart, starting with the use of contemporary music that is far from what people were listening and dancing to in the 1920's (the music worked for me). Even though I stopped reading the book after Chapter 2, I know that Luhrmann does make some subtle, yet important changes to the story as well. That's not going to go over well with the purists.
The film starts very fast - going at such a wild pace that I almost couldn't keep up, and apparently neither could the editors. Several times (mostly in one scene where Gatsby's driving Nick in his spectacular yellow car) DiCaprio's mouth doesn't match up with what he's saying. That's just sloppy.
However, it's tough not to like this movie. The characters are well defined and the themes are timeless. And once Luhrmann allows the strength of Fitgerald's story - which is the characters and the themes - to take center stage, "Gatsby" takes-off, leading to a powerful second half and a memorable conclusion.
DiCaprio is excellent in a multi-layered performance as a man who's both "larger than life" and emotionally fragile. Edgerton has some strong moments and Mulligan is also good, especially in her scenes with DiCaprio. Maguire's Carraway is the perfect representation of how most of us would act if put in this situation. The supporting cast includes Isla Fisher as Myrtle and "Zero Dark Thirty"'s Jason Clarke as George. It's a fantastic ensemble.
"The Great Gatsby" is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, adult content, and language. It's appropriate for teens and up and is a must-see for students currently studying the novel, because it will generate a lot of classroom discussion. True fans of the book will likely hate it, but I've got to give Luhrmann credit for attempting to turn this complex and beloved American classic into a mainstream movie. It's not "Great", but it is quite good.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Great Gatsby" gets a B.
Last year "Marvel's The Avengers" kicked off the Summer Movie Season and ended-up becoming 2012's highest-grossing film, earning over $1.5 billion worldwide. This year "Iron Man 3" has the honor of launching the summer. And while it's not as much fun or exciting as that mega blockbuster, "Iron Man 3" is the most emotional and action-packed entry in the series.
This third Tony Stark saga has an interesting framework - Stark is actually telling the story to an unseen (until the end) person - and therefore to us. And things begin before Stark became Iron Man, in what is actually a prequel of the first film. It's New Year's Eve 1999, and Stark meets a botanist named Maya (played by Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich (Guy Pearce), a wacky scientist looking to get Stark and Maya to join him in his experimental work on regeneration. Tony snubs him and admits, in his narration, that he made an enemy that night.
Fast-forward to present day (and Christmastime for some odd reason) and Stark is doing what he loves best - building new Iron Man suits. He's now up to 42 of them! But he's not been the same since the chaotic battles in New York City that took place in "The Avengers". Girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) can tell that too. Tony can't sleep and is suffering from anxiety attacks. And there's a new evil force in the world who needs to be dealt with.
The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) has been terrorizing the world, with the United States (and the President) as his main target. So Iron Man and War Machine (now called Iron Patriot and once again played by Don Cheadle) are called into action, but saving the day this time will be tougher than ever.
It's also clearly becoming tough for the filmmakers at Marvel to keep this franchise fresh. "Iron Man 3" starts out pretty rough. The first half hour is rather corny and awkward, from the brief backstory to the misadventures of Tony's former bodyguard turned Stark Enterprises Head of Security, Happy Hogan (reprised by Jon Favreau). And one of the stronger elements of the first two "Iron Man" films - the light comedy - is a weakness this time. There's only a few funny lines, but Stan Lee's cameo, and one by Joan Rivers did get a chuckle out of me.
Favreau, who directed the first two "Iron Man" films, decided to turn the reigns over to Shane Black, best known for working with Downey, Jr. on 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". Black delivers a film that looks amazing, with fast-paced, well-staged, well-shot and perfectly edited action scenes.
"Iron Man 3" is probably the most serious of the franchise. The Mandarin - an Osama bin Ladin look-a-like - makes for an effective villain. Many of his scenes are pretty intense. And there are a couple of effective, dramatic moments in the script. A subplot involving Tony's relationship with a young boy thankfully isn't too preachy. And there's a nice plot-development twist about halfway through that works - as long as no one tells you about it before you see the film.
As for the cast: Downey, Jr. can do no wrong in this role. He IS Iron Man. Paltrow shows that not only is she "the most beautiful woman in the world" (according to People magazine), but that she can handle an action scene or two. And Pearce and Kingsley are solid in their bad guy roles.
"Iron Man 3" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. It's not my favorite "Iron Man", but it certainly doesn't disappoint. And it does leave you laughing. Be sure, as I always remind you, to stay until the end of the credits for what is the funniest scene of the film.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Iron Man 3" gets a B-. The next scheduled time we'll see Tony Stark is in "The Avengers 2" in 2015. The next Avenger movie will be "Thor: The Dark World" this November.
While I wasn't a huge fan of director Terrence Malick's 2011 Best Picture Oscar nominee, "The Tree of Life", the trailer made for Malick's latest film, "To the Wonder", is fantastic. In fact, it's one of the best trailers I've seen in a long time and it gave me hope that "To the Wonder" would be a more grounded and relatable film than the somewhat disjointed "Life".
I'll begin with the obvious: there's no mistaking that "To the Wonder" is a Malick creation. It has his distinct look, feel and tone. The movie is visually beautiful and the hand-held camera style works. There are wonderful shots of wheat fields, characters walking on the beach and even buffalo (thankfully no dinosaurs this time). And sometimes these images even have something to do with the story!
And that's the biggest problem with "To the Wonder". This tale of an American in France on business named Neil (Ben Affleck) who falls for a French woman named Marina (Olga Kurylenko - recently seen in "Oblivion") and brings her and her daughter back to live with him in a small, suffering town in Oklahoma lacks any of the dramatic tension that Malick provided with his family in "Tree of Life". One minute Neil and Marina are madly in love and the next they want to kill each other. And we never learn why. During one of their separations (there are many) Rachel McAdams pops-in for about 15 minutes as Neil's new love interest and then she completely disappears. Then we get more scenes of Neil and Marina's ups and downs.
At the same time there is a parallel story involving the town's parish priest, played by Javier Bardem. For me these are the strongest sections of the film. We get to see and hear his sadness, loneliness and frustration with trying to stay strong in God, while dealing with the day-to-day struggle to keep a true spiritual presence in his life. Unlike the other actors, Bardem is allowed to give a complete performance. As for Affleck, Kurylenko and McAdams - it's hard to qualify walking, dancing, holding each other, throwing things and not looking at each other while in the same shot - mostly in silence - as performances.
Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate Malick's directing and editing style. And the lack of dialogue is made-up by a beautiful score. In fact, while most people will complain that the characters in "To the Wonder" don't talk enough - either to each other or though narration - I wish there was even less. In particular Bardem's priest hits us over the head with his (Malick's?) thoughts on love, life and God in one long speech at the end of the film. It's as if Malick wasn't confident that we could get it on our own.
"To the Wonder" is one of those films where you watch things unfold, but none of what's happening on screen affects you either positively or negatively. No doubt Malick fans will love it, but many others will be left to wonder...what did I just watch? I kind of felt the same way about "The Tree of Life", but that film, at its core (not the Earth's core), had a stronger script and more effective performances. If you go to movies to be entertained, this is tough to recommend. If you like to be challenged by a film and don't mind walking out of the theater without all the answers, give it a try.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "To the Wonder" gets a C.
This was the final movie that my friend and famed critic Roger Ebert reviewed before passing away. His review, a wonderful read, not only shows the appreciation Roger had for Malick's work, including "To the Wonder" (which he gave three and a half stars), but his overall thoughts on storytelling through film. While not everyone agreed with his opinions, Roger always had something fascinating to say in his reviews and essays, that made us think about the cinema and life in ways we never had before. It's no "Wonder" why he'll always be considered the best there ever was.
The tagline for the action dramedy "Pain & Gain" is "This is a true story". The studio probably did that because, after seeing the film, most people won't believe that the characters were real and the situations actually happened. Here's another thing that's true: Director Michael Bay's first non-"Transformers" movie since 2005's "The Island" is a complete mess.
"Pain & Gain" take place over several months between 1994 and '95 in Miami, Florida. In the opening scene we are introduced to bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (played by Mark Wahlberg). He's running from the cops. We then are taken back about eight months to see how Lugo got himself in this position. Daniel is a fitness trainer who wants more out of life. He wants the money, cars, fancy homes and pretty women of some of his clients. What he says is the true "American dream".
And he knows he won't get those things on the current path that he's on. So he recruits Dwayne Johnson's Paul (who just got out of prison where he became "born-again") and Anthony Mackie's Adrian (a co-worker at the gym) to kidnap one of the wealthiest men in South Florida, Victor Kershaw (played by Tony Shaloub). The plan is to get Kershaw simply to sign-over all his money and possessions to the trio, and after several days of torture he eventually does. And even though the three of them are not very bright they don't get caught!
But Kershaw, who's a real jerk, won't go down without a fight. He hires a private detective (Ed Harris) to try to get his stuff back after the Miami police don't believe his story. There are some complications, but this is pretty much the story, and because it's so simple and straightforward Bay tries all of his tricks in an attempt to keep us interested for the 2+ hours - but they all fail.
In general terms, "Pain & Gain" is probably the most disjointed film I've ever had the pleasure of watching. I hated it right from the first scene - with Wahlberg's Daniel narrating his troubles while he runs from the police - in classic Bay slow-motion. And that was just a hint of the narration festival that was to come. Practically every single character - even some minor ones - do some narration during the film. One of many examples of "Pain & Gain" simply trying too hard to be clever.
We also get the stylized Bay camerawork, but that only adds to the out of control tone - that goes from silly to violent to serious to goofy. This movie is supposed to be funny - it's not. Suspenseful - it's not. Interesting - it's not. Bay throws in unnecessary titles on the screen every once in a while and a ridiculous "Now we have to get serious" conclusion. And the constantly pounding soundtrack just makes things worse.
Maybe after working with CGI robots for so long Bay forgot how to direct real actors. The best example is Johnson, who is totally unbelievable in his role. It was a bad casting decision from the start. And it's difficult to listen to Wahlberg's Daniel and his dopey dialogue and occasional sarcastic cracks. Rebel Wilson and Ken Jeong are part of the supporting cast - thrown in, just like everything else, with no real purpose.
"Pain & Gain" is the latest in the suddenly popular Adult Crime Comedy genre. It's appropriately R-rated - with plenty of F-bombs, blood, drug use and adult content, including a severed toe - just for laughs.
Here's something I never thought I'd write: "Pain & Gain" is WORSE than Bay's last two "Transformers" films. That's quite an achievement.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Pain & Gain" gets an F.
Fresh-off his role as "Jack Reacher", Tom Cruise plays another Jack - astronaut Jack Harper - in the sci-fi adventure "Oblivion", - which part post-apocalyptic action film and part futuristic soap opera.
The year is 2077. 60 years earlier our Moon was destroyed by enemy aliens, intent on taking-over Earth. Without the Moon our planet was thrown into chaos: with earthquakes, tsunamies and other natural disasters wiping-out much of the population. The aliens then attacked in hopes of finishing us off, but the humans fought back and defeated the invaders, but had to use nuclear weapons to do so, making the planet uninhabitable. So even though we won the war the humans who survived had to leave Earth and go to live on Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are part of Tech 49. Their job is to protect what's left of the Earth's resources, mostly water, which is being sent to Titan. Jack repairs the security drones that are programmed to kill the scavenger aliens who are still around. In two weeks their mission will be over and they'll be able to join the others who survived, including Sally - the head of Mission Control (played by Melissa Leo) on Titan.
But things don't go as planned. There's a mysterious crash-landing that brings a third astronaut into the picture. Then Jack meets-up with Morgan Freeman's character. He may be human, alien, friend or enemy. And, trust me, it gets even crazier later on.
Visually "Oblivion" is quite impressive, but what really makes it work - at least for the first 90-minutes or so - is the style of storytelling , which is rather unconventional. Director Joseph Kosinski ("TRON: Legacy") takes his time setting things up. We get to know Jack and Victoria separately and their relationship together. Sure, Cruise's opening narrative explains way too much, and Leo's southern accent is very annoying - but there's much to like here, including a tricky love triangle, some effective plot twists and the stylized look.
But then there comes a point in "Oblivion" when I could no longer continue on this ride. The story gets way-out sci-fi wacky, so much so that the characters spend much of the final act trying to explain what's actually going on. Moon-sized craters start appearing in the plot so it's impossible not to lose focus while trying to make sense of it all. And the ending is very unsatisfying.
And why does every science fiction movie in which the Earth is destroyed have to be set in New York City? We get scene after scene of the Empire State Building and even a crumbled Statue of Liberty makes an appearance. That's lazy writing.
Cruise gives a solid performance in a role in which he does many of his scenes alone. Freeman doesn't show-up until midway through and he's only in three or four scenes. He squeezed this performance into his busy shooting schedule, which includes roles in three other 2013 films: "Olympus Has Fallen", "Now You See Me", and "Last Vegas". And yet he gets second billing in "Oblivion". This is why we love Morgan Freeman.
"Oblivion" is rated PG-13 for the sci-fi action/violence, language, and brief nudity. It's appropriate for teens and up. The movie is based on Kosinski's own unpublished graphic novel and I give him credit for trying to make a different type of science fiction film. But, in the end, this journey is unsatisfying.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Oblivion" gets a C.
Jackie Robinson is considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. But more than that, Robinson's breaking of baseball's color-barrier, becoming the first African-American to play in the major leagues, established him forever as a great American hero. The number 42 is synonymous with Robinson and his legacy. The movie "42" is hitting theaters at the start of the 2013 Major League Baseball season. However, a World Series time release wouldn't have been a bad idea either because this film is good enough for awards season attention.
Chadwick Boseman, a screenwriter and playwright, best known for small TV roles and a bit part in 2008's "The Express", stars as Robinson. "42" begins with a voice-over introduction by sportswriter Wendell Smith, who is also an African-American trying to make it in a white man's profession (he and Robinson will develop an interesting relationship). The year is 1945: WWII has ended and all the baseball greats have returned home to resume their playing careers.
But the world is changing. Branch Rickey, President/General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (played by a nearly unrecognizable Harrison Ford) wants to do something unheard of: sign a player from the Negro Leagues to play in the Dodgers organization. He carefully chooses Robinson, who immediately becomes the target of racial attacks from fans, opponents and even teammates. It's this struggle - and eventual triumph - that's the focus of "42", a straight-forward, but highly effective, biopic.
Writer-Director Brian Helgehand doesn't hold back in showing the abuse that Robinson was forced to endure. The N-word is used often, particularly in one tough scene to watch involving Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman screaming racial slurs at Robinson during a game in his rookie season of 1947. "42" may be "based on a true story", but this scene feels all too real and provides some of the best dramatic moments of the movie. The film also includes some religious elements, mostly coming from Ford's Rickey.
Most people, even non-baseball fans, know at least a little about the life and career of Jackie Robinson. What makes "42" work is just how simplistic, yet strong this treatment is. The script doesn't rely on big, over-the-top scenes that force us to care. Instead, we are invested the entire way, thanks to the authentic feel and the performances.
This is a star-making vehicle for Boseman, convincing from the first time he appears on screen. He met with Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, to prepare for the role, along with watching hours of game footage of Robinson. Ford is also excellent as Rickey: a sarcastic and serious businessman (he delivers a couple of funny lines in that iconic, gruff voice), who is also Robinson's protector and biggest supporter. I was slightly bothered by some of the other casting choices - many the supporting actors are familiar TV stars - "Law & Order: SVU"'s Christopher Meloni, along with T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk and John C. McGinley - which was distracting for me (maybe not for anybody else). And the score, at times, is way too dramatic for what's happening on screen.
"42" is rated PG-13 for the harsh adult language and thematic elements. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. This is heart-felt celebration of the life of one of the most important figures in American history.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "42" gets a B+. Not a grand slam, but pretty darn close.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is a generational crime drama from director Derek Cianfrance. He re-teams with his "Blue Valentine" star Ryan Gosling, who plays Luke. He's a motorcycle daredevil rider who performs in a traveling carnival. Luke meets-up with former girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes). He soon finds out that has a child with Romina named Jason who is now a one-year-old. While Romina has a current boyfriend helping take care of Jason, Luke wants to be part of his son's life and provide for him, but since he makes very little money at his regular job he decides to start a new career - robbing banks.
Following a few successful robberies, things go bad for Luke. We are then introduced to police officer Avery Cross (played by Bradley Cooper). Avery is injured in the line of duty and becomes a hero for his actions. Avery's wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) doesn't want him to return to front-line duty after his near-death experience, especially because they also have a one-year-old son. He gets a desk job and remains on the force, but things get complicated when Avery tries to do the right thing.
"Pines" is 2 hours and 20 minutes. It feels like four - which in this case isn't great. I was with it for much of the time: the two stories are engaging, with interesting characters and fine performances and they intersect in a memorable way. But then, with about half an hour to go, the direction of the film changes, the screen becomes black and a title card comes-up announcing that the saga has flashed-forward 15 years. A third storyline begins, involving two high-school kids. This final act turns "Pines" into predictable "Lifetime" movie. The situations drag on, the messages and connections between the characters are pounded into your head along with the overly-melodramatic score. And, from a practical standpoint, none of older characters look like they aged 15 years.
Gosling's performance is outstanding, highlighted by a scene in which he watches his son being baptized from the back of the church. But Cooper gives the best, most raw performance, once again proving (following his great work in "Silver Linings Playbook") that he's one of our finest current actors. Interestingly, even though Cooper and Gosling are the stars, they only share about 5 seconds of screen time together. Mendes and Byrne have their moments. Bruce Greenwood also pops-up in a small supporting role. And Ray Liotta's basically playing Ray Liotta - a good guy on the outside who may or may not be real bad guy.
Cianfrance does a nice job of capturing the small city feel, often shooting tight to add to the realism. The bank robberies and one long police chase sequence are well done in frantic, hand-held style (though the chase scene nearly gave me a headache). "Pines" was shot almost entirely during the Summer of 2011 in and around Schenectady, NY., which is not far from where I live. Locals and people who know the area will be excited to see many familiar locations including the banks, a school, popular restaurants, and the General Electric headquarters.
"The Place Beyond the Pines" is rated R for language, violence, disturbing images and drug use (in that order I might add). It's appropriate for teens and up. At times very effective, other times preaching (practically begging) to be heard, "Pines" is solid but not extraordinary.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Place Beyond the Pines" gets a C+.
"Jurassic Park" is one of Steven Spielberg's greatest achievements and most popular films. It's also one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time, making a whopping $915 million worldwide back in 1993. Well, (as Samuel L. Jackson's character says in the film) "hold on to your butts" because the Oscar-winning thriller is back on the big screen in 3D for its 20th anniversary.
I hadn't seen "Jurassic Park" before screening this new version. The closest I'd come was going on Jurassic Park: The Ride at Universal Studios. So experiencing this classic for the first time from the third row of an IMAX 3D theater was quite thrilling.
Spielberg touches are everywhere:
suspense, kids in danger, humor, loads of close-ups of the human
characters - paleontologists Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler
and Laura Dern), billionaire theme park creator John Hammond (played by the
great Richard Attenborough), and the skeptical and sarcastic Dr. Ian
Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Plus the cast includes a pre-Seinfeld Wayne
Knight, a pre-"Pulp Fiction" Jackson, and more than a shock or
two from the in-your-face screaming dinosaurs! Even if you've already
watched it a half-dozen times you need to see "Jurassic Park" in 3D, as
enhancements to the landscapes and action scenes are impressive and
practically flawless. The "Titanic 3D" post-conversion version was Spielberg's inspiration for updating "Jurassic Park". The fact that "Jurassic Park 4" will be hitting theaters next summer also had to help.
Spielberg had a remarkable 1993. Not only did "Schindler's List" win the Best Picture Oscar (and six other Academy Awards), but "Jurassic Park" also captured three statues (two for sound, the other for the groundbreaking visual effects). While it's pretty easy now to spot the CGI and animatronics, the dinosaurs still look very realistic. It's surprising that composer John Williams' score wasn't even nominated, but he did win the Oscar that year for "Schindler". From the story structure and character development to his legendary shot selection, Spielberg proved here (as he did again last year with "Lincoln") that he is the reigning T-Rex of American movie-making.
However, parents - DO NOT take little children to this film. You may have forgotten just how scary and intense it is - and it's even more so in 3D and IMAX 3D.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Jurassic Park 3D" gets an A-. A 20th Anniversary re-release that's truly worth celebrating.
"The Sapphires" is a little gem from Australia that's making a lot of noise here in the US. The film received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last May, which didn't go unnoticed by The Weinstein Co. which picked it up. On the surface, you might think it's simply a rip-off of "Dreamgirls", "Sparkle" or any of the other "manager finds unknown female singing group and turns them into superstars" movies. "The Sapphires" is a little of that, but much, much more.
Based on actual people and real events, the film centers around four Aboriginal girls living in Australia: sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). They began singing together when they were very young. The four were also targeted by the Australian government because of their race. Fast-forward to 1968 - the three sisters are looking to break tradition and win a local singing competition emceed by Dave Lovelace ("Bridesmaids"' Chris O'Dowd). While they don't win (because of their skin color), Dave recognizes their talent and potential.
And the girls really want to become stars. There's an opportunity to travel to Vietnam and perform for the troops fighting in the war. Dave gets the group an audition and agrees to become their manager. Kay re-joins the group (her backstory is heartbreaking), the ladies change their longer, more
complicated name which Dave can never pronounce correctly (a very funny running joke) to "The Sapphires" and they get the gig! Once in Vietnam relationships are formed, tensions rise and the realities of war hit home all while "The Sapphires" are becoming sensations.
"The Sapphires" is good old-fashioned quality entertainment. Yes, it's an indie film, but it has a tighter, more effective script and structure than a lot of Hollywood blockbusters. This is the first feature from director Wayne Blair, who's previously handled shorts and TV series. The story is basic but not simple, as it delivers interesting turns and a few surprises. It's impossible not to get emotionally invested in these characters, who are the perfect combination of believable and likeable.
O'Dowd displays great comedic timing throughout - even in one of the film's more dramatic scenes. He has some memorable one-liners. The four actresses who play The Sapphires are also excellent, both with their acting and singing. This film has an amazing soundtrack, highlighted by Australian R&B sensation Mauboy. And director Blair uses the song choices as an element in the fabric of the storyline, emphasizing the film's positive outlook on life and success even during troubled times.
"The Sapphires" is rated PG-13 for language, adult content, war violence and thematic elements. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. This is an honest, sweet and touching film, co-written by the son of one of the real women who inspired the story, who are nicely honored during the closing credits.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Sapphires" gets a B+.
"The Host" is the latest big screen adaptation of a fantasy novel that tween and teen girls turned into a Best Seller. In case you're not aware, The Host was written by Stephanie Meyer, who's also the author of The Twilight Saga. That book series became one of the most popular film series of all-time, though the actual quality of those movies left a little to be desired. But as painful as it may have been to watch Edward, Bella, Jacob and company bite and fight on the big screen it can't compare to just how amazingly awful "The Host" is.
I gotta start by stating how bad I felt for Saoirse Ronan while watching "The Host". She plays Melanie, one of the last remaining humans on Earth. Practically everyone else on the planet has had their bodies inhabited by aliens. People still look like themselves, except they're now peaceful, calm and have bright blue eyes.
Soon Melanie also undergoes an alien invasion and she takes the new name Wanderer (which is later shortened to "Wanda"). Normally this new soul wipes-away the former human completely, but for some reason Melanie remains inside Wanda and so these two battle it out for the entire movie, yelling at each other with laughably, corny dialogue. And Ronan is forced to deliver these lines, basically carrying-on a conversation with her "inner self" for two hours. It is incredibly annoying. Ronan is one of Hollywood's best, young actresses (loved her in "Hanna"). I just hope she got paid double to make-up for the embarrassing role she was forced to play.
Back to the story: Wanda/Melanie find Melanie's family - which has survived the alien take-over by living in a volcano in the desert. William Hurt plays Jeb, the leader of the clan. But here's the problem: Melanie had a boyfriend before she was captured and he still likes her and now Wanda is getting friendly with a new guy from this group of survivors. This is the romantic stuff all the females are waiting for. While there are some obvious similarities to "Twilight", with the two guys fighting for one girl, in this case it's TWO GIRLS IN ONE BODY. So it's not a "Romantic Triangle", but a "Romantic Rectangle". There is actually a scene in which the two boyfriends trade-off kissing the Wanda/Melanie character to see which one is inside. I'm not making this up.
Diane Kruger plays the leader of the aliens who really wants Wanda dead, even though the aliens are supposed to be peaceful, loving creatures. The storyline is filled with holes but the worst part of the script is the dialogue. "The Host" is often very funny, and it's waiting for the next wonderfully ridiculous line that kept me interested, particularly Melanie's comments while Wanda is kissing both guys. Seriously, there are more kissing scenes in "The Host" than in all five "Twilight" films combined.
If the production team behind this mess was trying to make a "Twilight" rip-off, with aliens instead of vampires, they forgot one important thing: action! There isn't one interesting chase, battle or confrontation. The best scene in the film is a truck being driven into a wall - intentionally. With no distractions from all the talking and the kissing, "The Host" drags-on to a predictable conclusion. And there's a final scene that I think was supposed to set-up a possible sequel, but it doesn't make sense.
This is director Andrew Niccol's second bomb in a row. He made 2011's disappointing Justin Timberlake/Amanda Seyfried action film, "In Time". He also gets the blame for "The Host" screenplay. Maybe Niccol should get back to writing his own material. He actually picked-up an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay for "The Truman Show" (1998).
"The Host" is rated PG-13 but other than a little blood it's OK for kids 11 and up. I guess if you liked the book you may want to give it a shot, but you'll probably be as stunned as I was. In fact, if you happen to talk to someone who says they enjoyed this film you should check their eyes for signs of an alien take-over.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Host" gets a D. Thankfully Meyer has only published one "Host" book so far, which is a bit surprising. It'll be even more surprising is if this movie becomes so popular that there's ever any thought of making another one.
"G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is the sequel to 2009's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" and is once again based on the classic Hasbro action figures. "Retaliation" was supposed to come out on June 29, 2012, but just weeks before Paramount decided to delay the film for nine months, even after they had spent millions on marketing, including a Super Bowl ad. The film's director, Jon M. Chu (who also helmed Justin Bieber's documentary "Never Say Never" and two "Step Up" movies) was reportedly "shell-shocked" with that decision.
Paramount gave two reasons for the delay: #1 - The studio realized that adding 3D to the film would increase profits especially with the overseas box office. #2 - Apparently there was a negative reaction from audiences at preview screenings last year when Channing Tatum's character "Duke", who starred in the original, was killed-off early in the film. So re-shoots took place to expand Tatum role. Unfortunately, (Spoiler Alert!) the new scenes are both surprising and disappointing.
"The Rise of Cobra" was a fun movie. Yes, mindless "little boys playing with action figures come to life" kinda fun, but fun nonetheless. And the same goes for this non-stop, action-packed sequel, at least for the first of its two hours. Then the overwhelming amount of explosions, fight scenes, chases, just bury the film. It's simply the case of too much of a good thing. All the elements are here: Dwayne Johnson as the leader of the pack, Bruce Willis as THE Original Joe, some nasty bad guys, including the main villain - a look-a-like of the President of the United States (who is discovered because he says "sorta" instead of "like") and a whole lotta fight sequences.
In fact, "Retaliation" is now the 2nd in a long line of "Blow 'em Up / Shoot 'em Up / Wild Action movies this spring and summer, several involving the President in Danger / White House Takeover plotlines. "Olympus Has Fallen" is already a surprise box office hit. And still to come: "World War Z", "White House Down", "Red 2", "Fast and Furious 6" and even "Pain & Gain". And, yes, Johnson is in all of these (kidding, he's just in the last two).
As for "G.I. Joe: Retaliation", outside of the action there isn't much to keep your interest. There's no suspense, thanks to a story that's so obvious and basic that a six-year-old could figure out what's going to happen. Just because it's based on a kids toy doesn't mean the script should be written at a 3rd grade level. And frankly, most 3rd graders have more imagination that what we get here.
Johnson is the star, but he doesn't dominate screen time, and many of the lesser characters get their opportunity to shine. Most don't. And Willis' Joe is really underdeveloped. HE IS JOE! THE JOE! I wanna know EVERYTHING about him! The fact that he's retired and has a lot of guns hidden all over his house isn't enough.
The positives: Paramount did actually do something right with the reported $5-$15 million it spent for the 3D conversion. The effect looks great and is used well. And there are some appropriately corny but funny lines. However, even those get tiresome by the end.
"G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is rated PG-13 for the action/violence, language. It's appropriate for kids 11 and up. Because I enjoyed the first one so much, and because we had to wait nearly a year to see this one, my expectations were high. As it turns-out, way too high.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" gets a C-. As always, box office will determine if the series continues. The good news is: if there is a third "G.I. Joe", it shouldn't be too difficult to top this one.
"Admission" is being promoted as a romantic comedy. It stars Tina Fey and Mr. Rom-Com himself: Paul Rudd (seriously, look at his IMDb page). But, in truth, "Admission" isn't what the trailers and commercials try to make it out to be. In fact there may not be a genre for this film.
Fey plays Portia, an admissions officer at Princeton University. She and the other members of the department decide the fates of high school seniors who have applied to the school and desperately want their applications to be accepted. Early in the film we follow Portia as she travels to several schools, telling eager students that the best way to get into Princeton is to "be yourself". The Dean of Admissions (played by Wallace Shawn) informs everyone that Princeton has just dropped to #2 on the list of best Universities in the country and therefore the admission team needs to come up with a special class of freshmen for the following year. He also announces that he's retiring and Portia wants the job.
But first, she's got to tackle much more important issues: Her relationship with longtime boyfriend (Michael Sheen) may not be as solid as she thinks. Then she meets John (Rudd), who teaches at an alternative learning school. He quickly informs her that one of his students named Jeremiah is her biological son that she gave up for adoption at birth. And Jeremiah just so happens to really want to attend Princeton, even though he's not a great student.
Should she tell him that she's his mother? Should she help him get into Princeton, even though it's against the rules? And John's got plenty of issues of his own, including with his adopted son. And what the heck is Lily Tomlin doing with tattoos? She pops-up as Portia's wacky mom who lives alone in the woods.
The first hour of "Admission" is a lot of set-up mixed with some corny scenes and awkward situations, which is pretty much what I was expecting. Then the film takes a dramatic turn, as the relationship problems involving all of the characters start piling-up. And the twists start coming - some work and others fail badly.
Overall, there are a couple of major problems with "Admission": #1 - the script is packed with too many unnecessary subplots. It's easy to see that it's based on a novel but the mistake screenwriter Karen Croner makes is trying to jam all these different situations from the book into a 2-hour movie. There's even a running joke involving Sheen and another woman that shouldn't even qualify as a running joke - because it's never funny.
Secondly, because of this lack of focus "Admission" has no identity. Is it a light romantic comedy? A dramedy with heart? A relationship drama? A message film on the current state of higher education? One moment it tries to be silly, the next it is deeply serious. Director Paul Weitz does take a few chances but the whole thing just never comes together.
Rudd is solid, though he really doesn't have much to do but deliver some basic dialogue and, in one scene that's supposed to show that he's this great teacher and humanitarian, assists a cow in giving birth. Nat Wolff (once part of Nickelodeon's "Naked Brothers Band") doesn't overplay the role of Jeremiah. Tomlin, once one of the greatest comedians in show business, doesn't have one funny line. Gloria Reuben, fresh-off her standout performance in "Lincoln", plays Portia's admissions department rival (yes, another subplot). The best performance in the film goes to Fey, who handles herself well in a couple of the key, well-staged dramatic scenes. But if you're expecting her to be "30 Rock"/co-host of the Golden Globes funny you're out of luck.
"Admission" is rated PG-13 for language and some adult material. It's appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Admission" gets a C. And, as usual, it comes down to the script, which should have been DENIED before this film went into production.
"The Croods" is DreamWorks Animation's first film of 2013. It's directed by Kirk DeMicco ("Space Chimps") and two-time Oscar nominee Chris Sanders ("How to Train Your Dragon", "Lilo & Stitch"). While "The Croods" isn't as funny or charming as any of those films, it is visually stunning and has its moments.
Nicolas Cage leads an all-star voice cast (a DreamWorks trademark) as Grug. He's the father and leader of the last living caveman family on Earth. Grug and his wife Ugga (voiced by Catherine Keener) have three kids: a son named Thunk, a rambunctious young daughter named Sandy (part Pebbles, part Bam-Bam, part Tasmanian Devil) and a teenage daughter named Eep (Emma Stone), who is the focal point of the story.
Eep is not a fan of her father's rules for keeping the family safe. Grug doesn't like anyone to venture outside of their cave on their own, especially once the sun goes down. He is the ultimate over-protective father. But Eep is tired of living in fear so one night she sneaks out, following a strange light, and meets-up with a cave-boy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and his pet sloth Belt - who is also his belt. Guy introduces Eep to fire and explains how the world is changing and that everyone needs to move to a safer area in order to survive. Grug doesn't like Guy or the budding romance between him and his daughter, but he does take the boy's advice and soon the family and their young leader begin a journey to find a new home, discovering many of life's wonders along the way.
"The Croods" is a very simple film. There's no main villain, so it's basically these eight characters (and a few creatures they encounter) on a prehistoric road trip for 90 minutes. The script puts them into a series of sticky situations and then resorts to slapstick sequences to get them out. As someone who's not a fan of silly, over-the-top physical comedy, even in animated films, I got tired of this quickly. There's a lot of energy in these fast-paced scenes and technically they look great, but there's just too much wild and crazy action.
The rest of the time "The Croods" is quite talky, which is a reason why younger audience members may lose interest. Outside of a running gag involving Belt there aren't a lot of big laughs. And the story, much like last November's "Rise of the Guardians", drags in the middle.
There are some messages - that it's good to try new things, and the subplot about a father needing to let go of his little girl. Both pretty basic and familiar. For a film with so few characters, it's critical that they're all extremely well-developed and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, that's not the case here. While I'm sure the idea was for Eep to be the break-out character (kind of a prehistoric version of Merida from "Brave") she never reaches that level. Instead, the focus shifts to the rivalry between Grug and Guy. And the other family members are all forgettable, including a stereotypical mother-in-law voiced by Cloris Leachman.
On the positive side, the voice cast is spot on, led by Cage and Reynolds, who also voices the title snail "Turbo" in the studio's next animated film, due out July 17th. As is always the case with DreamWorks Animation, the look of "The Croods" is gorgeous. There are some truly beautiful images of nature, which plays a major role in the plot. The score does a great job of maintaining the tone of the film and the hand-drawn animation in the open is a nice touch. There are some genuinely funny and clever moments in "The Croods", just not enough of them. However, there is an impressive sequence late in the film that rivals some of Disney and Pixar's most memorable moments and this gives the storyline a much-needed emotional boost.
"The Croods" is rated PG for some mild action/violence. It's appropriate for kids 8 and up. It isn't one of DreamWorks' best, but is still worth venturing out of your cave to see.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Croods" gets a C+.
Steve Carell and Jim Carrey are two of Hollywood's funniest actors. And they've worked together in some big films - "Bruce Almighty" and the animated "Horton Hears a Who". Now they've teamed-up once again as rival magicians in the comedy, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone".
Carell plays the title character who, as a boy back in the early 80's, becomes interested in magic after receiving a "Rance Holloway Magic Kit" for his birthday. Another boy from school named Anton is amazed by Burt's magic abilities and they become partners and best friends. Flash-forward several years and Burt and Anton are headliners at Bally's Casino in Las Vegas, and the top magic act in the world.
But after doing the show with the same tricks for ten years, Burt and Anton (played by Steve Buscemi) start to get sick of the act - and each other. Their boss at Bally's (James Gandolfini) wants something fresh. Steve Gray, a Criss Angel-type "performance magician" (played to perfection by Carrey) is becoming the "New Face of Magic", thanks to his dangerous and wacky physical stunts shown on his weekly cable TV show. Soon it's "Old School vs. New School". Plus, the friendship between Burt and Anton is put to the test, there's an assistant who gets involved (Olivia Wilde) and even Rance Holloway (the terrific Alan Arkin) makes a comeback appearance. All these characters play a role in trying to help Burt rekindle the magic in his life - and in his magic.
"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a genuinely funny film. The script, by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who also wrote the upcoming "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2") is smart. They take the subject matter seriously, while poking-fun at practically everything involved in this high-stakes world of big-time magic. Some of the humor is subtle, other times it's laugh-out-loud hilarious. Most of the tricks and illusions are authentic and, yes, even on film, some are pretty amazing. The great David Copperfield was a consultant on the movie and he has a cameo as well.
Carell is one of the best in the business at delivering laughs with dialogue, mannerisms and facial expressions. All his talents are on display here. Carrey embraces this quite different role (even for him). Wilde gets a surprising amount of screen time, and Arkin shares some nice scenes with Carell. The two also worked together on both "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Get Smart". Gandolfini also has some good moments as the egotistical casino owner and Buscemi's storyline takes a weird but hysterical turn.
There aren't a lot of surprises and, thankfully, director Don Scardino avoids adding any dramatic or emotional elements - going simply for laughs. And it works, as the film never gets sidetracked.
"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is rated PG-13 for some language, adult content, dangerous stunts, and drug use - which plays a key role in the film's climactic scene. And this movie features the best final scene of any film in years.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" gets a B.
Sure, not all the scenes and gags work, but overall "Burt Wonderstone", much like a good magic show, is solid entertainment.
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