"Heaven is for Real" is based on the best-selling book of a boy's near-death, ever life-changing experience. Director Randall Wallace follows-up his 2010 horse-racing drama, "Secretariat", with another inspiring true story.
Greg Kinnear is excellent as Todd Burpo, a loving husband to wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly from "Flight") and father to daughter Cassie and fun-loving four-year-old son Colton (played by first-time actor Connor Corum). Todd works several jobs in order to support his family, but is primarily a minister for a small-town Nebraska parish.
A few days after Todd is forced to deal with a few painful medical issues, Colton, out of the blue, comes down with a dangerously high temperature. Todd and Sonja take him to the local medical center, where he is forced to undergo emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. The doctors don't think Colton is going to survive the operation, but he miraculously does.
Soon, Colton begins to reveal to Todd that during the procedure, he went to Heaven, where he met Jesus, among others, and discovered just how beautiful Heaven is. Todd now must struggle to determine if and how he can believe what his son is telling him, whether these experiences actually happened. All the while Colton continues to amaze Todd and others with revelations about his incredible journey.
"Heaven is for Real" does take a little while to get going. The first half-hour is upbeat, setting a positive tone for how Colton sees his life. When the near-tragedy strikes, the film shifts focus to balance serious themes and spiritual messages. But the execution is handled so well that the story never gets preachy and will likely bring many to tears by the end.
There are hardly any moments in "Heaven is for Real" that come-off as cheesy or forced. Wallace does include a few scenes of Colton's description of Heaven. Thankfully, the media aspect takes a back-seat to the more crucial problems of the family - both financial and spiritual. And all the performances are quite believable. Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale shine as parishoners who are having an uneasy time accepting Todd's stance on Colton's beliefs.
"Heaven is for Real" is rated PG for language and some heavy material. It's suitable for kids 10 and up. Whether or not you believe that Heaven exists, it's impossible to overlook the emotional impact this film provides. It's powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly moving.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Heaven is for Real" gets a B+.
Kevin Costner has a long history with sports movies. He made "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" back-to-back in the late 80s, took a swing at golf with "Tin Cup" in the mid-90s, and returned to baseball "For the Love of the Game" at the end of that decade. 2014 marks Costner's return to the sports drama genre. He'll play a track coach in "McFarland" (out Nov. 21). And currently, as Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver, Jr., Costner takes part in the most outrageous "Draft Day" in NFL history.
Diehard football fans are likely going to blast "Draft Day" for its mostly unrealistic interpretation of the Draft Day process. There are several situations over the course of the film that would never happen in real life. These include last minute revelations about players that would've been discovered months before and the incredible chaos on the actual day, including the wheeling and dealing of draft picks.
However, as someone who's not obsessed with this annual NFL event, the lack of authenticity didn't bother me. "Draft Day" isn't a touchdown by any means (and nowhere close to the level of "Field of Dreams", which other critics have suggested), but it works as a relationship drama with some effective twists, solid performances, and sprinkles of humor.
Costner's Sonny Weaver, Jr. is beginning his third year as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, who are coming-off yet another losing season. When we first meet Sonny, he's not exactly having the greatest draft day of his life. His father, a legendary coach of the Browns for years, has recently died. The Browns' owner (Frank Langella) is pressuring Sonny to "make a splash" with their 1st pick in the draft day (#7 overall) or he'll likely be fired. And team attorney Ali (played by Jennifer Garner) has just told him they're expecting a child.
So Sonny tries to change his luck by swinging a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for the #1 overall Draft Pick. All the analysts, and the Browns' outspoken head coach (Denis Leary) think it's now obvious that they'll take the top prospect to come out of college ball, Heisman Trophy-winning QB Bo Calahan. But Sonny's not completely convinced. There are other possible choices, or maybe another trade or two. And the clock is ticking.
"Draft Day" starts-out very slow and doesn't pick-up momentum until about a half-hour in. Director Ivan Reitman (coming-up on 30 years since "Ghostbusters") showcases strategy scenes (both in person and over the phone) in an effort to pull-in the diehard football fans. He also uses NFL graphics, logos and actual locations, along with commentary from real-life NFL TV analysts, to explain the basics of the draft to those who aren't as knowledgeable of the process. One oddity that Reitman uses is a split-screen graphic in which characters over-lap each other, walking into the others' half of the screen. It's as bizarre and distracting as it sounds.
However, and this is rarely the case, it's the subplots of "Draft Day" that make the movie a success. 81-year-old Ellen Burstyn is very good in a small role as Sonny's mother, grieving over the loss of her husband. Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in "42") stands-out as a hot-shot potential draft pick. And the scenes between Costner and Garner, who are struggling to figure-out where to take their relationship, work as well.
"Draft Day" is rated PG-13 for some brief strong language. There are moments when this film scores with its "inside football" look and feel, while other times it fumbles badly. And it's much tamer in tone than it could have been (a somewhat watered-down, football version of "Moneyball"). But overall, it's entertaining, honest, and quite likeable within its "What if" premise.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Draft Day" gets a B-.
"Rio 2" is the sequel to 2011's animated musical hit from Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the "Ice Age" series. "Rio" had a very average story, eye-popping, candy-colored characters and over-the-top musical numbers. The same can be said for this sequel, which is unfortunately unlikable.
Blu and Jewel (again voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway) now have three young, energetic kids (who thankfully aren't the main focus). The family still believes they're the last Blue Macaws on the planet, until they learn that their wacky scientist owners ventured to the Amazon and found proof that other members of their species exist. So the family of five decides to journey from Rio de Janeiro to the rainforest to see these other Blue Macaws for themselves. It turns out that hundreds exist, led by Jewel's own tough father (Andy Garcia).
The plot expands to include the supporting trio of Nico, Pedro, and Rafael (Jamie Foxx, will.i.am., and George Lopez) looking for talent for an upcoming festival, Jewel's own showy childhood friend Roberto (pop singer Bruno Mars), old nemesis Nigel and his new companion venomous frog (Jemaine Clement and Kristen Chenoweth), and the forced environmental issues.
"Rio 2" is as typical as a trip to the pet store: this film goes in way too many directions searching for just the right story, tone, feel - and ultimately finds the perfect match, but only for five and six-year-olds. Anyone older than that will likely be bored. The jokes and situations aren't clever (the GPS gag gets old fast), and coming off of Disney's animated phenomenon "Frozen", the musical numbers are rather goofy (and there are way too many of them).
On the positive side, the voice cast works (though it's a little too star-studded for my liking) and the animation is simply gorgeous. If only the story was stronger. Blue Sky hasn't shown the ability to deliver great storytelling since 2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs". Maybe next year's eagerly anticipated "Peanuts" will change this streak.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Rio 2" gets a C.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has raised the bar yet again with the return of The Star Spangled Man with a Plan. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the sequel to 2011's highly entertaining "The First Avenger". In that film we were introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) who was asked to serve his country during WWII in a unique way - by becoming a beefed-up symbol for the people, and eventually a crime-fighting hero.
In 2012's "The Avengers" Rogers teamed-up with the other established Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury to defeat Thor's evil brother Loki. Thankfully in "CA2" there is no sign of Asgard.
Nick (the always great Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) join forces with Rogers once again, this time in an effort to combat the reemergence of the evil forces of HYDRA, whose secret weapon is the infamous "Winter Soldier", a trained killer with a metal arm. His identity is hidden by a mask, though, in one of the movie's many revelations, we do get to learn who he actually is.
But the trio of Avengers are not alone. Anthony Mackie ("The Hurt Locker") fits-in seamlessly as a modern-day war veteran who joins the good guys as The Falcon. He's involved in several aerial sequences that are impressively staged and shot. Also new to the series is Alexander Pierce (Oscar winner Robert Redford), who represents S.H.I.E.L.D. in the World Council.
That's all you need and want to know about "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" going in. Any more details would give away too much of the complex and sophisticated plot, which includes more twists than any Marvel Studios installment to date. This is not your typical "superhero" movie, but an action-packed political thriller, with a serious tone that elevates it to a level way above most of the efforts in this series, putting last year's mediocre "Thor: The Dark World" to shame.
And yet, "The Winter Soldier" is also a whole lot of fun. The action scenes, which range from nicely choreographed hand-to-hand combat to all-out gun battles, are long but rewarding. There are a few bits of humor sprinkled-in, many Marvel references, and one of the better Stan Lee cameos. Evans and Johansson have an authentic chemistry, and Redford, at 77, still has a commanding screen presence, even in this supporting role (and it's good to see him back on dry land).
The most impressive triumph of "The Winter Soldier" is the use of the score, montages, and unexpected flashbacks to capture our emotions, and make us care about these characters like never before. Kudos to the directors - brothers Anthony and Joe Russo - for making the Captain America universe Marvel's most human and believable. There are some pacing issues, with periods of extended dialogue leading up to an explosive, 10-minute action scene. But that's a minor complaint for what is an exciting and extremely impressive film.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence and some language. It's appropriate for teens and up. As always, stick through the credits for a few teasers of other Marvel films coming-up, including next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron". But before looking ahead, take the opportunity to enjoy the smartest Marvel movie yet, and one of 2014's standouts.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" gets an A-.
The biblical epic ,"Noah", has been generating a lot of controversy from Christian groups angry with the film's interpretation of the classic story. Yes, much of this latest big-screen adaptation is new material, highly dramatized, and a little far-fetched. Even so, "Noah" is flooded with rich performances from a star-studded cast, impressive visuals, and an emotional core that truly works.
Russell Crowe is excellent as the title character. As the classic story goes Noah receives messages from God in a dream and is told to build an ark and fill it with his family and two of all the creatures on Earth. This is so they can be the only survivors of an impending, catastrophic flood that will wash the lands clean of all wickedness. However, the script (co-written by Ari Handel and director Darren Aronofsky, whose 2010 "Black Swan" earned him an Oscar nomination) presents new chapters in this familiar saga, including presenting Noah as a tortured hero - his character taking some very interesting turns that force his wife and children (and us) to question him, as he is questioning The Creator.
Jennifer Connelly delivers a subtly powerful performance as Noah's wife, the heart and soul of what is potentially the last family unit on Earth. Emma Watson is outstanding in a pivotal and showcase role as the adopted daughter, who was taken in by Noah when she was very young, after her family was killed by the evil clan of non-believers. They're led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone in a way too typical Hollywood, over-the-top role). Logan Lerman (Watson's co-star in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") is solid as one of Noah's three sons, who wanders a little close to the dark side. And if that's not enough, the great Anthony Hopkins is spot-on as Noah's grandfather, the wise Methuselah, whose close relationship with God comes in handy.
"Noah" is 2 hours and 20 minutes, but it doesn't feel like 40 days and 40 nights. There are a few spots where things drag a bit, but Aronofsky's distinctive vision both with the story (divided almost evenly between action on land and in the sea), and the overall look (which includes a fantastic "Creation Story" sequence that may also spark some controversy) keeps you locked in throughout. His ability to build tension and suspense into a story we've all known since we were 6 years old is a remarkable achievement.
"Noah" is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence and disturbing images. It's appropriate for teens and up. While it's clearly not a word-for-word retelling of Genesis 6:1 - 9:17, "Noah" is a sophisticated and effective family drama that's absolutely worth seeing.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Noah" gets a B.
"Divergent" is the latest best-selling book-series film adaptation specifically designed for tween and teen girls starring a female heroine out to save her family and community. Clearly the idea is to duplicate the incredible successes of "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight" franchises, but make no mistake, "Divergent" isn't remotely as entertaining as any of the films in those series. What is it? Very long and not very good.
In a post-apocalyptic world with Chicago as the only city that remains (this is probably the only element of "Divergent" that late film critic Roger Ebert would have appreciated), Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) must decide what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She, and all the other young adults, get to choose among five different jobs - or factions (think "districts" in "Hunger Games"-language), with everyone divided into neighborhoods based on personality traits. Beatrice goes against her family and chooses to join the Dauntless group - these are the fighters, the police force for the community, who guard the very large wall that surrounds the city which will likely be explored further in the next installment.
But everyone also undergoes an aptitude test, which is supposed to tell you which group to pick. The test reveals that Tris (the name she adopts when she joins the cool faction) is "divergent", meaning she's a combination of multiple factions. Tris can't tell anyone her true identity because divergents "threaten the system". If city leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) or any of her henchmen find a "divergent" (there seem to be a lot of them around even though we're told they are rare), he or she is killed on the spot.
So, for a painfully drawn-out 2 hours and 20 minutes, we watch as Tris goes through endless training sessions, numerous dream sequences that rival the amount in "Inception", and from thoughtful teenager to violent killing machine.
With one of the longest set-ups of any film ever put on screen (I timed it out at an hour and a half) "Divergent" takes forever to get going. And throughout this time I keep thinking: "OK - now what?" Every 20 minutes or so something somewhat interesting takes place, and then we get another training scene. The script lacks any imagination or surprises, and attempting to make sense of all the ridiculous details in the lifeless plot would be wasting your time and mine.
Woodley, who deserved an Oscar nomination for her supporting work opposite George Clooney in 2011's "The Descendants", does her best in a tough spot. She's in practically every scene, but only has a few showcase moments, so I don't see award nominations for this role, though this creation by director Neil Burger could be a popular choice come Razzie time.
In Burger's previous film, 2011's "Limitless", Bradley Cooper took a lot of pills. Here, Woodley takes a lot of needle injections to the neck. The director also pays an unintentionally corny homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" during a few of Tris' nightmare sequences. It was tough not to burst out laughing several times during "Divergent", and I got the feeling Winslet was very close to doing the same during her over-the-top evil villain scenes.
For being PG-13, the level of violence in "Divergent" is pretty high, though it's not as graphic as the first "Hunger Games". I can't imagine how fans of the book can possibly stay entertained for the duration. As for everyone else, I borrow a line from the famous poet Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." If either of those roads is taking you to a theater showing "Divergent", turn around and go the other way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Divergent" gets a D+.
It's time to raise the curtain and light the lights again, as the beloved Muppets have returned to the big screen in a new adventure. Frankly, I was surprised Disney announced a sequel almost immediately after the release of the 2011 reboot (simply titled "The Muppets") since it didn't cross the $100 million mark at the US box office. And judging by the opening musical number of "Muppets Most Wanted", I think Kermit & Co. had the same reaction. The hysterical song, called "We're Doing a Sequel", satirizes Hollywood's obsession with second installments, even though as Kermit and Fozzie say, "everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good." Other lines in this gem include: "While they wait for Tom Hanks to make 'Toy Story 4", and "Well, this is actually our seventh sequel", which, in reality, is the truth.
Well, I hate to disagree with Kermit and Fozzie, but "Muppets Most Wanted" isn't worse than their previous film. In fact, it's even funnier. I haven't laughed-out-loud so much during a movie in quite a while. In a cinematic world dominated by CGI, explosions and raunchy humor and yes, disappointing sequels, "MMW" remains true to the Muppets' unique and genuine form, thanks to a smart, not overly complex script, loaded with smart, and above all, funny material that will appeal to both adults and kids.
British comedian Ricky Gervais receives top-billing as Dominic Badguy (which, according to him, is pronounced Bad-gee). He tells The Muppets he's a talent manager who offers to take them on a World Tour. Kermit is hesitant to the idea, but everyone else instantly agrees and latches-on to Dominic.
Walter, who was introduced in "The Muppets" as Jason Segel's adopted brother, is also a bit skeptical, but he and the rest of the clan have no idea what's coming. It turns out that Dominic is the second most wanted criminal in the world and he's working for '#1' - the world's most dangerous criminal mastermind, a frog named Constantine, who's just escaped from a Siberian prison.
Constantine also looks very much like Kermit except for the evil frog's mole. As part of their evil plan, Constantine switches places with Kermit (giving him a fake mole) and Kermit is captured and taken to prison. And Constantine covers up his mole, posing as Kermit as The Muppets continue the tour. The badguys' goal: to break into famous museums in these cities around the world while The Muppets are performing, with ultimately pulling-off the greatest jewel heist of all time.
Meanwhile, prison security boss Nadya (played by Tina Fey) refuses to free Kermit, even though she knows he's innocent. And Sam the Eagle and Interpol officer Jean Pierre ("Modern Family"'s Ty Burrell) are trying to piece together clues to solve the case but are having a hard time working together as partners.
If you're not familiar with the style of The Muppets, you've got to know one thing going in: it's all tongue-and-cheek - from the plot, to the dialogue, to the over-the-top goofy performances and musical numbers. Everything works because this is what The Muppets have been doing for over 50 years, and why fans continue to appreciate their style of humor.
"Muppets Most Wanted" delivers exactly what you're hoping for, but also expands this universe with a few surprises, including the use of more Muppet feet than ever before. And while The Muppets have worked with real-life celebrities from the start of their TV series days, the number of A-list cameos in "MMW" breaks the bank. They include Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta as two of Kermit's fellow prison inmates, Frank Langella, who delivers one of the film's best lines as the priest at Constantine and Miss Piggy's wedding (Wait - What?!), and one of the most famous divas in the world, who joins Miss Piggy for a memorable duet.
Often films in which popular character teams are separated suffer from a lack of the spark that made the teams great. But here director James Bobin does a nice job of keeping the energy level high with both storylines - the evil Kermit trying to make believe he's the real Kermit and the real Kermit dealing with life behind bars without his friends. Gervais, Fey, and particularly Burrell all play to their comedic strengths and interact seamlessly with their felt and foam co-stars. They ham it up, but never try to steal the show away from Kermit and the gang.
"Muppets Most Wanted" doesn't pack as much of an emotional punch as "The Muppets" (the song "Pictures in My Head" nearly brought me to tears), but it does have plenty of heart. It's rated PG for some brief violence and rude humor. Anyone older than seven, whether already a Muppets fan or not, should absolutely enjoy watching these entertainment icons in top form.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Muppets Most Wanted" gets a B+.
Before "MMW" is a brand-new Pixar "Monsters University" short - "Party Central". Mike and Sulley attempt to turn a dull fraternity party into the campus event of the year. It's clever and consistently funny, something I couldn't say last year about the movie. Since this is all we're getting from Pixar this year (unfortunately no feature-length film), it's well-worth making sure you get to the theater in time to catch it.
I instantly became a fan of off-beat and quirky director Wes Anderson after seeing his 2009 animated masterpiece "Fantastic Mr. Fox", based on the book by Roald Dahl, and starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray. "Mr. Fox" actually topped my list of the Best Films of '09. However I was disappointed by Anderson's next film, the live-action 2012 Oscar nominee "Moonrise Kingdom". The story and characters were just too "out there" for me. He took quirky to a level, making it impossible for me to enjoy that ride, as hard as I tried.
Now comes Anderson's latest, "The Grand Budapest Hotel", and it takes my frustration with the work of this talented director to a whole new level. Most critics and Anderson disciples are praising this movie because they love his style of directing and storytelling - from the inventive camera angles to his musical choices to his signature set and costume designs. And "Budapest Hotel" has all of that. However, the most important elements of a movie for me are an engaging story and high entertainment level, and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is dearly lacking in both of those categories.
Anderson tries all his usual tricks, including filling "Budapest Hotel" with his core group of actors: Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and others, though many only have "blink-of-an-eye" cameos.
The opening five minutes include a series of "flash" flashbacks, which actually work in grabbing your attention. The story goes from present-day, to the 80s, to the 60s, and finally to 1932, and the beginning of wartime in Europe. And early on we learn that Tom Wilkinson, whose character died in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", suffers the same fate here (this guy should stay away from hotels). But he serves as the writer of a book that the film is based on. Why? Because twenty years earlier (as Jude Law), he visits the hotel and learns how the longtime owner of the now struggling establishment came to inherit the place.
From there, F. Murray Abraham's Zero narrates his story of working as a lobby boy with then hotel concierge M. Gustave H. (played by Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is wrongly accused of murdering a wealthy hotel resident he had a relationship with after her family finds-out that she left him a valuable painting in her will. He ends-up in prison, and must escape to clear his name and get what he is owed. And Zero (Tony Revolori) is there to help him throughout a wild series of wacky situations.
And that's basically it. The main problem with "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is that the plot goes nowhere and very few of the characters, in any of the time-frames, evolve to a level of being remotely interesting. And any idea of this being a fun or funny adventure is also out of the question. Anderson tries to mix humor with some dramatic, occasionally violent, and forced emotional moments, but hardly anything works. The majority of the scenes in the film do not take place in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Maybe this was another example of Anderson-esque quirkiness. Yawn.
I found myself searching for things other than the candy-colored scenery to become immersed in, but nothing else is appealing. I like many of the actors in the ensemble, including Jeff Goldblum and Saorise Ronan, but they aren't given much to do (but they have two of the least quirky roles in the cast). The dialogue, particularly from Fiennes, is so rapid-fire, it's almost as if this was written by Aaron Sorkin - and I can usually tolerate Sorkin's manic scripts.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is rated R for language, violence and brief nudity. It's appropriate for teens and up. If you're a diehard Wes Anderson fan chances are you'll embrace its "cutesiness" and fall in love with this film. This is Anderson in all his King of Quirk glory. If, like me, you favor substance over style and solid storytelling over quirk, there's absolutely no reason for you to see this movie.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" gets a C-.
"I feel the Need...the Need for Speed" was an iconic quote from Tom Cruise in 1986's "Top Gun". Video game mogul Electronic Arts decided to capitalize on the phrase by releasing the first of over 20 games with the trademark "Need for Speed" beginning in 1994. Now Disney has entered the car racing franchise to the Spring 2014 film competition.
From the trailer, I expected "Need for Speed" to be simply a rip-off of the highly successful "Fast & Furious" series: fast, cool-looking cars, beefed-up guys and hot gals and with a "livin' on the edge" attitude, especially when it came to taking down bad guys. Boy, did I underestimate what the power of the cliche could do to a movie.
Aaron Paul, who won 2 Emmys for TV's "Breaking Bad", shows that his transition to big-screen stardom could be a bumpy one. He plays Tobey Marshall, a talented driver and owner of a struggling body shop (which he inherited from his now deceased father - Predictable Element #1), who races regularly with all his buddies through the streets of Mt. Kisco, NY.
An old rival returns to town (P.E. #2) - now famous racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who asks Tobey is he'd rebuild an old classic car he's bought. Tobey and his crew hate Dino, but Tobey needs the money to save the shop so he takes the job. The car is sold to a British car collector and his daughter (more on her later) for $2.7 million, and Dino and Tobey (and one of his young prodigies) decide to race for the money - winner take all. Does this make any sense? Of course not!
The kid dies in the race (P.E. #3), which takes place on regular streets with regular traffic - totally ridiculous. And there was no need for a "Spoiler Alert" because you know this is going to happen from the moment the young driver appears on screen. Falsely accused and convicted of being responsible for his friend's death (we all know who really caused it!) Tobey goes to prison for 2 years. Once out, he determines he must enter The Daily Own - a secret street race invented by a radio host named Monarch (Michael Keaton) and beat Dino for some good ol' fashioned revenge. But in order to get to officially enter the race he must get himself and the car from NY to San Francisco in only 45 hours (get ready for P.E. #4), and, of course, Julia, the British girl (Imogen Poots) has to tag-along to keep an eye on the valuable vehicle and, more importantly, to set-up a romantic storyline.
And the plot gets even more ridiculous from there. Every frame of "Need for Speed" is over-the-top, from the driving sequences, to the performances, to the shifts in the script and the subplots. Director Scott Waugh ("Act of Valor") also makes sure to include parts of practically every single genre. There are failed attempts at humor, corny melodrama, the predictable romance, and loads of car-on-car violence. The only scenes in "Need for Speed" that qualify as entertaining are the races. And the fact that all of the stunts are real, without a bit of CGI, is very impressive.
But the rest of this movie is a mess. At times, Paul tries to add dramatic inflection with his voice, trying to pull off a Jack Nicholson-esque impression with laughable results. Poots is likeable at times, but in an ultimately forgettable role. And after being away from big, Hollywood movies for over three years, Keaton's comeback attempt is stuck in the pits, with this wacky performance following his turn in the disappointing "RoboCop".
"Need for Speed" is rated PG-13 for some intense, violent action scenes, in which we witness several police officers and civilian characters getting brutally injured in a somewhat surprising fashion. In fact, there's an anti-police tone to this film that should and will offend many.
There's also adult language and an unexpected, extended and totally gratuitous nudity scene which I thought would've pushed the film to an R, but I'll never understand the MPAA. Nonetheless, this film isn't worth fans of any age of the video games or Aaron Paul or "The Fast and Furious" series to start their engines and race to the theater. About the only thing this movie has in common with "F&F" films is that they both feature cars that go fast.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Need for Speed" gets a D+.
Father-son relationship issues, bullying at school, parent/principal/social worker meetings, loads of anger, frustration, serious tones and no laughs. All the ingredients of a bad, live-action family comedy. But, amazingly, these are only some of the unnecessary plot elements in DreamWorks' latest animated feature, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman", which lacks all the fun and wonder of the classic 1960s shorts the movie is based on.
This unusual father-son duo (it's an adoptive relationship) made time travel and history exciting in the segments on "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show", thanks to clever, imaginative stories, filled with intelligence, witty puns and an overall positive attitude.
Unfortunately, director Rob Minkoff (who 20 years ago co-directed the Disney's classic, "The Lion King") decided to incorporate real-life issues and drama into an animated movie about a seven-year-old boy and his genius, talking dog father. The trailers and the adorable teaser posters make you think this is going to be light, funny ride through time. That's what makes the experience of watching "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" so stunning.
The introductory on-screen narration from the initially likeable Mr. Peabody (voiced by "Modern Family"'s Ty Burrell) and human son Sherman (Max Charles of fellow ABC sitcom "The Neighbors") is promising. But then the tone changes. Outside of a few effective scenes, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" tries way too hard: to get laughs, get us emotionally involved in the story and make us care for these characters. Frankly, watching this film left me a little depressed.
The script is so focused on setting-up conflicts: Young Sherman and classmate/bully Penny, Peabody and Penny's father, Peabody and the school social worker and, yes, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, that it completely ignores the reason people were anxious to see this duo on the big screen - to ENJOY them. There were times when I couldn't believe what I was watching. The overall mean and negative feel is so far off from where it needed to be for this material.
If you're not familiar with the premise: Mr. Peabody has invented a time machine (the WABAC) that he uses to take Sherman back to historical events so he can learn history the best possible way - by living it. So the possibilities for the writers of "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" were endless. And yet all the supporting characters are flat and uninteresting, which is incredible because they include Leonardo Da Vinci, King Tut, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Even Peabody's puns, made famous in the shorts, fail to work here because the writers feel the need to point them out to the audience, instead of being confident with their work.
On the positive side, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. But that's simply not good enough. There's only one scene, early in the film, that truly works and, oddly enough, it's a flashback sequence involving Peabody looking back at his early years as Sherman's dad. It's smart, charming and effectively sweet. Four great minutes out of 90.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is rated PG for some mild violence and rude humor. It's appropriate for kids 8 and up. This isn't a terrible movie, and will be a mild distraction young audience members. But for fans of the originals, or fans of top level animation, it's a major disappointment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" gets a C.
Debuting before "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is the short, "Almost Home", a teaser for DreamWorks' upcoming animated film, "Home", which will be out for Thanksgiving. The short (and the film) star Steve Martin as the voice of the leader of a group of aliens. The good news is the studio has some time to make the upcoming feature much stronger than this very average effort.
Liam Neeson has become one of the top action stars of the 21st Century. With the "Taken" and "Titans" franchises, along with about a dozen other action/mystery/thriller hits (including the voice of the Good Cop/Bad Cop in "The LEGO Movie"), Neeson is someone we always root for as he attempts to save the day and be the hero. And his latest role is no exception.
After seeing the enticing trailer for "Non-Stop" several months ago, I was immediately hooked by its unique premise. Neeson plays US Air Marshal Bill Marks who receives threatening messages from an anonymous person during a flight from New York to London. The texter claims to be a passenger, and writes that he'll kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a special account. And even though, at times, everyone else on the plane (and in the audience) is led to believe differently, Marks makes it very clear: "I'm not hijacking the plane! (dramatic pause) I'm trying to save it!"
But are we sure? Director Jaume Collet-Serra (re-teaming with Neeson following 2011's guilty pleasure, "Unknown") provides plenty of suspicious close-ups to get us to think the bad guy (or gal) could be at least a dozen different passengers. Neeson's Marks has the badge and the gun, and also tons of baggage. And all of this is taking place 35,000 feet in the air. No wonder this was my most anticipated early release of the year.
So, I sat back, relaxed and enjoyed what is a pretty good trip. "Non-Stop" is not extraordinary, or even great, but it does exactly what it's designed to do: lock you in and keep you glued and guessing to the end. And it also makes that next plane flight you take a little more uncomfortable.
A trio of writers are credited for the complex script that goes in several different directions, often at the same time. "Non-Stop" fulfills the action/suspense genre requirements: surprises, twists, false alarms...and adequate acting. There's also a little social commentary on the airline industry and the current state of airline security, including a sharp series of sequences early on depicting every category of flyer there is. And the film does have a few things in common with 2012's "Flight" (though it doesn't reach the level of Denzel Washington's insanely cool upside-down landing sequence).
"Non-Stop"'s early "edge of your seat" excitement level gives way to more of a mystery feel in the second half. However, keeping us on course the entire time is Neeson. Not only does he give a truly believable performance, as either a flawed good guy or evil bad guy, but he also keeps potentially corny and predictable scenes from going in that direction.
Julianne Moore co-stars as a mysterious passenger who, like everyone else, could be the killer. But she's a bit miscast - too much of a big name to square-off with Neeson in key moments. A lesser-known actress would have worked better in the role. Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") and Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") play the two main flight attendants. And we all know that flight attendants could never do anything evil. Or could they? The visual effects (vital in the climactic final minutes) aren't spectacular, but work well enough that they're not a complete distraction.
"Non-Stop" is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, language, and a whole lot of peril. It's a solid thrill ride, with a few bumpy patches, that delivers what it promises.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Non-Stop" gets a B. For a film that takes place almost entirely up in the air, it's pretty grounded.
"Pompeii" is exactly what I expected it to be: a disaster film that truly is a disaster. The popular Bastille song of the same name is much more upbeat than this mindless action/romance/drama. But it does offer one comparison: if you close your eyes, you will be demolished by a crumbling arena and volcanic ash.
"Pompeii" receives the honor of having the Stupidest Plot Devices of any movie so far this year. We begin in 62 AD, a young boy named Milo wakes-up to witness an all-out battle involving his family and neighbors and the powerful Roman Army. This little kid walks around while all the fighting is taking place, is never hit by a horse or flying body and eventually plays dead so he can stay alive. Improbable? Of course - but this is the only way that little Milo can witness his parents being killed by Senator Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland, talking exactly like present-day Jack Bauer).
Flash forward 17 years (or 149,000 hours). Milo (now played by Kit Harington) is a slave, while Corvus and his soldiers look as if they haven't aged a day. Milo has become a top gladiator. His roommate is a fellow slave named Atticus. The two predict they're going to kill each other in the arena the next day, but somehow form a friendship. Meanwhile, Milo has his eyes and heart set on Cassia, a wealthy merchant's daughter (played by Emily Browning, all grown-up since "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"). But Corvus wants to make Cassia his bride, along with potentially conquering Pompeii itself.
And just when it looks like they couldn't fit another movie formula element into the plot, that dastardly Mount Vesuvius starts erupting, causing chaos everywhere. So now, not only is everyone fighting each other, but they have to try to defeat Mother Nature - and she never loses. Each volcano victim dies in glorious fashion, to the point where it quickly gets very funny. "Pompeii" has other unintentionally hilarious moments both in the calm first half and action-packed finale: facial expressions, the embarrassing visuals, and corny dialogue that you only hear in movies. Sutherland, the only big name actor in the cast, has a larger role in the film than you might expect, to the point where he ends up having more lives than Jack Bauer by the end. Apparently he needed some cash before the new "24" checks start rolling in.
The only lesson, or reinforcement, we get from "Pompeii" is that we should never build a city so close to an enormous volcano. We also learn that when you find your significant other, in the wake of a disaster, you should never let her out of your sight. I didn't think we needed that one by now, but in order to get to the ridiculously drawn-out conclusion, that's where the script takes us.
"Pompeii" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence. Sure, the costumes look good, but thanks to this mediocre attempt at a "Titanic" story in lava, my Worst Movies of 2014 list has a new, serious candidate.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Pompeii" gets a D-.
2014 has been promoted as the Comeback Year of Kevin Costner. Last month's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" was enjoyable (and the veteran actor was solid), but it made no impression at the box office. Maybe Costner can find success back in his wheelhouse with two sports dramas coming-up: "Draft Day" (April 11) and "McFarland" (Nov. 21). His latest film, the action/thriller/dramedy, "3 Days to Kill", is one of the worst movies of the year.
I knew about 3-minutes in that "3 Days to Kill" was going to be a struggle. A roughly-edited boardroom scene featuring the heads of the CIA and operations agent Vivi (played by Amber Heard) leads into Costner's Ethan Renner - a longtime top agent - coughing-up the screen. After a mission to take down a terrorist in Serbia goes poorly, Ethan learns that he has brain cancer and is going to die in 3-5 months. I'll admit, this was the only element in the entire film I didn't see coming (no Spoiler Alert necessary because you're not going to see this film).
So Ethan realizes he needs to spend the little time he has left with his ex-wife and teenage daughter, who he hasn't seen in five years. She's played by "True Grit"'s Hailee Steinfeld. At the same time, Vivi wants Ethan to tackle one last mission, and in return, she'll give him an experimental drug that may extend his life. It's a ridiculous plot, even for CIA spy mystery standards.
When 30-second montages are a film's best quality, you know you're in trouble. Almost nothing in "3 Days to Kill" works, which is somewhat surprising considering the extremely predictable script was co-written by Luc Besson ("Taken", "The Family") and the director is McG, whose "Terminator: Salvation", was a better-than-average sci-fi effort.
And even though 2013 was "The Year of the Misguided Action Dramedy", "3 Days to Kill" incorporates the same juvenile and bizarre attempts at humor mixed with graphic violence that were so common last year. And the result is the same. Costner tries his best to save every scene he's in (which is most of them) - but can't, while Heard is simply trying to act - but can't. Her Vivi is a laughably bad character - the tough, female killer, with a different outfit and hairstyle every time she pops-up on screen to simply try to keep the audience's attention. It doesn't work.
But the worst part of "3 Days to Kill" is the clumsy audio re-dubbing. And it has nothing to do with foreign-speaking characters. Throughout the film characters are reciting dialogue that doesn't match-up to the movement of their lips. I laughed-out loud several times during one conversation between Ethan and Vivi inside a car that was clearly re-recorded later in a booth, which is fine, but there's a little issue of matching-up the words and the lips in post-production that the technical team forgot about. Sloppy filmmaking.
"3 Days to Kill" is rated PG-13 for some action/violence, brief adult content and language. This isn't even worth your time if you have 2 hours to kill at the theater and you've seen everything else.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "3 Days to Kill" gets a D.
I've been going to screenings of The Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films for the past five years and I've had the pleasure of watching some truly memorable shorts, including "Wallace & Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death", "Logorama" (if you've never seen it look it up on YouTube), and great entries from Disney, Pixar and countries throughout the world.
This year's group features two standouts, but the rest of the line-up of nominees and "highly commended" entries is sub-par.
Before I get to the individual films, I have to point out the HUGE mistake the Academy made by having animated "emcees" for the show. In previous years, in between each short, there's been either commentary from filmmakers who had won the previous year or nothing at all. This time we are treated to an annoying, bow-tied Giraffe and Ostrich who talk about what's it like being stand-ins for famous animated characters. They make wisecracks about cartoon titans such as Mickey Mouse, Marge Simpson and Porky Pig. The first few times they're on-screen the pair is tolerable, but the act gets tiresome - fast. NEVER AGAIN, ACADEMY! This is NOT what animation fans want to have to sit through when they come to see the nominated shorts. Keep the attention on the works that you are honoring.
"Feral" - A story about a boy who didn't CRY wolf - he IS wolf! He's discovered by a hunter who brings him home and tries to "civilize" him, but things don't go too well. Nice artistry, but lacks energy while going too deep and psychological in the final act. C
"Get a Horse!" - If you've seen "Frozen" (and who hasn't) chances are you've seen this Mickey Mouse comeback short as well. The folks at Disney perfectly combine classic hand-drawn animation with colorful CGI in a movie theater setting for a highly energetic and wildly fun six-minute romp. Walt's own voice recordings are used for Mickey's audio track. The big favorite to win on Oscar Sunday. A-
"Mr. Hublot" - In a world where every person and animal is a robot, a lonely man with some obsessive home issues takes in an abandoned dog. Simple story, but likeable animation and some smart moments. B-
"Possessions" - From Japan, this short centers on a traveler who stays in a deserted hut for one memorable night. Mixes both light and serious tones, with messages about recycling and finding your inner self. Not consistently entertaining, but a solid effort. C+
"Room on the Broom" - From the makers of "The Gruffalo" shorts comes this very enjoyable adaptation of a children's book about a kind witch and some fun animal friends. Featuring a voice cast of Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson and Sally Hawkins, this is a cute and irresistible tale with a great amount of humor and heart. It's the longest of the nominees (26 minutes) but it "flies by", and would be the Oscar favorite if not for Mickey and Co. B+
"A la Francaise" - This has to be the worst animated short ever honored by the Academy. The "story" (though there really isn't one) involves chickens in 1700s at Versailles dressed in fancy French clothing. That's it. Not a cluck or chuckle to be found anywhere. The creators truly laid an egg. D
"The Blue Umbrella" - It's Pixar's entry, which played this summer before "Monsters University". The animation is creative (often perceived as real-life footage), but the story of a blue umbrella falling in love with a red umbrella on the rainy streets on NYC is first-grade level material. Relieved that it didn't get a nomination. C
"The Missing Scarf" - George Takei narrates this satirical effort, which features a wise squirrel trying to find his scarf and solve his animal friends' problems (including dealing with the fear of the end of the world). Nice idea, but the execution falls short. C
Overall, this is the worst group of shorts in my 5-years of a reviewing The Oscar Nominated Shorts and the first time I can't recommend attending the program. Hopefully you've seen "Get a Horse!" and "Room on a Broom" is available online and on DVD. Seek-out those two.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films 2014" gets a C+.
"Winter's Tale" is the feature film directorial debut of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who penned the 2001 Best Picture winner "A Beautiful Mind". The stars of that film: Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, join Colin Farrell in this romantic fantasy, adapted from a 30-year-old book. It's no wonder that every frame of this film is neatly laid-out in black and white.
In the opening minute we learn that we cannot treat anything that happens through the eyes of reality. We are shown a bearded Farrell in 2014 New York City, and in the next scene a clean shaven Farrell of about the same age, but it's 1895 NYC. How is this possible? That's the intriguing element of "Winter's Tale". Unfortunately, there are just too many hoops to jump through and a lack of emotional impact to make this tale a successful one.
Farrell plays Peter Lake. Peter's immigrant parents left him alone in America in the late-1800s when they were denied entry. He becomes a successful thief, working for a boss named Pearly (Crowe). But they have a disagreement and Peter leaves. Pearly doesn't like it when a worker leaves him, so he sets out to kill Peter. This may sound a little extreme, until you realize that Pearly isn't human, but rather a demon working for the Devil, in NYC. And he's determined to crush people's dreams and the one miracle that everyone is capable of.
Peter, guided by a magical white horse, meets the beautiful young daughter of a newspaper tycoon (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). She's dying from consumption (better known now as tuberculosis). Kept away from the outside world due to her illness, Beverly has never loved nor been in love - until Peter comes along. Their romance becomes the central of the story, which also takes some interesting turns in the final act.
The first hour or so of "Winter's Tale" has its pluses and minuses. Many of the scenes between Farrell and Findlay are lovely and moving, though they don't generate much energy. Crowe's mobster accent and over-the-top mannerisms are noticeably distracting, and his two scenes with Lucifer (played by a completely miscast A-lister) are even more so. The majority of this film is made tolerable by Farrell's second emotionally convincing performance in a row (following "Saving Mr. Banks").
But once the story completely shifts to present-day, I was instantly bothered by plot elements that stretched too far outside of the fantasy world to be believable. Goldsman tries to get us fully invested in these characters, if we weren't already, for the climatic scenes. But since there was so little drama before, and I could sense things were not about to change in the final 20 minutes, my interest level dropped to practically zero.
So I began to pick-up on some unintentionally humorous elements, including a shot of six cars driving onto an icy which looked like a scene out of a Lexus commercial, and all the Dunkin' Donuts product placement. Connelly doesn't seem to even belong in the movie (neither does the flying horse). And a fist fight between Farrell and Crowe features some of the corniest sound effects ever.
"Winter's Tale" is rated PG-13 for some adult content and violence, and is appropriate for teens and up. I was rooting for it for most of the way, but in the end this saga of good versus evil simply left me cold.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Winter's Tale" gets a C-.
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