Released nearly three years ago, "Dolphin Tale" was a smart, sophisticated and sweet live-action family film with genuine heart. I was surprised when Warner Bros. announced they were making a sequel, wondering if this saga could support a franchise.
But since the first film was based on real life events, and more events took place in an around Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium that warranted a sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2" was made. And it tackles twice as many issues as the original. The aquarium is still run by Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.). And a much older Sawyer (16-year-old Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) are still taking care of "Winter", the famous Bottlenose dolphin with the prosthetic tail. Winter has become an inspiration to many, and a symbol of the aquarium. Real life surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack (and was portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb in 2011's "Soul Surfer"), appears briefly as herself, joining Winter in the pool.
However, Winter's health is starting to become an issue. And things get worse when one of her companions dies (there are a few shots of the deceased dolphin at the bottom of the pool). Clay is tasked with having to provide Winter with another female friend, and soon, or she will be taken from the facility and re-located.
And then, Hope arrives. Literally. A tiny, abandoned Bottlenose named Hope is rescued by the team and brought to the aquarium. If you've seen the trailers for "Dolphin Tale 2" (and who hasn't), you'd think this happens early in the film, but actually it's not until almost an hour in.
Sawyer's relationships with both Hazel and Winter are tested in "Dolphin Tale 2". And in one of the best scenes, Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, who reprises his role as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, explains to Sawyer some of the film's strong themes about growing-up, life's many changes, and that when one door closes, an even better one opens. Freeman also delivers at least a dozen chuckle-worthy one-liners, including - "I'd never pass-up a free meal" and (when referring to the small dolphin) "I've pulled anchovies off of pizzas that were bigger than that." Somehow, coming from Morgan Freeman, these lines work.
Also back from the first film, but with smaller roles, are Ashley Judd as Sawyer's mom and Kris Kristofferson as Clay's father. The focus of "DT2" is mostly on the kids and the animals, including the noisy and nosy seagull Rufus and his new rescued sea turtle friend Mavis.
There are some continuity errors, a few corny situations and structural issues, and the nicely shot underwater scenes go on too long. As with the original, "Dolphin Tale 2" does its best to avoid being preachy, but it comes close at times. However, just as with last year's NAVY Seals action drama "Lone Survivor", the most effective part of "DT2" (and I'd never thought these two films would have anything in common) is the real-life footage at the end. We get to see how Hope was rescued (exactly 5 years and 1 day after Winter) and the impact these dolphins have had on so many lives. For animal lovers and those inspired by stories of these two dolphins, there are plenty of emotional moments.
"Dolphin Tale 2" is rated PG, and is one of the better live-action family films of the year. However, some scenes of danger involving the live dolphins (and the previously mentioned dead one) may be a bit intense for very little ones.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Dolphin Tale 2" gets a B-.
"The Identical" is a small, Christian-based drama with the most contradictory title of any film this year. In so many ways this movie is unlike any ever made. The set-up is o.k. - a young, married couple living in the South back in the 1930s, decides to give one of their newborn twin boys to a pastor and his wife (who cannot conceive), because they can't afford to take care of both of them. These early scenes of "The Identical", shown in black-and-white, are the most authentic in the film.
Then things shift, rather quickly, to technicolor, and everything changes. The boys, each unaware that he has an identical twin brother, both become singers. Pastor Reece Wade (Ray Liotta, who also served as an executive producer) and wife Louise (Ashley Judd) watch their son Ryan (Blake Rayne) grow-up with dreams of becoming a performer, not a preacher like his dad. His best friend Dino (Seth Green) encourages Ryan to pursue this career, but there are hurdles and struggles along the way.
At the same time, (now in the mid-50s), a new superstar emerges on the national music scene, and it's the other twin, Drexyl Hemsley (also played by Rayne). He becomes an instant sensation with "Blue-Suede Shoes"-esque bee-bop hits for all the soda pop kids in candy colored outfits to boogie woogie to. But what takes "The Identical" way off-key and keeps it there from this point forward is that both singers look, sound, and act like the King of Rock N' Roll, Elvis Presley. It now becomes very difficult to take the characters and the story seriously. And the Elvis references don't stop there: Ryan joins the Army, we see Drexyl appear on an Ed Sullivan-type TV show. And the fact that no one, including neither of them, suspects that they might be related when they look and sound EXACTLY alike is simply ridiculous.
At one point, when Ryan begins working as a "Drexyl Impersonator", I actually started to buy back into "The Identical" (we don't get much of Drexyl's side of the story). But then the reality of living here on Planet Earth, instead of the weird, bizarre universe where this story takes place, returned, leaving me to once again ask: "How come nobody can see that these two are identical twins - and they're both Elvis knock-offs?"
With about 20 minutes left in the film, a minor character finally references the Elephant in the Room, stating, "There's only one Elvis". Now what are we supposed to think? Apparently Elvis somehow existed on "Planet Identical" this entire time, along with not one, but two professional copycats who are also both superstars? Talk about being "all shook up". The closing credits confirm that this is an "entirely fictional story", but that fact will do nothing to ease "suspicious minds".
Had "The Identical" been about two generic soul, pop or country singers it might have worked. The Christian themes are welcome and prominent, and Liotta does fine work. But even with the numerous upbeat songs, the pacing is way too slow and there are way too many unforgivable errors. Somebody, back at the start of this project, should have marked this script: "Return to Sender."
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Identical" gets a C-.
"The Boxtrolls" is the latest stop-motion animation film distributed by Focus Features and brought to life by Laika, the makers of "Coraline" and "ParaNorman". Both of those movies were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and I'll be very surprised if "The Boxtrolls" isn't on the ballot this year. What, on the surface, appears to be a cute family adventure about a boy and his best-friends - mythical monsters who live inside boxes on and under the streets of a fictitious England village, is actually a serious relationship drama with some deep themes and political messages, sprinkled with a good deal of offbeat British humor. "The Boxtrolls" is not for young kids, but rather, for the kid in all the rest of us, who longs for excitement, love and a purpose in life.
Set in Cheesebridge, where its namesake food is the most prized possession, the story is centered on young boy called Eggs, who the townsfolk believe was taken from his family as a baby by the feared Boxtrolls. Eggs (voiced by "Game of Thrones"' Isaac Hempstead Wright) grows-up thinking he is a Boxtroll, acting, talking and living just like them, inside a cardboard box. And he learns from them how to build things and make incredible machines from discarded parts thrown away by humans. His best friends and father-figures are Fish and Shoe.
But as the years go by Eggs gets too big for his box and he soon realizes that he's different from the rest of his "family". And when he meets a girl named Winnie (Elle Fanning is excellent) he learns he is really a human boy.
These two become friends and work together to try to stop four exterminators (led by the voice of an unrecognizable Sir Ben Kingsley as Archibald Snatcher) from capturing The Boxtrolls, who wander into town at night in search of new junk they can use for their inventions. And they aren't monsters at all - but kind, loving and caring creatures. Snatcher's ultimate goal is to kill every last Boxtroll so he can earn an esteemed white hat and become a member of the town's elite, who not only get to make all the rules, but also eat all the exquisite cheese in the land. Winnie's father, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris, who played Professor Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") is their leader.
"The Boxtrolls" is packed with fun and funny characters, including Snatcher's three assistants: the crazy one with the off-kilter one-liners is Mr. Gristle (voiced by Tracy Morgan). The other two, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Trout (Richard Ayoade and Nick Frost), are more sensitive, and as the story progresses, these two begin to question if they're really the good guys or the bad guys.
But the script also has a lot to say - at least I think it does. Were the writers really making statements about class warfare, social status, immigration, economics, family relationships - all inside an often silly animated film? Or, were they simply going for laughs? Clearly there's a lot going on below the surface of "The Boxtrolls" (pun intended). I thought more about this film, upon leaving the theater, than any I've seen in recent memory.
Yet, the narrative itself is very straightforward and provides very few surprises. This is the film's major weakness. There's really only one "wow" moment, and it comes in the closing credits (and is the best closing credits sequence of the year, by far).
However, everything else about "The Boxtrolls" exceeds expectations. The stop-motion animation is triumphant, especially in the difficult to create, over-the-top slapstick moments. It took the filmmakers 18 months to create one, two-minute elaborate and very sweet ballroom sequence. And directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring genuine emotion to several of the scenes involving Eggs and the Boxtrolls. The ensemble voice cast also includes Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, and Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum as Boxtrolls, characters adapted from the 2005 book "Here Be Monsters!". The dialogue among the humans is very sharp. And the beautiful score by Oscar-winner Dario Marianelli is nomination-worthy as well.
Most impressive, within the basic story, are the challenging, multi-layered messages. Not too many films, particularly in this genre, delve into the mature topics we get here, such as a child's feelings about family, security and the fear of daring to break out of one's own box and become somebody. There's symbolism everywhere.
"The Boxtrolls" is rated PG for some action/violence, rude humor and a little peril. With good intentions in all the right places, this is a daring and satisfying animated feature that's just as unique and special as its many characters, who teach us that there's nothing wrong with being a little square.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Boxtrolls" gets a B+.
"The Boxtrolls" opens nationwide on September 26th.
It's ironic, yet hardly surprising that "The November Man" was buried by distributor Relativity Media at the end of August. The best thing that can be said about this effort, based on the 7th book in the "NM" series, "There Are No Spies", written by late author Bill Granger, is that it's appropriately titled, because when anyone thinks about it, the first thing that will come to mind is - TURKEY.
The true big screen "November Man" is James Bond, as six of the last seven 007 movies were released in that month to box office glory. Pierce Brosnan played the iconic agent four times and is regarded as one of the Best Bonds. As ex-CIA agent Peter Devereaux in "The November Man", Brosnan doesn't get to revisit his 007 glory days of fancy cars, beautiful women, incredible gadgets, weapons and ruthless villains. Instead, he settles for a clumsy, dumbed-down Bond knock-off which provides very little suspense or excitement.
Olga Kurylenko, who played Daniel Craig's Bond Girl in 2008's "Quantum of Solace", becomes Devereaux's partner as Alice, a social worker with a mysterious background and some inside information. The film is being promoted as an "Old Spy vs. New Spy" showdown, with Devereaux matching skills with his former apprentice at the CIA, Mason (played by Luke Bracey), who is now working against Devereaux and also happened to kill his wife. And, as has become popular in spy movies once again, the Russians are the bad guys.
If director Roger Donaldson ("The Bank Job") succeeds with anything it's that "The November Man" deserves its R-rating for the most random and bloodiest shootings and murders of any film this year. There's hardly anything new or innovative in the dull and all-too-familiar script. The "revelation" midway through, poised to fool everyone, comes-off as a bad joke. And here's how unoriginal this film is: there's actually scene involving Brosnan's character playing revolver Russian Roulette with a character he's trying to get information from.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The November Man" gets a D. It's 15 months until the next James Bond film hits theaters (November 2015). After watching a mess like this, the return of 007 can't come soon enough.
"If I Stay" is the "End of Summer of 2014 Tween/Teen Romantic Tearjerker". Based on the popular 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, Chloe Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass") stars as 17-year-old Mia. She lives with her parents and younger brother Teddy in Portland, Oregon. Mia's love of music was inherited from her mom and dad, but they were rockers and she plays classical cello. Adam (Jamie Blackley) is the lead singer of a local rock band. He instantly falls in love with Mia while watching her play the cello in school, and together they form what they believe will be an unbreakable bond.
But that all changes when Mia, Teddy, and their parents get into a serious car accident. Mia survives the crash but slips into a coma. Yet (as a cinematic device) she is able to step away from her body and watch as the rest of the day unfolds, and her fate, and those of her parents and brother, are decided. At the same time, through flashbacks, we get to see the key moments in Mia's life - from early childhood to the current day, as she's deciding whether or not to fight to stay alive.
"If I Stay" is stronger than I expected, both structurally and emotionally. It doesn't quite provide the punch of the "Beginning of Summer Tween/Teen Romantic Tearjerker", the surprise hit "The Fault in Our Stars", but it's close. Moretz and Blackley have a likeable chemistry and are most believable in their pre-ER scenes. Mireille Enos ("The Killing", "World War Z") and Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project") are solid as the ex-rocker parents. And Stacy Keach, as Mia's supportive grandfather, has two showcase scenes that are the most authentic and heartbreaking in the entire film.
There are predictable elements in "If I Stay", and minor details are given away early that take away from some of the suspense in the final act. Some scenes are stretched-out simply to fill time, which is necessary since the main storyline ("Will she stay or will she die?") is fairly thin. And judging from the reaction of the mostly female YA audience in the theater I was in, there may be some dissatisfaction with the rather abrupt ending. Overall, veteran TV/documentary director R.J. Cutler deserves credit for taking this material, including the "out there" premise and making a film that, for the most part, is genuine and effective.
"If I Stay" is rated PG-13 for some language, adult content, dramatic elements and medical scenes. There were tears flowing freely in the theater, so keep that in mind before deciding if this subject matter is for you.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "If I Stay" gets a B-.
I give the team behind the new sports movie, "When the Game Stands" a lot of credit for pulling-off something nearly impossible: they've made a film about the most successful high school football team of all-time that's about as exciting as a 0-0 tie in an NFL exhibition game.
"When the Game Stands Tall" is based on the true story of Concord, California's De La Salle High School football program, and head coach Bob Ladouceur, who lead the team to the longest winning streak in sports history - 151 games in a row - from 1992-2003. However, like all unprecedented accomplishments, De La Salle finally lost and the streak ended in the '04 season opener. The film looks at the coach and his players before, during and mostly after they suffer their historic loss.
In the months leading up to seeing the film I had watched the unapologetic Regal Cinemas First Look preview for "Game" over a dozen times, and it gave away nearly every major plot point. The summary (SPOILER ALERT if you haven't been to a Regal theater in awhile) said it all: "Bob has a heart attack, a very popular player is tragically killed, and they lose the streak - all within a couple of months." Well, what's left?
So, while the clock was ticking along as I was watched "Game", I kept waiting for something genuinely surprising or interesting to take place. And nothing does. Instead we get a script packed with cliches, countless forced speeches and stereotype characters, from the hot-shot player, to the ignored wife, to the worst stage parent in the history of high school football. Coach Ladouceur is played by "Person of Interest" star Jim Caviezel with all the energy and enthusiasm of a zombie. An almost unrecognizable Michael Chiklis is the way too sensitive assistant coach, and Laura Dern's best scene, as Bob's wife, is a bizarre monologue which comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all.
A subplot involving QB Chris Ryan ("The Hunger Games"' Alexander Ludwig) and his father Mickey, who's obsessed with his son breaking a touchdown record, gets way over-the-top in the "all-football" second half. The actor who plays Mickey is Clancy Brown, the voice of Mr. Krabs on "SpongeBob SquarePants". Both characters are greedy, but I'll take Mr. Krabs, who's genuinely loyal to his "son-like" fry cook over this wacko father any day (who by the way, wasn't a real person, but made-up for the movie).
Many of the predictable themes of "When the Game Stands Tall" involve friendship, brotherhood and bonding over, as the Coach puts it, "just a high school football game". Yet there's only one brief classroom scene and no discussions about the importance of academics. Though they try to deny it, this film is all about the game. Technically, director Thomas Carter ("Coach Carter") succeeds with the well-shot football scenes. And a stretch in a rehabilitation facility (also fiction) is a nice change of pace. But the announcer voice-overs are amateurish and completely unrealistic and there are so many obvious and sloppy mistakes that the editors must have been rookies.
"When the Game Stands Tall" is rated PG for brief violence, smoking, and mild thematic elements. Diehard football fans expecting an inspiring film with emotionally charged moments will be disappointed with this unsatisfying and corny take on a coach and team that deserved much better.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "When the Game Stands Tall" gets a C-.
At one point in "The Giver", Meryl Streep tells fellow Oscar winner Jeff Bridges: "When people have the freedom to choose - they choose wrong." This seems to apply perfectly to the decision that Bob & Harvey Weinstein made to finance this big-screen adaptation of one of the most popular tween books of the last 25 years. I had several opportunities to read The Giver in grade school, but after hearing things about the story, I decided the premise was a little too "out there" for my taste. The same can be said for the film version.
The first thing readers of the novel will notice is that Bridges doesn't have the beard and long white hair of The Giver on the cover of the book. The filmmakers decided to "giver" the hair extension to Streep instead. She portrays the Chief Elder, who rules over a large, futuristic colony where the people have no emotions, don't experience pain, have no authentic feelings, don't know color or the meaning of love.
On Graduation Day, 18-year-old Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites - Prince Philip in "Maleficent") is assigned to his life-long job - a special one where he gets to work with The Giver himself as the new Receiver of Memories. But when Jonas begins to learn how life used to be, and how everyone in the community is being deceived, he decides he needs to do something about it.
The overriding problem with "The Giver", is that the narrative is simply too tame. There are some potentially interesting concepts here, but the elementary school-level script never goes deep enough to explore them. Since it's based on a tween novel I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but the film is PG-13 and needed much more depth.
Bridges and Streep attempt to elevate "The Giver" with their performances, but director Phillip Noyce ("Salt") is too restrained with them as well. Many scenes come-off as hokey, including several sledding rides, practically every scene involving Jonas' zombie-like parents (played by Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) and his naive girlfriend Fiona (Odeya Rush), and a hologram cameo performance by singer Taylor Swift, who plays the piano while trying to act alongside the veteran Bridges. And on top of all of this is a "sing-songy" score that won't get out of your head for weeks.
"The Giver" is rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action/violence, disturbing images and a whole lot of peril for one brave little baby. If the serious themes had been developed at all, "The Giver" may have been worth recommending. But as is, "The Giver" takes (time and $$) much more than it gives.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Giver" receives a D+.
"The Expendables 3" boasts the most star-studded cast of any film this year - from Hollywood heavyweights to an actual welterweight, a sitcom star, a vampire heartthrob, the Governator, and an ex-con who, both in real life and in this backstory, served time for tax evasion. And at the center of it all, once again, is Sylvester Stallone, who has crafted a third successful movie franchise (following the combined 10 "Rocky" and "Rambo" films) with a little help from his friends, who also happen to be some of the most iconic action figures of all-time.
This third chapter in "The Expendables" series is funnier than the previous two, largely due to brilliant new cast members. Wesley Snipes cracks several great one-liners, as does Mr. "Air Force One" himself, Harrison Ford, whose character admits at the end of the film - "This is the most fun I've had in a long time" - and you can tell that Ford is talking about himself. Antonio Banderas, whose Galgo desperately wants to join the team and talks non-stop, provides most of the comic relief. But it's the only character who doesn't fire a gun or kill anyone who steals the show: Kelsey Grammer's Bonaparte, who in a series of scenes, takes Stallone's Barney on a search for some new, younger crew members, gets most of the best lines and delivers them in that classic, Grammer style.
Unfortunately, it's when these rookie recruits take center-stage, that the energy level and excitement of "The Expendables 3" takes a major hit. Kellan Lutz ("Twilight"), MMA fighter Ronda Rousey (who's got a lot of training to do in the acting department), boxer Victor Ortiz, and up-and-coming actor Glen Powell can't bring nearly the same energy or command of the screen as the likes of Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Dolph Lungdren, Jet Li, Terry Crews and yes, Arnold. And who wants to see 20-somethings fighting bad guys in an "Expendables" movie?
This time around the plot centers on the hunt for just one man: ex-Expendables member Conrad Stonebanks, who has gone to the dark side. And believe it or not, Mel Gibson is excellent in the role. He actually creates one of the best movie villains we've seen in some time. This guy doesn't just talk tough - he means business (no telephone necessary).
"The Expendables 3" is rated PG-13 for loads of action/violence and some obligatory language. The action scenes are as wild and outrageous as you'd expect, and new director Patrick Hughes is able to handle all the frantic staging and gunplay with ease. There are a few "wow" moments, but much of visual look is rather cheesy, because the majority of the budget probably went to paying all the stars. And it's the performances and not the explosions and death toll, that make this threequel work as pure summer entertainment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Expendables 3", like its two predecessors, gets a very solid B. It'll be interesting to see if Stallone decides to continue onward or pull an Arnold by bidding "Hasta La Vista, baby" to the franchise.
"Let's Be Cops" has one of the most basic, yet original, premises of the year: Two 30-year-old roommates, unsatisfied with their lives and careers, dress-up as cops for a costume party. But the outfits are so authentic-looking (complete with real hand-guns and badges) that everyone thinks they're actually LAPD. They enjoy the power and attention that comes with "being" police officers, so Ryan, an unemployed former college football star and Justin, a low-level video game developer (played by "New Girl" stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr.) decide to keep their new identities and pretend to be cops in the real world. And, obviously, it doesn't take long for them to get in over their heads.
This film had the potential to quickly turn into a typical over-the-top buddy-cop farce. While there are some outrageous moments (there have to be with a plot like this), co-writer/director Luke Greenfield ("Something Borrowed") is able to take a clever idea, insert a lot of funny dialogue and wacky situations, and avoid over-doing it with cliches. The result is one of the summer's standout comedies.
Of course not all of the material works, but Johnson and Wayans, Jr., who are in nearly every scene, keep the laughs coming. Their familiarity with each other shows, much like what we saw with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in this summer's other "bromantic cop comedy", ""22 Jump Street". The sarcastic wise cracks flow freely. Rob Riggle, who also co-starred in "22 Jump Street", plays a real LAPD officer here. His reliable mix of straight-man persona with perfectly-timed humor works yet again. The supporting cast also includes Nina Dobrev ("The Vampire Diaries") as Justin's love interest and "Key and Peele"'s Keegan-Michael Key, who doesn't venture too far outside familiar territory in his role. Even Andy Garcia shows-up halfway through as a crime boss.
"Let's Be Cops" is rated R for plenty of adult language and references, plus drug use, brief nudity and violence. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up. The script is rather predictable and there aren't nearly as many funny moments in the more dramatic second half. But at the tail end of a summer that's been filled with action sequels and blockbuster busts, a traditional comedy with more hits than misses is a welcome addition.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Let's Be Cops" gets a B-.
"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is a smart, sweet and surprisingly delectable end-of-summer romantic dramedy. Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey clearly understood the vision of director Lasse Hallstrom (whose impressive credits include "The Cider House Rules", "Chocolat" and "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") and screenwriter Steven Knight (who's having a fantastic year with indie gem "Locke" and now this winner). Based on the 2010 novel by Richard C. Moranis, "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is nearly a 4-star experience, with excellent characters, genuine performances, and, with every great dish, a whole lot of love.
Oscar winner Helen Mirren stars as Madame Mallory, the longtime owner of a renowned restaurant in a small town outside of Paris, who has very high standards for her cuisine. So when a not-so-wealthy family from Mumbai decides to move into a vacant building directly across the street (exactly 100 feet away) and open their own, Indian-themed restaurant, Mallory's temperature immediately rises. Competition erupts amongst the Madame and the Kadam family, including patriarch Papa (Om Puri is delightful) and his aspiring-chef son Hassan (played by Manish Dayal).
But just when you start thinking that you know what's on this menu, "The Hundred-Foot Journey" evolves from the predictable "restaurant vs. restaurant" set-up into something much more. Relationships form, unexpected opportunities arise, and the script explores some serious subject matter, including the importance of careers, ambition and success. Going in I expected the "young love" relationship between Hassan and a rival chef to take prominence over the Madame Mallory storyline, but Hallstrom does a nice job in balancing each portion with the right amount of care and attention. And unlike with "Julie & Julia", "Chef" and other recent food-based films, the dishes featured aren't a major focus in this recipe.
At two hours "The Hundred-Foot Journey" does drag briefly in spots, but otherwise it's packed with delightful moments. You can't judge a cookbook by its cover, or a meal simply by its presentation. Experiencing "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is like enjoying a rare, exemplary dish: memorable and completely satisfying.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hundred-Foot Journey" gets a B+.
"Into the Storm" is basically a 21st Century "Twister": Storm chasers go after some of the most dangerous tornadoes on record to get information and capture incredible video, while at the same time trying to protect themselves and those they care about from literally being sucked away into a twister. But like all quality movies that Hollywood tries to duplicate, "Into the Storm" fails to capture that mix of intense action, real emotion, characters you care about and an overall fascination of the events taking place of the '96 Helen Hunt/Bill Paxton film.
"Into the Storm" could have also been titled "The Worst High School Graduation Ever", as the annual ceremony in the small, mid-western town of Silverton gets interrupted by a destructive and historic weather disturbance. Soon a group of storm chasers arrive, trying to track the many new tornadoes that are popping-up, hoping to get footage for their documentary. And they're joined by the high school's Vice Principal (played by Liam Neeson wannabe Richard Armitage), who's searching for his oldest son, who's skipped the grad ceremony to be with off his longtime crush. They're trapped in an abandoned building miles away.
The ensemble of mostly no-name actors includes "ICarly" alum Nathan Kress as the VP's other son, a kid who refuses to put down his video camera even in situations where he's about to die, and Matt Walsh (Mike on HBO's "Veep"), as the head storm chaser/filmmaker obsessed with getting incredible footage at all cost. They're not the only characters who feel that protecting themselves and others takes a backseat to making sure they get the footage. The message that getting the valuable video is more important than protecting oneself and others is not a good one to be putting out to audiences, especially in a disaster movie.
The dialogue among all of these stock characters is, not surprisingly, very corny. Most of the situations are poorly staged and way over-the-top, and the story is filled with crater-sized plot holes and numerous continuity errors. Two goofball storm chasers straight out of the TV show "Jackass", with dreams of becoming YouTube stars, are the unnecessary comic relief. Yes, even with the monumental amount of death and destruction depicted in "Into the Storm", you still have to make time to laugh. Director Steven Quale has one character briefly touch on the topic of the recent increase in natural disasters on Earth, but doesn't have the guts to go any further and take a stand on the subject. Probably too busy looking for where he could add another big laugh.
There is one thing that prevents "Into the Storm" from earning Category-F status: The visuals of the tornadoes and the damage and destruction they cause have an all-too authentic look, feel and sound. Several of the action sequences are very compelling and include some genuinely eye-opening moments. My forecast is for the film's special effects to get some attention come awards season.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Into the Storm" gets a C-.
A dominating presence in the 90s, revitalized with an animated film in 2007 and a Nickelodeon series beginning in 2012, the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" have come out of their shells once again with this semi-triumphant return to the big screen. On the heels of a fourth "Transformers" and TNT's "The Last Ship", The Summer of Michael Bay continues with this franchise reboot, which he produced.
For a change, Megan Fox actually gives a believable performance as NYC TV reporter April O'Neil. For the first twenty minutes or so, "Ninja Turtles" plays like "an aspiring reporter who wants more out of her job and career" comedy. The set-up, however, is clumsy and awkward, mostly due to Will Arnett, who is completely miscast and unfunny as April's cameraman Vernon. Only when we are formally re-introduced to the giant green crime-fighting reptiles, does "Ninja Turtles" begin to move at a faster pace.
As the story goes, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo (voiced by "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville) have been living and learning, in a NYC sewer, under the watchful eye of their master - the wise old rat Splinter (voiced by Tony Shaloub). How they came to be is one of the new and more interesting elements to this otherwise thin Pizza-crust of a story. Once they meet April, the Turtles' main goal is to protect her and save the city from the evil Shredder and his henchmen, who have a plan to gain control of New York and the entire world with a poison gas.
While not as "cute" as some of their previous versions, these CGI Turtles look very realistic (if there were actual 6 ft. talking, fighting turtles). And their dialogue is quite good, just what you'd expect from four teenagers living, working and playing together (think One Direction as reptiles). The traditional fast-paced, aggressive style of the Turtles is alive and well here. A sequence in which the Turtles, April and Vernon attempt to escape from the bad guys by taking a short-cut down a snow-covered mountain, is the most impressive and entertaining of the entire movie.
Bay's brand of visuals and sound effects are everywhere in "Ninja Turtles", complete with his trademark over-use of slow-motion. And after wanting to be in a "Turtles" movie for decades, Whoopi Goldberg finally gets her chance in a small role as April's news director.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action/violence and peril. There are some scary moments for young fans of the Nick animated series, but it's safe for kids 11 and up. Could this have been more fun? Absolutely. And coming off of "Guardians of the Galaxy", it falls way short in comparison. But for fans of these semi-iconic characters, especially the young ones, this is a harmless, though forgettable, effort.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" gets a C+.
"Get On Up" is director Tate Taylor's follow-up to the 2011 sleeper hit "The Help", which got a Best Picture Oscar nomination and Best Supporting Actress win for Octavia Spencer. Both she and Viola Davis re-team with Taylor for the James Brown biopic, but this time in very small roles, as two of the women who had an influence on Brown during his life. The man who portrays the legendary "Godfather of Soul" is the clear star of this show.
Chadwick Boseman's breakout role was as baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in last year's "42". His performance as the greedy, selfish, lonely and incredibly talented Brown is another winner, and in fact, an even more impressive piece of work. Boseman dominates every scene he's in, which is most of the film, with a display of raw tenacity you don't see from most actors in biopics. And in each scene we get something new and effective, adding layer upon layer to Brown's very complex life. And Boseman completely captures Brown's signature dance moves (including the splits), turning each song (and there are many more than I expected) into a powerhouse event.
This is the kind of performance that's going to attract Best Actor attention, and Boseman certainly deserves it. One negative, and it's not really his fault, is that Boseman doesn't actually sing any of Brown's classic songs, but rather lipsynchs to the original renditions. I'm not sure how this will affect Boseman come Awards Season (he's a lock for a Golden Globe Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical nomination). Reese Witherspoon sung all of June Carter Cash's songs in "Walk the Line", while Jamie Foxx only performed a few songs in his own voice as Ray Charles in "Ray". They both went on to win Oscars.
The vocal dubings are not the only reason why the editors of "Get On Up" deserve applause for a heck of a job. The script, written by brothers John-Henry and Jez Butterworth (who also co-penned the Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt action film "Edge of Tomorrow") bounces around, back and forth, through the timeline of Brown's life. In one scene, Brown is struggling in his later years (the makeup on Boseman is quite good), the next we flashback to his all but perfect childhood, and then we see Brown in his prime on-stage at the Apollo Theatre. If not done as well as it is, this technique could've driven me crazy. But because the storytelling is so engaging, with unique, symbolic touches and a commanding lead, "Get On Up" keeps you on your toes from the frightening opening scenes to the closing credits montage, complete with photos of the real Mr. Brown.
The supporting cast is led by Nelsan Ellis ("Secretariat") who does solid work as Brown's right-hand-man Bobby Byrd. Dan Aykroyd is also very good as Brown's longtime manager Ben Bart. And comedian Craig Robinson plays one of Brown's bandmates. There's also an A-list behind-the-scenes team, as both Brian Grazer (of Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment) and rock pioneer Mick Jagger (who was friends with Brown in real life) serve as producers.
"Get On Up" is rated PG-13 for strong language, some violence, brief adult content and drug use. It's appropriate for teens and up. I give Taylor credit for taking some risks: The film is a lengthy 2:20, allowing him enough time to cover the scope of an incredible life, though he does only touch briefly on some of the singer's negative traits and periods. And he has Brown "Break the Fourth Wall" a few times, a technique that dominated Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys". It's much more effective here.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Get On Up" gets an A-. Overall, "I feel good" in stating that this is one of the most satisfying and entertaining movies of 2014.
2014 is the year that Marvel movies have gone where the studio has never gone before. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", the highest-grossing film of '14 to date, perfectly mixed the action and political thriller genres. And now with "Guardians of the Galaxy", one of Marvel's best ever, director James Gunn has created an outer space action/adventure that's also packed with emotion and a ton of laughs.
Chris Pratt ("Parks and Recreation", "The LEGO Movie") stars as Peter Quill (aka STAR-LORD) - the notorious outlaw (at least in his own mind) of the galaxy who was abducted from Earth at the age of 9 the night his mother died of cancer. Peter roams an abandoned planet and finds a mysterious orb he's planning on selling to a collector. But the orb turns out to be worth much more than he initially thought and it becomes a hot item that many want to get their hands on, including evil warlord Thanos, who will use it to rule the galaxy and kill billions of innocent citizens.
Others, such as fortune hunters Rocket Raccoon and his talking tree trunk sidekick Groot (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel went into the booth to voice CGI characters) want the orb so they can sell it, while Gamora, the adopted daughter of Thanos (played by Zoe Saldana), has a different reason for pursuing the sphere. They eventually all end-up together in prison with the infamous Drax the Destroyer (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista), and soon realize they have to work together to protect the orb. And who knows - they may actually become friends along the way.
Clearly nothing groundbreaking with the plot. We've seen stories like this before. It's the execution, unique, well-written characters and the level of comedy that raises "Guardians of the Galaxy" to new heights. This is a film where the story itself takes a backseat to style. The narrative is straightforward, though if you tried to dissect every detail of every scene and keep track of the numerous villains and their motivations your head would spin. And you can see most of the "surprises" coming from light-years away. But that's OK. It's the wildly entertaining interactions between this unlikely team of outlaws that makes "Guardians" work.
Gunn is able to these have characters be instantly likeable, which is hard to do, especially for a new superhero movie based on a relatively obscure comic book. Pratt and Saldana have excellent chemistry together and a lot of fun with their roles. Bautista shows-off both his macho build and the ability to deliver lines. After seeing a 17-minute sneak peek of "Guardians" last month, I predicted that Cooper's Rocket would be the breakout star of the film, and he does provide some of the strongest, laugh-out-loud funny moments. In fact, this is the best Marvel movie character (and casting) since Robert Downey, Jr. first played Tony Stark/Iron Man.
However, if all five of the "Guardians" were, themselves, part of a galaxy, Diesel's Groot would be at the center of it. Much credit goes to Gunn for being able to draw authentic emotion, throughout the film, from the most unexpected places.
Technically, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is practically flawless. The makeup and costumes are Oscar-nomination worthy, as are the impressive visuals. And the soundtrack (aka "Awesome Mix Vol. 1") is a collection of classic, retro songs from the '70's and '80's, including Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling", which has been stuck in my head since the film's first trailer was released back in February. The soundtrack actually becomes a character in the story, another stroke of genius by Gunn and the writers.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" is rated PG-13 for the sci-fi action violence and some adult language. It's appropriate for kids 11 and up. Diehard Marvel fans, including those of this comic book, will not be disappointed. The movie includes the traditional Stan Lee cameo and post-credits "Easter Egg" staples. For everyone else, this is a great chance to get in on the ground floor of the next, big superhero movie franchise, and have one of the best times at the theater all year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Guardians of the Galaxy" gets a B+.
What if you were kidnapped by a group of suited men with guns and had a powerful and valuable drug surgically implanted in your stomach? And what if this led to you becoming the most intelligent person in the history of the world? I'm not sure mankind would be ready for it, something Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman could attest to, since he uses that line, yet again, this time as a professor of Neuroscience, in "Lucy". And the "drug problem" is exactly what happens to Scarlett Johansson, who plays the title character in this latest sci-fi action thriller from writer/director Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element").
Once Lucy realizes that the CPH4 leaking from the bag is messing with her brain and bodily functions, she gets it removed. But not before her brain power expands from about 10% (the current maximum for humans) to more than 20%, the equal of dolphins, according Freeman's Dr. Norman. And that's just the start. Meantime, the drug smugglers are out to find Lucy and get their drugs back, while she's out for revenge, more drugs (to feed her new, unique habit) and to share her new-found discoveries with the professor.
"Lucy" begins very slowly. The set-up, in which Lucy and a former boyfriend contemplate which of them will deliver a briefcase to a man in a hotel, is painful to watch as it drags on way too long. Besson must have given the movie's editor the day off when they were cutting the first 10 minutes. And things don't get much better with Johansson's over-the-top scenes that lead to the implanting of the drugs. But once the CPH4 kicks-in, so does the actress' performance and the film. Johansson as a ruthless, emotionless killing machine works quite nicely. A car chase through the streets of Paris is the most genuinely entertaining sequence in the entire movie.
Besson takes some risks with "Lucy", the first being the actual concept, which expands into theories on evolution, human existence and the future of the species. He gets very creative with imagery, using cut-away videos of animals in nature, outer space and microscopic findings. There are touches of "2001: A Space Odyssey", "The Matrix", "Inception", and in one particular section, a montage right out of "The Tree of Life" (but it makes much more sense here). A few of the theories will be easy for audiences to accept. The rest, including speeches on why we were created and our ultimate destiny, is no more than sci-fi movie mumbo-jumbo.
The biggest problem with "Lucy" is that with all the crazy concepts and Lucy's wild antics, there are no true surprises. "Lucy" is too straightforward, with hardly any pulse-raising moments or emotional highs. The climax seems very rushed and the pay-off is forced and a little hokey. Johansson and Freeman are together for only two extended scenes, in yet another "extended cameo" performance for the veteran actor. This is a rare starring role for Johansson. Unfortunately the role limits her opportunities to show she can truly dominate a film.
"Lucy" is rated R for some strong action/violence. It's appropriate for teens and up. The premise makes it intriguing enough to keep your interest, but in the end, it's not nearly as satisfying, memorable or groundbreaking as Besson intended it to be.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Lucy" gets a C.
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