The latest sci-fi adventure from "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird is Disney's "Tomorrowland", which is very loosely based on the theme park attraction. Outside of a brief and flat-out awful narration tactic at the start of the film, star George Clooney is missing for the first 45 minutes. His Frank Walker character is introduced to us as a boy, or as I call him, Lil' Clooney), a young inventor who takes his jet pack invention to the 1964 New York World's Fair. Frank meets a mysterious young girl and ends-up riding the classic ride "It's a Small World" (there's some inside marketing for you), and is soon transported to Tomorrowland - a wondrous place between the present and the future where anything is possible.
The story then shifts to present day, where teenager Casey ("The Longest Ride"'s Britt Robertson) is arrested and when she's released from jail recevives a Tomorrowland pin. When she touches it, she's physically transported to this strange place, in brief flashes that only she can experience.
Eventually, following a "Men in Black"-esque stretch involving Casey and the mysterious girl, Athena, from 1964 (who hasn't aged a day), Casey makes it to Frank Walker's house. He's now an adult (and Clooney). Clearly he's no longer in Tomorrowland, for complicated reasons yet to be explained, but these three end-up having to return to Tomorrowland, for more complicated reasons that I won't explain, to - literally - save the world.
"Tomorrowland" features an original story, though it's far from unique. Bird not only directed and produced it, but also co-wrote the script, which includes a few nice touches such as "Iron Giant" and "Incredibles" figures in a sci-fi store Casey visits. Some of the themes, particularly in the homestretch, are fairly heavy for a PG Disney movie. There are no legitimate surprises, and sadly only one element (the relationship between Frank and Athena, seen in both flashbacks and their present-day reunion) actually works, albeit on the low side of the emotion spectrum and slightly creepy.
Clooney himself gives a few solid speeches, though I felt like he was copycatting his own death bed performance from "The Descendants" in a late crying scene. Just about everyone else overacts, and the soundtrack is way too intrusive. The showstoppers of "Tomorrowland", by far, are the visual effects. A sequence involving the Eiffel Tower will blow you away. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for just about everything else.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Tomorrowland" gets a disappointing C.
“Pitch Perfect” only made $65 million back in 2012, but a cult “Girl Power” following along with the growth in popularity of stars Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson helped convince Universal that they were A Ca-ready for “Pitch Perfect 2”.
Elizabeth Banks, who reprises her role as A Cappella competition co-commentator Gail, also directs this sequel, which is bigger and slightly better than the original. Once again there are no huge laughs - but several entertaining song renditions, some solid performances and a few genuine surprises help “Pitch Perfect 2” avoid hitting the low notes.
After a performance for the President and Mrs. Obama goes horribly wrong, (the First Couple is actually shown more than once) the Barden University Bellas are suspended and face termination unless they can win the World A Cappella Championship, which no U.S. group has ever done. Among the teams they’ll have to defeat is the German group Das Sound Machine - easily the frontrunners for the title.
That’s pretty much the plot, and so, at just under two hours, “Pitch Perfect 2” is longer than it needed to be. A song battle featuring David Cross as emcee and members of the Green Bay Packers belting-out pop tunes, along with a Bellas bonding retreat (the perfect setting for some over-the-top antics from Wilson), are drawn-out and don’t advance the story much.
The strongest element of “PP2” is a subplot involving Beca (Kendrick) secretly interning at a recording studio. Keegan Michael Key puts a more grounded spin on the typical demanding music producer role (and has some of the film’s best lines). And a scene involving him, Kendrick and none other than Snoop Dogg, who’s in a booth working on his upcoming Christmas album, is my favorite of the entire movie.
Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”, “Ender’s Game”) is a nice addition to the cast as Emily, the newest Bella. Kendrick’s original song “Cups”, from the first film, became a pop hit. This time, it’s Steinfeld and Kendrick’s “Flashlight” that you’ll likely be hearing everywhere.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Pitch Perfect 2” gets a B-. In a summer packed with action films, this light and fun version of escapism is a nice alternative.
Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon and "Modern Family"'s Sofia Vergara team-up for the action comedy "Hot Pursuit". It's such a cliche considering the title, but this really is one hot mess.
Witherspoon, complete with an annoying southern accent, plays Cooper, a Texas police officer. She's a plucky, non-stop talker who hasn't been out in the field since she tazed (and set on fire) the son of a mayor over a wacky misunderstanding. But now she's been asked to escort the wife of a drug trial witness to Dallas so she can also testify.
Things get complicated fast when Cooper and a fellow officer arrive at the mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Riva and within minutes, two different sets of gunmen show-up and open fire. Cooper barely escapes with the loud and flamboyant Mrs. Riva (played by Vergara). They're now on the run - wanted by the bad guys and the bad cops. Will this unlikely pair make it to Dallas by morning without getting caught and killed? Of course, with a premise like this, it's not going to be easy.
"Hot Pursuit" is directed by "The Proposal"'s Anne Fletcher. I wasn't a huge fan of that 2009 rom-com, but I'd sit through it a couple more times before going anywhere near this film again. The first half does have a handful of random, chuckle-worthy one-liners. But then the over-the-top gags and goofy situations start piling-up, including a guy shooting-off his own finger and Witherspoon then giving a dog the Heimlich because she thought he swallowed it.
As terrible as that scene is, nothing comes close to the escapade on a senior citizen tour bus, which is so flat-out ridiculous that I'm stunned the writers thought people would actually find it entertaining. At least "Hot Pursuit" is only 87 minutes, though it would've simply been a half-hour sitcom pilot if not for all the tiresome, double-crossing/triple-crossing, "Let me explain" scenes.
Vergara can be very funny in small doses on TV, but here proves she can't handle a co-leading film role. As for Witherspoon, going from career-high work in "Wild" to an embarrassing role like this is a shame. However, she does provide the true gem of the film in the closing credits outtakes. She delivers a line, but that take can't be used because a crew member quickly tells her she has to check something. Witherspoon responds, "God, I was giving the performance of a lifetime" and sarcastically laughs out loud. I did the same thing.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hot Pursuit" gets a D.
Marvel’s superhero sequel “Avengers: Age of Ultron” kicks-off the Summer 2015 Movie Season. And while it’s sure to break box office records, this follow-up to 2012’s original is more grim and less entertaining on practically every level.
“Age of Ultron” begins promisingly with a solid action scene. Returning director Joss Whedon stages the mighty heroes coming together in slow-motion, with dramatic music behind them, to enhance the excitement. And we quickly learn that Ultron - Tony Stark’s secret defense system created assure world peace - will be the centerpiece of this story.
Ultron gets into enemy hands - and comes “alive” - in the form of a metal maniac. James Spader provides excellent voice work as the genuinely evil villain. His goal? First to destroy The Avengers, and then the entire human race. That’s the best Whedon and the writers could come-up with for this evil villain - to destroy the world? Also, Ultron isn’t given nearly enough to do in the story and his reasoning for all of the madness that ensues is never properly exposed.
“Age of Ultron” is a difficult film to actually enjoy. Whedon clearly set-out to make a different, darker film than the last - and maybe that’s also in reaction to last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which was just so much fun. Here, we get a lot of “mind games” and psychological mumbo-jumbo. I get enough of this stuff in dramas and documentaries. I want my Marvel Movies filled with gags and wisecracks and laughs and action scenes I’ve never seen before. You get none of that here.
There is a romance between Bruce Banner aka The Hulk aka Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow, so at least that’s something new. It’s Marvel’s version of “Beauty and the Beast”, a perfect marriage, now that they’re part of Disney.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye actually gets the most screen time of any of the Avengers, and some new recruits join the team, including two who part of a very weak plot development. The overall story lacks compelling elements and includes practically no surprises. I kept waiting for that cool twist - and I’m still waiting.
This is the fifth film Robert Downey, Jr. has starred in as Iron Man, and you can tell, just as his Tony Stark is getting weary of having to save the world, Downey, Jr. is starting to get tired of playing this role. His signature, sarcastic one-liners are beginning to wear thin. And considering how “Age of Ultron” ends, don’t be surprised if his screen time decreases for future “Avengers” installments, including next one, teased with a brief clip during the closing credits.
Thankfully, the visual effects are stellar - probably the best of any Marvel movie ever. Several of the action scenes, including a Hulk-sized Iron Man fighting the green guy himself, are worthy of the franchise, but the grand finale is unspectacular and a major letdown.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" gets a C+.
Just as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" explored the unusual concept of someone aging in reverse, a new cinematic fable, "The Age of Adaline", centers around another unique variation of the aging process - or more specifically - the non-aging process.
Blake Lively, in her first film in nearly three years, delivers a standout performance as Adaline Bowman. Born in San Francisco on New Year's Day, 1908, Adaline lives a normal life until, in 1935, while driving on a rare cold night, she's involved in a car accident and ends-up underwater in a river. Unconscious and close to death, a bolt of lightnight strikes the car, bringing Adaline back to life.
But the incident also gives her an amazing power: from that moment on she would never age another day. And she spends her life avoiding the police, hospitals, and having her photo taken, so that her identity won't be discovered and she won't become a medical test subject. After spending the next eight decades traveling the world, constantly changing her name and avoiding relationships, she returns to San Fran to be near her daughter, who's now a senior citizen. But on New Year's Eve, Adaline meets a man who will change the course of her life once again.
"The Age of Adaline" is a delicate film with an effective story. The pacing is purposely slow - but at no time do you lose interest. I was invested in this character and her complicated and quite sad situation from the start. And there are some emotional scenes involving Lively and her latest in a long line of cocker spaniels, her daughter (played by Ellen Burstyn), new boyfriend (Michiel Huisman) and his father (the incomparable Harrison Ford).
Some scientific reasoning for Adaline's immortal existence is presented to us through on-again, off-again narration, though not in a loud or distracting way. And while all of the plot elements don't make perfect sense, this is one of those films where it's best to just go with it and enjoy the results.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Age of Adaline" gets a B.
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" was one of the first and funniest films of 2009. As a New Jersey mall security guard who had one epic Black Friday, Kevin James proved to be an unlikely likable hero and established a modern classic comedy character. It took James more than six years to get back into the uniform and on the Segway for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2". Clearly he didn't spend much of that time coming-up with a script, as this sequel is as bland and basic as you can get - with the clever and unpredictable mall setting of the original being replaced by tired and overdone Las Vegas.
Halfway through "PB:MC2", while my mind was wandering, I realized that this has become the family film franchise version of the "Taken" series, with James as the comedic Liam Neeson - who, once again, has to get back his kidnapped daughter. If only those behind this film realized the potential of a "Taken" parody, the result would've been a lot more interesting.
Blart and his daughter are staying at Vegas' Wynn hotel for a Security Officers Training Association convention. And it just so happens a group of art thieves are planning to steal all of the hotel's priceless paintings and sculptures. (Same weekend - what are the odds?) Once Blart finds-out what's going on (and it does take a while), he springs - sort of - into action, because as he states, "Safety is a mission - not an intermission."
The charm of the original, which most critics ignored, though it did well at the box office, is nowhere to be found in this sequel - in favor of a dumbed-down, utterly predictable script. There are three or four funny situations, and a few good jokes, including a hilarious one during Blart's convention speech (a rare highlight of the film). But I can "safely" state, overall, this is a missed opportunity.
But we can't be too surprised. If James and Adam Sandler's Happy Madison team really cared about creating a hit, they would've put more effort into this production and made it a lot sooner (a 2011 release). Instead, this is simply an attempted money grab, and that probably won't work, either.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2" gets a D+.
“The Longest Ride” is the tenth film adapted from a novel written by romance king Nicholas Sparks. His previous movies have been called sappy, simple and full of coincidences. The same can be said for half of “The Longest Ride”, which lives-up to its title in that, for more than two hours, you basically sit through two movies for the price of one.
The more appealing storyline, commercially, is about two young lovers in present day trying to make their relationship work. Sophia (played by Britt Robertson) is a college senior at a North Carolina university who’s looking forward to her art world internship in NYC beginning in just two months. She meets professional bull rider Luke (played by Scott Eastwood, who does have some resemblance to his famous father, Clint) at a competition, and there's an immediate attraction.
At the end of their first date, Sophia and Luke rescue an older man from his burning car and take him to the hospital. Alan Alda, the biggest name in the cast, plays Ira, who asks Sophia to read him old letters he keeps with him, which he wrote to his wife, Ruth, decades ago.
This flashback device allows us to learn the story of young Ira and Ruth as they were falling in love in the 1940s. Their relationship quickly became complicated, and unlike the story of Luke and Sophia, Ira and Ruth’s journey together is genuinely interesting and emotional, with several powerful moments. Oona Chaplin, as Ruth, gives a deep and convincing performance, with some of the best dialogue and standout scenes.
“The Longest Ride” follows these two parallel stories, with the intersection being Alda, who, at nearly 80, is still as good as ever. Robertson and Eastwood aren’t very strong here, and their scenes are packed with clichés, tons of facial-expression-acting and clumsy circumstances that move this typical Sparks story along. It’s the older and more meaningful romance that saves this film from being a sentimental disaster.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Longest Ride” gets a C. If the final five minutes weren’t so flat-out ridiculous, that grade might've been higher.
"Furious 7" is not nearly as much fun as 2013's "Fast & Furious 6". And star Vin Diesel's prediction of a Best Picture Oscar win will not be coming true. However, it's still good enough, and a fitting farewell to the late Paul Walker.
This seventh edition in the blockbuster franchise is surprisingly serious, with the cloud Walker's November 2013 death as only one of the reasons. The main villain this time is the mysterious man who appeared at the end of "6", Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham). He's the brother of Owen Shaw, who was killed by the F&F gang last time. Deckard is out for revenge.
His first target is Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson's screen time is cut in half, but he still brings some much-needed humor). They duke it out in an office, and afterwards, Deckard escapes and Hobbs goes to the hospital. It's there that Hobbs tells Dom (Diesel) about the new Shaw, who is targeting the entire crew.
New to the cast is Kurt Russell as Mr. Nobody, who's looking to help Dom, Brian (Walker) and the others track and take down Shaw in exchange for assistance in finding a computer hacker and her ultimate GPS device. This is only Russell's third movie in eight years and he gives a solid performance as a genuinely interesting character.
"Furious 7" is relentless with the action. There are twenty-minute chunks of shootings, car chases and fist fights. The only two scenes that feature "wow" moments were unfortunately showcased in the trailers, but they still provide some thrills. The story really takes a backseat, though two elements still shine through. They are the evolving relationship between Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Brian trying to adjust to family life with his wife and young son.
Walker's passing hit the cast and crew of "Furious 7" quite hard, particularly longtime friend Diesel, who just named his new daughter, Pauline. I do question director James Wan's decision of leaving-in a brief scene in which Roman (Tyrese Gibson) talks directly to Walker's Brian and says "No more funerals." However, the final five minutes of the film are handled quite well, with a moving tribute to their colleague and friend.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Furious 7" gets a B-.
"Home" is, for now, DreamWorks Animation's only 2015 release. Thankfully, based on the early box office, it's helping bring the studio back from the brink of financial disaster. Adapted from the novel "The True Meaning of Smekday" by Adam Rex, "Home" is a very simple, high-energy adventure that's filled with color and imagination, and is perfect for kids 12 and under.
Director Tim Johnson ("Over the Hedge") told me in an interview that the quirky main character named Oh, and "Big Bang Theory" Emmy-winner Jim Parsons were a casting match made in heaven. Parsons brings-out all the likable traits of the lonely Boov alien through a voice performance filled with human grammatical errors that, somehow, doesn't get annoying.
In the basic plot, the Boov creatures are constantly on the run from their enemy, the Gorg, and they have chosen Earth as their new place to live. In order to inhabit our planet, wacky Captain Smek (voiced by Steve Martin) forces all citizens to leave their homes, transporting them by spaceship to far-off places.
Oh immediately causes some big trouble (which he is always doing) on Earth, and then encounters the last remaining human, a young girl named Tip (voiced by Rihanna) and her cat, Pig. Why she was able to escape the evacuation is revealed a little too early, but helps to move the story along. Tip decides to team-up with Oh, who has fixed her car so that it now flies and runs on slushie drinks, so they can try to find Tip's mom (Jennifer Lopez) and stop the Gorg from locating the Boov and destroying them.
"Home" has one of the smallest casts in the history of animated films. There are, basically, five legitimate characters (and that includes the cat). The majority of the movie is dependent on the conversations and relationship between Oh and Tip, and they do make a sweet and fun pair. There are a few moments of dry humor, but not an overwhelming amount, and no big laughs. But it's not that type of film. The screen time of Martin's Smek, who is the over-the-top character, is thankfully kept to a minimum.
Johnson said that having music as an actual element of the film was very important to him. Several songs by Rihanna (including "Dancing in the Dark" that Tip and Oh listen to in the car, and the alien actually makes some negative comments such as "It's just noise"), and the excellent Jennifer Lopez song "Feel the Light" are incorporated into events in the story, and not simply buried in the end credits.
"Home" is a solid and enjoyable effort from DreamWorks. Like the Boov, "Home" runs away from the idea of taking risks. Here Johnson's made a movie that sticks to one of the DWA core themes of the unexpected bond, with an emphasis on family, friendship, being who you are, and finding that place you can truly call "home".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Home" gets a B.
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in a buddy comedy should equal gold. But with "Get Hard" the result is the exact opposite. In fact, even though it attempts to play it tough with a Hard-R tone, it's actually quite light and wimpy - often not even trying to make us laugh.
The premise itself is pretty weak: Ferrell plays James King, a multi-millionaire stock market tycoon who's arrested for fraud and sentenced to 10 years in a maximum security prison. He knows he won't survive behind bars, so he hires Darnell (played by Hart) who's been cleaning his car for two years, to teach him how to be tough so he can defend himself against other inmates.
Why Darnell?: Because he's Black, and because James is racist, he assumes that Darnell has been to prison before. Of course he hasn't - but he makes believe he has because he needs the $30,000 James is paying him so he can move his wife and daughter out of the bad neighborhood they live in.
"Get Hard" was screened at the SXSW Film Festival, and Etan Cohen (the writer of "Tropic Thunder" and "Men in Black 3", who makes his feature film directorial debut here) was blasted in a Q&A for all of the racist and homophobic jokes, stereotypes and profiling in the film.
And while all of that is true, his biggest crime is that nothing in "Get Hard" is remotely funny. The credits say a screenplay was written, but I find it hard to believe. Each scene is staged in a surprisingly straight-forward fashion, and Ferrell and Hart seem to be ad-libbing all of their lines. Ferrell's proven by now he isn't funny without a script, and Hart has nothing to play-off of. I kept waiting for a great exchange - and then gave-up.
"Get Hard" is charged with multiple crimes including a bland storyline, invisible direction, offensive material, and stealing millions of dollars from moviegoers all over the country. Mr. Ferrell and Mr. Hart should think long and hard about the next projects they take.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Get Hard" gets an F.
"Divergent", released exactly a year ago, was based on the first installment of a popular tween/teen book series about a female heroine in a post-apocalyptic world. Similarities were immediately made to "The Hunger Games", with "Divergent" having copycat concepts and lackluster big screen results in comparison. Interestingly, Lionsgate, which recently bought Summit Entertainment, is now the distributor of both franchises.
The star power for "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" has been ramped-up - with new cast members Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Daniel Dae Kim adding a little bite. And, thankfully, it is shorter than its predecessor by 20 minutes. There's also more energy this time with a few solid action scenes. But, once again, the overall pacing is very slow, and so the mediocre story is so stretched-out simply to fill time.
Kate Winslet is back as the evil Jeanine. She talks often in "Insurgent" about how coincidental and ironic it is that Tris (Shailene Woodley) is, once again, the main Divergent making her life miserable. Of course she is - she's the main character in the story! And there's plenty of hoopla involving the five Factions, the up-and-down romance of Tris and Four (who reveals that his name isn't really a number - which hilariously comes as a big shock to Tris), and the subplots with Tris' shy brother Caleb (played by Ansel Elgort, who Woodley fell in love with in "The Fault in Our Stars") and the good guy who may have become a bad guy, Peter (played by Miles Teller, who Woodley fell in love with in "The Spectacular Now").
The main storyline in "Insurgent" is that Jeanine needs Tris to open a box for her that contains an important message about the collapsing Faction system. But - another shocker - the box contains a "surprise" - except it's really no surprise as everyone knows how this is going to end (it's a sci-fi/futuristic version of a prequel to "Pandora's Box").
What is surprising is that "Insurgent" plays-out like a series ender. But unfortunately...it's not. There are two more films: Parts 1 and 2 of "Allegiant" are set for March releases over the next two years.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Divergent Series: Insurgent" gets a C-. And that may be a little "Indulgent".
"Run All Night" is the fourth action/thriller starring Liam Neeson to be released in the last 13 months. Jaume-Collet Serra directed Neeson 2011's underrated gem "Unknown" and last year's "Non-Stop". Both of those films provided intrigue, suspense and engaging storylines worthy of your full attention from the first frame to the last.
"Run All Night" is clearly the weakest of Serra's three colaborations with Neeson. The story, which is given away in the commercials and trailers, is played in a straightforward and unspectacular fashion. It's not a dull action film, but it doesn't provide the bite it should considering the star-power and resumes.
As it turns out "Run All Night" would've worked better had the main focus been the confrontation between old best friends turned bitter enemies - Jimmy Conlon (played by Neeson) and Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Their scenes together, including a pivotal one in an NYC restaurant, provide the tension and satisfaction that's lacking everywhere else.
But, instead, the main story centers on Jimmy's fractured relationship with his son Mike. "RoboCop"'s Joel Kinnaman doesn't provide much screen presence opposite Neeson. 99% of "Run All Night" takes place over the course of 16 hours, and it feels like it, especially in the first half. We spend an evening with Jimmy & Mike as they attempt to outrun Shawn and his henchmen, along with Detective Harding (a very good Vincent D'Onofrio) and the NYPD. Interestingly, most of "running" done on this night is via driving, not actual running.
The main supporting character in the mix is a hitman played by Common. I was expecting this guy to have some more layers, but a scene in which he and Neeson duke it out in a burning apartment complex is pretty entertaining. And, there's an uncredited cameo from a veteran Oscar-nominated actor late in the film that provides a little spark.
"Run All Night" is strong in the second half, but really needed a couple of legitimate twists to elevate the all-too-simple script. Neeson does his best to convince us he's a bad guy, but I kept waiting for him, at some point, to save everybody. I guess I'll have to wait until his next action role for that. Chances are I won't have to wait very long.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Run All Night" gets a C+.
Disney's animated "Cinderella" was released in 1950. Now, 65 years later, as part of The Mouse House's current trend of remaking/reimagining classics from the vault (which will continue over the next few years with new versions of "The Jungle Book", "Pete's Dragon" and "Beauty and the Beast"), veteran director Kenneth Branagh brings to life the latest live-action interpretation of the glass slipper story.
If this was the first version of "Cinderella" ever made, or if it's the first you've ever seen (which would most likely apply to a little one), it will blow you away. Branagh is able to take a tale most of us know by heart and transform it into a genuine drama and sweeping romance, that's both grand and sincere, much like Cinderella herself. Lily James ("Downton Abbey") gives a star-making performance opposite the excellent Cate Blanchett, who really sinks her teeth into the role of the evil Stepmother (Blanchett receives top-billing but doesn't have as much screen time as you might expect). And Richard Madden ("Game of Thrones") is quite good as the much more down-to-Earth than dashing Prince.
The screenplay, by Chris Weitz, who's come a long way since writing 2007's "The Golden Compass", is packed with emotional storylines and serious themes. The abuse Ella endures is pretty intense and, in true Disney fashion, death plays a big part in the story. The PG rating is deserved. This is a mature "Cinderella", clearly intended for an "older" young audience. 6-9 year-old girls going to the theater in their bright blue dresses with their moms may not enjoy this film (though they will enjoy seeing Anna and Elsa in the "Frozen Fever" short that plays before the feature). This "Cinderella" is not a comedy (though there are a few lighter moments) and it's not a musical (updated renditions of two of the classic songs from the animated version are saved for the end credits). This is essentially a romantic drama.
The only time Branagh delves into "whimsical" territory is when Cinderella meets her Fairy Godmother (played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is also the narrator) and she uses her magical powers to turn a pumpkin into the coach, a goose into a driver, etc. This sequence is far different in tone from the rest of the film. I wouldn't be surprised if Branagh is criticized for not making a "fun" "Cinderella", especially for the young female target audience. However, I contend that this "Cinderella" can be appreciated by all ages, thanks, first and foremost, to James' fresh, pure and lively portrayal of a character who, in most other versions, is pretty dull.
"Cinderella" is filled with beautiful, and rather large, costumes, gorgeous set design (there's an extravagant and effervescent ballroom sequence) and a lovely score. And with a talented director and cast behind this bold and almost completely anti-fairy tale approach, it's the most impressive film of 2015. I felt more than satisfied when the clock finally struck Midnight.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Cinderella" gets an A-.
"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a 2012, Golden Globe-nominated dramedy with an all-star cast of veteran actors playing seniors looking to re-live their youth and re-charge their lives by traveling to India and staying at a newly built, but poorly constructed hotel. It was solidly entertaining, but a little overrated and rather depressing, all of which made the news that a sequel was in the works rather surprising.
Yes, the original was a surprise box office hit, but a concept like this, specifically for an older audience, doesn't usually result in a second go-around. I had fairly low expectations going into "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (which will be a strong contender for the longest title of the year honor). Thankfully, with a warm, authentic script, a lighter story that still deals with some heavy themes, and an excellent ensemble cast in top form, this return visit is a much more enjoyable experience.
The plot of "The Second..." is overwhelming. There are at least half a dozen storylines going on all at once. Most of them involve past, present, or potential romances between and among the residents from the first film, with a few newcomers tossed in. But the focal point is the upcoming wedding of hotel owner Sonny (a much less annoying Dev Patel than in the original) and his fiancee Suniana. Sonny also has his sights set on opening a second hotel in town. After a meeting he attends with Muriel (the great Maggie Smith) in San Diego with a possible investor, the chances for expansion are looking better. However, complications quickly arise.
Meantime, Evelyn (Judi Dench) has been freelancing for a fabrics company, but gets an offer to work for them full-time. Longtime friend and now tour guide Douglas (Bill Nighy) wants to marry Evelyn, but she, at the age of 79, still isn't ready to commit. Another resident's companion is having an affair, another can't decide between the two men who have asked for her hand in marriage. And, if all of that wasn't enough, Richard Gere shows-up to the hotel as a writer Guy Chambers. He immediately falls for Sonny's mom, who wants nothing to do with him.
The best thing about "The Second..." is the more positivity and spirit that was missing from in the original. There are some genuinely funny moments, and plenty of sarcastic one-liners about getting old and dying. Smith received a SAG Awards Best Supporting Actress nomination for the first "Marigold Hotel", but she actually gives a more effective and meaningful performance here. And while much of the film is completely predictable, real emotion does come from the final act, which has a lot to say about life and love.
Should we expect "The Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"? Probably not. But you've got to give a lot of credit to returning director John Madden, who proved that, for once, it was completely worthwhile to make a sequel to a film that really didn't need one.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" gets a B.
"Chappie" is the latest sci-fi effort from "District 9" and "Elysium" director Neill Blomkamp. Is it sappy? Yes. Does it make you happy? No. Is it, overall, crappy? Unfortunately, yes. But "Chappie" goes way beyond these slightly above-average, yet obvious puns. In an attempt to sum-up what I watched for two hours, I quote one of the film's many bad guys - the evil Vincent, played by Hugh Jackman: "What in the name of the Lord?" I thought "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" might hold the title of Most Bizarre Movie of 2015, at least for awhile. But we already have a new "Champpieon".
Set in the not-too distant future, "Chappie" begins with a cameo from CNN's Anderson Cooper, which means this newsman will be keeping his job for a few more years. He explains, in specific sci-fi movie detail, how a South African weapons corporation, is manufacturing droid police officers, which the city of Johannesburg is successfully using to lower the crime rate.
Deon ("Slumdog Millionaire"'s Dev Patel) is the genius creator of the droids. Jackman's Vincent is the jealous co-worker whose own creation, a giant robot moose - I mean his giant robot named "The Moose" (though the first idea would have been more fun) has been rejected in favor of Deon's smaller, more "human-like" peace-keepers. Everything gets complicated when Deon secretly gives one of the robots true artificial intelligence, with full human characteristics and feelings, and the ability to think and react. He is given the name Chappie (and is voiced by Sharlto Copley). The CG effects used for Chappie are the only impressive elements of the entire film.
And, in a matter of days, Chappie goes from being a baby, to an artist, to a gangster, to a tech wiz, to a fighting machine, to a hero. But there's no story to support any of these changes or make us care about the fate of this metal marvel.
"Chappie" is filled with over-acting performances on steroids. It seemed like Jackman, Patel and Sigourney Weaver, who plays their boss, did all their scenes in one take. You can almost hear Blomkamp saying "Got it. Let's move on". And the violence is heavy. While not as gruesome as "Elysium", there's an average of at least one attempt and/or successful killing every minute. But body count does not equal excitement, as most of the action is as dull as Chappie's monotone voice - the exception being an office scene late in the film which proves that cubicles will not protect you from a robot on a rampage.
"Chappie" attempts to be a fresh sci-fi adventure heavy on social commentary. It also tries to be an underdog story of survival, a gangsta film, a family drama, a revenge thriller and so much more. Blomkamp tries to do and say way too much, and the result is a muddled mess. But what annoyed me above all, was the constant 3rd-person dialogue used by Chappie - "Chappie will help", "Chappie wants to go home." I believe these were also uttered: "Chappie gonna mess you up", "Chappie feels bad for everyone who sat through this movie", and, sadly, "Chappie doesn't give refunds".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Chappie" gets a D.
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