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-.
1987's "RoboCop" re-defined the sci-fi/action genre, with Peter Weller starring as the Detroit detective who became a half man/half machine anti-crime hero. Two sequels followed in the 90s, and now director Jose Padilha ("Elite Squad") brings this story back to life with a slightly updated remake. The problem is, since practically every man-machine concept movie has been done by Hollywood over the last 27 years, "RoboCop" doesn't feel unique or original, but rather a bunch of worn-out parts pieced together with disappointing results.
The first character we're introduced to is political talk show host Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson). He informs us of the two-sided battle taking place in 2028 America. The head of a corporation called Omnicorp, Raymond Sellers (Michael Keaton) is looking to bring his giant, crime-fighting drones, that are protecting citizens all over the world, to the U.S. But political leaders in Washington think it's simply too dangerous having machines take the place of actual police officers and soldiers. And the majority of the American people agree.
Sellers needs to make his drones "more human". He hires scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to get it done. But they need the right candidate. And they get one in Detroit police officer Alex Murphy ("The Killing"'s Joel Kinnaman). He nearly dies in an explosion while tracking a weapons dealer, but he is saved (at least parts of him) and turned into RoboCop. And while the experiment is successful in the beginning, as you might expect, things start to go downhill in a hurry.
Some of the ideas behind "RoboCop" are interesting, but the movie itself is very average. The set-up works, but the script runs out of juice once the RoboCop himself comes to life. Jackson's Novak is by far the most interesting character, providing some realism to the sci-fi storyline. However he and the rest of the supporting cast are overused, making the film not about the part human/part machine Officer Murphy, but everyone around him. There are way too many talky, boardroom scenes that go on far too long. And there are legal, medical and social issues raised that aren't explored deeply enough.
"RoboCop" is quite violent and goes against the current trend of crime/action films in that there's absolutely no humor. And that's fine, except the action scenes are rather bland, so the overall entertainment value is pretty low.
Kinnaman doesn't get many opportunities to act outside of a scene when he meets his wife and son for the first time after becoming RoboCop. Oldman is solid in a very straight-forward role, while Keaton overplays it as the power-hungry corporate chief.
"RoboCop" is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, a few disturbing images, and language. It's appropriate for teens and up. This film proves that not every 80s hit needs or deserves a remake, though I know that's something Hollywood producers and writers don't believe.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "RoboCop" gets a C.
"The LEGO Movie" is an animated marvel. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") assembled a dream-team voice cast, paired-up with a smart, fresh script, and some of the most incredible CGI wizardry ever put on screen for what might be the best animated film we'll see all year.
Emmet (voiced by "Parks and Recreation"'s Chris Pratt) is an ordinary LEGO, though these characters never actually refer to themselves as LEGOs because they exist in their own universe. He's a construction worker who relies heavily on step-by-step instruction manuals to guide him through the day. Emmet has a bright outlook on every situation, but is also lonely, though he tries hard not to notice.
But all that's about to change. Emmet's hometown, Brickland, and the other LEGO villages are about to be destroyed by President Business/the evil Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell). That is, unless The Special, the ultimate hero, can be found. Emmet accidentally stumbles upon "The Piece of Resistance", which automatically makes him The Special. But soon everyone finds out what Emmet already knows: that he's not special at all.
But he has help: Master Builders, led by powerful wizard Vitruvius (who else but Morgan Freeman), "bad girl" with a heart of gold Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and her boyfriend Batman (yes, Batman), along with several other colorful characters assist Emmet in this monumental, life-and-death task.
Practically everything about "The LEGO Movie" is awesome, a reference to the film's very catchy theme song. The inventive and ingenious multi-purpose animation is stunning from scene one, lending itself perfectly to the fast-paced action. The pacing is frenetic, with things often happening in multiple places within the same shot, yet the film is very easy for all ages to follow.
Lord and Miller outdo themselves with non-stop jokes and classic character cameos. Many are intentionally corny, others clever and hilarious: from Shaq voicing himself to the "Odd Couple" pairing of Superman (Channing Tatum) and Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) to Will Arnett's show-stealing Batman (good luck to Ben Affleck trying to top this performance). Liam Neeson is also excellent as the classic Good Cop/Bad Cop. And there are Star Wars characters, Wonder Woman, historical figures - and everything works. The pieces, both literally and figuratively, all come together.
On one level Lord and Miller have a blast satirizing these characters, pop culture and superhero adventure films. But there's another level to "The LEGO Movie". The core and true emotion of the film comes in the final act with an unexpected turn that provides one of the best surprises and most rewarding endings I've experienced from a movie in quite a while.
"The LEGO Movie" is rated PG for the animated action/violence. It's appropriate for everyone: from young LEGO lovers to fanboys (and girls) to adult action movie fans. This is the first fantastic movie of 2014.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The LEGO Movie" gets an A-.
"The Monuments Men" was originally one of the frontrunners for this year's Academy Awards, with 2-time Oscar winner George Clooney serving as star, director, co-writer and co-producer of the WWII drama. Sony gave it a prime December 18th release date, in hopes of bouncing back from the underwhelming Awards Season play of Clooney's previous directorial effort, the 2011 political thriller "The Ides of March".
However, a few months ago, the studio decided to take the film out of Oscar contention and move it to the crowded, and much-less important month of February. When asked about the change, Clooney said that the special effects needed to be improved. Now, after seeing "The Monuments Men", I've come to several conclusions. First of all, there are hardly any special effects, so that can't be a legitimate reason for the move. Secondly, it's no longer a secret why the astute and serious Daniel Craig dropped out of the project (he was quickly replaced by Clooney's pal Matt Damon).
But above all, the best bet for why Clooney and co. didn't want "The Monuments Men" battling it out during Awards Season is that the film simply isn't very good. And the majority of the blame has to go to Clooney, who fails to craft a suspenseful, dramatic, effective war movie. Along with Clooney and Damon the cast is packed with Hollywood A-listers, including Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey"), Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin ("The Artist"), to tell the true story of how a small group of art historians and museum directors from across the globe became soldiers and went to Europe during the final weeks of WWII to try to prevent thousands of precious art pieces taken by the Nazis from being destroyed. Works of art are not simply things to be admired and enjoyed, but they represent lives and cultures.
This quest to save these priceless pieces of history had the potential to serve as a tense and inspiring film. Yet "The Monuments Men" is the complete opposite. The tone is often light and bubbly, the script dominated by wisecracks, jokes, goofy situations, and an aggressively upbeat and annoyingly loud score by the multi-talented Alexandre Desplat, often at the most inappropriate times. I expected this amazing story to be filled with drama, emotion, and sophistication, especially coming from Clooney. Not until nearly halfway through the movie do we get some nice, individual dramatic scenes, (though they don't mix well with the rest of narrative).
The best of these involve a relationship between Damon's James Granger and a French secretary played by Blanchett, who despises the Nazis and knows much more than she's letting on. These scenes are so good they actually feel as if they belong in another movie. Much like Jennifer Lawrence in "American Hustle", Blanchett's Claire is the key piece to the puzzle. The Oscar winner (and potential winner again for "Blue Jasmine") is excellent.
"The Monuments Men" is rated PG-13 for some brief action/violence, language, and smoking. It's appropriate for teens and up. This is a tame, disjointed, and very disappointing treatment of a fascinating historical event that deserved better.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Monuments Men" gets a C-.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, "Labor Day" is a romantic, suspense drama written and directed by Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"). It's a tricky film to analyze and appreciate because, while it has several strong qualities, there are many critical flaws. Fortunately, the performances and emotional impact outweigh some absolutely ridiculous plot elements.
The story is set in 1987 in a rural, New Hampshire town. Kate Winslet received a Golden Globe nomination for her superb performance as Adele. She's a divorced mother with an adolescent son who's about to enter the 7th grade. Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith) has been taking care of his lonely, depressed mother, who rarely goes out in public, since his father moved out and remarried.
It's Labor Day weekend. On their monthly trip to the supermarket, Henry meets Frank (the always excellent Josh Brolin). He has just jumped out of a window and is seriously injured. He asks Henry and Adele for a ride and a place to rest for a while. But soon Adele and Henry learn that Frank has escaped from a prison hospital (where he was serving time for murder). Frank assures the mother and son that he won't harm them and that there is more to the story of his crime.
Clearly, Adele and Henry picked the wrong day to go grocery shopping. Or did they? As "Labor Day" continues, the long holiday weekend turns into a life-changing 5-days for all three of them - as Adele and Henry and Frank grow closer, each of them so needy for what the other has to offer.
Many may find the relationship twists and surprises in the script to be so unbelievable they're laughable. Two women at the screening I attended couldn't stop laughing throughout most of it. And I'll admit, "Labor Day" is often a little far-fetched: for a guy supposedly hiding from the police Frank is way too noticeable around the yard. And some of his and Adele's motives and a subplot involving Henry and his first romance are a little tough to accept. Reitman needed to tighten-up things up a bit to make the story more reality-based.
However, there's something about the simplicity of "Labor Day" that makes it engaging and effective. There are some intense, shocking, and heartbreaking moments, and in the final act (minus an unnecessary flashforward with narrator Tobey Maguire actually popping-up on screen), "Labor Day" hits so hard, particularly in one flashback sequence, that some parts are difficult to watch.
There are times when the film goes overboard in an attempt to add dramatic tension to an already tense situation, but it still keeps its hold on you. Reitman succeeds in making us care about these multi-layered characters and how this is all going to play out.
"Labor Day" is rated PG-13 for language, brief violence, some adult material, and disturbing situations and images. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Labor Day" gets a B-.
"Ride Along" is the first box office smash of 2014 thanks to the appeal of its two stars: rapper turned actor Ice Cube and comedian Kevin Hart. The two play-off each other nicely in this solid, but not hysterical buddy-cop action comedy.
The all-too-simple premise features Cube as veteran Atlanta PD detective James Payton. His sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) is eager to tie the knot with boyfriend Ben Barber (played by Hart). He's a fast-talking high school security officer, and a top combat video game player, who has just been accepted into the Atlanta Police Academy. James isn't fond of Ben and doesn't think he's worthy of his sister. But Ben wants James' approval in marrying Angela and he desperately wants to become a police officer. So James decides to take Ben on a "ride along" for a day - showing him what it's really like to be a cop, and to scare Ben into giving up his dream.
James thinks Ben will be in completely over his head, and he's right. But then the two become part of an actual crime situation involving a major illegal weapons operation and the undersized Ben gets his chance to stand tall.
The screenplay for "Ride Along" was written by four guys (including two responsible for last year's disastrous, "R.I.P.D.") and it shows. There's no suspense and few surprises. Thankfully, director Tim Story ("Think Like a Man", "Fantastic Four") allows his two leading men to rise above the script - Cube playing it fairly straight while Hart (who's got several other comedies in the works) dominates the screen with his quick, often sarcastic one-liners. These two make a much more grounded and likeable pair than the mismatched Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat" and the too over-the-top Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in "21 Jump Street".
The jokes are very inconsistent (I laughed at, maybe, one out of every 10-15 times attempts - they do come rapid fire), but there are just enough to keep your attention and stay reasonably entertained. The most impressive scenes are the better-than-average, and fairly violent, action sequences. John Leguizamo, Jay Pharaoh ("SNL") and the always great Laurence Fishburne lead the supporting cast.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Ride Along" gets a C+. Chances are we'll be seeing Cube and Hart "ride" again, hopefully with a much stronger story to work with.
It's Alive, and it's Awful. "I, Frankenstein" is the perfect example of a "let's bury it in January" film. From the cheesy visuals, to the lifeless performances, to some of the weirdest action sequences ever put on screen, this truly is a horror movie, as in "horr-ific".
Written and directed by Stuart Beattie (who's contributed on all the "Pirates of the Caribbean" installments, including 2016's "Dead Men Tell No Tales"), "I, Frankenstein" is already a lock for many Worst Movies of 2014 lists - and may contend for #1 on the strength of its title alone. Aaron Eckhart takes-on the iconic monster in this adaptation of a graphic novel. So much for an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.
"I" begins with a "Frankenstein" back-story, not completely true to the Mary Shelley classic: In the 1790s, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a creature out of parts of dead people and brings it to life. He then tries to destroy his creation (after not giving it the partner it desires). But the monster takes revenge by killing Victor's new wife. Victor attempts to find and kill the monster, but freezes to death instead. A group of gargoyles take Frankenstein in, re-naming him (no longer "it") Adam, and some evil demons soon get involved. Yes, believe it or not, the gargoyles are the good guys here.
Some 200 years later (claiming he "lost track of time"), Adam-Stein returns to modern-day England, where a pair of scientists (one blond, one wacky) are trying to duplicate Victor Frankenstein's success in bringing the dead back to life. When their paths cross with Frankie, the demons and the gargoyles get into the act, and literally all Hell breaks loose.
There's not much to praise about "I, Frankenstein", except that it's mercifully short (only 90 minutes). I laughed a little, thanks to the unintentionally corny dialogue and cheap effects. But this movie's not campy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure. And at times it's simply agony watching Eckhart trying to portray the agony of this legendary character. The filmmakers didn't even attempt to make him look like the Frankenstein monster, who's supposedly the combination of body parts from 8 different corpses. We simply get Aaron Eckhart's face and body with a few faint scars painted on him.
Yvonne Strahovski (TV's "Chuck") gives a frighteningly bad performance as Terra, the good scientist, love-interest (and potential "Bride"?) for Adam. And Bill Nighy gets the award for the most blank stares in a single film. I'm sure he had even more when he attended the premiere.
The action scenes are noticeably tame and very low-tech, with plenty of fake flames hiding the stabbings and slicings. This allowed the film to get a PG-13 rating, which the studio must've thought was a good idea, but a more graphically violent version may have been the only thing that could have prevented "I Frankenstein" from dying at the box office, which it undoubtedly will. The end credits feature a decent song, as well as a special thanks for Shelley - talk about turning over in your grave.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "I, Frankenstein" gets a D.
There have been many "secret relationship" movies involving famous people brought to the big and small screen over the years. "The Invisible Woman", directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as legendary author Charles Dickens, is most recent and one of the best in the genre. Fiennes skillfully draws us into this story, making time and place a vital part of this film.
It's the mid-1800s, and Dickens has established himself as England's greatest writer for such works as "Oliver Twist", "Nicholas Nickleby" and "David Copperfield". He's also writing and performing in plays. He invites a colleague (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her three daughters to assist in a small stage production. Dickens quickly grows fond of the youngest girl, 18-year-old Nelly (played by Felicity Jones). She loves Dickens' work and admires him greatly, but knows he is married with eight children. But a relationship begins, which will have a dramatic effect on the lives of everyone involved.
"The Invisible Woman" is told in flashback, with an older Nelly, now a teacher, recounting her time with Dickens while she prepares a group of small children to perform one of his plays. Fiennes makes several smart decisions behind the camera, including not annoying us with any back-and-forth conflicts. He lays the narrative out quite simply - almost too simply. It's not until the final 10 minutes when this becomes more than a "one-note film".
Many themes from Dickens' classic books are weaved into the film, including the loneliness of Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol". Nelly and Charles do come together, but Nelly points out, while looking back on her life, that we are all still haunted by loneliness even around someone we truly love and appreciate. There's also a strong focus on the concept of choices we make and the ability to overcome them later in life.
Fiennes is incredibly natural as Dickens, immersing himself into this character as he does so well with most of his roles. We see all sides of Dickens - kind, mean, generous, selfish. Jones is very good, and Scott Thomas is solid in a largely supporting role. The period costumes (which are nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA) and set design are excellent, accompanied by a lovely score.
"The Invisible Woman" is rated R for language, and brief adult content and nudity. It's appropriate for teens and up and works nicely as an educational element for those studying and/or reading Dickens. While not extraordinary, its enticing story and credible performances make it well worth seeking out.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Invisible Woman" gets a B.
The original Jack Ryan movies, beginning with 1990's "The Hunt for Red October", were both box office and critical successes, and are still considered to be some of the best spy/action films of the past 25 years. Now "Star Trek"'s Chris Pine begins steering the ship of another reboot franchise with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit", which adapts characters from the Tom Clancy universe, but places them in a new, origin story.
"JR:SR" begins on September 11, 2001. Jack is pursuing his doctorate degree in London when the horrific World Trade Center attacks take place. He immediately quits school and joins the military, and eventually ends-up in a rehab facility, where meets physical therapist and future girlfriend Cathy (played by Keira Knightley), and Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), the man who provides Jack with a new career.
The story then fast-forwards another 10-years and Jack is working with Harper in the CIA. Cathy has no idea that Jack is an agent. She, like everyone else, thinks he's a financial analyst working on Wall Street. But she starts to become suspicious. At the same time, Jack gets suspicious of some shady money moves by the Soviet government. He travels to Moscow to meet with Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) and quickly learns that there is a "clear and present danger".
In "JR: SR", there is no B.S. Branagh not only gives a sinisterly raw performance as Viktor but he also directs the film - constantly moving the camera to provide great 360-degree views of the action. At times this results in blurry shots and rough edits, but he's able to pull-off the difficult chase and fight scenes with authenticity.
"Shadow Recruit" locks you in and keeps you intrigued throughout, as the characters and swerves in the script get more and more interesting. Branagh clearly knows that, in this genre, being unpredictable can be too predictable, so there are just enough surprises and layers. The necessary technical set-up is completely covered in the first half of the film - a perfect decision because it allows us to simply sit back and enjoy the action-packed second half without any confusing twists or sub-plots. Pine, Costner, and Knightley all play it rather straight but are very convincing.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is rated PG-13 for the action/violence, including mild torture, and some adult language. It's appropriate for teens and up. This is a crisp, clean, entertaining international spy thriller that doesn't leave you in the shadows. Fear not, Clancy fans. No games here, just some exciting storytelling that would make the late author quite proud.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" gets a B+.
"The Legend of Hercules" is one of the first, and will likely end-up being one of the worst, movies of 2014. A beefed-up Kellan Lutz, who played one of Edward Cullen's vampire brethren in "The Twilight Saga", stars as the title Greek hero. We witness Hercules' rise from birth (with some electrical assistance from his father Zeus) to his position as the powerful leader of armies and prisoner to his sweetheart, Princess Hebe (what a name!)
In short - this film is god-awful. Lutz is the only recognizable actor on screen, and yes, ladies, he does have his shirt off most of the time. But he is absolutely bland in every scene in which he has to talk (though it's not completely his fault - the soap-opera script is written at a bad, junior high school level) and quite unconvincing in the mindless action sequences filled with ridiculous mid-air, slow-motion sword play. Director Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2") even adds a few laughable 3D gimmicks with bad "300"-esque graphics serving as the backdrop. The rest of the cast of no-names contribute zombie-like performances to a story that makes Greek mythology even more dull and boring than it already is (which I didn't think was possible).
"The Legend of Hercules" is, thankfully, only about an hour and a half, and it does get unintentionally funnier as it goes along, which is its only saving grace. There is one stand-out scene featuring a rather bizarre interpretation of a lion. Of course the ferocious beast is cheesy CGI, but the way it moves and attacks is unlike anything ever put on screen in the history of special effects. At first I thought the filmmakers might be paying tribute to the late, great Ray Harryhausen. But I quickly realized that, instead, they simply had no idea what they were doing.
And the closing credits also include something I'd never seen before: Cleaning ladies. Those will be my two take-aways from this complete and utter epic failure.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Legend of Hercules" gets a D-.
I'm looking forward to Dwayne Johnson in Brett Ratner's take on "Hercules" coming out in July. "The Rock"'s got nothing to worry about from this "Legend".
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