It's the return of the classic Monster Movie with another reboot of "Godzilla". This installment begins in 1999, one year after the previous big screen version, which was panned by critics and audiences. Following a few scenes in the Philippines, where fossils of a ginormous, dinosaur-like creature have been discovered, the story moves to Japan, where we meet husband and wife nuclear engineers Joe and Sandra (played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche), who both work at the nearby power plant. They have a young son named Ford. Joe's been tracking unusual signals and disturbances at the plant and on this day, his birthday, a major catastrophe occurs, resulting in numerous deaths (and featuring the most powerful scene in the film).
The story then flashes forward to present day, and Ford (now in his mid-20s and played by "Kick-Ass" star Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning home to San Francisco and his young family following more than a year of military service as a bombs expert. But when he's told that his father has been arrested back in Japan for snooping around the area of the earlier disaster, he heads there and learns that Joe has been spending the past 15 years trying to discover what really caused the accident that destroyed the nuclear plant (the government blamed it on a 6.3-magnitude earthquake as a cover-up).
And soon, the truth becomes clear. The government has secretly been holding a "MUTO'' (massive unidentified terrestrial organism) on the site of the former plant. But they can't hold it for long. And soon a second one arrives. These killer creatures feed on nuclear power - and they're pretty hungry (especially the pregnant one). And once they've gobbled-up all the radioactive waste in Tokyo, it's off to Hawaii. Is there anyone or anything that can stop them? A (possibly) mad scientist (played by Ken Watanabe) thinks Godzilla will save the day. But can you count on the world's most infamous monster to be a hero or will he simply join with the MUTOs and "send us back to the Stone Age", as Cranston's Joe predicts?
Visually, "Godzilla" is sensational. There are numerous destruction scenes of Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Francisco and they're all jaw-droppingly realistic. Godzilla himself has been criticized for being a little "chunky", and his battles with the MUTOs do take a lot out of him. He could probably have lost a few pounds for the shoot. The MUTOs, with their long, thin legs, muscular bodies and lethal jaws, are quite impressive. And the score, by Alexandre Desplat, is bold and retro - perfectly stylized from the classic Hollywood Monster Movies of yesteryear.
But after the initially strong emotional set-up, "Godzilla" loses its punch fairly quickly and is never able to bounce back. Director Gareth Edwards is smart in holding-off Godzilla's first appearance for awhile, but once we witness his first battle with the MUTOs, there's no element of surprise or "wow" factor left for the critical second half. Even though I avoided every trailer, clip and commercial, by the midpoint of the film it was easy to see where it was headed.
Taylor-Johnson is solid, but he can't quite carry the movie on his own. Thankfully he's got a fine supporting team behind him. Cranston gives a heartbreakingly effective performance. Elizabeth Olsen (a prediction - she's an Academy Award-winning star in the making) shines in her few scenes as Ford's wife. And David Strathairn adds some credibility as the tense Navy captain.
"Godzilla" is rated PG-13 for consistent and intense action/violence including some frightening images. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. Sophisticated, but too straightforward, this is a good effort, but not the colossal Summer blockbuster we were all hoping for.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Godzilla" gets a B-.
"Show me the fastball!" The most famous film about the life of a sports agent is 1996's Oscar-winning football dramedy, "Jerry Maguire". The last sports movie to win the Best Picture Oscar was the 2004 Clint Eastwood boxing drama, "Million Dollar Baby". 10 years later, Disney uses 2/3 of that title for their newest "Based on a True Story", feel-good underdog film. "Million Dollar Arm" is centered around baseball and it takes several pages out of the studio's typical sports movie playbook, and even writes a few new ones.
Jon Hamm (nominated for six Emmys for playing Don Draper on "Mad Men") stars as JB Bernstein, a struggling LA sports agent who desperately needs a new client. His sights are set on a NFL star, but that deal falls through. In one of the film's many far-fetched moments, somehow flipping back-and-forth between watching Susan Boyle's audition on "Britain's Got Talent" (the story is set in 2008) and a cricket match on cable TV gives JB the idea to hold a contest in India to try to find two cricket players who can be brought to America and turned into professional baseball pitchers.
"Million Dollar Arm" is a little over 2-hours (it feels even longer), and it takes nearly half that time just to find the two candidates among the thousands who try out all over the country. Rinku ("Life of Pi"'s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) are young athletes (who don't play cricket) who win the contest, leave India and their families behind and head to the USA. They can both throw 85-mile-an-hour fastballs, which is a good start. Once in LA the boys get a coach to teach them baseball basics, and they have only one year to make this experiment work. But they also need to learn about life in America, and JB struggles in his role as a father-figure.
And, of course, there's a full line-up of subplots: Lake Bell ("In a World...") plays a medical student and JB's tenant. These two start a relationship you can see coming from the last row in the bleachers, but it's surprisingly tolerable. Bill Paxton plays real-life USC pitching coach Tom House, who disapproves with the way JB is handling the players. And Alan Arkin is in his usual form as a sarcastic, retired scout. The script strikes-out with most attempts at humor, except in a few scenes involving Arkin.
Practically every scene in "Million Dollar Arm" could've been tightened, which would have made this very formulaic effort much more enjoyable. Instead, we get a slow, deliberate film which mixes corny and sentimental in the worst possible ways. The script attempts to focus on the professional and personal struggles of both JB and the two players. But Hamm gets most of the screen time (he's in practically every scene), so we never become emotionally attached to the young boys and their long-shot opportunity. And Hamm's performance is consistently monotone. Sports agents (and I know a few) are normally energetic and enthusiastic. Bernstein is dull and depressing, even in his rare, upbeat moments. At no point does Hamm command the screen.
The successful aspects of "Million Dollar Arm" include the score by Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" composer A.R. Rahman, which meshes upbeat Indian and American music beautifully. And the cinematography, especially involving the scenes in India, is impressive. The cross-cultural aspect of this story is interesting, but it's underplayed in favor of tired cliches. And diehard sports fans looking for this to be a home run are going to be disappointed, as the "inside world of baseball" is not a major focus.
"Million Dollar Arm" is rated PG for some adult and suggestive dialogue. It's appropriate for kids 10 and up. Even though it's based on real-life events, most people who see this film will not have heard much about the story heading in. The problem is, by spending too much time on the agent and not enough on "the arms", this million dollar deal isn't worth getting excited about.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Million Dollar Arm" gets a C.
"The Wizard of Oz" is considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time - one that simply can't be touched. However, that's exactly what's been done over the past 75 years, with musical spinoffs (such as "The Wiz"), prequels (last year's Disney blockbuster "Oz: The Great and Powerful" and Broadway sensation "Wicked"), and even an IMAX 3D re-release of the 1939 classic this past September.
An animated "sequel" can now be added to this list, the debut of the genre in the Summer '14 season. "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" is the first film distributed by Clarius Entertainment, and the latest from LA/India-based animation co. Prana Studios ("Hoodwinked!", "Planes"). "Legends" is closely based on "Oz" author L. Frank Baum's grandson Roger S. Baum's 1989 book, "Dorothy of Oz". It's certainly far from perfect but is an amusing and whole-hearted effort that's "slightly" somewhere over the rainbow of the average animated film.
One of the strengths of "Legends of Oz" is the star-studded ensemble voice cast. The talented singer and star of "Glee", Lea Michele, uses her vocal abilities as Dorothy Gale on several surprisingly solid musical numbers. It's the day after she's "not in Kansas anymore", and Dorothy and Toto are back home to see for themselves the results of the devastating tornado. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry are being pressured to evacuate their damaged house by a greedy government inspector.
Then Dorothy sees a bright rainbow, which she and Toto soon get sucked-into, and they're taken straight back to Oz. However, even though it's only been a day away for Dorothy, for those in Oz, it's been many years since she defeated The Wicked Witch of the West. Protecting the land from those dastardly flying monkeys, Scarecrow (voiced by Dan Aykroyd), Tin Man (the great Kelsey Grammer) and the far-from cowardly Lion (Jim Belushi) are desperately seeking Dorothy's help in taking down a new enemy, one who's just as evil as The Wicked Witch. In fact, it's her brother - The Jester (voiced by Martin Short), who's the current, mischievous ruler of Oz.
Dorothy travels the Yellow Brick Road with a new group of characters, including a wise old Owl (very similar to the one from the Hundred Acre Wood), a Marshmallow official and the China Princess. They're all on their way to the Emerald City to try to put an end to The Jester's reign of terror, which includes capturing Glinda and the other noble Oz residents and turning them into marionette puppets (a bit of a stretch).
"Legends of Oz" has more than a few Disney-esque qualities, from the songs to the numerous supporting characters and a star female heroine. It's no surprise that co-directors Will Finn and Dan St. Pierre were animators and artists on the Mouse House's classics "Beauty and the Beast", "The Little Mermaid", "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan". You can tell these two simply didn't slap this film together, instead putting a great deal of effort into this project, resulting in many of the film's rewarding qualities.
However, "Legends of Oz" suffers from a below-par script. There's not a lot of excitement, the action sequences are mindless and go on longer than they should, and while Short has the perfect voice for the role, his Jester is a one-note villain given too much screen time.
Thankfully, there are hardly any obvious, predictable references to the original "Oz": no Black and White scenes, Ruby Slippers, or hints of the classic songs. The animation, while not at the level of Pixar, DreamWorks or Sony, is bright and friendly.
"Legends of Oz" is rated PG for some mild violence and is appropriate for kids 7 and up. Younger kids should enjoy the colorful characters and fun situations. For older kids and parents, there are moments that truly work, but not nearly enough for this to qualify as a "film for all ages."
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" gets a C+. It's better than I expected, considering the rookie studio and potential trouble for messing with a classic.
What if the new next-door neighbors made your life a living Hell? That's the better-than-average premise behind Seth Rogen's latest comedy "Neighbors". Unfortunately, even with a decent concept and cast, there aren't nearly enough laughs to qualify this as a neighborhood must-watch.
Rogen and Rose Byrne play Mac and Kelly, a young married couple with an infant daughter named Stella. One day they notice that the house next door has been sold to the worst possible new owners: a fraternity. Delta Si (led by Zac Efron's Teddy and Dave Franco's Pete) promise to "give it the old college try" when it comes to keeping the noise down. But of course, it's a college fraternity, and that means loud and wild parties almost every night.
Mac and Kelly initially try to make friends with their new neighbors in hopes that they'll decide on their own to keep things down, but soon get fed-up with the loud noise, which is keeping them up all night, and decide to call the cops. When Teddy learns from the officer (one of the funnier characters in the film) that it was the nice neighbors who made the complaint, he begins an all-out-prank war on them. Soon, Mac and Kelly realize they must retaliate in order to try to get the fraternity shut-down for good.
Unlike last year's star-studded apocalyptic comedy "This is The End", Rogen is not one of the writers or directors of "Neighbors". Instead, Nicholas Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall") and first-time feature film writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien are behind this very uneven effort.
On one hand, the script does include some clever dialogue, good one-liners and smart situations. But the majority of "Neighbors" misses the mark, mistaking over-the-top, offensive, and vulgar sexual material for humor. That only works if it's funny and here it is not. Based on the plot I expected a lot of slapstick and there is. A few moments do provide big laughs, but the rest of the time it falls flat. No way of knowing if Rogen would've helped or hurt the script had he been part of the creative team (he's shown the ability to do both in the past), but this one definitely needed another re-write or two.
"Neighbors" is rated R for Raunchy: it's filled with crude adult content, as well as language and nudity. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up. This isn't a complete disaster. Rogen and Efron make a decent comedy pairing, particularly in some well-timed ad-libbed moments, and "Friends" alum Lisa Kudrow adds to the fun in a cameo as the college dean. The potential was there for a wacky, edgy summer kick-off comedy.
The poet Robert Frost is credited with the famous saying: "Good fences make good neighbors." This movie could have used more good fences.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Neighbors" gets a C.
The entire world groaned back in 2010 when Sony announced an immediate reboot of the "Spider-Man" saga. 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man", featuring a new cast with a new take on the origin story, was released only five years after "Spider-Man 3". For me this new take was bland and surprisingly boring, saved only by the soaring visuals. For "The Amazing Spider-Man 2", the studio has electrified the look even more and this time provides a well developed and executed story, delivering a sequel that's superior to the original.
The opening 10 minutes of the film are a recap of the backstory we're all very familiar with. But returning director Marc Webb (the guy was literally guaranteed this job on his birth certificate) does give a fresh perspective on what exactly happened to Peter Parker's parents, using one of Hollywood's current popular trends: the outrageous plane crash.
The story immediately jumps to present day. Spidey (Andrew Garfield once again) is swinging through the streets of New York trying to take down a whacked-out criminal with explosives in a stolen truck played by Paul Giamatti. Problem is - he's supposed to be at his High School graduation. And girlfriend Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone in a career-best performance) is about to give her Valedictorian speech. (Yes, I still wish for the sake of realism, because Stone is 25 and Garfield is 30, that they could at least be graduating from college, but the writers really had no choice but to stick to the comics.) Once he shows up, Peter and Gwen's relationship becomes the central focus of the film, as they both question whether or not they should stay together as they begin this new chapter in their lives.
Meantime, two new characters quickly come into play - an OSCORP employee obsessed with Spider-Man who becomes the attention-seeking, highly-charged nightmare Electro (played by Jamie Foxx) and Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who's father, the head of OSCORP, just died. Both will become problems for Peter, as he tries to finally figure-out the mystery of his father, save his relationship with Gwen, and of course, keep NYC safe and sound.
"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a tangled web of love, betrayal, sacrifice, and hope. However, credit goes to the screenwriting team for a script that never gets too complex while being very relatable. Following the opening sequence, there is some early awkwardness, thanks to some goofy Spidey dialogue. But soon the film settles into a nice flow, and we get to experience a Marvel Superhero on a true, emotional edge. The Parker/Spider-Man character cries in at least a half dozen scenes, which has to be more than the superheroes in all other Marvel movies combined.
And it's this unexpectedly strong relationship storyline between Peter and Gwen that makes "TASM2" work so well. Each individual scene has its own unique magic. The natural chemistry between Garfield and Stone is so much better than in the first film. It's as if they're entirely different actors.
Those expecting "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" to be action-packed may be disappointed. But this is clearly as case of quality over quantity when it comes to the action scenes. There may only be a handful, but they are quite impressive. One, the destruction of Times Square by the juiced-up Electro, is incredibly authentic. But it's Webb's decision to have his stunning visual effects supplement the story instead of dominate it that will have fans either cheering or moaning. I cheered.
All three villains work (though Giamatti's "Rhino" is little more than a glorified cameo). And if you're not a diehard fan of the comics there are few surprises.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" gets a B. I can't call it "Amazing", but it's certainly a major improvement from its predecessor and is the latest success in the new line of "non-traditional" action films.
"Brick Mansions" is the penultimate film starring "Fast & Furious" actor Paul Walker, who died tragically in a car accident last November. He plays Damien Collier, an undercover cop in 2018 Detroit, which has officially become the most dangerous city in America. In order to prevent escalating crime, giant walls have been built around a section of the city which once was filled with high-end, high rise apartments but is now populated by drug dealers and other assorted criminals. The area is called Brick Mansions.
For years, Damien has been trying to track down the leader of Brick Mansions, a drug dealer named Tremaine (played by rapper RZA), who he believes killed his father (who was also a cop), during a previous raid on the complex. The bad guys get their hands on a bomb, so the mayor recruits Damien to sneak inside Brick Mansions, disarm the bomb and take out Tremaine once and for all. And he'll have a partner - a former resident of the area named Lino (David Belle). The plot of "Brick Mansions" swerves into typical action movie territory, as Tremaine devises his own plans, which include using the bomb to blow-up all of Detroit.
The execution of "Brick Mansions" can be summed-up in one word: goofy. The script is filled with way too many ridiculous plot elements. And every action scene is either hand-to-hand slow motion, gymnastic fights, fast-paced chase scenes that are too rushed to comprehend, massive gunplay in which no one actually gets shot, or a combination of all three. The first few of these are mildly entertaining, including a chase in which Walker's character hangs-onto the back of a speeding car, but they get very uninteresting soonafter.
The film is also very poorly made. The obvious audio re-dubbing of everyone in the cast except for Walker and RZA is extremely embarrassing. Maybe this is why these two are the only ones who give the semi-believable best performances. This is a remake of a 2004 French film called "Banlieue 13". At times is seems like this film was being dubbed from some other language to English - and badly.
And it's impossible not to cringe when watching Walker involved in numerous high speed car chases. Obviously it's part of the story, but director Camille Delamarre deserves some criticism for leaving one particular scene, in which Walker loses control of the car he's driving and crashes, in the film. Considering the circumstances of the actor's death this was a tasteless decision. It's fortunate that "Brick Mansions" isn't Walker's final film. Expect the people involved with next year's "Fast & Furious 7" to give him a more honorable and memorable send-off.
"Brick Mansions" is rated PG-13, though it is filled with a substantial amount of violence and adult language (including the N-word). It's not as bad as "Pain & Gain", which came-out this time last year, the week before the start of the Summer Movie Season. But it's not worth wasting your money on when there are so many big films in its way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Brick Mansions" gets a C-.
Disneynature has had much success with their annual Earth Day documentaries. "Earth", "Oceans", "African Cats", and "Chimpanzee" each had memorable stories with beautiful photography. Last year the studio took an unexpected hiatus, but is back with one of its better G-rated nature docs, "Bears".
Narrated by John C. Reilly, who also voiced the title character in Disney's 2012 animated "Wreck-It Ralph", "Bears" tells the story of the first year of a mother Alaskan Brown Bear named Sky and her newborn cubs, Scout and Amber. As they journey from the snowy mountains, following hibernation, to the beaches, grasslands, and rivers looking for food, Sky must protect her cubs from deadly predators (including rival bears) and make sure they have enough stored up in their bodies to survive the next winter. Along the way Sky teaches Scout and Amber how to interact in the wild and shows them just how tough a mother she can be.
The Disneynature filmmakers are top-notch when it comes to capturing the authentic footage. The gorgeous scenery and tight shots of the animals and their movements are always impressive, even more so than ever during "Bears." The end credits once again include a fascinating "Making of" montage. An entire documentary on what it takes to make these films would be a must-see.
"Bears" is under 80 minutes, but it moves along at a nice pace. We quickly become attached to Sky and her cubs, and since none of the animals' actions are scripted, it's pretty amazing to witness how this saga plays out.
Reilly has a strong, genuine voice, and he's able to balance his inflections: reserved in the dramatic moments and playful in the lighter scenes. At times the dialogue is a little goofy but the film has an overall positive tone (with a traditional, upbeat Disney score) that makes it appealing to both kids and adults.
"Bears" is rated G. There is some aninal on animal violence, scenes of peril and a little blood, but it's suitable for kids 6 and up. This is a solid, engaging nature documentary that celebrates this wonderful, loveable species.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Bears" gets a B.
Next year, Disneynature returns with "Monkey Kingdom". And based on the teaser trailer shown prior to "Bears", these primates will be joined by a few other animal friends as well.
After last Summer's "The Lone Ranger", I thought Johnny Depp couldn't hit a new low in his career. But that was before I experienced "Transcendence". This sci-fi romantic thriller immediately shoots right to the bottom of Depp's long resume.
Depp plays scientist Will Caster, the technology wizard behind the theory of Transcendence - the state of ultimate Artificial Intelligence. His wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is a strong supporter of his work. Following a speech at a prestigious conference, Will is shot by a member of a radical anti-technology group, one of a series of attacks that take place all over the country, specifically targeting AI research.
It is soon revealed that the bullet contained a deadly poison, which means Will only has a month or so to live. He decides that he's not going to continue his research, and spend his final days with Evelyn. However, she comes-up with a wacky plan to save Will - or at least his mind - by uploading his brain to a series of computers. A recent experiment on a chimp using the same procedure worked like a charm. But monkeying around like this on a human could only lead to trouble. Will (his body) dies, but he is reborn inside these machines, and is able to see and talk with Evelyn and his former partner Max (played by Paul Bettany). But soon Will needs more power and data to feed his growing appetite as a super computer. And that's just the beginning of the problems.
Evelyn and Will set-up a secret headquarters in a small town where he can grow and continue his work. But the anti-tech group finds-out what's going-on, and sets out to destroy them, along with the FBI and former colleague and friend Joseph Tagger (played by Morgan Freeman).
"Transcendence" is likely one of the easiest films Depp's ever made, since he spends most of the film standing and talking to the camera. And it's also one of the worst. In one scene, a character secretly hands another character a note that reads "Run from this place". At that point in the film I wanted to do the same exact thing. This is one of the dullest 2-hour movie experiences I've endured in a long time. The basic premise is uninteresting, and nothing happens along the way to put a charge into the flat-lined script. The age-old sci-fi dilemma: "Should it be shut down or not?" is incredibly predictable.
No suspense, no surprises, no excitement, and no attempts at humor (outside of the overall cheesiness). Even the visual effects are bland. And "Transcendence" is an early frontrunner for Worst Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. All the techno noises must've driven the editors crazy (my mind was on the verge of exploding). The multiple shots of Freeman (who basically plays the same character in every movie, but we still love him because he's Morgan Freeman) wearing a jungle hat and dark sunglasses, lowering his binoculars down while his jaw drops to the floor, are priceless.
"Transcendence" is rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action/violence (it's brief) and language. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. I tried to stay with this film as long as I possibly could, but eventually I had to pull the plug. When Freeman states that mankind wasn't ready for this (referring to the technology), I interpreted it as him talking about the movie, and I couldn't agree more.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Transcendence" gets a D.
"Heaven is for Real" is based on the best-selling book of a boy's near-death, life-changing experience. Director Randall Wallace follows-up his 2010 horse-racing drama, "Secretariat", with another inspiring true story.
Greg Kinnear is excellent as Todd Burpo, a loving husband to wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly from "Flight") and father to daughter Cassie and fun-loving four-year-old son Colton (played by first-time actor Connor Corum). Todd works several jobs in order to support his family, but is primarily a minister for a small-town Nebraska parish.
A few days after Todd is forced to deal with a few painful medical issues, Colton, out of the blue, comes down with a dangerously high temperature. Todd and Sonja take him to the local medical center, where he is forced to undergo emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. The doctors don't think Colton is going to survive the operation, but he miraculously does.
Soon, Colton begins to reveal to Todd that during the procedure, he went to Heaven, where he met Jesus, among others, and discovered just how beautiful Heaven is. Todd now must struggle to determine if and how he can believe what his son is telling him, whether these experiences actually happened. All the while Colton continues to amaze Todd and others with revelations about his incredible journey.
"Heaven is for Real" does take a little while to get going. The first half-hour is upbeat, setting a positive tone for how Colton sees his life. When the near-tragedy strikes, the film shifts focus to balance serious themes and spiritual messages. But the execution is handled so well that the story never gets preachy and will likely bring many to tears by the end.
There are hardly any moments in "Heaven is for Real" that come-off as cheesy or forced. Wallace does include a few scenes of Colton's description of Heaven. Thankfully, the media aspect takes a back-seat to the more crucial problems of the family - both financial and spiritual. And all the performances are quite believable. Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale shine as parishioners who are having an uneasy time accepting Todd's stance on Colton's beliefs.
"Heaven is for Real" is rated PG for language and some heavy material. It's suitable for kids 10 and up. Whether or not you believe that Heaven exists, it's impossible to overlook the emotional impact this film provides. It's powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly moving.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Heaven is for Real" gets a B+.
Kevin Costner has a long history with sports movies. He made "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" back-to-back in the late 80s, took a swing at golf with "Tin Cup" in the mid-90s, and returned to baseball "For the Love of the Game" at the end of that decade. 2014 marks Costner's return to the sports drama genre. He'll play a track coach in "McFarland" (out Nov. 21). And currently, as Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver, Jr., Costner takes part in the most outrageous "Draft Day" in NFL history.
Diehard football fans are likely going to blast "Draft Day" for its mostly unrealistic interpretation of the Draft Day process. There are several situations over the course of the film that would never happen in real life. These include last minute revelations about players that would've been discovered months before and the incredible chaos on the actual day, including the wheeling and dealing of draft picks.
However, as someone who's not obsessed with this annual NFL event, the lack of authenticity didn't bother me. "Draft Day" isn't a touchdown by any means (and nowhere close to the level of "Field of Dreams", which other critics have suggested), but it works as a relationship drama with some effective twists, solid performances, and sprinkles of humor.
Costner's Sonny Weaver, Jr. is beginning his third year as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, who are coming-off yet another losing season. When we first meet Sonny, he's not exactly having the greatest draft day of his life. His father, a legendary coach of the Browns for years, has recently died. The Browns' owner (Frank Langella) is pressuring Sonny to "make a splash" with their 1st pick in the draft day (#7 overall) or he'll likely be fired. And team attorney Ali (played by Jennifer Garner) has just told him they're expecting a child.
So Sonny tries to change his luck by swinging a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for the #1 overall Draft Pick. All the analysts, and the Browns' outspoken head coach (Denis Leary) think it's now obvious that they'll take the top prospect to come out of college ball, Heisman Trophy-winning QB Bo Calahan. But Sonny's not completely convinced. There are other possible choices, or maybe another trade or two. And the clock is ticking.
"Draft Day" starts-out very slow and doesn't pick-up momentum until about a half-hour in. Director Ivan Reitman (coming-up on 30 years since "Ghostbusters") showcases strategy scenes (both in person and over the phone) in an effort to pull-in the diehard football fans. He also uses NFL graphics, logos and actual locations, along with commentary from real-life NFL TV analysts, to explain the basics of the draft to those who aren't as knowledgeable of the process. One oddity that Reitman uses is a split-screen graphic in which characters over-lap each other, walking into the others' half of the screen. It's as bizarre and distracting as it sounds.
However, and this is rarely the case, it's the subplots of "Draft Day" that make the movie a success. 81-year-old Ellen Burstyn is very good in a small role as Sonny's mother, grieving over the loss of her husband. Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in "42") stands-out as a hot-shot potential draft pick. And the scenes between Costner and Garner, who are struggling to figure-out where to take their relationship, work as well.
"Draft Day" is rated PG-13 for some brief strong language. There are moments when this film scores with its "inside football" look and feel, while other times it fumbles badly. And it's much tamer in tone than it could have been (a somewhat watered-down, football version of "Moneyball"). But overall, it's entertaining, honest, and quite likeable within its "What if" premise.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Draft Day" gets a B-.
"Rio 2" is the sequel to 2011's animated musical hit from Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the "Ice Age" series. "Rio" had a very average story, eye-popping, candy-colored characters and over-the-top musical numbers. The same can be said for this sequel, which is unfortunately unlikable.
Blu and Jewel (again voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway) now have three young, energetic kids (who thankfully aren't the main focus). The family still believes they're the last Blue Macaws on the planet, until they learn that their wacky scientist owners ventured to the Amazon and found proof that other members of their species exist. So the family of five decides to journey from Rio de Janeiro to the rainforest to see these other Blue Macaws for themselves. It turns out that hundreds exist, led by Jewel's own tough father (Andy Garcia).
The plot expands to include the supporting trio of Nico, Pedro, and Rafael (Jamie Foxx, will.i.am., and George Lopez) looking for talent for an upcoming festival, Jewel's own showy childhood friend Roberto (pop singer Bruno Mars), old nemesis Nigel and his new companion venomous frog (Jemaine Clement and Kristen Chenoweth), and the forced environmental issues.
"Rio 2" is as typical as a trip to the pet store: this film goes in way too many directions searching for just the right story, tone, feel - and ultimately finds the perfect match, but only for five and six-year-olds. Anyone older than that will likely be bored. The jokes and situations aren't clever (the GPS gag gets old fast), and coming off of Disney's animated phenomenon "Frozen", the musical numbers are rather goofy (and there are way too many of them).
On the positive side, the voice cast works (though it's a little too star-studded for my liking) and the animation is simply gorgeous. If only the story was stronger. Blue Sky hasn't shown the ability to deliver great storytelling since 2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs". Maybe next year's eagerly anticipated "Peanuts" will change this streak.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Rio 2" gets a C.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has raised the bar yet again with the return of The Star Spangled Man with a Plan. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the sequel to 2011's highly entertaining "The First Avenger". In that film we were introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) who was asked to serve his country during WWII in a unique way - by becoming a beefed-up symbol for the people, and eventually a crime-fighting hero.
In 2012's "The Avengers" Rogers teamed-up with the other established Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury to defeat Thor's evil brother Loki. Thankfully in "CA2" there is no sign of Asgard.
Nick (the always great Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) join forces with Rogers once again, this time in an effort to combat the reemergence of the evil forces of HYDRA, whose secret weapon is the infamous "Winter Soldier", a trained killer with a metal arm. His identity is hidden by a mask, though, in one of the movie's many revelations, we do get to learn who he actually is.
But the trio of Avengers are not alone. Anthony Mackie ("The Hurt Locker") fits-in seamlessly as a modern-day war veteran who joins the good guys as The Falcon. He's involved in several aerial sequences that are impressively staged and shot. Also new to the series is Alexander Pierce (Oscar winner Robert Redford), who represents S.H.I.E.L.D. in the World Council.
That's all you need and want to know about "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" going in. Any more details would give away too much of the complex and sophisticated plot, which includes more twists than any Marvel Studios installment to date. This is not your typical "superhero" movie, but an action-packed political thriller, with a serious tone that elevates it to a level way above most of the efforts in this series, putting last year's mediocre "Thor: The Dark World" to shame.
And yet, "The Winter Soldier" is also a whole lot of fun. The action scenes, which range from nicely choreographed hand-to-hand combat to all-out gun battles, are long but rewarding. There are a few bits of humor sprinkled-in, many Marvel references, and one of the better Stan Lee cameos. Evans and Johansson have an authentic chemistry, and Redford, at 77, still has a commanding screen presence, even in this supporting role (and it's good to see him back on dry land).
The most impressive triumph of "The Winter Soldier" is the use of the score, montages, and unexpected flashbacks to capture our emotions, and make us care about these characters like never before. Kudos to the directors - brothers Anthony and Joe Russo - for making the Captain America universe Marvel's most human and believable. There are some pacing issues, with periods of extended dialogue leading up to an explosive, 10-minute action scene. But that's a minor complaint for what is an exciting and extremely impressive film.
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence and some language. It's appropriate for teens and up. As always, stick through the credits for a few teasers of other Marvel films coming-up, including next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron". But before looking ahead, take the opportunity to enjoy the smartest Marvel movie yet, and one of 2014's standouts.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" gets an A-.
The biblical epic, "Noah", has been generating a lot of controversy from Christian groups angry with the film's interpretation of the classic story. Yes, much of this latest big-screen adaptation is new material, highly dramatized, and a little far-fetched. Even so, "Noah" is flooded with rich performances from a star-studded cast, impressive visuals, and an emotional core that truly works.
Russell Crowe is excellent as the title character. As the classic story goes Noah receives messages from God in a dream and is told to build an ark and fill it with his family and two of all the creatures on Earth. This is so they can be the only survivors of an impending, catastrophic flood that will wash the lands clean of all wickedness. However, the script (co-written by Ari Handel and director Darren Aronofsky, whose 2010 "Black Swan" earned him an Oscar nomination) presents new chapters in this familiar saga, including presenting Noah as a tortured hero - his character taking some very interesting turns that force his wife and children (and us) to question him, as he is questioning The Creator.
Jennifer Connelly delivers a subtly powerful performance as Noah's wife, the heart and soul of what is potentially the last family unit on Earth. Emma Watson is outstanding in a pivotal and showcase role as the adopted daughter, who was taken in by Noah when she was very young, after her family was killed by the evil clan of non-believers. They're led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone in a way too typical Hollywood, over-the-top role). Logan Lerman (Watson's co-star in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") is solid as one of Noah's three sons, who wanders a little close to the dark side. And if that's not enough, the great Anthony Hopkins is spot-on as Noah's grandfather, the wise Methuselah, whose close relationship with God comes in handy.
"Noah" is 2 hours and 20 minutes, but it doesn't feel like 40 days and 40 nights. There are a few spots where things drag a bit, but Aronofsky's distinctive vision both with the story (divided almost evenly between action on land and in the sea), and the overall look (which includes a fantastic "Creation Story" sequence that may also spark some controversy) keeps you locked in throughout. His ability to build tension and suspense into a story we've all known since we were 6 years old is a remarkable achievement.
"Noah" is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence and disturbing images. It's appropriate for teens and up. While it's clearly not a word-for-word retelling of Genesis 6:1 - 9:17, "Noah" is a sophisticated and effective family drama that's absolutely worth seeing.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Noah" gets a B.
"Divergent" is the latest best-selling book-series film adaptation specifically designed for tween and teen girls starring a female heroine out to save her family and community. Clearly the idea is to duplicate the incredible successes of "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight" franchises, but make no mistake, "Divergent" isn't remotely as entertaining as any of the films in those series. What is it? Very long and not very good.
In a post-apocalyptic world with Chicago as the only city that remains (this is probably the only element of "Divergent" that late film critic Roger Ebert would have appreciated), Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) must decide what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She, and all the other young adults, get to choose among five different jobs - or factions (think "districts" in "Hunger Games"-language), with everyone divided into neighborhoods based on personality traits. Beatrice goes against her family and chooses to join the Dauntless group - these are the fighters, the police force for the community, who guard the very large wall that surrounds the city which will likely be explored further in the next installment.
But everyone also undergoes an aptitude test, which is supposed to tell you which group to pick. The test reveals that Tris (the name she adopts when she joins the cool faction) is "divergent", meaning she's a combination of multiple factions. Tris can't tell anyone her true identity because divergents "threaten the system". If city leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) or any of her henchmen find a "divergent" (there seem to be a lot of them around even though we're told they are rare), he or she is killed on the spot.
So, for a painfully drawn-out 2 hours and 20 minutes, we watch as Tris goes through endless training sessions, numerous dream sequences that rival the amount in "Inception", and from thoughtful teenager to violent killing machine.
With one of the longest set-ups of any film ever put on screen (I timed it out at an hour and a half) "Divergent" takes forever to get going. And throughout this time I keep thinking: "OK - now what?" Every 20 minutes or so something somewhat interesting takes place, and then we get another training scene. The script lacks any imagination or surprises, and attempting to make sense of all the ridiculous details in the lifeless plot would be wasting your time and mine.
Woodley, who deserved an Oscar nomination for her supporting work opposite George Clooney in 2011's "The Descendants", does her best in a tough spot. She's in practically every scene, but only has a few showcase moments, so I don't see award nominations for this role, though this creation by director Neil Burger could be a popular choice come Razzie time.
In Burger's previous film, 2011's "Limitless", Bradley Cooper took a lot of pills. Here, Woodley takes a lot of needle injections to the neck. The director also pays an unintentionally corny homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" during a few of Tris' nightmare sequences. It was tough not to burst out laughing several times during "Divergent", and I got the feeling Winslet was very close to doing the same during her over-the-top evil villain scenes.
For being PG-13, the level of violence in "Divergent" is pretty high, though it's not as graphic as the first "Hunger Games". I can't imagine how fans of the book can possibly stay entertained for the duration. As for everyone else, I borrow a line from the famous poet Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." If either of those roads is taking you to a theater showing "Divergent", turn around and go the other way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Divergent" gets a D+.
It's time to raise the curtain and light the lights again, as the beloved Muppets have returned to the big screen in a new adventure. Frankly, I was surprised Disney announced a sequel almost immediately after the release of the 2011 reboot (simply titled "The Muppets") since it didn't cross the $100 million mark at the US box office. And judging by the opening musical number of "Muppets Most Wanted", I think Kermit & Co. had the same reaction. The hysterical song, called "We're Doing a Sequel", satirizes Hollywood's obsession with second installments, even though as Kermit and Fozzie say, "everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good." Other lines in this gem include: "While they wait for Tom Hanks to make 'Toy Story 4", and "Well, this is actually our seventh sequel", which, in reality, is the truth.
Well, I hate to disagree with Kermit and Fozzie, but "Muppets Most Wanted" isn't worse than their previous film. In fact, it's even funnier. I haven't laughed-out-loud so much during a movie in quite a while. In a cinematic world dominated by CGI, explosions and raunchy humor and yes, disappointing sequels, "MMW" remains true to the Muppets' unique and genuine form, thanks to a smart, not overly complex script, loaded with smart, and above all, funny material that will appeal to both adults and kids.
British comedian Ricky Gervais receives top-billing as Dominic Badguy (which, according to him, is pronounced Bad-gee). He tells The Muppets he's a talent manager who offers to take them on a World Tour. Kermit is hesitant to the idea, but everyone else instantly agrees and latches-on to Dominic.
Walter, who was introduced in "The Muppets" as Jason Segel's adopted brother, is also a bit skeptical, but he and the rest of the clan have no idea what's coming. It turns out that Dominic is the second most wanted criminal in the world and he's working for '#1' - the world's most dangerous criminal mastermind, a frog named Constantine, who's just escaped from a Siberian prison.
Constantine also looks very much like Kermit except for the evil frog's mole. As part of their evil plan, Constantine switches places with Kermit (giving him a fake mole) and Kermit is captured and taken to prison. And Constantine covers up his mole, posing as Kermit as The Muppets continue the tour. The badguys' goal: to break into famous museums in these cities around the world while The Muppets are performing, with ultimately pulling-off the greatest jewel heist of all time.
Meanwhile, prison security boss Nadya (played by Tina Fey) refuses to free Kermit, even though she knows he's innocent. And Sam the Eagle and Interpol officer Jean Pierre ("Modern Family"'s Ty Burrell) are trying to piece together clues to solve the case but are having a hard time working together as partners.
If you're not familiar with the style of The Muppets, you've got to know one thing going in: it's all tongue-and-cheek - from the plot, to the dialogue, to the over-the-top goofy performances and musical numbers. Everything works because this is what The Muppets have been doing for over 50 years, and why fans continue to appreciate their style of humor.
"Muppets Most Wanted" delivers exactly what you're hoping for, but also expands this universe with a few surprises, including the use of more Muppet feet than ever before. And while The Muppets have worked with real-life celebrities from the start of their TV series days, the number of A-list cameos in "MMW" breaks the bank. They include Danny Trejo and Ray Liotta as two of Kermit's fellow prison inmates, Frank Langella, who delivers one of the film's best lines as the priest at Constantine and Miss Piggy's wedding (Wait - What?!), and one of the most famous divas in the world, who joins Miss Piggy for a memorable duet.
Often films in which popular character teams are separated suffer from a lack of the spark that made the teams great. But here director James Bobin does a nice job of keeping the energy level high with both storylines - the evil Kermit trying to make believe he's the real Kermit and the real Kermit dealing with life behind bars without his friends. Gervais, Fey, and particularly Burrell all play to their comedic strengths and interact seamlessly with their felt and foam co-stars. They ham it up, but never try to steal the show away from Kermit and the gang.
"Muppets Most Wanted" doesn't pack as much of an emotional punch as "The Muppets" (the song "Pictures in My Head" nearly brought me to tears), but it does have plenty of heart. It's rated PG for some brief violence and rude humor. Anyone older than seven, whether already a Muppets fan or not, should absolutely enjoy watching these entertainment icons in top form.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Muppets Most Wanted" gets a B+.
Before "MMW" is a brand-new Pixar "Monsters University" short - "Party Central". Mike and Sulley attempt to turn a dull fraternity party into the campus event of the year. It's clever and consistently funny, something I couldn't say last year about the movie. Since this is all we're getting from Pixar this year (unfortunately no feature-length film), it's well-worth making sure you get to the theater in time to catch it.
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