Along with dozens of others, I was inspired to become a film critic by Roger Ebert. One day, back in 2005, I saw an episode of "Ebert and Roeper" and was amazed that someone could actually give their straight-forward and honest opinions about movies on a TV show. Almost instantly, I knew that was what I wanted to do. And I was fortunate to spend a few memorable days with him and his incredibly loving wife Chaz in Chicago back in 2011, taking part in the revival of "Ebert Presents: At the Movies" on PBS that summer.
After a half-century career of sharing not only his extraordinary movie reviews but views on everything from politics to rice cooking, Roger passed away last year at the age of 70 following a series of courageous bouts with cancer. "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James had planned on making a documentary about Roger, based on his 2011 memoir "Life Itself". It was to be a year in the life, not simply focusing on his health issues, but showcasing Ebert attending film festivals, screenings, and other events: still doing what he loved, while continuing to beat the odds. But, since Roger died five months into filming, the movie James has made is not that. Instead, it is a raw, funny, heartbreaking and daring look at the life, and death, of one of the most influential and beloved people in the history of American culture.
"Life Itself" begins on the streets of Chicago one week after Roger's death, with thousands gathered in and outside of the famous Chicago Theatre, preparing to pay tribute to Roger at a ceremony that evening. This sets the tone perfectly, as the film itself is an homage to Ebert and the importance he played in the lives of so many. We get the "growing-up" stories (complete with B&W photos), along with dialogue mostly from a narrator reading excerpts from the book. There are also fascinating stories, some told for the first time, from longtime friends, producers of the TV shows, directors (including a very candid Martin Scorsese), fellow critics, family members and those truly influenced by Ebert.
We also learn how Roger's love of movies began, his serious drinking problem, a venture into screenwriting, and that iconic love-hate relationship with "Sneak Previews" co-host Gene Siskel. For me, this is the best part of the film. Learning about the early days of their groundbreaking show, as well as the outrageous stories and hilarious "behind-the-scenes" footage of these two arch-rivals who, eventually, became great friends, is utterly fascinating. An entire documentary on the dynamic "Siskel & Ebert" partnership, complete with all the best clips and outtakes, needs to be made.
But just as prominent and powerful are the scenes of Roger's final months: family visits, his daily medical procedures and rehab activities. Some of these are difficult to watch, and while Chaz didn't initially approve of having them in the movie, Roger made a deal with James to use them, and she now realizes that they make the movie even stronger. The true heart of "Life Itself" is the bond between Roger and Chaz. They found each other relatively late in life and loved each other until the very end. Chaz makes it clear that she never gave-up on Roger because he was such a fighter. Her thoughts are the most honest and revealing in the entire film.
"Life Itself" is rated R for language and some brief movie clips containing nudity. It's a must-see for anyone impacted by Roger Ebert in any way, and that adds-up to millions and millions of people. Credit James for perfectly blending past and present, laughter and tears, the best of times and the worst of times in this wonderful tribute to a man whose life was more than worthy of Two Thumbs Up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Life Itself" gets an A.
Director Richard Linklater's films, including "The School of Rock", "Bernie", "A Scanner Darkly" and the "Before" trilogy, have satisfied audiences with their attention to authentic human situations and emotional truths. His latest, "Boyhood", is an ambitious project shot over 12 years (with a budget of $2.4 million, or just $200,000/year), with the same narrative and set of actors from start to finish. This technique allows us to literally watch the characters, specifically the title character Mason, grow-up on screen. Linklater deserves a tremendous amount of credit for being able to pull-off "Boyhood". Planning-out and completing a project such as this is a monumental accomplishment. Unfortunately, this is a case of the filmmaking being stronger than the actual film. With more than a decade of time devoted to and invested in this story, sadly "Boyhood" doesn't have much to say.
At just under three hours, Linklater freely takes his time. We are introduced to Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) when he's in First Grade. His sister Samantha (Linklater's real-life daughter Lorelei), is a few years older. Their mother ("Medium" star Patricia Arquette) is divorced from husband Mason Sr. (Linklater favorite Ethan Hawke). The children love both of their parents, and struggle with splitting their time between the two. Over the next dozen years, we watch as Mason goes through a series of life changes: moving to different cities, new schools, new friends, changing interests and eventually romantic relationships of his own. He gets new step-parents and siblings, but his real mother and father stay in his life, as they deal with their own struggles and changes.
Linklater, smartly, doesn't use on-screen words as story transitions from one year to the next. Instead, we're made aware of the passing of time through Mason's ever-changing height and hairstyles. The director also includes scenes involving the video-game loving Mason using the different, evolving devices of each year - from 20Q to the XBOX and PlayStation to the Wii and finally a modern cell phone with video chat capability. There's a moment (filmed several years ago) with Mason and his dad talking about how there will never be another "Star Wars" movie. This is one of the funnier moments in the film and adds realism to the idea of the unpredictability of life.
Coltrane is very effective at all his stages and it's impossible not to grow to care for Mason and wonder what's to come, though too much time is spent on his high school years. Hawke is quite good as a father who simply wants what's best for his kids, while Arquette's performance ranges from subtly effective to over-the-top and forced. A few of her scenes, early on and one in particular towards the end of the film, come-off as choppy and not believable.
My main problem with "Boyhood" is that Linklater doesn't provide anything new or groundbreaking to the experience of a young boy growing-up and going out on his own. Themes of a young person maturing while dealing with unbalanced families, relationship struggles, and facing the realities of life have all been tackled in movies again and again. "Boyhood" doesn't add anything new or profound to the conversation. Because of this I was never able to become completely invested in the story. There's a very scattered arc and not nearly enough opportunities for authentic drama or surprises. The few attempts at being profound are saved to the final twenty minutes or so, instead of sprinkled throughout, which also doesn't work.
"Boyhood" is rated R for language, brief violence, adult references, and teen drinking/drug use. This movie could be called "12 Years A Boy", and the technique (some might say "gimmick") is executed perfectly. But, because of an underwhelming story without enough bite, this is a journey that, in the end, doesn't go anywhere.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Boyhood" gets a C+.
Watching "Earth to Echo" is easily one of the most miserable experiences I've had at a movie theater in some time. Obvious comparisons have been made for months, since the original, overly-dramatic trailer was released, to 1982's all-time classic "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial". After seeing "Echo" (or as I call it, "E.T.E."), mentioning this in the same sentence as Spielberg's magical masterpiece is an unforgivable insult.
The ridiculous plot revolves around three stereotypical tween boys living in Nevada. Their families are being forced out of their homes due to the planned construction of a new freeway. After their cell phones go haywire, making weird noises and displaying pop-up maps, they decide to go on an adventure into the desert to try to track down the source of the strange communications. What they discover is a tiny owl-like, alien robot, who they quickly name Echo (it can't communicate other than some beeping noises). Echo needs their help. The boys recruit a girl from school to join their group and, together, they try to keep their new friend from being captured by some suspicious adults.
In other words, as the protagonist foster child, Alex, puts it: "He just wants to go home." Apparently he didn't have a phone.
"Earth to Echo" is incredibly corny, with phony dialogue, impractical situations and unrealistic scenes. In one, a 12-year-old attempting to drive for the very first time, goes from hitting garbage cans to cruising along the highway, in 0-60 seconds. Are you kidding me?! Each performance is worse than the next, with wild emotions which are completely out of whack. I've never, personally, discovered an alien owl but, trust me, real kids don't talk or act like this.
But the worst part of this movie, by far, is the use of the handheld camera technique. One of the kids, Tuck, "allegedly" films every part of their adventure with his handheld video camera. It's "Paranormal Activity" meets "Super 8". Not only is this extremely annoying, but the filmmakers didn't even stay true to their concept. There are several scenes in which we see all four characters, from the camera's point of view, but none of them are holding it. I had such an uncomfortable time watching so many extreme close-up scenes that I forced myself to keep my eyes shut while my head was pounding. My favorite line in the movie, "I need an Advil" (delivered by Munch), perfectly sums-up the experience.
Chances are this film was shopped around to all six major studios, including Disney, before ending-up in Relativity's hands. It's easy to see why. And it could have worked with some changes. For example, why not actually involve Echo in the story? Compared to the four kids, the floating creature is hardly in the movie at all. And it doesn't talk, which is likely why young kids expecting a fun, exciting ride will be put to sleep (one in front of me had to be awakened by family members at the end). I really wonder what Echo would've had to say about this journey if given the chance.
"Earth to Echo" is rated PG for some mild action, peril and brief partying. If there's an appropriate are range it's kids 8-11. There's a real lack of true family films this summer. The upcoming releases "Planes: Fire & Rescue" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" both seem like a safe bet. Meantime, the closing credits of "Echo" feature the OneRepublic song "Counting Stars". And their lyrics say it all for anyone who invests in a ticket to this lock for my Worst of the Year list: "Take that money - Watch it burn".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Earth to Echo" gets an F.
Melissa McCarthy received a surprise Oscar nomination for her over-the-top comedic performance in 2011's "Bridesmaids". Since then, her status as one of Hollywood's top funny ladies has been taken quite seriously, with roles in hits such as "Identity Thief" and "The Heat", as well as her starring role on the CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly".
With her latest comedy, "Tammy", McCarthy enlisted real-life husband Ben Falcone to assist her in writing the script, as well as direct the film. The results are a slightly better film than last year's "The Heat". But "Tammy" is still underwhelming, as it often strives for comedy gold, but never quite gets there.
Promoting "Tammy" on talk shows, McCarthy has described her title character as someone who rarely thinks before she speaks or acts - very similar to characters she plays in most of her movies: bold, loud, crude independent women. And you do root for Tammy to figure out the next chapter of her life after she gets fired from her job at Fast Food restaurant, Topper Jack's, and then returns home and discovers her husband is having an affair.
Tammy decides to take a road-trip to Niagara Falls with her wacky grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon (who knows a thing or two about car rides, thanks to 1991's "Thelma & Louise"). But along the way, these two stumble across a few small towns and get themselves into some unpredictable situations.
You'd expect, with McCarthy and Sarandon's comedic talents, that scenes such as a jet-ski accident, a jail stint, and robbing another Topper Jack's would be laugh-out-loud funny, but they simply fall flat. McCarthy does her best to create a genuinely likeable character, and the potential was there. But the screenplay simply doesn't provide the pair with enough clever material. Having someone other than McCarthy and Falcone in charge of this production likely would have helped. It's tough to overrule the writer and director for the sake of the film when you and your husband are the writers and he's the director. And Sarandon, who in real life could actually play McCarthy's mother, not grandmother, only gets a few shining moments.
The star-studded supporting cast of mostly respected actors in bit roles includes Kathy Bates, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh ("Grey's Anatomy"), Gary Cole, Nat Faxon ("The Way, Way Back") and Dan Aykroyd and Allison Janney as Tammy's parents. It feels as if they all likely wanted to be part of the film to work with McCarthy, but there's no depth in any of the characters. Mark Duplass ("Your Sister's Sister") does put an authentic spin on the typical "I can look past your faults" character as Tammy's new love interest.
"Tammy" is rated R for consistent bad language and some adult references and is appropriate for teens and up. It isn't a complete failure, but fans of McCarthy deserve much better.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Tammy" gets a disappointing C.
Director Michael Bay, best known for his big-budget explosion extravaganzas, and more recently, for storming-off a convention stage because his teleprompter wasn't working, is rebooting his most famous franchise. "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is the fourth installment in the Hasbro toy robot series, though this title would have been more appropriate to describe the series after 2009's incredibly disappointing "Revenge of the Fallen". As it turns out, "Extinction" is much stronger than both "Revenge" and 2011's "Dark of the Moon", but still falls short of the original. However, there's no arguing that this the most outrageous two-and-a-half hours you'll have at the movies all summer.
Bay made one smart decision even before a single frame was shot: "Out with the old and in with the new". Shia LaBeouf and the rest of the regular live-action cast are gone in favor of a more experienced, likeable, and effective ensemble. The consistently good Mark Wahlberg (who apparently had forgiven Bay for their previous collaboration, last year's disaster, "Pain & Gain") stars as Cade Yeager. He's a single father of 17-year-old daughter Tessa ("The Last Airbender"'s Nicola Peltz). Cade is a struggling inventor who collects old junk and spare parts on their Texas ranch in hopes of building the next, big thing. But, in the meantime, he's out of money, can't pay the mortgage or afford to send Tessa to college.
It's been five years since the battle in Chicago between the Autobots and Decepticons destroyed that city and killed thousands. The US Government has ended all relations with the Autobots (the good Transformers, if you're new to the series), and CIA head Harold Attinger (the always great Kelsey Grammer) is out to eliminate any remaining Transformers that are in hiding. Cade comes in contact with none other than Optimus Prime, and once the CIA finds-out, a global hunt-down begins, as Cade and Prime travel with Tessa and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor from "Delivery Man") in an attempt to save themselves and the Autobots from complete destruction.
Also new to the franchise is Academy Award nominee Stanley Tucci. He plays a scientist at a giant Chicago corporation who's sitting-on some groundbreaking discoveries in the Transformers world. This element of the plot, while interesting, takes-up way too much time, with Tucci becoming the film's comic relief character. This is a case of a great actor being miscast and misused. He tries hard, but Stanley Tucci is never supposed to play "goofy".
Grammer, on the other hand, gets the perfect amount of screen time as the evil, cold-blooded, greedy government official. We recently discovered the former Frasier Crane's bad side with his work on the Starz series "Boss", and Grammer provides the same amount of menace and cold-blooded dialogue to make for a satisfying villain.
As an action film, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" isn't the best of Summer '14 by any means, but it's still highly entertaining. This installment helps the series hit all-time highs in metal-on-metal clanking, humongous explosions, slow-motion aerial sequences, unapologetic product placement (from Victoria's Secret to Bud Light) and incredible visual effects. Seeing many of the classic Transformers again, with the fancy new sports cars they change into, will get cheers from the audience.
The simple story, which is set-up reasonably well, takes a major backseat once things shift to Hong Kong in the final hour. Bay, realizing the last two "Transformers" were duds, is relentless in delivering the action. After awhile you do wonder when it's all going to finally end. There's only so much 'robot on robot' fighting a person can take. But, overall, "Age of Extinction", contrary to its name, has brought this iconic movie franchise back to life.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Transformers: Age of Extinction" gets a C+.
"Obvious Child" is an indie romantic comedy first showcased at this year's South by Southwest and Sundance Film Festivals. Jenny Slate, who spent a season ('09-'10) on "Saturday Night Live", stars in this adaptation of a short film she and director Gillian Robespierre made back in 2009.
The plot of "Obvious Child" is very straightforward. Slate's Donna is a twenty-something struggling stand-up comedienne living in New York City who is dumped by her longtime boyfriend. Donna has a hard time with the break-up and this effects her performing, which she believes is the one element that makes her stand-out in life. But soon she meets a new guy and becomes involved in an eventful and potentially regretful evening. This leads the film in a direction that many will have a tough time dealing with and a subject matter that's not typical for a rom-com. It can be difficult to ease-into a movie that attempts to mix humor with a highly controversial topic unless it's done well, and here it is not.
"Obvious Child" has two major problems: #1 - It's simply not funny. The first twenty minutes, which consists mostly of Donna's stand-up act, is filled with raunchy, scattered and profane observations about bodily functions and her personal experiences. It's tough to sit through. And the material never gets better. #2 - The story just isn't believable. There are too many scenes that go way over-the-top, are purely based on coincidence and cliches, and would never happen in real life.
Slate becomes more likeable as the film goes on, though her character does not. Jake Lacy (who co-starred on the final season of "The Office") plays Donna's new love interest but the script doesn't provide the couple with nearly enough dimensional layers, especially considering the situation they're forced to deal with. Richard Kind pops-up briefly as Donna's father. And David Cross plays a comedy writer who appears merely as a five-minute, add-on distraction to bump-up a relatively short runtime of only 85 minutes.
"Obvious Child" is rated R for crude language and heavy adult content. Off the positive festival buzz, this had the potential to be the indie comedy sleeper hit of the summer. But a weak script, few winning and authentic moments, and an overall lack of courage to truly deal with its subject matter are all clear reasons why it won't be.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Obvious Child" gets a D+.
Clint Eastwood, one of the most-respected actors and directors of his generation, has been in front of and behind the camera for some of the most influential movies of the last half-century. Now he takes centerstage by adding a Broadway musical adaptation to his incredible resume. While not as sensational as the Great White Way itself, Eastwood's big-screen "Jersey Boys" has enough redeeming qualities to warrant movie fans to "Walk Like a Man" (or woman) to a nearby theater to see it.
John Lloyd Young won a 2006 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Four Seasons frontman Frankie Valli. The show was also honored as Best Musical (Oh, What a Night indeed), and is still, nearly ten years later, an unstoppable force both on Broadway and in touring productions nationwide. Young returned to his stage role last year, and on one "Sunday Kind of Love" afternoon, Eastwood happened to be in the audience. They talked backstage after the show, and Young was cast in the role of a lifetime all over again. Completely comfortable with the character, he adapts seamlessly to portraying the complicated Valli on screen.
"Jersey Boys" starts slowly, as we are introduced to each of the young men who will become the Four Seasons. Frankie is a sixteen-year-old barber with dreams of becoming a singing sensation. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) are close friends of Frankie from the neighborhood. The older guys are part-time musicians and part-time criminals, who get Frankie into trouble at times, but always take the fall for him because they know he's a good kid and realize he's going to be star someday.
Gyp DeCarlo (Oscar winner Christopher Walken) is the neighborhood mob boss who the guys work for. He also agrees that "The world's gonna hear that voice" and he befriends Frankie as well. As Tommy and Nick struggle to develop a successful sound and group they decide it's time to add Frankie as their lead singer and they bring-in a fourth member, talented songwriter and musician Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Soon they stumble upon a new name for the group and they are on their way.
And it's when The Four Seasons begin recording their hit singles that "Jersey Boys" begin to take off. The songs are not performed "Les Miserables"- Live, but are wonderfully presented, used to guide the story and characters perfectly. There's a terrific twenty-minute stretch consisting of stellar renditions, a few funny situations, appearances that range from small clubs to their American Bandstand debut, and even an Eastwood cameo on a hotel TV. This is where the film hits some of its highest notes.
But a short time later, in a scene involving another national TV appearance, there's a dramatic shift in tone. This is also when "Jersey Boys" begins to drag, as the focus shifts to the members' financial, family, relationship, and health problems. Clearly, this part of the story needed to be told, but it's all presented in such a staged, stale way, that every scene seems too long and too overblown. I thought one particular scene, at DeCarlo's mansion, would never end.
At times it appears as if Eastwood filmed an actual Broadway show and put it on screen. The majority of scenes take place in a single room, with a still camera, very tight shots, and a slightly glossy look. The sets and costumes are simple but appropriate, and he even uses a (very obvious) green-screen for a driving scene, almost as an homage to movies of that time period. And there's no overlapping dialogue. All of the actors project their lines loudly and deliberately, as if on the stage.
One of the other interesting aspects of "Jersey Boys" is Eastwood's decision to have three of the main characters talk directly to audience throughout the film, narrating the story as it progresses. This device didn't bother me, but it does take you away from the flow of the story a little bit. Common to Broadway shows, it doesn't add much here.
Thankfully, "Jersey Boys" recovers from that lull in the middle with a successful final act, when the film, finally, becomes Frankie's voice. We get the most interesting developments in the script and the most emotional scenes. The smart ending includes more "breaking the 4th wall" (if it was only used here it might've been more effective) and better aging makeup than in Eastwood's previous film, the 2011 Presidential biopic "J. Edgar".
"Jersey Boys" is rated R for brief violence, some suggestive adult dialogue, and, as the MPAA distinguishes it: "Language Throughout". But it's a very mild R. A perfect "Jersey Boys" movie was likely "too good to be true". But I'll admit, it was difficult to "take my eyes off" the screen. Eastwood and his cast of mostly cinematic newcomers do draw you into this rollercoaster of a story about success and failure, and the price that is often paid for both.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Jersey Boys" gets a B-.
"The Rover" is director David Michod's follow-up to 2010's "Animal Kingdom", for which Jacki Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook") received an Oscar nomination. This grizzly crime drama debuted last month at the Cannes Film Festival, with praise galore for actors Guy Pearce and "Twilight"'s Robert Pattinson. Their performances are the best thing about "The Rover", which has plenty of style but not much substance.
And it's too bad because the set-up for "The Rover" is pretty intriguing. Set in Australia 10 years after a complete economic collapse, everyone is left to fend for themselves for money, food and supplies, and a gun is now the most important thing someone can have. Pearce plays Eric, a seemingly regular guy who is drawn into a situation with a group of criminals and he spends the entire movie pursuing them in order to retrieve the one thing in his life that means the most to him. Pattison's Rey joins him in this quest, and they develop a relationship, which Michod tries unsuccessfully, to make more meaningful than it plays out on screen.
"The Rover" begins strong with a tense, "living on the edge" feel (Michod wrote the script and developed the story with actor Joel Edgerton). But once it's determined (in a startling scene) that Eric isn't who we think he is, the interest level drops significantly. The film simply becomes a case of desperate, violent people chasing each other through the vast, Australian Outback, while killing as many others as possible along the way. It's difficult to become emotionally attached to a story when every character is a villain.
Neither Pearce nor Pattinson have much to say, so the strength of their performances come from their facial expressions, reactions and physical quirks. Pearce is solid and does his best to add tension to many of the dull moments between shootouts. This is certainly a step in the right direction (and away from Edward Cullen) for an almost unrecognizable Pattinson.
"The Rover" has an authentic look, but other than in a few violently shocking and disturbing scenes, it can't maintain a level of suspense in the final two acts. And the ultimate payoff at the end of this life-and-death pursuit is fairly underwhelming.
The tagline for "The Rover" is: "Fear the Man with Nothing Left to Lose." My advice: "Avoid the Film with Nothing Much to Offer."
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Rover" gets a C-.
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill teamed-up two years ago for the big screen revival of the 80s TV series "21 Jump Street", which featured loads of action, laughs, and even a Johnny Depp cameo. That film was so successful that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who began 2014 with "The LEGO Movie") decided to come back for another round with the equally entertaining "22 Jump Street".
Reprising their roles as Jenko and Schmidt, Tatum and Hill waste no time setting out to prove that they may just be the best comedy pairing in Hollywood today. The winning chemistry, timing and charm these two have seems effortless. "22" begins where "21" left off. In fact the film starts with a tongue-in-cheek recap of the "previous episode" - clips from the original film. This is the first of dozens of clever "inside jokes", that come so quickly you have to make sure you don't miss any.
Following an undercover mission that goes terribly wrong, Deputy Chief Hardy ("Parks and Rec"'s Nick Offerman) assigns Jenko and Schmidt back to the Jump Street program and to a similar case, in the hopes of getting the same successful results as he did the first time. The only problem is, since the Koreans bought their church back, operation headquarters have been moved across the street to 22 Jump Street.
Captain Dickson (played by Ice Cube, who gets much more screen time in this sequel) also thinks that the two cops are only good at one thing - going undercover at schools. So this time he sends them, not to high school, but to college, to pose as students and find the source of a new killer drug that's spreading all over campus. This, intentionally of course, is the same lame plot as the first film. And with this mission in the hands of these two, we know things are quickly going to get wildly out of control.
"22 Jump Street" is jam-packed with jokes and gags. Like The Muppets did earlier this year in their caper sequel, "Muppets Most Wanted", many of the lines and inside references make fun of the old TV show and sequels in general, including the idea of basically re-doing the same movie over again in order to make more money. This smartly penned script allows us to be in on the joke from the beginning.
As I mentioned before, you've got to be on your toes. At one point Jenko comes-up with an idea of working as Secret Service agents for the President, which was the goal of Tatum's character in last year's "White House Down". And in another scene, Schmidt refers to Dickson's fancy new office as a "Cube of Ice". If you miss anything, don't worry, there's another funny crack coming in the next 30 seconds. But "22" doesn't get all its laughs from dialogue. The film is filled with hysterical situations and outrageous stunts - many playing off Jenko's impressive physical skills and Schmidt's...not-so impressive physical skills.
But above all, this is a relationship story. Once again, the friendship of these two partners is put to the test. And the sincerity in which Hill and Tatum play-up this element is another source of big laughs.
At a tad under two hours, "22 Jump Street" is too long, with some of the situations extending well past their breaking point. But that's usually the case with R-rated, over-the-top comedies. Clearly Lord and Miller gave Tatum and Hill plenty of freedom in their scenes, and they throw a lot at the screen. Thankfully, most of it sticks. Credit the directors for one major surprise midway through the film that results in the two of the funniest scenes in the film.
And the competition for the best closing credits of 2014 is likely over, thanks to a hilarious montage which teases "23 Jump Street"...and beyond!
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "22 Jump Street" gets a very solid B.
DreamWorks Animation's 2010 surprise hit "How to Train Your Dragon" was one of the Best Animated films of the year (second only to "Toy Story 3") and is still one of the top-grossing and most impressive films for the studio. Four years later, DWA soars again with "Dragon 2", a more dramatic, action-packed and visually stunning sequel.
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" picks-up five-years after the end of the original. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is now 20. Through love and understanding he has completely united dragons and the people of the island of Berk. They now live together, work together and play together. His best friend is still Toothless, the rare Night Fury. The two spend much of their time flying high above the clouds in search of new lands, and maybe new communities of dragons. But Hiccup soon learns that there is danger not far from home, in the form of Drago, an evil Dragon Master ("Blood Diamond"'s Djimon Hounsou), who's looking to capture all dragons to build an army and take-over the world.
Stoick, Hiccup's father, (voiced once again by Gerard Butler), is pushing his son to replace him as Chief, but Hiccup is much more concerned with trying to make peace and prevent war than follow in the footsteps of his warrior father. Hiccup, as it turns-out, is much more like his mother, who joins the series (excellent voice performance by Cate Blanchett). Valka has been a dragon caretaker for the past 20 years in a nearby land, and the reuniting of this family is the cornerstone of this sequel.
There's a lot going on in "How to Train Your Dragon 2". The original was mostly about the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, but that element takes a backseat this time until the final act (that includes some nice twists). The core of "Dragon 2" is the family dynamic, which is played out in a series of well written scenes. The up-close conversations and facial movements of the human characters are more authentic than we've ever seen portrayed on screen.
The major difference this time is in the subject matter, which is quite heavy. Themes of war, capture, torture, and death dominate the film - not your typical animated movie material. But because this franchise in the right hands, it all works. DreamWorks has now lifted the "Dragon" franchise above everything else the studio is producing. "Dragon 2" is an animated action/drama, with real emotion and power. Each aerial and battle sequence (and there are many) provides its own "wow" moment, and the messages about forgiveness, friendship and living to one's potential are nicely prominent.
My main issue with "Dragon 2" is that, unlike its predecessor, the subject matter and atmosphere are often so dark that it's difficult to say it's a fun movie experience. There are a few attempts at humor, but the overall tone is very serious, which will hurt its appeal with younger children. This is a complete 180-degree difference from Disney's colosal hit, "Frozen", which has now set the bar at a new height for every major animated movie. Kids between the ages of 7 and 12 will not be bugging their parents with "Let's go see 'Dragon 2' again!" The lack of repeat business from this key demo will, without a doubt, hurt the film at the box office and prevent it from becoming a mega-financial hit.
Still, with its amazing animation, a risky, adult script, and outstanding voice work all around, "Dragon 2" is a remarkable achievement and a lock for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" gets a B+.
"Edge of Tomorrow" is the Movie Mashup of the Year: A combination of "Groundhog Day" and "Independence Day". In a near-future world in which aliens are about to wipe-out the human race, Major William Cage, an Army PR expert, is forced to become a soldier. He is killed almost immediately in his first battle, but then miraculously wakes-up, and is forced to relive the same day, and his death, over and over again.
As Cage (played by Tom Cruise is one of his career-best performances) is about to die in combat yet again he comes in contact with the Army's top soldier. Rita (Emily Blunt) has become a symbol of hope for the people since she, somehow, is able to kill dozens of the aliens creatures single-handedly. They soon realize they have something in common - and that they are the only ones, if they work together, who can defeat the sinister, swirling, spider-like aliens and save the world.
The concept of "Edge of Tomorrow", with its mix of time travel and sci-fi action, may sound a bit confusing, but on screen it plays like a finely-tuned suspense thriller. And that's because this is one of the smartest scripts of the year. Adapted from the Japanese book, All You Need is Kill, the story is challenging but not complicated and surprisingly grounded for the alien/apocalyptic genre. Each time Cage experiences a new day, we get bits and pieces of information we didn't know before, allowing us to feel like we're a part of his amazing experience. The plot swerves, unraveling layers and excellent visuals combine to make this a stunningly enjoyable ride.
The Cage character starts-out afraid of battle and eventually becomes a fearless soldier. Cruise portrays this arc to perfection. He remains one of the best actors in the business in handling both action and conveying emotion in quiet moments. And there are plenty of those here with Blunt, whose Rita is both tough-as-nails and logically down-to-Earth. Director Doug Liman, who put Brangelina together for 2005's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", has crafted another winning duo here. I would've liked the relationship storyline to have been explored a little deeper, but that may have taken away some of the mystery.
The supporting cast is led by Irish actor Brendan Gleeson as a general and Bill Paxton, who follows his solid work in "Million Dollar Arm", with a nice turn as Cage's hard-butt Commanding Officer.
"Edge of Tomorrow" is rated PG-13 for intense and authentic action/violence and language. It's appropriate for kids 12 and up. This movie is creative and bold. It takes chances - and they all pay off. And even though it has one of the worst titles of the year (sounds like a soap opera) it is definitely one of the best films of 2014 so far.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Edge of Tomorrow" gets an A-.
In recent years, Disney has enjoyed twisting-up some of the all-time classics, including the Sam Raimi "Wizard" prequel "Oz: The Great and Powerful", and the behind the scenes story of the Mouse House's own beloved "Mary Poppins" - "Saving Mr. Banks". And this trend will continue next year with live-action remakes of animated treasures "Cinderella" and "The Jungle Book".
What makes "Maleficent" successful is that the multiple risks taken by feature-film debut director Robert Stromberg (who won two Art Direction Oscars) and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who adapts from the 1959 Disney animated film, as well as the Grimm's Fairy Tale and original French stories) all pay off. The first and biggest: casting Angelina Jolie to play Maleficent, one of Disney's all-time greatest villains. Jolie must convince everyone who thought they knew this character that Maleficent isn't so evil after all.
The film is divided in half between prequel and "Sleeping Beauty" material. As a young girl, Maleficent lives amongst wondrous creatures in The Moors, a mystical land outside of a kingdom. She's a kind and protective fairy with horns and giant wings. She meets a human boy named Stefan and the two fall in love. But years later the relationship takes a dark turn and Maleficent becomes angry and bitter towards all humans, especially Stefan, who later becomes king. Once young Aurora is born, Maleficent casts that famous "Pricks her finger on her 16th Birthday and falls into a sleep-like death" spell, as an act of revenge. But how far will she go to make Sleeping Beauty's life all but a dream?
"Maleficent" starts slowly and a little dry, but as the story builds so does the interest level. The script is simple, with a slightly lighter edge that I expected, and is filled with surprises. At one point the audience at the screening I attended gasped out loud because they couldn't believe what just happened. This is not your grandmother's "Sleeping Beauty".
After the initial set-up, "Maleficent" gives the majority of screen time to Jolie. This is essentially a character study of a troubled, lonely, and heartbroken woman, with a lot of regret. Jolie's performance ranges from playful and mischievous to raw and emotional. She also serves as one of the Executive Producers, and likely suggested using one of her own daughters in a brief scene as the 5-year-old Aurora. That fact makes this moment one of the most special in the film.
The supporting cast is led by Sharlto Copley as the grown King Stefan and Elle Fanning (Dakota's now grown-up younger sister) as the almost 16-year-old Aurora. She's able to hold her own, within the boundaries of the story, with Jolie. And British actor Sam Riley is quite good as Maleficent's sidekick.
On the technical side, the visuals include solid soaring sequences and one heck of a fire-breathing dragon. Singer Lana Del Ray's update on "Once Upon a Dream" is fantastic, though I wish it wasn't buried in the credits. And probably the most impressive element of all: Jolie's cheekbones, which are as sharp as those of the animated Maleficent. Get ready to hear the names of this Makeup and Hairstyling team on Oscar night!
Because of its PG rating I was worried that "Maleficent" wasn't going to be dark or violent enough to be able to appeal to adults as well as children. And it turns out it isn't very violent or dark at all. There are very few scenes that will scare anyone from 8 to 80. But, in the end, that's OK, because there's so much else to like.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Maleficent" gets a B.
The premise of "Locke" is simple, intriguing, and very anti-Hollywood: Tom Hardy (best known as Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises") stars as Ivan Locke, a construction supervisor who decides to leave town and drive to London the night before the most important day of his career: a concrete pour for what will become England's tallest building. The trip is also forcing him to miss an important family gathering with his wife and two sons.
As the film and his trip begins, we're not sure why Ivan made this decision, but as the miles go by, and Ivan begins a series of phone conversations with the important people who will be dramatically impacted by this trip, pieces of this puzzle start to come together. To truly appreciate the brilliance of "Locke", it's best not to know any more of the plot than this before seeing the film. As the next 80 minutes unfold (the film is under an hour and a half) we're taken on a thrill ride of suspense, as we witness and listen to this average man trying to do what he thinks is right, while under the most extreme pressure of his life.
"Locke" literally is a one-man show. Hardy, who shot his scenes in just six days, is the only actor seen on screen in the film. And he delivers a performance that is raw and powerful, easily deserving of Best Actor consideration come Awards Season. From his facial expressions, to the slightest movements in his seat, we are completely engrossed in Ivan's rollercoaster ride of emotions from start to finish. This is the strongest Lead Actor performance from the first-half of the 2014, and if there are five better ones by the end of year, I'll be surprised.
This film is a remarkable achievement. Writer/director Steven Knight ("Eastern Promises") never allows any of the situations or phone conversations to seem forced, with authentic dialogue from every character. The tension, desperation, joy and anger demonstrated through the voices of all those around him while Locke attempts to keep his emotions under control is an amazing juggling act. Ruth Wilson ("Saving Mr. Banks"), as Locke's wife Katrina and Tom Holland ("The Impossible") stand-out among the fine voice-over cast. And the script is filled with enough symbolism and layers to keep you thinking about it long after you drive away from the theater.
Since "Locke" takes place entirely inside a car, with one main character, the challenges for Knight were plenty. Some might see this as a gimmick, but Knight uses the unique setting and concept to his full advantage. The tight camera shots and traffic cut-aways add to the realism of the situation and claustrophobia of Ivan as his world is falling apart around him. The cinematography of the highway and blinding nighttime headlights convey the tone perfectly. The pacing is also perfectly executed. Knight includes brief but important pauses after nearly every phone call to allow both Locke and the audience to deal with the critical words that were just exchanged, and to add to the suspense.
"Locke" is rated R for some strong language and adult material. It's appropriate for teens and up. While all the major studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars, over and over, trying to come-up with stories to wow the public, it's refreshing to see a small film, with a relatively tiny budget and one on-screen character produce results that most blockbusters can only dream of. This is a gripping, moving, sad and incredibly effective psychological drama that's close to a "Locke" for my list of the Best Movies of 2014.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Locke" gets an A.
The build-up to "X-Men: Days of Future Past" has been gigantic. For the first time, the mutant characters we've come to care about over the past 14 years, and their younger selves we were introduced to in 2011's "X-Men: First Class", come together. It was promoted as an "Avengers" in the "X-Men" universe. But after so much hype and promise, sadly, the result is fairly underwhelming.
"Days of Future Past" isn't the worst of the recent editions of the "X-Men" series. It offers more intrigue than "The Wolverine" and stronger visuals than "First Class". But comparing it to the two Marvel superhero blockbusters already released this year: it isn't nearly as much fun as "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" or as gripping as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier".
Maybe that's because only one character (well, for a brief time two - but that would give too much away) actually goes back in time and also into the future. Since Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is immune to death, he volunteers to be the test monkey for the mission to try to save the mutant species from annihilation.
Once put under a temporary sleep, Wolverine is sent from present "X-Men" time (which seems to be about ten years from our present) back to 1973. The Vietnam War is ending and President Richard Nixon is in the White House. Wolverine's first job is to find and reunite the younger versions of Professor Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
A mad scientist named Trask ("Game of Thrones" star Peter Dinklage) has developed giant robotic machines called Sentinels, that are programmed to identify and destroy all mutants. Mystique (reprised by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence), we learn, had earlier killed Trask, but that act only forced the government to create even more deadly anti-mutant creatures - the ones that are (back in present day) wiping-out the mutants. So Wolverine, Charles, Magneto and a younger Beast ("Jack the Giant Slayer"'s Nicholas Hoult) have to re-write history by stopping Mystique from killing Trask. Not exactly an edge-of your-seat plot.
That's a ton of set-up, but it's explained efficiently early on by multiple characters. Beyond that, "Days of Future Past" doesn't have much strength in the story department. It's challenging to make a great back-in-time-travel movie, especially one that deals with established characters. We know all the mutants survive - we've seen their later movies! So the suspense level in "Days of Future Past" is pretty low.
And, for someone who's not a "X-Men" maniac, the film lacks X-citement. There isn't nearly as much action as I was expecting, especially from Bryan Singer, who directed the original two in the series. Only a few dramatic scenes stand-out, mostly towards the end when things finally start to blend together - though this element doesn't go far enough.
Lawrence shines, Dinklage and Ellen Page (as mutant Kitty Pryde) are nice additions, and the rest of the cast is passable - but no one, not even the iconic Jackman, hits a home run.
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is rated PG-13 for the action/violence and some language. It's appropriate for kids 11 and up. I'm sure "X-perts" will be able to understand every plot swerve, time change and character cameo and find it all to be amazing and groundbreaking for the franchise. But, as a stand-alone, this film is less than X-traordinary.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" gets a C+.
Blend together typical Adam Sandler humor and a predictable script and you get one of the worst movies of 2014. The third time's not the charm for the pairing of Sandler and Drew Barrymore in the romantic non-comedy, "Blended".
Sandler's Jim is a widow with three daughters. His wife, who used to manage a Hooter's restaurant, died of cancer several years ago. These facts are not only played for laughs but also give "Blended" an extremely over-sentimental tone. Jim works at Dick's Sporting Goods (which must have paid millions for all the exposure). The oldest of his three daughters (Bella Thorne of Disney Channel's "Shake It Up") is 15, and starting to feel a little insecure about her tomboy looks. The middle daughter still talks to her dead mother. And the youngest is used simply as a prop to throw-out bad one-liners. It's as if she'd already seen every previous Sandler film. All the girls clearly need a mother-figure in their lives.
Lauren (Barrymore) is a divorced mother to two pre-teen boys. She runs a closet organizing company. The oldest boy is dealing puberty issues while the youngest has major behavior and anger problems. Their father (played by Joel McHale) doesn't spend any time with them. Clearly, these boys need a father-figure in their lives.
After Jim and Lauren go on a very bad blind date they never want to see each other again. But, as luck would have it (and could only happen in poorly written Hollywood movies and sitcoms), the two families end-up together on the same African vacation. They find this out when everyone meets face-to-face at the resort (apparently they weren't on the same flight).
It takes the first half hour of "Blended" just to get to this point. Once in Africa, the families begin to interact with each other in a series of obvious situations, and they start to grow closer, even though Jim and Lauren are clearly not in love...yet.
Every scene in "Blended" is dragged-out past the breaking point. 2014 is becoming "The Year of the 2-Hour Film that Should've Been 90 Minutes". However, in the case of "Blended", even that would have been too long. There's no substance here, no creativity, and no payoff. Instead, there are an endless number of painful and cringe-enducing scenes. And no one is safe from the embarrassment, including Shaquille O'Neal (who plays Jim's co-worker at Dick's), Kevin Nealon (as a fellow vacationer) and everyone in the main cast.
A song by Barrymore late in the film was the last straw for me. And this script (not written by Sandler, so he gets some credit for that) is so predictable that, by the end, I was regretting not placing bets with fellow audience members on what would happen next, because I would've won back the money spent on my ticket.
You can tell that Sandler and Barrymore are good friends in real life and have worked together before, but their chemistry can only go so far. "Blended" is in a different category of "bad Adam Sandler comedies" - maybe because he didn't help write it. But it's also not as offensive or crude as other films in this genre. There aren't nearly as many opportunities for laughs, either.
Wendi McLendon-Covey, great on ABC's "The Goldbergs", is wasted as Lauren's business partner. McHale, very funny on "The Soup", proves again that acting isn't his thing, and in a Disney animated movie subplot gone horribly wrong, Terry Crews plays a resort entertainer with his own troupe who show-up every five minutes to try to bring the couple closer together. This gimmick is borderline offensive.
"Blended" is rated PG-13 for language and some rude and adult content. It's appropriate for teens and up. I did laugh more than I expected: twice. Sandler should start building a shelf for the new Razzie Awards he'll be favored to win for yet another comic failure.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Blended" gets a D.
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