2013 has the potential to be a pretty impressive year for animated films. Pixar's first prequel, "Monsters University", and "Despicable Me 2" are two of the most anticipated. "Escape from Planet Earth" is the year's first in the genre. Unfortunately, it doesn't get the year off to a great start.
Brendan Fraser leads the all-star voice cast as Scorch. He's a hot-shot, bright blue superhero alien from Planet Baab who loves attention. However, his brother Gary (Rob Corddry) is the brains of every mission, heading Mission Control. After saving a bunch of tiny blue babies, Scorch's next assignment is to venture to the "Dark Planet", and no one has ever come out from there alive. It turns out that this "Dark Planet" is Earth. Once Scorch arrives he ends-up at a 7-Eleven, where he is captured by General Shanker (William Shatner is quite good in the role) and taken to Area 51.
Back on Baab Gary learns of his brother's trouble, and he decides to go on a rescue mission. He leaves his wife (voiced by Sarah Jessica Parker) and son Kip (who dreams of being just like his uncle, and not his father - a predictable movie plot element) and heads to Earth, where he is captured at the same 7-Eleven (The Weinstein Company must've made a big deal with them) and brought to Area 51, where he finds Scorch and some other weird-looking creatures from far-out planets.
It turns out that Shanker needs the blutonium that powers Scorch's suit in order to finally destroy all the alien planets. So that means everybody has to work together to stop him, Escape from Planet Earth and save their homes.
One of the most entertaining things about "Escape to Planet Earth" is recognizing all the similarities between it and other recent animated films, including "Monsters vs. Aliens", "Space Chimps", "Megamind", "Planet 51", "Monsters, Inc.", and even "Chicken Little". You might wonder: Is there anything original in the entire movie? That answer would be "No".
The strength of the film is the animation, which is vivid and colorful. It's the script that holds it back. I had hoped that studios and writers would have realized by now that when a script is filled with painfully obvious pop culture references, slapstick, and ridiculous product placement, on top of a weak story - a film is doomed.
Others in the cast include veteran voice actors George Lopez and Jane Lynch, along with "The Office"'s Craig Robinson. But wait - there's more: Jessica Alba, Ricky Gervais, Steve Zahn, and Sofia Vergara are also part of the ensemble. But no one can deliver any laughs. I barely chuckled a couple of times.
"Escape from Planet Earth" is rated PG for some mild rude humor and animated action. It's appropriate for kids 8 and up, and maybe 8-10 year olds will enjoying it for the silly action and characters. Anyone older will be anxious to escape from the theater.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Escape from Planet Earth" gets a C-. Practically every studio can make great "looking" animated films these days. But without talented writers and a quality script, all those images go to waste.
There are several things you should know about "Amour" before deciding whether or not to see it. First of all, it's nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It is also a foreign film - French, with English subtitles. And most importantly, it is quite sad and very depressing. Contrary to what you see in the trailer there's nothing upbeat in this two hour movie about and elderly couple, one of which is dying. If you feel that you can handle this subject matter, than "Amour" is worth seeing. If this situation is too close to you in your real life or might make you uncomfortable I would suggest skipping it.
Director Michael Haneke (who received a surprise Best Director Oscar nomination) makes his intentions clear right from the first scene. You may think it gives away too much, but Haneke wants the audience to know that "Amour" (which, of course, means "Love"), is not a mystery, but a journey towards a conclusion that we know is coming.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, an older married couple who were both music teachers in their prime. Now retired, they live in an apartment in Paris. They seem quite content and happy. We see them attend a concert for one of their former students who has now become a star pianist. One day, while the two are talking, Anne suddenly blacks-out and can't respond to Georges. As Georges tries to help her, Anne goes back to normal, but has no idea what just happened.
Anne undergoes treatment for the blackouts and there are complications. She suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed on her right side, forcing her to be in a wheelchair. Georges assists his wife in getting around the apartment and doing daily activities. But her condition soon worsens, and the rest of the film focuses on, not only the relationship between the married couple, but specifically Georges' dedication to his ailing wife.
"Amour" is clearly a foreign film in more ways than simply the language. The majority of the scenes are longer than they should be and the overall pace is very slow. No American director or studio, dealing with this same subject, would have made this film. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but with a story that doesn't have much excitement, a little editing would have helped. However, there are a few surprises that genuinely work, catching you off-guard. Haneke likes to hold on a single shot for an extended period of time, but he also makes some smart decisions, and overall does a nice job directing a film that takes place almost entirely inside this apartment.
Riva has the showcase role here. Some of her scenes are heartbreaking and difficult to watch. She definitely deserved her nomination, and her new status as the oldest Best Actress nominee (85) in Oscar history. But for me, Trintignant's performance is even more impressive. He's in nearly every scene: we feel for him, admire him, and suffer with him.
What makes "Amour" work is this strong emotional aspect. These two people clearly love each other, through the good and the bad. The final half-hour is revealing and leaves a lasting impression.
I certainly didn't dislike "Amour". It's a simple story, but one not often seen on screen. The performances by the two leads are outstanding and it's impossible not to be affected by it. However, there's nothing about the film that's "extraordinary". Several of this year's Best Picture nominees: "Argo", "Silver Linings Playbook", "Lincoln" and "Les Miserables" all had "wow" moments and unforgettable scenes that simply couldn't be duplicated. "Amour" never affected me that way.
There's just not enough depth or dramatic conflict to call this a great movie. And the fact that it's so depressing makes it difficult to love.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Amour" gets a B.
Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin: three of Hollywood's most respected veteran actors. Together they have a total of 3 Oscars, 6 Golden Globes, and 5 SAG Awards. And now they're starring together in the action dramedy "Stand Up Guys". No, it's not about stand-up comedians, though they do all get to deliver some funny lines. However this film is much more effective when it's serious, and overall is a bit of a disappointment.
Pacino plays Val. After serving 28 years behind bars for a murder that he took the blame for, Val is finally out of prison. His best friend Doc (Walken) is there to greet him and the two reunite and reminisce about the old days. But there's also something important that Doc needs to do. The mob boss whose son was the victim of that murder, has ordered Doc to kill Val by 10am the next morning.
Obviously Doc doesn't want to kill his friend, but he knows he'll get rubbed-out too if he doesn't. And Val's smart enough to know what's coming. So the two decide to have one, final all-out evening, which includes drugs, women, a few robberies, some shootings, a high-speed police chase and even a confession. And they decide to get the third member of their old team, Hirsh (Arkin), in on the fun. He's wasting away in a retirement home until his old pals spring him out. And the trio spends this final night together being, well, stand-up guys.
Clearly this movie has a great cast. These three actors are ultimate pros. They make all of their scenes together interesting, even if the material they're working with always isn't. There is a humorous tone to the film. In some ways "Stand Up Guys" is a gangster version of "The Expendables", with senior-citizen mobsters proving they can still get it done. At times it's a little corny (such as their motivational saying: "What time is it? It's time to kick a** or chew gum. And guess what? I'm all out of gum.") but, as with "The Expendables", the idea here is to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. However, it's the dramatic moments in "Stand Up Guys" that work the best, especially the serious scenes between Val and Doc, who realize they're in a situation that they can't get out of.
Unfortunately, the script has some major problems. There are several subplots (even though the film's just under 90 minutes). One involving a young waitress does pay-off. The others do not. And even though Arkin gets star billing he's not in the film nearly enough. But the biggest letdown for me with "Stand Up Guys" is the ending. We get emotionally invested in Val and Doc, wondering how they're going to deal with this impossible situation. To say the final scene is unsatisfying would be an understatement.
"Stand Up Guys" is rated R for language, violence, adult content, brief nudity, and drug use. Jon Bon Jovi wrote and performs a few of the film's songs, including the Golden Globe nominated "Not Running Anymore". "The Good Wife"'s Julianna Marguiles leads the supporting cast. She has a few scenes as Hirsh's daughter.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Stand Up Guys" gets a C+. It's never dull but could have been so much better.
Last June, Fox released the horror-action-drama "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter". While it was an "out-there" concept, the movie worked. It was fun, exciting, creative and it took it's seriously enough to be historically accurate (with that one, big exception).
Now, finally we get "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters". MGM and Paramount had this sitting on the shelf for over a year. Star Jeremy Renner filmed it before both "The Avengers" and "The Bourne Legacy". Rumors blamed the delay on MGM's financial troubles and the 3D post-conversion. A better guess is the producers didn't want "Hansel & Gretel" to open around the same time as "Abe Lincoln", and after screening the film, they probably realized burying it in January was the smartest thing to do.
Renner plays Hansel and Gemma Arterton (from other recent fantasy/action failures such as "Clash of the Titans" and "Prince of Persia") is Gretel. As the fairy tale goes, their parents abandon them in the woods as children. The pair then find a gingerbread house with a hideous witch inside. She captures them but they escape and burn her to death. Thus begins their lives as witch hunters.
Now older (and as the title card says "Many Years Later" because the writers apparently couldn't come-up with a number), Hansel and Gretel are hired to come to a village where witches have been stealing young children. The leader of these wicked witches is played by Famkee Jansen, but most of the time she looks like a witch or, more accurately, an actress playing a witch (the make-up here is exceptionally weak). So the brother and sister team spring into action to save the kids.
Some of the action and special effects in "Witch Hunters" are passable and the intentional 3D gimmicks sort of work, but the rest of the film is a mess. And it starts with the story, which has no substance. The big mystery is supposed to be 'why did their parents abandon them?', but we're not given any reason to care. And when we do find out late in the film it's no surprise.
The majority of the movie is taken-up with dull fight scenes between the two heroes and a series of witches. And even the way the witches are killed is boring. Where's Honest Abe and his ax when you need him? All of the characters are flat, except for a troll named Edward (not making this up) who appears about halfway through. We could have used more of Edward.
Renner and Arterton deliver corny dialogue that, I guess, was supposed to be funny. And they use modern-day phrases and speak without appropriate accents which, I guess, was supposed to be clever. Both attempts fail miserably. This movie was actually intended to be an action/comedy. Amazingly, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are two of the producers. Good luck trying to spot anything genuinely funny in the entire film. It's rated R for language, bloody violence and brief nudity.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" gets a D+.
To sum things-up, watching this movie was a Grimm experience.
"Fat Kid Rules the World" proves what everyone would like to think is true about the movie business: If you have a good story and talented people you can make a quality film without a lot of money.
"Fat Kid", which won the Audience Award at last year's SXSW Film Festival, tells the story of a lonely and overweight high school student who finds an unusual friend and discovers punk music. The movie was shown last summer throughout the country, city by city, one theater at a time, through Tugg and then went to PPV. It's now out on DVD and definitely worth watching.
First-time director Matthew Lillard does an outstanding job bringing this popular young adult novel to the screen. And he gets great performances from the cast, including Jacob Wysocki (as the title character), Matt O'Leary and Billy Campbell.
In an interview I did with Lillard he told me "Fat Kid" is "the single greatest achievement of my creative career." That's saying a lot considering Lillard's strong acting resume. He proves here that he's one of the industry's promising new directors.
If you've read the book (which I did in the 7th grade) you'll be happy to know that the film stays true to the story. And the tone of the movie remains consistant from the first scene to the last.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Fat Kid Rules the World" get a solid B. This is one of the best small, independent films of 2012.
The incredible true story of an unknown and unsuccessful singer named Rodriquez, living in Detroit, who becomes a cult sensation in South Africa - and the journey two men take to discover the truth about this unique artist. I saw it without knowing the surprise twist, which made the film even more remarkable.
Fantastic music and great direction by Malik Bendjelloul. This is not only the best documentary of 2012 but also one of the best movies of the year.
The only other thing I need to add is SEE IT!
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Searching for Suger Man" gets an A-.
And after you watch the film check out my interview with Bendjelloul and a special guest.
Part political thriller, part crime caper, with a little romantic drama thrown in, "Broken City" was one of the first big releases, and first bombs of 2013. Mark Wahlberg stars as Billy, a NYC detective who becomes a private eye after an incident that occurred seven years earlier forces him to resign from the police force. When the story then shifts to present day, Billy is asked by the mayor of the city (played by Russell Crowe) for a favor.
The mayor tells Billy he thinks his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. He wants Billy to follow his wife and get photos of her and the other man. It's also election time, and the mayor is in a close battle with an opponent who's using a shady development deal the mayor just approved to balance the city's budget against him.
Billy has no idea what he's getting himself into by accepting the offer to work for the mayor and he's also having problems with his girlfriend, who has a connection to his past.
The script for "Broken City" lays-out all the pieces, but with a storyline that gets too complex too quickly, there's no chance it's all going to come together. The main plot has some promise, but not much more than a typical TV cop show. And the subplots really don't go anywhere, including a prominent one early in the film that completely disappears (along with a main character) without an explanation.
Wahlberg is clearly in his comfort zone here, having played a cop or detective in at least half of the films on his resume. To me he's become much more enjoyable in his recent comedy roles, not only "Ted", but before that "The Other Guys" in which he played....a cop. Crowe seems kinda bored playing the mayor, maybe because he didn't get to sing. And there's no tension or energy between the two in their scenes together.
Others in the supporting cast include Barry Pepper, who plays the mayor's opponent, Jeffrey Wright (from "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close") as the possibly corrupt police chief and Kyle Chandler (who can also be seen right now in Oscar contenders "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty"). He's wasted here. And this is the second time in the last year that Zeta-Jones has played a mayor's wife who's plotting against him. The other was in the musical "Rock of Ages".
Much of the dialogue in "Broken City" is stiff and predictable and the action is uneventful. There are a few strong moments, but overall this movie disappoints by not delivering enough intensity to keep us fully engaged for close to two hours. Director Allen Hughes provides plenty of close-ups, including in possibly the most awkward, in-your-face political debate scene in movie history between Pepper and a spray-tanned Crowe.
"Broken City" is rated R for language, violence and brief adult content. It's appropriate for teens and up. Following memorable 2012's for both Wahlberg and Crowe they begin the new year in this completely forgettable film.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Broken City" gets a C.
Director Kathryn Bigelow took Best Director Oscar honors for 2009's low-budget war drama "The Hurt Locker". That film was released in the summer, got a small amount of early buzz but was the talk of Hollywood by awards season. Now, with "Zero Dark Thirty" Bigelow proves that she's one of the best directors working today. She has made a gripping, documentary-style account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And by releasing "Zero Dark Thirty" at the end of the year, it received plenty of awards season attention, even though Bigelow was snubbed for an Oscar nomination.
"Zero Dark Thirty" begins with the World Trade Center attacks. But we only hear conversations over with a black screen with the title card September 11, 2001. And for the next few minutes, we hear raw, emotional dialogue from victims that tragic day. This decision by Bigelow provides new depth and meaning to the lives that were lost. While a picture can say a thousand words, often audio can be more powerful.
Jessica Chastain (who's had a whirlwind couple of years) stars as Maya. She was recruited to join the C.I.A. right out of high school. In 2003, two years after the "9/11" attacks , she is assigned by Washington to go to Pakistan with one job: to lead the mission to find and kill bin Laden.
Obviously it won’t be easy. Maya and her team go through the next several years interrogating prisoners, following leads and chasing-down clues, all while other deadly attacks are taking place throughout the world. Bigelow uses Maya as the emotional centerpiece for, what at times, feels like a true-life documentary of these events.
Along with 2012 Critics Choice Awards winner Chastain, who's excellent as the tough and obsessed Maya, "ZDT" features one of the best ensemble casts of the year, led by Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Mark Strong. James Gandolfini has a small, but impactful supporting role as the Director of the C.I.A. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt (from TV's "Parks and Recreation") play two of the Navy S.E.A.L.s who take part in the raid on the bin Laden compound.
The screenplay by Mark Boal is impressive as it pulls us inside this operation and he does it by being very light on dialogue.
And this may be the most impressive looking "based-on-a-true story" film ever made, highlighted by the climactic raid sequence.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is rated R for some brutal violence including torture scenes, disturbing images and language. It's appropriate for older teens and up. At over 2 1/2 hours the film does seem stretched out a bit. There's a lot of on-screen location/date info, which I'm not a big fan of but is necessary in this type of movie. However, they tend to tip-off when something bad is going to happen, which hurts the suspense level a little. And I'm not thrilled with the ending (not the obvious one, there's one after that), but these are minor issues with what is one of the most impressive films of 2012.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Zero Dark Thirty" gets a B+. The film did win one Oscar - for sound editing (tying with "Skyfall").
"The Impossible" is based on an incredible true story of one family's experience being part of the massive tsunami that struck Asia back in 2004. It was also one of the most powerful films of 2012.
Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) decide to take their three sons to Thailand for Christmas vacation. But early in their trip the tsunami, one of the greatest natural disasters in modern history, comes from out of nowhere, destroying their hotel complex and separating the family members.
Maria and her eldest son Lucas (played by newcomer Tom Holland) are able to find each other. She is badly injured and Lucas must try to keep her safe and get her help. Henry is able to locate the two youngest boys, but he refuses to leave the area without knowing what happened to his wife and other son, searching every hospital and shelter in an effort to reunite the family.
If you had to describe "The Impossible" in one word it would be 'intense'. Even before the tsunami hits you're holding your breath because, unlike the characters, you know it's coming. And director J.A. Bayona decides to spend a long period of time with Maria and Lucas at the start, leaving us in suspense as to what happened with the Henry and the other kids. It's an interesting strategy (normally a script would shift back and forth between the two parents), but it works well, as Maria becomes the focus of the film.
This is a very challenging role for Watts, whose character is in pain, covered with blood and/or barely breathing for the majority of the movie. She doesn't have much dialogue, but uses facial expressions and her eyes to deliver a very strong performance. We're with her every step of the way, because we can feel what she's going through. McGregor is also very good. In a great year for Supporting Actor performances, his may be the most diverse. Both should receive Oscar nominations.
The tsunami scenes are executed very well. Not only do you get to witness what the disaster looked like, but Bayona allows you to feel it on a very personal level. This is great filmmaking, that includes a top-notch script. There's emotion in every word, which allows us to stay connected to these characters throughout. This is a fictionalized version of what really happened - and the ending is a little too...well, I'm going to stop there. But at the same time, this is a very real, grounded film, and a story I won't soon forget.
"The Impossible" is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, peril, adult language and brief nudity. It's appropriate for teens and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Impossible" gets an A-.
In 1998, a 27-year-old Matt Damon won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar with friend Ben Affleck for co-writing "Good Will Hunting". Since then Damon's become better known for his acting talent and familiar roles, most notably Jason Bourne in the "Bourne" films. But with "Promised Land" he returns to writing and with a new partner, "The Office"'s John Krasinski. And he's reunited with "Hunting" director Gus Van Sant. And he and Krasinski also star in the film. All the right pieces were in place but unfortunately "Promised Land" doesn't fully come together.
Damon plays Steve, a salesman for a natural gas company called Global. He has a project partner named Sue (Frances McDormand) and their job is to go to small towns where natural gas deposits have been discovered deep underground and persuade home-owners to make deals with their land so Global can then drill down and get the gas. This is called "fracking" and it's a real-life, controversial issue that's going on in Northeastern U.S. states today. The film is set in Pennsylvania. The main selling point: poor families need the money and could become rich from the profits of the sale of the natural gas on their property. Steve and Sue, who are very good at what they do, think it's going to be easy convincing the home-owners to sign-on. But they run into some major problems.
At a public meeting, an out-of-retirement school science teacher (played by Hal Holbrook) questions Global's plans. He believes fracking is dangerous, that it will pollute the town's water and all the animals and crops will die. The mayor is also unsure, and many of the townspeople are against the idea as well. So there has to be a vote a vote. And just like with a political campaign, there always has to be someone representing the other side. Krasinski's Dustin works for an environmental company named Athena. His goal is to stop the fracking, and he uses plenty of scare tactics in an effort to keep Global from winning.
"Promised Land"'s narrative is very straight-forward. And the script is dialogue-driven. There are no chase scenes or special effects. As with most "issue" films many of the scenes go on longer than they should and there's a little too much "inside" information. But the film does a nice job of laying-out both sides of the fracking argument clearly and makes valid points for each. And look is impressive. Van Sant captures the look and feel of rural Pennsylvania, setting the perfect tone of this story. The problem with "Promised Land" is that there just isn't enough real drama to make us care about the outcome.
Damon has some strong moments. His character is determined throughout to win this battle and he expresses that passion while staying in control. McDormand is solid, and while Krasinski doesn't have a huge role, he does shine in one key scene with Damon towards the end of the film. Holbrook is excellent in the few scenes he has. And Rosemarie DeWitt plays a grade school teacher who both Steve and Dustin become interested in - a weak and predictable subplot.
There's a 60-minute story here that had to be stretched to 95. So, along with the romances (Sue also gets involved with the gun shop owner), there's plenty of extra dialogue that just comes-off as phony and a few unrealistic filler scenes.
The fracking issue is red-hot right now in Hollywood. HBO's anti-fracking documentary "Gasland" first brought the issue to light in 2010 and "Gasland 2" is in the works. Plus the pro-fracking doc "FrackNation" was purchased by Mark Cuban's AXS TV and used it to counter the anti-fracking movement.
This real-life battle is much more interesting and exciting than anything that happens in "Promised Land", which is rated R for some adult language.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Promised Land" gets a C+.
"Django Unchained" comes from the insanely creative mind of Quentin Tarantino - the Oscar winning writer/director of "Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2", and 2009's "Inglorious Basterds", for which then relatively unknown actor (to American movie audiences) Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Waltz reunites with Tarantino for "Django". This time he gets to play a good guy (sort of), a role that earned him his second Supporting Actor Oscar and Tarantino another screenplay Oscar.
Set in the South just before the Civil war, "Django Unchained" also stars Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave who is asked by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) to assist him in finding three brothers who are wanted, dead or alive. Schultz' job is to kill these outlaws, return their bodies to the authorities and receive his reward. Schultz doesn't know what the brothers look like, so he needs Django's help. In return, Django will become a free man.
After working together on a series of successful bounty hunts, Django and Schultz decided to become partners. Django reveals that he has a wife named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is still a slave. The two were sold to separate slave owners and she was whipped and mistreated. They learn that she's now working on a plantation in Tennessee. The new friends come up with a plan to free her. But they'll have to deal with the evil owner of the plantation - Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). And this time things don't go as smoothly as they had hoped.
Here's some advice: if you're not into blood and guts being splattered everywhere, intense gore and consistent use of the N-word, STAY AWAY from "Django Unchained". However, if you're a diehard Tarantino fan this will likely be your movie of the year. I was exhausted after seeing "Django" - not because of its running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes (we'll get to that in a bit), but because of just how intense it is. The film features all the over-the-top action and killings you'd expect from Tarantino and then some. Does it get too extreme, especially in the last hour? Absolutely. I give Tarantino a lot of credit for being brave enough to include what he did, but some of it is very tough to watch.
Jamie Foxx does a good job as Django. He's likeable and we root for him to get his wife back and remain a free man. But for much of the movie, the Django character is in the background, with scenes instead being dominated by Waltz's Dr. Schultz and DiCaprio's Candie. Only in the last 20 minutes or so does this become Foxx's film. I would have liked to have seen more of him as the "lead", though it makes sense in the way Tarantino designed his story.
Foxx, who in my mind gives the best performance, did not get any awards recognition. Waltz delivers his lines with subtle humor while DiCaprio slips into a southern version of his "J. Edgar" on occasion. And Tarantino brings old pal Samuel L. Jackson back to play Candie's personal servant. His schtick gets old fast. I kept looking for John Travolta to come dancing by.
Tarantino was reportedly editing "Django" right up until the last minute. But he made two crucial errors: 1) including unnecessary cameos of himself and Jonah Hill, which take you, as a viewer, out of the moment. and 2) not doing enough editing. Many of the both the violent and lighter scenes drag on, which really slows down the pace. There are only a handful of genuinely exciting moments in the entire movie, which surprised me.
"Django Unchained" is a hard R for strong graphic violence, disturbing images, extreme blood and gore, brief nudity and adult language. As usual Tarantino has made a film that's out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, there's not much in "Django" that's extraordinary.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Django Unchained" gets a C.
Tom Hooper won the Best Director Academy Award two years ago for Best Picture winner "The King's Speech". His style of directing is distinct: using shots that don't always place his subjects in the middle of the frame and shooting characters tight so you can really see their facial expressions. And this style is front and center in this ground-breaking adaptation of the Broadway musical phenomenon "Les Misérables".
If you're not familiar with the story (which is hard to believe), it's set in France in the early 1800's. Hugh Jackman gives one of the best lead actor performances of the year as Jean Valjean. When we first meet Jean he is being released from jail, where he had been doing hard labor after being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean is a good man, who vows to make a new life for himself. But the evil Inspector (a singing Russell Crowe) believes Valjean is a life-time criminal and makes it his goal to put him back in prison, especially after Valjean breaks his parole and goes on the run.
The saga follows Vajean for the next several years as he makes a dramatic changes in his life…and he encounters other key characters, including a dying prostitute - Fantine (Anne Hathaway is remarkable) and later her daughter Cosette, who he promises to take care of - a pivotal decision that will impact many lives.
"Les Misérables" runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, which is probably the length of the stage version (but that included an intermission). The first half-hour or so is very fast-paced, but it settles down. Three things you need to know about this version of "Les Mis": First of all, there's hardly any regular dialogue. Almost every single line is either sung or spoken musically, with an accompanying orchestra playing in the background. I wasn't expecting this style going in and it's a little distracting in the beginning but you get used to it. Secondly, Hooper's film is based on the Broadway musical and not Victor Hugo's 1862 novel that the original show was based on. And, finally, all of the actors in the film are singing "live" while they're acting instead of lip-sinking to pre-recorded music as is done in most movie musicals. The fact that Hooper took this chance, and it works so well, should have snagged him another Oscar nomination. The songs are very well done, including "Suddenly", which was written for the movie.
Hathaway, even in a brief supporting role, deserved all the awards she picked-up. Her version of "I Dreamed a Dream" is spectacular - and done in one, continuous take. And her character is pivital to the storyline. Jackman is also very good. He's become best known for two things: playing Wolverine and his outstanding singing voice. He puts one of those talents to good use here, carrying emotion through lyrics over the course of the entire film. Crowe does not have the greatest singing voice but he's the perfect choice to play the Inspector. We'll overlook the few sour notes.
The rest of the talented ensemble cast includes Amanda Seyfried as the older Cosette. She's no stranger to movie musicals, having co-starred with Meryl Streep in 2008's "Mamma Mia". Eddie Redmayne ("My Week with Marilyn") and Samantha Barks both have effective showcase songs. And Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play two wacky small-time thieves who own a bar and steal all their customers blind. Their "Master of the House" number provides the film's comic relief.
"Les Misérables" is rated PG-13 for adult material, violence, language, dramatic content and disturbing images. It's appropriate for teens and up. The film does pack an emotional punch. Combine the performances, the music, the directing, and the set design and costumes, and there's no surprise that this was one of the best movie experiences of 2012. And it should still stand-up on DVD/Blu-ray on the small screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Les Misérables" gets a B+.
"Parental Guidance" is a shockingly bad family comedy starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. Crystal's Artie was a longtime minor league baseball announcer who just got fired because he's not contemporary. Midler's Diane is a former weathergirl who used to sing some of her forecasts. Gee, I'd love to have lived in the cities where she was on the air. They have a daughter Alice (played by Marisa Tomei), who's married to a technology wiz named Phil (Tom Everett Scott).
Phil's getting honored with an award for his creation: a home voice monitoring system. Wait, hasn't that been done before? Anyway, Artie and Diane are asked to take care of their three wacky grandchildren (because no kids in family films these days can ever be normal) while their parents go away to the convention. The problem is, Artie and Diane rarely see their grandkids and have become "the other grandparents". So the two decide to give their grandsons (one has a stutter, the other's just "movie weird") and stressed-out, achievement freak granddaughter a week to remember.
This script needed a complete makeover. What's on screen is an incredibly obvious, unfunny and often awkward and uncomfortable to watch. There are way too many of what were intended to be cute/clever scenes jammed into 105 minutes, and practically every one is phony and over-the-top. There's forced slapstick, completely unrealistic situations and not a single likeable character. Believe it or not, Crystal is the one who came-up with the concept for the film. It was then adapted into a screenplay by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, two of the writers behind 2007's quality animated film "Surf's Up". Clearly they're better at writing about imaginary penguins than real people.
Director Andy Fickman is best known for Disney's "The Game Plan". He needs a new one when it comes to choosing projects. "Parental Guidance" is filled with stereotypes and resorts to groin humor. And you know one of my basic rules of comedy: when the writers have to rely on a guy getting hit in the groin to get a laugh they are admitting their movie is a lost cause. And, of course "Parental Guidance" tries to mix in some sentimental moments as well. This only helps it gain the title as one of the corniest films of the decade. It seems this was simply a vehicle for the two leads to do what they like to do: Crystal gets to crack bad jokes and do baseball play-by-play and Midler gets to do a showcase song ("Book of Love") with Crystal. At least the baseball element plays a part in the film. The song comes out of nowhere and leads to nothing.
Skateboarder Tony Hawk makes a cameo appearance (in a subplot involving Artie trying out as an X-Games announcer) but he seems as baffled as to what's going on as everyone else. There are constant mentions of ESPN (there had to be a business deal) and Tomei and Everett Scott play two of the blandest, dullest parents ever seen on screen. Everett Scott catches a break - he's missing for most the middle portion of the movie.
Both Crystal and Midler seem to be going through the motions. This is her first real movie role since 2008's "The Women" (voicing a character in "Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" doesn't count). Crystal has a couple of humorous lines, but he's so much better than this that it was kinda sad watching him here.
About the only thing the creators of "Parental Guidance" got right is that the film is appropriately rated PG for some rude humor. I can't recommend anyone waste their time watching this mess. It was #3 on my Worst Movies of 2012 list.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Parental Guidance" gets a D-.
"The Guilt Trip" is a surprisingly smart comedy starring a memorable duo. Seth Rogen plays Andy, an only child and Barbra Streisand plays his mother Joyce. Andy's a chemical engineer who's invented an eco-friendly household cleaning product called Scieoclean that he believes is better than anything on the market. He now has to convince some major companies that he's got a hot item that they should all have in their stores. So far he's not been too successful. So he sets-up several interviews with big retail chains to pitch his product. The trip will take Andy cross-country, by car, and after learning a secret from his mother's past, Andy invites her to join him on this journey.
This is a classic movie genre: the road buddy picture. But rarely are the "buddies" an adult son and his still overly-protective mother.
Lately Hollywood has been obsessed with raunchy comedies. While there is a little of that here, "The Guilt Trip", this much more conventional, which is a welcome change. The humor mostly comes from the verbal exchanges between Rogen and Streisand, and a lot of it is quite funny and relatable. A scene involving Andy's pitch to the Home Shopping Network is one of the film's highlights. Credit goes to screenwriter Dan Fogelman, who's best known for penning Disney animated films such as "Bolt" and "Tangled", along with co-writing "Cars" and "Cars 2".
One of Rogen's strengths as a comedic actor is his ability to deliver sarcasm and he's at the top of his game here. And Streisand, in her first non- "Focker" role since 1996's "The Mirror Has Two Faces", holds here own. There's a sense of realism in the relationship between Andy and Joyce throughout. She embarrasses him, he disappoints her. They clearly love each other, but often their actions speak otherwise, not unlike a lot of mothers and sons. There's good chemistry and solid timing between the two. Without it the film would have bombed because they're in practically every scene together.
Director Anne Fletcher's previous film, "The Proposal", was a bit all-over-the-place. "The Guilt Trip" has a simple plot, but some layers develop as the trip progresses. This isn't a laugh-out loud comedy. The humor is more subtle and things do get a little sentimental at times, but to everyone's credit the film never goes too far in any direction.
"The Guilt Trip" is rated PG-13 for some language and adult material. It's appropriate for teens and up. The trailers don't make this out to be a winner, but this was actually one of the more pleasant surprises of 2012.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Guilt Trip" gets a B.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first in a trilogy of prequels to one of the most successful trilogies of all-time "The Lord of the Rings". Director Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth (and the classic works of J.R.R. Tolken), and he's brought along a new friend: HFR. But we'll get to that in a few, "precious", minutes.
"The Hobbit" begins with an old Bilbo Baggins secretly writing his life story to nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, who made that character famous in "The Rings" films, makes a cameo appearance). And what a story Baggins has to tell. His adventures begin 60 years prior to the start of the "The Lord of the Rings" saga. One day Bilbo, a homebody hobbit (played by Martin Freeman) meets Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellan reprising his "Rings" role). Gandalf is looking for someone to accompany him on a journey. And there's a catch: they'll be joined by 13 dwarfs, who storm into Bilbo's house and ask him if he'll become their fourteenth member.
Gandalf believes Bilbo would make a great choice to join the crew because he used to be cunning and adventurous, before settling down to his home and ordinary life. After some thought Bilbo decides to assist Gandalf and the dwarfs on their quest to take back their homeland: The Lonely Mountain. And the rest of the film is made-up of their journey, in which they get in and out of trouble over and over and over again.
For an action/adventure movie "The Hobbit" is pretty slow. There is a lot of action, but unfortunately, not a lot of excitement. Jackson has made a very linear film, which is made-up of chase scene after chase scene - the small warriors get into battle with several groups of wildly ugly creatures - they escape and then a few minutes later, they're on the run and fighting again. The few breaks in the action are taken-up mostly with scenes in which the characters explain why they're fighting and who they're fighting next. And every scene - fighting and non-fighting - is stretched-out way too long. It's almost as if Jackson felt he had to make the film nearly 3-hours long or fans would be disappointed.
In some ways "The Hobbit" has the look and feel of a role-playing video game in which the protagonists battle and defeat gory, hideous creatures to get to the next level, along with an elaborate score. And while all this is going on it also tries too hard to be upbeat and humorous (mainly with the dwarf hijinks). In the best sequence in the film Bilbo gets separated from the clan and meets-up with the iconic "Lord of the Rings" character Gollum (Andy Serkis, the King of Motion Capture acting, reprises his role). Their interaction is not only a break from the endless action, but also provides some depth to the story. Freeman gets a chance to actually act a little and who doesn't like Gollum. Serkis was also the Second Unit Director on the movie, a new area of film-making he's pursuing.
Jackson shot and released the film in a format called HFR 3D - HFR standing for High Frame Rate. Normally, films are shot at 24 frames per second, but "The Hobbit" was filmed at 48 frames per second. This doesn't speed up the overall film, or make the 2D version nearly six hours. What it does is make the images on screen clearer and more defined. The idea is to enhance the 3D viewing experience even more by making it seem like what you're watching is live. And it does - but there are some drawbacks. At times, especially early on until you get used to it, the HFR makes the character look too good. You don't believe that these are dwarfs and a hobbit living in this faraway land. Instead they are actors, in costume, on a set working in front of a green screen. At times "The Hobbit" appears to be a VERY large play on the worlds largest stage. Also, at times, movements and gestures - walking, picking-up objects, etc. are noticeably faster than reality. And there's a chase scene that gets wildly out of control. Fortunately, anyone watching the movie on PPV or DVD won't have to deal with ther HFR issue.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is rated PG-13 for the fantasy action/violence. There is a ton of killing in this movie. Fans of the books and the film franchise will likely love it (I heard a lot of "That was awesome" from the 20-something guys who made-up most of the audience in the theater I was at). This wasn't the right film for HFR 3D to make it's debut - Middle Earth isn't supposed to look this good - so avoid that and maybe 3D entirely and go with the safer and cheaper 2D version if you're planning on going. But considering all the quality end-of-the-year movies that are out now, I say this is actually an unnecessary journey to take.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" gets a C-.
This saga will continue in two more "Hobbit" films to be released over the next couple of years. Hopefully Jackson will be able to come up with some of his old "Lord of the Rings" magic for the sequels to this disappointing prequel.
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