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  • Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

    Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

    July 13, 2014

    (4 1/2 Stars) I can't believe how impressive the Planet of the Apes series has gotten. Dawn is significantly better than the already better-than-expected Rise... it's like Aliens to Alien. It has some of the best use of motion capture I've ever seen in a film. Combine the realistic CGi with great acting (led by Andy Serkis), and you completely forget it's only movie magic... you think you're actually watching a story about evolved apes at war with humans and each other. But the single most impressive element is this "evolved apes with guns vs humans with rocket launchers" story is actually dramatic and tragic. And I thought the series was supposed to be campy.

    Every main human and ape has a believable purpose to why they do what they do. It's not like "this person/ape is evil just because they are." Both villains are interesting and multifaceted and what happens in the film surprises rather than veering into cliche territory. Caesar (Serkis) is a likable (and oddly identifiable) character along with the surviving humans on the earth. There are very well done action scenes and very touching moments.

    Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great sequel and a shining example of how big budget, effects-heavy Hollywood filmmaking can also be very imaginative and emotional. As someone who didn't believe a movie like this could be great (even after seeing Rise), I'm happy to be proven wrong.

  • Life Itself

    Life Itself (2014)

    July 04, 2014

    (4 1/2 Stars) Life Itself is one of the best biographical documentaries I've ever seen. It's funny, heartbreaking, inspiring, amusing, and tragic much like life itself. Roger Ebert holds a very special spot in my heart; he is the first person I have ever felt starstruck by seeing (it was at a preview screening of Tony Scott's Unstoppable). I grew up watching his reviews on TV and followed him online up until his death; I think he's the last film critic whose opinion really mattered.

    This is a very emotional and fitting tribute to one of the most influential men in the movie business. If you're interested in film criticism, the movie industry, or a great Chicagoan, you should not miss Life Itself.

  • 3 Days To Kill

    3 Days To Kill (2014)

    June 18, 2014

    (2 Stars) There's something to nitpick in every scene in 3 Days To Kill. From little things like why does Kevin Costner's daughter give him such a goofy ringtone to huge plot points like, why is that guy who Kevin Costner just tortured now best buddies with him? It is so ludicrously inconsistent, always balancing between a stark action drama like Taken and a goofy, bloody family romp like The Family. You can't have both and expect the movie to be good.

    There are huge issues everywhere you look, like Amber Heard's oversexualized portrayal of a CIA assassin and Costner's wife who you forget is a movie character because she disappears so much. And there's Costner's terminal brain cancer, which only seems to strike at its worst when he's chasing a bad guy and suddenly gets better with vodka. And the brain cancer "antidote" looks like soy sauce in a cartoonishly large syringe. There's a father/daughter relationship between Costner and Hailee Steinfeld that goes from "I hate you, dad" to "Teach me how to ride a bike, dad" because he took her on a cool swing ride? Then there are African squatters who appear in Costner's apartment who feel like they're from a different movie. THEN the climax is at what I think is a French high school prom. And these are only a few of the confusing elements, there's something every two minutes that makes you say "ok, what the hell?"

    But there's something I strangely admire about 3 Days To Kill though because it tries to cover all these bases. The action is very good and I somehow like Costner in this movie. And honestly, all this nitpicking kept me entertained for nearly two hours. It feels like it should be a direct-to-video action movie, but it's really good junk.

  • The Monuments Men

    The Monuments Men (2014)

    June 16, 2014

    (2 Stars) Everything you've heard about The Monuments Men being a mess is unfortunately true. And that's a shame because it has a great cast, production value, and setup. But when they split all the characters up, they split the story so many different directions, making it feel uneven. And it pains me to say this, but a lot of it is just plain boring, not really funny, and not really gripping.

    There are so many movies about World War II, so creating characters you wouldn't expect in WWII may make it feel unique. A story about protecting the art in the war sounds fascinating, so why not? All of the monuments men (Clooney, Damon, Murray, Goodman, et al) try to give some weight to the art they're saving, even when the movie itself acknowledges human lives are not comparable to art. But they split up into different groups, where there isn't a lot of firefights or comedy for anyone. Even though I wasn't expecting Saving Private Ryan or Inglourious Basterds when it comes to action, there's barely any fighting... in a movie about war.

    I don't know how movies about World War II can feel this dull, but The Monuments Men does it. It's not an action movie, not a comedy, and not memorable as drama. While nowhere near terrible, it comes and goes and it's a huge disappointment considering the talent involved.

  • Edge of Tomorrow

    Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

    June 06, 2014

    (5 Stars) Do you wonder what Groundhog Day would look like if it were directed by James Cameron? Edge of Tomorrow is an amazing summer movie that uses its fun time-loop concept very creatively. It's fun, funny, and thrilling, and I still think that's not giving it enough credit.

    Tom Cruise is perfect for this film and I love the internal and external journey his character takes. When you meet him, he's an arrogant pretty boy and nothing more than a face to put on TV for the military. He has very little combat experience and boy, does he show it. But he somehow acquires the power to relive his life each time he is killed, forcing him to learn the patterns of his enemy to survive and hopefully defeat the enemy (after a lot of dying though). His change from pathetic coward to hero mech soldier is believable and rewarding. Even Emily Blunt is a great pick as a female warrior, since I see her typecast in a lot of romantic comedies or a damsel in distress.

    It's skillfully directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go) but it's amazing how much this feels like a James Cameron movie, who I've missed in action since 2009's Avatar. It's got all of his fingerprints on it: anime-inspired mecha, humor, military, aliens, Bill Paxton, a kickass heroine, mixed gender mercs, and astounding action. This is probably the world's greatest James Cameron homage.

    I give Edge of Tomorrow (or the much cooler-titled All You Need is Kill) my highest recommendation. If you judge it by the trailer, you may think it looks mediocre or "another average sci-fi movie," but it is one of the year's best. You do not want to miss this one in theaters.

  • Veronica Mars

    Veronica Mars (2014)

    June 03, 2014

    (2 1/2 Stars) I saw Veronica Mars as someone who had not seen a single episode of the TV show. This movie was made possible by its fans. And while it's certainly not a bad film, one of the problems for an outsider is that it's clearly made for the fans.

    I admit I did not have a huge interest in seeing the movie, but I figured "When I saw Serenity, I never saw a single episode of Firefly, and I loved both of those." I also like Kristen Bell. But there's a lot of characters this movie throws at you and I don't know any of them other than how Veronica (Bell) acts with them. There's a quick recap of the events of the show in the beginning, but it's nothing compared to watching the entire series. This feels like watching a trilogy to a movie and you've never seen the first two films. There's a detective story that's sometimes interesting, but it feels like a pretty standard plot for a police procedural show.

    So Veronica Mars is made for the fans... but why shouldn't it? This is one of the only movies I can think of that was Kickstarter funded completely by them, so why should they try to cater to every demographic? As clueless spectator though, it's a blur.

  • A Million Ways to Die in the West

    A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

    May 30, 2014

    (3 Stars) I can't believe how long A Million Ways to Die in the West feels, but I think I know why. There are long stretches of movie where no humor is attempted. And I don't mean I didn't find it funny; I mean there are periods where no jokes happen. Nothing. It's like it wants to be a Western without the comedy, then realizes, "Oh crap, we're making a comedy," and starts joking again.

    I appreciate it for channeling Blazing Saddles rather than Epic Movie. It's making jokes about the genre and not pop culture references. I think it will age well. And I also laughed at quite a few of the jokes, but there were some clunkers. Seth MacFarlane is pretty funny and has great one-liners, but the bits with Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman (which were in all the trailers anyway) are mostly dead air. There's a love story between MacFarlane and Katherine Heigl... I mean, Charlize Theron, which is sometimes charming, but sometimes causes the movie to drag. But there's a great cameo that references one of the best movies of all time. It's just awkward they stuck it at the end of one of those long stretches of no jokes.

    A Million Ways to Die in the West is a solid rental and a step in the right direction for spoof movies (even if it's not technically a spoof movie). But I know I would like it way better if it were shorter and consistent on at least attempting jokes.

  • That Awkward Moment

    That Awkward Moment (2014)

    May 30, 2014

    (1/2 Star) It's fitting that one of the worst, laugh-free films of the year has one of the worst titles of the year. Trendy titles age a film instantly. Why didn't they just call it "Selfie" or ""#hashtag" or something that won't mean anything in a decade? I mean, if this were an 80's movie, it would be called "Gag Me With a Spoon." Trendiness aside, the title has nothing to do with the movie. And That Awkward Moment sucks.

    In fact, everybody sucks. The three main character bros somehow have respectable jobs (book cover illustrators and a doctor) even though realistically, none of them could hold a job at Checkers. The female characters suck because they're written to actually be falling for these guys. Every soul-sucking minor character sucks... none of them feel human. But do you know what really, really sucks? The dialogue. It's sounds so obviously written and outside of reality. It's "trendy" dialogue, like the kind you would hear in a Sonic Drive-In commercial... except a lot more swearing.

    When the comedy isn't botched by bad editing and writing, it's botched by making no sense. There's a part where Zac Efron shows up to a formal party wearing a strap-on and he's a huge hit, especially with the dumb girl's father. Miles Teller gets hit by a car, goes to the hospital, and he's fine! No broken anything.

    Look, just one question: what makes chauvinism likable? It's a serious question that no one can seem to answer. There are too many of these awful comedies with douches as main characters who we're supposed to like. I don't get it! Just tell me why!

    As bad as That Awkward Moment is though, it will soon be forgotten. It has less story than mumblecore and less laughs than a movie about the Holocaust. I wish everyone died, but the characters soon will be when no one remembers them or their douchey antics.

  • Maleficent

    Maleficent (2014)

    May 30, 2014

    (2 1/2 Stars) Angelina Jolie is so great in Maleficent that she's apparently the only thing the movie needed. Seriously, she is so perfectly cast and plays the villain/antihero so well that you forget the movie is a lot worse than it actually is.

    I think I saw Disney's Sleeping Beauty a long, long time ago, but I don't think it had this many issues (then again, I was probably 3). Some characters disappear for long stretches of time, like the three Powerpuff Girl-colored fairies. I know the plot isn't focused on Aurora (Elle Fanning), but her story is odd... why exactly does she go out of her way to poke her finger on a needle? Am I missing something from the original film? Rarely but distractingly, the CG borders on poor, which is disappointing for a Disney (and expensive) movie. A lot of stuff doesn't make sense and that's saying something for a fairy tale.

    But Maleficent looks great; the production design is definitely worthy. But this is all Jolie's movie and she makes it watchable for the movie's many defects.

  • Devil's Due

    Devil's Due (2014)

    May 28, 2014

    (4 Stars) Devil's Due is a huge surprise: a pseudo-found footage movie about a devil cult... and it's actually GOOD?!? Yeah, I still don't believe it, but it does so much right where other movies that look like this have failed.

    Here's the main reason why it's a good movie: the newlyweds (Allison Miller and Zach Gilford) are actually likable people. I don't really see them "found footage acting;" I see them as two happy people starting a life together. They aren't "douchey guy" and "dumb girl who gets possessed," like every other movie out there in this genre. We take likable characters for granted in horror.

    And it's not exactly a found footage movie. It pulls a Chronicle (great handheld-camera based movie) and mixes security footage with consumer cameras. There isn't an "editor" who put all these clips together; you're just watching a story unfold in front of you.

    I think the directors (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) know that these found footage movies aren't scary or convincing at all. They were with The Blair Witch Project, when everyone thought that was real, but that novelty is gone. So they set out to make a dramatic thriller with horror elements. Most of the time, I don't feel like I'm watching a horror movie, and that's great.

    It's certainly not perfect. The resolution is crappy due to a ton of convenient things that would have to happen for the cult and extremely incompetent police work. The climax is a little reminiscent of every found footage movie. And like I said, it's a dramatic thriller more than horror, so you might not be scared as much as you want to be.

    But I hope people don't mistake this one for complete crap, like the very closely titled The Devil Inside. Devil's Due stands out among the sea of sludge and it's worth at least a rental.

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