Evans Scholar Speedy's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Mad As Hell
Mad As Hell(2015)
½

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Passion manifests itself in a person's life in weird and unexpected ways. The key for me is to infuse passion at one point in your life and let it evolve into other areas to keep yourself growing and learning. Mad As Hell provides context for my journey. I've loved helping people since I led volunteer efforts to soup kitchens while I was in college. It was touching to see how joyous positive impacts are on a person in need of one, so I wanted to help out on a grander scale. After searching a great while, politics seemed like the best way to enact widespread change, but politics is such a rancid system that no matter how hard I searched, I couldn't find a movement I could fully get behind. Then I happenstanced upon a video of the Young Turks after watching What the Flick!? movie reviews, and the spark was ignited.



Fair warning: if you are not a progressive person, you will not like Mad as Hell or the Young Turks. They transparently believe in equal rights for equal people and fighting crony capitalism inherent in the political system of today. My passion came from an anger at how the system established refused to punish those who caused the financial crisis of 2008. I searched and searched for answers to why that was, coming across shows like the Daily Show or Colbert Report, which pointed to some of the answers I was looking for, but keeping themselves out of the fight. The Young Turks was something different. They came across like The Daily Show with less humor and more news coupled with open thought and fierce anger. The more I watched, the more I liked what I heard. Yes, I agreed with the views of the hosts, but I liked how honest they were about their reporting and personal opinions. Transparency to me became an easy identifier over what to listen to and what to avoid, especially since it seemed that secrecy was at the heart of the financial crisis. The Young Turks helped me evolve my desire for service into democratic political action. They are a fighting organization, trying to remove money's influence on the political process, citing numerous examples of how removing the dollar's power from the system will reposition the United States politicians to serve who they were mean to: the people who elected them. The Young Turks has formed an organization called Wolf PAC to attempt to pass an amendment to create free and fair elections in the US. Their motto is "We're coming for you." That attacking mentality instead of waiting to be systematically hit again lit a fire deep within me, pushing me fully into this fight.

Mad As Hell showcases on the origins of this fight, focusing on the guy at the center of the battle. Cenk Uygur is the main anchor on the Young Turks and a dynamic, charismatic activist. The documentary shows early on how the power of their ideals was the driving force in all of The Young Turks and Cenk's decisions, turning down very lucrative offers to quiet controversial but open and honest political speech. In addition, Mad As Hell, shows how hard it is to quiet a great idea in the age of information; the Internet is a new medium for which The Young Turks was an early pioneer, attracting and injecting life into a younger generation frustrated with the status quo. The movie confirmed what I already learned about these people; they deeply care more about ideals and morality than money, they will not be told to be quiet, and they will find creative, new, and transparent ways to make sure their message is received.

I cannot be objective about Mad As Hell. Any deficiencies in the story are masked by the powerful contribution to my life Cenk and The Young Turks have gifted to me. The understanding I have received about the world I live in gives me knowledge and power, and the channeled anger to change a corrupt system provides a worthy cause to devote my time and resources to. Please watch Mad As Hell, so you can feel alive, united and strong in a world than can sometimes minimize and isolate you for its own interests.

Keep coming for 'em, guys.

Into the Woods
½

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Into the Woods is about what goes on for a Disney character after the "Happily Ever After." Following the formula set by the Princess Bride, Into the Woods adapts the subversive Steven Sondheim play for the big screen. Oh, and for you Oscar people out there, did I mention Meryl Streep is involved?

A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are informed they cannot have children by their witch next door neighbor (Meryl Streep). To break the curse, they need 4 items: a white cow, golden hair, a red hood, and a slipper. Conveniently, some fairly tale characters come along to help them. Red (Lilla Crawford) and her hood are on the way to grandma's, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her locks long to escape and run away with her prince (Billy Magnussen), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is willing to trade his cow for some magic beans, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) uses her slippers to evade her Prince Charming (Chris Pine).

Disney has poked fun of itself before. Enchanted is one of the best examples of a film that walks the line between lampoon and homage of clichés in a fantasy musical. Into the Woods is of a similar tradition. Perceived one-minded determination is used as a character flaw; I mean, if you were going to stop at nothing to do something, you'll end up hurting people at some point. Like the play, the movie hits its "high" note about 2/3 of the way through the film: every character gets what they wanted, but then it just keeps going, with many characters having to deal with consequences. Prince Charming's longing still exists after he finds the girl he wants. Certain large people search out Jack since he's been stealing with them. The absurdly driven characters set up the third act's subversion with mostly successful (read: humorous) results.

Humor is the biggest sell for Into the Woods. Each joke is layered with a bit of satire, giving the punchlines just a bit more bite. Watching Prince Charming seduce multiple women using the "magic" of the woods as an excuse is just hysterical. Cinderella deciding it is brilliant to decide not to decide her fate is downright laughable at her character's bravery. There is a blaming song that zips by so quickly that you can barely keep up with who is blaming whom. Specific thought is given to many of the character's choices and how they intertwine with other characters, creating a cascading effect that bounces the story quickly from one joke or song to the next.

Much of the success goes to the actors here. Meryl Streep clearly didn't get enough signing out of her system (Mamma Mia!), and adds validation to Into the Woods. However, Streep is taking a back seat here to her co-stars. James Corden and Emily Blunt carry the dramatic heft of the story, especially Corden. Their childless couple set the stakes extremely well, deliver some great afterthoughts on crazy sequences (Blunt), and captivate the attention of the audience in the big climax (Corden). Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford add their gifts from Broadway to Jack and Red, surprising the audience with well developed characters with not enough screen time. Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Christine Baranski, and Tracy Ullman are wasted with either not enough screen time or background attention. Poor Mackenzie Mauzy and Billy Magnussen are the unfortunate stage to big screen cut characters. Let's stay positive though, and give the biggest props to Chris Pine. Pine's comedic chops are awesome here, completely selling the vapid smarm of a bro prince. Pine is responsible for the biggest laughs in Into the Woods; he even outshines Streep, which most other actors could not do.

Into the Woods is neutered enough to bring kids too. The kids will like the songs and the cute stories, but the adults will appreciate the allegorical satire placed upon the screenplay. Also, it will get you excited for James Corden to take over the Late Late Show: he can sing, he can bake, and he can tell stories better than most.

Big Eyes
Big Eyes(2014)

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It's easy to see why Tim Burton was attracted to Big Eyes. The paintings flirt with the weird line Burton lives to criss cross. However, the director mostly plays it safe to honor the source material, leaving his directing fate to the so-so screenplay.

The painter of the Big Eyes is Margaret (Amy Adams), who paints them that way because eyes are her window the soul. Margaret is actually pretty brave for the 1950's: she leaves her husband with her daughter (Madeleine Arthur) for San Francisco. There, she provides for her daughter best she can and tries to sell her Big Eyes on the side. She ends up being swept off her feet by fellow painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who is attracted to Margaret's talent and sweet nature. Walter soon discovers that people like Margaret's art, but peddles it as his own as his best gifts are at sales and storytelling. At first, the sales are a blessing for Margaret and her daughter, but slowly the lifestyle built around lies starts to resemble a house of cards.

Burton nails the tone and pacing of Big Eyes. This is not morose Shakespearean fare, but a delightful tryst with inner complications. The painting themes allows Burton to use some delightful pastoral flourishes of color from time to time, and the setting gives the go-go screenplay some thematic resonance. The picture moves briskly but smoothly, establishing a setting and situation and then quickly moving on. An introspective type could see the pacing like Walter himself; on first glance it keeps Big Eyes looking great, but if you really pay attention the choices are there to cover up some blemishes in the story.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski want to set the record straight when it comes to Margaret and do right by her. As such, it is important for her to look like a beacon of pious anger. Such an evolution undercuts the work the first hour does setting up the Keanes' relationship and just how complicated it actually is. The third act's devolution of Walter leads to some very amusing cathartic moments that undercut his character for a happy ending, leaving a bit of a nasty taste in your mouth. In addition, Walter's rendering robs the story of any stakes whatsoever going into the courtroom scenes as the screenplay telegraphs what is going to happen.

Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz represent the diametric opposites for acting types. Adams is wonderful finding subtle ways to grow Margaret from meek to powerful. In the hands of a lesser actor, she would be screaming at Walter by the end of the film, but Adams exhibits how to grow a character's confidence organically and slowly. Waltz starts at over the top and bubbles over like a soda poured too quickly into a glass. The beginning scenes use Waltz's charisma to attract Margaret, a necessary moment that Waltz sells easily. After that, he quickly ceases to be human and becomes a plot device; had the writers dialed him back to a consistent level, Waltz's performance would come across less hammy. Other characters show up and add some fun to the proceedings, especially Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp who relish the chance to make fun of critics.

Big Eyes should end up a great cable film. While not a revolutionary movie, it is lots of fun and will be easily rewatchable. You can also develop a drinking game: if Christoph Waltz acts like his character in Inglorious Basterds, take a shot.

Mr. Turner
Mr. Turner(2014)
½

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The person sitting next to me fell asleep 7 times watching Mr. Turner. Can't say I blame him and even thought about drifting off myself. Mr. Turner is a slog of a film: British Oscar Bait about an aging artist. In Mr. Turner's defense, the man was REALLY old.

Many of you are probably unaware that you know J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall). He is famous for seafaring paintings that have probably been at your local art museum, and he was a pioneer of impressionism. Mr. Turner captures the twilight of the man's life. We see the evolution of his relationships with his partner (Dorothy Atkinson) and father (Paul Jesson), and the fling he has with a widow Sophia (Marion Bailey). In addition, Turner's art evolves as he ages to disappointing results for the populous.

The big failing of Mr. Turner is its pandering to its demographic: geriatrics. Director Mike Leigh uses lots of picturesque stillness to capture the beauty of JMW Turner's creations. As breathtaking as those sights are, the stillness unfortunately bleeds over into the rest of the movie. At times, it feels as if Leigh forgot to turn off the camera; scenes drag on and on, and sometimes scenes repeat on and on and end in the wrong place. Frustratingly, there are about 3 or 4 different ending points, all solid, that the director bypasses for what ends up to be filler. Also, the painter is shown here to be a more crotchety type, groaning answers all the time; however, much of his language is indecipherable for the hard of hearing and structured too correctly for the period, which diminishes all the punchlines since Turner is mostly monotone.

Director Leigh wants to juxtapose the beauty of the art with the curmudgeonly, dirty fellow producing it. Mr. Turner takes about an hour to get interesting, using the painter's relationship with his father as a trigger for changes in his personality and painting. In particular we see a compartmentalized version of how each new woman he meets brings something else to his life, whether it be companionship, sex, artistic inspiration, or simply a distraction. The most interesting part of Mr. Turner is his evolution in style from straightforward majestic ocean canvases to impressionism. The man's relationship to the art scene is particularly enjoyable, especially watching Turner groan at an inferior painter or a simple-minded youth. The poignancy of an artist watching the world pass him by and forget him is lessened by the aimless story, but it still resonates in the end.

Much of Mr. Turner's success is due to how well Timothy Spall can say so much with an "ugggghhhh" or "mmmmmmhhhh." Spall has prepared his whole life to be JMW Turner, using his honed scowl to maximum advantage. Surrounding him are a bunch of character actors not well known in the US, but doing good work here. Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey take what could have been one note characters and nicely flesh out their personalities; Atkinson deserves commendation for her work, since she has to show us with little dialogue and acknowledgement just how much her relationship with Mr. Turner is. Most other actors have one scene or two to shine: Paul Jesson (as Turner's father) and Martin Savage (as a tortured artist) stand out the most.

Mr. Turner won Timothy Spall some awards at the Cannes Film Festival, a reward for starring in several Harry Potter Films and Enchanted. Spall deservedly earns his spotlight as the famed British painter, using his trademark grimacing to great effect. Seriously though, how would you ever know if this man was happy? Maybe we should test this theory with a box full of puppies.

The Babadook
The Babadook(2014)
½

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Why would anyone open the cover of a children's book with only a red exterior? The Babadook is a terrifying and chilling film about a luckless parent and child. It boasts probably the best scares of the year, making it the perfect way to scare an unexpected friend.

The Babadook is the name of a "children's" book that Amelia (Essie Davis) reads to her young child Samuel (Noah Wiseman) to make him go to sleep. These nights have become commonplace for Amelia: Samuel believes in magic, ghouls, and demons and acts out in school, getting into trouble constantly. Amelia also has a traumatic event she is trying to cope with that interferes with her relationship with her son and others. The Babadook is a dark being that enters their life after they read the book; the creature adds terror onto grief and exhaustion to threaten the struggling family during already desolate days.

The Babadook is the movie equivalent of watching a train wreck in slow motion. Writer/director Jennifer Kent sets the pieces early on: poor Amelia has to deal with her pain in the ass son (she pushes this button a bit too hard) during exhaustive shifts and endless nights. The children's book predicts exactly how the end will come, and slowly but surely dread builds. Mom has a car accident. Police are unhelpful. Family and friends turn on Samuel and Amelia's plight. Social workers ask too many questions. The dog keeps barking. The suspense builds and builds to a rousing and terrifying climax during one of those endless nights, where the psychological toll and paranoia allow for quick editing and cutting to disorient and scare the viewer. The film also doesn't cheat out of what The Babadook actually is and gives a very strong thematic resolution to the movie. Kent's script and direction imbue The Babadook with paranoia tinged with a hint of desolation: the kind where you cover your eyes but peek just to catch a glimpse.

The Babadook works because terrific acting matches the strong script. Essie Davis is asked to do a lot here. You FEEL her world weariness, and sympathize with her snaps at her annoying son. The Babadook triggers a surfacing of some deep desire inside her being that causes a slow transformation necessary for the third act to be suspenseful, and Davis finds little moments to push the fear/anger/paranoia deeper and deeper into the abyss. Noah Wiseman flirts with "Ugh!!" status as the ADD'ed up Samuel. Kent smartly writes him as a good hearted open book: yes he is a pain, but he clearly loves his family and wants to protect it. Davis sells the crazy and the humanity in a weird little package to the point where I saw a few wet eyes because of him during the film's darker moments.

The Babadook will go down as the scariest film of 2014. Kent is a filmmaker to be watched, and Essie Davis needs more acting jobs. Seriously though, if someone knocks on your door and no one is there when you answer, but then the knocking happens again, just call the police. Sure, you might be paranoid, but at least no demonic shapeshifters will end up in your house.

Annie
Annie(2014)

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Annie is a beloved musical with timeless songs. 2014 Annie wants to be a modern remake of a classic but will just end up a sing-a-long. This poorly scripted remake does nothing to amplify the songs and ruthlessly pulls on your heartstrings to the point of eyerolling. And you dragged Quevenzhane Wallis into this. HOW DARE YOU.

This Annie (Wallis) is a foster child (NOT ORPHAN) in New York City under the watch of the irritating Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). While waiting for her parents to show up, Annie crosses paths with Mayoral hopeful Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Stacks's campaign manager (Bobby Canavale) realizes that a "relationship" between the two will boost the cell phone millionaire's poll numbers. So Stacks, with the help of trusty assistant Grace (Rose Byrne), let Annie move in with her during the campaign. Real feelings develop. Songs are sung. Parents show up. Hopefully not a dry eye in the theater results.

The songs, which should be Annie's big selling point, are woefully mixed in success. Rest easy fans: Tomorrow is easily the film's high point, and will leave you as euphoric as it should. Annie's big solo at an event gives the movie a nice Awww moment as well. Hard Knock Life is fine, but needs modernizing. Other than that, the rest of the songs have some sort of flaw that holds them back. 2014 version of Easy Street comes out of nowhere and doesn't make sense for the film we were watching. The biggest problem is the herculean effort needed to mask weaker singers. Wallis's lack of range is fine; it sorts of adds an earnestness to the character (I cringed at obvious sound editing to her voice). However, dubbing her or combining her voice with Jamie Foxx's is a great way to make her sound crappy. Cameron Diaz is even worse: she's openly admitted she cannot sing, and she has multiple numbers where she also has to combine voices with Foxx (who has a STELLAR voice). All the editing gives the weaker voices a manufactured feel; had director Will Gluck used the voice weakness to symbolize the issues with the characters, the script would contain more emotion and depth.

That is assuming the script had any thought put into it whatsoever. The best idea 2014 Annie has is using social media for major plot points, letting her reputation grow via Twitter and the press. However, political campaigning on image vs. issues is brought up and never discussed again; no one follows up on Stacks's involvement in Annie's "parents;" and worst of all, characters 180 their development for plot service. Ms. Hannigan and Stacks's campaign manager are the biggest culprits, although Grace has her moments as well.

Quevenzhane Wallis was mesmerizing in Beast of the Southern Wild at age 6. Here, she is neutered into a one note character of enthusiasm, which Wallis easily nails. There are brief moments where Annie gets some shades that Wallis acts the hell out of; it is a shame the movie doesn't trust her skills more. Jamie Foxx is cute and fine as Stacks, his best moments coming with Wallis or when using his amazing voice. Bobby Canavale is requisitely sleazy as the campaign manager. Rose Byrne is underused; she is amusing when covering up her lack of friends, and I wish the movie used that more. Cameron Diaz is woefully miscast and poorly written. She way overacts and fails to sell the necessary evolution of her character.

Annie is harmless but thoughtless entertainment. Hoping to capture families with kids on winter break, this remake fails to identify the magic of the original and make it applicable for the kids of today outside of excessive use of social media. At least it teaches a new generation that New York City is the place of dreams: dreams of obtaining as many material possessions as possible. Sigh

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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Peter Jackson sure can craft an epically scoped battle. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies thunderously ends the prequel trilogy to the Lord of the Rings franchise. Die hards and casual fans will be content at the final link between this trilogy and LOTR. Parting is such sweet sorrow, Middle Earth.

The Desolation of Smaug's ending bleeds right into The Battle of the Five Armies beginning, with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacking Lake Town. Bard (Luke Evans) successfully thwarts Smaug's efforts, letting Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the other dwarves enter the Lonely Mountain for their treasure and barricade themselves in. With Smaug dispatched, other groups lay their claim on the mountain, including Bard's followers and Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the elves. The tense staredown between dwarves, elves, and men leaves the orcs undetected to surprise attack everyone in the area, unless Gandalf (Ian McKellan) can free himself from the clutches of Sauron.

This battle rivals Man of Steel's in terms of running length (about 45 minutes). This one is third for Jackson behind 2) Pelennor Fields from Return of the King and 1) Helm's Deep. However, those battles are all timers, and The Battle of the Five Armies was merely great. All of Peter Jackson's tools are used to service the big fight: the lead up builds lots of tension through stare downs and seething anger. Characters we have grown to care about all get big moments either to save loved ones or do something quixotic. Majestic tracking shots establish who is winning at what time. Great CGI beasts unexpectedly show up to pop the eyes. The CGI sequences combined with watching fan favorites shine and rise to the occasion make sure The Battle of the Five Armies satisfies the die hards and significant others of the die hards alike.

If only this film had more characters to root for. I've already been pretty clear about the tie ins with the larger Middle Earth universe in my previous two reviews. Early on, there is a scene that entirely exists for fan service of the LOTR characters that so wildly tries to tie in this series to Frodo's quest that it borders on irrationality and clangs violently against the tone of the film, which is one of redemption and introspection. Because very little character development was given to Bard or Thranduil in the other bloated prequels, their paths to audience support is very rushed, with Bard's arc much more successful than the elf's. Some of the dwarves outside of Thorin are given enough personality that their fates matter, especially Kili (Aidan Turner), but 9 out of 13 major characters are essentially interchangeable (I hoped Jackson would give them each little moments to no avail) and NEVER challenge Thorin. The biggest disappointment of The Battle of the Five Armies is Thorin's immediate plot-servicing transformation from noble leader to greedy jerk. This change exists solely for the purpose of his redemption later, and could have been handled more smartly early on with immensely satisfying results.

I now understand how important Martin Freeman is to The Hobbit now. With all the spectacle unfolding around him, Bilbo is very well grounded and rational, and Freeman excels at befuddlement toward outrageous situations. Luke Evans exudes command and importance as Bard, delivering the biggest cheers in the theater. Richard Armitage sells Thorin's arc as best he can, and mostly earns his BIG moments in the battle. Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner are very cute together, though Lilly's arc could have used less Lee Pace explanation (he is wasted in this). Ian McKellan and Orlando Bloom do superhuman things; boy did they really up the ante on Legolas's skill in battle. Familiar faces will pop up for a scene or two, but really don't add anything to this movie.

The Battle of the Five Armies concludes the greatest fantasy epic in cinematic history. Peter Jackson should feel satisfied for wrapping things up in a nice little package that should leave all fans mostly content. I have beef though, Peter: no one, not even Legolas, should know how to jump from falling brick to falling brick to get back onto a ledge. Not even Super Mario could do that.

The Imitation Game

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Computers have become one of the primary pieces of technology in the world today. Every now and then, I would wonder: Who thought of the first one, and why? Modern computing started from a most noble cause: to create a machine to crack the German code and win World War II. The Imitation Game focuses on this computer's creation as well as its fascinating creator, mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Early on, the war between Germany and Britain went very poorly for the English: German encryption with the Enigma device kept the Royal Army from stealing German messages. Turing was called upon by the English Army to decrypt Enigma, along with Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), and John Cairncoss (Allen Leech). Turing's narcissism and direct nature generate power struggles which Turing wins, hiring Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) to help crack the code. To do so, Turing elects to have a machine he postulated perform the operation. In doing so, Turing absorbs many secrets, including some personal ones that could severely damage his reputation in 40's and 50's England.

The Imitation Game presents the less showy but more cerebral side of the war. While battles are rousing and infinitely more cinematic, the strategizing can easily be made cinematic through stakes and urgency. The computer project is filled with team conflicts, with Turing's antisocial behavior drawing ire from his team. Though the bonding is rushed a little, the race to break the code is rousing and captivating. What makes The Imitation Game special is what happens after Enigma is cracked (in 1941). Several moral dilemmas arise after the breakthrough. Characters deliver big moments as they decide how to handle the information presented to them. The big battles in The Imitation Game are political and personal, but the results of these battles ended up saving millions of lives and maybe costing some as well. In war, especially strategically, there are no easy answers.

The Imitation Game positions Alan Turing as a man of secrets: smart choice, since the man had many of his own. Turing's personal story is nearly as interesting as the Enigma one. Turing is viewed here as a loner who doesn't quite understand the normal, drawing inquisition from friends and superiors alike. In addition, Turing was a homosexual at the WRONG time, but because he knew what he was, he chose to keep quiet. Benedict Cumberbatch posits Turing as a man who knows who he is, but also knows the world will not understand. Cumberbatch's Turing therefore is confident but guarded, and also willing to learn how to relate to people in ways he doesn't understand. His post war struggles are truncated here for more story focus, but enough is presented via Cumberbatch's superior acting to show how conflicted and world-worn Turing was by the end of his life.

This is Cumberbatch's film, but the supporting players mostly do their part. Keira Knightley is requisitely appealing as Joan Clarke, though there is more presumably cut material I would like to have seen for her. The team members are all very good, especially Allen Leech and Matthew Beard, who gets the strongest emotional material in the film. Mark Strong is very enigmatic as the MI-6 director, and Rory Kinnear gets a couple good moments as the investigator for Turing's digressions. Only Charles Dance is wasted here: he is channeling Tywin Lannister when he should be more human.

Alan Turing will hopefully be no longer be criminally unknown by the world after The Imitation Game. Benedict Cumberbatch captures the brilliance and world weariness of a fascinating individual, who left a giant mark on modern society. One note for the writers though: "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine" is not deep; ALL YOU DID WAS SWITCH ONE WORD FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE SENTENCE TO THE END OF THE NEXT SENTENCE.

Top Five
Top Five(2014)

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Chris Rock is one of the most clever comedians on the planet. His stand up specials are among the all time greats, displaying a fascinating point of view on racial politics, gender issues, and what it's like being African-American. Top Five adds to his growing directing resume, establishing compelling characters mixed with some interesting ideas in the process. Top Five will also end up being one of the funniest films of the year, combining vulgar one liners, pointed satire, and spectacular cameos into one gut-busting package.

Keeping things close to the chest, Rock plays Andre Allen, a formerly funny stand up and movie star wanting to prove his worth as a dramatic actor. He is also engaged to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) and getting ready to marry her. On his press junket for the wedding/his film, Allen gets interviewed by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a fan of his who wants to get to know what has become of one of her favorite comedians. Along their extended interview through New York City, we meet Allen and Brown's families, get to know some of the problems these seemingly successful people have to deal with (especially alcoholism), and expose a secret or two along the way.

By a wide margin, Top Five is the funniest R rated comedy this year. Chris Rock's script uses many joke types in its arsenal so any adult will get some sort of satisfaction. Much like David Mamet or Eastbound and Down, the cursing has a poetic quality to it. Top Five understands that the swear isn't the punchline, but it can add heft to every joke if used correctly (the best example is in a radio promotion). There are two stellar sex jokes, one involving sleeping after sex and the other involving tampons. Rock also has many celebrity friends who pop up, including two all-time cameos: one involves someone with drinking problems and the other is the least likely New Yorker to be seen in a strip club. Most importantly, there is an undercurrent of racial satire throughout the story, giving the movie an angry edge that keeps it pushing forward. Rock unleashes his arsenal of friends and jokes on the audience, resulting in laughs of all kinds, ranging from nervous to tear-inducing.

Top Five also finds ways of bringing up conflict without it seeming too surreal for the audience. Rock gets around this problem with specificity. Andre Allen is a rich aging black comedian, much like himself. Drug abuse is discussed in an adult manner; Allen was funny when he drank, and in his attempt to clean himself up, he finds he is no longer funny. Relationship problems also exist, as Erica helped Andre clean himself up but is very vain publically. Andre's biggest issue though is his insatiable desire for validation; it is why he makes the sudden change to dramatic acting, and it is why he does the interview with Chelsea. Andre's desire to be loved is the domino that leads to each of his other issues, and Top Five smartly gives many outlets to show how important it is for the man to be respected and the consequences of that drive.

This is probably about as good Chris Rock gets as an actor. His range is limited, so he plays Allen as he probably is: a funny smart man with an angry and scared edge underneath his actions. The performance isn't great, but it is good enough. Rosario Dawson is Rock's smartest casting choice. Dawson has been a great supporting player in other R rated comedies and knows how to elevate a performance and bounce off another actor; she helps drive the big emotional breakthroughs and payoffs in Top Five. Gabrielle Union doesn't get much screen time, but she delivers some good points and earns every minute. I'll leave the most famous cameo's quiet, but I'm happy to see such amazing African-American talent on display here. JB Smoove, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, Romany Malco, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Sherri Shephard, and Kevin Hart all pop up and give something great to the movie.

Is Chris Rock becoming the black Woody Allen? Only time will tell, but Top Five proves that thesis may soon arrive. Walking and talking? Check. New York City? Check. Issues a specific group of people have to deal with? Check and mate. Copious use of the N word involved in punchlines? Well no, Rock owns that corner.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
½

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Ridley Scott bit off more than he can chew with Exodus: Gods and Kings. The director knew he would have to please the pro-Bible audience members because of the grandeur of Moses's story. On top of that, Scott has to compete against two already good versions of this same story: The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Exodus: Gods and Kings assumes CGI plagues and whitewashed leads are compelling enough to attract viewers, which misses the mark in so many boring ways I almost fell asleep twice watching it.

The story should be familiar to everyone by now. Moses (Christian Bale) is adopted into the Egyptian royal family of Seti (John Tuturro) and son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Moses is well respected by the Hebrew slaves because he finds out he was one of them. He is then banished into the desert where he marries and discovers a burning bush where God (Isaac Andrews) tells him to free his people. Plagues happen. Children die. Moses then leads the Jews out of bondage through the desert to their homeland, crossing the Red Sea in the process.

CGI and cinematography are Exodus's strongest assets. The scope of this film is very big, with tracking shots establishing the size of the story. It is the best way to keep people engaged while characters are walking over endless desert. The Red Sea parting is pretty spectacular, especially the ending. That being said, some of the CGI is shockingly unnecessary. The plagues are particularly longwinded. There are about 10-20 minutes of frog jumping and locust flying. The crocodiles and the Nile is so ridiculous I laughed instead of being traumatized. The worst part about these plague sequences is how little impact they provide; we see ugly things happen, but feel no pain or discomfort at the plight of everyone involved.

Therein lies the biggest weakness of Exodus: the movie's story says NOTHING about the people involved. The Ten Commandments gave its characters the Biblical proportions they deserve. Each major character booms when they speak and exude importance. The Prince of Egypt takes a different route, electing to add some Shakespearean tragedy to the Ramses/Moses relationship: I mean, they did grow up together. The CGI demands mean that Ridley Scott has to cut all the character building parts, rushing through them and disabling any impact the story can deliver during the Egypt scenes. In fact, the one interesting idea the movie has - Moses talking to a God no one can see - is brought up and quickly swept under the rug and forgotten, wasting a compelling study of faith.

The actors have holes to big to act out of as well. Christian Bale (a Christian playing Moses, ha) is probably the best character, playing mostly restrained and exuding leadership. Joel Edgerton will bear the woeful lighting rod of all the criticism, playing an Australian Egyptian. Ramses's character is woefully written, forcing Edgerton to overact to compensate and add feelings where the story generates none. Many cameos here are pointless, topping the list Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul, especially since Paul already has a great desert acting resume.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is safe. Safe is a horrible word for a movie. Great films take chances and push the envelope (Noah, another Biblical epic, did that earlier this year); this film does neither. Please just let this movie's release make you seek out either The Ten Commandments or the Prince of Egypt, both superior versions of this same story. Exodus: Gods and Kings has hate watch written all over it, equally likely to irritate every audience member who sees it.

Wild
Wild(2014)
½

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Wild puts to rest goody-two-shoes Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed's hike along the West Coast is filled with drug use, copious sex, and sailor swearing, which Witherspoon dives into. That's not why Witherspoon chose the role though; Strayed's foray into the wilderness is also a powerfully told tale of confronting one's demons and moving on from traumatic life experiences.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is the poster child for taking coping mechanisms to the extreme. After the death of her mother (Laura Dern) and resulting messy breakup of her marriage, Strayed elects to leave the world and partake in a thousand plus mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Along the way she meets lots of interesting people and works out how to move on from the hurt she is experiencing.

Wild has climbs literal and metaphorical mountains to be taken seriously. The premise of this film is kinda dubious: watching a person just fall off the grid in the most extreme way to confront their demons is a cinematic device to try to relate to people. Of course their is going to be eons of hiking metaphors: forks in the road, cleaning out the baggage, overcoming an obstacle, etc. Wild and director Jean-Marc Vallee get over this by subtle parts of a hiker's experience. Strayed does not arrive at a psychological confrontation by seeing a fork in the road, but by letting her mind wander when she walks. She'll start out with one word and revolve around it, find another word, then another, until a point where she realizes "hey, heroin helped me hide from the fact that my mother is dead." A word, a picture, a tune: all of these things trigger Cheryl's subtext into text, keeping the metaphors from generating groans. Since all forms of hiker have interesting mentalities, tension gets generated from Cheryl sussing out the intentions of people she meets on the mostly empty trail, with mostly non-manipulative results (except the very end). Finally, flashbacks give insight into Cheryl's pre-trek life, and reveal new layers about her personality without becoming too obstructive to the journey. Anyone going on a wilderness journey alone should watch Wild to prepare for the kind of conflicts they will encounter.

Reese Witherspoon also keeps Wild tamed (I couldn't help myself). The movie opens with Cheryl screaming at the top of her lungs, but then reigns her in. We don't see any extended crying or screaming for at least an hour. Witherspoon combines exhaustion in the present with exasperation at her living situation in the past to paint an insular character learning to emote without going off the deep end. Witherspoon is also asked to be naked and openly disgusting with drug abuse and hook ups, which she also rarely emotes to showcase how lifeless Strayed had become. Opposite Laura Dern's radiance and optimism (she's very good here), Witherspoon has to convey naiveté and resentment alongside happiness with Cheryl's cut short memories of her mother. Witherspoon has gotten here before with Walk the Line, and Wild makes her reearn her place among the acting elite.

Wild is clearly Oscar bait, but Reese Witherspoon's desire to service the story keeps the movie from becoming overly pushy on that front. Witherspoon is on top of her game as Cheryl Strayed, even carrying that giant monster backpack herself for most of the trip. Strayed picked a hell of a trail too: on scenery alone, the Pacific Crest Trail ranks among the most beautiful locales I have seen. I'm not about to walk a thousand miles to see them though.

The Homesman
The Homesman(2014)

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Tommy Lee Jones used to be a hot commodity. The Fugitive and Men In Black rank highly among my favorite films. As time goes on, Jones has become extremely old fashioned, looking into playing historical figures from bygone eras. The Homesman reflects Jones's desire to live in the past, as he is the creative force behind the film. This western brings to mind better films while masquerading as a profound piece on life in the West. Multiple times during this film, I kept asking myself, who will want to watch this? Why should I care?

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a single woman about 31 years old living in the Nebraska wild territories. Desperate to find a man, she reaches out to all the single men in the territory only to be rejected for being plain and bossy. When 3 women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter) go crazy living in the middle of nowhere, Cuddy agrees to be the girls' homesman: the caretaker responsible to return them to their families in Iowa. Along the way, Cuddy finds George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) hung from a tree for living in a place that wasn't his. Briggs agrees to accompany Cuddy and the women on the journey.

The problems I have with this film start with little inconsistencies. The journey from Nebraska to Iowa is supposed to take 5 weeks or so, starting in early May (stated in the movie), and snow and cold is repeatedly encountered as an obstacle. Okay fine. The women go in and out of coherence depending on what the plot asks? I guess alright. But those things start making you rethink what else you see. Each little vignette in the West starts and ends abruptly, (only one involving a freighter is well executed). The point I guess is to show the West was a place of kill or be killed, and in its own way forces a person into survival mode. Instead, these vignettes give the Homesman a disjointed feel that doesn't really build suspense as it is intended to.

And then the third act rears its ugly head. This movie has about 3 different endings, making less and less sense as the story goes on. Character setups get betrayed to keep the story moving, and rely upon cameos to keep the crowd interested. The already dragging film drags on for an extra 30 minutes to "resolve" in a very unsatisfying way. The biggest issue with the Homesman's finale is that is will alienate what little audience it had left. Like the sprawling plains? We're in Iowa. Like the story? It resolves 30 minutes before the end. What becomes of Cuddy and Briggs? Resolved well before the end of the film.

Tommy Lee Jones is the bright spot in the acting department. His character is somewhat of a blank slate, letting actions reveal who he is more than words, and what words he uses are amusing among the desolation. Jones can still act. Hilary Swank has played tomboys before, but here she is forced to play a western version of that. She does the best she can with the material, which is pretty crappy. The three crazy women are requisitely crazy: lots of the movie's shocks result from their actions; however, they are mostly interchangeable. Familiar faces will pop up for a scene or two and are most welcome, especially Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader.

The Homesman desperately wants to be Dances With Wolves or True Grit, or any of the other great westerns. It falls woefully short, in part because of Tommy Lee Jones's passion for the project. Perhaps I'm being too hard on the man, but in general, westerns are a façade of an older movie era, as Jones is slowly becoming. Maybe Jones should just go way back: do a biblical epic or something to keep from resurrecting westerns that younger people have no intention of seeing.

Rosewater
Rosewater(2014)

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Jon Stewart has been of the most important people of the new millennium. He and his Daily Show has openly challenged politicians and their manipulation of the news cycle to further their own ideals. Stewart can see past the BS better than many of the so-called journalists out there in a way that makes news easier to digest. Succumbing to demand, Stewart finally has written and directed his first feature film, Rosewater. The film is an uplifting tale that is mostly compelling for a first film, although Stewart's influence on the material probably inhibited meatier storytelling from dominating the story.

Rosewater is about journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal). Bahari was covering the 2009 Iranian Election for Newsweek Magazine, in which Incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated upstart Mir-Hossein Mousavi by an absurd margin of victory. Bahari filmed both sides of the conflict, realizing that the results were fabricated. The journalist elected to videotape the conflict and resulting protests, resulting in his lengthy imprisonment by the Iranian government. Bahari was physically and mentally tortured by Rosewater (Kim Bodnia), using his wit and inner resolve to survive his imprisonment before his eventual release.

Jon Stewart knew Bahari very well. In fact, one of the pieces of "evidence" used against Bahari was a Daily Show segment he taped. Stewart has cited his personal involvement in the story as a reason he wanted to help craft this film. As such, the main thrust of the narrative is making Maziar Bahari into a hero that the man deserves to be treated as. That story is mostly well done. Early on, Bahari is set up as a well-principled, educated man, but scared to take a stand. When thrust into a decision though, Bahari usually chooses correctly. Stewart goes to great lengths to show how Bahari's oppressors/captors are ignorant, but not stupid: they get the upper hand more than a couple times. In prison, Bahari has conversations with dead relatives in solitary to express his fear and strengthen his resolve. The segments in solitary are a little long, but move quickly enough to keep from needlessly dragging. I didn't feel compelled to standingly ovate for Rosewater, but Maziar Bahari's optimism and fight made me proud of the remaining pockets of journalism that support the voiceless.

As compelling as the story of Maziar is, there are several bigger stories Stewart keeps in the background to the detriment of Rosewater. The Iranian election along with the rest of the "Arab Spring" was famous for using social media to spread the movement. Stewart touches on this with uses of hashtags and references to Facebook; since Bahari worked for a magazine, his thoughts on this could have been used to give more context to the man, but instead are left on the sidelines. Most importantly, Mr. Rosewater's interrogation is littered with dark ridiculous humor that doesn't surface enough. One of the highlights of the film is when Bahari points out that Jason Jones, the Daily Show's American "spy," is a pretty poor spy because he has a TV show. The ludicrous nature of the questioning gets some big laughs and exposes how fundamentally flawed the government's logic is. It would also help show how smart Bahari is by out crazying the crazy questions. More humor would help with the probably jarring shifts in tone Bahari must have experienced in prison, further showcasing the personal turmoil the man persevered.

Gael Garcia Bernal, despite his Hispanic roots, is very good as Bahari. Bernal's performance is reactive and human, capturing the fear and befuddlement Bahari must have felt; however, there is a warmness and determination in Bernal that makes you easily root for the man. Kim Bodina is equal parts unhinged and repressed as Mr. Rosewater, humanizing the man that could easily have been a caricature. Dimitri Leonidas, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, and Claire Foy are pretty good in limited roles as well.

Jon Stewart's first feature is by no means a failure. Rosewater is an inspiring tale of a fascinating man in a fascinating time. Now that Stewart has done justice to Maziar Bahari's tale, he can refocus on the Daily Show or perhaps another film in which he is not involved in. Maybe he can do the Chris Christie biopic since he is from New Jersey.

Foxcatcher
Foxcatcher(2014)

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Bennett Miller has certainly put a weird spin on the sports movie. Miller is the director of Moneyball, where the hero of the story is not a player overcoming great odds but a sports executive usually relegated to the bad guy role. Foxcatcher, like Moneyball, starts out like other sports films, with a wrestler trying to make a name for himself. Then Foxcatcher twists the American Dream into an American Nightmare, using 3 great performances from some unlikely sources to tell its real life tale.

Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz are two Gold Medal Winning Olympic Wrestlers from the 1984 games. The two love each other, but Mark clearly exists in his older brother's shadow. Seeking to make a name for himself, Mark agrees to wrestle at Foxcatcher farm under the employ and "guidance" from John du Pont (Steve Carell), who is seeking to separate himself from his mother's (Vanessa Redgrave) accomplishments. Mark and John's relationship starts out all right, but slowly becomes toxic to both parties. The two then reach out to Dave and US Wrestling to help the Foxcatcher team, but Dave sniffs out Mark's suffering and tries to keep his brother away from John, which the paranoid benefactor does not take well.

Atmosphere goes a long way in Foxcatcher. The first scene of the movie is Mark giving a speech to little kids trying to come off patriotic, and it is poorly paced and genuinely uninspiring. These scenes early on establish how Dave is the grounded normal one and Mark doesn't connect well enough with his peers. John du Pont is even worse. Once he enters the picture with cold, stoic speeches, unease and detachment permeate the movie. du Pont gives the presence of a man who uses his money to make himself feel more important than he actually is, and at one point is genuinely shocked when someone turns down money for the benefit of his family's comfort. It is clear from Foxcatcher that du Pont has an unhealthy fixation on his mother, which adds an unhinged quality to all of du Pont's actions. Dave's role is necessary as he is playing a real normal person; watching du Pont and Mark talk to Dave drags both of them back to reality, benefiting Mark but terrifying John. Yes, many scenes drag on too long and the focus on wrestling is there to pad the running time, but the unnaturally long scenes add to the disconnect and dread building to Foxcatcher's climax.

Foxcatcher's story takes second fiddle to the Oscar worthy acting from its 3 leads. Each lead gets one great moment at least. Channing Tatum haters will find less and less material going forward. Tatum gives Mark Schultz the complex dynamic of loving his brother but wanting to escape his shadow, making it easy for us to see how he could fall under du Pont's spell. Tatum nails the big moment of his emotional breakdown from a wrestling setback. Mark Ruffalo has the least showy role but the most complex performance as Mark's brother Dave. Ruffalo makes you believe in Dave as a motivator and great guy, setting the table for the conflict with John du Pont. Ruffalo's best moment comes when he has to describe his working relationship with du Pont. Steve Carell will get most of the accolades playing against type as distant creep du Pont. Carell's performance carries Foxcatcher through the slow moments, making the audience contemplate what must be going on in that guy's head. Carell has a couple big moments, one after a big victory and one where he has to show off his wrestling to his mother, that are highlights of the film.

Foxcatcher is Grade A Oscar bait. The leads are great playing against type, and the director has been involved in Oscar nominated films. John du Pont is such a compelling character; I would love a documentary on the full story of what happened with that guy. I also learned that big noses are not to be trusted.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
½

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It is unfair that the Hunger Games gets lumped in with Twilight, Divergent, and other wanna-be franchises because it has similar elements. Suzanne Collins's novel and Francis Lawrence's movie adaptation has such higher aims than petty love triangles. The first two Hunger Games entries tackles systemic oppression, reality TV, and political gamesmanship. Mockingjay Part I builds on those themes by placing them during a political uprising. Yes, this film is clearly part of a larger finale, but Part I glides on its stellar cast to set the tables for what should be a rousing finale.

Mockingjay Part I opens a few days after the events of Catching Fire. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a shell of her fiery self, filled with nightmares of the games and her missing partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who resurfaces as a political tool of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). To save Peeta, Katniss agrees to become the symbol of the rebellion lead by gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), President Coin (Julianne Moore), and Katniss's District 12 love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who has moved himself up the ranks of the uprising.

Mockingjay Part I uses the propaganda film as its theme, giving the movie a fresh spin. This franchise prints money, so nobody would have blamed director Francis Lawrence from including a gigantic battle featuring all of the series regulars. However, such a sequence would have no stakes; with a Part 2, there's no real threat of a major player dying. Instead, the director boldly sticks to the themes of the book, and focuses the story about how to sell an uprising instead of fighting to win one. The movie mines a good chunk of humor filming Katniss trying to rally troops then creating tension watching weaponless masses fighting gun wielding oppressors due to the videos sent out. This choice gives new (Coin) and fringe (Gale, Prim) characters a chance to build personalities and complexity before the big finale. In addition, the escalating body count clearly tolls on Katniss and Peeta, giving each more layers separated before their eventual reuniting.

Despite the great direction, Mockingjay Part I cannot be seen on its own. The movie's a table setter. President Coin, Gale, and Prim (Willow Shields) need the drawn out screen time because they will clearly be really important characters going forward, but that process takes time and trust from the audience, which can drag the film at times. The film's cast is bursting at the seems: characters no longer greatly important (Elizabeth Banks's Effie or Woody Harrelson's Haymitch) to the central story are given sections to shoehorn them in. More importantly, Peeta and Katniss are forced to watch each other on TV screens when they clearly work best playing off each other. Mockingjay Part I positions the board for Part 2 to be a rousing finale, but mostly arbitrarily picks an ending point.

The reason to see Mockingjay is the plethora of acting talent. Newcomer Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman machinate behind the scenes, generating compelling political strategizing. Moore gives Coin enigmatic and cold qualities very similar to equally enigmatic and cold Donald Sutherland, so as to have us on her side but warily. Liam Hemsworth needed to sell Gale's charisma and talents in Part I for the love triangle part of the story to carry any weight. Hemsworth does enough to keep Gale in the conversation, giving him channeled strength and commanding stoicism. Natalie Dormer and Willow Shields are fine enough, and Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, and Elizabeth Banks do their best with limited screen time. Josh Hutcherson is great with about 15 minutes of screen time as Peeta, selling so much pain and anger being trapped in the Capital. As always though, Jennifer Lawrence steadies the whole ship. Katniss is a girl with immense personal strength, fierce devotion to her family, friends, and morals, and love interests that don't define her existence. If ever there was a better modern role model for women, I can't think of one. Lawrence captures the growing shades of the girl on fire, putting some unhinged pieces alongside Katniss's steely resolve.

Francis Lawrence earned the right to direct the final Hunger Games film. Mockinjay Part I was mostly designed as a cash grab, but Lawrence uses the movie to build a host of compelling characters as the rebellion continues to grow. Jennifer Lawrence and company continue to deliver the goods; I cannot wait to see what the filmmakers do for the big finish.

Dumb and Dumber To
½

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Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels used to be funny. The Farrelly Brothers used to direct great movies. Dumb and Dumber used to not have a sequel. Lloyd and Harry are back for recreated escapades from the first movie without the bite and charm of the original. At least Billy in 4C got more birds to kill.



Dumb and Dumber To opens with Harry (Jeff Daniels) visiting Lloyd (Jim Carrey) in some sort of incapacitated facility. After a so-so payoff, Harry finds out that Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) had his daughter in 1991, and Harry as it turns out, needs a kidney to live. Lloyd agrees to go on a trip with his best friend to find her, without telling Harry he's infatuated with her. Along the way, Rob Riggle and Laurie Holden get involved.

Dumb and Dumber To is a victory lap film for the Farrelly Brothers. Good sequels to great films don't repeat the first film, they either go tangential or go bigger. A great deal of the material here is repeated shot for shot from the first film, just with different props or characters: peanuts replace Big Gulps, tech conferences replace benefit dinners, and sex dreams involving a young woman replace sex dreams with a red head. This wouldn't be terrible if the jokes had any bite whatsoever, but similar to American Reunion, what was once edgy has to push further or become neutered. Dumb and Dumber To therefore has repeated jokes with little to no context and point, submerging most of the film with them. There isn't even a great cameo (I heard rumors of Jennifer Lawerence, but they are just rumors).

Jeff Daniels fares better than Jim Carrey in this sequel. Yes, Harry is a doofus, but his heart is in the right place. All the jokes mostly come from a place of doing the right thing (save the stupid conference). Harry wants to meet his daughter that he never met; yes, for a kidney, but he also makes it clear that he wants to right wrongs and be there for people he cares about, like Lloyd, whom he visited for years. The jokes don't land, but you don't feel so bad. Carrey is doing the same character with crappy material, pointing out how wildly inconsistent he is in service of jokes that don't work. Lloyd 180s in the third act for some closure, which is kinda sweet, but dramatic stakes never drove a Dumb and Dumber film.

Dumb and Dumber will go down as one of the great comedies of all time: its still edgy (selling a dead bird to a blind kid?), low brow (spectacular poop and throw up jokes) and endlessly quotable (Big Gulps huh? Alright. Welp, see ya later!). Watching the end credits mixing pictures of the original with pictures from this sequel made me squirm. Dumb and Dumber To will be a poster child for how to NOT make Hollywood sequels, unless you just want the cash. For the millions of Dumb and Dumber fans out there: stay home and forget this near abomination. Kick its ass Sea Bass!!

The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything is a textbook case of Oscar bait. Movie about universally loved historic figure? Check. Transformative performance from lead actor? Check. Story about the power of love? Check. Period piece set in the UK? CHECKMATE.



The Theory of Everything follows the courtship, marriage, and trials of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones). The two become drawn to each other at Cambridge University while Hawking was making his discoveries in physics and Jane is studying medieval poetry. Hawking gets diagnosed with ALS, the disease that cripples his body function. The couple plow through though, getting married and having 3 kids in the process. As time goes on though, we see the amazing couple go through similar marital problems like wandering eyes and inhibited personal growth.

The Theory of Everything suffers from time constraints much like its subject. Stephen Hawking's entire life is crammed into 2 hours of movie time. As such, many compelling parts of his life are truncated to move the story along quickly. We get about 5 minutes of Hawking's depression after the ALS diagnosis, eliminating Jane's effect on his recovery and establishing an important part of her character. Most importantly, the messy breakup of their marriage is rushed; in less than 5 minutes of screen time, we see Dr. Hawking become infatuated with his speech therapist and bounce out of his marriage. To director James Marsh's credit, the scene where Hawking brings this up to Jane is fantastic, but it is very unearned. That being said, The Theory of Everything's story is rarely boring and often very compelling. The life diagnosis gives Hawking's physics efforts real stakes, and the story does a good job working in Jane's religion into Hawking's studies, which paints Jane as more an equal than just a subservient wife.

The best comparison to The Theory of Everything is A Beautiful Mind, a story about a brilliant man with a famous illness and a long suffering wife. The difference is The Theory of Everything is based on Jane Hawking's memoir. While A Beautiful Mind put John Nash front and center, The Theory of Everything gives equal footing to Jane and Stephen Hawking, focusing on the marriage first and foremost. The courtship and marriage of the Hawkings contains the strongest material, dealing with unique and adult problems gracefully. While Jane Hawking is a compelling and surprisingly interesting character, Stephen Hawking's life has much more nuance and complicated arcs that deserve screen time, such as his physics pursuit, ALS diagnosis after effects, and speech therapist relationship. The Theory of Everything would have benefitted from a truncated time period to cover just the Hawking household instead of encapsulating a thoroughly complicated life into one film.

Eddie Redmayne is better known to me as a singer than an actor, famous for Les Miserables and other musicals. His transformation into Stephen Hawking is exceptional. Redmayne absorbs Hawking's early gangliness with physical activity, and combines it with a terrifying deterioration. At the end, Redmayne can only use his eyes to tell anyone what he wants, but we instantly know what is going on in the physicist's mind because of how well Redmayne becomes the character. All the praise he is getting is well deserved. Felicity Jones gives Jane Hawking a very strong will and likeability. At first, Jones is just playing cute, but as ALS takes hold, Jones becomes a fierce determined woman pushing her love forward and becoming a big factor in his success. In addition, Jones shows us Jane's emotional toll and frustration at bearing the family's entire physical burden. Charlie Cox does great work as a family friend of the Hawking's that clearly has feelings for Jane, and David Thewlis and Harry Lloyd do well with underwritten parts as college friends of Stephen.

All most people seem to know about Stephen Hawking is his computerized voice. The Theory of Everything at least gives us insight into influences on the amazing man. Eddie Redmayne's performance alone is a good enough reason for people to see just how terrible Lou Gehrig's disease actually is. I'm now in favor of changing ALS to be known as Stephen Hawking's disease; it would give hope to all those poor people who suffer from it that within themselves still lies the ability to perform great acts.

Citizenfour
Citizenfour(2014)
½

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The NSA scandal is one of the great faults of the Obama presidency, and one of the defining debates of the internet age. Citizenfour is about the people responsible for leaking the story, and the aftermath of said leak. Director Laura Poitras doesn't hide the fact that she was part of Edward Snowden's plans, but she also directs the hell out of a top notch real life thriller. After Citizenfour, I couldn't help but feel the same paranoia as the people involved in the story and a similar fear for where the United States is headed.



After a chilling intro, Citizenfour takes the audience through the fateful 7 day meeting between, Poitras, Journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewen Macaskill, and famous leaker: NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Citizenfour was his screen name). In Hong Kong, the team talks about Snowden's motivations and how to present the vast information he provides them. As the end of the week approaches, each participant realizes that their lives are going to change significantly, leaving their future uncertain and potentially very ominous.

Any great thriller sells fear and paranoia. Citizenfour starts with Snowden get's Poitras's attention by sending her a feed of all of her transactions for the past year. That information sets the stage for the 7 day meeting. Poitras shows Snowden's understanding of the depths of Prism through how commonplace basic communication can be seized. Phones have mini-computers so they need to be disconnected; all e-mails need to be heavily encrypted; computer images cannot be shown on camera. Despite the known "conclusion" to the film, Citizenfour has several sequences evoking the chilling effects of this widespread surveillance. At one point, the fire alarm goes off, spreading dread and unease through everyone in the little hotel room. As it becomes clearer that Snowden is the leaker, the government does little things to end his normal day-to-day living like stopping rent checks or putting construction vehicles around his house. When the team releases his interview, within hours, reporters know which hotel he is at, and Snowden must escalate the exile process he knew he would have to use. Citizenfour will make most audience members rethink all my Google search entries and e-mails to friends, wondering if there would be any reason they would be on the US watch list.

After the group splits, the story takes some time examining the downfall of Snowden, Poitras, MacAskill, and Greenwald's actions. Greenwald and MacAskill used Snowden's information to leak to Brazil and the UK about their involvement in the NSA's spying program, and the fallout from those reports. Poitras helps film the events, and helps with the Angela Merkle story (her cell phone history was studied). The point of these scenes is to show how Snowden is not the be all end all; others are equally angry and willing to speak out about what is going on inside the United States of Secrets. Yes, Snowden's actions have started the national debate on privacy in the age of sharing, but when another leaker reveals that 1.2 million people in the US are on "The Watchlist," there is still a long way to go to determine if the US needs to change its Patriot Act enabled policy.

Edward Snowden doesn't give himself enough credit. He insists he does not know how filming works or how to act in front of the camera, but Director Poitras makes him a fascinating, enigmatic "character." Snowden's brilliance is evident; very often we see him explain technical jargon to these journalists so they can fully understand what is going on. His smarts cross over to his personal life; Citizenfour did not arrive at this momentous decision lightly. There was clearly lots of thought at what would happen to him, his family, and just how uncertain his future would be. His thoughts that media would make him the story were spot on: I remember a story about his girlfriend having a pole dancing Youtube channel to try to discredit him. Snowden called the journalists to leak the information so the story could break without political bias, further limiting options for the government and cementing the man's thought process. Despite all of this information onscreen, Snowden keeps many thoughts to himself and never emotes, leaving the audience wondering exactly what is going through his mind, especially as his life is about to drastically change. Edward Snowden may not know how an onscreen persona works, but Poitras shows us that Citizenfour is inherently captivating.

Of the many chilling lines about our current state of living, one of the most scary is one where someone points out freedom and privacy are equated, and accepting a loss of privacy is accepting a loss of human rights. Citizenfour shows us the fateful day where a man decided that he needed to stand up because he felt basic human rights were being violated without giving the world a say. I highly encourage everyone enjoying the wonders of the Internet to watch Citizenfour and this Frontline piece to understand what path we have chosen, possibly unwillingly. Whether or not you agree or disagree with what Edward Snowden did, Citizenfour helps you understand how he arrived at his decision and how the consequences are still changing the world we live in.

Interstellar
Interstellar(2014)

Of the films this fall, the one people seem to be most excited about is Interstellar. Not a big surprise: Christopher Nolan has ripped the big-budget filmmaking championship belt away from Steven Spielberg since the start of the new millennium, peaking with the Dark Knight/Inception. Interstellar, like Nolan's second tier efforts, is breathtaking to look at, and just misses its high due to holes in the story's foundation. I mean, I like Matthew McConaughey, but I can't believe he'd be a NASA pilot.

In some unspecified part of the future, a blight has slowly been destroying the crops on Earth. The earth is dying, including for farmers Cooper (McConaughey), dad Donald (John Lithgow), Coop's son Tom (Timothee Calamet), and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Donald and Tom are resigned to their fate, but Cooper and Murph are dreamers, believing in ghosts and space. One night, the pair happenstance on a NASA project led by Cooper's old mentor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). With the Earth dying, NASA found 3 worlds through a wormhole, and wants Cooper to fly the mission with other crew members Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Brand (Anne Hathaway), the Professor's daughter. Cooper decides to pilot the mission, leaving his kids behind, knowing that wormhole science could mean age acceleration for Earth and possibly missing his kids growing up.

Interstellar unapologetically references 2001: A Space Odyssey. It wants to be considered THAT good among the sci-fi elite. The movie's story is the weak link. It does have some parts that get it in the vicinity, especially grounding the space story in real pathos. The Cooper/Murph relationship is set up very nicely, with Murph clearly seeing her father as a hero and her best friend. The wormholes distort time in a way the audience can understand (Event Horizon can sue for a shot by shot remake), and the effect of the time warping are rapid and emotionally jarring. The hour or so build up to Cooper's fateful decision makes the separation painful and real. However, as the movie enters the wormhole, the plot is stuck between two worlds. It never quite builds successfully upon the effects of the Murph/Coop split until too late, and the space relationships were clearly left on the cutting floor to keep the running time below 3 hours, truncating any emotional effectiveness. As such, any parallels between humanity and science and space travel feel unearned, forcing Interstellar's science under the critical microscope, which will Neil DeGrasse Tyson will rip to shreds. Interstellar gets its main relationship right, and coasts on awesome special effects to cover up its logic leaps.

Interstellar needs to be seen in the theater, preferably IMAX. The space travel is a spectacular creation. Nolan built several machines to simulate spaceflight without a green screen. The first images of the spacecraft passing Saturn are breathtaking in scope. The wormhole flight is pretty intense and Kubrickian. Ever wonder what a giant tidal wave looks like? You won't anymore. Nolan even works a black hole into the proceedings. Each world is milked for maximum grandeur in either beauty or inhospitability. Nolan is one of the best at getting an audience to marvel at the wonders he gives life, then unleashes them on the main characters. The director knows how to milk something as simple as a space station docking for maximum dramatic effect.

Matthew McConaughey finally got to save the human race; good for him. His performance here has been described by others as a glue for the story as a whole, an apt description. McConaughey gets the audience to buy in on the pain of leaving his family and how every lost second weighs on him. This pain propels him forward to get the job done and keeps people riveted to the screen. There's lots of talent on screen here supporting the chill Texan - Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, David Gyasi, and Wes Bentley (plus a fun secret). All of the actors on hand give their all, but the big key here is Mackenzie Foy, who has about an hour to sell how much she loves her father before they get ripped apart, and then sell the pain and anger towards him. Foy delivers in all of her scenes with the Oscar winner; although it's easy to get the audience on your side of you're a sad little girl, Foy sells love and sadness better than Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine here.

I really wanted Interstellar to be my 2001. I like the Kubrick film, but it has too many flaws for me to put it among the elite. Nolan will have to settle, like 2001 for me, to be a stellarly crafted visual masterpiece with a story in need of another draft. We now know that Alfonso Cuaron + Sandra Bullock is greater than Christopher Nolan + Matthew McConaughey.

Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6(2014)

Disney Animation has been on a roll since Pixar's creator John Lasseter stepped in to run it. Wreck-It-Ralph is close to the classics in my book. Frozen captured the nation more than any other film in recent memory. Now, Big Hero 6 gives Disney a super team to mass advertise to children. While lacking the emotional punch of the studio's first two installments, Big Hero 6 is a fun origin story for a potential franchise. It also boasts Disney's best non-human character of the new millennium: Baymax.

Loosely based upon the Marvel characters, Big Hero 6 starts in San Frantokyo (the 2 cities are combined) looking in on brothers Hiro (Ryan Potter) and Tadashi (Daniel Henney). The younger Hiro moonlights as a robot fighter for cash, wasting his aptitude for robotics despite graduating high school early. Tadashi is attending robotics genius Robert Callahan's (James Cromwell) university; he shows Hiro all the crazy inventions which immediately imbue our young hero/Hiro (ah, I get it) with the desire to attend said university. After Hiro wins a science competition, a series of unfortunate events leaves his prize invention in the hands of a masked man. As a result, Hiro gathers his brother's other nerd friends (voices of TJ Miller [Fred, the wanna be], Jamie Chung [Go Go the Go Getter], Genesis Rodriguez [Honey Lemon the bubbly], and Damon Wayans Jr [Wasabi the scared]) and Baymax (Scott Adsit), his brother's healthcare robot, to uncover the mystery of the kabuki man.

While Disney has a knack for infusing humor into their stories, Big Hero 6 is by far the funniest effort I have seen from any animated film this millennium. The writing team probably instantly knew they struck gold with Baymax. A literal, well-meaning pleasant robot can be easily placed in situations for maximum comedic impact. Early on, long takes of Baymax having difficulty navigating chairs or cramped living spaces kill in their silence. Literal translations are sprinkled here and there and never lose their impact (eg "That's Sick!" It is a robot, it cannot be sick.). There is a very amusing sequence about a robot version of coming home drunk. By far the best move though, was the simple use of the pleasant sounding "Oh No" from Baymax when a completely crazy situation was unfolding around him. Smartly, Hiro's buddies don't attempt to upstage Baymax, and they get enough personality to add some fun to the proceedings, the most fun of which are Wasabi and Hiro's Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Before the plot kicks in, Big Hero 6 packs more laughs than most of the "comedies" out there.

Big Hero 6 is an origin story, explaining how the team ended up together. The grief that triggers the plot is fully realized and doesn't get cheated by a miraculous 3rd act return. Death has emotional impact, and Big Hero 6 milks this story through the interactions of Baymax and Hiro. The bond between the two is almost like pet and owner, with Hiro teaching Baymax about the world while Baymax helps him cope with his personal grief. The Baymax /Hiro relationship has some highs - the flight through San Frantokyo is a visual feast - and lows, but the emotions are well earned, and the threats to their friendship in the third act resonate and give Big Hero 6 extra heft. The rest of the story is mixed; watching the team montage learning their abilities is always a treat, but the villains were pretty predictable and cheat a little to keep the main characters in peril (with visually appealing consequences). In addition, the catalyst for the formation of the team is just a bit rushed which lessens Hiro's drive.

Voice acting goes for common folk over big profiles. The most obvious voice is TJ Miller, as he has been pegged into the lazy friend role for some time now. Ryan Potter is fine as Hiro, giving the kid spunk, but not much else. Scott Adsit's work as computer aided Baymax is wonderful; hopefully he gets more stuff to do. Damon Wayans Jr. breathes energetic exasperated life into Wasabi with about 10 minutes of audio time. Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez and Maya Rudolph also make the most of their limited words.

Big Hero 6 gives Disney a multicultural group of young people to sell young kids on science and toys, lots of toys. Baymax is destined to become a Christmas present, and the costumes will be worn by boys and girls next to Princess Elsa and Disney's other merchandise. I'm almost sure Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams were watching a Power Rangers episode, went to their writing team, and said, "Do this but animated." I'll give them this: Baymax is WAY cooler than Zordon.

Nightcrawler
Nightcrawler(2014)

Nightcrawler is TMZ's business model on steroids. Dan Gilroy's first feature film showcases the nihilistic sociopath's dream scenario. Los Angeles nightlife's creepy scale is set by go-getter Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will stop at nothing to get the American Dream he wants.

Bloom enters LA in search of a more permanent job; he currently sells stolen metal on the cheap. Fate drops Lou near a car accident, where he runs into Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a cameraman traveling from newsworthy incident to newsworthy incident to sell to a network news channel. Lou is instantly smitten, and starts his own nightcrawling business which becomes quickly successful. Lou then hires an intern Rick (Riz Ahmed) for his growing business and becomes partners with Nina (Rene Russo) a station manager in desperate need of juicy footage.

Much like Network, Nightcrawler takes on the sorry state of network broadcasting, pushing angles over facts for ratings. Fear mongering is Nina's primary push out of sheer desperation, playing kingpin to Lou's drug dealer (he'll go places she would not). Watching a broadcast behind the scenes as she pushes the anchors to play the fear angle reeks of reality and sleaziness; I'd seen countless pieces like this during live coverage. These tactics force Lou into greater and greater risks, blurring Lou's morality purely into the gray by driving storytelling instead of waiting for it to happen. Nightcrawler treads similar territory when it comes to television satire, but it is nonetheless effective and relevant and perhaps more boundary-pushing than ever before.

Jake Gyllenhaal lost enough weight to make Lou look like a shell of a person. Lou's personality reeks of a life devoid of friends and lived online (his education is mentioned to come from online learning). The phony pitches he delivers with gusto sound sincere, but each pitch grows hollow as they get reused. As the story progresses, these pitches devolve into threats, rehearsed and detailed, as if Lou practiced is his empty one bedroom apartment convinced this is the way to go. Lou's work life keeps pushing boundaries further and further; each crime recorded or demand for more money becomes increasingly calculated, overstepping moral and sometimes legal bounds. Rick and Nina feel like helpless pawns that better go along for the ride or be dispensed at the opportune moment. Gyllenhaal simply cannot be praised enough here for succumbing to the depths of human existence with zero remorse. Lou's (black) sheep exterior hides his wolf like drive to win everything. Gyllenhaal's unhinged unlife-like performance teeters Nightcrawler on a knife, keeping the audience wondering how far Lou will go before something terrible happens.

In a movie with some stellar action set pieces and visceral images, Jake Gyllenhaal commands the screen by sheer persistence. Nightcrawler may not be a juggernaut in the movie world, but it demands to be heard and will not take no for an answer. I've always maintained that the world is a decent place, but Nightcrawler chilled me to the core, like a stiff breeze on a dark night.

Birdman
Birdman(2014)
½

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Bill Murray never quite gets his due from audiences unless he's in a comedy. That hasn't stopped Murray from being great in a number of dramatic films, Lost in Translation and Groundhog Day being at the top of the list. St. Vincent isn't going to end up on Bill Murray's greatest hits, but the "comedian" elevates a standard screenplay with sound acting chops. Plus he does a little dance number.

Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) are forced to uproot and move to Brooklyn. Unfortunately, they move next door to curmudgeonly Vincent (Bill Murray), who is having his share of life problems as well. Because of her long work hours, Maggie reluctantly pays Vincent to watch Oliver after school. The two form an unlikely friendship, will Murray's life skills teaching Oliver how to grow up and fend for himself.

Theodore Melfi wrote this script and directed the movie himself. The story means well, but doesn't really establish itself as anything other than an "old coot and innocent kid bond" story. Crotchetiness and naivete are established early. Does the kid need help standing up for himself and does the old man have some tips? Does the old man's past with a foreign woman (Naomi Watts) cause a severe plot shift? Is an oft mentioned absentee character going to show up in the third act? Does the old man have a secret soft side? Is there a big reconciliation after a split of the friendship? If you've EVER seen a movie, you'll know what the answers to these questions are.

Despite the overt manipulation, Bill Murray is here to pick up the slack. Murray's jovial side is in evidence even during the early scenes, when horrible choices are consistently thrust upon him. The scenes with him and your Jaeden are cute and fun. Murray's presence elevates Melissa McCarthy's performance, especially when she's backed into a corner by Vincent. Murray's chops are tested in the third act, where a contrived event forces him really sell a believable state for his character. When the climactic event happens, I was only rooting for the obvious because of how well Bill Murray sold the old man to me.

It makes me a little sad to think Peter Venkman himself is now forced to take old man roles. However, Bill Murray's years of development give me hope that some long overdue awards could be in his future. St. Vincent could be the start of that; Academy Voters, look past the fact that this movie is cloying and give Murray a nod. You owe him for Lost in Translation.

St. Vincent
St. Vincent(2014)

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Bill Murray never quite gets his due from audiences unless he's in a comedy. That hasn't stopped Murray from being great in a number of dramatic films, Lost in Translation and Groundhog Day being at the top of the list. St. Vincent isn't going to end up on Bill Murray's greatest hits, but the "comedian" elevates a standard screenplay with sound acting chops. Plus he does a little dance number.

Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) are forced to uproot and move to Brooklyn. Unfortunately, they move next door to curmudgeonly Vincent (Bill Murray), who is having his share of life problems as well. Because of her long work hours, Maggie reluctantly pays Vincent to watch Oliver after school. The two form an unlikely friendship, will Murray's life skills teaching Oliver how to grow up and fend for himself.

Theodore Melfi wrote this script and directed the movie himself. The story means well, but doesn't really establish itself as anything other than an "old coot and innocent kid bond" story. Crotchetiness and naivete are established early. Does the kid need help standing up for himself and does the old man have some tips? Does the old man's past with a foreign woman (Naomi Watts) cause a severe plot shift? Is an oft mentioned absentee character going to show up in the third act? Does the old man have a secret soft side? Is there a big reconciliation after a split of the friendship? If you've EVER seen a movie, you'll know what the answers to these questions are.

Despite the overt manipulation, Bill Murray is here to pick up the slack. Murray's jovial side is in evidence even during the early scenes, when horrible choices are consistently thrust upon him. The scenes with him and your Jaeden are cute and fun. Murray's presence elevates Melissa McCarthy's performance, especially when she's backed into a corner by Vincent. Murray's chops are tested in the third act, where a contrived event forces him really sell a believable state for his character. When the climactic event happens, I was only rooting for the obvious because of how well Bill Murray sold the old man to me.

It makes me a little sad to think Peter Venkman himself is now forced to take old man roles. However, Bill Murray's years of development give me hope that some long overdue awards could be in his future. St. Vincent could be the start of that; Academy Voters, look past the fact that this movie is cloying and give Murray a nod. You owe him for Lost in Translation.

John Wick
John Wick(2014)
½

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In a movie year where Denzel Washington has a badass action movie and Liam Neeson has two, Keanu Reeves storms onto the scene to win the action championship belt. John Wick is a hella fun, well thought out shoot em up. If someone killed your dog, wouldn't you be pissed and try to take out the crime underworld too?

John Wick (Reeves) is one of the great assassins that retired to settle down and get married. He gets sucked back in when Iosef (Theon Greyjoy himself, Alfie Allen), son of crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), breaks into John Wick's house, beats him up, steals his car, and kills his puppy given to Wick by his dead wife. Wick then channels all that rage to go after Iosef and Viggo. While tracking the family, he runs into old "friends" Marcus (Willem Dafoe), Aurelio (John Leguizamo), Winston (Ian McShane), and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).

John Wick is one of the better action films building the myth around its hero. After the assault on the puppy, we wait about 30 minutes before the action starts. One character attacks Iosef, a powerful man, hearing that he took Wick's car without considering helping Iosef hide the vehicle. When Viggo calls the attacker, upon hearing his explanation, responds "Oh, I see," and himself beats up his son for the mistake. Viggo also acts more resigned to his fate instead of fighting against Wick, knowing how terrifying his resolve is. Normally, show don't tell is the better method in a movie, but in John Wick, these short stories give context and justification for all the action that dominates the final hour.

That final hour is a no-nonsense killing spree for Wick to get to Viggo and Iosef. The action scenes are exciting, direct, and easy to follow: quick cuts and shaky cam are kept to a minimum. What makes John Wick better than the average action film is its world, which is shockingly well-realized for a minimalist plot. When Wick isn't killing people, he's living in the syndicate underground, which has a very structured set of rules. There is a "cleanup" service in case of a house invasion massacre. The hotels, cars, and restaurants he partakes in are all crime owned, and prohibit work inside the establishment. These cold blooded killers walk by each other as if they were stock traders, exchanging pleasantries over a beer. If the rules are broken, unspeakable consequences will result. The hitmen also have their own currency, where favor exchange is in monetary form. These little touches give John Wick's quest for revenge some fun, and explain how easily he finds his way to the Tarasov family.

Keanu Reeves has been playing John Wick for years now. Reeves gets to seethe anger but play cold and emotionless. Unfortunately, there's no "dude" to be found in the movie. By simply looking scary, Reeves gives John Wick the persona needed to make us believe in him. Michael Nyqvist is a nice change of pace from the crazy crimelord, playing frightened and solemn with his bad luck. Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane have the most fun with their limited screen time.

Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski use their fight choreography background and style with Keanu Reeves's knowledge of Kung Fu to the best of their abilities. John Wick is different enough to be a fresh take on the revenge flick. But seriously guys, a puppy? I'm not the biggest dog fan, but even I think that WAY overcrosses the line.

Dear White People

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Dear White People has no interest in hearing the Caucasian side of the conversation. Scathing and necessary, Dear White People gets right to the point about race relations after the Civil Rights movement. While the movie is not quite in Spike Lee's realm, it does bring an interesting new voice to the forefront: Justin Simien. With more polish and practice, Dear White People could become the stepping stone Simien uses to elevate himself into one of the great cultural filmmakers of the modern era.

Dear White People is a reference to Sam's (Tessa Thompson) radio show at Ivy League equivalent Winchester University, in which she informs ignorant white folk like Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the University President's (Peter Syvertsen) son, about the new rules in race relations. Sam's fiery personality gets her elected head of her dorm over Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the Dean's (Dennis Haysbert) son. Her newfound power draws the attention of many, including Colandrea 'CoCo' Conners (Teyonah Parris), who's jealous of Sam's personality, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a shy gay writer who's trying to attract the newspaper editor (Brandon Alter).

Dear White People is a movie for the here and now. The school I attended had a blackface party on campus, one of the plot points of Dear White People. Fox News is directly attacked as a bearer of white conservatism. 2 black friends are now necessary so no one can just claim their token one. Racism is apparently now over because we have a Black President; in fact, we have reversed racism with affirmative action. Dear White People holds nothing back while skewering double standards and tentposts of the good old days. The movie's best attribute is pointing out just how subtle racism is now: gone are the days of the overt bigot. Ironically, this vicious assault on the now holds back Dear White People from becoming legendary; systemic injustice and things like code words and positions of power are in the background or not present at all. By aiming for specificity over ubiquity, Dear White People's sharp edges will be smoothed out over time, leaving the movie as a powerful period piece with something left on the table.

With the satire front and center, the characters of Dear White People are archetypes with hopes of becoming fully realized. Sam and Lionel have diverging arcs that give their characters completeness, and the development of the two of them give them strong backstories. Coco is also a fascinating character: a black woman attempting to cover up her blackness but desperately longing to be famous. Other than those three, Dear White People's ensemble is too big to elevate past archetype, the most disappointing being daddy's boy Troy and privileged white Kurt. I will say this though, no character exists solely to be the villain in Dear White People; there is enough nuance to earn each character a place in the film.

The cast of Dear White People does great work with the material, using relatively unknown actors to give the movie freshness. Tyler James Williams (from Everybody Hates Chris) is one of the bigger names; he earns his top billing as Lionel, selling his confusion about his identity along with a powerful personal drive. Tessa Thompson breathes fire as Sam while exposing the vulnerability underneath the cocky. Teyonah Parris has the most underwritten but well executed role as the conflicted Coco. Brandon P Bell does what he can with Troy's underwritten part. Dennis Haysbert, Kyle Gallner, Marque Richardson, Justin Dobies and Peter Syvertsen let the jokes and brutal honesty fly with aplomb.

Leaving the theatre after seeing Dear White People, an Akon song popped up on my playlist, and thanks to what I saw, I couldn't help but cringe a little. Dear White People helps the audience understand the world they live in now, and all the unwritten rules that govern and confuse every inhabitant. I also learned that nose jobs in the black community actually double as code words.

Whiplash
Whiplash(2014)
½

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Jazz is smooth and mellowing to experience. The jazz in Whiplash is hellish preparation bordering on insanity. Pacing the group are two stellar performances from Miles Teller and JK Simmons, putting a terrifying spin on the mentor/mentee relationship. Whiplash is a cautionary tale for anyone willing to go to any length to be the best at something, an especially necessary tale for millennials.

Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be the next Buddy Rich: the best jazz drummer on the planet. Even at the most prestigious music school in the country, Andrew isolates himself to practice to become one of the greats. His abilities draw the eye of star teacher Fletcher (JK Simmons), who pulls Andrew in to the top jazz ensemble in the nation. Fletcher's tactics are extreme to say the least, but Andrew is so determined to be unlike his father Jim (Paul Reiser), that he abandons all other hobbies to practice, including potential love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist).

The drive to be the best is rarely covered the way Whiplash covers it. The toll on poor Andrew is more similar to abusee/abuser than teacher/student. Andrew interprets the emotional manipulation as a sign of being pushed, and so he works harder and harder to stay in the good graces of Fletcher. Fletcher, however, has no interest in rewarding Andrew's growth, he just finds more clever ways of warping Andrew's psyche. The indirect consequences are just as powerful as the direct ones; by Andrew internalizing his struggle as the story goes on, he starts to neglect his personality, and he lashes out at his dad, Nicole, and anyone who threatens his worldview. The third act borders on being over-the-top with the lengths Andrew will go to to keep his top position, but the point is made: there is some line where drive and insanity where the line can be crossed.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle uses a drummer's inherent expressive motion to milk power from Whiplash. Much of the movie's success is due to its two leads. Teller supposedly did all the drumming himself; an impressive feat, since these beats are not exactly easy. In addition, the final 20 minutes give Teller a chance to emote with just his drumming, a euphoric capper on a great performance. Chazelle quick cuts during this scene between Teller and Simmons, much like a drummer would during a song. Simmons is electric, vicious, and potent as Fletcher, the teacher from hell. His put downs are given with unnerved conviction, until you get him outside of work, where he can be a pensive, thoughtful man. Simmons easily coveys Fletcher's duality and is the main reason Whiplash works so well.

New York City captures yet another person trying to make a name for himself with Whiplash. Miles Teller cements his star status, and hopefully JK Simmons, Oscar Winner is at the end of the tunnel for these two talents. Seriously, at this point, New York City is filled with emotional trauma from all sides. Is anyone simply happy to just exist there?

The Book of Life

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Guillermo Del Toro is known mostly for his takes on the grotesque. With the Book of Life, Del Toro taps into his Mexican heritage to tell an engaging, family friendly tale. The Book of Life uses the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) to weave a tapestry of color and pathos. And American pop songs, for some reason.

On the Dia de Muertos, spirits of the dead intermingle with the living. On that day, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who runs the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Pearlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, come to the real world and intermingle with humans. As former lovers, they have a bitter sentiment towards each other, so they decide to make a wager on the blooming love triangle between Joaquin (Channing Tatum), Manolo (Diego Luna), and Maria (Zoe Saldana). Xibalba picks Joaquin as the winner of Maria's heart to attempt to rule the Land of the Remembered, and La Muerte picks Manolo to keep Xibalba from interacting with humans again.

The Book of Life is pure visual splendor. The characters all have a Pinocchio like appearance, using the wooden dolls in the museum (which starts the story) and bringing them to life, inherently giving them a bit of magic. Del Toro finds ways to make the dark/grotesque receive some sympathy. In the Book of Life, Xibalba and La Muerte could appear scary, but the ornate, colorful nature of their costumes distract younger audience members from the scary qualities. Death is inherently fearful, but the Land of the Remembered is a joyous colorful place. The more the people in the real world speak of you, the more elevated your standing in the Land of the Remembered, as if death gave you a chance to encounter the ones you lost one more time. This helps comfort kids in the audience while giving them a lot of fun things to see, not an easy feat to pull off.

By aiming for the younger demo, The Book of Life strips down the story into simple, easily digestible parts. Give credit to writer/director Jorge Gutierrez for giving each of the main characters good qualities, blurring the lines of good and evil. Xibalba could easily have been an angry demon, but The Book of Life paints him as a frustrated, sad soul. Manolo and Maria are supposed to end up together (it's pretty easy to see), but Maria doesn't let a man define her; she gathers the troops for the final battle and rallies the town. Joaquin could have been the proud manly man, but there's enough intuition in him to paint him as more than a bumbling idiot. However, the background characters mostly appear for comic relief and don't have enough distinguishable traits. Most unfortunately, there is a theme of non-violence infused in the story, only to be undercut by a final physical altercation with a one-note bad guy, usurping all the hard work the story put in. The Book of Life is a mixed bag, but it's simple enough for kids to follow along with what is happening.

The Book of Life is a cute spin on the fairy tale with an overdue look at Mexican culture. The themes of standing up for what you believe in, love, family, and death are ubiquitous and strong lessons for kids to observe, with heaps of color and joy throughout. But seriously, why so many American pop songs? Mariachi bands are fun, and I'm certain Selena's songs would be just as strong for the story as Biz Markie.

Fury
Fury(2014)
½

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War is hell. It doesn't need to be proven anymore. It's dehumanizing, evil, and scarring. Fury drives that point home with the spin on WWII that is most unique to that war: with a tank. Fury's use of tank warfare keeps the battle sequences fresh enough, but like war, how much despondence and desolation does someone have to put themselves through before they start to look for a way out?



Norman (Logan Lerman) is fresh out of boot camp. He arrives on the front and is assigned under Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (Brad Pitt), a proven tank commander. Collier and his team - Boyd (Shia Laboeuf), Gordo (Michael Pena), and Grady (Jon Bernthal) - educate Norman about war's horrific truths. Norman grows in resolve and callousness, willing to follow Collier as the battles become more and more treacherous.

Tank warfare is something I was hoping a WWII movie would attempt to build a film around. Historically, the tanks were first used in this war, and character studies about tank units are understudied in the movies. When focused on the combat, writer/director David Ayer rouses the audience with action. Each battle comes across like an archaic video game, as we view the war from the perspective of inside the tank. Confusion is just as prevalent in the tank as it is on the battlefield; Ayer does a great job painting the fear of the surprise attack and where the attack comes from since tanks usually incur the wrath of a sneak attack. The tank on tank combat is terrifying by showing just how few weak spots a tank actually has. Finally, the final act really captures the claustrophobia of a tank for the people inside. I wish more of the in-between time was spent in the tank so we could see downtime inside of the tank, but overall, Fury gives a solid example of what life is like holding a powerful weapon in your hands.

The opening scene of Fury is a vicious sneak attack, right away pointing out how dehumanizing war is. From there, poor Norman is our guide into the depths of misery. Norman sees how a conscience can lead to deaths for people he cares about, and the young recruit is forced by Collier to eliminate all his moral objections to harden him for endless combat. There is a nice respite from the violence in the middle of Fury when Collier lets Norman act on his youthful impulses and keeps the rest of the team at bay (this particular scene goes on for too long). But even at the end of that tryst, the story ends unhappily. Collier's guidance hardens Norman into a machine necessary to the team in the big third act stand off. By then though, Norman ceases to exist in his old form, having his innocence be taken from him. Fury does not vilify Collier or his actions, nor does it praise him as a secret genius; the movie posits that context is the most important factor.

We believe in Collier because of what Brad Pitt brings to the role. Pitt turns his Inglorious Basterds character into a man who has seen too much but knows what to do to succeed. He is brutal and direct. Pitt gives Collier a channeled control with hidden moments of reflection on his current state. Logan Lerman is the Uppham (from Private Ryan) character. He's fine, but can't quite carry the innocence lost like in Spielberg's film. Shia Laboeuf, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal all get a few great moments to carry and nail them easily.

Fury is not Saving Private Ryan, but it's in the conversation. A powerful film of intensity, bravery, and unspeakable terror, Fury's tank warfare needs to be seen to be realized. Just know that if you go in a child, you will come out an adult after what you've seen. If there's ever a draft, I'm high tailing toward Canada.

Pride
Pride(2014)

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Pride is the injection the movies needed. 2014's fall season has been filled with bleak nihilistic films about the poor state of the world. Pride wants none of that: it forces its way into your hearts and minds by sheer determination. It also helps that it is a socially conscious well-made film about fascinating complicated people coming together to support a worthy cause. Man, just writing that last sentence gave me goosebumps and unbridled happiness.

Great Britain was crippled in 1984 by a Miners' Strike, with the government waging a war against the working class. Especially hard hit is a small town in Wales, run by a small council lead by Dai (Paddy Considine), Hefina (Imelda Staunton), and Cliff (Bill Nighy). Coming to their aide is an unlikely source: a group called the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). This group consists of Joe (George MacKay), a smothered boy just coming out; Steph (Faye Marsay), a demonstrative loyal supporter, Jonathan (Dominic West), the elder statesman of the LGBT movement, and angry powerful leader Mark (Ben Schnetzer). These strange bedfellows join forces to fight for the miners in multiple ways: fundraising, moral support, basic resources , etc. However, the fight is on multiple fronts for both sides: suppressive government on one side, prejudice on the other.

Pride feels like it exists in 1984. The movie gets the era details right, giving context and extra poignance for some of the issues the groups have to fight. The clothes, hairdos, and music match the androgynous sexual nature of 80's culture well. The AIDS issue permeates the background of the movie, always threatening to become the central story, and much like the disease, just pops up when you least expect it. Family dynamics in regards to homosexuality are filled with fear and sometimes bigotry. The movie goes to great lengths to show just how counterculture the LGBT movement was in the 1980s, and how easily polarized their efforts could be construed.

Don't feel bad for anyone in this film though; Pride is nothing short of euphoric. The movie's open-mindedness is genuinely touching. Early on the film, Dai is forced to give a speech in a gay bar. The scene is set up for him to crash and burn, and instead, what occurs is a touching show of humility toward a group of people who receive none. The mutual support allows multiple characters who lack power at the start of the film to rise up and accept the challenges of their plight to meet them head on. Joe gets courage to stand up to his family and accept who he is. Gethin (Andrew Scott) attempts to reconnect with his religious mother. Sian (Jessica Gunning) breaks out of her housewife role to forge a path for herself. Each moral victory generates momentum and courage for another character to do something brave to make their worlds a better place to live, a powerful message for anyone desiring to make a change.

Pride succeeds in no small part because of the eclectic combination of actors that make up its cast. Relative unknown Ben Schnetzer is dynamite as LGSM's leader, Mark. Mark's resolve and charisma forms the backbone of the movement and driving force for the story: if we don't believe Mark, the movie has no legs to stand on. Schnetzer imbues optimism and civic duty to Pride, and he also gives Mark enough layers that hide a deeper fear of mortality that resonate in the third act. Jessica Gunning and George MacKay sell their terrific arts as the frustrated housewife and the timid boy working up the nerve to come out. Surrounding the unknown cast are seasoned British vets. Imelda Staunton finally gets a chance to use her tightly-wound personality for a good cause, and Bill Nighy/Paddy Considine conveys quiet understanding as elder statesman of the mining community. Dominic West and Andrew Scott get the most satisfying arcs: as veterans of the LGBT cause, they get chances to see the youth push for something special. Scott in particular gets a chance to put a band aid over some long festering emotional wounds.

It's amazing how a small gesture can make a gloomy situation more bright. Pride is a great reminder about collectivism. Sure, it is scary to feel alone and ostracized, but out there is someone who shares those similar feelings, and if you join forces to support what you believe in, the sum of your influences is greater that either individual. Pride made me well up with joy and satisfaction, and gives me hope for any future with people like these brave souls involved.

The Judge
The Judge(2014)
½

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Robert Downey Jr. Robert Duvall. Vera Farmiga. Billy Bob Thornton. Vincent D'Onofrio. The Judge sounds pretty can't miss with that cast right? While being passably entertaining mostly because of the acting talent, The Judge is mired in over-the-top sentimentality and clichés. Turns out the director of Wedding Crashers is bad at subtlety.

Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a star lawyer at a Chicago law firm. He gets a call that his mom has passed away in his small Indiana hometown, so Hank ventures down there to meet up with family: brothers Dale (Jeremy Strong) and Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and his dad, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). Before Hank can get back to Chicago, he finds out his dad is being prosecuted for murder by Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), forcing Hank to take up his father's case.

The Judge suffers from subplot hell. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the movie could use a better editor. As lovely as Vera Farmiga is, her character is not necessary other than to remind Hank that small towns can be charming. That's 20 minutes right there. Hank's daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) adds some cute, but she functions mostly as a plot device. Leighton Meester better have gotten a lot of money to be in this film, cause her subplot is meant for another film without even giving her a personality. In all, there is probably about 40 minutes of flab that when cut leaves a strong story.

The Hank/family conflict is rooted in standard stuff: past mistakes, outsider family member, small town vs. big city. The script chooses lots of melodrama and big events: disease, senility, murder, to try to generate emotions. However, the central story drives The Judge with the inherent conflict between the family members and errors Hank has made in his past. Watching the family slowly relearn how to trust each other gives The Judge power, not a dropped bomb about cancer. Unfortunately, the script goes to the shock and awe well too often, eventually causing an audience member to throw up their hands and say "Ugh."

Fortunately, the actors give nuance where the script has none. Downey is his charismatic self, clearly radiating charm and smarm as Hank. When the plot twists start happening, Downey downplays what happens, keeping the reaction small instead of overacting as the screenplay suggests. Duvall can play stoic and haughty in his sleep; he's especially good when having to show some vulnerability to his kids. Billy Bob is requisitely icy and fearsome as Downey's rival. Vincent D'Onofrio gets a small backstory and does wonders with it; it's refreshing to see that resentment can be let go. Vera Farmiga is the small town girl Journey was singing about in Don't Stop Belivin'. The rest of the cast's talents are wasted here.

One wonders what the Roberts saw when they read the screenplay for The Judge. Maybe Duvall wanted to be back in a movie. Maybe Downey got sick of playing Iron Man. Either way, they give the story their all, and simply watching these titans in Hollywood make melodrama substantial is an amazing feat in itself. Word of advice though: when the phrase "from the writer of R.I.P.D" is a primary storyteller on your film, you might consider a different writer.

Gone Girl
Gone Girl(2014)

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David Fincher is one of the most talented and stylized directors working today. His movies, no matter the subject matter, elevate whatever source material Fincher is given with technical excellence. Ben Affleck smartly left the direction of Gone Girl to Fincher, who, like the main couple in the story, seems a little too perfect for the part. Gone Girl in the wrong hands would be a cheap whodunit, but in Fincher's, it is a dark, haunting tale that punches viewers in the gut. Especially anyone on the Eagle Forum.

I'd go into Gone Girl cold, so SPOILER ALERT AHEAD if you plan on seeing it. On paper, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) Dunne are a run of the mill happy couple. Until the 5th of July, when Nick returns home to find Amy missing. Nick calls the police, and detectives Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) immediately start to see some issues with Nick's story. Why does Nick not know if his wife has friends? Why is blood left around the house in weird spots? In addition, Amy's public past leads the press to jump all over the story, leading Nick into being the fall guy. With nowhere else to go, Nick moves in with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) to try to clean up this mess and figure out what the hell happened to his wife.

Fincher's handprints are all over Gone Girl, even though Gillian Flynn adopted her own novel. The sets all feel like dream sequences. Perfect house. Perfect kitchen. Perfect bedsheets. However, Fincher shoots a look of peek around doorway shots, and coupled with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score, Gone Girl feels off and disquiet. Early on, Fincher establishes that these two are writers, and gives us hints of their inner monologues. Smartly, the voice overs have this artificial quality, as if their words don't quite match the story they are telling; when the real world comes crashing back in, the voices go back to normal. These little touches subtly compound to immerse Gone Girl in unease and unreliability, even before the story kicks in.

Gillian Foley's screenplay of her book contains a strong combination of pointed commentary and zig-zag storytelling. The central mystery of Amy's disappearance gets solved about an hour in, but that hour spends its time using media and well-conceived perception to paint a picture of how events went down and who is to blame for the disappearance. Gone Girl then goes on for another hour and a half, but that time is used by letting the reverberations of the big reveal force the main characters to reshape the story to gain the upper hand and find a way out of the precarious situation they all find themselves in. Using media to change a narrative gives Gone Girl a freshness and relevant take on the thriller.

Ben Affleck had me worried for a second. Acting isn't his best profession in the movies (Writer/Director better suit him), and he has every right to coast on his Oscar and Batman moniker. However, Affleck inhabits the everyman Nick Dunne quite smoothly. With all due respect to the new Caped Crusader, Rosamund Pike is the best masked figure. Pike gives Amy an ephemeral quality in every scene she is in; at any point I had no idea where her head was and what Amy's endgame was going to be. Pike effortlessly transitions between sexpot, forlorn wife, and D-lister which Gone Girl requires her to play. Tyler Perry gets to take off a wig and elevate the material as a high powered lawyer of Nick's. Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, and Kim Dickens are also very good in supporting roles.

Gone Girl is NOT a date movie. The story is pretty dark and out on the pains of being married. Mental and physical infidelity is everywhere. And nihilism and self-interest permeate through David Fincher's direction. If any of you who went on a first date to see Fincher's Social Network, make sure you pick another Fincher movie to propose at.

Kill the Messenger

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Investigative journalism seems like a nightmare as an occupation. Yes, you get to stand on the moral high ground, but that ground is constantly under attack from people who don't want their story to get out, or worse, if the story does get out. Kill the Messenger expands the would be coda of all the investigative reporter movies with a fascinating question: what happens to the do gooder and evil doer once the lie gets exposed? Kill the Messenger bleakly paints the reveal as only the beginning of a lengthy defense process of the information you worked so hard to obtain. It gives proper insight to the courage of these journalists, and to the methods in which a powerful organization will do anything to protect their interests.



Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Relocating with his kids and wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) after a terrible previous job experience, Gary is eager to break the big story. He stumbles upon it after running into a woman named Coral (Paz Vega), who read his work and wants his help getting her boyfriend out of prison. In return, he uncovers a story about a government agency allowing the smuggling of crack cocaine into the United States: his big break. Webb digs in with the aid of his editor Anna (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her boss Jerry (Oliver Platt). He uncovers major players and puts the pieces in place to write a hell of story that earns him journalist of the year. However, Gary's insistence to publish the story draws the ire of the government, which uses its many resources to eliminate the story's power, including diving deep into Gary's personal life.

Could this be a more relevant story in the Age of Edward Snowden? It's almost chilling to see the government use similar techniques to smear a whistleblower. The journalist's motives are questioned. Excuses are made up to extract the reporter's breadth of knowledge. Nonexistent claims are made through other trusted media outlets. And most importantly, the whistleblower BECOMES the story. Personal lives become topics of conversation (remember Snowden's girlfriend and her pole dancing YouTube channel?). The story would have benefitted from more of a study of how to bury a damaging report, since it is a story rarely told in film. Director Michael Cuesta (mostly a TV director) instead, probably wisely, elects to keep the focus on Gary. Making Gary the eye of the tornado shows just how many attacks come from unexpected places. He probably could have guessed that the story about his past job would have come up, but his son finds out, creating another world of onslaughts he never saw coming. The victories of breaking the story in the first half of the film little by little come crashing down as Gary becomes wholly defeated. Kill the Messenger purports that at some point, the cost of the truth is just too great, a chilling message for anyone wanting to become an investigative journalist.

By telling the story entirely from Gary's point of view, Kill the Messenger is basically a two act tonal play. The first half is quite inspirational: Gary seems like a family guy and a fairly clever journalist. He uses moral grey areas to obtain information and sources. You see him ride the high of the story and bring his family and newspaper along for the ride. This half plays like All the President's Men. Then, as we gather what the government will do to Gary, the bombs start dropping, and the tone turns into sadness and slow-developing paranoia. Is that a shadowy figure by his car? Why do Gary's files look like they've been played with? Why would the government mention not hurting his kids? Where did Gary's sources disappear to? The high in the first half generates the deep plunge that befalls the poor San Jose reporter. The tonal shift gives Kill the Messenger added perspective since it hits Gary so unexpectedly and fiercely.

Jeremy Renner used his Hollywood clout to get this movie made. Renner is the dogged everyman here: a nice flawed guy who gets in over his head with the wrong people. Renner keeps the guy grounded despite all the frustration around him, using his talents most as isolation and determination cloud Gary's judgment. Rosemarie Dewitt gets the thankless role of put-upon wife and does her best to give it some power; she at least gets to be the strong one, selling her and Renner's relationship (not much sizzle though). Surrounding the husband and wife are character actors used to help identify key players. Paz Vega, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and Tim Blake Nelson leave the best impressions.

Eventually, Gary Webb's story was proven true by John Kerry and a Senate Subcommittee. Smartly and coldly, the government released the 400 page confession at the height of the Lewinsky Scandal, when no one cared. Though Gary Webb's life ends tragically, it is good to know that his report saw one high ranking government official meet with the people of Los Angeles and eventually resign because of the contra scandal. Kill the Messenger still resonates today with Edward Snowden. Knowing he was going to become the story, Snowden spread the documents to many credible journalists to release the information to the best of their ability. This kept the smear campaign from having a lasting effect, and forced the whistleblowing to have long lasting repercussions. Thank you Gary Webb, for risking everything to teach an important lesson about how to break a damaging story about someone in power. Investigative journalists, heed Kill the Messenger's stern warning about the consequences of truth.

The Equalizer

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Denzel Washington refuses to let Liam Neeson run rampant and kick the underworld's ass. The Equalizer reteams Washington with his Training Day Director: Antoine Fuqua. Washington escalates from quiet Denzel to full-fledged walking cyborg Denzel over the course of the Equalizer. He also turns a Home Depot into a Home Alone style shop of horrors for unnamed evil men.

Based on a TV series, The Equalizer is Robert McCall (Washington), a quiet-type who encourages the humble people around him as he happily works his little job in a hardware department store. He helps Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) train to become a security guard, and he encourages lady of the night Teri/Elena (Chloe Grace Moretz) to quit her job and pursue things that make her happy. Robert's quiet existences is upended when Teri's pimp Slavi (David Meunier) beats her up and puts her in the hospital. Robert decides to take matters into his own hands and eliminate the reason Elena cannot move on with her life. However, Slavi happens to be the East Coast Russian mafia head, forcing Teddy (Marton Csokas) to come in and eliminate any threats to the business.

The Equalizer delivers on what you're paying to see. Denzel Washington gets several chances to preach and be montaged as the larger than life the actor has become. Cheesy dialogue is embraced: a character feels trapped until Washington says "Change your world" as if they never thought to do that before. McCall's OCD is hilarious when predicting how long it would take to disarm a room of bad guys, and then scolding himself for going over time. Past the half way point, character is basically abandoned for one giant Denzel tour-de-force. The montages are basically parodies; of course Denzel is going to walk away from an explosion, but this explosion lasted around a minute, instead of one shot, giving multiple badass selfies of Robert McCall. The funniest happens near the end, involving a sprinkler system. The Equalizer is a textbook example of how to meet audience expectations, placing the supremely charismatic Washington front and center for the entire film and having him glower, preach, and kill with aplomb.

The Equalizer is also a textbook old school action film in the plot hole department. Boston police are exceedingly incompetent, as all these killings happen and not one police investigation occurs. Such an investigation would have given Denzel a chance to show how McCall can find a way out of a back-against-the-wall obstacle. Another classic: the character who shows up late in the proceedings to provide information on the bad guy. The early story about Robert helping his friends is abandoned to watch one man take down an entire ludicrous mafia ring. There is a lengthy battle in the Home Depot (about 10 min), more than enough time for a couple henchman to find McCall grappling with a bad guy and shoot him easily. As meticulous as Robert McCall is, he probably could have given some advice to Richard Wenk and the other writers about how to put some more thought into telling his life story.

Denzel Washington does his thing in The Equalizer. Those plot holes fall by the wayside thanks to Washington's charm and screen presence. I was rooting along with everyone else as the explosions rippled and Denzel just walks away from them with indifference. Washington sells the OCD and motivational speech better than most actors in the business, and carries a smile and glower every other actor is jealous of. Chloe Grace Moretz doesn't get enough to do as the heart of gold hooker Teri, but gives enough to spark McCall to launch his assault. David Harbour also doesn't get enough screen time as a crooked cop. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo enjoyed their hefty paycheck for 5 minutes of screentime. Marton Csokas has been asked to play a Russian baddie for years now and knows how to make himself look callous, calculating and evil but never upstaging Washington.

The Equalizer gets its name from a TV Series, but I think it means that Denzel now equals Liam Neeson in the action hero category. Neeson will sometimes foray into darker material, but Denzel's star is too bright that no matter how bad the story, he can find a way to make it work. I look forward to more team ups with Fuqua, who knows how to sell Denzel and use all of his talents in the most satisfying ways for an audience member.

The Boxtrolls
½

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Laika Studios proudly keeps stop motion animation charming and inventive in the CGI world of animation today. Coraline and Paranorman are thoughtful and clever stories that are a little weird but filled with heart: it's easy for more parents to get behind them. The Box Trolls is a harder sell. The weirdness is still present, but with a paper thin story supporting it, The Box Trolls wastes some cool designs and the talented animators. Cheese should never factor into a story this much.



The events that set of The Boxtrolls involve Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) informing the cheese-eating white hats and their leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), that creatures known as boxtrolls captured and "killed" a small child, bringing him to their underground lair. Soon, these creatures would go after more kids in the town and especially important: after their cheeses. Snatcher suggest that he capture and kill all the boxtrolls in exchange to be a part of the white hats. Over 10 years, the boxtrolls numbers decrease, but the boy they kidnapped grows up known as Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), given that name by the box he wears on his chest. After Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), the boxtroll who raised Eggs, gets kidnapped, Eggs goes topside to find him, eventually receiving help from Winnie (Elle Fanning) who happens to be Lord Portley-Rind's daughter.

Animation in the Boxtrolls is a mixed bag. The boxtroll home is quite enjoyably designed, using moving cogs and the joy of creation to give the home a unique spin. The boxtroll creature is sort of clever, but outside of Fish or Shoe, no other boxtrolls get a developed personality. The nighttime city is the right mix of scary and mysterious, but the people in the city share a similar sameness compared to the boxtrolls. Anytime the animation focuses on gadgets and creativity, the specificity of the creation takes over and livens up the imagery. Perhaps that is what the writers were going for, but the movie as is doesn't do enough to focus on that part of the story and chooses to focus on the underdeveloped kidnapping.

The story in The Boxtrolls is a frustrating study of suggestion and abandonment. Early in the film, there is an adorable scene of Fish being a surrogate father to Eggs, humoring him and giving him a present. This setup gives heft to Fish's capture, and raises the stakes of Eggs's quest to get him back. Then the movie turns into how Eggs ended up with the boxtrolls: a dark story for a kids film. This turn abandons the Eggs/Fish relationship, which was the movie's strongpoint. Themes of ignorance, class structure, and surrogate families drift in and out of the screenplay, but the story thinks the kids will find it funny that a guy will kill things to be part of a cheese tasting. As funny as food allergies can be, the interesting information never becomes the main story to The Boxtroll's detriment.

Voice acting is serviceable in the movie. Isaac Wright and Elle Fanning walk the kinda cute/kinda weird line (he is better than she) that Laika leads possess. Ben Kingsley can function as a Michael Gambon (Dumbledore from Harry Potter) voice replacement as the malevolent Snatcher. Kingsley does his best to give depth to a poorly written character. Nick Frost and Richard Ayodae get the best lines as existential henchmen of Snatchers that question their heroism. The boxtroll noisemakers don't quite achieve minion levels of success, but they do sell the earnestness of the creatures.

The Boxtrolls is probably only for your slightly older odd cousin who is really into Tim Burton movies. Mediocre animation covering a lazy story exposes the smelly Swiss cheese size holes in the movie that lead to boring passages. The movie probably needed more left field puns like an amusing take cow byproducts. Come on, give shoe a friend named Lace: it's so easy.

The Guest
The Guest(2014)
½

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The Guest is destined for cult status. Led by a stellar creepy performance from Dan Stevens, The Guest is a Horror flick that pushes the comedy and horror buttons at the exact right times. Plus for all you Downton Abbey fans, there's a lot of shirtless Matthew to make you sigh with happiness.

Sad times are afoot for the Peterson family. They just lost their oldest son, Caleb, in Iraq. While mourning his loss one day, mother Laura (Sheila Kelley) answers the door to a man named David (Stevens). David says he platooned with Caleb and new him very well; his story checks out since he is in many pictures with the deceased family member. David slowly earns the trust of the family members: patriarch Spencer (Leland Orser) is happy to have an ear to listen, and brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) uses David to help him with bullying at school. Only middle child Anna (Maika Monroe) is skeptical. She asks the obvious questions: why does David only pay in cash? Why does he make weird phone calls? Why is there no record of him in the army?

Dan Stevens performance here reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. High praise, but completely justified. Stevens quietly lets his good looks entrust people by saying a word or two. The silence is even more effective when evoking fear: that stare is long and unwavering. Stevens uses the slow burn of the first half to slowly unravel as the bullets fly in the second half. When the climactic confrontation happens between David and Anna, Stevens exudes controlled crazy, saying deliciously dark things while leaving the audience chilled by his stoicism. Stevens holds together The Guest; without a talent like him, the movie's profile would be nonexistent.

The horror comedy line can only be walked by a talented writer and director. Fortunately, Simon Barrett (V/H/S and You're Next) is a vet of this sort of thing. The first hour is the best, setting up the enigmatic David and his displays of trust to the family. There's a scene in a bar that starts out hilarious by mocking Luke's bullies that quickly switches to fear seeing what David can actually do. Then it switches right back to funny, as David lays out a scenario for the bartender to come out clean and David to not be mentioned. Barrett makes subtext text a lot: Anna clearly is enchanted by David at one point, only for him to exit a shower looking insanely hot. The movie is set around Halloween, making any ritual about the holiday a part of the movie. The final scene takes place in a haunted maze, and unapologetically embraces it. Sure the story is razor thin and many of the characters archetypes, but the clear fun and energy in the writing, music, and direction makes The Guest a notch above a similar movie of this type.

I have high hopes for Dan Steven's career after seeing him in The Guest. He clearly has the looks, but with this cool role he's readily positioned to become the next great American star from Britain. That makes British acting stars 3000, American stars 4 (Robert Downey Jr., George Clooney, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep).

The Maze Runner

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2/3 of the way through, The Maze Runner was beyond impressive. In fact, it was very near the peak of the young adult dystopia films: The Hunger Games. Directed by first time director Wes Ball who is known as a visual artist, The Maze Runner contained a mysterious premise, solid visuals, and a strong young cast. Then the secrets come out like in the novel on which the movie is based. The Maze Runner's third act collapse partly ruins the engaging first half, which rivets with tension and intrigue.



The movie starts with a boy (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien) jettisoned up an elevator into a place called the Glade. From there he is given a tour by Alby (Aml Ameen), the first inhabitant of the Glade. He tells the boy (who finds out his name is Thomas) the history of the place: how Alby and a group of teen boys live in the Glade because a maze prevents them from escaping. The maze opens only for so long and is protected at night by mysterious insect like Grevers. Thomas yearns to become a maze runner, tasked with learning the pattern of the maze and led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee). However, Thomas's curiosity is seen as a threat by Gally (Will Poulter) and other cautious teens. Also complicating matters is when a girl, Theresa (Kaya Scodelario) is sent up the elevator with the last of the supplies and told no more help/people will be sent into the Glade.

As we learn about the mysterious circumstances of the kids, The Maze Runner is nothing short of electric. The Glade and the culture of the children unapologetically draws from Lord of the Flies: the kids have rules and jobs to keep order, with some kids willing to break rules and others more inclined to instill order. The maze is a fun enigmatic design. The movies high point is when a couple of the kids are forced to spend a night inside the maze, revealing some of the disturbing secrets inside through quick cuts and strange noises or sharp corners. The grevers are extremely creepy to look at, invoking a combination of a spider and a Sentinel from the Matrix. As the circumstances surrounding the maze change, the political conflicts among the kids erupt into violence, with Gally leading the charge to return to stasis. The slow build of conflict from within and without gives the first 2/3 of the Maze Runner lots of pop and momentum.

This momentum leads headlong into the crash in the third act. I suppose I'll warn with a SPOILER ALERT in case you want to go in knowing nothing. Of course the maze completion was going to be the end of the first film; this story is a known YA series. However, the process to pushing the kids into the maze is clunky at best. Through the use of dream sequences and ridiculous logic leaps, Thomas finds out about his special status and some of the reasons the teens were sent to the Glade. The reasons are not motivating enough to justify the groups belief in Thomas, and rings the final excursion into the maze pretty false. From there, the action sequence are jumpy and hard to follow so as to hide violence, but it's hard to tell what is happening. Most maddening, is the Maze Runner could have ended 20 minutes early and been fine, ending as the kids leave the maze. The last 20 minutes, like the last chapters in the book, are filled with more unnecessary reveals, character pop ups that would never happen, and a jarring change of scenery. The final act of the Maze Runner undercuts the tension of the first two thirds by rendering it near pointless, a flaw in the book that the movie maddeningly keeps.

I'll call the cast of the Maze Runner your next group of heartthrobs and stars. Dylan O'Brien is very good as Thomas. O'Brien has the charisma of any good leader, plus sells his curiosity and emotion when needed. Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper (the fat one), and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the smart one) all ably support O'Brien with some good depth and nuance. Will Poulter crafts Gally into easily dislikable but understandable, a harder task considering his lack of screen time. Kaya Scodelario is underutilized; more padding of how a girl ruins the groups dynamics would have been welcome. Patricia Clarkson shows up in dreams and is unnecessary but requisitely chilly and weird.

I feel good about the inevitable Maze Runner sequel with the strong cast. If the director gets more chances to take liberty with the source material, we could have another juggernaut of a franchise on our hands. Dylan O'Brien has almost completed the rise to fanboy power, playing a werewolf and leading a dystopic future movie. All he has to do now is release an album; teen girls may explode if that happens.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
½

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Breakups are terrible to witness. The heat of the moment results in some nasty things being said, and the realization of the end of something once good. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby realizes that a break up doesn't take on a the first try for a long-term relationship; it happens in sequences and over time. Reedited into one large film (it was first two films) by writer/director Ned Benson, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby rides solid lead performances by the star-crossed couple Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) to fight through the rough patch of their tragic relationship. This movie breakup is hard to watch, but well set up enough to not hit too close to home like The Break Up.

Conner and Eleanor start the movie as an adorable indie couple from New York City, doing cute things and listening to quirky music. Then clearly something horrible happens, and the couple separate. Eleanor moves in with her family: father Julian (William Hurt), mother Mary (Isabelle Huppert), and sister Katy (Jess Weixler). She also starts taking college courses with Professor Friedman (Viola Davis). Connor movies in with his dad Spencer (Ciaran Hinds) and spends his time at his restaurant with his best friend Stuart (Bill Hader). Connor tries to reconnect with Eleanor, but she is reluctant, so they spend their time figuring out what to do without the other.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them was edited down from two films, Him and Her. The original idea was to showcase a breakup from two different viewpoints. I have not seen the two films, but that project sounds more ambitious than the one I saw. By editing down two full-length films into one feature, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them feels disjointed. The tragic event is never depicted, which is fine, but allusions made to it lack the proper context since we don't see enough of the couple together, which is probably visible in the original cut. Connor's material clearly wasn't as interesting as Eleanor's, so his relationships were truncated, minimizing his emotional impact on the story. The editing comes across like an Oscar bait instead of for creative reasons, disserving compelling observations on a relationship with no happily ever after.

Movies about breakups are rare because they often cut too close too home for audience members. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby gets around this through a couple clever means: the breakup is from circumstances out of the couple's control, and the time period of the film is sufficiently after the event so the wounds have started to form scars on the couple, meaning the two can interact without being mean towards each other. The separation of the couple establishes their support systems: Eleanor's got a supporting but strict family, and Connor has supportive but distant friends and a recently in the picture father. These support systems help replant the two on their feet for their potential reconciliation. However, the power of the movie is that the messy past prevents a total reconciliation: there's no getting back to where the couple was. The choice then becomes: do you let go, or do you move on? A compelling question that most couples have choose at some point.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby relies heavily on James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. We need to believe they were in love, that they still care for one another, and they are still hurt by their shared terrible past. McAvoy has boyish charm and good looks, and channels the anger side of a relationship broken. McAvoy sells his disappointment in the faults of his father and longing for the world that defined him for so long. Chastain's even better, making Eleanor a beacon for moving on. Chastain wears her personal conflict of moving on and leaving behind on her sleeve, and the scenes involving her parents show the earnest position of someone who doesn't know what to do. Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Viola Davis, and Ciaran Hinds are fine as the parents or parent surrogates. Huppert and Hurt get more juicy screen time, but all four make their people real and supportive. Jess Weixler and Bill Hader's material was left on the cutting room floor probably.

Eleanor Rigby gets her name from the Beatles Song, which about a lament for the lonely. Her Disappearance is both physical and emotional, as sometimes things are not just meant to be. I do have a question though: why do people only find these things out in New York city? Geez, that city is the most enlightened place in the universe according to cinema.

Frank
Frank(2014)

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I saw Frank with a more artistically inclined friend than I. I only came out of it more worried for what his work does to his soul. Frank is one of the better movies covering the blurred line between artistic creativity and genuine insanity by pushing the movie into very dark directions. All this happens while you try not to laugh at Michael Fassbender in a paper mache head.

The movie actually doesn't revolve around Frank; it starts with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) trying to write a song and failing miserably. Desparate, he goes around searching for inspiration and happens upon a van driven by a band manager named Don (Scoot McNairy). Needing a keyboard player for the night, Don offers Jon the job. Jon is then swept up in the special talents of Frank (Michael Fassbender), and joins the band sight on scene. The group head to the Irish countryside to record their album, where Jon blogs about his happenings, learns what makes Frank tick, and draws severe ire from Frank's other collaborators Baraque (Francois Civil), Nana (Carla Azar) and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Frank is unafraid to push the weird envelope in every way. The best material in Frank involves the band isolated in that Irish cabin. The "artist" angles allows the band members to be more direct, and openly talk to Jon about their affection for mannequins, whether in conversation or in song form. The head jokes never overtake the movie, but are usually dropped in unexpectedly, the funniest involving a cigarette and a game of catch. The musical creation varies from creepy to joyful to irrational and back again. When the band hits the road to SXSW in Austin, Frank takes a turn toward the darkness of the weird. The jokes take more bite, since they are accompanied by the breaking of the band's fragile psyche. In the last third all jokes fall by the wayside for some real succumbing to trauma and mental breaking. These lows lead to a very satisfying conclusion, earning its payoff and then some.

Frank secretly doubles as a take on the modern state of a musician. Jon uses Twitter and blogging to relay his progress, as if everything he has to say is extremely important. The traps for a band are present: follower count leads to impulsive misinformed decision making. Some band members use their follower count as an excuse to take more artistic direction. The band doesn't even get responses from people until an insane event happens and goes viral, and one character finds another lost character using social media. Frank probably contains the first troll tweet in a movie. The big lesson here is how easily it is for a modern artist to get their sound out there and convince themselves they have more reach than they think they do. I better learn this lesson soon.

Troubled artists are juicy roles to play for any actor, and Frank is replete with several actors up to the task. Domhnall Gleeson is solid as our window into Frank's crazy world. Gleeson successfully sells enthusiasm with a shade of narcissism under the radar. As for the band, Francois Civil and Carla Azar fulfill the self-important European quota in the band blandly. Scoot McNairy brings some strong depth to what could have been a resident weirdo. But Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Fassbender steal the show. Fassbender is a very striking man, and Frank has the gall to put him behind a giant paper mache head, forcing Fassbender to emote using muted sound and body language. Not surprisingly, the talented Fassbender is up to the task, nailing the pratfall humor equally as well as the complicated emotional situations without ever seeing his face. Matching him stride for stride is Gyllenhaal, who uses her face to convey a darkness mixed with despair in a very unhinged, engaging way. Gyllenhaal makes Carla a walking bipolar disorder with great effect, especially in the claustrophobic shack.

The musical landscape in cinema regarding bands is surprisingly lacking in quality. For every Hard Day's Night, Spinal Tap, or Almost Famous, you get Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, or some other dithering garbage times 100. Frank can stand near the top of that IMDB list, but not at the top. Paper mache wearing leading vocalists make for compelling characters, and Frank mines this for all it's worth. As Frank does in the film, I left with a "pleasantly satisfied half smile" on my face.

A Walk Among the Tombstones
½

Liam Neeson's recent fare falls under two categories: thriller or revenge flick. A Walk Among the Tombstones is being cast as a revenge flick, but it firmly falls in the thriller category. The adaptation of Lawrence Block's novel is a bleak noir, where bad guys are 100% evil and Neeson's hero never feels like one. Writer/Director Scott Frank establishes a despondent dark mood very effectively, but never quite maintains enough momentum to drive A Walk Among the Tombstones to a satisfying conclusion.



Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a former police investigator who retired due to a tragic sting operation. He quit drinking on that horrid day and now regularly attends AA meetings. He meets a man at a meeting one day who takes Matt to Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug dealer. Kenny's wife was captured and murdered by two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who also got 6 figures from Kenny as a bribe. Kenny hires Matt to track down his wife's killers, forcing Matt to come to terms with his past and the evil he has to deal with in the present.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of the bleakest pictures I have seen in a long time. The movie is set around Y2K, giving the movie a sense of unease from the start. A Walk Among the Tombstones then showcases the underbelly of society, and how the paranoia comes from the rottenness within. The movie is shot is seedy New York City, using empty lots, cemeteries, libraries and opulent expansive gothic residences. Even the "happier" flashbacks are shot in shades of grey. Writer/Director Frank slows down intense sequences so we can see how much anguish and dismay reside in this place at this time. Also, the villains are of the old variety: wicked and evil to the core. Movies now attempt to humanize and justify what makes people tick, but A Walk Among the Tombstones implies that this world is just a sick place filled with sicker people. A desolate message, but a strong base to lay the foundation of a scary intense thriller. No one feels safe.

I'm guessing this movie did not test screen well due to the dark material, so some elements of badass Taken Liam Neeson films use their special set of skills to make their way into the film. Some of the action scenes fit in better, the best involving a door with a small window and a potential fight on the top of a building. Character building subplots stand out like broken thumbs. A false ringing relationship with the NYPD detective and a younger gumshoe (Astro) and Scudder holding court on a phone call with a villain have been done better in other films and don't match the tone of the movie. The studio clearly assumes the Taken audience will want to see this film, when in fact A Walk Among the Tombstones better matches arthouse fare.

Neeson, in addition to kicking butt, has always been good at carrying weight with his voice. A Walk Among the Tombstones uses this trait to great effect: Matt Scudder wears his loss all over his body and personality. Neeson gives Scudder a broken everyman quality, trying to make right over and over again. Dan Stevens and his pretty eyes hide a dark side very well as the drug dealer out for revenge. The standouts in Walk Among the Tombstones are David Arbour, Adam David Thompson, and Olafur Darri Olafsson, who play wicked, twisted and evil as a channeled disquiet instead of over the top scene chewing. I cringed several times watching their pleasure defrauding and hurting people, knowing this is what real monsters look like.

Y2K was a panic stricken time for people afraid of technology. A character in A Walk Among the Tombstones remarks that people can't see that they don't need to be afraid of Y2K because there is already so much fear in the world already. As an optimist, A Walk Among the Tombstones scares me more than most horror films by simply making you consider the world you live in is rotten to the core. I guess that means we need Liam Neeson to quickly become Batman and cleanse the world of its evil right? He's even got a post-modern Robin who can help him with "computer stuff."

Tusk
Tusk(2014)

How crazy would it be if a psychopathic killer wanted to turn a guy into a walrus? Kevin Smith was so invigorated by this podcast conversation that he decided to turn it into a feature film. But like most podcast ideas, Tusk is half formed. The central transformation is effective, but characters/story surrounding it are loose showcases of "comedy." You'll leave this movie a little icky not knowing who to recommend it to except die hard Kevin Smith fans or Human Centipede Fans.

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), a podcaster (of course), goes to Canada to do a bit for his show, but the ploy falls through. Looking for ways to make the trip worthwhile, Bryton stumbles upon a note in a bar from a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) which says he has a lifetime of stories to tell about his seafaring travels. Bryton travels up to the secluded location to meet the man and is at first impressed; Howe's stories are very interesting. However, Howe uses the storytelling to let the drug placed in Bryton's tea to kick in, and soon reveals his plans to Wallace about his walrus creation motives. Wallace manages to get a call out to his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) about his predicament, and the two rush out to find him before something horrible happens.



Tusk would actually make a great short film. The central story of Wallace and Howard Howe is fun and sometimes compelling. Michael Parks is deliciously over the top, channeling John Hurt and projecting out like a visionary. Parks sells his stories with aplomb in a giant opulent old mansion. Long is game with enthusiasm, and really sells the horror of the situation. Long's scenes with Genesis Rodriguez are kinda cute and nicely set up their relationship. Long's transformation is a grotesque experience: the squeamish might not be able to take it. Smith wants to have fun while he shocks you, and when Michael Parks is involved, Tusk is kinda fun and extremely creepy.

This is also a full length feature, meaning Tusk needs padding. Tusk's filler sucks. Director Smith probably realized he didn't have enough material, so he half-assed these stories, thus taking away from the creepy central podcast creation. There are cheap jabs at how nice Canadians are and a subplot about infidelity that goes nowhere. A famous actor has an extended cameo as a cop searching for Howe. As repulsed as I was at the walrus transformation, these cop scenes filled me with disgust and boredom. The actor dons a cheap accent and cross eyes so we can laugh at how stupid he is while Ally and Teddy just want to get information to save their friend: it is a classic case study of tonal misunderstanding. The scene also inexplicably goes on for at least 15 minutes when it could have been just a fun one off cameo.

Tusk left me queasy and angry. I suppose I can tolerate the queasy part since that is sort of Tusk's point. But Kevin Smith has shown himself to be a talented writer, and Tusk's writing is lazy and borderline offensive. Kevin Smith is beloved by his loyal fans, I suggest he stick to podcasting and maybe turning those podcasts into short films. Maybe he's just become disengaged because of Blockbuster Video and other movie rental stores closing. I mean, where are Dante and Randal going to debate Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as Trilogies now?

Love Is Strange

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Love Is Strange could have been another story about love triumphing in the most magical place in the world: New York City. By repackaging a familiar story with a modern twist of same sex marriage and strong performances, Love Is Strange avoids many pitfalls of falling into a generic arthouse film. However, it does make you think that by simply living in New York City, magical things just happen to you, taking away some of the movie's power in the real.

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) take the big step now that same sex marriage is legal in New York. Their marriage is a joyous affair, celebrating with friends and family, among them Ben's nephew Elliot's (Darren E. Burrows) family: his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and son Joey (Charlie Tahan), Alfred's gay son Ted (Cheyenne Jackson), and friend of the family Mindy (Christina Kirk). The wedded bliss evaporates almost immediately; George gets excommunicated from his Church position, forcing him and Ben to move out of their apartment they cannot afford. As such, Ben moves in with Elliot and the family and George moves in with Ted, causing tension from the claustrophobic lifestyle changes each person undergoes.

Love Is Strange makes a point that the living situation in question is clearly less than a year. However, non-time specific time jumps extend the time period to make it seem the problem may be for a longer time. The jumps nicely move the story to a more interesting point, but they disingenuously make the problem seem bigger than it actually is. For a movie based in the real world, yes, it is possible that New Yorkers can be THAT impatient that the world doesn't turn in their favor; however, it drops the characters likability significantly. In addition, we see character setups abandoned in the service of the time jump. We should feel bad at George's meticulous efforts to get back on his feet, except he spent approximately zero time really comprehending what could happen with his Catholic church position if he got married. Character evolution is welcome if it is earned, but Love Is Strange doesn't spend enough time developing the characters in service of its time jumps.

Too bad to, because the actors all brought their A games. I don't recall John Lithgow or Alfred Molina acting better. Both dial down their quirks while retaining their charm (Molina's elegance, Lithgow's doofus). The scenes between them pop with electricity and catharsis: not once do we question their care for each other. Love Is Strange separates the two powerhouses for most of the film, making the scenes together extremely powerful, but overall eliminating how effective Love Is Strange can be. As for the families, Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan give strong performances in support. Tomei's novelist, in an honest way, has trouble creatively finishing her book with Uncle Ben around (still have to explain to me why she can't work at a coffee shop). Tahan, the poor teen, has to share his room, his bed, and his best friend with his Uncle, thus making him grow more frustrated as the movie goes on. Tahan's arc is the most satisfying, but Tomei's is the most ubiquitous; I'm certain everyone has acted toward a family member in a way that she does.

Love Is Strange means so well, like its elderly couple. Also like the elderly couple, it feels tired and lived-in despite trying to be fresh. Writer/Director Ira Sachs can direct realism in actors well, but needs a fresher-upper for himself to follow. Since you like non-stated time jumps, I suggest starting with Richard Linklater.

The Drop
The Drop(2014)

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In order to hold a viewer's attention, violence punctuates thrillers earlier and earlier in the movies today. In that way, The Drop is old school: violence is nowhere to be found until halfway through the film. Relying on slow simmering tension to escalate to a rousing climax, The Drop smartly relies on the talents of Tom Hardy, who anchors the film with an uneasy naiveté. Hardy continues to prove he is one of the most talented actors working today; I could spend an hour or two just watching him play with a dog in a park.

Uncle Marv's is a drop bar for the Brooklyn mob. A drop bar basically houses all of the dirty money gangsters generate until the bosses can pick it up. Bob (Hardy) is the bartender at Uncle Marv's (James Gandolfini), named after Bob's uncle. Bob leads a simple life tending the bar - until he happens upon a bloody dog in Nadia's (Noomi Rapace) garbage can. Nadia and Bob clean up and care for the dog together. However, Nadia's ex and the dog owner, Eric (Mattias Schoenaerts) enters the picture, and starts harassing Bob publicly (by threatening to take back the dog) and privately (by robbing the bar), eventually leading to a showdown on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Drop walks the boring line with its lengthy running time. Compared to contemporary film, nothing really happens until the middle of the movie. The lengthy silent showdowns slowly bubble the tension and unease. By internalizing the conflicts, the explosion factor grows exponentially: waiting for a character to snap is just as compelling as watching one snap. Little twitches become magnified, leaving the audience on the edge of their seat. At times, mostly because of poorly edited subplots, The Drop will lose its tension, but overall, as long as the story revolves around the four principals each scene builds upon one another to a very compelling third act.

The conclusion is easily the most polarizing part of The Drop. The downfall of the slow-boil is that something truly amazing is needed to reward the audience patience. In The Drop's case, there are multiple changes and twists in the story. Some of the payoffs are pretty good, particularly Bob's story. However, some of the conclusions undercut what happens beforehand or appear superfluous to the central story. Overall, the payoffs are middling and left me feeling cheated by The Drop.

Tom Hardy continues to be underappreciated in terms of his acting talent. Much like his role in Locke earlier this year, Hardy dials down his charisma to play a simple Brooklyn man who clearly is hiding something behind his calm demeanor. As more heinous threats get thrown at him, Hardy will flash a facial tick that unmasks his feelings, but then quickly goes back to stone exterior. In addition, Hardy has a way of delivering lines to generate some much needed comedic relief at his simplicity. Flanking Hardy is James Gandolfini in his last film role. Gandolfini shows the flashes of his great talent here, exuding pride and hurt simultaneously. His scenes with Hardy ripple with tension and power. Noomi Rapace is nice enough being courted by Hardy; the one big scene she has to nail in the third act, she does. Matthias Schoenaerts is menacing and unhinged in a controlled way as Eric: scenes involving him and Hardy are the best in the film. Ann Dowd and John Ortiz have subplots that waste their talents. I'd like to see what was cut from their sections.

The Drop is a solid throwback thriller. Much like its setting, it feels like time has passed it by, but it can still deliver from time to time. The Drop did give us a view into something great though: Tom Hardy needs a TV show about his character and his adventures tending a bar in Brooklyn and caring for a dog. Watching Hardy explain shoveling to someone or play fetch with Rocco the pit bull is downright compelling.

The Skeleton Twins
½

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Saturday Night Live cast members have a difficult time making critically acclaimed non-comedic movies. Being seen for so long as the top tier of the comedic talent, these people often get type cast into extensions of their SNL characters. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are two of SNL's most distinguished alumni, in part because of the breadth and depth of characters both actors can play. Their megatalents are tested and confirmed with the Skeleton Twins, a drama/comedy about a brother and sister trying to move on with their lives. Hader and Wiig use their chemistry to banter effortlessly, and walk the tonal line better than most other Hollywood thespians would be capable.

Maggie (Kristen Wiig) starts the movie visiting Milo (Bill Hader) after her brother tries to commit suicide. After a 10 year separation, Milo agrees to move back to upstate New York from LA with his sister and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson). This move forces both siblings to confront their pasts and futures: Maggie is reluctant to start a family with Lance and Milo confronts his old teacher Rich (Ty Burrell).

The Skelton Twins establishes its power with lies. Most people have some sort of lie they tell themselves each day to hide the pain of confronting a messy problem, and these damaged leads in the Skeleton Twins harbor a web of lies. The problem with lies is the tangles: instead of Maggie talking to Lance about her fear of starting a family, she takes birth control and lashes out at Lance both directly and indirectly. This leads to Maggie's embarrassment at her own shortcomings and frustration toward Lance for not realizing what is going on. Eventually, that frustration and embarrassment untangles the web, leading to an outburst of emotion from the insular Maggie further hurting the situation by deflecting their problems through cheap character attacks. Milo has a similar situation with Rich and himself not confronting their pasts. The Skeleton Twins effectively flips the switch from happy-go-lucky to dark when a lie threatens to reveal itself, and the screenplay bravely goes to some dark, dark low points.

Fear not, movie watchers, for you cannot spell "Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig" without SNL. To balance the dark, some scenes were probably outlined to let the stars banter like they probably did in real life. A scene in a dentist's office had me near tears in laughter and the lip sync from the trailer is hilarious. These scenes provide the necessary levity among the very sad subject matter, but they also show how the twins help one another untangle their own webs. When the people in their lives fail to understand them, the twins have the innate ability to understand what is going on and provide support. That lip sync is hilarious, but it happens as Maggie digs herself a deeper hole and Milo is there to make her laugh.

More than a little range and depth is expected from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Both are up to the task: Wiig proved in Bridesmaids she can play the sad with the funny well; she dials down Maggie to a slow boil of anger, letting it come out when she drinks or gets found out. Hader is the wild card here, but he surpasses even the talented Wiig as Milo. Hader gets to effectively develop three relationships in this film, Rich, Lance, and Maggie, all very nuanced, complicated and unique. Milo can be childish, sad, angry, affectionate, and inquisitive at any one moment, and Hader gets it all right. Luke Wilson does more with a thankless role than I would have expected, probably helped by his relationship and chemistry with the two leads. Ty Burrell and Joanna Gleeson don't get enough screen time for their subplots, but are fine enough.

As Autumn descends on the world, the Skeleton Twins opens in theatres. Both have some beauty and charm, but there is an undercurrent of death and sadness that threatens as the winter approaches. Thankfully, autumn in upstate New York has Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig to coax us through the season. And Luke Wilson to coach us to climb up a rock wall.

The Trip To Italy

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If you are a wanna-be tourist that wants to experience Italy but cannot afford it, The Trip to Italy is just for you. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back making impressions and sniping at each other while eating amazing meals and travelling through some of the prettiest places on Earth. As a travelogue and a charming little comedy, The Trip to Italy will satisfy on both fronts.

After a successful series of articles on their first trip through the UK, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have been asked to critique food, this time in Italy. Over beautiful views of Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi and Capri, Brydon and Coogan wine, dine, and whine some more. Joining them are Coogan's son Joe (Timothy Leach) ship captain Lucy (Rosie Fellner), along with Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Roger Moore, and Alanis Morrisette impressions that Brydon and Coogan doll out to each other.

Even more than north England in the first Trip, Italy gets the royal treatment in The Trip to Italy. While the Brits cut into each other and their lives, we are privy to the stunning locations they choose to visit. Much has been written about the Amalfi Coast or Capri, but The Trip to Italy lets the audience take it in on the big screen. There's something amazing around each corner: majestic coastal drives, pristine, clear Mediterranean water, charming hidden coastal cities, preserved history: the list goes on and on. At times I would grow tired of the British talk and look up from the actors to some jarringly beautiful image Italy has to offer, and just smile with delight. If you're on the fence about visiting Europe's boot, The Trip to Italy will destroy the fence for you.

As far as the story goes, The Trip to Italy continues in its melancholic misadventures of two aging actors. Brydon and Coogan inflate pieces of their personas for effect: I seriously doubt either of them is as sad as their characters suggest, but the choice nicely balances the light banter with reflective contemplation. The impressions continue to be the highlight: Michael Caine reappears funnier than ever; De Niro and Pacino are targeted heavily, and there's even a great jab about how similar Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and deafness have a lot in common. The Trip to Italy evolves the Brydon/Coogan friendship nicely; they are both older men, with Brydon's career on the up and Coogan's stalling, flipping the power from the first film. Their melancholy slowly evolves, as Italy's beauty makes them appreciate more simple things: Coogan can spend more time with his son, and Brydon can compartmentalize his life as he sees fit.

Much like their dishes, The Trip to Italy is comfort food. Sometime all you need is a vacation with a stellar view, a good friend, and some solid eats. Oh, and Michael Caine in all of his forms.

Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Eva Green should fire her agent. This is her second feature this year where she admirably tries to save a movie that doesn't deserve her talents. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For tries to recreate the magic of the original Sin City, a fresh take on the comic book film. However, A Dame to Kill for lacks the originality and style of the first film in favor of a darker approach. Only Green realize this film should be fun and a little zany: strike that, only Green is talented enough to pull of the feat because of the screenplay (sorry Jessica Alba).



Like the first film, Sin City weaves three vignettes into one feature film. In order of interest:

1) Dwight (Josh Brolin), is manipulated by a femme fatale Ava (Eva Green), to carry out her sinister tasks.

2) Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), after the death of her cop protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis), seeks the nerve and help of Marv (Mickey Rourke) to enact revenge on Hartigan's killer, Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).

3) Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) challenges Senator Roark to a high-stakes poker game and beats him, but Roark's pride hardens into anger as he violently seeks to even the score.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For replaces the original style of the first film with nothing new. What made the first film an engaging entertainment outside of the cool look of it was the tone, which walked the line between dark comedy and noir thriller amazingly well. This film is more of a morose slog. Every character scowls well and looks the part, but the screenplay inadequately uses the darkness to mine humor outside of the Eva Green plotline. As a result, each plot is extremely bleak and boring without any filler to get us to the end.

Also not helping here is how Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez choose to adapt their stories. They assume that we want to see characters from the previous film and explain weird facial features or how we ended up at the start of the first film. However, the city itself seems to house a host of fascinating characters. The most successful story in Dame to Kill For circles around a new character we get to experience and peripherally involves characters from the previous film. However, this wouldn't matter if we learned anything new about the characters from the previous film, but A Dame to Kill For just extends (Marv) or fails (Nancy) in evolving the character from the previous film. This often causes A Dame to Kill For to stall frequently, waiting for something different to grace the screen.

Eva Green is amazing in so many ways in this film. She spends 90% of it naked, and surprisingly artfully so. In addition, as she becomes more sinister, the machinations she uses to manipulate men to her will become joyously evil, giving life to a lifeless film. Green rivets whether or not her clothes are on. Among the other newcomers, Brolin's straight man plays nicely against Green, and we believe his evolution as the story goes on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dennis Haysbert gets nothing to do as except look emotionless. Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven in limited screen time inject life into the story: we needed more of them. Of the returning players, Mickey Rourke is fun as Marv, if getting nothing new to do. Jessica Alba, when thrust to the forefront, is hard to believe, proving that unlike Green all she has going for her is how hot she is. Powers Boothe has fun embracing a horribly evil person. Rosario Dawson and Bruce Willis are given little to do and therefore leave no impression.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For fails to capture the wonder of the first Sin City, unless Eva Green is involved. Good lord does Green look and act well in a forgettable film, making me mad. Can't we get her a role in a Nolan film soon? Lord knows they need some fun in their bleak pictures.

Calvary
Calvary(2014)
½

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The Catholic Church hasn't exactly had a smooth go of it the last couple decades, much of it self-inflicted. As more news of their hidden agendas and scandals comes to the surface, the Church has struggled to maintain a moral high ground with even its most loyal followers. Things have gotten so bad that the movies have started taking out the good priests along with the bad. Brendan Gleeson's priest in Calvary is actually well thought of by the town, but present circumstances point to him being the last of a dying breed. Calvary uses the church's predicament and Gleeson's stoic performance as the backbone for its very strong but very dark story.



Father James (Brendan Gleeson) gets a jolt in confessional to start the film: a man threatens to murder him next Sunday on the beach. James is taken aback, mostly because people in his Irish town respect him. However, little problems keep building up over the course of the week: his followers hollowly listen to him, his second in command Father Leary (David Wilmot) is a pushover, his past apprentice insists on visits in prison for horrendous crimes, confessions of sin are given without any regret, and his daughter (Kelly Reilly) from his pre-priest life has personal demons she needs help fighting. In addition, his would-be murderer starts to lash out at things he loves as Sunday draws nearer.

As far as I'm concerned, Calvary represents the nail in the coffin to the Catholic Church. All the years of silent abuse to the people they were supposed to be serving is being put upon Father James. Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin, who did In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) slowly builds tension through the whodunit of the town suspects. Through Father James's walkthroughs, we see the broken armor the priest is carrying. People use confessionals to show off shamelessness more than actually feeling sorry for their actions. Atheists infiltrate Ireland as doctors. The minorities (women/children) stand up for themselves readily instead of being chastised. Calvary nicely showcases how people's personal projections of the Catholic priest are now seen as an impossible standard for every clergyman to hold themselves to. Heck, even when sermon's are great, the bar owner is pissed that Father James doesn't preach enough about greed when the bank interferes in his pub. Sure, there's a few lives that Father James affects, but those people are fleeting or usually in the middle of an extreme crisis. Despite the priest's best intentions and good work, past sins prohibit him from having a lasting impression on the populous, a supremely cynical point of view Calvary flaunts callously.

Calvary also functions well as a thriller. McDonagh wisely sets this movie in Ireland in a lonely coastal town. The movie carefully sets up pretty much the entire town with some sort of reason to be angry with either James or the church itself. Conversations are filled with dark humor, with the audience uneasily laughing on. Isolation infuses Father James's walks, punctuated by a stiff breeze trying to blow the man over. That loneliness slowly transitions to dread as Sunday approaches, with jarring acts against the priest causing him to do double takes of paranoia as he walks around. Though the reveal is predictable because of casting, the slow build to the reveal is agonizing at points due to careful plotting and a building sense of callous dread despite Father James's best intentions for the town.

Most people know Brendan Gleeson as Mad Eye Moody from the Harry Potter films: that ginger hair is hard to miss. Gleeson gives Father James a strong moral code with deep understanding of the world he lives in. I'm not a religious person, in part because there weren't enough realistic charismatic priests Gleeson easily portrays. Gleeson is the rock of Calvary. Kelly Reilly is solid as Gleeson's daughter, clearly hurt by her father but caring for the man. Thriller support is given by a host of weirdos, among them Patty O'Dowd, Aiden 'Littlefinger' Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze, and Gleeson's son Domhnall. Winner of the creeper fest though is Killian Scott, who gets two GREAT scenes playing straight and drops the mic.

Calvary is not for the believer; it is for the recent college grad who got WAY into nihilism. This cynical, bleak boiler of a film is a strong showcase of Brendan Gleeson and his Irish charm, or a roast of the Catholic Church and all of its faults. It also compares an engineering degree to a strong desire to murder people; John Michael McDonagh must have spend long hours in a lab by himself somewhere.

The Giver
The Giver(2014)
½

I feel bad for The Giver. Being released in the immediate success of movies like The Hunger Games or Divergent reeks of a cash grab. However, when you learn about The Giver's backstory, you realize how invested Jeff Bridges was in brining the movie to life. The Giver very successfully offers compelling thoughts on living in a dystopian society without resorting to a giant war. It also pulls of using Taylor Swift very successfully, a giant victory in an of itself.

Over voiceover, the movie explains why The Giver starts in black and white: years of wars and revolution caused the population to quarantine itself in a self-sufficient society without feelings or choices. Jonas (Brendon Thwaites) and his two best friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are at the age where they get placed in their assigned role for the rest of their lives. At the placing ceremony, Fiona and Asher get expected assignments, but Jonas gets a weird one: he is assigned to obtain the memory of the society's past from the Giver (Jeff Bridges). The Giver instructs Jonas about feelings, both good and bad, as Jonas uncovers the truth about his society. Jonas draws curiosity from his "family unit" mother (Katie Holmes) and father (Alexander Skarsgard) as well as the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), who is wary of Jonas and the Giver's intentions.

Remember your first kiss? The first time you remember playing in the snow? First time a relative passed away? The emotional highs and lows in these moments push your feelings to the extreme. The Giver's advantage is that its protagonist hasn't experienced any of this at age 18. So watching it thrust upon him is like watching you relive a distant memory. The pure simplicity of what Jonas experiences touches something in every person's past that we look at through rose colored lenses. Jonas's emotional journey is played out in Ross Emery's (the cinematographer) use of color. Not since Pleasantville (which many critics have pointed out) has color been so effectively used in a movie. The Giver teases out colors in the black and white universe early, but only in quick glimpses. When Jonas starts getting memories, the images POP onscreen from the jarring shift from gray to blue, red, green, etc. The color scheme evolves with Jonas very subtly; after the first memories, the Giver transitions to desaturated greens, blues, etc, leaving some gray visible in the color palette. By the third act, Jonas and the audience are both seeing texture and shading of colors with no gray to be found anywhere. The color use, probably for budgetary constraints by Director Philip Noyce, simply conveys how Jonas is feeling to the audience without coming out directly with stupid quotes like "LOOK HOW RED THIS APPLE IS!!"

The Giver also captures that Orwellian air of unrest similar YA dystopian films have forgotten. The black and white jars audiences immediately, taking the power of a park or a waterfall away. There are no families, only family units (basically, caretakers). Language doesn't quite fit normal speak, with every character being truthful and overly descriptive to contextualize their thoughts. The Chief Elder will always ask for forgiveness and be forgiven in chilling unison by the entire town. When the Giver enters the picture and gives Jonas memories, Jonas starts using words like love, upon which his "mother" would snap back "Use proper language!" Color again works here too, as Jonas and Fiona awaken with knowledge, Asher buys in to the system, turning more and more pale as the third act approaches. The Giver also takes a massive risk with some truly disturbing scenes right before the climax, showcasing what Jonas's father does for a job. The movie comes apart at the seems in the third act, saved mostly by the conflict between The Giver and the Chief Elder, but those first two acts rival some of the great dystopian young adult fare out today.

Brendon Thwaites has had a stellar 2014, releasing many movies including the underrated Oculus. As Jonas, Thwaites sells the audience on his likability early, and brings the joy and pain necessary to a kid learning about these feelings for the first time. Jeff Bridges plays the Giver like an aging Lebowski, with some blunt trauma thrown in. Meryl Streep is chilling as the Chief Elder while making the audience see her side of the argument, a feat only a select few like Streep could pull off. Odeya Rush, a newcomer, is adorable and expressive as Jonas's love interest. Cameron Monaghan, Alexander Skarsgard, and Taylor Swift are fine in small doses. The big surprise though is Katie Holmes, using her personality in the media to channel cold logic into her mother character who is a believe in the community. However, Holmes brings enough to the table to make us believe she "feels" something for Jonas without ever knowing she has those feelings.

Book writer Lois Lowry should feel very happy about how The Giver has been adapted. Warts and all, the movie captures the message the book was trying to convey in a very simple powerful way. It also pulls off a sled reference without tarnishing Citizen Kane's reputation.

The Expendables 3

The old action heroes get a little bit older in Expendables 3. Sly Stallone clearly loves an 80s macho shoot em up, and here he enlists help from the MMA Fighters, a tax evasion doctor, and Puss N Boots to fight Mad Max. Expendables 3 knows what it is, and does it competently. Competent action film: ugh, this is a tough sell.

Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) opens the film with his trusty friends in arms: Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Caesar (Terry Crews). They help free Doc (Wesley Snipes) from imprisonment and go to stop an illegal arms trade. However, running the trade is a ghost from Barney's past, Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) who poses a giant threat to the old guys. With pressure from his client Drummer (Harrison Ford), Barney uses Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammar) to create a new team (including MMA elite Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Ronda Rousey and Victor Ortiz, and, weirdly, Antonio Banderas) to help fight Stonebanks. However, the tables quickly turn and Barney must call upon his old team to bail him out again.

Expendables 3 is about as predictable and safe as you can possibly get; shame on Sylvester Stallone. The movie starts out promising: the freeing of Wesley Snipes is interesting and fun involving a helicopter, train, and prison. All the while, the gang is wisecracking, snapping at each other with fun meta jokes. After that, Expendables 3 follows a pattern of botched mission, team tension, team rebuilding, new mission, repeat. By cramming two hour long missions into one movie, Expendables 3 forgoes the little moments for nonstop action, forgetting that the reason the first couple movies were fun was because of the wisecracking and macheesmo-off between the jacked dudes/dudettes. This movie throws moments in between the explosions and massive death toll (mostly involving Mel Gibson or Arnold Schwarzenegger), but because of the loud nonsense going on, you catch only part of the jabs.

Many of the issues with Expendables 3 involve Stallone's screenplay contrivance fest. When one of his team members gets hurt, Barney forces the team members away because they're "too old," and the team barely puts up a fight despite years together. Barney is supposedly a really amazing tactician, but half of his plans are two steps: get somewhere, and shoot everyone in the way: heroic, but CRAZY stupid. In addition, at a point where he potentially captures Stonebanks, he fails to think the man would be wearing a tracker, and get rid of his electronics: just stupid. The worst sin Stallone writes though is how amazing EVERY member of his team is in the final act, including all the inexperienced ones. These people jump down several stories or fall far only to land without injury, and never get shot despite a small army including tanks hunting them down in a small building.

Acting was never the Expendables strong suit, but its in even less supply here. By adding more characters, the ones that get the most cheesy leave the greatest impression. Mel Gibson actually is pretty fun playing a very evil person, with his persona probably adding something to the performance. Harrison Ford plays an aged Han Solo type; a no-nonsense wisecracker who busts balls. Antonio Banderas injects life into the middle parts by being the fast-talking team member who doesn't shut up. And believe it or not, Wesley Snipes funnily pokes fun at himself and his roles while looking slightly off, because of his prison stint. However, the main thrust of the story is Stallone and the MMA, who just look angry and sullen and bring nothing outside of fighting skills to the table.

Expendables 3 will probably please its target audience. Jacked up people laying waste to bad guys can be a fun time, I just wish any more thought was put into the story. My first correction would be NOT sidelining Terry Crews for most of the movie; I mean, that guy can do ANYTHING. Just sideline Randy Couture instead; no one would notice.

What If
What If(2014)

What If's working title was probably When Harry Potter Met Sally. Daniel Radcliffe's foray into the rom com arena shamelessly pulls storylines from the 1989 classic, attempting to modernize the big question from the film: can men and women be friends without sex complicating matters? What If is a mixed bag, but mostly succeeds because of the winning central couple, Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who radiate on screen with chemistry and witty banter. And giant sandwiches.

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), is slowly recovering from a messy breakup with his long-term girlfriend. Encouraged by his best friend Allan (Adam Driver), Wallace goes to a party and hits it off with Chantry (Zoe Kazan). The catch is Zoe has been with her boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) for a long time and has no intentions of breaking up. Wallace eventually relents and chooses to hang out with Chantry knowing the rules of their relationship. However, complications obviously arise for both: Chantry's sister Dalia (Megan Park) practically throws herself at Wallace and Ben gets a great job offer but has to leave Toronto for England.

What If does a great job making us root for Chantry and Wallace to end up together. Wallace is given ample opportunities to make a move and doesn't out of respect to the girl he likes, sometimes at personal expense. Chantry replaces Ben with Wallace because she is lonely, but makes clear what lines she will and will not cross. Walking the line between hoping for a significant other and remaining a friend to someone you're attracted to is achingly tricky, and What If's best moments push that tension to the limit (the best being on a beach). What If is refreshing in showcasing mature adults dealing with a real life problem, making you invested in their fates because of how real these people seem.

However, What If lags behind in the comedy department compared to When Harry Met Sally. Pratfalls are resorted to very often, even having someone fall out of a window unexpectedly. Chantry is a graphic designer, so in fits of whimsy things she creates fly off the page and wander around the city night, for no real benefit or cost, just because it could be done. Allan and his girlfriend Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) feel less like people and more like giant plot devices because of the ludicrous things they do. The comedy when not focused on the leads lands sparingly, and mostly inhibits What If from being taken more seriously than it should be.

Daniel Radcliffe is a magical surprise as Wallace. His Hogwarts past is nonexistent about a half an hour in: Radcliffe nails punchlines with ease, hits the right emotional beats, and gives the movie a magnetic quality that only a movie star can pull off. Zoe Kazan has to play the straight man to Radcliffe, and has the wide-eyed earnestness envied by every guy who desires a nice girl. She's charming and easily fits in with Radcliffe's banter and self-deprecation. Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, and Megan Park are requisitely crazy as the friends giving advice. Each of them are talented enough though to give detail to their broadly drawn characters in the little moments. Rafe Spall is the weak link, mostly due to underdevelopment from the screenplay.

Toronto lights up at night from What If's love story. Daniel Radcliffe can be a leading man if he chooses to, and Zoe Kazan is cuter than the button she will be compared to. I will say, Toronto looks like a really fun city to hang out in thanks to What If; I kinda wish they would stop trying to imitate other cities and showcase how cool Toronto is. Come on Toronto, you have a crack smoking mayor!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
½

Your child's favorite Renaissance reptiles are back, Michael Bay style. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboots the kids franchise, complete with explosions, the Shredder, April O'Neil, and pizza. However, director Jonathan Liebesman probably shouldn't have made kids write the screenplay for the movie. Oh wait...they didn't? Uh oh.

The movie starts with plucky journalist April O'Neil (Megan Fox) trying to uncover the criminal misanthropy of the Foot Clan and their leader, the Shredder (Tohorue Masamune). While searching for her big break, April uncovers another one: that the Foot are being usurped by 4 giant fighting turtles: Leonardo (Pete Ploszek/Johnny Knoxville), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Raphael (Alan Ritchson). That story obviously sounds ludicrous to her editor so April and trusted cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) solicit the help of April's dad's former partner scientist, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who seems unshocked by the turtles' existence.

This movie has no intention of placating to any adults in the audience: probably half of the total viewers. Much like Michael Bay's Transformer films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is aimed at the lowest common denominator of person, but in mostly insulting ways. Instead of listing the thinly drawn characters leading to a lack of a payoff in the movie's climax, I'll leave you with this act of stupidity. At the beginning of the film, Megan Fox is asked to do a segment on the news about summer workouts on a trampoline (heh heh, Fox jumping on a trampoline). In the next 10 minutes, she proceeds up a hill with a giant snowstorm going on. In addition, neither she nor the cameraman decide to wear any sort of outer garment, as if the stunning shift in climate is a figment of their imagination.

Not much help in the acting department here. Fox is actually quite plucky and winning as April; in fact, some of the best material is about her trying to become a real journalist. Tony Shaloub deserves more screen time as Splinter, always the secret weapon of the TMNT franchise. Will Arnett relieves John Tuturro of his sidekick duties with pointless results. William Fichtner scares no one with his generic villain shtick. Worst of all, none of the turtles outside of Michelangelo are much fun or worthwhile, especially disappointing because the conflict between the brothers can be mined for lots of comedy/drama.

The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie was very dark and sinister; since then, the stories have gotten more cartoonish and childlike, but so have the screenplays. The 2014 version of the turtles rings the most hollow yet, further driving the franchise into the sewer. They even try to push Will Arnett and Megan Fox together; come on, writers, there's no chance in hell that would ever happen.

Get On Up
Get On Up(2014)
½

It would seem the biggest risk for Get On Up should be finding someone who can capture the magnetism and style of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. In Chadwick Boseman, Get On Up hits a grand slam; Boseman electrifies when on screen. However, Tate Taylor's direction disservices the amazing transformation of its lead and solid acting across the board. At least you'll get a better picture of who James Brown is.

Get On Up travels across the entirety of James Brown's (Chadwick Boseman) life. We see the child left by his mother (Viola Davis), father (Lennie James), and surrogate mother (Octavia Spencer). We see Brown meet with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), his right hand man, in prison. Brown transforms the music business with partner Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd), and wow the world with his music and dance moves. We also witness some of Brown's warts: he openly clashed with band members referencing HIS own relative popularity frequently. Domestic abuse was passed from Brown's father to the man himself. Finally, he openly abused drugs in his later years. Get On Up tries its best to find parallels between all of Brown's behaviors to give the audiences as clear a picture of a complicated man as they can.

Director Tate Taylor (The Help) overdirects Get On Up. The time shifts outs happen when Taylor feels it is necessary in the movie. As a result, the storytelling jarringly jumps time periods past to future to present back to past in quick succession. Taylor also breaks the 4th wall and has Brown talk directly to the audience out of convenience, a condescending cheat at best. Time should be the through line for Get On Up with maybe a time jump or two; multiple jumps eliminate narrative momentum and made the director's points cloudy at best. In addition, Brown's life is cherry picked and misses some key context, such as when he alienated fans by endorsing Richard Nixon. Such events would paint a more complete picture of the man: a wasted opportunity by Taylor.

Fortunately, Chadwick Boseman and Taylor spice the proceedings. Whenever Brown is on stage, which is early and often, Get On Up swaggers with style. The dance moves are slick even for today: Mick Jagger to Bruno Mars openly steal from Brown's act (credit to Boseman for nailing each of these). There's even a nice call out to when Brown outperformed Jagger at a concert where he and the Stones played on the same night. The music sizzles with energy and magic, as if we get a glimpse of a genius out of time. The flashbacks give context to Brown's shortcomings of his later years, and Boseman acts the hell out of just how narcissistic and above the law Brown felt he was. Boseman COMMANDS the screen as Soul's Godfather. Boseman nails Brown's inner workings, when people explain to him how things have to be, he's working on how to create something transcendent. This drive has positive and negative consequences, and Boseman makes sure to highlight exactly what those consequences are.

Supporting Boseman is a mostly underused but excellent bench of support. Nelsan Ellis, in one great scene, proves his worth as Bobby Byrd, explaining why he sticks with Brown through thick and thin. Brandon Smith does solid work playing Little Richard in one key scene. Viola Davis, Lennie James, and Octavia Spencer take one note limited roles and provide necessary context to Brown's backstory. Dan Aykroyd is also alright at Brown's Jewish partner. The rest of the cast is mostly underused with negative effect on the story. We only get brief glimpses of Brown's home life and band members, only when necessary to generate conflict.

Chadwick Boseman is definitely unafraid of playing larger than life figures. He did ok work as Jackie Robinson in 42, but he found his calling playing James Brown in Get On Up. Maybe we can team up Boseman with Dave Chappelle to tell the Rick James Brown Chronicles. I'd pay a dollar to see that.

Guardians of the Galaxy
½

Han Solo was Star Wars secret weapon. The wise cracking bandit treated all the wonder around him as if it was run of the mill bland stuff. Guardians of the Galaxy postulates the question: what if Star Wars was told entirely from Han Solo's point of view? The result is an intergalactic space comedy that never takes itself too seriously. Purple stone that kills massive amounts of people? Sure. Talking raccoon? Why not. Giant tree that only says 3 words? Pick 'em up!

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) gets taken up to outer space after his mom dies of cancer. After that, he becomes a their that steals random things for profit (see the Han Solo parallel?). He steals an orb that everyone seems to want, drawing the team to Quill: Gamora (Zoe Saldana, wearing another primary color) wants the orb to make sure Thanos (Josh Brolin), her adopted father, does not get it; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) want Quill to collect the reward on his head from Quill's former partner Yondu (Michael Rooker); and Drax (Dave Bautista) wants Gamora as bait to avenge his family's murder at the hands of Ronan (Lee Pace), who covets the stone for his own personal use. Oh, and the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and Glenn Close are involved. Whew.

What Marvel does so well compared to copycats out there is understand the characters and tone of its comics that it is adapting. The Guardians of the Galaxy is wise cracky and lighthearted on its surface, and oh man, will you laugh at this film. Dance montages to cheesy pop songs from the past are used in key character and plot moments. Montages get rudely interrupted by gunfire. When putting together a bomb, one character asks for an amusing piece he has no intention of using just for a joke. To balance the jokes, Guardians uses a heavy undercurrent of sadness and redemptions. It's easy to root for Rocket and Groot because of who they are, and Quill, Drax, and Gamora have such tragic backstories that their evolution is rooted for. Guardians flirts heavily with character mockery to keep things easy like Sunday morning, but mostly walks the serious line very well, never forgetting the rules of a great summer blockbuster.

The other great Marvel rule is spectacular effects. Director James Gunn makes the jump to the big leagues well: the movie mostly uses the effects to service the story, not the other way around (outside of the giant Macguffin orb). Groot and Rocket look close enough to their real life counterparts that it's hard to believe they aren't real things. The space battles are gigantic in scope and cool to look at, including a giant space net of fighter planes. The galaxies and planet hopping is hella fun to look at, creating color concoctions nicely upon the eyes. The effects threaten to consume the story in the third act battle that's obviously coming, but they never wholly take center stage from our talented band of outcasts.

Good thing too, because this group rivals the Avengers in terms of crazy fun personality. Chris Pratt's goofiness is on full display here, giving Peter Quill a Luke Skywalker filtered through Han Solo's perspective vibe. Pratt proves adept at carrying a franchise, nailing the joke beats easily and shockingly decent at some of the small emotional moments. Zoe Saldana reinvents the Princess type into an ass-kicking take no prisoners chick. Her grounded pain plays nicely off of Pratt and anchors the Guardian's motives. Dave Bautista is wisely limited to what the wrestler is good at: staring angrily and looking hulky. His literal personality is one of the Guardians best running gags. However, as expected, the big winners here are Bradley Cooper's CGI Rocket and Vin Diesel's Groot. Cooper is Han Solo here, landing every joke thrown at him with aplomb. The movie's best moments are little jokes Rocket throws into a chaotic situation. As Groot, Vin Diesel found the role he was born to play: a giant tree that says 3 words. That being said, Groot's 3 words magically create the most likable character in a film filled with them. John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, and Benicio Del Toro do fun things in support. If there is a weakness in casting, it's Lee Pace as the villain Ronan, who is nondescript and uninteresting: makes me wish Josh Brolin's Thanos had more to do here.

Guardians of the Galaxy feels like Marvel's out of left field story (confirmed by the post credits scene). Like the great summer blockbusters, Guardians embraces the wacky as normal, making the jokes even more wacky as a result. I mean, how could you not enjoy a raccoon with a giant gun on top of a tree laying waste to a bunch of bad guys?

Lucy
Lucy(2014)

I think Marvel has done something to Scarlett Johansson. Since getting a little taste of kicking butt, the femme fatale has since searched out transcending above humanity, either in Her or Under the Skin. Now, she teams up with action savant Luc Besson as Lucy, a woman who is given a drug to reach 100% brain function. I think we've lost romcom ScarJo forever, and are now left with this robotic omniscient.

At the start of the movie, Lucy (Johansson) is kind of a dimwit. She gets easily tricked into giving a briefcase with unknown package to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), a local gangster. The package contains an experimental superdrug that increases human brain capacity from 10% up to 100% that Lucy has to smuggle inside of her. The package breaks unfortunately, and Lucy's brain function skyrockets. Unaware of what to do with her newfound information, Lucy consults Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), a researcher who theorized what Lucy is going through in the present.

Good lord, Lucy is wonderfully bonkers. Luc Besson (of La Femme Nikita and Taken fame) is one of the greats at using a straight character as a punch line in a ridiculous situation. As Lucy rolls on, her emotionlessness around more ridiculous actions draws shock wider mouth gaping from normal people; lines as simple as, "Well I didn't expect to see that today" or "Do you always drive like this?" "I've never driven before." are told with complete lack of irony. In addition, Besson has this great visual style that amps up the energy of a story even in the tinier moments. When watching Lucy fall prey to the gangsters, Besson intercuts the scene with parallels between gazelles and cheetahs. This style, like Lucy ramps up to 100% as she does. Sure, it makes little to no sense and is in no way justifiable, but at that point, I was having too much fun at all the weird imagery and testing being done on Lucy to care much about logic.

If Besson doesn't win you over though, Lucy is actually extremely hollow and filled with plot holes. Once Lucy receives the ability to move matter, why would Korean gangster ever become an issue again? Why did the French cops never question their partner retaining 3 random people? Why can't Lucy find a way to leave herself behind in a non-human way? All fair questions, all quickly ignored for a fight scene or sci-fi extravaganza. The most frustrating part of this is some of the intriguing questions Lucy leaves on the table? What does time actually mean to someone like Lucy? How would the body truly react to a drug like this? Is humanity a roadblock? The ideas are brought up, but never discussed in favor of cool powers and fun action sets.

Not much in the way of acting here. Johansson ups the emotion in the first act to 11 and then drops all of it off as Lucy becomes a god. I understand why she makes this choice, but the script isn't penned for nuance and Johansson, other than a glimpse or two, is mostly in badass mode. Morgan Freeman is the only human on the planet who could sound as knowledgeable as someone with unlimited brain capacity; his presence is necessary, but he's more a plot device than a character. Min-sik Choi is snarly as the gang leader, and Amr Waked is ok as the police chief Watson to Johansson's Holmes.

If you like Luc Besson's films, Lucy should be an enjoyable experience for you. I recommend going in expecting little, and just watching how crazy the ride can get. Especially when the ride is chased by several cop cars crashing in hilarious ways.

Hercules
Hercules(2014)
½

Hercules never quite embraces itself. Attempting to put a spin on the Greek demigod's origins, Hercules has some fun and does some interesting things, but it contorts itself too much to arrive at a satisfying conclusion. However, it does have a picture of The Rock wearing a lion's head during war, so....

Hercules (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is a self-aware mercenary. Using the spread of rumors and stories from his cousin Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) as well as his trusted team (Amphiaraus [Ian McShane], Autolycus [Rufus Sewell], Tydeus [Askell Hennie], Atalanta [Ingrid Bolso Bergdal]) of loyal followers, Hercules grows his legend but in reality is just a clever man-for-hire. Needing one last payment, Hercules is hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt) of Thrace, to eliminate the dissent in the kingdom. While Hercules and his team help mold the farmers into warriors, Hercules starts to see parallels between Ergenia and his own past, and starts to resoften his own heart.

Other than the Rock's biceps, Hercules plays it too safe. This is a PG-13 movie with multiple wars, violence toward kids, and open sexual call-outs. Director Brett Ratner is known for playing broad with his movies to attract as big an audience as possible. The premise is actually pretty clever: what if Hercules wasn't actually Zeus's son, and his labors were rumors and hearsay? This would make Hercules more erudite but physically weaker, and could lead to a fascinating climax where Hercules has to use questionable strength for good. Equally, Hercules could have been a giant pile of crazy battles, with Hercules and his 5 men rampaging over puny human armies. Instead, we get half of each, leaving a story that's somewhat fun and somewhat intriguing, but never is quite in on the joke or embraces the premise.

Also, the story is too clogged. In addition to Hercules's lengthy 12 Labors backstory, we get some family and political history for the star in addition to a few other character backstories. This sets up a situation where several resolutions need to occur outside of the main story, which wraps up in about 60 minutes. As such, the last 30 minutes rushes to completion to the point that truncation skips some necessary steps and elevates characters that were barely mentioned early on. Grant it, some of the stuff that happens looks cool visually, but I will be hard press to find someone who is moved by what they saw.

The acting is mostly bland. Dwayne Johnson can flex and bulge with the best of the giant men, but brings nothing to the title character. Some of that is the scripts fault, but Johnson mostly broods or screams with no real in between. Most of the supporting cast in Hercules isn't very good either with a few exceptions. Rufus Sewell and Peter Mullan bring something weird to each of their characters in what could easily have been one note performances. However, Ian McShane steals the show as Amphiaraus. McShane's character is in on the joke, ready to die at a moments notice, easily the best running gag in the film.

Hercules is summer passable entertainment. It doesn't ruffle the feathers, but it doesn't really fail anywhere too miserably either. The Rock continues to puzzle me as a performer. If I had to guess, he got PAID for Hercules, and I think there's a correlation between how much cooking the Rock smells and how willing he is to earn his keep.

Happy Christmas
½

Anna Kendrick exudes adorable. Happy Christmas allows Kendrick to take her persona and twist it into a basket case recovering from a breakup. Joe Swanberg and his mumblecore direction uses Kendrick's mannerisms against her to make her a very unlikable character. However, Happy Christmas pivots halfway through to allow the story to give Kendrick's character a potential redeeming arc, though not justifying how stunted the character is. The movie also boasts a cute bonding story and one of the cutest babies on screen in some time.

It's nearing Christmastime for new parents for Jeff (Joe Swanberg, pulling triple duty as Writer/Director and lead) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their life gets a jolt from the arrival of Jeff's sister Jenny (Kendrick). Jenny has just broken up with her boyfriend, and uses this move back to Chicago to go crazy. She parties with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and flirts heavily with the family babysitter Kevin (Mark Webber). Kelly is justifiably worried about here baby around Jenny, however, she approached Jenny about her past and dreams that Jenny connects with, leading to unexpected bonding between the sisters in law.

Mumblecore is an erudite description of what Joe Swanberg does when he directs. If you really think about it, conversations in the movies rarely feel real and organic. Swanberg attempts to put the reality back into a movie, using lots of improvisation to create an honest interaction. Sometimes this works to great effect: there's a scene where Jeff is supposed to scold Jenny, and he just waits it out without saying anything and eating a piece of candy. That scene sounds boring, but played out on screen it is hilarious. Kelly is a writer, and watching her discuss her erotic book ideas with Jenny and Carson doesn't ever feel scripted: there are so many likes and soft-spoken weirdness that feel like people trying to be guarded talking about a touchy subject, just like how people in the real world speak. Every so often, the scenes will drag long trying to emphasize a point that inhibit the movie's momentum, but the honesty of the dialogue trumps these little mistakes every time.

Swanberg also subverts expectations very well in Happy Christmas. Kelly is set up to be the standard shrew wife movie character, complaining about Jenny's rampaging lifestyle. Instead, we get to see her try to connect with her sister in law, by relating over frustration over life stagnation. It is a surprising move, but it pays dividends for the third act: Jenny and Kelly's relationship is less about control and more about child safety and growing up. Jeff right away admits that he wants his wife to be more fulfilled when she approaches him about more book writing. There's no fight, just a discussion about how to make it happen. It's nice to see a couple with love present, and trying really hard to make each other fulfilled. Jenny is a child at times, but there is care and empathy inside of her, seen by her brother and sister in law. Happy Christmas could easily vilify any of these people, and instead it takes the optimistic route (and probably more realistic) of trying to get these people to work through their differences.

The three leads are really good. Swanberg himself is fine, being a nice guy comes naturally to him since he became a dad. He has turned Anna Kendrick into his muse: Kendrick gets to play a more unlikable character here, using her cuteness as a less than admirable trait. She makes the audience rethink preconceptions of her as she uses her personality to justify stupid actions. However, she makes the audience root for her with the more time she spends with Melanie Lynskey. Lynskey is the winner here: she takes a thankless part and breaths humanity and longing into it. I was put off by her immediately, and by the end of Happy Christmas she easily became the most interesting character. Lena Dunham and Mark Webber give solid support, but the big winner is Jude Swanberg, Joe's son, who beats Kendrick in the cuteness department. Any scene with that baby kills comedically and emotionally.

Happy Christmas tries to capture what it is like to raise a family in Chicago while taking care of an underdeveloped family member. The party scenes are spot on, the relationships reek of personal life experience, and the characters are sweet and flawed. Swanberg, a Chicago native, always finds interesting ways to incorporate the city into his movies, and if you are very interested into how people party socially in apartments here, please see Happy Christmas.

Magic in the Moonlight

Woody Allen's recent films fall into 2 camps: painfully neurotic or charmingly old fashioned, usually dependent upon the actors playing the leads. Magic in the Moonlight falls mostly in the latter category. Charming the pants of the audience are Emma Stone and Colin Firth, who radiate good vibrations no matter how conceited either of them are. Frankly, all you have to do is put them in opulent formal wear and hats and the audience will usually pay the price of admission.

In the 1920s, Englishman Stanley (Firth) is the star magician of the age, playing a man from the Orient. One night, a magician friend Howard (Simon McBurney) comes to Stanley with a proposition. Apparently a woman on the French Coast named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) is revealing personal secrets to an elderly dowry-rich widow named Grace (Jacki Weaver) and her young son (Hamish Linklater) who is determined to marry her. Howard couldn't find out her secret, so he asks Stanley and his eye for frauds to help him out.

The better tools of Woody Allen are mostly on display in Magic in the Moonlight. The director uses his setting (the French Coast) and weather very well. Emma Stone repeatedly finds her way behind beams of sunlight in subtle ways, emphasizing her blazing red hair. The writing in the most emotionally resonant scenes is vintage Allen writing: subverting the emotion while maintaining character giving the scene a fresh spin. The quirky characters all fall on the correct side of cute, without turning grating. Allen even gets to reuse an observatory as a meet cute. It seems that Allen at his best writes his scenes with his actors in mind, and the carefree joy and poetic waxing of Firth and Stone imbibe Magic in the Moonlight with equal parts pathos and levity; it is Allen at his best.

But then the rest of his personality starts to interfere in the story, which is actually ok until the end. The story takes too long to get going, bordering on immediately offputting Firth to the audience with over-the-top narcissism. Worst of all, a romantic angle is introduced between Stone and Firth, which sort of makes sense in the story, but it needlessly parallels Firth's character to Allen. The main story is about Firth believing in a little magic in the universe and the mystery surrounding Stone's gift. Those stories are compelling and have some surprising depth, easily leading to the best discussions in the film. The romantic angle is Allen's kryptonite, as if he needs to justify to the world how it is possible to fall in love with someone much younger than you with his screenplay. When referenced, the romance sucks the magic out of the moonlight until we usually quickly get back to the main story.

That is because Colin Firth and Emma Stone are audience favorites: a delightful pairing for the young and old. Firth is dashing as ever: underneath the suit, tie, and elegiac prose lies some sort of human weakness that Firth implants in Stanley. Firth nails the films best scene involving a car crash because of the build up and nuance Firth effortlessly adds to the magician. Emma Stone plays Sophie as energy incarnate. However, Stone retains her razor sharp snark which she unleashes in doses to prove Firth's equal: not an easy task. She also does look quite seemly. Eileen Atkins is great as Firth's aunt, gamely playing drier than Firth's dry wit. It is one part smirk, one part indifferent. Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, and Simon McBurney are not given much do and wisely just defer to the leads.

Woody Allen has been trying to make amends for his, uh, poorly regarded taste in women on & off in his films. At some point the women topic got too heated so he tried using other old actors with younger women to presumably explain his point of view. If you don't know who Woody Allen is, Magic in the Moonlight is an engaging, charming romp. If you know how pervy the director can get, there is a weird undercurrent the movie can't get rid of. I suggest not searching "Woody Allen Mia Farrow" in Google until after you watch Magic in the Moonlight, and just admire how cool Colin Firth and Emma Stone can be.

Let's Be Cops

Let's Be Cops has one of the worst premises in recent memory. Watching two idiots get in over their heads imitating cops because they want their lives to go somewhere is stupid and insulting to the hardworking protectors of the law. I'm asking you to look past that at the comedy acumen of who the stars are. Jake Johnson and (especially) Damon Wayans Jr. have intimidating comedic chops; Let's Be Cops wisely abandons plot to just let them play off each other.

Ryan (Johnson) and Justin (Wayans Jr.) graduated from Purdue and moved to Los Angeles to follow their dreams with zero luck. Ryan is reliving his QB glory days (the first of many absurdities that Johnson is a QB) coaching pee-wee football, and Justin is an assistant at a video game company with a self-important boss (Jon Lajoie) who treats him like garbage. After a failed presentation, Justin and Ryan put on cop outfits to go to a "costume" party, only to realize that many people dig a man in uniform, especially women. However, their actions have consequences: Ryan draws the attention of a local mafia boss (James D'Arcy) who is putting dangerous pressure on a restaurant that Justin's love interest Josie (Nina Dobrev) works at.

Let's Be Cops takes the considerable talent on TV and puts it on display for the audience at home. Get to know some of these people. Jake Johnson is really good at faking confidence and hiding unfulfilled dreams on New Girl; here he basically plays the same character. Damon Wayans Jr. exudes charisma and controlled panic as well here as on New Girl and Happy Endings, his two shows. One half of Key and Peele gets some funny moments playing insane. The League (Jon Lajoie), The Vampire Diaries (Nina Dobrev), Saturday Night Live (Rob Riggle), Suburgatory (Natasha Leggero), and Nashville (Angela Kerecz) are all well represented in Let's Be Cops as well. With TV invading film here, there's a tendency to play up the crazy too high and miss some nuance and buildup; positively, the character stuff is better explored than in similar movie fare. Most importantly, Let's Be Cops is FUNNY. Johnson and Wayans have worked together for a couple years now; I'm almost certain the director had no script and just let them make up scenes as they went along. There are digs at racism, white girl dancing, and use of foreign language that are quite well executed and get big laughs. Until the final act, Let's Be Cops moves quickly along like a TV comedy, jokes dispensed via rapid fire. By the time the end approaches, the movie hopes that the goodwill it has built up makes up for the dramatic turns the movie takes.

But the story could not ring more false; I'm pretty sure this script was swiped from an 8th grader. You can talk me into these two guys having one crazy night and maybe trying a little cop stuff on the side; however, they REPEATEDLY enter public places that want cops nowhere near them. Immediately after entering a night club, they go to the dance floor and lead a dance off; funny, but completely illogical: the club would be pissed. Women also serve no other purpose than to throw themselves at authority figures (admittedly, in one instance, with hilarious consequences). Other cops come off as dumb and make poor decisions to perpetuate the lie, not the finest moments for the boys in blue. Dumb and Dumber is probably what Let's Be Cops was aiming for, with bad guys and good guys alike taking the two idiots seriously because of the supposed randomness of their actions. Dumb and Dumber had no larger lesson really though; Let's Be Cops tries to push personal responsibility down people's throats to the point that you just cringe when the dramatic music comes on.

Remember Let's Be Cops as the first time that Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. led a comedy before they got mega-famous. These two are too talented for the material here; hopefully they get a solid paycheck that lets them do more stuff where they have creative control. More importantly, can someone get Damon Wayans Jr. to dance like all the stereotypes? He has a talent for finding little moves that each race/gender do when they get down on the dance floor.

Boyhood
Boyhood(2014)

On TV and at the movies, we are mostly told that the big events help shape our lives and leave the greatest impressions. We also learn that the journey is more important than the destination. Boyhood dares to tell the story of the inbetween: the little moments that when summed up collectively define a person not knowing where their life may end up. With this ambitious undertaking, Director Richard Linklater has crafted a ubiquitous experience for any audience member that is also a wonderful film about growing up and becoming who you are.

Boyhood starts with its title picture: Mason (Ellar Coltrane) staring at the sky, waiting to picked up from school. He is 6 years old at the time. Over the next 2 and a half hours, we see Mason grow up during a 12 year time period from 2002 to 2014 along with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). The two kids grow up in a split house: their father (Ethan Hawke) drifts in and out of their lives, and their mother (Patricia Arquette) is overworked and finding love in all the wrong places. The audience sees Mason grow from an inquisitive quiet kid into an artistic opinionated young adult freed from his high school prison.

Linklater's editing team is amazing in this film. Very often, movies assume stupidity from their audience and flash how much time has passed across the bottom of the screen. You'd think Boyhood would consider the same thing, especially since the time period is very condensed. However, Linklater uses various specific ways to signify a new period. Haircuts and growth spurts are easy signifiers and seamlessly integrated into the story. As a fan of pop culture, Linklater will use the High School Musical theme song or a Harry Potter book signing (the kids love reading them) to plant us in a date and time. However, Linklater's best transition involves removing a character in the previous time period and having the family go through a mundane day as if the person didn't exist. These transitions establish moments in time for young Mason Jr. and give Boyhood consistent forward momentum for its lengthy running time.

Linklater also showcases his amazing attention to the day-to-day living of people. The first hour of this film is replete with little details that I had directly experienced myself. Of course grandma's house has a bowl of candy. Of course you shoot down a sibling when vying for the attention of someone you admire. Hell, I have a pun-loving brother looking for a sight gag at any moment like Mason's sister. There are very few BIG moments for Mason in Boyhood like a first kiss or graduation; however, the fleeting conversations give us a better picture of who the soon-to-be man is and will become. Boyhood shows equal consideration for Mason's family, especially his parents. We see Mason's mom learning about Pavolov's response in school before fully experiencing how that lesson applies to her, where she then turns around and teaches it to her own students. His dad undergoes an amazing growth with something as simple as a car change. Boyhood shows the audience how personal growth is a slow and constantly evolving process seen it little changes over time better than any other film out there and even better than most television shows.

Boyhood's biggest risk is Ellar Coltrane, young Mason Jr. Richard Linklater said that he picked the boy for two primary reasons: his parents were both artists and he was a very pensive kid. Both traits are evident in Coltrane as he grows up over the course of the film. You see the boy get more confident as time passes, either by a passing look or a "dead to me" stare; once he becomes an older teen, he starts speaking his thoughts more and his artistic and erudite nature becomes more apparent to the viewer. Richard Linklater's daughter Lorelei is also a nice little revelation here: she gets more flashy dialogue early in the film and gives way to Coltrane as he gets older. She can sell an eye roll as good as any young actor out there, and plays sarcastic just as well. As for the parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette were always gonna bring their A game. Arquette is a beacon for flawed strength, a strong role model for all single mothers out there. This woman takes care of two kids while holding a few jobs and getting her degree: pretty inspiring. Her resolve is threatened by some poor relationship choices, but like any real person, she makes the right decision each time to cut her losses and get away. Hawke uses his cocky persona to make Mason Sr. out to be a stereotypical absentee parent; however, Hawke gives the character a healthy dose of reality since he really tries to be a good father to his kids over time. By the end of the film, all the lessons Hawke learns are on display as he is at a place where he can pass some useful wisdom off on his son.

Time is a fascinating thing. As young people get older, they wish for it to fly by; as people age, they wish precisely the opposite. Richard Linklater finds the perfect study of this concept in Boyhood, yet another masterpiece the underrated director can place on his growing resume. Every so often, I'll find myself replaying moments in my head from my past and realize how it in some way helped make me into the person I am today. Boyhood is the movie world's manifestation of that personal journey that every person goes upon, and like your past, it will grow in wonder every moment you think back upon it.

Snowpiercer
Snowpiercer(2014)
½

Snowpiercer takes the concept of a model train to its craziest extreme. This bonkers dystopic future film by director Joon-ho Bong relentlessly hurtles forward despite its bleak outlook and existence. Though the movie's endgame has been played out before the journey is fantastically weird and original, plus I learned how you can have sushi on a train you cannot exit from.

Humanity tried to pump coolants into the atmosphere after global warming increased the planet's temperature. As a result, the coolant overcooled the planet, killing everyone on Earth except for a few lucky ones on a sustainable global bullet train run by someone named Wilford. However, the train is strictly structured by class. Curtis (Chris Evans), a poor member of the train's tail, hates his status and wants to lead a revolt to take the train back from Wilford and his loyal lackey Mason (Tilda Swinton). Supported by Edgar (Jamie Bell), Gilliam (John Hurt), Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and Yona (Ah-sung Ko), Curtis reluctantly leads his loyal followers toward the front of the train. However, each new car gives a new set of problems/threats for the group to overcome.

Snowpiercer walks the line between serious and self-aware very well. Chris Evans gives Curtis a very anchored determination to get to the front of the train to the point that he overlooks all the nonsense around him. Curtis unveils the vile nature of his food, druggie door openers, clairvoyance, child education, opulent clothing, and fake teeth usually with a quick look and just as quickly moving forward, keep the story from spiraling into crazy town. The dialogue contains its share of hilarious lines, but they work because of how well they fit into Snowpiercer's story at the time. When a character is f*cked, another one happily points it out. This balance falls out of line as the third act reaches full steam, but by then the fun of the first 2/3s has won you over enough to overlooks some of the minor weaknesses.

The train itself is a nice modern wrinkle, throwing a little bit of the current trend of encapsulating characters in a confined space to see how they react. Unlocking a door is like unlocking another secret and another character wrinkle for some of the Tail members. The fight scenes are in a confined space, and it is easy when going through a tunnel to creates a lightless horror car. Ice buildups on the tracks result in potential derailings (humorously brought up during a fight). And in the best engagement, giant turns in the track can use the talents of a sniper. Snowpiercer uses its setting better than most other films out there, and makes the train itself feel like a character at times.

Chris Evans, like his Captain America, needs to sell the audience on his drive toward the engine. Evans channels that character into Curtis, with more of a haunted past. His big scene where he reveals what he actually did is simultaneously heartbreaking and darkly funny, but it only works because of Evans devotion to the script. Evans's rebels Octavia Spencer, John, Hurt, and Jamie Bell also add gravitas searching for her lost son or fighting for a lost cause. Surrouding those 2 are a host of weirdos. Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song give meaning to the term method to their madness: anything they say is done in a funny way as they get many laughs. Allison Pill gets the biggest laughs as the most terrifying teacher left on the planet. But eclipsing everyone is Tilda Swinton, giving new meaning to the term controlled chaos. Her bureaucrat is equal parts smarmy and fragile, giving the character a false sense of security played for punch lines.

An environmental cautionary tale, Snowpiercer wins the audience over with out-of-left-field and down-the-middle storytelling wrapped together in a bullet train package. It's not landmark cinema, but it is always compelling. Plus, the final shot makes sure we know who has the last laugh in this world scenario.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
½

Rise of the Planet of the Apes should not have been good. James Franco leading a reboot of an iconic franchise? Stupid idea. Then Andy Serkis came on board, and that all changed. Serkis's Caesar, the leader of the apes, was riveting to behold. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes dispatches Franco to give Serkis top billing: a choice that pays off right away. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn't perfect but Caesar and Serkis's depiction of him is.

After a brief catch-up from the last film we are introduced to two societies. The apes could not be thriving more: Caesar (Serkis) has established himself as alpha male and built a growing society. Humans have been nearly wiped off the planet from the flu derived by scientists to try to cure Alzheimers. Both societies unexpectedly collide when Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his expedition run into the ape band searching for a power source (power is off across the globe). Malcolm and Caesar tentatively tolerate the other species, but they have threats. Malcolm founded the human refuge in San Francisco with Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who is driven by all means to keep his society on top of the food chain. Caesar is challenged by Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose years being experimented on by humans has left him paranoid of humanity in general.

I'm gonna warn you now: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at times feels like a foreign film. After the prologue, the first 15 minutes are wordless as the simian society is established (not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey). When focused on the apes, Dawn is fascinating. Their culture is at times not unlike our own: there are laws and families and learning. They hunt. They have rebellious kids. Watching these primates (especially the kids) experience similar situations as humans makes them easily relatable. Because of the ape-centric story, humans actually get the short end of the stick in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, forcing the better actors (Jason Clarke) to make do with what little material is there for them.

Outside of some early scenes, the CGI is pretty great here. These Apes look and feel real, showing how advanced motion capture technology has become. Battle sequences are really exciting and fun. Watching apes riding horses wielding machine guns (sometimes two) through a fireball is so ridiculous it is extremely badass. As important, facial expressions are easily seen in all their complexity, so you can easily see how terrified some of the apes are as they go to war.

Andy Serkis needs some progressive Oscar voters to push his cause. Serkis has been responsible for some of the great modern movie characters (Gollum, King Kong, etc). His Caesar is the star of the film, and easily the most fascinating character, simultaneously wise, strong, and emotional. Intimate moments involving Serkis are the strongest in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Jason Clarke gets the best character on the human side, basically mimicking Caesar's arc. Keri Russell is warm and sweet as Clarke's beau, but also a little badass. Kodi Smit-McPhee, Gary Oldman, and Kirk Acevedo are given one note to play and do the best they can with it (the screenplay doesn't help there). Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell, Karin Konoval, and Terry Notary have bright futures ahead of them playing CGI characters; Kebbell is actually pretty good as Caesar's threat Koba.

Sequels are set up as we approach the precipice of the original planet of the apes film. A war is coming, and thanks to Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves, we kinda want the apes to win. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes moves the pieces in place in fascinating and fun ways, using our most underrated modern actor to backbone the film. Now we need Gollum to stumble upon the camp on the way to Mordor so Serkis can get more things to do.

Pain & Gain
Pain & Gain(2013)
½

Turns out Michael Bay can churn out a very engaging film when not saddled with Optimus Prime. Pain & Gain is a very incisive black comedy infusing Bay's style into a relatively well thought-out screenplay. Now when I hear the phrase "A Michael Bay Production" I'll wait a second to cringe, instead of just cringing instantly.

The premise is too good for anyone to screw up. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a bodybuilder and a doer. Living in Miami beach, he's living the American Dream: until he goes broke. He decides then to maintain his dream, he will rob Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) of all his money. To do so, he enlists the help of some loyal lackies: ED sufferer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), lovable ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), and "potential" CIA operative Sorina Luminita (Bar Paly). The group eventually succeeds, but not before Kershaw contacts a private eye (Ed Harris) to help him track down and convict the mimbos.

Greed does horrible things to otherwise good people. Pain & Gain uses the American Dream and doing something as a punchline to a sick joke. Daniel robs because he wants the big house; Adrian wants to provide for his lover (Rebel Wilson); Sorina's American dream is protected by her belief that she is being enlisted by the CIA; and poor Paul does unthinkable acts by referencing a higher power and his need for companionship. The problem with greed is stopping its influence. Eventually, we see these people drop their artificial highs, ending up right back where they started and rejustifying a new potential "opportunity." Watching each of these men warp their surroundings to fit the narrative they choose to follow, Pain & Gain puts a unique spin on the American Dream is the size of the men. Because of their perceived will power they think they can force any situation to succumb to their brute strength.

With hilarious, amazing punchlines for consequences. Michael Bay sucks at writing jokes, so I can only assume that he pilfered most of these situations from the real life story. Portraying inept con-men is like shooting fish in a barrel, and Bay's kineticism gives the movie a roid rage of forward momentum when perhaps the leads should take a moment and think things out. The heist planning itself has the feel of other montages in similar films, but only because the leads probably pictured themselves in a planning montage. The running gag of failed kidnapping attempts gets more and more hilarious, culminating in a equally hilarious fate for Victor Kershaw. No movie will ever figure out how to remove finger prints better than this one, and Mark Wahlberg could make a short film on playing basketball with children. At over 2 hours, Pain & Gain's jokes get a little stale, but shockingly find ways to reinvent the jokes to keep the forward momentum.

The success of Pain & Gain comes from the leads. Mark Wahlberg plays amped up and agitated very well, and his Daniel is built on adrenaline and anger. His charisma and cockiness easily win over the other characters and the audience, giving a nice edge to the stupidity around such a cocksure individual. Less cocksure is Anthony Mackie, playing ED not as sad but more as a nuisance to get around. He has fun in scenes with Rebel Wilson and the boys, but only gets a little bit to do. Dwayne Johnson is the standout though. The Rock himself takes a badass persona and combines it with fervent religious zeal and globs of empathy. He plays Florence Nightingale with Tony Shalhoub extremely well; Johnson overall gives Pain & Gain a little Joe Pesci from Goodfellas unhinged quality. Ed Harris's straight man nicely fits around the puzzle of wierdos. Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, and Ken Jeong fill minor parts and could easily be excised (Pain and Gain's biggest Bay drawback is its treatment of women).

Sure not all of the subplots work and some of the characters are mistreated, but somehow that seems to fit Pain & Gain: an incomplete thought from incomplete people. Michael Bay should silence some doubters here that he can write a good story, and the Rock can silence some doubters about his acting ability. Bay must have an affinity for rocks when he makes films: he made the movie "The Rock," he worked with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Transformers is written with an audience in mind that is dumb as rocks.

Life Itself
Life Itself(2014)

There is no way I can write subjectively about Roger Ebert. As a slightly larger bespectacled cinephile Chicagoan, I tended to resonate with the man often. Hell, I have parents with almost identical personalities. However, that should in no way diminish what documentary director Steve James has created. Life Itself pulls no punches about its subject, including his family, his illnesses, and his relationship with Gene Siskel/At the Movies. Life Itself is direct and honest, but with a joyous spin, much like its star.

The documentary gets the most out of its 2 hour running time. We get as close to a full picture of Ebert the man: from his early Urbana upbringing, his life at the Chicago Sun-Times, his frenemy relationship with Gene Siskel, his time on At the Movies, and his last days. In addition, we get soundbites from all types of people falling into his orbit: other movie critics, Chaz (Ebert's wife), the Siskel family, Sun Times Colleagues, Producers, and even high-profile auteurs like Martin Scorcese. As the movie rolls on, you realize how far-reaching this only child from small-town Illinois became, and how gifted he was at spoken/written word and touching other people's lives.

Life Itself is rarely devoid of joy and humor, even in Ebert's lowest moments. However, I was unprepared for some of the little moments the movie critic provided for some up and comers. I knew the man was a champion of the little films (the director of his documentary, Steve James, gained rapid notoriety because of Ebert's crusade for him), but he found many unique ways to touch people in search of inspiration. Life Itself's most touching moments involve what appear to be many passionate filmmakers telling stories about a little gift or a simple hello that drove them forward through the tough times. The happiness set up early in the documentary helps infuse Life Itself with an unbreakable power that even death cannot stop. In his last days, when he could no longer speak, Ebert fully embraced Internet criticism as a new medium, and slowly evolved his movie blog into a contemplation of a life lived and memories to help a new group of fans. Ebert clearly understood that his zeal for life and film would be evident in this blog, and that dying could not prevent him from leaving a lasting impact on the world he loved being a part of. Life Itself could easily have become a funeral eulogy, but instead Steve James so captures Ebert's zeitgeist that James just gives Ebert another medium to live life upon: the medium he built himself upon.

Life Itself might have played better as a miniseries. The many facets of Ebert's life could each easily fill up an entire documentary. His escapades with Gene Siskel take up most of the screentime, but their relationship is so intense and complicated that Life Itself is probably going to end up the appetizer on the many shows/films about At the Movies. Steve James does a good job playing the 'opposites attract' angle and how their relationship was fueled by non-resolution. I would love to see a movie about Chaz and Roger's courtship and marriage, since its interracial and happened so late in life. In addition, Chaz Ebert is every bit deserving of the turns of phrase Roger bestows upon her over the course of the film: she is an amazing woman who deserves her own story to be told. Life Itself portrays Roger Ebert as one of the erudite elites in society, but because of equally powerful influences on the man, he was able to transcend into something of a legend.

The lessons I take the most from Roger Ebert are twofold: words are powerful, and gestures mean something. Life Itself puts these and many other lessons lived in on display of a man as fondly remembered as any other in society because of his work and actions. Under the Chicago Theatre resides only one star on the Chicago Walk of Fame: the great Roger Ebert. Now when asked why, I don't have to explain, I can just say see Life Itself and you'll understand.

Begin Again
Begin Again(2014)

Leaving Begin Again, I popped in my earbuds and listened to my playlists like I normally do. A few seconds later, my eyes started welling up inexplicably, with joy consuming my heart. Writer/Director John Carney recaptures the magic of music and movies (he created Once) with this little charmer starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley. Also, I learned Adam Levine looks terrible in a beard.

We see the star-crossed pairing that takes place at an open mic night. Dan (Ruffalo) is a studio exec in the middle of a nervous breakdown, having just been fired by his former partner (Mos Def) and separated from his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Greta (Knightley) was dating her writing partner Dave (Adam Levine) until Dave hits it big, and lets his success get to his head. Dan, upon hearing Greta, wants to record an outdoor album with her, both using each other to pick themselves up and remind themselves what they love about music in the first place.

John Carney is the go-to director for showing the joy of music creation. What makes him so special is that he never calls out a special moment: you just know it when you see it. Because music is such an expressive medium, when the movie hits a high, it sweeps you up into its euphoria. What is amazing about Begin Again is the number of ways these scenes can develop. Whether traversing magical New York City, in a nightclub, or at a concert, the power of a song can hit you if the mood is right, and director Carney sets up these moments better than most directors in the business.

Carney is also great at working music within the context of the real world, creating modern day musicals. Dan and Greta in any fantasy musical would clearly end up together, but their past lives and relationships drive the story more than their pairing. The movie teases at this successfully and correctly pulls away at the last minute. Begin Again, like its title, is about picking yourself up and deciding what to do with your life. While the lives of Dan and Greta are not very complex, they are emotionally powerful and dealt with in an adult manner. Sure Dave acts very impulsively, but the story smartly makes him grow up a little midway through and realize what he lost, making Greta's decision more complicated than originally thought. Dan's story also has a nice little spin in the middle, rethinking what we thought of the guy and framing his actions in a much more enlightened light.

Keira Knightley continues to be a very underrated actress with a host of talents. Knightley had never sung before; however, her voice is sweet and authentic, giving a nice grittiness to the proceedings. She also nails her big emotional moments and has some nice laughs with James Corben (her musician friend). Mark Ruffalo has been playing a frazzled charmer for a while now, and easily nails his character. Ruffalo frames his early manic behavior as being anchored by passion, which manifests itself as the outdoor album comes together. Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener aren't given much to do, but they provide enough support to Ruffalo to make his payoffs worth it. Adam Levine can sell a song very well on stage, but is surprisingly good as a musician over his head in stardom. Cee Lo Green also does some good stuff with his little cameo.

It takes some daring to create a similar movie to the masterpiece you already created in the same genre. John Carney took a big risk making Begin Again, but audiences are all the better for it. This movie provides enough magic and goosebumps to hopefully make audiences see Once, John Carney's gold standard for musicals. Also, if he chooses to sequel Begin Again, I vote Keira Knightley and Taylor Swift dropping the hammer at Lollapalooza.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
½

With the approach of July 4th, Transformers: Age of Extinction makes sure to include an American Flag in almost every scene of the movie. At over two and a half hours, that's a lot of stars and stripes. Much like the rest of the series, Transformers: Age of Extinction takes a long time to get going and hopes explosions and models who cannot act will distract you enough so that you realize there are no characters, no plot, and minor upgrades to special effects.

Shia Laboeuf is nowhere to be found a few years after the last Transformers movie. Since the events in Chicago, the CIA led by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has helped eliminate the remaining Decepticons and Autobots on the planet, but still cannot find Optimus Prime. The Autobot leader is discovered by Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a failing inventor and father to a college bound daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz). Cade eventually gets sucked into Optimus's war on three fronts between Decepticons alive and dead, as well as with the human created Transformers by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who might as well call them iFormers. Cade is tested by Tessa as well; her new boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) wants the guys blessing but Cade is very apprehensive. The conflicts take the group across the globe from Texas to Chicago to Beijing, destroying whatever is in their path.

The special effects are clearly front and center in Transformers: Age of Extinction. The CGI is very professional and clearly a lot of care was put into the various ways Tranformers can shapeshift. Slow motion is used to great effect in keeping the action coherent and displaying how cool CGI can be. Some of the new Transformers (specifically the Dinobots) look very impressive, and the scenes on a spaceship are very cool looking. Mark Wahlberg dutifully looks in awe at how cool his life has become. However, these effects feel hollow and aren't glamorous enough to carry the entire film.

That is mostly because the script is condescendingly lazy. Characters are given one note to play. This is like a Hunger Games exercise, where the talent rises to the challenge (Stanley Tucci) and the weak threaten to ruin the story (Nikola Peltz). Even the Transformers only get one note, which gets worse since that note is usually "Asian" or "Urban." Why is there a spaceship? Where did the Dinobots come from? Pointless questions. But the crème de la crème of sloth comes in the final act, set in Beijing, where repeatedly shots of the Willis Tower project in the background. Either the Chinese built an amazingly close replica of Chicago's tallest building, or the editors didn't see the need to easily remove it from the shot. Bay even resorts to mocking people who mock his films with his dialogue, giving Transformers: Age of Extinction a healthy dose of narcissism on top of the lengthy story's stupidity.

I considered writing a really long piece about Tranformers: Age of Extinction, concluding that the review was a metaphor for how meandering the movie does. But I thought the better of it, and just will end this review saying you might be minorly impressed by the CGI, but you'll mostly be upset you wasted over two and a half hours of your time. Transformers: Age of Extinction needs to make like its title and let better franchises attract fan boys.

Tammy
Tammy(2014)
½

Tammy is a study of expectations. The previews were less than appetizing, showing off how funny it is that a stupid person has a hard time robbing a fast food restaurant. However, this movie is written by its star and her husband, showing deep care for the characters they want desperately to bring to life. In the end Tammy is a frustrating tug of war between a solid R Rated comedy and unfunny condescending mess. You can bet if it was a tug of war, Melissa McCarthy would throw herself into the water for the laugh.

Tammy (McCarthy) is not having the best of days. In one spell, she loses her job at Topper Jack's (a burger place), wrecks her car, and finds out her husband (Nat Faxon) is sleeping with her neighbor (Toni Collette). With no money and no other options, she elects to team with her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) to go to Niagara Falls and get out of her small town. Their road trip leads to unexpected places with crazy people, including a father/son love interest (Gary Cole and Mark Duplass) and Pearl's lesbian friends Lenore (Kathy Bates) and Susanne (Sandra Oh).

You can tell a woman had a say in the writing of this movie. If this were any other type of romantic comedy, a man would come in and save Tammy and Pearl with a marriage/kiss and live happily ever after. Tammy argues that Tammy/Pearl have clean themselves up before they can even start thinking about dating. The female relationships here are very snipey, but also ring of honesty and sincerity as one woman tries to relate to another. As the movie goes along, it diverges more and more from your initial expectations after Tammy's first 20 minutes, to the success of the story. Even though Tammy is a hot mess, she controls her own mess, and can choose herself what to do, a refreshingly progressive take on the female road trip comedy.

Melissa McCarthy can carry a scene in many ways. Tammy dries McCarthy's well of talent until there is nothing left to tap. We see it all, both good and bad. Requisitely, McCarthy falls a lot and generates laughs at the expense of her weight. These jokes are mostly used for low brow humor and cease to exist by the third act. McCarthy is at her best when backed into a corner by a logical person and she illogically argues her way out of the situation. Tammy uses this situation a lot pitting McCarthy against many characters, letting the star drive the scenes effortlessly. Smartly, McCarthy knows how to put little pieces of drama/pathos into the story to add stakes to the plot, and the story adds a new wrinkle to the grandmother/granddaughter relationship during each part of the trip. Tammy digs itself too deep with its cliché ridden beginning and especially end, but the meaty middle is fun entertainment showing us all Melissa McCarthy has to offer.

McCarthy also brought some friends over to get a chuckle from the audience. Susan Sarandon has a blast here, getting to play Pearl as a drunk carpe diem woman who has solid chemistry with McCarthy. She's vulgar and plays drunk well, plus finds nuance in what could have easily been a one note character. Kathy Bates fills the maternal void missing in the picture well, and even gets some fun bits with fireworks and Viking funerals. Mark Duplass is cute and very sweet but kinda boring as Tammy's love interest. Of the rest of the cast, Dan Aykroyd, Gary Cole, Ben Falcone, and Sarah Baker get the biggest laughs in minor roles.

Tammy, the character and the movie, wear their hearts of their sleeve. This marriage driven passion project takes full advantage of Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. McCarthy and Sarandon should team up for a Thelma and Louise's sequel, since they nailed their banter so effortlessly.

The Rover
The Rover(2014)

I feel betrayed by the Outback Steakhouse. The Rover takes Mad Max and mixes him with a little feeling of modern times. We are quickly transported (after the fall, as the voiceover says) to a bleak, desolate place personified by the people living there. I guess 9.99 is a little low for a happy hour special here.

The story drops in on a man (Guy Pearce, who doesn't reveal his name) enjoying a drink at a stop along the highway. As he libates in peace, 3 men (Scoot McNairy, Tawanda Manyimo, and David Field) steal his car. This lights a fire under this man, who searches for the thieves. Falling in his lap is Rey (Robert Pattinson), the low-functioning brother of one of the thieves. The car chaser then captures Rey and takes him hostage so he can get his prized possession back.

The Australian Outback feels a lot like the Wild West in the United States. Due to societal collapse, the world has fragmented itself: you either can drift between locations or set up shop with your supplies. Mistrust abounds: each person to person meeting involves a firearm or barricade. Loneliness is expected unless you find a posse. These are all common tropes of a Western. The Rover spices things up using its modernity (like Mad Max did), but doesn't go far enough with its premise. What would it be like of Facebook/Twitter just left the planet? How do you pay for things? How would the military get involved? These questions the Rover avoids in favor of showcasing bleakness in the Outback.

Vast emptiness and loneliness eventually gives way to stasis. The key for any motion picture is to make sure each deliberate movement with a mozying tone infuses each scene with tension and dread to keep the narrative from stalling. The Rover is hit and miss with generating tension, with more examples of the former than the latter. The movie uses two basic tactics to keep the energy level elevated: slow burning silence and boo! moments. With unending stillness, watching a car approach can be very scary, or a simple knock on the door holds "horror" behind it. Paranoia can easily build in survivors of terrible events, and The Rover succeeds at making the audience feel the way the characters feel.

Guy Pearce, working with a full on scraggle beard, does a lot with a little as our main man. Pearce is great at showing intensity, irrationality, and irritability within the same scene, necessary to keep the story moving forward. The big gamble is Robert Pattinson: asking a sullen teen heartthrob vampire to play a dimwitted loyal lacky seems like a producer critique. What was my biggest red flag for The Rover turned into its greatest asset. Pattinson is brilliant here, never falling into Simple Jack territory, and easily allowing the audience to connect with Rey.

The Rover (David Michod's second feature) gives us a real world post apocalypse. It is not fun; there are no wenches or sarsaparilla. There is only finding direction and goals and surviving. Michod made one big mistake though: in the event of a collapse, there is no way the US dollar would be the primary currency; pretty sure the British pound is a safer bet.

Obvious Child

Abortion and comedy shouldn't go together right? Obvious Child tests this theory directly, trying to mine dark humor amidst a weighty drama. Much like its main character, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), Obvious Child sporadically finds something real and human in this terrible predicament, but just as often rings as false and self-fulfilling.

Donna Stern is a struggling comedian living in New York City (another one? I'm reaching my breaking point here). In addition to her rut, Donna's about to lose her job, breaks up with her boyfriend, and her parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) stopped giving her money. Trying to drink her way out of rock bottom, she hooks up with Max (Jake Lacy), a nice guy at the bar after she bombs a show. Due to condom mishaps, Donna ends up pregnant, forcing her to confront her issues with the help of her family and friends (Gabby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman).

At times Obvious Child plays like an episode of Roseanne. The show was famous for finding humor amidst constant sadness which Obvious Child does so well. Specificity is key here: moments like choosing your abortion outfit, and if you want to schedule it on a holiday may be offputting, but damn if they aren't biting if executed well. Because Donna is such a basket case and open book, these bits of humor fit her character and the story well and even get some big laughs. Donna's personality also helps put a person behind the act of abortion; Donna, despite her support structure, would not have been able to take care of a baby at this time. You may have issues with Donna's decision, but Obvious Child makes you understand the weight of such a decision on the expectant mother.

The strength of the story revolving around Donna's big decision undercuts dramatic momentum in the rest of Obvious Child. Jake Lacy and Jenna Slate are very cute together, but she makes so many contradictory choices that Jake feels less like a character and more like a stable counterpart to Donna. Her struggles financially are brought up but never really explored: a scene watching Donna ask for abortion money would have been very compelling. Donna's comedy act is a vent and showcase that she is an open book, but peripherally are involved in the story and give little new information as time goes on. There are elements in these scenes that could have supported Obvious Child's main story, but instead these sequences are given equal screentime to the discredit of the material.

Jenny Slate has bounced around the periphery of media, particularly on Saturday Night Live and Girls. Her comedy is hit and miss at about a 50/50 clip, but her dramatic skills are shockingly adept. Slate's highlights are a scene revealing information to her mother and the fateful day. Slate may never become a household name, but she has enough chops to become a solid character actor. Jake Lacy is pretty adorable as Max, though he doesn't get a lot to do aside from being cute. Gabby Hoffman and Polly Draper are very good here as Donna's roommate and mom, respectively. Richard Kind and Gabe Liedman aren't given enough material to make a great impression, and David Cross's character is unnecessary and unmemorable.

Obvious Child takes another spin on the struggling NYC entertainer by tying in abortion to attract attention. The attention is mostly well deserved due to the unique material present in the screenplay, but the generic material doesn't differentiate itself enough to elevate the movie. Also, we learn to never use the phrase "murder-suicide" in a comedy act: really torpedoes any fun the audience was going to have.

22 Jump Street
½

22 Jump Street is not as good as 21 Jump Street. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller know this, and use their self-awaredness to their advantage. 22 Jump Street is a sequel about the tropes of sequels, justifying the similar story and adding an edge to the comedy. Plus Ice Cube finally gets an office befitting his namesake.

After a "Previously On..." segment, Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) end up in college tracking down a drug dealer for a new drug. At MC State, Jenko becomes a football star and Schmidt becomes a slam poet to investigate their case. Tension arises when Jenko befriends Zook (Wyatt Russell), his blonde clone, pushing Schmidt out of the picture. Schmidt in turn hooks up with Maya (Amber Stevens) and gets in deep water with Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Events converge at Spring Break where Tatum and Hill confront their feelings and the bad guys.

It will be hard to top 22 Jump Street on the joke front. This movie has several insightful and clever gags that will be repeated ad nauseam for a new generation of kids. Kids today are much more immersed in pop culture, and 22 Jump Street's self awaredness gives meta jokes a new meaning. Repeatedly Jenko and Schmidt are asked to do the same thing for more money, and any time they try to say they're doing something new, they get shot down. In the middle of the film, because they wasted their money on a few explosions early in the film, they are told to tone it down, resulting in a hilarious car chase avoiding expensive items. 22 Jump Street has a character wearing a "deus ex machina" hat and a character with a red herring tattoo, as if to justify being bad by being as obvious as possible. When the movie's jokes focus on tropes of sequels, the dual layering of the punchlines gives 22 Jump Street some bite, especially during the credits.

Lampooning in 22 Jump Street is not just for sequels in general. The boss/worker relationship gets the most miles out of Ice Cube's extended screen time. The rapper's scowl rivals some of the greats, and his abrasiveness with Jonah Hill as the story progresses gets more hilarious with each added wrinkle. As for college life, 22 Jump Street has mixed success re-inventing the college experience for the milennials. Walk of shames and new age groups like poetry slams get the most mileage, while drug use and spring break are pretty much repeated from the past. Bromance gets crossed into the romantic realm in 22 Jump Street, featuring a couples therapy session. Constant lampooning keeps the audience distracted from the mediocre story and boring bad guys.

Much like their characters, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have changed. Hill has become more of a dramatic actor, and here he has trouble playing an outcast possibly due to rust (he does get a stellar scene at that poetry slam). Tatum, however, carries 22 Jump Street. His Jenko has been amped up as an amiable doofus. Earnest unknowing connects well with most audience members, and watching Tatum not remember what a library is called and Spidermanning from building to building brings joy and laughter together, a deadly combination. Ice Cube gets more screen time, and kills every time he comes back onscreen, scowling and ordering as good as any police captain in the movies. Jillian Bell and the Lucas Brothers are the best new characters, with the former making a running joke out of Hill's age and the latter taking twins to a new comedic extreme. Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, and Nick Offerman are fine in support. Peter Stormare is wasted as the bad guy, and the cameos are pretty great (especially at the end of the credits).

22 Jump Street stands among the quotable comedies in terms of how it will be remembered. Hill and Tatum form a fun team that can be experienced over and over again with great reward. Comediants better watch out; Channing Tatum is no longer just a beefcake: he is a funny beefcake. Every comedian without rock hard abs must be pissed.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
½

The Scottish Vikings of Berk are back. How to Train Your Dragon 2 blows out the scope of the first film to new lands and several new species of dragons. The mature nature of the sequel removes the charm and sincerity of the original in favor of breathless special effects and tonal complexity; the transition is sloppy, but necessary for How To Train Your Dragon 2 to maintain a high level of quality set by the first film.

We time jump forward from the end of How To Train Your Dragon some point a few years later. Berk has successfully integrated dragons into their town and are even used for games. Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), despite the push toward being the chief by dad Stoick (Gerard Butler), chooses to explore new lands with trusty dragon Toothless. During his personal journey, Hiccup learns of a madman named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who is enslaving all the dragons to take over the world. Before he gets a chance to confront Drago, Hiccup encounters a mysterious dragon rider (Cate Blanchett) who reveals new worlds to Hiccup, within and without. Armed with this new information, Hiccup takes Drago head on with the help of his family and friends, including girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera).

Little children (under 8) will be scared by the events of How To Train Your Dragon 2. The tonal shift is a darker one, so amidst the funny dragon moment there are moments of terror and sadness. The transition causes very dark moments to be offset by something cute or silly. Normally this is fine, but at times it lessens the impact of BIG moments for our heroes. The big moments though are more complex than the first film; themes like betrayal, family bonds, and becoming a leader drive How To Train Your Dragon 2 forward. The themes pivot around Hiccup and Toothless's bond, which helps How To Train Your Dragon 2 retain the heart of its predecessor.

Helping kids through a mature story like this is a CGI extravaganza. Dragons infuse every scene we see, usually being colorful or funny to distract them from some of the heavy-handedness. The animals are the right mix of dog and cat while retaining their dragonness (with the exception of the Godzilla like versions). Animal-human interaction is very easy to understand as long as the kid has a pet. The flying scenes are from a first person (or just near it) vantage point, exhilarating the senses visually. The lands themselves are beautiful explosions of green Crayolas infused with a little rainbow, and the battles are requisitely vast and exciting. If the story goes over a child's head, they'll still enjoy what they watched.

Jay Baruchel's voice is great for Hiccup's leader ascension. The built in awkward nasal tone of his voice automatically suggests the transition will be difficult, and Baruchel sticks the landing when Hiccup has to be regal. After setting up the booming voice, Gerard Butler successfully gives Stoick more quiet introspective moments here. Hiccup looks older, but Stoick is clearly the most evolved thanks to Butler's work. America Ferrera gets a side adventure and makes the most of it, but there isn't really much for her to do here (thankfully they didn't try to break her up with Hiccup). Kristen Wiig, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, and TJ Miller are relegated to comedic punchlines, with Wiig getting the funniest material with multiple suitors. Of the newcomers, Cate Blanchett is sweet, wise and the right amount of "off" as the dragon rider. She actually carries more emotional weight than meets the eye. Kit Harrington and Djimon Hounsou are wasted and one-note.

Unfortunately, there is no WOW moment in How To Train Your Dragon 2 like Hiccup's first petting of Toothless. However, their bond is strong and enjoyment well is deep for the sequel, which has more flying and dragons than your eyes can handle with a little growing up thrown in. I hope we don't have to wait four more years for another one of these films, since director Dean DeBlois proves he knows how to write a sequel. However, Hiccup and Toothless put such a smile on my face that I'm more than sure the wait would be worth it.

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow
½

Edge of Tomorrow is Tom Cruise's latest summer blockbuster. However, this one is near the top of his recent forays in cinema. Edge of Tomorrow uses the premise of Groundhog Day and merges it with the premise of Independence Day to create a fun sci-fi story. Plus Emily Blunt gets to be a badass heroine.

In the future, aliens invaded Europe and quickly start winning the war, with the exception of the battle of Verdun won by Rita (Emily Blunt), the hero of the battle. As a last ditch effort, humanity launches a massive assault under the command of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson). Brigham assigns Sergeant Cage (Tom Cruise) to the front lines to document the offensive. Cage, underprepared, dies quickly, but suddenly wakes up back near the front lines, where he wakes up every time he dies in battle. Cage eventually seeks out Rita, who shockingly understands his story and works with him to figure out how to win the war.

Groundhog day wisely didn't repeat the same sequences over and over again; it picked a similar spot to highlight the minor differences day to day. Edge of Tomorrow uses this technique to great effect. Many sequences are cut for humor: Cruise gets impatient at many people since he knows how they will react, or when Blunt coldly shoots him in the head repeatedly due to broken bones. Sparingly, the technique will highlight a dramatic quandary that Cruise has to deal with. Other times the technique keeps the plot moving with minimal macguffins. The editing and writing keeps Edge of Tomorrow from stalling in momentum.

Also helping is the CGI. The opening battle is like a futuristic D-Day: lots of explosions, the beach setting, chaotic fighting but with armored suits against intergalactic beasts. The beasts themselves are pretty terrifying combinations of dog and snake much like the sentinels in the Matrix. Cruise is famous for doing the action sequences himself, and Edge of Tomorrow benefits from every time he gets thrown, stabbed, exploded, shot, etc. Only in the dark third act does the CGI feel strained, but at that point the story has swept you up it doesn't really matter.

Tom Cruise feels like he is playing out his career in Edge of Tomorrow. Many conversations in the media about him are repeated ad nauseam, and here Cruise gets to easily manifest that frustration onscreen. In addition, he is very funny, serious, and buff enough to easily carry any scene he is in. Emily Blunt gets a chance to play a real action hero here, clearly enjoying it. She's essentially the straightforward no-nonsense warrior whose determination gives Edge of Tomorrow the requisite urgency. Bill Paxton and Brendan Gleeson have a lot of fun playing military officers in the dark as well.

Edge of Tomorrow isn't going to win any awards, unless they make something like a Summer Blockbuster Checklist award. Is it fun? Check. Does it have aliens? Check. Kick-ass hero? Check. Super-duperstar? Check. Destruction of a major city? Check. Repeatedly killing Tom Cruise? Uhh, I guess that's going to be a new staple to add to the list.

The Fault In Our Stars
½

Movies about cancer have that difficult line to walk between manipulative and serious. The Fault In Our Stars strays across both lines, but mostly walks the tightrope admirably. This teen cancer love story elevates above others in the genre because of the masterful work of Shailene Woodley, cementing her place among the young Hollywood elite. Jennifer Lawrence better watch herself.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley), a terminal cancer patient, reluctantly attends a support group because her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) think she's a little depressed and want her to make friends. At said group she meets Isaac (Nat Wolff), an eye cancer victim, and Augustus 'Gus' Waters (Ansel Elgort), who has lost part of his leg. Augustus quickly enchants Hazel, and the two spark a relationship, bonding over Hazel's favorite author (Willem Dafoe). Their brief journey lets them travel to Denmark, encounter the author, and learn about love before departing this mortal coil.

The Fault In Our Stars has a double tough task in that it has to tell a story in the two most manipulative movie genres: cancer stories and teenage romance. Smartly, the screenplay by teen romance vets Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber grounds the story with Hazel. She has lived on the edge for so long she laughs at the clichés of the inevitable and maturely deals with her fate. Her romance with Gus is the weaker story, mostly because Gus isn't nearly as complex as Hazel. However, he is so damn charming it almost doesn't matter. When cancer rears its ugly head, for the most part, The Fault In Our Stars keeps from being overly heart tuggy through removing the fear of death through the joy of living Hazel experiences.

That joy is the fortress that keeps relentless sadness from entering your soul for this star-crossed story. Hazel in the early going is callous and almost emotionless. Watching Gus drag her out of her shell state to feel something is a really fun experience. They bond over gallows type humor and text messaging, including how Disney World is a crappy wish. That bonding slowly grows into something special, with the two survivors getting back to living instead of just waiting for death. This character shift in purpose lessens the impact of death on the audience; since they know it is coming, they just want to see Hazel and Gus hit a stellar high. If they have to live with pain, they might as well enjoy a little happiness along with it.

The Fault In Our Stars's glue is Shaliene Woodley, without whom the story falls apart. Her Hazel is mesmerizing: Woodley has these little tics that indicate her thoughts while not saying anything. A scene walking to dinner with Gus is great watching her look at him without him catching her doing so. Woodley's highlights involve reading a eulogy as well as reacting to a late night phone call, in which she exudes emotional release with such a force that few actresses can match. Ansel Elgort tries to match Woodley, but is written one note. However, that one note is very charismatic: sparks fly when they share the screen. Nat Wolff is the comic relief as the blind friend, though he gets some nice beats; same goes for Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, thankfully playing caring if overprotective parents. Willem Defoe is a big minus here, playing a real jerk for manipulative purposes.

The Fault In Our Stars gives hope in the darkest of times. While not hitting the cancer movie benchmark 50/50, the Fault In Our Stars is smart and charming enough to be a worthy study of how to live on the edge of a knife on a day to day basis. By the midway point, you'll find yourself smiling more than you should, because joy in the midst of such constant pain is a beautiful breath of fresh air.

Maleficent
Maleficent(2014)
½

Good lord does Angelina Jolie have chiseled cheekbones. Maleficent spins Sleeping Beauty's story in a new direction. Anchored by a strong performance from Jolie, Maleficent the character is much more interesting instead of horrifying thanks to Maleficent the movie. If only the story realized the character is more interesting than CGI battles.

Maleficent (Jolie) is a fairy living in a magical kingdom bordering a human kingdom. When young, she meets Stefan (Sharlto Copley), whom she falls in love with. However, Stefan's love is in accumulating power, and as he becomes more powerful in the human world, he transforms into an enemy of Maleficent's world. Soon he has a daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning, playing Sleeping Beauty), whom Maleficent curses with deep sleep on her 16th birthday. However, as Maleficent watches the girl grow up, she regrets her decision as the birthday looms.

Angelina Jolie reminds everyone here why she shouldn't just be known as Brad Pitt's wife. Jolie's personality and look fit Maleficent perfectly: equal parts sweet and menacing and uncommon. Jolie gives Maleficent's villainy the requisite hurt and motivation while maintaining kindness in her heart. This gives Maleficent a slightly unhinged quality creating tension in many scenes she is in. Jolie makes Maleficent a more tragic figure, making the audience root for her change of heart. Frankly, the script keeps Jolie in check too often; when the iron chains are removed, Jolie makes Maleficent a force of nature and joy to behold.

It is the script that keeps Maleficent from become a wonderfully subversive Disney story. Clearly the focus on Maleficent diminished any other supporting character, including Sleeping Beauty herself, into one note characters. Elle Fanning is there too look pretty and given little story whatsoever, much like the fairies that take care of her. Sharlto Copley's Stefan is so callous that it doesn't make any sense what Maleficent saw in him. The story makes the big mistake of telling us he was corrupted by power, instead of showing it. 10 minutes more of backstory could have made Stefan and Maleficent's paranoia of each other a fun diametric opposite study. Instead, Stefan just gets to look crazy. Because of this, the story picks the wrong climax, using a CGI spectacle fight (which, along with the magical Moor, does look spectacular) as its end instead of the fate of Sleeping Beauty, which generates the most excitement and catharsis.

The trend of Disney reimagining its property is in full swing. Last year we got the Wizard of Oz's origin; this year we get Maleficent's. Hopefully the stories slowly get better and more subversive as time goes on; Ursula's backstory has to be fascinating, and you can easily make Scar look like a good guy if telling a tale from his point of view.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane's personality infuses A Million Ways to Die in the West. As such, the movie is a frustrating mix of brilliant gags and teenage boy humor. A Million Ways to Die in the West, like MacFarlane, desperately wants to be Blazing Saddles that it comes off trying too hard. It's also 30 minutes too long.

Albert Stark (MacFarlane, pulling triple duty writing and directing) is a new type of settler in the West: the nerd erudite sheep herder. Albert lives a comfortable life with girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) and his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who is waiting to consummate with his hooker girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman). Albert's life it turned upside down very quickly though: Lousie dumps him for a mustache twirling villain (Neil Patrick Harris), and fastest draw in the west Clinch (Liam Neeson, apparently the Irish accent throws his victims off?) arrives in Big Stump with his wife Anna (Charlize Theron). As Albert, a terrible shot, gets drawn into a gunfight with these bad guys, he enlists Anna's help, drawing the two of them together.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is two hours long, inexcusably. There are plenty of easy cuts here that MacFarlane doesn't want to make due to upsetting his friends. The Sarah Silverman/Giovanni Ribisi story is one joke repeated ad nauseam. The characters never evolve and are barely connected to the main story. They would have been better killed off in the middle of the story fitting the movie's title. There is an Indian excursion that delays the main stand off by 15 minutes for an extended (albeit, kinda funny) trip sequence. MacFarlane's biggest failing is getting sucked into side stories for a gag in favor of a tighter script.

In addition, many of the gag's MacFarlane chooses end in a fart/poop/fallic joke. These can be funny used sparingly, but repeatedly used come off as lazy. Sadly, MacFarlane doesn't dive deep enough into the well of assumptions about living in the Old West. The jokes about smileless pictures, bar fighting, gun showdowns, doctors' irrational methods, and especially the contradictions in religion are clever and insightful, only to be undercut by a fart death. With a few more passes through the script, A Million Ways to Die in the West could have approached Blazing Saddles for a new generation; instead, it is just MacFarlane fan service.

Part of the blame is with MacFarlane himself. As Ted, MacFarlane can leave it up to CGI to create a complicated character for himself. As Albert, MacFarlane is requisitely nice and self-assured, but brings nothing else to the table. Too bad, because Charlize Theron almost rescues the story by herself. Relishing in a chance to be funny (like on Arrested Development) Theron's Anna is sweet, completely charming, and exudes a movie star charisma that MacFarlane lacks. A Million Ways to Die in the West is at its best when Theron is onscreen. Neil Patrick Harris literally gets to play a mustache-twirling villain, and gets some of the big laughs in the movie. Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi, Liam Neeson, and Amanda Seyfried are wasted here. MacFarlane does squeeze lots of cameos in here, the two best involving other films set in the Old West (one spoiled in the trailer, the other right at the end).

Subversive movies can be fun. Princess Bride and Blazing Saddles prove that. A Million Ways to Die in the West thinks it is more subversive than it actually is. Maybe the Old West really is a fool's errand at this point, or maybe its because MacFarlane cannot grow facial hair like every other pioneer, but A Million Ways to Die in the West misses more often than it hits. Maybe it would have been better had MacFarlane CGI'ed himself.

Fed Up
Fed Up(2014)
½

Ronald McDonald never looked so sinister. Fed Up takes aim at the obesity epidemic, attempting to inform the public about how systemic the problem is at the moment. Fed Up successfully points the finger at the most problematic part of growing obesity worldwide, but it doesn't comprehensively study the problem preventing it from becoming a great documentary.

Fed Up is about the obesity epidemic across the globe. It asserts that the government has been so successfully lobbied by processed food, agriculture, and sugar industries so immersivley that the standard message of exercise and self-control will only slow the poisoning of our bodies: the problem is systemic. In addition, processed food advertising is now branding children at the earliest ages to create nearly inescapable eating habits. Fed Up showcases this thesis by using standard documentary fare: humanist stories of obese children, research, history, political anecdotes, ironic humor, etc.

It's best to think of Fed Up as the informant/whistleblower in that it is the start, but not the end, of fixing the obesity epidemic. Producer Katie Couric lifts the curtain on just how uphill our battle is going to be. Profit-driven corporations will stop at nothing to keep the status-quo, and many of our governmental attempts at change resulted in brilliant tactical policy changes from the processed food world. When society demanded less fat in food, the companies simply added more sugar to the food to maintain profit. When skim milk grew in popularity the excess fat left over went into cheese making, which was heavily promoted as equal to milk. Daily percents for intake of nutrients conveniently leave sugar off the list because the "science" isn't settled on the daily amount (sugar also has about 50 different names in the list of ingredients on a nutrition label). Michelle Obama's initiatives were corporately sponsored by companies who changed her message to only be about exercise. Part of you tips your hat to the machinations of this powerful machine while the rest of you dry heaves your popcorn and processed butter you're eating in the theater as politician after politician, regardless of political party, succumbs to the will of these companies. Fed Up maximizes focus on corporate profiteering for greater dramatic effect, and to not provide false equivalency to personal dietary responsibility.

In addition, Fed Up sidesteps personal responsibility by arguing about ingrained early-age branding. Some things are obvious, like fun mascots like Tony the Tiger or getting a toy in a Happy Meal. However, the well runs deep: candies at the check out aisle and sugary cereals in the aisle are purposely at the height of children's eyes. School lunch funding being slashed led to corporate sponsorship of lunchtime. What kid will choose salad over a double cheeseburger and fries? Hell, even pizza is a vegetable according to our government. Parents can definitely help out in the home, but they cannot control the corporate push on television, in school, and anywhere else their child's eyes go.

Fed Up isn't a perfect documentary: the kids all share similar (if heartbreaking) stories and more needs to be made of the cost (medical, mostly) obesity is providing our society. However, Fed Up starts the conversation and gets you riled up, which any great documentary aims for. Katie Couric clearly holds this issue near and dear to her, and she makes a compelling case for signs of the corporate knot slowly unraveling. The best part is how she nails both sides of the political aisle; don't expect Sarah Palin or Michelle Obama to be too eager to interview with her anytime soon.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
½

Of all the superhero worlds to create, 20th Century Fox has it the easiest. X-Men and mutants have so many interesting parallels with the real world that creating compelling cinema would seem a slam dunk. The franchise's first decade roller coastered, peaking with X2 and falling rapidly with X3. X-Men: First Class hit the reset button on the franchise with great effect, and X-Men: Days of Future Past completes the reset. Director Bryan Singer (of X2) is brought back in, fittingly to snap all the pieces into place with a fun merging of past and present X-Men; makes sense, since Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are so cute together.

Things aren't going well for mankind in the future; Sentinels created to destroy mutants have actually killed most of the planet and are hunting out the rest. Magneto (Ian McKellen), Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) find Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) who has been using time travel to keep herself alive. Since Wolverine can heal immediately, only he can survive time travel further back in time to prevent the creation of the Sentinels, who were created due to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdering Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Wolverine enlists the help of younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and a powerless Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to help him in his search for Mystique to prevent the Sentinels from taking over Earth.

Comic book movies have started to take themselves extremely seriously, mostly for our benefit. X-Men: Days of Future Past swings back the other way: this movie is fun. The dimensional jumping creates some fun sequences for one-upping the Sentinels. Time travel, despite its holey explanation, does some fun stuff with Wolverine and his past, using Wolverine's "I'm too old for this sh*t." to great effect. Baseball fields make great barriers. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) vision is hilarious to behold. Presidential history makes sense, and Richard Nixon plays a key role in the third act. X-Men: Days of Future Past combines serious and bonkers tonal shifts in a very satisfying way that most lesser films struggle with.

The movie also works well as a passing of the torch since Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen aren't getting any younger. X-Men: Days of Future Past heavily references all of the previous X-Men films, including some of the Wolverine solo ventures. There are Easter eggs aplenty for anyone who was a fan of those earlier films (and at the end of the credits, fyi). Wisely, the majority of the movie's screen time is in the past, where the 3 big names (McAvoy, Lawrence, Fassbender) have to flesh out their relationships with one another. The movie wisely pits Mystique between Xavier and Magneto, further complicating her already messy identity crisis and creating a third equal onscreen as well as the choice du jour: a love triangle. With Wolverine as the bridge, X-Men can now successfully move forward in finishing its future by going back to its past.

In terms of acting, the big job is Hugh Jackman's, who has to work in both worlds. Jackman always did good work as Wolverine, and here he gets to use the smarts he has developed instead of just fighting first and asking questions later. James McAvoy walks the charismatic and troubled line very well, and pulls off how wise and lost Professor X is at the time. Michael Fassbender is great at looking scary, but also showing the human underneath. Hatred and revenge fuel Magneto, and Fassbender easily makes that clear. Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique was clearly given more screentime because of the actress. There still isn't much here, but at least she isn't the love interest: she makes her own choices. Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart lend their support ably. Evan Peters steals the show as Quicksilver, easily nailing the character right away. Other people have small parts and aren't really asked to do anything.

X-Men: Days of Future Past reinvents the wheel. For some an "I'm sorry," for others a "Check this out," the movie makes the world of mutants again a deep well of fascination and allegory I'm excited to see built up. Especially more Quicksilver cam; always more Quicksilver cam.

Palo Alto
Palo Alto(2014)
½

The Coppolas sure are fascinated by Californians. Sophia Coppola covered the vapidity of the Bling Ring, and now her niece Gia adapts James Franco's short stories of Palo Alto. Much like California in general, Palo Alto boasts some fascinating people and a fresh spin on a high school drama, but it prances around thinking it is more clever than it actually is.

The two focal points for Palo Alto are April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer, Val Kilmer's son). April is a likable soccer player who enjoys her teacher/coach Mr. B (James Franco) so much that she babysits his kid. Teddy is an aspiring artist. Both are going through "crises." April's questioning her virginity with Mr. B as she harbors feelings for him; she also is struggling with school. Teddy has a Murphy's law friend Fred (Nat Wolff) who gets him a DUI forcing Teddy to live with the consequences.

Palo Alto' biggest strength is its truly affluent California setting. More often than not, these kids are forgiven their vices because of their money and entitled families. Parents are convinced that their privilege is enough to parent their children; hell, even authority figures coast on their cushy lifestyle. Therefore, kids from Palo Alto have no idea what consequences are, and no one with personal experience to teach them anything. The kids are all adrift in the world, begging for attention in their own ways. Some use sex; others use wild antics; others use drugs. Mistakes are made by every teen; Palo Alto showcases that in the void of guidance, your inner feelings will eventually guide you, which can be rewarding or heartbreaking depending on what you believe.

Much like Dazed and Confused, Palo Alto's screenplay meanders aimlessly, capturing the day-to-day of high school activity, at least in California. This is intentional, since Palo Alto's youth appear to be purposeless. However, Gia Coppola's story lacks narrative drive that Dazed and Confused had. There are some dead spots (Mr. B's subplot wears out quickly) that suck the energy out of the story. Most of these kids are so reprehensible that spending time with them just isn't enjoyable. Palo Alto is always complicated, but it is also can be very boring.

Some of the Palo Alto adolescents are very good here. Emma Roberts continues to grow in small films. April is clearly the most likeable while still being understandably flawed. Roberts does this subtly, but effectively if paying attention. Jack Kilmer is mostly playing shy, to no great effect, positive or negative. Nat Wolff is the scene stealer as closeted Fred, but Zoe Levin gets the best arc as the put upon friend of April's. Of the adults, James Franco is as slimy as ever as April's soccer coach, and Val Kilmer has fun playing one of April's parents.

James Franco got into a big sexting scandal trying to promote Palo Alto, which seems like something one of these kids would have attempted. Gia Coppola's first effort succeeds on the character front, but needs a better idea to hold the story together. We do learn one important lesson: Mortal Kombat's female characters do have crappy abilities.

Million Dollar Arm
½

Disney is hoping for people to write as many positive baseball puns as it can about Million Dollar Arm. This family film, when focused on the two Indian baseball prospects, delivers with heartfelt emotion and catharsis. Frustratingly, Disney spends more time with JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), the Caucasian agent who learns to be a father to these kids.

JB's startup agency just lost out on its biggest client. With nowhere else to turn, he and his partner (Aasif Mandvi) pitch a competition called Million Dollar Arm to find the first baseball player from India. JB travels to India with veteran scout Ray (Alan Arkin) and brings back winners Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and their translator Amit (Pitobash). The two prospects train under coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) to try to achieve the dream of a major league contract. JB of course screws up along the way, and is kept in line by his tenant Brenda (Lake Bell) who reminds JB of the burdens and pressures these kids have to deal with.

Million Dollar Arm's screenplay picks the wrong story. I'm pretty sure being uprooted from a small Indian village and placed into a different country trying to learn a sport you never played is VASTLY more interesting than a well off sports agent who's failing at a startup but learns to love his clients as people instead of as a business. In addition, with TWO kids and a translator going through the same culture shock, Million Dollar Arm could provide a range of reactions and feelings to their joint circumstances for a much richer narrative. Instead, the screenplay chooses the easy way out by making JB put his business before his kids more than a few times with Brenda sweeping in and fixing the situation. Similarly, we only get highlights of India like crazy food and the Taj Mahal instead of the plethora of strange customs Indians exhibit. Million Dollar Arm, by talking down to its audience, comes off boring and repetitive more often than not.

However, the pieces of the boys' story that make it into Million Dollar Arm hit right in the heart. The story makes it so easy to root for them: they work hard and only want to please others, values instilled by their religion and family. Their sheer innocence and joy makes each pain they experience minorly heartbreaking, and each success an exhilarating triumph. The most impressive piece of Million Dollar Arm's screenplay is Amit, the translator. It is immediately clear the story wants him to be the comic relief, using his excitement and passion for baseball as a joke. However, his genuine personality wins you over; his pep talk to the boys before a big tryout is the film's highlight. Million Dollar Arm's screenplay gets a lot wrong, but when the film is hitting its climax, you find yourself hoping for the best anyway because the Indians are so damn likable.

Jon Hamm leaves Don Draper on Mad Men to do Don Draper for baseball. He's fine as a lead, only failed by the screenplay. There's not a lot of chemistry with Lake Bell, but they're fun together in the scenes they have. At least Bell isn't relegated to just love interest; she is also smart. Alan Arkin has mastered grumpy old man at this point; he kinda mails it in. Bill Paxton is good in a role that needed more screentime. India's finest win the day here. Aasif Mandvi and Darshan Jariwala are very funny as JB's business associates, getting a joke a second. Pitobash's Amit finds the emotion beneath laughing at him, so by the end we cheer with him. Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma captures the joy of being in a new place very well, while Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal showcases the burdens and fears of being somewhere foreign more deeply than he has business doing.

Million Dollar Arm wants us to be happy and doesn't hide it. You instantly know where this story is going and don't care because these kids deserve it. Whew. I got through this whole review without using any baseball puns: striking out, home run, thrown a curve ball, swing and a miss, wild pitch, foul ball...

Chef
Chef(2014)
½

Jon Favreau celebrates his indie return with a culinary delight. Chef is a charming and sweet destination tale where the journey is more important than the ending. Chef won't win you over with depth, but it will make you laugh and quietly take your heart.

Carl Casper (Favreau, also writing and directing), once the soup du jour of the Miami/California foodie crowd, is stuck in a rut. His restaurant just got slammed by blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) and his restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants him to maintain the status quo. Carl then goes through a massive public breakdown ending by losing his job. With nowhere else to go, he accompanies his wife Inez (Sophia Vergara) and estranged son Percy (Emjay Anthony) to Miami, where he decides to buy a food truck. On the drive back to California, Percy, Carl, and Carl's sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) bond over their work and craft as Carl learns to become a better dad to his son.

The art of food is a very recent phenomenon. With shows like Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen, chefs have become something of a celebrity in the cities they reside in. Chef takes great care showcasing the burdens that other artists go through. Carl works very hard on the dishes he has created; when a high-horse critic comes in and lampoons his work, he is obviously deeply offended, it is as if his life is worth nothing to the man. In addition, artists themselves can be burdensome pushing boundaries and being moody, and Chef has some fun with Carl's use of Twitter and resultant viral videos. Chef rightly takes food creation seriously, avoiding an ironic tone that would cripple the entire film.

Tone is the big reason why Chef is so winning. The movie is lighthearted and very funny, with a touch of warmth and earnestness. Characters are infused with at least one redeemable quality, and whenever their bad side is exposed, there is at least a reason for it. A rooting interest in finding happiness drives Chef forward while generating a laugh or two. The movie also limits the main screentime to only a few actors resulting in an unexpectedly poignant third act, and since we like most of the characters in Chef, the results are more satisfying than they probably should be.

Jon Favreau is as winning and likable as he was in Swingers as he is in Chef. His Carl is a tortured artist willing and open to personal relationships, a role Favreau fits well in. The relationship he creates with Emjay Anthony is very cute and fun. Anthony is requisitely cute, and sells his expansive social media background (though a few of these are a little hard to believe). Favreau does have lots of talented friends helping him out too. John Leguizamo fits right in as Favreau's sidekick. Bobby Canavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Sofia Vergara are pretty good in supporting roles. Robert Downey Jr., like he always does, steals the movie in his one scene playing an extension of himself.

Food trucks never looked so appetizing as they do in Chef. Jon Favreau gives us simmering dishes that rumble the tummy and eventually soothe the heart. Favreau's creative vision does go a little too far, though: there's no way he would have landed both Vergara and Johansson without pissing off one of them.

Godzilla
Godzilla(2014)
½

Even Matthew Broderick couldn't get rid of Godzilla. The monster that made popular the creature feature is back. Director Gareth Edwards has fun building Godzilla to a rousing climax of beast on beast action. Godzilla tramples everything in its path, including compelling characters.

After a prologue, the movie takes us to 1999 where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a nuclear engineer working in Japan. He and his wife (Juliette Binoche) encounter seismic complications that result in the quarantine of their facility. Flash forward to present day, where Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy bomb technician, is coping with the fallout of that incident with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco. Wouldn't you know it, on the day that Joe calls Ford to bail him out of jail in Japan, that is the day that giant beasts awaken (including the titular lizard), placing Ford and his family directly in the crosshairs of this ancient war.

Director Gareth Edwards clearly has a love for Godzilla and wants to do him right by movie standards. Edwards chooses to showcases Godzilla's grandeur by using humans as his scale. Much has been written about Edwards's human eye view direction of these great monsters, and rightfully so. By using Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a measuring stick, the first time a monster appears on screen it dwarfs Johnson intimidatingly. Wisely, Edwards expands the view as more monsters including Godzilla enter the fight, but even then, he'll show a view from a building window or from a skydiver (some of this is for 3D purposes, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt). The slow-build to the final monster mash is worth the final 30 minutes: that fight has some amazing demolishing and concludes in one of the more unexpected and satisfying ways possible.

Unfortunately, Godzilla contains humans too. The movie opens with a bang emotionally, and goes nowhere after that, especially during the Godzilla-less first hour. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche get the best work here, though Cranston goes a little too crazy by the end. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the blank slate: he is a purely plot actor here, being noble and good to his family. We believe in him, but wouldn't follow him into battle. Elizabeth Olsen's eyes do a great job looking scared. Ken Watanabe is the ace in the hole as a corporate leader: he has a habit of making clichéd dialogue work in a scene. David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins do nothing but earn a paycheck. The screenplay gets credit for getting rid of characters when they are no longer useful, but wastes that credit by thinly drawing everyone.

Godzilla boils down to a simple question (like Pacific Rim last year): do you want to see huge monsters fight each other? Godzilla proudly flaunts its monster across the screen, bragging about how impossible it is to stop. Blue fire breathing lizards is just fun to say, and Godzilla doesn't take its star for granted.

Neighbors
Neighbors(2014)
½

When did Seth Rogen get old? Neighbors place him at war with Zac Efron with hilarious and shockingly poignant results. Like most of Nicholas Stoller's movies, Neighbors sprinkles in some truths amidst drug use and mini-trampolines. It even manages to include James Franco's little brother in the proceedings.

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Radner just had their first kid and moved into what they consider an idyllic neighborhood. Until a frat moves in next door led by President Teddy (Zac Efron) and Vice-President Pete (Dave Franco). After attempts to reach an understanding fail to sink-in, Mac and Kelly go to war with the frat to protect their new family, new home, and new lifestyle.

Much attention has been made about the very keenly observed intergenerational warfare, and rightfully so. The music best exemplifies what is going on. Most of the musical selections are youthful or remixes. Remixes masquerade as original songs much like thirtysomethings wanting to be considered cool by the generation before. Ke$ha's Die Young is so built around living in the moment that is exemplifies the blinders frat life puts on college kids. Neighbors big conflict is not really the battle between Mac/Kelly and Teddy, but between the push toward the future and the pull from nostalgia. The Apatow movie world always carries with it a hint of something true within its crazy exterior, and Neighbors is no exception.

Let's not kid ourselves though, Neighbors has its share of big laughs. Rogen and Byrne have fun using their awkwardness in a more mature way here, trying too hard to fit in with people they shouldn't want to. There are amusing erection jokes and breastfeeding failures (no diaper jokes with a baby, well done). An extended fight sequence at the end pushes the pratfall count in Neighbors to extremely high levels, sometimes to the detriment of the story. It's nice to see Rose Byrne get some shining moments (Apatow movies can be a little to guy heavy); she concocts a brilliant plan quickly to cause Teddy and Pete to fight. Neighbors can rely a little to heavily on low hanging fruit, but it delivers punchlines fast enough to keep audience members from getting bored.

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are by now seasoned vets of the comedy world. Both are great here. Rogen does his poor schlub routine in his sleep, but equally impressive is Byrne, who can keep up with Rogen as well as any of his guy friends. Zac Efron is the wild card here. He is solid as Teddy, keeping the frat boy from falling into a stereotype hole. His shirtlessness is used to great effect, and his fight scenes with Franco and Rogen are well acted on his part. Dave Franco is mostly there for emotional effect, but he does a solid De Niro impression and uses his sex face to great effect. Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Hannibal Burress, and Jerrod Carmichael provide solid support for the core 4, especially Barinholtz.

Neighbors is a smart title. Yes, these people live next to each other, but their age range is also adjacent. That means in a few years, Dave Franco will become James Franco. I hope he looks good with cornrows and grilled teeth for the next Spring Breakers movie.

Belle
Belle(2014)
½

Belle is the British aristocracy version of an underdog sports movie. Featuring a solid cast and ornate period detail, Belle is at times compelling but mostly feels tired and conventional. I mean, how many times can we see British decorum broken and the elite appalled at what is going on?

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate half-black daughter of Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a naval Admiral and member of Britain's elite in 18th century England. Lindsay leaves Belle with Lady (Emily Watson) and Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Belle's cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Belle grows up unable to participate in the same activities her sister and grows an interest in Lord Mansfield's political occupation and starts siding with apprentice John Davinier (Sam Reid), who fights for human rights and the end of slavery. In addition, Belle and Elizabeth are being courted by Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton) Ashford, one of whom holds severe disdain for colored women.

Dido Elizabeth Belle is a biracial woman in the aristocracy. This is a unique perspective that the screenplay fails to capitalize upon. Because of the influence of the ruling on slavery in Britain, it makes sense to make a priority on Belle's color, but not enough screentime is given to her struggles as a woman. The movie positions traditionalists against progressives, with very little gray area in between. Wouldn't there have been men who were for banning slaver but against female independence? The story might have been better served making Belle's love interest Davinier more complicated by being unsure of his positions on women's rights instead of resorting to over-the-top equality rhetoric. A little more line blurring would make Belle more compelling and give the stakes of the climax more heft.

It's too bad too, because Belle plays as a very cute love story. Davinier and her courtship generate sparks; the true climax of the film is a confrontation in the carriage between Lord Mansfield and Davinier about Belle. Dido is also courted by one of the Ashford boys who is smitten with her and unafraid to be seen with her publically. The screenplay takes the easy way out with contrived reasons for the end of the Ashford engagement (the movie in general goes to this well too often); too bad, because Belle is well set up to make us believe she would have turned him down anyway and chosen Davinier. In fact, such a move without artifice would have been a nice character moment for Belle instead of resulting in a shrug.

The actors do what they can with a weak screenplay. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives Belle royalty and grace with a nice undercurrent of anger and resentment. Belle may be trampled upon, but she will not stand for it forever, and Mbatha-Raw sells her drive with sheer intensity in looks. She also has a nice little chemistry with both Sam Reid and James Norton. Tom Wilkinson gets to evolve the most in Belle, and he takes a traditional role and makes it his own. Emily Watson gets one scene to give Lady Mansfield some depth and she nails it as expected. Miranda Richardson, Penelope Hilton, Matthew Goode, Sarah Gadon, and Miranda Richardson are all good in limited roles. The blemish is Tom Felton, who plays one note and doesn't remotely look older than his "younger" brother.

People who love British things will find Belle entertaining and a little funny. However, this movie lacks crossover appeal that it is so desperately seeking. Belle is rightly a great moment in British history, but it is a mediocre part of British cinematic history.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
½

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a ho-hum comic book film masquerading as a Marvel superhero film. It has its high flying moments and surprisingly intimate interpersonal scenes, but it leaves an indifferent impression. It's a sad situation for those who want to see Spidey join the Avengers.

High school is now over. Peter Parker (Spiderman, played by Andrew Garfield) keeps his promise to break up with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) because of her father. Gwen takes a summer internship with Oscorp, and Peter lives with Aunt May (Sally Field), fights crime and takes pictures of himself for income. At Oscorp, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), Peter's once best friend, comes back from school to take over his father Norman's (Chris Cooper) empire. Peter and Harry both go on journeys to learn about their father's past, and they both encounter Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an electrical engineer who undergoes a transformation after an unfortunate electric eel accident.

Sony produced The Amazing Spider-Man 2 so it wouldn't lose the character rights back to Marvel studios, the equivalent of a family adopting someone else's child. As such, the creative team behind The Amazing Spider-Man 2 guesses at why people like comic book movies by employing the kitchen sink approach. Like Iron Man, there is quippy dialogue and a cute love story. Like the Avengers, there are some intense special effects. Like Captain America, there is a giant corporation wielding secret power. But by borrowing ideas from other superhero films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 loses the essence of what makes the character interesting. Spider-Man was always at heart an emotionally frail but smart kid who had to outwit his opponents, giving hope for every high school nerd out there. Here, Peter has his moments, but he mostly relies on charisma and agility; any creative strategy involves Gwen Stacy. Without Peter as its anchor, the Amazing Spider-Man 2 mostly revolves around Harry Osborn and Max Dillon's origins with tepid results.

By employing operation throw everything at the screen, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is severely bloated. There are 3 villains, two of which have backstories, and two of the villains have people harassing them that need development. The excess of villains leads to tonal inconsistency and underdevelopment of almost every character. The sad thing is, there is probably a great story in here somewhere. Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy's relationship is very cute and fun: the movie becomes electric when Gwen Stacy, not Electrode, graces the screen and interacts with Peter Parker. Aunt May has a wonderfully nuanced confrontation with Peter about his father's (Campbell Scott) past. Harry Osborn is also a film favorite because his arc is the tragic version of Peter's. Had the movie focused on Peter and Harry's search to confront their daddy issues, showing how Peter's influences show empathy and Harry's show callousness, the film would have had a much clearer tonal focus and a final confrontation with real stakes. Peter's scenes could have been light and sweet while Harry's despondent and scary, playing to Garfield and DeHaan's strengths. Instead, because of Jamie Foxx's presence, Electrode is given much more screentime than he probably deserves, resulting in shoehorning Harry Osborn into the movie and limiting the impact of the third act twists coming Spider-Man's way.

The good guys do their best to keep The Amazing Spider-Man 2 afloat. Andrew Garfield captures Peter Parker's innocence much better than Tobey Maguire did. Garfield has wonderful chemistry with Emma Stone and some nice scenes with Sally Field. Stone is the big winner here though: Gwen Stacy is funny, smart, decisive, and sweet in a way Kirsten Dunst never was in the original. Watching Stone and Garfield flirt makes me wish a spinoff of just their relationship would get greenlit. Sally Field, severely underused, makes a nice impact as Aunt May. The villains are the weak point in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Jamie Foxx is surprisingly creepy before his transformation, but due to underdevelopment, when he turns blue, he becomes a blank slate. Dane DeHaan is best at conveying scary when hurt, and here we don't see him hurt long enough to believe in his long-simmering anger; he is also NOT funny enough to keep up with Garfield. Finally, Paul Giamatti goes full Nic Cage with his turn here.

Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman write Sleepy Hollow on FOX. Sleepy and hollow would be two perfect adjectives to describe The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This movie reeks of cash grab and, despite the high-profile cast, never loses that stigma. Make things better Sony. Take a high profile producer credit from Marvel to let Spider-Man join forces with Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers. It will make the audience forget all about the time they spent watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Locke
Locke(2014)
½

Locke wins two awards. The first is setting a new benchmark for the car ride from hell. The other is for Tom Hardy, who delivers a tour de force performance responding only to phone calls in a car for an hour and a half. Locke is only compelling cinema because of its star.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) is on his way home from work. He is traveling to a hospital where a one-night stand (voice of Olivia Colman) is about to have his baby; in addition, Ivan has yet to break the news to his wife (Ruth Wilson) or son (voice of Tom Holland). On top of that, Locks is managing a big project laying the foundation of a new building, which he now has to put into the hands of the witless new manager Donal (voice of Andrew Scott). Ivan's decision clearly draws anger and frustration from his boss (voice of Ben Daniels) who tells Locke that he probably cannot defend him from being fired.

No, the voices are not in Ivan Locke's head. They are a cacophony of voices calling Ivan asking him to fix something. Ivan has to deal with problems ranging from watching a soccer game to seeking permits for street closures. Each person has different personalities and pressure points, causing Ivan to switch his personality for every new call that comes his way. Such nuance in the hands of a lesser actor would derail Locke quickly, but a talent like Tom Hardy carries the material with charisma and nuance. Within the first couple calls, Hardy establishes Locke's attention to detail, love for his family, and lack of understanding for people's feelings. Hardy uses Locke's past with his father as a driving (sorry for the pun) force for his current predicament, and uses every pause, inflection, and word to infuse the movie with his presence. Only a talented actor could make you believe he could will a multi-faceted project to success and be fragile enough to be hurt by the people he loves simultaneously, and Hardy is more than up to the task.

When you have a talent like Tom Hardy taking all of the audience's focus, it is the director's job to complement your star subtly. Director Steven Knight's secret weapon is using Locke's fated car ride to great effect. Hardy is shot from multiple angles using the mirrors and reflections provided by a car, nicely indicating how many directions Locke is being pulled in. In addition the mirrors allow Locke to talk to himself and his own demons. On long car rides, images can blur together, making unclear the road ahead, a nice picture to show when Locke is either thinking or talking. Whenever someone on the phone throws Locke for a loop, a turn signal or stop light appears. In addition, the nighttime aspect gives Locke a very isolated and ominous feel as Ivan tries to navigate the minefield he created. These little directorial touches allow time for the audience to catch their breath between each call and magnify the tension inherent in the story so no dead spots exist in the screenplay.

Locke proves that Tom Hardy is not just a badass who can break Batman's back or navigate dreams within dreams. He is also a serious actor with considerable talent for commanding the screen. Locke pops and drops it because Writer/Director Steven Knight understands that all audiences really want to see is Tom Hardy with a dashboard cam, with all of us along for the ride.

Oculus
Oculus(2014)
½

The premise of Oculus is on its surface pretty stupid. Homicidal, supernatural mirrors don't exactly make for compelling villains. Such is the ingenuity of writer Mike Flanagan's screenplay. By shifting the mirror's powers to the peripheral of a strong character study of a family slowly descending into madness, Oculus ripples with tension, mystery, and dread. Oculus somehow makes opulent mirrors, apples, and light bulbs all scary objects without coming off loopy.

The story begins on Tim Russell's (Brenton Thwaites) 21st birthday. Tim has been released from a mental institution after coming to terms with the death of his parents (played by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff). He reconnects with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who gives Tim a surprise: she found the mirror she's convinced killed their parents. She set up an elaborate science experiment involving the mirror to prove Tim and her innocence. However, the tests result in Tim and Kaylie living out their past lives (Annalise Basso plays young Kaylie and Garret Ryan plays young Tim) as they again watch the demons of their past arise again.

Oculus has some horror elements, but it is better classified as a psychological thriller. Like a mirror, the movie toys with what is real and what is not, leaving the audience confused as well. Fortunately, all versions of every character are well developed and organically conflicted: Tim's time in the mental institution made him come to terms with his murder, which Kaylie believes to be brainwashing. Because of their reliance on memories, the parents' descent can look differently depending on who is telling the story. As such multiple conflicts occur simultaneously, some involving personal demons and others dealing with past injustice. This way, when terror happens, we are scared for the people we have come to root for and care about.

Helping Oculus is the fact that most of the story can be explained without too much difficulty. Basic questions are dispensed with in clever structural ways, such as why they never tried to destroy the mirror. The experiment takes the power of the mirror seriously, placing multiple fail safes in place to eliminate the mirror after proving their innocence. The best idea in the Oculus screenplay is how easily explained the madness is. Time in the office can be explained as isolation, or hiding the fact that infidelity might be going on. In addition, their is an undercurrent of nefarious behavior from Kaylie and Tim; as time goes on, some of their decision making comes into serious question. Instead of focusing on the supernatural elements, Oculus could have been great if it used the mirror in a less supernatural way, focusing on tricks the mind plays on a person. As is, Oculus is a mostly logical realistic thriller that keeps the audience consistently guessing.

The acting has to be great for Oculus to succeed, and it is strong across the board. Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Annalise Basso, and Garrett Ryan are fantastic as the siblings. The younger siblings convey fear and loyalty very well. The older ones do wonders with the complexity of their current selves. Gillan's determination is nice to see instead of a damsel in distress, and Thwaites is rightly confused by what he sees and what his mind knows. As dad, Rory Cochrane is cold and understated to unsettling effect, but Katee Sackhoff is the feared one here. She gets some truly distressing material that leads to a transformation very zombie like. Sackhoff's sells the lifeless state she is in with aplomb, with terrifying results for the audience.

Horror movies usually hit the same beats to the point that they can be predicted very easily by the audience. Oculus fails to fall into line with wonderful results. The best compliment I can pay Oculus is by the time a character says "The Mirror did it!" you're so wrapped up in the movie that you don't laugh and feel upset that not one of the cops suspects the mirror. Come on, the mirror's opulence alone is worth a second look.

Heaven Is for Real
½

I'm glad Heaven Is For Real exists. For one, the religious right has long been underserved by message-pushing films with minimal complexity. Also, Heaven Is For Real is the movie version of a hug. Though the film can be message heavy, it is still an endearing, joyous celebration of life itself. Sometimes it's nice to remember that people can be nice and you're not alone out there.

Based on the book of the same name, Heaven Is For Real focuses on the (unfortunately named) Burpo family from Nebraska. Todd (Greg Kinnear) is about as American as you can get: he's a handyman and the local minister working several jobs to care of his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and kids Colton (Connor Corum) and Cassie (Lane Styles). Todd and Sonja are going through a rough patch: their bills have been building and Todd had gotten injured at a bad time. The family hits their low when Colton gets very sick and rushed to the hospital. Colton recovers, but he is different: he claims that he spent some time in Heaven. Todd and Sonja shrug it off until Colton starts mentioning things that he would never have been told about. Todd lets these revelations bleed into his ministry, which draws concern from church board members Nancy (Margo Martindale) and Jay (Thomas Haden Church).

Heaven Is For Real's big strength is its small town understanding. Churches double as social gathering places: the backbone of life in Anytown, USA. As such, the life of a Pastor must be difficult. People constantly projecting their hopes and fears on you and you have to deliver for them early and often. Plus, any sign of weakness or untruth will scare people away. Heaven Is For Real's most compelling scenes involve Todd discussing his limitations candidly with the church board or a church goer. The movie splendidly takes a very adult approach to the situation by the board challenging the pastor but showing faith in their friend to come through before they make a change. A simpler movie would have made the board the enemy, but Heaven Is For Real decides the only enemy is worldly pressures as long as you have a community behind you for support.

Ostensibly, though, Heaven Is For Real wants to make the world believe in Heaven's existence. There are a few lengthy sequences of Colton spending some time up there. These scenes are requisitely bright and pretty, but also very pointless. Todd brings up the fact that Heaven is a very subjective place a few times. As such, Heaven Is For Real might have been better served withholding Colton's images until the very end, leaving it up to the viewer to see what they think he saw. In addition, Heaven Is For Real has some very weak judgmental subplots where Todd is forced to defend his son from nonbelievers. Fortunately, these scenes are few, but they do detract from Heaven Is For Real's overall power.

Heaven Is For Real boasts some solid character actors to carry what could have been sappy material. Greg Kinnear's wheelhouse is the everyman. He looks the part, and sells the compassion and world weariness of a minister of a small town. His scenes with Connor Corum are ok, but he is at his best when alongside Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale, who give lots of depth (especially Martindale) to their characters with limited screen time. Kelly Reilly is cute and looks sad well enough when called upon. Connor Corum is very cute as Colton, but he was clearly fed his lines limiting his performance.

Remember that Murphy's Law day where nothing went right for you? Heaven Is For Real will help you wash that away. Regardless of what your belief system is, the relentless optimism will sweep you up and leave you in a better place. I don't know if heaven is for real, but Heaven Is For Real does make me believe a better world can be for real.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I
½

I thought I knew what I was getting when I saw Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (of a two part, four hour story). The NC-17 rating meant gratuitous nudity; director Lars Von Trier would put a psychedelic twist on nymphomania. It is with great pleasure (pun intended) that I can report that Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is gratuitous and psychedelic, but it is also consistently compelling and VERY funny. Plus I learned a great deal about fly fishing.

On his way home from the store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a beaten, bleeding woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the ground in the alley. Joe doesn't want the police/doctors, so Seligman takes her into his home where she tells him the story of how she ended up in the gutter. The story involves Joe's relationship with her father (Christian Slater) as well as young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) embracing her sexuality early and often with multiple partners including her first, Jerome (Shia Laboeuf).

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 may end up being the funniest comedy of 2014. The heavy subject matter and opening sequences immediately establish tension and urgency. Lars Von Trier uses the audiences expectations against them, dissipating tension throughout this film. This is done in 2 prominent ways: specificity and playing it straight. Specificity is used best in the first chapter. Fly fishing appears to be a very good metaphor for sexual advances and predatory instincts. Seligman explains each fishing technique with aplomb, amping up the wackiness of the situation. Along the way, Fibonacci numbers are referenced as well, perhaps to show a pattern that may or may not be present in Joe's behavior. The toss in of the numbers and their explanation by Seligman get big laughs when cut back to Joe's soulless expression. Playing it straight is done to perfection when a jealous wife (Uma Thurman) confronts Joe and her cheating husband at Joe's apartment, with a 10 minute sequence that nearly had me in tears from the wife saying aloud all the holes in her husband's decision making and Joe just playing along. Lars Von Trier's movies usually lack humanity and light notes due to the gravity of the movie's plot, but Nymphomaniac finds laughs in sexual awakening the keep the movie from taking itself too seriously.

However, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 does set up some compelling counter arguments about sex in society without decrying traditional thought. Joe in the middle of all the fly fishing references points out how love made her feel as if she was denying her basic primal lust - and how love put her into direct conflict with her urges by wanted to be possessed by Jerome. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 argues that these conflicting ideas can be part of a whole: that each piece represents a part of yourself depending on what situation you find yourself in. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 does not answer the question of how difficult personal harmony can be to maintain, but it does point out that acting in self-interest only can keep you at arms length from people you want to love. These are very adult questions that Volume II will hopefully answer.

The performances in Nymphomaniac are all very good. Stellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Gainsbourg are mostly narrating, but Skarsgard's naivete and enthusiasm coupled with Gainsbourg's candor and robotic nature provide for a compelling pairing. Gainsbourg figures to have a bigger influence in part II, and her character is by far the most compelling one in part I. This is due mostly to first-time actress Stacy Martin. Martin is obviously naked for much of this film, which is fearless enough, but she gets some great moments with her father and Jerome that show a deep range I hope Martin gets more opportunities to use. Shia Laboeuf and Christian Slater provide solid dramatic support; Laboeuf hasn't been this good since Lawless, reminding us why he was once the next big thing. The scene stealer here is Uma Thurman, who gets 20 minutes of screentime and does the acting version of dropping the mic.

Nymphomaniac manages to combine penis slideshows (yep), train trysts, and human organs with Fibonacci numbers, ash trees, and church organs. Lars Von Trier's injection of the mundane to the exotic provides a nice counterbalance that Nymphomaniac relies upon to stay consistently interesting. If Volume II uses the idea of conflicted counterbalance to as great effect as Volume I, then Lars Von Trier will have done the impossible: craft a 4 hour character study of a woman who lusts for sex with both critics and 17 year old boys cheering together, in beautiful conflicted harmony.

The Raid 2
The Raid 2(2014)
½

It's not too often that I feel so energized by a film that I will applaud what I just saw. These scenes usually involve a perfect build to a rousing climax involving a sequence rarely seen on camera before. For many people, the Raid: Redemption did that with its well executed foray into ultra violence; however, I thought it was just ok. I am proud to say that The Raid 2 ups the ante on the ultra violence and climaxes with one of the most amazingly executed fight scenes in cinematic history. It is a demonic ballet of violence.

After a brief intro, The Raid 2 reintroduces us to the hero, Rama (Iko Uwais). Rama's brother, after surviving the original raid, is gunned down by a man named Bejo (Alex Abbad). Since Bejo is connected to dirty cops, Rama is sent into prison to expose the corruption inherent in the system. To do this, he befriends Uco (Arifin Putra), son of a famous Jakartan gangster father Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo). Rama becomes Uco's right hand enforcer at the wrong time: Bejo's growing influence ignites a simmering war between the Bangun and Goto families, introducing the world to "bum" Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian), Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Ulisman), and the Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman), who are bound to get in Rama's way on his quest for justice.

The Raid 2 learns some lessons from the Raid: Redemption. The first film doesn't valley enough: after each fight sequence, we waited about a minute or two before another one began. In the Raid 2, fight sequences are longer, but so are the valleys. This gives the audience time to relax and rebuild the tension before the next fight sequence begins. In addition, these lows allow for some solid character development and parallel the frustration in multiple characters as they grow impatient of waiting for their time until their impatience erupts into violence. The Raid 2 is longer due to Gareth Evans change in direction, but ultimately it is also much more satisfying.

If you are an American action film director, be sure to hire Yayan Ruhian, Larnell Stovall, or Iko Uwais as a consultant for your film. These 3 (2 of them are actors in the film, including the main character) are the primary fight choreographers in the Raid 2. The three excel in creating unparalleled fight scenes among many combatants, or one-on-one. The fights all contain elements of reality: if a bone is broken, your abilities are impaired like a normal person. In addition, each fight has a wrinkle that differentiates it from all the others whether it be location (backseat of a car, train) or weapon (hooks, baseball bat, hammer). Each unique fight builds upon the previous fights until the climax where Rama has to infiltrate a secret meeting. During that megafight, each individual fighter has proven adept at their specific skills, making engagement with our hero an escalating test in skill and technique. This megafight climaxes with a mono-e-mono masterpiece set in a kitchen. The brilliance of this sequence is the combination of artistic, skillful movement and escalation, resulting in a rousing bout that will make most audiences erupt in applause. I was so into the fight I found myself as out of breath as each fighter. Not often is choreography praised in an action film, but without it, the Raid 2 would lose all of its appeal.

Acting isn't a prerequisite for the Raid 2, but the main players do their duty. Arifin Putra deftly portrays Uco as a petulant mostly smart child with anger and daddy issues. There is more nuance in Uco than I expected, making the breaks in the fighting more than just tolerable. Iko Uwais portrays honor and care well enough to make it easy to get behind Rama, even when he is killing a LOT of people. Tio Pakusodewo is also quite good at playing an aging gangster who uses his knowledge for the greater good of everyone instead of just himself. However, any actor involved in a fighting scenes deserves commendation for the effort and realism put into the battles. Fighting is every bit as (and probably more) challenging as nuanced emotional character beats, and each warrior earns all the praise they are sure to get.

If we are cut, we bleed. If we are hurt, we cringe. But we still can fight. The Raid 2 understands this, and uses this logic to craft some of the great fight scenes in cinematic history. In the age of Marvel superheroes, it is nice to know that normal guys can generate the same thrill as Iron Man or Captain America. However, I don't ever need to see what a shotgun blast to the face looks like again.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II
½

Sexual awakening is clearly more fun that sexual escalation. Nymphomaniac: Volume II attempts to turn the chipper Volume I into a much darker tale. Though approaching interesting ideas, Volume II meanders too often without a sense of purpose to its narrative. At least we get to see one of the weirdest ménage-a-trois scenes to grace the big screen.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II picks up right at the second ended where young Joe (Stacy Martin) no longer could receive orgasms from her husband Jerome (Shia Laboeuf). Joe tries to live with her sexual frustration, but her desire is too great. A few years later, older Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, the woman telling the story to Stellan Skarsgard's Seligman) starts acting upon her sexual frustration in more depraved ways, including sex with anonymous strangers and S&M from a man named K (Jamie Bell). In addition, here estrangement from society has led to hear to seek alternate employment from a man named L (Willem Dafoe) who specialized in debt collection.

Volume I had the benefit of a relatively straightforward story of a girl understanding her sexuality. That backbone created a fixed point for the narrative of Volume I to revolve around. Volume II has no such purpose. The themelessness results in the story meandering in random directions. Some of the directions are compelling (such as a subplot about pedophilia), but without a cohesive foothold, Nymphomaniac: Volume II feels more like a series of vignettes. In addition, the power of the third act is diminished because the story has a hard time figuring out what it is trying to say.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II also suffers from a lack of compelling characters. Stacy Martin's early departure creates a black hole that Volume II cannot escape. Charlotte Gainsbourg has to endure a lot of punishment and brutal sexual acts, but the story doesn't give her a lot of new wrinkles to explore. The one exception is her business which adds L and P (Mia Goth), a protégé, who injects the most life into the story. The relationship between Joe and Seligman also fails to change and grow with each new chapter Joe adds to her tale. We learn a little about Seligman's history, but the narrative doesn't use that information until it is too late. Volume I had two versions of Joe, her dad, Seligman, and Jerome, all of whom had enough mystery around them to generate genuine interest in their relationships. In Volume II, all of those relationships stall or evolve too slowly resulting in more than a few narrative dead spots.

Most of the goodwill created in Nymphomaniac: Volume I is lost by the end of Volume II. By not taking any compelling narrative direction, the characters and the plot aimlessly drift until the past catches up with the present. Lars Von Trier can be at times a great director, but he spends too much time here shocking the audience instead of anchoring the violence to something. At least I learned that used riding whips are better for S&M that new ones.

Only Lovers Left Alive
½

Well I'm a dork. Only Lovers Left Alive is Director Jim Jarmusch's vampire story for the well educated artistic elite. This fun new twist on Vampires oozes cool from its nonexistent pores. Detached ironic tortured hipsters (I know how redundant that sounds) never looked so enticing.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a brooding musician living in solitude in Detroit. He uses Ian (Anton Yelchin) to get anything he needs so he can enjoy live as a self-loathing recluse. Adam is a vampire: a married vampire in fact. He is married to Eve (Tilda Swinton, mother of humanity) who is living in Morocco with an older vampire (played by John Hurt). Eve can sense Adam is in a fragile state, so she flies to Detroit to visit him. Also dropping by is Eve's younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who threatens to pull Adam out of hiding and back into the world.

Director Jarmusch does a fun job putting a unique spin on the free love and rock n roll era of the 60s and 70s. Music from the era as well as the Detroit setting immediately transport the audience to a place out of time. The pace of Only Lovers Left Alive is lethargic, much like a rocker post injection or a vampire who cannot die would walk through life. There is pure and tainted blood (aka the fix). Casual disdain for the "zombies" free of thought. Ian is the dealer, and there is also a blood cooker (Jeffrey Wright). Only Lovers Left Alive showcases an eerily similar parallel between the life of a vampire and the life of a rock star. In this case, the vampire is also a rock star, which only amplifies Adam's lethargy and time independent behavior.

The rock story is joined by a smart romantic comedy between two artists. Adam is clearly the self-reflective type dedicated to living and defending his worldview since it is always under intense scrutiny from himself. Eve follows love's path; she is invested in nature and how the world operates, open to every experience life throws her way. These character types are nothing new, but Only Lovers Left Alive unfolds the story in a very new way. The vampire aspect means that these two have had millennia to fight, and now they can just enjoy each others company without much of a fuss. Because of Adam and Eve's lives intertwining with history, there are references to historical figures and scientific studies in the present tense since the pair were contemporaries of these people at some point or another (amusing uses of literary characters like Faust or Christopher Marlowe). Only Lovers Left Alive deserves credit for not throwing contrivance in the story to force these two to fight; in addition, Eve is constantly overjoyed at her lengthy life and her education: a rarity in a vampire story.

The casting department clearly put some thought into their jobs for Only Lovers Left Alive. A more perfect couple than Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton simply does not exist. Hiddleston tones down his Loki bravado into a more subdued internal character. Adam is a blast in Hiddleston's hands, showing wisdom and frustration/impatience often in the same scene but just maintaining a face. Swinton is every bit his equal; I'm used to seeing her in roles where she plays a callous character, but her Eve is so earthy and effortlessly enthusiastic that it makes sense why a vampire would lock her down for eternity. John Hurt takes a running gag about his character's name and plays with it effectively. Jeffrey Wright and Anton Yelchin are very funny in their limited screen time. Mia Wasikowska is perky and sexual, but she brings little to a character that is mostly a plot device.

Twilight wishes it was as cool as Only Lovers Left Alive. Though very deliberate and mostly plotless, just a chance to be around characters like these make you feel like you just got accepted into a special club no one knows about. Kudos for Swinton and Hiddleston bringing back nighttime sunglasses and for making blood popsicles the new kids dessert craze.

Never Back Down

Thanks to TV and movies, Beach Resort paradises seem like a very weird place. People seem so consumed by the next big thing that what is popular in the community depends on the cultural zeitgeist. Never Back Down sought to modernize the underdog sports movie with the sport of the moment (mixed martial arts [MMA]) with the medium of the moment (viral videos). Never Back Down never quite achieves maximum liftoff due to plot contrivances and severe logic flaws, but it does provide a nice time capsule of what the social elite was like in 2008. And abs. Chiseled, terrifying abs.

The story stars in Iowa. Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is one of the stars of his football team, but a brief fit of rage ends his football career. To support his aspiring tennis star brother (Wyatt Smith), Jake departs to sunny Orlando. His football brawl draws the eye of local MMA king of the hill Ryan (Cam Gigandet). Ryan uses his beautiful girlfriend Baja (Amber Heard) to lure Jake to a party so Ryan can beat him up. After the beat down, Jake uses new best friend Max Cooperman (Evan Peters) to set him up with Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), the best MMA teacher out there. Through training, Jake learns how to channel and control his anger into the fight and out of his life so he never has to worry about backing down again.

Never Back Down deserves credit for being one of the earliest adopters of using viral video to spread someone's reputation. YouTube has become so prevalent in society today that we take for granted how new it actually is (it was created in 2005). Never Back Down has tremendous foresight on personal videos and self-promotion that has become commonplace today. Now, not every girl would be IMMEDIATELY turned on by a guy who beat up someone on a football field, but the insta-status change is well explored by Never Back Down.

If only logic would step in. With all the fighting Jake does, not once does anyone suggest he go to therapy, not even his mom (Leslie Hope). If I were in the Florida Police Department, I would be furious with Never Back Down. Several fights with evidence all over the internet attract zero investigations. At one point, one character gets viciously beaten, and the cops/parents/guardians are nowhere to be found. A simple police phone call would put several characters behind bars, thus semi-ruining the final fight between Ryan and Jake. What tips Never Back Down in the fundamentally flawed direction is the conflicting morality. Several of Jake's closes confidants urge him to not fight Ryan, but Jake insists that fighting him will stop Ryan from attacking people Jake loves. Never Back Down is obsessed with self-image; if Never Back Down boldly chose to humiliate Ryan and tarnish his reputation, the story would have taken a nice arc from Jake's violent teen to thoughtful young adult. Instead, after Ryan hurts several people and the fight is over, the beef is also over. Never Back Down implies that Jake and Ryan can be friends after they proved themselves in the ring, but why would you choose to respect a vicious sadist like Ryan? I doubt the macho men in Never Back Down really thought about it.

Acting is certainly not why you go to see Never Back Down. However, Djimon Hounsou captures intensity better than most actors in the business. He gives the mentor role a nice arc of sadness and understanding fueled by life experience. Also, Evan Peters is nicely eccentric and captures the teens of today very well, and Leslie Hope gets some good beats as Jake's mother. It's unfortunate that these three are supporting characters. Sean Faris plays a 23 year old 18 year old stiffly. He fights ok, but can't carry a movie, although the scenes with Wyatt Smith play like brother banter. Amber Heard is there to look crazy hot. Other than her body parts, she exhibits zero chemistry with anyone in this film. Cam Gigandet has model worthy stomach muscles and looks the right amount of creepy and entitled, but he brings nothing else to the table. Gigandet and Faris know how to fight, but bring nothing to the table when they fight.

Never Back Down is the movie equivalent of empty calories. In the moment, it is kinda fun, but it leaves you unsatisfied and is instantly forgotten after it is consumed. A great sports movie arouses prolonged euphoria in its audience; Never Back Down missteps enough to leave the audience indifferent or incredulous. If you want to see a GREAT mixed martial arts film, back down and see Warrior instead.

Under the Skin

Under The Skin is a title warning the audience. Not only will this movie have some unsettling images and nefarious actions, but it will test any mainstream viewer by unfolding and not explaining what it is doing. Director Jonathan Glazer clearly has been influenced by visionaries like Stanley Kubrick, but Under the Skin lacks the ambition and introspection that 2001: A Space Odyssey provided viewers. At least he compensates with a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson.

After a very visual beginning, Under The Skin focuses on an alien (Johansson) on Earth. Her origin is unknown, but her purpose is made clear: she is a seductress to single men living alone. Night after night, she preys on these people for equally unknown reasons. However, as the woman spends more time on the planet, she starts to adopt traits exhibited in humans with many levels of consequences.

The strongest element of Under The Skin is the disturbing atmosphere. Each piece of the film plays its part in making the audience squirm. Scotland has some very foggy woods and dark apartments (apparently electricity costs a lot because NO ONE has lights). The effects, when used, are pretty simple but chilling: the best involving what happens to ScarJo's victims. Longshots help place the audience as a fly on the wall during some truly disturbing scenes. Finally, the sounds in this film are the ace in Glazer's hole. Silence starts the unease, and then he unleashes his discordant soundtrack of violins and unsavory noises like babies crying. Without its visions of horror, Under The Skin would lack the intensity the rest of the story needs to move forward.

To be as high concept as Glazer wants to be, you need to juggle a lot of questions to keep the viewer engaged. However, Under The Skin plays more like a character study. Scarlett Johansson's performance is fascinating, playing an adult experiencing humanity for the first time. Glazer, seeing the strength in his star, probably elected that was the right way to go. However, it leaves all of his high-minded ideas half-formed. Predatory nature of humanity gets the most comprehensive look, but other ideas are left by the way side: physical versus emotional attraction, eyesight and what we see, acceptable uses of sexuality, individual attraction, and undesirability to society among others. Many of these ideas are explored, but only partially, resulting in a large number of seemingly extemporaneous scenes that were probably part of a bigger picture.

Under The Skin is ambitious filmmaking for a selective audience. If you are willing to be patient and think out what you're seeing, then Under The Skin is for you. Also, if you are very interested in creating an anti-travelogue of Scotland, this is DEFINITELY the movie you want to see.

Draft Day
Draft Day(2014)

Looks like Bill Murray is the reason anyone knows Ivan Reitman. Reitman was a hot commodity in the 80's, directing 3 Murray staples: Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. Those movies rippled with comedy and fun. But after 1990? Yikes, Reitman's filmography is filled with "gems" like Dave, Junior, and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Draft Day continues Reitman's downward trend, wasting a great concept in the process. Maybe Bill Murray (instead of Kevin Costner) should have been the lead here.

Draft Day focuses mostly on Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner), general manager of the Cleveland Browns. For those who don't watch football, the general manager makes all the decisions on which college football player the team drafts. Sonny has to choose between 3 players: Vontae Mack (a middle linebacker played by Chadwick Boseman), Ray Jennings (a running back, played by real life running back Arian Foster), and Bo Callahan (a quarterback, played by Josh Pence). Sonny has lots of external pressures affecting his decision. The Brown's owner (Frank Langella) wants him to make a splash or he might fire him. Sonny's hot-shot new coach (Dennis Leary) wants Ray Jennings and not Bo Callahan because he is comfortable with the team's current quarterback Brian Drew (Tom Welling). In addition, Sonny just found out his on/off girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) who works for the Browns is pregnant with his child and Sonny's mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants to settle the family will today.

The NFL draft seems like a can't miss story. There are multiple directions, equally compelling, that Draft Day could have gone in that were better than this one. If the movie made the day itself the focus, choosing to show all the aspects of it from multiple perspectives (general managers, top prospects, players who got hurt but want to be drafted, players' family members, agents, drafting rooms, team fans), Draft Day could have been a truly unique sports story. If Draft Day had decided to focus just on the Browns's draft room during the actual draft, and how frenzied and crazy the room can get, the story would have been a compelling study in chaos. Had draft day elected to show just the three athletes vying to be the number one overall pick, the competition and character study would have been entertaining to see. Instead, Draft Day focuses on one person (which isn't a terrible idea), but spends too much time mired in pointless family subplots the drive the main narrative of the story. The NFL draft has built in tension and drama, but Draft Day chooses instead to generate its own dramatics to the detriment of what should have been the real story: Sonny's picks for Cleveland's future.

The NFL feels like it has its hands deep into the production of Draft Day. The league had lots of issues this year, with concussions and fewer kids in youth football. As a result, they wanted to create the most saccharine ending possible. Any twists in the final act are because the audience is not thinking happy enough. The mistake the movie makes is thinking we want to root for Sonny Weaver Jr. However, Sonny makes some terrible decisions along the way. That on its own is fine - characters make mistakes sometimes - but he continues to dwell on them for long periods of the movie, basically showing how dumb the character is. The analysis of some of the first players selected in the draft should be finished and dissected ad nauseum by the Browns's scouts. However, key findings on one of the players are seen only hours before the draft, further indicating that Sonny doesn't really know what he's doing. This would all be fine if the third act revealed some method to his madness, but the movie uses blind luck and then some quick thinking on Sonny's part to achieve the movie's ending. At this point, Sonny's decision-making had come into serious question, and the audience should have mostly soured on the character; this makes the fates of the "good" players especially sad because they have so much faith in what appears to be an incompetent general manager.

Acting isn't a highlight here, but I am amazed at the waste of rising talent and icons. The exceptions are Chadwick Boseman (who captures the intensity of a very prideful player with deep commitment to his family and sport) and Tom Welling (who plays the quarterback who thinks he is about to be passed over). As the headliner, Costner plays the stoic and weary leading man that he's grown into over the past few years. He's not bad, but he looks very bored, as if he's wondering how he's going to spend the large amount of money he was given for this role. Jennifer Garner thanklessly plays the love interest to Costner; she's fine, but uninspiring. Ellen Burstyn, Terry Crews, Sam Elliott, Frank Langella, Dennis Leary, Kevin Dunn, Chi McBride, Sean Combs, Josh Pence, and Arian Foster are all mentioned in 1 or 2 scenes and never mentioned again. The cream of the forgettable crop is Rosanna Arquette, Costner's ex wife, who shows up to push Jennifer Garner's buttons, and is never seen again.

Everyone involved should be ashamed of Draft Day. A terrific new spin on a sports story is completely wasted for pointless family dynamics and stupid characters. The people to feel most bad for are the Cleveland fans. Not only has their city not won a title in almost 50 years, but this movie showcases an example of some of the incompetent leadership Cleveland has had to deal with over and over again.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
½

Steve Rogers WOULD inevitably butt heads with the Twitter generation. Captain America: The Winter Soldier pits Cap against enemies both abstract and tangible. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo take their TV character building talents to the big screen, merging political thrillers and comic books much like Cap is forced to merge himself with the past and present. Plus we get a delightful Robert Redford sighting.

After the events of the Avengers, Mr. Rogers (Chris Evans) has moved to DC to work for SHIELD. When a rescue mission on a ship is nearly compromised by a side mission for Agent Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), Cap can't contain himself. He goes right to director Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) to voice his complaints, as well as Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Fury's friend and SHIELD liaison. This confrontation leads cap to decide who to trust, including Fury, Romanov, and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a war vet with a special skill involving drops with no parachutes. In addition, an assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has set his eyes on Cap from orders of a mysterious origin.

Like the first Captain America, The Winter Soldier delights in hearkening back to the past. The movie unfolds like a 70s political thriller, with the honest Cap learning about SHIELD's true plans for society. In addition, several key plot points openly reference Captain America: The First Avenger and Steve Rogers's backstory. These moves smartly alter the audience's scope from the world of the Avengers to the history of SHIELD, making it possible for this entire story to be contained within the agency's headquarters. In addition, SHIELD has never been really put under the microscope in film (TV it has) yet, and much like the NSA, it appears to slowly be taking the form of a bloated agency taking on a faceless enemy: using past mistrust as an excuse for their actions. Though its story may evoke historical callbacks, Captain America: The Winter Soldier could not be more relevant for our time.

Marvel also does a great job branding itself here. The action sequences are mostly well executed, less reliant on shaky cam as the movie goes on. The Falcon wrinkle is a good one; his aerial battles are unique with the possible exception of Transformers. We get to meet Cap's future love interest, a potential nemesis, and learn more about Bucky Barnes, as well as the obligatory teaser for the next Avengers film. The Russo Brothers get to go big here too; there is a big shakeup in the universe of Marvel at the end of this film that will need some addressing at some point. Not lost by the direction duo (and Marvel in general) is that these stories are planted at the characters' feet. Marvel probably recruited TV directors for its movies because they understand that stakes are driven by the audience interest in the people and not the size of the gun. The final action set piece would not mean as much were we not invested in our many SHIELD protagonists.

At the time, Chris Evans was seen as a question mark to play USA's greatest hero. It is clear that that worry was misplaced; Evans is terrific here, using his Downey-like charisma and playing corny and old-fashioned with it. Captain America seemed like a very one-note superhero, but Evans gives him layers a lesser actor would miss. Sharing the screen is Scarlett Johansson, more on board with quippy dialogue post Avengers. She is requisitely bad ass, but serves more as a plot conduit than a character. Anthony Mackie shoots right to the top of the second tier superheros I want to see more of in future Marvel films. Sam Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, and Sebastian Stan lend solid support. However, Robert Redford is the foundation for the Winter Soldier. His Secretary Pierce is a domineering blunt pragmatist with a deeply flawed moral compass. Redford made it big playing bright eyed innocents, and playing against type here as a smarmy bureaucrat is brilliant casting.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier accomplishes many tasks at once. First and foremost, it is a consistently interesting film that is very fun to watch. Second, it nicely places pieces on the chess board for the Age of Ultron to begin. Finally, it gives Captain America a series of side adventures for any future solo installments. Juggling that many jobs at once is par for the course for the Russo brothers who keep things spinning on their TV Shows like Arrested Development or Community to the fans' delight. Sorry, no Bluth family, but see if you can spot the Greendale sighting. Welcome to SHIELD, Russo Brothers. Come back anytime.

Noah
Noah(2014)
½

Hollywood underserves the Bible Belt in the United States. Biblicial stories are filled with complicated characters and compelling plots, but due to quality producers being mostly liberal, few of these stories go into production. Hopefully Noah begins the reverse of that trend. This lengthy epic of Noah and the ark has its flaws, but it asks compelling questions about faith and interpretation. More importantly, it explains how Noah used rock monsters to defend the ark.

After a brief intro for those who are unfamiliar with the bible, we learn that Noah (Russell Crowe) is a descendant of the good bloodline of Adam. He wanders the world serving the Creator and avoiding evil men to protect his family: his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), 3 sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo Carroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). In a vision, Noah learns that the Creator will destroy the world with a flood. After consulting his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah decides to build an ark to save the animals and survive the cleansing of the planet. His secret is soon discovered by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his warrior clan, who intend to take the ark from Noah.

Stories abound at how grossly overbudget Noah is. I don't know if it helps, but it looks as if all of the extra money can be seen on screen. The stories of creation are majestic and simple, using CGI and quick cutting to showcase how the world came to be. The ark battle between fallen angels and humanity has a truly epic scope, drawing some comparisons to Lord of the Rings. The sets in Iceland create a sweeping view of desolation or rebirth, depending on location. Not all of the effects work (the rock angels are obviously a directorial liberty) but they service the story by broadening the scope. The special effects create global consequences if Noah does not complete his task successfully, and shine a light into Noah's relationship with the Creator.

Noah's running time is well over 2 hours. After the battle for the ark (the movie's high point), there is another hour of material that moves in fits and starts. Compelling questions drive the story forward. Noah's faith serves him well in the first half, correctly interpreting what the Creator's plan was for him. However, he uses illogical jumps and misinterpretation as more time goes by on the ark to devolve the Creator's plan into something more sinister. Noah's unwavering faith in the Creator, which was his greatest asset, was slowly turned into his worst enemy, a fear I think most people have when fully committing to something. Choice is also very important: when AND how Noah chooses to act are better examples of faith than just blind servitude. The decision-making logic and pointless subplots threaten to derail Noah's second half, but when focused on the family conflicts and Noah's internal conflict, the movie drives forward with dread and intrigue.

The actors deserver a lot of credit for Noah's success. This is the best performance Russell Crowe has given in some time. Crowe sells the extremes of Noah's faith in the Creator through fierce determination and near madness with a constant undercurrent of love and caring. Noah would go adrift without Crowe anchoring the film. Jennifer Connelly is happy to be working with Darren Aronofsky again; she gets a couple great moments as Noah's wife, showing her unflappable devotion to the happiness of her kids. Emma Watson also gets a scene or two, but she mostly has to appear sad or scared. Of Noah's kids, only Logan Lerman gets some dimensionality, and he does surprisingly well with it, capturing Ham's covetousness, jealousy, and love of his father. Ray Winstone finds a great angle for the deliciously evil Tubal-cain. Driven not by soullessness but by being unfairly forsaken by the Creator, Winston's menace runs deep but also attracts pity from the audience.

Biblical believers are worried about liberties being taken with their faith and story in Noah. Some will see the CGI liberties with the story as blasphemous use of sacred text (already happening because the word God does not appear in the movie). On the other hand, Noah, like Abraham or Jesus, was forced to confront his own faith and belief system at some point in his lifetime. I suggest going into Noah with an open mind, and perhaps this movie experience will help confront your own doubts and reaffirm what you truly believe.

Muppets Most Wanted

Jason Segel and Amy Adams held more sway than I thought. Muppets Most Wanted brings back Kermit/Piggy et al for a caper/heist film. While parts of the movie are amusing, Muppets Most Wanted lacks the heart of the 2011 film that brought the Muppets back on the screen. At least it has more explosions.

Picking up immediately after the first movie, the Muppets are invited to go on a World Tour by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Dominic plays 2nd fiddle to Constantine, the most dangerous frog/criminal in the world. Constantine breaks out of prison and frames Kermit to steal the Muppets and complete his master plan with Dominic's help. Kermit is thrown into a Siberian Gulag under control of a harsh warden (Tina Fey).

Jokes land more lightly in Muppets Most Wanted than they do in the 2011 Muppets. Outside of the opening number (which is very clever), none of the songs deliver as great a punch as Man or Muppet from the first movie. Muppets Most Wanted also confuses funny accents for humor in all of their main characters. An accent can be funny sometimes, but without a character behind the funny voice, the laughs quickly dissipate. Only Ty Burrell's Interpol agent overcomes his French accent, in part because of the relationship he has with the CIA agent and his running gag on French work ethic. Constantine and Fey's prison warden have funny moments, but have nothing really to them.

As such, the story meanders from punchline to punchline with no real stakes due to the stick figure like characters. The 2011 Muppets at least had an anchor in saving the studio. The telethon incorporated key character moments like Walter's whistling or Scooter's direction to elevate the meaning of the studio, thus resulting in a very satisfying ending. In Muppets Most Wanted, the tour has no end goal and no worries. Kermit and Piggy have a brief fight, but are then separated for the entire film, eliminating the primary source of conflict and real stakes. Most of the other Muppets are relegated to the background when there is so much to use: nobody believes Animal, Walter and Fozzie's loyalty is questioned, etc. However, Muppets Most Wanted pushes the adorable Muppets to the background in favor of its human leads, limiting the history and established character interactions that make Muppet movies great.

Credit goes to the puppeteers behind the Muppets for making Constantine and Kermit easily different characters; they have enough subtle differences to make it clear who is who when they confront each other. As for the humans, Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell are clearly having a lot of fun. Gervais is nicely oily, but not given much to do but be upset at not being taken seriously. Fey has a terrible accent and even less substance than Gervais. Ty Burrell has the most fun, and gets to use his zaniness to the most great effect. Cameo's veer a little older in Muppets Most Wanted, with all of the great ones involving musicians.

Like its opening number, Muppets Most Wanted feels like studio mandated entertainment. Its trying a little too hard, forcing jokes too much, and propping up the humans over the Muppets too often. However, the Muppets at worst amusing, and hopefully the creative get it right next time. Maybe bring back Amy Adams.

Divergent
Divergent(2014)
½

Hunger Games movies from Panem to Chicago. Divergent, a dystopic futuristic thriller with a powerful heroine (and sidekick love interest) deemed the chosen one because of her special set of skills trying to take down a totalitarian government, wants so badly to be taken as seriously as its predecessor. However, Tris Prior's adventures sputter out of the gate much more so than Katniss Everdeen's. Although if they stared at each other it would be like looking in the mirror.

In future Chicago, a war has savaged the country, and the powers that be have barricaded the survivors in the city. The city is also divided into 5 Factions: Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, and Candor. On her selection day (where you choose a faction for life), Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) finds out that her suggestion faction is inconclusive because she is Divergent: meaning she can be multiple things at any one time. Acting opposite her family, Tris chooses Dauntless over Abnegation. In Dauntless, Tris learns how to fight, shoot guns, and learn how to conquer her fears. She gets assistance from a Dauntless leader named Four (Theo James), whom Tris is attracted to immediately. Tris and Four's self-discovery gets put on hold however, when Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) starts threatening the rule of Abnegation, including Tris's parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd).

Speed is Divergent's biggest enemy. There is a lot of material to cover here: a world has to be created and described, personal relationships have to be explored, conflict and tension have to be created, and action has to be delivered. What Divergent misunderstands that other dystopic future stores do understand is that the relationships are the glue of any story; Divergent puts its world first. The story elements are sometimes pretty fun or exciting (a game of capture the flag or a dreamscape sequence is probably the highlight); however, the emotions they generate are lessened by the fact that only Tris gets any solid character development and arc. Having read the trilogy, I know that the people that fill Tris's world have their own complicated backstories which really do a great service to the third act. The movie should have taken its time with the internal politics in Dauntless, helping the audience understand Tris's world better, and establishing the Tris's individual relationships within her faction. The more focused scope would allow plotting to be tighter and provide a shroud of mystery to other factions that could be explored in other films.

World building is where Divergent shines though. The futuristic Windy City is well designed by the effects team. The panormanic shots nicely encapsulate a once beautiful city rotting from the inside. The special effects are solid but mostly unspectacular, usually involving the dreamscapes. An extended sequence involving the John Hancock Building is by far the CGI highlight. Costumes and colors make it pretty easy to understand who belongs to whom. Divergent's effects team won't win any awards, but they do more service to the story than they will probably get credit for.

Questions still exist in the acting department, but not at the lead. Shailene Woodley proves here that she is capable of carrying a franchise. Tris has to be the right mix of fearless, emotional, weak, and sad which Woodley executes better than most her age. The only reason I felt anything watching Divergent was because how Woodley sells Tris's feelings. Theo James doesn't embarrass himself here, but he doesn't really add anything either as Four. James appears to have one note: stoic. Hopefully he studies his mistakes here and is ready for the sequel. Kate Winslet is ice cold as brainy Jeanine, but mostly she isn't given much to do. Ashley Judd makes a solid impression as Tris's mom. Miles Teller misplays Peter; he needed more menace and less frat boy. Of the outer characters, Zoe Kravitz and Jai Courtney are very good as Tris's Dauntless members.

As a Chicago and Northwestern homer, I desperately wanted Divergent to be great. While not as deep as the Hunger Games, Divergent was a very engaging read with some compelling moments sprinkled consistently throughout the story. While not a hot mess, Divergent left me wanting and colder than I hoped. It could be because the story is flawed, or it could be because I would definitely choose Erudite as my faction.

Veronica Mars
½

The Kickstarter financing begins. If Veronica Mars is any indication, we're off to a good start. Veronica Mars the TV show was a fun smart TV show with a die hard fan base. Veronica Mars the movie is a fun smart film that deserves a wider audience than just a cult one. It does what the kickstarter campaign ideally wanted: it pays service to die hard fans without alienating them while succinctly explaining the world of Neptune, California to interested casual fans without feeling lost. Novice (myself) and avid (friends) fans were laughing together, indistinguishable from one another.

It's been 9 years since Ms. Mars (Kristen Bell) left her hometown of Neptune for law school and New York. Living comfortably with Piz (Chris Lowell), she is being recruited for a high priced law firm. Neptune comes back into her orbit (the first of many planet puns) in the form of her tumultuous former lover Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). Logan is under investigation for murder of his girlfriend Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella). Veronica heads home where she reconnects with her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) and best friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III). Conveniently, Veronica's 10 year reunion from high school occurs the same weekend, at which some other suspects in Bishop's murder are attending, as well as former rivals, character arcs, and cameos.

After watching the movie, I went back and checked on some of the characters involved in the plot and some of the character moments. Creator/Writer/Director Rob Thomas deserves lots of credit for taking his time and incorporating the right parts of his TV series. It seems as if once a minute for the entire running time Veronica Mars generated whispers amongst the audience through a reference or a tangential character, each of whom get a moment in the sun. In this case, character backstory is already established so bringing it up in movie form can be done in the funniest way possible. I was amazed to see how many famous people appeared in the series, including Krysten Ritter, Max Greenfield, Tina Majorino, and Ken Marino. Veronica Mars also contains a multitude of cameos inducing smiles all around. I won't spoil these, but some movies these people have appeared in are This Is the End, Dodgeball, Freaky Friday, Without a Paddle, Knocked Up, and Piranha 3DD. Of the recurring characters, Enrico Colantoni gets to play the moral center well, and Ryan Hansen deserves a spin off as Logan's roommate. Jason Dohring tries, but he is the weak link here, mostly acting stiff. However, Kristen Bell carries this movie on her tiny shoulders. Bell has to be equally tough, perky, witty, and clever in doses, and she delivers in almost every scene she is in. It's easy to see why the Kickstarter campaign worked; Bell's Mars is such an entertaining creation in large credit to the actress.

In terms of story, Veronica Mars is pretty basic. What was clearly a crazy love triangle in the TV show is pushed to the side in favor of the murder mystery. The sheer magnitude of famous people leave the ending a little up in the air, though I suspect some the die hards picked out the bad guy pretty easily. The techniques used for Veronica's investigation into the murder are delightfully modern (with a couple exceptions), with the use of IPads, Youtube, and sex tapes incorporated into slideshows. Some of Veronica's techniques require stupid behavior from the characters (and some obvious plot developments), but those behaviors are forgiven due to the movie's comedic component. It is here where Veronica Mars soars; everyone houses some sort of issue with another character, adding bite to every interactions. The digs are quick and specific: a key to most successful jokes.

Like any good remake of old material, Veronica Mars makes me want to spend more time in Neptune seeing what else goes on there. Depending on the movie's success, sequels are possible but not necessary. As a movie fan though, I now have high hopes for Kickstarter; this project reminds us why Kristen Bell is a good movie actress, and how fan support can deliver results out of this world (sorry).

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel might be the best barometer to determine if you like director Wes Anderson. Most of the polarizing aspects of his style are on display in the Grand Budapest Hotel. I fall more on his good side, since I believe the positives (direction, quirky characters) outweigh the negatives (emotional payoffs, perceived elitism).

The Grand Budapest Hotel has multiple time layers. In present day, a young girl approaches a monument of an author (Tom Wilkinson) who is seen explaining his book "The Grand Budapest Hotel." The author (played by Jude Law) stays at the Budapest in the 1960s and runs into the owner, Zero (played by F. Murray Abraham). Zero recounts his tale of how he came to own the hotel, which starts in the 1930s. At that time, a younger Zero (played by Tony Revolori) is starting his first Lobby Boy job under the tutelage of head lobbyist M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). When one of the many rich women (Tilda Swinton) Gustave seduces is murdered, Gustave becomes the prime suspect. Not helping his cause is the fact that he inherits a very famous painting from the woman instead of the woman's jealous son (Adrien Brody), drawing the ire of a very powerful man in the region.

Anderson's direction shines in the Grand Budapest Hotel. The movie waxes nostalgic about an earlier time, and as such, Anderson chooses to shoot the movie in old ways. The panorama of the hotel, described to be breathtakingly beautiful, is just a model that looks obviously fake. Chases are shot from afar to use figurines. He shoots the movie in right angles, which yields consistently funny results when a character runs away from a still camera or a quick cut to a facial expression. Some of his directional choices border on flourish (one black and white scene is unnecessarily so, and the timeline flashback has minimal impact), but overall Wes Anderson's direction elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel, and even carries it at points.

The characters also typically in the Wes Anderson wheelhouse: walking the line between quirky and unrelatable. Most characters have pieces audiences will understand: jealousy, decorum, love, honor, etc. However, Anderson's exotic locations, costumes, and manner of speech guise the real human underneath the pretty colors (in this movie's case, purple and pink). As a result, character development is minimal or nonexistent, lessening the movie's generation of emotion. In Anderson's better efforts (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tennenbaums) the emotional core of the characters is very strong and drives the story; The Grand Budapest Hotel works in reverse, which exposes how thin the story (a caper) actually is.

Wes Anderson calls upon favorites of his for the cameos, but the main story is composed of newcomers. Ralph Fiennes is a revelation as a comedian here. Known for work as dark or burdened characters, Fiennes has fun playing an uppity serviceman with deft comedic timing. Tony Revolori gets less to do, but his comedy and emotional arc anchor the story and provide the best payoff. Of the many other actors that appear here, 3 leave great impressions. Saorise Ronan is cute and funny as a love interest; Adrien Brody is nicely unhinged in an Anderson way, and Willem Dafoe is VERY scary as Brody's #2.

Wes Anderson deserves credit for finding a solid demographic for his films. His unique style is always interesting and sometimes hits great highs. The Grand Budapest Hotel misses the high, but serves his fans very well. One critique for him though: don't quirk Nazis. They're pretty hideous and crazy as is.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman
½

DreamWorks Animation tends to gear their animation towards kids. As a result, bathroom humor and colors tend to dominate their stories. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is more the exception than the rule (see also: How to Train Your Dragon). The movie based on an old cartoon combines education and animation in a really fun and surprisingly emotional way. Mr. Peabody & Sherman isn't perfect, but it is a very good kids movie that adults can enjoy as well.


Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is the smartest dog and creature on the planet. After solving many of the world's problems, Peabody decides to adopt a boy named Sherman (Max Charles). The pair go on several historical adventures to learn about history/science, etc using the Way Back, a time travel device invented by Mr. Peabody. Things start to go badly when Sherman takes Penny (Ariel Winter) into the Way Back after she bullies him at school; together, they disrupt the space time continuum. In addition, Mr. Peabody's parenting credentials are questioned by Penny's parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) and DCFS rep Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney).

Mr. Peabody & Sherman makes education fun for EVERYONE. Sure, kids will learn a lot through Sesame Street or the Wiggles or some other program designed for them, but adults usually glaze over during that time. Mr. Peabody is an avid supporter of knowledge in science, history, and sport. To teach Sherman lessons, he uses his education to engage in chases, parties and other ways that make history come alive for Sherman. So often in kids movies, the storytellers try to talk down to the kids to make the lessons easier for them to understand. Mr. Peabody & Sherman uses historical characters like Leonardo Da Vinci and King Tut to teach kids about lessons in parenting and tolerance. The movie is a double whammy of education that is rarely seen on the big screen.

In addition, the first act of Mr. Peabody & Sherman attaches some emotional heft to supremely fun material. A cute backstory montage should bring you close to tears as we learn the origins of Mr. Peabody & Sherman's relationship. Each little time travel trip, Sherman makes some sort of mistake, but Mr. Peabody never condescendingly scolds the child. When he does lash out at Sherman, it comes out of love, not anger, which hits kids and parents equally. In addition, the non-traditional family question (similar to what is going on in the US) is brought up by the DCFS rep. The third act was all set up to be a great climax showing how Sherman stands up for Peabody by using the education the dog taught him. However, the time travel parts of the story force the plot in that direction, which results in really cool special effects but a diluted emotional payoff.

The voice acting isn't A list but fits nicely. Ty Burrell is great for Peabody: he can deliver a cheesy pun better than most other actors (check him out on Modern Family). Max Charles sells Sherman's innocence well. Ariel Winter (also from Modern Family) is perky but a little to shrill as Penny. Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, and Dennis Haysbert, among others, provide energetic support to the story without distracting with a crazy voice.

I hope Mr. Peabody & Sherman makes a lot of money. It is a wonderful mix of education and animation. I left reminded of how a good family film can learn from history to teach kids lessons while entertaining adults in the process. If you need to brush up on ancient history, enjoy talking dogs, or come from a non-traditional family, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is right up your alley.

300: Rise of an Empire

At least the Greeks have Thermopylae. 300: Rise of An Empire attempts to replicate the style and machismo of the original 300, with limited success. Were it not for the presence of Eva Green and her cold hard revenge, 300: Rise of An Empire (like the male star, Sullivan Stapleton) would be masquerading as something cool and fun that is in actuality kinda boring and no longer cool. Athens apparently is a poor substitute for Sparta.

300: Rise of an Empire is a sidequel (it occurs simultaneously with its predecessor). While Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) fights Leonidas and Sparta, Artemisia (Eva Green) takes the massive Persian navy and attacks the undermatched Athenians. She is matched by Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the hero of the battle of Marathon a decade earlier. Thmistokles goal is to unite the city states of Greece under one free nation, so he repeatedly seeks the help of the Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), Leonidas's widow, to aid in the defense of their nation.

300 was cool in part because of its style. 300: Rise of An Empire mostly retains the same techniques of the first film. There is more blood and violence here, using the blood splashing and slow motion violence to solid effect. The fight scenes are well executed, though lacking a little of the fluidity and oddity of the villains of the first movie. (Athenian fighting is one-on-one, whereas Spartan fighting in the first 300 is a single army unit moving as one.) Where 300: Rise of An Empire adds some substance is in the sexuality. The first movie was about misogyny and how strong men can be. 300: Rise of An Empire throws an equally capable female into the mix. Artemisia is given such a tragic backstory that during the naval warfare, I was torn on who to root for. She is cold, calculating, and the right amount of unhinged, culminating in the most literal sexual power struggle I have seen on screen in some time.

Too bad the movie picks the wrong side and wrong story. The movie uses the peripheral characters in the original 300 in addition to Themistokles to drive the narrative. Themistokles is supposed to stoke the macho fire in every guy like Leonidas did, but lengthy speeches about freedom and no "This is SPARTA!!!" moment turn the character into the movie's vapid wasteland for time. One person in my theater actually fell asleep TWICE when the movie focused on him. The more compelling angle would be to parallel Eva Green's story with Leonidas's martyrdom to force the audience to pick sides in a sequel, or really focus on the political machinations of uniting Greece. Instead, we get half formed subplots surrounding a retread of the first film with a big hole at its center and logic holes throughout: one character is right in front of an explosion and no damage is done to their face, and another boards an enemy ship to speak to the villain with no guards for himself. As a result, each battle yields less returns, and the payoffs are mostly nonexistent.

Why does everyone in 300: Rise of an Empire look so pained? This movie should be fun. The one GREAT exception is Eva Green. Her gaze alone strikes fear in the audience when she speaks where her words manifest the depravity and soullessness that her eyes deliver. I was riveted anytime she was on screen, and 300: Rise of An Empire suffers mightily without her presence. Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro (along with a cameo from David Wenham) are the holdovers from the first movie; neither gets enough screen time to leave a great lasting impression although there is promise there. Sullivan Stapleton is channeling the Ghost of Gerard Butler's Leonidas without any of the fierce pride Butler brought to the part. Stapleton also has trouble conveying deep sadness, which ruins any chance at making Themistokles complex. The Athenian's companions are equally unmemorable 6-packs in short shorts.

300: Rise of an Empire leaves itself easy for a joke about a particular male organ. I'll take the high road and say that you should see this movie only for Eva Green's lifeless glares and pure evil. Plus one of the most ridiculous sex scenes outside of a Nicholas Cage movie. That should be phallic enough for you.

Non-Stop
Non-Stop(2014)

Liam Neeson's special set of skills equally apply in the air I guess. Non-Stop takes the action star of the moment and puts him in a Hitchcockian type thriller. While there are obvious plot holes and little character development, Non-Stop succeeds because it is an effective thriller with a very solid supporting cast of character actors and a good Neeson at the movie's center. Plus it has the best airplane bathroom fight scene that will probably be filmed.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is a tormented US Air Marshall with a heart of gold; you know he is tormented because he drinks, and he is a good guy because he helps scared little children. On a flight across the Atlantic, Marks receives texts on his phone from an unknown caller who says he will kill a person on board every twenty minutes for $150 million. However, it becomes clear to Marks that there may be a more nefarious plot going on besides money. In addition, there are lots of possible suspects, including "trusted" flight attendants (Lupita Nyong'o and Michelle Dockery), The red head who switched seats to sit next to him (Julianne Moore), and several others.

When focused on the search for the perpetrators, Non-Stop ripples with tension. The use of text messaging is key here: it keeps the screen silent and keeps Neeson from growling and barking into his phone. Plus everyone has a phone, so everyone is a suspect. The claustrophobia of the plane is used effectively; as the search goes on, panic and paranoia can be seen amongst the passengers. Surrounding Neeson are familiar but not too familiar character actors making it hard for the audience to see who is behind the screen. Moore, Dockery, Nyong'o, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Linus Roache, Anson Mount, and Omar Metwally all are recognized faces, making it hard for the audience to lock down right away the big reveal. In addition, the screenplay does a great job creating situations to suspect everyone, clouding the picture further. I genuinely was surprised at the end result, a hard trick to pull for even the best screenplay.

Non-Stop does not stand up to intense scrutiny however. In fact, there are several examples of questionable choices that threaten to derail the thriller. Neeson begs for help several times after it is clear he looks guilty and people just succumb to his will. When he has a chance to shut down the cell network and flush out the texter, he chooses to keep the network open. Neeson keeps the whole flight in the dark for a very long time; they take forever to become suspicious of Marks's motives. However, the end is where the story falls apart. The motive for the hijacking is downright ludicrous; it would have been better to just have motivationless evildoing be the reason a la the Joker in Batman. Also, the media gets wind of a hijacked flight and finds out Neeson is the suspect, but when he leaves the plane, not one police officer arrives to arrest him. Non-Stop does a great job showing Neeson earn respect of the fliers; it would have been nice to see them stand up for him and eliminate an obvious plot hole.

In the end though, the story is fun enough and Neeson kicks enough butt in the third act that Non-Stop earns the price of admission. It is never boring and paces itself very nicely, just like this review. If you were paying attention hard enough, you will notice I left a clue to solve Non-Stop's whodunit. Good luck, and remember the skies are now safer with Liam Neeson up there.

The Wind Rises
½

The Wind Rises is animator Hayao Miyazaki's last film. Famous internationally for crafting animated classics like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Miyazaki strikes another win with the Wind Rises, a wonderful display of dreaming and flight. Though The Wind Rises isn't as instantly classic as some of Miyazaki's greatest hits, it is a fine swan song because of the movie's material, solid screenplay, and wonderful images. Enjoy your retirement sir.

The Wind Rises starts in 20's Japan. Jiro (voiced in the English dubbing by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a dreamer who dreams of creating airplanes. On his way to college, he runs into Naoko (Emily Blunt) a painter with her head in the clouds like Jiro. When they are forced to leave the train under emergency circumstances, Jiro saves Naoko and her maid from death before returning to school (Jiro never tells Naoko who he is). Jiro eventually works for a plane manufacturer and designer, where he is quickly earns the respect of his boss Kurokawa (Martin Short) and his friend/co-worker Honjo (John Krasinski). After a couple failed tests, Jiro retreats for the summer and runs into Naoko again, both admitting their feelings for each other have never relented.

When a non-CGI animated film like The Wind Rises comes to the screen, there can be a tendency to lament the upcoming perceived drop in quality because of the precision of computer animation. However, Miyazaki does most of the drawings himself, and most of them are infused with a depth of quality and detail that equal and even surpass computer efforts because of the heart put into their creation. The scenes on the airplanes and trains are joys to see: wonderfully created rolling countryside with beautiful lively colors. There is an earthquake that genuinely creates tension and fear with a simple change in the color palette, and early morning/night images add to the dreamlike atmosphere of the story. The image that sits with me though is a scene outside of a garden entrance to a building. Two characters are talking, and in the very background mosquitos and moths are flying around a light; the scene was already fine, but touches like the bugs show just how careful and deliberate each sketch was constructed and brought to life. Animators like Miyazaki do not come around often enough, and his presence is greatest in The Wind Rises's drawings.

Miyazaki is also not afraid of placing messages in his films. Usually, the message is environmentally driven since it is clear Miyazaki loves nature and its beauty. In The Wind Rises, the director takes aim at governmental intervention into dreams and fear mongering. These aims come into direct conflict with the other story: Jiro's dreaming and courtship of Naoko. The morality of the Wind Rises complicates Jiro's story in a more negative way; the jabs at governmental corruption create jarring tonal shifts that don't really weave well together throughout the movie. Miyazaki does try his best: there is an element of dread established right from the get go, but in the end the warring tones leave a mess in their path. The duality of the story also limits the impact of the climax, forcing The Wind Rises into an unsatisfactory payoff despite the audience's hopes.

Miyazaki's biggest gift to his viewers is the characters he creates. There is usually someone to connect with for each audience member. Jiro is the dreamer that is fully aware of reality closing in on him; Joseph Gordon-Levitt nicely tones down his mannerisms to give Jiro dignity and enthusiasm in leaps and bounds. Naoko is more thinly drawn, but tough decisions give her more layers; Emily Blunt gives her spunk and sells the relationship with Jiro. Honjo (Krasinski) and Kurokawa (Short) are clearly the comic relief, but they also get some nice moments when pushed by the story. No character is black ad white in a Miyazaki film, there is always a little something to each person.

The Wind Rises didn't take my breath away like Princess Mononoke, and it lacks the ingenuity of Spirited Away, but it has enough quality material that make me lament Hayao Miyazaki's retirement. At the movie's heights, I was soaring above the clouds without a care in the world, and I wound up getting choked up and scared more than I expected to. Hayao Miyazaki's head must be a wonderful thing to get to experience, and I am happy The Wind Rises let me experience it one last time.

RoboCop
RoboCop(2014)
½

Detroit's hero is back. Robocop has been rebooted and modernized. His tale is not as fresh as it was in 1987, but the story retains the core issues of the original. Much like the hero Alex Murphy, 2014 Robocop isn't perfect but it gets the job done.

Flash forward to 2028. The world is successfully patrolled by unmanned drones funded by the Omnicorp Corporation and their CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). However, the United States is too distrusting of robots. As a result, the corporation marketing team (Jay Baruchel and Jennifer Ehle) and their conservative news anchor Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) choose to put a robot in a suit to capture the US market. They select Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a good cop from Detroit fighting corrupt police. Nursed back to "life" by Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Murphy becomes a hero to the masses. Soon however, he starts overriding his protocols as his personality seeps into the robot.

Similar to the 1987 Robocop, 2014 Robocop touches on identity and corporate branding. The identity part matches the 1987 version, with some great discussions on control during the testing phase of Robocop. Corporate branding is also very interesting, especially incorporating the media into the story. The big ideas make Robocop really fun to watch, and provide the most compelling material in the story. The violence has been dulled though, lessening the impact of the coldness of the robots. Instead, the movie smartly sets up some scary boo! explosions and takes the camera away at the last second, leaving the carnage to the viewer imagination. The actions sequences aren't great, but they are never boring, getting the point across.

If only the personal revenge story were more interesting. We get a solid 3 minutes of time with Alex and his family before he is "killed." We get a bit more time with Alex's partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but for the most part, these people in Alex's life aren't given much of a personality. In addition, the big idea and media part of the story have more compelling discussions and deserve at least equal screen time. As a result, the ending feels abrupt and rushed, with not enough fleshing out of Alex's connections to deserve the big conflict at the end. If anything, Robocop could have used another twenty minutes or so to give more context around Alex's home life and personal morality to give the ending more emotional punch.

Joel Kinnaman, probably by design, is very rigid and cold as our new Robocop. Peter Weller, a really good actor, played the original Robocop as a more conflicted man: you could see the machinations of his mind fighting internally. Kinnaman's limited range is hidden well by the directors, with his best moment coming when he sees what is left of his body. He doesn't really add or detract to the movie. Surrounding Kinnaman are very good character actors that elevate the material they are working with. Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and (especially) Michael Keaton get to do some cool corporate machination, with Keaton playing his eccentricity off well. Michael K. Williams and Abbie Cornish are good with limited screen time. Jackie Earl Haley plays a surprisingly intense, smart, and blunt soldier.Sam Jackson plays off his personality well as a Fox News type anchor. The biggest head scratcher is Gary Oldman, who gets the most compelling role and does some interesting stuff as the doctor, but feels very shortchanged after the movie is over.

Robocop is neither bad nor good. It is a solid remake that embraces its predecessor while connecting the character to a new audience. What is most compelling is watching Sam Jackson as a right wing conservative; I would watch an entire movie about his rise to power.

About Last Night

About Last Night goes where most romantic comedies dare not to. Happily ever after is blown past to showcase the day-to-day struggle of maintaining a relationship. Anchored by a strong pair in the middle and flanked by a crazy duo used mostly for comedic relief, About Last Night refreshingly shows us the joys and pains of loving someone. Plus it has the big star of the moment, little man Kevin Hart.

About Last Night focuses on two couples. Hot messes Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) like to drink a lot and hook up in exotic ways. On one double date, they introduce Debbie (Joy Bryant) and Danny (Michael Ealy) to each other and then go for a little "pee place tryst." Turns out Danny and Debbie connect instantly and start spending more time together. During that time, the volatile Joan/Bernie relationship goes through ups and downs that puts strain on the young couple, plus other outside factors slowly seep into their relationship.

About Last Night is a relatively short film, but it unfolds very slowly. This deliberate pace helps set up Danny and Debbie's relationship, allowing the audience to see how honest and real it actually is. The passion in the beginning is electric: you feel the highs and carefree dream the two ride for a while. There is no sudden transition to tension; the slow build plants seeds of resentment and doubt that slowly grow as the couple spends more time living together. Most couples seeing this film will identify with either Danny or Debbie at some point, and the screenplay takes a bold risk not introducing conflict but letting conflict be generated by the two leads. While Joan and Bernie live the crazy life, Danny and Debbie firmly exist in the real one, and their connection makes About Last Night smarter than your average rom com.

Yes, everyone has seen a toxic relationship like the one Joan and Bernie have. However, About Last Night never really condemns what they are doing since they are being true to themselves. The movie basically parallels the two relationships to show how the final destination of true love can be achieved in multiple ways from multiple types of people. Wisely, About Last Night makes this relationship play second fiddle to the more realistic one; little doses provide enough insight into what goes on in their lives and services Danny and Debbie's story by providing over-the-top counterpoints to bounce off of. The frankness in sexuality and constant zaniness threaten to overtake the core feelings Bernie and Joan are experiencing, but the screenplay smartly pulls back at the last minute most of the time.

The core four in About Last Night are very good. Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant sizzle on screen as Danny and Debbie. They are cute when falling in love and honest when fighting, playing restrained and real very capably. Kevin Hart gets to play to his strengths here, at best when he is in panic. He also gets to do some good honest character work as Bernie, showing emotional range I thought was nonexistent. Ditto for Regina Hall, who plays up the bitchiness a little too much, but is overall very solid when forced to confront real feelings. Hart and Hall bear the big burden of providing the comedy counterpart, and nail more jokes than they miss. Cameos here are a missed opportunity, either plot serving (Christopher McDonald) or really terrible (Paula Patton and Terrell Owens).

About Last Night says nothing new about relationships, but it does give more insight than most other insipid rom coms. It is a great movie to take someone out on a date with, and it stays with you longer than you expect. The best compliment I can give About Last Night is that when you think about it, you cannot help but smile.

The LEGO Movie

Legos are near the top of the best toys ever invented. Nothing encourages imagination and ingenuity in a child better than random blocks that can be built in any manner of ways. The Lego Movie captures what is special about the toys themselves and surrounds it with a very clever, joke-filled story that gets surprisingly emotional in the last half hour. Who knew yellow men with peg heads could generate a tear or two?

The story starts when Lord Business (Will Ferrell) defeats Master Builder Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and steals the Kragle: a device that could end the free Lego realms as we know them. However, Vitruvius gives Lord Business a prophecy that a special Master Builder will find a special piece that can stop the Kragle. Fast forward 8.5 years later, and Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a normal construction worker following his life instructions by the book. That is, until he meets WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), who leads Emmet to the special piece that will fulfill the prophecy. From there, Emmet/Wyldstyle recruit other masterbuilders to help stop Lord Business, among them WyldStyle's boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), the ever-positive Unikitty (Alison Brie) and pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman).

The Lego Movie embraces a world of Lego construction and Lego boundaries. Characters can't really twist, and they can only move in right angles. They don't have hands, they have clasps. Fire is just fire Lego pieces that appear and then diminish when the explosion ends. Waves are just blue Lego blocks that build and unbuild in patterns. Even cooler are when human artifacts make their way into the story, showing how a different perspective can spin a day-to-day object. Kragle is a common household object that is probably the most dangerous to Legos. Bubble gum and band aids is used very amusingly, and a golf ball has never been used in such an amusing way. Credit the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller for creating such a fun world.

The Lego universe also factors in the central conflict of the story: building something by following instructions versus building with complete freedom. Emmet is a normal guy stuck between what appears to be a very long war between these two ideas. The story has fun with the two worlds that can be built using both ways. Instruction world is mostly interchangeable: everyone listens to the same songs and acts the same way, but they work very well together. Whereas the freeform world is truly an amazing spectacle of imagination but also very isolating: everyone sort of works alone. Emmet has to decide which way best suits him to prevent the imminent death of the Lego worlds. His choices take a big left turn in the third act, which the movie drops hints at, and provides the big emotional payoff for Emmet and friends at the end. The boldness of the screenplay to take risks and provide uneasy answers along with a copious amount of fast-moving jokes makes the Lego Movie a truly great family film.

The voice acting uses the perfect mix of generic voices and self-parodies. Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks headline the generic group: Pratt's enthusiasm infuses Emmet with fun energy and the right amount of naivete while Banks gives Wyldstyle some bite to go along with perkiness. The self parodies will generate more laughs, especially for adults. Will Arnett gets to channel a deeper-voiced Gob Bluth from Arrested Development as Batman, the self-assured, self-important masterbuilder. Morgan Freeman gets to be wise beyond his years, and Liam Neeson gets to be a great bad cop. Will Ferrell throws a little bit of unhinged sadness into Lord Business, with the sadness and order playing a key role in the third act.

Whether discussing the power of imagination or how bad cops only appear that way because they abuse inanimate objects to appear scary, the Lego Movie succeed in the big and small ways together. The creators of the movie can be proud of the fact that they took what people find special about Lego's and manifest that feeling onscreen. The Lego Movie got me so jazzed up I wanted to search my parents' attic to see if any of my Legos were up there to start a brand new adventure.

Gloria
Gloria(2014)

What happens to you when your kids get older and you don't need to parent them anymore? In addition, what if you are divorced/widowed and live for yourself? Gloria postulates one possible lifestyle choice for that age bracket. Anchored by a strong performance by Paulina Garcia, Gloria adds an entry to the underrepresented sexuality of near-retired former parents genre. Plus it has paintball.

We open on Gloria (Paulina Garcia) in a fifty-something dance club. She seems pretty ubiquitous for her age. She has been divorced for over a decade; she has two adult kids that don't really need her anymore; she works a normal job. So with time to fill now that parenting is complete, she strikes up a fling with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who is very recently divorced.

Much of the running time is devoted to Gloria's relationship with Rodolfo. Much of this segment is very good. The relationship has normal ups and downs. What makes it unique is the past lives that interfere. Rodolfo and Gloria raised their families very differently, causing tension that would not exist for a younger couple. Also interesting is how nonchalant the relationship seems; both parties acknowledge they are using the other for a change, and have NO time to deal with excess baggage for a long period. Sex is also a part of their relationship, with both partners agreeing they don't need to worry as much about their physical appearance as long as they receive gratification. The segments can get a little too long and artistic, but in general they succeed and escalate to a really fun conclusion.

Gloria's homelife is more of a mixed bag. Her family dynamics all feel real with her ex-husband and kids, walking the line between overt melodrama and dishonest behavior where reality lives. The scenes involving neighbors are shoehorned in for more experimentation on Gloria's part. As a whole, these scenes help shape Gloria's past to the viewers while showing how her past influences her present. However, these scenes drag quicker than the other scenes and often come off too artistic (like the running gag with the cat).

Paulina Garcia is a revelation here. As the titular Gloria, every scene is infused with her sadness, sexuality, and joy. Garcia sells Gloria's drive very well; any sad thing that happens to her she laments in the moment then quickly moves on. A scene at a family dinner gives Garcia a chance to showcase many emotions, and she nails all of them. Sergio Hernandez gets to play Garcia's opposite in Rodolfo, still too heavily focused on his past. He strikes the right note of charismatic but jerky; it's easy to see why Gloria would like and dislike him simultaneously.

Gloria proves that life can exist once the generational parenting responsibilities and world responsibilities are completed. It is a shining example of how to learn from past experiences and enjoy life a moment at a time. It also must be great to have a song with your name as its title; that always made me a little jealous.

The Monuments Men

Turns out Hitler was a REALLY bad guy. In addition to the genocide of Jews, the man also wanted to wipe the artistic influences in Europe due to his shunning by the art community. The Monuments Men chronicles the team assembled to subvert Hitler's attempt to rid the world of priceless cultural artifacts. This movie could have been a nice little war comedy with better direction, but it takes itself too seriously and meanders too often. Writer/Director/Star George Clooney maybe should have distanced himself from the story a little bit.

The premise is solid enough: Hitler wants to create a personal museum of the greatest pieces of art in the world, so he steals some whenever he conquers a city. To stop him, Frank Stokes (Clooney) puts together a team of art experts: spy/intelligence man James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), aficionados Preston Savitz(Bob Balaban) and Walter Garfield (John Goodman), disgraced general Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and translator Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). While most of these men go from city to city looking for stolen art, Granger goes to Paris to seek out Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who worked closely with the art the Nazis were hiding.

The Monuments Men undersells the novice nature of these "soldiers." It is made clear from the start that these men have the minimal amount of training, thinking they would be around long after the fighting had stopped. However, Monuments Men wisely points out how tactically overmatched these men are in the strongest scenes of the movie. Monuments could go in two directions with this: play up the danger of the situation for a normal citizen, or play it as a joke. Instead, these situations are relegated to the background to try to convince us why saving art is important scene after scene after scene. This creates over-the-top rhetoric that infuses the screenplay to the story's detriment.

This movie is also a zag zigger tonally. It is funny at the wrong times (like throughout a tense sniper situation), and carries too much dramatic weight when clearly the war has much larger stakes. As such, many scenes feel a tad rushed and incomplete. This makes the big events of the third act semi-glossed over and lacking any real tension. Sometimes the movie works (like in the scene with a land mine), but those scenes are few and far between.

Also not helping is the lack of character development for the actors. They service the story as best they can, but any whiff of character development is forgotten to move the men to a different city. Heck, there aren't even any team formation rituals or rites of passage really covered. The best arc belongs to Hugh Bonneville, since the arc actually completes and provides the driving force for the final 30 minutes of the movie. Bill Murray gets a nice (but unnecessary) scene involving a phonograph. A tighter focus on fewer characters might have done Monuments Men some good, such as excising Damon and Blanchett from the movie altogether.

George Clooney uses the last few scenes to stress why these men were so important to future generations, but at that point it is too little too late. The little mistakes and shortcuts by The Monuments Men screenplay to the story and its characters make the audience feel indifferent to what they're seeing. It's a shame, because there is a good story somewhere in here, and I hope it gets retold by a director with better vision.

That Awkward Moment
½

Give writer/director Tom Gormican credit. He managed to grab 3 young actors before 2 become megastars and one becomes socially irrelevant. That Awkward Moment masquerades as an R rated romantic comedy, but lacks the punch that other good R rated comedies have. However, the drama is solid enough in parts to hold the viewer's attention and root for the endings Gormican clearly wants for his trio.

That Awkward Moment focuses on 3 college buddies living in New York City. Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) just found out his wife Vera (Jessica Lucas) was cheating on him and turns to his two friends Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller) for support. The three make a pact to stay single until Mikey gets back on his feet; of course, that pact falls apart almost immediately. Mikey tries to rekindle things with his ex; Daniel starts developing feelings for his wingwoman Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis); and Jason has a one night stand with Ellie (Imogen Poots) only to realize that their relationship should be more than casual.

The comedy in That Awkward Moment feels like it was edgy twenty years ago, relying on bad words for punchlines. The jokes feel like they were meant to be thrown at the audience as fast as possible, so any lapse from a bad one would soon be forgotten. The best jokes in That Awkward Moment revolve around specificity. Daniel cannot perform in bed because of Chelsea's teddy bear from an ex-boyfriend, Jason's cocktail punchline at a dress-up party, or Mikey's self tanner mistake. When the joke provides context or specificity instead of a cheap out, That Awkward Moment delivers; however, these instances are few and far between.

The dramatic arcs of the relationships are the strength of That Awkward Moment. The Jason/Ellie courtship is the strongest, since there is no previous history and we get to see their relationship unfold onscreen. Both parties make mistakes, both are understanding, both are cute together. Illogical decision making almost derails rooting interest, but the hurt Jason feels not being with Ellie feels earned and leaves the audience rooting for their rekindling. Daniel/Chelsea is cute as well; because their chemistry is evident immediately, this pairing wisely gets less screen time since the arc is simpler. The natural charm of Daniel carries this story to its conclusion, which is resolved as quickly as it comes together. The Mikey/Vera arc gets the short end of the stick. That Awkward Moment posits that this arc is the counter to Jason and Daniel, that things can come apart as quickly as they come together. However, this story lacks the complexity it deserves right from the get go, since it is fairly obvious that cheaters cheat again in this world. That Awkward Moment does not say anything new about modern relationships, but 2/3 of the stories use the charm and abilities of the young stars to give audiences what they want.

Zac Efron must have gotten the memo. His career has stalled since he left the Disney Channel, and his co-stars Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller are about to shoot right past him into superstardom. Efron is the strongest here; his comedic timing needs work, but his relationship with Imogen Poots sizzles in the most adorable way. Efron might not be the next big thing, but he could definitely lead romantic comedies if he desires. Miles Teller has mastered the fast-talker role in a friendship. His jokes land more than not due to the overconfident persona he has crafted for himself. He an Mackenzie Davis are fine together, but part of me wished that they just made Teller be the happy single one so he could carry the comedy himself. Michael B. Jordan will use this movie as his asterisk on his way to the top. He is woefully underdeveloped and underused here.

That Awkward Moment, like its soundtrack, feels like an old-fashioned romantic comedy trying to be something edgier and more modern. It is cute, harmless, and will make young men and women swoon if they are into the saccharine world of movie romance. That Awkward Moment also contains some of the best use of New York City outside of a Woody Allen Movie. I get the city's appeal now; it looks so exciting.

The Act Of Killing

What happens to brutal dictators like Stalin or Castro in the aftermath of their atrocities? The Act of Killing suggests that it stays with you no matter how you try to justify or bury your past. Director Joshua Oppenheimer crafts an eerie, real tale of coming to terms with your past crimes, and all through the device of making people craft their own movie.

Oppenheimer's subject is 1960's Indonesia, where young gangsters ran rampant through the country. These young men, to remain "free" of government control, would round up communists for the slaughter. He elects to show the atrocities committed by offering one of the leaders, Anwar Congo, a chance to create a movie about what he has done. Anwar sinks his teeth into the movie, but all the while Oppenheimer is using the movie as a guise to see how Congo will react to experiencing what his victims experienced.

The atrocities committed by the Indonesians are deliberately showcased in the first half of the film. The United States comes off very badly here; we helped prop up the gangsters during the communist fear during that time. As a result, the killers look at America fondly; mafia movies provided inspiration for various methods of homicide and helped craft the larger than life personas of the leaders (you can see this when outfits become a major discussion). We also fed these gangs lies: they are made to equate gangster with the word freedom. The Act of Killing makes it easy to understand why these men would be proud of what they did - a crucial set up for the second half of the movie.

The second half of the movie focuses on the individual members of the gang who killed people. Anwar Congo is by far the most fascinating; he is mostly living in denial of what he has done, electing to focus on the happiness in his life. When he agrees to film this movie, we get to see the people, past and present, he lets help with his process that offer other perspectives on the movie. Ibrahim Zinik (a pro-gangster journalist) joins Anwar in denial. Adi Zulkadry (a fellow executioner) has come to terms with his past and wants to make his sins public. Herman Koto (a younger gangster) dresses in drag and worries about the public perception of his group, the Pancasilas. These varying influences converge on Anwar in the third act, when he is forced to experience some of the execution techniques he used on "communists." These scenes showcase the change happening within Anwar, culminating in a scene (repeated from earlier in the film) where Anwar goes to a rooftop where he murdered people. After the visceral reaction he had to the killing methods, he becomes sickened by a place he once took pride in. You don't feel sympathy for Anwar by end, but Oppenheimer does find the human underneath the monster.

Reality gives the Act of Killing its power. The 1960's executions in Indonesia were real. The power and hubris of the gangs were real. The faces of these killers is real. The emotional shift of the people through age and understanding is real. The juxtaposition of contempt and fascination in watching the Act of Killing gives the story a drive and energy that make the movie itself alive, and very real.

Dumb and Dumber

Dumb and Dumber can be seen as the springboard for several people. The Farelly brothers first feature launched them into the "IT" comedy team, and would follow the movie up with two more hits Kingpin and There's Something About Mary. Jim Carrey used this one and Ace Ventura to become the biggest comedian in Hollywood, making a Batman movie, The Cable Guy, and Liar, Liar. More importantly, it became a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the most quotable movies in history. Dumb and Dumber's plot is pretty thin, but is MUCH more clever than people give it credit for.

By now, the story should be known to you. Dumb and Dumber focuses around 2 idiot roommates: Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunn (Jeff Daniels). Harry runs one of the worst dog grooming businesses out of his van, and Lloyd is a limo driver who has found out that the company freaks out when you leave the scene of an accident. Lloyd's last pickup is Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly), who smites Lloyd right in the heart. Lloys fails to notice Mary is sad and worried: her husband has been kidnapped by Nicholas (Charles Rocket). For bribery, Mary deposits something in a suitcase, which she leaves in the airport to be picked up by two thugs (Mike Starr and Karen Duffy) who work for Nicholas. Lloyd, simply thinking she left the briefcase, grabs it before they do, but she gets onto the flight to Aspen before he can reach her. After failing to open the briefcase, Lloyd enlists Harry to help him drive the briefcase to Mary, hoping they will fall in love and be introduced into high society.

The cleverness of the screenplay is in making the criminals as dumb as Harry and Lloyd. Since they only view and observe the two dummies from a distance, their stupid actions are attempted to be pieced together by the thugs, only to deduce that Harry and Lloyd must be professionals. This makes any random joke written by the Farelly brothers hit twice as hard since the criminals stand in awe of these preposterous actions. Kudos to Matt Starr, Charles Rocket, and Karen Duffy for playing it straight through all the nonsense.

And what wonderful nonsense. Dumb & Dumber, for PG-13, pushes the humor pretty far and pretty dark. The gags are easily the highlight, the two best involving birds (an owl and a parakeet). There are quotes everywhere that can be reused ad nauseum: "Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?" "You got fired again huh? Oh yeah." Dumb and Dumber is meant for the low-brow in all of us: there is an extended hilarious sequence involving laxatives. The shaggin wagon always gets a smirk, and there is a nice nod to A Christmas Story fans. I have rarely laughed harder that when a playful brush of snow onto Harry yields him to hurl a snowball into the person's face (this scenes wisely shifts to Harry at the last second, so the audience can imagine what happened to the person who is hit). Heck, at some point we have all seen the blue and orange suits on a pair of friends for Halloween.

This movie would not succeed without Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Carrey was the sure thing here, and he delivers with all of his crazy mannerisms and noises. The montage scene would not be nearly as funny if it were anyone but Carrey. Daniels was mostly an action star before this dramatic shift into comedy; amazingly, he holds his own alongside Carrey and has a blast doing so. Lauren Holly gamely plays the love interest, getting the biggest laughs during the ski trip or in the limo. Of the other actors, only Matt Starr makes an impression; his reactions with Carrey and Daniels make their scenes together pop.

If Dumb and Dumber is not experienced before age 21, then it will not resonate as well. I was fortunate enough to watch it in my teens, which has forever tied Dumb and Dumber to the part of me that appreciates a swift kick to the babymaker region for laughs. It is the best example of what is captivating about Jim Carrey's physical humor, and a shining beacon that low-brow isn't always necessarily inferior humor.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Chris Pine must have big feet. Filling William Shatner's shoes as Captain Kirk, Pine has decided to also fill the soles of Alec Baldwin/Harrison Ford/Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit feels a little old fashioned (sometimes good, sometimes bad), but it delivers as a solid thriller and reboot of the character. Tom Clancy can see the checks rolling in.

We learn of Jack Ryan's (Chris Pine) origin in Shadow Recruit. Forced to watch the September 11 disaster from school in England, Ryan vows to help his country in any way he can. He enlists in the army, but he suffers major injuries and is forced to help behind a desk. Not all is bad though, he meets Cathy (Keira Knightley) while in rehab, and becomes a top tier financial analyst for the CIA. He uncovers a Russian plot to collapse the US economy. His mentor, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), elects to send Ryan to Russia since no other CIA operative knows the issue better than the recruit. Ryan then infiltrates the business dealings of the Russian company headed by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh, also the director); however, the plot becomes more complicated when Cathy shows up unexpectedly.

Branagh the director does a good job establishing scenes of intensity and urgency. After the background is complete, the first fight appears out of nowhere, almost like a Boo! moment in a horror movie. Branagh elects to showcase the intricate minutiae of some of these planned plots to uncover the terrorist attack. As the reliance upon multiple people executing their jobs simultaneously, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit naturally escalates in tension. The action is shot well enough to know what is going on, though the sound quality was shockingly mediocre (it could have possibly been the theatre I went to). In addition, the movie feels like it hits its climax 2/3 of the way through the film, and then it goes on for another 30 minutes back in the United States. The scenes are tense and fun, but feel a bit unnecessary and feature bland other villains in addition to Branagh.

Part of the problem of the action is that Jack Ryan as a centerpiece feels extremely old fashioned. Director Branagh and Chris Pine do a good job developing his backstory, but compared to Jason Bourne and Tony Stark, Jack Ryan lacks modernity and complexity that new franchise leading men bring to the table. In addition, all of Ryan's enemies are other countries; a personal touch would help modernize the character more, and give him a personal drive not involving devotion to country.

None of the issues with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit fall at the actors' feet. Chris Pine is winning and likeable as Jack Ryan. He sells his drive and love of country well, and has cute chemistry with both Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner. Knightley, donning an American accent, is more than just the damsel. In fact, she is great almost as a partner in crime: I'd love to see more of her in potential sequels. Kevin Costner is gruff as the mentor, and hopefully can get fleshed out in the future. Kenneth Branagh has an ok Russian accent and is nicely nuanced and menacing as the prime villain.

With origin story dispensed, I'm optimistic about Jack Ryan's future in the 21st century post 9/11. Provided the talent behind the screen can match the talent onscreen, we could be looking at a solid franchise for years to come. However, let's just let people do their normal accents. There's no reason a Brit has to use a Russian accent; he can be just as menacing as a British villain.

Blackfish
Blackfish(2013)

The days of Free Willy and Sea World will never be the same. Blackfish represents a strong indictment against the use of whales for human entertainment, particularly focusing on Sea World's many questionable ethics in their whale business dealings. This movie is so damaging to Sea World that they refused to even comment at all in this film, which some see as evidence that they are complicit in the animal wrongdoings.

Blackfish's narrative essentially covers the capture and confinement of Tilikum, a male killer whale. The footage ranges from his capture, to his various stops at different theme parks as well as his use as a breeder. During the story, various former trainers of whales/seals speak about the day-to-day operations and the goings on behind the scenes when working with the animals and with Sea World. It is amazing to see how many people who interacted with these animals close up agreed to work on this film. The range is wide: from the man who actually captured whales to former trainers. Everyone seemed bought into the narrative given to them by SeaWorld. The setup by Blackfish establishes how enthusiastic these people were in their professions (including the whaler); this setup is crucial to show how deliberate their choice is in refuting their life's work. Whether it is via body language/noises from the whale, or death of a co worker, the interaction and vicinity of the people to the animals clearly changed their worldview. Some of the most powerful sequences in Blackfish involve the study into whale noises after the loss of a baby or watching footage of the severe harm done to a colleague. This footage serves as an audience guide to how these people's opinions could change.

Sea World is doing everything it can to fight the clear negative publicity it is receiving from this documentary. Blackfish makes it clear that Sea World at least publicly avoided many ill effects of its unethical whale treatment. The film discredits the corporation in many ways: most of which are captured on camera. We see "facts" developed by the company about the whales aging that are disproven by data in the wild, but repeated ad nauseum in parks so as to seem true. Deaths of several trainers are told, with links between the deaths (Tilikum) not stated to the new trainers by Sea World. The hardest scenes to watch are when they try to claim that very careful trainers made too many errors which caused their death when footage suggests otherwise. Even if there are arguments against these specific deaths, there is enough of a pattern now to see something strange is occurring.

Blackfish served its purpose at least to me. I will not be going to Sea World again. The nice thing about this simple documentary is that the problem has a simple solution: put these animals back into their natural habitat. We can even revive the Michael Jackson "Save The Whales" soundtrack from Free Willy to aid in the cause.

Lone Survivor
½

Not too many directors are bold enough to spoil their movie in the title. Not too many directors are also not bold enough to make Battleship so this movie could be made. Peter Berg directed a board game movie so he could bring the tale of Marcus Luttrell to the big screen with tense immersive results. Lone Survivor is a movie of highs and lows; at its best, it has some scenes that are as tense and terrifying as any war movie. At its worst, Lone Survivor plays out like a military propaganda film when it could be using its story to point out flaws in the planning of this ill fated mission. Overall, Lone Survivor is compelling lip service to those hard working machine-like marines that perform any mission regardless when called upon.

Lone Survivor adapts the story of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), the sole survivor of "Operation Red Wings." Instructed to eliminate a high ranking Taliban officer, a team of 4 is sent in for reconnaissance of the town he would be in between the Afghani mountains: Commander Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch, also the star of Battleship), Comms officer Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Sniper Matt 'Axe' Axelson (Ben Foster) and Luttrell. The first half of the mission goes fine, but then Murphy's Law hits: the communications hit a dead zone; goat herders find their hiding spot; their air support separates. As a result, the four are left to fight off the Taliban militia that knows where they are using the skills they learned in training.

When focused upon the four men in peril, Lone Survivor is replete with tension and terrifying moments. Not all the tension is from combat: the scene where the group decides what to do with the herders is brilliantly directed and explored. Once the gunfight starts, director Peter Berg decides to place the camera (a la Saving Private Ryan) in the midst of his fighters. This move is a success, when they advance and retreat, unless you are trained to handle the chaos, the audience has a hard time seeing what commander Murphy sees. I've never seen falling down a cliff captured as well on film as in Lone Survivor: the quick edits disorient you as much as the men must have been disoriented. Although sometimes these men appear to have superpowers, the fighting in Lone Survivor mostly comes off realistic, making each bullet/piece of shrapnel/broken bone that a character receives hurt just as much for an audience member.

What keeps Lone Survivor from the war movie stratosphere is not involving the behind the scenes team members correctly. The movie chooses to focus on Petty Officer Patton (Alexander Ludwig) and Lieutenant Kristiensen (Eric Bana) since they feature prominently in the middle of the rescue. However, that leaves little time to make them look like characters; they just do what is necessary of the plot and that's it. Instead (a la United 93) Lone Survivor could have had them run into issues with the military command and force them to make brash decisions to try to save the team or not save the team. Such decisions give depth to the characters that is sorely needed but never arrives.

The acting is solid but mostly unspectacular. Wahlberg holds the movie together as the survivor, getting most of his acting done in the third act. Taylor Kitsch gets some nice moments during the battles as the commander. Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch are fine but unspectacular, and Eric Bana and Alexander Ludwig are wasted and semi-pointless. Luttrell himself makes a cameo that has more resonance than anything Bana does.

For the families of the people involved, I'm glad Lone Survivor exists. It shows the heroic actions of brave men put in a position to fail and almost succeeding. However it does not get enough character development to be a truly transcendent war film. Marcus Luttrell can rest knowing that his story and friends will be seen as heroes, but I'm not so sure that is the only message we should be receiving.

August: Osage County

I want no part of living in Osage County, Oklahoma. August: Osage County is Tracy Letts's adaptation of her own play. Though highly vicious to the point that the story can be unbelievable and at times unwatchable, August: Osage County earns enough points through its actors that it is consistently compelling. It also makes anyone else's tense family dinners pale in comparison to this film's.

Weston family patriarch Bev (Sam Shepard) has gone missing. As a result, cancer-ridden Violet (Meryl Streep) has no idea what to do so she calls in the family to help her cope. The family is not without its own issues, however. Violet's sister Mattie (Margo Martindale) and brother-in-law Charlie (Chris Cooper) show up for the funeral, but their son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) is late, causing Mattie to be cold to him. Violet's oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) is going through a separation with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor). The youngest Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) harbors a crush on her cousin, and middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is dating a womanizer (Dermot Mulroney) who sets his sights on Barbara's daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). All these issues come to a head as the family copes with their personal issues and losses simultaneously.

This might be one of the meanest families to ever hit the screen. Tracy Letts's play benefitted from the small scale here; the claustrophobia of the house and heat of summer crafted these violent eruptions of honesty. The movie chooses to show more of the town, to the story's detriment. The heat is brought up at the beginning of the movie, and never really mentioned again. The claustrophobia is nonexistent due to the changes in setting. These subtle changes undercut the catharsis of the revelations that come out in the story. In addition, the brutal honesty borders on reality television levels of viciousness which lessens the impact of the fight. What reason is there for the audience to care about a jerk insulting an equally offensive jerk? August: Osage County has one of the bigger dichotomies when it comes to screen vs. play adaptation and execution in favor of the play.

The actors do the best job elevating the screenplay. When focused on the similarities between Julia Roberts's Barbara and Meryl Streep's Violet, August: Osage County carries very strong themes of the passage of personality from parent to child. Director Bob Wells knows this and lets Streep and Roberts let loose. Though bordering on overacting, both women are very convincing and talented enough to make the audience care, despite how uncaring they come off. Chris Cooper is the most relatable character here, saddened by the loss of his brother and the meanness of his assumed family. Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, and Misty Upham get the best character beats outside of the main three (though Roberts easily gets the best line involving fish). Unfortunately, due to time, the characters of Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, and Juliette Lewis serve more as plot devices than real people. Every here gives it their all, but time constraints limit the actors chances to connect to the audience.

The Weinstein Company is using August: Osage County as one of its big pieces of Oscar bait. Though not awful, the movie drifts too close to campiness and irrationality to be taken as seriously as it desperately wants to be taken. Not helping the movies chances are using British actors (McGregor and Cumberbatch) to play heartland Americans, although it doesn't hurt adding their natural gravitas to the Weston family.

Le passé (The Past)

Asghar Farhadi is one of the best directors out there that can inject suspense out of an everyday problem that people have to deal with. His Oscar-winning feature film, A Separation (a near masterpiece) deals with couples on the brink of divorce in Iran. In The Past, divorce is still involved, but more importantly Farhadi chooses to tackle unresolved feelings from a divorce that has already happened. Falling just short of his first film, Farhadi still manages to craft a tense thriller/drama with The Past; if you cannot find some moment to relate to in this film, then you are a luckier person than most.

The film opens with Marie (The Artist's Berenice Bejo) picking up her soon-to-be divorced husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) from the airport. From the start you can tell that antimosity simmers below their actual dialogue with each other. Marie is resentful that Ahmad took off and never signed the divorce papers. Ahmad is frustrated that Marie has made Ahmad come home while Marie has started living with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Complicating matters more is that Marie has 2 daughters who have previous history with Ahmad, younger Lea (Jeanne Jestin) and older Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who has been staying out later at night since her mom started dating Samir. The cramped living space and anger from past events causes multiple revelations and personal history to come to the present to be dealt with and hopefully moved on from for all families involved.

The strength of The Past is its screenplay. Asghar Farhadi is already near the top of the list at creating slow developing stories that adjust the status quo from scene to scene, and The Past adds to his resume. He opens the film smartly by trying to have to characters talk to each other with a pane of glass between them (this happens repeatedly throughout the film), emphatically stating that although these people can see/understand each other, they cannot hear one another. Scene after scene, one character will dictate to another how they should react to a particular situation because that character thinks they have all of the information on hand. However, by the end of the scene, another card is on the table and the deck has to be reshuffled. Scenes like these give the actors plenty of chances to prove their action chops and for the story's direction to constantly shift. More importantly, most of these little revelations are totally believable as we learn more about each character and their motivations. Farhadi weaves all these scenes together seamlessly from the director's chair to build upon his theme of confronting the past and moving on, making the sum of The Past's screenplay, directing, and acting greater that its individual parts.

The Past also excels at ground this whole story in reality. The arguments stem from day-to-day struggles of parenting and responsibility. These arguments then shift into something between the characters involved in the arguments, which then cause a revelation by coercion or to hurt the other person in the argument. Characters get right to the point; people usually feel each other out and then say what they really want to say. The Past understands this more than most stories do, and uses this everyday occurrence to drive the tension and thrills in the story.

The acting supports Farhadi's screenplay. Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa as the saddened angry patriarchs are very good. Bejo sells all the lies she tells herself and makes us feel sympathy for her being talked down to, exhibiting lots of strength as the provider for the kids. Mosaffa makes us believe he is a normally patient man but Marie increases his impatience exponentially. As someone who thinks hyper-rationally, I found myself thinking along Mosaffa's lines. Tahar Rahim doesn't get enough screen time, but he shines in the third act when he is needed most. Of the kids, Pauline Burlet carries emotional burdens better than most child actors, and little Elyes Aguis acts better without words than most other actors with their full arsenal of talents.

The Past is a powerful, relatable film. Anyone who has had to deal with warring family members or holds on to past burdens with hopes for a turnaround will feel a tug on the sadness in their heart after watching The Past. Asghar Farhadi is a talented filmmaker, but I hope he takes some time off and makes an equally compelling comedy so I don't have to prep myself to be sad after watching one of his films.

Her
Her(2013)

Her will be remembered as Spike Jonze's masterpiece. Jonze doesn't work often in movies, but when he does, they are usually something interesting (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). While most of his previous efforts were more brilliant showcases of storytelling, Jonze goes right for the heart in Her. This movie combines brilliant ideas on our current technological state with one of the most unique romances ever to grace the screen. I couldn't move for a few moments after the credits started to roll as tears formed around my eyes.

Greeting card writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is in a melancholic state. His ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) wants him to sign his divorce papers, but Theodore is reluctant. Bored by video games and getting nowhere with female companionship, he buys an OS (operating system) named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore quickly realizes he has a connection with Samantha, who understands him in ways a human does not and starts to form a real, intimate relationship with her. He also has a friend Amy (Amy Adams) who is having a similar relationship with an OS that they can talk about and bounce ideas off of each other.

Her's reality is set in the not too distant future Los Angeles. The changes are subtle, but not unbelievable. Connection and interactions are the big themes in the future: whoever invented mice will be pissed to find out they are not necessary anymore. Voice recognition allows us to speak directly to both man and machine now, closing the gap between human and electronic connection. As a result, relationships with OS's are not met with cynicism, but with inquiry. It's nice to see movie people not terrified of machine self-awareness, but simply accepting it as an evolutionary mark on society.

With the future set up very quickly, Jonze quickly establishes a relationship filled with copious amounts of questions. How one sided is this relationship? How does physical manifestation of feelings translate from talking? Does the OS feel similar feelings as a human? Can you hide feelings from an OS? When the OS evolves, can it handle the complexity of human emotions? What is an OS doing when a person is not connected? How do double dates work? That's not even considering the normal relationship questions like: Does past matter?, What happens when someone evolves more than the other person?, Is emotional gratification better than physical gratification? All these questions are touched upon by Jonze's screenplay, which subtly unfolds and evolves from beginning to end.

But the main reason Her is successful is because of the fantastic relationship developed between Theodore and Samantha. Joaquin Phoenix does some of his most personal work here, holding his own as an actor playing against no one. You FEEL with Phoenix: understanding his highs and his lows with ease. There's no hint of artifice from the actor here, who is known to be not all there from time to time. Scarlett Johansson takes a part that wasn't hers initially, and gives Samantha the perfect amount of humanity. It is easy to understand why Phoenix would fall for Samantha, and even though she doesn't exist in the physical world, Johansson makes us believe she is a real entity. Amy Adams is also welcome as Phoenix's female counterpart, displaying frailty and understanding in a way she hasn't in other parts. I'm convinced Adams can play anything at this point. Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt provide some nice support as well.

Her is very much the right movie for this time. As more and more people search for connections inside their phones than around them, it is important to recognize that developments like this are evolutionary, and as such society and technology will evolve to cater to their consumers. Spike Jonze may be the shallow perv that produces the Jackass franchise, but he is also the brilliant oracle who can craft something as poignant and heartfelt as Her. I hope someone gives him more money to create more movies, especially since he is one of the few filmmakers who seems to be bound by nothing.

47 Ronin
47 Ronin(2013)

How many times can Keanu Reeves play the chosen one? I guess he felt he'd done it too many times in the US, so he decided to sully a classic Japanese tale with his destiny. 47 Ronin tries to be faithful to its source material, but turns into a slavish adaptation devoid of power. Perhaps Agent Smith is a better adversary than a changeling witch.

47 Ronin is a classic tale in Japanese history/folklore. This version centers around Kai (Keanu Reeves) and Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Kai is considered a half-breed from the forest tarnished by magic when kindly Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) and his daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) decide to shelter him. When things go wrong when Japanese leader Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) visits Kai's village, Oishi is banished from the kingdom along with his samurai. Mika is also promised to the duplicitous Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano), who has taken league with a witch (Rinko Kikuchi). Oishi teams up with Kai to stop the marriage and save the honor of themselves, their city, and their leader.

To perform due diligence to the story of the Ronin, the story is stretched out to two hours. However, the quest of the Ronin doesn't begin until almost an hour into the story. The first hour is padded I'm guessing to get the audience to understand Japanese culture, but it disservices the Ronin quest, which is more interesting. As such there are gaps in storytelling that reek of plot device, like the traveling performance group that willingly helps outcasts, or the source for swords and Kai's powers. There are also basic logic complaints: the distance the Ronin have to travel seems vast, so how did it take them less than a week, which is the amount of time they had? These little problems just add up until they dominate the movie.

These errors could be suppressed if the action delivered Michael Bay style. However, the results are disappointing mostly. The exterior shots consistently deliver: the Japanese forests and mountains look beautiful and alive, and the villages and outfits deliver on color and vibrancy. There are also some delightfully creepy sets that create a sinister feeling. However, the special effects fall short of the great spectacles in cinema. Many of the fights are done in quick cuts to the point where it is hard to figure out what is going on (one during a fire is particularly confusing). There are strange creatures that fall closer to bad CGI than good, and the final battle for Kai lacks in awe compared to Optimus Prime vs. Megatron.

Keanu Reeves does what he does in dramas, act broody overtly serious. He doesn't really add to the story here: someone with more terror for the magic and power he possesses inside would be a better cast than Reeves. Most of the supporting cast do not really stand out, good or bad. The one exception is Hiroyuki Sanada, who showcases real lows when the concept of dishonor is tied to his name.

47 Ronin tries to give rebirth to an epic tale, but fails in its execution. Keanu Reeves can be an asset to a great story, but usually has trouble carrying mediocre scripts like 47 Ronin. I'll give Keanu a break though, he could still be jacked into the Matrix or hopefully have his mind on the potential Bill and Ted movie in development. Whoa...

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
½

Walter Mitty represents the everyman. The unnoticed. The dreamer. Ben Stiller certainly is a dreamer, but he lives in Hollywood, so is take on the everyman is going to be a little skewed. Stiller's take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has its heart in the right place, but it misses the mark on saying something profound about the people the movie is trying to showcase. However, it does have Stiller skateboarding, so that is something.

Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a mild mannered film caretaker of Life Magazine. When Life decides to go online, it chooses to print its last issue using the 25th reel from star photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). However, the 25th reel is missing. To appease his boss (Adam Scott), Walter searches out O'Connell with the help of Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a woman he has been pining for for a while now.

Walter Mitty's secret life starts out mostly in his head, since he zones out and imagines lots of crazy things he wants to do. His imagination gives way to real life as the movie goes on with his search for O'Connell. These scenes are beautifully shot (credit going to Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh). The shots range from the Greenland bar scene to the volcanic slopes of Iceland and the Afghani mountains. The transitions from imagination to real life are easy enough to identify so as to not confuse the audience. These scenes overall don't add much to the story, but they are great to look at and give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty some jubilee at going out into the world and taking chances.

This movie falls short of transcendence because of its story. More often than not, Stiller forces the story forward with obvious plot contrivances pushing the limits of believability. There is an extended skateboarding sequence that while looking beautiful, doesn't really make any sense other than to showcase the mountains and Arcade Fire. Walter Mitty's greatest scenes are the tiny ones: when Cheryl and Walter talk about taking risks and their lives, the movie ripples with tension and interest. Had the story had interest in using Cheryl to push Walter toward his goal more, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could have made those beautiful travels fit nicely within the context of Walter's character. Instead the movie comes off disjointed and trying too hard to make the audience care for its main character.

Ben Stiller is pretty good at playing the everyman. After years of seeing him let loose, it's kind of nice to see he can tone it down and sell meekness well. Walter Mitty's failings are due to Stiller's direction and writers, not his acting. Kristen Wiig gets some nice chemistry with Stiller, and also downplays her quirks to play someone relatively normal. The fact that her scenes with Stiller get the biggest emotional impact are a testament to Wiig. Adam Scott is wasted as Walter's boss: he mostly is a plot device. Shirley McClaine, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, and Kathryn Hahn all get little pieces of support in minor roles.

Ben Stiller clearly has a lot of clout with audiences and in Hollywood, which is why it is so disappointing to see him waste his talents on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A couple more revisions of the script would probably have made this movie great, but instead we get this half-finished product. There are two things this movie gives the audience hope for: Kristen Wiig has unlimited range as an actress, and Ben Stiller can star as an aging X-Games star in a sports movie, which will be hysterical.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Leo DiCaprio gets to play a modern day version of Jay Gatsby (who he played earlier this year) in the Wolf of Wall Street. Director Martin Scorcese fills Gordon Gekko with copious amounts of drugs, women, and possessions that even he might blush a little. The Wolf of Wall Street, though a bit too long, modernizes materialism and immediate gratification better than most other films have attempted.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is first introduced to the audience throwing little people onto a dartboard. He lives the life of excess. His options just involve getting more. He obtains his broker license on Black Monday, and is forced to retreat to the suburbs to sell penny stocks. However, he creates a script that provides instant success for his business partners and soon, he is off with his partner in crime Donnie (Jonah Hill) creating his own company. As Jordan climbs the Wall Street ladder, he leaves his wife for a "duchess" (Margot Robbie) and draws interest from an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who believes Belfort is conducting illegal activity.

Wolf of Wall Street shows excess better than any film I have seen recently. Normality is seen as the enemy in the Wolf of Wall Street: the goal is to be in a perpetual high. There is a routine of drugs that you have to take to get yourself ready for a particular segment of the day, which you then have to counter with other mind altering substances. I cannot believe this movie is only R rated. There is so much nudity (including a male organ), drug use, and violence that NC-17 cannot be much farther away. This means that most scenes are ripe for some sort of hilarious comedy, the best of which involves the cartoon Popeye. One minor complaint (although it could be seen as the point) is that there is no equally quick free fall from grace, but the constant repetition of upping the ante gives Wolf of Wall Street some bite and indictment of a world revolving around personal mega-gratification.

Leo DiCaprio has never been more magnetic than he is here as Jordan Belfort. Whether he is motivating his team, pitching a potential client, or seducing a young woman, DiCaprio sells the heck out of his value and worth. He also gets a chance to play unabashedly shameless to great effect. His sex is over the top and only gratifying to himself (his wife consistently looks bored). The highlight (and Oscar worthy) scene involves DiCaprio under the influence of Quaaludes having to make his way from the front of a country club to his car to get home though he cannot walk. The body contortions alone are amazing and exceedingly humorous. To believe the Wolf of Wall Street, you have to believe in Jordan Belfort, and DiCaprio makes things easy.

The supporting cast is also fairly solid. Jonah Hill is the right mixture of creepy, enigmatic, but loyal as DiCaprio's number 2. Hill is so unhinged that we're ready for him to make the big mistake at any moment. Margot Robbie gets some surprising depth for what amounts to a trophy wife on paper. She has balls just as big as her husbands at some points. Matthew McConaughey gets three scenes, then drops the mike and walks off into the Wall St. sunset. Rob Reiner also gets to have some fun screaming at people for nonsense. Kyle Chandler gets to come off smart and a little high and mighty as the only character with a moral compass.

The Wolf of Wall St. is a reference to a hatchet job article about Jordan Belfort, that the man used to hire desperate losers who wanted to make a lot of money. The high seems to go on forever (3 hours of running time), using more desperate means year by year to obtain bigger and better things. Though not for the faint of heart, those who have been dying to see Martin Scorcese make a comedy will not be disappointed. The Wolf of Wall St. sells you its stock with great performance with outlandish set pieces. Just remember, Quaaludes have different time delays if you want to zone out during the movie.

American Hustle
½

If there were a career turnaround award for a director, David O. Russell has to be near the top of the list. Russell has often been criticized for being too abrasive with his actors (I Heart Huckabees is a great example). However, he has ridden a great streak this decade: The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, a 70s con whodunit featuring some of the best working actors today. Whatever resentment Hollywood had working with David O. Russell, they sure have gotten over it.

We are introduced to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) creating a very elaborate toupee hiding nonsense on the top of his head. Rosenfeld is a con man, dealing in art, dry cleaning and banking. He has a wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and a kid, but he doesn't really love her and spends most of his time with his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) who is his partner in crime as well. At some point, their cons get big enough to attract the attention of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent who wants Irving and Sydney to take down corrupt politicians. Their research leads them to Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the very popular mayor of Camden New Jersey, who may have ties to several politicians above his paygrade also in on the bribery.

American Hustle takes a little too long to arrive at its ending. It is a con game, so the movie takes its time developing the characters into complicated individuals. Who exactly is Sydney conning since she clearly likes Riche and Irving? Is Richie conning the FBI? Is Carmine really a con artist? The third act twists are cleverly hidden, with care taken to not make the con artists overly smart. Lots of mistakes are made, whether it be moving a suitcase too early, or talking at the wrong time. Russell finds the humor in the situation as small-timers slowly get in over their heads. American Hustle makes sure the story feels organic, and for the most part it succeeds (with the possible exception of Rosalyn, who feels pretty contrived).

However, right away, Director Russell transfers you to a different time. The 70's period details walk the line between overt and subtle. Like any great period piece, they mostly outline the background, never wholly calling attention to themselves: the most overt being the hairstyles and outfits. Close ups are used to great effect since these actors are great with facial expressions, and Russell uses the inherently comical source material to shoot romantic scenes in a dry cleaners or panoramics of Bale's obese body. American Hustle's story problems aside, directing and period detail is pretty flawless.

Plus Russell has 5 acting weapons at his disposal. Christian Bale method acting into burger weight to deliver a great performance as Irving. Bale walks the line between self-assured and terrified of the escalation of his jobs. Its refreshing to see such a self-aware con artist. Amy Adams looks more amazing than I've ever seen her, and she also shines brightly as duplicitous Sydney. There's a scene where she is shot without makeup so she can emotionally be naked, and Adams delivers these lines with controlled burning passion most actors could not pull off. Bradley Cooper is hilarious in this film as Richie, a do gooder who likes his taste of the bad side. He knowingly pushes the morality and actions of the group for his own personal score, showing unexpected smarts and a little bit of hubris. David O. Russell brings out the acting chops of Cooper, and that is certainly in evidence here. Jennifer Lawrence is a bit too unhinged and functions more like a plot device, but when she has to showcase how Irving gets suckered into staying with her, she shines. As the heart of the film, Jeremy Renner gets to be a politician with a heart of gold who uses some illegitimate ways to get the people what they want. Renner's genuine affection for his city provides a nice counterweight for the decepticons all around him.

As the tag at the beginning of this movie says: "Some of these events really happened." American Hustle always feels a little off, with constant reminders that people are adopting personas opposite their true selves. It also accomplishes the great feat of pulling off a truly romantic scene inside of a dry cleaners.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
½

If movie success was measured in total laughs, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues would be at the top of the list. Ron Burgundy is the cherry on top of a very good year for blockbuster comedies (The Heat, This Is the End, The World's End). While failing to realize upon a solid premise and being a bit too long, Anchorman 2 uses the easy chemistry and fun improv with the leads to give countless people quotes to reuse and a heavy dose of laughter (with a little bit of a message thrown in).

Starting a few years after the first Anchorman, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is married to Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) with a child as they co-anchor the news in New York. When Veronica is promoted and Ron fired, he is offered the 2 AM spot on the first all news network by the manager Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). Ron brings the Channel 4 San Diego news team with him: closet homosexual sportsman Champ (David Koechner), sex panther afficionado Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and illiterate weatherman Brick (Steve Carell). The team instantly clashes with Jack Lime (James Marsden), the star of the 24 hour news team, so they decide to create pointless stories and pass them off as news: tell the people what they want to hear. The idea is an instant hit, and Ron rides the wave all the way to the top of the ratings at the expense of friends, family, and Baxter.

Rapid fire is the best way to describe the Anchorman movies. The jokes enter as quickly as they leave, usually with some overarching joke loosely holding the sequence together. While the memorable lines are not as frequent as the first Anchorman, but they are frequent enough to be reused ad nauseum by the public. Ron's new signoff line will create lots of angry Fox News reporters since they wish they thought of it first. Brian Fantana's new non-cologne craze is inspired with a little bit of a dark edge. Many more gags work than fail (the Brick romance subplot is jus ok), and the movie moves quickly enough (until the third act) so the audience won't get bored of the gag.

The most frustrating aspect of Anchorman 2 is its wasted premise. Director/Writer Adam McKay pokes fun at the bastardization of news due to constant coverage: car chases, cute animals, and pro-American fluff pieces replace hard-hitting exposes of real problems. These scenes are funny yes, but they also have an edge that makes Anchorman's sense of humor a little more pointed. The third act is set up to be a war of ratings versus journalism, and instead the movie dovetails into a family subplot about Ron's hubris just to keep Veronica around. There is a song number and cameo fest (the most inspired being one of Ferrell's good friends) that nearly save the ending, but the satirical edge is gone by this point, leaving the jokes to be adrift in search of meaning. Also, the movie is almost 2 hours long; side gags could easily have been cut instead of testing the limits of the audiences capacity for humor.

The acting is the same as in the first Anchorman. Will Ferrell knows this is the role he will be most known for, and has promoted this movie so heavily that he knows the ins and outs of how to play Ron Burgundy. David Koechner is relegated to the side in this one, in favor of the other two members of the team. Wise choice: Rudd is very good here, delivering lots of funny lines and actually being the underwritten heart of the story (he is the only one who really stands up to Ron). Carell is much more famous than when he did the first movie, so they needed to expand his role into a romance with his doppleganger Chani (Kristen Wiig). Brick is better in short quick bursts; when asked to carry a scene, it grows old usually pretty quickly. Meagan Good and Christina Applegate are given little to do, though Good is the source for lots of great racial humor by Ferrell. The cameos are hit and miss, but the general through line is the better the comedic chops of the actor in the cameo, the funnier the cameo was.

Anchorman 2 is meant for fans of the first one. There is nothing really new here to dissuede a detractor from seeing the second film. The big irony here is the 24 hour news networks are the big reason Anchorman 2 has been so heavily marketed. It appears the shoe is on the other table, which is turned.

Inside Llewyn Davis
½

When someone asks you "What is the next movie the Coen Brothers are making?", a folk musician down on his luck in Greenwich Village before Bob Dylan would be near the top of your guesses right? Inside Llewyn Davis is not near the pantheon of the Coen Brothers work, but it is an earnest character study with Oscar worthy folk songs. It also contains one of the breakout roles of the year with its leading man, Oscar Isaac.

Llewyn (Isaac) is a musician's musician in 1961 Greenwich Village. He wants to not be square and create poppy songs since he lives for his music. His partner just committed suicide over the George Washington bridge. He has no home: couch surfing is a way of life to him. His friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) is unaware that Llewyn has slept with his wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jean is pregnant. He loses a cat and is forced to take it with him everywhere he goes. In short, he very much lives in the present, living paycheck to paycheck (in this case, gig to gig) trying to score big in his genre without sacrificing quality.

If you cannot tell already, this story, if you can call it that, meanders. Part of this is by design: having the story mirror Llewyn's personality is clever and makes the audience feel like it is going through life inside his head. However, until the ending, because Inside Llewyn Davis has no clear direction, the movie feels a little disjointed and vignette based, with certain scenes working better than others. Some are very good (the pop song with Timberlake and Driver is a highlight) and some are mediocre, but the screenplay is always interesting. In true Coen fashion, they keep the timeline by use of the cat escapades, which I don't think most other filmmakers could get away with.

The real highlight of Inside Llewyn Davis is the songs themselves. T Bone Burnett helped produce the songs that the actors mostly sang themselves (with help from Mumford and Sons). Each one is subtly different from the other, designed to illicit a slightly different emotion out of the listener. These characters live through their music, so the film makes sure every performance is seen in its entirety. This way, you can take in the expressions, movements, and connection each writer feels for their songs. Oh yeah, and they sound fantastic (especially the song used in the trailer).

John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham (who has the best appearance in the film), Adam Driver, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Garrett Hedlund contribute their musical and acting talents to this film. Make no mistake though, this is a star making performance out of Oscar Isaac. Tortured musician characters have to walk that fine line of abrasive but earnest to be rooted for by the audience. Isaac easily walks that line, using his abrasiveness only in short bursts and mostly playing Llewyn as tired and frustrated. Yes, Llewyn is a dick, but he tries to make right with what limited focus and resources he has outside of his work. When he sings, you can feel the emotion he is supposed to feel ooze out of him and make you fall in love with the character all over again.

While imperfect, Inside Llewyn Davis is a love song to the folk genre and the characters that inhabit it. The Coen Brothers show their love through cats, trips to Chicago, Adam Driver in a cowboy hat, and punches in dark alleys. But as we know from those Coens, it could always be MUCH weirder.

Philomena
Philomena(2013)
½

Philomena is a strange mixture: a mystery, British comedy, and buddy road trip all rolled into one. Director Stephen Frears remains honest to the original story while making it a little more cinematic. Philomena isn't anything revolutionary or topical, but it does bring to light some past wrongs and remain consistently compelling, thanks in great part to the duo of Steve Coogan and Judi Dench.

Philomena (Dench) is an old woman served a wrong by the Irish Catholic church. Her child was taken from her by the local convent, and she never actively followed up on the matter due to her faith. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a frustrated politician/writer who decides to write a "human interest story." The two then follow the story down some strange holes through Ireland, the United States, and even through Ronald Reagan.

The layers of storytelling keep Philomena consistently moving and interesting. Anchoring the story is the mystery surrounding Philomena's son, which takes many surprising turns; none are Twitter-worthy #OMG moments, but there are multiple little unexpected directions the story goes in that keep the viewer guessing. It is amazing the Catholic Church in Ireland can keep secrets so life-damaging to many young women for such a long time. In addition, the mystery is baked into the dramatic beats of the movie, which let Judi Dench and Steve Coogan show how polished they are as actors to the Oscar committee.

During the downtime, the story nicely shifts into a buddy road trip comedy. The two are polar opposites: Philomena is innocent, religious, and amused by the world; Sixsmith is erudite, agnostic, and very cynical. What makes Philomena (the movie) great is that these two are very much humans and understand emotions well. Sixsmith, while bored by Philomena, rarely condescends to her and even has moments where he admires her strength of character. Philomena in turn walks the line between simple but well-reasoned (a testament to Dench's acting). The dichotomy does pay off with some great jokes, ranging from romance novels to hotel room movie rentals. The British accents also make the jokes just a little bit funnier as well. When the time comes for the mystery to take center stage again, the comedy quickly transitions to drama, since the missing child story is well situated as the primary narrative thrust.

There are not many peripheral characters here, outside of a few flashbacks, some of Sixmith's journalist friends, and Philomena's family. Therefore, it is vital that the relationship between Coogan and Dench work, and it delivers and then some. Coogan and Dench's chemistry is great, easily conveying the many emotions they are forced to express sometimes in the same scene. Coogan's journalism credibility is nicely established by the man, but his other relationships are useless subplots. Dench one-ups here though, since she has to act with no person in the room(through visions of her past and home video of someone).

British movies usually come off as super silly or deadly serious. Philomena takes a little from both sides creating a very solid film with a pleasant mix of jokes and drama. And unmerciful showcases of Nuns. Yeesh, I haven't seen a more cantankerous nun since Nuns of Evil (this movie is real. The tagline is: Meet the Sisters who have sworn a vow... of violence!).

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Desolation of Smaug, more like the desolation of the Lord of the Rings brand. Ok, it's not that bad, but the downward trajectory of the fantasy franchise isn't rectified by the 2nd part of the trilogy. In fact, this film could better be titled The Hobbit: Filler Before the Third Film Which Will Be Better, I Promise.

Our story picks up where the first film left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) becoming more confident now that he found the one ring that makes him invisible. The focus isn't really on him in this segment though, it's more about Thorin (Richard Armitage). Like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films, Thorin is a direct descendant and heir to the throne at Erebor, which his relatives lost due to greed to Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) the dragon. Thorin is determined to win back his kingdom and family legacy, which forces him into conflict with the wood elves, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). After escaping their dungeon, the dwarves travel through West Town with the help of Bard (Luke Evans), on their way to Erebor, where Bilbo must steal the arkenstone from Smaug's treasures. During the dwarf adventures, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) splits from the company to search for the source of growing evil in Middle Earth.

What was problematic in The Hobbit: An Incredible Journey is just as problematic in the Desolation of Smaug. The dwarves are woefully interchangeable, with minor development of only a couple of them. Tonally, the dichotomy of the Hobbit compared to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is much lighter; the extra gravitas due to the Gandalf subplot distracts and hinders the main narrative from gaining more steam. Character development is a little better outside of Bilbo and Thorin: Tauriel and Bard will be major players in the third installent and this film that made me care about them. Overall, the Desolation of Smaug amounts to mostly padding of a thin story with subplots that don't fit into the narrative well and CGI spectacles.

But boy oh boy are those spectacles amazing. There is a barrel chase on a river involving dwarves, orcs, and elves that flow together like ballet dancers. The dragon, in all its glory, is a behemoth of a beast; no wonder he is so sure of himself. The battle between the dwarves, Bilbo, and Smaug in the depths of Erebor is by far the film's highlight. There are also talking spiders, a necromancer, a changeling, and several chases. Bigger spectacles have been seen in a Middle Earth movie, but not to the challenging level seen in the Desolation of Smaug. These scenes keep the picture moving when it so easily could get bogged down in stuffing.

The acting is put on the backburner here in favor of special effects. Martin Freeman, when given the chance, is very solid as Bilbo, combining growing confidence with intelligence and naivete. Richard Armitage appears regal and enigmatic enough to give Thorin some necessary texture (he gets some nice beats defending himself from the elves). Evangeline Lilly and Luke Evans fit right in as Tauriel and Bard. Lilly gives Tauriel some wisdom and sadness in her tragic love story subplot, and Evans gets to be a little Aragorny himself with family sins to remedy (plus his intensity hits just the right note). Orlando Bloom and Ian McKellen are back but not given much to do, and Benedict Cumberbatch is menacing enough as the titular dragon.

The Desolation of Smaug adds a little Michael Bay into Peter Jackson's director chair. Those scenes are pretty amazing, but they disservice the story to the point that it is surprising how few characters the audience has a vested interest in. However, we can now dispense with the filler and finally get there and back again with the third Hobbit film, and give Middle Earth a proper farewell.

21 And Over
21 And Over(2013)

21 and Over feels like either the first draft of the Hangover, or a cheap knockoff trying to launch careers. Mostly repeating the central conceit of its predecessor, 21 And Over mostly fails to capture the magic and mystery of The Hangover, with brief moments of success. Fortunately stars Miles Teller and Skylar Astin have solid roles under their belt, or they would be forced to use this on their resume.

It is Jeff Chang's (Justin Chon) 21st birthday. Coming to school to celebrate with him are underachiever Miller (Teller) and goody-too-shoes Casey (Astin), friends from high school. Jeff Chang unfortunately gets really wasted, and has a big med school interview in the morning, so it is up to Miller and Casey to bring him home. Hijinks ensue in the form of hazing, pep rallies, drinking games, and drug use.

21 And Over more often than not makes the critical mistake of using nudity, drugs, or swearing as shock and awe cinema without any context. Context gives specificity to the shock factor: would Ken Jeong's cameo in the Hangover be as funny or shocking if we did NOT expect it and have it tie heavily into the mystery and plot? In this case, randomness dominates the crazy scenes, which diminish their impact. There are a couple exceptions, one involving a pep rally and a bull, and the other involving a merging of drinking games/video games. These scenes work because of the specificity of the situation and the ties to the plot that are lacking in most of the other T&A.

The characters/acting are also broad types imitated by actors who admire some of their predecessors. Miles Teller goes for the Vince Vaughn type: fast talking, blunt, arrogant but sweet. He's got the beats down, but the script doesn't give him any charisma; he mostly comes off as too smarmy and bipolar (to service the plot). Skylar Astin is going for one of the Wilson brothers here; shy but sweet with a wild side and capable of loving. He has even less personality than Teller, though their banter together is believeable if uninteresting. The wild card here is Justin Chon, who is kind of Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but more oppressed by his parents. He is the lost potential of 21 And Over, as his character has the most interesting beats that remain mostly in the background in favor of the obvious joke.

21 And Over is pointless passable entertainment. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes, but there are far more better ones. 21 And Over, like the 21st birthday in general, will be forgotten the instant it is completed.

Saving Mr. Banks

Much like author P. L. Travers, Saving Mr. Banks spends the majority of its time trying to get us to like it. You poor film: you're trying WAY too hard. When focused on the creative process in bringing Mary Poppins to the screen, Saving Mr. Banks lives up to all the praise being given to it. However, an overlong and meandering backstory distracts and diminishes the emotional impact of the film. Save yourself the time, and just rewatch Mary Poppins; Saving Mr. Banks did remind me how wonderful that film makes anyone feel.

Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson, forever reminding everyone that is how she wants to be called), is very hesitant to turn over the rights to Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). However, she does agree to aid in the writing process helmed by Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and Richard (Jason Schwartzman) and Robert (BJ Novak) Sherman. The 3 clash with Travers immediately, since authenticity is more important to her than entertainment. The process makes travers think back to why she chose to write the book: in the hopes to achieve the recognition she wants from her father (Colin Farrell).

This movie really tries to pour on the sadness with its flashbacks. Any chance at subtlety is thrown out the window at the very start; every scene is designed to elicit the most obvious emotion possible in the scene. They may be true, but cinematically they come off false; there is one scene in particular involving Travers's mother at her lowest point that reeks of manipulation and unnecessary gravitas. The movie as a whole is pretty light-hearted; these scenes jar the viewer from the tone in a very forceful manner that keeps Saving Mr. Banks from ever reaching the same stratosphere as the movie it is describing. The only saving grace of the flashbacks involve the score, which is so beautiful, moving, and simple that it should be listened to in times of sadness to lift your spirits (credit goes to Thomas Newman, for putting a very wide smile on most audience members).

The strongest parts of Saving Mr. Banks involve the creative process, when Mary Poppins is being translated from book to screen. During these scenes you can see the dedication the author has to the character, and that the screenwriters and song writers have to the story. The process does not come without complications though; Travers story is so personal that giving up a piece of it is like giving up a part of her past she does not want to. However, watching her embrace the song numbers is a joy to behold; the flashbacks here help supply context and meaning for her letting go, and give Saving Mr. Banks emotional payoffs. It's nice seeing a two-way street process as well; the writers and Disney himself reread Mary Poppins at the behest of Travers only to discover the true meaning of the story and rewrite the ending accordingly. Saving Mr. Banks mentions magic a lot, and the scenes bringing Mary Poppins to life give the movie its magic.

Emma Thompson, like any true Brit, can act appalled at American behavior with the best of them. Though she overacts a bit (an comes off too grating in the first part of the film), she earns the catharsis coming to her as PL Travers. Thompson has to make the audience root for her, and by the end I was firmly in her corner. Tom Hanks is getting the most buzz here playing Walt Disney, but I found the role lacks complexity. Hanks gets to wax poetic about storytelling and show off in front of a lot of people in the most charismatic way possible, very much in Hanks's wheelhouse. Paul Giamatti gets a one note role and makes great work of it as Travers's driver. BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford, and (especially) Jason Schwartzman play frustrated but enthusiastic writers very well. Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson, though disserviced by the writing, are solid and believable as Travers's parents.

For a movie describing the magic of storytelling and moviemaking, Saving Mr. Banks feels surprisingly inert. If more attention were paid to the creative process and less attention to Colin Farrell riding horseback through the countryside, then the movie would have to try less hard to win over the audience. Stroke of genius on Disney's part though: Tom Hanks will make people forget just how merciless Walt Disney actually is; all it needed was Hanks smiling and a beautiful soul touching soundtrack.

Out of the Furnace
½

Looks like Christian Bale is spending his retirement from Batman decaying in the Rust Belt. Out of the Furnace tries really hard to be like the Deer Hunter, focusing on the outsourcing of the steel industry and the plight of the working class. However, the movie switches tone in the second half into a thriller of sorts that veers away from the themes in the first half of the film and focus on Bale's character. Out of the Furnace wants to say something, but gets so angry it has to shoot something and gets lost along the way.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is one of those "moral code" leads who is clearly dealt a bad hand. His father is dying. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from several tours in Iraq. He goes to prison for involuntary manslaughter and loses his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) to the Braddock police chief (Forest Whitaker) during his sentence. Things get worse when he returns home; his brother becomes in debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), forcing Rodney to fight in Jersey under local druglord Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). DeGroat obviously takes advantage of Rodney, forcing Russell to take matters into his own hands with the help of his uncle (Sam Shepard).

When focused on the plight of Braddock, Out of the Furnace is a fascinating motion picture. The movie opens with shots of steel mills and a drive in movie. Braddock feels like a place out of time, where lethargic, deliberate day-to-day activities are commonplace. It feels hopeless and inescapable. People trying to earn an honest living are finding less and less resources and a future available for them. When Out of the Furnace compares the diverging paths of Rodney and Russell (while also showing how similar they can be at their centers), the movie ripples with intensity and pathos. Is Russell's life really more practical than Rodney's when there is no future really in either? These types of themes are what made the Deer Hunter interesting and Out of the Furnace's first hour comes near the ballpark of that classic.

However, the second half of the film betrays the first half. Harlan is less a character than a plot device, with anger and blackness at his center (he is fun to watch though). Because Harlan becomes the focus of the second act, themes expressed in the first half take a back seat to Russell's quest for justice. The mistake Out of the Furnace makes is that it cannot apply the setup of the first half of the film to the second half. The setting was so integral to the movie's success, that abandoning it for Jersey escapades diminished the power of the final act of Out of the Furnace. The setting could easily have been placed near the outskirts or in a different section of the city for a more impactful ending. More importantly, any statement about the Rust Belt gets lost in the thriller aspects and is nonexistent by the final ten minutes.

The disappointment of the story doesn't diminish some of the acting performances in Out of the Furnace, particularly from the leads. Christian Bale is actually a Welsh man, but he infuses Russell with the steel resolve and pride often given to those areas of the country. Bale dominates every scene he is in, giving force and tension to scenes that probably don't deserve it. It falls short on the Oscar front, but at least draws consideration. Casey Affleck gets to be a little crazy here, and he isn't bad at it (but not great either). Zoe Saldana gives some emotional heft to the story; her scene on the bridge with Bale is the film's highlight. Woody Harrelson can play a lunatic as good as any of the greats; just because the script doesn't warrant it doesn't mean he isn't terrifying. Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, and Sam Shepard are minor characters who don't get much to do unfortunately.

Much like last year's Killing Them Softly, Out of the Furnace tries to be transformative and falls short. The movie mistakes visceral violence as the selling point when the town that contains the violence is so much more interesting. Also, why is everyone a meth cooker? Thanks a lot Breaking Bad for making that the go to drug in movies for the next decade. For once, I want to see someone into hallucinogens for some more interesting consequences.

Frozen
Frozen(2013)
½

Frozen is delightfully old school. The latest production from Disney is based on an old fairy tale, features a couple cute creatures, has some fun song/dance numbers, and builds its story around a princess. While not breaking ground in any way, Frozen plays with the Disney format enough to provide a fresh spin on a tried and true formula. Glad to see Disney's studios picking up where Pixar has been dropping the ball.

Frozen is a story about two sisters: Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa has the ability to create snow, but she has trouble controlling her powers. After a near-tragic accident involving Anna, Elsa agrees to hide herself from her sister to protect her (Anna also has her memory wiped.). Years pass until Elsa's coronation ceremony requires her to appear to her kingdom. At the ceremony, Elsa's powers create an eternal winter, and she flees to the mountains to prevent further harm to the kingdom. Anna then takes it upon herself to bring about the return of Spring by confronting Elsa. Along the way, she enlists the help of 13th heir to a neighboring kingdom Hans (Santino Fontana), Iceman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven (his trusty reindeer), and Olaf (Josh Gad) the snowman brought to life by Elsa.

Frozen is one of the most beautiful animated movies I have seen in a long time. The kingdom is alive with beautiful blues and greens, giving the Scandanavian setting natural energy and brilliance. When the storms hit, the snow looks and feels very real with the way the hair flows and individual snowflakes can be seen. The ice vacillates seamlessly between menacing and extraordinary (the ice castle rivals the beauty of the kingdom). Credit goes to the animators for fully fantasizing the Scandanavian setting, giving Frozen a larger than life feel that services the story very well.

The story itself contains a frustrating mix of clichés and ingenuity. For instance, the central conflict doesn't involve a man, or over-the-top villain: it is an uncontrollable force that focuses the conflict on the two sisters, easily the backbone of Frozen. However, as the story moves on, traditional Disney storytelling gets manufactured in: a pointless love triangle is created with three of the characters, one of the characters is forced into a villainous role for no reason, and the songs in the third act feel very out of place for some cheap laughs. These choices are especially frustrating because of the care taken for the early part of the story. There would have been so many better directions to go. For example, Olaf is carefully constructed that threats to him would carry emotional heft, or the final realization for Elsa and Anna could have been reversed for a more emotional catharsis. I feel like one or two more drafts would have put Frozen into rarified air in the Disney animated realm.

The voice work falls on the good side of animation: no one is really noticeable as themselves (except maybe Josh Gad). Kristen Bell gives Anna some spunk and optimism that the effervescent Bell possesses in numerous amounts herself. Idina Menzel sells Elsa's melancholy, but is otherwise nothing too special. Josh Gad approaches the too cute line with Olaf, but stays on the right side, pushing his innocence and joy in his words. Alan Tudyk also shows his voice range with another loopy character (an old duke).

Frozen is being compared by some to the great Disney films of the last era: The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, etc. Though the storytelling and songs are not quite on that level, Frozen is just as beautiful (if not more so) and in the discussion. If you have a little niece, daughter, cousin, etc, just go out right now and buy either a Princess Anna or Queen Elsa doll for Christmas.

The Book Thief

When watching The Book Thief, I was more often than not reminded of Pinocchio. Not because they are both beloved stories written with children in mind, but because they have a lead searching to become a real person and the feeling of being maneuvered toward what feelings I should be having. Even though its heart is in the right place (because of a low hanging fruit story about the Holocaust), The Book Thief stays around too long and places the least interesting character at its center. If this is based on a true story, I'm glad the story exists in book form; it is disserviced by its big screen adaptation however.

Narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) and her life in World War II era Germany. The girl is given away by her mother (who doesn't know what else to do) to Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), two non-supporters of Hitler's regime. Liesel then begins her new life: she starts school, befriends a boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), and learns how to read. Reading becomes an obsession for Liesel, even going so far as to steal banned books from book burnings and other people's homes. Meanwhile, the German purge of Jews is taking force. One day a boy named Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up at Hans's door, where Hans places him in the basement and hides him from the Nazis. Liesel takes interest in Max, who encourages her to use words she's learned to describe her days so he can picture it. However, threats continue to grow as the war gets closer to home.

The Book Thief makes the sin of making characters do stupid things in hopes to make the audience cry, laugh, cheer, etc. During a bombing, with NO explanation, Max just leaves the house and dances around outside; you're supposed to feel his elation for leaving the basement, but you mostly laugh at how stupid the decision is. Rosa updates Liesel about Max's condition in the middle of school to show how good of an actor Emily Watson is, but not for any good reason that couldn't wait until Liesel got home. These decisions add up over the course of the film until eventually any quality moment (like when Liesel describes the day to Max) is undercut with skepticism and searches for logic flaws.

Also working against The Book Thief is the meandering nature of the story. The director thinks that time is enough of a throughput for The Book Thief, but the fascinating side characters need more of a central theme to appear. The toils of war would have been a good one: an escalation of personal sacrifice that would make the character evolution more believable. It would also nicely tie in each character to Liesel's struggles. However, the story can't seem to find a direction to go down and mostly throws everything from the book on the screen to see what sticks. The book's choice of narration also makes the story run way too long, almost to the point of ruining any sense of payoff in the third act. A more focused narrative would do wonders toward making The Book Thief's storyline more compelling, but as is it comes off to herky-jerky to the audience.

It's sad that a child actor has to take most of the blame for The Book Thief, but Sophie Nelisse falls into the child actor role of cute but not interesting. She falls between the stoic/emotional line a lot lessening the impact of the many chances she has to win over the audience. The supporting cast fares MUCH better. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson give dimension to what appear to be dimensionless characters: Watson especially does wonders with a one-note role. Nico Liersch is really good as Liesel's best friend Rudy. He finds the right note between understanding beyond his years and confusion at the world around him. Ben Schnetzer gets the most satisfying emotions out of the audience as Max; his scenes with Liesel crackle with simplicity and profundity simultaneously.

The Book Thief could have been a torrential tribulation study, but is instead a loquacious, pedantic lament of what could have been. The book is beloved, but the movie can be maddening. One last word of advice; if your setting is Germany in the 30's, don't make everyone speak English with German accents and a few German words. It makes NO sense.

Nebraska
Nebraska(2013)
½

Nebraska oscillates between being a relatable study of aging middle America and a coastal account of what they believe happens in the heartland. Director Alexander Payne brilliantly shoots (in black and white) the small downs and ceaseless horizon, creating a sense of laziness and slow movements, but outside of his two leads, Payne (and writer Bob Nelson) do a poor job showcasing real people and mostly opt for caricatures. The tug and pull between artifice and reality gives Nebraska a disjointed meandering feel that is partially intentional but mostly distracting.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps walking (since he is forbidden to drive) towards Nebraska from his home in Billings only to be picked up by police everyday. Woody does this because he believes he has won a million dollars (it is obviously a scam) through a letter in the mail. To shut him up and get him away from his mother (June Squibb), Woody's son David (Will Forte) takes his dad to Lincoln, stopping along the way in Woody's hometown to learn more about the man his dad once was.

Alexander Payne is actually from Nebraska. His intention here is not to lament the downfall of the hard working middle of the country, but to show how similarly stubborn and crazy people from the middle are as opposed to the coasts. It's in the little details Payne gets it right. TV (especially sports) are watched almost ritually. Stories spread like wildfire since everyone knows everyone in a small town. There is a story about an air compressor that has several different versions because people have chosen to believe their idea of events. The façade of likeability that fades as you get older or get around people who know you. Most of these details when tied to someone (Buddy or Dave usually) give Nebraska a clever understanding of how the world functions in a small town. However, Payne often undercuts himself with simplistic portrayals of a cousin who has obvious criminal tendencies or Kate's (Dave's mother) overt truth-telling. Had Payne had some restraint, Nebraska would have succeeded more. Perhaps his time in Hollywood has dulled his memory of where he came from.

However, Payne (and writer Nelson) nail the father/son relationship. Most people have had a relative at some point who is coming close to losing it mentally, and Nebraska shows the plight of the people forced to take care of the now helpless. You can see in Dave's conversations with his dad that Woody never fully appears quite there anymore; he really has to push his dad to give up any information about his past, and even that doesn't work well since Woody's memories are mostly shot. Watching a relatively nice patient person forced into frustrating circumstances because of an unresponsive aging loved one gives Nebraska a very ubiquitous feel and understanding beyond time, and results in the strong payoffs of the third act, especially for Dave.

As Woody, Bruce Dern walks the tightrope of being sympathetic but not likable. The "lost" look on his face helps make up for some of the really mean words he uses towards Dave, Kate, and anyone who gets in his way for his million dollars. This balance is hard to maintain, and Dern does a great job at it. However, to me, the surprise and strength of this film is MacGruber himself (one of his SNL characters), Will Forte. Watching him many years on Saturday Night Live, Forte never gave any indication that he had these levels of dramatic acting inside himself. Forte gives Dave the right mixture of patience, likability, and inner self-awareness. Nebraska is at its best when Dave and Woody are traveling across the Midwest together. June Squibb gets the scene-stealing Payne role here, but she goes too far over the edge to be taken seriously as a character. Stacy Keach isn't bad as an old acquaintance of Woody's, and probably doesn't get enough screen time. Bob Odenkirk needed more time as well as Dave's older brother.

Shot in beautiful black and white, Nebraska is meant to make the audience think of an older simpler time that is often looked upon with rose colored lenses. However, Alexander Payne undercuts the nostalgia with some biting satire around what has become of the relics of that era. He then undercuts his satire with broadly drawn types that lessen the impact of the film. Seriously, how many old people can live in 1 small town? I counted 3 people under the age of 60. I did find out one interesting piece of information though: I guess Nebraskans get Chicago Bears games on TV; good to know the Bear fan base exists across the Midwest.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Fire fire everywhere, and no water to put it out. The pop culture zeitgeist has been swirling around The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for months now. Fortunately for the Internet, it delivers the goods. For a young adult story, Catching Fire has some very adult themes about governance and media surrounding what is essentially a battle to the death. Catching Fire is a strong enough film to excite ALL people, not just tweens debating Team Peeta vs. Team Gale (seriously guys, its obviously Peeta).

Fresh off her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, the girl on fire) enjoys her brief time back home with best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) before she must depart on her victory tour with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her co-victor. They have been given strict orders from the President (Donald Sutherland) to keep up their charade of romance: the districts are bordering rebellion and openly confronting the government. As the tour rolls on, the President realizes that Katniss has become the rebels' symbol for hope, so he enlists the help of Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the chairman of the 75th Hunger Games, to eliminate her. Plutarch suggests that previous winners of the games compete against each other, thus using the games to eliminate Katniss. So again, Peeta and Katniss enlist the help of former winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and liaison Effie (Elizabeth Banks) to figure out how to survive the 75th Hunger Games.

The first hour is the strongest of Catching Fire. The insurrection and government suppression creates a tone of dread and powerlessness. At the first stop on the victory tour, someone gets shot after defying the government. With each little act, anger and defiance to the government grow bigger and bigger across all the districts. When the media intervenes with trite storylines, the contestants openly mock the stupidity of the host. The shift in tone succeeds in creating a weird feeling when the games start. Gone is the terror of the unknown in the first movie, replaced by weird coincidences and alliances. The movie cleverly drops hints at its endgame but not enough to give away its little bombshells in the third act. Credit goes to Director Francis Lawrence (and fantastic screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) for establishing tonally how widespread the citizens' resentment of the government is and the many ways the government attempts to quell it.

No young adult novel would be complete without some sort of love triangle. What makes the Hunger Games's triangle so enjoyable is that Peeta and Gale are both positioned in Catching Fire to be quality choices. Gale clearly is Katniss's link to the world and people she relates to, and their value system is shared. Peeta gives Katniss a level head when the confusion and threats create a sense of hysteria (whether it is from the government or from the games themselves). Neither forces her to choose one or the other, but they both make themselves available to her if she needs help. Katniss's decision is obviously put on hold because of her circumstances, but the decision is one of the compelling subplots started by Catching Fire and hopefully resolved in Mockingjay.

Much like the superhero movies, The Hunger Games cast is loaded with talent, elevating even minor roles into the spotlight. The anchor here is Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her Oscar win. Katniss starts off with PTSD, and slowly grows more angry and defiant of the President because of the threats on her family and friends. I watched some interviews of Lawrence promoting the film; her personality demands the attention she rightly deserves. Here, the writers/director mostly get out of her way and let her just be, with great effect. The closing shot of her is a testament to how many emotions she can create with just her face. The surprise to me was Josh Hutcherson, who was the damsel in distress in the first Hunger Games. Here, he is every bit as strong as Katniss but in a quieter complimentary way. Hutcherson gives Peeta a very casual media affront, but when the setting is more intimate, he genuinely tries to connect and understand the people he talks to. Liam Hemsworth gets to be something other than pretty as Gale; the fact that I had to consider him in the love triangle is well earned by Thor's brother. Woody Harrelson is always welcome as a condescending drunk, a solid role for him. Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz are surprisingly affecting as Effie and Cinna, clearly caring for their winners but stuck in the system. Stanley Tucci needs to be an MTV host at some point because of how great he is here. Donald Sutherland will be a very intimidating villain as President Snow: his one big scene with Katniss sizzled with powerful menace. The newcomers also acquit themselves pretty well. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright bring a sense of cold intelligence and logic in their two roles. Jena Malone needs to be in more things, but she easily steals every scene she is in as unhinged Joanna. The big gamble here is Sam Claflin (who almost ruined Snow White and the Huntsman by himself) as key tribute Finnick Odair. Fortunately, the writers flesh him out enough and give him enough personality that he doesn't embarrass himself around better actors.

Catching Fire is being called the Hunger Games's Empire Strikes Back in some circles, high praise justified by the collective efforts of the Catching Fire Team. The movie builds upon the themes of the first movie and expands them to help set up a powerful fight in the two part finale. It also creates an intriguing oral question: who does Stanley Tucci's teeth in the movie? They were as bright as high beams on a dark road.

How to Survive a Plague
½

AIDS was a plague for the gay community. When you are infected with a plague, you become ostracized, victimized, and isolated by the general populous as they try to quarantine it. There aren't too many positive stories about AIDS victims, but How to Survive a Plague is about as optimistic about the future of AIDS victims as I have ever seen. More than that, it is a well crafted and edited documentary that contains some mystery, some humor, and tons of hope for anyone who wants to stand up for what they believe in.

How to Survive a Plague is about the fight to get drugs on the market more quickly as mass casualties turned AIDS into a pandemic from 1987 to 1996. The film focuses on the efforts of an underground NY group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which contained many homosexuals, but also some activists and doctors supporting their fight. Told mostly in footage they themselves took, we get to see their effective use of the media as they hold several nonviolent protests or debate issues with important players in the AIDS game. We see how some members of the group become highly educated on their disease and create TAG (treatment action group) that partners with the FDA doctors to research a cure. As TAG becomes closer with the FDA, ACT UP starts to mistrust the group since they are far away from the front lines. Along with the internal struggles and FDA fight, we get other fights from George Bush, Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, Ed Koch, St. Patrick's Church, and other people who feel the need to comment on the "behavior" of the community.

Where did they store all this footage? ACT UP was well ahead of its time recording all of its doings, inside and out, on camera. Like Ghandi and King before them, ACT UP used nonviolent and pointed protests which they filmed themselves alongside the media, thus controlling how their message got across. In addition, we learn just how well verse the group was in learning about the various cures that became available. Like any good documentary, the end goal grows from a simple search for an AIDS treatment into a study of how to band together to accomplish a political goal. Using knowledge, publicity, and education as the backbone, a two-pronged attack with boots on the ground and using institutions already in place succeeded in finding a successful treatment for AIDS. How To Survive A Plague is wonderful at showing the evolving struggles of accomplishing a goal through government/political means.

What elevates How to Survive a Plague over a normal documentary is the various storytelling methods that keep the movie consistently interesting. For the mystery lover, the movie keeps hidden who dies and who lives among the principals until the end. For the dramatics, the protests carry lots of thrills and leave you on the edge of your seat plus the potential ACT UP schism becomes a very terrifying possibility midway though. For the comedian, there is a very humorous use of condoms and a house. Credit director David France for successfully editing the story to fit into a very linear narrative, using the subplots to build upon one another until the AIDS treatment is discovered.

Mark Harrington. Peter Staley. Bob Rafsky. Ann Northrup. These names deserve to be remembered alongside some of the other great social activists like Martin Luther King Jr. or Jane Addams. Their ceaseless effort and pragmatic approach is on display in How to Survive a Plague, a wonderful documentary successfully weaving together numerous topics like gay rights, the AIDS epidemic, the political process, the FDA, and religion. I hope one day down the line that these brave pioneers get some sort of holiday-type recognition for the changes and results they achieved.

Dallas Buyers Club
½

Alright alright alright. Dallas Buyers Club posits Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) as an Oskar Schindler type for AIDS patients and homosexuals against the FDA. That type of flawed lead 3 years ago would be nowhere near McConaughey's acting range; however, the present day man has been on an acting roll, perhaps culminating with this one. Dallas Buyers Club is anchored by a stellar performance by McConaughey, with some interesting period piece material on AIDS and the drug companies thrown in. I can't believe I'm writing this about the star of Failure to Launch.

The titular Woodroof (McConaughey) opens showcasing his heterosexuality. He's the man's man: an electrician in Texas who rides bulls. However, his drug use and unprotected sex causes him to contract the HIV virus. In the 80s, AIDS was seen as a gay plague, so Woodruff becomes immediately ostracized amongst his friends, and ends up in Mexico. Searching for ways to live longer after a doctor (Jennifer Garner) gives him 30 days to live, Woodroof finds some non-FDA-approved drugs and gets healthier. Seeing a monetary opportunity, Woodroof bring the drugs across the border and sells them to AIDS patients with transvestite Rayann (Jared Leto) under the guise of the Dallas Buyers Club. As time goes on, Woodroof sees homosexuality as less of an enemy than the FDA and more as a misunderstood group of people.

The Dallas Buyers Club nails the AIDS paranoia. Seen mostly as a disease of the lesser at the time, anyone who contracted the virus was shunned to the outskirts as a moral demon. Though the movie paints a simplistic view of both sides, placing Ron squarely on the anti-gay side and seeing him shift to the middle gives Dallas Buyers Club its emotional arc. The movie also has a surprisingly engaging undercurrent of the drug culture in the US, and how money speaks greater than actual need. Again, the movie doesn't posit anything already understood, but it adds some challenges and wrinkles to Ron's business and personal development.

Character development in Dallas Buyers Club is mostly relegated to Ron. The rest of the cast is mostly broadly drawn types: the gay person Ron connects with, the jerk money-driven doctor, the crusading disease-curing doctor/love interest, the manly men. Most of these people remain as they were in the beginning by the end of the film, with little pieces of their lives thrown in. Since this is basically Ron's story, running time is mostly devoted to him, though giving more complexity to these characters would make Dallas Buyers Club into a great film instead of just a good one.

I already had McConaughey nominated as a best supporting actor for Mud, but this at least puts him into the discussion for the very crowded best actor field. McConaughey nails all the checkpoints: he emaciates himself weight wise, his frustration sizzles without ever going over the top, and he gives to Woodroof charm and vulnerability that makes him believable and relatable. A story this bleak with a weak supporting cast should stall during some periods, but McConaughey's constant presence keeps the Dallas Buyers Club constantly fighting forward, like Ron Woodroof himself. Of the supporting cast, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner are the strongest of the two types. Leto's role is more showy as Rayann, but he gets no complexity outside of one scene in a bank; Garner gets more material, but it is minimal at best. She does work well together with McConaughey.

Social justice through narrative character arc usually result in some fantastic films: Schindler's List, District 9, etc. Dallas Buyers Club misses the top tier, but thanks to Matthew McConaughey, demands to be taken seriously. It's amazing how relevant Dallas Buyers Club is today (as Philadelphia was for AIDS in the 90s) with gay marriage being in referendum everywhere. It's like McConaughey said: "I get older, they stay the same age."

Thor: The Dark World

Thor doesn't deserve a franchise: Loki does. Thor: The Dark World is a stop-gap Marvel film padding future superhero adventures with some post-credits action and setting the stage for the end of Thor's trilogy. When Loki isn't onscreen Thor: The Dark World is rudderless and worst of all, boring. Even naked Stellan Skarsgard cannot save the movie.

Thor: The Dark World picks up 2 years after the first Thor on Asgard. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned for his role in the Avengers events in NY. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is completing his quest to create peace across the 9 realms. Enter Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the dark elves who was in slumber until the Aether (like the Tesseract from the Avengers, a powerful darkness creating substance) awakens him to resume his quest for the Aether. On Earth, Thor's squeeze, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her partners Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Eric (Stellan Skarsgard) continue to search for portals to get to Thor, but they unexpectedly come into contact with the Aether, conveniently right before the realm alignment allows Malekith to use the Aether with devastating consequences.

The fish out of water concept made the Lokiless scenes of the first Thor entertaining. Thor's immaturity provoked some very clever banter giving the first film a playful tone. Thor: The Dark World abandons that tone entirely, trying to push gravitas about ruling people since Thor has matured. Director Alan Taylor (leaving Westeros for a little bit) misinterprets adult themes for compelling drama. His focus should be on the royal family: Odin, Thor, and Loki have a Shakespearean relationship that can be called upon for very positive results; heck, you could even reverse the fish out of water stuff and put Jane Foster on Asgard having to meet Thor's family. Instead, half formed thoughts on ruling and a horribly dimensioned bad guy ruin any momentum Thor generates from family drama.

Some of the faults of Thor 2 do not lie in the director's hands though. He makes Asgard look grand and vulnerable at the same time; not an easy feat. Loki, by far the most fascinating character in the Thor universe, is set up here as a semi-peripheral character who has no power. By the end of the movie, Loki gets back the upper hand on his older brother, giving a potential third Thor movie a juicy confrontation. Thor 2 is essentially a righting the ship of a franchise that could have spun off its moorings, plus it adds another pieces of Marvel's universe under the radar to be used later. If you can't tell, these positive points are mostly to generate set up for future films, making Thor: To Be Continued a better title for the movie.

Tom Hiddleston is the reason to see Thor: The Dark World. Loki represents all that is great in the superhero world: duplicity, snakebite wit, and relatable pain. Hiddleston commits wholeheartedly to Loki, embracing the mischief and intellect. Loki's scenes crackle with energy missing in the rest of the movie. Chris Hemsworth looks great shirtless and sells his regal transformation. He may not be as funny, but he embraces what Thor has become, clearly showing that writing and screen partners determine how well Hemsworth can act. Kat Dennings shows some spunk as the unpaid intern, but doesn't get too much to do. Stellan Skarsgard gets to look like he's under the influence of several drugs, and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, and Idris Elba act like they want to be in other films.

After the payoffs, the real reason anyone is paying to see this film, Thor 2 can quickly be forgotten for the Captain America Sequel. Thor may be a God, but God's are boring unless they are named Loki. Seeing how prevalent Loki has become in promoting this film, can we get Hiddleston more Loki screentime? I feel like Gravity would be amazing if Loki were convincing Sandra Bullock to give up, mocking her feeble humanity.

Ender's Game
Ender's Game(2013)
½

It's tough for me to write about Ender's Game, since it holds such a strong place in my heart. As a kid, it was the first book that I really remembered and eagerly encouraged friends to read. After 28 years of fan demands to get this movie made, the day is finally here. Ender's Game isn't transformative moviemaking, but it is a strong sci-fi film with decent ideas that maintains the spirit of the book. The book's writer (Orson Scott Card) approves; he even helped write the screenplay.

Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is one of the star pupils being trained to defend Earth against the Formics (ant-like aliens). Ender is identified early by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Henderson (Viola Davis) as the perfect student to become the leader of the battle against the aliens. To test Ender, the military leaders put him through a series of mental and physical tests involving other students from school. Ender learns how to become a leader in the process and makes friends (Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight) and enemies (Moises Arias) alike. Once he graduates that program, Ender gets moved to the forward command where he meets the previous hero of the Formic Wars, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), to discuss battle tactics and prepare for the war with the aliens.

Ender's Game cannot end on a cliffhanger; too many years of frustrating development and rabid fans would not allow it. As such, Ender's Game ends where the book does, but it is forced to take shortcuts. Ender's Game's biggest failing is truncation; if the movie was split into two halves (battle school vs. forward command training), the characters would get more time to be fleshed out. As is, character development for anyone outside of Ender and Colonel Graff is simplistic at best and nonexistent at its weakest. In addition, the plot is forced to make a series of mini leaps to keep the story moving, instead of really letting us into the mind of Ender which the book does so well. The weakness does not derail the movie, but it will cause you to groan from time to time.

However, the special effects and battles will not. These special effects are first rate; the space stations are well designed, and the battle chambers are beautifully adapted and realized. The wrinkle of the battles in Ender's Game is they are executed at a distance from the main action, like a video game. The special effects team embraces the concept, treating the training sequences as immersive physical and mental exercises that feel like missions in the Legend of Zelda or Grand Theft Auto. Each little mission also adds substance to Ender's thought process, showing how smart he is to fill some narrative gaps. The video gaming also gets brought up nicely in the screenplay by showing how virtual reality decisions can be much different than real reality decisions.

Acting is mostly workmanlike in Ender's Game. Asa Butterfield acquits himself admirably playing someone people have been dying to see. Butterfield looks the part, and really sells the third act weariness when he learns the consequences of some of his tactics. Harrison Ford is pretty good playing world weary Colonel Graff. However, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, and Abagail Breslin don't get enough time to add much of anything to their characters.

Sure Ender's Game wasn't the greatest movie of all time, but it was neither a catastrophic failure. Gavin Hood's film raises solid sci-fi questions and uses great special effects to tell its story reasonably well. If I had to choose, I'd say the book is better, but the movie is really fun to watch on the big screen, except when you have to watch puking in space, yuck.

Blue Is The Warmest Color
½

First love is a ubiquitous experience. During the honeymoon phase, the feelings it generates create a high that is impossible to maintain. As the real world settles in, the day-to-day experience of love can be hard to navigate if you're not ready for it. Blue Is the Warmest Color showcases this lesson is just as hard for a lesbian as any other type of relationship. Despite being a bit too long and telegraphing the plot, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a powerful look at navigating the minefield of love.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is your average high school student. After being pressured by her friends, she starts dating a boy from school, but something feels off. That is, until she locks eyes with Emma (Lea Seydoux) and her blue hair on the street. When Adele pleasures herself that night, Emma lights a fire under her she didn't know existed. By chance one night, Adele meets Emma at a club, and their mutual ecstasy begins. Blue Is the Warmest Color then makes little leaps forward in time, where we can see how time has caused some strain on Adele and Emma's relationship, causing tension and temptation to arise.

The stars (specifically Lea Seydoux) of Blue Is the Warmest Color have been fighting with director Abdelladif Kechiche about the explicit nature of the sex scenes. These sc,enes are about as physical as you can get without being pornography, and the gratuitous line may have been crossed a few times with just how long these scenes go on. However, these scenes focus on the physical connection between the two women and are often shot in close-up, giving the audience a first person look at what each character can see. The scenes aren't meant to be voyeured and enjoyed by the audience; they are meant to show just how much the women enjoy their mutual attraction.

The plot and drive of Blue Is the Warmest Color is more of a mixed bag. Scenes in school usually discuss a theme from a book and then immediately execute the theme in the next scene; a little mixing of before/after would have been better. The idea of "coming out" hangs out on the periphery, but never gets addressed for Adele, especially to her parents. Such a scene would better develop how strong Emma is and how she can give Adele the strength to accept who she is. However, the third act of the movie benefits greatly from the forced camera intimacy of the first couple acts. When Emma confronts Adele about potential infidelity and especially when they meet up at a coffee shop, the earned connection between the two conflict directly with their emotional mess that fizzles between the two. Blue Is the Warmest Color never goes for emotional catharsis and easy answers, much to the movie's benefit since it tries to be based in reality.

Adele Exharchopoulos gives one of the best performances I have seen this year. She is naked all over the place: physically, emotionally, subconsciously, etc. She is onscreen for most of this film in extreme close up, and she somehow delivers on all of the complicated emotions she is forced to feel. One scene in particular, after a fight with Emma, Adele has to hold in her inner anguish as she teaches kids how to read and write, but when they all leave the room, she crumples to the floor and pours out her soul in tear form. Adele has to be multiple things in that scene, and she easily acts the hell out of it. Lea Seydoux, despite her public protest, acquits herself well into Emma's skin. She simultaneously is self-assured but intimately vulnerable.

Blue Is the Warmest Color had me at blue. It is also my favorite color. In addition, it is a powerful showcase of the messy business of loving someone, especially if you're not really ready to understand what that means. I have a question though: this movie won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes film festival this year (the top prize). Or means gold in French, so shouldn't the movie's title be Blue + Gold = Green Is the Warmest color, or would it be too presumptuous to assume it was going to win the top prize at Cannes?

Gravity
Gravity(2013)

The vastness of space is something movies will talk about, but usually struggle to show, the best examples being Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gravity immerses the audience in space's beautiful endless silence from beginning to end. Anchored by a strong performance from Sandra Bullock mostly playing against herself, Gravity raises the bar and sets the new standard on any film set in the infinite frontier. Also, you will have to think twice about wanting to go into space since no one can hear you scream.

The story is pretty simple, new to space Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is installing some data tracking device with the help of Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), finishing his last mission. The mission goes awry when debris from a destroyed satellite cripples their space station. Ryan and Matt must find alternate means of transport home while confronting their own mortality.

Gravity's 20 minute opening unbroken sequence helps set up its setting with great effect. Multiple camera shots give you different perspectives on what you're seeing. Sometimes you're spinning inside the helmet of Dr. Stone, unable to grasp where you are while Mission Control is freaking out. Other times, it will zoom out into space, showing just how tiny the astronauts look revolving around the Earth. Most frightening though, are the shots of deep space, because it paints a hopeless picture of drifting into nothingness as well as give faulty perception of objects that are travelling like bullets to destroy a space structure. The amalgam of perspectives gives the audience a distinct understanding of what sort of guts it takes to go up into space and how near impossible it is to survive the smallest miscalculation. It also gives the audience breathtaking shots of a sunrise or the aurora borealis. Gravity's success is enhanced by Director Alfonso Cuaron's use of 3D, which has no failings of the medium (blurry images, bad color) and utilizes all of its assets (flying objects, sense of depth).

What makes Gravity even more harrowing is its believability. Director Alfonso Cuaron wrote this script with his son, and set up very real obstacles that an astronaut would have to overcome. It's hard to know if the debris is coming close because space is a soundless vacuum. Once the space station is ripped to pieces, Stone has to travel to the next station orbiting the Earth; however, you can't just walk there; you have limited bursts of air to move you in the direction you want to go, and you cannot slow down once those bursts run out. Once you grab hold of the station, you have to make your way to the airlock, which will fly open because of the pressure changes. Once inside, you might be in another country's station, so you have to remember your training and limited knowledge of another language to try to fly yourself home if you have no communication with Houston. Heck, even once you land, you might have to swim to safety. Gravity eclipses other films that have attempted to showcase space travel by sticking to logic and reality with the conflict, not creating a conquering race to overcome.

The emotional crux of the story relies mostly on Sandra Bullock (and a little on George Clooney). Bullock spends the final hour of the film by herself trying to talk herself into going on despite some traumatic past events in her life. A scene involving a dog barking over a comm is heartbreaking to watch, and Bullock sells every moment well: despair in the dog scene, fear in the spinning sequences, determination in her using a Chinese computer. Bullock has really matured as an actress since her Miss Congeniality days, and deserves recognition for her physical and emotional tour de force in Gravity.

Every now and then a movie will leave your mouth agape at what it is doing. You hear the buzz, but have a hard time believing what you are seeing. Gravity is that film for 2013. It is so visually engrossing and stunning and well acted that it leaves you breathless like the movie's hero. Expect instead of being breathless from a lack of O2, it is from the excitement of seeing something truly special.

PS Normally I'm not a 3D fan, but if it doesn't make you sick, please see this in 3D, it makes Gravity better.

All Is Lost
All Is Lost(2013)
½

Tom Hanks and a tiger have done it, so why not Robert Redford? All Is Lost is about a man lost in the Indian Ocean and his attempts at survival. All Is Lost contains some very powerful terror sequences and a solid acting job (wordlessly) by the wily vet Redford. However, All Is Lost to me felt like a longer version of a survival type show.

The nameless character (Redford, called Our Man on IMDB) wakes up with a hole in the side of his boat and a looming storm a few days away. He prepares for the rough times like any worthy seaman would do, and as circumstances become tougher and tougher, he his forced to confront his own mortality and the limits of his ingenuity.

The storm sequences take up the majority of the screen time. Director JC Chandor clearly has lots of ideas how to make them compelling in different ways than Life of Pi, Cast Away, The Perfect Storm, or any other seafaring film. Chandor uses two effective techniques in All Is Lost: claustrophobia and disorientation (thankfully, not by shaky cam). When Redford gets trapped below deck and the ship capsizes, he is stuck in a dark enclosed space with various creaks and groans from the ship that make the audience worry about any vulnerabilities in the ship. Sometimes, Redford has to go above deck during the storm (not entirely convinced this isn't a plot device) and he gets tossed around the ship into the water; many of these scenes show just how little power Redford has over his personal situation, and show just how ready he is by his stoicism and calm demeanor regardless of the many situations he is put in.

Impressively, there are only about 25 words spoken in this film, mostly logical statements. In fact, Redford gets one personal statement about 2/3 of the way through the film, rightfully said. It is incumbent that he use his face or his actions to dictate how he is feeling since he is mostly working on a project or trying to survive a growing loss of water. Redford gets one big scene where he does some emotive work and a couple despair moments in the shipping channel but other than that, he is mostly doing solid unspectacular work. I'm not sure you can replace Redford with just anybody, but it's not a tour de force of acting.

All Is Lost is a solid survival guide and Robert Redford Oscar Nomination vehicle. It comes off like a movie with something new to say, but instead it reorganizes beats in other movies with a few minor twists. I look forward to more years of "wise old Robert Redford" roles that will eventually win him that Oscar that has sadly eluded him.

The House I Live In
½

The "war on drugs" is a term that I can remember since I was a kid, mostly from the "this is your brain on drugs" commercials. In principle, this is a very noble concept that should reap solid rewards; in practice, it appears the movement creates more systemic problems than it solves. Director Eugene Jarecki started out wanting to show how drugs ruined a family close to his own; instead, he uncovers perhaps some of the biggest misconceptions and core issues of the drug problem in the United States. It also helps that he hooked in the creator of one of the best dramas of all time, David Simon (The Wire).

Jarecki started out asking about how drug abuse hurt his Nannie Jeter's family (her sons were imprisoned or died too young). He also ties in other stories: an Iowa Judge who mostly handles drug cases, residents of the projects involved in the drug trade, users and dealers imprisoned for their possession (not necessarily use) of their brand of drug, prison guards dealing with the incarcerated, police officers on the drug beat, and historians with historical perspective on drug use. These other stories help create a larger perspective around the institutions that have been built around the drug industry and how the mindset of Americans needs to stop seeing the extermination of drug use as the core issue and the rehabilitation of people as a better use of the nation's resources.

As a movie, The House I Live In works because of general movie patterns. Behaving mostly like a thriller and mystery, Jarecki uses each person to give the audience insight into the different players in the drug game. He also curveballs the audience into thinking the movie is only going to be about the affect of drugs on people's lives. Once the historian (Richard Lawrence Miller) enters the picture, The House I Live In shifts into a study of how the "abuse" of drugs has previously been a guise for the groups in power to remove those deemed unnecessary for society from society (this is also a curveball, initially, the historical facts pointed to race issues mostly). By showing repeated historical trends plus facts about how drug use has remained unchanged despite the best efforts of all parties involved, The House I Live In changes course in its final act: it argues politicians and lawmakers have created a system designed to imprison subsets of the populous and not solve the bigger problem of rehabilitating and reforming these parts of society deemed unnecessary. The House I Live In can stand alongside other great documentaries (Hoop Dreams) that start out with a small idea and eventually evolve into a conversation starter about a broader concept.

Like any good documentary as well, The House I Live In has its share of gotcha facts and wow moments. I was totally unaware of mandatory minimum sentences of multiple years for drug arrests; I was incensed that crack cocaine has 100 times more weight than injectable cocaine (so 1 ounce of crack = 100 ounces of regular cocaine in the law's eyes?), and I was totally unaware of the pattern of drugs and racism across so many ethnicities and how we have become the most jailing country in the world. What makes The House I Live In's shock value hit harder than other documentaries is the fact that it is based in facts alone and weaves into the overall story. This isn't someone lighting a faucet on fire (which can be argued), these are real laws that are sometimes arbitrary in the way they were enacted, thus showing how systemic the war on drugs has become.

The House I Live In is a powerful showcase of the many facets of the world of drugs, from the front lines to the policy makers. The disconnect between those who create laws and those who have to deal with the consequences of the laws is a real concern raised by Eugene Jarecki and his narrator/filler David Simon. The House I Live In does what great documentaries do by getting people interested in the topic and hopefully creating interest among those not directly involved in the issue. I know I feel more enlightened and fired up, I can only hope others (since the incarcerated cannot create policy) who have a voice will start using it soon.

12 Years a Slave
½

Slavery is an unsettling part of Americana most people like to sweep under the rug. Until recently, the horrors of the institution were relegated to books, radio, and the Roots special in the 70s. Thanks to Django Unchained, more movies are coming out showcasing for the viewer just how despondent slavery leaves the imprisoned physically, emotionally, and mentally. 12 Years a Slave takes the progress Django started and amplifies the distress and hopelessness of the situation. Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches with his story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who ended up in slavery from 1841 to 1853.

Solomon was actually a very successful black man for the time: well traveled and fully literate. After taking an opportunity to go to DC as a fiddler for a circus, Solomon gets drugged and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Solomon starts off under kindly owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who recognizes Solomon's intelligence and ingenuity. This show of favoritism draws the ire of the slave driver Tibeats (Paul Dano) who puts a threat on Solomon's life. Ford transfers Solomon to the Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson) plantation, which is close to hell on earth. Epps is unhinged, convinced that slaves are his property so he can do what he wants to them. He takes fancy with a young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), drawing the ire of his wife which drives him to attack any black person nearby. Solomon must use his intelligence and resolve to keep out of trouble long enough to find a way to contact his friends home to save him from his personal purgatory.

The depiction of the day-to-day lives of the slaves during punishment make 12 Years a Slave stand out most. Director Steve McQueen has a long take with a slave being hung just enough off the ground that he has to use his toes to move around. What makes the scene so terrifying is how none of the slave's companions come to help him; the slave drivers have instilled so much fear in retribution that the slaves can only offer a dashing bit of water to their friend and that's it. In the background of most of the punishments, you see people scurrying about but unable to help out of fear. As a result, mental and physical fatigue/helplessness just seep into every pore of your being until you just become numb to all the pain around you. Then add on top the emotionally volatile plantation owner and his cold wife, and you stop feeling like a person. 12 Years a Slave does a fantastic job showing just how dehumanizing slavery can make an entire race feel.

Solomon's intelligence is used in unexpected but believable ways in 12 Years a Slave. He gains favor and avoiding field work by using his fiddling skills. When moving logs, he uses his canal experience to show how the waterways are faster than lugging over terrain. He hides his intelligence when tested by the plantation owners by admitting he knows some words, but not all of them, thus earning their trust. In a chilling scene, when interrogated about his letter writing, he uses logic to turn the tables on his would be accuser. 12 Years a Slave shows us how patient Solomon is while waiting for the opportune moment to contact his people, and how he learned to gain the proper trust of his owners by his array of skills.

The acting is top notch here. It will be a shock of Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn't get nominated for best actor, so the committee better get used to saying his name. Ejiofor has to convey so many emotions (anger, resentment, fear, depression) and be in some very physically demanding situations that most actors would not be able to perform. Ejiofor has been a solid character actor in other good films: it is good to see him get a showcase here. Lupita Nyong'o has some of the most disturbing scenes in the movie which she performs very well in; she has one of the saddest wimpers I have heard in a long time. Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt get the sympathetic white character roles and are solid in them. Alfree Woodard must have had her scenes cut due to time; her role had solid potential left unexplored. On the cruel side, Paul Dano plays a very good slimy vindictive slave driver that holds grudges very easily and Paul Giamatti is "fun" as a soulless businessman. Two winners in the "white devil" category though. Michael Fassbender as Epps is the worst kind of owner, one who regards slaves as property: he can do whatever he wants to them, but will never kill them due to the labor they provide. His psychological work on Patsey is sadistically joyous. Sarah Paulson might be more scary; in the background of many Fassbender scenes, she looks like she is really pulling the strings, and is bluntly racist and cold to the "property."

Chilling and necessary, 12 Years a Slave will end up being seen by many students in high school in probably 5 years or so. As much as people like to forget about that part of the United States past, it is important that films like this exist so we don't forget how important it is to treat those who are different as peers, not as degenerates. Hopefully 12 Years a Slave provides more cultural understanding between blacks and whites; even if it doesn't, it is a strong movie that will not leave your thoughts for a very long time. Plus, it will make the presenter for the best actor award at the Oscars have to say "Chiwetel Ejiofor."

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips should not work. In today's version of a thriller, you need crazy stunts, over-the-top dialogue, and a mono-e-mono battle between the lead villain and the hero. Captain Phillips relies on guile, knowledge of procedure, and quick thinking. Despite lethargic pacing at times, Captain Phillips ratchets up the tension immediately once we board the Maersk Alabama and never lets up until the end. It is not director Paul Greengrass's (United 93) best effort or Tom Hanks's (Cast Away), but it is a worthy entry into both of their career biographies.

The titular captain (Tom Hanks) is going through the motions on another trip for Maersk through the Somali waters: dealing with union guys and running pirate drills. Those drills come in handy when the unarmed ship is boarded by 4 actual pirates: the leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the brawn (Barkhad Abdirahman), the tech (Mahat Ali), and the youth (Faysal Ahmed). The pirates take money from the ship and take Captain Phillips hostage in hopes to get millions from the "insurance man." However, the US government and military are made aware of the situation and intervene to save the man.

Captain Phillips is adapted from the man's actual memoir, accounting for the hostage situation the movie presents, so we already know the ending to the story. Credit goes to director Greengrass for maintaining the level of tension he generates throughout the story. Greengrass slows the pace down and uses the claustrophobia of the multiple situations to his advantage. One character, in attempting to shut down the emergency power, get's caught during the pirate walkthrough of the ship. Captain Phillips has to think quickly to keep the pirates' eyes off his subordinate and gives them some food in the fridge. When on the lifeboat, Phillips messes with the pirates' team dynamics in the confined space in hopes to create mistrust and dissent among them. Silence here adds to the sense of dread, and repetition of the leader's words "Everything gonna be alright." grows more ominous as the story goes on. The shaky cam is used to good effect here, mostly keeping things intimate without causing too much disorientation. Captain Phillips mostly succeeds because of the careful direction and well-written screenplay and their ability to keep the fear at a consistently high level.

Another twist on the thriller that Captain Phillips gives the audience: real world logic. Drills are put in place to prepare for pirates; broadcasting over the military line that planes are inbound because you know your attackers are listening; saying what seat you are in via a plea to tell your family. These are all clever tricks by Captain Phillips to get out of this predicament alive. Equally important, Phillips's crew and the pirates have their moments of ingenuity. The pirates are smart enough to check the engine room when they go on board the ship, and they are aware that negotiation is their best way out of their situation instead of killing the hostage. The crew sets up traps for the shoeless pirates and uses their knowledge of the ship for advantages. No one comes out looking like a plot device with stupid decisions, especially given the backstory for each of the pirates sets up who they are as people well.

Tom Hanks is really the only "name" actor here. However, he is the glue to the story. After the first couple scenes, I didn't see Hanks but I saw the Captain as a character. Hanks does a good job giving the man a quick wit, but an even better job showing his humanity and restlessness as the story goes on. The PTSD interrogation at the end of the film reminds us that this is a real guy, and that Hanks is a very good actor. The 4 pirates are all pretty solid; the 2 Barkhads leave the best impression. The big Barkhad was really intense and elevated the heightened tension on the lifeboat, and the leader Barkhad has a soulless stare that leaves you terrified with what is going on in his head.

Captain Phillips toys well with what being a captain and a leader really is. When the chips are down, the pirates are in it for themselves and money, but Captain Phillips understands that you have to put yourself first, and be ready to take all the responsibility for your actions. Anchored by Hanks and Greengrass, Captain Phillips gives us a real world wild ride that pushes all the right thriller buttons. More importantly, I will never take a boat trip around the Somali coastline unless Tom Hanks can captain the ship.

About Time
About Time(2013)
½

It's not a time travel story of love. It is a love story with time travel. With all the romantic clichés and plot devices in About Time, I feel like a "phrase that changes 2 words around to sound profound" is the best way to describe the movie. Directed by Love Actually director Richard Curtis, About Time contains the elements from the director's previous efforts (love, vignettes, colorful peripheral characters) without ever coalescing into a full length feature. About Time tries so hard to get us to love it, but like true love, it's pretty easy to see through.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is your typical dorky twenty something: he's got doofus friends, a quirky family, and severe trouble dealing with women. On his 21st birthday, Tim's dad (Bill Nighy) tell him that the men in his family can travel in time if they go to a dark place and clench their fists. Tim uses this to try to fall in love on several occasions, but doesn't really feel that connection until he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams). Mary is shy, sweet, and kind of awkward like Tim, and their shared interest causes Tim to believe her to be the one. Tim uses his powers to help convince her of this, and the two slowly fall in love after multiple attempts. Along the way, Tim learns what happens if he travels back in time to Mary, his sister, his dad, and his own children.

The vignettes disservice About Time. The vignettes worked in Love Actually because of the greater breadth of characters and storytelling. By having more stories, using love as the connective tissue helps showcase love in all its forms. In About Time, there are only 2 storylines: Tim and his family, and Tim and Mary. Both stories explore similar themes, and underutilize the concept of love and time. Think about it, if you miss the first sight part of love at first sight, how can you reconnect in a similar way at a different time? Also, can you pinpoint when you plant the idea for a divorce in your spouse's head? These themes are approached at times in About Time, but never get addressed in favor of a laugh or a tender character moment.

Which brings us to the time travel conundrum. It is so hard to fall into using the travel solely as a plot device, and unfortunately About Time takes that route. Tim and Mary's first meeting is a cute affair (that could never happen because the location is SO ridiculous) that establishes their connection immediately, but something forces Tim to go back in time and therefore miss their first meeting. As such, Mary meets someone else and Tim has to recreate a new moment; however, that first moment is so sweet that the second meet cute comes off more creepy than sweet because of the inordinate amount of information Tim knows to push Mary's love buttons. An old flame comes back, but instead of pursuing two lives to see which is better than the other, the non-Rachel McAdams character is quickly dismissed. Worst of all, the most intriguing time travel issue (the baby you have is a product of an exact sperm and time) is pushed aside in the third act by the phrase: "Well, as long as we're careful" for an emotional catharsis. When time travel is used well it can be amazing, but About Time is more interested in the romance and family than the time travel.

Fortunately, About Time's leads are solid across the board; only on the periphery are there cracks in the acting armor. Domhnall Gleeson is probably known as part of the Weasley family in Harry Potter to most people, but he is very charming and mostly likable here. His humor needs more work, and he oversells his awkwardness around the opposite sex. However, his dramatic arcs with Mary and especially his dad are solid from beginning to end; Gleeson's strength is his ability to show his feelings, and Tim is probably the most relatable person here. Rachel McAdams is now on her 2nd time travel romance story, and she's much better in this one than the first. She is easily the weakest of the three principals, but she makes Mary a down to earth girl whom every man wishes they could fall in love with. Her part isn't necessarily hard, but she doesn't drag the movie down either. Bill Nighy carries with him the same spark that he carried in Love Actually here. Nighy is equal parts charming, wise, and lovable; the best scenes in the film revolve around him. I found the rest of the cast OK and mostly trying too hard to be quirky, but some have their moments like Tom Hollander as a pissed off director and Joshua McGuire as a sad sack at work.

About Time is a 3rd date movie. It's the one you take your significant other to see in hopes that the relationship will go into "the next level." Even if the primary interests for your date will not be the film itself, About Time is very cute, harmless, and passable entertainment. Next time we see a Weasley travel back in time though, it should be in the Wizarding world.

Don Jon
Don Jon(2013)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt can now add director to his list of talents. The actor has built up his acting credibility since Brick with some very memorable roles in great films (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper). He has been running a successful startup with HitRECord. And now, he goes in front and behind (both the camera and women) with Don Jon, a fun snappy look at modern relationships and sexuality between men and women. Don Jon doesn't quite blend together and stick the landing, but there's enough good stuff there to hold promise for Gordon-Levitt's next film. Plus he gets Scarlet Johansson to wear a breathtaking form-fitting red dress, AWOOOOOOGAH!!!

Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is into the simple things: his body, his family, his boys, his girls, and his....porn. For Jon, porn immerses him in a way women cannot satisfy. Things start to change when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) at a club. He feels she's a dime (10 out of 10) and can be the connection he so craves for from a real relationship. She, however, sees him like a romantic comedy lead, and tries to turn Jon into the love interest of her own story. She meets his family (Glenne Headly, Tony Danza, and Brie Larson), his friends (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke), and gets him to go back to school. Things go great until Barbara catches Jon watching porn, since she cannot give him what he truly desires.

Gordon-Levitt shows a very seasoned hand behind the director's chair. His style comes through from the opening montage, using quick cuts and extreme close ups to quickly establish a character's identity and personality. His best scene involves a dinner with himself and Scarlett Johansson where his inner porn monologue interrupts the inane conversation he has with the girl he's supposed to want. It gives the scene a comedic and biting edge that most directors struggle to create.

His storytelling could use some work though, his first act is solid but the emotional third act feels more forced and out of character to prove a point. Don Jon thinks it is smarter than it is trying to say something about male and female relationships. Some of the best ideas in the story about a male's role in the dating scene are introduced and dismissed quickly in favor of a funny scene involving swearing before a church sermon. Gordon-Levitt beats the repetition in Don Jon's life into the ground to make sure the audience know what is important to the man. However, these scenes become less effective the more you see them and add less then they detract from the story progression as a whole.

Gordon-Levitt the actor is ok but unspectacular as the titular Don Jon, a role better played by someone with an established macho personality. And his character's epiphany in the third act isn't sold by Gordon-Levitt, although the scene where it happens he is very good. Scarlett Johansson takes a one-note character and makes her 1.5 notes. It is not Johansson's fault, and she clearly has fun with the accent. Julianne Moore has the plot device role and does the best she can with it. The two impressive thespians in Don Jon are Brie Larson, who caps 2013 with a role with two lines which she makes really fun, and Tony Danza, who comes back from the dead to fit in perfectly with the "Italian macho man father" role.

Look, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you don't have to try so hard. Don Jon is a solid first effort; your first effort should at least not be a swing and a miss, and it is funnier and smarter than that. Keep doing great films with awesome directors, and your next effort could get you well on your way to the career of the guy who took Batman away from you. Most importantly, you proved that punching a car window leaves no scars on your hands and doesn't impeded your ability to work out (ok, that was a directing mistake).

Rush
Rush(2013)

Living on a lighted stage approaches the unreal. Like the Rush song Limelight, James Hunt and Niki Lauda would agree but bicker about how to get there. Rush the movie is probably the best sports movie about car racing (except The Fast and the Furious), creating some very compelling race sequences and two interesting rivals. However, the storytelling doesn't trust the audience and peripheral characters don't get the same treatment as James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

Rush tells the story of eventual Formula One racing competitors James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). These two would eventually grow a mutual respect, but it doesn't really make sense on paper. Hunt gained a reputation as a playboy and excessive risk taker, trusting his talent more than the odds. Lauda was cold and calculating, gaining every pre-race advantage by minimizing risk and expecting the same level of detail from others in his crew. The story examines their initial rivalry in a lesser racing division, their personal lives, their struggles to get into formula one, and the fateful 1976 season where Hunt and Lauda battled for the Formula One Championship and Lauda was horribly burnt in a bad accident.

If you can't already see, the peripheral characters get the short straw in this film. The best drawn characters are Niki Lauda's wife Marlene and his racing teammate Clay Regazzoni. James Hunt's personal life is such a blur that everyone really falls by the wayside including his divorced wife Suzy Miller. Most of the characters get one trait related to the competitors that get's beaten into the ground, probably a smart decision since the Lauda/Hunt rivalry is so compelling on the track and off.

Director Ron Howard's biggest contribution to this film is his period décor and racing sequences. The clothes and hairstyles are more old fashioned but not screaming "We're in 1970!" Surpisingly, the medical treatments look arcane and horribly painful (one of the best scenes of the film). Howard shoots the film in a slightly grainy style reminiscent of the cinema era. The races are compelling and dangerous because of the investment in the Hunt/Lauda story. 1970's Formula One is a dangerous endeavor. Howard would drop a dangerous racing fact or a smoldering wreckage showing how close the racer gets to death. These races set up real life and death sequences, and the fiery wreckage and aftermath is as grotesque and terrifying as any other race car film I have ever seen.

Chris Hemsworth is the face of this film due to his ability to wield and intergalactic hammer. Hemsworth is good here, charming enough to be the life of the party with a fierce desire to be the best and win. Daniel Bruhl is the unknown and star of the film. His Lauda could come across as cold and calculating with no soul, but Howard finds ways to make the man evolve subtly over the course of Rush while maintaining his core beliefs. Hemsworth and Bruhl have a nice rat-at-at (with an emphasis on rat) when they bicker and try to understand one another, showing their relationship evolving from resentment to mutual respect.

Rush keeps the audience engaged until the end of the Formula One season, but it tacks on a needless epilogue that recaps everything the audience has already seen if it was paying attention. It is a shame, because until that point, Rush was flirting with the rarified air of the great sports movies like Hoosiers. Hemsworth proves he can act, and Bruhl has been successfully introduced to American audiences. This is Ron Howard's best film since Frost Nixon (Rush has the same screenplay writer), proving once again Opie can always find a way to come back.

Prisoners
Prisoners(2013)
½

Prisoners is a very calculated title for the story it tells. Prisons in this movie come in many forms, be they physical or mental. Prisoners takes tough, uncompromising subject material and weaves in a twisty whodunit caper that keeps the audience guessing until the final third. By the end, some of these people could only wish for solitary confinement.

Thanksgiving, the time for families to come together. In this case, the two families are the Dovers: Dad Keller (Hugh Jackman), Mom Grace (Maria Bello) son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and the Birches: Father Franklin (Terrence Howard), Mother Nancy (Viola Davis), and daughters Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). After dinner, Joy and Anna go out to play and never come back home. Frantic, they call the police who assign Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the case. After initial interrogation of main suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) proves fruitless, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands.

Prisoners strongest moments revolve around the main child abduction and how it affects the people sucked into its vortex. The reaction is different for each character and very believable: Keller gets violent and irrational, Grace takes drugs because of her depression, Franklin is sad and buries his head in the sand, and Nancy is silent and seething. Because of the desire for catharsis, snap judgments on the suspects must be made without any room for doubt. Even when insurmountable evidence is given for one suspect, because no body is found, some characters stay the course. Though the subject matter is bleak and very abusive, Prisoners takes it very seriously and makes character actions at worst understandable for the audience. By giving each parent a different perspective on the story, Prisoners can draw the audience in despite involving many people's worst fears.

The narrative, though slightly weaker, is still very good at hiding the endgame and main abducter. In fact, the final reveal includes at least a couple unexpected clever reveals on top of the main one. There are also a couple times where Detective Loki almost stumbles upon Keller's interrogation of Alex and by some quick thinking he evades the detective. Only a couple times did I feel like there were some obvious plot choices to keep the story moving forward, but they are forgiven for how much care is taken in the first part of the film to set up the complicated situation. Solving the case is also not without its set of scares, as there are some dark rooms and empty houses that only horror fans could dream of.

Even more than Les Miserables, Hugh Jackman is a force of nature here as a proud broken man driven to find his daughter. Jackman stays intense without ever going cartoonishly crazy, and delivers one of the more memorable performances of the year. Alongside him is Jake Gyllenhaal, who adds to his cop credits with one who is more tired and detached but obsessed with solving puzzles. Paul Dano is very effective at playing creepy and meek simultaneously. Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian, and Melissa Leo give strong support.

Prisoners is not an easy watch. There are lots of demons covered in this film, and no easy answers are really presented. However, it is never boring, and most of the time extremely engaging, clever, and poignant. Next time, Detective Loki should call on his Avengers namesake for help; superpowers would have cracked this case in 5 minutes.

Short Term 12
½

The coming out party for Brie Larson is complete. After delightful turns in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, 21 Jump Street, and The Spectacular Now, Larson gets a starring vehicle in Short Term 12. As good as Larson is here, Short Term 12 is even better since it gives insight into the day-to-day lives of temporary living arrangements from the perspectives of the workers and the kids. Expertly written and shot by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 gives some well deserved attention to people who don't receive enough of it.

Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are a couple who feel compelled to work at a Short Term 12 facility taking care of kids with nowhere else to go. They are both very good at establishing connections with these children, but for different reasons. Mason feels the need to give back due to his foster upbringing, but Grace's aid comes from a darker place. She has a more fragile emotional state than she lets on and big life events come to her in the form of a pregnancy and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a child with a similar past to Grace's.

The camerawork in Short Term 12 draws the viewer into a very intimate and delicate situation. These people in the shelter are so hurt that any further pain can push them over the edge. Watching Short Term 12 is like standing on the edge of a knife; even when things go well, a wrong turn of a phrase or confiscation of dolls can be enough to cause a character to spiral downward into a pit of despair. Dragging a broken person from that type of personal hell requires great patience, understanding, and lots of luck outside of your control. Short Term 12 succeeds at showing the entire process to the audience. The little "wins" where the kids open up are so emotionally rewarding and satisfying leaving the audience with a massive high, only to be dragged back down by what can appear to a normal person a small inconvenience. Most importantly, these scenes (until the final act) don't feel manipulative. The kids are smart people who just don't understand what a normal life is like, and the caretakers are smart enough to break the sullen shell of a malcontent and find a moment of raw connection.

Equally as compelling as the Short Term facility is Grace's personal story. Slowly revealed over the course of the film, Grace herself is walking on pins and needles. Work gives her focus and purpose, and outside forces are banging on her door leaving her at a loss for what to do. Her emotional scars have turned into scabs that cover herself from those closest to her. By not coming to terms with her past, Grace has trouble moving on to her future with Mason, who only asks to let him inside her head. These scenes provide much needed humor, but also add layers to Grace's character that make the payoffs all the more satisfying.

This film takes a calculated risk on Brie Larson's ability to carry a film mostly on her own, with great success. Larson is wonderful here: a strong woman put through the ringer and coming out the other side, but not without some consequences. She can be simultaneously caring and cold, smart and illogical, etc. She also has some help around her. John Gallagher Jr. is very good as Mason, playing a very likable caregiver and love interest who tries to coax Grace out of her cocoon. Kaitlyn Dever is wonderful as Jayden, a younger version of Grace. Dever nails her characters mask of hurt with sarcasm, but when she snaps, she snaps. Keith Stanfield and Rami Malek get nice arcs as a troubled kid and naïve new counselor respectively.

Short Term 12 exposes the world to the underbelly of society people like to forget exists. In the struggle to force people to conform to societal standards regardless of who you are and where you came from, Short Term 12 focuses on the people who fall through the cracks and the people who notice and take action. Kudos to the filmmakers for taking this story, the people involved, and their plight seriously. I will also never take a fish for granted again.

Blue Jasmine
Blue Jasmine(2013)
½

Yuck. The sum of Blue Jasmine's parts - acting, character development, storytelling - are significantly greater than the whole of Woody Allen's new film. The New York director creates an empty picture with tonal problems and lack of narrative direction. New York neuroticism and vapid speak can be endearing when used in the right circumstances. Here, the circumstances help showcase just how out of touch Woody Allen is with the common man.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has just moved in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Jasmine has just lost everything because her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) just got indicted for white collar crimes. In San Francisco, she tries to pick up the pieces: she gets a job as a dentist's (Michael Stuhlbarg) assistant, and she eventually meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard): a widowed wealthy man. However, Jasmine's move has caused friction for her sister's life, drawing ire from Ginger's ex husband (Andrew Dice Clay) and her current boyfriend (Bobby Cannvale).

The poor are really taken through the grinder in Blue Jasmine. Most of them have supremely dirty looks and overtly bombastic personalities that draw ire from people like Jasmine. More importantly, the lower class characters are treated in a less intelligent matter. Ginger willfully will listen to her sister despite having suffered from her repeatedly. Ginger's boyfriend accepts the wandering eye of his beau to provide a tidy happy ending for her. Some of Woody Allen's point is showing how content the simple can be and how wretched smug comfort comes across. Unfortunately, the results feel disingenuous and shameful to hard working people.

The tonal direction gives Blue Jasmine a wierd feel that keeps the film from becoming poignant. Woody Allen appears to be trying to turn his conventions on their head since Blue Jasmine is more drama than comedy; however, the opening scene is played for laughs and supporting characters are introduced for comic relief lots of the time. These inconsistencies keep Jasmine's really tragic story from achieving maximum potential. When focused on her compliance to her life trajectory and Jasmine leading a day-to-day normal life, Blue Jasmine is very forceful, but providing more supporting character depth distracts from the central story to the detriment of Blue Jasmine. Also, to give the dramatic parts of the story more force, plot devices like overt character flirtation or a spontaneous street run-in force the plot forward and reek of over-directing.

The saving grace for the film is the acting. Despite my disappointment, Cate Blanchett perfectly stands in as the Woody Allen surrogate. Her Jasmine is a shameful hated character with few redeeming qualities. Blanchett generates more sympathy for Jasmine than the character probably deserves. Sally Hawkins, perky as ever, gives Ginger a nice mix of spunk and naivete. Bobby Cannavale and Andrew Dice Clay hickory dickory dock their way into solid supporting roles with a nice amount of depth, and Louie CK plays a more subtle version of his own TV character.

It is true that there are lies we tell ourselves to make our lives seem better than they may actually be. Woody Allen gets to showcase some of his own lies with Blue Jasmine, like ineptitude toward the working class or the plight of the privileged. I am guilty of this as well; I kept telling myself that Blue Jasmine was going to get better as the story went on, but eventally I realized that it was not to be.

In a World...
½

It will be hard to look at trailers the same again. Writer/Director/Star Lake Bell has created a fun little movie "in a world...where people...with great verbal acumen...square off for the chance...to be the voice...of the next great movie trailer." A solid family drama masquerading as a cute indie comedy, In a World gets some solid laughs and decent observations about society. I'm also now acutely aware of how disturbing the baby voice actually is.

The last great voiceover man, Dan Lafontaine, has just died (this is also a true story), leaving the door open for a new heir to the throne. Vying for the title are 3 suitors: Sam (Fred Melamed), a contemporary of Lafontaines; his daughter Carol (Lake Bell), trying to become a pioneering woman in the business, and Gustav (Ken Marino), an up-and-comer that Sam takes under his wing and Carol is attracted to. Sam's frustration at Carol's life choices force him to kick Carol out. Carol moves in with her sister (Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law (Rob Corddry) which generates friction in their already shaky marriage.

In A World does a good balancing act of mixing drama into the overall comedic structure. Since this is a movie about voiceover work, the screenplay is light on heft, but there are still some solid underpinnings of screwed up family dynamics and realizing success is right in front of your face. Most of these scenes are then followed by something along the lines of Eva Longoria chewing on a cork (this happens by the way). In A World may be trying a little too hard to be funny, but it mostly hits the funny bone: the funniest gag involves the running joke of girls using a baby voice and Carol's hatred when hearing it.

The plot structure of In A World is also just a little strange. Anytime it telegraphs where the story should go, it sidesteps the obvious line for some sort of tangential one that eventually weaves back into the main plot thrust. Carol is given a couple love interests that she flirts with but never commits to. When Sam looks like he's about to commit a terrible self-inflicted act, he just bursts into tears instead. In A World does a fun job sidestepping storylines that might distract from the main one (the competition for the voiceover) and creating a bunch of fun tangents that could probably become their own films.

Much of the success of In A World is the awesome comedy team Bell has put together. Rob Corddry, Ken Marino, Alexandra Holden, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Stephanie Allynne, Geena Davis, and even Eva Longoria get some very funny moments being either the butt of the joke or getting off a zippy one liner. The main family are the stars of this film though. Michaela Watkins is good at being funny and wearing her heart on her sleeve; I want to see more of her. Fred Melamed is a good character actor who can add another one to his list here: Sam is selfish but extremely confident because of his perceived power in the film world. Finally, Lake Bell herself holds the movie together with a funny part that is Woody Allen with less melancholy and more heart.

This is Bell's directing debut, and it is a good one. With her solid ties to the business, I hope to see more fun times like In A World hit theatres from her with regularity. Perhaps she can direct the trailer in the film: The Amazon Games, a no holds barred battle between giant women and mutants.

Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies revels in the silence between conversations. The love triangle between Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, and Jake Johnson is a well acted and keenly observed study of relationships of many sorts. Plus it takes place in a brewery in Chicago.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) have clearly been chumming it up in the bars over beers for years. There is obviously a little romantic past between them, but the sparks still remain. Both have romantic attachments though: Luke is engaged with Jill (Anna Kendrick) and Kate has been dating Chris (Ron Livingston) for a year. After an ill fated camping trip, Kate starts spending more time with Luke, and Jill has a secret she doesn't want to tell Luke which causes some friction in their already stagnant relationship.

Drinking Buddies is one of the best showcases of different types of modern male-female relationships. Gender roles have evolved to the point where a girl can be one of the guys, and Drinking Buddies delineates the difference between a love interest and a buddy very well. Luke and Kate clearly have a strong social connection, a much stronger one than Luke and Jill. However, when the concept of core values is brought up, Jill and Luke more closely align. Kate lives for the party, but Luke and Jill understand how to take care of a person and regard that trait in high esteem.

Drinking Buddies is a movie that revels in the in-between, the silent subtle movements that reveal a person's true intentions rather than just words. Modern flirting closely models the scenes in Drinking Buddies. When Kate gets lonely, she flirts with Luke or Chris by some cute little touch or sigh. She'll insert herself to Jill and Luke's apartment for dinner under the guise of recovering from a breakup and try to "win" the night against Jill for Luke's attention. What makes Drinking Buddies different is that Luke doesn't find it wrong to hang out with Kate in some very compromising ways because he knows his boundaries and where his heart really lies; she's a friend and will never be more than one.

I was in the tank for Drinking Buddies because of the 4 principals. Ron Livingston is mostly used as a plot device here, but he gets a couple decent character beats. Anna Kendrick continues her streak of being the most adorable girl in a movie. Every little conversation she has is usually 1 part funny and two parts earnest. She could so easily have fallen into the bitchy girlfriend role and her perky optimistic charisma and likeability make Jill into a solid complicated character. Jake Johnson leaves New Girl to play a bearded version of his character on that show. Johnson is a more talented actor than meets the eye; he can play drunk very well, but he also hits all the necessary emotional beats with Jill and Kate to make all of their scenes work. In short, Johnson is the glue of Drinking Buddies. Olivia Wilde is the revelation. I knew she was a pretty good actress in bit parts here and there, but in Drinking Buddies, she is really forced to act out how she feels without words. She carries most of the scenes she is in, walking the line between melancholy and comedy very easily. Wilde has played some sexy characters in her shows before, but Drinking Buddies showcases her flirting ability so well that we all would have forgiven Luke for succumbing to her advances.

Drinking Buddies doesn't really end but just sort of stops, as is true of most life stories. Writer Director Joe Swanberg captures day in the life relationships of young adults in a city very well without becoming too self-important. He also untapped a great way to get actors to sign up for his films: set the backdrop of the story in a brewery so you can drink all day while filming. Will work for beer takes on a new meaning in Drinking Buddies.

The World's End

And the Cornetto Trilogy comes to a spectacular end. The World's End is the third Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright collaboration that takes pieces of the first two films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) while still creating a send up of another movie genre. It's also about time that the bar crawl gets a really strong movie built around it.

Gary King (Simon Pegg) experienced the greatest night of his life when he attempted the golden mile of 12 bars (he completed 9) with his 4 best friends. Gary has never hit a high as good as that night, so he tries to recreate it several years later with his "friends." However, they have all moved on: Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a real estate agent and his sister Sam (Rosamund Pike) is over her crush of Gary. Steven (Paddy Considine) has a solid job, and Pete (Eddie Marsan) is happily married with kids. Even Gary's partner-in-crime Andy (Nick Frost) has so evolved he doesn't even drink anymore. Despite their misgivings the 4 join Gary in their hometown to finish the crawl this time and make it to the last bar: the World's End. However, tensions between the group and odd behavior of the townspeople threaten to derail the group at every turn.

It's hard to nail down one particular genre these guys are sending up. The buddy comedy comes to mind; horror films and sci-fi/apocalypse movies are also represented here. The editing between the friends lives is crisply executed and completed in about 10 minutes. Sam's story intersects so coarsely with Gary's that it is hard to see them ending up together. The World's End takes pieces of each trope and subverts them in very clever ways that don't feel like forced twists. In fact, the final 30 minutes of the film are so brilliantly clever takes on sci-fi conventions that I think a new tactic for the genre has been created.

The World's End succeeds because of the character development of the 5 guys and Sam. Each one is given a nice little backstory with unique relationships with Gary and even some between other group members (Wright is so good with creating unique things he even finds an angle for all 12 bars). Their quips are very British, but also snappy, fun, and quick-moving. After the quick intro, the laughs keep coming and never really cease from beginning to world's end. Also, the little bickerings fester and grow into full fledged blow ups in the third act that carry real emotional consequences for the characters involved. The conflicts in the World's End are deeper than the rest of the Cornetto efforts and carry real pathos that is more relatable and ubiquitous to the audience.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are known as solid funnymen, but they carry some serious dramatic acting chops into the World's End. Frost is very good as the straight man to Pegg's arrested development, and the reveals of what happened to their friendship provides the heartbeat of the World's End. Surrounding the two are 4 solid British thespians who get to play around for fun for 90 minutes. Rosamund Pike is independent and spunky as Sam: a nice turn on the love interest trope. Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan all find their little spot in the group and do good comedic and dramatic work around Pegg and Frost.

The World's End will keep you laughing while making you feel a little sad at the same time. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have been doing good work for almost a decade now; it's nice to see them continue to grow as actors without falling on their natural charisma to bail them out. Also, thanks to these guys, the words omen and marmalade will make me giggle anytime they are brought up in conversation, and so will Pegg in a duster. He he.

You're Next
You're Next(2013)

You're Next has fun playing with traditional beats in the horror genre to give the home invasion film a fresh spin. Writer Simon Barrett cleverly shifts beats of the horror genre to different locations in the story to throw the audience off of where You're Next is going to end up. Plus any time you can get animal masks into a movie, you have to do it.

It's mom and dad's (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) wedding anniversary, and the whole family has joined a family retreat in a cabin in the country. This allows family friction to resurface: perceived favorite siblings Drake (Joe Swanberg) and Aimee (Amy Seimetz) draw the ire of Crispian (AJ Bowen) and Felix (Nicholas Tucci). Also along for the ride are the significant others of each sibling, including newcomers Erin (Sharni Vinson), the former student of Crispin, and Zee (Wendy Glenn), Felix's goth girlfriend. After the family gathers for dinner, masked men jam their cell phones and start picking off family members.

You're Next doesn't really have a huge twist, but it's main one is revealed halfway through the film. Once the twist happens, the story is allowed to shift from trapped in the house horror film to revenge flick. This change in tone feels pretty organic as the backstories of the characters have been set up and the "reveal" fulfills the logic requirements. Also, since the hunted/hunter relationship of the characters becomes convoluted, the fates of each character are never quite as obvious as they should be.

Despite the serious nature of the story, lots of humor is drawn from the conversations. The humor works because of how well the actors play straight. For example, one character might have a little bit of necrophilia, but when they bring it up, the other character simply freaks out and scolds the person for being childish. The humor isn't really called out by funny sounds or music; it just happens as a result of the story, and it never overtakes the overall severe tone of the film. It's refreshing in a horror film for a person to remark on how amazing it is that a blender could be such an effective weapon.

Lots of the credit goes to the actors who are mostly character actors in the indie circuit. Sharni Vinson is the big winner here: matching charisma with steel resolve. Joe Swanberg does good work with an underwritten part. Wendy Glenn sells her character's mix of humor and grimness. More importantly, no one gives a bad performance.

You're Next sounds like a standard slasher film. Kudos to the creative team who flips the title on it's head to create an effective original movie while still satisfying fans of the genre. One question though: who still has a five disc player? Next time try to secure the Spotify or iTunes financial backing.

Jobs
Jobs(2013)

Steve Jobs is as amazing an innovator as they come. His ability to look past the possible and create something people themselves didn't know they wanted is a rare gift only the best among us possess. Jobs the movie is mostly the opposite of that. Using The Social Network as a framework, Jobs throws much of the man's life on the screen, sometimes with no real reason and (like the man's life) feels unfinished and shortchanged. And there wasn't even one mention of the iPhone.

Jobs tells the story of the Apple founder (played by Ashton Kutcher) from college through the invention of the iPod. Along the way, we learn about his friendship with Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), his partnership with Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) to fund Apple, and his fights with John Scully (Matthew Modine) and Arthur Rock (JK Simmons) for corporate control of his company. In addition, we get glimpses of how his ideas clashed with his personal life to create the man we knew today.

Jobs is at its best when it focuses on Steve Jobs creating and pitching his ideas. The enthusiasm from the cast members when involved in those parts of the story are the narrative driving force and should be given more of a study. The Steve Jobs set up by the film is a force of creativity, so a study of leaving people behind who get set in their ways or attempt to inhibit innovation would have been a very compelling story with a much tighter focus. In addition, the story could have given Jobs's character a more satisfying arc to include newer creations like the iPhone or iPad showcasing how Steve learned to play well with others while still fostering a culture of ideas in his company.

Unfortunately, the screenplay feels like 2/3 of it was left on the cutting room floor; perhaps Jobs would have worked better as a miniseries. Any attempt to give Steve a life outside of Apple fails pretty amazingly. A teacher in the first 5 minutes gives Steve some advice and is never heard from again; his daughter Steve is convinced is not his own is shown asleep on his couch and never brought up again. His girlfriend who has his baby pleads for Steve to be involved about 30 minutes into the film and is never heard from again. Sensing a pattern? In a fear to probably incorporate as much of the biography as possible, Jobs takes fragments of compelling stories, introduces them, and hopes that will be enough for the audience at home. These side stories detract from the main narrative, which shortchanges the Apple computers story and forces it to take large jumps in years from event to event to seem more cohesive than Jobs actually lays them out.

Do not blame the disappointment of the film on Ashton Kutcher. To his credit, Kutcher nails the Jobs walk (I didn't know it was a thing until I saw it) and usually finds the right note in his many scenes with outbursts. Kutcher is better than passable here, and I hope he uses this performance as a jumping off point to an interesting career. The rest of the cast was hired for comparable looks to their parts as opposed to their acting ability (Josh Gad: I'm looking at you) with a couple exceptions. Dermot Mulroney is solid as Jobs's investor, with a nicely drawn arc fully fleshed out by the actor. Lukas Haas is also good as a friend who has been left behind.

Jobs the movie is passable entertainment that leaves a large amount on the table. A better focused screenplay could have created a couple great films out of the Jobs biography, but instead we're left with a half-formed story. Next time, also include an iPad and Bill Gates; most people find those things interesting.

Kick-Ass 2
Kick-Ass 2(2013)
½

Kick Ass was a fun take on the superhero genre. It simultaneously lampooned and embraced the tropes of a superhero film to craft something fresh and biting. So, naturally, there had to be a sequel. Kick Ass 2 never gets near the level of its predecessor, but it still manages to have some fun while trying to go deeper down the violence rabbit hole. This comic book film is only for of-age nerds.

Since the end of Kick-Ass, the three leads have gone in different directions. Dave Liszewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has mostly gone back to his high school self, but more bored. Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace-Moretz) has chosen to moonlight her Hit Girl persona against the wishes of her guardian Marcus (Morris Chestnut). And poor Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is so obsessed with getting rid of Kick-Ass that he decides to become the world's first supervillain. Just as Dave decides to don the Kick-Ass costume again, Mindy decides to retire and goes back to high school. Rudderless without his Robin, Dave finds a new group of heroes led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), who cite Kick-Ass as their inspiration.

Kick-Ass got criticized for its excessive violence, especially involving the young girl. Since she's more grown up here, Kick-Ass 2 tries to up the ante with some truly disturbing scenes which aren't really funny and mostly low hanging fruit. Because of the wild less controlled shifts in tone, the audience is never sure if the violence is a threat or a joke. Kick-Ass 2 has one of the worst executed rape jokes that is not funny and downright demeaning to all involved, as well as some bowel related humor that has minimal payoff due to the direction of the story.

The story's main thrust is action sequences, which are mostly well choreographed and executed. Like the first Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2 on a minimal budget does some cool things with the final battle and use of a super-Russian soldier. Where Kick-Ass 2 could have been more compelling were the side stories. Identity is brought up more than once, and Dave and (especially) Mindy have important decisions to make as the movie goes along. Mindy's insertion into a girl clique in school has some nice social commentary and compelling ideas about a superhero coming back to a world bound by rules; however, the subplot's payoff is mediocre at best ruining some really compelling ideas about dual identities.

The acting credits range cover the acting spectrum. Since this is mostly Hit Girl's movie, Chloe Grace-Moretz gets more screen time: a good decision, because she beautifully walks the comedy/drama line. Any scene with Moretz is usually a very good one. Aaron Johnson is again solid as Kick-Ass, but he is just not as interesting a character as written. Jim Carrey is unrecognizable as Colonel Stars and Stripes and makes nice work of the scenes he is in. On the bad end, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is so unhinged that I'm surprised his head didn't move like a Pez dispenser. His story would have been great in the hands of a more complex actor, and Mintz-Plasse just isn't there yet.

Kick-Ass 2 doesn't have time to be subtle. It beats you into the ground with its fists and comic book references. When not trying so hard there is some interesting ideas, but who cares when a 14 year old girl can fight a Russian tank of a woman? Can't believe I'm saying this, but I missed Nicholas Cage a lot.

Lee Daniels' The Butler
½

The Butler serves the same purpose as Forrest Gump: it tells the story of America through the eyes of one person. In this case, the point of view is of an African-American Butler for the President of the United States. Anchored by strong performances and a unique perspective, Lee Daniel's (the Director) The Butler is a fine piece of Americana that showcases the arc of race relations in the United States from 1920 to today. Oh yeah, and get ready to see Oprah at the Oscars again.

The butler in question is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). We see his start on the plantation and his progression to the White House because of his acumen for being professional and apolitical. From Eisenhower to Reagan, Cecil serves his country proudly through hard work and dignified elegance alongside fellow butlers Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz). Cecil's dedication to his work generates friction at home on two fronts: his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) falls into an alcohol addiction and his son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes his dad's political doppleganger, joining Martin Luther King and Malcolm X's movements.

The historical portrayals create mixed results in The Butler. Stunt casting is used for each President. None are really great (Liev Schrieber as Lyndon Johnson gets the best moment) and some are downright putrid (John Cusack will not be playing Nixon again soon). However, when the focus is on Cecil's life, the historic resonance has more force. The plantation existence is brough back with horrifying consequences, and the sit-in especially gets a really nice showcase here. I don't know if Louis was in both civil right's movements, but seeing the juxtaposition of civil disobedience versus black power and how it affected Cecil gives a nice view into what must have been going on in most of the black homes in the 60s-80s.

The family dynamic is what makes The Butler special. Unlike The Help, which focuses mostly on the white world, the Butler's focus is entirely in the Gaines household. The conflict between father and son is refreshingly complicated: Cecil belives that diligent service will cause the white leaders to lower their guard and change their minds over time, while Louis believes in a more active and public displays will cause minds to change more quickly. Neither is really wrong; both methods have their merits, and both men are blinded by their personal causes. This stand-off forces Gloria to take sides between her husband and her son; the weight of these decisions weighs on Gloria, but there is a strength in her that she gains as she grows in age and wisdom. The uneasy tension between Louis, Gloria, and Cecil keeps The Butler grounded emotionally and makes the payoffs especially rewarding.

The Weinstein Company is positioning The Butler to be a big Oscar contender, and it should garner at least a few nominations in the acting field. Forest Whitaker can play regal in his sleep; what makes Cecil so compelling is the drive underneath his actions and the thought going through every word he says. Every bit his equal and maybe eclipsing him is Oprah Winfrey, who reminds everyone just how good of an actress she can be. Gloria could easily have become the shrill housewife, but Winfrey gives Gloria many dimensions that after about half an hour I forgot Gloria was played by one of the most powerful media moguls in the world. David Oyelowo has a similar makeup as Whitaker when it comes to the strong silent type, and holds his own when on screen with the other Oscar Nominees. Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, and Vanessa Redgrave do good work in supporting roles as well.

And the 2013 Oscar race is underway. Despite the near preachiness of the story, The Butler is a powerful story of a family in crisis during a time when the nation was in racial crisis. I hope it gets remembered at the end of the year, and I also hope we get to see more of Oprah on screen, so you get more Oprah, you get more Oprah....EVERYONE GETS MORE OPRAH!!!

The Spectacular Now

Teen comedies became a genre after John Hughes defined it back in the 1980s. Since then, there have been many attempts to capture the combination of child and adult that movies like Sixteen Candles excelled at. The Spectacular Now is one of the better entries in the genre because it never condescends or veers too much into melodrama. Anchored by strong lead performances by Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now tells a story that will generate a relatable moment for nearly every audience member, a ubiquitous trait of every good coming of age story.

We all knew a guy like Sutter (Miles Teller) in high school. He was the ultimate carpe diem savant: a smooth talking life of the party who connects with most of the people he encounters. After a long night of partying, he wakes up in the front yard of someone's house while Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley) is on her mother's paper route. With nothing to do, Sutter rides with Aimee to finish the route, thus beginning their will they won't they relationship. As they get to know each other, the pair confronts aspects of their life they were unwilling to face alone.

Okay, first the minor quibbles. There are a couple scenes in the movie that occur later on that feel like studio edits, one involving a car fight is so unexpected that it kind of works, but it still feels unnecessary. Also, even though Aimee is clearly a strong willed girl, when it comes to Sutter she fails to call him out early on when she is being used which stretches credulity as it is repeated a couple times.

The strength of the Spectacular Now is its grounding. Sutter and Aimee are real people, and any scene involving the two of them feels pulled from day-to-day living. That doesn't mean the scenes lack dynamism: quite the opposite in fact. The first intimate scene between the two plays out in a very logical way, but it also has power because the connection between Sutter and Aimee has been cutely developed; they are ready for this step. It is also nice to see that Aimee doesn't suddenly become the queen bee of the school; she dresses nicer and goes out in public more, but she is every bit her core self with a little more self confidence from her high profile relationship.

The success of The Spectacular Now hinges on Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. We have to believe they could be together, that they interest/challenge one another, and that their chemistry is not forced by the story. Woodley's strengths are the subtle movement of a hand or her head to convey how she is feeling. She makes Aimee sure of who she is with hints of issues eating at her: a success not many actresses can replicate. The big star here is Miles Teller, who is channeling a young Vince Vaughn with his fast talking charisma. Teller makes it easy to believe why people like to be with him, but he also generates some moment of heartbreak with his facial tics or the way his voice changes when he says something. Teller and Woodley are great together as well, with a rat-at-at that feels like high school: small talk that leads to heartfelt connection. Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leight, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead do solid supporting work as people caught in Sutter's tailspin; each is given enough complexity to justify their role in the movie. Kyle Chandler plays against type here as a warning sign for Sutter's future trajectory; for the most part he is good, if a little too honest right away.

The Spectacular Now may be imperfect, but so is adolescence. The mistakes the story makes can not deter its essence, which is a simple beautiful love story about two people who use each other to try to better their lives. Those themes are resonant and relatable thanks to the gifted work of Teller and Woodley; here's hoping we see more of them together.

Elysium
Elysium(2013)

Neill Blomkamp has been a rising star in the sci-fi world. After the Halo movie fell through, Blomkamp (29 years old) directed District 9, a best picture nominee and one of the great recent science fiction films. His star is so high that he was offered (and turned down) a chance to direct the new Star Wars movie. Blomkamp used his clout to pitch Matt Damon Elysium. This Blomkamp sophomore offering never quite reaches District 9's heights, but it is a solid film with enough ideas to leave me excited about the young director's future cinematic pursuits.

We leave Johannesburg South Africa for 2154 Los Angeles. Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) is living the straight man's life after being arrested for a few felonies. After a mishap at work leaves Damon 5 days away from death, he seeks help from local Robin Hood Spider (Wagner Moura) to try to get to Elysium which has universal healthcare machines that remove any disease from the body. Max's moves draw the attention of 3: John Carlyle (William Fichtner), Max's former CEO; Delacourt (Jodie Foster) the high ranking military defense leader on Elysium; and Kruger (Sharlto Copley) an unhinged cyborg with a score to settle. Complicating the matter is Max's old flame (Alex Braga), who has a dying daughter in need of Elysium's medical devices.

District 9 was made with a million dollars. Elysium's budget is significantly higher, and Blomkamp spends most of the movie showing us how he spent it with amazing results. The sweeping panoramic comparison of dystopian LA to Elysium is a beautiful opening hook. Elysium itself is a brilliant creation of a satellite crossed with a Ferris Wheel with a gorgeous overly clean aesthetic. The devices are pretty cool as well; guns have bullets that behave more like grenades and the robotic renderings look similar to the prawns from District 9. The action sequences are well shot with some fantastic explosion sequences and minimal shaky cam. Thankfully, the violence in Elysium creates some truly grotesque deaths (one involving a face is cringe inducing) reminding everyone that violence can be scary.

Unfortunately, something's missing with Elysium (not just the 99%). The film introduces us to a lot of ideas but never follows through on them until the eventual mono e mono fight at the end. Funnily enough, the world building warrants almost a TV show or a miniseries. Blomkamp is very good at making the future look dirty; yes robots are now parole officers, but they have graffiti all over them. The power dynamics on Elysium are used solely for plot, leaving a very interesting coup subplot on the table. Themes of universal healthcare and the 1% vs 99% are beaten into the audience by the hour mark. Elysium throws these elements at the audience hoping it will all coalesce, but it never quite gets there.

Some of the blame on this is the character development and performances. Matt Damon is forced into the misunderstood everyman who rises up. Damon does his best here, but the character has no arc: his choices feel story driven and not character driven. Jodie Foster deserves a Razzie nomination. The two time Oscar nominee has a weird accent and makes really bad choices when she's onscreen; she is by far Elysium's biggest disappointment. Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Alex Braga and others don't get a lot to do in their roles and are mostly there for Matt Damon. The big bright spot is Sharlto Copley, who's unhinged Kruger has terrifying fits of menace (Blomkamp clearly likes working with him).

Elysium means a place or state of perfect happiness. The 1% on the orbiting world would agree, but unfortunately I do not. Because of the uneven walk between serious and entertaining, Elysium never quite achieves movie utopia. It does make me really interested in trying to become a cyborg though; you always end up looking like a badass.

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station is coming out at a time where it is extremely relevant in society today with the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. Oscar Grant's personal Shakespearean arc shares some similarities to that case. Even though the movie leaves some studies of societal ills towards former incarcerated people on the table, Fruitvale Station is a powerful study of a man trying to make his life work and through a series of bad decisions and bad luck, his personal journey is cut short.

After a jarring phone video captured in the heat of the moment that 2009 New Year's Day in San Francisco, we are transported to 1 day earlier in Oakland where Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is spending the night in bed with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). From there, we go about the day-to-day activities that Oscar goes through, like dropping kids off at school, trying to get rehired, drug opportunities, and celebrating his mom's (Octavia Spencer) birthday, which is on New Year's Eve. Oscar and Sophina catch the train to see the fireworks in San Francisco, but on their way back, Oscar gets into an altercation on the train and is forced off by the Bay Transit Police. Videos from the "interrogation" show how poorly the cops handle the situation that leads to Oscar being shot and killed, which caused lots of race related riots in California.

Part of me wishes more were done with the study of a poor black man who is trying to make up for his past indiscretions and how society is too cruel to forgive him. Maybe scenes with indifferent parole officers or filling out a job application that doesn't hire jailed people just to more completely paint Oscar's picture could have elevated Fruitvale Station to another level. As is, hints of broken parts of the system are present, but kept simmering in the background of most of the film.

Fruitvale Station is compelling because of how real the movie Oscar Grant is. He operates in the gray area. He deals drugs because he can't hold a good job because he was late for work dropping his kid off at school. When challenged, he pushes back if he feels too pressed upon, but when someone is in need, he finds a way to lend a hand. Just when the movie gets a little strained showing how good Oscar can be, the next scene usually brings him back to Earth. This version of 50 shades of gray (without the S&M) keeps Fruitvale Station compelling without knowing Oscar's eventual fate.

Much of Fruitvale Station's success is due to the star-making performance that Michael B. Jordan gives. Jordan effortlessly walks in Oscar Grant's shoes, going from humiliated to violent back to scared and humble (sometimes in the same scene). Jordan walks with the confidence of actors much older than he and could be getting some serious Oscar buzz. Also in the Oscar's sights should be both women: Melonie Diaz plays Oscar's girlfriend as the right mix of loving but skeptical. Oscar has clearly broken her heart before, and she's not ready to fully trust him yet. Octavia Spencer, 2011's Best Supporting Actress winner, turns in another strong performance as Oscar's mother with an equal mix of wisdom and worry.

Make sure you stay before the end credits roll. The fates' of the police officers should make your blood boil if you have a heart of some kind. Fruitvale Station could stand as a beacon for more social justice. At its worst, it is a fascinating study of a man trapped by a combination of himself and his society. Get ready to hear the name Michael Jordan become as synonymous in acting as it is in basketball very soon.

The To Do List

I wonder what John Hughes would think about Brandy Clark and the To Do List. Writer/Director Maggie Carey's debut film contains pieces of an 80's high school film, but ratchets up the raunchiness to a 10. Despite its overt repetition of awkward sex acts, The To Do List is at times a very funny picture with some fun spins on the teen sex comedy.

Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) is the anal retentive valedictorian of her Boise high school. Before she goes to college, Brady learns from her sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) that college is like a sexual pop quiz, so Brandy creates a To Do List of sex acts to try before culminating with intercourse with local heartthrob Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Encouraging Brandy along her journey are her friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat), Wendy (Sarah Steele), and Willy (Bill Hader, also her boss); and her mom (Connie Britton) but definitely NOT her dad (Clark Gregg).

And so begins our descent into the 90's genre movie. The opening credits make it very clear what decade we are in, and The To Do List beats the aspect of the decade into the ground. Music choices are obvious and bordering on annoying as the story goes along, and lines like "electronic mail" and "rent the VHS tapes" reek of low hanging fruit. However, when servicing the plot, little jokes here and there are subtle and fun like Brandy's Trapper Keeper.

Maggie Carey must have been caught in the act a lot; much of The To Do List's jokes rely on someone barging in on Brandy in the middle of an act. The To Do List does up the ante on the gross factor of the acts (particularly the blowjob scene), but like the rest of the movie it gets repetitive after a while. Also, subplots here don't work very well if the topic of discussion is not Brandy. When the story focuses on the awkward flirting and escalation of sexual acts, the To Do List generates its biggest laughs, particularly when Brandy bounces ideas off her friends or family.

The success of the film relies upon Aubrey Plaza. Despite her old age (30 playing 18), Plaza nails the type A Brandy and the awkward flirting; this character is a more forceful version of her Parks and Recreation character, making it easy for Plaza to find a relatable angle for the audience. Adam Pally, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Johnny Simmons, Donald Glover, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jack McBrayer, Scott Porter, and Andy Samberg give Maggie Carey an awesome All-Star Cast of working comedians that can create an enjoyable film in their sleep. Two actors stand out here though outside of Plaza, and they are her parents: Connie Britton has fun being a casually honest sexually aware mother, and Clark Gregg gets a laugh anytime he is on screen with his uptight approach to talking about sex with his daughters. In a movie with all these comedians, Gregg and Britton get the best laughs playing against type.

The To Do List puts a fresh spin on the teen sex comedy. Instead of idealizing the deed, the movie chooses to treat it like a part of life and casually deals with its consequences. The debut of writer/director Maggie Carey is a solid one, and I look forward to her films in the future. I do have one piece of advice though: if you do more 90's films, can you make more outfits with t-shirts and plaid overshirts? I'd like to see that trend come back.

The Wolverine
½

Hugh Jackman gets to combine everyone's favorite conflicted X-man with a little bit of trauma from his Oscar-nominated Jean Valjean. The Wolverine is a pleasant side quest in the superhero world focused on the clawed, indestructible animal. Despite its derivative third act, the Wolverine gives Marvel fans hope that the X-men can be successfully weaved into the Avengers ever-expanding superhero universe, plus several shots of the Jackman midsection.

We open on August 9, 1944 in Nagasaki on Logan (Hugh Jackman) saving a man from the nuclear attack, then on a bedside conversation with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom Logan had to kill due to events in X-Men: The Last Stand. After this brief intro, we find Logan as a recluse in the American wilderness. He is brought back to the world by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who takes him to the man he saved all those years ago (played by Hal Yamanouchi) that is now dying. He offers Logan a chance to become mortal, but before he can choose, the man dies which sets the Japanese mafia out to kidnap Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the old man's granddaughter who stands to inherit the man's fortune. Logan and Mariko go on the run together, trying to piece together the cause of the kidnapping attempt.

Director James Mangold's best features have a strong dramatic component, and here is where the Wolverine's strength lies. Mangold elects to shoot most of the movie in smaller sets to create a more intimate setting and story. The opening sequence with Jean Grey sets up Logan's fragility. Logan is a broken man and through the plot we learn that Mariko is a little broken herself. Watching the two of them fix each other is very deliberately executed so it feels natural (with one exception: the love interest part is unnecessary and eye-roll inducing). Yukio's mutant powers also act as a curse to hear, leading to a nice scene with Logan where they bond over the death of her parents. When the dust settles in the Wolverine, the character interaction is what sells this film.

However, this IS a story about mutant powered humans, so there are bound to be some action sequences. The nuclear bomb is quite chilling to behold. The bullet train sequence is The Wolverine's highlight. The dizzying acrobatics without resorting to shaky cam or overt CGI is a strong entry into the superhero action sequences. Unfortunately, this happens halfway through the film. In addition, the PG-13 rating means that Logan's giant claws generate little to no blood when they attack.

Which brings us to the third act. Without revealing anything, Logan's arc as a character is essentially completed before the final battle begins. As such, the stakes for the battle feel artificial at best. The villains that take center stage in the third act are also very hammily played or lack any persona at all. Instead of being on the edge of my seat, I felt nothing. The one cool twist in the battle (involving part of the Wolverine persona) could have been used earlier to cripple Logan and add to his frailty.

If there were any worry that Hugh Jackman could carry an action film, those doubts should be laid to rest. Jackman gives the Wolverine a fun combination of anger, regret, and stoicism. He can deliver the gruff one liner as well as he can panic when reliving his nightmares (plus like his namesake, he's jacked). Flanking Jackman are two Japanese women in their first roles who acquit themselves well. Rila Fukushima looks like the less seasoned of the two, but she is more fun and even gets some solid range with a cute dramatic subplot. Tao Okamoto is alone with Jackman for most of the film, and carries a similar scarred but strong and dignified demeanor. Her chemistry with Jackman is solid, nicely matching his brash speak with soft spoken words. Famke Janssen does good work reinhabiting Logan's version of Jean Grey. No other characters get enough screen time to leave strong impressions save one: the woman who plays Viper is pretty awful and just there to look pretty.

The Wolverine feels like the deep breath before the plunge. The intimate story about Logan the man gives Marvel the chance to reestablish one of its better characters before weaving him into a bigger tapestry again (make sure you wait through the credits). One thing I don't quite understand: why is every movie character "cursed" with eternal life always unhappy? You have all the time in the world to get over a lost love or a terrible war, and you get to try every possible life you could want. That sounds amazing to me.

Marvel's The Avengers

Summer blockbusters have varied over the years. Jaws was the first one, a thrill ride that touched something fearful inside all of us. Back to the Future was fun to think about as well as experience. Now, movies like Independence Day and Transformers show us how things can get blown up in the most amazing way possible. The core of all of these movies though is fun: it's fun to see people overcome their ferars, travel through time, and blow things up. The Avengers, Marvel Comics moniker for their collection of superheroes, is pure, enthusiastic fun. On top of that, it injects the superhero genre with something that hasn't been extensively studied: a super team (with Exceptions being Watchmen and Mystery Men).

While Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) have been off having their own adventures, SHIELD members Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), Agent Hill (Colbie Smulders), Professor Erik Selvik (Stellan Skarsgard), and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) have been learning about the uses of the tesseract, a multi-dimensional energy tool. Trying to take it from them is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's adopted (this is made clear) brother who was lost at the end of Thor, the movie. Loki wants to use the tesseract to unleash an alien army on earth, with Manhattan being the beginning of the enslavement of the planet.

As you can see above, there are a large number of characters in this movie. Credit goes to Joss Whedon for successfuly giving each character a moment or two to shine, including minor characters like the SHIELD agents. More importantly, the time is equally proportioned based on the pedigree of each of the superheroes. Iron Man has more screentime than say, Captain America, who is not as interesting/complicated of a character. Each character moment is also built around who the character is, which is a nice way of saying the moments don't feel forced or over the top, they feel organic to the story.

The special affects aren't stellar, but they are very good. The last 45 minutes is lots of CGI related battles, and I never felt as if I was not sure who was battling who like in Transformers. Yes, there are lots of explosions, but there is enough time between them to make sure the audience is centered to what is going on.

The acting is fine across the board. Downey is very good, but surprisingly so is Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, who finds the right tone for his character in this film. Clark Gregg, in an expanded role, is also nicely drawn. Some of the other characters do not have as much to do such as Black Widow and Hawkeye, but they are established enough in this movie to be expanded upon in later films.

Even though it is not perfect (the 1st 45 minutes can bog down in story), the Avengers provides nice counterweight to other superhero adventures like Batman. While Batman taps into the struggles of being a superhero, the Avengers embraces the wonderful fantasy of the superhero. When I read comic books as a child, I imagined myself flying though the air like Iron Man, smashing things like the Hulk, and shooting a bow an arrow like Katniss Everdeen, I mean, Hawkeye. The Avengers ushers in the summer blockbuster season with the enthusiasm of you inner child. Just sit back, and let the joy sweep over you.

The Conjuring

Oh man, I haven't been this scared in a long time. The Conjuring goes back to horror's roots to deliver a very frightening film. Director James Wan (like Joss Whedon with Cabin in the Woods) adds a new wrinkle to the horror genre by tweaking a familiar fomula with a self-aware piece. All the beats are there: the haunted house, demonic possession, exorcisms, etc with one contemporary layer: there is also a ghost hunting couple with years of knowledge in the field that helps the family with their problem. The extra complexity of the story keeps the Conjuring fresh and still very scary. Also many of the subplots with the Warren family are pushed to the side in the final act (which can sort of be forgiven since they hint at a possible continuation of the story).

Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron have been struggling and moved into a new house in the middle of the woods with their four daughters in 1971. After a few days, each family member encounters some strange and ominous noises and enounters with the presence in their home. With no where else to turn, Carolyn attends a seminar by Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren, who have been releasing demons from people's lives for a long time. However, as soon as the Warrens enter the fray, the demonic demonstrations become more aggressive and sinister.

Let's get out the small issues first. The little girls could have used more character development. As is, to stick to the "Based on true events" story (also irritating), the sisters are treated like a collective scared child entity. Like any horror movie, there are some logic leaps that aren't really necessary. At one point the move out of the house plan is recommended, but the family accepts the Warrens' recommendation that that plan won't work. A simple night in a hotel room with the spirits still there would have worked better, and helped establish the Warren credibility by saying why the demon followed them. These little faults could have been corrected with one extra look over the script and launched The Conjuring into rareified horror air.

That is because The Conjuring is one of the scariest movies in recent memory. The reason it is so scary is complex. The Boo moments are effectively executed because of a seamless combination of sounds, camera, and timing. The sounds feel natural to the setting and are grounded in the ordinary, thus growing audience dread and paranoia as The Conjuring progresses. The camera is awkardly placed so multiple locations (like a door and a cabinet) where a scare can be generated exist on screen, making the audience guess where the scare is coming from. Plus, blurred backgrounds and first person point of views with sudden movement (that is not disorienting) keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Most importantly though, the timing of the scares is off. The first 30 minutes does a great job setting this up; at one point a character enters the recently discovered pitch black cellar with just matches, has to relight several, and then turns on a light downstairs, leading to a thud coming from upstairs. One of these three innovations (sound, camera, timing) would have been enjoyable, but the combination of the three keeps the scares consistently effective.

Most horror finales have a big reveal of a grotesque or shadowy figure that sucks the air out of the film. The character development from the adults raises the stakes of the scares in the Conjuring's third act. The Perrons love of family and their children allow Ron Livingston and especially Lili Taylor's fight against the demons to become more intimate and extremely involving. Also by this time, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have grown interesting personalities and have become equal main characters; their fates become intertwined with the Perron family and they have to overcome real and metaphorical demons in a smart but also emotional and honest way. Wilson has worked with Wan before and is good here, but Farmiga establishes herself as the soul of The Conjuring. She makes the audience feel what she is feeling.

The Conjuring is something most horror movies are not: smart. Because of the careful consideration put into the characters and the scares, all frights have the double hit of being scary to the audience and for the audience. James Wan firmly establishes himself as one of the most innovative horror directors today. He can direct atmosphere horror (Insidious, The Conjuring) or torture porn (Saw) equally effectively. I look forward to some studio giving him more creative license to truly see what the man can do.

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim(2013)

Monsters versus robots. For any fanboy, that statement alone is worth at least a strong consideration. Fortunately for all the people forced to be dragged along to this film, Pacific Rim does enough character work to fill time between the spectacular robot and monster warfare. Despite its plot holes and untested leads, Pacific Rim emphatically delivers on its battles and alien design. Plus Ron Pearlman shows up in human Hellboy outfits.

The film lets us know that after a portal is opened up under the sea, the Kaiju have come across and started attacking cities on the Pacific Ocean. Enter the Jaegers: mechanical robots piloted by two team members since both need to form a bond with the machine to operate effectively (usually a family combination). After a tragic battle taking his brother's life, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) drifts into the background of society to forget his past. He is summoned back to the forefront by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) his former commander of the Jaeger program who now operates the machines as a resistance movement. Raleigh is assigned a new partner, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the best student in the program with no real machine experience. The two must overcome their tragic pasts and grow their connection to successfully fight the increasing number of Kaiju coming through the "bridge."

The highlight of Pacific Rim are the battles between the Jaegers and the Kaiju, and boy are these battles massively entertaining spectacles. The introduction and first battle emphasize the importance of a theater viewing, as the grandeur of the spectacle is impressive. The Battle of Tokyo 2/3 of the way through the film is by far Pacific Rim's highlight, making fun use of the attacking powers of the Kaiju and Jaegers alike. The one minor misfire is that the final battle takes place in a dark underwater location and does not prove to be as entertaining as the Tokyo battle. That being said, Pacific Rim delivers on the promise of very cool battles of titanic creatures.

There are too many plot holes that keep Pacific Rim from entering rarefied sci-fi air. The scientist subplot makes logic leaps to solve plot issues for the humans in the Jaegers. The battle savvy of the Miko/Raleigh pair grows exponentially after a shaky trial run when the plot needs them to step up. For the most part, Pacific Rim simplifies the plot to keep holes more miniscule, but there are enough questionable justifications to leave the audience scratching their head a little.

The character development and subplots are ok at best and middling/useless at worst. Raleigh and Miko's haunted past is an easy enough story; Miko's is more affecting since we get to know here before her story unfolds (and it happens when she's just a child). The dual scientist subplot about Kaiju-human mental connections is mildly funny but becomes irritating when given too much screen time. Pacific Rim's characters never quite achieve three dimensions, but effort is given to give them some depth with mostly positive results.

Some of the result of the character development goes to the actors. Charlie Hunnam leaves the Sons of Anarchy to pilot his Jaeger solidly, if unmemorably. Rinko Kikuchi is the heart of Pacific Rim; her confident exterior melts behind anger and fear with good results. Idris Elba gets to give the big speech and does well with it; he gets better as the movie goes on. Charlie Day, Ron Pearlman, and Burn Gorman get some good comic relief, and would be fun to follow in an odd couple sort of way.

Pacific Rim lets director Guillermo Del Toro deliver his love of monster films to the audience and leaves them mostly with a smile on their faces. If the Tokyo battle doesn't leave you at least a little impressed with how fun a robot vs. monster battle can be, you have a stone cold exterior. One question I do have for Mr. Del Toro though: how much FX do you watch (Charlie Day is in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Charlie Hunnam and Ron Pearlman are in Sons of Anarchy)? Hopefully, Del Toro keeps going back to the FX well: the acting is good and can add something extra to a great special effects film like Pacific Rim.

The Heat
The Heat(2013)
½

Move over Judd Apatow: there are two new sheriffs in town. The Heat proves that Bridesmaids was not a fluke, and that the comedy troupe now in charge are the women: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Maya Rudolph among others. The Heat adds the X Chromosome to the buddy cop genre, with vulgar and hilarious results. Even though it is a tad too long and not every character is great, the Heat keeps everyone consistently laughing that it really doesn't matter.

By-the-book Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is the up and comer in the FBI world; she wants her boss's (Demian Bachir) old job since he is getting promoted. She is assigned to a drug case in Boston, where she crosses paths with Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) a beat cop with a penchant for breaking rules. The two must join forces to take down a drug dealer that gets involved with Mullins's family.

The plot of the Heat has been done before, hitting similar beats of the good cop/bad cop routine done lots in the 80s. What the Heat understands well is giving each main character a nice background to humanize and relate the pair to the audience. Mullins loves Boston and her family; Ashburn doesn't relate to people well and is convinced she's right. These are simple flaws and traits that make it easy for the audience to root for the characters as the story goes on. Also, a great deal of effort goes to making each character equally smart and inventive with obtaining necessary information.

The plot of The Heat is almost rendered unnecessary because of the amazing amount of laughter it generates. Director Paul Feig is an expert at crafting good jokes in a variety of ways, and he gets the most out of his leads' talent. Bullock and McCarthy have great chemistry and work very well together when they are improvising, which is so good it is sometimes hard to distinguish what is scripted and what jokes are not. Feig also uses the individual talents of each lead. He lets McCarthy just shoot off the cuff all the time and let the profanity flow like a beautiful Tarantino monologue. For Bullock, Feig lets her physical comedienne talents take center stage several times, most notably in a club and using a wheelchair. The ultimate testament to the comedy in The Heat is that no matter how off the plot the movie gets, we don't care because the jokes are so funny.

Other actors have mixed results in their roles. Thomas "Biff Tannen" Wilson makes the most of his 10 minutes. Tony "Buster Bluth" Hale is great in his opening sequence. Michael Rapaport actually carries the dramatic heft of the story, and Jane Curtin's irritation at all of McCarthy's actions gets a laugh everytime. Demain Bachir is a misfire; he's playing it so straight he is in the wrong film. Marlon Wayans, Taren Killam, Michael McDonald, and Kaitlin Olson are mostly forgettable, wasting 4 good comedic actors.

Melissa McCarthy is establishing herself as the leader of the next comedy pantheon in Hollywood much like Will Ferrell a decade ago. Sandra Bullock would be Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig Vince Vaughn, and Maya Rudolph Owen Wilson. I hope America is ready, because you will be seeing a lot more of these women in the next 3-4 years. The comedies they are making in Hollywood feel fresh and new, and hopefully some kid going into college will find the Heat to be as endlessly quotable as Anchorman was for myself.

Safe Haven
Safe Haven(2013)

Safe Haven follows Nicholas Sparks formula to a T. A Carolina venue, haunted pasts, kisses in the rain, and a last second twist all make an appearance. For the most part, Safe Haven is passable entertainment; however, the last second twist is so stupid it derails the film for the most part. The central relationship in Safe Haven is perfectly fine, unfortunately Safe Haven's subplots are pretty terrible.

Katie (Julianne Hough) is on the run from her abusive husband (David Lyons). She ends up in Southport, NC: a small town on the ocean. She takes a job as a waitress and runs into Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widow with two kids who runs the local general store, and Jo (Cobie Smulders) who becomes her best friend. Katie's husband proves resourceful however, and soon tracks Katie down, leading to a conflict with her and Alex.

Let's start with the good: the central relationship actually develops very well. Katie gets in with Alex through her kids, who she bonds with first. Alex obviously likes her, but she resists because of her past and then he does because of his. The slow development of the relationship in the slow small town feels very organic and real; these two broken people find solace in each other, and the connection feels real and very nicely earned.

The bad unfortunately overwhelms the good. The subplot with the abusive husband results in some awful decisions by many characters. The character is so one dimensionally written that the decisions he makes are solely plot driven: he risks his job, reputation, and several lives for what appear to be shifting reasons. This character's illogical activity creates a vortex that sucks in every other character around him.

Also, without giving anything away, the plot twist comes out of left field and makes no sense. The twist is supposed to provide an emotional catharsis of some kind, but the catharsis was achieved earlier with the emotional connection between the leads. As a result, the twist is specifically there to shock the audience and lacks any grounding in reality whatsoever.

Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough work very well together. Their chemistry is cute and nicely developed. Both actors have been in enough romantic films by now and their seasoning helps Safe Haven attempt to succeed. Noah Lomax and especially Mimi Kirkland are cute kids with some sadness there; however, it's not hard for kids to be cute. David Lyons and Colbie Smulders are wasted and awful in their roles here. They will spend as much time as possible removing this title from their imdb list.

Safe Haven is correct: this movie knows what it is and executes it. Unfortunately, the results careen off track when not focused around Hough and Duhamel. I'm still trying to figure out what is so special about the Carolinas. Every time I go down there, I get bit by so many flies, and stuck in 1000% humidity.

The Way Way Back
½

The Way Way Back is a reference to the trunk of the family station wagon used on family trips back in the day. The title also aptly describes the era (the 80s) that directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who wrote the Descendants) are trying to recreate with this film. The Way, Way Back hits all the same beats as your standard coming of age story. What makes it better than most is the excellent writing and acting that earns its cliches and payoffs.

Duncan (Liam James) is having a real crappy summer. His mom Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) suggest spending the summer at Trent's beachhouse. While there, Duncan starts working at the Water Wizz water park with the support of owner Owen (Sam Rockwell). When he starts working, Duncan comes into his own, learning how to stand up for himself and even attracting the girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb).

This story has been done many times before, most recently with Adventureland. Here the same parts are present. The wacky locals, the troubled homelife, the pretty girl who doesn't fit in with her friends. The Way, Way Back's characters seems pretty realistic and the conflicts seem organic to the story but easily relatable, meaning that there will be no issues with plot development and stupid character decisions. Also, the shift in tone from drama to comedy is never really forced and very easy to understand.

Smartly, the Way, Way Back's plot is kept to a minimum so the dialogue and humor can rise to the forefront. This dialogue is filled with laughs from beginning to end. What makes the Way, Way Back special is how many different types of humor get created through each unique character. Duncan is so antisocial: most of the awkward jokes are written through him. Owen is very outgoing and confrontational in a fun way, making many of his jokes witty or over the top. Throughout the Way, Way Back, the dialogue is well executed, mixing comedy and drama while still holding true to the characters in the story: a hard task that the Way, Way back uses to great effect.

Making Faxon and Rash's job easier is a group of actors and actresses that the audience will point at and say "I really like him/her." Liam James is the wild card here; he has to sell the biggest character arc in the film despite being relatively unproven. James rises to the challenge, really selling the awkward humor and hitting the big character beats in the third act. James is helped along by one great character actor after another. Steve Carell really tries to humanize this detestable character, but the writing of Trent is meant to be pretty awful. Carell's likeablility and charisma gives more depth to Trent that should not be there. Toni Collette takes another awful character and makes us actually feel sorry for her. Her acting is probably the best acting in the film. Sam Rockwell is channelling classic Bill Murray here, and his magnetism and likeability is charming without being artificial. His scenes with Liam James have a nice mentor/mentee feel. Allison Janney is so good in a limited role here that I would see a spinoff of her family. She gets most of the big laughs. AnnaSophia Robb, Robb Corddry, Amanda Peet, Maya Rudolph, Faxon, and Rash also contribute themselves to the story well.

The Way, Way Back is a nice first effort for the writing pair. They clearly have lots of creative friends in Hollywood, and their gift for the spoken word is evident. I look forward to these two taking some risks on their next project. One day, we will look back at the Way, Way Back with nostalgia for another reason: it will be the springboard of a new directing talent in Hollywood.

White House Down
½

White House Down gives Roland Emmerich a chance to blow up another city. Having taken down New York, Paris, Tokyo, and the entire globe (in 2012), Emmerich sets his sights on DC and the White House this time. White House Down takes a standard Emmerich plot that gives Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx a chance to kick some butt. Sure there are some pretty ludicrous action pieces and the character development is obvious, but it doesn't matter if the explosions are cool and the patriotism is ratcheted up to 11. White House Down knows what it is and delivers on exactly what Olympus Has Fallen did earlier in 2012 but with more Channing Tatum/Jamie Fox and less Gerard Butler.

Things are tense in the United States. President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is proposing a big peace treaty across the Middle East, creating tension with the head of his Secret Service (James Woods and Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). The Speaker's security is John Cale (Channing Tatum), who tries to impress his daughter Emily (Joey King) by scoring a White House visit. Bad timing for John and Emily though: an insurrection of the White House has begun what might be the start of something bigger for the Unites States as a whole.

Like many other Roland Emmerich movies, characters make stupid decisions for the sake of moving the story forward; in White House Down, it appears Emmerich has learned from some of his previous efforts. When a gun is pointed at a character, the character surrenders instead of getting shot since they have no other play: smart. However, John spends most of the movie trying to save his lost daughter, and on a couple instances, he chooses the President over here for no especially good reason. The eye roll quotient on plot contrivances is mostly relegated to the special effects.

Boy are there some crazy scenes near the White House. The chase scene on the White House lawn is illogical with just the amount of bullets shot at the car and not one hitting either Fox or Tatum. It is pretty fun though, lots of fun explosions and car flips. The helicopter crashes seem realistic and are executed well. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are nothing too special even though they are usually pretty easy to follow. The best effect is the realization of the White House under siege, which Emmerich has done before.

The screenplay plays up the conspiracy angle and battles over what are probably the more intriguing stories: the government response in a crisis. The segmenting of power and the use of the 25th amendment gets invoked several times. Decision making could be used with the President fighting with his own government more often to create some very tense realistic situations when terrorism hits. However, Emmerich keeps politics and action separate thus relying on the cover-up part of the story whose conclusion becomes evident right at the beginning of the story. White House down leaves more on the table than taking off it.

Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum do their thing in their roles. Tatum gets to kick some ass; Fox gets to shoot a rocket launcher and deliver some cool speeches. Both of them appear in on the joke. Little Joey King carries the heart of the story well (something Emmerich does in his films, put hope in the hands of a child). Maggie Gyllenhaal is there to brood and be a powerful woman mostly. James Woods gets some development behind his villainy, and Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke are mostly brooding in the background and wasted. The only other character of note is Nicholas Wright who gets the best lines in the film as a tour guide trapped in the White House.

White House Down joins its brothers Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 in the Emmerich summer movie genre, where the toungue is planted firmly in cheek and actions sequences and explosions have a nice level of grandeur. It will never rise too high, but it usually delivers the goods. Roland Emmerich will never be among the ranks of Scorcese or Spielberg, but he will always entertain in dumb fun ways.

Much Ado About Nothing

Modern romantic comedies have bled the opposites attract story to death. Joss Whedon (after the Avengers) puts a spin on the genre by going back to the roots of the rom com: William Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing is a magical transporting experience when focused on Benedick's (Alexis Denisof) courtship of Beatrice (Amy Acker). Much Ado About Nothing's central relationship is strong enough to hold together the rest of the film's weaker subplots.

Much Ado About Nothing is about two major relationships: Benedick and Beatrice have been in a war of wits for years and do not believe in marriage. Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) are young lovers who innocently fall for each other to the chagrin of Claudio's uncle Don John (Sean Maher) who wants to break up the marriage.

Much Ado About Nothing successfully blends humor in dialogue and the slapstick better than most recent films. Whedon's script adapted from Shakespeare takes about 20 minutes or so to get used to, but the actors are very good at conveying the emotions behind the words and the shock wares off and becomes easier to follow as the story goes along. Nearly every character gets a good joke in, although Benedick, Beatrice, and Officer Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) get the best lines. Benedick and Beatrice get the best slapstick scenes when they are forced to evesdrop on conversations. The pair successfully execute pratfalls and commit to the over the top ballet they are asked to perform.

Once the humor switches to drama in the second half, the stronger storylines shine and the boring ones lack payoff. Benedick and Beatrice's will they won't they feels organically compelling after misinformation drew them together because they require the most transformation to end up together. Hero and Claudio's story wraps up in Much Ado's first half and requires numerous contrivances to keep the story interesting in its second half. Because the couple ends up where they were at the end of Much Ado's first act, the payoff isn't as rewarding as the Benedick/Beatrice story.

Whedon purposefully kept the budget for Much Ado About Nothing to a minimum. As a result, he filmed the movie in his own home and wrote the soundtrack himself. The movie is beautifully shot in black and white, making great use of window shading and sunlight from all the open views from his property. An iPhone even gets to report some important information. The score does simplistic scene setting and provides nice backdrop for the party montage.

Whedon recruited many actors from other films/televison programs he was involved in, casting with mixed results. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are winning and wonderful as Beatrice and Benedick, establishing their natural chemistry in anger, dialogue, wit, and drama and winning over the audience with their eventual fate. Nathan Fillion gets some of the best laughs as Dogberry, especially when he is offended. The rest of the cast is pretty much solid with the exception of Sean Maher, who is not quite evil enough or compelling enough to get us invested in Don John's doings.

Much Ado About Nothing modernizes Shakespeare for a new generation. Those suffering from the Leo DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet misfire need not worry about Joss Whedon's take on a Shakespeare comedy. In fact, Joss Whedon's home can be the setting of many more little projects like this if he can keep recruiting quality people and modernizing Shakespeare. Can you imagine Hamlet's life in the TMZ era?

The Bling Ring

Hermione Granger in da club!! The Bling Ring is about a group of teenage cleptomaniacs so obsessed with seeing and being seen, that they decided to perform a little breaking and entering of celebrity homes (Orlando Bloom, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan among others). Writer/Director Sofia Coppola wants this movie about vapid youth to be about something deeper; however, the movie's holes are crater sized due to obsessive repetition and lack of character evolution.

Told in flashback, the Bling Ring starts when Marc (Israel Broussard) goes to the dropout high school and meets Rebecca (Katie Chang). Mark, desperate for friends and notoriety, follows Rebecca around as she tells him about how she likes to break into people's houses when they are out of town. This crime among friends escalates when they decide to invade Paris Hilton's house when they find out she is hosting a party out of town. Soon these wanna-be D list celebs are joined by friends Chloe (Claire Julien), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Nicki (Emma Watson), who comes from a very new age Californian home.

The Bling Ring suffers from repetition which dilutes any sort of message it wants to send. The escalation from car to home invasion is nicely realized, but as more celebrity homes are invaded, the character development and evolution stops. The wet blanket friend remains as such, and none of the other girls really distinguish themselves too much when they rob. Not until they are caught do more character traits come out. The Bling Ring might have done better showing a full arc from beginning to aftermath of its multiple characters to give each more substance, or just simply focus on the motivation of each robbery to give the audience more background on what is going on.

This movie is wonderfully shot; many takes last at least 10 minutes in some of the victims' actual houses. These homes make the robbers seem less horrible since the people they are robbing sometimes showcase greater sociopathic tendencies than the robbers themselves. Multiple shots from computer cameras effectively showcase the fame aspect of the bling ring's thefts. It is not enough to break in to the celeb houses; they want to make sure people know about it as well via facebook or text messaging. The club scenes are the correct mixture of flashing lights and drug induced ecstasy. The insta high explains why the Bling Ring would aspire to the celeb lifestyle.

Emma Watson and Leslie Mann are the big names in this cast. As the mother/daughter combo with a fascinating relationship, Watson and Mann work very well when they share the scenes together; it is a shame they do not get more screen time. Israel Broussard does a good job playing the new kid in over his head; he gets a nice little youtube homage showing off his dance moves and clothes. Katie Chang is fine as the ring leader, but she needed more fleshing out or more mystery to be used as the lead character. Other cast members just blend into the background.

The Bling Ring should have been better had it had a been anchored around Watson and Mann. As is, it is a solid showcase of a culture simultaneously bound by nothing and aspiring to nothing. Maybe that's the point, that any attempt to draw something more out of these people is just a hollow endeavor, which is a very scary thought for the future.

World War Z
World War Z(2013)

In the year of end of the world movies, it is now the zombies' turn. World War Z, very loosely based on the novel of the same name, is at its best a tense, mostly clever thriller; at its worst, it is a scattershot mess with plot holes. Fortunately the tension is usually executed at very high levels for a long time making World War Z a solid summer adventure. However, the movie's scope would like to think it has more to say on the nature of man when it exists on a lesser playing field.

World War Z opens on a normal day for Gerry (Brad Pitt) and Karin (Mireille Enos) Lane. While they are driving to work in Philadelphia, the zombie pandemic starts. Gerry's previous employment involved boots-on-the-ground work in very hostile situations; he strikes a deal to find the origin of the virus for his family's safety. His global hopping includes stops in Korea, Jerusalem, and Wales, where he finds out little pieces about this outbreak and how to stop it.

World War Z excels when showing off its special effects. Despite the PG-13 bloodless killing and camera cutting, the zombie incubation is still gruesome to watch. These zombies are more modern; incubation to zombie is about 13 seconds. They are smarter than previous zombie incarnations: they run and respond very well to sight and sound. More importantly, they operate a lot like insects: to scale walls, they form a makeshift ant hill, making them tougher than a run of the mill undead person. In World War Z, their sheer numbers (and cost of obtaining thousands of movie extras) give them their own little niche in the zombie movie genre.

World War Z is two movies in one: a study of a pandemic's effect on the world and a claustrophobic thriller. The pandemic study is the weaker of the two plots. The study has its moments: communication breakdown is effectively handled and instant panic at the onset of the outbreak is explored very well; however, World War Z doesn't really showcase enough mechanics behind the scenes to give the audience a rooting interest in this side of the story. Contagion better explores these machinations; in World War Z, the outbreak study feels shoehorned in to pay homage to the source material.

Fortunately, this movie is VERY tense. Even with the globe jumping, the main characters are usually stuck in some sort of very dark claustrophobic scenario. Three in particular stand out: an apartment building in Newark, a plane ride to Wales, and a trip to a wing in a research facility. These sequences usually have some logical reason to risk the entrapment, making World War Z's tension more real and raising the stakes. Despite some obvious plot holes (biggest example: how did Gerry realize the zombie weakness based on two patternless examples?) and lack of engaging characters, World War Z keeps the audience on the edge of its seat by placing Brad Pitt right in the middle of all of it.

Pitt does a solid job playing the everyman. He's not really asked to do a lot here except play action hero, and he can probably do that in his sleep. Acting here is mostly kept to the side in favor of the crazy setpieces. One exception is James Badge Dale who makes good use of his 15 minutes or so on screen.

World War Z expands the zombie invasion to a global scale, something never before attempted in what was seen as a niche genre. Despite its behind-the-scenes budget and reshoot issues, World War Z is a pretty effective thriller in the summer movie season. The recipe for niche genres to expand has now been created: make Brad Pitt the star and make a PG-13 rating.

Monsters University

Monsters University stops the bleeding by Pixar. The movie doesn't quite hit the moviemaker's highest of highs, but it does hit some very good emotional beats using the natural chemistry of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James 'Sully' Sullivan (John Goodman). Monsters University doesn't quite reach transcendent status like Pixar's early efforts, but it is a welcome return to form for a high quality studio.

Monsters University starts off with a young Mike getting a tour of his future workplace: Monsters Inc. He becomes so inspired by scaring that he reads everything he can on the subject and goes to the best scaring college: Monsters University. Also attending is family legacy Sully, who has been coasting on his natural scaring and name. Naturally, these two but heads until after an unexpected accident, they are forced to join forces in the socially inept fraternity to win their way back into the good graces of the university.

Monsters University jumps between lampooning and paying homage to the college movie. Coupled with the G rating, many of the jokes are neutered resulting in mixed payoff. Newer stereotypes work well such as the diverse activities fair and older college students going though life changes. However, the frat challenge has been done before and only distinguishes itself by being more colorful. In fact, the writers of Monsters University make sure that kids will understand the jokes first instead of writing for people of all ages. Monsters University moves pretty fast so none of the jokes becomes too stale, but no biting commentary on college living really comes across in Monsters University.

The effects are first rate (in 2D) as is to be expected from a Pixar film. The campus resembles a beautiful mix of modern schools with older universities, with different buildings for tech and arts wings. The monsters themselves are the right mix of cuddly and interesting. Shading is used to excellence in the third act when scaring takes on more of a role as well. Regardless of the story, Pixar delivers on its visual effects in every film; Monsters University continues this trend.

Fortunately, Mike and Sully's relationship makes up for all of Monsters University's shortcomings. Much like Kirk and Spock, Mike's book smarts versus Sully's improvisation is a well that never runs dry and is equally effective comedically and especially emotionally. The climax of the story doesn't exactly go as expected, as the themes of dreams coming true in different ways makes its way to both Sully and Mike. This third act right turn propels Monsters University to a solid ending instead of being just another bland kids film.

Monsters University gave me some pangs of nostalgia about my college experience, most notably the Frisbee quad games and the obscure clubs to join. It was also very colorful and fun, which any person can get behind. I hope this film results in a course correction for Pixar since the third act became so poignant. Maybe the success of Monsters University will bring us the Incredibles 2, which I would be very excited to see.

Man of Steel
Man of Steel(2013)
½

Superman stands for all that is good with the world. Director Zac Snyder tries to put a twist on the man to give him more complications akin to a Christopher Nolan Batman film (Nolan is a producer here). We are left with a cold motion picture that leaves the audience empty inside. Man of Steel is an accurate description of this version of Superman within and without since Superman feels more like a robot than a person.

The film begins with the destruction of Krypton. Jor-El (Russel Crowe) has conceived a son and sends him to Earth with some secrets of his home world. Krypton's destruction is hastened by General Zod (Michael Shannon) who attempts a coup of Krypton unsuccessfully and is imprisoned for a long period of time before escaping. On Earth, Kal-El, renamed Clark Kent (Henry Cavill as an adult) by his adopted parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), is trying to remain under the radar as he searches for answers about his past. Zod's emergence and Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) gumption force Clark out into the open in a direct confrontation with both Zod and humanity itself.

Zac Snyder is great at visual effects, further reinforced by Man of Steel. Krypton's demise is beautiful in its sadness: a grand spectacle of destruction. Battle sequences are a majority of the 2.5 hour running time, and for the most part they are executed very well with fantastic explosions despite the overt use of the shaky cam. Snyder's best visual move involves using the likeness of a person hardwired into a ship's mainframe, a very cunning and inspired idea.

The emphasis on a Michael Bay-like approach to Superman makes the weak point in Man of Steel character development. Even more troubling is the fact that Snyder elects to make Superman more unsure of his moral center. Superman's defining characteristic, in my opinion, is his strict moral code. You can gritty the man by putting him in impossible moral quandaries or by showcasing his development in youth (which Man of Steel does do well). By removing Superman's moral compass you DO clean the slate of the character, but Man of Steel wants him to reach the same conclusion, making Superman a rudderless superhero with no defining characteristic.

Peripheral acting saves Man of Steel from become just another bland action comic movie. Henry Cavill looks the part in the suit which is half the battle. However, his acting chops are stiff at best; keeping his lines to a minimum was a good choice. Amy Adams and Cavill have little to no chemistry either - Man of Steel's biggest acting misfire. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, though severely underutilized, give some heart and texture to Superman's formation. Any scene involving them contains more substance than any of the action setpieces. Michael Shannon gets to chew scenery like a squirrel on a nut, and Russell Crowe does some great work as Jor-El.

Man of Steel feels mostly like a response to Marvel by DC Comics than an inspired tale. Despite the bombastic action, Superman feels cold and lacks proper motivation to fight for humanity. If DC wants to make a Justice League Movie, I'd build the story around another Superhero, but let Zac Snyder handle the special effects.

This Is the End

The apocalypse has been the choice du jour for the movie world in the past couple years. Most of the ways to explore mankind's destruction have been explored: sci-fi (Oblivion), horror (28 Days Later), even rom-com (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). This Is the End finds one of the last remaining ways to approach the apocalypse: humor. This Is the End will probably end up being the funniest movie of the year, earning its R rating with delightfully raunchy dialogue. I mean, what is funnier than a masturbation war described by James Franco and Danny McBride?

This Is the End opens with Jay Baruchel meeting Seth Rogen at the airport (all the actors play themselves in the film). After a fun afternoon doobie session, the pair head over to James Franco's new house where the party of the year is going on. When they go out to grab some cigarettes: BANG! the rapture is going on. After a series of misfortunes only 6 people barricade themselves in the house: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Rogen, and Baruchel. However, their jealousies and sins eventually come to fruition as they realize why they were left behind.

As bleak as the description above sounds, this movie is gut bustingly hilarious. Much like Anchorman or Grown-Ups, these guys clearly like to be around each other and riff off one another. This Is the End is closer to Anchorman on the humor scale though. The party must have been fun to film: Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, David Krumholz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aziz Ansari, Rhianna, Emma Watson, Martin Starr, and Paul Rudd all make appearances and get little moments as versions of themselves. But the crème de la crème of cameos are twofold: a very coked-up sex addicted Michael Cera absolutely kills with his 10 minutes or so, and a secret cameo that is said early in the film involving a very game actor to agree to the role he is given.

Once sealed in Apatow team 6 is in the house together, the humor gets mixed in with the horror aspects very smoothly, using the 6 friends probably day-to-day conversation to great effect: the highlight being the masturbation discussion between Franco and McBride. This Is the End rides the comedic talents of all involved and the growing dramatic talents as well. The movie's anchor is Baruchel and Rogen's relationship, which is slightly on the ropes and keeps the jokes and dialogue relevant. Craig Robinson is actually pretty good at being the heart of This Is the End. His fate is especially rewarding. Hill, McBride, and Franco are given enough winking jokes at who they are to give them fun little extended personalities as well.

This Is the End has more than humor up its sleeve though. Horror is effectively blended into the proceedings to give This Is the End some stakes and even ok scares. The most of the effects/creatures are hidden for the first hour to let the audience use their imagination and stress the claustrophobia of the friends' situation. Darkness and creepy orange clouds create a nice sense of dread. The creatures are the weak point: mostly generic (with one obvious exception) and inspired by the Lord of the Rings.

Ensemble comedies success depends mostly on who is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the film. Their films use the natural abilities of their actors to maximum effect, comedic and otherwise. This Is the End also establishes their credibility as a directing team. The balance between horror and comedy is very smooth and built around characters, not generic punch lines. They even came up with their two next films: Superbad 2 involving a coked up Michael Cera, and Pineapple Express 2 which has a chance to be amazing.

Now You See Me

Magicians are inherently compelling. Built around misdirection and hidden agendas, anything they say or do will have you second guessing what is real and what isn't. Director Louis Leterrier combines kinetic action and a location jumping script to keep the audience guessing. Though the level of disbelief is pretty high in Now You See Me, it is matched by the level of enjoyment. Plus anytime you can get Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in scenes together the audience is already won over.

Through mysterious circumstances, the 4 horsemen: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), come together in a Vegas show sponsored by millionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and rob a bank. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to the case along with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). Being magical novices, the two enlist the help of magic debunking specialist Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who gives the agents a crash course in Magic 101 to help them pursue the horsemen before they finish their three act play.

The biggest failing of Now You See Me is time: time to dissect the plot and expose all the flaws. How did thousands of people get to one of the locations when it was only advertised 20 min before the event happened? When a case needs to be inspected, it is not and sent to where it is supposed to go. One of the characters is not jailed when they should be. These are just a few of the many jumps in logic the script takes.

To Leterrier's credit, his kinetic direction keeps Now You See Me moving so quickly that we barely have time to process what just happened. It helps that the three acts are committed in three different cities: Vegas, New Orleans, and New York City giving a different feel to each of the three acts. There are many little reveals leading to the big reveal at the end (good, not great) which keep the audience on their toes. The cast is big enough to give scenes to different variations of characters. Also, there are a couple really fun chases and magic shows that are exciting and not overlong or repetitive. Now You See Me is just under two hours long, but because of the swift changes in location/character perspective, it never feels boring.

Without the stellar cast, Now You See Me would not be as enjoyable as it actually is. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson elevate one note characters to something a little more; their interaction sizzles with humor and snark. Dave Franco gets to be the action hero of the bunch, but Isla Fisher is semi-wasted after a fun introduction. Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent get a lot of screen time and are both pretty good (just not as compelling as the magicians, a misfire on Now You See Me's part). Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine set the stakes with their involvement and get to have some fun in their roles even if they are underutilized.

"The closer you look, the less you'll see." The defining quote of Now You See Me applies to the script as well as the magicians themselves. If you go in expecting to have fun, you'll love it, if you try to pick it apart, it won't stand up. Do yourself a favor and let yourself get taken along for the ride, because Now You See Me has enough fun to be a main attraction.

Before Midnight
½

Jessie and Celine are back to complete the lowest grossing trilogy of all time. Before Midnight continues the evolution of the couple from a brief fling into a treatise on what true love really is. Set in the Grecian Peleponnese, Before Midnight showcases what truly goes into keeping a relationship working and how you evolve as age and responsibility slowly consume your time.

The last time we encountered Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), Jesse was contemplating missing his plane to stay with Celine. Flash forward 10 years, Jesse missed his plane and divorced his wife. He just finishes spending the summer with his 14 year old son from his ex, lamenting he isn't spending more time with the young man. After the kid leaves, Jesse, Celine, and their twin children head to Greece to talk about literature, life, and responsibility.

Before Midnight adds some interaction for Jesse and Celine with other people; in this case, couples in their 20s, 50s, and 70s. The discussion turns into one of the best defenses of love I have ever seen. By using multiple viewpoints to discuss couples' feelings toward each other, we get a merging of old and new. For example, the younger couples approach their feelings toward each other practically: seeing them as fleeting and living in the moment. These ideas have rubbed off on the 50s couple, who acknowledge having fleeting feelings sometimes as well. The older members chimed in about how the time spent together evolves from youthful passion to joy of the little moments in the day to day life that burn deep into the memory, which Jesse and Celine are struggling to understand under the weight of their upcoming big decisions. I personally fall closer to the twenty something point of view, but I have never heard a defense of love so passionate as the older couple it made me really believe in its power.

Before Midnight spends its latter half following Jesse and Celine around Greece to a hotel room, where one of the best on screen fights takes place in an amazing 30 minute scene in a hotel room. What makes Before Midnight's fight special is the combination of realism and humor. The buildup is very subtle, with the early scenes showing some anger bubbling below Jesse and Celine's surface. Once they get to the hotel room, the gloves come off, starting very subtly as they are about to make love. As the fight goes on, the little traits that make the two of them love each other are used against the other person until the real true feelings come out: Jesse is worried he is not in his son's life enough, Celine doesn't want to move to the US to be close to him, Jesse is apprehensive about Celine's new job opportunity, etc. These come out with angry comments like "You are the mayor of crazy town" and "I don't love you anymore." Each line hurts but because we love the characters we can laugh at what is going on. The realism is best shown in one particular moment: when the fight seems to die down, and one character says the wrong thing, and the fight reescalates. Most blowups on TV/Movies are one big explosion and a resolution, but life is more complicated than that. Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy clearly have lived this and make it look so honest on screen.

The decade offscreen has given Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy time to build life experiences to prepare for Before Midnight. Like the previous films, it is hard to tell where actor ends and person begins, but Hawke and Delpy have aged with their characters and fall back in as if no time has passed at all. Their chemistry is still there, although it has evolved with time (Hawke looks older, but Delpy looks great). Their chit-chat feels honest, combining a little weariness and anger and more practical speak than in the previous films. They again are forced to take part in long takes varying from normal speak to rage, which they strike just right.

Before Midnight ends on a wonderful note: not quite happy, not quite sad, much like what life is like. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke deserve lots of credit for writing a movie version of what true love looks like. Sure, Hollywood wants us to believe it is about grand gestures. Before Midnight knows that love lies in the ever after part of happily ever after, and that is ultimately more honest and satisfying.

Mr. 3000
Mr. 3000(2004)

Mr. 3000 is correctly named. Exactly 3000 seconds into the movie (5 minutes), I could already predict where the story was headed, and how disinterested I was going to be. Taking a ridiculous premise in a genre ripe for parody, Mr. 3000 goes through many cliches on its way to its ending. Like Stan Ross (Bernie Mac), it swings and misses for strike 3 too many times.

After reaching his 3000th hit, Barry Bonds acolyte Stan Ross (Mac) quits baseball during his team's pennant race. Using that number as a lifestyle, he sets up his post-baseball career very nicely for himself. However, due to a stat glitch, he finds out years later that he only has 2997 hits. To make sure his moniker stays in tact, he rejoins the Brewers well past his prime, and learns the true meaning of teamwork and reconnects with an ESPN reporter (Angela Bassett).

The baseball parts are fine, but not too spectacular (Bernie Mac looks like he could be a good hitter), and the team dynamics are subtely explored. However, the shift in character seems much too abrubt especially considering who Ross is "learning from." I doubt Stan Ross would listen to his younger teammates so quickly.

The chemistry is sort of present between Basset and Mac, but it doesn't particulary fit with the family movie feelings the movie is trying to convey. Also, her character seems like a stronger woman; it is surprising seeing her worked over by someone as repugnant through and through as Stan Ross.

Mac's comedy is naturally abrasive, and from his TV shows he can find the right use of it to get across his point. Here though, it seems particularly hostile. It would seem the only reason to hang out with the man is his name, but even that can grow old after a while. The jokes become so abrasive by the end they felt like sandpaper on skin.

Though showing flashes of a good movie, Mr. 3000 meddles in cliches and untapped potential that it turns rotten very quickly. Being a fan of Bernic Mac, it was sad to see him used in such a sad way. Hopefully, he uses reviews like this one for crafting his wonderful sense of humor. I believe in Bernie Mac; I gave up on Mr. 3000.

Bachelorette
Bachelorette(2012)

Bachelorette makes Bridesmaids look better by comparison. When you take the chemistry of Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph away in favor of hateful women with contempt for the person getting married, then you have an unfunny knock off that lacks any payoff. If this film had the guile to push a really awful ending for these women, Bachelorette might have been redeemed. As is, it is one of the worst films of 2012.

Becky (Rebel Wilson) the put-upon member of the girlfriends, is getting married. This causes all sorts of unnecessary stress for the queen bitch Regan (Kirsten Dunst), the slut Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and the ditz Katie (Isla Fisher). The bridesmaids attempt to consume the wedding and inadvertently tear the wedding dress, leading to a night revolved around invading the bachelor party of the groom with Gena's ex Clyde (Adam Scott) and Regan's nemesis Trevor (James Marsden).

Bachelorette is rated R; however, the gags are uninspired and unnecessary. The R rating is used for expletive laden tirades and dirty sex talk that goes nowhere and does not fit in with the story most of the time. Bulimia is mentioned in a jokey context several times when a character who legitimately might die ingested several pills. Bachelorette's jokes are in poor taste and only appeal to the very lowest common denominator.

Geez are all of these people horrible other than the bride and groom. That can be ok if something is learned by the end of the film or if we dig deep and understand the real reason for their ugly behavior, but Bachelorette just lets them exist as is with no real payoff. Worst of all, these characters are mostly given happy endings because of the unearned (and sometimes absent) "lessons" each character learns along the way. These lessons return them to the way they were at the beginning of the film, justifying their actions throughout the entire film.

Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, and Kirsten Dunst should fire their agents. This movie is especially bad for Dunst, who takes every negative viewpoint of a bridesmaid and pushes it to reality TV show drama queen levels. James Marsden and Adam Scott come out a little better, but not much so; plus they are not really interesting.

If you were interested in Bachelorette, I hope by the end of this review you realize that it is not worth your time. Watch Bridemaids again, since it is much funnier and has way more heart. Just forget this movie ever existed; Kirsten Dunst is already in damage control.

Red Dawn
Red Dawn(2012)

Red Dawn in 1984 was relevant and at times chilling. The threat of Russia invading the US at the time was real and terrifying. Now, that threat is more infeasible and the choice of North Korea as the main villain makes the premise in 2012's Red Dawn illogical. On top of that, character development is ignored in favor of explosions, never a good sign to draw someone in.

Unfolding similarly to the early film, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) is back from active duty watching his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck) quarterback his high school football team the Wolverines. Cut to next morning: the kids wake up to planes, paratroopers, and guns from the North Korean Army. They grab their car and take off to the family cabin with other kids Toni (Adrianne Palicki), Robert (Josh Hutcherson), Daryl (Connor Cruise), Julie (Alyssa Diaz), and Danny (Edwin Hodge). While away from the town, the teens evolve into a resistance force called the Wolverines, drawing the ire and attention of the North Korean Forces.

Red Dawn is not all bad. The beginning, like the original, is very chilling. Watching Anytown USA (Spokane in this case) be attacked by armed forces is jarring and forcing kids to watch their parents in such helpless state is never easy to behold. In addition, the changes to the fate of the characters are surprising and unexpected.

Unfortunately the hour or so of filler is poorly developed. Cramming a large story like this into an hour and a half film requires Red Dawn to half-ass the character development. Most of the Wolverines are given one note to repeatedly hit; the first film at least gave them some complexity. As a result, the payoffs lead to no catharsis and just raise logic questions. The ending feels like the end of an episode of TV instead of a film ending. The action should be better, however the camera holder must have some version of palsy, since the shaking is ratcheted up to very high levels.

Acting in Red Dawn is on the whole bad, mostly due to the script. Chris Hemsworth is the best of the bunch, playing stoicism very well. Josh Peck is too whiny and self-indulgent for us to buy his transformation. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's marine is criminally underutilized and could have been excited from the script. Other characters are so poorly developed that it becomes clear that they will not be in the movie very long.

Red Dawn lacks relevancy to be taken seriously. Already starting off near forgettable, it really drifts into indifference with the mediocre script and boring action sequences. Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck are no Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen.

Frances Ha
Frances Ha(2013)
½

Oh to be young in New York. Frances Ha is Noah Baumbach's attempt to take Woody Allen's neurotic New York away from him while Allen films in Europe. Unlike the cynical Allen, Baumbach makes neuroticism endearing with his lead. Frances Ha touches on the struggles for youth living in the moment versus growing up in a light-hearted manner, although it is a little too self-importnat to leave a lasting impression.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is riding high. She shares an apartment in New York with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer) and she is working in her dream job (an aspiring dancer). However, circumstances force her to move around the city and surrounding areas with other friends including Lev (Adam Driver), Dan (Michael Esper), and Rachel (Grace Gummer). These different living situations force Frances to look at her own life and compare it to her friends' and make some decisions about her future.

Baumbach's artistic flourishes keep Frances Ha from becoming something special. The choice to film Frances Ha in black and white is arbitrary and doesn't really add anything to the movie. His musical choices are cute but nothing special, and the use of lighting is fine but not special. Frances Ha at times feels like an homage to a Woody Allen film instead of standing on its own.

Frances Ha succeeds due to the themes that any city-dwelling young person has to confront. As someone in a similar age and career path as Frances, I found the situations very relatable. There are many times I feel as though friends have matured beyond my current lifestyle; the question that Frances (and myself) have to deal with is to what extent is personal evolution abandoment of what I really want out of life? These are tough questions that inevitably have to be confronted, and Frances's journey is showcased through several situations where she hits a crossroads and has to make a difficult life decision. Some decisions are rash, wrong, and eventually well reasoned. These situations are part of city living, making Frances Ha very accessible to millions of twenty somethings.

We only care about Frances's fate because of Greta Gerwig. She is Diane Keaton with no Woody Allen; a charming lovable vulnerable woman-child. She squeaks through some tough conversations on optimism and spunk that have a very lyrical honest feel to them. Despite her self-pity and sometimes sheer stupidity, Gerwig is so likable as Frances that we instantly root for her. It is performances like these that hopefully make Gerwig into a star. Adam Driver, Mickey Summer, and Michael Esper turn in solid supporting work, but Gerwig shines above them all.

Frances Ha is not the character's full name, but there is a nice resolution that describes how her last name becomes "Ha." It is also a description of the chuckling you will have laughing with and at Frances as she learns how to grow up. Greta Gerwig may be a terrible dancer, but she is a wonderful comedienne and actress.

Before Sunset
½

Before Sunset drops a tiny bit of darkness into the magic, transforming it into something bigger than its initial scope. Jesse and Celine's first meeting in Vienna was nothing short of the magic of love at first sight. Before Sunset explores the ramifications of something that special. By reshaping the meet cute though the looking glass of time itself, Before Sunset maintains the true-to-life realism of love in your 30s after the magical realism of early 20's romance in Before Sunrise.

9 years after the night of his life, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) has been so influenced by his time with Celine (Julie Delpy) that he has written a best-selling novel about that experience. On his last stop in Paris, Celine appears. With just over an hour before his flight, Jesse spends that time with Celine in hopes to rediscover the connection he had with her as well as ask her many questions about life, love, and environmental policy.

Vienna got the magical treatment in Before Sunrise. Before Sunset chooses Paris, a city built on magic as its backdrop. Instead of choosing obvious touristy sites, Jesse and Celine take a more practical approach: their conversation takes them through a cafe, a riverwalk/boat, and a garden. The local backdrop gives Before Sunset (like its predecessor) a firm grounding in reality. There are no chases through the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower here: the conversations are exciting enough.

Director Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke were rewarded with an Oscar Nomination for their flowing lyrical interplay. Very quickly, they reestablish the connection forged 9 years earlier. However, these are not the same Jesse and Celine that met 9 years earlier. Linklater does a great job evolving the characters from their original selves, something sequels have a hard time doing. Both are a little more practical and jaded since it is revealed early on that they did not meet up as intended at the end of Before Sunrise. The ill-fated miss has had lasting effects on both of them and leads to a breathtaking final 30 minutes where the dialogue takes an emotionally honest and raw tonal shift that can be predicted from the dialogue previous. These shifts elevate Before Sunset from a nice sequel with flowery dialogue to an honest discussion about lost love and responsibilites vs. emotional honesty. Before Sunset evolves from character specific to character ubiquitous: everyone who connects with someone else has to approach these feelings at one time or another.

Hawke and Delpy clearly have inserted some autobiographical context into their proceedings, making Jesse and Celine a mixture of character and actor alike. The two have such an unforced natural chemistry that is rare in most romantic movies; it is critical that the audience be drawn into this pair to root for them to allow Before Sunset to succeed. After the first few minutes together, it becomes evident these two share one of those rare connections that are hard to describe but wonderful to behold. For this film, Hawke and Delpy add some world weariness to their characters that bubbles to the surface in the final act that feels honest and relatable to anyone frustrated by the complicated feelings that love creates.

Before Sunset, like Before Sunrise before it, makes tangible the untangible. Connections, fate, responsiblity, and love are all dissected and articulated like a beautiful flowerly pontification between two intelligent people. There was a 9 year difference between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. If it takes Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy 9 years to develop a film experience like Before Sunset, I will gladly wait the near decade to find out what happens next for Jesse and Celine.

Fast & Furious 6
½

Dom Toretto officially becomes a superhero in Fast 6. Director Justin Lin is back at the helm for the 6th installment (he also did 4 and 5), and he oversees the transition of the Fast & Furious franchise to full-on self parody. Fast 6 shreds any ounce of character development and connection in favor of over-the-top dialogue and ramping up the last 30 minutes to an extended stupendous action sequence. If you ignore the first hour and just skip to the two chases, Fast 6 delivers. That first hour, even with some cool fights, is still too long. Just watch the trailer, its got all the best parts of the movie anyways.

Fast 6 takes place a little bit after Fast Five. Dom (Vin Diesel) is living in the Canary Islands in Spain with Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster), who now have a kid together. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and new partner Riley (Gina Carano) come to Dom with a proposition: help Hobbs stop current enemy Shaw (Luke Evans) and his whole team gets a pardon. Dom doesn't accept until he finds out that Letty (Michelle Rodruiguez) is part of Shaw's team (Leddy was thought to be dead from the 4th film). Dom assembles the rest of his team including Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Han (Sung Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) join forces with Hobbs, take down Shaw, and get Letty back.

Fast 6 will be remembered as the film where logic is completely thrown out the window. This creates a very mixed bag. The plot holes in Fast 6 become gaping caverns. Hobbs makes a decision late in the proceedings that his character would NEVER make the way he is set up in the franchise, which he would only make to keep the plot going. The worst part is Hobbs's choice exposes a mole, when the mole could just have exposed themself and that would have driven the plot logically. That being said, the final 30 minutes would not have been nearly as breathtaking if forced to abide by the laws of gravity. The plane scene is equally enjoyable due to suspended disbelief. Fortunately for Fast 6, the last 30 minutes delivers, justifying the logic gaps for the most part; however, simple subtle changes could have made the plot gaps smaller and made the crazy ending that much more satisfying.

Fast 6 gets these women more in on the fighting. Gal Gadot gets some really cool set pieces in the big chase sequences. Gina Carano (a welcome addition) is a former MMA fighter who can hold her own with anyone - man or woman - in a fight. She and Michelle Rodgriguez get two really well choreographed fight sequences. Luke Evans is so uninteresting as the main part of me wishes Carano was the main villain since she could have brought real doubts to the men who had to fight her. The Fast and Furious franchise has been very macho driven; it is nice to see that in this world of underground racing that women aren't just prizes, they can also be good participants.

Acting has never been the franchise's strongsuit, no more evident here. The bright spots are Dwayne Johnson - who is in on the joke and relishes his cheesy lines - and Carano who is more macho than most of the men in this film. Michelle Rodriguez is also not terrible; she is probably the most able actress and she wisely gets the most character development in the film. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker give the fans what they want, but they both look pretty bored doing so. Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson have fun banter and don't get enough screen time or could be excised altogether. Luke Evans is a faceless entity as the villain, a problem corrected by the next film (and it's a good one).

Fast 6 delivers exactly what the trailer shows: crazy action and terrbile dialogue. It gives the fans what they want and nothing more. I take that back: it gives the fans a new drinking game. Any time a character mentions family, you take a shot.

Star Trek Into Darkness
½

Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't boldly go where no one has gone before, but puts twists on familiar plots and character development. J. J. Abrams abandons complicated time travel explanations used to describe the origin story to properly flesh out the characters and some of the conflicts they will have to go through. Into Darkness mines the deep well of Kirk and Spock's relationship to great effect and sets the stage for what should be a stellar intergalactic sequel. Plus, who could not be frightened of a villain whose played by a guy named Benedict Cumberbatch?

We are a few years removed from events from the first film. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and 1st Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) are now fast friends and work very well together. After an off-script mission where Kirk saves Spock by not following protocol, he is demoted to first officer with Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood) reobtaining his ship. Enter John Harrison (Cumberbatch), a terrorist who bombs London then promptly disappears into deep space. In their pursuit of the fugitive, the Starship Enterprise takes on a new weapons specialist (Alice Eve), who may have some secrets boiling beneath the surface.

The cup runneth over with the interplay between Kirk and Spock; the contradiction of logic and feelings is ceaselessly entertaining and emotionally wrenching. Star Trek Into Darkness builds the story around the testy relationship of the two leads. At times, the interplay is extremely funny, especially the logic delivered by Spock. However, when the darkness takes hold, their bond and knowledge obtained from one another leads to some extremely powerfully acted scenes between Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Sometimes in showdowns with villains, character development is abandoned to get right to the final battle; in Star Trek Into Darkness's case, the chase through the streets of San Francisco has you deeply invested in tracking down John Harrison and bringing him to justice because of the bond developed between Kirk and Spock.

There are a lot of sci-fi movies coming out this summer, but Star Trek Into Darkness may be the best use of space and city I have seen in a long time. The scenes in space have this epic grandeur with a couple space battles and a skydrop by Kirk and Harrison from one ship to another (probably the space highlight of the film). When the scenes move to planets or spaceships, grandeur of an explosion or fight is properly contextualized. Kirk and Scotty have a dash to a control room reminiscent of a scene from Inception. The explosions from crash landings are so well realized I was a little shaken at how much I was affected by seeing so many buildings fall. Weapon use gets a little arbitrary during these scenes to make the battles more intimate, but in doing so the necessary catharsis for characters is generated.

The ultimate reveal of who John Harrison is will not be explained in this review. However, the set up of his conflict with the USS Enterprise is a mixed bag. Much effort is spent placing parallels between Kirk and Harrison (former captains, viewing a crew as a family, etc) in hopes there will be payoff at the end, but that comparison never fully materializes. It does set up very interesting complications for Kirk going forward though. The fate of one of the characters uses a Macguffin given by Harrison that will be hard justifying why other characters could not be saved in a similar matter. These inherent issues will have to be addressed by the writing staff of the next film so the Star Trek franchise doesn't go flying off the wall.

With one film under their belt to understand their characters, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto get to flesh out their relationship to each other in this film. As previously mentioned, they do very good work: Pine captures Kirk's lusts and emotions very well; Quinto is even better simultaneously delivering hilarious lines of logic strait and erupting with emotion when his human side is forced to surface. As the chief villain, Benedict Cumberbatch gets to monologue in cold, icy language as Harrison plus display a T-1000 esque physical presence. Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Saldana, and John Cho get to do some good work in their roles and give the film much of its heart and humor. Newcomer Alice Eve's backstory is rushed and not mined for full effect. Her purpose seems to be for future films. She does look very pretty though.

Star Trek Into Darkness (following Iron Man 3) delivers on what is expected of a summer blockbuster. It is equal parts humor and heart with great special effects to dazzle the senses. If JJ Abrams invigorates Star Wars with as much punch as he has done with Star Trek, nerds from both sides will have to wage an all out war to claim him.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is on the short list of the greatest American novels of all time. It is a stunning portrayal of the highs and lows of the roaring twenties, encapsulating the American dream in its shame and glory. Director Baz Luhrmann elects to remain faithful to the source material, and herein lies the biggest misstep of the film. If the novel is considered a classic, this faithful movie adaptation is considered indifferent at best and a misfire at worst. Film Gatsby is too mediocre to be great.

It is springtime in New York in 1922. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved to the city to become a bond salesman and grab his slice of American dreams. Nick's cousins Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) Buchanan also live near the city and inform Nick that he lives next to a socialite who throws the best party in New York: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). As Nick slowly uncovers more about who Jay Gatsby he is, the more he becomes intertwined in these people's lives than he really wants to be.

Director Luhrmann chooses to tell the story via voiceover from Nick Carraway while he is in a psychiatric hospital, by far the biggest failing of the Great Gatsby due to its lasting repercussions. Show don't tell is one of the biggest truths in filmmaking; a wide eyed Nick Carraway at his first Gatsby party can sell all the lavishness, pomp, and circumstance while allowing the audience to connect with the main character. Instead, the voiceover keeps the audience as a voyeur at the party, disconnecting the audience from the main character. The voiceover's repercussions can be felt throughout the entire film to the point where the director has to put words that Nick is typing on the screen. Only at a foreign film should this be necessary.

Baz Luhrmann is best known for his visual style, and The Great Gatsby would be boring to watch without its style. The wardrobe and colors (despite 3D's influence) are vivid and enjoyable. The first image of Jay Gatsby (outside of the green light) is probably the best example of Luhrmann's excessive flair capturing the audience. The portrayal of New York City all the way to the suburbs is richly realized and easily contextualized. If Luhrmann wanted to direct just the first half of The Great Gatsby, the results would be breathtaking, but since the story is so mediocre, any positive gains from the first half of the film are quickly forgotten.

The faithful adaptation is a mixed bag, usually succeeding when visuals are involved. The Green Light and Glasses Billboard are particularly beautiful; if a short were created on the green light appearing in different weather conditions, I would consider buying a ticket. However, the detachment generated by the narration provides no forward momentum for the last hour when the plot starts driving the story. Because the audience feels nothing for the characters, impacts of major plot points are dulled and sometimes indifferent or boring.

As the green light surveyor, Leo DiCaprio does the best he can with the limited view of Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio sells the insecurity of rekindling of his relationship with Daisy very well, but fails to win the audience over and leaves something on the table. Carey Mulligan is not nearly fleshed out enough as Daisy; she comes off shrill and too childish. Tobey Maguire is less a character and more a conduit for the audience to the movie's world. Joel Edgerton is too over the top to be taken seriously. Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke get nice moment as George and Myrtle Wilson, but aren't on screen for more than 10 minutes.

The Great Gatsby is a wasted opportunity: themes of emptiness of the American Dream, optimism vs. obsession, fame, fortune, love, belief could all have been explored had Luhrmann elected to focus on one particular angle. As is, Gatsby is far too broad and obsessed with showing off a huge party that any chance at taking away substance is lost on the audience. The Great Gatsby takes its shining green light and hides it beneath a fog of decadence and character detachment.

Upstream Color
½

Writer/Director/Producer/Editor/(Botanist?) Shane Carruth's Upstream Color is almost the opposite of his Sundance breakthrough, Primer. The latter is a verbose overly-plot driven low-budget thriller about time travel. The former is a character driven medium budget operatic emotional piece about identity and connections. What elevates Upstream Color is the fact that its intelligence is not incomprehensible due to Carruth's superior ediitng. The movie is also built around relatable emotions that resonate with audience much more than Primer. Upstream Color is not perfect, but it is a welcome piece of intelligent storytelling by a gifted innovator.

After a murky start, we are introduced to a thief (Thiago Martins) who obtains control of a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) through a mind control drug obtained from grubs under a blue flower. Kris, under the power of this drug, is forced to give away all of her possessions and wakes up with cuts on her hands and feet. The drug has lasting effects on her as well; her behavior becomes more erratic and uncontrollable, and she is forced to take a small job at a copy company. On the bus to work everyday, she meets Jeff (Carruth), whom she is instantly drawn to for reasons she cannot explain. It feels like love, but is it really?

To say more would do disservice to an expertly edited film. The audience understands why characters act or feel the way that they feel not because it is explained by the sampler (Andrew Sensenig), but because it is shown through the actions of the other "characters." This type of character parallelism could easily explained in words, but Carruth elects to use musical score, sounds, and images, requiring the audience (as well as the characters) to piece together what is going on. It requires attention and interaction from the audience, something few films require in today's mostly mindless endeavors. This willing participation invigorates the story and creates an intimate connection between audience and characters, making the conclusion of Upstream Color much more satisfying than it probably would be in another director's hands.

Another of Upstream Color's delights is its themes of identity and connection. Obviously a macguffin is used to get the story going, but once Upstream Color establishes its characters, the macguffin is used to service the story, not drive it. This drug obviously establishes connections to the people who come under the influence of it, but to what extent. Kris and Jeff at times seem to be telling the same story, but whose story is it? Or did they both have a similar upbringing? Does the connection pass on to the children? What happens when you die? All these questions are usually explored worldlessly, again requiring the audience to piece it together. Upstream Color is probably meant to be more than a little ambiguous, which gives the movie a different perspective, audience member to audience member.

Aside from the editing, score and sound take a prominent role here since not even the characters understand what is happening to them. Carruth created the score himself and its extraction of emotion and depth from scene to scene one of the best examples to hit the screen in a long time. What elevates it from other scores is that is feels like another character, but it is not intrusive enough to make you feel one particualr emotion. The score gives Upstream Color an operatic lyrical drive giving the film deeper meaning, much like a critical book used in the story.

Unlike Primer, Upstream Color really relies on its principals to carry the content with expression. Amy Seimetz is very good here as Kris, having to carry multiple influences behind her visage. The minimal dialouge she has with Carruth feels natural, and the chemistry while not amazing, is at least believeable in the context of this movie. Shane Carruth is solid, wisely making himself a more secondary character. The other character who gets lots of screen time is Andrew Sensenig, who is mysterious, vacant, and caring all at once.

Shane Carruth is a true renaissance man in the film industry. While most directors beg studios for creative control, Carruth learns all the necessary responsibilities for what it means to have "complete creative control." This sort of dedication is evident in every frame he shoots, especially in Upstream Color, which requires unification of sight, sound, and touch. If more directors really had the all-encompassing understanding Carruth does in making a film, then even the weaker efforts would be infused with some sort of passion. Fortunately, Carruth's passion is matched by his skill; Upstream Color is an engrossing experience that will most certainly end up on many top 10 lists at the end of this year.

Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3(2013)

Iron Man 3 gets Tony Stark's trajectory back on course. Director Shane Black (who previously worked with Robert Downey Jr on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) knows how to maximize the Iron Man's talents, and here Tony Stark spends most of the film suitless. Despite an overlong exposition, Iron Man 3 does exactly what a summer movie should do: it gets lots of laughs and excites with some wonderful elaborate action sequences. Iron Man 3 finds the secret for Tony Stark: he should spend some time talking to kids.

Iron Man 3 is more of an Avengers sequel than an Iron Man sequel. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is in the middle of fits of insomnia and anxiety attacks due to the alien invasions from the Avengers. Little does Tony know his own past is coming back for him. 15 years ago, Tony was given a New Year's Eve business proposal from Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Tony elects to miss their meeting by hooking up with a botanist (Rebecca Hall). In the present, an assassin called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is wreaking havoc on the United States with bombs that appear out of nowhere. When someone close to Stark becomes involved in one of the bombing attempts, he makes an open threat to the Mandarin, not realizing how it may affect the other people in his life, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle).

The exposition in Iron Man 3 is surprisingly long (don't worry, there are a few cool explosions along the way). Exposing what is truly going on takes some time; one of the successes of Iron Man 3 is keeping the audience's attention during this time. Downey gets to have a relationship with a little kid (Ty Simpkins) that generates the biggest laughs in the movie (with one giant exception: the fate of the Mandarin). It's risky keeping Stark/Pepper/Rhodes apart, but their relationships are already established in Iron Man lore; splitting up the principals allows more relationships to develop more quickly. Not all of the exposition is adequately explored, but there is enough to make the climax have stakes.

The biggest failing of Iron Man 3 is due to the logic leaps. Now that we know the Avengers exist in the same universe, any story that escalates to the President should involve the whole team. Captain America and the Hulk should be ashamed of themselves. The secrets behind the bombs are never properly explained; a few lines of dialogue would have solved that problem. More importantly, the bad guys weakness isn't properly diagnosed, so the climax is left completely up in the air and arbitrary.

Lots of the fun from Iron Man comes from the special effects, and Iron Man 3 builds upon the previous two entries. The raid on Tony's home is pretty spectacular, capturing the intensity of falling into the ocean. The final 30 minutes have two wonderful sequences that rival the end of the Avengers: multiple people falling from a plane, and a raid on an industrial complex. The raid in particular is exceptional, the special effects are brilliant, but the dialogue and humor are still present and surprising. The climax of Iron Man 3 never loses sight of what makes audiences love about superheroes, and in that sense it makes the climax all the more enjoyable.

Iron Man 3 puts even more pressure on Robert Downey Jr., as he has to be by himself in tiny towns most of the time with new characters. Downey is up to the challenge; his Stark is mostly himself, and even a little more distressed with the anxiety attacks. Downey's charisma is intoxicating, elevating any performance when bouncing off of him. Gwyneth Paltrow gets to show off some physicality (even donning a suit) as Pepper, and Don Cheadle is in on the joke this time as Col. Rhodes. Upstaging Downey is Ben Kingsley, who's take on the Mandarin is surprising and gut busting. I was near tears watching Kingsley's interpretation and Downey's reaction to it. Guy Pearce is really good at playing oily characters, making him a good Killian. Rebecca Hall is underutilized as a former fling of Tony Stark; she needed more screen time.

Iron Man 3 is a great start to the 2013 summer movie season. The Avengers went big last year, so Iron Man 3 goes home. It is big but not upstaging, and takes solace in the fun banter of its leads. Now that we know Tony Stark can interact with kids, I"m ready for his next adventure. I'd love to see him interact with all manner of things: give him a dog, a cat, a really old person, or a doll. Downey is so magnetic he could mine any of those relationships for all they're worth.

Oz the Great and Powerful

If ever oh ever a wiz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one because....because of the wonderful things he does. Well, I doubt Dorothy had Oscar Diggs (James Franco) in mind when she was singing the song. By building the prequel around a character who is wholly different from Dorothy, Oz The Great and Powerful is allowed to stand on its own, while setting up the pieces that will come to fruition in the childhood classic. It is also a fun, slightly dark adventure tale that doesn't do disservice to its source material, both movie and film.

Oscar Diggs is a two-bit con man magician who uses cheap tricks to seduce women instead of wowing the audience. Any chance he has to become great, he runs away from it. One such run leads him into a hot air balloon which transplants him to the magical world known as Oz. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him that he is the prophecied wizard who's arrival was foretold by the previous queen. From there the pair travel to Emerald City, where Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tells him that he must kill the Wicked Witch to assume the throne. Accompanied by a monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) and a China Girl (Joey King), Oz finds that the Wicked Witch is actually Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), meaning the actual Wicked Witch is one of the two sisters now controlling Emerald City.

Oz's plot is pretty standard stuff: con man grows a heart of gold (although the climax is pretty clever). Plot is not #1 on Director Sam Raimi's priority list. His job in that department is to put the pieces of the Wizard of Oz in place before another tornado brings another Kansas visitor to Oz, in which he succeeds. That doesn't mean that Raimi cannot remind us of how wondorous Oz can be. The non-Oz scenes appear in black and white so when we arrive in Oz (in 2D) the colors pop with vivid reds, greens, and yellows. Little parts of the Wizard of Oz appear (scarecrows, lions, sleepy poppy fields, The Wicked Witch's fatal flaw, Dorothy's parents(?), flying monkeys, bubbles, and munchkins) and generate lots of chatter throughout the audience. Raimi's biggest addition to the land of Oz though is its cinematographic majesty. The visual effects and cinematography departments deserve a (cowardly?) lion's share of credit for growing Oz's scope to Lord of the Rings epic proportions.

The character development in Oz the Great and Powerful isn't groundbreaking, but is more complicated than I thought going in. Raimi has used James Franco in the past, and Franco's past few years of developing persona's for himself make him an inspired choice to play the young Wizard of Oz. Franco is very good at walking the line between sleazy and magnetic, making Oz a very odd hero since a great deal of time you're kind of repulsed by his intentions. Zach Braff gets lost in the CGI shuffle as Finley, but little Joey King gets the best emotional beats as the China Girl. Which brings us to the 3 witches. Michelle Williams makes Glinda (who, let's face it, is kinda boring) a radiant plucky herione that while not quite dimensional, at least has a personality. The two sisters are the big weakness of the story. Mila Kunis is surprisingly restrained in a role designed to be very over the top and malevolent, and Rachel Weisz is almost forgotten by the time the credits role because she functions mostly as a plot device.

Oz The Great and Powerful is at least decent and nostalgic. While not leaving a strong emotional connection, at least we are treated to a fun prequel to a more transcendent one. I wonder what class James Franco attended to learn how to be a wizard? At least he has Michelle Williams there to make bubbles.

Mud
Mud(2013)
½

Mud continues the renaissance of Matthew McConaughey. Fresh off a stellar 2012 with Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike, McConaughey continues to refine his acting chops with Mud, which is a grimier version of characters he has played in the past. Mud is much more than its star though; the movie is actually a wonderful coming of age story for a country boy who wants to believe in true love. Even the quiet river waters of Arkansas contain teenage heartbreak.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two Jr. High buddies who like to traverse their Arkansas river home. One day, they come upon an island in the middle of the river that has a boat in a tree they claim as their own. However, they find a man named Mud (McConaughey) is living in their boat. Mud is hiding there because of past indiscretion with his sweetheart's (Reese Witherspoon) boyfriend. Ellis agrees to help Mud make contact with his beau because he just got his first crush and he found out his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are not happy in their marriage.

Setting is immediately established in Mud with a license plate, silence, rust, and rivers. The setting helps generate a lethargic pace for the story, which allows Mud to evolve gradually. The slow pace let's the audience fully understand each of the boys (especially Ellis) and allows them to act without speaking. The pace changes dramatically in the third act, where the story becomes too action heavy. It feels like the director (Jeff Nichols) didn't trust the audience to enjoy the evolving characters which disservices the first two thirds of the film. It is intense and well executed, but unnecessary.

The strength of Mud is in the two young boys and Ellis's evolution into adulthood. Ellis gets to behold many stages of love's strangehold and how it can change and evolve with time. Acts that help him get the girl can be the reason that she breaks up with him. He misinterprets gestures for showcases of commitment. He cannot comprehend how his parents could not love each other anymore, plus he receives conflicting advice from both of them. Mud's steadfast devotion gives Ellls hope; Ellis's commitment to Mud's cause is juxtaposed by his best friend's lack of understanding. In fact, the comparison of Ellis and Neckbone is a missed opportunity; maturation and stagnation between teens is ubiquitous and could have given Mud some added heft in its third act. Mud is actually a very slow bait and switch; you start of thinking this is Mud's story, but in fact, it is Ellis's.

If you can't already tell, Tye Sheridan is wonderful as Ellis. Ellis is the character that changes the most, and Sheridan conveys all the highs and lows of being a kid with smirks and toughness. The scene where he snaps at Mud is the highlight of the film. Jacob Lofland is fine as Neckbone, the partner in crime; he is short changed as the story goes on, when his chemistry with Sheridan is fun. McConaughey is great as the title character; he gets some cool monologues and plays it subdued and smoldering. Sam Shepard and Ray McKinnon are very good as a neighbor and Ellis's dad respectively. Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Shannon are underutilized and mostly wasted in the film; their roles needed to be excised or expanded.

Mud is a solid character study and coming of age story that teens and adults will both enjoy. The pain of unrequited love and the lack of justification are very relevant to most people, and Mud showcases those concepts in a very relatable way. One comment: people of the South are some of the most resourceful people I have ever seen. They take what materials they have and create some truly imaginative things. Who knew so many pearls existed in the rivers of Arkansas?

Frankenweenie
½

Tim Burton must have really loved his dog. Frankenweenie is clearly right in Tim Burton's wheelhouse: a combination of a lonely boy-lovable dog relationship coupled with a Frankenstein homage. Despite the unorthodox look of these characters, Burton clearly has deep affection for his creations. If you have a pet, even the macabre look of the kids will cause your heart to melt.

Victor (voice of Charlie Tahan) is a content kid because he has two loving parents (voice of Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) and a wonderful dog, Sparky. One day, a horrible thing happens: Sparky is hit by a car and killed. After being inspired by his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor decided to resurrect Sparky from the dead. He succeeds, but soon the kids find out and want to steal Victor's invention, but their experiments do not go as expected.

Burton elects to film Frankenweenie using stop-motion animation in black and white. This can be a drawback for today's color ADD movie environment. However, Tim Burton compensates with execution and specificity. There are several beautiful shots like a burning windmill or reflection of rain on bedsheets that provide subtle texture to each scene. Burton also uses silhouettes and shadows better than most filmmakers. In addition, Burton's reimagination of different versions of the Frankenstein monster through pets are very inventive and equal parts scary and awe-inspiring for kids.

The sheer adoration for the characters elevates Frankenweenie over other animated efforts. Sparky is really adorable and enthusiastic; he even has a very self-aware montage that is heartbreaking to watch and expertly directed without words. Victor might not have many friends, but he is content in who he is. His schoolmates aren't bullies, but competitors in a science fair. They don't hate Victor, they just want his invention. His teachers and parents care about him and his love of his pet. While not becoming fully realized characters, most of Frankenweenie's cast at least has different shades.

I never understood Tim Burton when I was a kid. I found him unnecessarily grotesque and dark. However, as I have grown up, I learned to look under the surface. Frankenweenie shows just how much heart exists under a misunderstood exterior. Also, pets can make even the darkest of situations brighten.

Oblivion
Oblivion(2013)

Oblivion is built around 2 strengths, visual effects and surprises. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, Oblivion is a thought-provoking piece of sci-fi cinema that uses ideas and intelligence to drive the plot. It doesn't hurt that you have a veteran of the genre, Tom Cruise, as your lead.

Oblivion takes place in 2077. Earth was attacked; humanity survived, but they now live on Titan, Saturn's moon. The only inhabitants of the planet are twofold: scavenges and maintenance. Jack Harper (Cruise) is a drone repair technician going back to Titan in two weeks with his partner (in more ways than one) Vic (Andrea Riseborough). Vic is very excited to return to Titan; Jack is not. He made a safe zone for himself on Earth and he is haunted in his "dreams" by a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko). Jack is also watched by the scavenges, who have plans that involve Jack in a big way.

My oh my is this one of the best cinematographs in recent memory. Claudio Miranda's post-apocalyptic landscape is littered with wonderful images of a broken New York and Washington that drive home how little is left. The paradise that Jack finds refuge (if it isn't Yosemite National Park, it looks eerily similar) is a breathtaking amalgam of senses. The visual effects department creates wonderful action sequences involving lightning, lunar attacks, and multi-directional vehicles and drones. In addition, the juxtaposition of the vast planet with claustrophobic hiding spaces of the "scavs" gives the landscape a consistent threat since enemies could pop up from anywhere. It also makes the attacks on the scavs much more intimate and terrifying (plus keeping the budget smaller).

Even with the previews, Oblivion does a great job hiding plot details. I was genuinely surprised at the twists the story took at the halfway point. To get to that point, however, there is a lot of backstory to be described. The first hour can be a bit slow with stakes-setting and character development, which jars with the second half chases and firefights. Oblivion walks the line between explosion centered and idea centered. Some explanations are kept to a minimum to keep the story moving, but sometimes at the expense of Oblivion's story. The screenplay execution succeeds more than it fails, but it is a weak point for the movie.

Even in the weaker sci-fi movies, Tom Cruise is usually captivating when he is on screen. In Oblivion he doesn't quite disappear into his character like in Minority Report, but he is very good as the everyman Jack Harper. His chemistry with the two women varies wildly. Andrea Riseborough and Cruise have no chemistry due to the way Riseborough's character is written (as a plot driver and future indicator). Any chemistry would have provided more complication for Cruise's character casting doubt on some plot developments. Olga Kurylenko works very well with Cruise; they pop on screen. Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones) take turns playing the sidekick to Cruise and the two women as necessary.

While not a game changer for the sci-fi genre, Oblivion is a solid entry into it. It won't leave you with lots of questions, but it also makes you think about what it's doing. I was only left with two questions leaving Oblivion: why do New York and DC always get destroyed in film and who taught Tom Cruise how to shoot a jump shot? Spoiler alert: he shoots with one hand. I mean, who does that?

42
42(2013)

42 is perpetually on the cusp of greatness, but never quite gets there. More interested in deifying Jackie Robinson, 42 executes some really intense scenes displaying Robinson's inner fortitude and Branch Rickey's wisdom. However, Jackie Robinson the person is already a compelling individual: he doesn't need to be Hollywooded. In preserving Jackie Robinson's legend, 42 does a disservice to Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) the character.

We are transplanted back to 1946. Branch Rickey's (Harrison Ford) Brooklyn Dodgers just missed out on the pennant. In response, Rickey decides to hire Major League Baseball's first African-American: Jackie Robinson. The movie chronicles Jackie's hire, his stint in AAA, his call up to the big club, and some of the criticism he had to endure, especially from Phillies Manager Chapman (Alan Tudyk) as well as his own teammates.

42 elects to tell the entire breadth of Robinson's interactions. As such, the focus on the extraordinary man gets muted. Sure Robinson's wife is important to him, but in the context of this film, she really doesn't add much to his story. The Rickey/Robinson relationship is fascinating, but we don't learn enough about Branch Rickey to make him interesting. That relationship should have bled over into the relationship between Robinson and his teammates, which gets the shortest end of the stick. There are so many angles to play with the teammates: How do they feel about Robinson getting special treatment from the owner? How does the coach deal with a volatile situation? How do players' pasts affect their understanding of Robinson? All these themes are explored, but only at a surface level, leaving their impact as comic relief or underwhelming payoff.

Despite how flawed some of the character development is, the story itself is so compelling it's hard not to be swept up in it. The scenes during the Dodger-Philly game are tough to stomach but give the audience perspective as to what Robinson had to go though on a day-to-day basis. Watching Robinson either shake it off or break down out of sight keeps the audience in perpetual sympathy with the man. Outside of the baseball games, the simple scenes hit home hardest. Being denied a plane ride or a hotel room, not being able to shower with his teammates, or the endless paper trail of death threats showcase just how much scrutiny and potential humiliation Robinson had to put up with.

Visually, 42 looks great. The uniforms and stadiums match the era. The games were cross-checked with actual games so that final ending actually happened: it wasn't a manufactured ending. The baseball scenes are well executed; since Robinson was as fast as he was strong-willed, 42 uses his speed and baseball acumen to steal bases and manufacture runs. In one scene, he steals two bases and causes a balk by the pitcher. That sequence has more payoff than a home run since it fits the persona of Jackie Robinson.

Chadwick Boseman is solid playing baseball's lasting icon. There aren't really any missteps, and his baseball athleticism is close enough that it isn't distracting. His acting limits are hidden by Harrison Ford, who does a solid interpretation of Branch Rickey. With what limited information 42 gives on Rickey, Ford finds a good angle to give the man a scruffy, bold, wise personality (maybe it was just the cigar). Most of the teammates and managers are character actors who do the best job they can with the material they have. The only person to point out for doing the necessary bigot is Alan Tudyk, playing against type as a hateful redneck. His scenes provide the most powerful catharsis in 42, mostly because Tudyk truly makes us hate him.

Watching all the players wearing the number 42 provides a lasting image of just how much Jackie Robinson meant to baseball. I left the film inspired and honored by what the man accomplished, but just a little wanting that the movie couldn't immerse the audience in what Jackie Robinson had to go through. Then again, because of Jackie Robinson, no one has to know what that type of criticism feels like.

Lawless
Lawless(2012)
½

Lawless, if you let it, will catch you off guard with just how compelling it actually is. It doesn't quite reach the highs of the Untouchables, but it is in the discussion. Anchored by a surprisingly good lead performance from Shia Laboeuf, Lawless uses its setting and character-driven story to drive its niche into the gangster genre. Looks like Prohibition was as bad in Virginia as it was in Chicago.

Lawless is a coming-of-age story set in Prohibition era Virginia using a bait-and-switch with the bootleggers as good guys and cops as bad ones. The "heroes" are the Bondurant brothers: the oldest Howard (Jason Clarke), middle son Forrest (Tom Hardy), and youngest Jack (Shia Laboeuf). They have a small operation partnering with mixologist Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and businesswoman Maggie (Jessica Chastain). The brothers are successful because Forrest has a reputation of invincibility in the small town since he has eluded death several times. This reputation is tested by Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) a newcomer from Chicago who wants to take a slice of the brothers' pie.

The biggest failing of Lawless is a result of its biggest asset: it doesn't have enough material for their talented cast. As such, more than a couple subplots go nowhere. Women in particular get the short end of the stick: Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain get thankless love interest roles (though Chastain's role at least has a decent backstory) that serve mostly as plot devices and not as characters. Gary Oldman's presence is unnecessary as a hot shot gangster; his character is underdeveloped and peripherally involved in the story. The oldest Bondurant brother is written as a shapeless entity with limited story, which is probably the biggest fault of Lawless since Jason Clarke gets a lot of screen time.

What differentiates Lawless is its sense of time and place. Virginia in the 1930's feels small and intimate, which makes the brothers' reputation and respect very believeable. All actions feel deliberate, calculated, and slow. Tying the story into a bigger bootlegging picture in Chicago gives context and complexity to Lawless. Sure, officer Rakes is a clearly powerful man and authority figure, but since he is an outsider in a familiar place, can he be completely trusted? And how far will his men be willing to go to breakup the brothers? These questions don't have easy answers and are nicely explored by the end of the film.

Like the Godfather and the Untouchables, Lawless uses the storytelling technique of revolving the proceedings around a single character: in this case, Jack. Shia Laboeuf seems like a risk due to his recent filmography, but he was once regarded as the up-and-comer in Hollywood; his character growth and depth in Lawless will be a revelation for those who only know him from the Transformers movies. Jack is a compelling fully realized individual, and his evolution in the film is very organic. Tom Hardy is playing against type a little here: he is a man of few words who speaks softly and carries a big stick. Hardy's performance is restrained and commanding, like Bruce Willis. Guy Pearce chews into his slick villain role with relish; he may not have much depth, but he at least feels real. Dane DeHaan continues to grow his acting reputation with what could have been a one-note character and giving him some texture. DeHaan's character is the pivotal one: without properly establishing how the town views Cricket, Lawless would be a rudderless picture.

Watching Lawless, I could not help but feel a little disappointed. With a little tighter script, this could have been one of the best pictures of the year. As is, it is a solid gangster pic that reestablishes Shia Laboeuf as a credible actor. Maybe that's what makes Lawless special: it can eliminate Michael Bay's influence on Shia Laboeuf's acting ability.

Heavyweights (Heavy Weights)

Heavyweights is now more known for its historical significance than its moments on screen. It is here we can trace some of the most influential moviemakers of the 2000's. Heavyweights marks Ben Stiller's first film (his Dodgeball character is eerily similar to this one). The movie is also where Paul Feig and Judd Apatow met each other (Feig is a character, and Apatow is the producer). Those two would create Freaks and Geeks, and some of the best comedies of the new Millennium. It also now looks more like a 90's period piece as time goes on. Heavyweights is a very funny film about obese teens at a weight loss camp. It may not be deep, but it is one of the funniest films of the decade that set the stage for the comedy icons of a new generation of kids.

Gerry Garner (Aaron Schwartz), feels pretty great. School is out, and now he can just hang out for the summer. His father (Jeffrey Tambor) has other plans: he believes Jerry needs to lose weight, and thus he sends them to Camp Hope. At first Camp Hope seems like a paradise: Jerry can ride go-carts and be fast, and he is put in an awesome bunk with camp legends Roy (Kenan Thompson) and Josh (Shaun Weiss). However, the previous camp owner (Jerry Stiller) goes bankrupt, and in steps new owner Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller) son of the lighting fixture king of the Midwest. Perkis transforms the previously fun camp into a prison, not only running the camp with an iron fist, but demoting previous counselors Pat (Tom McGowan) and Tim (Paul Feig) to janitorial positions. Gerry, Pat, and the others must step up to stop Perkis before he makes them sick or hurts anyone with his extreme methods.

Heavyweights falls more in the silly comedy camp, but it is at least relatable to anyone who wants to lose some weight. Apatow, Director Steven Brill, and company know how execute a joke well, especially at the expense of a villain. In the more slapstick comedies, villains are so over the top they become narcissistic buffoons. As such, all their self-serious dialogue is purely tongue in cheek and usually generates uproarious laughter. In one scene, Ben Stiller says "Put the fruit trays away, the insects will be out soon" with the gravitas of Al Pacino in the Godfather. Because of the extreme seriousness of Stiller's delivery, this throwaway line kills, and Heavyweights is replete with dozens more.

The kids used in the film had previously been in other kids films and are seasoned comedy vets. Most importantly, they are not used as the butt of the joke, which makes them instantly sympathized by the audience. Much like a 90's kids movie as well, self-respect is treated with more importance than the initial goal of losing weight, making friends, etc. Self-respect is something all kids crave, making any of these kids relatable to the audience. Their personalities are fleshed out just enough to not make them types as well. Most of the kids get a moment to be more than the British one, the scientist, the cool kid, etc.

Heavyweights biggest failing is being too broad and surface-level as a comedy. Most of the rival sports camp kids are so obviously painted as the jerk jocks that the final competition between the camps feels less important than the stand off with Tony Perkis. Funny accents take too much precedence in some characters, and fart jokes are unnecessary because the dialogue is so good. Also, any deep thoughts on weight loss camps and the people who run them are pushed to the side in favor of a cheap gag. Fortunately the comedy well is deep and clever, but a little more ambition could have made Heavyweights into one of the all time great comedies.

The comedy talent alone in Heavyweights is worth the time investment. Most of these actors were really on the rise when this movie came about, and their jokes have a freshness and bite nicely fitting its 90's era. If anything, you will come out of this movie with some really great quotes. You'll get a laugh if you walk into a room with "Mmmm...can you smell it? There's a life force in here tonight!" or if you have a friend falling behind you can say "Leave him, he's a straggler!." Just thinking about them now makes me chuckle, and like Heavyweights, stay with you for a long time.

Premium Rush
Premium Rush(2012)

Premium Rush takes what could have been a very intense claustrophic thriller in a city and pushes all situations to a 10, which dilutes the final product. Premium Rush's visual flair is impressive and fun, but the rest of the film is pretty bland. What a waste of two talented actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon.

Taking place in NYC, Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is one of those to-the-max bike messengers who treats his job as an extension of his lifestyle. His bike has just one gear and no brakes, pedal to the medal to get things to where they need to go. After breaking up with his girlfriend (Dania Ramirez), Wilee picks up a letter from Nima (Jamie Chung), who looks distressed when she gives it to him. As Wilee is about to leave, Detective Monday (Michael Shannon) demands he give him the letter. Wilee refuses, and thus sets in motion a lengthy speed chase between man and bike on the streets of NY.

Director David Koepp's biggest asset (other than the two leads) is his visual style. His kinetic direction keeps the story moving, even during the minor instances where the story slows down. Perhaps he knows he has minimal material here, so by keeping things moving, Premium Rush's flaws are kept to a minimum. The best parts of the film are where Wilee has to make a split second decision and the scenarios are played out. Time transitions are route creations are also crafted in a fun way.

The plot tries to fill enough material into Premium Rush, but at 90 minutes, it is about 15 minutes too long. Giving Michael Shannon more material was a good idea, since his character is by far the most interesting. There are some minor twists that elevate the stakes, but as a whole, the story feels empty and manufactured. The climax is especially underwhelming and anti-climactic, which deflates the resolutions that follow.

Character development is pushed to the side in Premium Rush for several chase sequences. The chases are executed fine, but because of lack of caring for all but Nima (and even sadistic Monday), the chases feel bland and unfulfilled. The minimal attempts to create something out of these types don't really paint a complete picture, and are solely dependent on the actors portraying them. Wille and Monday are fine in the shoes of Gordon-Levitt and Michael Shannon, but the rest of the characters cannot find hidden depth like these two.

Premium Rush's core audience is adrenaline junkies. It is a bland action movie and thriller. If you are a BMXer in training, this movie should be able to sell you on it. As I have been hit by a few bikes and made out like it was my own fault, I am not Premium Rush's core audience and thus was left underwhelmed and uninspired.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Masterpiece Theater's golden age moves eastward. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is about a retirement home for aging Englishfolk in India. Unlike the hotel in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is too overstuffed to leave a lasting impression. However, the intimidating, talented cast elevates what could have been a pedestrian screenplay into a passable two hours of screentime. British accents always work best at hiding flaws.

In a quick introduction, we are introduced to the principals: a recently widowed homemaker (Judi Dench), a poor elderly couple (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), a retired politician with a secret (Tom Wilkinson), an aging bigot (Maggie Smith) who needs a hip operation, and two singles looking for love (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup). All 7 are coincidentally on the same flight to the same destination - Florida with elephants as promised in their brochure. They immediately find the Hotel run by Sonny (Dev Patel) is not what was promised, causing each of the guests to react in predictable ways. Sonny has other problems as well, since his mother (Lillete Dubey) does not approve of his relationship with his girlfriend (Tena Desae).

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a couple plot lines too many, causing all the plotlines except Dench's to be underdeveloped. The singles' storyline as well as Sonny's family problems could easily have been excised, focusing on the more compelling characters in the story and giving them more character development to flesh out. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel threatens to unravel because of the excess of plot lines when characters purely act based on where they "should" end up according to the story. This does a disservice to the actors and makes the "happy endings" unearned and insulting to the audience's intelligence.

With this many plotlines going on, the story uses Judi Dench as its backbone. Dench's resume is obviously renowned; director John Madden uses her voiceover as an audience surrogate and third person omniscient, creating the connection to the characters. This choice allows the story to casually take place around Dench, and makes the editing seamless and relaxed. Because Dench's character has an open mind, the fish-out-of-water story isn't as shocking for the characters except the obvious ones, but it uses Dench's acting ability to anchor the story and provide the most compelling arc, which is a fair tradeoff.

Dench may be the anchor, but she is flanked by equally superior talent. Tom Wilkinson gets a nice arc with his secret; his story is completely told by the end of the film. Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith take what are weakly written characters and elevate them to not only decent but surprisingly complex. Marigold Hotel would not be as satisfying without either of them. Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, and Ronald Pickup demonstrate how a screenplay can disservice and actor. Of the non-AARP cast, Dev Patel plays manic energy well, but there is no real arc like in Slumdog Millionaire.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is harmless enjoyable entertainment. If you want to see great acting shine, and witty repartee between timeless English thespians, then this is the movie for you. It does give someone a great business idea though: if British actors train call center operators on how to talk to elderly people who have trouble with the internet, we will make a killing in service contracts.

Spring Breakers
½

A little titillation never hurt anyone, right? Well the message of Spring Breakers is actually, it does hurt. Brilliantly crafted for the milennials, Writer/Director Harmony Korine, uses college students' favorite excursion as a critique on living your life to the fullest. Spring Breakers may end on a positive note, but that does not necessarily mean it is a happy one. Dark, dark times are afoot for the youth of today.

Faith (Selena Gomez) is stuck in a rut. She enjoys her prayer sessions and schooling, but feels like life is never going to change. She tries to save money for spring break so she can get out of town, but she doesn't have the cash. So her friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) decide to bail her out: by robbing a local coffee shop. Their loot is enough to head down to Florida, which seems like a paradise to them. Things take a turn when they get arrested; they get bailed out by a gangster/rapper named Alien (James Franco). Alien's presence creates tension in the girls' friendships and the world Alien introduces them to pushes their freedom loving to their personal limits.

Spring Breakers is at its best when it is reinforcing its themes. Korine has always been perceived as being pretentious and that is certainly in evidence here (a gun shot is repeatedly used as a scene transition, which gets grating over time). However, Korine's biggest point is that a life of freedom and excess just escalates to the point where it will create danger and conflict with another person's freedom and excess. Scenes, the dubstep score, and coversations of exhilaration and euphoria are repeated as the film takes a dark turn in its second half, where the songs/words take on an eerie ominous vibe. This technique gets more effective as the movie goes on, as it shows how freedom to experience doesn't always mean good experiences. Eventually, each person will hit their breaking point, and that excess just leads to greater excess to hit the same high. In addition, the sameness experience at home is paralleled Spring Break arena as well, forcing the girls to up the ante when learning more about themselves.

When Alien enters the frame, Spring Breakers turns into a treatise on the youth instead of just a standard exploitation flick. I wasn't exactly bored watching the first half of the film, but when James Franco's rapper/gangster enters the frame, he commands Death Star attention like he wants, and Spring Breakers comes darkly alive. James Franco is mesmerizing as Alien. Franco's monologues are fantastically polarizing; older people will see them as misguided dangerous thought process charismatically presented, while younger people will be riveted by the twisted logic of modern carpe diem by a corn-rows grill wearing wanna be rapper/gangster. The most compelling scene is when the girls put their guns to Franco and he performs an action that encapsulates their collective state of mind. When Franco repeats the same words the girls repeat, they no longer appear cute; the passage of time turns the words into a warning to anyone wanting to live in perpetual arrested development and freedom.

While Franco is from another planet in the acting department for Spring Breakers, the 4 girls are given interesting chances to break out or break from their past. Selena Gomez's Faith doesn't completely sever her from her Wizards of Waverly Place past, but it does make her look like a grown up, which is probably what she wants. Her character is the only one that gets a complete backstory and arc, one of the weaker points of Spring Breakers. High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens is now officially severed from her past; she is asked to perform a lot of dark acts here, which she chews into with relish. Ditto for Ashley Benson. Rachel Korine is mostly there for the nudity quotient. These girls are interesting; it is a shame that more of a fleshing (pun intended) out of their characters would elevate Spring Breakers into some of the best college movie entries of all time.

"Spring Break. Spring Break. Spring Break Forever." Said at the beginning of Spring Breakers, that quote sounds like a fantastic way to live. As time goes on, we see from Alien and the girls how misguided those words actually are. Those going into this movie expecting just boobs, drugs, and sex are sadly mistaken. If anything, Spring Breakers makes me want to never go to a bar again and start agressively investing in my 401(k).

The Place Beyond The Pines
½

Schenectady (NY) translates to the Place Beyond the Pines. Using the gritty rural setting as the movie's backdrop, director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) weaves a beautiful tapestry of elevating tension and solid acting. Despite an underwhelming final act, The Place Beyond the Pines is a wonderful study of the effects of fate, time, and parental guidance.

The Place Beyond the Pines can be divided into three parts. The movie opens with motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling) finding out he had a kid with one-time fling Rowena (Eva Mendes). Feeling a sense of responsibility for the first time, Luke gets involved in his son's life and gets a job with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) as a car mechanic. As it turns out, Robin used to rob the local bank repeatedly, and he helps Luke perform the same act to provide for his son. The two are very successful, but the success goes to Luke's head and he ends up in a chase with Avery (Bradley Cooper). After the chase, the point of view switches to Avery (part 2) and his newfound reputation as a hero. He becomes a rising star in the police ranks until an unfortunate trip with his superior Deluca (Ray Liotta). Avery is forced to choose between his allegiance to the force or his belief system and moral integrity. Part 3 takes place 15 years later, when we get to see what has become of Luke's (Dane DeHaan) and Avery's (Emory Cohen) sons, and what happens when their lives become intertwined.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a long film (140 mins), but it actually could use more screen time, or be split up into two films, both equally compelling. One film could have been a study of how one act can intertwine the fates of a whole group of people. It could limit the characters in the first two parts and focus on the dual father/son comparison of Luke and Avery, and would give Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen more time to flesh out their characters. The second film would be to showcase the effect fathers have on their children. Instead of forcing the kids together, we could have seen parallels at different times in both family chains. As constructed in the movie's current state, the father/son comparison is very compelling and the role of fate is rushed to hit a reasonable conclusion.

The strength of The Place Beyond the Pines is creating an atmosphere dripping in tension. Director Cianfrance establishes the stakes early using his intimate camera angles and sounds of motorcycles. The motorcycle sound takes a different connotation as the movie goes on, much like the sound of a police car in the second part. The score by Mike Patton and Sean Bobbitt's cinematography give the movie a grisly isolated setting that is equal parts unsettling and comforting, depending on the scene.

The acting ranges from solid to terrific. Ryan Gosling continues his string of great performance with another one. Luke is a lot like Gosling's character from Drive, but a little more unhinged and bubbling with rage. Bradley Cooper continues to prove that he is an actor to be taken seriously. Avery's idealism directly conflicts with itself on multiple occasions, and Cooper gives a nuanced, unique reactions to each different scenario he is put in without overacting. Dane DeHaan is becoming the go to young actor for melancholy and intensity. His character is clearly rushed in the final act, but DeHaan gives him enough complexity and rooting interest to keep the narrative worth watching. Ben Mendelsohn does good character work as Gosling's partner, finding the right line between empathetic, smart, lonely, and creepy. Ray Liotta, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Gabe Fazio, Rose Byrne, and Bruce Greenwood give solid performances as well. Eva Mendes tries her best here, but she needs a few more roles in movies like these to be considered a really great actress, and AJ Cohen is used more like a plot device than being a character himself.

Fathers are products of the sons, and sins of the father can create sins in the son. These are not easy themes to digest, but The Place Beyond the Pines uses a taut, intriguing thriller/character study draw the audience in and express these themes. Another, much lesser theme, is how Schenectady breeds people with smoldering menace and eye tattoos. I doubt this film will appear on any of the town's tourism brochures any time soon.

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy has pieces of a good story in it, it just cannot connect the dots. The biggest goal of the Bourne Legacy is to try to connect the previous trilogy to a bigger story within the US government. While casting the new lead and head villain correctly, The Bourne Legacy is far too llong and mundane, and the chase sequences lack the kineticism that made Jason Bourne so special. Not the best start for the Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) era.

At the start of the Bourne Legacy, Matt Damon's assassin is now a worldwide catastrophe. Aaron Cross (Renner) is dropped into the Alaskan wilderness as part of his new training program. With him is his allottment of pills, which help enhance his abilities. The drugs are made in a lab where Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) helps cultivate and distribute them, creating more Jason Bourne-like assassins. Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) discovers some cracks in the organization, and he is forced to eliminate everyone involved in the project. This process draws Aaron and Marta closer together and forces them to join forces and go on the run.

The Bourne Legacy is at its best when studying the spy process. Aaron's quest and the CIA's process provide the best sense of intrigue and tension in the movie. Paralleling the CIA and Cross trying to connect the dots, one step behind one another, provides way more tension than any of the chase scenes. Many of the situations Cross and Marta end up in are claustrophobic in nature, and congested with lots of people. The Bourne Legacy devises clever but logical escape routes for the pair using crowds as a major distraction. The CIA scenes using surveillance and dot connecting feels honest, and the directors ask the local police to corner and trap since trying to engage will lead to probable deaths. The Bourne Legacy has many flaws, but for the most part, Logic is not one of them.

The biggest failing of the screenplay is the mundanely executed chase scenes. The scenes are very long, and miss the logical ending points. Character development is put to the side to highlight these chases. Unfortunately, if character development were at a premium, even the most mundane chase scene is filled with stakes. In the Bourne Legacy's case, the motorcycle scene features a couple that we partially care about followed by an assassin who is brought up 10 minutes before the chase starts.

Fortunately, the leads get cast correctly. Jeremy Renner is winning as Aaron Cross. Renner is an Oscar Nominee, so even with the weak backstory here, he extracts the important information to showcase the urgency of his situation. Edward Norton is cold and calculating as the head of the CIA. He is severely underutilized in this film; there are some juicy subplots cut to tie Jason Bourne's Legacy into the film. Hopefully they emphasize Norton and his connection to Renner in the future as they are engaging in the one scene they are in together. Rachel Weisz is fine as the female in distress; at least she is smart. Other characters fall by the way side, and generate no lasting interest for the audience.

The Bourne Legacy is more interested in Bourne than Legacy. Jeremy Renner is forced to answer more questions than celebrate his ascension to a leading man. Despite the open ended ending, I hope Matt Damon agrees to be in the sequel. It would be a good show of faith in the franchise's transition, and could provide an intriguing combination going forward. Until that time, the Bourne Legacy will be an incomplete vision, leaving you pretty unsatisfied.

Bernie
Bernie(2012)

Bernie is a delicious reminder of how much writer/director Richard Linklater can elevate a film. Jack Black has a tendency to ratchet up his enthusiasm to an 11 which can be fun in spurts but is usually not enough to carry the movie. In Linklater/Black's previous effort, School of Rock, Linklater used Black's enthusiasm to bounce off kids and teach himself to grow up. In Bernie, Linklater dials back Black to a 4 or 5 and internalizes Bernie's thought process to make him a more compelling character. Bernie is a fun character study of a kind man and how an entire town can be blinded by kindness.

Told by entire town of Carthage, Texas, Bernie (Jack Black) is the story of an assistant funeral director who is loved by everyone in the town, but especially elderly women who find him charming and caring. Taking a particularly strong shine to the man is Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the richest, meanest woman in the town. She is very possessive, monopolizing Bernie's time. Eventually her worse characteristics rub on Bernie so much that he ends up killing her. Making this killing more complicated for prosecutor Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) is the fact that Bernie has used his power of attorney with the Nugent's money to provide gifts for every hard-luck candidate in the town.

What Linklater does best is incorporate Bernie into the small town culture. The movie opens with some of the day-to-day activities by Bernie: he pretty much helps most of the town whether it be directing a play or caring for someone's dead/living relatives. Linklater elects to tell the story through the eyes of the townspeople who actually witnessed most of these events, which is necessary because of how little material their actually is, but is also very useful in showcasing how far reaching the effect one man can have on a small town. These people only care how the man treats the person individually, and will defend one of their own against a perceived outsider and showboat like Buck.

Eventually, the use of the townspeople turns into a crutch as it is the source for easy material since the townspeople are so charming. The trial side of the story is underdeveloped and slightly rushed due to the laziness of the first half, as if to wrap things up. Perhaps if the story shifted more to Buck's point of view later in the story, the dichotomy of small town/real world morality would be more interesting, and would allow more pressure to be felt by Bernie.

As the lovable portly fellow, Jack Black is a revelation. He really dials back his energy but keeps the enthusiasm, making Bernie a very lovable man befitting his tiny town. His chemistry with Shirley MacLaine is fascinating, especially with Black selling the very tiny things that irritate him to "madness." The very fact that we second guess the result of the trial is a testament to how well Black sells Bernie to the audience. MacLaine is solid if not great here. She's very good at playing cold. Matthew McConaughey is underutilized as the prosecutor, though he is very fun in the scenes he is in. The biggest sell other than Black though is the townspeople, who are some of the most interesting charming people I have seen on screen in 2012.

Bernie, like its main character, is a tiny movie. Tiny does not necessarily mean worse though. Bernie has a very distinct point of view that takes what should be a black and white issue and paints it in shades of grey. I was very dismissive of Bernie when I heard about it, but like it's main character would sing, Love Lifted Me.

Pitch Perfect
½

The Deltones. The Sig O's. Purple Haze. These are some of the a cappella groups at my Alma Mater. Like Pitch Perfect shows the audience, the "battles" between a cappella groups can become intense affairs like any other sport. What makes Pitch Perfect a strong entry into the "sports movie" genre is the affection it has for the sport itself. Pitch Perfect's singers may not harmonize like the Beatles, but they leave a pleasing note for the viewer.

Beca (Anna Kendrick), Barden College's newest mash-up-ologist, gets onto campus with the intent of jetting off to LA as soon as possible to make music. Forced to go to school by her dad, she at least keeps her passion relevant by joining two activities. One is interning for the local radio station where she tries to get her mixes on the air and meets Jesse (Skylar Astin). The other club is the Barden Bellas, an all female a cappella group led by Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). Joined by other new recruits Fat Amy (not an insult, actually her name Rebel Wilson), sultry Stacie (Alexis Knapp) and inaudible Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), the Barden Bellas hope to win the Collegiate A Cappella finals (an actual event) against their all male rivals the Trebelmakers, where Jesse, coincidentally, just got invited to join.

Despite a movie about singers with no instrumental accompaniment, Pitch Perfect plays the movie completely straight. By not even showing any college classes, Pitch Perfect lets the audience dive right in to the preparation and execution of an a cappella performance. Though this pigeon-holed viewpoint, the audience gets a chance to connect to every character. Even the type A personality Aubrey gets a moment of redemption. This affection pays the most dividends with Jesse, who gets to be a musical rival but ends up being a pretty nice and cool guy, especially to his overly nerdy roommate when he would be so easily forgotten. Not every character in Pitch Perfect can be described as dimensional, but every character serves a function in the world they inhabit, thus making them necessary pieces.

The musical sequences represent the highlight of Pitch Perfect. The success of the performances looks like a Bell curve, with most of the great stuff in the middle and the weaker numbers at the beginning and end (it is fun, but the Bella's song is unmoving). The spontaneous numbers are the highlight: 1 involving a sing off between the groups, and 1 involving a sing-a-long on a bus. Those numbers work the best because of what appears to the actors being allowed to mess around a little and create something special. The climax isn't all bad; the Trebelmakers do something really sweet that isn't too clear, but Pitch Perfect misses the opportunity for the groups to join forces against another enemy in the finals, and instead resorts to cliches.

Acting in Pitch Perfect is more of a test of likability than complexity. On that note, Anna Kendrick could not be more winning as Beca. Even through the little attempts to make her sound rebellious, her adorable likability shines through. Skylar Astin doesn't quite match Kendrick's charisma, but he gets pretty close: not an easy feat. Brittany Snow abandons her scream queen persona to make Chloe a really compelling character as she is torn between Beca and Aubrey but remains friends with both of them. Rebel Wilson and Hana Mae Lee have fun with their roles. Anna Camp's part is written too scathing to be fully redeemed by her transformation, which Camp doesn't sell too well.

Pitch Perfect makes the audiences cheer for a cappella performers in a singing competition, not an easy task. It distinguishes itself enough from the Voice, American Idol, and Glee to stand on its own because of its winning leads and fun performances. One of my friends called Pitch Perfect a "game changer." I don't think it quiet gets to that level, but like the Breakfast Club song, it politely asks "Don't you forget about me." I won't. It's good enough to not be forgotten easily.

Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3(2010)

Toy Story 3 is Pixar's piece de resistance. Coupling the originality of the first Toy Story with the pathos of the second one, Toy Story 3 is a joy to experience, beginning to end. Exiting the theater, I did not see one dry eye, or one face unsmiled.

After a rousing intro re-establishing the characters, we are placed in the present: Andy (John Morris) is going off to college at at a crossroads with his toys. He elects to take Woody (Tom Hanks) to college with him, but leaves his other toys as attic material. Due to a maternal mix up, the toys [Jessie (Joan Cusack), Buzz (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. (Don Rickels) and Mrs. (Estelle Harris) Potato-Head, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Slinky (Blake Clark) and Barbie (Jodie Benson)] end up at Sunnyside Daycare, which is run by Lotso (Ned Beatty), a strawberry smelling bear and Ken (Michael Keaton), Barbie's beau. At first this seems perfect: a place where kids never grow up. However, all is not as it seems: Sunnyside is run like a prison, and the toys must break out to get back, but get back to whom?

Toy Story 3 does a good job shedding unnecessary characters from previous movies and integrating new ones. The flashback sequence instantly provides an insight for the audience to the toys and their relationship with Andy: each one plays an important role in the adventures Andy creates in his mind, thus eliminating the need to watch the previous films. It also mentions other important characters from the past (like Bo Peep) and uses their absence to quickly set up the stakes. When they toys arrive at Sunnyside, Lotso is given a Shakespearean backstory that sympathizes the villain. Director Lee Unkrich and Screenwriter Michael Arndt know that not everyone in the audience will see the first 2 Toy Stories before this one, so they set up the movie so you don't have to have prior knowledge; however, if you have seen the first two, the movie works on a deeper level and is just as effective if not moreso.

The tonal balance is handled effortlessly in Toy Story 3. The transitions in emotional resonance are usually subtle but effective and build upon one another as the story moves on. The sheer joy from the flashback is greater and a little sad because of the melancholy of the present in the next scene. That sadness is an undercurrent of the Sunnyside story along with playful menace. The dire circumstances culminate in the final act of the Sunnyside story that touches the heart in the simplicity of the toys' gesture to one another. The final fifteen minutes is hard to describe, but there is a ubiquity to it. Kids and adults alike will look back on the times they had a connection to a toy. Kids will feel happiness, but adults will feel something much more: nostalgia, euphoria, understanding. An emotion that complicated rarely connects with an audience, but Toy Story 3 finds something in the final fifteen minutes that will resonate with every audience member.

Lots of credit goes to the voice actors, who are all pretty stellar. There are 4 standouts. Tom Hanks is winning as everyone's favorite cowboy; Woody has the toughest decision to make and it is present in every word Hanks says. Ned Beatty does a fantastic job hiding menace behind a calm and welcomind demeanor. This combination makes Lotso more tragic than hated. And finally, Michael Keaton and Jodi Benson do a fun rat-at-at as Ken and Barbie, the star crossed lovers. They get most of the funniest scenes of the film, especially Keaton.

There are adults out there who are convinced that animated films are an inferior art form. That they pander to children with bright lights and easily digestible stories that adults will be bored with. Toy Story 3 has some of those elements, but it carries with it a deep understanding of what makes a toy so special to a child, making the film deeper than more "mature" films in the world today. Much like the Grinch, your heart will grow three sizes after watching Toy Story 3, and make you want to go into your attic, grab your old toys, and just say to them "Thank you."

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
½

Vampires are one of the biggest fad's in movies since Twilight's brooding appeared on the big screen. Vampires have gotten so big they have now consumed our 16th President. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter builds an alternate lifestyle for Honest Abe: a moonlighting assassin of the undead because they killed his mother. This heavy stylized revisionist history of the man in fact plays the story too safe. If the vampire story has more successfully been integrated into the overall history of Abraham Lincoln, the movie could have been one of the highlights of 2012. As is, it is passable entertainment at best.

Young Mr. Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) keeps a secret journal where he transcibes his dealings with the underworld. He gets his start after running into Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who turns Abe into his apprentice. Abe moves to Springfield where he meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and starts his political career. What starts out as a simple revenge action escalates into full scale war for the country's soul as well as mankind's.

A movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is surprisingly devoid of humor. Director Timur Bekmambetov elects to turn this story into a horror type film. As such, the movie bares lots of resemblace to the movie 300. Much of the horror and violence is stylized in desaturated color, thus dulling its impact the more vampires that are killed. The desensitization of the deaths dulls the climax and final confrontation between Abe and the head vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell). However, the action scenes themselves are pretty fun, especially a scene involving vampires sacking a train.

There are many instances Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sets up complicated situations for the characters, but it elects to play it safe instead. Adam is very interested in seeing his race be seen as equals with humans, but he chooses to side with the South and keep slaves in bondage, making it easy for Lincoln to fight against him. Instead of making the Emancipation Proclamation have layers of emancipation, it makes Abe have to make the easy choice. In history, Mary Todd is known to have questionable mental capabilities due to issues with her children. The use of the vampires could have proved to be a fun reimagining that Mary Todd in fact wasn't crazy, but Lincoln claimed so to keep her quiet. Instead, the story just brushes past this as if it wasn't a big deal, wasting a juicy subplot.

The acting was never meant to be great, but is pretty solid across the board. Benjamin Walker is very contemplative, dour, and intense as Abe Lincoln. Jimmi Simpson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anthony Mackie, and especially Dominic Cooper are worthy allies for the axe man. Rufus Sewell is very menacing as the lead vampire, with some subtle sadness underneath.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has a very dull axe accompanying his stove top hat. It is fun while it lasts, but leaves no impression other than slightly interesting. In all seriousness though, my lasting impression is that Benjamin Walker needs to take a blood test to prove that he is not Liam Neeson's son. Maybe Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would have been more entertaining if Lincoln were forced to give the Taken monologue. "I have a special set of skills..."

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Where are the stereotypes? The Perks of Being a Wallflower modernizes the high school film through wallflowers: outsiders that are ok with that fact. Book/Movie Writer and Director Stephen Chbosky makes sure there are no misinterpretations of his book, and his cinematic interpretation is one of the better showcases of high school life since probably Freaks and Geeks.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is willingly different; as a high school freshmen, he sees conformity as a facade. Charlie willingly keeps his thoughts secret from others until a few exceptional people encourage him to do so. One person is his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), who gives Charlie additional reading assignments to encourage his writing, and seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), who hear of Charlie's dark past and take him in as one of their own. Charlie enters the world of the wallflowers, and learns about love and honesty and their connection to history and time.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower miraculously walks the line between emerging from and embracing high school stereotypes, much like where more progressive high schools are at today. Yes these kids are outsiders, but unlike past films, some are big football fans, smart, not smart, rich, artsy: in short, they share traits of the popular kids without conforming to a particular role. I had friends in school that knew how to walk the line between various cliques and were loved by all in the school; Patrick made me instantly think of those people. In addition, the outsiders themselves, because of their placment in the high school scene, have some deep down fears clearly development from being misunderstood. This makes all the characters walking contradictions of acceptance and distance, making them inherently fascinating.

A theme expressed throughout Perks is that of secrets: that underneath what we show to people is some sort of history or relationship helping secretly define you. The success of these secrets mostly depends on the amount of screen time for the characters. Any member of the group of friends have very intense and mostly destructive fears (especially Charlie, who's secret dominates the final act). However, Charlie's sister isn't well developed, so her secret is shoehorned in along with Mr. Anderson.

Perks's biggest strength is its casting. Logan Lerman has a very intense but likable face. He has to play the subdued lead to the more charismatic Sam and Patrick, but he comes off very sympathetic and uncreepy, which Charlie could have become in a lesser actor's hands. He and Emma Watson are very cute together; a necessity for the audience to care about the characters. Character actors surround the leads like Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh; Paul Rudd and Mae Whitman have the biggest impact and are very good here. The true stars of Perks are the Wallflowers siblings. Emma Watson casts a memory spell with her acting; not once did I see Hermione Granger in her performance, which is a beautiful mix of elegance and frailty. Even better is Ezra Miller, who plays Patrick as someone who believes in the good in people, and can find the good in any one. Miller is so radiant that the movie drags a little when he is not on screen.

Perks of Being a Wallflower will remind everyone of some part of their high school. What makes the movie so special is that the feelings are complicated. Fear, euphoria, sadness, and attachment all passed through my heart when watching Perks of Being a Wallflower. Perhaps the best moment for me comes when one character says near the end, "It gets better." As sad as it sounds on the surface, it is comforting to know that at some point after high school, everyone says those words.

Jack the Giant Slayer
½

Jack the Giant Slayer is an enjoyable entertainment, but ultimately forgettable. When Director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie work together, usually something memorable happens (they worked together on the Usual Suspects). In this case, their collaboration falls more on the disappointing scale than expected. It would appear their beanstalks are grasping for something just out of their reach.

Fee. Fi. Fo. Fum (coincidentally, the name of 4 giants). I remember being read those words when I was a kid. Apparently Jack (Nicholas Hoult) the farmboy and Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) cannot get enough of the beanstalks, giants, and magic beans. After some ineptitude on both their parts, Isabelle and Jack become participants in the first beanstalk connection between giants and humans in a few generations. Also along for the ride are Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the king's best soldier, and Roderick (Stanley Tucci), the princess's betrothed who clearly has subversive intentions.

The scripts greatest effort is spent on turning Jack and the Beanstalk into a fantasy adventure aking to a lite version of the Hobbit. The key to a winning fantasy adventure are great special effects and sympathetic heroes. The beanstalk explosions are very impressive and intimidating: at times, the beanstalk itself feels like another character since it is consistently moving and evolving. The giants are not bumbling morons, but are in fact, very menacing agile taller creatures that walk the line between disgusting and scary. To combat the giants, Jack is eager to help and cute with Isabelle (she is a weak point; there is nothing memorable about her). Roderick and Elmont get to chew a little scenery, but are forgetten after the half way point. The characters are the big failing of Jack and the Giant Slayer; they get very few lines, even fewer jokes, making them bland types defined by the actors' charisma only (thankfully Jack has the most winning personality, otherwise Jack the Giant Slayer would be very boring).

Successful fantasies also work due to solid pacing, which Jack the Giant Slayer executes very well. Depending on the goals of the scene, each section is given the right ratio of time. The best example is the trek up the beanstalk; using two scenes at night and day, Singer put a number on the time it takes to go up the beanstalk as well as give the characters a few little moments to try to develop characters. After these scenes, the movie gets to the beanstalk peak: climing over in about 10 minutes well shot and edited.

With the exception of the beanstalks themselves, Jack the Giant Slayer is an unmemorable adventure. With the exception of Nicholas Hoult, you could have a conference call with all the phoned in performances. I got the sense that the writers felt that the movie wrote itself when they read the poem, and the lack of effort manifests on screen as lazy and uninspired action. Much like trading a horse for beans, I feel very let down by Jack the Giant Slayer.

Dredd
Dredd(2012)

We need more movies in inescapable buildings. Dredd, a reimagination of the Sylvester Stallone vehicle, is a rip roaring fun movie that might be an even better video game. In fact, were it not for some really stupid decisions by some of the characters, Dredd would be one of the best action movies of the year. Combining a brisk pace, subtle complications, and some cool special effects, Dredd delivers in a very satisfying way.

In a futuristic society, the Eastern seaboard has been turned into a megalopolis with mega towers. Inside one such tower, the Peach Trees, resides Mama (Lena Headey), the leader of a crime syndicate that produces a drug called Slo-Mo (it slows your reaction time to 1% of normal speed). After "sending a message" to the residents, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is dispatched to the scene. He is not alone either: new to the force Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby), is a psychic who "marginally" passed the entrance exam. After a witness is found, Mama locks down the building, leaving Dredd and Cassandra no choice but to shoot their way out.

Dredd's biggest asset is its visuals. The futuristic society looks compact and desaturated; the buildings look more like mechanized fortresses from the middle ages. Cassandra's psychic evaluations are executed very well using quick edits. The action scenes are well choreographed and shot, particularly the decimation of a floor in the building. Most importantly, the Slo-Mo vision is inspired and very cleverly executed. It is amazing how magnificent certain things look in slow motion: water splashing can look like shooting stars (falling glass has a similar appeal). Deaths also look just as horrific in slow motion. Like Dave Chappelle said, everything just looks cooler in slow motion, and Dredd executes that point better than most movies. The sad thing is, the Slo-Mo is mostly abandoned in the middle section of Dredd; one more scene as a split cam between slow and fast paced would have been a nice exclamation point for the visual effects team.

Character development is at a minimum in a film like Dredd. Scenes that attempt to progress or showcase a character have varying levels of success. Using the simple fact that Dredd thinks in black/white makes any decision a tough one that defines him, Urban does a good job growling and playing it straight; even the gallows humor makes sense with his character. Cassandra is more of a mixed bag; her development is easier to show since she is a blank slate as a cop, but she uses her powers when it is convenient in the story for her to do so. As such, she makes some stupid decisions in regards to dragging prisoners with her. Lena Headey is nicely cold as Mama, but her villain lacks any real lasting memory (although she does act smartly as the leader most of the time).

Dredd is a solid reboot of a character that Robocop could relate to. There is enough compelling material with Judge Dredd to launch a sequel, but the story is self contained. Keep in mind, the extra d in Dredd is for deaths, of which there are many and they are very, VERY violent. If you are afraid of such things, have no fear: Judge Dredd is unfazed by these acts and does what is necessary to uphold the law.

The Paperboy
The Paperboy(2012)
½

The Paperboy is missing a few puzzle pieces from being a complete picture. A sleezy, smutty exploitation picture, The Paperboy shocks the audience with two great performances of actors playing opposite their type. Unfortunately, some subplots come out of nowhere, and the story lacks any real payoff or lesson because the lead is just generic. Plus, who wants to cheer for an adult paperboy?

Recounted by his former house worker Anita (Macy Gray), Jack (Zac Efron) has been in a rut lately. A former swimmer who got kicked out of school, Jack moves back to his home in South Florida to become the town paperboy (his dad is the editor). One day, his brother Ward (Matthew mcConaughey) comes home with his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to help Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) get out of prison for the murder of a corrupt cop. Aiding the lawyers is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) who has been writing Van Wetter for months and convinced herself that she is in love with him.

The Paperboy is at its strongest when either John Cusack or Nicole Kidman are on screen. Both are actually playing against type. Kidman portrays a drugged out lonely former sexpot who latches herself onto damaged people. She's immoral, damaged, and pretty stupid. She is asked to do a lot of dirty sexy scenes, which she nails. Even better is John Cusack, who is playing the opposite of every character he's ever played. Cusack is grimy, disgusting, and very volatile as Hilary Van Wetter, who is as bad as bad can be. Cusack uses his confused looks and turns them into an empty crazy stare, which is frightening to behold. The scenes involving both Kidman and Cusack crackle with energy and intensity, especially an unusual form of joint pleasure.

The Paperboy's failings involve what appears to be editing issues. The movie is already long (almost 2 hours), but director Lee Daniels chooses a middle route for plot information. Either he should flesh out the characters a little more and tie in the setting (South Florida in the late 60s) more closely to the murder story, or he should abandon one of the two (in this case, the racism side) and focus on his interesting characters. This middle road leaves the stories disconnected and unfocused, as well as dulling the climax of the movie.

I'm not sure who the audience for The Paperboy is, but no matter who watches it, they will be at least a little disappointed. The movie feels more like a wasted opportunity and wasted performances than something worthwhile. At least we know for certain how effecitve a jellyfish sting is, and how to properly ease the pain.

The Gatekeepers

The war between Israel and Palestine has been going on for thousands of years now. Many millions of people have died during this conflict, and even moreso during recent years with the rise of terrorism and sophisticated bombing techniques. At the front lines of this war today are the Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service. Somehow assembling 6 former heads of the organization, director Dror Moreh showcases the tactical and philosophical behavior of the figureheads as they were in charge of the Shin Bet. When it isn't surprising the audience with the leaders' stances on certain groups, The Gatekeepers provides a fascinating insight into one of the most unkown, lethal and precise groups in the world.

The Gatekeepers starts after the 6 Day War and divides itself into 7 categories: The Rise of the Shin Bet, the 300 bus incident, the Oslo Accords, the Jewish Underground, the Palestinian negotiations, Israel and Hamas, and final reflections. The movie uses the point of view of the leaders of the organization to take us into the reasons behind their actions during these different time periods as well as their take on politics, terrorism, and the Palestinian state.

The Gatekeepers 6 heads vary in terms of screen presence and insight. Two stand out: Avraham Shalom, the oldest participant, has the most interesting perspecive of the leaders: he sees himself as a tactician, morals, ethics, and such are to be determined by other people, his job is to carry out tasks others are afraid to do. For Shalom, the ends justify the means almost always: The 300 Bus Incident is the most fascinating segment as we see Shalom navigate around the blame and bring up how what is moral is a philosophy that he simply doesn't have time to consider. The other head is Ami Ayalon, who was the biggest supporter of The Gatekeepers. As Shin Bet matured as an organization, philosophy had to be considered more at their level, such as public perception and things of that nature. Ayalon passionately talks about how people like the suicide bombers are generated from the leaders who talk them into performing such acts, but those philosopcial leaders themselves cannot be attacked since their deaths will create even more terrorists to come forward. Ayalon gets the chilling last line of the movie, which I won't spoil, but sums up his thoughts in a very ominous tone.

I went into this film thinking it was going to be a movie demagoguing terrorism and Israel's enemies. The Gatekeepers, in fact, takes a much more enlightened stance against institutions and misunderstanding. Politicans suffer mightily at the hands of this film. One director of Shin Bet pointed out how they are binary people: They only want to hear act/don't act; multiple options are out the window. Politicians are also as cold as these leaders although they hide under the guise of morality if they're of the right wing: if something goes wrong, they blame it on the organization, if they're right, they take all the credit. The one exception here is former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who came from security and thus understood the pressures these men were under. He was also the Prime Minister who started the idea of a Palestinian State and whose murder by a rogue gunmen (Shin Bet points this out) completely derailed the process and gave power to the right wing of the Israeli party. This wing is also responsible for enabling the terrorism of the Jewish Underground, a radical party that tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock and other sacred Islamic sites. When Shin Bet would step in and stop these attacks, the arrested terrorist were let go with minimal sentences because of the misunderstanding of the lawmakers about Jewish law. When the 6 directors were asked what would be the best way to really minimize terrorism in the region, the answer from most was information/talking, so as to show the enemies were not evil people, just different people.

As sad and frustrating as the conflic is, The Gatekeepers provides information to the masses on how it is viewed from those who fight on the front lines. This information will probably be demagogued from both sides (Israelis as well as their enemies) meaning the film does a good job pointing out how much more there is to learn about this conflict from especially the decision makers on both sides of the conflict. One thing is for sure, I will be very careful not to cross paths with the Shin Bet, these guys are master tacticians.

Les Misérables

Les Miserables is less a musical and more of an opera. Most of the lines are sung, and there are no breaks for big dance numbers. Director Tom Hooper takes the best parts of Victor Hugo's novel as well as the musical to craft a very emotionally wrenching story about love, misunderstanding, crime, and sadness. Though it drags in its third act, Les Miserables contains enough compelling relationships and setpieces to keep the viewers attention.

For those who don't know the background of the Victor Hugo Novel, the movie takes place over several years. The main story revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) getting his release from prison after stealing a loaf of bread. After breaking his parole and devoting his life to god, he elects to take care of Cosette (Isabelle Allen), daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the prostitute fired from Valjean's factory because she was supporting her child via prostitution. Fast forward a few years, an older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), has fallen in love with revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne); however, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) has tracked down Valjean after a years long search forcing him to separate the young couple. All of this is happening during the middle of the uprising of the populous against the government in France.

This version of Les Miserables is derived from the musical. As such, the adaptation has strengths and weaknesses. The majestic scope can be more properly expressed in the film version (due to stage constraints) and the cutting between singers flows a lot better. However, some of the intimacy of the stage is lost in the barracade scenes due to the expanded scope. Knowing this, Director Hooper elects to have the actors and actresses sing their own songs accompanied by facial closeups. This is a bold decision that threatens to tear the movie apart (Crowe is not the strongest singer and Jackman could be better). Fortunately, Hooper recruited some of the stars of the Broadway version to reprise their roles (Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Banks as Eponine) who provide richness to the voice palate, and the closeups keep at least the first 2/3 surprisingly affecting. When the scope expands to the revolutionaries, the movie's pacing ebbs and flows similarly. Gavroche and Eponine's bigger moments are captivating while Javert's confessions and the plight of the revolutionaries lacked the necessary punch to the gut they should create. Les Miserables hits more than it misses with its cinematic recreation, but it isn't perfect.

The art directors will certainly merit Oscar consideration. The costumes of both rich and poor successfully recreate war torn France in the 1800s. The battles seem both large and small at the same time using tiny streets and homemade barricades. The color sceme of greys with flashes of color populate the screen like a silent voice telling the viewer where to look. The art direction's best moments are in the decay of certain characters. Jean Valjean, for instance, is a labored peasant type at the beginning, a paternal governor in the middle, and an old man by the end. The makeup department goes to great lengths to highlight the feelings of Valjean through subtle makeup changes over the course of the film.

Much of the credit for Les Miserables goes to the actors, some more surprising than others. Hugh Jackman gets the most screen time as Jean Valjean. I was worried about his ability to carry the array of emotions necessary to fully form Valjean's character; Jackman is ready for the challenge and while not always on point (Bring Him Home was a little underwhelming), he nails the character shifts over the course of the film. Russell Crowe's Javert is written as one-note, and Crowe tries to give hime something, but he ends up being underdeveloped and a distraction due to Crowe's voice. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are two of the weaker characters, but the levity they bring to the movie was so welcome I forgave that fact. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are also fairly solid in their voices/roles. Les Miserables's highlights are 3: Daniel Huttlestone as little Gavroche gets a couple great scenes, maybe not to showcase his voice, but to give the character some selfless bravery. Samantha Banks would merit consideration as best supporting actress if not for #3, but she is the biggest reason the revolutionary part of the story doesn't lose meaning. Banks shows loss beyond her young years at the thought of unrequited love and absolutely nails her big songs. I had a friend who told me though that "They should just give Anne Hathaway the Oscar for her performance in the trailer." What makes her Fantine so special is because of what Hathaway brings to the character; her singing voice I knew was decent, but it was much better than I expected. I Dreamed a Dream is a song that has been in the back of my head for years, but I never quite understood the context until Hathaway has to carry the entire song in closeup. That solo is one of the movie highlights of 2012, with Hathaway simultaneously singing flawlessly while conveying several emotions over the course of the 4-5 minute song.

Musicals come in all sorts and sizes. Usually musicals find some whimsical way to pass the time with fun dance numbers and some sort of over the top emotional declaration. Les Miserables uses constant singing to ground the story in relatable emotions and tragic understanding. It is bold, ambitious filmmaking that rewards those interested in the story behind the musical as much as musical lovers alike. Like Jean Valjean, Les Miserables has its flaws, but everyone knows that its heart is in the right place.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is one of the first movies I've seen completely destroyed by its execution and script. It wastes a terrific hook, good actors, a solid ending, and a quality theme. I was so in on this film I was telling people about it before it came out. Suffice to say it came back to bite me.

Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim (Joel Edgerton) Green are waiting at the adoption agency to plead their case to the board. In the "Reasons Why They Are Ready" section they write 1 word: "Timothy." They use the rest of their alotted time to tell their amazing story. After finding out they cannot conceive a child, they cope one night by writing out the characteristics of their ideal child. They bury the box in their garden in the back, and after a magical rain, a child, Timothy (CJ Adams), appears at their front door with leaves attached to his legs. The couple quickly realize their dream has come true, and vow to not to share the characteristics of other parents they are not as fond of, such as Jim's absentee dad (David Morse) or Cindy's haughty sister Brenda (Rosemarie DeWitt). Complicating matters are Cindy's cold shoulder of a boss (Dianne Wiest) and Jim's pencil factory possibly shutting down. Jim and Cindy have to learn how to handle the problems of a child in addition to their adult ones.

Timothy Green's middle name must be Macguffin, because with one exception, his character is only viewed as a plot device. CJ Adams looks cute and friendly as Green, but he doesn't fully become a character himself, leaving the audience surprisingly indifferent to the story. Timothy does have a cute relationship with a girl at the school, but otherwise, he is present to get a reaction from other members of the cast.

The rest of the cast is populated by good to great character actors, of which most are wasted by being painted in the broadest strokes possible. Joel Edgerton is pretty good in a poorly written role; he and Garner have a nice chemistry when they're trying to be funny, but lack the emotional punch is obvious right away. Garner's Cindy is too shrill to make you care about her fate. M. Emmet Walsh gets some very nice moments as an elderly uncle, but Rosemarie DeWitt, David Morse, Ron Livingston, and especially Dianne Wiest should be embarrassed for accepting the script as is.

These flaws can usually be ok in a sweet Disney movie, but the climax is where all of these flaws get horribly exposed. The reasons for Timothy's fate are way too arbitrary for us to care about him, and several of the character's accept someone's word when they were just lied to. If the story focused more on the complicated ways to parent to children and the mixed/contradictory advice you have to give them plus the inevitable mistakes parents make, Timothy's odd life might be more ubiquitous and emotional, but the characters are too broadly written to generate these situations, as if the writers were afraid kids would not get it.

Timothy Green tries to be as sweet as a Valentine candy, but like candies, the movie lingers and picks at you and eventually generates a cavity: a cavity of emotion, plot, and fully fleshed characters. Thus, the sweet ending ends up lacking the payoff without the toothbrush of a well executed script. After all of the thought put into the hook and ending, this oversight by Disney is like Timothy Green: just odd.

Bully
Bully(2012)
½

Bully wants to highlight a serious problem for kids in the world today. Bully showcases in as broad of strokes as possible the effect it has on those bullied and some of the institutional and societal inefficiencies that have escalated bullying into a larger concern than in the past. Although it neglects to consider the bullies themselves and the reasons they choose to be this way, it is a touching and maddening look at the results of their actions on the people they hurt. While some of the profiles are more heartbreaking/intriguing than others, Bully successfully highlights how serious of a problem bullying is and how there is no easy way to fix it other than to get the word out, but it leaves some key parts of the issue on the table to humanize the issue.

Bully follows essentially 4 tales: the Long/Smalley families seek to get the word out about bullying after their sons commit suicide as a result from it, a Mississippi teen Ja'Maya goes to prison after confronting a bully in a more forceful manner, Oklahoma teen Kelby recently comes out to the community and is effectively shunned as a result, and Sioux City's Alex is abused daily on the bus because he looks like a "fish face."

The broad stokes across multiple facets of life give Bully a ubiquity to make the problem more accessible. Focusing on the institutional "shrug of the shoulder" is a really frightening way to show how helpless some of the kids are. Principals believe that shaking hands with the bully is like Pontius Pilate: wiping their hands of the situation. The best scene in Bully involves one of those bullied not shaking hands with his tormentor and being criticized for it despite his logical reasons why he doesn't do it. Parenting doesn't escape the criticism either. Some of the prouder parents think the kids should just stand up to the bully, telling him that no one likes the timid kid (thus inflicting parental brand of bullying) and most parents turn a blind eye to the situation. The generational divide is present throughout Bully, especially in Ja'Maya's and Kelby's story. Kids will be kids is no longer a reason to not care; talking about it and forcing someone's hand is clearly the message Bully gets across.

The frustrating aspect of Bully is the fact that it is not adequately modernized. There is little to no mention of cyber bullying, a more recent trend that can only continue to get worse as kids continue to get plugged in earlier. Also, Bully tries to show how institutions are the biggest problem for these kids, but the movie makes the bulies themselves faceless individuals. Perhaps they were worried how they would look on camera or because director Lee Hirsch did not want to sympathize with a bully, but a little information into the psychological reasons as to why people bully other people would have shined a light into a perspective that would also help people understand the seriousness of the situation and how to possibly resolve it.

These criticisms do nothing to diminish the emotional impact Bully should have on those who have walked in one of the kids' shoes. I was tormented on buses growing up, but nowhere near the level of Alex. It strikes a sad and angry note that makes me want to help out as much as I can, which is the best compliment I can pay to Bully: it gets people fired up to get involved to make kids' lives just a little bit easier.

Sleepwalk With Me

Mike Birbiglia has been hanging around the elite of the comedy world without ever becoming a household name. His style is pretty carefree and based off of personal life experiences. Sleepwalk With Me is the extension of Birbiglia's stand up act. While an imperfect film, the creative force (Birbiglia) behind the film hits more than it misses with a light tone and smart script.

Birbiglia stars as Mike Pandamiglio (think he is tired of name mispronounciation?), a struggling standup comedian with a long term girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). Mike's younger sister just got engaged, and he starts getting pressure from Abby and his mom (Carol Kane) and dad (James Rebhorn). This newfound pressure so eats at Mike that he starts sleepwalking. He takes these fears and anxieties and channels them into his routine, thus creating an unsustainable cycle of stress, sleepwalking, and funny jokes.

Sleepwalk With Me clearly has several nonfiction elements which work well and not so well in a movie. The creative process elements are refreshing. Watching failure after failure then change into sucesses is fascinating enough, but coupling that creativity with the sleepwalking elements is a unique contrast of conscious vs. subconscious creativity. When Birbiglia learns that playing comedy close to the chest is his best option, you can see his confidence growing despite his growing fears that sleepwalking will potentially turn harmful. As his reputation and popularity grow, you can see changes in his personality that lead him to take more control of his life instead of it being dictated to him. Sleepwalk With Me is at its best when focusing on Birbiglia's creative process, which carries Sleepwalk With Me's second half.

Unfortunately the first half relationship stuff in the first half should almost be considered filler. There are some cliches with regards to the relationship side of the story that feel as if they belong in another movie. Mike's parents are nosy and itching to get some grand kids. There's other women who come up when Mike is touring, and Abby, though mostly perky and sweet, acts out in some obvious ways. Birbiglia sticks the landing with the relationship evolution, but Sleepwalk With Me drags in the first 45 minutes while prepping Mike to go on tour.

Birbiglia himself is a winning presence. He's very mellow and calm while fits of chaos surround him; since most of this story is nonfiction, it is easy for Birbiglia to become his character. Lauren Ambrose is mostly delightful as Abby; it is hard not to root for her in certain situations. Carol Kane is very funny as Mike's mom, but James Rebhorn is playing too much to the overbearing dad ty