Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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Full disclosure: I’ve never read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. I understand if that precludes any readers from respecting my review. But untainted by the overindulgent fantastical memories of my childhood, I watched Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax with an objective eye. Looking back on it now, I wish I hadn’t. If only I had walked in reciting Seuss rhymes, I may have walked out with a shinier review. Unfortunatel, none of the witty lines or adorably drawn characters were able to push it past anything more than a cutesy, fluff piece for the environment.

The Lorax tells the story of an idealistic boy named Ted who discovers the history “Thneed-Ville”, now a closed-off city with artificial trees and vegetation. Jumping between two time lines, the film traces the dangers that corporate greed has on nature. If I didn’t know any better, Michael Moore wrote and direct the film. I have nothing wrong with a film promoting a social agenda. Many films do. But when a social agenda is at the forefront and the actual heart of the story is pushed to the wayside, all of it gets a little too stale for a children’s movie.

What’s missing most of all from The Lorax is cleverness — a quality that was probably the most vibrant and consistent through all of Dr. Seuss’ books. It lacks the cleverness to touch controversial subjects with a innocent graze. It lacks the cleverness to create sympathy for characters across the moral spectrum. And it lacks the cleverness to realize audiences desire more than a noisy, clunky, ADHD-induced animated film neither for child or adult. All we get are lazy stereotypes of Dr. Seuss’ mind. And for that, it should honestly change its name to just The Lorax. Because there is nothing quite Dr. Seuss about it.

Except the rhymes. Those were cool.

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There are a hundred ways to describe John Carter and there is no way to describe it at all. It has a little bit of Avatar and a little bit of Dances with Wolves. It has sprinklings of Clash of the Titans with Star Wars Episode 1 mixed in. But despite all the remnants of the familiar, Andrew Stanton’s Carter really is something from another world, on a class of its own. And it’s a class made up of delinquent children who can barely speak or act, walk or direct. Everyone involved is this project, I assume, attempted to drum up some heart or soul or at least some old-fashioned fun in the drawn-out, uneven-paced 131 minutes. The end result has barely any of that. Hell, I’m not even sure it has a plot.

Here’s what I made out of it. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who magically transports to Mars, only to find himself in the middle of warring factions. He escapes as prisoner, but he realizes his uncanny leaping ability and brute strength (and overexposed 10-pack abs. Hey! Mars is hot) — He realizes all these “gifts” can help him save a princess and a people. Fine. I’m not going to make fun of the narrative because it already makes fun of itself. But beyond that, plenty of absurd plots have gone on to find critical and mainstream success. Look at Inception (a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream) or Midnight in Paris (Owen Wilson meets artists of yesteryear). It’s never the plot itself that dooms a movie. It’s the execution.

And it’s in that execution that is most frustrating. Stanton has been one of driving forces behind Disney Pixar’s success, writing and directing films like Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. Granted, all these films were animated. But good storytelling is good storytelling, whether it be animated or live-action, black-and-white or color, silent, or a talkie. In fact, Stanton’s most recent film WALL-E was considered by most as one of the most sophisticated films in the history of animation. This is why I was excited to see this film. This is why Disney granted John Carter with a loose $250 million budget. And this is why the final feature was all the more disappointing.

Ultimately, it’s the storytelling that was the most off-kilter. Maybe Stanton was too distracted by his own CGI characters that he forgot the basics to filmmaking. Beyond all the bright colors and sweeping landscape shots, the audience will get bored quickly. Forget what the marketers tell you. Shiny, new objects get old, real fast. We need to understand more of Carter’s past. His brief, cloudy flashbacks do not offer enough clarity. We want to sympathize with the native people of Mars. A voiceover does not suffice. We deserve to be treated as an audience of intellect. Beyond the wow (there’s not many anyway), we need to know the more important questions of why or how.

Maybe I was wrong in my talent evaluation all along, and not just about Stanton. If I didn’t know any better, I thought the casting director pulled men and women off the street of Los Angeles. But I do know better. Kitsch was a mainstay in one of the finest television series in recent history, Friday Night Lights. Dominic West was a lead actor in arguably the finest television series of all time, The Wire. Add in fantastic character actors — Thomas Haden Church, Willem Defoe, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston — and this should have been at the very least a showcase for acting. Instead, the characters were skin-deep and the acting didn’t help.

That’s the story of John Carter — could’ve should’ve would’ve. Visionary director. Check. Capable actors. Check. A healthy budget. Check. But as they say in sports, that’s why you play the game. And in this case, that’s you they make the movie. Unfortunately for me, I had to watch said movie. Don’t make the same mistake.

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The Grey may have the blandest title in recent movie history, but the film itself is anything but dull or sapless. Led by Liam Neeson (the new king of better-than-expected January films), this survivalist tale between man and nature is captivating, thoughtful, and probably the most pleasant surprise to hit theaters in months.

The film follows an oil drilling team whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wild. With only seven survivors,  Ottway (Neeson) leads the group out of the wilderness while a pack of wolves hunt the humans one by one. It’s a little bit like Into the Wild meets Taken, except the European kidnappers are now ruthless dogs that don’t have a penchant for young women.

It’s not all man vs. animal fist fights as the trailer might have you believe, however. Much of what elevates The Grey beyond your run-of-the-mill thriller are the lofty goals by filmmaker Joe Carnahan. Using flashbacks to the survivors’ past ala Lost or The Tree of Life, The Grey acts as an existential exercise between fate and choice, God and man, man and animal. It doesn’t answer many of those questions, but it’s a nice twist for what would otherwise be the same old, tired and banal survivalist movie.

Thanks to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, the film is also breathtakingly beautiful. He embraces the magnificent glory of Alaska’s rivers and mountains without dumbing down its naturally harsh essence. Tied in with Marc Streitenfeld’s haunting music, The Grey keeps you engrossed from the start…a hard feat for a movie that essentially has a bunch of guys running around in the snow. Fortunately, Carnahan makes it more than that and Neeson has his usual Irish charisma to pull off that vision.

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January never disappoints when it comes to spouting out forgettable movies. Less than 12 hours after watching Man on a Ledge, I can barely remember what A Man on a Ledge was about outside of a man…well, being on a ledge. What I do recall? I gasped a few times, my palms were sweaty, and I left the theater not completely loathing my experience. And when it comes to January film expectations, that’s all I can sadly ask for.

The film follows Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington), an ex-cop who stages a suicide attempt as a diversion for his brother pull off a diamond heist and prove Cassidy’s innocence. A little convoluted for its own good, Man on a Ledge tries to be a mix between Spike Lee’s Inside Man and F Gary Gray’s The Negotiator without the sleek direction, original plot, or capable acting. No matter how many times Hollywood tries to throw Worthington in our face (Terminator Salvation, Avatar, Clash of the Titans), he does not have the charisma to hold our attention; he personifies bland as the new decade’s Paul Walker, only with an Australian accent.

The plot itself remains oddly confusing and predictable all at once, with the twists coming from a mile away. Random plot devices like a homeless man saving the day seem straight out of an Adam Sandler movie. But no one’s laughing…intentionally. The action sequences are a rehash of the Mission Impossible series with one little caveat. None of them are actually spies, so where did they get all those expensive gadgets and learn those Navy Seal techniques? Call me when you know.

If you can forgive Ledge for all its plot holes and a blah of a leading man, you will have two hours of pure escapism. It’s unmistakably laughable throughout, but it also does build that old school B-movie style of suspense. And for the moviegoer who has had a rough week at work and just need a film where they don’t have to think, Man on a Ledge may be the perfect prescription. For the rest of us, save some money and watch Jersey Shore.

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Here’s a puzzler for you. How do you make a mediocre film when your cast is filled with A-list talent? Just ask Steven Soderbergh. In his latest clunker, the Ocean’s 11 director lays all his bets on the non-actress MMA fighter Gina Carano. Despite a supporting team of Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor and Bill Paxton, he tones down their talent, dumbing down their potential to stoic performances played alongside his patented jazzy piano drones. Instead, we get Carano who does not have the charisma or quite frankly, the grade school ability to play the badass renegade CIA agent. She’d have trouble playing a tree at a middle school play.

Marketed as Jason Bourne with tits, Haywire tells the story of a super soldier who seeks revenge on the agency that blackmailed her. Sounds awesome, right? Don’t be fooled. There are less then 15 minutes of legitimate action in this plodding, yawn-filled movie. Most of it is incomprehensible, overdrawn plot line explainers that make no difference because I’m too busy trying not to laugh at Carano’s “acting”. It’s like she won a national sweepstakes to star in a movie with actors featured on GQ. And then it’s like Soderbergh went to each of his beautiful, talented stars and said “Look guys, she’s just a kid. Ease it up on her, okay? Forget about the awards you’ve won. This movie isn’t about you.”

There is one piece of silver lining I can offer. The 15 minutes of action, albeit short, are incredible. The fight scenes are sleek and smooth, sensible and realistic — the complete opposite effect that the rest of the film had. But this is the result when you hire an MMA fighter to do what she does best: umm, fight. But when you hire her to act, you might as well hire Tracy Morgan to do your lighting.

People may be tempted to compare this film to last year’s Drive or 2010’s The American, both personal favorites that that were likewise mis-marketed as action movies only to prove far slower and indie and artsy than anyone could have ever imagined. But here’s a difference between those near-masterpieces to Haywire. What Drive and The American lack in action, they make up for in character development and relational buildup (led by the equally brooding Ryan Gosling and George Clooney). What Haywire lacks in action, it makes it up with drawn-out dialogue from a woman that makes Sasha Grey look like an Oscar contender. O wait.

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Underworld: Awakening is the latest installment of a series for adults still shrouding their Twilight fandom in the closet. There are vampires and werewolves and silly humans who try to get in the way. But above all, these types of movies are made for moviegoers who desire no sound narrative, any credible acting, or an inch of direction. The entire film is tinted with a dreary, vampiric blue — a fitting background for a soulless 90-minute experience.

We pick up where we left off in Underworld: Evolution, finding Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael escaping “the purge” from the humans. Caught and trapped in cryogenic suspension, Selene wakes up a dozen years later alone in a foreign world. In an attempt to find the truth (and score another box-office-success story), Selene is straight kicking ass leather-clad and all. Directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein collaborate to send Beckinsale driving her spear one way and her teeth another way. It’s all non-stop action to divert us from a few truths. This movie is nonsensical. This movie is unnecessary. And worst of all, this movie is boring.

Awakening is not complex or confusing in the least. But whatever the plot is, I’m not sure I care anymore. Some vampires are good, some bad. Some werewolves and humans too. The one constant is our lead. It’s a game of follow the bouncing Beckinsale without the catchy music or audience participation. She throws a punch here. Yawn. She makes a roundhouse kick there. Snore. She struts her stuff and wins. Zzzzz.

Beckinsale and the rest of the players here always look unenthused, panting at the screen as if they were saying “Look, I really need the money here, okay? And thanks for the extra 3D cash.” But can I really blame them. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four times….DAMMIT.

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It’s a Mark Wahlberg movie. If you understand that five-word sentence in all its complexity of meaning and consequence, you do not need to finish this review. Mark Wahlberg is Mark Wahlberg, a charismatic and highly-entertaining A-list Hollywood star who carries crappy movies to become watchable escapist material on a lazy Friday night. Once in a while, he’ll surprise you with gold when he teams with award-winning auteurs (The Departed, The Fighter). But for the most part, Wahlberg will headline these mid-level action flicks that were seemingly made for the 90s Walmart bin starring Keanu Reeves. And you know what? There’s something to be said for movies that meet our expectations 10 times out of 10. Contraband is a prime example.

The film follows Chris Farraday (Wahlberg), a former prodigy of the smuggling business who went clean to start a family. He has to go back into the business, however, when his brother-in-law gets caught up in a botched smuggling job of his own. It’s a fairly predictable storyline with laughable plot twists and several caricatures. But this B-movie actually has higher aspirations. The most foremost compliment to Wahlberg’s charm is the supporting cast, and most notably Ben Foster. Already receiving critical acclaim for his roles in The Messenger and Rampart, Foster delivers another powerhouse performance as an overly protective best friend with secrets of his own. Where Wahlberg is the heart of Contraband, Foster may be the brains. And as a one-two punch, they make Contraband engaging and nerve-wracking in the best of ways, making it one of the better January releases I’ve seen in a while.