“A Million Ways to Die in the West” Review

June 27, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

I love “Family Guy”.  I really liked “Ted”.  You can count me in as a fan of Seth MacFarlane despite his atrocious hosting of the Oscars.  I get his humor.  He throws out a million jokes a minute… and 75% of the time, he has me in stitches.

However…

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is probably the worst film of 2014.  It is easily one of worst “supposed comedies” I can remember.  And it ranks as one of the most infuriatingly dull movies that I have ever seen.  I hated it in ways that I cannot convey with mere words.  I have to physically pound the keyboard with my fists to impart my vicious loathing  — dsuiasd@gioklguw£%elkl wefgo wee()wklf qjweqpw9p/*#’~u38.

I have to concede that I giggled very early on in the film with the first of the 37 fart jokes.  A man collapsed after some bad gas and I was able to muster up a “Beavis and Butthead” like chuckle, which lasted 0.8 seconds.  After that, the film peters out and I was left with muscle ache from frowning so much.

There are vast stretches of this film that defiantly aren’t even trying to be funny.  And I am not talking about 2-3 minute scenes… I mean 15- 20 minute action sequences or half-hour expositions of attempted sincerity.  It is as if MacFarlane became a grandiose emotional sap… coupled with a Michael Bay impersonator.

In addition, the film’s running time is 19 hours and 43 minutes… or at least it felt so.  I thought it was over about 45 minutes in… but then it just kept going and going and going and going.  YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW LONG THIS FILM TRUNDLES ON FOR!!!

However, the ultimate crime of a film like this is being morosely unfunny.  I swear on my life I got more laughs out of “Schindler’s List”.  Weak jokes are repeated relentlessly.  None of it has any wit or timing or truth or teeth.  The gags bored the hell out of my 15 year old nephew.  They were beneath him.  I think they would be beneath anyone’s sense of humor.  It is painfully awkward to endure.

Everyone will be dumber for having watched this film.  I award it no points and may god have mercy on its soul.

ZERO STARS A Million Ways to Die in the West Review

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“Her” Review

June 27, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Spike Jonze’s gentle and lovely film, “Her”, is one of those works of art that will only appreciate in value over time.  The night I watched it… I really liked it.  By the time I fell asleep… I was starting to love it.  A week later… and I think it may have become one of the most touching and poignant films of all time.

The film is gorgeously shot and acted with miraculous precision.  It transports the viewer into a not too distant future — a tricky and delicate procedure that, although technically places the film into science-fiction, feels truly authentic and relatable.   “Her” is simultaneously wondrous and basic.  It is both magical and realistic.

Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who is entrenched as one of the finest of his generation, plays Theordore — a lonely romantic who awkwardly stumbles into a relationship with his computer’s operating system.  That system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson as Samantha — an intuitive intelligence with a seductively breathy voice and a penchant for saying all the right things to our lead character.  Their unique cinematic coupling is one of the sweetest and loveliest in recent memory.

“Her” goes to places I didn’t even try to predict.  I was too busy soaking up the celestial visuals, the rich and thoughtful dialogue, and the complex emotional plane on which this film exists.  Everything about this film is brilliantly executed.  It is hands-down one of the best films of 2013… and it has the potential to become an all-time-great as the decades roll by.

FOUR STARS Her Review

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“Under the Skin” Review

June 24, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

How often do you awake from a movie-induced coma, brought on by routine sameness, tired characters and inconsequential dialogue?  It happens to me at least 60% of the time.  The vast majority of movies are exactly what you expect… so much so, that you almost could have written the screenplay yourself.  Well, prepare your mind for a bizarre little treat — because this film is the antithesis of predictable and clichéd .

“Under the Skin” stars Scarlett Johansson as a seemingly other-worldly being, who drives a large white van around the streets of Glasgow, on the prowl for men to bring back to her lair.  Their fate, as their lust-filled brains compel them to follow her, is a dark oily pool of soul-crushing nothingness.  It is the feel-good film of the year!

Johansson is mesmerizing in this role — her best since “Lost in Translation”.  Much of the film is fixated on her curious gaze, as she takes the van on a meandering journey, searching for her next prey.  Oftentimes, the film takes her visual point of view as we scan the empty, gormless faces of the city.  She occasionally stops to invite one of the men for a ride.  They awkwardly agree, completely unaware of the trap awaiting them.

An interesting note about this film is that much of it was shot with hidden cameras.  Some of the men that Johansson picks up are simply members of the public thrust into a film scene completely unbeknownst to them.  We get the feeling that they see something familiar in the world famous actress, but cannot quite place the thought.

A shift happens about half way through the film, when our central character takes pity and shows empathy for one of her potential victims.  The film pivots around this scene and takes a vastly different tone thereafter.  This shift is dramatic… almost horrific.  It is this shift that defines the film’s narrative strength and will define how you feel about the film.

“Under the Skin” is an iconic, uniquely memorable film that will probably take a long time to develop into an accepted classic.  Most won’t hear about it until they read the year-end Top Ten Lists.  Some will catch it on a friend’s recommendation a few years from now.  It is hardly a box office smash.  However, ten, twenty, fifty years from now, we will collectively have decided what this film means.  It is not one that will be forgotten.  It is a film that will grow in stature.  Time is a film snob’s best friend… and this is a film snob’s type of film.

Truth be told, I am not yet 100% sure what the film is about.  I have some unformed ideas. That will come with conversations and reading essays and arguments with movie-drones.  But I do know that I loved it.  I loved the bizarre soundscape.  I loved the eerie cinematography.  I loved that it made me feel disconnected from this world… as if I empathized somehow with Johansson’s alien character.  I love that I am going to see this film again and again over the years and feel differently about it each and every time.  How often can you say that about a film?

FOUR STARS Under the Skin Review

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“Edge of Tomorrow” Review

May 31, 2014 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

You’ve probably heard the combo-comparison for “Edge of Tomorrow” –”Starship Troopers” meets “Groundhog Day”.  It is a fitting description that will give you the gist.  However, I am not sure it has the substance of either.  For all of its faults, “Starship Troopers” was amusing and often subversively satirical take on American war culture.  It had something to say.  “Groundhog Day” was an insightful film about cynicism and chauvinism, wrapped in a light-hearted rom-com.  It was deceptively profound.

However, “Edge of Tomorrow” only shares aliens with the former and re-lived days with the latter.  It never aims for the lofty messages or the plunges the depths of the premise’s potential.  It simply exists as a fun action film and never fully commits to being anything more.

There are aliens.  Period.  We never get any more explanation than that.  There are simply aliens attacking earth.  End of story.  Deal with it.  Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a soldier who, after getting himself into some trouble, finds himself on the front lines of the alien war.  During his arrest, Cage is knocked out and awakens on a military base at Heathrow Airport, near London.  He sees combat later that morning, on the beaches of France, where he kills an abnormally large alien with a claymore mine.  The explosion also takes Cage’s own life… and he instantly awakens at the same point earlier that morning — handcuffed at Heathrow Airport.

The film explores that day over and over again — always resulting in his death and re-boot.  He remembers the sequence of events and learns a new way to go each and every time.  This gives him the ability to learn from his mistakes and find new paths to possible success.  However, it is his meeting with Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a famous soldier known as “Full Metal Bitch” and the “Angel of Verdun”, that holds the key to victory.

For what it attempts to be, “Edge of Tomorrow” is a good film.  It is well-paced and exciting… occasionally humorous and always energetic.  I really liked the way it avoided boring repetition — as would easily be possible in a film like this.  Tom Cruise is so accomplished at this type of role that we probably all take him for granted.  Emily Blunt is terrific in a role you may not predicted for her.  She is physically tough and holds her own against the legendary action star.

The only quibble I have is the lack of ambition in the screenplay.  It all seems a little routine.  All Cage learns throughout the film is the sequence to a puzzle — step left here… wait 7 seconds there… jump now… roll later… fire at this moment… duck at that moment.  There is no character growth on show.  There isn’t enough heart for this movie to rise to level of greatness.  It is a better movie than Cruise’s 2013 blockbuster, “Oblivion” — but it feels a tad too similar.  I just found myself wanting more.  “Edge of Tomorrow” is fun entertainment, but hardly one for the ages.

THREE STARS Edge of Tomorrow Review

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“Don Jon” Review

December 19, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a tremendous talent.  His roles are intricate and daring.  His films are usually thoughtful and interesting.  Everything about his young career suggests that he will be one of the people to watch over the next few decades.  That being said, “Don Jon” is a huge mis-step and ranks as one of his least successful choices to date.

JGL writes, directs and stars as the titular Jon in this childish, repetitive and shallow story of a New Jersey “guido-lite” who loves his car, his pad, his family, his friends, his girls and his porn.    Unfortunately for Jon, the last two items on that list seem to be conflicting with each other. This becomes especially problematic when his starts dating Barbara, a NJ “guidette” played with skin-tight and  scary accuracy by a sex-soaked Scarlett Johansson.   Barbara is hell-bent on controlling her new boyfriend in every aspect of his life — and that includes Jon’s relentless porn habit.

Julianne Moore shows up, in the most underused role in the film, as a recent widow who teaches Jon a thing or two about “real sex” as opposed to the cold thrusting fantasies he craves on pornhub.  Tony Danza delivers a nice little role as Jon’s slightly stereotypical NJ father.  Together with Gordon-Levitt and Johansson, the entire cast is relatively good despite the rather average material.  The acting is definitely not the problem here.

The film suffers a number of significant issues.  “Don Jon” barely has a sympathetic character to offer.  Juliane Moore’s character is the closest we get… and she only has 10-15 minutes of quality screen time.   The direction is over-stylized and lacks any rhythm, pacing or patience.  The writing is without nuance or wit.  It merely repeats the same trashy messages over and over as the 90 minute running time drags itself to the  finish line with loud clanging thuds.  It is one of those stories that could have been told in half-an-hour… but gets stretched out with tedious monotony.

ONE AND A HALF STARS Don Jon Review

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“The Bling Ring” Review

September 12, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Sofia Coppola is a masterful director.  Until now, she has either directed some very good films (“The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette”) or absolute masterpieces (“Somewhere” and “Lost in Translation”).  Until now.  Unfortunately, her latest outing is a disappointingly thin true account of the vapid, celebrity obsessed group of high-school teenagers who repeatedly robbed the homes of Hollywood’s richest stars — stockpiling jewels and designer clothes so they could “live the lifestyle” they so envied.

The film primarily suffers from its subject matter.  Neither the teenagers, nor the celebrity victims are particularly sympathetic.  None of the characters in the film get the full exploratory treatment.  All we are left with are scenes of empty human trash waltzing quietly around lavish homes, trying on Louboutin shoes, Louis Vuitton bags, Chanel dresses and Dior accessories.

It was incumbent upon the director to find an angle that could make audiences care.  I think Coppola fails for the first time in her directorial career to find that angle.  The film feels narrow and forced.  It lacks a grand theme or a central humanity.  There is absolutely nothing separating “The Bling Ring” from a cable TV movie.  It feels cheap and lightweight.

The cast are all very solid here.  Some of them are very early in their acting careers — a couple are even making their feature film debuts.  However, they manage to capture the soulless materialism of their characters very well and each deserve a lot of praise.  Emma Watson and Israel Broussard seem to get the most screen time and they are both really convincing in their roles.

“The Bling Ring” isn’t a bad movie… simply an irrelevant one.  The time passed quickly and there were some entertaining moments.  But it all could have been relayed to me in a twenty minute short and I would have had an extra hour of my life to make a sandwich, check my facebook and watch a rerun of “Friends”.  Coppola has always been masterful at finding the profundity in small moments.  Here, it seems there were no moments to explore.  A minimal story with minimal characters resulted in a minimal film.

TWO AND A HALF STARS The Bling Ring Review

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“World War Z” Review

September 6, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

The film starts with a pretty short breakfast scene.  Then BAM!!! Zombies galore for two straight hours.  It sacrifices any character development for almost instant action… something that would normally irritate the hell out of me.  However, I came into “World War Z” expecting, perhaps demanding, excitement and thrills.  That’s exactly what I got.  It is a kinetic ride that, although lacking depth or emotion, works on the most surface of levels.  Sometimes that is just fine.

Brad Pitt plays United Nations employee, Gerry Lane — a family man who, when caught up in an intensely rabid zombie pandemic, is recalled to hop the globe in search of a cure for the disease.  His wife (Mireille Enos) and two young daughters are left behind on a war ship as incentive for him.  If he fails his mission, his family lose their safe haven and will be returned to land as non-essential personnel.

The action forces Gerry from South Korea to Israel to Wales… always encountering a few more clues and a whole host of freaky fast zombies with a hankering for flesh.  Each time the movie takes time to breathe, the undead find a way to disrupt the peace with a horrifically scary attack.  The film is relentless that way.

There are two small quibbles I have.  The decision to abandon character development works on an entertainment level, but it does leave the emotional aspect quite inconsequential.  I never really cared that much about any of it… and that will render the film slightly forgettable in years to come.  Also, the zombies never felt real to me.  Their quick spasmodic jerky movement seemed far too cartoonish to be menacing.  It looked animated.

“World War Z” is pure popcorn.  There is no message.  There is no feeling.  There is no depth.  It is the simplest of films, played out at an extraordinary pace.  I forgave its minor sins just enough to give it a good rating.  I doubt I will ever return to the movie again.  It is a two-hour diversion that works on a primal level.  My adrenaline spiked.  The edge of my seat was worn down.  My fingernails were chewed.  But I have already filed it away deep in the recesses of my memory.

THREE STARS World War Z Review

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“The Frozen Ground” Review

August 31, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

The experience of watching “The Frozen Ground” is tantamount to a plane being on autopilot.   All you have to do is sit there, in silence, twiddle your thumbs, and wait.  It wasn’t an unpleasant experience… some of it was quite relaxing and the time passed pretty quickly.  However, I was never engaged.  It was a passive ride… One that we have all taken many times before.  I am already starting to forget it as I begin writing this review.

Nic Cage plays Jack Halcombe, an Anchorage, Alaska detective who is looking into a possible serial killing in the area.  One of the victims is Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens), a stripper and prostitute who managed to escape the clutches of her would-be murderer.  The accused man is Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a husband and father who is thought to be of good standing in the local community.

However, the case is not clear cut.  Cindy is uncooperative and unreliable, preferring to seek out drugs and turn tricks rather than testify against her abductor.  The facts are all circumstantial and Jack can’t seem to convince the district attorney to issue a warrant for the arrest.  “The Frozen Ground” then becomes a rather standard police procedural as they look for clues and tighten the noose around the suspect’s neck.

The acting is one of the strongest parts of the film.  Cage doesn’t “lose his shit” or go “nucking futs” in this movie.  Instead, he delivers one of his more restrained performances in recent years.  Cusack is viciously cold as the “based-on-true-events” killer.  He continues to try and distance himself from the typically Cusack-like roles that he became typecast in for so many years.  Vanessa Hudgens stars in another impressive role for her in 2013, after her effort in the masterful, “Spring Breakers”.  She is turning into a daring and interesting young actress… something I wouldn’t have predicted during the “High School Musical” era.  Even 50 Cent shows up in this film as an eighties-style pimp.  It is quite a decent ensemble.

Unfortunately, first time director, Scott Walker, doesn’t ever elevate the material beyond its seedy and morose subject matter.  Films about serial killers are awkward for directors… they do not lend themselves to artistic flare or cinematic originality.  “The Frozen Ground” is not much more than a glorified episode of “CSI”.  It is mildly interesting and nothing more.

Addendum: This is not a spoiler. I also want to point out something during the final credits.  There is a dedication of the film to the victims of Robert Hansen, followed by a photo roll-call of those victims.  I found this to be uncomfortable and disturbing.  I could understand something like this in a documentary, but not in a feature film masquerading as entertainment.  It felt out of place, exploitative and highly unnecessary.  A simple mention along the lines of “In Memory Of…” would have been a better decision.

TWO AND A HALF STARS The Frozen Ground Review

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“A Single Shot” Review

August 23, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

In every film, there really ought to be someone to care about… or root for… or sympathize with… or just plain like.  Sometimes, an otherwise fine film comes along and leaves you emotionally cold because the aforementioned doesn’t exist.  “A Single Shot” is crafted with care and acted with precision, but it never generates even a momentary shred of empathy or compassion.  It is despairingly bleak and relentlessly morose.

If you remember the similarly themed 1998 masterpiece, “A Simple Plan”, you will be acutely aware how such a story of “found money” can be a thrilling cinematic construct.  That film blistered your eyeballs with unbearable tension.  It featured multiple characters, some good, some very bad… and it built to a crescendo with unforeseeable plot twists and turns.

“A Single Shot” delivers much the same premise.  John Moon, played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell, is out hunting a deer in the dense forest.  When he catches a glimpse… he fires.  The animal runs.  He fires quickly again. No luck.  Silence falls upon his surroundings… until he hears the muffled coughs of his victim — a beautiful young woman gasping her final breaths in her campsite.  He hopelessly tries to keep her alive.   When she finally passes, panic sets in and he hides the body in an abandoned truck trailer.  While snooping around her campsite, John finds a lock-box stuffed with hundred dollar bills.  It doesn’t look like a legal stack of cash, so he decides to keep it.

The frustration with this movie comes primarily because the premise is so damned exciting.  I love this kind of idea.  I was hoping for a riveting roller-coaster of emotions.  Instead, the film meanders and mopes around like a depressed teenager, never really exploring the myriad possibilities.  In addition, the lead character is a miserable sack of crap who is dumber than a bag of hammers.  I certainly wasn’t sympathetic with his dilemma at any point.  And while there were some secondary characters whose lives may have been of interest and could have generated a flutter of caring, the film doesn’t take the time to explore them enough.

“A Single Shot” left me as frozen as the dead girl John ends up stuffing in his freezer.  I wasn’t invested in the outcome at all.  The movie simply ran its course and came to a meaningless end that thinks it is more profound than it actually is.  The actors all deliver fine work… most notably Sam Rockwell, Kelly Reilly and Ophelia Lovibond.  Even William H. Macy finds a small underdeveloped role that could have been really interesting.  No, the blame is not with the cast.  This film stumbles badly because the writer and director could not create a central character that audiences can care about.

TWO STARS A Single Shot Review

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“We’re The Millers” Review

August 22, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Two belly laughs, 5 or 6 chuckles and a mountain of half-hearted smirks… It just doesn’t add up to enough to make this a successful comedy.  When the biggest risks and the biggest laughs take place in the outtakes and bloopers section of the end credits, you know something went wrong with the production.  It feels like the studio chickened out at the last minute and went for broad comedy, rather than edgy, bold craziness.

Jason Sudekis plays a drug dealer.  You can tell he’s a drug dealer because he is unshaven and wears a hoodie.

Jennifer Aniston plays a down-on-her-luck stripper.  You can tell she’s a stripper because she almost takes off her clothes… twice.

Emma Roberts plays a homeless punk.  You can tell she’s a homeless punk because she has a nose ring and is angry all the time.

Will Poulter plays a dork whose mother has abandoned him.  You can tell he’s a dork because of his stupid face.

Together, they pretend to be the Miller family, so that they can rent an RV and smuggle a vast quantity of weed across the border from Mexico without arousing suspicion.  Ed Helms plays the drug kingpin who will pay hundreds of thousands to get his hands on the merchandise.

“We’re the Millers” wants to have the wacky tone of films like “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids”.  It so desperately wants to be be daring… but only ever hints at it.  It is a strip club with no tits.  It is marijuana, not cocaine.  It is rated R, but it is really a PG-13.  Somewhere along the way, it blurred the lines without crossing them.

It is a shame.  The actors are all very good, despite a few odd casting choices.  Sudekis is a random selection to be a drug dealer… but his comedic talents are enough to distract you from the decision.  Ed Helms belongs in another film.  He just seems completely out of place here.  Jennifer Aniston has evidently been doing pilates — she looks amazing as she delivers her routinely competent variation of  Rachel from “Friends”.  Emma Roberts and Will Poulter both find some amusing moments as the children in this dysfunctional family.

As the final credits rolled, I found myself thinking about the lost opportunity here.  I wanted this film to break some rules and start some fights.  Instead, I sat through something I had seen a million times before.  It’s not a horrible film… merely a way to waste  90 minutes of your pathetic little lives with an endless batch of semi-amused nods.

TWO STARS Were The Millers Review

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