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Gavin Grades The Movies

Avengers: Age of Ultron

To say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mediocre or, dare I say, bad film is such a misunderstanding as to what cinema is.  As I left the theater of my press screening, several people were telling the studio person there that they thought the first one was better and therefore, according to them, thie one wasn't very good.  I have a hard time wrapping my head around something like that.  When The Avengers came out three years ago, it was one of the, if not the, greatest superhero films of all time.  It wasn't just the stellar script or expert direction or breathtaking action sequences that blew us all away; it was that we had never seen anything of that magnitude before.  Now, three years later, we are already numb to that and we can witness the follow-up to that accomplishment and simply pass it off with a "meh."  Not only is that confusing to me, it's almost insulting.

In the first Avengers film when I saw Captain America, played by Chris Evans, and Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., on screen together for the first time, i got goosebumps.  It didn't matter that I was a grown-ass man, it reached down into my childhood soul and forced me to feel like a 10-year-old again.  Director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods) managed to not only show us something us comic book nerds thought we'd never see, which was all these characters together in one film, but he executed it perfectly.  Without a single moment of hesitation I can tell you that he's done it again and somehow even managed to make it bigger by adding even more characters to the group.

Strip away the millions of dollars spent on CGI and costumes and props, you are still left with a script that manages to harness the comic world of these characters that is so big it literally earns the word "universe."  All of that was accomplished by JUST Whedon.  These type of summer blockbusters are usually written by a committee of writers but not this time...it was one guy.  Sure the story gets too big at times and the editing to make it under three-hours-long makes certain sequences confusing to 90% of the audience but who cares!?  This is a superhero group that consists of 10 characters, four of which have had eight films dedicated to each of their individual stories!  That's insane how vast that is and Whedon STILL manages to funnel it into a relatively easy-to-swallow narrative.  Respect must be paid to that.

Avengers: Age of Ultron introduces four new characters to audiences and all four are great.  Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Priest) plays Vision and is the show-stopper but James Spader (Lincoln, Secretary) plays the evil Ultron and is the show-stealer.  His charismatic performance makes him such a fun villain on screen that you almost hope he's not defeated.  As far as the rest of the returning cast goes, they continue to turn in top shelf performances that are funny and even touching at moments.  One of the shockers was how much screen time Jeremy Renner (American Hustle, The Hurt Locker) got for his character Hawkeye.  He's a punchline among fans and in this film he explores that in a relatively existential way.

There are moments that SO MUCH is happening in Avengers: Age of Ultron, you have to make a conscious effort to stop, breathe, and process everything that you're taking in and when you do that, your eyes may water at its awesomeness.  It's not a perfect film but it's impossible to make a film this big and have it fire on all cylinders.  Considering the scope, the goal of the film and the execution of it all, this is still a stellar movie and has set the bar for the rest of the summer.  It's not better than the first one but if this film had come out first it would've been.  The comparison is unavoidable but the growth of the story makes this task more monumental and Whedon rose to the occasion and conquered it mightily.

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The Age of Adaline

Not gonna lie; I'm biased against romantic dramas.  I think a steady diet of Twilights, Nicholas Sparks' recycled crap and a mix of social and genetic dislike has all soured me on the genre.  There was something about The Age of Adaline that looked intriguing though.  Maybe it was the slight science-fiction plot of a main character who never ages.  Maybe it was that it's a period film through the entire 20th Century.  Maybe it's just that Blake Lively is insanely attractive.  Whatever the reason was that made me open to the idea that this could be something different, I'm glad it exists because it was a film I enjoyed quite a bit.

Director Lee Toland Krieger has a few feature films under his belt but nothing that you've seen...hell, it's nothing I've even seen; and I see a lot.  This is by far his biggest film in scope and budget and he pulled it off with the precision that made me think he was a seasoned Hollywood veteran.  Despite most of the film taking place in our current year, the entire movie feels timeless and could've been made in any of the decades featured.  His choice of lighting and lenses create a nostalgic haze to the screen that seems to be lost in the world of HD and it made everything seem slightly surreal and magical.

I'm fully convinced that Blake Lively is the total package.  Yes, it's true that she's one of the most beautiful actresses working today but her look is so classic that she seems absolutely in place for every decade chosen for a flashback.  That perfect look isn't just from hair and costumes but a type of face that has always been and will always be a desired leading lady.  Aside from all that though, Lively gives a subtle but stellar performance.  A fellow critic, who did not like The Age of Adaline, was complaining about her as we left the theater.  She said that she seemed cold and distant from the entire film.  I think this was a deliberate choice since the character is filled with nothing but sadness as she's forced into a life where everyone ages and dies around her and she must become an island.

The other two performances that are noteworthy are Harrison Ford who gives one of his best performances in the last decade.  He's vulnerable in a way we haven't seen since his Regarding Henry days and is a deep breath of fresh air whenever he appears on the screen.  The other is from Dutch actor Michiel Huisman (HBO's Game of Thrones, World War Z).  It seems in Hollywood that the more attractive you are the less likely it is that you're also a good actor.  That doesn't seem to be the case with Huisman who pulls off likable version of Christian Grey (minus the sex beatings), who's funny, charming and far from annoying.  He's someone that even the men in the audience will enjoy simply based on his "every-man" persona which he pulls off despite his character's wealth.  (Think Mr. Big in Sex and the City.)

There are moments where The Age of Adaline can't avoid veering down Cliche Ave for a moment or two but don't let that distract you from the emotional powerhouse that some of the scenes are executed with.  One scene in particular made me cry harder than I have at a movie in a few years and the slobbering snorts and blubbers around me confirmed that I wasn't alone.  There will be some disappointed that it's too convenient or not science-fiction enough but as a total product, I found Adaline to be a very enjoyable romantic drama that manages to have a little something for everyone.

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Interview: Oscar Isaac

Listen to Gavin's interview with actor Oscar Isaac:
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Now we all know Joss Whedon as the genius who wrote and directed The Avengers films but before that he was a nerd who created a highly-praised sci-fi show Firefly and a horror satire called Cabin in the Woods.  When Cabin was released in 2012, I thought it was one of the most clever and original twists on conventional horror themes that I had ever seen...of course this was way before it was discovered that he may have ripped the whole thing off from a book that came out a few years earlier.  Nonetheless, Unfriended is a horror film that isn't a satire but is every bit as clever and original at taking the cliches that horror franchises were built on and modernizing it for a new generation that resonates louder than anyone expected.

Yes, it's true that the entire film is just a screen recording of a single computer that appears to be done in one single take.  Does that look weird on a big movie theater screen?  Yes.  In fact, this is one of the few films that will look and feel better on a small screen at home (or even better...a laptop).  Unfriended follows five friends having a Skype conversation when a mysterious account crashes their conversation, won't let the log off and kills them one-by-one.  I know this sounds as stupid as the trailer makes it look but I assure you that it's actually very effective and scary.

What I love about Unfriended so much is that it's everything you need to see for a conventional slasher horror.  The character cliches are the same.  The justification for the murders is the same.  The mounting terror is achieved the same.  However, in 2015 teenagers no longer go to summer camp, or a cabin in the woods, or even get together at someone's house.  This is a generation who was raised online and that's where they happily live.  So what first-time writer Nelson Greaves and unknown director Levan Gabriadze created was a perfect concept to show how that generation can be scared to death.  

What makes the film even better is the message behind the film.  Murdering teenagers based on the sins of sex, drinking and drugs has always been part of horror but Gabriadze and Greaves have added a new sin to it that it actually way more serious and scary than anything in a horror film and that's cyber bullying.  Before you think this will come across like an After-School Special, I assure you doesn't.  It's a new plague in teenage lives and makes for a perfect plot device for a vengeful spirit to go after a group of five teens.  The other aspect that makes Unfriended so original is the choice to make it all one shot on a single laptop recording.  It's not "found footage" but some might think it feels that way.  You're watching one terrifying night play out in real time and it's VERY effective at building suspense and making you jump.  It does feel a little long at times but luckily it's only 84-minutes in length.

I understand that this is a gimmick film.  For that reason, it's easy to marginalize it.  As I walked into the screening I had the studio representative tell me that he found everyone over the age of 30 hated it and everyone under 30 loved it.  Isn't that an interesting snapshot of an ever-changing society?  Not everyone will find this scary and obviously it'll be a polarizing film, but anyone who is a fan of horror films and has bitched for years about how nothing feels new or original anymore, will stand up and cheer at this accomplishment.  That is until we find out a few years later that the whole thing was just ripped off of a some blog somewhere.  (Say it ain't so, Joss!)

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True Story

A funny thing happened at the Sundance Film Festival this year.  Two guys who have been in half of the top ten grossing comedies of the last decade starred in a film that was a true story about one of the most awful murderer in recent memory and the disgraced journalist that interviewed him for months in an attempt to write a book about it all.  If that sounds confusing because it doesn't appear to be funny at all, you're not alone; it's not...like at all.  True Story is a crime drama that's as bleak as they get yet for some reason stars Jonah Hill and James Franco are the stars.  If you can get past that, you might enjoy the film.

When I was in college I learned about Christian Longo and Michael Finkel because it was a crazy story.  Finkel had just been fired from The New York Times after he was caught lying on a story he wrote.  To save his career he decided to interview Longo, a man accused of murdering his wife and three young children, after learning that Longo liked him.  The two formed an unlikly and unholy friendship that is used as an example of what not to do in journalism.  I remember being totally floored by the story because it was exciting and interesting which turned out to be the exact opposite of the film True Story.

The reason for taking such a riveting story and making it a dull, plodding tale of seduction and lies is the fault of first-time writer/director Rupert Goold.  For a first attempt this isn't half bad.  The scenes of the actual murder are shown in small bits in flashbacks and what Goold chooses to show and how he shows it are beautiful which makes them so much more disturbing.  Being a father of a young child made me easy prey but those scenes moved me to tears.  However, anything beyond that is yawn-inducing as far as what Goold brings to the table.

The only thing that saves this film are the performances from Hill and Franco.  I know both these guys have been in really dumb, funny, crude comedies but they've also been nominated for Oscars.  They prove in True Story that they know how to command a dramatic scene just as well as they can command a comedic one.  Franco's performance is subdued and chilling and Hill is almost as good as his Moneyball performance as an ernest guy who doesn't realize he's being manipulated and outsmarted every step of the way.  Most of this film is scenes of just these two sitting in an empty room talking to each other and, despite being very slow, it still holds your attention.

There's nothing funny nor fun about True Story.  I'm sure that when the actual loved ones of the deceased found out that Jonah Hill and James Franco would be playing the leads in a movie about the trial of the man who took those kids from them, they were pretty pissed off.  But if you can leave your misconceptions about those two at the theater door and don't mind sitting through a slow 100-minute-long film that feels more like two hours, True Story delivers an interesting character study of a derranged man and his last victim.  Truly.

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Interview: WolfCop Writer/Director Lowell Dean

  Listen to Gavin's interview with the writer / director / producer of WolfCop, Lowell Dean...
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Furious 7

My Review by Intern Kevin

I loved it!  It was very, very, very great!  This is the best one yet!  I even cried!

Intern Kevin

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Get Hard

Not a lot of people know who Adam McKay is but he's Will Ferrell's best friend.  They met on SNL when McKay was the head writer.  He's responsible for such brilliant films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brother, The Other Guys and the co-founder of Funny or Die.  I love it when he's behind the camera.  He seems to put out top shelf entertainment and some of the funniest films ever made. Get Hard has all the feel of an Adam McKay movie but it's not.  He just came up with the story and the rest was outsourced to a first-time director and that's where it went wrong.

Will Ferrell is one of the funniest, if not the funniest, people alive today.  He could look into the camera and read from the Wall Street Journal and make it funny.  He's joined by Kevin Hart in this film (hear my full interview with him below), a king of comedy in his own right.  The premise of the film seems hilarious enough -- a millionaire douchebag is going to jail but before he does he hires a black man, he assumes has been to jail because he's black, to teach him how to survive prison.  Sure, it's a racist premise but it's not the first time a comedy has been made that set out to poke us in our collective racial sensitivity.  But for some reason, this plot just kind of sucked.

Another big problem with the film is that director Etan Cohen doesn't have the experience to pull the plug on a scene before it wears out its welcome.  There are moments in Get Hard that are amazingly funny but then go on for another few minutes and that negates whatever comedic progress was made in the scene before that.  Not to mention that some bits in the film don't work at all from the very beginning and they go on too long as well.  It makes those particular moments especially frustrating to watch.  Cohen chooses to go for shock instead of actual comedy for much of the film.

Ferrell and Hart are funny in the film though despite a lousy script.  That might be my own bias about them as performers though.  They don't have a ton of chemistry but given the nature of their characters, that's fine.  Ferrell is known for ad libbing and improvising most of his dialogue and Hart comes across as someone who sticks to the script.  I'm not sure how much of that went on in Get Hard but if I had to guess, it was a lot.  

I appreciate what McKay and his crew for Get Hard try to do with the social/political message they have in this.  I also appreciate how hard they try to get that message across and still create a funny film, which they did for the most part.  Get Hard isn't the total disaster that some are saying but it's far from the success the premise could have made it.  When you put two of the funniest working comics in a movie together the expectations of greatness should be reached.  They're not.  And that is the real crime.

Listen to Kevin Hart on the Wake Up Call:

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It Follows

Out of all the film festivals, Cannes seems to be the most snooty, at least to me.  Maybe because it takes place in the south of France or maybe because the movies that end up making a splash are the kind that most people end up rolling their eyes at when they get a wide release in America.  Rarely do horror films get a buzz at any film festival let alone that one.  It Follows is the movie that bucked the system.  It was one of like five films to come out of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival with a lot of attention.  Whenever that happens and it's to a genre that never gets the credit it deserves, I take notice and so should you.

Obviously, It Follows has a cast of unknown actors and all of them are young.  The lead is a stunning Maika Monroe who will be in many more films to come; trust me.  The film sounds ridiculous but trust me, it's not.  Imagine an STD of the supernatural kind.  Monroe plays a young girl who has sex with a boy who then informs her that he's passed a curse on to her via sex.  The curse is a creature that takes the form of different creepy humans that has one goal until she passes it to someone else...kill her.  I know!  I know!  It SOUNDS stupid but upon viewing the film it feels totally ominous and logical.

For decades, horror films have used sex as justification for the villains.  Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger all killed naughty teens after they had sex and/or got drunk and high.  It Follows takes that tired plot device and amps it up with a very real feeling of dread and panic.  It's a perfect anxiety piece for anyone who has ever had an STD scare or got that dreaded diagnosis in real life.  It's way more effective than a masked killer shoving a butcher's knife into your chest.  No matter what is happening on the screen at the time, you know that this creature is moving slowly toward Monroe in a deliberate mission to kill her.  It never stops its pursuit and you don't know why.

Now, know that this film isn't scary.  That's important to get across because that's all some of you want from a horror film and there's nothing wrong with that.  Personally, I feel like the best horror movies are the ones that are expertly directed and have an overall sense of dread and creepiness.  Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell NAILS it!  It Follows is presented to us like Stanley Kubrik's The Shining. It's not the masterpiece that that was but this was also done by a young director on his second feature film.  The long, single-take shots, the perfectly-framed angles, the lighting and one of the best horror soundtracks of all time make this a must-see.

If you're expecting blood splattered violence, graphic nudity in steamy sex scenes, a terrifying monster that drools and snarls...this isn't for you.  It Follows is the slow burn that never startles but just makes you feel uneasy.  It creeps you out and is a clever twist on the morality of horror.  It's a film that deserves to be watched and then discussed afterward.  It's a display from a filmmaker who's ready for the big time and a leading lady who needs to be cast in more right away.  It Follows deserves all the attention it got from Cannes and I just hope that America embraces it for the classic it's sure to become.

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My wife and I often get into fights.  She says that Dreamworks Animation makes nothing but crap for kids and I defend them.  Not everything that Dreamworks Animation has put out has been awful.  Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods, Kung Fu Panda...these are all great films.  My wife's response to that is to point out what their success rate is given how many films they've made.  I have to concede that point because she's right; it's not good.  Especially when you compare it to Pixar which has made a superb film every single time they've tried, with some exceptions, it does make Dreamworks look sophomoric to say the least.  Home is a film that really swings for the fences on hitting you right between the ribs and tug at those heartstrings while still being really, really funny.  I hate to say it but it's another example of how right my wife is.

Jim Parsons is the voice of Oh, a member of a lovable alien species who invades Earth to claim it as their own.  Parsons has won several awards for his role on The Big Bang Theory but I can't stand him.  No matter what I see him in, no matter how far of a departure he takes it from his nerdy character on that show, he still irritates me.  His portrayal of Oh is not even remotely a departure and annoyed me from the first seconds of the film until its bitter end.  Another casting decision that is unforgivable is Rihanna as Oh's human sidekick.  This isn't Rihanna's first film and I'm not sure who told her to get into acting but I hope that person suffers for that.

The only success in Home is Steve Martin, who hasn't been in anything in four years.  It is possible for Martin to star in a terrible film but it is impossible for Martin to be terrible in it.  This is a prime example.  He plays the halfwit leader of the aliens and his hilarious performance is up there in the top ten greatest voice performances of all time.  He may be the only thing worth watching in the movie.  The only other performance that is amusing is from Matt Jones who you may recognize as Badger from AMC's Breaking Bad.

The biggest problem with Home is that it's dumb.  I understand that it's for kids and it's okay if they're silly but it's dumb in a way that makes me mad because it talks down to the audience.  Penguins of Madagascar is silly but it's not dumb.  Pixar films tend to be the exact opposite and sometimes forget to be silly but they are never, ever dumb.  Underestimating your audience is one of the worst things a film can do and director Tim Johnson (Over the Hedge) has a history of doing just that.  However, the worst thing about Home is the soundtrack which is 90% Rihanna songs and they fire throughout the movie every five minutes like a rotten jukebox.

Home isn't worth seeing in a theater; it's not even worth renting.  It's unfortunate because the scenes that involve Steve Martin are very funny and deserve to be watched.  There aren't enough of them though to still justify a viewing of this annoying and aggravating film.  I brought my 3-year-old son to my screening.  He's an excellent moviegoer, which makes me excited and proud as you could imagine.  Home didn't hold his attention, didn't make him laugh, didn't make excited.  Either the apple doesn't fall far from the tree or it's simply not a good film for any generation.

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