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Gavin Grades The Movies



Ted 2



Seth MacFarlane said recently in a New York Times interview that he had a completely different plot for Ted 2 originally.  The first plot involved Ted and John driving a pot shipment across the country and hijinks would ensue.  Well, in 2013 an absolutely awful movie with Jennifer Aniston came out called We're the Millers and was basically the exact same plot.  MacFarlane then scrapped his Ted 2 plot and thought of something else.  Luckily, he was reading a book about the Civil War at the time and was inspired by the true story of Dred Scott.  See, Scott was a slave who sued to prove that he was a person and not property.  Only someone like MacFarlane could take such an inspiring, tragic and emotional true story and apply it to something as stupid as a teddy bear suing for the same reason.  Even though the plot we got sounds infinitely more interesting than his original one, it's proof that this sequel was a completely unnecessary Hollywood money grab that never needed to be made in the first place.

The one thing you need to give MacFarlane is that he knows what he finds funny and doesn't really give a damn what you find funny.  Luckily for most of us, we find funny what he finds funny; that's the reason why Ted was such a relatively critical and commercial success.  He made a story that was already ridiculous and added his own style of absurdity to it to make it a uniquely weird and wonderful comedy.  In Ted 2, he tries to do the same level of weirdness but it doesn't coexist with the plot as well as the first one.  The stakes are pretty high in Ted 2 and the lack of care and professionalism taken by all the main characters doesn't sit right, even in the context of the film.

Don't get me wrong; Ted 2 has some really, really funny moments.  You have to wait through long periods of agenda and statement-making drawing parallels to the civil rights fight going on today with gay and lesbian Americans though.  I appreciate that MacFarlane is trying to juggle a lot with this film but there are large stretches of time in the already two-hour-long movie where nothing funny happens at all.  It's like watching a boxing match where the fighters spend a majority of the time dancing around each other but you'll still watch it because just as you're zoning out there are really exciting blows.

None of this was the fault of stars Mark Wahlberg, Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables, A Million Ways to Die in the West) or MacFarlane, who voices Ted as well.  Wahlberg and MacFarlane have the same level of chemistry as they did in the first one and it's just another reminder of how funny Wahlberg can be.  The problem simply falls on a script that doesn't shine as bright nor feel as fresh as the first one.  MacFarlane, as a director, probably knew this as well, which might explain why he lets the movie go on for an extra 20-30 minutes that should've been cut.  That also might be why MacFarlane uses so many cameos in the film, since cameos often perk up sleepy people up in an otherwise soggy screening.

I'm still a fan of MacFarlane and appreciate what he does.  I think what we're seeing with Ted 2 and his last film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is that he's surrounded with a tad too many "yes" people who tell him everything he does it great.  Or even worse, he's surrounded by no one and relies only on his own ego to tell him he's great.  Either way, we're starting to see an artist of comedy grow tired in his own specific style.  I'm still hoping that's not true and want him to make something that changes the landscape like Family Guy did when it burst onto the scene 18 years ago (yeah...that should make you feel old).  Some could see Ted 2 as the beginning of the end but it has enough uppercuts and body blows that I'll still watch whatever fight he wants to put on.

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Inside Out



Becoming a parent does crazy things to your brain.  Things that you never thought about or, if you did, didn't care about on an emotional level suddenly become the thoughts that will knock the knees out from under you.  One of those thoughts is growing up and I don't mean growing old.  That's different.  Growing up was always something that kids looked forward to and every new milestone was exciting.  When you're a parent though, you look at each of those milestones as a small tragedy that you still are excited to celebrate.  Watching your child slowly drift through each phase of childhood development makes every parent feel nostalgic for the days before it happened.  The creators of Inside Out knew that and harnessed it into a film that not only works as a delightful celebration of the sadness that brings them but also a thrilling, colorful adventure that children will want to watch over and over again.

Yes, it's true that Pixar hasn't been the juggernaut it was since 2010's Toy Story 3, which I still say is the greatest children's film of all time.  Cars 2 and Brave were both terrible and even though I loved Monsters University, it was panned by critics and didn't make a ton of money.  Inside Out is not only a return to the creative genius we all grew to expect from Pixar but it's one of their best films they've ever made.  Part of that reason is because they got Peter Doctor to direct it.  He's the wizard behind Up and Monsters Inc.  Both of those films carry with them, not just crowning achievements in films for children, but in films in general.  Up showed how an entire life can be displayed in ten minutes without saying a word and Monsters Inc. still has one of the greatest endings in any movie ever.  As good as both those films are, Inside Out is better.

The movie follows the five primary emotions that exist in all of our brains.  Inside Out shows them as colorful, hilarious characters that have all been perfectly cast.  Amy Poehler is Joy, Phyillis Smith (NBC's The Office, Bad Teacher) is Sadness, Lewis Black (Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Unaccompanied Minors) is Anger, Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins, Superbad) is Fear, and Mindy Kaling (NBC's The Office, The Five-Year Engagement) is Disgust.  If you're a comedy nerd or a fan of quality sitcoms, you know all of these people already and realize what an absolute perfect casting all of them were.  

What makes this go further than just seeing these wacky emotions interact is the plot, where the 11-year-old girl they exist inside of moves to a new city, has to make new friends, deal with stress from her parents' relationship at home all while she's starting to enter puberty.  These changes lead to an adventure that kids will love but play out the emotional transition from child to teen that will tear the heart out of parents.  Children won't understand why you're crying to see certain characters appear and then disappear and they may wonder why you're crying behind your 3D glasses but any parent who values the innocence their child possess or no longer has will see certain scenes play out and they will strike a memory that may break their hearts.

Even if you don't have kids, Inside Out will still attack your feels.  Everyone had an imaginary friend or pretended a stick was something magical.  We can all relate to middle school and how those were the years where happiness was no longer found at every minute but instead sadness started to creep in.  Inside Out doesn't play this out to depress you but instead shows you why it's important to allow some sadness in your life because it's part of what makes memories and events so important.  What's a real amazing accomplishment is that Doctor achieves all of this while also making a thrilling, funny adventure for kids.  It's the same film that operates on two levels, each totally satisfying for adults and children.

I know I've made Inside Out seem like it's a rather heartbreaking film for anyone over the age of 21; it's not.  I absolutely love the first ten minutes of Up but, let's face it, it's not something you want to subject yourself to over and over again.  Inside Out is something you want to enjoy many times over.  It's a masterpiece that will carry new meaning to its viewers every new decade they watch it.  Instead of making you depressed, it forces you to recognize the majesty of youth and want to cling to it either in yourself or your kids as hard and as long as you can.  It's a film that will be enjoyed for generations because it's meant to be absorbed differently for generations.  I'm not sure what else you can expect and hope for out of a film outside of that.

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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl



There have only been a few movies in the last ten years or so that have made me cry.  Don't get me wrong; I'm not someone who doesn't cry often when watching a sad film.  What usually happens, however, is I'll get wet eyes and perhaps a single tear will roll down my cheek.  When I say that a movie made me cry, I mean ugly, sobbing cry.  Many tears.  A little snot.  Quivering chin and lip.  Ugly.  Me and Early and the Dying Girl made me do that and I was not expecting it at all.  I heard that it was the darling of Sundance and swept everyone off their feet but they were mostly talking about how funny it was, how real the characters feel and how its look is so fresh.  All that is true but it's also a suckerpunch to the feels that you won't soon forget.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon may only have a few television episodes of American Horror Story and Glee along with a lousy remake of The Town the Dreaded Sundown to his credit but he's worked as Assistant Director under some of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  (Listen to my interview with Jon Bernthal below to hear them listed)  Those jobs working with the masters are what prepared him to make Dying Girl a truly fresh vision.  Much like how Jason Reitman made Juno feel like something new and exciting back in 2007, Gomez-Rejon does it with this.  The dialogue is hilarious and real, the characters are fully fleshed out and the setting of Pittsburgh, PA is absolutely captured depressingly gorgeous.  He's someone to make note of because I believe we'll see a lot of him in the coming years.

We'll also see a lot of the entire young cast.  Thomas Mann (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Project X) is wonderful as Greg, a teenager who's mom forces him to spend time with a classmate who's diagnosed with leukemia.  The dying girl is Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke (Ouija, The Quiet Ones).  She impressively pulls off a character that balances the sadness of her mortality and the carefree joy of youth throughout the movie.  And Earl is played by RJ Cyler, who's never done anything before but you can't tell for a second.  (Listen to my interview with all three below)  He steals many scenes with a single line and has a natural way about his performance that feels like a security blanket.  All of them share a chemistry that's rare in films about teens; you get the sense that they all are real friends, which makes the film that much more hilarious and tragic.

Jesse Andrews wrote the script and it's based on his book.  He's the architect for what is one of the most accurate depictions of the selfishness, apathy and turmoil that comes with being a teenager since JD Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye.  The main character, Greg, is someone you drift in and out of identifying with, hating, laughing at, laughing with and sharing regret with all in the 105 minute running time, which does feel a little long toward the end.  Most of Dying Girl is funny, in fact; not just funny but one of the funniest films of the year.  And without feeling like it gives you whiplash, it effortlessly slides into one of the most tragic as well.  In the regards of crafting a true dramedy, it's a masterpiece.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn't heavy-handed and can still be considered a fun night at the movies.  It's a film that is a tribute to cinema and the teenage human spirit.  I'm not sure if it'll have the same effect on everyone that it had one me but when the final credits rolled, it made me want to rush home and hug my loved ones a little tighter.  It's easy to make a heartbreaker about an adorable kid who dies.  That's not what this does.  It is a movie that celebrates youth and everything that comes with it...the laughs, the friendships, the school politics, the weird parents and sometimes the loss.





Listen to Gavin's conversation with the cast of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl:
 


Listen to Gavin's conversation with actor Jon Bernthal:
 

Enter to win a Blu-ray copy of CHAPPiE here!
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Dope



Sundance is a funny place.  I've never been but how I've heard it described by those who have is it's a lot of rich people and filmmakers mixing and mingling hoping to be there for when the "next big thing" pops.  There is an awful lot of "did you like that?" "Of course, I did...right?"  "Oh, absolutely!  Everyone loves it."  Certain films catch the word-of-mouth and get whispered loudly through the festival and onto the pages of entertainment websites and magazines.  Sometimes those movies are brilliant and go on to launch careers, win awards, create new genres and inspire a new legion of movie wizards.  Other times, they suck.  Just flat out, old fashioned suck.  Dope is one of those movies that sucks.

If you hop on Rotten Tomatoes, you'll see Dope sitting there with a 95% (at the time of writing this) and glowing reviews from top critics...almost all of which are white.  The reason I'm pointing their race out is because Dope is the kind of movie that feels so alien to so many white people that saying they didn't like it carries with it a fear of sounding racist.  It's not.  A film about teenagers living in the roughest parts of LA who get pulled into a world of drugs and crime is not something new nor is it something white people can't relate to.  Boyz in the Hood is a profoundly excellent film that was accessible to so many types of people.  Dope is a disjointed mess that can't seem to figure out if it's a comedy, a drama, a statement piece and certainly can't pull off all three.

Writer/Director Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar, Our Family Wedding) goes against the type of films he's made in his entire career and attempts to make a hip, young indie film that evokes filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jared Hess, Noah Baumbach, Tarantino and even the Coen Brothers.  It's a noble attempt but a massive failure in that respect.  It starts as a fun, quirky, colorful film and then splinters off in so many different directions it loses the little momentum it builds.  That's just the directing; the writing is just as bad.  Dope is about three inner city teenagers who claim to be "nerds" and "geeks" but they're far from it; they're hipsters and that's only because they embrace "white interests."  It's actually too bad that Famuyiwa didn't make them true nerds because it would've made the story more interesting.

I don't think that movies need to have a moral purpose but Dope is one that wears one all over its face.  The end of the film features a completely out-of-place monologue by star Shameik Moore (Joyful Noise), breaking the fourth wall, and tries to make an important statement about race and how it relates to teens trying to go to college.  A film about just that would be great but doing that after we spend a punishing two hours watching him succeed by shirking guilt until he eventually sells drugs and blackmails a kingpin seems morally conflicted.  Moore is joined by friends played by Kiersey Clemons (Disney Channel's Austin & Ally) and Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Perfect Game) and the three seem to do the best they could with the confusing script that was provided but just end up getting in the way of the already scattered plot.

Once again, I need to point out that me "not getting it" has nothing to do with the fact that it's about a world I have no experience with.  Besides Boyz in the Hood, other films that have been about the same material like Menace II Society, Friday, Do the Right Thing, Training Day, Lean on Me, 187, Kids...all of these worked because they were accessible.  Dope was a noble try to be something funny, tragic and important told by a director who couldn't handle such a multi-tonal project.  What you're left with is a film that isn't funny, isn't tragic and if it's important, it's certainly lost in translation.

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Jurassic World



Any kid who grew up in the '80s hit 1993 at a perfect age.  It was when you were still fully obsessed with dinosaurs but old enough to go see Jurassic Park when it came out.  I was 13-years-old and I saw it 8 times in the movie theater.  I even met my best friend Joe through it.  He sat next to me in class and we were both reading the book (trying to) at the same time.  When the movie came out, we agreed to see it together.  It was really the moment we became friends and 22 years later we still are.  Jurassic Park is arguably one the greatest films of all time and one of Spielberg's many masterpieces.  It made an impact on, not just me and Joe, but a whole generation of kids that hit that adolescent sweet spot upon its release.  One of which was Colin Trevorrow and thank God it did because otherwise we never would have had the awesomeness of Jurassic World.


The story of how Colin Trevorrow came to write and direct Jurassic World could be a movie in itself.  It's almost impossible to believe but this is only his second film.  His first was an indie dramedy called Safety Not Guaranteed which was good not great and made almost no money.  The story, as I've heard it, is that Jurassic Park imprinted on him so much that it was the reason he became a director.  He wrote the script for Jurassic World and submitted it to Spielberg and Universal.  They loved it, said they were going to make it, but with a seasoned, proven director.  He begged with them, wrote them letters, even shot test footage of what his vision of his script would be.  He fought so hard to be the director of Jurassic World that after years of tenacity, Universal caved and let him do it.  It was not a mistake and letting a mega fan of the original grab the reins shines through in almost every frame.

Trevorrow shows us exactly what we wish we got to see in Jurassic Park; a fully open and functional theme park.  Everything you envisioned in your mind as a kid is shown in Jurassic World and it's even more fully realized than you could imagine.  That won't be as great for anyone who's not a fan but those of you who are will find it's enough dazzle to keep you interested through a fairly slow and tedious first half.  Trevorrow tries to recapture the magic of the first one but even Spielberg couldn't do that (which is why Lost World was so bad).  However, once things go wrong in the park, Jurassic World builds excitement on top of itself until it explodes with a climax ending that was so perfect it was like 13-year-old Gavin wrote it!

Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, Moneyball) and Bryce Dallas Howard (50/50, The Help) are the lead humans of the film and their performances are just fine but the real star is the Indominus Rex.  She is the new villain for the film; a hybrid, genetically-modified super monster who makes the T-Rex look like a bunny.  The idea of a genetically-modified dinosaur seemed gimmicky in the trailer but when you see it play out contextually in the film, it makes perfect sense why they would do that.  It is a truly scary creation and Trevorrow takes a page from Spielberg's Jaws playbook and waits till the right moment of the film to show her to us.

My only regret about seeing Jurassic World is that my friend Joe couldn't be there to share it with me.  It has a perfect amount of nostalgia for guys like me and hopefully it'll inspire a new generation of lovers of the films, although it's WAY more violent and disturbing than the original.  Things are shown in Jurassic World that might seems silly or cheesy but you're crazy if you don't think it's still badass.  (All I have to say is...Chris Pratt...on a motorcycle...hunting WITH velociraptors!)  The 3D is on point.  The suspense is intense.  Proper respect and homage is given to the original.  Sure it takes a while to get into it but you won't remember that by the time the final rampage takes place; in fact, you'll be slow clapping when it's done like my theater did.

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Spy



To be perfectly honest, I was ready to write Melissa McCarthy off.  She did so much damage to her career with the film Tammy that I thought her good performances were a fluke.  The reason for that was Tammy not only starred McCarthy but was written by her as well.  McCarthy had broken the Hollywood stereotype that women in film had to be thin, attractive, funny but not too funny and dumb.  It was inspired to see that mold shattered and what does she do with her success?  Tammy...a movie about a big, fat, dumb, loser who never really becomes anything more than those adjectives.  It was a shame.  However, just in the nick of time, Spy comes along and puts McCarthy squarely back on top to showcase her talents.

 

In 2011, Bridesmaids came out and was hailed by critics and box office rewarded it.  Writer/Director Paul Feig was crowned the most powerful feminist in Hollywood as he crafted a smart, funny all-female-driven film that hadn't been done in decades.  Since then, he's been on a mission to bring women, some of which are unconventional in appearance like McCarthy, to the frontline of comedy.  It's true that The Heat, with Sandra Bullock and McCarthy, was a huge mistake.  We also have yet to see how his all-female Ghostbusters reboot will be (although it sounds horrible).  But Spy is his finest film so far.  Not only did he make a really great comedy but a really great action film too.

 

In the last decade or so, comedies that have stayed consistent seemed to be very hard to find.  Usually they start off great and then get more and more unfunny until you find yourself sitting through the final act not laughing at all.  Spy manages to maintain the belly laughs until the final credits roll.  Even more impressive than that is how Feig wrote and directed a decent spy film.  The action is impressive and even McCarthy pulls off some convincing hand-to-hand fighting.  It would be really easy to play off her size and derpy character as a constant punchline but he didn't.  He makes characters that normally would be the stars the punchline and it works amazingly.

 

Jason Statham (Transporter, The Expendables films) deserves a ton of credit for his work in Spy.  He's successfully turned himself into a one-note joke as far as being a respected as an actor.  That's a real shame when you look at his early work in Guy Ritchie films because he was great.  He plays the same type of character he always does in Spy except this time, he's the comic relief as a bumbling, liying, super spy that always needs the help of a woman.  Statham settles into this role perfectly and embraces being the joke.  It's a reminder to those of us that remember him from 1998 when he was really funny and not just leaping away from explosions in slow motion.

 

Feig and McCarthy seem to be an inseparable duo.  Together they have done three projects with another one on the way.  They swing for the fences apparently because they either hit a home run or strike out completely.  Spy is another home run that promises a good time by anyone who sees it.  It's a story that easily could've been told with a Kevin James or Adam Sandler in the main role but Feig had the right instincts to make it a woman and give her depth.  I agree with him that there needs to be more female-driven comedies in the world and as long as they don't backslide to old Hollywood stereotypes and redefine what a woman in comedy can be, I encourage him to keep swinging for the fences even if he strikes out.

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Insidious: Chapter 3



A misleading title, really.  When I read a book, I don't expect the beginning to be in the third chapter but that's exactly what Leigh Whannell has done.  He's the meek-looking Aussie who has carved out quite the cozy nitch for himself in the annals of horror since 2000.  Whether you like him or not, you have to admit that Whannell is versatile when it comes to writing horror.  In 2003, when Saw debuted it splattered everyone's minds all over the wall and relaunched the rise of torture horror on American audiences.  After he continued to ride the gravy train of squeezing every last drop of blood from the Saw franchise (which he's not done with and scribed Saw VIII due out in a year), it was easy to peg him as a hack.  He then threw us all for a loop in 2010 and created Insidious again with the help of his director friend James Wan (who also directed The Conjuring and Furious 7).  Impressive, but what he did with Insidious: Chapter 3 was the most impressive yet...he directed it and did it well.

Guys who write themselves into their own movies are groan-inducing to me.  I even hate it when Quentin Tarantino does it.  But Whannell is actually a really good actor.  You felt his pain chained up with Carey Elwes in Saw but what we didn't see coming was how funny he could be as Specs in the Insidious films.  We'll actually get a chance to see how even funnier he can be when he also stars in a horror comedy he wrote that comes out this year called Cooties.  But in Insidious, he wisely pairs himself up with the ageless Lin Shaye (Something About Mary, Nightmare on Elm Street) and creates the only sense of safety in the movies.  Smart move, but tackling directing for the first time was ballsy but he pulls it off in spades.  Working with Wan has paid off because Insidious: Chapter 3 feels like it was done by an expert hand in spook house games.  His sense of timing, distant images and angles makes the film the scariest of the franchise yet.

The film is actually a prequel and minus Whannell, Shaye and Angus Sampson (Mad Max: Fury Road), there are no familiar characters.  The one area the story falls short is explaining how it's actually a prequel at all to the events in the first Insidious film as far as any paranormal activity goes.  That flaw aside, this actually works very well as a stand-alone horror movie.  You don't have to know a single thing about the previous films to enjoy this one, in fact it might be even better if you don't.  The franchise operates on two ghouls that haunt families that go by Lipstick-Face Demon and The Bride in Black.  Both are spooky but have lost their luster as far as a scare factor goes.  Whannell knew this and created a new specter that terrorizes named The Man Who Can't Breathe, played by Michael Reid MacKay.  MacKay played the Sloth Victim in Seven and has once again made a truly nightmare-inducing character without saying a word.

The family that gets the poo scared out of them this time are a father, played by the always reliable Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend's Wedding, The Grey) and pop star and new face Stefanie Scott (Disney's A.N.T. Farm, Jem and the Holograms).  Mulroney is effective as the hapless and helpless father but Scott is good at being scared by not good at dishing out the screams when things in the film take a turn.  Despite being the two leads of the film, it belongs to Shaye and the frightening images we see.  Because of that, Insidious: Chapter 3 has trouble firming its grip on the audience due to apathy toward an unlikable main character.

True horror snobs have trouble embracing the Insidious films.  They say it's nothing more than paint-by-number startle scares and never goes anywhere beyond that.  I not only can agree with them but would also add that the first two fall of the rails with the final acts of both.  Insidious: Chapter 3 is slightly different though; it maintains the level of tense fear from beginning to end and has a much more effective conclusion.  It does go slightly beyond the startle scares but, more importantly, continues the atmosphere of a haunted house, much like the classic horror films did.  That's one thing modern horror seems to lack and I'm glad it's there to carry the torch.


Watch the interviews Gavin did with some of the cast of "Insidious Chapter 3" while at LA premiere of the movie:
Gavin and contest winner Tammy interview Dermot Mulroney:

 

Gavin and contest winner Tammy talk to Lin Shaye and "Insidious" director Leigh Whannell:
 

Also, you can watch Intern Kevin freak out while going through the "Insidious Chapter 3" 4D Experience:
 
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Love & Mercy



If you're reading my movie reviews there's a good chance you don't know much or care about The Beach Boys.  Hell, even most people under the age of 50 don't give them the credit they deserve in the history of American Rock'n'Roll.  The truth is that they were one of the most amazing, ahead-of-their-time, innovative, genius groups ever and it was all because of the brain of Brian Wilson.  What Love & Mercy explores is that brain and the life it caused Wilson to have. It's not a cliche true story about the rise and reign of a powerful band but instead focuses on the beginning stages of Wilson's mental disorders in the '60s and how it came to a powerfully moving custody battle in the '80s.  Two decades.  Two stories about Wilson.  Played by two very talented actors who deserve Oscar consideration.

John Cusack is a guy who's been a Hollywood fixture since he exploded on the screen in 1984 with Sixteen Candles.  The man has an unmistakable natural performance quality that only a few actors can pull off.  Some have accused him of doing nothing but playing himself in every role and I would agree with that for a bulk of his work.  Love & Mercy, however, is not only unlike every character he's ever played but it's the finest performance of his career.  He plays Brian Wilson with an innocent tenderness that breaks your heart with every single line he delivers.  I've never seen a character feel so genuine and sad yet delivered with such empathy.  Wilson was a consultant on the film so that level of hands-on attention with the subject must've been invaluable but Cusack knocks it out of the park.

Paul Dano (Looper, There Will Be Blood) gives an A+ performance in everything he's in.  He's a perfect choice to portray Wilson in his younger years because he also has a vulnerability that he offers but handles panic and distress better than any other younger actor out there.  Not only does he perform the early stages of someone with auditory hallucinations, manic-depression and schizoaffective disorder but also handles the musical genius side of it as well.  Rounding out the amazing cast is Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect movies) and Paul Giamatti (San Andreas, Sideways).  These two also give Oscar-worthy performances, especially Giamatti who is the best villain he's ever been.

Love & Mercy is the first feature directed by Bill Pohlad and you can tell.  The movie feels disjointed and could've been shortened by about 20 minutes.  There are moments that should have been cut and makes the whole thing feel plodding and aimless at times.  However, this might be Pohlad's first film as director but he's produced such Oscar-winners as 12 Years a Slave, Into the Wild and Brokeback Mountain.  His experience watching the directors of those amazing films gave him the skills to make Love & Mercy a solid, emotional tribute to one of the most amazing musical geniuses in American history.  The performances he got out of his cast is nothing short of amazing.

Someone asked if Love & Mercy would still be entertaining to someone who knew nothing about The Beach Boys.  The answer to that is "half of it would be."  What Cusack goes through is a very real drama about a famous person with a mental disability being taken advantage of and the person who saves him.  That is a universal plot that not only grabs your heart but makes you rethink making jokes about people like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston as well.  The story that Dano portrays is very much a tribute to the genius of Wilson and The Beach Boys.  That is not universal and gets rather long, even for fans of the music.  But if you're someone who appreciates seasoned actors giving some of the best performances they ever have, than Love & Mercy is a film with a soul as hopeful, sunny, tortured and sad as Wilson himself.

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San Andreas



Ever since I can remember going to movies, I loved disaster films.  One of my earliest favorites was the original Poseidon Adventure.  I loved watching mass destruction, panic, survival, redemption, and kick-ass special effects.  The older I got the more intense my pallet became and I demanded a larger scale.  The summer of '96 was the best when I sat with my best friends and watched all our major US cities get demolished by aliens in Independence Day.  I even had a soft spot for the doesn't-hold-up-but-still-love-them-for-nostalgia films like Volcano, Armageddon, and Twister.  I lived in Central Pennsylvania for the release of all of those and no one was interested in destroying that.  San Andreas completely obliterates San Francisco which is only 100 miles from where I live now and it dramatically changed my enjoyment of such disaster...or maybe it's just not that great of a flick.

I have a rule as a critic and fan of film; if Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) is in a movie, it can't be all that bad.  I know that's dumb but I trust in him so much that I can't imagine he would ever agree to be in something so awful he didn't see worth in being in it.  I've been wrong though and The Hangover 2 and Rock of Ages made me see that.  In San Andreas, he plays the token "expert" character that no one believes until it's too late and I should have sensed something was up about the quality of the script when I started to notice that he is one of the stars but not in a single scene with any of the other stars.  He shot almost all of his footage in a single set in only a few days which feels as much as keeping San Andreas at arm's length away from him as he possibly could.

The real star is Dwayne (are we still using The Rock at all?) Johnson.  There is nothing unlikable about Johnson.  He's charming, funny, a somewhat decent actor, attractive and can carry a film on his ungodly large shoulders.  However, you get out of him what you expect...not very much.  No one sits in a film of his expecting Oscar-worth performances or even characters with an ounce of depth yet I find myself disappointed that that's exactly what we end up with.  San Andreas is no different and he plays the cliche "hero" role who has a broken marriage and is trying to save his family during a disaster.  It's not a challenging part, nor does he challenge himself with it...despite trying really hard to squirt a tear or two that almost seems convincing.

Director Brad Peyton does a fine-enough job ushering us through San Andreas but it feels like he is just reading along the step-by-step instructions on how to make a disaster film.  His previous accomplishments are all children's movies so I give him credit for branching out but the only thing he brings to the table is his experience making effects-heavy productions and getting his performers to act like they're not just in front of a green screen for 70% of their scenes.  The same can be said for the script which is decent for a disaster film yet is still nothing more than a paint-by-numbers formula.  There's no creativity in anything you see and all you're left with is tense CGI of destruction galore, which I don't say with judgement since it's still entertaining on most levels.

I was in San Francisco just a few months ago and I've been there more times than I can remember since moving to Sacramento eight years ago.  Watching that amazingly unique and beautiful city get leveled didn't feel fun in San Andreas.  I don't know if that's because I'm too emotionally attached to it or because the movie forgot that disaster films are still supposed to get you to chomp popcorn with a big smile on your face.  When I sit down to see something in this genre I don't want to be bummed out despite seeing mass death and destruction; I want to be excited by the action.  San Andreas lacked something I can't put my finger on and fell short of my expectations.  I'll fully admit that the problem might be in my own head but the more I think about it, I don't think it was.  It's a movie that entertains on the most basic level and never seems to get solid footing on its shaky ground.  (See what I did there?)

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Mad Max: Fury Road



All of us have the same fear that the best parts of a movie are ruined because they put them in the trailer.  I can't remember seeing a trailer for a movie that excited me, disturbed me and stopped my breathing more than all three of the different versions that came out for Mad Max: Fury Road.  What they showed was heart-pounding car chases, massive sand storms, huge explosions, manic characters.  It was so much insanity that it had to be all the good parts, not only from the film, but from the climax of the movie, right?!  I was pleased as punch to find out that everything you see in the trailer is featured in the first 20 minutes and it only gets crazier from there!

I can remember being about 9-years-old and watching all of the original Mad Max films on cable late at night.  It was absolutely not appropriate for a kid that age to watch but the images in those movies are forever seared into my memory.  In the following decades, I have forgotten all about that franchise and I imagine most everyone else has too.  Director George Miller hit some bumps in his career since then as well.  After making them, he walked off the set while making 1987's The Witches of East Wick and never really bounced back into Hollywood since.  However, he did find a second calling with children's films making Oscar-winners like Babe and Happy Feet.  But you can tell that his heart still belonged to Max and what we see in Fury Road is the stuff that only a crazy mind thinking about it for 30 years can come up with.

Don't worry, you don't have to know anything about the original trilogy to enjoy this; Fury Road is a full reboot.  In fact, the smooth, charismatic Max Rockatansky that Mel Gibson originated has been reborn as a growling, grumbling, damaged, feral Max Rockatansky by Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception).  He is excellent in this but graciously rides shotgun to Charlize Theron who is the true lead of the film.  She's a battle-worn baddie turned goodie who risks it all trying to save the lives of women that belong to the villain, Immortan Joe, who is played by the amazing Hugh Keays-Byrne (who was Toecutter in the original trilogy).  Theron is just one of the many super strong females who don't just kick ass but have depth and unique perspectives.  Mad Max may feel like a gasoline-soaked bro film but it's a shining example of empowered feminism in an action film as I may have ever seen.

From the opening seconds of the film to the final minutes, there is wall-to-wall action stopping only briefly so that the audience can catch their breath.  And it should be noted that when I say "action" I mean ACTION like you have never seen in both quality and quantity of images.  There are so many actual stunts in actual fabricated and nightmarish vehicles that it's amazing nobody died while filming.  And it would be easy to say that Mad Max is only a two-hour-long action sequence but it's more than that.  The story is simple but it's rich and full of characters seeking redemption in world so f**king nutty that the only way one is redeemed is by doing the insane things depicted in the film.  

It is crucial that all are warned that this is not a film with mass appeal, nor was it made to be.  It's insane.  It's a vision of a post-apocaylptic world that doesn't make sense, has confusing costumes, characters of human monsters and bizarre, manic dialogue.  It's also a vision that is fully realized in the most glorious way by a man who's been laboring over it for decades.  The result is an action film that will go down as one of the finest examples of the genre ever.  My recommendation is to watch any of the trailers made for Mad Max: Fury Road.  If what you see in those two minutes is enough to blow your hair back and make you want more or interesting enough to make you see what the hell else could be in store...then go see it!  Especially since that's just from the beginning of the movie and you ain't seen nothing yet!

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