Gavin Grades The Movies

In Time

How much time has to go by before we forget that Justin Timberlake was once a pop star?  Better question; how many movies does he have to star in for us to forget?  In Time marks his second attempt at being a leading man since his turn in the romantic comedy Friends with Benefits.  He impressed most people as the devilish Sean Parker in The Social Network, but is he good enough to shoulder the load of a entire film that dares to do more than just put asses in seats with a promise of pretty faces having sex, like his last film?  No, he is not. In Time is an ambitious sci-fi film from Andrew Niccol, who's written some very impressive movies like The Terminal, The Truman Show and Gattaca.  However, he's a far better writer than he is a director since attempts like Lord of War and S1mone fell quite flat. But In Time has a ridiculous premise where, in the future, time is our currency and we all stop aging at 23.  I give Niccol credit in that he tried to make more than another mindless sci-fi action flick.  It's really a statement about class warfare and socioeconomic policies.  Pretty timely considering the current political climate in this country.  But as current as it seems, it comes across as a script that was written years ago and was never updated.  For instance, it's not clear why we would ever go back to using pay phones and old muscle cars in the future.  But all the cleverness in the script gets lost in the stilted dialogue and piss-poor acting from Timberlake. Even gifted actors as Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, 28 Days Later) and Amanda Seyfried (HBO's Big Love, Mama Mia!) couldn't make this middle school dialogue seem like entertainment, so I guess it's not all Timberlake's fault but boy is he not ready for primetime. Aside from a bad script and a poor choice in a leading man, the movie isn't very exciting.  It's a great concept to make a futuristic Robin Hood, but it gets so lost when a bigger problem is presented as a by-product of stealing time from one of the wealthiest men in the country.  Not to mention that it would bog the movie down if they stopped to explain why that bigger problem would exist without going into an economics lesson on a scale that would make us all doze off. So it's needlessly complicated, then confusing with its plot and to top it all off, the action isn't nearly plentiful enough to make us entertained by any of it.  By the time the movie has reached its exhaustingly excessive 109 minutes, you're just wishing it would end.  Ironic since the whole movie is about time and always trying to get more because I wish I could buy my time back from the creators of In Time since I feel a bit robbed of it. In Time  (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: D+
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Real Steel

If you were to tell me that the generations-old children's game Rock 'Em Sock 'M Robots would be turned into a movie one day and that that movie would actually be fun to watch, I wouldn't believe you.  But here we are in 2011 and Hugh Jackman has teamed up with director Shawn Levy to create a fun, family movie about giant robots that beat on each other till they piss oil and it's very effective as entertainment...but there might be a sinister reason why. Shawn Levy is the director behind some truly awful films that make lots of money.  He directed Date Night, Cheaper by the Dozen and Just Married.  But he's also the guy that made the Night at the Museum movies which were shockingly funny and awesome!  So does a higher budget and bigger FX make Levy a better director?  Apparently so. It probably didn't hurt that he has two coaches in his corner named Steven Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future series) as two out of the WHOPPING 12 Producers on Real Steel.  Seeing their names in the opening credits gave me hope that this wouldn't be rusty crap and I was right.  The film is brightly colored and slickly put together.  It's also edgy enough that it won't lose older teens but innocent enough that tweens will dig it too.  The CGI FX are top notch and although they may not be as plentiful and bloated as Transformers, it's the subtlety  that makes them seem so much more impressive.  I also appreciate that not all the robots in the film are the work of Hollywood computers.  Yes, they went old school in some scenes and actually used giant puppets. One of the other biggest surprises of the film was in its childhood lead, the 12-year-old Dakota Goyo (Thor), who blew me away with his performance.  Not only does he have the energetic smart-ass down cold, but taps into his inner daddy issues convincingly well too.  Oh yeah, this isn't just a popcorn-chomping action movie; there's a chance you may shed a tear or two.  It depends on whether or not you buy into Jackman's completely unlikable lowlife father character deserving any of your sympathy by the end. But not so fast... There's one thing about Real Steel that needs to be said and that's because it might be downright illegal.  The script, which was penned by John Gatins (Coach Carter, Hardballs), was highway robbery.  You may feel yourself enjoying Real Steel to the fullest but get a vague sense that you've seen this before.  That's because you have.  It was called Rocky and it won Best Picture in 1976.  I know you're thinking that it's easy to compare every boxing movie to Rocky.  That's not what I'm talking about.  Real Steel is SO MUCH like Rocky that I'm shocked it's legal.  Aside from the family drama, Real Steel is about a small, junkie robot that no one believes in getting a shot at the title because of a publicity stunt.  And that's not all.  The champion that he has to fight is a big, black, strong robot named Zeus.  In case you forgot, in Rocky the small, junkie boxer gets a shot at the title against a big, black, strong champion named...wait for it...Apollo.  Same story just switching the character's name from Roman to Greek.  I won't spoil the ending for you, but let's just say that that's not where the stealing...er....I mean similarities run out. So what am I trying to say?  How about this - if you've never seen Rocky, you may think that Real Steel is a great, emotional, well-made family boxing movie that will win your heart.  If you have seen Rocky, you'll still feel that way but you will have trouble getting past the blatant ripoff.  That's why I have to give this film two grades.  One, overlooking the copyright infringement, which many people (sadly) won't care about; and Two, taking that into consideration.  Either way it's a fun, entertaining movie...because you've probably already seen it. Real Steel  (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: B+ and D+
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This movie opens on a black screen.  You hear audio, people talking, casino noises, but you don't see anything.  Then you hear someone start to cough.  The second that happens, you're already put on edge for the movie about a disease that threatens to wipe out the planet.  It's a brilliant way to open the movie.  I smirked when I heard that and got scared at the same time.  Sadly, that just might be the best part of Contagion. Movies about diseases that end the world scare the s**t out of me!  It's ten times scarier than a giant tidal wave or earthquakes or zombies or aliens.  Diseases are real and they really do harness the power to kill everyone alive.  Full disclosure, I was looking forward to this film and wanted it to be amazingly scary.  I was so disappointed. Director Stephen Soderbergh has his ups and downs but never would I call him a hack.  He's always looking for ways to push the envelope of cinema or have fun with it.  He's impressed critics and audiences with Traffic, Erin Brockovich and the Oceans movies.  He's won over only the critics with movies like The Informant! and The Girlfriend Experience. And he's disappointed both audiences and critics with movies like Solaris and Che Part 1 & 2.  Where will Contagion fall?  That seems to be debatable.  I'm gonna play it safe though and say it's something that only critics will enjoy but not the rest. Contagion is an example of how too many characters on too many story lines can ruin a film.  It's not short of A-list firepower at all.  It has Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburn, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law to name just a few.  All are fine actors that have given us great performances over the years.  However, none of these actors play characters that are involved in any cohesive story together.  They all are like supporting characters for a movie that has no lead. Not only does it not have a lead, it has no pulse.  It's as if the movie itself got infected and just staggers around in a cold sweat hacking.  All the things that make a movie about the end of the world entertaining are shown to us in Contagion with zero zest!  Mass panic, a race for a cure, tracking down the disease's origin; these are all in the film but shown to you in a way that makes you not care and certainly not chomp down on popcorn. My friend Dave went with me to see it.  He loved it.  He actually liked the fact that it was downplayed so much because he said it made it feel real.  I suppose it does; but with a film of this nature, I don't want it to feel so real that I am bored by it.  That's what happened with Contagion. Pulling off a movie with a huge cast of characters is not easy.  There are only a few movies that have done it...but Soderbergh is a director that has done that successfully a lot!  So what went wrong here?  I can only imagine my diagnosis was correct...Contagion is sick. Contagion  (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: C
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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Whether you want to admit it or not, the 1968 film Planet of the Apes is one of the top ten greatest science fiction movies of all time.  Sure there are lots of cheesy sequels and a par-at-best remake by Tim Burton, but there's something about that first movie that was so totally original.  It was exciting, had great make-up, a brilliant script, fun action and a moral message.  So it seems strange and very risky to create a prequel 43 years later that explains how it all started.  After seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I couldn't be happier that they did! For anyone who doesn't know the original, it stars Charlton Heston as an astronaut that gets sucked through a wormhole in space and ends up on a planet overrun by talking apes that have replaced humans as the dominant species.  You find out at the end that the planet turns out to be Earth and he traveled hundreds of years in the future.  I know I should have said "Spoiler Alert" there but you'll need to know that to enjoy this movie and for Christ's sake it came out four decades ago! This film, which stars James Franco (127 Hours, Milk) and the incredible physical acting of Andy Serkis, who was Gollom in Lord of the Rings and Kong in King Kong, is absolutely brilliant!  Serkis plays Caesar, who is a chimp raised by Franco, and although he has (almost) no dialogue, he dazzles and stuns as he brings the chimpanzee to life in, not just a realistic way, but a totally deep, complex character filled with different emotions.  Simple facial expressions that he performs are touching one second and disturbingly menacing the next.  Ironically, the FX are so good (they were done by the same team that did Avatar) that it makes Oscar-nominated Franco seem like a cardboard cutout. Besides how well the movie explains the sequence of events that leads up to the original film flawlessly, it does something else that I found unexpected and shocking...it made a movie about apes very human.  The catalyst for the story is Franco trying to cure Alzheimer's Disease, which his father who's played by John Lithgow (Dexter, Shrek) is inflicted with.  The scenes that play out between them are done tastefully and tragically.  Same goes for the scenes when Caesar the Chimp is being abused and tortured by his captives, one of which is played by Tom Felton who was Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series for the last ten years.  (Side note: His American accent makes him sound creepily like Steve Buscemi.) Besides Serkis, the real star of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is director Rupert Wyatt.  He came from complete obscurity and produced the best film of the summer, which makes me look forward to his next project with baited breath.  For me, his most impressive work is a scene when (spoiler alert) Caesar speaks for the first time.  Again, if you know the series, you know they HAVE TO put an ape's first word in the film.  So much hinges on that scene.  It could easily be too ridiculous and ruin the whole movie, but it isn't.  In fact, the scene is so furious, emotional and shot and edited just right that when it happens, it gives you goosebumps. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have one of the worst movie titles of the summer, but don't let that fool you.  This is a smart, quality science-fiction film that deserves the respect the original was given four decades ago.  Maybe, dare I say, even a little more. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: A+
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Cowboys and Aliens

Every audience of this film will be filled with people who love the idea of it...at first.  Then, I believe, people will leave telling others how much fun this movie is and word will spread.  Then others, who thought the premise of the film about cowboys battling aliens is completely stupid, will check it out and some...not all...but some will agree with how good it is. My wife attended this premier with me although she was positive it was going to be stupid.  I assured it couldn't be crap because it stars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig  (the new James Bond, Defiance), was directed by John Favearu (Iron Man, Iron Man 2) and was produced by Steven Speilberg, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.  That's a blue ribbon pedigree right there.  Then I noticed during the opening credits that it was written by nine different people and I felt even more assured.  That many hands on a movie is either going to create quality or disaster, but I had faith that some of those top shelf Hollywood royalty wouldn't attach their names to crap.  I was right. Cowboys and Aliens is one of the most fun and well done films of the summer.  It's executed with precision because wavering slightly off target would have ruined it.  Harrison Ford, who plays one of his best roles since Han Solo, yells out the line "This is ridiculous" during a scene of exposition and although we all agree with him, that's as far as the movie goes to acknowledge it.  It's like a master comedian telling you a joke with a straight face.  The movie doesn't even give you as much as a wink to the premise being silly.  Everyone in the movie commits to the roles and plays it off as seriously as they could.  I loved that about it.  If it was done slightly campy or silly it would have felt like a totally different film and it wouldn't have satisfied what I was looking for.  I wanted True Grit and Independence Day to become one movie, although I don't smoke weed so a thought like that never crossed my mind until it was presented to me. The "cowboy" part of the film is done with such great detail that it would stand up to most great westerns.  The "alien" part of the film (although they're never called "aliens" since it's 1873...they're called "demons") is also done with splendid detail that it offers the thrills comparable to most great sci-fi films.  That is a very hard circus trick to pull off and I say they did it. Not everyone will agree with me however.  Cowboys and Aliens is going to be very polarizing for a lot of people.  Upon leaving this movie, I can say with confidence that you'll either love it or hate it; there will be no one left in between.  But there will be some haters that get converted to believers by exciting action, great performances, and even some shockingly touching scenes...just like my wife did.  For the rest of them, it's safe to say that if you think a movie titled Cowboys and Aliens sounds stupid and not intriguing in the slightest, you're better off staying home because that's exactly what you get...but hot damn is it fun. Cowboys and Aliens (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: A
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