Gavin Grades The Movies

Tower Heist

Director Brett Ratner is not known for comedy; he’s known more for action films like Red Dragon or X-Men 3.  Granted, the man did the Rush Hour series, but I’m not really sure if you can legally consider those movies comedies since they’re so unfunny.  But Tower Heist is a comedy compiled of a varsity team of laugh makers.  Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck (Oceans 11, Gone Baby Gone), Michael Pena (30 Minutes of Less, Crash), Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Independence Day) and Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, The Aviator) all star in this movie about the 1% stealing money from the 99%.  It’s funnier than Rush Hour but still not the great comedy it should be.

Tower Heist is a very timely plot.  The relevancy of a rich Bernie Madoff type stealing pensions and life savings from the people who work in his luxury Manhattan condo building he lives in is exactly the revenge story this country needs right now.  It’s fun to watch Alda get his vintage, Steve McQueen Ferari smashed by Still with a golf club.  It’s as if each strike is a victory for the Occupy Wall St. protestors.  In that respect, the film is a true success, but might have been better if it was handled as a thriller instead of a comedy.

Spicing up the comedic premises are some very talented actors.  Leading the charge is Murphy, who hasn’t actually appeared in a good movie since he was nominated for an Oscar in 2006’s Dreamgirls.  Him making bank off of the Shrek franchise, allowing him to go away for a while, is a very good thing.  He’s made a lot of very poor movie decisions and he saturated the market with Murphy.  Seeing him in Tower Heist though reminds us all of why he was one of the brightest shining stars in Hollywood once.  He crackles on the screen like Robin Williams did in his prime.  He pumps life into lines that otherwise would go insignificant, simply by being Eddie Murphy.  Of course he’s not breaking new ground or jockeying for accolades, but damnit, he’s really good.

Same can be said for the rest of the cast that do a fine job of supporting Murphy and allowing him to be the star.  Especially Stiller who has proven he can be the funny man but takes a backseat as the straight guy to Murphy’s wild card.  The only actor that gives Murphy a run for his money is Pena, who banks yet another winning comedic performance in his resume.  It’s almost getting to the point where I forget that he started and excelled at drama first.

I appreciate this film for what it is and what it attempted to do.  But sadly it falls short in quite a few ways.  The comedy stops around the beginning of the third act and the rest is allowed to be suspenseful action, albeit still fun.  The climax of the film though ventures into absurd when the entire success of their heist is dependent upon an absolutely impossible and stupid stunt.  I’m not sure if that was Ratner’s idea to show off how well he can use special FX or not, but it’s ineffective except in that it makes me laugh unintentionally.

Tower Heist is a fun movie that does no wrong.  Some of that is because heist films are always fun by default.  But allow Oceans 11 be an example of how it can be fun, funny and downright awesome by stylizing the look and tone and keeping us grounded in the plausible.  Go for the fun of it, stay for the Murphy but expect to get a little robbed of your expectations.
Tower Heist  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-

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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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Conan the Barbarian

Why do you think some studio executives were sitting around and said to each other, "Do you remember Conan the Barbarian?"  "The one from 1982 with Arnold Swarzenegger and James Earl Jones?" said the other.  "Yeah.  We should remake that," exclaimed the other.  I have no answer to that because the it wasn't good 29 years ago and it's not good now. The 2011 version doesn't star anyone of impressive stature like the original.  This time the titular character is played by Jason Momoa (Stargate: Atlantis, HBO's Game of Thrones) and he's joined by the go-to baddie Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gettysburg), the gorgeous Rose McGowan (Scream, Grindhouse) and fanboy favorite Ron Pearlman (Hellboy, Season of the Witch) in a small opening act role.  The new version is also more expensive, slicker, more violent and, of course, in 3D.  None of that helps make the film better than its campy predecessor. Both films are based on the comic book that not many are fans of and follows a similar plot.  Conan is a barbarian...naturally...who gets involved with a woman in his quest to revenge his father's death.  Although the film is written by four different people, it's the major reason why it didn't perform to quality.  Even director Marcus Nispel attempted to polish this turd up as best he could.  He's the guy that Hollywood seems to call on whenever they're in need of a bloody revamp of an old classic.  He's already had a noble attempt with a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a embarrassingly awful showing in his remake of Friday the 13th.  Although Nispel appeared to have been given gobs of money, elaborate sets, spectacular costumes and car-blanche on the violence, the script didn't allow for much of any kind of enjoyment. That's not to say that some of the action sequences aren't fine enough to chomp through on some popcorn.  In fact, in a summer that's been filled with subpar action films, this one ranks up there among the top half.  But a watered down script and a brainless, mumbling performance from its star is enough for you to be bored and impatient until someone gets massacred again. It's really too bad that Momoa is such a bad actor because everyone else gives a decent, campy performance that's right on par with what we've grown to expect from them.  McGowan adds another devious diva to her resume in what is a vastly underrated caliber of performer.  Not only is she beautiful, even when she has half her hairline shaved down, but seems to have so much fun in being bad.  Her interaction with Lang's father-killing villain is fun but only in their nonverbal chemistry.  Whenever they open their mouths to spew the terrible dialogue that was provided for them it's a letdown. Aside from some fun 3D effects (including the first 3D sex scene) and exciting, big-budget action, Conan the Barbarian is a disappointment even when you expect it to be disappointing.  Besides shelling out the $10 per ticket for the movie, it makes you feel even more foolish for leaving the theater missing the awful, incoherent acting of Swarzenegger...and that's a barbaric thought. Conan the Barbarian  (Rated R) 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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