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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from September 2011


50/50
I sat at the screening for this movie next to friends of mine from Fox 40.  At one point, I was nudged in the side by one of their elbows.  I looked next to me and saw that I was being handed a tissue.  I had no idea but I was crying so hard during 50/50 that I was sobbing, snorting and sniveling.  Embarrassed, I took the tissue to wipe my face clean, although one minute later I was laughing my ass off and didn't need the tissue anymore. 50/50 is the work of director Jonathan Levine (HBO's How to Succeed in America) and writer Will Reiser (HBO's Da Ali G Show).  It's a semi-biographical script based on Reiser's actual battle with spinal cancer and how his best friend, Seth Rogen, helped him through it.  Seth Rogen stars alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Reiser's character and the two of them create one of the most emotional testaments to friendship that I've seen in over a decade. This is not your typical Seth Rogen movie.  Yes, there is pot smoking.  Yes, there is crude language.  Yes, they try to get laid.  But what sets this apart is that there is also a soul to this movie that is deeper and more revealing than any comedy that's come out in years.  That's not to say that if you're a fan of Knocked Up or Superbad you'll be bored by this.  Rogen still delivers the top shelf funny that we've come to expect from him in every nuanced cadence of his style. It's possible that I'm a little biased, since a friend of mine went through cancer when we were 19-years-old and some of the scenes in 50/50 hit a little too close to home.  But as painful and gut-wrenching as some of the scenes can get, there are scenes that celebrate life and make you split your sides from laughing right around the corner.  I can't remember a movie in recent memory that made me laugh just as hard as it made me cry.  It's a true accomplishment of the Dramedy genre. Reiser created a script that doesn't dwell in either one of the emotions long enough to bum you out or no longer realize how serious the subject matter is.  It's a true masterpiece of writing.  It's also helped along by a fantastic supporting cast that consists of Anna Kendrick (the Twilight Series, Up in the Air), Bryce Dallas Howard (the Twilight series, The Help), and Anjelica Huston (The Royal Tenebaums, Choke). It's rare that a movie can make me cry thinking about it days after I've seen it; 50/50 is one of them though.  That's not a spoiler, so don't worry.  Although this film has some very heartbreaking moments, it's really a celebration of life.  It's a film about cancer that doesn't spend its full 100 minutes making you feel like you're dying too.  It's a rally cry for anyone who feels like cashing in their chips to instead stand up, go outside and embrace friendship, family and love. It's also a film that SCREAMS for the Academy to take notice.  I think 50/50 is good enough to be nominated for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor.  I encourage you to go see it, no matter if you've enjoyed a Seth Rogen film in the past or not, because 50/50 is therapeutic in its execution and cathartic in its viewing.  I plan on seeing it again as soon as I can and this time I'll bring my own tissues. 50/50  (Rated R) Gavin Grade: A+
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Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
This movie has a title that would make almost anybody roll their eyes.  It has a poster that would make everyone walk right past it in a video store...if video stores still existed.  It's a horror movie about a group of college kids that go for a vacation in the West Virginia wilderness (like no college kids ever do) and have a bloody run-in with two hillbillies that are in a creepy old cabin in the middle of nowhere.  The only difference is that the two hillbillies are just trying to mind their own business and be helpful but the college kids think they're psycho killers so they try to kill them.  It's a clever little twist that makes Tucker and Dale vs. Evil a shockingly fun movie. Although most of the cast if padded with talentless, barely attractive wannabes, the three main characters are recognizable faces.  The damsel "in distress" is played by Katrina Bowden who's the goddess from NBC's 30 Rock and Sex Drive.  The real stars are Alan Tudyk (Death at a Funeral, Knocked Up) and Tyler Labine (CW's Reaper, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) who are really talented, really funny character actors that have yet to disappoint in a performance.  It's a good thing they're so good because they carry the movie on their shoulders alone. I gotta give credit where it's due though and that's to first-time director/writer Eli Craig.  I really appreciate movies that are horror films in the true sense of the word but flip the genre on its head to be funny and do it without making fun of it.  Other films that have pulled that off are Behind the Mask and more famously, Shaun of the Dead.  Tucker and Dale vs. Evil pokes fun at the slasher genre a little more than the other two but it still delivers on the gore.  Impressive for a movie that was made with a crazy, small budget. This isn't a laugh-a-minute movie that keeps you entertained the whole (pathetic) 88 minutes.  It does drag at parts and it's sadly not above a dick joke here and there.  But overall it's a decent horror comedy that takes a tired concept and twists it just a bit.  It's almost like Halloween if instead, Michael Myers was just a nice guy trying to help teenagers to help him take the mask off, which they see as a threat so they try to kill him.  That's the plot and it works.  Sure it's one long joke and yes it does get stretched thin, but it's nice to see someone at least taking a risk and creating something original in the horror genre for once. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil  (Rated R) Gavin Grade: B
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Moneyball
Brad Pitt has made some great movies over the years.  Se7en.  Fight Club.  Inglorious Basterds.  Snatch. He's delivered a top shelf performance in everything he's ever done and seems to almost relish in the fact that he's so good looking yet insists on playing roles covered in grime, blood or sleaze for the most part.  Moneyball is a new sort of role for him.  The true story of Billy Beane, the man who changed the game of baseball by recruiting based on stats and not money, might be the role that finally gets him an Oscar. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) created a character piece out of a baseball story and not the other way around.  Refreshing for those of us who don't care for baseball at all.  I personally find the sport boring and plodding, but Moneyball rarely is.  It gets a tad bogged down in details that most people don't understand at times but you're willing to overlook it because of the performance that Pitt gives in each scene. The film is scripted by Aaron Sorkin who just won and Oscar for The Social Network and was the creator of The West Wing.  I expected the enthusiastic pop and crackle of a classic Sorkin script that chews through dialogue like a rabid dog attack.  Sadly, I got a more run-of-the-mill Hollywood script that seems watered down and more realistic, which is less effective as a form of entertainment. Joining Pitt in the film is Jonah Hill (Superbad, Get Him to the Greek) who proves that he can do serious and sedated.  We also have minor roles from Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Doubt), Robin Wright Penn (Princess Bride, Forrest Gump) and Chris Pratt (NBC's Parks and Rec, Take Me Home Tonight).  All of these performers are incredibly underutilized and not allowed to spread their wings as they all have in the past.  Of course, some may look at that as a noble characteristic of the film and Miller as a director; that he was able to have this great cast but sparingly use them only as padding for a film that is undeniably Pitt's. Although this will be viewed as a Sports Movie by most, I'm not entirely sold on the fact that it is.  No more than Rocky or Field of Dreams.  The most touching scenes in the movie are between Pitt and his daughter in performances that feel like they were improvised or a candid conversation between a father and his actual daughter.  Beane isn't portrayed a rational or a compromising man, but he's still very likable and noble.  You find yourself routing him on when he's taking away power from Hoffman's head coach character or belittling Recruiting veterans.  You want him to succeed in the worst way and you're not really sure why.  That's one of the great aspects about Moneyball.  It's complex and wonderful and about baseball, which hasn't had a quality film made about it decades. Brad Pitt has done lots of great performances in his career that I think he should have won an Oscar for.  Is Moneyball better than those movies?  No.  But if he wins an Oscar for it, I'll be very pleased since it's a home run! Moneyball (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: A-
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Drive
In the opening sequence of this crime drama, Ryan Gosling is introduced as a getaway driver for two faceless thugs stealing money from some unknown destination.  The scene builds to what will be an inevitable chase scene between them and the cops.  Tension mounts as a creeping Cat & Mouse game plays out with them slowly trying to sneak down the streets of LA without being spotted.  Surely, this car chase scene is gonna be epic and kick this movie off in full throttle.  But no.  It never comes.  In fact, the sequence involves slow driving, methodical evasion moves and an  anticlimactic getaway.  Never once is any of it boring though.  And this sets the tone of Drive. Drive is a gritty crime movie that takes place in LA but we're not sure when due to a misleading soundtrack choice of heart-pounding synth pop and cliche costume choices.  These were deliberate choice by director Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed the brilliant Bronson in 2008, which introduced the world to Tom Hardy (Warrior, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises).  I'm sure he also had a call in the promotion of this film that uses hot pink '80s style font for all the advertising and credits.  Coupled with the heavy female soundtrack and Gosling's adorable manboy face, you'd expect this to be a film about crime that's made for women.  A warning to all lovers of The Notebook, this is not the Ryan you're expecting. Drive is one of the most violent movies I've ever seen.  Sure there are movies like Saving Private Ryan or Nightmare on Elm Street that are officially more violent, but Drive is filled with unexpected brutality.  This is NOT a film for the slight of heart.  Some of the scenes generated audible gasps from the audience and people turned away from the screen.  In some cases, people got up and left the theater.  Yes, some of this violence is gratuitous but never once does it not fit the tone of the film.  It's all done for a reason and in some cases even meant to be playful. The entire cast is brilliant.  It also features Carey Mulligan (An Education), Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Bryan Cranston (AMC's Breaking Bad) and comedian Albert Brooks (Mother, Finding Nemo) as an Oscar-caliber villain.  He is a perfect baddie and nobody would EVER have guessed that.  It's that kind of risky choices that makes Drive and Refn's vision that deserves top notice from people. All that being said, this is not a movie for mass audiences.  It has a pace that is slow and deliberate.  The film takes itself more seriously than it deserves but that can be overlooked.  Gosling's character, who is only listed in the credits as "Driver," is mysterious and a man of few words.  He says very little and Refn allows moments of the film to go on in complete silence for agonizing amounts of time.  However, after a full viewing, I'm sure those pregnant pauses are far more important and justified on a second enjoyment. There are few movies that, after I see them, I look forward to seeing again as soon as possible; Drive is one of them though.  It's not a classic story of a criminal with a heart of gold.  It's a story of a criminal who tries to do the right thing after falling in love, but displays acts of violence that suggests an almost psychotic and homicidal maniac past.  Gosling does a stellar job showing that without ever saying a word.  But again, don't go into Drive with any pretense.  It's not Fast and the Furious filled with amazing car chase scenes!  It's not The Notebook filled with passionate love scenes.  It's brutal, weird and inspired!  It's one of those movies that makes you think you just saw something important...even if you're not 100% sure what you just saw. Drive  (Rated R) Gavin Grade: A
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Lion King 3D
What really needs to be said about this?  It's The Lion King!  It's the best Disney movie ever made (if you don't count Pixar films).  I know that's an arguable point but when you ask most lovers of cinema what their favorite Disney film of all time is, it's usually The Lion King.  And now you can enjoy it all over again. It came out in 1994 and was part of the rebirth of the Walt Disney film company.  Sure the amusement parks were always making money, but most people don't realize how close the film company was to being sold off.  The Lion King was the most ambitious and emotional films they've made.  And now it's back on the big screen and this time it's in 3D.  What's so amazing is that Disney took a print of a movie that's 17-years-old and put it through a 3D conversion that didn't look like garbage. See, 3D is a controversial thing among film lovers.  Some love it and some think it's the devil come to destroy cinema as we know it today.  I'm somewhere in the middle.  I don't mind it as long as it's not gratuitous and done well.  Hollywood was losing money hand over fist and needed something to come along that pumped some life back into it and 3D technology was that thing.  Now studios could charge people a premium cost for a ticket and make profit back tens times faster.  However, if you're gonna charge me almost twice as much for a movie ticket, you damn well better give me almost twice-as-nice value. 3D Conversions is a four-letter word among us movie maniacs.  It means you put a print of a movie through a 3D conversion AFTER it was shot in 2D.  The two examples of this blowing up in its face and the high-water mark of 3D gauging was 2010's Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland.  These looked terrible, caused migraines and had theater-goers screaming for refunds.  However The Lion King's 3D conversion looks incredible.  It makes the movie look like it was just illustrated and was made to jump off the screen. Not to mention the fact that The Lion King is a film worthy of enjoying on the big screen again.  There's a reason why it resonates so well with children and adults.  That reason is that it's based on one of the most famous stories ever told...Hamlet.  Sure there's no "To Be or Not To Be" scene in which young Simba contemplates the pros and cons of committing suicide, but it's the Cliff's Notes version as told to children.  That's brilliant and it always will be.  The young prince.  The mighty king for a father.  The jealous uncle.  The murder of brother against brother.  It's all there in gorgeous color! Plus how can you forget the music?  The Lion King has one of the most impressive musical scores of all the Disney movies, which is no easy task.  How can you avoid getting goosebumps at the final thunderous THUMP at the end of "The Circle of Life" opening sequence or not bop your head to "Hakuna Matata?"  I would hope that seeing it again on the big screen would inspire you to sing out loud with your favorite song, shed tears at the stampede scene, and introduce a whole new generation to the film that literally makes you celebrate being alive. The Lion King 3D  (Rated PG) Gavin Grade: A+
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Contagion
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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Warrior
If you haven't seen this movie by the time it came out in theaters to the public, you weren't paying attention for a free advanced screening.  The studio putting out this family drama that deals with Mixed Martial Arts fighting, played it so often for so many people that they came across desperate and needy.  They needed it to have a huge fan base before it even came out because MMA fighting is so niche that unless there was a buzz about it, only those fans would see it.  It built up that buzz but I'm not sure why. The trailer for this film gives away 95% of the movie so if you didn't see it, you're ahead of the game.  A colossal advertising mistake on the part of the studio.  Another mistake in the advertising for Warrior was promoting that director Gavin O'Connor was the same guy responsible for Miracle, the 2004 movie about one of the most exciting sporting events ever (the US Olympic Hockey team beating the Russians) that was done with the quality of a made-for-TV movie; a true disastrous cinematic misstep.  It now appears that O'Connor has another misstep under his belt. He tried so hard to go gritty with Warrior.  It's dimly lit, it's filled with seedy locations and about a sport that's still a little taboo in the mainstream of America.  However it does it in a PG-13 filter which might be the biggest mistake made.  These characters are deeply troubled, angry and come from backgrounds that would lend a filthy vocabulary to realism.  Not only is that void from the film but so is BLOOD!  Seriously?!  You have one of the most violent sports on the planet and you don't show any blood?!  How are we suppose to feel the gravity of each epic battle these guys fight in the octagon if, at the end of it, they barely have a bruise?  That's one of the aspects of what made Rocky so good; a film which this will get unfairly compared to this a lot.  Don't believe the hype...it's FAR from Rocky.  But at the end of Rocky we can see the abuse his body and face took.  Christ, we even see Rocky's eyelid get sliced open in an attempt to keep the fight going!  Make it realistic or don't make it at all. The silver lining for Warrior is the acting.  It stars Tom Hardy (Dark Knight Rises, Inception), Joel Edgerton (Star Wars prequels, Animal Kingdom) and Nick Nolte (Tropic Thunder, Cape Fear).  Nolte gives us one of his best performances as their heavily damaged father fighting for his redemption in his sons' eyes.  His performance is heart-breaking and tragic and exactly what Oscar nominations are made of.  He would totally deserve the statue as of right now.  Hardy and Edgerton give great performances too.  Hardy has all the silent, steely resolve of a young Marlon Brando.  Sadly the script doesn't give either a decent shot at having a moment that shows it off. Sure there is an impressive level of attention that was paid to the sport and getting techniques just right.  I appreciate that.  The moves are real and the MMA cameos are plentiful.  But that only impresses me so much.  At the end of the day, you still need to tell a story that is told in a compelling way.  Warrior doesn't really do that.  The last 20 minutes of the movie is epic and exciting.  It builds to a climax that makes it hard to maintain a dry eye or avoided goosebumps.  But the first two hours (yes this movie is almost two-and-a-half hours long) is slow, choppy and plodding.  I give credit to those that make it to the end; they're the real warriors...because they fought to stay awake. Warrior  (Rated PG-13) Gavin Grade: B-
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Our Idiot Brother
Paul Rudd is usually a safe bet for a great film.  There aren't too many he's done in his life that didn't turn out good, if not great.  Then you have him star with comedic staples like Elizabeth Banks (40-Year-Old Virgin, Role Models), Zooey Deschnael (Your Highness, (500) Days of Summer), Rashida Jones (I Love You, Man, NBC's The Office) and Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2) and it should be a comedic slam dunk, right?  Well, Our Idiot Brother wasn't because it wasn't a comedy. Director Jesse Peretz (The Ex) assembled an impressive indie comedy cast only to pull out a dramedy.  The story centers around three sisters dealing with their brother after he's released from prison.  Their brother, Rudd, isn't really a criminal...he's just an idiot.  He was thrown in jail for selling weed to a uniformed cop.  That's how the movie starts.  Not only is Rudd's character an idiot, but he's one of the most likable and lovable characters of the year.  He means no harm in everything he does, yet harm is what seems to be left in his wake.  His family's life gets turned upside-down by his arrival but it's through this that self reflection follows. Rudd is at the top of his game.  He's fantastic.  Really everyone is.  The enemy of success for this is a mix of poor direction and a lackluster script from a first time writing team that half of which was made up of Peretz's wife.  The entire film is executed with an energy that seemed like everyone smoked weed during the whole production because it lacks energy completely. Another turn off for the film was that it's about two cultures of people that I personally get annoyed with quickly - hippies and hipsters.  Rudd is a hippie from Long Island but their sisters' worlds exist as busy, artie hipsters living in Brooklyn.  Worlds collide?  I guess so but with annoying meets awful, you end up with awfully annoying.  It limits the likable characters to just Rudd's and that's a problem when you're suppose to like everyone else as well.  So unless you have stellar jokes to carry you through the entire film, which Our Idiot Brother doesn't have, you're left with a plodding dramedy about mostly selfish, whiny, crap characters. Our Idiot Brother is worth seeing but merely as a rental.  Maybe it would have been better if there was a little bit more idiot in it instead of the idiot turning out to be the only character that is worthy of an audience's adoration. Our Idiot Brother  (Rated R) Gavin Grade: B-
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