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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from March 2012

Wrath of the Titans

Well, here it is!  The sequel that no one demanded to the 2010 Clash of the Titans, the movie that almost destroyed the 3D revolution.  It was a lousy script, lousy remake of the classic, campy 1981 original, and piss-poor 3D FX that caused migranes and made people leave the theater.  The good news about being the follow-up to a film that bad is that the bar is set very low.  So with a bar so low, did Wrath of the Titans do better...yes, but that's nothing to hang your helmet on.

The first thing the studio did to improve the franchise was fire original director Louis Leterrier, who did such a bad job with the first one.  Sad considering he also directed The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton, which was not only the first in the Avengers series but a really well done film.  They hired Jonathan Liebesman to grab the reigns and he does a much better job.  Shocking since his previous films of Battle: LA, Darkness Falls and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning are all pretty bad, but I think that was the fault of the scripts and not the direction.  Liebesman makes a far richer world this time around and creates some fairly exciting action sequences.

It's those sequences though that are the reasons why you buy a ticket.  "That was a CGI-fest," said my friend Dave who went with me.  It sure it, but c'mon...that's why you're there.  You don't buy a ticket to see a film called Wrath of the Titans for seasoned acting or heartbreaking drama.  You buy a ticket because you want to watch Sam Worthington (Avatar, Man on a Ledge) fight a two-headed demon dog with a tail that has a snake's head.  And as specific as that request is in a film, you won't be disapointed because it's in the movie.

One problem that you have with a film that so heavily relies on CGI is that you usually get performances out of the actors that look faker than their surrondings.  Wrath of the Titans is no different.  It's padded with some wonderful actors like Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead, Pirates of the Caribbean 2) and none show you why they're so respected in this.  It could be because they are in scenes opposite of Worthington who is a terrible actor.  Over the past three years, he's gained more and more popularity and I can't figure out why.  His accent is never masked, which makes him appear as Sam Worthington in every movie; in Wrath he's just dirty Sam Worthington.  

The story is one of simplicity and total fabrication.  The first one at least was somewhat based on the legend of Perseus.  This is a totally made-up Hollywood tale about how Perseus has to help his father, Zeus, to defeat a plot to resurrect his grandfather, Cronos, with the help of his uncle, Hades, and cousin, Aries.  These are all real characters from Greek Mythology, but this story is not.  It's simple, unjustified in the plot and silly at times; such as the decision to make Cronos a giant, lava monster for some reason.  

The film is fun but you should expect more in every aspect.  The only area that seems to be excellent is the CG FX, which deliver some pretty thrilling shots and sequences.  But when you consider the fact that that's the only reason you really want to see Wrath of the Titans, you can leave your brain at the door and enjoy the pretty colors.  Such a shame considering the rich world of Greek Mythology though.
Wrath of the Titans  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C+

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The Hunger Games
Well, the day is upon us!  The Reaping is here!  We get to finally see one of the most anticipated movies of the last 5 years. I first heard about this book about a year ago.  My wife and I were flying to Italy and she randomly picked up a copy in the airport.  I made fun of her for reading ANOTHER teen fiction book and then made fun of her again when she read the whole thing on the flight over and couldn't wait to get back so she could buy the next book in English (they were all in Italian over there).  It wasn't until I buckled under peer pressure and read it for myself that I became obsessed and longed for the day the movie came out.  Needless to say, the wait was worth it.

For anyone who doesn't know The Hunger Games, it's a story about a bleak future where America is gone and in its place is a new land that is ruled by the evil Capital that forces children to fight to the death for televised entertainment.  (Yes, I'm totally aware that this is a blatant ripoff of the 2000 Japanese horror film, Battle Royale.  Argument for another time.)  To compare this book series to Twilight is a massive insult to The Hunger Games.  Author Suzanne Collins goes much deeper and layers a story that makes the "love triangle" a very minor part.  This is more of a statement about government oppression, class warfare, loss of liberty, the dangers of reality TV, the death of innocence, slave labor; I'm not sure if Collins had a political agenda when she wrote it, but it certainly seems like she did.

The film however takes all that into consideration and strains out all the fat from the story and what we're left with is a 142-minute-long version.  Every movie that is adapted from a book goes through this process and for fans of the written word, it can be painful.  There is only one film that I saw that was based on a book that I thought completely captured the tone and left every detail in and that was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Usually though, you walk away from the film with a vaguely satisfied feeling because the book was so much better.  The Hunger Games is no exception, but it is one of the better ones I've seen.

Jennifer Lawerence (Winter's Bone, X-Men: First Class) is proof that the Academy was right for seeing such talent in her a few years ago.  She plays Katniss with the control of a seasoned actress.  Her fear, her pain, her frustration, her anger...it all looks genuine.  She is the star that a film series of this magnitude needs and she pulls it off perfectly.  The supporting cast is great as well and makes you sad they weren't utlized more.  Woody Harrelson is awesomely cool as always, playing her surly trainer, Haymitch.  They decided to make him less of a drunken fool in the film, which makes me wonder if they will expand his role in the later films to be bigger than the books do.  Lenny Kravitz (Precious) and Elizabeth Banks (40-Year-Old Virgin, W.) are also fun to watch as the Capital lackies that gain a streak of conscienceness.

The casting of Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are Alright, Journey 2) and Liam Hemsworth (Knowing, The Last Song) is still up in the air for me.  Neither of them showed me any signs that they should be memorable and they easily fade into the background among the other heavy-hitting talent, which is a problem when you consider how important both their characters are for the series.  It's not that they're bad actors, but they're not good or memorable as of now.

I think the real star of The Hunger Games though is director Gary Ross.  The studio took a huge gamble on him since his previous films are good but nothing like this.  He's directed Big, Seabiscuit and Pleasantville.  They're all sweet, fun movies but everyone was nervous about whether or not he could take on the vast and morally void world of The Hunger Games.  An even bigger hurdle for him was that he had to make this brutally violent story PG-13.  Not only does he accomplish all of it, but he knocks it out of the park.  His approach to this film is one of patience and calculation.  Some are arguing that his choice of using handheld camera work makes the film too jumpy and causes motion sickness.  That's true but it's that brilliant technique that allows him to not skimp on the violence and still secure his family-friendly rating.  It is however totally unneccesarry at times, such as The Reaping and others, where it's wobbily filmmaking for the sake of wobbily filmmaking.

This is just the beginning.  Same would say this is the best installment in the series, but I would disagree.  The stories yet to come are more dangerous, more complex and a lot more fun.  After seeing the cast and crew assembled to make The Hunger Games, it makes me very happy to think that it's in great hands and they'll fix the minor problems later.
The Hunger Games  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A-

Listen to Gavin's interview with Wes Bentley, who plays Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games.

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21 Jump Street

The late '80s and early '90s were a very weird time on television.  There was a lot of stuff on that was totally awful entertainment but it did really well.  Was this because almost everything was awful so by comparison it was easy to look average and therefore watchable?  Perhaps.  But for four years during that time, the brand new Fox Network aired the show 21 Jump Street for over a hundred episodes.  It was about young cops that went undercover in high schools posing as students and fighting crime.  It was a premise so stupid that the entire cast, to this day, still regret doing it.  So why would anyone remake this show into a movie?  Because it would be funny as hell.

There is lots about 21 Jump Street the movie that's worthy of pointing out of succeeding.  Stars Jonah Hill, who I was completely over and didn't see any talent left in at all, and Channing Tatum, who shocks me when he forms whole sentences let alone acts, are both brillant in the film.  They couldn't be funnier and are fantastic enough to carry it themselves.  There are other performers that steal the occational scene, such as Ice Cube as the angry police captain or Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) as another angry police captain, but the film belongs to Hill and Tatum.  They work together so incredibly well, it makes you forget the chemistry Hill had with Michael Cera in Suberbad and give credit to the fact that maybe he just has great comedic talent.

The direction is handled by the tag team of Chris Miller and Phil Lord in their first live action feature film.  Their last movie was the shocking awesome and funny Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  (Trust me on this!)  Now only do they handle the world of real camera shots of real humans but they make it look like they've been doing it for decades.  The action, the editing, the aggression and the bloodhound-like sense of smelling out what's funny is all so good that it deserves to be among some of the best action comedies in the last decade.

However the best thing about 21 Jump Street is the self awareness it has.  The film knows it's silly never once looses sight of the fact that it's film meant to be fun.  There's even a line where a character says, "And that was the end of Act 2," which is funny to anyone who understands that every film must have three acts and almost always follow a formula. 21 Jump Street is no exception but at least it knows it, exploits it and makes it really freakin' funny.

Never once though does it slip into a parody of the TV show.  It's not there to insult anyone who worked on or was a fan of the show.  In fact, even though the whole cast thinks the show was a piece of crap, they're all in the film....even Johnny Depp.  They're all hidden as different characters and have funny make-up on but it's a great game to see if you can find them all.  The scene with Depp is unmissable and one of the best scenes in the movie.  Depp seemed like he really enjoyed himself and I give credit to Hill and Tatum for stepping back and allowing him to be the star of the movie for about 3 minutes.  It was worth it.

21 Jump Street isn't a "thinker" or Oscar material.  What it it is, is good old fashioned funny-as-sh*t action comedy.  The kind that used to come out every summer like Bad Boys, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, and Lethal Weapon.  I never thought that Jonah Hill would be believable in one of those no matter how much weight he lost; but he was and was pretty good.  He's not convincing as a high school student anymore, but neither is Tatum and that's part of the joke.  I don't know if 21 Jump Street will go down as the funniest comedy of the year, although it has a good shot at it so far, but you can count on it going down on as the biggest shocker of the year - successfully making a terrible TV show into an edgy, fun, kick-ass action comedy that is even worthy of a second viewing.
21 Jump Street  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A

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John Carter

If you're like most people in Ameirca, you're saying to yourself, "What in the hell is this John Carter crap I'm seeing on TV every ten minutes?"  Well, I'll tell you real fast.  John Carter is based on a book series written by Egar Rice Burroughs way back in 1912.  It's considered the subject material for which ALL modern science-fiction was based on.  It's a series that follows a Civil War veteran named John Carter who is transported to Mars where he aids in their own civil war.  If that sounds too nerdy for you, then this movie isn't for you.  If you are still interested, well, this might be the movie for you...maybe.

I consider myself a sci-fi nerd to an extent.  I don't scoff at it and I can feast on some pretty out there stuff.  When I heard they were making the John Carter series into movies, I was interested.  I never read the books, like basically everyone still alive in America, but I had heard of them.  When I heard that Disney was prepared to gamble with a monstrous budget and attached director Andrew Stanton (Findind Nemo, Wall-E) to it, I became very interested.

The entire film is littered with risks.  For starters, the only recognizable stars in the film are Willem Dafoe, who is only the voice of a character and Mark Strong (Green Lantern, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a shape-shifting character.  The leads are played by Taylor Kitsch (X-Men: Origins, Friday Night Lights) and Lynn Collins (X-Men: Origins, True Blood).  Both are realitvely unfamous and unfamiliar to American audiences.  Both do a find job in the film though.  

Beyond the casting of unknowns as leads, I also appreciate the guts it took to cast Collins as the sexy Princess of Mars.  She's not your typicals leading lady.  She's built like a fitness model and is on the thick side.  She also has a wide jaw, big nose and dark skin.  None of this makes her any less sexy, but it's a huge departure from what you typically see in films.  I appreciate that and hope it catches on in Hollywood.

The storyline is nerdy stuff but not unfamiliar.  If you enjoy Star Wars or Star Trek, you'll have no problem at all enjoying the complex plot and weird characters.  It's actually really impressive that the story was conceived 100 years ago.  Keeping that mind, it's a wonder that more people haven't read these books and why they're so honored by those that make their way in the genre.  However, that is the downfall of John Carter.

Stanton does such a good job trying to keep the film loyal to the books so he doesn't upset the fanboy culture that the film is bogged down in details and entirely too long.  The actual runtime of John Carter is 132 minutes but with trailers, you're in for a film that's over three hours long.  That's a real challenge to anyone who goes to see this with zero knowledge of the legacy.  The film starts strong and ends stronger, but the entire middle section is soggy, uninteresting and even boring at times.

The action sequences are good but they're nothing that's gonna blow you away.  Even the 3D is there for depth and not amusement park gimmicks.  Usually I respect directors who use 3D like that even more, but if there was ever a time to make me pull my head back during an exciting 3D action scene, it should be in a sci-fi epic like this.

It also lacks personality.  It's a total shock considering that Stanton has made two of some of the best animated films of all time.  Pixar doesn't pump out crap and I would have thought that he picked up some key qualities that make a film fun; comedy, heart, and energy.  John Carter possess none of those qualities.  A real problem if they plan on making more of the series, which Disney does.  They are going to have an uphill battle winning people over after they sit through a three hour long sci-fi epic for the whole family that feels like a struggle to get through.  

The good news for Disney is that John Carter is not a broken film.  It's enjoyable and it leaves you with a very excited feeling.  The ending is fun and twisty enough that you forget you sat through some pretty trying chunks of time.  This franchise can be fixed and I hope that it does.  It has promise, but this first attempt is pretty hard to follow and just too damn long.
John Carter  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-

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