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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from November 2012

Michael Rooker from THE WALKING DEAD
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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 2
Well, we finally did it.  For those of us that loathed the Twilight movies and thought they stood to tear down everything good that the Harry Potter  series accomplished by making teen fiction a respectable and noble film franchise, it was no easy task making it through the last five films.  It's hard to believe that the first Twilight movie came out only four years ago since it felt like Twilight has ruled the landscape inexplicably for at least a decade.  But with Breaking Dawn part 2 being released, the reign of terror has come to an end; it's too bad because they finally nailed it and got it right!

I'm sure it's easy to tell that I'm not a fan of the series and never read any of the books.  I have seen every single film at least once because my wife, like most women, is a fan.  Luckily I have a wife that was in love with the books but acknowleged the fact that the movies were melodramatic dribble that was poorly acted and a masacre of what was in the novels.  Summit Entertainment, the studio who became a juggernaught because of this franchise, didn't have a lot of capital nor clout when the first film was released so they got a down-and-out writer and director and cast it with no names that were pretty to look at but had limited range.  Much to their chagrin, the film exploded and they were stuck with three principles that suck as actors and haven't gotten much better over the last four years.  Between Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, Pattinson wins Most Improved though.

What Breaking Dawn part 2 did that was so different than the others was that it benched those three for a huge chunk of the film.  This final installment introduces a legion of new characters that are infinitly more interesting and portrayed by better actors and than the stars of the film.  The reason for the new characters is that they help Bella and Edward defend their child against the evil monarch of vampires, lead by the amazingly talented and show-stealing, Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, Tron: Legacy).  Combined, everyone accept our starring trio, occupy 90% of the plot, scenes, lines, action and attention for the entire run of the film.

Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey), who only took over for the Breaking Dawn films, kicks the quality up a notch as well.  The first Breaking Dawn was boring and tedious but that wasn't Condon's fault; it was the studio's for breaking the last book in half.  His direction was still aggressive, edgy and dark and where he goes with those three elements in Breaking Dawn part 2 is even better.  It sucks that, for the sake of continuity, he still has to play by the absolutely stupid rules laid out by creator Stephenie Meyers and original director, Catherine Hardwicke, such as the complete lack of fangs, sparkling in the sunlight, no stakes through the heart, the moronic and cheap look to them running, among many other things.  If Twilight was an original script and Condon was on board from the beginning, just think of what this might have looked like!

The thing that I enjoyed the most about this film was the final act.  An epic battle is displayed and really tests the limits of a PG-13 rating.  (The worry that it would get an R-rating for the violence was a very real concern while filming and frankly I think it should still have one.)  I'm not going to give any major SPOILERS but I will say this; the ending of the film is dramatically different than the ending of the book.  Again, I haven't read any of them but this is what the theater was buzzing with from all the Twi-hards as everyone was exiting.  Again, without going into details, I will say that I respect this incredibly!  I'm amazed at the boulder-sized balls required to take the final chapters of a book that has such a ravenous fanbase and do a lot more than tweak it.  Even bigger haters of the series than me have to be impressed with that.

This is still far from saying that it's is a perfect film.  We finally get a glimpse of the spawn of Edward and Bella and for the first half of the film she's presented as a CGI baby that doesn't look real for a second and causes unintentional laughter in the same way that the wolves talking to each other over brain waves did in one of the others.  The script is still full of dialogue that would make you roll your eyes in a Lifetime movie and Stewart is still as awful as always as well.  But she's sidelined to such an extent that you barely notice she's in it.

But go figure that they finally get it right just as the Twilight Saga comes to an end.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not hoping for more.  I've had my fill of Twilight and I'm thrilled that it's over.  I'm shocked however that I enjoyed this last one as much as I did considering that I didn't enjoy any of the ones before.  (Twilight: F  New Moon: D  Eclipse: C-  Breaking Dawn part 1: B-)  I think what makes me sad is that I would have enjoyed seeing them from the beginning with better casting, more money and Condon in full creative control.  Perhaps that would have been something I could've sunk my fangs into since I'm sure his movie would have REAL vampires who had them!
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 2  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A-
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Red Dawn
Shockingly, it's been three years since Patrick Swayze died.  He was the star of the original Red Dawn, which came out in 1984 and starred every hot, young actor under the sun at the time.  It was an action movie that teenagers could really rally around because it showed how much ass determined teens can kick when their hometown is invaded by blood-thirsty, Communist Russian scum.  It came out at the height of the Cold War and was rather effective as a cheesy but fun American propaganda film.  It was far from art but reflected the time it was made.  Thank God Swayze wasn't alive to see the remake because it's so bad it makes you wish we really were invaded by Russians 28 years ago so this disaster never existed.

This film was shot several years ago and it was before several of the stars were too big to agree to be in such trash.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) and Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games, The Kids Are Alright) are the two big names the film hangs its hat on.  They're joined by a bunch of unfamiliar faces, most notably Josh Peck who mostly does voice work, I'm guessing because he's pretty harsh to look at.  The plot is exactly the same as the original accept since the Russians are no longer scary enemies of America, they had to change it to North Koreans.  I'm sure they thought this would be enough updating for people to accept; and they'd be right if the North Koreans weren't so such a laughingstock that pulling off an invasion like this would be impossible.

Because the times are so different now, it makes this film utterly stupid.  Not only is the idea of being invaded by another country antique but that a town could be cut off from the rest of the country with no help is completely unlikely.  Everything about the film screams of cash grab instead of justfied remake.  Just because we have bigger explosions and CGI now doesn't mean that you can give a film from the '80s a minor facelift and it'll be good.  

It's frustrating because Red Dawn is a film that probably could have been successfully remade but everything about it would have to change.  If an attack from another country were to happen now there is a much better chance that it would be some sort of cyber attack.  If they were to change that aspect of it, teenagers rising up and saving the day using their technological skills is totally plausible.  It's easier to accept that a 16-year-old would know how to hack a terrorist computer system than learn how to use an AK-47, let alone in any sort of skilled fashion, to take down an invading hoard in street fights.  But none of that was done out of sheer laziness and the film reeks of it.

Red Dawn actually would have made a decent TV series if they did that instead mostly because it could have given the plot time to develop and unfold.  For a film that tries to squeeze in as much as they can in under two hours, it's given new meaning to the word "rushed."  Less than 15 minutes go by before the North Koreans have invaded and we're hiding in the woods.  That means we spend zero time telling anyone's story and therefore don't care about a single one of these characters.  And if you think the film starts off at a cheetah's pace, just wait till you see how quickly teens can throw together a highly skilled, well-trained insurgency with no supplies or weapons.

The actors in Red Dawn do their best with the dumpster of a script they were given and none of the blame can be put on them.  This is the fault of a greedy studio, an army of hack writers and a first-time director named Dan Bradley who's previous film expierence was in stunt work.  STUNT WORK, for Christ's sake!  Red Dawn is such a bad movie that I could only imagine the title will describe the financial condition of the studio the morning after the film is released and nobody sees it.  Preserve your childhood memories and avoid this at all costs.
Red Dawn  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: F
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I don't think there's anyone in the world who hasn't seen a Steven Speilberg movie and who also won't admit that he's one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  He's someone who has earned the right from Hollywood to make his passion projects like Schindler's List, Munich and Saving Private Ryan.  He gets to make those because he also gives us the mega blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Jaws and the Indiana Jones movies.  The amazing part is that whether he's making something that he makes for the money or makes for the message, they're both of the same quality almost consistently.  In a career as illustrious as his I know what a strong statment it is to say that Lincoln is one of his finest films and I firmly stand by it.

For almost two decades, Speilberg has told reporters and friends that he's wanted to make a movie about his favorite president but he never found the time to do it.  I'm thrilled that he eventually penciled it in because it's a movie that will be talked about and studied for years to come.  It is as close to a moving piece of history as we may ever get.  Now, those types of films that value historical accuracy over plot often are boring as hell, but almost every second of Lincoln is entertaining and wonderful to look at.

The film has one of the most impressive casts assembled in a while and boasts too many to name but it stars my man-cruch and all-time favorite actor Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, The Gangs of New York), Sally Field (Forrest Gump, Stealing Magnolias) and Tommy Lee Jones (the Men in Black movies, The Fugitive), all three have won Oscars before and all three could win them again.  Daniel Day-Lewis completely disapears in the movie from the opening scene on.  He totally becomes Abraham Lincoln and transforms everything from his face, to his walk and that noteworthy voice (which is historically accurate).  It is a performance that normally crowns a man's career but when that career belongs to Day-Lewis, there aren't enough crowns to hand out.

The film follows Lincoln in the last year of his life when he is trying to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.  Even though you know how it is, which (spoiler alert) is slavery being abolished and Lincoln getting shot, you hang on every word of the perfectly written script as if it's a heart-pounding courtroom drama.  Yes it's true that minus one brief battle scene it's mostly scenes of men sitting in rooms talking, it's still entertaining and exciting.  Humor exists in the right dosage and in the right moments.  Marital drama explodes in scenes where Lincoln quarrels with his manically depressed wife, played by Field.  Emotions run high as black people witness strangers fighting bitterly over their right to no longer be property.  It's a perfectly crafted film and I can imagine that no one but Speilberg could have pulled it off so well.

The most amazing thing about Lincoln is how relevant it still is today.  American policitcs is ugly and cheap and a chess game and apparently it's always been like that.  It's very easy now to replace slavery with gay marriage or Lincoln with Barack Obama.  No, the film doesn't have a political agenda and some would say it's blasphamy to compare the two Presidents, but given what I know about how Obama passed his healthcare reform and how Lincoln passed the end of slavery, and how vastly unpopular both were at the time; it is identical.  Both are master statesmen that knew how to work the system to secure what they thought was best for the country.  It's amazing to witness Lincoln's tactics and what they cost him and how he pulled it off.

I know it's not easy to convince people to see a movie that's almost three hours long knowing it's a historical drama that gives new meaning to the name "talkie;" but I assure you it's an entertaining movie above all.  Speilberg knows one thing and it's what has made all of his films successful in one way or another...he understands how to appeal to the soul.  Whether  you're watching a dinosaur eat a car, a war horse run for its life, an alien say goodbye to a friend or a group of jews thanking the man who saved their lives, the running theme is entertainment.  You may have different emotions evoked by each of his films but Lincoln does a great job of evoking them all.
Lincoln  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A+
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Full disclosure, I'm not a James Bond fan.  Anything before Daniel Craig (Munich, Defiance) took over the titular character always held zero interest for me.  But for some reason the new series with him really entertains me and I like the aggressive and stylized approach they've taken with it.  If you're a fan of the James Bond legacy and are steeped in 007 history, nothing I say will change your opinion that this is the best Bond film yet.  But for me, someone who is new to the franchise and only interested in Craig's versions, it was a little disapointing.

The one thing that I've always appreciated about the Bond series is that they change directors more often than they change Bonds.  I think this is noteworthy because the legend must be honored at the same time you want to make it your own.  Daniel Craig took over in 2006 with Casino Royale under the direction of Martin Campbell (The Green Lantern) and I still think this is the best one as far as pure entertainment goes.  Two years later, Quantum of Solace came out and was as confusing as the title.  That one was directed by indie filmmaker Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) and it was pretty dull.  Skyfall is directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) and even if you hate his version, you can't deny that it's the best directed of any to come out in the last 50 years.  Every single shot of this film is a work of cinematic art.

Oscar-winner Judy Dench (Shakespeare in Love, J. Edgar) returns as M and added to the cast is the always impressive Ralph Fiennes (the Harry Potter series, Schindler's List) and Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Eat Pray Love); both of which are also Oscar winners.  Fiennes is horrendously under used and portraying a character full mystery that I'm sure will resurface again.  But the real star of Skyfall is Bardem who plays Silva, the latest in the elustrious list of Bond villains.  He is by far the most entertaining on that list and the best part of this film.  Unfortunately he doesn't make an appearance until 90 minutes into the movie and we only get to enjoy him for the last hour.  But his flamboyent and slightly gay take on the character is incredible, funny and scary.

The running time is the downfall of Skyfall.  It's two-and-a-half hours long and feels even longer.  We're treated to a heart-pounding, if not confusing, action sequence that will blow your socks off if you see it in IMAX and all before the opening credits roll and then after that we have to suffer through an hour of tedious plot set-up before we see another.  People come to a Bond film for three things, babes, bullets and bow ties and the bullets are bookending Skyfall and make the middle feel soggy.

Besides shooting the movie in gorgeous techniques, the other credit to Medes' is the homage to the classic Bond films.  The opening credits are five minutes long and utterly stunning.  They're to the song by Adele, which is also excellent, and work as a short film and stand-alone art.  They're almost worth going to see it again just for them.  There are also plenty of really fun homages along the way to make the die hard Bond fans pee a little.  This confused me as far as syncing up with the timeline, but I won't address any of that since I fully admit I'm ignorant to the Bond series prior to 2006.  Perhaps that might lend an explanation to why I felt like looking at my watch a few times out of boredom and why the 007 true blue fans were jumping up and down in their seats.  
Skyfall  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C+

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Robert Zemeckis is responsible for some of the greatest movies ever made; movies that had heavy influence on me as a person.  Films like the Back to the Future series, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, What Lies Beneath and Cast Away are all some of my favoritest.  Then around 2004 he discovered motion capture and animation and ever since then only worked on cartoons like The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol.  His animated stuff was good but it was a real disapointment to think he had become addicted to it and wouldn't kick it to return to the world of live action.  It's fitting that Flight is a movie about addiction because it appears he's back but a little rusty.

Flight, starring Denzel Washington, has one of the most dramatic first acts I've seen in a while.  The first half hour shows a commercial pilot engaged in sex, drugs and alcohol fighting on the phone with his ex-wife all in the first few minutes.  It's clear from the beginning that Washington's character is a disaster but we're not done yet because we're treated to another disaster right after that when the plane he's flying (after getting drunk and high) malfunctions.  The plane crashing isn't his fault and dispite being stoned, saves almost everyone on board in an amazing show of skill.  Is he a hero or monster?  That is the motivating plot for Flight but what it's actually about it far darker and real.

Movies about addiction are often depressing and hard to watch.  Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream are both Oscar-winning and excellent but you can really only watch them once or twice before feeling like you want to kill yourself.  Flight is a little different.  Washington's character is an addict but he's good at it.  He is in denial of how bad it is, thinks he can control it and spins lies like a pro.  This is a far more realistic portrayal of someone with addiction and Washington is absolutely stunning.  It's very hard to play someone loaded.  Far too often you see those actors turn it into farce or go too far.  Washington plays someone who is drunk and/or high with so much realism it's hard to watch.  His mood swings are disturbing and the control he has over his performace is Oscar-worthy.

As good of a director as Zemeckis is, this film doesn't feel up to his standards though.  There are large chunks that are really boring and don't seem to go anywhere.  A story arc involving a junkie, played by the lovely Kelly Reilly (the Sherlock Holmes movies), that Washington gets into a relationship with is pointless and gets the whole film off track.  Shocking that someone as skilled as Zemeckis would make such mistakes.  The one thing he did do that was absolutely incredible was the plane crash scene.  From the time things start to go badly, the scene lasts about 14 minutes and it feels like an hour.  It's one of the scariest dipictions of a plane crash ever shown on film and it made me tear up with empathy for the people on board.  That scene and Washington are the crowning achievements of the movie.

Perhaps one of the reasons it's hard to enjoy Flight is because addicts are such unlikable people.  Never once do you like Washinton.  From the very beginning he's arrogant and dickish and by the time we're all sucked down into his abyss we hate him.  It all builds to a scene at the end that's straight out of Arthur Miller's The Crucible where we have redemption but that's two and a half hours later.  If you're not exhausted by then, you're a little bored.  Even if you're paying attention to the secondary performances of John Goodman or Don Cheadle (Iron Man 2, Oceans 11) or the clever undertones of religion's play on fate, you're still not super entertained.  I hope that this doesn't make Zemeckis have a relapse and go back to his addiction with cartoons.  We missed you Rob and want you to stick around making movies for adults again.  This is your intervention.
Flight  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B-
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Wreck-It Ralph
There are worlds that exist that I never thought I'd ever see collide but then do in weird circumstances and end in very enjoyable pieces of entertainment.  David Bowe singing Christmas songs with Bing Crosby was wonderful.  Any combination of hip hop and rock on a Girl Talk album is fantastic.  Add to that list the world of The Simpsons and the magical world of Disney.  Director Rich Moore is steeped in the best years of The Simpsons, Futurama and The Critic.  I always viewed these shows as counter-culture to the wholesome Disney image and that combining them would be like oil and vinegar.  Thankfully, Disney got out of Moore's way and allowed Wreck-It Ralph to become a nerd's new favorite film.

Growing up in the '80s and '90s gave me an appreciation for the arcade and early home video games.  You can tell that this was the same world the creators of Wreck-It Ralph grew up in because their eye for detail is great.  The story involves an unhappy bad guy for an arcade game called Fix-It Felix who leaves his video game to try to become a good guy in other video games.  If you think that sounds kind of similar to the plot of Toy Story, you're right but overlooking that aspect, it really is an original movie.  

John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Chicago) and Sarah Silverman star and really own the film.  Both of them are spectacular doing voice work, especially Silverman.  It's hard to believe that such a crude comedien can so masterfully pull off the voice work of a little girl named Vanellope who dwells in a girlie's racing game called Sugar Rush.  It's not just them that make the movie worth seeing though.  The co-stars are Jane Lynch (Glee, Best in Show) and Jack McBrayer (30 Rock, Talledega Nights) do a great job of not annoying.  Both of them have run their course as one-trick ponies but managed to get me to enjoy despite still playing their same old character.  Most impressively is the cast of voice actors who are buried and unrecognizable that include such heavy hitters as Ed O'Neil (Modern Family), Joe Lo Truglio (The State, Wanderlust), Rachel Harris (Hangover, A Mighty Wind) and best of all is the mega talented Alan Tudyk (Serenity, Death at a Funeral).

Wreck-It Ralph does such a good job servicing gaming nerds with details and homages (such as the manager of the arcade being modeled after Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies) that most of it's lost on anyone under the age of 16.  The first act features so many references and characters from classic games that it's gonna take a couple views to get them all.  It's really fun to watch Ralph interact with famous video game baddies, even ones that were infamous for their graphic violence like Mortal Kombat.  This is just part of the edginess that Moore brings to Disney and it either went under Disney executives' radar (doubtful) or they let it go by because they knew what kind of movie they were making.

It's still a film for kids and kids will still enjoy it but I'd say most of the jokes will be over their heads.  It's a movie that made the adults in the theater laugh a lot more than any kids.  Realizing that, there are chunks that obviously are pandering to the kids in silliness or mindless slapstick but you can't get upset at that considering that it's a movie for kids before it's a movie for adults.  You can tell that Pixar's prince, John Lasseter, was on board as a Producer because appealing to both demographics is someting he's mastered and because of that, Wreck-It Ralph is totally worth the price of admission.  Bring your quarters!
Wreck-It Ralph  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: B+
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