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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from December 2012

Django Unchained
Prior to seeing Django Unchained, another critic and I tried to rank Quentin Tarantino's movies.  It was tough.  In my opinion, with the exception of Jackie Brown, he's produced an A-quality film with every single one.  Picking a best was hard but trying to determine where this fell into the shuffle was even harder.  I understand that his style of filmmaking isn't for everyone but, without a doubt, he is one of the best movie makers of all time and he's just delivered another masterpiece.

Jamie Foxx stars as the titular character which was a hard pill to swallow for me.  I'm not a fan of his but I'm also the first to admit that the man is talented and successful at almost everything he attempts.  His character may be the star but blends in with the set pieces when he's surrounded by what's around him.  What got me more excited was the rest of the cast which has Christoph Waltz (Inglorius Basterds, Carnage) returning from his Oscar-winning performance under Tarantino before. There is also Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson both of which have never won an Oscar shockingly.  One of them will, I repeat WILL, walk away from Oscar night with a golden statue because they'll be up against each other.  All three of these performers give career highlights but especially Jackson and DiCaprio as horrendously slimey and cruel villains that they look like they enjoyed tramendously being.  Waltz is also fantastic as a good guy this time around because Tarantino's words flow from his lips as if he's performing Shakespeare.

The premise of the movie is a white bounty hunter aquires the help of a slave he frees to locate and kill some wanted criminals.  To reward him for his help, he aids Django, the slave, in traveling the Antebellum South looking at plantations for his wife.  It's easy to write this off as another Tarantino revenge flick but it's so much more than that.  As always, Tarantino makes a film in a genre he loves and respects while unraveling it in a style that is obviously his.  In the case of Django Unchained it's the Spaghetti Western, which is a sub-genre that came out in the '60s and were violent, melodramatic western adventures made by Italians.

Django Unchained is Tarantino's funniest film on record but that's part of the problem.  The subject matter is one that I'm not entirely sure should be funny.  Now, I'm one person who thinks that comedy can and should be found in the darkest of places. The brutal treatment of slaves in the south is ripe for the picking if done carefully, which it is since most of the humor comes at the expensive of the white slave owners by depicting them (accurately, I'm sure) as halfwits and rednecks.  (One of the funniest scenes in any movie this year is found in Django Unchained where a group of Klan members are discussing how they can't see out of their hoods.)  What I'm referring to is the drastic shift from comedy to disturbing violence that lies in the movie.  Be warned that this is Tarantino's most violent film to date and that's a tough title to grab.

The film runs a half hour too long but who are any of us to tell Tarantino when he's had enough?  You'll feel completely exhausted by the time the movie reaches its blood-soaked finale but just like all of his others, I'm sure this will get better and better upon multiple views.  If I were to have that conversation with that critic about ranking his films after seeing this, I'm still not sure where I'd put it.  It's in the Top 4 though and completely worth a watch.  Even if you have to cover your eyes during some of the bloodshed, the performances from those previously mentioned are enough to make you feel like you got your money's worth.
Django Unchained  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A
 (2) Comments

This is 40
Writer/Director Judd Apatow has secured himself a reputation as Hollywood's comedy powerhouse and I'm not sure why.  His films do well enough with critics and at the box office and I guess that's all that matters.  Most of his films are very funny and directed well for a comedy but they all have the same problem; they're always a half hour too long.  This is 40 is no exception and it's a new low in his career.

You might remember his movie Knocked Up, that came out in 2007 and was about Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigel having a baby together.  It's really cute, very funny and (of course) a half hour too long.  Well, in that film there was a couple played by Paul Rudd and Apatow's real wife, Leslie Mann.  They were only in a few scenes but they are some of the best and most real scenes in the movie.  Apatow decided to make a whole film about them and never address the relationships they had with 99% of the cast in Knocked Up, so it's more of a spin-off than a sequel.

Rudd and Mann's characters both turn 40-years-old in the same week and it;s about how both of them react to it very different.  It's an age Apatow's tackled before in the 40-Year-Old Virgin, which is still his best work.  Middle Age used to be the bread and butter of Hollywood in their melodramatic box office gold.  Films like Grand Canyon, Parenthood or American Beauty don't seem to exist anymore.  So I really appreciate that Apatow is tapping that well again and mining deep into his real life to come up with a story that speaks to people going through that.  The major problem with This is 40 is that there's no story to be found.

This is 40 operates as a series of skits more than a connected plot.  It's nothing but scene-after-scene that makes you laugh but doesn't go anywhere.  It was almost as if Apatow and his wife kept a diary over the last year and wrote down every single funny thought or thing that happened to them and then tried to tie it all up in a bow and present it to the public as a movie.  It doesn't work.    I understand that some lovers of this movie will say, "That's what makes it so real; not everything has a conclusion or resolution."  Agreed, but movies do.  Just because something happens in your life and it's really funny, doesn't mean that it should be put in a film.

One of the top pet peeves of mine is nepotism.  I hate watching people walk into a family business because I feel like they earn nothing and they often feel that they've earned everything.  Nepotism in Hollywood is even worse to me and made grosser by people like Will Smith who not only force their horribly untalented kids down our throats but even buy them movies to showcase their awfulness.  However, the best part of This is 40 is Apatow's real daughters, Maude and Iris.  They are hilarious and earnest and interact together in a way that feels real and warm.  He really knew how to get the most out of them in every single scene, which is ironic since Leslie Mann, who remember is their real mother, comes across kinda icy.

Perhaps the reason why they're so enjoyable is because they're the only enjoyable characters.  Seeing Rudd and Mann in Knocked Up was fine because they didn't complain a lot and weren't in it very long.  134 minutes of two attractive, rich, white people is not only boring but it's off putting.  You get to a point where you want these two to stop their freaking whining and worry and look around at how great their lives really are.  Even veterans like Albert Brooks (Finding Nemo, Drive) and John Lithgow (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Campaign) don't help the film.  

So if you're going to see This is 40 no matter what I say and are even prepared for the Apatow trademark extra half hour of nonsense, be prepared that it's worse than that.  What starts off as a really funny movie with loads of promise, ends as an unfunny ship with no one at the wheel.  It's wandering, meandering and eventually crashes into a reef.  If it were possible to buy half tickets to watch half movies, this would be the best thing out.
This is 40  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C
 (0) Comments

Jack Reacher
There was a time in the '80s when the action movie was king.  Hollywood released quippy hero after quippy hero, alone or in pairs, and with few exceptions they always slayed the box office as well as the weird foreign bad guys.  It seems that that genre of fun, mindless action has gone the way of the boom box and Rubix Cube.  However, leave it to Tom Cruise to resurrect it with a send up to that time with Jack Reacher.  It's a stylized, special breed of action that you don't see anymore but there might be a good reason for that.

Prepare yourself because Jack Reacher starts off with a tragic public mass shooting one week to the day of the second worst school shooting in the history of America.  I'll be honest that watching that scene is a little raw considering the carnage that happened in real life and the timing couldn't have made the plot of a lone wolf trying to figure out who's to blame for it more uncomfortable.  Don't be surprised to see a few of the more sensitive audience members get up and leave during that.

Beyond that, we have an action movie that feels old and familiar yet still fairly fun.  The film is based on a book called One Shot which is part of a series about the character Jack Reacher  by Lee Child (who has a cameo in the film as well).  The books have a loyal following (Cruise included) although I've never heard of them before.  The character is classic cliche former military badass who leads a nomadic noble life traveling the country helping people.  It's nothing new but still fun to watch.

Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie is far better at the pen than he is the camera.  He's responsible for writing The Usual Suspects, which is one of the best Whodunits in history but his direction credits are limited to the clunker The Way of the Gun and that's it.  Jack Reacher has a style and I'm not sure if it's intentionally a throwback to the action films of the '80s or if its unintentionally outdated in its execution.  I wish I knew his intention in the filmmaking because it determines how I ultimately feel.  On one hand you have a film that doesn't exist anymore where the action has no CGI, the punches come hard and the good guy always has a funny comeback. On the other hand you have a hero that doesn't fit in with 2012 and turns into a bit of a yawnfest.

Fundamentally there's nothing wrong with Jack Reacher outside of some misplaced melodrama, stale acting from Cruise's leading lady, Rosamund Pike (An Education, Wrath of the Titans) and downright silly agendas that pop up in laughable monologues about America.  But the story is compelling and the action is entertaining, especially a car chase scene that is done without any music and feels as clunky as a real one through the streets of Pittsburgh would be.  I just wonder if we've moved past that point of the '80s action and now expect more from our ticket costs.  I guess it all depends on your age.  Me?  I'm caught inbetween the two eras and I'm still not sure if Jack Reacher was as fun as those movies were to me as a kid or dry and dull compared to the A.D.D. world I live in now.
Jack Reacher  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Ten years ago (or so) when The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, it was easy to say it was one of the most spectacular movie series I've ever seen.  I imagine being a kid and seeing that was the same as seeing the first three Star Wars films was for me.  Peter Jackson proved he was the perfect person to take that on because he was more than a fan of writer J.R.R. Tolkien; he was a fanatic.  He was determined that his books got the respect and treatment they deserved.  When New Line said they were going to make The Hobbit, Jackson said he wouldn't direct it, which made all us fans froth at the mouth.  He eventually caved (no pun intended) and did direct it.  But now I'm thinking that his fanaticism will be the undoing of his legacy.

The Hobbit, which is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, is a book of only 330 pages.  Out of those 330 pages, Jackson and New Line are making three, I repeat three, movies that each will be over two hours long.  Not only is that called overkill, but it's backing up over the overkill to kill it again.  When you see a movie that's based on a book it's normal to be a little disapointed that some scenes were taken out.  The Hobbit is proof that the reason for that is because not every vowel and punctuation makes for a good film.

I understand that so far it sounds like I didn't enjoy the movie.  Actually I liked it a lot.  It didn't blow my knickers off like The Lord of the Rings did but it was good.  The problem is that it moves at the pace of a jogging dwarf.  It's slow, plodding and polluted with so many details that it tests the attention span of anyone who doesn't fall in the mega fan catagory.  The one thing that kept my interest during some of the most snooze-inducing scenes is the 48 fps.  That stands for 48 frames per second and it's the newest technology, never before used, in filmmaking.  It moves faster so the picture is clearer...some might say too clear.  It literally feels like you're watching a larg box with giants inside performing for you, especially because of the 3D.  That alone is worth the price of a ticket (especially on IMAX) because it's the first time that a film in a movie theater is better than the best, top-of-the-line TV/blu-ray combination no matter what you have.  You will not be able to reproduce that picture at home.

It is nice that Jackson is in control though, not only because he's a skilled director, but because he brings consistency to the franchise.  Not a single stich is out of place when it comes to looking and feeling like The Lord of the Rings.  The cast is fun as well with Ian McKellen returning as Gandelf and Martin Freeman (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Office) as young Bilbo.  My favorite from the cast is Richard Armitage (Captain America) as the lead dwarf, Thorin.  He's one of the only dwarves that feels like he's 7' tall and as mighty as a tree.  The others are so comical in their appearance that it's hard to get around them surviving any of this adventure.

There's enough in the film to make the fanboys drool and they pull the plug right before the rest of us leave.  It's fun, colorful, funny and exhilerating.  The one thing it's not is short.  I dread seeing the next two simply because, if memory serves me right, they took us to half the book in this first installment and I don't recall a whole of action in the last half.  I hope I'm wrong and the unexpected journey we get is that it doesn't feel like blood squeezed from a stone.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B
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Good evening!  The review you're about to read is one for the film Hitchcock, which is a film about the relationship that famous Director Alfred Hitchcock had with his wife and the influence it had on his most famous film, Psycho.  You were suppose to read those sentences in Hitcock's famous voice and cadence like he did at the opening of his TV show.  If you didn't do a good job on the accent, don't worry because the man playing him in the film, Anthony Hopkins, doesn't either.

Director Sacha Gervasi hasn't done much, infact he's only done one other movie.  It was a documentary called Anvil! The Story of Anvil and it was one of my most favorite documentaries of all time.  When I saw he was directing Hitchcock I was excited to see what kind of feature film he would create.  I was hoping for the same tone as Anvil! but I quickly discovered it was nothing like it and I'm thrilled for that.  He proved himself to be very capable of making a light, colorful, funny movie that could appeal to many people including those who never saw Psycho or even knew Alfred Hitchcock that well.

The problem with the film is that it was about something that wasn't all that interesting.  Hitchcock's relationship with his wife Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren, was complex and amusing.  The egotistical, pompous, Brit was told what to do by only one person in his life and that was her.  The film sheds light on their relationship and how she lived a constant battle with his weight, alcoholism and the massive (literally and figuratively) shaddow he cast on her.  He doubted her faithfulness to him and rightfully so, since she was clearly in love with another writer named Whitfield Cook, played by Danny Huston (Clash of the Titans, Children of Men).  According to the film, she never acted on this love but the doubt in her is what fueled Hitchcock into making Psycho what it was.

This premise sounds like the makings for a great and insightlful movie but none of that ever comes through in the way you'd expect.  All of it seems rather dull and all smoke but no sizzle.  Even the scenes where you see Hitchcock making Psycho are nothing new and nothing eventful.  The only scene that pops is the filming of the shower scene and how his pent-up rage over his wife's behavior is what made that scene as powerful as it was.

Hopkins, who almost always gives a great performance, has proven that portraying an actual person is just not for him.  The make-up used to transform him into the famous director looks like it was done by students of the craft, not masters of it.  Even his accent and famous cadence is done in a way that it sounds like Hopkins playing Hitchcock through the whole 100 minutes of the film.

This is not to say that there aren't some fun moments in the film.  The entire movie, even the scenes that deal with serious fights and humbled self-doubt, are still carried out with a macbre sense of humor almost as if the master of suspense himself wrote the dialogue.  That alone is enough to make the movie entertaining.  Scarlet Johanssen and Jessica Biel, who play Hitchcock's bevy of beauties, are perfectly fine in their skills but the characters are written to be paper thin in substance and serve almost no purpose to the plot.  They're two wasted talents in a sea of wasted talent that includes the great Michael Stuhlbarg (Men in Black 3, A Serious Man) and Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine) as his agent and assistant.

The shortcomings of the film fall on either poor writing or the notion that perhaps this wasn't that interesting of a story to begin with.  The whole of Hitchcock is entertaining enough but offers not enough insight into the making of Psycho nor his marriage to make the film memorable.  It's a pitty because I was hoping it would be.  The visions Hitchcock has of serial killer Ed Gein, for which the character Norman Bates was based off of, are fantastic but feel almost as if they had to be shoehorned into the script to make something feel like it was a peak behind the genius.  But the one good thing that you'll walk away with after seeing Hitchcock is a need to watch again one of the greatest movies ever made, Psycho.  Or if you're lucky...for the first time.
Hitchcock  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C+

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Life of Pi
So, I think I'm still digesting this movie.  I never read the book like so many millions did when it came out in 2001 by Yann Martel.  Despite the numerous pleas from my family and friends, the book never appealed to me.  The phrase, "Let me get this straight; there's a kid and a tiger on a boat in the middle of the ocean and that's the whole book?"  And since that is the whole book, their answers never impressed me enough to pick it up.  After seeing the movie, I'm still glad I didn't because the movie gave me a great sense of what the book would've been like and it definetly would have bored me.

That's not to say that this film is boring.  At a running time of over two hours, Director Ang Lee has made a celebration of modern filmmaking and what can be accomplished.  Lee is no stranger to special FX and is proving that he's sharpened his skills in using them into a dagger.  He is probably one of the most (if not THE most) versatile directors out there.  He's done Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm and Taking Woodstock.  All of his films are dramatically different from one another in every way you can think of.  I still say that Brokeback Mountain is his best film so far but Life of Pi has taken a close second.

Besides the amazing camera work, colors and CGI used, the best thing about Life of Pi is the discovery of its star.  Suraj Sharma is wonderful in the film but Hollywood or the movie-going public being what it is in a slightly racist way, you'll probably never see him again.  He captures the soul and heart of his titular character and does it all while acting against nothing but green screens and people in motion capture suits.  He will make you laugh and break your heart at the same time and it's something I don't think the Academy should look away from.

There isn't a moment of this movie that I was bored.  Impressive considering it's still just a story about a kid and a tiger stuck on a life boat in the middle of the ocean.  That means that Ang Lee fulfilled his job as director in making the best movie he could.  My issue with the film deals with the story and the ending.  Full warning...SPOILERS AHEAD.  I hate doing that in reviews but considering it's my sticking point with the movie and the book has been read by millions and has been out for over a decade, I think I'm safe.

What makes the book/movie so noteworthy is the ending.  At the end of the film, when Pi is rescued, he's giving his story to insurance agents.  It's there we discover that the whole story was a lie.  The tiger and other animals on the boat never existed and instead were people that he actually knew including his mother.  The older Pi, who's telling the story to a writer, tells him that he can choose which story he wants to accept as "truth"; the fantastic one that involved animals and mystery islands or the truth which involves the ugly darkness that is human nature and that they all turned on each other and killed themselves one-by-one.  When the writer chooses the animals Pi responds with, "So it is with God."

Now, I'm not a religious person and maybe this is my projection on the story, but I took that to be an atheist tone.  It was almost as if he was saying that God and Biblical stories are fantastic and dramatic and hard-to-believe but they're also lies.  The reason why is because truth is dark and humanity is brutal; we need those fables to get us through.  Fine enough, but at the beginning of the film we're told it's a story that will make you believe in God.  It's almost as if the two don't add up at all and as if Martel doesn't even know what he's talking about.
I like movies that make you think and cause debate.  Discussing the meaning behind or under films is one of my most favorite things to do.  However Life of Pi felt like it is deep but without a meaning.  Anyone can concoct a "deep and provactive" story but unless you have an agenda with it, I'm not impressed.  Then you're just making a confusing story for the sake of making people talk.  Maybe I would have liked it more if I read the book.
Life of Pi  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: B
 (3) Comments


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