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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from March 2013


G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Channing Tatum has had a really good year.  He bolstered his female fan base with Magic Mike, proved he can be funny as hell and earned a fan base among men with 21 Jump Street and even got respect from stuck-up critics with his work in serious films like Side Effects.  So why would he sign on to do a sequel to a movie of his that nobody liked, not even hardcore fans of the G.I. Joe show and toys?  The answer to that is because he barely does.  This is not a Channing Tatum movie, despite being one of  the largest people on the poster and controling half the shots of all the trailers.  But that's a good thing.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra came out in 2009 and it was a terrible failure in almost every way and THE black eye in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's career.  But Hollywood is as greedy as Wall Street and if they think they can get bank out of a franchise, then goddamnit, they're gonna do it.  But how do you get people to show up for a sequel when they hated the first one so much?  You relaunch the franchise with a re-imagining.  But doing a relaunch just four years later looks desperate.  So what G.I. Joe: Retaliation does is both; it is a sequel and relaunch and they accomplish that by killing off everyone from the first one within the first ten minutes.  That's right, Duke is dead and Roadblock, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is the new face of G.I. Joe (which is silly to those of us that grew up on it).

I give this movie some credit for doing that because it's ballsy and not easily pulled off.  However, they didn't really succeed in making it a whole lot better.  Even by bringing a slick new director in Jon Chu, who only has expierence directing movies with dancing in them like the Step-Up series and Justin Bieber's documentary, they still couldn't shake off the vibe that it's a pretty stupid movie.  In full disclosure, I'm not sure why that bothers me so much considereing that the premise for the cartoon and toys was stupid.  This movie has a plot not that much more thought out than those featured on the show in the '80s and a moronic script to match.

That's not to say the movie is a total loss.  The Rock is a decent leading man as long as this is the kind of movie he quarentines himself in.  The man is so large now that he looks like he could die at any second from an exploded heart, but that's how we like our action stars.  He's a throwback to the squared jaw, biceps bigger than a human head star of the '80s action flicks that were stupid, bloated and fun...and that's exactly what G.I. Joe: Retaliation is.  If I was a 10-year-old again, I'd proably enjoy it like I did those.

The best part of this film is Jonathon Price (Brazil, the Pirates of the Carribbean films), who returns as The President and seems like he has a blast playing two roles.  Bruce Willis pops his head in for a small role that's also silly and fun as well.  Do you have to see the original to enjoy this one?  Not really.  The studio knew that since hoping people would come back to find out how that cliffhanger ending turned out was a long shot.  Not really sure who this movie will appeal to outside of the boys and fathers of boys who want to have as close to "family fun" as you can while watching copious amounts of people dying, but I guess we'll find out.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C-
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The Croods
Funny thing about advertising is that it's a necessary evil.  On one hand, you need it desperately to tell people you exist, especially in a movie season that pumps almost 100 films out in three months, and on the other hand, it can make people think your movie sucks.  The Croods is an animated movie about cavemen starring Nicolas Cage...what about that would possibly make anyone want to see it?  Add in shotty advertising that made me think this was another forgetable family cartoon that should've gone strait-to-video and you've got a problem.  Well, I'm here to tell you that there's lots of reasons to see this and the advertising doesn't do it justice.

This was a collaborative directing effort from two guys.  One is named Kirk De Micco who has done nothing but crap like Space Chimps and Racing Stripes, but the other is Chris Sanders who is a former Disney guy who directed the amazing How to Train Your Dragon and worked on The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.  Cleary, you can see the difference in pedigree.  What transpires in The Croods are stark contrasts between who did what and the parts that don't work really don't work and the parts that do are great!

If you can look past Nicolas Cage, who sucks even when you don't see him, you have a great and talented cast around him.  Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, 87-year-old Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, ABC's Dancing with the Stars) and Clarke Duke (NBC's The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine) all star and all shine as very gifted voice talents.  The script is written well enough so that all characters are comedic and the only one that is purely scenery is Catherine Keener's (Where the Wild Things Are, 40-Year-Old Virgin), who sadly is the mother and plays no important role whatsoever.

Most animated films are 3D just because it's easy to make them that way and ticket prices are much higher becaues of it, but Sanders proves he knows how to really utlize it with How to Train Your Dragon and dazzles us again with The Croods.  The depth perception used in the 3D makes the plentiful action sequences well executed to the best of their ability and hightens the excitement.  Judging the animation is not really something I'm expierenced enough to talk about but some areas seem rough while others seem way advanced.

The story of a father's compulsive need to protect his family and deal with his daugter falling in love with a boy seems downright...well...Stone Age and that's the downside of The Croods; there's nothing original.  But if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?  It's for kids.  It's effective.  It's fun and shockingly emotional (but maybe that's just because I'm new to this whole fatherhood thing).  I know 3D is pricey and bringing the family can add up to the downpayment of a car, but The Croods is worth it for a night that everyone can enjoy.
The Croods  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: A-
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Stoker
Any movie fan worth their oversized weight in Sour Patch Kids knows director Chan-wook Park.  He's the South Korean acclaimed director who gave us Oldboy.  I would say it's impossible to enjoy films from a cerebral level and not fully love this 2003 crime masterpiece.  (It's currently being remade right now for American audiences; I'm nervous.)  After that we sunk our teeth into his horror Thirst and if we really geeked out on Park, we enjoyed the Vengeance series.  Stoker is his first foray into an English-speaking film made for American audiences.  Judging by the response from people leaving the theater at the screening of it, most Americans aren't ready for him.

Almost every single person that was telling the studio representative their opinion of the film as they walked through the lobby said things like "worst film ever," "I don't know what happened" and "Huh?"  I, on the other hand, couldn't have loved it more and am eager to watch it again since it is a film that demands multiple viewing.  Not because the plot was complicated but because of the gorgeous way Park presented it to us.

Stoker stars Mia Wasikowka (Alice in Wonderland, Lawless) as a high schooler who's lost her father in a car accident.  Her mother, played by Nicole Kidman, lustfully allows her brother-in-law, played by Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man) to live with them and that's when people start disapearing.  Doesn't sound like much of a plot, especially when you consider that it's not a mystery and you know early on in the film that Goode's character is fishy.  But it's the poetry of the dialogue and cinematic painting of the direction that make this movie hypnotic.

The film is violent but nothing compared to Park's other films and it's not overly sexual either; but it's still brave and bold in both areas when you consider that they tackle both in disturbing and forbidden ways.  The narrative jumps around but stays continual; that might make some lose track of what's happening but it's not challenging; it's deliberate, as is every single thing you see.  The costumes, the sets, the props, the stagnation in line delivery...all are choices made by Park to make this entire film feel off kilter.

The runaway star of Stoker is Goode who has created a character that is just as creepy, charming and evil as Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter.  He's so good that it makes me wonder why the studio released this now instead of Oscar season.  In fact, Park deserves a nomination as well as does most of his crew.  Perhaps they buried the film because they had a feeling people would react to it the way the ones leaving my theater did.

This is not a film for everyone.  This was made for those who enter a darkened theater for an expierence that stays with them.  The plot is nothing new and it does move at a sluggish pace for most of it, but images and context are burned into your head and make Stoker a film you won't soon forget.  It commands you to discuss it with people who've also seen it.  I expect blowback from people who go see it based on this review, but those of you who, like me, can appreciate film for every aspect within will thank me for saying how much I think you'll enjoy it.
Stoker  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A
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The Incredible Burt Wonerstone
Magic is a subject that many films have been made about and there aren't many that I've ever been overly impressed with.  But when I heard that a movie about Las Vegas magicians was being made that poked fun at how ridiculous they are, I was intrigued.  When I heard it was going to star Steve Carrell and Jim Carey, I was totally on board and excited.  The story is as simple and cliche as it gets; in fact it's so bad, you'd expect it to star Adam Sandler.  But it goes to show you what a difference inspired casting makes.

The titular character is an egotistical a-hole who has ruled the Vegas circuit for a decade with the help of his best friend Anton Marvelton, played by Steve  Buscemi.  Despite a dusty, outdated routine, the only thing that threatens that streak of success is David Blane-like street magician Steve Gray, played by Jim Carey, who seduces new audiences with something dangerous and new.  Burt has to change, not only is ways, but himself to stay relevent and that is the premise of the story.

If that sounds like something you've seen a million times, that's because it is; just replace "magician" with any other profession and you've seen it before.  That's not to say that this still isn't a really, really funny movie.  Carrell is the indisputed star of the film, despite sharing screen time with some heavy hitters, and it's a good thing that he is because the man can make comedy gold out of just about anything.  Carey can too, for that matter, eventhough he has limited scenes, which is good since it's possible to be too saturated to Jim Carey.

Director Don Scardino may not have many movies under his belt...okay any, but his TV career is way, way impressive.  He's worked on shows that range from The West Wing to 30 Rock and hes done them for decades.  His transition to feature films seems to suit him just fine since he directed this with as much skill as any other director of a comedy of this nature.  Maybe he lacks the control to let great improv actors improv as much as Judd Apatow and Adam McKay do, but regardless, the end product is one of the funniest films of the year.

By the end of the film the titular character has learned very little and changed his life in ways that seem stupid, but it's not that important.  He ends up with Olivia Wilde who plays a character that is only in the film as a way to add some estrogen too.  But after 100 minutes, you've laughed and you've laughed consistently from begining to end.  Even in the very troublesome final Act of a comedy, there are still plenty of laughs.  Perhaps that's the real magic trick...making a great comedy out of such a cliche, boring script.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A-

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The Call
The Call is a movie that snuck up on me, which is rare since I'm such a movie hound, not many movies do.  I think I saw my first trailer for it only a few weeks ago.  Maybe that's because whenever Halle Berry stars in a film now, it's quickly ushered to straight-to-video or only lasts in theaters for about a week or two.  The Call looked as if it was going to follow in suit with the rest of the movies that come out in the winter and be mindless, awful action slop released at a time of year when most people are too cold or lazy to leave the house.  But so far, this movie has been the shock of the year for me in what my expectations were and the level I actually enjoyed it.

The film is about a 911 operator, played by Berry, trying to save the life of a teenage girl, played by Abigail Bresslin (Zombieland, Signs LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH HER BELOW) who's kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car.  It's a simple plot and something that you'd typically expect to see on a plane or featured as an episode of CSI but I assure it's more than that.  I'm glad this was such a victim of poor marketing because not knowing much about it made me enjoy it more.  That being said, I didn't pay for it so I feel like I should tell more people what it's about so they do see it.  It actually turns into an exciting and tense thriller-horror once we start to know the kidnapper more, which happens half way through the film.

The success of The Call falls mostly on the directing of Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9), who is not given the respect he deserves in Hollywood.  The man has a fairly unique, gritty, music video-like approach to filmmaking and gets disturbing results from it.  Session 9 I still consider to be one of the most underrated horror films of the last 15 years.  He guides us through The Call like a saner Oliver Stone would with aggressive editing and shots that are too close for comfort.

The other area the film exceeded my expectations was in the performances from Bresslin, who I've always reguarded as someone more gifted than her age let on, and Michael Eklund, who plays the serial killer.  I don't expect you to know Eklund's name but he is one intense performer who knows exactly how to get under a viewer's skin.  The last time I saw him was in a film called The Divide, which is about a group of survivors locked in a basement after the world has come to an end.  It was such a disturbing film and he was the core source of it, that I still can't unsee some stuff that's in it.  Although this is a far more mainstream film, his performance is still unnerving to watch.

The movie does still have its flaws.  Halle Berry is an unlikeable, shallow lead lady and the rest of the script is fielded by vapid, cliche characters.  Luckily, they don't occupy much of the screen time and Berry is present long enough to not overstay her welcome.  The very final ending is so ridiculous that it leaves an unforgiving taste in your mouth and feels like it had a much better ending at one point until a Hollywood producer got their slimey mits on it, changed it and what we see is the result.  But it's been a while since a decent psycholoical horror came out and made me feel tense, held my attention and simply for achieving that, I have to admit that The Call resued me from this winter movie hell.
The Call  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B+




Listen to Gavin's interview with Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, Signs):
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Oz the Great and Powerful

Almost every critic around the world agrees that The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest films ever made.  Sure it seems cheesy and dated now by our current standards but you have to put it in context.  Most films weren't even 90 minutes long in 1939 let alone in spectacular color!  There were things in that movie that people of the day had never seen before and it blew their tiny, simple minds.  It also came out in the throws of The Great Depression and, those who could afford to see it, were presented a world of beauty, song and hope and they could leave the theater with a spring in their step and a whistle in their throat.  So, needless to say, if you're gonna attach a film to the story of that, you better bring your A-Game and bring it hard because that's a pretty accomplished older brother you're stacking up against.

Interestingly enough, Oz the Great and Powerful stunk of cheap ripoff before it even got made.  MGM is the studio that made The Wizard of Oz and they wanted nothing to do with the prequel.  Disney snatched it up and ushered it into production and thank God they did because any other studio would have made this movie a total failure.  Oz the Great and Powerful is not a total failure but it's not over the rainbow either.  The story is about how a hack, womanizing magician from a circus accidentally ended up in the Land of Oz, defeated the Wicked Witches (yes I said more than one) and became the Wizard of Oz we all see at the end of the first film.

James Franco (127 Hours, Your Highness) plays the titular character and might be the weak link in the film.  It was suppose to be played by Johnny Depp who would have done a much better job.  Franco plays the character slimy and cheesey but never fully commits to either.  His fear, enjoyment, emotions; none of them look geniune whatsoever and it makes the movie hard to attach to.  The witches are played by Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, The Constant Gardner), Mila Kunis (Ted, Black Swan) and Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Shutter Island).  All three of those ladies have been nominated for an Oscar and it shows because they're all as wonderful as they can be.  Unfortunately the script is so poorly constructed that their roles are rushed, confusing, shallow and cliche.  That doesn't prevent you from enjoying the film, but it certainly doesn't make it easy to enjoy either.

The highlight of Oz the Great and Powerful and the only thing that keeps this movie from mediocre hell is the director Sam Raimi.  I personally think that, although he's very hit or miss, he's one of the most original out there.  He's like the riskier version of Tim Burton.  Raimi has directed such amazing movies like the Spiderman series, the Evil Dead series, and Drag Me to Hell.  But he's also directed crap like Darkman, The Gift and For the Love of the Game.  But when you sit down for a Raimi movie, you'll know right away that you did.  You can give the man a massive, bloated Hollywood budget, but he'll still direct it like he's got something to prove like he did back in 1981 with the first Evil Dead.  His style is smeared all over Oz the Great and Powerful and it's one of the best things about it.

The other two things to watch for are an incredible musical score from Danny Elfman.  You can tell during the opening credits that it's his music but it's still one of his best he's done.  The other is for a fantastic and hilarious performance from Zach Braff (Garden State, NBC's Scrubs).  He only appears as himself for a brief time, but appears later as a talking monkey.  He steals every scene he's in and ironically comes across as the most alive thing on the screen despite being completely CGI.  It makes me wonder why he doesn't appear in more things.  

Oz the Great and Powerful took on a pretty big task by trying to attach itself to the great 1939 film.  If the 1985 film Return to Oz taught us anything, it's that that's risky and not a good idea.  No one saw that one and it was actually really good.  Oz the Great and Powerful didn't fail but I wouldn't call it a soaring success either.  Maybe a song or two or a different leading man or a script that didn't feel rushed eventhough it's over two hours long would have made it better.  But the real trick for the film is how they sucker people into paying for a pointless 3D upgrade and how they'll calm their kids down after the movie scares the hell out of them.  Only a studio like Disney could get the MPAA to give a PG-rating to a film that is scary enough to earn a PG-13.  Tisk tisk, Disney.
Oz the Great and Powerful  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: B-

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Bruce Campbell Interview

Listen to Gavin's interview with 'Evil Dead's' Bruce Campbell:
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Jack the Giant Slayer

There have been lots of movies that have tried to take an old fairy tale or a short story and squeeze a 90-minute feature film out of it.  Rarely are they good and fun; usually they're terrible and veer off into side stories that don't make sense and stink of "we created this to fill a missing 20 minutes in the film."  Jack the Giant Slayer is no different in the creating something out of nothing category but this time, it's fun, well done and visually stunning.

For the longest time, director Bryan Singer has been on a losing streak.  That's the downside to making one of the best films of all time as your first attempt...ask Orson Welles.  He started off with The Usual Suspects and then quickly kicked ass with the first two X-Men films but then Superman Returns didn't fly and Valkyrie fell victim to the Tom Cruise curse.  I started to consider Singer a formerly good director but Jack the Giant Slayer proves he's still got what it takes to tell a great story with dazzling visuals.

The titular character is played by Nicholas Hoult, who we last saw impressing audiences in Warm Bodies and before that as Beast in X-Men: First Class.  Hoult is just as good in this as he is in the rest of his work, but the character is one dimentional and has very little to say or do in the film.  The same could be said for Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci, who are great talents but wasted on a script that was written poorly and is just a vehicle to showcase the FX and action.  I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that but it'll only take a film so far.

The one downside of the film is that it takes 45-50 excruciatingly boring minutes to see a giant and really get the film a pulse.  Prior to that, I'd imagine you'd wonder why the hell you shelled out the extra money for the 3D glasses but once Jack ventures to the land of the giants, the 3D hasn't been more worth it in a while.  The perspective and scale of Jack compared to the giants is consistent and pretty spectacular.  The leader of the giants, by the way, is voiced by the amazing Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead, Pirates of the Carribbean 2).  His gravely voice is perfect to listen to as a gruesome two-headed giant screaming out orders to the others.

The end of the film is a battle that is nearly as epic as something from Lord of the Rings.  It's a great climax to the film, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense how any group of tiny humans could defend themselves against hordes of giants but who cares!  It's fun!  It's a lot more than the old fairy tale is and is one of the few movies I can remember that is truly fun for the whole family.
Jack the Giant Slayer (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B

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