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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from June 2013

White House Down
Remember when you were in high school and that one big summer blockbuster came out?  You and all your friends rushed out opening day to see it?  You had so much fun that when you left the theater to get pizza slices, you and your friends would talk about it the whole time?  I'm talking about movies like Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Die Hard, Pirates of the Caribbean or Armageddon.  Those movies were loud, exciting, fun, flashy and cheesey.  They all had quotable lines, big stars and ridiculous plots that you justified at the time because you were having a blast.  Well, White House Down captures what those hot summer nights with friends felt like and makes you feel like a teenager again.

Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot) seems to be one of the masters of mayhem when it comes to f**king s**t up; especially the White House which he has now destroyed four times in his movies.  What sets him a cut above other disaster kings like Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon) or Wolfgang Peterson (Posideon, Perfect Storm) is that he seems aware of what kind of movie he's making and takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to it.  He's had his missteps along the way; such as 2012, Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 BC, but overall is the best at depicting mass destruction because he's made his whole carreer on it.  He doesn't destroy the world in White House Down but he does turn the most famous residence in America into an all-out war zone that matches the chaos his other films have given us.

Channing Tatum proves he has the chops to be a John McClain-esque badass as he plays a Capital Policeman trying to save the President, played by Jamie Foxx, after domestic terrorists take the whole place hostage.  The two of them are an extrememly likable duo that command every frame of the action.  James Woods (Any Given Sunday, Casino), who is now an elderly person (he's jarringly old now, sadly), is a fantastic villain but I'm not sure he's ever given a bad performance.  He's joined by some great baddies who feature the fantastic  Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby) and hilarious Jimmi Simpson (FX's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Date Night) as well.

There are moments of White House Down that are head-shakingly cheesey and even lines like, "You only have five minutes to save the world or the White House is gonna be destroyed" are screamed in a panic but you don't care and embrace them if you can loose yourself in a bloated action movie.  The perfect amount of humor is injected by Foxx and Tatum to remind you that you shouldn't take any of this seriously and to just sit there and chomp your popcorn while you have fun.  That's a little ironic though because White House Down does have something to say about politics and has undertones of an agenda.  Stabs at the Military Industrial Complex, right wing nutjobs, Fox News/Glenn Beck (not by name but as a character that looks and acts just like him who is a favorite of one of the terrorists), and similarities to President Obama are all laid out in fairly clear nods.

I don't expect everyone to enjoy White House Down as much as I did and that's fine.  Maybe I was feeling a little nostalgic when I saw it and wished my high school buddies Joe, Jason, Craig, John and Sean were sitting next to me during the screening but the fact that it even made me feel that way again says a lot.  In the new world of summertime Hollywood that is just sequels and superheros, it's refreshing to see something just as tawdry and silly come out that's at least original is refreshing and completely worth a screening or two.
White House Down  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A+
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World War Z
There's a saying that goes, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."  That couldn't be more true for World War Z.  For months, this film was lambasted on the internet by movie nerds who heard all about its infamous budget problems and drastic script issues that were so bad that they needed to bring in new writers to completely rewrite the last act.  Everyone was positive that this horror-adventure starring and produced by Brad Pitt would be a massive flop.  Well, those low expectations seemed to have made everyone leave loving a movie that is really only worthy of liking at best.

The source material for this is a book by the same title by Max Brooks (Mel Brooks' son actually) which came out in 2006.  It was insanely popular and one of the better horror novels in ten years.  The book follows a character who travels the world to talk to what's left of humanity to chronicle how the zombie apocalypse happened.  The movie isn't the book and it doesn't try to be.  The film version features Pitt traveling the globe trying to piece together clues on how to stop the zombie plague from killing everyone.

One of the problems that World War Z might have ran into was selecting Marc Forster to direct it.  He has had success like Quantom of Solace and Monster's Ball but more missed like Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction and Machine Gun Preacher.  Even if they all were homeruns though, I'd never think that this was the guy to tackle such a massive project.  The film feels like it's a Made-For-TV project; from the opening credits that have odd music and random stock footage, to the mega cheesey freeze frame and voice over that closes it out.  Something of this scope needed someone steeped in something of this scope and Forster wasn't it.

The film does have it's great moments and is relentlessly tense.  An outbreak on a plane carrying survivors is one of the best, which doesn't let you breath until the whole ends with a terrifying outcome.  But overall it lacked heart and gore.  Unfortunately for World War Z, since Pitt bought the film rights to it almost seven years ago, AMC's The Walking Dead has come out and set the new standard for zombie entertainment.  Not only does it splatter you with as much gore as the censors will allow (still not sure how it gets away with what it gets away with) but also infuses so much heart and emotion into the characters that you forget it's about zombies.  World War Z does neither.

It wanted a PG-13 rating and never once tried to push the limits to get it.  I understand that some people feel that less is more when it comes to horror and I'm not one to disagree with that; but when you're dealing with the zombie genre, you can't skimp.  Not only is there zero blood but the zombies aren't even scary.  The script is also so butchered and passed around that not a single character is someone you care about and they're fine with that since they don't seem to care about each other.  Pitt's scenes with his wife, played by Mireille Enos (Gangster Squad, A&E's The Killing) are horrible.  You get the sensation that those two were on the edge of divorce anyway so why bother caring if he ever makes it home to see her again?

Maybe I'm a little jaded because I loved the book and the film was anything but what made me love it.  That might be it but I feel like it's more than that and the shortcomings of a bad script, bloated budget, tired crew and an in-over-his-head director are what made this mildly entertaining overall with a few moments of "Holy S**T!"  Such a pity since a big summer blockbuster starring an Oscar-nominated A-lister about zombies was something I've been hoping for my whole life; too bad it felt more dead than the undead.
World War Z  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade:  B-
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Monsters University
Not often am I asked to be a guest on a podcast so when I am, I take it seriously and get my crap in a pile.  I was asked to be on a movie nerd podcast once and the topic was the greatest film endings of all time.  We were each expected to come up with a Top 10 list and defend and argue our picks.  I had some relatively standard choices you'd expect to see; such as, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, and Big Fish.  Also on that list coming in at #3 was Monsters Inc.  I expected some groans from the panel but actually got agreement from everyone.  Why?  Because the one/two punch of emotion of having Mike, played by Billy Crystal, show his damaged hands from rebuilding Boo's door for his best friend followed right away by Sully, played by John Goodman, opening the door and seeing Boo was splendid.  But the artistic choice by director Pete Doctor to not show Boo's face but just the rush of elation on Sully's as he hear's her voice say, "Kitty!" is one of the most unexpected and tear-jerking endings of all time.  Needless-to-say, the bar for Monsters University was set very high.

This prequel follows Mike to college where his friendship with Sully develops and the two become the iconic team we grew to love.  Pixar has a mixed success rate when it comes to their sequels.  Toy Story 2 was better than the first and Toy Story 3 was the best of the series.  However, Cars 2 was worse than Cars, which was already the worst Pixar film to date.  Aside from that, audience's standards for Pixar films are already skyhigh since they've made some of the greatest animated movies of all time...in a row!  That might be one of the reasons why people are needlessly hard on Monsters University.

Some arguments are made for Pixar having zero originality in the script and say it's nothing more than Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds for kids; but I say that alone is bold and creative.  Cars was nothing more than Doc Hollywood, most of Toy Story 3 was The Great Escape and Wall-E was basically every Charlie Chaplin film.  Pixar was never this temple of originality but rather the masters of repurposing.  Monsters University is exactly that and it's very well done.

Aside from Crystal and Goodman returning as our favorite best friends, the cast is inspired featuring some unlikely choices (like Pixar has often done).  Helen Mirren, Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses, Pacific Rim), Aubrey Plaza (NBC's Parks and Rec, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Nathan Fillion (Much Ado About Nothing, Serenity) and Joel Murray (God Bless America, The Artist) are all hilarious and excellent filling out a world of collegiate zaniness that also feels a bit like Hogwarts.

The only problem with Monsters University is that it isn't better than Monsters Inc.  It lacks the powerful messages and soul-touching emotion that we expect from the series.  Some of that might have something to do with the fact that it has all new writers and was directed by first-timer Dan Scanlon.  But is it so rotten that a sequel is brave enough to be different and doesn't shovel out exactly what made the first one so good?  It's certainly funnier than the first one by a lot and leaves you with a feeling that you just had a really good time.  That's more than most animated films can say and for that Monsters University certainly graduates with Honors.
Monsters University  (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: A-
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Much Ado About Nothing
How do you know you've made it in Hollywood?  You tell a major studio like Disney that you want a month off so you can make a movie you and your wife have dreamt of doing for over a decade.  That's exactly what Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods) did when he filmed his adaptation of Williams Shakespeare's play at his house with his friends in only 12 days.  Considering he's tackeled sci-fi, horror, superheros and now this (and done them ALL successfully), he has proven himself a true auteur.

Writing a review of a Shakespeare film feels like something that's above my pay grade but a job's a job.  I enjoy Shakespeare but I would never consider myself an expert, which is why I brought my new friend Hank along who actually is.  He schooled me on whether or not this really was a well done adaptation and according to him, it is.  My knowledge of Shakespeare is moderate at best and stops at the big ones; such as Hamlet, MacBeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and this.  I've dabbled in ones like The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, but I stick to what I know for the most part.  Regardless of your background or knowledge of Shakespeare, this version of Much Ado About Nothing is the most accessible and easy to enjoy by anyone with even an ounce-of-a-brain.

Compared to Shakespeare's comedies, I think this one is the funniest and Whedon doesn't miss a single beat allowing his impressive cast to shine and spread their comedic wings.  No one steals the spotlight more than Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Super) who proves he should be in pretty much everything Hollywood puts out.  Not only is he amazingly funny but he also performs the lines of Shakespeare like he's made a career on it.  Another shock in the cast was Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods, Training Day) who has done great comedy in the past but really shows his range here.  No one from the cast is dead weight which makes soggy performances like Clark Gregg (The Avengers, the Iron Man series) seem soggier than they actually are.

Be warned though that this is in the Shakespeare dialogue but Whedon has set it in modern times at a gorgeous mansion in the Hollywood Hills.  What he does to set it current isn't overly creative since it's something we've now seem done time and time again but it's his direction and crafting of the performances that makes this so wonderful.  He really captures all emotions that the play can offer, both in romance and comedy.  It's probably the hardest you'll laugh at any Shakespeare film and one of the funniest movies of the year.  His choice of shooting it in black and white seemed unneccessary and pretentious but that's the only misfire; and considering that aside from directing it, he also wrote, produced, editted it AND did all the music for it, it's a forgivable offense.

I remember the days when a teacher would offer you extra credit if you would go see something like this and bring in your ticket stub.  Most of the class would do it but either hate every second of it, make out in the back row or leave and go see something playing in another theater.  If you're patient and sit through the first 20 minutes, which are slow and a tad confusing, you'll be rewarded with a film you'd watch without the promise of extra credit and might even turn you on to explore other Shakespeare productions.
Much Ado About Nothing  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: A
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Man of Steel
Lots of people don't know, or probably more accurately care, that there are two major universes of comic book characters.  Marvel is the company repsonsible for 90% of the ones in pop culture; your Avengers gang, X-Men crew and Spiderman.  DC is the other and although they crafted some pretty dull and weird characters like Hawkman or Wonder Woman, they are the owners of two of the MOST famous of all time - Batman and Superman.  Writer/Producer/Director Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception) has picked his team and done wonders with Batman.  He didn't select the back seat on Man of Steel but he's sitting shotgun and you can tell he's shouting directions the whole time.

I love more Marvel characters but I love Superman and Batman more.  Does that make sense?  I've always had a very soft spot in my heart for Superman because he appealed to my sensibility of doing right in the world as a young boy.  I didn't have parents that pushed The Bible on me too much so my sense of a self sacrificing beacon of good came from Superman.  The older I got the more the character symbolized more to me; it's no coincidence that his outfit is red, white and blue; he is American aspiration and the symbol of what we strive to be (unsuccessfully).  All that being said, every time a Superman film comes out I want it to be amazing.  Sadly, there hasn't been a good one since 1980 when Christopher Reeve took on General Zod in Superman II.  I hung all my hopes on Man of Steel and that Nolan and Director Zach Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead) would alter that losing streak.  I was let down.

The red cape is donned by Henry Cavill (Immortals, HBO's The Tudors) and I think he does a fantastic job with the chop shop-of-a-script he had to work with.  He's joined by what appeared to be a very impressive cast that consisted of Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburn and Michael Shannon (Bug, Take Shelter) as General Zod.  All have done movies that are excellent and most have won or been nominated for Oscars.  With the exception of Shannon, who always gives 110% with every maniac performance he has, they all seem confused and lost in the movie.  

Decisions were made for Man of Steel that I don't quite understand.  We all know that UFO and sci-fi films don't typically do that well at the box office or with critics but for some reason that's the direction they took this.  Massive amounts of focus are showcased on the fact that Superman is an alien and this is sci-fi as you can get.  Perhaps that's the casulity of making General Zod the villain for the first relaunch of a series instead of the far more familiar and human character, Lex Luthor.  This was a turn off to not only casual filmgoers but lovers of  Superman like me who wanted to see the citizen of Earth fight to defend it instead of highlighting the fact that he's not really one of us.

It's also rather disjointed when it comes to the linear plot.  Rather than showing it chronologically, Snyder tells much of Superman's terrestrial upbringing through flashbacks that would have been so much more effective if they were given more time.  Also an excessive amount of time is dedicated to his origin on Krypton and its destruction.  They also take liberties with the story that I didn't care for, as a fan.

I know this makes me sound like I hated it; I assure you that I didn't.  Man of Steel is actually still entertaining.  Actually, the last half is very entertaining and the first half is kind of slow and frustrating.  It's a true rule in almost everything in life that it's not how you start but how you finish.  Man of Steel is 143 minutes and the final hour is non-stop action that is so big and epic it verges on parody at points.  Some will say that the climax between Zob and Supes is ridiculous but it played out as largely as it did in my boyhood imagination.  Is it perfect?  No, but it's good enough that I'll anxiously await the next installment and keep hoping it's a Superman film as inspired as the character who stands for truth, justice and the American way deserves.
Man of Steel  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B
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This Is The End
A lot of things have been said about this movie.  From the very first unrated red band trailer that came out for it on YouTube, it's been a buzzworthy comedy that had the curiousity of everyone who saw it.  James Franco, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride (Tropic Thunder, Land of the Lost), Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson (NBC's The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine) and Jay Baruchel (Million Dollar Baby, Tropic Thunder) play themselves and try to survive The Apocalypse.  That seems like an amazing concept and huge risk that I predicted would be the funniest movie of the summer.  Let's just say that in order for me to be right, there better not be many comedies this season.

I enjoy self aware entertainment where actors play themselves and often make themselves look bad for the sake of comedy.  I don't think anyone does it better than Ricky Gervais and how he gets the most out of other actors he's convinced to play along with him.  It's refreshing to see our nation's royalty mock themselves and make us think we're getting a peak behind the curtain.  For the most part it's very effective in This Is The End but the problem is that these guys quickly annoy the crap out you and confirm that this gang appears to be really fun to hang out with but, if this is accurate at all, would wear on your last nerves very quickly.

The most enjoyable part of the film is what they did with the plot.  It's based on a short film that Baruchel and Rogen (best friends in real life) made with writers Evan Goldberg (Superbad, The Watch) and Jason Stone, who only directed this 2007 short and did nothing else.  The feature version had to be much longer, have a better story and was directed by Goldberg and Rogen.  That might have been a mistake becaues the tone of the film is a mess.  It aims to be a comedy the whole time but drifts in-and-out of being theological dribble, a weak horror, and a Tarantino-esque ripoff.  None of that is consistent and feels very amateur while watching.

Don't get me wrong, this is a funny movie.  It's not for everyone and some of the more graphic parts make scenes in Superbad seem like harmless PG-13, but the comedy is very bipolar.  See, the problem when you swing to hit a home run with every joke means that when you strike out, you strike out hard.  For every streak of hilarious ten minutes, there's another ten minutes of groan-enducing comedic misses.  Some of that might be because they weren't making a movie for us; they were making a movie for them.

At no point during the film does it not feel like an inside joke.  That's not a bad thing when it's done correctly and This Is The End has huge parts where it is.  But the remaining places you firmly outside the inside joke and that is not a comfortable or entertaining place to be.  It's almost as if you were invited to this epic party at Franco's house but you're not one of his good friends; you're a nameless extra that they wish died with the rest of them when the End of Days hits.  Normally, I would respect these guys sticking it to Hollywood by making a big budget middle finger to the industry and status quo, but for some reason it comes across as extremely self indulgent and insulting by the end of the film.

Listen, I'm no dummy nor am I a snob.  This is a funny movie and it will have its ardent fans.  I'm simply not one of them.  This Is The End will stand as a cult classic that will be fun to watch when you're drunk or stoned with friends.  Maybe that was the way it was always meant to be enjoyed and I'm too lame and responsible to watch movies like that anymore.  Perhaps I was right though and this concept should have remained as the hilarious 90 second short film before it turned into a 100-minute-long punchline where these guys can't believe Hollywood let them make it...and that you paid to see it.
This Is The End  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C+

Listen to Gavin's interview with Craig Robinson:
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The Purge
Ethan Hawke is someone that I trust in Hollywood.  Even if you trace his career back to movies like The Explorers and Dead Poets Society, back when he was just a kid, he always was a good actor and made wise choices with films.  Even when he selects bad films to do like Sinister or Assault on Precinct 13 or Daybreakers, I still don't regard him as someone who would make a movie that sucks.  Aside from his Oscar-nominated performance in Training Day, he's the King of the '90s with monument films like Reality Bites and Before Sunrise; not to mention his tragically underrated version of Hamlet.  However, The Purge is such a bad film that I may need to reconsider that trust.

The Purge is a film premise with so much epic promise!  In the not-too-distant future we discover that Americans are an inheriently evil species with savage impulses, so in a rebirth of the country, we allow citizens to commit whatever crime they want in a 12-hour period without any consequences called The Purge.  This cleanse frees us up the rest of the year to live completely crime free.  The film shows how one family survives the night after their home security system is compromised due to the compassion for a homeless person from their son.  This awesome premise for a film feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone or a Ray Bradbury novel but it turns into nothing more than Hollywood slop that never gets into a full boil.

Veteran screenwriter James DeMonaco not only wrote this but took a crack at directing it too.  That might have been the mistake since he's only directed one other film before this and it went straight-to-DVD.  Perhaps this would've been far better executed in the hands of a seasoned director that would have allowed it to stay as a social statement.  It's really too bad that that got lost because it tries to make one.  The premises of class warfare, American morality and human jealousy are all attempted to be explored but are quickly dismissed to make way for a boring horror thriller.

The first act of the movie is excellent.  It shows the history of The Purge and how wealthy Americans prepare for it; it's celebrated as a holiday.  The claustraphobic tension builds as the family enjoys their dinner casually and buckles down for a night where murders are expected all around them, but they're safe because they can afford the best security system and live in a rich part of town.  As soon as the first half hour comes to an end, the movie spirals out of control and never recovers.  Loose ends are allowed to exist.  Unrealistic decisions are made.  Audience frustrations run high.  Nothing is scary nor shocking and in a movie where the remaining 50 minutes depends on that, you're left with a rather boring film.

The Purge feels like a fantastic short story or episode of a horror showcase television show that Hollywood producers consumed and vomitted it back up as this final product.  I want to believe that that's what happened but when it's only one person who wrote the script and was then allowed to direct it too, I simply can't.  It's too bad this movie will drift into the sea of forgetability because some fan fiction based on its premise would be really interesting to read and way more entertaining.
The Purge  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: D+
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Now You See me

Now You See Me is an original movie.  It's original because, to my recollection, the Ocean's 11/12/13 formula has not been applied to a magic themed movie.  The formula I speak of works like this, cast a star-studded ensemble: Jesse Eisenberg (ZombielandThe Social Network), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All RightIron Man 3), Woody Harrelson (ZombielandThe Hunger Games), Morgan Freeman (The Dark KnightOblivion), Michael Caine (The Dark KnightInception), Isla Fisher (Wedding CrashersThe Great Gatsby), Dave Franco (21 Jump StreetWarm Bodies), and Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious BasterdsBeginners).  Take that star-studded cast and bring them together for an elaborate bank heist that defies logic and reason.  Challenge the audience to try to figure out what is happening throughout the movie.  Explain it all in the end.  I haven't given any spoilers, because you've seen this movie before.  All that said, Now You See Me was entertaining.

What made this magic movie entertaining is a little difficult to explain.  Was it a funny magic movie like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?  No, although Woody Harrelson's Mentalist character did have a playfully amusing air to him that made his scenes fun.  Did Now You See Me have the mystery and suspense of critically acclaimed magic movies like The Prestige or The Illusionist?  No, but this magic movie definitely falls in the category of mystery and suspense.  Did it have the sex appeal of Magic Mike?  Of course not, but what movie does, am I right ladies?  What made Now You See Me entertaining is that it's a magic movie!  Hollywood doesn't make a lot of movies about magic; it's a relatively untapped genre, so that novelty alone makes Now You See Me an original and entertaining movie.

If you enjoy the works of French Director Louis Leterrier: The TransporterUnleashedThe Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton Hulk), Clash of the Titans, this movie will not disappoint.  Now You See Me has the same style special effects and action sequences that are typical of his movies.  Some Director’s tend to gravitate towards the same actors/actresses that make their films successful; this doesn't appear to be the case with Louis, as it’s his first time working with all of these stars.  Maybe this lack of familiarity with the Director is the reason some of the actors performances felt flat.  Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine were all solid as you might expect from the likes of them, but the rest of the cast weren't particularly noteworthy.

The PG-13 rating for this movie is apt.  It’s fun for all ages 13 and up.  All in all, Now You See Me is worth the time and the price of admission, which is cheaper than a Las Vegas magic show.  A Las Vegas magic show is much more spectacular though, so you get what you pay for!


Now You See Me (Rated PG-13)

Gavin Grade: B-


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