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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from July 2013

Hell's Kitchen Winner Ja'nel Witt

Gavin talks to Hell's Kitchen winner Ja'nel Witt:
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The Wolverine
Allow me to catch everyone up to speed on who Wolverine is and his adventures through Hollywood.  He's a comic book character created by Marvel who is a mutant that has a metal skeleton, can shoot claws from his hands and heals so quickly he's basically immortal.  He is a member of the superhero team The X-Men and was featured in a really great movie about them in 2000.  It made Hugh Jackman an A-list star and was the beginning of the superhero films ruling the box office.  Since then, 20th Century Fox (who owns the rights to the X-Men characters) has made six movies feauring him and have slowly reduced Wolverine from one of the best superheros of all time to one of the most over-exposed.

To anyone who is ignorant of the Wolverine stories, The Wolverine seems like a "jump-the-shark" moment where they stick him in an adventure in Japan just to shake things up a bit.  That's not entirely true, although it's hard to argue that it isn't.  In the '80s, artist Frank Miller (who did 300 and Sin City) took Wolverine to Japan for a whole story arc that bored the snot out of me as a kid and didn't do anything different to me as an adult.  As far as the movies go, it takes place after the third X-Men film but has basically nothing to do with those far better movies.

Taking the reigns at directing this time is James Mangold who is Oscar-nominated for Walk the Line and has kicked ass with films like 3:10 to Yuma, Copland, Identity and Girl, Interrupted.  His efforts here are still noble and impressive for the most part but I still can't understand why the hell he's involved in the first place since it seems like he's above comic book movies and doesn't understand them to begin witn.  You can tell that he had a very unique and serious approach to this movie and was allowed to exercise it for the first two acts and then had it taken away for the finale.

I'm not opposed to a more serious approach to superhero films.  I think most of the characters are written off as being shallow but if you dip into the mythos, there's a lot of meat there; so a character study that feels more like an international spy drama is intriguing and potentially exciting.  That's what the first 80 minutes of The Wolverine feels like.  However, the last 40 watches like a student cramming the night before a big test.  It's as if they forgot they were making a superhero action film and made the ending so ridiculous and silly that it throws the tone of the film off so badly it drags an average film down to bad one.

Jackman still gives a great performance as the reluctant hero and his muscles bulging out in 3D alone are worth at least part of the ticket price.  The supporting cast is fine as well, but it's the script that really sucks.  If X-Men Origin: Wolverine taught us anything it's that we like him as a supporting cast member but not as a lead.  Now, this is far better than that embarrassing mess but not by much and for a very different reason; it lacked fun.

Even a film that's dark, brooding and mostly a character study like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy still remembered that having fun during these types of movies is crucial.  I don't think The Wolverine had to be as colorful, pithy and circus-like as The Avengers but it did have to make me smile here and there.  It doesn't (except for the hidden scene during the credits which sets up the next X-Men film which is called Days of Future Past and comes out next summer).  It's a real shame that this is what one of my favorite comic characters has been reduced to.  In the film Wolverine struggles with the notion that it might be time for him to finally die; and I think I might agree.  It's time to let go of (Hollywood) immortality, bub.
The Wolverine  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: D+
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By now, almost everyone knows comic book characters and comic book companies.  Marvel is the kingpin (no pun intended #ComicBookJoke) and they're followed by DC.  Between those two, they're responsible for owning and publishing 95% of the characters everyone is familiar with and loves.  However there are still a hundred or so other comic book companies out there all plugging away with what they do.  The next tier down are companies like Dark Horse, Vertigo and Image.  R.I.P.D. is from the Dark Horse world, who also is responsible for 300, Robocop, Sin City and Hell Boy.  Just like with any situation, when you step down the J.V. level the quality decreases and R.I.P.D. is no different.

There are some actors in Hollywood that I often put my blind trust in that they will always deliver a stellar performance and with that usually comes a great movie; Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges are two of them.  Reynolds is my straight-man-mancrush and I have no problem saying it.  He's super funny, exudes coolness, and not bad to look at.  Bridges is one of the best actors out there and whether he's making me laugh no matter how many times I've seen it in The Big Lebowski or breaking my heart in Crazy Heart, he's incredible.  Both of them seem to have given R.I.P.D. their best efforts but it just didn't work.

It's impossible to not compare this to Men in Black.  It's almost the exact same story except insead of aliens it deals with the afterlife.  However the centerpiece of Men in Black is the chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith who kill it with their comedic timing.  That chemistry does not exist between Bridges and Reynolds and the script between them is awful.  No matter how funny they both are, and they do both have their moments of hilarity; it's simply not enough to carry a movie that's too silly to be good otherwise.

The director is Robert Schwentke who did Red and Flightplan; two movies that I was less than impressed with.  I'm not familiar with the R.I.P.D. comics so I don't know if he was trying to match the visual tone and imagery but I enjoyed it either way.  His use of dramatic zooms was a nice throwback to the buddy cop movies of the '70s and '80s and he used 3D as well as anything you'd see at an amusement park.  The problem with R.I.P.D. is in the script and overall plot.

Nothing about what you see is original, which I've made peace with.  Hollywood puts out 30% originality every year and the rest are remakes, sequels and familiar plots with different faces.  But as far as I'm concerned, if you're going to be unoriginal then you have to come at me hard with quality.  This lacks that quality on almost all levels and doesn't do enough to make me hope for this to become a franchise.  I'll still remain a fan of Bridges and Reynolds and I'll just hope I get zapped by the Men in Black mind-erase pen so I can forget this ever happened.
R.I.P.D.  (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: D+
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The Conjuring

There are tons of film classes that exist trying to examine why a horror film is effective.  Finding the right formula and then successfully tapping into it seems to be a mystery.  The reason why is because the genre attempts to elict a negative reaction from its audience by playing on our primal fears but everyone's primal fears are different.  I'm not sure whether The Conjuring, which is based on a true story, is a masterful story that appeals to almost everyone's primal fears or if it's just an expertly-crafted haunted house ride that scares the crap out of you; but either way it's fantastic.

The film tells the story of a family, led by Ron Livingson (Swingers, Office Space) and Lili Taylor (Ransom, High Fidelity) that moves into an old farm house and then gets harrassed by evil spirits until they employee the help of famed Demonologists, Lorraine and Ed Warren, who are played by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Source Code) and Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Insidious).  When it comes to plot, don't expect anything new here; it's basically the exact same story you've seen in every haunted house tale since Amityville Horror (which the real life Warrens also investigated) and Poltergeist.  But despite its lack of originality, this may be one of the best executed of those tales.

Director James Wan said in an interview that he was worried he had pigeon-holed himself as a gore whore after his first film, Saw, was such a massive success.  People enjoyed the film but wrote him off as just another guy that needed buckets of blood to make us squirm.  It was even easier to write him off when his follow-up was the awful revenge crime thriller Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon.  When he made Insidious though, in 2010, he solidified how good of a horror filmmaker he is.  He made a scary spook house flick that was low budget, no gore, PG-13 and was well crafted even though it fell off the rails in the last 15 minutes.  I don't know if he can't walk away from the pay checks or if he generally has an affinity for the "frightened family by ghosts" movies but regardless I'm glad he did The Conjuring.

The problem with most movies like this is the first act is all creepy, suggestive set-up, then generally scary conflict in the middle, followed by a conclusion that tries to be so big and bold it ruins most of the film because it isn't scary and ends up looking silly.  That's what happened with Insidious.  With The Conjuring, however, it builds and builds and never ceases to be scary and doesn't lose its tone.  I wouldn't say that the finale is the scariest part of the movie but it's still enough to make you lay in bed with the lights on afterward.

James Wan has made a movie that sets out such a supurbly thick atmosphere of macbre dread that when the loud, terrifying climax comes you're almost thrilled to have something break the tension.  Will this scare everyone?  Of course it won't, but what it will do is make those willing to sit in a darkened theater with lots of people who are willing to sit a little closer to the edge of their seats and watch a screen through slits in fingers leave the theater feeling like they had a really, really good time.
The Conjuring  (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A

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