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Gavin Grades The Movies

Posts from March 2014


When I heard that director Darren Aronofsky was directing a film version of the biblical story of Noah's Ark I crapped all over it right away.  Here you have the director (and an atheist) of films like Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, two of the most provacative films of the last 20 years, jumping in on the bandwagon of Christian movies hoping to finally secure box office success and go for the easy material in hopes of cashing in on the religious demographic that will blindly support something of this ilk.  When I sat at a screening for this film, it was hard to get comfortable in my seat with such a smug chip on my shoulder.  It got easier as the film wore on because that chip melted away until I found myself fully enjoying Noah.

At this point, it's cliche to say that this isn't the story you were told in Sunday School.  This version is an aggressive tour-de-force that challenges everything you know about the story and about your own theology.  The basic tale of a man and his family building an ark to save two of every species on the planet from a global flood is there but there is so much more; some added for the film and some taken right from The Bible, yet most people either don't know or try to forget.  It's hard to discuss that any further without giving some major spoilers away but just know that the most ridiculous and shocking part of the film is NOT made up by Aronofsky but taken from scripture.  Let's just say it'll be a GIANT ROCK hard detail for some people to overcome but it's the only way a HUGE plot point in the story can be explained.

This is part of a bigger decision that Aronofsky made to set Noah in a world that could have taken place on any planet.  The world of this film feels as much like Earth as Middle-Earth does in Lord of the Rings.  If you go into it thinking this is a Sci-Fi or Fantasy film, you'll enjoy it even more.  And let's be honest, that's the tone that such a fantastical story should be told in.  Telling Noah's Ark as an historical non-fiction would've been so crazy that it was a smarter choice to commit to the crazy and make an epic that sells that.  This does not mean that it alienates Christians though; on the contrary, this is the tale of faith that they all believe.  Fantaics, however, on both the believers and non-believers alike will hate this film.  But anyone with a mind open to artistic choices will fully enjoy it.

Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream) are great.  Connelly especially gives a stellar, Oscar-worthy performance as Noah's wife.  But as wonderful as everyone's performances are though, that's not why you see this film.  Noah is important just as much as it is intriguing.  There are statesments made that are direct messages about how Christians should treat the earth better and how non-believers should think about the importance of miracles.  Aronofsky also bluntly makes the argument that the two philosophies are congruent in their beliefs, despite national debates, in a 3:00 segment about the creation of everything that is worth the price of admission alone.

The backlash against Noah will be a tidal wave (pun intended) but that's never stopped Aronofsky before.  He's a true artistic auteur who relishes in pushing the envelope in ways that make you affected by what you see.  Noah, like so many of his other films, is a movie you don't sit and enjoy; you sit and soak in.  Everyone who leaves the theater will be forced into a discussion with each other that is crucial.  Questions like "what does 'good' mean?" and "should their be limits to faith?"  These are questions that are tackled head-on by a movie that has no true good or bad guy.  In fact, since Aronofsky is so aware that everyone knows the story already, he makes a statement about religious fanaticism that forces Noah to do horrible things that you will hate him for purely BECAUSE he is the hero of the story.  It's a story we're only used to hearing in black and white being told by a director who injects some much needed and realistic shades of grey and for that, Noah is excellent.

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Muppets Most Wanted

Every time a Muppet movie comes out, I cringe.  I know that's a really weird thing for the (self-proclaimed) biggest Muppet fan you'll ever meet to say but it's true.  The reason why is because I feel like so much is riding on it to be a huge success.  In case you didn't know, The Muppets were once one of the biggest cultural icons with a primetime TV show and movies that came our regularly and were critical and financial successes.  But after Muppet creator Jim Henson tragically died in 1990 shortly after he sold the franchise to Disney, the quality went down and so the success followed.  It wasn't until, of all people, Jason Segel and writer/director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshal, Get Him to the Greek) sold Disney on letting them take a shot at redemption.  They succeeded but ever since then, I feel like The Muppets have been on thin ice.

I got really nervous when I started to see ads and trailers come out for Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel (although it's the 7th Muppet film) to Segel's masterpiece.  The reason why was because I wasn't seeing anything funny or clever.  I saw a Kermit look-a-like with a mole and his pinkie in his mouth like Dr. Evil which wouldn't have even been funny when Austin Powers jokes were still funny.  The good news is that that character, named Constantine, doesn't do that in the film but more importantly, the film is really, really funny.

The movie starts literally seconds after the last one ends with a really clever musical number about how sequels aren't as good as the originals.  It's brilliant and catchy which is exactly what one should expect from The Muppets.  After that, the story involves a world tour after their new success which is actually a ploy for a jewel heist, plotted by Constantine and Dominic Badguy, played fearlessly by Ricky Gervais.  The two other human leads are Ty Burrell (ABC's Modern Family, Mr. Peabody and Sherman) and Tina Fey.  Both are capable of being funnier but mostly still have moments of comedy gold.  The real laughs from humans comes from any of the countless celebrity cameos that spans all the way from Ray Liotta to Lady Gaga to Celine Dion.

What made me enjoy 2011's The Muppets so amazingly was that it was not only really funny but a self aware reflection of lost fame.  It also had solid signals it sent out to hardcore Muppet fans like me who got choked up seeing pictures of Jim Henson and hearing the whole cast sing "Rainbow Connection" again.  None of that is in Muppets Most Wanted and I'm okay with that.  We don't need the sentiment because Muppet fans were won over with the last one and now they just simply focus on being the funniest movie they could make.  They succeed.  

Director James Bobin (HBO's Flight of the Conchords, Da Ali G Show) is a comedic genius and he kills it once again.  He navigates us through Muppets Most Wanted with jokes that kids will mostly get but whispers and sight gags that adults will absolutely die from laughing.  And if you're a Muppet elitist like me, there are still moments where you'll have to wipe away a tear or two but this time it's from laughing too hard at inside Muppet jokes.  It makes me so happy to know that the characters that introduced me (and most comedians under the age of 45) to comedy are in the hands of Bobin and Stoller; two guys who have earned my trust.  They respect them as much as I do and have the chops to give them the rebirth they so earnestly deserve.  Thanks for playing the music and lighting the lights, guys!

Listen to Gavin's exclusive interview with the star of "Muppet's Most Wanted", Miss Piggy:

Gavin also got to interview Kermit the Frog, back in 2011, before the release of the last "Muppets" movie:
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The Harry Potter films were some of favorites to come out in the last ten years.  I was way late reading the series and didn't pick the books up until the fourth movie had come out but I consumed it all and am not afraid to admit that I cried at the final moments.  However, I'm starting to hate them but not for anything that they did on purpose.  The unprecedented success of those films opened up Pandora's Box and Hollywood has set out to feast on every single Young Adult novel series that's out there.  I'm starting to think that the books don't even have to be good or successful for Hollywood monsters to gobble the rights to them up whole.  Divergent is the latest and it might be the swan song for the trend.

I have not read the book series for which Divergent is based on.  After seeing the movie, I don't want to either.  I'm not quite sure I made any sense out of the story.  The film takes place in the future where, after a large war, the last survivors are placed into five different vocations based on their natural traits that decide everything about your life, yet you can still choose which group you want to be in.  Divergents are people who don't have a distinct trait and don't fit in anywhere.  They, for some reason, are a threat to the whole system.  This is never really explained why and because of that, the motivations for every character in the story seems pointless and unclear.

Even if Divergent didn't have a murky plot, it's grotesquely unoriginal.  Every Young Adult novel that was turned into a movie in the last ten years can be found here; such as Harry Potter (they're divided up into groups/houses based on a test), Hunger Games (it's post-apocalyptic), Twilight (there's a love story), Ender's Game (80% of the film is a sci-fi basic training) even Diary of a Wimpy Kid (it's all about not fitting in).  I understand that some people enjoy seeing the same thing over and over again but not me.  When I watch something new and it feels like I've seen it before (let alone many times over), I get mad that a studio would try to take advantage of people that way.

The performances in Divergent are good.  Shailene Woodley (The Decendents, The Spectacular Now) shows leading ladies in other Young Adult films how it's done with some scenes that, given the target audience, is pretty intense.  Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher, A Good Day to Die Hard) and Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment, 21 & Over) play decent-enough baddies but Kate Winslet, who should be the shining star in this, proves that she's really good at phoning in a villainous performance.

Of course Divergent will make tons of money since it already has legions of screaming fangirls clammering to be first in line.  But if The Mortal Instruments and Percy Jackson has taught us anything it's that you can whip up the masses into a pre-release frenzy but if you don't produce something that lives up to their expectations, you'll see that passion die out quickly.  If director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) thinks the way to do that is hit these girls with a movie that's over 2-and-a-half hours long that drags like no other and confuses those desperately trying to make sense of it all, he may not be back for the rest of the series.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

To say that director Wes Anderson has a certain style is the same thing as saying water has a certain kind of wetness.  I can't think of a single director in Hollywood that has a style more obvious and consistent as him.  Even when he made The Fantastic Mr. Fox, an animated film, it still screamed "Wes Anderson made this."  If you're unfamiliar with his work, some of his resume consists of The Royal Tenebaums, Rushmore, and Moonrise Kingdom, to name a few.  His precious, artsy, even pretentious brand of filmmaking isn't for everyone but for those of us it is for, it's a marvel to see.

The one thing I love, being an Anderson fan, is how his films have grown since Bottlerocket in 1996.  They have only gotten bigger in scope, story, budget and cast.  That hasn't always worked out for him since The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited were under par for what I expected.  However, he has never had a bigger budget and cast than The Grand Budapest Hotel and he has never been more impressive.  As excellent as Moonrise Kingdom was, this is better; the structure of the story is more unique and quaint.  It's not as funny but I'm not sure it sets out to be so.  The story is more of an adventure as a fancy concierge must clear his name in a murder plot.  If you think that sounds serious, I assure, it's not.

The cast is extremely impressive and it's lead by Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List, the Harry Potter series) in an Oscar-worthy performance.  He's followed by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus, Scarface), Jude Law,  Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction, National Treasure 2), Willem Dafoe (Spider-man, Finding Nemo), Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day), Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Lovely Bones) and this is just to name a FEW!  Also, since Anderson is fond of casting unknown young actors as his leads, 18-year-old Tony Revolori is excellent as the lobby boy, Zero, who holds his own in almost every scene Fiennes is in like a pro who's been doing it for decades.

I think one thing I love the most about Wes Anderson is that we don't have Stanley Kubrik anymore.  Let me explain.  We all know that Kubrik was one of the best directors of all time and sadly he died.  His style was one of symmetry in every shot, complex visuals in which every square inch of the frame is filled with everything or nothing, colors that have purpose and odd zooms and perspective shots that make the viewer feel uneasy.  Anderson has the exact same style except he applies it to comedies; but not just comedy but comedy with a dark underbelly that somehow still feel warm.  They tackle challenging themes and depressing plots that always manage to make you laugh while smacking your heart a bit.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of his finest examples.

It's no mystery that movies who want to catch an Oscar are dumped into the water like chum from September to December.  Anderson, in an almost defiant way, has most of his films come out in late winter or early spring.  It's a shame because they don't get the awards that he deserves but maybe that's not why he makes the movies he makes.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the first films of 2014 that should be nominated for Oscars.  Will The Academy remember it in the fall?  I surely hope that they do.

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Bad Words

Spelling Bees are something of a mystery to most Americans.  They're primarily for children, they're extremely hard, we secretly admire them while openly mock them and our fascination is prevelent in the amount of movies that we've made about them.  There are shockingly a lot.  Bad Words is the latest and it's about a grown man who enters a national spelling bee for a hidden agenda and bullies his way to the finalizes.  The premise is set up for us in a rather funny opening five minutes, which is the last time the film is any good.

Actor Jason Bateman used to be someone that I would go see and support in whatever he does.  He's been great in films like Juno and Horrible Bosses but I think we all agree that Arrested Development is where he's the best.  But lately, I'm getting tired of seeing him play the same smug character in every film.  It was funny but now it's getting old.  He plays that part so often that I'm starting to think that that's just him and nowhere might that be more evident than in Bad Words, which is also his directorial debut.

Now, for a first attempt at directing, Bateman does a pretty good job.  He keeps the film small and intimate and that's fun to see.  The problem is that it's simply not funny.  Along the way, Bateman's grumpy, spiteful character befriends another contestant, who's forgotten by his parents, played pleasantly by Rohan Chand (The Lone Survivor, Jack and Jill).  Their friendship is crucial to give the vapid emptiness of the film some sort of heart but feels incredibly forced, disingenuous and completely unrealistic in what they do.

The title isn't false advertising; the language is as filthy as you'd hear in any Quentin Tarantino picture.  It's also just as racist.  Now, I'm not a prude and I enjoy edgy, raunchy comedy but Bad Words feels like it was a writer's hateful diary written into a screenplay and then passed off as comedy to soften the blow.  Bateman's hate and cruelty toward the children ceases to be funny early in the film and ends up just feeling like you're watching a grown man bully children.  His friendship with Chand and revealed motivation isn't enough to justify any of it by a longshot.

Bad Words is bad enough that IT lowers Bateman's stock with me by a lot.  It makes me wonder what it was about this script that made him not only want to be this awful character but to direct this as well.  I appreciate passion projects for actors I respect, even when they're poorly done.  This, however, is a first in that it's so unfunny that it makes me judge his passion and judgement for future projects he does.  You don't have to be a champion speller to know this film S-U-C-K-S.
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Need For Speed

At the beginning of Need for Speed, the logo for Electronic Arts came up making it the first time I had seen the familiar "EA" come up before a movie (at least from what I can remember).  Now I, much like most of the people in the theater, have seen that logo a million times before video games like Madden, The Sims and even Need for Speed.  However, you could hear people in the theater laugh when that happened and not in a way anyone who worked on this movie would've wanted to hear.  That should have been an indicator for things to come for a movie that is such a piece of crap it's an insult to pieces of crap.

Aaron Paul just finished kicking total ass in the Breaking Bad series for AMC and will probably go down as one of the best supporting roles in a TV series of all time.  So for his first attempt at the big screen, you'd expect for him to sit back, be patient and wait for that perfect script that spoke to him and his agent as an indicator to the world that he wasn't just a fluke in Breaking Bad but was really a skilled performer worthy of Oscar-caliber screenplays.  That didn't happen.  Instead he chose Need for Speed.  A movie so poorly written you'd think it was done by Jesse Pinkman when he was strung out on meth and his tweaker friends. 

Are there amazing car chase scenes in this?  Yes.  Are they all 100% real without any use of CGI?  That's what I heard.  Is that enough to keep this out of the dreaded and rare "F-rating?"  Just barely.  Don't get me wrong about these car chases; they are epic.  They have to be.  The video game is nothing but car chases so it would be pretty pathetic if they couldn't even pull those off.  It's pretty amazing to see some of the fastest and most expensive cars in the world in the flesh racing and then get destroyed one-by-one.  But the notion of reckless and extremely dangerous driving for fun/sport despite endangering everyone else on the road makes me hate all the characters, including Paul's, so much so that all I did was hope they all kill each other without anyone else getting hurt.

At the beginning of the film all the young, hip racers go to a Drive-In, you know...what young, hip people do, and the movie that is playing is 1968's Bullitt starring Steve McQueen.  This was obvious homage to THE greatest car chase movie of all time.  You'd think director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) would have taken a lesson from Bullitt and learned WHY this is considered the best car chase movie of all time; because it was more than just great car chases.  It had a fun story and interesting characters.  Need for Speed has none of that...not even close.  I guess that's what you should expect from a director who's film expierence primarily comes from doing stunts.  I imagine this happened a lot on set; "that big explosion looked awesome but are we forgetting something?"  YES!  A story!

The only thing about Need for Speed that I liked besides the car chases was Michael Keaton (Batman, Robocop).  Not because he was good in it but because he probably got paid a lot of money for a half-day's work but shooting all his scenes in one small set talking just to himself.  Brilliant con, Mike.  His character is stupid, confusing and never surfaces outside of his small...I wanna say...podcasting studio to talk to any of the other characters for a single second.  I hope you got paid millions for that role, Keaton, because the makers of this movie should have been ripped off for ripping off the American public like they hope to do.  Because of the chase scenes, Need for Speed is the best movie ever made based on a video game and yes, that is still an insult.
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Interview with Michael Rooker
Michael Rooker is one of the great character actors and has been around since the mid '80s.  He's been in movies like JFK, Mississippi Burning, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Cliffhanger, Tombstone, Mallrats and many, many others.  He's most known for playing Merle Dixon on AMC's The Walking Dead and he'll be in one of the most anticipated movies of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy.  All of that is covered in the interview below.  Enjoy!

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Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Maybe it's because I'm a father of a 2-year-old who's starting to navigate the world of movies that I'm sensitive to what goes into his tiny head.  I want to be selective about what he watches and make sure that it's not garbage and is of quality entertainment; top shelf stuff like Pixar and some Disney and Dreamworks.  I like to show him stuff that is geared toward children but also has complex character relationships, challeging stories and exposure to emotions that are crucial for life.  As great as a lot of these films are none of them are something I would consider educational.  Mr. Peabody & Sherman is not only entertaining as hell, but it's educational as well.  Perhaps one of the first films I've seen that fits the description coined by Walt Disney, "Edu-tainment."

To start off saying that Mr. Peabody is educational may sound really boring but I assure you that it's not.  Most of the film moves at a frenzied pace that holds the attention of even the most ADD-ridden kid.  The movie is only 90-minutes-long but feels like you watched a half hour TV show.  Maybe part of that is because the film is divided up into four different parts.  Since the movie deals with time travel, of course, problems arise when they hop the cosmos of time and space and start to screw things up.  Three different time periods are featured (Ancient Egypt, The Renaissance, Ancient Greece) and they each could stand alone as short films.  Makes perfect sense since Mr. Peabody & Sherman is based on a TV Show.

Oh yeah, not a lot of people are aware that it's based on anything because it's from a show that existed 60-years-ago.  Mr. Peabody's Improbably History was part of the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show and despite being ahead of its time and brilliant writing for a children's show, it's 60-years-old!  I can't think of anything else outside of Mickey Mouse that has that sort of staying power and I'm not saying that Mr. Peabody does.  It seems like something that someone in Hollywood bought the rights to decades ago and, damnit, they're gonna get their money out of it somehow.

The good news is that they hired the right director for the job.  Rob Minkoff may not have the best reputation with his live action films (not sure anyone could be forgiven for 2003's The Haunted Mansion) but he's the guy responsible for one of the best, if not THE best, Disney movie of all time, The Lion King.  Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn't look or feel like that at all but you can tell that a steady and confident hand is behind the lense.  Despite being corny at times, it's a really well-made movie.

It's seems crazy that some of the best movies to come out in 2014 so far are children's films but it's true.  The Lego Movie is spectacular and now Mr. Peabody & Sherman is proving that "edu-tainment" is a reachable goal.  There's humor for adults and kids all based around teaching great moments from history.  Stanly Tucci (The Terminal, The Hunger Games series) is amazing as Leonardo Di Vinci and, of course, Ty Burrell (ABC's Modern Family, Dawn of the Dead) knocks it out of the park as Mr. Peabody.  My son is too young to watch this at this point but when he turns 5 or 6, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is exactly the kind of movie I look forward to watching with him.

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300: Rise of an Empire

It's hard to believe but the original 300 came out eight years ago!  Seems just yesterday that the movie that made me both hate my body and question my sexuality ("300 is how gay it was on a scale of 1 to 10" - Sarah Silverman...still kills me) hit the theaters and became the highest grossing March movie release in history and proof that films released in winter can make hundreds of millions of dollars.  It introduced us to a style of filmmaking that we'd never seen before and made us all wish we were of Spartan heritage (my wife actually is...I'm jealous).  It really was an awesome movie in the way that geeks can enjoy something.  Hoping to capture lightening in a bottle, Hollywood creates an unnecessary sequel and almost destroys all that the first one established.

If you're like me, you'll wonder how a movie where (SPOILER  ALERT) everyone but one person dies at the end can have a sequel.  Well, in what is the only creative aspect of the film, it is both a prequel and a sequel.  I love movies that do this.  Rise of an Empire shows us what happened before, after and even during the events in 300 but from the perspective of a character named Themistokles, yes the one (if you know your Greek history) from Marathon, played by Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom, Gangster Squad).    He tries to stop the Persian invasion from taking over Greece and wages his war on the water.

This choice to have the narrative jump in time becomes one of the areas where the film falls apart.  It's hard to keep track of when certain scenes are taking place since it skips around in flashbacks and flash-forwards.  This, however, is the least of its problems.  The real issue comes from random newcomer Noam Murro taking over the directing since 300's Zach Snyder is still way too big to be bogged down with a sequel as silly as this.  Sadly for Murro, we have no idea what he's capable of since the studio clearly told him that Rise of an Empire will look and feel like Snyder's vision of 300 in every single way.  What sucks about this is that no matter how much you loved the look of 300, Rise of an Empire feels tired and played out showing you scene after scene after scene of everything you've seen before.

This is a real shame because so many people worked on such an FX-heavy film that any frame can be paused and it looks like a painting.  But when someone shows up to a sequel, they expect to see something new since they could've saved the ten bucks and watched 300 again if they just wanted the same thing.  The violence, the sex, the scantily-clad men with 8% body fat are all rehashed in sequences that don't blow you away anymore but instead make you exhausted.

The real shame is that the incredibly sexy Eva Green (Dark Shadows, Casino Royale) gives a wonderful performance as the ridiculously sadistic villain.  She's over-the-top in every way but it works in a film that's already set in a hyper-reality.  It's also fun to see a woman given the chance to show that girls can play baddies just as well as boys but her character is so superficially written that her wings are clipped in what could've been a more entertaining element of the film.  Positively speaking, the one thing Rise of an Empire did well was make you want to watch 300 again.

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Interview: Mackenzie Westmore

Mackenzie Westmore hosts "Face Off" on the Syfy channel and it happens to be one of Gavin's favorite shows.

And after he jokingly called Mackenzie a robot on Twitter, Gavin somehow managed to get an interview with her. Listen to it here:
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