Gavin Grades The Movies

Guardians of the Galaxy

Hollywood is never really known for taking risks, and that's relatively understandable because they peddle in money, not in art. One thing that nobody saw coming was for Marvel and Disney to take a massive risk on a film franchise that spanned nine movies and grossed billions of dollars. As of now, the Avengers universe has performed extremely well in both critical reviews and box office gold. So why would they want to roll the dice on five characters that no one had ever heard of in a wacky, silly space adventure with zero name recognition from even the most passionate comic book fans? That's a good question, but whatever the reason was, I'm thrilled that they did.

I've gotten into arguments with comic nerds who say things like, "I've been reading the Guardians of the Galaxy series since I was a little kid" because no they haven't! No one has heard of these characters, and the few that have were never into them because there was almost nothing to get into. Lots of randoms have been members of the Guardians, but the five awesome characters we see in this movie--played by Chris Pratt (NBC's Parks and Rec, Zero Dark Thirty), Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Crash), professional wrestler Dave Bautista (Riddick) and the voices of Bradly Cooper and Vin Diesel--were created all the way back in 2008. Ironically (or not so ironically), this was the year that the Marvel master plan started with The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man.

Another risky choice that Marvel/Disney made was casting A-list actors in bit parts and voices for CGI characters, and the live actors you see are unfamiliar and unconventional choices. It's even more impressive when you realize they also chose James Gunn as the director whose prior films, Slither and Super, have been dark comedies that have amassed a cult fan base at best. The fact that Gunn has never commanded a film with a budget of more than a few million and that he has never really used massive computer FX is never obvious for a single second in Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn has created a fun, colorful, exciting space adventure that is so masterful it makes you feel like you did when you saw Star Wars and Indiana Jones for the first time. Yes, I know that's a bold statement, but if you put yourself in a 10-year-old's brain while watching it, you can't help but have your mind blown with witty dialogue, big explosions, and interesting characters.

Pulling off a movie this impressive would've been amazing enough, but for anyone educated in the vast Marvel movie world, it's kind of jaw-dropping. Anyone with enough curiousity to read up and learn comic lore can see how the puzzle of (what is now) six different film franchises are fitting together in one massive story--the scope of which has never been seen in film before and probably won't again (good luck with what you're trying, DC). Characters that used to be reserved for random teases at the end of the credits are now getting more screen time, such as Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) as super villain Thanos. This is the first time we see Brolin as the purple-faced tyrant, and it makes you salivate for him to be the main baddie in The Avengers 3.

Everyone in Guardians of the Galaxy pulls their weight: from a screenplay with hilarious dialogue, to Gunn's inspired vision, and to an amazing cast that makes it all come to life. One of the most shocking things was Bastista's performance. I don't ever expect much from professional wrestlers who try acting, but he's hilarious! I would say that he's the breakout performence, but there's no such thing in this film. Everyone shares the same amount of screen time, and everyone takes turn stealing the movie. Guardians of the Galaxy may have landed on Earth as mysterious and unfamiliar, but it's gonna make its mark, and we'll never forget it now.

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There are so many movies that come out in the summer now that it's hard to keep track and easy to lose them in the suffle.  It's funny when a movie trailer comes out online and your reaction is, "what the hell is that?"  Hercules was one of those films.  It's the story of the Greek demigod, Hercules (actually not at all) and he's played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.  Before you say that it's nice to actually see an original action movie that's not based on a comic book, hold your Trojan Horses because it is.  This is based on a graphic novel that very few poeple know about and there's probably a good reason; it's stupid.

Director Brett Ratner is the enemy as far as I'm concerned.  He's the uber Hollywood stiff you bring in when you want to make something that is intended to make money but be completely disposable.  He's kind of like the junk food of directors.  He's done the Rush Hour series, the worst X-Men film, Red Dragon and Tower Heist.  He's terrible but he pulls off whatever it is the studio tells him to do which is why he's still working.  Hercules is by far his grandest scale and it almost flirts with the adjective "epic" despite having a script that is B-movie quality.

I feel bad for The Rock because he's not a bad actor.  It's easy to pigeon-hole him as a meathead that is good for action films and that's it.  However, he's proven his chops in comedy and drama as well.  It's a shame that he reserves himself for whatever bloated blockbuster rolls down the pike because he's like having a gifted student fail his classes because he's not trying.  Hercules is no different than his usual cannon in that it's an action film with a two-dimentional character that yells and hits and that's about it.  He's surronded by gifted actors such as John Hurt (Alien, the Harry Potter series), Rufus Sewell (Dark City, The Illusionist) and Ian McShane (HBO's Deadwood, Snow White and the Huntsmen).  All of them do the best they can with classic stereotypes of sidekicks and villains that are way below the caliber these guys are worth putting out.

The irony is that Hercules isn't a bad film.  It's kind of shocking that it's pulled off so well and is so entertaining.  The entire thing is crap but if you're gonna make crap like this then this is the way to do it.  It's an epic on the scale of an Oscar-nominated Best Picture written with a script that must have been penned by a child.  The dialogue is ridiculous and the action is plentiful.  In fact, how Hercules secured a PG-13 rating proves that the MPAA is as meaningless as has been speculated for years.  The members should be ashamed that a film with such violence and a body count in the hundreds is given a "suitable for children 13 and over" and a film like The Grand Budapest Hotel gets an R-rating.

If you're in the mood for seasoned performers at the top of their game giving meaningful performances in a film that challeges while it entertains...Hercules isn't for you.  But if you're in the mood to buy a suitcase full of popcorn, sit in a dark theater and watch things explode and people die, this is done well enough for that level of entertainment.  It's stupid, silly, ridiculous and, above all, fun.  And really at the end of the summer, isn't that all we're in the mood for anyway?

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The Purge: Anarchy

One of the tackiest things in Hollywood is when a studio cranks out a sequel like a year after the last one.  I think saturation and surplus is what ruined the Paranormal Activity films, the Saw franchise and countless others.  The Purge came out last year and was a small story about a father trying to protect his family on the one night out of the year where every crime is legal, including murder.  It was a great concept but not the best film.  It was frustrating, repetitive and anti-climatic.  The Purge: Anarchy is the sequel and it's one year later so you can imagine how loudly my eyes rolled when I saw the trailer.  I'm happy to say that this is everything the first one should have been.

Instead of telling the story of the characters from the last one, director James DeMonaco (who also wrote and directed the first one) has decided to tell a completely new story set on the same scary holiday.  Yes, it's completely ridiculous that the United States government would ever allow a 12-hour period where you could kill whoever and how many you wanted but once you get past that, accept it as truth for the film, it's a really entertaining, disturbing and intriguing concept.  This film examines it on a broader basis and has more to say about the class system, gun violence and government corruption.

The star is a guy named Frank Grillo, who I interviewed and you can hear below.  He's been plugging away at Hollywood for decades and I'm thrilled to see him finally leading a film.  You might recognize him from Captain America: The Winter Solider, Zero Dark Thirty, The Grey or Warrior.  He plays a grieving father who goes out on Purge Night to avenge the death of his son, who was killed by a drunk driver.  He's sidetracked when his conscience gets the best of him and he helps two couples that are trapped outside survive the night.  Everything about Grillo oozes coolness in this.  Not only does he pull off the anti-hero extremely well but a scene toward the end of the film is excellent by showcasing the layers to his character and Grillo's acting skills.

DeMonaco didn't have a big budget for the last one and he didn't have a sizable one here either.  The difference is that you could tell in the last one but here you can't.  He tells a big story in a warzone that makes it seem like a bloated summer blockbuster.  Sure there are moments that are very cliche and predictable twists but I'm not sure The Purge franchise sets out to blow anyone's mind.  The violence is excessive and brutal but it's not without purpose.  The more you allow yourself to accept this Twilight Zone-esque premise the more disturbing it all becomes and I really liked that.

Is The Purge: Anarchy a movie I would watch again?  Probably not.  Can I find anything about it that I hated.  Not really.  It's a concept film that you don't really see too often anymore; a horror action that has a brain behind a ridiculous concept.  I dig that though.  Will The Purge become a franchise that will churn out an installment every year?  I don't know but it might be the first time I don't really care if it does.  See this film stands alone and can be enjoyed without seeing the first one.  Going on that premise of a night when murder is legal is interesting and there are lots of stories that can come from that.  Will they all be interesting and new?  Probably not but I'm now willing to see them and decide for myself.

Listen to Gavin's interview with The Purge: Anarchy star, Frank Grillo:

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Sex Tape

Screenwriting 101 teaches that films are divided up into three acts; there's the set-up, the conflict and the resolution.  The most common problem that comedies have is that the first act is killer and then it gets progressively less funny as the film goes on.  In my opinion, The Hangover was the best example of this.  The ending of that movie has me barely smiling, let alone not laughing.  Sex Tape is interesting because it's almost the exact opposite.  It's a comedy that starts off horrendously unfunny, has a spectacular middle and a final act that certainly doesn't finish strong but it is way better than how it starts.

Jason Segel will always hold a special place in my heart for being someone who fought hard to bring The Muppets back into the spotlight.  I want to give him a pass for every bad performance he has and this is no exception.  Segel is paired up with Cameron Diaz again (the last time was in Bad Teacher) as a couple who has fallen into the quagmire of marriage that centers around routine, low energy, children's needs and, of course, no sex.  The fact that Diaz shares almost every frame with Segel highlights the fact that these are two actors that aren't really that great.  They are very apt and have made a fortune at playing themselves in movies and that's all we can expect from them.

The premise of the movie is funny and somewhat relatable for anyone in a similar situation.  The couple decides to make a sex tape (it's not just a clever title) in an effort to spice up their love life.  Predictably, Segel forgets to delete it and it's sent out to everyone in a very effective advertisment for how great Apple is at backing up files.  It's a one-joke movie that never really goes anywhere beyond exactly where you think it will.  There are no twists.  There are no turns.  If you have even half of a brain you can see every joke and situations happening before they happen.

The best moment in Sex Tape and perhaps one of the funniest sequences in any comedy this summer is a 15-minute-long scene that takes place at Diaz's perspective boss' house, who's played wonderfully by Rob Lowe.  Jake Kasdan is Sex Tape's director.  Despite the fact that he directed the dud Bad Teacher, he's also responsible for Walk Hard and Orange County, two HIGHLY underrated comedies of the last 15 years.  That scene at Lowe's house is as funny as anything in those films.  It's almost worth the cost of admission alone...almost.  The problem is that it's a totally different tone than the rest of it.  It's frustrating because it's so bizarre, crazy and well done that you wonder why Kasdan didn't execute the rest of the film in the same way.

Sex Tape is being billed as the ultimate date movie.  I don't know if that's necessarily true but it does do a good job of not leaning too girlie or too much for bros.  Sure, Diaz gets naked and she's still smoking hot but Segel lost a lot of weight to make him somewhat better looking for the women in the audience too.  Both sexes have their perspective and emotions expressed in equal amounts of time too.  The balance they strive for is impressive but it's not enough.  Not sure if any of you have ever made a sex tape but the movie is a lot like them; seemed like a great idea but once you're in it and forced to watch it, you're filled with regret because it's awkward and makes you wish you never did it in the first place.



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Not often do I get to enjoy a movie in the afternoon after I'm done with work; mostly because I'd have to pay for it and (thankfully) I hardly do that now thanks to Gavin Grades the Movies.  Snowpiercer was one of those movies that I paid full price, bought some popcorn and met my friend Hank for an afternoon summer action flick.  This wasn't screened for critics and when that happens it's usually because the studio doesn't think it's very good so they don't want early reviews bashing it so people stay away.  I don't think that's the reason why Snowpiercer wasn't screened.  My theory is that the studios that paid for it and the director who made give zero s**ts about what people think of it and you have to respect that...sorta.

Writer/Director Joon-ho Bong is an interesting guy.  I like to compare him to the band Cake.  The two transcend genres so much so that they've created their own brand that is impossible to put in a section of the store without being horribly misleading.  The first movie that I, and mostly everyone else, saw from him was called The Host about seven years ago.  It's a monster movie unlike anything else I've seen.  I don't mean that in the sense that it's a great film, although everyone seemed to think so.  It combined a family comedy, political satire, melodrama and a sci-fi monster movie.  He moves through all these genres with complete disregard for what the audience feels.  It did it again with the disturbing and trippy film Mother in 2009.  But never has he done it more than with Snowpiercer.

In the future, global warming and our attempts to stop it have sent the planet into an unlivable deep freeze and the only people alive on the planet travel the world in a 60' train where each car is a different level of class among the survivors.  If you're like me you're thinking that sounds cool but totally unrealistic.  I'm not going to say that those thoughts go away; in fact, they get worse as more things happen in the film that don't make any sense.  What's interesting though is that you just accept all those flaws in the logic of the plot and relentlessly power through the film much like the unstoppable titular train.

Chris Evans (Captain America, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) proves that he's more than just a handsome action figure and pulls off some impressive acting.  He's the leader of a revolution to overtake the train and he's helped by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Fruitville Station) and John Hurt (the Harry Potter films, Alien).  Standing in their way is the amazing Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Burn After Reading) in one of her most bizarre and finely performed characters of her career.  The cast is firing on all cylinders and fully commits to the wackiness and grim nature of everything about this film.

As much as the movie is just okay for me, there's something about it that I love.  I think it's that Bong's vision is what you see on the screen in a completely uncompromised final product.  The odds of that happening in Hollywood is virtually none and despite it not working at times, it's still impressive.  This could have been made for hundreds of millions and become just another action flick about badasses doing badass things trying to take a train.  It has moments like that but it's also surrounded by wonderful, weird, confusing and sick twists that shows what a foreign director, unphased by the Hollywood system, can pull off when left alone...for the good and the bad of it.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Way back in 2002, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out and it blew not only me away but Hollywood as well.  It was even better than The Fellowship of the Ring and one of the main reasons was because of Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum.  The scene that everyone talked about in particular was where he has a conversation with himself about whether or not he should kill Frodo and Sam.  What the movie did was cause a debate with the question, "should an actor who plays a motion-capture CGI character get nominated for an Oscar?"  It's been 12 years since Serkis caused that debate and I think his time has finally come.

I understand that this seems like a heavy statement that is overly dramatic but I mean every word of it; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a milestone in cinematic history that features achievements that mark a new beginning for the art.  The movie is wonderful but the performance of Serkis and the technology that allows it to seem so unflinchingly real is a first.  Never for a single second do you not accept every ape in the film as a real animal and a large part of that is because of the performances by the men and women who play them, mainly Serkis and Toby Kebbell (War Horse, Wrath of the Titans).

Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) believed in this so much that he starts the film with 12 minutes that features only the apes and zero dialogue.  I know that sounds arty but I assure you Dawn still has everything you expect to see in a big budget, summer blockbuster.  It still features all the action, explosions, violence and excitement but still has something to say, complex characters in challenging relationships and presented in such an artistic fashion that the whole thing commands to be taken seriously as a true expression of cinema.

The story isn't original and is pretty predictable but that's the furthest thing from your mind as you watch a film that features a fully CGI character as its star for the first time ever.  It could have shown cliche characters doing cliche things but instead makes even the villains have justifications that are understandable and sympathetic.  Gary Oldman (the Dark Knight trilogy, the Harry Potter films) is his usual awesome self playing a baddie that still wrangles enough saddness and desperation that every action he has is something you can never hate.

The other human characters are played Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby), Keri Russell (Felicity, Waitress) and the very grown-up Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In).  They feel a little shoehorned into the plot for the sake of making the film relatable to a mainstream audience but not enough to ever once make you roll your eyes at their presence.  But make no mistake that the stars of the film are the apes and the performances you see are the performers themselves.  Sure the technology makes the physical manifestation possible but the heart and soul of the character is all the actors within.

The dinosaurs and a-holes that make up The Academy say that an actor who plays a CGI character shouldn't be considered for an Oscar because it takes a team of hundreds of artists to make the performance come to life.  True, but what we see in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is no less an actor's performance as is any other actor who has won an Oscar for playing a character donned in hours of special FX makeup.  This movie is one of the best films of the year and it's primarily because of the performance from Andy Serkis.  If The Academy doesn't recognize that and give the man a well-deserved and overdue nomination I may have to start throwing my own poop.

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Often I assume that nobody reads these reviews and I do this just as a form of self pleasure.  I recently got contacted by a listener named Allison and she said, "Hey, if you don't write a review for Tammy, how am I suppose to know if it's worth my money?"  It was nice to hear.  Not only was it a reminder that at least some of you actually read these but also that these reviews act as a warning to anyone willing to listen for movies that are a complete waste of your money.  2014 has brought some pretty lousy movies but none of them have earned that money-wasting warning more this year than Tammy.

Melissa McCarthy is a comedic powerhouse, no doubt.  When she stormed into theaters in Bridesmaids she was one of the only thing that people remembered and truly loved about that movie.  There's a reason why she earned an Oscar nomination despite the fact that she played a character that got diarrhea into a sink.  Not only was she a woman in comedy proving she could be as funny as any man out there but she also was breaking molds by being obviously very heavy.  Everything about her is something you don't get to see in movies very often and it's refreshing to have Hollywood recognize that a woman in film doesn't have to be 4% body fat.  Sadly, all of the success and milestones McCarthy has earned have been torn down by not only starring in such a horrible comedy but writing it as well.

Tammy is about a woman who is not only a loser with no ambition, goals, money or intelligence, but she also never deserves to gain any either.  For someone that so many women in America admire for bucking the standard, she writes herself a horrendously pitiful character that revels in the fact that she's a fat, stupid a-hole.  The only person in the movie that is even worse than her is her grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon.  She's a drunk, pill-popping, selfish old woman who agrees to let Tammy "run away from home" just so she can feel young again...I guess.

Aside from McCarthy and Sarandon the rest of the cast has the strongest women in film as well, such as Kathy Bates (Misery), Allison Janney (Juno), Sandra Oh (Sideways), and Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine).  Between all of these highly talented women there is about 5 Oscarn nominations and a few wins.  It's a damn outrage that all this talent is wasted on such ridicously pointless and one-dimensional characters.  It's enough wasted talent to make a true movie fan seeth in their theater seat.

Tammy is not just an unfunny comedy; it's a crime.  There is almost nothing original about it but that's forgivable.  It plays to the lowest common denominator of movier-goers and even that can get a pass from me.  What makes this such a horrid film is that it takes true female talent, crumbles it up and throws it out the window.  Women are shockingly under-represented in Hollywood and all-female casts are as rare as albino adult animals in the wild.  Films like Bridesmaids, Fried Green Tomatoes, Pitch Perfect and Mean Girls are reminders that Hollywood sucks for not offering more women the chance to prove they can kick as much ass as all-men movies.  Films like Tammy are reminders that maybe they can't and that makes me sad.

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22 Jump Street

I'm somebody who suffers from jealousy.  When it comes to celebrities I don't let it eat at me too much since it's such an unobtainable profession.  There is something about directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller though that makes me insanely jealous and it successfully eats at me.  It's not just that they're talented and  really funny, it's that they also have managed to pull off making A-quality raunchy R-rated films and smart children's movies as well.  Besides this and 21 Jump Street, they also blew me away with the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films and The Lego Movie (which still might be my favorite of 2014).  With jealousy comes satisfaction when someone stumbles so maybe I'm enjoying the misfires of 22 Jump Street more than I should.

When 21 Jump Street came out two years ago I don't think anyone was prepared for how funny it was.  It made me realize two things; one, don't write off a movie because its source material is stupid and two, Channing Tatum is really funny.  By 2012 I had hit bottom with my Jonah Hill addiction.  Like everyone else, I dabbled with him when I was younger, became hooked with  Superbad but was fully ODed by the time Get Him to the Greek came out.  Despite winning me back with performances in great films like Wolf of Wall Street, Moneyball and Django Unchained, I still can't enjoy him like I used to.  Tatum, on the other hand, has taken the opposite course and I'm all aboard the Channing Train.

One quality the original 21 Jump Street film had was its ability to laugh at its own premise and lampoon it.  That shows up here in that it mocks sequels in general and how they're just more of the same but with a bigger budget.  It's a very funny, very effective gag in the first act but 80 minutes later they're still making the same jokes and it's tired and exhausting.  It's also not very original, which isn't a crime, but Muppets Most Wanted just took the same approach and did it better.

There are plenty of stellar comedic moments in 22 Jump Street and most people around me never seemed to grow tired of the film.  I, on the other hand, loved the first half and hated the second.  I can't remember a recent film that burned out so quickly and so hard.  Graduating the premise to college instead of high school is funny at first but then it's filled with every cliche you can imagine and padded with subplots and character relationships that are ridiculous and seem to serve no purpose.

Directors Lord and Miller are two guys, not much older than me, that understand comedy on both an adult and childish level.  In their short but growing resume they have nothing but success.  A spiteful, petty person like me usually loves it when someone that successful fires off a dud.  22 Jump Street isn't a dud by a long shot.  Is it a stumble compared to everything else they've done?  Absolutely.  It's an enjoyable piece of comedy but completely forgettable.  It's not something you'd want to own.  It's not something you'd recommend.  It's not something you look forward to seeing again.  And that is a considered a misfire for these two talented directors.

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Interview: Rob Riggle

Listen to Gavin's interview with 22 Jump Street actor Rob Riggle (21 Jump Street, The Hangover)...
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Interview: Seth MacFarlane

Listen to Gavin's interview with Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, Ted) about his new movie A Million Ways to Die in the West...
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