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Gavin Grades The Movies



Deadpool



To understand how this Deadpool movie came to exist, you have to understand the story of its troubled youth. Way before superhero movies were THE films of the year, way before Disney purchased Marvel and even before the first X-Men movie came out in 2000, which started this avalanche of awesome at the box office, Deadpool was supposed to get his own movie. The wisecracking, ultra-violent, 4th wall-breaking semi-superhero has been an acquired tasted among us comic book nerds since he first burst off the pages in an X-Men issue in 1991. For the past 16 years, this character has been kicked around from studio to studio but never once gaining traction. In 2004, Ryan Reynolds was cast and he fell in love with the character while studying him. He finally got to play him in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine but it was such a departure from the source material that it was considered a massive failure by everyone who took part in it. Never giving up on the project, test footage was "leaked" online as a way to whet appetites for a real Deadpool movie in 2014 and it worked cause here we are! It was worth the wait because what we have is pure, kick-ass on a plate.

Ryan Reynolds has long been a mancrush of mine because he's supernaturally good looking but has the down-to-earth charisma to make you forget about that. His "coolness" has gone up even higher because of his die hard commitment to Deadpool all these years. He is the main reason why this project never died and he should be commended for it. Marvel has never released an R-rated film and with good reason; R-rated films don't typically make as much money. However, in order to do a Deadpool movie justice, according to the fans of the comic, there would have to be copious amounts of violence, profanity and nudity. Shockingly, 20th Century Fox is ballsy enough to try it and if this film is a box office success, it may alter the ground rules for what is "allowed" in a superhero films and we may start to see more of them take this adult-oriented path. In short, Deadpool could be a game changer.

Since seeing the screening, I've already been texted by several friends asking if it's appropriate for kids. My response is always, "there's a reason why it has an R rating." I understand that there are lots of kids who love Captain America and Hulk but this is entirely not for them. I don't say this often but taking your kids to see Deadpool if they're under the age of 14 is irresponsible. It's violent. It's profane. It's sexy. It has Ryan Reynold's penis in it (and yes, that's apparently real). This is going to upset loads of dads who don't get to see it because they can't bring their kids but I don't care because this raunchy superhero film made just for adults is a perfect tribute to fans and a breath of fresh air for those sick of being teased by PG-13 ratings.

This movie doesn't fit into the Marvel Universe as far as The Avengers lexicon goes but it is connected with the X-Men films. It still remains to be seen if and how they would slide it into the X-Men franchise and that depends on how much money this makes. Believe it or not, Deadpool was made for very little money. It cost less than $60 million, which sounds like a lot but considering the average Iron Man movie costs $200 million, it's nothing. That modest budget becomes obvious at times when certain CGI images look fake but that's completely forgivable considering how fun the movie is.

There are some things about Deadpool that aren't very good. The worst thing in the film is generic British action star, Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled), as the villain Ajax. The part feels more like a henchman than a main baddie and it's played as one dimensionally as it's written. There are also some parts where the jokes don't land squarely on their feet and it drags a bit (there are really only two action sequences) but these are all dwarfed by the awesomeness of the whole of the film. Just know, again, that this isn't a film for your kids and I don't recommend giving into their whining when you tell them that this is for adults. You've been warned and I hope you heed it.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies



My wife and I are very different people. She's an introvert and I'm an extrovert. I like driving fast, fancy cars and she could care less what she drives. She's in Mensa - the international group for geniuses and I'm a college dropout. But every once in a while something is made specifically for both of us. It hits her sweet spot and mine at the same time. In the case of this review it's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The title alone sounds like our marriage. She is an English Major, a huge fan of the Jane Austen novel and has forced me to watch several film versions of it. I read it in high school and never really cared to again. But if you slap some zombies in it and twist the story slightly to make it a macabre love story about the undead and I'm in. That is basically all this film is.

The novel by Seth Grahame-Smith which is based on the novel by Austin was a New York Times Bestseller for a months when it came out and a film version was inevitable. He's the same author who penned Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. That was also turned into a film that came out in 2012 and was a mild success. Despite its lackluster reviews, it made enough money to make this and I'm glad they did because it's way better. That being said, it's not for everyone. My wife and I saw this at Studio Movie Grill and there was a very large, obnoxious couple sitting next to me who left half way through because they hated it. I assume they would've left earlier but they had a pitcher of margarita and some nachos to slurp down first. I know it's stereotyping but despite "zombies" being in the title, this isn't a movie for them because "Pride and Prejudice" comes first.

It's actually surprising to me, not having read the book, that this is 75% classic literature and 25% zombies. What's even more surprising is that they didn't play to laughs. I expected a film that had much, much more tongue planted firmly in cheek comedy but instead it's played completely and utterly straight. However, because it's played so seriously it ends up being funny in a very dry way and I'm sure that was the intention of director Burr Steers (17 Again, Charlie St. Cloud). That's also why the film got the caliber stars and crew that they did.

Besides stellar costumes and sets that are on par with any and almost all period films that get nominated for Oscars, the film attracted some top shelf actors. It stars Lilly James (PBS' Downton Abbey, Cinderella) and Sam Riley (Maleficent, On the Road) as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcey…both of which are fierce warriors against the undead in this version but still fall in love despite their different backgrounds. There are also great performances from Charles Dance (The Imitation Game, HBO's Game of Thrones) and Lena Headey (300, HBO's Game of Thrones) but every scene is stolen by Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys, BBC's Doctor Who) that he's in. He plays the infamous comic relief, Parson Collins, better than any film version to come before.

The sad truth of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it's going for such a specific audience I'm not sure who that would be. Clearly it's not for the Duck Dynasty couple that sat next to me for the first half. It's also not for the adult zombie lovers as they mistakenly went for a PG-13 rating and cut out all the glorious gore that is synonymous with zombie flicks. It's not even fully me and my wife who both left the theater entertained but still let down. It is an interesting take on the classic Jane Austin novel and clever how the story is barely changed and genre horror is weaved in seamlessly but overall this is a miss for virtually every and all audience members I can think of.

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Hail, Caesar


My top five favorite comedies of all time go in the following order: #5. Airplane #4 Monty Python and The Holy Grail #3 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas #2 Anchorman and coming in at #1 is The Big Lebowski. That last one is a perfect comedy that has only gotten better and better over the years. I've been chasing the dream that another comedy would be that funny and that finely crafted for almost 20 years. I've often thought that if anyone was going to duplicate that magic it was going to be the guys that wrote and directed it to begin with…the Coen Brothers. Unfortunately (and fortunately), The Coens are masters of many different genres and making a bizarre, screwball comedy is one that they don't do very often. When I saw the trailers for Hail, Caesar it seemed to hit all the sweet notes and I was so excited. I'm sad to report that my hunt continues and I may have to wait another 20 years.

Despite my enthusiasm, something felt wrong about this movie from the first signs of advertising. All the trailers had moments that were really funny but none of them pointed to a real story. I chalked that up to the Coens wanting to keep a sense of mystery as to what it was about. Turns out I was wrong because the movie really isn't about much of anything. It takes place in the the early '50s in an era of Hollywood that is often romanticized. This was when actors and actresses worked for studios and only did movies for those studios. In return, those studios found films for them, made them stars and took care of them personally…even covered up their shady personal lives. That's where Hail, Caesar starts when a prized performer, played by George Clooney, is kidnapped and Josh Brolin's character, as a studio executive, has to find him.

Yes, there are hilarious scenes that involve really talented actors like Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Harry Potter films), Scarlett Johansen, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and an amazingly adorable performance from Alden Ehrenreich (Stoker, Blue Jasmine). Every single cast member is quirky and funny in their own way. The problem is that half of them are unnecessary for the little story there is and the Coens even knew it, which is why they give up on half of them and leave their conclusions hanging in mid-air. It's as if they simply needed more big stars or didn't feel like there were enough weirdos in it so they just started throwing darts at a board with plots and character traits and then added them to the script.

When you hear about the history of this movie, that makes sense though. Clooney, who starred in the Coen brother's O Brother, Where Art Thou, Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty, had an inside joke with them. Whenever a reporter asked if he was going to do another film with them he would reply, "oh yeah, we're working on a film called Hail, Caesar now." He would do this just to mess with reporters but after a while the Coens thought they should actually make a film with that title. So what started as just a joke turned into this semi-mess of a film. When you're master filmmakers, however, even something that starts as a joke is still worth watching.

Hail, Caesar was a disappointment but that might be a very personal thing for me. I was hoping I'd be able to finally lay to rest my search for another Big Lebowski but sadly, that journey still goes on. I love it when the Coens make screwball comedies but I don't think we'll see another one from them in a long time. That's fine because they make dramatic thrillers just as well (No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite crime dramas of all time too). Word 'round the campfire is that their next project is a bit of both genres and is about vicious crimes committed in suburbia by ordinary people in the '50s. I think that sounds great but what doesn't is that it might be directed by Clooney instead and his track record as a director isn't so hot. In the meantime, we have Hail, Caesar to remind us that big casts and genius filmmakers don't always make greatness.

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Kung Fu Panda 3


 

When I first heard of a movie coming out called Kung Fu Panda in 2008, I thought it was a joke.  It was a concept that was so awful that I thought it was a fake trailer for another movie coming out like how they promoted Tropic Thunder or something.  Because of that stigma (and because I didn’t have children at the time), I didn’t see Kung Fu Panda at all.  By the time the second one came out in 2011, I was a movie critic.  I went to the screening with a smug smile on my face and snarky comments in mind for the review.  But I was blown away at how much I loved it.  Now, I have a 3-year-old son who couldn’t be more into animals and hitting, so the Kung Fu Panda films are staples of our weekend routine and I have seen the first one many, many, many times.  I wish I could go back to 2008 Gavin and tell him that by 2016, I would be excited to see Kung Fu Panda 3 with my son but also to see what happens after the cliffhanger ending of the last one.

Jennifer Yuh returns as director after the last one and has, with the help of first-time co-director Alessandro Carloni, made the best Panda yet.  In this third installment, the dangerously-close to being a one-joke-film turns into so much more as it introduces Po, played again by Jack Black, to his biological father, played by Bryan Cranston.  This allows the film, for the first time in its history, to actually explore deeper emotions and reflect back on adoption, genial roots and the importance of recognizing that many are needed to raise one person.  None of it is handled with Pixar-level heaviness but nonetheless, it’s effective and powerful when the appropriate moments come and go.

The entire cast returns once again proving that this must be an easy paycheck for all involved.  Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross and Lucy Liu are an interesting collection of people assembled for a kung fu film.  Despite several Oscar-winners in the mix, some seem like they’re reading the lines for the first time and put zero work into the roles.  Jolie is one of the guilty even though she has the most screen time than she has in any of the other films.  

The best addition to the film is JK Simmons (Whiplash, Juno) who plays the villain.  Unlike Gary Oldman (the Harry Potter films, The Dark Knight films) and Ian McShane (John Wick, Snow White and the Huntsman), who were the villains for the previous films, Simmons adds a perfect amount of comedy to his menace.  This is something he’s been flawless doing in almost every film he’s done since the man began acting.  His Oscar victory last year was way overdue and I’m thrilled to see him in anything, even if it’s animated.  

Despite the fact that Kung Fu Panda 3 steals it’s climax from The Three Amigos, it’s still hilarious and thrilling to watch.  When it comes to creativity, children’s films often get a free pass from me and this is certainly one of those occasions.  What’s interesting about Dreamworks Animation is that they don’t have the success that Disney or Pixar do.  They either make a film that is pretty spectacular like How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda or Shrek or they make total dog crap like Monsters vs. Aliens, Shark Tale, or Turbo.  I’m really happy to report that this film doesn’t just keep Kung Fu Panda in the spectacular pile but it’s the best one yet.  I know it’s easy to roll your eyes at these animated movies that just keep churning out sequels but as long as there is fun storytelling to be told, I won’t grow tired of it.


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The Finest Hours



When it comes to period dramas, they usually can run a little dry.  But when the period drama is about one of the greatest rescue missions in US Coast Guard history and contains more scenes of soaked men since Magic Mike, you have no fear of it running dry.  The Finest Hours is the true story of a 1952 blizzard that hit Cape Cod and cracked two oil tankers in half.  The only people who could rescue the 32 survivors of one of them were four guys on a boat that’s only meant to hold 12.  Sounds super exciting right?  Parts of it is very exciting but the rest of it is sluggish and dull.

I am of the opinion that Chris Pine (Star Trek, Into the Woods) can do no wrong.  The guy is charming, good looking, funny and talented.  He has been in plenty of lousy movies but has always been the best thing in them.  This is the first time in Pine’s career that his performance is worse than the movie.  Now, it might be my love of Pine that’s making me say this, but I feel like that’s not his fault.  First of all, he’s portraying the real hero who went out on a suicide mission to save the survivors and his character traits of being soft spoken, timid and aloof might be accurate.  If that’s the case, my apology to his family for saying this but it’s boring, frustrating and short of entertaining.

The other star of the film is Casey Affleck (Ocean's Eleven, Insterstellar).  Affleck is also a great actor who rarely gets his deserved credit because of the long and large shadow his brother, Ben, casts.  He plays the leader of the survivors on the oil tanker which is a story just as harrowing as the four guys who head out to save them.  Again, Affleck is portraying a real person but his performance is flat and dull.  It’s one thing to be a character that is always in control and thinking clearly and it’s another to act like you don’t give a damn about anything that’s going on around you.  

Some of these calls might be the fault of director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night, Million Dollar Arm).  Gillespie has proven that he’s fully capable of making a kick-ass, well-crafted film but he’s also proven that he’s capable of phoning in boring film too.  Working with a PG-13 goal and having Disney breathing down your neck probably doesn’t help make the film feel more real and full of peril but nonetheless, Gillespie missteps in other places besides that.  No doubt, that once the film gets to the rescue it’s non-stop, heart-racing action filled with exciting sequences of tidal waves and extreme weather.  Getting to that part of the movie is an act of patience like none other.  The first hour of the film is almost punishing how slow, poorly acted and filled with incidental details it is.  The ending is a fair reward for those that can sit through two acts of Ambient-like entertainment though.

It’s always sad to me when a film that’s a true tribute to historical figures doesn’t do well.  The Finest Hours isn’t a bad film but it falls short of what it could have been.  The attention to detail to make this feel like a film shot in the ‘50s is incredible but that level of nitty-gritty is what bogs down the first 60 minutes in ways I haven’t seen in a while.  The climax is exciting, emotional and thrilling but by the time we get there, we all feel like survivors.

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Anomalisa



There aren't that many filmmakers out there that have to be reckoned with, right?  I mean, that their films are too big, too bold, too smart, too weird, too difficult to create to simply brush off and say, "eh, that sucked."  For me, the list is small...Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe, some of Stanley Kubrik's work.  I need to add Charlie Kaufman to that list.  As a writer, his works are usually enjoyable in their quirky way like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but as a director, I can't seem to wrap my brain around him.  His latest film is called Anomalisa and it just might be the hardest film to digest yet in his resume, which is impressive considering he's the same guy who made Synecdoche, New York.

 

This animated film was not enjoyable for me or my wife and I believe that was Kaufman's goal.  He wanted to make a movie that was personal and human but the side of life he chose to show is depressing, unrelatable to me, and narcissistic.  It follows a man who travels a lot for business as a Customer Service expert.  He's written a book and carries a low level of fame among Customer Service people but he's lonely.  The entire film is about a 24-hour period of him arriving to a city, checking in to his hotel, meeting someone, having a one-night-stand, giving his speech and returning to his family.  However, because this is from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, nothing is easy to process and certainly not simple.  

 

You can tell that Kaufman has nothing but contempt for 99% of the population of this planet.  You can tell that he's an uncomfortable, uneasy introvert that thinks very highly of himself and not of others.  That all comes across in his writing for most scripts but this one especially.  His interpretation of what "small talk" sounds like is very funny.  My wife is an introvert and she has described "small talk" the same way but because of that, she did not find it funny.  The main character thinks so highly of himself that, to him, everyone else in the world might as well be the same person.  Kaufman does a great job of showing that by having all the other characters share the same face and are voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan (The Last Action Hero, AMC's Hell on Wheels), even the female characters.  This is confusing at first till you figure that out.  

 

The only person who isn't the same to him, who's voiced by David Thewlis (the Harry Potter films, The Big Lebowski), is Lisa, who's voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight, The Machinist).  The device of using such a limited cast is really brilliant and you can tell this film started as a radio play that Kaufman was performing, although it must have been impossible to understand who was talking.  It's also brilliant that he brought in animator Duke Johnson (NBC's Community) to share in the directing because this film wouldn't have felt as unique if wasn't done in stop-motion animation.  Yes, there is animated sex too...very graphic sex.  In fact, the sex scene is so realistic and ugly that it's very difficult to watch.  Kaufman chooses to stay on the scene for an excruciatingly long time to ensure that you flinch while watching two average-looking, middle aged strangers fumble around.  I understand the point but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

 

That brings me to the original point of reckoning with a filmmaker.  Many artists like Kaufman develop a fan base that love to say, "you just didn't GET it."  I assure you who proclaim that, I got it.  Anamolisa is a film that I spent a very long time thinking about when it was over.  I talked about it.  I read about it.  I even listened to an interview Kaufman and Johnson did explaining the film.  My takeaway is that I just didn't like it.  I can't relate to the level of loneliness that the film is built upon.  That's not to say that I'm better than the main character or Charlie Kaufman or people who travel from city-to-city like nomads, I simply can't relate to it though.  A lot of people claimed that it's a deeply human film that truly reaches into the soul.  I can see how and why some people would say that, I'm just not one of those people.  Anomolisa is a boring 90-minute animated thesis that is impressive in its effort but ultimately void of entertainment beyond a few chuckles and spiraling discussions on humanity that go nowhere.

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The Revenant



When you're a movie nerd like me, you get excited about films that have taken on a legendarily infamous reputation.  It's even more impressive and intriguing when the stories circulate before the movie even comes out.  The Revenant is one of those films.  For the past year or so, I've been reading rumors that crew members were getting hypothermia, cast members were insisting on eating raw meat for scenes, a scene features a bear raping Leonardo DiCaprio, the whole thing was filmed using only natural lighting, it was filmed in such remote locations they had to camp in the wilderness overnight because it took too long to get there.  What's even more impressive was to find out that all, minus the ridiculous bear-rape story, were totally true.  Of course this level of lore made me thirsty to drink The Revenant in, which might have been its undoing because it was far less than what I was hoping for.

 

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is on a massive hot streak that is long overdue and well deserved.  Coming off his last film, Birdman, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, this is an interesting follow-up.  Birdman is a bizarre comedy and this is a tribute to human misery as I've ever seen.  The Revenant is inspired by a true story of a fur trader who was left for dead by his hunting party after a bear attack and survived in the wilderness till he was well enough to return to the fort.  Liberties are taken with the details but that is essentially what this is about with a delightful revenge story thrown in for extra motivation for DiCaprio's character to succeed.  Survivor stories are often tricky as they can become very bogged down in minutiae and too many scenes where no dialogue or action is happening.  Sadly, that's the case for The Revenant.

 

The one thing that this film never runs short on is superb performances.  Yes, there are many actors in the film but really it has a core cast of four people.  There's an innocent, derpy character played by Will Poulter (We're the Millers, The Maze Runner), and a brave commander of the hunting party played by Domhall Gleeson (the Harry Potter films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens).  Both are excellent but this film BELONGS to Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy (Mad Max, Inception).  These two will absolutely get Oscar nominations and DiCaprio has, once again, proven he's worthy to be called "Oscar-winner."  If the man doesn't win Best Actor for The Revenant, he'll never win for anything.

 

Inarritu also deserves another Oscar nomination and possibly a win.  His dedication to the extended scenes that feel like one long take due to hidden cuts has never been more impressive than it is in the action scenes in The Revenant.   Glimpses of such scenes in the trailer take your breath away and they're only tiny nibbles of the visual feasts they're taken from.  Unfortunately, there isn't enough of them.  Most of the film is dedicated to overly slow and gorgeous scenes of DiCaprio in the wilderness trying to survive in icy rivers, windy forests and freezing mud.  It's successful in making you feel his frontier misery and anguish too well because it ruins large parts of the movie.  However, a film has never looked so beautiful.  The fact that none of what you see are special effects and it's all lit with the sun or the moon is nothing short of amazing...just after a while, you grow tired of it.

 

The Revenant is a rare film that should be seen but I understand if you don’t.  It’s not an uplifting story, it doesn’t equal a good time nor does get your blood pumping for an extended period of time.  What it does have though is some of the most breathtaking cinematography of the last decade and demands to be seen on the big screen.  I can understand why that was so tempting to devote so much screen time to, but it simply gets in the way of an entertaining film that doesn’t feel punishing to watch.

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The Big Short



Anchorman is one of my all-time favorite comedies.  Everything about that movie is perfect to me and I can't get enough of it.  Writer/Director Adam McKay is one of the great comedic talents of the last 30 years.  Besides Anchorman he directed Step-Brothers, The Other Guys, Anchorman 2, Talladega Nights and co-founded Funny or Die and was the head writer for SNL.  The man is top shelf when it comes to all things funny.  Lately, however, he's branching out because he has more to offer the world.  He was brought in to write Ant-Man after that project was in trouble and his sharp wit ended up being one of the best things about it.  But McKay had more to offer the entertainment world.  He was mad and he wasn't gonna take it anymore.  He decided to write and direct The Big Short, a poignant look at the housing bubble pop which caused a global economic meltdown in 2007 and he just might have made one of the best films of the year.

I remember watching The Daily Show in 2007 and Elizabeth Warren was on as the guest.  Before she became a kick-ass Senator she was a financial professor at Harvard.  She was the only person running around trying to warn everybody that the sky had already started to fall and we need to do something about it.  The problem was, what she was warning us about was so complicated and so big we had no idea what the hell she was talking about.  It's true still to this day.  What caused the economic collapse of 2007 is complex and nuanced and that's how the people who caused it like it because it allows them to break the law without getting caught because no one understands the laws in the first place.  McKay is ballsy to take this subject matter on because it's really hard to understand.  Despite my wife, who's a member of Mensa, still not understand any of it, The Big Short does the best job of explaining it that I've seen so far.  But brace yourself; it's a thick story to get through and not something you can pay attention to casually.

There is so much that is impressive about The Big Short it's hard to pick a place to start.  It's not like McKay has never written and directed a movie before but what's so amazing is how he tackles this true story with a perfect mix of satire and tragedy with a style that's somewhere between the mania of Oliver Stone and aggression of Martin Scorsese.  (Who saw that coming?!)  He zooms in and out of hilarious moments right into moments that are devastating for humanity.  The way he shows the level of greed that consumed some people in this country is truly heartbreaking.  The one thing I didn't expect, when watching The Big Short, was how moved it would make me.  The trailer made me confident that I would find it amusing but I was blown away at how it would make me so depressed.

The power of the movie comes from McKay's writing and directing but it is delivered perfectly by an ensemble cast as incredible as those in Spotlight.  Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling are the main leads although only Gosling and Carrell shares scenes together.  The story follows three separate groups of people who saw the collapse coming and wanted to profit off of it...at first.  Some wanted to hit the Wall Street banks for revenge, some for noble causes and others just to get rich.  Once they realize that what was happening was pure fraudulance, they got mad and tried to fight it.  Both Carrell's supporting actors and Pitt's supporting actors are incredible and really hold their own with them, especially John Magaro (Unbroken, Carol) and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken, and FX's American Horror Story).

I honestly can't wait to see The Big Short again and not just because it's a confusing story and hard to grasp.  It's one of the best films of the year in every way.  It's a rare film that not only can make you laugh as hard as it can make you cry but actually is trying to be noble and make a difference in the world.  McKay didn't just prove he's more than a clown, he proved he's capable of being one of the best filmmakers out there.  As much as I love the guy for making one of my favorite comedies of all time, after seeing The Big Short, I hope he doesn't return to comedy for a very long time and gives us more treasures like this in the years to come.


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Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Remember how you felt on May 18th, 1999?  If you were anything like 19-year-old Gavin, you were so excited you could hardly contain the pee in your bladder.  It was the night before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out.   That movie was going to launch a new generation at light speed into the Star Wars universe.  Oh, we were so naive.  On May 19th, we all walked out of the theaters trying to convince ourselves that the disaster we just saw was good, but as time went on, the lie became impossible.  The following two films in the prequels weren't as bad, but as a whole, a part of our childhood was vaporized due to the bastardization of our holy trinity—the original Star Wars films.  We all wept as a collective planet and called for the head of George Lucas on a plate.  Well, after the $4 billion purchase of the franchise from Lucas by Disney three years ago, the Mouse heard our woes, righted the starship, and created The Force Awakens which is everything we hoped for, wished for in the night, and dreamt it could be.  


It's been well publicized that director JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Super 8) was terrified of the release of his Star Wars film.  I don't blame him.  If there's one franchise that the entire planet seems to hold religiously sacred it's this.  So much was riding on this film, and Abrams delivered with a solid bullseye.  So many things are impressive about his vision, but most of all, it’s impressive how amazingly organic this film feels in the chronology.  The prequels were so wacky and over-produced that they didn't even feel like they were part of the same films.  The Force Awakens looks and feels so much like The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that not a single moment feels new or foreign.  There are a ton of new characters introduced, but because of this attention to tone, we instantly feel comfortable and close to all of them.  Abrams truly has a style that is his own, and that's one of the reasons why his Star Trek films worked so well on a mainstream audience.  With Force though, he set his artistic ego aside and made a film that didn't feel like his but felt like ours.

 

The new main characters introduced to us are Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren.  Rey is played by Daisy Ridley, who is the stunningly adorable, incredibly effective actress who went from nobody to one of the biggest stars in the world with this performance.  She's everything that she needed to be—spunky, authentic, and raw.  She's joined by John Boyega (Attack the Block) as Finn.  Like Ridley, he commands the screen with each scene he's in.  He's charismatic, brutal, and funny.  Slightly more famous than those two is Adam Driver (HBO's Girls, This is Where I Leave You) as the sinister Kylo Ren, who is this film's Darth Vader.  The humanity and complexity he puts into his evil character is what was missing from Vader, and it punches the entire film up that much more.  Of course we also have the amazing return of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, but I don't need to (nor should I) say anything more about them in this film.

 

I desperately want to talk about this movie in more detail with someone, but I won't do that.  Since I promised zero spoilers and I know how sensitive some of you are, I won't even talk generally about the plot.  Let's just say that the only criticism I have with the film involves the plot and its lack of originality.  However, certain scenes that will go unexplained by me here are so incredible that I laughed with tears in my eyes because of the visceral reaction it was pulling from my soul.  The one thing that is consistently nostalgic about all seven films is the opening scroll and John Williams' stellar score.  What's great about The Force Awakens though is that the nostalgia doesn't stop there.  In fact, that's one of the least nostalgic parts of the whole film.  The sounds, the weapons, the nods to previous episodes, the non-CGI monsters in real make-up...all of it is part of a larger time capsule that is glorious to open up and crawl inside of for two hours.

 

I have a 3-year-old son who has never seen a Star Wars film (he's too young right now), but he knows a lot of the characters by name.  My wife, sadly, is in the same position as him.  They've never seen Darth Vader fight Luke Skywalker, but they know both their names and know what weapons they use in their epic duels.  I think the same can be said for 90% of the population of this planet.  When you are extending a film franchise that holds so much clout with the human race, you better damn-well know what you're doing and execute it with laser precision.  I can say without any doubt that Abrams and Disney have done that, and even though they played it a bit safe with the story, Force is something that will be cherished and loved as much as A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  The Force Awakens is exactly what we have always imagined, and there's not a single second that will lead to disappointment.

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In the Heart of the Sea



It seems like they started advertising this movie two years ago, doesn't it?  That's because production for it started all the way back in 2013.  It ran into problems over the script and was scheduled to be released in March of 2015 and was delayed again for some re-shoots.  After all that, we finally get our final product and it seems like a turbulent movie that was made while hitting rough seas...pun intended.  There's nothing overwhelmingly bad about In the Heart of the Sea but there's nothing overwhelmingly good either.  A movie based on the true story of the American whaling ship Essex and how their nightmare inspired Moby Dick should be amazing but what we're left with is desolate and boring rather than white-knuckled and kick-ass.

No matter what project is being reviewed, I'll always consider Ron Howard a great director.  The man did Apollo 13, Willow, Backdraft, A Beautiful Mind, Parenthood, Cinderella Man, Ransom...the list goes on and on.  Even though Rush was panned by critics and audiences, I still thought it was amazing.  Chris Hemsworth starred in that and he stars in In the Heart of the Sea too.  Hemsworth is a decent actor but is cursed with "Brad Pitt Condition" which is where he's so good looking, he has to really earn the opinion that he's a really good actor.  Someone like Paul Giamatti, you believe he's talented because he's in tons of movies and isn't gorgeous.  But someone like Hemsworth has to prove he's more than good looks.  He's done it here.  His performance is not Oscar-worthy, although that's what he was shooting for.  He lost hella weight for the role, subjected his body to torture and shows us he can make us believe he's not Thor.

But back to Howard, I'm not sure anything he did was wrong.  His skills are on point, as they always are.  I know he's the captain of the ship and all mistakes fall as his feet but from the perspective of someone trying to figure out where the film goes wrong, I can't honestly say I can pin it on him.  The performances from the rest of the cast are fine, none of them will keep the wind in your sails though.  The script is cliche and dull.  The framing of having Mody Dick author, Herman Melville, as a character who is being told the story by a survivor is cool for literature geeks but feels totally forced.  However, the details of seeing what shore life in Boston and whaling was like in 1820 is really awesome to behold.  Those scenes are done with tons of details and are a blast for history nerds.

When I go to see a historical film that's based on a true story, I don't want it to look like it was made as a mini-series for The History Channel.  In the Heart of the Sea feels exactly like that but with better acting.  It's not the worst thing you'll see this year but it undercuts your expectations by leagues.  Maybe it was that it was released during Oscar season that got my hopes up.  Perhaps it was a series of amazing trailers that got me super pumped.  Could've been just the prospect of another Ron Howard project that goosebumped me up.  Whatever it was, I'm sorry it happened because this is a film that would probably watch far better if there were zero expectations going in.

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