Gavin Grades The Movies

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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It's been four years since we've seen Angelina Jolie in anything and the last time we did it was in one of the biggest box office failures of the year.  I understand that she's a mother of 40 kids and when you're married to Brad Pitt you don't have to be the bread-winner but c'mon, Angie!  We miss you!  Well, we miss seeing you because as far as your movies go, you actually don't have a stellar record of making good ones.  I know it's hard to believe but pull up her IMDB page and check it out for yourself.  She's someone we love as Hollywood royalty without ever really earning it.  That's not to say she's not a great actress because she is. In fact, she's one of the only great things about Maleficent.

The titular character of this re-telling of Sleeping Beauty is interesting.  It's been 55 years since Walt Disney made this (which was a box office and critical failure at the time, mind you) and 317 years since the original source material was published.  Out of all the Disney villains, Maleficent consistently ranks at the top, which is why Disney decided to make this film.  However, when you go down the predicatble and dissapointing road of telling a story from a villain's perspective and make them a misunderstood softy-at-heart, you strip away everything that we loved about them in the first place.

See, there are villains that we love to hate and villains that we just plain hate; both are excellent for a story.  But when you make the villain the star and then also make them the sympathetic hero, it's not what we love about the character anymore.  Sure, they look the same and talk the same but they don't act the same.  That choice was crippling for this film.  Make Maleficent dark and twitsted and complicated.  I know it's Disney and they were even aiming for a PG rating (which I'm shocked they got), but if those are your guidelines, then don't make it.

Director Robert Stromberg seemed to throw any original vision he might have had out the window and instead tore pages from the playbook of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, HBO's Game of Thrones and even a little of James Cameron's Avatar.  That type of unoriginality should've been expected by a guy like Stromberg who never directed a single thing before this but was an Oscar-winning visual effects master.  He's used to having people tell him what their vision is and never had to come up with one himself.  I can't blame him for doing it this way since he's had over 20 years of experience doing just that.

Maleficent also wasn't helped by a good script either.  It has the slowest and soggiest middle I've seen in months, has shockingly sparce dialogue and crams in unwatchable scenes of levity provided by the three fairies.  Despite all that, Angelina Jolie is pretty great in it.  Her brief performance that features Maleficent's wings cut off is agonizingly sad for a PG-rated film.  Maybe I'm reading into it too much but I wonder if she pulled from her real life and what it was like to part with her breasts after her double mastectomy.  Knowing that she went through that makes that scene simply heartbreaking and perhaps the only magic found in an otherwise very forgettable film.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

Let's all pretend for a second that we're not a tad exhausted with X-Men films.  Out of all the Marvel comic book characters, The Uncanny X-Men was the series that I got into the most as a kid.  I knew all the main characters and probably half of the 100 or so secondary characters.  I loved them for the action and appreciated the allegory for Civil Rights as I got older.  But even I have my limits and Fox has squeezed so much blood from the franchise that even vampires are saying "okay, enough is enough."

Imagine that X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine didn't happen.  If you take those three terrible films out of the canon you're left with a film series that has been stellar.  Days of Future Past acts as a sequel and prequel to all of them but primarily the good ones that are left, X-Men, X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class, which I regard as one of the best superhero films ever made.  This is based on a storyline in the comic books that came out in the early '80s and is regarded as one of the best comic books ever made (although they tweaked it to accomodate which stars were more box office bait).  The film recognizes the gravity of that and does a damn good job of living up to the legend.

One of the most impressive things about it is that director Bryan Singer (the first two X-Men films, Superman Returns) convinced the entire cast of the original films and from First Class to return and star in Days of Future Past, which takes place in the 1970s and the 2020s.  That cast consists of Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Jennifer Lawerence, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy.  It also features cameo performances from almost anyone who's ever played a mutant in any of the better films.  Simply pulling that off is impressive enough.

Since the movie involves time travel and alternate futures it might challenge some of the more passive viewers but I was impressed at how unconfusing they laid it all out.  The script is smart, witty and exciting.  The action sequences are some of the more impressive in the entire X-Men series, including one with a soon-to-be fan favorite Quicksilver that has one of the funniest and coolest scenes I've seen from any superhero movie ever.  The unfortunate part is that these moments of violent eye candy are too far apart.

Days of Future Past has a runtime of over two hours and is book-ended by awesomeness.  The middle of the film slows down to a near crawl and actually gets a little boring at times.  For some reason, First Class kept my attention the entire time despite being an entirely new cast from what we've seen.  I can only credit that to Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake), who is a much better director than Singer.  I know that it was only fair that the man who started the series (and some could argue the reign of the comic book movie) 13 years ago be the one that's allowed to finish it.  Singer does a fine job and Days of Future Past is a great film; it just makes me wish I could get Kitty Pryde to send me back in time so I could get Vaughn to direct this instead.

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