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Gavin Grades The Movies

San Andreas

Ever since I can remember going to movies, I loved disaster films. One of my earliest favorites was the original Poseidon Adventure. I loved watching mass destruction, panic, survival, redemption, and kick-ass special effects. The older I got the more intense my pallet became and I demanded a larger scale. The summer of '96 was the best when I sat with my best friends and watched all our major US cities get demolished by aliens in Independence Day. I even had a soft spot for the doesn't-hold-up-but-still-love-them-for-nostalgia films like Volcano, Armageddon, and Twister. I lived in Central Pennsylvania for the release of all of those and no one was interested in destroying that. San Andreas completely obliterates San Francisco which is only 100 miles from where I live now and it dramatically changed my enjoyment of such disaster...or maybe it's just not that great of a flick.

I have a rule as a critic and fan of film; if Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) is in a movie, it can't be all that bad. I know that's dumb but I trust in him so much that I can't imagine he would ever agree to be in something so awful he didn't see worth in being in it. I've been wrong though and The Hangover 2 and Rock of Ages made me see that. In San Andreas, he plays the token "expert" character that no one believes until it's too late and I should have sensed something was up about the quality of the script when I started to notice that he is one of the stars but not in a single scene with any of the other stars. He shot almost all of his footage in a single set in only a few days which feels as much as keeping San Andreas at arm's length away from him as he possibly could.

The real star is Dwayne (are we still using The Rock at all?) Johnson. There is nothing unlikable about Johnson. He's charming, funny, a somewhat decent actor, attractive and can carry a film on his ungodly large shoulders. However, you get out of him what you expect...not very much. No one sits in a film of his expecting Oscar-worth performances or even characters with an ounce of depth yet I find myself disappointed that that's exactly what we end up with. San Andreas is no different and he plays the cliche "hero" role who has a broken marriage and is trying to save his family during a disaster. It's not a challenging part, nor does he challenge himself with it...despite trying really hard to squirt a tear or two that almost seems convincing.

Director Brad Peyton does a fine-enough job ushering us through San Andreas but it feels like he is just reading along the step-by-step instructions on how to make a disaster film. His previous accomplishments are all children's movies so I give him credit for branching out but the only thing he brings to the table is his experience making effects-heavy productions and getting his performers to act like they're not just in front of a green screen for 70% of their scenes. The same can be said for the script which is decent for a disaster film yet is still nothing more than a paint-by-numbers formula. There's no creativity in anything you see and all you're left with is tense CGI of destruction galore, which I don't say with judgement since it's still entertaining on most levels.

I was in San Francisco just a few months ago and I've been there more times than I can remember since moving to Sacramento eight years ago. Watching that amazingly unique and beautiful city get leveled didn't feel fun in San Andreas. I don't know if that's because I'm too emotionally attached to it or because the movie forgot that disaster films are still supposed to get you to chomp popcorn with a big smile on your face. When I sit down to see something in this genre I don't want to be bummed out despite seeing mass death and destruction; I want to be excited by the action. San Andreas lacked something I can't put my finger on and fell short of my expectations. I'll fully admit that the problem might be in my own head but the more I think about it, I don't think it was. It's a movie that entertains on the most basic level and never seems to get solid footing on its shaky ground. (See what I did there?)

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Mad Max: Fury Road

All of us have the same fear that the best parts of a movie are ruined because they put them in the trailer. I can't remember seeing a trailer for a movie that excited me, disturbed me and stopped my breathing more than all three of the different versions that came out for Mad Max: Fury Road. What they showed was heart-pounding car chases, massive sand storms, huge explosions, manic characters. It was so much insanity that it had to be all the good parts, not only from the film, but from the climax of the movie, right?! I was pleased as punch to find out that everything you see in the trailer is featured in the first 20 minutes and it only gets crazier from there!

I can remember being about 9-years-old and watching all of the original Mad Max films on cable late at night. It was absolutely not appropriate for a kid that age to watch but the images in those movies are forever seared into my memory. In the following decades, I have forgotten all about that franchise and I imagine most everyone else has too. Director George Miller hit some bumps in his career since then as well. After making them, he walked off the set while making 1987's The Witches of East Wick and never really bounced back into Hollywood since. However, he did find a second calling with children's films making Oscar-winners like Babe and Happy Feet. But you can tell that his heart still belonged to Max and what we see in Fury Road is the stuff that only a crazy mind thinking about it for 30 years can come up with.

Don't worry, you don't have to know anything about the original trilogy to enjoy this; Fury Road is a full reboot. In fact, the smooth, charismatic Max Rockatansky that Mel Gibson originated has been reborn as a growling, grumbling, damaged, feral Max Rockatansky by Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception). He is excellent in this but graciously rides shotgun to Charlize Theron who is the true lead of the film. She's a battle-worn baddie turned goodie who risks it all trying to save the lives of women that belong to the villain, Immortan Joe, who is played by the amazing Hugh Keays-Byrne (who was Toecutter in the original trilogy). Theron is just one of the many super strong females who don't just kick ass but have depth and unique perspectives. Mad Max may feel like a gasoline-soaked bro film but it's a shining example of empowered feminism in an action film as I may have ever seen.

From the opening seconds of the film to the final minutes, there is wall-to-wall action stopping only briefly so that the audience can catch their breath. And it should be noted that when I say "action" I mean ACTION like you have never seen in both quality and quantity of images. There are so many actual stunts in actual fabricated and nightmarish vehicles that it's amazing nobody died while filming. And it would be easy to say that Mad Max is only a two-hour-long action sequence but it's more than that. The story is simple but it's rich and full of characters seeking redemption in world so f**king nutty that the only way one is redeemed is by doing the insane things depicted in the film.

It is crucial that all are warned that this is not a film with mass appeal, nor was it made to be. It's insane. It's a vision of a post-apocaylptic world that doesn't make sense, has confusing costumes, characters of human monsters and bizarre, manic dialogue. It's also a vision that is fully realized in the most glorious way by a man who's been laboring over it for decades. The result is an action film that will go down as one of the finest examples of the genre ever. My recommendation is to watch any of the trailers made for Mad Max: Fury Road. If what you see in those two minutes is enough to blow your hair back and make you want more or interesting enough to make you see what the hell else could be in store...then go see it! Especially since that's just from the beginning of the movie and you ain't seen nothing yet!

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Hot Pursuit

When I was in college I took several screenwriting courses. On one of our first assignments, the whole class was told to write a five-minute-long scene. My first attempt was awful as was everyone's. We had no experience writing a screenplay but the professor wanted to see where our skill level was. The only thing we all knew for sure was how to format a script. I got a B on the project despite it being something I'm fully ashamed to let anyone read to this day. A friend of mine got a D and his was even worse than mine. His screenplay was better than the script for Hot Pursuit by a long shot, that's how bad this movie is.

The funny thing about seeing a comedy in a crowded theater filled with people who get to see a movie before it comes out for free is that almost all of them will love it. That's exactly what happened the night I saw this. Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara star as a cop trying to get a witness to a murder trial to the stand to testify. They don't get along. They come from different walks of life. They get into amusing situations along the way. They eventually learn to become friends. It's a plot that has been seen time and time and time again. To say that Hot Pursuit is a predictable and cliche film is an insult to predictable and cliche films. It's a paint-by-number that could easily be written by anyone.

Believe it or not, there is one reason to see this movie and that's Sophia Vergara. Yes, she plays the same character she has in everything except Chef but she's effective. From the first moments of hearing her shrill voice come over an intercom, you can't help but to chuckle at someone so gorgeous allowing herself to be so obnoxious. Reese Witherspoon, however, is unbearable as some sort of watered-down dummy that has a badge. I understand that she has a following in comedies but making people laugh doesn't seem to be her cup of tea. Her entire performance seems like an awkward and unfunny SNL performance from a guest star who feels totally alien performing comedy.

You may be saying to yourself, "Gavin, you're being way, way too hard on Hot Pursuit! It wasn't that bad." You're right, it may not be that bad. I know some idiots with terrible taste in movies that will probably find this absolutely delightful. But if you're someone that gets physically ill and frustrated with Hollywood movies that follow a proven formula and make comedies the same way McDonald's makes burgers, then you will hate this...like it to your marrow.

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Interview: David from Bombas Socks

Listen to Gavin's interview with David from Bombas Socks about his experience on Shark Tank:
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Avengers: Age of Ultron

To say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a mediocre or, dare I say, bad film is such a misunderstanding as to what cinema is.  As I left the theater of my press screening, several people were telling the studio person there that they thought the first one was better and therefore, according to them, thie one wasn't very good.  I have a hard time wrapping my head around something like that.  When The Avengers came out three years ago, it was one of the, if not the, greatest superhero films of all time.  It wasn't just the stellar script or expert direction or breathtaking action sequences that blew us all away; it was that we had never seen anything of that magnitude before.  Now, three years later, we are already numb to that and we can witness the follow-up to that accomplishment and simply pass it off with a "meh."  Not only is that confusing to me, it's almost insulting.

In the first Avengers film when I saw Captain America, played by Chris Evans, and Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., on screen together for the first time, i got goosebumps.  It didn't matter that I was a grown-ass man, it reached down into my childhood soul and forced me to feel like a 10-year-old again.  Director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods) managed to not only show us something us comic book nerds thought we'd never see, which was all these characters together in one film, but he executed it perfectly.  Without a single moment of hesitation I can tell you that he's done it again and somehow even managed to make it bigger by adding even more characters to the group.

Strip away the millions of dollars spent on CGI and costumes and props, you are still left with a script that manages to harness the comic world of these characters that is so big it literally earns the word "universe."  All of that was accomplished by JUST Whedon.  These type of summer blockbusters are usually written by a committee of writers but not this time...it was one guy.  Sure the story gets too big at times and the editing to make it under three-hours-long makes certain sequences confusing to 90% of the audience but who cares!?  This is a superhero group that consists of 10 characters, four of which have had eight films dedicated to each of their individual stories!  That's insane how vast that is and Whedon STILL manages to funnel it into a relatively easy-to-swallow narrative.  Respect must be paid to that.

Avengers: Age of Ultron introduces four new characters to audiences and all four are great.  Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Priest) plays Vision and is the show-stopper but James Spader (Lincoln, Secretary) plays the evil Ultron and is the show-stealer.  His charismatic performance makes him such a fun villain on screen that you almost hope he's not defeated.  As far as the rest of the returning cast goes, they continue to turn in top shelf performances that are funny and even touching at moments.  One of the shockers was how much screen time Jeremy Renner (American Hustle, The Hurt Locker) got for his character Hawkeye.  He's a punchline among fans and in this film he explores that in a relatively existential way.

There are moments that SO MUCH is happening in Avengers: Age of Ultron, you have to make a conscious effort to stop, breathe, and process everything that you're taking in and when you do that, your eyes may water at its awesomeness.  It's not a perfect film but it's impossible to make a film this big and have it fire on all cylinders.  Considering the scope, the goal of the film and the execution of it all, this is still a stellar movie and has set the bar for the rest of the summer.  It's not better than the first one but if this film had come out first it would've been.  The comparison is unavoidable but the growth of the story makes this task more monumental and Whedon rose to the occasion and conquered it mightily.

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The Age of Adaline

Not gonna lie; I'm biased against romantic dramas.  I think a steady diet of Twilights, Nicholas Sparks' recycled crap and a mix of social and genetic dislike has all soured me on the genre.  There was something about The Age of Adaline that looked intriguing though.  Maybe it was the slight science-fiction plot of a main character who never ages.  Maybe it was that it's a period film through the entire 20th Century.  Maybe it's just that Blake Lively is insanely attractive.  Whatever the reason was that made me open to the idea that this could be something different, I'm glad it exists because it was a film I enjoyed quite a bit.

Director Lee Toland Krieger has a few feature films under his belt but nothing that you've seen...hell, it's nothing I've even seen; and I see a lot.  This is by far his biggest film in scope and budget and he pulled it off with the precision that made me think he was a seasoned Hollywood veteran.  Despite most of the film taking place in our current year, the entire movie feels timeless and could've been made in any of the decades featured.  His choice of lighting and lenses create a nostalgic haze to the screen that seems to be lost in the world of HD and it made everything seem slightly surreal and magical.

I'm fully convinced that Blake Lively is the total package.  Yes, it's true that she's one of the most beautiful actresses working today but her look is so classic that she seems absolutely in place for every decade chosen for a flashback.  That perfect look isn't just from hair and costumes but a type of face that has always been and will always be a desired leading lady.  Aside from all that though, Lively gives a subtle but stellar performance.  A fellow critic, who did not like The Age of Adaline, was complaining about her as we left the theater.  She said that she seemed cold and distant from the entire film.  I think this was a deliberate choice since the character is filled with nothing but sadness as she's forced into a life where everyone ages and dies around her and she must become an island.

The other two performances that are noteworthy are Harrison Ford who gives one of his best performances in the last decade.  He's vulnerable in a way we haven't seen since his Regarding Henry days and is a deep breath of fresh air whenever he appears on the screen.  The other is from Dutch actor Michiel Huisman (HBO's Game of Thrones, World War Z).  It seems in Hollywood that the more attractive you are the less likely it is that you're also a good actor.  That doesn't seem to be the case with Huisman who pulls off likable version of Christian Grey (minus the sex beatings), who's funny, charming and far from annoying.  He's someone that even the men in the audience will enjoy simply based on his "every-man" persona which he pulls off despite his character's wealth.  (Think Mr. Big in Sex and the City.)

There are moments where The Age of Adaline can't avoid veering down Cliche Ave for a moment or two but don't let that distract you from the emotional powerhouse that some of the scenes are executed with.  One scene in particular made me cry harder than I have at a movie in a few years and the slobbering snorts and blubbers around me confirmed that I wasn't alone.  There will be some disappointed that it's too convenient or not science-fiction enough but as a total product, I found Adaline to be a very enjoyable romantic drama that manages to have a little something for everyone.

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Interview: Oscar Isaac

Listen to Gavin's interview with actor Oscar Isaac:
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People : Oscar Isaac



Now we all know Joss Whedon as the genius who wrote and directed The Avengers films but before that he was a nerd who created a highly-praised sci-fi show Firefly and a horror satire called Cabin in the Woods.  When Cabin was released in 2012, I thought it was one of the most clever and original twists on conventional horror themes that I had ever seen...of course this was way before it was discovered that he may have ripped the whole thing off from a book that came out a few years earlier.  Nonetheless, Unfriended is a horror film that isn't a satire but is every bit as clever and original at taking the cliches that horror franchises were built on and modernizing it for a new generation that resonates louder than anyone expected.

Yes, it's true that the entire film is just a screen recording of a single computer that appears to be done in one single take.  Does that look weird on a big movie theater screen?  Yes.  In fact, this is one of the few films that will look and feel better on a small screen at home (or even better...a laptop).  Unfriended follows five friends having a Skype conversation when a mysterious account crashes their conversation, won't let the log off and kills them one-by-one.  I know this sounds as stupid as the trailer makes it look but I assure you that it's actually very effective and scary.

What I love about Unfriended so much is that it's everything you need to see for a conventional slasher horror.  The character cliches are the same.  The justification for the murders is the same.  The mounting terror is achieved the same.  However, in 2015 teenagers no longer go to summer camp, or a cabin in the woods, or even get together at someone's house.  This is a generation who was raised online and that's where they happily live.  So what first-time writer Nelson Greaves and unknown director Levan Gabriadze created was a perfect concept to show how that generation can be scared to death.  

What makes the film even better is the message behind the film.  Murdering teenagers based on the sins of sex, drinking and drugs has always been part of horror but Gabriadze and Greaves have added a new sin to it that it actually way more serious and scary than anything in a horror film and that's cyber bullying.  Before you think this will come across like an After-School Special, I assure you doesn't.  It's a new plague in teenage lives and makes for a perfect plot device for a vengeful spirit to go after a group of five teens.  The other aspect that makes Unfriended so original is the choice to make it all one shot on a single laptop recording.  It's not "found footage" but some might think it feels that way.  You're watching one terrifying night play out in real time and it's VERY effective at building suspense and making you jump.  It does feel a little long at times but luckily it's only 84-minutes in length.

I understand that this is a gimmick film.  For that reason, it's easy to marginalize it.  As I walked into the screening I had the studio representative tell me that he found everyone over the age of 30 hated it and everyone under 30 loved it.  Isn't that an interesting snapshot of an ever-changing society?  Not everyone will find this scary and obviously it'll be a polarizing film, but anyone who is a fan of horror films and has bitched for years about how nothing feels new or original anymore, will stand up and cheer at this accomplishment.  That is until we find out a few years later that the whole thing was just ripped off of a some blog somewhere.  (Say it ain't so, Joss!)

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True Story

A funny thing happened at the Sundance Film Festival this year.  Two guys who have been in half of the top ten grossing comedies of the last decade starred in a film that was a true story about one of the most awful murderer in recent memory and the disgraced journalist that interviewed him for months in an attempt to write a book about it all.  If that sounds confusing because it doesn't appear to be funny at all, you're not alone; it's not...like at all.  True Story is a crime drama that's as bleak as they get yet for some reason stars Jonah Hill and James Franco are the stars.  If you can get past that, you might enjoy the film.

When I was in college I learned about Christian Longo and Michael Finkel because it was a crazy story.  Finkel had just been fired from The New York Times after he was caught lying on a story he wrote.  To save his career he decided to interview Longo, a man accused of murdering his wife and three young children, after learning that Longo liked him.  The two formed an unlikly and unholy friendship that is used as an example of what not to do in journalism.  I remember being totally floored by the story because it was exciting and interesting which turned out to be the exact opposite of the film True Story.

The reason for taking such a riveting story and making it a dull, plodding tale of seduction and lies is the fault of first-time writer/director Rupert Goold.  For a first attempt this isn't half bad.  The scenes of the actual murder are shown in small bits in flashbacks and what Goold chooses to show and how he shows it are beautiful which makes them so much more disturbing.  Being a father of a young child made me easy prey but those scenes moved me to tears.  However, anything beyond that is yawn-inducing as far as what Goold brings to the table.

The only thing that saves this film are the performances from Hill and Franco.  I know both these guys have been in really dumb, funny, crude comedies but they've also been nominated for Oscars.  They prove in True Story that they know how to command a dramatic scene just as well as they can command a comedic one.  Franco's performance is subdued and chilling and Hill is almost as good as his Moneyball performance as an ernest guy who doesn't realize he's being manipulated and outsmarted every step of the way.  Most of this film is scenes of just these two sitting in an empty room talking to each other and, despite being very slow, it still holds your attention.

There's nothing funny nor fun about True Story.  I'm sure that when the actual loved ones of the deceased found out that Jonah Hill and James Franco would be playing the leads in a movie about the trial of the man who took those kids from them, they were pretty pissed off.  But if you can leave your misconceptions about those two at the theater door and don't mind sitting through a slow 100-minute-long film that feels more like two hours, True Story delivers an interesting character study of a derranged man and his last victim.  Truly.

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Interview: WolfCop Writer/Director Lowell Dean

  Listen to Gavin's interview with the writer / director / producer of WolfCop, Lowell Dean...
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People : Lowell Dean


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