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Gavin Grades The Movies


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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Furious 7

My Review by Intern Kevin

I loved it! It was very, very, very great! This is the best one yet! I even cried!

Intern Kevin

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Get Hard

Not a lot of people know who Adam McKay is but he's Will Ferrell's best friend.  They met on SNL when McKay was the head writer.  He's responsible for such brilliant films as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brother, The Other Guys and the co-founder of Funny or Die.  I love it when he's behind the camera.  He seems to put out top shelf entertainment and some of the funniest films ever made. Get Hard has all the feel of an Adam McKay movie but it's not.  He just came up with the story and the rest was outsourced to a first-time director and that's where it went wrong.

Will Ferrell is one of the funniest, if not the funniest, people alive today.  He could look into the camera and read from the Wall Street Journal and make it funny.  He's joined by Kevin Hart in this film (hear my full interview with him below), a king of comedy in his own right.  The premise of the film seems hilarious enough -- a millionaire douchebag is going to jail but before he does he hires a black man, he assumes has been to jail because he's black, to teach him how to survive prison.  Sure, it's a racist premise but it's not the first time a comedy has been made that set out to poke us in our collective racial sensitivity.  But for some reason, this plot just kind of sucked.

Another big problem with the film is that director Etan Cohen doesn't have the experience to pull the plug on a scene before it wears out its welcome.  There are moments in Get Hard that are amazingly funny but then go on for another few minutes and that negates whatever comedic progress was made in the scene before that.  Not to mention that some bits in the film don't work at all from the very beginning and they go on too long as well.  It makes those particular moments especially frustrating to watch.  Cohen chooses to go for shock instead of actual comedy for much of the film.

Ferrell and Hart are funny in the film though despite a lousy script.  That might be my own bias about them as performers though.  They don't have a ton of chemistry but given the nature of their characters, that's fine.  Ferrell is known for ad libbing and improvising most of his dialogue and Hart comes across as someone who sticks to the script.  I'm not sure how much of that went on in Get Hard but if I had to guess, it was a lot.  

I appreciate what McKay and his crew for Get Hard try to do with the social/political message they have in this.  I also appreciate how hard they try to get that message across and still create a funny film, which they did for the most part.  Get Hard isn't the total disaster that some are saying but it's far from the success the premise could have made it.  When you put two of the funniest working comics in a movie together the expectations of greatness should be reached.  They're not.  And that is the real crime.

Listen to Kevin Hart on the Wake Up Call:

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It Follows

Out of all the film festivals, Cannes seems to be the most snooty, at least to me.  Maybe because it takes place in the south of France or maybe because the movies that end up making a splash are the kind that most people end up rolling their eyes at when they get a wide release in America.  Rarely do horror films get a buzz at any film festival let alone that one.  It Follows is the movie that bucked the system.  It was one of like five films to come out of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival with a lot of attention.  Whenever that happens and it's to a genre that never gets the credit it deserves, I take notice and so should you.

Obviously, It Follows has a cast of unknown actors and all of them are young.  The lead is a stunning Maika Monroe who will be in many more films to come; trust me.  The film sounds ridiculous but trust me, it's not.  Imagine an STD of the supernatural kind.  Monroe plays a young girl who has sex with a boy who then informs her that he's passed a curse on to her via sex.  The curse is a creature that takes the form of different creepy humans that has one goal until she passes it to someone else...kill her.  I know!  I know!  It SOUNDS stupid but upon viewing the film it feels totally ominous and logical.

For decades, horror films have used sex as justification for the villains.  Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger all killed naughty teens after they had sex and/or got drunk and high.  It Follows takes that tired plot device and amps it up with a very real feeling of dread and panic.  It's a perfect anxiety piece for anyone who has ever had an STD scare or got that dreaded diagnosis in real life.  It's way more effective than a masked killer shoving a butcher's knife into your chest.  No matter what is happening on the screen at the time, you know that this creature is moving slowly toward Monroe in a deliberate mission to kill her.  It never stops its pursuit and you don't know why.

Now, know that this film isn't scary.  That's important to get across because that's all some of you want from a horror film and there's nothing wrong with that.  Personally, I feel like the best horror movies are the ones that are expertly directed and have an overall sense of dread and creepiness.  Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell NAILS it!  It Follows is presented to us like Stanley Kubrik's The Shining. It's not the masterpiece that that was but this was also done by a young director on his second feature film.  The long, single-take shots, the perfectly-framed angles, the lighting and one of the best horror soundtracks of all time make this a must-see.

If you're expecting blood splattered violence, graphic nudity in steamy sex scenes, a terrifying monster that drools and snarls...this isn't for you.  It Follows is the slow burn that never startles but just makes you feel uneasy.  It creeps you out and is a clever twist on the morality of horror.  It's a film that deserves to be watched and then discussed afterward.  It's a display from a filmmaker who's ready for the big time and a leading lady who needs to be cast in more right away.  It Follows deserves all the attention it got from Cannes and I just hope that America embraces it for the classic it's sure to become.

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My wife and I often get into fights.  She says that Dreamworks Animation makes nothing but crap for kids and I defend them.  Not everything that Dreamworks Animation has put out has been awful.  Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods, Kung Fu Panda...these are all great films.  My wife's response to that is to point out what their success rate is given how many films they've made.  I have to concede that point because she's right; it's not good.  Especially when you compare it to Pixar which has made a superb film every single time they've tried, with some exceptions, it does make Dreamworks look sophomoric to say the least.  Home is a film that really swings for the fences on hitting you right between the ribs and tug at those heartstrings while still being really, really funny.  I hate to say it but it's another example of how right my wife is.

Jim Parsons is the voice of Oh, a member of a lovable alien species who invades Earth to claim it as their own.  Parsons has won several awards for his role on The Big Bang Theory but I can't stand him.  No matter what I see him in, no matter how far of a departure he takes it from his nerdy character on that show, he still irritates me.  His portrayal of Oh is not even remotely a departure and annoyed me from the first seconds of the film until its bitter end.  Another casting decision that is unforgivable is Rihanna as Oh's human sidekick.  This isn't Rihanna's first film and I'm not sure who told her to get into acting but I hope that person suffers for that.

The only success in Home is Steve Martin, who hasn't been in anything in four years.  It is possible for Martin to star in a terrible film but it is impossible for Martin to be terrible in it.  This is a prime example.  He plays the halfwit leader of the aliens and his hilarious performance is up there in the top ten greatest voice performances of all time.  He may be the only thing worth watching in the movie.  The only other performance that is amusing is from Matt Jones who you may recognize as Badger from AMC's Breaking Bad.

The biggest problem with Home is that it's dumb.  I understand that it's for kids and it's okay if they're silly but it's dumb in a way that makes me mad because it talks down to the audience.  Penguins of Madagascar is silly but it's not dumb.  Pixar films tend to be the exact opposite and sometimes forget to be silly but they are never, ever dumb.  Underestimating your audience is one of the worst things a film can do and director Tim Johnson (Over the Hedge) has a history of doing just that.  However, the worst thing about Home is the soundtrack which is 90% Rihanna songs and they fire throughout the movie every five minutes like a rotten jukebox.

Home isn't worth seeing in a theater; it's not even worth renting.  It's unfortunate because the scenes that involve Steve Martin are very funny and deserve to be watched.  There aren't enough of them though to still justify a viewing of this annoying and aggravating film.  I brought my 3-year-old son to my screening.  He's an excellent moviegoer, which makes me excited and proud as you could imagine.  Home didn't hold his attention, didn't make him laugh, didn't make excited.  Either the apple doesn't fall far from the tree or it's simply not a good film for any generation.

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There will be a day when young adult novel series will no longer be the bread and butter (along with comic books) of Hollywood anymore.  I'm starting to look forward to those days.  It's true that some of the series are very good such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games but most of them are not.  I understand that these books might be crazy fun to read but they simply don't make great movies or at the very least are poorly executed.  The Divergent series seems to be falling victim to the same issues that all these movies do; working out the kinks in tone and direction as they go along.  Twilight did that and by the last two films almost had a winning film on their hands.  Divergent was a disaster on almost every level but by bringing German director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, Red) they might have a winning film next time around.

I am very aware that Divergent is a popular series yet no one has been able to explain to me the basic plot.  In the future, the human race is almost gone and in order to keep peace we are born into a vocation based on our DNA.  However, if you're not fond of that vocation, you are free to choose another.  Some people are born Divergents though and don't fit into any group and these people are a threat to the entire system...for some reason.  As long as you don't mind that HUGE plot hole, these films aren't the worst concepts out there.  Sure, they're wildly uncreative and unoriginal but what young adult series is?  The good news for Insurgent is that that speed bump in storytelling takes a backseat in this installment and more action replaces it.

Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars, The Descendants) returns with her co-star Theo James (Underworld: Awakening, The Domino Effect).  Woodley is a relatively talented actress.  James, on the other hand, is one of the worst working actors I've seen.  These two continue to have so little chemistry that it makes Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson seem like soul mates.  These two romantically lumber around the story making over half of the movie boring and unwatchable due to so much time being dedicated to their relationship.  Thank God Miles Teller (The Awkward Moment, 21 & Over) is here to save the day.  Fresh off his killer performance in the Oscar-winner Whiplash, Teller wins every scene he's in and gives you something to look forward to.

The other good news for Insurgent is that it has a pretty exciting final act.  I was made aware that the ending is a big departure from the book.  I don't know what happens in those pages but what I saw on the screen was vital to this franchise making me look forward to anything else from it.  Schwentke seems to have his hands on the reigns more firmly than the last guy.  If he pulls this series out of certain death it'll be impressive given its clunky and confusing start.  I'm not exactly routing for its success considering how over half this film is still awful, but I am looking forward to what it has to offer next.

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The Gunman

March is always a tricky month with movies.  January and February typically get the worst films of the year released during them but March is different.  It's still part of the season that most people stay home because the weather sucks but Hollywood studios still take chances with films they feel like might be a hit during March.  It's hard to say whether or not that was the reason for The Gunman's release this time of year.  It has the cast you'd typically see in an Oscar-nominated film, an exotic location, a political agenda and a somewhat accomplished director.  It also had virtually no advertising behind it which means almost no one knows about this movie at all which is a shame.

The Gunman stars Sean Penn who seems like he came out of retirement for this project.  That's actually not true; he was in two films two years ago (Gangster Squad, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).  Maybe that's just my perception since this is his first leading role since winning an Oscar in 2008 with Milk.  I like Penn despite the fact that he seems like a self-important blowhard in real life.  He's a fantastic and intense actor and that's no different here.  Despite turning in a top shelf performance, he also looks freaking amazing!  I usually don't give credit to actors for their looks considering that's their job but Penn is 54-years-old and is just as jacked up as an Expendable and more talented than all of them combined.

Starring alongside Penn is Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall), Ray Winstone (The Departed, Noah), an extremely underused Idris Elba (Thor, Prometheus) and Italian indie actress Jasmine Trinca, who's great and makes me wonder why she's not used more often.  The whole cast is solid, especially Bardem who puts out one of his most fun and slimy characters since he almost stole the show in Skyfall.  As great as the supporting cast is, this film belongs to Penn and you might understand why when you learn what it's about.

Penn is a political activist in real life and has spent a considerable amount of time doing aid work in Africa and parts of the Middle East.  That environment lends itself for the birth of the plot.  The Gunman follows a covert team of former soldiers that are in different countries acting on corporate interests.  What, at first, seems like just security detail quickly reveals sinister agendas such as killing foreign leaders so the corporate interests can keep cranking out billions.  Penn plays one of those creeps who has a change of heart after years in hiding and must defend himself when someone tries to kill him.  The political message of the film is blunt and on-the-nose about how evil these type of organizations are but it's effective and works wonderfully as a plot for a Hollywood action.

Director Pierre Morel has a history of taking aging Hollywood leading men and making them action heroes again.  He tried with John Travolta in From Paris With Love but did it very successfully with Liam Neeson in Taken.  In fact, he's the one that kind of gave Neeson his ass-kicking mojo and sent him on this repetitive type of character avalanche that we all can't seem to get out of.  He tries really hard to make The Gunman more than just popcorn-comping shoot-em-up faire by giving it the sense of urgency in a very real problem in the world however the confusing plot makes the film hard to follow at times.  It wouldn't shock me if this movie comes and goes in theaters in a week or two but it's worth a watch if you're looking for something smart and fun.

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Let's not kid ourselves; are you really that excited about a live-action version of Cinderella?  Even mega Disney fans, ladies who long to be princesses, people who appreciate classic fairytales...are any of them clambering to see this?  When I heard they were doing this I scoffed and rolled my eyes.  Disney must've felt that tone in the air as well which is why they put the "sequel" short film to Frozen, their highest grossing film of all time, before it.  (By the way, it's as excellent and charming as Frozen was.)  I think I'm right about the lack of excitement to see Cinderella which is why I feel the need to shout from the rooftops how excellent it is so people will actually go see it.

I have never seen PBS' Downton Abbey.  I've heard from several people that it's excellent and Lily James is one of the reasons why.  She stars as the titular fairytale princess and she's absolutely perfect.  She's pretty but not too pretty.  She's kind but not an annoying victim.  She's funny but not overly humorous.  She was a perfect casting for Cinderella.  That streak of great casting goes down the line for everyone.  Richard Madden (HBO's Game of Thrones) is great as the prince.  Cate Blanchett (the Lord of the Rings films, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is a perfect mix of menace and glamour as the Wicked Stepmother.  Helena Bonham Carter is delightful, albeit barely used, Fairy Godmother.

The real star of Cinderella is director Kenneth Branagh.  He's a famous actor who's been in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Valkyrie and Wild Wild West.  What's more impressive than his acting, to me, is his directing.  Yes, he's directed films like Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit but he's more known for bringing Shakespeare to life.  He's directed (and acted in) five film versions of Shakespeare plays and they've all been great.  1996's Hamlet, however, is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece.  It was one of the last films to be shot in the 70mm process which makes it look bigger than an IMAX film.  It's amazing to me that it's not remembered as one of the finest films ever made, maybe because it's four f**king hours long.  Thankfully, the scope of what made that film amazing is recaptured in Cinderella.

I'm not sure how Branagh talked Disney into giving him the budget for this but it was worth it.  Cinderella cost $95 million and it looks like it cost $195 million.  Yes, Branagh uses computer images to punch some shots up but overall, I think, most of this was shot on actual sets that will take your breath away.  The costumes are so elaborate that even someone like me noticed them.  The scope of the film is epic in every sense and attention to keeping every single shot amazing to look at through angles, symmetry and lighting is astounding.  

One of the complaints I've heard about seeing Cinderella is that it's a story that everyone knows and even how it ends.  That's true.  This isn't Maleficent where the story of Sleeping Beauty was told through a different character so interesting alterations are made.  Branagh doesn't do that; he tells the story of Cinderella exactly the way you'd expect.  The fact that he still managed to make it big, beautiful and magic is why you go see it.  Well, that and to see the Frozen short film...it really is super awesome too!

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