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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | April 5, 2014 | Add Comments

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2 Stars

Everyone’s second favorite red and blue Spandex-clad superhero is back…but not exactly better. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is longer, louder, and more violent than it’s predecessor, 2011’s The First Avenger, and that’s not a good thing.

In his first big-screen adventure, a scrawny Steve Rogers became the Captain America, and fought World-War II bad guys and Hugo Weaving’s super-villain The Red Skull. As the film ended, he was resurrected to the modern day, after sleeping for 70 years. Now, after saving the world in The Avengers, Cap struggles to come to terms with an increasingly scary world. Chief among his worries is who to trust: Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and newbie Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, looking kind of unsure what he’s doing in a superhero movie) all want the titular hero on their side, whether for good or evil. Speaking of good, Cap gets a new sidekick, named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). And speaking of bad, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) wants to kill everyone, even if he may or may not have been Captain America’s best friend long ago. As S.H.I.E.L.D. (the good guy one) and HYDRA (the bad guy one) fight for world domination, things get dark, apocalyptic, and very, very unpatriotic.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on in this movie. Read: too much. For 2 hours and 15 minutes, directors Anthony and Joe Russo tediously manufacture another boring blockbuster about the end of everything. The major problem is obvious: the Russo brothers are less interested in the personalized flair of past Marvel hits then they are in in low-lit, mopey-faced spectacle. The tone from the get-go is calamitously violent, with only the occasional one-liner.

There's action abound in Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)If there’s one thing  you can never fault Marvel for it’s that they manage to find a different genre for each movie. Last time Cap fought his way around, director Joe Johnston found a delicate balance of serious war-movie patriotism and tongue-in cheek cartoon goofiness that managed to set his film apart. The Iron Man movies are smart comedy-thrillers, while the Thor franchise is a galactic fantasy on a grand scale. The Winter Soldier fits into the “Generic 2014 Action-Movie” genre and the results are what you’d expect.

Starkly contrasting it’s precursor, the film’s script is sometimes hilariously inconsistent with the Captain America myth we know and love. I mean really, why is a flag-waving comic-book icon running around dispatching terrorists like he got mixed up with the latest Iron Man movie? Worse, the film tries to justify this by being “topical” i.e. mentioning present-day issues like national security and global war, while cartoon characters run around shooting each other.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackosn) and Alexander pierce (Robert Redford) are old friends and potential enemies in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)The problems don’t stop there; the two villains of the film are both monotonous retreads of other superhero nemeses. In a coulda-been-great performance, Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce as just another shady government official without much to do. The Winter Soldier fares a little better, but not much. Despite a killer backstory, he mostly just gets to blow things up while looking sad and confused behind a mask. And what about our hero? Chris Evans has none of the relatable do-gooder charisma we saw last time; instead he plays Cap as a frustrated myth with more biceps than brains.

The Winter Soldier is one of the worst superhero films I’ve ever seen but there are a few upsides. Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson actually look alive, while Anthony Mackie has the makings of a real star. Like The Avengers, there’s also fleeting sight-gags and in-jokes (the War Games reference and an inspired use of Marvin Gaye were bonuses). The one thing that really stood out to me, however, will surprise you: some of the time, the film actually surprised me with shocking twists I didn’t see coming.

If you didn’t get the memo, I was pretty disappointed by this film. I could go on about the film’s repetitive action sequences, predictable narrative arc, and ridiculous amount of product placement (really Marvel, you don’t have enough money already?) but if you want to know more, go see the movie. Just know: you’ll be marveling at what a bad decision you made.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | January 8, 2014 | Add Comments

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) skateboards to a volcano in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 3 1/2 Stars

This was a great year for movies, but have any films made you laugh out loud from beginning to end? Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those films. Stiller is excellent as director and actor, and the film is as bizarrely funny as it is cheerfully delightful. It’s not perfect but it’s still one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) lives his quiet life daydreaming about romance, adventure, and co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig). He works as a Negative Assets Manager in LIFE Magazine’s photography department.  But as LIFE moves online, and prepares for it’s final issue, Walter’s job is threatened.  Legendary photographer Sean O’ Connell (Sean Penn) sends in some possible cover photos for Walter to look at. Negative 25 (which Sean declares to depict “the quintessence of life”) is immediately selected for the cover. But when Walter can’t find the photo, he flees his job and flies to Iceland, to search the world for Sean. As he tussles with sharks, scales the Himalayas, and falls in love with Cheryl, Walter discovers living is a lot more thrilling than dreaming.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) with his co-worker crush Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fine achievement for Ben Stiller, both as actor and director. As actor, he’s absolutely hilarious playing Walter. Stiller portrays Mitty as a hardworking daydreamer in search of excitement and gives the character soul and meaning. His performance is thoughtful and moving, and yet his deadpan delivery and quirky physical humor will make you burst out laughing. Even in the dramatic scenes, he’s wonderful. The supporting cast is solid too: Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn (in a 5 minute role), and Adam Scott, as Walter’s obnoxious boss Ted, are all fine. But this is Stiller’s show and he’s subtly hysterical in a great role.

Stiller’s work as director, however, is even more impressive. From the gorgeous visuals to the layered script, his mark is all over the movie. He’s plenty experienced at making audiences laugh, and that’s quite evident here: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is easily one of the funniest movie of the year. But it’s not the jokes that surprise; it’s the fact that Stiller proves himself as a truly talented director. The movie is equal parts comedy, romance, and adventure and Stiller is equally adept at all three. The film is beautiful, moving, and enthralling, not least because of Stiller’s direction.

Ben Stiller’s directorial voice is eccentric, funny, and and adventurous, and his unique style often works…but not always. Stiller occasionally indulges in his comedy roots a bit too hard, as if he’s as afraid of the unknown, like Mitty. Some of the broader slapstick humor just isn’t funny and a few scenes feel weird for the sake of it (a Benjamin Button spoof, for example, is amusingly strange but has no reason being in the movie). As the film tries to wrap up, some scenes meander and drag. Though the poignant ending is perfect, Stiller takes too long getting there.

Despite its flaws, the film’s technical side is flawless. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is ravishingly expansive, while the special effects are remarkably effective. The soundtrack is a soulful compilation of catchy tracks including Of Monsters and Men, Jack Johnson, and others. Best of all, the appropriation of David Bowie’s Space Oddity in a key scene is perfectly hummable. Only Greg Hayden’s editing needs a little work; the film, as previously mentioned, is overlong at 114 minutes.

Steve Conrad’s script is also terrific. It feels timeless and topical at the same time, and the characters are well developed. The story is captivating and surprising, and I found the LIFE magazine and photography story-lines engrossing.  Still, plot points like these often get jumbled around. Conrad and Stiller sometimes have more food than they can chew, with all the one-liners, characters, locations, set-pieces, and product placements. Though most of this is entertaining, some scenes could’ve been expanded.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) meets master photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a funny, enthralling adventure that marks the arrival of Ben Stiller as a true director. Stiller is also hilarious in the title role, leading a fantastic cast. While it sometimes drags and Stiller’s directing skills still need a bit of work, Walter Mitty is as inspiring, hilarious, and heart-warming as any other film this year. There’s no need to dream. This is one of the most entertaining films of 2013.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 21, 2013 | Add Comments

Martin Freeman is back as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2 1/2 Stars

With his latest film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson puts on full display the best and worst of his own filmmaking styles. The film is pretentious, noisy, overlong, and half-baked. It’s also spectacular, beautiful, thrilling, and brilliant. Desolation is cluttered but exciting. It didn’t always hold my attention, but there’s always something jaw-dropping to look atIn short, it’s a Peter Jackson movie.

Evangeline Lily dons elf ears to play fierce fighter Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Unlike others, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series. I’ve read The Hobbit (good fun), read a tiny bit of the first Lord of the Rings (a.k.a. LOTR) book (kind of boring), and seen the the LOTR film trilogy (good fun, brilliant, and kind of boring). Of course, I’ve also seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The latest Hobbit film starts before the last one, which is confusing and unnecessary, with a somber meeting between head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and master wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Next, we’re back to the now, where protagonist Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who needs more screen time), Gandalf, Thorin, and the other eleven dwarves are still on their quest to enter a mountain, steal some treasure, and slay Smaug the dragon. Along the way, the heroes must fight spiders, argue with elves, ride barrels, and rally a village. There’s also some notable new characters, including down-on-his-luck rebel Bard (Luke Evans), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), fierce elf fighters.

Peter Jackson lets his commercial side come out and play in action scenes like these in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Peter Jackson’s direction is full of clashing instincts makes the movie the messy thrill ride that it is. The artist inside him knows that it’s the small character driven moments, that there are too few of here, that makes his movies great. But the corporate producer battling for control realizes that CGI drenched battles (perfect for 3-D, and IMAX, and 48 frames a second, and therefore making more money) that sell tickets. In Desolation, it’s the business oriented side that wins out too often. Which is a shame, because we know Jackson can do better.

The decision to split a 300 page children’s book into a thunderously thrilling trilogy of 3 lumbering 3 hour CGI extravaganzas often shows. Unlike LOTR, Peter Jackson takes a lot of liberties this time around. And sometimes they work. The elf scenes may feel like sacrilege to many, but they actually provides a human (well, elvish) element to the plot. But apart from Tauriel (a strong female character invented for the film) and Legolas (who gets more to do than in LOTR), there are less outright changes and more just extended versions of scenes from the book. Every two page episode of gentle adventure from the book has been stretched into a 15 minute battle sequence featuring beheadings, jump-scares, and explosions. I often found myself questioning Jackson, “Is this really necessary?”

An astonishing river chase in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)Basically…no it’s not. An early spider fight feels tedious and (considering we basically saw a better version of the same scene in the final LOTR film) a little “been there, done that”.  Actually, early all of the action scenes rely heavily on impressive but excessive CGI and gimmicky, halfhearted story concepts made to stretch out the running time longer than a dragon. I’m still not even mentioning all the improbable escapes that’ll make you think twice about the film’s logic. All that said, there are moments of true awe. The elves’ fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, the (CGI) locations are incredible, and there is one set-piece that truly feels exhilaratingly immersive. At around the halfway mark, we’re treated to an extended chase/fight/battle involving barrels, dwarves, elves, and orcs. Unlike the other action scenes, this one feels fun. You sense Jackson letting his inner 10 year old get out and play with all the fancy toys at his command, not get bogged down by them. The sequence ends up being far-fetched and overlong but it’s also, for once, entertaining. It’s easily the most riotously enjoyable 15 minutes of the movie.

Bilbo stands up to Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

That sense of imagination is almost entirely squashed an hour later, by the time we get to the dragon’s lair. The Smaug climax could’ve been just as fun as the barrel scene. But, alas, no. It’s as lumbering and lengthy as anything else in the picture, and twice as preposterous. Honestly, why doesn’t Smaug just blow Bilbo on fire the moment he lays his beating red eye on him? Nope! Instead, we’re forced to endure another 45 minutes of running and jumping and hiding and yelling and fire-breathing. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice performance is disappointingly bland. Yeah, Smaug the dragon does look kind of awesome. But by the time we get to see him stand up to Bilbo (a startlingly gorgeous image) you might be asleep.

So overall I wasn’t too happy with the film. It’s simply too long and features too many scenes that have no reason being in the film (i.e. every time Gandalf appears). But, that doesn’t mean die-hard fans won’t like it. And if, for some reason, you’re starting miss the summer movie season (the time of year when 3 sci-fi action epics are released every week) then this is your film. Even though I’ve read the book , the world of Middle Earth is one that’s worth visiting every so often. Sadly, this visit isn’t a satisfying one. So, I guess that means I’ll have to wait to see Peter Jackson smother every hope for a good Hobbit movie with dragon’s breath…next December. Nonetheless, I’ll be there to see it.

Celebrate the Life of Peter O’ Toole by Watching Lawrence of Arabia

Posted on | December 16, 2013 | 1 Comment

Peter O'Toole: Acting LegendLast Saturday, Peter O’ Toole passed away at the age of 81. Holding the record for most Oscar nominations with out a win, the acting legend’s wide-ranging career spanned historical period pieces (The Lion in Winter, The Last Emperor), notorious flops (Caligula, Man of La Mancha), and even an animated comedy (Ratatouille). His most famous work, however, was Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean’s sweeping desert adventure. The movie is a biopic of T. E. Lawrence, a British officer serving in the Middle East during World War I. The film is thrilling, beautiful, and captivating, and easily one of my favorites. So next time you’re thinking of renting a movie (and have 216 minutes to spare), watch Lawrence of Arabia.

Peter O' Toole and Omar Shariff in Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)Note: Often cited as one of the best examples of why the big-screen is the way to see movies, I got a chance to see Lawrence of Arabia at the theater during a 50th anniversary re-release at the theater. You can read my full review here.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 7, 2013 | 1 Comment

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) ready for battle in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 4 1/2 Stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the satisfyingly exhilarating follow-up to The Hunger Games, is easily one of the most entertaining sequels to come out of Hollywood in a long time, thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s riveting lead performance and director Francis Lawrence’s phenomenal adaptation of Suzanne Collin’s bestselling book.

The plot is sophisticated and multi layered but the basic gist is this: The previous year, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) won the Hunger Games, the televised death match where kids fight to the death, along with love interest Peeta Mellark. Now, her and Peeta have caused a revolution against the rich and evil that live in the Capitol. Things get even worse when the dictator behind the Capitol, President Snow, announces that the 75th annual Hunger Games will have previous winners compete. Now, Peeta and Katniss are forced back into the arena for a death match with more enemies, more suspense, and more action than before.

All this sounds very heavy handed but director Francis Lawrence never loses sight of the depth and heart that makes this series special. Unlike the previous installment, Catching Fire doesn’t race to begin the Games. In fact, it’s not until halfway into the film that the Games begin. Lawrence takes his time setting the scene. We get to know Katniss better this time around, but we also get to know the supporting cast, as well.

Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Katniss Everedeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There’s certainly a lot going on here: a love triangle, old grudges, politics, fashion, and bloody death matches and it’s a surprise everything stays together. The secret is that Suzanne Collins (author of the book series) served as one of the screenwriters. Collins obviously knows the story best and you can tell. Shockingly, there weren’t any big scenes I missed from the book and some added witty dialogue.

The cast, here, is spectacular, starting with Jennifer Lawrence. As Katniss, she’s bold, tough, and conflicted. The character is a heroic one but Lawrence also paints her as a wounded, flawed, somewhat tragic hero. It’s this nuanced heroine that makes this series unforgettable.

The only slight disappointments are Peeta and, the other love interest, Gale. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, respectively, are decent actors and do a fine job, but unlike Lawrence, they don’t exactly resemble the book’s descriptions. In fact, some of the smaller characters threaten to steal the show (not a problem). Jena Malone, as fierce and funny Games competitor Johanna Mason, is sharp and hilarious, thanks to some memorable moments that make her small role stick out. Sam Claflin and Jeffrey Wright are also fantastic, as fellow Tributes (the name for Hunger Games competitors).  Rounding out the cast is Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the deceptive mastermind behind the Games.

Catching Fire has a number of heart string tugging moments but there’s also enough bravura set-pieces to rival most summer blockbusters. Once the Hunger Games begins, it’s all action-all the time. But that doesn’t matter because the fights are filmed beautifully and careful and are a thrill to watch. It also doesn’t hurt that there is real suspense here.

Another strong aspect of the film is the look. Lawrence doesn’t try to mimic previous director Gary Ross’ shaky-cam shots nature shots of hazy beauty, nor the over-the-top Capitol fashion. This time around, things are more down to Earth. The sets look lived in and the everything is snowy and dark. Before and during the Games, the dominant colors are gray, blue, and white. Unlike other franchises, The Hunger Games seems to be developing a new, singular look for each film.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire is thrilling and thoughtful. It serves as the perfect antidote to this summer’s lackluster crop of ho-hum blockbusters. Ending with a massive cliff-hanger, Catching Fire is the must-seed blockbuster of the season. The odds are certainly in this franchise’s favor…

Sci-Fi and Survival Abound in Fall Film Offerings, Out Now

Posted on | November 10, 2013 | 1 Comment

Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013)Before Gravity opened on October 4, this year was seeming like another rather ho-hum year for movies, after the very good year for cinema of 2012. But perhaps this sudden flood of great movies should be expected; after all it is awards season. So far, I’ve seen three fall films: Gravity, Robert Redford boating drama All Is Lost, and sci-fi book adaption Ender’s Game. Sci-fi and survival seems to be the current trend in movies, because all three films focus on staying alive under the hardest circumstances and/or jaw-dropping special effects with a dash of scientific smarts. Here are my takes on these three films.

Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning science-fiction masterpiece, Gravity, is one of those films that comes along every so often and simply blows your mind. It’s incredible, beautiful, thrilling haunting, and full of heart; not to mention special effects filled set pieces that you’ll be replaying in your head for weeks. The premise here is fairly basic: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first trip to the moon. Leading her mission is seasoned space vet Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). Everything is going fine when, you guessed it, things start to go wrong. Debris hits, the shuttle is destroyed, and Stone and Kowalsky are separated. As Dr. Stone tries to find safety, a deadly survival adventure begins.

A chaotic space disaster in Gravity (2013)The genius of Gravity is how Cuaron takes this standard disaster movie plot and turns it into a riveting contemplation on life, death, and letting others go. Clooney is funny and likable but he’s basically playing, well, George Clooney The Astronaut. The real surprise here is Bullock, who, as our inexperienced protagonist, gains our sympathy and hope from a brilliant performance. Oscar is sure to come calling.

Gravity is a must-see movie. A must see movie on the big screen. If you didn’t catch it in IMAX 3-D, try just the 3-D, which is probably the most gorgeous, terrifying, and brilliant use of the medium to date. In fact, all of the visual effects are beautiful from the opening pan over Earth to the more showy spacecraft explosions. With awe-inspiring spectacle, terrific performances, and a dazzlingly flawless script, this is truly the best movie of the year so far. From conception to cinema, it took 6 years for Cuaron to make this masterpiece. But trust me, it was worth it. Gravity reminds us of the power of life. And the power of the movies. 5 Stars

Robert Redford fights the ocean in All Is Lost (2013)Another tense adventure, All Is Lost stars Robert Redford as a nameless guy in his mid-70s on a simple boating adventure. When his 39-foot yacht hits an abandoned shipping container and his boating electronics lose power, he must use his tools, his books, and his will to survive against all odds.

Redford is quite good as the only character in the film and his near-wordless performance is harrowing, beautiful, and achingly amazing. But apart from some truly spectacular moments, I can’t say this is the “performance of a lifetime” acting showcase that most critics have been raving about. In fact, I’d prefer the witty daredevil character type that Redford perfected in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting over the brooding, elderly everyman we get here.

But the film’s big problem is director J. C. Chandor (Margin Call), who does just an okay job with the script. We know nothing about the only character in the film and most of the running time consists of Redford being tossed around his boat. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of greatness. The cinematography is ravishing, the scenery is terrific, and Redford’s breakdown moment is truly affecting. But these stronger elements can’t save the film from feeling a little bit empty… and occasionally lost. 3 Stars

Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in Ender's GameEnder’s Game, the young adult sci-fi adventure based on the classic 1977 novel by Orson Scott Card, is a surprisingly good film. The first reason is the high caliber cast of Oscar all-stars including Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfield, and Abigail Breslin. These performances vary from slightly laughable to totally enjoyable, bit parts to major characters, but everyone is a blast to watch. Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield plays Ender, a boy who’s a cunning genius at military tactics and battle commands. He must train to lead an army of kid soldiers against an imminent attack by the evil aliens called Formics who almost destroyed the human race long ago.

Battle Room thrills in Ender's Game (2013)Director Gavin Hood keeps the story interesting thanks to a smart script and eye-popping special effects. The sequences inside the zero-gravity training environment, The Battle Room, are worth the ticket price alone. When Ender first steps into the room, I got a sense of “I haven’t seen that one before” magic. The film isn’t flawless, however. Thirty-six years after the book was published, the story isn’t really anything new and the movie occasionally drags. But Ender’s Game is still a worthwhile thrill-ride with a smart script and gorgeous visuals that make it worth seeing. 4 Stars

Well, that’s it for now! Expect an early Oscar race analysis soon…

Quick Takes On Summer Releases (Flack’s Article)

Posted on | August 30, 2013 | 1 Comment

Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, and Jacob Lofland in Mud (2013)Here’s a quick wrap-up post on five films I’ve seen this summer but haven’t yet reviewed. They’ve been out for a little while but some are definitely worth seeking out.

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer in 20 Feet From Stardom20 Feet From Stardom: 4 1/4 Stars (Limited release, on DVD soon): You know their voices but not their faces. That’s basically the concept of this fascinating documentary about back up singers (many African-American women) for artists like the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting, the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, and many more. The women spill the secrets of being a back-up singer and even discuss more wide ranging topics about the music industry. The movie’s funny, insightful, fun, and a good time. Just like listening to your favorite song, you’ll never get tired of this one.

Shark v.s. man in Kon Tiki (2013)Kon Tiki 4 Stars (Limited Release, on DVD soon): A good ol’ fashioned adventure in an age where everything exciting must be out of this world.  The film tells the true story of Thor Heyerdahl, as he leads a small crew of fellow men on a balsa wood raft to cross the 4,300 miles of the Pacific and prove South Americans settled in Polynesia during pre-Columbian times. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have a particularly strong eye for action and have a real sense of location. They’re slightly less talented in the story department; some scenes are too long, others too repetitive. In the lead role, Pål Sverre Hagen is a bit wooden. But for the most part this is a wildly entertaining survival story with depth, seamlessly realistic special effects, and a thrilling shark sequence that makes the film worth seeing alone.

Alexi Denisof and Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing (2013)Much Ado About Nothing 2 1/2 Stars (Limited Release, On DVD soon): Joss Whedon’s black and white remix of Shakespeare’s comedy classic tries to be modern and old fashioned, hilarious and solemn. It ends up as an incoherent mess saved by some talented actors. The main problem is that Whedon misunderstands Shakespeare; he directs the early scenes with zero- interest in the source material. Whedon also doesn’t have a clear vision of his interpretation: it’s neither a home movie nor a professional film, and some scenes have a comic fizz while others reek of pretentious melodrama. Luckily, the third act has more comedic energy and dramatic importance than the rest of the film. For the most part you can give the thanks to Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, as Benedick and Beatrice. Unlike their weaker co-stars, the two have the gusto of stage veterans and the timing of stand-up comedians. They deserve to be stars. There are other strokes of brilliance (some unforgettable slapstick, some fabulous dialogue, beautiful cinematography). But for the most part, the rest of the film lacks the two leads’ energy.

Tye Sheridan in Mud (2013)Mud (Limited Release, Now on DVD) 4 1/4 Star: This Southern drama is part romance, part thriller, and part coming of age story. Thanks to the capable hand of director Jeff Nichols, all the parts turn out incredible.  The cast is phenomenal: Matthew McConaughey gives a hauntingly commanding standout performance as the title character, but it’s Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as two teens vowing to help Mud escape the law and reunite with his girlfreind, who steal the show. The rest of the cast is dominated by terrific character actors including Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon (playing against type), and Michael Shannon. This is exactly what a movie should be: moving, exciting, and funny. The film had a small release, but you won’t want to miss it on DVD and iTunes.

A robot falls down to earth in Pacific Rim (2013)Pacific Rim 3 Stars (Wide Release, On DVD Later This Fall): I don’t mid a rock-em sock-em action movie that tries to be just that. But Guillermo Del-Toro’s robots v.s. monsters epic (Jaegars vs. Kaju, if we’re getting technical) is overly pretentious. It tries to have soul and character, and sometimes does, but you can feel Del-Toro is fighting between his film-making smarts and the 8 year old mindset that’s required for this type of film. If only he had given in to the 8 year old. Instead, we’re left with some strong material: admittedly cool action, a bit more character development than you’d expect. But there’s also some weak stuff; for example, while the cool action scenes are fun to watch once or twice, the battles have are derivative of each other. Alas, the film feels like a B-movie with some extra heart.

Well that’s it! If these films have left theaters near you, seek them out on iTunes and other streaming/renting devices. Enjoy your the end of another summer at the movies!

Jaws at the Chatham Orpheum (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 17, 2013 | Add Comments

A day at the Chatham Orpheum TheaterBefore I start my review: Jaws is back at the Orpheum by popular demand. See it!!!

Cape Cod’s Chatham Orpheum movie theater has had a long history. But 21 years since the theater closed doors, it’s now re-opening thanks to $2.2 million, 3,000 donors, and hard working staff led by President Naomi Turner. Recently, Flick and I got a chance to see Jaws at the theater. Here’s my thoughts on the theater and review of the film.

When I first walked into the Chatham Orpehum theater on August 4, 2013 I was stunned. Paintings and shark sculptures line the walls and there’s even a mini restaurant/cafe with a bar and a few tables. The cafe features the menu from Vers, the larger restaurant downstairs. The concession stand has popcorn and lots of candy. All of the staff is extremely nice. You can really tell everyone working there loves movies. The attention to detail is astonishing; even the bathrooms have pictures of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe on the doors.

After talking to staff, my family and I walked into the 162-seat movie theater with two bags of popcorn and a sky high excitement level. I was not disappointed. Delicious popcorn, no trailers, super comfy seats! And it just got better…

The opening credits for Jaws (1975)The lights went down. The movie started. Jaws’ underwater opening credits hauntingly lit up the screen, complete with John Williams chilling theme.

A Jaws poster designed specifically for the OrpheumI’d never seen Jaws before, which made the experience all the more enjoyable. The plot isn’t exactly original: an everyman police chief (Roy Schieder), a rich kid oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss), and a weathered seaman (Robert Shaw) team up to hunt a great white shark terrorizing Amity Island. But director Steven Spielberg’s real achievement here is taking that basic concept and turning it into something more: a monster movie with heart.

Our heroes out at sea in Jaws (1975)The story is perfectly realized; every scene is the exact length it needs to be, no more, no less. There’s some very funny dialogue that makes for some classic arguments between the characters. The performances are also extraordinary. Schieder is quietly effective as Chief Brody, while Dreyfuss is brashly charming as Hooper. The standout, however, is Shaw. At first glance he’s just a colorful sea captain but, with his legendary tour de force monologue, Shaw gives the character a hidden depth.

The film is a miraculous production: sublime editing, memorable cinematography, precise direction, and one of the greatest musical scores of all time. In fact the suspense of it all is so terrifying that you won’t care about the fact the that the shark effects are slightly outdated.

Roy Schnieder in Jaws (1975)There are many iconic moments: the girl who swims just a bit too far, Quint’s first appearance, the floating head,  and the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line. But the sensational climax is the true high-point. William’s rousing score is the perfect fit for our heroes final showdown with the shark. The culmination is utter genius. Each of the main protagonists gets their own confrontation with the shark: Quint’s blood spitting clash, Hooper’s nail biting shark cage adventure, and Brody’s wildly explosive battle. This is action cinema at it’s peak.

Jaws is a masterpiece of film-making, even better appreciated considering the rough circumstances under which it was shot. Thrillingly gut wrenching, soulfully humane, and one of Spielberg’s best; Jaws may not be the single greatest movie of all time but, after one fantastic viewing, it’s one of my all time favorites. And seeing it on the big screen, with first-class surround sound and gorgeous digital projection, was a bonus.

My afternoon at the Orpheum seeing Jaws at the movies was a true treat. The Orpheum gives you hope for modern movie theaters in a multiplex filled world. Movies couldn’t have been brought back to Chatham better.

The Summer So Far Part 2: Even Farther

Posted on | July 11, 2013 | Add Comments

Johnny Depp and Arnie Hammer in The Lone Ranger (2013)I had a lot of fun writing my triple movie summer report (read it here, if you haven’t already!). Now, the sequel to that article has arrived: a double film review. You can expect at least one more of these before summertime’s up but until then enjoy my thoughts on Pixar’s new family comedy Monster’s University and Disney’s epic new fantasy western The Lone Ranger.

The Oozma Kappa team in Monsters University (2013)First up, lets head to college! Following the dismal Cars 2 and the mediocre Brave, I was hoping for a grand Pixar comeback in the old tradition with their new prequel, Monsters University. And, the comeback is an entertaining one, despite not being as sublimely perfect as previous classics like Walle, Up, and the Toy Story trilogy.

The plot is nothing new: two guys (I mean monsters) who hate each other become best friends amidst exciting adventures and pop culture references. We’ve seen variations of this in Finding Nemo, Cars, Up, and the original Toy Story just to name a few. Even Ratatouille (which starred a rat!) featured the storyline. The spin, on Pixar’s sub genre of mismatched animated buddy comedies, is that Mike and Sulley are off to Monsters University college. The film is a prequel and replaces John Goodman’s Sulley with Billy Crystal’s Mike for main character spot. The pair learn to be friends while participating in a Scare Games Contest with loser fraternity team Oozma Kappa. Will they be able to help out Oozma, win the Games, and become friends? We know all the answers but the ride is fun.

The script doesn’t have the multi-layered depth that Pixar normally brings to the table but there are still hilarious sequences (a swearing in ceremony gone wrong and the first Scare Game). Debut director Dan Scanlon doesn’t have the “Pixar touch” that John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird do, but he still knows how to impress audiences with crackling humor, detailed animation, and rousing action.

As usual, the animation is top notch. The most visually striking element is the diversity of the new characters, whether major or minor. And of course, there’s a few delicately subtle in jokes that fans of the original Monsters Inc. will love.

I’m sounding a little harsh on the film but I actually loved it; it’s got everything you want in a family film! The story is a bit simplistic and a few characters are a bit underdeveloped but it’s plenty enjoyable nonetheless. Will it live on to be a classic? Not as much as something like Up will. But if you enjoyed Monsters Inc., you’ll enjoy this. It may be lacking a bit of magic, but it’s still a delightful blast.

Johnny DEpp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013)Next…To the west!!!  Hi-Ho Silver! The Lone Ranger is back…Albeit more bloated, bloody, and blockbusterized than you might have remembered it. But, nonetheless, it’s back! And, oh kemosabe, what a deliriously ridiculous mess it is.

The story is fairly simple: John Reid goes from mundane lawman to masked avenger as he tries to find and kill the men who killed his brother. Along the way he gets help from the mysteriously strange Tonto.

The director, producer, screenwriters, composer, and star (Johnny Depp) of the vastly successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise have reunited for a total reboot of the old Lone Ranger radio series and TV show. They’ve scrapped most of what made the Lone Ranger the Lone Ranger. They’ve traded in family friendly Saturday morning entertainment for bloody battles, physical comedy, new villains, and a slightly altered plot. But the most substantial change here concerns the character Tonto. The always in danger throwaway sidekick has been promoted to main character status with the help of Johnny Depp.

A big shock here is the performances, which are rather good. The always great Depp is hilarious and suitably kooky (or should I say all out crazy?). But Tonto isn’t nearly as interesting as Jack Sparrow and when you compare the jokes of Pirates to Lone Ranger, this seems like a serious drama. The title character is played by Arnie Hammer who surprises with a fine turn. I was expecting him to be bland and boring but he actually isn’t bad. The rest of the cast suffers from an over abundance of characters but the supporting ensemble is okay, though not particularly memorable.

Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if two different versions of the script got mixed up and put in the same pile. That would definitely explain two things: tone mix-ups and the length.

The main people at fault here are the screenwriters of which there were four. They should have definitely cut out half the script. Things to snip? Some excessively gorey moments, way too long action scenes, the flashback framing device, and Helena Bonham Carter and her leg. At 2 1/2 hours, watching the movie actually felt like work: your mission objective for today is to try to sit through this movie!

The other major mistake is the wild shifts of tone. The movie is trying to be a family action comedy but slips into areas of bloodshed filled thriller, romantic old town drama, black comedy, and even bizarro experimental western. If the film makers could’ve stuck to ONE goal the film would have been breezy entertainment instead of drawn out boring.

Is there anything good about this movie? Yes! It doesn’t fail because of the all action-no story trap that most blockbusters fall into. No, there’s something much more intriguing going on here. It’s not a particularly good movie but I’m definitely glad I saw it. As previously mentioned, the leads are appealing. On top of that, the effects are sometimes dazzling, the action scenes occasionally thrilling, and the musical score consistently heart thumping!

As for director Gore Verinski…well he proves he just needs to rein in his vision a bit more. Th screenwriters, editors, and Disney executives are the real issue, though. I also feel that Verbinski might’ve been a bit stressed by the ballooning budget, Johnny Depp’s could have been fatal horse accident, the tragic death of a crew member, and a release date that was moved three times (a record?). It also seems the film might not have stuck to his original vision. The man seems like a savvy director. Next time, he should make an action movie by himself and then sell it to a studio.

The most fascinating movie debacle of the year, The Lone Ranger is a frequently too violent, often overlong, sometimes fun, occasionally genius, and always interesting summer movie. If only Helena Bonham Carter could’ve used her leg to blow up half the running time…

Mike Wasikowski voiced by Billy Crystal in Monsters University (2013)So far it’s an iffy summer for the movies, with only two out of five films I’ve seen being ones I could honestly recommend. More on the summer later but first: the Chatham Orpheum Theater and Jaws.

The Summer So Far (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | June 21, 2013 | Add Comments

Summer Movie Season 2013Summer Movie Season 2013 has seen spectacular highs and shattering lows, even though it’s only half way over! I’ve seen three summer blockbusters already, but haven’t written a review of any of them. So here’s a triple review comparing the disappointing but original Iron Man 3, the thrillingly wonderful Star Trek Into Darkness, and the letdown epic Man of Steel.

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3
Rating: 3 Reels

Let’s start off with Iron Man 3, Marvel’s latest attempt at a mega-hit superhero flick (don’t worry they succeeded). Shane Black replaces Jon Favereau as director which was NOT a good idea. The movie has less laughs than we’ve come accustomed to and it’s by far the darkest of the Iron Man trilogy with onscreen deaths, disturbing fight scenes, and massive explosions. Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark with the usual mix of hilarity, sarcasm, and witty one liners. He’s fantastic, as is the rest of the cast. But it’s basically a one man show with Tony traveling from point A to point B and killing bad guy one and bad guy two, etc. The movie is uneven, over violent, and poorly executed. The plot is mediocre and though we do get the bang for our buck (or something like 14 bucks if you see it in IMAX 3-D) we don’t get much story. But three quarters into the film something crazy happens. A twist. Out of the blue, the film turns a corner and shocks us with it’s best moment. It defies the advertisements that have had us thinking one way and…Well I won’t spoil it but I’ll just say this; it’s SHOCKING. And in this world of trailers that give everything away, that means awesome.

Chris Pine and Karl Urban in Star Trek Into DarknessStar Trek Into Darkness
Rating: 4 1/4 Reels

J. J. Abram’s latest installment in his reboot of the Star Trek series, titled Star Trek Into Darkness, is a whirlwind moviegoing roller coaster. After a chase scene on another planet, we’re thrust into the latest Trek adventure: a one man war against the entire U.S.S. Enterprise crew (Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, and more) led by James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). The “one man” in question is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mysterious evildoer with suspicious morale. The cast is phenomenal because they’re more comfortable with their roles; sure some supporting characters are a bit too, er, supporting but everyone gets their moment. And the leads are incredible: Saldana and Pine are well cast but it’s Zachary Quinto as Spock who really steals the show. He’s essentially as central a character as Kirk, plus he gets all of the best wisecracks and fight scenes. Cumberbatch is also amazing thanks to an intensity that’s plain undescribable. The story is simple but effective and occasionally touching. The best thing about it is that it’s entertaining: exhilarating, yes but also hilarious and fun. But the film’s not perfect. The previously mentioned opening chase scene comes to mind: instead of starting where Kirk and fellow crew member Bones are about to steal the map they’re looking for, Abrams begins when they’re already running from baddies. However movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark take their time to set the stage before the action. Abrams, meanwhile, is all payoff. He directs with a sharp intensity and a knack for elaborate spectacle.  Sure all the action sequences are pulse poundingly sweat inducing (especially in IMAX 3-D where I saw it) and this is all well and good but sometimes he could have paused for a conversation scene that’s not right in the middle of a battle. Sure it’s flawed, but this is nearly everything you could want in a summer popcorn action flick.

 

Superman flies in Man of SteelMan of Steel
Rating: 2 Reels

Man of Steel, the latest Superman movie, has a lot going for it. The film has a likable star in Henry Cavill, some thrilling trailers, an excellent supporting cast, and the producer of what many call the greatest superhero film of all time. However I’m sorry to report that they’ve failed. Badly. It opens with with an incredibly realized Krypton sequence which is way too long. Do we really need two intense fight scenes before Superman/Clark Kent is even out of the crib? No, but we get them, all right. And despite a few expertly crafted moments, the only scenes that have much impact are the flashbacks to Clark’s early life. And then, BACK TO THINGS BLOWING UP ALOT, ALOT, ALOT!!! The film is dragged on for almost an hour too long, thanks to overblown battle sequences that are cut between different shots so fast you can’t even tell what’s going on. Director Zack Snyder would probably be a master at making video games but that skill set really doesn’t work here. In fact, the whole movie feels like a video game that you don’t control: dead characters guide living ones around, there’s objects that must be found, there are flashbacks to explain what’s going on, and, most of all, there are pretentious combat scenes that go on like the film makers just needed to fill up the running time. The performances are decent and likable but Henry Cavill (who’s okay but a bit bland) and Amy Adams have neither much chemistry nor time to develop their characters. Kevin Costner was the perfect choice for Pa Kent but again all he gets are flashback sequences that suggest of a much greater film. Less than halfway through the movie, I started not care what happened to these characters: it just got uninteresting. Man of Steel sadly goes where every violent video game has gone before.

 

Last but not least I have a few concluding statements:

1. Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel are racking up billions of dollars despite being much lesser films than the underperforming Star Trek Into Darkness. What does this tell us about the film industry?

2. If there are three films that represent the state of modern blockbusters it’s these three. However I’d like to say this: sure, all action movies have to include explosions but please Hollywood: dial it down. J.J. Abrams was on the right track with Into Darkness and I’m confident about his new Star Wars.

3. With so many big budget blockbusters being released each year where is this all headed. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have some ideas. In fact, Spielberg may be right: if five of these summer epics flop something is going to change. Take 2015. What films are going to be released? The Fantastic Four, Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Avengers 2, Justice League, The Smurfs 3, Hotel Transylvania 2, Ant-Man, The Peanuts, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, Finding Dory, Alvin and the Chipmunks 4, and Kung Fu Panda 3. Woops, forgot to mention a little indie film titled Star Wars: Episode 7. Okay, is your headache over? Many of the films mentioned will flop, so could that signal the death of the blockbuster? No. Star Wars and Avengers 2 are as close to a sure thing as you can get and even if critics and audiences despise them, people will keep coming back to the multiplex. But someday (probably in an estimated 100 years) people will get back to making small, personal films. Until then, there will be terrific action films and wonderful art house pictures. So perhaps, they could both survive together.

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