Get on Up: Messy But Still Packs Some Punch

Posted in 6, Drama, Musical, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2014 by mducoing

Get on UpDirector Tate Taylor (The Help) delivers another fair film that should have been great. Like his 2011 film, The Help, Get On Up is bogged down by some messy direction in spite of some really strong performances.

Premise: The story of James Brown‘s rise from destitute to diva to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Result: A good but sloppy film that does live up to expectation.

The opening of Get on Up is a neck-breaking series of random moments across James Brown’s (Chadwick Boseman) life ranging from drug-induced rage to arrogance in the face of enemy fire (in Vietnam) to instants of joy in an otherwise troubling childhood. And it is these moments that best summarize the strategy Taylor chooses for this film: a schizophrenic panoply of events and emotions crashing upon the audience like waves over stone. And the sensation is much the same: jarring, calamitous, and often off-putting.

In a sense, that was Brown’s life: a series of random friendships such as with Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and producer Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) as well as confusing and often traumatizing family experiences with mother Susie Brown (Viola Davis), father Joe Brown (Lennie James), and adoptive Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) – who ran a brothel. And so, despite the discomfort it will cause audiences and the sacrificed connection to the actual film, the style may help some audiences understand the instability that was his life on Earth.

Wading through the scene casserole, observers will find a meteoric rise by Brown due to several, different supporters along the way: first, Byrd for helping him find belonging; next Little Richard (Brandon Smith) for giving him the connections and Ralph Bass (Josh Hopkins) for discovering him.

His intense jealousy, his temper and arrogance all fused together with his performance brilliance, mentorship, and inspiration leap from the screen. But whatever way you see it, his life was a blend of chaos and brilliance, and like any tortured genius, it is difficult to uncover true happiness.

Like Jersey Boys, the film is supported by the music and the performances are entertaining enough to keep interest even when long scenes or ubiquitous scene-flash “arounds” become tiresome. But ultimately the film is too long for its own good despite these performances and a few scattered moments of genuine emotion.

The acting in this film, however, is largely beyond reproach. Boseman is phenomenal as Brown, embodying him to such an extent as to wonder if he were possessed. Davis is quite strong in her limited time on screen but works perfectly with Boseman to mesmerize in the film’s most poignant scene.

To this end Spencer is powerful and Akroyd’s role is a welcome comedic infusion amidst a sea of tragedy. Ellis is good but his role is inherently understated making it difficult to shine against Boseman’s onscreen inferno. Special recognition, however, must go out to Brandon Smith for perfectly delivering Little Richard in his scene stealing performance.

Sadly, Get on Up does not live up to the complex Brown legacy. While there is a lot happening on screen, and much of it good, the jarring delivery and the unnecessary length may feel right on paper, but ultimately drag the film way down.

Rating: 6 – A mediocre Prosecco that a cute bartender served you

Let’s Be Cops: Idiots Doing Dumb Things…But Still a Fun Time

Posted in 6, Action, Children, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2014 by mducoing

Let's Be CopsWriter/director Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door, Something Borrowed), along with Nicholas Thomas, crafts a fun if fairly boilerplate buddy comedy with Let’s Be Cops. Depending on the drunken/high college moron sense of reality, Cops is funny if also unbelievably ridiculous.

Premise: Two buddies dress as police officers and have some fun times before getting tangled in a real life web of mobsters putting their lives on the line. Result: Funny, predictable and largely unoriginal. But still funny.

Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) feel like failures, a reality heightened by a humiliating reunion (whoever does an 8-year reunion has got to get with the program btw).   Justin is a video game developer with a jellyfish spine: his great idea for a realistic police officer game is set aside with agonizing ease and his inability to talk to crush Josie (Nina Dobrev) is ripe with middle school drama.

Ryan, to be frank, makes Justin look like a Fortune 100 CEO. A career ending injury kept him from football and he instead “coaches” kids in the park and lives off a one-time Herpes commercial. Life is no bueno.

That is, of course until the two decide to impersonate police officers and live a better life. At first, things seem fun: the two gallivant across the LA in their costumes, playfully tormenting passers-by, stoners, and skateboarders. But it is their witless revenge on some thugs that opens the door to danger.

The film ultimately devolves into absurd antics that while humorous, are painful to watch. Ryan is a complete moron and the decisions he makes are incomprehensible and at times border on child-endangerment. Sure, it’s fun to watch in a schadenfreude sort of way, but after a while it also becomes painfully ridiculous without the aid of illegal narcotics.

And as the two get deeper into their nonsense, now pulling in other officers (like Segars -Rob Riggle) into their black hole of irresponsibility, they finally hit reality as they must contend with gangster Mossi (James D’Arcy) and his henchmen. This actually sets off a sequence of absurd and hilarious moments involving some odd characters like Dominican-caricature Pupa (Keegan-Michael Key), creepy guy Brolin (Andy Garcia), and nympho Annie (Natasha Leggero).

idiots

idiots

In addition to protagonists that make decisions akin to Harold & Kumar, the film itself painfully formulaic, never straying far from the buddy movie template. Other than the cop-theme itself, there is really nothing original about this story. Loser buddies who take a gag too far and find themselves in danger and this danger subsequently makes them strong enough to overcome their own real life obstacles.

The bad guys, to bring this home, are basically cut-and-paste from everything you have seen before. Visions of The Green Hornet and 21 Jump Street abounded.

The performances in the film were pretty good, helping to keep the laughs alive. Johnson and Wayans are both quite funny and while their antics border on annoying from scene one, they are believable in their roles and, on some level, likable.

Riggle is strong as well, helping to ground the film slightly while Leggero is preposterous but in all the right ways. Key is also funny although the joke fades fast.

Garcia is perhaps the most surprising element in this film as he is terrifying from moment one and almost looks like he belongs in another…better movie. D’Arcy is great in everything he does but there is a sense that in this film he is miscast. He is still believable in some ways as this monster, but he often teeters on caricature. Dobrev is just boring; not her fault really since the writing for her is stale and clichéd, but there it is.

In the end, Let’s Be Cops is a funny film that never really exceeds our expectations. In fact, it is a film that is best viewed at home, drunk or high, where silly is supreme.

Rating: 6 – A mediocre Prosecco that a cute bartender served you

Lucy: That’s Pretty Co…Wait, What the Hell??

Posted in 4, Action, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Sci Fi/ Fantasy with tags , , , , , on August 30, 2014 by mducoing

LucyWriter/director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Family) never strays far from the bizarre when given the chance. Unfortunately, unlike his cult classic The Fifth Element, this exercise in the sci-fi mysterious is far closer to absurd than intriguing.

Premise: A young woman caught in a drug ring transforms into a merciless warrior evolving at an exponential rate. Result: Fun at the start devolves quickly into a science lesson Mr. Wizard would be ashamed of.

Lucy begins with our unwitting protagonist Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) forced into serving as a mule for a drug lord Mr. Yang (Min-sik Choi) along with three other unknowing companions. But while awaiting transport, her failed attempts to repel her capture’s advances end in beatings that rupture the bag of chemicals and in turn infect her with the contents.

The drug is some synthetic neuron-processor, modeled after chemicals secreted by pregnant women to induce rapid cerebral growth in their offspring. In such heavy doses Lucy begins to use a greater and greater percentage of her brain, giving her all sorts of uncanny powers of telekinesis, mind control and other abilities best found in the comics.

She is also aware that her time is limited, that her cerebral self-actualization will quite physically turn her to dust, as her body will be unable to absorb the metamorphosis. And so she reaches out to Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the world leader on just such theories about increased brain function. She also inadvertently teams up with French inspector Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) as she evades Yang’s men and attempts to acquire the remaining pouches.

That is largely the first half of the film and frankly where all its entertaining qualities exist. Here, the action is thrilling and the events build so that audiences can participate and anticipate enthusiastically. Then the second half of the film happens.

Apparently Besson transforms part of the way through the film into a David Lynch/Terrance Malik monstrosity with an almost wanton disregard for audience participation. The film degenerates into two key elements; first, a painful, pedantic over-exposition fest where Norman and Lucy are forced to drone on and on about the scientific realities of their situation. At certain points it almost seems necessary for Freeman and Johansson to break through the fourth wall shaking and shouting at the audience, “GET IT!? DON’T YOU GET IT!!? PLEASE, PLEASE GET IT!?”

help please

help please

Then, as if Besson become tragically aware of how agonizing this would be to audiences, he delivers a complete reversal, moving away from any sort of explanation at all, in favor of neck-breaking movement, mind-numbing imagery, space exploration and yes, time travel. Or something. Things just start happening on screen that are apparently supposed to simulate just how using 100% of one’s mind would make them one with space and time.

The only clue that this worked is that all observers who do not use 100% of their brains will understand at best 2% of what is going on. Then the film ends in a throw away sequence so pallid and nauseating that all humans at once and ever have been are sure to deliver one, collective, space-piercing grown of dismay.

For all the disaster that happens on screen, at least some of the acting is worth salvaging. Johansson again proves her acting chops as the terrified victim at the film’s onset. This is further enhanced by juxtaposition to her latter performance, where she unapologetically channels Natalie Portman’s lifeless Queen Amadala.

Freeman is fair largely because everything he says is basically best left as narration we heard in War of the Worlds or even March of the Penguins for that matter. Waked does well as the audience referent, perfectly balancing badass and clueless in every scene.

In the end, this film is a miss. While it starts with some promise, it undertook a campaign that was simply didn’t hit the mark. Or any mark really.

Rating: 4 – A case of PBR and a “Dear John” letter

Guardians of the Galaxy: Far, Far Better Than Expected!!!

Posted in 9, Action, Comedy, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Sci Fi/ Fantasy with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2014 by mducoing

GuardiansWriter/director James Gunn (Slither) has delivered one of the best comic book action movies to-date with Guardians.  Fun, thrilling and deeply humorous, the next installment of the Marvel franchise monolith is the best film since The Avengers.

Premise: Decades after being abducted, Peter Quill is targeted by Ronan the Accuser who wants control of an ancient, powerful orb. Result: The origin of one of the best action teams to date, filled with laughs, tears and stunning action.

The film begins with our past, a past in which a young Peter witnesses the death of his mother from some terminal illness. It is certainly an emotional scene, made bizarre by his sudden abduction by aliens.

And from there, we race to present day somewhere in the Universe where a now grown Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka “Star Lord” -a name apparently he gave himself- attempts to acquire some heavily fortified treasure. This sets off a hotly contested battle for Quill and the mysterious orb as several parties join the pursuit.

The hunters: on one side there is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adoptive daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin), sent by Ronan (Lee Pace) to capture the orb to destroy the Xandarians once and for all. On the other, Yondu Udonata (Michael Rooker) – the space pirate who abducted Quill decades earlier- sends Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree-muscle Groot (Vin Diesel) to acquire Quill and the Orb. All retrieval efforts land the motley crew in Nova jail where they meet the fifth member of their eventual clan, Drax (Dave Bautista), a creature twisted with vengeful rage aimed at Ronan.

The film has many competing storylines ranging from the difficulties of the group to coalesce, to internal conflicts, to a need to escape from Ronan, to a need to save Xanda, and so on. Skillfully, Gunn ties all of these complexities together into an astounding tapestry of entertaining cinema, scene after scene delivering a solid, artful impact.

The action in the film is modern day space fighting at its best. There is an elegance and awe-inspiring quality to the visuals and the sequences are thrilling from end to end. This is heightened by the astounding juxtaposition of heartfelt emotion and humor.

The film is replete with hilarious moments, gags hurled at the audience continuously that are both expected and unexpected. The film expertly draws the audience into a sense of expectation and then delivers a comedy punch that is wholly unexpected and thus, far more impactful. This while successfully crafting an aura of not taking-itself-too-seriously and lulled into deep entertaining comfort.

Of course, its true brilliance is its ability to balance this action and comedy with actual drama. The characters are deep with complex emotions that observers will find it impossible not to care about. And when audiences are asked to “feel” with these characters, the film delivers scenes that will facilitate this connection and catharsis beautifully.

there you go.

there you go.

The performances are all fantastic. Pratt is perfect as Quill, a goofy hero with as much as heart as brawn. Other action stars should take note at how complex his character truly is and how well he delivers. Saldana is wonderful, supporting Pratt with grace and ease in scene after scene, helping to elevate both performances.

Cooper is phenomenal as an anthropomorphized raccoon, also establishing a deep character that is equal parts fury and vulnerability. And Diesel gives the best performance of his career (not the highest bar, ok) saying hardly anything more than “I am Groot,” proving that in some cases it’s not the words but the way they are handled and when.

In the end, it is difficult to find anything wrong with this film. It grows on viewers over time and begs to be watched again (with some time in between, of course). Add to this is great retro soundtrack and there’s no reason not to. And this is certainly the sign of a new classic.

Rating: 9 –  An expensive red wine and juicy steak that someone else is paying for and where you don’t have to put out

Snowpiercer: Strange But Intriguing

Posted in 7, Action, Drama, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Sci Fi/ Fantasy, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2014 by mducoing

SnowpiercerWriter/director Joon-ho Bong (The Host) has delivered a strange, but interesting take on a post-apocalyptic world that is equal parts satire, action-thriller, horror, and political drama. While its bizarre delivery will repel some viewers, the film itself is worth the experience, even if only once.

Premise: In an ice age post-apocalyptic world, all life on the planet has died except for a lucky few that boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a terrifying class system has developed. Result: A strange tale filled with all sorts of action, horror and imagery for the whole family (minus children or the easily scarred).

Based on the French Graphic Novel Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer follows survivors of an extinction event that has frozen the surface of the Earth. These men, women, and children are relegated to a train, The Snowpiercer that is able to run in perpetuity across a global track, thus escaping the cold.

But as Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt), de facto leaders of the passengers at the rear of the train can tell you, surviving is by no means living. On this train, the wealthy, led by train creator Wilford (Ed Harris), lead a life of luxury and excess as those in the back of the train are no more than glorified slaves.

But after 17 years of this subjugation, those in the back have again had enough. Sobered by the failures of past “revolutions”, Curtis begrudgingly leads his uprising after Tanya’s (Octavia Spencer) son is taken from her. Along with Edgar (Jamie Bell), Grey (Luke Pasqualino) and many others, an uprising begins against Wilford, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), their goons Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) and Franco the Younger (Adnan Haskovic), and an army of ruthless soldiers.

The film is a gory, bloody vision of an uprising that even Thomas Hobbes would have found extreme. Each train car brings greater obstacles and greater horrors and no one, no matter their age is safe. As an action-horror-thriller, there are many reasons to keep watching as the film does a marvelous job of keeping the exhilaration high.

oh, pretty.

oh, pretty.

The dark, wretched conditions of the back cars, subsequently contrasted by the stunning beauty of the forward cars (an aquarium-sushi car is still one of the best visual effects) is as provocative as it is jarring. And the kindergarten classroom scene led by the all-smiles Teacher (Alison Pill) and complete with songs about freezing to death are both hilarious and chilling.

And this, if anything, is what the film does remarkably well. The political drama inherent in the film, the quite literal class warfare depicted and the sense that the poor are less than human are very powerful notions advanced in the film. But there is a consistently comical element, an exaggeration and even a farcical quality to the film that allows it to remain extreme without going completely off the deep end. Snowpiercer manages to take the subject matter seriously while not taking itself too seriously.

The acting in the film is quite strong. Evans again tries is hand and the brooding hero/anti-hero he did so well in Captain America, now with a grittier feel. Swinton is perfect as the terrifying and yet preposterous Mason. She may deliver much of the film’s comic relief, as she simply steals the scene at every opportunity.

Harris and Hurt each deliver very different performances while both bringing to the table the talent that made them each famous. Spencer offers a fair, far more subdued performance than usual but works well in the cast and Bell gives us another of his consistently complex performances.

In the end Snowpiercer isn’t a great movie, or at least not as great as the hype might have you believe. But it is certainly a strong film, filled with complexities, intrigue humor and astounding visuals. A healthy suspension of disbelief will keep audiences interested, even if it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Rating: 7- A refreshing Champagne that a cute bartender comp’d you!

The Giver: The Sting of Missed Opportunity

Posted in 5, Children, Drama, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Sci Fi/ Fantasy with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2014 by mducoing

GiverFor those who loved Lois Lowry’s brilliant novel, The Giver, rest assured all that was awesome, touching and inspirational about that story was NOT captured by the film. Director Phillip Noyce (Sliver, Salt) has by no means created a terrible film, but like a daredevil attempting a leap across a canyon, anything short of success can only end in disaster. And this was no success.

Premise: In a post-apocalyptic “perfect” community positions a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world. Result: A film that sadly makes fans of the story long for the book.

The Giver focuses on Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), as well as his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), as they “graduate” into adulthood. They are to receive their professions from the council of elders who have been observing them since birth in this post-apocalyptic reality filled with “precise language” and devoid of all color and choice. But unlike his peers, who receive expected positions, Jonas surprises all when the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) names him the new Receiver, the heir apparent to The Giver (Jeff Bridges), the most honored position in all of their community.

His Father (Alexander Skarsgård), Mother (Katie Holmes) and Lilly (Emma Tremblay) all seem at a complete loss as he transforms. His job is different because he is charged with hoarding all memories of the past-world so that the community can live in blissful ignorance. But it seems for dear Jonas, there is no such thing as “The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” and the ignorance that keeps his society peaceful, also deprives it of the most essential qualities that make us human and the experiences that heighten it.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t really connect on any discernible level. The scenes feel forced and the flow sloppy, failing to reach the essential emotional impact the book elicited. Further, the suspension of disbelief necessary (and granted in the book) will be instinctively withheld by audiences, who instead will scoff at the preposterous premise. While the book enchanted us, the film is the work of an amateur magician who unwittingly exposes the cracks and ruins the charm.

This instead.

This instead.

The exposition is ghastly. For much of the film characters spout out all sorts of familiar, clichéd terms like “Love”, and repeat them over and over as if repetition is the key to our collective emotions. The imagery is dull and the hackneyed delivery fails to elevate the film from a powerful crucible of emotion, one so strong that it would actually transform a community, to instead a bunch of actors on screen, wandering, lost and muttering about the true meaning of life. All the while never grasping it.

It doesn’t help that the film breaks many of its own rules. Precise language is a requirement in this world and yet the characters don’t seem to know what that means. In one scene they will scold each other for not using “precise language” and yet in others will utter terms like “weird” and no one is the wiser. Further, if no one can use imprecise language, why does anyone know it in the first place (these people control your ability to see color for goodness sake!)

And the geography – let’s just say that this whole concept is just completely confounding throughout: some people see farther than others, but then others work beyond that and others fly beyond but just see so far – it’s a chore to even reason it through.

All the actors are fine. Just fine. With all that talent, everyone is relegated to the grayish melancholy that cloaks the film physically. Oscar winners everywhere and no one can wade past the fog of mediocre screenplay to form any sort of connection. And Thwaites and Rush, who are very good typically, try very hard. It just isn’t there.

Btw, Rosemary is played by Taylor Swift. That is all.

In the end, Noyes’ attempts to re-create the beauty of this classic story fail due to typical cinematic pitfalls: he and the script are enslaved by exposition, pummeling audiences with character narration that is either hackneyed or plain silly. Imagery, the only true way to express beauty without drowning it with words in film, is neglected leaving the film hollow.

Ironically, the book mastered this very concept: while Lowry explained just enough to elicit understanding, the beauty behind the words provoked our collective imaginations, deepening its impact and its beauty. Perhaps Noyes should have listed to his elders.

Rating: 5 – A luke-warm Pinot Grigio

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Fantastic and Better Than the First!

Posted in 8, Action, New Releases, Ratings, Reviews, Sci Fi/ Fantasy with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2014 by mducoing

DawnDirector Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) has firmly built on the success of its predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes and taken it to unexpected heights. A deeper, more nuanced, and far more exciting version of the epic series, Dawn is one of the best films of 2014 thus far.

Premise: Caesar now leads a growing population of enhanced apes but are threatened by a band of human survivors. Their fragile peace is short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war. Result: A brilliant and thoroughly satisfying sequel.

Dawn begins with exhilarating opening credits that depict the human apocalypse at the hands of the “Simian flu”. In the chaos of an inescapable disease, humans essentially destroy one another and the aftermath leaves few, if any still alive.

But Dawn is not about humans, as much as it is about the new “rising” alpha species, Apes, led now in San Francisco by our familiar protagonist, Caesar (Andy Serkis). Ten years after the first film and after the plague which wrestled world dominance from the hands of sinister humans, Caesar – with the help of his fellow apes – have built a primitive society based on peace and the hunter-gatherer method.

Other familiar faces surface like his #2 Koba (Toby Kebbell), Rocket (Terry Notary), and the ever adorable orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) all with prominent roles in this new society; they are now mixed with new faces, their spouses and children, like wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Rocket’s son Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw). To them, peace and progress are essential themes, and their struggle is against nature deep in the Marin County forests, believing humans to have become extinct.

But one day, a sudden encounter with Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and several other humans Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) creates new urgency, as humans are still very much a presence, and supposedly as dangerous as ever. Their run-in reveals a large camp of humans still in San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and in need of a power source that is squarely within the Ape territory.

Handsome devil

Handsome devil

The rest of the film is as much an emotional/psychological struggle as it is a physical one. Caesar remembers humans for both the good and the evil that they were capable of, and senses that Malcolm is reminiscent of the good he recalls. But Koba, Rocket and even the wise Maurice (as most Maurices are), are mistrustful of humans, having been born in their shadow and cruelty.

This internal battle is further exacerbated by a very real desperation on behalf of the humans and rage on behalf of several apes, led by Koba. Their emotions are raw, justified and set our two worlds on a terrifying collision course.

What ensues is a brilliant display of writing and direction, painting a very real portrait of complex, deep emotions that will resonate with audiences while juxtaposing this with some serious, mesmerizing action. There are some absolutely spectacular battle sequences that heighten tension that has already been established by the expertly established interpersonal drama, rather than serving in place of it. It is impossible not to care about all the characters in this film and simultaneously loathe certain aspects of them.

Ultimately, the central theme of this film is Caesar’s realization: it is not the nature of Humanity that makes it capable of Evil, it is the fact that it has been given Consciousness, to Reason, to rationalize and ultimately to turn against better nature and their own kind. And worse, that as this gift is transferred to Apes in this new age, that they too must struggle with Good and Evil.

The performances in this film are all quite strong, filled with nuance at every step: Clarke, Russell and Oldman exhibit this perfectly. And the performers that portray the apes, such as Serkis, Kebbell and Konoval, all nail their roles with unbelievable efficacy. When they are on screen, it is impossible to look away.

Ultimately, Dawn is far better than expected, despite already high expectations. It is deep and intriguing conceptually while also having superior but not superfluous action to keep up the pace. Definitely a must watch.

Rating: 8 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak

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