Laff at the Movies

Review: “Snowpiercer” is revolutionary both in style and substance

July 11th, 2014 at 7:52 am by under Entertainment
"Snowpiercer" poster courtesy The Weinstein Company

“Snowpiercer” poster courtesy The Weinstein Company

“Snowpiercer” (2014)
Rated: R for violence, language and drug content
Runtime: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Genre: Action / Thriller /Sci-Fi

My spoiler-free review:

“Snowpiercer” is a great post-apocalyptic thriller with action, drama, memorable visuals plus its claustrophobic setting, crazy characters, and high concept.  But in a bleak futuristic setting, it also  focuses on what humanity is left in these characters.
It’s an immersive sci-fi actioner and it’s an post-apocalyptic dystopian movie like you’ve never seen before!!!  I give it 8.0 out of 10… ”Snowpiercer” restores our faith that action movies can be less about big budgets and computer graphics and more about the story!

Warning to parents: this is not for kids, the movie is rated R for some very violent scenes, although not overtly graphic plus  language and drug content but also the emotional impact of life and death situations.

In the not-to-distant future of 2014 scientists are trying to reverse global warming with a chemical sprayed by planes in the upper atmosphere designed to cool the world’s temperatures.  Wisely, South Korean writer/director Joon-ho Bong doesn’t spend a lot of time on the science of the backstory, just presents it to us and quickly gets us to the story onboard the train, called “The Snowpiercer” 17 years later in 2031 where the only surviving humans are protected from the bitter cold outside.   We start in the back, and like the train itself, the story literally moves forward as the 3rd class passengers make the push from the tail towards the engine.

The train may have many cars, but its passengers are divided into two parts: a few cars at the tail with cramped conditions for more than one hundred 3rd class passengers… and the more spacious 2nd and 1st class accommodations towards the front.  While there is clearly a division along class lines, this is more than just who gets the better service on the train and the more spacious living conditions: this is about control.  Tilda Swinton’s ‘Mason’ and he boss wants to keep the residents of the tail where they are… in dirty squalor where all they eat are brown gelatinous protein bars.  ’Mason’  is a bonkers over-the-top character that preaches order to those crammed in the tail of the train.   The wardrobe of her and her ensemble of officials is clean, crisp, and colorful – in stark contrast to the drab and dirty look of the tail residents.  She preaches “know your place” to the group, but the message they’ve likely heard many times before is only stirring the pot than calming things down.   Swinton’s delivery and mannerisms make her authority questionable… she’s awkward in look and speak with her exaggerated overbite… but as we see, her methods are not … her brand of discipline for defiance is brutal.  The security force carrying out her orders are brutal.  They rip kids away from parents for clearly fake medical checks, they beat people, and severely punish anyone who questions authority.  They are not residents on the train, its like they are prisoners at a concentration camp that those in power are trying to control with fear.

Fortunately, the tail residents have ‘Gilliam’ and ‘Curtis’… John Hurt plays the wise old ‘Gillam’ who became the leader of the group years ago, as we find out later.  He makes the plans and dispatches wisdom and compassion to his people.  While his personality can certainly stand up to ‘Mason’ and the security thugs, its ‘Curtis’ who will physically lead his people towards the front of the train to takeover and reorganize life on the sophisticated locomotive.  ’Curtis’ (Chris Evans) is a different kind of hero, a reluctant hero who’s fighting for humanity and equality on the train, but he also wants to make sure he’s got it all figured out before making a push to front of train… as we learn later it’s because others have tried but failed before.  They are supported by Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Luke Pasqualino, Kang-ho Song, and Ah-sung Ko.  The cast of main characters are solid and because of the really good performances from them, we get a lot of character development in a short period of time… we know most of their names and who they are quickly: a close friend, a desperate mother, a ruthless protector, a man on a mission, and a daughter with special gifts.

The revolution is coming: In the buildup to the eventual violent action-packed revolt we meet key players, get some backstory, and character development BUT once the action begins, it barely stops to take a breath, only stopping long enough to examine the damage before we move to the next car.  During the push forward we get to see what is in the other cars closer to the front and a few looks outside, which is a relief after we’ve been cooped up in the tail for awhile.  We also learn that the train’s engineer is more than just the driver: he’s a leader who is deified with his followers practically worshiping him… it’s like his own special cult… everyone taught one way of thinking one way of acting… they are controlled by fear that if that train stops they will all die…. they seem brainwashed with rhetoric referring to those who think different as “old world”.

The movie is full of themes of humanity, morality, warnings about environment, science, government, and control plus ‘Curtis’ dealing with the cost of the revolution.  Its an apocalyptic story that puts the human condition under the microscope, showcasing different traits at their very basic level in different characters.  The class struggle drama mixed with the feel of a Nazi concentration camp breakout action thriller set in the science fiction genre of an apocalytpic future with as many twists and turns as the train’s circuitous route around the world.  ”Snowpiercer” is unpredictable … it goes places you might not expect and dispatches twists to keep you off balance… like recent genre changing movies “The Matrix” and “District 9″ before it, “Snowpiercer” is a revolutionary movie that sci-fi fans have to see… at least once!!!

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Review: “How To Train Your Dragon 2″ is even better than the first!

June 19th, 2014 at 11:49 pm by under Entertainment
"How To Train Your Dragon 2" poster courtesy DreamWorks Animation

“How To Train Your Dragon 2″ poster courtesy DreamWorks Animation

“How To Train Your Dragon 2” (2014)
Rated: PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Genre: Animation/Action/Adventure

My spoiler-free review:

The story about a boy and his companion (a dragon) has grown up into something bigger and better – the story about a young man and his best friend (the dragon) and their quest to learn more about themselves.  Not only does the animation look amazing, the high quality 3D, the story, and the characters make “How To Train Your Dragon” worth every dollar you spend… I give it 9.0 out of 10!  It is one of the best movies of 2014 so far!

Warning for little kids: the movie is rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor, but take note that there are some scary images and sadness that may be too much for the younger audiences

Five years after “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010), the adorable dragons have moved into Berk… and the main cast has named their dragons.  Everyone has their own dragon including our main character ‘Hiccup’ (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon ‘Toothless” and his friend ‘Astrid’ (America Ferrera) and her dragon “Stormfly”.  We soon learn that the the Vikings world gets much bigger since starting to ride the dragons.   Toothless and Hiccup’s play and their chemistry is  like a boy and his pet.

It doesn’t take long for the filmmakers to establish that this is much more than a mere continuing of the 2010 story with the dragons becoming companions and part of the Viking community.  No this is about ‘Hiccup’ searching for his identity… then learning  (possible spoiler) (more…)


Review: “Edge of Tomorrow” is worth repeat viewings

June 19th, 2014 at 11:09 pm by under Entertainment
"Edge of Tomorrow" poster courtesy Warner Bros

“Edge of Tomorrow” poster courtesy Warner Bros

“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material
Runtime: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Genre: Action/Sci-Fi

My spoiler-free review:

In the opening minutes of “Edge of Tomorrow” we get the premise familiar to many alien invasion or disaster movies… where news media and a montague of characters are introduced to show us that something big has happened and now the world is trying to deal with it.  Those themes immediately start to set some expectations about what to expect the rest of the way.  Luckily this movie quickly shows us that its not typical… surpassing most entries in those genres by expertly combining elements of “Groundhog Day” (1993), “Source Code” (2011), the D-Day scene from “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and many popular video games… I give it 8.5 out of 10.

Warning for parents: this movie is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material… and many of the battlefield scenes are pretty intense… plus the main character has to deal with his mortality over and over

He’s not even supposed to be here…. Major Cage (Tom Cruise) is not a soldier… he’s a PR guy working for the military by promoting their exo-suits that are supposed to help the world defense forces fight the alien invaders that crash landed to earth five years earlier.  But where Cruise shines isn’t the fish out of water part of his character, its the smart, confident, suave, action hero that he does well at… and while the alien ‘mimics’ are his toughest challenge, he’s also got to deal with the stubborn General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), the hard-nosed Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), and the cruel Sergeant (Terence Maynard) that he wakes up to over and over again.

Over and over… as the tag line of poster (“Live. Die. Repeat.’) implies, we’re going to relive the plot a couple times.  So the way that the story is presented to us as both familiar and new is very well conceived and executed, something that could keep even the biggest movie know-it-all guessing what will happen next.  Reminiscent of the movie “Groundhog Day”… he relives the same day a couple times before he starts to figure out how to try to change and learn from it.  The first day (loop) is longest, the second we get repeated lines, characters, and scenes.  I liked that at a certain point ‘Cage’ goes ahead in the loop and ahead of the audience on the storyline…. something that we don’t see…. but he knows what will happen if he completes the mission.

Like any good sci-fi movie: the movie sets up some basic rules for the “loop” that we can understand but there are also more complicated reasons of why this is happening that we can start to put together as the movie goes on (like why he’s reliving the day).   The look of the aliens is kept from us for awhile which was a good move, and we meet some characters that understand what he’s going through, and there are other characters just meant for helping our main character move along on the hero’s journey.  The action is immersive it feels like your in the action at times.  The solid supporting cast is mostly unknowns except for Gleeson, Paxton, and Emily Blunt as the super soldier heroine ‘Rita’.  Blunt turns in another great performance despite being a little out of her element in the action genre, she pulls it off well.

Stronger premise wins… unlike the aforementioned “Source Code” and “Oblivion”, which I mention later – this movie gets stronger as time goes on.  Often a movie’s first third is the tightest crafted and most compelling part, but this movie’s middle and final acts are stronger and support everything we’ve seen up to this point… not just headed for some twist that leaves us scratching our heads and unsatisfied.  ”Edge of Tomorrow” has an intriguing storyline that keeps us wondering what will happen next!

But … there are some moments where the CG that Cruise is put in just doesn’t look real enough… and its hard to think of the 51 year old as a spry soldier running and jumping around the battlefield.

For all his credits, Cruise has only really done 4 science fiction movies.  While the sci-fi thriller “Minority Report” (2002) is still my favorite for the actor in this genre, “Edge of Tomorrow” has become my second favorite, ahead of the remake “War of the Worlds” (2005) and far better than Cruise’s last science-fiction movie “Oblivion” (2013).  I can’t wait to rewatch this one at home for the little continuity details I may have missed the first time… and try to figure out if scenes were shot with multiple cameras or if the same scene was re-shot multiple times to give the appearance of going back to the same place… over and and over… and over… again.  Something I’ll be doing when I buy this movie: watching over and over again.

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Laff’s guide to Waterfront Film Festival 2014

June 12th, 2014 at 2:19 am by under Entertainment
Waterfront Film Festival 2014 poster

Waterfront Film Festival 2014 poster by Ron English

The 16th annual Waterfront Film Festival is almost here

The Lakeshore tradition is back in South Haven for its second year!  After moving from Saugatuck the year before, the 4-day festival of film, food, music, and fun hopes for better weather (free of power outages) and attendance numbers around 16,000.   More than 70 films will be shown at the non-competitive film festival with 21 movies making Midwest premieres and 13 playing in Michigan for the first time.  The slate of movies is a mix of comedic, dramatic, and thriller feature films, thought provoking documentaries, and dozens of short films.  At many of the screenings, cast members, directors, producers, and/or writers may be present to discuss their movie and film making with the audience.

Opening night
Those thousands of people can start Thursday night with the opening night party at South Beach, gates open at 6:00pm featuring music from Tony Ferrari, Bradley Wisk, Valentiger, and Alexis.  Then at dusk, on a 50-foot inflatable screen you can watch the “Shorts Spectacular”, a screening of 6 short films.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday 
Friday morning at 9:00am the screenings begin at three locations around townSouth Haven High School (600 Elkenberg Street – 2 venues inside), Michigan Theater (210 Center Street – 3 venues inside), and Foundry Hall (422 Eagle Street) and the last movies start at 11:00pm.  There is a short film that plays in front of most movies, usually 5-10 minutes long.  The schedule is similar on Saturday and Sunday. If you don’t want to just see movies all day, you can also do some sightseeing, shopping, or eat at one of the many restaurants or eateries around the area.  Almost everything is in walking distance.  But there is also a free shuttle service if you prefer to park in one spot and then branch out to the other venues.

Celebrities
Get your tickets early for the Networking Event held Saturday at 2:15pm at South Haven City Hall (539 Phoenix Street).  You can meet, ask questions and get advice from celebrities and industry insiders; actors, directors, writers and producers.  Many of the names listed below will be taking part in this event.

Many well known movie, TV, and entertainment industry stars will be attending this year’s WFF, keep your eye out for:

Jason Ritter

Jason Ritter

Jason Ritter returns to Waterfront for the second time with his new movie “Wild Canaries”.  He was also here in 2009 for his movie “Peter and Vandy”.  2014 will mark the fourth time that one of his movies have screened here: also “A Bag of Hammers” (2011) and “Free Samples” (2012).  The Primetime Emmy Award nominee TV and film actor has nearly 80 credits, including in films “Freddie v. Jason”, “W.” “The East” and NBC’s hit “Parenthood”.

Melanie Lynskey Melanie Lynskey 

Melanie Lynskey returns to West Michigan with her new movie “Chu and Blossom”.

She filmed the movie “Touchback” in the Grand Rapids area in 2010.  She is an award-winning actor with more than 55 credits during the last 20 years, including “Up in the Air” with George Clooney, as Rose opposite Charlie Sheen on TV’s hit “Two and a Half Men”, with Drew Barrymore in “Ever After”, and with Kate Winslet in their explosive film debut “Heavenly Creatures” directed by Peter Jackson.

Eddie Jemison Eddie Jemison

Eddie Jemison is at Waterfront Film Festival with his new movie “Coffee, Kill Boss” as well as “King of Herrings”, for which he was the writer, director and lead actor.

He’s an actor with more than 60 credits who has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He is widely known for his role as Livingston Dell in the “Ocean’s Eleven” series opposite Brad Pitt and George Clooney, as well as roles in “Bruce Almighty” opposite Jim Carrey and “The Informant” opposite Matt Damon.

Blake Robbins  Blake Robbins

Blake Robbins is attending WFF with the film “Sublime and the Beautiful”, which he directed and stars in.

He is an actor with more than 55 credits and best known for playing Tom Halpert on the NBC hit “The Office”, as well as for his role as C.O. Dave Brass on the critically acclaimed HBO series “Oz”. He also appeared in the film “The Ugly Truth” opposite Gerard Butler.  Additionally, Blake co-authored the book “Acting Qs: Conversations with Working Actors”.

David Lascher David Lascher 

David Lascher is attending Waterfront Film Festival as the director of “Sister”.

He is an actor with more than 30 credits, including the film “White Squall” and series regular roles in “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Hey Dude” and “Blossom” among others.

Christine Elise Christine Elise McCarthy

Christine Elise McCarthy has been involved with Waterfront Film Festival for years as the the festival’s programmer.

She is a well known actor, director and writer with more than 60 credits, including her recent film “Bathing & the Single Girl”, which has been expanded and adapted into a full-length memoir, as well as for main roles in “Child’s Play 2”, and on TV hits “Beverly Hills 90210” and “ER”.

Bradley Wisk Bradley Wisk

Bradley Wisk is a professional opera singer who was a contestant on “America’s Got Talent” and is a current contestant on “The Bachelorette”.

He is performing at the opening night concert.

The movies - Features
“Aboard the Carousel” (Midwest Premiere)
“Arlo and Julie” (Michigan Premiere) - Official Selection, SXSW Film Festival
“Being Awesome” (Midwest Premiere)
“BFFs” (Michigan Premiere)
“Boy Meets Girl” (Midwest Premiere)
“Cas & Dylan” (Midwest Premiere)
“Chu and Blossom” (Midwest Premiere)
“Coffee, Kill Boss” (Midwest Premiere)
“Copenhagen” (Michigan Premiere) - Audience Award, Best Narrative Feature, Slamdance Film Festival
“Craters of the Moon” (Midwest Premiere)
“Empire of Dirt”  (Midwest Premiere) - Special Jury Prize, Toronto International Film Festival
“Father-Like Son” (Midwest Premiere)
“Finding Neighbors”  (Michigan Premiere)
“I Put A Hit On You”  (Michigan Premiere)
“Jake Squared” (Michigan Premiere)
“King of Herrings” (Midwest Premiere)
“Knuckle Jack” (Midwest Premiere)
“Lawrence & Holloman” (Midwest Premiere)
“The Odd Way Home” (Michigan Premiere)
“Rezeta” (Midwest Premiere) - Grand Jury Prize, Best Narrative Feature, Slamdance Film Festival
“Sister” (Midwest Premiere) - Official selection, Tribeca Film Festival
“The Sublime and Beautiful” (Midwest Premiere) - Best Narrative Feature nominee, Slamdance Film Festival
“Wild Canaries” (Midwest Premiere)

The movies – Documentaries
Several documentaries that played at previous WFFs have gone on to receive Oscar nominations and even a win.  There are 11 feature length documentaries this year:
“Brave Miss World” (Michigan Premiere)
“Bronx Obama” (Midwest Premiere)
“Fight Church” (Michigan Premiere)
“Kidnapped For Christ” (Michigan Premiere)
“Little Hope Was Arson” – Best Documentary Feature nominee, 2014 Slamdance Film Festival
“Love Child”  (Midwest Premiere) - Grand Jury Prize Nominee, World Cinema Documentary, Sundance Film Festival
“No Cameras Allowed” (Midwest Premiere)
“Small Small Thing” (Michigan Premiere)
“This May Be the Last Time” (Midwest Premiere) – Official selection, Sundance Film Festival
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” (Midwest Premiere) - Official selection, Sundance Film Festival
“Who Took Johnny” (Michigan Premiere)

More information:  (more…)


Review: “Locke” is a tense one man show

June 6th, 2014 at 8:28 am by under Entertainment
"Locke" poster courtesy A24

“Locke” poster courtesy A24

“Locke” (2014)
Rated: R for language throughout
Runtime: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Genre: Drama/Thriller

My spoiler-free review:

One man on a 90-minute drive on British freeways into London for a life-changing event sounds simple enough, but writer/director Steven Knight and actor Tom Hardy make it great!  The story, the character development, the style, the production values are all top notch and worthy of some first half of 2014 awards… I give it 8.9 out of 10.

Warning to parents: its rated R for language throughout

90 minute drives on the freeway can be boring… or white knuckle.  In this movie, we are immersed in Ivan “Locke”‘s increasingly stressful storm of problems both personal and work related… and through mostly dialogue and Hardy’s superb performance, we become about as uncomfortable as you can be without big action sequences, dizzying camera movements, or special effects…. just interpersonal drama.

We follow along as Locke drives from his work towards what is slowly revealed to us as a big deal in his life, missing out on what others in his life think are more important… and in very little time we begin to understand why he’s making the drive and why none of the other characters will probably be able to talk him out of it.

The device this movie uses has been done before, but not as well as here: one character or one cast confined to one location (inside his car) that begins to feel smaller and smaller as the story flows forward despite no physical changes to the location.  Sure he’s driving, but he spends 99% of the movie inside the vehicle, because of time and safety concerns he can’t get out, much like he can’t escape the dozens of phone calls he makes and receives during the movie, interacting with the other characters that want him to speed up, slow down, change his mind, need his help, etc.  So this device of being stuck in the car clearly comes with its own set of rules: there’s a set distance ahead of him, even going a little bit faster isn’t going to get him to his planned destination any earlier, if he wants to get there in good time, he can’t makes stops or turn around, he can’t move out of the driver’s seat, his communication is limited to his bluetooth enabled mobile phone calls, etc… its a well planned out idea that works because its so familiar to any of us who have made a lengthy trip on the interstate.

The story told in that device’s set of rules is compelling… and we get plenty of depth for both the main character and the ones we only hear…. the dialogue and the unspoken physical communication add to the sense of helplessness we have.  Hardy is great as the everyman here, its a wonderful performance to add to his growing filmography of outstanding work, one that would likely win my first half Oscars (for movies in the first 6 months of 2014).  Through his performance and Knight’s pacing that is slowly building up to the end, we are feeling his stress, his frustration, his desperation in the effort to do the right thing, especially considering his past.  He’s trapped – he can’t get comfortable – confined by his space as are we the audience in our small space in our theater seat.   The movie and Hardy are also playing on audience emotions… circumstances that most adults can understand, if not relate to… family, work, career, finances, morals – blended with themes of communication troubles and helplessness of being miles apart from the troubled situation.  As we slowly build, cracks start to show in the otherwise well put together character.  But its not just Hardy who portrays the responsible family man and dependable worker, but even the unseen characters and their actions that are vividly portrayed… like that of a top notch radio announcer perfectly painting the picture of the sports events for our imagination.

This is a much better “one man” movie than “Buried” (2010) but second only to “Duel” (1971) as the best one man driving movie (not including “Drive” (2011) because he doesn’t spend the majority of the movie in the car, or by himself).

Sure its a gamble for the entire movie to rest on the shoulders of one actor’s performance… but rest assured, Tom Hardy’s got this.

MORE INFO (possible spoilers): (more…)


Review: “Maleficent” twists the classic fairy tale

May 30th, 2014 at 12:01 am by under Entertainment
"Maleficent" poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Maleficent” poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Maleficent” (2014)
Rated: PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images
Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Family/Fantasy/Romance

My spoiler-free review:

From evil villain to central character, Disney turns “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) on its head 55 years later with “Maleficent” (Mah-lef-i-cent) lead by an inspired performance from Angelina Jolie and some stunning visual effects, this movie is a storybook come to life, albeit a different version – according to the narrator: the “story is not quite as you were told”…. I give it 8.0 out of 10.

Warnings: it is rated PG for sequences of fantasy action and violence, including frightening images, probably safe for kids 10 and up, depending on child

In the beginning narration of “Maleficent” we are told that they are going to “Tell A Story Anew“, which by definition means it will be different.  Not only does the movie’s title focus on the villian from the 1959 animated film, so are most of the scenes, giving us the perspective from Maleficent’s point of view and giving us a different take on why things were happening the way they did in the “Sleeping Beauty” story that has been around since first published in 1697.

Jolie was a perfect choice to play this character… morphing from good fairy and protector of her land when she was young … to the evil sorceress at the story’s iconic scenes.  She had the voice down, matching the tone and sound of Eleanor Audley from Disney’s animated version and the scene at the christening felt nearly identical to that version.  But she also gives this iconic character, described  as “one of the most powerful villains in Disney history” – a heart, a softer side, a backstory that actually makes you kind of root for the character we’ve always thought was the villain… or at least care for her and understand her emotions.  She was a protector and despite her walk down the dark path, she still has this calling to be a protector.  The movie makes Aurora’s dad – King Stefan – Sharlto Copley more of a bad guy – as the slightly deranged ruler who is obsessed with protecting his daughter and will, even as the animated version implied – stop at nothing – to protect her from the curse.  But this movie, through Copley’s capable hands, lets us see more of Stefan’s obsession and paranoia to protect his people and himself from Maleficent.  This version is certainly an interesting twist on the classic Disney fairytale this time about love, power, greed, and revenge.  Although after Jolie, Copley, and Elle Fanning (as Aurora), there was a bit of a shortage of star power for the rest of the cast.

Good marks for story, character development, and the effects.  Whether the movie becomes a new classic Disney tale remains to be seen, one thing is clear… the visual effects teams deserves an Oscar nomination.  They created a magical enchanted land with all kinds of mystical creatures from tree people, to wooden dragons, fairies, pixies, mushroom creatures, and more.  They pulled it off in a Avatar-meets storybook style that works.  The only stumble was the motion-capture or morphing they did to make the actresses playing the fairies that raise baby Aurora… but since they’re fairies… the odd look is something that can be forgiven considering the rest of the wonderful world and residents inhabiting the home of Maleficent.

Finally, this movie is familiar enough to be comfortable but different enough to keep you interested to find out how the story will end.

Similarities:
*Maleficent’s raven was Diablo in the 1959 animated Disney movie, the raven is Diaval in this movie
*She has a gold-looking staff in animated, constructs a staff out of wood and changes it to a solid black now
*Scene at the christening of baby Aurora seems like it was nearly word for word in-step with the 1959 version, but with a few changes, one noticable change in the spell put on the baby by Maleficent (not spoiling) and the absence of Prince Phillip (and another spoiler)
*The lopsided colorful birthday cake the fairies make for Aurora’s 16th birthday makes a brief appearance in the movie

Differences:
*The fairies who protect Aurora were Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather in animated, they are Flittle, Imelda Staunton, Knotgrass, and Thistletwit in this version
*Maleficent’s minions are now more of the creatures working for her from her homeland that dark mindless goblins, trolls, etc.
*We see a lot more of the years when Aurora is in hiding, away from the castle and her name is not changed to ‘Briar Rose’
*Gives us more of a glimpse at how the spell directs Aurora to prick her finger on the spinning wheel needle
*”True love” gets a different definition just like in “Frozen” (2013)

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Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is really good, but…

May 24th, 2014 at 9:56 am by under Entertainment
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" poster courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” poster courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014)
(updated 5/28/14 – added to continuity issues)
Rated: PG- 13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language
Runtime: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Superhero/Fantasy/Sci-Fi

My spoiler-free review:

In the modern superhero movie genre audiences have come to expect big action sequences, cool costumes and makeup, a compelling story, great visual effects, and good writing/acting, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” gets an “A” on most of these categories, but with some of the dialogue and acting just average for this genre plus a running time past 2 hours… I give it 7.5 out of 10… its really good, but I had my hopes high with the return of Director Bryan Singer (“X-Men” and “X-Men 2″) plus the combination of original cast and returning cast with time traveling had me expecting the next great superhero movie, but it fell short of that sky high expectation.

Warning: the movie is not for little kids as it is Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language

We’ve come so far since the 1978′s “Superman: The Movie” laid the path then 2000′s “X-Men” made the genre legit… superhero movies are now the biggest summer budget blockbusters are we’re getting several of them each year (at least 4 in 2014, 5 in 2013, 3 in 2012).  So when the franchise that really started the golden age of superhero movies comes back bigger (cast and budget) you expect it to be better than ever.

Don’t get me wrong this movie is really really good, but not great… I liked the action, the effects, the overall story, the appearances of characters, the time traveling, but in 2014 I expect more from my superhero movies than I did in the 2000s.  This is the biggest ensemble cast of superhero characters ever – I counted 20 supers in all (plus the non-super supporting characters).  The cast boasts about a dozen actors who have won/been nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, or Tonys.  You can’t just bring back Singer, the original cast, the cast of “X-Men: First Class” (2011), and some new characters and time travel between 2023 and 1973 and call it good… you have to give those award caliber actors interesting things to say and do!   Not just sit or stand around… c’mon Singer you directed the genius movie “The Usual Suspects” (1995), one of my favorite movies of its kind!  You know that even a few good lines of dialogue can make a good actor better and a great actor amazing.  A few stanzas of Professor Xavier speeches aren’t enough…. all the actors we expect to be interesting need to be interesting… not just window dressing via a nostalgic cameo.

Continuity with other X-Men films: A bigger issue was the problem inherent with the franchise, not just with this installment.   Constantly trying to resolve in my mind the events of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009), “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), and “The Wolverine” (2013) and how they fit with this movie was an act of patience and frustration. The Professor X in the future doesn’t fit with the events of “Last Stand”.  Bolivar Trask in DOFP vs X3.  Xavier/Magneto/Mystique relationship in past versus X1, X2, X3.  Future Wolverine’s claws.  Director Singer recognized errors in continuity in a May 14 article, saying “Some of these I hope the audience will forget about…”.  Really?  A franchise rebooted with pop icon characters that you’ve built up during a 14 year period and you want us to forget ‘some of these‘ things.  Seriously, I want to drop my rating a full point for that!  Changing the actor who played Pyro between X1 and X2…okay.  Maybe I can accept the 4 different ages of/actors playing Stryker in “Origins: Wolverine” (2009), ”First Class” (2011), X2, and the 1970s Stryker portrayed in this movie don’t fit together.  But the chronological issues created by “Origins: Wolverine” (2009) or “Last Stand” (2006) and even “The Wolverine” (2013) have to be addressed somewhere on screen!!  My only acceptable explanation, but it wasn’t on screen: that “First Class” and “Days of Future Past” have created a different timeline that we are now on.

Other issues: I also had problems with what Ellen Page’s ‘Kitty Pride’ can do in this movie… her performance was fine, but in talking to my Marvel experts (“nerds” or “geeks” to some), she never had the abilities she does in this movie.

But… Singer did a good job trying to undo the damage and problems with those non-Singer movies tying up many of the loose ends (not all) and trying to point the future/past on a different trajectory.  Now that I’ve seen the movie, the second watch may be easier knowing that many of the “problems” are fixed on the space time continium.

Also… the gravity of the apocalyptic future is clear with the mortality of some characters showing us just how important the time traveling mission needs to be successful.  Its something rarely seen in these movies and the comics.  The scenes with Quicksilver are great, well thought out and executed, especially the big action sequence… which is probably the scene that evokes the most pure fun for me.  There were a lot of little inside jokes and things that tied this movie and the others together plus some comic relief, but the sub-par dialogue/acting, the ominous tone and some briefly explained plot devices keep this movie from being one of the best of it’s kind.

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Review: “Million Dollar Arm” is a really good sports drama

May 16th, 2014 at 12:01 am by under Entertainment
"Million Dollar Arm" poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios

“Million Dollar Arm” poster courtesy Walt Disney Studios

“Million Dollar Arm” (2014)
Rated: PG for mild language and some suggestive content
Runtime: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Genre: Biography/Sports/Drama

My spoiler-free review:

The feel-good sports movie of the year so far, “Million Dollar Arm” combines themes of baseball, drama, comedy, romance, and family/parenting.  With its smile inducing plot, its hard not to enjoy for both baseball fans and non-sports fans.  While its no “Moneyball” (2011), its certainly one of the best baseball-themed movies since 2000… I give it 7.0 out of 10.

I love baseball, so baseball movies can either hook me… or bug me.  This one, although a little bit predictable and quite stereotypical of Hollywood’s portrayal of India and Indian culture, was a story I had never heard of before and it was a pleasure to watch.

Based on actual events in 2008 (although some details were changed), the struggling sports agency ‘Seven Figures Management’ – run by ‘JB Bernstein’ (Jon Hamm) and ‘Aash’ (Aasif Mandvi) is desperate and looking for the next big thing.  They left the big company and “don’t want to go to work on the Death Star”.  ’JB’ comes up with the idea to tap into India – the last big market for athletes.  The idea is to find a couple baseball prospects out of the billions who play cricket and have them tryout for Major League Baseball teams in hopes of getting a minor league deal and keep their struggling sports agency afloat.

This movie works whether or not you’re a baseball fan because its ultimately about the relationship between a businessman who only sees the financial possibilities of this endeavor and the young men who leave their families in poor towns/villages of India for the bright lights and economic riches of the United States.  There’s plenty of character development for the main cast and supporting cast and we get to see a character arc for several of them by the end of the movie.

Much like a baseball team, the cast is a team of characters from the charismatic manager of this group ‘JB’, played well with all the charm and confidence by Hamm.  Bill Paxton oozes gruff experience as the veteran coach ‘Tom House’ who focuses on the psychological part of the game as much as the physical.  Alan Arkin is perfect as always as the retired scout ‘Ray’ who is so good, he can gauge the speed of the pitch by how loud it hits the glove.  Tzi Ma and Darshan Jariwala add the very different degrees of businessmen involved in the deal.  Lake Bell adds a potential romantic interest as ‘Brenda’ for our main character, but also the one character who challenges him to be different and start to think about the impact of his actions.  The possible prospects ‘Rinku’ and ‘Dinesh’ are played great by Suraj Sharma (“Life of Pi”) and Madhur Mittal (Jamal’s older brother in “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)).  And we get some comic relief from Mandvi as JB’s partner ‘Aash’, Allyn Rachel as the assistant ‘Theresa’, and Pitobash is hilarious as the translator ‘Amit’.  ’Amit’ is also a huge baseball fan, who always wanted to play but was still happy for their opportunity – gives a speech to his Indian brethren before one of the tryouts – “I’m seeing my dream in both of you”.  He also hopes to inspire them saying, “now small boys in India can dream to be like you”.

The movie is hard not to like with its fish out of water feelings for both sets of main characters, plus the bonding and growing chemistry among our team members, “Million Dollar Arm” sets up to target your heartstrings.  It certainly spoke to me maybe more than others because I played baseball, I love the game, took a sports psychology and coaching classes in college, I understand that the mental part of the game is just important as the physical, and I understand that the boys missed home and felt out of place and needed someone to believe in them… and our main character was in need of some growing up as well.  It all leads up to a smile inducing potentially eye watering ’9th inning’.

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Review: “Legends of Oz” is a rental at best

May 9th, 2014 at 12:01 am by under Entertainment
"Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return" poster courtesy Clarius Entertainment

“Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” poster courtesy Clarius Entertainment

“Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” (2014)
Rated: PG for some scary images and mild peril
Runtime: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Genre: Animation/ Family / Musical

My spoiler-free review:

The little kids (8 and younger) will enjoy it, but they’re also not in charge of your budget… because “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is not worth the $50 (or more) that a family of four might be shelling out for this mediocre sequel to the “Wizard of Oz” (1939).  Despite the talented cast of actors providing the voices here, this movie is at the level of a TV movie or a straight-to-video, not a theatrical release… I give it 6.0 out of 10.  Its not worth the 3-D dollars and its better to wait for it at a second-run theater, or until its released to rent.

Based on the 1989 children’s novel ’Dorothy of Oz’ by Roger S. Baum (the Great-grandson of L. Frank Baum, the original creator of the “Oz” series of books), ”Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return” is supposed to immediately follow the events of the classic movie when Dorothy has recently returned to Kansas and the town is dealing with the aftermath of the tornado.  Since she left, time has passed much faster in the alternate dimension of Oz and the Emerald City is in need of her help, again.

The filmmakers were smart to start in Oz because the animation of the whimsical characters and their world look like a storybook come to life, but the animation in Oz is more believable than the humans back in Kansas.

The casting choices aren’t in doubt, but the decision of which character some of the actors were chosen to voice IS for me.  James Belushi was a good choice for the Lion.  Lea Michele worked as Dorothy.  Martin Short was perfect as The Jester/The Appraiser.  Oliver Platt and Hugh Dancy were great as Wiser and Marshal Mallow.  Megan Hilty, Patrick Stewart, and Brian Blessed were solid as the China Princess, Tugg, and Judge Jawbreaker.  But Dan Aykroyd and Kelsey Grammer should have switched in their roles as the Scarecrow and Tin Man, while older (sounding) actors should have been used to voice Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, perhaps Bernadette Peters, who didn’t sparkle as Glinda.

The development of those characters is the best part of this movie as we once again meet new characters along the yellow brick road – and we quickly understand who they are and why they would want to help Dorothy get back to the Emerald City.  The tie-in between this movie’s villain The Jester and the Wicked Witch of the West in the original “Wizard of Oz” story was also a smart move.

Memorable characters, not memorable songs…. the musical score is good, but the songs were mostly forgettable, eventhough some were written by Bryan Adams.  This is certainly not another soundtrack chart topper like “Frozen” (2013).

Not a bad first movie made by Summertime Entertainment and first movie distrubuted by Clarius Entertainment, its cute with plenty of stuff that kids can enjoy and lots of little jokes for adults, set in a world that’s familiar to anyone who has seen the original movie, but different enough to make it interesting…. however, it felt a lot more like a made-for-TV cartoon movie.

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Review: “Amazing Spider-man 2″ bigger than it should have been

May 2nd, 2014 at 8:23 am by under Entertainment
"The Amazing Spider-man 2" poster courtesy Columbia Pictures

“The Amazing Spider-man 2″ poster courtesy Columbia Pictures

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ (2014)
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence
Runtime: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Genre: Action/Adventure/ComicBook/Superhero

My spoiler-free review:

The vision for this Spider-man movie was just too grandiose.  Too many villians, subplots, and slow-motion action sequences, this easily could have been two movies… or one very long music video.

The action is great, the acting is really good, and dealing with three villians while dealing with personal issues does create some serious challenges for our friendly neighborhood web slinger… but it loses the focus and charm that the last one had in 2012.  Sure for comic book fans its keeps pretty close to the comics (I’m told) and its original enough to keep the fanboys’ interest (introducing several of the ‘Sinister Six’ lineup).  I was entertained, but the web was just too full and had too many music video-like slow-mo action sequences for me to say its better than the 2012 version… I give it 7.0 out of 10 … its worth seeing on the big screen, but save some bucks and skip the 3-D or more expensive formats.

In his defense, Director Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012), “(500) Days of Summer” (2009)) got his start in and continues directing music videos and documentaries, and I like both of his other big screen movies very much, but the three villains, the issues Peter Parker is dealing with after the events of the last movie, his personal drama with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and Aunt May, his estranged parents, was just too ambitious.  I give Webb and the writers and the cast and crew credit for trying, but it was just too much.

I know.  I know.  The fans want more… then I say something like that.  The acting was really good, something we’ve started to expect and enjoy, but still need to appreciate how this genre has changed in 30 years.  (mild spoilers if you don’t know the comics and/or haven’t seen any teasers for the movie)  Andrew Garfield is really more like the Spider-man of the comics with his youthful confidence and comedy as he tries to appeal to the public as a good guy, not a vigilante… but at the same time he shows us the weighty internal struggles that Peter Parker is dealing with from his past and the present.  Emma Stone is more than just a damsel in distress as Gwen Stacy, she’s headstrong but sweet and caring.  Sally Field gets to show more range of her acting in this chapter as well as the concerned Aunt May but there’s a lot more going on with her this time around.   Then we get three Oscar-caliber actors as the three new villains: Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino), and Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn/Green Goblin).  Foxx’s character really becomes charged up after he takes on his new persona, DeHaan shines as the socially awkward and steaming mad son of Oscorp’s founder, but Giamatti mostly just yells, snorts, and destroys things.

This second chapter in this “Amazing” franchise has significantly more action and is darker like many other successful sequels, plunging Spider-man into a lot of trouble and a lot of emotional upheaval.  And these new villains at the same time create a lot more peril for our hero than just the one we got in the last, which was stronger, but more of a personal conflict for Peter than being outmatched.

Sometimes when you have a good thing going, you gotta save a little for the next outing… maybe the scenes with Harry Osborn are merely a tease… maybe the extra ending stuff with Aleksei Sytsevich could have been more of an extra scene in the credits (like other marvel movies, teasing ahead to the next movie and the “Sinister Six”).  I don’t know, but it felt like the filmmakers, maybe were under intense pressure from the studio (Columbia Pictures, owned by Sony) to build their version of blockbuster superhero team-up movies like, but separate (because of copyrights) from Disney’s “The Avengers” (2012) or Fox’s “X-Men: First Class” (2011).  Either way this movie was fun and exciting and does set up for more sequels and spinoffs if that’s what the studio wants.  We get some direct and indirect references to ‘The Sinister Six’ with ‘Green Goblin’, ‘Rhino’, “Electro’, ’Doctor Octopus’, ‘Vulture’, plus ‘Lizard’ is still out there and apparently ‘Kraven the Hunter’ and ‘Mysterio’ were also teased via the Shazam app during the credits.

But sometimes business can get in the way of great filmmaking…. more isn’t always better and the music montages combined with too many slow-mo sequences wore thin… one of each would have been successful but too many times and it loses its uniqueness … even for Spider-man.

 

PS – at our screening, the “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (Fox) teaser was not attatched, maybe because Sony, the company behind Spider-man was not going to promote another company’s product during screenings that Fox isn’t footing the bill for.  That teaser doesn’t necessarily mean a crossover between the two properties, here’s the deal reported by Variety in a nutshell: Director Marc Webb was under contract at Fox Searchlight to do another movie after “(500) Days of Summer” and to make both sides happy after the 2012 Spider-man movie, Sony (Columbia Pictures) agreed to let Fox promote their new X-Men movie at the end of this Spider-man movie.

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