Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Philadelphia Story - 9 stars out of 10

The Philadelphia Story - 9 stars out of 10

“The Philadelphia Story” is one of the greatest wedding weekend movies ever.  The plot is as spontaneous as Katharine Hepburn’s love, and it would make a great multiple choice question:
Which man will Katharine Hepburn marry?
A. Jimmy Stewart, the reporter covering the wedding
B. Cary Grant, her ex-husband
C. John Howard, her fiancé
D. None of the above

The acting is top notch with an Oscar win for Stewart and nominations for Hepburn and Ruth Hussey.  The quality of the film is further emphasized by its win for Best Adapted Screenplay and nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.  The critics loved it, Hollywood loved it, and you will love it.  The long scenes and simplicity of the sets make it easy to see that this is an adaptation of a stage play, but I think that format works well for this story.  The only problem (and only reason I didn’t give the film a perfect rating) is that it caused the movie to drag on at a few points.  Regardless, the humor is great and Jimmy Stewart gives one of the greatest drunk scenes ever.  The chemistry between characters is fantastic as it revolves from love to hate and back again.  The script is very clever, neatly tying up all loose ends and remaining unpredictable from start to finish.  While I would love to see this on stage, this amazing all-star cast has successfully ruined any future stage production of “The Philadelphia Story.”

Friday, August 15, 2014

Choose - 4 stars out of 10

Choose - 4 stars out of 10

“Choose” is a pretty twisted film as a murderer forces his victim to make a terrible choice (forcing a girl to kill her father or her mother, or else he’ll kill them both).  Psychologically, it’s very clever… but it reminds me of the “Saw” franchise where it’s interesting to think about but I don’t want to watch it.  The story is well constructed, centering on a journalist and her sheriff dad who research a serial killer and find connections amidst his seemingly random victims.  Unfortunately, the script kills the story.  It is slow, simple (not in the good way), and does not give the actors much to work with.  Katheryn Winnick is the exception as she plays her role well, but even well-known actors Kevin Pollack and Bruce Dern cannot make something out of nothing.  It seemed like the movie might find redemption with its twist that brings perfect sense to the killer’s choosing theme was really interesting… but then the random double-twist at the very end confuses the whole thing, resulting in frustration and annoyance.  “Choose” was a good movie to have on in the background as I worked on other things but, if given the choice to watch this film again or pass, you can guess which I would choose.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Divergent - 7 stars out of 10

Divergent - 7 stars out of 10

In the world of dystopian films that separate the population into different factions (or districts characterized by lifestyle and status, if you will), “Divergent” falls behind “The Hunger Games” franchise but is still a really great film.  It is natural to draw comparisons between these two franchises, but I will try to focus on this film as its own entity and not blame its writers for capitalizing on the popularity of “dystopian epic” stories.  “Divergent” gets an immediate bonus point for taking place in Chicago, one of my favorite cities and a place with enough landmarks this post-apocalyptic world is familiar amidst the destruction.  I think that the concept of dividing the populous by their disposition is clever.  The concept could have easily failed when put into practice with the characters but the detailed testing process and Dauntless training made it work really well.  The Dauntless training also gave the writers an excuse to exploit the various landmarks of the city, particularly the Navy Pier and the Willis Tower.  I wasn’t initially drawn to the characters but I was a Tris fan by the midway point of the film.  I was completely sold once we reached the scene with her mother in the alley.  I waited the entire film for Shailene Woodley to prove her acting chops and after that moment, I knew that she is talented enough to build momentum through the entire series (but still not as impressive as Jennifer Lawrence).  Most of the teenage characters are interesting and relatable to us but a lot of these actors playing them were just okay.  On the other hand, Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd added some depth to the acting with their vast experience in film.  One thing that “Divergent” is missing is a big surprise.  It has a few twists, but you can see most of them coming and the ones that surprise you don’t really rock your entire movie perspective.  The action is so good that I don’t mind the predictability, but a memorable audience-shocking-moment would have given the critics more to talk about.  If “Divergent” had come out three years ago, it would have truly wowed the teen science fiction community; however, when you are the follow-up to “The Hunger Games,” you are destined to live in its shadow even if you are an awesome film.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Safety Not Guaranteed - 10 stars out of 10

Safety Not Guaranteed - 10 stars out of 10

“Safety Not Guaranteed” was the most unexpectedly good movie that I’ve seen in a long time.  I was enamored with this story and its simplicity.  It has the feel of a great indie film as it features strong acting and interesting character transformation instead of using bells and whistles to draw us in.  The key to this film is a great concept – A man writes a classified ad that reads:
“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”

I’m hooked.  The script merely echoes our own thoughts:  Who is this man?  Is he serious?  Is he crazy?  Is time travel possible?  Once this ad is discovered, you cannot turn the movie off without getting some answers.  We immediately need to know more, but the film makes us wait until the characters in the story find out for themselves.  By this point, we’ve taken the bait and are being reeled in by Derek Connolly’s script.  But an amazing script needs amazing actors to bring it to life.  Aubrey Plaza comes out of nowhere to drive this entire story.  She is known for her deadpan comedy on “Parks and Recreation,” but creates this incredibly deep and conflicted deadpan comedy-dramatic hybrid character that I just adored.  While her acting isn’t very emotive, the transformation from cynical to hopeful is very interesting.  Mark Duplass plays Kenneth with a perfect combination of sanity and craziness to keep us guessing whether his time machine exists until the very end.  I also thought that Jake Johnson was a perfect combination of frat boy and sensitive guy to show a good transformation.  The great thing about this film is that it forces us to choose a perspective: Kenneth is crazy or Kenneth is a genius.  Each event in the film will have a different meaning depending on the perspective that you choose and you won’t discover if you chose correctly until the end.  If you did, you will be satisfied.  If you did not, your mind will be blown as you reanalyze the entire movie from the other perspective.  There are a few great twists, especially because they make Kenneth seem more crazy or more of a genius.  “Safety Not Guaranteed” is amazing on so many levels and just something that you have to experience.  You know that it has to end with Kenneth being able to time travel or being crazy.  It seems like the ending with be disappointing either way but, while you won’t be able to decide which ending would be better, it ends the right way.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) - 8 stars out of 10

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) - 8 stars out of 10

Cowabunga, the heroes in a half shell are back!  The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot is a success, despite what the critics are saying.  In a generation of dark, realistic superhero reboots, you will be surprised if you are expecting “The Dark Knight” or “The Amazing Spiderman.”  While TMNT is darker and more believable than its cheesy 90’s predecessors, it has retained (and even embraced) the pop culture references and funny one-liners of previous iterations.  The critics have blasted the film for these things, saying that the jokes ruin the plots momentum and the pop culture references are a distraction.  Perhaps it is because those critics don’t remember what it was like to be a teenager.  If the film was called “Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I would expect these characters to be dark, intense, and serious for the duration of the film.  However, if you are going to keep the ever-important “teenage” in the title, these characters need to reflect the attitude of four teenagers whose only interaction with the world has been videos of cats playing chopsticks WITH chopsticks and tuning in Gwen Stefani from the sewers.  I believe that the attitude of the film is right on.  I don’t know how the TMNT purists feel, but I like the conceptual changes to the turtles’ origin story.  No spoilers here, but their existence becomes a lot more believable when the purpose of the mutagen is explained, both in its development and injection into the turtles and Splinter.  The backstory of April O’Neill and her connection to the turtles are clever plot devices that make sense of the trust that is quickly developed between them in a short period of time.  The most difficult part of an iconic story like this is probably the casting and character depiction.  We all have a particular image of the turtles, but I like their new design.  With different facial characteristics and accessories (Leo’s armor, Raph’s scar, Donatello’s glasses, Michelangelo’s skateboard), we can finally distinguish them from each other without seeing their masks.  The motion-capture technology is awesome.  The rubber suits from the 90’s only allowed for so much motion, but the turtles can finally fight like ninjas.  And most importantly, we finally get to see Splinter kick some butt.  He trained the turtles and should be better than all of them.  I think that this was important to show that the turtles’ power comes from their teamwork.  And I wonder if Splinter’s fight with Shredder will explain why he needs a cane in future films… hmm…  The design of Shredder may be my favorite part of the movie.  This Iron Man-esque suit that shoots blades is far beyond “Super Shredder” in TMNT 2 and a truly terrifying enemy.  I was surprised that most of the story revolved around April, but it makes sense because we can relate to who she is and it makes it more realistic that we could meet up with these turtles.  The casting of Will Arnett as Vern Fenwick was genius, turning this typically static character into a goofy sidekick that we love.  The action in this film is great, though I question the appropriateness for children (as evidenced by the PG-13 rating).  I was really scared of Tokka and Rahzar as a child, so I can’t even imagine how kids might react to the sewer battle and the caged turtles.  I was particularly annoyed with the two swear words uttered by the turtles, which were completely unnecessary.  I also thought that the reactions to the adrenaline painted a picture too close to the turtles being on drugs, and went on for too long. While the movie wasn’t perfect, I think that this reboot of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has captured the heart of the original series.  Its limitlessness has paved the way for sequels that will finally show the Turtles fanbase the characters that we have been waiting to see since the first movie came out 24 years ago.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Jersey Boys - 8 stars out of 10

Jersey Boys - 8 stars out of 10

“Jersey Boys” was really good, but it could have been great.  Director Clint Eastwood had a huge budget and unlimited resources, yet the film lost a lot of the energy and “wow factor” of the stage show.  Don’t get me wrong, the movie is really good but the West End production was just that much better.  I think that the problem lies in the first 15 minutes of the film.  It is a musical but it takes way too long for the music to set in.  Why not open the film with that stunning "Oh, What a Night" ending sequence and tell the story in flashback?  The other downfall is that on stage, “Jersey Boys” feels like a musical/rock concert, telling the story behind each song and then performing it for the theater audience.  While the format is the same, something is lost in translation as the group now sings to the audience in the movie world instead of us, the live audience.  If you’ve ever seen this show onstage, you know that the live audience includes the older people who are literally dancing in the aisles and screaming like teenagers in the 60’s.  That being said, the casting was amazing and the music exceeded my expectations.  John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway, really captures the voice of Frankie Valli.  It took a few minutes to adjust my ears because it isn’t identical, but his voice is so close that you’ll really believe that he is Frankie by the end of the film.  The rest of the cast is great, particularly Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Renée Marino as Mary Delgado, Mike Doyle as the hilariously flamboyant Bob Crewe, and of course Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarlo.  The casting of lesser known actors is great as it takes away some of the distraction of which star you’ll see next (*cough Hairspray*) and puts the focus on the story.  I also think that it’s so funny and cool that Joe Pesci is a part of this story.  All of the chemistry is great, the harmonies blend, the dialogue is delivered from the heart, and the story is never overshadowed by the music.  While the filming locations create an interesting atmosphere, the aforementioned aspects are what make “Jersey Boys” so special and why the film couldn’t improve upon the stage show experience.  I’d recommend this movie to anyone that can handle several f-words and a bunch of s-words, but don’t view it as a substitute for seeing it on stage.  This movie will entertain you, the stage show will change your opinion of Broadway forever.