Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony - 7 stars out of 10

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony - 7 stars out of 10

“Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony” is a documentary dedicated to the adult obsession with the cartoon show, “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.”  While many people find the Brony movement to be a bit odd, this documentary humanizes the trend.  It’s easy to make a blanket judgment that “Bronies are weird” but once you see their faces and hear their stories, it becomes obvious that this is a group of normal people with a common interest.  Some of them are weird, but you get that in any group of people.  The most important part of the documentary is that we meet individuals and see how their life has a Brony has helped them to find an outlet for their creativity, communicate better with their parents, find a significant other, cope with their Asperger syndrome, etc.  I like the geographical approach of this documentary, highlighting Bronies from different countries to emphasize this worldwide phenomenon.  One of the most amazing things the this documentary displays is how this group of people live out the morals of the cartoon to make the world a better place.  From charitable auctions at conventions to the actors giving their time to visit sick kids, this is a group that has been inspired by the lessons in each episode.  The tone of the film is very positive, focusing on the good that this cartoon has done for its fandom instead of the judgment of the outside world.  I’m not going to become a Brony myself, but “Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony” has opened my eyes to what this hobby is all about and the good that it can do for our society.

[Pictured: The film features original My Little Pony animations with the actual voice actors to create transitions in the movie.  Awesome]

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens - 10 stars out of 10

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens - 10 stars out of 10

There has never been a film that created more hype than “The Force Awakens.”  The seventh chapter in the Star Wars saga made over $100 million through ticket presales before it even hit theaters.  It is the fastest film to make $1 billion (it only took 12 days) and it is rare to encounter someone who did not see the movie within its first week in theaters.  Somehow, even after developing the highest of expectations for this cultural phenomenon that stopped the world on its axis, “The Force Awakens” still managed to blow my mind.  It is everything that Star Wars ever set out to be and everything that the prequels tried to achieve.  When rating this film, it is definitely on the same level of the original trilogy and I might even rank it higher than “Return of the Jedi.”  It’s tough to make a statement like that after one viewing, but I believe that time will actually strengthen my love for this film.  Most peoples’ nostalgia toward the originals will prevent them from putting this one on the same level but, even with the nostalgia factored in, I believe that this film should be included as “Part Four” when viewing the original trilogy.  The story is incredible.  One of the main criticisms that I’ve heard about this film is that it is too similar to Episode IV, but I loved every parallel.  I’ll gladly call this film “A New Hope 2.0” as it displays the cyclical nature of the universe and emphasizes the idea that we are always going to need a hero, even when all of our problems seem to be resolved.  It also seamlessly incorporates old characters and new characters to eliminate any disconnect between the stories.  I was never a big Chewbacca fan but this film has made him one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars universe.  His comedic moments are fantastic and there is something magical about seeing him and Han Solo sit in the Millennium Falcon nearly 40 years later.  All of the acting is excellent, which is a nice change of pace from the prequels.  Director J.J. Abrams followed in the footsteps of George Lucas by casting relatively unknown actors and he hit a homerun with Daisy Ridley.  She has already become the new face of the franchise as the character Rey and the success of this film will launch her career beyond a galaxy far, far away.  She displays the emotions necessary for a deep, dramatic role while having the physique and attitude for an action film.  She is perfectly complemented by John Boyega, whose storm-trooper-turned-rebel character has a great opportunity to transform throughout the story.  These characters immediately fit into the Star Wars universe through their interactions with the returning actors from the original trilogy.  Carrie Fisher is limited in her screen time but she has several incredible moments with Harrison Ford, who could make a strong case for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination this year.  It was also smart to include big names like Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Sirkis in motion-capture roles that completely disguised their appearance and didn’t distract from the story.  Visually, the film strikes a perfect balance between live-action, real sets, and computer animation.  Where Episodes I-III overused computer animation to the point that the films looked like a video game, Episode VII utilizes modern technology the way that the original would have if the technology was available. The computers are never the star and leave room for the plot to develop without distraction.  2015 was a strong year for visual effects but it is hard to imagine anything defeating this film.  My favorite visual effect is BB-8.  He is a cool droid for a new generation and factors into the story as importantly as C-3PO and R2-D2 in the originals.  I appreciate that this is a film that will allow the new generation to fall in love with Star Wars.  The tone feels darker and more adult than the original but, in spite of its PG-13 rating, "The Force Awakens" is still appropriate for families.  Younger children might need to have their eyes covered for two brief moments but it is clear that Abrams did not try to be too “edgy.”  One of the amazing things about this film was the journey to avoid spoilers.  The social media age has made it difficult to keep anything quiet but I hope that everybody has the opportunity to experience this film without spoilers.  The unexpected moments are reminiscent of the first time that you were shocked at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” and for many, this may be their first time to have that experience.  “The Force Awakens” is the complete package and will not let you down, even after all of the hype.  It is the perfect blend of action, comedy, space battles, far-off lands, classic characters, new creatures, lightsabers, unexpected twists, and a super-villain that will be feared by a new generation of children.

[Pictured: The new faces of Star Wars are setting this series up for a long, successful future]

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Rescuers Down Under - 4 stars out of 10

The Rescuers Down Under - 4 stars out of 10

"The Rescuers Down Under" is an odd entry in the Disney Canon.  It was made during the Disney Renaissance but feels like a cheap transitional piece between "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast."  The film had a lot of potential and Disney missed the boat.  The writers already had the well-developed characters of Bernard and Bianca from 1977's "The Rescuers," the Australian outback setting was well-suited for an epic journey, and the setting also provided the animators with an opportunity to showcase never-before animated animals.  Instead, the main characters don't do much (perhaps the story would have been better without them?), the setting isn’t really utilized (the film really could have taken place anywhere), and there is less than 5 minutes of screen time for the koala and kangaroos.  The story screams "direct-to-video Disney sequel" as it is a total copycat of the bad-guy-forcing-a-kid-to-help-him-do-something-illegal plot from its 1977 predecessor.  Even though the animation is consistent with the impressive Disney Renaissance style, the story is a disappointment compared to other films from this time period.  The film boasts the voice acting talents of George C. Scott, Eva Gabor, Bob Newhart, and John Candy, but that is a moot point with a weak story and script.  It is not surprising that this film underperformed at the box office and perhaps this was Disney’s wake-up call to include musical sequences and singing characters in the highly successful films that followed this one for the next 9 years.  Note that the Disney Renaissance came to a close when the studio strayed away from musicals, and also note the comeback that occurred when “Tangled’ and “Frozen” hit the scene.  Too much of this film is wasted on Frank, who may be the most annoying animated character I've ever seen.  He is like the reincarnation of Gurgi from "The Black Cauldron."  Goanna is equally annoying.  But the most annoying thing is that the film introduces characters and then they never appear again.  This includes the Rescue Aid Society members, all of the animals at McLeach’s ranch, the hospital mice, Cody’s mom, and the kangaroo that helps Cody at the beginning.  Then the film ends with very little resolution.  “The Rescuers Down Under” has a few beautiful sequences and impressive animation, but its poor storytelling and disjointedness make it feel like an incomplete direct-to-video sequel. 

[Pictured: This film has beautiful visuals but nothing to tie them together]

Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi - 9 stars out of 10

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi - 9 stars out of 10

“Return of the Jedi’ is an incredible conclusion to the epic saga that is Star Wars.  It takes us to new lands, introduces new life forms, and completes the transformation of each character.  It is also probably the weakest stand-alone film of the original trilogy as its primary objective is to conclude the stories begun in Episodes IV and V.  There are few original plot points introduced in this chapter but, when viewed with the preceding films (as intended), it is a perfectly paced conclusion (almost).  Some of the Ewok scenes in the middle of the film go on for too long; after all, we're anxious to see the final showdown between Luke and Vader!  Even after waiting the entire film for the bit moment, the unmasking is one of the most anticipated but surprising scenes that you will ever see.  There is just something remarkable about watching such immense power crumble into nothing.  As a child, this was actually my favorite film in the trilogy.  I can’t understand why because Jabba the Hut is so gross and I was terrified of him, but I suppose that his portion of the film was trumped by the cuteness of the Ewoks and the string of comedic moments on Endor.  One of the most underrated actors in this series is Anthony Daniels, who plays C-3PO in Episodes I-VII.  His motions are so robot-like that you would assume that the character is an actual animatronic.  It is amazing that Daniels maintained so much consistency within his character over the course of 38 years.  This film is Mark Hamill’s finest performance of the series and Ian McDiarmid brings true evil to Emperor Palpatine, in spite of Family Guy’s “Something something something Dark Side” parody.  Just like the other films, the special effects in the film are astounding and still hold up today.  The puppetry used for the rancor is still scary, the slow-motion of the spaceship models creates an amazing sense of depth, and the stop-motion used for the AT-ST walkers actually gives them that erratic hydraulic motion that makes them entirely believable.  Some of the most exciting battle moments include the POV shots of the speeder bikes, which were filmed on steadycam at less than 1 frame per second to create an effect of 120 mph movement when played at full speed.  George Lucas changed the face of science fiction with the “Star Wars” trilogy.  Rather than water his film down to what was possible, he created his own special effects company and challenged it to innovate on old methods and create new technologies that would bring his desired effects to life.  “Return of the Jedi” may not receive a perfect rating but there could not be a better conclusion to this perfect series.

[Pictured: You can't have "Return of the Jedi" without ewoks!]

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back - 10 stars out of 10

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back - 10 stars out of 10

“The Empire Strikes Back” is often seen as the pinnacle of the Star Wars saga.  It offers many of the greatest moments of the entire series: The battle on Hoth, the asteroid field chase sequence, Luke’s training with Yoda, “I love you”/”I know,” and one of the biggest plot twists in movie history have all found their place in the cinematic hall of fame.  While I agree that this is probably the best film of the original trilogy, it is interesting that it is also the film that most relies on the others.  The opening sequence gives little introduction to the characters, the main characters spend the majority of the film separated from one another (so there isn’t any chemistry to show the bond between Luke and his friends), Darth Vader doesn’t do anything sinister until the very end (so we don’t see why everybody is so scared of him), and the fate of every character is left completely up in the air at the film’s conclusion.  Rather than call “The Empire Strikes Back” the best Star Wars film, perhaps we should call it the most integral chapter of the original trilogy.  It is hard to view any of these films without the context of the others.  The character development picks up where the last film left off, making this the film where we truly fall in love with the characters.  Luke learns the ways of the Jedi, Han begins caring for others, Leia’s love grows, C-3PO’s love-hate relationship with R2-D2 becomes more apparent, plus we get to meet great characters like Yoda, Boba Fett, Lando Calrissian, and The Emperor.  I feel that the actors came into their own with this film and put on better performances than in Episode IV.  Whether it is acting maturity, more chemistry, or a better script, the entire film feels more real.  This episode contains another masterful John Williams score which includes the first appearance of the iconic Imperial March and the Love Theme.  Williams seems to be underappreciated for this series as he is often remembered as “that guy who wrote the music to Star Wars” but not remembered for the little gems in each individual film.  One of the most important pieces of the Star Wars series is the special effects, and they continue to stand the test of time 35 years later.  Of course, modern CGI makes everything more realistic but I find the realism of the spaceship models, go-motion animation of the Hoth battle, and the puppeteering of Yoda to be infinitely more impressive than computer graphics.  It is difficult to remove the nostalgia factor when judging this series.  It is a part of our culture and our childhoods; however, when looking at “The Empire Strikes Back” in the context of other 1980’s sci-fi films, it truly deserves this high rating and will forever be a classic.

[Pictured: One of the greatest images from all of Star Wars]

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sicario (2015) - 7 stars out of 10

Sicario (2015) - 7 stars out of 10

“Sicario” is a realistic interpretation of the drug trade in Mexico as seen through the eyes of a slightly ignorant FBI operative.  The film did not arrive with the same pomp as “The Martian” (which opened the same weekend), but it left an equally large impression on the critics.  It is dark, gritty, and the only thing more disturbing than the imagery of cadavers hanging in the streets is the idea that the residents of Juarez have accepted this atmosphere as a part of daily life.  The story seems a bit overdramatic but a little research shows this portrayal to be chillingly accurate.  Moreover, the main reason that Juarez has descended from its rank as the most violent city in the world is because one drug cartel has defeated its rivals.  One would hope that the police and military had brought order to the area, but that is simply not the case.  Director Denis Villeneuve has made a bold statement about the government corruption and drug violence that rule this area.  Most of the critical praise surrounding “Sicario” has involved the acting.  Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro turn in impressive performances through subtle but powerful moments.  I could see either of them receiving an Oscar nomination but neither performance is good enough to win.  Josh Brolin also gives the high-caliber performance that we expect from him.  I do feel that the film moves a bit too slow, especially after a riveting opening sequence, but the pace gives you a chance to reflect on the unfortunate circumstance of the area.  The film focuses on situational development more than character development so that, in the end, you feel a greater attachment to the story than the characters within.  “Sicario” accomplishes its goal of bringing awareness to the drug violence in Mexico through strong acting performances and a story that is so unbelievable that you have to believe it.

[Pictured: Blunt reminds us that she can play any role from "Into the Woods" to FBI agent]

Monday, December 21, 2015

Oculus (2014) - 9 stars out of 10

Oculus (2014) - 9 stars out of 10

“Oculus” is a psychological horror film that will have your mind spinning and your eyes second-guessing what you see in the mirror.  I hesitate to call this a horror film because it is more of a thriller with a few moments of horrific imagery, but I suppose that the ghosts with glowing eyes are enough for most to consider it horror.  And the staple remover and the lightbulb!  But a label isn’t important when you have well-paced surprises that pump your adrenaline at calculated moments from start to finish.  Prepare to be disturbed and on the edge of your seat when you watch this one.  The use of dual storylines is an excellent device to give this story depth and display the hallucinations caused by the mirror.  When the two storylines merge, the film becomes a disorienting nightmare that mixes past with present and delusion with reality.  I read that the final twenty minutes of the movie became so complex that the writers had to italicize the text of past events to keep everything straight.  I cannot imagine the intricacy of filming and editing these sequences, but the final result is stunning.  The script is brought to life by amazing acting performances.  Karen Gillan’s performance is far beyond what I typically expect from a horror film and I cannot wait to see her in more roles.  Brenton Thwaites captures the blend of disturbed child and rational adult that so perfectly contrasts his confident older sister.  I was really amazed by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, the child versions of the aforementioned characters.  They bring a continuity to the characters (as they act alongside the adult versions of each other) that is convincing and realistic.  The film relies on a constant sense of dread of what might happen next instead of cheap scares that fade quickly.  The film flies by because the anticipation never loses steam.  It doesn’t need to rationalize what is happening because we just accept the circumstances and hope for a happy ending.  I would love to see a sequel, but I said the same thing about “The Ring” so I’m grateful that this standalone story keeps us wondering “what if.”  In this case, it is best to just leave your jaw dropped to the floor.  “Oculus” is a true sleeper hit that will force you to look away from the screen a few times but keep you looking back to find out what happens next.

[Pictured: Gillan and Thwaites bring the intensity that drives this entire film]

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) - 6 stars out of 10

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) - 6 stars out of 10

“Escape to Witch Mountain” is Disney’s take on the sci-fi novel of the same name.  Like many of Disney’s classic live-action films, it is family-friendly but less impressive than the studio’s animated output.  The studio obviously believes in this story because it spawned a sequel and two remakes.  It is interesting but lacks the energy of a Disney musical, so don’t expect “Mary Poppins.”  The special effects are a bit underwhelming when compared to today’s standard (or even “Star Wars,” which was released two years later), but it gets the point across.  The film actually might be too scary for its target audience if it were any more realistic.  It also has a good nostalgia factor so parents who enjoyed the film as children will likely enjoy it more than new viewers.  The film is well-cast with a few Oscar-caliber actors (Eddie Albert, Ray Milland) and two strong child actors (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann).  Their dialogue successfully creates curiosity about the mysterious background of the kids from start to finish.  “Escape to Witch Mountain” is a humorous sci-fi film that can still entertain kids today, but it probably isn’t a film that will hold the attention of an adult watching without their family.

[Pictured: Eddie Albert's chemistry with the kids is probably my favorite part of the film]

Friday, December 18, 2015

Stir of Echoes (1999) - 7 stars out of 10

Stir of Echoes (1999) - 7 stars out of 10

“Stir of Echoes” has always lived in the shadow of other 1999 supernatural blockbusters (“The Sixth Sense,” “The Mummy”), but it is a surprisingly good ghost story.  Kevin Bacon is underrated as an actor and drives this entire story with strong acting and intense facial expressions.  He receives decent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Kevin Dunn, but the majority of the film falls on Bacon.  With films like “A Few Good Men,” “Mystic River,” and “Apollo 13” under his belt, it is amazing that he isn’t more commonly recognized as a great actor.  While the premise of the story has less real-world believability than other supernatural films, it is still enjoyable for what it is.  Just don’t be misled by the film’s synopsis, which paints it out to be more of a thriller.  Many of the creepy elements of this story and the way in which they are presented could give you nightmares if watched right before bed!  The entire digging sequence is awesome and emphasizes Bacon's desire to move on from the unfortunate events of this story.  “Stir of Echoes” wasn’t the best supernatural film of 1999 but it is absolutely worth watching for its interesting premise, relentless suspense, and a few really good twists at the end.

[Pictured: You can't dismiss the scare factor of this film]

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) - 8 stars out of 10

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) - 8 stars out of 10

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is completely unique. Its visual appeal and creativity can't be denied, but it is also one of the strangest films that you will ever experience.  In a market where every genre is saturated with films that recycle the same concepts and ideas, it is rare to find a film as unique as this one.  It even feels unique when compared with the “Mad Max” films of the 80’s.  George Miller is no stranger to the film industry and "Fury Road" may be his masterpiece.  I think that it is really cool that Miller wrote a new chapter into his series 30 years after the last film.  Most of this story is told without dialogue.  The action is constant and the imagery drives the story for better or for worse (we will never forget the brief milking scene or the idea of a “blood bag”).  Immortan Joe’s mask is terrifying and the production team convincingly transformed all of the actors into nuclear holocaust survivors.  I appreciated the performances by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, though any sort of emotion seems to be overshadowed by the previous and next action sequence.  This one won't be winning any Oscars in acting categories, but it will certainly make a run in categories like Production Design, Film Editing, and Sound Editing.  To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed with the film.  It had so much hype for its entire theatrical run, augmented by a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 97%, and I just did not receive the amount of character development as I expect from a critically acclaimed film.  Still, I will be the first to admit that I need to see it again to process everything that happened and may adjust my rating afterward.  My wife and I are still scratching our heads about the electric guitar guy (who we have discovered is named “The Doof Warrior”).  We assumed that he was symbolic or sort of reference to the original films, but apparently he is exactly what he appears to be: a flame-spewing guitarist who pumps up the rest of the troops.  I suppose that he left a big enough impression that he is the only character that I have discussed.  The most well-written character in the film is Nux and we grow attached to him because he undergoes the greatest transformation.  I look forward to watching this film again and believe that the sequels will be even better if they deliver the same amount of action while including a greater transformation of their characters.  There are a lot of cheesy sci-fi films from the 70's and 80's that involve vehicles ("Death Race 2000" is the first one that comes to mind), but the vehicles are perfectly incorporated into this film's creative atmosphere and they are just cool.  Everybody loves “Mad Max: Fury Road” for its creative post-apocalyptic story and constant stream of action.  I believe that the Academy Awards will acknowledge its effort and remind the film industry that action films can blow our minds with more than just the action. 


[Pictured: 'Mad Max: Fury Road" is action on top of action on top of action]

Monday, December 14, 2015

Dinosaur 13 - 7 stars out of 10

Dinosaur 13 - 7 stars out of 10

“Sue” was the thirteenth Tyrannosaurus rex ever unearthed.  You may wonder how a feature-length documentary about Sue could hold your attention; however, the fight for her custody after she was discovered is something that you have to see to believe.  The synopsis of “Dinosaur 13” gives the impression that it chronicles a paleontological dig but the focus of this documentary is actually on a ten-year battle with the FBI.  The film is very one-sided in its argument against the legal protection of fossils on public land but its narrow perspective will strongly engage your emotions, especially when Maurice Williams lays claim to Sue.  One great part of this film is that its main character can easily be visited at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Documentaries often tackle events or artifacts of the past that have faded into history, but this one chronicles the journey of something that we can still see today.  It follows in the present-a-documentary-as-a-crime-thriller technique that is in vogue and it succeeds.  “Dinosaur 13” is as gripping as most action films while presenting historical fact and persuasive arguments.  Definitely add this to your list of must-see documentaries, even if you don’t have an interest in science and paleontology.

[Pictured: A little insight into dinosaur excavation and a lot of insight into fossil law]

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Spy (2015) - 5 stars out of 10

Spy (2015) - 5 stars out of 10

“Spy” delivers everything that you expect from a Melissa McCarthy movie.  Many of its slapstick moments will have you laughing out loud… but you will have to endure a barrage of 100 f-words to get to the end.  It is a shame because this story is very clever but the writers obviously don’t have enough confidence in their ability to write clever dialogue; instead, they defer to shock-value profanity as their main comedic device.  Probably the biggest travesty is the talent that they had to work with, including Jude Law, Jason Statham, Allison Janney, and Rose Byrne.  McCarthy’s oft-self-shaming-but-hilarious comedic delivery is enjoyable in the first hour as we tolerate the film’s 17 f-words, but everything goes out of control during the second half when the film becomes an all-out swearfest that completely overshadows a great twist and an action-packed final battle.  If I wanted to hear an hour of multiple f-words per minute, I would have watched “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  Actually, I wouldn’t have because that much profanity is entirely unnecessary.  In spite of the script, I think that this film really embraced the idea of a spy film.  It has the intrigue, exotic locations, car chase, epic shootout, and gadgets that we love in a Bond film, all permeated by McCarthy’s brand of slapstick comedy.  This aspect of the film is incredibly well done and I wish that I could have fully enjoyed it for what it is.  My rating of “Spy” seems like it would indicate that the film is average but it is actually the opposite.  My rating is meant to indicate that the cast and story are on par with the best comedy films out there but the script’s reliance on unnecessary profanity drags the entire film down.

[Pictures: The disguises.  Oh, the disguises.  So many great moments in this film.]

Friday, December 11, 2015

Cake (2014) - 4 stars out of 10

Cake (2014) - 4 stars out of 10

The ingredients of “Cake” sound like a delicious treat but something went wrong with this recipe.  You would expect big name actors, a few amazing performances, a mysterious situation, and an impressive character transformation to add up to a great film but instead, it just drags on.  I fell asleep twice because there is basically no action and the pacing puts the story into slow motion.  Even with this low rating, I still recommend watching this film because it is the best performance of Jennifer Aniston's career.  She taps into a dark place for this refined performance that earned her nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild.  We don’t understand why she is so low (until it is vaguely implied much later in the movie), but her pitiful state of depression and chronic pain create a strong connection to the character.  Her final scene is subtle yet powerful.  Meanwhile, Adriana Barraza shines in her moment to really showcase her acting skills and then spends the rest of the film supporting Aniston’s character in a very real way.  To keep the focus on Aniston’s journey, the other characters are each only present for one or two short scenes.  This includes well-known actors like William H. Macy (who was definitely underutilized but it makes sense for his character), Britt Robertson, Sam Worthington, Chris Messina, and of course Anna Kendrick.  It could almost be considered an “ensemble cast” if they all didn’t disappear from the screen so quickly.  This film is a total downer so be prepared for that at the onset.  If you are expecting a typical Aniston role, think again.  “Cake” is a snail-paced drama but is worth a watch if you appreciate subtle acting and realism.


[Pictured: It is rare to see Aniston without a smile, but these sad emotions really shine]

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Rescuers (1977) - 7 stars out of 10

The Rescuers (1977) - 7 stars out of 10

I like a lot of things about “The Rescuers.”  The film has beautiful imagery, particularly the pastel skies and animal animation during “Someone’s Waiting for You.”  Madame Medusa is a pretty scary villain (probably because she feels very “Miss Hannigan”).  The use of music when the crocodiles are trying to get the mice out of the organ creates some amazing comical moments.  But this film is noticeably missing Walt's touch.  Something about it resonates “good” instead of “classic,” which is why few claim this to be their favorite Disney movie.  One reason that it doesn’t feel like a traditional Disney film is because the songs are sung as part of the narrative instead of by the film’s characters.  Shelby Flint’s voice is perfectly suited for the mellow folk songs written for the film, but perhaps the writers could have better incorporated other songs into the storyline.  I do love the way that the opening scene leads into a series of still paintings (each of which is worthy of hanging in a museum) that depict the journey of the Help bottle as it travels to New York, and these images fit well with Flint’s rendition of “Who Will Rescue Me.”  But there are other montages that drag on and seem unnecessary.  There is nothing wrong with this device - it is just overused.  It would have been reasonable to keep “Who Will Rescue Me” and “Someone’s Waiting for You” (which are both very effective) but add a ballad sung by Rufus the cat, a villainous song for Medusa, and a heartwarming song for Penny.  Another issue is the inconsistency in the animation.  Some of the backgrounds are stunning, and others reminded me of "Scooby Doo."  At first, the story seems surprisingly dark but in historical context, it foreshadows films like “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron” that would follow in the 80’s.  Still, shoving an orphan into a flooding cavern to retrieve a diamond is enough to scare any kid.  The voice acting meets the expectation of most Disney films.  The young Michelle Stacy (perfectly cast as Penny) got to act alongside big names like Eva Gabor, Bob Newhart, and Geraldine Page.  One of the most important voice actors is Jimmy MacDonald (Evinrude), following up performances in Snow White (Dopey, yodeling Dwarfs), Cinderella (Jaq and Gus), Alice in Wonderland (Dormouse), Lady and the Tramp (howling pound dogs), and most importantly as the voice of Mickey Mouse from 1947-1977.  I would’ve liked to hear more from Pat Buttram’s character.  His voice is so distinct that it enhances any Disney movie (Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood,” Chief in “Fox and the Hound”).  The local animals feel mostly like an afterthought that we only incorporated to resolve the conflict.  “The Rescuers” contains all of the pieces for a classic Disney film, but its inconsistencies and departures from the winning Disney equation leave it lacking the spark that keeps us coming back.

[Pictured: The artistry present throughout the film is the true reason to watch]

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 - 9 stars out of 10

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 - 9 stars out of 10
1300th Review

“Mockingjay - Part 2” is everything that we had hoped it would be.  This conclusion to “The Hunger Games” completes the transformation of characters like Katniss and Peeta, brings the story to an unexpected conclusion, and serves up some of the most intense action sequences of the entire series.  One of the main criticisms of the film series was the splitting of “Mockingjay” into two parts but, now that I have seen both parts, I feel confident that this was the right decision.  Unlike several other film franchises that have elected to split their final installment into two parts, the content justifies the decision in this instance.  A one-part conclusion in excess of 3 hours would been inappropriate for the franchise’s target audience, but anything less would have required important events to be pared down or cut completely.  Probably the first things that would have been thinned out is the development of President Coin and the progressive breakdown of Peeta, both of which are vital to the ending of the series.  I agree that the events of Part 1 act mostly as a preface for the conclusion but if you rushed through them, the ending would feel ineffective.  Neither of the Mockingjay films are as good of a stand-alone film as the first two installments, hence them being called “Part 1” and “Part 2” since they work together to complete the story without feeling rushed.  Everything about this finale is great, from powerful acting performances by Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, and Donald Sutherland, to its unexpected twist and incredible special effects.  The “Pan’s Labyrinth”-esque mutts are among the most terrifying creatures that I have ever seen on-screen.  They seemed a bit out of place within the story but made for the most intense sequence of the entire series.  I also like how the main characters are placed into a figurative Hunger Games without the series saying “Hey, we’re going to make them do the Hunger Games again.”  James Newton Howard’s score soars throughout this film, enhancing every emotional moment with romanticized string melodies that capture the tragedies that have occurred in Panem.  My biggest criticism of the film is that they glossed over a very important event involving Primrose and missed a chance for Lawrence to shine even brighter; still, Lawrence continues to establish herself as one of the best actresses of this generation.  This film will always be notable as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film and I find it appropriate that the writers allowed the performance to remain “natural” by writing his character out of scenes that were shot posthumously instead of adding him via CGI.  At every turn, the producers of this franchise have made decisions that have led to success.  Dystopian fiction is in vogue right now but few films will endure time as well as this series.  While “The Maze Runner,” “The Giver,” and “Divergent” will all drift away, “The Hunger Games” will be the series that this generation of teenagers will share with their own children someday.  “Mockingjay - Part 2” is a poignant and exciting conclusion to “The Hunger Games” franchise that has guaranteed its popularity for generations to come.


For my review of Part 1, click here: http://jonnysdailymoviereview.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-9.html



[Pictured: Lawrence established a new expectation of acting quality for pop culture films]

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Kite Runner - 8 stars out of 10

The Kite Runner - 8 stars out of 10

"The Kite Runner" is a gripping drama that tackles difficult content and gives us a glimpse into modern Afghan life.  It also gives an interesting perspective into kite flying tournaments, which I never realized we're a thing.  The film's acting performances are so realistic that you will forget that you are watching fiction.  You will feel frustration and anger toward some of the actors because they are so convincing.  The story is adapted from the 2003 New York Times bestseller of the same name to deliver a combination of heartwarming moments (the childhood friendship of Amir and Hassan) and heart wrenching ones (racism against Hassan, the portrayal of the Taliban).  The highs and lows are connected by excellent character development and the theme of loyalty.  I was under the impression that this was a family movie... Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it is a foreign language film, and even more when I discovered some of the content!  A few details are suggested instead of shown to keep the film tasteful, but this is definitely a film better suited for mature audiences.  If you are in the mood to have a good cry or to have your faith restored in peoples' ability to change and do the right thing, "The Kite Runner" is for you.  If you are not in the mood for either of these things, stay far away.

[Pictured: This film will make you see Afghanistan in a new way.]

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Wiz Live! (2015) - 10 stars out of 10

The Wiz Live! (2015) - 10 stars out of 10

"The Wiz Live!" exceeded everybody's expectations.  Even with a heavy advertising campaign, nobody could have been prepared for so many dynamic performances in one show.  Then again, that is what "The Wiz" has always been - a series of vocally demanding, soulful solo songs tied together through a modern telling of "The Wizard of Oz."  The tv special attracted two categories of people.  First, a group of theater fans whose familiarity of the show made them wonder how 19-year-old Shanice Williams could possibly compare to Stephanie Mills' original performance as Dorothy.  Meanwhile, a group of curious onlookers tuned in to see what this "black Wizard of Oz" could possibly be like.  I believe that the first group was thrilled by the fearless performances by every single actor on screen.  More importantly, I believe that a new audience fell in love with "The Wiz" tonight.  The casting crew deserves an Emmy.  Elijah Kelly rocked the Scarecrow song, Ne-Yo surprised me with an amazing Broadway voice/great acting/sick dance moves, and David Alan Greer stole the show from the moment that he appeared as the Cowardly Lion.  I loved Mary J. Blige as Evillene as she captured the aggressive manner of the character, Amber Riley was funny as Addaperle, and Stephanie Mills set the tone for the entire show with a stirring rendition of "The Feeling We Once Had" in the role of Aunt Em.  I was skeptical about a female Wiz, but the singing range worked well and I think that it added to the fraudulent nature of The Wiz.  Plus Queen Latifah's energy drove the second half of the show.  The only performance that I didn't care for was Glinda, who lacked the sensitivity that I expect from a refined character.  It was more of a flaw in the vocal direction, as nobody should ask Glinda to be a screamer.  There were a few sour notes throughout the show, but that cannot be avoided in a vocally demanding live performance like this.  The one note that definitely was NOT sour was that ridiculously high note that the one guy popped out in "Ya'll Got It."  That may have been the single greatest moment of the show.  The writers took a lot of liberties with the script and orchestrations, but this is a show that is meant to be modernized and the improvisatory nature of the songs made all of the alterations feel correct.  One of the best surprises of the night was the addition of "We Got It."  It felt different due to its modern pop chord structure, but it carried a lot of emotion and I would love to hear it on mainstream radio.  The sets were nothing special, adding pressure to the performers to carry the show.  And they did.  Everything down to the choreography and ensemble were inspired.  The cherry on top was Williams' closing performance of "Home," an emotional climax with truly unbelievable vocals.  Her voice isn't my favorite, but she owned it.  I love the musical theater Renaissance that our country is experiencing and I believe that "The Wiz"found its way into many peoples' hearts with the inexplicable chemistry of this cast.


[Pictured: "The Wiz Live" is an endless series of amazing performances by amazing actors]

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Left Behind: The Movie (2001) - 5 stars out of 10

Left Behind: The Movie (2001) - 5 stars out of 10

“Left Behind” is a film adaptation of the amazing Christian book series.  This imagining of the Rapture and the second-coming of Christ vividly brings the Biblical prophecies into a real-world perspective.  And it does it much better than the 2014 attempt.  The fact that they tell an actual story puts this far above the universally panned Nicholas Cage reboot.  In that version, they literally wrote the antagonist out of the story!  You could watch the two movies back to back and think that they were completely different stories.  And you would decide that this one is much better, so just skip the reboot.  The acting and special effects in a low-budget Christian film will never live up to that of a mainstream theatrical release, but this film is certainly better than a made-for-tv movie.  Kirk Cameron is the only actor of any notoriety amongst this bunch, but they all hold their own with actors from “real” movies.  The writers pour on the Christian testimony pretty strong at one point, but the entire story revolves around it so it didn’t seem out of place.  A bit overdramatic, but not out of place.  In spite of its low-budget, independent feel, I have no issue recommending “Left Behind” if you are interested in getting a glimpse of how the Rapture may unfold some day.

[Pictured: The acting isn’t great but it certainly exceeds expectation for a low-budget film]

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Dark Crystal - 1 star out of 10

The Dark Crystal - 1 star out of 10

“The Dark Crystal” is one tripped up fantasy film.  Maybe it amazed people in 1982, but this film feels very campy and seems like an ideal candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000.  As I watched, I couldn’t figure out who it is intended for.  It is too dark for children (seriously, the entire thing is like one long nightmare) and I can’t see teens or adults taking it seriously.  I suppose that Jim Henson must have truly believed that this art form could extend beyond the realm of comedy, but that is the main thing missing from this film.  The Muppets work because they provide comical dialogue and slapstick humor.  If you put them on stage reading Shakespeare in a serious tone, nobody would watch.  Take away the Muppets’ jokes, familiarity of their characters and add non-stop disturbing imagery, and you have this film.  Not to mention that the story is entirely bizarre and the ending is so obvious that there is nothing to keep you watching.  Unless, of course, you are stubborn and looking forward to writing an unflattering movie review once it is done.  Henson learned a lesson with “Labyrinth” by adding catchy music and quirky characters to keep it from being too serious, but even that film doesn’t seem to appeal to its child audience.  I would definitely recommend passing on “The Dark Crystal.”  If you want to experience the genius of Jim Henson, stick with the Muppets and save your children from this nightmarish puppet show.


[Pictured: Creepiest.  Protagonists.  EVER.]

Sunday, November 29, 2015

SlingShot (2015) - 8 stars out of 10

SlingShot (2015) - 8 stars out of 10

Contrary to popular belief, the inventor of the Segway did not die by accidentally Segwaying off of a cliff; in fact, he is making great strides toward solving the world’s water problems.  “SlingShot” examines the life of Dean Kamen, a gifted inventor who has dedicated his life to improving the world for others.  This documentary highlights several of Kamen’s contributions to the medical field, his encouragement of science in the school system, and most importantly his goal to bring SlingShot to the corners of the earth where the mortality rate soars due to a lack of drinkable water.  The story is fascinating as we see that building a cost-efficient lifesaver is not enough to save lives.  Kamen sets off on a journey to find a distributor with the resources to provide these machines to those who need it most.  “Slingshot” is not an action-packed docudrama that keeps you on the edge of your seat, but it’s a great chance to get inside of the mind (and the totally awesome hosue) of an inventor as well as seeing how he hopes to make the world a better place.


[Pictured: Dean Kamen is a fascinating character that drives this documentary]

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Ghost and the Darkness - 5 stars out of 10

The Ghost and the Darkness - 5 stars out of 10

“Based on a true story” can mean a lot of things and in the case of “The Ghost and the Darkness,” it means an exaggerated account of a real event.  When you see this film, you are not seeing truth unfold before your eyes but you do have the opportunity to appreciate the bravery of Col. John Henry Patterson during his work on the Uganda-Mombasa Railway.  The film’s largest exaggeration comes in the form of Michael Douglas’s completely fictional character.  While the addition of his character adds emotion to the story and makes the hunting sequence more interesting, he actually cheapens the bravery of Patterson, who historically hunted these lions on his own.  The film is probably most notable for its graphic portrayal of lion attacks.  Their ferocity commands respect and you can certainly understand why the Kenyans were scared to work on this railroad.  Val Kilmer’s acting is about what you would expect from him (not in a good way) and is showed up by John Kani and Tom Wilkinson’s two scenes.  I don’t find Kilmer to be a very likeable actor so it is hard to connect with his character.  Still, the story carries high emotions from start to finish.  Or maybe it’s fear of these predators.  “The Ghost and the Darkness” isn’t the greatest African adventure I have ever seen but its graphic visuals and interesting story make it worth watching, maybe even twice.

 [Pictured: These lead characters are pretty awesome...]

[Pictured: But this film is all about the lion attacks]

Friday, November 27, 2015

The 'Burbs - 6 stars out of 10

The 'Burbs - 6 stars out of 10

“The ‘Burbs” is a late-80’s horror comedy whose stars are a bit larger than its script.  The story is simple and familiar: a new neighbor draws suspicion with unexplained nighttime activity and the rest of the neighborhood bands together to find some answers.  The film is good for what it is but when you bless it with star power like Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, and Bruce Dern, the expectation grows too large.  Add in Corey Feldman at the height of his career and this film goes from amusing comedy to must-see Hollywood blockbuster.  Expectation aside, the film delivers some good laughs.  Everything is over the top and the pairing of physical comedy with clever dialogue keeps the film moving.  The Klopeks are well-written and the story has a perfect conclusion.  “The ‘Burbs” is a quirky comedy with memorable characters and an amusing script, but its inability to rise to the level of its cast will likely leave you disappointed.

[Pictured: Everybody loves a classic motley crew!]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Labyrinth (1986) - 3 stars out of 10

Labyrinth (1986) - 3 stars out of 10

What do Jim Henson, David Bowie, goblins, and Jennifer Connelly have in common?  It may seem like the beginning of a bad joke and that the obvious answer is “nothing,” but these are actually the key components in the 1986 fantasy film “Labyrinth.”  Maybe this movie would seem better if it didn’t feel so “80’s,” but then entire thing is incredibly outdated and not in a fun, retro way.  The acting follows suit, with 15-year-old Connelly giving the performance that you expect from an inexperienced teen actress and Bowie giving the acting performance that you expect from David Bowie in goblin king costume.  Still, the music is really catchy and the artistry of the M.C. Escher staircase set is well done.  This film is important because it was Jim Henson’s last major motion picture and, though it falls way short of any of his work with The Muppets, it preserves his endless imagination and ability to create a new world without animation or special effects.  “Labyrinth” is nostalgic for the people who grew up with it but for everybody else, this comes off as another cheesy 80’s fantasy film.

[Pictured: It's worth watching for the creativity, but it really isn't that great]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Atari: Game Over - 8 stars out of 10

Atari: Game Over - 8 stars out of 10

“Atari: Game Over” is a telling of the history of the video game industry through the lens of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” widely considered to be the worst video game ever made.  The scene is set by the beginnings of an excavation at a landfill in New Mexico.  Allegedly, Atari produced a game so bad that the only way to deal with its millions of unsold copies was to bury them in a landfill and cover them in concrete.  This documentary explores the rise of the video game industry, the big-name designers of the 80’s, and the circumstances surrounding the 5-week deadline to take the E.T. video game from concept to final product.  “Atari: Game Over” is informative, interesting, and exciting in its storytelling through unique characters.  Whether you are a video game junkie or merely someone who is interested in history, you will love the details of this quirky piece of pop culture.

[Pictured: The mere presence of this game on my blog makes me so happy]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Shanghai Noon - 5 stars out of 10

Shanghai Noon - 5 stars out of 10

“Shanghai Noon” is a Western/martial arts film.  It’s exactly what you expect.  Add in Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson as the lead actors and it becomes even more predictable.  The excellent play on words contained in the title is an overture for the comedy that follows.  The plot is simple but effective as two opposite men are placed into a situation in which it is natural for them to pair up to save the day.  Why not also represent the Buddy-Cop genre as they work together to save the day.  Fans of Westerns and martial arts films will enjoy the many tongue-in-cheek nods to these genres.  And fear not, they do mispronounce Princess Pei-Pei's name as Pee-Pee, but only once to keep it from getting old.  The acting isn’t anything special but it matches the expectation of a comedy.  Personally, I prefer “Rush Hour” but “Shanghai Noon” is a nice departure from Jackie Chan’s typical films.

[Pictured: Who doesn't love Jackie Chan?  Seriously!]

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Z for Zachariah - 6 stars out of 10

Z for Zachariah - 6 stars out of 10

They probably could’ve called this movie by any other title because there are so few similarities to the original book by Robert C. O’Brien.  I generally expect (and welcome) small alterations in a movie adaptation if it will strengthen the story or help the story to translate better onscreen, but to take a story that only has two characters and add a third?  And completely alter the personality and actions of the first character?  And rewrite the majority of the events of the film… and rewrite the ending to be the complete opposite of the original?  I would say that, as an adaptation, this film is a complete failure.  As a standalone story, it builds great drama from its simplicity.  Well, except for the most sudden ending ever written, of course.  I would dare the screenwriters to leave an ending more open-ended but I’m pretty sure that it can’t be done.  Reading the synopsis of the book, you would swear that there is no possible way that this could be the same story.  Some helpful information (not as a spoiler, but something that is implied but never clearly stated), a nuclear apocalypse destroys the earth with the exception of a small weather pocket that preserves earth as it used to be.  The setting is well-developed and the characters display great depth.  Margot Robbie (the girl from “About Time”) commands half of the film’s screen time and accomplishes the transition from girl to woman.  I love anything with Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine adds a complete contrast.  I really like the treatment of these characters and the way that their chemistry builds so much tension.  With three great performances like this, you would expect a 10-star rating but the vagueness of the story and severe departures from the original story create a distraction.  “Z for Zachariah” is a good dystopian drama but it unfortunately falls into a category with “The Giver” instead of “The Hunger Games.”

[Pictured: Three great acting performances don’t always equal one great movie]

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Stand by Me (1986) - 7 stars out of 10

Stand by Me (1986) - 7 stars out of 10

“Stand By Me” is the classic coming-of-age story in which four friends set out on an adventure but later discover that the journey is more valuable than the destination.  The story is stereotypical 1950’s and the film is stereotypical 1980’s, but that is what makes it a classic.  The acting of the four lead boys is average for their age range but the story still comes through.  I expected more from Corey Feldman, but I certainly did not expect to see 20-year-old Kiefer Sutherland!  I appreciate the progression that the boys experience.  Legends (like Chopper) are revealed to be tall tales and the boys discover that you are not always rewarded for doing the right thing.  The film is full of important messages but the content may be too rough for the younger kids who might benefit.  The whole pie-eating sequence feels very out of place and eats up too much of this film’s short 90-minute runtime.  I understand that part of Gordie’s character is his love of writing and storytelling, but I can think of better ways to spend my time than watching people vomit on each other.  “Stand By Me” has its high and low points, but it will remind every man of his formative teenage years and the lessons that guided his path in life.

[Pictured: If this doesn't scream "Coming-of-Age-Story," what does?]

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Martian (2015) - 9 stars out of 10

The Martian (2015) - 9 stars out of 10

“The Martian” is an epic fantasy film that transports us to a planet that has always been enshrouded in mystery.  In most situations, I would automatically rank this film at a 10 for its impeccable acting, well-written script, and awesome special effects.  Unfortunately, 2013’s “Gravity” and 2014’s “Interstellar” set an unfair expectation, unintentionally branding this as “2015’s Token Space Movie.”  With the inevitable comparisons, this film seems weak; still, it deserves a high rating for the aforementioned reasons.  “The Martian” is worth seeing solely for Matt Damon.  The story ranges from comedy to drama and from action to mindbender, all within Damon’s one-man-show.  Everything from Damon claim of being the best horticulturalist on Mars to his communication using the hexadecimal alphabet makes his character likable and enhances our desire to see him return home.  A second story counters Damon’s experiences on Mars.  This story brings in A-list actors Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara, all of whom support the strong emotional content of the story.  One of the strengths of this screenplay is that it remains believable.  I have been told that the Damon faces many more issues in the book, but any more than what is contained in this film would make his survival seem farfetched.  While fans of the book may view this as an injustice to the source material, I believe it to be a victory.  Whether you are interested in science fiction or not, “The Martian” is believable enough that any audience member can enjoy it.

[Pictured: The visuals are this film are just stunning]

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Painting (Le Tableau) (2013) - 8 stars out of 10

The Painting (Le Tableau) (2013) - 8 stars out of 10

"The Painting" is, for lack of a better term, a work of art.  It is clearly a cartoon for adults and not just because of the nude painting.  The story is a parable about unfairly judging others and would likely be of little interest to younger children.  While some might scoff at this story for lacking "maturity," the simplicity of its plot allows us to full absorb the visual beauty without distraction.  This is especially helpful if you are watching with English subtitles while trying to enjoy the artistry on this canvas... and the artistry off of the canvas as these characters venture out of the paintings and into the real world.  The animators faced a tough challenge as the world inside of each painting took on a different style from Picasso to Matisse, but the end result is an enormous success.  The surrealist colors of the Allduns are stunning and effectively contrasted by the simple black and white appearance of the charcoal Sketchies.  The backdrops come to life and the conversations between paintings are very clever.  I wouldn’t give this film Disney ratings when it comes to storytelling abilities, but “The Painting” is a feast for the eyes that should not be overlooked.

[Pictured: This film is so beautiful that it makes me want to cry.]

Monday, October 5, 2015

Inside Man (2006) - 9 stars out of 10

Inside Man (2006) - 9 stars out of 10

“Inside Man” is not a story that I would expect to be told by Spike Lee.  He steps away from his typical racial themes to give us a lesson in deception.  This unique crime thriller intersperses police interviews with flashbacks of the bank robbery in question.  At first, the out of context interviews do not make much sense.  As the story progresses, the flashbacks give meaning to the interviews until the end reveals that… all of our assumptions were wrong!  The film alludes to (and even directly shows) how these criminals will pull off this heist, but you will still be completely shocked in the end.  You have to love a story that successfully turns the bank robbers into heroes and the cops into bad guys.  The intentionally convoluted story is supported by big-name actors who all live up to their reputations.  Clive Owen is truly terrifying as the criminal mastermind, Denzel Washington balances his heroic moments and his situational failures, Jodie Foster successfully contrasts Washington’s straight-laced character with her shifty, sly role, Christopher Plummer provides the intrigue that makes us wonder what could be in his safe deposit box, and Willem Dafoe does exactly what you’d expect him to do in a gruff cop role.  The film makes for a great rewatch.  It has “The Sixth Sense” syndrome, where the twist blows your mind the first time but the film becomes a new experience with each subsequent watch as you catch more clues that you never realized were there.  “Inside Man” has some violence and swearing, but it is pretty tame for an R-rated film and worth watching for its complex story and rewarding twist.

[Pictured: The characters never do what you expect]

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Longest Ride - 5 stars out of 10

The Longest Ride - 5 stars out of 10

Nicholas Sparks serves up another tear-jerker, but it falls short of our expectation that all Sparks stories will be as good as “The Notebook.”  The concept is similar – a love story is told through letters and flashbacks, but there are enough unique pieces to this puzzle (the love stories involve two different sets of characters, there is some action, one character is in physical danger) that it doesn’t feel like an uncreative repeat.  Britt Robertson was decent but her performance in “Tomorrowland” far outshines this one.  I felt the same way about Scott Eastwood – he’s decent but not very memorable.  Alan Alda is the real reason to watch this film.  From the moment that you first hear his unique voice, you won’t be able to turn your attention away.  Oona Chaplin was the unexpected surprise of the film.  She has excellence in her blood (granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, great-granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill), and her performance was mesmerizing.  Perhaps I connected with her because I am a teacher, but I found her character to be one of the best-written characters I have encountered in a while.  I can see this role being a launching point for her career.  The film has some unnecessary sexual content that easily could have been implied but, in our “50 Shades of Grey” society, I suppose that directors feel the pressure to compete.  It is sad that a nice love story has to be tarnished by films of the same ilk as the aforementioned grotesquely sexual trash that make it seem like every love story has to be about sex.  I much prefer Ira’s story, which revolves around traditional love and values.  All of that aside, “The Longest Ride” is an enjoyable story with a heartwarming twist ending, but don’t walk into this film expecting “The Notebook.”

[Pictured: This is definitely the more memorable portion of the story]

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dead Man Walking (1995) - 10 stars out of 10

Dead Man Walking (1995) - 10 stars out of 10

"Dead Man Walking" is the unbelievable true story of a nun who counsels a murderer on death row and the community who persecutes her for doing so.  If you want to learn about subtle dramatic acting, this is the film to watch.  Susan Sarandon received the Oscar for Best Actress with her calculated crescendo of emotions.  Throughout the film, her character is put into situations that could justify a strong emotional climax, but she saves it for the end.  The final result is a progression of frustrations and overall sadness that all add up in a devastating moment.  Sean Penn, Oscar-nominated for Best Actor with this role, creates a similar effect.  In his case, the transformation is from denial to acceptance.  When a film receives Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Actress, and Director, you know that you will find quality performances.  The poignancy of this film lies in its honest story and powerful imagery.  The death penalty is a hot-button issue.  Rather than preach an opinion, this film opens your mind to thinking deeply on the topic.  It vividly shows the crime and the consequences so that you feel the pain of the guilty and the innocent, the predator and the victim, the forgiven and the unforgiven.  Is the punishment worthy of the crime?  Director Tim Robbins leaves it up to us to decide with one of the most emotionally charged endings that you will ever see.

[Pictured: Some scenes are legitimately difficult to watch]

Monday, September 28, 2015

Bandits (2001) - 7 stars out of 10

Bandits (2001) - 7 stars out of 10

“Bandits” was a surprisingly good crime-comedy film.  Let’s take a minute to address the elephant in the room: Bruce Willis looks really bad with hair.  Now that we’ve cleared the air, I was really pleased with the unexpected turns and the comical characterization.  The script was well-written, beginning with an impossible situation that becomes believable as the movie progresses and then shifting the movie in a new direction that you don’t anticipate.  The ending is the best part, revealing clues that help you to slowly decipher what is actually happening instead of throwing a sudden twist in your face.  The real highlight of this film is the acting.  Comedies often rely on blatant jokes instead of quality acting, but the comedy in this film is a direct result of the chemistry between Willis and Billy Bob Thornton.  They are a true odd couple, particularly with the introduction of their X-factor, Cate Blanchett (the highlight of the film).  “Bandits” combines the best elements of a heist film, a chick flick, an action film, and a comedy to create a film full of laughter and intrigue.

[Pictured: The disguises just add to the fun]

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Daylight (1996) - 2 stars out of 10

Daylight (1996) - 2 stars out of 10

“Daylight” is everything that you hoped it would not be.  The concept is actually pretty interesting and could have become an amazing disaster film, but the acting is simply some of the worst that you will ever encounter.  There came a point where I starting rooting for certain characters to die just so that I didn’t have to watch them act anymore.  It is just atrocious.  Stallone set a poor precedence for the rest of his castmates.  After watching this wooden performance, nobody would ever believe that he was once nominated for an Oscar.  The acting is painful to watch (especially the Birdemic-level performance of Jay O. Sanders), but there are also some major issues with the script.  Nothing spoils an intense moment like a felon on a prison transport blubbering like a baby and a woman wrestling around with an electrical wire for 20 minutes with boots on her hands.  While it may seem like the campiness of the film might make it a fun watch, it takes itself too seriously to be funny.  Watch if you must, but there are dozens of disaster films that I’d rather watch.

[Pictured: Even the cool explosions couldn't save this film]