Thursday, November 26, 2015

Movie Review: “The Good Dinosaur”

The Good Dinosaur

**** out of 5
100 minutes
Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place. 

While DreamWorks still has their fair share of misses, Pixar really only has one true flub in their arsenal: Cars 2. While Brave and Monsters University have their naysayers, even they were at least enjoyable — not to mention box office hits. The only thing holding back The Good Dinosaur, is it’s coming hot on the heels of Inside Out, one of their all-time best. Director Peter Sohn’s dinosaur-western (yes, you read that right), doesn’t quite pale by comparison, but some will deem it merely adequate Pixar. In this day and age though, even mediocre Pixar still makes the best animated films of any year, which unto itself is always an accomplishment.

Sixty-five million years ago, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs has simply skimped by as a shooting star in the night. Millions of years later, Poppa (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (voiced by Frances McDormand) are plowing fields and building huts to keep their newly hatched apatosaurus family safe and fed. Hatchlings Libby (voiced by Maleah Nipay-Padilla), Buck (voiced by Ryan Teeple), and our hero Arlo (voiced by Jack McGraw) are brought into a world where the dinosaurs have evolved to rule the world. Years later, the grown up siblings (now voiced by Maleah Padilla, Marcus Scribner, and Raymond Ochoa) are trying to make their mark on the family food supply, with Arlo trying to prove he’s more than just the runt.

Despite being terrified of everything, Poppa tasks Arlo with catching and killing the critter that’s been stealing their corn. Arlo gets scared causing the human child — later named Spot (voiced by Jack Bright) — to be chased into the wilderness by Arlo and Poppa. Soon enough, a storm hits, causing Arlo to witness his father’s death, and is cast into the world on his own. Not without running across little Spot of course, who leads Arlo on an adventure of self discovery involving run ins with various dinosaurs from the friendly tyrannosaurus rexes to the loopy styracosaurus to the terrors of velociraptors and pterodactyls.

When it comes to Pixar, the final product always manages to shine through the production troubles, and The Good Dinosaur is no exception. Work on the film began in 2009, when Sohn and original director Bob Peterson (co-director of Up and the voice of Dug), came up with the idea and eventually Peterson was replaced by Sohn. Meg LeFauve may get final screenwriting credit (she also co-wrote Inside Out), but the five story credits shed light on the production issues. It also underwent a major release date shift from November 2013 to May 2014, and is now finally being released. The third act was completely redone, and a lot of the voice cast was replaced. Thankfully — while still not being one of the Pixar prime films — The Good Dinosaur has come out on top.

The voice cast who remain are having a lot of fun and Sohn has managed to make more than just a good movie. Full of heart and adventure, there’s plenty to keep everyone in the family invested. While it’s hard for me to not be biased — this is a western, featuring dinosaurs, made by Pixar, three of my favorite things — it’s definitely far from perfect. Spot remains hilarious throughout, but Arlo can be a bit annoying from time to time. It also starts to get repetitive how many times he screams and runs away from something, or gets hit in the head and the film cuts to a blackout. However, the story is a lot of fun — it’s nice to see nature getting to play the villain, even if the pterodactyls and velociraptors wreak havoc — and it flies by pretty quick. And in true Pixar fashion, some viewers will want to bring along some tissues. Hilarious, heartbreaking, and gorgeously animated, The Good Dinosaur may not be perfect Pixar, but it’s still really good Pixar.

*Also, be sure to arrive on time to make sure you don’t miss the short, Sanjay’s Super Team. It’s an action packed hilarious ode to Hindu traditions and superhero tropes.

Movie Review: “Creed”


**** out of 5
133 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

The world may be gaga over Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise, but I’ve just never seen the appeal. A friend of mine tried to get me to watch the original years ago, but I fell asleep. After watching the spin off movie Creed — and perhaps being a bit older — I can appreciate the appeal of even Rocky Balboa himself now. Stallone may not be the best actor, but at least they picked the right one for this. Michael B. Jordan has always been one of the hottest rising stars today, and with Creed, it finally proves he lives up to the hype. Jumping back into the ring with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, the trio deliver one of the year’s biggest crowd-pleasing knockouts.

Creed kicks off drumming to its own beat, introducing us to the young Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) in juvenile detention. After his latest fight, he gets thrown into lockup and is soon visited by the widow of Apollo Creed himself, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). She knows he is Apollo’s son, and takes him in, offering him a better chance at life. Cutting to the present, we find adult Adonis (Jordan) working at a financial institute and quitting his job the same day he gets a promotion. Adonis wants to live up to his father’s namesake, and moves to Philadelphia to try to get Rocky (Stallone) to teach him how to fight. Along the way, he also finds time to meet-cute his singer/neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and catch the attention of heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) who wants to fight Adonis before Conlan is shipped off to prison.

If there’s one thing that helps Creed more than anything, it’s that Coogler has made the world of Rocky come alive, probably better than ever before. The film makes the character feel literally real and not just out of a movie. This feels less like a sequel and more like a documentary. It helps that Stallone took the backseat and didn’t even touch the screenplay, giving him the chance to loosen up for the camera. The film also benefits from a welcome sense of humor and character relationships that also feel as real as Rocky does.

Jordan and Thompson have great chemistry together, along with Jordan and Stallone. Some may not like the sight of an aging Rocky, but let’s face it, Stallone himself turns 70 next year. It only makes sense for the series to be passing the torch at this point. We’ve seen what happens with Stallone back in the ring, and rest assured, this is no Grudge Match. The bottom line is with Creed, the Rocky legacy gets a chance to live on, and if it can make a fan out of me, then I can see the franchise continuing on for years to come.

Movie Review: “Trumbo”


**** out of 5
124 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references
Bleecker Street Media

Article first published at The Reel Place.

If there’s one piece of irony when it comes to films about Hollywood, it’s that they’re not made for mainstream audiences. Typically armed with surefire dialogue and larger-than-life characters, these are films made for a far more niche group. Occasionally they can reach a bigger audience, but they’re usually fictionalized: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Singin’ in the Rain, Adaptation, Tropic Thunder, Get Shorty. So imagine how small the audience for Trumbo will be when it comes to the topic of the “Hollywood 10,” a group of screenwriters thrown in prison for communism. Thankfully, director Jay Roach has delivered his best film yet, armed with a game cast — even if the film barely lives up to its subjects own Oscar-winning abilities.

It’s 1947 and we’re on the set of the latest collaboration between Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). While Trumbo is constantly made fun of for hanging out on set, it’s his words that he wants to make sure get brought to life in all their splendor. Meanwhile, Trumbo is living a rocky personal life because he’s a communist, and the government is out to get them. Not even John Wayne (David James Elliott) takes kindly to their sort, and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) has her own agenda to out anyone she can. What do you do when no one in Hollywood will let you write? Just slap someone else’s name on it of course. This leads to Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) winning an Oscar for the Roman Holiday screenplay. Eventually, Trumbo and some of his closest colleagues — including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) — are imprisoned for their beliefs, but that doesn’t stop Trumbo from writing his biggest movie yet: Spartacus.

Roach leads his actors through the motions with Cranston in particular getting to rant some spectacularly crafted monologues courtesy of John McNamara. While the film does run a little long, Cranston commands the screen, bringing Trumbo to brilliant life. The supporting cast all do their best to keep up with him, especially C.K. with his patented brand of deadpan delivery providing huge laughs. Some good digs are made that still ring true today: “It’s a good government, but everything could be better,” and “There are many angry and ignorant people in this world and they seem to be breeding in record numbers.”

The point the film wants to get across more than anything is that just because someone believes something different than you, doesn’t mean they’re a radical with an agenda. The first amendment is meant for everyone, and if we don’t acknowledge that these kinds of things have happened in the past, then we’re bound to repeat them. As for the film itself, don’t be surprised to see it mentioned in a few categories. Especially Cranston, the man is electric and mesmerizing as he spews the dialogue provided — the best bits are saved for him and C.K. If Trumbo happens to be playing in your area, it’s a sad piece of Hollywood history that shows that it isn’t always flash and glitter behind the scenes.

Blu-ray Review: “A Christmas Horror Story”

Movie: *** 1/2 out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: ** 1/2

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘A Christmas Horror Story’ Featuring William Shatner on Blogcritics.

The two holidays I love the most, also happen to have the most films at their disposal: Halloween and Christmas. And as much as I love both of them, I may love holiday horror films even more. There’s just something cathartic about watching something so sacred get torn to shreds for the sake of a laugh or scare. While ranging in quality to severe degrees, I’ll watch pretty much anything with a good holiday twist to it. Black Christmas/X-mas, Silent Night Deadly Night, Rare Exports, Gremlins, Jack Frost, and Santa’s Slay, there’s something for everyone under the tree. So, how does the new anthology, A Christmas Horror Story, stack up? Unfortunately, it doesn’t all gel the way you’d hope, but there is a great twist at the end that almost more than makes up for it.

A Christmas Horror Story, Christmas, Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan, William Shatner, Santa, Santa Claus, Krampus, George Buza, Zoe De Grand Maison, Rob ArcherThree tales come together on Christmas Eve in the fictional town of Bailey Downs where radio DJ Dangerous Dan (William Shatner) is keeping everyone in the spirit of the season, while a trio of groups are about to cross paths with some demented mythology. Video journalists Molly (Zoé De Grand Maison), Ben (Alex Ozerov), and Dylan (Shannon Kook) are investigating the deaths of two students who are about to find out that there may be more to the Virgin Mary than they ever imagined.

Dysfunctional family Scott (Adrian Holmes), Kim (Oluniké Adeliyi), and young Will (Orion John) get up close and personal with the effects of a changeling. Caprice (Amy Forsyth), her parents Taylor (Jeff Clarke) and Diane (Michelle Nolden), and brother Duncan (Percy Hynes White) get to find out why Aunt Edda (Corinne Conley) keeps a Krampus figurine laying around. Meanwhile, up at the North Pole, Santa (George Buza) discovers that Krampus (Rob Archer) may have been released after his elves wind up turning into zombies.

Image Entertainment unleashes these sordid Christmas tales to stunning life, proving yet again that sometimes you can’t keep a 25GB disc down. Detail never falters, whether out in the woods, or in the basement of a creepy old school. Shadows never result in crush, and there is surprisingly never any banding. Colors pop, which only exacerbates the punches of red whenever blood starts flying, and the bright greens and reds never result in bleeding. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track also gets a lot of mileage, with plenty of deep, rumbling bass, and a lot of surround effects. This is a horror after all, and there’s plenty of carnage to assault the viewer from every speaker. The festive score and dialogue are never lost in the chaos. English SDH subtitles are on hand for those in need.

The special features are as sparse as can be, but at least we aren’t left with a lump of coal in our stocking. Featuring pre-menu trailers for Odd Thomas and WolfCop, the lone extra is a “Behind the Scenes” (14:45) featurette letting the cast and crew provide insight as to who directed which segment, and where their inspirations stem from. However, it wasn’t pleasing hearing them say how Creepshow was a huge inspiration, only to turn around and say how “corny” they think it is now. That anthology is a true horror classic, and I have to say now, that I will probably never watch A Christmas Horror Story again. As much fun as it may be seeing elves die in extreme fashion, there’s just not enough to make this an annual favorite. It works in spurts, but never comes together in a satisfying whole, but there is at least enough good to make inquiring minds get their money’s worth. Anyone making a blind purchase may find themselves in the mood for re-gifting.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Movie Review: “The Night Before”

The Night Before

**** 1/2 out of 5
101 minutes
Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity
Columbia Pictures

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Ho ho ho, now this is more like it. Studios really can still make a good holiday film after all! Just when we thought Love the Coopers had come to destroy our Christmas cheer, along comes a gaggle of potheads to bowl us over with the true yuletide spirit. Leave it to Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie to make one of the year’s most hilarious trios as they take us through the holiday motions in The Night Before. Sure, it’s jam-packed with lowest common denominator humor, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be smart and damn funny. Armed with always reliable director Jonathan Levine — All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness, 50/50, Warm Bodies — it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that there’s every bit of heart and warmth amidst the potty humor.

In 2001, Ethan (JGL) lost his parents in a car accident. Lucky for him, he’s blessed with two of the world’s best friends — Isaac (Rogen) and Chris Roberts (Mackie) — who vow that he’ll never spend Christmas alone. Over the years, Isaac and Chris have started to move on with their lives — Chris is a professional football player and Isaac is now married to Betsy (Jillian Bell) with a baby on the way — and each year it’s getting harder and harder to keep their tradition alive. That is until Ethan steals a Christmas miracle when he finds tickets to the holiday’s hottest, most secret, party. Now, Ethan forces his friends to endure one last night they might never remember, all while holding out hope to win back his one true love, Diana (Lizzy Caplan).

Man, oh man, does this make up for the vitriol we had to spew upon last week’s Love the Coopers. Not only is The Night Before one of the year’s funniest comedies, it’s a spectacularly heartfelt ode to the Christmas classics my generation grew up with. There are plenty of nods to everything from Die Hard to the first two Home Alone films. Yes, a new Christmas classic is born. Risen from the ashes of Nothing Like the Holidays, Four Christmases, Fred Claus, Deck the Halls, Surviving Christmas, The Polar Express, and Christmas with the Kranks, this is one of the best since Bad Santa, Love Actually, and Elf all came out in 2003. There have been some others along the way, but this really takes the cake and just oozes Christmas from every frame.

The cast are having a blast, and thankfully so are we. How many times have we been burned by a film where the cast were merely enjoying a studio-paid vacation? Here’s looking at you Adam Sandler who’s responsible for one of the worst Christmas/films ever: Eight Crazy Nights. The Night Before just wants everyone to have a good time and that’s exactly what we get. Even Michael Shannon gets to steal every scene he’s in. Mr. Green is one of the best characters of the year.

There may be four credited screenwriters — Levine is joined by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and Rogen right-hand man Evan Goldberg — fill the film with spit-out-your-soda hilarious lines of dialogue and some of the most outrageous visual gags we’ve been waiting for since This Is the End. Some may have found The Interview a bit of a let down after they made one of the best apocalypse films ever, but they are right back where they belong, keeping the hilarity chugging right along with the message.

Don’t think the film has an agenda, if it does, it’s to let the audience join in on the year’s best night out. The Night Before may not be for every taste, but for those looking for the year’s most spirited, balls out, Christmas comedy, this is all we need to get through the holidays, at least until we get to see how Krampus plays out. If it’s anywhere near as delightful as The Night Before, then merry Christmas to all and to all a good night, indeed!

Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

*** out of 5
137 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material

Article first published at The Reel Place.

Long story short, it took four films — culminating with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 for me to realize this film series, simply isn’t meant for me. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first film after having read and thoroughly enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel. But director Gary Ross’s sluggishly paced big screen adaptation just left something unfulfilled.

After a change in director, to Francis Lawrence, Catching Fire proved that the series could live up to both fans and the average moviegoer. So far, it’s the best film in the series, period.

After a disastrous of an end in Mockingjay – Part 1, how does Part 2 stack up? Well, as a series finale it mangles any chance of redemption with what has to be the most anticlimactic capper seen in awhile. I can’t imagine watching both films back-to-back. Nothing happens in such a long runtime.
Judging by my wife’s reaction to me feeling underwhelmed, the fans will eat it up. And that’s all that really matters, right? Is it even really worth spending time on a full review that’s as critic proof as this? The only other film this year that might be even harder to justify reviewing — whether it’s fantastic or not — would be Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Resistance is futile with a rabid fan base that couldn’t care less whether or not Jennifer Lawrence gives a surprisingly weak performance, or that Donald Sutherland is almost unintentionally hilarious. And there’s the action. The film plays out like a video game: get the characters from point A to point B and then they sit in darkness, waiting to move on to the next plot point. Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay suffers from extreme bouts of being episodic. Even if you haven’t read the book, or know anything about foreshadowing, you will see the film’s twists coming from a mile away.

I’m not trying to rake the film over the coals, it just could have been so much more. Had Part 1 and Part 2 been whittled down to even just a three hour runtime, this really could have been a fantastic finale. But as it stands, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 sends the series out not with the bang, but with a whimper.

Maybe there’s hope for the announced spinoffs, because there is a world of interesting ideas Collins has set into motion with her books and films. They need to be fully tapped. Maybe with some creative license, Lionsgate can keep the franchise going — even if mostly in name — and they can find someone to deliver another entry that lives up to the greatness of Catching Fire. Until then, all I could think walking out out of this was, “They made us wait a whole year for that?!”

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movie Review: “Love the Coopers”

Love the Coopers

Zero stars
107 excruciating minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some sexuality
CBS Films

Article first published at The Reel Place.

To say I love Christmas movies is a bit of an understatement. From standard classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to what some kind consider the oddball choices of Gremlins and Die Hard. Love Actually happens to be one of my all-time favorite films. So it made my heart sink to learn that this season’s big holiday film, Love the Coopers,  had some not so encouraging names behind the scenes.

Director Jessie Rogers made a career out of writing/directing nothing but manipulative garbage — Corrina, Corrina, I Am Sam, Stepmom, Because I Said So. She also is credited with the story for another horrible holiday film: Fred Claus. Rogers was enough to discredited all hope. Then you factor in that it was written by Steven Rogers — Hope Floats, Stepmom, Kate & Leopold, P.S. I Love You — and I think you can guess what you’re getting yourself into with Love the Coopers.

There’s no love to be found anywhere in a hopelessly petty outing with one of cinemas most unlikeable families. You will not love anyone by the time the big stupid twist comes at the end. Let’s just say that Steve Martin — who narrates the entire movie — should be ashamed of himself for stooping to such a lowbrow film. And the rest of the cast should know better too.

Except for Diane Keaton. When’s the last time she did anything watchable? And So It Goes, The Big Wedding, Because I Said So, Something’s Gotta Give, Town & Country, Hanging Up, The Other Sister… as another recent holiday film would say, “good grief!”

The only one person watchable through the entire run time is Alan Arkin. But that man could read the phone book and make it enjoyable. It’s a shame that the opportunity to reunite Arkin with John Goodman results in so little amusement. They were so fantastic together in Argo, but here, Arkin is squandered to spewing unintentionally creepy monologues at Amanda Seyfried.

Then there’s the wasted opportunity of having Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) stuck in the world’s longest police arrest with what appears to take an eternity before Tomei eventually jokes, “You can let me out here” only making the audience pray for the same luxury. The bottom line is that Love the Coopers is not just one of the worst holiday movies ever, it’s one of the worst films of the year and should be avoided at all costs.