Friday, July 27, 2012

Movie Review: “The Watch”

The end of the Summer movie season takes its toll with a film better suited for Fall.

*** out of 5
98 minutes
Rated R for some strong sexual content including references, pervasive language and violent images
Twentieth Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: The Watch (2012) on Blogcritics.

Some movies make you more hopeful than they should with who’s in charge behind the camera. When a new R-rated comedy comes from director Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod, The Lonely Island), co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“The Green Hornet,” “Pineapple Express,” “Superbad”), and stars a bunch of fully capable comedic geniuses in the right circumstances (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade), we expect a lot more than a 98-minute Costco commercial. Sadly, aside from a few laughs that should have rang louder than the finale’s gunfire, it’s about all we really get from the re-titled (originally “Neighborhood Watch” until the Trayvon Martin shooting) alien invasion comedy, “The Watch.”

Evan (Stiller) lives a quiet life in Glenview, Ohio, where he’s the general manager of his local Costco. He has a house in the suburbs and the only thing he thrives for now is the respect of his neighbors and the hopeful insemination of his wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt). When his Costco night security guard, Antonio (Joe Nunez), is skinned alive and all that’s on the scene of the crime is some seminal-textured green goo, Evan takes to the local high school football game to announce he’s starting up a neighborhood watch to find Antonio’s killer.

Evan’s only recruits come in the form of Bob (Vaughn), who sees this as an opportunity to escape from his home duties where he spends his free time keeping an eye on his daughter Chelsea (Erin Moriarty). Franklin (Hill), a high school drop out who can’t pass the police exam and lives with his mother, and Jamarcus (Ayoade), happily divorced and looking for action in the form of scared, single women looking for protection from scary noises. Evan’s three new cohorts start off disastrously with vehicular open container tickets while staking out Costco to getting egged by a group of teens, lead by “Skater Kid” (Johnny Pemberton), at the football field. After the ornery old cuss Manfred (R. Lee Ermey) and Skater Kid wind up dead and our ragtag heroes find an orb that explodes anything after being fingered, it’s up to the new neighborhood watch to stop an impending alien invasion.

Red herrings are littered throughout what would have been far better had they gone an extraterrestrial-themed version of “The 'Burbs.” It also may have helped had the film not been originally spearheaded by producer Shawn Levy (he of undeserved fame via “Real Steel,” “Date Night,” both “Nights at the Museums,” 2006’s “Pink Panther,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Just Married,” and “Big Fat Liar”). It’s painfully obvious that Rogen and Goldberg were brought in to rewrite Jared Stern’s (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”) original script but it feels like all they did was add a bunch of f-bombs, the word “cum” as many times as possible, and more dick jokes than a fraternity party would know what to do with to get their coveted R-rating.

Very little of the wit they displayed in any of their previous work comes through here leading me to believe that there was too much improv going on as well. Richard Ayoade however, manages to make a great Hollywood entrance and steals the film. I will admit that I laughed far more than I should have, but nowhere near as hard or as often as I wanted. While definitely not one of the worst comedies ever made, it sits somewhere in the middle, making it either perfect for a night out your local cinema pub where inebriation will make the film seem as funny as Vaughn thinks he is.

You would expect more from Schaffer, the man who helped make all those “SNL” Digital Shorts” and co-created the brilliantly absurd Lonely Island. The lack of studio faith also shines through with this weekend’s dump slot between last week’s “Dark Knight Rises” and next week’s “Total Recall.” Chances are Fox just wants to squeeze some quick opening weekend money out of their lemon before “The Watch” finds its way to being viewed from your couch.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Friday, July 20, 2012

Movie Review: “The Dark Knight Rises”

A brilliant finale.

***** out of five
164 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises on Blogcritics.

In “The Dark Knight Rises,” Selina Kyle, never referred to as Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), informs Bruce Wayne, aka Batman (Christian Bale), that a storm is coming. While she may be alluding to the fact that the burly madman Bane (Tom Hardy) has come to town, the line could be more in tune with moviegoers. There’s a somber feeling in the air here, but it feels completely applicable as we all know that this is the final chapter of the Christopher Nolan-led franchise. Bale is done; Nolan is done. Where does that leave us? In an opening scene, Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) states that he believed in Harvey Dent; well, I believe in Christopher Nolan.

After the phenomenal success that was “The Dark Knight” how could it possibly be topped? It appears that Nolan has adapted the ways of the League of Shadows. Theatricality and deception are on full display, and he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Writing his series’ farewell alongside his brother Jonathan (with co-story credit going to David S. Goyer), Nolan knows full well that he must leave with a fond adieu—even if it may never live up to everyone’s expectations. What viewers may forget is the same thing that they forgot when “Lost” began its finale after six brilliant seasons. Preconceived notions are everything and you must remember, these have, and always will be, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films.

In “The Dark Knight Rises’” prologue, a plane is about to go down in the middle of nowhere as Bane kidnaps a scientist in midair. Meanwhile, in Gotham, everyone is honoring Harvey Dent Day at Wayne Manor with speeches by Mayor Anthony Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) and Commissioner Gordon. The legacy of Dent lives on eight years after the events in “The Dark Knight” as Gotham is finally living in peace with all the criminals locked up. But what the citizens don’t know is that Dent lived up to his alter ego and Batman saved Gordon’s son’s life from the hands of Two-Face. These days, Batman is wanted for Dent’s murder and Bruce Wayne lives in the east wing of Wayne Manor as a Howard Hughes-style recluse.

At the Harvey Dent remembrance, Selina Kyle breaks into Bruce’s safe, making off with his mother’s pearl necklace. Bruce knows that she has also stolen his fingerprints. Selina is handing them over to John Daggett, a Wayne Enterprise rival, who is using Bane to bring Gotham to its knees. What Daggett doesn’t know is that Bane has his own plans as well and wants to turn Bruce’s well hidden clean energy source into a nuclear bomb. The only person Bruce trusts with it is Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Hothead John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is on the case, who seems to be the only person working within the Gotham Police Department who has a clue, both literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, Bane is on the loose, turning the streets of Gotham back over to its people, i.e. the condemned of Gotham Prison and initiates the ticking time bomb Bruce has feared all along.

Can the Dark Knight rise to the challenge and bring a sense of order back to Gotham? Can Bruce Wayne finally find happiness and move on after the loss of Rachel Dawes? Will Alfred (Michael Caine) be forced to bury yet another member of the Wayne family? All the pieces are in place for the grand finale we all deserve. There may be a bomb ticking somewhere in the streets of Gotham, but there’s also one in our head as we know that every second brings us closer to the end. Armed with Nolan’s usual suspects, from his cast of regulars, to cameos from his previous “Batman” films, everything ties together beautifully. For a trilogy that didn’t begin as one, the Bat-house that Nolan built is nothing short of astounding. It’s no wonder Warner Bros. has invested their trust in him to serve as the backbone behind their next upcoming DC Comics venture, “Man of Steel.” If any series needs help getting off the ground again it’s Superman.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister continues to amaze with his IMAX scenes proving that this installment is worth every penny to be seen on as big of scale as possible. Using his previous themes but turning them into something even more grandiose is Hans Zimmer, employing a new piano cue that won’t long be forgotten. And Lee Smith provides his usual sense of editing magic making sure we always know what’s going on and keeps things moving. I never once looked at a watch nor wanted to. Under the tutelage of Master Nolan, these three also wind up giving “The Dark Knight Rises” one of the most brilliantly pieced final scenes we’re likely to see in a long time. “The Dark Knight Rises” is simply one of the best comic book/superhero/action films yet. The series is now one of the best trilogies of all time. And “Rises” single-handedly stands right up alongside “The Avengers” while also standing out as the more emotionally fulfilling.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Friday, July 13, 2012

Book Review: “FilmCraft: Directing” by Mike Goodridge

Insightful and entertaining, "FilmCraft: Directing" might be “the most entertaining college book you’ve never read.”

Article first published as Book Review: FilmCraft: Directing by Mike Goodridge on Blogcritics.

When asked if I would like a review copy for “FilmCraft: Directing” by Mike Goodridge, I immediately jumped at the chance. Considering I’ve only ever written film reviews didn’t even occur to me until after having received the book. And seeing how I haven’t written anything close to a book review since high school started to make me weary. Let alone the fact that since the book is a compilation of interviews and wouldn’t even have a narrative flow. You could call it, “the most entertaining college book you’ve never read.”

It's divided into chapters highlighting the 16 interviewed directors, including Pedro Almodovar, Paul Greengrass, Stephen Frears, Park Chan-wook, Peter Weir, and Zhang Yimou, just to name a few. Each discusses his own methods of madness. Five “Legacy” chapters are sprinkled throughout discussing some of the most revered names behind the lens. I couldn’t help but be most excited for Guillermo del Toro, one of my favorite directors. Reading through his section was a complete delight and he also delivers some huge laughs.

The other director who manages to be equally entertaining is Terry Gilliam. Being one of the men behind the Monty Python crew, it’s no surprise that he too delivers his own laugh-out-loud anecdotes. And who can read the Clint Eastwood chapter without hearing his gravelly iconic voice in their head. Unfortunately, Stephen Frears continually mentions his most recent film, “Lay the Favorite,” making for some unintentional laughs--Even if only because I already bore witness to how dreadful it is at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

The directors impart wisdom throughout in the form of sections appropriately titled “Advice to young filmmakers.” Page after page consists of behind the scenes photos, film stills, shooting scripts, and storyboards. It’s all very enlightening to see the process that goes on in the minds of today's (and yesterday’s) top directors. The “Legacy” chapters would be the “yesterday” highlighting Ingmar Bergman, John Ford, Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa.

So while at first glance it may just appear to be another coffee table book, or something someone might think came from a college course, for the most part, “FilmCraft: Directing” is definitely not something to be judged by its cover.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Movie Review: “Katy Perry: Part of Me”

Never getting too caught up in her personal life, “Part of Me” offers plenty.

**** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG for some suggestive content, language, thematic elements and brief smoking
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Katy Perry: Part of Me on Blogcritics.

It’s been four years now since Katy Perry burst onto the music scene with “I Kissed a Girl” and she just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Packed with enough sexual energy to make any boyfriend at the time nervous, if you looked carefully you could see her tongue planted firmly in cheek. I knew there had to be more of a backstory to this new artist and quickly looked upon the almighty YouTube for more. Of course there were older music videos, some for songs far better than her first smash hit, the funniest being for “Ur So Gay.” But at the time, it seems doubtful that anyone listening to “Teenage Dream” had any clue about her time spent with The Matrix or her first album produced by Glen Ballard.

Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz are no strangers to documentary/concert films, having served as producers on Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never” last year. Now they get to finally put on a show of their own with “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” and they couldn’t have picked a bigger star. Chronicling her 2011 tour, unsurprisingly, her personal life outshines her candy-colored onstage spectacular spectacular. The best being her stop in Las Vegas to visit her grandmother. Is it any surprise that she nearly steals the show? Not really. But the rest of the interview sequences are just as fun and the backstage antics show she’s just a girl living a dream come true.

People always at first seem surprised to hear that I don’t hate Katy Perry or her music. She’s fun and rambunctious and sometimes a little pop music never hurt anyone. While I would never shell out the money to attend one of her pop-up book come- to-life performances (featuring more costume changes than a ‘90s-era Reba concert), I can see the appeal. And the musical numbers really shine in 3D. With lots of hits to run through, you’re hard pressed not to run across a favorite here. Everything from “Teenage Dream” to “Hot n Cold” and “E.T.” to “Last Friday Night” serve as backdrops to her personal life, with the best bits lending an emotional pull with “The One That Got Away” and “Not Like the Movies” about her broken-hearted whirlwind relationship with Russell Brand.

Whether you love Katy Perry or not, you can’t ignore how much fun she’s having even while it takes the biggest toll on her personal life. But at least she has her sister Angela (who even gets involved in the films best gag when she appears onstage as Katy’s alter-ego Kathy Beth Terry for a performance of “Last Friday Night”) and best friend Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”) at her side through thick and thin. Katy really is a girl with a huge streak of good luck and hard work under her belt as manager Bradford Cobb mentions, it took them five years to wind up with an album with five #1 songs. Katy is the first and only artist since Michael Jackson to accomplish this feat. Anyone reading this already knows whether they are going to see the film or not and you can’t blame them. But at least I can assure everyone else they will be thoroughly entertained as well even if sometimes “Katy Perry: Part of Me” doesn’t quite show all of her.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Movie Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

Unnecessary? Perhaps. But it sure lives up to its title.

**** ½ out of 5
136 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man on Blogcritics.

I still remember when Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” arrived in theaters like it was yesterday. It was only ten years ago after all. That, along with Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” ushered in a new wave of superhero gluttony that even now seems overbearing. Ironically, both of these series have the same thing in common, the second feature of their original trilogies stood as the best of the best until a fourth film comes along to reboot things. But while “X-Men: First Class” now stands as the best of that series, director Marc Webb (who made a brilliant debut with “(500) Days of Summer”) brings us Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a film that can at least stand alongside “Spider-Man 2” even if it doesn’t best it.

In this new chapter of our friendly neighborhood “Spider-man,” we meet young Peter Parker (Max Charles) playing a night game of hide and seek. When Peter discovers someone has broken into his father Richard’s (Campbell Scott) office, Richard grabs Peter, mother Mary (Embeth Davidtz), and a satchel. They make their way to Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May’s (Sally Field) house where Peter is left to live with them. Now in his teens, Peter (Andrew Garfield) is the awkward teen we know and love who pines for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), walks around with his camera in tow, and takes a beating by Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) for standing up for the little man at Midtown Science High School.

When Uncle Ben has Peter look into their flooding basement, Peter discovers his father’s satchel. In it, Peter finds an Oscorp employee badge and a photo of his father with the one-armed scientist, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). Curt Connors worked with Richard, and is obsessed with regenerating his right arm, but hasn’t been seen or heard from since Richard and Mary abandoned Peter. Peter finagles his way into Oscorp pretending to be an intern only to run into Gwen who works directly under Dr. Connors. It’s here that Peter sneaks away to the “Biocable Development Unit” where what could be thousands of genetically altered arachnids are contributing to the making of a new kind of super strong cable and Peter is of course bitten.

After hilariously discovering his newfound powers Peter is anxious to learn what his father was working on called the Decay Rate Algorithm and Dr. Connors wants the missing formula, which makes the algorithm complete. With Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) breathing down Dr. Connors’ neck to make their way to human testing, pulling the plug on the project to use it on volunteers at a VA hospital, Connors uses the concoction on himself, unleashing our villain, The Lizard, upon Manhattan. Meanwhile, Peter is also looking for the thief who gunned down Uncle Ben and Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) is hunting down the unitard-wearing vigilante. Now Peter is caught in a web looking for the truth behind his missing parents, keeping Gwen out of harm’s way, and trying to stop The Lizard from unleashing the drug using a cloud-forming device conveniently located in the Oscorp building.

Most of the story remains the same, but as it’s based on the comic book that should come as no surprise. Yes, Andrew Garfield looks too old to be playing a high schooler, but a 28-year-old was probably cast in order to have the same actor for multiple films; as should be the case for all franchises. Thankfully, with Spider-Man, Marvel has never gone the route of The Hulk where he’s been played by a new actor at every turn. Gwen Stacy, as played by Emma Stone, is a far better love interest than Mary Jane Watson. Garfield and Stone have more chemistry than most actors could ever dream of having on screen. It comes as no surprise the two are currently dating in real life and only adds more depth to the fate that could belie their relationship.

Denis Leary gets the funniest line in my opinion, Stan Lee makes his requisite cameo (his funniest to date), and of course there’s a pay off scene hidden in the end credits. So while Marc Webb may have been an odd choice, (considering the script could have been a complete disaster with three credited writers: James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac”), Alvin Sargent (“Spider-Man 2” and “3”), and Steve Kloves (who wrote all but one of the “Harry Potter” films). But Webb delivers some astounding action sequences while dousing the proceedings with the appropriate amount of characterization, only further helping make “The Amazing Spider-man” live up to its name and relaunch the series to new heights.
Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures