Friday, June 29, 2012

Movie Review: “Magic Mike”

It may not be the most magical film of the year, but Tatum keeps delivering the comedic goods.

*** ½ out of 5
110 minutes
Rated R for pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Magic Mike on Blogcritics.

If you were to choose at least one word to describe director Steven Soderbergh, prolific is definitely a top choice. The man jumps genres faster than anyone else working in and out of the Hollywood system.

From his Sundance origins (“Sex, Lies and Videotape”), he can go from an A-list all-star cast (the “Ocean’s” films) back to his independent film roots (“Bubble”) at the drop of a hat. He’s also wrangled in at least two epics in the mix as well (“Che” and “Traffic”). So it should come as no surprise that his latest films feel like a breather, considering one was about an international virus outbreak (“Contagion”). Now stepping into the hyper-contrast waters of Tampa, Florida, Soderbergh brings us what is, hopefully, a not-so-autobiographical account of Channing Tatum reliving his stripper days as “Magic Mike.”

Mike (Tatum) works by day as a roofing contractor and has big dreams of one day designing custom furniture. By night, Mike works at the male strip club Xquisite, run by the ultra-sweaty Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). One day Adam (Alex Pettyfer) shows up to work for him displaying absolutely no experience in the world of roofing. After the foreman fires him for stealing an extra Pepsi, Adam runs into Mike where he learns what he really does to make the big bucks. Mike talks Dallas into letting Adam work backstage, as he’s only 19 years old, but when they need a quick dance replacement, Mike thrusts Adam headfirst into a world full of sex, drugs, and banana hammocks.

Meanwhile, there’s a side story involving Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn, daughter of Warner Bros. President Alan F. Horn) whom Mike begins to crush on even though he can’t stop calling Joanna (Olivia Munn) for booty calls. After Adam starts to spiral out of control and things go from bad to worse after a botched sorority gig where Adam loses $10,000 in Ecstasy pills. Now Mike has to put up or shut up if he ever wants to finally get ahead in life, get the girl, and start living the good life.

Soderbergh definitely brings his independent sensibilities with him but can’t completely save the film from screenwriter Reid Carolin’s (who also plays Brooke’s first love interest, Paul) questionable script issues. But those are negligible issues when what anyone is really going to see the film for is the stripper scenes.

You could go on and on about Horn’s line delivery, which ranges from excellent to horrific in the same scene, or how Pettyfer (who looks like the love child of Ben Affleck, Ashton Kutcher, and Matthew Lillard) seriously needs to quit his day job, but that’s not why you’re here. Everyone came to see the Channing Tatum Show and when the film is focusing on him or the stripper world it pays off big time. McConaughey channels an older version of his “Dazed and Confused” character but Tatum remains the star of the show here and the man has come a long way from his “Step Up” days, proving the comedic chops displayed in “21 Jump Street” was no fluke. So if you’re looking for a good time that will surprisingly entertain both sexes, while give the girls something to look at for a change, then count on “Magic Mike” to deliver the goods.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: “Ted”

Rude, crude, and hilarious. The flat-out funniest movie in years.

***** out of 5
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use
106 minutes
Universal Pictures

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

It seems like there may be a new trend brewing in Hollywood these days. Some of animation’s most prominent creative figures are stepping out of the land of hand-drawn and into live-action. First Brad Bird proved the impossible possible making the fourth “Mission: Impossible” the best one yet. Then another Pixar extraordinaire stepped behind the cameras to finally bring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter” to Mars. Now, Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “The Cleveland Show”) not only steps into the world of live-action, but also away from his parent studio (20th Century Fox) to Universal Pictures to bring us what is bound to go down as the year’s flat out funniest film, “Ted.”

Beginning in 1985, we are introduced to the friendless 8-year-old John Bennett (Bretton Manley), the loneliest kid in Boston. The Narrator (Patrick Stewart) informs us that even the "ginger Jewish kid" getting beat up on Christmas Eve wants John to get lost.

All John wants is a friend, so when he receives a giant teddy bear for Christmas, he makes a wish for “Ted” to come to life. His wish comes true and his parents (Ralph Garman and Alex Borstein) proclaim it a Christmas miracle. Through the ever-useful montage technique we watch John and Ted stay “Thunder Buddies” for life and learn that Ted (now voiced by MacFarlane) has grown up into a certain kind of celebrity, even appearing on Johnny Carson.

By now John is 35 years old (played in grown up form by Mark Wahlberg) and is about to celebrate his four-year anniversary with girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). Problem is that John spends all his time with Ted getting high, watching “Flash Gordon,” and working at a car rental dealership.

He has an understanding boss in Thomas (Matt Walsh), but he doesn't want John to miss out on the opportunity of taking over his cushy job as branch manager. John starts thinking that Lori wants more from him but is afraid he can’t provide seeing how Lori works at a PR firm under the ruling misogyny of her boss Rex (Joel McHale). Soon enough, Lori does start to get tired of John and Ted’s antics and the ultimatums start to pile up while a subplot involving Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) and his son Robert (Aedin Mincks). These two have begun stalking Ted and are more than creepily willing to take Ted off John’s hands.

At first I was a little worried that maybe an R-rated Seth MacFarlane movie would be too much to take. He three Fox shows already push the boundaries of good taste as far as network television will allow. But with the pop-culture-savvy and hilariously-brilliant MacFarlane, the film never runs out of steam. I have not laughed this hard since Universal’s own “Bridesmaids.”

As with that movie, you find yourself laughing nonstop. There’s barely room for a breather as the jokes fly fast and furious and hardly even one doesn’t stick. Ultimately it comes down to MacFarlane knowing that you have to step up and be an equal opportunity offender for his brand of hilarity to work.

The film also feels like my own childhood brought to life, with nods to “Airplane” and “Octopussy,” to the funniest “Indiana Jones” reference in years. It says a lot when three people (myself included) all walk out remarking that they could watch this movie literally ever day. MacFarlane (along with his co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) has more than delivered one of the funniest. movies. ever. period.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Monday, June 25, 2012

Movie Review: “Safety Not Guaranteed”

One of the year's best films guaranteed.

***** out of 5
86 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references

Article first published as Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed on Blogcritics.

The true gift of the Sundance Film Festival is the fact that it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Many films get picked up for distribution every year and in some cases you see them sooner rather than later. While something like “Tucker and Dale vs Evil” didn’t get the distribution it rightfully deserved, at least it eventually got released. With next to no fanfare, it almost felt like a direct-to-video release in the process. This summer, we get treated to another comedy that deserves the attention of both critics and moviegoers alike in director Colin Trevorrow’s “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Hilarity may ensue, but director Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly (both making their big screen debuts), keep the story grounded in reality making the situations even funnier.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), interns at “Seattle Magazine.” Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub) runs the show while finding time to sleep with writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson). Jeff has found an ad in the paper advertising someone looking for a companion for time traveling. The ad also claims that the writer of said ad has already done this once before. Jeff convinces Bridget to let him take two interns, Darius and Arnau (Karan Soni), along with him to Ocean View, Wash., to write a story on this mysterious ad placer. The three travel to Ocean View where they stalk the PO Box listed in the ad which turns out to belong to Kenneth (Sundance heavyweight and producer Mark Duplass). After Jeff rubs Kenneth the wrong way it’s up to Darius to investigate the story to find out if Kenneth has done this before, as the ad suggests, or if maybe he’s as crazy as everyone else thinks he is.

Packed to the gills with gut busting laughs while wearing its heart on its sleeve, there’s far more going on here than you’d think. They even find spectacular ways to keep the film pop culture savvy while the characters all face their own battles against loss and regret. Plaza proves she can already carry a film on her own while Duplass plays a far more sensitive character than we’re used to. Jake M. Johnson tries to make the most of a subplot involving his first love, Liz (Jenica Bergere), whom he hasn’t seen since they were 18 years old, but unfortunately it isn’t given the time for a proper wrap up. I’ve heard that there were several endings filmed, but I have to say, the one chosen is the only way the film could end properly. So while Kenneth may state “Safety Not Guaranteed” in his ad, I guarantee this is one of the year’s best films so far.

Photo courtesy FilmDistrict

Movie Review: “Brave”

Pixar "Brave"-ly alludes the unlucky number 13 and returns to form.
**** ½ out of 5
100 minutes
Rated PG for some scary action and rude humor
Walt Disney Pictures

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

When it comes to Pixar Animation Studios, not even they can spin immediate gold out of everything. Some need a little time to brew in the collective mind. Believe it or not, some of their films through the years have not been considered instant classics. The underdog films may be few and far between in the Pixar cannon, but they’re ones I watch often, even if some may think they’re forgotten. Most audiences still own those films even if they aren’t watched nearly as often as the rest. The ones I am speaking of happen to be “A Bug’s Life” and “Ratatouille.” It’s not that they’re what you could call “bad” Pixar outings; they just don’t seem to be as welcomed as the rest. So alas, the split vote returns again with this summer’s Pixar event, “Brave.”

In “Brave,” we meet young Merida (Peigi Barker) on her birthday, playing hide and seek with her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), gives Merida the gift of a bow and arrow, much to Elinor’s chagrin. When they are attacked by the bear Mor’du, Fergus loses a leg in the process. Now adult Merida (Kelly Macdonald) lives peacefully in the castle with her parents and her hilarious triplet brothers. Elinor has decided that the time has come for Merida’s betrothal. Now, three clans of suitors have come seeking the hand of the King’s first-born daughter but must first compete in an archery contest. Here, Merida announces that she too will shoot for her own hand, infuriating Elinor in the process. After a fight between Merida and Elinor, the princess flees to the woods where she comes across the willow wisps that lead her to far more than just her own destiny.

Armed with a gaggle of directors (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell) and writers (all three directors plus scribe Irene Mecchi), the film admittedly has some drastic tonal shifts. Probably due to history repeating itself as when Brad Bird was brought in to salvage “Ratatouille.” Director Mark Andrews took the reigns after Brenda Chapman was sacked. Until then she was highly touted as Pixar’s first female director. Things may seem a little more Disney-esque than normal but I blame that fault on screenwriter Mecchi. She’s had her hand in plenty of Disney films, mostly direct-to-video sequels. But looking at the tradition of female characters the Mouse House has brought along the way is there really anything wrong with that? “Brave” still delivers the expected visual feats even while the film dipping its toes into a few slapstick episodes, not that there’s anything wrong with that either.

Seemingly steeped in Scottish heritage and tradition (including the Highland Games) to folklore (the willow wisps), no kilt goes left unturned. Patrick Doyle contributes a fantastic score full of soaring bagpipes, harps, whistles, and fiddles. There’s lots of talk about changing your fate and finding your destiny. While it may have seemed like Pixar had their own figured out, I applaud the animation juggernaut for continuing to make feature films starring humans. Even if it seems that every time they do, the film is met with immediate trepidation — with “Up” being the one exception. The reaction from the screening I attended seemed rather split, which is exactly what happened back when Pixar released their first human-filled feature, “The Incredibles.” It seems that audiences just don’t take as kindly to animated films not filled with anthropomorphized animals or toys. However, not having those kinds of characters in “Brave” make it feel more like a real film rather than simply just another animated family feature.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Friday, June 15, 2012

Movie Review: “Rock of Ages”

Tom Cruise puts the film into over-drive but it still delivers nothing but a good time.

**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom on Blogcritics.

When a director finds his calling it can be a wonderful thing. With a past resume that reads like a list of every critic’s Top 10 Worst Films of the Year list, it appears Adam Shankman has finally come into his own. The name may not be as familiar as his films, but the man has directed some of the worst films in the last 11 years. Here’s the list in case you don’t believe me: “The Wedding Planner,” “Bringing Down the House,” “The Pacifier,” “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” and “Bedtime Stories.” Then something happened five years ago to change all this.

Oh sure, “A Walk to Remember” is a passable movie, but it wasn’t until Shankman finally brought the Broadway musical “Hairspray” to the big screen that it was abundantly clear that the Hollywood musical is where he belongs. And now Shankman is at it again with this weekend’s “Rock of Ages.” It’s a big-haired, big-screen musical that owes more to the likes of “Rent” than anything, except this film has a far greater sense of humor, it also never approaches subjects like AIDS or anal sex. But what would a typical musical be without at least one plotline involving a gay duo, right? You’ll just never guess without watching the film which couple it turns out to hilariously be.

The main love story is barely cohesive, especially with star Julianne Hough in the lead. She plays most of her songs like she’s walking through music videos. But at least she fares way better here than she did in last year’s atrocious remake of “Footloose.” Hough plays Sherrie Christian, a small town girl, living in a lonely world, motorin’ her big move from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the bright lights of Hollywood where Sherrie meets-cute Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) during a mugging. Drew works as at The Bourbon Room for Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his right-hand man, Lonnie (Russell Brand). Dennis is gearing up the bar for a farewell concert for Arsenal before lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) goes solo. Meanwhile, Mayor Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are busy trying to save the souls of Los Angeles from rock and roll raping their children’s ears. Together with Patricia’s Twisted Sisters of Piety, Patricia embarks on a personal vendetta against Stacee Jaxx himself and to close down The Bourbon Room for good.

The real star of the show here is by far Mr. Scientology himself, Tom Cruise, as Jaxx. While at first glance it may seem like Shankman is pulling another episode of stunt casting, ala John Travolta in “Hairspray,” but let’s just say that Cruise steals the entire movie. For most of the runtime he’s seen very sporadically, crazy eyes in tow, while the film sort of meanders, looking for its footing. Then something magical happens when Cruise finally opens his mouth to sing. Talk about a revelation. To say that I want Cruise’s own Stacee Jaxx movie would be an understatement. We should demand it. If co-star Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow can get his own film (“Get Him to the Greek”), then why not Stacee Jaxx?

Shankman’s trio of writers, Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder,” “Iron Man 2”), Allan Loeb (“Just Go With It”), and Chris D’Arienzo (who also wrote the original book), almost have too many characters, but thankfully, Shankman gives every actor their chance to shine. Even Malin Akerman gets to show off her chops in a hilarious, show-stopping duet of “I Want to Know What Love Is” with Cruise. Meanwhile a subplot featuring Mary J. Blige as a gentlemen’s club owner proves completely worthless aside from having Blige sing on the soundtrack. There’s probably a slew of deleted scenes featuring Blige’s Justice Charlier littering the floor of an editing bay somewhere right now. The best part of the film is really how much fun it all is. Shankman has the tone’s tongue firmly planted in cheek, making “Rock of Ages” one for the ages.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Wes Anderson never ceases to amaze me.

***** out of 5
94 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom on Blogcritics.

The word quirky sure gets thrown around a lot when talking about director Wes Anderson and his films, but at least the man sticks to his guns. If someone were to be called quirky for the sake of being quirky it would be Jared Hess. Even when attempting something new, ala “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson has maintained his own voice ever since he gave us “Bottle Rocket” all the way back in 1996. Since then there hasn’t been one true dud in his resume. Some still call “The Darjeeling Limited” the closest he’s come to a misstep, but even that is far better than most of what gets churned out in Hollywood week after week. Now that he’s back to the land of live-action, “Moonrise Kingdom” turns out to be another notch in his belt of greatness.

In 1965, 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives with her three younger brothers and attorney parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand). Fellow 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has been attending a Khaki Scout summer camp lead by bumbling Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). One day, Sam escapes camp through a hole in his tent, leaving behind a letter of resignation. Suzy has also run away to be with him after they spent the last year falling in love while writing letters back and forth. Now, Walt and Laura set out to find the young lovers with the help of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) of the Island Police and Scout Master Ward, along with the help of the camp’s “Beige Lunatics,” before a hurricane reaches the shores — as foreshadowed by the Narrator (Bob Balaban).

Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) bring about the standard issue quirks but keep the storytelling front and center. With his two young leads keeping the show their own, just about the only thing that nearly outstages the screenplay is Adam Stockhausen’s production design. One of Suzy’s favorite things is reading, so the whole movie feels like a children’s book come to life. Granted, most children’s books don’t contain some of the content Anderson manages to skirt by with his PG-13 rating, but it never ventures too far into the extreme. The film mostly plays out like a mashup of a prison escape/war film. The finale is filmed in such a way as to appear black and white, sending my appreciation for Anderson’s visual choices through the roof. It will probably come as no surprise that Bill Murray has the funniest line in the entire film. But fear not Anderson lovers, “Moonrise Kingdom” may be his most mainstream live-action film to date, but as expected, he’s also delivered one of the year’s best films.

Photo courtesy Focus Features

Friday, June 8, 2012

Movie Review: “Prometheus”

Does it live up to the hype? Most certainly.

**** ½ out of 5
124 minutes
Rated R for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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

Just when we thought Hollywood was beginning to look more bankrupt of ideas than ever, leave it to the man who launched the “Alien” franchise to return and make the world safe for not only that franchise, but for the world of prequels as well. Ridley Scott returns to the realm of science-fiction to show us that yes, movie lovers, there really is a Santa Claus. Having help from my own personal doppelganger, Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), certainly doesn’t hurt things either. Clearly, the man knows the world of “Alien” inside and out. Together, Scott and Lindelof have delivered a film that last year’s “The Thing” only dreamed of being. And if your chest is ready to burst from anticipation, the release of “Prometheus” is finally here.

On December 21, 2093, we meet the 17 crewmembers of the “Prometheus.” David (Michael Fassbender) is an android with a love for Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” designed to look after the crew. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archeologists searching for the answers to where we may have come from. Cave pictograms (some dated 35,000 years old) from ancient civilizations across the world have provided clues, which all seem to point to one location in distant space. Shaw and Holloway have convinced Weyland Industries to fund their mission to seek the possible answers to our creation. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) keeps a steady hand on the proceedings and works for the deceased Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). Hoping to meet our makers, the crew of the “Prometheus,” including the ship’s captain, Janek (Idris Elba), find more than they bargained for when they discover that our “engineers” they were so hopeful to find, may have been seeking an escape of their own.

Steering clear of spoilers is obviously for the best. The closest I came was watching the original “Alien” and “Aliens” the night before the screening. But there’s plenty in the trailers, TV spots, and viral videos to clue you in on some of what Scott, Lindelof, and fellow writer Jon Spaihts are up to. But there are some amazing and huge surprises up their sleeves and I can’t wait to see where things evolve. Shooting for the first time in the third dimension, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, bring a truly organic approach to the gimmick and don’t just rely on the typical horror/sci-fi tropes with lots of stuff lunging for the screen. I didn’t see it in IMAX 3D but would love to as this version has a more open aspect ratio. There are some beautiful, jaw-dropping moments where you don’t even realize how effective it truly is. Having Ridley Scott return to the genre after 30 years, he manages to live up to the hype as “Prometheus” stands as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of the year.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Monday, June 4, 2012

Movie Review: “Snow White and the Huntsman”

The battle for “Snow White” film supremacy continues.

**** out of 5
127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sensuality
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman on Blogcritics.

If Hollywood’s going to repeat itself so soon, why can’t I? Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all? In the battle over filmmaking supremacy the award definitely does not go to Tarsem Singh’s excrement-filled “Mirror Mirror.” Thankfully, another studio (Universal Pictures) was working on a much larger scaled version of the Brothers Grimm classic and have decided to transplant the story of “Snow White” to a “Lord of the Rings”-style setting, which totally works. While Singh decided to opt for a more kid-friendly storybook approach, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” a broader epic, brought to us by newcomer Rupert Sanders, is a most welcome alternative.

The story remains pretty much the same, save for some brutal action sequences: Young Snow White’s (Raffey Cassidy) mother dies; her father, King Magnus (Noah Huntley) finds an imprisoned Ravenna (Charlize Theron) in the back of a carriage, falls in love, and, in classic fairy tale fashion, they wed the next day.

Turns out Ravenna has a curse upon her which requires her sucking the youth out of young women to keep up her youthful appearance, when she’s not busy Kali Ma-ing someone’s heart. Ravenna kills King Magnus and takes over the kingdom with the help of her brother, Finn (Sam Spruell). Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan) and his son William (Sam Cliflin), Snow White’s best friend, manage to escape. Now Ravenna rules the dying kingdom while keeping poor now-grown Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in the North Tower.

Eventually Snow White manages to escape and Ravenna orders Finn to find her. The magic mirror on her wall has informed her that Snow White’s heart holds the key to her immortality. Unfortunately, Finn chases Snow White into the dreaded Dark Forest leaving Finn to seek out the help of the only Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) he knows who has ever traveled into the sinister land, to bring Snow White back to Ravenna. Meanwhile, the Huntsman learns who Snow White really is and decides he must help her seek out Duke Hammond, while William (Sam Claflin), has joined Finn’s search party to find Snow White for himself. Everyone is now out for revenge upon Ravenna and Snow White is the only one who can take her down, and not without the help of seven ex-gold mining dwarves in addition to both William and the Huntsman.

Everything is here as it should be. From the seven dwarves (played in miniature forms of Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, and Johnny Harris), to the poisoned apple, to true love's kiss breaking Ravenna’s spell. But what would a true Grimm adaptation be without throwing in a bridge troll? There’s also a nice homage to the Disney animated classic. And while Julia Roberts’s evil Queen may find time to smear bird poop on her face, Charlize Theron’s is busy eating the hearts out of them. Ravenna is one mean beast in what is probably the grimmest big screen version of “Snow White” yet.

Director Sanders has conjured up quite an epic, full of sweeping vistas and a swelling score courtesy of James Newton Howard, leading one sequence to make me ask if this was a prequel to another upcoming prequel (“The Hobbit”). It should come as no surprise that Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood’s Ravenna costumes nearly steal the show. And while it may have some pacing issues here and there, this “Snow White” outing is head and shoulders above the last, making “Snow White and the Huntsman” the “Snow White” film you don’t want to miss.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures