Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Damn Awesome Apes

Andy Serkis looks less than pleased as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (image: moviepilot.com)

Andy Serkis looks less than pleased as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (image: moviepilot.com)

Allow me to admit to a film fan faux pas. I used to dismiss the original Planet of the Apes as cheesy camp. But can you blame me? The corny costuming, the silly premise, an over the top Charlton Heston. It’s an easy movie for the unaware to dismiss. Now I know better. The 1968 sci-fi classic blew audience’s minds when it first hit theaters. It’s a surprisingly sharp social commentary wrapped in an imaginative world of apes, humans and our natural connection between the two.

Fast forward 25 years to a modern reboot and while the original James Franco movie was good fun, the sequel has matched the excellence of the original. A breathtaking combination of action, social revelations and an award worthy performance by Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the must see movie in a sea of quality 2014 offerings.

Taking place 10 years after the events of Rise, humanity has been all but eradicated by the simian flu. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nation of intelligent apes have built a sprawling society founded on the concepts of unity and strength. When Serkis first played Caesar in Rise, there was a strong campaign amongst fans for an Oscar nomination. Back then, I didn’t agree but Dawn is a monkey of a different color. The goal for any actor is to connect with his fellow cast mates and Serkis’ emotive eyes and patient work supersedes any computer aided magic or technical wizardry. His entire performance is controlled whether he’s leading a charge or cradling a newborn in his arms. Serkis more than deserves a Best Actor nomination come January. To deny him would be a crime.

Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) share a moment.  Awww...aint that adorable!

Caesar and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) share a moment. Awww…aint that adorable!

Since humans haven’t been seen in almost decade, things become tense when a group of them discover the simian society. A colony of survivors have been living nearby for years but without the use of a hydroelectric plant, situated in the heart of ape territory, they won’t last much longer. Clan leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants to eradicate the apes but Malcolm (Jason Clarke) asks for three days to work out a deal. A refreshing shift from the standard man versus beast setup, each faction is fighting for their own survival. Since the narrative drive focuses on staying alive rather than fighting for power, it blurs the line between good and evil. In fact, the story is almost Shakespearian, with backstabbing and in fighting on both sides of the evolutionary tree.

When Rise was released, I thought the human actors were outdone by their CGI counterparts and while the apes still win on the acting front, the homo-sapiens do a much better job. Stereotypes like the anti-ape trouble maker, the cowering love interest (Keri Russell) and an over the top Oldman are prevalent, but the actors keep things believable with solid work. There are also a few silly plot holes that stretch your suspension of disbelief but not enough to ruin the experience.

And of course there’s a good amount of action, which is handled almost flawlessly. At first I thought apes with guns would cause Dawn to jump the shark, but it actually makes sense given the plot’s framework. Some exceptional shot direction enhances the experience, my favorite being a moment where an ape takes over a tank turret. Rather than focusing on the carnage he creates, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) positions the camera at a fixed point behind him. As the turret turns, we see the growing sense of power from the attacking ape as opposed to the carnage he’s creating. Smart decisions and flourishes separate Dawn from your standard action fare.

Hollywood blockbusters are not supposed to be this good. When the summer season rolls out its usual roster of superheroes, rom-coms and fratboy / teenage comedies, we don’t expect much. Summer 2014 has been an entirely different animal and the sequel to the 2011 original continues what’s shaping up to be the best summer in recent memory. With an award worthy performance by Andy “Golem” Serkis, engaging action and a story worthy of the 1968 classic, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film going experience that will satisfy fans of every type and tradition. Charlton Heston would be proud.

Score: 9 out of 10

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Snowpiercer (2014)

With indie cred, breathtaking visuals and a bizarre performance by Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer is a strange yet satisfying summer chiller.  Just expect something a bit…I don’t know…odd.


Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

More Than Meets the…BANG, ZAP, POW!

Don’t see this movie! Megatron commands you! (image: http://crabscorner.blogspot.com)

Put away the pitchforks, extinguish the torches, call off the rabid dogs. Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t the death knell of cinema my fellow critics are claiming it is. Like John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Michael Bay’s opus of noise, clanging metal and eye scorching visual effects is an easy target. Always has been, always will be. But after my first experience with a franchise pulled straight from my childhood, I ask the above question. It may be loud, crass, poorly written and full of brain bending nonsense but let’s be honest. What did anybody reasonably expect? Perhaps a result of dismally low expectations, Age of Extinction stinks pretty bad but it’s not the rancid pile of dog meat the world has made it out to be. Barely.

The story is a muddled mess but here goes. Inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), while scrounging around in an abandoned movie theater, discovers and salvages a dilapidated truck (don’t ask). Wahlberg, after doing some amateur mechanical work, fixes and discovers it’s none other than Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots from the Battle of Chicago. Meanwhile, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a Steve Jobs style media mogul, has perfected the manipulation of “transformium”, the material our Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots are made of. With the help of CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and the evil mercenary Lockdown, the remaining Transformers become hunted for their raw material. But when a mysterious device known as The Seed becomes the target, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance.

Off the bat, let’s make one thing clear. Transformers isn’t a movie. It’s a product, a cinematic pop song designed to be digested quickly and forgotten about moments later. It’s a commercial for Budweiser and Beats Audio, complete with horrible product placement and a Twitter feed of constant sensory distractions. We’re not supposed to enjoy the movie. We’re supposed to absorb it and everything it’s selling. Let it jack up our blood sugar and take us on a mind numbing ride and in that sense, it succeeds. Like a great Superbowl advert or a Katy Perry concert, Age of Extinction only cares about distracting you enough to pull in your dollar and provoke you to spend more. It’s a movie screen car salesman.

Jack Reynor and Mark Wahlberg sneak around an alien ship in Transformers: Age of Extinction (image: http://www.grantland.com)

But that doesn’t mean it has to be this confusing and convoluted. The story of Transformers is a pot luck of pieces that never jells into anything tasty. Without going into a film school discussion on the concept of tone, the movie has no idea of what it wants to be. One minute it’s a family drama, the next it’s a buddy cop car chase flick and further on, it becomes science fiction, complete with spaceships and aliens. If movies are car trips, Transformers is like riding in the back seat of a crazed NYC cabbie dipping in and out of downtown traffic. Simply put, it doesn’t need to be this twisty turny or attempt to appeal to everybody at once.

All of the above is held together by mind numbing action. About half of Transformer’s massive three hour run time involves car chases, fighting robots and crumbling buildings and for the most part, the effects look great. In particular, the practical effects, a hallmark of old school Michael Bay, are very effective and add some realism to the CGI madness. There’s just too much of them. The final thirty minutes is a constant drone of bullets and fiery explosions that normal brains simply can’t handle. Thanks to a terrible script and non-existent character development, it’s impossible to care about the carnage, turning the wonderfully created computer whiz-bangs into nothing more than shiny distractions. The film is literally exhausting to sit through.

All that said, this isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen all year thanks to a surprisingly solid cast. With the exception of Nicola Peltz, who has little to do but scream and wear short shorts as Wahlberg’s daughter, they make the best out of a bad situation. Mark Wahlberg is completely serviceable (if unbelievable) as the broke inventor, Stanley Tucci is over the top but entertaining and Jack Reynor surprises as Shane, the love interest of doctor Cage’s daughter. The cast is let down by cliché ridden script, but at least none of them mail it in. There are also a few well constructed and paced action set pieces, including a great bit where cars, trucks and tanker ships fall from the heavens to crush our “who cares” heroes.

Optimus Prime hurts my eyes. Too much for a frontal lobe to process. (image: http://www.tfw2005.com)

The saddest bit, however, are the robots themselves. Born from the nostalgic ridden 80’s cartoon, these CGI’ed monsters are caricatures of better, more interesting characters. While much of the problem lies in the stale archetypes, the filmmakers tried to make them too human. With faces made of metal, the Transformers have a thousand flexing plates to express emotion but without the elasticity of skin, they look creepy and strange. I’d site specific examples, but I have no idea who was named what or what their role was in the story. Not even a Wikipedia search helped. Giant, hulking and generic, the characters you’re supposed to root for and care about are as distinctive as a highway McDonalds. It saddens my inner child to see the once awesome Optimus Prime reduced to a “rally the troops” ball of corn.

But, in the end, what did anybody really expect? A hulking monstrosity of a movie franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t about being subtle, engaging or even entertaining. It’s about throwing gallons of spine melting action in your face, tying it together with a threadbare story and hoping you walk away tired and thirsty for a cold Bud Light. Thanks to a cast that cared and some very impressive visual hootenanny, it’s not the worst movie of the year but given the spread of above average action flicks released this summer, it’s easily worth avoiding at all costs. Unless you enjoy screaming through Manhattan traffic in a beat up cab while the back seat TV plays a commercial for Subway sandwiches. If that’s your bag, then feel free to give this a spin.

Score: 4 out of 10


Chef (2014)

Fancy a date flick this weekend that doesn’t involve fighting robots?  Check out Chef, a mouth watering stew of good times, great food and personal discovery.  Oh and did I mention the food?  Mmmmm…

Click the uncomfortable shot of John Favreau and Miami cop sharing a bread loaf to read all about it!

Chef - Middle


Maleficent (2014)

Maleficent, despite an electrifying performance by Angelina Jolie, is a bit of a disappointment.  How disappointing?  Click her sinister mug to find out!

 

 


The Immigrant (2014)

A Deep and Dramatic Success Set in the Swinging 1920’s

Marion Cotillard has no idea what she’s getting into as she leaves Ellis Island with the devious Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix).

Period pieces can be funny breed. Move too much towards historical accuracy and you run the risk of losing casual audiences, move too far into fiction and the buffs loudly complain. The best historical dramas are ones who toe the line between interesting characters and genuine, realistic settings. The Immigrant, the latest film from director James Grey (We Own the Night, Two Lovers), is a perfect balancing act that blends a series of excellent performances with a solid story to create one of the most interesting and emotional films of the year thus far.

The ever exceptional Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant on her way to New York to live with her well established aunt and uncle. She is accompanied by her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) who is taken into custody at Ellis Island after doctors discover she has tuberculosis. Alone and with no way of getting her sister out, Ewa accepts the help of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), an NYC socialite. Ewa quickly learns nothing comes for free in the big city as she discovers Bruno runs an undercover cabaret and prostitution ring. Disgusted yet defiant, Ewa offers her services to the shady 1920’s pimp in the hopes of earning enough money to free her ailing sister.

As I previously mentioned, the performances are across the board terrific, starting with the always dependable Cotillard. The former Oscar winner channels her inner Scarlett O’Hara, creating a sympathetic lead of strength and conviction, even when she’s operating outside the lines. Full of depth and feeling, Cotillard delivers a subtle yet powerful performance, one of the best I’ve seen this year from a female lead.

Cotillard and Jeremy Renner share a long backstage glance in James Grey’s The Immigrant (image: collider.com)

On the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Renaissance Man himself, Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix’s character requires more of an arc than Cotillard and his swing from cocksure showman to his spoiler free emotional state is impressive and honest. Fresh from his triumph in Her, Phoenix is quickly becoming one of Hollywood most rejuvenated actors and his turn in The Immigrant is proof he’s more The Master than I’m Still Here. Jeremy Renner also makes an appearance as Bruno’s vaudevillian brother and the third part of what becomes a shaky love triangle. Quickly developing into an exceptional character actor, Renner is a breath of fresh air, delivered exactly when needed the movie needs it most.

The story itself is rock solid, providing just enough visual splash and historical realism to keep us engaged in the drama. Patiently filmed and carefully crafted, Gray uses the setting of 1920’s New York to set the tone of decadence and desperation. Underneath all of the glitz and illegal booze, our leads live in tenements and walk through dirty streets, an excellent compare /contrast to bolster the steady filmmaking.

When people think of the “good old days”, it’s either the idealism of the mid 50’s the Great Gatsby’s 20’s. The fantasy of carefree living under the economic boom of post-World War 1 is an alluring one. With The Immigrant, James Grey paints an honest picture of personal struggle under the bright lit façade of pre-Depression New York. With gripping performances, a nuanced story and sure handed direction, The Immigrant delivers a healthy dose of well-made drama that’s sure to satisfy those looking for something meatier this blockbuster season.

Score: 9 out of 10


Godzilla (2014)

That’s A Lot of Fish Fun!

image (www,screenrant.com)

ROOOWWWRRRR!!!

That about says it all. All we should reasonably expect from the King of All Monsters is screaming citizens, smashing buildings and monsters beating the butt out of each other. The stories should be silly, the acting should be campy and the action should be entertaining. These aren’t social commentaries or dramas about the struggles of 1920’s Polish immigrants (teaser for a future review). It took fifteen years for the world to wash the taste of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla from their mouths and the 2014 version is the delicious meal we’ve all been waiting for. Forget Matthew Broderick, piles of fish and screaming raptor style monster babies. Godzilla 2014 is a film made by fans, for fans and delivers almost everything we crave from an entertaining creature feature.

Godzilla sets things up during the opening credits in 1954 where we witness nuclear tests creating an ominous creature. We then fast forward to 1999 as a Japanese power plant discovers a bit of shaking where there shouldn’t be. Dr. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) sends his wife to investigate the strange rumblings and in a sudden radiation breech, loses the love of his life. Fifteen years later, Joe’s son Ford has come home from a tour of duty to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son. Ready to settle down to a comfortable civilian life, things get twisted as his unhinged dad jumps back into his life. Obsessed with circumstances of the tragic death of his wife alone, Joe reluctantly joins his pop in the research of another power plant experiencing more of those familiar rumblings.

And then Godzilla appears and bedlam ensues. The End.

Snide comment aside, the film makes a strong attempt to provide a sensible backstory to the awaiting carnage. For the most past, the cast does little more than stare wide eyed into cameras and run from green screens, but they all pull it off with believability. There’s good variation in the casting, from Bryan Cranston’s over the top aging scientist to Ken Watanabe’s brooding nuclear plant director. The main actors, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, fade nicely into the swirling action and when they try to emote, do a respectable job at it. Despite a story full of cliché’s and hacky plot points, the performances actually compliment the cheesy premise, providing a solid foundation for the fun.

Much to everyone’s dismay, Little Godzilla does not an appearance in Godzilla 2014. Sorry to disappoint. (image: antagonie.blogspot.com)

Naturally, action is what rules the day and Godzilla delivers some of the best rampage I’ve seen this year. Despite an overreliance on CGI, the stomping monsters and crumbling buildings have a classic feel to them. No crazy quick cuts, no maddening shaky cam, just solidly shot and well paced set pieces of mass destruction. It’s was a nice change of pace to sit and watch terror be inflicted without trying to guess what’s happening.

That said and at the risk of sounding like the cranky old men from The Muppet Show, I’d love to see more practical effects compliment the computer. One of my minor quibbles is a lack of monster fighting and I can’t help but wonder if a heavy effects budget limited the amount of creature brawls. I’m not saying we need to go back to guys smashing miniatures in rubber suits but some solid variety would have been nice.

Longtime fans will also find a lot to love thanks to a number of classic series Easter eggs and subtle references, a great change of pace from other reboots who wield nostalgia like a sledgehammer. The enemy monsters, called MUTO’s, look great and the main attraction has a classically cool feel with subtle modern touches. If Godzilla 2000 looked like a rejected T-Rex idea from Jurassic Park, the 2014 monster will make you a believer of modern updates to classic creatures.

The King of All Monsters has been mashing municipalities for over a half century and has traveled from Japan, to New York to the farthest reaches of space. The quintessential model for modern day camp, the franchise has died, resurfaced and perished again. With its latest reincarnation, Godzilla reminds us it’s OK to have loud, raucous fun so long as the chaos is crafted with care and skill. One of the better times you’ll have in theaters this summer.

Score: 8.5 out of 10