Friday, January 31, 2014

Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
2013. Rated PG-13, 131 minutes.
Burn Gorman
Max Martini
Robert Kazinsky

If you believe that there is life somewhere besides Earth then you probably also think that if/when they reach us, they will first appear in our skies after having traveled many light years to get here. Makes sense, right? Well, you would be wrong. Turns out, they come through a fissure located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that is really a portal between their dimension and ours. And since we live in a big-budget movie, they most certainly don't come in peace. By the way, these are not little green men with over-sized bulbous heads and football shaped eyes. These are monsters the size of skyscrapers with really bad dispositions. In an apparent nod to Godzilla flicks we have taken to calling them kaiju - the Japanese word for monster. To combat them, we develop the jaegers, the 'j' makes a 'y' sound, German for hunter. These are gigantic fighting robots controlled by a pair of human pilots located in the head. So yeah, someone took one of my favorite things of all time, Voltron, and one of my least favorite, The Power Rangers, put them in a blender and poured the concoction onto the screen.

That someone would be none other than Guillermo del Toro. He is the mastermind behind some outstanding movies like Pan's Labyrinth, Blade II and the Hellboy films. Whether he is practicing patient story-telling as in Pan's, or delivering an action-packed blockbuster as in the Hellboy pictures, his work is often visually stunning. He continues that trend with Pacific Rim. Both the kaiju and the jaegers are excellently rendered and give the whole movie a larger than life feel. This is evident right from the start when one of the kaiju slams itself on The Golden Gate Bridge. The battle scenes make the movie fun. They give us what we have come for: giant robots fighting giant monsters.

The issues come when our main attractions are not on the screen. The overall story is bland and predictable. Individual subplots hold slightly more intrigue, but fail to generate the emotion they seem to be going for. Worse, they also leave plot-holes as they go. For instance, there's "the drift." The drift is a portal where our two pilots must link mentally in order to properly operate a jaeger. Basically, it couples two people's brains together. The first time we meet Raleigh (Hunnam), he's piloting a jaeger with his brother who is literally ripped out of the machine and killed while the two were still mentally connected. We're made to understand that Raleigh now has to not only carry around his memory of what happened to his brother, but his brother's own memory of what happened, as well. Imagine having a loved one brutally killed in front of you and also being able to actually see the event from their point of view and feel what they felt at the moment. Sounds traumatic, doesn't it? Of course, it is. That's why Raleigh quits the jaeger program and disappears from the radar for five years. In desperate need of capable pilots, his old boss Stacker Pentecost (Elba), what a name, finds him and re-recruits him. So what's the problem? The problem is we soon meet Mako (Kikuchi), a young lady who has aced every test there is to become a pilot. Stacker won't let her anywhere near a jaeger because of something in her past. He tells her point blank, "You can't take that level of emotion into the drift!" Excuse me? Did you not just bring back a guy with at least "that level of emotion," if not more? There is no evidence of Raleigh ever receiving any therapy or dealing with his brother's death in any way other than stewing over it since it happened. Therefore, we have no choice but to conclude that how the drift works is subject to the needs of the plot making it a not self-contained entity. The sad part is it's a great idea and further exploring what our hero is going through would probably have generated the empathy this movie needs. We spend much more time on Mako's story. Her history is somewhat interesting, but too obvious for us to really get worked up about.

I know, it's a guy flick. Guys don't care about all that touchy-feely stuff. It's all about robots and monsters. Monsters and robots. I'm a guy. I get it. Except guys who say that are either lying or fooling themselves. Even for the ruffians among us, the story is what draws us into the movie. When this happens and we love or hate the people on the screen, we have a vested interest in what happens to them. We actively root for or against them. Action can do this if it's of a brutal, particularly visceral nature and...AND...seems realistic, not some stylized Matrix fantasy stuff. Even then, the movie has to give us sufficient reason why we should care. No matter how good it looks and how much of it there is, this can't be achieved simply by ridiculously large beasts taking on equally gargantuan machines. Therefore, even as we enjoy watching it, we remain distant from what we are seeing. That distance means Pacific Rim is okay, probably a good choice for a fun movie night, but ultimately forgettable.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On My Mind: The Family Grades the Blog

I'm an old-school sort. No, I'm not one of these dinosaurs that doesn't know how to turn on a computer, much less use one. I may not be able to run anyone's I.T. department, but I'm definitely tech savvy enough to survive. However, there are still certain things I prefer to do the way we did them "back in the day." Writing is one of those things. About ninety percent of the posts on this blog were written out long-hand on a piece of paper first. Ironically, this is not one of them. I also write a lot more than just movie reviews.This means if you spend some time in my home on a regular basis you'll get quite used to the sight of me scribbling in my notebook.

My children know that sight well. They are also very aware that Daddy has a movie blog. All three of them have been known to pick up the notebook I write reviews in and flip through it, looking only at the scores I give. Generally speaking, they disagree with them. After I hear the rustling of a few pages, I'll inevitably be asked "How could you only give THIS movie a (low number), but you gave that a (high number)? THIS movie is way better than that one. What were you thinking? If I actually try to explain what I was thinking, I am met by a glazing over of the eyes and/or a rolling of them. Often, I'm told I like boring movies. Occasionally, this little family brouhaha spills online. No, my kids don't take to bashing me on social media or anything. Yet. However, when they see this site on the screen, they'll ask me to scroll through it, if they haven't peeked in my book recently, Of course, the same scene plays out. They only see the scores, don't read a single word, and question my sanity. As much as she disagrees with me about nearly every score, I can't help but be most amused by my youngest daughter. Without even trying, she musters an overwhelming sense of cuteness as she spots the titles of the movies she's seen, the corresponding scores, and almost invariably tells me "You shoulda gave that a 10."

I actually watch most of the movies I review, alone. After all, I'm a bit of a night-owl and most titles are either inappropriate for the kids or is something they're not interested in, anyway. Still, on the weekends we usually watch a movie or two together. Knowledge of this blog has led to a few comments during, and certainly immediately after, one of these viewing sessions. A typical comment is "I bet Daddy's gonna give this like a 2." And this isn't just the kids. The wife gets in on this, too. She typically agrees. Not only are they trying to gauge my tastes, it's morphed into a way of calling me weird. By that, I mean the way they say it feels like "Us normal people like this movie, but Daddy doesn't."

They can also sense if I like what we are watching, they think. Maybe, it's how intently I am looking at the screen, or how dismissively I shush them when they address me. On these occasions, they might wait until the credits start rolling and just flat out ask what I'll give it. I remember all the snide remarks and cross looks. For that, I take the smallest measure of that candy known as revenge. I fix my mouth into the most evil smile I can manage and say "You'll just have to wait and see."

Click here to see what else has been "On My Mind."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Directed by David Soren.
2013. Rated PG, 96 minutes.
Mario Andretti

Ironically, Turbo (Reynolds) is a snail. He loves Formula One racing, especially his hero Guy Gagné (Hader) and wants nothing more than to go really fast. As you might imagine, being a snail makes this rather difficult. Still, a boy can dream. Unfortunately, that dreaming makes it hard for him to perform the mundane tasks of daily life. This includes doing his job for which he is under the supervision of his much more cautious brother Chet (Giamatti). Frustrated with life, Turbo finds himself looking over the freeway. Somehow he finds himself on it, barely surviving the harrowing ordeal. When he comes to, he discovers that his shell is suddenly a high-powered engine that enables him to travel at ridiculous speeds. One thing leads to another and Turbo and Chet wind up in the care of Tito (Peña), a taco salesman/snail racer with big ideas. Trying to get Turbo into the Indy 500 ensues.

Following Turbo on his quest is a fun adventure that is well paced and breezes by easily. The racing scenes are all exciting and should bring the youngsters to the edge of their seats as a decent amount of tension is created by them. The story between them holds together pretty well, also. As nonsensical as it sounds, we buy into it. We get caught up in whether or not this little snail can do the impossible.

Helping to sell all of this to us is a remarkable cast. To me, this begins with two wonderful actors doing superb voice work, Paul Giamatti and the incomparable Samuel L. Jackson. Both are just plain amazing. Giamatti provides a persistent naysayer who makes his opinions clearly known. Jackson brings his familiar persona to the role and somehow makes it all the way through the film without dropping F-bombs. Between the two of them, they get most of the movie’s best lines. However, they are not alone. Michael Peña, Bill Hader, Snoop, and Ken Jeong are all excellent, as well. Luis Guzman shines in the very nearly thankless role of Tito’s big brother Angelo, but not given nearly as much to do. All of them overshadow leading snail Ryan Reynolds. It’s not that he is bad, it’s that they are so good.

By the end, we have an easily graspable film about chasing your dreams and never giving up. This message is telegraphed pretty far in advance so that might lessen some of its potency, but it still works. Best of all, it’s not something we have to dwell on. Things are kept lighthearted enough so the kids don’t feel brow-beaten when it’s over. It stands a bit ahead of most animated kiddie fare, but is not quite special.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Baggage Claim

Directed by David E. Talbert.
2013. Rated PG-13, 96 minutes.
Adam Brody
Taye Diggs
Jennifer Lewis
Boris Kodjoe
Djimon Hounsou
Christina Milian
La La Anthony

When Montana (Patton) learns that her younger sister Sheree (London) is getting married soon, and before she is, her world is sent spiraling out of control. Not only is Montana not married, she doesn’t have any prospects. This is a big problem. She’s been raised to believe that she simply is not a lady if she’s not married by thirty. That her sister will tie the knot first is a travesty of epic proportions. At the very least she wants to find Mr. Right in time to escort her to the wedding which is a mere thirty days away. Obviously, this is a daunting task, but it helps that she is an airline stewardess. However, rather than meeting men as she normally would in her profession, her work buddies talk her into what they think is a genius plan. They will track down her ex-boyfriends as they travel to see if any of them has developed into the man of her dreams since they broke up.

Let’s just get this out of the way, first. That is an astonishingly dumb idea. Setting aside the fact that these are guys that she’s already found out were not “the one” for one reason or another, the execution of this plan is idiotic, at best. It involves her dropping everything the second her pals call her to let her know one of these guys is on a  flight, high-tailing it to the airport to make said flight, and trying to instantly rekindle the flames. Yes, she always makes it to the plane just in time, but as you might imagine, these guys have the same problems that caused their break-up the first time around.

In the midst of all the chaos that is her life, she has one stable relationship with a straight man. She grew up with the guy who lives across the hall. In fact, they are best friends. His name is William Wright (Luke). Hey, wait a sec…let me just repeat his name in case you somehow dodged that sledgehammer. William Wright. WRIGHT. Uh-huh.

The overwhelming majority of romantic comedies are inane, predictable affairs. This is certainly no exception. The next moment is always precisely what you think it’s going to be. It simply runs down the rom-com checklist in order and on time. This strict adherence to the formula drains the life out of most jokes. It’s hard to laugh when you already know the punchline.

Likewise, it is difficult to get wrapped up in the dilemmas on the screen when the performances of them are so plastic. Paula Patton normally does solid work. Here, I can see her ‘acting’ which is empirical evidence that the performer is doing a bad job. Her voice has the fake quality of a person trying but failing to prove that they are honest. The rest of the cast seems to be in a contest to see who can be the most photogenic. They take turns reciting their lines through the pearly whites of their megawatt smiles, just like in the pic above. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an impressive looking group of people and an accomplished bunch of actors, but to this particular production they bring all the depth of a cookie sheet. The only characters with any spunk whatsoever are Montana’s partners in romantic crime: Sam (Brody), her gay male friend, and Gail (Scott), her busty and perpetually horny gal pal. Sam is a walking stereotype, but at least he gets most of the movie’s best lines. Gail gets the best gestures and is the most interesting person in the movie. Love her or hate her, she has a zest for life and an independence sorely missing from the protagonist. A better movie could probably have been made about her.

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far makes Baggage Claim a bad movie. Regardless of how terribly they go down, all of these elements are rather innocuous. They are things that render this fit for the skyward reaching junk pile of rom-coms, all of which are indistinguishable from the rest. However, right from the start this is a potentially damaging film. It repeatedly and explicitly pushes the idea that a woman absolutely, positively must have a husband or she is a failure at life. Sam impotently tries to dissuade Montana from this notion once or twice. When Montana herself comes to understand the fallacy of this ideal, the movie’s own finale completely undermines her. Honestly, it’s baffling that she believed this in the first place given the fact that marriage hasn’t actually worked for her own mother (Lewis), the one pushing this whole mindset. Mom’s been married five times, and even Montana understands she marries simply for the sake of being married. This is not a model to live by. The entire thing is an exercise in archaic thought. Sure, we all want someone to grow old with. Branding someone worthless for having yet found that person is backwards, at best, and anti-feminist, if not downright misogynist, at worst.

To blame for this atrocity we have writer/director David E. Talbert, or Tyler Perry 2.0, as I like to call him. He’s taken essentially the same path to Hollywood as Mr. Madea. Talbert wrote and directed his own plays which he successfully toured around the nation targeting African-American female audiences. His work, that I’ve seen anyway, has a similar mix of Christianity and secularism, is thematically similar, but tends to be a bit more risqué. This holds true as their work translates to the big screen. Unfortunately, Talbert fails to realize that the time for labeling single women near (or in) their thirties as barren old maids has long since past. It’s also a terrible message for the young ladies in the audience. I’m not normally a cinematic moralist. I don’t need movies to have positive messages for me to enjoy them, but I don’t like to be brow-beaten, either. This is so persistent with its assertions, it galls me to no end.

MY SCORE: 2/10

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Blogathon: Life, Love, and the Movies

Lots of us bloggers have thought about how life, love, and the movies are intertwined. Now, I have an excuse to write about it. I swung by Mettel Ray and came across her post yesterday entitled just that. It is part of a blogathon put together by My Filviews and Karamel Kinema. Of course, the only logical thing for me to do was swing by those sites and see what was going on. When I got there, I saw an open invitation to participate in the Life, Love, and the Movies blogathon. It started up yesterday. so if you wish you can take a crack at it if you wish. Here's mine...

1. What was the first movie you saw in the cinema and what do you remember about that visit?
The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was one I blogged about a couple weeks ago, Enter the Dragon. I remember that it was a triple feature! Man, those were the days. I have no clue what the other two movies were, or even if we stayed to watch them all. The only thing I really remember is being completely under the spell of Bruce Lee.

2. Are there any movies you have very strong memories of which are not because of the movie (for example something which happened at the time you were watching it)?
I have a few of these. When I went to see House Party, a huge fight broke out in the aisle less than 20 feet away from me. When I saw Tim Burton's original Batman, my date and I got there early and saw a number of celebrities stroll into the theater. Another celebrity moment happened when I went to see Species. NBA star Grant Hill sat right across the aisle from me. More importantly though, it was the first date for my wife and I. I remember the eerie silence and stillness of the theater after the conclusion of The Passion of the Christ. My most recent odd theater experience happened when I took my family to see The Dark Knight Rises. It was the second weekend it was out and therefore after the shooting that took place in a Colorado theater where it was showing. My daughters were very concerned that something was going to happen. I comforted them, but couldn't help but be a little unnerved whenever one of the exit doors opened which happened several times.

3. Which movies had a big impact on you and changed a (small) part of your view on life?
One that immediately comes to mind is Spike Lee's School Daze. The movie's message about how stupid it is that we, as black people, spent so much energy discriminating against each other on the basis of complexion struck a chord with me. I had not only experienced this, but often participated in this as a youngster. From then on, I've tried my best to steer clear of such stupidity. It was tough when I was young, but part of who I am, now.

4. Do you have any comfort movies which you return to because you are in a specific mood (for example if you are feeling down/nursing a heartbreak)?
There are probably too many to name. From time to time, I'll just get in a mood for a specific genre and grab something that fits. Or, I'll just want to revisit something from my youth. I don't think I've ever picked a movie based on my emotional state.

5. If a movie would be made about your life, what type of movie would it be and who would you like to portray you?
It would be a "dramedy" and plenty of the secondary characters would be outlandish people. As for who I would like to portray me, I've no clue. Physically, Kevin Hart is about the closest thing to a match I can think of. However, I'm not that guy. Therefore, I'd prefer someone unknown who can bring across some of my unique qualities.

6. Which existing movie best represents you?
I have to return to Spike Lee again. In this case, two of his movies probably combine to do the trick. The first is Do the Right Thing and second is Crooklyn. I actually grew up in Queens, New York, not Brooklyn. Still, these two movies are perhaps the best representations of my formative years. In both, the screen is filled with people who seem like I've crossed paths with them while growing up.

7. If you knew you would die tomorrow, what would be the last movie you would want to see?
That's a tough one. I might have to go with Do the Right Thing. It's just a masterpiece as far as I'm concerned.

8. If you can spend your life working in the film industry, what would you be and why? (you know, director, producer, actor, cinematographer, costume designer, sound designer etc?)
I would definitely be a writer. It's what I love to do. Though I certainly wouldn't turn down the opportunity to direct.

1. Did you ever have a first kiss with someone while at the cinema and if so which movie was playing?
Honestly, I don't think so. I've had kisses at the theater, but none that I can remember as the first between myself and the person I was kissing.

2. What is your favorite movie relationship and why?
Another tough one. At the risk of turning this whole post into an ad for Spike Lee movies, I'm going to that well one more time. I'm a guy who grew up without my father around anywhere near as much as I would have liked. I am also someone who now cherishes my relationship with my own son. Therefore, I have to go with the relationship between Denzel Washington (as the father) and Ray Allen (as the son) in He Got Game. It represents both ends of the spectrum for me. And it's a wonderful movie, to boot.

3. When did your love for movies start and how has it grown?
It really started with Star Wars, the young'uns now call it A New Hope. It was just so huge in scope with really cool special fx, lots of action, the whole good vs. evil thing, and a funny love triangle to boot. As a wee tyke all of six years old, it just blew me away. For a long time, I watched almost exclusively what would be called 'guy flicks.' However, over the years I've grown to appreciate movies of all sorts. What remains with me specifically from Star Wars is the sense of wonder I have whenever I watch films with great special fx whether the movies themselves are any good, or not.

4. If you have to choose one film to watch with your loved one, what would it be and why?
I'd probably say Love Jones. It's one movie my wife and I both love and it's perfect for a date night. Added bonus for me, I can get away with ogling Nia Long.

5. If you can choose one character from a movie to be your significant other who would it be and why?
I did just mention Nia Long, didn't I? Therefore, I'd probably say just about any character she plays.

6. What was the first movie that made you fall in in love with film and cinema?
Star Wars really is "the one" for me. See my answer to question number three in this section.

7. How did your passion for movies turn you into a movie blogger?
A forum I used to frequent had a thread discussing movies. I started posting short reviews there. Before long, I created my own thread just for my reviews. At the time, I was working at Blockbuster and watching more movies than I ever had before. Continuing to do the reviews combined two of my great passions: movies and writing. It was only logical that I would become a movie blogger.

8. What is your favorite date from a movie?
Since Love Jones is now fresh in my mind, I'll go with one from there. It's actually the second date for our two leads played by Ms. Long, of course, and the very underrated and underused Larenz Tate. She regretted sleeping with him after their first date and wanted to see if there was something there besides sex. The two had just a wonderful "movie" date: lots of laughing and dancing and then ended the night trying in vain to keep their hands off one another. 

Okay, I've fulfilled my requirements for class participation. You can also be down. Just follow the rules below:

- Give answers to the 16 questions above
- Write a blog post about it
- Include one of the blogathon logos in your post
- Add a link to the blogathon announcement so others can participate as well
- Leave a comment with a link to your post

Monday, January 20, 2014

Happy MLK Day

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day here in the US. He is clearly the most important person in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century in this country and arguably the most important American of that century, as well. His story is indeed an awesome and impactful one. If all you know is the "I Have a Dream" speech, do yourself a favor and read up on the man.

Since you're here, I imagine movies are your thing. There have been a few attempts to dramatize the life of MLK. There have been some decent ones. The most notable effort is probably the 1978 TV miniseries entitled King starring Paul Winfield in the lead role. The best offerings are a number of the documentaries made about him and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Apparently, there is a new biopic in the works that Oliver Stone was connected to until a few days ago. Hopefully, capable people get involved in this film and it gets to see the light of day.

As King relates to this blog, I have reviewed a number of movies, many of which are documentaries, about people who are fighting for someone's civil rights in some fashion. The range of these movies spreads across race, gender, sexual orientation, even species. Click on the titles below (listed alphabetically) to read my reviews of these movies.

12 Angry Men
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75
The Central Park Five
The Cove
The Help
How to Survive a Plague
Inherit the Wind
The Invisible War
Red Tails

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: Krush Groove

The story of the love affair between this particular movie and myself really begins a couple years before it was even released. In 1983, I became enamored with a group called Run-DMC beginning with their song “Here We Go.” Over the next year and a half I learned just about every word of both their debut self-titled album and their sophomore effort, “King of Rock.” I took the title song of the second album as my personal anthem.

Late summer, or early fall of 1985, I began seeing TV ads for a movie starring my heroes called Krush Groove. Yes! Not only was Run-DMC starring, but other hip hop legends such as Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and even Prince’s latest ‘it’ girl, Sheila E. There was also this young rapper I’d just started listening to. Perhaps you’ve heard of this guy. He calls himself LL Cool J. Even though they weren't in the commercials, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that the Beastie Boys and New Edition also appear. Needless to say, seeing this movie the day it hit theaters was priority number one. I started putting the word in with Mom, right away. In the way fourteen year olds often tend to, I let her know I would literally keel over and die if I didn’t see this movie as soon as it came out. Repeatedly.

Lo and behold, when opening night came Mom had to work third shift. She was a corrections officer at Riiker’s Island on rotating shifts in those days. There was no way she was going to take my siblings and I, plus my best friend and his little brother to the movies before having to pull an all-nighter at one of the nation’s most notorious prisons.

Thankfully, she planned ahead.

At the time, a friend of Mom’s was having some trouble getting on her feet so she was staying with us. Mom asked her to drag us all to the theater that night so that I wouldn’t die. At least, I think that’s why. Anyhoo, we arrived at Sunrise Theater, on Sunrise Highway of course, to find a line wrapped around the building for Krush Groove. At this point, our guardian for the evening asked me what I thought was the single dumbest question in the history of mankind. She said “Wow, look at this line. You guys sure you wanna stay?”

“You’re joking, right?” At least, that’s what I was thinking. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “Hell yeah!” Okay, maybe not. The point is we stayed. We got in to the show we were trying to get into. Shortly after the movie started, so did the rock-rap hybrid “King of Rock.” Life was good.

The actual plot of Krush Groove is loosely based on the early days of Def Jam Recordings, the company founded by Russell Simmons that put him on the path to becoming a multi-media mogul. For the uninformed, he is the real life brother of Joseph Simmons, AKA Run of Run-DMC. He was actually the main character of the movie. Curiously, but wisely, he did not play himself as all the artists did, including his business partner Rick Rubin. Russell was played by Blair Underwood. There’s sibling rivalry, loan sharks, a love triangle, and of course, plenty of hip hop involved.

There was also plenty of comic relief whenever The Fat Boys were on the screen. Their show-stopping music video plopped into the middle of the film for “All You Can Eat” is just hilarious. Actually, just about everything they did had me in stitches. They were such an effective part of the movie, their performance earned them a collective multi-picture deal. Unfortunately, they only made one more movie, the flop Disorderlies where they co-starred alongside Ralph Bellamy.

Recently, during one of those rare times when there was not a “new to us” movie lying around the house, my family and I were trying to decide on a movie to watch. The proverbial light bulb came on over my head as I thought ‘hey, my wife and daughters love movies with lots of music and my son is a rap fan so let’s watch Krush Groove!’ When I said it out loud, I got mixed reactions but they agreed to watch.

Personally, I’ve seen it probably a couple dozen times since that night in 1985. My wife has seen it quite a bit also, but hadn’t watched it in a while. Of course, it was all brand new to our young’uns. As I suspected they had a grand time watching it. Granted, part of their fun was laughing at 80s fashion, but they still enjoyed the movie. They recognized some of the songs from my playing them around the house when I get in a nostalgic mood, so that was a plus.

Looking at it with my now more critical eye, I can much more easily see its flaws. For one, letting all of these artists play themselves was clearly a ploy to capitalize on their success in the musical arena. For the most part, they’re horrible actors. There are also a few plot holes to be found. Additionally, I am a little bit of a hip hop historian and this movie takes serious liberties with the facts even though most of the people involved know them much better than I. That said it is still lively and entertaining. Helping tremendously with this is the fact that the stuff with The Fat Boys still works. I still laugh. My kids also laughed. More importantly, they laughed in the right spots.

This movie also has one of my favorite cameos of all time. One scene shows the guys sitting around the office and auditioning acts. Just as they decide they are done for the day, a young man and his two buddies push their way in the door. It’s that LL guy. He says “Box!” One of his boys turns on the boom-box and he launches into the first verse from “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” one of his earliest hits. Then he disappears from the movie just as fast as he showed up. To this day, it’s an intense and exciting forty-five seconds or so of film. Of course, he went on to an incredibly long and successful career in rap and later parlayed that into more longevity and success as an actor. Think about this: he starred in In the House, a sitcom that ran for four seasons, almost twenty years ago and has worked steadily as an actor ever since. I’ve always been a big fan of his, but must admit I will always harbor just a bit of hate for him. It’s not really his fault, per se, and she’ll never admit this, but I suspect my wife would seriously consider leaving me for him if presented with the opportunity. Damn you, James Todd Smith. Damn you.

The true testament to the fact that this movie still works is the way my kids reacted when it was over. When I put it in the DVD player, they thought they were doing me a favor by tolerating “one of dad’s old people movies.” By the time it was over, they were humming “All You Can Eat,” and talking about their favorite parts. They asked me to explain much of the 80s slang that permeates the dialogue. The wife and I reminisced on the good ol’ days. And all of us marveled at how much muscle Mr. LL has packed on since then. However, I really got my biggest confirmation that I’d introduced them to the right movie a few months later. I was at the computer banging out a post for this blog while my girls were in the next room trying to figure out what they wanted to watch. Without me saying a word, they picked Krush Groove.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Hangover Part III

Directed by Todd Phillips.
2013. Rated R, 100 minutes.

There is a scene in The Hangover Part III in which a bunch of characters wake up from a night of debauchery in a strange place, wondering what they did and how they got there. Sadly, this happens at the end. Before this, you may spend a lot of time thinking you’re watching the wrong movie.

Let me explain.

Right away we know things are going to be different this time around. Instead of starting with a scene such as the one described above, the way the first two installments did, we kick things off with a prison break. It’s Mr. Chow (Jeong) escaping from a Bangkok jail. We quickly transition back to the USA where Alan (Galifianakis) is spiraling completely out of control due to the sudden death of his father. After some convincing, he agrees to enter a treatment facility, provided he is driven there by his buddies in the Wolfpack. Together, they hit the road, but they never make it. They get run off the road by Marshall (Goodman) and his goons, including Black Doug (Epps) from the first movie. Marshall informs them of Chow’s escape and that Chow stole $21 million is gold from him. He then kidnaps their Doug (Bartha) and demands the rest of them find and bring Chow to him. The boys trying to do precisely that ensues.

Rather than another joke-a-minute recap of the night before we get a clunky hybrid crime thriller and dark comedy. Our heroes feel like they are way out of their element. In fact, Phil (Cooper) and Stu (Helms) take a back seat most of the time to whatever is going on with Chow and Alan. Almost none of this is funny. The biggest reason is that these two characters are the least able to support a movie. Truthfully, none of them are which is, in part, what makes the first two movies work. They are a true ensemble effort where each contributes equally to the overall cause. Here, two of them are forced into the lead and wind up exposing their own flatness. This is especially problematic with regards to Chow. We have always been told he is an internationally wanted criminal. This is one of those rare cases where showing instead of telling backfires. When we were only told of his nefarious life, it works okay. When we’re shown this, it fails to hold water. Everything about him is simply too ridiculous.

As a whole, The Hangover Part III feels like an overreaction to criticism of Part II. Conventional wisdom says that its predecessor was too similar to the original. Truth told, it is a carbon copy. As blatant duplications go, however, it’s still a winner in my book. I didn’t laugh quite as often as I did the first time around, but I still laughed an awful lot. At the end of the day, that’s all I really want from my comedies. Sitting through the third installment yielded very few chuckles. I fully understand that comedy is highly subjective. What is funny to me might be deplorable to you, and vice-versa. Therefore, had the humor simply been of a different brand I would better understand the effort. It feels like this movie didn’t really try. It’s as if the powers that be thought that these characters were so great that they could effectively carry any story and stepping away from the franchise’s bread and butter wouldn’t be much of an issue. Turns out they can’t carry any old plot, particularly this one. Fish out of water tales can be wonderful. They usually focus on one fish trying to gain his/her footing in a new environment. In this case, all of the fish are out of water and we just watch them flop around for an hour and a half.

MY SCORE: 3/10 

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Directed by Don Scardino.
2013. Rated PG-13, 100 minutes.
Jay Mohr
Michael Herbig
Mason Cook
Luke Vanek
David Copperfield

As a kid, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) receives a “magic kit” for a birthday gift and eagerly learns every trick in it as fast as he can. He soon amazes Anton (Buscemi) and the two bond over their love of magic and grow up to be wealthy and world famous magicians. However, after ten years of headlining a Las Vegas show together, things have gotten stale. The passion is no longer there. Worse yet, ticket sales are dwindling as their dated act has been marginalized by a popular, and possibly psychotic, street magician named Steve Gray (Carrey). Think Criss Angel mixed with David Blaine. After a stunt to reclaim their relevance goes horribly wrong, Bert and Anton break up. Anton travels the world doing humanitarian work. Sorta. We focus on Bert who is not only out of work, but also broke and trying to figure out how to get back in the game.

Steve Carell is the absolute perfect person to play Burt Wonderstone. He embodies the character to such a degree we totally buy into this guy’s plight. He manages this while simultaneously ensuring we don’t really like him that much. There is no denying that Burt is a class A jerk. However, we always understand him to be a guy who has lost his way. This is what keeps us invested in the movie. We want to see if our hero can find himself again.

Burt’s quest is greatly enhanced by the surrounding characters. Most notable are Jane (Wilde) and Steve Gray. They function as the angel and devil on Burt’s shoulders. Wilde is solid as a love interest and really isn’t asked to do much, but does ground Burt. Jim Carrey more than makes up for her as Burt’s big competition. He plays Gray as a totally unhinged parody of “modern” magic. Not to be outdone, Alan Alda shines as the yoda-like Rance Holloway. No, he is nothing like the master jedi in demeanor or personality, but his status in this world is similar. Alda plays it with his trademarked gruffness. Somehow, he is simultaneously dismissive and caring. This makes him lovable. As Burt’s partner-in-magic, Buscemi is much tamer than usual which serves the movie well. The same could be said for the late James Gandolfini.

None of this would matter if the movie were not funny. Personally, I laughed quite a bit. A good deal of the jokes are double entendres. Others are pop culture references. Those dealing with tricks performed by Steve Gray are disgusting. Even the people in the movie recognize this. That self-awareness adds humor to them so they work. As a matter of fact, the movie is aware of all of its own absurdity. This knowledge of self adds an all-encompassing layer of sarcasm to the proceedings. In any event, most things are at least worthy of a snicker. This helps things move smoothly.

That it moves so fluidly is a huge plus in favor of The Great Burt Wonderstone. It knows that it is shallow and light and doesn’t pretend to be anything different. As long as you don’t go searching for something deeper, you will have an enjoyable time.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pointless Lists: Top 10 Portrayals of Real Women

In my last post I reviewed the 2002 film Frida (here) which is a biopic about the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I gushed about how amazing Salma Hayek was in the title role. This got me to thinking about a number of other great performances of real women that have graced our screens. Of course, my next thought was where does Hayek’s rank, if at all. This is no definitive list as it is only based on movies I have seen. Still, these are my…

Top 10 Portrayals of Real Women

Honorable Mentions: 
(alphabetically by actress’ last name)
Hope Davis as Joyce Pekar in American Splendor
Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde
Mariel Hemingway as Dorothy Stratten in Star ‘80
Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker in The Josephine Baker Story

10. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen
As the iconic monarch Helen Mirren brings tremendous grace and dignity to the screen. Watching her really feels like we are looking at Queen Elizabeth II wrestle with the idea of how to address her nation about the passing of Princess Diana whom she is known have her differences with. Mirren was also outstanding as Alma Reville, the wife of The Master of Suspense in 2012’s largely lackluster Hitchcock.

9. Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe
My Week with Marilyn
Williams captures Marilyn’s fragility and the manner in which she wields her sexuality as the only weapon she feels comfortable using. It’s remarkable work that threatens to reduce Monroe to a caricature but manages enough humanity to make her a sympathetic figure. (Review)

8. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher
The Iron Lady
As usual, Meryl Streep keeps us engaged. She again demonstrates her ability to get lost within the character and draw out both their despair and their dignity. Like a number of others on this list, she also breathed life into another historic figure. In her case, she was delightful as culinary legend Julia Child in 2009’s Julie & Julia. (The Iron Lady Review)

7. Cathy Moriarty as Vicki La Motta
Raging Bull
Moriarty quite literally came from nowhere to earn an Oscar nomination for playing the wife of boxing great Jake La Motta opposite Robert De Niro. It was a fiery performance nearly as raw and visceral as her iconic co-star.

6. Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla
Lopez is simply phenomenal as the Mexican-American singer who achieved superstar status in Mexico and appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough in the United States before being gunned down by the president of her fan club. She brings an abundance of energy to her role and makes us love her. This is still her best work.

5. Reese Witherspoon as June Carter
Walk the Line
It takes a tough woman to handle The Man in Black. In Walk the Line, Witherspoon gives us that plus a whole lot more. She was ridiculous feisty and perfect all the way through. By the way, give her extra kudos for doing all of her own singing.

4. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo
Salma Hayek is an unstoppable force of nature. She emanates an irresistible flame that torches the screen. Aided by a prominent unibrow, Hayek is simply impossible to look away from. It is a magnificent performance starting with the very first time we see her.

3. Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena
Boys Don’t Cry
Swank’s role is, in my mind, the second most challenging on this list. After all, she’s playing a woman who isn’t sure she was really meant to be one. Swank does a masterful job making us feel empathy for a person whose actions eventually cause pain in others. Ten years later, Swank would also play famed aviator Amelia Earhart. (Review)

2. Angela Bassett as Tina Turner
What’s Love Got to Do with It
Right before our eyes, Angela Bassett morphs from being a shy country girl from Nutbush, Tennessee to one of the most iconic women in the history of American music who also happens to be desperately trying to figure out how not to be a punching bag for the husband that made her a star. It’s a powerhouse performance if ever there was one and I will go to my grave saying Bassett was robbed of the Oscar for Best Actress in 1993. In a quieter role just one year earlier, she was also excellent as Betty Shabazz, the wife of slain Civil Rights leader Malcolm X.

1. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
The one role on this list more inherently challenging than Swank’s in Boys Don’t Cry is Theron’s, here. Physically, she literally transformed herself. Always the glamorous sort with classic Hollywood beauty, she was just about unrecognizable. For the role, she gained thirty pounds and shaved her eyebrows. And that’s before all the makeup and prosthetics were applied to her. But that was only the beginning. She still had to sell us on the idea that she was a serial killer. Theron certainly managed to do just that with a flat-out disturbing performance.

I’m sure I have missed one or a dozen. Let me know some of your faves.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Directed by Julie Taymor.
2002. Rated R, 123 minutes.
Valeria Golino
Diego Luna
Mía Maestro
Saffron Burrows

The life and times of real life Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (Hayek). We meet her as a young woman spying on an extra-marital affair by Diego Rivera (Molina), her country’s most famous artist. A short while later, Frida is badly injured when the trolley she is riding in has an accident. Doctors tell her she may never walk again. Of course she does, and it indeed affects her the rest of her life, but this isn’t the story. The story actually begins with her discovering her passion and ability for painting while confined to her bed. Soon, she seeks the counsel of none other than Rivera whom, if you couldn’t tell, is as renowned for his womanizing as he is for his artwork. The two embark on a tumultuous lifelong love affair.

In the titular role, Salma Hayek is an unstoppable force of nature. She emanates an irresistible flame that torches the screen. Aided by a prominent unibrow, Hayek is simply impossible to look away from. It is a magnificent performance starting with the very first time we see her. Since one great turn deserves another, what Hayek accomplishes is certainly complemented, and might not be possible, without the work of Alfred Molina as Rivera. He is essentially the perfect trampoline for her to bounce off. Seemingly everything she does is in reaction to him, even when he is not in the scene. To his credit, Molina doesn’t wither in her storms. He plays Diego as a large man, both literally and figuratively, with enormous pride and appetites. This isn’t a guy who curls up fetally when his woman is on a tirade. He constantly reminds her, and us, that she knew who he was right from the start.

Along the way, director Julie Taymor adds some very nice touches that are nods to artists in general, and these two in particular. At times, characters themselves fade in or out of a painting. Other times, Frida’s work literally comes to life. On a few occasions, even less conventional things happen. It’s a wonderful way of adding layers to the film without endless exposition. Showing is more powerful than telling. The film does a great deal of showing this way and manages to do so without subtracting from the idea that we are watching a movie about real people.

One area where the movie doesn’t do enough showing or telling is in regards to how she came to be so important to the Mexican people. We’re told often how good her work is, but just piles up in a back room of her house. Diego often lets well connected people give it a look. Eventually, this lands her a gig in Paris. Next thing we know she’s suddenly an icon in her native land. We never see any growth in her status. We are just told it is.

Even if the movie could have done a better job at explaining the public side of her life, it so thoroughly and zestfully goes over the private side, we can’t help being enthralled. Here is a woman with so much passion it rubs off on everyone around her, including us in the audience. We lover her regardless of whether or not we are into art or agree with her politics. This is the towering achievement of Frida.

Friday, January 10, 2014

2 Guns

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
2013. Rated R, 109 minutes.
Greg Sproles

We meet Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) Reservoir Dogs style, sitting in a diner having a fun conversation and planning a bank robbery. They also go to see Mexican Cartel boss Papi Greco (Olmos) in order to make an exchange of fake passports for cocaine. That doesn’t go quite as planned. Quickly, we find out that Bobby is not who he seems. He is a DEA agent and all of this is part of his plan to take down Papi. In his grand scheme, Stig is just collateral damage. He is to be arrested after the bank robbery. In reality, the robbery goes off without a hitch, because Bobby’s people fail to show. Additionally, what was supposed to be three million dollars, at most, turns out to be forty-three million. $43.125 million, to be exact. And everyone is trying to get their hands on it. Then, there is the little matter of Stig’s actual identity. Or who anyone is, for that matter. Basically, everyone trying to kill everyone else over this money ensues.

2 Guns hastily becomes one of those movies where all the good guys are dirtier than the bad guys, providing no safe haven for our heroes. The tougher task for the viewer is figuring out who isn’t crooked. The various angles from which the characters approach things plays out in elaborate fashion. Every few minutes gives us a new reveal which sends the movie careening in another direction. This is interesting for a while, but gets to be a bit much.

On the plus side, the movie recognizes where its strength lies. It is within the personas of our two leads. Denzel does Denzel and Wahlberg does Wahlberg. Turns out, the two have great chemistry. Together, they are just fun to watch. We laugh often at their exchanges and wonder why it has taken so long for them to work together. Because of them, as I am sure it was intended, the whole thing has a Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys vibe that works really well. Regardless of the plot’s machinations, we can enjoy watching two guys who appear to be having a blast.

The other major strength of 2 Guns is something true to the title. Between all the cheeky banter of the good guys and sinister posturing by everyone else we get lots of action. Things go boom real good and at fairly regular intervals. The best sequence, in my opinion, actually features our heroes squaring off against one another via car chase. Somehow this includes fisticuffs between them while both vehicles are moving. Please do not try this at home.

When all is said and done, 2 Guns is a fun movie that rides its two stars to whatever success it enjoys. We are spared their life stories in favor of the chatter that entertains us pretty well. As mentioned, this chatter is aided by the action. It all works to mask its over-populated and convoluted story and does a good job. If ever a movie could breeze by on charm and personality, this is it.