4/21/2015

BELATED REVIEW OF UNFRIENDED

2015 rating: *
Credit must be given once again to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT above all the PARANORMAL flicks for actually inventing the frenzied "documented on video as it occurs" premise, but UNFRIENDED goes a step further, or perhaps backwards, as we experience a five person visual chat (on Skype, or something) turning downright deadly when a girl who, a year after committing suicide from cyber bullying, possibly returns as a random user. Here's when an annoying teenage gathering morphs into an annoying teenage body count horror.

Similar Artwork
Maybe WARGAMES was another inspiration since most of the film has an inevitably lethal game being played as the “killer” posts limited-time truth or die questions wherein the group must turn on each other to remain breathing…

Problem is, we don’t know these kids enough to care if they screw each other around or not… Revenge is the key element, yet there’s no reason to suffer through 90 frantic minutes of it without a worthy, palpable antagonist. Meanwhile, an attempt to make the process seem ultra realistic has a mouse-cursor scrolling throughout the computer screen, seeking random information as well as typed private messages – stuff we do every single day and shouldn't have to pay to watch, for so long, between the "good parts." 

4/19/2015

JAMES FRANCO & JONAH HILL GET SERIOUS IN TRUE STORY

2015 rating: **1/2
Paraphrasing Truman Capote, who studied, befriended and wrote a groundbreaking novel concerning death row inmate Perry Smith titled IN COLD BLOOD… Capote felt as if he were Perry’s brother: both grew up in the same house, and while he went out the proverbial front door, Perry exited the back...

James Franco
Not much difference when Jonah Hill’s real life journalist Michael Finkel puts his own notes beside accused killer Christopher Longo’s "recent" scrawls, pointing out the similarity in style… There’s something, perhaps irony or excitement, that makes writers yearn to connect with murderers… Norman Mailer tops that list… Or perhaps it’s that their subject’s TRUE STORY has the potential for a great book… And books usually become movies wherein fame and money follow suit…

As a New York Times journalist specializing in helping the little guy, Finkel desperately needed a comeback after being caught cheating facts on a story about Africa… His name was poison in the writing community, and Longo, played by James Franco, literally used Finkel’s name when captured in Mexico… Turns out the accused, charged with murdering his wife and children, was a fan of the maligned journalist's work…

Jonah Hill
And like the aforementioned CAPOTE, the writer needs to put the story into book form as both polar opposites use each other in the process: one gets the scoop, the other receives lessons in becoming a writer. 

As intriguing as it sounds, there’s not much here other than a few talking head scenes between author and convict, bonding together as mind games occur in such a subtle way, their joined synergy isn’t as captivating as Longo obviously was to Finkel, and vice versa. Which doesn’t mean the performances aren’t decent: Jonah Hill gets even more intense than his WOLF OF WALL STREET nomination, especially effective when he calls Longo’s bluff; while Franco, hinting at sinister creepiness, has the potential to stretch outside the box, yet he never really does. And by far the biggest non-fiction irony is saved for last: The flawed writer was fired from The New York Times while the convicted murderer provided sporadic articles to the same paper. Talk about scruples!

4/18/2015

GROUCHY GROWNUP REVIEW OF THE LONGEST RIDE

year: 2015 rating: **
Not a dry eye in the house, or on screen… The female audience sniffling as the characters are, like THE NOTEBOOK and all things Nicholas Sparks, getting drenched in perpetual rain…

Not that THE LONGEST RIDE doesn't also include "plenty of sunshine" – after all, one cannot ride a bull on muddy soil. And here our leading young man doesn’t speak much: Enter Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott, as Luke Collins, a bull rider who yearns to be number one. He meets a vulnerable and initially reluctant, soon-to-be city girl, Sophia, an art student played by Britt Robertson. Thus a friendship ensues that’s not much different than the inevitable lustful romance that follows: both are extremely attractive so what’s to lose? Yet the real plot evolves after the young couple saves an old man from a car accident (in the rain, no less): savoring a box of letters revealing a backstory more important than their dull, one-dimensional mainline: A recovering, narrating Alan Alda, in younger form, is smitten with a strong-willed Jewish girl who appreciates art; something he and the audience will take for granite till the twist finale, proving (once again) how money cures everything in cinema...

Well love is involved too, and despite the barrage of soap operatic clichés there’s a genuine (if rushed) heartfelt longing in the 1940’s b-story that leaves enough residual for the modern couple's romance to stretch (just a tad) beyond Tearjerker 101.

4/17/2015

KEVIN JAMES RETURNS IN PAUL BLART: MALL COP 2

year: 2015 rating: *
The first PAUL BLART: MALL COP starred the underdog of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison ensemble, who have more perpetually connected projects than Judd Apatow. That being KING OF QUEENS actor Kevin James as an anal, unappreciated mall security cop playing strictly by the rules and getting absolutely nowhere in life… And surprisingly enough, the dark horse project made tons of money at the box office.

It’s tough getting a handle on James’ particular comedic niche, especially in the BLART films. He’s kind of lovable and completely unlucky, mumbling words that are supposed to mean something important only to apologize for the attempt at heroism or depth, right after. Too nice for sarcasm and practically glued to a stand-up scooter, he plays up the Happy Fat Guy routine with energetic gusto, and can really move and shake: like Chris Farley and, going back even further, John Belushi and, for the really obscure pop culture fanatics, Fred Rerun Berry!

So now, Blart travels from his New Jersey gig to Las Vegas where a convention of other security guards are meeting. The first half deals with really long, awkward bits where Paul attempts simple tasks. From checking into the hotel to opening a candy bar, he takes things slow, meticulous and clumsy... For a little while...

Wherein most comedies wait till the end to get serious enough for the subliminal plot to be resolved, usually through some kind of action sequence, halfway though PAUL BLART 2 the bad guys kidnap his daughter, igniting a frantic hijinx DIE HARD as our obese hero battles a gang of art thieves. And although there are practically no laughs beyond lame physical gags, we’re delivered from that painful set-up, wasting a good (if overused) location and an opportunity to meet more than one pretentious rent-a-cop. In other words, there's a lot more going on this time, and none of it's the least bit funny. So do yourself a favor and check out HERE COMES THE BOOM, a worthy Kevin James vehicle that doesn't try too hard – although trying too hard seems to be his signature style.

4/16/2015

PEAKING AT THE SECOND STAR WARS VII FORCE AWAKENS TRAILER

The second STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS trailer has crept up on us, and it’s much better than the first, highly anticipated and publicized teaser, now beginning with a narration by the son of a very important cast member, and a fantastic image that makes this promotion truly worthwhile…

As a lonely french horn from a reposeful section of John Williams' classic soundtrack plays, we see, on (what's obviously) the familiar planet of Tatooine, the shadowy remnant of an Imperial Cruiser along with a fallen X-Wing, both having plunged into the sandy depths a long, long time ago…

A grainy ghost ship epitomizing George Lucas’s original concept of a “used future,” horrendously abandoned in the slick and glossy prequels: While the Stormtrooper helmets and a few other quick images also seem high-tech reminiscent of those millennial catastrophes...

And it’s hard to figure if the R2 Volley Ball will be the Jar Jar of Droids… The black dude still has major Stormtrooper issues, once again taking off the helmet with a stunned expression of, “Why am I wearing this damn thing?” But since he’s now battling and/or running away from laser-happy villains along with our cute ingénue, it’s not as awkward as before.

Closing once again is the Millennium Falcon chased through the desert by Tie Fighters… Oscar Isaac is having a literal blast piloting an X-Wing… And last and certainly not least, the audience gets what’s truly been anticipated: A glimpse of Han and “Chewie,” the famous smuggler says, now donning what looks like an Indy leather jacket instead of his signature vest: “We’re home!”
A purgatory graveyard of forgotten cinematic greatness
Chewbecca and Han Solo are back, and only one looks older

4/14/2015

BEN STILLER & NAOMI WATTS IN WHILE WE'RE YOUNG

year: 2015 rating: ***
After an excruciating all-night spiritual exercise of literally cleansing the body and soul by using peyote, the next morning Ben Stiller’s struggling New York based documentarian Josh points out to his wife Cornelia, played by Naomi Watts, that the Shaman has a Vespa; reminiscent of Woody Allen’s quip to Shelley Duvall about the Maharishi at Madison Square Garden in ANNIE HALL: “Look, there’s God coming out of the Men's Room.”

Ben Stiller
Clever and strategic for writer/director Noah Baumbach to, from the very beginning, admit his WHILE WE’RE YOUNG is inspired by... some classic play, distracting from the similarity to Allen’s neurotic style including a barrage of self deprecation, navel gazing and an eventual envious competition between one failed and one lucky filmmaker straight from another Woody classic, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Although Adam Driver’s 25-year-old inspiring documentarian, Jamie, is anything but a roaring success…

Especially when he first meets his mentor, Stiller’s 44-year-old Josh, who winds up going through a crash course mid-life crisis ranging from hipster clothing to a brand new appreciation for the pop culture he grew up on (from ROSEMARY’S BABY to THE GOONIES to "Eye of the Tiger" to Carvel Ice Cream) and that this generation knows only from You Tube clips.

The friendship between old and young artist is more interesting than the trite connection of Cornelia and Jamie’s girl Darby, played by Amanda Seyfried, and yet either odd couple hardly wields enough intriguing humor to make YOUNG as inspired as it tries too hard to be. Thankfully for the audience and our put-upon hero, there’s a nice pivotal twist involving Jamie’s integrity as a filmmaker, making Ben Stiller rise above the clichés and finally, actually, need something.

PUTTING FEELERS OUT FOR THE ANT-MAN TRAILER

“Imagine a soldier the size of an insect,” begins the trailer for the next Marvel comic book cinematic adaptation and possible franchise. “The ultimate secret weapon.”

Well if they play their cards right, the potential of Paul Rudd’s casting can go a long way. While impossible for anyone to ever equal Robert Downey Jr’s sarcastic genius of Tony Stark as IRON MAN, Rudd has an established gift of glib that could work wonders. 

Speaking of sarcasm, something occurs in many modern comic book flicks, especially highlighted in trailers – which is getting a tad annoying. In order to adhere to hip millennials or embarrassed mid-lifers, the titular hero has to apologize for the moniker he’s given: “I’m Ant-Man,” says Rudd’s Scott Lang, a thief hired by Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym to literally shrink his sneaky talents. “I know,” he then quips, embarrassed. “It wasn’t my idea.”

Strange why they keep having to qualify superheroes in this fashion. Sure, parts of the trailer looks like a high octane HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, especially when ants are shown. The successful camp of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has provided leeway to have fun with the usual intense, geek-serious genre. And ANT-MAN is no SPIDER-MAN as far as household names go… It all seems a bit silly and farfetched even for this kind of thing, making the original, replaced director, Edgar Wright, an inspired choice to turn an anthill into a mountain of frantic fun and creativity… Sad he had to split.

But it’s a cool enough trailer, and a worthy cast. Douglas will probably go through the motions and they will be good motions since he's a capable actor. Evangeline Lilly looks like a tough enough kick ass ingenue. But with Wright leaving his built-in style and fanbase audience in the wake, it's almost solely up to Rudd and how much he puts himself into the role to make it shine, his own way.

4/12/2015

A BRIEF GLIMPSE INTO A MAD MEN BINGE IN PROGRESS

January Jones as Betty
What’s a better way to punch Political-Correctness square in the nose than to base a show before the PC climate even existed: welcome to the early 1960's. 

In that, the female characters, trapped in a man’s world... especially belonging to Jon Hamm’s ad man extraordinaire Don Draper... are stronger and more capable than most modern female roles in the last twenty years...

Up against, looked down upon and lusted after by an office full of young and middle-aged men clamoring for attention and their piece of the pie, these "gals" on board, including red-haired bombshell Christina Hendricks as super secretary Joan and secretary turned copywriter Peggy Olson, played by Elizabeth Moss, have more power than one would realize... Or maybe control is a better word. To paraphrase that German fella; it only makes 'em stronger.

Pacino in G2
In the midst of a very belated MAD MEN binge, not too much should be revealed here… Only to say that Jon Hamm won't be an Al Pacino of the big screen but, based on the first two seasons, his television Don Draper has the kind of formidable silence Pacino wielded in the first two GODFATHER films: With an expression like he knows what everyone’s thinking, and beyond. 

Jon Hamm as Don Draper
While keeping a poker face around his ambitious, sometimes pretentious, amusing and always entertaining employees, trying to land the next product ranging from coffee to soda pop to clothing to major airlines, Don gets involved in more sideline monkey business than anyone else: taking extended breaks and prolonged lunches equaling the number of cigarettes he smokes in the office (well, not really). Cutting back and forth from the central New York ad agency location to upper class suburbia with a childlike but ultimately resilient housewife Betty, played by January Jones, and then on his surreptitious excursions and escapades as the steely Eisenhower 50's marches into the colorful Kennedy era.

And now, having ventured a quarter into Season 3, the tightly wound mini-series vibe of the first two is somewhat lacking. Feels like watching an actual TV show: the epic scope has narrowed into a much less focused, domesticated aura while the characters are more breezy; their problems far less urgent – a decent sequel to the original incredible 26-hour film. Although, that big party with the John Deere Killdozer did bring things back in gear. So, for what it's worth, MAD MEN is all topnotch fare. And there's a long way to go, "Sweetie... Close the door behind you."  

4/09/2015

AL PACINO STARRING IN DANNY COLLINS

year: 2015 rating: ***
The difference between mainstream and arthouse cinema is in the first, you’re supposed to either like or hate any character upon introduction, and in the latter it should take about half the movie before deciding upon if he or she is worth frowning on, smiling at or applauding over. So DANNY COLLINS is a cross between both: you'll like the title character right off the bat because he’s Al Pacino, but you’re supposed to feel a tad guilty since he’s very flawed and… all that jazz. 

Loosely based on the true story of a musician who received a note from John Lennon that changed his way of thinking, COLLINS has a difficult-to-believe premise: that Al Pacino would not only be taken seriously as a music icon, but he'd be a recognizable legend in that regard. With dated bubblegum ballads liken to a Barry Manilow and the voice of McGruff the Crime Dog, we never really hear our man sing – just long enough to know the music is fluffy enough to not take as seriously as we’re supposed to take a musician who wants to be taken more seriously, like John Lennon, whose long lost letter puts Danny in a belated mid-life crisis: quitting a lucrative tour and holed up in a New Jersey Hilton, he flirts with an age-appropriate woman while patching holes with his estranged (and annoyingly stubborn) blue collar son. That’s it in a nutshell.

With an overindulgence of melodrama ranging from drugs to disease, COLLINS gets a bit too syrupy for its own good. But with nine Lennon songs making up for the lack of any proof that our schlock rock star is legitimate, and a few moments where Pacino provides a speck of that old magic, it’s a decent two-hours spent. Of course don’t expect THE GODFATHER yet be thankful it isn’t JACK AND JILL.  

4/08/2015

RICHARD DONNER DIRECTS MEL GIBSON AS MAVERICK

1994 Grade: B–
When Johnny Depp played THE LONE RANGER, it was basically his endearingly ragged PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN Captain Jack Sparrow in another form. Robert Downey Jr’s smart aleck Sherlock Holmes could very well be IRON MAN Tony Stark roaming through the fog-shrouded Baker Street. And that concept of a popular actor bringing their beloved niche persona from one vehicle to another wasn’t entirely new...

In the course of the 1990’s when Mel Gibson reigned supreme, his LETHAL WEAPON director Richard Donner decided to reboot an old TV series, a concept that, in itself, hadn't snowballed like it would a few years later. And taking over James Garner’s Bret Maverick was Mel himself, acting just as silly and crazy-brave as Detective Riggs, only he’s not suicidal from the onset: the ironic fact we begin with Maverick about to hang himself, well, it wasn't his choice.

Rest in Pace Geoffrey Lewis
Lead villain Alfred Molina has everything against the roguish gambler, and when we cut back days earlier, Maverick is looking forward to and trying to save up for a half million dollar gambling tournament, serving as a plot-horizon throughout the various cons, most of which are completely farfetched and distractingly banal. Especially one concerning Native American actor Graham Greene, fresh from an Oscar nom in DANCES WITH WOLVES, turning in one of the worst performances ever filmed: pretending to be the typical “racist Indian stereotype” from the old black & white movies, he's not funny enough for a parody or genuine enough to be a worthy sidekick. 

The Original
But we’re skipping past Maverick’s two main co-stars: first his ingénue, a resilient tart stealing from every man she meets. Herein, Jodie Foster is the most miscast on board (first choice Meg Ryan would have worked better). The edgy character-actress hasn’t much of a mainstream leading lady persona. Thankfully our wily hero prefers to roam alone, and spends most of the time avoiding her and lawman Marshal Zane Cooper, where the original 50's era MAVERICK James Garner has a piece of the action… somewhat.

Although Garner really sinks his teeth into the only sequence that matters: The river boat tournament led by James Coburn’s Commodore Duvall, harboring a location that's a plush version of the HIGH NOON main street with a neat surge of twists and tricks making up for the banality of the road adventure leading to what (and where) the entire ride is about. And with cameos by character-actors Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Paul L. Smith, the recently departed Geoffrey Lewis, Donner’s former Lois Lane, Margot Kidder and a handful of others including a surprise Danny Glover punchline-appearance, MAVERICK not only caters to the built-in fan-base of the original series, but that cop movie franchise where Mel Gibson was able to steal a show he already had in the bag.

4/07/2015

BETTER CALL SAUL SCRAWL: SEASON ONE FINALE

Episode: 110 MARCO
Slippin’ Jimmy was the nickname for Jimmy McGill in his young wild days. Jimmy who we all knew as Saul Goodman from BREAKING BAD, a now legendary show that had an edgy moment occurring about every ten minutes, or less...

And when the news came out that Walter White’s slimy lawyer would have his own series titled BETTER CALL SAUL – and his tough sidekick Mike was along for the ride – the possibilities were endless. One couldn’t imagine how many exploits Saul could get into and out of, all within the pulpy, pot-boiling, visual page-turner of a template; which this spinoff takes on in a much slower pace than its mile-a-minute predecessor.
Grade: D

The genius of Bob Odenkirk’s acting can serve as a downfall, at times. For example, one scene in this lackluster season finale titled MARCO has Jimmy doing the usual bingo game (the machine sounding strangely like a bong) for his Elder Law clients. The performance, as Jimmy slowly breaks down while reading the numbers, is, as usual, sublime – problem is the scene drags on way too long.

So when Jimmy returns back home to Chicago and reunites with the episode’s tubby title character, becoming a barroom/alleyway con artist once again, thanks to farfetched ruses and a handsome montage there’s a lot to take in… it's just not very interesting. A trip down memory lane is fine – only we never experienced his shady past long enough for this odyssey to mean to the audience what it supposedly means to Jimmy. Which isn't much. He's happier when the magnet of fate pulls him back home, where good news awaits. We all know, though, the future never remains bright for our perpetually unlucky hero. And thankfully, the way things turned out, Slippin' Jimmy has been put to rest, because he pales to Jimmy the Lawyer. Who pales to Saul Goodman. 

4/06/2015

HELEN MIRREN & RYAN REYNOLDS IN WOMAN IN GOLD

year: 2015 rating: ***
Based on a true story, WOMAN IN GOLD is named after a family-owned painting taken by the Nazis right at the goose-stomping heels of World War II, and in Adolf Hitler’s origin country, Austria…

The piece itself looks somewhat tacky. What’s universal is the concept of a historic yet personal right being wronged, something GOLD handles with breezy precision despite trying too hard to make both leads a bickering odd couple that eventually, and predictably, connect.

Titular Artwork
Helen Mirren’s Maria Altmann, a surviving Jew whose aunt was the painting's subject, and Ryan Reynolds as young American lawyer Randol Schoenberg, struggle to get along during filler moments bridging a globe-spanning court battle ending up in Washington DC. Meanwhile, flashbacks showing the young Maria, played by a fitfully vulnerable yet equally determined Tatiana Maslany, provide a few suspenseful scenes: one in particular involving a foot chase throughout the overtaken city, where, years later, Mirren's Altmann feels very uneasy, and for good reason.

Sometimes too catered for mainstream audience reactions, other times genuinely thoughtful and always lightly entertaining, GOLD shines more in the past than present. Which doesn’t mean our two leads aren’t capable. Mirren is always good, and wields an endearingly stubborn persona to ultimately counter-balance a more subtle Reynolds, ultimately proving himself worthy in a role that takes the entire film to deliver.

4/05/2015

SHOWTIME PILOT OF HAPPYISH RECAST WITH STEVE COOGAN

2015 Grade: B+
Difficult to separate the ghost of Philip Seymour Hoffman from HAPPYISH since he had filmed the Showtime pilot before his death, but as a complaining, pontificating, neurotic Steve Coogan fills the late actor’s shoes, it’s now like imagining Chris Farley voicing SHREK.

It's all Coogan's ride, other than the fact the usually thin British comic actor gained some contrived Kevin Spacey in the first half of AMERICAN BEAUTY weight, and his foreign background, mentioned while questioning President Thomas Jefferson’s pursuit of Happiness: thus connecting to the title and the show – the frantic Woody Allenesque pursuit into not becoming a typical cookie-cutter smiley-face.

The pilot episode, SNEAK PREVIEW, is just that: an extremely quick glimpse into the just-turned-44 Thom Payne’s existence as an ad man… And he points out how it’s nothing glamorous like MAD MEN.

The best moment has Bradley Whitford, playing the kind of weenie he's covered since REVENGE OF THE NERDS 2 and SCENT OF A WOMAN, mentioning that the people who admit they’re sell outs (himself) and those who deny being one (Payne) are all in the same boat... so just live with it! He's an antagonist, sure, but like JoBeth William's conservative husband in THE BIG CHILL (Richard), he makes complete sense.

Meanwhile, home life scenes with Payne and his kid, and his wife and his friends, border on contrived and intellectually cliche and that’s not such a bad thing – the main character doesn’t seem comfortable in his own comfortable shoes, going through the motions of everyday life, and therein lies a premise that’s more basic and mellow than one would imagine within a potentially edgy mainline. No big belly laughs here; only subtle smiles upon key observations: like who would follow a laxative on Twitter? Mentally stalked by more successfully artistic authors and philosophers, Payne knows he can do better and delve much deeper... the guilty yuppie concept never dies. So if the success of a pilot episode relies on wanting to see more, then HAPPYISH worked just fine.

4/02/2015

VIN DIESEL & PAUL WALKER IN FURIOUS 7

2015 rating: ***1/2
Sad irony how Paul Walker died, riding shotgun in a really fast car, when the 7th and most daring and outrageous FAST AND THE FURIOUS titled FURIOUS 7 is all about cars involved in extremely dangerous stunts, from falling out of airplanes to leaping from building to building to building, and the story keeps rolling… and then some… without a single hitch.

What 7 is to the entire franchise can be compared to MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, and not only because there’s a sequence taking place in the Arab Emirates. It's a straight-out action flick while the cars, and the characters… really one in the same… are but instruments being carried by instead of literally driving the plot, handed-off onto various agendas: first to rescue a hacker and then to find the main bad guy, played by Jason Statham, related to the previous villain and seeking hardcore revenge.

Paul Walker
The biggest question is: How will the late Paul Walker bow out of the series? Upon his death it was reported he had only been involved with half the shooting. Must have been a worthy half since his Brian O’Conner is always right there with Vin Diesel's Dominic Toretto and the rest of the gang including the ingénue with partial amnesia and two polar opposites constantly at odds. But the closeness Brian's gained with his wife and son may provide a clue to his eventual fate.

So for fans of the series, this will definitely be a worthy climax (although obviously not a conclusion) – and for those who don’t care much for the hip-hop MTV style testosterone of the previous ventures (like yours truly), there’s a lot to enjoy in a franchise that’s become so unbelievably farfetched, it all seems completely believable, somehow. 

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