2 ago. 2015

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (5/10): Overly sentimental and preachy with a conveniently forced climax

“Stay pure of heart and you will see the signs. Follow the signs, and you will uncover your destiny.”

And with that opening title card we basically get what this film is all about: a 30 year old man living in his mother’s basement awaiting for a specific sign to discover his destiny while he sits back in his couch smoking weed. This was the Duplass brothers fourth feature film working together as directors, although with a much bigger budget this time around which enabled them to hire well known actors. Their screenplay has its sweet and funny moments, but you can’t help but feel the familiarity of the story. For a film centering on looking for signs and following them, this movie does so in a very predictable and obvious way with stereotypical characters. Jeff, Who Lives at Home also manages to wrap things up in a neat and convenient way so I really didn’t find anything about the story very unique or interesting. As a fan of Shyamalan’s Signs I did enjoy the references Jeff makes towards it and how it basically dictates his own personal life, but I was expecting some surprises along the way.

In the very first scene of the movie we are introduced to Jeff (Jason Segel) and in only a few seconds we know exactly what kind of person he is. He is a man child who hasn’t quite figured out what to do with his life, but he doesn’t seem too worried about it either. He is waiting for the signs to point him to his destiny. When he receives a phone call of someone asking for Kevin he immediately takes it as a sign that he should search for a Kevin instead of just discarding it as a misdialed call. A few minutes later he receives another call, but this time it’s his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who is calling him from her office and asking him to go to Home Depot to fix something in the house. Sharon is worried about Jeff, and she wants him to get on track with his life. She asks his brother, Pat (Ed Helms), to encourage him, but he is going through some marital problems with his wife Linda (Judy Greer). Pat isn’t the ideal husband and he doesn’t even consider asking Linda for advice when it comes to big decisions such as buying a brand new Porsche. This of course brings friction to their relationship. On his way to the Home Depot, Jeff sees a young teen wearing a jersey with the name Kevin on the back, so of course he takes it as a sign and follows him. These signs inadvertently lead him to the exact place where his brother Pat is and while the two are catching up they discover Linda is with another man. Could this be the reason why Jeff has been led to his brother? To help him discover if his wife is cheating on him? From this point on a series of casualties ensue.

The film relies on the strong chemistry between Segel and Helms, two very talented and funny actors. They both play characters they’re very familiar and comfortable playing, Segel the childish and naive slacker son, Helms the uptight and career driven husband. The highlight of the film is watching these two great actors interact with each other despite all the schmaltz. The subplot revolving around Susan Sarandon’s character and her secret admirer didn’t really tie up to the story and only seemed to serve as a filler for the feature length time. Judy Greer is also comfortable in her role here, but she doesn’t really get much to do here other than be the victim who her husband never really listens to. Despite some scattered funny moments which can be mostly attributed to the talented cast, the ending felt way too sappy and convenient and ultimately hindered my appreciation of the film. It simply tried to force the underlying message of the movie of destiny and it only added to the overall sentimentality of the film. The cinematography was also distracting at times with too many quick zoom-ins on the characters faces.

31 jul. 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (7/10): The franchise continues to be very much alive.

“Every one of the attacks you attributed to the Syndicate, the IMF was there.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since the first time Tom Cruise played IMF agent Ethan Hunt, and after this fifth installment of the franchise there is no sign of him stoping any time soon. Like good wine, these movies seem to get better the older Cruise gets. The weakest link in the series is by far the first sequel directed by John Woo, but J.J. Abrams managed to reinvigorate the franchise in the third Mission Impossible film with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s memorable performance as the main villain and the introduction of Simon Pegg’s character who brought the much needed comic relief. Brad Bird continued what Abrams started with Ghost Protocol and introduced Jeremy Renner to this world, and now it was up to Christopher McQuarrie to continue the hot streak. McQuarrie had previously worked with Cruise in Jack Reacher, a film I seem to have enjoyed more than everybody else. In Rogue Nation he followed what the previous directors brought to the series and continued to build on it with a similar tone during the action sequences that once again took us around the globe. There is a fantastic opening action scene involving Cruise jumping on a plane while it’s about to take off, then it is followed by another wonderful sequence at a Vienna Opera house, and it is topped by another one involving a heist in Morocco that ends with a spectacular motorcycle chase. If there is anything negative I can say about Rogue Nation is that the film opens in such a spectacular fashion and maintains such a steady pace that by the time the bike sequence in Morocco ends the film seems to overstay its welcome. There was just no other way to top those action sequences so the final thirty minutes were a bit of a letdown with the predictable twists that any fan of the franchise could see coming. Other than that this was a fantastic ride which proves once again what a star Tom Cruise really is. 

Upon receiving instructions for his latest mission, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), discovers that it has been compromised by a rogue organization that he refers to as the Syndicate. He is captured by its leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). While held captive, right before being tortured a mysterious woman known as Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) helps him escape. Ilsa claims to be a British Intelligence officer who has gone deep undercover to infiltrate Lane’s Syndicate and win his trust. Meanwhile, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), is forced to testify in front of the US Chairmen committee in response to the agency’s latest dealings which haven’t been accounted for. CIA director, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), wants IMF disbanded because he believes Hunt is a liability. The committee decides in Hunley’s favor convinced that the Syndicate doesn’t exist and that Hunt is behind it all. IMF is disbanded so Brandt and Benji (Simon Pegg) are forced to work for the CIA and bring Hunt in. So Ethan is left on his own to try to stop this dangerous organization, but he always finds a way to get his crew back together and accomplish the impossible. Ving Rhames is also back for a fifth time as Luther Stickell as he and Cruise are the only characters who’ve been here from the start. 

The screenplay for Rogue Nation which was written by McQuarrie himself hits pretty much the same beats as the previous two films in the franchise. It has a similar tone and it’s surprising how similar these films are to each other considering they’ve been directed by different directors. You know what direction these spy stories are heading, but the ride is what you are here for. Rogue Nation opens with a spectacular first half and ends in a weaker note, but it is still one great experience thanks to those spectacular action sequences and Cruise’s charm. McQuarrie also manages to do two things right: first of all making Sean Harris’s Solomon Lane a threatening villain and second giving Rebecca Ferguson a strong female character with some great choreographed fighting scenes. These two additions provide the franchise with the freshness it needed to go along with the familiarity of what the rest of the cast always brings. Besides the three action sequences that stood out for me in this film, there is a cool moment where Ethan receives instructions for his latest assignment that is perhaps the best in the franchise. Similarly to what many action films are doing now appealing to the past and our sense of nostalgia, Ethan receives his instructions in a vintage record store in what was one of the most memorable scenes in the film and a great way to introduce the villain of the story. The early escape scene is also quite thrilling, but it was spoiled by the trailers. Rogue Nation proves once again that this franchise is very much alive and that Tom Cruise isn’t getting slower despite his age. It doesn't hurt either that the series has one of the best action scores of any franchise.      

Unfriended (6/10): A fresh spin on the familiar found footage horror genre.

“Online, your memories live forever... but so do your mistakes.”

In a time when most teens spend hours staring at their smartphones or in front of a computer screen, Unfriended introduces us to a pretty interesting concept: a film that takes place entirely in a computer screen through a chat room. That minimalist found- footage premise is the most interesting thing about this low budget horror film and one of the reasons why it’s worth checking out. That is the only unique thing about Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended since its story is rather predictable and it’s not hard to guess what the outcome will be. It hits pretty much every beat in the familiar haunted story genre and the characters aren’t likable at all. Inspired by the real life suicides of Amanda Todd and Audri Pott, Unfriended has a heavy anti cyber-bullying message, but there is not much more to it. A girl is videotaped in a very compromising position and somehow that video went viral and as a result she began to receive hateful messages like “kill urself.” The bullying led to her suicide which was also caught on camera.

The entire film unfolds over a computer screen and the first image we see is a viral video of a teen named Laura shooting herself in front of a crowd. Apparently it is the anniversary of her death. We immediately find out that it’s Blaire’s (Shelley Hennig) computer that we are seeing when she receives a Skype video call from her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Storm). The two begin to have an intimate conversation when all of a sudden they are interrupted by a group chat with some of their High School friends: Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki). They soon realize that there is a sixth guest listening to their conversations, but they believe it is just a glitch. As they are chatting, Blaire begins receiving some bizarre texts from Laura’s Facebook account. By the time Val (Courtney Halverson) joins in on the conversation they begin to realize that this unwanted guest is someone who knows their darkest secrets. The guest, writing under the name of Billie and claiming to be Laura, begins threatening them and forcing them to play games. This guest threatens their lives if any of them abandons the chat or losses the game. It soon becomes apparent that each one of these kids had something to do with Laura’s death, and someone wants them to pay the price.

At first the entire focus on one computer screen seemed too limited and restricted, but eventually the suspense and the story began to pull me in. If only the characters were a bit more likable I would’ve enjoyed this more, but it was still interesting enough to keep me watching. I wasn’t familiar with the cast, but they did deliver convincing performances.  The film managed to hold my attention without doing too much so I’d say it was effective in a way. It does become a bit repetitive and overstays its welcome. The horror scenes aren’t all that great either, but the plot does have you wondering for a moment what each one of the kids was responsible for. Unfriended uses a fresh gimmick and it tries to exploit a familiar and relevant issue in today’s society about bullying, but that is about it so many might leave the film unsatisfied with what it was trying to accomplish.      

30 jul. 2015

Wet Hot American Summer (5/10): More like Wet Hot Absurd Mess

“Hey, let's all promise that in ten years from today, we'll meet again, and we'll see what kind of people we've blossomed into.”

Its been almost 15 years since David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer was released and I honestly had never heard of it. This was Wain’s first feature film but it bombed at the box office and wasn’t warmly received by critics either. Somehow over time it has become a cult teen comedy thanks to its wonderful cast, and now Netflix is about to release a comedy series with the same cast in the form of a prequel. The series will revolve around the first day of Summer camp in Camp Firewood in 1981, while this film focuses on the last day. The comedy plays out as a satire of camp films from the 80’s and it honestly feels like a movie made in that period. The actors wear tight shirts, colorful short shorts, and long white tube socks with eighties hair styles. The look and style of the film itself is worth a couple of laughs and Wain’s love and homage for these campy films transcends the screen. Unfortunately I didn’t find much else worth recommending other than a couple of hilarious scenes, but as a whole I found the absurdist humor a bit lame. This is a very different comedy than what we are used to seeing and it’s hard to point out any other film that has a similar style. That is why I believe it has become such a beloved cult comedy. Wet Hot American Summer is a parody in which you have no idea what direction the story is going to go and it constantly shifts its tone and introduces plenty of twists. Even though this film is basically a satire of camp films it doesn’t miss the opportunity at gleefully playing with familiar genre conventions such as teen rom-coms and sport cliches. These individual scenes work extremely well but they don’t make up a whole movie. That is why despite not being a fan of this film, I’m looking forward to the Netflix series because in shorter segments this could work well and the characters are worth revisiting.

On the final day of Summer Camp there is still so much things to look forward to such as the camp director, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), falling for an astrophysics professor played by David Hyde Pierce. There is also a romantic triangle formed between camp counselors Coop (Michael Showalter), Katie (Marguerite Moreau), and Andy (Paul Rudd). Katie is worried about Coop not having hooked up with anyone during the Summer and she promises to help him find someone special for him before the end of the day. What she doesn’t know is that Coop is in love with her, but she is currently dating Andy. Andy however doesn’t seem to care too much for her since he cheats on her with Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks). Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) are focused on directing a musical for the talent show later that night, while Gail (Molly Shannon) is struggling to teach her arts and crafts class because her husband has recently left her. Victor (Ken Marino) and Neil (Joe Lo Truglio) are in charge of taking another group of kids water rafting, but Victor is eager to get back to camp so he can make out with Abby (Marisa Ryan). This is just a small sample of the many activities that are taking place on this final day with plenty of surprises and twists along the way, including an innocent escape into the city by a group of counselors that degenerates into something crazy and unexpected.

David Wain’s most successful film to date is probably Role Models, but Wet Hot American Summer has been growing on people ever since. Paul Rudd has collaborated with Wain in all his films and here he plays a cocky and egocentric character to perfection. There isn’t one main character, although if I was forced to pick one I’d say it is Michael Showalter’s Coop which isn’t really a surprise considering Michael co-wrote the screenplay with Wain. There are also some funny scenes involving the chef played by Christopher Meloni who is still suffering post traumatic stress disorder from the Vietnam War. The cast is fantastic here but there are so many characters that they don’t actually get much screen time. Bradley Cooper is now an Oscar nominated actor, but this was his first film so he doesn’t get much screen time. Marguerite Moreau was fantastic as well and it’s a shame she hasn’t really had much success after this. I recognized her from The Mighty Ducks franchise and it was fun to see her in a different role like this. The performances from this recognizable cast is probably the highlight of the film, but there are also several individual scenes that stand out such as the trip to the city and a hilarious motorcycle chase sequence.           

29 jul. 2015

Conviction (6/10): An inspirational tale about the devotion a sister has for her brother

“I'm sorry you wasted your life on this. Your brother killed that woman.”

Inspired by a remarkable true story in which a sister practically gives up almost two decades of her life in order to save her brother who has been convicted of murder and has been sentenced to life in prison. It’s an amazing and inspirational story, but unfortunately the film suffers from being overly manipulative at times and too conventional. Conviction has Oscar bait written all over it, and despite having a heavy clichéd script the excellent cast elevate the film and make it worth recommending. Many people remember Tony Goldwyn from his villainous role in Ghost, but he has also directed a couple of rom-coms. This is the first time he directs a fully dramatic film and it suffers from being overly sentimental at times (the score is way too melodramatic). 

The film is saved however by its excellent cast. Hillary Swank is amazing as this working mother who decides to put her personal aspirations aside to help save her imprisoned brother. In order to do so she decides to finish High School and go through law school. Not an easy task considering Betty Anne has two children to maintain. Sam Rockwell plays Betty’s brother, Kenny, who was arrested in 1983 for a brutal murder. Betty and Kenny had been very close since they were young because their mother was constantly working so we get several flashbacks of them spending their childhood days breaking into nearby homes and dreaming of a better life. This always got Kenny into trouble with the local authorities. Years later, when a woman was found brutally murdered in a trailer near to Kenny’s place he was the first suspect. After some incriminating evidence against him he is sentenced and that is when her loving sister decides to dedicate her life to free him. The degree of devotion she has for her brother is unprecedented and truly inspirational.

The question one asks throughout the film is how far Betty is willing to go to help her brother considering it has led her to lose her husband and any attempt to have a life of her own. It has even affected her relationship with her two children, played by Owen Campbell and Conor Donovan, who feel neglected at times. There isn’t one second in which she questions what she is doing and takes it more as a responsibility and a debt she has for her brother. Swank gives a powerful performance and her devotion to Kenny is completely believable. Rockwell is also great as Kenny in both the prison scenes and in some of the flashback scenes where we see some of his wild behavior. He plays his character extremely well, up to the point where you are never really sure wether or not this guy is guilty for the crime he has committed. The only person who seems convinced about his innocence is his sister and that made the film all the more compelling. 

Minnie Driver plays Abra Rice, one of the law students who befriends Betty and helps her on the case. Her relationship with Betty could’ve been explored a bit better, but the entire focus of the film was on Betty’s devotion and effort to try to free her brother so she is only introduced as this friend who helped with the case. The family dynamics between Betty and her children and between her and her ex husband is barely touched upon because the filmmaker’s devotion was focused on the relationship between the two siblings. It didn’t hurt that they were played by Rockwell and Swank, two extremely talented actors. I’m a huge fan of Sam Rockwell and I could personally watch anything he does so I might be a bit biased but their relationship in this film is what sold this movie. Melissa Leo has some small scenes in the film, but her presence is always welcomed. The film has its flaws and at times the pacing of the film does begin to drag and feel repetitive, but the performances more than make up for it at the end.   

28 jul. 2015

Woman in Gold (4/10): A dull take on an interesting subject matter.

“If life is a race, you beat me to the finish. But if life is a boxing match, I'm the last one standing.”

Based on true events, Woman in Gold is one of those films that ended up being far less interesting than the actual story it was trying to tell. If The Monuments Men failed to appeal to a wide audience I wonder what the producers of this film were thinking. It too centers on stolen artwork during the Second World War, but it takes us through the litigation process that Maria Altmann went through to try to regain what rightfully belonged to her family. At least The Monuments Men focused on a group of men trying to save famous artwork from being destroyed with a touch of comedy, but Woman in Gold is more of a dragged out drama with forced sentimentality. The general premise might be similar to that film, but in a way it also can be compared to Philomena considering the lead characters are played by an unlikely duo. In The Woman in Gold the pairing is between Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds is Randy Schoenberg, a young attorney who gets involved with a case that Maria Altmann (Mirren) presents him with. She’s a Jewish refugee with a wealthy Austrian background. When the Nazis occupied Austria she had to watch how all these valuable art pieces were taken away from her family by these soldiers. Among them was one of Gustav Klimt’s famous paintings, a portrait of her aunt known as Woman in Gold. Now almost have a century later she asks Randy to represent her and help her get the painting back which is held at an Austrian Museum. When Randy discovers the painting is worth more than one hundred million dollars, he doesn’t hesitate to help her and so their unlikely relationship takes off as does their difficult task. 

The chemistry between Reynolds and Mirren is solid, but I wouldn’t say it comes close to being as charming as Coogan and Dench were in Philomena. The pacing in this film was tedious and I found most of the dramatic moments manipulative and overly sentimental. As good as an actress Mirren is, she wasn’t given strong material to work with. She makes some witty and sassy remarks during a couple of confrontation scenes with some of the Austrian diplomats, but that is about it. Reynolds gets the look and the style of the 90’s spot on, but there wasn’t much to his character. I felt like this film worked basically as a timeline where we are introduced to important events, but we never really got to know these characters or how they related with one another. Fortunately the timeline wasn’t told in chronological order, we get several flashbacks to when Maria was a child and to when she was a young woman fleeing from the Nazi officials, so at least we get some parallel action scenes. I’d say that those flashbacks were the most entertaining part of the movie. Tatiana Maslany played the young Maria Altmann and she delivers the best performance in the film. There is a great scene where she and her husband are fleeing from the officials, but that was one of the only few scenes where I felt engaged with the film. The story is a fascinating one, but one that I would’ve been better off reading about considering the film only seemed interested in telling the story rather than letting us get to know the characters. 

Despite having a talented supporting cast, the screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell fails to give these characters any life. Take Katie Holmes for instance, who plays Randy’s wife. She is given nothing to do except play the role of the wife without any dimension whatsoever to her character. The film fails to explore these dynamics between the characters because it’s only interested in presenting the facts. Daniel Bruhl is also underused as he only seems to be in the film to remind Randy and Maria what a difficult task they are going to have despite the help he provides for them. The same can be said about the rest of the supporting cast including Max Irons, Charles Dance, and Jonathan Pryce. The film tries so hard to be about something important (mostly about being able to reconcile with the past) but Simon Curtis’s film is unfortunately so dull that it fails to do so. It doesn’t bring anything new to the familiar David versus Goliath tale and despite taking so much time to remind us what a difficult task this is going to be, the resolution seemed way too simple at the end. There are far better films that tackle the subject matter in a less manipulative way.      

27 jul. 2015

Paper Towns (6/10): A change of tone from Green's The Fault in Our Stars

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

Thanks to the worldwide success of The Fault in Our Stars which was adapted from John Green’s 2012 novel, the producers have decided to adapt some of his earlier work as well. Teaming up with the same screenwriters, Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, casting Nat Wolff again (although this time as the lead), and hiring a new director, Jake Schreier (Robot and Frank), they had everything in place and ready to adapt Green’s 2008 novel, Paper Towns, with the hopes of banking on the author’s current fanbase. Although Paper Towns is similarly aimed towards a teen audience, it is very different from The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a coming of age story that includes some mystery elements and ends up turning into a road trip movie. So despite following certain generic conventions in the teen genre it does manage to mix things up a bit and that was something I enjoyed. Everything else about Paper Towns including its characters are pretty familiar.  

The film begins as a typical boy becomes infatuated with girl story, but it soon develops into much more than that. In Paper Towns this boy is Quentin (Nat Wolff) and the girl next door he falls for is Margo (Cara Delevinge). They shared a friendly past, the two hung out together as kids, but when they became older Margo’s adventurous and wild behavior didn’t go along with Quentin’s much risk free and calm demeanor. During their senior year of High School, Margo was on her way to being the prom queen, while he was just the kids that went unnoticed. His two best friends, Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), were aware of his obsession over her, but he never acted upon it. One night, Margo climbs through his window using her ninja skills as she used to when they were kids, and asks him to join her on one last mission. Apparently her boyfriend has been cheating on her with her best friend and she wants to get some payback. She asks him to drive her around on his mother’s minivan and after the successful mission Quentin admits never having felt so much fun before. The next day, hopeful to resume his new found friendship with Margo he discovers that she has gone missing, but she has left some clues behind for him. With the help of Radar and Ben the three begin to try to solve the mystery of Margo’s disappearance. Lacey (Halston Sage), one of Margo’s closest friends, also decides to join the kids in trying to find her since they seem to be the only ones worried about her.  

Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter are definitely the two screenwriters you want to hire for adapting teen based novels. This is perhaps their weakest effort, but it still stands above most other teen rom-coms. 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now were both very well written screenplays with interesting characters and relationships, while The Fault in Our Stars banked on the the strong chemistry between Woodley and Elgort. Wolff in that film delivered most of the comedic scenes, but here he downplays his character and lets Abrams deliver most of the funny quirky scenes. Delevinge embodies her wild character pretty well, but considering she is missing throughout most of the movie she doesn’t get much screen time. That is what makes Paper Towns such a rare teen romance because the girl is missing throughout most of the story and the focus is on Quentin’s quest to find her.  It’s more about idealizing the other person and discovering that in reality they are simply a person. The mystery and the road trip is what makes this film stand out from other films in the genre  and it makes the ride all that more enjoyable, but when compared to other coming of age films it probably ranks in the middle. The film shares some similarities with The Girl Next Door, which was a film I enjoyed a lot more probably because I was younger when I saw it. Paper Towns is a film for teens and if you’re not in that target audience you might find it a bit difficult to enjoy. There is one scene in the movie that reminded me of this when during a cameo all the teen girls in the audience sighed at the sight of him.       

25 jul. 2015

Pixels (4/10): Recycled Sandler humor with a bit of action adventure in the mix.

“I believe that some alien life-force, has sent real life video games, to attack us.”

Chris Columbus, the man who directed the first two Harry Potter films as well as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Adventures of Babysitting, and many more family friendly films that I actually enjoyed, now directs Adam Sandler in Pixels, a film that aims to appeal to those adults that grew up in the early 80’s playing classic arcade games, but unfortunately it only ends up being entertaining for younger audiences due to its cliche jokes and formulaic structure. I must confess that I once was a huge Adam Sandler fan and watched everything he did from his Billy Madison days up to Jack and Jill in 2011 (with Chuck and Larry being the only exception, which somehow I miraculously missed). As a young teen I found his movies hilarious, but as I grew older his schtick got repetitive and I somehow decided to give up on him. I hadn’t seen another film starring Sandler since Jack and Jill, but decided to give this one a try for nostalgic sake and because Columbus’s films usually appealed to me despite his films being overly sentimental at times. It didn’t hurt that Peter Dinklage was also starring in this film since I love what he does (his short scene in Elf is one of my favorites and he is awesome in Game of Thrones). All these factors managed to convince me to watch Pixels despite my low expectations and I honestly got what I was expecting. It’s as if Adam Sandler directs all his comedies because they are so similar in tone despite never having directed, but I guess the directors always let him improvise and he ends up making the same jokes in every movie. The only positive feedback I’ll give Pixels is that it did manage to engage with the younger audiences; my ten year old brother had a blast, so it might make some money at the box office.    

Based on Patrick Jean’s own screenplay for a short film he made in 2010 (which seems far more appealing to me), this feature film opens in the 80’s with a group of kids who grew up loving arcade games. Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) is so good at predicting these game patterns that he signs up to compete in an arcade national championship. His closest friend, Cooper (Jared Riley), is there cheering for him and he truly believes Brenner is destined for great things in life. During the tournament they also befriend a young boy named Ludlow (Jacob Shinder) who is obsessed with a cyber game character named Lady Lisa (Ashley Benson). Unfortunately, Brenner is defeated by Eddie (Andrew Bambridge), a loud mouthed arcade lover who goes by the nickname of fire blaster. The film then jumps to the present where we discover Brenner (Adam Sandler) hasn’t really accomplished anything in life. He installs technical equipment for a company called Nerd. Cooper (Kevin James) however has become the President of the nation. Nerd sends Brenner to Violet’s (Michelle Monaghan) home to install the latest gadgets for her young son Matty (Matt Lintz). Brenner and Violet have a small moment, but when he tries to lean in and kiss her things get ugly between them. Right after that awkward moment Brenner receives a call from Cooper about an alien attack on Earth (and so does Violet who is then revealed to be a Lieutenant). Apparently these aliens have attacked using the arcade game format created through pixels, and the only way to defeat them is similar to the way they played the game. Brenner enlists the help of Ludlow (Josh Gad) and his archenemy Eddie (Peter Dinklage) to try to defeat these alien invaders and save the Earth.

As ridiculous or appealing as the premise sounds (depending on wether or not you’re nostalgic over these classic arcade games) the greatest problem with Pixels is that its incredibly hard to believe some of the relationships between these characters. The first time Adam Sandler and Michelle Monaghan’s characters meet, the dialogue between them is so phony and forced that it makes it impossible to relate to. That scene was probably one of the worst I’ve seen all year. Kevin James, Josh Gad, and Brian Cox can be funny people, but they play the same characters they’ve been playing in recent years. Dinklage’s Fire Blaster seems to be either hit or miss for some people, and I actually found his character to be the funniest in the movie. No one here is actually trying hard and the film is proof of that, but audiences that are simply looking to escape for a couple of hours might find it amusing. I still don’t know what Jane Krakowski was doing in this film since her character isn’t given anything to do despite her comedic talents. She should’ve been used more. Pixels is recycled Sandler material that will only appeal to hardcore 80’s nostalgic gamers and young kids who enjoy pretty much any adventure.   

24 jul. 2015

Manglehorn (5/10): Pacino and Hunter are great together, but it isn't enough to save the weak script.

"Oh Franny. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you last night. But what am I gonna do, sometimes I get crazy."

Manglehorn is director David Gordon Green's latest feature film; a character study of a locksmith who lives isolated and in regret over a past love that he let get away. I was a fan of the only two other Green films I had seen: Joe and Pineapple Express, and Manglehorn is more similar in style to Joe in its naturalistic approach, but it also combines it with poetic imagery. The relationship dynamics didn't work as well as they did in Joe, but Al Pacino delivers a solid and surprisingly restrained performance in the lead role that almost makes the film worth recommending. However there are several issues with the screenplay and with some of the characters introduced in the story. The film doesn't do a good job at exploring Manglehorn's relationship with his son or with a former baseball player who he coached in High School. These characters are introduced in the film to act as a filler, but they didn't add anything to the story which is at its best when it focuses on Al Pacino and his relationship with either his cat or the bank teller played by Holly Hunter. The scenes the two shared together were the highlight of the film which made me wish it would've centered exclusively around that relationship and ignored the scenes with his son and the quirky character played by Harmony Korine who overacted every scene he was in. The scenes with Korine felt surreal at times and the visual style during those scenes seemed to come right out from one of his movies. Those scenes never connected with me and took me out of the story. The screenplay is a bit overloaded with symbolic imagery and it is a bit heavy-handed. 

Al Pacino delivers an understated performance as Manglehorn which is very rare coming from him. He's an eccentric man who can't seem to let go of his past. He spends his free time writing to his long lost love, and every time he sends the letters they are returned unopened. He also has a poor relationship with his successful son, Jacob (Chris Messina), who he rarely talks to. Jacob has a beautiful daughter, Kylie (Skylar Gasper), who Manglehorn likes to spend time with, but that is about their only common interest. One night while gambling in a small local town casino he runs into Gary (Harmony Korine), one of his former baseball players, who seems to admire his coach. He is loud mouthed and Manglehorn doesn't seem too pleased to listen to his admiration for him. He'd like to go on with his life unnoticed and in the tranquility of his home with his cat who he enjoys talking to (I kept on expecting the cat to talk back to him like in The Voices with Ryan Reynolds). His other weekly routine is going to the bank on Fridays and starting a friendly conversation with Dawn (Holly Hunter), the sweet bank teller. The two form a nice bond and begin hanging out, but Manglehorn is so obsessed by his past love that he shuts everyone else out at times. His and Dawn's relationship is the heart of the film and everything else is left undeveloped.

It is a shame that Al Pacino and Holly Hunter weren't given stronger material to work here because the two shined together on screen. The depressing tone of the film was a bit of a downer, but it does end on a stronger note thanks in most part because they finally focus on the relationship between the two of them. I think that Al Pacino's strong screen presence also made the film more bearable because at times the screenplay did push my patience with some of the strange scenes involving Korine's character. This is a film about regret and trying to move on in life and when it focuses on those issues it is at its best thanks to Pacino's commanding presence. This is by far my least favorite Green film of the three I've seen now, but I've heard his comedy efforts after Pineapple Express weren't very good so I've stayed away from Your Highness and The Sitter. I am still looking forward to catching up with Prince Avalanche, which seems pretty much like a film I'd enjoy. There are elements in Manglehorn that I enjoyed, especially the final act and the scenes between Pacino and Hunter, but there were too many flaws I couldn't ignore.   

23 jul. 2015

An Honest Liar (7/10): The legacy of James "The Amazing" Randi

“Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they're going to fool you, and then they do it.”

A great title for a film that revolves around a magician who is devoted to uncovering the lies told by faith healers and psychics around the globe. The subject of this documentary is James “The Amazing” Randi, who was once a brilliant magician and escape artist, but has now decided to put his talents into use to unmask those people (the con artists) who are making money out of false claims and trickery. The documentary begins with an interview where Randi explains how a magician’s job is to tell its audience he or she is going to fool them and make them wonder how he or she pulled it off. That is a very different thing from a person who claims to have special psychic powers or a special communication with God and use those abilities to lie and deceive people. Randi’s passion for magic and his humanity led him to use his abilities to show others how they are being deceived without ever revealing the trick. The way he went about uncovering these people is what makes this documentary compelling as he creates fictional characters or personas to fool audiences, the media, and even scientists before revealing to them that it was all a scam and proving therefor how easy it is to deceive others when you have abilities to perform these tricks.  Randi himself is a charismatic man and we see it through some old TV archives in interviews with Johnny Carson, Larry King, and Regis Philbin. 

The documentary is pretty standard as it goes back and forth between interviews and TV footage, but what makes it stand out is the story it is telling which I wasn’t familiar with. I was so completely unaware of what this film was about that I didn’t even know it was a documentary until it began. In the beginning we are introduced to this great escape artist who marveled audiences with his stunning tricks. He explains he dropped out of High School at the age of 17 to join a circus and that is where his adventures began. Once we are introduced to the man himself, the documentary begins to explore some of the psychics he began to unmask. The first thing Randi decided to do was get his good friend Jose Alvarez to pose as a psychic who is traveling to Australia. They invent several media clips about his accomplishments in the US and once he arrives in Australia he immediately fools everyone because the media never even bothered to check the reliability of the sources they were providing them with. After exposing how easy it is to fool the media, he continues to do so with the scientists as well. There is one great clip about how they unmasked a faith healer named Peter Popoff by proving that his wife was telling him what to say through an earpiece from some prayer requests cards that they had asked the people to fill out prior to the service. 

Despite the great amount of footage shown of how Randi unmasked these psychics they still continued to fool a lot of people. Randi couldn’t understand why so many people failed to acknowledge that they were being fooled and clung on to their beliefs. Then as we were approaching the end of the documentary we were exposed to a surprising and ironic twist that allowed us to view this in a different light. Without giving away any spoilers, Randi himself was being deceived and after the deception he too decided to cling on to his love and accept it. Perhaps the lesson we might learn here as ironic as it sounds is that we choose to see what we want to see and accept the deceptions we want to accept. The twist kind of took everyone by surprise so it wasn’t explored all that much, but it still seemed to make an interesting point to what was being said. Rand’s personal life wasn’t as interesting as his work, but the end justifies why it was introduced in the first place. This was a good watch but it didn’t do anything groundbreaking for the genre.