Monday, July 27, 2015

Pixels review

I know that Pixels is a bad movie. I know that I should pan this movie to death. Pixels is cliched, poorly structured and paced, and is filled with some truly lackluster performances. It is utterly tone deaf and it shifts so much that it's clear that Adam Sandler and director Chris Columbus really didn't know what to go for with this concept. But despite all of the juvenile humor, the cheesy references, the over-the-top turns by Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage, and the overall nature of the product, I truly enjoyed much of Pixels. Maybe something got into me as I watched Sandler's latest critical disaster, but I was consistently surprised by how much fun I was having with this film. Pixels, for me, works as a guilty pleasure film- I shook my head every few minutes as the film moved along, even though each action scene and silly comedic beat brought me right back in. I can't possibly tell you that you're in for a good piece of cinema but for a quick bit of fun, Pixels is a pretty solid choice.

The idea behind Pixels is brilliant- essentially, America sent a bunch of videos of humans playing classic video games into space, some aliens found it, took it as a war message and decided to challenge us for our planet using lifelike versions of those classic games. As setups for summer blockbusters go, that's pretty good. Throw in Adam Sandler, Kevin James as the President of the United States (let that sink in for a second) and an atrociously goofy screenplay, and that premise gets worn down a little bit. In the film, Sandler and James play Sam Brenner and Cooper, two gaming buddies in the 1980s who went down separate career paths- Brenner pretty much became a member of the Best Buy Geek Squad (although it's called the Nerd Brigade or something like that in the movie), while Cooper became the President of the United States.

In the 80s, Ludlow (Josh Gad) and Eddie (Peter Dinklage) were also video game champs, and rivals of Brenner. By the time the present day rolls around, Ludlow is living with his mother while Eddie is in prison. But all four of them will be reunited when Galaga attacks an Air Force base, prompting President Cooper to recruit the team of experts to lead the counter-attack against the aliens, who lead an assault with Pac-Man, Centipede and Space Invaders, along with a bevy of other classic characters. If Brenner and the squad lose too many times, it's game over for them- and for the whole planet.

Pixels is not Wreck-It Ralph. It's not Ghostbusters either, which many have cited as its biggest influence. But in its own weird, sophomoric way, it simply works as a classic piece of summer blockbuster movie-making. Admittedly, it feels more like a movie that would have fit best in the 90s, during the heyday of both Sandler and high-concept alien invasion movies, but it will suffice fine now in the era of 1980s nostalgia. However, it's not all fun and games- Gad, Dinklage and poor Michelle Monaghan have never been worse, the story is so loosely and flimsily constructed that the film seems on the verge of collapse every minute and ultimately, Pixels suffers from a blunt lack of cleverness that seems to seep into every Sandler production. And yet the movie sets every scene with this stupid, overly idiotic glee that I couldn't help but laugh. I feel like I'm going out of my way to justify it, but it's undeniable- I enjoyed Pixels quite a bit.

The charm of Pixels is that it is pure, 100% dumb fun. There's nothing too preachy or deep about it. This is just a movie about middle-aged guys fighting video game characters with the help of the US army. Going in, you have to know that the humor will be lowbrow. I mean, this is a movie where one of the running jokes is that a certain character wants to have a three-way with Martha Stewart and Serena Williams. If you buy a ticket for Pixels, that's the movie you're getting into. It's not all about the nostalgia or the video games. Sandler manages to inject his typical brand of humor into this flick, and that does make the movie worse off sometimes.

The good thing with Pixels is that for every bad joke that made me groan and roll my eyes, there was a fun and inventive action scene that was a blast of well-shot cinematic energy. Whether it's a duel through New York City with Pac-Man, a field battle with Centipede or a major city battle between humans and video game characters, the action scenes in this movie have an entertainment value that simply can't be denied. Despite the occasionally idiotic script. Chris Columbus is still an adept director who knows how to stage a fun action scene, even when the movie has't properly set up the stakes of the scene.

Beyond the undeniable fun factor, I know that Pixels isn't necessarily a good film. The characters are lazily written, the stakes are never properly set and the action scenes, while fun, have zero weight or gravity. The acting is mostly bad- Sandler and James are their usual selves, but Gad and Dinklage surprised me with their awfulness. These are two gifted and smart performers who are left to work with pathetic roles where they either speak with dumb accents (Dinklage) or spout off embarrassingly nonsensical dialogue (Gad). It's pretty sad to watch and the talents of these two men were definitely wasted in this film.

It's a shame, honestly, when I go back and think about how great Pixels could have been in the hands of another group of people. Ghostbusters is a classic because Ivan Reitman knew what to do with the concept and used the actors well. Wreck-It Ralph is a great homage to video games because the filmmakers set up a convincing world where video game characters lived and breathed like actual people. Pixels isn't that good because it's just a series of fun, but inconsequential action scenes with some Sandler jokes thrown in for good measure. With some script re-tooling, I have a feeling that we would be having a very different conversation in regards to this film.

Although I think Pixels didn't really deserve the critical drubbing it received, I perfectly understand why people despised this film. Pixels isn't complex or interesting- just set your expectations low and you'll probably enjoy yourself. I know that is the faintest of faint praise, but it's simply true. Sandler and James aren't exactly aiming for the sky here and for what it is, Pixels is decent. Simultaneously one of the best and one of the most incredibly awful movies of the summer, Pixels falls into the area of cinematic McDonald's- you know that it's terrible for you, you cry at how horrible it is, but somehow, you just can't stop eating it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.6/10)

Image Credits: MovieWeb, Wired, Huffington Post, IGN

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Movie Guru's Top Fifteen Most Anticipated Films for the Rest of 2015

We've reached the halfway point in 2015, and it has been a pretty phenomenal year so far. 2015 got off to a slow start, but once May started, the movies got better and it has been a blast ever since. Before I go into my list of the 15 movies that I'm looking forward to for July- December of this year, I want to take a look back at the list that I made last year at the beginning of the year. On December 31 of last year, I published my Top 25 most anticipated films for 2015, along with 10 honorable mentions. I have seen 9 of the 35 movies published on that list already, so it's obvious that there's still a long way to go. But I think that we should still look at what has passed by already, so here are the grades for my anticipated 2015 movies that I've gotten a chance to see already.

Honorable Mentions

Chappie- C
Jupiter Ascending- B-
Entourage- B-

Top 25

#22- Blackhat- N/A
#18- Tomorrowland- B-
#13- Kingsman: The Secret Service- A
#11- Inside Out- A+
#10- Jurassic World- A
#6- Avengers: Age of Ultron- A
#5- Furious 7- B+
#4- Mad Max: Fury Road- A

So obviously, I've mostly enjoyed the titles that I was looking forward to going into 2015. There haven't been any outright busts yet. Before the end of the year, I'm sure there will be a flick or two that I will be profoundly disappointed by, but it hasn't happened yet. The rest of 2015 promises to be incredibly exciting, and I can't wait to see what we have in store. From incredible IMAX experiences, to violent crime drams, to the return of everybody's favorite spy, and a trip back to the galaxy far, far away, the latter half of 2015 is going to be an exciting adventure. Here are the 15 movies that I'm looking forward to the most, along with some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

SNOWDEN- Directed by Oliver Stone, this one has a lot of promise and with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead, you never know what'll happen. Stone has lost favor with audiences and critics with his last few pictures so let's hope that he gets back on track with this one.  DECEMBER 25

STEVE JOBS- This movie went through years of development hell, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale and David Fincher all attached at some point. After moving from Columbia to Universal, director Danny Boyle and Michael Fassbender are finally getting the ball rolling on this one, with the hopes that the film will be an Oscar frontrunner. The first teaser was atmospheric and intriguing and I'm definitely interested to see what this one has to offer. OCTOBER 9

AMERICAN ULTRA- A movie that was not on my radar at all for a long time, American Ultra could be a blast of late summer stoner fun. It's hitting in August, where these kinds of movies typically thrive, and it has a great cast and one amazing trailer that completely sold me on the film. This is one of my most anticipated for the rest of summer. AUGUST 21

THE NIGHT BEFORE- If you've seen Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jonathan Levine's 50/50, you know why I'm excited for this film. With Levine in the director's chair, Rogen has proven that he can work with serious emotional content and do his usual funny bits at the same time. And with a Christmas setting, a cast that includes Lizzy Caplan (who appeared with Rogen in The Interview), Anthony Mackie and Jillian Bell, The Night Before should be a fun and thematically engaging film. NOVEMBER 25

THE WALK- The first trailer for this one really blew me away, and I thought that the second trailer did a good job of highlighting the emotional stakes of the film. This will be an IMAX experience to behold and despite the trepidation over Joseph Gordon-Levitt's accent, I know he'll do a solid job. And also- it's directed by Robert Zemeckis, one of the finest filmmakers in Hollywood. Look for plenty of awards attention for this one. OCTOBER 9

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON- Although I was more excited for this film earlier in the year, I can't wait to see what looks like an impressive biopic. Clocking in at 147 minutes, this should be a pretty comprehensive look at NWA, the most influential rap group in history and with two impressive trailers, I think we're looking at a pretty big box office hit as well. AUGUST 14

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.- My excitement started to slip for Guy Ritchie's latest spy flick, but Warner Bros. has been screening it in advance for many critics and that is always a good sign. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer appear to be having a lot of fun, and it's good to see Alicia Vikander in another big flick after Ex Machina. U.N.C.L.E. might not reach the heights of Kingsman or Spy, but it should be good fun nonetheless. AUGUST 14

Now, for my fifteen most anticipated films.

15. CREED- November 25

I have to admit- after seeing Southpaw, I'm approaching Creed with a bit more trepidation. As I stated in my review, there's not much more that can be done with the boxing movie and I don't know if this Rocky spin-off will be any different. But even if it does end up being another cliched sports drama, Warner Bros. has done one heck of a job selling it so far. The first trailer played off both the grittiness of director Ryan Coogler's vision and the nostalgia of seeing Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Creed train with Rocky Balboa. With Coogler and Jordan in tow, my excitement is high and I'm hoping for a strong franchise starter with this one.

14. CRIMSON PEAK- October 16

After Pacific Rim sent Guillermo del Toro into full-on Transformers mode, he's back to his horror roots with Crimson Peak. The trailers have sold the creepiness factor of this haunted house tale and I'm interested to see what del Toro does with his first American horror film. I recently watched Pan's Labyrinth for the first time, and it only made me more excited to see this film. del Toro has a mastery over mood and tone that is unmatched by most directors and with a strong cast, Crimson Peak should be one of 2015's finest horror films.

13. THE MARTIAN- October 2

Anybody who isn't a little scared about The Martian is a crazy person. Ridley Scott is still one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood, but after Prometheus (not as bad as you remember, but still a bit wild), The Counselor and Exodus (one of the worst movies in recent memory), there's good reason to worry that Scott may have botched The Martian. But after the first trailer, some of my worries have been put to rest. Although it is a bit ironic that Matt Damon is doing another sci-fi movie right after Interstellar (is that still considered a spoiler? Spoiler alert? Whatever), The Martian looks unique and thrilling, like Cast Away with a bigger ensemble. This could be a disaster, but I'm staying optimistic.


I'm seeing this one tomorrow night and I couldn't be more excited. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol is one of the best action films of the 21st Century and early word on the street is that Tom Cruise and company have created another fine action film with Rogue Nation. Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner are back and the team behind Cruise's Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow wrote and directed the film. If that, combined with the spectacular stunt work and great reviews isn't enough to get you excited, nothing will.

11. SICARIO- September 18 (limited), September 25 (wide)

Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners is a brilliant procedural- smart, chilling and thought provoking in equal measure. After a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Villeneuve is returning to theaters with Sicario, a brutal cartel drama. Buzz out of Cannes was good, and the lead trifecta of Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro should provide for some good intensity. Mix that with the Roger Deakins cinematography and the empty desert locales, and you have a movie that should find that blend of thrills and smarts that Prisoners did so, so well.

10. THE END OF THE TOUR- July 31

One of the few Sundance films that has yet to debut in theaters, The End of the Tour looks like the kind of film that will appeal directly to me. Someone recently compared this film to Almost Famous and if that comparison is even slightly accurate, I will absolutely love The End of the Tour. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg look to be a great pair, and considering how much I adored James Ponsoldt's last movie, The Spectacular Now, I can't see a scenario where I don't fall for this one.

9. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA- December 11

Ron Howard's Rush was one of the finest biopics in recent years, and In the Heart of the Sea should be one of the major Oscar players this year. Originally set to debut in March, I was immediately hooked by the two trailers for the Chris Hemsworth nautical drama, which hinted at a grand, sweeping and intense epic. In the Heart of the Sea should be a great theatrical experience and I'm pumped for another Hemworth-Howard joint production.

8. BRIDGE OF SPIES- October 16

The first Steven Spielberg flick in nearly three years, Bridge of Spies looks to be another fine collaboration between Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The first trailer was taut and suspenseful and I'm unfamiliar with the historical event that the film is based on, which makes this one even more interesting. Lincoln was a bit too talky for my tastes, but Bridge of Spies will hopefully combine that film's smarts with the intensity of a film like Saving Private Ryan. This is definitely shaping up to be another Spielberg classic.

7. JOY- December 25

After the one-two punch of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (two of my favorite films), David O. Russell is re-teaming with Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper for Joy, loosely based of the story of Miracle Mop creator and businesswoman Joy Mangano. Judging by the logline for Joy, Russell's latest will be a multi-generational story and it even sounds a little bit like The Godfather, only without the guns and the shootings and stuff. Russell is one of my favorite directors, the first teaser was great and Lawrence and Cooper are a dynamite screen pairing- I literally could not be more excited for this film.

6. THE REVENANT- December 25 (limited), January 8 (wide)

The Revenant looks insane. It looks absolutely, completely bonkers. And everything about it sounds absolutely, completely bonkers. Academy Award winner Alejandro G. Inarritu (who won last year for Birdman) pretty much took Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and an entire film crew out into the Vancouver wilderness and shot this epic survival tale. Reshoots, budget restrictions, labor complaints and various problems ensued, but when the first trailer debuted, all worries were silenced. This looks majestic and after Birdman, it appears to be a complete 180 for Inarritu. We might not see this one until the last minute, but The Revenant should be on every film lover's must-see list.

5. LEGEND- October 2

As if Mad Max: Fury Road wasn't enough, Tom Hardy is continuing to appear in unique films from directors with vision. Before he heads off to the Canadian wilderness in The Revenant, Hardy will appear in Legend, which is already receiving fantastic early buzz. Playing both Reggie and Ronnie Kray, two London-based gangsters who took over the city in the 1950s, Hardy should be able to show some terrific range and the fact that the film is directed by L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland has me even more excited. Ever since the darkly twisted first teaser hit the web, I've been hooked and I can't wait to see what Hardy, Kingsman breakout Taron Egerton and Helgeland have to offer.

4. BLACK MASS- September 18

2015's other gangster drama, Black Mass is debuting at the Venice Film Festival and should be one of the year's biggest Oscar players. Led by a mesmerizing Johnny Depp, Black Mass has benefited from two great trailers and a terrific supporting cast, which features Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon and more. Depp can be kinda erratic with his performances, but this one could get him an Oscar- terrifying, focused and brilliant so far in the teasers. I'm still not sure whether I'm more excited for Black Mass or Legend, but I have a feeling that Black Mass could be a classic for years to come.

3. THE HATEFUL EIGHT- December 25 (70 MM), January 8 (wide)

It's Quentin Tarantino. What more do I have to say? QT is one of the greatest directors on the planet and every time that he debuts a new film, you just know that it's going to be something special. I recently did a marathon of seven of his eight films (I didn't own Death Proof at the time, but I just fixed that) and it's so impressive to see how his style has evolved over time. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are still masterpieces, but with his recent works in the revenge genre, he's only strengthened his energy and filmmaking ability. With many calling The Hateful Eight a return to his Reservoir Dogs roots, only in the Western genre, I can't even imagine how fantastic this film will be.

2. SPECTRE- November 6

Skyfall was the best James Bond film since Goldfinger, and with everyone back, why wouldn't Spectre be just as good or even better? Christoph Waltz is in the mix this time, Mr. White and some of the loose ties from Casino Royale are coming back into the picture, and Sam Mendes is still in the director's chair. Rumors of a ballooning budget and script issues are troubling and the second trailer wasn't quite as perfect as the first teaser, but in all honesty, nothing can dim my excitement for this film. I love James Bond films and Spectre will hopefully be in the upper ranks of the series in regards to quality.


I don't think I've ever been so excited for a movie. That isn't even an overstatement at all. It might actually be an understatement. I'm so incredibly pumped for Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens that I don't even know where to begin. JJ Abrams and co. have shown us so little from this film that we've had to grab onto every little detail that we can find, making for a fun and frustrating journey over the last few months. But what we've seen has been oh-so-promising. The Force Awakens looks like a return to the Star Wars franchise that we know and love, and with a mix of old and new faces, this should be a nostalgia trip that blazes a promising path for a new generation. The cultural event of the year will come on December 18 and I simply cannot wait to open Abrams' mystery box.

Those are my top fifteen most anticipated movies for the rest of the year, along with the honorable mentions. There are some other films that I'm looking forward to, but these are the big ones. I'll be back later this week with reviews of Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation, Pixels and more.

Image Credits: The Guardian, YouTube, Consequence of Sound, Variety, Fox Movies, YouTube, Variety, Huffington Post, Variety, Apple Trailers, Newsday, Plot and Theme, Rama Screen, Consequence of Sound, EW, Movie Pilot, 

Southpaw review

There is a problem with boxing movies that simply can't ever be solved. You see, Hollywood has been churning out boxing movies for years. Some are great (Rocky, Raging Bull), some take you by surprise (The Fighter) and some really, really suck (Grudge Match). But the problem is that Rocky was the ultimate boxing movie in 1976. The underdog story has never been told better than that and I sincerely doubt that any boxing film will ever top that. And Raging Bull already did the whole "tortured, violent man in and outside the ring" story very, very well in 1980. Both films are undisputed classics that will never be topped and that's why Southpaw already starts out in a very tricky situation. Because there's simply nothing fresh here. Besides a bizarre murder twist that the trailers spoiled completely, Southpaw is standard rise, fall and rise again boxing territory. But that doesn't mean the film isn't a modest success. Southpaw thrives off of its filmmaking vitality and the intensely focused performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. It's not a boxing classic by any means- this is a formulaic, straight-forward mid-summer diversion.

For those who haven't seen the trailers for this film, I might try avoiding this synopsis. Because they pretty much spoil the entire movie. Not that you couldn't have seen the whole story coming from a mile away, but it was still frustrating to watch Southpaw and know virtually everything that was about to happen. Essentially, the story is that Billy "The Great" Hope (Gyllenhaal) is one of the greatest fighters in the world, the undisputed champion known best for his violent, fearless style. Despite the beatdowns that he takes in the ring, his personal life is great- he has a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and a young daughter (Oona Laurence) who he very much loves. However, that all comes crashing down when Maureen is shot in a freak altercation between Hope's entourage and the cronies that surround a rival fighter (Miguel Gomez).

So not only does Maureen pass away, Billy also winds up in financial trouble due to......well, the movie never really explains that. It's possible that his manager (played by 50 Cent, ironically bankrupt in real life) was stealing from him but that's never confirmed in the film. Hope begins to display erratic behavior, gets suspended from boxing and ends up having to give up his daughter to Child Protection Services. Billy's at rock bottom and to stage his inevitable comeback during his darkest hours, he calls on Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a local trainer. After that, it's time to bring on the training montage, running scenes, Eminem music and big title fight.

First off, I think I should note that the projection in my theater was absolutely atrocious. I honestly don't know why I didn't ask an employee to fix it, because it was simply awful. Pretty much only the dead center of the screen was clear- the rest was a blur caused by a framing mess-up, if I'm assuming correctly. However, that didn't stop me from both enjoying and despising this movie. Even if you're one of the film's detractors, you have to give it credit for putting together an intense and gritty experience on screen. This isn't the toothless, cartoony hitmen-and-prostitutes tale that The Equalizer was- this is a vicious drama more akin to Training Day than anything else in Fuqua's catalog. But still, there are numerous issues to be had with this film and you really don't have to look too hard to find them.

Logic and plot holes are the biggest areas that Southpaw struggles with. On the drive home from my screening, I talked with my dad (who really didn't like this flick) about the movie quite a bit and some questions started to pop up that I realized could not quite be answered. Just a few examples I'm gonna rattle off real fast. Where did all of Billy's money go? Did 50 Cent steal it? Is Billy just really dumb? Why does he go to Tick Wills? Out of all of the trainers, was Tick really the best? Did he have some sort of past that we didn't understand? Why did the filmmakers feel the need to copy one of the most iconic scenes from Raging Bull? Why is Rita Ora in this movie? Why does Billy's daughter only care about him when he's fighting? Why does Escobar (the rival fighter) hate Billy so much? Or does Billy just not realize that it's trash talk? What is life?

Basically, my point is that there are quite a few logic holes that just don't make much sense at all. But I feel like Fuqua is such a dynamic filmmaker that some of the holes are forgivable. The fight scenes are brutal and visceral- completely unrealistic of course, but well shot. In addition to that, Gyllenhaal's performance is outstanding. He seems to be channeling a mix of Tom Hardy and Eminem (the part was originally written for him) and it makes for a performance that is a sharp contrast from the work he did last year in Nightcrawler. The supporting cast is decent as well, with McAdams and Whitaker each getting their moments to shine.

Can we all just take a moment to recognize that Jake Gyllenhaal is literally one of the best actors on the planet, if not the best? The man has been brilliance on brilliance since Prince of Persia disappointed, turning in great performances in Source Code and End of Watch, as well as masterclass turns in Nightcrawler and Prisoners. He has been stellar for several films straight now, and Southpaw is no different. Bulked up, bloodied and beaten down, his Hope is a strong piece of method acting, even if the character isn't that compelling.

But ultimately, Southpaw's downfall is that it's rather tedious and predictable. Instead of being energized by Billy's rise from the doldrums of life, I just felt indifferent. I liked the final fight and wanted Billy to win, but not because I really liked his character- I just thought that Escobar was a fool who needed his face beaten into a bloody pulp. I think that the predictability of the film made it a little bland after a while, and despite the sure-handed direction of Fuqua, he can't really save how predictable this film is. That doesn't mean that Southpaw isn't well-executed. It just isn't that innovative or interesting.

You can enjoy Southpaw pretty easily for what it is- a formulaic, simple sports drama. Despite the occasionally hard subject matter and excessive swearing, Southpaw goes down pretty smoothly, if a bit slowly. Gyllenhaal is brilliant, but in the end, the script is littered with poor character development, logic holes and a cookie-cutter story that doesn't really reach for something greater. Southpaw could have been better, but I feel like most people will be satisfied with this simple flick.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.4/10)

Image Credits: The Guardian, Huffington Post, Indiewire

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Benicio Del Toro is Disney's pick to play lead villain in 'Star Wars: Episode VIII'

Although we haven't even received our first taste of Disney's new Star Wars universe, Episode VIII is coming up sooner than you think. Rian Johnson's sequel is heading into production pretty soon, and despite how little we know about JJ Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney and Lucasfilm will have to cast some new characters for the eighth chapter in the saga. John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac- the new "Big 3" of the Star Wars universe- are confirmed to be returning for Episode VIII, and now, The Wrap and several other Hollywood trades are reporting that Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro has received an offer to play the main villain in Episode VIII. Joaquin Phoenix was also up for the role, and the trades say that Disney was definitely going after "A-list talent" for this villainous character. Del Toro hasn't been confirmed yet, but considering his previous history with Disney (he appeared in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy), I would be surprised to not see him take the role.

We likely won't know much more than we already do in regards to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but we should be able to pick up some clues thanks to production information from Episode VIII (although I doubt that it'll be much). JJ Abrams seems keen to keep a tight lid on things, but some interesting discussion has already started in the Star Wars community over who Del Toro might be playing and the implications of his casting for Episode VII. For those who haven't fervently obsessed over every Star Wars detail, there are four villains in this new film- Captain Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie), General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The assumption is that Snoke will be an Emperor-esque figure for the rest of the trilogy but with Del Toro's casting, things get a bit more interesting. My bet is that one of those four villains (probably Hux or Phasma) bites the dust in The Force Awakens, leaving a big trifecta for the rest of the series. Hopefully we'll get some more details at D23 (Disney's annual Anaheim convention) next month. Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits on December 18, with Episode VIII debuting on May 26, 2017.

Image Credits: Rolling Stone, Flickering Myth

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ant-Man review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a well-oiled machine meant to churn out a satisfactory, easily digestible product each time. Not that I'm against that- far from it, actually. If you've followed my site over the years, you know that for the most part, I've enjoyed Marvel's output. Guardians of the Galaxy was a blast of pure summer fun, both Avengers installments were magnificent blockbusters, Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man told fantastic origin stories, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is legitimately an action masterpiece. But when the Marvel machine goes off the rails, and the secret ingredients of tone, flavor and energy are left at the factory, we get something like Ant-Man. A movie at war against itself, Ant-Man is one giant bag of mediocrity. It's not a bad film, per say. All of the basic Marvel movie ingredients are there. But it's missing that extra something that elevates bland material to brilliance. Casual fans might embrace the inherent oddball nature of the property, yet Ant-Man still fails to deliver anything memorable.

A new hero in the MCU, Ant-Man's alter ego is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), cat burglar and loving father who has just finished a stint in prison. When he's released, Scott's friends- Luis (Michael Pena), Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian)- try to help him get back on his feet by setting him up with a new heist. Lang is initially resistant, but after his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new cop husband (Bobby Cannavale) refuse to let him visit his daughter until he starts paying child support, Lang succumbs to the offer. After an elaborate break-in, Lang finds a special suit- not the cash and jewels he was expecting. However, it turns out that Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) actually set up the job for Scott. Pym needs Scott to help him prevent Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from using his technology to destroy humanity. He needs him to become the Ant-Man.

Anyone involved with the online film community knows the notorious Hollywood story of Ant-Man. For years, critic and fan favorite Edgar Wright was lobbying to get the project made, but weeks before the film was set to begin production, Wright left the film, citing "creative differences" with Marvel. For a while, it appeared that Anchorman director Adam McKay would take over the project, but the job ended up going to Peyton Reed. Wright and Joe Cornish's original script remained the framework for the film, but McKay and Paul Rudd himself came in to do some re-writes. Ultimately, all of the writers got credit and we have a film that just doesn't work at all.

Now, as an Edgar Wright superfan, it's easy to critique all of the things in the film that definitely wouldn't have happened under Wright's watch. But I'm not going to do that. We can't worry about the film that Wright didn't make- the film on screen must be judged. And unfortunately, that film just isn't very good. I think that one of the fundamental issues here is that we have a Wright screenplay not directed by Wright. The only other time that happened was with The Adventures of Tintin and look how that worked out. What I'm saying is that what Wright puts on the page can really only be directed by him. His writing suits his visual style and nobody else's. That's why some of the jokes in the film that were surely written by Wright fall flat. His sensibilities just don't match up with Reed and McKay's.

Ant-Man isn't a very consequential film to the MCU, which leaves it in a tricky situation. Kevin Feige's master plan of "everything must fit together" just doesn't really work for this film. So, instead of focusing on making an exciting and fun action comedy, Feige and co. throw in a bunch of random Avengers references just to get you pumped for what's coming (references to Spider-Man and the end credits scene that hints at Civil War) or throwback to what has already happened (a long sequence with Falcon and multiple mentions of the battle of Sokovia). Instead of making Ant-Man its own distinct film, the creative team exhausts every possible opportunity to make sure that we recognize that Ant-Man is a Marvel hero, that he's in the Marvel universe, and that he will be in more Marvel films.

Despite all of those mistakes, by far the worst thing about Ant-Man is that it's a visually and thematically generic film. It's a by-the-numbers origin story, just with a guy who shrinks. And it's as dull and uninteresting as superhero films come from a visual standpoint, except that it has some cool effects where a dude shrinks. Literally, beyond the somewhat quirky humor (which is more hit and miss than anything) and the unique effects, there's nothing special about Ant-Man. It's just another MCU origin story with all the right story beats.

I know that a lot of critics have said that Ant-Man has the most heart out of any Marvel film, but I just don't believe that's true. Sure, there are some interesting moments between Scott and his daughter as well as some good scenes between Hank and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). But is it the most heartfelt Marvel film? Not by a longshot. Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America both easily top Ant-Man here, and they feel like they were made by filmmakers who had a vision of what they wanted to do with the story, the setpieces and the characters. Ant-Man is just one long slog, and I never found Scott Lang to be particularly interesting.

The cast isn't bed, led by likable everyman Paul Rudd. Despite the film's issues, Lang could be a good character and I'm definitely not opposed to seeing Ant-Man in more MCU properties like Captain America: Civil War. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly also have their moments, and Corey Stoll does solid work with an underdeveloped character. The supporting cast is led by Michael Pena, whose character has caused much controversy recently. After the initial screenings, Pena was deemed to have stole the show, but today, Heroic Hollywood's Umberto Gonzalez (who is a member of the Latino community) essentially called the character a racist caricature and compared the scenes to a minstrel show. I don't think that the character was made with racist intent, but it is an interesting conversation that should be had in regards to this film.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe will survive Ant-Man and I have no doubt that many more great Marvel films will be made in the future. But after this misfire, I have to wonder if the formula is getting stale. References to a "guy who crawls on walls" are fun, but if I don't care about the story that's on screen, then it's all pointless. Ant-Man feels stale and recycled, and despite some fun moments, there's just not much to be excited about with this one.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Forbes, Movie Pilot, Comic Book, Cinemablend 

Brie Larson to star in 'Kong: Skull Island', Russell Crowe also in talks

Despite this year being completely devoid of any and all surprise announcements, in the past, San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) has commonly been used by the studios as a place to make very big reveals about upcoming releases. At SDCC 2014, Universal and Legendary decided to end their panel with the surprise announcement that Skull Island, a new movie set in the King Kong universe, was in production and set to hit theaters in 2016. That reveal made waves at the time, but the road to filming has been tumultuous ever since. Originally, Attack the Block director Joe Cornish was rumored to be involved with the film, but the gig ended up going to Jordan Vogt-Roberts. After that, the cast was revealed, headlined by Tom Hiddleston, J.K. Simmons and Michael Keaton. That made people a little bit more excited, but unfortunately, Simmons and Keaton recently departed the project. Now, with only Hiddleston, Vogt-Roberts and a March 2017 release date in tow, Legendary has some casting work to do for Skull Island. Thankfully, Universal is getting off to a strong start with a pair of great actors to fill lead roles.

According to Deadline, Short Term 12 and 21 Jump Street star Brie Larson has snagged a major role in Kong: Skull Island (the official title for the film). She will be the female lead of the film alongside the aforementioned Hiddleston. Sources at Deadline and The Wrap also are reporting that Russell Crowe is in talks to join the cast and fill one of the roles left vacant by Keaton and Simmons. However, Mike Fleming at Deadline says that nothing official will come on that front until another draft of the script comes in. Regardless of whether or not Crowe pans out, casting Larson is a great move for Skull Island. Larson has great cred in the indie world thanks to appearances in films like The Spectacular Now, but has also done mainstream work, like The Gambler, Scott Pilgrim and the recently released Trainwreck. I've always enjoyed Larson's performances and I'm excited to see if she can bring some weight to Skull Island, which will debut on March 10, 2017. 

Image Credits: CinemaBlend, Godzilla Wikia

Monday, July 20, 2015

Minions review

If you had told me back in 2010 that Despicable Me would evolve into one of the most popular and enduring franchises in Hollywood, I would have called you crazy. A low budget, slightly obscure animated comedy from an untested studio, Despicable Me was a breath of fresh air. By 2013, the sequel had sent the series to the stratosphere and minion mania was beginning to ensue. Now, the supporting players who always stole the show- those little yellow minions- have their own spin-off film. With millions in box office receipts already, Minions is clearly a hit- but does it match the heart and humor of the first two films? The easy answer there is no. Minions is a film without much depth, and not much in regards to story or character. It's a copy-and-paste spin-off meant to maximize off of the popularity of the minions and it doesn't help that nearly 3/4ths of the movie was shown in the trailer. It has a few moments, but Minions lands with a resounding thud.

I usually don't complain about movies being spoiled in the trailers, but Minions is a prime example. If you've seen the trailer for this movie, you've pretty much seen everything that this movie has to offer. You've heard the jokes, you've seen the story and there aren't many surprises that follow (with the exception of a witty end tag and a clever visual gag). The basic point of Minions is to tell the origin story of how the little yellow things came to be and then show how we got to the start of Despicable Me. Most of the film is dedicated to the first idea, with only a little bit of background for Gru. But essentially, the minions are meant to serve the most evil master on Earth and they've done this since the dinosaur age. Eventually, they set up shop in the Arctic but get bored easily because they have no evil master to serve. 

All of that changes when three minions- Kevin, Stuart and Bob- decide to venture to 1960s New York to find a new master. After a series of misadventures, the minions end up in Orlando for Villain Con, a convention for the most evil supervillains on the planet. After inadvertently winning a contest, the minions end up working for Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and assist her in an epic quest to steal the crown of the Queen of England. 

Minions has some funny moments. There are some inventive action scenes, and the final act of the film is pretty solid too. But the problem is that there's nothing here. Sure, kids will get a kick out of it and adults might be mildly amused at times, but the film lacks heart. It lacks depth. It lacks feeling. It's the worst kind of film- a dull, emotionless studio product that doesn't even try to do anything interesting. Despicable Me 2 kinda had an emotional core, but ever since the original film hit, I've noticed a severe drop in the quality of the films at Illumination Entertainment (the company behind Despicable Me and Minions). Hop, The Lorax and Minions are all empty products created to make money and there's nothing under the surface. 

Character-wise, Minions is a giant pool of nothingness. I can't tell you a single thing about Kevin, Stuart or Bob beyond..........well, that's exactly my point. They're not really characters. They're just there to move the story along. Despicable Me worked because Gru had a character arc. He went from being selfish, villainous and evil to being a good dad who cared about a group of kids. That's good character work. That's heart. Minions has none of that. It's soulless and the human characters aren't better.

Scarlet Overkill is evil. And she wants the crown for the Queen of England because she always wanted it as a kid. And she has a weirdo husband (voiced perfectly by Jon Hamm) who helps her do evil stuff. That's all we know about her character. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney show up as the leaders of a criminal family and they have some amusing moments, but once again, we know absolutely nothing about their characters. Maybe I'm being overly critical in the aftermath of an insightful masterpiece like Inside Out, but Minions is absolutely hollow. 

Technically and visually, Minions is impressively made. The Despicable Me universe is colorful and robust and that has always impressed me. I also loved the soundtrack, which is filled with British references and 60s tracks. Some of the references and jokes are cheap, but at least they didn't feel stale (that can't be said about the rest of the film). As I said before, I thought that the third act was well done as well, capturing a sense of fun that the rest of the film doesn't have. The final scene brings the franchise full circle and I thought that was brilliantly done. 

Beyond that, there isn't a whole lot to say about Minions. If you're a die hard fan of the little yellow guys, then you'll probably have a fun time with Minions. But I have a feeling that anyone else who shows up to be disappointed. In a world where we have such magnificent animated films like The LEGO Movie, Inside Out and even the original Despicable Me, that makes something like Minions even more disappointing. A quick and painless affair, Minions nevertheless ends up being a pretty poor effort from the folks at Illumination. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (5.1/10)

Image Credits: JoBlo, Screen Rant