Saturday, November 30, 2013

Paul Walker has died in a tragic accident at age 40

Wow. I'm really shocked right now. Some tragic news this Saturday night as it appears that Paul Walker has died. The Fast and Furious actor was involved in a single car accident driving back from a charity event. Walker was a passenger in the car, and both he and the driver lost their lives. Here is the official post from Walker's Facebook page:

It is with a truly heavy heart that we must confirm that Paul Walker passed away today in a tragic car accident while attending a charity event for his organization Reach Out Worldwide. He was a passenger in a friend's car, in which both lost their lives. We appreciate you patience as we too are stunned and saddened beyond belief by this news. Thank you for keeping his family and friends in your prayers during this very difficult time. We will do out best to keep you apprised on where to send condolences.- #TeamPW

Reports on this tragedy first came through today from TMZ, but now it has been confirmed. The action star was forty years old, and had a fifteen year old daughter. I can't even imagine what this must be like for his family. My sincere condolences to them during this difficult time.

Walker began his acting career in films such as Pleasantville, Varsity Blues, and She's All That, before breaking onto the scene with the Fast and the Furious franchise. Walker played FBI agent turned street racer Brian O' Connor in seven films. Fast and Furious 7 is set for release on July 11, 2014. The seventh installment in the franchise is currently filming. Walker also appeared in such films as Flags of Our Fathers and Eight Below. This is such tragic news. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.

The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy in review

The World's End is absolutely one of my favorite films of the year so far. It is two hours of pure comic gold, and an absolute treat to behold. It's so geeky, so cool, so funny, and I believe that it is truly impossible not to enjoy it. When The World's End was released on Blu-Ray on November 19, I went right to the store and bought it. While I was there, I saw a double pack of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the other two films in Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. I picked up that two pack at Target that day, not knowing if the other two films would have anything in common with The World's End. While the three films feature the same actors, they have completely different story lines. Yet they have the same stylistic qualities, and are edited very similar. And all three have laugh out loud moments. Now that I've seen all three of these films, I figured I would do a write up on my thoughts. Here we go:


Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfeld, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Rafe Spall, Bill Nighy
Director: Edgar Wright
Rating: R for zombie violence/gore and language
Worldwide Box Office: $30 million

The film that started it all. Shaun of the Dead became an instant cult favorite upon its release in 2004, and paved the way for Hot Fuzz and The World's End. While I believe Shaun of the Dead is the weakest of the trilogy, it still establishes Wright's directorial style along with the overall style of the Cornetto films. This was Wright's directorial debut, after all.

Shaun of the Dead is the story of Shaun (Simon Pegg), a straight-laced, but unsuccessful man. He's still living with his college buddies Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and the slacker Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun is romantically involved with Liz (Kate Ashfeld), but his devotion to Ed gets in the way. After suffering a breakup with Liz, Shaun goes out drinking with Ed. The next morning, there are zombies roaming the earth. Shaun must gear up and become "Shaun of the Dead" to save his mother, his girlfriend, and his friends.

Shaun of the Dead is a very funny movie. There were several times during this film that I laughed out loud and several more that made me smile or chuckle. However, in my mind, Shaun of the Dead never reaches the levels of comic hilarity that Hot Fuzz and The World's End do. Plus, the plot sort of hangs there loosely. There's not really a direction to it. It's not gradual like Hot Fuzz, or a Point A to Point B quest like The World's End. It just kind of moves.

The most interesting thing about what I've written so far is that I'm comparing a movie that came out in 2004, to movies that came out in 2007 and 2013. That might be a problem. One of the things that people always say about Shaun of the Dead was how different it was back when it came out. Maybe I didn't like it as much as the other two Cornetto films simply because Wright had tightened up the plot and the character arcs in the sequels, one of which I saw before Shaun of the Dead. I don't know, but I can only write my opinion, and I believe that Shaun of the Dead is the weakest film of the trilogy.

Despite the quality of Shaun of the Dead maybe not being as high as the other two films, there's still a lot to love here. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are two fantastic comedic actors and they excel in this film. The action is funny, and the zombie attacks are ridiculously over the top. Wright is a fantastic director and his style breathes life into the film.

If you watch this film and then watch The World's End, you'll notice some definite similarities. However, Shaun of the Dead ends up being its own beast. It's a very funny movie and one that most people should enjoy. I don't find it as entertaining as Hot Fuzz or The World's End, but to be honest, those films are two comedic masterpieces. Shaun of the Dead is still something very entertaining, inventive, and it's a ton of fun.


HOT FUZZ (2007)

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Paddy Considine, Stuart Wilson, Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan
Director: Edgar Wright
Rating: R for violent content including some graphic images and language
Worldwide Box Office: $80.5 million

Shaun of the Dead brought us the comedic talents of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But Hot Fuzz is the movie that showed us what could be done when those talents are unleashed. Hot Fuzz starts pretty slow, but eventually builds to a conclusion that is like nothing you've ever seen. The film is always entertaining, but the final half hour takes the cake as one of the most entertaining action scenes I've ever seen. Hot Fuzz has everything right. The chemistry between the actors, the way that the movie progresses and the way Wright directs the film. This is an absolutely fantastic comedy across the board.

Hot Fuzz is the story of Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg). Angel is an all-star London cop, but he's so good that everybody else is starting to look bad. Angel is transferred by his superior officers (Steve Coogan, Bill Nighy, and Martin Freeman) to the small town of Sandford. The residents are genial to Angel at first, but when he starts cracking down on their behaviors, the residents become frustrated with him. Angel is partnered with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), a bumbling, action movie obsessed partner. However, when a series of "accidents" begin to occur in Sandford, Angel and Butterman must become partners and take down a sinister occurrence in the town.

Hot Fuzz is a film that needs to get warmed up first. The first hour of the movie is consistently entertaining, but never all that funny. However, the first hour sets the stage for the funniest and most ludicrous parts of the movie. It's a terrific feat of plotting that makes Hot Fuzz so fantastic. Not to mention the fantastic direction of Edgar Wright or the terrific chemistry between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

One of the most interesting things about the Cornetto trilogy is that they work as real films as well as parodies. Shaun of the Dead is a funny, yet interesting zombie film on its own. The World's End could stand on its own as a ridiculous bit of sci-fi fun. And most of all, Hot Fuzz is a compelling and entertaining cop film. What I mean to say is that the Cornetto films have dramatic levity behind the parody and that's what I love about them. not to mention that they are ridiculously funny.

Hot Fuzz is led by Pegg and Frost all the way. The two have excellent chemistry here, and the way that the two characters come to like each other is entertaining to watch. Also, the supporting cast is consistently excellent. It's an all-star cast of British actors and they never fail to disappoint. Another interesting thing about Hot Fuzz is how graphic it can get. It's a rather bloody comedy and it features some truly grisly, yet comedic murders.

The final scenes of this movie had me rolling on the floor. The whole movie builds to the point where everything goes crazy, and it doesn't disappoint. All in all, this comes close to the level of The World's End. I think that The World's End is funnier and more consistently entertaining throughout, but Hot Fuzz is a masterful film in its own right. This is a great comedy and one that I could certainly watch over and over again.



Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, David Bradley, Pierce Brosnan
Director: Edgar Wright
Rating: R for pervasive language including sexual references
Worldwide Box Office: $46 million

The World's End was the first of the Cornetto films that I watched. I saw it during its theatrical release back in August. I hadn't seen Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, but I wanted to see The World's End because the trailers looked funny and I knew that the other films were cult favorites. I didn't have super-high expectations, but The World's End blew me away. It has drama, insane comedy, and fantastic action. It still does blow me away to this day. It's an absolutely fantastic movie.

The World's End is the story of five childhood friends, led by "fearless leader" Gary King (Simon Pegg). While the other four friends have moved onto adulthood with ease, Gary is still living like he's a teenager. King decides that he's going to get his friends together to finish The Golden Mile, the pub crawl that they couldn't finish as kids. King rounds up his friends Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) and they all go back to their hometown of Newton Haven for a night of drinking. However, not everything is quite how they remember it.

Without a doubt in my mind, The World's End is the funniest of the Cornetto films. Hot Fuzz comes close, but in the end, nothing can quite surpass The World's End. It's a comedic romp from beginning to end, and it's the funniest movie of this year. It's unpredictable, crazy, and endlessly quotable. The World's End is a fantastic movie.

Wright's directing style is in top form here as well. Jokes fly fast and the action is insane. The World's End has a little bit of the paranoia of 1950's sci-fi flicks and it's quite funny. It also deals a lot with nostalgia. Gary King is a character who lives in the past. He thinks that he's still seventeen years old, and he behaves that way throughout the entire movie. The other four characters have to help him move on from his childhood and get to a different stage of his life. These themes help give some seriousness to the film amid all the robot-killing madness.

The cast is also killer. Simon Pegg is let loose as King. In the first two Cornetto films, Pegg was the straight-laced guy. Here, he gets a chance to let loose and essentially switches roles with Frost. Eddie Marsan is a comedic genius in several of his scenes, and is an absolute pleasure to watch. Pierce Brosnan and Bill Nighy also make welcome appearances in the film. All in all, the entire cast of The World's End is fantastic.

The World's End is filled with nostalgia. It's also filled with jokes, action, and a lot of fun. The way that the plot unfolds and progresses is spectacular. I can't imagine a better end to the Cornetto trilogy than The World's End. It has everything that you could possibly want and more.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inglourious Basterds review

Typically, I don't write reviews for movies that I watch at home. But I've been watching a lot of films lately, and I figured that I would post some reviews of the films that I'm watching right now. One of those films was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Yes, both of the words in the title are spelled incorrectly. That's just how Tarantino did it. Anyways, this film was released in 2009 to much fanfare. It was Tarantino's first feature since Kill Bill: Volume 2, and had an all-star cast led by Brad Pitt. The film became a box office success and was nominated for eight Oscars, with a win for Christoph Waltz. In the years since, Basterds has become a classic. And deservedly so. This is a film that will puzzle you initially, but if you think about the film enough, you will release the true quality of what you just watched. Basterds is a myriad of suspenseful drama, bloody revenge fantasy, and true comic hilarity. It is two and a half of hours of pure cinema, with excellent performances across the board. In some ways, this movie doubles as a talkier, more violent version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Read interviews with Steven Spielberg and you'll see what I mean.

Inglourious Basterds is a linear narrative, unlike some of Tarantino's other films (Pulp Fiction). However, that doesn't mean that it is a straightforward narrative. Inglourious features two parallel stories: the story of a Jewish girl named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) and the story of a Jewish-American fighting unit called the Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Shosanna operates a movie theater in France after a narrow escape from Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Raine and his team of Basterds fight Nazis behind enemy lines with brutal tactics that frustrate Hitler and his inner circle. The two stories will converge during the premiere of a German propaganda film starring war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) at Shosanna's theater. The premiere becomes a site of interest for both Raine and British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender). Why? Let's just say that some famous faces will be attending that premiere.

Inglourious Basterds is a film that puzzled me at first. I enjoyed it throughout, but I could never fully grasp it. It's been about a week and a half since I watched it now, and I can certainly say that it will go down as one of my top fifty favorite films. If you want a story about the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, you won't find it here. Instead, you'll find something more akin to Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Many critics and even Spielberg himself have noted that the first Indiana Jones film seems like Spielberg enacting revenge on the Nazis. Inglourious Basterds is very much a revenge fantasy for anyone who's ever wanted to see the Nazis get theirs. The film has a lot of deplorable violence and the tactics of the Basterds and Shosanna can be questioned, but there's no denying that this is a highly entertaining revisionist history film.

The performances are spectacular across the board. This is slightly less profane Tarantino, but the dialogue is still crackling. Brad Pitt delivers a great lead performance. His character is charismatic with a deep southern accent and he certainly has some of the best scenes in the film. Christoph Waltz also delivers a stunning performance, but he is not in the film as much as you would expect. Melanie Laurent is also great as Shosanna, and she puts some needed emotion into the film amid all the comical dialogue and brutal carnage. The rest of the ensemble is too vast for me to make a specific mention of them all. But they are all quite spectacular.

The direction is also quite fantastic. Tarantino is famous for his fast and furious dialogue that is peppered with quotes, movie references and profanity, but here, his direction is as masterful as the dialogue is crackling. This is such a well directed movie. The film has two scenes that jump out at me as being fantastically directed. The first scene of the movie between Christoph Waltz and Denis Menochet, a man protecting a Jewish family, is a feat of directing. It is packed with suspense and sucks you into the film immediately. Also, there is a scene in a bar between several characters later in the film. I was tense throughout the entire scene and it climaxes with a burst of violence that is shocking, even by the standards of this film. All in all, a masterfully directed film that is vibrant, beautiful, entertaining and well-written.

What else can I say? Out of all the films that I have seen over the last week and a half (including classics such as The Thing, Full Metal Jacket and V for Vendetta), this film has stuck with me the most. It is a beautifully made film that is well-written, well-directed and well-edited. It features several entertaining and suspenseful action scenes and a ton of great performances. This is the only Tarantino film I have seen in its entirety, but if the rest of his catalog is just as good as this, I'm in for a treat.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                           (10/10)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" hot at weekend box office with $158.1 million

Another year, another YA blockbuster breaks tons of box office records. This one actually happens to be quite good, so I can't say that I'm upset. It just seems like an ongoing trend that every year a new Twilight, Hunger Games, or Harry Potter (which I barely count as YA) come along and top the previous films. This year, it was Lionsgate's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which won the weekend box office with ease and grossed a November record $158.1 million while doing it. While the opening of Catching Fire topped that of the first Hunger Games, there is a bit of disappointment in Hollywood currently. A lot of people expected the film to open in the range of $170- $190 million, and the total it did amass didn't live up to the expectations of box office pundits across the country. However, the film received an "A" Cinemascore and with the Thanksgiving holidays coming up, word of mouth should carry over for a very good multiplier.

Beyond The Hunger Games, the box office was desolate this weekend. Thor: The Dark World remained in second place with a weekend gross of $14.1 million. That's enough to raise its total to $167.9 million. At this point, the film is just short of the original Thor, but should pass that film in the near future and fly past $200 million. Behind Thor in third place was The Best Man Holiday. The Christmas-themed film, which received an "A+" Cinemascore from audiences in its first week, dropped 59% for a weekend gross of $12.4 million. The Best Man Holiday has now grossed $50.3 million. Despite the hard drop, expect this film to play well over the holidays.

The other wide release of the weekend was Vince Vaughn's Delivery Man. The dramedy grossed $7.9 million in its opening weekend, which was short of expectations. The film received a "B+" Cinemascore, but I doubt that this film will have much staying power. In fifth place was Relativity's Free Birds, which grossed $5.3 million over the weekend to raise its total to $48.6 million. The film could see a Thanksgiving boost, but with Frozen, I doubt it will be anything significant. Last Vegas placed in sixth this weekend with $4.3 million, which was enough to raise its total to $53.8 million. That's a solid total for the relatively inexpensive comedy.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa placed in seventh with another $3.4 million to add onto its total. The raunchy comedy has now grossed $95.4 million and could pass $100 million very soon. Gravity has started to fall at the box office and finished in eighth place this weekend with $3.2 million. The sci-fi drama has now grossed $245.4 million. 12 Years a Slave has also started to drop in grosses, as it only grossed $2.8 million in ninth place this weekend. The brutal slavery drama has now grossed $29.4 million. And finally to round out the top ten, Dallas Buyers Club placed in tenth with $2.6 million for a $6.3 million total.

This coming weekend sees the release of Frozen, Homefront, Oldboy and Black Nativity. Here are my predictions for the five-day weekend. 

1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire- $95 million
2. Frozen- $75.6 million
3. Thor: The Dark World- $12.3 million
4. The Best Man Holiday- $12 million
5. Black Nativity- $11.7 million
6. Homefront- $10 million
7. Delivery Man- $6 million
8. Last Vegas- $3.9 million
9. 12 Years a Slave- $2.8 million
10. Oldboy- $2.7 million

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review

I remember when my friend introduced The Hunger Games book series to me. I was in sixth grade, and I pretty much ended up devouring the books. I absolutely loved them. Little did I know that they would end up being the phenomenon that they were. I knew that a movie adaptation was in the works and I knew that the series was popular, but I never could have guessed the full pop culture impact of The Hunger Games series. The first film was a juggernaut at the box office and now, a year later, the second film in the series, Catching Fire, has been released. Catching Fire is my favorite of the book series. It's packed with detail, and it is paced extremely well. I had high expectations for Catching Fire and the film met them. It's an entertaining political sci-fi action film that rises above its predecessor, but never to the levels of the best entertainment of the year.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The two victors of the last Hunger Games are now living in the victor village in District 12, happily ignoring each other. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warns of rebellion in the districts and threatens Katniss, the two victors must put on a show for the districts and prove that would they did in the arena was real. However, the districts are sick of Snow's rule and are ready to fight. For Snow's great nation to survive, Katniss and her friends must be eliminated. And the perfect way to do it: a Hunger Games between former victors. 

There's not a doubt in my mind that Catching Fire is a step up from The Hunger Games. It's a better story, and new director Francis Lawrence adds several cinematic flourishes and emotional touches to make The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a more complete experience. But the second installment still has its fair share of shortcomings. The arena action is still too frenetic, quick and frenzied, and the pacing goes kaput in the third act. But overall, I really felt that this was a step above The Hunger Games, and a cleaner and more complete film. 

The ensemble that these films have assembled is truly amazing. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Clafin, Jeffrey Wright, Donald Sutherland, and more. The list is truly amazing and the ensemble is great in this film. Of course, these films would not be the same without Jennifer Lawrence. She gives another fantastic performance as Katniss in this film, and is really enjoyable to watch. Clafin gives a good performance as Finnick, a tribute from District 4, and Wright is pretty good as Beetee. Sutherland continues his good work as President Snow in this film as well. 

The pacing and direction is pretty fantastic in this film for most of the run time. The first two-thirds of the film are packed with details, and are very enjoyable. I was never bored during the film's nearly two and a half hour run time. Francis Lawrence knows how to pace this film and does it impeccably well for most of the film. The only problem is that when the action moves to the arena, all that steady pacing dissolves, and Lawrence delivers frightening chase after frightening chase and gives you way too much in too short of a time. That's the main problem with the film. And while it might seem minor, it actually matters quite a bit. Some of the most memorable moments from the book come from the arena, and the arena scenes in the film just don't have the same impact. It just moves too fast. 

However, despite the fact that Lawrence doesn't allow you to soak in all the action in the arena with the super-fast pacing, the film still tells the compelling story that the book told in a very entertaining way. This film is less about survival and more about a rebellion. I love movies that make you hate the enemy so much that you want them to get what they deserve. This movie had several moments where I felt like that. I really cared about the characters, despised the villains, and wanted the rebellion to succeed. That's a testament to the director's skill and is definitely one of the best things about this movie. 

On the technical side of things, Catching Fire is much better than its predecessor. While The Hunger Games felt like an independent production at times, Catching Fire feels like a big-budget, spare-no-expense production. It looks amazing while still maintaining the high quality story and acting. The arena looks stunning, the special effects are quite amazing and the camerawork is more fluid. 

All in all, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a very good adaptation of the book. It features some good action, great acting and a well-written story. It's anchored by a pretty spectacular performance from Jennifer Lawrence. The only setback it faces is a final act that moves way too fast and doesn't allow you to fully enjoy some great moments. But still, with Lawrence at the helm, I'm confident in Mockingjay. There's suspense and drama in the action, even if the pacing of the scenes is off. My excitement for Mockingjay is high and that just proves that the filmmakers did their job quite well with this installment. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                           (8.4/10)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fox Release Date Shifts: "Secret Service", "Fantastic Four", "Susan Cooper", "Assassin's Creed", "Independence Day 2" shift release dates

What a day in release dates. After Disney's massive shift last week that sent Tomorrowland to May 2015, and Star Wars: Episode VII to December of that year, Fox gets in on the action today with release date shifts for five of their upcoming films. Let's check them out.

First off, we have the postponement of Matthew Vaughn's The Secret Service. The comic book spy film, which was previously set for a November 2014 release date has been pushed back to March 6, 2015, which was when Josh Trank's Fantastic Four reboot was set for release. Now, The Secret Service will face off against Disney's live-action Cinderella. Not much competition. While I'm disappointed that we'll have to wait longer to see this film, I do believe that this is a smart move by Fox. If The Secret Service had stayed in November it would have faced off against a new Christopher Nolan movie, a Brad Pitt-starred Oscar contender, and the first part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. That's a lot of competition, and now it seems that The Secret Service has room to breathe.

With The Secret Service taking the spot of Fantastic Four, that reboot has to go somewhere, right? That's right and Fantastic Four has been officially pushed back to June 19, 2015, taking the spot of Assassin's Creed. The reboot, which is set to be directed by Josh Trank, will now face off against Jurassic World and Ted 2 for box office dollars in the month of June 2015. That's pretty stiff competition with a new Terminator film not that far after, so Fox must have some strong confidence in the property. Michael B. Jordan has been rumored to be Johnny Storm, but to my knowledge, nothing is confirmed. However, signs are good, considering that Jordan worked with director Josh Trank on the found-footage superhero flick Chronicle.

And with Fantastic Four moving into Assassin's Creed's spot, that movie has to go somewhere. Apparently, that film is headed to August 7, 2015, where it will only have the second weekend of Marvel's Ant-Man to compete with. This project is intriguing, but the August release date doesn't show a ton of confidence. Michael Fassbender is rumored for the lead role, but there has been no true confirmation. There's no director at this time either, so I can't say that I'm overly excited about the project. But we'll see, maybe Fassbender and co. can break the video game adaptation mold.

Also, Fox is setting a brand new release date for the Melissa McCarthy-starred Susan Cooper, which is a spy spoof from the director of Bridesmaids and The Heat, Paul Feig. The film, which did not previously have a release date, is now set for May 22, 2015. That's a prime Memorial Day spot for the action spoof, which shows confidence from Fox. This actor-director combination has worked in the past, and there's no reason that it can't work again. The only current competition for Susan Cooper is Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, which shouldn't hurt the film too much.

And finally, we have new news on Roland Emmerich's Independence Day 2. The sci-fi sequel, which may or may not star Will Smith was just pushed back to July 1, 2016 by Fox. Smart move. The film had a ton of competition, and the franchise is very old. In fact, the original will have its 20th anniversary when the sequel is released. I can't say that I'm very excited about this film at this point. What a day in release date shifts. I'm sure we'll see more in the future.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Oscar Update: 11/10/13

I haven't posted one of these updates in a while, but with some more new festival premieres (Out of the Furnace, Her, Saving Mr. Banks), and release date shifts (The Wolf of Wall Street), I figured that it was time for another Oscar update.

Anyways, The Monuments Men and Foxcatcher are out, and The Wolf of Wall Street is in. The Book Thief is a pretender and Out of the Furnace is a possible contender. 12 Years a Slave and All is Lost are performing strong at the box office and Gravity and Captain Phillips have maintained momentum. The September releases (Rush and Prisoners) have really fallen off. American Hustle still hasn't premiered yet. Saving Mr. Banks and Her made major waves in London and New York. And it turns out that The Counselor was never really a contender in the first place. So, let's take a look at what's going on in all of the categories.


1. Gravity
2. 12 Years A Slave
3. American Hustle
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Captain Phillips
6. Her
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. Saving Mr. Banks
9. Philomena
10. Lee Daniels' The Butler

I'm still not jumping on the 12 Years a Slave bandwagon. I have not seen the film yet, much to my chagrin, but I still think that it will be far too stark and intense for the Academy. The Academy is going to jump for the technological achievement before it jumps for the brutally true drama. Who knows, maybe American Hustle will blow us all away, or the older demographic will choose Saving Mr. Banks. Honestly, unless American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street or Lone Survivor truly show up as a frontrunner, we won't get a clear look at best picture until the Golden Globes.


1. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
2. Robert Redford, All is Lost
3. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
4. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
5. Christian Bale, American Hustle

Early word has it that Christian Bale gives one of his best performances in Out of the Furnace, his dark new drama with director Scott Cooper. I think that he'll be even better in American Hustle. That's why I give him the edge over DiCaprio. But I don't see either winning. This is one of the most competitive years ever for Best Actor and it is far from the landslide that was last year when Daniel Day-Lewis won. I see Ejiofor getting the win right now, but Redford hasn't won an Oscar before and guilt could always come into play. Also, don't count out McConaughey or Hanks just yet.


1. Judi Dench, Philomena
2. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
3. Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
4. Amy Adams, American Hustle
5. Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Right now, I see Dench with the most momentum right now. Weinstein doesn't have as many films this year to back, and with significant attention on Philomena and the overturned rating, I can see Weinstein putting most of his focus on Dench and her very good Best Actress chances. I don't think Blanchett can maintain momentum for this long, but Thompson, Adams and Bullock are legitimate contenders. Another close category here.


1. Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
2. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
3. David O. Russell, American Hustle
4. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Spike Jonze, Her

With my current pick of Gravity for Best Picture, I'm going with McQueen for best director. Right now, my thinking is this. The academy is either going to recognize the stark drama or the technological achievement for best picture, unless American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street really blow people away. Whichever film doesn't win best picture will win best director. That's why I have McQueen here right now.


1. Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks
2. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
3. Michael Fassebender, 12 Years a Slave
4. Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
5. Daniel Bruhl, Rush

Look, Jared Leto has a very legitimate chance in this category. He certainly could win. But Saving Mr. Banks looks like the ultimate Oscar picture. It's about Hollywood, it's sentimental, and it's got Tom Hanks. Hanks has received high marks for his portrayal of Walt Disney and I believe that the Academy will recognize him for this film. Plus, I don't see Saving Mr. Banks having a chance in many categories other than Best Costume Design.


1. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
2. Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
3. Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler
4. Margo Martindale, August: Osage County
5. June Squibb, Nebraska

This category hasn't changed much since September. I still think that Lawrence is going to dominate the screen in American Hustle and early reports say that she most certainly does. But I think that Lupita Nyong'o is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Like I previously said, I haven't seen 12 Years A Slave, but she's supposedly pretty powerful. And then Oprah has a shot, because she doesn't show up in films too often and her performance was pretty great in The Butler


1. Eric Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
2. Spike Jonze, Her
3. Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron, Gravity
5. Bob Nelson, Nebraska

This is a fantastic year for original films, and there were several original films that missed the cut (Out of the Furnace, All is Lost), but I think that it comes down to a battle between American Hustle and Her. Both have incredible screenwriters at the helm, and both films are going to be Oscar powerhouses. But I'm going with David O. Russell and American Hustle. I think that this year could be Russell's year to shine and I believe that he's going to take this one.


1. John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave
2. Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
3. Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
4. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
5. Peter Berg, Lone Survivor

For once, the adapted screenplay category isn't overly crowded, and it gives 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street room to do battle. One of those two films will win, I'm almost sure of it and I think that it depends on how much of a dent Wolf of Wall Street makes. But for now, I've got 12 Years A Slave.


1. Gravity
2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
3. Pacific Rim
4. Star Trek Into Darkness
5. Man of Steel

I think that Gravity has this one locked up. The film has become renowned worldwide as a phenomenon based on its visual effects and the thrilling big screen experience that it offers. Who else is going to top this film?


1. Frozen
2. Despicable Me 2
3. Monsters University
4. The Wind Rises
5. The Croods

Frozen has this one locked up. The reviews came in this week and they were almost universally positive and some were even calling this film one of Disney's best animated films. That's quite an achievement and I hope it is truly that good. I don't see anyone being able to beat this one.


1. Gravity
2. Prisoners
3. Rush
4. American Hustle
5. Out of the Furnace

I thought that Prisoners was the front-runner for a while with its dark, grim camerawork, but now it's clear that Gravity is leading this pack. The camerwork in that film is truly astonishing and I'll be shocked if it doesn't win.


1. Hans Zimmer, 12 Years A Slave
2. John Williams, The Book Thief
3. Hans Zimmer, Rush
4. Steven Price, Gravity
5. Henry Jackman, Captain Phillips

Zimmer will win for either this or Rush and I think that his score for Slave wins.


1. American Hustle
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
4. Rush
5. Thor: The Dark World

Look at that hair and make-up. How can American Hustle not win, even if it sucks as a movie>


1. Rush
2. American Hustle
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Lee Daniels' The Butler
5. Dallas Buyers Club

American Hustle will probably win, but I'm predicting Rush for now in a desperate hope for some love for that film. Not enough people saw it and it was such a fantastic film.

Best production design, editing, sound mixing, sound editing and song not included in current projections.

"Thor: The Dark World" drops the hammer with $86.1 million, "Ender's Game" plummets at weekend box office

This weekend saw the release of one of the most anticipated films of this holiday season, Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. The sequel to 2011's Thor and 2012's The Avengers was the second step in Marvel's Phase 2, and was expected to do massive grosses thanks to the success of The Avengers. And while Thor: The Dark World may not have lived up to all expectations, it still had a spectacular debut. The film opened with $86.1 million, which is the fifth highest Marvel Studios opening so far, and the highest for a film without Iron Man. Audiences awarded the film an "A-" Cinemascore, which is pretty good. I found the film to be a return to form for Marvel, and a very entertaining film. With no competition next weekend, and strong word of mouth, Thor: The Dark World should be able to finish with around $230 million.

Thor 2's success can be attributed mainly to one thing: the massive success of Marvel's The Avengers. The superhero team-up flick was an absolute sensation last year, and all of the characters got extra publicity for their future solo outings. The so called "Avengers Boost" helped Iron Man 3 gross $174 million on its opening weekend back in May, and has now helped Thor 2 increase its opening weekend gross 31% on the first Thor film.

Beyond Thor: The Dark World, this weekend was pretty desolate at the box office. Second through fourth place was pretty tight and could change when actuals come out, but for now, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa finished in second place. The prank flick which has held exceptionally well over the last few weeks grossed $11.3 million for a total of $78.7 million. That's pretty great for the low budget film that opened with a "B" Cinemascore. Bad Grandpa should hit $100 million by the end of its run. That's impressive for a film with a $15 million budget. Also defying expectations was Relativity Media's Free Birds, which disappointed last weekend, but only dropped 29% for an $11.18 million weekend. That raises the animated film's total to $30.1 million. The film should hold well in the coming weeks, leading up to the opening of Disney's Frozen. Not far behind in fourth place was CBS Films' Last Vegas, a very funny movie, which dropped only 32% for an $11.1 million weekend. Last Vegas has now grossed $33.5 million.

The biggest disappointment of the weekend was Ender's Game. The sci-fi flick, which isn't very good, dropped a whopping 62% this weekend for a $10.2 million weekend. That flat-out kills any chance of a sequel to the film, and certifies it as a loser for Summit and Lionsgate. The film has grossed $44 million thus far. On the other side of the sci-fi spectrum, Gravity continued its impressive run in sixth place with an $8.4 million weekend, which raises its total to $231.1 million. The film should come close to Inception by the end of its run.

In seventh place was Fox Searchlight's 12 Years A Slave, which has the chance to be a legitimate breakout. The stark and brutal drama, which is a major Oscar contender, debuted in 1,144 theaters this weekend and grossed $6.6 million for a total of $17.3 million. Those grosses should only grow as the film builds momentum. Captain Phillips, another major Oscar contender, placed in eighth place this weekend with $5.8 million for a total of $90.8 million. The film should pass $100 million at some point soon.

And finally, About Time and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 rounded out the top ten this weekend. About Time grossed $5.1 million in its nationwide expansion for a total of $6.6 million in ninth place this weekend. And Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 grossed $2.8 million for a total gross of $109.9 million in tenth place.

Next week sees the release of The Best Man Holiday. And that's it. Here are some early predictions:

1. Thor: The Dark World- $48 million
2. The Best Man Holiday- $18 million
3. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa- $7.5 million
4. 12 Years A Slave- $6.9 million
5. Free Birds- $6.8 million
6. Last Vegas- $6.6 million
7. Ender's Game- $5.1 million
8. Captain Phillips- $4.5 million
9. About Time- $3.9 million
10. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2- $1.7 million

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thor: The Dark World review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is undoubtedly one of the most interesting experiments of recent years in the film industry. The idea that you can bring together multiple big-budget franchises and make one fully realized universe is one that will likely inspire several copycats, and will certainly continue to make money for a long time.

Marvel decided a long time ago that they would separate their movies into phases. Iron Man through The Avengers was Phase 1, Iron Man 3 to The Avengers: Age of Ultron was Phase 2, and Ant-Man will begin Phase 3. Phase 1 was an ingenious, exciting, brilliantly executed experiment. Each film introduced the major players, and each end-credits stinger set up either the next film or a piece of information about The Avengers, which kept you invested and interested into the future films. Not only did Phase 1 produce some fantastic superhero films, it led up to one of the biggest success stories in film history, The Avengers, which went on to gross $1.5 billion worldwide and over $600 million in the US alone. Then Iron Man 3 rolled around earlier this year. The third film was a solid flick, and a great financial success as well. But it completely abandoned the formula that made the Phase 1 films so great. There was no end-credits stinger that set up an upcoming film, and the tone felt completely different from Iron Man and Iron Man 2. So despite being a very good film, Iron Man 3 was a bit of a misfire. Thankfully, Thor: The Dark World, Marvel's latest effort does not fall into those pitfalls. It's a really good superhero flick that's a ton of fun to watch and it stays true to its characters and series.

Thor: The Dark World continues the story of the Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It directly deals with both the aftermath of the first Thor movie and The Avengers. When our story begins, Thor is with his band of warriors led by Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). They are attempting to fix the damage that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) caused across the nine realms. Thor thinks he has it all in hand, but the convergence of the worlds (a complicated matter that I can't explain here) is about to happen and a dark power is returning. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a dark elf who wants to possess a magic power, is back for revenge on Asgard and the nine realms. Thor must team up with Loki and reunite with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) to save the universe.

2011's Thor is one of the best entries in the first phase of the Marvel films. I realized that today. Watching this film, I had fonder memories of watching the original film which is criminally underrated at this point. Thor is a very unique universe with some of the most interesting characters in the whole Marvel universe. That's what makes Thor: The Dark World work. And trust me, this film works much better than it should. The story is far-fetched, and it's unbalanced at times, but it's a beautiful film to look at, the action is spectacular and it is very funny.

Thor: The Dark World thrives on its characters. This franchise has the best ensemble cast for a superhero franchise outside of The Dark Knight franchise. It is filled with great actors who have grown their characters over these last couple of years. Chris Hemsworth has become a powerhouse actor. He was great in Rush, and he really has begun to grasp his character of Thor. He has him down and is very entertaining to watch. Tom Hiddleston was always Loki and he's great here again. Also, I had no idea that Stellan Skarsgard could be so funny. He's spectacular in this film, and gives some great comic relief. Natalie Portman also gets some more to do in this film, which is good, because her character and the love story between her and Thor was horribly underdeveloped in the first film. All in all, beyond the four warriors, The Dark World really grows its characters even further, and manages to make Loki even more interesting.

This film's plot could be considered a weak point, but I felt that it worked for this franchise. The Thor franchise has always been the most outlandish of all the Marvel franchises. I mean, the first film has a rainbow bridge. Anyways, in this film, Malekith, the lead villain, wants to get vengeance on Asgard for the defeat of his army by Odin's father 5000 years ago during the last convergence of worlds. The convergence of worlds is when the nine realms are connected by something and it would allow Malekith to destroy/rule the world. None of this is explained in depth, but hey, there's a bad guy doing bad things. It's a Marvel movie, what do you expect. I'll give Thor some slack this time, simply because I felt like I understood what was going on enough that I wasn't confused.

The villain has been the subject of some hate. Malekith is played by Christopher Eccleston, who played Doctor Who for a year. Eccleston has about one dialogue of line in English in this film and the rest is in some made-up language. He's fine, and I actually did enjoy his villain. No, he's not funny or that entertaining, but he's sufficient. Malekith is a pretty traditional baddie, but he has a clear motive and reasoning for what he's doing. That's a step up on Iron Man 3, in which the Mandarin had absolutely no reason for doing anything he was doing.

The Dark World has some problems. I mentioned a few in the last two paragraphs. The biggest problem was this unbalance that pervaded throughout the whole film. The film just never felt great when you were watching it and there were times when I didn't know what to think. Maybe that's just the tone of a Marvel movie, or maybe this was a problem that The Dark World had.

However, despite the problems of Thor: The Dark World, I really enjoyed this because it felt like a return to form for Marvel. Iron Man 3 was a good film, but it delved from a few of the important Marvel qualities, which was a bit of a disappointment. Thor: The Dark World both feels like it's a sequel to its predecessor and contains all of the elements that made the Phase 1 Marvel films special. If you look at Iron Man 3, it's 95% a sequel to The Avengers and 5% a sequel to Iron Man 2. It barely recognizes the events of Iron Man or Iron Man 2, and focuses mostly on The Avengers and its own plot. Don't get me wrong, I really like that movie, it's just doesn't feel like a Marvel studios film. Thor: The Dark World finds the perfect balance between being a sequel to Thor and The Avengers. Plus, it has a great mid-credits stinger.

All in all, Thor: The Dark World thrives on the traditional Marvel elements, its spectacular special effects and action sequences, and the fact that it has the best cast of characters in the Marvel universe. It really stayed true to the first film and entertained me throughout. It has some plot issues and it's slightly unbalanced, but Thor: The Dark World is a geeky, funny film that is a lot of fun to watch. Stay through the credits for a fun hint at Guardians of the Galaxy and other future Marvel films.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                          (7.6/10)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Star Wars: Episode VII" to hit theaters December 18, 2015, Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland" pushed back to May 22, 2015

The news that we have all been waiting for was announced today by Disney. There have been tireless months, dates, and hours since Disney announced that Star Wars: Episode VII would hit theaters in 2015. All that time, we've been waiting to hear the exact date on which Episode VII would be released.

If you read this, you might get a hint of sarcasm. And that's because I am being sarcastic. While I am very intrigued about Star Wars: Episode VII, I just have not been as interested about every detail on this movie as some fans have. So the big hoopla that was raised this afternoon after Disney announced that Star Wars: Episode VII would hit theaters on December 18, 2015 was expected, but didn't quite interest or excite me in the same way that other news has. However, let's talk about this movie for a minute. Last week, it was revealed that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had taken over screenwriting duties from Michael Arndt. Also, there was a rumor that Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy, Abrams, and Kasdan had approached Robert Iger, who is the CEO of Disney. They told him that they weren't sure if Episode VII would be ready for 2015, and asked for the film to be released in 2016. Iger denied the request.

While I believe that is a mistake by Iger, who's track record is practically infallible, I think that the December release is plausible for Abrams and his team to reach. If the film's script gets fixed, and if they get the production going in time, there's no reason that this movie won't get released by December. I just wish that these guys would just start announcing some of the cast already. It's getting tedious listening to every casting rumor. Now the interesting thing is what happens to Ron Howard's Inferno and Duncan Jones' Warcraft. Both films are currently scheduled for December 18, 2015 as well as Episode VII. I project that both will move, and if anything, Warcraft will hang around early December. Inferno could move to either 2016 or earlier in 2015. All I know is that with Bond 24, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 2, Ben Affleck's Live by Night AND Episode VII, Fall 2015 is going to be awesome.

Also announced today by Disney was a new release date for Brad Bird's Tomorrowland. The film, which was co-written by Damon Lindelof and EW staff writer Jeff Jensen, is shrouded in secrecy and has something to do with a secret box in the Disney vault. It stars George Clooney, Hugh Laurie and Judy Greer. I'm extremely excited for this film because of the high concept, Disney-related idea and because of Brad Bird's last film, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. The film was originally scheduled for December 12, 2014, but now will hit theaters on May 22, 2015. It has little competition beyond the fourth weekend of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, so it should be a solid hit. Anyways, let's hope that both Tomorrowland and Star Wars: Episode VII will be great films.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ben Affleck's "Live by Night" to hit theaters Christmas 2015, Clint Eastwood-directed "Jersey Boys" arriving June 20, 2014

Warner Bros. just announced the release dates for two of their most anticipated upcoming releases (at least in my books). No, it's not Wonder Woman or Justice League, the films that Warner Bros. announced are Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood's next directorial efforts. Those may not be as anticipated as Batman vs. Superman or the next Hobbit film, but they are films that could certainly win awards. In fact, it seems that Warner Bros. is directly positioning Affleck's next film as a leading Oscar contender.

But before we get to that, let's talk about Clint Eastwood's next film, the musical Jersey Boys. According to IMDb, Jersey Boys is the story of the Four Seasons, whose music came to define a generation. Jersey Boys was a famous stage musical and Eastwood seems to want to emulate that environment with the film. Christopher Walken is the only famous actor in the film, which is odd considering that Eastwood typically gets a solid ensemble to join him in his productions. But when you learn that Jersey Boys is going to be filled with stage actors, it doesn't sound so weird. Warner Bros. has now announced that the film will be released on June 20, 2014, which is pretty soon. All in all, I hope that Eastwood delivers a period piece/musical that tops his latest critical disappointments Hereafter and J. Edgar.

Ben Affleck's directorial career was sort of put on hold after that whole Batman thing erupted. He abandoned several projects including his adaptation of Stephen King's acclaimed novel The Stand. However, it seems that Affleck just couldn't get one project out of his mind. Apparently, Affleck's going to film Batman vs. Superman and then go on to direct his adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Live by Night. The novel follows a mobster in Boston who becomes heavily involved in the organized crime world and moves to Florida where all the new action is. This film sounds like something right up Affleck's alley and I truly hope that this movie delivers. Warner Bros. announced yesterday that the film will be released December 25, 2015. That's so far away.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Ender's Game" solid with $27 million, "Last Vegas" surprises, "Free Birds" disappoints at weekend box office

The month of November began this past weekend with three new releases, all in different genres. Ender's Game was the star of the pack, with an all-star cast led by Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford, and a massive $110 million budget. The film debuted to $27 million this weekend, which is in line with most expectations. But given its monumental budget, Ender's Game could be considered a disappointment. It performed around the level of Elysium and After Earth, both of which had similar budgets, but was far behind Oblivion, Pacific Rim and Star Trek Into Darkness. All in all, with a "B+" Cinemascore, Ender's Game could hold well for a couple weeks. However, with strong competition from the Thor and Hunger Games sequels, Ender's Game will have a hard time reaching a number above $80 million.

In second place was Paramount's faux-documentary comedy Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. Despite a "B" Cinemascore from audiences in its opening weekend, Bad Grandpa dropped a minuscule 38% for a second weekend total of $20 million. That impressive second weekend raises Bad Grandpa's total gross to $61.5 million, and the film now has a legitimate shot of reaching $100 million. Comedy continued to dominate the box office further down in third place, with CBS Films' Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman-starred Last Vegas, debuting to $16.3 million. That's an impressive total for an older-skewing film with little appeal to younger generations. But the good news keeps on going for CBS Films as Last Vegas also received an "A-" Cinemascore from audiences. I found the film highly entertaining and I hope you check it out soon.

The biggest disappointment of the weekend was Relativity's Free Birds. The animated comedy (which happened to be the first since Sony's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) debuted to $15.8 million, which is below any other animated film this year. Granted, the trailers never truly sold the film, and it was from a studio that is less than prominent in the animated film world, but with the dearth of animated films at the box office, a better total should have been expected. Good news for Free Birds is that it received an "A-" Cinemascore and has no direct competition until Frozen. Still, don't expect this film to break out.

In fifth place this weekend was Warner Bros.' Gravity, which held strong with a 36% drop for a $12.8 million weekend. The space epic has now grossed $218.8 million, a strong total for a film with just a $100 million budget. Gravity now has a legit shot at $250 million and will likely take home several Oscars with it. Also holding strong was Sony's Captain Phillips, which finished in sixth place with an $8.4 million weekend. The hostage drama has grossed a strong $82 million so far, which outpaces 2012's Argo in that same stretch.

Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave finally expanded into a large number of theaters, and grossed an impressive $4.79 million. That's enough to raise its total to $8.9 million. The drama should continue to spread through word of mouth over the next few weeks. In eighth place was Sony's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. The animated comedy held decently with new competition, and grossed $4.1 million this weekend. The film has now grossed $106.1 million.

And to round out the top ten, we had The Counselor in ninth place with $3.3 million. The poorly-reviewed drama has now grossed $13.7 million. And finally, we had Carrie in tenth place with $3.2 million for a total of $31.8 million.

Next weekend sees the release of Thor: The Dark World and the wide release of About Time. Here are my predictions:

1. Thor: The Dark World- $98.2 million
2. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa- $12.5 million
3. Ender's Game- $12.2 million
4. Last Vegas- $10 million
5. Free Birds- $8.7 million
6. Gravity- $7.8 million
7. Captain Phillips- $5.1 million
8. About Time- $4.9 million
9. 12 Years a Slave- $4.2 million
10. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2- $2.4 million

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game review

2013 has been quite the year for science fiction. First, we had Tom Cruise's Oblivion, a decent movie that proceeded to disappoint at the box office. Then, the list went on with Star Trek Into Darkness, After Earth, Pacific Rim, Elysium, and finally, the mega-hit Gravity. I've seen all but one of those films (After Earth) and I can say with confidence that two are great and two are very good. So, all in all, it's been a great year for science fiction. Now, we have a sixth addition to the 2013 sci-fi list: Ender's Game. This is an adaptation of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel about an intergalactic war between humans and an alien species. For years, the book was deemed unfilmable, with a zero-gravity battle room and loads of special effects. Somehow, Gavin Hood and his team of visual wizards have pulled it off, and finally put Ender's Game on the big screen. Visually speaking, they did quite the job, as Ender's Game is at times, one of the best looking films of the year. Too bad they skimped out on the details of the story and the characters. Ender's Game ends up being an enjoyable style over substance diversion that has hints of greatness, but is held back by an insane lack of character development and an uneven plot.

Ender's Game is the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a young boy on a futuristic Earth. Ender is incredibly smart, and is eventually recruited by the IF to go to Battle School. Years ago, an alien war between humans and the Formics. Earth was nearly ravaged, but thanks to Mazer Rackham's (Ben Kingsley) bravery, we temporarily won the war. The IF (International Fleet) is certain that the Formics will return, so they begin to recruit gifted young children to prepare for future war. Ender is one of those children, recruited by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) to potentially be a future commander. Ender is bullied, but as he goes through battle school, he becomes respected, and possibly the hero that Earth is waiting for. 

This year's science fiction films have been pretty spectacular. Gravity is a masterpiece, Star Trek Into Darkness grows on me with each rewatch, Elysium is gritty entertainment and Pacific Rim is one heck of a popcorn blockbuster. Going into Ender's Game, I highly doubted that this film could top any of those sci-fi flicks. And for a while, namely the first two-thirds of the film, Ender's Game surprisingly holds its own. It's a very entertaining picture for most of the film, with echoes of Harry Potter, and the much more recent Gravity. It just has two major flaws that practically take down the film. It's only kept afloat by its technical brilliance and overall entertainment value. 

Despite being entertaining for about three quarters of the film, the flaws in Ender's Game are apparent from the beginning. This is a film that has a serious lack of character development, firstly. You never truly get to know or understand any of the characters in the film beyond a one sentence description. While I'm not a critic who needs to connect emotionally to a film, I still need a little more about the characters than what this film gives us. There are characters that we don't understand at all. Viola Davis portrays Major Anderson as a compassionate army officer. Too bad I don't know a thing about her character. Seeing Harrison Ford in a science fiction film again is one of the inherent pleasures of this film. Too bad that his character is a one-note cliche. And even characters that seem to be important, such as Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld) and Bonesaw (Moises Arias), never amount to anything. You never connect to the characters in Ender's Game on an emotional level and you really don't even know a thing about them. You don't even quite understand Ender, the protagonist of the story. 

Ender's Game clocks in at 114 minutes, which is less than two hours. I've never read the book on which this film is based on, but that was obviously way too compact of a runtime. Ender's Game is so dense with plot, and features so many characters, that you either have to cut things out, or move through the plot very fast. Director Gavin Hood opts for the latter choice, and the movie suffers the consequences. It moves from point A to point B to point C in a matter of minutes, and its breakneck pace doesn't allow any of the characters or the situations to breathe. The first forty-five minutes are pretty stationary, and they're the best part of the film. After that, it's still entertaining, but the movement of the plot is not fluid or natural.

In addition, there are a ton of useless characters in this film. I think that Petra Arkanian was meant to be sort of a love interest for Ender, but I couldn't tell, simply because you never get to truly know her. On top of that, there's the fact that Petra has about ten minutes of screen time. Also, Ben Kingsley appears late in this film, and literally has no other purpose but to bring up a plot point, one that simply allows the movie to keep going. 

All of those things make for a movie that is less than wholly satisfying. But I can almost guarantee you, those problems will not bother you for most of the film. I was bothered by the lack of character development at times, and was definitely annoyed by the lack of detail and fast pace, but it wasn't until I stepped back that I realized how truly lacking it was in certain aspects. If this was a two and a half hour movie, I can guarantee you, it would be better. Hood had a good framework, he just didn't execute it in the way he should have and left way too much to the imagination. 

The actors are pretty much solid across the board. Asa Butterfield is a good younger actor and one that was right for the role of Ender. Abigail Breslin plays his sister and she's a completely non-essential character, but she's alright. Harrison Ford is actually great in this film, in my opinion. I can't tell yet if it's just the joy of seeing him in a true sci-fi film, or if he actually was that good. Anyways, I enjoyed his performance. Moises Arias and Ben Kingsley might be the exceptions to the quality of the cast. Arias is completely annoying and Kingsley does that weird British accent. Plus, he has nothing to add to the plot. 

However, despite all the problems with story and pacing, Ender's Game is an enjoyable film. I was truly entertained from beginning to the three-quarters mark, with the last section being slightly disappointing. The first part of the movie with the kids at battle school is pretty great, and it definitely reminded me of Harry Potter. There was definite chemistry between Butterfield and some of the unknowns who played the other kids. 

And finally, Ender's Game cannot be discussed without mentioning the visual effects. Compared to Gravity, they don't quite stand up. But they actually come really close. The visuals looked cheap and generic from the trailers but they are surprisingly distinct and are very well executed. The visual design and effects of the film contribute to the film substantially and manage to keep you engaged during the parts where Hood is skimping on the details. 

In the end, despite having a large amount of problems with it, I liked Ender's Game in terms of entertainment value. It was a serviceable sci-fi film and one that will make for a fun trip to the theaters for most people. I just know it could be so much better. Watching this film, it was clear that there was definitely a lot of potential for Ender's Game as a film. All the elements were there for a great film adaptation but Hood could only deliver a serviceable one. If you don't care about character and story development, you're sure to enjoy this film, because it looks great and is very engaging. It just has a lot of problems that keep it from being a good movie. It's stuck at decent and can't get out. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                          (6.5/10)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Last Vegas review

We are now in the month of November. In a typical year the start of November would mean that Oscar season has begun. Not this year. Oscar season began a long time ago. If anything, November is more of a break from Oscar fare. While there are some contenders being released (Philomena, 12 Years A Slave in wide release, and the limited releases of Mandela, Dallas Buyers Club and The Book Thief), the month of November prominently features blockbuster films such as Thor: The Dark World, Ender's Game and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Also opening in the month of November, this weekend in fact, is a little film called Last Vegas. It's flown under the radar for the last month, as it is neither an Oscar heavyweight nor an action blockbuster. Last Vegas stars Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Kline, and it's sort of an elderly version of The Hangover. In fact, that's exactly what it is. However, instead of raunchy laughs from Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong, Last Vegas is a film that is both very funny and has a lot of heart. Mix that with a very likable cast and a fun story, and you get a fun time at the movies.

Last Vegas tells the story of four childhood friends (Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Kline) who have gone their separate ways and aged along the way. They're now in their late 60's and have become insanely bored with their lives. However, when Billy (Douglas) reveals to Archie (Freeman) and Sam (Kline) that he's getting married to a much younger woman in Vegas, Archie and Sam convince Billy to go to Vegas and have a bachelor party. But first, they must convince Paddy (De Niro) to settle his differences with Billy and get their childhood group together for one final ride through Vegas. Parties, sexual endeavors, alcohol and a love triangle with Mary Steenburgen ensues.

Look, this movie is certainly not going to win any awards. Despite the insane star power of the lead actors, Last Vegas is meant to be a fun, light, holiday-time diversion. And on that front, it delivers. The plot of this film is insanely predictable, and it is riddled with comedy cliches. Almost every review of this film has noted that, before proceeding to bash the film. I agree with the predictability of the film and the cliches, but I really liked this film. Last Vegas banks on the humor of Dan Fogelman's script and the likability of the four lead actors and it totally gets away with it. This is a good crowd-pleaser that should play well over the holiday season.

The acting is good throughout this film, even though the four actors don't exactly stretch outside of their comfort zones. Robert De Niro is still the grouchy old man. Morgan Freeman is the one who wants to act like he's a young man again. Michael Douglas is the rich guy. Kevin Kline is the man who feels contained by his life and wants to party in Vegas. I would say that the standout performance comes from De Niro, who shows some legitimate emotion in the role. It's not like the work he did in Silver Linings Playbook last year, but it's still very good. The cast isn't great individually, but they have exceptional chemistry and make this movie worth the price of admission alone.

The plot is cliched and incredibly predictable. I can't stress that enough, because if you go into this movie looking for anything but a good time, you won't get it. The Oscar-winning actors are playing around in a different genre this time. However, the plot allows for the oft-hilarious humor and sometimes interesting plot themes to flow, and does it in a way that makes the movie obvious, yet still fun.

If you look at the marketing for Last Vegas, it markets the film as the geriatric version of The Hangover. While the film features some aspects of the 2009 comedy instant classic (drinking, sex and partying), this is more of a film that celebrates life and old age. That may be reading too deep into a film that seems like a simple comedy, but regardless of what you think, those themes are there. The film depicts these characters as fun guys who impress everyone around them, along with exploring how these guys have still remained friends after sixty years and the road blocks along the way.

I've pretty much mentioned everything about this film that is good and bad. I hope you understand that I really enjoyed this movie, despite clearly recognizing that it is a cliched, somewhat forgettable film. However, I've purposely neglected to mention one thing. This movie is ridiculously funny. I really thought that it was just downright hilarious at times. These four actors deliver the humor so effortlessly that it's fun to just go along with the ride. At times, the movie feels like one massive party. That's totally a compliment. The humor and the tone carry this movie through the plot issues and predictability and make this film so very enjoyable. I don't think that anyone will not have a good time with this film. It's just too fun.

In the end, Last Vegas is a very enjoyable film that I highly recommend watching with family over the various holidays this year. If you are serious about film and are hoping for an innovative, interesting unpredictable comedy, go somewhere else. But if you're looking for a good time, take a trip to Last Vegas. I anticipate audiences loving this film and it'll probably have very good legs through the month of November.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                           (7.4/10)