2015: A Year of Movies

The following post will be updated periodically. Movies are presented in no particular order, though they are organized in categories of Good, Okay, and Bad. Ratings are on a scale of 0 to 4 stars. Good is 3 stars or greater, Okay is less than 3 but greater than 2, Bad is less than 2.


Aloha: ***
Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Danny McBride, John Krasinski, Bill Camp, Danielle Rose Russell, Jaeden Lieberher
Written and Directed by: Cameron Crowe

Aloha is a typical Cameron Crowe film – true to life, brimming with genuine characters, dialogue and filled with some laugh out loud moments. Aloha stars Bradley Cooper as a cynical military contractor returning home after a prolonged absence. Emma Stone plays his military liaison, while Rachel McAdams is his jilted ex from years ago, who has since settled with a husband and two children. The film follows Cooper’s character as he navigates not only returning home to the unfinished personal business he left, but also his work life as he desperately tries to get back into the good books of the wealthy mogul who is employing him (a typically delightful Bill Murray). While uneven in spots (feels like a lot was left on the cutting floor to the detriment of the picture) and certainly not Crowe’s best, it is still relentlessly heartfelt and charming in the way that only a Cameron Crowe picture can be. Set aside your cynicism for two hours and this film might just win you over.

My full review of Aloha is available here.

It Follows: ***½
Stars: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary
Written & Directed by: David Robert Mitchell

An exceptionally creepy horror film made in a style that brings to mind retro 1970’s slasher films, however It Follows is of immensely higher quality. The plot plays with some of the ageless tropes of the genre horror genre, namely teenage promiscuity, and puts a morbid twist on it – STD’s take on a whole different form in this film. If I’m being vague it’s because I don’t want to give away much of the movie – it would ruin much of the experience to do so. If you’re in the mood for a slow burning horror movie that is heavy on the atmosphere (thanks to a fantastic score and cinematography) and doesn’t rely on shock-gore tactics featured so prominently in contemporary horror movies, then you should find much to enjoy in It Follows.

Ex Machina: ****
Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Written & Directed by: Alex Garland

A creepy, slow burning science fiction film that will stay with you past the credits. Oscar Isaac is a billionaire tech genius who invented some Google-like search engine and lives in a massive off the grid estate. Domhnall Gleeson plays an employee who wins a contest and gets to work with Isaac at his estate. Vikander plays a robot created by Isaac – some subtle special effects are utilized to achieve this – and, without giving too much away, the movie revolves around these 3 as Domhnall undertakes the work assigned to him by Isaac. What develops from here is a great thriller that slowly builds up with each passing scene. What adds to this fascinating tale are the well-defined characters in the film that add an additional level to the movie. There is a lot going on in this film and it lends itself to discussion and further examination. Garland has done something special with Ex Machina and it is the perfect antidote to the big budget box office movies that are currently playing. Ex Machina is a small, creepy, thinking-man’s science fiction thriller – highly recommend.

While We’re Young: ***½
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Driver, Charles Grodin
Written & Directed by: Noah Baumbach

A very funny, genuine and relatable film that revolves around a middle-aged married couple (Stiller and Watts) who hit a bit of a mid-life crisis when they begin spending time with a younger couple (Driver and Seyfried). The cast is perfect, the writing sharp and pointed and laughs are frequent. The actors throw themselves into their roles, fully embodying them. This is particularly true of Watts, who gets some of the biggest laughs in the film when her character tags along with Seyfried’s for hip-hop dance lessons. Baumbach is on top of his game in While We’re Young, delivering a wonderful and reflective film.


The Avengers: Age of Ultron: **
Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L Jackson, Don Cheadle, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Linda Cardellini
Written & Directed by: Joss Whedon

A large, loud and bland entry into the ever-growing Marvel franchise. We all know what the plot is before we see a trailer or the movie; some nefarious villain threatens the world and our plucky band of heroes must band together and save it. Because this formula is so tired and overused, it becomes difficult to care or pay attention when the outcome is so predictable from the outset. Even the massive action scenes where our fearless super-heroes leap into action are becoming significantly less interesting and exciting. In the first Avengersthe on screen chemistry and banter that occurred when the movie was not busy pushing the plot along or introducing us to yet another random character that will get their stand-alone franchise, were the film’s highlights and kept it interesting and fun. Unfortunately, those scenes are few and far between in this entry and as a result, the viewer is likely to find themselves paying less attention (my friend fell asleep in the latter half of the movie) and caring less about the characters or the outcome. When people ask me what I thought of this movie, my reply is “Meh” – that about sums it up perfectly.

Blackhat: **
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Holt McCallany
Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl
Directed by: Michael Mann

Hemsworth stars as a talented computer hacker who is serving time behind bars when he is set loose to help the authorities hunt down an international cybercrime network following a terrorist attack. The usual elements are there for a strong thriller, particularly with Michael Mann directing, but the film never seems to mesh. Its long, bloated, and there is an obvious lack of chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang, who plays his love interest. That said, there are some compelling sequences in the film and Mann shows he is still one of best action directors in the business. The gun fights in the movie are thrilling and feel authentic, contrary to the staged sequences aided by CGI that are often on display in most movies these days. Still, the action is merely the height of what is a truly mediocre film.

The Bad:

The Gunman
Stars: Sean Penn, Ray Winstone, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Idris Elba
Written by: Don MacPherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn
Directed by: Pierre Morel

This movie is a huge clunker that aims high but doesn’t come close to hitting the mark. Sean Penn stars as a remorseful ex-assassin who finds himself in the thick of it when he and his former colleagues become targeted by some unknown entity. The movie is flat and the only thing memorable (at least for this viewer) is Sean Penn’s massive forearms in the movie. For how often we see Sean Penn’s physique shown off duringThe Gunman, it could have been called “The Gun Show” instead. Despite the best efforts from a solid cast (Jaview Bardem, Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba among others), the script is anemic, the story bland and tired, and the action scenes are run of the mill (including the climax, which oddly enough takes place during a bullfight in a city that has outlawed bullfighting for some time). Don’t waste your time on this poor effort – there are far better action films to be seen.

2014: A Year of Movies

The following post will be updated periodically. Movies are presented in no particular order, though are organized in categories of Good, Okay, and Bad. Ratings are on a scale of 0 to 4 stars. Good is 3 stars or greater, Okay is less than 3 but greater than 2, Bad is less than 2.

The Good:

A Walk Among the Tombstones: ***
Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour,
Written & Directed by: Scott Frank

Liam Neeson stars as a recovering alcoholic ex-cop turned P.I. investigating a grisly kidnapping of a drug trafficker’s wife. This is a slow, simmering film that never relents as the suspense gradually builds as the story progresses. The pacing may be slow for some, but it allows room for the characters to develop and breathe – Neeson is particularly excellent in his role. I was struck by his tremendous screen presence in the movie; his mere physical appearance on screen communicating more about his character than any of his dialogue. Overall, a solid thriller centered on an excellent performance by Neeson that succeeds on many fronts.

Chef: *** ½Chef Movie Poster
Stars: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Canavale, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Emjay Anthony
Written and Directed by: Jon Favreau

A charming film filled with likeable characters and a pleasant story. An unhappy chef at a high end restaurant in Los Angeles has a very public falling out with a food critic (Oliver Platt) which results in him losing his job. At the prodding of his ex-wife, he begins to put his life back together and repair his domestic relationships by opening a food truck. Any minor implausible events that occur are easy to overlook thanks to a great cast that is clearly having fun with the material. A strong return to form for  Favreau, who has previously written and directed the cult classic Swingers and the underrated Made.

The Expendables 3: ***
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzneggar, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas
Written by: Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt
Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Delivers exactly as promised: over-the-top action, wise cracking one-liners and a bunch of old action stars giving it one last go. Plot doesn’t really matter much in a movie like this. Chances are, you already know if you want to see this or not and  whether you’ll enjoy it or not. I liked it for what it is; a fun throwback to the old 80’s and 90’s action movies. The cast certainly had fun making it and if you’re up for a mindless action movie, chances are you will too.

Guardians of the Galaxy: *** ½
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker
Written by: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman
Directed by: James Gunn

A super-hero movie that is fresh, fun and quirky enough that you forget that you’re seeing the same story that’s been told in the countless super-hero movies that have been released over the past decade. It’s a familiar story where the galaxy is threatened by a crazy villain who needs a rare item in order to conjure up the chaos and destruction he desires. Thankfully for both the galaxy and the audience, a rag-tag group of individuals come together to prevent this. The real joy of the movie are the characters, as the cast has genuine chemistry and the characters are well written, quirky and likeable. The film also gets away from the dark and somber trend that has developed with recent super-hero movies and instead keeps things light and fun. This approach works, the cast makes it work even better and despite it being a touch too long, when the credits rolled I found myself surprisingly impressed with what I had just seen. In short, an enjoyable breath of fresh air for the tired super-hero genre. The film does leave you pondering one question though: how much did Vin Diesel get paid to utter 1 line over and over?

Xmen Days of Future PastX-Men: Days of Future Past: ***
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Michael Lerner
Written by: Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg & Matthew Vaughmn
Directed by: Bryan Singer

An entertaining film, particularly in the way it ties in with the other X-Men installments and creates an alternate history of sorts. Days of Future Past ties in the old X-Men crew from the first three X-Men movies with the new crew from X-Men: First Class, with a story that follows Wolverine as he goes back in time to prevent a catastrophic outcome in the present day. The film is clever, has a couple great action scenes and features a strong cast that do a good job with the material. If you’re a fan of the series, this represents one of the stronger outings – if you’re not, you won’t pick up on some of the subtleties but are still likely to enjoy yourself. This movie shows that this series is not slowing down – it will certainly be interesting to see where it goes from here.

The Okay:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: **
Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely & Ed Brubaker
Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, I praised it for the fact that, if nothing else, we had a hero who wasn’t  tarnished and compromised unapologetically wearing an American flag. Here was a movie that didn’t apologize or cast aspersions on the hero or the United States; it didn’t present the US as some anti-hero or some blight on the world. No, Captain America went out and beat the crap out of some Nazis – and didn’t apologize for it. Now the sequel comes along and does the exact opposite. All the anti-Bush Administration conspiracy theory tropes are on full display here, with Robert Redford at the center of it doing his best Dick Cheney through the whole movie. The movie wants to be a thriller in the vein of The Conversation, with Cap routing out a nefarious conspiracy within the government, but the results are less than stellar. The action pieces are serviceable, the banter between the leads sharp (Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson have some good on-screen chemistry) but the end result is pretty lacklustre due to a weak and predictable plot. The movie shows its hand early and the results are predictable. The film tries hard to be relevant and transcend the genre by making political statements that are supposed to be intelligent and pointed, but are really just lazy and clichéd. Hopefully the next outing with Captain America is a little more inspired than this muddled effort. november-man-poster

The November Man: **½
Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich
Written by: Michael Finch & Karl Gajdusek
Directed by: Roger Donaldson

Pierce Brosnan is back in spy mode, starring as a retired CIA operative Peter Devereaux in this solid genre picture. Devereaux is enjoying a quiet retirement when he is pulled back into the field for a mission that goes awry and ends up pitting himself against his former protégé and employers. The usual spy-movie elements are all here: agency moles, double crossing, conflicted allegiances and timely plot twists. What keeps this from becoming a tired genre picture is the crisp pacing and direction that Donaldson employs in the film. He knows exactly what kind of movie this is and plays to its strengths. The capable direction, along with a couple of solid performances from an ex-Bond (Brosnan) and an ex-Bond girl (Kurylenko), elevate what some may think is a by-the-numbers genre film into something a bit more than that; a solid and entertaining spy film.

Transformers: Age of Extinction: **
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor, Nicola Pelts, Kelsey Grammer, TJ Miller, Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Directed by: Michael Bay

Do you like robots, explosions and Mark Whalberg? If yes, you’ll probably enjoy this very loud, very explosive and very Mark Whalberg movie. If you don’t, then you should probably avoid this. Age of Extinction delivers exactly what it promises; nothing more, nothing less. Say what you will about Michael Bay but he knows what he’s doing when it comes to this sort of thing. I honestly don’t remember much from any of the Transformers movies; they all sort of bleed together when I think of them and this doesn’t do much to change that. It is what it is; an enjoyable way of spending a couple mindless hours if you like seeing large destructive fights between massive robots in the middle of large cities.

The Bad:

Hercules: *
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal
Written by: Ryan Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos & Steve Moore
Directed by: Brett Ratner

Utterly forgettable. In fact, as I write this I am having a tough time remembering anything specific from the movie. From what I can remember, the movie is vague as to whether Hercules (played by Dwayne Johnson) is in fact the son of Zeus or simply someone who plays up the rumors and myths for his advantage. The movie features thin characters, if one could call them that, a dull plot and while the action scenes are fine, it is simply doesn’t come close to redeeming this mess. It shamelessly sets itself up for countless sequels that will hopefully never materialize.

Reviewed: 3 Days to Kill

3 Days to Kill

3 Days to Kill: * 1/2 (out of 4)
Stars: Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen
Writers: Luc Besson & Adi HasakDirector: McG

3 Days to Kill is a discombobulated mess of a movie that, while possessing moments of entertainment, struggles to find the right tone, the right pace; the right anything really. Kevin Costner (making a bit of a comeback these days) stars as Ethan Renner, an aging hitman for the CIA who discovers that he has months to live after his disease inconveniently manifests itself while he’s chasing down a bad guy. After this is revealed to him, he quickly retires and heads to Paris, hoping to reconnect with his long forgotten wife and now teenage daughter. Unfortunately for Renner, his apartment is being occupied by squatters (the first of a few odd and disjointed subplots) and the CIA won’t leave him alone. He is quickly roped back into duty at the behest of a truly bizarre character named Vivi Delay, played by a half-crazy Amber Heard. Renner resists at first, but ultimately relents due to the CIA luckily possessing an experimental drug that may or may not cure or slow Renner’s disease. This leads Renner to juggle his family and work, leading to some truly odd scenes and sudden shifts in tone.

At this point, the film simply derails and careens back and forth between a Liam Neeson badass action flick to a family drama about an absent father reconnecting with his wife and daughter, with bizarre dark humor sprinkled throughout the mix. While the action sequences have a bit of pop to them and some of the comedic attempts elicit laughter, the emotional drama falls flat which translates into us not caring about the characters. Costner practically sleepwalks through the film and the scenes between him and his daughter come off as either forced or clichéd. This all goes without mentioning the extremely contrived ending, which can only be explained by the writers discovering they had 10 minutes to wrap up the film and hastily complied.

3 Days to Kill is a bizarre mish-mash of gritty violence, dark humor, odd-ball characters, plot devices and overused clichés. It attempts to be original by combining these different elements and it results in poor cohesion and a disjointed film. Clocking in just under 2 hours it’s hard to believe this is a result of poor editing; rather the problems likely have more to do with the writing of Luc Besson and Adi Hasak. If they had made this a leaner story and shed some of the proverbial fat, the results may have been better. As it stands, 3 Days to Kill is simply a messy and ultimately unrewarding experience.

Winter Movie Roundup

Due to school, work and laziness I’ve written far less than I’d like to recently. I have, however, managed to see a number of films over the past couple of months and unfortunately, unlike last year which featured some very high quality films (such as The Grey) released early in the year, this year’s offerings have been rather bland and abysmal. Here’s my take on the latest films I’ve seen:

Snitch ** (out of 4)Snitch
The Rock plays the owner of a small trucking company who is on his second marriage. His life is abruptly interrupted and thrown off the rails when his son knowingly accepts a package of drugs shipped to him by a friend, who then rats him out turning him into the victim of a DEA operation. In order to save his son from serving a lengthy mandatory prison sentence, he agree to infiltrate a network of drug dealers as a mole. Despite a solid cast including Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, Jon Bernthal, and Benjamin Bratt, the movie is a bit of a let down. It tries to be a serious drama while delivering a message about the US justice system and drug laws, but due to a very unbelievable plot, weak script, and poor character development, its difficult to take the film seriously. Rather than leaving the theater contemplating US drug and justice policy, I left it thinking about how utterly silly it is to try and run an 18 wheeler off the road with a sedan.

Safe Haven *
Yet another lame and hamfisted adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book. The two leads in the film (Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel) have zero chemistry and screen presence together. Cardboard cut outs of each actor could have potentially provided better performances and more chemistry than the two leads do in this dreck. The film starts out with a troubled young woman (Hough) fleeing from a couple of detectives – she narrowly gets on to a bus which leaves just in the nick of time, before the cops are able to find her. She eventually turns up in some perfect sleepy southern town in Georgia and is able to find a job at a local diner, catch the eyes of a widowed single father who owns the local general store (Duhamel), and find a cute little house that is in need of some tender love and care. Will she be able to leave her troubled past behind? Will she be able to move on and let a new man into her life? Will you even care by the end of the movie about the logic-defying plot twist? If you’re like me, you wont; you’ll laugh out loud as the credits roll and will quickly try to forget about this vapid and empty waste of time.

Broken City *1/2
This is one of those movies where you look at the cast and think “Hmmm, this cant possibly be that bad of a movie” – and then you watch it and wonder what well known actor/actress was thinking when he/she agreed to do said film. Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe star in a ludicrous film that resembles a prime time soap opera more than it does a major Hollywood movie with an A-list cast. Russell Crowe plays a sleazy mayor and Mark Wahlberg is an ex-cop with baggage turned private investigator (there’s an original character) who gets sucked into some dirty municipal politics. The mayor is running for re-election, so naturally in a film like this, his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is sleeping with the mayor’s opponents campaign manager. There are also murder, sketchy backroom land deals, document shredding, oh, and Mark Wahlberg’s everyman of a character is having a tough time keeping his 2 person PI operation open. By the end of the film, it becomes rather difficult to keep track of everything that was going on. The film is one preposterous plot twist on top of another until you are simply sitting there rolling your eyes wishing the film showed some form of restraint which would have resulted in the movie keeping a tiny amount of plausibility. The only thing redeeming about the whole mess is Russell Crowe’s unrestrained performance of a unrepentant crooked mayor – I only wish it had been in a better film.

Ohhhh Colin Farrell

Dead Man Down **1/2
An intriguing film from the director of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (not the Daniel Craig-David Fincher remake) that ultimately stalls towards the latter part of the film. The movie stars Colin Farrell and takes some time to get going; slowly the audience is able to piece together the plot as it slowly begins to emerge as the film unfolds. Farrell appears to be a gun for hire for a local crime syndicate, which is managed by Terrence Howard (who does a good job as the villain here). The film seems to get its wires crossed halfway through as it morphs from an intriguing crime drama into a romantic redemptive tale. Ultimately, it becomes a stalled anticlimactic affair that could have been a stronger film had the script gone through another rewrite and some polishing. I loved the opening of the film and the steady buildup, but was let down by the weak romantic subplot and third act of the film.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone **
Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, and Jay Mohr in a comedy? I’ll definitely be seeing that…and I did….and I was rather underwhelmed. Carell and Buscemi star as lifelong friends who have had a successful magic act for years that is starting to falter. Jim Carrey plays an up and coming “magician” who undertakes stunts that resemble Jackass more than they do magic. Carell is in airhead mode, which he plays well -particularly opposite Carrey who is in zany mode. The film isn’t bad, but its not as funny as I’d hoped – the supporting cast is somewhat underutilized although Jay Mohr is particularly funny in his scene stealing role as a lousy lounge-act magician.

Identity Thief *1/2
Oh what a waste – what an utter waste this film was. Two very funny leads (Jason Bateman and Melissa McCartney) are wasted as this film attempts to be both a slapstick goofball comedy and a serious emotional drama at the same time – it fails. There are a few funny moments but those moments become less and less funny the more and more the film tries to be a serious drama. If anything, the film does show how talented the leads are – but their antics are spoiled by a movie that ironically has an identity crisis.


A Good Day to Die Hard **1/2
I hope to goodness they keep making these movies; not because they’re good, but because the titles and how they incorporate Die Hard into them just amuses me to no end. Bruce Willis stars again (have to wonder how many more action films he has left in him) as John McClane, who heads over to Russia to get his son (who he hasn’t spoken with in years) out of jail. However, he ends of screwing up a CIA operation while on “vacation” to rescue his son and shenanigans, explosions, and one-liners ensue. A pretty typical Die Hard movie, which is a bad or good thing depending on your point of view. The only thing rather disappointing was a lack of a particularly snarky and devilish villain which, until now, had been a staple of the series.

Side Effects ***1/2
Steven Soderbergh is a very talented director and his habit of making extremely entertaining and high quality films continues with Side Effects.  Going into the film – based on the trailers – I was expecting yet another movie where the villain is some nameless, shadowy, nefarious corporation (in this case, a pharmaceutical); boy was I wrong. Instead, we are treated to a smart and sordid tale full of twists and turns that don’t push the realm of believability like the aforementioned Broken City. The film begins with the release of Channing Tatum from prison – he has just finished his sentence for insider trading. His wife (Rooney Mara, very stellar in a nuanced role) has waited very  faithfully and patiently and is wanting to get life back on track. However, she is depressed and after an event (which I won’t spoil), she seeks the help of psychiatrist (played by Jude Law). This film develops from there and is so well executed, there were times where I was questioning the motivations of all the main characters. Side Effects is a smart and skillful thriller well worth the time.

An opinionated film geek.