Need for Speed

NEED FOR SPEED

Director:  Scott Waugh
Principle Cast:  Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots and Michael Keaton
Rated:  ‘PG-13′ for disturbing crash scenes, crude language, nudity and sequences of reckless street racing

Aaron Paul’s first starring vehicle (pun intended) since the conclusion of Breaking Bad is Need for Speed, a high-octane action/adventure that co-stars a cast of relative unknowns.  It’s exception is Michael Keaton, who is the zaniest he’s been since Beetlejuice.  In the vein of The Fast and The Furious, NFS sets itself a part from their earlier films by focusing more on story and character development over it’s lush cars and racing lifestyle.

Tobey Marshall (Paul) and his crew are only a couple of payments away from losing their garage, where they work on tuning performance cars.  When Tobey’s formal rival Dino Brewster (Cooper) comes back to town and offers the group work, Tobey reluctantly accepts.  After a heated argument, the two decide to street race, with Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) in tow.

During the race Dino clips Pete, which sends his car flipping off of a bridge and it bursts into flames.  Tobey doubles back to try and rescue Pete, but he’s dead and Dino has fled the scene.  Tobey is charged with involuntary manslaughter.  After serving a two-year prison sentence, Tobey is released on parole and sets out to avenge Pete’s death.

Aside from a couple of cheesy one-liners, I was thoroughly immersed in the intensity that was NFS.  Admittedly, some of the crashes made me cringe, especially Pete’s death.  But that’s because it, for the most part, took things seriously and added that extra element of “real” to the film.  No one was jumping off of cars, here.

The drawbacks in NFS were slight, but definitely noticeable.  While cheesy one-liners are oftentimes forgivable, terrible acting and a slow pace are not.  Paul is the only one who gave a solid, believable performance throughout the film’s drawn out two plus hours.  Even Imogen Poots let me down, which surprised me as I loved her in 28 Weeks Later and the recent Fright Night remake.  But if there’s one thing to be said in retrospect, it’s that Paul proves he can stand on his own and should do just fine without his longtime Breaking Bad companion Bryan Cranston.

7.5/10 – Good

Non-Stop

non-stop

Director:  Jaume Collet-Serra
Principle Cast:  Liam Neeson, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Nate Parker and Julianne Moore
Rated:  ‘PG-13′ for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references

Since Taken graced the silver screen a few years back, it’s become brutally clear to me that Liam Neeson is now the face of old-man action.  If you’re thinking “What does that mean?” that’s because I just coined the phrase.  Old-man action refers to movies featuring an old man, with a gun, that’s thrown into an impossibly violent, often unbelievable, situation in which he must get out completely and totally unscathed.

Bill Marks (Neeson) is a U.S. Federal Air Marshall aboard a non-stop flight from New York to London.  He’s also an alcoholic, who doesn’t hide it very well, with a traumatic past.  In midair, while crossing over the Atlantic, Marks starts to receive text messages from an unknown source.

The source appears to know him, as it reveals information about his past.  It’s also threatening to kill someone on board the plane every 20 minutes unless Marks transfers $150 million into a bank account that’s, get this, in his name.  When his employer, the media, the passengers and the crew members all become convinced it’s Marks who’s really hijacked the plane, he’ll face an uphill battle to keep everyone safe and bring down the source.

Non-Stop is a wild, innovative action thriller that’ll keep you guessing from start to stop.  And with Marks’ cellphone a major co-star, the movie would often display the text messages he received and sent right up on the screen.  I found myself really liking this because it not only felt fresh but, I thought, was a clever device to get us, the audience, sucked into the moment.  I sometimes felt like I was on that plane and it was intense.

It’s directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who also brought us Unknown, another old-man action vehicle starring Neeson.  Not as spellbinding as it’s predecessor, Non-Stop still contained a healthy amount of twists.  It also contained several cameos from big actors like Anson Mount, of Hell on Wheels fame, Shea Whigham, from Boardwalk Empire, and Lupita Nyong’o who might look familiar if you saw 12 Years a Slave.

The only drawbacks to the film, which were few in number, would be the lack of Julianne Moore and a silly ending.  Because she was being played off as mysterious the whole time (i.e. she might be the bad guy) Moore was hardly used.  And that’s a damn shame, as she’s one of Hollywood’s finest actresses to date.  The ending, while it had a message, felt rushed, forced and didn’t quite fit with the movie’s flow up to that point.  I’m calling it silly, which is, I know, probably the wrong adjective to use once you know what the movie is actually about.  So hopefully I’m not offending anyone.

See this movie.  It’s the first great thriller of the year that’s, I think, accessible to just about everyone.  Well, maybe not those who are deathly afraid of flying.  Yeah.. I guess what I’m saying is don’t watch this movie if you’re on on vacation.  Because you may not be so inclined to fly home afterward.

9/10 – Amazing

The LEGO Movie

lego movie

Director:  Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Principle Cast:  Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman
Rated:  ‘PG’ for mild action and rude humor

Once in a while a film comes along that’s so unique, it’s hard to find the words to describe it’s genius.  So, I guess I’m left to steal them from a song off of it’s very own soundtrack called “Everything Is Awesome!!!”  That’s right because, with The LEGO Movie, absolutely everything is awesome.

Ordinary construction worker Emmet (Pratt) is mistaken for the “Special.”  The “Special” is the hero prophesied by Vitruvius (Freeman) to unite the Master Builders and save the universe from Lord Business (Ferrell), who plans to freeze it in place using the Kragle.  Emmet will have to find the strength and the courage to complete his task, all while learning a valuable lesson in what it truly means to be special.

Well, there’s something very special about The LEGO Movie.  It has great computer animation, an original story and a genuinely wonderful cast of characters voiced by some of Hollywood’s top talent.  Arnett, who voices Batman, and Ferrell, especially, had me in stitches.

Robot: “Who are you here to see?”
Batman: “I’m here to see… your butt!”

Batman: “I only work in black.  And sometimes very, very dark gray.”

Lord Business: “Let’s take extra care to follow the instructions or you’ll be put to sleep, and don’t forget Taco Tuesday’s coming next week!”

For a film about toys it’s, surprisingly, about so much more.  The end, not to give anything away, contains an important message about being an individual and learning to believe in yourself, even when no one else does.  It’s powerful and is sure to have a lasting impression on youths and, hopefully, the old who are still young at heart.  The LEGO Movie is, undoubtedly, the Toy Story for this generation of moviegoers.  It’s a film that you could re-watch over and over again and I, personally, can’t wait to do so.

10/10 – Masterpiece

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

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Director:  Tommy Wirkola
Principle Cast:  Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala
Rated:  ‘R’ for fantasy horror violence/gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language

Hansel (Renner) sets the tone perfectly with “We learned a couple of things while we were trapped in that house.  One, never walk into a house made of candy.  And two, if you’re gonna kill a witch, then set her ass on fire.”  Much to my chagrin,  Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters turned out to be an unadulterated, bloody good time.

Taking place some fifteen years after the “oven incident,” the brother-sister duo have turned bounty hunter.  When Hansel and Gretel (Arterton) are hired to hunt the witches that kidnapped the town’s children, they stumble onto the grand witch Muriel’s (Janssen) plan to hold the ritual of the Blood Moon.  This ritual will give witches the power to withstand fire, thus making them invincible.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t for the squeamish.  It’s quite bloody and disgusting.  And while the violence can be a bit shocking at times, it’s clearly fictional and never crosses a line that hasn’t already been crossed before.  If you didn’t find yourself wanting to puke your brains out after watching Scanners, then you’ll be fine.  Or, then again, maybe you won’t.  I don’t know.  Have you even seen Scanners?

Renner is great, like always, but Arterton left me wanting more.  If her name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s the chick from Quantum of Solace who got murdered via oil.  So messed up.  And, she’s nearly two decades younger then Renner, so their being brother and sister around the same age has zero plausibility.  That one’s not her fault, though.

The special effects were cheesy, yes, but also pretty cool.  The film’s trailer doesn’t do it justice, and what looked like a half-baked idea for an adult fairy tale was actually very well done.  I recommend this one to any action-horror junkie.

8.5/10 – Great

Groundhog Day

groundhog

Director:  Harold Ramis
Principle Cast:  Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky and Brian Doyle-Murray
Rated:  ‘PG’ for thematic elements

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is synonymous with Purgatory for bitter meteorologist Phil Connors (Murray) when a trip to cover the Groundhog Day festivities leaves him reliving the same day over and over again.  He experiences a roller coaster of emotions that take him from confused to conniving to suicidal and, finally, to humble.   And, with a little luck, Phil just might find true happiness out of the whole ordeal.

Like A Christmas Story or any other seasonal favorite, Groundhog Day is a must-watch this time of year.  It’s one of Murray’s best comedies, and one of his last mainstream films before shifting to the indie circuit.  Don’t get me wrong, Murray plus director Wes Anderson equals genius.  But it’s films like Groundhog Day that introduced me to his hilarity and antics, some of which you will not find in his more recent works.

This is also one of MacDowell’s few theatrical films, as she’s primarily known for her roles on television commercials, shows and movies.  I don’t understand why she’s not a bigger star, and not just because of this but, in general.  She’s a lot more preferable to a Julia Roberts, for example, and I’m surprised she didn’t elevate to that status level.

A product of triple threat director/writer/actor Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day contains within it that element of “classic.”  It’s not, but it does allow for repeated viewings; if only annually.  And while several films have since borrowed from it’s premise, like the upcoming Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow, none have matched it’s wit and charm.

So, happy Groundhog Day everyone!  Here’s to another six more extremely cold weeks of winter…

8.5/10 – Great

Warm Bodies

warm-bodies

Director:  Jonathan Levine
Principle Cast:  Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco and John Malkovich
Rated:  ‘PG-13′ for zombie violence and some language

Nothing says “I Love You” to a girl like killing her boyfriend and eating his brain, engorging on it’s ooey gooey center and, at the same time, stealing his memories.  Well, then again, this is the zombie apocalypse where 1-800-Flowers is simply a digital convenience of our past.  And for R (Hoult) this is just a way of life or, rather, death.

Warm Bodies tells the story of R, who wanders the streets a zombie some eight years after a mysterious outbreak that has brought the destruction of mankind, save for a small band of human survivors led by Colonel Grigio (Malkovich).  One day, during a routine supply run, his daughter Julie (Palmer) and her friends are ambushed by a group of zombies that includes our protagonist R.  It’s love a first sight for the boy turned zombie and he ends up protecting her.

The more R is around Julie, the more alive he becomes.  This triggers something inside of the other zombies and they, too, begin to show signs of recovery.  But when skeletal zombies called Boneys, those who’ve lost their humanity, discover the change, they target R and Julie.  With the help of R’s zombie best friend M (Corddry), the zombies band together and help the human survivors fight off the oncoming Boney attacks.

It’s an interesting take on the zombie genre and I was entertained throughout the film’s short run time.  The middle did drag on, though, and I wasn’t quite sure of the direction Warm Bodies was headed at times.  But the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer was palpable.  I do wish we could have had some more  scenes featuring the ever-so creepy, yet brilliant, John Malkovich.  And, for a film featuring funnyman Rob Corddry as a zombie, it was very light on laughs.

7/10 – Good

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT

Director:  Kenneth Branagh
Principle Cast:  Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner
Rated:  ‘PG-13′ for intense action, brief strong language and sequences of violence

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit follows author Tom Clancy’s fictional CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Pine) into Moscow where he works to prevent a foreign attack on the United States.  An original story, and not an adaptation of one of Clancy’s novels, it serves as a reboot for the character who’s been portrayed by a total of four actors across five films.  They are in order:  Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and, now, Pine.

It’s been 12 years since a weak outing in The Sum of All Fears and Jack Ryan’s absence from the silver screen hasn’t done much for the character, with his better films being those two that were headlined by Ford.  Pine is a relative unknown outside of the Star Trek series, so he was an odd choice for producers to risk on the second reboot of an already shaky franchise that’s, also, clearly now headed in a Bourne direction.  Say what you will about Affleck, you haters, but his name has the power to put people in seats.  And, well, Pine’s doesn’t.

This fifth installment was hard to follow for a good hour and 15 minutes of it’s short one-hour and 45 minute run time.  And that’s only because the last 30 minutes was pure action.  Aside from these limited action sequences, which saw Jack on a couple of high-speed chases and in the midst of some fisticuffs, the highlight of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was Kevin Costner.

If you aren’t familiar with his body of work, don’t feel bad.  You’re no different than most.  See, Costner is this great actor who decided to star in 14 years worth of crap following his very underrated comedy Tin Cup (I love this movie).  Reappearing on my radar in The Company Men, he’s since garnered wide notice for his portrayal of Jonathan Kent in Zach Snyder’s revival of Superman titled The Man of Steel.  Costner’s now slated to star in four more films this year.  I smell a comeback, baby!

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a convoluted rehash of an action formula that’s starting to wear thin.  It’s success has already been found in the Bourne series, as well as the recent Daniel Craig entries as super spy James Bond.  Replicating it only reminds me how much I love those other films and shows me how this film didn’t live up to the high standards it’s action brethren had previously set.

5.5/10 – Mediocre

Frozen

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Director:  Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Principle Cast:  Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana
Rated:  ‘PG’ for some action and mild rude humor

Frozen is a loose retelling of author Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”  It’s a throwback to those Disney films of yesteryear, before Pixar ruled the world, with animation at it’s best in eye-popping 3D.  And it even comes packaged with the all-new Mickey Mouse short, Get a Horse!

Elsa (Menzel), the Queen of Arendelle, possesses the ability to create ice and snow.  When her secret is revealed to the townspeople, she accidentally unleashes an eternal winter on Arendelle and then escapes to the mountains to seek refuge.  Her sister Anna (Bell), with the help of a mountain man named Kristoff (Groff), goes in search for her to bring her back and set things right.

There’s a lot of fun to be had, here, with Frozen.  It has great musical numbers, strong acting and some funny one-liners.  It’s also one of the best looking animated films to date.  Bell and Menzel were wise choices for Anna and Elsa, each actor tapping into her raw singing abilities.  I didn’t know Bell could sing.  She’s lovely.

And then there’s Olaf (Gad), a wide-eyed Frosty the Snowman inspired little hero.  He’s one of the funniest, not to mention the cutest, characters Disney has ever created.  It’s probably a good thing he’s not introduced until about halfway through the film because, quite frankly, he steals the show.

Leaving the theater, I have to say I was only mildly impressed with what I saw because the story just didn’t flow right.  Listen, I’ll be the first one to admit my high expectations sometimes border the unrealistic and a part of me was hoping to stumble into another Toy Story or Up.  It’s neither of those films and I should have known better.  But the more I think about Frozen, the more I truly do appreciate it.

8.5/10 – Great

The Princess Bride

Princess_Bride

Director:  Rob Reiner
Principle Cast:  Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest
Rated:  ‘PG’ for mild language and mild fantasy violence

“Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die” is just one of many, many memorable lines from Reiner’s, now cult classic, The Princess Bride.  Set within a frame story, a once farm boy Westley (Elwes), now the Dread Pirate Roberts, must rescue his true love Buttercup (Wright) from the evil Prince Humperdinck (Sarandon) who plans to kill her on their wedding night in order to spark a war between Florin and Guilder.

Along the way, we meet Inigo Montoya (Patinkin), a swordsman in the revenge business who’s looking for the six-fingered man (Guest) who struck down his father 20 years earlier.  With the help of his giant-sized companion Fezzik, he and Westley invade the castle, each man taking charge of his own destiny.

The Princess Bride is one of those films that contains something for everyone.  Lighthearted and fun, it’s jam-packed with action, romance and side-splitting comedy from both it’s principle and supporting casts; the latter comprised of big names like Billy Crystal and Wallace Shawn.  And if you don’t know Shawn by name, then I guarantee you’ll recognize his voice, as he voiced the role of Rex in Toy Story and it’s two sequels.

The film’s only weakness lies in it’s middle, which dragged on for some time.  However, this is noticeable only because of such strong first and third acts.  Overall, the film holds up well after 26 years, even by today’s standards.  If you haven’t yet ventured into the land of Florin, then I highly recommend that you do and now.  It’s currently playing in theaters as a part of the Classic Series at Cinemark, so you really have no excuse not to.

9.5/10 – Amazing

American Hustle

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Director:  David O. Russell
Principle Cast:  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence
Rated:  ‘R’ for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence

American Hustle is a fictional romp into the FBI “Abscam” operation that took place in the late 1970s.  An amalgam of comedy and crime drama, it’s comprised of an all-star cast that Russell, clearly, handpicked from two of his earlier projects: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.  Both masterworks in their own right, Russell tries to recapture their magic, here, that je ne sais quoi that made those films capable of transcending the masses and, unfortunately, he falls short.

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) is a con-artist who’s taken years to master his craft.  With the help of his lover Sydney Prosser (Adams), the two target potential investors in Irving’s con and are able to successfully embezzle those investors’ monies.  That is, of course, until undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) catches them in the act, arresting Sydney as a result.  Using his knowledge of their relationship, and because he’s starting to develop a sexual interest in Sydney, Richie makes a deal with Irving that he will release Sydney provided Irving help him arrest four more con-artists.

What follows is a very dry, often convoluted, story in which Irving must ultimately outsmart Richie in order to get his, and Sydney’s, life back.  We are introduced to two additional main characters: Irving’s cantankerous young wife Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Lawrence) and Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) who becomes Richie’s new target when Richie decides to shift his focus from catching con-artists to entrapping politicians; all to fulfill his selfish need to make a name for himself within the FBI.

Weak story aside, we get strong performances from the actors.  Bale is a master thespian who gets lost in each and every character he plays onscreen.  I loved his performance, quickly forgetting that this fat, balding, man with a terrible comb-over I was watching most recently played Batman.  Such a drastic physical change he, somehow, seems to pull off with ease.  Adams and Lawrence are provocative, here, while Cooper and Renner’s characters felt very one-noted.  And, spoiler alert, we also get some fun cameos from Louis C.K., Michael Pena and Robert De Niro.

So, if you’ve any interest in seeing American Hustle then don’t get hustled by it’s trailer.  It’s not a high-energy, slam dunk of a film like is suggested but, rather, a forgettable ensemble film that you should avoid seeing in the theater.  I will, undoubtedly, watch this again once it makes its way onto DVD or is playing On Demand just in case it takes more than one viewing to fall in love with it.

6/10 – Okay

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