Tag Archives: movie reviews

Frothy Summer Concoction

The Hundred-Foot Journey

by Hope Madden

I did not have high hopes for this movie about a young Indian cook and his family, who open a restaurant 100 feet from a famous bastion of French cuisine.

Director Lasse Hallstrom’s output has primarily offered superficial romance, trite drama and cheesecloth since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And the media blitz about producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg says “sledgehammer of sentimentality” to me. Plus, it’s made by Disney, who Slumdogged it up earlier this summer with the tastefully offensive Million Dollar Arm.

But there are two glimmers of hope.

Writer Steven Knight is not faultless, but when he’s on, he is brilliant. (Please see Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke. Seriously, please see them.) So there’s that.

And any script can be made better when it falls into the hands of the incomparable Helen Mirren. You saw RED, right?

And basically, The Hundred-Foot Journey is an exact sum of its parts. The frothy concoction offers seductive visuals, feel-good cultural blending, trite drama, a script that sneaks in some subtle but bright jabs at France’s recent history of violent racism as well as the high octane competition of haute cuisine, and a gem of a performance by Mirren.

Watching young Hassan (Manish Dayal) struggle with his natural cooking instincts, the culture clash his life has become, and his romantic interest in a rival sous chef pales when compared to the boisterous, enchanting battle of wills between Mirren’s Madame Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri). These two acting veterans are as flavorful and tempting as any of the dishes simmering onscreen, and the film weakens whenever the story pulls away from them.

Hassan’s romantic subplot fails to deliver any heat, and when the film follows him out of town, you can’t help but feel you’re biding your time until your next visit to Pop and M. Mallory.

It’s being called Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille, which isn’t far from the mark. Adapted from Richard Morias’s charming summer read, the film is as sweet as it is harmless. For foodies and folks looking for the cinematic version of a poolside paperback, The Hundred-Foot Journey delivers. If you’re seeking something with a little artistic nutrition, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Countdown: Summer of SciFi!

The summer of 2014 crapped forth yet another Transformers movie, so it shoulders that shame. But otherwise, it hasn’t been such a crummy season, especially if you are fan of science fiction. The season began a little early, back in April, with Scarlett Johansson’s hypnotic alien abduction poem Under the Skin. But come the hot weather, Hollywood kicked into high gear with few disappointments. Here are the best of the season.

5. X Men: Days of Future Past

Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 re-envisioning of this franchise worked miracles, thanks to an inspired rewrite of history and an even better cast. It was worrisome when the next in this line fell back to Bryan Singer, whose spotty cinematic output in the last decade suggested he may not be the man for the job. But, he proved game for the challenge, bringing the best of one X Men world (Hugh Jackman, obviously) together with the best of the throwback generation (everyone, basically: Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy) for a time travel bit of wizardry, shape shifting and Seventies references. Hearing Fassbender quote James Brown is alone worth the price of admission.

4. Edge of Tomorrow

Why didn’t anyone see this gem? Aliens meets Groundhog Day may seem like a weird pitch, but good Lord is it entertaining! Tom Cruise may irritate many, but he brings it to a role that requires a complete reimagining of character by the time the credits role. Beyond that, he throws some unexpected and much appreciated humor at us while he relives the same horrendous day again and again in the hopes of finding a way to defeat an invading army of aliens. He has the help of Emily Blunt, and he – and we – should be grateful. In what amounts to the Sigourney Weaver role, Blunt flat out amazes. She has never turned in a weak performance, but who saw action hero in her future?

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It would have been hard to outdo 2011’s surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) does just that. Though his sequel offers less intimacy and heartbreak, it takes the story of our quickly evolving simian cousins to an epic, even Shakespearean level. Remaining ever neutral in what amounts to a political thriller, Reeves never abandons the energy and imagery of a blockbuster, combining the two approaches to create an exceptionally entertaining whole.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

Director James Gunn does Marvel fans right with one of the year’s most fun rides. Gunn nails the tone, the color, the imagery, and the sound of one Earthling dartin’ about space scavenging, smooching, and basically living the dream. The effortlessly likeable Chris Pratt leads a film, joined by ragtag misfits who collectively become the most enjoyable team of intergallactic scoundrels since Han Solo piloted the Falcon. This is the definition of a great summer movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIaEzXgqto

1. Snowpiercer

An immediate dystopian classic although badly under marketed, Snowpiercer went on to become the most buzzed about film of the summer, and with good reason. Visionary direction from Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) gave the film a dizzyingly claustrophobic tension, while brazen casting victories (Oh my God, Tilda Swinton) and another solid lead turn from Chris Evans work together to create an enthralling allegory of the makers and the takers.

Summer SciFi Hits Keep On Coming

Guardians of the Galaxy

by Hope Madden

As a rule, August – like January – is the month studios sweep out their bin of movies that weren’t quite good enough to make the prime time cut. Usually we can expect little more than dregs until mid-autumn, when both holiday and awards season begins in earnest and studios once again proudly populate cinemas.

And yet, in what has been the summer of SciFi, James Gunn elevates our August with one of the most entertaining films of 2014, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

An uneasy bond connects five interstellar losers, each needing another to 1) avenge, 2) cash in, 3) survive, and 4) save the galaxy. It has to do with an orb, is all very cosmic bounty hunter-y, and includes a raccoon that sounds remarkably like 2011’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Right there – casting Bradley Cooper as the raccoon – Gunn zigs when you expect him to zag. Cooper excels as the very angry varmint, joining an entirely inspired cast.

Chris Pratt, who beefcaked up a bit for the gig, shoulders the leading role in his second relentlessly enjoyable film this year, after January’s joyous The Lego Movie, here playing the American intergalactic scavenger and adventurer, and lover of easy listening jams.

Pratt’s endearing combination of humility and confidence charms, and with a casual goofiness he elevates every line of the admittedly clever dialog, all of it brimming with crisp pop culture humor made funnier by the context (in that no one but Pratt’s Peter Quill could possibly get the earth references). He makes a hero of Kevin Bacon in his dramatic retelling of Footloose, which only gets funnier from Zoe Saldana’s callback in the final act.

Saldana joins WWE’s Dave Bautista and the voice of Vin Diesel (as a tree) to fill out Peter Quill’s band of misfits, and together the crew offers endless amounts of ruffian charm.

As important, all evil doers – from Lee Pace’s zealot Ronan to Benicio del Toro’s creepy Collector to Michael Rooker’s dangerous Yondu – are delightfully diabolical.

Gunn nicely articulates the galaxy and its characters, keeps the humor light, the action quick and the palette colorful.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIaEzXgqto

Thumb Worthy

Life Itself

by Hope Madden

Whether you loved him or hated him, Roger Ebert was a massive cultural influence – particularly if you happen to be a film critic.

Arguably the most influential movie reviewer of all time, Ebert was also a far more unique and fascinating character than casual readers/viewers might realize. Life Itself, Steve James’s revelatory new documentary, unveils the highly complicated personality behind all those opinions.

Life Itself nearly bursts with intimacy and detail, embracing Ebert’s bawdy youth and epic ego as openly as his medical treatments and serene end. The minutia of Ebert’s life is a surprising thrill to take in, though James feels no compulsion to pretty it up. He asks an old friend at one point whether, deep down, Ebert was really a nice guy.

Yes, he says. But not that nice.

The sparring with his reluctant TV partner Gene Siskel, often taken directly from TV outtakes, is utterly hilarious, but James mines it for more than laughs. We are reminded that Ebert was a populist film critic before there was such a thing, and while we relive some of the highlights of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eloquence, we also revisit some of his more questionable assessments, (as when he gave Full Metal Jacket a thumbs down, but pointed that digit skyward for Benji the Hunted).

James notes, sometimes hilariously and with absolutely no sugar coat, that Siskel & Ebert’s program was often derided by fellow reviewers as not being film criticism at all – at which time Ebert routinely pointed to his Pulitzer. By taking film criticism to the public, the show had more influence on ticket buying, film production, and the changing paradigm of the medium of film criticism than anyone could have predicted.

James spends a great deal of time with Ebert and his wife Chaz in the hospital during the last couple stays before Ebert’s death, detailing the medical treatments and witnessing more of the drive that motivated this prolific writer his whole life. More importantly, through these visits, as well as emails and excerpts from Ebert’s autobiography, James makes clear that he is not laying his subject naked before us, but that Ebert himself is the willing object of our scrutiny through this film – an act that takes on much power when you consider what the man did for a living.

With James, we wind and careen through Ebert’s personal and professional life and legacy, but the film never loses focus. It touches all the bases, and in the end not only offers a moving image of a life abundantly and uncommonly lived, but honors Ebert’s most enduring, most identifiable, and most tenacious attribute: his voice.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

It Doesn’t Go So Well

And So It Goes

by Hope Madden

Michael Douglas turns 70 this year, and though, in younger years, he carved out some memorable characters, in his final lap he’s really found his niche. No longer dependent on the vain smolder of his unreasonably popular 90s output, the battle-tested pro has settled into a groove playing elderly scoundrels. And So It Goes offers him another opportunity, this time with Oren Little, widowed misanthrope.

Oren falls for lounge singing sweetheart Leah (Diane Keaton), but his abrasive personality and a mind-numbing series of contrivances stand in the way of true love.

Though Keaton simply recycles the same character she’s played with minor variations since 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give, the banter between these two vets is never less than charming.

But let me ask you something…when was the last time Rob Reiner made a good movie? Admittedly, he directed, bar none, cinema’s greatest mockumentary, as well as two of the best Stephen King adaptations on record. His whole Eighties catalog impresses and entertains.  A Few Good Men doesn’t suck outright.

After that, meh.

Even Douglas and all his geriatric charisma can’t overcome Reiner’s schmaltz or writer Mark Andrus’s insulting screenplay.

In 1997, Andrus wrote As Good As It Gets, a yarn about a curmudgeonly loner whose heart is warmed by a series of humanizing obstacles and the love of a good woman. In 2014 it’s the same story, different obstacles.

Conflict appears and conveniently disappears as soon as it’s served its purpose. One hollow plot device after another springs up to teach lessons and warm hearts, yet keep the two love birds apart. The lazy scripting is almost as offensive as the way the film casually embraces the stereotype that the elderly are racist. Reiner gives Andrus’s lines an eye rolling “oh those racist scamps” kind of spin that’s beneath the characters these actors are trying so valiantly to create.

The whole team is simply cashing in on the new market for old talent, films like Something’s Gotta Give and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel having proven that there is an audience for late life romances. The great thing about that revelation is that it allows talents like Keaton, Douglas and others the opportunity to lead films.

The unfortunate side effect – one felt in any proven cinematic market – is the soulless cash grab.

Like this movie.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

Modern Problems

Sex Tape

by Hope Madden

With two kids, a job and a blog to handle, Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) have almost forgotten what it’s like to spend some quality time alone, so they decide to over-correct that situation by making their own sex tape. You know, kind of spice things up, put some pizzazz back into their marriage.

As seems to be the case generally, the sex tape turns out to be a bad idea, and the next thing you know, they are trying to retrieve the footage before it goes viral.

Segel and regular writing collaborator Nicholas Stoller penned this ode to poor decision making with Kate Angelo (The Back-up Plan), and among them they can’t decide on a reasonable tone any more effectively than they can muster enough jokes to keep 98 minutes of comedy afloat.

Director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard) wants badly for the film to be simultaneously a  raunchy comedy and hip-but-earnest love story – an unusual combination so perfectly realized earlier this year with the Stoller-helmed Neighbors. But where Neighbors burst with inspired visuals, unexpected comedic chemistry, generous writing and frenetic humor, Sex Tape just sits there, flaccid.

The pace is leaden, the laughs scarce and scattered. The film’s prevailing, toothless humor leaves writers and actors alike falling back on foul language whenever they lack an actual punchline.

Though Segel and Diaz – both comedic talents – make an effort, they are forced to work too hard to create momentum. Their relationship – the love, the squabbles, the tension over the tape mix up – rings false, giving the comedy no grounding.

Potentially interesting characters pop up and vanish, though the diversion is sorely needed. Worse still, in the one supporting character with any screen time, reliably hilarious Rob Corddry is hamstrung in a best friend role allowed only a single, weakly recurring gag.

Rob Lowe flails, though valiantly, with an over-the-top character that never meshes with the film’s internal reality and feels like part of a set of tacked on bits from another film entirely.

A pretty big disappointment, given the talent in front of and behind the camera.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

Let’s Get Quantumphysical

Coherence

by Hope Madden

As a writer, James Ward Byrkit has made a name in family films (Rango, Pirates of the Caribbean), but he saved his savviest and most adult work for his debut as a director. Coherence is a lean, intimate SciFi mindbender.

Coherence combines a bit of Inception with the underseen dark comedy It’s a Disaster! A group of friends meets for a low maintenance dinner party, which turns out to be a little more fraught with drama than expected – and that’s before the comet flying overhead knocks out power.

Confused that this outage also affects their cell phones and internet,  the group decides to visit the one house on the block with power, only to find a dinner party for 8 shockingly familiar faces.

The nimble (mostly improvised) story remains fresh and surprisingly coherent, even as partygoers delve into theories, cross theories, and hair-brained theoretical musings on multiple realities. Byrkit allows us to grapple with our own disbelief by focusing on his befuddled guests’ incredulity as they attempt to puzzle out the reality (or realities?) of their situation.

And by keeping the focus close – zeroing in more and more on one guest’s evolving perception of events and potential actions – Byrkit develops a sense of intimacy that provides a solid foundation for all the astrophysical nuttiness.

As the dinner guests, the impressive cast portrays the kind of familiarity that breeds drama. Their pre-comet situation feels so familiar and honest that dread settles in even before the lights go out. From there, Byrkit ratchets up tensions with little more than his own ingenuity and the commitment of his cast.

The film is as economical as they come: limited sets, no real FX, no action sequences to speak of. It joins the likes of Under the Skin, Primer and Safety Not Guaranteed in the world impeccable no-frills SciFi.

It isn’t quite at that level, and yet, it’s among the more effective SciFi thrillers to come out this summer. Yes, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are more likely to wow you, but the internal logic, fascinating choices and chilling conclusion to Coherence will leave you with just as much to think about.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Uncommon Aliens for Your Queue

 

Rejoice! Under the Skin releases this week for home consumption. This hypnotic, low-key SciFi thriller – the latest from filmmaker to watch Jonathan Glazer – follows Scarlett Johansson around Glasgow in a van. Light on dialogue and void of exposition, Under the Skin demands your attention, but it delivers an enigmatic, breathtaking, utterly unique vision of an alien invasion.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMUwA7ekIgc

For a decidedly different take, do yourself a favor and look up Attack the Block, first time director Joe Cornish’s SciFi examination of gang violence in a London ‘hood. When something drops from the sky to interrupt a group of teens’ first mugging, the kids turn their pack mentality against the interstellar invaders. Cornish’s perceptive, funny screenplay strikes the right balance between exploring the tensions of urban decay and exploiting the thrills of an alien invasion. His efforts are bolstered by a spot-on cast effortlessly wielding the exuberance, loyalty, and dumb-assedness of youth.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3tOFejxPH0

Countdown: Best Horror Comedies

It’s time again for our celebration of under seen  horror, Fright Club! Join us Friday, 11:30 at the Drexel Theater in  Bexley for fun, prizes, and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil! In honor of this outstanding, hilarious piece of bloody chaos, we are counting down the 5 best horror comedies of all time.

 

5. Dead Snow

You had us at “Nazi zombies.” A fun twist on cabin-in-the-woods horror, this film sees a handful of college kids heading to a remote mountain cabin for some winter sport fun and maybe a little lovin’. Dead Snow boasts some of the tongue-in-cheek, referential comedy of the outstanding flick Cabin in the Woods, but with a great deal more actual horror. It’s grisly, bloody, hilarious fun.

4. Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon co-writes Drew Goddard’s celebratory homage, and their nimble screenplay and wickedly clever direction allow a spot-on cast to entertain holy hell out of you. Insightful, scary, hilarious and brimming with a love of the genre, Cabin in the Woods is one for the ages.

 

3. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun offers such a witty observation of both a generation and a genre, so well told and acted, that it is an absolute joy, even if you’re not a fan of zombie movies. As social satire, it is as sharp as they come. It also manages to hit the bull’s eye as a splatter horror film, an ode to Romero, a buddy picture, and an authentic romantic comedy. And it’s more than just a remarkable achievement; it’s a fresh, vivid explosion of entertainment. It’s just a great movie.

 

2. American Psycho

A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties, American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

1. Zombieland

Zombieland is quite possibly the perfect movie. Just when Shaun of the Dead convinced us that those Limey Brits had created the best-ever zombie romantic comedy, it turns out they’d only created the most British zombie one. The Yank counterpart is even better, and with this amount of artillery, it’s certainly a more American vision. It is a gloriously filmed piece of action horror cinema, owned outright by Woody Harrelson. His gun toting, Twinkie loving, Willie Nelson singing, Dale Earnhart number wearing redneck ranks among the greatest horror heroes ever.

Praising Caesar

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Hope Madden

You can officially forget Dr. Zaius. In fact, if you think Rupert Wyatt’s impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011 was the best that particular series could possibly do, you can forget that, too. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an evolution to a far superior breed of film artistically, visually and emotionally.

The devastating truths of prejudice, bias, fear and powerlust are the foundational planks of any great piece of political theater, dating back to Shakespeare (fittingly) and before. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield), along with his team of writers, respects this. It is respect for the content that elevated the previous installment so far above franchise efforts as well as audience expectations.

With that respect and those expectations now established, Reeves picks up Wyatt’s themes and expands them with breathtaking expertise. The Simian Flu – the virus that gave Caesar (Andy Serkis) and other lab apes exceeding intelligence – proved catastrophic to the human population. Ten years after the outbreak and the “incident on the Golden Gate Bridge”, the apes are thriving in their own society in a forest beyond the city. Meanwhile, what’s left of the city’s human population struggles to survive.

Wisely, Reeves doesn’t pick sides, and in leaving judgment behind we’re able to see this thrilling Man V Ape escapade for its larger historical and human relevance.

These elements coursing beneath the surface of his film help to explain its profound impact, but it’s what’s layered on top that thrills.

In utterly stunning 3D, Reeves fills the expanse of his screen with fascinating and startling images, action sequences and set pieces at once familiar and unlike anything else unspooling this summer. Once again, you forget that half the drama before you erupts between CGI images and trained animals – the image is that true, the drama that compelling.

Dawn is as convincing on every front, even when it has no business succeeding. It is so loud, brutal, and committed to its premise that you cannot but surrender to the chaos. Equally successful as summer blockbuster and political allegory, the film is as well written in both arenas as any you will find.

Darker, more intense and deeply satisfying, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes a good thing and makes it better.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars