Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" Review

Michael Bay, the filmmaker everyone loves to hate, returns for fourth helpings of the Transformers franchise with a film that probably should've been subtitled "Age of ExSTINKtion". The small, fleeting moments of classic summer fun are drowned out by brain-rattling explosions and sounds of crunching metal.

The story - if you can really call it that - picks up when Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a down-on-his-luck inventor, makes a discovery that brings the remaining Transformers - and a team of government bad-guys - down on himself and his loved ones (Nicola Peltz, TJ Miller, Jack Raynor).

The bureaucratic baddies and their corporate conspirators (led by Kelsey Grammar and Stanley Tucci, respectively) have figured out the most diabolical, green-friendly best practices ever by harvesting alien scraps from the Battle of Chicago (see Transformers: Dark of the Moon) to literally build and customize their own Transformers.

There's a toy tie-in there somewhere...

On several occasions, the Autobots are told that the humans don't need their "kind" anymore; that "the age of the Transformers is over". There are a few problems with this:

1.) Sadly, their age is not over. Transformers 5 has been green-lit. Meanwhile, Dramamine sales skyrocket...
2.) Racist, much?
3.) The human villains would be nothing without Decepticon back-up, so clearly some Transformers are still needed.

I blame series scribe Ehren Kruger for the plot holes, caricaturist characters, and 6th-grade-level dialogue. For example:

Cade, to Savoy (a Black Ops military official): 

"You can't search there. You need a warrant!"


"My FACE is the warrant!"

But does anyone really watch a Transformers movie for a master class in screenwriting or storytelling? No. You go for the spectacle. You go to have your senses assaulted in an IMAX theater. At nearly three hours in length, Age of Extinction has a bit too much of that. After a certain point, the combat wears you out. Everything after that is like a hammer to the skull.

Many audiences had hoped Bay would either leave this clunker of a franchise to more capable hands or learn the error of his ways and correct things for future installments. Save for Tucci, who continues to elevate whatever material he's given, the humans in these films have been rather square. I, for one, would like to see a Transformers movie without people in it, since they've always been superfluous anyway. Age of Extinction has the best sequel setup of the series, and if they stick to it properly, Bay and company might avoid yet another suck-fest.

My only fear is that Paramount Pictures may be the ones unwilling to change their tune after netting $300 million at the worldwide box office this opening weekend.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" Review


How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the kind of sequel we just don't get very often. It's bold, funny, thrilling, gorgeously animated, and is just more of a blast than the first.

The film picks up a few years after the events of the first How to Train Your Dragon. The people of Berk have assimilated to living life alongside the dragons instead of fighting them. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless discover a cave that's home to hundreds of dragons, as well as the mysterious Dragon Rider (Cate Blanchett). 

Together, and eventually along with Burk's finest dragon riders (all your favorite characters from the first movie), they must face Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a villain hell-bent on building a dragon army to rule the world. 

Though he adds a welcome bit of darkness and maturity to the franchise, Drago seems pretty cliche as the villain. The creative team at DreamWorks literally made him so dark and nasty that the audience has no choice but to hate him. His motives are obscure, and he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Drago is the most static character in a movie of otherwise interesting, endearing personalities.

If you enjoyed the first movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2 will knock your socks off. It isn't quite as fresh or inventive as The Lego Movie, but it's a strong dose of summer fun nonetheless. 


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Chef" Review

Coming off of three massive studio blockbusters (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens), writer/director Jon Favreau has returned to his indie roots with Chef, a charming tale about the benefits of "starting from scratch" when life beats you down.

The film is very funny and features some of the finest food porn ever committed to celluloid. Some of the images and dialogue are so vivid that you can almost smell the barbecued pork wafting through the theater. Plan your day's meals accordingly.

Favreau brings an all-star cast out to play here, and with such a list of names one might think somebody isn't getting enough screen time. That really isn't the case. Think of Chef as a big pot of stew that gets its "zing" from the right balance of flavors that this cast brings to the material. Not a single character overstays their welcome.

Favreau stars as Chef Carl Casper with Sofia Vergara as his ex-wife (who the hell divorces that woman??), Dustin Hoffman as the overbearing restaurant owner, Scarlett Johansson as the restaurant hostess and Casper's occasional hook-up, John Leguizamo as Casper's close friend Martin, Bobby Cannavale as the restaurant's sous chef, Oliver Platt as the acclaimed food critic who sends Casper's career into a tailspin, and Robert Downey Jr. as the man who single-handedly snaps our hero out of it.

It's on the rare occasion that disbelief must be suspended in order to completely enjoy what's on our visual plate here. Vergara plays it way too safe as Casper's ex-wife Inez. They're supposed to be divorced, but the reasons behind their separation are rather ambiguous. Favreau and Vergara play so nicely together one would think their characters were married the whole time.

Also, no self-respecting, recently-promoted sous chef would ever leave a secure job to help start a food truck. Leguizamo does that here in a span of what appears to be minutes.

In the end Chef turns out to be the first, great, feel-good movie of 2014. It has the humor, the grub, the story, and the endearing characters to rival other great "foodie" comedies, like Big Night.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Think Like a Man Too" Review

This summer's follow-up to 2012's Think Like a Man is a PG-13 version of The Hangover with couples. If Sony was willing to shoot for an R-rating, it's quite possible they might've had a comedy to rival both The Hangover and Bridesmaids. 

Out of the two TLAM films, I enjoy each for the small handful of laugh-out-loud moments as well as the breezy chemistry between the entire cast. Kevin Hart stands out as the most hilarious of the bunch. Make no mistake, that man is at the top of his game.

The problem here is that we don't need another Hangover, let alone a watered-down version. The original Think Like a Man is based on Steve Harvey's self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, and it shows us how the couples all come together by following the book's advice in different ways. Parts of it are very clever and very funny. Think Like a Man Too bears almost no loyalty to its source material, isn't quite as funny, and thus is less engaging than the original overall.

It's really nothing more than a mindless summer comedy. Sometimes that's all you need, but I like my laughs a bit edgier. Everyone involved is more talented than this.

The ensemble includes Hart, Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, Regina Hall, Terrence J, Romany Malco, Meagan Good, Jerry Ferrara, Gabrielle Union, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Gary Owen.

Tim Story directs.


"Jersey Boys" Review

Who knew Clint Eastwood's take on a Broadway musical would turn out to be one of 2014's best films? 

Jersey Boys feels a lot like a Goodfellas musical. The story chronicles the life and music of Frankie Valli and his music group The Four Seasons. Valli (John Lloyd Young), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) each narrate a different stage in the band's career together - from their come-up in a rough New Jersey neighborhood to their ties with the mafia to their eventual fall from grace - in a fourth-wall shattering style that audiences should recognize from House of Cards.

To drill down the feeling of authenticity, Eastwood elected to use mostly stage actors who were already familiar with their roles. Fans of Boardwalk Empire might recognize Piazza but otherwise, Christopher Walken is the only familiar screen actor in the whole production.

The music is fun, the production design is solid and the story is engaging throughout. Don't miss out on the summer's best film so far.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

"22 Jump Street" Review

22 Jump Street is more of the same, and it knows it. This is a sequel packed with hilariously self-referential jokes, as well as some occasional meta-humor that seemed to go over the head of almost everyone in the theater other than myself. Good thing I don't get embarrassed about laughing alone.

More of the same might be a bad thing for some, but make no mistake that 22 Jump Street is one of the funniest comedy sequels ever made. It matches its predecessor in practically every way and occasionally trumps it with riotous sequences involving Jenko's (Channing Tatum) revelation about Captain Dickson's (Ice Cube) daughter and the entire first half of the closing credits.

Tatum and Jonah Hill are a mismatch made in comedy heaven. The perfect "bromantic" duo should each have what the other one lacks; thus completing each other when they come together. Tatum has physical prowess that makes Hill even funnier when he can't climb up a truck or leap from balcony to balcony. "I can't move like Spider-Man!" as Hill exclaims in one scene.

That works both ways. Hill brings a pseudo-improvisational intelligence to his role as Schmidt that makes the character appear quick-witted while Tatum's Jenko plays hilariously awkward catch-up. I recall a scene with the boys undercover investigating the "Mexican Wolverine" which some might remember from the trailers.

If I had one inhibition about 22 Jump Street, it's that over half of the film's run time is one long gay joke that runs out of steam quickly. While assuming his new identity as a college freshman, Jenko starts finding himself in a little too deep when he joins the university football squad and a fraternity with his teammates. There's a dynamic between Jenko and one or two of the guys there that's funny only for about five minutes. For a film franchise with such a colorful variety of jokes, it's disappointing to see the creative minds (screenwriters Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman) stop just a tad short of inspired comedy genius.

The majority of the film is pure gold though, and I left with a headache from laughing so hard. If you enjoyed the 21 Jump Street reboot a few years ago, you'll love this sequel.


Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Fault in Our Stars" Review

If you're a fan of the young adult-romance novel by John Green, see this movie. If you're like me and haven't yet read the book, Fox 2000's film adaptation is a high point in the recent rom-com landscape.

What I appreciate most about Fault is the fact that the star-crossed, cancer-stricken lovers, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), never beg the audience's sympathy. Hazel, especially, tells her story how it is, and nothing ever comes off feeling sugar-coated. That level of authenticity with her character is what makes Hazel easy to sympathize with, not her terminal condition.

Fox couldn't have picked two stronger screenwriters to bring this particular story to the big screen. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have had a very successful track record with the teen-centric, romantic-"dramedy" films (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now. My only major complaint about the movie is that the parents are sketched rather thinly. While the story has always focused on the relationship between Hazel and Gus, their parents serve as larger supporting players in the book. At least that's what my 16-year-old sister tells me.

Laura Dern and Sam Trammell play Hazel's mom and dad, while David Whalen and Milica Govich are featured as Gus's parents. Whalen and Govich are barely accessory to the story while Dern and Trammell handle the most duty as the "voices of reason." Trammell fares decently as a father trying to cope with his daughter's disease while allowing her to live the life that she wants for herself. In hindsight, Dern just reminds me of Amy Poehler as Regina George's "cool mom" in Mean Girls in the sense that she always seems to let Hazel do her own thing with little to no concern. C'mon, really? Your daughter is freaking dying of cancer!

And call me heartless, but the climax of the story is a fairly predictable, albeit emotional, one. As such, I managed to escape the theater with my tissue box untouched.

Fault is an otherwise strong young-adult adaptation that raises the bar for romantic comedy and drama films in 2014.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Edge of Tomorrow" Review

It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to see that the slew of blockbusters we've seen the last few summers haven't been very good. After a while, it's all started to look the same. It's sad that it's now considered rare for studios to take a chance on a big film that's actually original. I don't necessarily mean original "in concept"; only for the simple fact that it isn't a reboot or a franchise sequel.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Edge of Tomorrow is that rare season original that stands out from the rest of the pack. What at first looked to me like an insipid video game rip-off with Tom Cruise turned out to be a clever, zippy, intense, and unexpectedly hilarious summer sci-fi outing.

Cruise stars as William Cage, a major in the United States Army who has so far avoided the front lines of an alien war by serving as a liaison to the world press. When new orders come in, Cage is shipped to the battlefront in Europe to meet the enemy head on. With no combat experience, he finds himself trapped in a time loop, living and dying in the same failed military attack again and again. Unsurprisingly, Cage eventually comes to hone his skills with the help of a Special Forces warrior named Rita Vritaski (Emily Blunt). Each cycle brings them closer to defeating the supposedly unbeatable enemy.

Such a high concept avoids coming off heavy-handed in the deft hands of director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity). He has a keen eye for executing big set pieces while keeping the more intimate scenes just as engaging. The fact that the special effects are terrific, and the 3D transfer is one of the coolest I've ever seen cement the film's status as a standout blockbuster event rather than deride it.

Cruise and Blunt share decent chemistry that could used just a little improvement. But the pair bring so much energy to their roles that they're still fun to watch for two hours anyway.

Some might find the "Groundhog Day" concept of repeating events to get a bit tedious. That's understandable, but I found enough variance in each cycle to keep the entire production fresh. Every event serves to move the plot forward or to deepen our understanding of the characters. Writers Chris McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Usual Suspects), Jez Butterworth (The Last Legion) and John-Henry Butterworth (Get On Up) smartly approach the loop with the same sense of humor which characterized Groundhog Day and the intensity of Saving Private Ryan. You can't ask much more from a summer movie.

Don't be surprised if you find yourself slightly confounded by the ending. It helps if you have a friend to discuss with afterwards. That's what worked for me, and together we hashed it out in about 10 seconds.

Because it isn't part of a franchise, Warner Brothers is projecting Edge of Tomorrow to flop at the box office. MAKE SURE THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN! This will likely shape up to be the summer's most satisfying movie, so do not miss it, and be sure to see it in 3D.