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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I wish that I could be like the cool kids

Growing up on a steady diet of John Hughes’ coming-of-age teen dramedies (‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘Pretty in Pink,’ etc.) as well as modern classics such as ‘Heathers’ and ‘Clueless,’ I still occasionally find myself dabbling in high school fluff like ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion’ and ‘Easy A.’  Just don’t spread it around too much.  Please.
 
‘The Duff’ is the latest entry in this popular genre.  As we well know, other than being an institution of learning the American high school can be a highly stratified social system defined by various cliques like "jocks," "geeks/nerds," "mean girls" and the various "freaks" such as "goths/emos," "rockers" or "gleeks" which provide just one of the many anxieties a typical teenager has to deal with.  While ‘The Duff’ is guilty of perpetuating these very same stereotypes, it also introduced a new and heretofore unknown category, the duff, or “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.”  Duff’s are those people who are accepted by and hang around the ‘cool kids’ (as the catchy ‘Echosmith’ song whose lyrics I borrowed for this review’s title goes) but, because their friends tend to be much better looking, they unwittingly serve the important role of gatekeeper to those who wish to approach their more attractive friends (like asking them to the prom) but are too afraid or insecure to do so.  Terrible, right?
 
More than simply another teen movie about embracing who you are and rising above the labels others place on you, ‘The Duff’ is a charming and funny Cinderella story about an "ugly duckling" who became a swan with some help from the high school's top jock (Robbie Amell), who also happened to be her neighbor across the street.  Mae Whitman was a revelation as the sassy and smart Bianca Piper, the spunky little spitfire who refused to conform to her unofficial label and play by the rules when she found out that she's duff to her BFF's Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos).   Like Emma Stone in ‘Easy A,’ her rocky journey of rebellion, self-discovery and triumph provides a feel-good story with appeal far beyond the movie’s intended demographic. 
 
Grade: B+
 
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Time Warped

The obligatory follow-up to 2010’s cult-comedy hit ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ is as bad as its Rotten Tomatoes composite rating (currently sitting at 13%) would suggest.  While the original was a somewhat enjoyable romp back to the '80's starring John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Chevy Chase, HTTM2 proved to be a limp, uninspired, unfunny, obnoxious and utterly unnecessary sequel that no time machine (hot tub or otherwise) can undo.  So why did I watch it?  Out of a misguided sense of obligation to this blog and in the vain hopes that I might disagree with the critics?  Perhaps.  But look on bright side, now you won't have to.
 
Picking up sometime after the first movie left off, our erstwhile time-travelers were forced to take another dip in the hot tub when ‘80’s glam rocker Lou (Corddry) was shot in the crotch at a party and ‘died,’ prompting his mates to drag him back in the tub and dial back the clock so they can prevent his assassination.  Except they went ‘back to the future’ to 2025 and met Adam (Adam Scott from ‘Parks and Recreation’), who is the son of John Cusack’s Adam in the first movie.  What follows is a series of lackluster and humorless gags, including a grimace-inducing scene in which Lou and Nick (Craig Robinson) had to engage in virtual gay sex on a reality TV show, that only managed to get grosser and more offensive while doing little in the way of moving the plot along, not to say that this movie had much of one in the first place.
 
It’s not that HTTM2 is lewd, crude and rude.  Those of you who read my reviews of comedies such as 'Ted' and 'Neighbors' know that I have no problems with R-rated raunch-coms that violate human decency and good taste.  Had HTTM2 only been funny I would have been much more forgiving, but I can’t think of one moment in the entire movie when I laughed out loud.  Instead, I found the movie and its characters annoying, pathetic, offensive and devoid of humor.  To sum it up, HTTM2 turned out to be a bore, as much as I wanted to like it because I rather enjoyed the original.
 
Grade: D
 
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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Delinquent Spy

What if 007 is a former juvie?  That’s the intriguing question ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ attempts to answer.  Loosely derived from the obscure comic book series ‘The Secret Service’ by industry veterans Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, ‘Kingsman’ may be the most entertaining take-no-prisoners R-rated big screen adaptation of an independent comic book series (that is, non-Marvel or DC) since ‘Kick-Ass,’ though such examples are admittedly few.
 
Well steeped in the James Bond tradition, ‘Kingsman’ is decidedly British in its “Gentleman Spy” sensibilities.  With one major exception, that is.  You see, the Secret Service’s newest recruit is young Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (no kidding, that’s the poor bloke’s nickname), a most un-Bondlike candidate.  Sporting a baseball cap, fleece letterman jacket and bling, Eggsy resembles in dress and bearing much less a spy than one of those wannabe white rappers (uh, hip-hop artists) like "Marky Mark" Wahlberg or Vanilla Ice back in the day.  This culture clash, however, provides much of the movie’s charm and humor, as Agent Galahad (Colin Firth) does his best to transform him from a young troublemaker into a tux-wearing, martini-swirling Gentleman Spy.
 
Other than the obvious nod to the 007 franchise, there are parts of the movie that can cite ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘Kill Bill’ Volumes 1 and 2 as its many influences.  And like the early Bond films (before they got darker), what made ‘Kingsman’ so enjoyable are the megalomaniacal villains, in this case Samuel L. Jackson (think ‘Snoop Dogg’ if he were a Bond villain), a violence-averse tech billionaire who wants to reboot the human race, and his beautiful yet lethal ‘blade runner’ henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) who, like Oscar Pistorius also revels in killing (ooh, so sue me).  Filled with wit, humor and a healthy dose of stylish ultra-violence, ‘Kingsman’ offers a fresh and welcome twist to the British superspy genre.
 
Geek Trivia: Mark Hamill made a cameo in the movie as Professor James Arnold.  Millar and Gibbons actually named the character Mark Hamill in their comic series, being the Star Wars fanboys they are.

Grade: A 
 
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The Spook's Apprentice

When a movie gets its release date pushed back by two years, it usually doesn’t bode well for its prospects.  Originally slated for release back on February 15, 2013, ‘Seventh Son’ (based on the novel of this review’s title) was pushed back for various reasons, the chief among which was production company Legendary Pictures’ having to find a new distributor after Warner Brothers backed out on distributing it.  You’d think a movie boasting such star power as Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Djimon Hounsou would garner a little more respect.

You'd also be wrong.  While ‘Seventh Son’ (no abbreviations here for obvious reasons) isn’t an unwatchable 'fantasy epic’ by any means, its familiar storyline, generic ordinariness and mundane action set-pieces just don't quite cut it at a time when we expect more thanks to having been spoiled by Peter Jackson.  Jeff Bridges harrumph-ed his way throughout the movie as the gruff and less-than-noble knight Sir Gregory, whose particular skill was mainly his high tolerance for liquor whenever he’s not fighting evil supernatural forces.  And Julianne Moore still looked great and was okay as the evil witch Mother Malkin, but even these two reunited ‘Big Lebowski’ stars couldn’t elevate the movie above its soul crushing mediocrity.

‘Seventh Son’ does have some nice visuals in its action set-pieces (with a $95 million production budget one should hope so), but they’re not anything that we haven’t seen before in the well-tread fantasy genre.  Some of the creature designs are cool, such as the drakes the witches turn into, a werebear played by Jason Scott Lee and a four-armed swordsman influenced by Kali, the six-armed goddess of Hindu mythology.  Alas, visuals and creature design alone just aren’t enough to recommend this movie nowadays.  Maybe I should’ve watched ‘Jupiter Ascending’ instead after all.

Grade: C
 
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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Benevolent Godfather

Only rarely do we see films like ‘A Most Violent Year,’ writer/director J.C. Chandor’s atmospheric anti-thriller that’s been drawing comparisons to Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola.  Set in New York City during 1981 in case you're wondering, ‘A Most Violent Year’ is the riveting tale of one man’s struggles to capture the elusive “American Dream” while maintaining his dignity and conscience. In certain ways, this subtle and understated gem is a counterpoint to mob flicks like ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas.’
 
Oscar Isaac delivered a breakout performance filled with humility, sincerity and grace as the charismatic Abel, a Colombian immigrant who through hard work, ambition and calculated risks built a successful home heating oil business in NYC.  Unfortunately, due to his growing success, one or more of his competitors decided to play dirty and resorted to hoodlum violence and intimidation tactics, such as hijacking his fuel trucks and beating up his drivers and door-to-door salesman.  To make matters worse, his business was under scrutiny by an ambitious DA with political ambitions, all the while Abel tries to close a pivotal property deal contingent on securing a loan with his bank or lose his sizable deposit.  Can Abel manage these crises and setbacks without compromising his principles, or will he see the business empire he so lovingly and painstakingly built over the years come crashing down like a house of cards? More importantly, will he under increasing pressure be able to resist his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) urgings to let her make a few phone calls to her family (she has mob ties) and make his problems go away?  These intriguing questions are central to the story.
 
AMVY is a mesmerizing slow-burner that’s gripping and suspenseful.  Endowed with a great screenplay by J.C. Chandor as well as powerhouse performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, it is truly a crying shame and no small travesty that this underappreciated film was snubbed by the Oscars.  I simply can't recommend it enough.

Grade: A+
 
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Not another time machine movie!

‘Project Almanac’ is MTV Films’ entry into the well-worn time machine subgenre, beating ‘Hot Tub Time Machine 2’ by a whole three weeks to our local Megaplex (no pun intended).  Unlike police call boxes, hot tubs or DeLoreans, the time machine in PA is rather nondescript and bare bones functional, an incomplete DARPA (that’s “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency” to all you non-geeks) project left gathering cobwebs in the basement of a scientist who went missing on his son’s seventh birthday.  Ten years later, the son (now a high school science prodigy) discovers, dusts off and tries to get the unfinished project working again.  Such is the premise of this chaotic, ADD-infused, frustrating and utterly forgettable mess of a movie.

With its shaky hand-held camerawork, PA’s frequently shifting POV may induce nausea to those unused to the style.  If anything, PA makes a strong case that this overused method should be put to rest once-and-for-all, 16 years after the movie which started this trend about another project, that of “Blair Witch.”  Long story short, at various parts of the movie we see a group of five teenagers use the time machine to play pranks on their unknowing selves (so as not to violate the “time-travel paradox”), for "do overs" to pre-empt a teacher’s questions, and go to the Lollapalooza music festival which occurred three months prior before realizing that they created a ripple effect with their juvenile time-traveling shenanigans and tried to undo their mistakes or recreate missed romantic moments such as a simple kiss.

Unlike another shaky cam movie in the same mold, 2012’s ‘Chronicle’ starring Dane DeHaan, PA lacks the character development and good storytelling to pull it off.   It’s just a disposable flick about a group of teens who decided to have some fun with their time machine, none of whom are remotely interesting enough for us to really care about.

Grade: C
 
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