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Monday, June 22, 2015

Franken rex

‘Jurassic World’ is the third sequel and fourth installment of the popular dinosaur-in-our-time series which began with ‘Jurassic Park’ 22 years ago in 1993, when Steven Spielberg adapted the late doctor-turned-novelist Michael Crichton’s suspenseful bestseller to the big screen and thrilled audiences worldwide.  While its two follow-ups stumbled in matching the intensity and suspense of the first film, ‘Jurassic World’ came pretty close and managed to recapture some of that lost magic. 
 
Keeping with our own timeline, JW takes place 22 years after the events of ‘Jurassic Park.’  The dinosaur theme park is now a reality and doing quite well, but the tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors have lost some of their luster and just aren’t cutting it anymore because, as one investor bluntly put it, people need to be “thrilled.”  The solution?  Modern biotechnology and the sheer audacity to play God, of course.   To this end, Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong, who also appeared in the original 1993 movie) and his team of bio-geneticists created a new cocktail designer super dinosaur by mixing the DNA of t-rex, velociraptor, cuttlefish, tree frogs and God-knows-what-else.  They even gave it an easy-to-remember and cool sounding name, indominus rex.  Whoo boy, just what could possibly go wrong?

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Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are competent actors, and Vincent D’Onofrio did a decent enough job as the obligatory corporate a-hole villain, but JW’s real stars are the meticulously CG-rendered dinosaurs: the t-rex, the raptors (now tamed) and of course the indominus rex.  Producer Steven Spielberg even managed to throw in a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘Jaws’ near the end when indominus rex finally met his mosasaurus, uh, maker. While JW is a tad too predictable and lacked the nail-biting tension of the 1993 original (largely because raptors hunting kids indoors is pretty hard to beat) with its mostly outdoors mayhem, it still provided enough science-gone-bad chills to put it well above the disappointments of ‘The Lost World’ and ‘Jurassic Park 3.’
 
Grade: B+
 
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Monday, June 8, 2015

Secret Agent Fat Lady

James Bond flicks are the subject of yet another spoof in rotund funny-woman Melissa McCarthy’s latest starring vehicle, the R-rated action-comedy ‘Spy’ from Paul Feig, who previously directed two of McCarthy’s most successful films, ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘The Heat.’  “Do we really need another dumb spy parody?” was my big question heading into this movie, but ‘Spy’ turned out to be quite the surprise (considering that past McCarthy films are a mixed bag) and is as fun and entertaining as the critics are saying.
 
McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a desk-jockey CIA analyst and the sedentary lesser half of an inseparable team with tuxedo-wearing superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), whom she pines for like a geeky high schooler daydreaming about dating the star quarterback.  Alas, after things went horribly wrong for her partner while he's on a mission to prevent the sale of a suitcase nuke on the black market by sexy Bulgarian villainess Raina Boyanov (her ‘Bridesmaids’ co-star Rose Byrne looking babe-licious), the most unspylike Susan was thrust into the deadly mission and finds herself globe-trotting through Paris, Rome and Budapest to stop the nefarious Boyanov from selling her WMD to the highest bidder.  Much hilarity ensues as we follow Susan's misadventures.  Jason Statham was also excellent and funny as the tough and garrulous (albeit dumb as a bag of hammers) agent Ford.
 
‘Spy’ worked on numerous levels and got the most out of its simple premise of a sad sack, middle-aged overweight woman as ass-kicking superspy.  And boy, did she kick ass!   Defying stereotypes has seldom been so funny and McCarthy carried the movie with ease and aplomb without becoming annoying like she did in some of her other roles, making ‘Spy’ her best movie to date.  With the successes of ‘Spy’ and ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service' earlier this year, the spy spoof is back in a big way.  Groovy baby, yeah!
 
Grade: A
 
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Something Insidious This Way Comes

In the wake of my recent disappointment with the ‘Poltergeist’ remake (reviewed below), I wasn’t sure if I’m ready to jump into another like-minded PG-13 ghost story in the same James Wan tone and style.  Regardless, like the ever dutiful critic I marched into the theatre for the third chapter of the ‘Insidious’ saga which began back in 2010 about the Lambert family and their unfortunate run-in with the forces of supernatural evil.  97 minutes later I’m happy to say that ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ wiped off the bad taste in my mouth left by ‘Poltergeist 2015.’
 
I:Ch3 is not a sequel but a prequel along the ‘Insidious’ timeline and focused on a different family, in this case a struggling single father (Dermot Mulroney) whose wife recently died and his two kids, the elder of whom is the teenage Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) who’s targeted by a malevolent spirit from "the beyond" sporting a breathing mask and sounding a bit like Darth Vader who’s after (what else?) her soul.  Coming to her aid against this insidious presence are characters ‘Insidious’ fans should be familiar with: the grandmotherly spiritual “medium” Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and the nerdy online ghostbusting duo of "Specs" (Leigh Whannell) and "Tucker" (Angus Sampson).  Leigh Whannell pulled triple duty as the film's director and writer in addition to playing "Specs."
 
While I:Ch3  isn't exactly groundbreaking or offered anything particularly new, the story is nonetheless engrossing and the key characters are interesting enough to make I:Ch3 a solid addition to the ‘Insidious’ franchise.  And unlike most franchises, ‘Insidious’ also managed to get better with each new installment.  That’s a phenomenon strange and supernatural in itself.
 
Grade: A-
 
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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On

It’s been over 40 years since the last major motion picture on the great California earthquake (1974’s ‘Earthquake’ starring Charleston Heston and Ava Gardner in case you’re wondering), and like the next Big One it is “long overdue.”  150 years or so overdue to be exact, according to the Caltech scientist played by Paul Giamatti in Brad Peyton’s $100 million-plus epic disaster movie ‘San Andreas,’ in which a 9.1 magnitude quake devastated Los Angeles and San Francisco along the infamous San Andreas fault line.  Thanks to the rubbish “disaster porn” we’ve seen over the past two decades from such Irwin Allen hacks as Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, I’ve been turned off to this genre but decided to give ‘San Andreas’ a look since I live in the San Gabriel Valley.  Call it morbid curiosity if you will.

WWE superstar-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s stock continues to rise in his role as a LAFD rescue pilot caught in the middle of the Big One.  Plot-wise, all disaster movies are the same: a small group of survivors are either desperately trying to survive amid all the destruction and chaos, or attempting to reunite with their loved ones, or both.   I guess when our world is literally falling apart around us, we’re predictable and our actions become primal and instinctual.  Yup.  In ‘San Andreas,’ Dwayne Johnson and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) put aside their estrangement and try to reach their daughter (Alexandra Daddario) who’s stranded 380 miles north in San Francisco.

For all its simplicity and predictability, ‘San Andreas’ is a fairly decent entry in the natural disaster genre largely due to its unannoying main characters (Johnson, Gugino, Daddario and a couple of young British chaps), even if their hair-raising, split second narrow escapes test the limits of our credulity.  Their trials and travails during the Great Quake of Los Angeles and San Francisco provided the human and emotional linchpin of the movie, which otherwise is little more than an ongoing sequence of awesome CG-rendered destruction on an epic scale that beggars belief.  Or as William Shakespeare would say in Act V, Scene V of ‘Macbeth’: “All full of noise and fury, signifying nothing.”
 
Grade: B
 
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Lost in Tomorrowland

Disney’s latest big budget feature isn’t about one of its many beloved properties like Cinderella, or a Marvel title virtually guaranteed to make it tons of money, but is named after one of its theme parks.  Just how are they going to tell a story about ‘Tomorrowland’?  That was my big question going into this movie from ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’ director Brad Bird, who also co-wrote the screenplay along with former ‘Lost’ scribe Damon Lindelof, whose creative colleague in that TV series, Carlton Cuse, wrote the screenplay of the earthquake movie reviewed above.
 
To the credit of Disney, Bird and Lindelof, ‘Tomorrowland’ turned out to be a fresh, original and rather enjoyable piece of sci-fi escapist entertainment which exceeded all of my expectations.  Granted, like most people I didn’t know what to expect from what little we’ve seen in the film’s preview, other than that the delinquent young woman (Britt Robertson as Casey Newton) touching the “magical” pin somehow gets transported to the wondrously wonderful world of Tomorrowland, but I was swept along helplessly by the film’s propulsive storyline, engaging characters and futuristic high concept.  Allow me to take a moment to lavish fine praise to young British actress Raffey Cassidy, who was brilliant as Athena and managed to steal nearly every scene she appeared in the movie.  George Clooney is also in good form as the grumpy and cynical old inventor who's caught up in Casey’s and Athena’s misadventures, but we can forgive his ill temperament considering that his bright-eyed childhood hopes were bitterly dashed by the not-so-dastardly Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie).
 
You may have read or heard that the movie’s ending was a bit of a let-down compared to what came before, but overall the movie is still fun to watch.  ‘Tomorrowland’ is what ‘The Matrix’ would be like if it’s repackaged as a kid-friendly PG feature by way of Steven Spielberg.  You just have to have the courage to dream big and believe.
 
Grade: A-
 
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Those Noisy Angry Spirits

“They’re here!”  Tobe Hooper’s ‘80’s haunted house classic (produced and written by Steven Spielberg) about a family who experiences paranormal phenomenon in the guise of “poltergeists” (German term for ghosts who make a lot of ruckus) gets the remake treatment from Ghost House Pictures, the production company run by genre vets and long-time collaborators Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert.  Considering that the original movie (which spawned a couple of sequels) came out over 30 years ago, this remake shouldn’t really be a surprise but, still, it is an utterly unnecessary and wasted effort which only served as the latest example that Hollywood greenlights such remakes simply because it can.
 
While the original ‘Poltergeist’ had an eminently likeable family in the Freelings (played by “Coach” Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Heather O’Rourke as the angelic Carol Anne), the remake’s Bowden family is a decidedly less interesting bunch.  Also, one of the best characters from the original was the spiritual medium sent in to help the Freelings in their supernatural predicament, Tangina, portrayed by Zelda Rubinstein.  The remake replaced her colorful character with a TV celebrity “Ghost Hunter” named Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris) whom being described as “boring” and “bland” would be a gross understatement.

This remake is so “been there, done that” and filled with well-worn tropes that it makes ‘Insidious’ and its sequel look like masterpieces of horror by comparison.  Unscary, unsuspenseful and uninspired, ‘Poltergeist 2015’ also failed miserably to connect with the new generation of moviegoers that is its intended target, although I’m sure this misfire won’t deter Hollywood from attempting to remake other horror “classics.”

Grade: D
 
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