Review: Birdman

Review: Birdman

Birdman PosterWhen I first heard of Birdman (rated R) I thought it was a great vehicle for Michael Keaton. It seemed to reflect his own life of a great actor who was mostly remembered for playing a superhero. When I saw that it was co-written and directed by Alejandra González Iñárritu, I thought it didn’t sound like his type of movie at all. It seemed more like a comedy and Iñárritu’s films tend to be heavy. Super heavy. Remember Biutiful? Yeah. Heavy. I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes picture of Birdman. Michael Keaton was standing on the street in a trench coat with a man dressed in a superhero bird costume standing behind him. It looked… well, kinda silly. That just goes to show you can’t judge a movie based on it’s behind-the-scenes photo because Birdman isn’t silly. It’s a well acted, well crafted film that is sure to see some nominations come awards time.

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Review: John Wick

Review: John Wick

John WickThis is a story we are all familiar with. In fact, I had a screenplay idea similar to this a long time ago. Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, an assassin who left the business to be with a woman. She is eventually diagnosed with a terminal illness and after she passes away, a gift is delivered to John’s home. It’s a puppy with a note from his wife. A final gift to help him through the grieving process.  But when the son of a gangster breaks in to John’s house, steals his car and murders the dog, John decides it might be time to come out of retirement.

The gangster’s son has no idea who he’s messed with but everyone else in town does. And they know John Wick is coming after him.

This is probably one of the most entertaining action/revenge films I’ve seen in quite a while. Directed by Reeve’s old stuntman, Chad Stahelski, the film is one great action set piece after another.

The gangster’s name is Viggo and is played by Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series and was also the villain in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. When he finds out his son stole John’s car and murdered his dog, he tries to talk John out of doing anything rash. When that doesn’t work, he puts a $2 million contract out on his head. So now, John is being hunted down while he tries to find and kill Viggo’s son.

Reeve’s plays Wick with a quiet intensity. He’s channeling Clint Eastwood and Jason Bourne and seems to have no problems fighting off bad guy after bad guy. At 50 years old Reeve’s looks just as comfortable in this action role as he did back in 1999 in The Matrix.

Featuring Willem Dafoe as one of John’s old colleagues and friends and John Leguizamo in a small cameo as a body-shop owner who works for Viggo as well. Adrianne Palicki also plays an assassin who knows John from his past and is intent on cashing in on that $2 million.

The film’s story is simple and there’s a cheesy line here and there but overall John Wick (rated R) is one heck of a ride.

I give it an A-

Review: Fury

Review: Fury

FuryBrad Pitt takes on the World War II genre yet again but this time with a film that’s more serious in tone. Inglourious Basterds was a fun Tarantino ride that received a Best Picture nomination but Fury (rated R) feels more like what you’d expect from an Oscar nominee. Could Fury be nominated for a Best Picture award? Possibly. I definitely think it’s worthy of one. Brad Pitt could possibly see his next Best Actor nomination (his last being 2011’s Moneyball). Pitt’s been nominated three times for acting and twice as a producer, winning last year’s Oscar for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave.

Fury follows a group of five men who all operate an American tank which they’ve nicknamed (or codenamed) Fury. Their newest member is Norman (Logan Lerman), a young man who’s never seen battle and has only been in the army eight weeks. Pitt plays their leader Don, nicknamed “Wardaddy”, Shia Labeouf is “Bible”, Michael Pena is “Gordo” and Jon Bernthal is “Coon-Ass”. They’ve all been together for years and are a little unnerved by their newest (and by far, youngest) member. When Norman’s hesitation to shoot the enemy puts the lives of his men in danger, Don is quick to teach him a lesson.

The tank and it’s crew make it’s way through Germany and we see battle after horrific battle. There is one particularly tense scene involving Fury battling a German tank.

The film’s characters are rich and the acting is superb. Pitt is at his finest with this role and LaBeouf is the best I’ve ever seen him. Bernthal plays his character somewhat over the top, but I can’t help but think it was written that way. His character is a redneck southerner sociopath who, at times, is hard to root for.

David Ayer’s direction is also the best I’ve seen of his so far. The visuals are grim and dark. Often the German soldiers’ faces are in shadow or hidden behind masks, giving the enemy a less-than human appearance.

Fury is a great character piece with solid acting and intense action sequences that place it near the top of the year’s best list.

I give it an A-

Review: Gone Girl

Review: Gone Girl

Gone GirlDavid Fincher is at it again with his new thriller/mystery Gone Girl (rated R), based on the novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay). The film follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who comes home on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his home broken in to and his wife missing. Once the police get involved it becomes clear that not everything is at seems and Nick Dunne may or may not be telling the truth.

Having read the novel, I was curious to see how it would be translated to film and I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. Gone Girl is one of this year’s best thrillers and one of the most well crafted movies of the year.

The film has Fincher’s signature dark, color-muted look to it and features a score from his now regular collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who won an Oscar for their score for Fincher’s The Social Network). The score isn’t exactly memorable in the sense that I couldn’t hum a single bar for you, if you asked, but it serves the story perfectly. It’s haunting in some scenes and adds to the tension in others. It’s a soundtrack I may have to look in to purchasing.

Ben Affleck gives one of his best performances but the real scene-stealer is Rosamund Pike, who plays Nick’s missing wife (mostly seen in flashback). Her performance is Oscar worthy and I hope she gets the acclaim she deserves.

David Fincher is one of my favorite directors, with a notorious shooting style (remember how he shot the opening scene for The Social Network 99 times? Apparently that’s normal for him.) but his methods work for him. He’s crafted a near perfect thriller that races through it’s 150 minute run time. Fans of the book (like me) won’t be disappointed and folks who haven’t read the book are in for a real treat. I almost wish I hadn’t read the book so that I could have experienced the unfolding mystery for the first time in the theater. Gone Girl marks the beginning of Oscar season and it starts it off with a bang.

I give it an A.

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Walk Among the Tombstones PosterWhen a drug dealer’s wife gets kidnapped and murdered, he enlists the help of Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson), an unlicensed, ex-cop, private eye to track down the men who did it. Soon Scudder realizes these men have done this before and they’re probably going to do it again.

Based on the novel by Lawrence Block and written and directed by Scott Frank, A Walk Among the Tombstones (rated R) is a modern day (although it takes place in 1999) noir thriller. Scudder goes door to door asking questions, slowly unraveling the mystery, until finally he comes face to face with the men he’s been searching for.

I’m a fan of Scott Frank’s writing. Previously he wrote the screen adaptations of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Minority Report. Behind the camera, his last (and only) directorial effort was 2007’s The Lookout, a film I really enjoyed. When I found out he was behind Tombstones, my anticipation for the film rose.

Liam Neeson plays Matt Scudder about the same as he’s played a lot of his roles lately: a man with a certain set of skills. This time his character has a darker past. He’s a recovering alcoholic ex-cop who tells his rock-bottom story (the opening scene of the movie) at one AA meeting after another. Even without seeing the whole scene, we know there’s more to his story than he’s letting on.

Eventually Scudder meets T.J., a young homeless boy who seems attracted to the P.I. lifestyle. He imagines himself as a young Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe but doesn’t understand the danger the life can bring.

The movie rolls along at a slow pace but is never boring. David Harbour plays one of the villains of the film and chews the scenery up quite nicely. (Harbour was also in The Equalizer but has a meatier role in this film) Neeson handles the character well (we’ve seen it before) but never phones it in, thankfully. And Frank’s writing and direction is solid.

I give it a B+

 

Review: The Equalizer

Review: The Equalizer

EqualizerDenzel Washington reunites with his Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua, and returns to the screen as Robert McCall, The Equalizer (rated R), based on a television show from the 80s I’ve never seen. McCall works at Home Mart, a Home Depot/Lowe’s type store and tries to live a quiet, normal life. He’s a good employee and helpful. He helps his overweight coworker try to get in shape for the security guard exam. He has his routines. Every night he goes to the local diner, has some tea and enjoys a book. Here he meets Teri, a young call girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) who quickly ends up in the hospital after being beaten by a customer.

Soon, he’s face to face with the Russian mobsters who employ Teri, offering them money to buy her out. When they laugh in his face, McCall decides to return to a life he left behind and do what he does best. He takes all the bad guys in the room down in seconds. He even times himself. This ignites a spark in McCall and he ends up becoming a vigilante, taking down criminals in his city night after night. But the Russian mobsters he took down were employed by an even worse mobster. A man who decides McCall has to go.

Denzel Washington is perfect as Robert McCall. He has the charm and charisma for the opening act, playing the nice guy McCall but he also can bring the tough guy quality that’s needed for the rest of the film. He’s got superhuman like skills and no one seems to be a match for him. As the story unfolds and he finds himself getting deeper and deeper into mobster territory, he has no problem handling himself.

Marton Csokas plays the villain of the film, Teddy, a British right hand man to the top Russian mobster Pushkin. He’s menacing and equally as skilled as McCall. At first, I thought Csokas was going a bit over the top with his performance but by the end of the film, I was really enjoying it. He really is creepy and a formidable foe for Washington.

My favorite element to the film is the score by Cliff Martinez. With a bit of an electronic feel, the music is some of the best I’ve heard all year.

The weakest elements of the film can be overlooked. The movie was rather enjoyable and if it weren’t for these flaws would be among my favorite movies of the year. The first problem comes after McCall decides to start righting some wrongs. He finds himself in all the right places at all the right times. When a Home Mart cashier gets robbed, he’s right there. When his friend Ralphie’s Mom’s restaurant goes up in flames due to not paying some corrupt policemen, he’s all over it. It’s a superhero movie syndrome. We need to see the hero saving the day, but it starts to feel a bit too coincidental.

The other problem I have with the film is the ending which feels tacked on due to either a studio request or a poor test screening. It has the stench of “re-shoots” all over it. If it ended where I thought it was going to end (and probably originally ended), I would have loved it.

I give it a B+.

Review: Tusk

Review: Tusk

Tusk Poster After his last film, Red State, Kevin Smith stated that he was retiring from film making to become a full-time podcaster. The man loves to talk (with at least five different podcast shows, you have to love it) and so podcasting seemed like the next big step in his career.

But after an episode of Smodcast with his producer and long-time friend, Scott Mosier, where he told the story of a man looking to rent a room to anyone willing to wear a Walrus costume for a couple of hours a day, a movie idea was formed. He and Scott asked their listeners to tweet #WalrusYes if the movie idea they had discussed was something they wanted to see on the big screen. Their listeners answered and now Kevin Smith returns to film making with his horror-comedy, Tusk.

Unfortunately, I didn’t listen to Smodcast when the episode aired. I did download it and check it out once Tusk was already well in to post-production and wondered how the movie version of their story would turn out. It seemed ridiculous and silly. Well, now the film has finally been released. And it is ridiculous and silly.

In my opinion, the trailer for Tusk actually does the film a disservice. It makes the film look like a true horror flick. Serious and scary, with just the right amount of Kevin Smith’s brand of comedy. I was excited for this. Smith’s previous film, Red State, strayed from his typical fare, the “stoner” comedy. So with Tusk, I imagined we’d stray even more, into even darker territory. I couldn’t wait to see Smith really push himself and take a risk.

We don’t quite get that with Tusk. It’s different than his previous films but Tusk is not a horror film. It’s a comedy. A dark comedy, yes, but a comedy nonetheless. Not to say that it’s a bad thing. It’s just not what I was expecting.

The film opens with Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment as Wallace Brighton and Teddy Craft, the co-hosts of a podcast show called “The Not-See Party”.  The idea behind the show is Wallace travels to different locations interviewing strange or ridiculous (or internet famous) people, comes back home, and tells his tale to Teddy, who stays at home because he’s supposedly afraid to travel. So Teddy doesn’t see any of the wacky stuff Wallace does. Hence the title of the show: “The Not-See Party”. Kind of a stretch for a silly joke, but whatever. I can go with it.

Wallace sets off to Canada to interview a kid known as “The Kill Bill Kid”, who is a fictionalized version of the “Star Wars Kid”. “The Kill Bill Kid” twirls a samurai sword around in his garage like an idiot and accidentally cuts off one of his own legs. But when Wallace arrives, “The Kill Bill Kid” has committed suicide, most likely due to all the internet bullying and unwanted attention he was receiving. The movie doesn’t get in to any of that. In fact, Wallace is more upset about losing his interview than the kid taking his own life. Wallace is a bit of a jerk.

So in a cruel twist of fate, Wallace stumbles upon a hand-written ad posted on a men’s room wall, by a man named Howard Howe, who is looking for a lodger to rent a room. He mentions that he has lived a long, full life and has many stories to tell. Well, Wallace is in need of a good story! Little does Wallace know, he is in for much more than he bargained for.

The scene between Howard Howe, played by the amazing Michael Parks, and Wallace when they first meet, is mesmerizing. The dialogue is superb. The acting is fantastic. We were still early in to the movie, but I was thinking to myself that this could be my new favorite Kevin Smith movie. Soon, Howe’s true intentions come to light; he wants to turn Wallace into a Walrus.

I was digging the movie for quite a while, but eventually it takes a bit of a turn. The silliness of the premise can’t be taken too seriously and Smith reminds us of that when he introduces a character named Guy LaPointe, who is too much of a caricature to be taken seriously. I’m still unsure as to whether or not the identity of the actor who plays LaPointe is secret, so I’ll leave it a mystery (he’s actually not credited for the role. The end credits state Guy LaPointe is played by Guy LaPointe). I was thrown for a bit of a loop by the comedy in the second half, since the first half, while funny, had a more serious tone.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though. Tusk is very entertaining. It’s not a film for everyone. Some folks will hate it and I think those folks won’t be able to see the humor in it. I wish I could say more, especially about the special effects make-up involved, but I’m afraid that would be getting in to spoiler territory and I don’t want that.

I think I may need to revisit Tusk when it comes out on DVD. Going in to it knowing what it is might help me appreciate it more. Again, I blame the trailer for marketing it as a straight up horror film. For now though, I give it a B-.

Tusk is rated R and is now playing in theaters.

Mini-Review 015 – Guardians of the Galaxy [PG-13]

Mini-Review 015 – Guardians of the Galaxy [PG-13]

GOTG_Payoff_1-Sht_v4b_LgGuardians of the Galaxy was one of those movies that immediately grabbed my attention at first glance. This was both good and bad.

I had never seen these characters before, let alone, heard of them. (Sorry to any fanboys I am currently letting down). I was intrigued, but at the same time, confused. Why is Marvel picking this? The majority of people have NO idea who these guys are. They aren’t even going to know it’s Marvel. Along with that, it looked extremely CGI heavy, with a raccoon and tree-man being two prominent characters.

Now that it’s been released, find out what Justin thought about the film below:

Review: The Wind Rises [PG-13]

Review: The Wind Rises [PG-13]

Wind Rises PosterFamous Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has a very large following. It’s a group I’ve never really been a part of, mainly due to not having seen his films. I’ve never been a huge Japanese animation fan. I can’t really pinpoint the reason other than the style of animation doesn’t draw me in (no pun intended). I saw Spirited Away when it was first released and wasn’t a fan. I’ve been told I should revisit it; I might enjoy it more now that I’m older. I’ve also been told to check out Miyazaki’s other films. After seeing The Wind Rises (which was nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature), I just might do that.

Hit the jump to check out my review.

The Wind Rises follows Jiro, a lover of airplanes who dreams to one day be a pilot. Realizing that his bad eyesight will never allow him to achieve that dream, he decides instead to design airplanes, becoming one of Japan’s most influential aeronautical engineers during World War II. It’s based loosely on the lives of Tatsuo Hori and Jiro Horikoshi, the latter being the designer of the Zero fighter.

The film is grounded in reality and feels like a biopic although it does have it’s fantasy moments, mostly played out in dream sequences. Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a dreamer and he has these shared dream sequences with the famous Italian aeronautical engineer Caproni (voiced by Stanley Tucci). Jiro often visualizes his designs in his head to see if they will work or not. The sequences are often beautiful and the high points of the film.

The movie is a tad on the long side (clocking in at 126 minutes) but it’s an enjoyable film. There is a love story between Jiro and a character named Nahoko (voiced by Emily Blunt) that brings an additional layer of emotional depth to the story. Jiro’s friend Honjo is voiced by John Krasinski and his voice work steals the show.

My biggest criticism is with the very end. Without giving anything away, there is a moment where the film fades out and then fades back in to continue on for another 5 minutes or so. If the credits had begun to roll after the first fade out, I would have loved this movie but I feel they ruined it by adding on the ending that they did.

Overall, I give it a B+.