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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Million Dollar Arm 2014 * * * Stars

Million Dollar ArmDirector: Craig Gillespie
Year: 2014
Rated PG
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell

If Ron Shelton directed a sports themed version of Crocodile Dundee (which includes the fish out of water element) coupled with a plot similar to Jerry Maguire, well you'd probably get 2014's Million Dollar Arm. Starring Mad Men's Jon Hamm, based on a true story (not entirely true I'm sure), and written by Win Win's Tom McCarthy, this Disney theme vehicle doesn't seem as sugar coated, saturated, manipulated, or predictable as most sports movies coming from its long running studio (examples would be Remember the Titans and the badly acted, Invincible). No this is a solid character study of Jon Hamm's J. B. Bernstein. As a down and out sports agent, he is easily agitated, cold, reserved, uptight, and downright ornery. He's an egg about to crack. But as the film progresses, you realize that Bernstein seems to be on a personal journey to become a better person not to mention a more feeling human being. Hamm, with his definitive smirk and buried five o'clock shadow, brings a lot of charisma to the role. I've never met a sports agent (only seen them on TV) nor do I know the exact way they talk, walk, and act. I do know this, Hamm gives a superb, heartfelt performance. There is no doubt in my mind that he can succeed as a stripped down lead actor.

Directed by Australian native Craig Gillespie and shot in India, Georgia, and Los Angeles, Million Dollar Arm opens up with independent sports agent J. B. Bernstein (Hamm) pitching the idea of the benefits of being managed by his company (he does it twice, once to himself as practice, then to a famous NFL linebacker). Popo (played by real life football god Rey Maualuga) as NFL royalty, wants a million dollar signing bonus right up front. Here's the problem: Bernstein and his other colleagues (one of which is Aash played by Aasif Mandvi and I couldn't figure out what exactly he did for said company) don't have any money, haven't signed any clients in forever, and seem on the brink of losing their job office space. The solution: go to India, find some fresh new baseball prospects (basically find cricket players and develop them as major league pitchers), and sign them to big moneymaking contracts. During the film's most pivotal moments, Hamm's Bernstein develops a relationship with two young boys (lightning rod arms in the form of actors Suraj Sharma and newcomer Madhur Mittal), starts a romance with his live in tenant (the likable Lake Bell), and as mentioned earlier, finds his center as a human being who before the events started, didn't have any kind of family, camaraderie, or just someone to really lean on. That being said, Million Dollar Arm's strength inevitably lies in its ability to be swift and breezy fun. Its tone harks back to an old school sports film like The Bad News Bears. And its behind the scenes topography feels akin to a less calculated version of Moneyball.

If this spring release has any overall flaws, I would say they would have to do with the romantic interludes between the Hamm and Bell characters. Maybe they are meant for each other maybe they're not. But the whole plot element of them getting together seems forced, not only by the writers but by the stars, the co-stars, and the whole set design (they live in the same house pretty much, how can it not). As for overall logic, "Arm" slips a bit when it asks the audience to believe that although Hamm's character doesn't have money or clients, he still is able to fly to India (that's about $2000 round trip), hire a scout (Alan Arkin playing well, Alan Arkin), have endless supplies for a tryout, hire two assistants, and pay his winning pitching prospects over $100,000 dollars. I know he is being financed by a rich dude (businessman Chang played by Tzi Ma) but how much is the question. Do you really think that a smart, powerful baseball owner would ever put this much trust in a sort of has been schlep like Bernstein?

Anyway, despite an ending that seems totally lifted from 2012's Trouble with the Curve, this Disney produced release still gets my full fledged recommendation. It's edited at a lightning quick pace with a kind of tight, straightforward method of storytelling. A lot of what's on screen is familiar stuff. However, like most sports movies, the feel good element is key and Million Dollar Arm's feels as if it's genuine or sort of earned if you will. Bottom line: with a level of predictability that's not overly predictable and a proof button assuring us that Jon Hamm is capable of holding the lead in a feature length film, Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time to check out something like Million Dollar Arm. It's entertainment that is worth every "dollar" (ha ha).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla 2014 * * Stars

GodzillaDirector: Gareth Edwards
Year: 2014
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen

I've never been a big fan of the Godzilla movies. After the last entries in the franchise (Godzilla 1985 and 1998's Godzilla) were critically panned, I thought to myself, do they really need to make another one? I mean, these films are not scary. They're a rotten novelty, they're cheesy as heck, and the fact that studios have been churning them out longer than the James Bond series shows me just how far down the pipe our movie going sensibilities have fallen. Anyway, in 2014 we now have a new version of Godzilla and it's arguably one of the low points of the year so far. It's not compelling, or groundbreaking, or powerful, or interesting, or mind blowing, or whatever. The special effects are very ho hum, very dated. I mean, its look suggests a TV movie or something that came out in the late 80's or early 90's. The creatures (there are I guess, three of them), which are believed to be the stars, look fake, tacky, and actually appear to suggest metallic robots. Was that the director's vision? Gosh I hope not!

The film overall, feels underwhelming. It's like a poor man's version of Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow. Those films didn't have gigantic monsters, but they were more involving, more absorbing, and had jaw dropping, juicy special effects. Give me ID4 or "The Day After" any day over this sludge. Heck, I'll even take the Kraken from Clash of the Titans and the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park as opposed to the halfwit, silly monsters in Godzilla.

Directed by Brit born Gareth Edwards, featuring a sequence in which the Golden Gate Bridge gets a startling, destructive makeover (not in a good way), and ripping off the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey's "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" scene (during an Naval aerial drop), this new Godzilla takes place in two different time periods (1999 and present day). The main plot point involves a cover up that is discovered by a nuclear plant supervisor named Joe Brody (played maniacally by Bryan Cranston). His wife who works with him, dies in a radiation accident. This accident might have been caused by the discovery of two skeletal pods that were in the process of hatching (Godzilla has a strange correlation between the releasing of the monsters and the concept of radiation which I didn't quite get, so sue me). Things fast forward 15 years later with Cranston's Brody now having conspiracy theories and being incarcerated for trespassing. His son flies in from San Francisco to get him out of jail. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the role of Ford Brody. He's got a solid amount of screen presence but doesn't get a whole lot to do acting-wise. He basically mugs to the camera and his blood seems ice cold as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, the two of them then become involved in the first catastrophic moments when the creatures awake from hibernation. They then begin to wreak havoc on Japan, the coast of California, and neighboring Las Vegas (why not). Oh and by the way, I was waiting for that kooky moment when someone in the crowd points at the sky and yells, "Godzilla!" That's probably the only trademark I find neat in these Plain Jane exercises.

Now a lot of what occurs in this 32nd film in the Godzilla franchise (yes there are that many), is laughable and trite. I thought it was funny how the armed forces (mainly the Navy) had their soldiers constantly trying to bring down the gigantic creatures by way of machine guns. There are eminent rounds fired but these Naval officers are too bewildered to know that there is no way M240 bullets could ever destroy a specimen that is probably the size of 30 or so buses. Then there's the notion where despite all the chaos caused by Godzilla and the other two MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms), the civilians almost seem to wanna stand around and watch. Seriously? There's a simple solution to all of this: Be smart enough to just leave the ruined cities behind and get the heck out of dodge people! Geesh. Finally, there are the battle scenes between the male Godzilla and I guess, two female Godzillas. Honestly, I found myself yawning at how boring and unimaginative they were and at the same time, I was getting pretty annoyed by the constant, thrown in roars coming from the male Godzilla. We get it. You're big, you're nasty, you're slimy, you're menacing. You don't have to keep reminded us the audience, that you mean business.

As for the cast members of Godzilla, they are sort of appealing but their performances barely register. Bryan Cranston does most of the heavy lifting dialogue wise, but he's barely in the proceedings to begin with (you wouldn't know it by viewing the trailer). Mainly, all the actors and actresses do a lot of staring. There are numerous shots where the creature is coming and everybody looks half afraid and says, "let's get out of here!" Added to that, most of their characters are Hollywood types that are standardized to the point of absurdity. I mean, we've seen variations of these people time and time again. You know the concerned hero dad, the hospital worker mom, the U.S. president who we never see, the crazy old man who plays Nostradamus, the little kid who's in peril, etc..etc..

When it's all said and done, this new Godzilla is a reputable dud. As a film, it's about as bland as a can of unsalted peanuts. I mean, I knew I had seen something mediocre when I realized that the younger sister of the Olsen twins gave the flick's best performance. Now I do predict that Godzilla will probably have a huge opening weekend at the box office followed by a steep, steep drop in ticket sales. If you choose to take in a viewing, see this thing for the following reasons: You're bored to death, you happen to get free tickets to a screening, you've seen everything else currently playing at the local multiplex, or it's raining heavily outside. Otherwise, there is no justification in seeing a film that plays not so much like a reboot, but as a flat out rerun (if you've seen one Godzilla, you've seen them all). Within the final climatic 20 minutes, this is a vehicle that seems completely rushed to get done. In the end, the creatures aren't "god" awful but in retrospect, they certainly aren't "god" fearing.

Of note: (spoiler alert) at the end of 2014's Godzilla, there's a shot of the male creature on a big jumbotron in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. The news credits at the bottom reveal that this big, menacing oaf is a hero/savior to the people of the coastal United States. That made me laugh. If destroying a hugely populated city and killing innocent people makes you a hero, then I must have missed the boat somewhere. Oh well.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Top 20 Favorite Movie Sequels of All Time

Hello everyone! As I've told you in the past, I'm not a huge fan of sequels. But after looking over 1000 of them, I did manage to find twenty that I truly adore. Here's the list. You'll notice that most of them are from the late 70's and on. I'm pretty sure that's when movie sequels started to become a thing. Anyway, I welcome feedback from you, the reader. Let me know if there are any you want to add. The list is as follows:

1. Aliens (1986) * * * * Stars -Aliens is the blueprint for what a sequel can accomplish. Its got everything you want in a movie period. Great characters, exceptional expansion on the story of a franchise, breathtaking action, and Sigourney Weaver hitting it out the park with a triumphant performance.

2. The Godfather Part II (1974) * * * * Stars -
"This is the business we have chosen." This is the sequel I have chosen for my number two pick.

3. Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back (1980) * * * 1/2 Stars -
The characters are a little more serious and everything is dark and dour. However, "Empire" expands on the overall look of its predecessor and provides sumptuous visuals. This film is also plotted ingeniously.

4. The Color of Money (1986) * * * 1/2 Stars -
Yeah it came out 25 years later, but Scorsese showcased his bravado style while Paul Newman finally got his well deserved Oscar.

5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) * * * 1/2 Stars -
Felt a lot like the original Raiders in terms of action set pieces. That's good enough for it to be in the top five.

6. Superman II (1981) * * * 1/2 Stars -
The original is good. This sequel entertains even more while digging deeper into Christopher Reeve's torn character.

7. Star Wars: Episode VI- Return of the Jedi (1983) * * * 1/2 Stars -
Billy Dee Williams is one of the coolest supporting players in a sequel. This 3rd Star Wars flick is bonafide proof.

8. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) * * * 1/2 Stars -
Sort of a copy of the original but still a lot of fun. Great soundtrack and of course back in the 80's, Eddie Murphy was invincible.

9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) * * * 1/2 Stars -
If you've seen the first Star Trek in 79,' you'll know that this is a master class in the improvement stage.

10. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) * * * 1/2 Stars -
Just another reason to believe that Mel Gibson is a god! One heck of a ride.

11. Rocky III (1982) * * * Stars -
I pity the fool who hates on this sequel. Entertainment value at its highest level.

12. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) * * * Stars -
Possibly one of the funniest movies ever made. I laughed every 2-3 minutes and might have broke 2 ribs. Nevertheless, it was a gas baby!

13. Rocky II (1979) * * * Stars -
"Yo Adrian, I did it!"

13. (tie) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) * * * Stars -The opening chase sequence sold me on this one. The last good AARRNNOOLLD flick before he became the governator!

14. Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997) * * * Stars -
Dare I say that this is Vince Vaughn's last great performance. Oh and Spielberg invariably strikes again!

15. Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) * * * Stars -
The jokes are on par with the original Airplane. And how about that hilarious cameo in the form of William Shatner.

16. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) * * * Stars -
As funny as the original and a bit more racy.

17. Halloween II (1981) * * * Stars -
The poster's tagline reads, "The Nightmare Isn't Over." You ain't kidding.

18. Ocean's Twelve (2004) * * * Stars -
I might be in the minority but this one is better than 2001's pedestrian original.

19. Back to the Future Part II (1989) * * * Stars -
A complex sequel with mind bending twists and neat set designs. Eye candy! Nuff said.

20. U.S. Marshals (1998) * * * Stars -
Before Wesley Snipes failed to pay his taxes, he did us all a solid by filling Harrison Ford's shoes here.

20. (tie) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) * * * Stars -In my opinion, the first film to really overstep the boundaries of a PG rating. This is intense stuff.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Brick Mansions 2014 * * * Stars

Brick MansionsDirector: Camille Delamarre
Year: 2014
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Paul Walker, Rza, David Belle, Robert Maillet

Brick mansions according to this sugar junked 2014 release, refer to the rotted out areas in Detroit where governmental hygiene and the law in general, don't exist. These mansions are surrounded by a wall (just think of the outlining containment in 1981's Escape from New York but without the prison tie-ins), provide housing for the most despicable criminals imaginable, and even have normal, decent (yet poor) civilians living there as well. Brick Mansions (the film I'm reviewing) is about brick mansions. And it's a quick, relentless, almost ridiculous little action collage. But it's energized and entertaining not to mention fused with a nifty little twist of an ending. Oh and it's got a pretty cool movie title too.

Touted as a remake of the 2004 french film District 13 and solidifying itself as one of the late Paul Walker's last cinematic outings, Brick Mansions enters the buddy action genre by teaming up a decorated Detroit, MI cop with a misunderstood, hard up ex-convict. Walker plays officer Damien Collier and David Belle plays the resourceful, street minded, Lino Dupree. Together, they must stop a disastrous event by infiltrating the highly desolate quote unquote, "mansions" and destroying a nuclear rocket built to be launched thereby leaving Detroit in ruins. Crime lord Tremaine Alexander (played feverishly by RZA) is the keeper of this dangerous device and wants $30 million dollars in return for disarming it. This is the gist of what's going on and while the plot elements seem interesting, they sometimes get lost in the muck due to an enormous amount of non-stop (almost unnecessary), bloodless, gore-less, yet pulsating action sequences.

The action in Brick Mansions consists of exhausting fistfights, standard car chases, foot chases, shootouts, and a couple of mild torture scenes. Everything is done in a tasteful, steadily violent (and surprisingly profanity-free) PG-13 vein. I mean, you get a little bit of everything and almost too much of it. The dialogue spoken by the cast feels a little juvenile at times (as if it was written by an immature teenager). But it's also sort of meaty and macho while coming off as unabashedly tongue-in-cheek. Director Delamarre, a first timer, exhibits something that is ADHD enhanced. He's made a down-and-dirty hip hop video in which he films a lot of actor close-ups, edits in cuts that are lightning quick, showcases tons of slow motion stuff, and even shows fights with plenty of jittery camerawork when needed. While doing this though, he sometimes slips in the development of the characters and the overall plot.

Now as mentioned earlier, this film is defiantly an action collage, a sort of greatest hits collection featuring the best ways to defeat your enemy through tingling martial arts. The action scenes while impressive, seem overused and sort of overshadow what exactly is going on making things a bit murky. Nevertheless, they reminded me of the first ten minutes of 2006's Casino Royale, certain parts of the 1985 flop, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, and even the dance flick, Step Up. The ominous butt kicking by Walker and Maillet as the action buddy duo, seemed kind of poetic, or ballet-like. And the sort of moves they display and their outfits gave off the whole West Side Story vibe if you know what I mean (simple jeans and t-shirts folks).

As for the performances, they are much stronger than in your typical mindless bullet-ridden fare. Paul Walker does just fine as an undercover, revenge-minded cop. His role is underdeveloped (every person's role is) but it's done with total ease. David Belle, not known initially for his acting (he's a stunt coordinator), does what's required and pulls off what female mixed martial artist Gina Carano did appearing in 2012's action thriller, Haywire. As for the best turn in Brick Mansions, I'd say that honor definitely goes to rapper turn thespian RZA. He's slick and savory, menacing and bull whipped as Tramaine Alexander. He's a villain with a surprising conscience and a glaring stare to boot.

In retrospect, everyone who sees this flick will probably pass judgement on star Paul Walker's lasting impression. Why, because it might be the last time moviegoers ever see him on the silver screen. And despite what I've heard or read about him in the past, I've never been that suspect of his acting ability in any capacity. He always had the X factor, quintessential movie star looks, and a feasible amount of effortless charisma. If you take away his work in The Fast and the Furious movies however, I'm not sure that he would've ever reached a level of super star status. Now do I think Brick Mansions is the ultimate sendoff for his contribution to Hollywood escapism? Not exactly. But it seems like a serviceable vehicle catering to what choices he made over a 20 year plus career in film.

Towards the conclusion of "Mansions" and during a tiny break in its tired action set pieces, Walker's Damien Collier utters the line, "different method, same result." He says this after crashing through a roof and evading would-be thugs. Well Paul, we'll all miss you on screen and your last film's method, I'd say it ain't so bad.

Written by Jesse Burleson