Tuesday, March 3, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW - Focus

It has been a while since Will Smith has had a movie in theaters.  And this week, Focus had a modest week at the box office.

First off, there is a lot to like in this movie.  This has some real nice moments in many avenues. There is some real good humor here, also some wonderful moments of suspense, and overall this is a pretty good story.  But this is one of those movies that for some reason, just doesn't click all the way to being really good, and stops at simply being...decent.

Focus is the story of Nickey (Smith).  He is a big-time con man, that has a gaggle of merry men as it were, who spend their time committing small crime after small crime, slowly amassing a small fortune.  He meets Jess (Margot Robbie), who is a small time con woman.  They strike up relationship that at first is professional.  She wants "in" on the game, and wants to be a part of the "team." So they partner up, along with Nickey's group and spend Superbowl week in New Orleans ripping off thousands of people in various ways.

Then these two spark up a romantic relationship, that goes wrong, as Superbowl week closes. And Jess finds herself of the losing end.  Then, we flash forward 3 years to present day.  When Jess and Nickey find themselves face to face, and on opposite sides in a for hire con in South America at a huge car race.  How will they handle all of this? And who will out-con who?  Without giving out too much info, that is Focus.

It is good to see Smith back on the screen again and in a role that he looks comfortable in.  The real star of this movie though is Margot Robbie. She is amazing in this movie, and really controls and commands the screen when she is on it. She broke onto the scene a year or so ago in The Wolf of Wall Street, but let's be honest, that was Dicaprio's movie, not hers.  Here although Smith is the star, she is the gas in the engine of this movie.  He is very versatile here and elevates this movie and it needs her.

Trouble here is the overall story.  The idea is fine, but this movie has no accountability to it. As charming as our stars are, they are still bad people causing real misery to tons of people by stealing their money, valuables, credit cards, and even identities.  And some of that is simply not funny, or glamorous, given the present day climate of things and will hit close to the bone for many.  This also has a few real draggy spots in it, that really slows it down a ton.  True, this is not too long, it is simply non-compelling in many areas.  A final rewrite and a sharper editing blade could have made this better. 

Focus.  This is not a bad movie, not a great one either. Nothing wrong with seeing this on a winters day or night.

Monday, March 2, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW - The Duff

Here comes one of the real surprise movies of the year, The Duff. Right up front, I really liked this movie.

The Duff is a teen satire comedy, with a real heart that is right on point and totally relevant movie making.  When I saw this movie, the movie Easy A popped into my mind with Emma Stone a few years back, and launched her to real heights.  I think this could do the same to the wonderful Mae Whitman who stars in this funny, quirky and spot on comedy.

Whitman plays Bianca. Bianca is The Duff.   Duff is an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. A term used in her fictional California high school.  Bianca is a bit awkward, and is friends with two really "hot" girls. One of her guy friends convinces her, that she is a Duff. So Bianca, takes that information and goes off the deep end, de-friending all of her hot friends in person and on social media, and sets out to reinvent herself.  In short, this is a coming of age, teen comedy that is so well written, it speaks to anyone that goes to it.  In many ways things have changed a lot in high school in the 21st century, and in many ways they have not.

But this movie is a real coming out party for Whitman.  Actually, she is 27 years old, and has been an actress since her early childhood.  She has appeared in dozens of movies, and successful TV shows in her life, and has done a ton of voice work too in animation.  But this is a starring role in a big time well accepted movie.  And she is wonderful.  She is perfectly cast, and is really funny as she skates her way through this sharply written satire on the high school experience today.  Her performance is very much like Stone's in Easy A.  

Like Easy A, not all of this works.  There are a few moments here that don't work at all, but overall this really captures today's teens, lampoons them, and takes time to develop some great characters, and some palpable chemistry between them.  I laughed out loud at much of this.  And at times had real empathy for Bianca, as she goes through what teens have been going through for generations. Especially girls. 

This deals with many topics today, bullying, social media, gadgetry, young love and fitting in. This is wonderfully written, and directed same. This zips along well, and never gets in its own way. Whitman is great, and so is the supporting cast. This will be one of the real surprises of 2015.

The Duff.  This is quite good.

MOVIE REVIEW - McFarland USA

Kevin Costner has made his share sports movies. McFarland USA is his latest, and the latest in a long line of Disney feel good sports movies.

It's pretty tough to make a compelling movie about high school cross country, but somehow they have.  This is a true story from the late 1980's of a remarkable, but fallible high school coach and his amazing group of seemingly misfit kids in one of America's poorest towns, McFarland, California.  I know this has a bunch going against it, but this is a story worth telling, and I am glad they found it and told it.

Costner plays Coach White.  A former high school football coach with a very checkered past.  He has been fired from job after job with a long line of self destructive acts.  Now down to his last chance, he accepts the only coaching job he can get, in McFarland as an assistant football coach.  But even that doesn't work out.  So after being relieved from that job, he somehow convinces the principal to let him begin a cross country team.  Permission granted.

He is moved to this decision by seeing a bunch of the students run during gym class.  You see, most of them are Mexican migrant workers kids, and they are not strangers to hard work, and to running to and from school most every day.  Together they form this wonderful friendship, and this bond that brings them tighter as a team. But, there are large roadblocks along the way.

There is a huge social, racial, and socioeconomic element in play here, that really gives this a feeling of being very unique. Can White bring these kids together and make them be the best they can be? And can they change him to be a new man, and change the way he goes through life on and off the field. In short, this is a real nice story.

I have to admit, I was insanely skeptical about this movie from the word go.  It just looked like too long of a stretch even for a sports fan like me to swallow this concept. But with all things being level, this is a great story, and that's where all good movies begin.  In fact, I found this story to be far more compelling that even well done movies like Remember The Titans.  I think it's because it tells a story that you have never really seen before buy a long shot. 

Costner is good, solid and the supporting cast with Maria Bello, and others blends well throughout. But put all that aside, the star of this movie is the story.  Granted this is a bit too long, and 15 minutes less would have been far more.  But, stay around for the closing credits, as you will be astounded as to the end result of all of these runners lives, and Coach White too. 

McFarland USA. Is this great?  No...but this is a nice family movie, great story.

Monday, February 23, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW - Still Alice

One of the more powerful movies of 2014, is finally playing locally at a few theaters. In very limited release, the high drama piece, Still Alice with now Oscar winner Julianne Moore.

Still Alice is a very moving movie based on a book about a young woman, Alice (Moore).  She is a big time professor at Columbia University in New York City, and the mother of three grown children.  She is 50 years old, and has a wonderful marriage to her husband John (Alec Baldwin).  Then, as the next phase of her life is about to begin, she is stricken with Alzheimer's Disease. 

Her form of it is very aggressive and it appears that her prognosis is not very good at all.  So what this movie does is chronicle her coping with this horrible diagnosis along with her family.  She decides that she is going to do all she can to live the best life possible.  But she soon learns that this is not going to be easy, and that how her family reacts to this is as important as her reaction to it.  This take us on this incredibly difficult journey.

This movie is a very difficult to watch, even for those of us who have not been down the road with this awful disease in our lives.  This movie will be incredibly moving to those who have in one way shape or form.  Truth be told this is gut wrenching at times, as it is a sobering reminder that life is fragile, especially when an illness strikes someone in their prime that is not supposed to. This is not light movie watching and is certainly not for everyone.

Julianne Moore just won an Oscar for this, and she is very good in this tragic role of a woman and her family.  She is quite good in this, as this is a huge part that she immerses herself in totally. Truth is, I am not a huge fan of hers, but this is the defining role of her career.  Sadly, because of the smallness of the release, and then difficult subject matter, few in the grand scheme of things will see her here - at her best. 

This has a nice supporting cast along with Baldwin, Kristin Stewart (Twilight), is her youngest daughter, and has never been better in any role.  But the reality is, that this is Moore's movie along with the powerful script that grip you throughout.  This will be way too close to the bone for some, and may be some nice therapy for others depending on your DNA. But regardless, this is one heavy, deep drama.

Still Alice.  Pretty tough stuff. But well done.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW - Kingsman The Secret Service

When graphic novels or comic books come to life, the movie going world seems to unite behind it. Here comes Kingsman, and it's the latest to show up big at the box office.

Kingsman is a modern comic book brought to the screen, and it's a very interesting marriage of James Bond, and the modern action movie. It has people talking and movie goers loving this. And for the most part, Kingsman is quite good.  Although, there is a fumble or two in this but none of it is a deal breaker.

This movie uses the great formula from Bond, of creating a compelling villain that drives this cleanly down the road.  Plus, that formula sets this up to be successful for sequels to come.  It has worked for Bond for 50 years.  That formula keeps it fresh and gives it great shelf life.

A "Kingsman" is an amazingly trained secret agent based in London that is off the radar. Even from the British Government. They were formed after WW1, and they answer to no one, and no one officially knows they exist.  They are the new Knights Of The Round Table, even using classic knight names as their code names. 

The villain here is, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).  He is a whacked out high tech mogul that has bought into the climate change debate world wide in a big way.  He believes that the only way to fix the problem is to drastically reduce the worlds population for humans to survive.  So he offers everyone on earth a "free Sim card" that gives them free phone, texts, emails TV, and free communication for life. Billions worldwide are installed, but there is a problem.  The device with the new card now, can be activated to make people loose their mind,  turn o each other, and eventually kill each other all over the world.  Thus, reduce the population.

Enter the Kingsman, who are going to try to stop him and save the world.  With their gadgetry, and training and the will to win.  There of course is tons more to this story, but the fun is in the discovery when seeing this.  In addition to Jackson, this stars Colin Firth, Micheal Cane, Taron Egerton, and a really nice supporting cast that gives this a real nice feel. This is fun, action based, violent at times, and really funny.  This is a very nice mix of many good things that are fun for adults to see.  This is rated R, and well deserved.

On the downside, there are a couple scenes that are a bit too violent and certainly too long. This also belabors itself, and is too long. But the action for most part is fun, and this movie has a real nice look to it.  I can see more on the horizon, and certainly primed for success.  This also makes very loud social commentary if you watch closely, and sends a huge message on personal privacy.

Kingman: The Secret Service.  Fun.

Friday, February 20, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW - Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Sometimes sequels are a good idea. Most times they are not. Then there is Hot Tub Time Machine 2, which is now the mother of all bad sequel ideas.

When the original came out in 2010, and it was a surprise hit.  A guilty pleasure that battled a stupid name, and an outrageous idea, a ridiculous premise and a bunch of eye rolls during the previews and somehow found an audience and gave us all a few laughs.  Fine. Well done.  But let's not go back to the same tub again 5 years later with part of the original cast and do this all again. 

This picks up where the original left off.  These goofy guys found this hot tub that was capable of time travel, and it ended up changing all of their lives.  OK, I'm good with that. But here, this is simply an excuse for movie makers to make a movie that totally targets 17 year old boys with humor they can't resist.  This movie is like a poster child for juvenile, bathroom humor from start to finish. 

I'm not even going into the plot line because in essence, there is none.   This is just one cliche' after another, and one more locker room humor scene after another, sprinkled in the middle of heavy drinking and recreational drug usage.  This has an R rating, and well deserved with its F-word heavy language and repeated nasty gags.   Look, don't get me wrong, all of this can be tolerated in smaller dosages and be funny. But this is simply dumb, and directionless.  And it is set up for more to come.

It is a pity when sometimes a funny, surprise concept that was lucky once, is resurrected badly in a sequel and ends up tarnishing the original. But that is what Hollywood does.  They are out of original ideas and dig up ones from the past and attempt to catch lightning in a bottle again. But is seldom works.  That's why it's called lightning in a bottle.  It's hard to do and it's rare.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2.  Bad idea. Netflix in 90 days -  if you must.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

2015 Oscar Preview and Picks

The Academy Awards are Sunday.   It is the zenith of the award show season, and the 87th annual Oscars will be one of the more memorable ones in a while.

Over the past few years, the academy has expanded the nomination list so that more movies can be nominated and viewers can be more engaged in the awards show on TV.  But this year the theory seems to have backfired, as virtually all the Oscar nominated movies, are not "hits" with fans.  more than normal.  This could be a problem holding a TV audience.

This year I saw 160 movies, and reviewed them all. Here I will pick who I think will actually win the awards in the six major categories.  I feel that this year many of the years best overall movies were snubbed from even the nominations list.  I will also give you my personal pick for whom I would choose.  So let's get started, with the 2015 Oscar Preview and Picks.

Best Picture

The Winner Will Be Boyhood.  Hollywood just loves this movie, and it has won a ton already.  Very interesting concept of filming over 12 years with the same cast, and everyone ages the same.  Yes this is quite good, but this is overrated and certainly too long at 2:45.  But this will be too tempting for the academy not to pick.

My Pick Would Be - American Sniper.  Being honest this is the best movie from an 8 movie list that in my view does not include many of the years best movies.  From the list provided, this is the best overall movie. Well done and this resonated with fans in a way far more than just a movie can.  It was the only one to do so.  

Best Actor

The Winner Will Be - Bradley Cooper from American Sniper. This is the runaway best actor performance of the year.  This movie will be overlooked most of the night by the academy, but they will more than likely get this one right.  He is Hollywood's next great leading man, and this is his moment.  Although, Eddie Redmayne from The Theory Of Everything is a strong contender too.

My Pick Would Be - Bradley Cooper. The role size, the transformation into character, the performance.  Simply the best of the year. And not by a little.

Best Actress

The Winner Will BeFelicity Jones from The Theory Of Everything.  This is a huge role, and she is sensational in it. Playing a character over the course of 30 years or so. She is brilliant, and this movie in general could be a dark hourse for hauling in the hardware Sunday.

My Pick Would Be - Rosamund Pike from Gone Girl.  She was superb as the whacked out woman in a movie that fans loved.  This is a large role, maybe the biggest of the year for an actress. She delivered. If not for this, maybe never for her.

Best Supporting Actor

The Winner Will Be - Ed Norton for Birdman.  He was so well cast as the typical egomaniac live theater actor on Broadway.  He takes this movie from interesting, and makes it really good.  Without his performance, this is not near the movie it was.

My Pick Would BeEd Norton.  This is easily the winner here. Anything less would be a crime.  But keep your eye on J.K. Simmons from Whiplash. Could be a sentimental choice for an actor in his only real chance to maybe ever win.

Best Supporting Actress

The Winner Will Be - Patricia Arquette for Boyhood.  This movie is going to win some awards, and this is one of them. She is solid in this role, but to me not Oscar worthy of even a nomination.  But this movie could be a rock rolling downhill all night long.

My Pick Would Be Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game.  This should be a slam dunk, but it won't be. She is sensational. This is one of the best performances from anyone in any movie this year. Too bad this will come and go without a win.

Best Director

The Winner Will Be - Richard Kinklater for Boyhood. Incredible concept and the direction of these same actors throughout their lives over a decade  - amazing. Really wonderful.

My Pick Would Be Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman. Again, an amazing concept of the one continuous shot technique. That was the best feature of this movie. Very revolutionary idea. 

There are the picks for The 2015 Oscars this Sunday.

scott@wqmx.com