Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: The Book of Life

Release date: October 17, 2014
Running time: 95 minutes
Starring: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum 
Who to see it with: Your kids or childhood friend


An animated movie from 20th Century Fox from a relatively unknown animation studio, The Book of Life didn't inspire a ton of confidence in me going into the screening. However, what I experienced was a colorful, imaginative, and beautifully animated film. The imagination and creativity shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given the attachment of Guillermo del Toro, but what was surprising was how much I enjoyed it the story.

Starting with the animation, it's absolutely beautiful with some detailed characters and really spectacular touches. The story is told as if being reenacted by puppets, so the characters in the main film all look the part. It's a small touch, but one that definitely helps the overall feel of the movie and the sense of story. Additionally, the style is downright amazing, with vibrant colors and imaginative sets. The movie definitely gets its style from the Mexico inspired setting, which gives you some bright sets and wonderful costumes. 

The story itself is fairly typical kids story, but it is an enjoyable journey with some really fun characters. Although it seems to start with a sexist premise, it ends up being much more than that, with some good lessons for kids about expectations, friendship, and machismo. Additionally, the music is wonderful. The film uses contemporary songs that are redone by the main character, who plays a Spanish guitar. It's a treat to hear a song that you recognize redone in a Latin style, and I was definitely smiling as the film worked some contemporary hits into the story. The Book of Life is a vibrant and imaginative kids movie that will entertain while teaching some valuable lessons.

Watch it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Kill the Messenger

Release date: October 9, 2014
Running time: 112 minutes
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt 
Who to see it with: A conspiracy theorist friend


Based on a true story, Kill the Messenger follows a Bay Area reporter named Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) who uncovers a possible government conspiracy to illicitly finance Nicaraguan contras. When Webb, after researching some very shady individuals, finally publishes his story, the consequences of it are swift and far reaching for the reporter and his family. The film bears the dreaded, based on a true story tag, which always makes you wonder how much of it actually happened and how much of it was fabricated for the silver screen. In the end, it's tough to tell, but at least the film paints an interesting picture while doing it.

Most of the movie is spent with Renner, who does a masterful job portraying the somewhat complicated Webb. Renner gives a believable performance that is powerful at times and goes through a variety of emotional states. Renner is pretty much the highlight of the film, although many stars make cameos and add some unique and quirky characters to the unbelievable story. Speaking of the story, the film is "based on a true story," which is better than inspired by but still begs the question of how much creative liberty was taken with the underlying material. Many of the scenes seem convenient and at the same time, far-fetched without much exploration into alternative explanations. The film weaves an interesting story that starts to unravel, or at least show some possible flaws, when you poke at some of the angles. And as is sometimes the case with films based on true stories, the ending feels both stretched and unfulfilling. Although Kill the Messenger involves an engaging journey with some very good acting, the overall film feels fantastical at times and leaves you with an unsatisfying ending.

Rent it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: When the Game Stands Tall

Release date: August 22, 2014
Running time: 115 minutes
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Stephan James
Who to see it with: Your favorite sports movie nut


Do you like football movies? Do you feel the itch of the college football / NFL season right around the corner? Did you absolutely love Any Given Sunday, Friday Night Lights, and to a lesser extent Draft Day? If so, you might want to check out When the Game Stands Tall. The film is (loosely) based on the unbelievable De La Salle high school program that had an incredible 151 game win streak. This film deals with what happened after that; how the team and the town coped with rebuilding under the pressure of "the Streak." 

The main draw of this film is Jim Caviezel's portrayal of the almost inhumanely moral Coach Ladouceur. His philosophy of coaching and providing a program that not only creates great football players, but fine young men, is fun, if a little unbelievable, to see. The film does have clips during the credits that compare the actor to the actual coach and they are strikingly similar. At times he seems almost too calm, too collected, but maybe that's just the way the coach was. 

The downside of the film is that it is only "inspired by" a true story. It seems like this is a compelling enough tale to not have to take too many creative liberties, and yet the movie creates an entirely fictional main character to drive home some of Coach Ladoceur's main teachings. Some of the scenes are also too saccarinely sweet or cliched; the film basically has every sports movie cliche you can think of. Don't get me wrong, I love a good sports movie with all the inspirational drivel that comes with it, but this film piled it on too heavily. It's not a bad movie, and has some good football scenes and family values, but the fictitious nature of the story and overuse of cliches hurts what could be a compelling film.

Rent it.

Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Release date: August 22, 2014
Running time: 102 minutes
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Eva Green, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Who to see it with: Someone who loves the first one


A sequel that's a long time coming, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is being released almost a decade after the first one caught us all by surprise. Based on Frank Miller's amazing graphic novel, the comic book style and drastic black and white filming made the film stand out from the pack. The additional flashes of color for emphasis was a revelation, and something I wish the similarly shot Much Ado About Nothing had utilized to give it some pop. The story was mostly forgettable, over-the-top film noir but it dealt with some controversial issues and had some pretty extreme violence for the time. The sequel sees the return of some of the favorites from the first film, but also introduces a host of new characters to the Sin City universe, including the devilishly sexy Eva Green and the hot-headed and charismatic JGL. The film is styled as 3 main stories that slightly intertwine but could easily be told separately. In that respect, it's less enticing than the first one because it feels like the series of stories are less connected than the slightly incoherent, but connected original. A Dame to Kill For is actually the main story of three; a better name would have been Sin City Stories

If you liked the first film's style, it's back and even more pronounced. It's amazing how much more pop this simple technique has a decade later, but the film is absolutely gorgeous and the splashes of color are perfect. They help to emphasize important points and make certain scenes really stand out. However, something else has changed in the last ten years. When the first film came out, it was ultra violent and controversial; a decade later, for better or worse, it doesn't seem to be that shocking. The violence is violent, but it doesn't have the same impact as the first film's. The swashes of blood just don't take you by surprise. Additionally, the story and writing are weaker this time around. The film is supposed to be a pulpy noir, but it feels like there is a little extra pulp in here; the film knows that the story is ridiculous, but the writing takes itself a little too seriously. Important points that are meant to be impactful just sound corny. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is definitely a sight to behold, but maybe you should wait a few months to see it.

Rent it.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: The Hundred Foot Journey

Release date: August 8, 2014
Running time: 122 minutes
Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon
Who to see it with: A foodie


The Hundred Foot Journey has a star-studded cast and some top notch producers (Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey), which should be a recipe for success. The film follows an Indian family as they attempt to start a restaurant in a secluded French town right across the street from a famous restaurant run by a ruthless madame. The movie's main ingredients are the stellar cast, including Helen Mirren, Indian acting legend Om Puri, and the relatively unknown but amazingly talented Manish Dayal. Dayal, in particular, is the main course of this movie; he is a natural actor who easily draws the audience into whatever is going on in the scene. Mirren and Puri are perfect in their respective roles, and none of the characters overpower the overall balance of the film (although Mirren is probably the strongest flavor in this actor soup).  

The story moves along at a nice pace with some slight twists here and there and plenty of overly dramatic moments. If there's one compliant, it's that the events move a little too quickly, with character's at times progressing at an astounding rate. The film starts slowly but towards the end, instead of simmering, begins to boil as it attempts to tie together up all the loose ends. And, there are several excessively dramatic scenes that make this seem more like a Lifetime movie. However, none of those quips leave a sour taste in your mouth and can't ruin what is an otherwise solid movie. The Hundred Foot Journey is an easy to digest, balanced movie, that also leaves some lingering, complex flavors. It doesn't have an overly strong taste, but has a nice balance of ingredients that lead to a satisfying movie experience. 

Rent it.

Review: What If

Release date: August 8, 2014
Running time: 102 minutes
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver
Who to see it with: A fan of somewhat realistic relationship movies


The next movie In Daniel Radcliffe's quest to distance himself from his magical education at Hogwarts, What If, attempts to cast him as a slightly awkward, dryly humorous man named Wallace who meets his perfect girl, Chantry (Kazan), who just happens to have a boyfriend. Chantry and Wallace quickly become friends, but are constantly struggling to maintain their friendship instead of acting on their clear chemistry. Although the title implies that the movie will take a Sliding Doors type approach, looking at how Wallace and Chantry's life could be if they would just be together, it doesn't have any of this. Apparently, the international name of the movie is "The F Word," where the F here is friend. That would have been a more accurate description of this movie. The two characters are in constant tension trying to balance their growing relationship with their desire to (or desire not to) remain friends.

The movie attempts to craft a realistic relationship between Wallace and Chantry, and for the most part succeeds. The two have clear on-screen chemistry and have some very funny, if slightly ridiculous conversations. The dialog at times feels like an old school improvisational style (think Anchorman, Taladega Nights, and movies like that). That's not to say that their conversations are ridiculous, but they sometimes come up with topics out of left field that escalate quickly. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that the duo are fun to watch and root for. What If does a lot right with the plot, and attempts to change some of the more predictable tropes of romantic dramadies. And it mostly succeeds, except for some fairly unbelievable characters and situations (or maybe my perspective has just been skewed from seeing so many of these movies). Additionally, the movie drags in the middle as it tries to test Wallace and Chantry's relationship in a few of the previously mentioned unbelievable situations. And, although Wallace's character is enjoyable, there are times when he is almost too saintly for his own good. Despite these minor points, What If attempts to create a more realistic relationship and move past some of the established romantic dramady tropes that have made these movies predictable. It has two interesting main characters with clear chemistry and should definitely be seen by fans of this genre.

Rent it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Release date: August 8, 2014
Running time: 101 minutes
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner 
Who to see it with: A Michael Bay fan or someone who watched these as a kid


I fully expected to hate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With the turtles being such a large part of my childhood, and already having starred in a few movies, a Michael Bay-produced felt like a Hollywood cash grab. However, after seeing the new film, I can safely say that although the film isn't perfect, it's still pretty radical. TMNT attempts to introduce a new generation of kids (and possibly adults) to this storied franchise. In it, young reporter April O'Neil (Fox) is attempting to break out of her unimportant fluff stories by investigating an underground crime gang called the foot clan. This investigation leads to a random encounter with four teenage mutant ninja turtles who are trying to fight back against the foot clan.

The first and most immediately noticeable part of the new movie is the heavy use of CG, whereas previous iterations used make up. For the turtles, this was less distracting than I thought it would be. I hardly noticed the CG and it rarely took me out of the movie. For Splinter, however, it looked pretty bad; he looked more like a rat corpse than a furry mentor. But, if the movie is going to get one or the other right, I'm glad that they got the turtles; I just wish they could have nailed both. The movie is clearly a Michael Bay movie, with some of his trademark effects: certain sounds reminded me of transformers, some of the characters look like they could be in transformers, and there were plenty of elaborate set pieces, like in transformers. And, in true Bay fashion, the story is serviceable enough to move but not very deep--basically a perfect summer movie. 

But, the best part about the new films was that they got the turtles personalities right. Leo leads, Donatello invents (although not as much as I would have hoped), Raph is hot-headed, and Mike is silly and provides a lot of the comic relief. The film also captures the series's blend of humorous and serious moments. There is a particular scene leading to the climactic final encounter that had the entire theater laughing. TMNT is not a cinematic masterpiece, but then again it doesn't want to be. It's like Rocky Road ice cream: it's enjoyable, it will bring you back to your childhood, it's not very complex but has plenty to keep you entertained, and it is perfect for a hot summer day. 

Cowabunga! See it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Calvary

Release date: August 1, 2014
Running time: 100 minutes
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd
Who to see it with: A fan of DARK comedy


One of the aspects of Calvary that I loved was that there is no single theme that permeates the film. The movie deals with some complex issues in a refreshingly nuanced way, issues such as good vs. evil, old vs. new, orthodox vs. revisionist, hate vs. forgiveness. The film follows an old school catholic priest, Father Lavelle (Gleeson), who refuses to adopt to the modern approach to religion. He is not married, lives a relatively simple life, and dons the older-style cossack as opposed to some of the modern, kinder garb of the priesthood. Set after some truly horrific discoveries about the Catholic church in Ireland, Lavelle's flock is completely disenfranchised with the church and religion in general. 

The film is a DARK comedy, kind of the darkest of the dark. Lavelle is constantly under fire from his parish because of the sins of his institution, but doesn't help the situation with his old school mentality and unapologetically honest assessments of people. The movie is divided into three acts, with the mood becoming progressively darker as the film progresses. It works as a sort of who-done-it film, opening with a shocking revelation and then progressing as the priest deals with this information. The third act of the film loses most of the comedy, and although it doesn't bolster you mood, the experience of watching Father Lavelle is so great that you probably won't mind.

The heart of this movie is its acting, specifically the performance of Gleeson. Gleeson is phenomenal and really carries the film. His acting is believable and unforgiving, and seeing him plod away through the film is a joy despite the fairly depressing story. His daughter (Reilly) is another treat and the connection between the two actors is obvious on screen. Most of the other characters are good to serviceable, but some of them feel like they are extreme caricatures that can be entertaining, but also unrealistic enough to break the mood. Some of them feel like less stylized Wes Anderson characters. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, the town is completely against Lavelle, which can be grating at times. However, part of that is by design because as the film progresses and becomes darker, you really start to feel the weight that Lavelle has to carry. Rarely do you get so invested in a character, and Calvary is one such opportunity. The film is a great, meticulously crafted experience that explores some common themes in a nuanced and unapologetic way. 

See it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What to Watch This Weekend: July 25, 2014

In Theaters: Hercules
A surprisingly good summer movie that has Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the perfect role.

From Redbox: 300: Rise of an Empire
A movie that really feels like a stepping stone before the next in the trilogy, but it has enough of the hooks and a similar style as the first film to make for an enjoyable rental.

Streaming (Amazon): The Spectacular Now
Probably the weakest of the three coming of age indie movies last summer, but Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give emotional performances highlighting the struggles of youth and growing up.

Streaming (Netflix and Amazon): Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon's remarkably simple, black and white take on the Shakespeare play is a joy to watch, keeping the original dialog but adding smart modern touches to the classic.

Review: Hercules

Release date: July 25, 2014
Running time: 96 minutes
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt, Ian McShane
Who to see it with: A fan of the Rock or fun summer movies


In what seems like the twentieth Hercules movie, and the second this year after the lackluster Legend of Hercules, Hercules and his band of mercenary outcasts are hired to help an aging king defeat a rising threat to his empire. This movie stars a less grandiose Hercules who appears to be running from his past deeds and accepting work for the highest bidder. It's an interesting premise and one that is refreshingly different from what you would expect. Hercules is not alone in this journey and is joined by warriors who have encountered him on his fabled labours. It adds some nice variety to the group and definitely gives the film an Avengers type feel (even with similar types of characters: Atalanta is Hawkeye, Tydeus is kind of like the Hulk, Amphiaraus is kind of like Iron Man with his humor and use of mechanical weapons, Hercules is kind of like Captain America, and Autolycus is Black Widow). 

The Rock tends to make any movie he's in better, and this is no exception. Dwayne Johnson was born to play Hercules and he looks convincingly ripped and charismatic. And although the story feels like a launching pad for additional movies, it's a fun journey. Sure it doesn't make a ton of sense but it's a high-octane action movie that has a fun cast of characters. Further, it provides a different take on Hercules that is slightly deeper than your general he's a half-man, half-god that can do everything movie. The fighting is hit or miss, with some really exciting battles marred by some less than stellar execution. The story has plenty of dramatic moments (some might say overly dramatic) and plenty of cliches, but then again it's a summer movie so what do you expect. The effects are pretty obviously CG but are enjoyable at least. Don't go to Hercules expecting to be blown away, but if you're looking for a fun summer movie that will entertain you for a few hours, this is one for you.

Rent it.

PS - There are some nice animated vignettes during the start of the credits that help to fill in some additional back story. It's a nice touch and make sure to stay for those!

Friday, July 18, 2014

What to Watch This Weekend: July 18, 2014

In Theaters: Boyhood
An ambitious project that comes together due to the dedication and care of Linklater and his amazing cast.

From Redbox: Lego Movie
One of the best animated movies I've seen in a long time, this film makes the world of Lego come alive.

Streaming (Netflix): The Master
Critically acclaimed film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, this movie tells the story of a heavy-drinking veteran who meets the founder of a new "religion." 

Streaming (Amazon): Sound City
A documentary about one of the most famous recording studios that is narrated by the Foo Fighters's Dave Grohl. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Boyhood

Release date: July 18, 2014
Running time: 166 minutes
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Who to see it with: Anyone who has had a childhood


I tried to think of something that I've done that's taken 12 years. I originally thought of my education, but despite many, many years in college, it doesn't cross the 12 year mark. The closest thing would be my longest (and essentially only) relationship, but even that hasn't quite lasted a dozen years. What director Richard Linklator has done is nothing short of astounding; dedicating himself to filming a family for this period of time. This allows the audience to watch Mason (Coltrane) literally grow before their eyes from ages 5 to 18. You get to see young Mason go through school, move to a new city, experience puberty, have dreams and expectations, and experience hardship; basically, the audience gets the opportunity to watch him experience life. And as Mason grows, so does the cast around him: his sister, his mother, his father, and some special people throughout his "life."

Additionally, the film acts as a sort of time capsule, authentically reminding you of past periods as the story progresses. Cell phones become more modern, musical tastes change, the internet becomes more prevalent; essentially everything that movies try to do to capture a specific period in time is done perfectly because of the unique situation of this film. 

If there is one criticism of Boyhood, it's that there aren't many overly dramatic moments. Life has highs and lows, and so does this movie, but nothing really earth shattering happens to young Mason or his family. I guess the director wanted to simply focus on the intricacies of life, the subtle changes that happen as we grow up, or maybe Linklater wanted to portray a more normal, non-Hollywood life. Either way, I kept expecting a tectonic shift to occur that never did. However, I can't fault the movie for realistically portraying life when that is the point of the film.

Boyhood is a masterpiece due to the dedication and care that Linklater takes to craft this experience. Just thinking about the risk that the director took for this project blows my mind: what if one of the actors quit acting or died, what if Coltrane ended up being a poor actor years later, what if any number of things happened in the intervening 12 years? However, all great art carries with it inherent risks, and like all great risks, the potential payout is immense. 

See it.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Release date: July 11, 2014
Running time: 130 minutes
Starring: Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, 
Who to see it with: Jane Goodall, or someone who wanted a little more fighting than the last film.


The latest reboot of Planet of the Apes series, starting with 2011's surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes, introduced a new generation to the Apes franchise. The 2011 film was noticeably better than the critically mixed, but financially successful, 2001 film starring Mark Wahlberg. Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced audiences to Caesar, an ape treated with an anti-Alzheimer's drug that causes him to develop super intelligence. In Rise, a group of similarly treated apes escape into the forests of San Francisco.  It is later discovered that the Alzheimer's drug has a deadly effect on humans exposed to it, and the movie concludes with a graphic showing the spread of "Ape flu" across the globe. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up several years after the flu has devasated the world's population. Caesar and his colony are firmly entrenched in Muir Woods. However, the encroachment of a group of humans, looking for a source of energy to power their camp, threatens to escalate into a conflict that neither party will survive. The first thing you notice about the new film are the impressive visuals. At first, it's a little off putting and it looks almost like an animated film given the large number of primate protagonists. The apes really approach, and sometimes fall into, the uncanny valley, but luckily that is less noticeable once some humans populate the screen. The world of the film also looks impressive and decidedly apocalyptic. 

The plot is fairly predictable and drags on for an overly long time. It's not that a lot doesn't happen--and this is a film that must set up a lot for the inevitable conclusion film--but much of it feels like it could be sped up or trimmed to make the movie a more concise event. Part of this might also be that the movie feels like a long setup for the third film in the series. It addresses some poignant subjects and has some interesting ideas, but they take too long to explore. The characters are fun to meet, but no one is as captivating as James Franco was from the first film. Additionally, many of the archetypes are the most extreme versions, some of the characters are more nuanced but this is generally a very black and white film. And finally, the dialog feels very cliched, but I am not sure how much of that is a throwback to the old films and how much is bad writing. 


Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: 22 Jump Street

Release date: June 13, 2014
Running time: 112 minutes
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens
Who to see it with: Bros who like self-aware comedy


Follow-ups to surprise hits often try to outdo their predecessors by repeating their successful formulas while making everything bigger and broader. 22 does this while winking at the audience with self-aware jokes that poke fun at the nature of action sequels. Once again, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) go undercover at a school, this time a college. This makes their older appearances stand out slightly less, though poor, younger Jonah Hill remains a popular target for age-related humor. Another rift forms between the cops for very similar reasons, with a few changes that swap Schmidt and Jenko's roles. The setting unsurprisingly leads to fraternity antics, but is so focused upon Schmidt and Jenko that it never feels like a retread of Neighbors.

The sequel mocking is often funny and a smart way to differentiate 22 from other sequels; it also feels like an easy excuse for the filmmakers to put Schmidt and Jenko through a slightly altered version of 21's plot. Fortunately, Hill and Tatum are still fun to watch. They still have an organic, clashing, brotherly love that's fun to watch even during the not so funny scenes. This time, Captain Dickson becomes more involved in the case, giving Ice Cube more opportunities to get in on the action and comedy. Peter Stormare plays a bland villain. Little time is wasted on him and his scenes allow Schmidt, Jenko and other more energetic characters to shine, but I felt each of 21's high school antagonists contributed to the comedy. The self-referential humor can get old, and the jokes are sometimes just dumb rather than dumb fun. 22 Jump Street offers more of 21's fun bromance and back-to-school humor but is not totally unlike the sequels that it mocks.

NOTE: There's a funny scene during the credits AND a brief one following the credits.


What to Watch This Weekend: June 13, 2014

In Theaters: Obvious Child 
It technically opened last week but it's getting a wider release this week. It's an indie gem that has an equal blend of heart and funny.

From Redbox: Her
Possibly my favorite movie from last year. Just see it, it's an amazing film.

Streaming (Netflix): Omar
In our indie themed What 2 Watch, we have another well received indie film (91% on Rotten Tomatoes) about a young couple who live on opposite sides of an Israeli boundary wall in Palestine.

Streaming (Netflix, Amazon): Cabin in the Woods
It's Friday the 13th, so why not watch one of the better horror movies to come out recently! Cabin in the Woods was surprisingly good so check it out if you're hoping for a scare.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Release date: June 13, 2014
Running time: 102 minutes
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Djimon Hounsou
Who to see it with: Someone who likes cute creatures and drama


How to Train Your Dragon surprised many with a mix of fun and drama that stood apart from other Dreamworks films, and its sequel will likely satisfy fans in the same way. This time, Hiccup and his vikings must face the prospect of war after encountering a violent group of dragon collectors. Hiccup is also uncomfortable with his father's desire to make him into his tribal chief successor. These clashes bring much debate about the inevitability of war and the pressures of accepting greater responsibility.

HtTYD 2 is a fun adventure, but its pace often slows as Hiccup deals with growing pains and unexpected revelations. There's comic relief—often provided by Hiccup's wacky friends—but the movie sometimes feels more like a family drama rather than a dragon-packed adventure. The slower parts run a little long but add a sense of weight that many recent animated films lack. Darker moments provide meaningful character developments that promise interesting, new dynamics and relationships for the inevitable sequel. There's enough action and drama to keep adults interested, while any kid or animal lover will enjoy the animation of the many dragons, who act like giant, playful, winged cats and dogs. The dragons and their relationships with their owners are the highlights of the film. How to Train Your Dragon 2 should entertain entire families with its combination of fun creatures and family conflicts.


I agree with Lee on a lot of these points, especially that the darker moments provide more weight and character development for the film, but I didn't like the overall darkness. Maybe I'm getting old, but I thought the movie had a little too much drama and unnecessarily somber scenes for a movie primarily appealing to kids and families. That's not to say kids movies can't have that (Disney's Up does it perfectly) but in this case it seemed overblown and inappropriate. That being said, the story is at times fun, the animation is gorgeous, and I especially love the dog-like dragons. 


Review: The Signal

Release date: June 13, 2014 (Spooooky)
Running time: 95 minutes
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne
Who to see it with: Someone hoping for a little more suspense in their sci-fi


The Signal doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a horror-style scary movie, or a psychological sci-fi film? Well, it's kind of both and this straddling the line ends up hurting the movie. The film follows a group of college friends on a cross-country trip that gets derailed due to a detour to track down a rogue hacker. The initial part of the film works kind of like your typical horror movie, with plenty of suspense and uncertainty. After this ridiculous situation, it turns into a psychological sci-fi thriller with more suspense and uncertainty. 

For most of the film, Brenton Thwaites is asked to carry the movie, and he does a good job of it. He is an interesting lead character that is easily likable, even if some of his decisions are pretty bone-headed. He's joined by some other lesser known actors and eventually by Laurence Fishburne, who does a great job of playing an eerily calm researcher trying to figure out what happened to the three kids. The story develops slowly, with some strange occurrences and unanswered questions that linger until the end. And, although the ending does try to wrap up some of the uncertainty (I was actually thinking it would end without leaving any answers), the film ends up being unfulfilling given how quickly it tries to tie up the loose ends. 

Many of the questions are left unanswered, although sometimes they're hinted at, and the film seems to have weird situations for the sake of being weird. The cinematography is beautiful, and there are plenty of wonderful shots that show how good the movie could have been. But, in the end, the film feels like more of a style piece than anything. It doesn't explain much and leaves the viewers with more questions than answers. It's not a total train wreck, some of the ideas are interesting and the film has some good effects and cinematography, but the lack of identity really hurts what could have been a fresh film.


I enjoyed the identity crisis. It contributes to the scattered story but also adds more unpredictability. I'm thankful that the horror portion is brief because the characters attempt to commit as many clich├ęd horror movie mistakes as possible in just a few minutes. The storytelling is often intriguingly mysterious, but the mystery and plot sometimes rely too much on informed characters needlessly withholding helpful information. Laurence Fishburne's character is almost comically unhelpful in his interactions with the friends. This behavior makes slightly more sense after seeing the ending, but their strange methods seem a bit unnatural and designed to create plot twists. I enjoyed the few comedic moments though they clash with the movie's serious tone. The Signal is a mysterious and refreshingly open-ended science fiction story with unsatisfying storytelling.


Review: Obvious Child

Release date: June 6, 2014 (DC area June 13)
Running time: 85 minutes
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross
Who to see it with: Anyone who has lived in New York


One of the things I love about independent movies is the opportunity those movies give to lessor known actors. You can see some stars you've never heard of--or only seen tangentially--shine when they're finally given the chance. I didn't know who Jenny Slate was, but after Obvious Child, I'm excited to see what she does next. The movie doesn't bill itself very well; it seems like a vehicle for a stand-up comic to make the jump to major films. But don't let the terrible trailer steer you wrong. What you get with Obvious Child is a unique movie that feels very genuine in its humor and message.

What I loved about the film are the various personalities that you meet. The characters are all fairly extreme caricatures of individuals you would meet in New York, but in the context of the film, they fit perfectly. The humor is fairly modern and pretty raunchy at times, but those hoping for a little more edge to their movies will appreciate it. And the humor is not all stand-up; Jenny Slate's routines make up an important part of the film but they are not even a majority of the movie. The rest of the humor is in the context of ridiculous and realistic conversations between the characters. The plot of the film focuses on a situation that is easily relatable to. And that is probably the great thing about Obvious Child, it's a film that straddles the line between believable and silly, and does it perfectly. It's a genuinely funny film, with an equal combination of crazy and heart. 


Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Release date: June 6, 2014
Running time: 113 minutes
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson
Who to see it with: A fan of sci-fi films or video games


Edge of Tomorrow follows an unlikely soldier who gets the ability to restart his day whenever he makes a mistook.... Edge of Tomorrow follows an unlikely soldier with the ability to restart his day whenever he makes a mistake.  It's a premise that is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen Groundhog Day; in fact, I imagine the pitch for this film was "It's Groundhog Day, with guns."  And you know what, that's a pretty great premise to start from.  PR manager turned soldier Cage (Cruise) is thrown into the battlefield and then discovers that every time that he dies, he goes back to the previous day. As he slowly tries to figure out why this is happening, he also begins to learn the battle and be able to avoid pitfalls that had previously caused him to restart his day.

It's a great premise and made all the more enjoyable by Cruise's performance. His character is not likable at first, and he plays it to perfection. As he experiences the same day over and over, he slowly learns from his experiences and changes in important ways. In fact, it's another similar premise to Groundhog Day, but instead of Cruise becoming a lovable town hero, he becomes a super soldier. Blunt plays another badass soldier who believes Cage's crazy story tries to train him to fully utilize his gift. The surprise performance is by Bill Paxton, who plays the field commander / drill sergeant to perfection. His performance is so enjoyable that you see the same sequence over and over again but still are surprised by what happens. And I guess that's the best part of this movie; that you can see the same basic sequence of events for two hours and still enjoy the surprises that come from it.

The effects of the film are top notch, however I could have used a better antagonist. The enemies of the film are designed to be scary, and successfully at that, but do look a little too ridiculous. But, that being said, the movie feels a lot like a video game, with many similar themes. The "rebooting" mechanic is the most noticeable, but also the unrealistic enemy and dire situation just scream triple-A game. And I loved it! As games have become more cinematic in their presentation and mechanics, it's only natural that those two areas begin to bleed over. And, like many video games, the ending of the film is ambiguous. Some people may not like this, but I enjoyed having a conversation with someone right after about our different, legitimate, conclusions. Edge of Tomorrow is another very good Tom Cruise sci-fi film (following last year's Oblivion) that you should make sure to see.