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.