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Out in Theaters: ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’

Don’t mess with a good thing, so croons an age old adage and Beauty and the Beast, the most recent live action Disney remake, is exemplary of that statement. A near-perfect update of the beloved animated Disney classic, this live-action contemporary version is in many ways a literal note for note transfer, with everything from story beats to musical runs to the lavish costumes tracing 1991’s hand drawn offerings but despite its reciprocal, borderline redundant nature, Bill Condon’s product feels sumptuously loved nonetheless. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘SPOTLIGHT’

That Spotlight feels like the epitome of a Law and Order episode genetically crossbred with a 70s-style political thriller is both its salvation and its glass ceiling. A real Indominus Rex of drama, Spotlight is a fleet-footed arcane beast attacking with  precision and blunt deadly force. Its movements however are about as predictable as a 40-foot dinosaur. With its classical movie trappings, there’s other reasons it may be likened to a dinosaur. On the one hand, the formula is soothing in its familiarity – anyone who’s seen an episode of network television over the last half-century can immediately tap into the procedural structure at play – but in dealing up this very specific, very familiar hand, Spotlight also affixes a rev limiter to its emotional combustion engine. That it is then able to color in more shades than the finite Crayola 8 without devolving to sentimentality or cheap heroics is what allows Spotlight to stand tall. To peer out from the brush and declare its potency. To be the king of the jungle. Read More

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Out in Theaters: A LITTLE CHAOS

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True to its title, not much in the way of chaos occurs in Alan Rickman’s sophomore directorial effort. In fact, most of the time affairs are the exact opposite of chaotic. Instead it’s a modest well-mannered period piece, taking part in the action of Versailles, France, 1628. It’s technically proficient – as most period pieces are – and the performances are solid across the board, though nothing outstanding. Rickman directs with competence but on the whole A Little Chaos is instantly forgettable—marked by a feeling of slightness and opting to pursue the safest routes for predictable romantic dramas. Read More

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Out in Theaters: TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Einstein said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

You have to be insane to be a Minnesota Timberwolves fan. Heading into tonight’s NBA Draft, I was resolved for the worst, because you can expect nothing more from one of the worst professional franchises in sport, an organization that’s run like a penny-saving ma’ and pa’ store with Enron savvy.

This is a team that’s drafted a guy they vowed not to draft because they hadn’t planned for a scenario where they wouldn’t get the guy they wanted. This is a team that puts players they don’t want into a so-called “S Box.” This is a team that drafted a 21 year old player who turned out to be 26 years old. This is a team run by Flip Saunders, a GM/Owner who hired himself as coach and wrote down his draft pick on a sheet of paper like Kevin Costner in Draft Day. And yet, here I was thinking we could get it right this time around.

We ended up getting Zach LaVine, a Point Guard from UCLA who didn’t start this year and seems to have all the qualities that would make one good at being a gazelle, and none of the talent that lends to being an actually good basketball player. He responded to being drafted by banging his head on the table and saying “Fuck me,” then proceeded to call Minnesota a “great city.” This guy’s a gem.

Somehow, I expected something better from Transformers: Age of Extinction—something sane. Maybe because Director Michael Bay’s on his fourth installation in the franchise, maybe because Mark Wahlberg is starring in it, maybe because the girl that plays Wahlberg’s daughter, Nicola Peltz, is super hot. Instead, Bay’s two and a half hour robokkake elicits the same response as Zach LaVine: “fuck me.”

In Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bay spends his seemingly endless time pouring salt on the barren wounds left by Transformers 1, 2 and 3, but this time it’s with a smirksome eff you to the audience. Everything is turnt up past 11 in this $165 million film: the jean shorts shorter; the sweat sweatier; the muscles more rippling; the cars more decadent; and worst of all, the Transformers are souped up. Dinosaur. Transformers.

Thankfully, we don’t have to struggle through another Sam Witwicky slog because Shia LaBeouf and his head-sack are nowhere to be seen. This time, we’ve got Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) as a ripped inventor whose inventions don’t work. He fixes up neighbors’ old trash for cash and builds malfunctioning robots that explode and combust, like a guard dog that couldn’t guard Zach LaVine.

He’s also an overprotective father of a gorgeous 17-year old (don’t worry I checked: she’s actually 19!) because he knocked up his wife when he was 17 and doesn’t want the same problems to befall his soon-to-be-graduated daughter. Turns out she’s hooking up with an incredibly handsome Irishman behind his back, Shane (Jack Raynor), who races cars for Red Bull. T.J. Miller (HBO’s Silicon Valley) is Wahlberg’s comic relief buddy who quickly gets burnt to a literal crisp and displayed on-screen as a carbonated trophy for a traumatic twenty seconds.

When Wahlberg finds an old rickety truck and discovers that it’s Autobot leader Optimus Prime in disguise (gasp!), the story starts to unfurl. The good Transformers who fought to save the world in Transformers 3: Revenge of the Bots are almost extinct as the government—headed by evil agent Harold Attinger (a bearded Kelsey Grammer)—tries to kill them all. Now there’s only five left.

In the mind-numbing two hours of battling and running and slow-moing and close-upping that follow, Wahlberg and friends team up with Optimus and his crew (notably John Goodman voicing a fat cigar-smoking Transformer and Ken Watanabe as a super-offensive NinjaBot) to ride some dinosaur Transformers and fight Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, a bomb called “The Seed,” a Transformer whose face is a huge gun, and some mechabot thing called Galvatron. None of this shit made any sense to me either.

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Granted, visually, this film is probably the most gorgeous thing that’s ever graced a silver screen. To his credit, Bay has perfected the Transformer graphics to the point that now he’s just playing with it like an infant with a toy chest of action figurines. Explosions boom in IMAX 3D. The cars, planes, alien ships and Transformers glimmer and shriek as they come apart and fit back together. The gun-head Transformer and the DinoBots are definitely the craziest, most preposterously incredible creations Bay has ever come up with. Bugattis and Ferraris flip and twist into robots. It’s astronomically cool.

Despite the glorious IMAX 3D monster that Bay’s created to top the box office charts for months, this flick reeks of #2. He’s trolling us now: Victoria Secret ads are blown up, US Banks are crushed under a Transformer’s boot, and Wahlberg stops in the middle of all the chaos to drink a Bud Light. There was even a quick intro before the movie where everyone involved just talked about how awesome Michael Bay is. Really, Age of Extinction is one big commercial, and the product placement made it seem like Transformers had accidentally wandered into a GQ photo-shoot and just decided to blow everything up.

Optimus Prime is awesome as usual, but there’s just so much crazy and absurd stuff happening to really get anything more than a headache. Plot points are brought up then completely dropped, like when Optimus is said to need repairing and then just magically repairs himself. Close-ups of actors were too jarring in 3D, and Bay too often forces the shots in. Though Tucci and Grammer are outstanding in their villain roles, it’s problematic when you find yourself hoping the good guys lose.

Though Mark Wahlberg is great at playing Mark Wahlberg, anything involving him, Peltz and Raynor is utter garbage. We’re subjected to almost three hours of “you can’t date boys until you’re 18” discourse that never ends. Peltz’s outfits get increasingly tighter, so much so that they look—as the country-folk say—painted on. Luckily she’s really hot, which distracts from how utterly annoying the overprotective Dad shtick gets. Otherwise, my main complaint comes with hotty racer Raynor: why couldn’t he be fat and nerdy and play League of Legends? Why do these guys always have to be way too good-looking?

Age of Extinction is just too long. It’s arduous work just watching because so many things are crammed in. This film could have been an hour long, and it might’ve been fantastic. Too often it dragged out unnecessary plot and confusing battles. There’s a Jaw-like wait just to see the DinoBots. Wahlberg amps up the Wahlberg, and seems to be made out of the same stuff as the Transformers.

At the end of the night, you wonder how you ever expected anything more. History repeats itself and so does Transformers, ad nauseam. One has to wonder if Flip’s “S Box” stands for “Shit Box.” If so, cram Age of Extinction in an S Box and never let it out.

D

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Out in Theaters: MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Starring Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Stephen Colbert, Ariel Winter, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
92 Mins
PG

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“If a boy can adopt a dog then I see no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy,” goes the logic of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a tale (tail?) of accomplished, anthropomorphic pooch, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted carrot-topped son, Sherman. With a time machine called the “Way Back” at their fingertips (pawtips?), Peabody and Sherman bound through time to learn history lessons first hand. From witnessing Marie Antoinette spout her infamous cake one-liner to rubbing elbows with an unmummified King Tut through getting up close and personal with Agamemnon and his Trojan horse, Mr. Peabody’s field trips really can’t be topped. Being along for the history-hopping ride makes for some quality, light-hearted entertainment and offers a chance for colorful characters and backdrops of various aesthetic quality. Although the magic comes apart in the third act, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a mostly witty and endearing spectacle that will please kiddies and adults alike, with extra points for slipping in a few abridged history lessons.

Dating back to the late 1950s, Sherman and Mr. Peabody first appeared on the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” becoming a bit of a cult sensation. Here in 2014 though, the dog imbued with human qualities is somewhat commonplace what with the cultural reach of Seth McFarlane. In many ways, Peabody is a less crude version of Family Guy‘s Brian. With Peabody’s witticism, his deadpan delivery and bottomless charm, he’s a PG concoction of sassy booze-hound Brian and literature-lovin’ Jack Russell Terrier, Wishbone. Though history makes the argument that Brian is a knowing riff on Peabody, many ignorant of his historical context won’t see it for that.

Director Rob Minkoff may be responsible for the dreadful likes of The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little but he also has one of Disney’s greatest under his belt: The Lion King. And though we wonder how much of his time spent on such commercial dreck as the aforementioned may have rubbed off on Minkoff, his tenure with Disney during their animation Renaissance mostly shines through. Characteristically, the digitally animated visual landscape pops, the characters are inoffensive but never unbearably so and, in a way that only animation can really achieve, everything is larger-than-life. This is Minkoff’s gift and his curse. Accordingly, he’s never able to make the affairs feel quite real enough so even when the world’s end is threatened, we’re never really thinking that things could actually tip that way. As Peabody once comments to a pun-oblivious Sherman, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The voice acting, for one, is as hammy as Christmas leftovers. Work from Patrick Warburton, who you likely know as Elaine’s on-again-off-again beau Puddy on Seinfeld,  stands out as the symbolic ring leader of a band of actors goofing off in the sound booth. His take on Agamemnon is overbearing as his profound commerical work for M&M’s or Honda. His character, like the movie at large, would have worked better had he toned it down a little bit and found the character beyond the caricature.

Ty Burnell, the beloved patriarch of Modern Family, is suitable as the know-it-all Peabody (I would however have loved to see the original casting, Robert Downey Jr., in the role) but his stiff accent tends to keep him from ever feeling much deeper than a cartoon character. If there’s anyone who’s able to pull at our heartstrings through his casual voice work it’s little Max Charles, offering an earnest and rounded portrait of adoptee Sherman.

The unassuming duo manage to win over pretty much any historical figure their time machine lets them come across just as they manage to win over the goodwill of the audience. Their unorthodox father-son relationship is the anchor of the film but often dabbles in oft-tread territory. Take for example, the fact that many of the themes explored here are abundantly familiar to the genre – the challenges of parenting a maturing child, students adjusting to new roles at school, bureaucratic bullheadedness sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, and trepidatiously relinquishing autonomy to your children. They do a fine job when treading the straight and narrow but it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, which would have been more interesting to see them navigate.

A through line for the piece emerges as Sherman becomes the target of a full-blown tease assualt. Classmate and eventual crush, Penny, labels him a “dog”, with all the negative connotations that come along with such. Throughout the film, Sherman fights against this label, proving to himself and others that he’s more human than dog. It’s when Sherman finally realizes that maybe being a dog isn’t such a bad thing after all that we witness a sigh-worthy, ramble-rousing, Spartacus moment: “I’m a dog”,  “I’m a dog”,  “I’m a dog.” Typical. But within this third-act revelation comes cleverly disguised potent thematic elements that poke at xenophobic tolerance and breaking the inbred stigma of seeing the “other” as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And that’s at least something.

C+

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
144 Mins
PG-13

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Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire and Jennifer Lawrence may be Hollywood hot stuff (du jour), but this second installment of The Hunger Games is only slightly smoldering. In fact, the embers have already started to go cold. All the requisite franchise pieces are there to stoke the billion dollar conflagration this dystopian blockbuster is sure to light, but the overwhelming feeling that there is little spark behind the bark leaves us chilled to all this talk of fire.

Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned “safely” from the 74th Hunger Games but now they face the red hot wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who’s now breathing down their necks. Their final act of near-berry-gobbling defiance in the last film has led to stirrings of revolution across the districts. Through Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself to preserve her moral scruples, the country stands newly empowered. Unwittingly, Katniss has located a kink in the armor of Snow’s totalitarian society and must now suffer the price.

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The seeds of hope Katniss and Peeta have planted, Snow plans to stomp out. He supposes that the country’s cautious optimism towards a new tomorrow can be quelled if Katniss and Peeta maintain the facade of their romance. By making them one of his own kind, they will become symbols of corruption – a constantly broadcast morphing into the upper class. But all of this is predicated on their selling their “true love” like it’s Oprah Winfrey coach hour. Anything that would even suggest their affection is a muse would be the equivalent of open rebellion and would lead Snow to “take care of” both Katniss and Peeta’s families mobster style. When Snow realizes that the country may not turn against the star-crossed apples of their eye, he launches a new scheme that will pit them, and former victors, again each other again. 

In spite of these constant death threats, Catching Fire lacks breathless moments of white knuckle suspense. No matter how many times the dialogue, aided by Sutherland’s ripe delivery, insist that Katniss and her loved ones are teetering on the precipice of danger, there is little to convince us that anyone could actually be offed. In a franchise like this, everyone is too padded to actually face death. No harm will last more than a few hours, no scar will be too deep to heal. We know Katniss has no expiration date as the franchise train booms towards a fourth film and so any threat towards her – or her cohort’s – life feels paper thin.

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And while the first film held a flicker of filmmaking as rebellion, everything about this one screams studio control and designed realism. It all feels so reined in, so calculated in its darkness, and so badly wanting to break free of its PG-13 constraints that it can’t help but lose track of the meaning behind the books. In trying to reel in the masses (and their wallets), Catching Fire as Hollywood product is almost exactly what “Catching Fire” as commentary rages against – turning its back on the central message of stoic individualism against the oppressive tyranny of the elite. The hand of the studio is omnipresent – although hardly malevolent – and there seems to be little to no room for creative flair in the directorial department. Again, big business trumps individual spirit.

Sorely missing is Gary Ross’s urgent camerawork and tight closeups that gave The Hunger Games such a sense of realism. Instead of jammed close in on character’s faces and sharing in their ghastly horror, we feel distant, an observer. With edge-of-your-seat scenes largely tabled, Francis Lawrence goes for something much more horrific – a near 12 Years a Slave for kids. One scene depicting poisonous fog is particularly distressing and uncharacteristically grim for a film of this rating. On the brink of being “too dark,” there is little artistry behind the darkness that feels more like “gritty per popular demand.”

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Shying away from the close quarters, almost independent film-esque combat of the first flick, the violence in Catching Fire is staged like the many CGI heavy blockbusters of late. Much violence take place offscreen, in a wide zoom, or in rapid, random bursts, making death almost as inconsequential as it is in a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie. While the first film saw Katniss struggling with the murder of other children, this film sees her adversaries stripped of that very feature that made their slaughter so perverse and unsettling in the first place. Instead, these adult competitors become faceless baddies in another adventure film.

This franchise middle-child also suffers a pretty rough case of inbetweener syndrome, where it only works within the context of a larger story and not as a standalone film. While it propels what began in the first film into the coming finale, it lacks the finesse of a great middler. Without the pure adrenaline of The Two Towers and the tonal twists and turns of Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire just carries on the torch, readying it for the next billion dollar installment. Although the bleak-o-meter has been cranked up, the stakes remain largely the same: do or die. 

As sets the gears to full throttle for the inevitable two-part conclusion, we ask, “Haven’t we seen this all before?” The skies have darkened and life on Panem is more unbearable than ever but for all the barrels of darkness and grit-drenched scenery, there is familiarity to this racetrack of escalation that we’ve seen in greater franchises (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter).

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But for all of my complaints and griping, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a smarter than average blockbuster. It’s hard to finger where the $140+ million budget went – none of the special effects are noteworthy – but hopefully most of it is going towards the performers, as they continue to be the strongest selling point of this franchise. However, it’s the supporting characters who outshine the love-locked trio. Stanley Tucci is simply a riot (and possibly the best part of the film) and Elizabeth Banks is as wacky and invisible in her character as ever. Even Woody Harrelson‘s haunted alcoholic Haymitch has more depth than before and seems to be more commited to the emotional toil of his role than many of his co-stars. And however lackluster some of the CGI is, the set design gives us a rock solid sense of place and tone.

Finally, fans of the source material will have little to complain about since the book is adapted to the T. But when all is said and done, it’s just not a terribly exciting movie and one which I don’t expect to return to. Really feeling the sting of its “part of a whole” status, Catching Fire is better at blowing smoke than fanning the flames. 

C+

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