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5 Stars= It's Simply the Best
4 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Totally Sucks
Just Reviewed Focus-February 27th
Observations About the 87th Annual Academy Awards-February 23rd
Just Reviewed The DUFF and McFarland, USA-February 20th
Just Reviewed Fifty Shades of Grey and Kingsman-February 13th
Just Reviewed The SpongeBob Movie and Jupiter Ascending-February 6th
Will Smith regains his focus ***1/2
“Focus” is a slick con flick that’s occasionally reminiscent of David Mamet’s tragically overlooked “House of Games.” It’s not as smart as that 1987 buried treasure. It is, however, about as much fun as the best films in the “Ocean’s” trilogy. That’s not at all a bad class to be among. Above all else, “Focus” understands exactly what a good con movie should be: Thrilling, witty, and constantly keeping the audience on their toes.
Let’s just forget Will Smith was ever in “After Earth” and “Winter’s Tale.” In “Focus,” he’s back on track as Nicky Spurgeon, a conman who’s been in the game since he was a street rat. As an experienced scam artist, Nicky can see right through Margot Robbie’s Jess Barrett, a smalltime crook that tries to pull one over on him. Nicky believes that Jess has the makings of a first-rate hustler, nevertheless. As he shows her the tricks of the trade, the two get a little too close for Nicky’s taste. After going their separate ways, the loner Nicky plans to swindle a billionaire named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). The sting gets complicated, however, when Jess reenters the picture.
From Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” to Christian Bale and Amy Adams in “American Hustle,” movies like this all depend on the chemistry between the leads. Luckily for “Focus,” it’s two stars light up the screen every second they’re together. Cool, charming, and charismatic, Smith couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Nicky. Robbie, who previously shined as Jordan Belfort’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” brings a lot of humor, elegance, and lovability to her femme fatale. “Focus” also manages to work in a few standout supporting performances, most notably Gerald McRaney as a senior henchman who just might be the smartest man in the room.
All of the actors, as well as the screenplay, do a wonderful job at keeping the audience guessing what’s a con and who’s scheming who. The film is full of exciting moments that build rising tension, ultimately delivering with an unexpected payoff. Granted, some of the twists are a little too convenient to fully buy into. This is one of those movies where it’s best not to call out the filmmakers’ bluff and just go along for the ride, though. On that basis, “Focus” is thoroughly entertaining throughout. It also at least makes more sense than “Now You See Me.”
The writing/directing duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa share a résumé that ranges from children’s animated programs like “The Angry Beavers,” to dark comedies like “Bad Santa,” to romcoms like “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Like a good conman, they can play a variety of different rhythms and adjust well to their surroundings. While this is somewhat new territory for them, they transition to the genre quite nicely with great finesse and of course great focus. They’ve made a film that knows what it wants to be and their vision goes off without a hitch.
Observations About the 87th Annual Academy Awards
Biggest Winners of the Night: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Birdman" both won four each, with the latter winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Everyone's really a winner, though, since all eight Best Picture nominees took home at least one award.
Best Speeches: Patricia Arquette, Common, John Legend, and especially Graham Moore, all of whom gave hope to any human being that's ever faced oppression.
Most Deserving Win: J.K. Simmons, who delivered the most electrifying performance of the year in "Whiplash."
Most Overdue Wins: Julianne Moore and Alexandre Desplat are FINALLY Oscar winners!
Most Pleasant Upset: "Big Hero 6" winning Best Animated Feature, although it might have been even more pleasant if "The Lego Movie" somehow won.
Greatest Injustices: "Boyhood" only winning one award and Michael Keaton losing Best Actor for "Birdman."
Best Shout-Outs: David Oyelowo, Jennifer Aniston, Roger Ebert, "The Lego Movie," and anybody else who got snubbed.
Worst Omission: No Joan Rivers in the In Memoriam Tribute.
Best Pairing: Adele Dazeem and Glom Gazingo, together at last!
Most Confusing Pairing: Kevin Hart and Anna Kendrick…wait what?
Neil Patrick Harris' Best Bit: That wonderful opening musical number. This year's Emmy winner for Best Original Song, anyone?
Neil Patrick Harris' Weakest Moment: Leave Octavia Spencer alone!
Worst Musical Performance: …Actually, for the first time in Oscar history, the musical numbers were the most consistently entertaining part of the show.
Most Surprisingly Great Musical Performance: Lady Gaga paying tribute to "The Sound of Music." Clearly this is the woman who should have played Maria in the NBC live musical. Carrie Underwood can suck it!
Biggest Loser: Me. I only correctly predicted 16 out of 24 categories.
Duffman can't breathe! Oh no! ***1/2
Hollywood gives many actresses the impression that if they’re not a perfect ten, they’ll never be more than a voiceover performer. Mae Whitman has done some marvelous voice work in shows like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” As far as her live-action roles go, though, Whitman is usually restricted to playing the weird outsider or the butt of a joke, most notably Anne Veal (aka Her?) from “Arrested Development.” While she excels at playing those parts, it’d be nice to see a character actress like Whitman score more complex roles. She finds the perfect star vehicle for herself in “The DUFF,” a film that asserts just because you aren’t considered a ten doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful.
Whitman plays Bianca, the short, stout, overall-wearing best girlfriend of two high school knockouts. Bianca begins to worry that she’s the DUFF in her circle of friends. If you don’t keep up with modern acronyms, D.U.F.F. stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Determined to be more than a player on the bleachers, she seeks guidance from Robbie Amell’s Wesley, the hunky jock next door. From there, the plot is a bit like “She’s All That,” but infinitely smarter.
“The DUFF” features some winning secondary performances from Ken Jeong as Bianca’s teacher, Bella Thorne as a classic mean girl, and Allison Janney, who’s perfected the quirky mom archetype down to a T. This is Whitman’s movie, however, and boy does she shine. Whitman stays 100% committed to whatever the filmmakers throw at her, but she’s never mean-spiritedly humiliated or degraded. This movie respects its main character and doesn’t try to change who she is. Whitman thus creates a heroine that’s identifiable, awkward, and lovable in every way.
At times, “The DUFF” demonstrates the potential for a great high school comedy such as “Mean Girls” or “Easy A.” There are a few problems, though, with Josh A. Cagan’s witty, yet familiar, script. We have to put up with a ton of lame conventions involving misunderstands, seemingly nice guys that turn out to be jerks, and Bianca creating some forced tension with her friends. Then there’s the climax at homecoming, which does admittedly lead to a nice, heartfelt conclusion. Of course you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how the movie will resolve itself.
It takes talented people to make clichés like this work. Fortunately, Whitman and Director Ari Sandel, who won an Oscar for his short film several years ago, are more than up to the task. Although it doesn’t provide groundbreaking commentary, “The DUFF” is a funny, earnest, and insightful picture about being yourself. This can be especially hard in an age of cyber bullying and size zero models plastering billboards. That’s just one of the reasons why we could use a movie like “The DUFF” and a star like Whitman right about now.
How do I reach these Keedz? ***
Why do we keep going to see sports movies like “McFarland, USA?” We all know what’s going to happen. A down on his luck coach finds himself teaching a ragtag team of misfits. At first they won’t be any good, but with perspiration and inspiration, the underdogs will become unlikely champions. Along the way, the coach will teach his kids something and maybe they’ll teach him something too. Cue the epilogue where we get a brief description of what happened to each player and roll the credits.
So what is it about this formula that resonates with so many people? Is it because we love sports, underdogs, and seeing the same “true story” repeated over again? To an extent, but sports movies dig a little deeper than that. Sure, we knew exactly how “Remember the Titans,” “Glory Road,” and “Coach Carter” would play out. Nevertheless, those were all well made, well acted, and moving films. The inspirational sports genre is essentially comfort food with some nutritional value. At least that’s more than can be said about most romantic comedies, action blockbusters, or sequels, which are overly familiar and lack any value whatsoever.
“McFarland, USA” is another sports flick that doesn’t bring much new to the story, but still stands out thanks to its solid performances, direction, and life lessons. Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a former high school football coach who is forced to relocate his family to McFarland, California. Suddenly, White is the minority in a community of mostly Latinos, stray dogs, and chickens. With several students being exceptional runners, Jim sees potential for a cross country program. Pretty soon he assembles a team comprised of the kid from broken home, the pipsqueak, the wiseass, the fat kid, the two brothers, and the other kid.
Niki Caro’s film does a fine job at developing Costner’s character and his relationship with his students. However, the narrative might have benefitted from a few more scenes told from the players’ perspectives instead of mainly focusing on the coach. It’s interesting that “McFarland, USA” would come out just a couple weeks after “Black or White,” another film about race relations where a character played by Kevin Costner overshadowed most of the ethnic actors. While neither film is extraordinary, both still effectively make commentary on social issues without turning anybody into a stereotype.
There isn’t much else to say about “McFarland, USA” except if you’re looking for an inspirational sports picture, this will get the job done. If you’re a sourpuss who’s seen one too many of these movies, you can probably sit this one out. While you can’t fault a person for disliking a film that doesn’t offer many surprises, it’s best to view this genre as if you’re a P.E. teacher. Your students might not take home any trophies, but as long as they sincerely put their best possible effort into the game, give them a passing grade and call it a day.
He doesn't hang dong once? ***
Even before “Fifty Shades of Grey” hit theaters, everybody seemed to have their own preordained opinion about the eagerly anticipated adaptation of E.L. James’ bestseller. Those who couldn’t put the book down said it would be the sexiest movie ever made. Those who couldn’t get through one page said it would be the most unintentionally hilarious movie ever made. It turns out “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a bit of everything. It’s steamy, it’s ridiculous, it’s trashy, it’s elegant, it’s fun, it’s dumb, but is it any good? If you’re in the right mindset, it kind of is. If you’re not, it’s kind of awful.
Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, who has the classiest porn star name imaginable. This college student scores an interview with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a billionaire businessman we never see conduct any real business. Although Mr. Grey could have any of the fembots in his office, he sees something in the ordinary, plain Ana. Mr. Grey doesn’t do romance, however. This tortured soul is only into kinky S&M and wants Ana to accompany him on his journey to Pleasure Town.
It’s impossible to discuss “Fifty Shades of Grey” without bringing up the film’s depiction of sex. It’s even more impossible to sit through these lovemaking exploits without giggling like a kid in health class. As hysterical as some of the sex scenes might be, they are admittedly well shot, set to fitting music, and, in their own right, pretty hot. Most importantly, Director Sam Taylor-Johnson doesn’t incorporate any of the laughable narration from E.L. James’ novel. She understands that film is a visual medium and it’s better to show rather than tell.
That being said, is this anything more than the most expensive porno of all time? For a film based on “Twilight” fan fiction, there is a touch more artistic integrity to “Fifty Shades of Grey” than you might expect. Taylor-Johnson is actually very clever with her use of colors, making Ana’s environments lively and messy while Mr. Grey’s environments are dark and clean. It’s a terrific film to look at full of beautiful people.
As for the performances, Dakota Johnson is surprisingly really strong as Ana. She easily could have settled for making this character an empty shell like Bella, but Johnson brings a fair deal of humor and charm to the role. The same can be said about Jamie Dornan, who fortunately doesn’t play it too straight as Mr. Grey. Both of these actors know the only way to get through this movie is to acknowledge how silly the source material is. They do this with great chemistry and great dedication.
This is probably the best adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” we could have hoped for. That still doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie, though. The plot is absent, the supporting characters are inconsequential, the sexual innuendos couldn’t be more blatant, and the leads have very little character to work with. Mr. Grey in particular is nothing more than a sexual caricature solely designed for women to fantasize about. Somebody that’s rich, hansom, and will solve all your problems, but still needs a lady in his life to help him change.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” makes no attempt to analyze sexual obsession like “Shame” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Then again, that’s not what it’s supposed to do. This is good-looking, brainless entertainment and sometimes a little mindless relief isn’t the worst thing. Whether you’re in it for the hot action or the cringe-inducing dialog, the film will likely satisfy. It’s more self-aware than “Twilight” and more fun than most Nicholas Sparks pictures. So in a strange way, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is something of a guilty pleasure.
There’s just one other elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged. “Fifty Shades of Grey” has a ton of risqué female nudity while we never get so much as a peek of Mr. Grey’s goods. As a heterosexual male, I’m not complaining. For an interpretation of an erotic novel that was mostly read by women, though, you have to admit it’s a peculiar omission.
The Kingsman's Speech ****
Daniel Craig and directors like Sam Mendes have done an exceptional job at reinventing James Bond with a grittier, more serious tone. As superb as some of Mr. Bond’s recent outings have been, particularly “Skyfall,” a part of us all will always long for the days when James’ adventures were full of excessive gadgets and one-liners. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a marvelous throwback to old school British spy thrillers. While an obvious homage to early James Bond, the film also adds a few modern twists with a self-aware sense of humor and colorful violence that makes “Hot Fuzz” look toned-down by comparison.
Colin Firth is probably the last person that comes to mind when people consider the word, “badass.” If he proves anything here, though, it’s that he could have made for a terrific Bond fifteen or twenty years ago. While that ship has sailed, the 54-year-old Firth is still tailor-made to play the role of Harry Hart, a senior agent employed by an international intelligence agency known as the Kingsman. Rarely cracking a smile and delivering every line in a dry manner, Firth creates an endlessly witty character reminiscent of somebody out of “The Avengers.” For the record, I’m referring to the 1960’s spy series, “The Avengers,” and not Marvel’s mega-blockbuster.
Harry sees great potential in Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), the troublemaking son of a fallen agent who could do anything if he just put his mind to it. Eggsy is invited to fill a Kingsman position, but faces stiff competition against other potential candidates like Sophie Cookson as Roxy. Through arduous training involving flooded rooms and jumping out of airplanes, Eggsy and Roxy form a strong friendship that refreshingly doesn’t blossom into a romance. Of course they might be saving that for the sequel.
“Kingsman” has no shortage of memorable supporting performances, including Michael Caine as the head of the secret organization, Mark Strong and a blunt trainer, and even Mark Hamill putting on his English accent as a professor. A movie like this is only as good as its bad guy, however. “Kingsman” finds a brilliant one in Richmond Valentine, a billionaire genius played by none other than Samuel L. Jackson. Although he might not seem intimidating with thick glasses and a lisp, this eccentric entrepreneur has an improbably devious plan to level off the human population. He’s aided by Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle, one of the most inventive henchwomen of recent memory with a pair of artificial legs to die for.
Director Matthew Vaughn of “Kickass” was the perfect person to breathe life into this unique concoction, which is equal parts classic espionage adventure, living comic book, and loving satire. His latest film wisely never takes itself too seriously, but still keeps the audience emotionally invested when a major character is shockingly killed off. On top of that, the action is some of the most fast-paced and well choreographed in a long time, most notably a church brawl in which Firth introduces an army of religious fanatics to their maker. While not as graphic as “Kickass,” “Kingsman” still earns its R-rating and might prove a little too over-the-top for some. For everyone else, the film is simply a blast from start to finish.
Is it sponge worthy? **1/2
You want to hear something that will make you feel old? “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” came out just over a decade ago. If that doesn’t make you feel old, how about this? The “SpongeBob” Krusty Krab Pizza episode came out a decade and a half ago! The goofy sponge has demonstrated miraculous longevity, as many of his current fans weren’t even alive when his cartoon first hit the airwaves.
While “SpongeBob SquarePants” remains popular with younger viewers, the general consensus among older audiences is that the show officially hit rock bottom after season three. Maybe I’m getting old like everyone else, but I too must admit that “SpongeBob” has lost much of its humor and charm. Like “The Simpsons,” the series really should have jumped ship a long time ago. What’s profitable is profitable, though, and it would seem this franchise is here to stay. Thus, now we get “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” a cash grab that’s harmless, inoffensive, and mostly just a waste of time.
The film opens in live-action with a pirate named Burger-Beard, played by Antonio Banderas, trying to steal an ancient book. He’s cartoonier than the actual cartoon characters, but at least Banderas appears to be having fun in the role. We then cut to the animated realm of Bikini Bottom where Plankton is once again trying to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula. The filmmakers seem to forget that Plankton successfully stole the formula in the last movie, although to bring continuity into “SpongeBob” at this point is futile. When the formula mysteriously vanishes, everybody believes Plankton is to blame. Everybody, that is, except SpongeBob, who joins forces with his foe to find the real culprit.
From there, “Sponge Out of Water” literally makes itself up as it goes along. The sea world becomes an apocalyptic warzone straight out of “Mad Max,” SpongeBob goes back in time, and an all-powerful dolphin pops up out of nowhere. Oh, and there’s also a message tacked on about teamwork, although nobody cares about that. The question is whether the latest “SpongeBob” movie is actually funny. Toddlers are bound to be giggling throughout and there is the occasional gag that will make grown ups smile. This is purely a film marketed to kids, however, which is disappointing seeing how “SpongeBob” once had such universal appeal. Compared to “Phineas and Ferb,” “Gravity Falls,” “Adventure Time,” and other cartoons that cast a much wider net, this just isn’t sponge worthy.
The movie’s trailers, poster, and title have mainly played up the animation/live-action hybrid scenes, but SpongeBob and his friends don’t even reach the surface world until the final act. This is where “Sponge Out of Water” starts to get desperate and condescending, turning the SpongeBob gang into superheroes. It all feels like something cooked up by focus groups to sell Happy Meal toys. The fact that they work delicious-looking burgers into the climax only makes their merchandising tactics more blatant.
“Sponge Out of Water” will do a substandard job babysitting your kids when it comes out on DVD in a few months. One can only hope Nickelodeon will use the film’s profits to produce more ambitious animated features like “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Rango.” Even some of their more recent animated shows like “The Legend of Korra” and the CGI “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” have great big screen potential. Heck, why not write Craig Bartlett a blank check so he can finally produce “Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie?” Just please put SpongeBob out to sea for a while.
Wachowski's descending *1/2
When the Wachowski’s came out with “The Matrix” over a decade and a half ago, it looked like they might be the next Spielberg and Lucas. Then they made “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Matrix Revolutions,” and “Speed Racer.” While the duo reclaimed some of their creditability with “Cloud Atlas,” they’ve taken another huge step backwards with “Jupiter Ascending.” Where their previous duds were at the very least ambitious to an extent, this film simply blends into the crowd. Looking like every other science fiction picture and reading like every other young adult story, “Jupiter Ascending” is arguably their most forgettable outing to date.
Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, an ordinary woman with an unordinary name. Stuck cleaning toilets for a living and waiting to be swept off her feat, the screenplay blatantly compares Jupiter to Cinderella. Of course where Cinderella was actually hardworking and lovable, Jupiter is mostly lazy and boring. Jupiter’s prince does eventually come in the form of Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), who was genetically spliced with human and wolf DNA. Of course he looks more like a Vulcan than anything else. Caine informs Jupiter that there’s royal Midi-chlorians or something in her and she’s the heir to the Earth. There are others royals, however, that want to claim our world as their own. In order to do so, they’ll have to give Jupiter a Shakespearean sendoff.
Eddie Redmayne has a real shot at becoming an Oscar-winner for his performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Hopefully the Academy doesn’t see him in “Jupiter Ascending” before marking their ballots. He plays Balem Abrasax, one of three siblings trying to get Jupiter out of the way. Redmayne speaks all of his lines as if he’s suffering from strep throat, except when he screams random lines like somebody with Tourette’s. Whether Redmayne is actually trying here or not, he completely devours the scenery in a performance that makes Xerxes from “300” look like a subtle villain.
What about Mila Kunis? She’s one of the most charming actresses working in movies today. Surely she can bring this sci-fi tale down-to-earth? Sadly, the only thing in “Jupiter Ascending” more stinted than Kunis’ performance is her dynamic with Tatum’s Caine. Keeping with the Cinderella story theme, they instantly fall in love after sharing one conversation. You’d never know these two were in love based on their interactions, though. Mistaking analyzing feelings for actually expressing feelings, a pair of pet rocks would have more chemistry than them.
Like many of the Wachowski’s films, “Jupiter Ascending” is one half action and the other half longwinded dialog about philosophy. Yet, the movie certainly won’t trigger the imagination like “The Matrix” did or trigger any intriguing chats like “Cloud Atlas” did. The dialog in particular is about as exciting as a pretentious college lecture or talking to a desk clerk at a government agency. Heck, there’s even a scene where the characters go to the intergalactic equivalent of the DMV. Maybe this is the filmmakers’ attempt at comedy, but it just goes to show how bland the script truly is.
Pioneering a generation of stunning blockbusters with the original “Matrix,” you’d think the Wachowski’s would at least offer some dazzling eye candy here. While “Jupiter Ascending” certainly isn’t a poorly crafted movie, it isn’t a visually unique one either. Instead of distinguishing itself with an original style, the film just looks like a hodgepodge of elements borrowed from “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “The Fifth Element,” “Mass Effect,” and “The Hunger Games.” Some of the aliens do admittedly look imaginative, though, excluding Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a half-human with Ross Perot ears.
If there’s one film “Jupiter Ascending” should have taken a page from, it’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Although that film had plenty of silly moments, it also had a sense of humor, strong characters, and a heart. Furthermore, “Guardians of the Galaxy” knew when to stop taking itself so seriously. “Jupiter Ascending” takes itself as serious as a Christopher Nolan movie, but doesn’t have the ideas or characters to keep the audience engaged. The Wachowski’s are talented filmmakers, but their latest attempt at winning back mainstream audience is sadly full of hot air.