Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Total shit
Just Reviewed Transcendence and Under the Skin-April 18th
Just Reviewed Captain America: The Winter Solider-April 4th
Interview Jason Carney-April 3rd
Just reviewed Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted-March 21st
Interview with Miles Teller and Jai Courtney-March 21st
“Transcendence” is a movie all about questions. Not because the plot is overly complex or difficult to follow, but because it raises so many ethical dilemmas. Has technology gone too far? Will technology bring us into a new age of enlightenment or be our ultimate downfall? Could technology one day give a person the power of a god? Should a person have the power of a god, even if they can benefit mankind? Johnny Depp is doing a non-period piece where he doesn’t wear a ton of makeup or put on an accent?
The film does indeed star a more tamed Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher developing a machine that will be virtually omniscience. Accused of trying to create a god, Will is assassinated by a group of extremists. Evelyn Caster, Will’s widowed wife played by Rebecca Hall, and Max Waters, Will’s best friend played by Paul Bettany, decide to finish what Will started. In the process, they discover a way to bring Will back from the dead, downloading his mind into a computer. Will is resurrected, assuming control of the Internet and everyone who becomes connected to him.
So let me guess what happens next. Will becomes mad with power, tries to take over the world, our eyes are opened to how reliant we’ve become on technology, same old, same old. Well…no, not exactly at least. Without giving too much away, Will uses his newfound power to potentially help mankind and lead us to a new stage in human evolution. To get to that stage, however, we’d have to sacrifice part of our humanity. This doesn’t sit well with an extremist leader played by Kate Mara, an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, or Will’s former colleague played by Morgan Freeman. They set out to shut Will down, but could risk setting humanity back a hundred years along the way.
What’s interesting about “Transcendence” is that it’s not strictly anti-technology or pro-technology. The audience can understand the fearful mindset of the extremists while also seeing things from Will’s perspective. For a film with so many questions, it doesn’t have a ton of easy answers. First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen seems to mostly identify with Rebecca Hall’s character, a woman constantly torn between thinking with logic and thinking with emotion. Hall’s performance caries much of the film as she attempts to answer the greatest question of all: What constitutes a conscious being?
With its big ideas and engaging science fiction, there are times when “Transcendence” almost feels like a Christopher Nolan movie. Actually, Nolan did produce the film, but his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister acts as director here. Pfister makes a solid directorial debut with a film that always looks great and is often interesting to follow.
“Transcendence” draws comparison to a fair deal of other science fiction stories, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the recent “Captain America: The Winter Solider.” The film everyone is bound to stack it up against is Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which also made commentary on the state of artificial intelligence. This movie really doesn’t come close to contending with “Her” because, while the ideas are definitely there, the audience’s emotional connection to the characters isn’t nearly as strong. Outside of maybe Hall’s Evelyn, everyone else often comes off as mere tools for exposition. That being said, “Transcendence” isn’t emotionless and it does certainly raise some interesting conversations. That’s more than can be said other recent movies that cost over a hundred million dollars to produce. So take it for what it’s worth.
Under the Bra ***1/2
Scarlett Johansson was given the best role of her career so far in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a film in which she was off camera the entire running time. Where that performance solely revolved around her voice, Johansson’s performance in “Under the Skin” primarily revolves around her body. Johansson rarely speaks in this science fiction indie from Jonathan Glazer, conveying everything through nonverbal communication. Both of these stunning performances are true testaments to what a varied actress Miss Scarlett has evolved into. Her scene stealing work in “Captain America: The Winter Solider” is also a nice bonus to her recent track record.
Johansson plays a nameless alien who arrives in Scotland, assumes the appearance of a human and starts abducting random men on the streets. At least that’s how the synopsis on IMDb describes the plot. Unless you’ve read the book by Michael Faber or researched the film beforehand, you’ll likely be completely lost watching “Under the Skin.” The movie unapologetically leaves its audience in the dark, never revealing Johansson’s origins, motivations, or internal thoughts. “Under the Skin” uses the medium of film to its full advantage, always showing and never telling.
A movie like this will surely divide people, seeing how there isn’t a ton to the story. But “Under the Skin” isn’t really about narrative or dialog. Much like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Tree of Life,” or the more surreal works of David Lynch, the film is all about having an experience. For me, the experience of “Under the Skin” was both confusing and frustrating, but ultimately fascinating and occasionally beautiful.
Every shot in the film is a visual treat, courtesy of Cinematography Daniel Landin. On a limited budget, the production directors create some unforgettable gothic imagery as Johansson lures tempted men into her dark, unspecified lair. Aside from Johansson, the film’s most hypnotic presence is Mica Levi’s heart pounding musical score that often sounds like the inside of Darth Vader’s helmet. In a practically dialog-free script, the music acts as a constant lingering presence, adding atmosphere to every scene.
As great as the film looks, Johansson is the real reason “Under the Skin” works. Johansson flawlessly conveys the film’s central themes of finding one’s personal identity, sexual identity, and identity in general. At least I believe those are the central themes, as the film never makes anything clear. That’s one of the great things about “Under the Skin,” though. It lets you decide what to feel rather than telling you what you should feel. Even if it proves too vague and art housey for some, Johansson’s performance, not to mention her naked body, is definitely something to be admired.
I feel like I've used all my "Team America" jokes so...no pun for this one ****
First, we had to sit through “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” to finally get to “The Avengers.” Now we have to sit through “Iron Man 3,” “Thor: The Dark World,” and “Captain America: The Winter Solider” to finally get to “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
That seems to be the general consensus of Marvel movies nowadays, which always seemed like an unfair assessment to me. Sure, “The Avengers” might be the main event we all want to get to. Regardless, all these other movies building up to the ultimate crossover have still been wonderfully produced for the most part. Each individual franchise also notably maintains a distinctive tone with “Iron Man” being high-tech, “Thor” being mystical, and “Captain America” being retro.
Well, at least the first “Captain America” had a retro vibe to it. Captain America is no longer in the 1940’s. After being asleep for almost 70 years, he’s been awakened to a whole new world dominated by iPads, iPhones, and men in flying suits of armor. This approach makes “Captain America: The Winter Solider” the most unique of all the Avengers-related sequels and also arguably the best.
Chris Evans returns as the incredibly likable hero who wants nothing more than to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. Captain America still isn’t as dark or complex as somebody like Batman, Spider-Man, or Iron Man. Then again, he’s not supposed to be and the film never tries to make the character grittier ala “Man of Steel.” Following the events that took place in New York, the all-American Avenger finds himself wrapped up in a thrilling tale of betrayal, loss, and conspiracy.
The bad guy this time around is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official who is such an obvious bad guy that I’m really not spoiling anything by telling you upfront that he’s the bad guy. Redford is so deliciously calculating in the role, though, it’s easy to give the character a pass. He plans to bring S.H.I.E.L.D. down from the inside and enlists help from the illusive Winter Solider, an assassin with a bionic arm.
Hunted by his own people, Captain America only has two allies he can trust. One is Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, who becomes the high-flying Falcon aka Iron Patriot 2.0. The other is Scarlett Johansson as fellow Avenger Black Widow, who has yet to get her own movie. Watching “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” however, you really wish that Marvel would give her a spin-off. Johansson is great here as the Captain’s closest ally and friend, but not a love interest. What’s this? A superhero movie with opposite sex partners that puts an emphasis on friendship over romance? That’s a refreshing first.
The film has a number of great supporting characters as well, even if they don’t get as much screen time as they deserve. Emily VanCamp of “Revenge” is a nice addition as Agent 13, although she’s not entirely developed. Hayley Atwell from the first film has a powerful cameo, although that only lasts a couple minutes. Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury are fun as always, although they’re not on screen for that long. Even the Winter Solider, one of the title characters, is absent for large portions of the movie. But even if these characters leave us wanting more, the characters that the film does choose to focus on are more than engaging enough.
“Captain America: The Winter Solider” was directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. They pack this engrossing blockbuster full of solid action, welcome humor, strong character development, and a story full of twists. In other words, it’s a much better effort than the Russo’s last film, “You, Me and Dupree.” It’s also vastly superior to either of those “G.I. Joe” pictures. Not only will this “Captain America” sequel make you more excited for “The Avengers 2,” it will make you even more excited for “Captain America 3.”
The 2014 Phoenix Film Festival is having its opening night premiere on April 3rd at Harkins Scottsdale 101. In addition to screening films, the festival will include Geek Day, Kid’s Day, and numerous other events. This seven day long festival is being helmed by Jason Carney, the executive director of the Phoenix Film Foundation. Carney recently spoke with the East Valley Tribune to discuss the significance of this annual celebration embracing the art of film.
East Valley Tribune: What’s your greatest responsibility as festival director?
Jason Carney: Basically it’s the overall oversight of the festival and the organization. Anything that happens at the festival is up to me.
EVT: What kind of items will be available at the silent auction?
JC: We got a few things lined up so far like a mini iPad, free airport parking for a year, a really cool yoga package, and a “Boss” poster signed by Kelsey Grammer. We’re still waiting on a lot of the memorabilia items.
EVT: What can you tell me about Kid’s Day?
JC: It’s a really cool, free event geared at kids form 3 to 12. We have all these different film-related activity stations like a green screen station and a red carpet where they get their picture taken.
EVT: What distinguishes the Phoenix Film Festival from other film festivals?
JC: There’s no other festival our size that takes place in one location. Everything happens on site at the Harkins Scottsdale 101 center. That’s a really nice benefit that creates a community feel for the festival.
EVT: How many of the films being screened at the festival have you seen?
JC: I have seen probably about 40% of them. We have over 150 films and to watch all of them in such a short amount of time is impossible. That’s why we have different program directors for each of the categories.
EVT: Which film do you think is your personal favorite?
JC: There’s a really cool documentary called “Missfire: The Rise and Fall of the Shooting Gallery.” It’s about this group of folks that turned into a movie company that made “Sling Blade” and several other independent films. It’s just a great story that I never heard before.
EVT: Will there be any big names attending the festival?
JC: We’re still working on that. So far we got Dee Wallace aka the mom from “E.T.” and Leah Thompson from “Back to the Future.”
EVT: What can you tell us about the seminars and middle/high school programs offered by the festival?
JC: Those are really great. It’s on four different days. On the first day, it’s all about the filmmakers we’ve brought in from around the world talking in panels. The second day is when we start the production process. There’s a screenwriting day where students break out into groups and they have a mentor who works with them to create a short script. The next day they start preproduction of the winning script. Then on the last day, they actually shoot that short film.
EVT: And what can you tell us about Geek Day?
JC: That’s going to happen on Sunday and we got some really cool folks coming out like the Arizona Ghostbusters, the Phoenix Cupcake Company, local videogame developers, and various other comic-related people.
EVT: Why do you think it’s important for people to attend the Phoenix Film Festival?
JC: It’s just a great opportunity to see films you might not see otherwise. Film lovers can soak in what these films are all about and learn the back-stories of them.
EVT: Do you consider yourself a real moviegoer?
JC: Oh yeah. I’m usually at the theater at least once a week. But this time of year I avoid the theater like the plague.
EVT: Any final thoughts on the festival?
JC: It’s just a great event and when people come out they’ll get hooked. We look forward to having another great year.
Be sure to attend the Phoenix Film Festival from April 3rd to April 10th at Harkins Scottsdale 101 7000 E. Mayo BLVD., Phoenix, AZ 85054.
Be an original...or at least be like The Hunger Games ***1/2
First there were a dozen “Harry Potter” wannabes. Then there were several dozen “Twilight” wannabes. Now it looks like we’re moving onto “The Hunger Games” wannabes. “Divergent” barrows much from “Hunger Games,” in addition to “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” and other young adult adaptations. The good news is that the film isn’t just a cheap knockoff looking to cash in on the flavor of the month. “Divergent” is all about not giving into society and being a unique entity. While unique may not be the best word to describe “Divergent,” the film is just engaging enough to distinguish itself.
Shailene ‘Shai’ Woodley is Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior, a young girl living in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Civilization has been split into five groups, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Abnegation aka Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, and remedial Hogwarts. On Choosing Day aka The Reaping, Tris decides to team up with the fearless and potentially insane Dauntless clan. What her fellow tribesmen don’t known is that Tris is actually a Divergent. This means that Tris isn’t strictly Dauntless, nor is she strictly Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, or Amity. She’s a special individual, which is a no go in a society dominated by conformity.
In the midst of proving herself to others and hiding her true nature, Tris also finds time for romance. Her love interest is Theo James as a Dauntless instructor named Four. What, you mean like “I Am Number Four?” Come on, that young adult adaptation wasn’t even a hit! The romance is admittedly the weakest aspect of the film, often leading to awkward dialog and unexciting love scenes. But the teenage girls in the audience seemed to dig it, so who am I to complain?
The important thing is that “Divergent” isn’t just about whether or not two highly attractive people will hook up. It isn’t merely an action or special effects blowout either, although the production values are quite well done. The film is more about ideas regarding individualism and it tackles these issues with intelligence, even if these themes are somewhat familiar.
What really makes “Divergent” work, though, is Shailene Woodley. The 22-year-old actress just gets better and better in every project she takes on. While “Secret Life of the American Teenager” was trash, her performance was better than the show ever deserved. Woodley established herself as a true force to be reckoned with as George Clooney’s daughter in “The Descendants” and Miles Teller’s girlfriend in “The Spectacular Now.” Here, Woodley proves that she’s more than capable of carrying a science fiction blockbuster as a smart, strong heroine who isn’t unbearably antsy or boy crazy.
The whole cast does pretty well in their roles, the only disappointment being Kate Winslet as the villainous Jeanine Matthews. One would think that an actress of Winslet’s caliber would bring a genuine sense of menace to this character who wishes to seize control of the Dauntless. In her limited screen time, however, she never becomes an especially interesting or intimidating foe. It’s clear that Winselt just woke up one morning and said, “I think I’ll do a young adult movie that my kids can go see. After that, it’s back to winning Oscar no. 2!”
While not up there with “Hunger Games,” Winslet did select a perfectly solid young adult film to star in. “Divergent” is a well-made entertainment from Director Neil Burger, who adapted the film from Veronica Roth’s bestseller. The screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor is never dull, keeping the two-and-a-half-hour long story moving at a brisk pace. It’d even be fun to see Burger and company produce a sequel, or two, or three if they decide to split the third book into multiple movies. You know how Hollywood likes to drag these things out.
You're number two ***
“The Muppets” was just about a perfect movie, tapping into our nostalgia while also offering something new and innovative. There’s no way Director James Bobin and Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller could ever top it. Kermit and friends acknowledge this fact in the opening number of “Muppets Most Wanted,” singing about how the sequel is never as good as the original. This second film, which is technically the eighth film in the franchise, might not be on par with its predecessor. It is, however, a fun, self-aware satire well worthy of the Muppet name.
Where “The Muppets” barrowed much from the original 1979 “Muppet Movie,” “Muppets Most Wanted” is like a spiritual successor to “The Great Muppet Caper.” The film picks up immediately after the last one as the Muppets prepare for a world tour. Their new manager is Ricky Gervais as Dominic, a bad guy so bad his last name is Badguy. Dominic is secretly working for Constantine, the world’s number one criminal who happens to look just like Kermit. The only difference between the two is a mole on Constantine’s right cheek and an accent that sounds like a blender of Russian, German, and French. Whichever it is, it’s an incredibly thick accent.
So what else is going on in this movie? More like what isn’t going on. The Muppets soon get obliviously entangled in a complicated scheme to help Constantine and Dominic steal the queen’s jewels. Kermit meanwhile is mistaken for Constantine and incarcerated under the strict watch of Tina Fey as a Russian GULAG officer. While all that’s going on, Sam the Eagle sets out to catch the villains along with Ty Burrell, channeling Inspector Clouseau as a French police officer. There’ also another baddie in the mix named the Lemur, whose true identity isn’t much of a surprise. Then on top of all that, there’s a plot in which Constantine plans to marry Miss Piggy.
One of the joys of the last “Muppet” feature was the simplicity of its getting the gang back together plot. “Muppets Most Wanted” packs in a little too much plot for its own good. As a result, many fan favorite characters like Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, and 80s Robot get sidelined. Even Kermit really doesn’t have that much screen time for a lead. The film does make time, though, to reference Rizzo the Rat’s absence in the previous movie.
Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet,” returns to write the songs. They’re inventive and energized, although only the opening number is particularly memorable. None of them hit the mark like “Life’s a Happy Song” or “Rainbow Connection.” The same can be said about some of the celebrity cameos, which includes Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, and Lady Gaga to name a few. At least the lineup is better than the one in “Muppets from Space” where the biggest name was Rob Schneider.
For everything that doesn’t work in “Muppets Most Wanted,” there’s still an equal amount of jokes that do work. If Christoph Waltz doing the waltz with Sweetums and Miss Piggy singing “My Heart Will Go On” doesn’t put a smile on your face, you’re made of stone. The caper plot, while overstuffed, is put to good use and produces a lot of inspired material. Constantine himself makes for a terrific villain, literally stealing the spotlight from Kermit. Basically, this is a movie where you need to take what you can get. What we get is an entertaining romp with amusing characters, a handful of solid gags, and explosions. It’s also much better than Statler and Woldorf will give it credit. Do-ho-ho-ho-hoh!
“Divergent,” the adaptation of the hit novel by Veronica Roth, is hitting theaters on March 21st. The film was directed by Neil Burger of “The Illusionist” and stars Shailene Woodley as Beatrice. Nick recently sat down and talked to Miles Teller who plays Peter and Jai Courtney who pays Eric. Teller previous starred in “The Spectacular Now” and will be playing Mr. Fantastic in the upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot. Courtney worked alongside Bruce Willis in “A Good Day to Die Hard” and recently landed the role of Kyle Reese in “Terminator: Genesis.”
A long time ago, we used to be friends ***1/2
“Veronica Mars” had one truly amazing season followed by two pretty good seasons. The critically acclaimed series was then abruptly cancelled, but left behind a dedicated fanbase. A fanbase so dedicated that they donated over five million dollars on Kickstarter to get a “Veronica Mars” movie off the ground. Now in the same vein of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” the crime solving young adult has been resurrected for a feature written and directed by series creator Rob Thomas.
The plot finds Veronica (Kristen Bell) nine years after her cancellation in New York City. The plucky detective has given up sleuthing to pursue a career as a lawyer. Her plans take a detour, however, when a former classmate is murdered. The prime suspect just so happens to be Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), Veronica’s ex-rival/ex-friend/ex-boyfriend. Veronica is the only one who believes Logan is innocent and flies down to her hometown of Neptune. Upon arriving, Veronica finds that the local sheriff’s office is still corrupt and the only competent law enforcer in town is her P.I. father (Enrico Colantoni).
Pretty much everything that made the series great is on display in this movie. Kristen Bell couldn’t be better suited to play smart, resourceful Veronica. Her romantic chemistry with Logan hits just the right note. Veronica’s relationship with her father is one of the most memorable parent/child dynamics in recent memory. The writing is witty and pop-culture savvy. The mystery is always engaging and keeps you guessing. There’s just a ton to love.
That being said, “Veronica Mars” the series wasn’t perfect and neither is this screen adaptation. The downside of both entities is in the supporting cast, which includes Percy Daggs III as best friend Wallace, Tina Majorino as computer wiz Mac, Francis Capra as reformed biker Weevil, and Ryan Hansen as pigheaded Dick. They’re all enjoyable presences, but have never really contributed a ton to the plot. Most of them come and go with little to do. The same can said about cameo players such as Jamie Lee Curtis, James Franco, and Justin Long. There are also several underdeveloped/rushed/pointless subplots involving Veronica’s new lawyer job, Weevil turning his life around, and Veronica having a normal relationship with her boring boyfriend Piz.
Even with these problems, though, both the show and movie offer more than enough to compensate. If you never saw the series, you probably won’t appreciate the in-jokes and ongoing plot in this film. But why would you be watching the film or reading this review if you weren’t a fan of the series? “Veronica Mars” is all about the fans and it gives them exactly what they want: Closure with the possibility of further installments. Now if only we could get proper endings to “Pushing Daisies,” “Twin Peaks,” “Carnivale,” “Samurai Jack,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” “The Spectacular Spider-Man,” “My Name is Earl,” “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures,” and “Hey Arnold,” all would be right in the world.
The best exotic Budapest hotel ****
You don’t have to read the credits or see the previews to recognize “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a Wes Anderson picture. Anyone familiar with Anderson’s work can immediately spot his whimsical filmmaking style and sense of humor that’s completely bizarre, yet also deadpan. While Anderson has fallen into a comfortable, if not slightly predictable, groove, he still remains one of the most distinctive voices and visionaries of the past two decades. With his previous film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson perfected his craft as a writer and director. Although “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a step down from that near perfect film, it’s still another quirky, charming entertainment with that special Wes Anderson touch.
It’s the late 1960s where a nameless author (Jude Law) encounters a hotel owner named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa flashes back to 1932 when he was a scrawny bellhop with a painted on mustache and his job title etched on his hat. In these sequences, Moustafa is played by newcomer Tony Revolori. He’s taught under the dedicated wing of Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave, the hotel concierge who fondles more old ladies than Max Bialystock in “The Producers.”
One of Gustave’s many lovers is the wealthy Madame D, played by an aged Tilda Swinton, who kicks the bucket and leaves her boy toy a priceless work of art named “Boy With Apple.” This naturally doesn’t sit well with her greedy son, played by Adrien Brody with devious facial hair and an Eraserhead hairdo. What ensues is a complicated farce evolving murder, war, chases, mystery, a prison escape, a Bill Murray cameo, all that good stuff.
This is another great-looking movie from Anderson with old fashion sets, inspired effects, and lively cinematography, much of which is presented in a 1.33 aspect ratio. “Grand” is certainly the best word to describe the appearance of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” What’s more, the supporting cast is pitch perfect with Saoirse Ronan as a young pastry chef, Willem Dafoe as a ruthless manservant, Edward Norton as a matter-of-fact inspector, Jeff Goldblum as a Jeff Goldblumy lawyer, and too many other names to list off. The film mostly belongs to Fiennes and Revolori, who share a delightful mentor/mentee relationship that blossoms into a flat-out bromance.
If “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has a problem, aside from not being quite as funny or fresh as some of Anderson’s other films, it lies in the final act. The film builds up to what should be a big, exciting showdown full of revelations. Instead, it hurries to the conclusion with an easy solution to the main conflict. It really puts a damper on an otherwise solid film.
That being said, the rest of the film is indeed very fun and could only be brought to the screen by Anderson. People who love Anderson’s work will eat “The Grand Budapest Hotel” up while people who just don’t understand his work will continue to be mystified. Personally, I can’t wait to see where the director’s imagination will take audiences next. Suggestion: Director a feature-length Dr. Seuss movie, be it live-action or stop-motion animated.