Night Of The Hopper

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“Wild” (2014)

When an actor has to carry a film solely on their own performance, that’s a difficult task. It is a different story altogether when that actor is basically the only person on-screen for the majority of the film.

For example, “Forrest Gump” becomes all the better due to Tom Hanks captivating yet simple performance, same with the intensity of Burt Lancaster in “Birdman Of Alcatraz.” But there are also several other factors that can be attributed to the success of those movies, like a good supporting cast or effective cinematography. On the other hand, you have a film like “127 Hours” where James Franco is the only thing we see for most of the film, and not much else.

If he gives us one reason to not care about him or doubt his struggle, the film falls apart.

This is the case in “Wild,” as Resse Witherspoon takes it upon herself to carry this film all on her own, both figuratively and physically. We watch as she rarely speaks, interacts with others even less, and turns walking 1,000 miles into a touching and effective character piece.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) has had a rough couple of years and seems to have lost vision of who she wants to be. After arguing with several loved ones, she decides to do the impossible – walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican Border to Canada, on her own. Everyone tells her that she can back out at any time and they’ll still love her, but that will not be stopping her anytime soon.

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What I love about “Wild” is that, without ever saying anything, we are told everything we need to know. Through some visual cuts, tight editing and a haunting performance by Witherspoon, we now know why Cheryl is going on this hike, what her life was like before that, and her concerns about when she finishes the hike.

It is using the visual medium to your advantage, while still telling a beautifully sad story.

Plus, unlike recent films such as “The Judge” and “St. Vincent,” right away we know the characters motivations and reasons for why they are acting this way. Every character action is logical, well-thought out and performed well enough for the audience to understand with just a simple gesture or emotional response.

To watch Resse Witherspoon turn from this sickly sad woman into a proud, confident person, is just incredible. At the beginning of the film, she can hardly lift her 65-pound backpack or figure out what kind of flames she needs to operate her stove. But by the end, that backpack means nothing to her. In fact, it has become a part of her.

In a strange way, “Wild” takes place specifically in the mind of Cheryl Strayed. Many scenes are driven and edited through her memories and stream of consciousness. When she runs into a horse on her hike, she remembers taking care of her mother’s horse, leading her to a touching scene with her and the horse in the rain. This is a odd yet effective way to show just how dependent the film is on Witherspoon and her performance.

Even when thinking, she has to keep the audience invested.

“Wild” is an excellent character piece, as we watch a good person have tragic events occur, and then witness that person rise from those tragedies to become someone she can be proud of. Driven by a stunning performance by Resse Witherspoon and nature-documentary level cinematography, this is one that is touching, gritty, and thrilling.

Final Grade: A-

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“Big Eyes” (2014)

Oh boy, Tim Burton.

Director Tim Burton has become a touchy subject these days, as his recent films have been, for lack of a better term, sucky. In particular, films like “Alice In Wonderland,” “Planet Of The Apes,” “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” and “Dark Shadows.”

But here is an interesting tidbit about all of those films – they’re all based on a different source material. Even Burton’s best films are based on other source material – “Ed Wood,” “Big Fish,” “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Sleepy Hollow” and even his Batman films.

The thing about all those good adaptations? They all added something new and innovative to the old stories that gave Burton’s films their own unique flare, while still being those captivating stories. Burton tried to do the same with films like “Planet Of The Apes” and “Dark Shadows” but it just did not work.

Such is the life of an artist. Sometimes you have to put up with some crap to get to the good ones. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But my point is that Tim Burton has always been at his best when he finds creative and wholly original ways to adapt classic stories. Burton is a phenomenon of an artist, and one is not afraid to test the waters with his unique perspective.

Perhaps this is why Burton is the perfect choice to adapt the life story of Margaret Keane, a painter from the 1960s who was famous for painting children with enormous eyes. This has led to Burton’s newest film “Big Eyes,” that provides a fascinating modern tragedy of personality loss and being desperate.

Margaret (Amy Adams) has left her husband and moved to San Fransisco with her daughter, hoping to make a living off of her paintings. It’s just too bad that ‘no one wants to buy women paintings.’ One day, she comes across a fellow painter, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and is smitten by his charm and charisma. When Walter takes his paintings to a local art dealer, he shows off some of Margaret’s paintings, but claims that he created them. Suddenly, the big eyed paintings start to take off and they begin to make more money than they need, even though Margaret has to live with the world thinking that Walter painted them.

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Some people have criticized this film for Waltz’s portrayal of Walter Keane, making him out to be psychotic and delusional. Personally, I thought Waltz’s performance was the best part of the movie. Not only does he give the usual charm and love for the world we have come to expect from Waltz, but underneath it all is a desperate man who wants to make it in the world. To be given a chance to show the world what he has, even if ‘what he has’ is not really his own.

But as the film processes, we watch as Walter deteriorates into a greedy, self-obsessed man who begins to think that he did create those paintings. All the while, Waltz eyes light up when he can do business and make a bigger name for himself. The more people who believe his story, the more paintings he sells, and more happy he will be.

It just so happens that, for his own personal happiness, he must destroy the life of his wife. In a way, this makes the story just as much about Walter as it is the story of Margaret.

Don’t get me wrong, Amy Adams does a wonderful job as her mental state starts to break down. But Christoph Waltz blows her out of the water, as he is known to do.

Combine this with Burton’s eye-popping color scheme and dramatic angles, and you have a tragedy about desperation and relevance that begs to be viewed for its performances as much as its cinematography.

Overall, “Big Eyes” captures the imagination and creativity of a Tim Burton film, while telling a modern story about desperation and personal identity. The best of both worlds, on top of two mesmerizing performances by Waltz and Adams. Certainly, one of Burton’s best films.

Final Grade: A-

 

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Son Of The Hopper

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“Fury” (2014)

When your film covers a subject like war, it tends to be a double-edge sword. On the one hand, you get to tell some of the most emotionally gripping and captivating stories about human struggle and how that struggle can change a man. On the other hand, it can become easily cliché and overdone when it is a subject that has been covered multiple times.

Or you could try to do so many things that your film ends up having no identity at all.

This the problem with “Fury,” as it depicts the end of World War II from the perspective of one small tank and its men marching through Germany and killing as many Nazis along the way. Over that time, they acquire Norman, a new assistant driver and gunner who is fresh to the war and can’t bring himself to kill anyone. As the film progesses, we see this kid develop into a machine of sorts and get to know his fellow soldiers.

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Where “Fury” falls apart is the pacing and where the film chooses to focus the majority of its time on. Rather than developing the personalities of the soldiers in this tiny and worn-out tank, we get them interacting with German civilians to show they’re not all bad. At one point, the film spends more than twenty minutes just to watch Brad Pitt and his crew have a nice meal and belittle a German teenage girl.

I couldn’t even tell you the names of the main characters, because they are either never used or mumbled thus making it impossible to understand without subtitles.

War movies tend to take a specific angle on war, like “The Best Years Of Our Lives” focusing on how these soldiers come back to society, or “The Hurt Locker” driving the point that war is much more subtle and manipulative game than it once was. Rarely a film like “Apocalypse Now” can pull off the basic angle of “War is hell” but that is normally to broad of a subject to discuss in one film.

“Fury” attempts to pull this off, and does not succeed.

It shows our heroes being merciless killers, but then soft-hearted gentlemen. Norman does not want to kill Nazis because it isn’t right, but a scene later he says he loves killing them. The movie tries to humanize Nazis, only for them to be little more than trophies and bodies to Americans.

“Fury” cannot make its mind on what it wants to say about war. As a result, it ends up saying everything that has already been said about war, so what we got is nothing new.

Overall, “Fury” has problems with its pacing, characterization and message, but it serves as a nice distraction for two and a half hours. It does not do anything offensive but offers little to no substance. Rent this one on DVD if you’re interested in World War II films, but watch it with subtitles.

Final Grade: C

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“Horrible Bosses 2” (2014)

I’ve been a huge fan of Christoph Waltz since he was hunting down Jews in “Inglorious Basterds.” The role solidified him as an intense actor who does not have to above a whisper to be intimidating. “Django Unchained” proved that he could be a multifaceted actor by being both nuturing and still threatening.

Waltz is essentially the male equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence, except that Waltz can be the bad guy as much as the good guy.

My problem with Waltz though is that he has only proven himself when being directed by the same man – Quentin Tarantino. Sometimes the bond between actor and director can be so strong that it can lead a decent actor to give a stunning performance. Perhaps those two were due more to Tarantino’s directing and not Waltz’s acting.

“Horrible Bosses 2” proves that it is not on Tarantino. Christoph Waltz is just that captivating as an actor.

The original “Horrible Bosses” was a surprise for me. I did not expect much out of it, only a few laughs here and there. I came out of it being entertained more by how the main characters learned everything about murder and crime from movies and being blown away when it does not work in life. Solid performances by the main cast of Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, as well as Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston, helped propel the movie forward and make it stick out in my memory.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of the first film is lacking from “Horrible Bosses 2” and the film does not offer the laughs that the first film did (surprising, I know), but it more than makes up for it with the new characters that are introduced and their actors.

Nick, Kurt and Dale (Bateman, Sudeikis and Day) have all decided to quit their jobs and create their own company, allowing them to invent a new tool called “The Shower Buddy.” This leads them to a partnership with a company that will market their product to the public, led by a father-son business (Waltz and Chris Pine). After the trio invests $500,000 into the project, the company turns on them and intends to buy them out, leaving them with nothing. With nowhere else to turn, they decide the next best option is to kidnap the son and hold him for ransom.

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Both Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine steal the show. Waltz is only in a few scenes and is not given much to work with other than being the big business man, but there is a certain charisma that makes him fun to watch. It is easy to see how he got to his place when after Kurt threatens him, Waltz gets in his face and calmly tells him about the world of business.

Pine, however, soaks up every scene he is in. Always a grin on his face, always scheming new ways to get what he wants, never too sure where his alliances stand. He even sides with the trio for the kidnap plan just to mess with his father.

This makes the relationship between Waltz and Pine one of the best parts, as Pine feels that his father neglects him and cares more about money than his son. But at an early point in the film, Waltz says that he makes new enemies every day and that is merely how business operates. It just seems that Waltz never guessed one of those enemies would be his own son.

I guess that’s just business for you.

However, outside of Waltz and Pine, there is not much to “Horrible Bosses 2.” While the plot is not a rehash of the first film, it does rely much more on the relationship between the three leads and the same types of jokes, in particular Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis talking over each other. It becomes grating and annoying as this becomes Day’s character, never contributing anything other than yapping while others talk.

This only happened a few times in “Horrible Bosses” and it was forgivable in that film due to the scarcity. But in this film, following a single conversation becomes impossible when everyone is trying to talk at once. At that point, it’s just noise.

Overall though, there were parts that I enjoyed in “Horrible Bosses 2” but it certainly was not the comedy. Many of the same jokes are used in both films and the characters become annoying after a while. But Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine more than make up for it with their charisma and excitement. If anything else, watch this movie for their performances.

Final Grade: C+

The Hopper Strikes Back!

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“Interstellar” (2014)

In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, the success of Christopher Nolan is brought up and why he is one of the most influential directors in Hollywood now. Because of how well his “Dark Knight” trilogy turned out, as well as stand alone works like “Inception,” Nolan gets the free reign to make his movies the way that he wants to. Rarely will the film studio get involved on the creative process, allowing Nolan do whatever he wants and get away with it.

Unless your name is Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, this is unheard of in Hollywood.

Though a film director has final say on set, the studio often has the final say. Studios will often influence casting choices, what kind of effects will be used and can even change the script if they want to. But with Christopher Nolan, the studios trust him and his visions. He has proven to not only make box office hits but also make critically stunning pieces of cinema. This is why studios give him full creative control over his own movies.

But perhaps this is not a good thing.

The biggest instance of a director getting creative control over his work is Orson Welles making “Citizen Kane.” It worked out wonderfully, but just for that one film. Welles would attempt that in later projects, like “Lady In Shanghai” and the power went to his head and we ended up getting a sloppy mess of a movie.

When you give a filmmaker too much power over his work, there is that chance they will become blinded by their own vision and see nothing but their craft, and not something audiences would enjoy.

If “The Dark Knight Rises” was the beginning of that phase for Christopher Nolan, then “Interstellar” is the downward slope. While the film is a visual spectacle, and to learn that little to no computer effects were used is music to my heart, the film does not have much else going for it. Most of the time it comes across as an ego trip for Nolan, filled with his clichés and redundancies.

In the far off future, the earth is slowly dying. Most of the land cannot be used to grow food and we are running out of supplies. It is estimated that the current generation of children will be the last to inhabit the planet.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer growing the last of the food, content on raising his kids to survive and adapt. But things change when NASA commissions him to be the pilot of their space ship, ordering him to fly into a worm hole that has opened up near Jupiter and travel to far off planets in search of a new place to call home and save humanity.

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If “Interstellar” is anything, it is wonderful to look at. The effects of planets circling celestial bodies, worm holes and black holes look like chemicals mixing underneath a microscope on a grand scale. The worlds they visit are unique and feel alien enough that they are strange yet close to home that they are inviting.

However, upon watching many of Nolan’s later films, and even “Man Of Steel” that he helped out with, many strange points start to pop up. In particular, the characters’ tendencies to over analyze everything. In a Nolan film, a normal conversation about going to the grocery store can become a philosophical discussion on what we were created to do.

“Interstellar” is no exception. From McConaughey spouting about adapting, to the parting conversation with his daughter mentioning the last words his wife said to him before she died. Even Michael Caine’s constant quoting of “Do not go into that good night,” gets tiring after the third time we hear it.

As many others have pointed out before me, this film is unnecessarily long. “Interstellar” is nearly three hours long, and they don’t even get into space until over an hour in. Many of the same points are repeated over again, most likely in trying to keep the audience informed of the convoluted plot, and some scenes go no where, especially early scenes with McConaughey mugging it up to the camera.

After a while, I just got fed up with the silly plot and trying to keep up with it for three hours and just wanted to watch the stunning visuals. That is sad considering Nolan has been so good and keeping his stories tight yet imaginative.

Let me be clear – I love Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker. He has given us some breath-taking films over the last few years, including “Memento,” “Inception” and “The Dark Knight.” But recently, his films have become so full of themselves that it is hard to enjoy them. Rather than taking the time to let the story develop, Nolan decides to get philosophical and artsy. It makes his films feel unnatural and egotistical, and not a sweeping epic with imaginative set ups.

I would describe “Interstellar” as a modern “2001: A Space Odyssey” with a much more convoluted plot. While there are moments where the film takes the time to let the visuals soak in and enjoy the atmosphere, “Interstellar” gets bogged down in its own creativity. Several scenes are unnecessary while others make me roll my eyes in irritation.

Also, I still fail to understand the appeal of Matthew McConaughey. He did not sell me on this role either.

Final Grade: C+

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“John Wick” (2014)

I’ve never cared for Keanu Reeves as an actor. I understand the appeal of Reeves and his likable nature, but I get nothing out of his performances.

Reeves is the worst part of “The Matrix” to me. When I learned they originally offered the role of Neo to Will Smith, I immediately thought that would have been a better movie. Perhaps it’s that hint of a surfer-dude accent behind his dialogue, to the point that I cannot take him seriously.

But he’s harmless. It’s not that Reeves is a bad actor, rather one that does not jump off the screen. He fills the roles that are given to him, with Reeves inserting his usual “Whoa!” or “Gnarly!” factor.

However, his most recent film, “John Wick,” gives Reeves a chance to branch out and give his character a bit more depth than normal, and it surprisingly works. Not only does this film see the best Keanu Reeves performance to date, but gives some nice stylized action that leaves everyone satisfied.

John Wick (Reeves) recently lost his wife to a terminal illness and is heart-broken, unsure of what to do now. The day after the funeral, a puppy arrives at his doorstep and he promises to take care of the dog. As Wick moves forward with his life, the world seems to go against him as a spoiled teenager steals his classic vintage car and beats Wick and his puppy up. But this kid does not seem to know who has messed with, as we learn that John Wick has a dark and violent past.

Much like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” earlier this year, “John Wick” is nonstop mindless fun and excitement. Once the story gets going and John Wick’s true colors show, the action comes at a frightening pace, with lots of gun play, assassins and the mob underworld. Though the story is rather forgettable and serves to get Wick from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ it is forgivable because those points are thrilling.

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Part of this is because each action sequence has a unique style that gives the movie its own flair. Most of time, the color pallet is black and gray, except during a fight when bright neon colors are used that pop off the screen. Many of the actors speak in Russian and subtitles are used, but the text uses different fonts, colors and placement that it is eye-catching and adds necessary impact to their dialogue.

On top of all this is a great performance by Reeves. Like with Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” I cannot imagine any other actor in this role. Reeves has always been so removed from his roles and so distant that you would think his character has something to hide. But once his car gets stolen and the last shred of civility is gone, the angry hitman inside Reeves bursts out and suddenly that distance makes so much sense.

“John Wick” is able to take a one-note actor and give him a chance to show his diversity.

My only major complaint with “John Wick” was one of the villains, played by Michael Nyqvist and how emotionless he was. Most of the time he sits back and marvels as the feats that John Wick has accomplished. But when he has a chance to be angry, he hardly goes above a whisper and does not seem upset when he should be. He lacks the rage and emotion to pull off this role.

Overall though, “John Wick” reminds me of a stylized action version of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film “Unforgiven.” The tale of a killer who attempts live in the regular world, only to be drawn back into his violent and obscene realm. While “Unforgiven” was more about the man and deconstructing the Western genre, “John Wick” is more about being visually impressive and being mindless fun. They have enough in common to make comparisons, but different enough that few will notice.

Final Grade: B

 

Rise Of The Hopper!

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“Gone Girl” (2014)

It has been a long time since I have watched a movie that has taken me on an emotional ride like “Gone Girl.” This movie is able to balance so many despicable characters who do terrible things to the people they “love” only for them to be redeemed in the eyes of the audience and have a new person to hate.

Like with other mysteries such as “Prisoners,” it can be difficult to keep up the level of intrigue and excitement in the audience, especially when trailers can give away some of the movies biggest plot twists and tell the audience essentially what will happen. But “Gone Girl” takes a different route than most others with its point of view storytelling.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), by spending the morning at the bar he and his twin sister own. When he comes home, expecting their annual wedding scavenger hunt to begin, he finds their home is wrecked and Amy is missing. Nick immediately calls the police, who discover traces of blood all over the house and begin to fear that something terrible might have happened to Amy.

I dare not say anymore on the plot, because that would give away the many twists and turns “Gone Girl” has to offer.

What I can say is that I found myself root for and against every single character at least once over the course of the film. At times, Nick is sympathetic for having his wife taken from him like that, but other times we learn just how terrible of a husband he was and you want to slap him.

But at no point was I tired of watching these people and their struggles. If anything, showing both the good and bad sides makes these characters all the more interesting and relatable. It is only natural to hide secrets and hold back those bad thoughts and moments that we all have. And “Gone Girl” is all about those secrets.

I can honestly say that I was never bored with “Gone Girl.” Every scene had a reason to exist and added to the tense and gripping atmosphere. The actors did a wonderful job at making these multi-faced characters worth watching, even Tyler Perry who plays the lawyer defending Nick and has a retainer worth $100,000.

David Fincher adds his usual charm to the film, making the unnerving atmosphere even more creepy and unsuspecting. It makes the film more unpredictable, which is great for a mystery.

I can’t say much more about “Gone Girl” without spoiling it for you, so go out and see this one for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Final Grade: A

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“The Judge” (2014)

I despise courtroom dramas.

Most of the time, they are simply two people talking back and forth over a crime that we most likely did not see, spouting legal jargon that I do not understand nor care about. Very rarely is there a courtroom drama that breaks free of this, but when it does it is films like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “12 Angry Men” which break away from the tedious nature of the courtroom.

“The Judge” is a fine example of why the courtroom drama is boring and repetitive. Though the film has a stunning all-star cast, with Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thorton, Melissa Leo and others, they cannot save a doomed script, riddled with clichés and unnecessary plot elements.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is one of the best defense attorneys in Chicago and seems to keep his Tony Stark-like ego of being the best at everything. That all changes when his mother passes away and must attend her funeral in Carlinsville, Indiana, a place he had hoped he’d never return to, mostly because of his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). He tries to consul his family, while avoiding his father, and get out of there as fast as possible. But things change when the police find a dead body in the road and traces of his blood on the hood of Joseph’s car.

Though that is a rough explanation of the plot, there is so much more going on, including a subplot about Melissa Leo’s character, a former love interest of Hank, and the brothers of Hank who have their own problems to deal with. All the while, we’re never told why Hank and Joseph hate each other so much, until the last ten minutes of the film.

Another problem with “The Judge” is its pacing. So many scenes drag on for longer than they need to be, all to give us clichéd dialogue and characters that have no reason to exist. The film takes its sweet time to get into the courtroom, as it would rather spend time in bars and looking at old film.

“The Judge” is two and a half hours long. In a story that could have easily been told in an hour and a half. The conflict between the leads is so forced and non-descriptive that it becomes infuriating to watch Duvall and Downey Jr. butt heads for all these unexplained reasons.

Overall, “The Judge” is cliché, poorly paced, unoriginal and far too long for its own good. While the cast does well with what they have to work with, they can’t bring this film back. It’s like trying to plug up the holes in an already sunken ship; it does not do you any good.

Final Grade: D-

 

The Hopper Returns!

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“The Boxtrolls” (2014)

If you’ve read my blog long enough then you know how much I enjoy animated movies. It could be hand drawn, computer generated, stop-motion or claymation. So long as it has some grasp of imagination, creativity and still tell a well-rounded and fascinating story, it is a worthwhile experience. The problem is when the film fails to give the audience a story that is worth watching.

“The Boxtrolls” was created by Laika Studios, who have before brought us “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” both of which are wonderful at balancing that carefree child attitude with terrifying surroundings. While “The Boxtrolls” has an inspiring balance of computer generated imagery and stop-motion, it fails to deliver on every other level and leaves a bittersweet taste.

In the town of Cheesebridge, the townsfolk must continue to deal with the same haunting problem: The carnivorous boxtrolls who hunt at night. The leader of Cheesebridge, Lord Portley-Rind, decides to hand over the task of dealing with these monsters to Mr. Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who may or may not have plans for these creatures, if it means that he can get his hands on Portley-Rind’s fancy white hat.

This film, much like its predecessors, looks beautiful. The animation is flawless, from the small little details of the city, to the large mechanical beasts that Mr. Snatcher uses. Not to mention, the world of the Boxtrolls is intrigue, detailed and makes perfect sense. They fully use their boxes to blend into their surroundings and are fascinated with machines and wish to build. The scenes where the Boxtrolls are in their home, building up to make a society, are the best scenes in the film.

Where “The Boxtrolls” falls apart is everywhere else, in particular the story. There are so many clichés and repeated scenes from other films that I could predict exactly how the film would go after just twenty minutes. The Boxtrolls aren’t actually monsters, just misunderstood, and the humans are the real monsters by hunting them down and not caring about anything other than themselves. We’ve heard this so many times before that its just eye-rolling by now.

This is made even worse when you realize that the characters development is more flat than the animation. Outside of the main character, a boy who thinks he’s a Boxtroll, no one changes over the course of movie. The villain is obsessed with getting a white hat, for vaguely explained reasons, the love interest insists on telling gory descriptions to stories, and Lord Portley-Rind is the worst offender of all.

One of the main lessons, I think, is that adults are supposed to set a good example for their children to help raise them. Except that Portley-Rind never comes to this revelation. By the end, he is still a greedy bastard who cares more about cheese than the safety of his town and is extremely hesitant to give up his white hat just to save his daughter. Far too much emphasis is put on that white hat without giving the audience a good reason to care about it.

“The Boxtrolls” is a sad movie. I don’t mean that it’ll make you feel sad, but that there was so much effort, dedication and passion put into this film, only for it to be so forgettable and disappointing. On the one hand, the animation and detail is stunning. But on the other hand, the story is bland at best and infuriating at worst. If you wanted to see this one, wait for a DVD release.

Final Grade: C-

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“Tusk” (2014)

I’ve never seen a Kevin Smith movie before today. Now that I have, I’m glad “Tusk” is the only one.

Going into this film, I knew that it would be disturbing and off-putting. In fact, I expected that and wanted to see it more than anything else. But what I got was something far more over the top and unnecessarily disturbing that I left feeling disgusted for all the wrong reasons.

After traveling up to Canada to conduct an interview for a podcast, Wallace Bryton (Justin Long), finds out that the man who went to see had killed himself. Desperate for material, he finds an extravagant letter exclaiming about stories at sea and Wallace immediately wants to meet this man. He travels to a nearby town and meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a disabled old man who seems to have a fascination with walruses. As the night goes on, Wallace dozes off until he is face down on the floor and Howard stares over his body, ready to enact his plan.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I adore transformation stories. Tales of people turning into something that is either unhuman or far removed from what they once were are adventures that I can’t get enough of. Movies like “Black Swan” and “The Fly” best personify this, as they show the descent into madness and how their mentality slowly turns to match their new bodies.

“Tusk” may try to be like that, but does not come close to what it aspires to be.

Rather than seeing Wallace lose his mind and sense of self, we get to see Howard torture him and mutilate his body to be the perfect specimen. All the while, Howard reflects on his life experiences and how other people beat him, used him and violated him. That the only compassion he ever received in life was from a walrus, which he in turn does unspeakable things to.

If the film is not attempting to gross you out with what happens to Wallace, then Howard’s stories and justification for his actions are making you feel uncomfortable. I understand this is what Kevin Smith was attempting to do, but I feel that he overdid it.

If you are attempting to gross your audience out and make them feel disturbed by what they’re watching, then you need the right dose of it. It takes the right amount of sanity and insanity to pull something like that off. If you overdo that, it ceases to be entertaining and enters the realm of torture porn.

That’s what “Tusk” feels like. That you are watching someone get brutally beaten and you didn’t ask for that. Some might enjoy how disturbing the movie can be and others will argue that being disgusting is exactly what Kevin Smith attempted. However, “Tusk” has far too much of that and it comes across as unnecessary. Overall, an unpleasant experience.

Final Grade: D

 

The Hopper #9

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“Edge Of Tomorrow” (2014)

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Sometimes a film works out better when you go in with zero expectations. When I saw the trailer for “Edge Of Tomorrow,” I had no interest in seeing it. To me, it looked like a sci-fi/action version of Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day” while replacing the hilarious deadpan of Bill Murray with the aging and out-of-place Tom Cruise.

But, much to my surprise, I began to hear people saying it was a fun and enjoyable film and worth a viewing. So, since I hadn’t been to the movies in a while, I decided to go see a couple of films, and “Edge Of Tomorrow” was the first on my list.

I went in expecting to be put to sleep or be insulted by how it portrayed our militaries, but came out having a good time. Part of this was because, like myself, the film did not take itself seriously at all. It recognized the ridiculous situation of Tom Cruise reliving the same battle again and again and decides to have as much fun with it.

For the last few years, Europe has been slowly overtaken by a race of aliens, known as the Mimics, with military forces trying their best to combat them, with no success. Now these aliens threaten to overtake the rest of the world, which leads the armies of Earth to launch an all-out strike against the Mimics before they can fight back. The United States even brings in a new military weapon that makes even the most untrained rookies become expert soldiers.

Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) gets sucked into this attack, even though he faints at the sight of blood. After being branded a deserter and reduced to the rank of Private, Cage is enlisted and set into combat, only to be killed like every other soldier sent in. So it surprises Cage when he finds himself at back at the base, living the day again.

The enjoyment of the film comes out of logical path Cage takes as he relives the battle countless times. We are never given an exact number of how many times he has done this, but it is enough to try to save everyone in his company from being squashed, burned alive or shot, as well as learning where each of his platoon members comes from, how they got their nicknames and why they enlisted.

The snarky comments that Cruise develops over repeated outcomes is what brings a smile to my face and show that he is having fun with this. That Cruise is not treating this like another action role, but as a distinct character who has lived this moment far too many times.

Rather than focusing on the philosophical implications of this, “Edge Of Tomorrow” instead decides to joke around with the scenario. Cage never complains about wanting out of this, but embraces this opportunity as a way to help the human race.

This is what I mean by the film not taking itself seriously. This could have been a dark and gritty tale about a cursed man who is being tortured to live this nightmare for all eternity. Yet, this is about a man’s struggle to save the world with his unique gift. For that reason, this film is fun to watch.

Final Grade: B-

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“22 Jump Street” (2014)

Oh boy. I can tell this is going to be another bad year for comedies.

My biggest complaint with 2013 was the lack of good comedies, with the two films that made me laugh the most being “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and “Iron Man 3.” If “22 Jump Street” and the trailers before it are any indication, I get the feeling 2014 is going to go the same way.

Here’s the thing about comedy in films: While these types of movies are created to make us laugh, they are still like any other work of cinema. If they fail at storytelling and filmmaking, then no amount of comedy is going to save it.

For whatever reason, most comedies over the last few years have simply become excuses to have a few gags or stand-up comedians try their routine on a grander scale. This is why movies like “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” and “This Is The End” fail as movies. They might make you laugh, but that doesn’t make them good films, just good joke-fodder.

“22 Jump Street” falls into the same class as many other comedies of the last few years, by having some jokes that work, some that don’t, and all wrapped up in a plot that is nonsensical, convoluted and does not amount too much.

After the success of their last undercover operation, Schimdt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) try to do some bigger police work, only for it to fail spectacularly. This leads them to be reassigned to do the same operation they had done, by being sent in as college students to investigate a new type of drug that has led to the death of a student.

As I mentioned, there are jokes that do get a good laugh, and those are mostly when the film is being as meta as possible. For example, Jenko wants to do something more with his career, like becoming a member of the secret service and protect the president, an oh-so subtle nod to Channing Tatum doing just that in Roland Emmerichs’ “White House Down.” Or that the boss of Jump Street (played by Ice Cube) gets a brand new office…that looks like a giant ice-cube.

But the funniest moments come during the closing credits, when the filmmakers clearly state that they are not going to make anymore “Jump Street” movies, and instead decide to throw out every ridiculous idea for possible sequels, with names like “25 Jump Street” or “2121 Jump Street.” This includes the role of Schimdt, at one point, being replaced by Seth Rogan and back to Jonah Hill.

Yet, there lies the problem. The funniest part of the film comes during the end credits. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s sad and says a lot about how unfunny the rest of the movie is. Even more so since these credits have nothing to do with the rest of the film.

The plot is a jumbled-up mess. It wanders around aimlessly, trying to find a point and reason for all the comedy to exist, but spends no time developing these characters that it becomes pointless. When “22 Jump Street” tries any sort of drama, it fails miserably because there is no resolution to any of it.

It all becomes an excuse just to lead to more unfunny comedy, like Jenko trying to join a Frat house or both trying to discuss their feelings as “partners” with the school psychiatrist.

So while there are certainly funny moments in “22 Jump Street,” it is not worth sitting through the rest of the movie to get there. Just wait for those scenes to come out as clips on YouTube and you won’t miss a thing.

Final Grade: D+

The Hopper #8



“her” (2013)
I can honestly say that Spike Jonze is the strangest and most off-the-wall filmmaker I have ever seen. He has an uncanny ability to take the weirdest premises and make them seem mundane, but also to take an everyday-average premise and turn into something that will mess with your mind until you have no choice but to appreciate it. 
Sometimes this works to his advantage, such as “adaptation.” which is a one-of-a-kind movie with some well-crafted dialogue and wonderful performances by Nicholas “Cagerage” Cage and Meryl Streep. Other times, it leaves the audience unsure of what to make but still feeling entertained through many hilarious moments and ideas, like in “Being John Malkovich.”
This brings us to Jonze’s newest film, “her.” This one is certainly different from the previous work of Jonze, in that it exchanges his usual quirky and unearthly presentation and style for a more quiet and restrained piece. Oh, the film is still weird and unsettling at times, but it has an air of dignity and care for its characters. It lets events play out naturally without anything feeling forced, especially the dialogue and actions of our heroes. 
“her” feels more human than most other movies I can think of. 
Set in Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future (insert MST3K joke here), Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose job is to write love letters for those who can’t, tries to break out of his shell after recently breaking up with his wife (Rooney Mara). Things take a turn for the bizarre when the first artificial intelligent operating system (or OS) is released to the public. 
Theodore, of course, purchases an OS (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen) and the two quickly develop a friendship. The OS, naming herself “Samantha,” shows signs of a personality and quirks that any human would show and Theodore is attracted by her upbeat attitude to explore the world and know everything. So much so that he begins to fall in love with Samantha. 
If there’s one thing I hate about romantic movies, it is a forced romance between the two leads, who have little to not chemistry or compatibility, and this happens way more often than it should. Some of the best examples of romance in movies are the more offbeat ones, like Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy “City Lights” or the animated sci-fi feature “WALL-E.”
The romance in these films rely, not on a physical attraction or love at first sight, but intrigue and wanting to learn more about this unique individual. Simple exchanges and gestures can turn into lasting images that stick with their opposite and the audience. 
This is what makes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha so lively and refreshing to see. 
Their love for each other progresses naturally, with the two learning about each other and both influencing one another. Theodore initially questions a piece of machinery that has instincts and takes a breath of air before speaking, while Samantha is enthralled by Theodore’s outgoing and quirky personality that she wants to know more about the world through his eyes. 
This aspect is enhanced further through the dialogue and banter between the two. Every line of dialogue flows without feeling forced or over-the-top. While often producing a laugh, that’s only because of their personalities and love for each other. 
Yet the two also have their flaws. Theodore is an introvert and has a difficult time letting any one in, because, as his wife says, he can’t deal with others emotions. Samantha is often nosey, sticking her proverbial nose where it doesn’t belong, and a constant attitude that begs to be more than just an OS, leaving her confused about her existence. Not to mention she gets jealous rather easily.  
Because of the charisma that leaps off the screen and their flaws as individuals, Theodore and Samantha feel like actual people. 
On top of that, the world in which “her” sets up is all-too familiar and yet so alluring. From the way in which artificial intelligence is used as tools and companions, to the letter writing company designed to help those who can’t fully express their emotions, down to the advancements in video games having characters that react to everything you say. It is so beautiful in its simplicity and innovative ideas. 
That is probably the best way to describe “her.” Simple, yet innovative. It understands the human condition and interaction of people, but also introduces just how much technology as changed and evolved over the years, and how it will continue to evolve. It doesn’t shove that in our faces, but presents as a comforting way that shows that we can change alongside our technology. 
That we may not have a perfect existence or be able to read an entire book in 2/10 of a second, but we can appreciate the joy that life can bring. 
Final Grade: A


“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” (2013)
This legend should have stayed right where it was. 
I have a question for everyone, but let’s see if you can come up with an answer: Can you name one good movie that is a sequel to a comedy?
I ask this because, I honestly can’t think of any good comedic sequel. The problem is that they will always tread the same ground as their predecessor, and hardly do anything new or amusing. For example, “The Hangover: Part II” is the same movie as “The Hangover,” except they change the location and made the humor even more crude. 
If a film is going to do the same thing as another film, then what is the point of watching the copy at all? I can just watch my copy of “The Hangover” and get the same experience, if not better.
There are many things wrong with “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” but the main problem is that it does the same thing as any other comedic sequel: Telling the same jokes in the vain hope of recapturing the wit of the first film, or tells brainless jokes that are more cringeworthy than laughable. 
Just so we’re clear, I love “Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy.” I still feel that it is Will Ferrell’s best movie, set in a transitional time where the kind of humor towards women remains funny without going over the top. Full of surprises that still catch me off guard and wonderful performances from Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel and Christina Applegate. 
With “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” comes jokes that make you want to scream, terrible performances and a story that is either nonexistent or brain-dead. 
Set years after the events of the first film, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) has now divorced his wife, Veronica (Christina Applegate) and is too heartbroken to hold up a job. When he is approached by an agent from New York to be an anchor for a 24-hour news channel, Ron jumps at the chance. He tracks down his old team (played by Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel and David Koechner) as they move to New York to be apart of this new experience in news. 
An important thing to remember about joke-telling is context. Letting the audience know at least a little bit about where the joke is going, and not to just blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “Anchorman 2” seems to forget that, and makes every character act like Steve Carrel’s character by saying completely random nonsense.
Hell, at least Carrel had many memorable lines from the first film. Not so much in this one.
Ron has many moments in the movie where he falls into that trap, like when he meets the family of his new girlfriend and talks in nothing but jive. Or when Ron decides that, in the middle of a broadcast, to start smoking crack. Why? I don’t know, and I feel like the writers didn’t know either.
The plot seems to do whatever it feels like, so long as it gives them an excuse to get to the next reused joke. When it does try to be serious, there are so many holes that it falls apart. 
There’s a scene where Ron has to tell one of his friends that the network directors won’t air his story, and all of his friends blame him for only caring about the ratings. Wait, what? How is that Ron’s fault? Then Ron yells at Steve Carrel’s character for no good reason, causing his friends to storm out. 
There’s contrived plot points, and then there’s pulling unforced emotions and reactions out of nowhere. 
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” turned out this bad. Will Ferrell has been trying to recapture the laughs he got in the first film for years, and rarely succeeds. This was still disappointing considering how bad it really was. Not once during the film did I laugh and I often found my head between my hands, groaning in frustration. 
It is disappointing because of the lack of thought and charm throughout the film. The film never tries to do anything new and many jokes overstay their welcome. It is childish, rude, insulting and disrespectful. 
If you wish to watch “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” just watch the first “Anchorman” and you’ll get the idea. Other than that, stay away from this movie.
Final Grade: F+

Next Post: The Best of 2013