Friday, July 31, 2015

Movie Minutes: Vacation (2015)

It saddens me to watch critics verbally bash Vacation like an unsuspecting piñata, almost as if there's some sweet prize to be procured from its mutilated carcass, as is the case with any enjoyable film that gets ripped to shreds by seas of reviewers. Sure, it won't win any Academy Awards (as if that means anything anymore anyways) or save the world, but if it made me forget about my miserable life for a little while, then it's worth the while. And if you're in the mood for some raw, R-rated raunchiness served on a golden platter by Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, two of the best around, then take a chance on this National Lampoon sequel. It's funny wall to wall.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation is the fifth installment of the silver screen series (that's impressive considering the original film came out in 1996 and even more so seeing is we're living in the golden age of reboots). What's funny to me (as well as disappointing) is that the latest entry seems a bit too protocol, especially coming off the hot heels of a great film called Ghost Protocol.

Don't misunderstand me. Christopher McQuarrie's (Jack ReacherRogue Nation is a solid installment: it's got the action, the humor, the gadgets, and the wit we've come to expect from the tenured tent-pole. It just doesn't have the new spy car smell like most of its predecessors, especially after a sequel that was brimming with new ideas: Benji passing his field test; introducing Jeremy Renner, dissolving the IMF; and not to mention the largest, most visually striking set pieces in the series to date.

Tom Cruise returns as renowned IMF agent Ethan Hunt, proving once again why he is the definitive action star of the past two decades (and that age really is just a number!). This time Ethan and the disbanded IMF are the only thing standing between global anarchy and a specially-trained shadow organization, lead by Sean Harris' delightfully devious Lane.

Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames return as Ethan's trusty crew and all do solid work. The always enjoyable Alec Baldwin gives his "likeable jerk" routine as head of the CIA, Alan Hunley. However, the real intrigue of the story comes in the form of the mysterious Isla Faust, portrayed by the talented actress Rebecca Ferguson (of BBC's The White Queen).

For most of the film we're not sure of her true motives. Is she a double agent? Triple agent? Quadruple agent (are those even a thing?)? Although we've seen this mystery play out many times in a lot of movies like this, once Faust's true motives are revealed, you can't help but feel a little empathy and understand why she feels such a strong bond with Cruise's Hunt.

With not a whole lot of new ideas to offer and a runtime totaling over two hours, Rogue Nation does tend to overstay its welcome. However, we only get one impossible mission every few years or so, so I can't complain too much.

Ethan Hunt himself, Tom Cruise, has confirmed that Mission Impossible 6 (I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit) begins production next summer. With a relatively short turnaround, here's hoping that J.J. and company have enough time to pull together a reinvigorating script.

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 18, 2015

5 Faves: Movies of 2015 (So Far)

I know it's hard to believe it, but we are more than halfway through 2015 already, which means we have seen half of the movies that 2015 has to offer. To be quite frank, it's been a pretty good year for movies. We've seen many box office records broken as well as two films entering and exiting the top five highest grossing films of all time list: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World. To boot, a lot of these films have been fun! Sadly, as much as I'm enjoying a lot of movies this year, there's only so much room in my list...

5. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Yet another successful comic book adaptation from director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class). 'Kingsman' is a quirky, exciting send-up of the James Bond films of old, starring a delightful cast and a "thene thtealing" villain portrayed by the one and only Sam Jackson. It's funny, action-packed, and the start of what could be a great spy franchise.

4. Predestination

This film may be one of the greatest "Holy S***!" movies in a long time. Ethan Hawke plays a temporal agent who skips through time looking for an elusive terrorist known as The Fizzle Bomber. Sarah Snook also gives a star performance as Hawke's new recruit. Even if you see the ending coming, it's still going to blow you away. Don't miss this one!

3. It Follows

Some critics hailed It Follows as one of the greatest as an instant classic, even going so far as to call it one of the best horror films ever made. Don't let the hype fool you. David Robert Mitchell's minimalistic horror flick is not quite a game-changer, but it is a well- crafted, well-acted slow burn that starts you off uneasy and gradually terrorizes you as it drags its protagonists through an unrelenting, hellish nightmare. The score is brilliant too.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

There's no school like the old-- Oh, you get it. Back in 1981, an Australian medical doctor-turned-filmmaker defined the term "action-packed" with a little film called Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Thirty years later, Miller does it again with his quasi-reboot Mad Max: Fury Road. With Miller's emphasis on live-action stunts, 'Fury Road' makes films like Avengers: Age of Ultron look like a screen saver. Exciting vehicular warfare charges this NOS-injected action thriller while tender dialogue and character moments distinguish Miller's movie from other "just enjoyable" thrillers.

1. Ex Machina

It is not very often we get a sci-fi flick that transcends the action-thriller banalities which have long plagued the genre. After last year's mesmerizing Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, science fiction spoils us again with Ex Machina. Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander both give Oscar-level performances as creator and creation, respectively. Isaac plays a scientist who invites a nobody computer programmer to his house to run a Turing Test on his newest A.I. However, Ava (Vikander) may be more human than anyone could have ever imagined possible. Ex Machina is a gripping, intriguing cautionary tale about the dangers of playing God. Also, it's my favorite movies of the year so far.

Review: "Ant-Man" stands tall

Marvel topped off Phase Two of their cinematic universe in small fashion, introducing the hilarious Paul Rudd as their newest Avenger, Scott Lang, otherwise known as the Ant-Man.

Given the production issues: Writer-Director Edgar Wright leaving the project after a decade due to creative differences with the studio and Marvel not replacing him till near principal photography, Ant-Man is an impressive feat. That said, Ant-Man may not feel as fresh as recent Phase Two entries, such as Guardians of the Galaxy, but Director Peyton Reed's (Yes Man, The Break-Up) film is just as funny and equally endearing. This film is a testament to Marvel's keen sense about their audience and the relentless expectation put upon them to deliver time and again.

Don't get me wrong, Ant-Man is structured like any run-of-the-mill origin story as it hardly deviates from the path long traveled by the superhero genre since Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man flick back in 2002. However, unlike most superhero movies, Ant-Man is lite on action, which means, like 'Guardians,' this film relies heavily on its talented cast and character relationships. And in the end, that's the film's strength.

Michael Douglas highlights the film as an aged Dr. Hank Pym, a scientist whose serum shrinks the distance between atoms of any object; in other words, it makes things smaller. When Dr. Pym's protégé, Darren Cross, played to menacing perfection by Corey Stoll (of the American House of Cards), recreates the serum for Hydra, Hank recruits Professional Burglar and Ex-con Scott Lang (Rudd) to steal it back. Even Evangeline Lilly (LOST) gets her fair share of screen time as Hope, Hank's estranged daughter whose caught in a love triangle between Darren and Scott. These four have well-developed, complex relationships with one another that evolve as the story progresses, leading to many heartfelt, heart-breaking, melodramatic moments. This is where Ant-Man stands tallest.

Did I mention the film's funny, too? Given the final product, it's easy to see why Marvel wanted a director and a lead with backgrounds in comedy. Peyton Reed brings an impeccable sense of comedic timing to most of the jokes, particularly the physical gags that take advantage of the ant men's changing sizes, while the endearing Paul Rudd charms us with his signature wit. We want Scott to win over the bad guy and to mend the broken relationship with his own daughter and family.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: It Follows (2015; Rated R)

*NOTE: This review nixes most story details in order to minimize spoilers and consequently maximize viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

David Robert Mitchell's stalker film It Follows is a deliberately crafted, disturbingly potent pastiche of suburban horror. Don't let the reviews fool you, it isn't the scariest film in years nor does it break any new ground for the genre, but what it does is effectively make the familiar feel grossly unnerving in a way that will linger with you long after the lights flicker on.

From the opening shot, It Follows establishes a menacing sense of nostalgia: Midwestern suburbia, fall. A high heel studded teenager bolts out of her house and down the street, chased by an unknown entity nobody else can see. Nearby adults look on, dumbfounded by this girl as she runs around. Sound familiar? That's because It Follows owes a huge debt of its bone-chilling success to the classic suburban horror flicks of the 70s and 80s: A Nightmare On Elm Street among the most obvious.

Like those movies, and most horror movies since, It Follows centers itself around a posy of young, hormone-enraged teenagers growing up in the middle-class bowls of America. Unlike most horror movies though, each of the kids have just enough personality and sense to make your emotional investment worthwhile once It starts to follow.

At the film's heart is a jaded love story starring Paul, played timidly by Keir Gilchrist, who you may or may not recognize from 2010's It's Kind of a Funny Story; and Jay, portrayed by the up-and-coming Maika Monroe, of last year's The Guest, starring Dan Stevens. These two share an awkward, though endearing long-lasting bond that grounds this otherwise Twilight Zone of a story. Credit to Mitchell and these fine, young actors for realizing a painfully truthful interpretation of the complex teenage love life.

As endearing as their apprehensive relationship may be, this film is about Jay and Maika Monroe's beautifully authentic performance. Not since Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween has a young lead given such a subtle, sincere portrayal in a horror movie. And although Curtis and Monroe play two different characters from much different eras, the retro influence on Mitchell's film is omnipresent.

This includes the evocative, eerie synth riffs that compose much of the dread-inducing score by Disasterpeace. The soundtrack here is crucial not only to the effectiveness of the frights, but to the identity of the film in general; reminiscent of the likes of Halloween or Psycho, composed by John Carpenter and Bernard Hermann respectively. Fans of the genre should definitely check this music out.

From the slow moving camera pans to its lead-footed antagonist, It Follows is deliberately crafted in the vein of an old school slow burn. Rather than rely on booming jump scares, the film draws its tension from Jay's vulnerability. She's not safe anywhere. Even if she gets in a car and drives far away, It is always walking straight for her. This realization slowly kills Jay's soul, which in turn will kill yours. It's all part of this film's brilliant uneasiness, which sets in during the prologue and steadily perturbs towards a hauntingly pensive conclusion.

If you can, see this movie in theaters. You'll thank me afterwards.

Grade: A

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Run All Night

Typecasting can (and usually does) spell the kiss of death for an actor's career. But not Liam Neeson's. His mainstream success has taken off in recent years as he has become the go-to man for an action-laden script. Sadly, Liam recently promised he will be giving up guns in the next couple of years. But until then, Liam leaves behind a string of mostly digestible, popcorn-munchin' fun. His latest, Run All Night, blends the mindless entertainment value of Taken with the dark, gritty tone of his recent A Walk Among the Tombstones. The result is, like many Action Neeson flicks, entertaining enough to warrant a once-thru.

What stands out about Run All Night is its interesting character work. Neeson does a wonderful job as Jimmy Conlon. Jimmy's done deplorable things as a hit-man working for his mobster best friend, Shawn, portrayed by the great Ed Harris, who now spends his life trying to drink away his demons.

After Jimmy's son Mike, played Joel Kinnaman (of The Killing and last year's Robocop remake), witnesses Shawn's son, Danny, played by Boyd Holbrook (also in A Walk Among the Tombstones), murder somebody, Mike finds himself as Danny's next target. You still with me?

Jimmy bloodies his hands yet again (speaking both metaphorically and literally here) by offing Danny in order to protect Mike. This sets in motion a tragic series of events that dismantles the life-long, brotherly bond between Jimmy and Shawn. As the body count piles up, so does the burden on their once flourishing friendship. It's a beautiful disaster to behold and both Neeson and Harris play it pitch perfect.

As far as taking away anything from this film, Jimmy and Shawn's crumbling friendship is it. The rest of the film plays out as you would expect, with little to no deviation from the classic noir, anti-hero narrative, with the talented Vincent D'Onofrio (Law & Order: C.I.)  getting a few lines as the last wholesome cop in New York who holds a moral grudge against Jimmy because of the people he's killed. Disappointingly, and predictably, that subplot never leads anywhere satisfying and probably could have been dropped.

As for the action, it's well-paced throughout and never feels hyper-extended, with the exception of the one car chase towards the beginning. There's enough here that you won't get bored.

Content. That's how I felt as the credits rolled and the lights went up. I didn't feel cheated nor was I aching for more. Like most of Liam Neeson's recent pow-bang endeavors, you get what you pay for.

Grade: B-

Monday, March 9, 2015

Circle Time: Predestination review

Predestination is the strangest, most unique sci-fi flick in recent memory and I mean that in a good way. After my initial screening, I immediately wanted to watch it again. It's that enticing. 

What was originally a short story by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein has been diligently adapted to the big screen by Spierig Brothers (the same duo behind the disappointing sci-fi vampire flick Daybreakers). Their craftsmanship gives Predestination  its beautifully minimalist look, which allows its two core performances to take center stage.  

Recent Oscar Nominee Ethan Hawke gives an understated noir performance as The Barkeeper. He's a one of eleven temporal agents who can travel through time in order to prevent crimes before they happen; however, one terrorist has eluded The Barkeeper all throughout his career-- the notorious Fizzle Bomber. 

Finally, in 1970s New York, The Barkeeper corners the Fizzle Bomber, only to be horribly disfigured by one of the terrorist's titular explosives. Fast forward a decade and The Barkeeper finds himself on one, last mission, wherein he earns his credited title tending a young man who goes by the pen name The Unmarried Mother (Sarah Snook). The two hit it off, so to speak, and once the young man divulges his unusual back story, The Barkeep offers him the chance to go back and change history. 

The more the story unfolds, the crazier and more remarkable it becomes. It all builds to one of the most memorable movie endings you'll ever see. What's great is that even if you see it coming, you'll still be blown away. 

The Spierig Brothers give Predestination a sleek and simple visual style through a beautiful, "less is more" approach to the cinematography. Varying cool colors accent the different time periods and the sharp costume designs visually pop on these meticulously constructed sets.

Ethan Hawke suavely downplays the severity of his character's predicaments, which leaves open to interpretation his motives. This brings an edge to the Barkeeper, as his motives are never crystal clear. Opposite Hawke is Sarah Snook, who gives a breakout performance. She completely disappears into the many shades of her character and her performance is wholly genuine. We're sure to see more from this talented, young actor.

Grade: A

Friday, March 6, 2015

A shell of a robot: 'Chappie' review

From the beginning, it is obvious that Chappie has District 9-level aspirations. However, poor writing and an overwhelming sense that we've seen this all before crushes those aspirations and leaves Chappie feeling like an empty vessel.

Dev Patel, who has done great work in films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but isn't given a whole lot to do here, plays Deon Wilson. He's a robotics genius who's brought the city of Johannesburg the world's first autonomous police force, called Scouts. After spending a night drinking Red Bull and yelling at his discount WALL-E robot, Deon develops the code for artificial intelligence and steals the busted body of a broken Scout to test it out on. To nobody's surprise, the code works and Chappie becomes the world's first thinking, feeling robot. O brave new world!

Before Deon even gets started with Chappie, he's kidnapped by a band of thugs and seemingly has no option but to build Chappie for these unlikable losers who, for some reason, need a robot partner to help pull of some heist. The big problem here is, up to this point, we have not spent enough time with Deon to grow to like him and now Chappie is being raised by a group of unredeemable, gun-toting miscreants who do things like leave Chappie to be tortured by Scout-hating citizens of Johannesburg, shoot human policemen, and throw innocent people from their vehicles during an overstayed carjacking montage. As a result, Chappie grows to be a shallow jerk (that's putting it lightly), which leaves nobody for the audience to root for. Any sense of endearment that should exist watching Chappie learn his first words or paint his first picture is quickly overshadowed by how unpleasant he becomes.

Even the terrific supporting cast is underutilized here. The great Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore, a soldier turned engineer who despises and distrusts artificial intelligence. Jackman's ugly side shines in a few, brief moments, but sadly Jackman's talent is suffocated by an overall lax script that reduces him to mostly scowling angrily from the shadows as he eavesdrops on Chappie and Deon. Sigourney Weaver, who made her name in sci-fi, hams up a few lines as the president of the robotics company that both Vincent and Deon work for. Her character exists merely to give Vincent the go-ahead to utilize the Moose, Blomkamp's version of the ED-209, after everything goes "tits up." She is so trivial that you can hear the "cha-ching" as she's cashing in her paycheck.

Visually speaking, Chappie is ripe with spectacle, as we have come to expect from Blomkamp's work. The motion capture animation on the Chappie character is splendidly detailed and the minimalistic approach to smoothly blending practical and top notch special effects still makes for an aesthetically satisfying experience. Unfortunately, visuals can only carry a film so far on their own.

As for substance, Chappie is pretty soulless for a film about having a soul. Instead of fleshed out, meaningful characters, Neil Blomkamp's latest South African sci-fi flick is full of irritable idiots who seem to lack any sense of decency or depth. It's near impossible to root for or even care about anyone in this movie. At this point we can only hang tight, wait for Chappie to blow over, and hope that Blomkamp's Aliens sequel does not suffer the same disappointing fate.

Grade: D

Friday, February 20, 2015

BOLD predictions...

This year, Neil Patrick Harris takes the stage at the Academy Awards Ceremony to honor the best films and filmmaking of 2014. Here's a quick rundown of the categories close to my heart as well as my five bold predictions for the ceremony:

Best Picture: Birdman

Best Director: Alejandro Inarritu, Birdman

Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Adapted Screenplay: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Best Original Song: "Glory," Selma

Best Makeup & Hair: Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier,  The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Costume Design: Colleen Atwood, Into the Woods

Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration), The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Film Editing: Sandra Adair, Boyhood

Best Sound Mixing: John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin, American Sniper

Best Sound Editing: Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, American Sniper

BOLD predictions:

1.) The Grand Budapest Hotel will walk away with the most awards.

2.) Boyhood will only win two awards (Supporting Actress & Editing).

3.) This year, the Academy Awards ceremony will bring in the highest ratings in five years and NPH will be back to host at least three more times.

4.) A Christopher Nolan movie WILL NOT win either of the sound design categories.

5.) Birdman will win Best Picture and Director, but its leading star will get shut out.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

'Fifty Shades of Grey' review

Let's us, you and I, arrange our own contract of honesty. E.L. James' book is glossy porn guised by the veil of a romance. You can touch it up with socially acceptable words like "erotica" or even the "mommy porn," but it is porn nonetheless. It's about as well written as one too. The good news is that Sam Taylor-Johnson's movie is more than that, even if that isn't say a whole lot.

There isn't much of a plot and if you're reading this or have seen the trailer, you already know as much as you'll ever need to know in order to understand what's going on. Anastasia Steele is about to graduate college when she, in the stead of her roommate, is sent to interview Christian Grey, the young founder of a multi-million (or billion? It didn't clarify) dollar empire. A wildly dubious romance ensues.

I know 'Fifty Shades' amounts to a mere erotic fantasy, but that does not excuse the outrageous character decisions in this film. Early on, Christian becomes obsessed with Anastasia to the point where she should be calling the cops rather than begging for "enlightenment." He shows up to Anastasia's work, later to a club she's at, and even takes her to his place and changes her into pajamas after she passes out. Creepy.

I must admit, after Christian and Anastasia spend more time together, the film opens up a bit and explores the chemistry between its two leads. Though Jamie Dornan does a fine job portraying the meditative masochist, it is Dakota Johnson's committed performance as the shy, devoted Anastasia that shines. It's truly a genuine performance that gives you someone to root for when things get drab. And boy do things get drab.

The poorer writing of the film is exposed through the character of Christian. A lot of the things he does don't always make sense and are never explained beyond "This is who I am." One moment he's infatuated with Anastasia and the next he's begging her not to fall in love with him. It feels more like a scapegoat for lazy writing than a believable character trait. Towards the end, Christian's biggest mood swing is perhaps the most puzzling and ultimately leads one to ponder: "Is that really it?"

More on the technical side of things, there are a handful of obvious editing errors and many shots throughout the film are unfocused for no real reason. Though they don't distract completely, it is something that should be taken into account when criticizing this film. It's filmmaking 101.

Perhaps you're wondering why I have not addressed the elephant in the red room? Well, simply put: The film doesn't make much of it. The first half of the film lingers on too slowly and by the point the kinky, unconventional behavior rolled around, my energy and interest were gone. Not to mention the film wimps out on the sexy stuff. Where it could have and should have challenged its audience with explicit insight into this taboo sexual lifestyle, 'Fifty Shades' settles for a basic R-rating. Sure, there's more nudity here than in any number of typical Hollywood sex scenes, but masochism is about more than being naked and this movie sure isn't going to change anyone's mind about it.

Leaving the theater, I wasn't haunted by Fifty Shades of Grey like I should have been. It doesn't linger with me, save for this review. What could have been a tool for expanding the public mind turns out to be a mostly dissatisfying romance with a lovely performance by Johnson and lot of spanking.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jupiter Ascending review: What goes up, must come down

Jupiter Ascending is one big exposition dump that somehow still manages to confuse. From the very first shot we get a mildly long voice over narration in which Mila Kunis' Jupiter Jones divulges her back story involving being born on a freight ship to her poverty-stricken family, the astrological signs which foretell of great things for Jupiter, her parents' back story, and even Jupiter's personal feelings about astrology. All before the title slide. Yeah.

Things don't improve much from there. Even as Channing Tatum's Caine Wise is introduced and the story picks up, some form of explanation is always being crammed in, in between the cheesy dialogue and admittedly entertaining action sequences. The material here isn't awful, it's just a lot to swallow at once. The Wachowskis would have fared better adapting their idea into an HBO television series as opposed to a two hour-plus film.

As I alluded to earlier, the writing in this film tends to feel a bit awkward and hammy. Typically, some level of ham is expected when you bill Channing Tatum as your star, but Jupiter Ascending struggles tonally, sometimes opting to take the darker, more serious route. One scene Jupiter's flirting with Caine, obviously trying to get him in her pants by dropping such gems as "My inner compass always seems to point towards Mr. Wrong," and the next she's using a crowbar to bash in the skull of one of the many bad guys.

Jupiter Ascending also suffers from what some like to call Too Many Villains Syndrome. Over the course of the film, Jupiter meets each living member of the Brasax family. The Brasaxes are the family who owns the rights to all the planets in the universe, having been the ones who planted life on all of them with their magic life-sprouting ooze. Each sibling in the Brasax family is somewhat of a jerk, as you'd expect, and in what feels like chapter-styled confrontations, Jupiter takes each one down. Why this is such a problem for this film is because each confrontation ends the same way: with Tatum's Caine blasting through the wall and saving the day. I thought the film was going to end about three different times.

It isn't all bad, though. The Wachowskis' latest has its highlights. One of which is its many action sequences. This directing duo is known for their well-choreographed, stylized action and there is no shortage of them here. The film is also impressive from a technical standpoint. The special effects are first-rate and the makeup, costumes, and set design all help the film to pop visually. It's definitely going to earn a few Oscar nods for its work in these areas.

After seeing the film, it's easy to see why Warner Bros. pushed it back so far. It definitely could have benefited from some fine editing and a more consistent script. As it is, Jupiter Ascending is an overly-long exposition dump with some entertaining action and gorgeous visuals.

Grade: C

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Top 10 Voice Acting Performances

Voice-over performances never amass as much praise their on-screen counterparts, yet they're equally important. And every day the line between the two styles of acting grows thinner, thanks to constant advances in motion capture and 3D modeling. One can only ponder the day when the likes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences acknowledges the importance of voice acting with its own Best Off-Screen Performance category. Until then, it's important to celebrate the under appreciated art of voice acting. Here are my picks for the top ten voice acting performances to date:

10. ) Peter Cullen: Optimus Prime, Transformers 
Many actors have played the Leader of the Autobots since Peter Cullen originally did it back in the 1980's. However, none of them provided the booming presence of Cullen's thunderous chords. In fact, casting Peter Cullen as Optimus is about the only thing Michael Bay got right with his 2007 adaptation. Cullen's Optimus is instantly recognizable among the long-time fans of the series and even more so with there having been four Hollywood blockbusters about the stupid toys. Whatever your thoughts on the action figures or Bay's films may be, Peter Cullen's stands as the definitive voice behind the entire Transformers franchise... And it's just a lot of fun to listen to.

9. ) Jim Henson: Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie
It's amazing to think that Jim Henson built a dynasty out of nothing more than a few pieces of felt and a couple of cotton balls. Today, that dynasty is embodied by a talking frog who goes by the name
Kermit. Over the past few decades, Kermit has grown into a pop culture icon whose voice is just as recognizable as the frog himself. In fact, Jim Henson's voice is so crucial to the identity of Kermit that, since Henson's passing in 1990, only select few have had the distinct honor of voicing the head Muppet. It's a tough job though, because if the voice waivers too far from Henson's original, nasally tone, nobody buys it as Kermit anymore.

8. ) Tom Hanks, Toy Story
If Pixar Studios was going to convincingly pull off the world's first animated feature film, they needed to hit a home-run in the voice-over department. Thankfully, they did just that with a stellar cast, lead by a young Tom Hanks. What makes Hanks' performance as Woody so special is the way he captures the glaring imperfections of this cowboy kook. They are, after all, what make the character so relatable. Woody takes it upon himself to make sure he and the rest of the toys will always be there for their god, Andy, even if that means having to forcefully impose his self-importance unto everyone. At the same time, we get more mellow glimpses into Woody's insecurity as it's revealed that Woody, like the rest of us, is just trying to maintain some sort of relevance in the world.

7. ) Frank Oz & James Earl Jones: Yoda & Darth Vader, Star Wars
This pick is a bit of a cheat, I'll admit. Having two performances locked in as one selection seems a bit unfair. However, in my defense, how are you going to really pick between Frank Oz and Earl Jones? Both men give outstanding, iconic performances as two household characters from either side of The Force. On one end, you have Frank Oz, who truly works his larynx to achieve the instantly recognizable squeal of Jedi Master Yoda. What's also unique and often understated about Oz's performance as Yoda is raspy breaths in his speech, which make him sound exhausted. It's one of those details that solidify the illusion that this tiny, green elf has years of life experience.

Representing The Dark Side of The Force is Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones. Earl Jones' performance helps rank the dark lord atop the discussion as cinema's all-time baddie. Who among us didn't feel the rush of goosebumps down their arm after Vader threatened his own son with "Don't make me destroy you?" I mean, really, can you imagine anybody else playing that role? It wouldn't be the same. And after all, isn't that what a truly great performance is all about?

6. ) James Earl Jones: Mufasa, The Lion King
So why then, if James Earl Jones' performance as Darth Vader is so iconic, do I rank it lower on my list? Simple. There's simply more to the character of Mufasa.We get the rumble of Vader's hatred when Mufasa gets mad, but the pleasant chemistry with his loved ones when he's being a happy father and husband. There are more colors in the timbre of Jones' performance here as opposed to the monotone overlord. It's the best of both worlds!

5. ) Eddie Murphy: Donkey, Shrek
Sure Eddie Murphy may be known to our parents' generation for his abrupt, filthy monologues, but we know him for being an ass... I guess nothing's changed much. .His character Donkey from Shrek is easily one of the most recognizable animated characters to date and everybody who grew up watching these films, as I did, know every line and could repeat them verbatim on a moment's notice (you know you could).

4. ) Troy Baker & Ashley Johnson: Joel & Ellie, The Last of Us
Quite frankly, Naughty Dog's masterpiece The Last of Us is better than most
movies and like most movies, its performances are at the center, holding everything together. This is important because the game is so story-driven that had the performances fallen short of outstanding, the emotional investment and payoff just wouldn't be worth it. We can thank Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for their amazing chemistry and endearing performances. They really bring a sense of identity to the two lead characters, Joel and Ellie, and alone make the game worth multiple play-through.

3. ) Brad Dourif: Chucky, Child's Play
Watching the Chucky movies, there's a sense of pure joy from Brad Dourif's performance as the titular psycho doll. "This is a man who loves what he does" is always my thought whenever Chucky maniacally chuckles. It's infectious and perfect for a character who gets a kick out of stalking little kids and murdering innocent people. And after 20 years of voicing the same character, Dourif's enthusiasm in front of the mic has never wavered and it's impossible to even imagine anyone else ever playing the role. A terrific, iconic performance from an underrated talent.

2. ) Mark Hamill: The Joker, Batman: The Animated Series & Batman: Arkham series 
Voice acting is every bit as much about emotionally becoming the character as any on screen performance. In the case of Mark Hamill, he almost physically becomes The Joker as he's voicing Batman's nemesis; in the booth, the way he shrivels himself up and throws his head back in his goosebumps-inducing crackle. While at times the version of The Joker in 'The Animated Series' is a bit of a kid-friendly cop-out, Hamill's performance nails the theatricality, flamboyance and pure insanity of one of comic books' best villains. Thankfully, Hamill was allowed to dive a bit deeper into the dark waters of the character's insanity later with Rocksteady's 'Arkham' games.
1. ) Robin Williams: Genie, Aladdin
I kept going back and forth between Williams and Hamill for the number one spot. To their credit, both performances capture the flamboyant personas of their respective characters and both really got into their character whilst recording in the studio. However, after much deliberation, I realized that Robin Williams  was allowed to do more with his character. While Hamill's Joker is perpetually manic, Williams' Genie expresses those same highs, but also the low depressions as he's inevitably captured and enslaved by Jafar. On top of that, Williams gets to sing a couple of now-popular Disney songs, including Never Had a Friend Like Me. Sure, The Joker sang occasionally, but never any featured musical tunes.

What do you think of my list? Who are some of your favorite voice over performances? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top 10: Favorite Films of 2014 (Part 2)

5. John Wick
One of the biggest compliments you can pay a movie is to say that it knows what it is and John 
Wick suffers no identity crisis. It's a slick, stylish action thriller that delivers exactly what its initial trailers promised: loads of gun-toting, blood-spattering retribution and a ridiculous sense of humor-- nothing more and nothing less.

Michael Nyqvist is in on the joke, hamming up his role as the Russian mob leader, Viggo Tarasov, who's dim-witted son mistakenly murders John Wick's (played ever so coolly by Keanu Reeves) dog and steals his car. As it turns out, John Wick used to be the Russian mob's go-to contracted killer whenever they had a job too big to handle themselves. Ouch.

John Wick smartly abides by the Law of Keanu, which states that less is more. True, Reeves is no Robert Downey Jr, but in the right role and with little to say, Reeves can be a reliable option. John Wick is such a role and definitely the best fit for Reeves since Neo in The Matrix. With Keanu Reeves as its sturdy center, John Wick relies on one heck of a supporting cast to smooth out the edges. Talented actors such as Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, as well as the aforementioned Nvqvist, all lend a hand in giving a sense of identity and history to the world of John Wick; a rich world that I personally would love to see explored further in any future installments.

Like I said, it isn't anything fancy. There is no profound, life-changing view to walk away from this movie with. It's a well-choreographed, well-shot popcorn flick packed to the brim with action and bursting with cheeky flair.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Speaking of which, perhaps no film last year unabashedly expressed cheeky flair as much as James Gunn's The Guardians of the Galaxy. From the talking raccoon and the walking tree, to the prominent protrusion of its 70's pop playlist, Marvel's latest is about as subtle as a David Bautista punch to the face. In lesser hands, the joke would have been on the filmmaker, but James Gunn has a real knack for pastiche and thus 'Guardians' serves as an amusing send-up of the superhero genre, something Hollywood was in real need for, too.

Of course, Writer-Director James Gunn's unique ability to fascinatingly fuse comedy with earnestness would only get him so far without the right cast. With such a stubborn squad, it could have been a nightmare to strike the perfect balance, but they nailed it. Special recognition goes to Chris Pratt for being the consummate Star-Lord for Gunn's interpretation of the material and the glue who convincingly holds the group together, and Bradley Cooper for packing so much sympathy into such a small window of his character's back story and giving credence to Rocket as a character rather than caricature.

Over all of it, 'Guradians' is stuffed with action and brimming with laugh-out-loud dialogue, as well as rewarding references and on-going gags. This film has definitely earned its spot among Marvel's best film adaptations and superhero films in general.

3. Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal's news footage gatherer Lou Bloom ranks towards the top of cinema's all-time great sociopaths and his performance is on par with the likes of Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Everything Gyllenhaal does in front of the camera illustrates a complete character: the slouching, the almost anorexic shape of his body, and even the perpetual, nervous blinking. It's a devoted performance. Now, it's definitely not new territory for Gyllenhaal, having made a name for himself in Donnie Darko, but that doesn't make his performance here any less special and it's a shame, albeit not a surprise, that he wasn't nominated.

Nightcrawler also impresses from a technical standpoint. The cinematography is gorgeous. if a tad bit simple; the sound design truly captures horrific atmospheres of each crime scene Bloom investigates; and the musical score captures the emotions going on inside Bloom's head rather than what the audience is seeing on screen. Everything about this movie is designed to take the audience inside the character of Bloom and it works as a fascinating and captivating character study. It's a sickening delight watching this seemingly soulless individual take advantage of everyone and everything around him in order to achieve maximum success.

I walked away from this film disgusted with Bloom, our media, and myself for enjoying every last minute.

2. Birdman
There are a lot of things you could say about Birdman, and indeed a lot of things have been said. What I'll say about Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is that it's special. It's special in the way that it stars Michael Keaton, who played Batman, as a fallen Hollywood star who yearns for his glory days as a blockbuster superhero icon. It's also special in the way that it's made to look like one shot within the claustrophobic confines of an off-Broadway music hall.

Keaton's darkly quirky performance as the self-deprecating, guilt-ridden Riggan serves as the centerpiece of the film and indeed it's a career highlighter for sure. However, Keaton isn't the only actor who's earned an Oscar nomination for Birdman. Both Emma Stone and Edward Norton give electrifying performances as Riggan's daughter and Broadway co-star, respectively.

What's also special about Birdman is its kinetic, almost infectious energy. Everything keeps moving so new information is constantly being revealed and nothing feels stale. Despite its star's obvious age, Birdman has an abundance of fresh, young supporting talent that aid the film's continuous flow of fast, witty dialogue; intimate development; and even a fistful superhero-esque special effects. The upbeat, up-tempo score also invigorate a number of its scenes, specifically where Riggan envisions himself once again dawning the now-famous Birdman getup. It's a bizarre experience for sure, but a lot of fun. This film almost seems to dare its audiences to fall asleep.

1. The Babadook
After I saw directorial newcomer Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, there was no doubt in my mind what my favorite film of the year was. She's crafted a brilliant slow burn with two of the most impressive but overlooked performances of the year, from veteran actress Essie Davis and first-timer Noah Wiseman.

Davis plays Amelia, a single mother still haunted by the death of her husband and the seemingly unfortunate birth of her son, Samuel (if you've seen the film, you'll know what I'm talking about). One night before bedtime, Amelia finds a mysterious red velvet book on Sam's shelf titled "Mr. Babadook" and mistakenly reads it out loud to him. It doesn't take long for the shadowy, titular beast to make its presence known. At first it's a couple of knocks and then it's glass shards in Amelia's soup. Before long, Amelia is receiving late-night bedroom visits from The Babadook himself. It's some truly disturbing stuff.

What's more impressive about Kent's feature debut is that it transcends its genre in a way that very few horror films from recent memory have been able to do. The Babadook's not just scary as hell, it's also an expressive allegory for grief and the destructive aftermath of loss. From the seemingly inexpressive set decoration and wardrobe to the mostly immobile but chillingly refreshing cinematography, everything about Kent's film is designed to give the viewer an overwhelming sense of oppressiveness and hopelessness.

Not only is The Babadook my favorite film of 2014, but it's one of the best movies of the year as well as one of the best horror films of the past decade. You should definitely let this one in.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Top 10: Favorite Films of 2014 (Part 1)

10. Life Itself

Ironically enough, we kick off this list with the critically acclaimed documentary about the critically crucial critic, Roger Ebert. Roger is probably best known to the masses for his discussion-based television show, At the Movies, in which he and fellow film critic Gene Siskel (later it was Richard Roeper) passionately debated (and that's putting it tenderly) their thoughts on the new releases that week. Among his many other accomplishments for the medium, Roger Ebert helped make film criticism sexy and helped stir the dialogue between filmmakers and film-goers.

With this profound documentary, Director Steve James focuses on the man behind the myth. We see Roger at his most vulnerable, all the while still perusing his passion as a writer and film enthusiast. It's an emotional and inspiring piece about one of cinema's most overlooked champions.

9. The Muppets Most Wanted

Movin' right along, this Disney sequel picks up, quite literally, right where the delightful 2011 hit left off. Now that Walter's officially been dubbed an honorary Muppet, Kermit and the gang decide to take their show on the road and embark on a world tour. What follows is a more than satisfying entry for the long-running, long-beloved felt franchise.

Although this follow-up seems to lack the child-like wonder that Jason Segel seemed to bring to the original reboot, almost everything else that made it so special remains intact: from the abundance of cheery cameos to yet another seductively catchy soundtrack from the Academy Award-winning Bret McKenzie ('I'll Get You What You Want' was snubbed!). Muppets Most Wanted also benefits from the addition of the cold-blooded, charismatic Constantine.

8. Begin Again

From one charming soundtrack to another, Director John Carney strikes all the right chords with this infectious musical drama. Mark Ruffalo's empathetic performance as a down-on-his-luck music producer plays perfectly off Keira Knightley's heart-aching portrayal of a heart-broken, small town girl looking to form some sort of identity for herself in the otherwise unforgiving landscape of the music industry.

These two leads have undeniably compelling chemistry and they're reason enough to see this film. But what takes Begin Again above and beyond other cookie cutter copycats, other than the brilliant playlist of course, are the solid performances from the colorful supporting cast, largely made up of real-life professionals from the industry, as well as its refusal to give into banality and its insistence on making an identity for its own self.

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Another sequel to a 2011 entry of a long-running franchise swings onto my list with this follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A decade after the simian flu supposedly obliterated the human race, the world has gone ape as Cesar and his brethren are living in peace as the new heirs to the Earth. However, that peace is threatened after the discovery that humans still linger on in refugee colonies just across the San Francisco Bay.

The 'Apes' franchise finds new life with this surprisingly human tale of loyalty, co-operation, and the devastating effects of war on all parties. Andy Serkis, who is famous for his terrific motion-capture work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, gives arguably his best performance to date as the seemingly incorruptible ape leader who refuses to believe that humans are all bad. All supporting performances are great as well, but what makes this sequel stand out is the polarizing development of Cesar as he continues to evaluate what's important to him and his flourishing planet of apes.

6. Beyond the Lights

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees) examines the musical drama genre through the lens of an endearing romance, featuring the powerful acting chops of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who also gave another outstanding performance this year in Belle. Noni is a young talent who has, for years, been scrupulously sculpted into an up-and-coming pop star by her demanding mother. One night, this suffocating lifestyle leads Noni to a lonely hotel balcony in a last-ditch cry for help. As fate would have it, she is, at the last minute, snatched from the cold, concrete jaws of death by her studly soul-mate and pulled to safety.

The slow-burning romance between Noni and Kaz (she had a hard time believing that was his real name, too), is such a delight to watch unfold. From the awkward first meetings; to the more intimate exchanges; to the guy defending the woman's honor by physically assaulting her rapper ex-boyfriend on stage; to a tender moment that had me in tears, involving Noni removing her weave; all the mushy, familiar touchstones of a budding life-long partnership are expounded and thanks to the kinetic chemistry and heartwarming performances from its two leads, Beyond the Lights is a wonderful examination of the effect of celebrity on personal identity.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: The Boy Next Door

It's difficult to believe, but we've reached the point where Jennifer Lopez is now a mom in her mid-forties. As such, it makes sense that Ms. Lopez's would seek out for roles that reflect this aspect of her life and she's found one in her new thriller The Boy Next Door.

By her own standards, Lopez gives a solid performance as Claire Peterson (a solid name, I might add). She's a high school English teacher who specializes in the Classics as well as a devoted mother who just can't seem to seal the deal with a good guy. Her son, Kevin, played by Ian Nelson, is your typical high school door mat who gets pushed around by cookie cutter bullies and is too shy to even be in the same hardware store as his crush. Claire and Kevin have been abandoned by Kevin's deadbeat, cheat of a father, portrayed by John Corbett, who spends the entirety of the film trying to make it up to his family. Enter Noah Sandborn.

Noah is a hunky, young heart-throb with a mysterious past who quickly cozies up to the Petersons. He befriends Kevin and before anyone can ask "Who is this guy?", Noah is repairing their garage, their car, and even Kevin's self-esteem, giving him the confidence to ask out the girl of his dreams and stand up to those high school jerks. Behind the scenes, Noah is putting the moves on Kevin's mom and Director Rob Cohen, of Alex Cross fame, wastes no time digging into the meat of Claire and Noah's new-found sexual tension.

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart mentioned how the audience at an early screening of the film clapped after Claire and Noah's steamy love scene. Lopez affirmed that that meant the audience was at that point emotionally invested in the characters and that they believed this was the point of no return for everyone involved. After seeing the film for myself, I am convinced that the audience in question must have been clapping purely because that scene was so steamy and not because they legitimately cared about these people.

As is the general complaint with these types of films, it's difficult to become emotionally invested in hollow shells of people who seem to lack basic common sense. As an example, the aforementioned love scene ensues as a result of Noah asking Claire to walk over to his house, in the rain, to show him how to correctly cook a chicken in the oven, which Claire must do in order to propel the plot forward. Ridiculous situations that are promoted through the sheer dim wits of dull characters, like these folks, are laughable but in fact could have worked had the filmmakers involved focused more on the camp of it all, which its trailer and even sections of the film suggests.

Instead, the focus of the film seems to be muddled between said camp and making a serious stalker thriller, which makes the few scares the film does have seem like a bad joke. In other words: this film is too campy to be taken seriously but does not commit enough to camp to be forgiven for its wavering.

What makes things worse is an ending that solidifies for the audience that not even the filmmakers care what happens to these characters.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Oscars Gripes... *Sigh*

Just a few quick thoughts on the 2015 Academy Award nominations...

First off, how was LEGO Movie not even nominated for Best Animated Feature?

Second, I am not entirely shocked but completely disappointed that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was overlooked. She gave terrific performances in multiple films. She's quickly turning into one of my favorite young actors.

Third, the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity among the nominees this year is disgusting.

Fourth, how can you nominate Foxcatcher for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, but NOT Best Picture?

Lastly, Jake Gyllenhaal gets a Best Actor nod in my book.

More on the Oscars to come.