Final Reviews of 2014

2014 Has come to an end. Here are a few quick reviews to cap off Year 2 of BSReviews. Have a Happy New Year!

Birdman_posterBIRDMAN   Like Chris Rock in Top Five, Michael Keaton plays the lead in a self referential story about the nature of “show business”. In what is likely an Oscar Nominating performance, the former Batman actor portrays the star of the fictitious super hero film trilogy, “Birdman”. Now a struggling actor in his late 50’s, Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is looking to make his comeback on Broadway with the help of his best friend/manager (Zach Galifianakis). All he has to do is wrangle his manic co-star (Edward Norton), manage his former addict daughter (Emma Stone), and keep his strong case of schizophrenia at bay.

As stories go, when it isn’t being too depressing or too pretentious for its own good, Birdman is an absolute marvel. There are several key moments that strike a chord, such as Thomson’s angry rant about the nature of Critics or a special effects laden dream sequence that deconstructs the nature of the average moviegoer. Where the movie makes its biggest mark is in its cinematography. Set mainly within the confines of a theater, Director Alejandro González Iñárritu manages to shoot and edit the entire film to look like one long take, creating a true sense of an onscreen stage play that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

FINAL GRADE: B+

 

The_Interview_2014_posterTHE INTERVIEW  Although it is one of the most controversial film’s in recent history, don’t be fooled into thinking The Interview is something that it isn’t. Just because terrorist threats and an angry North Korean government nearly brought about the end of the film before its begging, doesn’t mean it’s actually good. In fact, the movie is exactly what it was advertised to be: A James Franco and Seth Rogen movie. This time it revolves around the two bff’s trying to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Have you seen This Is The End? Have you seen Pineapple Express? Did you enjoy them? If the answer to those questions is yes, then you will enjoy The Interview. Franco’s TV host character is a moronic, yet somewhat charismatic, man-child who can’t be taken too seriously. Seth Rogen’s producer best friend tries to keep him in check and tries to navigate around his stupidity. As you should expect from their earlier works, the movie is garishly dumb. Kim Jung-un (Randall Park) is portrayed in a fashion no different than how any sketch comedy show portrays George Bush Jr. or Bill Clinton so don’t expect to find anything groundbreakingly controversial. I, personally, found the aforementioned films absolutely hilarious. So it goes without saying that I laughed out loud watching this movie. And it goes without saying that if you aren’t a fan of Rogen and Franco’s antics, don’t watch. That goes for you too, North Korea.

FINAL GRADE: C+

My countdown of my favorite and least favorite films of 2014 will be coming later this week. See you in 2015!

Into the Woods Full Review

I’ve never been to Broadway, but it’s safe to say I’m a Stephen Sondheim fan. The man that brought us West Side Story and Sweeney Todd is one of the greatest musical theater composers of the 20th century. Into the Woods, which first hit Broadway in 1987, is just one of his famous works and in the age of Walt Disney, it only makes sense that this story would be adapted for the big screen.

Into_The_Woods_(film)The film, which is an intermingling of several fairy tales, is a splendid romp with a simple premise: Be careful what you wish for. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) knows his way around a musical and brings Sondheim’s vision to life with the utmost Disney flare. It helps that he has a magnificent cast. Lilla Crawford (who got her start playing Annie on Broadway) and Daniel Huddlestone (Les Miserables) are equally jovial as Red Riding Hood and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk. James Corden and Emily Blunt have fine chemistry as the Baker and his wife. Anna Kendrick upgrades even more from her Pitch Perfect days as Cinderella while Chris Pine is downright hilarious in his over the top portrayal of the handsome Prince. Of course, it isn’t hard to identify the best performer in a movie with Meryl Streep in it. Streep is captivating from start to finish as the Wicked Witch.

Like with any Sondheim classic, the music is magnificent. If you don’t like musicals, or only find them tolerable, this may not be the movie for you. More than most of the film is sung, but hopefully there is some consolation in the fact that all of the singing is good (There are no Russell Crowe’s here). If you’re a fan of Disney fairy tales, then this should be right up your ally. Sondheim’s music is wisely not tampered with by Rob Marshall, but he still gets to infuse his vision in the stylish costumes and storybook cinematography.

The movie’s final act is its unavoidable biggest flaw. While the story still manages to be emotional and poignant throughout, the execution of the dramatic twists gets a bit sloppy and excessive. One of the characters’ deaths comes so suddenly that it’s almost anti-climactic. But, luckily there is enough magnificent music, brilliant performances, and important life lessons to make Into the Woods a satisfyingly uplifting experience.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Annie (Full Review)

Little Orphan Annie is iconic. What started off as a 1930’s comic strip grew even further acclaim when it was turned into a Broadway musical and then a musical motion picture. Songs like “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” are engrained in our heads even if you aren’t familiar with the story, so it only seems right to make an updated version, right?

Annie2014PosterAcademy Award nominated actress Quvenzhané Wallis (Beast of the Southern Wild) stars as the new Annie, an African American foster child who dreams of finding her birth parents. Jamie Foxx portrays a refurbished “Daddy” Warbucks, named Will Stacks, a rich Mayoral candidate who adopts Annie to woo voters. Cameron Diaz plays the role of Annie’s grumpy Foster mother while Rose Byrne plays Stacks’ secretary and love interest.

On paper, this should all be great. But it isn’t, it just flat out isn’t. Aside from being poorly acted (Cameron Diaz’ hammy performance made me want to gag) it is tremendously corny. Uses of social media are repeatedly shoved in our faces and middle aged characters use phrases like “I love it when you throw shade”, because apparently we just have to be reminded over and over again that this movie is in present day. Then there’s the music. All of the dance numbers and songs all seem unrehearsed and most of the people performing them look uncomfortable (especially Rose Byrne who should never be allowed to do a musical again). Then there are moments where the plot just falls apart, like antagonists in the film inexplicably dropping their cover halfway through carrying out their plan.

Sure, Wallis is absolutely adorable, but that gets old in about half an hour. If you’re going to remake something, it should be as good or better than the original, otherwise it just comes off as a soulless cash grab (see Total Recall). Maybe I’m being too harsh, because I wanted this to be like what The Wiz  was to The Wizard of Oz. I’m sure children will love it (albeit children love pretty much anything geared toward them) and there are tons of adults who will find it cute. But forgive me for expecting a movie about a black Annie in Harlem, starring Oscar nominees, and produced by Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith to come off as something more than just a two-hour episode of Gullah Gullah Island.

FINAL GRADE: D-

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies (Full Review)

The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_ArmiesIt was a long (emphasis on long) journey through middle earth, but the finale of Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous novel finally came. The first installment saw the titular Hobbit (Martin Freeman) leaving his peaceful home to journey with dwarves to reclaim their kingdom from the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). It was a little slow paced, but it was satisfying to any fantasy film fan. Last year’s part two was perhaps the most satisfying, with the dwarves enlisting the help of Soldiers Elves (Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lily) to fend off evil creatures and finally confront the dragon.

But while Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug managed to live up to the hype. In many ways, The Battle of Five Armies does not. The film is certainly filled with invigorating action sequences as its title suggests, but lost is the sense of adventure or even the sense of story created by the other two. The trilogy spends two movies building up a central plot then rids itself of it in the first five minutes of this final installment. And other elements that aren’t in the novel, like the forbidden romance between Evangeline Lily’s Tauriel and one of the dwarves, is shoved in our faces throughout as if it’s been built up for more than twenty minutes in the previous film.

There are huge fans of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, and there are those who have no interest in them at all. I’d like to think of myself as somewhere in between. I don’t know what purists will think about this last hurrah, but the casual fan will find it enjoyable enough. As far as visuals go, the film is certainly no let down, it just would’ve been nice if the end felt like a satisfying end to an overall ark. Perhaps instead of stretching Tolkien’s shortest novel into a trilogy, they should’ve given us two great films instead of three decent ones.

FINAL GRADE: B-

TOP FIVE is a top five comedy (Full Review)

Do movies always have to be about something? Do they always contain underlying subtext or cultural references? Or can a movie sometimes be just a movie? Can it just be seen and enjoyed strictly for entertainment? Top Five, written and directed by comedian Chris Rock, wastes no time in raising such questions and many more.

Top_Five_posterChris Rock stars in his film as Andre Allen, who like himself is a former stand-up comedian turned movie star. But Allen isn’t in his prime anymore, a fact his agent (Kevin Hart in a hilarious cameo) repeatedly reminds him of. He no longer wishes to make comedy films, due to his newfound sobriety, and is determined to distance himself from the ridiculous (yet sadly realistic) “Hammy the Bear” trilogy that his fans and the media won’t let him forget. Stressed with what appears to be a sham marriage to a Reality TV socialite (Gabrielle Union), Allen just wants to be taken seriously as he promotes his new, more serious movie that is doomed to flop.

Enter Chelsea Brown (the radiant Rosario Dawson), a smart, feisty reporter for the New York Times who wants to do an interview on the struggling comedian. As you might guess, the two bring out the best in each other, causing some of the movie to play out like your typical romantic comedy. But even at its most cliché moments, Top Five manages to stand out as a well acted exposé on the nature of doing what makes you happy. Rock does an outstanding job making the character a likable one. The supporting cast, a who’s who of cameos including Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, and many many more, are all complete delights that either add high laughs or important lessons.

The irony of the earlier questions is that the film itself is both a critique on the nuances of fame and popularity as well as a laugh out loud comedy. Sometimes the best stories are the truest ones. And in this case, Chris Rock’s self referential tale is without a doubt as worthy of a standing ovation as his classic stand ups. It may not make as much money as the low brow, “hammy”-esque comedies commonly shoved in our faces by Hollywood, but Top Five is satisfyingly the first must see comedy of 2014.

P.S….  Andre 3000, Elzhi, Phonte, Kanye West, and J.Cole

FINAL GRADE: A

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Full Review)

You don’t have to be a religious historian to know and love the story of Exodus. It has all of the elements of a great epic; a reluctant hero, romance, mysticism, and a very strong message about faith. At least… that’s what it’s supposed to have. These days, Hollywood can get their hands on any property and do their computer generated best to make it as bland as possible.

poster-1Enter Ridley Scott’s Exodus. His film has all of the pieces; an already concise source material, a strong actor in Christian Bale playing the role of Prince of Egypt turned slave liberator, Moses, and a budget that allows him to skip no details or hold anything back. And yet, he seems to find a way to squander most of this in the span of an unnecessarily lengthy two and a half hours.

Scott’s film doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be the story of Exodus, or just another generic swords and sandals epic. We are bombarded with an opening battle scene that serves next to no purpose and minutes and minutes of loud chariot rides through the desert, but we don’t get time dedicated to the things that actually matter.  Gone is the sense of camaraderie and brotherly love that is supposed to exist between Moses and tyrannical Pharoah to be, Ramesses (Joel Edgerton). And you can forget about the loving relationship between Moses and wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde). They meet, they have a conversation, they make goo-goo eyes at each other, and they are married in the next scene. There are also parts that are just flat out nonsensical: Exactly how are slaves able to go out in the wilderness to receive battle training?

Sure, the scope and grandeur of the film is appealing at times. The plagues and the overall massive size of the sets are pretty impressive. But even some of this gets lost in an epic mess. The plagues aren’t given much reasoning other than God (portrayed mostly in the form of a little boy) being angry and vengeful and the parting of the Red Sea (perhaps the most famous part of the story) is the most underwhelming scene in the movie.

Sadly enough, performances aren’t enough to rescue the film either. Christian Bale is good, when he isn’t fighting his natural European accent, but the rest of the cast is downright forgettable. Edgerton’s Ramesses comes off as a stubborn, spoiled, simpleton and Ben Kinglsey is given basically nothing to do, which is more than can be said about Sigourney Weaver’s Tuya, who could’ve been left from the movie completely.

It’s a shame the director of films like Blade RunnerGladiator, and American Gangster picked such a worthy story to ignore plot and characterization. Exodus: Gods and Kings feels just like another loud blockbuster. If you want eye popping spectacle then, by all means, enjoy… but if emotion, cohesion or just a simple sense of adventure is what you’re looking for, then just go watch Prince of Egypt.

FINAL GRADE: C-

Dear White People, don’t be afraid to watch Dear White People (or read this review)

Writer/director Justin Simien knew what he was doing when he chose this title. Few films are more aptly named. And if the title makes you feel awkward, then you yourself should probably be watching this movie.

Dear_White_PeopleThere is a saying that laughter is the best medicine. With Dear White People, Simien hopes that satire is the best way to approach a very serious topic about race relations in America. His tongue and cheek film follows a group of students in an Ivy League school in the days leading up to a controversial race themed party (inspired by actual events). It’s a film that asks the serious questions, but challenges its audiences to do the same.

A colorful, and well acted set of characters help navigate a sometimes dizzying, murky narrative. There’s class president hopeful, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), a son of the school’s Dean of Students (Dennis Haysbert) who finds himself imbedded in white society through an interracial relationship and an upscale upbringing while also trying to reclaim leadership amongst the school’s Black student union. There’s Coco (Teyonah Paris), an internet Celeb wannabe who is hell bent on eradicating every bit of her lower class black heritage. Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hate’s Chris fame is notably fantastic as Lionel Higgins, a shy, homosexual nerd who feels lost in a see of college identities.

But the character that gives the film its wit and authenticity is campus radio show host and aspiring filmmaker Sam White (played wonderfully by Tessa Thompson). Along with proverbial sidekick Reggie (Marque Richardson) she embarks on a movement to reclaim a black voice in a school that wants them to be peaceful, respectful bystanders regardless of the oppositions that beg for them to be anything but. Kyle Gallner is also noteworthy as Kurt, the film’s primary antagonist. Kurt represents the sleaziest of adversaries. He is a spoiled, homophobic, victim blaming, racist, but he is also dangerously intelligent.

Each very real character shines an appropriate light on different positive and negative perspectives on the nature of what it means to be “a black face in a white place”. The film’s biggest flaw, other than its wavering style that jumps from documentary to teen comedy without warning, is that it focuses too much on trivial elements to please younger demographics. A secret interracial relationship between two characters is a fine element, so why include a love triangle? But the film is nonetheless eye opening and poignant. It may be called Dear White People, but it contains a message for all races and cultures. And it goes without saying that a film on this subject matter is necessary in today’s times.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Winter Quick Reviews (John Wick, Horrible Bosses 2, Penguins of Madagascar)

Here are a few quick reviews. Better late than never…

John_Wick_TeaserPoster Keanu Reeves stars as a former mob assassin who gives up his dangerous lifestyle when he falls in love. Before an illness claims her life, his wife leaves him with an adorable puppy to help him mourn. But, after a Russian mobster’s son (Alfie Allen) kills the dog and steals his car out of spite, John Wick is forced to come out of retirement. With the help of a secret hotel for assassins (run by Ian McShane) and an old friend (Willem Dafoe), he embarks on one last vengeful rampage against the Russian (why is it always Russians?) organization that used to employ him.

Yes, the plot is as B-Movie as you can get, but director Chad Stahelski knows what he has. If you enjoyed Denzel Washington’s Equalizer, you’ll enjoy this one even more. John Wick delivers its cartoonishly thin plot with vigorous, frenetic action and a comic book sleakness that makes it fun from beginning to end. Even stoic Keanu Reeves is right in his element, delivering just enough of the necessary emotion to make the titular character one we root for.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Horrible_Bosses_2I guess… if it isn’t broke, you shouldn’t fix it. Horrible Bosses 2 carries this concept almost as much as Hangover 2 did… and just as much to a fault. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day return as the group of friends who tried to murder their bosses in the previous film. This time around, after they are hustled out of their invention and left for broke by a sleazy billionaire (Christoph Waltz) they concoct the ludicrous idea of kidnapping his spoiled, manic son (Chris Pine). Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey return in smaller roles while Jamie Foxx also returns as “Motherfucker” Jones… probably the only consistently funny character.

It isn’t that Horrible Bosses 2 isn’t funny, because it is. But it isn’t nearly as funny as the first one, which in itself wasn’t too memorable. The antics go from laugh out loud hysterical to flat out moronic and stale. Sometimes the characters’ stupidity is so over the top that it makes it impossible to believe they’d succeed at any task, let alone a felony. Nevertheless, there are far more unwatchable comedies out there. If you liked the first, you’ll at least find this one watchable.

FINAL GRADE: C+

 

Penguins_of_Madagascar_posterI was never a big fan of the Madagascar movies. In fact, I want to punch anyone who plays or sings that stupid “Move it, move it” song. But I can admit that the most watchable thing about any of the movies were the four penguins who carried themselves like an animal A-team. Brainy Kowalski, muted maniac Rico, leader Skipper, and young Private return for their own adventure that pits them against a league of secret agent animals known as the North Wind (Bendedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, and Peter Stormare) in a race to save penguins across the world.

The story and animation are just as frenzied as they are in the Madagascar movies, but the humor is much more sophisticated. Kids may enjoy the slapstick gags but many of the jokes will be good enough to make even the most straight laced adults chuckle. The villain, Dave (voiced by John Malkovich) also manages to provide enough humorous moments to move an otherwise forgettable story that is best suited for a an episode of the TV show. The four penguins themselves all get there moments to shine, and are all likable all on screen (which is more than I can say for the leads of Madagascar) so in the end, the movie is a fun flick worth watching if you’re into animated adventures.

FINAL GRADE: B