Friday, August 28, 2015


Cameron Crowe is one of my all time favorite filmmakers. I have genuinely enjoyed everything he has done, even Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo. When Aloha was ramping up to come out earlier this summer I was naturally looking forward to seeing it. Then I started reading the reviews and quietly decided to wait to see it when it hit video. Now, a measly three months later, it has hit DVD and Blu-Ray and I decided to to invest two bucks and see if it really was as bad as everyone was saying. I am sorry to report that it really was a confusing, jumbled, and at times excruciating mess of a movie. I sat there in my living room in utter shock at the absolute travesty of a movie unfolding in front of me. How can the same man who made Almost Famous, a film I often cite as my favorite movie and certainly my favorite of his, make something this...misguided?

Bradley Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, a military contractor who returns to Hawaii to oversee the launching of a satellite by the company he works for. He used to be stationed in Hawaii when he was with the Air Force, so he has some history there, mainly in the form of ex-girlfriend Tracy (played by Rachel McAdams). Tracy is married to John "Woody" Woodside (played by John Krasinski) and the two of them have two kids. While he's there, he's assigned a military liaison, Allison Ng (played by Emma Stone), who takes great pride in the fact that she is 1/4 Hawaiian. Also skulking about is Bradley Cooper's boss and the owner of the satellite he's launching, Carson Welch (played by Bill Murray). Faced with both his past and a potential future with Allison, Brian finds himself at a crossroads in his life and has to decide what he wants to do, especially when it looks like Tracy and Woody's marriage may be in troubled waters. 

Everything I have detailed above is what passes for plot here for this movie. I'm amazed I got that much out of it, because so much of it is completely stalled. Hell, not even stalled, the engine has seized. Characters do things that make no sense at all, with their personalities all over the place (there were times when I wondered if Bradley Cooper's character was bi-polar). The movie has nothing resonating or hitting at all. I just watched it in a constant state of confusion trying to understand the plot of the film. And the movie is not meant to be confusing or mysterious. We're expected to follow along with these characters and have their actions and motivations make sense. But yet nothing does. We move from scene to scene with very little to tie it together. Brian and Allison go in very rapid succession from being relatively friendly with one another to suddenly hopping into bed together and then being in love with very little to support or explain their character's actions, but rather doing it because the plot demands it. This also leads to a truly bizarre and grotesque scene where Cooper's character explains that after a military accident he was involved in, he wound up with a part of someone else's toe sewn to his foot. I shook my head trying to wrap my head around the fact that this mess was made by the same guy who gave us Say Anything....    

I have to say though, for being such a mess this movie has an amazing cast. Along with the aforementioned Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray and John Krasinski, we also have Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride rounding out the cast. It has to be the most staggeringly large waste of a cast I have ever seen. The film perfectly captures the law of diminishing returns as Crowe once again trots out his favorite plot, the story of the broken man trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life and rebuild it, often with the help of a plucky female love interest, as seen twice before with Jerry Maguire and Elizabethtown. Pumping that same well for a third time was certainly not the charm as there seems to be little left to use with the remainders running on fumes. To Cameron, if by some chance you should happen to see this review, I really am sorry. Every filmmaker has at least one dud and unfortunately this one is yours. To my ever faithful readers, learn from my mistake, pass on this one and watch one of Cameron's other movies because this one it just a gigantic cinematic equivalent to the trainwreck in Super 8. Aloha can mean either hello or goodbye but in the case of this film it should only ever be used in the latter context.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bond-a-thon: From Russia With Love

Released just a year after Dr. No, the second Bond film From Russia With Love was released and all around a bigger and better film. With the addition of a few things that would come to be series mainstays, namely the addition of Desmond Llewelyn as Q, in a role he would play in sixteen more Bond films. It also features a larger and more action packed story. 

This time, James Bond (played by Sean Connery) is assigned to meet a defecting spy Tatiana (played by Daniela Bianchi) who claims she has fallen in love with James and will only meet with him. Bond, as well as MI6 director M (played by Bernard Lee), suspect it's a trap but the chance to get their hands on a Russian Codex machine is too tempting to pass up and agree to go along with it. Hot on their trail is SPECTRE tough guy Grant (played by Robert Shaw) to ensure the plan goes off without a hitch. SPECTRE, the terrorist organization mentioned briefly in the previous film is seen here in full force headed up by the mysterious Blofeld, who is kept mostly off screen only his hands are seen petting his cat. His right hand woman is Rosa Klebb (played by Lotte Lenya), a double agent with the Russian government who assigns Tatiana the mission of posing as a defecting agent to get close to James Bond. SPECTRE's plot is part of an attempt to pit the British and Russian Governments against each other and escalate the Cold War. 

This one has always been one of my favorites of the Bond series. Connery is a bit more relaxed in the role of Bond in his second outing in the role and clearly having a bit more fun. Robert Shaw, as the main antagonist, is probably one of Bond's worthiest adversaries. Intelligent, charming when needed and intimidating. The big fight between him and Bond on the train is one of the film's high points. Daniela Bianchi does well as Tatiana, taking the role of Bond Girl up a notch. She is not simply a damsel in distress, but an active participant in the plot as well. 

The film was directed by Terance Young, who also directed Dr. No. This film though seems to be filtered through Hitchcock's influence, with both a scene of Bond and Tatiana meeting in an Istanbul cathedral and the climactic face off between Bond and a helicopter piloted by a couple SPECTRE agents standing out (and the latter being a deliberate nod to Hitchcock's North by Northwest). The film also ups the action quotient, with the standouts this time being the aforementioned fight between Bond and Grant on the Orient Express to an explosive speedboat chase and the helicopter face off. Of course, the action sequences would only get bigger and more elaborate from here. But this film finds a nice balance between the spectacle and the character moments. The action sequences serve the plot rather than the other way around. The film also was highly influential on the spy movie genre, in terms of both it's globe trotting plot, but also the various gadgets, especially Rosa Klebb's poison dagger shoes, which have made appearances in many other spy films most recently this past spring's Kingsman: The Secret Service

Overall, From Russia With Love was a big step forward for the Bond series as most of the other series staples fall into place here coupled with a more compelling and thrilling story that remains one of the best of the series. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bond-a-thon: Dr. No

It's a bit staggering to think that the James Bond series is still going strong today, with several cast changes and ever adapting to the current political climate, I can't really think of another film series that has persevered quite like it. Sure there have been others that have petered out over time, but I can't think of another one that is still going strong 53 years later. Looking back on the first film, Dr. No, I'm not sure the people making it had any idea either. Still, it's fun to look back at the older films in the series and see where it all started. 

James Bond (played by Sean Connery) is sent to Jamaica to try and track down another missing agent, who was working with the CIA to try and determine the source of radio jamming aimed at disrupting space shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral. Teaming up with local CIA agent Felix Leiter (played by Jack Lord), he begins to investigate what happened to the missing agent. Their investigation leads Bond to a local island, Crab Key, and it's mysterious occupant, Dr. No (played by Joseph Wiseman). While checking out the island, he also encounters local shell diver Honey Ryder (played by Ursula Andress) who finds herself caught up in Bond's adventure. 

So much of what would become staples of the series begins here, with the iconic opening barrel shot, the legendary Bond theme to the meglomanical villains bent on world domination. But at the same time, this entry is a great deal more reserved than what would come after. Bond doesn't really have any of the gadgets he's known for, operating more on his wits and practical spy tricks. In addition to being a spy thriller, it also functions quite well as a traditional detective story with Bond tracking down each clue to figure out what happened to the missing agent. It doesn't really have the huge action sequences the series would come to be known for. This may be in part because this first film didn't have the big budget the later installments had. Still, there was plenty of room to grow and this film laid the groundwork for everything that was to come.

This also marks the first outing for Sean Connery as Bond and needless to say it was a star-making turn for him. It's interesting to look at his first performance as the character he would be most identified with and while not all the trademarks are there yet, he still is very much the quintessential Bond from the word go and the one all others would be based on. Ursula Andress similarly is the first of many, many Bond girls and looking back on it she set the standard as well. But also, over time the Bond girls have grown from being damsels in distress to equal partners as the series went on and matured. 

Still, Dr. No is a strong start for the James Bond series. It is the basis of everything that has come since. Sure, some of the subsequent films have certainly been better than this one, but as it is the first, it has an important place in the ongoing adventures of James Bond.        

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

I can still remember way back when N.W.A first hit the scene and the subsequent controversy that followed in reaction to their lyrics. I remember when the parental advisory labels started showing up on CDs, in a large part due to N.W.A's albums. I remember people crying out about how their music glamorized gang life and rallied against law enforcement. The thing is though, most of the media missed the point of their lyrics. It wasn't a glamorization of anything, but an angry cry against a reality they grew up with, gang violence and discrimination from the Police. Straight Outta Compton does a good job capturing it while somehow dodging being a straight up vanity project, despite being produced by group members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. 

As the film opens with the various members of N.W.A living in Compton, CA start to come together, with Dre (played Corey Hawkins) winding up staying with Ice Cube (played by Cube's own son, O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), having left home after a fight with his mother. Dre wants to keep working as a DJ, seeing that as his future while his mother wants him to get a practical job and earn a living to provide for his daughter and girlfriend. However, after combining Cube's rhymes with Dre's beats they start to come across something, trying it out in front of a crowd. The crowd eats it up even if the club owner is less than thrilled, preferring Dre spin records to get his customers in a romantic mood rather than riled up. They decide to take a chance and make a record, turning to their friend Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell) to help front the cash to get a record made as well as rap on the record. This leads to an amusing bit where Cube and Dre try to help Eazy-E find his beat. From this comes the formation of N.W.A, which stands for Niggas with Attitudes, which also includes MC Ren (played by Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (played by Neil Brown, Jr.). 

Their first single starts gaining some attention from frequent airplay on the radio stations and ultimately attracts the attention of local manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), who eventually is able to get the group signed to a record contract. From there, the fame and controversy of their performances come about. We see the inception of perhaps their most controversial song, "Fuck the Police," coming about from being harassed by cops while they were hanging out in front of their recording studio. There's also the lengthy tour, including damn near inciting a riot in Detroit while playing "Fuck the Police" after being explicitly told not to by the Detroit police department (to be fair, I would've done it too). There's also the contract disputes that ultimately resulted in Cube leaving the group, the parting of ways of friends and the eventual downfall of Eazy-E to AIDS.     

Straight Outta Compton is certainly riveting viewing for much of it's runtime, tracing the rise of these guys from the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles to the heights of super stardom. The film captures a moment in time quite well, showing what life was like for these guys existing in that environment in a way that is unfortunately just as relevant today. The most memorable music that came from them was in direct response to the gang culture, the violence and the repeated harassment, discrimination and humiliation they received from the LAPD. Director F Gary Gray and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff capture that quite well. The film is extraordinarily well cast, with O'Shea Jackson Jr. leading the group, capturing his father perfectly. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell are equally memorable in their turns as Dr. Dre and Eazy-E as well. Paul Giamatti does well here too, giving a good performance that is quickly becoming a specialty of his with this being his third time playing a band manager or agent in the past couple years. 

While the movie does gloss over some of the worse things these guys did over their time, there are enough warts being shown that while I can't give it a pass, I can understand it. Both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are still working in the business and I can understand them wanting to skip over certain things for the sake of the movie as a whole as well as their respective careers. Still, there are cringeworthy moments such as Cube trashing his manager's office with a baseball bat or Dr. Dre speeding off in his Ferrari and leading a police chase that are included show these guys weren't exactly saints. Although the movie makes this clear from the beginning. Part of the reason Dre and Cube go to Eazy-E for money to make the first record is because they know he's a drug dealer and has the cash. Of course, the film suffers from an overwhelming sense of misogyny, something that the group's recordings were frequently criticized for and the movie also carries the same feelings. It does get better as the film goes on and the various members start getting married, but it still lacks for any genuine well-drawn female characters, aside from maybe Dre's Mom, but she's not around for long. It's one of the very few issues I had with the film as a whole. If it had just taken a little while longer to establish the various spouses a little more, it would've made a big difference. And I know the movie isn't about them and does remain focused on Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, but it's just a nitpick of mine.

Still, in a summer jam packed with great films, Straight Outta Compton, is superior entertainment focusing on a group of young men who through the power of music and words shook the world. It's still being heard, and needs to be heard, today.   

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Gift

"You may be done with the past, but the past is not done with you."

Joel Edgerton is an actor who kind of came out of nowhere for me. Suddenly, he was popping up all over the place, turning in strong performances in less than stellar films such as The Thing or The Odd Life of Timothy Green. I would always come away from those films thinking he was one of the best things in them. His profile has only grown with notable turns in Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, and the unfortunately misguided Exodus: Gods and Kings. When I heard about his latest film The Gift, which he also wrote and directed, I knew I had to see it.

Simon (played by Jason Bateman) and Robyn (played by Rebecca Hall) have just moved to Los Angeles after Simon has gotten a big new job. One day while out shopping for things for their new house, they run into one of Simon's old classmates from high school, Gordon "Gordo" Mosely (played by Joel Edgerton), who Simon initially doesn't even recognize. After some brief small talk, Simon get's Gordon's phone number and promises to call him to set up a time to get together, but never follows through. They then come home one day to find a bottle of wine and card of their front step from Gordon congratulating them on their new home. Robyn encourages Simon to reach out to Gordon and thank him for the wine. Meanwhile, Simon is wondering why Gordon knew where they lived and a little creeped out by it. Gordon then turns up a third time to find Robyn at home alone. Robyn invites Gordon in to show him the house. She then invites Gordon to stay for dinner so Simon can thank him for the gift and the two can catch up. The three of them have dinner together, but yet there is something a bit off about Gordon, who continuously is vague or dodges questions about his own life. At the end of the night after Gordon leaves, Simon and his wife talk and Simon makes it clear he has no interest in seeing Gordon again. They decide to just quietly step away but Gordon keeps turning up and his motivations become more and more cryptic.

Things come to a head when Gordon invites Simon and Robyn over to his house for dinner. Having had enough, Simon makes it crystal clear he has no interest in being friends with him and wants him to leave them alone. Gordon sends them one last note stating he was sorry they didn't want to be friends and he had been willing to let bygones be bygones. This piques Robyn's curiosity wondering what Gordon could have meant by that. Simon says he doesn't know and asks Robyn to drop it. But she can't let it go and starts looking into both Gordon and Simon, with some assistance from her neighbor Lucy (played by Alison Tolman). The more she digs, it becomes clear that Gordon may have more malicious intentions towards Simon because of something that happened when they were kids. 

I'm a big fan of the psychological thriller genre and this one fits in very nicely among that genre, but Joel Edgerton carefully tweaks the plot of the film so that every time you think you know where it's going it throws you a curve ball. I'm really skating a fine line with my summarizing and reviewing because I just don't want to give too much away, but just enough for you to decide if this is a good movie for you (if you like thrillers, it is).  

In addition to writing and directing, Edgerton also gives a good performance as Gordon. He manages to make what could have been just another movie psycho many more layers and depth of character that winds up being at times even a sympathetic character. Both Bateman and Hall gave strong performances as well, especially Bateman who is given a much more serious role to play for once after playing mostly comedic roles. It's nice to see Bateman get a chance to sink his teeth into a meatier role and as a result gives one of his best performances. All three actors bring the many layers of their characters wonderfully to life. You sense that all three characters have their own secrets and hidden pains and covey that to the audience wonderfully, often just through facial expressions.   

Overall, The Gift is a carefully plotted thriller with an intriguing premise that is wonderfully executed by a great cast and direction from Joel Edgerton. If this is what he is able to do with his first feature film, I eagerly anticipate his next one.     

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


"I've never even heard of the original Vacation."
"Doesn't matter. The new Vacation will stand on it's own."

I went into the latest entry in the Vacation series already a big fan, more or less, of the previous four films. To summarize, the first and third films are comedy classics, the second one is decent and the fourth one was pretty good. So, I went into this new one with high hopes, based on the trailers. Were those hopes met? Ehh...

Rusty Griswold (played by Ed Helms) is all grown up now with a family of his own. He is working as a pilot for a discount airline (whose motto is that they're working to earn back their passenger's trust). He is looking forward to once again taking his family on their annual vacation to a cabin off Lake Michigan when he overhears his wife, Debbie (played by Christina Applegate) telling a friend how much she's dreading it. Realizing he was the only one who enjoyed those trips, he comes up with a new vacation plan. Retracing his family's original trip to Walley World in California. He packs up the wife and two sons, sensitive James (played by Skyler Gisondo) and psychotic little shit Kevin (played by Steele Stebbins) in their rental car, a Tartan Prancer ("It's the Honda of Albania!" Rusty proclaims proudly, before admitting the rental car options were pretty sparse on a holiday weekend), and head off across country with only one goal: Walley World or bust.

I have to give credit where credit is due first and foremost that despite a repeat of the destination, the new film does come up with a whole new set of adventures for the next Generation of Griswolds to embark upon. From several run ins with a rather intimidating semi-truck to Debbie's ill-advised attempt to relive her Sorority glory days when they stop off at her alma mater to visiting Aunt Audrey (played by Leslie Mann) and her husband Stone (played by Chris Hemsworth), it doesn't rest on repeating the gags from the original film, although a couple of the more famous ones get an amusing twist. But, the bigger question is does the new material work? Unfortunately, the answer is mixed. I laughed a bit through the film, but there were sequences that just completely grossed me out. The sequence when the family mistakes a pool of raw sewage for a hot spring particularly gave me the dry heaves. The original film series was never what one would call classy, but it was never this gross either, not even when Cousin Eddie emptied his chemical toilet into a storm drain in Christmas Vacation

There are some laughs to be had with the movie, from the crazy rental car and all it's nonsensical special features, including a button that makes the driver's chair swivel around to face the back seat that they accidentally hit while driving down the highway probably provided the biggest laugh in the movie for me because it was just ridiculous. Still, much of the humor in the film is much darker than the original film. For example, the squabbling siblings. Yes, in the original films, Russ and Audrey fought their fair amount, but they never outright tried to kill each other, unlike this film where the younger brother Kevin literally tries to suffocate his brother with a plastic bag while their parents remain oblivious in the front seat. That's not funny, that's disturbing.  

For a film that claims that it will stand on it's own, the best moments in the film are callbacks to the previous films, particularly the first film. Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo pop up for glorified cameos towards the end as Clark and Ellen to set our hapless family once again on the path to Walley World, in the original Wagon Queen Family Truckster no less. The frequent use of Lindsey Buckingham's Holiday Road (the official anthem of the Vacation series), a callback to the hot girl in the Ferrari flirting with Russ, and assorted other moments. I enjoyed those little nods, but at the same time if you're not a fan, those moments will likely fall flat. 

Vacation has it's moments and there were times when I got a good laugh out of it, but at the same time it's not enough to really recommend it. If you're a fan of the films that came out before it, you will probably get more mileage out of it, but even then I'd say it's a rental at best. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

It's hard to believe that the Mission Impossible film series is nineteen years old this year. The first film came out in the summer of 1996 and every few years we'll get a new installment, each just a little (or in the case of the second film, a lot) different. But one thing has become abundantly clear. From the third film on, they somehow just keep getting better and better and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation manages to be just as good as the third and fourth films. 

This film picks up more or less where the fourth film, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, left off with the director of the CIA Alan Hunley (played by Alec Baldwin), is calling for the IMF agency to be closed down, while William Brandt (played by Jeremy Renner) is trying to explain the good the agency does. Ultimately, Brandt loses and the IMF is shut down. Brandt is asked to help locate Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) and bring him in. Meanwhile, Ethan is on his own undercover in England when he uncovers evidence that a terrorist group known only as the Syndicate exists. Before he can get away, he's captured by The Syndicate so they can find out what he knows about them, by means of torture, of course. Before they can get started, Ethan is rescued by Ilsa Faust (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a deep cover British Intelligence agent within the Syndicate. She makes it look like Ethan overpowered her and the others in the room and shows him how to get out. When Ethan manages to escape, he calls for an extraction, only to find out IMF is shut down and he's on his own. 

Six months later, former IMF tech and field agent Benji Dunn (played by Simon Pegg), now working for the CIA, is contacted by Ethan, who has finally tracked down the Syndicate and needs Benji's help in preventing their next attack, on the Chancellor of Vienna at an opera performance. He needs Benji to help scan the crowd and locate the suspected Syndicate ringleader that Ethan caught a glimpse of and was able to create a sketch of. With another run in with Ilsa, along with a couple other assassins there to take out the Chancellor, Ethan and Benji discover what The Syndicate really is, an independent organization creating terrorist attacks and large scale "accidents" to manipulate world politics as they see fit. Recruiting their former IMF buddies Luther Stickell (played by Ving Rhames) and William Brandt, they set out to take down this organization once and for all. 

Somehow, these movies keep managing to top the last one in terms of action set pieces, with a couple genuinely hair-raising ones this time out as well, including having Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off to retrieve a shipment of nerve gas or a fantastically executed car and motorcycle chase scene through Casablanca and the surrounding freeways and mountain roads. Christopher McQuarrie takes up the directing reins this time out and gives the film a classic espionage movie flavor that really added to the film.  He also wrote the script along Drew Pierce and provided the film with enough twists and turns that I would expect from someone who gave us The Usual Suspects

Cruise does another good job in a role he has played well four times previously. It was nice to see Ving Rhames back in a major role in the series after pretty much sitting out the fourth film. For me, the film's MVP though is Simon Pegg as Benji, who functions at times as the comic relief, but is also clearly a competent agent as well. He is allowed to be a bit goofy, without being annoying, but is also lovable. I may be biased here as a Simon Pegg fan, but he's my favorite character in the series and I love that they keep bringing him back. There is an entire section of the film where it's just Benji and Ethan operating alone and those were some of my favorite bits of the movie. Rebecca Ferguson is fantastic as Ilsa and makes her such an intriguing and mysterious character. She is seriously badass and can hold her own with Ethan, but yet you're never entirely sure which side she is on, which only adds tension to the film. Alec Baldwin was a nice addition to the mix here as well, especially as someone who remembers his turn as CIA analyst Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, and I chuckled a little when he showed up. He's a bit of an antagonist this time around, as his character doesn't believe the Syndicate is real and wants Ethan in custody. 

One weak point with the Mission Impossible series has always been it's villains. The best they've had has probably been Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the third film, who was genuinely threatening and intense. However, they give us a good one this time around with Solomon Lane (played by Sean Harris) as the head of The Syndicate. He's a real nasty customer as someone who will stop at nothing for his plans to go into effect. He is certainly a worthy adversary for Ethan and his team to face off with and a lot of the suspense comes from how are they going to manage to stop not only him, but his huge network of terrorists. The nice thing about this movie, much like Ghost Protocol, is that it focuses on the team as a whole and is not just the Ethan Hunt show. Each team member has their all too important role to fill in order for the mission to succeed. 

Overall, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is another fantastic entry into a series that seems to be just getting better and better as it goes along. As long as they're as good as this one, if Tom and company want to keep making them, I'll be happy to keep going. Especially if Simon Pegg is in it.