Maleficent

Like many of the fairy tales we heard as youngsters, Disney’s Maleficent contains some plot elements that are head-scratchers.

We meet the young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) when she’s an innocent girl fairy, living an idyllic life of flapping her wings and flying around an apparent paradise. She shares this happy universe with a number of creatures that look like refugees from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies.

She forms a friendship with a human from the neighboring land of kings and queens, young Stefan (Michael Higgins). As they grow into teenagers, they continue as chums. But when they become adults, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie with cheeks sharp enough to slice bread) and Stefan (Sharlto Copley, who we met in District 9) see their relationship take a strange turn.

The dictionary definition of maleficent (“doing evil or harm; harmfully malicious”) gives a clue that things may not always continue to be goodness and light for her.

The king of Stefan’s home kingdom leads an ill-fated invasion of the fairyland and his guys are turned back thanks to Maleficent’s power. The king declares that whoever gets Maleficent’s wings will be king when he dies. Stefan, her old friend, sneaks in and manages to do the dirty deed and gains power while Maleficent loses some, but not all, of hers.

She places a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora (the remarkably cute Elle Fanning) that dooms her to go to sleep at age 16 and not be awakened until she gets a kiss that comes from true love. Aurora is raised in the woods by 3 fairies, characters that should be charming and memorable, but somehow lack those qualities.

Maleficent is always hovering nearby, monitoring the child’s growth. She has her sidekick Diavil (Sam Riley) alongside, turning him into whatever creature she fancies. He could pass for Orlando Bloom’s less good-looking younger brother.

Eventually, most of the characters live happily and others get by as they can. As mentioned, some of the things that happen are head-scratchers. For instance, just when we think we have Maleficent figured out, she changes her mind—like with that curse thing.

Maleficent is a good-not-great movie, with many wonderful and amazing images. Director Robert Stromberg’s lengthy movie resume is mainly as an effects guy. He does an excellent job of mixing live action by human actors with computer-generated effects.

But the big question remains: Is this movie too scary for little kids? I say yes. As an overprotective dad, I might’ve rated Maleficent PG-13. But it has been deemed PG. This ensures that a good number of little kids will have nightmares. Thank the MPAA, mom and dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Million Ways To Die In The West

A Million Ways To Die In The West is filled with moments of pure delight! Those moments are hilariously funny. Some moments are clever and inventive. Other moments are crude and cheap.

Unfortunately, AMWTDITW lacks cohesiveness as a movie. The plot is passable and provides a useful framework for Seth McFarlane to hang his moments on. But the script fails to get the rhythm necessary to keep the comedy moving at a good pace.

The problem is McFarlane. The man is mega-talented. He stars as sheep farmer Albert. He directs. And he is a co-writer of the film. But although he possesses arguably the best smirk in the business, he lacks the presence to prosper as a lead character on the big screen. (He may find ways to embellish that presence.)

As a director, he knows how to bring visual and verbal humor to a film while also telling a story. His 2012 film Ted works. A Million Ways delivers laughs and a story, but could have benefited from more judicious editing.

My favorite character in A Million Ways is Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a dandy who runs a store that sells moustache-grooming supplies. He leads a wonderful musical number—written by Stephen Foster—about the importance of a man’s having a moustache. Foy later has a digestive system crisis that features low humor that leads to big laughs.

Anna (Charlize Theron) is the wife of gunslinger Clinch (Liam Neeson). Before Clinch shows up in the town of Old Stump, Anna has a platonic thing going with Albert who is heartbroken after being dumped by Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Louise has moved on the moustache man, Foy, amping up Albert’s dislike for the dandy.

The townsfolk also include Albert’s best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) whose girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) refuses to engage in premarital sex, even though she is, by profession, a hooker.

The film has a few cool surprises, including cameo appearances. (There’s one bit that should NEVER have been included in a TV spot, but is. It’s huge spoiler.)

The soundtrack is classic. Joel McNeely brings an Aaron Copeland influence to many of his compositions. And Alan Jackson sings the closing theme song that has a classic feel.

A Million Ways To Die In The West, like Blazing Saddles, is a film that is likely to be enjoyed for decades. See it in the theater now and on TBS and TNT (with a cleaned-up dialogue version) in years to come.

 

 

 

 

X-Men: DayS of Future Past

Remember when Nixon killed the Sentinel program that would’ve rid the world of mutants? No? I guess that got lost amongst coverage of Watergate, Vietnam, etc.

Time travel is such a gimmicky plot device. But without it, we wouldn’t have X-Men: Days of Future Past, a film with incredibly good special effects. X-Men: Days of Future Past has its flaws, but I’m guessing most X-Men fans will forgive director Bryan Singer for those sins (as well as for his alleged personal sins).

After robotic Sentinels threaten to wipe out all mutants—even those with strong supernatural abilities—as well as normal humans, desperate measures must be taken. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sends Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 derail the program.

Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) guides Logan in his time travel, conjuring up memories of Inception. After arriving back in the day and gracing the screen with his naked backside, Logan meets up with Xavier’s younger self (James McAvoy). They work to spring the younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from his prison beneath the Pentagon.

The facts that McAvoy does not look a bit like Patrick Stewart and Fassbender only vaguely resembles the present day Magneto (Ian McKellan) must be overlooked. Also, if the Sentinel program had been authorized in 1973, wouldn’t it have decimated the mutant population way before now?

Meanwhile, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) pushes to have the US produce Sentinels to eliminate the world’s mutants. In a ceremony on the White House lawn, Tricky Dick is about to give thumbs up to the program. When Magneto uses his powers to move RFK Stadium and set it down surrounding the White House, the ceremony is halted and the climactic battle ensues. (Apparently, RFK was moved back in time for the Redskins’ 1973 season.)

While certain of the mutants get limited screen time, here are key players among those featured. As Mystique/Raven, Jennifer Lawrence shows that she is without a doubt the most versatile actor/actress in movies today. And as Hank/Beast, Nicholas Hoult shows his fine acting range. As Peter/Quicksilver, Evan Peters thrills with incredible speed (and a sense of humor).

Also worth mentioning is the mutant Blink, if only because of the actress’s wonderful name, Bingbing Fan. President Nixon is played by Mark Comacho, who actually resembles the Trickster, but is a bit heavier.

With a good balance of exposition/character development versus battles/awesome effects, X-Men: Days of Future Past, adds another winner to the Marvel movie list. Grab your 3-D glasses and get in line now!

Blended

With movies, as with parties and dinners at restaurants, evaluations are influenced by expectations. Going in to Blended, I knew that Adam Sandler movies have been less than wonderful in recent years. On the other hand, Sandler and Drew Barrymore made two highly entertaining movies together, 1998’s The Wedding Singer and 2004’s 50 First Dates.

Happily, Blended conjures up the vibe of those two Adam-Drew films, rather than those of That’s My Boy, Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Jack and Jill, etc.

Not that Blended is an award-winner, but it is cute and funny. It’s a sweet love story whose outcome is pre-ordained. Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore) are single parents. They have a terrible blind date—at Hooters—but meet again in a store where they help each other out. Through a strange and highly unlikely turn of events, they end up sharing a suite—with their kids—at a resort in South Africa.

They try to make the best of it. Jim, Lauren and all their kids enjoy the resort’s amusements including safaris, ostrich rides and parasailing—with comic results.

Here’s some parental guidance. Blended appears to be a comedy for the whole family, like Cheaper By The Dozen or Yours, Mine and Ours. But it is rated PG-13 and contains some naughty content you might find offensive for your preteens. Some of it will go right over their heads but other parts, such as a shot of humping hippos, are rather direct.

Also in the cast are Sandler’s SNL cohort Kevin Nealon as Eddy and Jessica Lowe as his trophy wife Ginger. Wendy McLendon-Covey of Bridesmaids plays Lauren’s business partner. Joel McHale is Lauren’s smarmy ex-husband. Shaquille O’Neal and Dan Patrick have brief appearances.

Blended is not as good as the earlier Sandler-Barrymore pairings, but it delivers some solid laughs and a happy outcome—and those are good things. It also contains situations most parents—single or married—can relate to.

Maybe the best thing Blended has going for it is the lines will likely be much shorter than those for X-Men and Godzilla.

 

 

 

Chef

Chef is a film that fills me with joy. The food is gorgeous, the music is superb, the characters are (mostly) likeable and this redemption story is neatly presented. This movie is a good time.

Jon Favreau is the cinematic chef for this delicious entrée. He wrote it. He directed it. And he stars as chef Carl Casper, a man with a passion for cooking.

In Chef, the Los Angeles restaurant where Carl cooks is about to get a visit from noted food blogger Ramsay Michel (Oliver Platt). Carl is ready to prepare a creative menu when the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) intercedes and orders Carl to cook the same menu the restaurant has featured (successfully) for a decade.

When Michel rips Carl for serving the same old same old, Carl is upset. When he sees that Michel’s slam has been shared on Twitter, he replies obscenely, not knowing how Twitter works. (In real life Favreau is a Twitter master with 1.71 million followers.)

Carl asks for a re-do and invites Michel to come back and let him cook what he wanted to cook in the first place. The owner steps in again and says no, causing Carl to walk out. But he walks back in during dinner service, and launches into a dining room tirade against the critic that is captured on iPhones and shared across the internet.

Any creative person who’s every wanted to rip into a critic for knocking their work, but had the self-control to resist, can appreciate watching Carl rage out of control.

With his career wrecked after this fit of anger, his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) invites him to join her and their son Percy (Emjay Anthony) in Miami. Shortly after arriving, Carl visits Inez’ previous ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.) who gifts Carl with a commercial van that he converts into a food truck.

With an assist from his LA kitchen staffer Martin (John Leguizamo) he equips the truck and begins selling Cuban sandwiches on South Beach. Along with Percy, they take the truck to acknowledged food meccas New Orleans and Austin, before coming home to LA and a storybook ending.

Scarlett Johansson appears as the LA restaurant’s hostess and Carl’s girlfriend. Russell Peters has a funny turn as a Miami cop who wants to take selfies galore with Carl and his food truck crew.

For foodies and those in the food and beverage industry, Chef is a “must see.” Favreau shows great respect for those who cook in Chef. He captures the passion that the best chefs (and kitchen staffs) bring to work every day and night. Impressively, he has good knife skills. That’s no stunt double chopping carrots.

Chef gets a special commendation, too, for getting social media right. Twitter helped bring about Carl Casper’s downfall. And, as anyone who owns a food truck will confirm, Twitter is a valuable tool for telling people where you’ll be parked and serving next. Young Percy is the chef’s social media guru whose Twitter savvy brings crowds to the truck’s windows as soon as they open. Twitter giveth and Twitter taketh away, as Chef clearly shows.

I promise that if you see Chef on an empty stomach, you’ll leave hungry. And I bet you will also walk out happy. Chef is a tasty treat. Savor it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Godzilla

The newest Godzilla has everything you want in a summer tent pole movie: a sufficient amount of monster footage, generous servings of destruction, an okay storyline and generally decent acting by the human cast. (And the 3-D is good, too.)

Godzilla’s clever title sequence includes “redacted” credits over nuke-related archival footage, hinting at official cover-ups of atomic testing and the effects of radiation. An old-school opening theme signals a serious attitude.

Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) both work at a Japanese nuclear plant. Joe wants to shut the plant down due to seismic rumbles; Sandra goes to check on the reactor and dies when tremors lead to disaster and force the closing of escape doors.

Throughout the film are reminders of 9-11 footage that are branded into our gray matter, starting with shots of Sandra running to escape an approaching dusty cloud of danger.

15 years after the nuke plant event, Joe’s grown up son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco to bail out his widower dad in Japan. Joe has trespassed in the forbidden area around the nuke plant. When he convinces Ford to return with him to the area, they discover why the plant is off limits.

Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) and his sidekick Vivienne (Sally Hawkins) are seen in the film’s opening scene, checking out a weird crater in a uranium mine in the Philippines. They are involved in the cover-up of events at the shuttered plant. Here’s where we meet the first monster.

As the two flying monsters make their way from Japan to Hawaii to the US west coast, they are pursued by Godzilla, with whom they faceoff in San Francisco. (The battles evoked cheers from the preview audience.)

In addition to visuals that trigger 9-11 memories, the 2011 Japanese earthquake (which caused damage to the real life Fukushima nuclear plant) is referenced when monsters cause a tsunami in Honolulu.

A sensitive touch that director Gareth Edwards brings to Godzilla is a focus on small children and the way peril affects them throughout the film. I was surprised that the 2014 Godzilla’s movements were less fluid than I’d expected. On the other hand, the sounds made by all the monsters are masterpieces of audio production.

The new Godzilla film is good enough to satisfy but not so good as to come close to classic status. It is likely to be warmly embraced by many who recall the old version, as well as by Godzilla newbies.

 

 

Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm is a sports movie, sort of, but it has other hooks to attract audiences. First off, I’d guess most sports agents don’t look like J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm). Our St. Louis native son in the lead role provides eye candy for women.

It’s being promoted as a baseball movie, but none of the actors is ever involved in a baseball game. It may be promoted in other parts of the world as a cricket movie, but none of the actors participates in a cricket match.

The film has 2 central stories: (1) The “fish out of water” adventures of the two young Indian men who come to America to pitch baseballs (along with a third Indian assistant) and (2) J.B.’s gradual realization that fulfillment comes not just from making money but from doing the right things.

There’s also a simmering romance between J.B. and Brenda (Lake Bell), the woman who rents his guesthouse.

It’s a “feel good” movie that’s likely to have good word of mouth. It’s rated PG, so you can bring your kids and your grandma.

After his meal ticket jock, a Rams linebacker named Popo (Rey Maualuga), takes his business elsewhere, J.B. and his teammate agent Aash (Aasif Mandvi) come up with the Million Dollar Arm competition. J.B. theorizes that a strong-armed cricket pitcher can be taught to pitch a baseball well enough to get a contract. They travel to India to find candidates for the scheme. Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) are the winners who come to America.

USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Pullman) is given the job of taking the raw talent these young men possess and turn them into pro prospect pitchers. J.B. opens his house to the wide-eyed Indians but initially gives them only minimal guidance about domestic life in America.

Tryouts are arranged. Big league scouts and media attend. Rinku and Dinesh are washouts. The scheme is a failure. Until… grizzled scout Ray (Alan Arkin) hooks J.B. up with the Pirates, who somehow missed the first tryout. If you’ve ever seen a sports movie, you can guess how they do at their encore audition.

Million Dollar Arm is based on a true story, but comes to the screen with a good amount of Hollywood embellishment. The movie should serve as a solid foundation for Jon Hamm to build a movie career upon, now that Mad Men is coming to an end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neighbors

 

Neighbors is one of those movies that’s funny, but you wish it were just a little bit funnier. Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are a couple with a baby girl who get new next door neighbors—a college fraternity!

Teddy (Zac Effron) is the leader of Delta Psi and Pete (Dave Franco, younger brother of James) is his best friend and backup. Upon move-in, the chapter meets and promises to do something memorable like previous members have done. (Flashbacks show earlier Delta Psi’s inventing Beer Pong, for instance.)

Mac and Kelly figure they should play nice. They drop over for a visit, offering weed as a good will gesture. They promise to call Teddy instead of the police should things get too loud.

Things get too loud quickly. When Teddy doesn’t answer, a cop (Hannibal Buress) is summoned. A peaceful coexistence between the neighbors proves to be impossible and leads to a climactic party and confrontation.

The fight between Mac and Teddy as the party rages is one of the funniest since Hugh Grant and Colin Firth faced off in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Their final encounter at the end of the movie is also a silly bit of fun.

Neighbors is rated R for raunchy, but it could’ve been worse. There are many small to medium laughs and a handful of big ones. Rogen as Mac is not unlike other Rogen characters you’ve seen. Byrne seems to slip in and out of her native Aussie accent at random.

Lisa Kudrow as the PR-minded college dean is the highlight of the supporting cast. Fans of Workaholics may recognize cast members from that show in a cameo. And the baby Stella (Elise and Zoey Vargas) is one of the cutest infants you’ve seen onscreen since Swee’ Pea in Popeye.

I can relate to Mac and Kelly. I speak as a suburbanite who’s had noisy parties thrown in my neighborhood by high school and college students, when their parents were out of town. But nothing in my world has ever come close to the havoc wrought by Delta Psi in Neighbors.

 

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

 

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Andrew Garfield seems incredibly comfortable in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, his version of Peter Parker enjoys being Spider-Man more than did Tobey McGuire’s. The Spidey angst here is more about his relationship with Gwen.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pivots back and forth between Peter’s romance with Gwen (Emma Stone) and Spider-Man’s efforts to save the world from evil. Will the couple stay apart? Can they resist the attraction? And will Spider-Man be able to contain bad guys who bring new terror to the screen?

As usual, something catastrophic happens to turn a normal person into a creature bent on doing bad things. This time it’s nerdy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who, thanks to powerful electrical current, becomes Electro.

Honestly, I didn’t care for Electro as a villain. His powers seemed poorly defined though almost limitless. Jamie Foxx, as usual, is great but the character lacks qualities that would make him more memorable.

Harry Osborn (Dean DeHaan) is heir to the Oscorp organization and is about to segue into his Green Goblin identity. Like Foxx, DeHaan is a talented actor. But the evolution of the Green Goblin is less than satisfying.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 launches with Spider-Man trying to rein in a terrorist in a truck, Aleksei (Paul Giamatti), while also trying to make his way to a graduation ceremony where Gwen will be speaking. Giamatti’s character looks and acts like a refugee from The Road Warrior and the role fails to take advantage of Giamatti’s acting prowess.

Sally Field returns as Aunt May and, although she’s still pretty at age 67, in one shot her neck looks just awful. (Pardon my being catty.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has action galore. The sequences with Spidey using his web spinning to move rapidly through a cityscape are, to me, more enjoyable than the scenes showing Spider-Man trying to neutralize the villains.

Director Mark Webb delivers one of my favorite shots of the year in this film. It shows Gwen falling, in very slow motion. The contrast from the high energy pace of the rest of the movie is stark.

This is not a must-see film unless you feel a personal need to catch all the tent-pole movies this spring-summer in order to keep tabs on the super heroes. TAS-M2 delivers all the movie stuff that goes well with popcorn, and it entertains, but it has shortcomings that cause it to fall short of greatness.