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Another fun and clever modern "Muppets," but missing heart, 21 August 2014
6/10

The Muppets stormed their way back to the big screen and the hearts of audiences everywhere in their 2011 "reboot" (of sorts) with the help of funnymen Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). An upbeat, emotion-filled comedy, the story of "The Muppets" mirrored the way Jim Henson's creations had gotten lost in popular culture. Now that the gang is back together again, the question of where to go next is one "Muppets Most Wanted" struggles to address.

The return of James Bobin to the director's chair and Stoller to the script brings the same subtle, clever, goofy and tongue-in-cheek humor of "The Muppets" into this sequel, announced in grandiose fashion with a classic Muppets-style Broadway number titled "We're Doing a Sequel," which begins just minutes after the last film ended. Composer Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, also returns to keep up the musical continuity.

With the voice, brains and funny bone intact, "Muppets Most Wanted" should be another joyful movie experience, but something is definitely missing in the film, and the top suspect on the list is heart.

The story doesn't build the same kind of emotional foundation its predecessor did, and that's really the biggest difference. The plot starts rolling when the Muppets are approached by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who in spite of his last name, convinces the gang to sign off on a world tour. A reluctant Kermit agrees, as his friends are eager to build on their return to fame. When they arrive in Germany, Kermit is framed as Constantine, the most wanted criminal in the world who happens to be his doppelganger plus a mole on his face, and thrown into a Siberian prison. Meanwhile, Constatine takes Kermit's place, using the Muppets as a cover for his and Dominic's nefarious purposes. A clever plot, certainly, but not a warm one.

Just look at the three main human characters, for example. Gervais' Dominic, Tina Fey as prison guard Nadya and Ty Burrell as Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon are character/caricature roles, completely different than Segel and Amy Adams, who were main roles and lovable (human) characters. Although it can and should be argued that the Muppets are the stars of their film, the human characters manipulate the plot and often take attention away from them.

Subplots also abound. We follow Kermit in prison, Constantine and Dominic, the rest of the Muppets including Miss Piggy's frustrations with her frog-lover, Jean and Sam the Eagle as they investigate crimes – they're all fun and light and have their moments (especially for kiddos) but the movie leans hard on silly and clever without the emotion to weight it down.

No emotion also makes it difficult for McKenzie to do his job as composer. Only one song counts as a ballad and captures any semblance of feelings and it belongs to Miss Piggy, who really isn't a main character for most of the movie. The other songs are well-written, fun and catchy, but in the context of the movie they play a very limited role, nothing like what "Life's a Happy Song" did for the first film.

Any good family movie needs a balance between humor and heart, and the scales are tipped in "Muppets Most Wanted." Fortunately, the cleverness is strong enough to fuel the movie along to the point that it's an easily tolerable watch.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit my site for more!

Boyhood (2014/I)
A unique work of genius that will change everything you think about film, 18 August 2014
10/10

Calling "Boyhood" "unlike anything you've ever seen" is stating the obvious, yet there is almost no other way to describe it in as many words. Making a film over the course of 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater has transformed everything we know about filmmaking, in some ways challenging the very definition of "film." It sounds simple: tell the story of a boy growing up in close to real time by filming him every year of his life instead of having him play a younger version of himself or casting another actor in the role. But "Boyhood" accomplishes so much more than the mere use of an edgy approach to storytelling. It turns out that watching a character grow up on screen has a radical effect on how we perceive the character, how we relate to him and how we connect to him. It's a completely different experience for the viewer.

As such, Ellar Coltrane has the coolest keepsake/chronicle of his childhood anyone could ever ask for as the star of this movie. He plays Mason, ages 5 through 18, who along with his big sister (Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter) lives in Texas with his mom (Patricia Arquette) and occasionally visits with his dad (Ethan Hawke). The film chronicles his growing pains and formative experiences, from trouble with his stepfathers to life transitions to adventures with his dad.

"Boyhood" is easily the closest that fiction has ever come to cinema verite. It often feels similar to watching a documentary. Linklater tells the story in chronological order, unlocking the true potential of his film in doing so because jumping back and forth would have given off the appearance of significantly more editorial control, damaging the powerful realism of the project.

What makes "Boyhood" more than just a really successful filmmaking "gimmick," however, is the power of its nostalgia and the universality of Mason's experience. Linklater didn't just pick a random kid and film his life; he crafted this story. The film's realism, the fact that it reflects pieces of our own life experiences back at us, is not a byproduct of this storytelling technique, but by Linklater's own design. Not just any director could've undertaken this project and achieved the same poignant result. His filmmaking experience ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise" and its sequels, and "Bernie") shows he has a real knack for playing with time and realism in his films.

This in mind, Linklater's prowess as an editor really shines in "Boyhood." When you endeavor to make a film over the course of 12 years, you can't possibly know what you will need in the final every last piece of footage has been collected. Making sure at the time of filming that he had the right amount of footage to choose from later on and being able to tell one story from disjointed periods of filming takes the keenest of skill.

A lot of the brilliance of the film is how past and future Richard Linklater work together. Past Linklater, the man behind the camera each of those years, understood the value of capturing footage that would put a distinctive time stamp on each year of filming. Future Linklater, the editor piecing the entire film together, used the powers of hindsight to sort through this footage and include scenes or bits of dialogue that add powerful nostalgia to the movie.

For example, a short, wordless scene shows younger Mason, Samantha and their step-siblings at the midnight book release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in July 2005. Linklater soaks up the entire ambiance of this moment, which has nothing to do with the plot, and then however many years later, edits it into the movie in such a way that the millions who felt connected to those books when they were first released feel an instant, deep connection to it watching the film. He captured a collective cultural memory as it was happening and weaved it into the greater story of one child's life, not unlike the way we experience these moments in our own life. They happen once and they become memories. Similarly, Hawke's character is very politically outspoken, so we get treated to his thoughts at the end of the Bush presidency and the beginning of Obama's, reminding us of public sentiment during these years.

The fascination with watching years of our lives in the form of Mason's play out in just hours is the film's hook, which allows the story flexibility to be more true-to-life. As moviegoers, we are conditioned to wait for the other shoe to drop, the scene of heightened melodramatic tension – there's almost none of it. The ratio of actual drama in our own lives to actual drama that happens in this film is virtually the same. Hawke's character, for example, isn't the deadbeat dad stereotype who comes back to cause problems for Mason and his family. He's more complex and less predictable. There's no full-circle effect in this movie or plot twist of thematic significance, just a straight linear story of how things change (or don't) with time with a few meaningful reflections at the end.

Most films need those plot devices to be interesting. "Boyhood" doesn't. That's what makes it so unique, like dictionary definition of unique a.k.a. purely in a category of its own. Filmmakers could imitate this concept, but they probably would struggle to reach the same degree of authenticity, to have both the foresight and the hindsight, the ability to plan ahead and be flexible, to make a cohesive product. So Linklater didn't just make a cool film, ground-breaking film; he has transcended the very notion of what filmmaking can be.

~Steven C Thanks for reading!

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Honesty and emotional truth makes up for thematic spoon-feeding, 10 August 2014
8/10

Zach Braff is the kind of guy who should be making films more often than every 10 years. "Garden State" put the very notion of "finding yourself" indie films on the map, at least for a certain generation. "Wish I Was Here" comes one too many of those films later to have the same kind of impact, but Braff's ability to emotionally connect to his audience still rings true.

One theory to explain the 10-year gap could well be how intensely personal his films are. There are so many autobiographical projections in his stories, with "Garden State" being deeply connected to his home state of New Jersey and "Wish I Was Here" playing heavily off his Jewish roots. The added dimension of Braff's brother Adam co-writing only enhances the movie's genuine, personal feeling.

The film takes place on the opposite coast. Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a 35-year-old father of two struggling to be an actor in L.A. while his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson) works a tedious data job. In order to send their kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a good school, they rely on help from Aidan's father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who insisted they go to an Orthodox Jewish day school.

When Gabe reveals his cancer has come back, he tells Aidan that he's decided to put the rest of his money into treatment, meaning his grandkids can no longer afford to attend their school. After the school refuses to provide any aid to the Blooms because Aidan's career is his "choice" and other families have greater needs, Sarah suggests that Aidan homeschool his kids, and their adventure of self-discovery begins.

The moment the film comes out of the gate it announces its intentions to be very existentially straightforward with the audience. Braff's voice-over narration recalls childhood memories of when he and his brother (Josh Gad) would pretend they were heroes and saying 'what if we're not the heroes, what if we're the ones meant to be saved?' "Wish I Was Here" is anything but subtle, but it doesn't mean Braff's not on to something.

Although the plot revolves around the homeschooling concept, that's far from the film's core, or what anyone will remember about it long after seeing it. Instead, it's about a man trying to reconcile the dreams of his younger years with the truth of his present. It's about learning not to be afraid, and about remembering what's important in life. You could almost go so far as to say these are plot points, because that's how much they guide the movie.

Yet for all this thematic heavy-handedness, Braff cuts to the core with a intuitive, humorous and thoughtful script and an eclectic cast that has latched on to his style of humor mixed with emotional transparency. Patinkin, for example, give such an earnest portrayal of a grandfather where you can't stand him and love him all the same. Hudson hasn't seemed this down to earth in her entire career. King, barely a teenager, is sure to be around for a long time.

So there might not be much room for thematic interpretation, but the issues and emotions of "Wish I Was Here" are incredibly true to life, albeit occasionally exaggerated for comedic effect. Aidan deals with the issues of being a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and an aspiring actor. These challenges are universal and they play out with a certain degree of thoughtfulness and sincerity. As such, "Wish I Was Here" is the kind of crowd-pleaser that will resonate with just about anyone, no matter how much you "like" it. It is too truthful to dismiss.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Quirky, funny and lovable, "Guardians" pulls of being geeky and cool, 4 August 2014
9/10

After years of success bringing earthbound superheroes to the big screen, Marvel Studios opened eyes when it first endeavored to make a film out of "Guardians of the Galaxy." If Iron Man was once considered an obscure Marvel hero, these guys were total D-league. Yet surprising to no one, the studio's creative process has yielded another hit, even with this ragtag group and set in a galaxy far, far away.

Although an ensemble superhero film, Peter Quill a.k.a. "Star Lord" is the clear main character of "Guardians," a human boy abducted by alien mercenaries as a child who has become an adult skilled in scouring the universe for items of value and turning a profit. When he snatches a prized orb, however, he discovers it isn't just some average bounty; Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) wants it badly and sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin and daughter of the titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve it. On the planet Xandar, Star Lord and Gamora get tangled with bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, and they all find themselves imprisoned by Xandar's Nova Corps, where they soon unite in common cause – getting a huge payday for the orb.

Sounds like overblown science fiction, but "Guardians of the Galaxy" is far from it thanks to director and writer James Gunn ("Super," "Slither"), who, with co-writer Nicole Perlman, utilizes humor as a way to ground the film in something universal (in the non-sci fi sense of the word). The tone of the movie is irreverent and silly, fitting for such the "rag-tag group of heroes" motif and unusual for the genre, which tends to overestimate the average audience's interest in alien species and the names of planets.

Start with the "Indiana Jones"-style opening, which is a fairly common technique. Following a brief prologue with young Peter Quill watching his sick mother die, we next see him landing on a strange planet and using some of his gadgetry to search for the orb in a mysterious cave. But then, he puts on his Walkman and headphones (his only belongings from Earth) and "Come and Get Your Love" plays over the title sequence, which features Pratt boogying his way to the orb – an unusual twist on a normally serious-toned genre to say the least.

Humor is truly the movie's backbone, and the script takes a page from "The Avengers" in terms of playing up the dynamic of the various personalities in the group. The difference here is these characters don't just have egos, they have unusual quirks. Quill is a stubborn dancing fool; Rocket a cynic with a quick temper and a complex; Groot a powerful simpleton with a soft heart; and Drax (Dave Bautista) a vengeful literalist. This lovable cast of despicable characters, together with jokes based on "Earthly" references, and the humor exudes a freshness and fun seen in few action movies, let alone space operas.

Also compared to other "space operas," "Guardians" doesn't downplay the sci fi elements or dismiss the movie/comic nerd's interest in the geekier aspects of the film; it complements them. They serve as context pieces rather than focal points of the story. The imaginative art direction abounds in each and every digital set piece, but no time gets wasted on explaining any of it. You don't have to understand the complex history of the Kree and the Xandarians, for example, to appreciate or take interest in the plot, but if you look and listen close enough, you'll get a taste of it. All compliments to Gunn, and to Marvel for backing another small-budget filmmaker on a film of tremendous scale.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" could fairly be hailed as the first great alien-filled interplanetary sci-fi movie since "Star Wars." As outrageous an assertion as that sounds, when you look at films such as the "Riddick" series, "John Carter," or "Green Lantern," it's not such a reach. It also doesn't lack for heart and cares deeply about its characters, which should strengthen the comparison. Only the "Star Trek" reboot seems to have done something similar, but that had a pre-established brand – "Guardians" has a just a handful of Marvel Comics readers.

The likely box office success of "Guardians" compared to some of those aforementioned films, for example, speaks volumes to the way that Marvel Studios has gone about its business. Just compare this film to the studio's last, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" – night and day, but both outstanding movies. The fact that the minds and string-pullers behind both movies are the same is astounding, but edge to "Guardians" for being the riskier of the two. The intergalactic components of the Marvel comic universe are now completely available in the cinematic one, when for many years it was largely seen as a pipe dream to sink money into a "Star Wars"-like project and expect a worthwhile return on investment.

Although it makes its mark more with humor than science fiction, fans should be grateful for the doors "Guardians of the Galaxy" could open for the genre. At the very least, it will make for one wickedly awesome (and hilarious) cross-over with the Avengers in a few years.

~Steven C Thanks for reading!

Noah (2014)
4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
A grand and insightful interpretation of an ancient tale, if not a little strange, 4 August 2014
7/10

The story of God telling Noah to build an ark, all the animals coming aboard in twos, and then there being a great flood, has largely been deemed children's stuff. Given the last on-screen version of this story was the Steve Carell family film "Evan Almighty," this stigma of biblical films has held true. That brings us to "Requiem for a Dream" and "Black Swan" filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's version.

"Noah" has long been a passion project for Aronofsky, who clearly saw something profoundly cinematic in this story and wanted desperately to challenge the cookie-cutter version told in Sunday schools all over the world. Indeed, Aronofsky has crafted a mature telling, one that creates a rich mythology around the biblical verses and stages a mighty battle for the redemption of humanity, with the essence of man's true nature at stake.

The story imagines Noah (Russell Crowe) and the flood as the critical final chapter of a narrative arc that started with creation and included the expulsion from Eden, with humanity descending from two men: Cain, the one who killed his brother, and Seth. Noah and his family descend from Seth and are protectors of creation, but they are the last of his lineage, so "The Creator" sends Noah visions of a flood – and you know the rest. What you might not know, however, at least according to Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, is that angels who were sympathetic toward man and defied The Creator were banished to Earth to live as rock monsters.

The science-fiction/fantasy approach of "Noah" is reminiscent of Aronofsky's polarizing film "The Fountain." He crafts this world with the best of artistic intentions, but just in playing around with sensitive material, he walks the fine line between creativity and irreverence. "Noah" is best enjoyed when thought of as a creative, fantastical interpretation of what happened between the lines of the Old Testament.

The main plot points of this story are quite well known, so creative interpretation is everything. "Noah" doesn't lack for creativity, but the various "interpretive" plot points drag things out on occasion, and in some cases get weird. The film's final act, after Noah and family board the ark – yes, after – evolves into a horror thriller of sorts and warps our perspective of the protagonist quite a bit. Aronofsky has expert intentions here that can be admired amid the strangeness of this shift in tone, but it may sour some folks.

Even more radical are Noah's vision sequences and a scene that depicts the days of creation. You can see Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" roots here, his penchant for grotesque imagery that is bound to stay with you well after the movie. Although this merely adds artistic value to "Noah," which would otherwise just be a biblical blockbuster, it is memorable.

Although talented, the rest of the cast largely serves the purpose of expounding on Aronofsky's interpretation. Much of what happens to them serves as a side-plot exploration of the deeper ideas of mankind's nature. Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain epitomizes our evil inclinations, for example, while Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman) is the "Luke Skywalker" of the story, with everything hinging on which way he will lean.

"Noah" is a film of astounding visuals designed around philosophical ideas. As such, it's entertaining to watch and ripe for discussion, but the story operates almost exclusively to make these thematic points rather than to provide the most enjoyable narrative possible. At the same time, working within the confines of a story thousands of years old, Aronofsky and co. undoubtedly bring something new to Noah and the ark that brings its message into a mature, modern context.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit moviemusereviews.com for more

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
"Apes" does it again with riveting emotional storytelling, 26 July 2014
9/10

Four years ago you never could've predicted that "Planet of the Apes" would be rebooted to critical and financial acclaim, let alone become perhaps the most promising franchises born after 2010. If "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was a consummate origin story, then "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a consummate next step in a larger story, and proof that a movie franchise can evolve more gradually and still be grippingly entertaining.

The sequel picks up well after the end of "Rise," which implied that a simian virus wiped out a large portion of the earth's population. At this point, the apes have established a village outside San Francisco and their intelligence has grown (as has main ape Caesar's vocabulary). When a band of human survivors stumbles across some of the apes, Caesar (played fabulously once more by leading mo-cap actor Andy Serkis) confronts the colony of human survivors (led by Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman) and issues a stern warning to the humans to let the apes live in peace. However, the apes' home is situated next to a dam — the humans' only hope for a power source and theoretically their only way to survive.

"Rise" writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return and they've remarkably crafted a story as straightforward, suspenseful and emotional as the original (with some help from 20th Century Fox A-list screenwriter Mark Bomback). The entire movie we wait for the other shoe to drop as humans and apes must get along but don't entirely trust each other, and a few dark characters on both sides undermine the good guys: Caesar and Clarke's Malcolm.

Caesar is the linchpin of this series. James Franco's character not being part of it says everything you need to know. The fact that the movie spends more time acquainting us with the ape characters than the human ones demonstrates that the creatives behind the film know it too. They should pass that information along to Paramount for the "Transformers" franchise.

The story is packed with character-building, suspense, painful misunderstandings, betrayal, hope, violence and justice. You really feel the roller coaster ride of the story in your guts, a vicarious feeling that too few blockbusters create, even the really entertaining ones. Caesar is the kind of character that all blockbusters should have and he's entirely done in CGI. That tells you just how crucial good storytelling is to creating characters. They don't have to be human. Not to take anything away from Serkis' brilliance, but Jaffa and Silver should teach a class on screen writing that should be mandatory for the rest of Hollywood's big studio writers. They way they create empathy and stick to basic storytelling tenants in a crude yet effective way is so laudable. And undoubtedly Bomback ("Unstoppable," "The Wolverine") helped ratchet up the entertainment factor.

Director Matt Reeves picks up on all these terrific moments in the script and nurtures them. He lets the plot breathe and gives it time to snowball, and by the time it does, the audience is so invested in the outcome that the ending doesn't have to be great, it just has to give us what we want, which it does.

"Dawn" is also thematically stronger than "Rise," taking the idea of both apes and humans having both good and evil tendencies to the next level. It's elementary stuff about human (and ape) nature but in this premise it clicks especially well. Through the eyes of a growing civilization of apes and humanity rebuilding we see the chance for a fresh start for human and ape-kind in, which makes the conflict between them so maddening throughout the film yet also riveting.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" propels the slow-build of this franchise to the point that it almost feels more like a first entry than a second. That's a good thing. So often franchises work in trilogies, but Fox could turn this into a four-film arc easily with the right story. So far, however, the scope has been kept small, allowing for character moments and that emotional connection. They will have an opportunity to blow the lid off everything, but hopefully Fox has learned a thing or two and will continue to make this about Caesar rather than just a war of apes and humans.

~Steven C

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0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Pulls off the near-impossible feat of being as good as the first, 26 July 2014
8/10

The mystery of making a great comedy sequel has been solved. The catch? Now that it's been done, it can never be done again.

"22 Jump Street" is on par with its predecessor. What it loses in freshness it makes up for with sheer wit. The first movie was a genre sendup nothing short of genius, and Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, who whipped up the first film's story, have gone all in on the sequel: no, not bigger and crazier, but more tongue-in-cheek and self-aware.

If directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord ("21 Jump Street," "The LEGO Movie," "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") hadn't earned carte blanche already, making one of the only good comedy sequels of all time will. This feat is so hard to achieve, it arguably warrants "22 Jump Street" a perfect rating. But the reality is that the film is more of the same, it just knows it, and the filmmakers package it exceptionally well.

In fact, in the first self-aware scene, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are debriefed by Dep. Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) — in and of itself a replica of a scene in the first film — who tells them how their first mission was a big success, and no one expected it, so now the department is throwing more money at them in hopes of a bigger success, and he encourages them to do "the exact same thing." This becomes a motif of the movie, so it knowingly replicates itself. By and large this works (both actually and in the meta sense) though there are slow parts in the beginning.

Essentially, as promised at the end of the first movie, Schmidt and Jenko have to go undercover at a college to find yet another new synthetic drug. They find it a little more challenging to accomplish than last time, but ultimately they both connect with students who are connected to their only lead: Schmidt falls for an art major (Amber Stevens) while Jenko meets his twin (personality-wise) in Wyatt Russell's character, a quarterback and frat boy.

Of course with any comedy sequel, doing "the exact same thing" puts the movie at risk for getting stale. "The Hangover: Part 2" is a prime example of trotting out the same exact formula and failing miserably. "22 Jump Street" counters this problem by laughing at itself a lot and going over the top with the repetitive, familiar scenes, such as whenever Schmidt and Jenko fight with each other and go off on their own. It also stays fresh just by the extent to which it copies stuff from the first movie and does so while winking at the camera.

In order for this to really work, however, the foundation still has to be solid and Hill and Tatum provide that effortlessly. Their chemistry maintains interest in the story even though the story has no interest in taking itself seriously. Tatum was a secret weapon the first time around, as no one had seen him do comedy like this, but he still pulls off the meat-headed pretty boy man- child while Hill does his improvisation thing and proves why he's the class of the Judd Apatow prodigies.

The supporting cast doesn't add much (Ice Cube is what you'd expect) though Jillian Bell's dry deadpan evokes some Kristen Wiig before she became a star.

So why can't this type of comedy sequel be replicated ever again? Not every would-be comedy franchise can just make fun of itself in this meta way and poke fun at sequels in general. And the truth is that doing so was the difference-maker. Without an action scene, for example, in which the main characters are trying to outrun drug dealers in a football helmet golf cart and avoiding hitting stuff because too much wreckage will "cost the department too much money," it's just a dumb chase scene. "22 Jump Street" would've surprised and impressed very few people without these twists. And now that the meta card has been played, it's hard to envision a third "Jump Street" as good as the first two. You can't just play another and surprise anyone. Perhaps that's why we get a highly amusing credits sequence at the end.

How nice, however, to tell that a sequel really tried to be better and conveyed that to the audience. Rather than just throw something together to take advantage of the comedy sequel cash cow, Bacall, Hill, Lord, Miller and the other screenwriters really put some intelligence into making "22 Jump Street" and the genre is better for it.

~Steven C

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Recharing alien invasion sci fi with some clever batteries, 23 July 2014
8/10

Imagine Bill Murray's suicide scenes from "Groundhog Day" as a futuristic science-fiction movie and you (sorta) have the groundwork for "Edge of Tomorrow." High (yet familiar) in concept, "Tomorrow" puts a needed twist on alien invasion films, succeeding by telling a story much narrower in scope yet still big in terms of storytelling stakes.

Tom Cruise, rolling with sci fi yet again after last year's solidly entertaining "Oblivion" stars as Major Cage, a high-ranking officer for the United Defense Force, a global military power created in the wake of an alien invasion that has seen Europe taken over by "Mimics," extremely dangerous beast-insect hybrids with a penchant for world-conquering. Against his will, Cage (who has never seen combat) is dropped off at UDF's Heathrow Airport base on the eve of a massive military operation. The operation is quickly compromised the morning of the battle, and Cage dies, but somehow he wakes up the day before. He dies again in battle, and wakes up again, and the cycle continues. He eventually discovers he has harnessed the enemy's ability to reset time, and he must use it to defeat them.

"Edge of Tomorrow" resembles Ducan Jones' "Source Code" only it swaps out thriller/mystery elements for straightforward action. "Tomorrow" has no twists or surprises, but it makes its way from plot point to plot point with enough panache to keep your blood pumping. Writer Christopher McQuarrie along with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have crafted a basic three-act film that wouldn't necessitate applause under normal circumstances, but under time alteration and a complex sci-fi context circumstances, that's neat and tight work.

Whereas one might expect the film to take a misstep or step back in the second act after the novelty of the time-altering premise wears off, "Tomorrow" doesn't. The screenplay's million-dollar device here is to play with how much the audience knows, shifting from complete knowledge in the first act to keeping us in the dark the second. As Emily Blunt's Rita, a soldier who was the hero of a previous battle with the Mimics, factors more into the story, the movie begins showing the action from her perspective instead of Cage's, as if the events on screen have happened multiple times already but we don't know it. It's a drastically different form of suspense that really works.

Blunt, by the way, continues to shine as a leading actress. Rita is well beyond stereotypes of sci-fi leading ladies, as she's self-determined, a bit of a brute and integral to the plot. Whereas her previous time-traveling effort in "Looper" was more supporting, she shares the lead in Cruise after her introduction in this film. Cruise also continues his mini-renaissance of sorts. His name doesn't translate to box-office dollars the way that it used to, but ever since "Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol," he has reminded everyone why he's one of the best leading men in Hollywood, even at age 52.

In the midst of the many well-functioning elements of "Edge of Tomorrow," it's easy to forget director Doug Liman. The "Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" director has among Hollywood's most capable action hands when he's working with the right material. He doesn't do anything too flashy but he keeps the action intense and helps the story barrel forward. He has plenty of fun with the repeated sequences, such as a scene when Cage undergoes a painstaking training process and gets killed countless times because he's not the quickest at picking up combat technique.

Great sci fi films change the genre. "Edge of Tomorrow" isn't that kind of a film, but it does the next best thing: merge two familiar concepts that have never been put into the same film and present something familiar yet fresh. Rather than going for the giant alien invasion, this story is smaller, more focuses and more intelligent. It could try bigger ideas and bigger concepts on for size, but it does a lot of things very smartly and very well.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit moviemusereviews.com for more

Chef (2014)
0 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Film's first celebration of foodie culture, 'Chef' is in tune with the times, 7 July 2014
8/10

After a foray into the blockbuster world, filmmaker Jon Favreau has settled back into his bread and butter (a bit literally), independent comedy. "Chef" is a feel-good movie that goes down easy, especially for any self-described "foodies" in the audience.

Call it "food porn" if you will, but Favreau taps into contemporary society's obsession with food as an experience in this film, which also relies heavily on social media, particularly Twitter, as a means to propel the story forward. In fact, it might be the first film with a main plot conceit that hinges on social media (aside from "The Social Network," obviously).

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a renowned chef working in a popular restaurant. When big-time food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) comes to review the restaurant, Carl puts aside his plans for an ambitious menu and sticks to his classics at the urging of his owner (Dustin Hoffman), only to get reamed by Michel. Newly introduced to Twitter by his young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), Carl engages in a war of words with Michel and ultimately quits his job. At the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), Carl returns to Miami, where he made his career, with his son in tow and starts a food truck serving Cuban sandwiches.

"Chef" serves up more fun and little conflict, but it has a certain road trip and nostalgia quality that Favreau can get away with it. Sequences of mouthwatering food prep shots also infuse that same entertainment value one gets from watching Food Network or a Bravo food show. Supporting roles from Favreau's "Iron Man 2" stars Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. don't hurt either, especially because the latter hasn't done anything small in the last six years.

Although he's become more known for his directing in the last five years, Favreau gives his best performance in recent memory, perhaps ever. Carl is a snippy chef with an ego and an attitude problem who can work his sensitive side when he needs. Favreau really owns all his screen time despite a career of supporting performances.

What really stands out about "Chef," however, is its modernity, or how in tune Favreau is our world in 2014 in terms of how we behave, what we like and how we communicate with each other. "Chef" is highly representative of the times, the kind of movie you might show to children in future generations to explain American culture in the 2010s. The way eating and food have evolved into something that connects people in a digital space is not lost on Favreau, and how prolific social media is in the film proves that it fascinates him too. What happens to Carl plays out the full spectrum of how social media can tear people's lives apart, yet also build them back up. That's a lot of power.

"Chef" has the exact kind of joie de vivre that you want in a summer indie, and is somewhat of an antidote for those who want feel-good independent films that don't completely focus on a young boy's coming of age. Carl's relationship with his son is important to the story, but it's mostly there to add heart.

But no matter how you take to the story, don't sit down to watch "Chef" on an empty stomach – or at least be sure to have a delicious place in mind to go afterward.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! See more at moviemusereviews.com

Godzilla (2014)
5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Reinventing the giant monster movie, 5 June 2014
8/10

Before now, Godzilla was a giant dino-lizard, a punchline, a D-list movie monster. Now, in Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla," he is a god, the alpha predator, a force of nature. Warner Bros.' has not only crafted an exhilarating "Godzilla" movie here, it has pulled an incredible P.R. move, transforming a brand last known for having Matthew Broderick as its spokesperson.

David Callaham, writer of "The Expendables," and Max Borenstein have grounded this version of "Godzilla" in historical fiction. Nuclear tests in the '50s were not tests but an attempt to destroy Godzilla, a last remaining vestige of prehistoric times. They also ground the film in characters, taking a lengthy amount of time to tell the story of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). These characters both humanize the story and get us in close to the main plot.

First we are taken back to 1999. Joe and his wife (Juliette Binoche) work for a nuclear power plant in Japan. Increases in seismic activity worry Joe, yet his superiors refuse to shut the plant down. When a spike in these electromagnetic pulses causes a nuclear breach that eventually destroys the city, Joe loses his wife. In the present, Joe has become crazed attempting to find answers. Ford, his son, an explosives expert in the Navy, reconnects with him when he must leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son to go bail his father out of jail. Joe eventually convinces his son to go back with him to their old Japanese town and discover what the governments of the world are hiding there. Turns out the pulses are happening again.

What results this time is the release of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) that begins to wreak havoc as it moves across the Pacific. As the military creates an action plan, a Japanese researcher (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) draw upon what they've learned from Joe and Ford and theorize that Godzilla could be their only hope, the alpha predator looking to restore order to the food chain.

Painting Godzilla as an ambiguous "good guy" we know little about works to the film's advantage and suits Edwards' style quite well. Edwards' indie monster flick (titled "Monsters") expertly created mystery, fear and awe around its monsters and Edwards does the same for Godzilla and the MUTOs (that's right, there are two). He captures the same sense of scale that Guillermo del Toro did in last summer's "Pacific Rim" and there's little doubt the master monster-making filmmaker would praise this effort.

Edwards works a nice balance of teasing us with the presence of these creatures and giving us solid glimpses, walking the line of monster blockbuster and monster art film. He prefers shots that keep the human characters involved or come from their perspective so we not only get a sense for just how big and terrifying the creatures are, but we also feed off the raw energy of the actors' performances. Taylor-Johnson has been a leading man before, but he gets a lot thrown at him in this movie and makes it all work. Somehow (conveniently) he constantly finds himself in the monsters' warpath and it keeps things interesting.

Multiple monsters also proves essential to the entertainment factor of "Godzilla." Yes, monsters fighting is enormously more delightful than a single monster leveling buildings, but it also gives us something to watch for as an audience to keep the wheels turning. Ultimately, this drives our interest in the film; not what happens to the human characters, who serve as a moderately compelling excuse for us to "get in" on the action.

The resulting effect is that we get a Godzilla who is not just the big scary monster terrorizing the city, but an elusive creature driven by biological impulse, an "X" factor and one that we can root for. That's how it should be. "Godzilla" doesn't have to belong in the horror-action genre; he can be part of a supernatural action thriller. Godzilla also doesn't have to be the entire focus of the movie. Joe and Ford's story centers around what's going on with the MUTO, and Godzilla just sort of jumps in.

Urban carnage is the theme du jour for blockbusters, so what Warner Bros. and Edwards have done with this new "Godzilla" isn't trend-shattering, but they've taken great care to their approach with reinventing a giant monster movie for a modern audience. They also don't assume that the people most interested in seeing a giant monster movie lack the sophistication to appreciate a little artistic nuance and thoughtful storytelling.

~Steven C

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