One of the perks of being on Summer vacation is that I get to catch-up on some classic films, many considered to be among the greatest in the history of cinema, that I've never had the time and/or opportunity to see. Here are the five I've screened thus far in the LCJ Personal Summer Film Festival 2014:
"Broadway Danny Rose" - Woody Allen's black-and-white tale of a theatrical manager on a one-day adventure with the girlfriend of his popular client is a sweet, old-fashioned comedy. Allen and Mia Farrow have terrific chemistry and the final few minutes are simply perfect.
"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" - Considered to be one of the best comedies ever made, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 WWII farce was certainly daring and groundbreaking for its time. Peter Sellers is quite good in his multiple roles. It's not one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, but it's satisfying and engaging (and the Wes Anderson connection is undeniable).
"Moonstruck" - Cher won the 1987 Best Actress Oscar for her electric performance as an engaged widow who stumbles upon a man who could be the true love of her life (played by Nicolas Cage). Olympia Dukakis and a pre-"Frasier" John Mahoney are the supporting cast stand-outs in this charming, highly likeable romantic comedy.
"North by Northwest" - Director Alfred Hitchcock's complex and brilliant thriller involving a case of mistaken identity that quickly escalates into much more is spellbinding. Loads of twists and tension. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are incredibly natural together. Films such as this simply aren't made anymore. Hitchcock gold.
"The Silence of the Lambs" - Contrary to what the Academy thought, I still don't believe this deserved the 1991 Best Picture honor over "Beauty and the Beast". But Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster are fantastic, especially in their powerful and iconic scenes together. Suspenseful and gritty throughout.
Still on the Festival agenda: "Rain Man", "Apollo 13", "Kramer vs. Kramer", "Casablanca", "Jaws" and more. I need an "Endless Summer".
Four-time Golden Globe nominee Cameron Diaz is on quite a roll. "Sex Tape" is her seventh movie in a row that's either a critical or financial bust, or both. In Jason Segel's case, fresh-off the finale of the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother", this is a low point in his big screen career which has included some solid work both writing and in front of the camera. "Sex Tape" is practically a complete failure and it has nothing to do with the actual premise of the movie.
You know going in that you'll have to bite the bullet for the first 20 minutes or so for the predictable set-up. We meet Annie and Jay as college students (even though Diaz is 41 and Segel 34 - and look it) when their relationship is new and exciting. But once they get married things become stale, so they decide to star in their own sex tape. Nothing fresh or fun here. But that's OK.
Their sexcapade is accidentally sent to family members and friends through Jay's numerous tech devices. He and Annie now must find a way to get all the IPads back and erase the video. This is the point when "Sex Tape" is supposed to kick-in as a wild comedy. This is also when the real trouble begins.
At only 95 minutes, "Sex Tape" feels much longer. This is a reunion for Diaz and Segel, and they reunite with director Jake Kasdan, who all teamed-up for "Bad Teacher" in 2011. It's time all three delete each other's numbers from their cell phones. There is no chemistry between the actors, who both give awful individual performances. And Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper ("Bridesmaids") simply go through the motions as the couple's best friends.
Segel, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller and Kate Angelo, put no care or effort into trying to make this film clever or funny on any level. Payoffs in most scenes are non-existent. The dialogue is completely flat and there's no attention to detail or logic. At one point, in an effort to create a joke, a character claims that Steven Spielberg's 2012 biopic "Lincoln" was 3 hours. With just a little research the writers could have learned that "Lincoln" was under 2:30. A small point, but a good example of just how poorly this film was made.
Also worth noting is an extended scene at the mansion of business owner Hank (Rob Lowe at his most annoying) which consists of cocaine use, a dog crashing into a wall and passing out, and portraits of Lowe's head on the bodies of classic Disney animated characters. It's as bizarre as it sounds. The "twist" midway through is a straight-up disaster.
There are other rude, crude and pointless situations simply thrown in an attempt to get laughs, including a few offensive references to kids with illnesses and people with disabilities. A surprise A-list cameo, who will regret it for the rest of his career, begins the over-sentimental final phase of "Sex Tape", which is so shockingly bad it seems to have been tacked-on at the last minute. And this film is already a lock to win the Worst Editing of the Year award because I can't imagine another movie over the next 5+ months that's as choppy and sloppy.
"Sex Tape" is rated R for adult content, including nudity and language. It's appropriate for older-teens and up. I do remember chuckling twice early on, but I can't remember why. For the remaining 90%, I sat stone-faced, staring, often shaking my head in disbelief that someone would actually think that what was happening on screen could be classified as comedy. This is one of the worst movies of this or any other year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Sex Tape" gets a D-.
Last August, Disney's non-Pixar animated "Cars" spin-off "Planes", originally set for a Direct-to-DVD release, opened in theaters in the middle of a crowded animation summer. A $200 million worldwide box office total was good enough for The Mouse House to push full steam ahead on a sequel. Now, less than a year later, in likely the shortest amount of time between the big screen releases of an animated film and its sequel in movie history, comes "Planes: Fire & Rescue". I expected it to be similar to the original, which was fun but only slightly better than average. But to my surprise, and likely yours as well if you give it a chance, "Planes 2" is an action-packed thrill ride for the whole family.
Longtime Disney writer, producer, and director Roberts Gannaway begins the film with a nice on-screen dedication to all the brave firefighters who sacrifice their time and lives to serve and protect our country.
Dane Cook reprises his role as the voice of Dusty Crophopper, the former crop-duster turned racer who won the prestigious "Wings Around the Globe" event and is now returning home to Propwash Junction in time for the annual Corn Festival. But Dusty learns that he's got a bad gear box and might not be able to race again. A fire destroys part of the town, and investigators determine that Propwash Junction needs a larger fire department. So they shutdown the town until a second unit can be found.
Because his air racing career may be over, Dusty volunteers to train to become a certified firefighter. This means working with the best and most experienced crew in the nearby town, including the equally tough and sensitive Blade Ranger (voiced by Ed Harris) and Lil' Dipper ("Modern Family"'s Julie Bowen), who claims she's Dusty's biggest fan.
Soon, Dusty and his new team are battling multiple blazing infernos, which are incredibly authentic-looking, especially coming from the usually sub-par DisneyToon Studios. There are several aerial and action sequences with planes flying in and out of the flames that are so well done they could be too intense for young kids.
"Fire & Rescue" is also filled with genuinely dramatic moments. Hal Holbrook, as the voice of Mayday, an old-school firetruck who feels his time may be over, is quite good. The script also includes the dangers that firefighters face on a daily basis, which audiences will appreciate, especially those with firefighters in the family.
And there's also enough light comedy to satisfy everybody. A few stock characters, including a park superintendent, are predictably over-the-top, but there are corny and even laugh-out-loud clever car and plane-name references, as well as a few inside jokes and good one-liners. A scene involving Blade's previous career will be appreciated by adults, and yes, Pixar staple John Ratzenburger and sports commentator Brent Mustburger do make return cameos.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue" is not outstanding, but, unlike the original, the script takes some chances and there are moments of true wonder. Let's put it this way: in the wrong hands it could have been a lot worse. It's rated PG for some action/violence and a few references that are sure to fly over kids' heads.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" gets a B. It's smart, honorable, and the safest bet for the entire family this summer.
2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" rebooted the classic franchise with a new origin story. While not as action-packed as expected (more of a sci-fi drama until the final 30 minutes), it was still one of the most successful movies of the summer. Now, three years later, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" raises the bar as one of the edgiest and most satisfying action films of the year.
Andy Serkis, who many, including "Rise" star James Franco and myself, argued was snubbed for an Oscar nomination last time around for his role as Caesar, receives top-billing and the majority of screen time in "Dawn". If not already, Serkis can now officially be crowned the King of Motion Capture thanks to another completely convincing and awards worthy performance as the ape leader. From his subtle facial expressions, daring movements and wide range of emotional displays Serkis/Caesar elevate this franchise to new heights. If you don't believe that this character is a true thinking, speaking, intelligent ape then you may as well stop going to the movies.
It's been 10 years since the deadly virus, initially tested on apes, began to spread around the world. Nearly the entire population has died or soon will. A small group of immune survivors are living in San Francisco, but their time is running out as they are short on fuel and food. Dreyfus, their leader (played by Gary Oldman) has a plan: Get the city's old power plant working again. The only problem is it's in ape territory, where Caesar, his family and thousands of others are living peacefully away from the humans. When a team sent to investigate the condition of the plant, led by Malcolm ("Zero Dark Thirty"'s Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) stumbles upon the ape community, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" quickly becomes a captivating cat-and-mouse game of trust and betrayal between the two sides.
Following an "epidemic" introduction similar to last year's "World War Z", director Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") takes us inside the ape community, and establishes Caesar as both a strong leader and proud husband and father. And the sign language skills taught to him by in "Rise" are now being used by all the apes. They have truly set-up a "human" community, but with one major difference - their #1 law: Apes don't kill Apes (smartly taken from the classic films). But Caesar and a few of the other apes can also speak English, which you may think sounds corny, but trust me, within the structure of this saga it's extremely effective. As these primates soon learn, becoming more human-like has both its pluses and minuses.
Reeves doesn't hold back with the multi-layered dramatic elements of the film. "Dawn" is a dark movie, both visually and in tone. There are some perfectly executed twists and surprises along with a few pure, out-of-control action sequences. It's no surprise that Reeves has already been booked to direct the next chapter, due out in 2016.
The performances of the live-action cast in largely supporting roles are very solid. A few pivotal scenes are a little forced and rushed, and the score, by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, is a bit of a retro homage to the older "Apes" movies, but feels out of place here.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is rated PG-13 for language and intense action/violence, some a bit graphic. It's appropriate for mid-teens and up. This is a serious, but seriously good summer blockbuster that is so well done I intentionally avoided including a single pun in this entire review.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" gets a B+.
Along with dozens of others, I was inspired to become a film critic by Roger Ebert. One day, back in 2005, I saw an episode of "Ebert and Roeper" and was amazed that someone could actually give their straight-forward and honest opinions about movies on a TV show. Almost instantly, I knew that was what I wanted to do. And I was fortunate to spend a few memorable days with him and his incredibly loving wife Chaz in Chicago back in 2011, taking part in the revival of "Ebert Presents: At the Movies" on PBS that summer.
After a half-century career of sharing not only his extraordinary movie reviews but views on everything from politics to rice cooking, Roger passed away last year at the age of 70 following a series of courageous bouts with cancer. "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James had planned on making a documentary about Roger, based on his 2011 memoir "Life Itself". It was to be a year in the life, not simply focusing on his health issues, but showcasing Ebert attending film festivals, screenings, and other events: still doing what he loved, while continuing to beat the odds. But, since Roger died five months into filming, the movie James has made is not that. Instead, it is a raw, funny, heartbreaking and daring look at the life, and death, of one of the most influential and beloved people in the history of American culture.
"Life Itself" begins on the streets of Chicago one week after Roger's death, with thousands gathered in and outside of the famous Chicago Theatre, preparing to pay tribute to Roger at a ceremony that evening. This sets the tone perfectly, as the film itself is an homage to Ebert and the importance he played in the lives of so many. We get the "growing-up" stories (complete with B&W photos), along with dialogue mostly from a narrator reading excerpts from the book. There are also fascinating stories, some told for the first time, from longtime friends, producers of the TV shows, directors (including a very candid Martin Scorsese), fellow critics, family members and those truly influenced by Ebert.
We also learn how Roger's love of movies began, his serious drinking problem, a venture into screenwriting, and that iconic love-hate relationship with "Sneak Previews" co-host Gene Siskel. For me, this is the best part of the film. Learning about the early days of their groundbreaking show, as well as the outrageous stories and hilarious "behind-the-scenes" footage of these two arch-rivals who, eventually, became great friends, is utterly fascinating. An entire documentary on the dynamic "Siskel & Ebert" partnership, complete with all the best clips and outtakes, needs to be made.
But just as prominent and powerful are the scenes of Roger's final months: family visits, his daily medical procedures and rehab activities. Some of these are difficult to watch, and while Chaz didn't initially approve of having them in the movie, Roger made a deal with James to use them, and she now realizes that they make the movie even stronger. The true heart of "Life Itself" is the bond between Roger and Chaz. They found each other relatively late in life and loved each other until the very end. Chaz makes it clear that she never gave-up on Roger because he was such a fighter. Her thoughts are the most honest and revealing in the entire film.
"Life Itself" is rated R for language and some brief movie clips containing nudity. It's a must-see for anyone impacted by Roger Ebert in any way, and that adds-up to millions and millions of people. Credit James for perfectly blending past and present, laughter and tears, the best of times and the worst of times in this wonderful tribute to a man whose life was more than worthy of Two Thumbs Up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Life Itself" gets an A.