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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

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Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

It’s been five long years since megastar Tom Cruise shouldered the weight of a massive summer blockbuster, leaving many filmgoers to wonder if the controversial action hero still had his box office mojo. In between 2010’s forgettable Knight and Day and last spring’s Oblivion, Cruise starred in two holiday blockbusters (2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and 2012’s Jack Reacher), and turned up in a bit part in 2012’s Rock of Ages, a messy summer musical that didn’t give Cruise top billing even though he stole the movie away from the teeny-bopper stars headliners and seasoned veterans. While off-screen antics and tabloid rumors have certainly soured Cruise’s reputation, the actor’s newest film answers the question of whether or not Cruise could still hold his own in a season that now belongs to Marvel superheroes and computerized Transformers. Behold Edge of Tomorrow, a nimble and clever sci-fi blockbuster that finds Cruise once again punching and shooting his way through an army of rampaging aliens. Based upon the graphic novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow passes up the brooding tone that many summer blockbusters have been opting for over the years, and instead works with a bubbly, old-fashioned formula of comedy and thrills that leaves you stumbling out to the parking lot with an invigorating rush and proudly declaring to your buddies or your date that you’d gladly take that ride all over again.

Edge of Tomorrow begins by explaining that mankind is locked in a brutal war with aliens called Mimics, which arrived on Earth in a fiery asteroid several years earlier. With nearly all of Europe conquered by the Mimics, the United Defense Forces issues an exoskeleton called “Jackets” to each and every solider, which gives the humans a fighting chance against the savage enemy. Hope is also found in Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), a fierce warrior who led the humans to victory at the battle of Verdun. Confidence is kept high by UDF spokesman Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), who has been talking up Operation Downfall, a massive campaign that will launch thousands of soldiers into Europe to topple the Mimic menace. Much to his surprise, Cage is summoned by General Bringham (played by Brendan Gleeson), who informs Cage that he will be jumping into the fight and storming into Europe. Terrified, Cage attempts to resist the order, which leads to him being arrested by Military Police and forced to the front lines. Unable to work one of the “Jackets” and squeamish at the sight of blood, Cage stumbles his way into battle behind Master Sergeant Farell (played by Bill Paxton) and a slew of colorful soldiers. The UDF is stunned to learn that the Mimics were aware of the invasion and are waiting for the soldiers as they approach. In the thick of the battle, Cage manages to kill a Mimic, but just as he is about to die, he gets covered in alien blood, which gives him the ability to keep reliving the battle over and over again.

In the hands of director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow delivers plenty of epic but not overly showy action sequences that are sure to dazzle sci-fi diehards. The scenes of “Jacket”-clad soldiers storming onto a bombed-out European beaches present themselves like a futuristic WWII, with drop ships decorated with sneering faces and pin-up girls spinning out of the sky in blazing balls of fire, and soldiers struggling to get their bearings as they stumble through sheets of sand and soot. It’s a gritty and unique combo that gives the opening stretch of Edge of Tomorrow a pulpy sting. While Liman knows how to throw you into the intensities of war, he certainly never allows the CGI mayhem to eclipse the film’s impressive characters or its welcome sense of humor. There are more than a few moments that are downright hilarious, from Cage sweating and panting as he attempts to hang with battle-tested soldiers that hoot and holler their way into the alien lines, to some amusing death scenes that barrel straight out of left field. Most of the humor emerges in the scenes between the “Full Metal Bitch” (Rita) and Cage, as she attempts to whip the fidgety Major into fighting shape. What’s even more impressive is the way that Liman lingers on the human interactions, allowing raw emotion to overpower some of the film’s best action sequences. You’re given plenty of time to care for these characters, and what’s even more exciting is that you take them with you past the end credits.

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While Cruise’s personal life may have left many groaning, no one can deny that the man hasn’t continuously churned out memorable performances over the past few years. Edge of Tomorrow is no different, as Cruise gets kicks around with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He seems right at home in the skin of Cage, and it’s a nice switch-up when we learn that his character can’t even stand the sight of a paper cut. He’s undoubtedly spirited, and he continues to hone the comedic chops he’s been fiddling with since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Cruise also finds plenty of chemistry with the beautiful Blunt, who brings her icy disposition to Rita, Cage’s fierce ally who understands just what is happening with Cage. Naturally, the two form a romance fit for a popcorn movie, but it’s welcome as it melts Rita’s frosty exterior to reveal a haunted interior. Another surprise is Bill Paxton, who has kept a low profile over the past several years. He emerges with a thick southern accent and a fast tongue, strutting his way through the role of Farell with such smug confidence that you’ll keep wondering just where the heck this guy has been all these years. And then there is Gleeson, who stands firm as General Bringham, a stone-faced general who refuses to allow Cage to weasel his way out of combat.

While Edge or Tomorrow brims with excitement, the film does wander off a bit into conventional territory. The epic climax—while fun—grows increasingly formulaic and predictable as it unfolds before our eyes, and the whole exoskeleton thing looses a bit of its cool factor as it trails in the wake of Neill Blomkamp’s blazing Elysium. Some of the background characters, specifically the ragtag unit that Cage is assigned to, are eccentric but also a bit cliché. As far as the aliens go, Liman and his team think up a parasitic enemy that is difficult to comprehend as it burrows deep into the sand and then attacks with a sudden fury that shakes you out of your seat. Liman never lets them stand still for very long in the frame, allowing the audience blood-curdling glimpses that make the aliens all the more terrifying. Overall, while the climax fizzles out, Edge of Tomorrow exceeds all expectations with surefire direction, an entertaining script, a playful sense of humor, gritty action, and sincere performances that keep the project grounded even as nasty extraterrestrials threaten to wipe out humanity. Yet what Edge of Tomorrow ultimately proves is that Cruise is still dependable as an all-American action hero. He’s still got it, folks, and it sure is nice to see him back in the thick of the summer movie season.

Grade: B

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men-Days of Future Past

by Steve Habrat

Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.

What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?

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By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.

As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.

Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.

Grade: A-

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Co. released director Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, an apocalyptic reflection about the dawning of the Atomic Age and the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla certainly didn’t shy away from delivering extended sequences of earth-shaking destruction, but the devastation was measured against absorbing human drama that made the film all the more eternal. In the wake of its release, Godzilla sparked “Kaiju” (Japanese for “giant monster”) fever around the world, leaving audiences with a hankering for more monster mayhem. In 1998, after multiple sequels that grew increasingly campy in quality, director Roland Emmerich decided to revive the king of monsters for American audiences, but the results proved disastrous and sent Godzilla sulking into the deepest depths of the Pacific for sixteen long years. After years of rumors and speculation about a new Godzilla movie in the works, we finally have director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, an old-fashioned blockbuster in the vein of early science-fiction creature features. Taking its sweet time to work up to the monster smashing and bashing, Godzilla 2014 goes the route of Honda’s ’54 original and injects both emotional weight and jittery nuclear paranoia right into the film’s heart. It’s an admiral attempt from a director whose only other directing credit is a low-budget indie movie from 2010 called Monsters. Despite some flailing human drama and more than a few avoidable clichés, Godzilla 2014 is an exhilarating rush that brings the legendary beast back to the silver screen with must-see style.

Godzilla 2014 begins in 1999 in Janjira, Japan, with nuclear physicist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston) discovering strange seismic readings surrounding the nuclear power plant he works for. Despite Joe’s warnings to his superiors, work continues as usual at the plant, but when a tremor causes an explosion, the plant crumbles into ruin and sparks a mass exodus from the area. In all the chaos, Joe’s wife, Sandra (played by Juliette Binoche), is exposed to a deadly dose of radiation and is killed. In present day, Joe remains in Japan, convinced that the government is hiding something about that terrible day. Meanwhile, Joe’s estranged son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), diffuses bombs for the US Navy and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Elle (played by Elizabeth Olsen), and their young son. Upon returning home from a tour of duty, Ford is called to Japan to bail Joe out of jail for trespassing in the quarantine zone. Joe presents Ford with startling new information that suggests that the government has indeed been covering something up. The two travel back to Janjira to do a bit more snooping and collect some of Joe’s old data, but local authorities discover them and take them into custody. Joe and Ford are brought to the ruined nuclear plant, which is housing an egg-like sack that is emitting the same seismic readings Joe picked up on in 1999. After the egg hatches and produces a giant winged creature, the Brody’s team up with two scientists, Dr. Serizawa (played by Ken Wantanabe) and Dr. Graham (played by Sally Hawkins), and the military to track the monster down and kill it. As the military rushes to stop the creature before it can claim more lives, another similar beast is discovered in the Nevada desert. With military strikes proving useless against the creatures, only one hope remains to restore order—Godzilla.

For fans of old-fashion summer blockbusters and classic drive-in monster movies, Edwards’ Godzilla is a gift from the cinematic gods. The opening hour puts most of its emphasis on character development and exposition, teasing us from the opening credits with tiny little glimpses of the title beast. Of course, that isn’t to say that the opening hour of Godzilla is completely monster free. As the film’s promotional campaign has stomped on, it’s become increasingly clear that Godzilla isn’t the only beast turning cities to pebbles. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein pit Godzilla against not one, but two eight-legged terrors nicknamed MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. The MUTOs are truly something to behold, and it is best not to reveal all of their secrets here, but just know that these critters are capable of some major carnage. To up the horror level, Edwards cleverly masks the MUTOs before really allowing us a good glimpse of them in broad daylight. The first time we see a MUTO, its concealed in flashing emergency lights as it fights its way out of a containment cage. From there, they are largely left in the dark, with helicopter spotlights and fiery wreckage illuminating their intimidating frame. It’s extreme effective and it keeps us strung along, always wanting just a little bit more of them. Keeping his monsters concealed also allows Edwards room to really deliver a grand finale that is the very definition of incredible.

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While the first hour of Godzilla is a bit slower than most mainstream audience members may be used to, Edwards understands why we plunked down our hard earned money for a seat in the theater. The film’s special effects are worth the price of admission alone, as there are some truly epic set pieces that will blow you into the lobby of the theater. The first encounter between one of the MUTOs and Godzilla is something that will give you a sharp chill of excitement, especially as Godzilla belts out a might roar that shakes your every organ. The rest of the encounter plays out mostly on television screens, but it still looks might impressive even at a distance. Some of the other awe-inducing set pieces include Godzilla’s watery arrival that leaves the streets of Honolulu flooded, a devastated Las Vegas that was briefly glimpsed in the trailer, a fiery train track encounter between a group of soldiers and one hungry MUTO, and a terrifying showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge that leaves soldiers gaping in horror at jets tumbling out of the overcast skies. Considering that this is Edwards’ first foray into multi-million dollar blockbuster territory, he handles it like a professional and he uses the moments as wicked teases for a final act that stomps the puny human dramatics. I won’t reveal much about the final royal rumble, but know that it is everything a monster movie aficionado could possibly hope for. It’s a cinematic achievement that truly makes you feel like you’re in the action, darting between the feet of warring gods who are determined to rip each other to ribbons.

As early reviews of Godzilla have poured in, much has been made about the scripts one-dimensional characters and the phoned-in performances from some respectable names. Leading the pack is Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, who really isn’t given much screen time. He gets a small window to show off that explosive temper his fans have come to know and love, but he also gives Godzilla some misty-eyed heartbreak that leaves you wishing there was more of him. Taylor-Johnson is second in command as Ford, a formulaic action hero who manages to make it out of every single life-threatening moment with a bit of mud on his face, a slight limp, and a bloody nick on his forehead. Together, Cranston and Taylor-Johnson make an appealing on-screen duo, but their partnership is short lived. Olsen is passable as Elle, Ford’s pretty wife who is simply asked to hug her son close, worry about Ford, push a hospital stretcher around, and run in fright from an advancing Godzilla. Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa mostly stands around in amazement of the death and destruction around him, but he is entertaining as he ominously explains Godzilla’s backstory and suggests that the monsters should duke it out. Sally Hawkins is wasted in the background role of Dr. Graham, a character who mostly dashes around after Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. Rounding out the main cast is David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz, the cookie-cutter military man in charge of nuking the rampaging abominations into ash.

The biggest question surrounding Edwards’ Godzilla is whether or not American audiences are ready to embrace these towering monsters again. Last year’s Pacific Rim—which was director Guillermo del Toro’s giddy comic book tribute to Toho’s line of legendary kaiju—suggested that they might not be, as it opened to low numbers despite critical acclaim. While Godzilla’s marketing campaign has sparked mysterious intrigue, it stands as a reinvention that remains fiercely loyal to the shadowy agony and radioactive paranoia of the original. Does this Godzilla come with the same complexity and depth as Honda’s original? Well, it re-establishes the big guy’s atomic roots, and it dares to echo recent tragedies such as nuclear meltdowns, earthquakes, and tsunamis. There’s no doubt that this Godzilla is thought provoking, even when it transitions into drive-in mayhem in the second act. As far as Toho’s most loyal fans go, some may be disappointed by the lack of screen time Godzilla receives, but I truly think it works, especially when we look back at Atomic Age classics that concealed their monsters until it was absolutely necessary to show them off. In addition, monster fans will also get a big kick out of the subtle tributes to other Toho Kaiju. (Check out the name of Wantanabe’s character!) Overall, while the character drama may not be especially noteworthy, Godzilla 2014 stands proudly as an extraordinarily grand piece of monster movie making. It is guaranteed to wow audience members of all ages, and send off those with a soft spot for classic monster movies with a nostalgic adrenaline rush.

Grade: B+

Neighbors (2014)

Neighbors #1

by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Seth Rogen made his directorial debut with the uproariously hilarious This Is the End, a star-studded apocalyptic comedy that revealed Rogen and fellow director Evan Goldberg’s affection for horror movies. In addition to writing and directing, Rogen also starred alongside fellow funnymen like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel, all who brought their comedy A-game to the demonic shenanigans. This Is the End turned out to be one of the funniest and smartest comedies of recent memory—a film that left you wondering if the comedians involved could ever top some of the profanity-laced nuggets that were bursting forth from their sneering lips. Less than a year later, Rogen has shifted gears from fire-and-brimstone horror-comedies to frat-boy college romps with Neighbors, a routinely raunchy effort from the one of the reigning kings of comedy. Directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Nicholas Stoller and produced by Rogen and Goldberg, Neighbors finds Rogen and his cast mates—Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and Rose Byrne—firing crusty condoms, dildos, stale beer, marijuana smoke, and alcohol-laced breast milk at the audience with demented precision. While there are more than a few good belly laughs to be had in Neighbors, some of the shock jokes lack the punch that Rogen and the filmmakers are hoping and praying that they have, leaving the audience feeling slightly underwhelmed and disappointed as they exit the theater.

Neighbors introduces us to Mac (played by Seth Rogen) and Kelly (played by Rose Byrne) Radner, a fun-loving married couple who are slowly trying to adjust to adulthood. In between marijuana breaks and pleading invites from their friends to come out to the bar, Mac and Kelly are also trying to raise their newborn daughter, Stella, in a quiet and stable environment. One day, Mac and Kelly learn that their new neighbors are members of Delta Psi Beta, a rowdy fraternity led by president Teddy (played by Zac Effron) and vice-president Pete (played by Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly politely welcome the fraternity to the neighborhood, and they make the simple request that that the boys keep the noise to a minimum. Teddy and Pete agree to the request, asking in return that the Radners don’t break up their parties by calling the police. The relationship between the Radners and the Delta Psi brothers gets off to a fine start, but after Teddy ignores the Radner’s request to quiet down one evening, Mac is forced to call the police to break up the party. Shocked that the Radners broke their promise, Teddy and the rest of the Delta Psi brothers declare war on the quiet couple next door. Refusing to be terrorized by the frat, Mac, Kelly, and their two friends, Jimmy (played by Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (played by Carla Gallo), begin plotting various ways to get the frat disbanded.

Before the obnoxious frat boys lug their snagged couches, neon beer signs, and marijuana leaf posters into the vacant house next door, Mac and Kelly are a couple reluctant to leave their hard-partying days behind. At work, Mac is coaxed by Jimmy to take a weed breaks behind their office building, and Kelly withers and shakes at an invite from Paula to come to the bar and go crazy. When Kelly and Mac finally agree to make the trip to the bar, they gather up a sleepy Stella, a myriad of baby essentials, and frantically try to rush out the door to get their drink on. Unfortunately, fatigue sets in and they collapse before they can even make it to the car. Mac and Kelly’s urges to jump back into the party scene are tempted even more when Teddy leads his fist-pumping frat brothers into their party mecca, where they quickly get to work planning an epic blow-out that will make them Delta Psi legends. It’s here that Mac and Kelly see their opening, even if that opening does come with a request to keep the noise down. One of the funniest moments of Neighbors comes when Mac and Kelly are invited over to join the insanity. With a baby monitor clipped to their pajama pants, Mac shovels mushrooms into his mouth while Kelly drunkenly swaps stories with a handful of sorority sisters about how she met Mac at college. In typical Rogen fashion, there is a lot of heart in these drunken bonds, as Teddy and Mac debate over who is the best Batman is (Keaton vs. Bale) and Kelly giggles as her stoned husband urinates with his new friend in a fountain.

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Of course you already know that the relationship between the brothers of Delta Psi and the Radners heads south rather quickly. While there was plenty of raunchy material found in the quieter opening moments, this squabble gives way to sporadically jaw-dropping behavior. The beef begins small with slight little jabs from both ends, but Mac and Kelly take things to a new level when they flood the frat’s basement, giving the boy’s the idea to make homemade sex toys in an effort to rise money to pump the dirty water from their grimy basement. From there, it’s not holds barred, culminating in a breast-pumping debacle that ranks as the film’s most outrageous moment. From here, Rogen, Stoller, and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien can’t really devise a way to top themselves. There’s the hope that Seth Rogen’s hairy back, a dildo fistfight, an attempt at hot boxing an entire house, and a gruesome leg injury followed by urination can all push the envelope, but none of it really seems to get the laughs that everyone involved was hoping for. This isn’t to say that Neighbors looses it’s heart, wit, or entertainment value, but considering what audiences have been exposed to in the past, this all seems a little insipid.

While some of the gross-out gags may fizzle right before our eyes, the performances remain incredibly spirited throughout the runtime. Rogen is his usual gruff self as the scruffy Mac, a husky stoner who desperately wants to look cool in front of the toned fraternity brothers. The Austrian Byrne lets her wild side roar as Kelly, a ferocious momma bear who is incredibly skilled in turning Teddy and his gang against each other. She’s especially hilarious when she puts on her “cool” act in front of the gawking eyes of the Delta Psi gang. The most shocking turn among the cast is Zac Efron, who plays to his pretty boy image as Teddy, a sculpted bro who never misses a chance to shed his shirt and strut around like a Greek god. James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, continues to show off his comedic talents as Pete, the frat’s smirking vice president who layers on golf shirts during a black light party. As far as the supporting roles go, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is wasted in the small role of Scoonie, Barinholtz comes on a little too strong as Jimmy, and Gallo is a hot mess as the boozy Paula. Also, keep an eye out for the scene-stealing Lisa Kudrow as Carol Gladstone, the college dean who has a fascination for newspaper headlines. Overall, Neighbors may not be quite as wild and wooly as many were hoping it would be, but it still manages to be a clever and sweet little comedy about growing up and embracing adulthood. It’s also bound to leave many hard-partying audience members plotting a Robert DeNiro party this summer.

Grade: B

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 #1

by Steve Habrat

Less than two years ago, Sony and Columbia Pictures rushed director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the big screen, just five short years after Sam Raimi’s overstuffed Spider-Man 3. With a brand new cast led by The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man was a rush job of a summer blockbuster—a desperate attempt on Sony’s part to hold on to the rights of the Spider-Man character. It’s easy to see why Sony wanted to keep Spidey trapped in their web, as the beloved superhero is an audience favorite that guarantees the studio a big pay day. Yet for all the insistence that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to be a fresh start for the character, the film’s plot seemed awfully familiar and, frankly, a bit underwhelming when pitted against Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises, the two summer kingpins of 2012. Now here we are at the commencement of the 2014 summer movie season and leading the blockbuster procession is The Amazing Spider-Man 2—a cramped comic book epic that fails to live up to its colossal hype. Sure it’s made with all the splashy action, on-again-off-again romance, wisecracks, and confliction that we have come to expect from a Spider-Man movie, but returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alec Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner appear to have been bitten by the same excess bug that nipped Raimi when he delivered his Spider-Man 3 dud.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds brainy teenager Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) continuing to battle crime on the New York City streets as Spider-Man. On the day of his high school graduation, Peter’s spider senses lead him to a high-speed chase through the city streets involving a highjacked truck that is carrying a massive load of plutonium. The man behind the highjacking is Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamatti), a ruthless Russian mobster who will stop at nothing to outrun the authorities. With the help of Spider-Man, the authorities are able to corral Sytsevich, but during the chase, the webslinger saves Max Dillion (played by Jamie Foxx), an OsCorp employee who is largely ignored by his coworkers. In the wake of the rescue, Dillion develops an unnatural obsession with Spider-Man, believing that he is the superhero’s partner. Meanwhile, Peter suffers from visions of fallen police captain George Stacy, the father of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone), who made Peter promise to distance himself from Gwen after his battle with the Lizard. Haunted by the promise he made, Peter grapples with his romance with Gwen, which leads to a nasty break-up between the two. Shortly after the break-up, Peter reunites with his long lost friend Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan), the son of OsCorp’s late president, Norman Osborn (played by Chris Cooper). Before his father’s death, Harry learns that he has inherited his father’s illness, and that he has to rush to find a cure before it’s too late. At the same time, a freak workplace accidently transforms Max Dillion into an electrified monster called Electro. After a botched attempt to calm the terrified Max in Times Square, Dillion develops a grudge against Spider-Man and vows to destroy him.

At two hours and twenty minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 attempts to juggle a staggering number of subplots, all of which seem to demand more time than they are allotted. Webb and his screenwriters continue to reveal tidbits of information about Peter’s late parents, and Harry’s quest to cure himself leads to the creation of a familiar Spidey super villain. And then there are the romantic quarrels between the impossibly cute Gwen Stacy and the stammering Peter, a couple that have to hold the record for the most make-ups and break-ups in a single motion picture. Honestly, trying to keep up with all of it is exhausting, and in the process, Webb practically forgets about one character that we’re left wanting quite a bit more from. After a while, this overcrowded tale begins to feel a bit like Spider-Man 3, the film that single-handedly killed off Raimi’s series. It appears that neither the filmmakers nor the studio learned from this mistake, although Webb avoids the cartoonish brooding and cringe inducing camp that made Raimi’s such a painful embarrassment. What’s clear is that Sony is putting pressure on the filmmakers to set up spin-off movies and lay the foundation for the next two installments in this Spidey saga. Sony has already made it clear that they intend to craft a cinematic universe much like Disney’s Avengers line, although, this world is threatening to be too villain heavy.

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While the jam-packed narrative causes The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to feel sluggish, the lighter moments between Peter and Gwen put a little pep in the film’s step. The relationship drama does get a bit tiresome, but the two stars have a chemistry that soothes some of the grumbles that are bound to slip out from many audience members who have grown weary of Spidey’s chaotic love life. It also helps that Garfield and Stone share an off-screen romance, which makes their on-screen relationship even cuter. On his own, Garfield continues to settle into the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, wisecracking his way through gunfights, car chases, aerial battles with Electro, and a final showdown with the charging Rhino. There is no denying that Garfield nails the cocky comedic side of the character, but he also proves that he can handle Peter’s darker demons that creep in when he’s not swinging through the concrete jungle. His inner angst is measured with a desire for answers about his parent’s mysterious death—a mystery that he grapples with in the privacy of his bedroom. Stone remains an actress you just can’t resist as her Gwen Stacy looks to a future without Peter by her side. In the final stretch of the film, she proves to be more than just a damsel in distress, daring to jump into the action and assist a desperate Peter as he fends off attacks from Dillion’s Electro and Harry’s cackling Green Goblin.

On the villain end of things, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds one half of the Sinister Six uniting to squash the Spider. If you thought that Lizard was a far-fetched villain, wait until you lay eyes on Electro, a glittery swirl of electricity given a tragic human rage by Jamie Foxx. Early on, Foxx really makes you feel for Max Dillion, a geeky engineer who talks to himself and frowns as his coworkers look right through him. As Electro, Foxx plays the character as a terrified monster that doesn’t wish to harm anyone, but this misunderstood monster performance is rapidly brought down through a sudden script shift that demands Electro get mean fast. DeHaan was born to play Harry Osborn, the chilly son of OsCorp’s late president who is doomed to become the leering Green Goblin. The scenes shared between Peter and Harry are pleasant enough, but there are far too little of them for us to really be shaken when Harry’s Green Goblin comes calling for Peter’s Spider-Man. Giamatti’s Aleksei is appropriately over the top, as he grunts and growls in a hammy Russian accent. Sadly, he’s reduced to an extended cameo, but when he jumps into that menacing Rhino suit and starts wrecking havoc in the streets of New York City, I promise your adrenaline will start surging, especially when he stares down quivering cops and proclaims, “I am zee Rhino!”

As expected, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features numerous action set pieces that will thrill viewers of all ages. The scenes of Spider-Man swinging between skyscrapers are some of the most convincing we’ve seen so far, and Spidey’s first encounter with the skittish Electro shows off some impressive urban destruction. My personal favorite action moment is the confined fistfight between Spidey and the Green Goblin, a battle that ends with a shock guaranteed to blindside the packed theater. Another personal favorite is the Wall-Crawler’s showdown with Rhino, who charges into the battle guns and rockets blazing. As far as other complaints go, I found the score, which is composed by Hans Zimmer and the “Magnificent Six,” a super group led by Pharrell Williams, to be an absolute catastrophe. The chugging and whispering theme for Electro is just distracting as it attempts to get inside his glowing head, and the sudden lapses into shrill dubstep leaves your ears ringing. Overall, while there are things to like about The Amazing Spider-Man 2—the action, the CGI, the performances—the film doesn’t find Webb sending the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to soaring new heights. What we’re left with is a cluttered and disjointed superhero outing preoccupied with enticing the audience rather than satisfying them until Spidey inevitably swings back onto the big screen.

Grade: C

The Quiet Ones (2014)

The Quiet Ones #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the past four years, the once-glorious production company Hammer Films has been slowly trying re-establish itself in the horror genre. From the 1950s through the early-1970s, Hammer enjoyed financial and critical success with gothic horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, and many more terrifying classics that have amassed legions of devoted fans over the years. By the late-1970s, Hammer’s popularity had started to diminish, and the company slowly faded from the public’s eye. After many years of silence, Hammer Films returned in 2010 with Let Me In, a spooky remake of the celebrated 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Between 2010 and 2012, Hammer released two smaller films before returning to the mainstream with The Woman in Black, another eerie release that suggested that the company still had a few terrifying ghouls kicking around in their cobwebbed crypts. After another two-year wait, Hammer continues its comeback campaign with The Quiet Ones, a stale haunted house thriller that clumsily attempts to run with the countless other “found-footage” horror movies that have been quickly churned out. Though The Quiet Ones may not be as scary as recent supernatural offerings like Insidious, The Innkeepers, The Conjuring, or Oculus, the film is executed with plenty of chiaroscuro elegance, and it reveals that star Jared Harris was born to be a member of the Hammer family—one that consisted of gentlemanly greats like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Oliver Reed.

The Quiet Ones picks up in Oxford, 1974, with Professor Joseph Coupland (played by Jared Harris) enlisting the help of a student cameraman by the name of Brian McNeil (played by Sam Claflin) to help with an unorthodox experiment being conducting on campus. The experiment involves a young girl named Jane Harper (played by Olivia Cooke), who believes that a nasty spirit by the name of Evey has possessed her. It turns out that Coupland rejects theories about the supernatural, and that he is convinced that he can cure Jane through advanced scientific methods. After the university unexpectedly cuts funding for the experiment, Brian, Coupland, and his two student assistants, Krissi (played by Erin Richards) and Harry (played by Rory Fleck-Byrne), travel to a secluded country mansion where the group can work without disruption. Things get off to a relatively uneventful start, but soon, Jane’s condition worsens as Coupland draws out the sinister forces within her. As the spirit of Evey grows more and more dangerous, Brian discovers a horrific secret about Jane’s past that will change the course of the experiment and threaten the lives of everyone involved.

With The Quiet Ones, Hammer reveals that they are well aware of the gimmicks that have been dominating the horror market for the past several years. Scattered about the film is Hammer’s trademark gothic set design and gloomy atmosphere weighing heavily on the action. Frankly, the film gets far flashing Hammer’s calling card, and you get the impression that if director John Pogue had solely committed to the gothic blueprint, The Quiet Ones would have been an old-fashioned success. After all, Hammer found an audience with a taste for undead ghouls, Frankenstein monsters, and gentlemanly vampires in the ‘50s, a time when atomic monsters, extraterrestrials, and giant bugs were the hot ticket at local movie palaces and drive-ins. What would prevent it from working in the smartphone age? Sadly, where The Quiet Ones drops the ball is with the application of the “found footage” approach that has been sweeping through American horror movies. While it is exciting to think that Hammer is attempting to modernize itself a bit, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s here simply to allow Hammer to run with the current big boys of horror. What is even more frustrating is the fact that the filmmakers are clearly experimenting with this technique and had absolutely no idea how to apply it properly. It’s painfully clumsy and only twice does the film milk any suspense from this approach. However, the impact of both sequences is softened by cheap jump scares that just come off as lazy and pathetic. You mean to tell us that Hammer—a company that made some seriously silly, low-budget junk work splendidly in their heyday—couldn’t devise any new or creative ways to make the audience tremble with fear?!

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While the throwaway “found footage” gimmick and the jump scares keep The Quiet Ones from standing out in the crowd, the film does reveal that Jared Harris could very well be Hammer’s new Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. He is charismatic and gentlemanly, yet he is capable of awakening an inner slumbering madman when poked hard enough. Late in the film there are hints of Cushing’s unhinged Dr. Frankenstein, as he resorts to extreme measures to carry out his sinister work. Harris really charges up the film even in its slower moments, and he is able to largely cover for the more amateurish performances from the rest of the fresh-faced cast. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Sam Claflin is probably the best of the young talent as Brian, the group’s skeptical cameraman who slowly develops feelings for the tortured Jane Harper. He’s a vanilla hero—that no one can deny—but he succeeds in remaining watchable for the duration of the film. And then we have Olivia Cooke, who physically channels Christina Ricci’s Wednesday from The Addam’s Family. Her performance is a glob of clichés as she hovers over a creepy doll and plucks its hair out, or stares blankly through sleepy eyes and rambles on about Evey, the spirit who has called her body home. The weakest links are undoubtedly Erin Richards, who stumbles her way around the feisty hippie Krissi, and Rory Fleck-Byrne, who’s Harry is present only to add slight bits of exposition for the cutting-edge methods the group is experimenting with.

While Harris puts forth considerable effort to salvage The Quiet Ones, more damage is done through the film’s lackluster finale, which crashes and then literally burns right in front of our eyes. The script finds the team of screenwriters—which includes Pogue, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and Tom de Ville—looking back and paying tribute to Hammer’s satanic/occult offerings from the mid-1970s. The ghosts of films such as The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter clank and bang around in the darkness, but the climax can’t match the sleazier thrills of those memorable releases. One the positive side, the film’s cinematography looks fantastic, and the chiaroscuro wash keeps you from drifting off into the abyss of boredom. In true Hammer fashion, The Quiet Ones is also extremely tight and low budget, which allows the film to remain in the tradition of their early horror work. Overall, it’s a thrill to see Hammer’s name back on the big screen, but The Quiet Ones ends up being a step backwards for a company that had made considerable strides in re-establishing themselves. You can’t fault them for attempting to appeal to the new generation of horror fans, but they should be embarrassed that they didn’t attempt to bring anything new to this supernatural séance.

Grade: C-

Mini Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

the grand budapest hotel

by Steve Habrat

By this point, you know if you’re a proud member of the Wes Anderson fan club. After films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenebaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, you know if you’ve developed a taste for his meticulously organized frames, quirky casts of characters, dry sense of humor, and surprisingly touching dramatics. If you’re one that hasn’t been tickled by Anderson’s cinematic efforts, don’t expect anything to change with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds the auteur indulging his whimsical artistry like a kid in a candy store. With all of the usual traits in place, Anderson sends the audience spiraling through a small slice of history—one fashioned from the winking cartoonish touches that Anderson has become noted and celebrated for. While this zany murder mystery is contagiously colorful and cute even in its raunchier moments, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fuzzy tribute to storytelling, and a sugary tribute to classic slapstick comedy of years past presented to the viewer in 1.33 aspect ratio, common in silent cinema, which appears to be a major influence here. And then there is his cast, a list bursting at the seams with fresh and familiar faces ready to take a big bite out of the oddball creations that Anderson has scribbled up for them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of Monsieur Gustave H (played by Ralph Fiennes), the beloved concierge of the magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled in the snowy mountains of the Republic of Zubrowka. The tale picks up in 1932, with young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played by Tony Revolori) arriving at The Grand Budapest Hotel and having his first encounters with Gustave H. It turns out that Gustave H was carrying on an affair with a wealthy elderly woman named Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton), who, while visit Gustave H, reveals that she has a premonition that something bad is going to happen. Despite Madame D’s concerns, Gustave H laughs off her premonition, but a few weeks later, Madame D turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. Together, Gustave H and Zero travel to Madame D’s home, where her will is read to a house full of grieving friends and family members. Much to the horror of the guests, Madame D’s will states that she is leaving him a coveted painting called “Boy with Apple,” something that enraged her son, Dmitri (played by Adrien Brody), who vows to come after Gustave H. After making off with “Boy with Apple” and returning to the hotel, things get worse for Gustave H when authorities led by Inspector Henckels (played by Edward Norton) arrive to arrest him for the death of Madame D. Stuck behind bars and with Zubrowka on the brink of war, Gustave H races to escape from prison and prove his innocence with the help of Zero and some unlikely inmates. Meanwhile, a shadowy assassin called J.P. Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) closes in on Gustave H and those closest to him.

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There isn’t a shot in The Grand Budapest Hotel that isn’t littered with Anderson’s cinematic fingerprints. Nearly each and every frame is neatly arranged down to the fussy tilts of a pencil or the messy stack of legal documents. It’s unmistakably Anderson to the point where if you scrubbed his name from the credits, it wouldn’t take the audience long to figure out that it sprouted from his distinct imagination. There are the tracking shots that explore the inside of The Grand Budapest Hotel as if someone sliced it down the center and peered into it like a dollhouse. There are also the glaringly artificial miniatures, which Anderson presents with his expected winks and grins. Though what sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart from other Anderson fare is the nods to classic cinema, particularly silent slapstick comedies. The Grand Budapest Hotel could be muted and converted to black and white, have intertitles placed strategically throughout, and the film would work marvelously as a silent comedy. There are also a number of chase sequences throughout the film, the most outstanding—and vaguely Hitchcockian/German Expressionist—is a shadowy game of cat-and-mouse through a museum between Dafoe’s vampiric thug J.P. Jopling and Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, Deputy Vilmos Kovacs. It’s the highlight of the picture, followed closely by a snowy ski chase that keeps you doubled over in laughter over how preposterous the action is.

As usual, Anderson enlists the help of an ensemble cast, many of which will be familiar to Anderson aficionados. The newcomer here is Fiennes, who takes great pleasure in applying his gentlemanly demeanor to Gustave H, the flamboyant concierge who sleeps with elderly woman, gags at the thought of drinking cheap wine, and is bound-and-determined not to become the “candyass” in prison. Fiennes is exquisite, but hot on his coattails is Dafoe, who excels in the role of the stocky assassin J.P. Jopling, a brick of a man who sports skull rings on each one of his fingers and mercilessly tosses cats out of windows. Other standouts include Norton’s dweebie Inspector Henckles, the barely-recognizable Swinton as the elderly Madame D (she’s basically an extended cameo that acts more as a visual chuckle), and Revolori’s Zero, Gustave H’s young sidekick who inks on his pencil-thin mustache and essential acts as our guide through the halls of the hotel. There are a number of other cameos from faces you’d expect to see, although, the most severely underused is Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha, Zero’s birth marked love interest who isn’t give much to do yet acts as a huge emotional weight. Overall, though The Grand Budapest Hotel may not rank as my favorite Wes Anderson picture, and it may not be as funny or tender as some of his previous work, it’s still an enchanting ode to the art of storytelling (it concludes with a nod to Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig), and to the eternal joys of silent cinema.

Grade: B+

Oculus (2014)

Oculus #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2009, Hollywood revived the supernatural horror film with Paranormal Activity, the “found footage” hit that spawned four lucrative sequels. While the Paranormal Activity series has rapidly descended into a bloated cash grab, the upside is that it shifted America’s attention away from the torture porn craze and the disastrous Saw franchise. Since 2009, the ghostly scares of Paranormal Activity have drifted into other, better horror movies that have scared the pants off moviegoers, and audiences just haven’t been able to get enough. Most recently, the biggest hit has been last summer’s The Conjuring, the retro haunted house blockbuster that turned out to be one of the spookiest horror movies of recent memory. Now, less than a year after The Conjuring haunted movie theaters, comes director Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, a micro-budgeted effort that boasts a clever script, careful pacing, and some hair-raising moments of terror that don’t rely on loud blasts of music to send you to the ceiling. While some impatient viewers may find the mind-bending Oculus way too slow for their instant gratification taste, the snail’s-pace at which the film moves really mounts the tension and allows the filmmakers to play with the viewer’s mind.

Oculus begins in the present day, with twenty-one year old Tim Russell (played by Brenton Thwaites) being released from a mental institution after serving eleven years for the murder of his father, Alan (played by Rory Cochrane), after he witnessed him murder his mother, Marie (played by Katee Sackhoff) and attempt to kill his older sister. Simultaneously, Tim’s older sister, Kayie Russell (played by Karen Gillan), has been tracking down an ominous mirror that had once hung in their father’s home office, and that is believed to have caused a string of bizarre mental breakdowns and deaths everywhere it has hung. Desperate to prove that Tim was innocent of the murder, Kaylie devises an experiment to prove to the authorities that their father didn’t just snap—that there are supernatural forces that emerge from the mirror and drive anyone nearby out of their mind. Reluctantly receiving help from Tim, Kaylie begins trying to prove her theory about the mirror and the murder, but the supernatural forces appear to be laying dormant, at least at first. As the night goes on, reality begins to distort, ghostly apparitions appear, secrets from that horrific night are uncovered, and the sibling’s sanity is pushed to the breaking point.

Much like The Conjuring, Oculus is far from a lazy horror film. It doesn’t simply rely on loud noises or fake-out scares to get a jump from the audience. (There isn’t one loud bang or deafening musical cue to be found.) It has faith in its visual scares, which range from roaming apparitions with eyes like mirrors to more standard gore fare like ripped out fingernails, oozing C-section scars, and one character accidentally biting into a light bulb rather than the apple that they were previously snacking on. Nearly all of it nabs the groans that it is out to elicit, especially every single scene involving some sort of fingernail mutilation. (Flanagan must have a thing for it much like Italian horror director Lucio Fulci had a fetish for eye mutilation.) While the visual scares do have spunk, the distorted realities and unraveling mysteries that make up the center of Oculus are what really have the audience gripping their armrests. Flanagan masterfully flits between past and present, allowing the events of both to mesh together to the point where the audience isn’t sure what are the mirror’s demonic tricks and what is reality. What makes it even more nerve-racking is the fact that it remains strictly in the confines of Russell home. There is nowhere to run except up the stairs, and there is nowhere to hide except for the bathroom or the closet.

Oculus #2

While the slow pace is sure to bore the pre-teens in the back row, where the yawns really stem from are the lifeless performances from our leads. Gillan’s Kaylie hurries around with wide eyes and muttering cryptic remarks to her husband about how everything will be all right once she confronts this mirror. Things improve slightly with Thwaites, who tries to rationalize the events that took place eleven years earlier, but he largely disappears into the sea of new up-and-coming actors all looking to be the next Taylor Lautner—who he shares a mild resemblance with—or Robert Pattinson. Together, Gillan and Thwaites are a ball of forced trauma, as they carry out rehearsed bickering over the mirror and it’s rumored supernatural powers. To make things worse on the two leads, they manage to be overshadowed by the younger versions of themselves, portrayed strongly by Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso. Then there is Rory Cochrane’s terrifying turn as Alan, the sibling’s deranged, cherubic-faced father who wanders around the home aiming a pistol and warning the children, “I have seen my demons and they are many. I have seen the devil and he is me.” He’s an overwhelmingly dark and erratic presence as the mirror’s spirits guide him around the shadows and seduce him into evil. Rounding out the main cast is Sackhoff’s Marie, the distraught mother who is convinced that Alan is having an affair and who predictably drowns her sorrows in bottle after bottle of wine. Her performance does have some bite (despite her missing teeth) when she endures Alan’s torture, which includes chains and a broken plate.

What ultimately sets Oculus apart from a good majority of horror movies today is the way it resists the temptation to constantly pay homage to classic supernatural horror movies that came before it. It’s not bogged down by tips of the hat, which usually tickle those in the audience with extensive knowledge of the horror genre. (I confess to be one of these individuals that is charmed by a sly homage or geeky reference.) This reluctance to constantly pay tribute allows the flow of the film to remain uninterrupted and leaves Oculus feeling strangely refreshing in a genre that thrives on name familiarity. The film also excites through its brainy script, co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, who really understand that confusion and disorientation can really up the tension levels. It’s a constant guessing game with Oculus, and it becomes increasingly absorbing as it unfolds. Where Flanagan and Howard go wrong—and you have to wonder if there wasn’t studio pressure here—is with the climax of the film. It leaves the door wide open for a sequel, and it hints that the studios are crossing their fingers for another cash cow series that will make money on (*gulp) name familiarity. Overall, it’s plagued by a handful of flaws and it may not be quite as scary or entertaining as James Wan’s The Conjuring, but Oculus is still a shrewd little horror movie that suggests that director Mike Flanagan is a talent to keep an eye on.

Grade: B

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America-The Winter Soldier #1

by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.

Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.

Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.

Captain America-The Winter Solider 2

As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.

The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.

With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.

Grade: A