Reviews

Review: Sex Tape

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Sex Tape poster Sex Tape, a goofy new movie from director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher), teams Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel up again. This time, they're married parents longing for the actively passionate days of their nascent romance. The film opens with narration from mommy-blogger Annie (Diaz), who laments the loss of time and energy for sex with her husband Jay (Segel).

Hoping to shake things up, Annie suggests they make a sex tape for themselves using Jay's new iPad. And thus the trouble begins.  Jay uses an app called Frankensync that  syncs media on any iPad/laptop he's owned (if you're wondering, GQ checked with AppleCare and nope, it's not possible). The whole plot hinging on this fictional tech is laugh-out-loud preposterous, so Segel and Diaz deserve some credit for making it seem even slightly plausible.

The couple tries to delete the video from any iPads they've passed on to others. Their ridiculous romp leads them to the home of their best friends (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) and to the mansion of the prospective buyer of Annie's blog (Rob Lowe, whose character is like Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation, if he did coke and loved Eazy-E).

Diaz and Segel are game for whatever the script throws them, be it equal-opportunity nudity, physical comedy or acting frazzled on cocaine. There are a few sappy minutes involving a Jack Black cameo, but until that point, Sex Tape is continuously hilarious. 

Review: Boyhood

Boyhood

It took 12 years to make Boyhood. After seeing it, it took me about 12 seconds to declare it one of the best films ever made.

That's right, gentle Slackerwood readers -- one of the best films ever made.

Read on only if you're fond of superlatives, for this review is laden with them. And Boyhood deserves every one -- it is nothing less than a monumental cinematic achievement, a movie that may redefine what is possible in the world of filmmaking. It is stunning and amazing and mesmerizing, and I could go on and on about it -- and will.

Boyhood's story isn't complicated. It follows a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family as he grows from age six to 18. Along the way, Mason experiences the wonders of youth as well as the heartbreaks, while his family tries to remain functional despite its dysfunction. Mason's life story isn't remarkable, but it's wonderfully told and deeply meaningful thanks to writer/director Richard Linklater's terrific script.

Review: Life Itself

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Life ItselfThe documentary Life Itself, currently in theaters and on VOD outlets, is a valentine to its subject -- the late Roger Ebert -- but avoids oversentimentality or blind hero-worship. Steve James deftly balances a biography of the film critic and author with a moving look at his last days.

James is a little more present as a narrator in this documentary than in his other films (Hoop Dreams, Reel Paradise), explaining the situation surrounding the most contemporary footage. He and Ebert planned an ambitious series of interviews and other location shooting, but Ebert was hospitalized and both his time and energy became more limited. James works capably with what he can get -- a few meetings in the hospital, questions emailed one at a time. Watching Ebert as he struggles to get through each day is heartbreaking.

The shots of what we know are Ebert's last days are interspersed with a generally linear biography of his life, told through archival footage, interviews with friends and colleagues, and excerpts from Ebert's 2011 autobiography, also called Life Itself. The excerpts are read by an actor who successfully catches the rhythms of Ebert's voice, which is disconcerting. Also, the movie didn't make it clear that the chapter-titled segments were book excerpts, which is slightly confusing if you didn't realize it going in.

In addition, James interviews family members -- Chaz Ebert and their grandchildren, old friends and colleagues, and a number of filmmakers who were close to Ebert. The interviews are beautifully realized, emotional and complementary to the sequences in which they appear.

This is the paragraph where I, like everyone else reviewing Life Itself, am supposed to tell you my big moving Roger Ebert story -- that one time I met him, or wrote him, or how his TV shows made me want to review movies, or how the indie films he spotlighted broadened my horizons and changed my life.

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes posterEvery type of writing has its set of rules -- not as strict as a sonnet or even a haiku, but still necessary to keep content focused and readers engaged. A standard movie review is no exception. Over the years, I've amassed a strong list from writing reviews, editing other people's reviews and discussing review quality with other editors.

I think it's important to know all the rules for your particular arena of art or craft ... so you can break them when necessary. And the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is causing me to break damn near all the rules. I'll show you what I mean.

Summarize your overall opinion of the movie within the first or second paragraph.

Broke that one, but let me make it simple for you now: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a disappointing, dull movie with amazing set pieces dimmed by 3D and a storyline that is sledgehammer-subtle.

A decade after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes have formed their own quite impressive colony and fallen into a regular-guy (ape) pattern of existence. Caesar (Andy Serkis) still leads the community while raising his nearly grown son, and awaiting the arrival of his newly-born son.

But humans appear seemingly out of nowhere, brandishing (and using) guns, and destroying the colony's peace. Caesar is willing to work with them, especially the leader of the team, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who has a teenage son of his own tagging along. But Scar, oops, I mean Koba (Toby Kebbell), mistrusts all humans and their weaponry. His human counterpart is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who sees the apes as merely animals and is ready to destroy them in the name of human survival. You can see the trouble brewing -- it won't take much to start a human-ape war.

In fact, the problem is that not only can you see the trouble brewing, you can see every plot point in the movie as it hurtles toward you, and you can predict most of the terribly cliched lines of dialogue.

Review: Coherence

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Coherence still photo

Schrodinger's cat is an imaginary illustration of a paradox: "When does a quantum system stop existing as a superposition of states and become one or the other?" Writer/director James Ward Byrkit explores this thought experiment and various results in his first feature, Coherence, which adds a new dimension to the typical dinner party film.

Coherence evolves at an intimate dinner gathering of four couples: former dancer Em (Emily Baldoni) and Kevin (Maury Sterling), former Roswell actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his introverted wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), older couple Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and Amir (Alex Manugian) who brings his new girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher).

It's quickly revealed that Laurie has an intimate history with Kevin, which leads to awkward moments, but Em is more concerned about something she's heard -- the astronomic event of a lifetime taking place that same night. Miller's Comet is due to pass near Earth, and reports of strange occurrences during previous passings are a discussion point after Em's phone inexplicably cracks.

Lone Star Cinema: The Newton Boys

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After Slacker and Dazed and Confused but before Bernie, Before Midnight and the soon-to-be-released Boyhood, Richard Linklater made a charming little movie called The Newton Boys. Filmed in Texas and featuring a band of charismatic actors (most of whom have gone on to considerable success in film and/or television), this true story depicts the bank-robbing exploits of four entrepreneurial and adventure-loving brothers in the early 20th century. 

Raised in Uvalde County, Texas in a cotton farming family, the Newton brothers are an unruly bunch whose lives tell a one-of-a-kind story of American idealism and brash (but mostly non-violent) outlaw behavior. After Dock and Willis, the oldest two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Matthew McConaughey), experience various real and perceived injustices (including class-based discrimination, wrongful imprisonment and general mistreatment by authority figures), they give up on trying to live lawful lives and instead decide to take what they think should be theirs.

This means emptying banks ("it's just little thieves taking from big thieves") and lying whenever necessary but vowing never to kill anyone. Thanks to the nitroglycerin supplied by cohort Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and the endearingly slow transportation and communication systems of the 1920s, Dock and Willis (also joined by their younger brothers Jess and Joe, played by Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich) are able to become incredibly successful bank robbers, and they proceed to spend several years joyfully blowing up and clearing out dozens of safes and trains from Texas to Canada. 

Review: Earth to Echo

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Earth to EchoWhen watching a release from a first-time director, it's always difficult to know exactly what to expect. Judging by the previews, you might have expected Earth to Echo to be a sophisticated, effects-driven grand adventure on the scale of The Goonies or ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. What you'll get is a charming mashup that pulls its strongest influences from classics like ET, The Goonies and The Iron Giant but never finds enough of its own identity to become more than an "echo" of those sources.

Director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden, who both worked on the small screen on the series Zombie Roadkill, have assembled a talented cast of relative unknown child actors including Teo Halm (Alex), Brian Bradley (Tuck), Reese Hartwig (Munch), and Ella Wahlestedt (Emma). The most recognizable face is the adult villain Dr. Madsen played by the unlikely Jason Gray-Stanford, best known as police Lt. Randy Disher in Monk. He turns in a very paint-by-numbers performance, but sees little screen time in a story shot entirely from the kids' point of view.

While people are calling Earth to Echo a found footage film, it is set as an autobiographical documentary shot and assembled by the character Tuck. When his friend Alex discovers that any cell phone brought into the vicinity of his house starts to exhibit unusual behavior, the two join their friend Munch, an electronics expert, to investigate. This begins a nighttime adventure as the trio follows clues to discover the tiny robot alien they name "Echo" and help it repair itself.  They are joined later by their classmate and school crush, Emma as they are chased by alien hunter Dr. Madsen.

Green makes the most of a relatively low budget, with f/x used sparingly. In a refreshing departure from the found-footage mode, every shot is from a recognizable source: one of Tuck's cameras, one of the kids' mobile phones or Echo. All are edited by Tuck to tell his story. 

Review: Tammy

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The day Melissa McCarthy stops cracking me up will be a cold day in hell. She always plays her roles with gross honesty and wit, and doesn't take guff from anyone. With her latest film Tammy hitting theaters today, it's clear that McCarthy has a knack for less-than-glamorous, ball-busting female characters. That said, however, this movie could have done a lot better on all accounts.

Tammy is the directing debut of McCarthy's husband and actor Ben Falcone (Air Marshall Jon from Bridesmaids), not to mention the first screenplay McCarthy and Falcone have penned together. Although McCarthy's humor shines through (complete with a cameo by Falcone), it falls flat due to bizarre casting choices, a faulty plot line, and downright unrelatable characters.

The premise is that Tammy (McCarthy) is having a pretty crappy day, week and life. She loses her job (at which she doesn't seem to work too hard), she catches her husband in flagrante with the neighbor, and her mother won't let her borrow the family car to leave town.  Her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) comes to her aid and sets the story in motion when she suggests they go on a little road trip together to leave everything behind.

Although Tammy is loveable, she's a complainer.  It's as if Falcone and McCarthy wanted to create a more sympathetic version of Megan, her character in Bridesmaids.  The cast is full of great cameos; I was beyond thrilled to see Toni Collette, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh and many other great names in the opening credits. But most of them are onscreen for such a short amount of time, I wondered why such big names are in such little, minuscule roles. I also found myself wondering why not-even-70-year old Sarandon was playing the role of a grown woman's grandmother, when she easily could be playing McCarthy's mother (who was instead played by Allison Janney).

Although the story moves forward, it's hard to stay focused. Much like Tammy, we find ourselves lacking interest in the things she's after, including love interest Bobby (Mark Duplass). The redeeming quality of the film is the handful of funny jokes and one-liners peppered throughout the story though, sadly, most of them are in the film's trailer.

The effort is there with Tammy. McCarthy can do no wrong in my eyes, and I'll of course look forward to whatever she and her husband come up with next.  I just hope to soon see the actress in a role where she doesn't have to wear Crocs with socks and Hawaiian shirts for a change.

Review: Begin Again

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"Begin Again" Movie Still

In what could be considered writer/director John Carney's Americanized version of his Academy Award-winning musical Once, the movie Begin Again (which I continue to mistakenly call "Once Again") hits just the right notes in the bittersweet scale to tug at the heartstrings ... despite Keira Knightley, who makes her singing debut, being flat in more ways than one. 

Knightley plays English singer-songwriter Greta, who finds herself alone with her guitar after her longtime boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) dumps her for fame, stardom and a younger-looking woman. Down in the dumps, Greta mentally retires to a life of university studies back in England, that is, until she's persuaded to tag along with a fellow accented friend to an open-mic night at a local dive bar. That’s where the movie's audience and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-on-his-luck record producer, first hear Greta/Knightley sing a song that has yet to get out of my head. 

The duo work through the summer to collaborate on an album that captures the sounds and spirit of NYC. 

Eventually, Dan and Greta see each other as their opportunity to, like the title says, "begin again." (I'm really glad the movie's title was changed from Can a Song Save Your Life?, which just makes me think of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.) 

Review: Snowpiercer

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Snowpiercer

There was a fair amount of controversy over Snowpiercer long before the U.S. release was decided. Rumors surfaced several months ago that The Weinstein Company wanted to aim for a wide release, but only if the film was trimmed by 20 minutes. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) wasn't especially interested in altering his English-language debut in order to please a more mainstream audience. After a rather public spat, his 125-minute cut stands, although the film is now restricted to a limited release domestically. This science-fiction oddity is based on the acclaimed French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.

The story takes us into a frighteningly frozen future where the only people left on Earth are circling the planet on a powerful, self-sustaining train where the passengers are separate and far from equal. An experiment to try and stop the effects of global warming failed and forced the entire planet into a new Ice Age that killed the majority of people on the planet. Those who survived made it onto the train, but the amenities vary based on social status. Those who could afford to pay to live in the front of the train are afforded plenty of comfort and food (not to mention drugs and freshly made sushi) while the poor are heavily persecuted in the tail compartment.

Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer are among the citizens who have been barely surviving for 17 years in the back of the train when the film gets underway. They're covered in dirt, stacked like sardines and are frequently rounded up and counted by armed soldiers with short tempers. As the members of the tail start to rise up and plan to riot their way to the front of the train, they're met with great resistance. They battle their way into each new train car and slowly realize that there are plenty of people on board who are not surviving with only a small ration of protein bars to get the through the days.