REVIEW: “Mortdecai”

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Life is full of important questions. Does Donald Trump really think his hair looks good? Will Tom Cruise ever age? Do people actually watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? But perhaps the most perplexing question is this – what has happened to Johnny Depp? And to go a bit further, what is driving him to pick such wretched projects these days? Over the years Depp has chosen a wide variety of weird and eccentric roles. But since his last “Pirates” movie, several of his choices have been…well…suspect.

Simply put, “Mortdecai” is his worst yet. It’s an appallingly unfunny action comedy fueled by lazy humor, juvenile gags, and its absurdly creepy main character. The film is based on a book series by English novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli. There were several books in the series which makes me think there was some decent material there. But screenwriter Eric Aronson doesn’t capture anything interesting or entertaining.

Mortdecai (Depp) is a shady art dealer and charlatan who, along with his high maintenance wife JoHanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), is financially strapped due to heavy tax debt. Inspector and old college acquaintance Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) comes to Mortdecai to help find a stolen rare Goya painting in exchange for settling his tax debt with the government. Along with his trusted manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai globetrots around the world, encounters a variety of uninteresting people, and faces plenty of dangers. Whatever.

Yep, that's the face you'll have as the final credits roll

Yep, that’s the face you’ll have as the credits roll

I’ve already mentioned how terribly unfunny the film is. You can only handle so much of Depp’s measly voice and bizarre gap-toothed smile. Humor focused on vomit, dry heaving, and body parts gets old quick. It also doesn’t help that the entire stolen painting mystery is sleep-inducing. It’s dull, lifeless, and smothered out by all of the vain attempts at humor. The movie tries to liven things up by injecting a few comedy-laced action sequences, but they are just as uninspired and forgettable.

I feel as though “Mortdecai” revolves around a continuous inside joke that I was never let in on. Surely a comedy can’t be this anemic, lame, and humorless. I sat stone-faced the entire time watching a talented and wasted cast flounder around with some of the worst material of the year. It could be said that this is a new low for Johnny Depp. The guy has talent. We have seen it in the past. But you see none of it in “Mortdecai”. Instead you get Depp at his most annoying and you have to wonder how much more of this nonsense can his career take?

VERDICT – 1 STAR

1 star

REVIEW: “August: Osage County”

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“August: Osage County” is a hard pill to swallow. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and could be categorized as a dysfunctional family drama with pinches of dark comedy. It features a star-studded cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and a premise that may have a lot of appeal to some audiences. But underneath all of the big acting from big stars lies a coarse and abrasive film that never knows when to pull back the reins. It ends up being a movie I could never wrap my arms around.

Tracy Letts (who also penned the play) writes the screenplay and John Wells (better known for his television work) directs the film. It’s set in Osage County, Oklahoma during a sweltering hot August. Violet (Streep) is a mean and contentious women suffering from mouth cancer and a heavy addiction to pain pills. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a calmer sort who seeks refuge in his books and liquor. One day Beverly hires a caretaker for his wife and soon after disappears.

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Distraught over her husband’s disappearance, Violet calls in her family and a parade of family dysfunction follows. First to arrive is her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Shortly after, Violet’s three daughters come. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is a shrill carbon copy of her mother. She’s at odds with her mom for leaving home and moving to Colorado. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the spacy middle daughter who hasn’t been home in years. And there is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest daughter and the only one who lives close to home. Each of these characters have a wheelbarrow full of flaws and baggage that all comes into play as the film moves along.

But if that assortment of maladjusted individuals wasn’t enough, we also have Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) who apparently has an eye for younger women and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) who is bearing the fruits of their horrible parenting. Then there is Karen’s fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a phoney and moral-free Florida businessman. Oh and then there is Charles and Mattie Fae’s awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who may have a weird little secret.

It’s almost impossible to like any of these people. With the exception of the caregiver, practically every character reveals an appalling secret, spits out hateful insults, or does something vile. And the film is relentless. It bludgeons you to death with one dysfunctional family scene after another. I found it to be smothering. The story never allows any breathing room or provides any variation with its characters. And the constant barrage of bad behavior and disgraceful revelations is a bit ridiculous. It’s as if Letts wants to trump one disgraceful act or insult with another. And so on and so on…

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Again, the cast is a laundry list of big names and the performances are good. However many of the scenes are so big and the characters so loud that it can be difficult to really appreciate the performances. It’s one of those cases where the material hurts what the actors are doing. Streep is fine as the venom-tongued Violet but she is so big and brash. It’s definitely how the character is written but Streep does her share of scene chewing. Julia Roberts has been applauded for her work but it too is a loud and showy performance. Roberts is never overmatched by the character and she shows brilliance in some scenes. But the character is crassly written and some of her dialogue is so over the top. The other performances aren’t getting the same attention, but they’re generally good when the screenplay allows them to be.

I’ve heard that the stage version of “August: Osage County” is very good. Sadly I don’t think it has translated well to the big screen. This is a crude and unyielding adaptation that has a powerful and potent potential. The idea is appealing and every so often we get glimpses of what I hoped the film to be. Unfortunately I was put off by these characters, their endless dysfunction, and their profane spite. This was a tiresome watch and tough movie for me to endure. It’s a shame because with this much talent I was expecting more.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“Jack the Giant Slayer” – 3 STARS

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Hollywood is all about the fairy tales these days. Much like the superhero craze, we’ve seen a load of fairy tale features covering everything from Snow White to Hansel and Gretel. The latest is a variation of the familiar Jack and the Beanstalk story titled “Jack the Giant Slayer”. It comes from director Bryan Singer and to call it a slight deviation from the classic story would be misleading. This CGI laden fantasy picture takes a few of the ingredients from the fairy tale but basically builds its own original story.

I find Bryan Singer to be a very hit or miss director so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this picture. What I got was an above average and sometimes surprisingly fun fantasy film that can be entertaining as long as you’re able to overlook its flaws. I know some who have struggled with doing that, but for me and my tempered expectations I actually came out of the theater a bit surprised. Unfortunately there are a few hiccups and for that I just can’t let the movie off the hook.

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It almost feels like they took parts from several other fantasy films, threw them in a pot, and mixed them together to get the story of “Jack and the Giant Slayer”. I have no doubt that throughout the film you’ll be saying “yep, I’ve seen that before” repeatedly. We get the blind and bull-headed king who insists on an arranged marriage between his daughter and a devious lord. We get the poor commoner who falls in love with the princess. And we have a huge event that allows the commoner to prove his worth. Throw in a silly sidekick and a trusted protector and you’re into some pretty familiar territory. And while all of these characters play out pretty much as you would expect, I still think the story does enough fun things with them to entertain.

Nicholas Hoult (you may remember him from this years “Warm Bodies”) plays Jack, a poor farm boy who goofs up one day by trading his uncle’s horse to a monk for a handful of mystical beans. Of course you know the story, these are magical beans but Jack’s irate uncle doesn’t buy it and he flings them across the room with one falling through a crack in their floor. In a slightly similar story of frustrated youth, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) pleads with her stubborn father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) not to sanction her marriage to the slimy Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). As usual the King is blind to Roderick’s scheme to take over his kingdom even though we recognize it before he says a line of dialogue. Then again if some of these characters were smart we wouldn’t have much of the story left.

Repelled by the arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love, the princess disguises herself and sneaks out of the city on horseback. But after ending up lost in the middle of a late night deluge she comes across Jack’s house where she seeks shelter. The two make starry-eyes at each other but are interrupted when the rainwater soaked bean under the house sprouts. And boy does it sprout! Jack is knocked out of the house and Isabelle is taken through the clouds by the humongous beanstalk. Soon the King and his men arrive and Jack informs them about the princess. A rescue team of Guardians led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and including Jack and Roderick head up the beanstalk to find the princess. But waiting above is a sky world inhabited by giants with a special appetite for human flesh.

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Now even though this movie features some pretty standard characters I can honestly say I was interested in some of them. Hoult is quite good and believable as the unexpected hero. I also thought Tomlinson was solid and very princessy. Sadly she isn’t given anything to do outside of the typical damsel in distress routine. That’s unfortunate. I would love to see her character have more depth. I also didn’t mind Stanley Tucci, a very good actor who’s clearly having a lot of fun as the antagonist. And as always Ewan McGregor is very good giving a variation of the knight in shining armor. McShane on the other hand seems dry and by the numbers. That could be because his character was probably the most poorly written in the film.

But where the movie spends most of its money is on the visuals. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a virtual feast of tantalizing eye candy. The beanstalks are incredibly well conceived. The scenery with its green meadows, huge waterfalls, and lush forests are nothing short of gorgeous. But the giants are the real treat, each designed with amazing detail. I was really surprised at just how well done they are particularly in some big action sequences in the second half of the film. But in spite of all of these great special effects I did at time feel a bit disconnected due to the massive amounts of CGI. It wasn’t the quality of CGI but the volume. And it wasn’t helped by the 3-D. Like so many films the 3-D offered nothing for me and it felt pointless. I also have to say some of the costume designs were pretty dreadful, specifically the royalty garb. I couldn’t help but laugh at McShane in his gold-plated monstrosity.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a mixed bag but overall I found it to be an entertaining mixed bag. If you can shake off the cookie cutter characters, the occasional cheap and lazy writing, and the overload of CGI there’s some fun to be had here. I can honestly say I had a good time with this picture and I would really like to praise it more. Unfortunately its shortcomings keep me from doing that and instead I’m left feeling that this could have been something really special. Instead we’re left with a good but not great film that left a lot of potential behind. Still, you could do a lot worse at the theater.

REVIEW: “The Impossible”

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Most of us remember the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the catastrophic devastation left in its wake. It was a tragedy on an epic scale and lives around the world were altered forever. “The Impossible” tells the incredible true story of a family who survived this terrible event against truly impossible odds. Going in I was expecting a potentially good disaster flick. But to categorize “The Impossible” as just a disaster movie would be to criminally throw aside the qualities that make this one of the best movies of 2012. You can dismiss it if you like, but I found it to be a devastating yet moving experience unlike anything I’ve ever had with a simple “disaster movie”.

“The Impossible” isn’t a film you enjoy. You endure it while at the same time realizing that you’re seeing something special – an example of skilled filmmaking from a confident and savvy director. You endure it while at the same time soaking up its powerful and committed performances. You endure it while at the same time realizing you’re not being insulted by dumbed down, clichéd material. This is an emotionally heavy movie and I did leave the theater drained. But I was also deeply moved and reminded of that great human spirit found both in the will to live and in the willingness to help others. I love it when a movie does that to me.

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But perhaps where this movie resonated with me the most was in its depiction of a parent’s self-sacrificial love for their children. We see motherly and fatherly instincts to protect their children in the face of danger, instincts that many of us can relate to. But hey, we’ve seen this before in the movies, right? Yes we have but rarely is it depicted with such realistic emotion. Everything coming out of Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts is authentic and completely believable. There isn’t an ounce of artificiality to these characters or how they react to their situations. It’s that genuineness that grabs us and latches us on to both of them.

For those that don’t know, McGregor and Watts play Henry and Maria Belon. They’ve brought their three sons Lucas, Thomas, and Simon along for a Christmas vacation at an beachfront resort in Thailand. Everything is great until, on a warm sunny day as the family plays by the pool, the tsunami hits. The family is splintered by the force of the waves and the rest of the movie documents their quest for survival and to be reunited. I talked about how good McGregor and Watts are but let me also share a little love for the children. The three child actors are fantastic especially newcomer Tom Holland as the oldest son Lucas. He gets the majority of the work between the three and he’s very good. He brings out a toughness and tenacity from his character while also having plenty of those moments that remind us that he’s just a child. It’s an attention-getting performance.

But again. a lot of credit has to go to director J.A. Bayona. It’s amazing that he has only a handful of credits under his belt. The way he lays out the story both narratively and visually shows a skill and technique usually reserved for more seasoned directors. I’ve talked enough about the story but I have to speak about the presentation. I loved the way Bayona uses sound in the first half of the movie. He has a very specific and strategic way of engaging your sense of hearing. He preps your ears in the pre-tsunami scenes by accentuating the sounds of the beautiful environment. Those sounds dramatically change in the post-tsunami scenes where we hear things like raging waters and far away screams. There is also the tension of every distant sound that may resemble the roar of another wave.

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The special effects are also intricate in drawing us into this disaster along with this family. The tsunami and the furious waters are shown just enough to shake us and then ground us in the situation. It’s never overused in an attempt to get more reaction from the audience. It steers clear of that which is one reason why I feel the scrutiny it’s received is misguided. Some have taken issue with the movie for depicting the catastrophe. But I think this is one of the most thoughtful and respectful treatments of a sensitive subject like this that I’ve seen. There have been movies that have exploited traumatic events but this isn’t one of them.

I loved “The Impossible” for a variety of reasons. It avoids soaking us in conventional sentimentality. Instead it tells an intensely affecting story and allows our senses to take it all in and react in our own way. And trust me, I reacted. I teared up more in this movie than in any other I’ve watched and I never once felt manipulated. This is a movie that will wear you out but then pick you back up. It shows us the resolve that lies in the heart of people and reflects how the best comes out of us during the worst of circumstances. This movie will stick with you and even though its a tough watch its a rewarding one and shouldn’t be missed.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN” – 4 STARS

It may have the strangest title of any movie you will see in theaters this year. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a British romantic comedy that doesn’t shy away from the absurdity of its title. It’s a story about faith and believing you can accomplish something regardless of how preposterous it may sound. But this isn’t another run-of-the-mill, paper-thin rom-com that we seem to get bombarded with each year. Instead, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” has charm, a lot of heart, and some really good laughs.

“Salmon” is based on a novel by British author Paul Torday. It centers around the idea of a wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) to bring salmon fishing to his homeland of Yemen. He’s a visionary who sees the project as something that would bring his people happiness while a small opposition group of hardliners see it as an attempt to westernize their country. Nonetheless he sends his representative Harriet (Emily Blunt) to meet with Britain’s foremost expert on fisheries, Fred Jones (Ewen McGregor) to test the feasibility of the project. From the start, Fred writes it off as a ludicrous idea noting everything from Yemen’s lack of water to its temperature as reasons why it won’t work. Harriet, on the other hand, is armed with answers and provides several reasons why it could work.

Still Fred wants nothing to do with the project but is soon forced to by Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the British Prime Minister’s cold-hearted press secretary. She’s taking some heat over how the country is being perceived by middle eastern countries particularly due to their military presence in Afghanistan. She sees helping the salmon fishing in Yemen project as a way to manipulate headlines and make the country look good. Maxwell is a mean and abrasive character but she also provides several of the film’s bigger laughs. While she is funny, there were times where the script overplays her baseness. Fred goes to Yemen to oversee the project and is soon won over by the Sheik’s vision and passion. He also discovers a growing attracted to Harriet which complicates both of their lives even further.

For me a romantic comedy will never work without good characters. “Salmon” has good characters. Fred is basically a fishing nerd. He’s a by-the-books fellow who feels uncomfortable if he’s even close to being outside his comfort zone. His marriage to Mary (Rachael Stirling) is on it’s last leg and he has no sense of direction for his life. He’s also not your typical rom-com male lead. He’s not suave, powerful, or your standard movie beau hunk. He’s just a guy and he’s easy to sympathize with and maybe even relate to in some ways. McGregor is perfectly cast and he has no problem capturing the qualities of Fred. Even Harriet isn’t your typical character. While she is beautiful, she’s also intelligent and witty yet equally unsure of her future. She recently became involved with a soldier but their relationship is put on hold when he is deployed to Afghanistan. Both main characters feel real. They’re not over-the-top or unrelatable nor are they cardboard cutouts. I liked them both.

“Salmon” does a lot of things right. The performances are really strong throughout and the chemistry between McGregor and Blunt doesn’t have to be manipulated. The movie also doesn’t force the relationship on the main characters. I don’t want to ruin anything but lets just say you’ll know what I mean after you’ve seen the film. I also really liked the sequences that take place in Yemen. They were actually filmed in Morocco and offer their own unique beauty. Also, I found the story of faith to be very effective. The sheik is a man of faith but Fred is not. As the story progresses we see that start to change. The salmon project becomes a time of reflection and self-discovery for Fred and in some ways also for Harriet. There’s one particular scene where Fred is walking with a heavy crowd of people. The overhead shot shows him stopping, turning around, then going back against the steady flow of pedestrians. It perfectly represents the change of direction in his life, the going against the grain if you will. As a whole, the story is well done and as mentioned it features some truly funny moments. Perhaps the only issue with the story is that I did feel some of the plot directions seemed too clean-cut. A few things happen along the way that just felt a little too convenient. But that’s not a big gripe.

I love a good romantic comedy or drama but they seem so rare these days. The genre has been watered down with films that follow the same broken formulas. But “Salmon” is unique in that it actually has funny moments, it is intelligent, and it’s two main characters are easy to care about and believe in. Again, some things in the story are a little too on the nose, but they’re easy to overlook when you have so much else to like. The film looks good and the performances are superb, especially from Blunt. It’s just a solid romantic comedy and so many of the other films in this genre should take notes.

“STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE” 3D – 4 STARS

There is perhaps no better monument to geekdom than the Star Wars franchise. George Lucas’ sprawling epic and personal cash cow has leapt outside the bounds of movies and into television, novels, comic book series, and more. That doesn’t even count the loads of money brought in through toys and other merchandise. So Star Wars certainly has it’s fan base and it always will. But you don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciated the monumental accomplishment that “Star Wars” was when it hit theaters in 1977. It was a ground-breaking film in regards to its visual style and special effects. The film spawned two sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”, both of which were immensely popular with the fans.

But one of the greatest stirs within the Star Wars community came in 1993 when Lucas announced he would be making a new trilogy, a prequel to the first three films. They would connect directly to the original trilogy and complete Lucas’ vision for the saga. In 1999, “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” was released. There has probably never been a movie released that has been under more scrutiny and breakdown that Episode 1 when it arrived in theaters. Fanboys and critics alike looked for chinks and flaws while never being able to keep from comparing it to the original trilogy. This has made judging Episode 1 on its own merits almost impossible. But Episode 1 had a lot on its plate and while I did find it to be the weakest of the six Star Wars pictures, after seeing the re-release, it still grabbed me and brought me back to the universe that I have always loved.

Since Lucas’ intent was to connect the two trilogies into one cohesive saga, I was always curious to see how he would start everything. In Episode 1, Lucas sets everything in motion by focusing on, of all things, politics as the biggest weapon of manipulation used to bring about the tragic events that we all know will unfold. We also get a look at the Jedi in their prime. We spend most of the time with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they go from political negotiators to planet liberators. A young Natalie Portman plays a Naboo queen who has a major impact on events. Another key part of the film is the introduction to Anakin Skywalker (played wonderfully by Jake Lloyd), a young child slave on Tatooine who we know later becomes Darth Vader. Lucas’ focus on Anakin in the first three films ends up reshaping the actual focus of the overall saga, and for my money in a good way.

As a whole, the structure of “The Phantom Menace” is pretty impressive. It was a daunting task to make three films that could connect directly to the previous trilogy and do so in a way that’s both cohesive and that survives the mythological scrutiny it faced from fanboys. Episode 1 does a nice job of putting the key characters in place while only occasionally getting bogged down in the almost mandatory setup scenes needed to launch the story. It’s nicely written and with the exception of a few hiccups, I found myself still pulled right back into the saga even after all these years.

Several new characters are introduced. Some of them work really well while others, not so much. The hatred for the Jar Jar Binks character was well documented and understandable. For me the problem wasn’t so much with the character, but with Lucas’ overkill in using him as “comic relief”. Lucas overplayed his hand and the result was an annoying and distracting character. On the flip side is the sinister Darth Maul physically played by Ray Park (his voice was done by Peter Serafinowicz). Not only was he one of the coolest looking Star Wars characters of all but his lightsaber fight with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon still blows me away.

There’s no doubt that Lucas wants to show off the benefits of the new technology available to him in “The Phantom Menace”. In many ways it’s a good thing but in other ways it works against the film. I felt in some instances the movie becomes a barrage of “watch this” CGI moments. There are several scenes that could have easily been left out and the film would have been better for it. But there are also many scenes where the special effects present Star Wars in a new, more jaw-dropping light. The pod races on Tatooine is breath-taking and the space scenes are amazing. Most of the CGI characters move and fit flawlessly into the scenes with human actors. John Williams is back with an incredible score that gives us tiny tastes of the music from the original trilogy. Williams also creates new music that feels as though it want to interconnect with the original music as the story progresses. It works beautifully.

The one significant change for the re-release of Episode 1 is that the film is in 3D. The only problem is that it didn’t feel that significant at all. There are a few scenes where the 3 D works well, the pod races and space battles come to mind. There are also other instances where more depth is given to the scenes. But as a whole, the 3D isn’t particularly impressive. In fact, the 3D trailer that I saw earlier doesn’t reflect what you get from the full film. Now I’ll be honest, the 3D wasn’t the main draw for me. I mainly wanted to go and experience Star Wars on the big screen with my son. But if you’re going expecting a fantastic 3D experience you’ll probably be disappointed.

At the end of the day, “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” brought me right back into this magical universe that I’ve always loved. Again, Episode 1 is probably the weakest of the six films but I have a hard time railing on it as many others tend to do. It has it’s share of flaws but it also has it’s share of excitement and grandeur. But most importantly, it looks, sounds, and feels like a Star Wars picture and it sets the table for the rest of this glorious saga.