Monday, October 13, 2014

The Raven (2012)

Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, & Alice Eve
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

165 years ago, Edgar Allen Poe was on his way from Boston to Virgina, preparing for a new job. He never made it and was found on a bench in Baltimore, near death. He was delusional, wearing someone elses cloths, and kept repeating the name Reynolds, before he died. To this day, the cause of death and his reason for being in Baltimore are unknown. On the anniversary of his death, I decided to watch The Raven, which contrary to popular belief, is not a remake of an older film. This story is a fictional take on Poe's last days, as the writers have Poe assisting local police in catching a serial killer. A killer is on the loose in Baltimore and using Poe's stories as the inspiration for his crimes, so who else is more qualified to help catch him than Poe? I am not a big fan of period dramas, as most are historically inaccurate and move at a snails pace, but the Raven was different. As fiction, it is of course extremely inaccurate and features Poe as an eccentric has been and a fall down drunk, but surprisingly the film is fast paced and really keeps you on the edge of your seat. The idea of using Poe's stories as the inspiration for a real murderer, who tries to copy his stories to the last detail was really brilliant and it plays very well, especially to fans of his work. John Cusack plays the mysterious writer and by this point in his career, I'm convinced that the man can play anyone and be believable. In thirty years, there isn't a role he wouldn't take on and I'm hard pressed to remember even one instance of him failing to be spectacular. The Raven is a stand alone film, with a common title for films featuring Poe, however this one is a great mystery that incorporates very little modern day thinking into the story. The Raven has everything you'd expect from this type of film, simply set 165 years ago. From police chases on horse back to wild 1800's costume parties, this film really surprised me with just how good it was and most definitely gets labeled as a must see movie!

Jesse Stone: Thin Ice

Starring: Tom Selleck, Kathy Baker, & Stephen McHattie
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thin Ice is the fifth Jesse Stone film, and the first that didn't come directly from one of Robert Parker's novels. Parker didn't write this one, but Thin Ice is still every bit as gripping and mysterious as the other Stone stories. Since becoming the police chief in Paradise Massachusetts, Stone has injected himself into local business and politics, discovering a lot of corruption, and a connection to organized crime. He's done a tremendous job, but the town council is very upset with him. All these arrests and headlines have put Paradise on the front page, and it has taken it's toll on the towns main source of income, tourism. The town council tells Stone he has to tone it down or risk losing his job. In typical fashion he responds by telling them, "you can fire me, but you can't tell me what to do." An upset Stone, heads to Boston to have dinner with his friend, the state homicide commander, when a mysterious shooter tries to take them both out. Now Stone is in the middle of another headline grabbing investigation that's become personal. As always Tom Selleck is terrific and pairing him with Picket Fences' Kathy Baker has only made the film series that much more enjoyable for me. Every film has two mysteries, that feature Stone right in the middle of the action. Thin Ice being written by a different person, shows Stone as edgier and more sarcastic, something that was interesting to see. I've read most of the novels and know the character of Jesse Stone very well, and to see him exhibit different personality traits, in an extreme situation, really was a treat for me. If you're not familiar with Jesse Stone, you should take the time to do so. He is one of the most complex characters I have ever come across and he's played by the absolute perfect choice, Tom Selleck. The man has been playing a cop for nearly 40 years and has learned a thing or two about what it takes to lead audiences through an investigation. Thin Ice was definitely a change in direction, but it works, as even in it's fifth installment, Jesse Stone is still every bit as good as it ever was.

Keeping Up With The Steins

Starring: Daryl Sabara, Garry Marshall, & Jeremy Piven
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Being Jewish, I have a bias towards liking a film like this. The usage of Yiddish, along with the many exaggerations of the Jewish family are something most people won't understand, unless they grew up around it. Parts of this film I found to be hysterical, while my non-Jewish friend, sitting next to me, didn't get it at all. As for the film, it's a lie before the credits even stop rolling. Keeping Up With The Steins, really has very little to due with the Stein family, as they are part of the background story at best. The film is actually about a broken family, forced together on the eve of a child's Bar Mitzvah. Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) is turning 13, which in the Jewish religion means that he is about to become a man. His parents are well off and are making huge plans for the event, but Ben wants no part of it. In an attempt to take the attention off himself, he sends an invitation to his estranged Grandfather that he's never met, a Grandfather, who shows up to the families wealthy neighborhood in an old RV, with a woman half his age. This is where the heart of the story comes from, as father and son are forced together after fifteen years. Jeremy Piven stars as the son and believe it or not he's a big time Hollywood agent, living in a life of luxury. This toned down version of Ari is forced to see his father, played by the legendary Garry Marshall. For the past 15 years, he's been living as a hippie, teaching on an Indian reservation. As soon as they see each other, the two are at odds and it really is very funny. The star of the film is Spy Kids, Daryl Sabara, who I have never liked. He's just always so shy and painfully awkward, I really just don't understand his appeal. While he is a major part of the story, the parts of the film that feature him without Marshall or Piven are just painful. Keeping Up With The Steins isn't raunchy and much of the humor is intertwined in the Jewish religion. If you're not Jewish, you'll probably have the same reaction my friend did. Personally I loved it, but I can understand how this film won't appeal to everybody.


Starring: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, & Uma Thurman
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

While you may not know the name Phillip K. Dick, many of the biggest Science Fiction films of the last thirty years have been adaptations of his work. Dick is responsible for the films Blade Runner, The Terminator, Total Recall, Minority Report, and Paycheck just to name a few. Due to the popularity of his work in film and how successful they've been, even a lesser known work like Paycheck has been made into a film. The story includes many of the action sequences and interesting characters associated with Dick's stories, but Paycheck does lack the futuristic Science Fiction that has become Dick's signature, which is the main reason this story isn't as well known as his other works. The story takes place in modern day, where a man is offered an irresistible deal. Jennings (Ben Affleck) is told that if he works on a secret project for the next 3 years, he will receive 100 million dollars. The only catch being that after the 3 years are up, Jennings memory will be erased and he will have no idea what he worked on. As expected, Jennings accepts the deal and returns to his life 3 years later, but nothing is that simple. Soon everyone from the FBI to bounty hunters show up trying to get to him, and the only clues he has come from an envelope he sent himself, containing 19 random items that seem to have little or no value. Ben Affleck stars and by this point we all know how I feel about him. Affleck is a terrific Director, who seems to have little interest in acting anymore. Paycheck however is a 2003 film, a time before Affleck had proven himself and he shows that rare charisma that is only present in his real early work. His performance is outstanding and aided further by his chemistry with co-star Uma Thurman. Thurman is another performer who I find isn't very good unless she's in very specific type of role, and fortunately for Affleck, this is one of those roles. Paycheck is missing the big signature associated with Dick's work and will be somewhat disappointing to his fans. I did miss the futuristic element, but I was intrigued by the mystery Jennings was trying to solve and the 19 items. Combined with the action sequences, (that are always top notch) Paycheck isn't what I expected, but was still very well done and definitely worth watching.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, & George Carlin
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Since the very beginnings of film, "buddy" comedies have always been very popular. From Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello to Cheech & Chong and Harold & Kumar, audiences love to see what kind of trouble these guys can get into. After 25 years and with talks of a second sequel on the way, I finally decided to see what Bill & Ted were all about. I was always scared off by the PG rating, I mean George Carlin in a PG rated film, come on! The first part of the film was pretty much what I expected it to be, as the two failing history dudes, fly around the world looking for historical figures. Things turn from ordinary to extraordinary when the group finally returns to 1989 and decide to go the mall of all places. This is where the film really finds itself and becomes more than just your typical buddy story. The interactions with people and the reactions on both sides are absolutely priceless and is what changed my opinion of this film. Keanu Reeves stars in one of his earliest roles, and manages to show that at some point in his life, he did have a personality and could tell a joke. His partner Alex Winter didn't really do much before or since, and while he wasn't great, he did have chemistry with Reeves, which always helps a movie progress. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure wasn't so excellent, but it was different and manages to hold your attention. I still think this film would have been much better if it were R rated and a lot more edgy, but for what it was, it wasn't bad at all.

Killing Them Softly

Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, James Gandolfini, & Ray Liotta
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 Stars

I really liked the trailer and story associated with the film Killing Them Softly, as it appeared to be an original idea in the genre of organized crime. Usually these films are all somewhat similar to The Godfather or Goodfellas, and while that's not a bad thing, I was really interested in seeing something a little different. Killing Them Softly starts out on the right foot, with a daring heist and a bunch of wiseguys left reeling. I was excited and thought this would be a terrific film, but as it continues it really slows down and the story dies right along with it. After a big mafia card game is robbed, the wiseguys want answers and turn to a man named Jackie (Brad Pitt), a problem solver who works under the radar to get the right answers to the right people. Almost as soon as the heist and fallout from it are over, the film goes from an Action Thriller to a painfully slow Drama. Killing Them Softly had all the makings of a great mob movie, the story, an intriguing leading character, and three guys who were in the Sopranos. The beginning was amazing and the ending was pretty good too, but for the hour and a half in the middle, nothing happens, and It was infuriating! We all know what a great actor Brad Pitt can be, especially in this type of role, but his talent is just completely wasted by a Writer who had a beginning, an ending, and no idea in between. Aside from Pitt, the rest of the cast only has brief appearance here and there, except for Scoot McNairy, who you may remember from the awful Science Fiction film, Monster. Since then he's turning up everywhere and I couldn't imagine why, until I saw him here. McNairy plays a good kid, who is caught in the middle, and just wants to survive. He goes through a range of emotions and from side to side as if he were a veteran well beyond his years. What a thrill it must have been for a young actor starting out to show up on the set and be surrounded by the likes of Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta! As for the film, the bottom line is this, it has a big cast we all know and love, with a few scenes that will really blow you away, but overall the story is severely lacking in content and just wastes the talent of it's performers.

The Least of These (2008)

Starring: Isaiah Washington, Jordan Garrett, & Robert Loggia
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

At a small Catholic High School in Connecticut, everyone knows everyone elses business. One priest has mysteriously disappeared, while another has come to take his place. That priest is former student, Andre James (Isaiah Washington), who from the very beginning knows he isn't entirely welcome at his old school, which he comes to find holds many old secrets. I'm always a bit weary of films that are centered on religion, because if isn't done just right the film is ruined. If there isn't enough of a religious angle, the film isn't believable, but if there's too much, it feels like you're being converted. The Least of These manages to strike a perfect balance, as religion is a part of the story, but it doesn't dominate every aspect of the film. The true heart of this film is in it's mysteries, such as what happened to the old priest and what's this new guy all about? Isaiah Washington stars in what turns out to be the first serious role I've seen him play, and he is outstanding. Father James is battling his own demons and for all the good he wants to do, a part of him doesn't feel entirely comfortable in his new surroundings. Quite ingeniously, Washington is able to portray this not through words, but through his demeanor, which changes as the story progresses. Washington is paired with Jordan Garrett who is always very likeable no matter what type of character he is playing. It doesn't matter if he's playing an evil kid on Law & Order or the innocent victim in Death Sentence, Garrett somehow always manages to connect with the audience and get them pulling for his character. In this film, he plays an introverted outcast, who seems to be devastated by the disappearance of Father Collins. After connecting with Father James, the boy opens up and becomes yet another mystery of the old school. The Least of These was pretty entertaining and I suspect that a lot of the bad user reviews come from people who didn't make it through the whole film. I agree that it starts out slow and takes forever to get moving, but once it does, it really is a terrific story told by a stellar cast.