Quick Movie Review: The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille (2016)

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1923’s silent production of The Ten Commandments proved to be one of the most ground breaking films of its time. Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this was to be expected. The man essentially brought cinema to Hollywood and made the two synonymous with each other.

For The Ten Commandments, sets were huge and over-the-top, creating the blueprint for DeMille’s followup talkie version in 1956–perhaps the most ambitious films ever made. DeMille was a very ambitious guy.

Nearly 60 years later, writer, Peter Brosnan, set out on an ambitious project of his own. In 1982, after hearing that there may be an ancient Egyptian city buried in California, he becomes fixated with digging it up.

The story goes that after filming wrapped up in 1923, this massive set just disappeared. Well, DeMille was supposed to have completely destroyed his set, per a deal with the land owners in Guadalupe, California. But a brief quote from his autobiography hints that maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just buried it beneath the sand dunes in Guadalupe.

The documentary jumps back and forth between DeMille’s filming of the Ten Commandments and Brosnan’s excavation, keeping the context fresh in your mind. The film also serves as a sort of mini-biography on DeMille’s life. It’s a surprisingly spiritual project, drawing beautiful parallels between DeMille’s career and Brosnan’s 30 year endeavor, and how they both overcame seemingly impossible obstacles through faith and God-given strength and determination.

For 30 years Brosnan wasn’t just trying to dig up the lost city, but also researching the filmmaking itself, compiling tons of rare interviews with cast members and locals of Guadalupe–all of which could very well double as special features on The Ten Commandments DVD release.

Brosnan often uses a romanticized viewpoint of early Hollywood, but you can tell he has a solid grasp of the times. These types of projects are much better when the filmmaker has this kind of evident passion.

The only real pitfall in this documentary is the stiff narration by Brosnan, himself. But the facts are what’s important–even if they’re not always presented in the most invigorating ways.

But Brosnan showcases some truly impressive film editing here. There’s definitely a specific vision in mind. Since his documentary was made over the span of 30 years, it often has a retro feel to it. Old footage is much grainier, truly showing the longevity of this project. Details don’t go overlooked either. Even the small ones. Each time he shows a still photograph of the Hollywood sign, it’s chronologically accurate with the time being discussed in the film.

The parallels run deep. It took Cecil B. DeMille 30 years to realize his crowning achievement. He made The Ten Commandments in 1923, but with complete freedom got to make the film he actually wanted in 1956. Brosnan’s patience pays off as well, perhaps stumbling upon his own magnum opus.

Twizard Rating: 87

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Quick Movie Review: Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

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Hitman’s Bodyguard helps prove that it doesn’t take comedians to make a funny comedy film. This isn’t the first time, but the success rate isn’t necessarily high either. However, actually claiming itself as a true comedy might, in fact, be the harder thing for this film to prove.

And it’s not Ryan Reynolds or Samuel L. Jackson’s fault. Pretty much each scene they’re in stays true to genre. But then throw in Gary Oldman as the dark and twisted evil-dictator in subsequent scenes and the film doesn’t get the chance to blend the two together. It feels like two completely different movies.

The first act is filled with convoluted details and rapid-fire exposition, opening up too many plot points all at once, way too early on. Oldman’s character is on trial at the International Court of Justice. The problem is, they can’t find any witnesses to testify against him because he’s hired an assassin to kill everyone eligible to do so. Except for Jackson’s character, Darius Kincaid–a notorious hit man who’s serving a prison sentence.

Interpol makes a deal with Kincaid in order for him to testify. The only problem is getting him all the way to Holland without him getting killed by Gary Oldman’s hired assassins (not really Gary Oldman, but using his character name just adds more details than necessary). That’s where Reynolds’ character steps in. He plays Michael Bryce, a professional bodyguard who used to work for Interpol before a job-gone-bad ruined his reputation.

The tone swings all over the place. It’s very very sinister one moment, and then off-the-wall comedy the next. Then it throws in a seemingly random love story in the middle of it all. The irreverent humor almost saves it, but you still sit there wondering why the love story is happening in the first place. Because if you have to disrupt the momentum of a film just to get a mediocre payoff at the end, it’s not really worth it, right? At least there are other payoffs as well. Bigger ones.

It turns out Kincaid and Bryce have some history and don’t care for each other, which just makes the film more enjoyable. Their chemistry is what makes the it entertaining despite all the cliches and the cheesy action sequences. The action’s not necessarily over-the-top–it’s just silly a lot of the time.

Blending 3 genres together isn’t easy. Which is why it’s usually met with harsh criticism. This is a case in point. But Jackson and Reynolds have enough going for them here to make you okay watching them in a sequel if it ever happens.

Twizard Rating: 82

Quick Movie Review: Rocky III (1982)

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We’re officially into the ’80s now. And it feels like it. Things are a lot more campy. Mr. T is involved and everything he says is asinine. The film starts off with Rocky fighting a professional wrestler played by Hulk Hogan. It’s ridiculous, but so is the movie at this point.

Rocky Balboa is now America’s sweetheart. He appears on TV shows, he lives in a mansion, and his friends and family seem to be getting fed up with it all. I can see why.

Rocky has become unrealistically complacent. He is challenged by a boxer on-the-rise, Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T. Much to his trainer’s dismay, Rocky hosts a public training session filled with games, t-shirt booths, and an Italian band. And it’s all intercut with Mr. T’s serious workout regimen. I think the audience gets the point. He’s posing for pictures and kissing girls on the cheek while he’s working out. It’s silly. I get that his character is supposed to be more cocky now, but even this is obviously not okay. Over-the-top scenarios in order to drive home a point will always be too on-the-nose.

But then you realize that Rocky’s never really had it all that rough in the first place. Sure, he lived in a dump, but his career was essentially handed to him. So the spoiled and entitled mindset kinda makes sense.

Paulie has become obnoxious. Rocky flies to LA with Creed to train, and Paulie is unhappy being there. But I’m not even sure why he needs to be there in the first place. They decide that his character should be contrarian about it all, so every chance they get they make him say something negative. It’s annoying and he’s whiney. Stallone’s got this thing for stream-of-consciousness dialogue and characters saying what they feel in order to prove a point that the audience already knows, but sometimes it’s too much.

The first act or so takes awhile to get anywhere, but the second half is actually quite good. It gets comfortable in the formula it’s derived for itself. The formula that gives these movies such great finales.

I can see how this installment could be somewhat of a fan favorite. It’s got character and it’s fairly humorous in one of those you-don’t-notice-what’s-funny-until-you’ve-watched-it-twenty-times kind of way. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but I’d probably rather watch this comedy act than the first film’s self-aggrandizement any day.

Twizard Rating: 76

Quick Movie Review: xXx (2002)

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Has action changed all that much since 2002? Because action in movies has. Back before about 10 years ago, characters were much less jokey, things blew up a lot more, and bad guys had terrible aim.

While dated as can be, xXx is an enjoyable watch. The film’s inspiration is questionable, but Vin Diesel plays the title role exactly how you’d expect him to. There is no shortage of platitudinous quips, but he delivers them in a way that makes you forget that the dialogue is terribly written.

Diesel plays Xander Cage, aka Triple X, a criminal stunt man hired by the US government to infiltrate the international mercenary group, Anarchy 99. There’s not a whole lot more to it than that, yet the film seems to be able to stretch itself to nearly 120 minutes (132 in the director’s cut).

xXx is so 2002 that, at times, you can’t differentiate it from a early 2000s Disney Channel Original Movie. It sacrifices practicality for spectacle whenever it gets the chance. But considering its action-based modus operandi, the film still tends to drag at times.

Ultimately xXx does nothing new. At all. The only reason why anyone would watch this film is to experience Vin Diesel’s charisma and charm. Because that’s really the only unique aspect brought to the otherwise trite premise.

But it’s entertaining. Mindless, but entertaining. Despite the hackneyed script, you have to commend the movie for not taking itself too seriously, ultimately not making it a chore to watch. It’s actually quite fun and ridiculous in all its glory.

Twizard Rating: 72

Quick Movie Review: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

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Strangely enough Zac Efron was in 3 comedy films in 2016, when the man lacks any sort of comedic conviction whatsoever. It’s a good thing he has Adam DeVine to compensate for him in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

The film follows Mike and Dave (DeVine and Efron), brothers who are always screwing up family parties with their wild sensibilities and attempts to snag women. So for their sister’s wedding in Hawaii, their parents give them an ultimatum–either they bring nice girls as dates or they don’t show up at all.

Right away you think to yourself, “Well they probably have a couple of female friends that are parent approved.” Whether or not this would work for the characters’ dilemma, this simple solution is never addressed. Mike and Dave jump straight to placing an ad on Craigslist, advertising a free trip to Hawaii, because that’s the easiest way to get strange women to go on vacation with you. The unrealistic thought process of the characters not only insults the audience’s intelligence, but lets us know that the film is just a means to an end, uninterested in actual logic.

Situations within a ridiculous premise still have to be cohesive to that ridiculous premise. Writers can’t just do anything they want just because they’ve established a impractical scenario.

After placing the ad, the guys get thousands of responses but inexplicably can’t find girls who are acceptable enough for their parents’ standards. Eventually, a pair of trashy girls (Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick) decide they want a free vacation and put on a nice-girl front so the guys will want to take them.

There are plot holes galore in this setup, but it’s also the time in the movie with the best comedy. The rest of the way includes some funny isolated moments, but for the most part it tapers off. Then when it tries to stretch the already-thinning plot, things get weird and unnecessary.

With that said, I laughed more than I probably should have. DeVine has a true knack for comedy, which only serves to outshine his costars, constantly creating a juxtaposition of how poor the rest of them are.

Besides the initial archetypes set for the characters, their personalities are constantly wavering. We’re made to like and dislike certain characters on a whim based on what’s convenient to the story at any given moment. I do applaud, however, that the film doesn’t really waste time trying to create conflict and develop a relationship between the two girls. Whether this was inadvertent or intentional, it works in favor of the overall product.

At one point in the story the film Wedding Crashers is mentioned, which only reminds us of what we could be watching instead.

Twizard Rating: 60

Quick Movie Review: Passengers (2016)

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Great sets, cool effects, and an outer space setting–all the typical makings of a sci-fi movie. Don’t let this fool you. It’s a romance film. And a good one at that. It delves deep into the psyches of two characters and sees it all the way through.

Chris Pratt plays Jim, a passenger on board a spaceship heading towards a distant planet in order to repopulate away from Earth. The journey lasts 120 years and all 5000 passengers are supposed to remain in hibernation up until the final descent. After the AI wakes up Jim, he’s excited about all the new people and opportunities he’ll face. Except he discovers he’s been awoken 90 years too early. And he’s the only one who has.

Unable to put himself back into hibernation, he’s alone for over a year. He contemplates ending his own life until he discovers the hibernation pod of a woman, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence). Her presence gives him hope. He learns all about her from her passenger profile and ultimately falls in love with her. With nobody else on the ship–except a robot bartender (Michael Sheen)–he mulls over the idea of waking her up so she can share in his miserable desolation.

In some regard you can’t imagine another actor in Pratt’s role. His distinct brand of humor and timing gives us the levity we enjoy throughout the film. Then we ask ourselves if we really need it in the first place. He has a chance, here, to showcase his dramatic acting chops. And he really tries, but with somewhat diminishing returns. It’s not terrible, but it’s just enough to question his casting–other than the fact that he’s a marquee name.

His tongue-in-cheek persona just adds to the film’s already-uneven tone, which is only exposed more by its all-too-telling score. I enjoy a couple of the motifs, but I also don’t like being told when my mood should change from happy to sad.

Yet we get a lot out of the performances. Emotions from both leads are felt. Lawrence perfects chilling anger and Pratt does fine with his drowning-soul melancholy. Once she’s in the picture, Pratt’s acting improves drastically. Not many will deny the pair’s chemistry. But you can also make a case that either would have the same chemistry with anyone else they were to share the screen with.

There are a couple of details that are lazily missed, but those plot holes don’t really make or break the overall story of the film. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) gives us some lazy cuts, but the DP makes up for it with some deceptively beautiful cinematography.

Although the tonal shifts are all but jarring, its ruggedness works in favor of its self-created hybrid genre. The big reveal is a bit disappointing, but necessary to the greater good of the story.

Passengers is a fantastic love story whose premise only makes sense amidst its intergalactic setting.

Twizard Rating: 90

Quick Movie Review: La La Land (2016)

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I’ve always said Ryan Gosling was meant to do comedy. I think very highly of the guy, but I hold the unpopular opinion that he’s not necessarily the best dramatic actor in the world. In La La Land he gets a chance to utilize some dramatic-acting skills, but strays away from his usual angst-filled characters as he showcases his humor chops.

It helps that he and Emma Stone have such great chemistry. With their third feature together (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) the pair demonstrate why they may be our generation’s Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers–two actors that are paid homage to in this film.

La La Land is about a struggling actress, Mia (Stone), who is constantly being rejected at every audition she has, and a mercurial jazz pianist, Sebastian (Gosling), who dreams of opening his own jazz club. He is a talented musician but often finds himself going against his own integrity playing pop music and simple lounge standards. The two meet in a way that would make any classic cinephile proud, and over time develop a relationship, each dealing with his and her own floundering careers is the process.

The film acts as a love letter to Los Angeles. It’s not necessarily a nice letter, but it’s not a breakup letter either. More like a letter to an abusive partner who you keep coming back to for some inexplicable reason, only for them to spit on you and tell you you’re worthless.

It pokes fun at the city, constantly saying out loud the things most of us would be tried for treason for ever thinking. But they’ve all been actual thoughts lingering in our minds at one point or another.

It’s a quixotical view of what LA is supposed to be–or used to be. The two characters are old souls adamantly romanticizing what they view their ideal careers to be, only to realize that they view this city in an antiquated way that no longer really exists in today’s world. Things such as technology and loss of nostalgia are ruining it, and they struggle to find the balance between the new and the old without wanting to compromise much.

The film, on the other hand, compromises the new and the old very well in its every moment. The songs don’t feel modern, but they don’t feel dated either. They’re not necessarily poppy and affable at first–fitting well into the film’s jazz theme.

Gosling and Stone are not fantastic singers, but they’re not bad either, which makes their performances all the more appealing–they’re one of us.

Much like a non-New Yorker can empathize with a film that pays homage (or lack thereof) to New York, one doesn’t have to be from Los Angeles to get what the film is trying to say. Viewers can see where the movie comes from. LA is everywhere. We experience it in almost every movie we watch in one way or another.

La La Land isn’t just for Los Angeleans. It’s for dreamers and people with big visions. For people who have been rejected over and over and over again, told they’re not good enough, and still, for some reason, keep going back at it. But like anything we love, it takes a lot of work. La La Land makes you believe in your dreams again.

Twizard Rating: 100

Quick Movie Review: Neighbors 2 (2016)

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If you want to talk about consistency between the two Neighbors films, they do a great job. Unfortunately, the first film isn’t good. And its sequel is perhaps slightly more enjoyable than its predecessor, but suffers from so many of the same fundamental issues (see Neighbors).

I didn’t need to revisit the first film in order to prep for this one. All I had to remember was how much I hated it.

This one features the same unbelievable amount of plot holes, the same immature and derivative humor, yet lacks the somewhat “relatable” theme. However, I can probably say that I laughed a bit more this time around (twice is still more than once, right?).

In Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, husband and wife duo, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, sell their house, which is now in escrow. So the new owners have 30 days to back out if anything seems fishy about the situation. It just so happens that a new sorority, headed by Chloe Grace Moretz, moves in next door. Apparently sororities in America have a strict “no party rule,” but THIS sorority vows to ignore that rule and throws one every night of the week.

One of the things I hate about the first film is repeated once more here. The filmmakers want us to root for both sides, trying to make us empathize with both Rogen/Byrne AND the sorority sisters. But reality is, Moretz and her gang are really terrible people. What halfway-decent person would throw bloody tampons at a window with a 2-year-old on the other side watching? I’m literally not exaggerating.

Then, in comes Zac Efron reprising his frat-guy role from the first film. But he’s not just featured in the film–he becomes a third protagonist. We go into his whole story of being kicked out of his apartment after his roommate gets engaged. Now he feels all alone and is unsure of where his life is going.

So the film is jumping around all three stories and winds up covering zero ground because of it. And Rogen, who’s the only funny person out of the leads, is featured the least. Moretz and Efron are great and all, but they’re not funny. This is a comedy.

Pretty much the whole film consists of the married couple and the sorority going back and forth pranking each other. Rogen and Byrne report them to the university’s administration, so to get back at them, the sorority steals all of their belongings and sells them (?). The filmmakers obviously assume that no one watching this is trying to solve any of these elementary conflicts themselves. Instead, they just keep piling on a series of unrealistic events where nobody is rational at all, and we’re supposed to laugh about it.

The movies boasts a couple of nice cameos, which go underutilized for the most part. And the comedy scenes have no real structure or pacing–the takes are all just thrown in there in a seemingly unorganized way.

So if you loved the first film, you’ll probably love this Neighbors 2. If you hated the first film, you probably won’t even consider watching this one. It’s a win-win!

Twizard Rating: 54

Quick Movie Review: Jerry Maguire (1996)

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I love movies that can’t necessarily be classified by a single genre. Jerry Maguire isn’t a chick flick, but it’s not a sports film either. Nor is it a traditional comedy. It’s possibly all three, but never just one. That’s what makes it great. It appeals to both genders equally without alienating either of them.

The title character is played by Tom Cruise in one of his best performances. He’s a slimy sports agent who, one day, has an epiphany, realizing he no longer wants to sell lies to his clients, but real relationships. The only problem is he doesn’t even know how to have a real relationship in his personal life. At work, he sends out a mission statement that lauds the idea of having less clients to improve quality. This sudden life-changing notion wins over the approval of his cohorts, but his high-level agency disapproves and fires him.

Starting from the ground up, Jerry has nothing and no one to work with. The only people that follow him are a low-level employee, Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.).

The chemistry between Cruise and both of his costars is natural that you can’t imagine anyone else in those roles. You see him seamlessly transform over the course of the film, only taking notice of it in the end. Honestly, it’s very much reminiscent of Pacino in the Godfather–only backwards.

Jerry Maguire equally covers the depth of multiple characters brilliantly. The film not only goes inside the mind of a scuzzbag-turned-nice-guy, but of an athlete. Gooding plays a talented football player with a chip on his shoulder. He’s not on his way out of the league, but he’s no Jerry Rice either. He’s on a middling NFL team and thinks he deserves a bigger paycheck than he gets. He knows he’s good, but no one else sees it. The film brings very relatable themes to seemingly unrelatable people. There is more to the movie than demand for money. It’s about friendship and knowing what’s important in life amidst all the menagerie.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe has a knack for storytelling–already evident by his previous work–but he outdoes himself with this one. Nothing is ever truly predictable, which is an impressive accomplishment considering the type of film. Never is there a dull moment, and the dialogue is so effortlessly perfect without ever feeling contrived. The sappy moments are never that, when any other writer would know no other way. It’s a rom-com for the ages and may even be the pinpoint for redefining the genre.

It has aged so well and is still a great watch to this day. Highly recommended for those of you who haven’t seen it and are arguing with your other half about what to watch on movie night. I promise you’ll both enjoy it.

Twizard Rating: 100

Quick Movie Review: Moana (2016)

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In recent years it seems like digital animation is becoming more and more advanced with each movie being released. But the changes are gradual and often expected. We talk about how the scenery looks just like a photograph, or how animals look like they could be real. However, actual humanity is the one thing that seems to be taking the longest to become lifelike. This is where Moana comes in.

While still maintaining that cartoon-like feel, this is the first time where actual human characters’ emotions look real. In the past, expressions take on very on-the-nose cliches. Not necessarily over-the-top, but just very obvious. Here, we get facial expressions that look just like yours and mine. It’s eerie. It helps us feel for the characters more–especially when it comes to our title character.

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenager growing up on the Polynesian island of Motunui and longs to explore the ocean. However, her father, Chief Tui, forbids her to leave. The one rule they have on the island is that they cannot go beyond the reef. But Moana is stubborn. Even as the island’s resources are running out, she resiliently tries to persuade her father, but to no avail.

Her grandmother gives her a small magical stone known as the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. A thousand years prior, demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), stole the heart, which is causing each island, one by one, to dry up. Moana sets out to find Maui so he can return the heart to the goddess.

Disney churns out a solid formula piece with Moana. This is a criticism in some respect. But it can also work to its advantage. The general storyline doesn’t really give us any sort of new beats. A girl sets off to do something that we all know she will probably end up accomplishing. We foresee each false victory before it occurs. It starts out predictable and pulls from countless of its Disney predecessors. But it does one thing that’s very unusual for a Disney film–it lacks romance of any kind. The two protagonists–of opposite sex–have a strictly platonic relationship. Love isn’t the point of the film at all. It’s so ingrained in our expectations that it catches us off guard and we are constantly reminding ourselves that the movie isn’t about that.

Moana is a captivating protagonist. Whether or not the writing makes her that way. The animation is just that good. There is one musical sequence where they backdrop the characters against a relatively primitive animated background, which has become an ordinary device used in countless films before. But upon looking at the canvas, it almost seems like it has been thrown into a live-action film. In past instances, there wasn’t as much of a discrepancy, but now the juxtaposition shows just how far we’ve come with animation.

I could gush for paragraphs about the visuals of this movie. But that would only end up overshadowing the film’s other strength–its music.

Lin-Manuel Miranda writes some brilliantly catchy songs–perhaps the best, pound-for-pound, in recent Disney musical history. From the refreshingly bright islandy “Where You Are” to the macabre Bowie-inspired “Shiny”, each track hits hard and becomes addicting. All except for Maui’s solo piece, “You’re Welcome.” It’s Dwayne Johnson’s only song and is marginal at best. The others are creative and take melodic turns that you never expect, but this one falls into the basic realm of uninspired, perhaps best appreciated by your toddler child. It merely goes through the motions, and only appears worse amidst its brilliant companions.

The songs may be fantastic, but the dialogue is curiously weak, and unfortunately separates Moana from the past Disney bunch. At times it feels like it was written by a teenager–or perhaps someone who wanted to sound like one. The comedy gets childish in a couple of instances, though, to its credit, quickly snaps back. Then there’s Maui’s character, who can grate on you a bit. His shtick is a little too colloquial and his jokes often fall flat.

But the film heads in the right direction overall. Often times going one step back and two steps forward. It nicely sticks to its narrative with Moana’s perspective, and never seems to be challenged by it.

The story could have been merely a device to flex its aesthetic guns (it’s not), but it would have all been worth it just to experience the beauty of what’s on screen. Here, the movie isn’t just telling a story, but creating a full experience–something unexpectedly rare these days.

Twizard Rating: 92

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