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Friday, February 28, 2014

The Wind Rises - B+

Rated PG-13, 126 minutes

"The Wind Rises" a lovely celebration and coda to Miyazaki's career

"The Wind Rises" is the new Oscar-nominated Japanese animated film from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki ("Ponyo," "Spirited Away") in what is likely his last film. The film, set in pre-war Japan and directed and written by Miyazaki and loosely based on a short story from the director, concerns a young boy named Jiro who dreams of being an aviator and grows up to be an aircraft engineer whose works impact some of the Japanese conflicts later on. "The Wind Rises" isn't Miyazaki's best but it is a sumptuous fantasy-adventure highlighted by some of the director's trademark non-linear dream sequences and lush palettes. Miyazaki has been called the Japanese version of Disney or Spielberg, and it's never more evident here in his story about the boy whose inventions have significant impact on society and his own life. Themes of the corruption of beauty and human loss are painstakingly and powerfully realized by Miyazaki and they will no doubt resonate with those affected by tragic losses, though the narrative, much like Miyazaki's tales, feels somewhat distant and depressing. Overall, it's an emotionally and visually satisfying film, and "The Wind Rises" is much deeper than just surface level beauty. The English dub, featuring voices from actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, is unnecessary, and I'd stick with the original Japanese language version with subtitles. Nominated for the Oscar for Animated Film for 2013, this is a treat especially for Miyazaki fans.

Wes's Grade: B+

Son of God - C+

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes

Handsome Biblical epic "Son of God" skims the surface
Diogo Morodo as Jesus
The uneven but affecting new Biblical epic "Son of God" has God on its side, not to mention "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett and his "Touched By An Angel" wife Roma Downey. The detailed, upscale film is handsomely filmed and executed and should please its target audience, though the film is just essentially an extension of the Burnett-Downey epic TV miniseries "The Bible" that was a big hit last year on The History Channel. "Son of God" focuses on the life and works of Jesus, from birth to resurrection. Admittedly, Burnett and company have a good eye for this type of thing and many aspects visually interpreted very well, not to mention Portugese actor Diogo Morodo has the right gleam in his eye in his soft-spoken portrayal of the Savior. However, as with many Biblical films, it's difficult to encapsulate everything into one film and it too skims the surface, focusing heavily on the bloody crucifixion (perhaps for that reason, it's very bloody). Christians may find some satisfaction in the fact that this is better than most Biblical or Christian-themed films, less entertaining than Charlton Heston but far more satisfying than Kirk Cameron. Worth a look if you were a fan of "The Bible" miniseries from last year, though it feels like it's just a rehash of a couple of those episodes.   

Wes's Grade:  C+

Non-Stop - B-

Rated PG-13, 110 minutes

Neeson holds together the silly but exciting thriller "Non-Stop"

Liam Neeson
"Non-Stop" is an unoriginal but tense thriller starring one of my favorite actors, Liam Neeson, and without him this wouldn't be near as fun to watch. During a transatlantic flight from New York City to London, U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) receives a series of cryptic text messages demanding that he instruct the government to transfer $150 million into an off-shore account or someone on the flight will be killed every 20 minutes. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed the Neeson thriller "Unknown," the action-suspense thriller "Non-Stop" is ridiculous, often preposterous fun that's held together by the everyman glue of Neeson, who has become the go-to guy for things like this. Honestly, if you thought about it more, you may catch some of its plot holes (literally), so to enjoy this "Non-Stop" flight, it's best to sit back, fasten your seat belt and go along with it for awhile. "Non-Stop" is an exciting ride but not without some bumps along the way: it's a pretty standard, by-the-numbers action film with too many diversions and too few genuinely interesting characters, in particular wasting some fine female actresses, including Julianne Moore (a lovely face but largely unnecessary here), as well as "Downton Abbey's" Michelle Dockery and "12 Years a Slave's" Lupita Nyong'o, both underused here as flight attendants. On the plus side, the energetic pacing keeps the film flowing to an over-the-top, breathless finale that is easily the film's centerpiece, not to mention it has Neeson as its star, a fine actor and a terrific action film star, and while this isn't his best action film of late (see 2012's "The Grey"), it's certainly one of his more entertaining. "Non-Stop" flies by so quickly you may not notice its imperfections, but it can be intense fun in the right moment, just as long as it's not shown as an in-flight movie.

Wes's Grade: B-

Thursday, February 27, 2014

My Oscar Predictions!!

Here are my predictions for this year's Oscar's in all categories (subject to change before the big night), to be telecast this Sunday, March 2 at 7pm on ABC-TV. For more information about this year's ceremony, go to:

Wes’s 2014 Oscar Predictions
Picture: “12 Years a Slave”
Actor: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Director: Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, “Her”
Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”
Animated Feature: “Frozen”
Foreign Film: “The Great Beauty”
Documentary:“The Act of Killing”
Production Design: “The Great Gatsby”
Costume Design: “The Great Gatsby”
Editing: “Gravity”
Makeup and Hairstyling: “Dallas Buyers Club”
Score: “Gravity”
Song: “Let It Go” from “Frozen”
Sound Editing: “Gravity”
Sound Mixing: “Gravity”
Visual Effects: “Gravity”
Animated Short: “Get a Horse!”
Documentary Short: “The Lady in Number 6”
Live Action Short: “The Voorman Problem”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pompeii - C-

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes

Ridiculous and trashy "Pompeii" entertaining in the right mood

Kiefer Sutherland
Part historical film, part love story and part disaster film, Paul W.S. Anderson's new film "Pompeii" isn't as bad as it could've been (where's his wife Milla Jovovich?) but that doesn't mean it's great, either. A pricy, mildly entertaining piece of junk, "Pompeii" is a silly mix of swords-and-sandals history and disaster, with the elaborate sets, costumes and special effects the real star of the show. Set in 79 A.D., Pompeii tells the epic story of Milo (Kit Harington), a slave turned invincible gladiator who finds himself in a race against time to save his true love Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who has been unwillingly betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator (Kiefer Sutherland) as Mount Vesuvius erupts in a torrent of blazing lava, threatening to destroy everything around them. Anderson, most memorable for making the crowd-pleasing "Resident Evil" series, fills "Pompeii" with an impressive final action sequence (who doesn't love an exploding volcano in 3D?) and some nice special effects, though Anderson seems to be strangely fond of destroying miniature sets. Other than the sublime visuals, there's not much else to speak of. Supposedly, Anderson and crew spent 7 years researching all of this, but you wouldn't know it: the story and plotting is creakier than the ground below the volcano, while the acting is short of high camp, with a game Sutherland in particular chomping on whatever scenery he can get a hold of. Harington, of HBO's "Game of Thrones" and "Sucker Punch's" Browning make for a pretty pairing, though they're given little to do but hold a fake sword and run. A lot. The explosive star of "Pompeii" is really that volcano, and the real fun doesn't begin until it finally erupts with full 3D force in the final act, and if you're familiar with history you know it all ends in a blaze of glory. "Pompeii" is a mildly enjoyable, trashy epic fashioned as only Anderson could do it, so grab your 3D glasses and let the lava flow.

Wes's Grade: C-

3 Days to Kill - B-

Rated PG-13, 113 minutes

Kevin Costner
Costner channels an older Bourne in the unoriginal but fun "3 Days to Kill"

Take an older Jason Bourne and throw in some Liam Neeson from "Taken" and you have the new Kevin Costner spy thriller "3 Days to Kill," produced and co-written by famed French filmmaker Luc Besson. That's part of the movie's problem, it feels too unoriginal and familiar, but Costner's weathered look serves him well in the energetic action thriller. Oscar-winner Costner plays a dying CIA agent named Ethan who reconnects with his wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) only to be recruited for one last job by a hot shot CIA agent (Amber Heard) who promises a lush retirement package and medical treatment. Directed by McG ("Charlie's Angels"), the enjoyable "3 Days to Kill" filled with those usual spy cliches of "one last job" and so on not to mention numerous plot holes, but Costner's age (he looks like hell but still charming), a good mix of humor and decent chemistry with Steinfeld as his daughter will keep your interest throughout. Remarkably, "3 Days to Kill" is better than the Jack Ryan effort Costner was a part of recently, and if you don't care much for spies, you'll get to see Costner plenty this year as this is the second of five film appearances he will make in 2014 (next up is the sports comedy "Draft Day" in April). "3 Days to Kill," filmed in France, has some nice Besson-esque touches, particularly in the fast-paced action and tight, up close fight sequences, which make the film a memorable ride in spite of its predictable, over-the-top script. Costner's a little old for all of this, but "3 Days to Kill" is an entertaining piece of puffery for the late winter.

Wes's Grade: B-

Friday, February 14, 2014

Endless Love - B-

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes

Sappy and vapid, "Endless Love" remake still manages to entertain
Alex Pettyfer

OK, I fully and completely admit to it right here. I am a sap when it comes to some romantic films and as determined to dislike the new remake of "Endless Love," I just couldn't. Sure, it's cliched and hardly anything new, but there's some appeal about seeing pretty people fall in love. The story of a privileged girl Jade (Gabriella Wilde) and a charismatic boy David (Alex Pettyfer) whose instant desire sparks a love affair made only more reckless by Jade's stern father (Bruce Greenwood) trying to keep them apart. With charming leads, handsome photography and a semi-cool alt punk soundtrack, "Endless Love" will successfully appeal to the younger set. The good-looking Pettyfer ("Magic Mike") and sturdy character actor Greenwood ("Star Trek") in particular have some good moments, though British actress and model Wilde, while quite lovely, isn't as believable as an innocent, quite smitten young girl. Based on Scott Spencer's novel and a remake of the dreadful Franco Zefferelli 1981 film that featured a woefully miscast Brooke Shields, it's far more upbeat than either the novel or the earlier film, and admittedly, this new version won't be a classic either but there's far more to enjoy here than the pitiful melodrama of the earlier film. Pettyfer and Wilde have decent chemistry, even though they can't really do much with the cliched, sappy rich-poor storyline (particularly in its silly last act) that's as old and calculated as love itself. But for those desiring a fleeting escape from real life this Valentine's Day will enjoy all the sappy entertainment of pretty people falling in love that "Endless Love" has to offer. Even better is the alt rock-punk sountrack, with such enjoyable tunes as "All of Me" from the Tanlines and "Ends of the Earth" by Lord Huron.

Wes's Grade: B-

Thursday, February 13, 2014

About Last Night - C

Rated R, 100 minutes

Sweet but bland remake "About Last Night" waters down its relationships

Regina Hall and Kevin Hart
The new romantic comedy "About Last Night" isn't really new: it's a remake of a 1980s Brat Pack film, and in spite of an engaging cast and a few fun moments, lacks the raunchy edge the original film had. A new version of the 1986 film "About Last Night" and the David Mamet play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," this contemporary urban Los Angeles retelling closely follows new love for two very different couples (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant and Regina Hall and Kevin Hart) as they journey from the bar to the bedroom and who relationships are eventually put to the test in the real world. Directed by Steve Pink ("Hot Tub Time Machine") and written by Leslye Headland ("Bachelorlette"), it bears little resemblance to the original film or the Mamet play and lacks the relationship insight or the dirty playfulness of those initial efforts (not to mention no Demi Moore and Rob Lowe). The central problem is that it spends too much time on the blander, boring pairing (Ealy and Bryant) who share little chemistry, and not on the fun pairing of Hart and his female twin, Hall, who all but walk off with the movie when they're together (the hilarious Thanksgiving scene is their most memorable scene together). Hall and Hart would be much funnier in their own movie together, instead it's filled with the banality of the pretty couple, Ealy and Bryant, who spend too much time arguing over minor things. "About Last Night" isn't a terrible effort, just a mediocre one compared to the wittier 1986 film (which makes a cameo, watch closely for it). Outside of the fun Hall and Hart provide, you're better off with something else this Valentine's Day.

Wes's Grade: C

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Robocop - C+

Rated PG-13, 121 minutes
Joel Kinnaman is the new Robocop

Cast and visuals save this run-of-the-mill version of "Robocop"

Biggest question with the new, long-delayed and long-awaited "Robocop" remake, does it match the original 1987 film? No it doesn't. It's not as smart and lacks the gritty playfulness of that Dallas-filmed sci-fi classic from Paul Verhoeven. Yet, with an A-list cast and a big budget, it has added some nice touches, particularly with the visuals, and manages to provide some enjoyable moments. In 2028, multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of robot technology, making billions from using drones overseas but prevented to do so in the U.S. from national laws. To circumvent these laws, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has his marketing team, in conjunction with scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), create a new law enforcement product by combining human and machine, using the mind of critically injured Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, of the TV show "The Killing"). The new "Robocop" is bound for comparisons with the original 1987 film,  though in fact it's a vastly different film, a standard, run-of-the-mill action film geared more for the masses than that original film. Directed by Brazilian director Jose Padilha, this version seems a tad watered down and soulless compared with the '80s version, and the script is downright weak. But the sharp, if not loud, visuals crackle and pop with energy, and once the blandish Kinnaman puts on that shiny Robocop suit, it puts some life into a film that nearly goes wrong in many ways. Plus, it's nice seeing Keaton back playing a slimeball CEO and Oldman (interestingly both of whom have played in both sets of "Batman" films) in the scientist-with-a-heart role, and they have a couple of nice scenes together. The family melodrama and its politics, featuring Samuel L. Jackson as essentially a black Bill O' Reilly, seem misplaced here, and it's obvious that this "Robocop" works best when he's hunting down the bad guys. Sure, on that note it leans toward the dumber side, taking itself a little too seriously at times, but this "Robocop" still emerges a modestly entertaining sci-fi action film. This may disappoint fans of the original version, but the impressive cast and visuals save it from being a complete waste, and audiences should turn out at least in the short term for curiosity.

Wes's Grade: C+

Friday, February 7, 2014

Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters - D

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes
Zoey Deutch as Rose Hathaway

"Vampire Academy" does suck, but in the wrong ways

"Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters" is a new teen vampire movie, based on the best-selling young adult novels of the same name by Richelle Mead. While it's an interesting story, the film adaptation lacks bite, originality and energy and will most likely bore its target audience of teen girls. Rose Hathaway (Deutch) is a Dhampir: half human/vampire, guardians of the Moroi, peaceful, mortal vampires living discretely within our world. Her legacy is to protect a Moroi princess (Lucy Fry) from bloodthirsty, immortal Vampires, the Strigoi. "Vampire Academy" is directed by "Mean Girls" Mark Waters and penned by his older brother, "Heathers" screenwriter Daniel Waters. The problem is that "Vampire Academy" combines too many elements of those films, feeling like an uninteresting vampire version of "Mean Girls" with a little "Harry Potter" thrown in for good measure. Worst of all, it's rather boring and stale, with too many slow, talky sequences of exposition and flashbacks, and culminating in a predictable good-versus-evil climax that could be seen coming from a mile away. TV actors and newcomers Deutch and Fry are both lovely but wasted under a bad (and often confusing) script and direction from the Waters brothers, both of whom have done much better than this tripe. It also wastes a terrific actor in Gabriel Byrne, in a small role as an elderly, dying vampire. Don't waste your money or time on "Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters" given how much it does really suck as a movie.

Wes's Grade: D

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Monuments Men - C+

Rated PG-13, 112 minutes

Unlike the art, "The Monuments Men" is flawed, but still modestly entertaining
Matt Damon and George Clooney

The mildly entertaining new dramedy from George Clooney, "The Monuments Men," is based on a fascinating true story about how the Allies worked together to save loads of priceless art from the Nazi's during World War II. With a delayed release from late last year and some mixed reviews popping up, it was rumored that the film wasn't that good. Well the good thing is "The Monuments Men" is better than expected, but unlike much of the treasured art that was saved, it's imperfect and uneven, saved by a charming ensemble cast that works well together. Clooney is George Stroud, who leads an Allied platoon  comprised of various museum directors, curators, and art historians (including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville). They are tasked with entering Germany with the Allied forces during the closing stages of World War II to rescue artworks plundered by the Nazis, saving them from destruction or damage, and returning them to their rightful owners. Directed and co-written by Clooney, "The Monuments Men" is an uneven but enjoyable mix of historical drama, war film, action and drama with some humor thrown in. Clooney struggles here in finding the right tone to keep his audience interested in understandably dry material, alternating between humor and seriousness, though that doesn't work well given the subject matter, and the film simply works best when it focuses on tracking down the art rather than on the men cracking jokes and having a good time (yes, it's more interesting than it sounds). Admittedly, there are still a few good moments and the cast works well together, with Clooney and Damon giving believable turns as the two who lead the charge in locating the art, though two fine actors in Oscar-winner Dujardin and Bonneville (of "Downton Abbey") seem minimized, as does Cate Blanchett who outshines the men, giving the film's most layered performance. This could also be a case where the film's backstory is more fascinating than the rambling storyline, which could've used additional fine tuning in editing out unnecessary situations and characters. True, "The Monuments Men" isn't Clooney's best effort at directing or acting, lacking a little emotional heft, but the engaging cast keeps it watchable most of the time. Worth a look especially for those who enjoy a good history lesson.

Wes's Grade: C+

The Lego Movie - B+

Rated PG, 101 minutes

Wry, clever "The Lego Movie" plenty of fun for both adults and kids

Chris Pratt as Emmet
Whether or not the popular children's construction toy Lego's were a part of your childhood, you'll still enjoy the clever, witty new animated film "The Lego Movie," which crackles and pops with absurd humor and situations in spite of a thin, scattered script. In the Lego universe, an ordinary mini-figure named Emmet (Chris Pratt) is mistaken as being the Special who can save the Lego universe from destruction from the evil tyrant Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team behind such comedic and animated hits as "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and "21 Jump Street," the quick-witted, droll "The Lego Movie" is well-voiced and well-paced, and the absurdity of it all makes it work remarkably well. The film's adultish, tongue-in-cheek humor is a highlight, though some of the satire and witty lines (such as the fun parodies of Warner Bros. own Superman and Batman characters) may be lost on the young ones, though it helps the CG animation, which appears stop-motion, is colorful and detailed. The cast has considerable fun doing the voice roles, particularly the always delightfully evil Will Ferrell as the evil Lord Business, Pratt as Emmett, along with Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Will Arnett in other voices. While the movie speeds by quickly and efficiently, it still feels a little long for what it really is (a movie about toys), but "The Lego Movie" is still pleasant, clean and often self-referential entertainment that the whole family may enjoy, and expect to be humming the film's signature and ingratiating tune, "Everything is Awesome."

Wes's Grade: B+