#WatchingAllMyBluRaysAtoZ

Truth be told, I don’t have any idea how many movies I own.  The first movie I ever bought with my own money was Tim Burton’s “Batman” way back in 1989 – on VHS – when I was about ten years-old.  That same year I also saved up and bought “Lethal Weapon 2”.  For a while, it was just those two.  I ran those tapes into the ground, watching each of them over and over – sometimes multiple times per day.  My family didn’t have cable television or any movie channels back then, and when you’re 10, 11, and 12 years-old, there isn’t much more to do when you get to stay up late on weekends than watch TV.  But if you’re a night owl kid who only has five or six channels to choose from, you gravitate towards movies – many of them repeatedly.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were the height of the video store era – and video store culture.  They came in many different shapes and sizes.  Almost everybody remembers – or is aware of – Blockbuster, but how many recall when smaller video stores could be found in strip malls, supermarkets and even liquor stores?  And in addition to Blockbuster there were other rental superstores such as Planet Video and Hollywood Video (no matter how short-lived both were compared to granddaddy Blockbuster).  Sure, most people just rushed in, grabbed a movie as quickly as possible, and ran out; but for kids like me, video stores were a place to hang out, talk about films with other regulars and the employees, learn about films we’d never heard of, and acquire whatever movies and movie posters we could get our hands on in that pre-internet era.  I would browse the isles of Blockbuster and the various neighborhood mom and pop video stores for endless hours each week.  I would study the VHS boxes (searing the cover art into my brain), discover actors’ entire filmographies, talk with the video store clerks (I even became one myself at about16 years-old), and learn everything I could about movies and the movie rental business.  Then I would take whatever treasure I settled on for the evening home, watch it (perhaps multiple times), and return the next day and do the same thing over again.

My buddy Nick and I "working" after hours at North Shore Video (R.I.P.), circa 1997.

My buddy Nick and I “working” after hours at North Shore Video (R.I.P.), circa 1997.

One thing I could not usually do that I desperately wished I could in the case of many films was own a copy of my very own. I’m not sure how many of you remember (or even ever knew) this but, in the VHS days you generally couldn’t buy a movie brand new from Blockbuster – or even Best Buy or Target – until about six months after its initial video release date.  And if you wanted to special order a movie to own it immediately upon release (or, God forbid, had to replace a video store copy of one you lost or damaged), it would cost you anywhere from 75 to 100-plus bucks for those first six months or so.  The idea of a massive home video collection had yet to take off.  Sure you had your “E.T.’s”, “Batman’s”, “Jurassic Park’s” and the like – huge movies that studios knew families would gobble up at the “low, low “sell-through” price of $24.99” (every once in a while there would be a more fringe-level, genre hit like the aforementioned “Lethal Weapon 2” or an adult comedy smash like “Pretty Woman” that studios would test the waters of demand with), but for the most part, sell-through titles were limited to cartoons, family hits, and massive blockbuster tentpoles.

But there was one blessed way a kid like me could build a home video collection in the video store era:  PVT, or Previously-Viewed Tapes.  After a title had been on the shelf for a month or so and there was no longer a high rental demand for the 10, 20, 50 or 100 copies a store initially ordered (the number depended on the popularity of the movie and the size/profitability of the store; so Blockbuster and the like had entire walls full of some new releases, while the smaller stores has maybe five to ten copies of even the biggest films), they would put all but a few copies up for sale.  PVTs usually started at $19.99.  After they had been sitting around a while, they would go down to $14.99, and then $9.99.  Some titles that had been out for several years could be had for $6.99, $4.99 or even around 3 bucks in some cases.  Paying $19.99 (or even $14.99 or $9.99) for a used VHS tape might seem insane in an era where you can buy Blu-rays released in the last few years for as low as $5.99 at Best Buy.  But compared to $80 or $100, or even $24.99 new six months down the road, 15 or 20 bucks seemed like a great bargain.

After “Batman” & “Lethal Weapon 2”, I loaded up on the likes of “Die Hard”, “Predator”, “RoboCop”, the other “Lethal Weapon’s”, “Tango & Cash”; the 90s brought the likes of “The Last Boy Scout”, “New Jack City”, “Point Break”, a new Steven Seagal must-have every year, “Total Recall”, “Terminator 2”, “Batman Returns”, “Cliffhanger”, “Reservoir Dogs”, two more “Die Hard’s”.  I owned every “Dirty Harry” by the time I was 12 (and most other Clint Eastwood classics – “In the Line of Fire” and “Unforgiven” became my go-to answer to “what’s your favorite movie?”).

The collector and completest in me really emerged in the PVT era.  How many people do you know who remember or have even heard of, much less owned a copy of, say, “Amos & Andrew”, “Threesome”, or “Dream Lover” (use Google, my friends) – and never mind at 12 or 13 years-old?  Even infamous flops and critical pariahs like “Hudson Hawk”, “Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man”, “Graffiti Bridge”, and “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” I would giddily wait for the day they would turn up on the PVT shelf and I could add them to my collection (I don’t regret buying any of those, by the way; in fact, I upgraded each of them to DVD (and then Blu-ray where available) and still love watching all of them).  I suddenly wanted to own every movie I liked to even a minor degree (which is why I still have VHS copies of “If Looks Could Kill” and “Eve of Destruction” sitting on my shelf – yep, I paid hard-earned 13-year-old money for those!). And it wasn’t just about collecting.  I would watch all of these over and over again.  It was a true passion.

[I SO WISH I HAD A PHOTO OF MY VHS COLLECTION CIRCA 1997 TO INSERT HERE.]

As the ‘90s wore on, video collections became more of a cultural norm.  VHS tapes still cost upwards of $80 throughout the decade, but when the advent of DVD hit and every movie was available affordably immediately upon release (albeit for around $40 initially) – not to mention the promise of optimal sound and picture quality, the ability to skip “chapters” VS rewinding and fast forwarding (Hey, and no rewind fees!), special features, and widescreen formatting – movie buffs like me, while elated with all that stuff, faced a difficult choice:  What about the hundreds of VHS tapes I had amassed? Some of the movies I owned on VHS I had already bought multiple times, because of different cover art, an upgraded edition, or in a box set collection.  It would be a lot – and a lot of expense – to replace.  And what if DVD was just some flashy trend that would go the way of Laserdisc?

Well, we all know what happened.  Within two years of hitting the mainstream, I was quickly gobbling up DVDs the same way I did VHS tapes a decade earlier; slowly replacing a VHS here and there when I could, while now buying every new film strictly on DVD.

The problem with DVD – certainly the first generation ones (and a large amount beyond those as well) – is that for all their focus on upgraded picture and sound, most of them still looked pretty shoddy.  The bigger issue may be that TVs capable of maximizing DVD’s upgraded specs were still too damn expensive back around the turn of the millennium.  Anyone watching a DVD on the same 19-inch (or even 35-inch) tube TV they watched VHS tapes on wasn’t going to gain much benefit from the new technology.  I remember buying my first widescreen HD TV in 2002 or 2003.  It was 50-inches or so, but a projection set with a huge back to house the projection components and a massive speaker underneath that the screen sat on.  It cost about two grand, but was one of the cheapest HD flat screens available at the time (Plasma screens were going for as much as $10,000 then).  And then you needed a decent sound system.  Still, when I got that first widescreen TV, coupled with my ever-growing DVD collection – which in about 4 or 5 short years had already greatly eclipsed the VHS collection I spent a decade building – I thought I had reached the pinnacle of home entertainment and film collecting.

My DVD collection circa 2009

My DVD collection circa 2009

But TVs kept improving and dropping in price.  So did DVDs.  I was buying new and previously viewed DVDs for under $10 on a regular basis.  I replaced my projection TV with a DLP, and then LCD (now I think I’m up to an LED, though I’ve lost track and I’m not even sure it matters any more – they’re all good at this point – I guess 4K is the latest-greatest, but I think my interest in improving picture and sound has plateaued for the time being).  Of course, as HD quality and HD quality televisions improved, so did home video technology.

Enter Blu-ray, which I resisted for three or four years.  In 2005 – 2006 when Blu-ray came on the scene (some of you might recall it was released at the same time as HD DVD and the two had a brief face-off – we all know which won) I didn’t have a HD television, I didn’t want to rebuild my collection yet again, and I also had the usual “will the new fad last?” concerns.  Again, we all know what happened.  Around 2009, I bought my first Blu-ray player, and my first Blu-ray:  “2012”, a movie I ironically didn’t really care for, but I bought because I thought it would be the perfect type of flick to test the sound and picture of this new technology.  However, even more ironically, 7 years later, I have yet to even unwrap “2012”.

I think the first movie I watched on Blu-ray was actually the first rated-R film my mom allowed me to see in a theater (I was like 9) and the one I credit with beginning my love for, not just action cinema (though certainly that – you saw my list of my earliest-purchased movies and what they all had in common), but film in general as an art form and creative process:  “Lethal Weapon”.  To this day, that film remains something of a standard for me.  When a new and improved technology comes along, it’s generally the first film that pops into my head that I want to experience in a newfound technical glory.  It did not disappoint (though imagine my surprise when I looked at some reviews of the first generation “Lethal Weapon” Blu-ray and the general consensus seems to be that it is a crappy transfer).  I was convinced. Within a few years Blu-ray prices dropped from what seems to be the usual starting price of all new home video media of around $40 (that’s where DVDs started and now it’s what 4K Blu-rays have come out at) to a new-release norm of $20-ish, to sale prices around $10 or $12, and bargain bin prices if you wait even just a year or two (in many cases) of five to eight bucks (I always kick myself when I buy a title I want right away at 20-plus dollars, and now I see it just thrown into a $5.99 bin).  Also importantly again, TVs have not just caught up to the Blu-ray technology, but 1080p televisions (what you need to get optimal picture from a Blu-ray disc) can often be found dirt cheap (I saw  a 50-inch at Best Buy the other day for well under $300 – I paid like $1800 for my first one seven years ago).

So, my Blu-ray collection is now beginning to rival my massive DVD collection.  I went about buying Blu-rays with the same philosophy I did when replacing my VHS’s with DVDs:  Buy any new titles or films I don’t already own on Blu-ray, slowly replace the ones I already own on DVD, only when I find them cheap.  I have a general “No More Than $10 rule” when it comes to rebuying movies on Blu-ray that I already own on DVD.  The problem is, these days, $10 or less BRs aren’t hard to find.  I’m buying them faster than I can watch them.  Part of it is I’m older now and I have a full-time job and a family.  I’m lucky if I get to see all the new movies I want to see, never mind re-watch older films for an umpteenth time.  Another issue is that TV has really stepped up its game in the last decade.  When I do have time to sit down at home and watch something, I have a DVR full of stellar dramas I’m usually excited watch – or in many cases, shows I simply feel compelled to get through/finish.

I was looking at my film collection a while back and thinking about all of this.  I catch myself looking at all those shelves lined with films sometimes, just staring at them in admiration, or remembering where I was when I first saw a specific film, or thinking about when I first bought it on VHS when I was barely a teenager and how long I had to wait or save-up to get a PVT copy.  Some of them I have yet to even unwrap.  Some of them I haven’t watched in years.  Some of them I haven’t yet seen with adult eyes. I thought, “Man, I should sit down and watch all of these someday”.  So, you know what?  That’s exactly what I’m going to do.  And I’m going to chronical the experience.

Starting next week I am going to watch every movie in my Blu-ray collection and write a short (hopefully) review/post about it:  What I thought of the movie when I first saw it, what I think of it now, what I like about it, what I don’t, if it is special to me for some reason and why, did they fuck up the classic artwork for the Blu-ray cover (a horrible phenomenon of the Blu-ray era – and one of the best things (still) about VHS)?  I’m limiting this experiment, if that’s the right term (it may prove to be just that in the sense of ‘can I actually accomplish this given my schedule?’ – finding time to watch them all will be hard enough, never mind writing about each film –  or ‘will I actually make it through them all?’; and ‘how long will this take?’ I estimate I have around 300 BR titles – with more that will be added while this is going on), just to Blu-rays.  Adding in VHS & DVD would simply be too mammoth an undertaking.  And only films; no TV series or music Blu-rays.  I could watch and discuss “24”, “Arrested Development”, “Archer” and “South Park” forever, but, again, that would simply be far too much; and I really want the focus here to be on my first love: movies.

I hope I can pull this off.  I’m excited.  I think this will be a fun adventure and hopefully lead to some fruitful wring and interesting blog posts and discussions.  I hope you all will follow me on this little adventure.

Please follow my progress on Twitter @RDavidOnTheWire.  #WatchingAllMyBluRaysAtoZ.  I may even finally start a Letterboxd account for this.  I’ll update here and on Twitter if I do.

The Challenge.

Straight Outta Compton

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By R. David

Viewed August 18, 2015

I want to clarify right at the top that I truly enjoyed and enthusiastically recommend “Straight Outta Compton”, director F. Gary Gray’s energetic and often poignant N.W.A biopic.  The film has terrific performances across the board, an inherently intriguing and exciting story, and Gray has a deft handle on the material; capturing the live-wire energy of the band’s concert performances, the outsized, cinematic drama of their more exaggerated exploits, as well as quieter moments of inspiration and heartbreak.  “Straight Outta Compton” is an exceedingly well made film and I hope fans of the group and rap music in general, as well as – maybe even more so – those who are not fans of N.W.A/rap music go see it.

I want that all on record because I’m going to spend the majority of this review talking about perhaps the one and only thing (besides a few hammy line readings here and there and over the top or on the nose dialog) that is wrong with “Straight Outta Compton”:  There is simply not enough here.  Even at two-and-a-half hours, “Straight Outta Compton” feels like a rush job; jumping so quickly from one event to the next that the group’s Wikipedia page is likely more comprehensive.

I’ll get into specifics in a minute.

Another disclaimer:  Yes, I know all biopics are guilty of this, all filmmakers tell the story they want to tell, and, again; what is here is all very good.  But “Straight Outta Compton” so quickly settles into a feature-length “Behind the Music” episode groove that it never really tries – in this cut, anyway (Gray says the film was initially an hour longer)  – to subvert.  And, frankly, “Behind the Music” would have been more exploratory, or at least mention certain major details “Straight Outta Compton” blatantly ignores.

Initially though, Gray sets a tone suggesting “Compton” will be a detailed, immersive period piece.  Beginning in Compton (which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a low-income suburb of South Central Los Angeles, CA that became synonymous with gang culture in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s) in the mid-‘80s, we are first introduced to drug dealer Eric Wright, aka Eazy E (Jason Mitchell).  He escapes a drug bust by the hair on his chinny-chin-chin and realizes he needs to find a better way to make a living.  Cut to Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), lying on the floor of his cramped Compton house, headphones on, surrounded by record jackets and R&B posters.  His mom tells him being a DJ is not a real job, especially for a man with a newborn baby.  O’shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube (Cube’s real-life son O’shea Jackson Jr.), buses to a suburban, predominantly white school, but is harassed at every turn in Compton, whether it be by local gangs or local cops.

Of course, Ice Cube made his film debut in John Singleton’s 1991 drama, “Boyz In The Hood”, which covers much of this same territory of gang culture – culture in general – in South Central and the abusive nature of the L.A.P.D.  Gray and his team of four screenwriters try to incorporate some of this too, but here’s the first instance where their film feels hamstrung by this monolithic tale.  They simply can’t – or don’t, for whatever reason – find a way to give these scenes the emotional weight they demand.  Some people accuse “Boyz In the Hood” of being corny (“an after school special”, as Eazy E once tagged it), but its depictions of neighborhood fear, violence and poverty; and the extent of the L.A.P.D’s righteous indignation and abuse of people and power; were searing and unforgettable.  Whatever your opinion of the movie’s overall execution, there’s no denying, it made an impact.  Granted, “Straight Outta Compton” is not intended to be THAT film, but I assume any movie that wants you to understand where its subjects are coming from and what pushes and influences them, wants to get those moments right, make them count, and land on the audience with some impact.  But there’s a bare-minimum approach to the way Gray presents these incidents that doesn’t really dig into the fear and disgust these characters feel in their surroundings.

There are ways you could argue this, of course.  Maybe the point is these young men are so used to all this it has simply become just another day in the hood.  Maybe the movie would rather the music do the talking (but then why make a biopic in the first place?).  Maybe it’s because the film has three or four different scenes involving various forms of police harassment, it figures it covers the bases.  But that’s only one aspect of the issues in Compton; what about the poverty, gang violence, overall culture of the neighborhood?  These things are only hinted at.  I don’t know if Gray figures most of the audience either lived through this era or is at least familiar enough with glut of “Hood” movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s that he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the neighborhood and cultural dynamic of the time, but I think shortchanging those issues robs the film of a lot of potential power.

And I say that as someone who was a kid in those days and who grew up with those news reports, films and this music.  Over the last couple decades we haven’t heard much about South Central L.A., drive-bys, and the life and gang culture in places like Compton like we used to from every hardcore rapper in the early 90s.  If you’re, say, 20-years-old and not a huge movie or music buff, chances are you haven’t been exposed to much of the art that chronicled this lifestyle.  Sure a lot of teens today might know “The Chronic” and other seminal ‘80s and ‘90s rap albums, but I have a hard time believing 90% of them would have any idea how dire the situation was in South Central in the late ‘80s.  Middle-aged people may need a reminder too.  When the film gets to the Rodney King beating and the subsequent L.A. riots (another major turning point for the group, hip hop culture and the nation as a whole, Gary makes sure to reference it and tries his best to convey its importance to the audience, but he simply can’t make its profound cultural impact stick in the little time he spends on it) I heard an adult in the theater admit she had forgotten that all of those L.A.P.D. officers were acquitted.  No doubt she, and others, may also have forgotten that’s what triggered the riots.  Or that, as Ice Cube noted at the time, it was decades of police injustice in South Central that led to the rioting.  The Rodney King verdict was just the final straw.  People were already primed to explode; the verdict was the match that lit the fuse.  The movie though, for those too young to understand or those who don’t remember, fails to explore any of that. I guess it gives you all the pieces and you can fit them together yourself, but again, it’s a powerful opportunity they squander.

These weightier issues themes and moments of history can’t be explained away with just a line or two or an additional shot here and there.  However, a lot of the other balls the movie drops certainly could be.  Dre is disenchanted with his role as a DJ at Alanzo Williams’ (Corey Reynolds) local club where Williams won’t allow him to play “that reality rap shit”.  But when Williams’s back is turned, Dre and his on-stage partner DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) often sneak Cube on stage and the three of them work the crowd into a frenzy with “that reality rap shit”.  What the film barely touches on is the fact that Dre and Yella were not just Williams’s club DJs; the three men also comprised a DJ-based eclecro-R&B group called World Class Wreckin Cru.  They had synchronized dance moves, wore shimmering jump suits – Dre had a stethoscope around his neck, because DR. Dre (the closest the film comes to acknowledging any of this is Dre and Yella bemoaning having to wear matching silver satin jackets per Williams when spinning at his club). It’s understandable that Dre wouldn’t want a lot of time spent on this brief – and perhaps embarrassing – period of his career (he was only an official member of the group from 1984 – 1985) – but in omitting it, the film is refusing to acknowledge a fairly well-known chapter of Dre’s career and also making it seem like Dre went from spinning records in a local club to convincing Eazy to help him start a label.

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Indeed, one night, Eazy catches Cube doing “that reality rap shit” with Dre and Yella at Williams’ place.  Afterwards, Dre approaches him about investing some of his money into forming a record label.  But Dre, in World Class Wreckin Cru, was already signed to a label, something also never discussed.  I’m just saying; the guy had more going for him (including something of a following and a few hit songs already under his belt) and potential distribution outlets and industry connections than the film leads on.

But start a label Eazy does (it).  Cube writes some rhymes, Dre makes the beats, and Eazy, in a great scene, becomes a rapper under trial by fire circumstances in the studio.  Overnight they cut the Cube-penned, Dre-produced, Eazy-on-vocals track “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and release it locally to enthusiastic response.  Cube brings his collaborator MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) into the fold and N.W.A is born.  The single catches the ear of a music industry manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who convinces Eazy that he has the experience and connections to get that group major label distribution.  N.W.A eagerly signs on with Heller and that’s when the real drama begins.  The film then walks us step-by-step through the making of the group’s landmark “Straight Outta Compton” album, to their quick dissolution over contact disputes and accusations that Eazy and Heller are stealing profits from the group, to the individual members’ solo careers and trials and tribulations.

It’s a lot for any two-and-a-half hour film to cover, and Gray’s film mostly tackles the challenge by breezing through every highlight as quickly as possible.  Sometimes he lingers on a moment long enough for it to make an impact (like the battle-rap rivalry between N.W.A and Cube after he leaves the group, reminding us that Cube’s “No Vaseline” might be history’s greatest “diss track”), but overall he’s moving at too breakneck a pace for events to register as compellingly as they might in a longer or differently structured film.  Calling for a two-part saga ala “Kill Bill” might seem like a bit of a stretch for a hip hop biopic, but if that’s what the material calls for to do it justice, why not?  Similarly, it certainly wouldn’t be the first three-plus hour-long movie in history if they chose to release Gray’s first cut, but I guess studio bean-counters must have felt differently.

Even the way the film documents the rise of rap music – specifically “reality” and gangster rap – at the time is a bit lazy and self-serving to the film’s subjects.  The film doesn’t outright claim this, but I’d wager most viewers (especially those unfamiliar with gangster rap’s origins) will exit this film under the impression that N.W.A invented the subgenre of gangster rap and had few influences.  Simply mentioning, say, Ice-T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’”, would have been nice and is one of those moments that would only require a simple line or two of dialog yet go a long way towards making the film feel more genuine and complete.  “Straight Outta Compton” is filled with minor dropped balls like that, and after a while, they start to add up.

There has been a good amount of talk about the film sidestepping some of N.W.A.’s members’ more documented warts – like Dr. Dre’s abusive nature and charges that Ice Cube’s lyrics are often misogynistic, racist and homophobic – but “Straight Outta Compton” is even skimpy on a lot of details and clearly Hollywood-izes some of the members’ watershed moments, which often makes the film feel disingenuous.  Again, every biopic does this, but when these moments are so obvious, it pulls the viewer out of the film.  Like when Dre finally becomes fed up with Suge Knight’s (a spot-on R. Marcus Taylor) criminal shenanigans; in one scene he’s a one-man ARMY going toe-to-toe with Suge’s brickwall gangster posse; in another he tells Suge he’s leaving Death Row in a moment that plays like Arnold Schwarzenegger dropping a one-liner before blowing away the bad guy.  Of course, I have no inside information on how those moments played out in real life, but I think it’s a safe bet that they didn’t go down anywhere near as cinematically as portrayed here. Again, I understand this is what you sign up for going into a dramatized Hollywood biopic, but sometimes that doesn’t mean a film is absolved from criticism for being too damn obvious about it.

Well, thanks for hanging in there with me this far.  Like I said, I realize this is all nit-picky and it’s also probably a pointless waste of a four-page rant because, like I said, despite all this, “Straight Outta Compton” is a hugely entertaining film that I recommend everyone see –  rap and non-rap fans alike.  One thing I can’t forget to mention is that the performances – all by veritable unknowns – are extraordinary; especially from the three principal players of Eazy, Dre, and Cube (by his own real-life son no less; how’s that for pressure – especially when your subject is not only your dad, but still alive to judge your work and a producer on film, so he’s also ostensibly your boss?).  I could realistically see an Oscar nomination argument for any one of them.  They don’t just look their parts, but realistically and sympathetically inhabit them.  And Paul Giammati’s portrayal of Heller is just as good.  I just wish the film were longer and paid more attention to certain important details.

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So, by all means, rush out and see “Straight Outta Compton”.  Just maybe watch “Boyz In the Hood” first and read N.W.A’s Wikipedia page when you get home to fill in the blanks.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

 

 

(Images Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Thanks For Everything, Dave.

david_letterman_retirement_announcement

By R. David

This was intended to be a mere brief Facebook status.  One, as you’ll immediately see, I wasn’t even going to bother posting to begin with.  I should have known I could never sum up everything David Letterman has meant to me in a few token sentences.  I quickly found myself on a role and a legitimate appreciation column spewed out  As always, David Letterman has inspired me to do better.

I wasn’t going to bother with this because there has been plenty of media saturation – both today and over the last few weeks – but I would be remiss if David Letterman signed off tonight and I didn’t say something about the man I grew up watching every night as a night-owl kid in the late 80s, then steadily throughout high school, my 20s and to this day.

As much as any of my heroes, Letterman has been my barometer for quality, integrity, originality, and individuality. He was never particularly concerned with popularity, amongst audiences or celebrity guests. He did his show his way, ratings be damned. He was always candid and honest, peoples’ opinions of him be damned. And he never let his guests get off with easy with schmoozing, softball interviews like most of his counterparts (you should all YouTube his post-scandal Paris Hilton & Janet Jackson interviews immediately).

But more than Stupid Pet/Human Tricks, Top Ten Lists, the simple, giddy thrill of throwing things off high-rise buildings, or his surreal man-on-the-street bits (Dave Works the McDonald’s Drive-Thru, Mujibur and Sirijul, Chris Elliot “living” under the stage, Dave’s mom live from the Winter Olympics), it was always Letterman’s serious side that made for captivating, cathartic, and unforgettable television. His first show after 9/11 is one the greatest TV moments in any genre, late night or otherwise. His candid, on-air addressing of his workplace sexual exploits – rather than allow himself to be blackmailed in order to keep it quiet – is surely one of the bravest, most compelling moments in late-night talk show history. And his appreciation of the doctors who performed his quintuple bypass surgery, tearfully bringing them all on the show, speaks to the kind of classy, uncorrupted-by-celebrity guy Dave is and has managed to remain after all these years.

David Letterman is our last link to Johnny Carson and ‘classic’ Late Night television, even though he also single handedly transformed Late Night from the Carson model into a more brazen, exciting, and anything-goes affair. Letterman is the bridge between classic Late Night and the Conans and Kimmels of today.  He has been a constant for an entire generation of TV viewers.  Our Johnny Carson.  When Letterman waves his last giddy, gap-toothed goodbye from behind his desk tonight, he will take with him everything that Late Night TV once was.  It is now a much more fragmented and viral-based beast.  Flavors may one day circle back to the appeal of a slightly dorky, but absurdly unpredictable, often edgy and surprisingly honest comedian that people almost unwittingly turn to in our nation’s most profound moments.

But don’t bet on it.

Cocky, yet genial. Sarcastic, yet heartfelt. Dave is a true original. The format will never be the same again. Fitting, since it hasn’t been the same since he debuted 33 years ago. My 10-year-old self and my 36-year-old self will miss him dearly.

‪#‎ThanksDave‬

13 SINS / COLD IN JULY / THE SACRAMENT

By R. David

13 Sins

13 Sins (April 18, 2014) – Another entry in the ever-expanding genre of horror film as obstacle course/scavenger hunt/morality play.  Like last year’s “Would You Rather”, last month’s “Cheap Thrills” and the upcoming “Truth or Dare”; “13 Sins” asks the question, how far would you be willing to go to make some much-needed quick cash?  The film stars Mark Webb as Elliot Brindle, a nebbishy, recently unemployed insurance salesman with a pregnant girlfriend, invalid father and mentally handicapped brother.  Needless to say he is down on his luck and desperate.  Then the phone rings.  The mysterious caller challenges Elliot to complete 13 tasks.  With each task he completes, increasing sums of money will be directly deposited into his bank account.  If at any point he fails or chooses to not complete a task, Elliot loses everything.  Naturally, the challenges begin innocuously enough, but grow increasingly more vile, illegal and morally reprehensible.  “13 Sins” has shades of the “Saw” series, with the game show announcer-like voice on the other end of the phone targeting Elliot because he has been a push-over and afraid to take risks and make tough decisions his entire life.  The puppeteer’s ability to orchestrate all of these elaborate challenges and somehow constantly watch Elliot isn’t particularly convincing, but director Daniel Stamm (“The Last Exorcism”) gets great mileage out of the intriguing premise, and his script (co-written with David Burke) is most effective in how Elliot navigates the moral dilemmas of his choices, more so than the outlandish assignments themselves.  Webb succeeds in making Elliot a sympathetic character the audience can find a rooting interest in, as well as convincingly portraying a man who is by turns frightened and reluctant, determined and empowered. “13 Sins” isn’t as energetically hip as “Cheap Thrills”, but it paints its thrills on a larger canvas.  “Thrills” was essentially a four-character, single-location play; effective for the type of film it is.  “13 Sins” not only runs its protagonist from one location and endurance test to the next, but the central mystery of “who?” and “why?” wraps the viewer up in the film’s tense, icy grip.  We’re never quite sure where this story is headed or what will happen next – and that’s one of the best things that can be said about any thriller.  3 Stars (Out of 4)

Cold In July

Cold In July (May 23, 2014) – A Coen Brothers-esque slice of gritty, rural pulp fiction, “Cold In July” is a riveting Independent revenge thriller in a year that already counts two indie, rural America-set tales of vengeance among its best films (“Joe” and “Blue Ruin”).  What sets “July” apart is a mid-film twist that turns the concept on its ear.  I’m not sure how much of the plot “July’s” marketing materials disclose, but you’ll get no spoilers from me.  I’ll simply say the film chronicles the events that unfold in the wake of a family man (Michael C. Hall) shooting a burglar in his home and the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) swearing vengeance and obsessively harassing the family.  Nothing that follows plays out in ways audiences will expect.  New mysteries reveal themselves, lies and liars are exposed, and unlikely relationships are forged.  Director Jim Mickle drops violence and humor in equal, surprising doses. Set in 1989 rural Texas, the film benefits a greatly from its technology and style deprived milieu, giving the film an isolated, nourish flavor.  But it’s the performances in “Cold In July” that really resonate.  Hall, as the sympathetic and vulnerable family man in over his head, and Shepard, as the obsessive, tightly-wound ball of vengeance, work in perfect contrast to each other.  But it’s Don Johnson as a cocky cowboy of a private investigator who steals his every scene; whether playing the macho badass he fancies himself or displaying surprising quiet empathy.  It’s another terrific performance from this under-appreciated and under-utilized actor.  “Cold In July” ultimately doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of “Joe” or “Blue Ruin”, and there are few scenes that only serve to slow the film’s pace.  But these minor quibbles aside, “Cold In July” is one of the more compelling and originally-plotted dramas you’re likely to see this year.  The performances alone earn it a blanket recommendation.  3½ Stars (Out of 4)

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (June 6, 2014) – Indie horror flavor of the day Ti West (“House of the Devil”) directs this well-intentioned, but ultimately rather unnecessary, fictional retelling of the 1978 events at Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana, better known as the Jonestown Massacre.  The film employs the found-footage aesthetic that is all the rage in horror films these days – especially low budget ones, which allows cash-strapped filmmakers the perfect guise to present their films to wide audiences they would otherwise not see bankrolled by risk-shy major studios – presenting itself as a documentary pieced together from footage shot by a video journalist (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman (Joe Swanberg) who follow a young man (Kentucker Audley) to a remote South American compound in hopes of convincing his sister to leave “Eden Parish”, a cultish religious society run by the quietly intimidating Father (Gene Jones). The names and places have changed from Jonestown, but the story remains the same.  If you are familiar with the particulars of the true story, “The Sacrament” follows suit.  Viewers uneducated on the events will do well to avoid spoilers, as that may provide a more compelling viewing experience.  But true story or not, “The Sacrament” plays out rather predictably.  This by itself isn’t so much a problem, but West can’t seem to find a new or interesting way to present the events, and the found footage thing by itself doesn’t count as inspired filmmaking anymore.  There is simply a disappointing lack of inventiveness and surprise to the proceedings.  A story like this by its very nature offers some unavoidable tension.  Viewers know things will inevitably go south; the question of when and how bad it will get is generally what keeps us engaged and in nervous suspense.  But as “The Sacrament” goes through its motions, we are let down again and again.  West seems content to do the bare minimum, offering sequences and resolutions we’ve simply seen too many times before; as opposed to playing on our anxiety and pushing the events in new, unpredictable directions.  The Jonestown events were not only the basis for “The Sacrament”, but also clearly as far as West was willing to take his film.  Still, “The Sacrament” is well filmed and performed, and West does manage some effective uncomfortable moments.  There is enough here to keep audiences interested.  The problem is the destination isn’t really worth the journey.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Edge of Tommorow

By R. David

Viewed June 6, 2014

Live. Die. Repeat.  That’s “Edge of Tomorrow’s” tagline, and the basic gist of its premise –  a SCI-FI action variation on “Groundhog Day”.  But while that conceit may sound narratively constricting and potentially tiresome, director Doug Liman and a small army of writers have found a way to milk their gimmick for its full potential.  The result is a clever, fast-paced, and often very funny high-concept thriller.

Set in the near future and based on the Japanese novel “All You Need Is Kill”, “Edge of Tomorrow” stars Tom Cruise as William Cage, a smug, cowardly ARMY journalist who, after attempting to blackmail a superior officer, is busted down to Private and dumped into combat on the front lines of Northern Europe’s war with a sinister alien species known as “Mimics”.  Cage is killed almost instantly.  Spoiler, right?  Nope.  Cage has somehow contracted the ability to relive the day he dies.  Every time he is killed, he wakes up in the same place he awoke that day and must relive those same events.

As I said, this is basically “Groundhog Day” with guns and aliens; but Liman and his writers get great mileage out of this construct, mining all the clever and funny potential possible from the film’s concept.  Naturally, Cage is initially scared and bumbling – as confused as we are as to what’s happening to him.  With each attempt at the day though, he learns and discovers a bit more about his situation and is able to stay alive a bit longer.  Along the way he meets an infamous heroic soldier played by Emily Blunt who has her own theories about his powers and ideas about how he might use them to defeat the Mimics.

“Edge of Tomorrow” is at its most imaginative and entertaining in its first half.  Watching Cage marvel at his situation and, eventually, exploit his newfound “ability”, is great fun.  And Liman gets the action, pacing, and sense of humor just right.  He handles the big SFX sequences admirably, but most memorable are his cutaway editing techniques and other visual cues that put an explanation point on Cage’s exploits.  Cruise, for his part, is better here than he’s been in a long time; mainly because he seems to be relaxed and genuinely enjoying himself.  He and Blunt have decent chemistry, and she finally gives a memorable post-“The Devil Wears Prada” performance.

Where “Edge of Tomorrow” stumbles (besides its bland title – though I suppose it’s a step up from “All You Need Is Kill”) is in its generic conflict and laden final act.  Once the mission to destroy the Mimics takes over the story, “Edge of Tomorrow” becomes as derivative and tiresome as any assembly line genre exercise.  Liman and his writers simply aren’t able to find a way to make the aliens or their motivations (and Cage and Cos’. attempts to foil them) as compelling as the film’s gimmick.  Just once it would nice if an alien invasion flick paid as much attention to the logic and imagination of its plotting as its central gimmick.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES / THE EQUALIZER

A Walk Among The Tombstones

By R. David

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (September 19, 2014) – Liam Neeson once again plays a man with a specific set of skills that just so happen to make him the perfect badass to call when a couple of sociopaths start brutally murdering the loved ones of New York-area drug dealers circa 1999.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is based on Lawrence Bock’s series of mystery bestsellers featuring ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder (Neeson).  The film begins in 1991 with Scudder then on the force and on the sauce.  The events of a bar shoot-out lead him to retire.  Fast-forward eight years, he now “helps people solve problems in exchange for gifts”, as he puts it.  A member of his AA group convinces him to investigate the abduction and murder of his drug-trafficking brother’s wife.  This puts Scudder on the trailer of a pair of kidnappers/homicidal maniacs who may or may not have DEA ties.

“Tombstones” distinguishes itself from the more cartoony action films in Neeson’s cannon as of late with a gritty, neo-noir look and style.  Writer/director Scott Frank is shooting for a lurid, atmospheric, serious thriller here.  He mostly succeeds.  Setting the film in 1999 with subtle reminders of the time (cab-top ads for home-readying Y2K services, shots of the World Trade Centers, all the cell phones flip, phone booths are still readily available) add to the surreal, noirish feel; as do the chilly days and rainy nights.  Neeson, while always stoic, is more pensive and measured here than in his recent, more overtly heroic roles.  Only near the film’s climax does he start doling out the coolly intimidating threats – over the phone no less – that have become his stock in trade.

The problem with “Tombstones”, though, is that for all of its lofty ambition to create a strong sense of time and place, it couldn’t feel more generic from a storytelling perspective.  Structurally, this is a conventional detective story and all of its paces and characters feel shopworn and perfunctory (there’s even a smart-but-underprivileged kid – with sickle cell anemia no less! – who wants to be Scudder’s partner) -which is surprising because Frank is the scribe of crackling, memorable scripts for the film adaptations of “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight”, among others.  Maybe those Elmore Leonard books simply gave him a stronger template than Bock’s novel.

Despite a few ferocious and grisly sequences (most of them involving women) “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is the kind of thriller you’ll confuse with 10 other movies a few years from now.  The performances are good and Frank’s direction is stellar, but he lets himself down with his movie-of-the-week-style script and pacing.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

1201213 - The Equalizer

THE EQUALIZER (September 26, 2014) – Denzel Washington also plays a man with a very specific set of skills in “The Equalizer”, a far more energetic, action-oriented thriller than “A Walk Among the Tombstones”; but it is also much sillier and lacks any high-minded ambition where directing is concerned.  This one is helmed by Antoine Fuqua and stars Washington in a more Liam Neeson-ready role than Neeson’s part in “Tombstones”.  I guess the “taciturn, loner, middle-aged badass” has officially become a cottage industry in Hollywood.  That’s not a complaint; just an observation.  Better Neeson and Washington putting down cinematic scum than Channing Tatum or Scarlett Johansson.

Washington plays McCall, a widowed home improvement store worker living a quiet, solitary existence in a modest apartment.  He doesn’t sleep much, so he goes to the local diner in the middle of the night to drink tea (which he brings from home) and read old novels (he’s gradually making his way through a list of ‘100 novels everyone should read before they die’, a task his wife was determined to accomplish but never completed). It’s at the diner he befriends a teenage Russian escort named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) who, naturally, answers to an abusive pimp who just happens to be a major player in the Russian mafia.  After Teri is severely beaten, McCall pays the pimp a visit and ends up killing him and four of his henchmen with a precision and deadly skill that suggests there just might be more to this guy than a guiet, lonely department store employee.  The pimp’s higher-ups in Russia send a hit squad after McCall which causes him to reveal his true identity as a former CIA assassin.

“The Equalizer” starts out batshit silly and only gets goofier as it goes along.  But it’s hardly asking you to swallow anything more ludicrous than you’ve seen in any number of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or – for that matter- Neeson flicks.  It works in the same way “Taken” or “The Expendables” films do:  In its best moments, “The Equalizer” is a refreshing throwback to the heyday of one-man-army actioners.  But unlike most of those films, there’s a turgid self-importance running through this film, as if it is trying to position itself as being more dramatic and more complex than it really is.  Washington brings his usual gravitas to the role, but that almost seems out of place here.  He’s trying so hard to convey a depth of character and emotion in a film that neither deserves nor calls for it.  We’re supposed to be having fun watching him take guys apart with corkscrews and nail guns, but he doesn’t seem to be having any fun doing it.  You won’t hear many people say they long for the Steven Seagal days of action cinema, but it’s during morose, would-be enjoyable shoot-‘em-ups like this that I do.

You may recall Washington won an Oscar under Fuqua’s direction for “Training Day” back in 2001.  Washington needn’t worry about that happening again here.  But “The Equalizer” is far from worthless where the action and performances are concerned.  Undiscriminating action fans – the same ones who made “Taken” such a huge hit despite its massive implausibility and unoriginality – will likely be elated again here. But the film is simply too familiar and too tone-deaf to warrant a blanket recommendation.  Oh, and if you’re wondering; no, you needn’t be familiar with the 1986 TV series this in-name-only remake is based on.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

 

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

A Million Ways

By R. David

Viewed May 30, 2014

A talented cast and high-concept comedy ambition come together in “A Million Ways to Die In the West”, Seth MacFarlane’s affectionate send-up of Western genre tropes.  It’s a bold and curious film in that one can’t help but wonder just what the audience is for a film like this.  Moviegoers in their golden years who may actually have fond memories of the films MacFarlane is paying homage to aren’t likely to be sold by the its vulgar and violent trailer; while younger audiences whose funny bone might be tickled by the bawdy bathroom humor and graphic sight gags aren’t likely to grasp or fully appreciate the overall concept.  But MacFarlane would be nowhere if not for taking risks on odd and potentially off-putting premises (see “Family Guy” and “Ted”).  And funny is funny regardless of the box it’s placed in.  If MacFarlane can find the hilarity in a film about a walking, talking, pot-smoking teddy bear, surely he can find it in a Wild West farce, right?

The answer, it turns out, is a bit complicated.  On the one hand, “A Million Ways…” gets just about everything right on a technical level.  The production design, cinematography and score especially recall the sprawling, dusty oaters of Hollywood yore.  The cast is game and seems to be having a great time with such farcical material (typically serious actors like Liam Neeson and Charlize Therone in particular seem to be enjoying themselves).  As fans of “Family Guy” know, MacFarlane knows how to milk a sight gag and the film, written by MacFarlane with his frequent collaborator Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, has a good amount of clever lines and observational humor, both raunchy and cartoonishly violent.  But “A Million Ways…” is never quite as funny as you’d like it to be.  I smiled a lot, but the big laughs are few and far between, and the film also has trouble sustaining momentum.  Going back in time initially feels like a breath of fresh air for a comedy, but after a while, returning to the same jokes about the Wild West starts to wear thin.  The film simply doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to remain compelling and funny for its entire running time.  As a result, it feels padded and overly long.

Part of the problem is the thin plot, which is too shopworn to inspire much audience investment.  MacFarlane plays Albert, a worrywart sheep-farmer who detests the dangers of the primitive Wild West.  His girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him for the local mustache groomer (Neil Patrick Harris), and Albert contemplates leaving town.  But when he accidentally saves the life of a beautiful stranger named Anna (Therone) and the two seem to be a perfect match, he thinks he’s finally found happiness.  What Albert doesn’t know is that Anna is married to one of the most feared gunslingers in the West (Neeson), and he’s coming to town to find his wife.

As I said, pretty standard stuff.  While any send-up is bound to be representative of its target’s conventions, whoever is doing the sending-up still needs to fashion a compelling narrative; but the plot here feels completely beside the point, as if MacFarlanbe just needed the most basic of stories to attach all his wacky little gags to.  If he had more of them – or more of them worked – this might have been OK; but again, the writers simply don’t have the comedy gold they think they do.  Though, some of it works very well.  The overall gimmick of the dangers that run rampant in the Wild West – with characters being killed randomly and in a bevy of ridiculous and often hilariously extreme ways – is presented with the sort of surprising, giddy, cut-away precision MacFarlane relies so heavily on in “Family Guy”.  The other commentary on the Old West – men’s manliness is judged by the size of their mustache, nobody smiles in photographs, the slightest offense results in bar fights and shootouts, Albert’s self-awareness of the ridiculous science and social expectations of the time – is also generally funny stuff,.  But MacFarlane returns to all of these jokes again and again.  The first few times a gag is repeated, the repetition itself gets a laugh.  After a while though, the constant call backs just start to feel tired.  For instance, Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who claims to be a good Christian so she won’t have sex with her daffy fiancé (Giovanni Ribisi) until they’re married; but she has no problem with her occupation or graphically discussing the details of her work.  Initially, this is the sort of ridiculous, vulgar joke MacFarlane excels at.  But spend too much time with these characters making the same joke over and over again and it loses its luster.

Through all the unevenness here though, “A Million Ways to Die In the West” has three things keeping it watchable and entertaining despite its flaws.  First, it is often undeniably funny.  Even though it spins its wheels considerably, there is usually a clever sight gag or surprising cutaway not far ahead. Second, as mentioned, the look, tone, photography and music are all simply exquisite – not just an ace parody, but a wonderfully made film on a technical level by any measure.  Third, and perhaps most beneficial, is the cast.  MacFarlane (who also directs) has the face of a 20-something despite being in his 40s and the voice of a radio announcer.  He might not make for a genius comedic performer or a captivating leading man, but he is rather perfect as the sarcastic, exasperated voice of logic and reason amongst all the insanity.  He and Therone are tasked with playing straight-man to all the over the top buffoonery surrounding them and they have clear comedic chemistry even if their romantic chemistry is lacking.  There are moments where it is clear he is legitimately cracking her up, and she’s not just acting.  To that end, there is also obvious improve work to much of the dialog which lends some scenes a bit of edge and energy.  Also, who better to ring-up to play a smarmy, show tune-singing, mustache-twirling ham than Niel Patrick Harris; and who better to riff on the alpha male badass than Liam Neeson?

There is much to admire about “A Million Ways to Die In the West”; it’s just a shame it’s not a bit tighter and more inspired.  It’s the kind of movie that feels like they came up with a concept and cast, but tried to throw together a script as they went along.  But that it’s as enjoyable as it is is a testament to the winsome cast and MacFarlane’s considerable gift for mining (if over-milking) scatological humor.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

GODZILLA

Godzilla

By R. David

Viewed May 16, 2014

I suppose I am required by movie-reviewing law to make some reference to the infamously ill-fated 1998 American “Godzilla” remake in this review; so let’s get the elephant (or iguana-meets-T-Rex-shape-shifting-thingy) in the room out of the way right at the top:  It was not good.  It’s not often that pretty much everybody agrees a movie should be wiped from our collective memories;  and even less often when that film is a big-budget, would-be summer blockbuster featuring one the most iconic monsters in movie history.  Sure, remakes are botched all the time, but the degree of the botching in Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” is unprecedented.  So, when “Godzilla” emerges from the depths of the sea in this new reboot from director Gareth Edwards, the creature is returning from a 16-year slumber since he last laid waste to American shores.

Despite the reviled 1998 attempt, it is a bit surprising it has taken a studio so long to attempt rebooting Godzilla for the CGI age. But perhaps we should all take comfort in the fact that a studio waited (for once) to do something right, rather than rushing yet another generic, half-baked blockbuster into theaters based on name recognition alone.  The willingness to take risks to do right by the big guy this time around is obvious not only in the measured amount of time it’s taken to bring him back, but in giving newish, indie director Edwards (he made the low-budget, slow-burning feature, “Monsters”, which supposedly won him this gig) the reins as opposed to some blockbuster guru (ala Roland Emmerich), and greenlighting a script that keeps Godzilla himself largely off-screen for the first hour of the film.

Withholding the titular character of a movie for nearly half of its run-time would be a risky move for any film – and it will most certainly prove to be this incarnation of “Godzilla’s” most controversial sticking point for many viewers – but demonstrates both faith in the film’s story, characters and performances, as well as a commitment to making a film that is not simply a another typical monster movie.  Unfortunately, the story and characters writers Max Borenstein (screenplay) and Dave Callaham (story) have come up with is not nearly as worthy of all the build-up as they and Edwards think it is. 

The movie begins in 1999 with unexplained tremors causing the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Japan where an American scientist, played by Brian Cranston, loses his wife (Juliet Binoche), and becomes obsessed with tracking down the cause.  Fast forward 15 years later to Cranston’s estranged, Navy lieutenant son, Ford (“Kick-Ass’” Aaron Taylor-Johnson), returning to Japan to bail out his father after his conspiracy theories land him in prison.  But it turns out dad might not be crazy when his predictions of new tremors begin coming true.  The two infiltrate a top secret facility where they discover the military conducting experiments on a giant radioactive monster.  No, not Godzilla, but MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), who is trying to bust out of the facility to rendezvous with his mate (you’d think mating wouldn’t be the only reason this thing would want to set itself free from captivity; and if it could, it would have done so long ago).  So where is “Godzilla” and how does he figure into all of this?  To tell would be a minor spoiler of sorts.  Let’s just say that the MUTOs actions spur his return.  From here the movie essentially becomes the smashy-smashy monster flick most are likely hoping for as the three creatures make their way to America.  Ford too is doing his damndest to get back home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child amidst all the havoc the monsters unleash.

You have to admire a summer tentpole monster movie that strives for plot and character depth and is not simply another exhausting, run of the mill blur of CGI action.  But the characters are simply not as compelling as the movie would like them to be, and their would-be engrossing and emotionally-exhausting plight never registers the way the movie would like it to.  The reason, I suspect, is twofold:  1) it’s all cliché.  There’s no shortage of action/disaster flicks in which the hero is racing to save and/or return to his family against the insurmountable odds of the crisis in question.  And “Godzilla” can’t find a way to make these tropes any more emotionally resonant than they usually are.  For all the tearing up going on in this movie, audiences can leave their Kleenex at home.  2) The actors do what they can – no one is bad here – but the characters too are basically nothing more than clichés; and no one finds a way to rise above the stock material they’ve been given to work with.  Not surprisingly, Cranston comes closest, but even he isn’t as enjoyable to watch as one would assume, trying to work the crazy-not-crazy mad scientist thing.  Taylor-Johnson is bland, but again, that may be more the script’s fault than his own, but regardless, he’s a less than exciting hero.  And the usually engaging Olsen is reduced to the weeping-on-the-phone wife, until she becomes the running-and-screaming wife in the climax.

Another issue here is the MUTOs.  Even if you’re okay with the fact that they essentially join the plot and other characters in delaying and diminishing the movie of its namesake, there’s still the issue of their uninspired design and the fact that they frankly aren’t very interesting, either in design or their motivations.  They look like leftover SFX specs from “Cloverfield” or “Starship Troopers”.  But they are nowhere near as entertainingly vicious as anything in “Troopers”, and where those bug-monsters had character and personality, I’m not sure if the MUTOs are actually supposed be organic creatures like Godzilla or if there’s a robotic or alien component to them.  Godzilla’s a big lizard, right?  I don’t know what they the hell the MUTOs are supposed to be.  They look like construction rebar come to life.

And if it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time talking about everything other than Godzilla in my “Godzilla” review, that’s a pretty telling critique of the film.  But, while I realize I sound pretty down on the film at this point, the portion of the film – or more accurately, the half of the film – with “Godzilla” is pretty spectacular.  Freed of the need for exposition, the script finally gets out of its own way and Edwards demonstrates what he’s truly capable of as a blockbuster filmmaker.  He starts by revealing the monster slowly, with quick glimpses, building to a roaring (literally) full reveal.  Technically speaking, this Godzilla is flawless.  You feel his enormity, and he does not change in size from scene to scene or shape-shift as the script requires (remember in the ’98 film when Godzilla was at one moment bigger than a skyscraper and the next hiding in the sewer?).  Unlike, say, “Pacific Rim” or “Transformers”, there is an obvious, genuine desire here to make this movie feel real.  In those movies, you feel every bit of the CGI wizardry, never feeling a part of the action.  They are  the technically impressive, polished cinematic equivalent of a cartoon or a kid playing with their toys.  Clearly there is an audience for that sort of thing, but what makes “Godzilla” so thrilling is Edwards’s directorial approach of staging the events with a you-are-there aesthetic.  No, it’s not one of these found-footage gimmicks, nor is it presented as some pseudo docudrama, but he shoots looking up at the beasts, in bird’s-eye views, through smoke – the paratrooper scene is sure to be one of the most thrilling, gloriously filmed action set pieces of the year.  In Godzilla, the monsters feel big and we feel small; we are not merely watching events happen to other people on a screen.

The harrowing second half of “Godzilla”, and the monster himself,  more than makes up for my misgivings with the first half  which I still admire for what it tried to pull off, even if it wasn’t entirely successful.  There’s a bit of a twist at the end of the film that is rather telling of the direction any future sequel may go in.  While some may understandably gripe that a “Godzilla” reboot should have probably focused more on Godzilla himself, it seems with the reintroductions out of the way, future installments will do just that on a monster-of-the-week basis.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

NEIGHBORS

Neighbors

By R. David

Viewed May 9, 2014

“Neighbors” is a fairly run of the mill comedy of errors and rivalry, somewhat elevated by its endearing cast and a few clever bits of dialog sprinkled throughout the script.  For the most part though, this story of stressed-out new parents whose lives are turned upside down when a fraternity moves in next door is typically silly and predictable fluff.  That’s not always a bad thing – and “Neighbors” is certainly funnier and tad more ambitious than many of its slipshod ilk – but it doesn’t make for a very exciting or memorable comedy; which is unfortunate because Seth Rogan has been involved in a handful of some of the most surprisingly authentic comedies of the past decade.  “Neighbors” has the facade of some of his earlier films, but not a lick of their sharp observations or – most glaring of all – hilarity.

Rogan and Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) star as Mac and Kelly, a mid-30s couple raising their first child in a new home when the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door.  Naturally, all the frat wants to do is party late into the night, and all Mac and Kelly want to do is get some sleep (and keep their baby asleep).  In one of Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s screenplay’s cleverest touches, Mac and Kelly aren’t simply a couple of ranting, curmudgeonly party-poopers.  They are still young enough – and stressed-out enough by life as new parents – to remember a time not that long ago when they enjoyed the college-party lifestyle.  The film has them initially trying to befriend, and then play along with their new neighbors.  Mac, particularly, is taken with frat president Teddy, played by Zac Efron.  In the film’s single funniest exchange, the two actors riff on their generational differences in a pot-filled haze which ultimately degenerates into an argument over who had the better Batman actor growing up.  Mac and Kelly assume both parties have bonded and reached an understanding, but the fraternity takes advantage of the couples’ wannabe-hip attitude and their incessant partying and noise quickly creates a grow rift that eventually spirals out of control, with Mac and Kelly doing all they can to get the frat dissolved by the university due to their rule-breaking ways and the frat responding by assaulting the couple with a series of elaborate and embarrassing pranks.

“Neighbors” is all premise and very little actual plot.  Maybe the filmmakers figured the target audience would be fine with a basic outline of a story as an excuse to hang a bunch of would-be hilarious hijinks on; but as Rogan has proved many times in the past, the secret to the best comedies lies in having a complete and genuine narrative, fully-drawn characters and meaningful stakes in their conflicts.  Original ideas help too, but if you are going to romp through the tried and true, it helps to do it in new, interesting and honest ways.   Rogan’s films with Judd Apatow, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked-Up”, are a perfect example of this.  Even Rogan’s essentially-one-big-in-joke “This Is the End” was one of the most riotously funny movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years, mainly because of its talented cast’s improvisational comedic riffing, but also largely thanks to the film’s inspired, fearless nature.  There was a sense that everyone was sort of flying by the seat of their pants making  that movie, and it came through in exciting, kinetic fashion on screen. 

“Neighbors” has hints of all of those films’ assets, but it feels more like one of their many imitators than their equal.  Maybe it’s because the only through line to them here is Rogan himself.  None of his usual on-screen cohorts are here for support, he wasn’t involved in writing the script, and this is not a Judd Apatow joint, which is maybe the biggest difference between a standard issue movie like this and those Rogan has made in the past.  “Neighbors” is directed by Nicholas Stoller who helmed the Apatow-produced “Forgetting Sarah Marshal”.  He’s learned a few of Apatow’s tricks:  it’s obvious in some scenes he’s letting his cast riff and improv with the material, the eclectic supporting cast (which includes Dave Franco, Lisa Kudrow), stabs at tipping genre conventions (Efron is a walking fratboy cliché in terms of appearance, but many of his actions and the attitudes toward him by other students go against the grain of the college/party comedy rules).  That’s all good stuff.  But it’s also simply window-dressing for the far less ambitious comedy “Neighbors” actually is.  If it were actually the Apatow-minded comedy it asserts itself as, it would have spent some time exploring all of those things, not just tossing them out there.  Simply suggesting you know the theme of your movie is shopworn is not the same thing as doing something different.   For instance, as much as “Neighbors” purports to be a comedy about parenthood, it just nails all the traditional tropes of those conflicts:  no time for themselves, unspontaneous sex, boredom, etc.  These things are mentioned or played for the obvious laughs, but never explored or tipped on their ear.  Contrast that with the likes of “Knocked Up” and you’ll understand the difference.

Rogan and (even, surprisingly) Efron are affable and likeable performers (as is the rest of the cast, particularly Byrne who does more for the script than it does for her), and there’s a sense that they are elevating the material on sheer will and talent alone.  There are laughs, clever dialog, interesting observations and good performances in “Neighbors”.  But all that only serves to make its tired premise, shoddy plotting, and predictable results that much more of a bummer. 

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

BLUE RUIN

Blue Ruin

By R. David

Viewed April 25, 2014

Just a few weeks after “Joe” – the riveting, Southern-fried tale of redemption and revenge starring Nicolas Cage in masterful return to form – comes “Blue Ruin”; another sweat-soaked slice of vengeance and grim Americana.  It may lack the above-the-title star power of Cage, but it features a lead performance from Macon Blair that is every bit as revelatory, and perhaps even more extraordinary.

Blair is Dwight, a disheveled recluse and drifter with a blank stare and the face of an apathetic child.  But his nebbish exterior is masking a vengeful rage boiling just beneath the surface; a fury that erupts when he discovers the man who killed his parents – and who is thereby responsible setting in motion the events that led Dwight to his listless, damaged existence – has been released from prison.  Dwight hatches a half-cocked execution plot that he is hardly capable of properly planning or executing.  Blair’s still, childlike aura lends Dwight a naïve innocence.  He’s in completely over his head, which ratchets up the suspense as well as rendering Dwight an extremely sympathetic character despite his bloodlust.

“Blue Ruin” is directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who is also a cinematographer; and there is a hair-raising merging of art and craft on display in this, only his second feature film. He has an obvious gift for conveying a sweeping, atmospheric sense of place, but Saulnier also drops crushing intimate moments on the audience both small and silent, and thundering and fierce.  He is a savvy enough director to present the violent moments sparingly but with an intensity and volume that is completely at odds with the tone set by the rest of the film; so when they do occur they land with the impact of a hammer to the skull.  Conversely – or similarly, depending on how you want to look at it – there are muted moments of heartbreaking quiet and revelation.

In many ways “Blue Ruin” is one of the best Coen Brothers movies the Coens never made.  Like the best of their celebrated works, this film is intimate and atmospheric, minimalist but with a vast scope and shocking outbursts, steeped in heady moral themes and a growing, suffocating tension, as well as expertly paced and performed.

I can’t say enough about this film, Saulnier’s direction, or Blair’s performance; so I’ll simply say this:  “Blue Ruin” deserves Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.  It is the best movie of 2014 so far.

4 Stars (Out of 4)