Welcome to NICKPICKSFLICKS. I am your host for the evening, America's sweetheart, Nick Spake.
5 Stars= Totally Rocks
3 Stars= Rad
2 Stars= Bad
1 Star= Terrible
Zero= Total Crap
Just Reviewed Men, Women & Children, Fury, and the Book of Life-October 17
Just Reviewed Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Dracula Untold-October 10th
Just Reviewed The Equalizer, The Skeleton Twins, and the Boxtrolls-September 26th
Just Reviewed The Guest-September 17th
Interview with Dan Stevens-September 17th
The sound of silence ****
With “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air,” few modern directors have done a more authentic job at capturing the age we live in better than Jason Reitman. It’s actually pretty surprising that it’s taken him this long to make a movie concerning digital media’s effect on culture. What’s even more shocking is the fact that some of these innovations are barely a decade old. On top of all that, it’s only been thirteen years since the 9/11 attacks, which instigated the need for every man, woman, and child to have a cell phone. We might have gotten by fine without them for years, but now it’s impossible to imagine life without any mobile devices or social networking.
Of all Reitman’s movies, “Men, Women & Children” should be one of the most interesting to revisit in twenty or thirty years. The Internet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Regardless, Internet access are service are bound to evolve with time. In 2044, iPhones and iPads might look as ancient as beepers and answering machines. Does that mean “Men, Women & Children” will inevitably become dated? In terms of technology, yes. In terms of characters and themes, though, the film feels both timely and timeless. On that basis, it could either age worse with time or better with time.
“Men, Women & Children” connects several stories about adults and young adults struggling to communicate in this digital era. Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt play a distant married couple that share more conversations on Words with Friends than they do in person. Both are considering committing adultery by seeking out partners online, be it through a dating website or a call girl service. As their relationship deteriorates, a new romance blossoms between Ansel Elgort’s Tim and Kaitlyn Dever’s Brandy. The only problem is that Brandy’s mom played by Jennifer Garner is a control freak who monitors everything her daughter posts online. She’s the complete opposite of Judy Greer’s Donna, who is determined to make her daughter a star by posting racy pictures on her acting website.
Reitman’s film is at its strongest when he allows scenes to play out through silent text messages. There’s a particularly strong scene where a young anorexic girl and an older boy she likes are standing in the same room together. They never approach one another or even look each other in the eyes, commutating solely through texts. “Men, Women & Children” is full of identifiable moments like this, asking whether the likes of Facebook and Twitter are bringing us closer together or causing us to drift apart like a satellite floating away from our insignificant planet. The answer is a little bit of both.
While technology and the world will change in the years to come, Reitman understands that certain aspects of human nature never will. As much as cell phones and the Internet have altered civilization, there have always been people with trust issues, privacy issues, romantic issues, insecurity issues, and communication issues. Even if you took technology out of the equation, most of these characters would be the same at heart. In that sense, “Men, Women & Children” is a film much like “American Beauty” and “Little Children,” acting as a time capsule for contemporary society while also saying something that’s poignant for every generation.
The one major dislike “Men, Women & Children” merits is its constant narration from an all-knowing Emma Thompson. At times she can work in a witty one-liner, but for the most part the voiceover is just a needless distraction that’s latching onto the source material by Chad Kultgen. That being said, whenever “Men, Women & Children” just shows us the characters living their lives it’s often quite absorbing.
The most emotional scene of all occurs as one character learns a program has been deleted from their hard drive forever. In the early 90’s we might have said, “Big deal. It’s not like anyone died.” Now, however, we all know that losing something important on your computer is like losing a body part. Should we feel sad for this person’s loss or should we feel depressed that a computer program can make us so upset? In either case, our smart phones, tablets, and laptops are officially apart of us all until something superior replaces them.
Saving Private Ryan's Platoon on the All Quiet, Apocalyptic Western Front Now ***1/2
“Fury” is a good wartime drama that might have been considered great had it come out anywhere in between 1930 and 1998. In the year 2014, however, the film might come off as too familiar to those who have seen classics like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and “Saving Private Ryan.” That’s not to say “Fury” is too little too late. On the contrary, the film is exceptionally made, wonderfully acted, and effectively portrays the horrors of war. It’s just hard to totally give yourself to a movie when you can tell who’s going to live, who’s going to die, and what’s going to be learned ten minutes in.
Brad Pitt is back to kill some more Nazis as Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, the commander of a tank called “Fury.” Not a ton is learned about who he was before World War II or the hell he’s been through since enlisting, but we can assume that none of it was pretty. Wardaddy’s crew consists of Jon Bernthal as Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis, Michael Peña as Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia, Shia LaBeouf as Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan, and Some ‘Expendable’ Guy who dies before the movie even starts. Some ‘Expendable’ Guy is replaced by Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison, a clerk typist who is completely unprepared for combat. Nevertheless, he’s going behind enemy lines with just one more month until the war ends.
Although he’s billed as a supporting actor and is barely featured on the poster, Lerman is really Pitt’s co-lead. Lerman is one of our finest up-and-coming actors, previously bringing great depth to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and bringing more depth than required to the “Percy Jackson” pictures. This is another winning performance for Lerman, who is utterly convincing as a young man who was likely drafted and assumed he wouldn’t have to kill anyone throughout the entire war.
Lerman and Pitt share a notably intense scene in which the crew captures a German solider. Although the man is unarmed and surrenders, Wardaddy insists that Norman assassinate the solider. As much as his commanding officer pushes, Norman refuses to fire on his own. Whether this makes Norman cowardly or brave is up for debate. Wardaddy soon shows Norman, however, that you can’t survive war without breaking a few eggs.
The supporting cast is mostly solid, although Bernthal, Peña, and LaBeouf are a somewhat underdeveloped trio. The standout supporting player here is Alicia von Rittberg as a young woman Wardaddy and Norman briefly encounter in a German village. Their scene plays out like a mini play amidst a grander epic, providing some of the film’s quietest and most uncomfortable moments.
Director David Ayer of “End of Watch” has unquestionably made a fantastic-looking movie with chaotic battle sequences, commanding sounds, and chilling gore. The only error with the film’s craft concerns some of the tank missile fire effects, which are strangely coated in bright green and blue in the earlier action set pieces. They look more like something out of “Star Wars” than WWII. Other than that, you can’t fault the look of “Fury.” What you can fault is its story, which, again, isn’t poorly executed. It just lacks enough originality to contend among the all-time best war pictures. Due to its performances and production values, however, the film does leave an impact nonetheless. Just be prepared for something more along the lines of “Flags of Our Fathers” than “The Hurt Locker.”
Strike a balance between fun and culture ***
“The Book of Life” has most of the same pros and cons as “The Boxtrolls” from a couple weeks ago. Both films are absolute joys to watch for their delightful characters, unique worlds, and dazzling animation. As creative as they are in terms of presentation, neither film is all that original when it comes to storytelling. “The Book of Life” isn’t just a familiar story like “The Boxtrolls,” through. It’s also a very overstuffed and awkwardly paced one too. So exactly how problematic is the story? Well, read the synopsis below and find out for yourself.
Deriving inspiration from the Day of the Dead, “The Book of Life” implies that the afterlife is made up of two worlds. There’s the Land of the Remembered, ruled by the kind and colorful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), and the Land of the Forgotten, ruled by the grim and dark Xibalba (Ron Perlman). In the land of the living reside three children trapped in an age-old love triangle. Manolo, who grows up to be voiced by Diego Luna, is a free spirit who wants to be a musician, but is told by his father that he must follow in his family’s tradition of bullfighting. Joaquín, who grows up to be voiced by Channing Tatum, is the cocky son of a war hero with a metal that gives him eternal life. They’re both in love with María, who grows up to be voiced by Zoe Saldana, a spunky señorita reminiscent of Catherine Zeta-Jones in “The Mask of Zorro.”
The spirits make a bet. If María marries Joaquín, Xibalba gets to take over the Land of the Remembered. If María marries Manolo, La Muerte holds onto her turf. Without giving too much away, one of the three lovers is killed. To get back to the land of the living, they must confront their greatest fear and choose their own path. Oh, and there’ also a pig, a candle maker voiced by Ice Cube, a bandit who wants to steal Joaquín’s metal of eternal life, and a framing device with a museum guide telling this needlessly complicated story to a group of kids.
Phew… as you can see, that’s a lot of characters and ideas to take in. It doesn’t help that “The Book of Life” rushes from scene to scene without ever taking a breather. Fortunately, the story is the last thing you’ll be thinking about when observing the film’s stunning visuals. This is one of the best looking animated features you’ll ever see. The characters are all cleverly designed like wooden Mexican Day of the Dead figurines. The Land of the Remembered is a spectacle of art direction with the appearance of a fiesta Baz Luhrmann would throw. Every frame is just pure eye candy and it tastes great, even if it is mostly empty calories.
While the narrative isn’t on par with the craft, that doesn’t mean “The Book of Life” is purely style over substance. Director Jorge Gutierrez and company obviously put a ton of effort into the film’s music, humor, and, most of all, culture. It’s actually quite encouraging to see an American family film puts emphasis on a culture that isn’t white. I’m not sure how much of the culture, legends, and fables presented in the film are accurate, but they’re still absorbing. When all’s dead and done, “The Book of Life” has just enough substance to check out, although you may want to hold out for the upcoming Pixar Dead of the Dead film or rent Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” instead.
Can we please keep titles to a five word minimum from now on? **1/2
A live-action, feature-length version of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” produced by Disney? That’s got to be the most unpromising synopsis for a kid’s movie since Warner Bros. made an entire film about Legos. Then again, “The Lego Movie” ended up being awesome. Maybe this adaptation of the classic picture book from Judith Viorst will be a pleasant surprise too, right? Well, the film isn’t terrible, horrible, no good, or very bad. It’s not exactly great either. It’s just okay, which is still at least better than expected.
Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is an Austrian-loving, down on his luck eleven-year-old going on twelve. He’s had his fair share of lousy days, although his problems extend beyond simply getting stuck wearing railroad train pajamas in this adaptation. Here, Alexander must deal with a rival having a kickass birthday party the same day as his, having embarrassing photos of him posted on the Internet, and setting the science lab on fire. To make matters worse, the rest of Alexander’s family have seemingly perfect lives. Alexander wishes just for one day they could know how he feels. Since wishes always come true in Disney films, Alexander gets what he wants.
So in a strange twist, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” isn’t so much about Alexander as it is about his family and their bad days. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner are both wonderful as Alexander’s parents, both of whom face work crises due to Alexander’s wish. He also has an older brother (Dylan Minnette) who has a driver’s test and prom scheduled that day, a sister (Kerris Dorsey) who has the lead in her school’s production of Peter Pan, and a baby brother who can only be calmed down by a bumblebee pacifier. Of course their days involve the car getting destroyed, the play being a bust, a job interview going all wrong, the baby consuming magic marker, and a kangaroo attacking Carell. They also manage to work in a cameo from 88-year-old Dick Van Dyke as himself. I’m assuming he was under contract.
The slapstick is hit and miss with a lot of the material just being predictable. What gets the audience through the ordeal are the actors, who are all very likable in their roles and have terrific chemistry. The screenplay by Rob Lieber, while not always laugh-out-loud funny, still has some solid subplots and the theme of the film remains in the spirit of Viorst’s book. What holds “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” back from a recommendation is Alexander himself. That’s not a shot at Ed Oxenbould, who’s a fine young actor. Alexander is simply a boring character, though, spending most of the film standing around observing others. For a film with his name in the title, Alexander does next to nothing except make a wish. It also doesn’t help that the film’s final act feels drastically anticlimactic, tying up everything too nicely, too quickly, and without much suspense.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is a perfectly inoffensive, little movie. It’s nothing extraordinary, but the film wasn’t made for me. If it were, it probably would have been a dark comedy consisting of a lot more murder, drug arrests, and sex scandals. Now that would be a truly bad day. As a film aimed at kids between four and thirteen, however, it gets the job done fine and will likely keep parents entertained enough too.
Game of fangs *1/2
You’d think this past decade’s vampire fad would have brought us a number of movies starring Dracula. Strangely enough, however, everyone’s favorite public domain vampire has been missing in action as of late. That’s what happens when you choose to do films like “Dracula 2000,” “Van Helsing,” and “Blade: Trinity.” Dracula should stay cozy in his coffin because “Dracula Untold” isn’t going to reboot his film career. As badly as he needs a comeback, this is one Dracula story that should have remained untold.
Luke Evans is Vlad III the Impaler, a Transylvanian prince who actually inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in real life. Described as the son of the dragon, Vlad is a noble ruler who lives with his subjects and adoring family in a medieval kingdom. Peacetime comes to an end when the Turkish demand Vlad to surrender 1,000 boys for their army. With his own son at risk as well, Vlad must think of a new war strategy and…wait a minute! Son of the dragon, medieval kingdom, political talk, war strategies? Did I stumble into the wrong movie or something?
As you might have noticed from that synopsis, “Dracula Untold” sounds nothing like “Dracula.” It sounds more like somebody was hired to write a script for “True Blood” or “The Strain” and instead decided to turn in their crappy “Game of Thrones” fan fiction. Heck, it couldn’t be more obvious that the film is trying to cash in on the success of “Game of Thrones.” The characters even shamelessly refer to the war they’re fighting as a “game” multiple times.
To be fair, the whole vampire element does eventually come into play. To save his kingdom, Vlad makes a deal with a demon. He will gain the strength of 100 men, but some side effects may include bloodlust and an allergic reaction to the sun. Even as a vampire, though, Vlad isn’t menacing, threatening, or intimidating. He’s just a cheap Ned Stark wannabe with quicker moves and better hair.
Although the title suggests otherwise, “Dracula Untold” is utterly uninterested in making a true Dracula movie or telling a legitimate horror story. Maybe it would have worked as a satire. Instead we’re left with a vampire movie that isn’t thrilling or fun and a “Game of Thrones” rip-off that isn’t smart, erotic, or even R-rated. But does “Dracula Untold” at least work as a biopic of Vlad III the Impaler’s life? Do vampires sparkle? The answer to both questions is “No!”
If you want to make a vampire movie, make a vampire movie. If you want to make a macho fantasy epic, make a macho fantasy epic. Don’t try to have your cake and suck blood too.
Way to ripoff the "Sin City" poster ***1/2
“The Equalizer” is a superhero movie without an actual superhero. Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a kindly man who spends his days greeting people with a smile at a home improvement store. By night, he roams the streets beating up/killing crooked cops, thugs, pimps, and mob bosses. He might not have Batman’s costume, gadgets, car, or money, but he just as easily could have tracked down the Joker and vanquished Bane in about a day. With his skillset, he’s basically Dexter, Sherlock Holmes, MacGyver, and Liam Neeson in “Taken” rolled into one.
Few actors play heroes better than Washington. Few actors play villains better than Washington either. It’s no surprise that he’d be terrific at playing an antihero like Robert McCall too. While McCall’s past is shady to say the least, we do learn that he was an intelligence agent of sorts who faked his death. An assassin for the CIA, perhaps? The even greater mystery is how the government hasn’t tracked him down given the trail of carnage he constantly leaves behind.
While McCall tries to live a normal life, he can’t help but get involved when an innocent soul is in trouble. He’s almost never surprised and can predict pretty much every move his enemy is going to make. This could have amounted to an overly perfect protagonist with zero weaknesses. Fortunately, Washington is just the right actor to pull a character like this off. It also helps that the film’s villain actually proves to be a commendable foe for McCall.
After avenging a hooker played by Chloë Grace Moretz, McCall is targeted by the Russian mob. They send in Teddy (Marton Csokas), another mysterious man with a talent for killing and getting to the bottom of things. When Teddy and McCall finally meet up, “The Equalizer” plays out like a game of wits and brawn. Both forces are seemingly unstoppable and neither will quit until the other is dead.
Antoine Fuqua of “Training Day” directs the film with gritty style and Richard Wenk energizes the script with flashy dialog. Watching the film, you’d swear that a graphic novel inspired it. Actually, “The Equalizer” is based on the 1980s TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. The filmmakers here have done a solid job at reworking the source material for modern audiences, producing an entertaining thriller with a strong leading performance. It should also be noted that Sony Pictures financed the film. If Disney ever buys Sony, wouldn’t it be great to see Spider-Man and the Equalizer join the Avengers?
Huh, they actually do kind of look like siblings. ****
It’s great that we’ve been getting so many stories these days that intelligently address dynamics between siblings. The best recent examples include Richard Linklater’s all too authentic “Boyhood,” Disney’s beloved “Frozen,” and the brilliant animated series “Gravity Falls.” “The Skeleton Twins” is another strong look at the relationship between a brother and sister.
It’d be easy for a film like this to fall into the same trap as so many other dysfunctional family movies like “Running With Scissors” or “August: Osage County.” “The Skeleton Twins” knows, however, that it’s not enough for the audience to just laugh at its characters or be shocked by their actions. This is a film that respects its characters, making it easy for the audience to sympathize and identify with them.
Bill Hader is Milo, a gay, failed actor and an even bigger failure in life. After a botched suicide, Milo reconnects with his sister Maggie, played by Kristen Wiig, who he hasn’t seen in ten years. Maggie has a lot more going for her with a steady job and an unapologetically optimistic husband named Lance (Luke Wilson). Regardless, she’s every bit as screwed up as Milo, if not more so. As a matter of fact, she was just about to swallow a handful of pills right before getting the call about her brother.
Much of “The Skeleton Twins” revolves around Milo and Maggie analyzing why they’re so unhappy. A lot of it has to do with their selfish mother (Joanna Gleason), a pedophile English teacher (Ty Burrell), and their father who jumped off a bridge. Milo and Maggie realize they can’t blame all of their problems on their complex upbringing, though. The two have each made stupid choices in life and want to take responsibility for them. They just don’t know how. Together, the siblings work through their issues via brutal honesty and the magic of nostalgia.
The screenplay by Mark Heyman and Director Craig Johnson is wise and witty, if not a tad familiar at times. The real reason “The Skeleton Twins” works is because of its stars. If we didn’t believe these characters, this movie could have been a colossal mess. Hader and Wiig, both of whom can do little wrong, couldn’t be more perfect in these roles. We’re 100% convinced these two are a family that’s developed an unparalleled bond through love, hate, understanding, and dressing up as ladies. Between “The Skeleton Twins,” their work together on “Saturday Night Live,” and their small roles as a married couple in “Adventureland,” they’re truly one of the great screen duos of this generation.
We're Laika and we're weird! ***1/2
Drawing inspiration from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the talented animators at Laika have done a wonderful job at bringing the strange and grotesque back to animated features in an age of more welcoming digitally animated fair. Their last two films, “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” were some of the most charmingly creepy of this recent resonance of diverse animation. “The Boxtrolls” keeps in the tradition of those movies, being a weird, visually splendid escapade of stop-motion animation. It’s all good fun, although the familiar story often holds it back from ever being a masterpiece.
The film takes place on a leaning island where all the buildings seem to be stacked upon one another. Everything is peaceful in the small town until night falls and the horrible boxtrolls immerge. Ben Kingsley voices Archibald Snatcher, a dastardly pest exterminator who’s ironically more disgusting than the Gollum-like Boxtrolls he hunts. Snatcher hopes to snatch every boxtroll so he may one day become an elitist who eats cheese and wears a white hat. Don’t take his ludicrous reasoning that seriously. It’s satire.
It turns out the boxtrolls aren’t the monsters Snatcher makes them out to be. They’re a peaceful folk who live in an inventive underground sanctuary made from garbage. They’ve also taken in a human child named Eggs, voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright of “Game of Thrones.” Although the trolls speak an unidentifiable language, Eggs somehow grows up to be quite fluent in proper English.
The human among box trolls is cared for by Fish, voiced by the king of gibberish himself, Dee Bradley Baker. When Snatcher takes Fish, Eggs ventures to the surface world where he meets Winnie (Elle Fanning). This young girl delights in the grim and bloody, so she’s actually kind of disappointed when the boxtrolls don’t eat her. Nonetheless, a friendship between her and Eggs naturally ensues as they attempt to open everyone else’s eyes.
As far as basic story’s go, “The Boxtrolls” really isn’t anything that new. We’ve seen Laika and other animation studios address issues such as prejudice, misunderstood beasts, greedy consumerism, and neglectful parents a dozen times before. The plot is essentially “Tarzan” only with trolls filling in for apes. That being said, having a formulaic narrative isn’t what kills a movie. It all depends how much flare you can bring to an old hat. On a technical level, “The Boxtrolls” has more than enough originality to keep the audience invested.
The filmmakers have crafted a clinking clanking clattering world of caliginous junk. Every shot is expertly assembled and shot. A bonus scene following the credits will especially make you feel grateful for all the painstaking work the artists put into the world of “Boxtrolls.” Granted, you can’t help but wish they put a little more work into the story, where you know upfront who everybody is going to be and what’s going to be learned. Even if it’s not “How to Train Your Dragon 2” or “The Lego Movie,” “The Boxtrolls” is still an enjoyable family film that’s sure to please the eyes.