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Friday, August 30, 2013

Review: Pain & Gain

Over Two Hours of Pain I'll Never Gain Back

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 26, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 129 minutes
Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely 
(screenplay), Pete Collins (magazine articles)
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, 
Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, 
Rob Corddry, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, 
Michael Rispoli, Keili Lefkovitz, Emily Rutherfurd

"Pain & Gain" seemingly has so much going for it: great actors, memorable performances, an over-the-top plot with wild action to match, and it's based on a true story (clearly embellished, but still). Yet, somehow, the majority of it feels like an absolute slog to get through. Similar to the steroid abusers it depicts, it's big and bloated for no reason. Big, bloated, and boring.

Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a personal trainer at Miami's Sun Gym. Find the biggest, "trendiest" fitness center in any city, and they'll all be the same: Half of the customers will be grotesque muscleheads who can't resist the sight of their own reflection while the other half will be a mixture of fat women, out-of-shape middle-aged men, and the elderly. Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, "Monk") falls into the latter category. He's a 50-something-year-old rich Jew who doesn't really consider himself a gym guy. In case we're unclear on any of these points, he wears a gold Star of David necklace, brags about his finances incessantly, and isn't exactly matching Walhberg's character move-for-move in the muscle or fitness department.

Lugo wants his piece of the "American dream." He gets paid well, but not well enough. In his mind, he deserves more. He comes up with an idea and convinces his roided-up, limp-dicked co-worker, Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), to join him. Together, they recruit Paul Doyle (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a recovering alcoholic ex-con who's also a Born Again Christian. In case we're unclear on any of those points, he quotes Alcoholics Anonymous, talks about his past in prison, and has a giant gold cross around his neck that swings like bling-bling.

Their plan: to kidnap Kershaw and steal his money.

Up until this point, "Pain & Gain" is good fun. The characters are appealing and the movie doesn't appear to take itself too seriously at first. Unfortunately, the kidnapping scenario is too long, too dark, and just too dull. It drags the film down a cliff from which it never really recovers. With that said, there is one memorable scene in this stretch of the story – involving the respective religious beliefs of Doyle and Kershaw.

In fact, there are a lot of good little moments here and there – you could create a highlight reel of them – but the movie itself never seems to come together.

Several notable comedic actors are cast in strong supporting roles: Ken Jeong (Chow in the "Hangover" movies) shows up as one of those cheesy infomercial speakers who inspires Lugo with clichéd affirmations, Rebel Wilson (Fat Amy in "Pitch Perfect") plays a medical professional who helps Anthony Mackie's character in more ways than one, and Rob Corddry ("Warm Bodies") appears as the owner of the gym who gets a little too involved in his employees' dealings.

Later on, Ed Harris jumps into the action as a retired P.I. and Emily Rutherfurd is memorable as his much younger, very plucky wife.

The three stars of the film – Mark Wahlberg, The Rock, and Anthony Mackie – are all superb. Wahlberg does a tremendous job of conveying his steroid-fueled anger, sheer desperation, and sociopathic lack of concern for all the wrong he's done. The Rock delivers what may be the best performance of his career. He completely disappears into the role. It's a shame he didn't have a better movie to work with. Mackie is his usual solid self. He credibly handles certain characteristics that would have killed a lesser actor.

"Pain & Gain" features wonderful acting, great characters, fast action, and big moments that will remain etched in your memory – but despite all of that, the final product is somehow much less than the sum of its parts.

It just doesn't work.

Like the decaying brain of a steroid junkie, Michael Bay's latest film may be a case of too much flash and not enough substance.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: The Big Wedding

A Big Surprise

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 26, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Justin Zackham
Writers: Justin Zackham (screenplay), 
Jean-Stéphane Bron and Karine Sudan 
("Mon frère se marie")
Cast: Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, 
Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, 
Topher Grace, Ben Barnes, 
Amanda Seyfried, Christine Ebersole, 
David Rasche, Patricia Rae, 
Ana Ayora, Robin Williams

"The Big Wedding" is about a big family with big issues. It's a big, fun screwball comedy with a large all-star cast and dramatic revelations galore. It may not end up being the absolute highest point of anyone's career, but it is a tasty side dish that left me feeling warm and very pleasantly surprised.

Here are the members of the wedding party:

Don (Robert De Niro) was married to Ellie (Diane Keaton) for twenty years before divorcing. Since then, he has been living with his girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon). As the movie begins, they've been together for about a decade or so.

Their adopted son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes), is getting married to Missy (Amanda Seyfried). I'll get to her parents and his biological family later.

Before adopting Alejandro, Don and Ellie had two children together:

Jared (Topher Grace) is a 30-year-old virgin who is saving himself for marriage. He's obviously a devout Catholic. I'll get to that later as well.

Lyla (Katherine Heigl) may be less uptight about sex than her brother is, but she's certainly uptight enough about everything else. Weddings, babies, and family make her tense and queasy for reasons that will be revealed as the film progresses.

Meanwhile, Missy and Alejandro have their own set of family members and problems to deal with:

Muffin (Christine Ebersole) and Barry (David Rasche) are Missy's parents. They're a bit, shall we say, eccentric. Yes, Muffin is her real name.

Madonna (Patricia Rae) and Nuria (Ana Ayora) are Alejandro's biological mother and sister, respectively. They come from South America, where the values are said to be different and far stricter (in other words, more Catholic). However, Nuria doesn't have the typical American hang-ups when it comes to nudity and sex.

Of course, no "big wedding" would be complete without someone there to officiate it:

Father Moinighan (Robin Williams) is a Catholic priest of the fire and brimstone variety. Pre-martial sex and birth control are unforgivable sins for which there is no redemption. Divorce is even worse. In his mind, that's a sure one-way ticket straight to Hell!

They all practice a type of Catholicism that the rest of the world left behind in the 14th century – or at least they'll have to pretend to. You see, they believe Alejandro's biological mother would be horrified to learn that she gave up her one and only son to divorced heathens who are living in irreparable sin. Oh, the horror!

Therefore, Don and Ellie will do what any former husband and wife logically would when put in a situation like this:

For the weekend of the wedding, they'll have to pretend they're still married.

This plan, as you would expect, does not please Bebe, who already feels like a third wheel. It's bad enough that Don never put a ring on her finger, but now she has to pretend she's not even a part of the family she's been with for ten years?!

If only Don and Ellie had thought about blowing thousands of dollars for no reason to get an annulment, none of this would be an issue. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be cheap, folks!

And all of that, believe it or not, is only a small sampling of what to expect during "The Big Wedding."

Even though every character in the movie is required to lie, the story works because it's based on a big truth:

If a family hasn't seen each other in a while, put them together in the same room for more than a few minutes and conflicts are inevitably bound to arise. 

"The Big Wedding" is nicely acted and well-scripted. All of the plot points that are introduced in the film ultimately have a payoff – and that makes for a satisfying viewing experience.  

Robert De Niro went through a long spell of appearing in projects that weren't worthy of his considerable talents, but between this and "Silver Linings Playbook," it's great to see him once again getting good material to work with. He's surrounded by a large, talented ensemble cast, and all of them interact with each other at some point. It's a treat to watch De Niro sharing fiery scenes with Katherine Heigl, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon tiptoeing around each other, Robin Williams taking confession, and dozens of other fun combinations.

Like most weddings I've attended, I walked into "The Big Wedding" not expecting much. It ended up being a big surprise. It has all of the drama with none of the boring speeches.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Olympus Has Fallen

Mr. Butler Goes to Washington

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 23, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Thriller
Running Time: 120 minutes
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, 
Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Cole Hauser, 
Finley Jacobsen, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, 
Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Rick Yune

"Olympus Has Fallen" presents a nightmarish scenario for the United States: the White House has been overtaken by North Korean terrorists, the President and Vice President are being held hostage (along with members of their cabinet), the President's young son is the next target, and a series of nuclear launch codes are in danger of falling into the wrong hands.

Of course, as always, it's up to one man to save the day: Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a former Secret Service agent who is ex-Special Forces and has a Ph.D. in kicking ass. Luckily for him, the action is nonstop! This is exactly the kind of role Butler excels in. 

Banning is close friends with the President of the United States, Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Is Asher a Republican or Democrat? I'm sure opponents of both parties will come up with negative reasons to pinpoint why he's one or the other. In a movie like this, it hardly matters.

If you saw Morgan Freeman on the poster and thought he was playing the President, well, me too. Instead, he's the Speaker of the House, Allan Trumbull. Freeman has the most trusted and authoritative voice in Hollywood, and it would be such a shame for him not to play to those strengths. Then again, whenever something happens to the President and Vice President... But I'll leave you, dear reader, to educate yourself on the White House's line of succession.

Aaron Eckhart actually dials down his considerable charisma to portray a less showy, no frills President. That, I suppose, is an easy way to convey to the audience that the Commander-in-Chief is a genuinely good person and not just another politics-as-usual talking head. He's a man of conviction who is fiercely devoted to his family. He loves his wife, Margaret (Ashley Judd), and son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen). I wish the part had called for Eckhart to be a bit more bombastic, but I understand the reasons for making this President fairly down-to-earth and ordinary.

There are some nice scenes involving Butler's character and the First Family that establish their close-knit relationship and deep, mutual love and respect for one another. He and the President are sparring partners who crack jokes while cracking knuckles in a boxing ring, and there's a strong bond between Butler and the President's son, who appears to be about 10 or 11. A little boy on the loose in the White House while it's under attack: that's certainly a cause for concern – and quite a bargaining chip for the bad guys if they find him first.

The North Korean terrorist in charge of the takeover operation is Kang (Rick Yune), and he means business!

Morgan Freeman does a superb job of playing the third wheel who wears the weight of the world on his weary face. He's completely in over his head – suddenly thrust into a high-pressure position he's ill-prepared for – but he has no choice but to press on and persevere against all odds.

There's another agent, Forbes (Dylan McDermott), who stays in the background assisting Butler's Banning. It might seem strange that such a magnetic performer would be cast in a seemingly disposable subservient role, but you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to piece this one together.

Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett) maintains a friendship with Banning. Bassett remains a dominant screen presence. 

Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) is in the trenches with the President. No matter how big or small the part is, Leo always goes out of her way to look and sound different for every role she takes. She's never afraid to immerse herself in a character, even if it means appearing unattractive or unappealing. I'll confess that I didn't even recognize her until the credits rolled and her name came up.

Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, and Robert Forster round out the cast: Mitchell plays Banning's wife, Leah, who worries and wants to spend more time with her husband; Hauser is Roma, another agent; and Robert Forster's General Edward Clegg lends advice and assistance to Freeman's character.

"Olympus Has Fallen" is the kind of action movie Hollywood used to make so well but we rarely see anymore. It's a supremely satisfying smorgasbord of bloodshed, violence, and explosions. The bullets fly and the body-count is high.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ben Affleck is the New Batman: The History of the Dark Knight

The Caped Crusader Through the Ages

By Chris Sabga

It's official: Ben Affleck is the new Batman! Based on the nuclear reaction, you'd think the world has gone up in flames. Gotham City may have though.

Affleck is a great director and a decent actor, but I'm having a very hard time picturing him as Batman. After all, his last foray as a superhero – in 2003's "Daredevil" – wasn't exactly a success. Daredevil is an incredible character – a blind man who uses his disabilities to his advantage – but the film was as mediocre and mundane as they come. Affleck certainly doesn't deserve all of the blame for that, but nothing about his performance as Daredevil convinced me that he could tackle the role of the even more iconic Batman.

Bruce Wayne, yes. Batman, no.

Affleck certainly has the looks and charm to portray the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, but the daring, deadly Dark Knight is another story entirely. In that regard, Affleck seems like another George Clooney (1997's "Batman & Robin").

Clooney has repeatedly poked fun at himself for one of the biggest disasters of his career. It's clear that Affleck either didn't seek his advice or chose to ignore it. I can only hope this isn't just a "paycheck role" for Affleck. That would be doing the character and franchise a great disservice.

Reportedly, Affleck's Batman will be an older, wiser, grizzled veteran to Henry Cavill's Superman. There's only one problem with that: Despite an eleven-year age difference, Affleck doesn't look any older than Cavill. Of course, that's nothing a little makeup and hair-dye can't take care of.

Truthfully, I like Ben Affleck, and I'm rooting for him to surprise us all. In order for that to happen though, he is going to have to learn from history. Seven other men put on the cape and cowl before him for live action adaptations of "Batman."

Lewis G. Wilson: Batman (1943 – Serial)
Robert Lowery: Batman and Robin (1949 – Serial)

Raise your hand if you thought Adam West was the first actor to portray Batman on-screen. I certainly did. But two others came before him: Lewis G. Wilson was the first Caped Crusader in 1943, and Robert Lowery followed in his footsteps six years later in 1949. Both serials are readily available on DVD, and episodes can also be found on YouTube.

Adam West: Batman (1966-1968 – TV Series), Batman (1966 – Movie)

Fun, outrageous, and completely campy – Adam West's Batman was a cartoon come-to-life. Generations of Bat-fans grew up on West's version, and it remains just as beloved today as it was when it first aired all the way back in 1966. For over 30 years, West's zany take on Batman was the most famous televised version of the character. But the door was definitely open for a more serious interpretation of the Caped Crusader. That finally happened in 1989.

Michael Keaton: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)

At the time, people must have had serious doubts about Keaton's ability to become Batman. On paper, it seems like something that shouldn't have worked at all. By all appearances, Keaton wasn't suave enough to be Bruce or tough enough to be Batman – and yet, somehow, he pulled it off spectacularly. Perhaps the same will be true of Affleck? It helps, of course, that everything else was so perfectly realized. Gotham City came alive – transformed into a dark, atmospheric, stunning metropolis for this movie. Jack Nicholson was brilliant and manic as The Joker; funny, serious, and downright creepy – often all three at the same time. And all of Batman's amazing "toys" – such as the Batmobile – completed the effect. But none of that would have mattered if Keaton himself wasn't equipped for the task. The sequel, "Batman Returns," wasn't nearly as good, but Keaton remains one of the best to ever wear the cape and cowl.   

Val Kilmer: Batman Forever (1995)

If Adam West's Batman had a baby with Keaton's and then they performed an abortion, you might get something like "Batman Forever." Val Kilmer was hardly an extraordinary Bruce Wayne or a great Batman, the villains are barely memorable (Jim Carrey's version of The Riddler has nothing on Frank Gorshin), and the movie is so garish and off-the-rails. Despite all of that, I have a soft spot for it anyway. It's a mess, but an endearing one – to me at least. The same, however, cannot be said for the film that put the Batman franchise on ice for almost a decade.

George Clooney: Batman & Robin (1997)

Where to begin with this wretched train-wreck of a movie? Clooney is an adequate Wayne but can't pull off Batman at all. I fear the same fate will befall Ben Affleck. But at least Affleck won't have to contend with Bat-nipples. Clooney's suit was designed with this "effect" presumably to enhance his "sex appeal," but all it did was make him look like a cloaked clown. Arnold Schwarzenegger is absolutely abysmal as Mr. Freeze – the less said, the better. Neither of their careers took a hit, but Batman retreated to the Batcave until 2005.

Christian Bale: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Just as a darker tone was necessary for 1989's "Batman," the same was true when Christopher Nolan was tasked with rebooting the franchise for 2005's "Batman Begins." Over the course of three movies, Nolan and star Christian Bale never wavered from bringing a grittier, more true-to-life Batman to the screen. Instead of a campy Sunday morning strip like the Adam West TV version or a live action comic book like Keaton's 1989 film, this was a far more plausible, down to earth, serious take on Batman. Gotham City finally looked like a real city that real people could live in.

After three exhausting mega-blockbusters, Christian Bale has understandably decided to move on. That brings us back to the current situation – to Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck: Batman vs. Superman – AKA Man of Steel 2 (2015)

Affleck does have a few major elements working in his favor:

Unlike the other seven Batmen who have preceded him, he does not have to carry an entire TV show or film all by himself – "Superman" Henry Cavill will be sharing the load.

Superman and Batman appearing together in the same movie is a massive event. That "gimmick" alone will alleviate some of the pressure from Affleck – much like Mark Ruffalo had an easier time stepping in for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in "The Avengers" because he had to share the screen with so many others.

Because the movie will not be focused solely on Batman, the man behind the mask isn't quite as important as it normally would be. That doesn't mean Carrot Top could suddenly play Batman and all would be well, but even if Affleck is ill-suited to the role, he is by no means a bad actor.

Still, I'm skeptical and wary. I can't help but think that there were better options available.

Even Affleck's best friend, Matt Damon, would have been preferable – not ideal either, necessarily, but I can sort of picture it.

Since the character is supposed to skew a bit older, my dream pick: Daniel Day-Lewis. There was probably no chance in hell of that happening, but you know you want to see it!

Out of the plausible candidates available, it's hard to really say. Mel Gibson is probably too old now – and he's box office poison for obvious reasons – but he wouldn't be bad, talent-wise. If his Bat-suit had nipples, would they be sugar tits?

Casting a virtual unknown or respected foreign actor – similar to Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel" – might have been the best bet. But since I'd personally want an American actor to play Batman again (I realize neither Gibson or Day-Lewis fit the bill in that regard, but they can pull off the accent convincingly), I'm forced to admit that there aren't too many viable candidates for the role.

If I'm backed against a corner and have to pick someone right now, I'll go with Liev Schreiber.

He's dapper enough to pull off Bruce Wayne and more than tough enough to stalk the streets as Batman.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: Fruitvale Station

Based on the True Story of Oscar Grant

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: July 26, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writer: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, 
Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, 
Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O'Reilly, 
Ariana Neal

"Fruitvale Station" begins with grainy cell phone footage of an actual shooting. Then it flashes back to a day in the life of Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan), a young 22-year-old man from Hayward, California.  

"Fruitvale" follows Oscar on the final day of 2008 and the first of 2009. He has a girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz, who resembles a young Eva Mendes), and a preschool-age daughter, Tatiana (an adorable Ariana Neal). He's a good son. He makes a special call to his mother, Wanda (Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer), that morning. It's her birthday.

The film has a creative way of highlighting Oscar's calls and texts: Whenever he picks up his phone, letters and digits appear; and as he goes through his list of contacts, the names cycle on the screen.

The movie meanders through his day, but it never gets boring. There are little incidents here and there – an argument with his girlfriend, a minor confrontation with a boss, a situation involving a stray dog at a gas station, a drug deal – but make no mistake, it's the calm before the storm. As soon as Oscar and his friends arrive at the Fruitvale train station to celebrate New Year's Day, the intensity ramps up.

There's an incident involving two police officers, Caruso and Ingram (Kevin Durand and Chad Michael Murray). As soon as Kevin Durand appeared on the screen, I knew there was going to be trouble. From the repulsive Keamy on "Lost" to the sleazy promoter in "Real Steel," Durand specializes in playing absolutely repugnant human beings. Seeing his face stirs up unnatural levels of hatred in me – a rare feat for an actor, and a testament to how well he does his job. Murray, best known for lighter fare (such as "One Tree Hill" and "A Cinderella Story"), is no innocent babe in the woods here either.

"Fruitvale Station" shows Oscar in a generally positive light, but it never turns him into an angel. He's still a human being, with his own set of faults and failings. Another writer or director might have been tempted to erase his flaws, but "Fruitvale" works so powerfully precisely because Oscar isn't perfect.

MINOR SPOILERS: Some members of the audience will undoubtedly walk into the theater without any knowledge of the real-life incident that inspired this movie. I suspect they'll process the events somewhat differently the first time they see them all unfold. Even then, it isn't too difficult to figure out that things aren't going to end well for Oscar. The film's almost leisurely pace portends a tragic final act. I knew it was coming, but seeing it transpire on screen still had a powerful effect. I walked out with a heavy heart and numb feeling, almost irritated by the bright, harsh sunlight beating down on me.

While watching "Fruitvale Station," you can't help but think about life, choices, and the utter randomness of luck – both good and bad.

I'm guessing that second and third-hand accounts were used to piece together Oscar's activities and whereabouts, but since there's no possible way for anyone to know everything he said and did in the many moments he spent alone, I can only assume that a few creative liberties were taken to tell his story. I go into any Hollywood biopic expecting some degree of that, so it doesn't change my opinion of "Fruitvale Station" one bit.

Much has been made of Michael B. Jordan's incredible performance. It is never flashy or showy. It's subtle and sneaks up on you. It feels real and lived in. (Spider-Man's "Spidey-Sense" certainly tingled after seeing it.) The Academy should recognize Jordan with a well-deserved nomination. Octavia Spencer is just as good. Even though she recently won an Oscar for "The Help," I hope her work in "Fruitvale" isn't overlooked. Her portrayal of a mother and all that entails – worrying, tough, sensible – is raw and touching. As good as she was in "The Help," she's even better here. 

Most movies like this would end with a still-frame shot of the main character. "Fruitvale Station" lingers on just a little while longer. Melonie Diaz's Oscar chances are probably less likely, which is a shame, because she is every bit as good as her co-stars. Just watch the way she navigates the film's final scene. It's a heart-wrenching moment that will stay with you for a long time to come. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: Bullet to the Head

Please Shoot Me!

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 1, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Crime
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: Walter Hill 
Writers: Alessandro Camon, Alexis Nolent, 
Colin Wilson
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, 
Sarah Shahi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, 
Jason Momoa, Christian Slater

Taking a bullet to the head would be preferable to watching this movie. At least then you'd be spared from having to endure 92 minutes of "Bullet to the Head." Seeing Walter Hill's name up on the screen evoked feelings of pleasant nostalgia for me, but the director of "48 Hrs." has seen much better days.

It starts off with a bad narration: "Sometimes you gotta abandon your principles to do what's right." I can't tell if it's trying to capture the feeling of a hard-boiled pulp story or just attempting to be intentionally cheesy. It fails on both counts.

There are also ridiculous one-liners like "give him a band-aid and a blow pop" that are presumably meant to be funny and witty, but Stallone's wooden delivery kills whatever effect these quips are supposed to have. This type of material might have worked in the hands of another actor – perhaps Nicholas Cage, a younger Bruce Willis, or maybe even Schwarzenegger – but the mumble-mouthed "Sly" can't pull it off.

The basic setup: an aging hitman, James Bonomo (Stallone), forms an uneasy alliance with a Korean-American detective, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), because they both share the same enemies.

Kwon is a Korean Boy Scout type who spends more time reloading his cell phone minutes than his gun. It goes beyond a regular smartphone – it may as well be an Einstein phone, because he does everything on it. He brags that he couldn't do his job without it. It gets obnoxious after a while. Jack Cates (Nick Nolte's character from "48 Hrs.") would have shoved that annoying phone down Kwon's throat and introduced him to real police work!

The bad buys include Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Mr. Eko on "Lost"), Keegan (Jason Momoa, who was "Conan the Barbarian" in the 2011 reboot), and Baptiste (Christian Slater).

Slater, such a powerful force in "Heathers," looks like he wants to cry any time he has to recite some of these awful lines. I'm rooting for him to make his big comeback role, but this isn't it.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a skilled actor who always tries something a little bit different with each part he plays. This time he's bald, clean-shaven, and a bit pudgy – but that's not enough to overcome a flat character and bad script.

Momoa shows charisma and potential; hopefully he'll get to apply that to a better film soon.

Stallone's character also has a daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi), a tattoo artist who ties the story together in various ways. It's a promising performance.

"Bullet to the Head" has many issues, but its cardinal sin is that it's boring. Forget about a fun "so bad it's good" action movie – this just plods along.

It also doesn't help that the screen looks like it's coated in oil. It's dull and drab to an excessive degree. Why are today's filmmakers so afraid of a little color? But this is worse than most.

By the end, I'll admit I cared just a smidge about the relationship between the two partners and the daughter, but they're stuck in a movie that's impossible to give a damn about.

"Bullet to the Head" is a disaster: cheesy but never funny, ridiculous but never over-the-top, and bad but never a guilty pleasure. It's a complete waste of everyone's time.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: The Way Way Back

Way Way Worth Watching

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: July 16, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 103 minutes
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash        
Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Cast: Liam James, Steve Carell, 
Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, 
Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, 
Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, 
Amanda Peet, River Alexander, 
Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Duncan (Liam James) is so awkward that it hurts to watch. He's a sad, shy 14-year-old boy completely uncomfortable in his own skin and stuck in that painful period where he's no longer a little kid but nowhere close to being an adult. 

It doesn't help that his mother's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), is completely overbearing and insensitive. He's the kind of person who gets hostile if the rules to a silly children's board game aren't followed exactly as the instructions specify. You know the type!

At the beginning of "The Way Way Back," Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale from 1 to 10. The timid boy meekly says he's a 6; the obnoxious Trent cuts him even further down to size by calling him a 3. It's a gut-wrenching putdown, and a heartbreaking moment – for the child and the audience.

During this conversation, Duncan is sitting in "the way, way back" of Trent's station wagon – with the luggage. His position forces him to face away from everyone else in the car and stare at the road instead.

His mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is clueless in love – oblivious to the effect Trent is having on her sensitive son.

They're spending the summer at Trent's beach house. The boy is hopelessly lost and alone, flopping around like a fish out of water. In one sad scene, he's the lone child in a dinner table full of laughing adults. In another, he sits pathetically by himself at the beach while everyone else splashes and frolics around him. And then there's the slightly older girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who he is clearly intimidated by. (He mentions the weather to her!)

It isn't until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), a water park employee, that he begins to break out of his shell. But even in that detail, "The Way Way Back" gets it right. The Duncan at the end of the movie isn't suddenly smooth and cool; he's still a somewhat awkward kid – just a happier one.

The film is populated with great supporting characters:

There's Betty, the booze-soaked neighbor bronzed by the sun (an almost unrecognizable Allison Janney). She forces her son, Peter (River Alexander), to wear an eye-patch because he's cross-eyed and she thinks that makes people uncomfortable. Unfortunately for him, his patch isn't black like a pirate's; it's neon green with babyish cartoon characters.

Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amada Peet) also live in the area. They seem almost like "extras" at first, but one of them ends up playing a pivotal role.

Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) works at the park. Owen is obviously smitten with her, and she clearly feels a little something for him too because she puts up with his endless teasing. Rudolph gives Caitlin the perfect mixture of sweetness and sass.

Two of my favorites are Roddy and Lewis (played by the writers and directors of the movie, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). Roddy is slightly perverted and has fun admiring the female swimmers; Lewis is bald and bespectacled, with a bad Hulk Hogan mustache and an even worse case of OCD.

There's also Kyle (Robert Capron from the "Wimpy Kid" movies) and his buddies as loud-mouthed but harmless water park customers.

"The Way Way Back" has a big cast, but it really belongs to Liam James, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Carell. The boy's relationship with each of them is what drives the story forward. Rockwell's character is friendly, understanding, and a role model without ever being a dull goody-goody. Carell excels at portraying an insufferable blowhard who has no idea how to relate to a raw, stiff, teenage bundle of nerves. Both characters are rough around the edges, but that manifests itself in very different ways.

Rockwell and Carell don't share a scene until the end, and when they finally do meet, it's subtly handled but satisfying. They both play somewhat "against type" and succeed brilliantly, but it is James who anchors the movie with his realistic depiction of a young teenager who initially feels left out and unable to fit in anywhere.

The "3 out of 10" scene at the start of the film is actually based on a real-life conversation between a young Jim Rash and his stepfather. That must be why it resonates so powerfully. The pen truly is mightier than the sword!

The ending, which I won't spoil, mirrors the beginning. There are no conclusive answers given, but there is a subtle character shift (literally) that lets the audience know that things have changed.

"The Way Way Back" is wonderful. I expect it to be in "the way way front" of my top ten list at the end of the year.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim

Robots vs. Aliens – From the Director of "Pan's Labyrinth"

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: July 12, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Running Time: 130 minutes
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, 
Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, 
Robert Kazinsky, Clifton Collins Jr., 
Ron Perlman

"Pacific Rim" is a spectacular feast for the eyes. The majority of films these days are content to stick to a palette of three or four colors, if so many. Not this one. It uses the entire rainbow to create mind-blowing visual effects and incredible action. It looks bright and bold in ways that most movies aren't anymore.

In the very near future, Earth has been invaded by aliens – not from the skies but from the seas. They're called Kaijus, and humans are required to pilot giant robots – Jaegers – just to have a fighting chance against them. Each massive machine is manned by two people, who meld into each other's minds to determine their compatibility during combat. Controlling the mechanical beast is like playing a video game on steroids – but there's no "continue" button, only lingering consequences. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, "Sons of Anarchy") is all too aware of that. After five years away from the action, he's called back into service by his commanding officer, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, "The Wire"). The very survival of the human race – and the planet – is at stake.
Pentecost is assisted by Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, "Babel"), who has dreams of one day piloting a robot herself. Her story, perhaps more than any other, provides the heart of the film.

Also on the crew: Chuck (Max Martini), a hothead with a major chip on his shoulder; his father, Herc (Robert Kazinsky), who doesn't know whether to hug his son or kick him; and Ops Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins Jr.), who provides technical support and helps direct the missions from the control room.

They're joined by two scientists: Newton Geiszler (a manic Charlie Day, "Horrible Bosses"), a Kaiju researcher who is dismissed as a "groupie" for the monsters, and the off-kilter Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, "Layer Cake"), who seems like he stepped right out of "A Beautiful Mind."

Geiszler's interactions with Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), a black market dealer who specializes in Kaiju parts, are priceless.

(Eagle-eyed longtime WWE fans might recognize one of the Russians as former "Oddities" member Kurrgan – real name: Robert Maillet. He looks quite imposing, to say the least.)

At first glance, Hunnam seems like yet another one of those typical, cocky, American pretty boys you see in many of today's productions. He comes across as completely lightweight and insubstantial. That is, until you realize he plays a rough and tumble biker on "Sons of Anarchy" and his native accent is British. In actuality, it's a fantastic performance; he just makes it look easy and carefree.

Idris Elba – also an Englishman – gets to keep his accent, and he uses it to full effect. His tone is quietly powerful – but he turns up the volume when he needs to, whether it's to dress down an insubordinate soldier or motivate his troops for a battle they're almost sure to lose.

Charlie Day's wacky intensity – so overwhelming and overbearing in "Horrible Bosses" – strikes the perfect note in "Rim." His scenes provide necessary relief from the cataclysmic clashes that dominate the rest of the 131-minute running time. Meanwhile, Rinko Kikuchi – who was so dark and distraught in "Babel" – is allowed to bring a lighter tone to her character while still playing a major dramatic role.

Elba, Kikuchi, and Day are the highlights of the film, but truth be told, no one walks into a movie like this looking for an acting showcase. With that said, "Pacific Rim's" great performances and fully-realized characters make everything else matter a whole lot more. However, the action is still the true draw – and it's breathtaking.

The best battle, to me, occurs in the middle of the film – on the busy streets of Hong Kong. The scene is a smorgasbord of vibrant colors, bright lights and city signs, and massive destruction. It's such an incredible sight to behold that I almost expected the movie to end right then and there. Luckily, there are still a few loose ends to tie up. Nothing that comes after is quite as awe-inspiring, but it doesn't matter – because the story and characters had successfully sucked me in by then.

The origin of the Kaijus – which I won't spoil – is genuinely cool too.

I can nitpick: Some of the "scientific" gobbledygook doesn't make much sense, and the names of the characters are flat out ridiculous (Stacker Pentecost? Ops Tendo Choi? Oy!) But none of that diminishes the overall quality of the film, which is high.

Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") is masterful at creating amazing worlds onscreen. He does not disappoint here. This is an experience. Every time we buy a ticket, we hope against hope that we can be transported to another time and place – even if it's just for a little while. In "Pacific Rim," we are

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Silver Screen Surprises Coming in August

Porn Stars, Pot, Strippers, Space Stations, and Pub Crawls

By Chris Sabga

Here's the latest round of films that might fly under-the-radar or are otherwise surprising in some way. For example, while you've surely heard of "We’re the Millers," Jennifer Aniston playing a sleazy stripper is definitely something new. And if you haven't heard of the 2009 South African alien movie "District 9," make sure to see it ASAP! This month's "Elysium" is by the same director. There's so much to look forward to in August – and that's not even counting the major summer blockbusters, which are listed at the very end for reference. Read below for Blood and Ice Cream, and more...

The Spectacular Now (August 2nd): From the writers of "(500) Days of Summer," this film stars Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") and Miles Teller ("21 and Over"). Teller plays a party boy high school senior who doesn't think about his future – until he wakes up drunk on Woodley's lawn. She's an interesting "nice girl" and he falls for her hard. Unlike the typical film about 17-18 year olds, this one seems both realistic and touching. Sutter isn't the typical Hollywood poster boy, and Woodley is no queen bee. In other words, they seem like real kids. Kyle Chandler ("Super 8") also stars. 

We're the Millers (August 7th): Jennifer Aniston is a stripper who helps Jason Sudekis ("Hall Pass") create a fake family. Emma Roberts ("It's Kind of a Funny Story") and Will Poulter ("Son of Rambow") play their children. Sudekis's goal: to smuggle pot for Ed Helms ("The Hangover") without being detected, and what better way to do that than by posing as one big, happy family? After all, the border patrol would never suspect Mom, Dad, and two innocent kids – or would they?

Elysium (August 9th): "District 9" creator Neill Blompkamp is back! In 2154, the human race is divided into two distinct classes: the wealthy elite live on the space station Elysium while everyone else is stuck in the crowded nightmare Earth has become. This sounds like another parallel to Apartheid in South Africa – much like Blompkamp's previous movie, "District 9," which used aliens to represent South Africa's oppressed black citizens. With a cast that includes Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, and "District 9's" Sharlto Copley, this is easily one of my most anticipated releases of the summer.

Lovelace (August 9th): Amanda Seyfried portrays the porn icon, James Franco cameos as Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and Sharon Stone is almost unrecognizable as Lovelace's dowdy mother. What else is there to be said? You are either dying to see this or repulsed by the very thought of it.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (August 16th): If you admired the artistry of a movie poster any time between 1975 and 2008, chances are you were looking at Drew Struzan's handiwork. His portfolio is legendary and its quality is breathtaking. This documentary chronicles his incredible career. Unfortunately limited to the New York market, most of us will have to catch this one on video. In the meantime, his amazing work more than speaks for itself.

Jobs (August 16th): Ashton Kutcher plays Apple founder Steve Jobs. I can already picture everyone rolling their eyes at the casting, but I can see it working. It will either be a spectacular failure or an out-of-the-box surprise. Kutcher is underrated as a dramatic actor and more charismatic than people give him credit for. I am curious to see if he will be able to make the most of this golden opportunity. It could be a career-changer for him if he pulls it off and has a good script to work with. As the rise of Apple itself shows, even the most improbable underdog can have a fighting chance. I am rooting for the likeable Kutcher to break out.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (August 16th): The 20th century is depicted through the eyes of an African-American butler working at the White House. With Forest Whitaker and director Lee Daniels ("Precious"), the performances should be rich and the story should be both moving and hard-hitting.

Paranoia (August 16th): I spent five days in Las Vegas a few years ago, and for much of that trip, I was anxious to get back to my room because I was embroiled in Joseph Finder's thriller novel, "Paranoia." If the movie is even half as successful as the book, it will be a must-see. With Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman, and Harrison Ford, the casting is certainly top-notch.

The Grandmaster (August 23rd): With multiple movies already made about Ip Man, the legendary trainer of Bruce Lee, what else is left to explore? But there's still buzz surrounding this release because it comes from acclaimed Chinese writer and director Kar Wai Wong ("Chungking Express").

The World's End (August 23rd): Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – the duo from "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" – return for the third installment of their "Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy" of unrelated movies. This time, their characters are friends who reunite for the first time in twenty years to complete a pub-crawl that eluded them in their youth. As the official website puts it: "one night, six friends, twelve pubs." Their final destination: a bar known as The World's End. Of course, the title is meant to be taken literally as well. The strange people with blue lights shining out of their eyes seem not of this world.

Getaway (August 30th): Ethan Hawke's wife has been kidnapped, and he has to jump in a car and follow orders to get her back. In a way, it sounds like the cousin of "Vehicle 19." Selena Gomez is also involved.

I Declare War (August 30th): A bunch of little kids play "Capture the Flag" in the words, but it eventually becomes more serious than anyone could have bargained for. With a cast of child actors, a movie like this depends on the credibility of their performances and a rock-solid script. The premise seems influenced somewhat by "Lord of the Flies," but that's a tricky field to mine. One reviewer on IMDB referred to it as a mixture of "Lord of the Flies," "Stand by Me," "War of the Buttons," and "Battle Royale."

Blockbusters: 2 Guns (August 2nd), Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (August 7th), Planes (9th), Kick-Ass 2 (August 16th), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (August 23rd), One Direction: This is Us (August 30th)

Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg getting together for "2 Guns" has the potential to be tons of fun.

"Planes" is a "Cars" spinoff, and while I did like both of those movies, is this taking the idea too far? If nothing else, the aerial visuals should be spectacular.

I have yet to see the original "Percy Jackson," but it did look good.

I found the first "Kick-Ass" movie to be a tonal mess that could never quite figure out what it wanted to be, but the potential was always there – and Jim Carrey's role in the sequel looks spectacular.

"The Mortal Instruments" could be okay in that generic "Twilight" sort of way, but "Silver Screen Niece" read the book and didn't seem enthused by the movie's trailer. "It looks like they ruined it," she said.

As for "One Direction," I'm the wrong person to ask, but the teenage girls that make up that band's fanbase are going to flock to the theater no matter what anyone says.

Which ones are you looking forward to? Comment below or discuss it on Facebook or Twitter.