Review: Vacation

maxresdefault A planned family vacation turned into a series of unfortunate events for the Griswold family in National Lampoon’s Vacation, the latest installment of the franchise’s Vacation series. After finding out his family is tired of visiting the same old cabin each summer, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) decides they need to spend quality time together and convinces them to take a cross country road trip to the theme park Walley World, a favorite destination from Rusty’s childhood, before it closes permanently.

His wife, Debbie (Christina Appelgate) and two sons, James and Kevin, (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins, respectively) are less than enthused with the prospect of spending countless hours in a car together. Debbie, a dissatisfied housewife, longs for an exotic vacation to Paris and questions if Rusty wants to visit Walley World because he truly wants quality family time or wants to relive his childhood.

James and Kevin hardly get along because Kevin, the younger sibling, often bullies and torments his older brother. The torment is so incessant that Kevin enjoys putting plastic bags over James’ head just to see how long he can hold his breath. Nevertheless, Rusty and his family endure a seemingly disastrous road trip in a car that can only be seen as a death trap and filled with events such as sorority obstacle courses, being stalked by a tractor trailer, and a stomach-churning trip to Hot Springs.

While Vacation is predictable and slightly underwhelming, the movie carries a charm that I think made it an enjoyable movie. The film flips the conventional “older brother bullies the younger brother” shtick and it works for most of the movie. I didn’t care for the use of a love story for the older sibling in order to solve his issues with his younger one. I think that subplot could have been better executed if it had been resolved within their family.

The film’s better comedic moments can be credited to appearances by Nick Kroll, Keegan Michael-Key, Michael Peña, and Charlie Day. Chris Hemsworth also makes an appearance as Rusty’s southern, rich and attractive brother-in-law and is actually pretty funny. Or maybe he was just really pretty and that made me think he was really funny.

Viewers who have seen the first Vacation film may enjoy the cameos by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. I assume they appeared in the movie to stir up nostalgia to people who are familiar with the franchise. However I didn’t think their characters were necessary to the plot of the movie.

Overall, I think this film is good enough for a matinee screening. The gags may have run on for too long in some instances, but the film isn’t terrible. I came into this movie knowing exactly what I was getting and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot. It reminded me a lot of the 2013 comedy ‘We’re the Millers’, which starred Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston. If you enjoyed that, then you would enjoy this movie as well.

[easyreview title= "Review of Vacation" cat1title="Nerdpocalypse Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.0" overall= false]

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultron-concept-computer-wallpaper-pictures-jpg Three years ago we got the culmination of so much with the release of The Avengers. Bringing together a group of unlikely characters from individual movies and slamming them together into one epic finale; and boy did it work. Fast forward to today and we are embarking on a similar path, but the stakes are a lot higher for many reasons. Can Avengers: Age of Ultron deliver on the promise of more teamwork, world building, and copious amounts of fun? The answer is a resounding yes and with plenty to spare. Avengers: Age of Ultron meets those challenges and creates some news and hurdles them as well. Director Joss Whedon leads an ensemble cast of superheroes through a film that pushes everyone to be better. Whedon, who cut his teeth in television, has come a long way from serialized vampire vs teen girl shows. However, leaning on his roots of juggling large casts has proven to be his greatest asset. Its nice to have the director of these films be the writer as well because we can compare them directly to one another. In this case, we can see Whedon’s writing and direction have gone from good to pretty damn great. Creating more cinematic shots of these inherently ultra-cinematic moments makes the film feel more grand and works for the spectacle that we have come to expect. Whedon has said that the making of this film almost killed him, but it seemed the stress was worth it. He has pushed his writing and direction to the limit and we benefit from that tremendously.

The film picks up pretty much from the bonus scene at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Relax, if you didn’t stay in your theater seats for the extra you will not be lost. We are immediately introduced to Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as possible foils for The Avengers. They are “enhanced” and present a completely new set of challenges for our heroes. The entire team that we know from The Avengers: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are all back in action from the onset of the film. We get an understanding that the team has been leading missions from Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower). The teamwork aspect of the film is a very real change. We see the crew play off of each other and are more assembled than ever before, well in most aspect. Due to his extreme hubris, Tony Stark decides that he will build an artificial intelligence named Ultron without consulting with the team. Tony sees this as a way to be a peace keeping force in the world to end the era of The Avengers. Things like this tend to go wrong, and so it is the same here. Ultron is “born” and immediately decids that he needs to destroy The Avengers for the sake of mankind.

The film goes the ways in which you might expect, sans one thing. The film takes an amazing tonal shift at one point and really gives the most character development we’ve seen in a comic book based film in quite some time. Drawing the audiences into a scenario of actually caring for and about something. While I am sure less mature viewers will deride this as the “boring parts.” What Whedon is able to create is a space for us to know the characters deeper. Its a wonderful bit of film making and makes the impact of events that much deeper.

The performances by all the principal actors is much the same as we’ve seen before. All very solid with Robert Downey Jr. leading the charge as the most seasoned actor. Chris Evans’s Captain America has really come into his own since his last solo film. He has truly embodied the character. The real stand out without a doubt is James Spader’s Ultron. While not a human character, the role of Ultron was motion captured from Spader himself. We get all the great mannerism of the man and it works so well. His voice gives a bit extra “superiority” complex to the character. Spader’s amazing performance shifts from the inquisitive to the mad in seconds, the emotional spectrum makes for a villain who is worth the team’s time and effort. Combined with Joss Whedon fantastic writing, Spader has a massive sandbox to play in and you won’t soon forget his impact in this ever expanding universe. Ultimately, Avengers: Age of Ultron is what we want in these films. Its a perfect balance between fun, action, and depth. A true step up from the first Avengers film in every single way.

[easyreview title= "Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Blackhat

Blackhat Michael Mann’s latest international computer hacking adventure, Blackhat, pits Chris Hemsworth against an unknown enemy who doesn’t seem to be rooted in the traditional trappings of cyberterrorism. Teaming both Chinese and American investigative agencies, Mann takes us on an global ride using computer hacking as the backdrop for a modern day cat and mouse film. The film is shot in Michael Mann’s signature style that we have know so very well from such classics as The Insider, Collateral, and certainly Heat. However, there is nothing classic about Blackhat. The title references the term used for computer hackers who work outside the law for their own personal gain, conversely a whitehat would be a hacker who works within the law perhaps to secure a system against break-ins from blackhats. With this knowledge the film takes one very large assumption of the audience and it largely buries the film early on. Blackhat purports that watching people do actual hacking is somehow interesting; spoilers...its not. There use to be the complaint that computer interactions in movies was so outlandish compared to the real thing. However, this film is a textbook example of why there needs to be a middle ground.

The film begins with an explosion at a Chinese nuclear power plant. This catastrophe is orchestrated by our movie’s villain who remains unseen until the near end of the film. His motives for doing so are unclear at this point but he is certainly responsible. The lead investigator of the explosion, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), discovers that the detonation was triggered using a remote program and he is off to solve the crime. He also involves his sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang) who is working for the same Chinese investigative bureau. Together they head to the United States to work with the FBI to solve the mystery of this hacker. Their liaison is Carol Barrett (Viola Davis)  who is leery of working with the Chinese to begin with, so there is some early on tension there. However, it soon fades and everyone is friends; pointless contention. When Chen suggests, more so demands, that they get the help of imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) the story begins to take shape. Hathaway is brought aboard and the newly formed team begin their investigation. It is at this point the movie falls completely apart.

The first hour and half of this movie are completely boring. There is scene after scene of anticlimactic nonsense. Mann has a vision, but just can’t seem to make it engaging on any level. There are relationships formed that seem to just happen with no sort of run up. Our heroes run back and forth from country to country with nothing really driving the narrative forward. For a cat and mouse film, there is very little cat and the mouse is boring me to tears. Mann’s shooting style, which I normally love, is absolutely abysmal here. Slow and then fast panning just made everything look like mush on screen. He never kept the camera still for more than 30 seconds (high estimate). Over time, Mann’s films have begun to slip and this one slips and falls right off the edge.

There are a few action sequences that were representative of the Michael Mann of old and those looked great purely from a visual perspective. However, they made little to no sense in the way they were being executed. Normally, Mann goes for almost hyper-realism here. This time we had a large amount of one shot kills that was something closer to a comic book movie; it just felt off.

In the end, the bad guy gets his comeuppance and the heroes prevail. Chris Hemsworth’s Nicholas Hathaway ranged from incredibly bland to overly melodramatic. As a person who is suppose to be a hacker he is just not believable. He still looks largely like he stepped off the set of Thor. Wei Tang is fine as the investigator/love interest but her relationship with Hathaway was not flushed out and felt ham-fisted when it was shown. Their interaction was plastic and lacked any level of depth. As a movie that hit theaters just after the first of the year I should have known this was going to be the case, but Blackhat somehow managed to surpass my rather low expectations. I hope to see Michael Mann learn from this film, and get back to his roots.

[easyreview title= "Review of Blackhat" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="0.5" overall= false]

Review: Rush

Rush

Ron Howard’s film depicting the famous rivalry between race car drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One racing season is fast cars and great action, but there is so much more here. Dealing with two men as they carve paths to get to the same finish line, so to speak, in life. An extremely entertaining film for both its spectacle and its depth.

The film begins with the infamous race that nearly cost Niki Lauda his life. We hear narration from Lauda (Daniel Brühl) which helps to establish, rather quickly to the audience, the extent of his rivalry with James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). Just before the race begins we are thrown back in time six years prior; back to the genius of the antagonism between the two drivers. Their story begins in 1970 when the two amateurs were racing in Formula Three. Hunt and Lauda are so polar opposite that it was if they were fictional characters. Hunt is tall, dashing, and a clear extrovert. While Lauda is a short, conservative, and introverted. Each characters very existence made the other’s that much more stand out when they shared the screen. As time goes on we see small but significant glimpses into similarities between the two. While they are few it helps to establish a sense of community between the two in the mind of the audience. In the end, it humanizes them and shields the characters from ever acquiring simplistic labels like hero or villain.

Hunt has the reputation of being a English playboy; very much deserved. He works to shed this persona and ‘calm down’ by marrying Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde). When Hunt doesn’t acquire any sponsorship and runs out of money it becomes all too clear that Suzy cannot deal with Hunt’s outlandish behavior. She plays to the notion of Hunt accepting who he is and to never compromise that. Simultaneously, Niki Lauda the calm and calculating Austrian driver meets a woman Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) at a party. She is really the only character shown to actually ‘get’ Lauda and because of this they have an immediate bond. Once both drivers are firmly in Formula One racing; Lauda joining up with Ferrari and Hunt taking over a spot at McLaren the two are evenly matched to go for the Formula One championship.

From here out we get excellent scenes of races throughout the 1976 season. Many races transitioning from stills of the original racing posters. This is some of the freshest looking scene transitions I’ve seen in awhile. The racing scenes were truly thoughtful. Giving perspectives to pull in fans of Formula One racing and non fans alike. Shots from the grass next to hairpin turns not only allowed for interesting perspectives but put the audience in the action and didn’t rely solely on the driver seat angle.

After a barrage of incredibly exhilarating racing scenes we finally catch up to the race that was shown in the very beginning of the film. During the race in Nürburgring, West Germany Lauda held a meeting to possibly cancel the race due to the weather. During this meeting Hunt argued that Lauda was purposefully trying to skew the season’s races so he could win the World Championships for himself. Hunt swayed enough of their fellow drivers and out voted the cancellation. Sadly, due to the weather and a vehicle malfunction Lauda slid off the track hit the wall and then was hit by another car. He sat trapped in his car for 1 minute engulfed in 800 degree flames; he survived. As we watch scenes of Lauda’s horrible disfigurement and painful road to recovery we also see James Hunt triumph race after race on his way to winning the championship. Amazingly, six weeks later Niki Lauda returns to Formula One and challenges Hunt in Japan for one last race to determine which man walks away the victor. The build up, design, and execution for that final race and Lauda’s return was simply perfect film making. From the perspectives of both men by this point in their careers to the symbolism and call backs to their individual personalities. Director Ron Howard paints a phenomenal picture of what life is like on the absolute edge. Two men willing to risk everything for a sport and the spirit of competition.

The acting in the film was nothing to scoff at. Daniel Brühl did an excellent job bringing Niki Lauda to life. He was able to show this cold and calculating Austrian, who loved to call people assholes, as somehow warm and understanding. Chris Hemsworth, who is best known for playing Thor in the Marvel Studios films, proves that he can step out of the pages of comics and into serious drama. Putting on the best performance of his career, so far, Hemsworth creates depth to the English playboy who can’t seem to grow up. As I said earlier, the two characters are polar opposite and just make each other better when on screen together. Brühl and Hemsworth’s dynamic is much more complicated than good guy versus bad guy, but rather like two brothers who are fighting for the last cookie. You just want to see more of them going after the prize and in the end you don’t care who gets it. Rush is far less about who wins and who loses, but rather what did they accomplish on the way.

[easyreview title= "Review of Rush" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: Snow White and the Huntsman (SWATH)

Snow White and the Huntsman is a new take on a well known tale. Instead of a Disney-fied Snow White with her dependence on men to make her dreams come true, we are supposed to see a strong willed and defiant Snow White in a darker world. The role of Snow White is played by Kristen Stewart (Twilight). I assume taking on this role was a conscious decision on Stewart's part. Anything that she can do at this point to move away from the stigma of the character Bella in the Twilight series is a good move. Stewart does a better job in this role than expected; however, when expectations are low, there is nowhere to go but up.

The Huntsman is played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor and the Avengers) and his character makes the movie. Unlike the somewhat flat role of Thor played by Hemsworth in both Marvel films, this role has a much more colorful tone. We first meet the Huntsman as he is being thrown from a bar. His quippy dialogue immediately invokes endearment from the viewer. Although Hemsworth's performance brings a lot to the film, it is not enough to save it from the overly contrived and unexplained plot.

The Evil Queen is played by Charlize Theron. This casting was appropriate for the role and Theron does a good (somewhat over the top) job of portraying it. What was most strange about this film was the Angelina Jolie and her brother type of relationship between the Queen and her brother. Many of their interactions are just a bit creepy. Furthermore, it is hinted at in the film that the brother is a serial rapist. WTF?...Darker indeed!

Since the title of the film is Snow White and the Huntsman, it only seems natural the the dwarves would play a much smaller role in the film. Even though they are not present for over half the film, they are played by some pretty well known actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, and Ray Winstone. Too bad for actors who are of the same stature as Peter Dinklage. The dwarves in this film were less cuddly than past portrayals and seemed more like individuals that might actually work in a mine. There is no singing of high-ho, but there is singing.

The crux of the plot is of course still the same. The Queen is trying to kill Snow White in order to be the fairest in the land. However, in this version the Queen's powers suck the land dry as well. Everything withers and dies under her rule. Snow White on the other hand is the bringer of life. In fact, She calms a troll and he walks away just by looking at her. Conan O'Brien had a funny take on this scene which is embedded below:

This magical power is never explained beyond her innocence. Who knew that innocence could give you magical powers or in this case, fairest blood.

The fight scenes in the film leave much to be desired in my opinion. I had a hard time telling what was going on in most of them. I think either a better fight choreographer or camera man was in order. All in all the movie was OK. It wasn't bad and it wasn't great. They tried to get the epic feel of Lord of the Rings, but it came off as a little forced. Is it worth seeing in the theater? Yes, if you have nothing better to do and just want to see a movie.

[easyreview title= "Review of Snow White and The Huntsman" cat1title="Matthew's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="2.5" overall= false]

image via Cinemaplus1.com

Review: The Avengers

The Avengers

In 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr. That movie had the now infamous after credits scene that started it all. When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) made his surprising announcement the comic book movie genre was forever catapulted to a different level. No longer were these movies going to be one offs, but rather they would build to a large event that may be the most ambitious movie idea in years. Under the directorial control of Joss Whedon, fanboys/girls and everyone in between got to see something truly special. When a familiar Asgardian foe, Loki, steals a mysterious weapon from Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organization it sparks a global crisis. No longer being able to handle this level of a threat, Fury calls upon a ragtag group of super powered misfits to come together to save the planet. The premise of the movie is simple and easy to understand. I do believe that if you never saw the previous solo films you would be fine. Every character's powers/abilities are explained in a smoothly done reintroduction.

The Avengers is an action movie, with a brain. I specify that because this is so commonly not the case in American cinema. Director Joss Whedon’s stylistic dialogue can be seen throughout. Robert Downey Jr. benefits the most from this. At times it seems the RDJ was born and bred to be Whedon’s microphone. The first half of the movie is used as nostalgia for the characters from their solo outings and brings you up to speed on their lives. When the Avengers do come together Whedon is able to show you why they shouldn’t, in a good way. There are real conflicts in personalities that come to the forefront rather quickly. The level of balance that is needed to keep these scenes from being too much is handled masterfully by Whedon. Largely, in my opinion, this is the reason why he was brought on to the project. Balancing multiple complex characters is essential to this movie doing well with critics and fans, alike. Interspersed throughout the movie is well paced fun action. Unlike a Transformers we do not get the movie split in half - first half buildup, second half mindless action. I was glad to see there was a decent mixture of the two until the last 40 minutes.

The Avengers is more character driven than you would think for a summer blockbuster that looks to break a series of opening weekend records. One of the largest fears I had going in was that this would somehow become IronMan 3. Being that IronMan was the most popular Avenger its hard not to give him a good amount of screen time. However, at no point did I feel like any of the team was being slighted, including the ones with no super powers. Everybody had their moment in the sun. Whether your favorite Avenger is the Hulk or Black Widow you got to see them on screen plenty of times and more importantly do something spectacular.

As much hype as this movie is getting in this review and I’m sure many others it does possess some faults. The first 20 minutes seems very rough to me. Disjointed at times and character line deliveries seemed to fall flat. I was worried because it didn’t seem like the Whedon writing I was use to. Now we know the movie had major rewrites so I’m not sure if Whedon ever edited the beginning of the movie’s writing. The pacing felt nothing like the rest of the movie. When the Avengers begin to meet one another the movie makes the ultimate pivot towards heroic greatness. Sometimes the dialogue can get a little too heavy in parts and should be a tad trimmer. This is hardly a big deficit as you enjoy the banter back in forth anyway.

Overall The Avengers is something to see on the big screen. I think this movie would look and sound amazing on a quality home setup, but there is nothing like seeing in theaters. I saw it in 3D and felt that it did nothing to add or take away from the movie. If you want to save a few dollars, skip the 3D. Lastly, I saw this movie with my 11 nephew and glancing over at him was my favorite part of the experience. I realized very quickly that the new Star Wars trilogy isn’t his generation's Star Wars, the Avengers is and I’m very ok with that.

[easyreview title= "Review of The Avengers" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

We will of course talk in depth on this week's upcoming podcast episode. Stay tuned.