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Entries in Elizabeth Banks (7)

Thursday
Nov202014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Ever since the final story in the “Harry Potter” film series was split into two movies, other popular franchises based on young adult novels have followed suit. From “Twilight” to the upcoming “Divergent” finale to this week’s “Hunger Games” entry, it has become common practice to milk every dollar possible out of their fanbases. While smart from a business point-of-view, such a tactic typically means the storytelling suffers. To date, each first entry in these splits have expectedly felt like the first half of a whole story. But whereas “Harry Potter” had some meat to it, the first part of the final installment in the “Hunger Games,” subtitled “Mockingjay,” has none. The film is a cash grab through and through, taking about 30-45 minutes of dramatic narrative and lengthening it to a plodding two hours. And that’s the least of its problems. Despite two solid entries in the popular franchise, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” fails to deliver in nearly every regard.

The story picks up where “Catching Fire” left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has essentially destroyed the Hunger Games and has been picked up by the rebels who intend to overthrow the Capitol. To do that, they need to get the people from each district on their side, so the rebel president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her right hand man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), convince Katniss to be the face of the rebellion, their Mockingjay, and they set out to make propaganda films they can broadcast all around the Capitol.

That is more or less all that happens in this part one of the “Mockingjay” story. It shoehorns in certain themes, particularly in its exploration of totalitarianism, but they fail to resonate. While a story about government intrusion and control over its people is not a bad one, it’s one that has been explored to death, especially in recent years when the US government arguably overextended its rights after 9/11. “Mockingjay” doesn’t do or say anything particularly different, or even well, instead opting to be what amounts to a rather basic “corrupt government vs. righteous rebellion” story.

Even if just looking at it from an action perspective, even if you go in just trying to satisfy your most primitive, visceral desires, “Mockingjay Part 1” won’t satisfy. The Hunger Games from the previous movies are over and the rebellion has begun, but their focus on propaganda films means much of the action happens at a distance, Katniss merely hearing about it or seeing it after the fact and subsequently expressing her frustration on camera, which the rebels use for future broadcasts. The fear, the thrill, the mystery, the intrigue; they’re all gone, replaced with unenticing answers and a glacial narrative pace.

Ultimately, its pseudo-intellectualism is the most prevalent aspect of “Mockingjay,” at least from a story perspective. Unfortunately, its visuals don’t do much to pick up the slack. The colorful eye candy from the two previous films are muted to drab grays and browns here; count yourself lucky if you pick out the fleeting moments of actual color. Though the aesthetic switch compliments the darker tone of the film, it nevertheless makes the movie a visual bore. It is possible to make a tonally dark movie with a dark, muted color palette without compromising the actual beauty of the film. The later “Harry Potter” entries are great examples of those films. “Mockingjay Part 1” is not.

Worse yet, the dialogue is full of some of the most heavy handed ramblings you’ll hear all year, as Katniss and her cohorts proselytize incessantly like loudmouthed doomsayers on a college campus. Lawrence is a terrific actress, but even she can’t elevate her dialogue from the drudgery of the page it was conceived on. When she isn’t talking, the supporting characters don’t do much better as they speak obvious truths, seemingly to appeal to the dumber viewers in the audience. After one character gives a very clear warning to the rebels, another yells out, “A warning! That was a warning!”

There are a few tense scenes, but they either pale in comparison to similar sequences in other films or they fizzle out before anything really happens. The finale in particular ends up going nowhere and the one would-be frightening scene where bombs are dropping overhead recalls 1942’s terrific “Mrs. Miniver,” and it reaches not even a tenth of the drama and fear that movie instilled in the viewer.

There’s not much going on for the majority of this film, but just when the story finally begins to gain some momentum, it abruptly ends. Though it sets the stage for a hopefully more exciting final installment—and when coupled with it, perhaps this first half will fare better—as a standalone product, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is a monumental dud, a huge nosedive in quality that is unprecedented in other major franchises. It’s unworthy of the venerable “Hunger Games” name and most certainly unworthy of your time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 receives 1/5

Wednesday
Feb122014

The LEGO Movie

When “The LEGO Movie” was announced, the world let out a collective groan. While the beloved brand has branched out in recent years to various media forms, including an ever growing popular series of video games starring Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Marvel heroes and more, a movie just seemed too much. At the time, it would not have been unfair to assume it would be a 100 minute commercial and, in a sense, it is, but this final product so much more than that. This is not a cheap cash grab by the company and the movie doesn’t have a singular purpose to sell product (though I imagine that will be an added bonus). This is a funny, thoughtful film with a surprisingly resonant story that warms the heart. Older audiences will hope “The LEGO Movie” will at least be watchable while it entertains their kids, but they’ll soon find a childlike wonder they haven’t experienced in a while. If you’ve been pining to feel like a kid again, “The LEGO Movie” will do it. It’s not just “good for a kid’s movie,” as many cynics may suggest. “The LEGO Movie” is destined to be one of the best of the year.

The story starts out silly enough. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an ordinary guy, which is meant in the purest sense of the word. There is truly nothing special about him. He wakes up, does a few jumping jacks and heads off to work as a lowly construction worker. He’s a happy person, though much of that happiness is simply a façade to hide his loneliness. One day, however, things change when he stumbles onto an artifact known as the Kragle. Long ago, as the wise sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) puts it, a prophecy was foretold of a Master Builder who would save the world from the potentially devastating effects of the Kragle, and much to his surprise, he's that hero. Along with his newfound partner, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), he sets out to stop evil mogul, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), from freezing all of the world’s inhabitants and creating a perfect city.

These early moments are seemingly the most inconsistent for “The LEGO Movie.” It has some satirical bits, lampooning simplistic, one-joke television sitcoms with the LEGO world’s most popular show, “Where’s My Pants?” and generic pop music with the equally popular “Everything is Awesome!” But these moments are fleeting, as it quickly moves onto something else. It similarly pokes fun at itself, namely the immobility of the LEGO figures. When Emmet does those aforementioned jumping jacks, for instance, his motions are awkward, almost like he’s jumping up to cheer for something than to exercise, as the LEGO arms don’t extend out like is required for jumping jacks, only forward and backward. Another great moment is when the film admits that all LEGO characters essentially look the same (a search for Emmet by the evildoers yields no results because he “matches everyone in our database,” an underling says). But these moments come so rapidly as to seem a little inconsistent.

The story too is all over the place, a little bit like an ADD child on a sugar bender. Once it introduces its multiple universes angle, you start to wonder if the film is going to go completely overboard. But then something magical happens. A twist, which I dare not spoil, brings everything together. It explains why the story jumps around and why all of these seemingly unrelated characters from the vast Lego collection (which ranges from Shaquille O’Neal to Michelangelo the painter to Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle) have come together in one place. Unexpectedly, the film finds a purpose. In this silly, joke-a-second corporate product pushing movie with what appears to be, at first, a sporadic and inconsequential narrative, a giant heart is found. What happens is something that will seem all too familiar to certain members of the audience. While hardly revelatory, its ultimate message of letting loose your imagination and creativity is nevertheless endearing. It’s enough to make the parents in the audience want to take their kids home and let them run around and explore, creating magical worlds in their heads that only they can comprehend. It is that impactful.

If, somehow, the ending doesn’t touch you, there’s so much more to enjoy that it will hardly detract from your experience. The sight gags are contextually brilliant, like the fire effects that are merely see through orange plastics, and the absurd amount of cameos thrown into this thing is enough to make any nerd, LEGO fan or otherwise, smile with joy. From Harry Potter to the Simpsons to real life historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, the movie is packed to the brim with excellent inclusions, most of which you need to see for yourself. Even its soundtrack brings the goods, including a hilarious song written by Batman (Will Arnett) that satirizes the brooding nature of the character’s recent cinematic endeavors. Like a good spoof movie, the jokes come so rapidly here that one viewing is simply not enough. Most viewers are bound to miss the more subtle references and quick comedic jabs that “The LEGO Movie” throws in.

Too many adults these days seem to be lacking an imagination and a childlike sense of wonder. Their cynicism seeps through every facet of their being and they find that the ability to lose themselves in an adventure is now seemingly impossible. If you’re one of those people, especially one of the ones who desperately wants to recapture that youthful spirit, go see “The LEGO Movie” immediately. It’s about as magical and wondrous a movie as I’ve seen with more laughs per minute than any movie in recent memory. “The LEGO Movie” is an absolute delight.

The LEGO Movie receives 5/5

Friday
Sep282012

Pitch Perfect

If there is ever going to be a movie that is going to make a cappella cool, it’s Pitch Perfect. In fact, it exists in a world where a cappella is the cool thing to do. The popularity pyramid is distorted from reality, to the point where those who are able to sing harmoniously alongside others are at the top. One hilarious scene shows the leader of the Treble Makers, a college a cappella group, shun a nerd trying to join the group just before matching pitch with his comrades. Such desire for acceptance into an a cappella group may seem silly now, but it won’t after watching the movie. Pitch Perfect is lively, funny, moving and just plain fun. If it doesn’t make you want to sing afterwards, you’re probably a metalhead.

The film begins at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in New York. The all-female Borden Bellas are competing in the event against their all male rivals, the Treble Makers. Despite a solid show, one of them ends up getting sick on stage, effectively ruining their chances at winning. Flash forward a bit and a new school year has arrived. The two girls remaining on the team, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), are dying to get another shot at that championship and decide to hold tryouts. Eventually, they band together a ragtag group of girls, including the free spirited Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who calls herself that so people won’t have to call her it behind her back and aspiring DJ, Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is only joining because her father has agreed to personally help move her to LA to achieve her dreams if she sticks with school for one year and participates in college events. There’s only one rule these girls must follow: do not sleep with a member of the Treble Makers. If they do, they’re off the team. It seems a simple enough rule to follow, but the charms of Jesse (Skylar Astin) may make it harder than anticipated.

What follows is fairly predictable fodder. The narrative and thematic correlation between this and something like Step Up is hard to miss—the film even has the equivalent of a dance-off, where competing singers meet to show each other up vocally—but what Pitch Perfect proves is just how vital a good cast is. Just as a terrible cast can effectively ruin a good script, a great cast can elevate a clichéd one, which is precisely what happens here. Kendrick is her usual adorable self and she gives a performance that is simultaneously hardened and vulnerable. Her character isn’t someone who is likely to earn friends on her own due to her stubborn attitude, but as she performs with the Borden Bellas, she comes to appreciate those around her, with all of their flaws and differences. This all comes forth despite her initial disinterest in a cappella. It’s easy to understand why she comes around and opens up to the group; they’re all so interesting and likable (well, almost all of them) that it would seem silly not to. In particular, Rebel Wilson is fantastic. She is absolutely hilarious here and manages to steal each scene she’s in, despite a supporting role.

But I suppose the big question is: how is the singing? To put is simply, it’s fantastic. The chosen songs are all toe tappers and they work perfectly within the context of what the performers intend to do, showcasing their highs and (occasionally) their lows. There’s something mesmerizing about how every sound you remember from the original song, from the drums to the guitars to everything in between, is recreated without instruments and through the mouths of those singing. One of the best scenes, that highlights the fascination of a cappella, comes during an early audition. Each performer sings a certain part of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” from full out lyrics to simple beats, and their auditions are spliced together to form one musical whole. The structure of this sequence is flat out brilliant and even if you don’t like the actual song, you’ll be impressed by its implementation.

Pitch Perfect is just flat out fun, though that’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. It gets a bit grating at times with a cappella plays-on-words, like a ca-excuse me and a ca-awesome, and it goes completely off the rails about two-thirds of the way through with an extremely out of place puke scene that rivals a similar scene in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police. As if the prolonged upchucking wasn’t enough, one of the characters then falls into it and, instead of getting up in disgust, makes an angel. You also have to sit through a few painfully overdramatic plot turns, but sticking with Pitch Perfect proves to be a fulfilling and inspiring experience. It may follow a narrative trajectory explored by countless dance movies before it, but this time it’s handled with care by the filmmakers and performed by actors who can actually do what their profession implies.

Pitch Perfect receives 4/5

Friday
May182012

What to Expect When You're Expecting

If What to Expect When You’re Expecting is indicative of real life experiences for waiting parents, then childbearing must be full of clichés, caricatures and contrivances. It must be like a desperate, unfunny screenplay that thinks it’s exploring the spectrum of pregnancy possibilities when really it knows no more about the event than the characters that are going through it. This sad excuse for a film takes the miracle of childbirth and trivializes it with cheesy dialogue, over-the-top melodramatics and bad comedy. It’s not one of the worst of the year thanks to a solid cast that does as much as they can with very little, but it’s still fairly awful.

The story is comprised of individual vignettes of characters who are all, whether they like it or not, expecting a baby. First we meet famous health guru, Jules (Cameron Diaz), a current contestant on the latest celebrity dance show, who discovers she and her dance partner, Evan (Matthew Morrison), are expecting after throwing up on stage at the end of a live taping. Later we are introduced to Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and her husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) who are unable to have babies and are looking into adoption. Meanwhile, baby crazy Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) and her husband Gary (Ben Falcone) are so eager to raise a child that they set their phones to alert them when Wendy is ovulating. Their careful planning eventually works and Wendy soon finds herself with a baby bump. In an interesting coincidence, Gary’s dad, former racecar driver Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), and his young trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) are also expecting. Finally, there’s a young couple, Marco (Chace Crawford) and Rosie (Anna Kendrick) who have sex just one time in the heat of the moment and find themselves facing something they aren’t ready for.

As is a problem with many movies of this type where multiple stories are juggled in a small amount of time, What to Expect When You’re Expecting is sloppy. Nearly all of the stories are rushed through, underexplored and underdeveloped and the result is a disconnected mess. Most movies will try to somehow link these stories together so it feels like there’s a reason for them to be told, but the majority of these characters never cross paths, unless you’re speaking in the literal sense in that they occasionally walk by each other, a lazy transition between already lazy stories if there ever was one. The longer this goes on, as you wait for it make a point or take an unexpected turn or, well, do anything at all, the less tolerating it becomes.

Any promising moment is ruined by its need to tell its stories quickly for the purpose of shortening the runtime (an unfortunate effect of vignette movies). For instance, when the young one time sexual offenders, Marco and Rosie, find out they’re pregnant, one would suspect them to contemplate abortion because, regardless of your stance on the issue, it’s a natural thought for scared young people who suddenly find themselves facing a responsibility they’re not sure they can handle to have. Marco does indeed allude to it by asking what Rosie’s going to do about her situation, but then it’s glossed over, almost like the question was never raised in the first place. When the movie eventually gets back to them after spending time with the other characters, their decision has been made and they’re fully devoted to having the baby. Their evolution is far too fast and strips the film of any realism.

Normally with these types of films, there are at least one or two stories that outshine the rest, but that’s not the case here. All, including the supposed-to-be-funny group of dads who support each other’s parental negligence, are bland and thinly written. The cast is game and most retain their charm—Elizabeth Banks is still affable and Anna Kendrick is as lovely as ever—but the best cast in the world couldn’t make these characters come to life. Simply put, there just isn’t much to What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I would say it’s a failure, but I’m not sure it was even trying.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting receives 1/5

Friday
Jan272012

Man on a Ledge

Man on a Ledge is a misleading title. Unlike Snakes on a Plane or Zombie Strippers, whose titles reflected everything they had to offer, Man on a Ledge tries to be more. It starts, sure enough, with a man on a ledge, but its story isn’t confined to that man or that location. Its seemingly succinct title is just a glimpse of what the movie has to offer. Unfortunately, what it offers doesn’t amount to much more than the occasional mild thrill. It’s not the worst movie to ever come out in the dump month of January, but it’s a good example of why this time of year is the worst for moviegoers. Even movies with interesting premises and plenty of potential fail to live up to quality standards.

The film stars as Sam Worthington as Nick Cassidy, the titular man on the ledge. He has just escaped from prison after being convicted of stealing a $40 million diamond from a real estate mogul named David Englander, played by Ed Harris, a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Now he wants to clear his name, but to do so would mean finding the diamond in Englander’s possession and showing to the world that he was set up. So as he talks with a police psychologist, played by Elizabeth Banks, about his intentions, a massive heist run by Nick’s brother and his brother’s girlfriend, played by Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez, begins only a building over.

That’s a great premise if there ever was one. Sure, the trailers ruined it beforehand, but if you walked blindly into Man on a Ledge, it would look like a simple tale of a desperate man contemplating the unthinkable. The story twist would throw you for a loop, but that twist’s inherent intrigue never pans out into anything meaningful. Your interest grows weary as the story loses traction, becoming even more outlandish as each minute ticks by. For instance, after you learn that it took a year to plan the heist, you can’t help but role your eyes over the team’s approach, which involves such ridiculousness as taking a picture of a room with a digital camera and then dangling the picture in front of a security camera, slyly fooling the guard who just so happened to look away as they hung it up. Such a trite course of action surely couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes to figure out, much less a year.

Though small in nature, quibbles like that eventually lead the viewer to a realization. How did the team know the layout of the building anyway, including the vents? How did they know what vault they would be up against once inside? How did they know anything at all? You’re supposed to just go with the fact that they planned for a year and already looked into everything, but I wasn’t buying it. The writing leaves too many questions unanswered and uses plot conveniences to get the characters where they need to be. Nothing is explained and the final twist, which will remain unspoiled, is a real head slapper. This thing needed at least an extra hour at its front to help lead into what you eventually see.

The thing is that if the heist was fun, these questions wouldn’t matter so much and would be easy to look past, but it’s relatively small in scale (at least compared to other heist movies) and the cutesy, flirty dialogue between the two pulling off the heist is beyond annoying. The over-the-top and comically insane heist pulled off in last year’s Tower Heist is more interesting (and believable) than this.

The men behind Nick’s set up are obvious from the get-go, Banks is miscast (in perhaps the worst actress-to-profession casting since Tara Reid as an anthropologist in Uwe Boll’s misfire, Alone in the Dark) and Worthington’s eventual transition into an action hero cross between James Bond and Spider-Man is sudden and insane, but it’s not all bad. Ed Harris is great as the evil mogul, which gives at least a little bit of a reason to care for the good guys to prevail and a couple of late movie stunts are fun to watch, but there comes a time when you want it to get to the point. The problem is that there is no point and its thrills are insubstantial, certainly not good enough to carry a 102 minute movie. It simply doesn’t have enough to sustain itself through what eventually becomes another lame, predictable action flop. Like I said earlier, Man on a Ledge may not be the worst movie to ever come out in January, but that in no way means it’s good.

Man on a Ledge receives 2/5