This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

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Original Theatrical Release Date: September 19, 2014
Director: Shawn Levy

The Altman family siblings; Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Phillip (Adam Driver), and Paul (Corey Stoll) – are summoned by their mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda), to sit in mourning together for a week in a traditional Jewish practice called Shiva (which literally means ‘Seven’ in Hebrew) at their father’s dying request. This, despite their father being an atheist, brings them all together under one roof and into contact with people from their collective pasts. What ensues is loads of family antics.

I saw this film in the theater with my own siblings. It wasn’t really on my list of movies to see, but it turned out to be an okay film and I’m glad I went with my own brother and sister to see it because it really gave some nods to the sibling dynamics that we’ve all experienced.

Most of the movie has some decent moments but overall, there wasn’t much substance to grasp onto or to really sink your teeth into. It felt almost more like an episode of a long-running television show than it did a feature film. I think what really saved this was the comedian actors and actresses who headlined this movie – especially Tina Fey and Jason Bateman.

Is this a bad film? Not by any means. It just didn’t pack much punch. It wasn’t especially funny, nor especially deep or poignant. There are definitely enough laughs to merit at least one watch-through and I’m sure there are some people out there who will genuinely connect with the film more than I did. For me, it just didn’t go anywhere new. We’ve seen this movie before in multiple incarnations.

JOE Rating: ★★★

Movie Trailer For This Is Where I Leave You

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Brick (2005)

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Original Theatrical Release Date: January 1, 2005
Director: Rian Johnson

A teenage loner, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seeks the whereabouts of his girlfriend, Emily (Emilie De Ravin). When it turns out that she was a victim of apparent foul play, Brendan finds himself in the seedy underbelly of a high school crime syndicate run by the notorious and mysterious Pin (Lukas Haas). Brendan must sort through his own morals and reserves of courage if he is to get any answers for Emily’s disappearance.

Brick is one of those films that was always sort of on my radar but never a film I purposely sought out. To understand why, you must understand that as a rule – I hardly ever watch gritty, ultra-realistic crime films. I see enough of that stuff on the news, so I don’t feel much particular need to seek it out in films I enjoy watching. I use films as an escapist sort of entertainment. The image on the movie jacket did little to inspire any ideas I had about the film being anything other than a movie where a girl is murdered.

With that said, I recently watched this at a friend’s house in Vermont. He and his wife suggested a few of us all watch it for a “movie night” of sorts, and I’m glad he did. First off – this is not ultra-realistic at all. This is a blend of Noir and a sort of high-school/teen drama film. You wouldn’t think such a combination would be satisfying or poignant, but you’d be just as wrong as I was. The ultra-stylistic dialogue and the snappy cinematography  and the quirky characters had me intently watching the screen for the duration of the film.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a great performance as Brendan. Lukas Haas is very hilarious and on point as The Pin while Noah Fleiss’ portrayal of a henchman named Tugger had me laughing at several points. This is a dark comedy, for sure – as it still deals with drug trafficking and death – but it’s all set against the backdrop of High School, something most of us can relate to. The noir world that the characters inhabit is very believable within its own context and pretty much everything about the film is enjoyable. If you haven’t seen this film yet, give it a shot. It’s really worth taking the time to watch. (Especially if you like films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)

JOE Rating: ★★★★★

Movie Trailer For Brick

 

Sin City (2005)

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Original Theatrical Release Date: April 1, 2005
Director: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino

Basin City, AKA “Sin” City, is a vile place of corruption, sex, and murder. Marv (Mickey Rourke), Dwight (Clive Owen) and Hartigan (Bruce Willis) are just three hard-boiled characters with intersecting paths who are rays of light standing against the dark. Part comic book, part noir and all thrill – this adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel is very faithful to the source material.

Since the sequel to this film just came out, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, I felt like I needed to bone up on this film franchise once more before seeing the new one.

The narrative layout of the film is interesting. Vignettes showing each “main” character and their interactions with the film’s secondary characters including villains and allies, makes the world of Sin City seem large and real. Most of the shots in the film are lifted right from Frank Miller’s pages of artwork and the casting was all done very wonderfully, particularly with Mickey Rourke as Marv. (Seriously, look at the guy). You also get to see Brittany Murphy in one of her last good roles before she died….and the same with Michael Clarke Duncan as Manute.

The special effects are all very stylized, very slick, but a couple of times they look wonky. Most of that was due to the artwork not translating well to film, because of how stylized Frank Miller’s artwork is. The black and white look of the film kept everything very visually appealing. The dialogue was great noir fare, if you’re into noir – but if you’re not into noir at all it may seem hokey and even terrible in spots.

If Robert Rodriguez and/or Quentin Tarantino were to direct a comic book film, Sin City was the perfect choice for them and you can tell that they had fun directing it, which means if you’re like me – you’ll have fun watching it.

If you’re looking for strong women characters, then this typical noir setting probably isn’t for you. The women of Old Town run their prostitution rings with cold efficiency, keeping the mob and corrupt police officers on the level, but that’s about it. Most of the other women in the film gasp and toss their hands against their foreheads while the men do the real work.

The one drawback to the film is that the three main characters – Marv, Dwight and Hartigan – are all fairly similar, making the story arcs seem pretty repetitive. Clive Owen was underwhelming as Dwight. Mickey Rourke nailed Marv (as I said before) and Bruce Willis was great as Hartigan. Rosario Dawson was kinetic as Gail, and Jessica Alba was decent as Nancy Callahan. Also, Elijah Wood was surprisingly creepy in his role as Kevin and Benicio Del Toro as Jackie Boy. They weren’t in the film for very long but they definitely added very interesting bits to the story.

JOE Rating: ★★★★

Movie Trailer For Sin City

Guardians Of The Galaxy – (2014)

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Original Theatrical Release: August 01, 2014
Director: James Gunn

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is an intergalactic outlaw and treasure hunter who calls himself Star-Lord. When he nabs a mysterious artifact in the form of a powerful orb, he discovers that it is being sought after by a powerful individual known as Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace), who will stop at nothing to get it. The orb, as well as Peter’s outlaw status, puts him in contact with other misfits like Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) – all of whom must band together to survive Ronan’s crusade.

Guardians of the Galaxy was always a fringe title. It never really registered with me. I was pretty familiar with most of the characters, especially Rocket, Gamora, and Groot – but Spider-Man was usually the title I gravitated toward with mainstream comics. Maybe some Avengers or X-Men stuff. But not Guardians of the Galaxy. And if they are lesser-known to me and I’ve been reading comics since I was a wee lad, I can only imagine the reactions of some folks to these characters who are new to comics or who have no idea about the franchise. A musclebound killer? A green-skinned femme fatale? A walking tree in desperate need of a dictionary? An angry, anthropomorphic raccoon who fires guns? A sarcastic, egotistical human male flying around space like he’s a badass? Who knew it’d be so good and work so well as a film?

The key to the whole film’s success is the fact that the above characters sure ARE cool – but also the film’s resonance with our pop culture psyches via Peter Quill’s Awesome Mix-Tape that he plays on his Sony Walkman. (He was abducted by aliens in the late 1980’s – long story, and I don’t want to give anything away – so go see the film and see for yourself). The soundtrack had people swaying and bopping their heads in their seats during the showing I went to. It also makes Peter Quill accessibly human. Music is an access point that knows no language boundaries to be enjoyed.

Aside from the interesting characters and the amazing soundtrack, the casting was well done. The only complaints that I really had about the film were actually the villains. The heroes were well-established and had screen time together so that we really felt like they bonded, but Ronan’s motivation was flat and predictable. Ditto with Nebula (Karen Gillan). I would have liked to see more established backstory and/or screen time for those characters. As it is, they are very generic “we want ALL the power” villains. That is a really small gripe, though, because the main focus was really supposed to be on the Guardians themselves –  and Gunn (as well as the cast) not only excelled at that but as of right now, this is my favorite Marvel film to date.

Go see it, and make sure to stay for the end credits for a surprise cameo!

JOE Rating: ★★★★★

Movie Trailer For Guardians Of The Galaxy

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – (2014)

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Original Theatrical Release: May 02, 2014
Director: Marc Webb

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) enjoys the freedoms of being Spider-Man – slinging webs through the city and showing off for the crowds. He tries to balance his two lives, with some success, as he forges a stronger relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and a childhood friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). However, when the villain known as Electro (Jamie Foxx) appears – someone so powerful that he’s made out of energy – Spidey realizes that he may not be able to protect everyone and that even when you have superpowers, it might not be enough.

Being a Spidey fan is a roller coaster ride in this day and age. Marvel is making cinematic gold with films like Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy – with more on the way. Spider-Man is pretty much the mascot of Marvel Comics. Well, at least he is to me, so I’d like to see him represented better in his film incarnations.

Sam Raimi had a decent run with his own trilogy back in the early 2000’s, starting with Spider-Man back in 2002, which was decent. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 was even better. Spider-Man 3 was pretty terrible. Webb’s first film in this new reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, was actually pretty good – although I had problems with it being a reboot so soon after the original trilogy. I wish they’d gone in a different direction rather than re-hash the origin story yet again. Still, the dark qualities of the film drew me in and Andrew Garfield was the only thing I really didn’t like about it (because Peter Parker isn’t supposed to be a “hot” semi-popular hipster/skater kid. He’s supposed to be awkward and picked on). I was willing to give Fox (the studio which owns the film rights for Spider-Man) a chance on the second film.

That being said – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a huge disappointment.

First off, the script was a chaotic mess. There were some redeeming qualities but ultimately the story felt fractured and disjointed and by the time the movie actually ended I felt nothing and I just wanted it to be over with, I wanted the movie to have ended an hour before it did – which is never a good thing. The movie felt like part rom-com, part action flick and part advertisement for Oscorp Industries. Peter’s relationship with Harry seemed solid enough at first, but it wasn’t focused on long enough to make much sense later in the film, with how their dynamics changed. Some of the character motivations were just flat-out unbelievable, especially Foxx’s nervous and emotionally unstable Max Dillon/Electro.

Andrew Garfield did a better job at being Spider-Man this time around, but did an even worse job of being Peter Parker. Emma Stone was decent as Gwen Stacy in the first film, but became an annoying, nagging foil to Spider-Man’s every move in this sequel. Dane DeHaan did a great job as Harry, at first, but the manic side of him just wasn’t believable in the film itself (though this wasn’t necessarily the actor’s fault). Jamie Foxx can act but he basically played one of his bumbling characters from the old comedy sketch show he used to be in called In Living Color – which isn’t a good thing for the character of Electro. And Paul Giamatti makes absolutely no sense whatsoever as the villain Rhino. I have no idea how that casting choice happened. I love Paul but he basically just screams into the camera for a half hour and spouts Slavic-sounding gibberish.

The fight scenes are pretty much the only saving grace this film has, aside from a switch to a more classic-looking costume (thank you!). The rest of the film is really underwhelming. I honestly hope that Marvel can somehow get back the film rights to Spider-Man so they can do it some justice, because if not – Fox Studios is going to run this character into the ground, which stinks for those of us who have been longtime fans of the character and want to see him treated well.

JOE Rating: ★★

Movie Trailer For The Amazing Spider-Man 2

 

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

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Original Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014
Director: Jean DeBlois

Five years have gone by on the Viking island of Berk since the heroic deeds of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless resulted in the once-feared beasts becoming allies and pets. During a training flight to help train Toothless to maneuver better, Hiccup discovers a sect of dragon hunters who are led by the insane Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who has a desire to subjugate dragons at any cost, including all-out war.  Add that to pressures from his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) to take on the throne and the appearance of a mysterious dragon rider who steals dragons in the night and young Hiccup certainly has his hands full.

This is obviously a sequel and I loved How To Train Your Dragon so much that it was out of the question for me to miss this movie. I haven’t read the books by Cressida Cowell, but I hope to check them out soon.

The animation, as always, was fantastic. Toothless has never been cuter and there were some new things to look at in the form of new armor, new weapons and new dragons. All the old cast has returned including the aforementioned Hiccup and Stoick, and aside from the sinister Drago there are a handful of new characters as well.

The best part of this film is that it has more complexity to it than the original. In the last one, both Hiccup and Toothless were younger. Though it’s only five years that have gone by, the characters have grown. As a result, the mood of this sequel is a bit darker than the previous entry. There are darker themes and concepts and I think it provides a richer film experience. The relationships between characters have also grown, with Stoick becoming warmer toward Hiccup as well as Astrid and Hiccup being more mature in their romantic relationship – which is not overdone and sappy but you can still tell how much they care for one another. Hiccup’s mother is introduced, as well – which provides for a new dynamic between Hiccup and his parents. (Not giving anything away…it’s in the trailer.)

There were a couple of things I felt could have been improved, but they are sort of trifling. It was a bit too long for my tastes, and the pacing felt chunky at times but mostly because of all the interwoven narratives happening simultaneously. I took my young nephew and he sort of needed to get up and move around before the movie had ended, so watch out if you bring the kiddos. It may be too long for them to sit still. However, with all the cool dragons flying around on screen it’s hard for anyone to not be captivated.

Overall it was a great film and a sequel that I believe is mostly superior to the original, which is rare in many cases. It’s fun, it’s rich, it’s exciting. It’s definitely an adventure.

JOE Rating: ★★★★★

Movie Trailer For How To Train Your Dragon 2

 

Munchkin

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Game Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Game Type: Card Game/RPG
Players: 3-5
Age Range: 10+
Play Time: 1-2 Hours

In the game of Munchkin, players create a character in the same vein as Dungeons & Dragons….but a bit more silly. Using cards drawn from a main deck, players will construct their characters using cards that grant Race, Class and Equipment and then delve through a dungeon – kicking open doors and fighting monsters to go up in level and to get treasure. The goal is to be the first player to reach level 10. Leveling up can be accomplished by defeating monsters, with random Level Up cards or by selling $1,000 worth of Gold Pieces. To achieve all this, players will undertake in some underhanded tactics like backstabbing, forging alliances and stealing from other players.

I was introduced to this Dedicated Deck-Building Game while at residency during my time with Stonecoast. I’d never played it before, and had sort of been out of the board game loop for a while, but I had a lot of fun with it. For best results, I strongly suggest playing the game with as many people as possible as it creates the most tension and the most unexpected alliances and a constant theme of change within the game, keeping it fresh and exciting. However, the game can be played with as few people as possible (and honestly, my girlfriend and I play it with just the two of us and it’s just as fun).

There are a TON of expansions to this game – including expansions featuring Conan The Barbarian (yes, and it is licensed), and smaller ones that feature characters from Penny Arcade, The Guild, Skullkickers and even Axe Cop. I haven’t delved much outside the fantasy realm with this game series, but there are also other themed sets such as Zombies, Superheroes, Space, Old West and others. You can combine all the cards you want to create the ultimate Munchkin experience, but I tend to only blend the fantasy ones together (though I’d love to combine the Space version and the Cowboy one for a Steampunk-themed deck).

This game is consistently fun, fairly cheap and there are just so many options to choose from that I can’t give it any less of a score. The possibilities are virtually endless. Give it a try, honestly.

JOE Rating: ★★★★★

Instructional Video On How To Play Munchkin