Guardians of the Galaxy



Guardians of the Galaxy
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Lee Pace
Directed by James Gunn (Super)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language

     Digging deep into the Marvel universe for some of its more obscure titles, Disney and Marvel pull out this comic which teams up 5 very unlikely heroes, including a talking raccoon and a walking/talking tree, who task themselves to save the galaxy from the likes of an evil alien who wants to rule it.

     From the very first shot, this movie wins you over . Without going into too much backstory or exposition, the film tells you all you need to know to get you going. You might not know the leading character, played here brilliantly by Chris Pratt, but you sure do empathize with him. And that’s what wins you over regarding the entire team. While each is deeply flawed, they also have had a very, very tough life and a good heart, making them heroes you can truly cheer for.

     Of course it helps that the characters are superbly written here by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. And it also helps to have the perfect cast, which they most definitely do. Pratt, with his hot looks and witty sense of humor is an excellent counterpart to the sexy yet deadly Saldana, who trades in her Avatar blue for a new shade of green. And while no one in the past has ever accused WWE wrestler David Bautista of being a real actor, here he proves his worth as the muscle bound alien who seeks revenge against the man who killed his wife and daughter. Rounding out the team are the voices of Bradley Cooper as Rocket Racoon and Vin Diesel as the tree Groot, both of whom steal the show as they recreate the Han Solo/Chewy vibe for a new generation.

     While the characters aren’t new and original, they certainly feel that way here on the big screen. You get the sense that you are experiencing something truly creative and breathtaking as you watch the heroes fight the villains in ways you’ve seen before but seem fresh here.

     What ultimately makes this movie succeed, though, isn’t the originality or the special effects (although they don’t hurt), but rather its smart sense of humor. Experiencing this movie is like going on a date with a super model only to find out she or he is a member of Mensa and a stellar stand up comedian to boot. What sounds too good to be true comes to life here before your very eyes. A




Starring Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt and Ian McShane
Directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour)
Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, brief strong language and partial nudity

This revisionist take on the mythical story of Hercules finds Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the supposed son of Zeus. A demigod with monumental strength and extreme cunning in battle, Hercules finds himself and a few friends he has picked up along the way, as mercenaries who are hired by a Greek lord (Hurt) to train their army of farmers in order to protect the kingdom from a ruthless warlord.

Brett Ratner stories have always excelled when it comes to action with a big sense of humor, and this film is no different. Johnson has terrific comic timing and can be both physically imposing and goofy at the same time. Bringing that talent to this famous mythological character isn’t the worst idea Hollywood has ever had. Supplying him with cronies that help to add to his legend is another interesting touch that works for the film.

Unfortunately for me the movie felt more tedious than enjoyable. Yes there is a lot of action, but when a film is wall-to-wall action, sometimes it gets boring, and that seems to be the case here. The filmmakers seemed to know this and they created a backstory for Hercules and his family to give it some edge, but the way they did it didn’t seem to add the emotional depth they were hoping for. Maybe if they had stolen a page from Gladiator, it could have been a more successful plot device.

And then there is a huge plot twist leading into the third act that doesn’t over well at all. Sure it was a surprise, but the plot holes get huge and I’m certain a second or third viewing will have most audiences scratching their heads.

I’m not sure if a few more revisions would have helped, but they sure couldn’t have hurt. That being said, this summer has really had a lack of big, mindless Hollywood epics, so this one just might fill that long-missing gap. C

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes



Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell
Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

A decade has passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and now Caesar (Serkis) and his very large group of apes have a well-organized community on the outskirts of San Francisco. The plague from the first film has almost decimated the human population, but a small group of human survivors living in San Francisco are attempting to make a comeback but need access to the damn near the apes’ village to restore power They must choose to either negotiate with the apes or fight their way to it.

This is one heck of a great summer film. The last film opened our eyes as to what truly brilliant people could do with one of the cheesiest franchises in film history. It’s almost unfathomable that a well-written, well-acted and relevant film could come of such source material. But I for one am sure glad that the folks at 20th Century Fox took a chance.

The biggest difference between these two latest genesis films is that while the humans really added to the enjoyment of the first film, I could have pretty much done without them in this one. Clarke, Oldman and Russell are all fine actors, but their characters here are paper thin and almost unnecessary. The apes are what you are here to see, and they won’t let you down. Here, the special effects have been taken up a huge notch and the story is once again amazing. Now if only Hollywood could have filled our summer with this caliber of filmmaking, they might not be having such a terrible year at the box office. A-




Starring Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt and Sofia Vergara
Directed by Jon Favreau
Rated R for language, including some suggestive references

Former Iron Man director Jon Favreau goes back to his indie roots with this film about a talented chef who is stuck in a rut when he fights with the restaurant owner he works for (Hoffman) and quits his cush job in order to do what he wants in his own food truck.

Being a huge fan of his first film, Swingers, I was extremely excited to see him go back to a relatively small budget, even if it’s kind of cheating since he now has access to some really big names who are willing to work on the cheap just to have fun with him. That being said, the film is, for the most part, pretty good. There are some big mistakes that almost damage the overall experience, but the main ingredients, acting, screenplay and production, are top notch. I wish he would have gotten some help in the story category though.

If I were a food critic, my review might read something like this:

The meal started with a very simple yet elegant appetizer that created a fulfilled wish during the creative and complex entree. Unfortunately, rather than give us dessert, the waiter merely came by the table and asked us how it tasted. How weird is that? Shouldn’t a meal like this have something to show for dessert?

In actuality, the movie does a terrific job presenting food porn. I’ve never wanted to be on a film set so bad as when the group showed up at Franklin BBQ in Austin and walked away with several briskets. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to eating at Franklin and I swear I could actually smell the meat in the movie theater. But I couldn’t help but be disappointed that Favreau basically skipped the ending. It felt like they might have considered putting a third act in place, but chose rather to just show the aftermath of that third act instead. That immediately turned a four star meal into a three. B

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera and Gerard Butler
Directed by Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon)
Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

    When How to Train Your Dragon hit the screen in 2010 I was absolutely blown away.  It was original, gutsy, different and stunningly beautiful.  And it left some big shoes to fill for a sequel. 

    In this newest edition, five years have passed and Hiccup and his viking mates are now young men and women, all of whom have mastered dragon riding.  Upon exploring the greater world around him, Hiccup discovers a huge ice cave filled with thousands of exotic new dragons led by his mother who everyone presumed dead (sorry if that’s a spoiler but it was in the trailers).  At the same time though, he discovers an evil mad man who has trained a dragon army in the hopes of taking over the world. 

    This film does a lot of things right.  I love that enough time has passed to allow a different version of its main characters.  Hiccup especially has turned into a brave young man who is still trying to figure things out while displaying a quiet confidence in his impressive abilities.  Its a very nice transition to observe.  His cohort also are now young men and women who have two things on the brain, dragons and the opposite sex.  There are some rather hilarious moments as the teens try to woo their targets.  Like the first film, the background characters outside of the main cast are more scenery than anything, but not terribly distracting. 

    The writing, as expected, is terrific and the narrative is strong.  The story being told here is big and bold and huge in scope with a lot of surprises that I won’t spoil.  I did think the mother seemed rather useless come the big battle, which seemed out of place given her talents as a dragon master.  Its almost as if they forgot about her in the third act.  That being said, I did like the directions they took in the story. 

    Probably my favorite quality of the film is how beautiful it is .  Once again, Dreamworks Animation put together a talented crew and I’m sure using legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins again as a visual consultant greatly enhanced the look.  While I’m not crazy about the 3D of the film, the actual cinematography and lighting were breathtaking.  There are moments in the battle sequences that actually look like real giant dragons fighting.  And the flight sequences are beyond anything we’ve ever seen previously.  Add that to a new score by the Oscar-nominated composer John Powell and songs by Icelandic musician Jonsi and you get quite a stunning collection of memorable sequences. 

    So while I would still pick the first Dragon as my favorite, I will concede that this film could grow on me over time.  When I first saw The Empire Strikes Back I preferred the first film for years.  Now I see things differently.  Number 2 here could be the same as I will most definitely enjoy it again and again as I let it simmer in my brain.  A

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men)
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language

    One of the most popular stories in the X-men comics is this tale of how Wolverine (Jackman) is sent into the past in order to stop Mystique (Lawrence) from committing an action that would devastate the world and potentially destroy all mutants in the future.  While in the past he must convince an apathetic Professor X (McAvoy) and a malicious Magneto (Fassbender) to help him stop her. 

    If you are tired of pointless and thoughtless super hero films that attempt to distract you into forgetting the need for a plot – then this is the right film for you.  Just like X-Men, X2 and X-Men: First Class, this is an extremely well-written and trippy script that will excite your intellect while keeping your adrenaline at maximum output. 

    When X-Men: First Class first hit theaters in 2011, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy were just becoming famous.  Now, however, the stars have become A-listers and with the combination of the old and new X-Men casts, the films is so full of amazing actors that it literally busts off of the screen.  And not one of them is just “phoning it in” here.  Each and every one of the actors and actresses owns their characters and puts everything they have into them.  This makes the movie that much more fun to watch. 

    When you combine the artistry of the actors with the brilliance of director Bryan Singer and a slick, extremely well-written screenplay and over the top production values, you end up with one amazing super-hero movie.  Speaking of production, something I have didn’t catch before but that truly impresses me is the talent of John Ottman who not only delivers a score that perfectly fits the film, but who also masterfully edits the film as well.  He did this before on all of Singers films since 1993’s Public Access but for some reason I didn’t catch on until now.  I can’t tell you how awe-struck I am with this dual threat behind-the-scenes filmmaker. 

    My one bit of concern is that I get asked a lot “is it safe to take my kids?”  The X-Men comics and movies are meant for late teens and this film is no exception.  There is bad language, nudity and a tremendous amount of violence and I would caution parents of young children who don’t want to expose their grade schoolers or even junior high aged kids to this kind of graphic material.  A

Heaven is for Real

Heaven is for Real
Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly and Thomas Hayden Church
Directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat)
Rated PG for thematic material including some medical situations

    This is not going to be your normal film review.  I think it is expected for most film critics to slam a Christian film, regardless of being an independent or studio pic.  But most are doing it from an atheistic or agnostic point of view.  What you are about to read is from a Christian point of view.  Before I start, I have to admit that I loved the book this movie is based on.  Todd Burpo’s account of his son’s apparent journey to Heaven is a wonderful, awe-inspiring tale that had me excited and thrilled through every page.  Unfortunately this movie did the book a great disservice. 

    Opening up with a little girl from Eastern Europe painting what will eventually be a very controversial and chilling portrait of Jesus, the film starts out the right way.  While this version of Burpo’s story isn’t exactly true to the book, the differences are at first acceptable.  After the first sermon Burpo preaches in his church, however, I thought it unusual that he didn’t really discuss God or Jesus or anything very Christian.  But then I thought “hey – it’s coming.”  After all, it’s a book about Jesus.  How can he not get there?

    I do not mean for this to be a spoiler, but I think everyone knows that the book is about Burpo’s son Colton and what happened after he almost died and came back from the operating room telling stories of his time spent in Heaven.  But here the almost-tragedy of the novel was not close to being apparent.  In the book, Colton was mis-diagnosed and it wasn’t until his father illegally took his son from a poorly-run hospital to a children’s hospital in a nearby large city that you find out his life really was in danger and that he almost died.  Here, though, Colton gets a fever and he is quickly diagnosed with appendicitis and operated on.  This is too common and you really don’t get the sense of danger aside from the father getting angry at God and the town praying.  If I hadn’t read the book I would have thought that these people are really overreacting.  What a bad choice the filmmakers made here as this was some riveting drama grossly overlooked or ignored. 

    I will say that Colton’s stories are visually told well and do send some nice shivers, but then the damage comes.  While there is a lot of talk of God, the Christian message is completely brushed over.  A big example of this is when Todd is talking to a lady in the church and explaining that her son, who died overseas in the military, is in Heaven.  The rationale that he proposes is that “if God loves my son, don’t you think he loves your son too?”  Paraphrased of course.  This is extremely contrary to Christian teachings, no matter what denomination you belong to.  The message I got from this film is that God loves us all and that we will all will go to Heaven, regardless of anything.  At least they got the first part right.  I believe this to be a dangerous viewpoint and completely contrary to any teachings Christ or of any Christian church out there.  And to make matters worse, none of the preceding sermons discuss how to get to Heaven or who Jesus is, just that we will all get to meet him someday.  It just amazes me that a Christian film would try so hard not be Christian.  In a film like this I would think that most people would expect a strong message and a little preaching.   

    So you might say that this is not really a critical review in the sense of is the reviewer discussing if this is a well-made film or not.  To sum up the basics, the acting is phoned in by all of the talented cast and you get the sense that no one involved really took the time to get to know their characters or the world they live in.  While the production values are fine, the directing and screenwriting feel like folks who needed a job rather than individuals with a vision.  I would also counter that for a film to be good it must have integrity and be brave enough to stand by its convictions and be true to the actual story.  If it were a Muslim film or a Jewish film or a Buddhist film I would hold it to those same standards.  While watching, I couldn’t help but think of the studio execs in the background whispering in the filmmakers ears “does it have to be so religious?  Can you make it any less… Christian?”  Had they done what they should have and ignored these voices, the film might have been a head-turning powerhouse that could have made a difference.  Instead we get this rather cowardly adaptation of a story that has changed people’s lives throughout the world.  F

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham and Adrien Brody
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums)
Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence

    I have always had a huge love for Wes Anderson’s films.  From Bottle Rocket to Rushmore (filmed in Houston by the way) to The Royal Tenenbaums and the rest that follow, I connect with his style, his color palette and his wonderful usage of actors.  And while it’s hard to rank my favorites, his new outing is up at the top. 

    The crux of the story revolves around a concierge (brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes) at a pre WWII Eastern Block hotel who finds himself on the hit list of a local family when an elderly woman he had been courting at his hotel dies and leaves him a valuable piece of art.  Filled with incredible and memorable little stories with unique characters throughout, the film twists and turns in unexpected and joyous little adventures. 

    So why do I love Anderson’s films so much?  Probably because they are so quirky yet so absolutely adorable.  There is not a predictable moment in any of his films, and like Hannibal Lecter,  you find yourself enjoying his delicious little brain and all of the nuances found within (sorry for any overtly cannibalistic references).  Even in the darkest and most violent of moments in the film, there is joy to be discovered.  It’s like a scary Disney ride where even though you might be a little concerned for your safety, you always know that there is a big happy mouse waiting for a hug on other side. 

    Like all of his other films, there is a huge A-list actor around every turn.  Like roaches on a filet mignon, I’m fairly certain that pretty much every actor in Hollywood is dying to have any role they can get in Anderson’s movies and they all do their very best with not even an extra “phoning it in.”  Fiennes, Law, Abraham, Brody as well as Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldbloom, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Defoe, Harvey Keitel, Owen Wilson and newcomer and co-star Tony Revolori all turn in these amazing performances that are a simply pleasure to sit back and watch. 

In addition, this is one of the best productions Anderson has ever presented with interesting and gorgeous cinematography by long-time collaborator Robert Yeoman, a perfect score by Alexandre Desplat and 12 Years a Slave production designer Adam Stockhausen. 

    If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of the film.  I’ve seen it twice already and I’m sure many more viewings are to come.  It is a sincere pleasure that I recommend it and hope that you have as much fun watching it as I have.  A

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman
Directed by George Clooney
Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking

    Based on a true story, The Monuments Men tells the tale of a group of art historians who join forces with the U.S. military during WWII to rescue stolen pieces of art that Hitler had hidden throughout Germany.  

    When I first found out that this film was pushed back into February and would not be eligible for awards season, I was puzzled.  After all, Clooney is a very good writer and director and the cast is one of the best ensembles a person could imagine.  I immediately guessed that the film just wasn’t great.  Unfortunately I was correct.

    The story itself is fantastic.  The men represented here are real life heroes and responsible for much of our lifetime of enjoyment we have had walking through museums both in America and abroad.  What they did was vitally important and their contribution is worthy of more appreciation than we could ever show them.

    If only their story were told better.  I would place another guess that Clooney wanted to be as precise as possible with the actual events, and that meant not making up drama for drama’s sake.  Sadly, this made the film fairly boring.  None of the characters were deeply flawed, as would be expected in a compelling drama, and there was very little action aside from a couple of deaths from minor characters.  Clooney tried to fix this with intelligent and pithy dialogue, but couldn’t quite manage to pull it off.  The pacing is off, as is the film’s momentum.  Also, I never felt any sort of empathy or connection with the men, aside from my desire to see them succeed in their mission.  
    I do think the script could have been better but aside from fictionalizing it more to add pizzaz and punch, I’m not sure I can provide the magic formula – but something is very apparently missing from the project.  C+

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks
Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson and Colin Farrell
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side)
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images

    Before Walt Disney (Hanks) could make the legendary film Mary Poppins, he had to coax its creator, P.L. Travers (Thompson) to sell him the rights.  The process was an arduous one as she hated the very thought of her books ending up with Disney, but through persistence and a strong sense of vision, Walt was able to convince her, leaving us with one his greatest and most treasured films. 

    I’ve always wanted to see a biopic of one of my biggest heroes, but since that isn’t in the works yet, I’ll gladly settle for this lovely little film about a very unusual story that took place at Disney’s studio years before I was born.  From the opening moments of the film where a solo piano performs the Oscar-winning song Chim Chim Cher-ee to the closing moments with the same hauntingly beautiful motif, the film sets itself apart as a classic. 

    It helps that the story is really interesting.  Apparently P.L. Travers was insanely difficult to work with and Thompson makes you really feel the creative team’s pain.  But at the same time the film goes in a very different direction as they simultaneously show Travers’s own troubled upbringing as  she watches her beloved father (Farrell) drink himself to death.  It’s an all around touching story and while you know the ultimate ending, that doesn’t make it any less fantastic. 

    In addition to Thompson’s incredible performance, the film boasts some other terrific acting including Hanks as Disney, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the legendary Sherman Brothers and a rather unexpected beautiful performance by Paul Giamatti as Disney’s limo driver that befriends Travers. 

    My only real beef with the film is that in the flashback sequences they make a todo about what we can only assume was the inspiration for Mary Poppins in a woman known to the family as Aunt Ellie, played by Rachel Griffiths, that comes to live with the family when the father takes ill.  Honestly, it’s a confusing role that I’m not sure is well enough written to be understood completely.

    But what I really wanted to see was Disney come to life, and here it happened in a big way that I am very pleased with.  And honestly, I can’t think of a better holiday film that you’ll be able to enjoy with your families.  A