The Croods

The Croods is a truly fascinating surprise. It seems like it might depend too much on physical humor and low-hanging fruit punchlines, but it tosses in a few very unexpected surprises. Then, when you realize that the main character is actually the dad, the movie takes off and really delivers.

Plus, Nicholas Cage should only do voice-over work now. He’s marvelous.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released March 22, 2013

Written by Chris Sanders, Kirk De Micco, and John Cleese

Directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders

Starring Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Nicholas Cage, Clark Duke, and Ryan Reynolds

Rated: PG

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The Croods are a tight-knit family led by hyper-paranoid Grug (Cage). All of their other caveman neighbors have died, but because Grug has rules like “Never not be afraid” and “Never leave the cave,” the Croods are still alive. But his daughter Eep (Stone) is chafing at the restrictions and doesn’t consider not dying much of a life. His wife, Ugga (Keener) does her best to keep the peace, while his son Thunk (Duke) is rather incompetent but fiercely obedient and loyal to his dad. Rounding out the family are Ugga’s mother Gran (Leachman) and the nutzo baby, Sandy.

One night, Eep notices some strange light and follows the glow until she comes upon Guy (Reynolds), a more evolved fellow who has fire. Guy tells Eep that change is coming to the land and that he can help her find a way to safety. When Grug discovers Eep has left the cave, he flips out, but before any reprisals can happen, the earth around them erupts in massive tectonic activity.

Now Grug has to lead his family to safety, learn to trust the far too smooth Guy, and find a way to keep his family close, despite his paranoia and fear of anything new. Meanwhile, the family finds that they are spreading wings they never knew they had.

Yes, this is a film about evolving cavemen.

We get some nice story twists and great character surprises– all of which leads to a final moving scene where Grug has to sacrifice everything for his family.

But is that really where it ends? Stick around– this flick has a very fine, surprising ending that delivers a solid emotional resolution.

Critique

While The Croods sometimes depends a little too much on easy punchlines, particularly with the mother-in-law jokes, it is overall very well written. It’s no Up or Finding Nemo, but it tells an excellent, moving story about characters who are very familiar to us and who have needs and hopes like all of us. The humor is generally fresh and clever and the family dynamics are just wonderful. And the way the characters solve their problems requires imagination and humility.

The voice acting is great. Nicholas Cage is a great choice for Grug, with his expressive voice and ability to flip out unexpectedly. Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds also do a great job.

Lastly, the animation is just wonderful. Truly imaginative visuals and deep layers to the world that this family travels through make the film experience totally involving.

Viewers of The Croods will generally be pleasantly surprised by the sense of wonder and life in this film, and will be warmed by a story that shows that we are capable of anything to keep our family and loved ones safe.

Content warnings: Some cartoon action and violence– mostly to comic effect.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4.5

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The Amazing Spiderman

The Amazing Spiderman is a perfectly fine film, with perfectly fine actors (one of them mighty fine (I’m looking at YOU Emma Stone)), with a perfectly good plot. It even, FINALLY, busts one of the most common superhero tropes all to pieces– although not everyone agrees that this was a good thing. But the people who disagree with me are stupid socialists, so don’t trust them anyway. More on that later.

Here’s a preview:

Here are the deets:

Released July 3, 2012

Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, based on the comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Directed by Marc Webb

Starring Emma Stone, Andrew Garfield, Embeth Davidtz, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary, Rhys Ifans, Campbell Scott, and C. Thomas Howell

Rated PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Seriously? You need a story synopsis? Okay, here goes:

Peter Parker (Garfield) has been raised by his Aunt May (Field) and Uncle Ben (Sheen) since his parents (Scott and Davidtz) left him with them many years before, dying soon after in a plane crash. He’s a nerd and a genius and has impressive skills with math. When he finds his father’s old briefcase, his curiosity leads him to his father’s old employer, Oscorp, and his father’s old partner, Curt Connors (Ifans). At Oscorp, Peter is bitten by a genetically modified, radioactive spider (Burt the spider), which results in him getting super spider powers.

On the personal front, Peter carries a torch for Gwen Stacy (Stone), a smart, well-adjusted, lovely young woman whom his bully, Crash, also likes. Conveniently, Gwen works at Oscorp as an intern, but this is well-motivated by the plot. Her dad (Leary) is chief of police in New York– all of which sets up some nice conflict points.

Meanwhile, Dr. Connors has been searching for a final equation to help him figure out cross-species genetic mutations, partly so he can grow his severed arm back. This of course leads him to become Spiderman’s enemy, the Lizard.

Critique

This reboot is not necessary. Let’s just get that right out. The original trilogy is so completed, and quite good really, so it’s kind of a money-grab to make this film.

Now that we can all agree on that and it’s accepted, let’s talk about this film on its own merits.

The story isn’t much new, although it’s nice to have a little more about Peter’s parents play a part in the film.

It’s a good movie. Parker’s glee at his sudden, emerging powers is great. His intellect and core decency, combined with his awkwardness and authentic teen-ness, make for an engaging teenage Spiderman and nascent hero. Garfield does a very fine job with Peter Parker, making him vulnerable and cocky and insulting and selfish and still good. He is rude to his adopted parents. He is careless at times.

But at his core, he’s a good kid.

Gwen Stacy is very nicely played by Emma Stone. By golly, can she do wrong? She doesn’t take crap from people, happily speaks her mind, but is respectful of her parents’ wishes and is unsure of herself when faced with an actual growing crush on the nerd Peter Parker.

Garfield and Stone have a totally believable spark here. Surely most of us can remember meeting someone and just feeling a deep connection almost right away. This happens believably here, with both of them very effectively playing the awkward, surprised-by-how-fast-and-great things are moving relationship.

Denis Leary is a believable chief. Martin Sheen is a great Uncle Ben, and Sally Field is a somewhat too-preserved Aunt May, but she does a fine job. Rhys Ifans is as good a villain as any we’ve seen; he plays Curt Connors sympathetically and gives us a reason to not hate him.

Another treat of this fine movie is the fact that Spiderman is a lot more spiderlike than we’ve seen before. He moves more like a spider, clings to walls and ceilings and scuttles. This is a daring and interesting move on the part of the filmmakers, and it works. The web-monitoring scene is great.

Then there’s the superhero trope of keeping your superhero persona secret from your loved ones. They break that trope in this film, and it’s about frakking time.

You also have a scene where Peter makes a promise to keep Gwen out of his life, to protect the one he loves through deception and hiding his feelings. This causes trouble between them, of course, and later a teacher tells Peter, “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.” What he says in response seems like a cop out, and there is an integrity issue, but aren’t we fed up with male heroes deciding they have to protect the one they love, hiding the truth from them and crap like that? This movie trashes that entire trope, letting Gwen Stacy decide how she’s going to live with a superhero as a boyfriend.

In all seriousness, this relationship is the best part of the movie. Gwen is her own person, makes her own decisions about Peter, even chases him a bit because she’s so intrigued by him and his decency– and he respects her enough to tell her the truth from the very start.

Awesome.

The Amazing Spiderman was not a film that needed to be made. However, it was made and it was made well. It doesn’t offer much in the way of new beyond sundering a few superhero tropes, but it’s still pleasant to watch. What’s more, it’s nifty to see how much love the makers of this film had for the Spiderman mythos.

The Amazing Spiderman doesn’t pack much of a punch, but it delivers solid entertainment. Also, stay through the credits.

Content warnings: some violence, some harsh language, some tense moments

Writing: 4          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

Spiderman, Spiderman,
wants you to share this where you can,
on Facebook, and Twitter,
just make sure you spam your friends.
Look out, here comes the Spiderman.

Also, dare to compare my review with those on Rotten Tomatoes!

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The Help

If you are looking for a stunningly acted film that affects you in myriad ways and gets you thinking and cheering, but has a rather lackluster script, The Help is that movie. I adored this movie. Also, it only worked because the actors in it did a simply marvelous job.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released on August 10, 2011

Written by Tate Taylor with the novel by Kathryn Stockett

Directed by Tate Taylor

Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, and Allison Janney

*     *     *     *     *

I have to start this review by saying I love Allison Janney. She was such a delight in Mr. Sunshine, the very underappreciated Matthew Perry TV show. I am still sad that the show didn’t get more of a shot.

Also, Emma Stone. Need I say anything more?

Story

The Help follows a young woman named Skeeter (Stone) who arrives back in her hometown having graduated from college and being full of journalistic and novelistic hopes and dreams. She lands a job at the local paper continuing a popular cleaning advice column. The problem is that she has no idea how to clean, having grown up in a house where a black maid did pretty much all of the work.

So Skeeter decides to turn to the maid of her best friend. Her best friend’s name is Hilly, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and Hilly is not very nice. She is one of the many who sees the black ‘help’ as less than human and entitled to nothing. Hilly’s maid is named Aibileen and is played by Viola Davis. Aibileen is, in fact, the narrator of this story.

Aibileen is happy to help Skeeter with the column, but before long, the project gains a new focus. Skeeter decides she wants to write a book from the perspective of the heretofore invisible ‘help’ wherein their story is told and people learn what it means to be a black person in the culture of the day.

Aibileen is not on board with this new project. She knows that if she starts speaking out, she and her loved ones will be targeted, beat up, and possibly killed.

Obviously, things happen that make the new project take off. But the point is that this movie tells a very heartfelt story that we are all familiar with, but puts such a lovely face on that story and is so beautifully told by the actors that it moves you and keeps you glued to the faces of these fine people.

Critique

The first major problem with The Help is that once again, whitey helped the black people overcome. The film glosses over some pretty profound issues, but does throw a few good punches.

Now for acting. Emma Stone radiates intelligence, naivete, pureness of intent, and compassion. She is just perfect in her part.

Viola Davis is the solid, emotional rock of this film and she draws the viewer into Aibileen’s soul. She deserves an Oscar today.

Octavia Spencer plays Minny, Aibileen’s best friend. She gets some of the funniest and triumphant moments, but she isn’t a comical character– she is a person with a personality, family, fear, courage, and a great deal of soul. You love her and want the best for her. Octavia Spencer deserves an Oscar today too.

Jessica Chastain. Gosh. Her character is a cliche written upon a convenient trope. But Chastain knocks trope and cliche out and fills the screen with her presence and power. I loved Celia and felt like her character was motivated wonderfully– despite the failings of the story itself.

Bryce Dallas Howard played Hilly, the chief antagonist. She nailed it. She understood Hilly– her fear, spine, inadequacies, anger at the world– so well. I think Bryce has a continued great future.

Allison Janney oh how I love you. You are lovely and smart and you took the character of Skeeter’s mom past the easy stasis that she obviously embodied in the script and filled her out into a real human being.

But the writing? The movie is full of cliche. Full of trope. Full of convenience. Full of total predictability. However, it is satisfying, complete and very compelling. All because of these actors. They deserve every kudo we can give them. And it’s a story by a woman, about women, and filled with women. Men don’t bail anybody out. I appreciate that.

This is an unusual review, but The Help is an unusual film. Such a simplistic and potentially bad script, but the acting. Oh the acting. These ladies put on a clinic.

Highly recommended.

Content warnings: Only a little harsh language.

Writing: 3          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Easy A

Easy A, released in 2010 and starring Emma Stone, gets a not-so-easy B+ in my grade book. It’s kind of like a persuasive essay that is well researched, well-written and overall very smartly done, but has a paragraph that presents the other side rather lamely.

That lame paragraph dings the grade down and stands out pretty harshly because the rest of the essay is just so darned good.

But before we get too deeply into this film, here are the deets:

Easy A (2010)

Written by Bert Royal

Directed by Will Gluck

Starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, Malcolm McDowell, and Lisa Kudrow.

*     *     *     *     *

That’s quite a list, isn’t it? And the biggest names are support cast! You can guess that the script is just so good that these folks were probably pretty excited about being in the film. And it’s true– the script is marvelous. From the outset, you need to know that Stanley Tucci steals every scene he is in, and his scenes with Patricia Clarkson, they play Stone’s parents, are gems of dialogue and chemistry.

Emma Stone plays Olive, with Tucci playing Dill, her father, and Clarkson playing Rosemary, her mother. Yes, I got the food thing too. Random?

Olive is pretty much a forgettable high school student who clearly gets along with her excellent family better than anyone else, and so she speaks like an adult. She has never been in trouble, is smarter than most people around her (this is very common of course, given the need to make female protagonists by turns snarky, wise, wry and all around dispensers of wisdom) and is quite lovely. She describes herself thusly: if she were a ten story building and high school boys were Google Earth, they wouldn’t be able to find her.

Olive’s best friend, Rhi (Aly Michalka), is a vivacious and fairly pushy girl who is also apparently quite popular. Interesting dynamic there. Rhi has hippy parents that make Olive uncomfortable, so when Rhi invites Olive along on a family camping trip, Olive declines, saying she has a date with a community college student. This is a fabrication- the first of many.

After the weekend, Rhi becomes convinced that Olive and her fantasy boy had sex, and Olive finally gives in and decides to elaborate on the tale that Rhi is spinning in her own head. The high school’s Sanctimonious Sue, a character called Marianne and played as well as possible by Amanda Bynes, overhears the disclosure/lie, tells Olive she will pay in the eternities, and apparently goes to blab the whole thing to her friends. Rhi probably does the same.

Long story short, the lie gets out fast, and Olive is quickly branded a slut. (Little issue: Really? Would this happen in most high schools where many kids are pretty openly promiscuous?) Olive is briefly bothered by the falsehood being believed, but also starts enjoying the notoriety and attention. She ends up in detention for a moment of open anger in which she uses pretty grody language. During her detention, we meet Brandon (Dan Byrd), a gay boy who is being bullied. He convinces Olive to pretend that he and her hooked up, and from there, Olive becomes the go-to girl for increasing the cred of the school’s outcasts by saying she hooked up with them. Worse, she starts getting paid to push these lies.

This, of course, spins out of control. And in the meantime, Olive, deciding to just roll with it, embraces the idea of wearing a Scarlet Letter, as her English class is reading the Hawthorne book. So she starts wearing horrible and ‘slutty’ outfits (heads up: Emma Stone is a lovely young lady but those clothes look awful on her) and sews a large red A onto the tops of each outfit she wears.

Her family is concerned. Her English teacher gets concerned, thinking she is taking her interest in the book too far. But back to the family. I have to say that I thought the family dynamics were well done. Olive is the oldest; she has a single, adopted brother who happens to be black. The obviousness of his adopted state makes for some excellent dialogue, by the way. So her parents are concerned and they express it. They give Olive time to open up, but let her have her space and make her own decisions, as long as she doesn’t take it too far.

The scene with Olive and her mom on the car should be studied by parents wishing to connect with their teen child. Thank you, Bert Royal, for making real parents who are real people and who are not Juno’s ridiculously stupid and permissive parental units.

Add to all of that mix the sanctimonious and very in-your-face trying-to-save-your-soul and earnest ‘Christian’ girl, Marianne (Bynes). She has a group of other ‘Christian’ kids who, as the story rolls on, get increasingly incensed that Olive the slut is in their midst and they end up trying to get her expelled from school.

Now to review.

The dialogue could carry the film on its own. It’s snappy, smart and real. It has rhythm and soul, like good rock and roll. Olive is a great kid with a sweet heart and she is proactive and gets herself in too deep and we just love her. Stone really nails this performance. She could also carry the film on her own.

The pacing cooks right along, with no 2nd act lag. We have a love interest played by Penn Badgley, who doesn’t do a terrible job, and a world that seems very familiar to people who have been in public high school. (Even for only 1 year. And in a tiny school.)

All in all, the movie is good because it is mostly true.

Now, the story is supposed to be a modern twist on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is all well and good, but remember that Hawthorne’s book takes place in a completely religious and puritanical society. It is even theocratic, essentially.

That type of setting cannot be recreated in a realistic and truthful way, apparently, so it appeared that the film decided to abandon the completely religion-permeated society of Hawthorne’s book. And all rang true, except for the artificial antagonist the filmmakers propped up with Amanda Bynes’ character as a born-again, proselyting Christian girl who takes exception to Olive’s purported sluttiness. If the filmmakers were trying to stay true to the book by Hawthorne and make sure there was some religious ostracism, they wasted their time. As I said, Hawthorne’s book comes from a different time and a different society, both real. The Christianity here is not accurate, neither for its time nor for its behavior.

This character and storyline rang artificial and actually like a low blow at students who DO live their religion and try to help others. Seriously folks, have you ever seen a real high-school student do what Marianne does, with her in-your-face damning of people? And have you heard of students protesting the presence of a promiscuous student at their school?

I don’t know why the filmmakers added this artificial storyline and character, and I won’t speculate. But it bothered me, and I am probably a little sensitive to this kind of low-blow.

Content warnings: There is no nudity, although there is plenty of revealing clothing, or non-clothing as it were. Language precisely maximizes its PG-13 rating. And as the movie is essentially about sex, either fabricated or real, it is constantly discussed, as are STDs. Teen drinking is depicted as well, as is a scene wherein a couple make noises as if they were having sex, but they are not.

Pens (writing): 4 (5 without the Christian bashing)

Cameras (acting): 5

Screens (the entire experience): 4.5

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