Movie Review: “Need for Speed”

Starring
Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Dakota Johnson
Director
Scott Waugh

It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for another studio to exploit the success of the “Fast and Furious” franchise with a racing movie of its own, but considering that Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” video game series (from which the film gets its name) predates the adventures of Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Connor by several years, you can hardly blame DreamWorks for wanting a piece of the pie. Casting Aaron Paul, hot off his Emmy-winning role on “Breaking Bad,” as the leading man was a surefire way to drum up interest, but it was ultimately a wasted effort, because “Need for Speed” has so many other problems that finding the right actor should have been the least of Scott Waugh’s concerns.

Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a small-town mechanic who moonlights as an illegal street racer. When the debt starts piling up at the garage that he inherited from his late father, Tobey is handed a lifeline by former rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who hires Tobey and his crew to finish building a custom Shelby Mustang worth millions. But after Dino’s ego is bruised and he challenges Tobey to a race to prove his superiority, one of Tobey’s friends is killed in the process, landing him in prison while Dino gets away scot-free. Several years later, Tobey is released from jail and ready to exact his revenge, but in order to do so, he needs a car capable of competing in the top secret, invite-only race called the DeLeon, where he knows Dino will be. Teaming up with the gearhead daughter (Imogen Poots) of the man who purchased the Shelby, the pair embarks on a race against the clock to get from New York to San Francisco in time for the event, all while evading the various law enforcement authorities chasing them.

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Movie Review: “Bad Words”

Starring
Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall
Director
Jason Bateman

If the trailer for “Bad Words” reminds you a lot of the 2003 comedy “Bad Santa,” only set in the world of spelling bees instead of shopping mall Santa Clauses, you’re not alone. But while the comparisons are inevitable – and to a certain extent, completely warranted – “Bad Words” isn’t nearly as crude or edgy as the holiday cult classic. That’s not to say that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut doesn’t have a mean streak, because it relishes every opportunity it gets to be naughty, but the film also feels like it’s playing it safe at times so as to not completely alienate its protagonist. That results in a much less memorable movie, although one that’s still fairly entertaining thanks to Bateman’s involvement on both sides of the camera.

The actor stars as Guy Trilby, a middle-aged loser who discovers a loophole in the spelling bee bylaws permitting anyone who hasn’t graduated past the eighth grade to participate. After winning his regional tournament, Guy is begrudgingly invited to the prestigious Golden Quill national spelling bee, much to the dismay of its buttoned-up administrators (Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall), who feel that their sacred competition has been tainted. Sponsored by an ambitious journalist (Kathryn Hahn) who’s been promised the exclusive rights to tell his story and the reason why he’s risking infamy to win, Guy refuses to be bullied into quitting or distracted in any way. So when precocious 10-year-old contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) tries to befriend him, Guy swats him away like an annoying gnat, eventually giving in to the incredibly persistent loner when he learns that his father has left him (and his hotel minibar) alone for the weekend.

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Movie Review: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Starring
Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum
Director
Wes Anderson

At this point in Wes Anderson’s career, you either like his movies or you don’t, which is good news for fans of the eccentric director, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is very much a case of more of the same. You know what to expect when watching one of Anderson’s films, and his latest doesn’t disappoint, overflowing with colorful characters, zany plot twists and sublime production design. It’s also considerably darker than some of his past work, though Anderson’s trademark whimsy still bleeds through, resulting in a movie that, while hardly among his greatest achievements, proves yet again why he’s one of the best and most original directors around.

The movie is a bit like a Russian nesting doll in that it’s designed as a story within a story within a story, opening on a young girl reading a book about the titular hotel that was written by an unnamed author, portrayed at various ages by Tom Wilkinson in a brief 1985 flashback and Jude Law in 1968. It’s during the latter period that the author resided at the once-majestic Grand Budapest Hotel and learned of how its enigmatic owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), came into its possession. And this is where the story truly begins, as Moustafa then recounts his early days working as a lobby boy (played by Tony Revolori) at the hotel under the guidance of charismatic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a man whose expert hospitality extends to sexual favors for the old and wealthy female clientele. When one such guest (an aged-up Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves Gustave a priceless painting in exchange for years of companionship, the woman’s eldest son (Adrien Brody) frames him for her murder, forcing Gustave and Zero to go on the run until they can prove his innocence.

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Movie Review: “300: Rise of an Empire”

Starring
Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Rodrigo Santoro, Lena Headey, Jack O’Connell
Director
Noam Murro

There is only one woman who doesn’t end up raped or murdered. The ones who are spared rape – presumably, anyway; for all we know, they were raped before we witness their deaths – are nearly all slaughtered while topless. Far be it from me to sound like a feminist, but there are parts of “300: Rise of an Empire” that are disturbing on a number of levels. Zack Snyder, who opted not to direct the follow-up to his 2006 smash “300” but co-wrote the screenplay, will likely argue that these were dark days, and heinous crimes were committed, and we will not debate either point. However, when all of the naked victims are ‘D’ cups, it sends a mixed message, to say the least.

The story takes place at the same time as “300” (give or take a few days) and takes a boatload of exposition to explain, as Athenian warrior Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads a small but tough group of men to battle against the invading Persian army. Much like his brother in arms King Leonidas, Themistocles and his battalion stun the Persians, and Themistocles even manages to kill Persian King Darius, who arrogantly attended the attack thinking he was untouchable. Unfortunately for Greece, Darius’ death opens the door for Darius’ ruthless naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) to persuade heir to the throne Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to resist his father’s death-bed plea for peace and to instead bury Greece. Why is Artemisia so bent on Greece’s destruction? She is Greek herself, and is seeking revenge for the injustices done to her and her family by Greek forces when she was a girl.

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Movie Review: “Non-Stop”

Starring
Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, Anson Mount, Lupita Nyong’o
Director
Jaume Collet-Serra

Because of Liam Neeson’s presence, some have described “Non-Stop” as “’Taken on a Plane,” but a more apt description would be “Speed on a Red Eye,” as in the underrated 2005 Wes Craven thriller “Red Eye.” There is a ticking clock that (conveniently) resets several times, a villain hiding in plain sight, and post-9/11 paranoia by the truckload. The beats and twists may be familiar, but it’s well executed, and director Jaume Collet-Serra wisely resists the urge to go turbo, as it were, resulting in a film that is not the action-packed thriller that its trailers suggest, and all the better because of it.

Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is an air marshal boarding a plane leaving New York for London. A few hours into the flight, Bill receives a text on his secure server notifying him that a passenger on the plane intends to kill someone every 20 minutes until his demands are met (read: a wheelbarrow full of cash). Bill enlists flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) and seatmate Jen (Julianne Moore) to help him isolate potential suspects, but quickly has reasons to suspect that either of them might be in on the plot. While this is playing out on the plane, the media on the ground is running with the story that Bill is in fact the hijacker, and once the world hears of Bill’s flaws (divorced, temper issues, drinking problem), he not only loses the trust of the public and gives the news networks a sexy (if completely backwards) narrative, he also loses the trust of people on the plane, the pilots, and the co-workers on the ground assigned to assist him. Worse, he still doesn’t know who is taunting him or what their end game is.

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