Bears

Through the powerful lens of a camera, ‘Bears’ is another example of Disneynature’s superb educational filmmaking.  This adventure of a grizzly bear mother, trying to raise her two cubs, offers a cinematography feat approaching the level of last year’s Oscar-winning ‘Gravity’ masterpiece.  Wedged between the dangers facing this trio of grizzlies in The Last Frontier and their desperate need for salmon to survive, is a riveting wildlife story.  Whatever lack of suspense and somewhat bland narration exists, is made up for by the film’s amazing camera shots and behind the scenes look into the grizzly lifestyle.  That, alone, is worth the price of admission to see ‘Bears’.

Grade: B

'Bears' is Rated G for all audiences. Running time is 1 hour and 17 minutes.

Draft Day

The comparisons between this newly released ‘Draft Day’ film and the successful 1996 Tom Cruise football comedy-drama ‘Jerry Maguire’ is both compelling and natural.  Both films take viewers behind-the-scenes to accurately portray life in the National Football League; ‘Jerry Maguire’ from the cold-hearted sports agent perspective and now ‘Draft Day,’ depicting NFL war rooms evaluating talent prior to selection time.  In ‘Draft Day’, Kevin Costner plays Browns’ General Manager Sonny Weaver, who must make the most of his team’s draft selections to secure his job and attempt to bring NFL respectability back to Cleveland.

For ‘Draft Day’, the movie’s offense is centered very effectively on the personalities of the young athletes and the background into what makes each player’s stock either rise or plummet in the draft order--sometimes even within minutes.  Costner adequately manages to bring authenticity to his GM Weaver’s gig, highlighted by his attempts to appease the football faithful in arguably the league’s most win-deprived location; the Cleveland owner (played brilliantly by Frank Langella), the hardcore Browns’ fan base, Weaver’s family, and even Costner’s girlfriend (portrayed by Jennifer Garner) all desperately crave a return to winning.

Draft Day’, like John Madden using his Telestrator on Sunday afternoons, successfully illustrates the challenges every NFL team must deal with on their most important non-game, day of the year.  That was achieved with the massive support from the NFL and numerous cameo appearances by football insiders; both of which teamed up to bring authenticity and credibility to this story’s playbook.

The fumbles in ‘Draft Day’ include its penchant to bring romance into a full-fledged, dominating football story.  ‘Jerry Maguire’ used the NFL only to provide downfield blocking for Tom Cruise’s sports agent, allowing him to tackle romance.  However, Costner’s romance in ‘Draft Day’ doesn’t get past the line of scrimmage in importance, or need.  In fact, Sonny Weaver’s fondness for Garner’s salary cap character, Ali, is a distraction throughout the film and completely unnecessary.  Garner more than holds her own in the movie and within the confining office spaces of the Browns’ facility.  Another miscue in this film is the poor casting of Denis Leary as the hapless Cleveland head coach.  Leary is unconvincing and all his labored mannerisms skirt the sideline towards over-acting and ineptness.

Despite a few dropped passes, ‘Draft Day’ is a very watchable and entertaining sports movie.  The extensive strides the film takes to gain NFL buy-in and support is superb and will please almost all diehard Sunday football fans.  The NFL’s vast assistance combined with the numerous cameo appearances from football insiders brought believability to the movie, while at the same time, a feeling that you’re actually evaluating on-field talent.  That look and feel of being inside an NFL team headquarters transforms this film into a potential late first-round pick.  Unfortunately, a love story is forced upon viewers and into the ‘Draft Day’ coverage, causing a turnover just as the Cleveland Browns are attempting to score on future football plans.  This ill-advised relationship between Costner and Garner drops this film into a mid-to-late second round selection at best.  Although no ‘Jerry Maguire’, this movie does get into the end zone enough to keep viewers excited about the upcoming season.

Grade: B-

Draft Day’ is Rated PG-13.  Running time is 1 hour, 50 minutes 

Captain America- TWS

Superhero and MARVEL return to top form

This ninth installment of the MARVEL collection delivers an action-packed, suspense-filled thriller that rivals Stark Industries' big-screen success in the original 'Iron Man' from 2008.

The film's accomplishments result from its combination of staying true to the faith of comic book readers using a diverse cast of characters, as well as, bringing in casual, first-time Avenger audiences with solid acting and twisting plot-lines. Great care was taken to keep the focus of the film on Captain America and those closest to him. This approach really sold the story. Viewers will appreciate the telling of the superhero's tale on a personal level--which created a new, edgy and exciting MARVEL comic book film adventure.

What makes 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' the best action adventure so far in 2014 are its characters and delivery. The budding relationships in Captain America's personal and professional life get more pronounced with each snappy laugh line and effective espionage operation. At the same time, the evil doers wanting to destroy our freedoms and replace it with a security first doctrine appear to be genuinely bad souls; and the stakes are raised even higher when an epidemic of these decadents appear inside S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Pleasantly absent from this blockbuster is the heavy-handedness and over reliance on computer generated imagery (CGI) that directors often employ to hide weak scripts.

Although the Good vs. Evil playbook is used in almost every suspense thriller, it becomes more potent in this film after Captain America--and us viewers--are advised not to trust anyone. Thus, the face of evil becomes ambiguous, confusing, but also much more enjoyable and thrilling. Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, must move forward cautiously, suspicious of all while trusting only a few.

Chief amongst those to keep one eye on is the always loud and animated Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson returns as the spy chief Nick Fury and arguably gives his best performance to-date in the MARVEL series; that is evidenced by Jackson's ability to generate gasps, laughs and racing pulse rates during a surreal vehicle escape scene inside the Washington D.C. Beltway. MARVEL veterans Chris Evans (Captain America) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff) also return. Robert Redford, on the other hand, makes his comic book series film debut as a well-informed senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official.

Watch out 'Iron Man' Tony Stark, the MARVEL comic book film collection has a refreshing, new look and feel to it! After several stale, or at best, struggling, efforts by The Avengers batch in recent years, this series returns to its old form. For the first time since the Stark Industries' leader emerged from his Afghan cave in 2008, audiences can enjoy a suspenseful plot with many twists, turns and laughter. The strong bond and easy banter between Tony Stark and his then-personal secretary Pepper Potts, shares a likeness to the current rapport Captain America has with his partner in Winter Soldier. This latest MARVEL movie installment runs at a brisk enough pace to introduce superhero, Falcon, to viewers while "passing on the left". To see where MARVEL, and perhaps Falcon, may go in the future, be sure to stay until the final credits roll.

Grade: A

Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is Rated PG-13, Running time is 2 hours, 16 minutes.

Art documentary reflects brilliance behind the brush

American illusionists and entertainers Penn & Teller bring us this fascinating and thoughtful story on how, perhaps, 17th Century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, was able to produce paintings with a nearly photographic quality.  The mystery surrounding Vermeer’s lucid oil paintings has spawned theories for over 350 years, including a 2001 book from British artist David Hockney entitled “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”.  Hockney believed that Vermeer’s uniquely rich Renaissance period art was the result of optics, or a “camera obscura”.  His premise was that Vermeer must have developed a technique using a lens to compliment his artistic talent--even before the camera had been invented.

To prove, or disprove, Hockney’s theory, American inventor Tim Jenison embarks on this documentary film journey starting six years ago.  ‘Tim’s Vermeer‘ reflects a startling and educational look at not only those years since 2008, but also shines as an art history lesson all the way back to Vermeer’s painting days in 1665 Holland.  Tim’s trial and error using his expertise in the visual effects profession, while trying to replicate Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” painting, leaves us with the deep sense of Jenison’s ingenuity, dedication and sharp wit.

Tim's Vermeer

‘Tim’s Vermeer’ offers a splendid, jaw-dropping look into art paintings through forensic clues; but it doesn’t stop there.  The film also incorporates some of the finest in Americanism, symbolized by our culture’s innovative spirit.  Tim Jenison’s continual tinkering with gadgets and light while refusing to quit until he solved the mystery of Vermeer’s work is richly entertaining.  This movie may be mostly about art and science, but it also pays tribute to the history, math and technology disciplines.

I grade movies on my overall experience and reaction to a film.  Those stories that educate me, intrigue my mind, spark the imagination, or make me want to immediately talk about the film leaving the theater--always earn my highest marks.   ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ meets all of those traits and many more.  It may have been a Dutch who inspired art through the help of a lens; but it was an American who broke the code on the 350 year-old mystery of how Vermeer did it.  This spectacular documentary will leave you better off for seeing it and more appreciative of the genius behind the art--and the technology.

Grade: A

'Tim's Vermeer' is Rated PG-13, Running time is 1 hour, 20 minutes

Son of God

The ‘Son of God’ movie is difficult to describe because it offers something different to each individual.  It cannot be measured by laughs from the audience, a well-developed surprise ending, or even by the culmination of a relationship between two leading cast members...no, ‘Son of God’ is a much more personal film and will resonate differently and specifically with each viewer.  Moviegoers will get out of ‘Son of God’ what they put into it--audience members can make it as introspective as they’re willing to endure.

It’s been ten years since Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ prominently displayed Christianity on the big-screen, providing audiences with a very graphic and rated R version of the journey by Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem.  ‘Son of God’ now rises with only a PG-13 rating and brings less violence and harshness than Gibson’s 2004 film.  This should allow ‘Son of God’ and its message to reach more, younger people--and that’s welcome news for a movie that preaches forgiveness and tolerance.

‘Son of God’ portrays the life of Jesus from birth all the way until his Resurrection.  The movie highlights the many miracles along his path from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, where he gathers more followers at each stop.  The pace of the film needed to be brisk in the interests of time, but that quickness didn’t allow more than just a snippet into many Biblical scenes.  Unfortunately, the picture’s limited depth fell well short of its vast breadth.  This forced several characters’ backstories to be barely touched upon and will leave viewers needing to appreciate them at another time.

Many viewers will focus on the film for how it depicts the son of Mary, the resistance He faced, and the state of Jerusalem in the hands of the occupying Romans; all interesting and deserving of acclaim and screen time.  However, the true blessing of ‘Son of God’ is in how the message of forgiveness towards one’s sins and providing another with a second chance, comes off the screen and into the viewer.  What we decide to do with that message is up to each of us, individually.  It’s this individual journey that makes ‘Son of God’ as much about Jesus’ life and how he lived, as it is about us and how we decide to live our lives.

Grade: B+

'Son of God' is Rated PG-13, Running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes

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It was ancient Chinese general and military strategist, Sun Tzu, who believed back in 500 B.C. that; “All warfare is based on deception.”  It’s this philosophy and other timeless gems found in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” that have made his battlefield tactics and techniques marveled by military planners and tacticians ever since.  In ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, the true Battle of Artemisium takes place on the sea in 480 B.C., pitting the invading Persian navy led by Artemisia (played masterfully by Eva Green) against the overmatched, smaller Greek forces led by General Themistocles.

The movie navigates viewers through a series of brilliant chess moves by strategic thinker Themistocles that allows his minuscule navy to level the battlefield, increase their odds of success and take the fight to Persians. With the proper preparation and planning, those dire odds faced by Themistocles and his Greek city-states were overcome using a core Sun Tzu belief: “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak”.

‘300: Rise of an Empire’ provides all the blood, guts and fly swatting sword action as it’s earlier offspring--the 2006 ‘300’ movie starring Gerard Butler.  Historically, this latest battle at sea runs simultaneously to the Butler’s last stand as King Leonidas of Sparta in the ‘300’ film.  Relative newcomer to the big-screen, Sullivan Stapleton, adequately portrays Themistocles despite a limited script to work with and shallow character development.  However, it’s former Bond girl Green (‘Casino Royale’) who really shines through her thick, black eye mascara to lead this film and her naval forces.  Green’s villainess is quick with the blade and even quicker with her alluring seduction of rival Themistocles.  Green’s stellar performance as Artemisia dulled the film’s entire remaining cast, including HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ meanie Lena Headey, who is back as Spartan Queen Gorgo.

This film is a chess game on strategy and tactical moves on the high seas.  It’s not about how many pawns, knights or even the bishops one side has over the other.  No, those are mere numbers and battle is never just about the numbers.  Warfare always comes down to the employment of strategy and tactics.  A part of that, as Sun Tzu has taught us, includes equipment, training, terrain...and deception. ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ is about which side adjusts better to the circumstances presented on the battlefield.  Stapleton’s General Themistocles deftly handles Artemisia’s naval opposition forces. However, Themistocles had significantly more trouble fending off Eva Green’s navel advances--and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” never mentions that.

Grade: B-

'300: Rise of an Empire' is Rated R, Running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

Noah

‘Noah‘ will be a blockbuster movie due to it’s prerelease hype and controversy.  Christian organizations will continue to point out discrepancies in the movie between the Bible’s version of ‘Noah’ and Aronofsky’s.  Regardless of the religious interpretations, the motive behind the film, or any creative liberties the director may have taken with the Biblical story, I found ‘Noah’ a dismal film with very few redeeming qualities.  The film’s lack of suspense, combined with its sluggish pace, focussed the movie’s attention solely on Noah, himself; and in a Good vs. Evil plot, the ark leader shifted his alliance between these two paradigms like his boat yawing against the flood waves.  It’s this paradox on humankind that shows an alarming, delusional Noah.  Unfortunately, a controversial Noah character does not translate into an interesting ‘Noah’ movie.

Grade: C-

‘Noah’ is Rated PG-13, Running time is 2 hours, 19 minutes.

Single Moms' Club

This story of five single mothers struggling to balance work, parenthood and new relationships had the potential to be a very good movie.  Unfortunately, rather than focus on each of these single parents’ courage, determination and strength the film instead chose to play it safe with easy laughs, below average subplots, and stereotypical, old fashion male-bashing.  The end result is a painful display of five very shallow, weak and needy women that despite their new circle of trust clique still can’t treat others with empathy and respect.

The biggest letdown (of many) in the movie is the poor acting performances by the entire ensemble minus perhaps two characters; Nia Long’s single mom character, May, and her budding boyfriend T.K. (played by Tyler Perry) were the film’s only bright stars.  Aside from the sub-par acting that didn’t convince anyone that these mothers could raise money--let alone their children--the movie’s constant barrage of insults directed towards others at their expense comes across as desperation for a cheap laugh.

Once the last drop of wine disappears, so does the sisterhood of goodness between the single mothers.   The venom and tactics they’ve become so accustomed to striking out at their ex-husbands, coworkers, and legal system with even gets directed towards themselves.  Together, in total, all of these women make themselves look horrible.  One child preferred the counsel of the housekeeper to her actual mother while another offspring thought her parent loved her job more than being a mother.

The Single Moms’ Club’ had the potential to give viewers a positive outlet highlighting five hardworking women keen at surviving at home and in the workplace.  That uplifting opportunity was missed with stereotypical male-bashing that overplayed its hand on absent, uninvolved fathers; instead of giving us successful, single moms with children who are inspired by them, we are left with single mothers who are absent and uninvolved—the same pitfalls that they placed on their male counterparts.

It’s the real single mothers out there today that have successfully inspired others with their courage, determination, independence and fortitude to raise a child in a happy, healthy home.  ‘The Single Moms’ Club’ ran away from an uplifting storyline to give us a sour look into the lives of shallow, weak and mean-spirited parents.  That leaves the real wonder-Moms out there feeling left out, and, perhaps feeling unnoticed…and that’s the most disturbing aspect of this film.

Grade: D

'The Single Moms' Club' is Rated PG-13, Running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.

Alright, alright.  Please no more emails asking for a 'RoboCop' trailer.  It's not hard for me to have 'Robo-phobia' when we can't get a government healthcare website properly working.  Just saying.  But I digress.

It hits theaters next week...

Keepin' it REEL BRIEF