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Hidden Netflix Gems – Project X

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The 1987 film Project X (not to be confused with this year’s raunchy, over-the-top party comedy of the same name) is a strange but charming little oddity of a movie. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, who is known for socially conscious films such as The Accused and Brokedown Palace, as well as more conventional genre fare such as Unlawful Entry and Bad Girls, Project X is a blend of these two types of filmmaking. It is a comedic science fiction movie that ultimately becomes a sort of political thriller, taking a stance against cruelty to animals in the name of science. It is also a movie for the Homer Simpson in all of us, because who doesn’t enjoy watching chimpanzees behave like human beings?

Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick) is an Air Force pilot assigned to an experimental project as punishment for illegally bringing a date into the cockpit of a government plane. It turns out that the project involves using chimpanzees in simulated flight scenarios, and that one of the chimps, Virgil (Willie), knows sign language, which he was taught by his beloved trainer, Teri (Helen Hunt). Jimmy is impressed by Virgil’s abilities, but his hard-ass superior, Dr. Carroll (Bill Sadler) doesn’t seem to care. As Jimmy eventually finds out to his horror, this is because the chimps in the experiment are being killed y radiation poisoning, in an effort to determine how long a pilot could survive a nuclear exchange known as the “second-strike scenario.” Jimmy manages to contact Teri, and they team up to try and save Virgil and the other chimps who haven’t been killed yet.

The coolest thing about Project X is how much the chimps themselves become the true stars of the movie. In fact, they are listed first on the film’s IMDb page, with Broderick in a distant 11th place. They each have distinct personalities, too, like a sort of simian wild bunch, with Virgil as the leader and hero, Goofy (Okko) as the comic relief, and Goliath (Karanja) as the grizzled old bad-ass, the type of role Mickey Rourke might play in a movie entirely cast with human actors. This successfully makes the audience root for Jimmy, Teri and their primate friends over the mean old military scientist baddies, and the film’s climax is a triumphant, feel-good adventure sequence made all the more joyful by the aforementioned Homer Simpson factor.

 

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Box Office Preview: Breaking Up with a Teddy Bear Roommate, Male Strippers, and Tyler Perry

Ted

This one isn’t going to win any most original premise of all time awards, but those who claim originality equals greatness are kidding themselves. After all, there have only been seven basic plots in storytelling over the history of all mankind. “Ted” falls fairly clearly into number five on that list, the comedy: “Hero and Heroine are destined to get together, but a dark force is preventing them from doing so; the story conspires to make the dark force repent, and suddenly the Hero and Heroine are free to get together. This is part of a cascade of effects that shows everyone for who they really are, and allows two or more other relationships to correctly form.”

When you think about it like that, it almost seems like you’ve seen this movie before. The dark force is a roommate who needs to grow up and move out, so the straight-faced main character, in this case Mark Wahlberg as John Bennett, and his lady love (played by Mila Kunis) can live happily ever after. Along the way the relationship with the roommate matures as well, and he grows to be mature and “straight-faced” in his own right. This is where “Ted” plays with the trope, as the roommate character is not in fact a person, but a stuffed teddy bear (I wonder how they thought of the title) magically brought to life.

But these days, when everything’s been done a thousand times over, originality is useless, especially when the chosen genre is comedy. People aren’t there for story, but to laugh, any dramatic twists and turns are an added bonus. When you think about it that way “Ted” actually offers more than your standard comedy fare.

It really doesn’t matter that we’ve heard this story before, that Ted sounds exactly like Peter Griffin, or that Seth McFarlane is voicing another talking animal (of sorts). What does matter is that in his debut in both film and live-action, Seth McFarlane has been able to make a funny movie that doesn’t rely (too much) on his trademark cutaway gags and pop culture riffs. Furthermore, he deftly handles the few dramatic sequences the film does employ, and manages to justify Mila Kunis’ character’s demands rather than making her seem like an uppity bitch doing a Yoko Ono impression.

“Ted” currently sits at a 69 percent on the Tomatometer. Although it may seem like a live-action version of “Family Guy” at times, it’s well worth the price of admission for fans of McFarlane’s or anyone looking to have a laugh.

Magic Mike

The official synopsis reads: “Set in the world of male strippers, Magic Mike is directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Channing Tatum in a story inspired by his real life. The film follows Mike (Tatum) as he takes a young dancer called The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and schools him in the fine arts of partying, picking up women, and making easy money.”

But director Steven Soderbergh’s newest production just might be better than you’d expect, even if you do have XY chromosomes. “Magic Mike” has been certified fresh and currently sits at a 79 percent on the Tomatometer. Film.com’s Eric D. Snider says it “does a better job of mixing Chippendales-style guilty pleasures with reality-based cautionary tales than you might expect.” But Bullz-eye’s David Medsker wrote, “There are lots of things to like about ‘Magic Mike,’ but a few key ingredients, mostly story-related, prevent the film from hitting its mark. You can almost see director Steven Soderbergh at odds with himself, torn between making a mainstream film or a gritty indie, and ultimately doing neither.”

A film starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, and a bunch of other are tanned and ripped young fellas loosely based on the former’s real life beginnings as a Chippendale’s “employee” who made it big. It’s hard to say whether or not this film’s for you. But what with all the dancing and the Tatum, I’d say this one’s probably going to skew female in all the ways “Boogie Nights” didn’t. And that’s more or less what “Magic Mike” is, “Boogie Nights” with male strippers.

Madea’s Witness Protection

I can’t even talk about this one. I really can’t. Tyler Perry, Madea, and something about a ponzi scheme. This movie isn’t for anyone. Even if you’re a huge (and I mean huge) fan of Tyler Perry, and I can’t imagine why you would be, “Madea’s Witness Protection” is currently sitting at a 29 percent on the Tomatometer. As Peter Howell of the Toronto Star put it: this is “less a movie than it is an exercise in product branding.”

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Box Office Recap: Pixar ‘Braves’ its way to the top yet again

Nearly every review of Pixar’s “Brave” has been quick to point out that while the film is decent, it does not uphold the impossibly high standards the studio has set for itself. Indeed, ‘Brave” is one of just three Pixar films to earn a score of less than 90 percent on the Tomatometer. The picture currently stands at 74 percent. “Cars” earned the same rating while its sequel garnered an abysmal 38 percent.

That said, “Brave” had no trouble in the money making department, grossing $66.7 million in its opening weekend. That makes it Pixar’s fifth-best debut and perhaps more importantly, the number one movie in America.

But unfortunately for Fox Studios and Focus Features, the weekend’s other new releases didn’t fare nearly as well. The former’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” came in third with $16.5 million, which in this blogger’s humble opinion is $16.5 million too much, while the latter’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” found itself at the end of the charts, coming in tenth place with just $3.8 million. The indie production’s numbers are especially disappointing given its two big name stars in Steve Carell and Keira Knightley and the fact that it just barely beat out Focus’s other current release, Wes Anderson’sMoonrise Kingdom,” despite playing in 1,230 more theaters.

In between the two and ten spots, things remained largely static. “Prometheus” and “Rock of Ages” slid from last week’s second and third spots into fourth and fifth, respectively. Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi grossed $10 million, while the troubled hair metal musical took in $8 million.

Among the weekend charts’ two fluctuations was the genre-mashing (or rather clashing) “Snow White and the Huntsman” hopping over “That’s my Boy,” which is in only its second week. “Snow White” slid back one spot into sixth place with $8 million, but inched past the Adam Sandler comedy by a mere $100,000. Likewise, “Men in Black 3,” which stands at ninth on the charts with $5.6 million, fell behind “The Avengers” for the first time since its release. The superhero flick came in the eighth after grossing $7 million.

Here are the results for this weekend’s top 10 at the box office:

Title/Weeks in release/Theater count, Studio/Three-day weekend total/Cume
1. Brave, 1/4,164, Buena Vista, $66.739 million.
2. Madagascar 3, 3/3,920, Paramount/Dreamworks, $20.2 million, $157.572 million.
3. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 1/3,108, $16.5 million.
4. Prometheus, 3/2,862, Fox, $10 million, $108.547 million.
5. Rock of Ages, 2/3,470, Warner Bros., $8 million, $28.763 million.
6. Snow White and the Huntsman, 4/2,919, Universal, $8 million, $137.1 million.
7. That’s My Boy, 5/3,030, Sony, $7.9 million, $28.18 million.
8. The Avengers, 8/2,230, Disney/Marvel Studios, $7.04 million, $598.3million.
9. Men in Black 3, 5/2,462, Sony, $5.6 million, $163.339 million.
10. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, 1/1,625, Focus, $3.836 million.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am notorious for my willingness to watch pretty much any movie, so it is always a joy to find one that wildly exceeds my expectations. This is often not a great movie, by any means, but one that flew under the critical radar for the most part, and provided some unexpected pleasure, a film that I can enjoy recommending to friends in the knowledge that they have probably not encountered it. Eli Craig’s debut feature Tucker and Dale vs Evil is one of those films, especially for horror fans. Though it is relatively slight and far from perfect, this is an enormously fun and clever riff on the slasher genre, a film that will undoubtedly be especially enjoyed by fans of the recent horror deconstruction masterpiece The Cabin in the Woods, or the mostly overlooked 2006 mockumentary, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (also available on Netflix).

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two well-meaning but poorly educated good ol’ boys who have recently purchased a rundown cabin in the woods as a vacation home. En route to their paradise of relaxation and fishing, they encounter a group of mostly obnoxious college kids who are creeped out by them based on Dale’s innocent but ungainly attempt to talk to the prettiest girl among them, Allison (Katrina Bowden). Chad (Jesse Moss) in particular shows extraordinary prejudice against the two well-meaning bumpkins, and it becomes clear that he is the character who would be the hero in a more conventional horror film. Instead, he is presented as a vicious, bloodthirsty maniac – the very type of person he believes Tucker and Dale to be.

After Chad attempts to put the moves on Allison at his family’s cabin, adjacent to Tucker and Dale’s, she leaves to take a walk by herself down by the lake, only to slip and fall in, hitting her head. Tucker and Dale, of course, save her from drowning, but are perceived by the other college students to be kidnapping her. This is just the beginning of a series of unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings that leads Chad and the others to think the two good-natured hillbillies are psycho killers. Though it ultimately takes a less interesting route (and I may be giving this bloody but relatively light comedy too much credit), at a certain point the film seems to be making the surprisingly intelligent case that, often, those obsessed with finding and destroying evil are, in fact, the truly evil ones. It undercuts this philosophical thesis with a lot of silliness and a somewhat problematic ending, but this movie is nonetheless a lot of fun, and a far better film than the title led me to believe.

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Box Office Preview: Blasphemy, Pre-apocalyptic Comedy, and Pixar

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I hate to use the same reference twice, but the situation calls for it. So, it has come to this. As if “The Raven” wasn’t enough, a film about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires is fully produced and coming to a theater near you. Before you ask, yes, it’s that Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, it’s not a coincidence that the titular character has the same name as the sixteenth president of these United States. This may lend credence to the popular theory that Douglas Adams is not actually dead, but has gone into seclusion with a magic typewriter which allows him to write the script of reality. Mr. Adams, if you’re out there, “Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

Those of you who remember the brilliant but short-lived Showtime comedy “Party Down” might think the idea for “Vampire Hunter” arose from a joke in the episode “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen.” Breckin Meyer wants to get Adam Scott back into acting by landing him the role of young Lincoln in a film in which Meyer’s character plays Edgar Allan Poe. The two steal an amulet from the Smithsonian, and, of course, fight vampires. As far as evidence, some Google searching shows claims that at one point, the Wikipedia page for the book on which the film is based said Seth Grahame-Smith did in fact get the idea from “Party Down.” It’s no longer there, and it’s Wikipedia, so who knows? Another question, “are we having fun yet?” No. No we are not.

I beg of you, do not see this movie, lest you lead us to such films as “George Washington: Werewolf,” “Anne Boelyn: Intergalactic Pilot,” and indeed, the end of the world. As if my pleas weren’t enough (I know how much you all love me), “AL: VH” currently sits at a 30 percent on the Tomatometer, and it’s gone down every time I’ve refreshed whilst writing this post.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Speaking of the end of the world, Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley star in a genre bending comedy about just that. What we have here is not just a pre-apocalypse film (don’t see too many of those), but a comedy(ish) to boot. The official synopsis tells us this: “Set in a too-near future, the movie explores what people will do when humanity’s last days are at hand. As the respective journeys of Dodge and Penny converge, the two spark to each other and their outlooks – if not the world’s – brighten.” Before the end of their lives, Penny wants to see her family one last time and Dodge wants to find the one that got away. Is anyone taking bets that he ends up with Penny instead?

So far reviews are mixed. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” has earned a rating of 58 on the Tomatometer. Based on the trailer, (perhaps too) much of the film’s humor derives from the idea that certain people, like cops and T.G.I. Fridays employees, would not change their lives in any way if they knew the end of days was at hand. But with it’s star-studded (sort of) cast, which includes Adam Brody, Gillian Jacobs, Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, and Martin Sheen alongside stars Carell and Knightley, perhaps that number will spike and “End of the World” will surprise us all. I doubt it, but all this apocalypse talk and the mere existence of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” has me in a foul mood.

Brave

Pixar has set some lofty standards for itself, so although “Brave” currently sits at a 79 on the Tomatometer, I don’t entertain any fantasies about it being the studio’s best work. In fact, it might not even be the studio’s best work in a fantasy setting with a redheaded female lead. I’m talking about Shrek people. Well the first two Shreks. Anyway, let’s turn to the synopsis:

Merida is a skilled archer and impetuous daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old custom sacred to the uproarious lords of the land: massive Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). Merida’s actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric old Witch (Julie Walters) for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it’s too late.

What I can surmise from the trailer is that the age old custom is marriage to the eldest son of one of those “uproarious lords,” and the ill-fated wish, ironically enough, is to “change her fate.” Come on now, Merida. Everyone knows you don’t say something that vague to a witch. That’s how we end up with things like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” OK, OK, I’m done.

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