justin perich neighborsNeighbors – As both a writer and director, Nicholas Stoller has proved himself capable of delivering highly enjoyable comedies which gently subvert expectations and tropes. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segal’s Peter Bretter failed to win the Hawaiian girl back with the speech and had to return back to the mainland and get his life together before she’d consider taking him back. In The Five Year Engagement, the story begins where most movies end, the man proposing to the woman, and we get to see what happens when the butterflies fade and reality settles in. Neighbors has a similarly subtle uniqueness in its comedic approach to married life and generational struggles. The story finds Mac and Kelly Radner (played with heart and charm by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) living next door to a frat house in a college town, run by Teddy and Pete (Zac Efron and Dave Franco, respectively). What begins as a mutual respect between two “families” turns into all out war between the old and the young, the so-called mature and immature. This is a movie largely made by and for men, but writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien are to be commended for creating a major female character who is just as fun and complex as her male counterpart. Gone is the tired dumb dad and nagging wife routine–here Rogen and Byrne split the laughs and hijinks equally. While not as groundbreaking as the success of Bridesmaids a few years ago, the fact that male artists in showbiz are getting the hint and rising to the modest challenge of the Bechdel test is a good sign for the future of Hollywood. And on a basic level, Neighbors is just plain funny. 4/5 stars.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

justin perich hobbitThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – The best thing that can be said about Peter Jackson’s second stab at Bilbo’s tale, and fifth stab at Middle Earth, is that it has more in common with what The Lord of the Rings did right than it has in common with what An Unexpected Journey did wrong. Pretty much everyone agrees that the first Hobbit movie was too long, too bloated, and too slow–we watched with dropped jaws as the dwarves washed dishes for fifteen minutes–and this second installment at least does not seem to suffer as much from Peter Jackson’s overly abundant love for his source material. This film charges forward from the very start with all the drive and purpose it’s predecessor lacked, and it finds almost enough pure popcorny, blockbustery charm, wonder, and suspense to justify its near three-hour length. In the film, Bilbo (played by the always impeccable Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen obviously, what hobbit hole have you been living under if you don’t know that?), and thirteen dwarves make their way into the Kingdom of Erebor, past Orcs and Giant Spiders to eventually battle the terrifically CGI-ed Smaug (Freeman’s Sherlock co-star and notable sea otter Benedict Cumberbatch), and there’s plenty of subplots involving Elves, Wizards, and bear-men. As always, Jackson proves capable at creating more and more worlds within Middle Earth, each more aesthetically pleasing and/or terrifying than the last. But when it comes right down to it, he’s still taking nine hours to tell a story J.R.R. Tolkien told in less than 300 pages. It’s still butter scraped over too much bread. In order to pad the material, Jackson makes every event important, and if everything’s important then nothing’s important. And he still hasn’t got a handle on his biggest flaw as a filmmaker and story teller–too much action divorced from character. 3/5 stars.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

justin perich catching fireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire – The second installment of the bestselling Suzanne Collins series was made with almost twice the budget, and for once a sequel has twice as much to recommend it. For starters, there’s the new director Francis Lawrence, a vast improvement over the talented but somewhat ill-fitting Gary Ross, who helmed the first of the franchise. Not that the original was bad, no not at all, but every book in the series was practically written for a film adaptation, and The Hunger Games (2012) only succeeded in that it didn’t mess up a good thing. On the other hand, Catching Fire takes its source material, honors it, but actually improves upon it, finding subtle levels of human condition and cultural relevance that just aren’t there in the written word. This is in part thanks to the widely accomplished screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 HoursThe Full Monty) and Michael Arndt (Oblivion, Brave, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), and partly thanks to the special effects team, but mostly due to the movie’s star, Jennifer Lawrence. In her second time embodying Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence expands out into the role and recreates the character in even more detail, even more honesty, and even more strength. The rest of the film’s elements amount to very effectively collected and very carefully placed tinder, but her performance is the flame that keeps the film alight the full 140 minutes. 5/5 stars.

Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips

Justin Perich Captain PhillipsCaptain Phillips – It’s always a pleasant surprise to see an actor who’s been an A-lister for 25 years hit notes you didn’t know they had, and Tom Hanks hits a whole slew of them in Paul Greengrass’s latest true-life piracy thriller. While the accent is reminiscent of his turn as Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can, Hanks brings to life the character of Captain Richard Phillips with stunning power, depth, and authenticity that helped keep me on the edge of my seat the whole 134 minutes. The other knockout performance in this piece that won’t get nearly enough hype is Barkhad Abdi’s portrayal of the pirate leader Abduwali Muse. It’s his screen debut, and he’s managed to create one of the most captivating villains I’ve seen on film. I also give top marks to the writing, directing, and cinematography–rarely does a Hollywood blockbuster make me care so much about the characters, and and unfold their story with so much detail and nuance. Unlike Gravity, I missed the IMAX experience so I can’t say whether or not the extra ten bucks is worth it, but I can say with certainly that Captain Phillips will blow you away on the average big screen. 5/5 stars.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity

Justin-Perich-GravityGravity – An unapologetic nonstop thrill ride, Alfonso Cuaron’s latest may be short on story and character development but it’s one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts servicing the Hubble Space Telescope when their shuttle is damaged by debris from a Russian missile strike on a satellite. What follows is an intense survival thriller combined with a powerful meditation on love, loss, and what it means to be human. While Clooney is charming as always (even if his signature head bob is obscured by his space helmet), it’s Bullocks show and she nails the fraught performance from start to finish. With Cuaron’s longshots, switching effortlessly between objective and subjective perspective, and excellent zero gravity effects, this simply put is what 3D Imax is made for, (and this is coming from a guy who’s never enjoyed any 3D film experience before other than Avatar). 4/5 stars

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Justin PerichBlue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s latest re-imagines Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire in modern day San Franscisco beautifully, but without any of the complexity and danger of the original plot and characters, instead choosing to meander generically and repetitively in the well worn territories of infidelity and corporate greed. While the performances are stellar (especially Cate Blanchett as Jasmine/Blanche, Alec Baldwin as Hal/Stanley, and Sally Hawkins as Ginger/Stella), the plot jumps abrasively back and forth between the present and past without a lick of clarity, reason, or effectiveness, and by the end, we’ve found that any interest we ever had in any of the characters was lost in the shuffle. 2/5 stars.