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Movie Reviews 2011

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5 Stars= It's Simply the Best

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

30 Minutes or Less

Blowing shit up! ***

My funny bone was shattered last week after enduring the debacle of comedy that was “The Change-Up.” If I had to sit through another painfully humorless comedy for the second week in a row, I might have risked never being able to laugh again. Fortunately for my sake, “30 Minutes or Less” managed to deliver the goods in the laugh department. As far as dark comedies go, the film doesn’t quite exceed “Horrible Bosses” or “Pineapple Express.” But there are just enough funny moments and clever plot twists for me to give the film a pass.

After writing, producing, and staring in the lazy “Your Highness,” Danny McBride redeems himself with a role more suited to his talent. He plays Dwayne, a middle-aged slacker who spends all of his time blowing stuff up with his pal Travis, played by Nick Swardson. Dwayne can’t wait for his hardass father, played by Fred Ward, to kick the bucket so he can inherit his millions. While getting a lap dance at a strip club, Dwayne gets the idea to have his father killed. The unemployed Dwayne lacks the funds to hire a hitman though. 

Not wanting to get their own hands dirty, Dwayne and Travis hatch a plan to have somebody else steal the money for their hitman. The two airheads kidnap a pizza delivery boy named Nick, played by Jesse Eisenberg, and strap an explosive device to him. They tell Nick that he has the rest of the day to get them ten thousand dollars. If Nick can’t deliver, then he’ll be blown to smithereens.

Eisenberg is really quite good here as a hopeless young man that suddenly finds himself under extremely dire and unlikely circumstances. Any other actor would probably just go over-the-top and come off as obnoxious in this role. But Eisenberg is surprisingly convincing and creates a grounded character. With “Adventureland,” “Zombieland,” “Solitary Man,” and his Oscar-nominated work in “The Social Network,” some people might assume that Eisenberg is being typecast as a nerd. While all of his characters might be nerds to an extent, they all have different beats and never feel like the same person. Between all of his performances, Eisenberg demonstrates that he truly has great range as an actor and is reminiscent of a young Dustin Hoffman. 

The funniest performance in the film comes from Aziz Ansari, who has made a five-minute cameo in every other comedy to come out in the past five years. Here he is upgraded to the best friend role as Chet, who agrees to help out Nick with a bank robbery. Ansari steals the film’s best lines, adding his unique wide-eyed, high-pitch-voiced persona to the equation. He’s kind of like an Indian Eddie Murphy or a Chris Tucker that you don’t want to punch.

At times “30 Minutes or Less” is somewhat reminiscent of a Coen Brother’s movie with stupid people getting caught up in a stupid plan that goes horribly wrong. “30 Minutes or Less” is much more lowbrow than a Coen Brother’s outing though. While it’s fun, the film doesn’t have the timelessness of “The Big Lebowski,” “Raising Arizona,” or “Fargo.” As a late summer action comedy though, the film is directed with plenty of kinetic energy from Ruben Fleischer and doesn’t pile on too many uneven sentimental scenes. It’s not a film I need to see again or will necessarily remember a year from now. But it certainly healed my funny bone after a beating I thought it would never recover from.


Cancer and comedy go hand in hand ****1/2

Most comedies that attempt to tackle a subject as tragic as cancer often fall flat, unable to strike the right note. “50/50” is the rare movie that finds the perfect balance of dark comedy and tender charm in the midst of its main character’s horrible circumstances. While “50/50” is a very funny and sweet picture, it’s not one that overlooks the hardships that befall cancer victims. It’s a movie that sufficiently depicts people coping with cancer and, at the same time, makes its audience feel nothing short of grateful that they’re alive.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives one of his finest performances as Adam, a twenty-seven-year-old who runs regularly, never smokes, and doesn’t even drive out of fear of crashing. Despite being as cautious as any average human being can be, Adam still manages to get spinal cancer. After coming to terms with his condition, Adam is confronted with the daunting task of telling his friends and family the bad news. 

Seth Rogan is perfect as Kyle, Adam’s loyal best friend who tries to convince his buddy to use his illness to pickup chicks. While Kyle may appear to be in bad taste, he really does care about the wellbeing of Adam and provides the film with a much-needed down-to-earth edge. Anjelica Huston delivers a terrific supporting performance as Adam’s overbearing mother, who only becomes more controlling once she learns that her son is sick. Where this character could have just been another quirky parent, Huston shapes Adam’s Mother into believable human being. I think Huston’s character will remind many audiences of their own mothers who can be loving and controlling all at once. Both Kyle and Adam’s mother epitomize the kind of friends and family we could only hope to have when an illness takes us.

Then you have Anna Kendrick, who is impossible not to be completely smitten with as Adam’s lovely therapist, Katherine. Of course a romance sparks between the young doctor and her patient, which typically makes me roll my eyes. But “50/50” does a surprisingly good job at building Adam and Katherine’s relationship without ever feeling false or forced. This is not a movie that leads up to a scene of epic romance in which Adam and Katherine profess their love and kiss in the rain. Rather, the film feels subtle and genuine to the true nature of relationships.

The only character that maybe gets a little shortchanged is Bryce Dallas Howard as Rachael, Adam’s detached girlfriend. Although Rachael cares for Adam and attempts to stand by him, she is too weak to give her boyfriend the support he needs. It will be easy for most audiences to hate this character. But even Rachael holds some truth to the people who simply cannot deal with the fact that somebody they know has cancer. I’m just a tad disappointed that Bryce Dallas Howard always has to get saddled with unpleasant characters because she does have the potential to play likable, strong leading ladies. But I guess I shouldn’t hold that against Howard, who is a consistently good actress.

Holding the movie together at all times is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who continues to be one of our best and most underappreciated young performers. Gordon-Levitt is often humorous, such as when Adam walks through a hospital lobby while stoned, and equally gut-wrenching, like when Adam finally lets his anger out before a crucial operation. Director Jonathan Levine finds just the right tone and Will Reiser’s smart screenplay is one to be remembered. Together, these men have made an uplifting and intelligent film that will leave anybody with cancer, or who knows somebody with cancer, feeling more optimistic.

The Adventures of Tintin

Raiders of the lost ship ****1/2

I never read “The Adventures of Tintin” comic books, which were created by the late Belgian writer and artist Hergé. The animated series however, holds a special place in my heart as one of the finest nostalgic shows of the early nineties. Other than maybe Disney’s “Ducktales,” “The Adventures of Tintin” was probably the closest thing my generation got to an adventure serial. Now Director Steven Spielberg and Producer Peter Jackson, a collaboration we’ve all been waiting for, join forces to bring Tintin’s chronicles to the silver screen though motion capture effects. The end result is a hyper and dazzling voyage that earns comparison to, dare I say, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The film derives its story from three of Hergé’s comic books, all of which were also adapted for the animated series. In this version, the title character is played by Jamie Bell of “Billy Elliot.” Bell does a smashing job of incarnating the inquisitive audaciousness of young Tintin who finds himself in a heap of trouble after purchasing a model ship. The dastardly Ivanovich Sakharine, played by Daniel Craig, desires to steal Tintin’s ship, which may hold the secret to a lost treasure. Thompson and Thompson, two incompetent, identical police officers played by the duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, prove to be little help in solving the case. Thus, it’s up to Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy to get the story.

Tintin’s travels take him aboard a rustic ship where he meets the series’ most beloved character, Captain Haddock, played by Andy Serkis. After Gollum in “The Lord of The Rings,” King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 update, and most recently Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Serkis seems to have become the ideal performer to star in any motion capture movie. Here Serkis does some of his most inspired work as the disgruntled, drunken sea captain who can barely function without alcohol to fuel him.

People have always underestimated the dedication that can go into a voiceover and motion capture performance. With two great credits under his belt just this year, I wonder if Serkis could become the first actor to receive an Oscar nomination for such a performance. At the very least Serkis deserves some sort of honorable award for his incredible body of motion capture work.

Admittedly, I was somewhat skeptic about the decision to make the film a motion capture feature. When the project was first announced, I was looking forward to a traditional, live-action take on the story. Now that I’ve seen the movie in it’s entirety however, I stand corrected. “The Adventures of Tintin” is the most exhilarating motion capture animation since “The Polar Express.” Spielberg uses the technology to its full advantage, utilizing inventive camera angles and realistic settings to create over-the-top action sequences that never slow down. “The Adventures of Tintin” demonstrates that with the right material motion capture can be a terrific tool, unlike in the dud “Mars Needs Moms” where the technology was wasted.

It’s going to be impossible to view “The Adventures of Tintin” without being reminded of “Raiders of the Ark,” given the films numerous locations, variety of vehicles, and persistent thirst for adventure. Even Tintin himself holds a resemblance to a young Indian Jones from the short-lived television show. The question is whether or not “Tintin” is as spectacular as “Raiders.” Well I don’t think any film will ever quite be able to top “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the adventure department. Nevertheless, I would go as far to say that “The Adventures of Tintin” is every bit as fun as “Temple of Doom” and “The Last Crusade” and certainly a step up from “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” This is Spielberg tapping into his thrill-speaking younger self, who proves to still be a living presence within the director. In a year of brain-dead blockbusters like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” this is the action picture our youth deserves.

Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close is gonna work it! ***

“Albert Nobbs” is a movie that works solely due to the performances of two gifted actresses. There’s not a lot to admire regarding the film in terms of writing or craft. The film’s success all boils down to the performances from Glenn Close and Janet McTeer. It’s not at all surprising that both actresses have already received Oscar nominations for their powerful and convincing portrayals as women pretending to be men. 

Close plays the title character, a repressed woman who has been masquerading as a man for a majority of her life to maintain steady waiter jobs. To insure her true identity isn’t revealed, she never attempts to engage in romantic or friendly relationships. Her entire life revolves around remaining financially stable by saving every shilling she makes under the floorboard. One night Albert is forced to bunk with a painter named Hubert Page, played by McTeer, who discovers her secret. Albert fears that her life is over. In an ironic turn however, Mr. Page unbuttons his shirt to reveal he is actually a she as well.

There have been many movies about women dressing up as men to get by in the world, most notably the 1982 comedy “Victor Victoria” staring Julie Andrews. But few films have truly captured what it means to completely give up one’s sexual identity. This is a marvelous feat from Close, who never hits a false not as this tragic woman who is constantly on her toes and deeply reclusive. Equally exceptional is McTeer as the more outgoing Mr. Page, who manages to run a steady business and has even found a loving wife.

If “Albert Nobbs” focused only on the dynamic between Close and McTeer, this might have been a next to great movie. Unfortunately, the film is often bogged down by a subplot involving a maid named Helen, played by Mia Wasikowska, and her boyfriend Joe, played by Aaron Johnson. Albert views Helen as someone she can have a partnership with and work together in the tobacco shop she hopes to one day own. Although Helen has no feelings for Albert, Joe convinces her to pursue the relationship so they can get free gifts. This just felt needlessly cruel on behalf of the already tormented Albert and ultimately meandered from the main plot. Helen never really matures into anything more than a shrill brat while Joe awkwardly becomes a villain in the second act of the movie.

Despite its shortcomings, “Albert Nobbs” is still worth seeing for the bold performances from Close and McTeer. They rise above the hit and miss material to deliver two fully realized characters that are hard not to sympathize with. Their moments together are sheer magic, the best of which is when they go out into public wearing dresses to recapture what it was like to be a woman. As an added bonus, this is one drag movie that Adam Sandler is in no way associated with.


Who the hell wrote this thing? ***

Roland Emmerich is often recognized as that director who is obsessed with destroying earth. Ever since aliens blew up the White House in “Independence Day,” Emmerich as wreaked havoc on the world with Godzilla, global warming and the 2012 phenomenon. In his latest movie, “Anonymous,” Emmerich shifts his attention from destroying to world to destroying the legacy of William Shakespeare. The film is drastically less CGI and explosion driven than Emmerich’s previous outings. However, it’s only slightly less preposterous.

The movie opens in a contemporary theatre where a narrator played by Derek Jacobi takes center stage. The Narrator suggests that due to Shakespeare’s background and a lack of documentary evidence, it is entirely possible that the world’s most celebrated playwright wasn’t responsible for his library of classics. The film then changes into costume drama mode where we meet a young William Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall, who is portrayed as a drunken buffoon that can’t even write. 

The real star of the movie is Rhys Ifans in a great performance as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. “Anonymous” proposes that Edward was the real writer of “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Henry V.” He couldn’t produce the plays under his name though because it would have brought shame to his family. Edward initially intends to have dramatist and poet Ben Jonson, played by Sebastian Armesto, take credit for the plays. But when Shakespeare steps up and claims that he wrote the plays, Edward has little choice but to go along with him.

The idea that Edward de Vere was the true genius behind these works is one of several Shakespeare authorship theories. Although I find all of these speculations difficult to accept, I must admit that they are nevertheless fun to hear about. The same can be said about “Anonymous,” which doesn’t seem so much interested in being historically accurate as it is in entertaining the audience. Besides, I would never expect a completely factual history lesson from a director who made a movie that claims aliens built the pyramids.

Emmerich directs the film with plenty of craft, depicting the Elizabethan era with beautiful sets and costumes. The screenplay by John Orloff is intriguing, although a tad too melodramatic at times. The film becomes especially convoluted as it nears the final act and enters Oedipus Rex territory. At a certain point you half expect one of the characters to stab their eyes out.

My main criticism with “Anonymous” is its neglect to humanize Shakespeare at all. It’s one thing to make the man out to be a liar and a fraud. This film takes it to another level though by suggesting that Shakespeare might have even murdered a man to prevent being exposed. We never really see a believable representation of Shakespeare, who notably disappears for portions of the movie. For that purpose, this is not a fictional account that I rank up there with “Shakespeare in Love.” As a neat little conspiracy thriller though, “Anonymous” is easily among Emmerich’s better movies to date. 

Arthur Christmas

How come Santa's children are always boys? ****

“Arthur Christmas” is the new satire from Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animations that delves into the world of Santa Claus and how he managers to deliver all those presents in a single night. This isn’t an entirely original premise. We’ve seen this scenario before in movies like “The Santa Claus” and the Emmy-winning Disney holiday special, “Prep & Landing.” Even “Family Guy” had a hilarious Christmas episode last year about an overworked, dying Santa entrusting his sleigh and gifts to Stewie and Brian. While this idea has been rehashed time and time again, “Arthur Christmas” is still a well-executed take on the Santa Claus mythology with a unique wit and charm.
Rather than there just being a solitary Santa, the film explains that there have been generations of Santa Claus’s working at the North Pole for eons. The current Santa is a kindly man who is getting a tad lazy in his old age voiced by Jim Broadbent. Every Christmas he is accompanied by his army of elves that are so well trained and stealthy they can sneak into the White House without breaching security. If the U.S. Special Forces were half as skilled as these elves they could have tracked down Bin Laden in a day with enough time to assassinate Saddam and be home for tea.
Holding down the fort at Santa’s command center is his oldest son Steve, voiced by Hugh Laurie in his cynic mode. Then you have James McAvoy as Arthur, Santa’s goodhearted son who loves Christmas more than life itself. Arthur’s chances of ever filling his dad’s boots are slim though, since he can be a tad too eccentric. Christmas seems to have gone off without a hitch until an elf discovers an undelivered bicycle for a little girl named Gwen. Arthur makes it his duty to deliver the present with the aid of his Grandsanta, voiced by Bill Nighy.
“Arthur Christmas” is an excellent movie to observe, most notably the film’s glorious set pieces. Santa has put his old sleigh composed of wood and lead paint out to pasture to make way for the sleigh of the 21st century. It’s an enormous red mother ship that can shadow an entire small town and make the Starship Enterprise appear pitiful. His command center has the appearance of the most high tech and advanced war room on the face of the earth with countless elves at computers.
The screenplay by Director Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham, who was one of the co-writers for “Borat,” is humorous too. Their writing encompasses the same clever drollness of previous Aardman productions, which include “Wallace & Gromit,” “Flushed Away,” and “Chicken Run.” Some of the funniest dialog comes from Arthur’s Grandsanta, who is fed up with the technological advances in the gift delivering game that now consists of space ships and iPhones. He prefers the old fashion way with a clunky sleigh and eight reindeer. Of course Grandsanta’s dated method resulted in an elf going missing during a flight and might have caused the Cubin Missile Crisis.
The filmmakers have also created a winning character in Bryony, an elf supplied with the think Scottish accent of Ashley Jensen. Bryony joins Arthur and Grandsanta on their mission to act as their gift wrapper. She’s so experienced in the art of wrapping that she can even wrap a bicycle as Arthur is riding it down a hill. No matter what the predicament Bryony always makes time to slap a bow onto the final product.
“Arthur Christmas” is a jolly fun treat for ages young and old. My only question is why the protagonist is named Arthur Christmas. If he’s the son of Santa shouldn’t his name be Arthur Claus? I suppose the filmmakers didn’t want audiences to potentially think this was a sequel to “Fred Claus” with Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti.

The Artist

Yes, it's a silent film. Yes, it's in black and white. Yes, it's one of the greatest movies I've ever seen. *****

Looking back on the past year in movies, I was truly happy to see so many ambitious projects that were produced. From “The Beaver” with Mel Gibson to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” 2011 included many movies that were willing to take chances even though the filmmakers probably knew the final product wouldn’t make much money. In the assortment of tough sells, “The Artist” may very well take the cake. Not only is “The Artist” a silent picture, it is shot entirely in black and white and isn’t even in widescreen. I can imagine many audiences avoiding this film at all cost. That’s a royal shame because they will be missing out on one of the most magical experiences they’ll ever have at the movies.

French actor and comedian, Jean Dujardin, portrays George Valentin, a fictional silent movie actor who is among the most beloved stars in the world. Much like Don Lockwood in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Valentin’s livelihood is soon put in jeopardy when the movies begin to make the transition to talkies. As Valentin’s career declines, a new star named Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, ascends into fame. Peppy owes her career to Valentin, who initially gave her a bit part in one of his films. Although Valentin greatly resents Peppy now that she’s on top, he still can’t help but admire her and perhaps even care for her romantically. 

Only two individuals stand by Valentin in his time of need. James Cromwell gives a subtle performance as Clifton, the former star’s manservant who lives to serve. Then there’s Valentin’s loyal terrier, played by a dog named Uggy. Along with Snowy from “The Adventures of Tintin,” Uggy is another winning canine screen presence. I’d even go as far to compare Uggy to Lassie, as he stands by his master and helps to keep him going. 

There’s not a doubt in my head that this year’s Best Actor Oscar belongs to Dujardin, who naturally looks like a silent movie star with a slick mustache and pearly grin. In a performance that’s completely reliant on facial expressions and body language, the physically gifted Dujardin impeccably succeeds in taking the audience on an emotional journey. Dujardin provides many moments of humor in the film’s first act, such as a Charlie Chaplin-like scene when he attempts to cheer up his distant wife at a dinner table. As his character arc unfolds however, one can’t help but feel nothing less than pity for the struggling artist. Dujardin embodies all of the regret of a man who had everything and lost it all, such as when he observes a classy tuxedo in a store window.

One of the numerous aspects I love about “The Artist” is the film’s ability to conjure contrasting feelings within the same scene. There is a particular chilling moment that leads up to a fire that may claim the life of a major character. In this instance, I felt my heart sinking with suspense and panic. Against all odds however, this tragic scene manages to end with one of the funniest and most clever twists of recent memory.

Director Michael Hazanavicius has made a masterful tribute to the silent movie era. Every aspect of his film is genuine, most notably the profound cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman and the musical score by Ludovic Bource, which acts as a constant presence. This could all easily come off as pretentious and gimmicky in the hands of lesser visionaries. “The Artist” manages to delight from start to finish however, never evoking a false note.

Another standout of the movie is Hazanavicius’ wonderful screenplay, which I can only hope won’t be overlook. Sure, the film may be heavier on actions and situations than dialog. Yet, Hazanavicius’ script embodies more raw emotion, wit, and charm than any movie this year. At the center is a rich protagonist who will either revive his fame while maintaining his artistic integrity or suffer the same tragic fate of other fallen screen legends.

It’s also quite outstanding that in a wasteland of multi-million dollar blockbusters the most climatic moment in any movie this year would come from a silent picture. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say you’ll be at the edge of your seat by the final act of this movie. It’s all topped off with a pitch-perfect ending of a perfect film.



“Beastly” is marketing itself as a modern take on “Beauty and the Beast.” But the film isn’t so much of an update of that timeless tale as it is a mockery of it. “Beastly” is not in the same league of the 1991 Disney classic. What’s really embarrassing is that the film doesn’t even exceed the low bar that the “Twilight” films have set for mystical, trendy teen romances. 

Alex Pettyfer was previously seen not too long ago in “I Am Number Four.” Now he’s back in yet another forgettable performance as Kyle, a handsome, arrogant high school student. In the beginning of the film, Kyle makes a speech before his fellow peers in which he dumps on ugly people and gloats about his good looks. All the while, everybody applauds his shallow words. Appearance can take a person far in this society. That’s probably the prime reason why Pettyfer has starred in two multi-million dollar movies in less than three months. But if a guy were to get on a stage and claim that beautiful people are superior to ugly people in every respect, the audience would not be cheering him on. They’d be thinking to themselves, “What a conceited ass. I feel so awkward listening to him.”

One particular “ugly” person that Kyle has been victimizing is Kendra, a gothic chick played by Mary-Kate Olsen. Kendra has had enough of Kyle’s narcissism and uses her black magic to place a curse on him. Kyle looses all of his luscious blonde hair and his body is covered with tattoos and scars. The spell can only be broken if Kyle can find somebody to love him within the next year. If he fails, he’ll be doomed to remain a beast for all time.

Kyle sets his eyes on a young girl named Lindy, played by Vanessa Hudgens of “High School Musical” fame. Through a series of contrivances, Lindy ends up living with Kyle against her will. They get off to a rough start. But Kyle finally manages to break the barrier by buying Lindy her favorite candy, Jujyfruit. Some may call this romantic. I call it shameless product placement. Lindy manages to see past Kyle’s exterior to find a gentle soul inside and…do I really need to tell you the rest.

The problem with “Beastly,” other than its forgettable romance and bland leads, is that the story is so by the books. The filmmakers had the opportunity to put a fun contemporary spin on a classic fairytale. But the movie plays it safe with a screenplay that takes no inventive chances. Instead of having Kyle actually try to find love, why not have him go on talk shows and discuss his new disability? The film’s message of inner beauty might have gotten sidetracked. But it still would have been more interesting than what was produced.  

The most curious character is Mary-Kate Olsen as Kendra. In addition to being able to curse people, we also learn that this witch has healing abilities. Yet, she doesn’t seem to use these powers to help those in need on a regular basis. Basically her motto is: To hell with all those innocent people suffering from terminal illnesses. But if somebody calls me ugly they get hexed.

There is one redeeming presence in “Beastly,” the always-entertaining Neil Patrick Harris as a blind tutor. Harris is the only person in the film that seems to be having fun in his role and scores a couple of funny lines. While Harris manages to prevent “Beastly” form being an awful film, not even he can make the experience worth enduring. It’s just too bad that Harris can’t have a part in every movie. Then there would be no unwatchable films, just really bad ones at worst.

The Big Year

Follow that bird! ***

It’s always interesting to see a movie that delves into a subculture, whether its fanboys, hippies, surfers, or heavy metal fans. “The Big Year” examines the people that makeup the subculture of Birding, a phenomenon I was virtually unfamiliar with. These are the people that observe birds as a hobby and, in some cases, turn it into a competitive sport. For the longest time I referred to these individuals as bird watchers. According to “The Big Year,” they prefer the term birder, just as Star Trek fanatics favor being called Trekkers as apposed to Trekkies.

The title refers to a competition in which birders try to see and hear the largest number of species of birds in one year. The record holder for seeing the most birds is Kenny Bosticks, played by Owen Wilson. Determined to keep his record in tact, Kenny decides to have another big year, although it might cost him his marriage. Also competing is Brad Harris, a divorced bird lover who lives with his parents, played by Jack Black. Then there’s good old Steve Martin as Stu Preissler, a recent retiree who is finally going to live out his dream of having a big year. 

Director David Frankel of “The Devil Wears Prada” and cinematographer Lawrence Sher beautifully film “The Big Year.” They do a wonderful job at capturing the majesty of various habitats and the birds that occupy them. At times the movie is almost as lovely to look at as a Disneynature documentary. There are a few instances where the filmmakers do copout and utilize CGI birds rather than real ones. But for the most part “The Big Year” is a great film to observe.

The three leads all have marvelous chemistry, especially Black and Martin who eventually decide to team up in an effort to beat the record. As good as Black, Wilson, and Martin are here, some of the supporting players are kind of under used. I would have liked to have seen more of Rashida Jones as Black’s love interest, Jim Parsons as a bird blogger, and Anjelica Huston as a ferryboat captain. While they’re all good in their brief screen time, the movie could have used more of them. 

“The Big Year” isn’t necessarily a laugh-per-minute comedy. There are really more knowing smiles than there are gut-busting moments. There is a particularly disappointing scene in which Martin races to the airport to catch a flight. Although the setup is promising, the film ignores numerous comedic opportunities and ends with no payoff.

Despite a few missed chances, “The Big Year” is still a consistently enjoyable ride from start to finish. For its craft, some well-written scenes, and the undeniable chemistry between its stars, the film is just good enough for me to recommend as pure escapism. “The Big Year” also notably manages to evoke some truths about human nature and how sometimes our obsessions can distract us from the important things in life. It’s hard to believe that anybody would be as obsessed with birding as some of the characters in this movie. But I suppose there are plenty of people that take their hobbies to an unrealistic extreme.


Kristen Wiig: Always a bridesmaid and now finally a star ****1/2

“Bridesmaids” is the kind of comedy my fellow males and I have been waiting for: A chick flick that doesn’t suck. Although to diminish “Bridesmaids” with a degrading label like “chick flick” hardly does the film justice. This is not a romantic comedy that deserves to be grouped with forgettable junk such as “Something Borrowed” and “Sex and the City 2.” This is a charming and funny romp with an R-rated edge that will appeal to men and women alike.

Kristen Wiig has developed into one of the most recognizable contemporary female comedians with her work in “Knocked Up,” “Adventureland,” and “Paul.” In “Bridesmaids” she gets an upgrade from scene-stealing supporting player to leading lady. She plays Annie, a failed businesswoman on the verge of having to move in with her mother. The closest thing Annie has to a boyfriend is an egotistical jerk named Ted, who would be completely unlikable if he weren’t supplied with the spot-on comedic timing of Jon Hamm from “Mad Men.” Annie is delighted when she learns that her life-long best friend Lillian, played by Maya Rudolph, is engaged. She soon discovers however that there’s a heated competition for the role of Lillian’s maid of honor.

Rose Byrne is perfect as Helen, a glamorous aristocrat who is constantly one-upping Annie in the competition to be Lillian’s best friend. In one of the film’s funniest sequences, Annie and Helen give speeches at Lillian’s engagement party and refuse to let the other have the last word. Also good here is Ellie Kemper as an innocent newlywed and Wendi McLendon-Covey as a middle-aged mother who can’t stand her children.

As excellent as the entire cast is, the standout of “Bridesmaids” is easily Mellissa McCarthy as Megan, the overweight sister of the groom who wears a carpal-tunnel glove at all times. McCarthy hogs every scene she’s in with one hilarious line after another. Even when Wiig gets drunk on a plane and causes a commotion, it’s McCarthy who ends up stealing the show with her sidesplitting banter with an air marshal.

“Bridesmaids” was produced by Judd Apatow, who has typically worked on quote-unquote “guy movies” like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Superbad.” Along with Director Paul Feig, Apatow has brought us a comedy that proves that there are plenty of women in this industry who are just as capable of carrying of comedy. The main credit for the success of “Bridesmaids,” however, belongs to Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo in addition to starring.

Wiig shapes the character of Annie into somebody funny, sexy and sympathetic. Most importantly, Wiig is never afraid to make herself look potentially foolish for the sake of comedy. She remembers something that many comedic actresses like Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston seem to have forgotten: There’s nothing funny about a leading lady who constantly looks stunning and who’s only dilemmas revolve around men and shoes.

Captain America: The First Avenger

You don't fuck with the red, white and blue ****

From the two “Fantastic Four” movies, to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” to “The Losers,” to that CGI “Ninja Turtles” flick, Chris Evans has become a regular in theatrical comic book adaptations. The only people who have probably appeared in more superhero movies are Samuel L. Jackson and Stan Lee, both of whom consistently make cameos in Marvel pictures. Evans adds yet another superhero to his resume in “Captain America: The First Avenger” and it’s one of his best and least cocky screen credits to date.

Evans starts off as Steve Rogers, a scrawny, 90-pound kid that doesn’t know the meaning of the words “give up.” The effects are flawless in giving the tall and fit Evans the appearance of a skinny boy from Brooklyn. You’d almost expect Evans too look like a bobbl head or an abomination out of “Little Man.” Like the groundbreaking visuals in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” though, there’s never of moment of disbelief here.

Rogers is denied his request take part in military service during World War II. But Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German scientist played by Stanley Tucci, believes that there’s more to Rogers than meets the eye. Despite the skepticism of Colonel Chester Phillips, well played by Tommy Lee Jones, Erskine selects Rogers to take part in a secret military experiment. The experiment is a success, turning Rogers into the super solider of Captain America.

The captain starts off as a wartime entertainer, which makes way for an Alan Menken song, reminding us all that Disney now owns Marvel. After proving his potential as a soldier though, Captain America is given a new assignment. His target is Red Skull, a red-faced Nazi agent bent on taking over the world. Hugo Weaving plays Red Skull in his villain mode and the character would make a great ally for Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw in “X-Men: First Class.” It might have been nice if the film had taken the time to explain what Red Skull plans to do with the world once he conquers it. But I suppose that’s the shortcoming of most super villains.

The highlight of the movie is the romance between Captain America and the remotely unknown Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, a military officer. The female leads often serve little purpose in superhero movies other than to be kidnapped and provide somebody for the hero to kiss. Lois Lane and Mary Jane Watson have had so many encounters with super villains that you’d think they would at least take a self-defense course. But they’re just fine with their superhero stalkers rescuing them every week. Like Pepper Potts in the “Iron Man” films, Peggy Carter makes for a compelling romantic lead that’s every bit as interesting as the costumed hero.

Joe Johnston, who previously brought us “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “The Rocketeer,” directs the film with vigorous energy a remarkable craft. If there’s one weakness in “Captain America” it’s the rushed ending, which sets us up for further installments but offers little closure. One thing’s for certain though, between “Captain America” and the spectacular “Thor,” I am officially psyched for “The Avengers” in 2013. And while it’s not saying much, the film is a vast upgrade from the 1990 “Captain America” movie, which I think people have officially forgotten.

Cars 2

Spinning in circles **1/2

The first “Cars” was a fun and zippy ride that still holds the title for the greatest talking car movie possible. However, I think we can all agree that the film lacked the innovation that made all of the other Pixar animations instant classics. Given its dark horse status, I was surprised when I learned that Pixar was planning a sequel to “Cars.” Why make a sequel to what many consider to be the studios weak link, especially when the universes of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” have limited possibilities for further stories? I can’t help but feel that it’s because “Cars” was one of Pixar’s most marketable pictures and “Cars 2” offers a chance for the studio to sell more Lightning McQueen toy cars.

Then I began to think to myself, maybe the first “Cars” was the dress rehearsal. Perhaps “Cars 2” will be the rare sequel that improves upon the original and finally delivers the masterpiece I’ve been waiting for. But like the first “Cars,” “Cars 2” is just pretty good. For any other animation studio “petty good” might be a high compliment. For the computer geniuses at Pixar though, “pretty good” is kind of a letdown. The audience may be at fault for simply having too high of expectations. But the film itself also has to be held accountable for not entirely living up to those expectations.

Owen Wilson is back as Lightning McQueen, who has won multiple Piston Cups since the previous film. Now he’s competing in the World Grand Prix, a race that takes place in Japan, Italy, and England. Lightning is accompanied by his loyal pit crew, which includes Larry the Cable Guy’s redneck tow truck Mater. There are essentially two movies here. One of which is about the unlikely friendship between the hotshot Lightning and the obliviously crude Mater. The other is a thrilling spy movie. For my money, the second movie is by far the more entertaining.

Michael Caine does great voiceover work as Finn McMissille, a British spy car that evokes memories of Sean Connery’s days as Bond. Also fun here is Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell, a sexy rookie spy car acting as an apprentice to Finn. Through a series of misunderstandings, McMissille and Holley mistake Mater for a fellow spy. They rope Mater into their mission to prevent a plot the elimination of alternative fuel. This leads to several beautifully animated action sequences that are almost as exciting as some of the car chases in the better 007 movies.

One problem with “Cars 2” is that the film seems confused to who it’s hero is supposed to be. Where Lightning McQueen was the clear lead in the foremost film, “Cars 2” mainly focuses on Mater. Mater is fine as a supporting player I guess. But a little of the character goes a long way. The most interesting characters are by far Caine’s McMissille and Mortimer’s Holley. John Turturro is also a welcome addition as Francesco Bernoulli, a cocky Italian racecar determined to beat Lightning.

As for the humor, much of it borders along the lines of “Flintstones” territory. Where a majority of the gags in “The Flintstones” revolved around rock and dinosaur puns, here we get automobile jokes galore. A lot of these jokes are clever and warrant smiles, but none of them ever leave you laughing your ass off. The funniest part of “Cars 2” is actually a short film featuring the “Toy Story” gang with Barbie and Ken on a Hawaiian Vacation. I guess that just goes to show how superior of a series “Toy Story” is in comparison to “Cars.”

It’s a close call for me. But I am giving “Cars 2” a mild recommendation, just for younger audiences. While it’s not a great sequel like “Toy Story 2” or “Toy Story 3,” it is considerably better than a lot of animated sequels we’re plagued with. I just wish that “Cars 2” had finally answered the question I’ve been pondering since the first film. Where are all the humans in this universe? Their world is identical to ours other than the fact that it’s populated by talking cars. Did machines overthrow man and take control of the world? Is this the lighter aftermath of “The Terminator?” Perhaps that would make a suiting storyline for “Cars 3.”

The Change-Up

You're the only man that's ever been inside me *

Judging from all the talent on display, I thought “The Change-Up” might have potential to be one of the funniest movies of the summer. Director David Dobkin has made some very well-crafted comedies, including “Shanghai Knights” and “Wedding Crashers.” Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the screenwriting duo that previously brought us “The Hangover,” wrote the film. On top of all that, “The Change-Up” stars Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman, two more than gifted comedic actors. Bateman in particular was great in two comedies earlier this year, “Paul” and “Horrible Bosses.”

I was shell-shocked by just how painfully humorless the “The Change-Up” was. The film follows the exact blueprint of every other body-switching movie ever made, which was kind of expected. What I simply cannot forgive is the film’s inability to produce a single laugh-out-loud moment. In it’s entire running time, “The Change-Up” offers only four or five slightly amusing one-liners at best. That’s just distressing for a movie with so many A-list players backing it up.

Bateman plays Dave Lockwood, a lawyer who is too busy to spend any quality time with his wife, played by Leslie Mann. Every other night he has to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to tend to his newborn twins. In the opening scene, Dave attempts to change the diaper of one of the babies. The infant shoots poop all over his father’s face as if his butt was a super soaker.

Reynolds is Mitch Planko, a slacker who dropped out of high school to pursue a failed acting career. Although Mitch is unemployed, he can still afford to live in a kick-ass apartment, drive a red sports car, and owns a wardrobe of nice clothes. I’m assuming that the apartment is rent controlled and everything else was a free giveaway.

The audience is supposed to believe that Dave and Mitch have been friends since third grade although they seem to be separated by almost ten years of age. It might have made more sense if the movie had made them brothers or cousins, but I digress. One night the two take a leak in a fountain and wish that they had each other’s lives. The next morning they discover that they’ve switched bodies. Why is it that the body switching always happens in their sleep? Wouldn’t it happen immediately after they make the wish?

The film embraces it’s R-rating with plenty of nudity and the f-bomb incorporated into virtually every one of Mitch’s lines. We also get an assortment of gross-out gags involving Mann’s character stinking up the bathroom and Dave being seduced by a pregnant woman that’s ready to pop. None of it’s particularly shocking or, most importantly, funny. There’s an especially grotesque sequence in which Mitch looses Dave’s children in the kitchen. As one twin almost gets its hand shredded in a blender, the other miraculously throws a butcher knife across the room, barely missing Mitch’s face. It feels more like something out of a horror picture than a lightweight comedy.

There’s also an attempt to add a level of depth to the film as Dave realizes that he’s been neglecting his wife and Mitch realizes that his life is completely unfulfilled. It’s entirely possible or a hard-R comedy to have heart and three-dimensional characters. Just look at “Bridesmaids.” But here it just feels uneven with the flatulent material. It’s hard to take a scene in which Dave’s wife dishes out her feelings seriously when the previous scene featured Dave kissing the breasts of a mummified porn star against his will. 

The biggest disappointment of all is the mismatched pair of Bateman and Reynolds. While the two try hard in their roles, none of them quite pull off the task of switching identities. I truly believed Jamie Lee Curtis as a teenager trapped in a middle-aged body in the remake of “Freaky Friday.” In “The Change-Up,” it feels more like two actors simply doing impressions of each other. The audience also never buys that these men are life-long friends or even like each other that much. Chemistry is what makes or breaks a film like this. Unfortunately, “The Change-Up” is completely devoid of anything that resembles chemistry.

Cowboys & Aliens

A band of colorful townsfolk, horses, Indians, and...aliens? ***

“Cowboys & Aliens” sounds like a game an eight-year-old would come up with while playing with his action figures. As a matter fact, wasn’t cowboys battling against space invaders the basis for the opening scene of “Toy Story 3?” A movie with the words “Cowboys” and “Aliens” in the title really has no right to be good. But in the hands of “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, “Cowboys & Aliens” manages to be a fun time at the very least.

The film opens with a lone outlaw, played by Daniel Craig, awakening in the middle of the desert with an otherworldly shackle around his wrist. He remembers nothing other than the fact that he’s royally gifted in the art of kicking ass. After arriving in a nearby town, our hero learns that his name is Jake Lonergan and he’s wanted for murder. Before the authorities can take Jake away though, alien spaceships fly into town and begin abducting residents.

The surviving townsfolk assemble a posse to track down the aliens and find their loved ones. The standout of the group is crazy old Harrison Ford as Colonel Dolarhyde, hell-bent on rescuing his disappointing son, played by Paul Dano. Sam Rockwell is the town Doc who is inexperienced in using firearms, but if movie payoffs have taught us anything, he’ll fire a crucial shot when it matters most. There’s also Olivia Wilde as the prettiest young thing the old west has seen since Megan Fox in “Jonah Hex.” Fortunately, Wilde has acting abilities on her side in addition to being luminous.

If there’s a misfire in the otherwise excellent casting, it’s Noah Ringer as a young boy looking for his grandpappy. Ringer was last seen as Aang, I mean Ung, in “The Last Airbender.” Here Ringer continues to prove that he’s a better whiner than he is an actor. I’m sure that Ringer is a perfectly nice kid in real life. But seeing him on screen just overwhelms me with a hatred that I haven’t felt since Jake Lloyd in “The Phantom Menace.”

I also have to mention that this is probably the most accepting band of characters in the history of movie westerns. You’d think that some of the white men in this era would have qualms with riding alongside a little boy, a woman, and Native Americans. Yet, even crabby Harrison Ford is cool with it. I guess prejudice just isn’t a factor when people share the common enemy of aliens.

The exposition for “Cowboys & Aliens” is exceptional. The opening scenes perfectly blend the tone of a classic western with the thrills of a modern science fiction adventure. In the process, the film manages to have an appropriate sense of humor about itself. Thirty minutes into the movie I thought that I was watching one of the most entertaining movies of the summer. It felt like “Stagecoach” meets “War of the Worlds.” As it goes on though, “Cowboys & Aliens” declines from near greatness to just being enjoyable.

The film slowly becomes more about action sequences and special effects than about character and plot. The aliens themselves have a disadvantage of not being nearly as interesting as the human characters. I won’t tell you what the alien’s purpose for invading earth is, but it’s practically laughable.

What we have here is pretty good summer entertainment. The actors all do a strong job for the most part, particularly Craig and Ford. It’s hard not to be excited when James Bond and Indiana Jones are in the same movie together. The action is well paced and has more wit to it than mindless garbage like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” It’s just too bad that “Cowboys & Aliens” couldn’t maintain the same sense of awe that was promised in its first act. Otherwise I might have been tempted to award the film an additional star.

The Descendants

Hawaiians have problems too ****1/2

 When you ask anyone where they would like to spend their dream vacation, Hawaii is always a common answer. Movies make Hawaii look like such a glamorous and peaceful safe-haven that it’s no wonder why we all fanaticize of escaping there. Some people might even wish to remain there forever when they’re on a vacation high. After watching “The Descendants” though, some might start to appropriately reorganize Hawaii as a place that’s fun to visit, but it’s not a trouble free paradise for those that live there.
Hawaii acts as the setting and a crucial supporting character in Alexander Payne’s exceptional new film, which displays how even people in a supposed paradise must cope with loss and learn to start fresh. In the movie’s opening scene, a Hawaiian local named Matt King addresses the audience, asking, “Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our heartaches, less painful?” We eventually find Matt in the hospital room of his comatose wife, who was in a fatal boating accident. The doctors tell Matt that his wife’s condition will never improve. Her will states that she does not want to be kept on life support and Matt has little choice but to respect her wishes.
George Clooney plays Matt, who is overwhelmed by the fact that he must stand up as a single parent to his daughters. His youngest is Scottie, a curiously delightful young girl played by Amara Miller. His teenage daughter is Alexandra, a foul-mouthed rebel played by Shailene Woodley. Matt pulls Alexandra out of her private school to help inform friends and family of the tragedy. The father and daughters journey across the Hawaiian Islands to share the sad news. Along the way, Matt comes to a decision regarding the future of his family’s land and learns that his sainted wife wasn’t all that loyal during their marriage.
Just a few weeks ago I discussed how far Clooney has come as a performer in my review of “The Ides of March.” Now Clooney gives what may very well be the most inspired performance of his career as Matt King. Clooney might seem like an unusual choice to play Matt, who comes off as a conflicted everyman where Clooney is better known for playing such seemingly perfect individuals. Yet, Clooney is faultless in the role, demonstrating a wide range of emotions throughout the course of the movie.
There’s a scene in which Matt’s daughter informs him that his wife had an affair and he runs out of the house in sandals. The blank expression on Clooney’s face as he sprints through his neighborhood perfectly sums up the numerous questions running through Matt’s head regarding his marriage. It offers a moment that’s both subtly goofy and intense as you wonder what this man is going to do next. Matt later confronts is unconscious wife about her affair. In Clooney’s eyes we see regret for being such an absent spouse, the desire to turn back the clock, anger towards his wife for her disloyalties, and ultimately the need to forgive his wife before her time has passed. This is a powerful piece of acting.
As great as Clooney is, I think the real discovery is Shailene Woodley as Alexandra. Woodley is best known for playing a knocked up twelve-year-old on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” a show that downgrades teenagers to whiny, lame drama queens with about as much personality as toast. In “The Descendants,” Woodley demonstrates just how talented of an actress she is with a fully realized, three-dimensional young woman. This is an Oscar-worthy adolescent performance as Woodley tries to keep her family together while feeling animosity towards her father and especially her mother. Alexandra is a character many can identify with, particularly those who have teenager daughters of their own.
Every actor is permitted a moment to shine in “The Descendants.” Nick Krause is hilarious as Alexandra’s sort of boyfriend who typically says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Robert Forster is suitable to play Matt’s father-in-law, who blames Matt for everything that has happened as a method to cope with his own grief. Then you have Judy Greer, an actress who is usually limited to playing the quirky best friend. Here she delivers some of her finest work as the wife of the man who was sleeping with Matt’s wife. Her character ark works up to a powerful scene in a hospital room in one of the most memorable cinematic moments of the year.
Alexander Payne, who also wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, has developed a truly special comedy. You might find it odd that I would describe “The Descendants” as a comedy given its uneasy subject matter. But there hasn’t been a movie that’s been so equally funny and tear jerking since…well “50/50,” a comedy released just a couple months ago about a man coping with cancer. In such a difficult time with no simple answers, these are two movies that both feel factual to the hardships of life and still manage to put audiences in high spirits. I think that’s just what our country needs right now.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Just be afraid of really stupid fathers **1/2

I was immediately intrigued when Guillermo del Toro’s name popped up during the opening credits of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” Del Toro is such a gifted storytelling who can flawlessly mix real-world heartbreak with elements of mature fantasy. His groundbreaking “Pan’s Labyrinth” most notably claimed a spot on my list of the ten best films of the last decade. Del Toro’s producing and co-screening credits for this movie had my expectations at their peak. Unfortunately, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a movie that only remotely works.

Bailee Madison gives a genuinely good performance as Sally, a little girl who is dumped by her single mother. She’s sent to live with her father, played by Guy Pearce, and his younger girlfriend, played by Katie Holmes. They live in an old mansion that the father is renovating. Sally discovers a secret basement where she hears something whispering from the fireplace. She opens the fireplace and unleashes numerous tiny, gruesome fairies that want to eat her teeth.

The highlight of the movie is its scenic design. The filmmakers have created one of the most stylish and creepy haunted houses in the history of movies. Everything from the old fashion library, to the daunting staircases, to the otherworldly garden, to the cobwebbed basement is wonderful to look at. The house feels like a real character and supplies the film with the atmosphere of an R-rated version of Disney’s “The Haunted Mansion.”

With tasteful direction from first-timer Troy Nixey, strong performances, and a few chilling moments, I was fully prepared to give “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” a recommendation. But the film is held back by an inexcusable factor: Guy Pearce’s idiot father! Pearce’s character naturally doesn’t believe his daughter when she tells him about the little mutants terrorizing the house. Who would? But when one of his workers turns up half dead and his girlfriend finds documented proof of these creature’s existence, he still refuses to believe what’s right in front of him. There hasn’t been a more oblivious parent in a thriller since the insultingly stupid adults in “The Good Son.”

By the third time the father blames Sally for the actions of the little monsters, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” really starts to feel like a broken record. There does come a time when Pearce’s character finally comprehends what’s going on and decides to leave the house. But that moment just seems abrupt as if the screenwriters said, “It’s time for the movie to end now.” At least the characters in “Insidious” were smart enough to try and leave their haunted house by the end the film’s first act.

Then there are the little monsters, which really aren’t that interesting or frightening. There’s a certain level of dread to these creatures during the film’s opening in which we only hear their whispering voices. When the film decides to reveal them to the audience though, they get old pretty fast. Compared to the cruel and menacing villains Del Toro developed in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” they feel like letdowns. Come to think of it, didn’t Del Toro already experiment with little mutant tooth fairies in “Hellboy II: The Golden Army?”

There’s much to admire in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” But given all the potential it had, I have to ultimately decline the film for it’s dull villains and that stupid, stupid father. If you leave about thirty minutes into the picture though, you might think that you walked out of a pretty good movie.

Friends with Benefits

Attractive movie stars in love ***

A few months ago Natalie Portman stared opposite Ashton Kutcher in “No Strings Attached,” a film about two friends that decide to have sex but not become a couple. Now Portman’s “Black Swan” co-star, Mila Kunis, stars alongside Justin Timberlake in “Friends with Benefits,” a film about two friends that decide to have sex but not become a couple. I didn’t think we needed two films with such similar premises released within the same year, but thanks to some undeniable chemistry and well-written dialog, this date movie turned out to be better than expected.

Kunis plays Jamie, a woman who is constantly being letdown by boyfriends and wishes that her life could be more like a romantic comedy. Timberlake is Dylan, a guy who has trouble sustaining a long-term relationship. In the film’s opening scene, their romantic partners, played by Emma Stone and Andy Samberg, dump Dylan and Jamie (I suppose I can see Emma Stone breaking things off with Justin Timberlake, but I’m fairly confident that Andy Samberg would hold onto Mila Kunis for dear life).

Dylan moves from Los Angeles to New York for a job offer and becomes fast friends with Jamie. The two have completely given up on dating but miss having casual sex. One night the two decide that they can add sex into the equation without complicating their friendship, but as demonstrated in a classic “Seinfeld” episode, sex always ends up complicating friendship in the long run.

At times, “Friends with Benefits” tries to do for the romantic comedy what “Scream” did for the “slasher” genre. Unlike the airheads in a routine Sarah Jessica Parker movie, Jamie and Dylan benefit from having seen numerous romantic comedies. In one of the film’s funniest sequences the two watch an overly sappy rom-com staring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. They point out all the numerous clichés in the film, most notably the upbeat pop song they play over the credits to make the audience think they had a good time.

If we had gotten more scenes like that, “Friends with Benefits” might have reached “500 Days of Summer” or “When Harry Met Sally” territory, but the film goes on autopilot in it’s last half hour with the same cookie cutter third act we’ve seen a million times before. Jamie overhears Dylan say some things that weren’t intended for her ears, they fight, stay apart for a prolonged period, and finally realize they’re perfect for each other in the end. I know that some conflict in necessary to keep the movie going, but for a film that’s so self-conscious of romantic comedy clichés, you’d think that “Friends with Benefits” would know when it’s becoming too formulaic.

We also get the traditional quirky supporting cast with Woody Harrelson as a gay sports editor, Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s ditsy mother, and Jenna Elfman as Dylan’s sister. Like the supporting players in “Larry Crowne,” they’re all fun but feel a bit too much like the characters we’d see in a sitcom. The only supporting character that isn’t overly colorful or cute is Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

What elevates “Friends with Benefits” above an average romantic comedy is the winning appeal of Timberlake and Kunis. After some thankless roles in movies like “The Love Guru,” last year Timberlake finally found a role suited to his talent as the ecstatic entrepreneur Sean Parker in “The Social Network.” The same can be said here with Timberlake doing a first rate job as the puppy dog eyed leading man. Mila Kunis is of course God’s gift to the world. When the film isn’t following the romantic comedy textbook, the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and Director Will Gluck does offer some funny and honest moments that make Jamie and Dylan believable characters.

They may not be Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but Kunis and Timberlake are certainly more charming than Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, or basically any woman with Gerard Butler. It just goes to show that sometimes star-power can make all the difference in a movie like this.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander's a boss! ****1/2

Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was one of the great cinematic achievements of 2010, ranking number four on my best films of the year. Since American audiences are incapable of sitting through a Swedish movie with subtitles though, it was inevitable that we would get a remake based on the international best-selling novel. The good news is that in the hands of Director David Fincher and a stellar cast, the American version doesn’t disappoint. While it may not play as freshly to those who love the original Swedish film, this remake is still a gripping and immensely well-made retelling for American audiences.

Like the original film, the strength of this remake mainly derives from the chemistry between its two leads. Daniel Craig is a suitable choice to play Mikael Blomkvist, the shamed journalist facing a prison sentence for printing false information in his magazine. During his league of absence, Mikael is hired by Christopher Plummer’s Henrik Vanger to solve the 40-year-old mystery behind his niece’s murder. In need of a research assistant, Mikael enlists the help of the gothic, bisexual computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander.

Rooney Mara, who played Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend in “The Social Network,” is unrecognizable as the iconic Lisbeth, covered with piercings and tattoos in addition loosing a significant amount of weight. Mara may not be a household name like Kristen Stewart, who was initially rumored to play the part. Fincher indeed made the correct choice in casting the lesser-known Mara though. In addition to drastically changing her physical appearance, Mara lives and breathes this character. She presents Lisbeth as an emotionally damaged woman who is genuinely uncomfortable around men. When in the presence of even the most refined males she’ll do her best to keep her distance. If push comes to shove however, she’s never afraid to use her trusty tazer and tattoo machine.

Noomi Rapace truly deserved an Oscar nomination for her portrayal as Lisbeth in the original Swedish film. One thing that might give Mara the advantage over Rapace however is the fact that she’s several years younger. This not only better contributes to the title of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but also adds to the dysfunction of this character. It’s truly shocking is see a girl so closed-off, damaged and ruthless, yet still so intelligent and daring, at such a young age. Mara sells every moment as Lisbeth, who may either be a psychopath or just trying to build that image to avoid confrontation. Apart of me thinks she might even suffer from a mild case of Asperger Syndrome.

Although both versions of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” share similar scenes, none of them feel the same. Fincher distinguishes his film with inspired editing and camera angles. The opening credits sequence is a prominent standout with the spirit of the world’s most twisted music video. Fincher also never downplays the violence for American audiences. There’s a moment when you think that a particular rape scene might take place off screen. Yet, Fincher shows the rape in its entirety. As horrifying and unsettling as the scene is to witness, it’s nevertheless crucial to the story.

One specific difference between this film and the Swedish version is Lisbeth’s feelings towards Mikael. In Oplev’s film, it’s clear that Lisbeth cares for Mikael in ways she’s never felt for a man before. At the same time however, she seems reluctant to love Mikael due to their ages, backgrounds, and her past relationships with men. As Mikael grows closer, Lisbeth attempts to move further away. Here she appears much more open to engaging in a relationship with Mikael. At a certain point she even seems to believe that they might have some sort of happily ever after. Both interpretations of the character work in their own ways. This version may be a little more tragic though, since it inescapably dawns on Lisbeth that matters between her and Mikael will not work out.

Since both films are so similar, and still somehow very different, it’s hard to say which “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” reins supreme. I feel like I need to watch both movies back to back to make an informed decision. But the fact that this version earns comparison to its predecessor should come as a high compliment to Fincher and company. Just as Oplev’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was one of last year’s best films, Fincher’s take on the story is one of 2011’s best.

Green Lantern

Anyone who knows the green lantern oath by heart has way too much free time on their hands **1/2

For every summer that brings us a “Thor” or an “X-Men: First Class,” there’s a fairly standard superhero movie like “Green Lantern” in the mix. This isn’t a bad superhero movie like “Ghost Rider” or the two “Fantastic Four” pictures. But “The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2,” and “Iron Man” it is not. “Green Lantern” is bright, colorful, loud, mindless entertainment. You might be amused while watching the film. Just don’t expect it to leave a lasting impression. 

Ryan Reynolds stars as Hal Jordan, a gifted, yet conceited, test pilot for the United States Air Force. Hal is haunted by the death of his test pilot father, depicted in a flashback sequence so laughably clichéd that it evokes memories of “Team America: World Police.” A purple alien named Abin Sur crash lands on earth and, as he perishes, gives his green power ring to Hal. Our hero is reluctantly chosen by the ring to become part of the Green Lantern Corps, guardians sworn to protect the universe. You almost expect somebody to say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But unfortunately Ben Parker already has that saying trademarked.

Reynolds has all the necessary charisma to play a superhero. He brings plenty of his snarky and sarcastic appeal to the role. But Hal Jordan himself is underwritten and feels like an armature hero. For somebody who has discovered that there are multiple worlds out there that can sustain living creatures, Hal reacts pretty casually to everything. Where’s the sense of awe? 

Although I like Blake Lively a lot she’s saddled with the basic love interest role here. Hal rescues her a couple times, she rescues Hal once, she argues with Hal, and she kisses Hal. I will give her some points for being able to recognize Hal with that tiny little mask on. That’s more than I can say about that dimwit Lois Lane.

The real letdown in “Green Lantern” is its villains. Peter Sarsgaard plays a wormy little scientist named Hector Hammond who performs an autopsy on Abin Sur. His DNA combines with the aliens, turning him into a telepathic mutant that looks like a caveman dying from cancer. Then you have Parallax, the main antagonist who essentially feels like an underdeveloped final boss for a video game. That’s actually what “Green Lantern” often feels like: watching somebody else play a video game with a lackluster story.

The special effects are the highlight of the movie. There’s always plenty of eye candy on display and this is never a dull film to look at. Fanboys will especially relish at live-action incarnations of Tomar-Re, a fish/bird man voiced by Geoffrey Rush, and Kilowog, a colossus alien appropriately voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan. Although some might argue that the film is too reliant on CGI, which is admittedly becoming overused in modern blockbusters.

My defining problem with “Green Lantern” is that the movie is too heavy on exposition. That might seem like an odd complaint since this is an origin story. But unlike “Batman Begins” or the first “Spider-Man,” it never really takes off. The film is kind of fun and I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel now that the pesky back-story is out of the way. For now though, “Green Lantern” is probably best left as a blu-ray rental.

The Hangover Part II

We done it again **1/2

In an era where virtually every blockbuster is either a sequel or inspired by another source, the first “Hangover” stood out as an original laugh-per-minute effort with a surprisingly clever screenplay. Since that film went onto become the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, we all knew that Director Todd Phillips would inevitably deliver sequel. But in “The Hangover Part II,” the wolfpack suffers more from déjà vu than from the sensation of having one too many. From the opening scene where Bradley Cooper calls with some bad news to the end credits featuring snapshots from the forgotten night, “The Hangover Part II” is a repeat of its predecessor. While many will have a good time at the movie, nobody will walk away thinking that it was better than the original.

This time around Ed Helms’ Stu is getting married to a woman named Lauren, played by Jamie Chung. Bradley Cooper’s Phil and Zach Galifianakis’ Alan both return to accompany their friend to Thailand for the wedding. A couple nights before the ceremony, the guys decide to have a beer on the beach. The next morning, they wake up in a sleazy hotel room where they discover that Alan’s head has been shaven and Stu has gotten a tattoo on his face. Most imperatively, they come across the severed fingered of the bride-to-be’s brother. This leads to a series of escapades through Bangkok to find the brother. Sound familiar?

The original “Hangover” was basically a one-premise movie. Unlike the “American Pie” sequels, there’s really not much that the filmmakers can do here other than put the character under the same exact circumstances. Predictability is unavoidable in a follow-up such as this. The real question is whether or not “The Hangover Part II” is funny. It is…in parts.

Galifianakis steals the show once again. His creation of Alan is somewhere between being socially awkward and completely insane, never realizing just how hilarious he is. Ken Jeong is also back as the rambunctious Mr. Chow, who reminds us all just how funny cultural insensitivity can be. One welcome addition to the wolfpack is a monkey who wears a cool denim jacket and is addicted to cigarettes. These are all great characters that are always fun to watch.

Although there are big laughs in the movie, “The Hangover Part II” mainly seems interested in referencing the first film. At first these in-jokes are funny. But by the time Mike Tyson makes yet another cameo, the film really starts to become tired. All in all, I enjoyed bits and pieces of “The Hangover Part II.” But the film is simply too familiar for me to recommend. At the very least “The Hangover Part II” could have provided an explanation for the chicken in the first film. I guess that chicken will forever remain one of the great mysteries of the cinema.

Happy Feet Two

Insert dance/penguin pun here. I'm feeling lazy tonight. ***

In a year of animated sequels, “Happy Feet Two” is a standout along with "Kung-Fu Panda 2." I wasn’t sure if it was necessary to continue this chronicle of dancing penguins that are somehow up to date on contemporary music from the United States. Nevertheless, Director George Miller of the “Babe” movies has developed a sequel that’s about as lively and fun as the original.

Elijah Wood is back as Mumble, the Emperor Penguin who compensates for his voice like nails on the chalkboard with the dancing skills of Fred Astaire. The Singer Pink fills in for the late Brittany Murphy as Mumble’s mate, Gloria. The two now have a little penguin named Erik, voiced by Ava Acres, who is having trouble fitting in with the colony like his father before him. Erik’s insecurities have to be put on hold however, when the world begins to shake and a majority of the Emperor Penguin colony is trapped. It’s up to Mumble and friends to save the colony from the adapting world around them.

“Happy Feet Two” brings back several characters, including Robin Williams’ hipster Adelie Penguin named Ramon, in addition to introducing several newcomers. Hank Azaria voices The Mighty Sven, a Puffin that tries to pass himself off as a flying penguin. Sven faces a similar dilemma to Rocky’s in “Chicken Run” when the penguins ask him to teach them to fly. Ramon is also given a potential love interest with Carmen, a sexy penguin played by Sofia Vergara, who’s a natural to do voiceover work since she already speaks like a cartoon character.

The real scene-stealers in “Happy Feet Two” are Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as a pair of krill named Will and Bill. Nobody would ever expect krill to make for compelling characters. Even “Finding Nemo,” a film that brought together all the creatures of the sea, reduced the species to a thankless walk-on role. But the diminutive, bug-eyed Will and Bill are an endearing contribution to the series, as they break free of their school to find a higher purpose in life. It is a joy to observe the world from Will and Bill’s point of view as they survive being eaten by a whale and ride on the back of a seal. All that’s missing is George Clooney doing the voice of a third krill.  

The premise and morals of “Happy Feet Two” may not be groundbreaking. Matters can even get repetitive at times since most of the characters are confined to one era. But I think the strength of this franchise lies more in the quality of animation and music than story. On that basis, “Happy Feet Two” is indeed a splendid experience to witness.

The landscapes are as marvelous as ever and the choreography makes the moves in a “Step Up” movie look like armature hour. The performances are all genuine, unlike in most modern animated films where the celebrity voices feel forced and random. What the film lacks in narrative it certainly compensates for in its musical numbers, most notably an original song called “Bridge of Light.” This is wholesome family entertainment for the holidays, which almost makes up for the drab “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” from last summer.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Not my daughter, you bitch! *****

While I praised “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” as a terrific beginning of the end, you might have noticed that the film did not make my top ten list last year. My reason for excluding the film was primarily because I felt that I had only seen the first half of a great movie. I can guarantee you however, that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” will appear on my list of 2011’s best films. Director David Yates and company deserve the highest praise for this epic, tragic, and stunning achievement that ranks alongside “The Return of the King” and “Return of the Jedi” as one of the most satisfying cinematic finales of all time.

All hell had broken loose when we last left Harry, Ron and Hermione. Lord Voldemort has retrieved the elder wand and five of the seven Horcruxes remain undestroyed. Worst of all, Dobby the house elf got the ax. *Sniff.* The search for the Horcruxes eventually take Harry and his friends back to Hogwarts, which has fallen under the stern authority of Alan’s Rickman’s Severus Snape. This leads to the lengthy Battle of Hogwarts, which will inevitably end with Harry having a showdown with the dark lord.

Like all summer blockbusters, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is heavy of special effects and action sequences. But it’s not a meaningless extravaganza like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” where the effects acted as a replacement for character and plot. There’s a meaningful and well-told story here with monumental stakes. Nobody is safe and not every character survives the ordeal. At a point it even appears that Harry will have to sacrifice himself to save the day. The fact that we’ve come to care about these characters so much over the years only increases the audience’s level of suspense and concern.

As an added bonus, the look of the film is a revelation of craft. The great composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another breathtaking musical score that’s at times lingering and others time heartfelt. Between his unforgettable score for “The Tree of Life” and now this, I can’t imagine anybody beating out Desplat for the Oscar. Everything from the menacing art direction, to the makeup effects, to the moody cinematography from Eduardo Serra perfectly personify the imagines that come to mind while reading a “Harry Potter” novel.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, I also have to commend Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint for their spot-on portrayals of the timeless characters they’ve been playing for the past decade. I’m so grateful that over the course of eight films, they stuck with this continually charming and endearing trio. They even keep the three actors in their roles for a 19 years later epilogue. Admittedly, the three still look like twenty-year-olds rather than 36-year-olds. But it would have felt wrong for any other actor to take their places.

In addition to the three leads, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” comes equipped with a remarkable supporting cast. Numerous individuals who might have appeared like secondary characters return to play pivotal roles here. The seemingly wimpy Neville Longbottom, played by Matthew Lewis, rises as an unlikely hero and at long last we finally learn Snape’s true intentions. Even the Malfoy clan demonstrates more essence of humanity than one ever expected. And who would have ever thought that Julie Walters’ Molly Weasley would be the first character in this series to drop a major swear word? This is truly an ensemble piece where every character is allowed a chance to shine, even if some of them are only allowed five minutes of screen time.

Credit is also due to J.K. Rowling for her exceptional source material. Harry Potter had become such a global phenomenon by the time Rowling wrote “Prisoner of Azkaban” that she could have allowed her creation to become a never-ending saga of books and movies. Like the best franchises though, Rowling stuck to a plan and allowed her baby to go out with a bang. David Yates, who has acted as the director of this franchise since “The Order of the Phoenix,” stays loyal to Rowling’s vision and delivers an emotional and exciting final curtain that will stick with you for days in addition to giving you closure.

Outside of technical categories, the “Harry Potter” movies have never performed that well in terms of awards. But could “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” finally receive serious recognition in the same sense of the third “Lord of the Rings” movie? We’ll have to wait and see if the Academy will step out of its comfort zone. But I know in my heart that this is undoubtedly one of the year’s most superlative entertainments. It fills me with substantial glee to declare that after ten years and eight movies, Warner Bros. managed to not ruin Harry Potter. The series’ perfect record remains intact…until we get another book and movie about how Harry got his GED for missing a year at Hogwarts.

The Help

Never piss off the person who prepares your food. *****

If movies were living, breathing organisms, I’d give “The Help” a big hug. This is a wonderful film from Writer/Director Tate Taylor that I can only hope people will seek out and completely embrace. The movie impeccably mixes moments of heartbreak with an abundance of sheer delight, telling an empowering story about race and some of the most strong-willed female characters of recent times. In that sense, “The Help” might be the best movie of it’s kind since “The Color Purple.”

One of the film’s several unforgettable ladies is Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, played Emma Stone who has been on a winning streak since “Easy A” last year. Skeeter is an aspiring writer who moves back in with her parents after finishing college. Upon arriving, Skeeter is appalled to learn that her mother, played by Allison Janney, has fired Constantine, the black maid that acted as Skeeter’s true parent. 

Bryce Dallas Howard is scene stealing as Hilly Holbrook, who possesses a name that sounds like a character out of “Hairspray.” Hilly is the epitome of 1960s ignorance when many white people thought they could catch a disease just from sharing a toilet with an African American. The selfish and inconsiderate Hilly is one of the many backers of a new law in Jackson, Mississippi that requires the colored help to use a separate bathroom. The only young lady in town that isn’t under Hilly’s thumb is Skeeter, who decides to write a book from the perspective of various maids in her hometown. But in an age when the KKK was in its prime, Skeeter has a difficult time finding any colored maids willing to come forward.

Skeeter finally finds a maid named Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis in the film’s strongest performance. Davis is heartbreaking as a woman who has spent most of her life taking care of other people’s babies, not having any time for her own son who was killed when he was only 24. Aibileen loves the children she raises and they love her back. Unfortunately for Aibileen, most of those children grow up just to be like their self-centered birth mothers that take the help for granted. 

Another great performance comes from Octavia Spencer, who has been doing great work as a character actress for years on television and in movies. Here Spencer gives a star making performance as Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, who is not afraid to tell her white employers exactly what’s on her mind. Minny is fired after using the bathroom at Hilly Holbrook’s house during a terrible storm that kills several people. To get back at Hilly, Minny concocts probably the greatest revenge plot since Eric Cartman made Scott Tenorman eat his own parents on “South Park.” However, I won’t dare spoil that tidbit for it will deprive you of the film’s biggest laugh.

The most touching relationship in the movie is between Minny and her new employer, a clueless housewife named Celia, played by Jessica Chastain. Between her role as the graceful mother in “The Tree of Life” and her work here, Chastain is easily my choice for breakout actress of the year. In “The Help,” Celia starts off as the naïve comedic relief who can’t tell her way around a kitchen. As Minny digs deeper into some of the secrets Celia has been keeping from her husband though, she develops into one of year’s most tragic and sympathetic characters. 

There’s an especially superb scene in which Celia tries to share a meal with her maid. Minny insists that Celia sit at a separate table from the help. In Celia’s colorblind eyes though, Minny and her are nothing short of equals. The lonely Celia then proceeds to eat her fried chicken across the table from her only friend in the world.

I can imagine some people shying away from “The Help,” not wanting to see a movie that deals with racism in the 1960s. While some of its themes are difficult, I assure you that “The Help” is nothing short of a joyous experience that will only leave the most pessimistic spectators not uplifted. This is a grand entertainment for everyone, particularly mothers and their daughters. In an age where the only movies being marketed to women are witless romantic comedies and the “Twilight” saga, here is a film that respects the intelligence of its female audience. Every note from every actress is flawless, making for a pitch-perfect movie about courage, outspokenness, and friendship.  

Horrible Bosses

Kill my boss? Do I dare live out the American dream? ****

We’ve all been stuck with a boss that has made work severely unbearable at some point in our professional careers. Wouldn’t it be great if somebody could drag their jerky boss by the necktie, throw them out of a glass window, and be revered as the office hero? Of course in reality we’d be confronted with a life sentence in prison, but if anyone ever had a boss as wicked as the ones in Seth Gordon’s sharp new comedy, “Horrible Bosses,” then murder would be justified.

Jason Bateman’s Nick, Charlie Day’s Dale, and Jason Sudeikis’ Kurt have the misfortune of working for the three worst employers imaginable. After a drunken night of complaining, they decide that their lives would be easier if their bosses were to go away forever. They hire a murder consultant played a tattoo-covered Jamie Foxx. He advises them to take a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” or better yet Danny DeVito’s “Throw Momma from the Train,” and kill each other’s bosses. The problem is that these guys are every bit as incompetent as the criminals you’d see in a Coen Brother’s dark comedy.

Kevin Spacey is dead-on as Nick’s boss, Dave Harken, a manipulative bully that makes Bill Lumbergh look like a saint. He treats his wife, played by Julie Bowen, and his employees like possessions. After promising Nick a big promotion, he decides to take the job himself, increasing his salary and the size of his office. Spacey does a perfect job at making his character completely unlikable and at the same time entertaining to watch. That’s more than I can say about John Malkovich’s boss in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” who is easily among the most annoying characters of the year.

Jennifer Aniston is much funnier here than in the lamebrain romantic comedies she typically limits herself to. She plays Dale’s boss, a slutty dentist who is constantly making unwanted sexual advances towards her assistant. When she finds out that Dale is engaged, she tries to blackmail him into sleeping with her. Aniston has perfect comedic timing as a woman who might seem like the best boss ever to a horny single man, but get on her bad side and she’ll become your worse nightmare. It just goes to show that it’s always better to take a supporting performance in a good movie rather than being the lead in a god-awful one like “The Bounty Hunter” or “Just Go With It.”

Finally there’s Kurt’s boss, Bobby Pellitt, a balding cokehead played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell. Upon inspecting Bobby’s house composed of a foosball table and shag carpeting, the guys describe the pad as a “Douchebag Museum.” Also good here is Ioan Gruffudd as a man who specializes in Wetwork. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what Wetwork is.

The screenplay by John Fracis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein is surprisingly well-crafted and leads up to a monumentally hilarious conclusion where all the plot points conveniently blend together. You might not buy everything that happens in “Horrible Bosses,” but who cares? The movie is funny and that’s all that really matters.

Much of the film’s success can he attributed from the winning chemistry between Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis. “Horrible Bosses” might not make half of what “The Hangover: Part II” grossed, but I guarantee that audiences will have a better time at this buddy comedy than at they did at that money vacuum.


What can't Scorsese do? ****1/2

“Hugo” seemed like the last kind of movie Martin Scorsese would attempt to tackle at this state in his esteemed career. Scorsese of course has great range as a filmmaker, directing crime dramas, period pieces, psychological thrillers, and documentaries. Is a 3D family adventure in the director’s comfort zone though? In a surprising turn, not only does “Hugo” succeed as family entertainment, but it is also possibly Scorsese’s best picture to personify his own love for the cinema.

Asa Butterfield plays the title character of Hugo, an orphaned boy who lost his clock-making father in a museum fire. Attempting to dodge the local orphanage, Hugo lives in the walls of a railway station in Paris where he operates the clocks. Hugo manages to salvage one of his father’s possessions, an automaton with the appearance of something out of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Hugo is close to fixing the automaton, but is missing a heart-shaped key to make it fully functional.

Chloe Grace Moretz is one of the most diverse young actresses working in movies today, playing a superhero with a vile vocabulary, a vampire eternally trapped in a juvenile state, and the wise little sister of a moping Joseph Gordon Levitt. Here she’s quite good as Isabella, Hugo’s endearing friend who helps him to bring his automaton to life. Their trials eventually lead them on a path that connects a pioneering filmmaker named Georges Méliès to Isabella’s godfather, a toy store owner played by Ben Kingsley. This is when the movie takes an interesting turn, mixing historical figures with fable as Hugo and Isabella attempt to revive the career of a silent movie artist.

“Hugo” is as gorgeous as any movie you’re likely to see this year. Scorsese paints a world that encompasses the real 1930’s Paris and still manages to feel like something out of a dream. There’s a miraculous shot towards the beginning of the film that transitions between the inside of a working clock and the hyper streets of Paris. It is a wonder to follow Hugo as he runs through his home composed of moving clock cogs, a massive pendulum swinging back and forth, and eternal chambers behind the walls of a train station. Beautifully visualized and brilliantly shot, the universe of “Hugo” is one I will not be forgetting any time soon.

One thing that didn’t entirely work for me in “Hugo” was the film’s supporting characters, which includes Emily Mortimer as a cute flower girl, Christopher Lee as a librarian, and Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as two flirting civilians. I suppose that these characters are supposed to embody one of the film’s themes of broken people trying to find a place to fit into the world. However, I felt that they just meandered from the main plot. There’s also an unfriendly station inspector played by the talented Sacha Baron Cohen who is bent on seizing Hugo. The character starts off basically being a cartoon, but is slowly given some redeeming values to make him more human. While it’s ultimately a good performance, watching Cohen chase Hugo around the train station can get pretty repetitive. As great as “Hugo” is at times, the material with most of these supporting characters can cause it to lag. This is really only about fifteen minutes of an otherwise very engaging achievement though.

I’m not sure if “Hugo” will satisfy certain children that prefer their movies full of hectic energy and loud noises. But “Hugo” isn’t merely a children’s movie as some of the trailers might suggest. It’s a film intended for anybody who appreciates the art of movies and their rich history. “Hugo” is a fabulous recall to classic silent pictures from over a century ago when you had to paint a film frame by frame if you wanted it in color. There are several dialog-free sequences in “Hugo” that evoke the essence of a silent picture, relying on the audience to breathe in the film’s wonderful atmosphere. At the center of this tribute to the cinema are two great performances from some of our best young actors and the relentless passion of a legendary director.

I Am Number Four

It's "Twilight" with aliens...oh goody **

“I Am Number Four” is the first in what is likely going to be a long line of “Twilight” wannabes. This news is especially distressing seeing how I’m not exactly a fan of the “Twilight” saga. Like “Twilight,” “I Am Number Four” comes equipped with attractive stars, plain characters, underwhelming dialog and a plot that never progresses. To the film’s credit though, it isn’t quite as bad as any of the three “Twilight” screen adaptations. That’s really not saying much though. 

The Edward Cullen of “I Am Number Four” is John, a hunky alien with the appearance of a human played by newcomer Alex Pettyfer. John is one of nine aliens that have been sent to Earth to hide from the Mogadorians, another alien species that look like Lord Voldemort, a Klingon, and Dren from “Splice” mixed in a blender then draped in black coats. The Mogadorians are bent on destroying the nine. The movie never really explains why. I suppose it’s because they’re apprehensive of the extraordinary powers the nine possess. But isn’t that basically like attacking a beehive out of fear of getting stung by a bee? Why don’t these aliens just live and let live?

John has been moving from town to town all of his life with Henri, his protector played by Timothy Olyphant. Their travels take them to Paradise, Ohio, where John meets a lovely girl named Sarah, played by the charming Dianna Agron from “Glee.” Sarah is sweet, has a great smile, enjoys taking pictures and that’s essentially all the character development she is allowed. She is instantly drawn to this bruiting and ever so bland new kid on the block. Only after knowing each other for two days and having roughly three conversations, she’s already telling John, “I can’t stop thinking about you.” Isn’t it amazing how swiftly women fall unconditionally and irrevocably in love with men in these kinds of movies?

The supporting cast includes Jake Abel as a schoolyard bully, an exaggerated caricature that’s becoming all too common in movies. Here Abel overdoes it with a constant smile on his face that makes him look like Jack Nicholson’s Joker. There’s also Callan McAuliffe as Sam, a whippy science fiction geek that believes aliens abducted his father. These are all talented actors. It’s just a shame that they aren’t given well-rounded characters to work with. You know that your movie’s in trouble when the character you care about the most is a transforming dog. 

The action sequences feel as if the audience is watching somebody else play a video game. Most of the people often look like blatant CGI images as they run, jump, and fight. By the time the film’s less than epic climax arises you nearly expect the screen to read, “Press ‘A’ button.” 

“I Am Number Four” sets us up for a possible sequel, which I’m less than enthusiastic about. I can only hope that this first installment was just the exposition. Maybe the sequel will truly elaborate on these characters and delve into the extraordinary world these aliens came from. This story could have potential to be a winning franchise if only it had greater aspirations other than to be the stepchild of “Twilight.”

The Ides of March

  Do not beware The Ides of March ***1/2

Although George Clooney has been entertaining audiences for years, he’s only truly found his stride this past decade with great roles in movies like “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air.” He has evolved so much as an actor that sometimes people forget that he nearly killed the Batman franchise in the late nineties. In addition to performing, Clooney has proven that he’s one of the rare big name modern actors that possess the integrity and expertise of a great filmmaker. With “The Ides of March,” Clooney delivers an often captivating and beautifully acted political drama that ranks just a step below his exceptional “Good Night, And Good Luck.”

Clooney plays Mike Morris, the Governor of Pennsylvania who is on the verge of becoming the Democratic presidential candidate. This is merely a supporting performance though. The real star of the movie Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, one of the key players behind the campaign. Meyers works alongside Paul Zara, Morris’ experienced campaign manager played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Also working on the campaign is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns, an intern who Meyers has been shacking up with.

Meyers has complete confidence in Mike Morris. He soon uncovers a secret that might cost the governor his candidacy though. Meyers finds himself stuck in the middle of the cover up and soon his loyalty is tested among his friends, employers, and lovers. I don’t want to delve too much into that fraction of the movie though because I want people to experience “The Ides of March” fresh.

Gosling is nothing short of phenomenal here. His creation of Stephen Meyers is a surprising character that does not represent the little man trying to expose the corrupt politician like in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Rather, Meyer’s exemplifies what a messing game politics can be. Through his selfish personal journey to success, Meyer’s learns that nobody makes it in this business without betraying a few associates.

Clooney beautifully photographs “The Ides of March” with shadowy lighting, at times almost giving the picture a film noir look. The screenplay, which Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon adapted from a play, explodes with entrancing dialog and wit. I don’t think that people in real life, even the ones involved in politics, are as well spoken as the characters in “The Ides of March.” But I’d be lying if I said that they weren’t always interesting to listen to. 

Even the dialog-free sequences are full of great tension. There’s a standout scene in which Clooney and Hoffman share a conversation in a black van. We never see the conversation itself as the camera focuses on the car’s exterior for almost a minute. But the scene is so much more effective and intense than an actual exchange of dialog would have been.

With so many positive attributes, I came close to giving “The Ides of March” a perfect rating. But I was a tad letdown by final ten minutes of the picture. Apart of me desired some sort of revelation on top of Morris’ secret and to learn more about this mysterious politician. Instead the movie works up to a predictable climax and slow falling action. I think a lot of audiences are going to walk out of “The Ides of March” wanting a little more. But sometimes the sentiment of wanting more is evidence of a truly great film.


The Iron Lady

Not the female version of Iron Man **

“The Iron Lady” is one of those movies that simply should have been so much more. One would assume that a biopic about one of the most prominent women that ever lived starring this generations most respected actress would be an equation for first-rate entertainment. Yet, this is a misguided mess in which Director Phyllida Lloyd, who previously brought us “Mamma Mia!,” finds herself completely in over her head. Not even a dedicated performance from Meryl Streep can redeem the film’s rushed pacing and unevenness. 

The movie depicts the life of Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister and the first woman to ever lead a key political party in the United Kingdom. As a young lady trying to be taken seriously in politics, Thatcher is played by Alexandra Roach, whose mouth hangs open a fair deal of the time. As an older woman Meryl Streep portrays her in a genuinely good performance. A significant portion of “The Iron Lady” also takes place in modern times as the retired Thatcher attempts to deal with the loss of her husband Denis, played by Jim Broadbent. 

The problem with “The Iron Lady” is that there are basically two different movies here, neither of which meet their full potential. One movie is about an influential woman’s rise into power and the events that ultimately lead to her resignation. The other story is about an elderly woman letting go of her late spouse. This approach might have worked if “The Iron Lady” explored Margaret’s relationship with her husband in depth. But a majority of their scenes together just consist of cute one-liners that sound like something out of a sitcom. Only on occasion do we actually see an honest representation of why these two fell in love and the toll that Margaret’s political career had on their marriage.

The husband and wife subplot isn’t the only misfire. “The Iron Lady” doesn’t take the time to develop any relationships that feel authentic. Thatcher has two children, Carol and Mark. The only time we see them as kids though is an instance in which they chase after their mother’s car. Thatcher obviously had to put work above her own offspring on many occasions. So why not put more emphasis on that tragic flaw? Why limit it to just one scene? 

Another character that’s briefly depicted is Airey Neave, Thatcher’s campaign manager played by Nicholas Farrell. The film takes little time to develop him into a character or establish what he might have meant to Thatcher. Then suddenly he’s blown up by a car bomb. That’s another dilemma with “The Iron Lady.” There’s lots of interesting dynamics and events for the movie to explore. However, it’s all too rushed to actually engage the audience.

The only salvageable aspect of “The Iron Lady” is Meryl Streep’s performance. Streep is convincing as both a fierce political lady at the top of her game and an elderly woman draped in makeup. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since this is Meryl Streep we’re talking about. She could attempt to give a bad performance and it would still probably be decent. Even in a poor movie like “The Iron Lady” Streep will likely pull off an Oscar nomination. If she were to win for this film though, it would be an unjust victory.


Something's going to jump out, something's going to jump out, something's going to...OH SHIT! Something jumped out! ***1/2

“Insidious” is one of those horror movies in which you can often predict when the scares are coming. Although you might anticipate the creepy little boy lurking in the background or the dark figure leaping out of the shadows, you can’t help but jump out of your seat when these moments occur. “Insidious” isn’t really an original supernatural thriller, borrowing numerous elements from movies like “Paranormal Activity” and “Poltergeist.” Yet in its pursuit to consistently frighten the audience, “Insidious” succeeds, offering some effective performances along the way.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai, a married couple who moves into a house with their three young children. Their eldest son is Dalton, played by Ty Simpkins, who shares a bit of a resemblance to Danny from “The Shining.” When Dalton randomly falls into a coma one morning, the doctors are completely baffled. Matters become even more peculiar when the rest of the family begins to see strange figures go bump in the night.

What I appreciate about “Insidious” is that it never plays its characters for idiots, unlike so many other movies of its kind. As much as I enjoyed the first “Paranormal Activity,” I was always annoyed with how the protagonists never think of simply leaving their possessed house until it’s too late. Here, however, the characters make the decision to leave their new home fairly early on. Even after moving into another house though, they continue to be pestered by the unknown. Josh and Renai finally resort to calling a spiritually expert played by Lin Shaye to help get to the bottom of their unusual circumstances.

The film was directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, who have previously collaborated on several other projects. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Wan and Whannell’s work, which has ranged from unintentionally silly (“Dead Silence”) to flat-out malevolent (the first “Saw” movie). But with “Insidious,” Wan and Whannell finally deliver a film that’s more reliant on ideas and tension than gore and cheap shocks. Whannell, who also co-stars in the film as a nerdy ghost buster, has developed a well-crafted screenplay full of clever twists. With a better story to work with, Wan is able to put his keen visual eye to great use. The end result is a hauntingly shot, carefully plotted thriller that’s a lot of fun.

The one thing that holds “Insidious” back from being a near-classic contemporary horror film is it’s ending, which isn’t necessarily bad, but feels a little abrupt and uneven with the rest of the picture. That aside, “Insidious” is a highly entertaining romp that overcomes its familiarity with style and plenty of genuinely scary moments. Plus, it’s nice to see something that’s at least remotely original in a generation where every horror movie seems to be a retread, a sequel, or a sequel of a retread.

Jack and Jill

Adam Sandler's a woman. Fuck you! Zero stars

“What were they thinking?” I think that’s the perfect slogan to go along with “Jack and Jill,” one of the most idiotic and painfully unfunny comedies ever conceived. Seriously, the film is so humorless that it is literally painful to endure. I tossed and turned in my seat for the entire running time of ninety-three minutes with the sensation of my inners being tangled. At times it almost felt as if my head might explode due to the film’s complete disregard for the audience’s intelligence.

Who gave this project the green light? Who told Adam Sandler that it would be a funny idea for him to play a man and his identical twin sister? The biggest question of all is how I managed to sit through “Jack and Jill” without either walking out of the theater or hanging myself. Well believe me, I was tempted. But there comes a time in every critic’s career when he is challenged with the task of reviewing an ungodly train wreck of catastrophic proportions. Fortunately, I survived “Jack and Jill” and will live to fight another day. But the eternal scars the movie has left on my funny bone may never recover. 

The opening of the film shows promise as various twins talk to the camera about their siblings. The dynamic between twins is a topic that’s rarely explored and could make for a charming movie. But then we meet the title characters and it’s all down hill. Sandler of course plays Jack, a jerky advertising agent with a wife and two kids free of any personality. He also plays Jill, Jack’s twin sister. Any potential the movie had is immediately flushed down the toilet when Jill first opens her mouth with the accents of a Jewish woman and New Jersey housewife rolled into one.

Jill is the equivalent of an awful “Saturday Night Live” character that keeps getting rehashed in sketches. But where a “Saturday Night Live” sketch lasts only several minutes, “Jack and Jill” makes us tolerate the abomination of Jill for an entire movie. The character is so clingy, obnoxious, reprehensible, revolting and lacking in any redeeming values that only the devil himself would have been cruel enough to unleash her into existence. We can’t help but sympathize with Jack as he desperately tries to get rid of Jill after she decides to extend her vacation to his house.

What’s even more embarrassing than the premise is the film’s attempt to be sentimental. There are times when I think we’re supposed to sympathize with Jill who just wants to be with her family and find somebody who loves her. This doesn’t work for two reasons. 1. Jill is so shockingly irritating that nobody could possibly care if she ever finds happiness. 2. The audience is always aware that the character is Adam Sandler in horrific drag. In a movie like “Tootsie” I really believed Dustin Hoffman as a frustrated male actor pretending to be a woman. That’s one of the many reason’s why I actually cared about the character’s alter ego of Dorothy Michaels. Comparing “Jack and Jill” to “Tootsie” just demonstrates how difficult it is to center a movie on drag and how easy it is for this concept to flop.

Adam Sandler’s movies are always jam-packed with blatant product placement. In “Jack and Jill” he takes it to a new low though. Since Jack is an advertising executive, the movie is able to find plenty of instances to promote Pepto-Bismol and Coke. Jared of Subway fame and the ShamWow guy make shameless cameos too. There’s even an entire subplot involving Jack trying to get Al Pacino to star in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.

That’s right, Al Pacino, the Oscar-winner, one of the greatest performers of the last forty years, reduced to playing himself in a lowbrow comedy in which Adam Sandler plays a woman. Matters only get weirder as Pacino begins to develop a creepy attraction towards Jill. An alumni of “The Godfather” films has not sunk so low since Robert De Niro played Fearless Leader in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” What was Pacino thinking when he signed on for this? Maybe he lost a bet or thought he would have some fun in his old age. To be fair, Pacino does deliver the only amusing scenes in the entire movie, but that’s only because his performance is so frenzied that it’s hard not to be fascinated.

I suppose I could see little kids or a certain slack-jawed yokel who believes “Adam Sandler’s the man” liking “Jack and Jill.” I’m assuming that audience is unable to read so this review doesn’t apply to them. Some may counter this review with a question like, “What were you expecting from an Adam Sandler picture?” To tell you the truth, I like some of Adam Sandler’s movies, such as “The Waterboy” and “Happy Gilmore.” I’d even go as far to say that some of his dumber movies like “Little Nicky” have their moments. But “Jack and Jill” isn’t even up to his standards and even diehard Sandler fans will probably be disappointed.

There are numerous great movies currently playing at your local Cineplex, including “50/50,” “Moneyball,” and “The Ides of March.” If you go to the movies and decide to see “Jack and Jill” over any of those three recommendations then I hereby banish you from reading any of my reviews.

Larry Crowne

A middle-aged man riding a scooter? Only in a quirky comedy. ***

From “Big” to “Toy Story 3,” Tom Hanks has had one of the most impressive acting careers of all time. After nearly thirty years of uniformly great performances, Hanks steps into the director’s chair with “Larry Crowne.” Through his first feature-length directorial outing since "That Thing You Do!" in 1996, Hanks doesn’t quite reach the heights of actors turned filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, or Mel Gipson. Nevertheless, “Larry Crowne” is still a pleasant little charmer that establishes Hanks’ promise as a director. 

In addition to working behind the camera, Hanks also plays the film’s title character. Larry Crowne is a fifty-something-year-old, divorced navy veteran who maintains a steady job as a megastore employee. One day Larry gets called into his boss’s office, under the impression that he’s going to make employee of the month. But whenever a character assumes that they’re going to get any short of promotion in the movies, it actually means that they’re getting fired. The megastore is forced to downsize due to the rough economy and since Larry never went to college he’s deemed invaluable.

From there we get the typical montage of Larry being rejected at job interviews due to his age and lack of an education. Unable to find a job, Larry is influenced by his neighbors played by Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson to finally go to college. Larry enrolls at a local university where he signs up for a speech and econ class. In addition to furthering his education, Larry falls into a young scooter gang and gets a taste of the college lifestyle he missed out on. 

Hanks is just right here as Larry Crowne, the likable everyman who stirs up memories of Jimmy Stuart. Who better than Julia Roberts to play Crowne’s icy speech teacher who drinks too much and always wears high heels. While the relationship that arises between Hanks and Roberts is nothing unpredictable, the two still have a winning chemistry and are easy to rout for. In addition it’s stars, “Larry Crowne” is enforced by a terrific supporting cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a young student that helps bring out Larry’s suppressed youth and the always-entertaining George Takei as Larry’s econ professor.

“Larry Crowne” is basically a brisk, refreshing walk through the park. It might have been a better film if the screenplay by Hanks and Nia Vardalos of “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding” had added a little more conflict and avoided being so formulaic. The ending in particular is too mushy for my tastes. Regardless, “Larry Crowne” is a harmless feel-good comedy that consistently left a smile implanted on my face, which is more than enough for me to give it a pass. Whether Hanks will go onto make a movie that matches his strength as an actor is up for debate. For now though, “Larry Crowne” is a solid effort that significantly surpasses the directorial efforts of William Shatner. 

Midnight in Paris

Woody's still got it in him ****1/2

Every year Woody Allen comes out with a new movie and every year I hope that his latest outing will be the one that recaptures the wit of his foremost pictures. Other than a couple of enjoyable gems like “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” it’s been a while since I was completely won over by one of Allen’s pictures. With “Midnight in Paris,” Allen delivers his funniest and most inspired film since the late nineties. This is a surreal and charming comedy with laughs, romance, and even time travel. “Midnight in Paris” might not rank up there with Allen’s absolute best work like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” But that’s probably a bar so high that no director of comedy could surpass it, not even Allen himself.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, who primarily works on movie scripts in Beverly Hills, but really wants to be a novelist. He takes a vacation to Paris with Inez, his incompatible fiancé played by Rachel McAdams, and his future parents-in-law, played by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy. Gil relishes Paris, wishing to walk through the city in the rain. Inez however, would rather spend time with her friend Paul, a pretentious snob who thinks he knows everything about art played by Michael Sheen.

Gil gets lost wandering the streets one night. When the clock strikes midnight, he is picked up in an old timey automobile and taken to a 20’s retro café. There he crosses paths with a couple that claim to be Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill. At first he thinks they are joking. Gil comes to believe that he has actually traveled back in time however, upon meeting Ernest Hemingway, played by Corey Stoll, and Gertrude Stein, played Kathy Bates.

“Midnight in Paris” is a risky project that easily could have fallen into slapstick satire along the lines of “Night and the Museum.” Instead, Allen delivers a witty and refined story about nostalgia, escapism, and frustrated artists. It has the same essence of a film by Frank Capra or even “Groundhog Day.” At the same time, Allen gives “Midnight in Paris” is own unique signature, making it one of a kind.

As over-the-top as some of the actors may be in their portrayals of these historic figures, they all rise above sketch comedy territory and create believable people. Wilson is especially good here as Gil, who Allen likely would have played himself forty years ago. The best performance of all comes from Marion Cotillard as Adriana, a woman from the 20’s who the hopelessly romantic Gil becomes infatuated with. Cotillard encompasses all of the beauty and grace that Paris has to offer, making it perfectly understandable why Gil would be reluctant to return to 21st century America.

The real star of “Midnight in Paris” though, is Paris itself. Few directors do as good of a job of making locations into real characters. Like he’s done with New York in many of his films, Allen fashions Paris into a breathing presence with a life of it’s own. Only so many films have left me with a new admiration for certain settings. But now I have a sudden desire to take a trip to the City of Lights, right after I go see “Midnight in Paris” again. 


Billy Beane: The Man That Really Blew it ****1/2

There are plenty of familiar sports movie elements in “Moneyball,” including a team of misfit players, the only two people who believed in them, and a large group of skeptics that underestimated the team’s chances. Yet, “Moneyball” never feels like a by the numbers picture. The combination of Bennett Miller’s inspired direction, a homerun screenplay penned by Steven Zaillian of “Schindler’s List” and Aaron Sorkin of “The Social Network,” and an Oscar-worthy leading performance are just a few of the things that help to distinguish “Moneyball” as the finest baseball-related movie in recent years.

Based on the novel by Michael Lewis, “Moneyball” focuses on Billy Beane, a once promising up-and-coming athlete who turned down a scholarship to Stanford to join the New York Mets. Unfortunately, Beane couldn’t quite cut it in the big leagues and retired to become the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. After loosing three of his star players, Beane begins a search for new talent and a new strategy. He finds some unlikely help in an assistant general manager named Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, who looks at baseball from statistical point of view. Together, Peter and Beane devise a system to assemble a cheap team that could lead the Athletics to victory.

Billy Beane is easily among the most absorbing characters Pitt has ever played. The film portrays Beane as a man who will always stick by his decisions, even though he knows that they might blow up in his face. As confident as Beane might seem at times, he’s also a person full of regret and seeking redemption. Anybody who has followed Beane’s story knows that not everything works out the way he hopes. Beane’s willingness to take risks and stay devoted to his decisions is both his strength and tragic flaw. But that only makes him a more intriguing protagonist.

The real surprise in the acting ensemble is Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, who was inspired by the real-life assistant-general manager to Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta. Hill is often associated with a young John Belushi given his work in comedies like “Superbad” and “Get Him to the Greek.” Here he shies away from his usually outspoken characters with an engagingly subtle performance as a timid man afraid to speak his thoughts.

For a movie with baseball at its core, “Moneyball” pays little attention to the players and includes only one major big game sequence. Although the Oakland Athletics beat all the odds in their 2002 season, this really isn’t their story. The movie belongs to Pitt and Hill as two men who set out to change the way people perceive baseball management with a dicey strategy. Like the best sports movies, “Moenyball” will prove both moving and fascinating to everyone in the audience, even those who know absolutely nothing about baseball.

Mr. Popper's Penguins

People will go see this. People are stupid! **

The Filmmaker: Okay, how about this? People love Jim Carrey. People love penguins. We put them together and what do we have? A guaranteed family comedy hit!

Studio Executive: Yeah! The screenplay will practically write itself. It’s like we’ll have to put no effort into the project whatsoever and still make countless millions. Aren’t we geniuses?

“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” is as generic and predictable as movies get. Despite its potentially funny premise, it takes no chances and results in one of the blandest comedies of the year.

The plot can essentially be summed up in a movie trailer with one of those obnoxious announcers. Jim Carrey plays Mr. Popper, a divorced businessman who’s on the verge of a big promotion at work. Everything is going his way until Mr. Popper finds out that his estranged father has passed away. Mr. Popper receives a crate from his late dad and reluctantly inherits … six Emperor Penguins. Yeah, I know it’s stupid. Just go with it.

Various slapstick antics ensue from the penguin’s arrival, making Mr. Popper’s life a living hell. Since his two children take a liking to the penguins though, Mr. Popper is left with no choice but to keep them around. In due course, the penguins help Mr. Popper to reconnect with his family and learn what’s really important in life. I hope I haven’t spoiled anything for you.

Jim Carrey, God bless him, gives it his all here. For my money though, his usual shtick hasn’t been that funny since “Bruce Almighty” in 2003. The film’s real scene-stealer is Ophelia Lovibond as Mr. Popper’s British assistant who incorporates multiple “P” words into every sentence she utters. As for the penguins, they’re all undeniably adorable. However, if I wanted to see a movie with cute penguins I would rent “March of the Penguins” or “Happy Feet.” At least the penguins in those movies didn’t constantly poop all over the place.

As you might have guessed, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” didn’t exactly wow me. But to be fair, I’m not the target audience for the movie. If you’re under the age of ten, maybe you’ll get a kick out of seeing Jim Carrey take a soccer ball to the balls or the mere sight of penguins. The film is inoffensive and will likely make for ideal children’s entertainment. For the adults in the theater though, be prepared to consistently look at your watches.

The Muppets

Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational, Muppet-ational ****1/2

This has been a nostalgic year for Walt Disney Pictures, producing a new “Winnie the Pooh” movie and rereleasing “The Lion King” in 3D. Now Disney brings back the Muppets, which the studio officially acquired the rights to in 2004 after years of collaborations like “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island.” The Muppets’ latest film outing, which was pitched by Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, is a winner in just about every respect imaginable. It is crystal clear that all the people involved with the picture share nothing less than complete admiration for the Muppet legacy. The end result is a warm, delightfully corny, refreshing, and funny gem that will appeal to nostalgic adults just as much as it will to kids being introduced to the Muppets for the first time.

In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Jason Segel played a composer that produced a Dracula musical with puppets. Now he’s working alongside the most famous puppets in the world, acting as the co-writer and star of “The Muppets.” He plays Gary, a jolly man who lives in a small town called Smalltown. Since Amy Adams has already mastered playing a Disney princess, it was only logical that she would eventually act with the Muppets. Here she shines as Mary, Gary’s girlfriend of ten years who is so pure she brings the Virgin Mary to mind. Gary also has a brother named Walter, who nobody seems to notice is actually a living felt puppet. It’s my theory that Gary and Walter are only half brothers and their mother had an affair with a member of the Sesame Street gang.

The brothers grow up watching “The Muppet Show” and Walter in particular develops into their biggest fan. They travel to Los Angeles to finally take a tour of the Muppet Studios. They are underwhelmed upon arrival however, finding the studio rustic and abandoned, probably due to the financial flop that was “Muppets from Space.” Walter learns that an evil businessman with the ironic name of Tex Richman, played by the villainous Chris Cooper, plans to buy the studio to drill for oil. Walter, Gary, and Mary inform Kermit the Frog, who is now living the lifestyle of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” Kermit decides to get the old crew back together for one last show to raise the money to save the studio.

Keeping in the tradition of previous films, “The Muppets” features cameos from numerous big-name stars. Instead of Bob Hope and Steve Martin though, we get walk-on roles from Jack Black, Emily Blunt, and Neil Patrick Harris. There are several other notable names, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises for you. Segel, Adams, and Cooper especially do great work as the three main human characters. Each strikes just the right balance of appearing happy to star in a Muppet movie without trying to outshine the Muppets themselves.

The Muppets are truly the stars of the picture and all of them are permitted a chance to shine, from Fozzie Bear and his intentionally bad jokes, to Gonzo the Great and his bowling ball tricks, to Beaker and his high pitched voice, to the Swedish Chef and his incomprehensible accent, to the scene-stealing Miss Piggy and her temper tantrums, to the welcome newcomer of Walter who also possesses a hidden talent. For me it’s impossible not to laugh at Kermit the Frog as he panics backstage with his arms waving in the air.

The film also features several original songs by Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords.” McKenzie’s offbeat lyrics and whimsical tone are a perfect match for “The Muppets,” bringing us catching tunes like the lighthearted “Life’s a Happy Song,” the melancholy “Pictures in My Head,” and the hysterical “Man or Muppet.” Since this is also a reunion of sorts, the film makes times for classic Muppets songs such as the eternal “Rainbow Connection.” Even a day after the screening I still have that “Mahna, Mahna” song stuck in my head.

So many entertainments directed at kids nowadays come off as cynical in an attempt to feel hip and trendy. “The Muppets” is a genuine treasure that absolutely lives up to the late Jim Henson’s original vision. This is the one movie of the year that I can’t possibly imagine somebody not enjoying. If you’re suffering from clinical depression, forget about Zoloft and Prozac. “The Muppets” is the best cure.

My Week with Marilyn

That's right, my week with Marilyn, the British Pop Singer! ****

“My Week with Marilyn” is a film that never would have worked without the right actress in the title role. As strong as the script, direction, and supporting ensemble might be the true success of the film lies in the hands of Michelle Williams’ performance. Portraying a screen legend such as Marilyn Monroe is a heavy task for any actress, even a two-time Oscar nominee. Yet, Williams proves to be more than up to the challenge, flawlessly capturing the playfulness and tragedy of this American icon.
The film is based on two diary accounts by Colin Clark, played by English actor Eddie Redmayne. Colin is determined to break into the movies and manages to land a job as the third assistant director in a film called “The Prince and the Showgirl.” The film stars and is directed by the frustrated Sir Laurence Olivier, played by Kenneth Branagh in a very funny performance. Oliver’s co-star is Monroe, who was the most beautiful and famous actress in world at this time. Only a few years later however, she would allegedly commit suicide due to a drug overdose.
Monroe appeared so cheerful and graceful in movies and in interviews that few people at the time would have suspected just how emotionally damaged she was. Williams is brilliant as Monroe, depicting her as a woman who could be full of life one minute and wallowing in insecurity the next. While Monroe was very fragile and overwhelmed by her fame, she was also bent on achieving greatness and getting a scene just right. The only way to relive her of that hidden pain was through a combination of drugs and alcohol. Although her death was premature, Monroe achieved more in her short lifetime than most performers could ever dream. In a sense she is reminiscent of Williams’ former partner, the late Heath Ledger, which only makes the performance more genuine.
Williams may not have the same exact figure as the real Marilyn with wide hips and curves. That’s virtually irrelevant though. Williams deserves the highest praise for personifying the emotional turmoil and spirit of Monroe in this role of a lifetime. In addition to capturing her mannerisms and speech, Williams creates a Monroe of her own that stands out from any other portrayals. She is not merely impersonating Marilyn Monroe. She fully embodies her.
Also good here is Redmayne as Colin, who becomes a close friend to Marilyn on the set. Where everyone else is either yelling directions at Marilyn or coddling her, Colin acts as the one person who seems to actually have a connection with her. Throughout their brief period together, Colin sees Marilyn at her best and at her worst. In the process he can’t help but fall completely in love with her.
The film’s ending may be a little too optimistic, sugarcoating the fact that Monroe’s inner demons eventually caught up with her. Nevertheless, “My Week with Marilyn” is still truly a wonderful film featuring one of the year’s absolute best performances. For years we’ve all wished to see Monroe on the silver screen once more. This is the closest we will ever get.


Who's really the alien here? ****

It’s hard to find fault in the directing career of Greg Mottola. After doing strong work as a television director for several years, Mottola broke out into the mainstream feature film market with “Superbad,” providing some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had at the movies. Two years later, Mottola wrote and directed “Adventureland,” which I think stands out as one of the most under-appreciated coming-of-age stories of modern times. When I read the synopsis for “Paul,” however, I feared that Mottola might finally be loosing his touch with a visual effects driven comedy along the lines of “Land of the Lost” and “Evan Almighty.” Fortunately, this is not the case.

“Paul” is a film on the same level of the original “Ghostbusters.” Although the movie is an achievement in terms of production values, “Paul” never allows the special effects to overshadow the comedy. The true driving force of “Paul” is its screenplay by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, which overflows with an assortment of hilarious visual and written gags. While it’s not quite as good as Mottola’s previous two films, “Paul” is another home run from the director and keeps his winning streak intact.

In addition to writing the script, the film also stars Pegg and Frost, who previously worked together on “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and various other projects. Here they play Graeme and Clive, two English, middle-aged fan boys that decide to visit every significant extraterrestrial sight in the United States. On their road trip, the two witness a car accident. The driver of the car turns out to be a short, gray alien wearing prissy shorts named Paul, voiced by none other than Seth Rogen.

Rogen might be the last person you’d ever expect to provide the voice of an extraterrestrial being. Yet, his voice goes hand in hand with the character of Paul, who’s every bit as laid back and down-to-earth as the slacker 20-year-olds you’d find working at a convenient store. Graeme and Clive learn that Paul has been held prisoner for the last 60 years and has recently escaped from Area 51. The two nerds agree to help Paul get back to his home planet before the government tracks him down.

Along with the endearing trio of Pegg, Frost, and Rogen, “Paul” is enforced by a terrific supporting ensemble. Jason Bateman is perfectly cast as Lorenzo Zoil, a stone-faced government agent assigned with the duty of bringing Paul in. Zoil is reluctantly paired up with two immature rookies played by Joe Lo Truglio and Bill Hader, both of whom are regularly featured in Mottola’s films. Kristen Wiig delivers another scene-stealing performance as Ruth, a woman who protests the notion of evolution with a T-shirt featuring Jesus Christ shooting Charles Darwin. There’s even an extended cameo from a certain science-fiction movie veteran as the Big Guy, an incognito agent who is determined to capture Paul.

As funny as “Paul” is, it goes beyond being the laugh riot some might expect. In a strange way, the film actually says something about human nature and what it means to be human. It’s a wise film that also works as a smart piece of science fiction. I can’t imagine any fan of science fiction not being completely won over by “Paul.” And as somebody who watches a fair deal of science fiction movies, I couldn’t help but light up when the film referenced the 1988 “E.T.” knockoff, “Mac and Me.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

It's official, the rum is all gone **1/2

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” was one of the most surprising movie phenomenon’s of recent times. Despite the lackluster source material of an amusement park ride, the filmmakers managed to produce a thrilling, humorous, and adult entertainment. While the 2006 follow-up, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” was a letdown for some, I regarded the film as one of the most enjoyably over-the-top sequels since “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Although I marginally recommended the third installment of the series, “At World’s End,” I’d be lying if I said that the movie wasn’t a narrative mess and lacked the freshness of its processors.

I had hoped that “At World’s End” would be the finale of the “Pirates” saga. Like all good things in the movie industry though, the studio will not let a winning franchise die until there is absolutely no life left in it. So now we get “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and, as much as I hate to admit it, I think the ship has finally sailed with this series. Granted, the film does provide a couple of exciting action sequences, a few amusing one-liners, and Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is always a delight to see. But “On Stranger Tides” ultimately left me with the underwhelming feeling of been there, done that.

This time around, good-old Captain Jack finds himself caught up in a race to the Fountain of Youth. Through a series of events, Jack ends up on a ship with a former fling named Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz. Running the vessel is Ian McShane as the merciless Black Beard. It took him long enough to finally show up in one of these “Pirate” movies. Also searching for the fountain is Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, who has somehow gone from a notorious pirate to a respected privateer of the Royal Navy. The Spanish Empire is also in the mix but none of them are ever really developed. 

The quest seems simple enough: Track down the Fountain of Youth and drink from it. But the screenwriters make matters far more complex than they have to be. Much of the film gets bogged down by endless scenes of the characters attempting to explain what’s going on. These sequences are so jumbled that they actually make some of the more incoherent strings of dialog in “Inception” appear understandable.

To get the full effect of the Fountain of Youth, our heroes must acquire two sacred grails and a mermaid’s tear. Unlike the friendly mermaids we’re accustomed to in most Disney entertainments, these are seductive creatures with vampire fangs, can conveniently grow legs when on dry land, and always go topless. You know, for kids.

To compensate for the absence of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan, a new young couple is thrown into “On Stranger Tides.” Sam Claflin plays Phillip, a missionary who believes that even Black Beard’s soul can be saved, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey is Syrena, a mermaid that Black Beard has captured. The bad news is that these two are about as fascinating as the animatronics on the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. I was amazed by just how monumentally boring these two characters were, especially seeing how one of them is a mermaid. By the film’s conclusion, you’re left pondering what purpose they really served to the plot and wish they had been excluded from the film altogether.

This is the first “Pirates” picture not to be directed by Gore Verbinski, who hands the torch over to Rob Marshall, director of “Chicago” and “Nine.” Marshall brings munch of his visual gifts to the table and stays true to the tone of the first three movies. But he fails to incorporate the innovation that “On Stranger Tides” needed to distinguish itself from previous installments. The screenplay by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott is all over the place and packs in too many subplots that the audience just doesn’t care about. For a movie with so much going on, the end result feels incredibly uneventful.

As for Depp, he’s clearly having a lot of fun here and his creation of Captain Jack Sparrow remains one of the most iconic 21st Century movie characters. But after four films, even Jack has become all too familiar. He now lacks the unpredictability and wit that earned Depp an Oscar nomination, and what should have been a win, for his work in the first film.

Despite everything I’ve just said, I’m sure that countless millions will still go see “On Stranger Tides.” For diehard fans of the series, there’s a good chance that they might overlook the routine nature of the film and have a good time. While there’s nothing I can do to prevent them from seeing the picture, I can strongly advise them from seeing it in 3D. A majority of the film is shot during nighttime, which only looks murkier in 3D. If you don’t regret throwing away ten dollars on the movie itself, you’ll certainly regret spending an additional five bucks on those damn 3D glasses.


I'm all prommed out **1/2

“Prom” is one of those movies where the audience can foretell everything that is going to happen. Unless you’ve never seen another high school movie, or high school television drama for that matter, none of the twists in “Prom” should come as a surprise. The film is light, corny, and will not significantly alter anyone’s life. For older audiences it will feel like the table scraps of superior high school movies. For those under the age of twelve who are too young to see “The Breakfast Club” however, “Prom” might feel like a truly adult moviegoing experience. 

The film plays out like the “Crash” of prom movies, interweaving multiple stories about teenagers eagerly awaiting that life-changing night. The head of the prom committee is Nova, a tightly wound senior played by the promising rising star, Aimee Teegarden. When all the prom decorations are destroyed in a fire, Nova is forced to start from scratch with only three weeks remaining. Jesse, a rebel who always has his long, douchebag hair in his face played by Thomas McDonell, reluctantly gets roped into helping Nova. This commences the typical high school love story where a good girl falls for a tough guy. There really isn’t anything special about their romance. 

As corny and formulaic as “Prom” is, the film does have its share of redeeming values. There are several funny subplots involving a hopeless geek played by Nicholas Braun trying to get a date and an alleged stoner played by Joe Adler who claims he has a Greek girlfriend flying in to be his prom date. It would have been easy for a film like this to throw a generic, over-the-top bully into the mix. Yet, the closest thing there is to a villain in “Prom” is a popular jock named Tyler, played by DeVaughn Nixon. He’s essentially a nice guy aside from the fact that he’s two-timing his girlfriend with a sophomore. Even though Tyler comes off as a jerk for his actions, he still kind of speaks true to the nature of some high school boys. It’s pleasant to see a movie where everyone is likable or at least relatable. As a bonus, all the young actors in “Prom” actually look like they could be high school students.

But for every inspired moment that “Prom” offers, it gets bogged down by one too many clichés. Of course we get the inescapable montage where the girl tries on various prom dresses and the scene where we learn that the bad boy actually has a heart of gold. What really puts a damper on the film though is a classic misunderstanding that occurs in the third act that keeps the two main characters apart. We all know that the two are going to end up together in the end. So why prolong the inevitable?  

Overall, I’m on the fence with “Prom.” But due to a lack of ambition, I ultimately have to marginally decline the picture unless you’re in elementary or middle school. While it’s a sweet and pleasant effort, it fails to reach the heights of great contemporary high school movies like “Mean Girls” and “Easy A.” In the realistic department though, “Prom” is a step up from Disney’s last theatrical take on high school life, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.”  

Red Riding Hood

It's a howler *

Here we are, only three months into 2011, and already we’ve gotten three films that have attempted to mimic the success of the “Twilight” movies. First there was “I Am Number Four,” where the sexy vampires were just switched with sexy aliens. Then just a week ago we were burdened with “Beastly,” a gothic mishmash between “Twilight” and the classic “Beauty and the Beast” story. Now comes the mother of all “Twilight” rip-offs with “Red Riding Hood.” I don’t know who suggested taking this beloved fairytale and contemporizing it with beautiful teenage virgins overwhelmed with sexual urges. All I know is that this person must have had an incredibly depraved childhood.

This is a film that imitates “Twilight” every chance it gets, from the shots of tall forest trees, to the full moon, to the hipster soundtrack, to the uninspired love triangle. To top it all off, the director of “Red Riding Hood” just so happens to be Catherine Hardwicke, who made the first “Twilight” movie. It’s as if this movie wasn’t even trying to distinguish itself with a shred of originality.

The red riding hood of the story is Valerie, a young woman played by the usually charming Amanda Seyfried. Ever since she was a little girl, Valerie has been in love with Peter, played Shiloh Fernandez. Peter is the spitting image of Edward Cullen with an untamable, jelled up head of hair. As a matter of fact, every male in this movie seems to have a modern hairdo and perfect skin tones. That’s a tad odd for a movie that is apparently set in the middle ages.

Now growing out of adolescence, Valerie wishes to marry her beloved Peter, who works as woodchopper. But Valerie’s parents believe that Peter is too poor for their daughter. They’d rather her marry a wealthy young man named Henry, played by Max Irons, who works as a blacksmith. I don’t know much about whatever time period this movie is intended to be taking place in. But I’m fairly confident that the salary of a woodchopper is on par with that of a blacksmith.

Romance will have to be put on hold however, because a dreaded werewolf has murdered Valerie’s underdeveloped sister. To finish off the wolf once and for all, the village calls upon Father Solomon, played by Gary Oldman. Oldman is a gifted and almost always interesting actor. Here he gives a genuinely dreadful performance where he seems to be channeling both Christopher Walken and William Shatner. This really isn’t Oldman’s fault though. He obviously just took a look at the script and said, “Screw it. I’m just going to go over the top and do whatever I want. Nobody gives a crap.”

Another wasted talent is Oscar-winner Julie Christie as Valarie’s grandmother, who lives by herself in the middle of the woods. In one of the most bizarre dream sequences of recent memory, Valarie wakes up to find her grandma awkwardly lying next to her. Valarie delivers the classic line, “What big teeth you have.” Her grandma then replies, in a man’s voice, “The better to eat you with, my dear!” I’d like to sit Catherine Hardwicke down and ask her, “Was this scene honestly intended to be taken seriously or were you trying to be hilarious?”

As awful as “Red Riding Hood” is, I will give it this: The film is a hell of a lot of fun to purely make fun of. Perhaps “Red Riding Hood” could even develop a “so bad it’s good” reputation like “Troll 2” or “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” When the movie comes out to DVD in a few months, maybe rent it with a good friend and the two of you can have a couple good laughs. This is by no means a recommendation for “Red Riding Hood.” But it’s the closest thing this film is every going to receive from me. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

There's just one too many "of's" in that title ***1/2

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a movie that occasionally dares its audience not to breakout into laughter. There’s a particular sign language conversation between two monkeys that had several audience members at the screening I attended busting their guts. Although I suppose a few unintentional laughs come with the territory of any “Planet of the Apes” picture. After all, how seriously can someone take a movie about intelligent monkeys that overthrow mankind?

This prequel to the classic “Planet of the Apes” story we all know and love stars James Franco as Will Rodman, the least nerdy scientist in the history of movies. Rodman is working towards producing a cure for Alzheimer’s by testing a revolutionary formula on apes. The experiment goes haywire when one of the apes breaks loose and attacks several board members. The ape is shot down by security, leaving behind a newborn baby. Rodman decides to name the little ape Caesar and raise it as his own cub.

Caesar matures into a highly intelligent primate with the agility of Spider-Man. While Caesar to grateful for the life Rodman has given him, he is not content with being a secondary citizen in a word run by humans. One day when Rodman’s father is harassed by an unfriendly neighbor, Caesar breaks out of his attic and bites off his finger. The court orders Caesar to be locked away in an ape sanctuary that is governed by a cruel little twit played by Tom Felton. After witnessing mans cruelty towards his species, Caesar hatches a plan to free his ape brethren. At a certain point you almost expect Caesar to approach his keeper and say, “Let my primates go!”

The most interesting character in the movie is Caesar, played by Andy Serkis in yet another motion-capture performance. Serkis, who also played King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, does a terrific job at capturing Caesar’s inner emotions. He supplies the character with a deadpan, intimidating stare that’s reminiscent of an outlaw strait out of a spaghetti western. You can always tell what’s running through Caesar’s humanized brain, despite his lack of dialog. I’m not entirely sure if the praise mainly belongs to Serkis or the special effects crew. But in any case, the character of Caesar is quite an achievement.

It’s just unfortunate that the human characters aren’t nearly as fascinating as the apes. Don’t get me wrong, there a plenty of great actors on display here. In addition to the always reliable Franco, the film stars the luminous Freida Pinto as his girlfriend and John Lithgow as his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. While they’re all fine here, their scenes are kind of flat compared to some of the breathtaking sequences involving Caesar and the other apes. It’s like in “Jurassic Park” where the CGI T-Rex and velociraptors upstaged all the human characters.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” didn’t exactly exceed my expectations. For what it is though, the film adds an interesting chapter to the “Planet of the Apes” mythology and is made with more intelligence than the average summer blockbuster. Director Rupert Wyatt incorporates plenty of technical wizardry and produces an entertainment that’s never dull to watch. The film even manages to end on a triumphant note, despite the fact that the annihilation of mankind is just around the corner. But hey, at least it doesn’t conclude with an ape Lincoln memorial like in Tim Burton’s unholy revamp.


Dive into mediocrity **1/2

“Sanctum” is the definition of cinematic mediocrity. It’s not a particularly good film, nor is it a bad one. The characters are insipid, the plot is conventional and the production values are ordinary. In a week, I will have likely have completely forgotten about the movie, which plays out like “The Core” meets Wolfgang Petersen’s revamp of “Poseidon.” For my money, that’s not an especially interesting combination.

The film follows a team of divers that set out to survey an underwater cave. While exploring, a freak storm occurs and the entrance becomes sealed off. With nobody coming to rescue them, the team is forced to make their way through the flooding, uncharted area. Leading the pack is Richard Roxburgh as Frank McGuire, a renowned diver. Joining Frank is Josh, his young son played by Rhys Wakefield, who is indifferent to his distant dad. Also on the expedition are Ioan Gruffudd as Carl and Alice Parkinson as his girlfriend, Victoria. The rest of the cast serves little purpose other than to impassively die.

The inspiration for “Sanctum” was derived from the experiences of co-screenwriter Andrew Wight, who was once trapped in a system of underwater caves himself. In real life though, I doubt that Wight’s ordeal included a feuding father and son subplot and lots of “I’m not leaving you behind” speeches. Wight and first time writer John Garvin seem to think that these clichés are necessary to provide heart. But they just make “Sanctum” feel generic where it had the potential to be a fascinating true story along the lines of “127 Hours.”

The one admirable aspect of “Sanctum” is the cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin, who captures several complex underwater shots. Unfortunately, the distracting 3D effects overshadow most of those shots. It’s no surprise that “Sanctum” will be playing in 3-D, seeing how the film’s producer is none other than James Cameron. Cameron believes that 3-D will one day become the new standard for motion pictures. Cameron’s “Avatar” was one of the finest demonstrations I’ve ever seen of what quality 3-D effects can do for certain movies. “Sanctum,” on the other hand, is simply another example of a film where 3-D adds nothing. To spend an additional five dollars on those clunky glasses is the equivalent of money flushed down the drain.

Just when it seems like “Sanctum” is never going to take off, the film does redeem itself in the third act when one character reveals his true cowardly colors. By that point though, the audience has become so detached from these shallow characters that they don’t really care. Perhaps “Sanctum” will make for a decent rental when it’s released on DVD. To venture to the theater however, would result in a guaranteed unmemorable movie-going experience.

Sarah's Key

Two stories, one key ****1/2

As I sat down to watch “Sarah’s Key,” I admittedly couldn’t help but think to myself, “Oh great, another Holocaust movie.” The Holocaust is undoubtedly one of the most significant events of our history and has provided inspiration for numerous great films. I’ve just seen so many Holocaust-related movies over the years that the subject matter is beginning to become too familiar. However, my reservations towards “Sarah’s Key” quickly dwindled as the film commenced. This is a unique and special picture about a lesser-known fraction of the Holocaust’s history. While it may not receive as much recognition as the fiercely overrated Oscar-nominee, “The Reader,” audiences will have a much more profound experience at this near masterwork.

“Sarah’s Key” follows the stories of two different women separated by roughly 70 years. One tale takes place in present day where a journalist named Julia, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, attempts to paste together what happened to a little French Jewish girl named Sarah during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942. The other story follows the ten-year-old Sarah, played by Mélusine Mayance, who locks her younger brother in a closet to hide him from French officers. Sarah is arrested along with her father and mother, leaving her brother behind.

They’re eventually transported to the Beaune-la-Rolande camp where Sarah is separated from her parents. Her father is deported to Auschwitz and her mother will soon follow. Sarah has managed to hold onto the key to the closet throughout this horrific ordeal. Although it seems hopeless, she is determined to escape from the camp and free her brother.

What surprised me about “Sarah’s Key” was the humanity of many of the supporting characters. In one of the movie’s most tense instances, Sarah’s mother attempts to give her food through a fence and they are caught by a guard. You’d expect this guard to ruthlessly punish Sarah and her mother. Yet, he lets Sarah go with an apple. Another deep relationship Sarah builds is with a married couple she encounters after escaping from the camp. They both decide to help Sarah get back home, knowing the consequences if they are caught helping a Jew. The Holocaust was a confusing time in which many civilians had little choice but to go along with the authorities and look out for themselves. But in the midst of all the chaos, “Sarah’s Key” demonstrates that there were some people who were brave enough to do what was right.

The pivotal performance comes from Mélusine Mayance as Sarah. Mayance gives one of the most brutally heartbreaking performances I’ve ever seen from a young actress, demonstrating the strength and stature most actresses don’t achieve until adolescence. If “Sarah’s Key” can find an audience, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Mayance joined the ranks of Anna Paquin and Tatum O’Neal as one of the youngest performances to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Mayance’s scenes are so powerful that they often outshine the plot involving Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia. In due course, this subplot comes off as a bit weaker than the flashback sequences, but Julia’s story ultimately plays a crucial role and it’s hard to imagine the film without it by the end. The final scene between Julia and a relative of Sarah’s is an especially superb moment.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner adapted the film from the historical fiction novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. Paquet-Brenner has painted a mesmerizing picture with the appropriately hectic cinematography from Rascal Ridao and a touching musical score by Max Richter. It will be easy for “Sarah’s Key” to get lost in the shuffle of countless big budget summer blockbusters. I can only hope people will take the time to seek it out and remember it at the end of the year. This is simply one of the year’s finest films.

Scream 4

New decade. New rules. Same masked guy with a knife. ***

In a majority of horror movie franchises, the only characters that leave an impression on the audience are the villains. We all remember Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and the Jigsaw killer, but how many people can actually name any of the countless victims they’ve claimed over the years? This has never been the case with the “Scream” series. These are films about people we care about and identify with because, unlike the forgotten souls in a typical “Friday the 13th” picture, these characters actually watch scary movies on a regular basis.

The first two “Scream” movies were witty, chilling and overwhelmed with some of the best action set pieces I’ve ever seen in modern slasher pictures. The often-criticized “Scream 3” was admittedly a guilty pleasure on my behalf, although I’d be lying if I said that the film didn’t lack the freshness and innovation of its exceptional predecessors. Eleven years later, we finally get “Scream 4,” which brings the franchise into a new generation of Facebook, Twitter, iPhones and Internet blogs. Does “Scream 4” standout as an inspired take on 21st century thrillers? In comparison to some recent horror remakes and the seven “Saw” movies, which “Scream 4” takes the liberty of satirizing, I’d say yes.

Neve Campbell is back as Sidney Prescott, who has pulled off the unthinkable task of surviving three slasher films in a row. Sidney returns to her hometown of Woodsboro where, you guessed it, the Ghostface Killer is murdering more innocent teenagers. The long-suffering Sidney is reunited with Gale Weathers, the meddlesome former journalist, played by Courteney Cox, and Dewey Riley, the bumbling police officer who has been upgraded to sheriff, played by David Arquette.

In addition to the three soul survivors of the earlier movies, “Scream 4” piles up a stellar supporting cast. The most notable newcomers are Emma Roberts as Sidney’s cousin, Jill, and Hayden Panettoere as her best friend. We also get some fun performances from Alison Brie as Sidney’s insufferable publicist, Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin as a couple of film buffs, and Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson as two deputies who believe that it sucks to be a cop in movies unless you’re Bruce Willis.

What holds “Scream 4” back from being on the same level of the original is an abundance of familiarity. The film is overstuffed with several red herring characters, one too many obvious set ups, and the inevitable scene where the killer isn’t really dead. Like the previous movies, “Scream 4” does have the courtesy to point out these clichés and make fun of itself. But even being self-aware has kind of become routine for this franchise. The only real shocker in the movie occurs in the final act, which might blow your mind, or you may find too preposterous to accept.

On the whole, “Scream 4” is a well-acted and worthy installment to the series. Much of the film’s success lies in the hands of director Wes Craven, who can be a master craftsman of horror when at the top of his game, and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. The film will delight fans of the original trilogy and perhaps even appeal to those unfamiliar with “Scream.” A part of me just wanted a little more out of this sequel though, especially after all this time. The real question is whether or not a franchise like “Scream” will ever really evolve beyond a masked person running around with a knife.

Source Code

"Do you ever have déjà vu?" "I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen." ***1/2

“Source Code” is a science fiction thriller that hooks you in from the opening scene and fully engages its audience all the way through. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan who wakes up on a train in Chicago. Sitting across from Stevens is Christina, played by Michelle Monaghan. Christina acts as if she knows Stevens and refers to him as Sean Fentress. To top off his confusion, Stevens sees another man’s face in the mirror when he enters the bathroom. Within the next few minutes, the train explodes.

Stevens wakes up in a chamber as if the entire experience was just a dream. Via a computer screen, he is greeted by Colleen Goodwin, a military woman played by Vera Farmiga. Goodwin informs Stevens that he is in the Source Code, a program that allows him to take over another person’s body in the final eight minutes of their life. Earlier that day, a train exploded in Chicago. One of the passengers on this train was Sean Fentress. If Stevens can find out who planted the bomb on the train through Sean’s body, he will be able to prevent a future terrorist attack in Chicago. 

This is an intriguing and unique premise that sounds great on paper. But I was a tad worried that “Source Code” would fall into the same league of “The Forgotten” and “The Happening,” two films that started off with potentially interesting premises and failed to deliver. In the hands of Director Duncan Jones, who previously brought us “Moon,” and first-time screenwriter Ben Ripley however, “Source Code” is an exceptionally paced and character-driven action picture that never runs out of steam.

Jake Gyllenhaal is an almost always charismatic actor and unsurprisingly adds another strong performance to his filmography here. Equally wonderful is Michelle Monaghan, an actress that most audiences may recognize, but not necessarily know by name. In “Source Code” Monaghan establishes more than ever that she definitely has the charm and range of an A-list leading lady. Another strong performance comes from Jeffrey Wright as the mysterious Dr. Rutledge, the inventor of Source Code. Wright continues to prove that he is one of our finest character actors and possesses possibly the coolest voice of any performer currently working in movies.

The best performance of all comes from Farmiga as Goodwin. For a majority of the movie you aren’t entirely sure if Goodwin truly cares for Stevens’ well being or if she merely wants to abuse his talents to operate Source Code. Although her character rarely speaks her mind, Farmiga perfectly conveys her characters emotions though nonverbal language, all in the confined space of a military office.

“Source Code” encompasses the wit and sophistication of a Hitchcockian thriller mixed with the ideas of contemporary science fiction masterworks like “Minority Report” and “Inception.” It doesn’t quite reach the status of perfection and at times the plot makes about as much sense as “Back to the Future: Part II” or “Lost.” But “Source Code” is such a well crafted and exquisitely acted piece of work that these minor plot holes are easy to neglect. “Source Code” also attains a feat I never thought possible, proving that the “Groundhog Day” scenario could work as an action thriller. 


British teens have problems too ***1/2

Like many movies of its kind, “Submarine” commences with its troubled teenage protagonist addressing the audience through an internal monologue. After “Juno,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and “Easy A,” I wasn’t entirely sure if we needed another movie to explore the insecurities and problems of young adults. My reservations towards “Submarine” quickly dwindled, however, as I found a darkly humorous, yet warm, comedy with a breakthrough performance from its young lead.

The teenage lead in question is Oliver Tate, a 15-year-old living in Swansea, England, played by Craig Roberts. In the spirit of most boys his age, Oliver has two objectives: Loosing his virginity and rekindling the love between his parents. Oliver sets his eyes on a peculiar girl named Jordana, played by Yasmin Paige. At first Jordana uses Oliver as means to make her ex-boyfriend jealous, taking pictures of them kissing and leaving fake diary entries around the school. However, after suffering a beating from the ex-boyfriend, Oliver and Jordana begin to evolve into an actual couple.

In addition to his own relationship, Oliver has been studying the romance of his parents, played by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor in a pair of very funny performances. Based on the position of the dimmer in their bedroom, Oliver suspects that his parents have not had relations in several months. The fact that his mother’s former lover has moved in next door only contributes to Oliver’s fear that his parents will split.

The highlight of “Submarine” is Craig Roberts, who previously starred in the latest film adaptation of “Jane Eyre.” Roberts sells every moment as the awkward and somewhat disturbed Oliver. In the hands of another actor, Oliver could easily be an insufferable and overly self-conscious teenager who you just want to punch. Yet, Roberts brings a certain anti-charm to the role, making Oliver surprisingly relatable. At times the character might talk more like a thirty-year-old than a fifteen-year-old. But maybe I’m underestimating just how sophisticated teenagers can be.

Through his feature film debut, Director Richard Ayoade supplies “Submarine” with plenty of indie charm. His screenplay adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s novel of the same name is also quite humorous. As over-the-top as some of Oliver’s monologues might seem, the dialog never feels forced or untrue. A ‘hipster’ soundtrack from Alex Turner and James Ford uplifts all of this.

“Submarine” isn’t quite as smart or witty as it thinks it is. For more Americanized audiences in particular, the film may seem too, for a lack of better words, British. Nevertheless, the film has a good heart and does a more than sufficient job of capturing the awkward, confusing times of being fifteen. Especially for Ayoade’s stylish direction and Robert’s performance, this little sleeper more than worth seeking out.

Super 8

I Gotcha ****

Just as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” evoked the same essence of Stanley Kubrick, J. J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a love letter to the work of Steven Spielberg, who coincidentally acted as a producer on the film. “Super 8” shares the thrills of “Jaws,” humor of “The Goonies,” sentimentality of “E.T.,” and sense of mystery in “Close Encounters.” “Super 8” might not be as perfect of a blockbuster as Spielberg’s earliest works. Of course if I were to compare every summer movie to “E.T.” and “Close Encounters,” this season would be a yearly letdown. While the comparisons to Spielberg are hard to ignore, “Super 8” still stands out as a wonderful and nostalgic picture and one of the year’s most exciting entertainments. 

Sharing an uncanny resemblance to Elliot in “E.T.,” Joel Courtney plays Joe, a young boy who lost his mother in a factory accident. His father, a sheriff’s deputy played by Kyle Chandler, is distant and gives him no comfort. The only people Joe has to confide in are his friends that spend most of their time making zombie movies. While shooting their movie one night, the friends witness a train crash and an unidentified creature escapes from the accident. The air force shows up, dogs disappear, the electricity goes out, and since a majority of the adults in the small town are idiots, it’s up to the preteens to investigate.

The high point of “Super 8” is its young cast of newcomers. I already mentioned Joel Courtney, who demonstrates great range as the compelling protagonist of Joe. Riley Griffiths is terrific as Joe’s best friend, Charles, who is the epitome of every aspiring thirteen-year-old filmmaker. Also quite good here is Ryan Lee as a future pyromaniac and Gabriel Basso as the most nerdy of the friends, constantly vomiting at the site of danger. Then you have the charming Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard, the girl that Joe hopelessly desires. This ensemble doesn’t quite reach “Goonies” territory. But they certainly come close.

Another strong attribute of the film is Abrams’ direction. Abrams has demonstrated his knack to produce first-rate action in movies like “Mission Impossible III” and “Star Trek.” “Super 8” features numerous terrific action set pieces, most notably that train crash which is right up their with the unforgettable plain wreck in the pilot of “Lost.” Action is easy to do. But effective and well-done action is rare in modern movies.

There’s a lot that goes right in “Super 8.” What often brings the film to a halt though is Kyle Chandler’s cold father figure. Absent fathers have always been a theme in Spielberg-related films. But here we get too much of the Chandler character, who seems one-note and clichéd. Every time he’s on screen I wished that movie would get back to those pluck young kids. Why is it that in movies like this the father always has to be a jerk? Can’t there be a father whose understanding and loving or are those parents restricted to Hayao Miyazaki movies? 

Finally, there’s the ending of the film, which feels overly rushed and a tad corny. A particular line of dialog between Joe and his father will have many rolling their eyes. I don’t want too give too much away about the alien itself. But try to picture the monster from “Cloverfield” meets the giant spider in Steven King’s “It.”

Despite its relentless father-son subplot and some cheesy dialog towards the end, “Super 8” is still a terrific film about summer romance, friendship, loss, and letting go. For some the film will draw too heavily on the lines of Spielberg’s pictures from the 70’s and 80’s. But for less supercilious audiences, the film will prove to be a great time. I won’t go as far to say that “Super 8” is a definite future classic. However, it is a film that I’m certainly looking forward to seeing again.


By the hammer of Thor! ****

Up until recently my only knowledge of Thor was through the little girl in “Adventures in Babysitting” who idolized the character. In terms of comics, Thor never intrigued me as much as icons like Batman or Spider-Man. When I heard Thor would be getting the big screen treatment, I honestly wasn’t expecting to be blown away. I’m content to declare however, that the mighty Thor’s feature film debut is nothing short of sensational, leaving me to believe that I’ve severely underestimated the character all these years.

Chris Hemsworth delivers a star making performance as the God of Thunder himself. Thor resides in the realm of Asgard where he is to ascend the throne from his father Odin, played by the great Anthony Hopkins. Thor proves himself unworthy to be king though, when he travels to the realm of Jotunheim and declares war on the fierce Frost Giants. Infuriated with his son’s recklessness, Odin strips Thor of his power and sends him to earth. With Thor banished, his younger brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, usurps the throne. Little does anyone realize that the slimy Loki has dastardly plans for Asgard.

While Thor still has the skills and instincts of a warrior, he is now mortal and can no longer wield his hammer, the Mjolnir. He ends up in New Mexico where a scientist named Jane Foster, played by Oscar-winner Natalie Portman, accidentally hits him with a car. Along with her mentor, played by Stellan Skarsgard, and sarcastic lab assistant, played by Kat Dennings, Jane attempts to help Thor get back on his feet. This leads to some of the films funniest sequences as the godly Thor adjusts to being mortal in a world of humans. It has the same wit of “Enchanted” or the French comedy, “The Visitors.”

“Thor” is as good-looking as any superhero movie ever envisioned. Thor describes Asgard as a world where science and magic are one in the same. The art direction perfectly matches Thor’s description with sets that look like a cross between Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of The Rings” pictures and the city in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”

But the real triumph of “Thor” is in its story, which mixes action, romance, and comedy with elements of Norse mythology. The themes of sibling rivalry and redemption almost feel Shakespearian, which is no surprise, seeing how the film’s director is Kenneth Branagh, who has done feature interpretations of “Hamlet” and “Henry V.” Hemsworth, who was briefly seen as Captain Kirk’s father in the “Star Trek” reboot, is perfect as Thor, finding just the right blend of humor and depth.

“Thor” is one of several films building up to “The Avengers” in 2012. Like the two “Iron Man” movies though, “Thor” never feels like a preview of better things to come. The summer movie season has several other superhero pictures in store for us, from “Green Lantern” to “Captain America.” While I’ll go see those movies with an open mind, it will not be easy for any of them to top “Thor.” This is a suburb entertainment that has set the bar quite high for summer blockbusters. 

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


As much as I hate to admit it, I actually liked Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” movie. Sure, the film was loud, stupid, and cost millions of dollars that could have gone towards producing superior independent films. But the film was visually impressive, had a few laugh out loud moments, and never took itself too seriously. I group the film along with the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie. Not much, but probably the best movie possible given the source material.

Then Bay made “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” a sequel that was even noisier, dumber, less story-driven, and ultimately defined everything that’s wrong with contemporary blockbusters. This past forth of July weakened, Bay and his band of cronies gave us “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” a film that’s every bit as joyless, soulless, uneventful, humorless and boring as it’s predecessor. And wouldn’t you know it, “Dark of the Moon” has already made countless millions and broke all sorts of holiday records. But to refer you to the conclusion of my “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” review, so what?

At this point I usually discuss the plot of the movie. This is kind of a challenge though, seeing how “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is virtually devoid of anything that resembles a story. All I can say is that there will be explosions, beautiful women, fast cars, terrible dialog, product placement, choppy editing, murky cinematography, and overacting galore. Is any of it entertaining? Maybe if you’re a twelve-year-old boy or lacking a majority of your brain cells. Some may say that I’m a cynical square for making such accusations. I call it having good taste and integrity.

I like Shia LaBeouf a lot. But here he overdoes it as Sam Witwicky, our young human protagonist. Megan Fox’s Mikaela is absent this time around. But don’t worry, she’s been replaced with another Barbie doll that’s out of Sam’s league and contributes nothing to the film. Her name is Carly, played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who looks luminous at all times. Even when she falls through a glass window in a building that’s collapsing, she manages to walk away with nothing but a smudge on her forehead.

There’s also Optimus Prime and his team of Autobots who are engaged in their never-ending war with the evil Decepticons. In traditional fashion, all of the transformers either have no personality whatsoever or talk like black street thugs. It’s hard to care about any of these machines when none of them are developed. But at least those aggravating twin Autobots are nowhere to be seen this time.

Even more forgettable than the Transformers are the human characters. In a vast ensemble of talented actors, not one of them is likable or memorable. John Malkovich is in his manic mode as Sam’s boss, a tyrant who’s so over-the-top that you start to wonder if he’s a CGI creature. Frances McDormand contributes nothing as a stone-faced National Intelligence Director. The most insufferable character of all is the normally funny Ken Jeong as a conspiracy schizophrenic that feels like Adam Sandler and Jerry Lewis at their most annoying. Fortunately the movie has the good sense to throw him out of a window early on.

Of course there’s lots of car chases, battles between CGI robots, and destruction of historical landmarks like the Lincoln memorial. The entire final act of the film is centered on the obliteration of Chicago with buildings collapsing and people running in peril. It’s hard to believe that only ten years ago we thought that it would never be appropriate to show such images in a movie again.

While the tedious action sequences were expected, what really drove me bonkers in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” was the dialog. Everybody in this movie constantly screams their lines and talk over each other even when they’re not in combat. It also doesn’t help that none of the dialog is funny or witty. In some cases it doesn’t even feel like the actors are uttering complete sentences. Then when Optimus Prime steps up to give a big speech about humans and robots getting along, it just feels embarrassing and tacked on.

I don’t mind senseless entertainment, which is probably why I liked the first “Transformers.” But the key to senseless entertainment is that the movie has to be entertaining. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is nothing sort of a video game meets a music video. Although a lot of video games and even music videos have more compelling stories and characters than “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” There’s no doubt that millions will continue to line up for this mechanical junk in the weeks to come. But I can assure you that “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is less than meets the eye.

The Tree of Life

Oh Sweet Lady Symbolism, you're going to have a field day ****1/2

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” has been struggling to make it into US distribution for roughly two years. Now after endless hype and early buzz, the film finally makes its way into theaters. This is a movie that some will deem as a timeless masterpiece while others will find it to be more tedious than watching grass grow. Even for the film’s biggest supporters, “The Tree of Life” will undoubtedly frustrate and test their patience.

Personally, I had to take a while to contemplate my feelings towards “The Tree of Life” after it’s screening. In many instances you might not know what you’re supposed to think while watching “The Tree of Life” or what the film itself wants you think, but to me that’s simply a sign of a truly great movie. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that a film such as this can never be perfect, especially after just one viewing. I think that every time somebody goes back to see the film they’ll find something new to admire. For that purpose, I look forward to seeing “The Tree of Life” again soon. As for now though, I can contently say that this is nothing short of one the most fascinating and profound movie-going experiences of this young century.

A majority of the film’s narrative takes place in a small Texas town during the 1950s. Early in the movie, a mother and father, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, receive word that one of their three young sons has died. The film then flashes forward to contemporary America where their oldest son Jack, now played by Sean Penn, is still coping with the events of his early life. From there on we see the evolution of Jack’s childhood, from his birth to his days as a young schoolboy where he is played by the promising newcomer, Hunter McCracken.

The film features little dialog, which is mainly expressed through internal monologues. This easily could have been a daunting handicap for the cast. Yet, all of the actors prevail to create fully realized human beings. This is some of the strongest work of Brad Pitt’s career as a stern father who loves his children, but also resents his family for holding him back. When given any indication that his wife and children do not respect him, he looses control. Pitt expresses a majority of this through his actions, only occasionally using dialog when necessary. This just goes to show that capturing the turmoil of a character through body language is every bit as demanding as delivering a dramatic speech.

“The Tree of Life” is also one of the finest films ever told from a child’s point of view. Through fragmented memories of Jack, the audience is reminded of being a child and the unsettling confusion of seeing a family argue through a window or the guilt of accidentally killing an innocent animal. It’s an experience so genuine that at times you’re half convinced that what you’re witnessing is real life.

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one film that instantly comes to mind while observing “The Tree of Life.” Like “2001,” “The Tree of Life” is an unforgettable visual experience in every respect, from the gorgeous scenic design to the heavenly score to the astonishing cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. There’s a particularly awe-inspiring extended sequence where we see the evolution of our world that’s right on the same page of the Dawn of Man portion of “2001.” Fundamentally, both films bring up numerous questions and ideas through visual poetry. Where “2001” asked questions regarding what’s out there in the universe, “The Tree of Life” asks questions like, “Why does God allow good people to die?” and “Why should I be good if God hasn’t been good to me?”

What prevents “The Tree of Life” from being on the unsurpassable level of “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a lack of payoff. The Sean Penn character plays a key role in the film, revealing the older Jack still coping with the loss of his brother. But we don’t get to see nearly enough of him and ends up feeling somewhat wasted. The final act of the film in particular feels abrupt, which deducts from the otherwise profound final sequence of the film.

Despite some of it’s uneven attributes, “The Tree of Life” still remains one of the year’s most remarkable achievements that I will not be forgetting anytime soon. “The Tree of Life” also further exemplifies that movies should be much more than a mindless exercise to kill a couple hours. A movie should steer emotions within you and leave one wanting to come back for more. “The Tree of Life” is a movie that does just that.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

Rushed sex scenes, talking CGI werewolves, and a grotesque child birth, what more could a man want? *1/2

I think I finally get it. I finally understand why Edward Cullen loves Bella Swan. It’s because she’s the only being on the face of the earth that’s even more bland and gloomy as he is. Even on her wedding day, the happiest day of her life, Bella can barely crack a grin as her father walks her down the isle. She looks almost as constipated with grief as I was while watching “Jack and Jill” last week. In that sense, I suppose that Bella and Edward are a match made in heaven.

These “Twilight” pictures may not be the absolute worst movies I’ve ever reviewed. Nevertheless, sitting through them has become a tedious chore I must undergo on a yearly basis. There’s only so much emotional porn for women a man can tolerate. At least now that I’ve seen the first half of “Breaking Dawn” I only have one more of these things to endure. Then I can finally put this series behind me and the MTV Movie Awards can give their Best Movie prize to another franchise.

It’s the biggest wedding since Prince William and Catherine Middleton got hitched. Bella is going to give up her life and hurt everybody she cares about to be with Edward. It’s okay though because she loves him and that’s all that matters, right? Bella and Edward’s wedding ceremony does offer a pretty funny montage as friends and family toast the newlyweds. Billy Burke in particular stands out as Charlie Swan, who appears utterly distressed by his daughter leaving him. If the filmmakers were smart they would have made the entire movie about Charlie or at least have made him a more present figure. Instead we get more of Robert Pattinson blankly staring off into the distance and Kristen Stewart hanging her mouth open like a mentally challenged person.

Edward and Bella have their honeymoon on a private island in Brazil where they engage in the most unsatisfying and anticlimactic sex scene of recent memory. Please forgive that that sex pun. Just a couple days after consummating the marriage, Bella discovers a bun in her oven. I’d say that the idea of vampire impregnating a human woman is preposterous. After all, how can something that’s technically dead give life? But since this universe already includes vampires that don’t burst into flames in mild sunlight or werewolves that don’t require a full moon to change, I shouldn’t expect any sort of accuracy.

Bella’s baby begins to grow at a rapid rate and it appears that the demon spawn will inevitably kill her during childbirth. So Bella, now that you’ve put your life in constant danger, married a vampire who bruises you during sex, and are probably going to die due to the devil child in your belly, do you have any regrets? No, you still wouldn’t do anything differently? Well then you really are the dumbest individual in the history of existence.

I guess I’m starting to sound like a broken record with the “Twilight” series. These movies aren’t intended for me. The young women I saw the film with however were all having hot flashes in their seats as Taylor Lautner removed his shirt for the zillionth time. The film appeased them as expected although even they were laughing at the sheer idiocy of a scene between talking wolves. The film will leave ladies content while their boyfriends can at least hold onto the fact that they’ll only have to sit through one more of these drab annoyances. Once the entire series in on blu-ray though, they’ll likely have to endure “Twilight” marathons every weekend. It’s times like this that I’m glad that I’m single.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

It's Christmas themed, it's R-rated, but "Bad Santa" it is not **1/2

I was among the cult following that made “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” the stoner classic it is today. Its 2008 follow-up, “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” had just enough laughs for me to give it a recommendation. I would be lying though if I said that the series wasn’t starting to run out of gas after two films. I hoped that “Harold & Kumar” would be a franchise that had the artistic integrity to call it quits early like “Wayne’s World” or “Bill and Ted.” Instead it appears that the filmmakers want to make Harold & Kumar this generation’s Cheech & Chong with sequel after sequel.

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” suffers from the same problems as “The Hangover Part II” from earlier this year. First and foremost, the “Harold & Kumar” formula has become too familiar. Secondly, there just aren’t as many laugh-out-loud moments this time around. Even the film’s stars, John Cho and Kal Penn, seem worn out by the roles that skyrocketed them into fame. 

This time around, the guys have grown apart as Harold has become a successful Wall Street executive and Kumar has been kicked out of medical school. The two are reunited on Christmas Eve and accidentally burn down the prized Christmas tree that was grown by Harold’s father-in-law, well played by Danny Trejo. Harold and Kumar set out on a series of misadventures involving a mob boss, a stoned baby, and even Santa himself to find the perfect Christmas tree.

There is a lot of material in “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” that sounds really hilarious on paper, such as a claymation acid trip sequence and a subplot about two feuding mob enforcers. But most of these gags are overly rushed and end up being forgettable. Then there’s the 3D gimmick, which is funny when a character first knowingly gives two thumbs up to the camera. The in-joke gets pretty old after the third time something comes flying at the screen however. Neil Patrick Harris is also back for another extended cameo. Like the film itself, Harris isn’t nearly as unpredictable as he was in the original film. Nevertheless, a musical spectacle and a flashback in which Harris is aborted from Heaven for getting a handjob in Jesus’ club do provide two highlights of the film.

This third chapter in the “Harold & Kumar” saga has its moments and may appease die-hard fans. But it’s simply too thin and familiar for my taste. There is one saving grace in “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” the Wafflebot. As you might have guessed, it’s a little robot that cooks and serves waffles with the resemblance of a mechanized Pillsbury Doughboy. My face lightened up every time this character came on screen. So I’ll make the filmmakers a deal. If you can convince Warner Bros. Studios to manufacture actual working Wafflebots as a tie-in, I’ll give your movie an additional star. Until then, I’m afraid I must stick to my guns.

War Horse

Giving Seabiscuit a run for his money *****

Sometimes I think we forget just how great Steven Spielberg is. Granted he may occasionally jump the shark and have Indiana Jones confront aliens or have the government attempt to thwart E.T. with walky-talkies. When Spielberg hits it out of the park though, pure cinematic enlightenment is achieved. Within the course of just one week Spielberg has granted audiences two of the year’s most superlative entertainments. In “The Adventures of Tintin” he tapped into his younger self and produced a thrill ride reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Spielberg’s second feature of the month, “War Horse,” is nothing short of a miracle of a motion picture.

The film begins on the brink of World War I. A brown horse is born and is eventually separated from its mother to be sold at auction. The horse is purchased by Ted Narracott, an alcoholic farmer on the verge of loosing his land played by Peter Mullan. Everyone tells Ted that he has overspent on such a small horse, especially his wife played by Emily Watson. Nevertheless, the farmer stands by belief that the horse will earn its keep. He entrusts the horse’s training to his teenage son Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine, who names the animal Joey. 

The first act of “War Horse” is the classic tale about a boy and his horse, which it tells miraculously well. I’ve seen over a dozen movies about people and their horses, dogs, dolphins, whales, dragons, and so on. But few have been as sincere and touching as Albert and Joey’s connection. The performances by both Irvine and the horse powerfully capture the genuine rapport that a person can share with an animal. As someone who once had a Labrador, I know that a truly special animal is more than a pet to its owner. It’s a friend you can rely on. “War Horse” beautifully demonstrates this bond.

At a certain point you almost expect “War Horse” to go down the “Secretariat” rout and have the struggling family enter Joey in a race. Matters take an interesting turn after the first hour mark however, as WWI finally hits. Unable to pay off his debts, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the Calvary. Throughout the course of the War, Joey finds himself in the care of a several different owners, including a British Captain, two runaway soldiers, and a grandfather and his granddaughter. It’s almost like a series of great short stories fluidly tied together. At the center of each of them is Joey in a pivotal role. This is nothing less than an imaginative feat of storytelling on behalf of screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis as well as Michael Morpurgo who wrote the original novel.

It feels like I’ve been talking a lot about animals in my reviews lately, such as the scene-stealing dog in “The Artist.” Joey, who was portrayed by fourteen different horses throughout shooting the film, may very well be the most daring and courageous animal star in the history of live-action pictures. He even outshines Seabiscuit from the wonderful Gary Ross film. This is Joey’s movie as we see the horrors of war through his eyes and he overcomes impossible obstacles. Joey develops a real personality and becomes one of the year’s most compelling heroes. The filmmakers brilliantly accomplish this by relying on Joey’s reactions to circumstances rather than simplifying him to a talking Disney cartoon. They even manage to incorporate an effective friendship between Joey and a black horse, which overcomes potential corniness with subtlety and warmth.

For the 13th time Spielberg teams up with Academy Award winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who fuels the war scenes with unruly excitement. There’s a remarkable shot revealing the aftermath of a battle that evokes a famous scene from “Gone With the Wind.” Kaminski ingeniously incorporates a spinning windmill into a haunting scene in which two characters meet their demise. Watching Joey attempt to survive a battlefield as sheer chaos erupts is particularly an exhilarating sight to observe. 

I loved just about everything regarding “War Horse,” from John William’s epic musical score to the intense sound design by Gary Rydstrom. Spielberg has made his finest film of the 21st century, which is very impressive given the company of “Munich,” “Minority Report,” and the underrated “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” Like in many of his greatest movies, Spielberg isn’t afraid to integrate a fair deal of sentimentality into “War Horse.” There are heartfelt moments in the film that might have some audiences rolling their eyes. But like the ending of “E.T.,” those moments are well earned and provide the backbone of one of the finest final thirty minutes of any movie you’ll ever see. In short, this is filmmaking at its finest.

Winnie the Pooh

After all these years Pooh still doesn't doesn't know how to spell "honey" ****

Countless children are reaching that age where they’re old enough to go to their local Cineplex and have a significant movie-going experience. Unfortunately, many kids growing up in our contemporary society will have to settle for “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” and “Zookeeper” as a first outing to the movie theater. Remember in the era prior to home video when Disney would rerelease one of their various classics into theaters, allowing every generation a chance to experience a great children’s film on the big screen? In an age dominated by DVD and Blu-Ray, it seems like the only way one of Disney’s classics can get a rereleased into theaters is if it’s in 3D.

Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” is not a rerelease of the 1977 classic “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” However, it is true to the innocently whimsy nature of that wonderful film. In a summer of humorless slapstick comedies and empty blockbusters like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Winnie the Pooh” will act as an enriching movie for young ones and a charming nostalgic trip for their parents.

The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled,” both of which should have been perceived as stiff competition to beat out the Pixar victors for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The simply titled “Winnie the Pooh” is more in the vein of “The Rescuers Down Under,” which got somewhat lost in the 90s Disney renaissance that included “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Regardless, “Winnie the Pooh” still succeeds as a light and beyond charming effort from Disney that puts “The Tiger Movie” and “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie” to shame.

Not much has changed in the Hundred Acre Wood since “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree.” The gloomy Eeyore’s tail is missing again, Piglet is still a very small animal, every character is aware that they’re characters in a picture book, and Pooh is on an infinite quest to fill his tummy with honey. I should also mention that Christopher Robin hasn’t aged a day, unlike Andy from the “Toy Story” films. Are these characters stuck in a time warp where nobody ages or are they just suffering from the same scenario in "Groundhog Day?" The film follows Pooh and his friends over the course of one day as they engage in several misadventures.

What I admired about “Winnie the Pooh” was the film’s resistance to contemporize the setting and characters. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall could have packed the film with irrelevant pop culture gags and had Tiger bust out an old school gangsta rap to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but everything in the world of Pooh is as it should be, from the uncomplicated story to the delightful hand-drawn animation. It’s also nice to see that the film has no villains, other than the dreaded Backson, who is really just a fragment of the character’s imagination. It’s kind of in the tradition of a Hayao Miyazaki film like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

If “Winnie the Pooh” has one shortcoming it’s that the film is too short. The running time is merely 69 minutes, which includes a short film and ending credits. This makes the film Disney’s shortest theatrical release, other than maybe “Dumbo.” The film might have benefitted from an additional fifteen minutes towards the end when matters are resolved rather quickly. But maybe somewhere down the line we’ll get “Winnie the Pooh: The Extended Cut!”

“Winnie the Pooh” might not break new grounds for animation, but the film is funny for what it is. It features some strong voiceover work and several fun little songs from Henry Jackson. Essentially it’s everything that one could hope for from a modern “Pooh” movie. You’d have to be the most cynical person on earth to walk away from the film without a good feeling.

X-Men: First Class

First class, first rate ****

Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” was exactly what superhero movies needed after Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” and the Shaquille O’Neal vehicle, “Steel,” seemingly killed the genre. Singer’s “X2” was one of the rare sequels that actually improved upon the original. Many fans felt that these movies started to show a decline in storytelling after Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.” I suppose I was one of the few people that actually felt that “The Last Stand” delivered a satisfying conclusion to the initial trilogy. I think we can all agree though that “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is best left forgotten.

“X-Men: First Class” is the most intriguing, the most character-driven, the sexiest, and ultimately the best entry to the “X-Men” series. For diehard fans that have been letdown by previous installments, “X-Men: First Class” will provide a significant return to form. Even if you’ve never read any of the comics or seen the four earlier “X-Men” pictures, this prequel will still act as a superb introduction to the franchise. Along with “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class” is another spectacular addition to the summer of superheroes.

The film begins in 1944 Poland where a young Erik Lensherr attempts to save his mother from some Nazi guards using his metal bending abilities. A scientist named Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, is put in charge of unlocking Erik’s magnetism skills for the Nazi’s to use as a weapon. When Erik fails to deliver, Shaw shoots his mother right in front of him, causing the future Magneto to reveal the full capacity of his extraordinary powers.

We then fast-forward twenty years into the future where CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, played by Rose Byrne, confronts the telepathic Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy. Xavier joins forces with the CIA to find other mutants so they may prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is being planned by none other than Sebastian Shaw. The now grown up Erik Lensherr, played by Michael Fassbender, is hell-bent on revenge and agrees to join the cause.

The scenes between Xavier and Lensherr have the same fascinating appeal of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi's partnership. Throughout the film, we see the two become allies and friends. Little do they know that they will soon be divided and become archenemies. Unlike the “Star Wars” prequels though, we don’t have to wait three movies to get to the most interesting parts.

Another key character is Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone” as the blue-skinned shape-shifter of Mystique. In previous “X-Men” films, Mystique acted as Magneto’s femme fatale henchwoman. In “X-Men: First Class” we learn that before her career as a villainess, she was Xavier’s oldest friend and she wasn’t always so comfortable with being blue. Although between Mystique and Neytiri from “Avatar,” blue skin seems to have become a fetish in the fanboy community.

In traditional “X-Men” fashion, there are one too many characters in the film and not all of them are entirely developed. But then again, there’s only so much time to focus on every minor character in a movie that’s two hours and fifteen minutes. “X-Men: First Class” does a more than sufficient job of developing it’s main players and the performances are uniformly terrific. As far as superhero ensemble pieces go, this is a much stronger outing than “Watchmen” and certainly superior to the “Fantastic Four” movies.

The best performance of all comes from Kevin Bacon, an actor that I think we sometimes take for granted. Here he is genuinely menacing as Sebastian Shaw who relishes every devious act he commits. At times he feels like the distant super villain cousin of Col. Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds.”

As great as “X-Men: First Class” is, it’s not without a few shortcomings that prevent it from rising to “Spider-Man 2” or “The Dark Knight” territory. The climatic action sequence overstays its welcome, which is becoming common in all blockbusters nowadays. Fanboys will also have a field day with some of the film’s evident continuity errors. But this is all essentially nitpicking in what is otherwise one of the summer’s best movies.

Director Mathew Vaughn previously brought us “Kick-Ass,” a superhero satire that you either loved or hated. In “X-Men: First Class” he combines his sense of action, humor, and style to create another homerun. Most importantly, Vaughn never looses track of the franchises crucial underlying theme of prejudice, making “X-Men: First Class” great summer entertainment and more. The adventures of Wolverine, Storm, and Rogue seem to have reached their end in terms of film. But I think that the chronicles of Professor X and Magneto are only just beginning.

Young Adult

A screenplay by Diablo Cody about a troubled woman? We've never seen that before! ****

A few years ago, Director Jason Reitman and Screenwriter Diablo Cody came together to deliver “Juno,” just about the most perfect comedy of this young century. Reitman and Cody’s second screen collaboration, “Young Adult,” isn’t quite the American masterpiece that was “Juno.” Yet, it’s still a funny and insightful character study that further reveals that it’s hard to go wrong with this union of storytellers. Those that felt “Juno” was too hip and cool, which it wasn’t at all, will likely admire “Young Adult” for its darker tone and more unsympathetic lead.

“Juno” was about an immensely lovable girl and her journey to adulthood. “Young Adult” on the other hand, centers on a self-centered, immature woman dwelling on the past. Her name is Mavis, a writer in her late thirties played by Charlize Theron. When Mavis isn’t blankly sharing at her computer screen, she’s lying around her sty of an apartment watching trash T.V. One day she receives an email from Buddy, her high school boyfriend played by Patrick Wilson, saying that he has just had a baby with his beloved wife. Longing for the days when she was the most popular girl in school, Mavis packs up her dog and travels back to her hometown of Minnesota. Along the way she plans on breaking up Buddy’s marriage so she can claim him as her own.

Theron is as good as she’s ever been as Mavis, a character apart of us wants to despise but somehow kind of like. In a way she’s similar to Cameron Diaz’s selfish character in “Bad Teacher.” Mavis is a much more down-to-earth and believable human being though. Even as she throws herself at the happily married Buddy, we can’t help but take pity on the pathetic Mavis. She’s a train wreck of a person who keeps digging herself deeper and deeper into anguish until she finally explodes in an exquisitely uncomfortable scene towards the end. Mavis is not somebody who will likely ever find true happiness, nor does she really deserve to.  Her desire to reclaim what she possessed in high school speaks true to many former Queen B’s though.

Another great performance comes from Patton Oswalt as Matt, a victim of a hate crime who has been left crippled. Although their lockers were next to each other during high school, Mavis and Matt shared little to no contact. Now that they’re older and in similar ruts though, the geek may stand a chance at scoring with the knockout. Oswalt has a unique dramatic and comedic gift, mixing depth with dead-on line readings. Here he is perfectly cast as Mavis’ voice of reason and maybe the closest thing she will ever have to a thoughtful relationship. Most men of Oswalt’s stature struggle to evolve beyond playing the sloppy best friend. But between “Young Adult” and his leading roles in “Big Fan” and “Ratatouille,” he has truly emerged as an actor that can carry a movie.

“Young Adult” is given many chances to go down the conventional road and become another lamebrain romantic comedy like “The Ugly Truth” or “27 Dresses.” But for the most part the film avoids all clichés and never betrays its characters. I’m not even sure if the film ends on a happy note, a tragic note, or a shallow note. In any case, the conclusion is completely true to the character of Mavis. For that I have nothing less than admiration towards the filmmakers.

Your Highness

This quest sucks! *1/2

A couple years back I endured “Year One,” a debacle of humor that still holds the title for the 21st century’s most excruciating comedy. That movie suffered from the one-joke premise of Jack Black and Michael Cera playing themselves in a biblical setting. “Your Highness” is a similar film that falls flat due to its repetitive premise of Danny McBride uttering contemporary slang in medieval times. As bad as “Your Highness” is, it is vastly superior to “Year One.” Then again, so is taking a bath with a toaster.

David Gordon Green, who has made one great film after another, directed “Your Highness.” The cast, which includes James Franco, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel, all have great range as dramatic and comedic performers. On top of all that, the film’s co-writer and star is Danny McBride, who has been very funny in the past. All of this talent suggests that “Your Highness” should be nothing short of a comedy classic. Yet, the film only produces a few mildly amusing moments every 10 minutes.

McBride plays Thadeous, an overweight, bumbling prince who is considered the black sheep of his family. Thadeous wishes he could be more like Fabious, his heroic older brother played by James Franco. The evil wizard Leezar, played by Justin Theroux, kidnaps Fabious’ fiancé, a dim damsel played by Zooey Deschanel. Fabious sets out on a daring quest to rescue his bride. Thadeous accompanies his brother to get some real-world experience.

At times McBride and Franco speak with crude English accents and other times they transition back into their American accents. I get that that this is intended to be funny. But after a while, their fake English accents just become a distraction. Intestinally bad accents can get by in some comedies. Take the German playwright in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” for example. Unfortunately, McBride and Franco are cursed with the burden of having nothing funny to say in their bad accents.

Much of the film’s humor is reliant on four-letter words. Don’t get me wrong. I love profanity as much as the next guy. But “Your Highness” seems to think that simply incorporating the f-bomb into a line will automatically make it funny. Occasionally “Your Highness” does produce a memorable one-liner. Most of the time though, it feels like listening to a bunch of 12-year-olds who think they’re badass just because they can say dirty phrases. We also get a lot of lamebrain jokes regarding masturbation, child molestation and Minotaur penises.

As much as I love every actor involved with “Your Highness,” virtually all of them misfire. The only standout is Natalie Portman as Isabel, an adventurer who accompanies Thadeous and Fabious on their quest. Portman never cracks a smile and acts as if she just walked off the set of a “Lord of the Rings” movie. Her character isn’t aware that she is in a comedy, which makes her performance work. Everyone else, however, merely plays variations of themselves and fail to create characters.

“Your Highness” is certainly a well-crafted movie in terms of visual effects and art direction. But for a movie that looks so great, the script is lazy and half-assed. The reimagining of “Land of the Lost,” which coincidentally also starred McBride, shared the same problem. Director David Gordon Green has proven that he can successfully blend action with comedy, as in the underappreciated “Pineapple Express.” Here he’s in over his head with the action sequences and effects, which are loud and manic where they should be fun and whimsical.

The real blame for “Your Highness” falls in the lap of its star, writer and producer, Danny McBride. I’ve liked McBride in movies such as “Tropic Thunder” and “Up in the Air.” But based on “Your Highness,” I’m not sure if he has what it takes to be a leading man. I’d love for McBride to prove me wrong with his next film outing, which will hopefully be more clever and character-driven. If this is the best McBride can do though, he’ll simply be remembered as the poor man’s Seth Rogan.


A turd being reheated in a microwave *

A couple weeks ago I reviewed “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” a bland and predicable children’s comedy. While “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” was underwhelming, the film did have one redeeming quality that prevented it from being inexplicably awful: None of the penguins talked. “Zookeeper” on the other hand, makes the unwise choice to have its animal cast talk with the obnoxiously familiar voices of big stars. The end result is one of the year’s dumbest comedies that makes any of the “Doctor Doolittle” movies look like “Babe.”

Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes, a hopelessly nice guy who embraces his job as a zookeeper. Griffin proposes to Stephanie, his stunning girlfriend played by Leslie Bibb, in the films opening scene. She rejects Griffin however, because his profession turns her off. The fact that Griffin has hired a Mariachi band and planned a fireworks display for the proposal doesn’t help. This is the one humorous scene in the movie. It’s all downhill from here.

A few years pass and Griffin runs into Stephanie at his brother’s engagement party. Old feelings are stirred up within Griffin and he becomes determined to win Stephanie back. His animal friends at the zoo reveal to Griffin that they all have the ability to talk and want to help him get the girl. Then after a day of thinking that he’s gone crazy, Griffin quickly adjusts to the fact that animals can talk and accepts their help.

The animal cast includes Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a lion couple, Maya Rudolph as a giraffe, Judd Apatow as an elephant, and Adam Sandler as a monkey with a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard. As you might have guessed from that lineup, the voiceover cast is completely random as if they just picked names out of a hat. The only voice that feels suited to its animal counterpart is Nick Nolte as Bernie the Gorilla. In the movie’s most inexplicable sequence, Griffin takes Bernie out for a night on the town, telling everyone that he’s merely wearing a gorilla costume. In the process the film gets in a lot of product placement for T.G.I. Fridays.

The fact that none of the animals ever have anything amusing to say doesn’t help the film, but I will give “Zookeeper” this: As annoying as all the talking animals are here, not one of them is nearly as insufferable as Owen Wilson’s ungodly abomination of Marmaduke.

Kevin James has been funny in a couple of movies like “Hitched” and “Monster House.” But after “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” “Grownups” and now “Zookeeper,” James continues to prove that all he’s good for is falling down and getting hit by heavy objects. While he’s not an unlikable presence, he’s not leading man material. He’s the chubby best friend. Then again, his last couple movies have all been box office hits so what do I know? But one thing’s for certain. Kevin James is no John Belushi, John Candy, or Chris Farley.

The only performer who walks away from “Zookeeper” with any dignity is the always-appealing Rosario Dawson as a fellow zoo employee who you know that Griffin is really going to end up with. Unfortunately, Dawson is basically saddled with the generic girlfriend role that serves little purpose other than to be the love interest. Between Blake Lively in “Green Lantern” and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” this cookie cutter character is really starting to become tiresome. All these actresses deserve better.

Then just when you think that “Zookeeper” can’t get any more unoriginal, the film works its way up to a climax where Griffin races to the airport to stop the love of his life from moving. You’d think that the presence of a talking gorilla riding shotgun would make the sequence a little more interesting and funny, but it doesn’t.

The best word to describe “Zookeeper” is lazy. You never get the sense that anybody involved with the picture made any effort to produce a remotely entertaining movie. It’s as if the filmmakers said, “We got Kevin James, he’s a zookeeper and he talks to animals. There’s a love story in there somewhere. We’ll just throw in some slapstick and fill in holes as we go along.” Maybe the film will keep children occupied for an hour and a half when it comes out to DVD in a few months. Other than that, “Zookeeper” is instantly forgettable on every level. You’d have a better time visiting your local zoo. At least the animals there won’t tell you bad jokes.