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Movie Reviews 2012

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My Movie Reviews

5 Stars= It's Simply the Best

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

 

21 Jump Street

Serve and protect, motha fucka!****

“21 Jump Street” derives its inspiration from the 1980’s television series of the same name that starred a young Johnny Depp. Other than a few key elements though, the film adaptation shares little in common with the original source material. Where the show was mostly a by-the-numbers drama that employed moral messages about drugs and alcohol, the film is an action comedy in the tradition of “The Other Guys.” Keep in mind that any movie that earns comparison to “The Other Guys” is a winner in my book. 

A movie like this easily could have gone down the same road as the horrifically unfunny “Cop Out” or the unpleasantly mean “Bad Boys” films. Yet, this is one of the rare recent buddy cop movies that gets it just right. There’s rarely a joke the flops thanks to dead-on line-readings from the entire cast. While there is a fair deal of graphic action, it’s all very well choreographed and never distracts from the humor. The film even makes time for a sweet romance in the vein of a John Hughes movie. Try picturing “The Breakfast Club” if they were all given guns and badges.

The film stars Channing Tatum as Greg Jenko and Jonah Hill as Morton Schmidt. The two weren’t exactly friends during high school. Several years later however, the two become close alleys after graduating from the police academy. The macho Jenko is fast and strong, but cannot even remember the Miranda Rights. Schmidt on the contrary is good with facts, but cannot shoot a gun without choking. When you put the two together, they’re the most blundering pair of cops this side of “Superbad.”

Due to their youthful appearances, Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to go undercover at a local high school where a new drug has surfaced. Upon arriving, the two are amazed to learn how modern teenagers dominated by texting and Facebook differ from their generation. It turns out that now kids can be environmentally outspoken, active in the theatrical arts, openly gay, and still be considered hip. Thus, the once nerdy Schmidt falls into a group of cool kids lead by James Franco’s brother, Dave Franco. Jenko on the other hand, finds himself befriending three little chemistry geeks, which provides one of the films funniest dynamics.

Despite losing a significant amount of weight and becoming an Oscar nominee, Jonah Hill clearly hasn’t lost his natural gift for comedy. But the real breakout performer in “21 Jump Street” is Channing Tatum, who up until now has come off as a pretty bland actor in movies like “G.I. Joe” and “The Vow.” Here he’s perfect as a meathead who has a sincere affection for his partner. While Schmidt and Jenko are not without differences, the audience really believes that they do genuinely enjoy each others company. It’s a classic “Odd Couple” pairing.

Other strong performances include Ellie Kemper as a horny teacher, Brie Larson as the cute schoolgirl that catches Schmidt’s eye, and the scene-stealing Ice Cube as the foul-mouthed police captain. The film also features one of the most hilarious and unexpected cameos of all time, which oddly brings both the movie and original series full circle.

The filmmaking duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed “21 Jump Street” while Michael Bacall of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the Word” penned the script. Where many similar films make the mistake of taking themselves too seriously, these men are never afraid to acknowledge just how improbable “21 Jump Street is.” They often point out that Hill and Tatum are far too old to pass off as high school students and poke fun at tiresome clichés like car explosions. Ultimately this team has made a charming and good-hearted comedy, regardless of the violence, f-bombs, crude gestures, and a severed penis.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 I'm for Team Abe ***

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is not to be confused with the new Steven Spielberg film staring Daniel Day-Lewis as the sixteenth president. That biopic won’t be coming out until later this year in December. Where the upcoming Spielberg film is aiming to be a somber, historically accurate life story of our nation’s most celebrated leader, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” tells an action-packed, fictionalized account of how Honest Abe once fought against vicious vampires. The end result makes “Inglourious Basterds” look like a documentary. As preposterous and silly as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is, the movie does deliver genuine thrills and solid fun nevertheless. That’s really all one can ask from a film like this.

The picture is based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, the same man who brought us the ingeniously titled “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The story begins with a young Mr. Lincoln living a content life with his nurturing parents. Nancy Lincoln is killed one night, not from milk sickness as history books would have us believe, but from a vampire attack. Abe grows up into a man played by the remotely unknown Benjamin Walker, thirsty for revenge. He confronts the vampire who killed his mother one night with unsuccessful results. Lincoln decides to seek out the help of a vampire hunter named Henry Sturges, played by Dominic Cooper.

Henry discovers that Lincoln is gifted with an ax, which becomes his weapon of choice in the battle against bloodsuckers. After Lincoln completes his training, Henry sends him to the South to hunt vampires. Life has other plans for Lincoln however, when he meets the lovely Mary Todd, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” They get married and Lincoln eventually gets involved in politics, leading him on the road to the white house. Meanwhile, a group of vampires in the South plan on starting a civil war so they can triumph over the north.  And I thought “True Blood” represented Southern vampires in a negative light.

Director Timur Bekmambetov, who previously made “Wanted,” was tailored made for this material. He delivers a marvelously crafted picture with gothic sets, first-rate makeup, and some of the cooler-looking vampires to date. The action sequences are exciting and stylishly choreographed, particularly in a climax aboard a runaway train. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” may be simple, dumb, mindless entertainment. But it’s rare to see mindless entertainment this well-made and well-acted with some occasional history cleverly integrated.

If anything hurts “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” it’s that the film takes itself a little too seriously. With a title like this, one would expect the film to be more knowingly satirical. But “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” treats the story with a strait face for the most part. In the hands of somebody like Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” this could have been a fanboy classic with equal parts humor and horror. As a summer action picture with lots of explosions though, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” still works in its own way.

Alex Cross

His name is Cross and somebody is going to cross him, how totally lame **

Tyler Perry as Alex Cross has got to be one the most baffling casting decisions of recent years. That’s not to say Perry doesn’t have any dramatic range or that he should be forever limited to playing a mad, black woman. While he may not be a great actor, Perry has exemplified that he is an immensely charismatic performer with a lot of potential. But you would never know that based on “Alex Cross,” a run-of-the-mill, instantly forgettable crime thriller. If Perry really wanted to broaden his acting range, he probably should have chosen a less conventional script better equipped to his charms.

Morgan Freeman previously portrayed the character of Alex Cross in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” This new film by Rob Cohen is apparently a reboot for Alex Cross, who has been the center of several novels by James Patterson. Here, the homicide detective/psychologist is pitted up against a serial killer known as Picasso, who leaves cubism drawings at the scenes of his murders. Having lost a noticeable amount of body fat, Mathew Fox from “Lost” plays the puzzling Picasso killer. A cat and mouse picture such as this really all depends on how interesting the hero and his foe are. I’ve already discussed how Perry is miscast as the bland, dreary Alex Cross. Unfortunately, Fox isn’t much more engaging as the one-note Picasso.

Fox is obviously having a lot of fun in this role, trying to make the most out of a lazily written part. It’s a futile effort though, chiefly because there’s nothing to the Picasso killer. The audience doesn’t learn much about where he came from, what makes him tick, or how he interacts with other people. Sometimes it works when a villain is given no explanation and remains a mystery throughout the entire film. But Picasso isn’t nearly chilling, complex or menacing enough to get away with that. He’s essentially a blank slate with zero lasting appeal.

The impressive supporting cast includes characters actors like Giancarlo Esposito, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno and John C. McGinley. But they’re all sadly forgettable and, in a majority of cases, serve little purpose to the story. Edward Burns is especially wasted as Alex’s best friend and partner, who does not even care when somebody he supposedly loves dies a horrible death. Then there’s Cicely Tyson as Alex’s pushy mother, a completely expendable character that seems better suited for one of Perry’s Madea comedies.  

The actors really aren’t the major problem with “Alex Cross” though. The film’s downfall all lies in the flat dynamic between Cross and Picasso. This makes it especially hard to care about the outcome when the two finally face off in the rushed anticlimax. “Alex Cross” may not be one of the most horrendous movies of the year. But never for a second does the film feel cinematic. It’s more like one of those formulaic cop shows stretched out to an hour and forty minutes. In short, you’d be better off saving your money and getting caught up on your favorite network dramas this weekend. 

The Amazing Spider-Man

Fast, fun and not a single dance sequence ****

There have been some arguments that it’s too soon for a brand new “Spider-Man” franchise. The original “Spider-Man” is only a decade old and the final installment to that series came out five years ago. At this rate, we’ll have multiple “Spider-Man” trilogies by the 21st century’s halfway point. Regardless, one cannot argue with a film that presents a successful take on the “Spider-Man” origin. That’s exactly what Director Mark Webb does in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

This is a dark, compelling retelling of how the mild mannered Peter Parker came to be the web-slinging hero. While Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” remains entertaining, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is in many ways an improvement with stronger exposition and less cliché dialog. There are no corny lines like “We’ll meet again, Spider-Man” for example. Webb’s film still doesn’t quite reach the heights of the exceptional “Spider-Man 2.” Yet, “The Amazing Spider-Man” does offer a fresh start for the hero after emo, dancing Peter ruined everything.

Like Tobey MaGuire before him, Andrew Garfield of “The Social Network” is well suited to play the teenage Peter Parker. He’s shy and lacking in physical strength, but willing to standup for what’s right at the expense of his own security nevertheless. Peter is additionally haunted by the mysterious deaths of his parents, both of whom allegedly died in a car crash. After finding his father’s old briefcase, Peter is lead to Oscorp Industries for answers. There, a radioactive spider bites Peter, turning him into the human/spider hybrid we all know and love.  

One of the most admirable aspects of “The Amazing Spider-Man” is the pacing. Where Peter received his powers in the first ten minutes of 2002’s “Spider-Man,” this film allows more time to explore Peter as an average, nerdy high school kid. There’s much more pathos to the lost Peter, who feels abandoned and powerless in life. The character may not get his spidey abilities for a good hour into the picture. But the time the audience spends with the mortal Peter Parker makes this payoff feels truly satisfying and deserved. The man behind the mask additionally comes off as a lonelier, more troubled individual destined for greater things.

The romance factor is also commendable. It’s impossible not to be smitten with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey, the beautiful, intelligent girl who sees that there’s something more to Peter. The female love interest can often feel tacked on in most superhero movies. Gwen Stacey however, is actually a developed woman who equals Peter in brains and proves helpful to Spider-Man. She may need to be saved every now and then. Unlike some damsels though, Gwen is somebody that you really want to see rescued from peril. Garfield and Stone furthermore have great chemistry in a winning romance that isn’t as prolonged as Peter and Mary Jane Watson’s.  

There are terrific supporting roles across the board from Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Peter’s dedicated Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Denis Leary has one of the film’s most gripping character arks as Gwen’s father, the police captain who believes Spider-Man is a threat to the city. Then there’s Rhys Ifans ad Dr. Curt Connors, Peter’s mentor who gets caught in the crossfire of an experiment gone wrong. Connors thus becomes the villain of the Lizard, who looks a lot like a smaller Godzilla in a trench coat. He’s fun, but not quite as complex or interesting as somebody like Doctor Octopus.

The only downside to “The Amazing Spider-Man” is an inevitable amount of familiarity. Since this is another origin story, “The Amazing Spider-Man” revisits many plot points from Raimi’s first film. These instances are carried out in an engaging manner. But it’s just not as shocking to see a certain loved one of Peter’s die a second time around.

While it can feel recycled at times, “The Amazing Spider-Man” does offer more than enough new attributes to set itself apart from the prior trilogy. The atmosphere is grittier and the story is more personal. Webb’s action sequences are impressively staged and exciting. This is a mostly splendid reboot that may amount to a promising new Spidey series. Between “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Avengers,” this is shaping up to be one of the best summers ever for superheroes. Now if only Christopher Nolan can hit a homerun with “The Dark Knight Rises,” the fanboys will be set.

American Reunion

 9 years later and Jason Biggs is still humiliating himself ***

In 1978, National Lampoon’s “Animal House” revolutionized the hard R comedy and is still considered the “Citizen Kane” of the genre. The 80’s followed with numerous other college/teenage/sex comedies like “Pokies,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and “Revenge of the Nerds.” With some of these 80’s flicks like “Screwballs” and “Joysticks,” you could tell just how raunchy they were based on the title. The 1990’s however, was a rather tamed decade. A majority of 90’s comedies rarely embraced nudity and kept the major swear words to a limit. There were two movies that strived to be as vulgar and gleefully crude as the comedies of the 80’s though. One was “There’s Something About Mary.” The other was “American Pie.”

This surprise hit paved the way for many R-rated comedies of the 21st century, from “Old School,” to “The Hangover,” to the Judd Apatow anthology. “American Pie” still holds up as a funny movie that even inspired two pretty good sequels, the second being my personal favorite. But after an assortment of strait-to-DVD movies, it looked like this franchise had officially run its course. How is it that they got Eugene Levy to star in all four of those strait-to-DVD atrocities? Surely it couldn’t have been because of money. Either he’s a really nice guy or they had him under contract.

With a lot of movies about teenagers, people often wonder where these immature individuals will be in another ten years. Even after the death of John Hughes, people are still praying to see a “Breakfast Club” reunion. In “American Reunion,” we finally get to see what Jim and the gang have been up to since 2003. While the end result is far from perfect, it is a humorous, nostalgic and satisfying return to some very likable characters.

Jason Biggs’ increasingly awkward Jim and Alyson Hannigan’s sexually confident Michelle now have a little boy. This puts a damper on their sex life, as one receives pleasure from a showerhead and the other from a tube sock. Chris Klein, who was absent from “American Wedding,” returns as Oz. He’s a big shot sports newscaster who was on a celebrity dancing show. While Oz is going out with a smoking-hot model, he’s still head over heels for Heather, his high school sweetheart played by Mena Suvari. Thomas Ian Nicholas is also back as Kevin, who is happily married to a woman obsessed with reality television. Then there’s Eddie Kaye Thomas’ Finch, who might be embellishing his post-graduation life.

But of course the character you all really want to see is Stifler, the sex-crazed, inconsiderately lovable Jackass made famous by Seann William Scott. He’s the life of the party once again, stealing all of the film’s most memorable lines and moments. The filmmakers even add a level of emotional weight to Stifler this time around. Although he acts like the same old goof on the outside, deep down Stifler is struggling with the fact that all of his friends have matured while his life isn’t going anywhere. Stifler’s especially ashamed to be working as a temp at a law firm where he is bullied by the kind of nerd he would have tormented during adolescence.  It’s a very factual representation of a party animal’s life after high school. Although it is a bit of a stretch that Stifler could maintain a job in an office. In reality he’d be fired in a second for sexual harassment.

Not every joke in “American Reunion” is a gem. There’s a limit to how many times we can endure Jason Biggs’ humiliating himself. After a while you can’t help but start to feel sorry for the guy. What does work in the movie though, is quite hysterical. The funniest bits include the gang trying to return a passed-out, naked teenage girl to her room and Stifler taking revenge on some bullies. The simple, casual interactions between these characters are additionally appealing, reminding us all how great this cast truly is.

A notable standout this time around is John Cho, who had a minor role in the original “American Pie” as John aka MILF Guy #2. Now between the “Harold and Kumar” films, “Star Trek,” and various other projects, Cho has evolved into probably the most successful of the “American Pie” alumni. Who would have guessed that would happen thirteen years ago?

Anna Karenina

Sure it's ambitious, but does that make it good? **1/2

After numerous incarnations in film, theatre, television, opera, and radio, Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” has become one of the most heavily adapted novels of all time. Unless somebody can do something really original with the material, there isn’t much need to revisit “Anna Karenina” again. The latest version from Director Joe Wright makes a few attempts to reinvent the exhausted story, such as setting a majority of the narrative in a theater house. While this direction is ambitious, it still doesn’t make the material particularly fresh. If anything, Wright’s distracting staging customarily makes the whole film feel overblown and pretentious. Much like Lars von Trier’s stagy “Dogville” from almost ten years ago, Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is too self-righteous and in love with itself for the audience to love it back.

In her third collaboration with Wright, Keira Knightley plays the aristocratic Anna, who is unsatisfied with her marriage to Jude Law’s Alexei Karenin. Lonely and confused, Anna finds herself in the arms of Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. From this, forbidden love, burning desires, jealousy, and tragedy naturally ensue. But this is all old news if you’ve already read “Anna Karenina” or seen another incarnation.

There’s no denying that Keira Knightley is a wonderful young actress. She gave one of her best performances earlier this year as a happy-go-lucky free spirit in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” After “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Duchess,” and three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies though, maybe it’s time for her to give the period pieces a break. Knightley’s melodramatic portrayal of Anna Karenina should be a wakeup call for her to hang up the corsets for a while. But that’s more than can be said about Law’s performance as Alexei, failing to give the character a shred of personality. At times one might even think the usually charismatic Law was replaced by a sophisticated robot lookalike incapable of conveying emotion.

At the very least, “Anna Karenina” does give us plenty of attractive images to look at. Sarah Greenwood, one of the best production designers in the business, fashions several gorgeously detailed sets. Jacqueline Durran’s wardrobe of exquisite late 19th century attire seems like a lock for a Best Costume Design Oscar. But it’s hard to appreciate the stylish eye-candy when Wright’s hyper, in your face staging keeps taking us out of the experience. An overblown musical score from Dario Marianelli doesn’t help.

If you’re familiar with the “Anna Karenina” story, there’s really nothing new here worth your time. If the content is undiscovered territory for you, then this is not the best version to start off with. For all its faults though, this interpretation of “Anna Karenina” could have been much worse. It could have been a modern day reimagining filled with pop songs, Miley Cyrus, and a happy ending.

Arbitrage

 Getting away with murder ***1/2

Some characters are so despicable and manipulative that the audience should desire to see them receive the most dreadful comeuppance. Despite all of their shameful wrongdoings though, we can’t help but hope that these characters will triumph over the alleged good guys. Who isn’t gunning to see Walter White come out on top in the final season of “Breaking Bad?” Like Walter White and various other antiheroes, the flawed protagonist in “Arbitrage” is a difficult character not to root for. This is primarily thanks to the smart screenplay by writer/director Nicholas Jarecki and a charismatic leading performance from Richard Gere.

Gere plays Robert Miller, a billionaire hedge fund magnate who makes himself out to be an upright businessman, husband, and father. Like all billionaires in these sorts of movies though, there’s a greedy scoundrel lurking behind Miller’s mask of honesty. One of the many sins on Miller’s conscious is that he has been having an affair with a lovely French art dealer, played by Laetitia Casta. Their relationship literally hits a roadblock when Miller falls asleep at the wheel, resulting in a car crash. The mistress is killed in the collision and Miller flees from the horrific remains of the car. Although Miller considers confessing to involuntary manslaughter, he refuses to let anything get in the way of him completing the sale of his trading empire to a bank.

While Gere has done a fair share of praiseworthy work in movies like “An Officer and a Gentleman,” he has honestly never struck me as a phenomenal talent. Gere may not give an Oscar-caliber performance in “Arbitrage.” Nevertheless, this is one of Gere’s best performances and Robert Miller is definitely among his most memorable characters. It’s monumentally entertaining to watch this secretive man juggle a web of lies as his family, business partners, partners in crime and the police come after him.

On the side of the law is Tim Roth as a classic New York detective hell-bent on finding the driver of the crashed vehicle. Just as threatening to Miller’s wellbeing is his daughter and colleague, sharply played by Brit Marling, who discovers her father may be responsible for missing company funds. Nate Parker is equally strong as Jimmy Grant, who could either be a valuable source of help to Miller or the man that will ultimately bring him down. The one actor who probably could have used more screen time is Susan Sarandon as Miller’s longsuffering wife. But the film does redeemably permit her a superbly juicy scene towards the conclusion.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of “Arbitrage” is that it’s not the most conventional financial thriller and it doesn’t necessarily provide a moral. This isn’t exactly a movie about tragic downfalls of the mighty and people paying their debts to society. The outcome of these events may especially catch some audiences off guard. For my money though, the film provides a suitable ending for Robert Miller, a character you’ll be cheering on even when he’s at his worst. 

Argo

 Not a prequel to Fargo *****

It’s an absolute marvel how Ben Affleck has managed to turn his career around in recent years. After being the laughingstock of the film community for a while, Affleck reestablished himself as a great talent through his directorial outings in “Gone Baby, Gone” and “The Town.” In “Argo,” Affleck not only proves that he’s a gifted filmmaker, but one of the most intelligent creative minds of this generation. Affleck’s latest film is spellbinding entertainment, depicting one of the most engrossing and remotely unknown true stories ever to meet the silver screen.

“Argo” opens with the brutally realistic atmosphere of a documentary as a storm of Islamist students invade the American Embassy in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Six American diplomats manage to escape and eventually seek refuse in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber. The Government of Canada joins forces with the C.I.A. to help return the six diplomats home. Enter Tony Mendez, an agent in charge of providing cover stories for the six Americans.

Affleck also plays Mendez, who gets an idea one night while watching a “Planet of the Apes” movie on television. To rescue the diplomats, the C.I.A. will disguise them as Canadian filmmakers scouting Tehran for screening locations. Mendez enlists the help of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, portrayed by John Goodman, to make the fake movie seem as legitimate as possible. A veteran Hollywood Producer named Lester Siegel, played by a hilarious Alan Arkin, also joins forces with Mendez to get the word out about the movie. They settle on a script titled “Argo,” one of those rip-offs of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” that were especially common in this era. Assisting these three men on the national security front is Bryan Cranston in the film’s best performance as Jack O’Donnell, a superior C.I.A. agent.

When Mendez presents his plan to the six diplomats, one of them immediately writes it off as preposterous. This man obviously had every right to be skeptic of Mendez’s risky tactics. A plan this far-fetched would lead some people to believe that “Argo” is a pure work of fiction poised for a political satire. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “To Be or Not to Be,” the 1942 comedy about a theatre troupe trying to escape Nazi-occupied Warsaw by using their acting abilities. Audiences will be astonished to learn that screenwriter Chris Terrio based his riveting screenplay on actual events, using an article by Joshuah Bearman and an autobiography by Mendez as a resource. The notion that a caper such as this really took place only makes “Argo” more beguiling and exciting as we observe Mendez’s unbelievable plot unfold. Where the monotonous “Taken 2” had next to no genuinely intense moments, “Argo” is a thriller that knows how to keep its audience invested and satisfied.

In addition to being one of the most ardent and powerful political thrillers of recent years, “Argo” is also an extremely passionate picture about the influence of film. So often movies are observed merely as mindless escapism intended to kill a couple hours. Rarely do we consider how seeing a movie can affect the way we think, whether you’re in a creative field or a position of government. “Argo” reminds people of the unlikely impact film can have on the world. Affleck demonstrates more than ever that he holds a deep respect for the art and power of movies, most notably through the courteous final shots. By not seeing “Argo,” you’d be depriving yourself of an exhilarating and astonishing cinematic experience. This is a textbook example of triumphant filmmaking that will make you fall in love with the medium all over again.

The Avengers

A far superior team name than The Super Friends ****1/2

 Thirty years ago, it seemed ambitious just to see Superman or Batman in a feature-length, live-action film. Back then, people never could have anticipated that we would one day see six of the most iconic superheroes come together in a single movie. Over the course of five movies and several years, Marvel has been building up to “The Avengers,” their main event. If the film did not live up to expectations, there would be an outcry of hatred from fanboys across the nation. Imagine the tragic aftermath of “Star Wars: Episode One” times a thousand. Fortunately, “The Avengers” not only exceeds the overwhelming hype, but also emerges as one of the absolute best superhero pictures ever produced.

The film commences with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the superspy who has acted as the link between all of the previous Marvel movies. Fury and his agency of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been studying a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract, which they hope to harness to create military weapons. Matters do not go according to plan however, as the Tesseract opens a portal that releases Loki, Thor’s slimy adopted brother played by Tom Hiddleston. Loki possesses the Tesseract and plans on using it to unleash an army of Chitauri, a race of alien cyborg creatures.

With the end of the world on the horizon, now is as good a time as any to finally initiate the Avengers. As if these characters need an introduction. There’s Scarlett Johansson as the sexy, manipulative Black Widow, Mark Ruffalo admirably taking over as the Hulk, Chris Evans as the old-fashion Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as the mighty Thor, Jeremy Renner as the skilled archer Hawkeye, and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, by far everyone’s favorite Marvel hero.

The most universal fear regarding “The Avengers” is that the film would suffer from the same dilemma as “Spider-Man 3” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Those two movies were similarly criticized for stuffing too many characters the narrative, leaving little room for character development. “The Avengers” on the other hand, is a textbook example of how filmmakers should approach an ensemble piece. It helps that these characters have already been established in previous movies. The key to the film’s success though, is writer/director Joss Whedon, who recently worked on the entertaining “Cabin in the Woods.”

Whedon has exemplified in T.V. shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angle,” and “Firefly” that he is a master of writing dialog for large groups. He stays true the voices of all the characters, making for some very funny and even honest interactions. What makes “The Avengers” so great is the subtle dynamics between the characters, Captain America and Iron Man, Iron Man and the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and so on. The filmmakers easily could have allowed these characters to sit in a room for two hours just talking and produced a superb entertainment. But since this is a summer blockbuster, some huge action set pieces are entitled.

There’s plenty of action on display here, most notably a final act that’s as explosive as the attack on Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” What distinguishes “The Avengers” from junk like “Transformers” though, is the fact that characters are so fun to follow into battle. In addition, the action sequences themselves are beautifully choreographed, elegantly shot, and basically flat-out rock.

With its grand scale and immense cast, “The Avengers” is in many ways the “Lawrence of Arabia” of superhero pictures. What prevents the film from being the “Citizen Kane” of superhero movies, a title that belongs to “The Dark Knight,” is lack of truly compelling villains. While Loki is fun, he’s hardly the most menacing or interesting foe to pair against the Avengers. Plus, when you have Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army, it’s pretty obvious whose going to win. For a film with so many heroes, “The Avengers” could have used stronger advisories. Perhaps they wanted to leave some room for “The Avengers 2.”

What “The Avengers” lacks in villains, it more than makes up for with its heroes. These are all terrific characters and to see them all on the big screen together is truly a cinematic event. Many clichéd words have already been used to describe “The Avengers,” such as awesome, epic, cool, and kickass. In a generation of countless disappointing and lazy summer blockbusters though, this is one movie that earns such praise.

The Babymakers

Semen isn't funny * 

Aside from vampires, pregnancy has quickly become the most overused subject matter in the entertainment industry. This trend started in 2007 with great films like “Knocked Up” and “Juno.” The baby genre has since overstayed its welcome with the subpar “Baby Mama” and “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Bob Odenkirk’s instantly forgettable “The Brother’s Solomon” formally held the title for the worst of these pregnancy-related pictures. That’s all been called into question though with “The Babymakers,” a comedy so wretched it will make a vasectomy seem like paradise.

Olivia Munn from “The Newsroom” is Audrey and Paul Schneider formally from “Parks and Recreation” is Tommy. They’re a couple that have been married for three years and live in a house that looks exactly like the one from “American Beauty.” All that’s missing from their happy lives in a little bundle of joy. They are unable to get pregnant however, due to Tommy’s inactive sperm. Tommy believes that he still has functional assets frozen at a sperm bank. When he’s unable to get it back, Tommy enlists the help of his chubby best friend, played by Kevin Heffernan, and a former member of the Indian mafia, played by Jay Chandrasekhar, to pull off a sperm bank heist.

“The Babymakers” isn’t an offensively awful comedy like Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy.” The film’s major crime is simply not being funny in the slightest. At just over an hour and a half, there isn’t a moment in “The Babymakers” that produces a single, genuine laugh. The movie is mostly reliant on tired, crude masturbation jokes and one-liners. There’s an especially revolting, lame scene in which a character spills several containers of semen on the ground and slips in the sea of male essence. Come on people, the “Jackass” guys have more taste and wit than that!

The usually delightful Munn has hardly anything to do as the loving, supportive wife. Schneider is likable, but appears lost in a clueless script. The filmmaker’s attempt to produce a sweet romance between the two seems misplaced in the mixture of gross out gags. It might have been smarter if they had dropped the love story all together and made a dark, buddy comedy like “Horrible Bosses.” Even then though, “The Babymakers” still probably wouldn’t succeed.

In addition to playing the Indian mobster, Jay Chandrasekhar also directed this stinker. Chandrasekhar has done some creditable work on TV shows like “Arrested Development” and “Community.” His theatricals directorial efforts, which includes “Club Dread,” “Beerfest” and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” have been less impressive. Along with screenwriters Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow, Chandrasekhar wants to make a movie that’s raunchy, charming, and funny all at once. Although these elements can work together, they feel drastically uneven in “The Babymakers.” I’d suggest that Chandrasekhar take a page from Judd Apatow, who has perfected this formula. But this seems pointless since Chandrasekhar is so clearly trying to rip Apatow off.

Battleship

 You sunk my battleship! **1/2

Have you ever wanted to see that schmuck from “John Carter,” that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model from “Just Go With It,” Chris Brown’s on-again off-again girlfriend, and Liam Neeson together in a movie based on a naval strategy game? If you’re the one person on the planet who does, you are in luck because they made it. A feature-length film about “Battleship” may very well be the laziest project ever to get the green light from a major studio. Peter Berg’s film is stupid, loud, and beyond ridiculous. In a surprising turn though, it’s probably the best “Battleship” movie possible. That doesn’t make the film good. But compared to the low bar that the “Transformers” sequels and “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” have set for the genre, it is a step-up.

The endlessly uncharismatic Taylor Kitsch is Alex Hopper, a naval lieutenant with a lot of potential. The problem is that he’s a goofball that won’t assert himself. He’s a severe disappointment in the eyes of the stern Admiral Shane, portrayed by somebody too talented to be in this picture, the great Liam Neeson. Admiral Shane further resents Hopper for dating his daughter, played by Brooklyn Decker, who does a first-rate job at looking positively gorgeous. Hopper is finally given a chance to prove himself when a commanding officer dies and he is put in charge of a destroyer. He leads a band of misfits lacking in personality, which include Tadanobu Asano as a Japanese captain and the singer Rihanna in her film debut as a petty officer.

It is up to Hopper and his crew to take out enemy ships that have invaded the waters of Hawaii. The ships in question are occupied by a dreaded race of…aliens? That’s right, there are aliens in a “Battleship” movie. I may not be a Battleship professional, but I don’t recall aliens ever being part of the game. If Michael Bay is going to make the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aliens though, then all bets are off.
The aliens enslave the navy’s ships in a barrier of sorts and target their weapons towards all modern technology. What do the aliens hope to achieve by invading earth? Never explained. It’s just an excuse for people to run around and for stuff to go boom.

The aliens themselves aren’t very interesting antagonists with about as much character development as the Decepticons. Their giant ships are considerably lackluster compared to the alien vessels that rampaged through Manhattan a few weeks ago in “The Avengers.” The humans aren’t much more compelling, failing to distinguish themselves as individuals we want to see survive. “Battleship” does occasionally offer an amusing moment of mindless escapism. These moments are often spread out though, in a redundant cycle of action sequences.

The film also attempts to employ messages about Japan/USA relations and the dedicated service of aging naval veterans. These are significant themes that are worth exploring. However, they’re in the wrong movie. This isn’t a serious look into the lives of soldiers like “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s “Battleship” for crying out loud! The audience is required to check their brain out before entering the theater. Kind of ironic that a “Battleship” movie would have more humanity and morals to it than Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.”

Unlike some of these other Hasbro toy adaptations, “Battleship” is at least occasionally fun and joyful. It’s just a little too dumb, misguided and overblown to recommend. But the film’s real crime is leaving out the immortal line, “You sunk my battleship!” Commercials have had Battleship players chanting this classic line for decades. Yet, it’s never said word-for-word in the film once. How did this happen? To compensate they ought to call the sequel, “Battleship II: You Sunk My Battleship.”

Beauty and the Beast 3D

Still a Beaut *****


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Up until the early nineties, Disney animated classics used to be rereleased into theaters every couple of years. But with the innovation of home video, which DVD would later dethrone, theatrical rereleases quickly became scarce. Disney rereleases may just be making a comeback however, thanks to the current trend of 3D movies. When Disney came out with “The Lion King 3D” last September, they merely saw it as a way to make some quick easy money. To the studio’s surprise, the film opened number one at the box office and brought in over ninety million dollars by the end of its theatrical run. That’s a considerable amount more than what several other animated films grossed last year.

What drew so many people back to see “The Lion King?” Probably a combination of both nostalgia and 3D. Rereleasing a film in 3D treats people to something they all know and love presented in a format that appears fresh. Thus, there is something there for adults seeing “The Lion King” for the hundredth time and children seeing the film for the first time. It also further confirms my theory that witnessing a movie in a theater will always be the premium moviegoing experience, even with all the Blu-ray advances.

Since “The Lion King 3D” was such a hit, it would only be natural for Disney to continue rereleasing their classics. In the years to come they plan on bringing “The Little Mermaid,” Finding Nemo,” and “Monster’s Inc.” back to theaters with the 3D bonus. Their first follow-up to “The Lion King 3D” though is “Beauty and the Beast.”

As many people already know, the film ranked number one on My Salute to Animation, just beating out the “Toy Story” trilogy and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I’ve talked about “Beauty and the Beast” so much that I want to avoid simply repeating myself in this review. Lets just say that everything about this Best Picture nominee still holds up, from the characters, to the music, to the romance. Experiencing it in the theater is a trip well worth taking, whether you see it in 3D or 2D.

One aspect that will stand out to audiences in “Beauty and the Beast 3D” is the film’s grand atmosphere. The Beast’s castle is one of the most colossus and intimidating environments in the history of cinema. Viewing the film in 3D, little details like stone gargoyles standout more than ever before. The musical numbers, such as “Be Out Guest” and that magnificent ballroom sequence, bring down the house more so than any 3D concert movie. Despite the handicap of being a 2D animated film, “Beauty and the Beast 3D” is one of the better 3D movies I’ve seen to date.   

Disney owes much to “Beauty and the Beast,” which cemented their return to quality after some missteps in the eighties. Had it not been for its success, audiences likely wouldn’t have gotten the Disney classics that followed or the computer animated films from studios like Pixar and Dreamworks. Although plenty of eminent animated features are released every year, it is hard to imagine one being as influential and extraordinary as “Beauty and the Beast.” That’s just one of the many reasons why the film is worth revisiting now and still will be in another ten years.

The Bourne Legacy

Natural Bourne killers ***

Where most film franchises undergo a downhill slope with every passing installment, the original “Bourne” trilogy was one of the rare series that only got better and better. “The Bourne Legacy” regrettably breaks this winning streak, being the least impressive of the series. That doesn’t mean the movie is a poor effort. This is indeed a very entertaining, well-made chapter of the “Bourne” story. After the fantastic “Bourne Ultimatum” though, it is a step down the ladder.

Tony Gilroy, who wrote the three previous “Bourne” pictures, takes over for Paul Greengrass as director. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne is referenced several times here, but is ultimately missing in action. Instead, the film shifts attention to Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross, a field agent who is given enhanced strength, agility, and intelligence thanks to a special medication. With Operation Blackbriar falling apart due to Jason Bourne, the CIA decides to dispose of their field agents. The only people that manage to getaway are Cross and Dr. Marta Shearing, a scientist played by Rachel Weisz. Edward Norton is Eric Byer, the man burdened with the task of terminating the two.

The vital question with this reboot of sorts is whether Aaron Cross is as interesting a character as Jason Bourne. Renner if undeniably a phenomenal actor and does a plentiful job shaping Cross into a gripping, motivated and at times humorous hero.  What he lacks is the sense of vagueness that made Jason Bourne so interesting. Where the mystery behind Bourne’s fractured past kept the audience invested in the first three films, Cross is a more straightforward protagonist. Thus, the film becomes more of a kick-ass action picture than a mystery.  As fast-paced summer entertainment though, “The Bourne Legacy” does indeed distribute some exceptional action set pieces influenced by suspense and applause worthy one-liners.

The relationship between Cross and Shearing is also admirable. Weisz specifically nails it as a woman thrown out of her cozy environment into the center of the action. Although she’s not as physically gifted as Cross, the movie doesn’t limit her character to a cheap damsel. On the contrary, she proves to be a very smart and resourceful woman despite not at all being prepared for such a venture. Shearing and Cross exemplify enormous chemistry on their run from the law, making the romance factory the movie’s driving force.

“The Bourne Legacy” may be heavier on setup than payoff. Nevertheless, I like the characters and circumstances Gilroy has introduced and am looking forward to where they will go in future entries. Somewhere down the line it would be marvelous to see Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross come face to face. Although “The Bourne Legacy” is only the forth-best addition to this series, the fact that it has me anticipating upcoming installments is more than can be said about other aging franchises.

Brave

 A woman with a bow? That would be so shocking eighty years ago! ***1/2

When Pixar was given the opportunity to make a feature-length animation in the early nineties, they strived to distinguish themselves from Disney by not telling a fairytale. The studio has maintained this custom for almost two decades with unique stories about monsters, toys, superheroes, and so on. Among all the Pixar films, “Brave” is certainly the most loyal to the Disney fairytale formula. The movie comes equipped with several familiar themes, such as a princess who wants more, a disapproving parent, and witchcraft. It’s interesting to see Pixar tackle a more Disney-like story and for the most part “Brave” is executed quite nicely.

Set in the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, “Brave” tells the tale of Princess Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald from “Boardwalk Empire.” The teenage Merida is an improper free spirit who’s even more skillful in archery than Katniss from “The Hunger Games” and Hawkeye from “The Avengers.” Her liveliness is best represented through her massive head of curly, blazing red hair. Much like Rapunzel in “Tangled,” Merida’s hair has the essence of a living, breathing creature. It’s just one of the numerous technical marvels that make up “Brave.”

In the convention of other animated princesses, Merida is being forced into matrimony with the son of one of three lords. What’s intriguing about “Brave” is the love story, or the lack there of. There’s no handsome prince in the movie. There isn’t even a love interest. Merida says early on that she isn’t ready for marriage and sticks to her guns all the way through. It’s rare to see an animated film or even a live-action adult picture where the heroine doesn’t end up with a man. While there’s nothing wrong with romance, Merida’s persistence to be independent is one of the many things that make her so endearing.

The main relationship in the movie is between Merida and her mother, the disapproving Queen Elinor voiced by Emma Thompson. Queen Elinor is not an evil parental figure like the wicked stepmother in “Cinderella.” Although she loves her daughter to death, Elinor merely believes that a princess should be proper and traditional. Aside from being royalty, their dynamic is very relatable to real life relationships between old-fashion mothers and new aged daughters. It’s further inspiriting to see a movie about a mother and daughter as apposed to a father and son or a father and daughter.

“Brave” is a tremendously crafted animation as well. The landscapes of Scotland are superbly rendered with colors mainly comprised of green, brown, and blue, creating a setting that’s magical and cultured simultaneously. The original songs by Julie Fowlis further add to the atmosphere. This is a movie with a truly timeless feeling, unlike “Madagascar 3,” which felt like a product solely geared towards today’s kids.

The characters, animation, culture, relationships and themes of “Brave” are all wonderful. There’s just one area the film somewhat lacks in, the story. The narrative is usually the best aspect of any Pixar movie. But “Brave” takes a weird turn during it’s second act that’s reminiscent of “The Princess and the Frog,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” and especially “Brother Bear.” What happens from that point on isn’t bad or even mediocre. It just feels a tad random and been there, done that. There are a million directions the filmmakers could have taken this story. While they ultimately took matters in a direction that works fine, it might not have been the absolute best direction to take.

For what “Brave” is though, the film is still a very worthy addition to the Pixar library. This is mainly thanks to its leading lady, who’s incredibly likable and empowering, but still makes mistakes and has a lot to learn. There have been some complaints that Pixar has yet to make a movie with a strong female character. These criticisms are unwarranted given Dory from “Finding Nemo” and Mrs. Incredible from “The Incredibles.” After Merida though, the accusations that Pixar is sexist should be forever silenced.

Bully

 Die, bullying, die! ****1/2

“Bully” is an important movie for every student, educator, and parent to see. In the weeks to come, schools around the nation should take their students on field trips to witness this magnificent documentary. When “Bully” is available on DVD, schools ought to set aside one day every year to play the film and discuss the bullying epidemic that plagues society. Upon watching the movie, schoolyard bullies might finally recognize the severe impact of their deeds. Those who have been victimized by bullying to the point of contemplating suicide may additionally see the value of their lives.

In the course of roughly a year, Director Lee Hirsch follows the lives of several kids who have been harassed by bullies along with their families. Hirsh spends a great deal of time with the families of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley, two kids who took their own lives after being pushed to their limits. While not every kid in “Bully” is driven to the point of suicide, many are still forced to take extreme measures to survive. In one case, an honors student named Ja’Meya Jackson brings a loaded gun onto a school bus after being continuously terrorized. An openly gay young woman named Kelby Johnson drops out of school after not only being singled-out by her fellow students, but teachers as well. They’re the proof that bullying exceeds kids merely being kids. It’s physical and psychological torment that can drive genuine people to do unbelievable things.

What are the schools doing about this problem? Clearly not enough. Alex Libby, a socially awkward boy with no friends, is constantly ridiculed on the bus everyday. Alex has been stabbed with so many pencils and had his head bashed into the seats so many times that he accepts this behavior as natural. It is not until the filmmakers show the footage to the parents that they realize just how cruelly Alex is being treated. When the parents ask the principle for help though, she shockingly responds, “I’ve been on that bus, they are just as good as gold.” This is documented evidence of just how incompetent and oblivious some school faculty members can be when it comes to bullying.

The only thing that might have made “Bully” and even stronger picture is if Hirsch had gained access to the bullies themselves. It likely would have been difficult to get these bullies or their parents to sign off on an interview though. Besides, this isn’t really a movie about why bullies find it necessary to pick on others. It’s about the victims and how they overcome ridicule.

There have been numerous after school specials about the negative effects of bullying. But no entertainment has been as deeply moving and eye opening as “Bully.” This is the kind of movie that truly has the power to make the world a better place and resonate with anybody who possesses a heart. A particular moment that will stick with audiences is when a man speaks out at a meeting regarding bullying. He asks the law and school officials how come a bartender can be sued for over serving a drunk driver, but a bully can get away with pushing somebody to suicide. His words are painfully honest and nobody can refute them.

It should also be mentioned that “Bully” has undergone one of the most idiotic rating controversies of all time at the hands of the MPAA. Although this film will make any individual a better person, the MPAA shamefully slapped it with an R-rating for strong language and a scene in which Alex is intensely beat up. Not since “The King’s Speech” has the MPAA proved themselves to be so pigheaded and out of touch with the world. Fortunately, the filmmakers and the Weinstein Company stood up for “Bully,” refusing to give in. The MPAA have since granted the film with a “PG-13” rating in exchange for editing out three ‘F words.’ At least now kids will be able to see this wonderful movie, with or without an adult guardian.

Cabin in the Woods

Not your average haunted cabin ****

“The Cabin in the Woods” is a difficult movie to discuss without giving away a few plot details. I’ll do my best to not spoil anything major throughout the course of this review. To be on the safe side though, I implore you to put down this paper now and just head to the theater without any prior knowledge. This is a movie you’re going to want to experience completely fresh. You’ve been warned.

What if it turned out that every slasher movie ever made was all part of a government conspiracy? That’s the premise of the new horror comedy, “Cabin in the Woods.” In the film’s universe, a secret organization brings five young adults together and manipulates them into spending the weekend at a creepy, abandoned cabin. The teenagers are lead on a path that causes them to accidentally raise the dead, although they just as easily could have summoned vampires or giant snakes. They are further influenced to do stupid things, like splitting up and having sex in the woods. All the while, the agency is watching them via hidden cameras.

This is a very clever premise that’s extremely well executed by Director/Writer, Drew Goddard. Credit also must go to co-writer Joss Whedon, the director of the upcoming “Avengers” and creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like “Buffy,” “Cabin in the Woods,” is a smart, funny, and creative horror story that exceeds all expectations. One would never anticipate a film like this to be as good as it is. But even those who are typically turned off by this genre may be pleasantly surprised.

The strongest attribute of “Cabin in the Woods” is it’s satirical sense of humor. Unlike so many other movies of it’s kind, “Cabin in the Woods” does not open with a young woman alone in her house waiting to be killed or with a fully laid-out back-story of a legendary monster. Rather, it begins with two middle-aged men played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford at a coffee machine making small talk. The scene gives no indication that the film is going to be a horror story of any kind. Then in mid conversation, the title “Cabin in the Woods” is just plastered on the screen in a bloody red font.

The cast is quite strong as well. The Scooby gang that is lured into the cabin consists of Kristen Connolly as Dana, an innocent girl who has had minimal sexual experience, Chris Hemsworth as Curt, a macho self-appointed leader of the group, Anna Hutchison as Jules, a sexually outgoing woman who recently dyed her hair blonde, Jesse Williams and Holden, an intellectual who is holding a torch for Dana, and Fran Kranz as Marty, a stoner who is literally the live-action Shaggy.

“Cabin in the Woods” embodies the wit of the “Scream” movies, the camp value of “Planet Terror,” and even the sense of mystery of the game “Portal.” On the whole though, “Cabin in the Woods” is an entirely original creation of its own. Some audiences may grow wrestles in the film’s first act, which takes it’s time letting the story unfold at a leisurely pace. But it’s all worth watching to get to the second act where matters really begin to shift into high gear in a superb climax.

It’s also interesting that “Cabin in the Woods” comes out just a few weeks after “The Hunger Games,” another film that placed young people in a dire environment as others watch them on television for entertainment. Could it be that these two movies are making some sort of commentary on the extremes reality television has gone too? It’s possible. One thing is for certain though. In a year that has brought audiences some truly pedestrian thrillers like “Silent House” and “The Devil Inside,” “The Cabin in the Woods” is by far the most fun and entertaining of the bunch. Even if you went against my initial warning and read this review from beginning to end, a good time will still be guaranteed.

The Campaign

They're still more qualified than John Kerry **

Throughout his decade and a half as an established director, Jay Roach has become known for two types of movies. Mainstream audiences know him best for star-studded comedies like “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents.” In recent years, Roach has also demonstrated momentous range as a filmmaker with HBO political pictures like “Recount” and “Game Change.” In “The Campaign,” both sides of Roach come together to produce a political satire. Sadly, the film is mostly deprived of the sidesplitting humor of Roach’s comedies and the incite of his governmental dramas.  His conclusive product is a disappointment on both fronts.

Will Ferrell is Cam Brady, an egotistical, womanizing congressman who has been running unopposed for the past several terms. After Brady leaves a controversial message on an answering machine, his approval ratings begin to decline. The Motch brothers, two wealthy CEO’s played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, decide that they want to get Brady out of office so they can manipulate someone more naïve and likable in the eyes of the public. Enter Zach Galifianakis as Marty Huggins, a tacky family man that looks and sounds a lot like a pedophile.

At their best, Ferrell and Galifianakis can be among the funniest men on the planet. In this film, they are saddled with characters that are weird, creepy, awkward, and almost make Herman Cain look sane. One thing that they aren’t however, is funny. These characters might be suitable for a five-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” especially since Ferrell was always so brilliant as George W. Bush. At roughly ninety minutes though, Brady and Huggins get really tired, really quickly.

Much like Roach’s last comedy, “Dinner for Schmucks,” “The Campaign” tries far too hard to win over its audience. Everybody in the movie, which also includes Jason Sudeikis as Brady’s campaign manager and Brian Cox as Huggins’ racist father, is essentially a cartoon. “The Campaign” should have taken a page from “In the Loop,” another satire about incompetent individuals that managed to achieve political power. The reason that comedy worked was because the humor was mostly subtle and the characters were surprisingly believable. In “The Campaign,” every joke and every person is constantly in your face, rarely allowing a moment to breath.

Just a couple months ago, Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” came out. Neither that political satire nor “The Campaign” quite met their potential. But at least “The Dictator” had enough solid laughs to merit one sit through. “The Campaign” does have a few humorous moments, such as when Huggins’ kids make several confessions at the dinner table. A majority of the jokes fall flat though, leaving the entire auditorium silent for large periods of time. There is one instance late in the picture that tries to work in an admirable message about the honesty of politicians. But by this point, the effort is too little, too late. If you’re looking for a smarter and funnier R-rated comedy to see this weekend, you’re better off checking out “Ted.” Even if you’re among the countless millions that have already seen “Ted,” watching that film a repeated time will merit more laughs than seeing “The Campaign” once.

Chernobyl Diaries

How stupid can people possibly be? *1/2

“Chernobyl Diaries” is like a PSA for what not to do if you’re a character in a horror picture. The characters in this movie commit just about every boneheaded decision a person can possible make under their circumstances, reaching a whole new level of stupidity. There seems to be an assumption that for a horror movie to arrive at its second act, the characters need to be complete morons. That unwritten rule is a load of bull though. The characters in “The Exorcist” and the various films by Alfred Hitchcock weren’t idiots. Even in recent thrillers like “The Crazies” and “Insidious,” the characters were all modestly intelligent. In “Chernobyl Diaries,” the true villain isn’t the mutants, the radioactivity, or even the big bad government, but the sheer idiocy of the heroes.

The film follows several young adults who are taking in the various sights Europe has to offer. A guide named Uri, played by Dimitri Diatchenko, offers to take these dummies on a tour of Pripyat, an abandoned city with radiation so high it can kill a person over a couple days. They of course think it would be a brilliant idea to go to a deserted, radioactive city with a strange man they know nothing about. The gang arrives at the city’s entrance to find European guards that will not let anyone past. One would assume that these people would take a hint and go home. Instead, Uri takes them to an unguarded entrance on the other side of the city. Common sense? What’s that?

After exploring the city, the band of stooges return to the van and discover that the cables have been pulled. Uri apparently wasn’t intelligent enough to foresee his car potentially breaking down in this abandoned, radioactive city. Since he works alone and there is no cell service, the idiot squad is stuck in Pripyat. From there on you know the drill. The city turns out to be populated by mutants, people start dying one by one, and these characters continue to make one brainless decision after another. There’s a particular scene in which one of the kids explores a creepy, broken down bus. One of his friends tells him not to go in. He responds, “But what if something’s there?” Um…yeah, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t go in there, you dunce!  

The screenplay was lead by Oren Peli, the man behind the first “Paranormal Activity.” Upon initial release, many moviegoers hailed “Paranormal Activity” as the scariest film ever. As time passed, people would come to realize this was an exaggeration. Regardless, “Paranormal Activity” was still an effective thriller with plenty of fun scares. “Chernobyl Diaries” doesn’t have the sense of mystery or dread that empowered “Paranormal Activity.” It just goes for one easy gotcha moment after another, never surprising the audience.

It doesn’t help that the mutants chasing our heroes are severely uninteresting threats. The common problem with mutants/zombies is that they are all basically just brainless savages with no personality. For once can’t there be a movie with a mutant/zombie who’s intelligent with character traits and a motivation? Granted, this would betray the entire concept of what these creatures are supposed to be. But if vampires can sparkle and werewolves can morph without a full moon, why can’t there be a charismatic mutant?

Director Bradley Parker occasionally delivers a nicely lit shot or a cool set piece. For the most part though, “Chernobyl Diaries” is bogged down by the annoying sensation of been there, done that. There aren’t any scares or inspired twists in the entire film. Familiarity is the last emotion that a horror movie should make the audience feel. The only thing that might have saved “Chernobyl Diaries” is if Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s characters from “The Cabin in the Woods” had showed up. It’s just too bad they can’t be in every horror picture.

Cloud Atlas

Don't feel bad if you don't understand it after one viewing, or even ten viewings ****

“Cloud Atlas” is a movie that you’re either going to walk out of within the first thirty minutes or watch repeatedly in order to analyze the meaning behind every scene. That should probably be enough to tell you if the film will be your cup of tea. “Cloud Atlas” may pride itself on frustrating the audience and clock in at almost three hours. At the same time though, this is also a beautiful and bewitching experience that will engulf anyone with a genuine admiration for ambitious filmmaking. Somewhat reminiscent of a cross between Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” “Cloud Atlas” is a risky, passionate journey that’s deserving of in depth study.

This adaptation of the novel by David Mitchel is made up of an all-star ensemble that includes Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Donna Bae, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Halle Berry. They all play multiple characters in six stories that are separated by time, location, and genre. The narrative consists of period pieces set in the mid 1800’s and 1930s, a conspiracy thriller in the 1970s, a modern quirky comedy, and two science fiction fables in the post apocalyptic future.

“Cloud Atlas” is a joined effort between the Wachowski brothers of “The Matrix” trilogy and Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run.” They split up the work with Tykwer filming three stories and the Wachowski’s filming the other half. How all of these tales are connected is difficult to explain. Through clever editing though, the collaborating directors give the film a surprisingly fitting flow as we jump between each story. The result is a mishmash of six incredible, epic short films for the price of one.

Whether you love or hate the previous work by the Wachowski’s and Tykwer, there’s no denying that the three are visually gifted directors. “Cloud Atlas” is no exception to their portfolios of great looking pictures composed of awe-inspiring sets, cinematography and effects. But the standout revelation in the film is the Oscar-worthy makeup effects. Sometimes you can single out an actor without any trouble. Other times, they look like completely different people hidden under all the makeup. Weaving is particularly unrecognizable as an Asian man, a muscular woman that works in a retirement home, and a devious creature in the shadows that looks like the bad guy from “Leprechaun.” After a while, the film starts to become a fun guessing game as you attempt to decipher which actor is portraying which character. But the makeup never makes these stories any less involving or distracts from the performances, both of which are key to the film’s success.

If there’s one reoccurring fault with “Cloud Atlas,” it’s that the screenplay is a little too heavy on dialog. This is such a gorgeous movie that you’d wish there were more quiet moments that allowed time to stop and take in the atmosphere. Regardless of its talky nature though, “Cloud Atlas” is still a strikingly crafted and innovatively structured outing from the Wachowski’s and Tykwer.

A film as long, strange and expensive as “Cloud Atlas” seems destined to be a financial flop upon arrival. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if some were to even hail it as one of the worst films of the year. This is definitely going to be one of the most split movies for 2012, appealing to an audience of acquired taste. I for one though, am siding on the positive spectrum for the film’s breathtaking visuals, inventive stories and prosperous collection of performances. Hopefully more people will join me so “Cloud Atlas” will received a worthy cult following.

The Dark Knight Rises

 In Nolan we trust *****

A good trilogy centered on a superhero has yet to be accomplished. Some series, such as “Superman” and Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” have come close to having a great trilogy. But whether it’s due to Richard Pryor or an idiotic dance sequence, they always seem to screw up the third installment. Christopher Nolan is the first filmmaker to completely nail a superhero franchise from beginning to end. “The Dark Knight Rises,” his grand conclusion to the Batman saga, is a film well worthy of it’s two exceptional predecessors. To call this the pinnacle collection of superhero pictures goes without saying. But “The Dark Knight Rises” additionally engraves Nolan’s take on the Batman legend into the history books as one of the best movie trilogies of all time.

“The Dark Knight Rises” calls to mind several Batman graphic novels, including “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Knightfall.” On the whole though, this is an absolutely original account from Nolan and company. Without giving too much away, the film takes place eight years subsequent to “The Dark Knight.” Batman has taken the blame for Harvey Dent’s death so the fallen politician may remain a hero in the eyes of Gotham. Thus, Bruce Wayne hangs up his cape and cowl, living a secluded life in his rebuilt manor. It appears that the city doesn’t need the Dark Knight anymore as crime continues to decline. Bruce is motivated to come out of retirement though, when a radical named Bane arrives in Gotham prepared to raise all hell.

Hidden behind a mask and a garbled accent, Tom Hardy plays Bane in a commendable super villain performance. It’s a truly overwhelming task having to follow-up an antagonist as timeless as the late Heath Ledger’s Joker, a performance that won an Academy Award. Bane isn’t as frightening, charismatic or menacing as Joker. But then again, they’re both very different foes for the Dark Knight. Where Joker was a pathological psycho, Bane is a more physically intimidating opponent with a calculated plan to bring anarchy to Gotham. This makes Bane one of the most realistic villains ever depicted in a comic book adaptation, evoking the quintessence of terrorism.  

Christian Bale does some of his finest work as the internally and externally wounded Bruce Wayne, struggling to walk away from the disheartening, lonely life of his alter ego. Batman isn’t alone in the fight for the future of Gotham. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon are back to lend a helping hand in the Dark Knight’s hour of need. Michael Caine is especially strong as Bruce’s loyal servant Alfred, who is concerned the man he has raised is going to die without ever getting to experience happiness. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also praiseworthy as John Blake, one of the few cops in Gotham that believes Batman is good for the city.

The scene stealing performance comes from Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, a notorious cat burglar. This is a much more believable version of Catwoman than the one in “Batman Returns” or that horrid Halle Berry version. Yet, Hathaway still maintains the same seductive, scheming nature of the femme fatale we all love. She’s equal parts adversary and aid to Batman here. Despite their differences, the two masked outlaws find a common ground in their ultimate desire, a clean slate. From this, a romance arises with authentic chemistry between Bale and Hathaway. There’s an additional love interest in Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, a wealthy businesswoman looking to buy out Wayne Enterprises. But the really compelling love story is between the bat and the cat.

Of course the special effects and action sequences are nothing short of sensational. What makes “The Dark Knight Rises” stand out from other well-made action pictures through is the sense of chaos and realism. In addition to excitement, the audience feels genuine dread throughout this meaningful film, notably during a remarkable climax. This is furthermore a character study of Batman, fueled by mesmerizing dialog, epic storytelling, and inspired twists.

Many felt that Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” should have been the first superhero movie to become a Best Picture nominee, an honor it inexcusably didn’t receive. With “The Dark Knight Rises” and Joss Whedon’s also splendid “The Avengers” though, there’s never been a better time for the Academy to seriously evaluate superhero-related pictures as more than summer escapism. Regardless of what the Academy says, Nolan has pulled off one of the most stirring cinematic endeavors of this young century that will not be forgotten any time soon.

The History and Appeal of Batman

Superman may be the most iconic of superheroes, providing people with a symbol of hope and setting an example for all mankind. But if you asked anyone who is the more interesting superhero, Batman or Superman, they would likely reply, “Batman,” in a heartbeat. But what is it that makes Batman so much more compelling than not just Superman, but Green Lantern, The Flash, Wonder Woman and various other superheroes? Is it because of his tragic past, dark persona, lack of superpowers, or endlessly impressive rouge gallery? That all certainly contributes to Batman’s appeal. On the whole though, Batman is all about great character development and storytelling. This is what has made Batman such an eternal character, from his first appearance in the comics to Christopher Nolan’s latest “Dark Knight” trilogy.

Deriving inspiration from the masked vigilante of Zorro and the Roland West mystery film “The Bat Whispers,” comic book artist and writer Bob Kane created Batman in 1939. The Caped Crusader made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, meeting much acclaim from fans. Batman’s popularity amounted to a 15-chapter serial produced by Columbia Pictures in 1943 with Lewis Wilson as the title character. By today’s standards, the serial’s effects and costumes may come off as cheesy to say the least. The serial was also heavily influenced by WWII aftermath with an incredibly racist depiction of a Japanese doctor as the villain. While age hasn’t been kind to it, the Batman serial does hold a special place in history for being the character’s first live-action appearance.

After another 15-part serial six years later, Batman eventually achieved his own television program in 1966. People are often split on this intentionally campy series with some arguing it’s the single worst entry to the Batman franchise while others have defended it to the grave. The 60’s Batman show might not have been the most serious, artistic or important interpretation of the superhero. Like the original serial, it was very much a product of the time. Despite all of its corniness though, this was a very likable show mainly thanks to the charms of Adam West, Burt Ward and other cast members. Whether you’re laughing at it or laughing with it, the old Batman show is still fun to watch whenever reruns are shown on television.

In the 1980’s, Batman returned to his darker roots via several celebrated graphic novels and comic book story arcs. The most commendable titles included “Batman: Year One,” an account of Bruce Wayne’s first year as the Batman, “The Killing Joke,” which presented a potential origin story for the Joker, and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” the tale of a 55-year old Batman who comes out of retirement. The success of these grimmer, more complex Batman stories lead to Tim Burton’s big screen adaptation in 1989.

Burton’s film was the complete opposite of the campy show and serial, presenting a much more tortured depiction of Batman staring a surprisingly well-suited Michael Keaton. The film additionally fashioned Gotham City into one of the most marvelous settings of all cinema, deservingly winning the Best Art Direction Oscar. While this was a huge step-up from previous outings, Burton’s “Batman” wasn’t without its problems. The film’s main shortcoming was the lack of attention paid to Bruce Wayne’s inner demons and motivations for fighting crime in a bat costume. Burton seemed to have more interest in Jack Nicholson’s one-dimensional Joker, whose antics go on for far too long. All in all, “Batman” is an entertaining picture and a creditable landmark for the character. Like many of Burton’s movies though, it focused more on style and atmosphere than character and story, the two aspects that made Batman so engaging in the first place.

Since “Batman” was such a huge box office hit, Burton was naturally asked to come back and direct “Batman Returns.” Once again, this “Batman” movie paid more attention to the villains, which included Danny DeVito as the Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as himself essentially. It also left a lot of people depressed and some of the grotesque imagery scarred young children for life. Thus, Joel Schumacher was brought on to director the third entry to the franchise, “Batman Forever.” This was a more light-hearted, colorful, family friendly film that launched the infamous bat nipples. While “Batman Forever” wasn’t a very good movie, it was a masterpiece compared to Schumacher’s hunk of bat guano follow-up.

“Batman & Robin” has not only been marked as the most despised Batman movie, but quite possibly the absolute worst movie of all time. After the previous films attempted to stay loyal to the characters darker, sophisticated origins, “Batman & Robin” reverted to the tone of the 60’s show. Where the Adam West series could at least be construed as a guilty pleasure though, “Batman & Robin” didn’t even work as unintentionally hilarious camp. It was just joyless, stupid, boring and tacky beyond all content. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s never-ending cycle of bad freeze puns and George Clooney’s bat credit card didn’t help.

Throughout the nineties, the best interpretation of Batman wasn’t any of the live-action movies, but the animated series helmed by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and others. The show looked and sounded fantastic, employing a first-rate orchestra and art deco design. What really solidified the animated series as a classic was its rich representation of the Dark Knight. Kevin Conroy delivered an emotionally charged and powerful voiceover performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne, a man haunted by the psychological turmoil of losing his parents. Where he could easily go down the path of vengeance, Batman channels his grief into something good by protecting the city of Gotham. Outside of the comics, this was the first version of the character that really made me consider whether it’s Batman or Bruce Wayne who wears the mask. In either case, Batman emerged as a multi-laired character that was equal parts superhero, detective and human.

The villains were much more fleshed out too. Characters like Two-Face and Mr. Freeze were built up to be more tragic figures with depth as apposed to wacky madmen that were evil for the sake of it. “Batman: The Animated Series” could even be very funny at times, primarily thanks to Mark Hamill as The Joker and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. The show went onto inspire the overlooked theatrical release, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” and other animated series like “Batman Beyond” and “Justice League.” A majority of the original voiceover cast and writer Paul Dini have recently reunited for “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and “Batman Arkham City,” easily the two best superhero games ever made. Humorous, moving, and exciting, the impact of “Batman: The Animated Series” is truly perennial.

As the twenty-first century rolled in, Warner Bros. was looking to completely revamp the “Batman” film franchise. For a while they considered doing a live-action take on the futuristic “Batman Beyond” or a crossover with Superman. In the end, they entrusted the project to Christopher Nolan, Director of “Memento,” who at last granted us the live-action Batman movie we deserved. “Batman Begins” was a gripping retelling of the Batman origin story that encompassed all the pain, ethics, and desires of Bruce Wayne, played by the perfectly cast Christian Bale. Nolan further incorporated a more realistic tone to the Batman universe, creating a world with echoes of our own. This was appropriate seeing how Batman himself has no superpowers, nor do his foes.

As terrific as “Batman Begins” was, it was merely a dress rehearsal when stacked up against Nolan’s sequel, “The Dark Knight.” Nolan enhanced everything this time around with more intense action and poignant dialog in addition to a genuine sense of peril. It broke new grounds for the genre, exceeding the demeaning label of a “comic book movie.” People were so impressed with “The Dark Knight” that there was some serious consideration of it garnering major Oscar nominations. “The Dark Knight” unfortunately didn’t get the Best Picture or Best Director nominations it deserved. Yet, the late Heath Ledger did win Best Supporting Actor for his immortal portrayal as the homicidal, terrorist-like Joker.

Now Nolan’s Batman trilogy will come to a close this Friday with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises.” It’s really amazing how a single comic from the thirties has encouraged one of the most recognizable franchises of all time. Even today new Batman comics and cartoons are being produced. Warner Bros. is already making plans for another “Batman” film series, which will sadly have to walk in the footsteps of Nolan’s. It just goes to show how ceaselessly alluring Batman is, capturing the attention of every generation. As long as a bat symbol remains in the sky and people continue to quote Robin’s lame one-liners, the legacy of the Dark Knight will continue with no end in sight. 

Dark Shadows

A vampire that doesn't sparkle, and that's a complement ***1/2

 Vampires and Tim Burton seem like such as natural fit. It’s curious that it has taken this long for him to director a movie in which a bloodsucker is given center stage. Now’s as good a time as any though, since the current vampire craze is apparently here to stay. Burton derives his latest theatrical outing from “Dark Shadows,” the gothic soap opera that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971. Where that show was essentially a drama, Burton’s take on the material is in the comedic vein of “Beetlejuice.” How interesting that between “21 Jump Street” and now “Dark Shadows” there have been two humorous reimagining’s of old television dramas in just a couple months. The fact that Johnny Depp stars in both films is further coincidental.

Where Depp was merely permitted a cameo in “21 Jump Street,” he is given top billing in “Dark Shadows.” He plays Barnabas Collins, the wealthy member of the thriving Collins family, who own pretty much everything in Collinsport, Maine. When Barnabas breaks the heart of Angelique Bouchard, a witch played by Eva Green, she curses him to spend the rest of eternity as a vampire. The townsfolk turn on Barnabas and bury him alive. Barnabas is released almost two centuries later to find that the year is 1972. Upon seeing a McDonald’s sign glowing in the nightlight, it occurs to Barnabas that the world has undergone some horrific changes.

Depp is perfectly suited to play Barnabas, who hysterically struggles with the reality of not only being a vampire, but also living in a foreign timeframe. Even when he is placed in the most humorous of circumstances, like brushing his fangs or sleeping upside-down in a bed, Depp never cracks a smile or breaks character. “Dark Shadows” could of run the risk of repeating the same joke as normal people react to Barnabas’ bizarre behavior. What makes “Dark Shadows” so much fun though is that it’s not just a fish out of water story. Where Barnabas may seem like an oddball, the supporting characters that surround him as every bit as dysfunctional and strange.

The remaining Collins family is lead by Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth, a greedy matriarch who struggles to keep her once prospering family afloat. Elizabeth employs the help of the alcoholic Dr. Julia Hoffman, hysterically played by Helena Bonham Carter, to treat little David Collins, who claims to be seeing the ghost of his dead mother. Chloe Grace Moretz is great as always as Carolyn, the rebellious teenage daughter whom Barnabas interprets as a hooker. Then there’s Jackie Earle Haley, the go-to character actor when Steve Buscemi isn’t available, as the slothful caretaker of the Collins mansion.

The most entertaining performance of all comes from Eva Green as Angelique, who is still thriving with beauty since Barnabas last saw her. She plans to seduce Barnabas back into her clutches using magic and sexuality. This amounts to one of the funniest sex scenes ever put on film, which was deeply missed in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.”

If there’s a weak link in this lineup of excellent characters, it’s a young governess named Victoria, played by Bella Heathcote. To be fair, Heathcote does give a very likable performance and might have a promising career ahead of her. But the character is underdeveloped and not given enough screen time to bloom. This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if the film didn’t depict Victoria as a love interest for Barnabas, who really has more chemistry with Angelique.

On the whole, “Dark Shadows” is a constantly enjoyable dark comedy that relishes in Burton’s trademark demented sense of humor and marvelous production values. At times the film can feel more like a series of moments than a flowing narrative. These moments provide so many wicked laughs and whimsy though, that this is easy to overlook. The only part when the film lags is in the final act in which an action climax overstays it’s welcome and delivers a few twists that come out of nowhere. Other than that, “Dark Shadows” is a bloody good time that’s fortunately deprived of any sparkling vampires.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Video games, destroying our youth or making them better? **1/2

 

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is conclusive evidence that every joke involving a public pool has been done to death. If there’s a little kid in the pool, he’ll unquestionably urinate and splash somebody. You can also count on the long-suffering protagonist at some point losing his swim trunks and having to dodge others in the nude. Then there are gags involving the pool being crowded with kids, being fearful of jumping off the high drive, navigating through the locker room, etcetera. Every adult in the theater will foresee these instances from a mile away. The targeted younger crowd on the other hand, will likely be caught off guard by these scenes and smile in glee.

“Dog Days” marks the third film adaptation in the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchise. Zachary Gordon is back as Greg Heffley, who remains every bit as awkward despite the fact that his voice has dropped. With summer on the horizon, Greg assumes that the next three months will entail nothing but video games. But Greg’s father, played by Steve Zahn, has more active plans for his low-functioning son. The wimpy kid is thus thrown into a number of circumstances involving fishing, camping and raising a dog. Down the road, Greg hopes to win the affection of his crush Holly Hills, played by Peyton List, who is spending most of her summer teaching tennis at a country club.

There’s much more to enjoy in this “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movie than expected. Director David Bowers does an admirable job at integrating the simplistic illustrations from the original book into the picture. The screenplay moves at a swift pace and occasionally offers some satirical insight regarding middle school life. The most commendable aspect of the film is the ensemble of kids, which, in addition to Gordon, includes Robert Capron as the goodhearted Rowley and Devon Bostick as the meathead brother Rodrick. These are all irrefutably likable and charming performers with fantastic presence. That’s more than can be said about “Are We Done Yet?” or “Daddy Day Camp.”

All of this comes close to saving the film. But it frequently takes the easy route with lowbrow humor and an obvious formula. “Dog Days” is a little reminiscent of the Disney Channel cartoon “Phineas and Ferb,” which also focuses on children during the summertime. But that show has a certain sly sense of humor and creativity that makes it fun for all ages to observe. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” is strictly intended for kids.

That being said, those under fourteen are going to have great time at the movie. Their parents will tolerate watching the film as long as their kids are amused. This just isn’t a movie that a grown up will want to see on their own. “Dog Days” didn’t have much of an impact on me. Yet, I can’t help but suspect that I would have really liked it as a ten-year-old.

The Dictator

 Anybody who publicly humiliates Ryan Seacrest has my vote ***

“The Dictator” is a comedy with an absolutely splendid setup. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of a fictional country known as Wadiya. Aladeen abuses his authority to have people executed, even if they merely bump into him while walking down the stairs. He has additionally slept with virtually every major celebrity, from Megan Fox in a hilarious cameo to Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he ventures to New York though, Aladeen is betrayed by his subjects and replaced with an identical double, also portrayed by Cohen. His top advisor, played by Ben Kingsley, plans on using the double to finally bring democracy to Wadiya. Meanwhile, Aladeen is cast onto the streets of New York, stripped of all power. Imagine “Trading Places” only with Saddam Hussein.

With a premise as clever as this, one would expect “The Dictator” to reach the heights of a satire like “Dr. Strangelove” or “To Be or Not to Be.” “The Dictator” is indeed a funny movie with much relevant political humor. However, it misses the mark of an instant comedy classic mainly due to several conventional narrative threads. For a film with so many offensive, edgy jokes, “The Dictator” can feel a little too safe at times.

The highlight of the picture is Sacha Baron Cohen, who continues to thrive as one of our most ambitious comedians and character actors. As Aladeen, Cohen sports the scruffiest beard this side of Osama Bin Laden and the most over-the-top foreign accent since Dr. Doofenshmirtz from “Phineas and Ferb.” Whether he is locking lips with Will Ferrell or spilling Kim Jong-il’s ashes on Ryan Seacrest, Cohen will shamelessly do anything to make us laugh. Much like Borat, Aladeen is another obliviously ignorant character that spouts some of the crudest dialog ever exclaimed on film. Against all odds though, Cohen still manages to make the character highly likable and endearing. This is among the most difficult tasks for any comic to pull off.

What often slows the film down is a romantic subplot between Aladeen and a left-wing owner of a grocery store played by Anna Faris. Although this does offer some funny moments, the romance factor is typically the most uninteresting aspect of “The Dictator.” What made Cohen’s previous movies memorable was their unpredictable nature. The love story in “The Dictator,” while far more obscene than an average romantic comedy, is all too predictable. This ultimately prevents “The Dictator” from being what it could have been.

The jokes are mostly hits with an occasional misfire. The funniest bits in the film include a misunderstanding on a helicopter, an old school comedy routine on a zip-line, and a running gag involving a severed head. Other gags, like a birthing scene, are more disgusting and stupid than humorous. While not every joke in “The Dictator” works, the ones that do succeed more than compensate.

“The Dictator” isn’t “Borat.” It’s not even “Bruno.” For some truly uproarious moments and Cohen’s fearless performance though, it is well worth checking out. This marks the third time that Cohen teams up with Director Larry Charles, whose beard ironically shares a resemblance to Aladeen’s. While these two make for great collaborators, they are beginning to become too familiar after three films. What I really want to see from this duo now is a documentary about the real-life marriage between Cohen and Isla Fisher.

Django Unchained

The D is silent! *****

After “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino quickly became the coolest director working in Hollywood. Achieving such early acclaim in his feature film career, Tarantino easily could have come and gone like any other trendy flavor of the month director. Twenty years subsequent to his big debut though, he is still making some of the most electrifying entertainments the silver screen has ever seen. With his latest film, “Django Unchained,” Tarantino continues to entrench himself as an eternal god among the movie geek community. Mixing together elements of the spaghetti western, blacksploitation, and even some of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” this is among Tarantino’s boldest and funniest outings to date.  

The film gets its inspiration, but not much else, from the 1966 western entitled, “Django.” Here Jamie Foxx stars at the title character, who notes that the “D” in his name is silent. As the story begins, the African American Django finds himself in a chain gang of slaves at the mercy of their new owners. In the dead of night appears Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter who rides a wagon with a giant, eyesore tooth springing on top. Through a brutally hilarious exchange, Schultz comes into possession of Django and grants him his freedom. Django decides to team up with Waltz as a bounty hunter so they might find his lost wife Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington.

Waltz became an international star after he broke out in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” for which he additionally won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In his sophomore outing with Tarantino, Waltz finds himself in an incredibly different, but equally engaging, role as the most lethal dental school alumni since Steve Martin in “Little Shop of Horrors.” The friendship that he develops with Django is magnificent on multiple levels. On one hand it’s a meaningful extension of humanity from a white man to a black man. A majority of time though, skin color plays no significant role in their bromace. They’re just a couple of guys that enjoy each other’s company and love getting paid to kill people.

We’ve all heard the saying that there are no small parts, just small actors. This idiom can be applied to all of Tarantino’s movies. Whether somebody has a leading role or a minute long cameo, every actor manages to leave a lasting impression. The entire ensemble shines in “Django Unchained” as our heroes cross paths with a variety of unique characters. Don Johnson is a ton of fun as Big Daddy, a Southern slave owner and Ku Klux Klan leader. His subplot amounts to the single biggest laugh riot of the year as the KKK struggles to see through their masks during a rave.

The scene stealing performance comes from Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, the plantation owner that purchases Django’s beloved wife. This is a man who whores out his female slaves and trains his male slaves to be ruthless warriors that fight to the death for his own amusement. Despite his merciless actions, we can’t help up love every second the charismatic Calvin is on screen. Not since Col. Hans Landa has there been a villain so despicable and unpredictable, yet somehow refined and charming. The fact that he calls his plantation of prostitutes and fighters “Candyland” only makes him an even more delightful SOB. We also get some great work from Tarantino-regular Samuel L. Jackson, finally starting to look is age as Calvin’s dedicated Uncle Tom-like servant.

“Django Unchained” is the perfect movie to follow in the footsteps of “Inglourious Basterds.” Where that film took its revenge out on Nazi evil through gleeful historical inaccuracy, “Django Unchained” is a brazenly exaggerated, wildly fantastic revenge tale against slavery. While “Inglourious Basterds” was a little too out there for some, I thought it was one of the best films of 2009. The same can be said about “Django Unchained,” one of the best films of 2012. Tarantino has hit it out of the park again with his trademark intensity, wit, silliness, pulpiness, inspired references, and undeniable admiration for cinema firing on all cylinders. This is one director that has yet to show any sign of losing his magic touch.

Edge of Watch

 A cop movie where the police are not invincible ****

At first glance, the audience assumes “End of Watch” is going to be a by the books buddy cop movie with the focal intention of providing popcorn escapism. As it goes on though, “End of Watch” evolves into something much more than initially assumed. This is an authentic and at times brutal glimpse into the lives of two police officers on patrol duty. “End of Watch” is additionally an extremely funny and intense action picture of sorts, completely blowing any of the “Rush Hour” and “Bad Boys” movies out of the water. Ideally balancing humor and humanity, “End of Watch” manages to be one of the better movies of its kind and one of the season’s most absorbing surprises.

A majority of the film is told from the perspective of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Officer Brian Taylor, who records himself with a handheld camera while on the job. No, he’s not one of those trashy police officers on “Cops” or “Reno 911.” Brian is actually making a documentary for a film course, although we never actually see him in this class. Michael Peña is Mike Zavala, Jake’s partner. The film follows their various pursuits as they save children from fires, confiscate money from a drug cartel, and make hilarious small talk while patrolling the ghettos.

There have been countless movies about racially mismatched cops that start off disliking each other and become friends. One of the many perks of “End of Watch” is that Brain and Mike are already best buds that have clearly always enjoyed each other’s company. Writer/Director David Ayer, who penned the screenplay for “Training Day,” demonstrates his knack for dialog as Brain and Mike discuss work, relationships, and the future. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Peña is so natural that you’ll occasionally believe “End of Watch” is not scripted, but based on found footage.
 
The film includes strong supporting performances from Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez as the wives of Brian and Mike. America Ferrera is also commendable as one of their fellow officers. But “End of Watch” truly belongs to Gyllenhaal and Peña, who sell every minute of their honest partnership. “End of Watch” goes above and beyond merely being a bromance about super cops though. Just like real life police officers, the stakes are always high and these two face unexpected danger around every turn. The affection we develop for Brian and Mike adds to the powerful final thirty minutes of the film, in which their brotherhood meets the ultimate test. I’m not going to get into what goes down. But the fact that this movie utilizes a handheld camera POV should be enough to tell you that there will be some tragedy.

With the rate of speeding tickets and DUI’s going through the roof, it can be easy for society to hate cops now more than ever. Walking out of this movie though, you’ll feel nothing but gratification for the police and the sacrifices they make to keep us safe. If you’re involved in law enforcement or connected to someone in law enforcement, “End of Watch” will prove to be an especially emotional experience.

Frankenweenie

 Hey kids, lets play God! ****

One can’t help but assume that Tim Burton lost a beloved canine friend as a child and has never quite gotten over the death. From “The Nightmare Before Christmas” to “Corpse Bride,” deceased dogs have been a reoccurring archetype in the animated features attached to Burton. His fascination with departed animals can be traced back to “Frankenweenie,” a 1984 short film he directed for Disney. The thirty-minute short was equal parts a homage and satire of the “Frankenstein” tale in which a little boy brought his Bull Terrier back to life.

Disney initially felt the “Frankenweenie” short was too scary for younger viewers. This resulted in the studio giving Burton the boot, sending him on a trail that would lead to live-action successes such as “Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” and “Edward Scissorhands.” Disney and Burton are now officially back on good terms, especially since their recent reimagining of “Alice in Wonderland” made over a billion dollars. This has made leeway for Disney to distribute Burton’s remake of “Frankenweenie,” a stop-motion animated fable that manages to be charming despite the grim nature of the narrative. It’s also probably the only 3D black and white film you’re likely to ever see.

This expanded version of “Frankenweenie” tells the story of little Victor Frankenstein, voiced by Charlie Tahan, an outcast that spends his days making home movies and science experiments. Victor’s only friend is his beloved pooch, Sparky, whose life is tragically cut short after getting hit by a car. Martin Landau is superlatively cast as Mr. Rzykruski, a science teacher fascinated by the effects of lightning. Inspired by Mr. Rzykruski, Victor comes up with an experiment to bring Sparky back from the dead. Recreating the classic scene from the 1931 “Frankenstein” film, Victor places the corpse of Sparky on an operating table and raises it into the night sky during a lightning storm. The experiment succeeds in resurrecting Sparking, although fragments of his body occasionally fall off.

Some children may be turned off by the fact that “Frankenweenie” is shot entirely in black and white. Those that appreciate the art of film and classic monster flicks however, will love this movie for its pleasantly eerie tone and atmosphere. The film not only cleverly pays tribute to “Frankenstein,” but also “The Wolf Man,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Gremlins,” and even “Gamera.” Like “ParaNorman,” another gothic stop-motion feature from a couple months ago, “Frankenweenie” is a family movie with true admiration for animation, horror and everything in between.

The film includes grand side characters, including Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short as Victor’s parents, Winona Ryder as a Lydia-like neighbor girl, and Atticus Shaffer from “The Middle” as the hunchbacked, deformed Edgar “E” Gore. They’re all a ton of fun to observe with their misshapen bodies and wide, weary eyes. But this is truly Victor and Sparky’s movie in a horrifyingly heartfelt tale about the bond between a child and man’s best friend. Any child that goes to see “Frankenweenie” subsequent to losing a pet should not take the film too literally though. I’d hate to think that a kid might be influenced to dig up their pet and try to harness a bolt of lightning to bring it back.

Hit & Run

 Can't wait for the sequel, Drink & Drive ***1/2

“Hit & Run” sets out to be an offbeat farce and succeeds in accomplishing just that. It customarily resembles the formula of a Coen Brother’s comedy with smartly written incompetent criminals and some of the most fun chases since “Raising Arizona.” The film doesn’t reach the same heights of the Coen’s best work like “Fargo” or “The Big Lebowski.” But the fact that it merits any comparison at all should be a huge compliment to Dax Shepard, the director, co-writer and star of “Hit & Run.”

The remotely unknown Shepard is Charlie Bronson, a man who testified against two violent bank robbers and is now under the Witness Protection Program’s guard. He lives a content life with Annie, his girlfriend played by Kristen Bell. Charlie has told Annie about his Witness Protection status and she assumes that all the cards are on the table. The only thing Charlie failed to mention was that he was actually the getaway driver for all those robberies.  

When Annie gets a job offer in Los Angeles, Charlie is confronted with the decision of maintaining his new identity or staying with the girl he loves. Going against his better judgment, Charlie decides to pack his bags and drive Annie to L.A. This choice doesn’t sit well with Tom Arnold’s Randy, the bumbling Witness Protection marshal in charge of defending Charlie. Also apprehensive to the idea is Gil, Annie’s ex-boyfriend played by Michael Rosenbaum of “Smallville” in a very funny performance. In a ploy to get Annie back, Gil contacts the criminals Charlie betrayed, lead by Bradley Cooper’s dreadlocked, dog obsessed Alex. It then becomes a bit of a rat race with everybody chasing after Charlie and his girl.  

In addition to the names mentioned above, “Hit & Run” includes some capital cameos from Kristin Chenoweth, Jason Bateman, and Beau Bridges. The primary reason the film works through is due to the appealing chemistry between Charlie and Annie, which feels surprisingly genuine. Granted, no couple will ever be under the same circumstances as these people. Underneath the improbability though, Shepard and Bell do a lustrous job at creating characters that are charming, funny and a lot of fun when paired together. A conversation about substituting “lame” for a certain word that’s used to belittle gay people is notably hilarious.

There have been many recent movies that tried to pack action, romance, and humor into one package. Examples include “The Bounty Hunter,” “Killers,” and “This Means War,” three of the worst films of the past few years. There are admittedly some instances where “Hit & Run” can feel a little uneven as it juggles being dark while also having a heart. For the most part though, Sherpard does a solid job at balancing the tone, never making the audience feel like they’re watching two completely different movies. “Hit & Run” may have its fair share of bumps down the road. But for the pleasurable cast and quirky escapism it offers, the film is a ride well worth taking.

Hitchcock

 Alfred Hitchcock: Great director, subpar lover at best ****1/2

“Hitchcock” is the second movie about the master of suspense to come out in just the last month or so. The first one was the HBO original movie, “The Girl,” which dealt with Hitchcock’s infatuation with Tippi Hedren. It was a passable film for the commendable performances and a few genuinely disturbing scenes. What “The Girl” failed to do was paint a multilayered portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock. Granted, Hitchcock was an obsessive man that had wild fantasies about his leading ladies. But there was so much more to the guy than his unsettling perverted side. Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” is the superior film in every department, delivering a fully fleshed out depiction of Alfred Hitchcock while also providing sly moments of Hitchcockian humor and intrigue.

Anthony Hopkins is the spitting image of Alfred Hitchcock, who is fresh off the success of “North By Northwest.” Even at age 60, Hitchcock is still looking for new ways to shock audiences and top his previous work. Hitchcock finds his inspiration in a little novel entitled, “Psycho.” Although nobody at Paramount Pictures believes in the project, Hitchcock is resolute on making “Psycho” at any cost. Literally, Hitchcock had to invest his own money to get the picture made at the risk of losing his house, swimming pool and creditability.

Whether you already know the history of how “Psycho” was made or not, it’s always fascinating to watch this true story play out. A nude woman being stabbed to death in a shower might not seem radical when compared to contemporary torture porn. For 1960 though, “Psycho” was easily among the most controversial movies ever produced. Hitchcock had to fight the censors on numerous notorious aspects of the film, from the partial nudity to the presence of a toilet. Keeping the immortal twist at the end of “Psycho” was an equally straining task for Hitchcock, buying every copy of the original book and insisting that nobody enter the theater once the film started. As Hitchcock throws all of his money and heart into “Psycho,” he is constantly split on whether he’s making a masterpiece or another flop like “Vertigo.” Ironically, the British Film Institute recently voted “Vertigo” as the greatest movie of all time, dethroning “Citizen Kane.”  

In addition to Hopkins’ spot-on depiction of Hitchcock, we also get some first-rate work from Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, and Toni Collette as Hitch’s assistant. Perhaps the best performance comes from Helen Mirren as Alma Reville, the longsuffering wife of Hitchcock. While Reville stood by her husband until he died in 1980, their marriage was far from a Hollywood romance. It obviously wasn’t easy for Reville to live with a man that was often fixated with his films and younger blonde women. The nature of their sexual relationship also remains a bit of a mystery, as we see them sleeping in separate beds here. For all their problems though, it’s undeniable that Reville’s opinion meant the world to Hitchcock. Even if he could not always satisfy her on an intimate level, Hitchcock knew that he needed his wife by his side for both emotional and creative support.

The only portions of “Hitchcock” that don’t entirely work are the flashbacks involving Ed Gein, the serial killer that inspired the “Psycho” novel. The film tries to make a connection between Gein and Hitchcock’s own inner demons. While the idea is intriguing, the pieces never quite come together in a satisfying fashion. Fortunately, these moments take up little of the movie and do not distract from the other stimulating scenes concerning Hitchcock’s marriage and fortitude to finish “Psycho.” Director Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, who adapted the novel by Stephen Rebello, give us the most absorbing representation of Alfred Hitchcock to this date. They get Hitchcock just right, establishing him as a dedicated, determined filmmaker, a distant, flawed husband, and the all around captivating human being.

Hope Springs

Old people sex! ***

 

A couple years ago, Meryl Streep played an aging woman rekindling the bond with her estranged husband in “It’s Complicated.” “Hope Springs” shares a similar premise in addition to casting Streep as a veteran woman seeking romance once again. While this is familiar territory, “Hope Springs” actually manages to improve upon “It’s Complicated” in almost every department. Where that romantic comedy from Nancy Meyers was basically an extended episode of a sitcom, this film has much more believable characters and situations. It moreover offers a frank look into the lives of a couple in their twilight years.

Streep is Kay and Tommy Lee Jones is her grouchy husband, Arnold. Somewhere down the line in their thirty years of marriage, the two lost a certain fling. They sleep in separate beds in different rooms, preventing them from having intercourse of any kind. When Kay approaches Arnold one night in search of romantic interaction, he claims that he’s not up to it. The most intimacy they ever share is when Arnold kisses Kay on the cheek as he rushes out the door in the morning.

Arnold is content with his humdrum routine of having breakfast, going to work, eating dinner, and falling asleep watching golf. Kay however, wishes to travel back to the days of their passionate youth. She reads a book about marriage by a psychologist named Dr. Feld, played by Steve Carell, and insists on going to see him in Maine. While Arnold refuses at first, he eventually agrees to attend to appease his distant wife.

David Frankel of “The Devil Wears Prada” delivers a sincere directorial outing and Vanessa Taylor shows authentic promise with her début screenplay. The film’s selling point though is the performances from the perfectly cast Streep and Jones. Although they are two of the most recognizable and legendary actors in the business today, the audience never distinguishes their relationship as anything less than genuine. These are the kind of people we all know, whether they’re members of our own family or a friend’s family. It’s both relatable and engaging to observe this likable couple recapture what they once had through humor and honesty.  Also good here is Steve Carell, who seems to be toning done his act with this film and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”

This has been a very strong year for unique, meaningful love stories like “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Ruby Sparks. “Hope Springs” might not be as smart or original as any of those movies. For what it is though, the film succeeds as a light, sweet, and tender romance with A-list work from its stars. It’s additionally nice to see that the 63-year-old Streep can still take on a role centered on sexual tension. Where most respected actresses her age steer clear of sexual roles, she’s not afraid to play a character that performs oral in a movie theater.

The Hunger Games

Reality television dominates the world ****1/2

One boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each of the 12 districts. They are then plopped in an arena and forced to fight to the death. Only one may come out alive. Any empathetic human being would agree that this sounds like a truly despicable premise for a television program. In an era where people are humiliated, manipulated, and pitted against each other on reality shows though, would it really be that improbable for an entertainment such as this to be produced?


Fortunately, our culture has not become corrupted to the point where gladiator fights are legalized. But “The Hunger Games” offers a fascinating representation of what could happen if our nation revolved around one capital that used television to influence society’s emotions. Like all great works of science fiction, “The Hunger Games” employs many modern day issues to provide a futuristic cautionary tale of sorts. Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel translates beautifully into film with Director Gary Ross at the helm. Ross has made a gripping and exciting entertainment that almost entirely lives up to the hype.


Numerous young actresses lined up for the Katniss Everdeen casting call, including Haille Steinfeld, Chloe Grace Moretz, Emma Roberts, and Shailene Woodley. While all of those actresses are wonderful, it’s hard to think of a superior individual to play this role than Jennifer Lawrence. She was so perfect in “Winter’s Bone” as Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old who must provide for her younger siblings where her parents cannot. Lawrence shares a similar role as Katniss, who looks out for her younger sister, Prim. When the little, 12-year-old Prim is selected as a tribute for the Hunger Games, the protective Katniss naturally offers to take her place. Also selected to attend the Hunger Games is Peeta, a shy young baker played by Josh Hutcherson.


After a few brief, tearful goodbyes, Katnis and Peeta are put on a train to the capital, where the fashion style is like a mix of the Victorian era, the 1980’s, and the universe of Dr. Seuss. The once poverty-stricken peasants are now treated with fancy clothes, tasty food, the most advanced technology, and glory. Who could appreciate any of it though when certain death is just around the corner? It’s not enough for Katnis to just train in order to win this battle. She must also pass herself off as a likable personality on a talk show hosted by the Regis Philbin-like Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci. The better her image is, the better chance Katnis has at achieving top sponsors.


In addition to Lawrence, the entire supporting cast flawlessly captures the essence of their characters. Woody Harrelson is superb as Haymitch Abernathy, a former Hunger Games winner who, much like a war veteran, has become bitter due to his haunting past. It’s his duty to aid Katniss and Peeta in their survival by imparting his knowledge of the Hunger Games to them. The unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks provides much of film’s needed comic relief as Effie Trinket, an escort who acts as if being selected for the games is an honor rather than a death sentence. Then there’s Donald Sutherland as the evil President Snow who uses this annual event to establish his power and provide the people with false hope.


Katnis and Peeta additionally share a nice chemistry. Where most people would instantly turn on each other under these circumstances, they cannot help but watch each other’s backs throughout the course of this horrific ordeal. A star-crossed romance between the two is also possible. The question is whether their affection is genuine or simply a forced partnership like on “The Bachelor.” Even Katniss seems unsure about this.


Fans of the novel will be pleased to know that this film adaptation does not tone down the bloodshed. This is one of the most graphic PG13 movies ever to make it past the censors with many young people meeting their demise in violent fashions. There’s a particular death that will have audiences bawling, resulting in the film’s most powerful scene. The acts of compassion and brutality that take place during the competition are what make “The Hunger Games” such a rich picture about maintaining one’s humanity vs. surviving at all cost.


Everyone seems to be describing “The Hunger Games” as the anti-“Twilight.” This comparison seems somewhat unwarranted. The two share little in common other than that both derive from popular books, revolve around young women, and include a love-triangle subplot. As far as characters, themes, substance, and subject matter go though, the two couldn’t be more different. When it all comes down to which franchise is superior though, it’s safe to say that “Hunger Games” is the victor.

Hyde Park on Hudson

How can a movie with FDR and King George be so bland? **

 

Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” often feels like two separate movies. One film is about Franklin Roosevelt’s love affair with his sixth cousin. The other is about King George VI and his first visit to the United States. The problem is that “Hyde Park on Hudson” can never decide which of these stories is supposed to be the A plot and which is the B plot. The narrative as a whole thus suffers with neither storyline meeting their full potential. The fact that the film centers on several fascinating real-life individuals only makes the results more disappointing.

Bill Murray plays Presentiment Roosevelt as a womanizing, yet charismatic, charmer that’s hard not to like. Out of the blue, FDR decides to call up his distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney. Through poor execution and a lack of character development, Roosevelt and Daisy decide to engage in an intimate relationship. The film never really explains what brings on this attraction. One minute Daisy is looking at FDR’s stamp collection. In the next scene, he’s taking her to a secret love nest. That must have been one arousing stamp collection.  

Around this same time, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrive in America to plead for support when World War II breaks out. While Samuel West and Olivia Colman do a fine job as the royal couple, they have the misfortune of following up Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter’s brilliant portrayals in “The King’s Speech.” Unlike “The King’s Speech,” “Hyde Park on Hudson” rarely has anything of interest to say about Bertie and Elizabeth. A majority of their scenes consist of tedious complaining as they try to decide whether or not it’s appropriate for King George to eat a hotdog. That’s not exactly what you call exhilarating cinema.   

Murray is a gifted, unique talent that has really broadened his range in recent years. Regrettably, he’s unconvincing here as FDR. Although the performance may not be bad, you never actually believe him in the role. His depiction feels overly animated, better suited for a caricature that you’d see on a “Saturday Night Live” skit. When compared to something like Daniel Day Lewis’ transcendent portrayal as Abraham Lincoln, Murray as FDR is essentially forgettable. Linney is additionally unmemorable as Daisy, who bombards us with consistently dull narration.

The major downfall of “Hyde Park on Hudson” is its failure to provide any insight into the lives or relationships of these people. The film presents a number of potentially interesting dynamics, including FDR and Daisy, FDR and King George, and King George and Queen Elizabeth. But Richard Nelson’s screenplay is so under researched that we walk away with an unfulfilled sensation. It’s missing any honest conversations or challenging ideas regarding the characters. In a year of several great political movies, “Hyde Park on Hudson” doesn’t get nearly enough Electoral College votes to make the cut. 

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Yep, they made a fourth one **

It feels as if I already critiqued “Ice Age: Continental Drift” a few weeks ago in my review of “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” Like that animated sequel, this film is burdened with the excessively recognizable voices of celebrities, overdone morals, and a dire amount of repetition. Granted, “Ice Age” has persisted to be a much funnier, more charming franchise than “Madagascar.” After four films and countless millions though, it may be time for this ten-year-old series to go extinct.

“Continental Drift” picks up with Ray Romano’s Manny the mammoth, John Leguizamo’s Sid the sloth, and Denis Leary’s Diego the saber-toothed cat living a peaceful life in their frozen world. Manny and his mate Ellie, voiced by Queen Latifah, are having trouble accepting the fact that their teenage daughter Peaches, voiced by Keke Palmer, is not a little mammoth anymore. Peaches wants to chill with the cool mammoth crowd, but instead finds herself hanging around a nerdy molehog voiced by Josh Gad. Sid meanwhile has received custody of his eighty-year-old, delusional grannie, voiced by Wanda Sykes. Ellie’s possum brothers are also in the mix as is Scrat the Squirrel, who still can’t hang onto an acorn.

As you can probably tell from that lineup, this movie has more characters than it knows what to do with. The names listed above don’t even makeup half the cast of virtually expendable characters. But as the old saying in the animation industry goes, “The more cute animals on screen, the more plush toys we can sell!” That’s essentially what “Ice Age: Continental Drift” feels like, a ploy to sell merchandise rather than advance a narrative.

Manny is separated from his wife and daughter when the continents begin to separate. Stranded on a piece of ice, Manny, Sid, Diego, and Grannie set out on a journey at sea to get back home. They hit a road bump however, when they are taken hostage by a band of pirates. The crew is lead by the always-entertaining Peter Dinklage as the deliciously evil Captain Gutt, a prehistoric ape. Diego also finds a potential love interest with the captain’s first mate, a female sabre-toothed cat provided with the thick Puerto Rican accent of Jennifer Lopez. The ensemble for this McDonald’s Happy Meal just keeps growing.

The story is pretty much on autopilot from this point on with an occasionally amusing, though not particularly inspired, action sequence and references that won’t exist for another couple centuries. There are also some attempted lessons about parents letting their children grow up, kids respecting their elders, and the virtue of family. To the film’s credit, these are commendable messages to pass onto young audiences. But they’ve simply become worn-out by vastly superior films. Pixar’s “Brave” basically encompassed all of the same morals that “Continental Draft” does. But that film handled the material in a much more sincere, meaningful, timeless fashion. Here, it’s kind of tacked on.

The highlight of “Ice Age: Continental Drift” is the opening short staring Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare.” It’s a fun five-minute cartoon done entirely without dialog as the infant Maggie attempts to save a butterfly from a merciless baby with one eyebrow. Maybe “Ice Age” should take a page from “The Longest Daycare” and limit the series to short subjects from this point on. It’s always a joy to see Scrat the Squirrel open a movie with his escapades. “Ice Age 5” on the other hand, is less than called for.

John Carter

A film as bland as the title character's name *1/2


For a while now, Walt Disney Pictures has been trying to develop an action/adventure franchise with the same mass appeal of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Their first attempt was with the failed “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” “John Carter,” Disney’s latest venture, isn’t much of an improvement. This is a flashy and corny blockbuster with only a couple amusing moments every thirty minutes. Despite this, the film will still probable be a financial success, giving Disney all the fuel they need to make another ten sequels. One thing is for certain about “John Carter” though, “Pirates of the Caribbean” it is not.

Taylor Kitsch from “Friday Night Lights” plays the generically named John Carter, a Civil War veteran who has hidden a heap of gold in a cave. Before Carter can collect his fortune, he is transported to Mars through a series of incomprehensible contrivances. It turns out that in the late eighteenth century, Mars was overrun by aliens, inhabitants got around using airships ripped off from the “Final Fantasy” universe, and the planet looked suspiciously like Utah. Upon arriving on the planet, Cater discovers that he now has the ability to jump at great distances. In one of the film’s more whimsical moments, he struggles to find his bearings on the Red Planet’s floor.

The first beings that John Carter encounters on Mars are the Tharks, green extraterrestrials with four arms and boar tusks. Their leader is Tars Tarkas, a noble CGI soldier voiced by Willem Dafoe who wishes to use Carter’s jumping abilities to aid his tribe. At first a language barrier separates the human and the Tharks, leading to a humorous sequence in which the aliens mistake John Carter’s name for Virginia. But Carter quickly picks up the Tharks dialect because the film apparently follows the same logic as Disney’s “Pocahontas.” 

During his journey, John Carter also crosses paths with Princess Dejah Thoris, a Xena Warrior Princess wannabe played by the luminous Lynn Collins. She’s being forced into a marriage with the evil Prince Sab Than, who is secretly plotting to destroy her kingdom known as Helium. Seriously, Helium, is that the best name they could come up with for a mystical kingdom on Mars? Were they so desperate for names that they randomly picked an element off the Periodic Table?

In addition to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “John Carter” evokes memories of numerous other movies. Compared to all of them the film falls short. The aliens aren’t half as interesting or convincing as the Na’vi in “Avatar,” the extravagant sets don’t hold a candle to the world of “Thor,” and the action sequences are considerably dull when compared to a “Star Wars” movie. The film that “John Carter” is most reminiscent of is “Cowboys & Aliens,” which was directed by Jon Favreau who was originally signed onto direct this movie. While “Cowboys & Aliens” was no masterpiece, at least it had more class and wit than “John Carter,” which only amounts to a pulpy mess.

The characters are as thin and broad as they come. John Carter lacks the charisma of somebody like Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, or Indiana Jones, making him almost impossible to care about. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to own a John Carter action figure or dressing up as him for Halloween. The only individual in the entire film that’s even remotely entertaining is a dog/frog-like alien that zips around like Sonic the Hedgehog. Maybe he could inspire a cool plush toy.

What makes “John Carter” even more disappointing is the fact that it was directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton, the man who made the brilliant “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” Here Stanton forgets all about character development and narrative, giving us a run-of-the-mill science-fiction action movie. Stanton and company adapted “John Carter” from the first of a series of novels. Having not read the book, I cannot say if the film does it justice. What I can say though, is that “John Carter” is overstuffed, rushed, and surprisingly boring. The fact that a movie like this isn’t even mindlessly engaging is the biggest letdown of all. But hey, at least it’s a step-up from “The Last Airbender.”

Killing Them Softly

One pissed off movie ***

“Killing Them Softly” is about as far away from a feel good movie that you’ll likely get this year. Relentlessly violent and candidly cynical in tone, this is easily among the angriest cinematic representations of 21st century America. But beyond its precipitous bleakness, does the film at least leave us with an encouraging, hopeful message? Nope, there’s no light at the end of this tunnel here. It’s just utter darkness from start to finish.

That doesn’t mean “Killing Them Softly” is a bad movie by any means. If anything this is a stylishly produced and well-acted crime thriller. Even though the film is pessimistic to the core, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some accuracy to its moral. Just don’t expect to walk away from the experience with a good feeling. If you want to see something uplifting and life affirming, “Life of Pi” will be more up your alley.  
 
Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” “Killing Them Softly” was directed and adapted by Andrew Dominik of “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Dominik sets the narrative in 2008 as our country finds itself in the middle of a presidential campaign and financial crisis. Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are Frankie and Russell, two smalltime thugs that aren’t quite as smart or badass as they think. The two goons are hired to rob a mob-protected card game being supervised by Ray Liotta’s Markie. Unlike most heists in these types of movies where all hell breaks loose, the robbery actually goes off without a hitch. That’s not to say there aren’t severe repercussions though.

Although the opening scenes set up Frankie and Russell to be our protagonists, the real focus of the film is Jackie, the enforcer in charge of tracking down the thugs that ripped off the mob. Brad Pitt, redeeming himself after that horrendously laughable Chanel No 5 commercial, plays Jackie in one of the film’s several memorable performances. Richard Jenkins is suitably low-key as the mob’s lawyer while James Gandolfini is larger than life as an out of town gangster facing jail time. Liotta meanwhile probably has the most sympathetic character as he endures brutal punishment for not keeping the card game secure. It’s hard to go wrong with any of these actors, who all fit just right into their roles.

“Killing Them Softly” is additionally heavy with underlying commentary on the struggling economy, capitalism, and the phony ideals sold by politicians. Dominik incorporates media footage and radio interviews featuring President Bush and Obama into several scenes. This decision is mostly unnecessary though, coming off as more distracting than impactful. A lot of audiences are also going to be pondering what any of this political mumbo jumbo has to do with the major plot concerning the mob. While the connection is there, “Killing Them Softly” isn’t always successful in its objection against our modern society and politics. As a crime thriller though, there’s a lot to admire.

Those looking for gangster movie more along the lines of Quentin Tarantino might be disappointed. This is a much more toned-down, straightforward project that lacks any of Tarantino’s signature colorfulness. But even without the over-the-top dialog, clever plot twists and pulp of a Tarantino movie, “Killing Them Softly” is still a gritty and tense picture with a rich collection of characters. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie like this that isn’t shamelessly trying to be the next “Reservoir Dogs.”

Lawless

Featuring Jessica Chastain braless ***

It’s my theory that almost every filmmaker possesses the desire to direct a gangster epic set in the enthralling era of prohibition. There’s just something so tantalizing about men in spiffy suits, Tommy guns, car chases and all the other good stuff that comes with the territory of a 1920’s bootlegger. This subject and period has been explored most recently in the captivating HBO drama, “Boardwalk Empire.” Now John Hillcoat chronicles the lives of the Bondurant brothers, three siblings that hit the big time through their moonshine operation in Franklin County, Virginia. Hillcoat’s film is a consistently enjoyable crime drama with uniformly respectable performances and a kickass atmosphere. But it’s far from the most in-depth or absorbing entry to the genre.

Matt Bondurant based his 2008 novel, “The Wettest Country in the World,” on the real life stories of his grandfather and great-uncles. This film version has been branded with the name “Lawless” and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant. The youngest of three brothers, Jack wants to work his way up in the family bootlegging business. LaBeouf is one of those performers who may never be able to completely lose himself in a role. No matter how good or likable he is, in the back of our minds we’ll always be thinking, “Look, it’s the Disney Chanel kid.” In all fairness though, LaBeouf does give one of his more mature performances here as an inexperienced thug trying to be a major player. He’s just a little out of his league when compared to the peerless supporting performances.

If Tom Hardy proved anything as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” it’s that he can convey a wide range of emotion without even saying a single word. The same can be said about Hardy’s portrayal of Jack’s older, seemingly invincible brother, Forrest. Hardy does a tremendous job at conveying a leader who’s strong and intimidating, but still understated. Jessica Chastain is evenly entrancing as Maggie, a former showgirl looking for a less hectic life. She shares several very romantic and sexy moments with the collected Forrest in one of the year’s best-matched romances. Pursuing the unlawful family is Charlie Rakes, a corrupt special agent played by Guy Pearce in an obsessive performance.

The only actor who’s somewhat underutilized is the great Gary Oldman as Floyd Banner, a hotshot mobster who sees potential in the up-and-coming Jack. Even though Oldman is only on screen for about ten minutes, he still flawlessly dominates every scene he’s in. It’s the supporting performances from Hardy, Chastain, Pearce, and Oldman that truly make “Lawless” shine. It’s kind of a shame that we have to spend a majority of the film with Jack Bondurant, the least interesting character.

Along with “Boardwalk Empire,” “Lawless” can’t help but bring Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” to mind. The problem with “Lawless” is that the film’s outlook of the crime world never feels as genuine as the perspective in “Goodfellas.” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill was additionally a much more fascinating narrator to follow throughout this organization than Jack Bondurant. Consequently, “Lawless” never reaches the plane of craft or storytelling of a definitive gangster picture. The film is more in the league of Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” and Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” That being said, those were both entertaining, solid movies, as is “Lawless.”

Les Miserables

I thought this movie was supposed to be about miserable lesbians! ****1/2

“Les Misérables” has had a long, arduous journey to the silver screen. It’s been in the works for so long that at one point the film was going to be directed by the now retired Alan Parker, who made the original “Fame” and 1996 adaptation of “Evita.” After decades of rotting in development limbo, the cherished musical finally sees the light of day via the artistic eye of Director Tom Hooper of “The King’s Speech. Hooper’s interpretation of “Les Misérables” is a majestic experience composed of enormous sets, elegant costumes, and pitch perfect performances from the entire ensemble. This may very well be the most triumphant movie musical since the genre made a comeback a decade ago with “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago.”

Hugh Jackman has become so recognizable as the gritty, brooding Wolverine that most mainstream audiences don’t even realize he’s one of the most musically charismatic actors alive. It’s actually a bit of a crime that it’s taken so long for this Tony-award winning performer to finally do a flat-out movie musical. Jackman was destined to play the role of Jean Valijean, a Frenchman who is freed after 19 years of incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread. The Australian actor embodies all of the torment and confusion of Valijean as he becomes lost in an unwelcoming world. He eventually finds sanctuary with a Bishop played Colm Wilkinson who influences the former prisoner to live an honest life. Valijean thus rips up his parole papers and establishes a new identity with the hope of finding redemption. Hot on his trail is Russell Crowe’s Javert, a police inspector keen on locating Valijean and imprisoning him once more.    

In only about a half hour on screen, Anne Hathaway gives the single most gut-wrenching, tragic performance of the year as Fantine. Fired from her job as a factory worker, the distressed Fantine is forced to sell her hair, teeth, and body to provide for her illegitimate little girl, Cosette. Hathaway reaches the pinnacle of her already impressive career in the number of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Where a majority of “Les Misérables” is filmed with the sweeping scope of an epic, Director Hooper and Cinematographer Danny Cohen subtly keep the camera fixated on Hathaway’s face for the entirety of this scene. Every expression, every note, every queue, every raw emotion Hathaway emits in this anguishing sequence will tear you up inside.  If she doesn’t win the Oscar for this performance, it will be a great tragedy.

Fantine is eventually unable to continue caring for her darling Cosette, who is played by Isabelle Allen as a little girl and Amanda Seyfried as a young adult. Cosette comes into the custody of Jean Valijean, who discovers his purpose in life as the orphaned girl’s father. On the run from Inspector Javert and caught up in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the father and daughter encounter a number of interesting characters together. It feels like Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s careers have been leading up to them playing the thieving Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, providing some much needed humor in the hilarious “Master of the House.” Samantha Barks delivers a star making performance as the destitute Éponine, nailing the heartfelt “On My Own.” Eddie Redmayne of “My Week with Marilyn” is also commendable as Marius, a young French man taking part in the student revolutions and the object of Cosette’s affections.

Along with Hooper’s all-encompassing direction, the performers are key to what makes this adaptation of “Les Misérables” so sensational. In many modern movie musicals the actors can sometimes feel detached from the roles. The cast of “Mamma Mia!” pretty much drifted through the movie with no direction or spirit. Everybody in “Les Misérables” on the other hand, flawlessly captures the soul of their characters. This has much to do with the fact that all of the actors sang their numbers live on camera, as apposed to dubbing the singing portions in later. This ambitious decision makes for an even grander, more intimate extravaganza of humanity and beautiful music.

Lincoln

 I think it's clear that Lincoln would win in a fight against Edward Cullen ****1/2

 

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is a match made in heaven. It’s a logical casting decision for our greatest living actor to portray perhaps the most influential individual in American history, even if Day-Lewis is of British and Irish citizenship. There are few modern performers that could convincingly convey an icon as significant as Mr. Lincoln. In Steven Spielberg’s grand new film however, Day-Lewis perfectly manifests all of the attributes one would expect from our 16th president. He suitably represents Lincoln as a humble, wise, determined, and even playfully humorous man born to lead. There’s never a moment of uncertainty in which we doubt Day-Lewis. He is Abraham Lincoln in a performance that will surely warrant an Oscar nomination.    

Abraham Lincoln undoubtedly has one of the most famous and arresting life stories of any presidential leader. Even in a two and a half hour film, it would have been impossible for Spielberg to thoroughly cover Lincoln’s early childhood, practice in law, and four years in the presidential office. Spielberg and Screenwriter Tony Kushner made the correct decision in just focusing on the final months of his life in “Lincoln.” Their adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” richly illustrates the creation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would end slavery in addition to the Civil War.

While this historic event has played a key role in many other entertainments before, never has it been so deeply explored than in Kushner’s highly researched, detailed script. It’s captivating to witness Lincoln and the men of his cabinet attempt to win enough votes in the House of Representatives to get the amendment passed. Their tactics range from appealing to the emotions of various house members to practically blackmailing them in some cases. Even if “Lincoln” primarily consists of men sitting and talking in a room, Spielberg never allows the film to feel like a motionless play on screen. He packs ever scene with the intensity and raw emotion of an American epic.

While Daniel Day-Lewis is faultless the role of Lincoln, this is far from a one-man show. Tommy Lee Jones is at his best as Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most dominating men in Congress and a key supporter of Lincoln’s cause for emancipation. Also helping to abolish slavery is David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, often acting as a loyal, insightful follower and friend to the president. The names keep coming with somewhat brief, but extremely impactful, appearances from Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, John Hawkes as Robert Latham, a hilarious James Spader William N. Bilboe, and Lee Pace as the antagonistic Fernando Wood.

After being mostly absent from feature films for most of the 21st century, the mesmerizing Sally Field comes back in a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. Field hits just the right note as the first lady, a colorful, if not a tad looney, woman who is grief-stricken by the loss of her sons. Abe and Mary still nevertheless find comfort in their remaining boys, little Gulliver McGrath as the bouncy Tad Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, who feels guilty that he has received an education while other men his age are dying in the war. The only thing that might have made “Lincoln” an even better film would be if there had been a few more moments between the president and his immediate family. When compared to the scenes pertaining to the thirteenth amendment and the Civil War though, Lincoln’s family life can be a little underdeveloped. Thus, “Lincoln” never feels as personal as something like the “John Adams” miniseries staring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. As a movie about political tactics and policies though, “Lincoln” is still one of the most absorbing and brilliantly acted historical biopics you will ever see.

“Lincoln” probably won’t blow away those with no interest in US history and require constant action to keep them entertained. Perhaps they would have a better time at “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which was admittedly a guilty pleasure for me. Anyone who’s enthralled by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and thoughtful filmmaking though is going to find that “Lincoln” is one stellar outing. Even when the film works up to the famous night at the theater that everybody knows about, “Lincoln” still manages to compose strong sentiment, sympathy and tears for the beloved president. That’s the true mark of an absolutely great film.

Looper

  Loopy de Loop ****1/2

“Looper” is a time traveling thriller that reminds us that classic science fiction doesn’t come from quality visuals or the biggest explosions. There’s no denying that “Looper” is an exquisitely crafted picture with some heart pounding action set pieces. But the reason the film warrants such praise is because of its inspired ideas, brilliant execution, and the involving characters we follow along the way. Director and Writer Rian Johnson obviously had a clear artistic vision going into this project and never allowed the studio or conventions to stand in his way. His product is one of the slickest and smartest movies about time travel in a long time.  

After “The Lookout,” “500 Days of Summer,” “Inception,” “50/50,” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been one of the most impressive winning streaks of any actor working today. In “Looper,” he’s poised with the style and class of a first-rate film noir anti-hero as Joe, a hit man in the year 2042. In another thirty years, time travel will be invented and instantly outlawed. Criminals see this illegal technology as an ideal way to dispose of their targets. They capture their victims, send them back in time and then hit men such as Joe kill them on sight. Unfortunately for the assassins, there cannot be any loose ends. At some point, Joe’s future self will be sent back in time and he’ll be forced to kill him. Although Joe will be compensated for this sacrifice with a golden payday, it’s hard to enjoy such wealth knowing that your days are numbered.  

The inevitable day comes when Joe comes face to face with future Joe, played by a balding Bruce Willis. Things don’t exactly go according to protocol though as future Joe gets away. Jeff Daniels is excellent as Abe, the scruffy, droll boss in charge of taking out both Joe’s. The fugitive Joe of the present believes that he can set matters right by tracking down future Joe and killing him. Little does present Joe realize that he might have potential to find true happiness in the next thirty years.

Nobody plays one-man armies better than Willis. He continues to preserve his perennial boss status here, gleefully kicking ass more ass than any male in his late-fifties is expected to. Along with Levitt, he is impeccably cast as old Joe, who is hell-bent on preserving his life at all cost. While these men have their human errors, they’re both likable characters that deserve to have everything work out. As matters grow more complicated though, it becomes less likely that both Joes will come out as winners.

Another great performance comes from Emily Blunt as Sara, a shotgun wielding farm girl that doesn’t take kindly to unwelcomed guests. Through a series of events, Sara gets caught up in Joe’s affairs. This additionally endangers the life of her little boy, played by the charismatic Pierce Gargnon, who has a key role in Joe’s future. The relationship young Joe develops with these two is a momentous one as he goes from sticking his neck out for nobody to learning the worth of family.

Halfway through “Looper,” one might think that they have the entire film figured out. Johnson’s sharp screenplay always keeps us on edge though as various plot points cleverly come together. The ending in particular is unexpected and may leave some audiences in a less than upbeat mood. Yet, it’s really the only appropriate way to conclude this nifty film.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

 Yep, they made a third one **

Seeing a sequel to an animated film might have felt surreal a long time ago. But in the past twenty years or so, every animated feature has become obligated to produce a sequel. Even the Disney classics from the golden age of cinema aren’t safe from the sequel treatment. Does anyone else find it sad that the 1950 version of “Cinderella” is now being marketed with its strait-to-DVD sequels as a trilogy? Every now and then an animated sequel comes along that tries to be as strong as the first, like “Shrek 2” or “Kung-fu Panda 2.” Once in a blue moon, there’s even a great animated trilogy such as with “Toy Story.” For the most part though, these animated sequels are just unnecessary money-grubbers. The “Madagascar” series is a prime example.

While the first “Madagascar” was pleasant, it was hardly worthy of future installments. In “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” the franchise officially runs out of juice, if it even had any juice to begin with. The best word to describe the film is tired, really tired. It feels much more like a Saturday morning cartoon than an animated feature. Then again, most Saturday morning cartoons currently on television, such as “Phineas and Ferb” and “The Legend of Korra,” have more charm than “Madagascar 3.”  

Ben Stiller’s Alex the Lion, Chris Rock’s Marty the Zebra, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Gloria the Hippo, and David Schwimmer ‘s Melman the Giraffe are back, louder and more talkative than ever. As you might have guessed from the title, their latest adventure takes them to Europe. Now that the island of “Madagascar” is completely out of the picture, including the word in the title is somewhat uncalled for. It’s like if you called a show “Jersey Shore” and then set an entire season in Miami…oh wait…

The animals meet up with their penguin friends, who previously ditched them in Africa. Their only way back to the states is via a train of circus animals. The carnies include Bryan Cranston as a grouchy tiger and Jessica Chastain as a sexy French jaguar. Alex and company pretend to be circus folk in hopes that they will finally get back to New York. Along the way, they help the animals put on a show that would make Cirque du Soleil look like an elementary school production.

The main problem with “Madagascar 3” is that it’s an incredibly noisy picture. That last statement probably makes me sound like an old fart. But not a second of the film goes by in which somebody isn’t either talking, yelling, running, singing, crashing or making a pop culture reference. The movie doesn’t permit any time for subtly or depth, making it hard to become invested in the circumstances. Kids might be amused by the bright colors and relentless energy. Adults on the other hand, should be prepared to look at their watches a fair deal.

In addition, “Madagascar 3” is littered with the most recurrent clichés in animated features. The film has some nice lessons about trying new experiences and confronting your fears. But these are such obvious lessons that have been done in vastly superior movies. The biggest cliché of all occurs in the third act in which the circus animals discover that Alex and his friends aren’t who they claimed to be. For once I would like to see an animated film in which the hero’s true identity is revealed and everyone else says, “Who cares if you lied. You’ve been helping us out and that’s what’s important.”

“Madagascar 3” does have one saving grace, Frances McDormand as the wicked Captain Chantel DuBois, who wishes to hunt down Alex and hang his head on her wall. This is a fabulous character with an ample rear end and the accent of a Bond villain. Where you can pretty much imagine the other actors providing their voices in a recording booth, McDormand’s dialect matches perfectly with the animalistic captain. The character is so much fun that a spinoff would be warranted. A movie like this is pretty much doomed though, when you wish that the villain would triumph over the animals.

The Master

Now I am the master ****1/2

What can be said about Paul Thomas Anderson? To say the very least, he’s one of the most interesting artists making movies today. Whether you believe his films are genius or pretentious, everyone should be able to agree that Anderson’s work always promises something utterly unique. In “The Master,” Anderson renders another extraordinarily strange, yet beautiful, tale that you’ll never be able to take your eyes off of. In the most basic terms, this is a genuine American masterwork from a masterful storyteller.

Joaquin Phoenix appeared so dazed and lost when he allegedly retired a few years ago. It’s only appropriate that he would make his comeback as a seemingly deranged individual. That’s not to say Phoenix is typecast in “The Master.” If anything, this is the most daring and complex performance of his impressive acting career. Showing some age and dropping a noticeable amount of weight, Phoenix fully embodies Freddie Quell, a lonely and disturbed man searching for a place in the world. Like many men in pursuit of purpose, Freddie joins the navy. The armed forces provide a fitting outlet for Freddy to express his insanity. But when World War II comes to an end in the 1950’s, he is forced to find a new locale to function in.

In an attempt to integrate with society, Freddie gets a job as photographer at a store. Being unpredictably aggressive though, he proves unfit to maintain any profession. His drunken travels take him aboard a boat where he meets Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a religious group known as The Cause. Dodd, or the Master as he comes to be known, claims to know the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life. Awestruck, Freddie soon joins Dodd’s inner circle, which includes a lingering Amy Adams as the cult leader’s dedicated wife.
 
The film’s key performance comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who ranges from being calmly humble to commandingly god-like as the Master. Dodd is a vague being that constantly leaves spectators on edge as they contemplate what he’ll do next. Is he a wise prophet with a master plan, a conman exploiting those seeking faith or just a deluded nut making stuff up as he goes along? Hoffman and Anderson’s screenplay never lay out a clear motive, making Dodd an even more chilling and ambiguous presence.

Although “The Master” never makes a direct reference to the Church of Scientology, one can’t help but relate Dodd to L. Ron Hubbard. After all, Hubbard was in the navy and his teachings were arguably the product of imagination. The inspiration for “The Master” is aside the point though. This isn’t a movie that sets out to make a mockery of Scientology or religion. It’s a gorgeously shot, superbly acted piece of work about a drifting soul looking for something, or someone, to believe in. Hoffman and Phoenix are unanimously brilliant in their roles with one as a disoriented student and the other as a teacher with the promise of answers. Along with Anderson, they’re guaranteed Oscar nominations for one of the most fascinating movies of 2012.

Magic Mike

I hope you like a lot of male stripping **

Some of the most interesting movies are the ones that simply follow characters at their places of work. Male stripping is an especially interesting profession for a movie to explore. “Magic Mike” looked like it might tell the definitive male stripper story just as “Boogie Nights” told the ultimate tale of the porn business. Sadly, “Magic Mike” doesn’t say anything very fascinating about the day-to-day lives of strippers. In addition to offering no new incite regarding this occupation, the film features no interesting characters for the audience to engage with. The end result is an unfortunate missed opportunity.

The story, for what it is, focuses on a nineteen-year-old named Adam, played by Alex Pettyfer. The slacker Adam is reluctant to take on any job that requires him to wear a tie. After meeting a Channing Tatum’s Magic Mike, Adam is introduced to a job that doesn’t require a tie. It doesn’t even require him to wear a pair of pants. Adam is flung into the world of male stripping where he finds his natural calling. Along the way, Magic Mike acts as his friend and mentor.

Based on his work in “The Vow,” “Dear John,” and “Step Up,” Channing Tatum has proven that he may never have great range as an actor.  Through movies like “21 Jump Street” though, Tatum has established that he can be a very fun performer to watch with good material. Here he’s just okay as Magic Mike who wishes to leave the stripping business to find better work. He additionally has some nice scenes with Cody Horn as Adam’s sister, who is sincerely concerned about her brother’s future.

When the characters stop to share an honest conversation, “Magic Mike” can be an effective picture. These moments are scarce and spread out though, often taking a back seat to the endless stripping montages. Obviously a lot stripping is going to come with the territory of a movie like this. But in the midst of all the extended stripping sequences, the filmmakers forgot to create motivating characters, genuine conflict, and truly explore this subculture. Thus, the film plays out like “Showgirls” with men, only with less nudity and a little more taste.

Steven Soderbergh, who has unarguably made some great movies such as “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich, directed “Magic Mike.” One would think that Soderbergh could pull off something really unique with this sort of premise. Soderbergh’s talents feel misplaced however, in a film that isn’t very funny, provocative or insightful.

The most enjoyable aspect of “Magic Mike” is Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the owner/host of the strip club where Adam and Mike work. There are two things you can always count on McConaughey doing in all of his movies. He will at some point take off his shirt and in another instance say “alright, alright.” Here, that’s pretty much all he does. I guess that makes “Magic Mike” the fundamental movie to see if you want to play the Matthew McConaughey drinking game.

Men in Black III

 Black to the Future ***1/2

The original “Men in Black” was a proper example of how to make a special effects comedy. With a knowing sense of humor, smartly written characters, and creatures that were gross, creepy, and funny all at once, “Men in Black” solidified itself as the “Ghostbusters” of the 1990s. “Men in Black II” had its moments. Much like “Ghostbusters II” though, that sequel basically just repeated its predecessor. “Men in Black III” is a fortunate return to form for this franchise mainly thanks to it’s inventive time travel plot. If “Ghostbusters III” ever gets made, one can only hope it’s as much fun as “Men in Black III.”

It’s been about ten years since we last saw Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as J and K. They’re still agents that work side by side for the MIB, a secret organization that specializes in extraterrestrial life forms. The alien villain this time around is the insect-like Boris the Animal, played by Jemaine Clement in the most unrecognizable performance since Johnny Depp in “21 Jump Street.” Boris breaks out of a prison on the moon and returns to earth with a grudge against Agent K, who shot off his arm about forty years ago. Now Boris plans on traveling back in time and killing K to prevent his downfall.

The plan succeeds and the present K is erased from existence, making leeway for Boris to take over the world. It is up to Agent J to also travel back in time and stop the future Boris from killing K. In the film’s funniest action sequence, J literally makes a time jump by plummeting from a skyscraper with his timepiece. J soon finds himself in 1969 where he meets a young Agent K, played by Josh Brolin.

“Men in Black III” could have created a younger Tom Lee Jones using the aging visual effects represented in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Tron: Legacy.” But the role works just as well in the hands of Brolin, who fashions a spot-on Agent K. He is perfectly cast as the stoned face secret agent who accepts any bizarre case that crosses him. K doesn’t even need much convincing when J tells him that he’s from the future. It’s just another day at the office for him. Smith and Brolin have a great rapport, which provides the film’s solid backbone.

J and K clash into a number of bizarre aliens during their travels, such as Bill Hader as Andy Warhol. Yeah, it turns out that he was an MIB agent and his life as a mediocre artist was a cover. The most amusing creature of the bunch is Michael Stuhlbarg as an alien that can see into the future. The problem is that he sees multiple possible futures and cannot decipher which one will happen. This leads to some very cleverly written sequences.

The one character who’s kind of a disappointment is Emma Thompson as Agent O, the new head of the MIB who once had a fling with Agent K back in the day. O and K have a couple of nice scenes together. But their relationship just kind of sits there on the shelf and doesn’t have much of a payoff. The attempt to deal with Agent K’s past love life is an interesting idea. Compared to a time traveling romance like Doc Brown and Clara from “Back to the Future III” though, you never really care if they’ll work matters out. The real love story in “Men in Black III” is the unlikely bro bond between J and K, which is a ton of fun no matter which timeframe.

“Men in Black III” isn’t as good as the original. Director Barry Sonnenfeld does manage to improve upon “Men in Black II” though, giving us more weird aliens, laughs, creativity, and even an inspired twist that brings the trilogy full circle. The only thing that might have made the film better is Frank the pug, who is absent this time around. There is a moment in the film that suggests that Frank has moved on to doggy heaven…or alien dog heaven. Wherever you are Frank the pug, you’re sorely missed and I hope to see you again someday.

Mirror Mirror

 Not the fairest movie in the land **1/2

All of a sudden we seem to be getting a lot of movies and television shows centered around Snow White. Ginnifer Goodwin currently plays the fairytale princess on the ABC drama, “Once Upon a Time.” Later this summer, Kristen Stewart will take on the role in “Snow White and the Huntsman.” This weekend brings us “Mirror Mirror,” a comedic take on the Snow White legend. Judging from the ad campaign, “Mirror Mirror” looked like it had the potential to be a light fantasy adventure along the lines of “The Princess Bride” or “Stardust.” Unfortunately, it’s more like the poor man’s “Ella Enchanted.”

The film opens with Julia Roberts as the nameless evil Queen narrating the typical setup to this story. Snow White’s mother died in childbirth, her caring father mysteriously disappeared when she was young, and now her evil stepmother has custody. Several years later, Snow White grows into the fairest maiden in the land. This of course doesn’t sit well with the Queen, so she sends her brownnose servant played by Nathan Lane to do her in. The servant is too entranced by Snow White’s beauty though, and lets her go.

As Snow White scurries through the dark, snowy forest, she accidentally bops her head on a tree branch. Although she only slightly hits the branch, which was clearly in her field of vision, Snow White is nevertheless knocked out. When she wakes up, Snow White is greeted by seven dwarves that are played by some of the biggest little people working in the entertainment industry. The cast list includes Danny Woodburn form “Seinfeld,” Jordan Prentice from “In Bruges,” and Martin Klebba from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” All that’s missing is Peter Dinklage as the forgotten eighth dwarf. They all team up to bring down the Queen’s tyranny and stop her marriage to the dashing Prince, played by Armie Hammer.

The strongest aspect of the movie is Julia Robert’s performance as the Queen. She’s fully committed to playing this heinous, self-centered villainess who looks positively glamorous in the costumes designed by the late Eiko Ishioka. But she never really emerges as a very interesting character. In the prologue, the Queen claims that this is going to be her movie, not Snow White’s. Initially one might think the filmmakers are going to make the Queen a more complex, three-dimensional figure, kind of like with the Wicked Witch in “Wicked.” However, she’s essentially the same beauty-obsessed Queen that’s been recycled in other “Snow White” interpretations. The only thing that distinguishes this Queen is her occasionally amusing one-liners.

Then there’s Lily Collins as Snow White. She’s sweet and innocent, but leaves little to no impression on the audience. Unlike other interpretations of the character, “Mirror Mirror” does at least try to make Snow White more active and strong. She even bests the Prince in a sword fight. This really isn’t an entirely original idea though. Even the most recent Disney fairytales like “The Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled” have put females in more masculine roles and allowed them to save the day. It also doesn’t help that Snow White herself is kind of a bore here.
 
“Mirror Mirror” has a few fun ideas and occasionally offers some creative visuals. The film’s fault is in the character development and clumsy story structure. Many of the characters are introduced only to completely disappear, such as the Prince’s manservant. Others are poorly built up then erratically plopped into the narrative, like a wolf/eagle/Chinese dragon creature Snow White fights in the climax. The screenplay shifts back and forth between the various characters so much that the audience begins to wonder whom the movie is supposed to be about. For a film with a lot of potentially intriguing dynamics to explore, none of these individuals have much chemistry.

“Mirror Mirror” furthermore neglects to put a unique spin on the Snow White story, simply coming off as redundant and half-baked. A film like the 1937 Disney classic truly appealed to the audience’s emotion and made them care about Snow White. In “Mirror Mirror,” you begin to wish that Snow White would just eat a poison apple so the movie will be done quicker.

Moonrise Kingdom

  Kingdom of Wes Anderson's Mind *****

There are certain components that come with the territory of many movies by Wes Anderson. Quirky child characters, off-key dialog, a tone of direction that feels both simple and animated at the same time, and of course Bill Murray. Wes Anderson has never utilized these ingredients more impeccably than in “Moonrise Kingdom,” an absolute perfect movie. The film has the essence of a fantasy, yet still feels so true to the magic of a person’s first romance. The overall sensation the film emits is sheer warmth, making spectators want to wholeheartedly cuddle up to it. Only Anderson’s wonderfully peculiar imagination could have produced “Moonrise Kingdom,” easily making the picture his best to date.  

The film sets itself in a 1965 New England island town populated by childish adults and kids that are beyond their years. Two standout misfits in the town are preteens Suzy and Sam. Suzy, played by Kara Hayward, is an out-of-control girl who was suspended for stabbing another kid with scissors. Sam, played by Jared Gilman, is an emotionally disturbed scout who has been kicked out of several foster homes. They meet at a Noah’s Ark reenactment and soon come to realize that they’re soul mates.

One day, the lovers decide to take off on a road trip through the woods together. The efficient Scout Master Randy, hilariously played by Edward Norton in a pair of khaki shorts, is the first to discover that Sam flew the coop. Suzy’s parents, played by the faultlessly cast Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, eventually realize that their daughter is missing too. It is up to Bruce Willis’ bumbling Captain Sharp to find the two runaways. Given the limited amount of authorities in town, Sharp decides to make the resident boy scouts honorary deputies.  

Anderson directs “Moonrise Kingdom” in an old-fashion style that almost makes it feel like a film from 1970s. He creates a uniquely inventive world with a color scheme and art direction that pops right out at the audience. Along with Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, Anderson produces several marvelous single continuous shots, most notably a sequence that follows the scoutmaster inspecting the unusual activities of his troupe. The enchanting production values blend right in with the movie’s alluring atmosphere.

Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is the stuff that dreams are made out of, setting a wondrous and haunting mood. Desplat’s score practically becomes a character in the film, especially during the end credits in which his orchestration is demonstrated for the audience. The score builds up from the electronic metronome, to the strings, to the percussion, to the wind instruments, until the melody is at last complete. It’s hard to explain why, but the sequence sums up the entire sentiment of “Moonrise Kingdom,” leaving the audience on foreboding note.  

The heart of “Moonrise Kingdom” is the relationship between Suzy and Sam, two social outcasts that finally find comfort in one another. In the wrong hands, the serious feelings they share could have seemed too weird and inappropriate. Sam and Suzy’s romance never hits a wrong note though. This is mainly thanks to the sincere screenplay by Anderson and Roman Coppola and the mature acting talents of Hayward and Gilman, both of whom are newcomers. The film treats both Suzy and Sam like grown ups, recognizing that kids can be much more sophisticated than we give them credit. The end result is one of the most oddly charming passions since “Harold and Maude.”
 
One wouldn’t expect a romance between two preteens to amount to anything epic. But the tale of Suzy and Sam is truly a love story for the ages that will leave audiences hooked all the way through. Will Sam and Suzy’s love overcome their parents, the authorities, and the society that has deemed them unstable? All of this is answered in one of the year’s most exciting cinematic climax’s, which I won’t dare spoil. You’ll just have to see this brilliant movie for yourself to find out.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Curious Case of Timothy Green ****

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is one of those unexpected movies that will totally take your breath away. Much like “Bridge to Terabithia,” another wonderful live-action fantasy from Walt Disney Pictures, this film catches the audience off guard with its imagination and warmth. Where so many movies marketed to kids are reliant on chases and lazy pop culture references, timeless storytelling and great characters enforce “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” It will be a travesty if children and their parents overlook this brilliant film as it offers the finest family entertainment of the year.

Immediately, the movie sucks you in with the heart tugging tragedy shared by Cindy and Jim Green, respectively played by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton in exquisite performances. After years of trying, the married couple is finally forced to accept the harsh reality that they will never conceive a baby. As a method of moving on, the two write down everything they would want for the child they cannot have. This scene is just one example of the deep, surprisingly adult drama “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” beautifully captures.

They put their wish list in a box and bury it in Cindy’s garden. That night, it begins to rain solely within the boundaries of their house. Out from the soil rises a little boy who introduces himself as Timothy, the only male name that was written on the couple’s list. He refers to Cindy and Jim as mom and dad and they unquestionably accept Timothy as a gift from God. There are a few things they must hide about Timothy though, such as several green leaves growing on his legs.

In terms of logic, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a movie that could easily be torn apart. It’s beyond impractical that a married couple could find a little boy and pass him off as their own. Wouldn’t the schools or child services eventually ask them to show the adoption papers or a birth certificate? But to overanalyze a question such as this is pointless. “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is a modern fairytale and a marvelously told one at that.

Timothy is brought to life through the magnetic CJ Adams, who joins Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward of “Moonrise Kingdom” as one of the year’s breakthrough young performers. Adams is endlessly charming as Timothy, who proves to be funny and wise, but also very curious about the new world around him. He’s a little reminiscent of Pinocchio in the 1940 animated classic. “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” isn’t purely a story about how the title character becomes a real boy though. It’s just as much about the people who surround Timothy.

The film is full of memorable people and thought-provoking relationships. In addition to his parents, Timothy also touches the lives of his judgmental aunt, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, his competitive grandfather, played by James Green, and a young girl named Joni, played by Odeya Rush. Through these interactions, Timothy and others learn the values of honesty, determination, and family while also experiencing the effects of love and death.   

Peter Hedges has elegantly written and filmed a classic. Along with last year’s Best Picture nominated “Hugo,” “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” is another movie about a child that doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. It reminds us that a family picture can be intelligent and meaningful. Kids and adults alike will be amazed to find how invested they become in the astounding narrative, which reaches supreme heights of emotion in the final act. I’m not going to give away what happens as the film draws to its striking climax. Lets just say that if you aren’t choked up walking out the theater, you’re made of wood. 

ParaNorman

 He sees dead people ****

In the course of just a couple days, the film industry has delivered two extremely different, but uniformly brilliant, family oriented pictures. Peter Hedges fashioned an enchanting fable with “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” earlier this week. Now “ParaNorman,” a gothic stop-motion animated feature from Chris Butler and Sam Fell, has granted families a second reason to go to the movies this weekend. Even if a child or your family doesn’t accompany you though, both of these films can provide substantial entertainment for any audience.

Little Kodi Smit-McPhee of “Let Me In” voices Norman, an eleven-year-old with a sixth sense. His family, schoolmates, and pretty much the entire town think Norman is a lunatic as he asserts his ability to communicate with the dead. The only person who believes Norman is Mr. Prenderghast, a crazy, old man who has been protecting the town from a witch’s curse for years. Prenderghast croaks and passes on the duty to Norman, who simply wants to live a normal life. When he fails to read from an ancient book, Norman allows both the witch and several zombies to run about the town.

Similar to the underappreciated “Monster House,” “ParaNorman” has a tremendous sense of humor to itself, satirizing “Halloween” and various zombie pictures. Zombies can be awfully dull antagonists since they have no personality and move around like slugs. “ParaNorman” directly references this fact in the opening scene as a woman stands still screaming while a zombie slowly approaches her. Laughs are also derived from the first-rate supporting cast, which includes Anna Kendrick as Norman’s cheerleader big sister, Tucker Albrizzi as his chubby best friend, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the school bully, and Casey Affleck as a meathead jock.  

In addition to being a very a funny picture, “ParaNorman” encompasses the same chills of Henry Selick’s “Coraline” and Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The film isn’t quite up their with those enduring classics. Yet, it does deserve to be used in the same sentence. These are all incessantly innovative, wonderfully weird productions realized via twisted, stop-motion artistry. They commonly mix together elements of terror and charm to produce something spectacularly creative.

Some parents may be weary about taking their little ones to see a film full of zombies, ghosts, and witches. But deep down every child is secretly drawn to the grotesque creatures that go bump in the night. Otherwise they wouldn’t love getting dressed up on Halloween. Like Norman, many kids can often feel like monsters as they struggle to fit in with the rest of society. “ParaNorman” resonates with the monstrous child that delves within us all, reminding kids that it’s okay to be different while also being a lot of fun. 

Parental Guidance

The filmmakers could have used some guidance *1/2

Billy Crystal proved earlier this year that he’s still more than capable of hosting an Oscar telecast. The question that remains is whether or not the 64-year-old comedic legend still has what it takes to carry a feature-length film. It’s been almost a decade since Crystal has had a leading role in a live-action movie. One would hope that Crystal would have selected a smart, bold script to make his big comeback. Instead he decided to totally sell out and team up with Director Andy Fickman, the schmuck that made the inexplicably awful “You Again,” to produce “Parental Guidance.” This is a monotonous family comedy that will be instantly forgotten by anyone who sees it. But at least that’s more than can be said about “Daddy Day Camp,” “College Road Trip,” and those “Are We There Yet” movies, family comedies that eternally scar the audience with their dreadfulness.  

Crystal is Artie Decker, a minor league baseball sportscaster that talks more like a third-rate comedian. Artie gets a call from his distant daughter, exaggeratedly played by Marisa Tomei, who has to go out of town for a couple days with her husband, blandly played by Tom Everett Scott. The problem is that they need babysitter to watch after their three kids. Bette Midler stars as Artie’s wife who is all too eager to see her grandchild. Artie on the other hand, is much more reluctant.

Bailee Madison, who was pretty good last year in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” is the stressed out oldest child that strives for perfection. Joshua Rush is the timid middle kid who has a stutter. Then there’s Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as the immature youngest who addresses Artie as Farty. How hilarious is that? They all live in a bizarre smart house with an automated voice. At one point you might anticipate this smart house to pull a HAL 9000 and turn against the family. But the filmmakers are incapable of producing a movie that risky or interesting.  

Tomei’s character is overly protective of his kids, never letting then eat sugar, shielding them away from any conflict, and never blatantly saying “No.” Artie naturally doesn’t agree with this parenting method and flips the whole house upside down. From this we get some typical PG humor derived from baseball bats to the crotch, vomiting, a sugar high, face painting, and injuring Tony Hawke with a puddle of urine. Along the way, Crystal manages to score a few humorous, though not particularly memorable, one-liners. The only consistently funny aspect of the film is Gedde Watanabe, who played Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles,” as a man who passionately indulges one of the children’s imaginary friends. It’s actually kind of amusing how this middle-aged Asian man is more invested in the imaginary friend than the kid who created him.  

Aside from not being especially funny, the problem with “Parental Guidance” is its all too familiar life lessons. We’ve already seen a million other movies about old school parenting colliding with new aged parenting, letting your kids have fun, and learning to listen. Yet, “Parental Guidance” shoves these morals down the audience’s throat as if it’s saying something new. Even if some of these messages have significance, the film doesn’t exactly portray them well. So if a movie isn’t going to be funny, charming, or original, then what’s the point of its existence?

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

 That's got to be the worst pirate I've ever seen ***

Remember when you were a kid and being a pirate seemed like such a glamorous profession? The idea of plundering gold, dueling with swords, and sailing the open sea appeals to the kid in us all. Now that we’re older and familiar with the outbreak of piracy in Somalia though, our perspective of the pirate lifestyle has been diminished. Nevertheless, it’s still nice to hang onto the fairytale notion that being a pirate will lead to adventure and thrills. “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” captures that childhood joy and sense of fun, which was missing from a film like “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

This animated adventure comedy centers on a pirate captain simply known as The Pirate Captain, voiced by Hugh Grant. He helms a pirate ship populated by a crew of mates with incredibly distinctive names, such as The Pirate with a Scarf, The Albino Pirate, and The Pirate with Gout. They aren’t the most successful pirates ever to sail the seven seas, as plague victims and ghosts populate most of the ships they rob. Yet, The Pirate Captain still has high hopes that his peers will finally deem him Pirate of the Year.

“The Pirates!” was made by Aardman Animations, which has mainly been experimenting with computer-animated films, like “Flushed Away” and “Arthur Christmas,” as of late. Now the studio returns to the animation format they are best known for, claymation. Directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt create a dazzling, detailed stop-motion world full of technical magic. They certainly know how to set up a good sight gag and breath life into a chase sequence. Gideon Defoe, who adapted the script from his original book, additionally incorporates plenty of quaint one-liners into the narrative.

Between its animation and humor, “The Pirates!” looked like it might reach the greatness status of “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” There’s just one thing preventing the film from being on the same level of those Aardman classics, the story. The plot itself is by no means bad. It’s just a tad random and chaotic.

The film takes a weird turn when the pirates invade a ship occupied by a wimpy Charles Darwin. The father of evolution determines that The Pirate Captain’s beloved parrot, Polly, is actually the last remaining Dodo Bird. This leads to the pirates attending a science convention in London and eventually confronting the evil Queen Victoria, played Imelda Staunton in her most villainess role since Dolores Umbridge. As bizarre as this material is, it does provide a lot of laughs. This was just a really strange direction for the movie to take and maybe would have worked better in another project.

Where the Charles Darwin subplot takes up a bit too much of the movie, there are some other areas that could have used more focus. There’s a female pirate amongst the Captain’s crew who has managed to pass herself off as a man. However, the subplot doesn’t amount to much and the film ignores many potentially comedic possibilities with her. It also might have been fun to see more of the Captain’s colorful rivals, most notably a sexy outlaw named Cutlass Liz, played by Salma Hayek.

Regardless of some missed opportunities, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” should be reviewed based on what it is rather than what it isn’t. On the whole, the film does work as light family entertainment with just enough refined jokes and vibrant animation to keep kids and adults amused. It’s worth checking out at least once if you have young ones or are a fan of Aardman’s previous work. To watch the film a second time or buy it for your child’s DVD collection however, might be a stretch.

Playing For Keeps

You can keep it **

Stop me if this premise sounds even remotely familiar. Gerard Butler is George, a former soccer superstar that’s now reduced to selling his old trophies and uniforms to pay the rent. He has a beautiful ex-wife, played by Jessica Biel, who is engaged to marry another man. George and his ex have a precious little boy who feels neglected by his deadbeat dad. But George just may be able to patch things up between him and his estranged family by coaching his kid’s soccer team. Why wherever did they think of a setup like that?

While “Playing for Keeps” isn’t necessarily an innovative and worthwhile film, this romantic comedy does accomplish exactly what it sets out to do. It’s light, formulaic comfort food with perfectly good intentions. If that’s all your heart desires, then you’re probably going to have a pleasant time. If you ask for anything more though, prepare to feel cheated.

Butler hasn’t always made for the most convincing lead in sentimental fair. Most of the time he looks like he would rather be chopping somebody’s head off on a battlefield. He’s actually surprisingly tamed here though, making for a likable, sincere protagonist. Sadly, there’s not much to George as a character. We’ve seen this kind of guy in a thousand other movies before. Bad luck and timing always gets in the way, causing George to further disappoint his family. But gosh darn-it, he’s just so charming and vulnerable that you’ve got to rout for him.

There’s not a whole lot to Biel’s character either, who’s basically just the generic ex-wife that does nothing but judge and forgive her former lover. As for her fiancé, the film at least has the integrality to not make him a one-dimensional bad guy. Then again, they really don’t give him any personality at all. In addition to this love triangle, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ hotshot soccer mom is also pursuing George and may be able to score him an interview with ESPN. Uma Thurman’s cartoonish Patti additionally has her eyes on George. The problem is that she is married to an eccentric rich man played by Dennis Quaid, who always looks like he’s drunk, high and suffering from a mild case of Parkinson’s. Lets not forget Judy Greer as yet another quirky, single soccer mom that has a crush George.

As you can tell from that lineup, George has one too many potential suitors. Maybe it would have been interesting if there were some suspense regarding whom George would end up with. It’s pretty clear from the get go however, that he is destined for his ex-wife. There are no surprises or unexpected twists down the line. Towards the end of “Playing For Keeps,” it is revealed that Greer’s character has hooked up with George’s landlord, played by Iqbal Theba. If only “Playing For Keeps” had been all about their underdeveloped romance, then maybe we would have a funnier, more unique film. Instead, we’re left with pleasingly uninspired escapism.

The Possession

We finally get a Jewish demon and it's unfortunately a bore **

“The Possession” is another horror flick that indolently allows the autopilot to navigate the whole story. Every formulaic plot point, hackneyed character, and obvious scare imaginable is reprocessed to produce this meandrous dullard of cliché. A long time ago, a supernatural thriller such as this might have prompted people to jump out of their seats. In an age where its getting harder and harder to frighten audiences though, “The Possession” is more likely to have people rolling their eyes. But what do you expect when the movie was written by the same hacks that brought us “Boogeyman?”  

“The Possession” proclaims itself as a true story. So did “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror,” which, as we all know, were both totally accurate depictions of real life events. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Clyde Brenek, a divorced basketball coach. His ex-wife is Stephanie, played by Kyra Sedgwick, who is now pursuing an uptight dentist named Brett. If you have any doubt that Clyde and Stephanie will rekindle their love by the end then you’ve clearly never seen a movie before.

The separated couple has a teenage named Hannah (Madison Davenport) and a 10-year-old named Emily (Natasha Calis). Clyde purchases a peculiar chest for Emily at a yard sale. When she opens the box though, Emily suddenly begins to develop violent behavior. Suspicious of the box’s activity, the concerned father takes it to a college professor who teaches a class on human possession. Oh yeah, because all universities have courses on this crucial subject. The professor tells Clyde that the box might have contained an evil spirit. Thus, the parent is sent to find a religious figure to exorcise the demon from his little girl. Does any of this sound a lot like a certain William Friedkin classic?

Director Ole Bornedal takes few chances, bombarding us with a ton of images that are more unintentionally funny than scary. What’s really grating is how Bornedal and Composer Anton Sanko repetitively play the same bland musical score throughout several sequences. It’s recommended that you bring a tall bottle of whisky if you should see “The Possession.” That way you can take a shot every time a scene is followed by a single key played on a piano.

The performances are the only redeemable aspect of this otherwise derivative material. Morgan and Sedgwick are earnestly convincing as two parents fearful for their little girl. Natasha Calis does a solid job as an innocent child fighting the menace inside. As strong as Calis is, she’s no Linda Blair and “The Possession” is no “Exorcist.” That masterpiece still holds up as a creepy, disturbing and terrifying picture even after 40 years. “The Possession” won’t stick with audiences 4 minutes after they leave the theater.

Prometheus

 Never go near an alien that looks like a snake cross with a vagina ***1/2

Everyone can agree that Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is a science fiction classic, which combined a visionary future with genuine thrills. “Aliens” was one of the rare sequels that was just as good as the first. The film was so well received that it even made leading lady Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nominee. The series took a wrong step in “Alien 3” though, despite being directed by the then unknown David Fincher. Once “Alien: Resurrection” came along, it became clear that this franchise had gone completely off the tracks. It was game over, man, game over. Those two “Alien VS Predator” movies didn’t help either.  

Over thirty years after the first “Alien,” Ridley Scott steps back into the director’s chair to give the franchise he started an overdue makeover. Rather than continuing the saga of Ellen Ripley, Scott goes back to the beginning to tell an alien origin story. Scott’s prequel isn’t as scary, exciting, or fun as the first two “Alien” movies. It is however, a well-acted, solid summer blockbuster with intelligent themes regarding faith and creation.

Our heroine this time around is Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist who discovers an intergalactic map leading to a distant moon that may hold the secrets to man’s creation. Shaw and her boyfriend, played by Logan Marshall-Green, receive funding from the Weyland Corporation to travel to the moon and search for answers. When they arrive on the moon, Shaw and her team come across alien creatures that are more hostile than friendly. No big surprise there.

The strongest attribute of “Prometheus” is its character’s and their interactions with one another. Elizabeth Shaw may not be as much of a badass as Ellen Ripley. Yet, she’s still a very engaging lead mainly thanks to Noomi Rapace, who breathed life into Lisbeth Salander in the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” It’s easy to rout for Shaw, who is driven by her faith in God to answer timeless questions regarding how man came to be and are we alone in the universe. Idris Elba is also a lot of fun as the ship’s captain who gets some of the more humorous lines in the film. Then there’s Charlize Theron as a Weyland employee whose every bit as heartless as the evil queen she recently played in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

The MVP by far is Michael Fassbender as an android named David who may be harboring more human emotions than he lets on. With a child-like outlook and haunting tone of voice, Fassbender fashions one of the most interesting robot characters since Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” The only downside to the character is his embarrassing comb over haircut, making him look an awful like Donald Trump.

Scott directs the film with impressive effects and elegant set pieces. What “Prometheus” lacks is the terror that fuelled the earlier “Alien” pictures. While there are many stimulating moments, the film never leaves your heart pounding in suspense. Plus, if you’ve seen any of the other “Alien” movies, it’s going to be pretty obvious who survives the ordeal and who dies the most grotesque of deaths.  

“Prometheus” isn’t the exceptional “Alien” revamp some fans might have been hoping for. The film is certainly entertaining though with more inspired ideas and characters than something like “Battleship.” If future “Alien” movies can maintain this level of quality, this franchise just might be on the fast track to a new life. Now if only somebody could redeem the “Terminator” series after its last two sequels.

The Queen of Versailles

It's a riches to slightly less riches story *1/2

“The Queen of Versailles” has earned a lot of hype over the past few months, scoring considerable praise from critics and the Sundance Film Festival. The notion that such a film could resonate with anybody other than the 1% baffles me. This is a movie about unsympathetic billionaires that are so self-centered that they had to make a documentary about their alleged financial struggle. To refer to it as a “documentary” would diminish the value of the genre. “The Queen of Versailles” is nothing more than a reality show stretched to an hour and forty minutes that belongs with the likes of the Kardashians on E!

Directed by Lauren Greenfield, the film follows the aristocratic lives of the Siegel family over the course of two years or so. David Siegel is the prosperous owner of Westgate Resorts, which has earned him the title of the timeshare king. His younger trophy wife is Jackie Siegel, who was crowned Mrs. Florida during her days as a model. They have eight kids together, including a niece and stepchild from a previous marriage. The beginning of the film consists of the wealthy Siegel’s gloating about their treasure cove of possessions, making everyone in the theater feel extremely envious.

The Siegel’s are so rich that they decide to build the most expensive home in America at 90,000 square feet, practically the size of the Magic Kingdom. With four million dollar windows, two movie theaters, a bowling alley, a sushi bar area, nine kitchens and a 4,000 square foot closet, the only thing the house doesn’t seem to have is a money bin to swim in ala Scrooge McDuck. As the economy begins to go sour however, the Siegel’s are forced to stop building the house at its halfway point. Eventually, they put the uncompleted house on the market with the highly unlikely chances anybody will buy it. If things continue this way, it’s doubtful this plentiful family will get to see their dream house completed. How horribly tragic.  

David Siegel describes his life as “a riches to rags story.” Here’s the major problem with his philosophy and the movie itself. For people that spend so much time wallowing in self-pity, the Siegel family never really undergoes any major hardships. Sure, they have to give up private schools, private jets, and other expenditures. But they’re still able to afford multiple savants, countless pets, enough Christmas presents to fill an entire van, fancy parties, segways for the kids and Botox. Even though they must halt production on their dream house, they still get to keep their old mansion, which most people could only wish to live in. Despite all of this, “The Queen of Versailles” honestly expects us to sympathize with people that go from having everything to living a life of semi-luxury.  Boo freakin’ hoo! There isn’t a violin small enough to express how little empathy the Siegel family merits.

The only people in “The Queen of Versailles” that garner any condolences are the Siegel family’s servants as they take care of the kids and wear giant Rudolph mascot costumes during a Christmas party. There is one emotional scene in the picture where a servant discusses her children, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade. Instead of focusing on the true tragic figures though, the film spends more time creating mercy for the Siegel family, who will always be able to get by.

A few intriguing moments aside, “The Queen of Versailles” has nothing to say about the economy, family, greed or big business. But if you want to waste your money by paying to see wealthier individuals flush their own money down a golden toilet, this is the film for you.

Rise of the Guardians

 Who would have thought that the Easter Bunny was Australian ***

Folkloric legends truly are the guardians of childhood. From the perspective of a child, the world can be an enchanting place full of infinite wonder and possibilities. The belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and others fuels such innocence. Once their existence is questioned though, kids begin to slide down an unstoppable downhill slope that will inevitably result in adulthood. Most grown-ups likely envy children for their ability to believe in such mythical beings. How we all long to replace our adult cynicism and practicality with the magic and mystery of youth.

It’s nice to think that the Tooth Fairy and Sandman are not just real, but also productively working to preserve the marvel of childhood. That’s the premise of the new animated feature from DreamWorks’s, “Rise of the Guardians.” Based on the book by William Joyce, the film is directed by Peter Ramsey, who up until now has primarily worked as a storyboard artist, and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the book and lyrics for “Shrek the Musical.” They have produced a smart and gorgeously rendered animation that should keep the faith in these beloved mystical beings alive.

While Santa and the Tooth Fairy have always had a loyal fan following, Jack Frost has never been high on the totem pole of supernatural characters. That’s one of the reasons why nobody has ever been able to see him. Despite Jack’s invisibility, he is still out there bringing snow and the spirit of winter everywhere he goes. Drawn with white hair, pale skin, and a purple hoodie, Jack Frost is energetically voiced by Chris Pine in a playful performance. Talk about an upgrade from that snowman puppet abomination voiced by Michael Keaton.

The man in the moon calls upon Jack Frost to join the guardians, an immortal team comprised of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and Easter Bunny. Their top priority is to stop the Boogey Man, or Pitch as he’s called here. Jude Law is deliciously evil as Pitch, who shares a resemblance to Lord Voldemort only with more hair. His plan is to plague kid’s dreams with nightmares in addition to debunking the existence of the guardians. Without the guardians to believe in, the very fabric of childhood will be ripped.

“Rise of the Guardians” has a lot of fun reimagining these beloved characters. Alec Baldwin’s Santa is much more buff than chubby, with “naughty” and “nice” tattooed onto his arms. Although the mute Sandman operates at night, he brightly glows with the radiance of the sun. The Tooth Fairy, voiced by a spunky Isla Fisher, has the appearance of a woman crossed with a hyper humming bird. The Easter Bunny meanwhile is an outback explorer with the Australian accent of Hugh Jackman. Whoever came up with the idea to make the Eastern Bunny Australian is beyond me. But it’s just one of the many strange, different approaches in “Rise of the Guardians” that oddly works.  

The film isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as the first two “Shrek” pictures or as heartfelt as “How to Train Your Dragon.” The clever premise can also occasionally take a backseat to the action sequences, especially in the climax of good VS evil. For what “Rise of the Guardians” is though, it’s a charming family movie that’s always fun to observe. Somewhere down the line we may be get a sequel that brings in Cupid, a leprechaun, and the Great Pumpkin.

Rock of Ages

 I want to love rock n roll **1/2

“Rock of Ages” follows in the same footsteps of “Hairspray,” adapting a hit musical to the big screen, assembling an all-star cast, and hiring Adam Shankman to direct. This formula worked so well before that “Rock of Ages” should be another instant classic. The film does have some entertaining moments and was obviously made with a lot of passion. But all the energy in the world can’t make up for the film’s lack of focus, structure, and originality. Especially when stacked up against the magnificent “Hairspray,” “Rock of Ages” is kind of forgettable.

The leading lady is Sherrie Christian, a small-town girl who dreams of becoming a star. Like we haven’t seen that character in a million other musicals…oh except for in “Funny Girl,” “A Star is Born,” “Fame,” “Chicago,” “Moulin Rouge,” and of course “Hairspray.” Julianne Hough, a rising talent whose previous credits include the remake of “Footloose,” plays Sherrie in a charismatic performance. She moves to Hollywood to fulfill her dream but instead finds love. Enter Diego Boneta as Drew Boley, a busboy who also aspires to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.

Drew gets Sherrie a job at The Bourbon Room, a Rock ‘n’ Roll club run by Alec Baldwin’s Dennis Dupree, a veteran rock lover. He manages the bar alongside the longhaired, English rocker Lonny Barnett, played by the perfectly cast Russell Brand. With taxes piling up, the only way for Dennis and Lonny to save the bar is to find a performer who will pack the house. They’re prayers are answered when they book Stacee Jaxx, a fading rock ‘n’ roll legend played by Tom Cruise. Stacee is being held back by Paul Gill, his greedy manager played by Paul Giamatti. That’s right, Paul Giamatti is in a musical. Fortunately, he doesn’t do that much singing.

The most pleasant surprise in the movie is Tom Cruise as Stacee. Cruise might seem like the most bizarre casting choice for a musical since Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!” Yet, he totally pulls off this drunken party animal that flaunts about as if he is a living God. Cruise even establishes that he’s a pretty good singer. It’s actually surprising that it has taken him this long to do a musical. Plus, his character has a pet baboon named “Hey Man,” which is pretty awesome.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also stars as Patricia Whitmore, the plastic wife of the mayor who is determined to abolish rock music. Given the Oscar she won for “Chicago,” Zeta-Jones should probably be the best performer here. Her character is unfortunately a disappointment though. There are a million things the writers could have done with this villain. But she never hatches any diabolical schemes, abuses her position of power, or says anything that menacing or funny. Her entire character could have been cut out entirely and it wouldn’t have impacted the movie in the slightest.

The strongest aspect of “Rock of Ages” is its music. The film covers the greatest rock hits of the late eighties, including “I Wanna Rock,” “We Built This City,” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” All of these songs are effectively integrated into the plot much like in the Beatles Jukebox musical, “Across the Universe.” Baldwin and Brand’s duet of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a particular riot.

With sensational music and a cast that’s mostly put to good use, “Rock of Ages” comes close to working. The film’s ultimate downfall is in the story department. “Rock of Ages” attempts to juggle a number of stories about falling in love, selling out, saving a rock ‘n’ role safe haven, fighting against the system, getting back on top, and struggling to become famous. Better writers might have been able to properly work these subplots into a single narrative. In “Rock of Ages” though, the story structure just feels clumsy as main characters disappear for large fractions of the movie. It doesn’t help that all of these stories play out in such a cliché fashion. Sherrie and Drew’s romance notably results in one of those annoying misunderstandings that could be resolved in seconds if only they would talk matters through.

There’s much to admire in “Rock of Ages” and a lot of people are likely to enjoy it. The film is almost worth checking out for what it is, rather than for what it isn’t. But its faults simply outweigh everything that’s great about the film. Given what it could have been, “Rock of Ages” is a letdown. The soundtrack on the other hand, is an absolute must own.

Ruby Sparks

She sparks alright ****

With a resume that includes a few roles on Broadway and several small supporting credits in film, Zoe Kazan isn’t necessarily a household name. That should all change however, with “Ruby Sparks.” This rising talent exposes her unparallel gifts as an actress and writer in this superb comedy from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife directing team that previously made “Little Miss Sunshine.” Kazan is quirky, fearless, lovely, and flawless in making the audience fall in love with Ruby Sparks, who is brought to life via an imaginative début screenplay and the single best female performance of the year so far. In short, it’s a perfect marriage of a great role and a compatible actress.

Ruby Sparks isn’t exactly a real human being. She merely starts off as a character created by Calvin Weir-Fields, played by Paul Dano. Calvin is a high school drop out who hit it big after writing one of the most significant novels of this generation. The problem is that Calvin now suffers from severe writers block. Using his dated typewriter, the stressed novelist writes himself into a romance with his dream girl, Ruby. One morning, Calvin wakes up to find that the cute redhead he fabricated has literally come to life. As far as Ruby knows though, she is an authentic person that’s in love with Calvin.

At first, Calvin naturally thinks he’s gone crazy, comparing himself to Jimmy Stewart in “Harvey.” His initial fears are put to rest however when his brother, played by Chris Messina in a very funny performance, is able to see Ruby too. They discover that Calvin can alter Ruby to do and feel anything, from being happy, to being upset, to speaking fluent French. But in Calvin’s eyes, the girl he has created is perfect in every way.

“Ruby Sparks” makes no attempt to clarify how Calvin has brought this woman to life. This really isn’t a movie fuelled by logic or explanation though. It’s all about the emotional journey the audience takes with the characters. What Kazan, Dayton and Faris deliver on this journey is a fantastic mixture of humor, honesty and whimsy, much like a Woody Allen picture. Dano notably evokes memories of Woody Allen’s earlier performances as this paranoid, anti-social individual way in over his head.

The film includes fun supporting performances from Annette Bening as Calvin’s hippie mother, Antonio Banderas as her lover, and Elliot Gould as a shrink. But the movie really belongs to the extremely compelling leads. Their romance is equally sweet and twisted, amounting to a highly emotional climax with Oscar-caliber work from both actors. Dano and especially Kazan are what ultimately make “Ruby Sparks” fly off the pages.

Savages

 Stone on his B game is still better than Bay on his A game ***

“Savages” is a much better movie than it could have been mainly thanks to the gifted directorial talents of Oliver Stone. In the hands of somebody like Michael Bay, this easily could have been another soulless, meaningless summer blockbuster like “Bad Boys II.” Stone however, manages to tell a compelling story about a Mexican drug cartel with effective violence and characters. The film probably won’t go down as one of the preeminent outings from Oliver Stone. As an entertaining B-movie with no shortage of attractive stars though, “Savages” is ultimately a success.

Based on the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, “Savages” centers on three young people that get mixed up in a drug war. Blake Lively is O, short for Ophelia, a rich California girl whose daily routine consists of shopping and having sex with her two boyfriends. Her lovers are Chon, played by Taylor Kitsch from “John Carter,” and Ben, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson from “Kick-Ass.” They’re all extremely casual with their three-way romance, thinking of each other as soul mates.

Getting to sleep with a beautiful woman every night and making a steady living growing marijuana, Chon and Ben seem to be living the dream. That is until they piss off a Mexican drug lord who does not take insults lightly. As payback, the drug cartel kidnaps O. They tell Chon and Ben that they will get their girl back in one year as long as they cooperatively provide their services. Knowing that O won’t last long as a hostage, Chon and Ben devise a plan to rescue the damsel.

Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively are all fine in their respective roles. But the real scene-stealers in “Savages” are the more experienced, veteran actors. Benicio del Toro is first-rate as Lado, the menacing second in command of the drug cartel who is virtually without compassion. Despite his limited time on screen, John Travolta leaves a substantial impression as a crooked DEA agent caught up in the middle of this mess. The film’s apex performance comes from Salma Hayek as the drug kingpin, who steals all the best lines as she chews out her enforcers. “Savages” might have actually been a great film if it was entirely about Hayek’s character and her rise to power. But Hayek’s supporting role still makes “Savages” well worth the ticket of admission.

About twelve years ago Steven Soderbergh made “Traffic,” a deep, fascinating exploration of illegal drug trade. “Savages” is a much more conventional, commercial picture that’s vastly heavier on shootouts. The film also leaves the audience on a bit of a cheated note with a lame ending that fakes us out. Stone has essentially made a neat crime thriller with strong characters and fast-paced action. That’s all well and good for mainstream audiences. If you’re a huge Oliver Stone fan though, don’t walk into the movie expecting something as challenging as “Natural Born Killers.”

The Secret World of Arrietty

She's tiny! I've got bigger chunks of corn in my crap! ****

Every three years or so American audiences are treated to the latest animated triumph from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese artists that produced “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “Spirited Away.” Those three films were all helmed by a true living legend, Hayao Miyazaki. In “The Secret World of Arrietty,” Miyazaki once again acts as a screenwriter and producer. The Directorial duties this time around however, are left in the hands of Hiromasa Yonebayashi. In his first feature film, Yonebayashi portrays a lovely little winner well worthy of Studio Ghibli’s name.

Based on “The Borrowers,” a classic juvenile novel by Mary Norton, “The Secret World of Arrietty” spotlights a tiny family that resides under the floorboards of an old house. These little people, or Borrowers as they like to be called, are no larger than a grasshopper and survive off the meager food and materials humans, aka Beans, leave behind. Real life husband and wife voice Amy Poehler and Will Arnett play a Borrower couple that inhabits a shoebox-sized dwelling. Arrietty, their audacious daughter voiced by Bridgit Mendler, just turned fourteen and is eager to go out for her first borrowing. A simple trip through an old house is a monumental journey for a Borrower though.

Arrietty is immediately awe-struck upon arriving in a human’s kitchen, which seems like a vast kingdom from her point of view. With a hook, some rope, and sticky shoes, Arrietty’s father climbs a kitchen table as if it were a mountain. They run the risk of getting crushed, caught, and eaten by a cat all to achieve a single sugar cube, which will last them a long time. These scenes are reminiscent of the mice from “Cinderella” or Remy the Rat of “Ratatouille,” all of whom found themselves caught up in a busy big world.

The Borrower family is put at risk when a young boy named Shawn, voiced by David Henrie, spots Arrietty in his room. Although Arrietty tries to avoid the human, Shawn can’t help but be entranced by the little person. Studio Ghibli films are known for depicting meaningful adolescent friendships between boys and girls like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “The Castle in the Sky.” The friendship that evolves between Arrietty and Shawn is no exception. Their moments together have a tender, quiet subtly to them as Arrietty learns to trust and Shawn comes to cope with his heart condition that may be fatal. All the while, a stout housekeeper named Hara plots to capture the Borrowers and expose them to the world.

There are many standard Studio Ghibli attributes on display here, such as a fully realized female heroine, supportive parental figures, environmental themes and a villain whose more morally ambiguous than evil. “The Secret World of Arrietty” also borrows some factors from various Disney animations too. The culture clash between the Borrowers and humans evokes memories of “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas,” and “Tarzan.” If the film has one shortcoming it’s that some of these elements are just a little too familiar. But “The Secret World of Arrietty” carries out the material in such a pleasant fashion that this is easy to forgive.

Some children that enjoy their movies loud and rambunctious might find “The Secret World of Arrietty” a bit slow and refined for their taste. Kids that appreciate atmosphere and strong characters will find much to admire in the film though, as will their parents. Plus, this is thankfully a modern animated film with no 3D effects or pop culture references. That’s about as hard to come by in this day and age than a black and white silent picture…oh wait…

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

It's never too late to make a friend ***1/2

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is probably the funniest, quietest, and most romantic movie about the end of the world you’re ever going to see. There aren’t any big action set pieces driven by special effects. The focus of the film isn’t on the politicians or astronauts trying to save the planet. Instead, we focus in on two people coming together and accepting the inevitable during their last remaining days on earth. It’s a warm, charming apocalyptic romantic comedy with much more humanity than something like “2012” or “Armageddon.”  

Steve Carell has mastered the art of playing lonely, depressed individuals in their forties. Here he plays Dodge, his glummest character since “Dan in Real Life.” Like everyone else, Dodge is distressed over the asteroid that will destroy earth in a matter of weeks. What makes matters even worse for Dodge is that he has nobody to experience the world’s end with. His wife Linda, played by Carell’s real life spouse Nancy Carell, has cowardly abandoned her husband. Poor Dodge begins to wonder if Linda ever really loved him upon learning she was having an affair during their marriage.

After rummaging through a pile of old mail, Dodge comes across a letter from a high school sweetheart. Dodge begins to consider what might have been and decides to spend his last remaining hours with her. The airlines and phones are out of commission. Thus, Dodge hitches a ride with his young, hipster neighbor, Penny, played by Keira Knightley. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is a road trip movie from this point on with Dodge and Penny finding console in unlikely places.

Among all the celebrities I’ve been dying to see teamed up, Steve Carell and Keira Knightley weren’t exactly high on the list. To my amazement though, they actually make for a miraculous team and share one of the best on-screen relationships of the year. Both performers are perfect in their roles with Carell as the aging sad sack and Knightley as the youthful free spirit who brings some needed light into Dodge’s last days. Lorene Scafaria, who previous worked on “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” wrote and directed “Seeking a Friend for the End of the Universe.” Her gift for developing meaningful relationships, capturing star chemistry and incorporating a killer soundtrack is what additionally makes the film work.

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the Universe” is also very funny in places too, most notably a scene in which Dodge and Penny hitch a ride with unforeseen results. Some audiences may grow restless in the film’s second act, which is much heavier on drama than comedy. These sentimental scenes are well earned though and effectively play into the movie. That’s more than can be said about a movie like “Click,” which was schizophrenic it’s dramatic and comedic shifts of tone. The final minutes of the film are particularly breathtaking, not copping out with the happiest of endings. This is a light, comforting movie about the most tragic of circumstances. Seeing how the world is allegedly going to end this December, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” might be the exact movie we need right now. 

Seven Psychopaths

 The crazies ****1/2

Four years ago, Martin McDonagh made one of the most impressive feature films directorial debuts with one of my favorite movies, “In Bruges.” Starting off on such a high note, McDonagh easily could have succumbed to the sophomore slump in his follow-up film. I’m gleeful to proclaim however, that “Seven Psychopaths” is anything but a letdown. For the second time in a row, McDonagh has put together an incredibly violent and hilarious dark comedy without a single lackluster moment. If McDonagh’s future projects are anywhere near as strong as these two features and his Oscar-winning short film, “Six Shooter,” it’s safe to say he’ll go down as one of the most engaging filmmakers of our time.

McDonagh wrote Colin Farrell the best role of his career in “In Bruges.” The two Irishmen are reunited once again for this film in which Farrell plays Marty, a popular Hollywood screenwriter. Marty is currently working on his latest script entitled, “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is that the only character he has been able to come up with is a Buddhist psychopath, who obviously can’t be a killer due to his religion. This is somewhat reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation,” a film in which Kaufman literally wrote himself into a story about a struggling screenwriter. Marty’s writer’s block becomes a secondary dilemma however, as he soon gets caught up with the schemes of several actual psychopaths.  

Sam Rockwell is one of those actors that has never gotten a ton of recognition despite his respectable roster of work. He steals the entire show in a Best Supporting Actor caliber performance as Billy, Marty’s best friend who wants to help write “Seven Psychopaths.” When Billy isn’t trying to mooch off of Marty, he’s kidnapping dogs, returning them to their owners, and collecting the reward money. Billy messes with the wrong pooch though when he snatches the beloved Shih Tzu of Woody Harrelson’s unstable Charlie Costello, a mobster willing to kill any human for his dog.

Regardless of all of the gratuitously comical violence and four-letter words, “Seven Psychopaths” is really a buddy picture at its core. The bromance is not just between the neurotic Marty and the eccentric Billy, but also Christopher Walken as Hans, a fellow dog kidnapper. It’s clear that this role was tailor-made for Walken who specializes in playing deadpan crazy men. The rapport these three men develop is completely ludicrous to say the least. But they make for one of the most perfectly matched onscreen teams of all black comedies. The exchanges between them are nothing short of priceless as they talk about how thrillers always lead up to an uninspired shootout. It’s notably impossible to restrain oneself from laughter when Billy envisions the final act of the “Seven Psychopaths” screenplay around a campfire with his two chums.  

The film’s overall success all ties back to Martin McDonagh, who is writing some of the sharpest and funniest dialog since Quentin Tarantino. In the vein of Tarantino, McDonagh also has a flair for mixing gore, humor and off-topic conversations into a single package. But he never comes off another just another Tarantino wannabe like Troy Duffy, director of the “Boondock Saints” pictures. McDonagh is a truly offbeat talent with a unique signature and voice. He’s also among the few directors working today who knows how to use the “C” word without being too tasteless.

Silver Linings Playbook

Love, the greatest mental illness of all ****1/2

Year after year, I find myself complaining about the state of love stories in the movies. From those damn “Twilight” pictures to the countless vehicles starting the showboating Katherine Heigl, inspired romance has become difficult to come by in this day and age. 2012 however, has exhibited an unexpected change of pace in the romance department. With “Safety Not Guaranteed,”  “Rudy Sparks,” “The Sessions,” “Hope Springs” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” this has proven to be a reassuring year for movies about unlikely people coming together and having a meaningful connection. Even several major action blockbusters, such as “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Looper” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” have managed to incorporate smart, believable relationships that do not just feel tacked on.

My favorite love story of the year is still the wonderful “Moonrise Kingdom.” A close runner up though, would have to be David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” a magnetic adaptation of the novel by Matthew Quick. The film takes two of the most complicated, imperfect and uncomfortable individuals imaginable and fashions a manic romantic dramedy that’s full of laughs, integrity, and immeasurable performances from the leads. It’s just another example of why 2012 deserves to be remembered as the year of passions.

Bradley Cooper gives the most complete performance of his life as Pat Solitano, who realizes that he suffers from a bipolar disorder upon discovering his wife, Nikki, in the shower with another man. After almost beating the man to death and spending some time in the cuckoo’s nest, Pat is released into the custody of his parents. Jacki Weaver is wonderful as Pat’s accommodating mother, as is Robert De Niro as his football-obsessed, superstitious father. Pat’s support team also includes Anupam Kher as his psychiatrist, a toned down Chris Tucker as a fellow mental patient, and John Ortiz and Julia Stiles as his best friends. They’re all unprepared for just how unstable Pat has become though. Simply reading the downer ending to Hemmingway’s “A Farwell to Arms” is enough to set this guy off. The only thing driving Pat to get better is the possibility that Nikki will get back with him, which is highly unlikely since she filed a restraining order.  

At only 22 years of age, Jennifer Lawrence has merited an Oscar nomination for “Winter’s Bone” and brought one of the most famous literary characters of recent years to life in “The Hunger Games.” “Silver Linings Playbook” really takes off when Lawrence storms on the screen as Tiffany, an equally mentally uneven girl with a dead husband and a notorious reputation for sleeping with everyone in her office. Lawrence is fearless without being tasteless, sexy without being trashy and idiosyncratic without being over-the-top in what just might be the pinnacle of her already remarkable career. Despite their age difference, Pat and Tiffany’s common craziness results in them finding a compatible other. They are further brought together when Tiffany convinces Pat to enter a dance contest with her in exchange for delivering a letter to Nikki.

There are moments in “Silver Linings Playbook” that come off as almost too raw and passages of dialog that go on for a tad too long. These nuisances are few though and hardly deduct from everything that is irrefutably right with the film. Russell has made an exquisite picture about coping with mental illness and moving on to greater things in life. Lawrence principally sticks out as a revelation of talent, verifying more than ever that she is a star well worthy of her achieved acclaim. Will Lawrence’s star status reach new heights with an Academy Award for Best Actress in February? I wouldn’t at all be surprised.

Taken 2

 Kidnapped by danger **

 

“Taken” was one of the most surprising hits of recent years, grossing over two hundred million dollars on a modest budget of roughly twenty-five million. The film might not have been a revolutionary action picture. There have been loads of other movies about distant fathers/husbands that take the law into their own hands to rescue a family member. Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis notably specialize in this genre. Nevertheless, the original “Taken” was indeed a good film, mainly thanks Liam Neeson. Up until “Taken,” Neeson had never been viewed as a major action hero. After his immortally cool “I will find you and I will kill you” phone conversation though, Neeson established he was a senior badass not to be reckoned with.

There was no doubt that “Taken” would inspire a sequel. In the tradition of numerous other follow-up though, the insipidly titled “Taken 2” is nowhere near as much fun as its predecessor. The expectations for this sequel are so high that audiences will try hard to like it. But the fact that people must try to enjoy themselves just goes to show that “Taken 2” isn’t getting the job done. It’s the film that should be doing the heavy lifting, not the audience.

Neeson returns as Bryan Mills, the former CIA operative that’s so skilled in killing people that he could be a terminator. You’d think that this guy would be a national hero and household name after single-handedly saving his daughter from Albanian human traffickers. But apparently the news never picked the story up. Maggie Grace is also back as Kim, who is doing pretty well for somebody who was kidnapped only a year ago. The biggest dilemma in her life is that she has yet to pass her driving test, which of course means there will be a big car chase somewhere down the line. Kim joins her dear dad on a trip to Istanbul along with Bryan’s ex-wife, played by Farnke Janssen. The family reunion hits a speed bump however, when the Albanian kidnappers from the first film track them down. Unwilling to live and let live, they target Bryan and his family. Big mistake guys.  

As you can tell from that brief synopsis, “Taken 2” is basically the same movie again for the most part. The only thing that distinguishes the story is that the ex-wife is in the mix now. Maybe in “Taken 3” they’ll up the stakes by having Bryan’s great-aunt, grandmother, and second cousin get captured. The real fault with “Taken 2” isn’t so much that it’s repetitive, but that it’s not very exciting. Unlike the first film, there’s never a moment in “Taken 2” that will have people unanimously cheering or even chanting, “woo!”

Although Liam Neeson delivers another solid performance as Miller, the lack of suspense makes it hard for the character to be compelling this time around. It doesn’t help that the bad guys in “Taken 2” are bungling for the most part. I’ve come to accept villains in these types of movies making foolish decisions, such as not immediately killing the hero when he’s in custody. But the baddies here sink to new levels of incompetence. There’s one scene in which they have Bryan and his wife at gunpoint and they actually allow Bryan to make a phone call. They don’t fire a warning shot or even tell him to hang up. They just awkwardly stand there as he makes the call.

While “Taken 2” could have been much better, it also could have been much worse. Those looking to kill an hour and a half might find the film satisfactory. Yet, no one will walk away from the film saying it’s as good or better than the original. If a sequel can’t accomplish that, then what’s the point?

Ted

Don't call him Teddy Ruxpin ****

“Ted” follows a similar formula to other buddy movies of its kind. There are two major things that distinguish the film though. For starters, “Ted” is a really funny movie, producing just as many laughs as “21 Jump Street” from a few months ago. Secondly, one of the buddies in question is a living teddy bear. The teddy bear is not merely a product of someone’s imagination like in “Calvin and Hobbes.” He’s literally a walking, talking stuffed animal that has been casually accepted into society.



The story begins with some hysterical narration from Patrick Stewart, who introduces us to little John Bennett. The eight-year-old John is a lonely boy without a friend in the world. When John tries to join the neighborhood boys as they beat up a Jewish kid, they all turn him away. Even the victimized Jewish boy thinks that John is too lame to help beat him up. Then one magical Christmas morning, John receives a teddy bear and names it Ted. John wishes that his furry friend would come to life so they could play together. The next morning, John awakens to find that his wish has come true.

John and Ted grow up to be the best of friends. Ted becomes a sensation along the way, making appearances on the news and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Like most child stars though, Ted’s fame soon begins to fade away. He grows up to be a drunken slacker, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, that spends most of his time on the couch with a bong by his side. Ted’s still best friends with John, played by Mark Wahlberg, who is also having difficulties growing up. They spend most of their time sitting around and recollecting movies from the eighties, most notably “Flash Gordon.” Imagine adult, raunchy versions of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.

Seth MacFarlane has made a name for himself through animated programs like “Family Guy” and “American Dad.” In addition to voicing the title character in a Peter Griffin-like accent, MacFarlane also directs and co-writes “Ted.” The film offers the exact kind of humor we have come to expect from MacFarlane. “Ted” can be stupid, shocking, random, offensive and completely irrelevant. On the whole though, the film is simply one big laugh after another.

One of the most amusing aspects about MacFarlane’s comedy is the fantastic CGI animation used to create Ted. The teddy bear is funny just to observe, whether he’s crawling into bed, driving a car, drinking a bear, or having sex. How Ted manages to have intercourse is a bit of a mystery though. Ted is also a lot of fun to listen to, always with a great one-liner ready. One can only hope a Ted plush toy that sings his thunder song is in the works.

The other performers are top-notch as well. Mark Wahlberg is solid as a strait man who never acknowledges how ridiculous it is that he’s talking to a teddy bear. Mila Kunis’ is lovely and fun as Lori, John’s incredibly patient girlfriend who wants Ted to move out so John and her can move on. Joel McHale even manages to put a likable spin on the jerky guy who wants to bang Lori. The only character that is a little off-putting is Giovanni Ribisi as a creepy guy who wants to kidnap Ted. Yet, his character does amount to an exciting chase sequence and some humorous cracks regarding his chubby son.

The film that most resembles “Ted” is “Paul,” which was about another outlandish, crude CGI creature who forms a bond with men-children. That movie was funny, as is “Ted.” Those who are turned off by the politically incorrect humor of “Family Guy” probably won’t be won over by MacFarlane’s directorial debut. As someone who still watches Animation Domination every Sunday though, I can safely say that this is a well-made, well-written comedy about the unyielding struggle to put away childhood things.

That's My Boy

 Really, Adam Sandler? Really? *

 

Last year, Adam Sandler burdened the world with “Jack and Jill,” quite possibly the worst comedy ever conceived. That debacle of humor hit a new low at the Razzies, winning every single award. I myself named “Jack and Jill” the absolute worst picture of 2011, branding it with the irredeemable grade of a zero. “That’s My Boy” is another spectacularly awful feature from Sandler and company. As bad as the film is, it doesn’t sink quite as low as “Jack and Jill.” But that’s like saying a solitary shot to the head is better than multiple shots to the head.

Donny Berger is a cocky preteen punk who wants to bag his sexy teacher, Ms. McGarricle. In the spirit of Mary Kay Letourneau, McGarricle is into Donny as well. They have an affair and are caught in the act at a school assembly. McGarricle gets pregnant and is sentenced to thirty years in prison. When Donny turns 18, he will assume custody of their baby. Until then, Donny sells the rights to his story and makes millions off his made-for-television movie.

These opening scenes, while in bad taste, do show some potential. In the possession of superior filmmakers, maybe a really dark, edgy comedy about child molestation could have been made. “South Park” for example, produced a hilarious episode centered on this subject matter. With Sandler at the helm though, it’s the obvious, lamebrain middle school humor you’d expect. The film really isn’t about Donny and his inappropriate relationship with Ms. McGarricle anyways. It’s about Donny and his son, who he names Han Solo.

Donny grows up to be an irresponsible drunk played by Sandler. His only friend is Vanilla Ice, in one of his most embarrassing, pointless screen roles since “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.”  After blowing threw his millions, Donny now owes the IRS thousands of dollars. A sleazy television executive will loan the money to Donny if his son and him visit Ms. McGarricle in prison for a T.V. reunion. Donny tracks down his estranged son, played by an uncomfortable Andy Samberg, who has changed his name to Todd. This just happens to be the same weekend that Todd is marrying his bossy fiancé, played by Leighton Meester. What shenanigans could possibly ensue from the vulgar Donny interacting with his son’s upper class, snobbish friends and bosses?

“That’s My Boy” is the typical Adam Sandler movie from this point on. There are bodily gags, jokes about banging old ladies, product placement, physical injuries, sentimental moments that aren’t earned, and the horrifically untalented Nick Swardson in a supporting role. Is anything in the movie funny? There is one cameo from Susan Sarandon that merits a moment of amusement. That’s it.

For it’s first two acts, “That’s My Boy” is merely a bad Adam Sandler movie. In the final act though, the film becomes inexplicably appalling with a grotesquely unfunny twist. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s out of left field, utterly unnecessary and vomit inducing. It’s like an insane person who is completely out of touch with society took over the screenplay. What were they thinking?

It should also be noted that the movie is rated R where most of Sandler’s movies stick to PG13 territory. This makes leeway for much more raunchy, gross-out humor. The R-rating probably works to the film’s disadvantage though, since nobody under twelve could possibly find “That’s My Boy” to be funny. In that sense, the film isn’t marketable to any audience. Hopefully this means that nobody will be unfortunate enough to see it.

This is 40

Who needs Katherine Heigl? ***

While “Knocked Up” established Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl as major movie stars, it was Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd that stole the entire show. Rogan and Heigl’s characters are nowhere to be found in the sort-of sequel to “Knocked Up.” Rather, “This is 40” passes the touch over to Mann’s Debbie and Rudd’s Pete as they both reach the dreaded middle-aged milestone. The latest comedy from writer/director Judd Apatow may be imperfect in terms of pacing. Thanks to the unparallel chemistry between Mann and Rudd though, the picture eventually evens out into something often funny and believable.

Debbie has just turned 40 although she is telling everyone she is 38. Paul meanwhile is much more content with the fact that he will be 40 within the next couple weeks. Their marriage has hit a slump as Paul now requires Viagra to be intimate and Debbie can’t stop smoking. It doesn’t help that the entire family is engulfed in their iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks. This is probably the closest any film has come to representing the dominating effect of Apple projects, especially on youths. Fifteen years ago it might have seemed outlandish to observe a child with a cell phone. Now it’s routine to see an 8-year-old using the talking monkey app on her iPhone.

“This is 40” provides some memorable supporting work from Albert Brooks as Pete’s dad, who has recently procreated triplets with his new wife. Apatow and Mann’s real life daughters, Maude and Iris, shine as the bratty, constantly feuding daughters of Pete and Debbie. Even Megan Fox manages to turn out a funny performance as a sexy employee that works at Debbie’s clothing store. The standout has got to be the always-hilarious Melissa McCarthy in a cameo as a mother Debbie and Pete royally tick off. Be sure to stick around after the end credits as McCarthy goes all out in what was likely an entirely improved outtake.

When “This is 40” is good it’s really good. But at two hours and fifteen minutes, the film admittedly starts to wear out its welcome. Apatow suffered from the same quandary in “Funny People,” a comedy that might have been an instant classic had it been trimmed down by an hour. “This is 40” has one too many needless subplots regarding stolen money at Debbie’s store, a record deal with Graham Parker, and Debbie reconnecting with her estranged father played by John Lithgow. What makes or breaks a film such as this though is the main plot concerning our leads. Thankfully, a majority of the material between Debbie and Pete is nothing short of gold.

Debbie and Pete’s relationship can range truthfully hilarious to truthfully uncomfortable. Yet, their bond always feels authentic and any middle-aged married couple can identify with their dilemmas. This was obviously an extremely personal film for Apatow to make with his entire family in major roles. It wouldn’t at all be surprising if most of these events were taken right out of the 45-year-old director’s own life as a husband and father. His screenplay, along with the performances from Mann and Rudd, shape “This is 40” into an honest movie about what it means to be committed to your spouse for better and for worse.

It should be noted however that you might want to hold off on seeing “This is 40” if you’re currently getting caught up on “Lost.” The ending is revealed here and it’d be a travesty for this movie to spoil it for you.

A Thousand Words

My review in just 630 words ***

In the opening scene of “A Thousand Words,” the camera pans through a shattered house. Broken picture frames and furniture occupy the floor. The audience then hears the voice of Eddie Murphy, informing us in a grave tone that he is going to die. At first one might assume that Murphy has gone down the Liam Neeson rout and made an action thriller. That thought is quickly diminished however, as Murphy appears on screen with a piece of duck tape covering his mouth. From there on, “A Thousand Words” is the exact kind of light comedy we were expecting.

Murphy plays Jack McCall, a hotshot book agent who utters more words per minute than Vince Vaughn on speed. His wife is Caroline, played by the lovely Kerry Washington, who wishes to provide a better environment for their son by moving to the suburbs. Jack doesn’t have time to fulfill his wife’s needs though. He’s too busy trying to get a spiritual guru named Dr. Sinja, played by Cliff Curtis, to sell his book. Jack seals the deal, but at a drastic price. A Bodhi tree miraculously grows in Jack’s backyard. With every word he says, another leaf will fall off. Once all the leaves are gone, Jack will be deader than the Truffula Trees in “The Lorax.”

Needless to say, “A Thousand Words” is not the movie to see if you are looking for something completely original. These comedies about flawed men who realize what’s really important in life through supernatural forces are continuously recycled by Hollywood. A short list of examples include “Groundhog Day,” “Bruce Almighty,” “Click,” “Liar, Liar,” and every “Christmas Carol” parody every made. But that’s beside the point. The question is whether or not “A Thousand Words” is funny despite familiarity? It is, for the most part.

The film makes good use of its premise by placing Murphy in several predictable, yet still humorous, circumstances. Big laughs are scored when Murphy attempts to have a conference call using various plush toys around the office and mimes an order at a Starbucks. Clark Duke is additionally quite funny as Murphy’s dorky assistant who has a furry fetish. After the wacky beginning though, the film takes an odd turn and suddenly becomes overly dramatic as Jack deals with his world collapsing. It’s kind of schizophrenic.

There are also a lot of supporting characters that don’t really amount to much. Early on in the movie Jack is at a shrink’s office talking his mouth off. Yet, we never learn why Jack was seeing a psychologist to begin with. Allison Janney is given a fairly standard role as Jack’s boss, who serves little purpose other than to react to her employee’s bizarre behavior. Then there’s Ruby Dee as Jack’s mother who suffers form Alzheimer’s, a disease that’s really starting to get overused in pictures. This is a movie that was obviously reshot and rewritten several times, leaving some holes unfilled and characters underdeveloped.

“A Thousand Words” was directed by Brian Robbins, who featured Murphy in “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.” Those two movies weren’t highlights of Murphy’s career. While “A Thousand Words” is far from Murphy’s finest hour and a half, it is enjoyable, charming, and well intentioned. Murphy himself actually delivers a believable performance as the caffeine-addicted jerk in the film’s first act, the distressed silent man hanging onto his life in the second act, and even the regretful man seeking redemption in the end.

Is the film without fault? Definitely not. But for Murphy’s performance and a few laugh-out loud moments, “A Thousand Words” is solid enough to mildly recommend. Plus when an actor’s body of recent work includes “Imagine That,” “The Haunted Mansion,” and “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” one can’t help but grade him on a curve.

Trouble with the Curve

  Get off my field! ***

 

There have been well over a hundred baseball movies about players, coaches and teams. One crucial figure that’s starting to get more recognition in this genre is the baseball scout. Last year’s “Moneyball” from Director Bennett Miller was easily the definitive baseball-scouting picture, telling the thought-provoking true story of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Bill Beane. “Trouble with the Curve” is a more predictable, crowd-pleasing effort that doesn’t rank in the major leagues with “Moneyball.” Despite all of its clichés though, this is an enjoyable film carried by some memorable performances from the leads.

Clint Eastwood is in his comfort zone as the grouchy, growling Gus Lobel, a senior baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves. Although Gus still has the aptitude to single out diamonds in the rough, his contract is almost up and his health is deteriorating. John Goodman plays Pete, Gus’ boss and best friend, who notices that the old man may be losing his eyesight. Concerned that he may not be able to handle a scouting trip to North Carolina, it is decided that Mickey, Gus’ daughter played by Amy Adams, will accompany her dad. Mickey, who of course is named after Mickey Mantle, is a successful lawyer on the verge of making partner at her firm. Although she might have actually made a better baseball scout or agent based on her knowledge of the game.

From “Million Dollar Baby” to “Gran Torino,” Eastwood is agreeably starting to get typecast as a distant old man with aggressive tendencies. Nevertheless, nobody plays this kind of character better than Eastwood, making him the perfect fit for the role of Gus. Amy Adams can be seen in two movies opening this week with this film and “The Master.” She’s great here as the headstrong and no nonsense Mickey who loves her father despite his many faults. The chemistry between Eastwood and Adams feels just right as the feuding daddy and daughter are reunited via their shared love for baseball. Another strong dynamic is between Mickey and Johnny Flanagan, a hunky former athlete turned scout played by the charming Justin Timberlake. Despite all the preconceptions people had about Timberlake’s crossover from music to film, I think we can officially distinguish him a serious movie star worthy of his success.

While the heroes shine, the same cannot be said about the one-dimensional antagonists. The film is overstuffed with several lazily written villains, including a conceited high school bully, a fellow scout keen on getting Gus fired and several lawyers reluctant to give Mickey her deserved promotion. Would it have killed Director Robert Lorenz or Screenwriter Randy Brown to permit these characters a shred of humanity or redeeming values? At the very least the filmmakers could have made the villains funny and charismatic. Instead, they’re just uninteresting and unpleasant to observe.

If you can watch the film without cringing at the conventional storytelling and smug bad guys, you’re inclined to appreciate “Trouble with the Curve” for the areas it does prevail in. The comparison between “Trouble with the Curve” and “Moneyball” can additionally lead to an interesting debate about baseball scouting. In “Moneyball,” Billy Beane uses a new computer-generated approach to devise a perfect team. Gus on the other hand, asserts that instinct is still the best fashion to pick out players even in an era of advanced technology. Not being a baseball guru, I cannot say which approach is more effective in the scouting profession. Based on how things worked out for Billy Beane though, I’ll take Gus’ word.

Total Recall

At least there's still a three breasted chick **1/2

Does anyone else find it ironic that a production company named “Original Film” made the remake of “Total Recall?” This isn’t the first revamp of a beloved Arnold Schwarzenegger movie to come out recently. Just last year, James Momoa starred in a remake of “Conan the Barbarian,” which received poor reviews and box office totals. The new “Total Recall” suffers from many of the same problems as the new “Conan,” namely that neither film is very entertaining.

If you haven’t already seen the successful 1990 version, “Total Recall” sets itself in 2084, following the aftermath of World War III. The film’s protagonist is Douglas Quaid, this time portrayed by Colin Farrell. He maintains a steady job as a factory worker and has a beautiful, nurturing wife played by Kate Beckinsale. Douglas soon learns however, that his seemingly simple life is all a lie. His memories have been fabricated by the big, bad government to cover up that he’s a deadly spy gone rouge. His wife turns out to be an undercover agent who is now hell-bent on bringing her fake husband in. Douglass teams up with Jessica Biel’s Melina, a rebel who claims to know about his past.

Colin Farrell may be a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Schwarzenegger was unmistakably having the time of his life in the original film. Since he was having so much fun, we couldn’t help but have fun with him. Farrell on the other hand, plays it strait for the most as a brooding, cookie cutter hero with lines plainer than bark on trees.

Just as Farrell is a bore, the same can be said about the rest of the movie. Director Len Wiseman, who has made some worthy action pictures like “Live Free or Die Hard,” takes a more serious tone along the lines of “Minority Report” or “The Bourne Identity.” Sometimes it works when a reimagining attempts to be darker and more grounded than it’s predecessors, like “Batman Begins” or “The Amazing Spider-Man.” This mostly stiff version of “Total Recall” though, makes the audience crave the humor and lightheartedness of the original.

The film isn’t entirely worthless. The performances are adequate, but not great. The sets and visuals are impressive, but not revolutionary. The action sequences are big and loud, but lacking any magnetism. Chiefly, this new “Total Recall” just isn’t necessary. Instead of updating the good Schwarzenegger pictures, perhaps the film industry should try to improve one of his lesser films like “Last Action Hero.”

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

I still say this poster looks a lot Batman & Robin *1/2

 

This is it people, the long awaited day that Stephanie Meyer’s asinine chronicle of lame vampires, talking CGI werewolves, and the single worst female protagonist in all of fiction comes to a close. While the fandom may live on for decades, at least we’ll never have to suffer through one of these movies again. Of course Meyer’s could always write another novel and cash in, god forbid. But maybe I’m speaking too soon. Perhaps “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” will be the rare sequel that finally delivers on all the hype, at the very least working as a light guilty pleasure along the lines of “True Blood.” It could happen. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.

This final curtain to the “Twilight” saga might not be as pointless as “New Moon” or flat-out stupid as the first “Breaking Dawn.” Regardless, the performances are still adequate at best, the characters lack any substance, the effects are cheesy, the narrative goes nowhere, and the dialog would make a canceled ABC soap opera laugh. The one redeemable aspect of the film is good old Billy Burke as the underutilized Charlie, providing the only intentionally funny lines in the film. But even Charlie reacts all too casually to the fact that Jacob is a werewolf and his daughter has “changed” herself. Then again, what do you expect from a man that raised Bella to be as insecure and needy as possible.

Bella’s grotesque pregnancy and vampire transformation is fortunately out of the way. Now Edward and her have a creepy little vampire girl with the idiotic name of Renesmee. They find that Renesmee is growing at a rapid rate, looking like a ten-year-old after only a short amount of time. Jacob ‘Clueless’ Black is also sticking around the family after imprinting on little Renesmee. I don’t entirely know what it means for a werewolf to imprint on a child. But I’m fairly certain it means that Jacob is a pedophile.

With these “Twilight” movies and “Tron: Legacy,” Michael Sheen has established that when he goes over the top he really goes off the deep end. Sheen swallows the scenery whole here as the Volturi leader, Aro, who believes that Renesmee is an uncontrollable immortal child that could threaten the closeted existence of vampires. To protect Renesmee from the Volturi, the Cullen’s enlist the help of several other vampires from across the world. Some of these characters might actually be interesting if the film took the time to develop any of them. Yet, they’re all basically thrown in at the last minute with next to no buildup.

Like all conclusions to major franchises, “Breaking Dawn - Part 2” of course works up to an epic final battle. It doesn’t mean anything though unless there’s genuine concern for the characters. A film like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” truly made your heart race as the heroes faced their final confrontation. In the finale to “Twilight,” the climax is never really alarming and feels like a bit of a cheat in the end. But at least we do get to see “Last Airbender” alumni Jackson Rathbone deservedly lose his head.
 
The best word to describe “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” and the “Twilight” saga as a whole is “bad.” It’s simply a bad series needlessly stretched out to four bad books and five bad films. If you happen to like it, then good for you. These movies just didn’t do anything for me and they never will. Now if you’ll pardon my departure, I need to go watch the complete first season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to get the horrid taste out of my mouth.

The Vow

Now if only Hollywood would vow to make better romances **

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/c2/The_Vow_Poster.jpg

 “The Vow” seems like a bit of an odd title for a love story. It sounds more like an action picture about a person seeking revenge along the lines of “Kill Bill.” This may work to the film’s advantage however, as it could persuade men to see “The Vow” with their girlfriends. Uninformed men will certainly be disappointed within the movie’s first five minutes as it occurs to them that they are in a romantic tear-jerker. What I would give to see the looks on their faces.  

To be fair, “The Vow” does start off with a remotely interesting premise. Rachel McAdams is Paige and Channing Tatum is Leo. They’re a young, happily married couple trying to make it in the city. Disaster strikes when the two get into a car accident and Paige is flung through the windshield. When she wakes up in the hospital, Paige has no recollection of Leo or the past few years of her life. Leo must now help his wife to fall back in love with him.

This is a unique idea with plenty of potential to tell an honest romance. Unfortunately, “The Vow” gets bogged down by the same tiresome elements that have been rehashed in movies like this a million times before. Sam Neill and Jessica Lange play Paige’s upper class, disapproving parents that want their daughter to leave her husband and pursue a law degree. There’s also Paige’s ex-fiancé, played by Scott Speedman, who she is now drawn to once again. As for how matters work out for Paige and Leo, it shouldn’t come as a major surprise to anyone in the audience.

McAdams is one of the most charming actresses working today and delivers a solid performance. Between “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and now “The Vow” though, she’s starting to fall into the habit of staring in one “Notebook” wannabe after another. Channing Tatum of “G.I. Joe” and “Step-Up” doesn’t really have the emotional range required to make his performance work. A majority of the time one can practically hear Tatum thinking to himself, “Must…not…act!”

In addition to being blander than plain rice, it doesn’t help Tatum that his character is kind of an idiot. When Paige is first released from the hospital she is vulnerable, lost, and wary about going home with this stranger that claims to be her husband. So what does Leo do to comfort Paige? He throws her a big surprise party and only invites the people she no longer remembers. How stupid can an individual be?

Many will be surprised to learn that “The Vow” was inspired by Kim Carpenter, a real woman who lost her memory in a car crash. Although Kim never regained her memory, she still lives a happy life with her husband, Krickitt Carpenter, and their two children. In reality though, it is highly unlikely these events played out in such a generic and sappy fashion. It would have been so much more interesting if “The Vow” had told the factual story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. But I guess that wouldn’t have been commercial enough for today’s audiences that apparently want to just see the same love story told over and over again.

What to Expect When You're Expecting

Pretty much what I expected and that's not a good thing **

Following the tradition of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “Valentine’s Day,” and “New Years Eve,” “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” focuses on the lives of several couples living in the big city that are suffering from a similar dilemma. In this case, the characters are dealing with the common hardships that come with having a baby, such as adoption, conceiving, and miscarrying. This trend was started in 2003 with the star-studded, multi-plotted “Love Actually.” To this date, “Love Actually” remains the only film of its kind to get the formula right. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” unfortunately doesn’t break the curse.

The cast includes Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone as a traditional married couple that finally manage to get pregnant after years of trying. Ironically, the two conceive at the exact same time as Falcone’s father, played by Dennis Quaid, who has married a supermodel half his age played by Brooklyn Decker. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez is trying to adopt an Ethiopian baby with her reluctant husband, played by Rodrigo Santoro. Cameron Diaz plays the fit host of a “Biggest Loser”-like reality show who is accidentally impregnated by Matthew Morrison, another fellow celebrity. There’s also Anna Kendrick and Chance Crawford as a couple of kids that have a one-night stand without researching proper condom use. This cast might have seemed huge years ago. Compared to some of the romantic comedies listed before however, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” feels almost like a one-man show.

The film suffers from the same problems that have plagued other movies of its kind.
In addition to being written like a lazy sitcom pilot, there are far too many characters to keep track of. None of these people are allowed enough time to grow on the audience as the film shifts from one subplot to another. Based on what the audience does see, these characters basically feel like cheap archetypes that aren’t as amusing as they think they are. Maybe the film could have worked if the screenwriters directed all attention to just one couple. Packing them all into a whole feature just feels like several mediocre short films aimlessly edited together.

It doesn’t help that pregnancy is becoming the most overused subject matter in movies and T.V. shows today. “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” doesn’t have anything new to say about having a baby that “Juno,” “Knocked Up,” or the overlooked “Waitress” didn’t already. To be fair, the film is more watchable than “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” or one of those teenage-pregnancy reality shows. Yet, it’s still pretty clunky with few moments of insight and even fewer laughs.

The only part of the film with any real humor, suspense, or drama is in the final act when the soon-to-be mothers simultaneously go into labor. By that point though, it’s too little too late. Even when some of the couples come together in instances of coincidence, it feels tacked on and doesn’t add anything to the narrative. If you’re a fan of these kinds of movies, you might be able to overlook these flaws and accept the film for what it is. Personally, I’m just fed up with method of storytelling in romantic comedies. That’s what you can expect from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Now there’s a mouthful.

The Words

We get it, succeeding in writing his hard ***

Early on in “The Words,” the film’s protagonist is called into the office of a book publisher. The publisher compliments the struggling writer on his literary talent and the book he has submitted. Ultimately however, the publisher tells him that his novel isn’t marketable. This scene will likely resonate with anybody who has ever poured his or her soul into a book, screenplay or television pilot only to face rejection. “The Words” has a lot to say about the labor of succeeding in a creative field and the price that comes with achieving fame. Regrettably, the film isn’t without some evident flaws.

In their directorial debut, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal weave together a story within a story within a story. The decisive narrator of the film is Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, an acclaimed novelist attending a public reading of his latest book. Olivia Wilde is Danielle, a luminous student who is fascinated by Hammond’s work. A majority of the film takes place within Hammond’s story in which Bradley Cooper’s Rory Jansen dreams of being a writer. Rory’s wife, played by Zoe Saldana, purchases her downhearted husband an antique satchel in an attempt to make him look more professional. Emptying the satchel, Rory comes across a masterful piece of unpublished literature. Through a series of misunderstandings, Rory is prompted to claim the book as his own and becomes the toast of the literary world.

The most intriguing portion of the movie is supplied by the great Jeremy Irons as an old man who shares his life story with Rory. He delves deep into his experiences in the war and how he fell in love with a beautiful French woman named Celia. Some of the twists and turns regarding the Irons character are admittedly predictable. Yet, Irons’ elegance and sly humor still make him a very fun character to follow. The dynamic he shares the naive Rory is especially enticing, suspenseful and even poignant.

Among the film’s three major plots, the weakest takes place in the real world with Quaid and Wilde. The audience keeps waiting for this subplot to amount to a payoff that cleverly brings matters full circle. But it just sits there with no place to go. The filmmakers could have removed this entire portion from the movie and it would have had little impact on the narrative. Then “The Words” would probably be just under and hour and thirty minutes long though.

All in all, we have two thirds of a movie that work quite well and one third that’s needless padding. It’s a close call, but for the strong performances and fraction of the film that does succeed, “The Words” just barely crosses the brink of worthiness. In many ways, “The Words” can be interpreted as a counterpart to “Anonymous,” a film that suggested William Shakespeare stole all of his plays from Edward De Vere. Both of these movies agreeably have their faults and moments that drag. For what they get right though, they’re entertaining rides nonetheless.

Wreck-It Ralph

I just hope the sequel has Niko Bellic ****1/2

Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” is like the love child of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “TRON.” Where “Roger Rabbit” brought together a collection of classic toons such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, “Wreck-It Ralph” assembles a roster of video game characters that includes Sonic the Hedgehog and Q*Bert. Remember how surreally awesome it was to see the likes of Donald Duck and Daffy Duck performing a piano duet together? “Wreck-It Ralph” evokes that same fantastic sensation in it’s opening scene with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, M. Bison, and Clyde the orange Pac-Man ghost together at a support group for villains. Aside from the novelty of getting to see some of your favorite video game characters on the big screen, “Wreck-It Ralph” is also an imaginatively though-out story with great original characters. Throw in the stunning opening short, “Paperman,” and the experience has the whole package.   

The setup for the movie is brilliant. A number of video games, both new aged and retro, reside in an arcade. When the arcade closes it’s doors for the night, the characters that inhabit these games spring to life in “Toy Story” fashion. A surge protector acts as a train station of sorts, allowing these characters to travel from the world of “Street Fighter” to the bar in “Tapper.” One of the numerous characters that makeup this video game realm is John C. Reilly’s Wreck-It Ralph, an overgrown hulk with the physique of Donkey Kong. Ralph has been acting as a bad guy for 30 years, destroying the same apartment building with his Shrek-sized hands. Fix-It-Felix Jr., a jolly, pintsized handyman voiced by Jack McBrayer, is always there to thwart Ralph’s destructive deeds and clean up the mess.

Tired of being viewed as nothing more than a monster, Ralph decides to ditch his game and win a medal in another. Ralph quickly finds himself out of his element in “Hero’s Duty,” an HD first-person shooter lead by Jane Lynch’s Sergeant Calhoun. A majority of Ralph’s journey takes place in a Mario Kart inspired racing game called “Sugar Rush,” where just about everything is constructed from junk food. How nobody in this Candy Land has been diagnosed with diabetes is beyond me. Ralph finds a friend in Vanellope von Schweetz, a glitching little girl voiced by Sarah Silverman. The hilarious and sweet dynamic between the giant, aggressive Ralph and the pipsqueak Vanellope makes the entire film as they join forces to achieve a medal, win an upcoming race, and thwart Alan Tudyk’s deviously flamboyant King Candy.  

A number of video games have inspired films, such as the never-ending “Resident Evil” series and that “Super Mario Bros.” movie that inexplicable starred Bob Hoskins. There have additional been several movies about video games, the most notorious being the feature-length Nintendo commercial, “The Wizard,” which continues to remind us why the power glove was so bad. The problem with all of these movies is that you never sensed that the filmmakers took the time to play the games or really liked video games to begin with. The minds behind “Wreck-It Ralph” however, clearly have a passion for video games and a wide knowledge of the subject. Director Rich Moore has made a definitive movie for diehard gamers with ingenious references you’ll often have to look closely to catch. Even if you’ve never picked up a controller in your life though, you can still appreciate the infinitely creative world “Wreck-It Ralph” creates.

At its bare bones, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a familiar, yet meaningful, narrative about unlikely friendships and discovering what’s important in life. But to criticize the familiar nature of the formula is pointless since most movies, especially the ones targeted at kids, follow a similar structure. What’s really important in a movie like “Wreck-It Ralph” is the strength of the characters, environment, and storytelling. On that basis, the film achieves the highest score in just about every area. It’s a lot of fun to see Disney tackle a topic as modern as video games, especially since the studio is mostly known for stories that take place once upon a time ago. With a clever, unique premise and contemporary setting, “Wreck-It Ralph” has more of a Pixar atmosphere to it. Ironically, this year’s Pixar animation, “Brave,” was more in the tradition of a Disney fairytale.
 
While there have been many strait-to-video Disney sequels, the only true follow-up in the studio’s cannon is “The Rescuer’s Down Under.” If any Disney animation had the potential to spawn a theatrical franchise like “Shrek” or “Toy Story” though, it would be “Wreck-It Ralph.” The wonderful world of “Wreck-It Ralph” is full of possibilities that are open to further installments and of course video game tie-ins. I’d love to travel deeper into its universe alongside Ralph, Vanellope, Felix and any copyrighted Nintendo characters Disney can get the rights to. At the very least we’ll hopefully see Ralph and the gang again when “Kingdom Hearts III” finally comes out.