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Movie Reviews 2013

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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 and Over

I'm 21 and already need rehab *

Remember how Director Todd Phillips just half-heartedly remade “The Hangover” in “The Hangover Part II?” Remember how lethargic, lame, and tedious it felt having to sit through the same movie over again with fewer laughs? That’s the best way to describe “21 and Over.” The film marks the directorial debut of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writing team behind the original “Hangover.” They’ve basically recycled their smash hit comedy beat for beat. Where “The Hangover Part II” at least had three laugh-out-loud moments though, there’s nothing even remotely funny in “21 and Over.” It’s a comedic dead zone from its opening scene all the way through.

Miles Teller is Miller and Skylar Astin is Casey, two childhood friends that had a falling out once college started. They’re reunited on the birthday of Jeff Chang, their third friend played by Justin Chon, who is turning 21. Although Jeff Chang has a big medical school interview in the morning, he decides to go out with his chums for a drunken night. After getting Jeff Chang plastered, Miller and Casey decide it’s time to get the aspiring doctor home. The problem is, they don’t remember where he lives. Thus, another wolf pack of party animals race to get a friend home while having a series of misadventures.

Instead of crossing paths with a tiger, they’re attacked by a buffalo. Instead of being pursued by the Chinese mafia, it’s a sorority of Latina girls. It’s all tasteless, it’s all tired, and it’s all beyond boring. Imagine waking up one morning with a bad hangover, feeling really stupid and regretful about the previous night. That’s what sitting through this movie is like. Maybe this was the filmmakers’ intention, but “21 and Over” is still an unpleasant experience nonetheless.

Astin has been fun in a couple lighthearted comedies like “Pitch Perfect” and “Hamlet 2,” but is pretty forgettable here. Teller’s Miller is a crude, foulmouthed copy of Jonah Hill’s character in “Superbad,” never emerging as somebody we can like. He’s just obnoxious and kind of mean-spirited. As for Justin Chon, he’s a dedicated actor and pretty nice guy in real life. Alas, he’s saddled with a thankless “Weekend at Bernie’s” role that just requires him to be out cold for and hour and a half. On the rare occasion that Chon is conscious, it’s only to do something gross like puking on a mechanical bull, eating a tampon, or gluing a teddy bear to his penis.

The supporting cast is comprised of effortless stock characters we’ve seen in a million other comedies before. Sarah Wright plays Nicole, Casey’s love interest that doesn’t have any character traits or funny lines. She’s solely there to smile and be the girlfriend. Jonathan Keltz is additionally pretty lazily written as a cookie cutter bully with no redeeming values or humanity. We also get another really cheap Asian father stereotype in Jeff Chang’s dad, played by François Chau, who is so stern one might think he’s a serial killer.

The cast is mostly blameless, however. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have simply constructed an unoriginal script that ultimately ends on a somewhat negative message for young audiences. This duo’s other credits include “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” “The Change-Up,” and “Four Christmases.” With “21 and Over” added to their dismal filmography, it’s becoming clearer that “The Hangover” was a fluke for them. Then again, it was allegedly reported that Todd Phillips rewrote their initial “Hangover” script anyways. So maybe Lucas and Moore never had any talent to begin with.

42

The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything ****

“42” is far from the first movie to explore racial tensions in sports. We’ve seen this subject depicted in other good films like “Remember the Titans” and “Glory Road.” There are plenty of recognizable figures on display here, such as the underdog nobody believed in, the one man willing to take a chance on that underdog, and the ignorant antagonists that wish to see that underdog fail. Familiarity aside, though, “42” executes just about everything wonderfully. This is a good-hearted picture, carried by sincere performances and passionate direction. Not only is it an inspiring story about overcoming prejudice, but an all around rousing baseball movie too.

It’s the late 1940s and African Americans have been limited to only playing in Negro league baseball. That is until Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager played by Harrison Ford, decides to break the color barrier and sign a black man to the team. Rickey selects a young shortstop from the Kansas City Monarchs by the name of Jackie Robinson. In 1950, the real life Jackie Robinson played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Here, newcomer Chadwick Boseman portrays the legendary ballplayer. Upfront, Rickey tells Robinson he’s going to face oppression from people in the crowds, the opposing teams, and his fellow teammates. What’s worse, he’ll have to accept this cruel slander without retaliating. Robinson steps up to the plate, saying that he has the guts not to fight back.

This is a real breakthrough performance for Boseman, who up until now has only done minor supporting roles in television and movies. He strikes just the right note as Robinson, creating a man who has had a rough life, but is still very playful, charming, and loving. Even when a racist pitcher taunts Robinson, he still strives to do his best and comes out on top with a smile. That’s not to say Robinson didn’t have his moments of weakness and defeat. There’s an especially powerful scene is which Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk, bombards Robinson on the field with hateful slurs. Although Robinson restrains from punching Chapman out, he immediately breaks down upon exiting the field, shattering his wooded bat to pieces.

In addition to Boseman’s star-making turn as a leading man, “42” is also an excellent ensemble piece. We get great work from Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s devoted, fearless wife, Christopher Meloni as the hard as nails Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Andre Holland as a black journalist determined to protect Robinson, and John C. McGinley as a soft-spoken broadcast commentator named Red Barber. The only actor that’s a tad uneven is Ford as Branch Rickey. At first his performance comes off as almost cartoonish with his gruff voice and humungous eyebrows. As the picture goes on, though, Ford nicely settles into the role and becomes more believable. The rapport Rickey shares with Robinson is also quite poignant. On one hand, Rickey views Robinson as a way to make it to the World Series. On the other hand, he also views Robinson as a human being and wants to see him succeed.

The film was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “L.A. Confidential.” If there’s one downside to his uplifting film, it’s that maybe “42” could have been even longer. Although the narrative only focuses on Robinson’s time in the minor league and his rookie year in the major league, “42” often jumps around large periods of time while some characters occasionally just disappear. The ending in particular, while crowd-pleasing, feels somewhat abrupt. For a story like this to reach its full potential, it might have worked better as a five-hour miniseries. Then again, the same could be said about a lot of modern biopics. For what we do get, “42” hits it out of the park with laughs, honesty, and a widespread, yet still very relevant, moral.

About Time

 In love, and laughing about it in the rain ***

In “About Time,” Rachel McAdams plays the wife of a man that can travel through time. No, this isn’t a sequel to “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” but its impossible not to make the comparison. There are a few key differences between the two movies, though. For starters, this film is less about the time traveler’s wife and more about the time traveler himself. “About Time” also has the benefit of being more charming than the other Rachel McAdams time traveling romance. As far as time-related romantic comedies go, however, it’s no “Groundhog Day.”

Domhnall Gleeson, who was briefly seen as the eldest Weasley in the last two “Harry Potter” movies, stars as Tim. He’s an awkward, British ginger who’s lived a life of bumbling mistakes. After turning twenty-one, Tim learns a family secret from his dear dad, played by Bill Nighy in a funny, effective performance. Every man in Tim’s family has the ability to travel back in time. All they have to do is go to a small, dark space, close their eyes, clench their fists, and think about a certain point in their life. How this phenomenon is possible is never explained, but so what?

The considerate Tim is always open to altering the timeline in order to help out a friend or family member in need. As far as his own aspirations go, Tim plans to use his ability to find the woman of his dreams and give her a perfect life. Enter Rachel McAdams as the kind, beautiful, smart, and unrealistically flawless Mary. McAdams and Gleeson have a lovely chemistry as two people that are basically brought together through manipulate rather than fate, but are still made for each other nonetheless.

Gleeson has all the befuddled likability of a young Hugh Grant. It’s hard to find any fault in McAdams’ performance, although we have seen her play this character a dozen times before. From “The Notebook,” to “Wedding Crashers,” to “Morning Glory,” to “The Vow,” to “The Time Traveler’s Wife” as mentioned before, she’s always the standard cute, nice girl…well except for in “Mean Girls.” Of course if she plays the role so well, who am I to complain?

At times “About Time” can go through a bit of an identity crisis. The first hour is essentially a light, romantic comedy. Then in the second hour, it tries to be something much deeper and becomes overly sentimental. In addition to being occasionally inconsistent, not every joke knocks it out of the park and some of the more dramatic scenes just come off as corny. When “About Time” wants to, though, it can be a very romantic film, a very funny film, and even a very wise film. While it may be hit and miss, there are more hits than there are misses. That’s more than can be said about the Adam Sandler comedy, “Click,” which could never find a consistent tone.

As enjoyable as “About Time” can be, there is one major problem with the setup. Although the film has no shortage of conflict, there’s an easy solution to almost every dilemma. If something doesn’t work out for Tim, he can just travel back in time and change it. Even when time traveling has an unexpected negative consequence, Tim can still simply go back and try again. After the fifth time we see Tim hit the redo button and change things for the better, the gimmick kind of wears out. On top of that, the rules of time travel presented in the film can be all over the place. Then again, every movie about time travel is riddled with plot holes, even the great ones like “Back to the Future” and “Looper.”

“About Time” does recognize, however, that there are some aspects of life that not even time travel can cheat. It’s in these moments that “About Time” does shine through as a meaningful movie about looking ahead with optimism as apposed to looking back with regret. This isn’t the best work from Director Richard Curtis, whose previous credits include “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “Love Actually.” For what it is, though, “About Time” is a pleasant enough date movie for couples. Just be sure to check out Curtis’ superior films first, and “Groundhog Day” for that matter.

After Earth

Fear is a choice...um, no, that's stupid.**

Most of the ads for “After Earth” have neglected to mention that M. Night
Shyamalan co-wrote and directed the film. Movie studios finally seem to be realizing that having Shyamalan’s name plastered above the title will no longer sell tickets. If anything, it will have audiences fleeing from the theater in revulsion. Whenever it looks like Shyamalan can’t embarrass himself any further, he always comes out with a new film that’s even more atrocious than the last. At least with his previous debacle, “The Last Airbender,” Shyamalan hit ground zero. There’s no way he could possible make a film even more poorly written, effortlessly acted, and bleakly directed, right?

“After Earth” thankfully isn’t as unbearable as “The Last Airbender,” “The Village,” “The Happening,” or “Lady in the Water.” So is having your arms and legs amputated and head decapitated. Even with some nice visuals and an intriguing premise, the film still suffers from many of Shyamalan’s infamous reoccurring blunders. Hilarious moments that are intended to be serious, totally forced, unnecessary flashbacks, whiny younger characters, and a weak twist ending. For all those that love to rip on Shyamalan, don’t worry, there’s plenty of material to work with here.

The film takes place 1,000 years in the future. Earth has been abandoned due to a severe case of who gives a crap. Will Smith, who also came up with the story for “After Earth,” is General Cypher Raige. He’s a stern, no nonsense member of the Ranger Corps, a peacekeeping organization that travels the galaxy. To describe Smith’s character as stern may be misleading, though. This guy is so emotionless, passionless, and one-note that he could be an android. That’s not a criticism of Smith, who has great range as an actor. The real fault lies in how lamely Smith’s character is written and directed. Not even the most charismatic man alive could make him interesting.

Will Smith is really only a supporting player anyways. The true star is Smith’s real life son, Jaden Smith. He plays Raige’s teenage boy, Kitai, who wants to be a ranger like his papa. Regrettably, Kitai isn’t the most physically gifted soldier. The exposition is so rushed, however, that we never even see Kitai struggling during training. To grow closer to his son, Cypher decides to bring Kitai along on a mission. Matters go haywire, however, when their ship crash-lands on the abandoned earth. Both of Cypher’s legs are broken, leaving it up to Kitai to travel across the terrain to find a distress beacon.

Jaden Smith has proven himself to be a capable young actor. He was great alongside his dad in “The Pursuit of Happyness” several years ago. Unfortunately, the only notes he’s given to work with here are distressed, irritable, and annoying. The whole father son dynamic between Jaden and Will feels so hollow and unnatural, which is a real feat seeing how they’re actually related. “After Earth” could have been a thrilling and colorful adventure about a parent and child coming together. But Shyamalan’s vision is too drab, too serious, too predicable, and too boring keep anyone invested.

To give Shyamalan credit, “After Earth” is a nice looking movie. His visual style has improved since “The Last Airbender,” which was so darkly shot you could rarely tell what was going on. On occasion we get a nicely written moment between Will and Jaden. That’s probably thanks to the film’s other writer, Gary Whitta, who wrote “The Book of Eli” and the forth episode of “The Walking Dead: The Game.”

The problem with “After Earth” is that Shyamalan is simply out of his element. He’s not a science fiction/action adventure director. With his best film, “The Sixth Sense,” he established that he’s best at subtly creating suspense and physiological fear. That’s the complete opposite of a special effects extravaganza like “After Earth.” Why would Shyamalan even take on this kind of material? Maybe he received so much criticism for “The Happening” that he wanted to do a 180. All that’s for certain is that Shyamalan is going through an identity crisis and needs an intervention. If he ever wants to get back on track, he needs to recognize his mistakes, go back to the drawing board, and rediscover his voice.

All is Lost

 I'm on a boat ****

You can probably tell whether you’re going to enjoy “All Is Lost” based on the film’s synopsis. Robert Redford plays a sailor on a voyage somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Without any exposition or explanation, he wakes up one morning to find that his yacht has crashed into a shipping container. The sailor has no way to contact help and little means of navigation. Even though the sailor manages to patch the hole up, his boat won’t last long with hazardous weather conditions on the horizon.

What happens from there? Do we flashback to the sailor’s life before he set sail on these deadly waters? No, the plot reveals nothing of his past. We don’t even figure out the guy’s name. Pretty much everything the audience learns about the sailor is based on sheer observation, such a wedding band on his right ring finger. Other than an opening monologue, the sailor barely says a single word. Considering the film’s lack of dialog, it’s not surprising that the script for “All Is Lost” is a mere 30 pages long.

Well, does something unusual happen to the sailor on his journey? Not especially. The film is essentially a week or so of him on the ocean, fighting the waters, fighting the storms, and fighting himself. Picture “Life of Pie” if you took out all the animals and the fantastic element. 

So yeah, “All Is Lost” is obviously an acquired taste that will bore some and intrigue others. Even the people who look upon the movie favorably are more likely to admire it than to fall in love with it. That being said, “All Is Lost” is a really bold experiment that’s well worth checking out. It’s always interesting to see a film that doesn’t restrict itself to a three act narrative structure and simply shows a character living their life. The sailor is certainly a fascinating character to follow and much of that’s because of Redford’s performance.

This is an unexpected role for Redford to take at this point in his film career, which has spanned over a miraculous fifty years. Being the only actor on screen the whole time is one thing, but Redford is given the additional challenge of having next to no lines to work with. Nevertheless, Redford creates an utterly sympathetic character through his arresting facial expressions and actions. We always feel this man’s internal and external struggle as he desperately thinks of methods to keep his ship afloat. Like Jean Dujardin in “The Artist,” Redford reminds us that sometimes giving a physical performance is much more difficult than delivering a Shakespearean speech.

There is technically one other character in “All Is Lost,” the sea. Director J.C. Chandor of “Margin Call” did a majority of the filming for “All Is Lost” at Baja Studios, the same facility where James Cameron brought “Titanic” to life. Through some gorgeous cinematography, Chandor fashions the ocean into a vast presence that’s threatening, majestic, and mysterious all at once. The same can be said about the setting in “Gravity,” where Sandra Bullock played an astronaut lost in space. It’s actually quite a coincidence that both “Gravity” and “All is Lost” would come out within just a couple weeks of each other. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Redford and Bullock won the Best Actor an Actress Oscars this year for one-person shows?

American Hustle

 Everyday I'm hustlin ****1/2

There are moments in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” where it feels like you’re watching one of the great Martin Scorsese pictures. It’s a slick, passionately constructed crime drama full of smooth dialog and intriguing characters. Of course “American Hustle” never gets quite as brutal as “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” or even “The Departed.” The film is just as much a crime comedy as it is a crime drama. In that sense, perhaps “American Hustle” is more along the lines of “The Sting,” or “Catch Me if You Can,” or maybe even “The Ocean’s Eleven” movies. Whatever you compare it to, “American Hustle” still works beautifully as an enormously fun con artist picture while also managing to be something deeper.

The screenplay by Russell and Eric Singer is inspired by the FBI ABSCAM operation, although it follows the actual events about as closely as “Frozen” followed “The Snow Queen.” Russell’s stylized interpretation reeks of 70’s culture, from the retro movie studio logo, to the funky soundtrack, to the flashing costumes, to the tacky hairdos. The worst hairdo in the film belongs to Christian Bale, who sports a hideous comb over in addition to a beer belly and pair of aviator glasses as Irving Rosenfeld. While not much to look at, Irving’s one of the craftiest conmen in all of New Jersey.

Irving finds a kindred spirit in Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser, a grifter whose every bit as manipulative as she is sexy. The two put their heads together to pull off a number of cons. Their luck eventually runs out, however, after getting busted by Richie DiMaso, a curly-haired FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper. Irving and Sydney are given the choice of either going to jail or helping Richie catch bigger fish. Their main target is Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey who is believed to have mob connections.

Bale, Adams, and Cooper are outstanding as people caught in the middle of both a love triangle and a three-way confidence game. All three key players previously worked with Russell in one of the his last two films, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” He puts every actor to great use once again in what’s easily one of the year’s most lively acting ensembles. The standout of the bunch is Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn, Irving’s big-mouthed, absent-minded wife who refuses to give him a divorce. It feels pointless to sing Lawrence anymore praises seeing how the whole world is in love with her, but I’m going to anyways.

She hits it out of the park once again as an unpredictable loudmouth who just might blow Irving’s whole operation. Like her Oscar-winning performance from last year, Lawrence is funny, lovable, and dominates every scene she’s in. The increasingly impressive young actress is so entertaining to watch that the film actually feels a little slower whenever she isn’t on screen. At the same time, Lawrence brings a fair deal of depth and sympathy to Rosalyn, who easily could have just been a New Jersey housewife stereotype.  

For a film full of conmen, mobsters, crooked politicians, and insane FBI agents, every character in “American Hustle” is surprisingly likable. None of them are strait-up villains, although nobody’s a strait-up good guy either. They’re all just completely in over their heads, hustling every other person in the room to get what they want. The only person in the movie who acts as a levelheaded voice of reason is Louis C.K. in an unlikely performance as Cooper’s boss.

Even with all the backstabbing and scams going on, one can’t help but want to see things work out for every hustler in the movie. There’s just something incredibly identifiable about each of them Russell and his actors perfectly capture. That’s one of Russell’s strongest attributes as a storyteller, exploring characters that are deeply flawed, but also have a lot to say about human nature.

Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful, but also so boring **

“Beautiful Creatures” is yet another addition to the unendurable genre of “Twilight” wannabes. The fact that “Twilight” could inspire so many shameless copycats in both the mediums of film and literature is a true testament to the moribund state of originality. Compared to the effortless “I Am Number Four” and the inexplicably laughable “Red Riding Hood,” “Beautiful Creatures” may not be the worst of the “Twilight” rip-offs. Heck, it’s actually a major step up from any of the five “Twilight” movies. But not even the occasional impressive set piece or clever twist can save “Beautiful Creatures” from its perceptible longing to be the next fantasy romance phenomenon.

Alden Ehrenreich gives a respectable performance as Ethan Wate, a young teenager with a departed mother and an absent father. His only parental figure is Amma, the African American help played by Viola Davis. Ethan is constantly complaining that nothing ever happens in his small, Southern town. Naturally this means that something wicked is about to come to Ethan’s community in the form of a strange new girl. Alice Englert is Lena Duchannes, the niece of Jeremy Irons’ mysterious Old Man Ravenwood.

Ethan soon learns that Lena comes from a long line of witches, or casters to be politically correct. The opening scenes exemplify some promise as Ethan discovers his feelings for Lena and the secrets of her world. The more the audience learns about Lena’s culture though, the less inspired the world of “Beautiful Creatures” becomes. With her next birthday on the horizon, Lena will either be claimed by the light side or swallowed by darkness. Thus, “Beautiful Creatures” establishes itself as another cliché story about mystical beings torn between the one-dimensional forces of good and evil. Yawn.

Lena has a colorful extended family, all of which dress like the Volturi from “Twilight” meets the cast of “Dark Shadows.” Although they have potential to be interesting, most of them don’t get in more than a few words edgewise and serve little purpose to the plot. The only one who is even remotely entertaining is Emmy Rossum as Ridley, Lena’s slutty cousin who has gone to the dark side. Her screen time is unfortunately limited however.

As for the rest of the town, they’re all a bunch of cookie-cutter, condescending Southern stereotypes that are uneducated, ignorant, and religious to a hostile extent. The worst of all these stock characters is Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lincoln, who acts as the ringleader against Lena’s family. It doesn’t help that most of these actors are completely butchering the Southern dialect. Irons and Thompson may be exceptional performers, but their native British accents are constantly at odds against their phony Southern accents. It’s about as genuine as something you’d hear on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
 
Director/Screenwriting Richard LaGravenese has certainly made a nice looking movie with splendid art direction and costume design. Even if Ehrenreich and Englert don’t have amazing chemistry, at least there’s more awe to their romance than Edward and Bella’s. On the whole though, “Beautiful Creatures” is just bland, boring, and lacking in any magic. This is the first adaptation of the somewhat popular saga by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Nobody will likely complain if the other three books in the series fail to receive a film treatment.

The Big Wedding

My big, but not very fat or Greek, wedding *1/2

Just about all the actors in “The Big Wedding” are severely typecast. Diane Keaton is a high-strung, divorced mother like in “Something’s Gotta Give,” Robert De Niro is the father of somebody getting married like in “Meet the Fockers,” Amanda Seyfried is a blushing bride like in “Mamma Mia,” Robin Williams is an eccentric minister like in “License to Wed,” Topher Grace is a deadpan, quick-witted nice guy like in “That ‘70s Show,” and Katherine Heigl is a needy single woman like in every movie she does. Even though the actors are in their comfort zones, not a single person feels natural in “The Big Wedding.” That’s probably because the film doesn’t understand its own characters or their motivations. Nobody behind the camera has any idea what they’re doing, resulting in one of the most awkward romantic comedies of recent memory.

Keaton and De Niro are a divorced couple that adopted a Columbian boy named Alejandro, who has grown up to be Ben Barnes. Now that Alejandro is marrying Seyfried’s Missy, his biological mother is coming to America for the wedding. The problem is that Alejandro’s devoutly Catholic mother doesn’t know that Keaton and De Niro have been broken up for years. For this ridiculous reason, Keaton and De Niro are forced to pretend that they’re still married, although De Niro is now with Susan Sarandon’s Bebe.

While this setup may be completely contrived and idiotic, there is potential for some very funny shenanigans. What’s truly shocking about “The Big Wedding” is that it never takes advantage of its premise. The whole fake marriage plot just sits there for a majority of the movie, never amounting to anything absurd, suspenseful, or funny. It’s like the filmmakers aren’t even trying to create comedic situations.

Here’s a prime example of why “The Big Wedding” doesn’t work. There’s one scene where Keaton and De Niro are getting read for bed, having a trivial conversation. In the next scene, they’re having sex. What prompted this action? Director/Writer Justin Zackham, who adapted this material from a French film, skips the build up and jumps right to the punch line. His script doesn’t take the time to develop any of its jokes, or characters for that matter. Because of this, the audience doesn’t buy a single relationship in this whole movie.

For the most part, “The Big Wedding” is reliant on bottom of the barrel gags to carry the story. Such gags include De Niro falling into a swimming pool, the family settling down to dinner as it starts to rain, and Robin Williams falling into a lake. Newsflash, seeing people get wet isn’t funny! “America’s Funniest Home Videos” has hirer standards than that. That fact that Zackham works in not one, but three, wet gags is an all-time low.


The poster makes “The Big Wedding” out to be a warm, family friendly comedy. The film is actually rated R for some profanity and brief nudity. The foul language is particularly unnecessary, coming off as a desperate attempt to make the lines sound funnier. There’s an especially unwarranted scene in which De Niro uses the C-word to describe Keaton. We’re honestly supposed to like this guy?

As poorly put together as “The Big Wedding” is, maybe it’s not entirely Zackham’s fault. Maybe the studio just brutally edited the film. That would explain why every character feels underdeveloped, key scenes appear to be missing, and why the running time is under 90 minutes. Whether it’s a failure on a script level or an editing level, one thing is for certain. The final product is a mess on every level.

Bless Me, Ultima

Burn the witch! She turned me into a newt! **

In the same vein of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and “Catcher in the Rye,” Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” has evolved into one of the most widely beloved and challenged books of all time. In some high schools this best-selling Chicano novel is considered a mandatory reading. Other schools have banished the book for its use of profanity, references to witchcraft, and religious themes. For anyone with an open mind, “Bless Me, Ultima” is certainly an enriching read-through about acceptance, family, faith, culture, and independence. The charm of Anaya’s novel sadly doesn’t shine through this adaptation by Carl Franklin, which gets bogged down by wooden performance and insipid direction.

The story takes place in Guadalupe, New Mexico following the aftermath of World War II. Luke Ganalon is Antonio, aka Tony, a seven-year-old Mexican-American who survives by his mother, father, two sisters, and three older brothers that have been fighting in the war. Antonio’s parents decide to take in Ultima, an aging healer who allegedly has spiritual powers, played by Miriam Colon. Some of the locals are apprehensive of Ultima, accusing her of being a bruja. Nevertheless, Tony still develops a connection with the outcast Ultima, who teaches him about morality and liberalism. These lessons aid Tony in his a coming-of-age journey as he contemplates his destiny and belief in God.

The highlight of Anaya’s original novel was the voice of the narrator, an older Tony reminiscing about his confusing, conflicted childhood. Since the narration is mostly limited in Franklin’s film, it’s up to the younger Tony to carry the story’s weight. This is primarily where the screen adaptation of “Bless Me, Ultima” suffers. Tony isn’t so much an active hero as he is an observer who is still trying to comprehend how life works. This character trait sticks out in literature form when it’s told from a first-person point of view. In this movie however, the confined Tony is limited to staring off into space with a blank expression on his face. As a result, this once compelling protagonist becomes a bland, boring stick in the mud.

On one hand the character of Tony falls flat because of Franklin’s underdeveloped screenplay. On the other hand, it’s because Luke Ganalon is kind of an armature performer. Yeah, yeah, it may be mean-spirited to criticize a little kid’s acting abilities. I learned that first hand after receiving an angry email for condemning that brat from “The Last Airbender.” Regardless, Ganalon simply never looks like he’s putting any effort into the performance whatsoever. Most of the cast has an overall unnatural screen presence, making for a number of awkward dynamics and exchanges that should have had more emotional impact.

There are several of moments from the book that could have made leeway for visually interesting scenes, such as the various dream sequences and the golden carp. Franklin takes no advantage of these possibilities however, shooting a rather lazy-looking movie with the feel of an after school special. At the very least, “Bless Me, Ultima” does stay fairly true to the novel’s key plot points and themes. This doesn’t mean much however, when the execution is so monotonous and passionless. Hopefully somewhere done the line a more ambitious director and better skilled ensemble will tackle this material again. Ultima simply deserves better.

Bullet to the Head

Damn, I had one day til retirement **1/2

While most men pushing 70 are spending their twilight years on the golf course, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are still packing heat. Many modern actors have attempted to rein supreme as the definitive action star of this generation, such as Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, and The Rock. Yet, none have come close to headlining a franchise on par with “The Terminator” or “Rambo.” Although Arnold and Sylvester may not be the most phenomenal talents ever to grace the big screen, it’s difficult not to be won over by their charisma and unrelenting bloodlust. Even in an era of so much fresh blood, they’re still easily the kings of action…with exception to maybe Bruce Willis.  

Schwarzenegger recently returned to his roots in “The Last Stand,” an enjoyable action picture that nobody saw. Now just a couple weeks later, Stallone lock and loads once again in “Bullet to the Head.” The film has its share of cool moments, amusing one-liners, and, as one would anticipate, lots of headshots. As of matter of fact, this movie just might hold the record for most times somebody takes a bullet to the head, making the title fitting. What it lacks is any characters worth investing in, sense of fun, or inspired plot twists. If you’ve seen one action/buddy movie before, you’ll find nothing fresh here.

In this only occasionally entertaining grindhouse flick, Stallone plays Jimmy Bonomo, a hitman with a code of ethics. He has a distant relationship with his tattoo artist daughter, played by Sarah Shahi, who serves little purpose other than to be the generic distant offspring of our antihero. When Jason Momoa’s Keegan kills Jimmy’s partner, the moral hitman sets out to settle the score. Jimmy grudgingly finds himself teamed up with Sung Kang as a Korean NYPD detective named Kwon. From there it should be pretty obvious who lives, who dies, who gets taken hostage, and who becomes unlikely friends.

Almost thirty years ago Walter Hill made “48 Hrs.,” an action comedy in which a tough as nails cop teams up with a wisecracking crook to catch the bad guys. While that film might have been formulaic, the chemistry between Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy elevated the material to something more. In “Bullet to the Head,” which was also directed by Hill, Stallone and Kang make for a less than dynamic duo. Most of the time the two are half-heartedly going through the motions as they uncomfortably play off of each other. Regardless of a few strong individual moments, they never come together to produce a partnership we really care about.  

As for the villains, they’re all stock movie gangsters. Christian Slater does his best Jack Nicholson impression as an increasingly annoying lowlife obsessed with partying and naked women. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gives it his all the crippled big boss, but never comes off as very menacing. The most interesting of the bunch is Momoa as Keegan, who engages in a fairly fun ax fight with Stallone. Momoa is a rising star that certainly has the build of a great action star. Outside of his work on “Game of Thrones” however, he’s yet to find a compelling character to match his barbarian physique.

Although it serves its purpose of mindless escapism, “Bullet to the Head” simply leaves the audience wanting more. It’s all too familiar, too hurried, and too forgettable to recommend beyond a rental. For now you’re probably better off waiting a few weeks until “A Good Day to Die Hard” comes out.

Captain Phillips

 Somalian Pirates, We! ****1/2

Seven years ago, Director Paul Greengrass gave us “United 93.” Greengrass’ vision was bold and pulled no punches, easily making it the best post-9/11 film to date. Everything Greengrass brought to the table in “United 93” is displayed in “Captain Phillips.” This is another intensely shot, authentically edited true story about ordinary people forced to step up during a catastrophe. Is it the masterpiece that “United 93” was? Not quite, but that’s a really tough act to beat.

For all those who didn’t follow the story on the news in 2009 or read “A Captain’s Duty,” here’s the deal. Tom Hanks is Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama. While transporting cargo to Kenya, the ship is hijacked by four Somali pirates. None of the 20 crewmembers are prepared to deal with such a crisis, their only weapons being hoses and knives. This doesn’t stop Phillips from calmly negotiating with the pirates, doing his best to keep the rest of his men out of harms way. The pirates ultimately choose to leave with 30,000 dollars in a covered lifeboat, but not without Phillips as a bargaining chip.

The representation of the four pirates is actually very unique for a Hollywood movie. They’re played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M Ali, all of whom are making their first major acting debuts. “Captain Phillips” avoids the temptation to turn the pirates into calculating Bond villains or Hans Gruber. If anything, they can come off as a little dim. Even if they aren’t well educated or well spoken, though, that doesn’t make them any less threatening. As intimidating as they are, the pirates are never depicted all flat-out savages either. The screenplay by Billy Ray strives to give each man some shred of humanity. That doesn’t make them sympathetic, but it does make them more identifiable.

Like he did in “United 93,” Greengrass mostly casts lesser-known character actors across the board. The film includes some effective performances from the various men portraying Phillips’ crew and the navy officers sent to rescue Phillips. There are two recognizable faces in “Captain Phillips,” though. One is the always-welcome Catherine Keener, who we briefly see as the captain’s wife in the beginning. The other is of course Hanks in the title role.

Speaking of Hanks, what a marvelous, multi-layered performance he delivers here. Some would argue that Hanks has been in a slump the past ten years, excluding his voiceover work. Clearly those people didn’t see him in “Cloud Atlas.” He’s destined to get his first Oscar nomination since “Cast Away” for “Captain Phillips.” Hanks is given the difficult task of playing somebody who for the most part seems collected. But underneath that composed exterior is a desperate man who knows he may never see his family again. This role was tailor-made for the likes of Hanks, who reminds us just what a gifted actor he still is.

The Conjuring

We wanted to call it "The Exorcist," but that title's apparently already taken ***

“The Conjuring” provides its audience with a checklist of ways to know if you’re living in a haunted house. Dog turns up dead, check. Previous owner boarded up the basement, check. Doors constantly creaking open, check. Birds flying into the side of the house, check. Your wife keeps getting unexplained bruises during the night, check. One of your daughters sleepwalks, check. Another one of your daughters sees a creepy figure at night, check. Another one of your daughters has a play date with a little dead boy, check. Personally, I would have packed my bags and hit the road after the dog got the axe, but that’s just me.

In this alleged true story, Ron Livingston is Roger Perron and Lili Taylor is Carolyn Perron. They’re a loving couple with five daughters, played by Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver. It’s the 1970s and the Perrons have just bought a seemingly innocent farmhouse in the country. As they consult the haunted house checklist provided above, however, they begin to realize that their home might be infested with ghosts and demons.

The Perrons call upon Ed Warren, played by Patrick Wilson, and Lorraine Warren, played by Vera Farmiga, who is perfection as Mrs. Bates on “Bates Motel.” Ed is a specialist in everything paranormal and Lorraine can make connections with the dead through her sixth sense. They claim that god brought them together to help those being terrorized by things that go bump in the night. After a thorough inspection, the Warrens determine that the Perrons’ house is in need of a good, old fashion exorcism.

This is far from the first exorcism movie that claims to be based on actual events. “The Conjuring” doesn’t throw us a ton of curveballs or revolutionize this genre. If you’ve seen “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Devil Inside,” “The Possession,” oh yeah, and “The Exorcist,” you’re going to see several key plot points coming from a mile away. The film also isn’t without some easy scares and a couple really idiotic character moments. There’s one scene where one of these guys literally sees a ghost and chooses to follow it into a dark, empty room. RUN, YOU FOOL, RUN!

Even if it’s not that original, though, there are a few elements that elevate “The Conjuring” above all the other “Exorcist” wannabes. For starters, the film both looks and sounds great, often creating a genuinely chilling atmosphere even when you know the scares are coming. Livingston, Taylor, Wilson, Farmiga, and the five young actresses all do a wonderful job at being frightened. The relationship between Farmiga and Wilson is especially strong and surprisingly a little touching at times. Director James Wan’s previous credits include “Saw,” which I despised, and “Insidious,” which I liked all right. “The Conjuring” falls into the same league of “Insidious,” a good, but not great, horror flick with some fun thrills and solid characters.

There’s just one factor in the film that never really amount to much, a creepy doll that’s seen in the beginning and briefly in the third act. Walking out the theater, you can’t help but wonder what purpose this doll served to the plot at all. Maybe Wan just had a puppet leftover from “Dead Silence” and he didn’t want to see it go to waste.

The Croods

Not a great film, but I do feel an urge to buy the merchandise **1/2

DreamWorks Animation has always strived to tell stories that can appeal to all ages. Their latest animated comedy, “The Croods,” will surely be enjoyed by anybody who is under ten. Unlike “Shrek” and “Kung-Fu Panda” though, it lacks the wit and innovation for older audiences. Compared to most Saturday morning cartoons, the film won’t passionately annoy parents that get dragged to the theater. But in an era where more and more adults are attending animated features without accompanying children, “The Croods” feels like a step backwards for DreamWorks.

Emma Stone provides the voice of Eep Crood, a teenage cavegirl who wants to get out and see the world’s wonders. But her father, voiced by Nicolas Cage, insists that the region beyond their cave can only bring death. Eep is kept cooped up with her family, which includes Catherine Keener as the nurturing mother, Clark Duke as the bumbling son, and Cloris Leachman as the lively grandmother. The family also includes a ferocious baby who is voiced by Randy Thom, the Oscar-winning sound mixer. As the continents start to drift, the Croods are forced to venture into the uncharted earth. They come across a guy named Guy, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, and his cute pet sloth who will undoubtedly inspire a profitable line of plush toys. Guy is roped into helping the Croods find a new cave while he sets out to discover a land known as Tomorrow.  

From “The Flintstones” to “Ice Age,” this prehistoric setup is more primitive than a Neanderthal. While the territory may be familiar, that doesn’t mean “The Croods” can’t set itself apart with original characters and clever jokes. That’s not at all the case. Although the Croods are perfectly likable and the actors all do ample voiceover work, they’re mostly just generic archetypes. Honestly, how many movies have we seen with overprotective fathers, rebellious daughters, understanding mothers, wimpy sons, and energetic grandmas? Unless you’re a five-year-old who has never seen a movie before, it’s pretty easy to figure out everything that is going to happen to these people.

The film’s slapstick action will probably have youngsters giggling. But “The Croods” is missing the sophisticated written humor that made the Simpsons or the Incredibles unforgettable animated families. Before DreamWorks cut ties with Aardman Animations, this film was going to be co-written by John Cleese. There are some gags here that have the essence of Cleese’s comedic genius, such as when an animal bites the dust and becomes dinner. On the whole however, the film could have used more of the dark, zany humor of a “Monty Python” sketch.

So is “The Croods” just a huge waste of time? To be fair, there are some redeeming qualities. This being a DreamWorks film, the animation is naturally fantastic. The bright, vivacious colors pop out at the audience, creating an environment reminiscent of Pandora. Even if some of the chase sequences overstay their welcome, the action is still fast-paced, brilliantly shot, and well rendered. Much of this can attributed to Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who acted as a creative consultant on the film.

“The Croods” was written and directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco. Sanders has previously made some very effective films about family dynamics such as “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lilo & Stitch.” Even though the Croods themselves aren’t especially fascinating characters, the script at least allows several quiet, genuine moments for character development. Are those sincere scenes enough to save the film? No, not when it’s significantly lacking in the humor and story departments. But even if “The Croods” is a C+ movie overall, it deserves an A for effort.

Dirty Wars

I want a good, clean war ***1/2

When Osama bin Laden was assassinated, it felt like the War on Terror’s big climax. The enemy was defeated, America rejoiced, and a bright new day was born. Two years later, troops are still in the Middle East, innocent lives are still being lost, and undisclosed wars are still taking place right under our noses. It’s a war without an end. That’s one of the many sad truths explored in “Dirty Wars,” a documentary that’s significant, admirable, and occasionally shocking, although never really profound.

The film follows Jeremy Scahill, who has worked as a war reporter for over a decade. Only two months ago, Scahill’s latest book, “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield,” was published. Now Scahill teams up with co-screenwriter David Riker and Director Rich Rowley to explore the undeclared wars taking place in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Scahill’s journey begins as he investigates a night raid that resulted in several civilian casualties. This attack is seemingly connected to the Joint Special Operations Command, a fighting force that was virtually made unknown to the public until bin Laden’s death.

Scahill narrates the documentary as if he were a film noir protagonist. This is only appropriate since “Dirty Wars” plays out a lot like a conspiracy thriller with Scahill playing the detective searching for the truth. As Scahill digs deeper, he finds that JSOC is in charge tracking down and killing targets that will never have their day in court. The most fascinating figure explored in the film is Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen of Yemen ancestry. He was said to once be an all American man, but developed hostility towards the US as the years went by. Speaking out against America in Youtube videos and allegedly being involved in the 2009 Christmas Day bombing, he was placed at the top of JSOC’s kill list.

“Dirty Wars” is a definitely relevant, but not quite as eye opening as it thinks it is. Granted, there are plenty of ill-informed Americans that only hear half of the truth on most news channels. At the same time, though, there have been other documentaries and fictional films that have delved into the issues addressed in “Dirty Wars.” Needless casualties, a war with no end in sight, covert operations, and America’s changing ways, none of this is necessarily new.

While not groundbreaking, “Dirty Wars” is still an informative documentary with something to say. Scahill carries much of the film with his outspokenness, passion, and his determination to uncover all the facts. There’s just on question Scahill never properly confronts. “Dirty Wars” makes it clear that we’re fighting a dirty war. Looking back on American history, however, is there really such thing as a clean war?

Epic

Colin Farrell, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, and Beyonce, together at last ***

If you grew up in the early nineties, you probably remember an animated feature from 20th Century Fox called “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.” It was the environmentally conscious movie every 90s kid saw, and yet, nobody really liked. The film’s intentions might have been good, but even the youngest children seemed to find its blatant green message overly preachy. The fact that “FernGully” was lacking in any interesting characters or magic didn’t help. “Epic,” which was also coincidentally distributed by Fox, is a bit like “FernGully” if it had smarter, more imaginative filmmakers backing it. While it’s not a massive improvement, “Epic” is at least fun, energized, and subtle with its environmental themes.

Jason Sudeikis gives an unrecognizable voiceover performance as an absent-minded professor named Bomba. Convinced that an advanced society of little people is living in the forest near his house, Bomba spends almost every hour checking the security cameras he’s rigged outside. Everybody thinks that the doc is completely bonkers, including Mary Katherine, his teenage daughter voiced by Amanda Seyfried. It turns out there are in fact tiny people inhabiting the forest known as Leafmen. Their leader is a noble warrior named Ronin (Colin Farrell), who is sworn to protect the forest from the evil Boggans, creepy-crawly bug-like creatures. Mary Katherine is shrunk down to the size of a pushpin and gets caught up in the war between the feuding little societies. It’s up to her to protect a flower that will either bring green back to the forest or destroy it upon blooming.

On her journey, Mary Katherine encounters an overly confident Leafmen warrior named Nod (Josh Hutcherson), who naturally acts as the love interest. Seyfried and Hutcherson have a nice chemistry, creating spunky, perfectly likable leads. The screenplay additionally takes the time to give them weight and develop a compelling romance. If there’s one qualm with these characters, it’s that they’re noticeably modeled after the leads from “Tangled.” Nod is the spitting image of Flynn Rider while Mary Katherine looks an awful lot like Rapunzel minus the golden locks of hair. That doesn’t make the characters bad, but it does feel kind of lazy on the animator’s behalf.

The supporting comedic relief is cute enough with Aziz Ansari as a slug, Chris O’Dowd as a snail, and Steven Tyler as a larger than life caterpillar. Beyonce Knowles does a respectable job as Tara, the wise ruler of the forest who is refreshingly a queen as apposed to a princess. The only character that’s kind of disappointing is Mandrake, the Boggan leader voiced by Christoph Waltz. Anyone that saw “Inglourious Basterds” knows that Waltz can play a great villain. Although he does his best here, Waltz isn’t given a ton to work with. Mandrake just isn’t very complex, humorous, or even menacing. To be fair, though, at least the bad guys in “Epic” aren’t humans that run an evil corporation.   

From “Captain Planet” to “Avatar,” almost every environmental entertainment singles out the silly humans as one-dimensional villains. “Epic,” however, is courteous enough to leave human greed and corruption out of the equation. The whole environmental message is actually pretty tamed compared to other movies. At its heart, “Epic” is an action adventure that will make kids appreciate the earth without shoving morals down their throats.

While the little big universe of “Epic” isn’t up their with “The Secret World of Arrietty,” it is certainly a detailed and lively one. The aerial sequences are particularly exhilarating as the Leafmen soar over the trees via hummingbirds. Much of this can be attributed to the keen direction of Chris Wedge, who made the first “Ice Age.” Wedge and his team have produced a film with solid characters, a solid story, and solid animation. “Epic” is just an all around solid film. That’s more than can be said about most environmental pictures that are targeted at kids or adults.

Evil Dead

The raping tree strikes back ****

Anyone who saw “Scream 4” likely remembers the scene where Hayden Panettiere lists off every horror remake to come out in the past decade, from “Halloween” to “Friday the 13th.” So many of these remakes failed due to a lack of passion on the filmmaker’s behalf. Making a good movie was only their second priority, right after cashing in on an exhausted franchise’s good name. The new “Evil Dead” movie is the rare exception. It’s obvious that Director/Screenwriter Fede Alvarez has great admiration for Sam Raimi’s beloved cult classic. Along with Co-Writers Diablo Cody and Rodo Sayagues, Alvarez produces the best contemporary “Evil Dead” movie possible.

This “Evil Dead” is equal parts a remake and a stand-alone sequel to the 1981 movie. Jane Levy is Mia, a drug addict who wants to get clean. Along with a few friends played by Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, and Elizabeth Blackmore, Mia travels to a family cabin in the woods where she can go cold turkey. Also among Mia’s support group is Shiloh Fernandez as David, her estranged brother. As you can probably guess, the young adults stumble upon the Book of the Dead and accidentally awaken an evil demon. This amounts to bloodshed, vomit, arm amputation, and all that other good stuff.

Alvarez’s movie revisits many plot points of earlier entries, such as the POV camera shots, the creepy basement, and the raping tree. The film never comes off as an overly familiar, unnecessary retread, however. There’s just the right balance of old and new to produce something nostalgically fresh. Whether you’re a diehard fan of this series or have never seen the original trilogy, it’s a bloody good splatterfest for everyone.

If there’s one downside to this new installment it’s that the picture doesn’t have quite as many laughs as something like “Evil Dead 2.” There’s still a fair deal of humor here, but much of it is derived from tragedy as apposed to cartoonish absurdity. Watching Fernandez hopelessly patch up his friends with duck tape shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is. What the film lacks in ridiculousness, though, it more than makes up for in craft, thrills, gleeful gore, and plenty of applause worthy deaths. “Evil Dead” might not live up to its poster, which reads, “The most terrifying film you will ever experience.” Yet, it is one that will likely leave you sleeping with the lights on.

It’s also welcome to see a horror movie with real characters and not just stock archetypes. Like Bruce Campbell’s Ash, these are people we sincerely care about and like. This is thanks to the attentive writing and strong performances, especially Levy’s inspired turn. Levy is wonderful as the smart, sarcastic outsider on “Suburgatory.” Here she’s frightening, sympathetic, badass, and fearless in taking on anything the filmmakers throw at her. It’s a performance reminiscent of Linda Blair’s immortal work in “The Exorcist.” Levy won’t win major awards for this role, but this should definitely be the start of a promising film career for her.

Frozen

 You see "Brave," this is how its done! *****

It looked like Disney Animation was dead in the water for a while there. Sure, Pixar has had the company’s back for almost two decades now. In terms of movies that were solely produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, though, it was a bit of a downhill spiral from “Pocahontas” in 1995 to “Chicken Little” in 2005. While there were some underappreciated gems in the mix like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” nothing took audiences by storm like “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King” did.

In recent years, Disney Animation has been showing a welcome return to form with one great movie after another, from “The Princess and the Frog,” to “Tangled,” to “Wreck-It Ralph.” Now with their latest animated feature, “Frozen,” it truly feels like Disney is in full-on renaissance mode. The film continues Disney’s legacy of animated fairytales while adding inspired, modern twists. As far as Disney fairytales go, “Frozen” gets it right in just about every department. The music, the characters, the story, the pacing, the suspense, the romance, the themes, the humor, and, of course, the animation, it’s all done to near perfection.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” the film is naturally set in a far away kingdom where not one, but two, princesses reside. Kristen Bell shines as the awkward, plucky, endlessly appealing Anna, the younger of the two princesses. She wants nothing more than to reconnect with her big sister Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel, who spends all day locked away in her room. What Anna doesn’t know is that Elsa possesses the magical ability to create snow and ice, which she has been trying to conceal her whole life. Elsa’s frozen fist only gets harder to suppress as the years go by. Shortly after her coronation, she loses control of her powers in front of everyone and retreats to the mountains in shame. Elsa doesn’t realize, however, that she’s accidentally left her kingdom in a perpetual state of winter.

Anna sets out on a daring quest to find her sister and, along the way, crosses paths with a strapping mountain man named Kristoff, voiced by Jonathan Groff. Even if this is your first Disney movie, it should be obvious that a romance is going to spark between these two. The filmmakers take a few smart, unexpected chances with this love story, though. Without giving too much away, this is the first animated Disney movie where the characters acknowledge how insane it is for people to fall in love and get engaged in one day. Disney also poked fun of this in the live-action “Enchanted,” although that was really more of a satire of fairytales. “Frozen,” on the other hand, is a flat-out fairytale and sees it through to the end.

The romance is also helped by the fact that the leads are so likable and share a genuinely lovely chemistry. But the real love story here is between Anna and Elsa, who are both utterly sincere and deserve to find happiness. It’s nice to see a family movie that not only puts an emphasis on sibling relationships, but also tackles the subject intelligently. At times the bond between the sisters feels like something out of “Wicked,” which also starred Idina Menzel as a good witch everyone mistook for a bad witch.

The supporting players are a ton of fun as well with a mute reindeer named Sven, a tribe of rolly-polly trolls made from stone, and a slimy duke voiced by Alan Tudyk of King Candy fame. The scene-stealer is a nerdy snowman named Olaf, voiced by Jonathan Groff, whose head is constantly getting separated from his upper and lowers torsos. He teams up with Anna and Kristoff to find Elsa in hopes of bringing back summer. Olaf is completely oblivious to fact that heat is a snowman’s kryptonite, however.

Much of the film’s success can be attributed to the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who previously wrote the songs for “Avenue Q,” “The Book of Mormon,” and the underappreciated “Winnie the Pooh.” Every song in “Frozen” is a treasure, most notably the delightful “For the First Time in Forever” and Elsa’s show stopping solo of “Let it Go.” Even more importantly, each song serves its purpose and beautifully propels the well-constructed plot forward. Even in a camp that includes “Les Misérables,” “Hairspray,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Dreamgirls,” “Frozen” stands out as the best movie musical of the past decade. Heck, maybe even the past two decades.

Lets not forget Directors Chris Buck, who co-directed “Tarzan,” and Jennifer Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Wreck-It Ralph.” They’ve lovingly crafted a classic, taking full advantage of the animation medium to create a grand, icy world that feels almost inhabitable. The scope of the film is so majestic it’s like watching “The Sound of Music.” Lee’s screenplay never hits a wrong note, hooking the audience in from the gripping exposition, to an exciting climax, to a clever ending. Honestly, it’s hard to even find minor details to nitpick with their wonderful musical adventure.

Disney has yet to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, excluding all of Pixar’s wins. While Pixar also came out with the enjoyable “Monsters University” this year, there’s no doubt in this critic’s mind that the Best Animated Feature prize belongs to “Frozen.” But why stop there? This isn’t just a terrific animated film, but a terrific film overall. “Frozen” should be considered one of the year’s best pictures alongside “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” Lets just hope Disney knows what they have on their hands and give the film a proper For Your Consideration campaign. It’s simply a winner.

Gangster Squad

Hey ganstas, what's up guys? ***

Simplistically cartoonish and even pulpier than “Pulp Fiction,” “Gangster Squad” won’t be remembered as one of the crime genre’s great cinematic outings. In all fairness though, the film isn’t trying to be the next “L.A. Confidential.” Director Ruben Fleischer, who made the wickedly entertaining “Zombieland,” wants nothing more than to produce a stylish, splashy B-movie with a high coolness factor. For what it is, “Gangster Squad” should satisfy anybody with a lust for shootouts. Those expecting a gangster flick with a ton of substance however, will likely be disappointed.

Sean Penn gives a one-dimensionally over-the-top, yet undeniably fun, performance as Mickey Cohen, a ruthless gangster who was at the top of his game in the 40s and 50s. Nick Nolte is William Henry Parker, the LAPD police chief fixated on bringing the mob kingpin down. Where Cohen and Parker are based on actual figures from this era, the rest of cast is mostly comprised of the vastly fictionalized caricatures that only exist in the realm of movies.

Parker assigns his number one guy, Josh Brolin’s Sgt. John O’Mara, to ensemble a ragtag group of cops to catch Cohen. O’Mara accepts this dangerous mission even though he’s expecting a baby with Connie, his lovely wife well played by Mireille Enos. “Gangster Squad” easily could have limited Connie to another whiny, boring throwaway housewife like so many other cop movies. But the film actually does a surprisingly commendable job at creating a meaningful relationship between the spouses. It’s fun to see Connie get on board with her husband’s assignment, helping him to handpick the members for his crime fighting team.

The squad in question consists of Anthony Mackie as the switchblade slinging Rocky, Robert Patrick as the grumpy, old Max, Giovanni Ribisi as the brainy Conway, and Michael Peña as the rookie Navidad. The most interesting of the bunch is the always-slick Ryan Gosling as Jerry, a police sergeant that naturally doesn’t enjoy playing by the rules. Jerry is pursuing Emma Stone’s Grace, a classic dame complete with a dynamite wardrobe and flawless figure. Just as they did in “Crazy, Stupid Love,” Gosling and Stone have tremendous chemistry here. The only roadblock in their romance is that Grace is also dating the possessive Cohen.

While Will Beall’s screenplay is fine in terms of story structure and character development, his dialog is often beyond hokey. He tries desperately hard to recreate the witty writing style of a 1940s film noir, but the words never feel genuine. In the hands of a lesser director and acting ensemble, “Gangster Squad” might have been one of the lamer movies of the New Year. The film fortunately has a more than capable cast to sell these occasionally corny lines and make the script work. Fleischer’s energized direction additionally helps to keep the plot moving at a swift pace.

Again, the joys of “Gangster Squad” are solely based on style over substance. You want to see flashy car chases, shootouts, and glossy guys in fedoras? Then this movie is for you. Although it may be nothing more than eye candy, “Gangster Squad” did admittedly entertained me from beginning to end. There’s no denying that this recommendation is superficial. But in my book, there’s no shame in liking an imperfect movie for shallow reasons.

Getaway

Car Chase: The Movie *1/2

Typically whenever a movie succumbs to the redundant car chase, it means that the screenwriter officially ran out of story to tell. It’s clear that the people behind “Getaway” never had any story to start with, as the entire film plays out like an extended car chase from its opening scene to its ridiculous ending. This is a movie with stunts that would make “Knight Rider” laugh, a kidnapping plot that makes “Taken 2” look subtle, and characters that make anybody from those “Fast and the Furious” movies appear complex. The only thing the entire movie accomplishes is working in plenty of product placement for the Shelby Mustang Super Snake. Michael Bay and Adam Sandler would be proud.

Through some of the most hurried exposition and annoying editing of recent action pictures, we’re introduced to Ethan Hawke’s Brent Magna, a former racecar driver. Mr. Magna gets a call from an anonymous baddie who is concealed from the audience through obnoxious extreme close-ups. I’m just going to tell you upfront that it’s Jon Voight, doing his most phoned in accent since “Baby Geniuses 2.” The mysterious man tells our hero that he’s kidnapped his wife, played by Rebecca Budig, and will only give her back if Magna plays a game of Simon Says. This game involves Magna stealing a car, driving through crowds of people, driving over the thickest skating rink ever, and causing a lot of police vehicles to crash.

It’s something truly amazing, if not completely contrived, that for everything this car endures it never gets more than a few scratches, dents, and bullet holes. At no point does Magna even stop for gas. This thing is like the Jason Bourne of automobiles.

Along the way, Magna also picks up Selena Gomez as a young girl known only as the kid. If you haven’t noticed already, almost every character in this movie is nameless. A few years ago this might have seemed cool and ambiguous, but now it’s simply lazy and lame. Just because it worked in “Drive” doesn’t mean it will work in every movie, guys. Speaking of “Drive,” “Getaway” was so deprived of ideas it even had to steal that movie’s tagline: “Get in. Get out. Getaway.” Just check Internet Movie Database for yourself and see.

Ethan Hawke is a talented actor, but you’d never know that from his one-note performance here. Selena Gomez is an easy target to make fun of. In all honesty, though, she’s not half bad of an actress when compared to other Disney Channel alumni. (Insert Miley Cyrus VMA performance joke here.) Gomez was pretty good as a small town party girl in “Spring Breakers,” a film best seen drunk. Like Hawke, however, she’s given no character or dialog to stretch those acting muscles. As a result, the two have no chemistry together.

“Getaway” is loud, pointless, and seemingly endless with a climax that looks like it was recycled from “Gran Turismo” gameplay. But what do you expect when the director is that same guy who brought us “An American Haunting” and “Dungeons & Dragons?” If you’re looking for a movie to contend with “White House Down” as the year’s most preposterous cinematic experience, this one might be up your alley. Personally, I’m putting in a plea for no “Getaway 2.”

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The sequel nobody asked for **1/2

 

Although it’s not much, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” really deserves credit where credit’s due. Its 2009 predecessor was one of the dumbest action movies of the past ten years. In this sequel, Director Jon M. Chu of those “Step Up” movies makes an attempt to incorporate some humor, creative action sequences, and impressive visuals. That doesn’t mean “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is a good movie, but at least it’s an improvement. The film could have gone down the route of the “Transformers” series, which only got worse with every entry.

While “Retaliation” is in the same continuity of “Rise of Cobra,” Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wisely decide to wipe the slate clean for the most part. Fans were not pleased with Sienna Miller’s Razzie-winning performance as The Baroness, making no attempt to do that sexy European accent. People will be pleased to know that she’s gone, as is Marlon Wayans as the “comedic relief.” Channing Tatum is back as Duke, but he’s fortunately demoted to a minor supporting role. Our new leading man is Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock, who is one of three Joes that survive a terrorist attack instigated by Cobra. Along with D.J. Cotrona’s Flint and Adrianne Palicki’s Jaye, Roadblock sets out to stop Cobra Commander from taking over the world with nuclear weapons.

“G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” fell flat because the content was so laughable, and yet, the filmmakers took matters all too seriously. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is a much more self-aware outing. The film knows that it’s a loud, silly action picture and never acts like anything more. At the same time, the audience still gets the sense that Director Chu has real admiration for this franchise that has spawned countless toys and cartoon series. That’s more than can be said about Michael Bay, who obviously has no affection whatsoever for “Transformers.”

The downside is that you never come to care about anyone or anything in this endless string of relentless action. “G.I.: Joe” has always been lacking in compelling characters and this film is no exception. Not a single hero sticks out as an individual here, not even Bruce Willis as the retired General Joe Colton who gave the Joe’s their name. The actors all have a decent chemistry unlike in the last film where everybody came off as unnatural and embarrassed. The only performer that gives a genuinely bad performance this time around is RZA as the unintentionally hilarious Blind Master. Despite the best efforts of everyone else, though, nobody can breathe life into any of these wooden characters, or perhaps plastic characters would be more accurate.  

There is one standout actor with Jonathan Pryce in a dual performance as the President and a Cobra terrorist who has stolen his identity. Come to think of it, does the President even have a name in this movie? Apparently not according to IMDb and Wikipedia. In any case, Pryce does have a ton of fun as the nameless commander-in-chief. It’s just too bad none of the Joes are nearly as charismatic or lively.

So yeah, this really isn’t a plot-driven or character-driven movie. But it’s “G.I. Joe,” what do you expect? If you collected all the Hasbro toys, watched all the shows, enjoyed the previous live-action movie, and have an urge to see automobiles blow up, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” will deliver. As someone who isn’t especially nostalgic for this series and is fed up with nonstop action, it did little for me. The film’s real victory is that it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been. Maybe that means “G.I.: Joe 3” might actually have potential to be mildly entertaining. 

A Good Day to Die Hard

Yes, he says "motherfucker" in this one ***

“A Good Day to Die Hard” marks the fifth entry to the “Die Hard” franchise and the third film to come out in the last two months about an ass kicking senior citizen. The original “Die Hard” is a definitive action picture that can still make audiences cheer even after multiple viewings. Whether you love or hate “Die Hard 2” and “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” pretty much everyone can agree that John McClane made a welcome return in the sensational “Live Free or Die Hard” a few years ago. The previous “Die Hard” got just about everything right from the absurdly insane stunts, to the humorous dialog, to Bruce Willis’ committed performance. “A Good Day to Die Hard” has just enough fun moments for die-hard fans to take a gander. Regrettably, it remains the least impressive outing of this series.

The fact that John McClane’s children are now in their late twenties should make us all feel pretty old. We were introduced to a grown up Lucy McClane in the last “Die Hard.” Now it’s time to meet adult Jack McClane who is portrayed by Jai Courtney from “Jack Reacher.” After an extended period of estrangement, John travels to Russia to bail his distant son out of prison. As one would expect, it doesn’t take John long to get caught up in a number of car chases, explosions, and encounters with foreign villains. Turns out that Jack is working for the C.I.A. and is on a mission to protect a political prisoner who has evidence to put away a shady Russian bureaucrat. Against Jack’s will, Daddy McClane tags along to show his son how it’s done.

There are two saving graces in “A Good Day to Die Hard,” one of which is Bruce Willis. It’s no surprise that he fits comfortably into his most iconic role, cracking one-liners in the midst of certain death and chaos. The other redeeming quality is Jai Courtney, who does a solid job as McClane Jr. Unlike the mummified Harrison Ford and the miscast Shia LaBeouf in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” you can actually buy that Willis and Courtney are father and son. Screenwriter Skip Woods does occasionally recycle a clichéd plot device, such as having Jack constantly address his dad by his first name. What’s important though is that Willis and Courtney have good chemistry and make for a convincing team.  

Despite what it gets right, some key elements are missing from this “Die Hard” picture. For starters, the villains are all mostly stock caricatures with thick accents. It’s a royal shame Alan Rickman had to be killed off at the end of the first “Die Hard” because this franchise could use Hans Gruber’s devious wit now more than ever. Previous “Die Hard” movies introduced a number of great supporting players portrayed by actors like Bonnie Bedelia, Redginald VelJohnson, William Atherton, Dennis Franz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Justin Long. All of these performers are missing in action however, leaving it up to Willis and Courtney to carry the show.

As for Director John Moore’s action sequences, they’re fun in a big, loud sort of way. The problem is that many of them overstay their welcome, particularly a chase through the streets of Russia. Willis and Courtney do get to make some memorable banter when “A Good Day to Die Hard” occasionally stops to take a breather. But at only 97 minutes, the film packs in just a little too much action and not enough story development.

While it might be sheer mindless escapism, “A Good Day to Die Hard” is at least more entertaining and playful than “Bullet to the Head” or a Michael Bay outing. Come to think of it, this has been a heavy weekend for enjoyably brainless entertainment with “Safe Haven” for the chick flick crowd and “A Good Day to Die Hard” for the guys. Maybe it’s the sugary, senseless sentiment of Valentine’s, but for some reason I’m the mood for cinematic junk food this week. If you’re in the same mindset, the newest “Die Hard” will likely get the job done. Those looking for an action movie with more substance however, should keep in mind that “Skyfall” just came out on DVD.

Gravity

 In space no one can hear you scream ****1/2

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” just might have the most horrifying premise in all of movies. There are several other strong contenders like “Buried,” in which Ryan Reynolds was trapped in a coffin underground, and “127 Hours,” where James Franco was stuck between a rock and a hard place. But honestly, what’s scarier than being stranded in space with limited air and no communication with Earth? Going to outer space is in itself a fairly scary thought. The notion of anything going wrong up there is the worst nightmare imaginable. As the tagline to “Alien” says, in space no one can hear you scream.   

The film opens on a space shuttle gravitating Earth. Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space expedition after six months of training. She’s accompanied by George Clooney’s Matt Kowalsky, a wisecracking veteran astronaut with one mission left until retirement. While the crew is out on a spacewalk, wreckage from a satellite collides into the shuttle. Ryan is sent flying into open space, separated from the others. Her only contact is Matt, who tries to guide her to safety via microphone.

Cuarón has made one of the most breathtaking 3D experiences of all-time, marrying faultless special effects with transcendent cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki, who photographed Cuarón’s “Children of Men” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” needs to win his first Oscar for this outing. Full of arresting tracking shots and haunting POV shots, “Gravity” becomes a true out-of-body experience that sucks the audience right into the action. Watching the movie, you’ll actually start to believe the cast and crew went into space and filmed on location. Obviously that would be impossible, but the fact that any film could so convincingly create this illusion is a triumph.

Not only does “Gravity” look great, it sounds fantastic too. People rarely consider sound while watching a movie, unless it’s aggressively loud. Much of the film sounds as if the audience is stuck in that space suit with Bullock. We hear the ringing in her ears, the beating of her heart, and debris from the shuttle crashing around her. Never has a movie done such an authentic job at not only taking its audience to space, but also fully emerging them into the experience. This is exactly what 3D filmmaking was made for.

Of course “Gravity” goes beyond just being visually dazzling. Like last year’s “Life of Pie,” it’s an amazing story too. This is thanks to Cuarón’s effective script, which he wrote with his son, and Bullock’s committed performance. Bullock rarely gets enough credit as a dramatic actress. Sure she won the Academy Award for “The Blind Side,” but has since received backlash from everybody. Am I the only one who still thinks she deserved that Oscar? She carries every minute of “Gravity” on her shoulders and there’s definitely a lot to carry. From beginning to end, the audience feels all of Bullock’s dread, excitement, denial, loss, regret, and hope.

Hopeful is actually the best word to describe “Gravity.” As frightening as it may be at times, it’s truly an encouraging film that will motivate anybody to be brave. It’s additionally a film that understands what bravery is, something that “After Earth,” another science fiction thriller, simply missed the mark on. In a sense, “Gravity” really sums up exactly what people think of when considering outer space: A void that’s big and intimidating, but also somehow inspiring. 

The Great Gatsby

The great looking, but ultimately just okay, Gatsby **1/2 

Even though “The Great Gatsby” has gotten the movie treatment several times in the past, no film adaptation has ever really stood out as the definitive version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel. Director Baz Luhrmann’s film is certainly the most visually arresting interpretation of “The Great Gatsby” ever produced. Catherine Martin, who previous worked with Luhrmann on “Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet,” and “Australia,” deserves multiple Oscar nominations for her hyper sets and eye-popping costumes. As wonderful as Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” is to look at, the enchanting visuals are also ironically the movie’s downfall. In the midst of the art direction, costumes, and music, the story and characters that made Fitzgerald’s book a classic become a mere afterthought.

For all those who haven’t already read the novel, here’s the cliff's notes setup. Tobey Maguire plays Nick Carraway, a young man who travels to New York to be a stockbroker in the 1920s. In the vein of Ewan McGregor’s character in “Moulin Rouge,” the troubled Nick recounts his story by writing on a typewriter. He tells us all about his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Although Tom loves his wife, he is a possessive bully who has no moral qualms about sleeping with Isla Fisher’s Myrtle on the side. Nick prefers to just look the other way and not get involved in the affairs of others.   

Living next door to Nick is the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who likes to throw the most extravagant parties New York as ever seen. There’s a notable extended party scene the looks like it was recycled from unused footage in “Moulin Rouge.” All that’s missing is Jim Broadbent singing “Because We Can.” Gatsby takes Nick under his wing and informs him that he once had an affair with Daisy before WWI hit. Gatsby is keen on winning Daisy back and returning to the good old days. Nick is roped into the center of this love triangle, which is destined to end in tragedy. That Baz Luhrmann, he certainly loves stories with sad endings.

The actors are all well suited with DiCaprio as the slick, overly confident Gatsby, Mulligan as the confused Daisy, and McGuire as the naive narrator. Too bad Luhrmann is more interested in directing the actors in the background than the actors in the foreground. This is a movie with far too much going on in almost every shot. Whether it’s a burlesque dancer or fireworks, there’s always something over-the-top going on in the backdrop to distract the audience from the narrative. There’s no doubt that Luhrmann can make big, spectacular movies. Somebody should tell Luhrmann, however, that sometimes less is more.

The most off-putting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, which works in contemporary hits from Jay Z, Beyonce, Fergie, and others. This brand of music is appropriate for an off-the-wall musical like “Moulin Rouge,” but Luhrmann’s modern music video approach just feels misplaced with this material. The only way this approach might have worked would be if Luhrmann had gone all out and made this a musical version of “The Great Gatsby.” Even then, however, there’s no guarantee these music choices would match the content.

Then there’s the 3D aspect. On one hand, it’s encouraging to see a non-action movie experiment with 3D effects. After all, there’s a lot more filmmakers can do with 3D than have Optimus Prime fly at the screen. Much like the movie’s other stylistic choices, though, the 3D doesn’t feel especially necessary. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” or Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” Luhrmann never does anything intriguing with the 3D here. It’s just another needless accessory added onto an already overblown ball gown.  

If you’re a high school English teacher looking to show a “The Great Gatsby” movie to your class, this one is still better than the bland Robert Redford version from 1974. Although Luhrmann’s film may be over produced, it will at least give audiences something pretty and energized to look at. If you want a version that captures the themes and intrigue of Fitzgerald’s novel, however, you’re probably going to have to wait a few more years for another director to tackle this material.

The Hangover Part III

The wolfpack strikes back ***1/2

The first “Hangover” had an original setup, one great laugh after another, and was liked by pretty much everyone. “The Hangover Part II” was a carbon copy of the original, had about three laugh-out-loud moments, and was hated by pretty much everyone. Even if you’re in the minority that actually liked “Hangover II,” there’s no way anyone could possibly think it was better than the original. So how does “The Hangover Part III” fare compared to its predecessors? Is it as funny as the first film or is it as redundant as the second? It’s somewhere in the middle. The wolfpack’s final curtain never quite reaches the heights of the original comedic masterwork, but for some truly hilarious moments, you’ll be glad you saw it.


Zach Galifianakis carries much of the film as Alan, who has hit rock bottom. He’s gone off his medication, lost his father, and gained national attention for accidentally decapitating a giraffe. His family and friends are convinced that he needs to be in a rehabilitation facility. Alan agrees to go as long as Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) accompany him. Since this is the wolfpack, though, things don’t exactly go according to plan. They’re taken hostage by a gangster named Marshall, played by John Goodman, who is looking for Ken Jeong’s Mr. Chow. Marshall gives the wolf pack three days to track Chow down or else Doug is going to get the ax.


After the second film did so well at the box office despite it’s lazy nature, Director Todd Phillips easily could have swindle his audience again with a rehashed plot. Luckily, he listened to the complaints of his fans and strived to breathe new life into this franchise. Along with co-screenwriter Craig Mazin, Phillips constructs a fresh story that leads to many unexpected surprises and laughs. The screenplay additionally thinks of clever ways to tie in events from the first two pictures and bring everything full circle. Granted, the characters never actually have a hangover in “Hangover III,” but who really cares?


For everything that works in “Hangover III,” however, there are some aspects that fall flat. John Goodman’s character is mostly humorless and feels better suited for a Martin Scorsese crime drama. The same can said be about the bad guys in “Identity Thief,” another film Mazin wrote. “Hangover III” brings back some fan favorites from the first film, like Heather Graham’s escort with a heart of gold, but she’s sadly underutilized. Cooper and Helms, meanwhile, often get lost in the shuffle while Galifianakis and Jeong steel the show. The final act in particular leaves you expecting a bombastic showdown of epic proportions. Instead, we get a pretty weak, disappointing anticlimax.


Despite its shortcomings, “The Hangover Part III” will leave its audience wondering what’s going to happen from beginning to end. Although there are some moments that go too far and other moments that don’t go far enough, there are still a lot of comedic setups that hit bullseyes. The hysterical final scene alone is well worth the price of admission. This is a flawed, but ultimately fitting, conclusion to the wolfpack saga with just enough new ideas and laughs. Who knows? Maybe somewhere down the line we’ll get a spinoff featuring Alan and Melissa McCarthy as a pawnshop owner he romances here. Now that’s a recipe for comedic gold.

Her

Her? ****1/2

Based on his four feature films, it’s clear that Spike Jonze’s mind is nothing short of an endlessly inventive wonderland. He brought two of the most creative screenplays ever written to life in “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” In “Where the Wild Things Are,” he took a 48-page picture book and transformed it into one of the most emotionally complex family movies of all time. “Her,” the director’s latest outing, is simply a revelation of imagination.

Joaquin Phoenix hits just the right levels of lonely, dumpy, and pathetic as Theodore, a man who writes personalized love letters for other people. The sad writer’s own love life is ironically a mess as he’s facing a divorce from his wife, played by Rooney Mara. Theodore isn’t completely without companionship as he has friends in Amy Adams’ Amy and Chris Pratt’s Paul. A majority of his nights, though, are spent playing video games and having weird phone sex with strangers.

Determined to make a connection with someone new, Theodore purchases an operating system designed to think, speak, evolve, and feel like an actual human being. The female OS names herself Samantha on the spot and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Although Samantha is never given a visual body, the audience can always imagine what she looks like and what she’s experiencing based on Johansson’s effective performance. She’s real to the audience and she’s really real to Theodore, who goes from having an unlikely friendship with Samantha to a romance.  

The idea of dating artificial intelligence might have seemed far-fetch when Rod Serling wrote about it in “The Twilight Zone” fifty years ago. Nowadays, however, most people spend more time on their phones, iPads, and computers than engaging in face-to-face conversation. There was even an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” where Raj essentially dated Siri. At the rate we’re going, it wouldn’t be surprising if we got an operating system as sophisticated as Samantha in another ten years. Let’s just hope the OS is closer to Samantha than HAL 9000.

Jonze’s screenplay tackles its subject matter with great intelligence, great humor, and great sincerity above all else. The conversations Theodore and Samantha share are some of the most thoughtful of all modern romances. Even if one’s a machine, their whole romance is infinitely more believable than the relationships in a majority of romantic comedies and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. It further provides a fascinating commentary on the state of artificial emotion and human emotion.

The look of the film is additionally quite intriguing for a science fiction picture. Although it’s never made clear what year this is suppose to be taking place, one can assume it’s in the not so distant future. Jonze doesn’t litter every shot with multi-million dollar special effects, however. Rather, he paints a subtle future that’s more about ideas and people than eye candy.

If “Her” has one issue it would be the ending, which isn’t bad. If anything, it’s perfectly satisfying. Yet, it eventually becomes clear to the viewer that a story like this can only have one foregone conclusion. For a film that’s otherwise so utterly unique, it leaves you wanting something a little more unpredictable in the end. But that’s merely a minor problem in not only is it one of the most memorable films of recent times, but also a film that’s very much ahead of it’s own time.  

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

 Bilbo Baggins, bravest little hobbit of them all ***1/2

Everyone had reservations when it was announced Peter Jackson would be splitting up “The Hobbit” into a trilogy. Do we really need three separate movies? Can’t this 300-page book be done in one movie? Isn’t this just a ploy to milk a franchise and make an extra couple billion dollars? When “An Unexpected Journey” finally came out last December, we all found that these initial concerns were pretty much spot-on.

“An Unexpected Journey” was a perfectly solid return to Middle-earth with some great set pieces and plenty of atmosphere. But the story was more dragged out than the past three seasons of “Revenge.” That’s pretty much the same case with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The awesome moments do make the movie worthwhile. Still, it’d be nice to simply see all three “Hobbit” movies edited down to a solitary three-hour epic.

Martin Freeman continues to come into his own as Bilbo Baggins, who has gotten much more confident after finding a mysterious ring. How much do you want to bet that’s going to come into play later? By Bilbo’s side are Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and thirteen dwarves who only diehard fanboys can remember by name. The original fellowship is still on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to face the dreaded dragon known as Smaug. Along the way, they encounter a number of cool new characters, including Lee Pace as the firm Elvenking and Luke Evans as a skillful bowman named Bard.

The real stars of this “Hobbit” movie, however, are the visuals. As one would expect, the effects are nothing short of phenomenal and make leeway for several jaw dropping action sequences. The best include an escape from the elf-king’s halls via barrels and an encounter with a nest of giant spiders. It does get kind of silly when the spiders actually start talking, but not nearly as ridiculous as when the CGI wolves talked in “Twilight.”

Then there’s Smaug himself, who finally immerges from his giant pile of gold coins. What can be said about him other than that he’s the single most impressive giant dragon in the history of cinema. Big, bad, fiery, sophisticated, and supplied with the deep voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug makes King Kong and the T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” look like noobs. One can only hope that the dragons on “Game of Thrones” grow up to be so badass. Smaug all but steels the show…too bad the climatic confrontation with him goes on way too long and we still have one more movie to go.

Again, that’s the major problem with doing “The Hobbit” as a trilogy. Where “The Lord of the Rings” was perfectly paced for the most part, the good stuff in “The Hobbit” all overstays its welcome. Then in between that drawn-out good stuff, we have to put up with a ton of filler. A key example in “The Desolation of Smaug” is a subplot involving good old Legolas, played once again by Orlando Bloom. Here, he’s caught in an underdeveloped love triangle with a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and a dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner). None of this was in the book, which would be fine if it added new dimensions to the story. Instead, it feels more like fan fiction that was tacked on to prolong matters even more.

If Jackson wanted to take liberties and expand upon the Tolkein universe, why not give the thirteen dwarves more distinctive personalities? Even in the original book, they were pretty much interchangeable. You’d think over the course of two movies, Jackson and company would have some fun in giving these guys more character to work with. So far, though, the only one we’ve really gotten to know is Richard Armitage as the fearless leader Thorin. As a result, our heroes never resonate with the audience like the characters in “The Lord of the Rings.”

“The Hobbit” is unlikely to go down as a classic film trilogy like its Oscar-winning predecessor. As far as prequels go, however, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “An Unexpected Journey” are at least satisfying. Both films have exceptional action, dedicated performances, creative monsters, gorgeous art direction, and even some refreshing subtle moments. Those that want to go deeper into Middle-earth are going to get what they want on the whole. It’s just too bad that there’s obviously inspiration here for a truly great “Hobbit” movie, but not three great “Hobbit” movies.

Identity Thief

And that's why you don't give out your social security number! ***

Nobody plays deadpan strait man better than Jason Bateman. Nobody plays belly laugh shocking better than Melissa McCarthy. Based on this promising mismatched duo, “Identity Thief” looked like it might be the first sidesplitting comedy of the New Year. Instead, the film is, more or less, an on the fence comedy. There’s an equal mix of genuine laugh out loud moments and jokes that fall completely flat. Is “Identity Thief” worth checking out for all the scenes that work or are the misfires too unforgiveable? Well…let’s take a look.

Bateman is Sandy Patterson, an honest man with a promising new job and a perfect family. Sandy appears to be walking on sunshine until he learns that his identity has been stolen by McCarthy’s Diana, a trashy sociopath who has cleaned out Sandy’s bank account. Since the matter is out of the police’s jurisdiction, Sandy is forced to fly down to Miami and bring Diana back to Denver. This results in the classic road trip scenario in which our leads have a series of misadventures and unexpectedly become friends. It may not be “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but “Identity Thief” does have its pleasures.

The highlight of the film is the chemistry between Bateman and McCarthy, who are wonderful as always. There are several truly hilarious bits between the two, the most memorable of which is an encounter with a CGI snake in the woods. McCarthy, who deservedly scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work in “Bridesmaids,” is especially commendable here. The juggernaut Diana easily could have been another one-note cartoon along the lines of Adam Sandler’s drag abomination in “Jack and Jill.” Yet, McCarthy actually manages to create a character that’s lovable and even sincere. There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which we learn the back-story regarding how Diana came to be the way she is. While it’s a little predicable and sappy, McCarthy still sells every line in a surprisingly heartfelt monologue.

Where the stars shine, the same cannot be said about some of the supporting players. On the road to Denver, Sandy and Diana are pursued by a couple gangsters played by T.I. and Genesis Rodriquez in addition to a bounty hunter played by Robert Patrick. There’s plenty of potential here for several humorous dynamics. But the bad guys are mostly played strait, resulting in a series of uninspired car chases and physical gags. Then there’s Amanda Peet as Sandy’s wife. She’s sweet and nourishing, but is devoid of any personality or funny lines. It might have been wiser for “Identity Thief” to ditch the wife altogether and have the romance be between Sandy and Diana.

Director Seth Gordon previously brought us “Horrible Bosses,” which most people seem to like, and “Four Christmases,” which most people seem to hate. Screenwriter Craig Mazin doesn’t have the most impressive filmography, being responsible for the disappointing “Hangover: Part II” and the last two “Scary Movie” sequels. If Gordon and Mazin had cast any other stars as the leads, “Identity Thief” would probably be a pass. Much like Steve Carrel and Tina Fey in “Date Night” however, Bateman and McCarthy are able to rise above the hit and miss material to produce something worthwhile. This is a movie that requires the stars to carry the entire weight of the story on their shoulders. “Identity Thief” is just lucky that Bateman and McCarthy are more than up to the task.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Did somebody say, "Wonder?" **

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” starts off with a recipe for grade-A comedy. The cast includes names such as Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, and Jim Carrey. The director is Don Scardino of “30 Rock” while Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis of “Horrible Bosses” penned the screenplay. The premise regarding rivaling magicians offers endless comedic possibilities. So how is it that the final product is just mediocre? It’s probably because the audience has to be constantly caught off guard in order for a magic show or comedy to succeed. In “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the audience can pretty much predict everything that’s going to happen. This subtracts the elements of surprise and humor from the equation.  

Carell is Burt Wonderstone and Buscemi is Anton Marvelton, two lifelong best friends with a mutual love for magic. Sporting flamboyant hairdos and costumes that would make Siegfried & Roy laugh, Burt and Anton become renowned illusionists with a hit show in Vegas. After ten years of doing the same old shtick though, people begin to tire of the magic duo. They’re more drawn to the antics of Carrey’s Steve Gray, a street-magician who’s like a cross between Criss Angel and David Blaine. Of course Gray doesn’t really perform magic tricks so much as he seriously injures himself with knives, hot coal, and drills. Regardless, Burt and Anton are now officially old news.

One of the many falters with “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is that Wonderstone himself isn’t that funny. We’ve seen this buffoon in numerous other comedies like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” He’s an egotistical showboater who thinks he’s the center of the universe. After losing everything however, will Wonderstone learn that he’s not king of the world and that other people matter too? All signs point to yes. As hard as Carell tries, he just can’t bring anything new to this worn-out character.

There’s also a pretty dull love interest in Olivia Wilde’s straight-faced Jane, who reluctantly supplies Wonderstone with moral support. The only other notable woman in the cast is Gillian Jacobs as a floozy who has a one-night stand with Wonderstone. So once again we have a comedy where all the female characters are either limited to being emotional support or bimbos. Could it be that male screenwriters simply don’t know how to write for the opposite sex?

The only cast member that gets much out of his role is Carrey, who has a couple shockingly amusing scenes. The reason that Carrey sticks out is because his character is so unpredictable and leaves the audience on edge. By comparison, Burt Wonderstone is a royal bore. None of Wonderstone’s illusions are especially inspired or funny. Even when one of his tricks backfires, it feels like the filmmakers could have taken matters to a more extreme level. If you want to see a truly funny magician, observe Will Arnett’s character on “Arrested Development.” Heck, you’re inclined to get more laughs watching the Joker perform his infamous pencil magic trick in “The Dark Knight.”

Inside Llewyn Davis

 Llewyn is not a name ****1/2

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a new kind of project for the Coen brothers to take on. To an extent, the film is a musical of sorts along the lines of “Once.” In addition to being a love letter to old folk songs, it’s also one of the most brutally honest, if not disheartening, movies about the cruel nature of show business. While different territory for the masterful directing duo, “Inside Llewyn Davis” still has the Coen’s distinctive signature all over it. As with many of their films, they find the comedy in bleakness and the bleakness in comedy, resulting in a narrative that’s either saying a lot or saying nothing at all. However you view it, boy is it fascinating to watch.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1961, the film focuses on a folk singer named Llewyn Davis, played by a dazed Oscar Isaac in a breakthrough performance. Ever since Llewyn’s musical partner committed suicide, he’s essentially been Garfunkel without Simon. His only possessions are his guitar, whatever he can carry in his one bag, and a cat he’s been forced to look after. If anyone has any idea what the cat is supposed to represent or if it’s supposed to represent anything, please let me know.

Like the title character from “Frances Ha,” Llewyn doesn’t really have a home and must crash on friend’s couches/floors. Of course the closest thing Llewyn has to friends are two fellow singers named Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). Mulligan particularly nails every second she’s on screen as an articulately aggressive shrew who’s fed up with Llewyn mooching off her family. Jean is only given more reason to loathe Llewyn after finding out she might be carrying his child.

Not too long ago we got “Nebraska,” where Bruce Dern set out on a road trip to claim his final shot at glory. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is also very much a road trip movie with Llewyn searching for his purpose in life. He comes across a number of colorful characters along the way, including Adam Driver as a more successful performer, Stark Sands as an extremely earnest solider, and a hilarious John Goodman as a loudmouth on the verge of death. Where “Nebraska” had a clear destination and message, however, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is all over the map. Then again, so is the film’s main character. He has no idea what he’s doing, where he’s going, and pretty much ends up where he started.

Llewyn Davis is actually very similar, yet also very different, to another Coen brother’s character, Jeffrey Lebowski aka The Dude. Both men are meandering bums that contribute nothing to society. When all is said and done, neither man learns anything, accomplishes anything, or goes through a life-altering change. The key difference is that The Dude’s completely content with just existing where Llewyn is desperate to find something to live for. The fact Llewyn has ambitions only makes it more tragic whenever he comes up with nothing. He’s a sad, but true, character that can resonate with any struggling artist out there.

The covers of all the folk songs, a majority of which were performed live, are also splendidly tied into the story. The film does make room for one semi-original song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which the Coen’s developed with Timberlake and T Bone Burnett with some inspiration from George Cromarty and Ed Rush. It’s an inventive, catchy as hell little tune you’ll have a hard time getting out of your head. Too bad it was deemed ineligible for a Best Original Song nomination at the Oscars, but at least that will only make it easier for “Let it Go” from “Frozen” to take home the gold.

Iron Man 3

Tony Stark is going to reach...A BREAKING POINT ****

Along with Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Iron Man 3” is one of the rare superhero threequels that doesn’t disappoint. While Jon Favreau remains an executive producer and co-star, he passes on the directorial duties to Shane Black of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black maintains all the action, humor, and character development that made Faverau’s first two films so enjoyable, while also incorporating his own unique signature. His film continues to raise the stakes and pushes its characters to their critical limits. In addition, “Iron Man 3” makes some hilarious commentary on the media’s role in terrorism with several inspired twist. The result is the darkest of the “Iron Man” trilogy and, ironically, the funniest.

Robert Downey Jr. is stronger than ever as Tony Stark, who has reached his breaking point after the events that took place in “The Avengers.” Unable to sleep or confide in the ones he loves most, he engulfs himself in his work. Meanwhile, a bin Laden-like terrorist known as the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, is threatening the president of the United States. Kind of ironic Kingsley would go from playing Gandhi to playing the face terror. Having a death wish, Stark makes it publicly known that he doesn’t fear the Mandarin and is prepared to take him down. The Mandarin instantly targets Stark and his iron army, resulting in all out mechanical war.

After portraying this character in four movies, it feels pointless to sing Downey Jr. any more praise. He’s so convincing as this emotionally tortured, quick-witted, iconic hero that the audience doesn’t even care that we see more of Tony Stark than Iron Man this time around. Just as crucial to the film is Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, who in many respects saves the man she loves more than he saves her. There’s also the always-welcome bromance between Stark and Don Cheadle’s Rhodey, who has now dawned the alter ego of Iron Patriot aka War Machine. Even Jarvis, Stark’s artificial intelligence buddy voiced by Paul Bettany, develops into a really fun character this time around. All of these supporting players act as Stark’s backbone, preventing him from completely losing his sanity.

The film introduces a few new characters that are hit and miss, such as a little kid played by Ty Simpkins that befriends Stark. Typically whenever superheroes get a younger sidekick, it can be really charming or out of place. Here, it’s a little bit of both. To the kid’s credit, he does help Iron Man out of several jams and delivers a couple solid one-liners. Rebecca Hall is fine as a one-night stand from Stark’s past, but is somewhat underutilized. What “Iron Man 3” really excels in, though, is the villain department. Where the baddies in the first two films were pretty forgettable compared to the Joker or Bane, Tony Stark really meets his match here. In addition to Kingsley’s scene-stealing work, Guy Pearce is perfectly menacing as a scientist whose latest experiment appears promising on the outside but has catastrophic results.

If you’re looking for a summer movie as big and epic as “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3” might be a slight disappointment in your eyes. Don’t get me wrong; the film is still full of jaw-dropping special effects and action sequences, most notably a seamless airborne rescue. When stacked up against something as bombastic as the “The Avengers,” though, “Iron Man 3” actually comes off as much smaller. This actually works to the films advantage, however, providing a more intimate, personal character study of Tony Stark.      

Although the post-credits scene states Tony Stark will return, there have been rumors that this will be the last time we see Robert Downey Jr. in the role. Lets hope that doesn’t mean Marvel may consider replacing Downey Jr. Iron Man isn’t like the Hulk, who has gone through three different actors in the Marvel movie cannon. Downey Jr. is Iron Man and it’s impossible to imagine another other actor in the role.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the CGI Slayer **1/2

From “Snow White and the Huntsmen,” to “Mirror Mirror,” to “Hansel & Gretle: Witch Hunters,” to “Red Riding Hood,” the film industry has really been banking on adult-oriented fairytales as of late. Television has additionally gotten in on this fairytale fad with ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” NBC’s “Grimm,” and, to a lesser extent, the CW’s “Beauty and Beast.” So what’s been causing this recent outbreak of fairytale reinterpretations aimed at grown up audiences? Perhaps it can be attributed to the concept of nostalgia. Since fairytales are typically the first stories ever introduced to us, everybody identifies with them. By giving these timeless tales a PG13 spin, they can appeal to our inner child while also satisfying our desire for something more mature. “Jack the Giant Slayer” comes close to working as a fun fantasy adventure for childish adults and sophisticated kids. If only the familiar story had more of a twist to it.

Obviously, the film is all about a young man named Jack, played by Nicholas Hoult of “Warm Bodies.” He’s a goodhearted, yet absentminded, soul who constantly has his head in the skies. Jack’s ADD causes him to foolishly trade the family horse for a pouch of magic beans at the market. Jack’s apparent love interest is Princess Isabelle, played by the luminous Eleanor Tomlinson, who wants to see the world and have swashbuckling adventures. But her kingly father insists that Isabelle remain confined to the castle and one day marry Roderick, a calculating royal advisor played by Stanley Tucci. How much do you want to bet that it turns out Roderick is actually a bad guy planning to betray everyone?

Isabelle runs away from home and seeks refuge in Jack’s cottage just as the magic beans are starting to grow. Out of the ground skyrockets a beanstalk that takes Jack’s house and the princess into the heavens. Legend has it that a kingdom of giants lives in the clouds above and they don’t take kindly to humans. Naturally, it’s up to Jack and Ewan McGregor’s Elmont, the captain of the king’s guard, to save the princess before the giants get to her first.

As you can tell, the plot plays out much like Disney’s “Aladdin” only with magic beans instead of a magic lamp and giants instead of a genie. Granted, “Aladdin” didn’t have the most original story in the world. But the reason that film resonated with so many people is because the characters were interesting, the approach was unique, and the narrative had a sense of humor about itself. That’s really not the case with “Jack the Giant Slayer.” For the most part it’s just a by the numbers fairytale with “Lord of the Rings” inspired action.

Hoult and Tomlinson are both endearing young stars with promising futures. While they’re perfectly likable leads, their characters never evolve beyond the unlikely hero and damsel in distress archetypes. Tucci and McGregor have a ball in their roles, but aren’t given much depth either. The biggest disappointment lies in the giants, which are all broad CGI creations with no personality. The only one the audience gets to know at all is Fallon, a two-headed giant played by Bill Nighy and John Kassir of “Tales from the Crypt.” One would think that a two-headed giant would amount to something creative, but the film never takes advantage of the endless possibilities.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” is undoubtedly a well-crafted movie in terms of art direction, costumes, and musical score. Director Bryan Singer of “X-Men” and “Superman Returns” occasionally dished out an energetic action sequence. What Singer needed was a more inventive screenwriting team to think outside the box. With a superior script, this could have been a witty fantasy along the lines of “The Princess Bride,” “Stardust,” or the first two “Shrek” movies. By mostly playing matters strait though, “Jack the Giant Slayer” just never rises to the occasion.

Kick-Ass 2

 Not a Hit-Girl, not yet a Hit-Woman ***

“Kick-Ass” was one of those movies that seemed to have everybody split. Either you found the film morally reprehensible or you soaked up every minute of the film’s colorful violence and profanity. Personally, I was among the later group. “Kick-Ass 2” is likely to spark a similar mixed reaction among audiences. If you despised the first one, avoid this one at all cost. If you loved the first one, you’ll probably at least like this one all right.

“Kick-Ass 2” isn’t a superhero sequel that improves upon the original like “The Dark Knight” or “Spider-Man 2.” There’s a certain sparkle missing from this follow-up with laughs that don’t hit quite as hard and action sequences that don’t dazzle as much. When the film wants to, it can indeed kick as much ass the original. It’s just too bad we have to eek through the occasional misfire to get to the good stuff.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is back as Kick-Ass, who has really bulked up since the last film. By day he still maintains the role of nerdy high school student, Dave Lizewski. Since Kick-Ass broke out into popularity, the population of superhero wannabes in New York has significantly grown. Kick-Ass ends up joining an armature version of the Avengers called Justice Forever. The highlights of the group include Donald Faison as Dr. Gravity, who’s not a doctor in any sense, Clark Duke as Dave’s old pal Marty, now going by the alias of Battle Guy, and Jim Carrey in one of his top five most bizarre performances as Colonel Stars and Stripes, a battered ex-mob enforcer with an unidentifiable accent. If anything, he kind of sounds like the New Yorker version of Forest Gump.

A world of heroes must mean there’s also a world of villains, though. Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Chris D’Amico, formally known as Red Midst, takes center stage as the big bad. His new alter ego is The Motherf%&*‏^r, who sports a leather sex slave mask. The problem is that he’s not the most physically or intellectually gifted villain. Luckily, he has the funds to hire a legion of fellow super villains, which includes a Soviet juggernaut lady called Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina).

Whenever any of these characters are on screen, “Kick-Ass 2” is a blast. But the film falters in the one area that really made “Kick-Ass” shine. There’s no denying that Chloe Grace Moretz stole the whole show last time as Mindy aka Hit-Girl. This time around, she still has some memorable one-liners and applause worth moments, especially when she takes vengeance on a trio of queen bees. For a majority of the movie, however, the character is out of commission as she tries to live a normal life. Moretz still gives another great performance, but the audience simply doesn’t want to see this character go through a teenage girl phase. We want to see her at the center of the action, hidden behind her mask and purple hair.

It should also be noted that “Kick-Ass 2” is even darker than its predecessor, if that’s possible. This would be okay if the darker elements were mainly played for laughs like in the first film. In “Kick-Ass 2,” though, a lot of the darker aspects are played for drama, which can feel sort of out of place. There are a couple characters that die rather gruesome deaths. Unlike the first film where the violence was almost always shockingly funny, here it can just come off as depressing. “Kick-Ass 2” never makes the leap into flat out mean-spirited or unpleasant territory. Yet, there are times when you wish some of the characters would lighten up.

Jeff Wadlow isn’t quite on par with the previous film’s director, Matthew Vaughn of “Stardust” and “X-Men: First Class.” Regardless, Wadlow does incorporate just enough kinetic energy, wicked humor, and inspired new ideas to make “Kick-Ass 2” worthwhile. There’s even a nice relationship between Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl this time as they try to figure out exactly where they belong in this insane world. It would be great to see these two again if they decide to make “Kick-Ass 3.” Of course by that point Hit-Girl could probably be upgraded to Hit-Woman.

The Kings of Summer

Building a rocket, or fighting a mummy, or climbing up the Eiffle Tower, discovering something that doesn't exist, or giving a monkey a shower ****1/2

Whether you had parents that were distant or parents that were overbearing, we all likely dreamed about running away from home while growing up. These unrealistic fantasies likely involved hitting the road with one or two good friends and building a safe haven somewhere in the wildness. Naturally, we all quickly woke up from this daydream, realizing that we’d never make it on our own. “The Kings of Summer” exists in an offbeat world fueled by our youthful daydreams. The end product is funny and quirky, but also wise and nostalgic with something meaningful to say about coming of age.

Nick Robinson gives a breakthrough performance as Joe, a young man who is having trouble seeing eye to eye with his controlling father, perfectly played by the stone-faced Nick Offerman. Joe’s best friend is Patrick, played by Gabriel Basso, a wrestler with a walking brace. Patrick is equally fed up with his corny, annoying parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evans Jackson). The two buds decide to leave society behind and build a house in the woods using whatever material they can find. Also tagging along is a pipsqueak classmate named Biaggio, played by Moises Arias, who wields a sword and leaves the tags on his pants. He’s a bit like if Dwight Schrute from “The Office” and Abed from “Community” had a son together somehow.

While “The Kings of Summer” might not be the most practical film, none of it ever feels false. That’s probably because the rapport between Robinson, Basso, and Arias is so genuine. We identify with each of these characters and understand their desire to get away from it all. The fact that they succeed in making a perennial daydream a reality only adds to their appeal. Of course once they get out into the woods, matters don’t entirely go according to plan. At first it’s a ton of fun, being on their own. As time goes by, though, the friends face betrayal, confrontation, and learn what it truly means to grow up.

The supporting cast is great too. Eric Moriarty stands out as Kelly, the girl Joe would like to be more than just friends with, and Allison Brie is wonderful as always as Joe’s supportive older sister. The parents easily could have been restricted to one-note, but that never becomes the case. They’re all hilarious and likable in their own ways, even Joe’s sourpuss dad. Although they aren’t the best parents in the world, they’re certainly believable ones.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and first-time screenwriter Chris Galletta have made a winner. Their film is a splendid cross between “Stand by Me” and “Moonrise Kingdom” with maybe a little “Phineas and Ferb” in there. What they nail above all else is the magic of summer. Although we all like to dream about having grand summer adventures, we usually spend a majority of this period cooped up in a house. But our best summer memories are the ones that take place outside, exploring the woods, swimming, camping, hanging with friends, and finding love. “The Kings of Summer” flawlessly depicts this enchanting sentiment.

The Last Stand

I'm the Sheriff! ***

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been taking it easy these past few years, acting as governor of California and raising his illegitimate offspring in secrecy. Now that his reign as The Governator is officially over, Arnold is ready to shoot bad guys, sell one-liners, and butcher the English language again. Schwarzenegger fought beside his action star comrades in “The Expendables 2” last August. Now he takes center stage for the first time since “Terminator 3” in “The Last Stand.” Although it may not go down as one of Schwarzenegger’s best outings, “The Last Stand” is still a satisfying comeback for the 65-year-old bodybuilder turned “actor.”

Schwarzenegger is fittingly cast as Ray Owens, a former LA cop who moves to a small town in Arizona. After seeing so much blood and death on the job, Ray wants nothing more than to live a laid back life as a sheriff. Little does he know that Eduardo Noriega’s Gabriel Cortez, an infamous drug kingpin, has escaped FBI custody and is passing through his town. You should all have a pretty good idea concerning what happens from there. This is your typical action movie about a small time cop that stands up against the meanest bad guy imaginable. As many times as we see this plot recycled, it is hard to complain when the material is entertainingly executed. Luckily, “The Last Stand” manages to pull it off.

Everybody can probably agree that Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been, or ever will be, a great actor. Whether he’s playing a spy, a commando, or a pregnant man, you never see a character, you just see Arnold Schwarzenegger. He clearly isn’t trying to broaden his limited range in “The Last Stand.” Then again, it’d be foolish for anybody to expect Shakespeare in the park from him at this point in his career. The guy is simply appealing to his legion of fans that love seeing him do what he does best. Schwarzenegger further reminds us that while he may not be Daniel Day-Lewis, he is almost always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Schwarzenegger isn’t the only creditable name on the cast list. Jaimie Alexander and Rodrigo Santoro are solid as two lovers that swear to protect the town alongside Ray. The comedic relief is sufficiently provided by Luis Guzmán as the chubby, old deputy and good old Johnny Knoxville as a redneck gun nut with an arsenal of weaponry. Forest Whitaker is good as always as the FBI agent in charge of finding the escaped convict and fortunately isn’t written to be a complete idiot. As far as villains go, Eduardo Noriega’s character might not be on the same level as Javier Bardem in “Skyfall.” Nevertheless, he’s acceptable in the role and holds his own against Arnold in an energized final faceoff.

Not too long ago David Ayer made “End of Watch,” a powerful fictional film about the sacrifices cops make to keep the streets safe. “The Last Stand” is more in the romanticized vein of something like “Taken 2” than the brutally believable “End of Watch.” What separates “The Last Stand” from the disappointing “Taken” follow-up is the thrilling action and knowing sense of humor. In his first American film, Director Kim Ji-woon always keeps matters moving with plenty of laughs and applause-worthy moments. It’s kind of ironic that the most kickass moment in the film is not provided by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but a shotgun wielding old lady. Regardless, it’s still great to see Schwarzenegger back in form after such a long hiatus. We can now officially say that Arnold is, indeed, back.

Man of Steel

Still funnier than Richard Pryor in Superman III ***1/2

There’s no denying that Richard Donner set the bar for the Superman franchise with his 1978 film. The icy landscapes of Planet Krypton, John Williams’ vigorous musical score, Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance, every aspect of Donner’s movie remains definitive. Since then, most interpretations of Superman have either drawn inspiration from or paid homage to the original classic. One has to give Director Zack Snyder and Producer Christopher Nolan credit for taking “Man of Steel” in the complete opposite direction. Where Donner’s “Superman” was light, funny, and colorful, “Man of Steel” is dark, serious, and brooding. The film presents a vision of Superman that’s new and bold with a satisfying payoff.  

There have been countless renditions of how Clark Kent became Superman. “Smallville” even managed to stretch the story out for ten seasons. Although Screenwriter David S. Goyer revisits many familiar plot points from Superman’s origin tale, he also manages to structure the narrative in a refreshing, nonlinear light. Occasionally it feels like you’re hearing this story for the first time, which is no easy feat.

The real appeal of “Man of Steel” is its performers, particularly Henry Cavill as Superman himself. Cavill isn’t as cheerful or humorous as Reeve, but he does capture the turmoil of being an alien lost in a world of humans. Superman is often depicted as such a flawless character that people forget he’s capable of being confused, lonely, and morally conflicted. “Man of Steel” is truly a human story about the need to belong and finding your place in the world, or universe. In that sense, this interpretation of Superman is very different, but also very true to the character’s emotional core. Plus, he no longer has the dorky red underwear over his pants.

After over thirty years of feeling alone, Clark Kent finally meets a fellow Kryptonian named General Zod, played by Michael Shannon. In search of a new planet, Zod and his exiled followers plan to wipe out earth and build a new Krypton. This is a much more complex version of Zod, who was previously portrayed by Terence Stamp. Where that Zod primarily wanted to seize control, Shannon actually gives the character a fair deal of depth and an understandable motive. We sympathize with this guy who desperately wants to preserve his species and their legacy. But it’s his methods of achieving his goal that establish him as a villain.

Since the performances and characters are so strong, one would expect a heated rivalry between Superman and Zod. Unfortunately, most of their scenes just consist of physical violence with little tension. Where that dynamic is a bit of a disappointment, “Man of Steel” more than makes up for it with the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane.

Amy Adams is perfection as the plucky reporter with a knack for getting into trouble. Although “Man of Steel” stays true to the nature of Lois, the character is something much more here. She’s not just the love interest or the damsel in distress. She’s someone willing to put herself in the line of danger for others and Superman’s link to the human world. This movie takes more chances with the Lois and Clark relationship than any other incarnation, resulting in a romance and friendship that’s surprisingly believable. It’s one of the first times we see why Superman needs somebody like Lois in his corner.

In addition to the three leads, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane provide much of the movie’s heart as the Kent’s. Russell Crowe is a powerful figure as Clark’s biological father, Jor-El, who acts as a guardian angel to his son even beyond the grave. Laurence Fishburne creates a unique Perry White, who gets to be at the center of the action for a change. For all its superb performances and character moments, “Man of Steel” should be right up there with the best “Superman” movies. There are some issues, though, that hold it back from achieving greatness.

Snyder has made some stupid, but fun, movies like “300” and some flat-out stupid movies like “Sucker Punch.” “Man of Steel” may be Snyder’s best directorial effort, but he still succumbs to some of his more annoying habits. The camera is constantly shaking and the editing is so fast that it makes it hard to appreciate the jaw-dropping special effects. On top of all that, the cinematography is relentlessly cloudy, often making the entire picture look like a flashback. These reoccurring grievances aren’t enough to ruin the experience, but they do prevent “Man of Steel” from ranking alongside Donner’s film or the equally outstanding “Superman II.” The movie could have been stronger had Nolan stepped into the director’s chair. As it is, however, “Man of Steel” is an exciting and thoughtful reboot with potential to inspire a promising new series.

Monsters University

Mike and Sulley Begin ****

It’s common for modern animated features to spawn a sequel, or two, or even three sometimes. With exception to those pesky strait-to-dvd productions like “Tarzan 2” and “Ariel’s Beginning,” however, we rarely see animated prequels. “Monsters University” predates the events of “Monsters, Inc.,” the 2001 hit. Kind of ironic that most 18-year-olds going into college this fall probably first saw “Monsters, Inc.” as children 12 years ago. If you think about it, Pixar couldn’t have picked a better a time for this prequel to come out. 

Pete Docter steps down as director, but leaves his creation in the more than capable hands of Dan Scanion. Along with co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson, Scanion takes us back to the glory days when Mike Wazowski was a wide-eyed, retainer-wearing college freshman. Billy Crystal reprises his role as the green, globular monster along with John Goodman as the big, blue James P. Sullivan. Mike and Sulley aren’t best friends this time around, but adversaries like Woody and Buzz in the first “Toy Story.”

It’s the classic “Odd Couple” setup with Mike being a good student, but a bad scarer and Sulley as a bad student, but a good scarer. The one thing the two do have in common is their desire to major in scaring. They’re only way into the program is by winning the Scare Games, a send-up of the Greek Games from “Revenge of the Nerds.” “Monster’s University” actually plays out much like a G-rated version of “Revenge of the Nerds,” which is a lot funnier than one would expect.

Those that felt “Brave” took itself a little too seriously will be happy to know that this film is Pixar’s biggest laugh-riot in some time. “Monsters University” is full of clever dialog, visual humor, one-liners, callbacks to the previous film, and references to the college lifestyle. Obviously, there’s no sex, profanity, drugs, or alcohol, but “Monsters University” does hilariously satirize overly peppy RA’s, fraternity initiations, college pranks, and so on. Anybody who’s ever attended a university will find something to relate to here. To accomplish this without going down the “Animal House” route is a true feat.

The chemistry between Mike and Sulley is still funny and touching, while also making way for some welcome new dynamics between the characters. In addition to the leading duo, “Monsters University” introduces a number of other monsters that are more cuddly than frightening. We get some great work from Joel Murray as a middle-age salesman going back to school, Sean Hayes and Dave Foley as a two-headed monster, Pete Sohn as an perpetual mamma’s boy, and Charlie Day as a monster who’s essentially just a pair of legs. Helen Mirren meanwhile brings some needed antagonism to the story as the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble, looking like a cross between a lizard and a centipede. All the monsters are fabulously designed and the filmmakers have a ton of fun playing with their mechanics.

If “Monsters University” has one falter, it’s that the story may be too conventional for its own good. One of the many joys of “Up” and “Toy Story 3” is that you never quite knew what direction the story was going to take. While it’s certainly a fantastic ride from start to finish, “Monsters University” never really takes the audience by surprise. The only aspect of the film that’s unexpected is the moral, which is a unique one to see in a movie directed at kids. To give this message away here would spoil the whole movie for you, though.

“Monsters, Inc.” didn’t necessarily merit an origin story. Mike and Sulley aren’t Batman or Superman after all. Watching the film, however, you’ll certainly be glad Pixar made it. Unlike “Cars 2,” which only got the green light to sell more toys, “Monsters University” actually further develops these characters, introduces new ideas, and makes us enjoy the original classic even more. Throw in some first-rate humor, heart, and candy-coated colors and you have yourself another winner from Pixar.     

Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon made another movie? ***1/2

How is it that Joss Whedon, the director of the third highest-grossing movie of all time, recently made a movie that’s gotten next to no publicity? His new film is a contemporary take on “Much Ado About Nothing,” shot in black and white with none of Shakespeare’s original dialog altered. Whedon filmed the project over the course of twelve days at his house in California, casting mostly lesser-known character actors in the roles. This is the last movie one would expect Whedon to produce on the heels of a cinematic juggernaut like “The Avengers.” That just goes to show Whedon can do more than indulge fanboys. He’s a truly multi-talented filmmaker.

The movie takes place during the days leading up to the wedding of Fran Kranz’s Claudio and Jullian Morgese’s Hero. The real love story, however, is between Amy Acker’s Beatrice and Alexis Denisof’s Benedick. These two share much in common, being equally hotheaded, witty, and never wanting to get married. When you get these two personalities in the same room, they naturally can’t stand each other. Through some manipulation and misunderstandings, though, both Beatrice and Benedick come to find that they do have feelings for one another. This is one of the many stories that shaped the romantic comedy blueprint screenwriters are still employing even to this day.  

It can sometimes become distracting whenever Shakespeare’s words are integrated into a modern day setting, such as with Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and the version of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke. Although it can occasionally be off-putting here too, Whedon’s film mostly works due to the chemistry between the leads and an all-around fun vibe emitted by the cast. Acker and Denisof previously starred in Whedon’s “Angel” as a couple of lovers that weren’t meant to be. It’s great to see them together again as two people that are totally meant for each other. We also get some enjoyable work from Clark ‘Agent Phil’ Gregg as Leonato and Nathan Fillion as the bumbling chief policeman, Dogberry.

Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” isn’t as extravagant as a Kenneth Branagh production, but that’s part of the film’s charm. Where a lot of Shakespearian adaptations can feel almost overblown, Whedon’s film relies on the bare bones of the original text and some inspired direction. Whedon does a fabulous job at staging the film, getting some hilarious actions, reactions, and interactions from his actors, who are all having a ball. It’s hard not to admire a film that’s so simple and yet so energized. Imagine seeing a play in a low-rent theater with no costumes, sets, props, or budget, but everyone involved still put a ton of heart into the experiment.

When considering Shakespeare’s greatest works, “Much Ado About Nothing” is typically an afterthought compared to “Hamlet” or “Macbeth.” Revisiting the story, though, one is reminded of the significant impact the play has had on modern stories concerning the opposite sex. This formula has been used time and time again since Shakespeare wrote the play roughly four hundred years ago. While there have been plenty of bad variations of this story, the fact that it’s still being recycled demonstrates that Shakespeare struck a cord that will forever appeal to mainstream audiences. Between this charming adaptation from Whedon and the “Romeo and Juliet” zombie romance, “Warm Bodies,” this has been a pretty good year for Mr. Shakespeare.

Oblivion

 Tom Cruise runs in a movie? Gee, haven't seen that before! **

“Oblivion” is another movie that seems better suited for a video game than a motion picture. Watching the characters engage in endless shootouts and explore vast, abandoned terrains, all you want to do is get your hands on a controller. Since a movie is unequipped with gameplay, though, you’re forced to sit back and merely observe the story. Then again, most modern video games have more three-dimensional characters and smarter plots than “Oblivion.” This science fiction mystery from Director Joseph Kosinski isn’t completely without some good ideas, elevating it above “Transformers” schlock. It’s just unfortunate those ideas never meld into anything that intriguing.

Through some rushed, expositional narrative, Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper explains that aliens invaded earth, we won, but now the planet is in ruins. Jack has been left on earth to extract the planet’s remaining resources. His only two contacts are Victoria, his comrade played by Andrea Riseborough, and Sally, his commander played by Melissa Leo. Once their assignment is completed in two weeks, Jack and Victoria are supposed to join the remaining human survivors on a space station called Titan. Jack, however, is starting to have second thoughts about his mission and employers.

Jack has a reoccurring dream about a mysterious woman, played by Olga Kurylenko, who he apparently knew before the world was destroyed. Gee, I wonder who she could possibly be? Matters start to become clearer when he bumps into a resistance leader, played by Morgan Freeman, who explains that Jack has unknowingly been working for the enemy. Gee, who saw that plot twist coming from a mile away? Jack thus goes rogue on a dangerous journey to uncover the truth. GEE, we haven’t seen Tom Cruise play that kind of character a dozen times before! For all it’s predictable moments, “Oblivion” does have a fair share of decent twists. By the time those twists occur, though, the audience is already so detached from the plot that they really don’t care anymore.

“Oblivion” barrows from numerous other science fiction films, like “Planet of the Apes,” “WALL-E,” “The Matrix,” and especially “Total Recall.” Regrettably, the movie’s tone is closer to last year’s bland, forgettable “Total Recall” remake than the fun, creative original. In addition to lacking a thoroughly entertaining mystery, “Oblivion” isn’t all that exciting, original, or humorous. It’s mostly a big fat bore with few distinct characteristics.

Although it is getting tiresome to see Cruise in this sort of role, he’s acceptable as the nonconformist hero. Kurylenko is dull as the lady who haunts Jack’s Dream, having little on screen chemistry with Cruise. Freeman and Leo do their best to bring some grace to the project, but aren’t given a ton of depth. The only real standout performer is Riseborough, who is quite effective and tragic as Victoria. Too bad she’s absent for a large chunk of the film.

Kosinski based “Oblivion” on an unpublished graphic novel he created. His imagery certainly transfers well to film. The apocalyptic landscapes of New York, the space station where Sally resides, and the bubble ship Jack flies around in all look marvelous. But like Kosinski’s previous film, “TRON: Legacy,” “Oblivion” gives us plenty to look at and little to care about. There are some filmmakers who are visionaries first and storytellers second. Kosinski appears to fall into this camp.

Oz the Great and Powerful

More goodness than greatness, but that's not bad ***1/2

MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” is the rare film adaptation that has officially become even more cherished than the timeless book that inspired it. Over the years, “The Wizard of Oz” has influenced numerous sequels, prequels, and reimaginings in just about every entertainment medium. Although there have certainly been some good additions to the “Oz” franchise, it’s unfortunate all of them must live in the shadow of an unbeatable classic. While nothing will ever top the Judy Garland version, the most we can ask from a modern “Oz” interpretation is that it remains true to L. Frank Baum’s universe while also sprinkling in something fresh. On that basis, Director Sam Raimi sufficiently delivers in his vibrant and fun “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

As a homage to the 1939 film, “Oz the Great and Powerful” opens in black and white with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Dorothy is nowhere to be found, shifting focus to James Fanco’s Oscar Diggs aka Oz. He’s a visionary, illusionist, and conman who claims to be destined for greatness. Oscar gets his shot at fame and fortune as his hot air balloon becomes caught in a tornado, transporting him to the Land of Oz. There he meets two beautiful witch sisters named Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, and Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz. They believe Oscar is a wizard prophesized to rid the realm of a wicked witch. Although Oscar believes a mistake has been made, he decides to play the role of the wizard anyways in exchange for the royal treasure.

Franco might seem like an odd choice to play Oz when compared to Frank Morgan, who portrayed the wizard in the original film. Despite preconceived doubts however, Franco manages to fashion a unique Oz who can be humorous and charming while also being cowardly and in over his head. Just as strong as Franco is Michelle Williams, finding the perfect note as Glinda the Good Witch who gets to partake in the occasional wand duel this time around. The only actors that somewhat misfire are Kunis and Weisz. That’s not to say the performances are bad by any means. It’s just that Kunis feels miscast in the role while Weisz’s Evanora isn’t given a ton of development.  

In an age when special effects are almost exclusively reserved for action sequences, one might expect this fantasy adventure to go down the “Narnia” route. While “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t without the occasional chase sequence, Raimi also knows when to slow down and let his audience appreciate his movie’s whimsical atmosphere. Oscar’s first big arrival over the rainbow is an especially fanciful moment supported by colorful art direction, eye-popping CGI, and an inventive score by Danny Elfman. At times the film may be a little too reliant of green screens, but it’s an overall fantastic experience to look at nevertheless.

The most impressive technical innovations the film has to offer are a flying monkey bellhop named Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, and a little China Girl, voiced by Joey King. The marriage of convincing computer animation and lively voiceover performances help to make these two some of the more unforgettable CGI creations of recent memory. The China Girl in particular always has the presence of an authentic, tangible being. The audience really comes to like this fragile, yet sassy, girl who could easily shatter into pieces. Like Richard Parker in “Life of Pi” and Gollum in “The Hobbit,” they’re prime examples of CGI characters done correctly.

So is the story on par with the visuals or do we have another “Jack the Giant Slayer” on our hands? As of a matter of fact, the story is fairly clever too. There are instances when the audience might expect “Oz the Great and Powerful” to result in a formulaic liar revealed storyline. The film avoids these obvious clichés however, dishing out several clever twists. For the most part you don’t entirely know where the narrative is going, which is an always-welcome quality. Even in the final act when it appears a big battle climax is on the horizon, the film thinks of a much smarter way to wrap matters up.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” might not go down as a perennial classic. For what it is though, the film succeeds as well-made family entertainment with substance, solid character development, and imaginative visuals. Most importantly, there’s nothing in the film that betrays the spirit of the source material like a break-dancing Mad Hatter.

Pacific Rim

We now return to Battling Seizure Robots ***1/2

After the first trailer premiered several months ago, “Pacific Rim” quickly became one of the most anticipated movies of the summer season. The advertisements haven’t divulged much about the film’s plot or characters. For the most part, they’ve only shown big monsters fighting big robots and Idris Elba giving a heated speech to his troops. That’s still more than enough to make any fanboy swoon like a teenage girl watching “Twilight.”

“Pacific Rim” pretty much delivers exactly what the ads promise. It’s a massive action picture that plays out like Godzilla VS Transformers. Fortunately, this movie runs circles around Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla” remake and Michael Bay’s “Transformers” trilogy. “Pacific Rim” is more reminiscent of an old-school Japanese monster picture with a multi-million dollar budget and the best special effects the industry has to offer. There’s a key reason why the human characters aren’t played up in the trailers, though. They’re completely forgettable when compared to the film’s true stars, the monsters and the robots.

In the vein of most modern blockbusters, the opening narration rushes through the back-story so we can get to the explosions as soon as possible. In a nutshell, strange beasts known as Kaiju have invaded earth through a portal under the Pacific Ocean. They’ve come to our world to, you guessed it, destroy us all with little to no explanation. To fight off these monsters, the humans invent robots the size of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man called Jaegers. These machines don’t have minds of their own, though. They require two human pilots to be operated.

Charlie Hunnam is Raleigh Becket, who used to pilot a Jaeger alongside his brother. When his sibling has an untimely “accident,” however, Becket gives up Jaeger piloting to become a fulltime brooder. Five years later, Becket is paid a visit from Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, his former commanding officer. Pentecost asks Becket to come back and take part in a last stand against the Kaiji threat. While resistant at first, of course Becker eventually agrees to come along. His new co-pilot is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who has been terrorized by these monsters since childhood.

None of these characters are bad. The acting ensemble, which also includes Charlie Day as a scientist with a monster fetish and Ron Perlman as a Kaiju organ harvester, is all around solid. Pretty much everyone is likable, which is more than can be said about those tools in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Yet, the scenes with the humans are never as engaging as the scenes with the Jaegers duking it out with the Kaiju. These scenes are generally colorful, visually stunning, and flat out badass.

Anybody who spent hours of their childhood making a Megazord action figure fight a Street Shark toy will feel like a kid again watching this. At just over two hours, though, even the epic action sequences can overstay their welcome. The film literally throws a ton at the audience, leaving little room to breathe. While the action and CGI imagery is never dull, it can certainly take a lot out of a person. After a while, you kind of wish the constant fighting would take a break, or maybe give us more engaging characters to invest in, or just get to the end credits a half hour earlier.

Visionary Director Guillermo del Toro of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” films has made a cool, vibrant blockbuster, but the product isn’t quite up to his gifted storytelling level. As far as recent summer movies go, “Pacific Rim” isn’t a great one like “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” However, it does exceed the hit and miss “Man of Steel” and flat-out misses like “After Earth,” “World War Z,” and “White House Down.” For all those that have been eagerly awaiting this movie, it’s going to give them exactly what they want. Just don’t be surprised if the experience starts to try your patience by the hour and forty-five minute mark.

Prisoners

 Everyone's a prisoner! ****1/2

In “Prisoners,” Director Denis Villeneuve is allowed the privilege few lesser known filmmakers have these days: The chance to not only make a multimillion-dollar American movie with A-list actors, but to also see his vision to the end. It would have been easy for the studio to step in and dumb this material down to another Hollywood thriller. Watching the film, you feel nothing short of grateful that the project was helmed by Villeneuve, whose “Incendies” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Give him an intelligent script by Aaron Guzikowski in addition to a faultless cast, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the most distinctive crime dramas since “Mystic River.”

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, an all-American family man with a beautiful wife played Maria Bello, a teenage son, and a six-year-old daughter. His best friends are Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the Birch’s, an African American couple that have a little girl of their own. When the two families get together on Thanksgiving, both young girls go out to play and completely vanish. Paul Dano is ambiguously effective as Alex Jones, a mentally challenged man who was seen parked outside the neighbor’s house shortly before the girls were taken. The cops are unable to find any concrete evidence on Alex, prompting Keller to take the law into his own hands.

On the surface, “Prisoners” might sound like the same old generic thriller mentioned earlier. But there’s so much more to this story than one would ever expect. This is primarily because the narrative is so well structured, delivering on every plot point, avoiding all cheap clichés, and leaving plenty of room for human drama.

The actors sell every minute of the script, never hitting a wrong note. Bello is heartbreaking as a mother too distressed to leave her bed. Howard and Davis are superb as two people forced to rethink their entire moral code in order to save their daughter. An unrecognizable Melissa Leo especially sneaks up on you as Alex’s aunt and caretaker. The movie truly belongs to its leading men, though.

Jackman gives the best performance of his career, even more so than his Oscar-nominated work in “Les Miserables.” Here, Jackman explores a side of mankind we rarely get to see in modern media, vulnerability. That doesn’t mean Jackman is playing a weak man in the usual sense. His character has a fair deal of brutal and intense scenes as he takes drastic measures to uncover the truth. Half of the time you might expect him to go Wolverine on someone’s ass. Jackman isn’t playing Wolverine, however. He’s a father, fighting those around him and his own inner demons as he desperately tries to deal with the grief eating away inside.

Another great leading performance comes from an understated Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who leads the kidnapping investigation. He’s the perfect contrast to Jackman’s family man, being a loner who has Thanksgiving dinner by himself in a Chinese restaurant. Loki could have been written as a cookie-cutter obsessed cop. Like the rest of the characters, though, he’s never turned into an archetype or an action hero for that matter.

People might walk into “Prisoners” thinking they’re going to get “Taken,” a vigilante picture where the police are useless, chases fill-in for the story, and the protagonist is always easy to cheer on. They’ll be surprised to find “Prisoners” is not only an exceptional entertainment, but a unique one with something to say about family and ethics. While it’s definitely a suspenseful movie, it goes beyond being purely a suspense movie. 

Safe Haven

So stupid and ridiculous that I can't look away ***

After “A Walk to Remember,” “The Notebook,” “The Last Song,” “The Lucky One,” and “Dear John,” Nicholas Sparks is obviously running a campaign to become president of sappiness. His novels have inspired a number of hokey adaptations chock-full of one-dimensional archetypes and scenes ripped off from other romances. This guy loves seeing people get caught in the rain more than Michael Bay marvels at the sight of explosions. The latest picture from the novelist turned producer, “Safe Haven,” is every bit as cheesy and mushy as one would expect. It’s about as original as a Lifetime movie designed to brazenly manipulate our emotions. Maybe I’m becoming easier to manipulate, but this melodramatic cornball kept me completely invested from beginning to end.

The opening scenes find a distressed young woman played by Julianne Hough running away from home, covered in somebody else’s blood. She hops on a bus and gets off in the small town of Southport, North Carolina. This woman introduces herself to everyone as Katie and makes it abundantly clear that she wants a fresh start. Seriously, there are like a dozen lines of dialog and visual motifs regarding second chances. Although Katie isn’t looking for romance, she naturally finds love in a single father who is conveniently charming and looks like a Disney prince. Josh Duhamel plays Alex, who is having trouble raising his disgustingly adorable daughter and bratty son after losing his wife. It appears that Katie and Alex have found just the right person to move on with. The only problem is that a big, bad, alcoholic detective played by David Lyons is hot on Katie’s trail and gunning to bring her down.

Halfway through “Safe Haven” one might think that they have the whole story figured out. The film takes a couple unexpected turns however that range from inspired to completely nonsensical. “Safe Haven” requires the audience to take a leap of faith and just accept all the gaping holes in the narrative. The ending in particular will have a lot of people howling as it jumps the shark into pure fantasy territory. But even when the movie is at its most preposterous, there’s no denying that watching these twists unfold is a ton of fun.

Basically what we have here is a well-produced, feature-length soap opera. Deep down you know that it’s ridiculous, clichéd dribble that appeals to the lowest common denominator. As much as you want to just tear it to shreds though, you can’t help but be sucked in by the thoroughly entertaining drama. This is mainly because the leads have an engaging chemistry and Director Lasse Hallström never allows his audience to grow board. That’s more than can be said about last year’s “The Vow,” which took no chances whatsoever.

Jonathan Levine’s “Warm Bodies” remains the ideal love story to see this Valentine’s Day weekend. If you’ve already seen that wonderful film however, “Safe Haven” should prove to be a satisfying outing for sentimental couples. It’s a vastly superior alternative to the other romance coming out this week, the “Twilight” wannabe known as “Beautiful Creatures.” As for all the single guys, “A Good Day to Die Hard” is probably their safest bet.

Saving Mr. Banks

 Turns out the woman who wrote "Mary Poppins" is a total bitch ****

It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking Disney. Sure, many of us go through a phase where we think we’re too old and sophisticated for Mickey Mouse. This typically leads to our pretentious cynic phase in which our college professors open our eyes to all the stereotypes and “hurtful ethics” Disney has endorsed over the years. Films like “Escape from Tomorrow” haven’t exactly helped the company’s image either. At the end of the day, though, nobody can outrun the magic, good will, and sheer lovability attached to Disney. There isn’t a cold-hearted soul that can’t be completely won over by the mouse house…except maybe P.L. Travers, the author of “Mary Poppins.”

Many consider the 1964 musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins” to be Walt Disney’s crowning live-action achievement. Yet, Mrs. Travers wasn’t the happiest camper during the film’s production and wasn’t entirely thrilled with the end product. This isn’t the only time an author has disapproved of a film adaptation of their work. Fun fact, Roald Dahl was not a fan of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

The relationship between Travers and Disney is the focus of “Saving Mr. Banks,” a most charming new film from John Lee Hancock. Emma Thompson is positively marvelous as Mrs. Travers, who is finally convinced to meet with Mr. Disney about the film rights to her beloved books after twenty years of being hounded. Upon arriving, she is introduced to Bradley Whitford as Screenwriter Don DaGradi as well as B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers. The unwavering Travers shoots down just about every idea they have in mind, from the music, to the animation, to the casting of Dick Van Dyke, to the use of the color red. No one is able to get through to Travers, not even Uncle Walt himself.

There isn’t a living actor more likable than Tom Hanks. There was never an icon more likable than Walt Disney, assuming you don’t buy into the whole anti-Semitic thing. It’s only natural that Hanks would play Disney eventually. He hits just the right note as an exuberant creative genius with great passion for his job and life. At the same time, Hanks also plays Disney as a persuasive businessman who’s used to getting what he wants. As frustrated as Disney becomes with Travers’ constant rejections, he does sympathize with her concerns about entrusting Mary Poppins to another artist. In his early days as an animator, Disney was approached by many who wanted to buy Mickey Mouse and he simply couldn’t sell.
 
If there’s one part of “Saving Mr. Banks” that lags at times it’s a series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood, where she survived by a suicidal mother and alcoholic father. Colin Farrell mostly carries these scenes in a wonderful supporting performance as Travers’ dad, who loves his daughters to death, but enjoys playing more than working. While effective at times, this is also the most predictable portion of the film. At one point it looks things might take an unexpected turn when Travers is paid a visit from her Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who shares some resemblance to Mary Poppins. However, that character is just kind of glanced over.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is at its best whenever Thompson and Hanks are on screen together. Their scenes are always engaging, leading to several thoughtful conversations about what a character means to its creator. Even though Travers does eventually start to warm up to Disney, the film never sells out by having her be completely won over by his vision.

For everything “Saving Mr. Banks” gets right, there are still times when it feels like the film could have gone deeper into the hard truths behind Travers and Disney’s relationship instead of going for sentimental payoffs. Then again, this is a Disney movie from the guy who directed “The Blind Side” so some overly sentimental moments are to be expected. For what we do get, this is a genuine crowd-pleaser carried by two exceptional performances. Much like Disney, it’s hard not to be won over by the film.

Snitch

Dwayne Johnson: Serious Actor **1/2

“Snitch” is a movie that knows what it wants to say, but fails to get its message across in a nonconventional fashion. The film is loosely based on a “Frontline” documentary about Joey Settembrino, an eighteen-year-old who was sentenced to a minimum of ten years in prison for selling LSD. The government offered Joey a reduced sentence in exchange for the names of drug dealers high up on the totem pole. Since Joey was unwilling to cooperate, he had no other alternative but to serve his time. James Settembrino, Joey’s father, did everything he could by independently digging up dirt on drug abusers and drug distributors. His attempts to free his son were futile for the most part though.

Somewhat like the real story, “Snitch” starts out with a promising young man who gets mixed up in the drug business. In this fictionalized version he’s named Jason and played by Rafi Gavron. After he receives some drugs in the mail, Jason is caught by the cops and given the standard decade-long sentence. Dwanyne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is John Matthews, Jason’s estranged father, who manages a successful construction company and lives in a big house with a new family. Wanting to do right by his son, John decides to go undercover and help take down a drug cartel. This is where “Snitch” essentially gives up on representing the actual events and becomes a predictable Hollywood movie with the occasional shootout and truck chase.

While the content may be straightforward, the actors still give it their all. Susan Sarandon is coldly unsympathetic as a DEA who only cares about convictions and gives little thought to the people she’s putting away. Character actor Jon Bernthal gives one of his most effective performances as an ex-con trying to do good, but gets sucked into John’s undercover operation. Also a ton of fun is Michael Kenneth Williams, the master of playing African American street thugs. At this point, Williams might as well just permanently change his name to Omar Little.

The only performer that feels out of place is unfortunately Dwanyne Johnson, who has been trying to make the leap from professional wrestler, to action star, to “serious actor.” To be fair, Johnson’s performance really isn’t that bad. It’s simply a case of miscasting. His character is supposed to be an average father who hopelessly finds himself in the midst of a dangerous, life-threatening situation. The problem is that you never buy Johnson as a vulnerable, everyday guy, you just see the Scorpion King. But at least he’s more believable in a sincere, dramatic role than Hulk Hogan.

The main dilemma with “Snitch” is that it pays too much attention to John’s dynamics with the authorities and drug dealers, pretty much ignoring his family life. The audience barely gets to know John’s ex-wife, his new wife, or little daughter, all of whom are reduced to just crying and complaining. Even Jason’s time on screen is limited, although Gavron does turn out a powerful acting job. There was potential here for a touching, honest story about broken families and unjust incarceration. These themes are lost however, in a repetitive narrative that never amounts to anything more than a routine crime thriller. It’s not surprising that Director/Co-writer Ric Roman Waugh decided to go down action route since he has mainly worked as a stunt man in the past. But his film is just too commercial and generic for us to really care about any of the underdeveloped characters or the worthwhile message. 

Star Trek: Into Darkness

To boldly blow up what no man has blown up before ****1/2 

On paper, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” is one of those movies that should have crashed and burned. A reboot of a beloved franchise with younger, lesser-known actors stepping into the shoes of an iconic cast of characters. The fact that Abrams went on record stating that he was never a huge “Star Trek” fan didn’t bode well either. Against all odds, though, Abrams not only produced a great “Star Trek” picture, but quite possibly the best “Star Trek” ever made. That’s right, even better than “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

Of course that’s a personal preference. A fair deal of Trekkies, or Trekkers to be politically correct, might argue that Abrams’ film betrayed the essence of the original “Star Trek” series. The film’s epic action sequences felt more like something you’d see in a “Star Wars” movie than in a “Star Trek” movie. Regardless, it’s hard to complain when the action set pieces were some of the most dazzling and intense of modern blockbusters. Plus, it’s not just the colorful eye candy that made Abrams’ “Star Trek” so outstanding, but also the rich collection of ideas, characters, and philosophies. Isn’t that what “Star Trek” has always been about? Just about everything that made Abrams’ film great is on display in it’s follow-up, “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”

Chris Pine continues to do an ideal job as James T. Kirk, who has learned much as captain of the USS Enterprise. The only thing Kirk has yet to learn is how to handle defeat. It doesn’t help that Zachary Quinto’s always-logical Mr. Spock undermines Kirk’s reckless tactics around every corner. Kirk and Spock are forced to put their differences aside when Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison, a Starfleet agent gone bad, bombs a branch of the United Federation of Planets. It’s up to Kirk’s crew to track Harrison down and boldly blow stuff up in the process.

Like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy before them, Pine and Quinto share a heartfelt, funny, and intriguing dynamic that’s equal parts friendship and rivalry. Quinto in particular does a first-rate job at giving a lot of depth to a character that at times appears completely emotionless. Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin meanwhile persist to shine as the supporting characters we all know and love. There is a dull romance subplot and a couple news characters that are somewhat underdeveloped. “Star Trek: Into Darkness” more than makes for those minor shortcomings, however, with its villain. Cumberbatch is perfectly menacing and complex as John Harrison, who will play a key role in the destiny of our heroes. For all those that haven’t already read the spoilers online, I won’t ruin the big twist regarding this character. Lets just say he’s not an actor posing as a terrorist ala “Iron Man 3.”

Once again, Abrams has done for “Star Trek” what Christopher Nolan did for Batman and what various directors have done for James Bond in recent years. Creating a reboot that’s true to a franchise’s roots and presenting it in a fresh light. The chemistry between the actors is unparallel, the story is inventive, the stakes are high, the in-jokes will appeal to die-hard fans, and the action sets the standard for this summer movie season. If you loved Abrams’ first “Star Trek,” you’re going to love this one too. If you have issues with the direction Abrams has taken this franchise, then there’s an Internet forum for you to complain on.   

On the heels of his success with “Star Trek,” Abrams is now set to direct “Star Wars: Episode VII.” If Abrams’ new “Star Wars” is half as good as these two “Star Trek” pictures, it will more than make up for George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Who knows? Maybe somewhere down the line Disney will acquire the rights to “Star Trek” and Abrams will get to direct the ultimate fanboy crossover.

The To Do List

Reviewing The To Do List, check. Now to cross off seeing Wolverine ***1/2

If “Bridesmaids” was the female version of “The Hangover,” then “The To Do List” could be considered the female version of “American Pie.” You could also call it the female version of “Superbad,” the raunchier version of “Easy A,” or the 1990’s version of “Sixteen Candles.” No matter what you compare it to, “The To Do List” still stands out on its own as a funny, cute, and gleefully vulgar comedy. Much of this has to do with the film’s star and first-time director/writer, both of whom we ought to be seeing more of in the future.

Audrey Plaza of “Parks & Recreation” is one of those rising young actresses that’s been in dire need of her own star vehicle for some time. She finds the perfect leading role here as Brandy Klark, the class valedictorian whose made plenty of time for studying and worshiping Hilary Clinton, but no time for sexual conquests. It’s the summer of 1993 and Brandy wants nothing more than to lose her virginity before college. To prepare herself for this milestone, Brandy makes a to do list of sexual experiences she wishes to have in her trusty trapper keeper. Since the Internet wasn’t that mainstream at this point, however, Brandy isn’t even sure what half of the items on her list mean.  

To fulfill her sexual goals, Brandy enlists the help of several men. There’s Johnny Simmons as Cameron, the nice guy Brandy should be with, Scott Porter as Rusty Waters, the hunky lifeguard Brandy would rather be with, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Cameron’s best friend, Andy Samberg as a meathead lead guitarist, and Donald Glover looking a lot like one of the kids from “Family Matters.”

Brandy is additionally offered advice from Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as her best friends, Rachel Bilson as her soon to be married older sister, and Connie Britton as her sexually confident mother. The only person not helping Brandy out much on either end is her deadbeat manager at the community pool played by Bill Hader. He does deliver some of the film’s most hilarious one-liners, however.

While very funny and well acted, “The To Do List” does have one disadvantage. For the most part it’s one of those coming of age movies where you know everything that’s going to happen and what’s going to be learned. But much like somebody’s first sexual venture, the big climax isn’t always the most important thing. What is important it the journey there and what you walk away with. On that basis, “The To Do List” totally nails it.

This is the first feature film from Bill Hader’s wife, Maggie Carey, who has mainly worked in television and shorts up until now. She’s put together a smart, edgy, and fearless debut that reeks of 90’s culture. Come to think of it, in the 70’s so many movies seemed to be set in the 50s, in the 80’s they were set in the 60’s, in the 90’s they were set in the 70’s, in the early 2000’s they were set in the 80’s, and now we’re finally making it up to the 90s. As somebody who was only three in 1993, you can imagine how old this makes me feel.

This is the End

My only friend, the end ****

There’s one question that “Independence Day,” “2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Cloverfield,” “The Core,” “War of the Worlds,” and other disaster movies never acknowledge: Where are the celebrities during all this mayhem? Aside from Bill Murray’s hilarious cameo in “Zombieland,” we never get to see what the rich and fabulous are up to during the apocalypse. There aren’t any scientists, soldiers, politicians or everyday people in “This Is the End.” James Franco and friends are the film’s focus as they try to survive the end of the world and each other.

Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel plays Jay Baruchel. They’ve been friends since childhood, although Baruchel has been feeling some animosity towards the more successful Rogen as of late. The film starts off as a typical stoner comedy with the two going to a party at Franco’s new pad. Then suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, all hell literally breaks loose. The good are beamed up to heaven while the wicked are left behind to burn. Rogen and Baruchel seek refuge in Franco’s house along with Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride.

Last year we got “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” an apocalypse movie that was equal parts comedy and drama. “This Is the End” is a full out comedy and it certainly delivers the laughs despite its grim subject matter. A lot of this humor is derived from how all these real life actors are willing to poke fun at their egos. Franco is naturally the self-appointed leader of the group, Hill is the conceited narcissist, Baruchel is the modest outsider, and McBride is the selfish SOB nobody can stand. While they’re playing exaggerated variations of themselves, you never doubt them for a second in these roles.

Along with the six leads, there are several classic brief bits involving Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, and a totally whacked out Michael Cera. Not every bit in the movie hits it out of the part. There’s one scene involving Emma Watson that starts off with promise, but ultimately works up to an uninspired conclusion. On occasion the film runs the risk of becoming an extravagant special effects picture with CGI demon penises flying at the screen. For the most part, however, “This Is the End” is more about jokes and interactions. On that basis, the chemistry between these incredibly funny guys is always dead on.

“This is the End” marks the directorial debut of Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who previously wrote “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” together. In many respects, their film is much like “Tropic Thunder,” only with real actors as apposed to fictional ones. This makes for some great inside jokes and references, most notably when Rogen is called out for botching “The Green Hornet.” They even manage to work in a clip from the “Pineapple Express” sequel we’ll never see. The funniest bit of all has got to be the ending. I won’t spoil it for you here, but lets just say it blows Destiny’s Child’s surprise Super Bowl appearance out of the water.

With exception to some missed opportunities and overblown CGI, “This is the End” is one of the funniest movies of the summer and another winning collaboration between this filmmaking team. Let’s hope the world doesn’t really come to an end any time soon. If the end is near, though, wouldn’t it fun to spend it with some of the funniest men on the planet?

Turbo

Turbo: Not a Power Rangers Movie **

You ever hear the saying, “This is about as much fun as watching snails race?” Well “Turbo,” the latest flick from DreamWorks Animation, is literally about a racing snail. It’s also about as fascinating as watching paint dry or watching grass grow. Sitting in the theater, you never feel like you’re observing an animated feature from the edgy, satirical, pop-culture savvy folks at DreamWorks. You feel like you’re watching a cartoon with a thin premise on Nickelodeon. In other words, save your time, save your money, and stream it for the kids when it’s on Netflix in several months.

Ryan Reynolds provides the voice of Theo aka Turbo, a snail that dreams of being fast and furious. His idol is a French-Canadian Indy 500 champion named Guy Gagne, who’s supplied with one of the many diverse voices in Bill Hader’s repertoire. Turbo’s brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), insists that he give up this inaccessible dream and focus on working at the plant, which is a garden where snails harvest tomatoes. Ha, ha. Turbo is on the verge of giving up until his DNA is altered by nitrous oxide. Instead of killing him, this turns Turbo into a supercharged snail with headlight eyes, car blinkers, and rapid speed.

If you think that’s as silly as the plot gets, believe me, it gets much sillier. Turbo is picked up by Tito, a jolly Mexican voiced by Michael Peña, who just happens to race snails as a hobby. When Tito sees what Turbo can do, he decides to take a chance at entering the snail in the Indy 500. That may sound preposterous, but if the Air Bud dog could play basketball, football, soccer, baseball, and volleyball, nothing’s too contrived. The real question is why the government isn’t interested in dissecting this high-speed snail.

On the road, Turbo also manages to pick up a pit crew of fellow snails with a need for speed. They’ve voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michael Bell, and Ben Schwartz, although remembering their names is a challenge. They’re all pretty forgettable, lacking any personalities, and can only be told apart by their colors. Like most of the characters in those “Cars” movies, the only reason they really exist is to sell more toys. Collect them all in a McDonald’s Happy Meal!

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being too hard on “Turbo.” Sure, the premise may be stupid. Sure, the plot follows that same exact formula as “Ratatouille.” At the same time, however, the film makes good use of the animation format, the colors are bright, the actors do good voiceover work, and the moral is a decent one for kids. It’s a cute movie, but not funny enough, smart enough, or charming enough to win over anybody over ten. “Turbo” could have been worse, though. It could have been a spinoff of “Cars” with living planes. So what’s the next animated movie on the agenda…oh crud…

Warm Bodies

I'm a zombie and I still have more personality than Edward Cullen ****

Zombies are terrible characters. That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of good movies featuring zombies like “28 Days Later,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland,” and the George A. Romero classics. In those films however, it was the human characters and their pursuit to endure the zombie apocalypse that kept the audience invested. Unlike vampires or werewolves, zombies have never been blessed with interesting back-stories, individuality, or moral dilemmas. Last summer’s “Chernobyl Diaries” left me asking why couldn’t there be a movie about a mutant/zombie who’s intelligent with character traits and motivation. Jonathan Levine, who previously made the wonderful “50/50,” responds to my question in “Warm Bodies.”

In this adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Isaac Marlon, we finally delve into the innermost thoughts of the living dead. Nicholas Hoult gives one of the best performances of his impressive young career as R, a teenage zombie who can’t remember his full name. Although his speech is limited, R can still make clever, sophisticated commentary in his head. He lives in an abandoned airport with a pack of fellow corpses, which includes good old Rob Corddry as his best friend, M. Also occupying the airport are Bonies, zombies that have completely lost their flesh and compassion.

John Malkovich is General Grigio, who leads the resistance against the corpses and secures human survivors in a walled off city. Grigio sends a group of youths on a mission to find medical supplies outside the wall. This team includes Teresa Palmer as the general’s headstrong daughter, Julie, who has a run-in with R and his zombie entourage. Rather than eating her brains, R makes an unexpected human connection with Julie. He ends up saving Julie from his fellow zombies and taking her back to his broken down airplane. While Julie is naturally scared for her life at first, she eventually comes to see that there’s still humanity in R. He may still have the capacity to love and, even more amazingly, she may be able to love him back.

One of the most unexpected surprises of “Warm Bodies” is the gripping character of R, who is remarkably brought to life through Hoult’s performance. Playing a zombie might seem like a pretty thankless role that any extra can pull off. Through flawless body language, facial expressions, and speech, Hoult demonstrates just how difficult it can be to convincingly portray a zombie. Hoult’s always-amusing inner-monologue adds to his character, as we comprehend R’s struggle to become human again. He’s a genuine protagonist that we care about, a feat that no zombie movie has ever accomplished or really attempted.

Another incredibly achievement on behalf of the filmmakers is the believable romance. The screenplay easily could have restricted this concept to a cheap satire not even fit for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Against all odds though, Levine fashions R and Julie’s relationship into an epic love story, often calling to mind “Romeo & Juliet” and especially “Beauty and the Beast.” Like the best “Beauty and the Beast” tales, “Warm Bodies” manages to take the most unusual of pairings and tells a meaningful, sincere romance we can actually buy into.

Summit Entertainment, the same studio that brought us those “Twilight” pictures, produced “Warm Bodies.” This film may not stand a chance at making half of what “Breaking Dawn-Part 2” grossed in its opening weekend. If you’re looking for a paranormal romance with authentic characters, stakes, ideas, and passion however, look no further. “Warm Bodies” is the hipster love story that should be taking this generation by storm.

The Way, Way Back

COMING OF AGE MOVIE! ****1/2

In a cluster of big-budget extravaganzas about superheroes, zombies, robots, monsters, and things that blow up, two little comedies about the magic of summer have stood out this season. One of these films is “The Kings of Summer,” perhaps the most overlooked picture of the year thus far. The other film is “The Way, Way Back.” Both of these movies are humorous and identifiable with a familiar, yet eternally meaningful, message about growing up. “The Kings of Summer” and “The Way, Way Back” additionally seem to exist in timeless eras, mostly devoid of new-aged technology and modern references. There’s just one key difference between the two coming of age tales.

“The Kings of Summer” played out almost like a daydream. It was the kind of summer experience we all imagined having in our youth, but never really could. “The Way, Way Back” on the other hand, feels so uncomfortably authentic that at times it’s difficult to watch. It’s a truly relatable film full of characters we’ve all likely encountered in real life. It’s also one of the best films of the year.

Liam James hits just the right note as Duncan, a socially awkward fourteen-year-old who always slouches and wears tight jeans to the beach. He lives with his single mother (Toni Collette) in a one-bedroom apartment. His mom is dating a man named Tent (Steve Carell), who tries to sell himself as a nice guy but is really an impatient jerk at heart. Along with his mom and Trent’s snarky teenage daughter (Zoe Levin), Duncan gets dragged to Trent’s summerhouse. Living next door is a very funny Allison Janney as a drunken divorcée, AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter, and River Alexander as her lazy-eyed son.  

Although it looks like summer is going to be hell for Duncan, he manages to find two safe havens. One of them is at the Water Wizz water park, the same water park Adam Sandler and gang went to in “Grown Ups.” There he meets Sam Rockwell’s Owen, a hipster who takes Duncan under his wing to help bring him out of his shell. Duncan also manages to find comfort in AnnaSophia Robb’s Susanna. The two don’t share an instant chemistry. The first conversation they share is just flat out awkward. As the summer progresses, though, a relationship does inevitably evolve between them. It’s a sweat, subtle summer romance that feels surprisingly natural and never forced.

Just about everyone in the audience will find somebody to identify with watching this movie. Any kid who’s maintained a summer job probably had an older friend like Owen who can be both wise and immature at the same time. Many of us know all too well what it’s like to have a stepparent like the pushy Trent. Collette particularly stands out as the mother, who knows that Trent isn’t a good man and will never treat her right. Regardless, she stays with him anyways as an effort to fulfill her own needs and provide her son with a family. On more than one occasion, I felt like Duncan growing up, silently sitting alone in a room full of people, afraid to put myself out there, and unsure what direction to take my life in.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Descendants” along with Alexander Payne. Here they act as the writers, directors, and co-stars of “The Way, Way Back.” They’ve made a warm, honest film that’s next to impossible not to enjoy. Even at 103 minutes, it’s one of those rare movies that feel all too short. Like a great summer vacation, you just wish “The Way, Way Back” would last forever. 

The Wind Rises

Better than Planes ****

Hayao Miyazaki will reportedly be retiring with the release of his latest film, “The Wind Rises.” He said the same thing after finishing “Princess Mononoke” only to come out with “Spirited Away” a few years later. If this is indeed Miyazaki’s last film, at least the Japanese master of animation is going out on a high note. “The Wind Rises” isn’t Miyazaki’s best film. It isn’t even the best film currently up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, an honor that should rightfully go to “Frozen.” However, it does make for a passionate, romantic, tragic, and occasionally gorgeous final curtain to Miyazaki’s esteemed career…assuming he stays retired this time.  

Anybody who’s seen “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” “Castle in the Sky,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Porco Rosso,” and several of his short films knows that Miyazaki adores aviation every bit as much as he loves animation. “The Wind Rises” is Miyazaki’s ultimate tribute to flight, telling the fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Born with bad eyesight and dawning thick glasses, the humble Jiro is unable to fulfill his dream of being a pilot. If Jiro can’t fly planes, he wishes to design the most beautiful planes imaginable. Jiro gets his wish as he becomes an engineer and starts designing aircrafts for Japan during World War II.

Aviation is demoted to Jiro’s second love in life when he falls for a painter named Naoko (Emily Blunt). Noako suffers from Tuberculosis and is unlikely to live for long. Jiro devotedly stands by her every step of the way, all while juggling his responsibilities to the Japanese military. As a love story, “The Wind Rises” is sincere, moving, and works wonderfully. Although there is one awkwardly written scene where Jiro proposes to Noako with her hapless father sitting right there.

Outside of a few dream sequences, “The Wind Rises” is pretty much without any blatant magical or fantastic elements. Nevertheless, the hand drawn animation is still stunning to observe. Had Americans made it, the film probably would have been live-action with a lot of CGI planes and hundreds of extras. It also probably would have lacked the intimacy of Miyazaki’s direction.

Miyazaki has brought us some of the finest family movies of all time, including “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Ponyo.” “The Wind Rises,” though, is intended more for adults than it is for children. The Studio Ghibli film it has the most in common with is Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies.” Both of these wartime animations are very much grounded in harsh reality, reminding us that not all animated features have to strictly be magical adventures or slapstick comedies. Animation can be used to tell serious dramas too.

The only aspect of “The Wind Rises” that isn’t very effective is the film’s commentary on war. For a movie about a man who designed planes intended for combat, “The Wind Rises” doesn’t make much of an attempt to explain what was going on in Japan at this time or the consequences of the world war. The ending feels particularly rushed, glossing over some of the darker elements of Jiro’s life. Maybe “The Wind Rises” isn’t supposed to really be about the war, though. Maybe it’s supposed to be more about one man’s love for flying and the woman of his dreams. In that sense, “The Wind Rises” is a wonderful flight into the sunset for Miyazaki.

World War Z

World War ZZZZZZ... **


I, for one, am officially fed up with movies about zombie outbreaks, mutant outbreaks, virus outbreaks, and outbreaks in general. To be fair, the end of the world/global epidemic genre can still be done well. The best recent example actually wouldn’t be a movie, but “The Walking Dead: The Game,” which packed in more drama, thrills and heartfelt character development than the AMC TV show of the same name. Compelling characters and genuine terror is missing from “World War Z,” however. It’s surprisingly hollow, surprisingly bland, and, most unforgivable of all, surprisingly boring.   

Brad Pitt, looking like he just walked off the set of his infamous Chanel No 5 commercial, is Gerry Lane. He’s the happiest man in the world with a wonderful wife, played by Mireille Enos, and two little girls that love to wake him up in the morning by jumping on the bed. It’s a perfect day as Gerry makes his family pancakes and his daughters beg him for a puppy. Nothing could possibly go wrong for this pitch perfect family…that is until zombies abruptly take over the world. It turns out Gerry is a former United Nations investigator. Although he swore to give that life up for his family, the government ropes him back in to solve this pandemic.

Director Marc Forster of “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland,” “Stranger Than Fiction,” and “The Kite Runner,” is a highly gifted director, needless to say. With “World War Z” and the underwhelming “Quantum of Solace,” though, he’s proven that action isn’t his area of expertise. That’s not to say “World War Z” isn’t without some incredible shots and impressive set pieces. There’s one notable flight sequence involving a zombie outburst that’s especially rousing. Zombies on a plane, now there’s a premise for a movie. The action doesn’t mean anything, though, unless the audience connects with the characters. The characters in “World War Z” are some of the dullest in awhile.

Pitt isn’t bad in his role, although he is instantly forgettable as a hero that has little buildup and little payoff. It’s great to see that the underappreciated Enos is getting more work in movies. It’s just too bad the writers of “World War Z” didn’t give her a very active character to work with. Gerry’s whole family pretty much disappears thirty minutes into the film. This also includes a mostly pointless little boy the Lane’s look after, played by Fabrizio Zacharee Guido. Zombies, meanwhile, continue to be the most uninteresting characters in the history of movies, with exception to the ones in “Warm Bodies.”

“World War Z” is a basic summer blockbuster. It’s clear that people like to see this story told over and over again, otherwise studios wouldn’t keep them coming off the assembly line. If you want zombies, chases, and explosions, you’re going to be satisfied. Personally, I’m holding out for the release of “The Walking Dead: 400 Days.”  

You're Next

 Home Alone 5: Shit Gets Real ***1/2

In “You’re Next,” Barbara Crampton plays quite possibly the smartest person in the history of slasher flicks. Not more than ten minutes into the picture, her character hears a strange noise coming from upstairs. Her initial reaction is to immediately get out of the house and drive away. That’s it. Movie’s over. Goodnight, everybody!

Okay, okay, the movie doesn’t play out exactly like that. Her husband, played Rob Moran, of course convinces Crampton that there’s nothing wrong with the house and they stay. What ensues is bloody massacre involving arrows to the head, axes to the head, knives to the head, and blenders to the head. If only more characters used their heads in this film, maybe they’d get to keep them.

In addition to Crampton’s character, there is one other intelligent person in “You’re Next.” Her name is Erin, a resourceful Austrian woman played by Sharni Vinson. She’s dating AJ Bowen’s Crispian, Crampton and Moran’s son. Crispian takes Erin up to his parent’s secluded vacation house to meet the whole family, which includes his three siblings and their three dates. The family reunion takes a turn for the worst, however, when somebody starts firing arrows through the windows.

To give the film credit, this is one of the few times where the characters are given a justified reason for staying in their home. It soon becomes clear that the whole household is surrounded. Just stepping foot outside the front door means a date with a crossbow. The cars have all been sabotaged and cell service has been blocked. On top of all that, one of the masked killers is hiding somewhere in the house, armed with a machete. That’s actually a pretty scary setup. Leave it to Erin to take control of the situation as she arms herself with a meat tenderizer and sets booby traps throughout the house. She’s like the grown-up, female Kevin McCallister with lethal weapons.

While Erin might be good in a crisis, the same can’t be said about most of the other characters. They all make the unbelievably dimwitted decisions audiences love to laugh at in horror movies, sometimes literally running into guaranteed danger. Dumb decisions and the occasional obvious scare aside, though, it’s all in good fun. That’s the best word to describe “You’re Next,” fun. It’s a quality that was severely lacking from the sadistic remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Funny Games,” both of which cruelly put families in unspeakable peril.  

Director Adam Wingard first premiered “You’re Next” at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. His film won’t revolutionize this genre by any means. For what it is, however, it’s definitely a slick, little thriller with some A-list kills, humor that catches you off guard, and great twists on top of more great twists. Along with the “Evil Dead” reboot and “The Conjuring,” it’s another surprisingly good scary movie from 2013. Actually, it shouldn’t come as a major surprise that a year ending in 13 would be a good one for horror flicks.