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Movie Reviews 2014

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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 

22 Jump Street

It's sequel time! ****


“22 Jump Street” just might be the most self-aware sequel ever made, including “Muppets Most Wanted” where there was an entire song about doing a sequel. Nick Offerman’s Deputy Chief Hardy tells returning stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum that nobody cared about the Jump Street reboot. Against all the odds, though, it ended up being a success. Now expectations are high and the program has been doubled in budget. It’s also been moved across the street from 21 Jump Street to 22 Jump Street. In another couple years, it will likely be moved back across the street next door at 23 Jump Street.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom are fresh off the success of “The Lego Movie,” seem to know all the mistakes filmmakers typically make with sequels. Some just make the same movie over again like with “The Hangover: Part II” or make something that barely resembles the original like “The Hangover: Part III.” “22 Jump Street” finds just the right balance, staying close enough to the original concept while keeping enough new blood flowing. It might not be an improvement over “21 Jump Street.” What is, though, is a clever satire of sequels, the first film, other cop movies, and even the TV series that inspired this franchise.

Hill’s Schmidt and Tatum’s Jenko are back to go undercover as college students this time around. Their mission is to find the supplier for a new drug called WHYPHY (WiFi), which is becoming accessible at every university around the country. Schmidt and Jenko tell themselves that this case is going to be different and they aren’t just going to repeat themselves. To their dismay, however, they start to hit the same exact beats over again from the over-the-top car chase, to falling for a girl, to falling in with another crowd. While “22 Jump Street” might follow virtually the same formula as “21 Jump Street,” what sets it apart is its meta approach and that the actors aren’t just there to pickup easy paychecks.

Hill and Tatum are still fully dedicated to their roles as their unlikely bromance becomes as complicated and dysfunctional as ever. But the real scene-stealer once again is Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson, who nails every one-liner that comes out of his foul mouth. If only Ice Cube could have gotten dialog this funny in “Ride Along,” which you should all be ashamed for making a hit by the way. “22 Jump Street” even finds time to bring back Rob Riggle’s castrated Mr. Walters and Dave Franco’s Eric, now behind bars together and alleged jailbird lovers.

Although the returning cast members are as great as ever, most of the new characters don’t leave that much of an impression. Wyatt Russell plays a meathead jock that acts as a kindred spirit to Jenko, but he’s not all that interesting. Amber Stevens is lovely and nice as Schmidt’s love interest, but is also kind of a bore. To be fair, her character does at least play a part in one of the film’s best twists. Maybe I’m just missing Brie Larson. The only new character who stands out that much is Jillian Bell as Mercedes, that one stuck-up college girl who thinks she’s superior and let’s everyone know it.

Ah well, these character aren’t the focus of the film anyway. It’s all about Hill and Tatum and their chemistry remains completely off the charts. Although both are fully aware this is a sequel, they wisely never actually wink to the camera and let us know that they know. They’re the reason why “22 Jump Street” isn’t just a successful sequel, but a successful standalone film as well. It’d be fun to see them together one more time for “23 Jump Street,” although the hilarious end credits pretty much exhaust every conceivable idea this series could ever do. Maybe that means they’re actually going to have some artistic integrity and quit while they’re ahead. In any case, “22 Jump Street” has more artistic integrity than any sequel to a remake of a TV show than you’d ever expect.

3 Days to Kill

Trained killer by day, father by night *1/2

To be perfectly upfront, I’ve never been a huge Kevin Costner fan. That’s not to say he hasn’t been good in a few movies such as “Field of Dreams.” He’s even directed some great movies…well one great movie at least. Then in the late nineties, Costner seemed to go on a major ego trip, constantly casting himself as mankind’s savior in movies like “Waterworld” and “The Postman.” Now he’s riding the comeback train with effective work in “Hatfields & McCoys” and “Man of Steel.” “3 Days to Kill” is unfortunately a step backwards for Costner. It won’t kill his career again, but it certainly won’t help it either.

To his credit, Costner’s performance is the classiest aspect of this otherwise muddled mess. He plays Ethan Reener, a CIA agent dying from brain cancer. Ethan is approached by a drop dead gorgeous spy named Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), who says she can easily cure his fatal illness with a new experimental drug. What an age we live in.

All Ethan has to do is take out a stock villain named The Wolf and his even more stock partner in crime named The Albino. Yes, because as everyone knows, all albino people are automatically criminal masterminds. If that’s not clichéd enough, the screenwriters also make him balder than Lex Luthor and give him a French accent. How subtle.

Meanwhile, Ethan spends his spare time reconnecting with Zoey, his annoying estranged daughter played by Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit.” If you think the film is going to work up to a climax where Zoey is kidnapped and Ethan must save her, guess again. Instead, we get a ton of boring scenes ripped off from a bad sitcom as Ethan teaches Zoey to ride a bike, shows her how to dance for prom, meets her boyfriend, and drinks hot cocoa with her. Oh, and there’s also an out of place subplot involving Ethan sharing his apartment with a family of immigrants. Suddenly, “Taken 2” is starting to look much more exciting.

Just reading that synopsis should tell you everything that’s wrong with the story. There are basically two movies here. One’s an action spy thriller. The other’s a lightweight comedy about a father winning his daughter’s affection. With the right pacing and plotting, maybe this could have work in the same sense of James Cameron’s “True Lies.” But “3 Days to Kill” is all over the place in terms of tone and can never decide what it wants to be. In the end, it’s not very effective as a thriller or as a comedy.

The film was directed by McG aka the less untalented Michael Bay. McG has worked as a producer on some fun TV shows, but is one of the most uneven filmmakers working today. “3 Days to Kill” is every bit as clumsy as his previous movies, “This Means War” and those “Charlie’s Angels” pictures. The screenplay by Adi Hasak and Luc Besson is littered with pointless characters and subplots that serve absolutely no purpose. It becomes a restless exercise watching the film as you wonder why these scenes were included. Then when you stop and look at the big picture, you’re just left contemplating why “3 Days to Kill” even exists. 

300: Rise of an Empire

Kind of a missed opportunity it wasn't called "300 II" ** 

 

When “300” came out almost seven years ago, you probably either thought it was the coolest movie of all time or the lamest movie of all time. While it was dumb and silly, the film’s glorified violence, striking look, and classic one-liners did admittedly have an effect on the macho dinosaur in me. The sad truth is that the style over substance appeal of “300” is only good for one movie. The first time you see such eye candy popping out at the screen, it’s friggin’ awesome. The second time around, it’s about as repetitive as watching Optimus Prime transform over and over again. That’s just one of the reasons why “300: Rise of the Empire” is dead on arrival.

This long awaited sequel of sorts shifts focus from Leonidas and his merry men to the Greek navy. They’re lead by general Themistokles, played by Sullivan Stapleton who can’t hold a candle to Gerard Butler. On the opposing team is Eva Green as Artemisia, a Greek dominatrix now playing for the Persian army. It’s nearly impossible to remember any of these characters by name, as they’re all interchangeable blank slates lacking any humor or personality. Granted, a few have interesting back-stories, such as Rodrigo Santoro as good old Xerxes. However, the exposition is so rushed through dull narration that you never develop an emotional connection to anyone.

But what am I doing using words like “emotion” in a review of “300?” Nobody going to see this movie will care about the character development or the hero’s journey. What they will care about is super slow mo action, CGI blood, pointless nudity, CGI backdrops, unintentionally hilarious sex scenes, CGI everything, speeches ripped-off from superior historical war epics, and more action. What’s really shocking is that “300: Rise of an Empire” can’t even deliver a descent action set piece.

Much of the film takes place on giant, bland ships on the bland, dark sea. Restricting the major battles to one environment backfires big time, making the already repetitive action feel even more repetitive. The vibrant colors of the original film are meanwhile traded in for a grimy look as rain pours on our topless heroes. Director Noam Murro can occasionally produce a nice shot. But for the most part, he’s made quite a lifeless looking film that’s a pale imitation of Zack Snyder’s original.

“300: Rise of an Empire” is without any applause worthy kills. It doesn’t have a single quotable line of dialog. The film isn’t even memorable enough for the likes of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer to “parody.” Halfway through, you’ll find yourself thinking, “This is actually kind of boring.” When it’s all over, you’ll be thinking, “Seriously, that was it?” The fact that a movie such as this isn’t even mindlessly entertaining is the greatest sin of all.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Can we please keep titles to a five word minimum from now on? **1/2

A live-action, feature-length version of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” produced by Disney? That’s got to be the most unpromising synopsis for a kid’s movie since Warner Bros. made an entire film about Legos. Then again, “The Lego Movie” ended up being awesome. Maybe this adaptation of the classic picture book from Judith Viorst will be a pleasant surprise too, right? Well, the film isn’t terrible, horrible, no good, or very bad. It’s not exactly great either. It’s just okay, which is still at least better than expected.

Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is an Austrian-loving, down on his luck eleven-year-old going on twelve. He’s had his fair share of lousy days, although his problems extend beyond simply getting stuck wearing railroad train pajamas in this adaptation. Here, Alexander must deal with a rival having a kickass birthday party the same day as his, having embarrassing photos of him posted on the Internet, and setting the science lab on fire. To make matters worse, the rest of Alexander’s family have seemingly perfect lives. Alexander wishes just for one day they could know how he feels. Since wishes always come true in Disney films, Alexander gets what he wants.

So in a strange twist, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” isn’t so much about Alexander as it is about his family and their bad days. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner are both wonderful as Alexander’s parents, both of whom face work crises due to Alexander’s wish. He also has an older brother (Dylan Minnette) who has a driver’s test and prom scheduled that day, a sister (Kerris Dorsey) who has the lead in her school’s production of Peter Pan, and a baby brother who can only be calmed down by a bumblebee pacifier. Of course their days involve the car getting destroyed, the play being a bust, a job interview going all wrong, the baby consuming magic marker, and a kangaroo attacking Carell. They also manage to work in a cameo from 88-year-old Dick Van Dyke as himself. I’m assuming he was under contract.

The slapstick is hit and miss with a lot of the material just being predictable. What gets the audience through the ordeal are the actors, who are all very likable in their roles and have terrific chemistry. The screenplay by Rob Lieber, while not always laugh-out-loud funny, still has some solid subplots and the theme of the film remains in the spirit of Viorst’s book. What holds “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” back from a recommendation is Alexander himself. That’s not a shot at Ed Oxenbould, who’s a fine young actor. Alexander is simply a boring character, though, spending most of the film standing around observing others. For a film with his name in the title, Alexander does next to nothing except make a wish. It also doesn’t help that the film’s final act feels drastically anticlimactic, tying up everything too nicely, too quickly, and without much suspense.  

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is a perfectly inoffensive, little movie. It’s nothing extraordinary, but the film wasn’t made for me. If it were, it probably would have been a dark comedy consisting of a lot more murder, drug arrests, and sex scandals. Now that would be a truly bad day. As a film aimed at kids between four and thirteen, however, it gets the job done fine and will likely keep parents entertained enough too.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Now there are 2 Spider-Man 2's ***1/2

Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” only got made as a means for Sony to maintain the film rights to everyone’s favorite non-Avenger Marvel superhero. For a film that didn’t have to exist, though, Webb and company still delivered an inspired take on Spidey that improved upon Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster. Now that the familiar origin story is out of the way, Webb is allowed to tell a fresher tale that’s even darker and more riveting than his predecessor. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” still doesn’t quite top Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2,” which got just about everything right. However, it does definitely have some of the best moments in any Spider-Man film to date.

Andrew Garfield continues to shine as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, who manages to be wittier than Tobey Maguire’s while also being more emotionally complex. The real unsung hero of this franchise, though, is Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Along with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, she completely transcends the stock love interest role. Rather, Gwen’s a fully fleshed out woman who proves to be just as brave and resourceful as the title character. The chemistry between Stone and Garfield is unmatched, creating a genuine relationship that’s cute, humorous, romantic, and meaningful all at once.

Where the film sparks whenever Garfield and Stone are on screen, the same ironically can’t be said about Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon. He’s a pathetic nobody who becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after he saves his life, pinning newspaper clippings to his wall and even talking to a photo of Spidey. This approach could have made for a disturbing, tortured figure, but Max is mostly just played for laughs. As a result, we don’t feel as much sympathy for Max when he falls into a pool of electric eels and becomes the walking plasma globe known as Electro. Comic book science, you’ve got to love it. Even if the character isn’t the strongest, the filmmakers do at least give Electro a cool voice and an even cooler design, looking like a supercharged Doctor Manhattan.

Fortunately, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has a second baddie to makeup for Electro’s shortcomings. Dane DeHaan plays Peter’s childhood best pal, Harry Osborn, who is dying from a genetic disease. The only thing that can cure Harry is Spider-Man’s blood, although some of the side effects include paranoia, schizophrenia, and being turned into the Green Goblin. Again, you got to love the convenience and irony of comic book science. DeHaan is given a lot of notes to play, from caring friend, to neglected son, to ruthless businessman, to desperate beggar, to crazed maniac, and he hits all of them out of the park.

Webb packs the film with more than enough colorful action, including several thrilling areal sequences that actually benefit from the use of 3D. More importantly, his screenwriting team also delivers an involving story concerning the death and conspiracy surrounding Peter’s late parents. While “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” attempts to juggle a number of characters and subplots, the filmmakers do a solid job at keeping everything balanced. In other words, it’s far from the mess that the story in “Spider-Man 3” was.

That being said, there are times when “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” can feel a little rushed. While it’s full of terrific moments, one can’t help but feel some of these scenes would have a greater impact with more buildup. Then again, movies are tough to pull off. Where an ongoing comic series or TV show has the time and freedom to let characters breathe, there’s only so much you can squeeze into a 142-minute film. Given the scope of the story and time restraint, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” does its best to produce an often heart pounding blockbuster. Seriously, though, we need Sony, Disney, and Marvel to work out their differences so Spidey can finally join up with Iron Man and Captain America.  

American Sniper

 A true American filmmaker ****

“American Sniper” further confirms that Clint Eastwood is the most American director making movies today. His films aren’t American in a showy or condescending way like the works of Michael Bay, however. He never turns his characters into macho action stars, nor does he use tired clichés to manipulate us into feeling pity for them. Eastwood merely shows people at their best and their worst as they try to get through life. In that sense, he isn’t just our most American director, but one of our most human directors.

The TV ads for “American Sniper” mostly play up the movie’s combat scenes. While those sequences are intense and exquisitely shot, it’s the quieter moments that distinguish this picture. “American Sniper” isn’t so much about war as it is about the side effects of war. It doesn’t quite get its “war is a drug” message across as poignantly as “The Hurt Locker.” Nevertheless, this is an authentic film carried by a powerful leading performance.

In arguably the most dramatic role of his career, Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle. A former rodeo cowboy, Kyle enlists in the Navy Seals shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and invasion of Iraq. Over the course of four tours, Kyle earns the title of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. Although he never says it, Kyle doesn’t seem to appreciate being referred to as a legend. All he can think about on the battlefield is getting home to his loving wife Taya, beautifully played by Sienna Miller. Whenever Kyle returns to free soil, though, he finds himself lost, stressed, and unable to function.

Eastwood, Cooper, and screenwriter Jason Hall manage to get a lot of emotion across with the smallest gestures. There’s an especially effective instance where Kyle hears a loud lawnmower and briefly forgets he’s no longer in combat. It’d be easy for this scene to batter us over the head with a flashback or obvious symbolism. Instead, Kyle gives one startled glance that sums up everything going through his head.

Another notable scene is when Kyle’s approached by a wounded veteran he saved. As the one-legged man praises him as a hero, all Kyle can think about is ending the conversation as quickly as possible. It feels like almost every movie about soldiers either centers on a weak, wide-eyed private or an aging captain who’s seen it all. It’s refreshing to see a film where the lead is both a renown, brave fighter who wants to serve his country, but is also a fairly young, vulnerable family man. “American Sniper” is a hard film to disrespect not only for its main character, but how honestly it represents him.

Big Hero 6

 It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man ****1/2

When Disney acquired the rights to Marvel, nobody knew what to make of the union. With one best known for wholesome family entertainment and the other geared more towards intense action intended for older audiences, would they really blend well together? “Big Hero 6” is clear-cut evidence these two innovative companies are a match made in heaven.

As impressive as Marvel’s recent live-action films have been, there are some stories that work so much better in the boundless realm of animation. “Big Hero 6” is such a product. Disney takes Marvel’s seemingly unfilmable source material and makes it jump out of the screen with carnival colors, charming characters, and all the fun of TVs most stimulating Saturday morning cartoons. The result is a winning combination that will thrill Disney lovers and Marvel lovers alike.

The film takes place in a fictional city that looks a lot like San Francisco meets Tokyo called San Fransokyo. Ryan Potter provides the voice of Hiro Hamada, who utilizes his engineering gifts to win illegal BattleBot fights on the streets. Through the influence of his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), Hiro is eventually motivated to put his talents to better use. The fourteen-year-old robotics wiz invents a device to take control of tiny microbots that can make anything. When his technology falls into the wrong hands, however, Hiro must step up as, well, a hero.

Hiro isn’t alone on his mission. He’s aided by his brother’s robot Baymax, voiced by a soothing Scott Adsit of “30 Rock.” This artificial healthcare companion is simplistic in appearance with a flabby, inflatable body painted white, a habitually calm voice, and expressionless dots for eyes. Yet, Baymax manages to be one of the funniest and most lovable animated characters in a long time, serving up an equal amount of hilarious physical and written gags. Think WALL-E, Totoro, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rolled into one.

The “6” in question is made up of four other tech geniuses that join Hiro and Baymax. They include an adrenaline junkie Asian named GoGo (Jamie Chung), an overly cautious worrywart named Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), an energetic mad scientist of sorts named Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), and a slacker sci-fi hipster named Fred (T.J. Miller). Miller in particular steals some of the film’s best lines with his childish passion for comics and monsters. Occasionally you kind of wish these four got a little more screen time, but they aren’t the main focus of the movie. This is truly a story about a boy and his robot. On that basis, “Big Hero 6” is one of the most heartfelt stories of its kind since “The Iron Giant.”

In addition to being a grand fusion of Disney and Marvel, “Big Hero 6” is also an endearing mix of western animation and eastern animation. It makes sense that Disney would make a film with such a heavy Asian influence since anime is as popular as ever in the US and Disney animation is huge in Japan. Last year’s “Frozen” notably became the third highest-grossing film in the country’s box office history, behind only “Spirited Away” and “Titanic.” After some failed attempts to mimic Miyazaki with “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “Treasure Planet,” Disney finally gets it just right through a diverse balance of anime action set pieces, comic book lore, and their own trademark magic.

Diversity is the keyword here with Directors Don Hall of “Winnie the Pooh” and Chris Williams of “Bolt” taking a number of different elements to create a varied world, style, and story. While we’re on the subject, hasn’t this been a diverse year for animation? There have been so many strong films and all of them unique in their own ways. Unlike most years where there’s a universal standout, selecting 2014’s Best Animated Feature should prove quite the challenge with “The Lego Movie,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” and now this in contention. As of now, though, “Big Hero 6” feels like a hard act to top. 

Birdman

Because I'm Birdman! *****

Michael Keaton established early on in his film career that he’s an actor of great range. For whatever reason, though, he faded into obscurity during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Some might say that’s because he walked away from the “Batman” franchise to do movies like “Jack Frost,” “White Noise,” “First Daughter,” and “Herbie Fully Loaded.” Then again, it’s not like starring in “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” would have done Keaton any favors either. It’s great that Keaton has been slowly resurfacing in recent years with memorable supporting work in “Toy Story 3” and “The Other Guys.” In “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” Keaton is given a leading role he was destined to play.

Paralleling his own rise and fall from success, Keaton is an actor named Riggan Thomson who’s best known for playing a superhero called Birdman. Riggan’s “Birdman” trilogy was around long before Hollywood started dishing out five superhero movies every year. Being one of the original cinematic superheroes, Riggan is especially irritated and envious when he sees Robert Downey Jr. walking on the red carpet while he’s stuck in a crappy New York theater. Unable to find work ever since turning down “Birdman 4,” Riggan hopes to breathe new life into his career by starring, directing, and adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for the stage. Everything has gone wrong, however, causing Riggan to gradually lose his mind.

Riggan is taunted by the gravely voice of Birdman in his head, constantly being reminded that his career peaked with that one role and he’ll never be viewed as anything else. Keaton isn’t the only actor who can identify with this dilemma. Numerous performers like George Reeves and Adam West struggled for years to prove that they could play other characters with mostly unsuccessful results. Keaton brings raw honesty and humor to Riggan, who is driven by his own ego to take control of his universe and go out on a high note.

Antonio Sanchez piles onto Riggan’s insanity through his musical score, which is basically one man tinkering with a lone drum set. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki’s further supplies “Birdman” with an energized rush, making the film feel like one extended shot along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” It’s as if an unseen presence is flying about a playhouse, observing the actors both on the stage and behind the scenes.  

In addition to Riggan, “Birdman” offers perspectives from various others in the showbiz game. Edward Norton is dead-on as Mike Shiner, a method actor who boasts as if he’s god’s gift to the world with performing skills that are only outmatched by his skills as a lover. We also get some fine work from Naomi Watts as a middle-aged actress still looking for her big break, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s girlfriend/co-star who might be pregnant, and Emma Stone as Riggan’s angry daughter/assistant. By comparison, all of these dysfunctional people actually make Zach Galifianakis look normal as Riggan’s neurotic agent. Of course the only levelheaded person in “Birdman” is Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife, who’s also likely the only person who understands him.

Halfway into “Birdman,” you might think that you’re watching a movie about an actor’s final shot at redemption. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is about much more than one person’s comeback, though. It’s a movie that questions what it means to be a respected performer in this day and age. Can somebody fly around dressed in tights and still be considered a quote unquote “Serious Actor?” Most of the elitists in Hollywood and New York would say, “No.” That’s why we rarely see superhero movies represented at the Oscars and commercial actors represented at the Tony’s.

Riggan’s realizes the sad truth about his industry while talking to a drama critic, who tells him upfront that she’s going to give his play a negative review without even seeing it. Prejudice like this represents everything that’s wrong with artistic criticism and show business. If Michael Keaton has shown us anything, though, it’s that any performer can take you by surprise in unexpected ways. Like Batman, Iron Man, and others, there’s a lot more to Birdman under his mask than meets the eye. Look for yourself and you’ll find something rather profound.

The Book of Life

Strike a balance between fun and culture ***

“The Book of Life” has most of the same pros and cons as “The Boxtrolls” from a couple weeks ago. Both films are absolute joys to watch for their delightful characters, unique worlds, and dazzling animation. As creative as they are in terms of presentation, neither film is all that original when it comes to storytelling. “The Book of Life” isn’t just a familiar story like “The Boxtrolls,” through. It’s also a very overstuffed and awkwardly paced one too. So exactly how problematic is the story? Well, read the synopsis below and find out for yourself.

Deriving inspiration from the Day of the Dead, “The Book of Life” implies that the afterlife is made up of two worlds. There’s the Land of the Remembered, ruled by the kind and colorful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), and the Land of the Forgotten, ruled by the grim and dark Xibalba (Ron Perlman). In the land of the living reside three children trapped in an age-old love triangle. Manolo, who grows up to be voiced by Diego Luna, is a free spirit who wants to be a musician, but is told by his father that he must follow in his family’s tradition of bullfighting. Joaquín, who grows up to be voiced by Channing Tatum, is the cocky son of a war hero with a metal that gives him eternal life. They’re both in love with María, who grows up to be voiced by Zoe Saldana, a spunky señorita reminiscent of Catherine Zeta-Jones in “The Mask of Zorro.”

The spirits make a bet. If María marries Joaquín, Xibalba gets to take over the Land of the Remembered. If María marries Manolo, La Muerte holds onto her turf. Without giving too much away, one of the three lovers is killed. To get back to the land of the living, they must confront their greatest fear and choose their own path. Oh, and there’ also a pig, a candle maker voiced by Ice Cube, a bandit who wants to steal Joaquín’s metal of eternal life, and a framing device with a museum guide telling this needlessly complicated story to a group of kids.

Phew… as you can see, that’s a lot of characters and ideas to take in. It doesn’t help that “The Book of Life” rushes from scene to scene without ever taking a breather. Fortunately, the story is the last thing you’ll be thinking about when observing the film’s stunning visuals. This is one of the best looking animated features you’ll ever see. The characters are all cleverly designed like wooden Mexican Day of the Dead figurines. The Land of the Remembered is a spectacle of art direction with the appearance of a fiesta Baz Luhrmann would throw. Every frame is just pure eye candy and it tastes great, even if it is mostly empty calories.

While the narrative isn’t on par with the craft, that doesn’t mean “The Book of Life” is purely style over substance. Director Jorge Gutierrez and company obviously put a ton of effort into the film’s music, humor, and, most of all, culture. It’s actually quite encouraging to see an American family film puts emphasis on a culture that isn’t white. I’m not sure how much of the culture, legends, and fables presented in the film are accurate, but they’re still absorbing. When all’s dead and done, “The Book of Life” has just enough substance to check out, although you may want to hold out for the upcoming Pixar Dead of the Dead film or rent Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” instead. 

Boyhood

12 years a boy *****

If there’s one movie that every new adult should see this year it’s “Boyhood.” While we’ve gotten a lot of great coming of age stories in the past couple years like “The Spectacular Now” and “The Way Way Back,” Richard Linklater’s extraordinary film takes the genre to unfeasible new levels. In 2002, young Ellar Coltrane was cast to play the film’s protagonist, a little boy named Mason. “Boyhood” was then filmed and written over a twelve-year period, following Mason from age five to age eighteen. Throughout this entire process, Coltrane continued to reprise his role as Mason. Not only is “Boyhood” one of the boldest coming of age stories ever put on film, it’s one of the absolute boldest experimental films ever made. The fact that a picture like this got off the ground at all is an achievement in itself. 

Anyone who grew up this previous era will connect with “Boyhood” in some way, shape, or form. The film perfectly captures a generation consumed by Ipods, Facebook, “Dragon Ball Z,” Britney Spears, “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” “High School Musical,” “The Dark Knight,” “Halo,” and “Wii Sports.” “Boyhood” does so much more than merely reference popular culture highlights from the past decade, however. It’s a picture perfect slice of life that feels all too real to be fiction. Had it only cast unknown actors, it probably could have been mistaken for a documentary. Of course then we would have been deprived of a couple career-best performances.

Patricia Arquette never hits a wrong note as Mason’s mother, who’s constantly stressed and on the brink of losing it. For someone raising two kids on her own and trying to get her college degree, though, she’s doing the best that any human being possibly could. Ethan Hawke is just as great as Mason’s father, an energized Obama backer who is constantly smoking cigarettes and probably something else too. Still trying to grow up himself, he makes for a solid weekend dad although he might not make for the most reliable full-time dad. Mason also has a stepfather played by Marco Perella, who seems nice enough at first, but turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. We’ve all known a parental figure like the adults here and the filmmakers never turn any of them into stereotypical caricatures.

In addition to the adult characters, “Boyhood” also contains some of the most authentic representations of children you’ll ever see. Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason’s sister, Samantha. Like Coltrane, she also grew up working on this film. Most movies tend to depict siblings as complete strangers that either never talk or are constantly at each other’s throats. The relationship between Mason and Samantha is a far more believable, though. Sure, they argue and tease each other, but there’s also a strong friendship that lasts throughout the years. It also helps that neither Mason nor Samantha are depicted as child stars that always spout witty one-liners that were obviously written by adults. They’re written as real kids that sometimes don’t know what to say or are likely imitating a character they saw on TV. 

Mason himself is an extremely unique protagonist. He’s quiet and sometimes has trouble in school, but is a generally nice person. One might argue that Mason isn’t the most interesting character and to an extent that’s understandable. He’s essentially just a normal kid who acts as a blank slate for the audience to wear. This actually works wonderfully, though, as the film isn’t really about Mason so much as it is about witnessing a life play out through an adolescent’s eyes. Linklater does just that and what an enchanting life journey he takes us on.

So many movies feel like they need to retrain themselves to basic three act structures. “Boyhood” defies this unwritten rule, showing a person live their life rather than trying to turn it into a structured narrative. And you know what? That’s pretty fascinating, just as life itself is much more fascinating than we give it credit. Not every movie needs to follow the same formula we’ve seen a million times before. Not every movie needs to be about a hitman, bank heist, or giant robot. Not every movie needs a forced love triangle, action climax, or last minute misunderstanding. Sometimes just showing life play out is all you need.

Linklater has never been one to shy away from ambitious filmmaking. In “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight,” he told the love story between two people over the course of twenty years. In “Boyhood,” he beautifully condenses a person’s entire youth into 166 minutes. Some might shy away from “Boyhood” based on its running time of almost three hours. It goes by much quicker than you’d think, however, just like childhood.

The Boxtrolls

 We're Laika and we're weird! ***1/2

Drawing inspiration from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the talented animators at Laika have done a wonderful job at bringing the strange and grotesque back to animated features in an age of more welcoming digitally animated fair. Their last two films, “Coraline” and “Paranorman,” were some of the most charmingly creepy of this recent resonance of diverse animation. “The Boxtrolls” keeps in the tradition of those movies, being a weird, visually splendid escapade of stop-motion animation. It’s all good fun, although the familiar story often holds it back from ever being a masterpiece.

The film takes place on a leaning island where all the buildings seem to be stacked upon one another. Everything is peaceful in the small town until night falls and the horrible boxtrolls immerge. Ben Kingsley voices Archibald Snatcher, a dastardly pest exterminator who’s ironically more disgusting than the Gollum-like Boxtrolls he hunts. Snatcher hopes to snatch every boxtroll so he may one day become an elitist who eats cheese and wears a white hat. Don’t take his ludicrous reasoning that seriously. It’s satire.

It turns out the boxtrolls aren’t the monsters Snatcher makes them out to be. They’re a peaceful folk who live in an inventive underground sanctuary made from garbage. They’ve also taken in a human child named Eggs, voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright of “Game of Thrones.” Although the trolls speak an unidentifiable language, Eggs somehow grows up to be quite fluent in proper English.

The human among box trolls is cared for by Fish, voiced by the king of gibberish himself, Dee Bradley Baker. When Snatcher takes Fish, Eggs ventures to the surface world where he meets Winnie (Elle Fanning). This young girl delights in the grim and bloody, so she’s actually kind of disappointed when the boxtrolls don’t eat her. Nonetheless, a friendship between her and Eggs naturally ensues as they attempt to open everyone else’s eyes.

As far as basic story’s go, “The Boxtrolls” really isn’t anything that new. We’ve seen Laika and other animation studios address issues such as prejudice, misunderstood beasts, greedy consumerism, and neglectful parents a dozen times before. The plot is essentially “Tarzan” only with trolls filling in for apes. That being said, having a formulaic narrative isn’t what kills a movie. It all depends how much flare you can bring to an old hat. On a technical level, “The Boxtrolls” has more than enough originality to keep the audience invested.

The filmmakers have crafted a clinking clanking clattering world of caliginous junk. Every shot is expertly assembled and shot. A bonus scene following the credits will especially make you feel grateful for all the painstaking work the artists put into the world of “Boxtrolls.” Granted, you can’t help but wish they put a little more work into the story, where you know upfront who everybody is going to be and what’s going to be learned. Even if it’s not “How to Train Your Dragon 2” or “The Lego Movie,” “The Boxtrolls” is still an enjoyable family film that’s sure to please the eyes.

Camp X-Ray

Kstew can act! ***1/2

A lot of people have said nasty things about Kristen Stewart over the years, the harshest being that she’s the worst actress on the planet. And…yeah, Stewart has given her fair share of bad performances. But come on, guys, it’s not like she had any potential to give a good performance in those “Twilight” movies. With the right role in a good film like “Adventureland,” Stewart can deliver perfectly solid work. That’s more than can be said about Paris Hilton, Carmen Electra, and other women who have no business calling themselves actresses.

In “Camp X-Ray,” Stewart is well suited to play Cole, a young, stone-faced solider sent to supervise prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Well actually, due to the Geneva Convention the soldiers are required to refer to prisoners as “detainees.” That’s like comparing lettuce to cabbage, though. One detainee who gives Cole an especially hard time is Ali, played by Peyman Moaddi from “A Separation.” While annoying and prone to throw feces at guards, Ali seems like an innocent enough man who’s interesting in knowing how “Harry Potter” ends more than anything else.

Curious, Cole does some digging on Ali and even develops an unlikely friendship with him. Although this relationship could have resorted to melodrama, “Camp X-Ray” wisely doesn’t turn Ali into a sanctified marauder or Cole into a white savior fighting for a wrongfully accused man’s freedom. The film simply portrays both characters as real people who are looking for somebody to confide in at one of the loneliest, not to mention one of the most intimidating, places on earth.

“Camp X-Ray” acts as both a strong star vehicle for Stewart’s post-Twilight career, as well as an engaging story about US/Arab relations post-9/11. This is essentially a story about the prejudice attached to befriending the alleged enemy. It might not be the first or best film to tackle such issues. However, Writer/Director Peter Sattler does address the subject matter with great intelligence and understanding without taking cheap shots. What sells the movie is the chemistry between Stewart and Moaddi, which ranges from to gritty and uncomfortable to charming and meaningful.

Above all else, “Camp X-Ray” thankfully never turns into a star-crossed romance. It feels like every movie with a male/female relationship at the center needs to incorporate a love story. There’s no sexual tension whatsoever between Cole and Ali, though. This is purely a story about friendship between very different, yet very similar, individuals. There’s something very encouraging about that.

Captain America: The Winter Solider

I feel like I've used all my "Team America" jokes so...no pun for this one ****

First, we had to sit through “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” to finally get to “The Avengers.” Now we have to sit through “Iron Man 3,” “Thor: The Dark World,” and “Captain America: The Winter Solider” to finally get to “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

That seems to be the general consensus of Marvel movies nowadays, which always seemed like an unfair assessment to me. Sure, “The Avengers” might be the main event we all want to get to. Regardless, all these other movies building up to the ultimate crossover have still been wonderfully produced for the most part. Each individual franchise also notably maintains a distinctive tone with “Iron Man” being high-tech, “Thor” being mystical, and “Captain America” being retro.

Well, at least the first “Captain America” had a retro vibe to it. Captain America is no longer in the 1940’s. After being asleep for almost 70 years, he’s been awakened to a whole new world dominated by iPads, iPhones, and men in flying suits of armor. This approach makes “Captain America: The Winter Solider” the most unique of all the Avengers-related sequels and also arguably the best.

Chris Evans returns as the incredibly likable hero who wants nothing more than to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. Captain America still isn’t as dark or complex as somebody like Batman, Spider-Man, or Iron Man. Then again, he’s not supposed to be and the film never tries to make the character grittier ala “Man of Steel.” Following the events that took place in New York, the all-American Avenger finds himself wrapped up in a thrilling tale of betrayal, loss, and conspiracy.

The bad guy this time around is Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official who is such an obvious bad guy that I’m really not spoiling anything by telling you upfront that he’s the bad guy. Redford is so deliciously calculating in the role, though, it’s easy to give the character a pass. He plans to bring S.H.I.E.L.D. down from the inside and enlists help from the illusive Winter Solider, an assassin with a bionic arm.

Hunted by his own people, Captain America only has two allies he can trust. One is Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, who becomes the high-flying Falcon aka Iron Patriot 2.0. The other is Scarlett Johansson as fellow Avenger Black Widow, who has yet to get her own movie. Watching “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” however, you really wish that Marvel would give her a spin-off. Johansson is great here as the Captain’s closest ally and friend, but not a love interest. What’s this? A superhero movie with opposite sex partners that puts an emphasis on friendship over romance? That’s a refreshing first.

The film has a number of great supporting characters as well, even if they don’t get as much screen time as they deserve. Emily VanCamp of “Revenge” is a nice addition as Agent 13, although she’s not entirely developed. Hayley Atwell from the first film has a powerful cameo, although that only lasts a couple minutes. Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury are fun as always, although they’re not on screen for that long. Even the Winter Solider, one of the title characters, is absent for large portions of the movie. But even if these characters leave us wanting more, the characters that the film does choose to focus on are more than engaging enough.

“Captain America: The Winter Solider” was directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. They pack this engrossing blockbuster full of solid action, welcome humor, strong character development, and a story full of twists. In other words, it’s a much better effort than the Russo’s last film, “You, Me and Dupree.” It’s also vastly superior to either of those “G.I. Joe” pictures. Not only will this “Captain America” sequel make you more excited for “The Avengers 2,” it will make you even more excited for “Captain America 3.”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Hail to the Chimp! ****1/2

While “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprisingly enjoyable reboot/sort-of prequel to the 1968 classic, the film at times came off as a trial run. It seemed like the filmmakers had a grander, richer story they wanted to tell but had to lay the groundwork first. Now that the exposition is out of the way, they’re free to tell that grander story in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the latest “Apes” film is a perfect example of how to make a sequel. It couldn’t have come at a better time considering how “Transformers: Age of Extinction” brought the summer season down a whole letter grade a couple weeks ago.

Taking place sometime after the previous film, a tribe of genetically evolved apes has overrun the Muir Woods in California. Their fearless leader is Caesar, played once again by Andy Serkis in a stunning performance made possible by motion capture technology. Life is mostly peaceful for Caesar and his clan, which includes his mate and two sons. It also appears that the ALZ-113 virus has wiped out all human life. Sorry, AIDS, another deadly virus linked to monkey’s beat you to the punch line.

It turns out, however, that there’s still a band of immune humans living in a section of San Francisco. They wish to access a dam in the woods to turn the lights back on and reach out to other survivors. To get to the dam, though, they’ll need some assistance from Caesar. Many of the apes are reluctant to help humans in any way, particularly one named Koba (Toby Kebbell). Although Caesar wishes to co-exist with the humans in peace, war between the two cultures seems inevitable. Of course anybody who’s seen the ending to the Charlton Heston version knows that.

Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Gary Oldman all do solid work as the humans. Once again, though, this “Planet of the Apes” belongs to the apes themselves. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback wisely keep their dialog limited, almost entirely conveying emotion through facial expressions and sign language. It’s actually rather astonishing how emotionally involving “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is, taking time for quiet, subtle moments of awe that are foreign to the likes of Michael Bay.

At its heart, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a Shakespearean tragedy meets a science fiction war epic. It’s all about humanity and takes the time to develop everyone as a three-dimensional character, human and ape alike. Even the villains aren’t just war-hungry villains. You can understand their point of view just as you can understands Caesar’s point of view. This provides a multilayer commentary on the barrier between cultures, which some complained was too one-sided in “Avatar.”

You might be asking yourself, “how can a movie called ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ earn comparison to the works of Shakespeare, let alone be taken seriously?” But lets not forget, the original “Planet of the Apes” wasn’t just another lame B-movie. Michael Wilson, who also wrote “Lawrence of Arabia,” and Rod Serling, who created “The Twilight Zone,” saw potential for a thought-provoking story about prejudice, slavery, ignorance, and government. The people behind “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” saw that potential too. Both the original and this film manage to take a silly idea and turn it into something meaningful. That’s more than can be said about the Tim Burton version, which only made the idea sillier.

Naturally, the film does build up to an action climax. But even then Director Matt Reeves of “Let Me In” and “Cloverfield” never settles for mere explosion porn. He keeps us emotionally invested, not to mention excited, every step of the way. Walking away from the film, you can’t help but be pumped for the following chapter. As for what’s to come next, it seems like a showdown at the Statue of Liberty is in order.

Divergent

Be an original...or at least be like The Hunger Games ***1/2

First there were a dozen “Harry Potter” wannabes. Then there were several dozen “Twilight” wannabes. Now it looks like we’re moving onto “The Hunger Games” wannabes. “Divergent” barrows much from “Hunger Games,” in addition to “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” and other young adult adaptations. The good news is that the film isn’t just a cheap knockoff looking to cash in on the flavor of the month. “Divergent” is all about not giving into society and being a unique entity. While unique may not be the best word to describe “Divergent,” the film is just engaging enough to distinguish itself.

Shailene ‘Shai’ Woodley is Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior, a young girl living in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Civilization has been split into five groups, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Abnegation aka Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, and remedial Hogwarts. On Choosing Day aka The Reaping, Tris decides to team up with the fearless and potentially insane Dauntless clan. What her fellow tribesmen don’t known is that Tris is actually a Divergent. This means that Tris isn’t strictly Dauntless, nor is she strictly Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, or Amity. She’s a special individual, which is a no go in a society dominated by conformity.

In the midst of proving herself to others and hiding her true nature, Tris also finds time for romance. Her love interest is Theo James as a Dauntless instructor named Four. What, you mean like “I Am Number Four?” Come on, that young adult adaptation wasn’t even a hit! The romance is admittedly the weakest aspect of the film, often leading to awkward dialog and unexciting love scenes. But the teenage girls in the audience seemed to dig it, so who am I to complain?

The important thing is that “Divergent” isn’t just about whether or not two highly attractive people will hook up. It isn’t merely an action or special effects blowout either, although the production values are quite well done. The film is more about ideas regarding individualism and it tackles these issues with intelligence, even if these themes are somewhat familiar.

What really makes “Divergent” work, though, is Shailene Woodley. The 22-year-old actress just gets better and better in every project she takes on. While “Secret Life of the American Teenager” was trash, her performance was better than the show ever deserved. Woodley established herself as a true force to be reckoned with as George Clooney’s daughter in “The Descendants” and Miles Teller’s girlfriend in “The Spectacular Now.” Here, Woodley proves that she’s more than capable of carrying a science fiction blockbuster as a smart, strong heroine who isn’t unbearably antsy or boy crazy.

The whole cast does pretty well in their roles, the only disappointment being Kate Winslet as the villainous Jeanine Matthews. One would think that an actress of Winslet’s caliber would bring a genuine sense of menace to this character who wishes to seize control of the Dauntless. In her limited screen time, however, she never becomes an especially interesting or intimidating foe. It’s clear that Winselt just woke up one morning and said, “I think I’ll do a young adult movie that my kids can go see. After that, it’s back to winning Oscar no. 2!”

While not up there with “Hunger Games,” Winslet did select a perfectly solid young adult film to star in. “Divergent” is a well-made entertainment from Director Neil Burger, who adapted the film from Veronica Roth’s bestseller. The screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor is never dull, keeping the two-and-a-half-hour long story moving at a brisk pace. It’d even be fun to see Burger and company produce a sequel, or two, or three if they decide to split the third book into multiple movies. You know how Hollywood likes to drag these things out.

Dracula Untold

 Game of fangs *1/2

You’d think this past decade’s vampire fad would have brought us a number of movies starring Dracula. Strangely enough, however, everyone’s favorite public domain vampire has been missing in action as of late. That’s what happens when you choose to do films like “Dracula 2000,” “Van Helsing,” and “Blade: Trinity.” Dracula should stay cozy in his coffin because “Dracula Untold” isn’t going to reboot his film career. As badly as he needs a comeback, this is one Dracula story that should have remained untold.

Luke Evans is Vlad III the Impaler, a Transylvanian prince who actually inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in real life. Described as the son of the dragon, Vlad is a noble ruler who lives with his subjects and adoring family in a medieval kingdom. Peacetime comes to an end when the Turkish demand Vlad to surrender 1,000 boys for their army. With his own son at risk as well, Vlad must think of a new war strategy and…wait a minute! Son of the dragon, medieval kingdom, political talk, war strategies? Did I stumble into the wrong movie or something?

As you might have noticed from that synopsis, “Dracula Untold” sounds nothing like “Dracula.” It sounds more like somebody was hired to write a script for “True Blood” or “The Strain” and instead decided to turn in their crappy “Game of Thrones” fan fiction. Heck, it couldn’t be more obvious that the film is trying to cash in on the success of “Game of Thrones.” The characters even shamelessly refer to the war they’re fighting as a “game” multiple times.  

To be fair, the whole vampire element does eventually come into play. To save his kingdom, Vlad makes a deal with a demon. He will gain the strength of 100 men, but some side effects may include bloodlust and an allergic reaction to the sun. Even as a vampire, though, Vlad isn’t menacing, threatening, or intimidating. He’s just a cheap Ned Stark wannabe with quicker moves and better hair.

Although the title suggests otherwise, “Dracula Untold” is utterly uninterested in making a true Dracula movie or telling a legitimate horror story. Maybe it would have worked as a satire. Instead we’re left with a vampire movie that isn’t thrilling or fun and a “Game of Thrones” rip-off that isn’t smart, erotic, or even R-rated. But does “Dracula Untold” at least work as a biopic of Vlad III the Impaler’s life? Do vampires sparkle? The answer to both questions is “No!”  

If you want to make a vampire movie, make a vampire movie. If you want to make a macho fantasy epic, make a macho fantasy epic. Don’t try to have your cake and suck blood too.

Dumb and Dumber To

Just when I think that the Farrelly brothers couldn't possibly be any dumber they go and make a movie like this...and totally redeem themselves! ****

It’s been twenty years since “Dumb and Dumber” and almost ten years since the god-awful “Dumb and Dumberer.” Unlike the needless prequel, “Dumb and Dumber To” finally reunites all the principle players that made the original a 90s comedy classic. This sequel is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who was a fan of the first film, meaning that the overall consensus will be split down the middle. Chances are you either despised “Dumb and Dumber” or you still find yourself quoting the movie in your day-to-day life. Fortunately, I’m among the latter group.

“Dumb and Dumber To” is appropriately even dumber than it’s predecessor. While not as fresh or funny, it does run circles around most belated comedy sequels like “Blues Brothers 2000.” The film knows what its target audience wants and delivers with gross-out humor, physical humor, offensive humor, animal cruelty humor, stupid humor, and smartly stupid humor.

So what have Jim Carrey’s Lloyd and Jeff Daniels’ Harry been up to these past two decades? No much as Lloyd has been pretending to be a vegetable in a mental institution just to play a trick on Harry. Once he’s released, the two knuckleheads find an old letter from Fraida Felcher, who’s turned into Kathleen Turner. Turns out Harry impregnated Fraida and she gave their daughter up for adoption. The guys set out on yet another road trip to find Harry’s offspring, witlessly getting mixed-up in another farce along the way.  

Peter and Bobby Farrelly touch base on every timeless gag and quote from their debut picture. The funniest callback centers on the now grownup Billy from 4C, the blind boy Lloyd duped into buying a dead parakeet. Now Billy has a whole flock of birds, most notably a parrot named after Gene Siskel who voted thumbs up on all of the Farrelly’s movies. “Dumb and Dumber To” goes beyond just rehashing old material like “The Hangover II” did, though. The film is full of great new written and visual jokes that will have you laughing yourself stupid…or checking your watch in aggravation.

Again, this is as subjective as movies get. Where some will eat it up like junk food, others will call it one of the worst movies of the year. What you might be asking is how I can pan something like “Jack and Jill” and give “Dumb and Dumber To” my seal of approval. For starters, the humor in “Jack and Jill” is not only lowbrow, but also obvious. Whether you love or hate “Dumb and Dumber To,” there are at least a handful of surprises you won’t see coming from a mile away. Secondly, with most Adam Sandler movies you get the sense that he isn’t even trying to make a funny comedy. In “Dumb and Dumber To,” everyone involved completely commits to their roles, particularly Carrey and Daniels who never miss a note as the dimwitted duo. Even when a joke doesn’t work, you got to at least give them an A for effort.

It won’t win any Oscars. It won’t even be nominated for a Golden Globe. For what it is, however, “Dumb and Dumber To” will appeal to anyone with a soft spot for the Three Stooges’ brand of comedy. Now for the real interesting question: What’s more ironic, the fact that Jeff Daniels started production on this film right after winning an Emmy for “The Newsroom” or that a “Dumb and Dumber” movie is coming out the same week as the Stephen Hawking biopic, “The Theory of Everything?”

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Edge of Tomorrow

I like to live on the edge ****

When the trailer for "Edge of Tomorrow" hit awhile back, everyone seemed to have the same reaction. "So what, it's like 'Groundhog Day' meets 'Transformers?'" In a nutshell, yeah, that's exactly what the film is. The good news is that "Edge of Tomorrow" is also one of the summer's more surprising blockbusters. As an action picture, it's infinitely smarter and more entertaining than any of the "Transformers" movies. While not as funny or heartfelt as "Groundhog Day," it does have a very welcome sense of humor and genuine affection for its characters. It's kind of a shame that this 178 million dollar blockbuster is likely destined to get lost in the shuffle of summer movies as it's really worth checking out.  

It's sometime in the future where earth has been invaded by aliens known as Mimics, which look like the machines from "The Matrix" if they mated with something out of "Mass Effect." Tom Cruise is Major William Cage, who uses his charming on screen charisma to influence people to join the war against the Mimics. The irony is that Cage himself has absolutely no experience fighting in combat. That all changes when Brendan Gleeson's General Brigham orders him to take part in an assault on the Mimics. Against his will, Cage is hurled into combat under the command of the slimy Master Sergeant Farrell, played by the even slimier Bill Paxton.

The assault goes even worse than expect as it turns out that the Mimics knew the humans were coming and have the upper hand. Cage is killed just as he becomes covered in the blood of a Mimic. The next thing Cage knows, he's back at the army base a day earlier. It appears that Cage has gained the power to reset the day every time he dies. The only one who believes him is Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski, a poster solider who has miraculously survived one impossible battle after another. Vrataski believes that the humans now have a fighting chance at winning the war, even if it means that Cage has to die day after day until they get it right.

Although Tom Cruise is still unarguably one of the biggest stars around, his name isn't the same box office draw it was ten years ago. That could have to do with his insane off-screen personality or the fact that he keeps playing the same exact role in every movie he does. Cruise doesn't exactly stretch his acting muscles in "Edge of Tomorrow" either. Nonetheless, that Tom Cruise persona is perfectly suited here and he pulls off one of his best action-oriented performances in awhile. We completely believe Cruise as a cowardly fraud forced to become a war hero. Just as good is Blunt, who's clearly having a ball as the strong, funny heroine charged with the hopeless task of making a man out of Cage.

Director Doug Liman of "The Bourne Identity" mixes together elements of everything from "Saving Private Ryan" to "Aliens," producing some exhilarating action set pieces that fortunately keep the shaky cam to a minimum. What really makes the film work, though, is the screenplay by Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, which they adapted from a Japanese novel. In the hands of lesser writers, the whole "Groundhog Day" gimmick could get old really fast. The screenwriting team pace the story almost perfectly, however, making for a number of clever, humorous moments while also avoiding falling into any distracting plot holes.

Aside from all the before-mentioned films, the movie that "Edge of Tomorrow" probably resembles the most is "Source Code," in which Jake Gyllenhaal had to keep going back in time to identify a train bomber. That film was also slick and intelligent, but never found much of an audience. Here's hoping that "Edge of Tomorrow" does better. It certainly deserves to.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Tell him his mother's here an' she loves him, but not in a queer way ***1/2

To this generation, Elaine Stritch is probably best known for playing Alec Baldwin’s overbearing mother on “30 Rock.” Before she was Colleen Donaghy, however, Stritch already had quite the résumé. In a showbiz career that’s now spanned roughly seven decades, she’s done it all, from movies, to television, to radio, to cabaret. Stritch cemented herself as a performing legend on the Broadway stage, starring in countless plays and finally winning a Tony for her one-woman show back in 2002.

As you might have guessed, Stritch is the focus of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” the debut documentary feature from Chiemi Karasawa. Whether or not you’ll like the film all relies on how much you like Elaine Stritch as a human being. As far as I’m concerned, the notion of somebody not enjoying Elaine’s company is inconceivable. Her various friends, assistants, and colleagues, which includes Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, and the late James Gandolfini, seem to agree.

Stritch has always stood out with her eccentric wardrobe of hats, ties, and furs, but no pants. She’s also clearly the most outgoing 87-year-old actress working today. Completely unapologetic, she isn’t afraid to say exactly what’s on her mind to the camera. We get a lot of hilarious incites into Stritch’s personal life as she reminisces of meeting JFK and experiencing her first orgasm. While stocking and sometimes unpredictable, Stritch mainly comes off as a loving individual who cares deeply for the people in her life and the people she’s lost.  

The life of the party in public and a riot on stage, one might assume that Stritch could keep going with no end in sight. The sad truth is that Stritch’s age and diabetes have taken a toll on her health in recent years. Being an on again, off again alcoholic hasn’t helped. There are several brave moments when Stritch lets down her defenses and reveals how tired she’s become. Stritch has accepted that her death is inevitable. But that still doesn’t stop her from getting back on stage and putting her own unique spin on “I Feel Pretty.”

Stritch plans to retire in 2014, or 2015, or 2016, or 2017, or 2018. One can only hope Stritch lives forever and keeps performing until the end of time. When Stritch does leave this earth, though, at least she’ll be leaving behind a rich body of work and a film that encourages us all to live life to the fullest. Stritch further reminds us that dying is easy, but comedy is hard.

Endless Love

Love conquers all...bite me! *

Well it’s February, which means two things. First, we’re going to get a totally lame action picture that wasn’t good enough for a summer release, i.e. “RoboCop.” Second, we’re going to get several predictable romance movies that nobody put any thought into whatsoever. “Endless Love” isn’t just a predictable romance movie. It’s an excruciatingly predictable one. Every character ark and plot point can be seen from several miles away. Watching this seemingly endless parade of clichés will overwhelm any thinking human being with grave frustration, making them want to hurl tomatoes at the screen.

“Endless Love” is based on the novel by Scott Spencer, which was previously adapted into a universally panned 1981 film with Brooke Shields. Whatever commentary the book and reviled original film attempted to make on obsession with young love is sacrificed here for the most formulaic fluff imaginable. But what do you expect when the film was co-written by the same guy who’s responsible for several episodes of “Gossip Girl” and “Smash?”

Alex Pettyfer of “I Am Number Four” and “Beastly” continues his futile pursuit to be a movie star as David Elliot, a recent high school graduate with unrealistic expectations for romance. David sets his eyes on Gabriella Wilde’s Jade Butterfield, a shy girl who lives a sheltered life with her parents. The two fall in love over the summer through a series of crappy montages set to crappy pop songs. Everything is so perfectly perfect for the lovebirds except for one little thing. Jade has an evil father who hates David because he’s a modest rebel who’s not going to college. Really, though, it’s just because Jade’s father is a one-note jerk who wants to control every facet of his daughter’s life.

This is what primarily makes “Endless Love” such an unwatchable mess. The disapproving father is already the most overused archetype in the history of movies. “Endless Love” takes the caricature to unbelievable new lows as this guy goes to ridiculously unnecessary extremes to keep his daughter away from her rational, supportive boyfriend. No offense to Bruce Greenwood, who does what he can in the role. It’s simply a horribly written character who gets more and more implausible as the narrative becomes more and more annoying. It’s as if the filmmakers all have serious daddy issues and this is their way of coping with them.

There does come a time when the father FINALLY accepts his daughter’s choices. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by sharing that information. By this point, however, the father has become so needlessly nasty and unsympathetic that we don’t even want to see him reconcile with his daughter. He’s a flat-out villain who’s far beyond the point of redemption.

In addition to daddy dearest and the airhead lovers, “Endless Love” is jam-packed with numerous other cheap archetypes too. There’s the token black best friend who makes bad jokes, the supportive mother who tells her daughter to follow her heart, an obnoxious snob who treats hired help like peasants, and David’s ex-girlfriend who only exists to cause more conflict in the final act. Oh, and if that’s not enough conflict, the film also throws in a car crash and fire. Yeah, because these are the everyday problems couples have to deal with, freak accidents, misunderstandings with ex’s, and fathers that just don’t understand. No matter what happens, though, love can overcome anything. Life is just that simple, kids!

By god, this movie is stupid. The only thing that could have saved it is if the filmmakers had gone all the way with the movie’s stupidity. Then maybe “Endless Love” would have at least been enjoyably stupid like last year’s “Safe Haven” and other Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Instead, the film is just plain stupid, stupid, stupid. Who would have thought that between “That Awkward Moment,” “Winter’s Tale,” and this assassination of romance, the best date movie to see this Valentine’s would end up being “The Lego Movie?”

Exodus: Gods and Kings

It's Moses VS. Ramesses and this time it's personal! ***

Even if you didn’t grow up in a Jewish household, everybody knows the story of Moses either from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt,” or that “Rugrats” Passover special. There have been so many versions over the years that the idea of another feels like overkill. If any living director is going to interpret the Book of Exodus for modern audiences, though, who better than Ridley Scott? Of course it might have been interesting to see Mel Gibson’s take on the tale. As for Scott’s “Exdous: Gods and Kings,” it’s a sometimes astounding and sometimes underwhelming mixed bag.

It seems pointless to discuss the plot seeing how this story is already so well known. Let’s just dive into what works and what doesn’t work. The main reason to see “Exodus” is for the production values. Capturing the spirit of Hollywood’s golden age of epics, the film’s craft makes everything from the pharaoh’s pyramids to the Red Sea feel massive. Even if every action set piece doesn’t hit it out of the park, not a second goes by where you’re not blown away by the movie’s grand scale. While “Exodus” is a terrific film to look at, it doesn’t always resonate with the audience on a spiritual level, especially when it comes to the main character.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor and he brings a lot of dignity to the role of Moses. Whenever Bale’s on screen, however, you never really see a prophet or a biblical figure. You see a movie star with a scruffy beard. “Exodus” also puts much more emphasis on Moses the war strategist than Moses the man. That’s not to say Bale’s Moses isn’t without some strong moments of humanity, but his development as a character isn’t all that it could have been.

The same can be said about Joel Edgerton, who has several powerful scenes as Ramesses. Nevertheless, his character is a straightforward tyrant for the most part. One of the driving forces behind this timeless story is the connection between Moses and Ramesses, who were raised as brothers and destined to become mortal enemies. But their relationship is never fully fleshed out here, lacking the brotherhood and rivalry that made previous incarnations so great.

The unrecognizable supporting cast is solid with María Valverde as Moses’ wife, Sigourney Weaver as Ramesses’ mother, Ben Kingsley as Nun, and Aaron Paul as his son Joshua. That’s right, Jesse Pinkman is in a bible movie! Yet, most of them are sadly underutilized, disappearing for large portions of the film. Granted, “Exodus” doesn’t have “The Ten Commandments’” 220-minute running time, which left plenty of room to let the entire cast shine. With a still pretty hefty length of 150 minutes, though, you’d think that “Exodus” could have done more with its humongous ensemble.  

By far the most intriguing character in the film is God himself. Unlike other adaptations that depict God as a burning bush, God takes on the form of a little boy in “Exodus.” Actually, the film doesn’t make it clear at first if the God Moses is seeing is even real. He could easily be an illusion brought on by a blow to the head and most of his plagues could just be natural disasters. It makes for an intriguing analysis of God’s actions, man’s actions, nature’s actions, and how they all tie together.  

Whether the God he’s speaking to is real or not, Moses is convinced that he needs to return to Egypt and free his people. That being said, Moses doesn’t agree with everything God commands. There’s a particular moment in which Moses questions God’s wrath as he takes away countless innocent lives. More scenes like this might have made “Exodus” one of the most unique biblical epics ever. As is, however, the film is to “The Ten Commandments” what “Man of Steal” is to the original “Superman.” It has problems and never meets its full potential, but there’s just too much to admire to entirely pass it up.

Foxcatcher

A film with no information on how to catch a fox ****

On the surface, “Foxcatcher” might look like it’s about a wrestler and his coach. This is much more than a movie about wrestling, though. It’s a fascinating character study about isolation. Such isolation can be found in many different kinds of human beings, whether they’re a one-trick pony holding onto their former glory or one of the richest men in the world. Some people try everything in their power to inject love and purpose into their lives, but only drive themselves further away from companionship with every attempt. Real life Olympic gold medalist wrestler Mark Schultz is one of these lonely souls.

Played by Channing Tatum, Mark spends most of his days training, eating, and living alone. The only thing he really has to show for his life is his gold medal. Even with that achievement, Mark still feels vastly inferior to his brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). In addition to having a gold medal himself, Dave also has an adoring wife, children that worship the ground he walks on, and an all-in-all optimistic outlook on life. Mark believes that destiny’s come knocking when John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell) contacts him. This multimillionaire wishes to sponsor Mark and give him housing while he trains for the upcoming Olympic games. Although his intentions appear sincere, du Pont might be using the wrestler as a means to fill his own empty glass.

Steve Carell is absolutely transcendent in his role here, completely making us forget that up until now he’s been best known as a comedic actor. He portrays du Pont as a weary, detached man who’s seemingly sleepwalking through life. He’s never married, never had children, and is viewed as something of a disappointment to his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave). The only thing that brings him joy is watching men wrestle. He’ll spend whatever it takes to get the best men to join his team and then force himself into the roles of their mentor, coach, and friend. But du Pont simply can’t fathom the clichéd saying, money can’t buy love.

Tatum is just as impressive as Mark Schultz. He certainly looks the part of a professional wrestler and is physically up to the challenge, being a former dancer. Bottling up his insecurities, Mark often looks like he’s going to explode unless he can find someone to believe in him or a reason to believe in himself. He has no idea how to articulate these feelings, however, and can only truly be himself in the ring.

Both Mark and du Pont tie into the film’s overarching theme of isolation. One masks his isolation with brute strength. The other masks his isolation with money and power. In the end, all either wants is what Ruffalo’s Dave has, the ability to connect with others. But what comes easy to some is like reading an alien language for others. Alien is actually probably the best word to describe John du Pont, who was always somewhat of a mystery to the public and those closest to him. Director Bennett Miller provides a captivating, atmospheric analysis of the reclusive man, whose isolation led from jealousy, to paranoia, to insanity. 

Fury

Saving Private Ryan's Platoon on the All Quiet, Apocalyptic Western Front Now ***1/2

“Fury” is a good wartime drama that might have been considered great had it come out anywhere in between 1930 and 1998. In the year 2014, however, the film might come off as too familiar to those who have seen classics like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and “Saving Private Ryan.” That’s not to say “Fury” is too little too late. On the contrary, the film is exceptionally made, wonderfully acted, and effectively portrays the horrors of war. It’s just hard to totally give yourself to a movie when you can tell who’s going to live, who’s going to die, and what’s going to be learned ten minutes in.

Brad Pitt is back to kill some more Nazis as Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, the commander of a tank called “Fury.” Not a ton is learned about who he was before World War II or the hell he’s been through since enlisting, but we can assume that none of it was pretty. Wardaddy’s crew consists of Jon Bernthal as Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis, Michael Peña as Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia, Shia LaBeouf as Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan, and Some ‘Expendable’ Guy who dies before the movie even starts. Some ‘Expendable’ Guy is replaced by Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison, a clerk typist who is completely unprepared for combat. Nevertheless, he’s going behind enemy lines with just one more month until the war ends.

Although he’s billed as a supporting actor and is barely featured on the poster, Lerman is really Pitt’s co-lead. Lerman is one of our finest up-and-coming actors, previously bringing great depth to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and bringing more depth than required to the “Percy Jackson” pictures. This is another winning performance for Lerman, who is utterly convincing as a young man who was likely drafted and assumed he wouldn’t have to kill anyone throughout the entire war.

Lerman and Pitt share a notably intense scene in which the crew captures a German solider. Although the man is unarmed and surrenders, Wardaddy insists that Norman assassinate the solider. As much as his commanding officer pushes, Norman refuses to fire on his own. Whether this makes Norman cowardly or brave is up for debate. Wardaddy soon shows Norman, however, that you can’t survive war without breaking a few eggs.

The supporting cast is mostly solid, although Bernthal, Peña, and LaBeouf are a somewhat underdeveloped trio. The standout supporting player here is Alicia von Rittberg as a young woman Wardaddy and Norman briefly encounter in a German village. Their scene plays out like a mini play amidst a grander epic, providing some of the film’s quietest and most uncomfortable moments.

Director David Ayer of “End of Watch” has unquestionably made a fantastic-looking movie with chaotic battle sequences, commanding sounds, and chilling gore. The only error with the film’s craft concerns some of the tank missile fire effects, which are strangely coated in bright green and blue in the earlier action set pieces. They look more like something out of “Star Wars” than WWII. Other than that, you can’t fault the look of “Fury.” What you can fault is its story, which, again, isn’t poorly executed. It just lacks enough originality to contend among the all-time best war pictures. Due to its performances and production values, however, the film does leave an impact nonetheless. Just be prepared for something more along the lines of “Flags of Our Fathers” than “The Hurt Locker.”

Gimme Shelter

I just want to be loved! **1/2

Not recommending “Gimme Shelter” feels about as low as kicking a lost puppy. The film’s heart is definitely in the right place. All writer/director Ron Krauss wishes to do is uplift audiences with an inspiring true story. If it were being graded on good intentions alone, “Gimme Shelter” would be an A+ movie for sure. On an overall filmmaking level, though, it’s more of a C+ movie.

Vanessa Hudgens is Agnes ‘Apple’ Bailey, a pregnant sixteen-year-old with tattoos, piercings, bad table manners, and the haircut of Justin Bieber on a bender. Unable to take any more abuse from her junkie mother (Rosario Dawson), Apple decides to finally make a break for it. She seeks out her estranged, wealthy father, played by Brendan Fraser, who lives in a mansion with his wife and two little children. Apple’s father and disinclined stepmother agree to let her stay on the condition she gets an abortion. When she refuses to part with the baby, Apple runs away again and finds sanctuary in a home for young, homeless mothers.

Much like Miley Cyrus, Hudgens is trying to show people that she’s no longer a Disney girl and has matured into a woman. She does a decent job in “Gimme Shelter,” although at times struggles with her street punk accent. The film also includes good work from James Earl Jones as a chaplain who looks after Apple and Kathy DiFiore as the woman who runs the shelter. The highpoint of the film is Rosario Dawson’s performance. Dawson, who’s always been an underrated talent, nails it as a selfish, reprehensible witch who solely sees her daughter and unborn granddaughter as a means of getting more welfare.

This story of a pregnant teen who is tortured by her mother and finds refuge in strangers is reminiscent of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.” While “Precious” wasn’t the easiest film to watch, it worked thanks to the powerful direction, daring performances, and the audacity to confront its uncomfortable subject matter head-on. “Gimme Shelter” is much more restrained and reliant on rushed, easy emotional payoffs, giving it the feel of a subpar Lifetime original movie.

The film’s major downfall is in the character development. Everyone in the picture is either one-dimensional, underdeveloped, or turns on a dime at the last second. Krauss’ script can be awkwardly structured at times too. There’s a bit of a complicated subplot involving drug money that goes nowhere. Main characters come and go without much explanation. The major conflict is actually pretty much resolved an hour in, letting the plot run on autopilot for the next hour.

“Gimme Shelter” is a well-meaning little movie with just too many flaws to be a successful piece of storytelling. It doesn’t really do or say anything new nor does it do anything old particularly well. That being said, there are plenty of struggling, young mothers out there who might identity with Apple and find some comfort in the film’s message. Then at the very least, something good can come from a film that isn’t especially good.

Godzilla

THAT'S A LOT OF FISH ***1/2

Here’s an awesome bit of irony for you. In 1998, Matthew Broderick was in an American version of “Godzilla” that was hated by critics and disowned by fans. Ten years later, Broderick was up for the role of Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” which ultimately went to Bryan Cranston. Now Cranston is starring in a good American “Godzilla” remake. The bottom line: Bryan Cranston > Matthew Broderick. Also, “Godzilla” (2014) > “Godzilla” (1998).

While Cranston and the rest of the cast all do well, they’re hardly the reason to see this new “Godzilla.” Unlike Roland Emmerich, Director Gareth Edwards and Screenwriter Max Borenstein get the idea of what “Godzilla” is all about. While a good story and strong characters are always welcome, that’s not what people are going to see this movie for. They’re going for the gargantuan monster brawls, kickass action set pieces, and state of the art visuals. Just as Guillermo del Toro got this down last year with the stupidly entertaining “Pacific Rim,” “Godzilla” delivers exactly what its fanbase wants.

Cranston plays Joe Brody, a nuclear physicist who loses his wife in a Japanese power plant accident. The city is closed off due to radiation, but Joe believes that there might be something more sinister going on behind closed curtains. Jump ahead a decade and a half where Lieutenant Ford Brody, Joe’s son played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, learns that his conspiracy nut father was right. The government has been hiding something big in the abandoned city…something REALLY big.

Ford meets Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who inform him that a giant Kaiju caused the accident at the power plant all those years ago. Now that monster has been awakened and it’s ready to raise some hell. The only thing capable of defeating the beast is another creature that has risen from the ocean known only as Godzilla. All the while, Ford must dodge all the mayhem as he attempts to return to his son and wife, played by Elizabeth ‘Infinitely More Talented Than Mary-Kate and Ashley Combined’ Olsen.

Above all else, the filmmakers understand that the most important part of any “Godzilla” movie is Godzilla himself. The King of Monsters has never looked or sounded better under the supervision of Edwards and his gifted production staff, delivering the modern Godzilla we’ve been wanting for years. Every time he’s on screen the theater is overwhelmed with supreme intimidation and excitement, especially on an IMAX screen. That’s something that this “Godzilla” effectively captures that the 1998 film didn’t, a genuine sense of terror. The film knows when to be big and loud, but it also knows when to be subtle and atmospheric. At times, it even manages to work in a chilling post 9/11 vibe.  

The monster battles are so enthralling that it’s actually kind of a drag whenever the film shifts attention to the silly humans. In all fairness, none of the human characters are bad. They just aren’t as interesting as the three men in “Jaws” or even the leads in “Jurassic Park.” The film also misguidedly kills off one of its best characters far too early on. That being said, at least the humans aren’t annoying or leave you wishing that they’d get stomped on. More importantly, none of them utter horrible dialog about fish.

Besides, Edwards knows that Godzilla is the true star of this picture. A lot of people might assume that Godzilla is an easy character to depict. After all, he’s just a big, dumb monster destroying buildings, right? Wrong! While Godzilla might be a simplistic character at his bare bones, he’s much harder to pull off than people think. Edwards succeeds in giving us a Godzilla that’s as towering, threatening, and triumphant than he’s ever been before.
 

The Equalizer

Way to ripoff the "Sin City" poster ***1/2

“The Equalizer” is a superhero movie without an actual superhero. Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a kindly man who spends his days greeting people with a smile at a home improvement store. By night, he roams the streets beating up/killing crooked cops, thugs, pimps, and mob bosses. He might not have Batman’s costume, gadgets, car, or money, but he just as easily could have tracked down the Joker and vanquished Bane in about a day. With his skillset, he’s basically Dexter, Sherlock Holmes, MacGyver, and Liam Neeson in “Taken” rolled into one.

Few actors play heroes better than Washington. Few actors play villains better than Washington either. It’s no surprise that he’d be terrific at playing an antihero like Robert McCall too. While McCall’s past is shady to say the least, we do learn that he was an intelligence agent of sorts who faked his death. An assassin for the CIA, perhaps? The even greater mystery is how the government hasn’t tracked him down given the trail of carnage he constantly leaves behind.

While McCall tries to live a normal life, he can’t help but get involved when an innocent soul is in trouble. He’s almost never surprised and can predict pretty much every move his enemy is going to make. This could have amounted to an overly perfect protagonist with zero weaknesses. Fortunately, Washington is just the right actor to pull a character like this off. It also helps that the film’s villain actually proves to be a commendable foe for McCall.

After avenging a hooker played by Chloë Grace Moretz, McCall is targeted by the Russian mob. They send in Teddy (Marton Csokas), another mysterious man with a talent for killing and getting to the bottom of things. When Teddy and McCall finally meet up, “The Equalizer” plays out like a game of wits and brawn. Both forces are seemingly unstoppable and neither will quit until the other is dead.

Antoine Fuqua of “Training Day” directs the film with gritty style and Richard Wenk energizes the script with flashy dialog. Watching the film, you’d swear that a graphic novel inspired it. Actually, “The Equalizer” is based on the 1980s TV series created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. The filmmakers here have done a solid job at reworking the source material for modern audiences, producing an entertaining thriller with a strong leading performance. It should also be noted that Sony Pictures financed the film. If Disney ever buys Sony, wouldn’t it be great to see Spider-Man and the Equalizer join the Avengers?

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The best exotic Budapest hotel ****

You don’t have to read the credits or see the previews to recognize “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a Wes Anderson picture. Anyone familiar with Anderson’s work can immediately spot his whimsical filmmaking style and sense of humor that’s completely bizarre, yet also deadpan. While Anderson has fallen into a comfortable, if not slightly predictable, groove, he still remains one of the most distinctive voices and visionaries of the past two decades. With his previous film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson perfected his craft as a writer and director. Although “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a step down from that near perfect film, it’s still another quirky, charming entertainment with that special Wes Anderson touch.

It’s the late 1960s where a nameless author (Jude Law) encounters a hotel owner named Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa flashes back to 1932 when he was a scrawny bellhop with a painted on mustache and his job title etched on his hat. In these sequences, Moustafa is played by newcomer Tony Revolori. He’s taught under the dedicated wing of Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave, the hotel concierge who fondles more old ladies than Max Bialystock in “The Producers.”

One of Gustave’s many lovers is the wealthy Madame D, played by an aged Tilda Swinton, who kicks the bucket and leaves her boy toy a priceless work of art named “Boy With Apple.” This naturally doesn’t sit well with her greedy son, played by Adrien Brody with devious facial hair and an Eraserhead hairdo. What ensues is a complicated farce evolving murder, war, chases, mystery, a prison escape, a Bill Murray cameo, all that good stuff.  

This is another great-looking movie from Anderson with old fashion sets, inspired effects, and lively cinematography, much of which is presented in a 1.33 aspect ratio. “Grand” is certainly the best word to describe the appearance of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” What’s more, the supporting cast is pitch perfect with Saoirse Ronan as a young pastry chef, Willem Dafoe as a ruthless manservant, Edward Norton as a matter-of-fact inspector, Jeff Goldblum as a Jeff Goldblumy lawyer, and too many other names to list off. The film mostly belongs to Fiennes and Revolori, who share a delightful mentor/mentee relationship that blossoms into a flat-out bromance.

If “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has a problem, aside from not being quite as funny or fresh as some of Anderson’s other films, it lies in the final act. The film builds up to what should be a big, exciting showdown full of revelations. Instead, it hurries to the conclusion with an easy solution to the main conflict. It really puts a damper on an otherwise solid film.

That being said, the rest of the film is indeed very fun and could only be brought to the screen by Anderson. People who love Anderson’s work will eat “The Grand Budapest Hotel” up while people who just don’t understand his work will continue to be mystified. Personally, I can’t wait to see where the director’s imagination will take audiences next. Suggestion: Director a feature-length Dr. Seuss movie, be it live-action or stop-motion animated.

Guardians of the Galaxy

A talking raccoon and tree still have more dignity than the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ****1/2

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is the tenth film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also probably the silliest. The good news is that Director James Gunn’s film is silly in all the right ways. It’s never insultingly silly like “Batman & Robin” or unknowingly silly like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Rather, “Guardians of the Galaxy” basks in its silliness and has a blast with its outlandish premise. Since the film never takes itself too seriously, the audience is ironically able to take it more seriously than most strait-faced science fiction epics. In a summer of a lot of dark, gritty blockbusters, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the life of the party.

Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation” is the perfect blend of goofball and unlikely action star as Peter Quill, a human who was abducted by a band of alien outlaws as a child. Now he roams the galaxy under the self-appointed title of Star-Lord, dodging space cops and looking for his next big score. Peter stumbles upon a powerful orb that will sell for four billion units. Before he can find a buyer, however, the military catches up to Peter and throws him in the slammer. There, Peter assembles a ragtag team of misfits to help him break out and hit it big.

Zoe Saldana goes from playing a sexy blue chick in “Avatar” to playing a sexy green chick as Gamora. A character such as this could have solely existed to provide fan service like the women in Michael Bay’s productions, but Saldana gives this deadly assassin a heart of gold in her pursuit for redemption. Bradley Cooper does hilarious voiceover work as Rocket, a talking raccoon with an attitude, and Vin Diesel is in his sincere “Iron Giant” mode as Groot, a tree-like creature with a limited vocabulary. Dave Bautista meanwhile undergoes one of the most fitting transitions from professional wrestler to actor as Drax the Destroyer, an alien seeking revenge for his family and takes everything literally.   

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a film that understands the best sci-fi and superhero pictures aren’t about visuals, although the effects and makeup here are first-rate. Movies like this are all about great characters and “Guardians of the Galaxy” has more than enough to go around. Having a kickass soundtrack to back them up doesn’t hurt either. The banter between the five leads is always wonderful, making for one of the wittiest ensemble pieces of its kind since Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” and “Serenity.” Even if you took out all the space battles, these guys would still be just as interesting if they had a conversation in a room for two hours.

We also get some solid supporting work from Michael Rooker as Peter’s mentor of sorts, Glenn Close as the head of the Nova Corps, and John C. Reilly as a corpsman who believes Peter might be more than just a scruffy-looking nerf herder. The only one who comes up a little short is Lee Pace as Ronan, the villain who wants to use the orb to takeover the universe. Pace at least supplies the character with an intimidating degree of menace, but he’s really no different than any of the other alien tyrants that just want power. Some of the introductions to these characters can also feel sudden with little buildup. This cast grows on you so quickly, though, that this is easy to overlook.

In the midst of all its silliness, “Guardians of the Galaxy” manages to be something more. It’s a picture about people, or aliens, that we care about and become emotionally invested in. The film even takes the time for several moments of legitimate drama that are surprisingly effective. Interestingly enough, this is the only comic book movie that comes to mind that puts an emphasis on a mother’s death as appose to a father’s death.

With ten films in the vault and more on the horizon, it might be easy to get sick of all these Marvel movies. Yet, the studio has really done a remarkable job at creating this shared cinematic universe while staying fresh, the only repetitive film in the lineup being “Thor: The Dark World.” With “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” Marvel continues to prove that they have plenty of mojo and variety to keep things interesting.

The Guest

Hey, if Matthew Crawley showed up at my house, I'd let him in in a heartbeat too. ***1/2

Between “No Good Deed” and “The Guest,” September is really shaping up to be the month of home invasion/sleeping with the enemy movies. What makes “The Guest” much more interesting that other film, however, is that it’s not entirely clear if the home invader wants to be the homeowner’s friend or enemy. At some point in our lives, we’ve all had somebody we’ve wanted to get rid of, be it a school bully, sleazy boyfriend, or boss. You might wish for a dark guardian angel to come to your rescue and take care of the person ruining your life. In the event that dark guardian actually did appear, though, would you be more relieved or horrified? On top of that, would you call the cops on this guy or let him do your dirty work?  

Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” finds himself in a completely different role as David, a soldier who arrives at the Peterson family’s doorstep. David claims to be a friend of Caleb, the eldest Peterson child who was killed in Afghanistan. Longing to fill the hole Caleb left behind, the family takes an instant shine to the kindly David. If the Peterson’s weren’t so distraught and watched more horror movies, they’d know that somebody as soft-spoken as David must be concealing psychopathic tendencies behind all that collectiveness.

It turns out that David is indeed harvesting a dark passenger, going after all the people who have wronged the Petersons. The only family member who suspects something’s up with David is Anna, the daughter played by Maika Monroe. She tries opening her family’s eyes, but they all think David is just the greatest thing since sliced bread. In another movie, this could get really annoying, not to mention frustrating. The reason it works here is mainly because you’re not always sure what David’s intentions truly are.

Stevens is chillingly effective as David, but you also get the idea that he’s simply having a ball in this role. He perfectly fits the movie’s tone, which falls between thrilling and twistedly playful. His character is a bit like Denzel Washington’s in “The Equalizer,” but David definitely leans more towards the homicidal side. His intentions are more vague than Washington’s, as it’s not clear if he’s doing these things for the sake of justice or for more devious reasons. He’s the epitome of mysterious and he keeps us guessing up until the exciting final act.

“The Guest” was directed by Adam Wingard and Written by Simon Barrett, who made the pleasant surprise, “You’re Next.” So many other filmmakers these days are oblivious of how to properly make a thriller, thinking that being disgusting or being distractingly artistic equals terror. Wingard and Barrett know how to get the genre just right, crafting some legitimately stimulating set pieces, incorporating just the right amount of dark humor, and developing twists that actually add up. The people who keep making those stupid “Saw” and “Purge” movies, please study these guys. They know what they’re doing and can teach you a thing or two.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Shouldn't those giant eagles count as a sixth army? ***1/2

Okay, let’s start off by acknowledging the elephant in the room. Actually since this is a “Lord of the Rings” movie, let’s start off by acknowledging the Mûmakil in the room. Why was “The Hobbit” spread out over three movies? While we’re on the subject, why was the final “Hunger Games” split up into two movies? Why drag a series on when the story can easily be told in a single outing? Sure, it’s a brilliant method to make a couple extra billion dollars, but can’t art take precedence over money for once? Can we please get Topher Grace to reedit this trilogy into one film like he did with the “Star Wars” prequels? For the love of Sauron!

With that rant out of the way, let me clarify that none of the “Hobbit” movies are bad. “The Battle of the Five Armies” in particular is the trilogies most exciting, most character driven, and most visually stunning effort. Are there still pacing issues? Sure. Would the film have worked better as the final act to a three-hour movie? Definitely. In spite of its faults, though, it’s sad to think that this will likely be the last we see of Middle Earth. Peter Jackson has truly brought one of the great fictional worlds to life and J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation will always offer something worthwhile.

The film opens on a rousing note as Smaug attacks the defenseless Lake-town. Granted, this scene might have worked better as a finale to “The Desolation of Smaug,” but I digress. Once the dragon is out of the way, Thorin and his fellow dwarfs are free to take the Lonely Mountain and claim the Arkenstone. What they don’t realize is that the Bilbo Baggins is secretly hoarding the gem, worrying that Thorin will become consumed by greed. Meanwhile, armies of men and elves gather outside the mountain, wanting their cut of the treasure. While they start off as enemies, the three races are forced to unite when they’re attacked by legions of Goblins and Wargs. From there, “The Battle of the Five Armies” naturally plays out like one extended action sequence.

As we’ve come to expect from this franchise, the action is marvelously choreographed and set against stunning art direction. Every time swordplay starts to become repetitive, Jackson knows when to stop and have a quiet moment between the characters. The standout performance comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin, who walks a fine line between being a great leader like Aragorn or a pathetic addict like Gollum. Bilbo acts as his moral compass of sorts, although he too is at risk of one day being consumed by the ring in his possession. Considering that most dwarfs are often given the comedic relief treatment in fantasy epics, it’s refreshing to see a film that treats one like somebody out of Shakespeare.

To discuss why “The Battle of the Five Armies” doesn’t reach the same heights as the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy would be like beating a dead horse. There are still a lot of characters that serve little purpose, there’s still way too much filler, and, once again, this all could have been one movie. For what we got, however, Peter Jackson delivered a fun return to a wonderful cinematic realm and ends Bilbo’s story on a dignified, humble note.

Horrible Bosses 2

You're fired...oh god, did I seriously just make an "Apprentice" joke? **1/2

“Horrible Bosses” provided a breath of fresh air the same summer that “The Hangover: Part II” came out. In an ironic, yet not especially surprising, turn of events, “Horrible Bosses 2” makes many of the same mistakes as “The Hangover: Part II.” While this sequel to the 2011 buddy comedy isn’t without its moments, “Horrible Bosses 2” really only exists to recycle the same old plot and make the studio some easy money. It’d be one thing if the film knew it was a retread like “22 Jump Street” or had a huge nostalgic factor going for it like “Dumb and Dumber To,” which was also co-written by Director Sean Anders. There just aren’t quite enough laughs here to merit the film’s existence, though.

Jason Bateman’s Nick, Charlie Day’s Dale, and Jason Sudeikis’ Kurt are all back, but this time they’re their own bosses. They’ve invented a product called the Shower Buddy and are looking for an investor to help with the distribution. They find a charitable benefactor in Billionaire Burt Hanson, played by Christoph Waltz. Since Christoph Waltz can never be trusted, he naturally ends up stabbing the guys in their backs. The three cook up a scheme to get their investment back by kidnapping Hanson’s douchebag son Rex (Chris Pine). As you can probably guess, things don’t exactly go according to plan.

While they’re basically going through the motions, Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis still have wonderful chemistry together. They’re so committed to their roles that you’ll often find yourself desperately wanting to like “Horrible Bosses 2.” But instead of making these characters funnier, the filmmakers settle for just making them dumber. There’s a limit to how many times we can watch these people bumble their way into a shenanigan and still have everything conveniently work out in the long run. As a result, watching their antics ends up being more frustrating and predictable than humorous.  

As for the supporting cast, Jennifer Aniston returns as the horny Julia, who’s now in sex addicts anonymous. She scores a few laughs, although her presence doesn’t contribute much to the plot. The same can be said about Kevin Spacey, who resurfaces for a brief cameo as the sadistic Mr. Harken then disappears without doing much. Jamie Foxx is also back as MF Jones, but again, isn’t nearly as memorable this time around. That’s how most of the scenes in “Horrible Bosses 2” play out. Bring back the characters we loved from the first film, but don’t do anything original with them.

So what about the new characters? You’d think Christoph Waltz would be fun given his work in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” but his villain is shockingly by the numbers. The surprise standout is Chris Pine as Rex, who’s voluntarily taken hostage by the guys in hopes of getting a cut of his own ransom. Pine has a ball playing sociopathic rich boy. Other than him and a couple one-liners, there’s nothing fresh here. If you’ve seen “Horrible Bosses,” you’ve seen “Horrible Bosses 2.”

You might be asking yourself, why does Hollywood keep giving us the same old thing over and over again. The answer is because we keep asking and settling for the same thing. After all, “The Hangover: Part II” was still a big hit despite being a retread. There’s little doubt that “Horrible Bosses 2” will follow the same path. It doesn’t matter if audiences actually like the film or not. They’ll continue to ask for more anyway like a dog that doesn’t know when to stop eating. But eventually somebody has to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.”

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to make your sequel ****1/2

DreamWorks Animation has always been great at being timely, but hasn’t always been that great at being timeless. Some of their films have stricken a decent balance between timely and timeless, like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Several of their films, however, feel very much like products of the time that probably won’t hold up phenomenally in another twenty years. Chris Sanders’ “How to Train Your Dragon” was a different kind of film from DreamWorks, being one half action/adventure and another half heartwarming tale between a boy and animal. In some respects, it was like a few of their earlier 2D animated features, but done a million times better. It was the first DreamWorks film since “The Prince of Egypt” that felt completely timeless with no pop culture references and little modern talk, even rivaling some of the best efforts from Disney and Pixar.

While the first “How to Train Your Dragon” was wonderful, it’s kind of shocking just how fantastic “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is. Like any good sequel, “HTTYD 2” doesn’t merely rehash the original, but expands upon it. The first film created a magical, sometimes gritty world of its own with unique characters, technology, creatures, and mythos. After watching “HTTYD2,” this world feels so much grander than ever before. In the same vein of Pandora in “Avatar,” it’s a world you want to fully explore and see every sight of. Watching this world function, you’re left feeling nothing but grateful that the filmmakers put so much effort into bringing it to life.  

Picking up five years after the original, Toothless the Night Fury dragon returns along with his buddy Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Their friendship has brought dragons and the Vikings of Berk together to live in harmony. Hiccup is expected to take over his clan from his aging warrior father (Gerard Butler), but the zero to hero dragon rider still isn’t convinced that he’s ready for such responsibility. The coronation will have to be put on hold anyway as Berk faces its gravest threat ever. A hunter by the name of Drago Bludvist is capturing dragons to create an unstoppable army. Hiccup and Toothless set out to stop Drago, along the way learning more about dragon lore and Hiccup’s family.

Hiccup himself has notably grown up, both physically and mentally. Grown up is actually the best way to describe “HTTYD2.” It feels like the franchise is taking the “Harry Potter” route, maturing the tone with every passing film without going overboard. This is a film that doesn’t talk down to its audience and isn’t afraid to be subtle, dramatic, intense, atmospheric, or dark. There’s even a major death in the film that’s easy to get choked up over. Unlike some films that are dark just for the sake of being dark, “HTTYD2” earns all of these mature moments thanks to the structured pacing from writer/director Dean DeBlois and some strong character development.

“HTTYD2” is a film gushing with effective dynamics between Hiccup and Toothless, Hiccup and his father, and Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). There’s also a poignant relationship between Hiccup and Cate Blanchett as a woman from his past, whose identity I won’t spoil even though the trailers already did. Even Djimon Hounsou as the villainess Drago is a weightier character than expected. Rather than just flat out making him a one-note “Captain Planet” bad guy, there’s some understandable reasoning behind his motivations and his plan to assume control of the dragons is actually quite diabolical. All of these performers bring great gravitas to their characters, taking their roles every bit as seriously as the actors on “Game of Thrones” take theirs.

Speaking of “Game of Thrones,” the action in “HTTYD2” is on par with some of the best in all fantasy epics. As much as I enjoyed “Edge of Tomorrow,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Godzilla,” and even “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” this animated feature is the summer movie that takes the cake in the action department. Every shot bursts with so much detail that the film at times appears bigger than life itself. The aerial sequences, as they were in the first movie, are breathtaking simulations of flight whether seen in 2D or 3D. “HTTYD2” might be animated, but Visual Consultant Roger Deakins is well worthy of a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for his work here. John Powell’s thrilling musical score only adds to the picture’s scale, making everything feel bigger.

“HTTYD2” is simply one of those movies that has next to no duds. Every scene is just so perfectly thought out and executed, not missing a single beat. One can only hope such effort will carry on in “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” especially since DreamWorks now have two superb films under their belt. For now, let’s just enjoy “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” a strong competitor to challenge “The Lego Movie” for Best Animated Feature of 2014.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

 Mock (yeah) ing (yeah) bird (yeah) yeah, yeah! ***1/2

The final shot of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” certainly left audiences pumped for the following installment. Seeing that fierce glare in Katniss’ eyes, all you wanted to do was charge into battle alongside her. Given the adrenaline rush the previous film provided, it’s a bit disappointing that “Mockingjay – Part 1” isn’t the grand final confrontation. Rather, it’s more of a calm before the big storm. That doesn’t make the film bad. It’s still remarkably acted, thought provoking, and light-years ahead of most movies being targeted at teenagers. Still, “Mockingjay – Part 1” also leaves you wishing for the good old days when epic stories were told within three movies max.

Jennifer Lawrence, who’s ironically become the girl on fire in real life, returns as Katniss Everdeen. District 13 has rescued Katniss while her would-be boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) remains in the Capital at the mercy of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Julianne Moore makes her debut as President Alma Coin, who’s been building a rebellion alongside Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. They still need a poster child for their cause, however, and Katniss perfectly fits the bill. Hell-bent on saving Peeta and keeping her little sister safe, Katniss reluctantly agrees to play the role of the mockingjay.

The “Hunger Games” movies are essentially one half political commentary and the other half kickass action extravaganza. “Mockingjay – Part 1” is probably the most politically strategic film in the franchise and also the most dialog heavy. This amounts to a lot of intelligent, powerful moments in which Katniss must sell herself as the savior who will bring the Capital down. While the film shines in everything political, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is lacking as an action picture. There are very few action set pieces at all, which is a major drawback considering the phenomenal second half of “Catching Fire.”

Not only is there very little action, but there isn’t nearly as much splendor in the art direction, costumes, or makeup departments this time around either. Much of “Mockingjay – Part 1” takes place in a dim underground sanctuary and lifeless fields of carnage. Even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has been deprived of anything glamorous. Hell, the most well-fed and well-groomed individual in District 13 is a chubby cat. Granted, this is exactly what Director Francis Lawrence was going for, placing our heroes in the lowest point imaginable so they’re even more triumphant when they rise above it all. Nevertheless, this rise to victory likely would have had more of an impact if “Mockingjay” weren’t split into two movies.

At least with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” there was a ton of material to spread out over the course of multiple films. With a 309 page book like “Mockingjay,” however, it feels about as necessary as turning “The Hobbit” into a trilogy. Even if it is meandering at times, “Mockingjay – Part 1” remains a perfectly solid movie. It’s tense, smartly written, full of quiet, atmospheric moments, and does a good job at getting us excited for “Mockingjay – Part 2.” Had they not gone the double feature route, though, this could have been the tightest and most well-paced entry to the series. 

Inherent Vice

Better if watched while stoned **1/2

From “Boogie Nights,” to “Magnolia,” to “Punch-Drunk Love,” to “There Will Be Blood,” to “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson has distinguished himself as one of the greatest and strangest filmmakers of the past two decades. “Inherent Vice” is another mystifying tale from Anderson, although it’s not the plot or meaning of the film that’s mystifying this time around. It’s the film’s quality that’s mystifying. “Inherent Vice” has too many talented actors to count and a strong atmosphere to boot. While there’s much to admire, it feels surprisingly hollow and dull on the whole.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, the movie sets itself in the 1970’s. Littering many scenes with sight gags and a groovy musical score, Anderson does an inspired job at recreating an era dominated by narcotics, cults, and hippies. One of these hippies is a private eye named Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), whose face is populated by a pair of giant sideburns. An ex-girlfriend named Shasta (Katherine Waterston) ropes the P.I. into helping search for her missing boyfriend. This leads to a mystery involving murder, disappearances, and drugs with Doc having a cigarette butt between two fingers almost every step of the way.  

Throughout his investigation, Doc encounters various odd characters like Reese Witherspoon as a woman who’s simultaneously disgusted and attracted to him, Benicio del Toro as his lawyer, Jena Malone as a widow, and Owen Wilson as her allegedly late husband. Although they all give genuinely dedicated performances, most of these actors just come, go, and are ultimately forgotten. You know something is wrong with your movie when even Martin Short doesn’t leave much of an impression as a cocaine-addicted dentist. The only actor who really shines is Josh Brolin as a detective nicknamed Big Foot who sports a flattop hairdo and loves chocolate bananas almost as much as he despises hippies. As conservative as he might appear, he’s probably the craziest person in the picture.

With its bizarre mystery, dazed hero, and laidback tone, “Inherent Vice” is at times reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski.” However, this film is without much of the humor, memorable characters, or sheer insanity that made “Lebowski” a classic. Instead, we’re left with a mystery that isn’t very involving, a script that’s a little too reliant on dialog, and colorful, yet forgettable, characters. Having a two and a half hour running time doesn’t help either.

It’s intriguing that one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most mainstream films to date would also be one of his least engaging. This is a movie where you’re often gazing at your watch, contemplating whether or not to leave the theater. “Inherent Vice” throws just enough interesting things at the screen that you’ll likely stay seated until the end. Whether you should have sat down to watch the movie at all is another story. In any case, this is the weakest film of Anderson’s career. Even at his worst, though, Anderson does offer something of value, which is more than can be said about most directors.

Interstellar

An otherworldly experience ****1/2

Of all the movies released in 2014, none has had more hype, anticipation, or secrecy backing it than Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” Now that his ninth feature film has at last landed, reactions are likely to be split. Some will call “Interstellar” a pretentious director’s desperate attempt to live in Stanley Kubrick’s shadow. Others will hail it as a science fiction masterpiece that will be praised for years to come. There will also be a fair percentage of audiences that won’t know what to think after just one viewing. As for my opinion, “Interstellar” is one of the boldest pictures ever made regarding nature, science, and, above all else, the unknown.

It’s actually incredibly fitting that the trailers have given away so little information about “Interstellar.” The film is about venturing into uncharted territory and solving the universe’s vast sea of unsolved mysteries. Are we alone in this universe? Is there a species superior to man out there? What are man’s limitations? Does man have any limitations? Is mankind selling itself short by assuming we have limitations? The list of questions just goes on much like the universe.

The buildup in “Interstellar” is phenomenal as Nolan sets us in what appears to be an everyday farming community. We soon learn, however, that this is a dystopian future where dust storms are gradually killing the population, space programs have been discontinued, and the crops provided by farmers are imperative to our scarce food supply. One of these farmers is a man named Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey who’s been on one of the most impressive winning streaks of our time subsequent to an abysmal losing streak.

The widowed Cooper survives by his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), his teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and adoring daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy). A former astronaut, Cooper is among the few living people qualified for a mission being lead by the now underground NASA. Michael Caine’s Professor Brand informs Cooper that the planet is dying and humankind’s only hope is a wormhole to new inhabitable worlds. Cooper is accompanied by several other trained astronauts, which includes Anne Hathaway’s Amelia, Wes Bentley’s Doyle, David Gyasi’s Romilly, and an A.I. companion that looks like a mobile version of the monolith from “2001.”  

“Interstellar” has everything we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan. The scope of the film is huge with an impending musical score, inventive sets, mind-blowing cinematography, and state of the art effects that aren’t totally reliant on CGI or green screens. Nolan has a brilliant screenplay by himself and brother Jonathan Nolan to accompany such exceptional craft. What Nolan gets down most of all in “Interstellar,” though, is the heart. A particular relationship drives the story, which amounts to a gut-wrenching game changer half way through. There are several other pivotal plot points and performances that contribute to the greatness of “Interstellar,” but to give away any more information would spoil the film’s astonishing experience.

This movie is an emerald curtain. As strong as the buildup might be, none of it matters unless the audience finds something even stronger behind the curtain. It’s impossible to sing “Interstellar” anymore praise without pulling the curtain back just a little. So I’ll leave you with this. Get out there and pull the curtain back for yourself. Something truly extraordinary is waiting there.

Into the Woods

 Talk about a grim fairytale ****

 

Fairytales might be public domain, but Disney has pretty much absorbed everything fairytale-oriented and marked it as their own. Because of this, a film adaptation of “Into the Woods” produced by Disney was inevitable. Being released under the kid-friendly Disney label, you’d expect James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning musical to be toned down like the schoolhouse junior version. While not quite as grim as its source material, Disney’s “Into the Woods” is a surprisingly mature outing with everyone involved bringing grace and class to the equation. The result is probably the best “Into the Wood” film we could have hoped for and one of the most likable movie experiences of the year.

The film takes place in a fantasy world where magic is part of everyday life. Among the kingdom’s many fantastical residents are a baker (James Corden) and a baker’s wife (Emily Blunt), who have been cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep). To remove the curse, they must venture into to woods and recover four items. From there, the film plays out like the musical fantasy version of “Crash” as the baker and his wife cross paths with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), an especially spunky Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

Meryl Streep has been earning a lot of buzz for her performance as the witch and…yeah, it is a pretty impressive performance. Hidden under haggard makeup, Streep completely gives herself to the role and keeps the audience guessing whether she’s good or wicked. This is far from a one-woman show, however. Blunt and Corden are just a wonderful as a married couple searching for a happy ending. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen at times steal the whole show as two womanizing princes that make James Marsden in “Enchanted” look subtle. Even minor roles like Johnny Depp as a pimped out wolf, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother, and Christine Baranski as the evil stepmother couldn’t be more perfectly cast.

Halfway in, “Into the Wood” looks like it might be one of the best musicals of the 21st century. Things start to get a little tangled in the second act, though, as several key players just disappear and others start to questionably act out of character. For a film with many interlocking stories, not everything comes together as smartly or tightly as it could have. But even when elements of the plot aren’t fully fleshed out, “Into the Woods” is a hard film not to enjoy. This is mainly due to the movie’s atmosphere, which captures the playfully dark spirit of a Grimm fairytale.

Director Rob Marshall of “Chicago” is known for making big, flashy pictures. While “Into the Woods” looks fantastic, Marshall actually keeps the action very subtle and intimate. Much of the film is appropriately set in the woods and you never grow tired of the foreboding setting. At times you might wish you could follow Jack up his beanstalk or Cinderella to the ball instead of just listening to them sing about their off-screen adventures. The actors are so expressive and committed to their roles, though, that the audience can really visualize everything they sing. Speaking of which, the soundtrack is of course spellbinding in all around delightful musical for kids and adults alike.  

The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome...need I say more? ****1/2

Many adults complain that today’s youth is dominated by video games and iPads. But no matter how advanced technology becomes, Lego will always be there to provide the building blocks for good, old-fashion fun. Every Lego box is a treasure chest of infinite possibilities, allowing us to construct castles, cars, and entire cities. Lego has fueled our imaginations ever since 1949. Sixty-five years and 560 billion Lego pieces later, we get “The Lego Movie.”

Yeah, just saying that title out loud makes me feel silly. “The Lego Movie” is indeed very silly and appropriately so. The film is also a surprisingly inspired piece of animation. This easily could have been the biggest sellout since Nintendo manufactured “The Wizard.” While it might look like an hour and a half long toy commercial, “The Lego Movie” is actually a lot more inventive than anyone would ever expect.

Chris Pratt is Emmet, a seemingly run-of-the-mill mini-figure who blends right in with the other residents of a Lego city. The land is ruled by the evil President Business (Will Ferrell), who is determined to control everyone and everything in the Lego universe. Emmett is finally influenced to standout from all the other yellow-faced people upon meeting a lively Lego woman named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). She informs Emmet that he’s a special Master Builder who can save their world from President Business. The two team up with the other Lego Master Builders, which includes Will Arnett as Batman. That’s right, Batman.

Lego has crossed paths with numerous popular franchises over the years. This makes leeway for the filmmakers to include characters like Superman, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Han Solo, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Shaq, and Millhouse from “The Simpsons.” It’s a little like that “Imaginationland” episode of “South Park” or a “Robot Chicken” sketch with less profanity.

In addition to existing copyrighted characters, “The Lego Movie” also includes entertaining original characters such as Morgan Freeman as a blind soothsayer named Vitruvius, Alison Brie as a unicorn kitty named Uni-Kitty, Charlie Day as a retro spaceman, and Nick Offerman as a robot pirate. My favorite of the bunch is Liam Neeson as a schizophrenic police officer who is literally two-faced. One side of his head is a tough as nails bad cop while the other is a friendly nice cop. Think the Mayor of Halloweentown with a badge.

People have been making stop-motion home movies with Lego figures for years, lampooning everything from “Star Wars” to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” “The Lego Movie” isn’t stop-motion animated, but the convincing computer-animation certainly makes it appear that way. The characters, the vehicles, and the set pieces all look and move exactly like a real Lego world sprung to life. It’s truly some state of the art animation that’d be a joy to simply look at even if the sound was turned off.

“The Lego Movie” is both funny and heartfelt, although it doesn’t quite top the “Toy Story” trilogy in those departments. Like “Toy Story,” however, it does capture the lighthearted wonder of a child playing make-believe with their toys. In the midst of all the childish absurdity, the film also manages to work in an endearing moral about individuality and a clever twist ending. Writers/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of “Cloud With a Chance of Meatballs” obviously grew up with Lego’s and set out to make the best Lego feature film possible. What they give us is a goofy good time that finally provides families with a suitable alternative to seeing “Frozen” for the hundredth time.

Lucy

50% Dumb, 50% Smart, 100% Lame **

“Lucy” is a completely inconsequential movie. You watch it, shrug your shoulders with a “meh,” walk away, and forget about it the next day. That’d be all well and good if “Lucy” was simply aspiring to be another run-of-the-mill blockbuster. The film actually seems to have greater ambitions, though, trying hard to tackle a number of complex ideas and theories. On one hand, the film’s ambition at least makes it more admirable than mindless entertainment. On the other hand, the fact that the film can’t deliver on its ambition ultimately makes it more disappointing.

Scarlett Johansson has undoubtedly been on a role as of late. She gave a voiceover performance worthy of an Oscar nomination in “Her,” stole the show in “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” delivered some transcendent work in “Under the Skin,” had a charming supporting role in “Chef,” and now that winning streak comes to an end with “Lucy.” To Johansson’s credit, she does bring a lot of spunk and finesse to the film’s otherwise one-note title character. Her performance might not save “Lucy,” but Johansson does make it a better movie than it would have been. That’s a true testament to a movie star’s talent.

Lucy herself is an ordinary American woman who accidentally ends up as a drug mule for the Taiwanese mob. The drug has the appearance of Walter White’s baby blue crystal meth, but that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is the effect of the drug, which allows Lucy to use more than the typical 10% of her brain’s capacity. This turns her into a super smart, all knowing being that’s more incredible than all the Avengers combined. It’s about as plausible as the science in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

This is actually a potentially ingenious idea for a science fiction story. But unlike a Christopher Nolan or Wachowski Brothers picture, “Lucy” has nothing to offer other than ideas and philosophies. There isn’t a story or a character for the audience to become invested in. A majority of the movie is just Johansson and Dr. Morgan Freeman spewing out exposition as quickly as possible, taking no time for these fantastic ideas to blossom into something more meaningful. Maybe that’s why the film rushes through its narrative in just under 90 minutes.

Even as a purely philosophical film “Lucy” doesn’t work as it only takes a break from the improbable exposition for cliché shootouts with stock villains. This makes “Lucy” feel like watching two different movies, one smart, the other stupid, and both pretentiously full of themselves. Whatever Writer/Director Luc Besson was going for, his film isn’t smart or stupid enough to be a success. It’s just a confused mess that doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say.

The tagline for “Lucy” reads, “The average person uses 10% of their brain capacity. Imagine what she could do with 100%.” The tagline just as easily could have read, “Imagine what the filmmakers could have done if only they thad used 10% of their own brain capacity.”

Maleficent

I guess I liked it? ***

It’s always been my personal opinion that Walt Disney’s 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” should have been titled, “Maleficent.” After all, she gets more screen time than Princess Aurora, she’s a more interesting character, and she’s the one you want to dress up as for Halloween. So why does Sleeping Blandness get the title role? It’s nice to see Maleficent finally get top billing in a movie after all these years, even if the movie itself is only so-so.

Maleficent is given the “Wicked” treatment through this untold story of how she became a mistress of evil. Turns out that Maleficent started out as a winged fairy that watched over an enchanted forest. She fell in love with a young man named Stefan, who ultimately betrayed Maleficent by stealing her angelic wings in the night. When Stefan becomes king of the land, Maleficent vows revenge by cursing his firstborn daughter. On her sixteenth birthday, the princess will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and you know the drill.

One thing the film undeniably has going for it is Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Maleficent. When you see her on screen with mounting horns, red lips, and risen cheekbones, you don’t just see an actress playing a character. You see Maleficent incarnate. What’s more, the movie supplies her with a great back-story and some wonderful characterization. Without giving too much away, Maleficent eventually finds herself stuck in two complicated roles as both Aurora’s parental figure and inevitable doom, making for inspired drama.

“Maleficent” sadly drops the ball when it comes to the supporting characters, however. Elle Fanning’s Princess Aurora is pretty and nice, but isn’t especially interesting. Although to be fair, the character was never that interesting to begin with. Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan starts off as a morally ambiguous, sympathetic character, but in the end just becomes a one-dimensional bad guy. The biggest disappointments are Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville as three color-coated pixies charged with protecting Aurora. Where in the original animated film these three were essentially the heroes, here they’re reduced to the kind of bumbling stooges you’d see in “Hocus Pocus.”

Oscar-winner Robert Stromberg, who acted as a production designer on the marvelous-looking “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” makes his directorial debut. There’s no denying that “Maleficent” is an exceptionally crafted movie, at times almost looking like something from “Fantasia” brought to life. Most art directors and visual effects artists that try to sit in the director’s chair typically have the same problem, though. Their films end up looking spectacular, but lack in the storytelling department. Stromberg’s “Maleficent” isn’t an exception.

That’s not to say that “Maleficent” is all about the visuals. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton of “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” has some brilliant ideas, twists, and character dynamics. The problem is that the film doesn’t allow the time to let these ideas flourish. You thought “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was rushed? The first half of “Maleficent” feels like it’s almost all done in narration. Had this been a story ark on “Once Upon a Time,” we could have gotten the greatest “Maleficent” story of all time. Instead, we’ll just have to settle for a perfect leading performance, strong visuals, and just enough good ideas to keep the movie afloat. 

Men, Women & Children

The sound of silence ****

With “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air,” few modern directors have done a more authentic job at capturing the age we live in better than Jason Reitman. It’s actually pretty surprising that it’s taken him this long to make a movie concerning digital media’s effect on culture. What’s even more shocking is the fact that some of these innovations are barely a decade old. On top of all that, it’s only been thirteen years since the 9/11 attacks, which instigated the need for every man, woman, and child to have a cell phone. We might have gotten by fine without them for years, but now it’s impossible to imagine life without any mobile devices or social networking.  

Of all Reitman’s movies, “Men, Women & Children” should be one of the most interesting to revisit in twenty or thirty years. The Internet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Regardless, Internet access are service are bound to evolve with time. In 2044, iPhones and iPads might look as ancient as beepers and answering machines. Does that mean “Men, Women & Children” will inevitably become dated? In terms of technology, yes. In terms of characters and themes, though, the film feels both timely and timeless. On that basis, it could either age worse with time or better with time.

“Men, Women & Children” connects several stories about adults and young adults struggling to communicate in this digital era. Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt play a distant married couple that share more conversations on Words with Friends than they do in person. Both are considering committing adultery by seeking out partners online, be it through a dating website or a call girl service. As their relationship deteriorates, a new romance blossoms between Ansel Elgort’s Tim and Kaitlyn Dever’s Brandy. The only problem is that Brandy’s mom played by Jennifer Garner is a control freak who monitors everything her daughter posts online. She’s the complete opposite of Judy Greer’s Donna, who is determined to make her daughter a star by posting racy pictures on her acting website.

Reitman’s film is at its strongest when he allows scenes to play out through silent text messages. There’s a particularly strong scene where a young anorexic girl and an older boy she likes are standing in the same room together. They never approach one another or even look each other in the eyes, commutating solely through texts. “Men, Women & Children” is full of identifiable moments like this, asking whether the likes of Facebook and Twitter are bringing us closer together or causing us to drift apart like a satellite floating away from our insignificant planet. The answer is a little bit of both.

While technology and the world will change in the years to come, Reitman understands that certain aspects of human nature never will. As much as cell phones and the Internet have altered civilization, there have always been people with trust issues, privacy issues, romantic issues, insecurity issues, and communication issues. Even if you took technology out of the equation, most of these characters would be the same at heart. In that sense, “Men, Women & Children” is a film much like “American Beauty” and “Little Children,” acting as a time capsule for contemporary society while also saying something that’s poignant for every generation.

The one major dislike “Men, Women & Children” merits is its constant narration from an all-knowing Emma Thompson. At times she can work in a witty one-liner, but for the most part the voiceover is just a needless distraction that’s latching onto the source material by Chad Kultgen. That being said, whenever “Men, Women & Children” just shows us the characters living their lives it’s often quite absorbing.

The most emotional scene of all occurs as one character learns a program has been deleted from their hard drive forever. In the early 90’s we might have said, “Big deal. It’s not like anyone died.” Now, however, we all know that losing something important on your computer is like losing a body part. Should we feel sad for this person’s loss or should we feel depressed that a computer program can make us so upset? In either case, our smart phones, tablets, and laptops are officially apart of us all until something superior replaces them.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

 A million more reasons to hate living in Arizona ***1/2

Seth MacFarlane is one talented guy. Sure, a lot of people have written him off for his “lowbrow” and “tasteless” sense of humor. But few modern performers have mastered such “lowbrow” comedy through everything from animation, to feature film, to songwriting, to live performances. The one thing MacFarlane has yet to do is get in front of the camera and star in a movie. We all know that he’s a gifted voiceover actor, as seen in “Family Guy,” “Ted,” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Yeah, he played the guy in the containment suite believe it or not). Does voiceover acting transfer well to screen acting, though? In MacFarlane’s case, it does.

In “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” MacFarlane might not give a transcendent comedic performance that shows off incredible range. He’s still very much playing himself, providing sarcastic commentary. Of course nobody in entertainment today does that sort of thing better than MacFarlane. The same could be said about a younger Bill Murray, Jerry Seinfeld, Groucho Marx, or Mel Brooks.

Speaking of Mel Brooks, the film everyone is destined to compare “A Million Ways to Die in the West” to is “Blazing Saddles.” While both films share a similar brand of edgy humor and entertaining musical numbers, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is still far from being up there with “Blazing Saddles.” If anything, “Django Unchained” is the closest we’ve come to a modern “Blazing Saddles.” “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is still good fun, though, with some big laughs, killer performances, and a classic musical score to boot.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a piss-poor sheep farmer who has the misfortune of living in 1882 Arizona where you can die at any place at any time. To make matters worse, Albert’s been dumped by his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who is now shacking up with a snooty mustached playboy named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Just as Albert is ready to leave the old west for good, he’s convinced to stay upon falling for a foxy gunslinging girl named Anna (Charlize Theron). Little does Albert realize that Anna is married to Liam Neeson’s Clinch Leatherwood, the meanest outlaw this side of Mad Dog Tannen.

Although MacFarlane does well in his first major on camera role, the first-rate supporting cast also carries much of the weight. Theron’s Anna is something of a perfect comedic foil to MacFarlane’s Albert, making for one of the most memorable comedic duos in awhile. Giovanni Ribisi is also good as Albert’s best friend who doesn’t seem to mind that his loving girlfriend is a prostitute. She’s played by Sarah Silverman, who will have sex with anyone except for her boyfriend who must wait until they’re wedded in the eyes of god. Makes perfect sense, right? Throw in one great cameo after another and you have yourself an ensemble that can do little wrong.

What MacFarlane really nails as a writer and director here is the use of slapstick, which is often considered easy to do. Slapstick gags might be easy to produce. If Adam Sandler and those guys who made “Disaster Movie” have proven anything, though, it’s that good slapstick humor is hard to produce. MacFarlane finds just the right balance of pain and misery in his slapstick timing, making for an often hilarious live-action cartoon of sorts.

That being said, most of the best jokes in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” are visual related, namely a runaway slave shooting game. The written jokes on the other hand, are hit and miss for the most part. The film is also roughly twenty minutes too long with a few chases and sheep penises that could have been cutout altogether. Still, when the film hits it really hits and there’s just too much solid material on display to completely pass up “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” If you’ve never been a fan of MacFarlane’s humor, this probably won’t be the film to win you over. If you love is work, however, you’ll be getting exactly what you want. At least that’s more than can be said about “The Cleveland Show” or “Dads.”

A Most Violent Year

No man, woman, or deer is safe ****

J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” is a unique crime drama primarily due to its central character, Abel Morales. With a title like “A Most Violent Year,” you’d think Abel would be a hostile pig that’s constantly ordering hits and shouting obscenities. While he engages in unlawful activities, Abel is probably one of the most reputable and humble criminals cinema has ever seen. He doesn’t cheat on his wife, do drugs, or abuse the second amendment. Even when he has to put a dying animal out of its misery, he’s reluctant to do the deed.

Abel is played by Oscar Isaac, who was previously seen as wandering folk singer Llewyn Davis. His story is set in New York 1981, one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel allegedly makes his living in heating oil, but the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) has reason to believe he’s up to something else. Abel’s whole world seems to be falling apart. In addition to being under investigation, an unknown competitor is hijacking his trucks, his benefactors are backing out of a crucial loan he needs to expand his business, and one of his lower level employees has gotten into trouble with the authorities.

We’ve seen a lot of movies and TV shows about gangsters that try to present themselves as honest workers. What’s interesting about Abel is that we only occasionally see glimpses of the mobster hiding inside. Abel realizes that his profession requires him to get his hands dirty, but he’ll still attempt to do the right thing and resolve matters in the most peaceful way possible. As hard as he tries, though, Abel can’t always prevent blood from being shed. That’s where his wife comes in.

Jessica Chastain has proven time and time again that she can do no wrong. With long fingernails, a think accent, and cleavage galore, she nails it as Abel’s wife, Anna. In a role that could have been incredibly clichéd, Chastain creates a multi-layered woman. She loves her husband and acts as his rock when times are tough, but also refuses to just sit around and let Abel take care of business. Where her husband will always attempt to find a way around a problem, she’ll confront it head-on even if it means doing something wrong. As long as her family is secure, she doesn’t much care about the means.

If you’re looking for a traditional gangster flick with countless shootouts, “A Most Violent Year” probably won’t be your cup of tea. Others, however, will appreciate the film for its complex characters and original approach to the genre. In many ways, this isn’t even a gangster movie, just as Abel Morales isn’t really a gangster. Of course he’s not exactly what you’d call a legitimate businessman either.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

And now here's something we hope you'll really like ***1/2

A few weeks ago we got “The Lego Movie,” an animated feature that looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Since its release, however, the film has become a box office hit and received praise from virtually every human being on the planet, myself included. “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is another family movie that seemed destined to flop at first glance. A modern day 3D extravaganza based on a 1960’s cartoon that was never even so great to begin with? I smell another “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”  

Against all the odds, though, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is actually a pleasant surprise from DreamWorks Animation. It doesn’t completely hit it out of the park like “The Lego Movie” or the Oscar-winning “Frozen.” But it is much better than any “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” movie has any right to be.

For all those who didn’t grow up watching “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” Mr. Peabody is a sophisticated, talking dog who’s a scholar in everything from history, to engineering, to culinary arts, to time traveling. He’s all Brian the dog from “Family Guy” ever aspired to be. Peabody, voiced here by Ty Burrell of “Modern Family,” adopts a young boy named Sherman (Max Charles), who’s always eager to learn although he occasionally forgets to use his brain. Some people question whether it’s ethically right for a dog to raise a child. Of course the more pressing questions are how a dog can talk, why doesn’t the government seize his time machine, and what will happen to Sherman when Mr. Peabody dies at 14 of old age. Then again, none of that really needs to be addressed in a film like this.

Peabody and Sherman have a number of escapades across time in the WACAC Machine. Sherman misguidedly shows the time traveling device to Penny, his classmate/rival voiced by Ariel Winter. From there, the film plays out like a series of vignettes along the lines of “History of the World: Part 1” meets “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The gang crosses paths with the likes of Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci, Zach Callison as King Tut, and, best of all, Patrick Warburton as a thickheaded King Agamemnon.

There’s also a nice moral in there about unlikely families and what it means to be a parent. But much like “Despicable Me 2,” “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is really more about just making the audience laugh and that’s not at all a bad thing. Director Rod Minkoff of “The Lion King” pumps the film with colorful animation, fun characters, clever gags, and plenty of hyper cartoon action to go around. “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” offers no more and no less, delivering exactly what the target audience desires. If that sounds like your cup of tea, the film should be something you’ll really like.

Muppets Most Wanted

 You're number two ***

“The Muppets” was just about a perfect movie, tapping into our nostalgia while also offering something new and innovative. There’s no way Director James Bobin and Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller could ever top it. Kermit and friends acknowledge this fact in the opening number of “Muppets Most Wanted,” singing about how the sequel is never as good as the original. This second film, which is technically the eighth film in the franchise, might not be on par with its predecessor. It is, however, a fun, self-aware satire well worthy of the Muppet name.

Where “The Muppets” barrowed much from the original 1979 “Muppet Movie,” “Muppets Most Wanted” is like a spiritual successor to “The Great Muppet Caper.” The film picks up immediately after the last one as the Muppets prepare for a world tour. Their new manager is Ricky Gervais as Dominic, a bad guy so bad his last name is Badguy. Dominic is secretly working for Constantine, the world’s number one criminal who happens to look just like Kermit. The only difference between the two is a mole on Constantine’s right cheek and an accent that sounds like a blender of Russian, German, and French. Whichever it is, it’s an incredibly thick accent.

So what else is going on in this movie? More like what isn’t going on. The Muppets soon get obliviously entangled in a complicated scheme to help Constantine and Dominic steal the queen’s jewels. Kermit meanwhile is mistaken for Constantine and incarcerated under the strict watch of Tina Fey as a Russian GULAG officer. While all that’s going on, Sam the Eagle sets out to catch the villains along with Ty Burrell, channeling Inspector Clouseau as a French police officer. There’ also another baddie in the mix named the Lemur, whose true identity isn’t much of a surprise. Then on top of all that, there’s a plot in which Constantine plans to marry Miss Piggy.

One of the joys of the last “Muppet” feature was the simplicity of its getting the gang back together plot. “Muppets Most Wanted” packs in a little too much plot for its own good. As a result, many fan favorite characters like Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, and 80s Robot get sidelined. Even Kermit really doesn’t have that much screen time for a lead. The film does make time, though, to reference Rizzo the Rat’s absence in the previous movie.

Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet,” returns to write the songs. They’re inventive and energized, although only the opening number is particularly memorable. None of them hit the mark like “Life’s a Happy Song” or “Rainbow Connection.” The same can be said about some of the celebrity cameos, which includes Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, and Lady Gaga to name a few. At least the lineup is better than the one in “Muppets from Space” where the biggest name was Rob Schneider.

For everything that doesn’t work in “Muppets Most Wanted,” there’s still an equal amount of jokes that do work. If Christoph Waltz doing the waltz with Sweetums and Miss Piggy singing “My Heart Will Go On” doesn’t put a smile on your face, you’re made of stone. The caper plot, while overstuffed, is put to good use and produces a lot of inspired material. Constantine himself makes for a terrific villain, literally stealing the spotlight from Kermit. Basically, this is a movie where you need to take what you can get. What we get is an entertaining romp with amusing characters, a handful of solid gags, and explosions. It’s also much better than Statler and Woldorf will give it credit. Do-ho-ho-ho-hoh!

Neighbors

Two Bad Neighbors ***1/2

Comedies centered on rivalries can be really hit and miss. When done right, they can produce some wonderful characters and comedic situations. When done wrong, we get the lamest, broadest drivel imaginable that would even make a midseason replacement sitcom cringe. The fact that all of these movies inevitably end with a happy resolution between the two feuding parties doesn’t help. “Neighbors” is thankfully one of the better rivalry comedies of recent memory thanks to the well-suited leads, some solid one-liners, and the capable direction of Nicholas Stoller.

Seth Rogen stars as Mac Radner, a former party animal who has since settled down with a family and boring office job. His wife is Kelly, played by Rose Byrne who gets to use her native Australian accent for a change. The two never get out ever since welcoming a newborn baby girl into the world. Although they can’t go to any parties, the party soon comes to them when a fraternity moves in next door. At first, Mac and Kelly kind of like the frat house, taking them back to their carefree college days. As the endless nights of loud, drunken raves go on, though, they start to get fed up with the frat. In time, an all out war erupts as the neighbors attempt to make the other move.  

This is where a movie like this either makes or breaks itself. The reason that “Neighbors” works better than some other comedies about petty rivalries is because the screenwriters actually derive some pretty funny material from the basic setup. The film earns its R-rating with great gags concerning milking a woman’s breasts and a baby almost swallowing a condom. On top of that, the characters are a lot of fun too.

A couple years ago, we got the sort-of sequel to “Knocked Up” with “This is 40.” “Neighbors” is a bit like an unofficial sequel to “Knocked Up,” following Rogen’s character after the birth of his child. The only difference is that Katherine Heigl has been upgraded to Byrne while Carla Gallo and Ike Barinholtz have replaced Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as the best friends. They all have great comedic timing, although the real surprise is Zac Efron as the president of the frat house.

Efron, who has been in danger of becoming a stereotype of himself for a while, is just right to play the party animal who takes his fraternity way too seriously. The film also wisely never turns his character into a mean-spirited villain. While immature and sometimes extreme, he’s actually a charismatic guy who genuinely cares about his frat brothers, which includes Dave Franco and the artist formally known as McLovin. In addition to being a spiritual follow-up to “Knocked Up,” it’s fun to think of “Neighbors” as the spiritual successor to “High School Musical.” Who ever thought we’d one day see Troy Bolton making a mold of his penis and selling dildos?

Aside from giving the audience an excuse to laugh for an hour and a half, “Neighbors” works in some smart commentary about growing up and longing for your youthful days too. The resolution is also a little bolder than expected. Sure, the two bad neighbors do eventually make peace. In the end, however, there is a clear winner in the grand scheme and matters never become unrealistically sentimental. Compared to all the other rivalry comedies out there, “Neighbors” is definitely a standout.

Nightcrawler

 TV news, the greatest horror known to man ****

If you don’t already think the people who produce television news are evil, you likely will after watching “Nightcrawler.” The Nightcrawlers, as the movie calls them, are the people who film the aftermath of car wrecks and shootings then sell the footage to news stations. It’s a pretty bleak job when you think about it, recording people in pain, never offering them a helping hand, and profiting off their misery.

Although it’s a radical generalization to assume everyone involved in this business is evil, one thing is for certain about the main character in “Nightcrawler.” He lacks anything resembling a soul, making him the perfect person to capture such carnage on film.

Jake Gyllenhaal is both uncomfortably hilarious and chillingly effective as Louis Bloom, a man attempting to make a living in Los Angeles. The film reveals nothing about where Louis came from. For all we know, he’s an alien that crashed landed on earth and is trying to blend in. At first he appears like a naïve, wide-eyed tourist who’s experiencing everything for the time. He absorbs information quickly, however, and can take advantage of a situation on the spot.

One night, Louis encounters a freelance cameraman played by Bill Paxton filming an accident. Just like that, Louis decides to get in on the crime journalism game. After acquiring a camcorder, a police scanner, and an intern (Riz Ahmed), he’s ready to start his own company. Louis will do whatever it takes to get the best shots and produce the best stories, even if it means a few people have to die in the process.

The confident entrepreneur takes his footage to a struggling news station desperate for content. Mummified in makeup, Rene Russo plays Nina Romina, who supervises the morning news. While Louis is no angel, Nina isn’t much better, enabling every despicable action Louis commits to draw in more viewers. At the same time, you can’t entirely blame any of these people for supplying TV audiences with what they demand to see: Blood, violence, and a constant state of fear. But where exactly should they set a limit while delivering such “entertainment?”  

Writer/Director Dan Gilroy’s film is very much in the spirit of Adam Wingard’s “The Guest.” Is it a horror movie disguised as a dark satire or a dark satire disguised as a horror movie? Either way, both films have a mysterious, unsettling central character that’s always a blast to watch. “Nightcrawler” also has a pinch of “Network” to it, providing an equally funny and thought-provoking commentary on the state of media and what true journalism is. After it’s over, apart of you will want to boycott broadcast news forever. It probably won’t take long until the next major car chase or plane crash sucks you back in, though.

Non-Stop

This is what I get for flying Southwest Airlines ***1/2

It’s easy to imagine how the pitch for “Non-Stop,” the latest action thriller starring Liam Neeson, went down. “Okay, guys, how about this? It’s ‘Taken,’ but on an airplane!” The surprise is that “Non-Stop” not only could have been a sequel to “Taken,” but it’s also everything “Taken 2” should have been. The film finds Neeson is a familiar role in a plot that mixes together elements of “Air Force One,” “Flightplan,” and various Hitchcockian thrillers. While this sort of thing has been done before, the result is just fresh enough to standout from all the rest.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a former cop turned US air marshal. Like all authority figures in these types of movies, he’s gruff, unethical, an alcoholic, and, of course, has a tortured past. On a seemingly routine flight from New York to London, Marks gets a text from a stranger demanding $150 million. The text messaging baddie threatens to kill a passenger every twenty minutes until the money is transferred to his account. Marks soon finds that the threat is incredibly real and the villain is setting him up to take the fall.

Neeson has played this character so many times before that he’s on the verge of becoming a walking cliché. In a way, Neeson actually appeared to be parodying himself as a good cop/bad cop in “The Lego Movie.” Although he might not be broadening his horizon, Neeson still packs a punch as a smart, gutsy man doing his best to protect everyone else on board while attempting to single out one person as the culprit. It additionally helps that Neeson is given a first-rate supporting cast to work with.

Julianne Moore is wonderful as a fellow passenger who comes off as an obnoxious snob at first, but becomes one of Marks’ greatest allies in unraveling the mystery. Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey” is just as effective as a flight attendant caught up in an increasingly chaotic situation. We also get some nice work from Oscar-nominee Lupita Nyong’o as a fellow stewardess and Corey Stoll as a New York police officer who suspects there’s more going on than meets the eye. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, along with screenwriters John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle, all do a fine job at naturally establishing these characters through visuals as apposed to lazy expositional dialog.

“Non-Stop” doesn’t treat its audience like idiots, although the film is undeniably implausible. The bad guy’s motivations for hijacking the plane are particularly ridiculous. But unlike “3 Days to Kill,” “Getaway,” “White House Down,” or some other recent action pictures, it’s easy to forgive the film’s improbability since the action, suspense, and plot are so well paced. This is a movie that requires the audience to suspend their disbelief at the gate. If you’re willing to get on board, you’ll have an enormously entertaining time and be glad you just went along for the ride.

The November Man

Sixteen cliches people! **1/2 

Gather around, everyone. It’s time to go over another checklist movie. So exactly how many action clichés does “The November Man” cram into 98 minutes? The ex-CIA agent who comes out of retirement to take on a personal mission, check. A beautiful love interest in over her head, check. A former pupil turned rival, check. Several chases both in cars and on foot, double check. Walking away from an explosion without looking back, check. Gratuitous female nudity, none of which is provided by any of the leading actresses, check. Tragic back stories, check. An assassin who isn’t very good at killing our main characters, check. Interrogation scenes, check. A fat, slimy scoundrel who hangs out in a strip club, check. Exotic backdrops, check. Russian bad guys, check. A daughter who only exists to get kidnapped at the last minute, check. Expendable characters that disappear with no explanation, check. A plot that doesn’t make a ton of sense, check.

Sixteen! That’s sixteen clichés, almost twice as many clichés that “Ride Along” scored on its checklist last January. There are probably plenty of others I overlooked too, as most of these clichés zoom by so fast that you can’t catch them all in one viewing. Some clichés never die or grow old. In the case of “The November Man,” Roger Donaldson’s thriller is actually kind of fun despite its clichéd nature. The film still isn’t quite worthy of a recommendation because the story is just too familiar and all over the place. On a mindless entertainment level, however, it is worth checking out once it comes to Redbox in a few months.

Pierce Brosnan, who’s always fun as long as he’s not singing, does a fine job as Peter Devereaux. As mentioned in the checklist above, Peter is a former CIA operative who comes back to protect a witness that might bring down the Russian president-elect. The witness is Alice Fournier, played by none other than Olga Kurylenko of “Quantum of Solace.” Wait a minute; Olga Kurylenko has gone from acting opposite Daniel Craig to acting opposite Pierce Brosnan? All she needs now is to star with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton and she’ll have won Bond Bingo.

The problem with her character is that “The November Man” can never decide what she’s supposed to be to Peter. A love scene is alluded to, but never made clear. The two never have an actual conversation that doesn’t revolve around the plot or the fact that they’re in danger. So is she a lover, a friend, or just part of the job to Peter? Whatever they’re supposed to be, the chemistry just isn’t there.

Matters only get more complicated when Peter is targeted by David Mason (Luke Bracey), a former friend and apprentice who has little reservations about killing people. Among all the characters in the film, he’s the one who gets the most development. With that said, there are a lot of characters here that have no development whatsoever. Eliza Taylor plays Bracey’s neighbor and sort-of girlfriend, but her character amounts to nothing. Amila Terzimehic plays a hit woman pursuing Peter and Alice, but is defeated like a complete armature. Most of the time you’ll have difficulty remembering who these characters are, who they’re working for, and what they want. By the time the film’s over, you’re not even sure if anything was accomplished at all.

The reason “The November Man” works better than it might have is mainly because of the talent involved. Roger Donaldson of “The Bank Job” knows how to make an action picture and of course Pierce Brosnan is great at selling this kind of material. If you’re really forgiving, you might find yourself getting into “The November Man.” If this all sounds too cliché and sloppy for your taste, though, it’s a definite skip. For me, the film was a decent enough excuse to turn off my brain for just under two hours.

Obvious Child

Getting funny with the a-word! ****

Although she’s had a few great reoccurring roles on TV shows like “Parks and Recreation,” Jenny Slate is a comedic actress who’s rarely been given a chance to shine on screen. After accidentally dropping the f-bomb, she was underutilized on “Saturday Night Live” and left after a season. Then she had some supporting roles in “The Lorax,” “This Means War,” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” where none of the actors came out looking good. In “Obvious Child,” Slate is finally given a chance to show off her full range as both a comedian and actress, proving that she’s a star in the making capable of tremendous feats.

Based on a short film written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, “Obvious Child” centers on a young comic named Donna Stern (Slate). Donna is the epitome of almost every modern day new adult. She’s nearly thirty, still paying off her student loans, still mostly dependent on her parents, still unable to find a steady job, and still has absolutely nothing figured out. Her life continues to spiral downhill after getting dumped by her boyfriend, who she lightly stalks for the following week or so. Donna ends up having a one night stand with a nice guy named Max, played by Jake Lacy aka New Jim to those who were still watching “The Office” in season nine. A little bit down the line, Donna discovers that she’s been impregnated and decides to get an abortion on Valentine’s Day.   

We’ve gotten a ton of movies about women going through unplanned pregnancies, some good like “Juno” and others horrendous like “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1.” Yet, few movies have centered on a woman going through with an abortion. Granted, it’s a tricky subject that most writers wouldn’t dare touch. That’s not to say that the a-word hasn’t been touched upon at all in film or television. Most of the time, though, it’s only briefly glanced over and the woman ultimately decides to keep the baby after all. “Obvious Child” tackles abortion head on and addresses it with humor, heart, wisdom, and sincerity.

It’s often amazing just how funny and warm “Obvious Child” is despite its difficult subject matter. What’s even more impressive is that the film never attempts to villainize any of its characters. There are no disapproving parents, bitter baby daddies, one-dimensional protesters, or Planned Parenthood bombing nuts. The film itself isn’t even really about choosing between pro-choice or pro-life. There’s no end-all easy answer when all is said and done. “Obvious Child” simply shows a woman trying to live her life and live with the choices she makes.

If the very idea of abortion is blasphemous in your eyes and there’s no room for discussion, “Obvious Child” probably isn’t for you. Even if you’re pro-choice, there are times in “Obvious Child” when it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable. What gets the audience through the experience, though, is that Slate provides us with such a lovable, identifiable character to hold our hands throughout. Although some might have a hard time sympathizing with her, Slate makes it next to impossible to dislike Donna. She gives the whole film an infectiously happy vibe, proving that there can be a light even under the darkest of circumstances. I never thought there could be a feel good movie about abortion, but “Obvious Child” is the living proof…of course “living proof” might not be the best choice of words.

Only Lovers Left Alive

We could be lovers! ****

 It’s interesting to think how “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has impacted every vampire-related movie/show to come out in the past decade, from the forbidden romance in “Twilight” to the topical humor of “True Blood.” Even something as unique as “Only Lovers Left Alive” can be traced back to “Buffy.” The film is a bit like the episode, “Conversations with Dead People,” which satirized independent movies with a supernatural twist. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch saw this episode and decided to put his own spin on the concept. What Jarmusch delivers is a smart romance that always feels honest, despite the fact that the lovers are both vampires.

Of course the word “vampire” is never used once in the film. It’s easy to assume the main characters are vampires, however, based on their pale skin, bloodlust, resistance to the sun, and fangs. One of these alleged vampires is Tom Hiddleston as Adam, a rocker vamp with a vast collection of records and guitars. He’s like Edward Cullen except actually realizes he’s a pretentious emo. Alright, alright, I’ll keep the “Twilight” jabs to a minimum.

Tilda Swinton plays Adam’s much older vampire lover, Eve. Adam and Eve? One can’t help but wonder what kind of biblical symbolism their names are supposed to carry. The screenplay doesn’t reveal a ton about Adam and Eve’s past other than that they’ve been together for a very, very, very long time. That’s really all you need to know about the two. So many modern vampire stories get bogged down by a ton of back-story, not to mention tedious love triangles and end of the world plots. At its bare bones, “Only Lovers Left Alive” is simply about a genuine relationship between two people who just happen to be vampires.

The film features fun supporting performances from Mia Wasikowska as Eve’s carefree sister, Anton Yelchin as Adam’s one human friend, Jeffrey Wright as a doctor who provides them blood, and John Hurt as their vampire mentor. But “Only Lovers Left Alive” primarily belongs to Hiddleston and Swinton, who have one of the most strangely compelling relationships this side of Gomez and Morticia Adams. They actually share a believable romance, partaking in meaningful conversations about life, sacrifice, and art. It’s more along the lines of a stage play or “Before Midnight” than “The Vampire Diaries.”

Younger audiences that just want to see the same uninspired vampire romance recycled over and over again will probably have a hard time getting into the film. Those who are fed up with the typical vampire formula, though, will appreciate the original voice and approach offered here. There just might be life left in this vampire fad, yet. Let’s just hope future vampire projects are more like “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Buffy” as apposed to…you know, that other vampire romance I promised not to rip on too much in this review.

The Other Woman

 We get it, men are pigs and women are vengeful **1/2

“The Other Woman” is a comedy that really shouldn’t work at all seeing how there isn’t a funny scripted line in the entire picture. There are two things that come close to salvaging the film, though: Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann. Both actresses, who have been doing respectable comedic work for almost two decades each, are charged with the thankless task of making unfunny material funny. The two are so good in their roles that they almost make “The Other Woman” worthwhile. Unfortunately, not even the most gifted comedians can make the flattest of scripts work.

Melissa Stack’s screenplay at least starts out with an intriguing premise with Diaz’s Carly being pursued by a hansom stud named Mark. He’s played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who is best know for his work as the despicable Jaime Lannister on “Game of Thrones” and is every bit as despicable here. Turns out that Mark is married to Mann’s Kate, an absentminded housewife who is completely oblivious to her husband’s philandering nature. Carly and Kate finally realize what a pig Mark truly is after crossing paths one night. Rather than hating the woman who’s been sleeping with her husband, Kate becomes drawn to Carly and wants to get to know her better. Although Carly wants nothing to do with Mark anymore, she simply can’t shake off the clingy Kate.

If you’re willing to believe these characters would actually become friends, you might be surprised to find that Diaz and Mann have a wonderful chemistry. Diaz’s straight woman perfectly complements Mann’s neurotic airhead, making for a terrific odd couple. In the hands of somebody like Katherine Heigl or Sarah Jessica Parker, these woman could easily come off as too desperate and needy. Diaz and Mann find just the right balance to make their characters likable, however.

A third girl is later added to the mix when it’s revealed that Mark has another lover named Amber, played by the stunning, but only marginally talented, Kate Upton. The three ladies decide to team up and get revenge on Mark. Their methods include sneaking laxatives into his drinks, putting hair removal cream in his shampoo, and making him think he has an STD. Yeah, it’s one of those kinds of movies. Then to make matters more predictable, we also have to put up with a dull romance between Carly and Kate’s brother and the wisecracks of Carly’s secretary, who for some reason is played by Nicki Minaj.

“The Other Woman” closely resembles the 1980 comedy “Nine to Five” with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. That film worked thanks to the dynamic between the leading ladies and some well-timed comedic situations. “The Other Woman” has the right leading ladies, but just doesn’t have any inspired comedic moments. Instead, Director Nick Cassavetes gives us a lot of gags involving dog feces, human feces, walking through glass walls, falling out of windows, basically a lot of slapstick that goes nowhere. Yet, throughout all of this, Diaz and Mann still shine as much as any performers can in a mediocre movie. Now what we really need is the people behind “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat” to write these two actresses a proper buddy picture. 

Ride Along

Ice Cube and not Chris Tucker present, "Mediocrity" **

Well it's January, which means two things. First, we're going to get another found footage movie about demonic possession, i.e. "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones." Second, we're going to get another mediocre movie starring Ice Cube. Just like "Next Friday," "Torque," "Are We There Yet?," and "First Sunday," "Ride Along" is a film you'll completely forgot about after one viewing. It's a shame Ice Cube keeps getting saddled with these thankless roles, as he can be an appealing screen presence. Hopefully he'll be put to better use when "22 Jump Street" comes out.

Ice Cube is James Payton, a detective obsessed with his job and even more obsessed with the wellbeing of his little sister (Tika Sumpter). She's engaged to Kevin Hart's Ben, a bumbling wannabe cop who's only a little less annoying than Chris Tucker. As a means to scare him away, James decides to take the overly eager Ben on a ride along. This leads to a lot of shenanigans involving running, yelling, falling, being mistaken for a child molester, and villains that get no funny lines.

"Ride Along" is a textbook example of a checklist movie. This is where the screenwriter simply goes through a checklist of clichés to lazily construct the most uninspired of stories. The obligatory opening car chase, check. At least two scenes where the police lieutenant grills a reckless police officer, check. Two cops that turn out to be on the bad guy's payroll, check. A scene where the comedic relief goes undercover as a master criminal only for the real master criminal to show up, check. A surprise cameo from Laurence Fishburne that actually isn't very surprising since the opening credits spoil it, check. A scene where the tough cop finally opens up, check. A scene where the generic, bland girlfriend is taken hostage, check. The final shootout, check. Few laughs along the way, check.

Predictability aside, nobody goes to see bubby cop movies for the plot. It really comes down to how strong the leads are. Ice Cube and Kevin Hart have a decent chemistry. Unlike Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat,” though, they aren’t enough to save the movie. It doesn’t help that Director Tim Story isn’t the best at balancing action and comedy. Of course we already knew that from his previous cinematic outings, “Taxi” and those “Fantastic Four” pictures.

“Ride Along” is all too unmemorable to go down as an awful movie. If you’re desperate to get out of the house, turn off your brain, and kill 100 minutes you’ll never get back, this should get the job done. For everyone else, you’d be better off staying home and getting caught up on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

RoboCop

Nobody asked for it, but here it is anyway **1/2

Remember the good old days when a big-budget action picture could earn a hard R rating? It looks like those days are officially dead. “Die Hard,” “The Terminator,” “Total Recall,” these were three of the best action movies of the late eighties and early nineties, complete with all the gleeful violence and profanity a kid could desire. Nowadays, everything must be toned down to a PG13 rating, including the recent sequels and reboots of the three aforementioned films.

“RoboCop” is the latest R classic to be neutered by the PG13 rating. Watching the film is kind of like playing “Mortal Kombat” on the Super Nintendo. Why play the censored version when you could be playing the gory version on Sega Genesis? My lust for carnage aside, the new “RoboCop” really isn’t that bad. It’s a remake that at least experiments with new ideas and legitimately tries to expand on some characters. While it doesn’t always succeed in its attempts, at least the effort is there.

Good old Michael Keaton has some fun as Raymond Sellars, the manipulative CEO of a robotics conglomerate called OmniCorp. Sellars wants to line the streets with his law enforcement drones, but congress is unwilling to place the public’s safety in the hands of machines. Sellars thinks of a loophole to beat the system by putting a human in a machine. Enter Joel Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, a cop who is critically injured after a car bomb accident. Murphy’s resurrected by Dr. Dennett Norton, wonderfully played by Gary Oldman, who supplies the cop with a shiny new robotic body. Billion-dollar idea for a movie crossover: RoboCop VS Inspector Gadget.

The biggest change in this “RoboCop” is the characterization of Murphy. In the original film, Peter Weller played the title character in an effectively mechanical fashion, making us question whether he was more man or machine. Kinnaman’s RoboCop is clearly more human as the script by Joshua Zetumer allows him greater emotional range. One would think that the more emotionally complex RoboCop would be the more interesting character. Ironically, however, Weller’s expressionless RoboCop made for a much more mysterious and unpredictable hero.

This remake also elaborates on the roles of Murphy’s wife and son, who were merely glanced over in the 1987 film. This isn’t a bad idea and Abbie Cornish gives a genuinely good performance as Murphy’s wife. When you really think about it, though, does anyone really care about Murphy’s family? For that matter, does anyone really care that much about the film’s hammered in themes regarding identity and the meaning of being human? No, this is “RoboCop.” At the end of the day, we just want to see him shoot up some bad guys.

Speaking of bad guys, that’s one area “RoboCop” is drastically lacking in. There isn’t a thug in the film who can contend with Kurtwood Smith’s ruthless Clarence Boddicker. Keaton throws himself in his role as an evil businessman, but never emerges as a particularly menacing bad guy. The same can be said about Jackie Earle Haley as a military tactician who hates robots because…just because.

There’s very little humor or satire here, save Samuel L. Jackson as a loudmouthed, conservative talk show host. There’s also little fun to be had and surprisingly little action. Then when Director José Padilha does finally deliver some shootouts, he bombards us with extreme close-ups, shaky cam, and next to no blood.

From an adaptation standpoint, this isn’t the worst “RoboCop” movie we could have gotten. It’s well acted and full of visual splendor. When all’s said and done, however, you just can’t beat the original, which never had to be remade in the first place. But hey, at least it’s not “RoboCop 2” or “RoboCop 3.”

Selma

No, not Selma from "The Simpsons" ****1/2

Last year, Steve McQueen gave us “12 Years a Slave,” arguably the first truly great film about slavery in America. This year, Ava DuVernay gives us “Selma,” the first truly great film centered on Martin Luther King, Jr. Doctor King has been portrayed in various films and TV movies since his death. Yet, no actor has done a finer job at capturing his spirit better than David Oyelowo, who also played an African American preacher in “The Help.” Passionate, well spoken, and unrelenting in his cause, not a second goes by when you aren’t convinced that Oyelowo is Martin Luther King.

“Selma” is more than just a MLJ biopick, however. The film takes place in 1965 where blacks technically have the right to vote, but the south refuses to recognize those rights. In protest, King decides to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery. Tim Roth has a splendid time playing the slimy Governor of Alabama George Wallace, who is determined to make sure King’s people never make it past the bridge. Caught in the middle is Tom Wilkinson in a terrific supporting performance as Lyndon B. Johnson, who is reluctant to sign a bill guaranteeing African Americans equal voting rights. All he wants is to find a middle ground that will get everyone off his back, preserving his presidential legacy.

To a certain extent, things have clearly gotten better for African Americans since the Civil Rights Act. If the recent tragedy involving Eric Garner has proven anything, though, it’s that Martin Luther King’s dream still hasn’t fully come true. Given the peaceful protests that erupted in response to Garner’s death and the grand jury decision, “Selma” couldn’t have come out at a better time. Director DuVernay does an authentic job at representing the brutal Selma to Montgomery marches without ever being too graphic, but never holding back either. She finds just the right balance of being inspirational and being honest without resorting to cheap manipulation.

Everything about “Selma” feels genuine, particular the representation of Martin Luther King. DuVernay and first-time screenwriter Paul Webb recognize that King was indeed an American hero, but they never turn him into a saint either. There’s a notably powerful scene between King and his dedicated wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Courtesy of a wiretap, Coretta learns that her husband hasn’t always been loyal to her. It would have been easy for “Selma” to paint King as a perfect martyr, but the film understands that he had all the insecurities, temptations, and faults that make us human. That didn’t stop him or his followers from marching on, though.

We’ve been getting a lot of movies lately about race relations, prejudice, and pivotal moments in African American history. Some people have chalked this trend up to nothing more than white guilt trips. “Selma” isn’t a movie about guilt, however. It’s a film about hope, freedom, and how one person’s dream can act as a beacon of courage for humanity. Not only is it one of the year’s best films, it’s a film worthy of being shown in schools for generations to come.  

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Eva Green shows us more of her boobs, Jessica Alba shows us neither of her boobs ****

It took almost eight years for a sequel to Frank Miller’s “300” to hit theaters. Then when “300: Rise of an Empire” finally came out five months ago, it quickly became clear that this sequel never needed to exist in the fist place. The best characters were all dead, the most interesting part of the story had been told, and there was really nothing left to do but throw the same flashy visuals at the audience. It’s taken even longer for Miller and Robert Rodriguez to get a sequel to 2005’s “Sin City” off the ground. Unlike “300: Rise of an Empire,” however, there’s still more than enough character, story, atmosphere to warrant another visit to Sin City.

The original “Sin City” was one of the most visually distinctive, gloriously violent, and flat out fun action pictures of the past decade, literally brining Miller’s striking neo-noir comic to life. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is pretty much guaranteed to entertain anybody who was a fan of that film. It’s still not as fresh or funny as the original. How could it possibly be? The film does deliver exactly what one would want out of a “Sin City” sequel, though. Stunning black and white cinematography, sharp dialog that walks a fine line between being over the top and laughable, ridiculous hard-R violence, classy nudity, and Mickey Rourke.

Like the first film, “A Dame to Kill For” mainly consists of three intertwining tales, two of which were written exclusively for this movie. The most engaging story of the bunch stars Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen as Dwight McCarthy. He’s been attempting to leave his former life of sin behind, but gets sucked back in by his ex-lover Ava (Eva Green). She’s a seductive little vixen who is being terrorized by her billionaire husband and needs Dwight to take her away. As the classic film noir plot thickens, Dwight finds that there’s a greater scheme cooking up behind the scenes. While Owen is missed, Brolin is a natural choice to step into Dwight’s antihero shoes. Green, who was easily the best part of “300: Rise of an Empire,” was tailor-made for this material and always knows just how much of the scenery to chew up.

Our second tale introduces Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a cocky gambler who comes to Sin City to score big while also settling a personal score. He sets his eyes on Senator Roark, played by Powers Boothe who has based his entire career on playing corrupt politicians. Johnny isn’t the only one with a grudge against Roark. Jessica Alba returns in what’s still the best role of her career as Nancy, a stripper who never actually gets completely naked. Although to be fair, Eva Green more than compensates for that. Nancy is gunning for revenge after the death of Bruce Willis’ Hartigan in the last film and won’t rest until Roark has a bullet in his head. The problem is that she just can’t quite bring herself to pull the trigger.

Not every storyline in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” has a magnificent payoff. There’s a particular subplot involving two cops played by Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven that could have been cut out altogether. Yet, it’s easy to let this slide because all these characters are just so darn interesting to listen to. You could listen to one of them monologue about picking out furniture from IKEA and it would be awesome. Like any good noir story, “Sin City” is all about characters and it has more than enough to go around.

Throughout the various stories, fan favorites like Jamie Chung’s Miho, Rosario Dawson’s Gail, and Jamie King’s Wendy/Goldie all drop by. The standout is still Mickey Rourke as Marv, an unstoppable human tank with nothing to lose. Although he got the electric chair in the last film, “A Dame to Kill For” takes place before Marv’s “The Hard Goodbye.” Good thing as one movie wasn’t enough to contain Marv, who plays an active part in every chapter here. This is the role that rebooted Rourke’s acting career, making leeway for him to land parts in movies like “The Wrestler.” He’s reason enough to keep coming back to “Sin City” for seconds and maybe even thirds somewhere down the line. Actually, if they ever make another “300” movie, Marv would be the ideal candidate to lead the Spartans to victory. Crossover, anyone?

The Skeleton Twins

Huh, they actually do kind of look like siblings ****

It’s great that we’ve been getting so many stories these days that intelligently address dynamics between siblings. The best recent examples include Richard Linklater’s all too authentic “Boyhood,” Disney’s beloved “Frozen,” and the brilliant animated series “Gravity Falls.” “The Skeleton Twins” is another strong look at the relationship between a brother and sister.

It’d be easy for a film like this to fall into the same trap as so many other dysfunctional family movies like “Running With Scissors” or “August: Osage County.” “The Skeleton Twins” knows, however, that it’s not enough for the audience to just laugh at its characters or be shocked by their actions. This is a film that respects its characters, making it easy for the audience to sympathize and identify with them.

Bill Hader is Milo, a gay, failed actor and an even bigger failure in life. After a botched suicide, Milo reconnects with his sister Maggie, played by Kristen Wiig, who he hasn’t seen in ten years. Maggie has a lot more going for her with a steady job and an unapologetically optimistic husband named Lance (Luke Wilson). Regardless, she’s every bit as screwed up as Milo, if not more so. As a matter of fact, she was just about to swallow a handful of pills right before getting the call about her brother.

Much of “The Skeleton Twins” revolves around Milo and Maggie analyzing why they’re so unhappy. A lot of it has to do with their selfish mother (Joanna Gleason), a pedophile English teacher (Ty Burrell), and their father who jumped off a bridge. Milo and Maggie realize they can’t blame all of their problems on their complex upbringing, though. The two have each made stupid choices in life and want to take responsibility for them. They just don’t know how. Together, the siblings work through their issues via brutal honesty and the magic of nostalgia.

The screenplay by Mark Heyman and Director Craig Johnson is wise and witty, if not a tad familiar at times. The real reason “The Skeleton Twins” works is because of its stars. If we didn’t believe these characters, this movie could have been a colossal mess. Hader and Wiig, both of whom can do little wrong, couldn’t be more perfect in these roles. We’re 100% convinced these two are a family that’s developed an unparalleled bond through love, hate, understanding, and dressing up as ladies. Between “The Skeleton Twins,” their work together on “Saturday Night Live,” and their small roles as a married couple in “Adventureland,” they’re truly one of the great screen duos of this generation.

Tammy

Tammy and Louise ***1/2

What if Louise of “Thelma & Louise” survived driving into the Grand Canyon and had a bratty granddaughter played by Melissa McCarthy somewhere down the line? You’d probably get something along the lines of “Tammy.” In the film, Susan Sarandon finds herself going along for another offbeat road trip full of crazy shenanigans, none of which take an especially dark turn like in “Thelma & Louise.” Sarandon is only the co-pilot on this particular road trip, however, playing second banana to McCarthy as the title character.

Tammy is a bit like the woman we saw McCarthy portray in “Identity Thief,” but with a much more lovable side to her. She’s tacky, selfish, whiny, and refuses to take responsibility for all the problems in her life. Despite all of Tammy’s blatant flaws, you can’t help but adore her from the opening scene all the way through. Tammy has hit rock bottom, running over a deer with her crummy car, finding out that her husband is having an affair, and getting fired by her discourteous boss all in one day. She rushes down the street to her mother (Allison Janney), saying that she’s had it. Like a bitter child threatening to run away, Tammy decides to pack up and leave town. Sarandon’s Grandma Pearl insists on coming along, providing Tammy with a car and travel funds.

From there, Tammy and Pearl set out to see Niagara Falls. Down the road, they have a series of misadventures involving jet skis, a lesbian barbeque, hookups with strangers, and armed robbery at a fast food restaurant where Sarah Baker has a very funny cameo. Of course a road trip movie isn’t really about the destination or even the stops along the way. It all relies on the dynamic between the main characters. McCarthy and Sarandon don’t quite hit the same mark as Steve Martin and John Candy in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in “Midnight Run,” or Sarandon and Geena Davis in “Thelma & Louise” for that matter. But the relationship between the two never hits a wrong note, ranging from quite hilarious to quite meaningful.

“Tammy” also works in some solid supporting work from Mark Duplass, Kathy Bates, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, and Dan Aykroyd just to name a few. But the film mainly belongs to McCarthy, who has been on a role as of late. Even when she’s given mediocre material, McCarthy always throws herself into any role that comes her way. While McCarthy is willing to do whatever it takes to get a laugh, she never settles for just looking foolish or trying to shock the audience. She respects her characters and makes us laugh with them, not at them. The opposite can ironically be said about McCarthy’s cousin, Jenny McCarthy, who is willing to put herself out there, but has rarely been able to create a human being anyone could care about.  

The film was directed by McCarthy’s real life husband, Ben Falone, who also co-stars and co-wrote the script with McCarthy. Falone has had a number of great bit parts in McCarthy’s other movies, most notably the air marshal in “Bridesmaids” and the guy at the bar in “The Heat.” He clearly knows how to bring out the best in McCarthy, whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the camera. It’s actually high time that Falone got a leading role in one of his wife’s movies. Until we see that star-crossed romantic comedy, “Tammy” offers more than enough of McCarthy’s comedic genius to hold us over.

That Awkward Moment

Awkwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard **

 

It’s pretty ironic that a comedy called “That Awkward Moment” is radically lacking in awkward moments. The film isn’t without some potentially uncomfortable setups like walking in on two people having sex, realizing you’ve just had sex with a hooker, and showing up to a fancy party in a racy outfit. “That Awkward Moment” never goes all the way with its awkward humor, though. Scenes often feel incomplete, as if the director yelled, “cut,” before getting to the punch line. As a result, the film fails to deliver any genuine awkward humor or humor in general.

Zac Efron is in his comfort zone as Jason, a book cover illustrator who’s great at picking up ladies and lousy at holding onto them. His best friend and colleague is Daniel, played by Miles Teller of “The Spectacular Now.” They also have a token black friend named Mikey, played by Michael B. Jordan. For the record, that’s the Michael Jordan from last year’s “Fruitvale Station” and not the one from “Space Jam.” After Mikey is dumped by his wife, the three pals make a pact to stay single indefinitely. Nevertheless, the guys each fall in love and act like jerks when its time to commit.

Although he’s still heavily ripped on for his “High School Musical” days, Efron makes for a perfectly suitable lead. He may never be Leonardo DiCaprio, but I’ll take him over Justin Bieber or either of those wimps from “Twilight” any day. Teller and Jordan score a couple funny moments as the best friends. The various love interests, which includes Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis, give it their all despite having nothing to work with. They simply can’t salvage “That Awkward Moment,” however, as the film is a colossal failure on a character level.

If shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Inbetweeners,” and “The Office” have taught us anything, it’s that great awkward comedy comes from characters who are socially inept. But nobody in “That Awkward Moment” is especially awkward. They’re all smooth talking, well dressed, financially successful, sexually confident individuals. The film isn’t really a laugh-per-minute comedy based on awkward situations like “There’s Something About Mary” or “American Pie.” It’s more of an analysis of relationships like “Friends With Benefits” or “He’s Just Not That Into You.” Even on that basis, the script isn’t nearly as funny, charming, or smart as first time writer/director Tom Gormican thinks it is.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film where a character makes a heartfelt speech in front of a crowd of strangers, proclaiming his love for the girl of his dreams. Of course the girl takes him back and the crowd applauds. Instead of being like every other romantic comedy in existence, why couldn’t “That Awkward Moment” have lived up to its title in that instance? Why couldn’t this character have given a totally meandering speech, been dumped by the girl, and humiliate himself in front of everyone? Now that would have been an awkward moment.

The Theory of Everything

Smart and Smarter ****1/2

Stephen Hawking is somebody we often view as a deep thinker, but not necessarily a deep feeler. Most people seem to assume that he’s just a giant brain and a voice box. Anyone who’s seen Hawking in interviews, though, will tell you that he has a wonderful personality and sense of humor. In “The Theory of Everything,” we learn that Hawking’s life isn’t merely defined by his contributions to the scientific community. Rather, his life is truly a love story about family, finding passion in your work, and celebrating human existence.   

“The Theory of Everything” stets itself in the 1960s as Hawking studies physics at the University of Cambridge in England. Yeah, you probably missed the fact that Hawking is British based on his American computer generated voice. The gifted student almost immediately falls in love with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who’s got a beautiful heart to match Hawking’s beautiful mind. Tragedy strikes when Hawking is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and given two years to live. Of course he lives much longer than expected, but virtually loses the use of his body. Regardless, this doesn’t stop Hawking’s quest for knowledge, ultimately amounting to his book, “A Brief History of Time.”

Eddie Redmayne of “My Week with Marilyn” and “Les Misérables” takes another huge step forward in his young career as Hawking. On both a physical and emotional level, Redmayne couldn’t be more convincing in his transformation, which spans several decades of Hawking’s life. “The Theory of Everything” is just as much about Jane Hawking as is it about Stephen, however. It should be since Jane wrote the original memoir that inspired James Marsh’s film. Felicity Jones is magical as the woman who stands by Hawking through hell and back. While Jane never falls out of love with her husband, it does justifiably become harder for her to be married to him as the years go by.

The movie is given the opportunity to completely misfire when Jane meets a churchgoer named Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). As Jonathan volunteers to help out around the Hawking household, Jane can’t help but develop an attraction to him. This plot point never turns into a sappy love triangle out of a soap opera, though. Rather, Stephen, Jane, and Jonathan spend much of the film discussing their feelings and treat each other with rational understanding. These are all essentially good people that want what’s best for everybody. Part of that has to do with Jane and Jonathan’s devout faith in God’s teachings, which somewhat rubs off on Stephen.

While Stephen Hawking has publicly declared himself as an atheist, he does recognize the value in other people placing their faith in God. After all, science and religion aren’t as different as we make them out to be. Both are largely based on ideas and philosophies that have yet to be proven. “The Theory of Everything” demonstrates that life isn’t necessarily about finding concrete answers. It’s about sharing and listening to each other’s beliefs about how this mysterious, limitless universe works. The more people realize this, the more our society will evolve.

Transcendence

Him ***1/2

“Transcendence” is a movie all about questions. Not because the plot is overly complex or difficult to follow, but because it raises so many ethical dilemmas. Has technology gone too far? Will technology bring us into a new age of enlightenment or be our ultimate downfall? Could technology one day give a person the power of a god? Should a person have the power of a god, even if they can benefit mankind? Johnny Depp is doing a non-period piece where he doesn’t wear a ton of makeup or put on an accent?

The film does indeed star a more tamed Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence researcher developing a machine that will be virtually omniscience. Accused of trying to create a god, Will is assassinated by a group of extremists. Evelyn Caster, Will’s widowed wife played by Rebecca Hall, and Max Waters, Will’s best friend played by Paul Bettany, decide to finish what Will started. In the process, they discover a way to bring Will back from the dead, downloading his mind into a computer. Will is resurrected, assuming control of the Internet and everyone who becomes connected to him.

So let me guess what happens next. Will becomes mad with power, tries to take over the world, our eyes are opened to how reliant we’ve become on technology, same old, same old. Well…no, not exactly at least. Without giving too much away, Will uses his newfound power to potentially help mankind and lead us to a new stage in human evolution. To get to that stage, however, we’d have to sacrifice part of our humanity. This doesn’t sit well with an extremist leader played by Kate Mara, an FBI agent played by Cillian Murphy, or Will’s former colleague played by Morgan Freeman. They set out to shut Will down, but could risk setting humanity back a hundred years along the way.

What’s interesting about “Transcendence” is that it’s not strictly anti-technology or pro-technology. The audience can understand the fearful mindset of the extremists while also seeing things from Will’s perspective. For a film with so many questions, it doesn’t have a ton of easy answers. First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen seems to mostly identify with Rebecca Hall’s character, a woman constantly torn between thinking with logic and thinking with emotion. Hall’s performance caries much of the film as she attempts to answer the greatest question of all: What constitutes a conscious being?

With its big ideas and engaging science fiction, there are times when “Transcendence” almost feels like a Christopher Nolan movie. Actually, Nolan did produce the film, but his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister acts as director here. Pfister makes a solid directorial debut with a film that always looks great and is often interesting to follow.

“Transcendence” draws comparison to a fair deal of other science fiction stories, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the recent “Captain America: The Winter Solider.” The film everyone is bound to stack it up against is Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which also made commentary on the state of artificial intelligence. This movie really doesn’t come close to contending with “Her” because, while the ideas are definitely there, the audience’s emotional connection to the characters isn’t nearly as strong. Outside of maybe Hall’s Evelyn, everyone else often comes off as mere tools for exposition. That being said, “Transcendence” isn’t emotionless and it does certainly raise some interesting conversations. That’s more than can be said other recent movies that cost over a hundred million dollars to produce. So take it for what it’s worth.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Extremely loud and incredibly obnoxious *1/2 

The general consensus seems to be that this has been a disappointing summer movie season. That either means that the standards of moviegoers are going up or they've just become spoiled brats. Come on, people. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "Godzilla" might not have been blockbuster masterpieces. For what they were, though, they did provide perfectly solid entertainment. The same cannot be said about "Transformers: Age of Extinction." Now that the latest from Michael Bay is in the mix, the summer movie season must be graded on a curve.

While the first "Transformers" wasn't technically good, it was the best movie we could have hoped to get from Bay. "Revenge of the Fallen" and "Dark of the Moon" were the worst "Transformers" we could have hoped to get from Bay. "Age of Extinction" is another overblown, overly long orgy of cars, explosions, slow motion, beautiful women without a shred of personality, sunsets, product placement, cringe worthy humor, and repetition. To its credit, at least the characters in this "Transformers" aren't nearly as annoying as Shia LaBeouf and his band of tools. At least this one makes an attempt to say something and evoke an emotion or two. At least it's not quite as painful as the previous two sequels. But at this point I'm just scraping to find something redeemable. It's still awful, making every other summer movie that's come out this year look like grade A filmmaking.

Mark Wahlberg tries his best to give an actual performance as Cade, a boring inventor with a boring daughter (Nicole 'The Last Airbender' Peltz) who has an even more boring boyfriend (Jack Reynor). Their lives become slightly less boring after discovering a broken down truck. It turns out that the truck is none other than Optimus Prime, who is hiding from the government. Overcome with fear and ignorance, humans begin hunting the Transformers, which includes Bumblebee, green Transformer, samurai Transformer, Transformer that’s somehow able to smoke a cigar, Dinosaur Transformers, and the always popular jive talkin’ Transformer.

The closest things “Age of Extinction” has to interesting characters are Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce, an eccentric billionaire building his own line of Transformers, and Kelsey Grammer as Harold Attinger, a CIA officer driven to destroy every Autobot at any cost. This premise could have possibly sparked a smart, meaningful story about prejudice similar to the “X-Men” films. As we all know, however, Michael Bay and Screenwriter Ehren Kruger aren’t smart or meaningful filmmakers. They aren’t even very good at delivering quality mindless entertainment. So it’s just sheer incompetence all around.

Aside from that, there isn’t much to say about this new “Transformers” movie. Everyone should know exactly what they’re going to get walking into the theater. If you’re a twelve-year-old boy or have the mindset of a twelve-year-old boy, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re not, be prepared to check your watch for 165 straight minutes. The only aspect of the film that’s false advertising is the title. “Age of Extinction” my behind! This franchise isn’t going extinct any faster than those Madea movies are. So allow me to leave you with this laundry list of more appropriate titles.

“Transformers: Age of Irritation,” “Transformers: We Fixed a Truck,” “Transformers: Dawn of the Explosions,” “Transformers: You’d Be Better Off Watching ‘Beast Wars’ on Netflix,” “Transformers: At Least Megan Fox Isn’t in This One,” “Transformers: The Forth Movie,” “Transformers: Give Us Your Money,” and “Transformers: Hopefully ‘Ninja Turtles’ Won’t Be As Bad.”

Unbroken

We demand Oscars! ***1/2

Not too long ago, Brad Pitt starred in “Fury,” a good, but not great wartime survival epic. Now his new bride Angelia Jolie has directed “Unbroken,” another wartime survival epic that has moments of greatness, but is mostly just good. It’s a bit disappointing considering that “Unbroken” was not only directed by an A-list celebrity, but also co-written by the Coen brothers, shot by Roger Deakins, and features a marvelous ensemble. Still, the film is consistently well produced throughout. Just don’t expect a huge Brangelina moment at this year’s Oscars. Sorry, Ryan Seacrest.

Jack O’Connell established himself an up-and-coming actor to watch with his brutal performance as a troubled prisoner in “Starred Up.” He continues his road to major stardom as Louis Zamperini, an extraordinary human being whose story was destined for the big screen. A former track star, Louie’s dream of Olympic gold is put on hold as the games are canceled and he joins the US Air Forces. When his plane crashes in the pacific, Louie is sent adrift with two fellow soldiers played by Finn Wittrock and Domhnall Gleeson. This is the best portion of “Unbroken,” allowing for a lot of quiet, atmospheric moments between the three actors. These moments are only intermitted by scenes of sheer horror, such as when the men are caught between a swarm of sharks and a firing plane.

Louie eventually finds salvation and doom upon being discovered by Japanese forces. He’s thrown into a POW camp where the prisoners are at the mercy of a merciless guard named Mutsuhiro Watanabe aka The Bird. Miyavi, a Japanese singer/composer, makes his American film debut as The Bird. He’s chillingly effective as a sophisticated sadistic that takes a special interest in Louie. Even as The Bird beats men to a pulp with his stick, though, he still isn’t quite as intimidating as J.K. Simmon’s band instructor in “Whiplash.”

So with all of these outstanding elements, why isn’t “Unbroken” the masterpiece it should be? Mainly it’s because Louis Zamperini’s story is truly one of a kind, but the film itself somehow feels very been there, done that. Anybody who’s seen a movie about an underdog who overcomes every conceivable obstacle can foresee all the clichés “Unbroken” is going to take advantage of. The scene where bullies beat up young Louie for being different, the scene where Louie’s brother tells him to believe in himself, continuous scenes where the enemy attempts to break Louie’s unbreakable spirit, etc. The film’s heart is in the right place, but having so much cookie cutter inspiration shoved down our throats can come off as more manipulative than rousing.

“Unbroken” is a film that you want to love, but can never fully embrace. That being said, it’s also a hard film to dislike. It’s solid entertainment with strong performances and production values, delivering a final product that the recently deceased Louis Zamperini probably would have liked. But for a man who lived such a fascinating life, one can’t help but wish that “Unbroken” was less blatant in it’s ambition to win Oscars and more…well, just something more.

Under the Skin

Under the Bra ***1/2

Scarlett Johansson was given the best role of her career so far in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a film in which she was off camera the entire running time. Where that performance solely revolved around her voice, Johansson’s performance in “Under the Skin” primarily revolves around her body. Johansson rarely speaks in this science fiction indie from Jonathan Glazer, conveying everything through nonverbal communication. Both of these stunning performances are true testaments to what a varied actress Miss Scarlett has evolved into. Her scene stealing work in “Captain America: The Winter Solider” is also a nice bonus to her recent track record.

Johansson plays a nameless alien who arrives in Scotland, assumes the appearance of a human and starts abducting random men on the streets. At least that’s how the synopsis on IMDb describes the plot. Unless you’ve read the book by Michael Faber or researched the film beforehand, you’ll likely be completely lost watching “Under the Skin.” The movie unapologetically leaves its audience in the dark, never revealing Johansson’s origins, motivations, or internal thoughts. “Under the Skin” uses the medium of film to its full advantage, always showing and never telling.

A movie like this will surely divide people, seeing how there isn’t a ton to the story. But “Under the Skin” isn’t really about narrative or dialog. Much like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Tree of Life,” or the more surreal works of David Lynch, the film is all about having an experience. For me, the experience of “Under the Skin” was both confusing and frustrating, but ultimately fascinating and occasionally beautiful.

Every shot in the film is a visual treat, courtesy of Cinematography Daniel Landin. On a limited budget, the production directors create some unforgettable gothic imagery as Johansson lures tempted men into her dark, unspecified lair. Aside from Johansson, the film’s most hypnotic presence is Mica Levi’s heart pounding musical score that often sounds like the inside of Darth Vader’s helmet. In a practically dialog-free script, the music acts as a constant lingering presence, adding atmosphere to every scene.

As great as the film looks, Johansson is the real reason “Under the Skin” works. Johansson flawlessly conveys the film’s central themes of finding one’s personal identity, sexual identity, and identity in general. At least I believe those are the central themes, as the film never makes anything clear. That’s one of the great things about “Under the Skin,” though. It lets you decide what to feel rather than telling you what you should feel. Even if it proves too vague and art housey for some, Johansson’s performance, not to mention her naked body, is definitely something to be admired.

Veronica Mars

A long time ago, we used to be friends ***1/2 

“Veronica Mars” had one truly amazing season followed by two pretty good seasons. The critically acclaimed series was then abruptly cancelled, but left behind a dedicated fanbase. A fanbase so dedicated that they donated over five million dollars on Kickstarter to get a “Veronica Mars” movie off the ground. Now in the same vein of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” the crime solving young adult has been resurrected for a feature written and directed by series creator Rob Thomas.

The plot finds Veronica (Kristen Bell) nine years after her cancellation in New York City. The plucky detective has given up sleuthing to pursue a career as a lawyer. Her plans take a detour, however, when a former classmate is murdered. The prime suspect just so happens to be Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), Veronica’s ex-rival/ex-friend/ex-boyfriend. Veronica is the only one who believes Logan is innocent and flies down to her hometown of Neptune. Upon arriving, Veronica finds that the local sheriff’s office is still corrupt and the only competent law enforcer in town is her P.I. father (Enrico Colantoni).

Pretty much everything that made the series great is on display in this movie. Kristen Bell couldn’t be better suited to play smart, resourceful Veronica. Her romantic chemistry with Logan hits just the right note. Veronica’s relationship with her father is one of the most memorable parent/child dynamics in recent memory. The writing is witty and pop-culture savvy. The mystery is always engaging and keeps you guessing. There’s just a ton to love.

That being said, “Veronica Mars” the series wasn’t perfect and neither is this screen adaptation. The downside of both entities is in the supporting cast, which includes Percy Daggs III as best friend Wallace, Tina Majorino as computer wiz Mac, Francis Capra as reformed biker Weevil, and Ryan Hansen as pigheaded Dick. They’re all enjoyable presences, but have never really contributed a ton to the plot. Most of them come and go with little to do. The same can said about cameo players such as Jamie Lee Curtis, James Franco, and Justin Long. There are also several underdeveloped/rushed/pointless subplots involving Veronica’s new lawyer job, Weevil turning his life around, and Veronica having a normal relationship with her boring boyfriend Piz.

Even with these problems, though, both the show and movie offer more than enough to compensate. If you never saw the series, you probably won’t appreciate the in-jokes and ongoing plot in this film. But why would you be watching the film or reading this review if you weren’t a fan of the series? “Veronica Mars” is all about the fans and it gives them exactly what they want: Closure with the possibility of further installments. Now if only we could get proper endings to “Pushing Daisies,” “Twin Peaks,” “Carnivale,” “Samurai Jack,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” “The Spectacular Spider-Man,” “My Name is Earl,” “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures,” and “Hey Arnold,” all would be right in the world.

When the Game Stands Tall

Remember the Spartans ***1/2

Pretty much every inspirational sports movie from the past two and a half decades follows the same basic recipe for success. A struggling team of misfits, or sometimes just one underdog, has nowhere to go but up. Then through strenuous training montages and the support of a dedicated coach, the team and/or underdog achieves sweat victory. “When the Game Stands Tall” doesn’t transcend or revolutionize the sports movie formula. It consists of many archetypes and plot points we’ve already seen a million times before. The film does change up the formula in some respects, however, making for a slightly less conventional picture than initially expected.

Inspired by the true story of the De La Salle High School Spartans and Neil Hayes’ book of the same name, “When the Game Stands Tall” begins where most sports movies would have ended. Instead of following this high school football team from the start, the film picks up just as they’ve won 151 games straight. They hold the longest winning streak for any American sport so naturally the team has nowhere to go but down with everything to lose. The Spartans do indeed eventually fumble and lose the first game of the season, bringing their rein of triumph to a close. From here, “When the Game Stands Tall” plays less like an underdog’s road to glory and more like a tale of redemption.

After being tortured and nearly crucified by Mel Gibson, Jim Caviezel is finally starting to make a comeback in the mainstream movie market. He gives one of his best performances as Coach Bob Ladouceur, who has been with the Spartans since they won game one of their winning streak. Although he’s under constant pressure and has unbelievable expectations to live up to, he doesn’t care that much about what the folks in the bleachers think about him or even about the streak. All he really cares about is teaching his players what it means to be a team and to grow up. Ladouceur doesn’t deviate much from the familiar motivating coach character who comes complete with all of these sports movies. Nevertheless, Caviezel offers just the right amount grit, sincerity, regret, and restraint to sell this character to us. The same can be said about pretty much all the other actors.

This isn’t a movie full of original characters with Laura Dern as Ladouceur’s supportive wife, Matthew Daddario as Ladouceur’s neglected son, Michael Chiklis as the assistant coach, Alexander Ludwig as a running back trying to please his abusive father, Ser’Darius Blain as a player with an uncertain future, and Stephan James as another player with a tragic fate. None of them make for fantastic characters you remember walking out the theater like in “Friday Night Lights” and “Remember the Titans.” Part of that’s because the screenplay can occasionally feel awkwardly paced, juggling a lot of characters and only giving a handful of them solid character development every fifteen minutes. The actors all make the most of their screen time, however, creating people we can’t help but root for.

The message behind Director Thomas Carter’s film is that football isn’t about records and legacies. It’s about how you play the game. Is “When the Game Stands Tall” the greatest game ever played or the greatest sports movie ever made? No, but it is a very well assembled, well shot film with strong performances and a moral it never backs down from, most notably in the inspired climax. If you’ve been officially worn out by the very prospect of another sports movie, this one probably isn’t for you. For all those sports movie junkies out there, though, “When the Game Stands Tall” provides just enough new and old material to keep the fans cheering.

Whiplash

 The horror...the horror ****1/2

Band is hell. Oh sure, the “American Pie” movies might have you believe it’s nothing but fun and games. Anyone who majored in music or even took band class in high school, however, knows that it’s like prepping for war. The hours are brutal, your teachers push you to be the best, and it’s literally the end of your world if you fail. You might think I’m exaggerating and to some extent maybe I am. After all, not every band instructor on the planet can be a ruthless slave driver. The instructor in “Whiplash” on the other hand most certainly is.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a talented drummer determined to prove himself at his music conservatory. He lands a spot as an alternative in the school’s jazz band, which is conducted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Of all the stern, authoritative teachers/mentors/coaches that have graced the big screen, Fletcher undoubtedly takes first chair. This guy goes beyond being a drill sergeant. He’ll abuse his students physically and emotionally until he’s satisfied. Even when they’ve clearly been driven to their limits, Terence will keep yelling, slapping, and teaching with no restraint. Then when they finally get it right, don’t expect anything resembling a complement to come out of Terence’s mouth.

Not too long ago, it looked like Teller was never going to be anything more than the best friend in R-rated comedies. In “The Spectacular Now,” he showed us just how compelling he could be as a leading man in a well-written role. Teller is given that chance once again in “Whiplash.” Andrew starts off as a fairly modest young man eager to learn, but the more Terence throws at him, the harder Andrew exerts himself and the more conceited he becomes. He’s something of an unstoppable force that doesn’t know what it means to be defeated or broken down. It’s both his greatest strength and tragic flaw.

J.K. Simmons has been one of our best character actors for a long time, able to be appropriately over-the-top as J. Jonah Jameson one minute and comforting as Juno’s dad the next. As far as I’m concerned, the Academy can put his name on this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar now. In a role that easily could have been a cartoon, Simmons creates a believable human that’s sadistic and manipulative, but also somehow sympathetic. “Whiplash” isn’t so much about a teacher inspiring his students as much as it’s about the consequences of pressuring students. Terence’s actions show that there will always be positive and negative repercussions, although it’s unclear where he should draw a line.

As exceptional as Teller and Simmons are, the real star in Director Damien Chazelle’s film is the music. It’s interesting that “Whiplash” would come out around the same time as “Birdman,” which also made effective use of a drum set in its musical score. Where drumming added another level of atmosphere to “Birdman,” though, drumming is the atmosphere in “Whiplash.” The pitch-perfect music, editing, and performances all work up to a sensational climax, which acts as the ultimate mic drop to a rousing film. 

Wild

Because the title, "Into the Wild," was already taken ****

Cheryl Strayed is one hell of a woman. Over the course of 93 days, Strayed solely hiked 1,100 miles through the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border if you’re not a geography expert. As hardcore as that sounds, it’s actually 600 miles less than what Robyn Davidson walked in the recent biopic, "Tracks,” which depicted her trek from the West Australian Deserts to the Indian Ocean. While Davidson walked the greater distance in “Tracks,” Cheryl Strayed’s story ventures to deeper places on filmmaking and performance levels in “Wild.”

In her best work since “Walk the Line,” Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed to perfection. Before she set off on her road trip, we see through a number of fleeting flashbacks that Strayed shared a powerful relationship with her mother (Laura Dern). After losing her mom to Cancer, Strayed’s already complicated life spiraled out of control. She became addicted to heroine, started cheating on her husband (Thomas Sadoski), and was impregnated with an unwanted child. “Wild” never gives a straightforward reason to why Strayed took on this seemingly suicidal task. Observing her past and how her memories haunt her in the present, though, you come to fully understand why.

Since it’s based on a memoir, you’d expect “Wild” to be full of monologues and explanations. But Director Jean-Marc Vallée and Screenwriter Nick Hornby wisely choose to show rather than tell. Most of Strayed’s internal thoughts are kept brief, emphasizing her desire for luxuries we take for granted like Snapple and chips. Even the flashbacks aren’t too dialogue heavy, letting matters naturally play out through imagery rather than constantly telling the audience what to feel.

Strayed comes across a number of delightful characters on the trail, including some friendly fellow hikers, a journalist who writes for a hobo magazine, and a wounded fox that will probably die on its own. However, the movie belongs to Reese Witherspoon and the monstrous pack she carries almost every step of the way. She goes beyond simply sacrificing her movie star glamor. The 38-year-old actress is physically and emotionally exhausting in her portrayal of a woman searching for purpose in life. As much as she wants to give up at times, the hope that destiny will be waiting at the trail’s end keeps her going.

Like “127 Hours,” “Into the Wild,” and “All is Lost,” “Wild” is yet another strong addition to the man vs. wild, or in this case woman vs. wild, genre. Its representation of nature is beautifully shot and masterfully edited, sometimes appearing majestic, other times appearing threatening, and always appearing vast. At the center of it is a single human being, who demonstrates that any determined individual can standout in a massive universe. That might sound like familiar territory, but you’re bound to find something profound if you’re willing to take the journey.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Rewriting the wrongs of the past ****

“The X-Men” film franchise is a lot like the “Star Trek” film franchise in some ways. Both keep going with no end in sight, both have some evident continuity errors, and both are hit and miss in terms of overall quality. The general consensus seems to be that three films are awesome (“X-Men,” “X2: X-Men United,” and “X-Men: First Class), one is meh (“The Wolverine”), one is completely forgettable (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), and one practically ruined the whole series (X-Men: The Last Stand). Am I the only one on the planet that actually didn’t think “The Last Stand” was all that bad?

“Days of Future Past,” the latest “X-Men” film that utilizes time travel, is 20th Century Fox’s way of rewriting any wrongs the franchise has made over the years. There’s a point in the film where a young Charles Xavier notes that the X-Men have been given a second chance to define who they are. He just as easily could have said, “Hey guys, sorry we let Brett Ratner screw everything up awhile back. Here’s a film that pretty much nullifies ‘The Last Stand’ while still keeping most of the cool stuff intact. Hopefully somewhere down the line we’ll make a good ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ movie.”

Bryan Singer returns to direct this sort of sequel, sort of prequel, sort of reboot, which combines inventive storytelling with topnotch summer action to produce one of the X-Men’s best outings yet. In the distant future of 2023, giant robots known as Sentinels have overthrown the world. A brilliant anthropologist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) originally created these machines as a means to terminate mutants. Everyone’s favorite morphologic naked blue chick Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered Trask in 1973 to prevent him from ever using his Sentinels. The assassination backfired, however, as the government captured Mystique and used her DNA to make the Sentinels unstoppable. Now they’ve evolved to wipe out all of humanity and someone must be sent back in time to prevent this mess from ever transpiring. The only one strong enough to make the trip is Hugh Jackman’s Logan aka Wolverine.  

Everything that’s made “X-Men” a great franchise is displayed here, with jaw dropping, well-choreographed action, a witty sense of humor, and intelligent themes regarding prejudice. What stands out most of all is the clever interplay between the whole ensemble, which has always been the backbone of this series. We get wonderful work from Jackman’s Wolverine, James McAvoy’s young Professor X, Nicholas Hoult’s young Beast, Lawrence’s young Mystique, and Michael Fassbender’s young Magento, who is in prison for the murder of JFK. Meanwhile, there’s an effective storyline going on in the future with Patrick Stewart’s older Professor X and Ian McKellen’s older Magneto putting their rivalry aside to set things right. We really don’t even need the X-Men to ever join up with The Avengers as they’re already a terrific superhero team on their own.

If there’s one downside, it’s that “Days of Future Past” doesn’t always find the time for several other characters. The scene-stealer is easily Evan Peters as the cocky, funny speedster Quicksilver, who plays the center role in the film’s most stunning sequence. He’s only on screen for maybe fifteen minutes total, though. Also, why is Anna Paquin credited over Dinklage and Ellen Page here when her character was virtually cut out of the entire movie? Ah well, maybe it’s best that “Days of Future Past” doesn’t try to cram too much into one story like some other superhero pictures. The film knows who it wants to focus on and gets those characters just right.

While the comics have provided a blueprint for the “X-Men” movies, this obviously wasn’t a film series that was meticulously planned out by the studio in advance. The various directors and screenwriters over the years have pretty much made stuff up as they’ve gone along. But “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the first sequel that really seems to tie in the events of all the previous movies. The filmmakers cleverly find a way to buff out any scratches the lesser sequels/prequels have left and make way for a bright new future. The one question that remains is when are we going to get our R-rated Deadpool movie? Probably when we get to see Spider-Man and Iron Man on screen together…so never.