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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man
 

          Much has been made of the decision to restart the "Spider-Man" franchise at this point. It has, after all, been only ten years since the original Tobey Maguire version, and only five years since its most recent sequel. But Tobey wasn't up for a fourth movie, and rather than cast someone new to play a grownup Spidey, the people behind "The Amazing Spider-Man" decided to reset everything and make him a teenager again. The problem is that Spider-Man's 2002 origin is still relatively fresh in people's minds and many feel that there's no need to revisit it so soon. As a great admirer of the 2002 "Spider-Man", I have to say that I agree. Back then it was enjoyable to see Peter Parker discover and develop his superpowers. That doesn't mean I need to see him discover and develop his powers all over again.

            Peter Parker is now played by Andrew Garfield, who at age 28 should be playing an adult instead of a high-schooler anyway. His parents are taken away early in the film, and he grows up living with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Peter is a sullen underachiever, an unwelcome departure from Maguire's affable nerd. He has a crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, again much too old for her role), who works for the scientific conglomerate Oscorp. Peter suspect that someone at Oscorp may have been responsible for his parents' death. He goes snooping and gets bitten by a genetically-altered - say it with me... spider.

            From here we get the obligatory sequences where Peter starts feeling funny, starts behaving weirdly, and realizes he can do things he couldn't before like make things stick to his hands and discharge webs. He learns to control them enough to do irresponsible things like humiliate bullies and perform basketball tricks. I liked these scenes earlier this year in the superior "Chronicle" because the film wasn't trying my patience while I waited for the characters to become Spider-Man. Peter makes one very selfish decision when he decides not to stop a convenience store robber after the clerk is rude to him. In what I must admit is an interesting touch, the robber uses positive reinforcement to get Peter to keep his mouth shut. This proves to be a fatal decision in a twist that anybody who saw the original knows is coming. Peter realizes that he can't take his powers lightly anymore. Like Uncle Ben said, "With great power comes great responsibility". Or at least he would have said that if this were the better Spider-Man movie.

            Peter develops his costume and gadgets and becomes Spider-Man. He roughs up some small-time criminals, which earns him the ire of the local police captain (Denis Leary), who happens to be Gwen's well-meaning but overprotective father. Gwen invites Peter over for a family dinner, where Captain Stacy proves to be even more intimidating to potential boyfriends than he is to criminals. He labels Spider-Man a vigilante and vows to take him down once he discovers who he is. This is a problem that Peter doesn't need, especially since the city is under attack by the destructive force that is Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Lizard is really Dr. Curt Connors, an Oscorp scientist who made the unwise decision to experiment on himself. Don't they all?

            "The Amazing Spider-Man" isn't so much a "bad" movie as it is an unnecessary one. The dialogue isn't as memorable as it was in the 2002 version and the characters aren't as endearing. I will say that the special effects are better this time around and there's a kiss scene that's a worthy successor to the legendary one from the original. This film would have been so much better if we could just enjoy Spider-Man as a realized superhero and not have to sit through the overly-familiar origin story.


Two Stars out of Five.
4:39 pm edt 

Ted
 

         I cannot imagine that "Ted" is going to win many people over. There is an audience for this movie, and they may like it, but they know who they are. What I have a hard time picturing is people with better taste saying, "I'm sure glad I took a chance on that foul-mouthed teddy bear movie". If you've seen the ads and you think "Ted" looks too dumb for you, you're right. If you're okay with "Ted" being a dumb movie and you want to see it anyway, chances are you still won't like it.

            For the record, I actually am the audience for "Ted". I'm a big fan of star/director Seth MacFarlane's animated shows "Family Guy", "American Dad", and the underappreciated "Cleveland Show". I look forward to the Sundays where all three have new episodes and I can watch them in a marathon. I've always loved how MacFarlane inserts completely random cutaway gags into his episodes so they veer off from the main storyline at the drop of a hat. I also think it's funny when he makes children and animals act like crude adults.

            Which brings me to Ted, a stuffed bear voiced by MacFarlane. Ted was given to John (Mark Wahlberg) when the boy was just eight. Not having any human friends, John made a special Christmas wish for Ted to come to life, which he did. Now both are all grown up, though neither is what you'd call "mature". John is in a relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis). Lori shares John's affection, but wishes he would do more with his life than party with Ted all the time. She tries to get John to gradually break his attachment to Ted, but the childhood bond is the one thing in life that John takes seriously.

            A lot of the film's humor is based on the idea of Ted drinking, cussing, and otherwise acting obnoxious and immature. It's not a humor that can sustain itself for a hundred minutes, though it is pretty funny to see Ted and John get into a fistfight late in the film. Other gags include played-out jokes about anatomy, bodily functions, stereotypes, and sex acts. Also, profanity is used as a punchline an awful lot. The characters will throw a swear word into the middle of a sentence (or in some cases the middle of a word) and we're supposed to laugh. It's another type of gag that would be funny in small doses, but is annoyingly overused.

            MacFarlane's humor doesn't translate well into live action. I think it's because he doesn't have the time or budget to change the setting as often as he needs to, and as a result the pace is thrown out of whack. It also severely limits the number of cutaway gags he can do. He tries to make up for it with cameos from Ryan Reynolds, Tom Skerritt, Norah Jones, and Sam "Flash Gordon" Jones (surprisingly it's delicate singer Norah Jones who's the funniest). Apparently the idea is to write bit parts for random celebrities into the story instead of referencing them out of the blue. It sounds like a decent compromise, but a lot gets lost in the translation.

            "Ted" gets weird toward the end when it forgets to be a dumb comedy and goes for an ill-advised emotional punch. It's a bad decision that has also marred the last few seasons of MacFarlane's "Family Guy". But if "Ted" wants to get sappy, I can get sappy too. My favorite stuffed animal from childhood was a pink and purple bear that my dad won playing Skee-ball at Hersheypark. I named him Cuddlylike because he was cuddly and everybody liked him. I don't care much for "Ted", but at least it does the good deed of getting me nostalgic. Hopefully you'll be inspired to reminisce about your old toys as well.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:36 pm edt 

Brave
                   Longtime readers know that I'm a huge fan of the Disney computer animation division known as Pixar. I love their whimsy, their attention to detail, and their ability to pull on my heartstrings. I'll put in a good word for all of their films, from the highly well-regarded "Toy Story" series to the unfairly underpraised "Cars" movies. Pixar has kept up the good work with their latest offering, "Brave".

            Set in medieval Scotland, "Brave" tells the story of Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald, in an excellent voice performance), daughter to King Fergus (Billy Connelly, in another excellent voice performance) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson, in a voice performance so excellent I wonder if it can qualify for an Academy Award). Elinor wants Merida to behave regally, but Merida wants to be free and go on adventures. Merida goes on and on about her distaste for royal life, which irks me because it's such a privileged life. She's never wanting for food or clothing, nor is she treated meanly or forced to labor. She even has two loving parents, and we all know how rare that is for a Disney movie.

            Merida's displeasure comes to a head when her parents tell her she needs to get married. Three prominent lords visit the castle to present their loser sons as suitors. These scenes are the ones featured most in the film's advertisements, and they are just as funny if not funnier than they claim to be. The lords are overly competitive and quick to boast. King Fergus tries to act above it all, but gets caught up in the fray himself. Adding to the comedic chaos are Merida's triplet brothers, whose antics (usually involving stealing treats) drive everybody bonkers. It takes the firmness of Queen Elinor to keep everybody in line.

            Merida and Elinor have a falling out after Merida defiantly shows up the suitors in an archery competition. She runs away and finds a witch (Julie Walters, in yet another excellent voice performance), and asks her for a spell to change her mother. What she means is that she wants spell that changes her mother's mind about the marriage, but the witch gives her a spell that changes her mother into a bear. The kingdom can't have a bear for a queen, it wouldn't be proper. Seriously, King Fergus hates bears ever since one took his leg. They switch his demeanor from jolly and wise to vengeful and irrational in a real hurry.

            Merida sneaks Elinor out of the castle and they hide in the woods while they try to figure out how to undo the spell. Elinor is so used to acting like a lady that she tries to maintain her manners while stuck in a bear's body. Merida convinces her to adapt and soon she's catching fish in her mouth. I don't know why the film doesn't advertise these scenes, they're just as funny as the ones with the suitors. More importantly, the relationship between mother and daughter develops in a touching, if unconventional way.

            The film doesn't work so well as a mystical action-adventure, which it tries to be in a series of rushed scenes toward the end. But it does just fine when it's trying to be funny and sweet, and even the few sad scenes hit the right notes. The visuals are impressive as always, and did I mention the excellent voice performances? The Pixar magic has worked wonders again with "Brave".


Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:34 pm edt 

Rock of Ages
                   It is not a good idea to make a "Rock of Ages" movie in 2012. The film is based on a Broadway show that premiered in 2006. I'm sure that back then it seemed like a good idea to stage a musical about performers who sing recognizable 80s hits. But we've seen the rise and fall of the very similar "Glee" in the meantime and now the formula seems played out.

            The problems begin with the overall look of the movie. Nothing seems to be lighted quite right. Granted, some of this might be due to the dirty, dingy club scenery, but overall the movie just looks drab and uninspiring. The costumes worn in the film suffer from the opposite problem: they're too flashy. Garish 80s costumes sound fun until you realize that an overachieving wardrobe department has spent thousands of dollars and who knows how much effort on these silly looks. The result is that the characters don't look natural, like they're at a present-day costume party and the theme is the 80s. Even Russell Brand looks uncomfortable and he always looks like he's going to an 80s' Bad Fashion party.

            The film stars Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta as Sherrie and Drew, a couple of crazy kids trying to make it in the L.A. music scene. They work at a struggling club owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin in a goofy wig), who runs the place with his partner Lonny (Brand). The future of the business hinges on a big performance by rock legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise, in another wig). Standing in the way of everyone's fun is a group of outraged citizens led by comically uptight mayor's wife Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as well as Jaxx's slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) who wants to take all the money from the performance. Other characters include Malin Akerman as a reporter who gets an in-depth interview with Jaxx and Mary J. Blige as an exotic dancer who gets Sherrie a job in hard times.

            There are some good singers in the cast, but they don't stand a chance with this material. The songs are hardly favorites of mine, and even if I was crazy about them I still wouldn't be happy with the way they're edited and arranged. The film features covers of Def Leppard, Journey, Bon Jovi, and Twisted Sister, among others. Again, it's very obvious that these are musical numbers performed by actors and dancers who have gone through a lot of training. The performances lack spontaneity and passion. Though I do like Zeta-Jones's version of Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot".

            Much has been made of Cruise's performance in the film, but I didn't find him charismatic at all. Stacee Jaxx acts spoiled and weird and doesn't have the talent to back it up. There's a running gag about how easily he can seduce women. Cruise's performance is so off-putting that while I can picture women flocking to Tom Cruise and I can picture women flocking to aging rockers of dubious attractiveness, I cannot imagine women finding Stacee Jaxx irresistible. How can Cruise fail so badly at being charming when he can be charming without even trying?

            "Rock of Ages" is an ugly mess of a movie, but I invite you to see it anyway and form your own opinion. See it with a group of friends and play a game to liven things up. When the characters start a song, see who can be first to call out the name of the original singer or group. Then see if anyone in your group actually likes that song. Then see if anyone in your group likes the movie's version of that song. If you're like me and you don't enjoy most of the songs, at least you and your friends can have fun by commiserating over them.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:32 pm edt 

Men In Black 3
                "Men in Black 3" is one of those third films that doesn't quite capture the magic of the first film but isn't as disastrous as the second. I find that this is often the case with franchises with three or more films. My theory is that it has to do with expectations. The first film is of course going to be well-received hence the need for sequels. Then along comes the second film where the expectation is for repeated success or even improvement with the winning formula. Unfortunately, many second films are lame cash-ins not made with the same passion. When a third film is made, the expectation is for the film to be another disappointment. With expectations so low, it's not hard for the third film to exceed them. It's why I've treated the third installments of "The Matrix" and "Jurassic Park" with such kindness. And it's why I just can't get too mad at "Men in Black 3".

            Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are back, still keeping tabs on alien life on Earth. Their act hasn't changed much; K is as always the grizzled veteran, J the brash hotshot. J will say something about K being antisocial, K will say something about J being foolish and so on. By now they've learned to tolerate each other and actually have good chemistry as partners. The film's early scenes are welcome if not a bit overly familiar.

            The partnership is tested when they face an unprecedented problem. An evil alien called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has broken out of his moon prison and wants revenge on K, who locked him up over forty years ago. But it's not enough for him to go after K now, he goes back in time to stop K from arresting him and subsequently inventing a device that saves Earth from annihilation. When J goes to work in the morning he learns that K has been dead for decades and Boris and his planet are laying waste to Earth. To save the world he'll have to go back in time himself.

            In the past, J finds himself working with a younger K (Josh Brolin). Smith and Brolin have chemistry just as good as Smith and Jones and Brolin does a creepily spot-on impression of a young K. Bill Hader (yay!) plays Andy Warhol, surprisingly an undercover Men in Black agent as opposed to an alien. Emma Thompson and Alice Eve play two versions of an agent with a romantic history with K. But my favorite new character is Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, an alien who can see into the future. The catch is that he can see multiple versions of the future based on minor variables. His emotions run high and low because of all the very realistic possibilities. He's mostly anxious, but also agreeably curious.

            The film has taken some criticism for plot holes involving its elements of time travel. I know I'm usually one to complain about omissions, inconsistencies, and flat-out wrongness, but not here. I'm not going to get bent out of shape if this action comedy with space aliens doesn't nail all the details of a fictional science.

            Even with their out-of-this-world work, J and K pretty much have a routine down at this point. Appropriate, since "Men in Black 3" seems pretty routine. The jokes are funny but expected. What makes the film stand out are the new characters, especially Stuhlbarg's clairvoyant and the villain played by Jemaine Clement (who also gave a good villainous performance last year voicing the evil cockatoo in the animated comedy "Rio"). It's a pretty decent film that does a service to the "Men in Black" franchise, especially since the second film was such a bomb. Seeing as it is such a serviceable third film, I feel it's only right to give it...


Three Stars out of Five.
4:28 pm edt 

Battleship
 

         My mom used to make a home version of the game "Battleship" for me and my brother. She would draw the 10x10 grids on paper, and we'd put down Xs for misses and Os for hits. She knew that she didn't need to spend ten bucks on a plastic "Battleship" game and Universal Pictures should have known better than to spend over $200 million on a "Battleship" movie. The film was a joke before it opened because of the studio throwing so much money at a project based on a simple board game. Also, the advertising for the film invoked "Transformers"; undeniably a successful franchise but one with films that are regarded as some of the worst of our era. "Transformers" can afford to have bad movies because it already has a fanbase of people who love the toys and cartoons. "Battleship" does not have a comparable audience of people who like guessing coordinates, so it's a bad idea to use the same strategy and not even pretend to be a good movie.

            The film stars Taylor Kitsch as Lt. Alex Hopper, a slacker forced into naval service by his more responsible brother Cdr. Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard). Alex hits rock bottom when he breaks into a convenience store to steal a chicken burrito for the beautiful Samantha (Brooklyn Decker). He ends up trashing the place, and for the rest of the film I couldn't see him as anything more than a no-good vandal. He does succeed in winning Samantha's heart, but now he has to answer to his brother, the Navy, and Samantha's father (Liam Neeson), an admiral who happens to be Alex's boss. Alex gets in a fight and is told he will be kicked out of the Navy after his ship gets back from a training mission. Wouldn't you know it, right in the middle of the mission, the planet is invaded by aliens. It's up to the unreliable Alex to save the world.

            The aliens are the kind I don't like. All they do is fly around in their spaceships and blow stuff up. In the brief glimpses we do get of them (they're usually wearing helmets so the film can save money on rendering their faces of all things), they just snarl. It's bad enough that they're evil and destructive, did they have to make boring villains too? There's a hint of a sort of weird morality where they won't attack individual humans who don't pose a threat, but they will destroy massive structures containing humans if they see fit. If the film had cared to develop the aliens as characters, I might have cared to watch the humans fight them.

            Most of "Battleship"s cast will recover. Alexander Skarsgard and Brooklyn Decker in always in magazines that have photos of attractive people, they'll continue to get roles on their looks alone. Liam Neeson is still respected despite his weird reinvention as an action movie star. Rihanna (inexplicably cast in a straight role, probably just so the film can put her in the ads) of course has her music career. But pity poor Taylor Kitsch. In less than three months, he's starred in "John Carter" and now this. "John Carter" was one of the biggest box-office disasters of all time, early reports indicate that "Battleship" isn't going to do well either. I'm sure he's a charming guy off camera, but he keeps playing these unlikeable protagonists that drag down already-bad movies. The main character of your blockbuster shouldn't be someone that I find so irritating that I root against them. I know "Transformers" succeeded in spite of every one of its human characters, but "Battleship" is lying to itself if it thinks it has that kind of commercial appeal.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:25 pm edt 

Dark Shadows
            At this point people pretty much know what they're getting when they buy a ticket to a Tim Burton movie. The film will star Johnny Depp and Burton's wife Helena Bonham Carter. The score will be by Danny Elfman. The characters will all be pale. The scenery will be going for a "twisted but beautiful" look that in the end is just ugly. The film will have a gruesome tone, but will nonetheless go after the family market. Burton hasn't done much to deviate from this formula in the past decade, and in fairness it's worked just fine for him commercially. But it's also earned him a reputation as a cookie-cutter filmmaker, a reputation that "Dark Shadows" only reinforces.

            Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy industrialist in 18th-century Maine. He throws away the love of a servant girl named Angelique (Eva Green) to date someone in his own social class. This turns out to be a mistake, as Angelique is a witch who does not take kindly to being scorned. She assassinates Barnabas's parents and forces his new love off a cliff. She then turns Barnabas into a vampire so he'll have to be lonely for all eternity. Then she has him buried alive in a coffin for two hundred years. When Barnabas is finally freed by some errant workmen, it is the 1960s and everything about the world is strange to him.

            He reclaims residence in his family's mansion, now inhabited by his descendants. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the most level-headed and tries to keep the dysfunctional family intact. Her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is an angsty teenager with lycanthropy issues. Her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) is a selfish sleazebag who has written off his emotionally vulnerable son (Gulliver McGrath) as a weirdo because he sees his dead mother everywhere. The family is so unstable that they've had to hire a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter). There's also a sullen caretaker (Jackie Earle Haley) and a governess (Bella Heathcote) who bears a striking resemblance to Barnabas's true love.

            The plot sees Barnabas battle Angelique, herself an immortal industrialist who is doing much better than the Collins family. After two centuries, she still has the hots for Barnabas, but will settle for once again destroying his family and sending him back to being buried alive until he learns his lesson. Barnabas just wants a shot at a normal life, tough to do considering he's out of touch with the times (occasionally funny) and also a bloodthirsty vampire who makes no effort to change his nature (not funny and frankly irredeemable - other people shouldn't have to die just so he can be happy).

            The movie leaves out a lot of information about the characters to the point where it's distracting. For example, we don't know how the present-day Collins family is even related to Barnabas. The movie makes it seem like Barnabas essentially ends the family bloodline when he gets buried without producing an heir. An Internet search leads to a very complex Collins family tree, but the viewer can't be going to the Internet every time they have a simple question. A two hour vampire comedy should not make its audience feel so left out.

            "Dark Shadows" is based on a 1960s soap opera and it plays like a pilot for a television show. It thinks that people will keep tuning in for the interesting characters even if the first adventure isn't that exciting. This approach might work on free TV with another episode coming up the next day, but not as a movie series where any possible sequel is years off and people will be hesitant to spend their hard-earned money after this lackluster original. The film isn't likely to kick off a successful franchise and by itself it is just another Tim Burton disappointment.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:23 pm edt 

The Avengers
 

           Superhero fans have been waiting for "The Avengers" since "Iron Man" in 2008. Since then, all the films featuring Avengers have included hints and references to the characters' upcoming collaboration. Some say what we've gotten is four years of commercials. I say it's been four years of building anticipation. The problem is that the film now has to deliver on four years' worth of hype. It's an okay blockbuster, but the bar is set so high that it can't help but be disappointing.

            The film represents a landmark team-up by six heroes of the Marvel Comics universe. Four have already starred in their own movies: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton from the 2008 film, who himself replaced Eric Bana from the 2003 film). Two have only had cameos in the other films: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from "Iron Man 2" and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) from "Thor". The team is brought together by an organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the man who first let us know that there would even be an Avengers movie. And yes, the dull but dependable Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is along for the ride too. The guy grows on you.

            The main villain is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the no-good adopted brother of Thor. He wants to do bad things to the planet where his brother found love, as well as steal a powerful relic called a Tesseract for an unseen master. He has the formidable power to instantly enslave people with a gentle tap of his staff, a power he woefully underuses. He's good at scheming, but his demeanor isn't imposing. I would have preferred Hugo Weaving's Tesseract-obsessed Nazi scientist from "Captain America", but at least it's fun to see the weasely Loki take physical abuse, especially at the hands of The Incredible Hulk.

            Half of the film consists of the Avengers arguing with each other. Iron Man is as brash as ever, Thor thinks he's above the others because he comes from a different dimension, Captain America can't stand ego of any kind, Black Widow is hiding secrets about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk) is actually quite agreeable... unless of course someone makes him angry, in which case he's a danger to the entire world. A few of the quips at each other's expense are funny, but the dissention lasts too long. We know The Avengers are going to have to learn to work together, the film doesn't need to waste time belaboring the point.

            The other half of the film is action sequences, especially a long one toward the end where Loki's army of aliens is destroying Manhattan and The Avengers have to stop them. It's actually pretty standard for a comic book action movie, the only thing that struck me as unusual was how easy it was for our heroes to defeat Loki's minions. We're supposed to believe that without The Avengers these creatures would enslave the planet. Even without The Avengers, they couldn't enslave a Dairy Queen.

            I love the idea of a comic book crossover movie, but "The Avengers" is too predictable. It doesn't help that the advertising and publicity for the film has already given a lot away. We're supposed to be so excited to see all The Avengers together in one place that we don't care that the story is uninspired.


Two and a Half Stars out of Five.


Wait, don't stop reading now! There are two post-credit sequences in the film. The first reveals the villain for the next film, a character unfamiliar to me. The second, at the very end of the credits, is terrific. It is as awkward as it is brilliant. The scene alone is why I give the film Two and a Half Stars instead of just two.
4:21 pm edt 

The Pirates! Band of Misfits
 

           Why does our culture treat pirates as kid-friendly characters? They're violent criminals with notoriously bad hygiene. At least classic children's literature like "Treasure Island" and "Peter Pan" had the decency to portray them as bad guys. But at some point they kind of became glorified. Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise (both the ride and the films) is probably the worst offender, but I'm sure they weren't the first. I guess it's not that much different from the way outlaws in the Wild West became beloved legends, and kids are definitely notorious for imitating them. Still, it's hard to connect with the characters in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" when we recognize that they're such bad role models for an animated kids' movie.

            Most of the pirates in the film aren't given names, they are simply listed in the credits under vague descriptions ("Pirate With a Scarf" etc.). Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is the crew's charismatic leader, inspiring loyalty and high spirits despite his chronic inability to procure treasure. Taking the admiration of his crew for granted, Pirate Captain aspires to win the prestigious Pirate of the Year award, thus validating his career choice. At least the award will make him less of a laughing stock amongst his fellow pirates like Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven, a distracting casting choice for a film where the other actors are primarily from the United Kingdom).

            After a series of botched robberies, fortune smiles on Pirate Captain when he tries to rob Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Darwin has little of value, but it turns out that Pirate Captain has something valuable to Darwin. He recognizes Polly, the ship's mascot, to be not a parrot, but in fact a dodo bird, long thought to be extinct. Darwin can use Polly to win England's Scientist of the Year Award, which Pirate Captain can then steal and use to win Pirate of the Year. It's a dodgy plan to begin with, and he has to do it all under the nose of Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who goes out of her way to hate pirates. Also, she has nefarious reasons for liking dodo birds.

            The film is a lot of fun, probably much more than I've implied up to this point. Grant's voice performance is spirited, there are cute details around every corner, and even in an animated movie you can't go wrong dressing up a monkey in a uniform. Most of all I liked the film's action sequences, especially one set in Darwin's house filled with knickknacks from his travels. Animated comedies have this way of coming up with ridiculous uses for common objects and of course they laugh in the face of physics. And then I laugh at them for laughing in the face of physics.

            "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" would have been a better film if I had found the pirates more likeable. And to its credit, the film tries to make them that way. Pirate Captain is a charming buffoon and the rest of the crew is similarly fun-loving. There are times where it seems that all any of them want out of life is to eat ham (lots and lots of ham, unhealthy quantities of ham) with their best mates. But there are a few scenes that just negate all of their endearing qualities. It's not brought up often, but there's no doubt that the pirates have murdered people, sometimes just for fun. This, in turn, makes Queen Victoria less antagonistic of a villain since you can't blame her for wanting to rid the world of them. If "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" had gone to greater lengths to make the pirates less morally reprehensible, I would have spent more time enjoying the film and less time wondering who to root for.


Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:19 pm edt 

The Lucky One

            It's probably a good thing that I don't see a lot of movies based on the books of Nicholas Sparks. He's known for super-schmaltzy romance novels that are routinely derided by critics but sell like crazy. Films based on his works include the modest hits "Message in a Bottle", "A Walk to Remember", "The Notebook" "Dear John", and "The Last Song". I've never seen any of these films, and from what I understand I haven't missed much (the exception being "The Notebook", which has earned high praise from both likely and unlikely sources). My lack of preparedness might have actually done "The Lucky One" a favor because I'm told that it's just like all of the other Sparks movies. So in theory, this should all be new to me. Except that I'm all too familiar with mushy romance movies, Sparks-related or not.

            The film stars Zac Efron as an ex-Marine named Logan. He was "saved" from an explosion in a war zone when he stopped to pick up a picture of a young woman. Unable to fit in with his family after his tour, he decides to head out on foot to North Carolina where the woman lives. He deduces this because he is able to identify a lighthouse in the background of the photo. Lighthouses are ideal for romantic scenery, though I don't believe that the characters in the film actually use it for anything.

            Logan eventually find the woman, named Beth (Taylor Schilling) and gets a job at her kennel while he ponders how he's going to tell her about his special connection to her photo. She's got a lot on her plate as it is. Her kennel and home are badly in need of repairs. She's raising her son Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart) who is incredibly loving and gifted, but shy. Her mother (Blythe Danner) does what she can to help, but it's usually not much more than words of wisdom. Perhaps the biggest misery in Beth's life comes with her no-good ex-husband Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), who is constantly threatening to take Ben away from her. Keith is one of those jerk villains that exists just to cause problems for everyone else even though I fail to see how he benefits from any of it.

            Efron plays his usual Dream Guy character. He does all the necessary repairs, he gets various vehicles that haven't worked for years up and running. He has an instant rapport with Ben and encourages him to come out of his shell. He keeps Keith at bay for a big chunk of time and then convinces him to do the one right thing he does in the entire movie. He studies philosophy and plays piano. And of course, he sweeps Beth off her feet as she falls further and further in love with him. The detail of the photo is quite forgettable and serves only to create an inevitable conflict from which we all know they'll recover. Even when Beth is at her most heartbroken, she seems unconvinced, as if she instantly regrets turning away a great catch like Logan over something so trivial.

            The trailer for "The Lucky One" has been in front of a lot of movies that I've seen recently. I have two problems with this. The first is that I've had to sit through the cheesy trailer itself too many times. The second is that with the trailer hammered into my brain, the movie is very predictable. It's a predictable story anyway, but even more so if you've had to endure the trailer as many times as me. It's a pleasant but mushy romantic drama that brings nothing new to the table. You should only see it if you're an Efron fan or are desperate for a decent date movie. On the upside, if you do see "The Lucky One" as your feature, at least you know they won't be showing the gaggy trailer for "The Lucky One" before it.


Two Stars out of Five.
4:15 pm edt 

The Three Stooges
 

             "The Three Stooges" is the stupidest movie of the year.  The film is probably proud to be awarded that title, which annoys me. Of course it's a stupid movie, it's the Stooges. It would frankly be baffling if it were anything but stupid. The problem isn't that it's stupid, the problem is that it isn't funny. Let's say that funny is popcorn and stupid is golden flavored popcorn topping. The topping can make the popcorn better, but you wouldn't want to just drink it by itself. "The Three Stooges" is like being forced to gulp down a cup of golden flavored popcorn topping.

            The Three Stooges were a comedy trio best known for a line of short films in the 30s and 40s. The lineup changed throughout the years, but the most popular incarnation consisted of the bald Curly, balding Larry, and salad bowl-cut Moe. The comedy was mostly physical, usually involving the Stooges getting hurt either by accident or by each other. There wasn't a lot of variety to the gags, which is why the films were usually only twenty minutes. That should be your first clue that this 90-minute movie isn't going to work.

            The Stooges have now been reinvented with Will Sasso as Curly, Sean Hayes as Larry, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe. They're put into a plot where they need to raise money to save their childhood orphanage. It's one of those orphanages run by nuns, one of whom is played by Larry David, whose casting was surely funnier on paper than it is onscreen. The team's Stoogery leads them into a murder plot involving an old orphanage buddy and his wife (Sofia Vergara). To recap: the film wastes the humor potential of three Stooges, an orphanage full of nuns, and Sofia Vergara.

            The Stooges' style hasn't aged well. The film is made for people who think that scenes of various kinds of hitting never get old. Those scenes were old the first time I saw the trailer. We also have to suffer through some painful jokes about the Stooges failing to understand modern technology, a dreadful trend often found in updates of outdated source material. The absolute worst thing about the movie is a scatological scene in a nursery. It is potty humor badly in need of a potty. I cannot think offhand of a scene I have detested more in all of movie history.

            Here's an example of how stupid (without being funny) the movie is. Moe gets cast on the bottom-of-the-barrel reality show "Jersey Shore". He pulls his abusive schtick on the cast members, who by the way do a terrible job of playing themselves. We're supposed to laugh watching the spoiled celebrities get humiliated. Except that anyone who's ever seen so much as a clip of "Jersey Shore" knows that these idiots do a fine job of humiliating themselves. I find it depressing that these shameless people got paid to appear in this movie, even if they are in it just to get smacked. It would have saved a lot of trouble to just say in passing that the Stooges are too dumb for "Jersey Shore". Or maybe it would be funnier to say that they're too intelligent.

            Even the basic gags in "The Three Stooges" aren't funny. They have more in common with bone-crunching comedies like "Home Alone" than the actual, milder Stooges shorts. The look and speech patterns of the Stooges were always distinctive, but here brought into the modern world (in color) are nothing short of distracting. Last but not least, the film could have done without the wacky sound effects whenever someone gets hurt. I know it's a Stooges trademark, but in the shorts it felt somewhat natural, here it feels like there's a sound effects guy just off camera hovering his finger over the "bonk" button. "The Three Stooges" is unfunny in so many ways at once.  


One Star out of Five
4:11 pm edt 

American Reunion

        Watching "American Reunion", it occurred to me how similar the "American Pie" series is to the "Final Destination" series. The "American Pie" series is a scatological comedy franchise known for convoluted sequences where everything seems to go wrong at once and the characters end up humiliated. The "Final Destination" series is a horror franchise known for convoluted sequences where everything seems to go wrong at once and the characters end up dead. Both franchises are over a decade old and still coming out with new installments. The films of both are about two-thirds filler while we wait for the Really Good Parts. And both make me laugh like a sicko when they do get to the Really Good Parts.

            "American Reunion" is the fourth installment of "American Pie" to be released in theaters with the main cast (four direct-to-DVD "American Pie Presents" sequels are related in name only). It has been nine years since 2003's "American Wedding" and everybody's back in town for a belated high school reunion. Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are still married and now have a kid, but they seem to be growing apart lately. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is having doubts about his marriage and is tempted to get back with his ex-girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid). Oz (Chris Klein) is tired of his shallow lifestyle and longs to get back with his ex-girlfriend Heather (Mena Suvari), who is now dating a jerk doctor. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has suddenly reappeared after a long absence with an exciting account of the past few years. Stifler (Seann William Scott) is still Stifler, a perpetual man-child who lives an unsuccessful life as a temp. He seemed to be doing pretty well as a high school football coach in "American Wedding", one can only guess what he did to lose that job in the meantime.

            As with the rest of the films, the action mostly centers around Jim. He earnestly tries to reignite the passion in his marriage to Michelle, but everything and everybody else is always getting in the way. He handles it in the traditional Jim way, which is to say horribly. The scariest obstacle involves Kara (Abi Cobrin), a neighbor girl he used to babysit who is now 18. She apparently always had a crush on him, and although he doesn't take her advances seriously, everyone else does. The potential for humiliation grows and grows until possible consequences include divorce, arrest, and beatings.

            The storylines for Kevin, Finch, Oz, and Stifler all scream "filler". The only subplot that makes an impact is one that features Jim's Dad (Eugene Levy). Once again, he offers his son awkward advice on subjects that children don't like to discuss with their parents. But this time, he needs some help himself. His wife died a few years ago and he's been feeling lonely. Jim makes a project of getting him back into the dating scene. He eventually falls for Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge), subject of an obscene acronym from the original movie that has since become surprisingly commonplace in American society. Levy fills the role with just the right combination of humor, discomfort, sympathy, and yes, even wisdom to make it an exceptional comedic performance.

            The characters in "American Reunion" may have evolved from "American Pie", but the humor hasn't. It's still of the immature sex-and-bathroom variety. As for the characters evolving, who cares? You saw how I glossed over most of them in the last paragraph, I guarantee most viewers gloss over them in the same way. Plus the film tries to cram even more familiar faces on screen as if the audience is going through a checklist. Okay I was, but the majority of the audience won't be. "American Reunion" thinks that people remember "American Pie" for its overall story when in fact people remember it for a few disgusting scenes a.k.a. the Really Good Parts.


Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:09 pm edt 

Wrath of the Titans

          "Wrath of the Titans" is an excellent reason why audiences shouldn't throw money at bad movies. I'm not even talking about this film, which is doing deservedly poorly against the second week of "The Hunger Games". I'm talking about "Clash of the Titans", which spent two weeks at #1 back in 2010, ultimately making over $160 million domestically. In its first weekend alone it made over $60 million, owing in no small part to that weekend being Easter and the film getting to take advantage of holiday crowds. The film was lousy and forgettable, but it made money. It thereby justified this sequel, which is lousy and forgettable and won't make money.

            The film adds more branches to the twisted family tree of the first film. We already know the demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington), now committed to living the life of a mortal. His father Zeus (Liam Neeson) is the most powerful of the gods, his uncle Hades (Ralph Fiennes) is an evil god. This film introduces Perseus's mortal son Helius (John Bell), his war-god brother Ares (Edgar Ramirez) who you can tell is a bad guy the second you lay eyes on him, and his grandfather Kronos (CGI smoke), a really evil god who was imprisoned when the good gods took over. Hades and Ares scheme to release Kronos and let him do all sorts of no good to the world.

            Tasked with saving the world if only for his son, Perseus goes on a quest to rescue Zeus, who has been imprisoned by Ares and Hades. A dying Poseidon (Danny Huston) directs him to his demigod son Agenor (Toby Kebbell), who serves as the annoying sidekick for the rest of the movie. He meets up with Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike, replacing Gemma Arterton from the original) and together they go to see Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), a retired weapons maker who can get them into the labyrinth where Zeus is being held.

            The labyrinth is a wasted opportunity. I like the idea to characters having to navigate through a maze and solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles. We get a few sliding walls that the characters manage to squeeze by with ease. Perseus also does battle with a Minotaur, a sequence that it so quick and inconsequential that the creature is never even identified as a Minotaur. But come on, what other creature is going to be hanging out in a labyrinth?

            The rest of the movie is spent trying to stop Ares and Kronos. I'm trying to think of anything else of interest that happens. Hades's loyalties waver, Ares makes the stupid villain mistake of getting into a fair fight with Perseus, and Perseus and Andromeda fall in love, though you probably don't need me to tell you that. One thing I did like is the soldiers that Kronos sends out. They're basically conjoined twins with six limbs. I wouldn't want to end up on the wrong side of one of those. I'll take my chances with Grandpa the Smoke Monster.

            It's sad that the anonymous henchmen are the only positive thing I can say about "Wrath of the Titans". Then again a lot about the movie is sad; the story, the special effects (you can tell exactly which patches of screen are about to be filled with CGI), its inevitable box office performance, and the fact that it exists. Though I wasn't happy with "The Hunger Games" last week, I am grateful that it is stomping the "Titans" franchise into what I hope is submission. If we can somehow get it to squash the entire "Transformers" universe we'll be in good shape.


One and a Half Stars out of Five

4:06 pm edt 

The Hunger Games
        There are hits, there are blockbusters, and there are Event Movies. "The Hunger Games" is an Event Movie. It is such an Event Movie that it was playing on ten screens at midnight at my favorite theater and six were sold out when I bought my ticket at 8pm. It is such an Event Movie that numerous people went to the midnight shows in ridiculous costumes that wouldn't even be visible in the dark theater. It is such an Event Movie that there was a news van parked outside the building and reporters were swarming to get audience reactions after the show was over. Sadly, the pandemonium was so much more fun and interesting than anything that happened during the film.


            The film takes place in the future where America is a much more miserable place. Twelve impoverished Districts answer to a wealthy Capitol who squashed them all in an uprising seventy-four years ago. Every year the Capitol holds The Hunger Games, a televised competition of viciousness where two teenagers (called Tributes) from each district fight one another to the death until only one of the 24 is left alive. This is done to remind the Districts that the Capitol can take everything away from them whenever they choose. It's also done to improve TV ratings.


           Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself stuck in The Hunger Games after her sister is chosen by lottery to participate and she volunteers to take her place. She and fellow Tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are escorted by a chaperone (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) and a mentor (Woody Harrelson, quite recognizable despite a silly wig) to the Capitol where they're given the star treatment for a few days. Then they're put in the Hunger Games, where they'll probably be killed. Except that this is the first film in a series, so we know they won't be killed. As for the other Tributes, we just wait for them to become victims.


            Most become victims without us even realizing it. The spectacle of bloody murder is a major plot point, both in eliminating other Tributes and in hammering home a point about the public's demand for bloodsports. Yet the film just had to go for a PG-13 rating, and necessary scenes of violence are edited down to a whisper. There is an effective way to imply murder without showing it (remember, we never saw the knife touch Janet Leigh in "Psycho"), and this isn't it. The way violence is glossed over in this movie is nothing short of cheating.


            Another thing I'd change about the movie is that I'd like more scenes that focus on the production and the spectacle of The Hunger Games. The battlefield is controlled by a room of technicians led by a Gamemaker (Wes Bentley). I want to know what's going through his head besides causing everybody a headache with his deadly special effects. There's also a host and commentator (Stanley Tucci) who seems to exist for little reason other than to dole out occasional exposition with a sense of dutiful neutrality. The character would work so much better if he really showed some teeth, if he were sick and twisted behind the mask of the smarmy emcee. And while I have nothing against Stanley Tucci in the role, the film passes on a great opportunity to give me something I've wanted to see for nearly a decade now. Three words: Evil. Ryan. Seacrest.


            It's probably best that you ignore my negativity and go see "The Hunger Games". An Event Movie like this comes along maybe once a year, if that. Like it or not, the film is going to go down as an icon of American pop culture, and I can't advocate that you miss out on it. Just know that I wish it were a sharper, more organized icon of American pop culture.


Two Stars out of Five.
4:02 pm edt 


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