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Monday, March 11, 2013


            "Snitch" is the epitome of a "star vehicle". In this case the star is Dwayne Johnson. There is no reason to see "Snitch" other than Dwayne Johnson. I've seen some movies lately that offer zero reasons to see them, so it's fair to say that Dwayne Johnson is better than nothing. Still, this movie was made entirely as an excuse to put Johnson's face on a vaguely thrilling poster and get his fans into a theater to see something, anything, starring their champion.

            If I could describe the mood of the film in one word, it would be "worried". Johnson's character John Matthews worries about his son Jason (Rafi Gavron), who has been arrested on a drug charge that carries a ten-year prison sentence. The rest of the family worries about Jason too. John worries as he meets with a crusty prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) who won't lift a finger for Jason unless she gets some leads on some bigger criminals. So John goes undercover for the DEA to catch drug dealers, which means he has to worry about being discovered as a snitch. He learns that a dangerous cartel knows where he lives. Now he has to worry about the rest of his family. He enlists the help of a friend named Daniel (Jon Bernthal) to get him a meeting with a drug lord (Michael K. Williams) and we get some scenes of Daniel worrying about his and his family's safety. When it begins to look like John is in danger, the other characters worry about him. Jason is worried himself, of course, but he's taking too many prison beatings in the present to worry much about the future. Naturally it's the bad guys who don't do a whole lot of worrying.

            It was probably all the scenes of worry that attracted Johnson to the part. He's clearly trying to prove that he's more than just an action star and I imagine he saw the vulnerable character as an opportunity to stretch as an actor. We see early on that he can handle emotional, dramatic scenes. And then we see him handle a similar emotional, dramatic scene. And another and another. Yes he's good in these scenes and yes they're different from the types of scenes he usually plays, but there's very little variety in these scenes relative to each other.

            I cannot stress how disappointed you will be if you go into "Snitch" expecting an action movie. Johnson loses the film's only fistfight to a bunch of punks and drives away from a cartel shootout. All we really get is a crummy car chase at the end that was seemingly tacked in when somebody realized that the film was unforgivably short on car chases.

            The release of "Snitch" coincides with Dwayne Johnson's return to pro wrestling as the ever-popular WWE Superstar known as The Rock. The Rock even won the WWE Championship back in January. I'm writing this article on the night of the Oscars, and it occurs to me how similar wrestling titles are to Academy Awards. Both are symbols that recognize the holder as the greatest in their field. But neither really, objectively means anything. Neither is actually earned by besting competition, but rather awarded by a tiny group of one's peers based on whatever criteria they choose. Both easily have the potential to be devalued; a wrestling title if it's put on a wimp, an Oscar if it's awarded to a ham or a hack. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson should be satisfied with his wrestling titles, because I don't see him winning an Oscar anytime soon. I know he means well with "Snitch", but the film is monotonous and uninteresting.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:20 pm edt          Comments

Identity Thief

            After its first act, "Identity Thief" becomes a predictable, mildly amusing road trip comedy. This is actually a really good creative decision because the film is effectively cutting its losses after realizing that it can't keep milking laughs from identity theft. I can accept that it's supposed to be funny to see Melissa McCarthy's con artist "Diana" paint the town red with ill-gotten funds. But I simply cannot buy into the humor involving Jason Bateman's hapless victim Sandy Patterson. Granted, not everything about his ruin is played for laughs, but it isn't funny to see him constantly treated with rudeness and incompetence by people who think he's a loser. Nor is it funny to see people make fun of him for having the name Sandy, a gag that is used liberally even after the worst is over.

            "Diana" ruins Sandy's life with her scheme, affecting everything from his credit to his career to his personal reputation. This is coming at a horrible time for Sandy, as he and his wife (Amanda Peet) are soon expecting their third child. The police are portrayed as powerless, so Sandy heads to Florida to try and coax "Diana" into traveling with him back to Denver to confess. She's understandably resistant (in the form of a punch to the throat), but leaving town with an escort might protect her from violent retaliation from more bloodthirsty victims. Even with her relative cooperation, "Diana" isn't an ideal travel companion. Her obnoxiousness and disobedience promise to drive Sandy crazy, as if he weren't already at his breaking point over the identity theft.

            The pair's adventures include eluding gangsters (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I., in the film solely to appear in trailers) and a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick, in the film for reasons undetermined), multiple fights and car crashes, a snake attack, and an identity theft scam of their own against Sandy's former boss (Jon Favreau, in the film for a total of one scene). The most notable detour is a romantic rendezvous with a southern-friend real estate agent (Eric Stonestreet). It's a gross scene, but I laughed, and I'd rather watch it again than that horrific GoDaddy ad from the Super Bowl. Eventually we see a more sympathetic side to "Diana" and Sandy struggles with the decision whether or not to turn her in. 

            The humor is the standard R-rated comedy fare. Profanity and sexual references are thrown around a lot. McCarthy, to her credit, throws her back into more than her fair share of physical gags. Several jokes are made at the expense of "Diana's" weight and appearance. One gag that's used quite often is one where "Diana" tells a stranger a wild story about Sandy (usually involving his genitalia) and Sandy tries to deny it, but the stranger doesn't believe him. These gags are supposed to tell us that "Diana" is good at lying and Sandy is bad at defending himself, but really they just tell us that the strangers doing the judging are stupid.

            Bateman's character is a square and the script is even flatter than you probably expect. So your opinion of "Identity Thief" boils down to how much you can laugh at Melissa McCarthy. For many people, that's a lot. She earned an Oscar nomination last year for "Bridesmaids", a rarity for such a vulgar comedy. I'll admit that she's easily the best thing about this movie, even if she does often resort to crass clichés. That isn't to say that she "saves" the film by any means. At best, "Identity Thief" is a mostly-mediocre comedy, at worst it's an instruction manual for future identity thieves.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:19 pm edt          Comments

A Good Day to Die Hard

            Lovers of blockbusters are usually quick to point out 1988's "Die Hard" as a perfect example of how to correctly do a modern action movie. Sure it has a lot of explosions, gunfire, and cheesy one-liners, but it also has a tight script, attention to visual detail, and characters people either loved or loved to hate. Twenty-five years and four sequels later, it's time for "A Good Day to Die Hard". The new film also has a lot of explosions, gunfire, and cheesy one-liners, but the redeeming values never arrive.

            Once again, Bruce Willis plays New York City cop John McClane. He learns that his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) is in police custody in Russia, so he travels there in hopes of helping him or at least seeing him for the first time in years. It turns out that Jack is an undercover CIA agent in the middle of a dangerous mission involving a political prisoner (Sebastian Koch) and his daughter (Yulia Snigir) and their feud with a powerful, corrupt politician (Sergei Kolesnikov). John unwittingly interferes in the mission, much to Jack's initial dismay, but ultimately his father's wisdom proves to be invaluable.

           There are action scenes aplenty. I'm a big fan of the sequences where you lose count of the impossibilities. My favorite is a car chase in gridlocked traffic. With no roads handy, the characters come up with some pretty creative substitutes. But the action is mostly pointless shooting and explosions, much of which is done with unconvincing CGI and even more of which is done with terribly choppy editing. There should never be this much confusion as to how well your action hero is doing in a firefight. Also, most of the bad guys are essentially faceless. The original film saw McClane freak out the bad guys by learning their all names and casually dropping them into his threats. Here the only henchman worth remembering is Alik (Radivoje Bukvic), a West-hating pest who you'll want to see hurt.

            For me, the biggest problem with the film is Jack. The character isn't interesting and Jai Courtney brings zero personality to the role. His chemistry with the senior McClane is almost nonexistent. I never saw him as anything more than an obstacle impeding Bruce Willis from carrying this movie like only he can. If the plan is to someday let Willis retire and hand the franchise over to Courtney, it will be one of the worst decisions in the history of sequels.

           I feel the need to address the popular complaint that the film doesn't have enough to do
with the rest of the "Die Hard" series. This is an opinion that I do not share. For better or worse, there is no mistaking that this is a "Die Hard" film. Bruce Willis plays John McClane, we get a cameo from his previously-established daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the villains are surprisingly greedy, a death recalls a shot from the first film, and McClane gets to say his unprintable catchphrase (though he mutters it to himself gratuitously). Are fans expecting McClane to take on another member of the Gruber family? One tacked-on family member ruins the film quite enough, thank you.

           "A Good Day to Die Hard" is a blatant attempt to cash in on the "Die Hard" name and it can't even do that properly since starting the title with a "G" instead of a "D" means that it will forever be unable to be linked to the other installments alphabetically. Many fans will likely consider that a blessing in disguise. Lovers of blockbusters will be quick to point the film out as a perfect example of how some franchises just don't know when to quit.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:18 pm edt          Comments

Warm Bodies

            I have to admit that it was a great decision to release a movie called "Warm Bodies" in February. The title makes for a terrific invitation to get out of the cold and into a theater. If the film were called "Warm Bodies Wrapped up in Snuggly Blankets and Drinking Rich Hot Cocoa", it would really be unstoppable. Maybe if there's a sequel.

            The film tells the story of a former human who falls in love with a current human. The former human is a zombie called R (Nicholas Hoult), and when we meet him he has nothing better to do than be a zombie all day. His daily activities include staggering around an airport, occasionally grunting to his friend M (Rob Corddry), and hoping some juicy human brains will turn up. One day brains do turn up attached to a group of humans gathering supplies. Instinctively, he eats the grey matter of Perry (Dave Franco), which gives him some of the young man's memories. This causes R to immediately fall in love with his girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of the few survivors of the ambushed group. Can R overcome absolutely everything about being a zombie to win Julie's heart?

           It isn't easy. R can only grunt, not talk, to Julie. He can run and fight when he needs to, but has very little in the way of motor skills (both kinds of motor skills). But the real obstacle is that Julie doesn't trust him not to eat her brains. And no, it does not help matters for R to point out that he's full from eating her boyfriend's brains. The one thing he can offer is protection, being a zombie gives him an insight into the weaknesses of the other zombies. She in turn takes him home to meet her father (John Malkovich), the leader of the human resistance. He steadfastly believes that all zombies soulless killing machines, but she wants to show him that some like R are capable of compassion.

           As the relationship strengthens, R's condition improves. His heart starts beating, he's capable of more speech, and he becomes one of the "Warm Bodies" of the title. Fellow zombies like M begin to improve as well when they see the way R and Julie care for each other. This is one of those stories where love is the key to saving humanity. Normally I would scoff at something so ridiculous, but this movie has zombies, so my disbelief is appropriately suspended.

           Since "Warm Bodies" is about a relationship between a human girl and a horror creature, comparisons to "Twilight" are inevitable. Truthfully, the two aren't that similar. "Warm Bodies" is actually told through the eyes of the creature (via narration that I didn't find funny) and unlike Edward and Jacob, R is a full-fledged zombie at all times. There aren't any scenes where he seems normal and nonthreatening and the camera can look at him lovingly. Nicholas Hoult may reach heartthrob status someday, but I can't picture teenage girls putting up posters of him as R on their bedroom walls.

           What really hurt "Warm Bodies" for me was its look. Almost everything has a depressing blue-purple tint to it. I got the suspicion that the production was trying to save money by not buying proper light bulbs. Also, the skeletal villains are made of terrible CGI. As for the script, the "zombie in love" plot hasn't been done to death yet, but plots about zombies, lovers from different worlds, and the military trying to destroy something it doesn't understand certainly have. Whittle "Warm Bodies" down to its good parts and you have a few funny date scenes between a human and a zombie. It may not be much, but it's better than standing out in the cold.

Two Stars out of Five.
3:16 pm edt          Comments

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

            It's January, and I know that for three reasons. The first is that the calendar says so. The second is that it's freezing cold. And the third is that I have to review garbage like "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters". This month is notorious for its awful slate of new releases (not to be confused with awards season favorites like "Zero Dark Thirty" that open in limited release the previous year and wait until January to go wide). Studios come down from the holiday rush by releasing the absolute worst of their back catalogue that would get creamed against real competition. But even when taken with this grain of salt, "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" is still a dreadful film.  

           The premise is that Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) got such satisfaction out of killing their first witch (she of that infamous gingerbread house and fiery fate) that they made it their life's work to kill the rest of them. Our heroes are summoned to a small village where about a dozen children have gone missing. They soon discover that a congregation of witches led by Muriel (Famke Janssen) is in town for a ceremony that will make them impervious to fire. Naturally, the ceremony requires a blood sacrifice, and Gretel's blood fits the bill nicely. But it's mostly witch and sleazy human blood that gets spilled over the course of the investigation.

            The story seems to take place in 19th-century Germany, yet the characters use modernized, automatic weapons. So not only is the film dumb enough to transport these weapons to its antiquated setting, but it can't think of a way to kill its witches without cheating and resorting to guns. The promise of brainless violence is one of the film's selling points, and the guns rob us of some creative 18th-century methods. Also, I kept hoping to see somebody impaled with a broken-off candy cane from the gingerbread house and it never happened.

           Most of the story takes place in a forest of unclear dimensions, so at any given time it's impossible to tell where the characters are in relation to each other. The special effects are terrible; the witches aren't scary and the action sequences make blatant use of bad CGI. The script is peppered with profanity that is maybe supposed to be funny but really just proves how desperate the film is for a laugh. As for the actors, the film isn't going to do any favors for the careers of Gemma Arterton or Famke Janssen, but it's Jeremy Renner who is going to suffer the most because of this mess. This time last year, he was a bankable action star hot off "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol". He has since gone on to be the lamest Avenger, the face of the botched "Bourne" reboot, and now has this blotch on his permanent record.

            I do believe that there's potential for a good R-rated "Hansel and Gretel" movie. But instead of turning the main characters into adults who hunt witches, leave them as children who get lost. There's plenty of room for twisted, violent imagery in a straight-up adaptation of the Brothers Grimm tale. Plus you don't get all those embarrassing unintentional laughs when a grown man and woman introduce themselves as Hansel and Gretel. This response to the trailers gave me hope that I might be able to enjoy the film as a sort of comedy. It was a nice hope while it lasted, but it turns out that "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" isn't enjoyable on any level.

One Star out of Five.
3:14 pm edt          Comments


            Last week, I spent the better part of my review for "Zero Dark Thirty" talking about Jessica Chastain's chances of winning an Oscar for Best Actress. I will not need to spend the same amount of time talking about Chastain's chance of winning an Oscar for "Mama". In fact, not only do I believe that Chastain will not win an Oscar for "Mama", but I believe that "Mama" may hurt her chances of winning an Oscar for "Zero Dark Thirty".

           Studios love to use January and February as a dumping ground for bad movies starring suddenly-relevant nominees. Perhaps the most infamous example is 2007's "Norbit", an awful Eddie Murphy vehicle with a release that coincided with Murphy's nomination for "Dreamgirls". Many felt that the blanket of advertisements featuring Murphy in a fat suit and a drag lost him the support of Academy voters and ultimately cost him the Oscar. There's nothing in "Mama" that will embarrass Chastain as much as a fat suit or drag, but the film is generic enough that voters will know that she is still taking "paycheck" roles. 

             The film opens with the plight of two young sisters, Victoria and Lilly. Their murderous father takes them to an abandoned cabin to kill them, but is stopped by a supernatural creature. Five years later, the girls are rescued from the abandoned cabin and placed in the custody of their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). The girls are super-cute, of course, the better to juxtapose with the creepy elements of the film. 9-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) has retained a little of her knowledge of the world outside the cabin, but 5-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) is leaving the only life she's ever known.  How did the girls survive for five years without adult supervision? Simple, they were raised by "Mama".

                 Lucas is keen on raising the girls, but Annabel isn't sure if she's up for it. They don't have the means to raise a family, she isn't ready for so much responsibility (she's a rock guitarist with lots of tattoos, so the implication is that she's pretty irresponsible anyway), the girls are severely developmentally disabled, and scary things start happening around the house as soon as they arrive. Then Lucas gets put in a coma after some late-night creepiness, and she has to do it all alone. She manages to surprise everyone including herself by becoming a selfless, loving guardian. Too bad then, that Mama wants the girls back.

            Of course, there wouldn't be much of a movie if Mama simply killed Lucas and Annabel or abducted the girls, even though she apparently has the ability to travel between the cabin and Lilly's location at will. Mama exists as a source of cheap horror movie scares: going bump in the night, summoning unfriendly butterflies, lurking in shadows, that sort of thing. One scene sees her interact with Lilly in a manner shamelessly reminiscent of the "Paranormal Activity" series. I will admit that she's pretty scary once we get a good look at her. The film was produced by Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") and you can see his knack for unsettling visuals at work in the last act.

             Impressive ending aside, "Mama" is a dull PG-13 horror movie indistinguishable from countless other dull PG-13 horror movies. Its box office success can be attributed to an easy-to-remember title and the star power of Jessica Chastain. Since I want Chastain to win the Oscar, and her strongest competition seems to be Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook", I will take this opportunity to remind everybody that last year Lawrence starred in "House at the End of the Street", a PG-13 horror movie even duller than "Mama".  

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:12 pm edt          Comments

Zero Dark Thirty

            The decision to grant a wide release to Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" was made before the Academy Award nominations were announced this past Thursday. As expected, the film managed to be one of nine to snag a Best Picture nomination. It was too little too late, however, as any hopes the film might have had at winning Best Picture were in fact dashed a few moments earlier with the announcement of the nominees for Best Director. Bigelow failed to secure herself a nomination, and The Academy can't be very much in love with a film if they don't see fit to honor the individual appointed as its leader.

            And yet, all hope is not lost and there is still a very good reason to see the film. The production was shrouded in secrecy, and the extent of the actors' roles was not clear until recently. I was actually expecting this to be one of those ensemble pieces with so many storylines going on at once that it's impossible to label anyone as a "main character". It turns out that there is most definitely a main character. Her name is Maya, the film portrays her as the CIA officer primarily responsible for taking down Osama Bin Laden, and I do believe that the performance will earn Jessica Chastain the Academy Award for Best Actress.

            Like many heralded protagonists, Maya is the epitome of determination. Early in the film she discovers a potential lead in the hunt for Bin Laden and she spends nearly ten years following it. There are plenty of obstacles to discourage her: there's the inevitable bureaucracy and red tape, her sources don't want to cooperate, her superiors and colleagues aren't supportive, a key player is reported dead, information obtained from torture is dismissed, and the terrorists want to kill her. Naturally she perseveres, often in the form of brazen confrontations with male superiors. In one scene she chews out a colleague so thoroughly that when she was done, I felt compelled to do an impression of Chastain's inner monologue. I stuck out my hand and said, "Oscar, please".

            The film takes a break from Maya in the last act while we follow SEAL Team Six as they raid Bin Laden's compound. Under normal circumstances I'd complain about the general murkiness of the scene; how it's hard to see, hard to hear, and hard to follow. But I'm sure these elements were just as difficult for the real SEAL Team Six, and it is clearly the goal of the film to be as realistic as possible in this regard. Comprehensible or not, there is no shortage of tension in these scenes. Of course you worry about the well-being of the heroes, and it's hard not to feel anxiety over the fates of the women and children in the compound.  The most suspense, however, comes from considering the stakes of the mission. These soldiers have the opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, talk about the chance of a lifetime. But how crushed would they be if it turns out that he's not there, or worse, if he somehow manages to away?

            "Zero Dark Thirty" is undeniably an intelligent (as in smart) film, and it contains a lot of intelligence (as in military and political information). The latter is problematic at times, as I found it difficult to keep up with the all the details of the investigation. Maybe I'm not intelligent enough. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal painstakingly researched the subject matter, going so far as to obtain and incorporate into the story classified information that many believe shouldn't have been available to them. The result is a complex film that may not have wowed the Academy the way it was supposed to, but is impressive enough to make you wonder if it should have.

Three Stars out of Five.
3:10 pm edt          Comments

Django Unchained

            It's funny how beloved Quentin Tarantino is as a director despite the shortness of his filmography. Ignoring his work with television and contributions to anthology films (I'm willing to forget his awful segment of "Grindhouse" if you are), the man has only seven feature credits to his name, including his newest, "Django Unchained". Yet I and many others consider Tarantino a genius because this oh-so-short filmography includes films like "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), "Pulp Fiction" (1994), "Kill Bill" Vols. 1 (2003) and 2 (2004), and "Inglourious Basterds" (2009). Each of these labored masterpieces of essentially does the work of ten films, and coincidentally ten is also about the number of times I've seen and studied each one. With "Django Unchained", Tarantino manages to not only keep his legacy of greatness alive, he's somehow managed to make it stronger than ever.

           Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a miserable slave hopelessly seperated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, whose underuse is sadly the film's biggest flaw) in the Antebellum South prior to the Civil War. He is plucked from his plight by a guardian angel in the form of German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz initially needs only a snippet of information from Django, so he buys him as a slave, treats him as an assistant, invites him to be his partner, and ultimately serves as his best friend. Together they go to rescue Broomhilda from a heartless plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his surly stooge (Samuel L. Jackson).

           As with most Tarantino films, I can't decide if this one is better at scenes of tension or scenes of action. Since it's great at both, I don't feel too bad calling it a tie. Waltz, as always, is outstanding in the tension scenes. He's playing a good guy for once, but he's still that classic combination of charming, cunning, ruthless and dangerous. He won an Oscar for playing a similar (though villainous) character in "Inglourious Basterds" and I'd root for him to win again if I wasn't so automatically opposed to repeat winners.

             Tarantino also throws in a few of those trademark scenes where you get goosebumps even while the characters discuss something silly. Probably the most famous version of this scene is the one in "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson compare American and European fast food. My favorite here is one where a Klan-like brigade debates the effectiveness of their poorly-made hoods.

           The film is first and foremost a Western (and Tarantino never lets you forget, as the film is loaded with references to his favorite films of the genre), so most of the action sequences take the form of shootouts. There are some gruesome moments early in the film but things really get yucky in the final act. One can't help but compare some of the climactic scenes to water balloon fights, except that instead of balloons we get human bodies and instead of water bursting forth we get... well, you get the idea. There's no shortage of violence in the film, or bad language or racial epithets for that matter. I hate to advise anyone to miss out on this amazing movie, but you should definitely stay away if you find any of the aforementioned elements offensive or bothersome.

            "Django Unchained" is as rewarding an experience as a Quentin Tarantino film can be. If you're like me and you get giddy thinking about his other movies, this one won't let you down. I'll be actively rooting for the film to do extremely well when the Oscar nominations are announced this Thursday, January 10. It took me until January of 2013, but I believe I've finally seen the best film of 2012.

Four Stars out of Five
3:07 pm edt          Comments

Les Miserables

            For the past few months, just about every movie I've seen has been preceded by a short documentary on the making of "Les Miserables". The point most stressed in these previews is that every song in the movie is being sung live; that unprecedented steps have been taken to ensure that we do not have to put up with the phoniness of lip-synching. Needless to say, the task was a tremendous undertaking for everyone from the actors to the film crew to the musicians who recorded the score to match the actors' pace instead of the other way around. Such a tremendous effort cannot go unrewarded, so I made sure to maintain a powerful respect for the film as its two and a half hours slogged along and its music, so painstakingly crafted, became more and more of a nuisance.

           The film is based on a wildly successful Broadway musical, itself based on a 19th-century French novel by Victor Hugo. The story centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a former prisoner who changes his identity and breaks parole to start a new life free from his label as a criminal. This does not sit well with Javert (Russell Crowe), a prison guard turned police inspector tasked with bringing Valjean to justice. Years later, Valjean's fear of Javert causes to him inadvertently ruin of the life of a factory worker named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Desperate to atone, Valjean adopts Fantine's daughter Cosette away from a couple of crooked innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and raises her as his own. Cosette grows up and falls in love with a fiery revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Valjean struggles to evade Javert and protect Cosette without deviating from his own path to redemption.

           The performances are all top-notch, as one would expect in a film made with such rampant dedication. Jackman is everything one could hope for in Jean Valjean: dashing, patient, brave and tortured. Hathaway absolutely nails "I Dreamed a Dream" (perhaps the most well-known song of the film) and will almost certainly earn an Academy Award nomination if not a win for her sadly-too-brief performance. I'd also like to bring attention to Samantha Barks, who turns out to be quite the scene-stealer as Eponine, the daughter of the devious innkeepers who harbors a crush on Marius. It's hard to believe that Marius would chase after the sheltered Cosette when he has a tigress like Eponine in his life.

           I can't object to the quality of the music in the film, but I do object to its quantity. I can't stand it when musicals insist that every line of dialogue be sung. They should do a big production number and then rest for a minute so we can get excited for the next one. The former approach is the reason why I hated the stage version of "Rent" and the latter is why I loved the 2005 film adaptation. "Les Miserables" consists of 49 songs, and while none of them are "bad" necessarily, their overabundance makes the greater ones seem less special and the lesser ones downright superfluous.

           "Les Miserables" should only be seen by people who are prepared for two and a half straight hours of musical numbers. This is not a movie for people who aren't particularly fond of musicals but think they can tolerate it for the sake of a loved one. That said, the film was made passionately and expertly and the effort has paid off. For better or worse, you'll come out humming your favorite songs. I've got "Master of the House" stuck in my head myself, but I'd love to hear from you and find out which songs are dominating your brain.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:06 pm edt          Comments

Jack Reacher

            Under normal circumstances, it would obviously be unprofessional for a reviewer to say that they are "not in the mood" for a particular film. After all, it is likely that many viewers are in the opposite mood, and they expect the reviewers to be open-minded if not similarly eager. But on this occasion, I must make an exception and say that I was in no mood for "Jack Reacher". I only say this because I believe that at this time there are many in this country and around the world who share my mood and my attitude toward some of the film's subject matter.

           For the past week, my mind has been preoccupied with the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. My thoughts range from sympathy for the victims and their families to anger toward the monster responsible to ruminations on issues like gun control and media coverage. Impersonal mass murders are a sensitive subject at this time, and "Jack Reacher" opens with a sniper ending the lives of five people for seemingly no reason. By intention, these shootings serve as an emotionally wracking catalyst for the Tom Cruise action vehicle that follows. Unintentionally, they serve as an unnecessarily cruel reminder of the recent horror that was sadly all too real.

           Surely there was a debate at the studio as to whether or not to even allow the film's release in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Apparently they decided that the shootings in the film were different enough that the audience at large wouldn't find them inappropriate. I do, but reasonable people may feel otherwise. I am not here to disparage anybody who can forgive the film for its admittedly unanticipated parallels to the real-life atrocities, but I am simply not one of them.

           To the movie itself. A sniper (Jai Courtney) kills five people (none of them children, thankfully) and the lone suspect (Joseph Sikora) is quickly taken into custody. The lead investigator (David Oyelowo) thinks he can get a confession in record time, but the suspect instead tells the police to find Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise). Reacher is a former military investigator who now lives a nomadic life of anonymity. He's a great detective and a great fighter but he isn't great at making friends, not that he wants any. Bad guys hate him because he beats them, good guys hate him because he doesn't play by the rules, women hate him because he breaks their hearts. In other words, he's another dime-a-dozen supercompetent action hero.

            Other key characters include Rosamund Pike as the suspect's public defender and Reacher's handler of sorts, Richard Jenkins as her shady district attorney father, Robert Duvall as a grizzled shooting range operator, and best of all, Werner Herzog as a bone-chilling villain. I forget how he fits into the plot exactly, but this otherwise bland film needs his demented charisma in the worst kind of way. Somebody needs to cast him as the next James Bond villain right now.

           The most popular controversy surrounding "Jack Reacher" seems to be the casting of the 5'7" Tom Cruise as the 6'5" hero. As if I could blame anybody for wanting Tom Cruise in their movie. Though I will blame Cruise for taking this lousy script where his dialogue mostly consists of soundbytes for the television commercials. It seems like the only time the movie is being sincere is when it's going through the painful process of detailing the lives of the shooting victims and how those lives have been ruthlessly cut short. This brings me back to the issue that I find most discomforting about the film, the depiction of a shooting massacre so soon after the events in Newtown. I have nothing against people who refuse to let this element ruin the film for them, but for me it's still too soon.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:04 pm edt          Comments

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

            One should take my opinion of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" with a grain of salt because I've never much cared for the "Lord of the Rings" series. It is no secret that I consider the entire franchise to be nonsensical, confusing, and overlong with poor special effects. At the same time, I am aware of the massive popularity, both critically and commercially, of the previous films in of series. Clearly there are many fans that see something in these films that I do not. These same people may see the same things in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". But I say that the new film is nonsensical, confusing, and overlong with poor special effects.

           The film is the first of a trilogy that precedes the "Lord of the Rings" series. Young Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is chosen by great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) to help a troop of Dwarves led by deposed prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) reclaim their lost kingdom from an evil dragon named Smaug. Gandalf introduces the Dwarves to Bilbo by inviting them to a dinner party at Bilbo's house without telling him. The Dwarves are crude guests and Bilbo is understandably flustered by the ordeal. I'm not sure why Gandalf would think that imposing hosting duties on Bilbo would entice him to join the journey (as opposed to inviting him to a properly-planned dinner party to prove that he takes care of his friends), but inexplicably it works, and come morning Bilbo decides to leave his comfort zone and join the team.

            Throughout the rest of the film, the Hobbit and the Dwarves encounter Orcs, Trolls, Elves, and Goblins. All these offensive words for short people are represented as distinct races. We get cameos from familiar "Lord of the Rings" characters like Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee). The story is told in flashback, so we also briefly see an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and even a quick appearance by Frodo (Elijah Wood). But by far the best returning character is Gollum (Andy Serkis), who shows up for a creepy standoff with young Bilbo that results in the well-documented loss of His Precious.

           The motion-capture effects on Gollum are well done, probably because Serkis is such an expert with the technology. I cannot say that the rest of the visual effects are handled so expertly. At no point does it look like the majority of creatures are anything other than bad CGI. The absolute worst characters, however, are the laughable rock monsters that endanger the heroes on a narrow mountain path. These creatures swipe at each other clumsily while the actors shield themselves from debris thrown at them from off-camera. Honestly, the film should never have bothered with the rock monsters, as they aren't important to the story. I also could have done without the trolls, who do little more than behave grossly, and the goblins, who are about as interested in self-preservation as a slice of lemmings.

           As "An Unexpected Journey" is the first chapter of a "Hobbit" trilogy, it depresses me to think that I'll have to see two more of these lousy movies over the next two Christmases. I suppose I should be grateful that it's only two more, since these movies make a ton of money and the powers-that-be would surely churn out more hopeless sequels if they could. To me, the film is as painful as all of the films in the "Lord of the Rings" series. But then again, I'm seemingly one of very few who consider the "Lord of the Rings" series to be painful. So I'm perfectly prepared for fans to once again tell me that I'm wrong. But if you loathe the film as much as I do, don't say I didn't warn you.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:02 pm edt          Comments

Playing for Keeps

            It is clear from its opening weekend that "Playing for Keeps" is one of the biggest bombs of the year, both critically and commercially. Review database Rotten Tomatoes has it at a 2% "Fresh" rating for its one positive review vs. 59 negative ones (and Leonard Maltin gives it only faint praise in his "positive" review). It has also flopped at the box office, opening in sixth place on a weekend when the top five films have all been out for at least three weeks.

            The film is almost as bad as its reputation. George Dryer (Gerard Butler) is a washed-up soccer player trying to win back his ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and son (Noah Lomax). He works his way back into their lives by agreeing to coach the son's soccer team. This new role helps him bond with his son (the film is halfway tolerable during these scenes) and makes him an object of desire for the moms of the other kids (the film is in no way tolerable during these scenes). The film is mostly dull and mediocre except for a few parts where it is wholly painful.

            There is no reason to see "Playing for Keeps" for enjoyment, so you may as well see it to have fun at its expense. The time has come to revive Popcorn Games. Eat popcorn according to what happens in the movie, assuming you can stay awake. Some suggestions:

-Eat a piece of popcorn every time George is late for an activity with his son.

-Eat a piece whenever George is hesitant to commit his time to soccer activities despite the fact that he is unemployed and there doesn't seem to be anything he'd rather be doing.

-Eat a piece and make sure your phone is off when the team's disinterested original coach distractedly talks on his cell phone during practice. The players' parents are watching from the stands; I have a hard time believing that they wouldn't chew him out for not paying attention.

-Shake your head and eat a piece when George advises the kids that they can't score if they don't shoot. Great, now all the kids are going to shoot and none of them are going to pass.

-Eat a piece whenever the movie tries to build phony suspense in the soccer games despite the huge advantage that George's team enjoys by having a superstar ringer for a coach.

-Eat a piece every time someone mentions how sexy George's Scottish accent is. Eat two pieces when he himself mentions how sexy it is.

-Dennis Quaid plays the crooked dad of one of the other kids on the team. Eat a piece that's really greasy with topping whenever his sleaziness is way over the top. In other words, eat a greasy piece every time Quaid is on screen.

-Judy Greer plays a mom who falls for George. Her distinguishing trait is that she cries a lot. We're supposed to think that this is funny. Eat a salty piece when she cries. Not in tribute to her tears, but mine when I think of how she was great in "The Descendants" and now she's stooping to this.

-Eat a piece whenever the women onscreen talk about Butler's sex appeal as if they have nothing better to talk about.

-Throw a piece at your open mouth without really aiming whenever a respectable actress brainlessly throws herself at Butler. This includes Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones as a sportscaster, and Uma Thurman as Quaid's wife.

-Almost forget to eat a piece when the film makes a passing reference to the Biel character's well-meaning fiancé (James Tupper). The film almost forgets him most of the time, and finally forgets him for good at the end.

-And finally, eat a burnt piece when you imagine that the actors are going to "fire" somebody for casting them in this miserable movie.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:58 pm edt          Comments

Rise of the Guardians

            "Rise of the Guardians" is a humdrum animated film that I'm sure is supposed to be the start of a hot new franchise. The premise is that legendary children's characters, often believed to be imaginary, are in fact real and moonlight as superheroes. I can see where that's a good idea on paper and I won't deny that it's easily marketable. But the film lacks good ideas beyond this most basic stage and quickly becomes dull and joyless, at least for adults who reluctantly see it with their kids.

           The main character is Jack Frost (Chris Pine), an invisible teenager who creates snowstorms. We see him fine, but he's invisible to the children of the film because none of them believe in him. All the parents in the world tell their children that "Jack Frost nipping at your nose" is just an expression. Weird place to draw the line. Jack is chosen by the unseen Man in the Moon to join The Guardians, who are the world's foremost brings of joy and protectors from harm. The other members are Santa (Alec Baldwin), The Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the mute Sandman. I'm not sure why The Sandman is supposed to be widely accepted as believable and Jack Frost isn't. I rarely hear anything about him outside of that Metallica song. But the film makes him lighthearted and loveable so I'll let it slide.

           The Guardians don't want to let the mischievous Jack join the team, but they need him to combat Pitch aka The Boogeyman (Jude Law). Pitch is trying to get all the children of the world to believe in him and only him. So he causes nightmares, steals teeth, and smashes Easter eggs in order to get children to stop believing in The Guardians. Law's voice gives Pitch an eloquent edge, but he's little more than a fame-hungry jerk. Actually, even though they would never stoop to making children unhappy, The Guardians do a lot of squabbling over fame themselves. Santa, The Easter Bunny, and Jack especially do a lot of snipping at each other over whose role is more important. The Tooth Fairy and The Sandman are mutually liked, so it's likely that something bad will happen to at least one of them to get the others united and focused.

           The movie doesn't really know what to do with its heroes as action stars. It seems like the film can't see fit to give them many powers beyond their mode of transportation (Santa has his trusty sleigh, The Easter Bunny can burrow through the Earth, and of course The Tooth Fairy can fly) and their choice of minions (elves, yetis, walking eggs, and smaller fairies). The Sandman has the intriguing ability to conjure shapes from sand, but the film fails to give it definition and limits. The team's key weapon in the fight against Pitch is Jack's dubious magic stick, which is infused with the power of, let's say, fun. Also, everybody has the ability to be super-sneaky and avoid being seen. The film never bothers to explain why any of the Guardians would need to avoid being seen, and in fact they gain consequence-free believability points whenever they are.

            Here's what you do with a bad-but-harmless holiday film like "Rise of the Guardians". You find a relative that says that they don't get to spend enough time with your kids. You let them spend some quality time together at this movie while you enjoy an afternoon off. This way the kids get to see their movie, the relatives get to bond with them, and you get to skip this lame, generic kiddie junk.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:57 pm edt          Comments

Life of Pi

            "Life of Pi" is the best film of the 2012 Thanksgiving season. The film is expertly crafted by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ang Lee, it features an amazing debut performance from actor Suraj Sharma, it has perhaps the most beautiful water and aquatic life ever depicted on film, and there's a big Bengal tiger just waiting for you to show it love. Despite all of these attributes, the film has failed to climb higher than fifth place at the box office for the past two weekends. Fifth place over a lucrative holiday weekend is not exactly a shameful performance, but I would like to see it do better. There's still time for you to give it your family's business while fleeting kiddie junk like "Rise of the Guardians" falls like a rock off the charts.

            The film's early scenes depict the childhood of our hero Pi (Sharma) as he grows up in India. He overcomes bullying through mathematics (or at least memorizing numbers); an inspiring feat that I'm sure would get him bullied even worse outside of this uplifting movie. His family runs a local zoo, and his father teaches him at a young age to respect and fear the animals, particularly a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. He experiments with various religions, and his family has a spirited discussion on the subject of spirituality. These scenes are surprisingly compelling and workmanlike considering that they take place before we get to the action. You'll get a real appreciation for the dynamic and chemistry of Pi's family, which sadly means that you'll miss them all the more when they vanish in a spectacular shipwreck.

           Pi soon finds himself the lone human survivor of the wreck, sharing a lifeboat with a pitiable zebra, a sympathetic orangutan, a malicious hyena, and the enigma that is Richard Parker. Perhaps inevitably, the boat's crew is quickly down to Pi and Richard Parker. At first Pi lives in fear of Richard Parker, surviving on a makeshift raft independent of the relative luxury of the lifeboat. Slowly the two form a bond of mutual dependency - Richard Parker depends on Pi to provide him with his future food supply and Pi depends on Richard Parker not to make him his future food supply. This relationship built on fear and need gradually turns into one of respect and friendship as the two share the experience of a lifetime.

           The film never misses an opportunity to look absolutely gorgeous. Scenes set on land are none too shabby (my favorite being a lush, unspoiled island) but it's at sea when the film is really a feast for the eyes. Colorful marine life pops up all the time to remind our heroes that they are a small part of a big thriving world. The water itself is spellbinding, often harsh and unforgiving, but on rare occasion so tranquil and glasslike in consistency that I could swear the boat had washed ashore. The animals are, of course, rendered flawlessly to maximize the emotional impact. Richard Parker is legitimately scary at times, but believe me you'll be feeling for him when he gets thin and mangy. For that matter, you'll be equally moved by the performance of Suraj Sharma as Pi starts to look thin and mangy himself.

           "Life of Pi" is filled with moments that are meant to be savored. Maybe the last act could go along at a faster clip because Pi is telling the story as an adult (Irrfan Khan) so we're fairly sure of the outcome of some of his do-or-die decisions. Pi's story is more interesting when the question is "how does he?" than when the question is simply "does he?". Even then the film manages to throw some uncertainty into the narrative. Such is the challenging nature of "Life of Pi", one of the most intelligent, exciting, and impressive family films of the year.

Three Stars out of Five.
2:54 pm edt          Comments

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

Previously, in the "Twilight" series...

            Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a human, married Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire love of her life. The marriage went through despite objections from Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), Bella's spurned werewolf admirer. After a very scary pregnancy, Bella had a half-vampire baby. Edward and Jacob both showed dedication to Bella and the baby, eventually deciding to call a truce in the centuries-long feud between vampires and werewolves.

            "Breaking Dawn - Part 2" ends the "Twilight" series on a dull note. The film sees Bella and Edward living happily together raising their daughter. Bella has since become a full-fledged vampire, and she takes to her new species with ease. The series has always loved its prolonged scenes of Bella and Edward in love with each other, usually with some vampiric twist. The final film continues the tradition, but the lovey-dovey scenes seem like old hat at this point. The same can be said of the camera's many lovingly long shots of Pattinson and Lautner. We get it, they're heartthrobs. The closest the film comes to finding an original way for them to be sexy is a scene where Jacob exposes a secret along with a good deal of his body. And the scene hardly counts because it is played for laughs.

              Of course, there's always some obstacle standing in the way of the couple's happiness. This time it's the Volturi, vampire overlords who have a bone to pick with Bella and Edward over their daughter. The Volturi are undoubtedly threatening, but never quite evil. They have a tendency to act like villains (especially their leader played by Michael Sheen, appropriately chewing the scenery like he has vampire fangs), but really they are little more than misinformed peacekeepers. Come to think of it, the werewolf leaders in "Breaking Dawn Part 1" played a similar role. This series hasn't had a proper villain since Bryce Dallas Howard in 2010's "Eclipse".

             Bella and company agree that a violent confrontation with the Volturi is looming, so they gather up as many fellow vampires as they can to form a counterattack. A host of new characters are introduced in rapid succession, too rapid for us to form any sort of connection to them. I got the impression that we are only meeting these characters now because the studio wants to spin them off into ill-advised side projects that carry the lucrative "Twilight" logo despite a threadbare connection to the series. I see similar spinoff opportunities for Jacob and a Volturi member played by Dakota Fanning.

             Many viewers are quick to sing the praises of the film's climactic action sequence. It's hard to tell what runs higher during these scenes - the emotions of the body count. I heard a lot of screaming in my theater during this sequence. First there was a lot of suspenseful screaming, then it was angry screaming, then it was vindicated screaming and finally it was happy screaming. The sequence is spectacular if you're a fan of screaming in theaters and spectacularly unproductive if you're a fan of plot twists that make sense. I'm a fan of both, so I'll call it a draw. Ultimately the sequence merely proves just how desperate the film is to have something exciting happen when clearly nothing is meant to happen.

             The "Twilight" series had a good run, but perhaps five films is one too many. There's only so much enjoyment one can get out of good-looking vampires and werewolves and there's only so much enjoyment I can get out of watching people swoon over good-looking vampires and werewolves. Now there's nothing left to do but let the franchise slowly fade away from theaters and let Stewart and Pattinson hopefully much more quickly fade away from the tabloids.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:52 pm edt          Comments


            James Bond has never been more vulnerable than he is in "Skyfall". The opening of the film sees 007 (Daniel Craig, in his third performance as the world's favorite secret agent) accidentally shot by his amateur partner (Naomie Harris). Bond blames the incident on the overly hasty orders of his superior M (Judi Dench), herself at her most vulnerable. He isn't eager to go back to work for his careless boss, so he plays dead and takes a few months off. It isn't like Bond to be lazy like this. Of course, he eventually gets pulled back into duty, but surprisingly fails the tests required for reinstatement. It definitely isn't like James Bond to be out of shape like this. He even fails at marksmanship, and that really really isn't like him.

           M decides that there's no time for Bond to go through the sloggy reinstatement process, she needs him in the field right now. Someone has stolen the files containing the identities of all of Britain's secret agents. This person is also responsible for a bombing at MI-6 headquarters and has made it clear that they have a vendetta against her. On top of that, a government official named Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) is calling for her early retirement based on her recent performance. So she has Bond meet briefly with gadget guy Q (Ben Whishaw) and then sends him on a dangerous mission to Shanghai without being cleared. Bond fares pretty well in Shanghai, gathering necessary information, defeating some lower-level bad guys and hooking up with a girl named Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe). But in typical Bond fashion, he gets captured and earns himself an audience with the villain.

           After a gaggle of disappointing villains in recent Bond films, we finally get a real one in Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva is a cyber-terrorist who we assume is using his hard feelings toward M as a smoke screen for typical Bond villain aspirations: money, power, etc. It turns out that it's the other way around; his plan begins and ends with revenge on M, though I can't say I think much of his plan of simply shooting her. It also turns out that he's extremely kinky. When was the last time you saw a Bond villain with more sexual energy than 007 himself? I have a crackpot theory that he's secretly M's son; watch the film and see if you agree with me.

          The climax of the film takes place at Skyfall, a most unusual venue. I had imagined that Skyfall was an evil plan to knock a spacecraft out of the air. Turns out I was way off. Most Bond films come to a head either at the villain's lair or as the villain is invading an unsuspecting locale. This time, the bad guys attack Bond on his own turf. It's weird to see Bond enjoy such an advantage and even weirder to see him delve however briefly into his past. The Skyfall scenes also see the introduction of an old friend of Bond's named Kincade (Albert Finney), a scene-stealer introduced far too late in the film.

           "Skyfall" is the rare James Bond film defined by its performances. The action scenes are crisp but expected. We get a chase involving multiple modes of transportation, plenty of shooting and explosions, and henchmen fed to animals (I didn't know komodo dragons were so vicious). The most interesting thing about the film is following the journeys of Bond and M, not just as agents, but as people. It reminds me of that memorable exchange from 1964's "Goldfinger". Bond could ask me if I really expect him to die. I would respond with "No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to grow". And so he does in "Skyfall".

Three Stars out of Five.
2:50 pm edt          Comments

Wreck-It Ralph

            For the past year or so, I've been fond of referring to bad kids' movies as "junk food". What I mean is that kids may enjoy watching the films but they won't be enriched or inspired by them. Now along comes "Wreck-It Ralph", an animated film that largely takes place in world of candy and treats. Wouldn't you know it, it turns out that the film is anything but junk food.

           Disney has marketed the film by pushing the fact that it takes place inside the world of video games, which is true, though perhaps the film could have done a better job of explaining exactly how the characters respond to being controlled and affected by human players. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the hideous villain of the game "Fix-It Felix Jr." where he is routinely beaten and humiliated by do-gooder Felix (Jack McBrayer). The characters drop their personas once their arcade closes, and while Ralph isn't exactly treated like a villain in his own game, he is treated like an outcast. He yearns to be the hero for once, or at least treated like one.

           In this world, video game characters can travel to other games via power cords. An important early scene sees Ralph travel to "Pac-Man" for a meeting and then to a central hub crawling with all manner of familiar digital faces. To earn a reputation as a hero, Ralph sneaks over to "Hero's Duty", a violent shooting game where he narrowly evades the game's mutant bugs and militant leader Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in order to steal a medal. He halfway succeeds, getting the medal but botching his escape when he crashes his commandeered spaceship in a racing game called "Sugar Rush".

           It seems like about two-thirds of the movie takes place in "Sugar Rush", and I don't know why it seems to be so poorly represented in the film's advertising. It's a delightful world where everyone and everything is made of candy. If I were playing the game, I wouldn't even try to win the race, I'd just go slowly and take in the delicious scenery. It is here where Ralph hits a snag when his medal is stolen by the precocious Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a wannabe racer who immediately cashes in the medal for entry into a race to be an official character in the game. She isn't normally allowed to be a part of the roster because a programming glitch occasionally causes her to blink out of focus. Ralph's only chance of getting a medal now is to help Vanellope win so she can earn a medal to give to him. This arrangement doesn't sit well with King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the egocentric ruler of the game with a hidden agenda.

          The voice acting is terrific. This is the kind of movie where you feel like the actors were cast and then the characters were written because it's impossible to picture anyone else playing these parts: Reilly as the loveable lug, Lynch as the hardened soldier, McBrayer as the picture of positivity (wait until he interacts with the Lynch character), and Silverman as the adorable mischief-maker with surprising emotional range. The unsung hero of the voice cast is Tudyk (as the villain, ironically), whose performance has a such a manic energy it sounds like he prepared by inhaling Pixie Stix for a month.

           "Wreck-It Ralph" is cute, sweet, and all kinds of fun at once. Just try making it through without smiling and laughing. You'll fail, but you'll feel good failing. The few sad scenes hit the right notes too. It's weird to hear an entire theater go "Awww" at once, but it's nice to know you're surrounded by so many compassionate people. The film is the opposite of junk food; it's imaginative, touching, and above all, funny. With less than two months left to lose its lead, "Wreck-It Ralph" is currently my favorite film of 2012.

Four Stars out of Five
2:48 pm edt          Comments


            It's hard to believe that it wasn't so long ago that Ben Affleck's career was a joke. After his early success with "Good Will Hunting", he went on to become an increasingly bland leading man that critics seemed to enjoy picking apart. He was also a fixture in gossip magazines for his alcoholism and troubled relationship with Jennifer Lopez. His professional and personal life collided badly in 2003's "Gigli", a film widely recognized as one of the worst of all time and was also blamed for his breakup with costar Lopez. But he turned things around in 2007, reinventing himself as a director with the acclaimed kidnapping mystery "Gone Baby Gone". He proved this success was no fluke with 2010's also-acclaimed "The Town". Now comes "Argo", a film so respectable that it has garnered more Oscar buzz than perhaps any other film this season. I won't go so far as to say it deserves an Oscar, but it certainly solidifies Affleck's newfound reputation as a competent and compelling director.

            The film takes place during the Iran Hostage Crisis of the 1970s. Iranian militants storm the American Embassy in Tehran and overpower most of the building's employees. However, six people escape and hide out in the home of a nearby Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). The CIA learns of the six escapees and brainstorms ideas for how to get them out of the country before they get killed. Specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) shoots down poor strategies like having the fugitives pretend to be teachers or enabling them to flee the country on bicycles. He decides that it will be much more plausible to have the targets pretend to be part of the production team for a cheesy sci-fi movie. His boss (Bryan Cranston) assures CIA brass that this overcomplicated plan is "the best bad idea we have". The film is clearly trying to turn that particular line into a memorable and popular quote.

            Mendez gets help from a movie-wise makeup artist (John Goodman) and a hustler producer (Alan Arkin). Together they set up a fake production company to halfway legitimize the phony credentials for the refugees. At this point the film detracts from the intense Iran storyline to allow the characters to exchange smart-aleck comments about the film industry. Many will say that these scenes add a refreshing levity to the otherwise serious tone of the film. I say they throw the film off balance, practically forgetting the urgency of the situation.

            Eventually Mendez does fly out to Iran to rescue the refugees. They aren't especially eager to go along with the plan, but once again nobody can think of anything better. I think the objections and mistrust are only in the film for dramatic effect to add an obstacle to the story since the plan actually unfolds rather smoothly. Everybody plays their parts coolly and the few snags are resolved quickly. The action comes down to Mendez and the refugees staying calm as they get through the various checkpoints while the Iranian bad guys recklessly rush after them trying and failing to catch up. It would obviously be impractical for such a true-to-life film to include an explosive final showdown, but it's just not that thrilling when the characters do little more than run away.

            To be sure, "Argo" is a well-made film, and Affleck deserves a lot of credit for his attention to detail in the dialogue and scenery. But I wouldn't have put so much focus on the Hollywood people or even the CIA agents. To me, the most interesting aspect of the film is the escapees. I want to know how they coped with being trapped in that house knowing that capture and probably death was waiting for them outside? Sadly the film doesn't touch nearly enough on the subject. "Argo" wastes an opportunity that I think it should have taken, but admittedly it does very well with the storyline it chooses to pursue.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:45 pm edt          Comments

Paranormal Activity 4

            For my review of "Paranormal Activity 3", I gave the film a star rating in two parts. I wrote that the overly familiar plot would be unimpressive to anyone who had seen the previous entries in the series, and for those people I gave the film a rating of two and a half stars. But for newcomers who didn't yet know what to expect and would therefore be in for a surprise, I gave the film three and a half stars. For the franchise's fourth installment, I'm going to switch the star ratings around. I think that those familiar with the series will find more to like than those coming in with no frame of reference.

           The film takes place about five years after the series' first and second installments, which ran simultaneously (the third was a prequel, and it took some sting out of the scares to know that the two little girls at the film's center would definitely make it out alive to appear in the second movie). You may remember that the second film ended with the evil Katie (Katie Featherston) kidnapping her nephew for unclear demonic purposes following multiple murders. The new film tries to get new viewers caught up on the storyline, but I don't think they'll be able to make any sense of the choppy introduction.

           The new film features Alex (Kathryn Newton), a teenage girl filming the mundane events of her life. It's mostly stuff involving her immature boyfriend, her at-odds parents, and her little brother Wyatt. Some strange things start happening with a neighbor boy named Robbie. His mother gets injured and he comes to stay with Alex and her family for a while. Needless to say, this really causes the weirdness to pick up, especially as Robbie and Wyatt start interacting with a mutual invisible (don't say "imaginary") friend named Toby. Alex and her boyfriend begin using computer cameras to monitor the house, which she is now convinced is haunted.

           The scares are typical of the franchise. We get a lot of bangs, sudden movements, things popping into frame, and creepy things happening unbeknownst to the characters. Many of the early scares turn out to be red herrings and if you see the film with friends you can have some fun competing against each other in predicting the legitimacy of the next one. Unique to this installment is that the mere presence of Katie in a scene is to be treated as a reason to be scared. She may not have a scary look to her, but we know what she can do and she usually turns up where she isn't welcome.

            Or at least fans of the series know what Katie can do. There are a lot of scenes in the movie that will be appreciated by fans that will go over the heads of newcomers. I saw the film with a responsive crowd and everybody welcomed back Katie, Toby, and even the title cards that tell us what night it is. Longtime viewers know that these elements, as well as the slow build and fake-outs are an important part of the films' style. Newer viewers may not have the patience for such a setup, but true fans watch these films just as much for the journey as the destination.

           Speaking of the destination, the last five minutes of "Paranormal Activity 4" are terrific. The finale had my audience screaming and then laughing at themselves for screaming. An enthusiastic crowd can easily turn a simple screening into a party, and this is especially true with horror films. When the screen turned to black, I applauded and announced that I would see everybody next year. I'm sure there will be a "Paranormal Activity 5" and I can't wait to see it with a few hundred friends.

Three and a Half Stars if you've seen the other "Paranormal Activity" movies.

Two and a Half Stars if you haven't.
2:42 pm edt          Comments

Taken 2

            I want to start by saying that I wasn't a fan of 2009's "Taken". I found it routine and unengaging. It is therefore important to keep in mind that I am not the audience for this past weekend's "Taken 2". Having said that, even if you were a fan of the original and therefore are the audience for the sequel, I still don't think you'll find much to like about "Taken 2".

            "Taken" saw ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) track down his kidnapped daughter (Maggie Grace) and use his "very particular set of skills" to wipe out her kidnappers. The appeal of the film completely revolved around Neeson, a distinguished older actor breathing life into an otherwise bland action movie. His over-the-phone monologue to the kidnappers is often referenced and quoted in popular culture. Neeson wasn't a stranger to action movies (he was, of course, Qui-Gon Jin in "Star Wars: Episode I" and the villainous Ra's Al Ghoul in "The Dark Knight"), but the idea of him carrying a non-franchise piece at that point in his career was unusual and intriguing. Neeson has since starred in many more bland action movies and the novelty has long since worn off.

           The new film sees Mills vacationing with his family in Istanbul. There's a subplot about the daughter trying to get Mills back together with his ex-wife (Famke Janssen). They all get targeted for abduction by the father of one of the dead bad guys from the first movie. Apparently the new villain (Rade Serbedzija) is cunning enough to identify Mills as the man who killed his son and then expertly track him to a country foreign to both men. He then spends the rest of the movie serving as one of the stupidest serious movie villains I've ever seen.

          Naturally, the idiot villain isn't content to just kill Mills and his family, he wants Mills to suffer first. So he chains up Mills and puts him in a situation where he'll have to watch his ex-wife die slowly. Except he doesn't bother to supervise as his master plan unfolds. He leaves the room unattended with a sole inept guard waiting outside and a roomful of distracted henchmen watching television down the hall. Because it wouldn't be a bad action movie without a roomful of distracted henchmen watching television down the hall.

           The film resorts to many other painful action movie clichés. Among them is the one where a bad guy inexplicably tries to kill someone execution style (instead of just shooting her at the first opportunity), we hear a gunshot, and then we find out that it wasn't he who fired. There's also the one where a character is bad at something and is then called upon to perform exceptionally well under intense pressure (in this case it's the daughter and driving). For me, the dumbest was the one where the good guy and a bad guy throw down their weapons and fight each other fairly. This device can be awesome if the film establishes that both characters are formidable fighters (or at least interesting characters whose fates we care about), but it's just Mills against some random goon. The scene has no reason to exist other than to show us that Liam Neeson can pull off a physically demanding fight scene.

           "Taken 2" is a pretty shameless cash-in, an action movie with only one unique bit of action (in which hand grenades are used as search tools instead of weapons). Neeson isn't the unexpected wild card he once was, and there's nothing appealing about the rest of the film. It is an unremarkable movie born of another unremarkable movie.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

2:40 pm edt          Comments

Hotel Transylvania

            I have a feeling that "Hotel Transylvania" is going to become a Halloween institution. Not because it's in any way a good movie (it isn't), but because of its cast of characters. The film makes the good decision to combine classic Halloween creatures in such a way that the mere idea of them interacting with each other sets the imagination to a pleasant bubble. The creatures may not actually do anything funny or interesting, but based on the premise you'll get the impression that something funny or interesting could happen at any time.

            At the forefront is Count Dracula (Adam Sandler, thankfully playing the role with relative maturity). He runs a hotel for monsters that doubles as a safe house to protect them from "evil" humans. His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) is celebrating her 118th birthday and all the family friends are in town for a big party. Among the guests are Frankenstein and his wife Eunice (Kevin James and Fran Drescher respectively), Wayne and Wendy Werewolf (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon respectively), Murray the Mummy (Cee-Lo Green), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz), and hundreds of other assorted creatures.

            Mavis is happy to see everyone, but what she really wants is to go out into the world after spending her whole life in the hotel. Now that she's 118, she has her father's permission to do so. He suggests that she start small and visit a nearby village. The "people" in the village threaten her and she retreats to the hotel terrified of humans all over again. Unbeknownst to her, the entire scene was a setup by her father to scare her into staying in the hotel forever. Unbeknownst to him, the fake scene attracted the attention of a real human tourist named Johnny (Andy Samberg) who then shows up at the hotel.

            Dracula knows that Johnny is harmless, but he's afraid that his presence will cause a panic among the guests, particularly Mavis, whose fear of humans has recently been renewed. He disguises Johnny as a monster and makes up a phony-baloney cover story about him being a party planner while trying to sneak him out of the hotel. For his part, Johnny is a sweet, loveable klutz who wants to befriend the monsters. He causes a lot of trouble when he first arrives, but is soon heralded as the life of the party. It should come as no surprise that he falls for Mavis.

            The jokes are what you'd expect from a Sandler movie: lots of potty humor, grossouts, and annoyances played for laughs. Even with supernatural characters, the gags seem tired. Dracula is an overprotective father, Frankenstein's body parts fall off, the werewolf has fleas and out-of-control-kids, the mummy is fat, the Invisible Man can get away with pranks, Quasimodo has an exaggerated French accent, and everybody eats disgusting things like bugs. The characters insult each other a lot, and the film is partial to gags where the characters deal with being stereotyped. Also, this is one of those animated movies that thinks it's incredibly funny for the characters to break dance and yes, rap.

            "Hotel Transylvania" is a film that kids will probably love, since they likely aren't old enough to be bored by it. They'll see that the film has a ton of intriguing elements like vampires and monsters and they won't see that the film can't handle these elements with a lot of creativity. I can complain about the film's immature humor all I want, but since the target audience is immature I can't say they won't enjoy it. It's appropriate that "Hotel Transylvania" is a Halloween film, as I consider it the cinematic equivalent of the junk food kids collect while trick-or-treating. There's a good chance they'll like it, but they won't be better for having seen it.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:39 pm edt          Comments

Triple Feature

"End of Watch"

            This has been a good year for the "found footage" movie. Once relegated to horror films, this year has seen the genre expand to include comedy ("Project X"), superheroes ("Chronicle", still my favorite wide release of the year), and now a cop movie in "End of Watch". The style gives the film a gritty, realistic texture. The downside is that the action sequences are filmed with such shakiness that they're likely to make viewers motion sick. Also, there's the constant question of who exactly is doing the filming, especially in the film's climactic scenes.

           Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena play LAPD officers with an undying friendship and loyalty that comes from being partners. The actors are so endearing in their chemistry that the film could forget about its plot about a drug cartel and just give us two hours of the characters teasing each other. I'd say the film has an excellent script, but the dialogue sounds so spontaneous that I wouldn't be surprised if much of it was ad-libbed and not scripted. That kind of natural feel is what makes "End of Watch" such a standout of the "found footage" genre.

Three Stars out of Five.

"End of Watch" is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, pervasive language including sexual references, and some drug use. Its running time is 109 minutes.

"House at the End of the Street"

            The ads for "House at the End of the Street" promise that the film stars "The Hungers Games"' Jennifer Lawrence, which in fairness it does. The ads do not promise that the film is actually exciting or scary, which it isn't. I can only conclude that the film was thrown together without much thought simply because the studio wanted a vehicle for Lawrence and not because anybody was particularly interested in the story.

            The film is your typical haunted house horror movie. Elissa (Lawrence) keeps finding reasons to poke around the home of her disturbed neighbor (Max Thieriot). The house has a violent past, a violent present, and if Elissa isn't careful, a violent future. The script actually has some pretty clever misdirection involving the villain, but it's not enough to save "House at the End of the Street" from being an utterly forgettable horror entry.

Two Stars Out of Five.

"House at the End of the Street" is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, thematic elements, language, some teen partying, and brief drug material. Its running time is 101 minutes.

"Trouble with the Curve"

            The logic behind "Trouble with the Curve" seems to be that a film that combines things that everybody likes should automatically result in a film that everybody likes. The film takes the iconic Clint Eastwood, pairs him with the adorable Amy Adams, throws in the way cool Justin Timberlake, and puts them all in a story centered on the beloved national pastime of baseball. On paper this movie should be a home run, and perhaps that mindset led to a complacency that makes the film seem like a weak effort.

            Eastwood stars as an aging talent scout for the Atlanta Braves. His estranged daughter (Adams) is compelled to accompany him on a crucial assignment to evaluate a young talent. Timberlake is in the mix as a love interest for Adams. The three spend the movie exchanging barbs, which isn't nearly as endearing as when Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena do it in "End of Watch".  "Trouble with the Curve" practically dares you not to like it, but for such a likeable movie it has surprisingly little to offer.

Two Stars out of Five.

"Trouble with the Curve" is rated PG-13 for language, sexual references, some thematic material, and smoking. Its running time is 111 minutes.
2:37 pm edt          Comments

Resident Evil: Retribution

            How did the "Resident Evil" franchise get to five movies? Of course the easy answer is that all the films have made a small profit and the studio is sticking with what works. What I don't understand is how the franchise has managed to retain its audience for over a decade. It doesn't take more than two movies to figure out that they all have the same structure: Alice (Milla Jovovich) fights zombies alongside a handful of survivors. Most of her fellow humans get killed, but Alice lives long enough to do battle with the evil Umbrella Corporation. The audience's best hope for something original or interesting is that the film will have some creative kill scenes and that Alice will so something  super-sexy.

            The violence of "Retribution" consists of shooting, shooting, and more shooting. The zombies bite and claw as always, but the humans solve their problems by shooting. I really miss those death beams from the first few films that would slash people to pieces when given the chance. As for nudity, there are two key scenes. In the first, we see Alice in her skivvies as she wakes up in bed in a fantasy world. So far, so good. Then, after being abducted by Umbrella, she wakes up in a facility wearing a smock that covers key areas in the front and back but not the side. The side view is great but the smock is a turn-off. It's made of what appears to be that paper that covers the bed in a doctor's office. I find it hard to be attracted to an outfit that could justly be described as "crinkly".

            The semblance of plot is that Alice has to escape from the Umbrella facility before some good guy soldiers blow it up. She'll have help from the soldiers themselves, as well as a former Umbrella security officer (Bingbing Li, what a fun name!). She also finds that she has a simulated daughter, and foolishly goes out of her way to save the little robot. Enemies include traditional zombies, Russian zombies who know how to fire guns, giants with axes, mutant creatures, replicants of other characters from the "Resident Evil" series (including ones played by the returning Oded Fehr and Michelle Rodriguez), and a friend of Alice's named Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) who has been brainwashed by Umbrella into doing their bidding. Jill's mind is controlled by a robotic spider that plugs into her neck. She and Alice fight a few times, and I waited impatiently for Alice to figure out that she can get her friend back by simply ripping off that nasty piece of bling.

            Alice has to go through some simulated cities to escape the facility. I liked that one of them was a sunny, peaceful suburb that gets torn apart by zombies. It's a nice change of pace from the usual dark, creepy buildings where you'd be scared to walk down the halls even if zombies weren't an immediate threat. One of the simulated locations is in New York City, and I can't help but point out that there's a battle right in front of Hershey's Times Square. As if growing up in Palmyra didn't give me enough of a Hershey's connection, I also start Monday as an employee of that very store.

            Okay, so "Resident Evil: Retribution" found a way to curry my favor for about a minute. That doesn't change the fact that it's a typically bland entry in an overcooked zombie franchise. There will surely be a sixth "Resident Evil", partly because this installment ends with a setup for one, but mostly because it's enjoying a great opening weekend. The past few weeks have seen an extremely lackluster slate of new releases and "Retribution" easily laid claim to a restless audience. The box office was dying for a good popcorn movie, it settled for "Resident Evil: Retribution".

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:35 pm edt          Comments


            "Lawless" is one of those movies where the supporting characters are halfway interesting and the main character is in no way interesting. In the early moments of the film you'll meet intriguing characters played by Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and Gary Oldman. You'll also meet a little runt played by Shia LaBeouf, trying to show that he's grown up from the "Transformers" franchise. You know LaBeouf's character is the main character because his name comes first on all the posters. But you don't yet know the ratio of screen time for all the characters. You figure that maybe the supporting players will have roles juicy enough to carry him and that "Lawless" may go down as a memorable ensemble piece. No such luck. The focus of the film is very much on LaBeouf and there's not much that the better actors can do to save it.

           LaBeouf plays Jack Bondurant, youngest of three brothers running a bootleg moonshining operation in Prohibition-era Virginia. He's constantly in the shadow of his older, tougher brothers Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Hardy). Forrest in particular is a revered local figure with a series of tall tales of greatness that follows him everywhere. People say that Hardy's voice as Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" reminded them of the James Bond villain Goldfinger. His voice here reminds me of Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs". I kept expecting him to tell someone to put the lotion in the basket. Jack wants to become a more integral part of his brothers' operation, and basically decides that if he can't be one of the tough ones, he'll be the smart one. Spend some time with Jack and you'll realize that he isn't cut out for that role either.

          The operation is threatened by the arrival of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a crooked big-city lawman who is willing to let local liquor suppliers do business as long as he can profit from it. Rakes himself is terribly sleazy, his oily hair is sleazier, and somehow his elitist bowtie is sleaziest. He and the brothers get crossways and Forrest is taken down. Jack decides that it's up to him to save the business, and he sells a mass order to a celebrity mobster (Gary Oldman, whose role is glorified cameo). Jack soon fancies himself a loveable outlaw and enjoys the high life until Rakes rattles him with violent consequences.

            There are not one but two romantic subplots in the film, the more enjoyable of which is between Forrest and a waitress named Maggie (Jessica Chastain). Chastain is her usual spunky self and she certainly makes up for the fact that Forrest doesn't have a romantic bone in his body (though he's perfectly willing to beat people up in her honor). Less appealing is the relationship between Jack and a preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska). I cannot for the life of me understand what a right proper girl like her sees in an arrogant criminal like Jack, except of course that it's guaranteed to aggravate Daddy.

            There's really no good reason for "Lawless" to center around Jack Bondurant instead of Forrest Bondurant. Even when Forrest isn't on screen, the other characters are talking about him, spreading his legend. There should be a memorable one-on-one showdown between him and Rakes, but the problem is that Jack is always in the way. It isn't really Shia LaBeouf's fault that Jack is written as such an annoying "little brother" archetype, though he could have afforded to bring more charm to his romantic scenes. Jack isn't fit to date a nice girl, he isn't fit run the family business, he isn't fit to get in a fight or a shootout, and he isn't fit to carry "Lawless".

Two Stars out of Five.
2:32 pm edt          Comments

The Possession

            Some text at the beginning of "The Possession" claims that the film is based on a true story. I don't think it's a good idea for this film to go for the "true story" angle. There's a lot of spiritual, supernatural, and seemingly physically impossible action in the film. I won't bother attacking the believability of the action, but I will point out a fallacy in the overall claim. Namely, if the events in movie were real, wouldn't we have heard something? Wouldn't we have heard something about people in this country being flung around rooms by demonic forces? Some will no doubt contend that the people involved in the story covered it up to protect their privacy, but then why allow this movie to be made? And why would they allow the movie to be the lame "Exorcist" knockoff that it is?

            Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Clyde Brenek, divorced father of Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Emily (Natasha Calis). He gets the girls on weekends while their mother (Kyra Sedgwick) looks on disapprovingly. Clyde is no deadbeat dad, but it's implied that he put his career as a basketball coach ahead of family, a decision he now regrets. Still, he's apparently doing pretty well in his career because he just bought a nice new home in the suburbs. He takes the girls to a yard sale to get some household items, and Emily takes a liking to a box with mysterious Hebrew markings - a box that horribly injured its previous owner.

            Things slowly start to change in Emily. She goes into trances, insults people, has violent outbursts, attracts giant moths, talks in a voice that isn't hers, rolls her pupils back into her head, and nearly chokes on fingers inside her body. Clyde senses that there's something seriously wrong, but everybody else just blames the divorce and more specifically they blame him. He suspects it has something do with the box, so he does some research, consults with a professor and some rabbis, and it seems he's got a demon on his hands and it won't be long before it completely takes over his daughter's body. Emily's only hope now is an exorcism.

            For some reason, the demon goes pretty easy on Clyde's family and severely punishes those outside of it. Sure it gives Emily a torso-ache, but there isn't a lot of harm done to the family besides some cuts, lumps, and hurt feelings. Even the startling puncture wound foolishly given away in the trailers doesn't seem to be long-lasting. It's the minor characters who aren't so lucky. The demon hurts them with involuntary contortions, involuntary eye surgery, and involuntary dentistry. Our demon is evidently very versatile in involuntary medical procedures. You'd think the demon would try to go after its toughest threat in Clyde, but no. If it's just the family members in the scene and it's not the climactic exorcism, the demon probably won't do anything scarier than make Emily act creepy or cause you jump for no good reason.

           "The Possession" doesn't have a lot of interesting tricks up its sleeve. Demon possession movies are a dime a dozen these days and they all look bad when compared to the big one. The nicest thing I can say about the film is that it has particularly likeable characters played by decent actors. This isn't the kind of horror movie where you just wait indifferently for bodies to pile up. I wanted the demon to leave the nice people alone and go bother those jerk bike messengers in "Premium Rush" in the next theater. "The Possession" is a forgettable horror movie opening two months too early for Halloween, probably because it was too scared to compete with better horror movies.

Two Stars out of Five.
2:31 pm edt          Comments


            "ParaNorman" is one of those animated kids' movies that's filled with dark, deathly subject matter. At various points we see ghosts, corpses, zombies, and all manner of gruesome stuff in between. Yet there's no mistaking that this qualifies as family entertainment. You'd think Tim Burton would have something to do with it, but he clearly had his hands full with his own creepy kids' movie, "Frankenweenie", due out later this year. "ParaNorman" does the genre proud; it's hardly scary and very funny. Kids and adults will both find something to like, and often they'll find themselves liking the same things.

            Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a child who can talk to ghosts. In and of itself, this is a gift. He can exchange pleasantries with otherwise lonely spirits and pal around with his late grandma (Elaine Stritch). The problem is that nobody else can see or hear the ghosts when Norman talks to them, so he looks like a death-obsessed weirdo who talks to thin air. This makes him a social outcast and a target for bullies like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), though he does make a friend in the dim-but-loyal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). The worst part is that his own family seems ashamed of him. It's not surprising that he gets ridiculed by his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), but even his relationship with his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) is strained.

           The plot kicks into gear when Norman gets a visit from his crazy uncle (John Goodman), who needs Norman to perform a ritual. The uncle has the same abilities as Norman, and a lifetime of ostracism has turned him kooky for real. Norman may be in store for a similar fate if his strange behavior remains unchecked. Determined to try and conform, Norman initially dismisses his uncle's instructions, which leads to a zombie invasion. Norman has to work with Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and Neil's lunkhead brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to prevent the release of a greater evil.

           Norman may have some misery in his life, but the movie is mostly pretty upbeat. There's a lot of fun to be had at the expense of the characters' stupidity and craziness. Sometimes it makes them affable (like with Neil and Mitch), sometimes it humbles them when they're arrogant (like with Alvin and Courtney), and sometimes it just makes for some over-the-top silliness (like with Norman's uncle and a ham of a drama teacher played by Alex Borstein). I also found the macabre humor to be consistently delightful, though it can get gross at times. Let's just say that if you don't think it's funny when zombies lose their limbs, maybe this isn't the right film for you. One complaint: with so many animated zombies running around, how can the film fail to pay homage to the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller"?

           The film loses steam toward the end when it forgets to be funny and harps on an anti-bullying message. Social commentary is actually quite common in zombie movies (often the zombies are symbols of complacency), but the way it's done here is awkward and doesn't fit with the tone of the film. I got the distinct impression that the filmmakers were told late in the game that they needed to somehow "work in" some ruminations on the hot-button issue.

           The preachy ending caused me to leave "ParaNorman" with a bad taste in my mouth, but up to that point the film was a lot of fun. Whole families were definitely getting a kick out of it, and in fact I was rather surprised by the crowd's level of enthusiasm. There's no shortage of creepy kids' movies coming out this year, but you'd do well to catch "ParaNorman" and enjoy it as a family.

Three Stars out of Five.
2:30 pm edt          Comments

The Expendables 2

            With "The Expendables 2", who needs "The Expendables"? The 2010 original wrote some checks to its audience that it couldn't cash. It bragged about the inclusion of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Mickey Rourke in its all-star cast of action heroes and then didn't have them do anything memorable. It also had too many long stretches where there wasn't any shooting or fighting. The new film does better in both departments. The pacing has improved, everybody gets in on the action, and there are some pleasing new faces in the cast including a man who could win a gold medal at a state fair with blue ribbons for prizes.

            The Expendables are a mercenary crew that specializes in jobs where the people hiring them will probably try to kill them once they're done. Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is their leader, who likes guns. Christmas (Jason Statham) is his sidekick, who likes knives. The crew also includes big galoot Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), peaceful powder keg Toll Road (Randy Couture), spry secret weapon Yin Yang (Jet Li), and big not-so-secret weapon Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). Mickey Rourke's mentor character from the original is sitting this one out, in his place is optimistic sharpshooter Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) who makes the deadly mistake of mentioning that he has plans for life after The Expendables. If that sounds like a thin lineup, don't fret. The team will eventually get help from Schwarzenegger, Willis, Chinese action starlet Yu Nan, and a man who could get an Amish community to relocate to Las Vegas.

            The team travels to Albania to stop a villain with the ever-so-subtle name of Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Vilain has a ton of useless henchmen who really give new meaning to the term "men at his disposal". I swear there are scenes where The Expendables kill more henchmen than were in the room when they entered. As the villain, Van Damme is good, maybe too good. The audience at my screening couldn't quite seem to root against him as he fought Stallone in the film's climactic sequence. Maybe the film should have had him fight someone a little more beloved, like the man who could lull a baby to sleep by gently playing a vuvuzela.

            The film is made up of about half action scenes, a quarter sad scenes, and a quarter smart-aleck banter. The sad scenes are there to explain why the characters are so mad during the action scenes. The smart-aleck banter mostly consists of the characters finding various ways to call each other stupid, with occasional stops to reference the actors' films and personal lives. The action scenes feature a ton of shooting where victims pop like bloody water balloons. Occasionally they'll mix it up with some fighting, the better to savor the violence. Sadly, there are no trademark roundhouse kicks to the face from the man whose roundhouse kicks go around the house (Have I mixed that up with a fat joke?).

            "The Expendables 2" is just as dumb and as fun as it promises to be, which is more than I can say for its predecessor. The original got the "dumb" part right, but couldn't follow through with the "fun". The key difference is that this time Schwarzenegger and Willis are actually given something to do (by which I mean weapons to fire), and the star power is upped by the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Yes, it's Chuck Norris I've been referencing this whole time with all these exaggerations. I've got one more: Chuck Norris should win history's one and only Oscar for Best Supporting Shooter.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:27 pm edt          Comments

The Bourne Legacy

            As a sequel, "The Bourne Legacy" fails in two major ways that practically contradict each other. The first is that it requires a sharp memory of plot details from 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum". I don't believe viewers should be required to remember the finer points of a movie that came out five years ago. Fortunately I was prepared, having watched the Matt Damon "Bourne" trilogy earlier in the day. Which brings me to the film's second and more unforgiveable failing: it has incredibly little to do with the Matt Damon "Bourne" trilogy.

            First of all, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne does not appear in the film. Some of the characters talk about him, we see photos, and I think some brief footage from the previous movies. But new footage of Damon is nowhere to be found, not even in a cameo. I wondered how the film could be a "Bourne" film without Bourne. My theory was that since Bourne was actually just a code name for the Damon character, maybe the name would be bestowed on the new lead character played by Jeremy Renner. This is actually a popular theory with the James Bond franchise, that James Bond is a code name given to a series of distinct agents and not one ageless agent that changes his appearance every decade. But no, the Renner character goes by the name Aaron Cross and "Bourne" is clearly in the title just so people will connect it to the earlier, better films.

             "Legacy's" loose connection to the rest of the franchise is that Cross is going through a CIA assassin training program similar to Bourne's. The programs have some bureaucrats in common and we get brief appearances here by familiar characters played by David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Albert Finney. The film parallels the events of "The Bourne Ultimatum" to the point where some scenes are unapologetically recycled.

            The plot is set in motion when Bourne's actions make the CIA nervous that all their secret operations will soon be exposed. They decide to shut down the new program by killing all the assassins and the scientists who turn them into super-agents. Most of the assassins are eliminated by a simple change in medication, but for some reason the CIA goes to the trouble of sending a big noisy weapon after Cross. He survives, as does a scientist played by Rachel Weisz. Together they flee to the Philippines where Cross can end his dependence on the program's medication. Needless to say they have a lot of eluding to do, and Edward Norton plays the tracker du jour. I can tell Norton is trying to show his teeth with the role, but there's only so much he can do with a character that does little more than bark orders at subordinates for the whole movie.

            There a handful of noteworthy scenes. The most disturbing is slow-paced mass shooting where the brainwashed killer doesn't concern himself with the element of surprise. The most engaging is an interrogation of Weisz's scientist by a purported grief counselor (psychologist humor is always welcome with me). And it should come as no surprise that the most exciting part of the movie is a motorcycle chase. The "Bourne" series is known for its vehicular chase sequences, and this is one area where "Legacy" does the franchise proud.

            "The Bourne Legacy" is a pathetic attempt to piggyback on a series that was just fine as a trilogy. Matt Damon's Bourne was drained of all personality thanks to his assassin training and then he suffered amnesia and forgot what his personality even was. Yet somehow he still had more charisma than Renner's Aaron Cross. It's bad enough that this film is lousy on its own, but the real shame is that it tarnishes a franchise that up to this point had been highly enjoyable.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

2:26 pm edt          Comments

Total Recall

            The 2012 version of "Total Recall" is a remake that will go down in history as an example of how Hollywood usually screws up remakes. The 1990 original had Arnold Schwarzenegger, a twisty plot, a post-apocalyptic setting, lots of chasing and shooting, and a host of quirky sci-fi elements that made it distinctive. The new version trades Arnold for Colin Farrell, the twists are no longer surprising, the sets are ugly, and the imaginative elements are few and far between. There is still a lot of chasing and shooting, but it's as soulless as the rest of the movie.

            The casting of Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role gets the movie off on the wrong foot. Granted, the part is written so generically that any actor would struggle to have much of a presence. Still, when was the last time anyone got excited at the prospect of seeing a Colin Farrell movie? And I know it's possible to give a half-decent performance in this movie because Kate Beckinsale does it in a supporting performance that you'll remember as a sort of second lead.

            Douglas Quaid (Farrell) lives in The Colony, an impoverished community that is one of only two inhabitable places on Earth. The other is the slightly better-off United Federation of Britain, connected to The Colony by a tunnel that goes through the center of the Earth. He's happy with his wife (Beckinsale), but miserable with his mundane factory job, miserable that the UFB won't share their resources with The Colony, and miserable that he's having a recurring dream where he needs to save a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel). He learns of a program called Recall that implants memories in people's brains so it will seem like they've led fun or exciting lives. He thinks maybe this will help him cope with his situation.

            There's some sort of malfunction with the program, and soon Quaid is wanted for treason. It seems the Recall program has discovered that he is a spy who recently had his memory erased. His wife turns out to be an undercover agent working for UFB President Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Apparently Quaid had been working with the woman from his dreams to stop an evil plot by Cohaagen to destroy The Colony and claim all of the planet's livable space for the UFB. Now he has to try and save The Colony with an unreliable memory, and on top of that he's not even sure if what he's experiencing is real or part of the Recall process.

            I kept looking for my favorite elements of the original film. I never saw the freaky robotic cab driver, the resistance leader undercover as a man's stomach, or the characters' gross inability to handle Mars's gravity. Actually, I missed Mars entirely. The remake takes place on two Earth locations, both of which are eyesores. Everything from buildings to vehicles to gadgets is made up of ugly, unconvincing special effects. The only original elements of note are the planet-burrowing elevator and a cell phone that gets implanted directly into the hand. There is one extremely memorable element from the Schwarzenegger version that I will concede is rightfully retained for the remake, though I don't want to get into trouble for revealing her identity.

            The easy joke to make is that I wish I could forget "Total Recall". In fact the film is so uninspired and uninteresting that it's pretty forgettable as it is. Kate Beckinsale is admittedly a high point (I couldn't help but root for Quaid to get back with her instead of hooking up with the much duller Jessica Biel), but she can't save this mess. "Total Recall" wasn't crying out to be remade, and it definitely didn't need to be handled with such lifelessness.

One and a Half Stars out of Five
2:23 pm edt          Comments

The Watch

            Funny By Accident. That's a phrase you'll see if you read enough reviews of bad comedies. As in, "With this much talent in the cast, you'd think that someone would be Funny By Accident". You always hear it as a hypothetical, don't you? You don't read many reviews that actually say a comedy is Funny By Accident. Maybe somebody will say that a cheesy sci-fi or horror movie is Funny By Accident, but not a comedy. After all, if a comedy is funny, you assume it was meant to be funny.  "The Watch" is a comedy that I believe is Funny By Accident. Clearly a lot of thought went into gags that aren't funny, yet the film has a surprising number of funny gags that I suspect were thrown in without a lot of thought.

            "The Watch" stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade as a Neighborhood Watch group in the suburbs. Stiller forms the group after a night watchman at Costco is murdered (shame, the watchman has a fun little role that gets the movie off to a good start). Stiller, the self-declared leader, is a well-meaning dork. Vaughn is a party boy, Hill is a psychopath, Ayoade is a wild-card foreigner. The film knows exactly what it wants to do with Stiller and Vaughn, because they've played these types of characters so many times before. Unfortunately, it also means that we're sick of them. The relatively unfamiliar Ayoade is a welcome presence, but it's Hill's powder keg who steals the show. He's so much funnier than the other three that his performance represents an inconsistency, an accident if you will.

            The Neighborhood Watch is predictably inept at stopping criminals, partly because nobody in the group other than Stiller takes the job seriously and partly because nobody in the community takes the group seriously. They squabble with each other and deal with obnoxious people including a downright grating cop (Will Forte). These early scenes aren't terribly funny. They get involved in a plot with evil invading aliens, which is funnier as they cluelessly fool around with an alien weapon and a corpse. Then they do battle with the aliens, who have a terribly funny weakness. Again, I think the idea to give the aliens this weakness was somehow an accident because if the filmmakers had thought it out, more of the film would have been about exploiting it. It's the type of gag you could watch for hours.

            There's a lot of sexual humor in the film, which is admittedly both funny and deliberate. Stiller and Vaughn have good chemistry in a sensitive conversation. It's the one time in the movie that their act doesn't seem tired. Some of Hill's best lines are compliments toward a villain's body. I know I shouldn't laugh at the vulgar dialogue, but I do anyway. My favorite sequence is a misunderstanding between Stiller and his neighbor that leads to an underground party. Guests at the party include comedy trio The Lonely Island (one of their members, Akiva Schaffer, directed the movie), and the film's most shocking gag comes at their hands.

            The bad news is that Ben Stiller and especially Vince Vaughn are sleepwalking through "The Watch". Also, I won't go so far as to say that a lot of the humor falls flat, but the better gags certainly could have used more development. Frankly the film could have used some better lighting too. The good news is that you've got the Hill performance, a handful of touching serious scenes, and a better brand of crude humor than you'll find in "Ted". I guess my point is that a comedy that's Funny By Accident is better than a comedy that isn't funny at all.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:19 pm edt          Comments

The Dark Knight Rises

            It has been four years since we last saw Batman in "The Dark Knight" and two and a half years since I proclaimed the film to be the best of the decade. Needless to say, my expectations for the "The Dark Knight Rises" were extremely high. While the new film will not be named the best of the decade or even the year (that honor currently goes to the superhero faux-documentary "Chronicle"), it is nonetheless satisfying enough to be considered a worthy finale to Christopher Nolan's superior Batman trilogy.

            "The Dark Knight Rises" sees Batman (Christian Bale) long retired. Eight years have passed since his "murder" of Harvey Dent made him a fugitive. He has reverted to a full-time role as his alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne. Bruce has become a recluse, only trusting of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine). His business, led by Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) is failing after the expensive construction of a clean energy device with the capability for mass destruction, though the project may see new life under the eye of peaceful executive Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Bruce feels that his best days are behind him when he gets robbed by beautiful cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).

            The rest of Gotham City is doing a bit better. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has locked away thousands of criminals thanks to legislation passed after Dent's death. A young detective named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sees holes in Gordon's story of how Dent died a hero and does some investigating of his own. Things take a turn for the worse when Gordon gets an accidental glimpse of behemoth terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy). He gets the message out that the city needs the Caped Crusader one more time.

            Batman locates Bane with help of Selina Kyle, who much like him has developed a costumed persona that she calls Catwoman. She leads him to Bane all right, but in a way that sees the two in an instant fistfight with one another. The pummeling leads to Batman being left for dead in a prison pit while Bane unleashes his master plan on Gotham. The plan is for the city to destroy itself and then for he and an unknown accomplice to destroy whatever's left. The accomplice turns out to be a character known to those familiar with the Batman comics and animated series.

            The film's weakest points come as Batman is imprisoned in the pit. It's such a cliché for the villain to trap the hero instead of just eliminating him. The pit is one of the more easily-beatable variations I've seen on this formula, as the prisoners are allowed daily escape attempts. Is there anyone out there who really thinks that Batman is going to meet his end because he couldn't pull himself out of a hole? No, it's just a waste of perfectly good crimefighting time.

            Pit storyline aside, the film's first and especially third acts live up to expectations. The action sequences are as crisp as they've ever been and I appreciate that the film has enough confidence in its special effects to allow so many sequences to take place in broad daylight. The movie doesn't bring add a lot of originality to the franchise, but with such a winning formula in place, can you blame Christopher Nolan for playing it safe?

Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

            NOTE: The film, its message, and its legacy will forever be tarnished by its association with the recent shootings in Colorado. The extent of the connection has yet to be established, and even there will be some debate as to its legitimacy, but in any event the movie may now be harder for some viewers to watch. Just remember that the message of "The Dark Knight Rises" is to be a hero. A message like that rings true even in the face of devastation.
2:16 pm edt          Comments

Ice Age: Continental Drift

            The "Ice Age" franchise has always annoyed certain viewers with its historical inaccuracy. The main characters of the films are prehistoric mammals, and it really bothers some people that they interact with humans and dinosaurs, who were from different eras. Now comes "Continental Drift", an installment that sees millions of years' worth of plate tectonics happen very rapidly. If you find the gag to be insulting to your intelligence, you aren't a good candidate for "Ice Age". The rest of us are okay with this kind of gag because this is an animated film with talking animals and our suspension of disbelief is already stretched wide enough to cover one of the new continents. That isn't to say that I'm particularly fond of the humor in the film, but I am willing to give it a fighting chance.

            The breakup of the planet's one and only landmass can be blamed on franchise standout Scrat the Squirrel. Once again trying to bury an acorn, Scrat manages to get trapped in the Earth's core and wreak havoc on its structural integrity. Up on the surface, Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano) gets separated from his family when the continent breaks apart and they're on different sides. Manny's portion of land is so small that it floats away and the characters treat it like a watercraft for the rest of the movie as they struggle to get back to a home that is literally falling to pieces.

            Manny is stuck on his "ship" with his best friends, tough saber-tooth tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and the stupid yet loveable Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo). Also with them is Sid's granny (Wanda Sykes), a constant source of gross old-lady gags often involving teeth or rather her lack of teeth. The group encounters a ship of pirates led by nasty monkey Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage). The crew also features jolly walrus Flynn (Nick Frost), revved-up rabbit Squint (Aziz Ansari), and a lady saber-tooth tiger named Shira (Jennifer Lopez) who is destined to become a love interest for Diego. That's a lot of characters to process at once, and that's not even counting the subplot with Manny's family.

            Back on temporarily solid ground, Manny's wife Ellie (Queen Latifah) looks after their daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) as their herd tries to make it to a safe haven. Peaches has a crush on fellow mammoth Ethan (Drake), and is completely oblivious to the crush that her best friend Louis the Mole-Hog (Josh Gad) has for her. I find the casting of Gad interesting because a former college roommate of mine named Cale Krise just took over the role that Gad originated in "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway.

            All those minor players bouncing around gives the film an unfocused feel. I got the impression that the filmmakers wanted to have a lot of characters so they'd have an excuse to cast a lot of celebrities to do their voices and then lend their names to the film's advertising. Of the new players, my favorites are Keke Palmer, the aforementioned Gad, and Peter Dinklage as the evil pirate captain. Here's how awesome Dinklage is: in a movie with singers like Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, and Drake (among others), the majority of the lone narrative musical number goes to him. He does a heck of a job with it too.

            Viewers of all ages are going to think that the jokes in "Ice Age: Continental Drift" do a lot of hitting and missing. More mature viewers will think the jokes do a lot more missing than hitting. It isn't so painful that you'll be mad at your kids for wanting to see it, but it isn't a film worth seeking out if you don't have kids. If you do have kids, they'll probably like it a lot more than you, and you'll be happy that they're happy.

Two Stars out of Five

2:14 pm edt          Comments

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