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Monday, July 29, 2013

Grown Ups 2

            There’s a very specific age range where one can find Adam Sandler funny. He’s too dirty for very young kids (unless he’s blatantly doing a kids’ movie), but it doesn’t take a lot of maturity to know that you’ve outgrown him. Let’s say his target demographic is preteens. That’s how old I was when I laughed my way through “The Waterboy”, “Billy Madison”, and the movie I’ve seen more times than any other in my life, “Happy Gilmore”. I haven’t seen any of these Sandler “classics” in a while, partly because I have plenty of new films to see and partly because I’m afraid I wouldn’t find them funny anymore. I hate the idea of revisiting a favorite like “Happy Gilmore” and finding it to be about as funny as “Grown Ups 2”.

            The film is a sequel to the equally useless 2010 comedy. I made the mistake of watching the first film in preparation for this one, and I can tell you that there is no reason to do so unless you have a really strong desire to get a joke where a minor character raises both hands at once. The films focus on a group of middle aged guys trying to prove to each other, their families, and themselves that they’re still fun. Of the five guys in the original, four are back: Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, and David Spade. I figured the new film would have to be at least somewhat of an improvement since Rob Schneider decided to sit this one out, but I was wrong. As happy as I was to not have to tolerate him, I was even more unhappy with who I had to tolerate in his place.

            When the guys aren’t enjoying their favorite pastime of making fun of each other, they make fun of an array of one-joke supporting characters. They have plenty to choose from: bumbling cops, psycho ex-girlfriends, a female bodybuilder, a prank-prone principal, kid bullies, adult bullies, frat boys from the local college, grown-up classmates whose lives haven’t gone well, and other assorted weirdoes. Most grating (and therefore the heir apparent to Rob Schneider) is a screechy, drugged-out bus driver played by Nick Swardson. The guys’ wives (Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, and Maya Rudolph are married to Sandler, James, and Rock respectively) and kids are the only halfway interesting supporting characters and they get shoehorned to make room for a bunch of gimmicky morons.

            The humor is a mix of insults, violence, and gross-out gags. The insults are pretty lame and the gross-outs are cheap and uninspired, though perhaps the preteen target audience hasn’t seen them done to death yet (then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have). A scant few violent physical gags do work, and if you email me at rrg251@nyu.edu I’ll tell you which prop is funny enough to keep the film from getting One Star. Okay, and it is kind of funny when the kids struggle to understand their parents’ technology and pop culture references.

            It’s a wonder that “Grown Ups 2” made so much money this past weekend when so much of the audience for the first one is too mature for Adam Sandler now. I suppose many of them don’t know it yet. It takes a few junk movies for fans to get Sandler out of their system. They see his toilet humor and hear his yelling (yes, he still thinks his obnoxious yelling is comedy gold) and they wonder why they don’t find it funny. They wonder if the problem is with him or them. To these people I say: The problem is with him for thinking you’ll continue to find his juvenile antics amusing. But the change is in you because you want something better than what he has to offer. Trust me, it’s not hard to find something better than “Grown Ups 2”

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:18 pm edt 

Despicable Me 2

            I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2010’s “Despicable Me”. It was this film that inspired me to begin using the term “junk food” to describe many kids’ movies. By this, I mean that the film was a collection of dumb (usually annoying) humor that was likely to entertain kids, but wouldn’t enrich them in any way. The humor in “Despicable Me 2” is about as useless, but at least this time around it seems sharper, with almost all of the new ideas succeeding even if there’s too much reliance on the old ones.

            The new movie sees reformed supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) as a full-time loving dad to his three adopted daughters. He now uses his “evil” expertise to throw the girls lavish birthday parties, make them incredible toys, and run an unsuccessful jelly business. The girls occasionally complain about not having a mother, but Gru figures the family is big enough if you count his live-in mad scientist (Russell Brand) and the hundreds of jellybean-like Minions who live under the house.

            Gru’s conversion to good guy is complete when he’s recruited by the shadowy Anti-Villain League. They want him to use his inside knowledge of villainous tendencies to discover who stole a top-secret formula that turns harmless creatures into ravenous destructive forces. He’s assigned a rookie partner named Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and the two go undercover in a shopping mall where he recognizes a restaurant owner named Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) as former supervillain El Macho. Tensions rise further when Eduardo’s teenage son (Moises Arias) puts the moves on Gru’s daughter Margot (Miranda Cosgrove). Gru is determined to take down Eduardo at all costs. And if it turns out that he’s El Macho and has the formula then so much the better.

            Most of the film’s funniest moments come from the new characters. Lucy is such a welcome presence that even her straight lines get laughs (I could be wrong, but I think the animators have her eyes move faster than the other characters’ to create a more manic performance). It’s no wonder that the other characters immediately consider her girlfriend/wife/mother material. Eduardo is a delight, making it hard to stay mad at him for embodying a checklist of Mexican stereotypes. Even Eduardo’s wannabe Casanova son has his moments. This is to say nothing of my favorite new character, whose identity I will only reveal if you email me at rrg251@nyu.edu.

            The familiar humor is a mixed bag. The good news is that Gru’s youngest daughter Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher) is as cute and funny as ever. Forget the spy gadgets, Gru should just have Agnes spend some quality time around the new villain and see if she can get another evildoer to renounce their wicked ways. But the film is sandbagged by those awful Minions, who exist for no other reason than to save the film from being considered smart. All they do is botch their jobs, fight with each other, and exert crude humor. I’m annoyed to no end that they’re the face of the franchise. Actually, I take back what I said about them only existing to dumb things down. How silly of me, they’re also there to sell toys.

            Without the Minions, “Despicable Me 2” might have had a shot at being recognized as a respectable animated comedy. As it is, it is merely a moderately funny animated comedy with occasional painful humor. This sequel shows improvement, so I don’t need to dread the future of this franchise (and make no mistake, this franchise will have a future), but the inescapable presence of the Minions tells me that this is about as good as any “Despicable Me” film is going to get.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:17 pm edt 

The Heat

Normally when I start off a review talking about a trailer, it’s to say how much better the trailer was than the movie. “Why couldn’t such-and-such have been as exciting as it looked in the trailer?” I’ll ask. I think my review of 2010’s “Machete” was that thought stretched out to 600 words. But with “The Heat”, it’s a different story because I’ve come to loathe the trailer.

For the past six months, I have been subjected to one of the peskiest trailers of my lifetime. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s surely a double-digit number. I’ve seen it enough times to have it memorized, which means that I know exactly where a lot of the jokes are going and I don’t find them funny anymore. I don’t think I liked them in the first place, but the frequency of the annoying trailer has needlessly turned me against the film before I’ve even bought a ticket. And by the way, I know that most readers do not go to the movies every week, but the trailer has been attached to so many films that even people who only go once in a while can say that they’ve had it shoved down their throats.

The film is a formulaic buddy-cop movie with a professional, straight-laced FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) reluctantly teaming up with a sloppy Boston beat cop (Melissa McCarthy) to take down a drug lord. They don’t like each other, which they each attribute to the detestable qualities in the other, though it really has more to do with both of them having poor social skills.

Supposedly the Bullock character is good at solving cases and McCarthy is better at talking tough and fighting. We imagine that they can learn a lot from each other. But the lessons are lopsided; McCarthy schools Bullock at every turn. Far too many scenes see Bullock insist she can do something and fail, followed by McCarthy butting in, doing things her way, and getting results. I know the idea is that Bullock needs a lesson in humility, but it gets to a point where the premise of her being a competent agent becomes hard to accept.

The film’s humor is largely thrown to McCarthy, whose performance consists of constant swearing and other vulgarities. She gets in a few good lines – which is why I’m giving the film a star and a half instead of just one – but a little of her goes a long way. “Bridesmaids” (whose director, Paul Feig, also directed this film) had the good sense to make her one of a group of six instead of insisting that she basically carry the film.

The action in “The Heat” is about what you’d expect from a generic action comedy. The humor is usually crude and mostly ineffective, not to mention that much of it has been spoiled by the trailer. Speaking of the trailer, now that the movie has opened I guess I won’t be seeing it before first-run movies anymore. That thought in my head now is even more of a relief than the end of the movie in the theater.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:16 pm edt 

Monsters University

            Even though my love of Pixar is well-documented, 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” is not one of my favorites. My main problem is that we don’t get enough time to take in the world of Monstropolis before the plot kicks into gear and the intriguing world is turned inside out. It’s not a serious complaint, but it’s enough for me to regard the film as a lesser Pixar entry. “Monsters University” doesn’t suffer from the same problem, but it is a similar slight disappointment if only by ridiculously high Pixar standards.

            The film is a prequel to “Monsters, Inc.” that follows blue beast Sully (John Goodman) and one-eyed wiseguy Mike (Billy Crystal) during their days at the title school. Both major in Scaring, but they soon run into difficulties. Sully has a mighty roar, which he thinks is all he needs, so he never bothers to learn the intricacies of the subject. Mike studies very hard and is practically an expert on Scare Theory, but he can never quite put what he learns into practice.

            Mike thinks Sully is lazy, and Sully thinks Mike is too high strung. They aren’t friends. Their squabbling earns them the disapproval of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), who dismisses them from the program. The only way to get back in is to win the school’s annual Scare Games, where they’ll have to compete as teammates aligned with Oozma Kappa, the lamest frat on campus.

            I think a lot of the energy that went into the film was used on creating the monsters. On this front, the film succeeds. The visuals are top-tier and creative as always. It’s fun to think about the designers coming up with new things to do with features and appendages. The humor works pretty well too. The best gags involve minor monsters and their various talents and afflictions. These gags play to Pixar’s strengths for variety and detail. For this film, they also serve as a distraction from the weak structure of the script.

            The film goes through the motions of having Sully and Mike dislike each other, ruin each other, form an uneasy bond, see the bond turn into respect, see the respect turn into friendship, see the friendship fall apart, and come back from the falling out because they’ve learned a lesson about friendship. Aside from the previously-established Sully and Mike, the characters are woefully underdeveloped. Take Art (Charlie Day), a fellow Oozma Kappa. He always has something wacky to say and is clearly intended to be a scene stealer. But we actually learn next to nothing about him and he never has anything to contribute to the group’s activities besides weirdness. The film is also bereft of a proper villain, as the guys from rival fraternities just don’t cut it. I kept waiting for Dean Hardscrabble to unveil some sort of diabolical plan against the university, but it never came.

            Then again, I can’t get too mad at the script for “Monsters University” since the dialogue is usually funny and it managed to blindside me with at least two twists (one involves a third character from “Monsters, Inc.”, another comes at the end of the movie leading into the credits). I can’t get too mad at anything about this movie. No, it’s not one of Pixar’s better efforts, but that bar is set so high that decent films like this one can easily fall short. I will say, however, that I think Pixar should keep away from sequels (and prequels) for a while and next time bring us something brand new.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:14 pm edt 

Man of Steel

            How did the people behind “Man of Steel” manage to suck all the fun out of Superman? Here is a walking (flying?) checklist of enviable superpowers, ready to offer assistance with a smile at a moment’s notice, and on top of that he has one of the flashiest costumes in superhero lore. Solemn moments here and there are necessary to any well-balanced story, but everything about this movie is just so drab. The Superman of this movie (Henry Cavill) is practically incapable of joy, friendliness, or any other endearing traits. He is there to fill out the suit and fly from one uninteresting action scene to another.

            Most people are familiar with Superman’s origin, but I’ll do a quick recap. A long time ago on the dying planet Krypton, wizened scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) put his infant son Kal-El on a ship headed to Earth. Also surviving was military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon), who was exiled to a prison ship following a failed power grab in the planet’s final days. Kal-El’s ship landed in Smallville, Kansas where he was taken in by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who named him Clark.

It soon became apparent that Clark wasn’t like the other children, and this is where “Man of Steel” starts to deviate troublingly from tradition. The film treats young Clark’s powers as a social curse more than anything, with blatant similarities to autism. Example: Clark gets terrified when he develops X-ray vision and sees his teacher and classmates as freaky skin-bone-muscle hybrids. The other kids bully him for being different, but really it’s a good thing that he can see the world this way. He also manages to pull a sinking bus out of the water, but this just makes people downright scared of him, so he has to conceal that blessing as well.

Clark’s father makes him promise not to use his powers, not even in a matter of life or death, until the whole world needs help from a power they won’t understand. That situation comes about when General Zod invades, seeking some Kryptonian technology imprinted in Kal-El’s bloodstream. He’ll destroy the population in order to get it, and then will probably destroy the population once he has it. Superman has no choice but to reveal himself to the world, which is actually pretty good timing since reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) was about to blow his cover anyway, having tracked a path of minor miracles back to the Kent home. Clark does not work as a fellow reporter in the body of this movie, so the beloved dynamic of Lois embracing Superman while rejecting Clark is thrown out the window.  

Once General Zod invades, the film is little more than a series of nonsensical action scenes. I don’t mean “nonsensical” as in funny, because not a thing in this film is even halfway humorous. I just say “nonsensical” because the characters’ motives are dubious and the action is hard to follow. A minor character played by Christopher Meloni seems to be at the center of about three different explosions only to appear in the next scene no worse for wear.

I’m hard pressed to think of anything “Man of Steel” does right. The special effects look cheap, Michael Shannon is miscast as Zod (he makes a good sleazebag, not a rage-fueled super-soldier), even the makeup isn’t done well (look at the hairline on Diane Lane). But my biggest problem with the film is the general lack of fun. I’m not expecting the constant cheekiness of a Tony Stark, but some levity here and there would make this film much less of a chore. The film opened to over $125 million last weekend, but don’t let that number fool you. A lot of people wanted to see this movie once, I can’t imagine any of them wanting to see it again.

 

One Star out of Five.
4:13 pm edt 

The Purge

            “The Purge” is a moderately effective horror movie that covers the familiar ground of the home-invasion movie while embracing a unique setting. It’s ten years in the future and a new government program called The Purge allows for a twelve-hour period every year where all crime is legal. The idea is that The Purge encourages people to get their violent tendencies out of their system so they’ll be better behaved the rest of the year. Of course, the downside is that people are just as likely to be victimized as they are to be vindicated.

            It’s silly to think that such a program could ever work. First of all, the film focuses almost entirely on violent crimes instead of the ones that people are more likely to commit, like theft. The inevitable sudden shifts in wealth would cripple the economy. But getting back to the violent crimes; there are way too many people with a moral opposition to violence that goes beyond mere legality. Some are opposed because of religion, some because of the Golden Rule, some just aren’t that angry, some are squeamish, and plenty are going to be too scared to go out and participate. But the Sandin family is in danger from people who aren’t afraid of the consequences, and that’s all this movie really needs.

            The Sandins are a very wealthy, but otherwise typical American family. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) sells security systems, and The Purge tends to be a busy time of year for him. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) has little to do but socialize with jealous neighbors. Teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is moving too fast in her relationship with her adult boyfriend. Charlie (Max Burkholder) is the tech genius son who can’t shake his sense of compassion. The family is planning to wait out the Purge in their secure home, but Charlie takes pity on a desperate stranger in the street (Edwin Hodge) and disables the security system long enough for him to take shelter in the house. I have to question the stranger’s wisdom in drawing attention to himself in the lighted street instead of hiding in the background of the darkened neighborhood.

            The family soon learns why the stranger was so desperate. He’s being pursued by a group of rich snobs who are determined to kill him for being useless to society. The snobs wear masks that are the scariest I’ve seen in some time. They’re basically distorted human faces minus the eyes. Oh how the no-eyes look has given me sleepless nights over the years. The leader of the snobs (Rhys Wakefield) doesn’t wear a mask, but his real face is plenty creepy.  He gives the Sandins an ultimatum: hand over the stranger or the snobs will break in and kill everybody.

            The rest of the film is pretty much the same as any number of horror movies where the characters have to avoid killers in a darkened house. But the appeal of the film doesn’t lie with the Sandins, it lies with The Purge itself. The society of the film encourages acts of violence, and we the audience feel encouraged to enjoy that violence. I’ll admit I cheered for a few violent scenes myself. If you think you can enjoy these scenes, you might like “The Purge”. If you detest violent action, then you’re probably not planning to see “The Purge” anyway and are right to have made up your mind ahead of time.

            The film ends with newscasters proclaiming this to be the most successful Purge yet. Undoubtedly there will be another Purge, which means we’ll probably get another “Purge”. The film made nearly $40 million this past weekend on a budget of only $3 million. I have to believe that we’ll see several sequels, perhaps annually like “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity”. Love it, hate it, or if you’re in the middle like me, there’s no denying that “The Purge” is the future of horror.

 

Two Stars out of Five
4:12 pm edt 

Now You See Me

            The trouble with “Now You See Me”, or any other movie about magic, is that you know there’s going to be a huge twist at the end. These movies make you wait until the last minute to find out who was really in control, how they pulled off their ultimate trick, who was being tricked, and indeed what the trick even was. Sometimes the big twist is impressive, usually it isn’t. But it almost always negates a lot of the plot points that came before it. The action may be exciting, but don’t bother following the story, because when the time is right, everything is going to turn topsy-turvy anyway.

            A lot of the film’s appeal is in its magicians, so let’s start with them. Jesse Eisenberg plays a glorified street magician who thinks of himself as the smartest man in the world. The magic tricks are the only thing separating the character from Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg. Woody Harrelson is a mentalist who uses hypnosis and body language observations to hustle tourists. Isla Fisher has a stage show where she wears skimpy clothing. Dave Franco is a pickpocket. I know those are lame descriptions, but that’s about as much development as the screenplay gives these characters.

The “Four Horsemen” are brought together by an unknown boss to put on elaborate stage shows where they steal money and give it to their audiences. At a Las Vegas show, they “rob a bank” in Paris and the American crowd is inexplicably delighted to be showered in Euros. In New Orleans they drain the bank account of a wealthy individual. The authorities can only guess what they have in store for their grand finale in New York.

By “authorities”, I’m mostly referring to an FBI agent played by Mark Ruffalo and an Interpol agent played by Melanie Laurent. The two are matched up against their wishes in an investigation into the Horsemen. Ruffalo scoffs at anyone foolish enough to take magic seriously, which makes him a constant target for magic-related humiliation. Laurent is a bit more open-minded and is rewarded by being humiliated only when necessary.

Michael Caine plays the Horsemen’s sponsor, a smug mogul not to be confused with the mysterious boss (or is he?). Morgan Freeman plays a professional magic debunker, also very smug, who helps the FBI only because he likes to show off in front of the Ruffalo character. Of course the boss, once revealed, gets to be very smug since they fooled all the other characters and probably the audience too.

All the impressive shows, tricks, smoke, mirrors, chases and escapes lead up to the reveal of the boss. The movie really takes that old saying “it’s always the one you least suspect” to heart. I seriously think that the writers got to the point in the script where it was time for the big reveal and deliberately chose the least likely solution. It’s a twist for the sake of a twist and it makes no sense when you try to recontextualize the events leading up to it. 

It’s not that I don’t welcome the magic in “Now You See Me”. The performance scenes are one of the few things the movie does right. The tricks are fun and enough of them are explained that it’s okay that the film holds onto a few secrets. The Horsemen are clearly interesting (if smug) people. I’m therefore sad to report that they’re actually in the movie a lot less than the advertising makes it seem, with too much precious screen time going to the dull Ruffalo and Laurent characters. The film is barely entertaining as it comes to a close, and then there’s that boneheaded twist ending. I don’t expect the audience to “disappear” from this movie, but I believe they’ll walk away unhappy.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:10 pm edt 

Fast & Furious 6

            The “Fast & Furious” franchise is one that does better and better, or “gains speed” so to speak, with each new installment. No longer content to dominate a lame movie month like April, “Fast & Furious 6” is taking over the Memorial Day weekend box office and surely becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. The films themselves have never been that great – they’re heavy on car chases, bad jokes, and explosions – but they always make for a great party in the theater. It’s hard to deny that the new film makes for the greatest party yet.

            2011’s “Fast Five” was like a convention of characters from the somewhat disjointed first four installments. Almost all of your favorites are back again. There’s streetcar king Dominic Turetto (franchise face Vin Diesel), cop-turned-criminal Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), government agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), comic relief driver Roman (Tyrese Gibson), comic relief techie Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), doomed Tokyo driver Han (Sung Kang) and his girlfriend Giselle (Gal Godot). We’re missing Eva Mendes’s federal agent, but another agent played by MMA star Gina Carano is shoehorned into the group to make up for it. Returning to the franchise is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom’s girlfriend who was “killed” in the fourth movie. Yes, they explain her re-emergence with the old “you saw an explosion, not a body” plot device.

            These movies have never been big on storyline, but the one we get here is that Dom gets the team together to take down terrorist Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). The team participates mostly in order to get pardoned by Hobbs for their past crimes, but Dom does it to pursue Letty, who for some reason is working for Shaw. Of course, most of Shaw’s operations are vehicle-based, and we get action scenes involving cars, trucks, a tank, an airplane, and a nifty little go-cart thingy. The action scenes are exciting and improbable as always, but they’re hard to follow. During the climactic airplane scene, I couldn’t keep track of who was on the ground, on the plane, or somewhere in between (there were, in fact, quite a few in between). I blame it on the huge cast, the movie doesn’t want you to forget all the characters that are a part of the sequence, so it has to keep jumping around between them.

            The film, like many blockbusters, contains a scene after the first few end credits that sets up the next movie. The film uses this type of scene as wisely as any I’ve ever seen. The scene takes us back to an earlier release in the franchise that purists will tell you actually takes place after the events of this film. This means that we’re finally caught up chronologically, so all bets are off when it comes to who survives the next movie. This movie does sacrifice some suspense since we know that certain characters have to survive the majority of the film to make it to this scene. The scene also sets up the villain for the next installment, and it’s a doozie.

            “Fast & Furious 6” isn’t going to win over anybody who doesn’t like the franchise. Nor can I imagine many people liking it if they’re unfamiliar with the rest of the series (people like me get to take the rapid character introductions for granted, newcomers may find them confusing). But the film has a huge built-in audience, and they all seemed to get a kick out of it. This franchise isn’t running out of gas anytime soon. One can only imagine how great the party will be when the seventh film rolls around.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
4:09 pm edt 

Star Trek Into Darkness

            It is commonly accepted that of the original “Star Trek” movie series, 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is about ten times better than 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. Applying the same logic to J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness” should be ten times better than 2009’s “Star Trek”. Now I really liked the 2009 “Star Trek”. I wasn’t doing star ratings at the time, but I would have given it three and a half, maybe four stars. Let’s be conservative and say three and a half. This means “Star Trek Into Darkness” should get thirty-five stars out of a possible five. That isn’t really my expectation, but the pressure is on the new film to outdo its predecessor, even if that predecessor is far more beloved than its 1979 equivalent.

            The film once again stars Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, reckless captain of the Starship Enterprise. Pine’s an agreeable enough leading man, but he doesn’t bring the gravitas to the role that William Shatner did. Kirk’s best friend and biggest annoyance is his ultra-logical First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto, much better cast in the role originated and retained by Leonard Nimoy). Other familiar characters include grouchy doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), steadfast third officer Sulu (John Cho), compassionate love interest Uhura (Zoe Saldana), rookie navigator Chekov (the perpetually pubescent Anton Yelchin), and comic relief tech-er Scottie (Simon Pegg). At least I think I’m supposed to call the tech guy a tech-er and not a tech-ie.

            Following a deserved demotion and begrudged re-promotion, Kirk volunteers the crew for a mission to stop a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). They’re sent by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to neutralize Harrison with military weapons on a hostile Klingon planet. By the way, if you think “John Harrison” is too vanilla a name for a “Star Trek” villain, don’t worry, he doesn’t stay “John Harrison” for long. The plot features multiple betrayals, and more betrayals on top of those betrayals. I’m pretty sure some characters kept betraying the same characters over and over again.

            In a film with so much betrayal, it’s remarkable that so many of the film’s best scenes are ones of loyalty. It should go without saying that in this action-adventure film, many of the characters risk (or give?) their lives for the greater good. But more specifically I’m referring to scenes where characters show their respect for each other. Kirk and Spock are especially effective in these scenes, sharply in contrast to other scenes where they’re at each other’s throats. Even if Kirk isn’t suited to be a starship captain, he’s more than suited to be a team leader in general. The people serving under his command all share a professional chemistry that makes me want to come aboard the Enterprise again and again.

            I hope I get the chance to come aboard again soon because I want to see a film that improves upon “Star Trek Into Darkness”. The action and special effects are high-quality, but they’re about what I’ve come to expect from summer blockbusters. Many of the secondary characters (Sulu and Uhura come to mind) are given very little to do and are clearly only in the movie because their absence would be conspicuous to fans. Perhaps most distractingly, the film keeps trying to compare itself to “Wrath of Khan” when it should be trying to compare itself to the 2009 “Star Trek” to keep up the interest we had in the characters. It’s still a good movie with intriguing characters and relationships, in fact it’s the best film of the summer blockbuster season so far. It just suffers in comparison to the superior original, and it doesn’t help that there are two films that qualify as the superior original.

Three Stars out of Five.

4:07 pm edt 

The Great Gatsby

            Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his excessively modern takes on stories from other eras. His most popular is film is 2001’s “Moulin Rouge”, a pop musical set in 19th-century Paris. He’s also the visionary behind the bizarre 1996 version of “Romeo and Juliet”, a film that proves just how awkward Shakespeare’s English sounds in the real world. Now Luhrmann has been put in charge of “The Great Gatsby”, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era-defining look at 1920’s decadence. The film thankfully doesn’t try for a modern setting, but rather goes for a modern look at a classic setting. I can’t say the idea is pulled off flawlessly, but it certainly delights in places.

            Those familiar with the story know that the main character isn’t really Gatsby, but rather Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Gatsby’s next-door neighbor. Nick lives in the trendy West Egg on Long Island across the lake from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). One night he attends one of the legendary parties thrown by his mysterious millionaire neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby comes with a convoluted backstory that keeps changing (it’s hard not to draw parallels between him and that “Most Interesting Man in the World” Dos Equis guy), but whatever he is, he’s incredibly charismatic. Gatsby soon pulls Nick into a plan to reunite with Daisy, his long-lost love from before he was rich. The plan naturally doesn’t sit well with Tom, and a story that already included obsession and infidelity eventually comes to include murder.

            At the very least, the gets the audience to care about the characters. We want to see Nick enjoy whatever happiness he can grasp and Tom is pretty despicable for someone whose ire toward Gatsby is actually quite understandable. But of course the really sympathetic one is Gatsby. He has everything material that one could ever want, but he’s willing to risk it all for his genuine feelings of love for a woman who is more shallow than even she knows. His fate is no secret (even if you’re not familiar with the story, the movie makes it pretty clear what’s coming), yet the audience at my screening took his grand exit with a sense of loss not felt since that other movie where DiCaprio sank into the water.

            The film is being pushed for its visual style, and that style is quite impressive. It has a level of color, sharpness, and detail that didn’t exist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day, but I imagine he would have approved had he known it was an option. The problem is that the film doesn’t look like it’s set in the 1920s, it looks like a contemporary production with the 1920s as a sort of loose theme. It’s appropriate that Gatsby’s parties are so central to the film, because the film looks like an elaborate costume party. To be sure, the costumes and sets and stunning to the point where they’ll probably get Oscar nominations, but they’re so elaborate that they feel unnatural and distracting.

            This version of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t as loathsome as it’s been made out to be. Sure, the visuals are overly extravagant bordering on gaudy, but it makes sense given that one gets the impression that that’s exactly how Gatsby likes them. Leonardo DiCaprio is as charming as ever, proving once again that he can play the heartthrob regardless of the character’s economic status. There weren’t a lot of people asking for “The Great Gatsby” as a summer blockbuster, but now that we have it we may as well admire the things it does right.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
4:06 pm edt 

Iron Man 3

            “Iron Man” is probably the most lucrative superhero franchise in Hollywood. Nolan’s “Batman” series is sadly done, the “Spider-Man” reboot was hardly Marvel-ous, and I’m not convinced that Zack “Sucker Punch” Snyder can sell this generation on Superman in the upcoming “Man of Steel”. The real powerhouse is of course “The Avengers”, the unprecedented convergence of superhero franchises that managed to rule the box office in an extremely competitive 2012. But as much as that film emphasized teamwork, there was little doubt that the most popular member of the team, and the one most capable of carrying the first follow-up film, was Iron Man.

            The new film sees Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) affected by self-doubt. He barely got out of “The Avengers” alive and he’s wondering how much longer he can keep up his lifestyle. He hides in his basement under the guise of updating the Iron Man technology, hoping that the people he cares about most will spare him from the challenges of life. This includes his ever-loyal girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), high-ranking colonel friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and hapless bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau, abdicating the director’s chair for Shane Black). What Tony doesn’t understand is that these people can’t just leave him alone because they care about him too much. It’s an attack on Happy that tells Stark that the world once again needs Iron Man.

            The threat in “Iron Man 3” is complicated, and even harder to describe without spoilers. The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) is an international terrorist who carries out impersonal attacks to send a message to the President. Sir Ben plays him with a voice that some have favorably compared to Richard Nixon. I say it’s more of a dopey Walter Cronkite. Kingsley is a highly respectable actor who isn’t afraid to get down and dirty on occasion. I knew he was capable of taking Mandarin in any number of directions, but I never would have suspected the one the film chooses for him. The Kingsley character’s true nature makes for the single most memorable aspect of the film.

The other villain is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) a sleazy scientist spurned socially in the past by both Tony and Pepper. Killian has created a drug that allows people to recover from injuries (including severed limbs) in seconds, but it makes their brains malleable. The film fails to explain how he controls his subjects’ thoughts (does he somehow program instructions into the initial dose or give them instructions as they go along?) or exactly what it takes to kill one of them (at one point Tony says, “Recover from that!” and I don’t really see why they can’t). But the drug makes people’s eyes glow with fire, so I’ll let it slide.

The action is typical superhero stuff – lots of fighting and explosions. The only interesting sequence is a midair rescue where Iron Man doesn’t have enough strength to save a whole group of falling people and has to get creative. The dialogue is typical of the franchise – mostly Tony cracking wise while the world around him is desperate. It’s hard to believe that Tony Stark has led so many films to blockbuster status while acting like a complete jerk. The film throws in a timewasting trip to Tennessee and you’ve got yourself a mildly disappointing superhero movie.

I like the increased intensity in “Iron Man 3”. There was something unimpressive about the last two movies having greedy villains who didn’t really want to hurt anyone besides Tony. The new villain wants to take over the country, and it’s nice to see Iron Man get involved in a fight bigger than himself. But Tony Stark is still selfish and unlikeable, and whatever lessons in humility he learns here will have faded by the time they make “Iron Man 4” or “The Avengers 2”.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
4:05 pm edt 

Oblivion

            I was prejudiced against “Oblivion” since about a week before it opened. A friend of mine got to see the movie in advance and left after the first half hour. At around the thirty-one minute mark, I was jealous of my friend. It’s not a terrible movie in that “clearly a bomb” sort of way, but it failed to hold my interest and it was depressing to know that it was nowhere close to ending.

            The film stars Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, a drone repairman on an abandoned Earth in a bleak future. Humanity had to evacuate the planet after an alien invasion rendered it uninhabitable. Now most of humanity lives on a moon of Saturn, but Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are on Earth doing some salvage work. There are resources to be collected, and there’s also the possibility that some aliens are still lurking around.

            Victoria is happy to live her life inside the sterilized base, but Jack craves adventure. He’s very interested in what Earth was like before the invasion (he’s had his memory wiped by his employers, so a lot of history and culture are new to him). He also wonders why he’s having disturbing dreams about a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko). I think he’s being too hard on himself, lots of guys have dreams about Olga Kurylenko.

            Jack eventually finds the woman in the wreckage of a spaceship. Her name is Julia and she’s been trapped in time for several decades. Jack and Victoria believe that she’s hiding something. Julia may be good at hiding secrets about her mission, but she’s not so good at hiding her discomfort with the romantic relationship between Jack and Victoria.

            Around the same time, Jack meets a group of surviving humans led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman). Beech warns him that it’s his employer who’s hiding a deadly secret. It’s no surprise, really. Jack should have known that a company that mandates memory wipes for its employees probably isn’t on the up and up.

Beech’s assistant is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game of Thrones”. His name in the credits got a big reaction from the audience at the screening I attended. I actually had a hard time recognizing him because I wasn’t automatically overcome with a desire to punch his teeth out like I am with Jamie Lannister.

The bad guys in the film have quite the contrived plan and I wonder why they put in certain details. Speaking of bad guys, I find it interesting that they picked a syrupy Melissa Leo to play the face of evil. Who says there’s no room for southern accents in science fiction? I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but this is the kind of movie where one question gets answered and six more pop up. I tried explaining the ending to my friend (the same one who tried watching the film before and wanted to know how it ended), and I absolutely butchered it.

The post-apocalyptic landscape is so dumb it took me right out of the movie. It seems like Jack is always near a major Earth landmark that is partially buried by rubble. But you can still see their tops poking out with about the same consistency no matter their height. And it’s only the major landmarks, never the lesser-known skyscrapers.

The most positive thing I can say about “Oblivion” is that I liked Andrea Riseborough as Jack’s passionate partner. It’s mostly a dull movie with an overly complicated plot and action scenes that never seem to get off the ground. At least it’s unmemorable enough that you can walk away from it without its flaws staying with you.


One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:04 pm edt 

42

            Too many weeks ago, I proclaimed “Jack the Giant Slayer” to be the first half-decent movie of 2013. Now along comes “42”, and I am proclaiming it to be the first really good movie of 2013. It should not have taken us over three months to get the first really good movie of 2013 (even with my understanding that the post-holiday season is a dumping ground for the studios’ garbage releases), but that shouldn’t diminish the achievements of “42” as an admirable sports film.

            The film tells the story of pioneering African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his heroic seasons with the 1946 Montreal Royals and of course the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson encounters racism wherever he goes, whether it be from locals from the towns he visits to representatives of opposing teams to his own teammates. He’s usually stoic enough not to rebuff the bigots, but he does prove that he belongs in the major leagues by playing great baseball.

            Not that Robinson doesn’t have his supporters. There’s his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and his reporter friend Wendell (Andre Holland). Then there’s Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the man who took the all-important first step in signing an African-American player. As Rickey, Ford gives his best performance in a long time, maybe the best of his career. He puts enough phlegm into every line to make for instantly memorable quotes. There’s a reason why his voice dominates all the film’s advertisements.

            The film is filled with inspirational moments on and off the field. The ones off the field are fine (and often provide the film with some much-needed comic relief), but it’s the ones on the field that you’re paying to see. It’s not that they go unexpectedly; in fact there will be many who say they’re cliché, but they’re about as wonderful as they are in all the great baseball movies. I guess you can never go wrong with those exciting scenes where the hero has everything on the line, they make an amazing play and the crowd goes wild.

            The film has its flaws. It is, of course, based on a true story, but I seriously doubt that the true story was this sappy. It seems too often that scenes are constructed to elicit an emotional response and they don’t seem natural. There are also too many unnecessary subplots bouncing around. Particularly distracting is one involving outspoken Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), an affair, a scandal, and the quest to replace him. The spot is filled with a nice enough guy, but he barely appears for the rest of the movie and the storyline essentially has no payoff.

            Since there was a ridiculous controversy over this issue with “Django Unchained” a few months ago, I feel the need to report that the film is filled with racial epithets, including the “N-word”. I don’t see how the film could not have these words, given their historical context and how essential racism is to the plot. You’ll likely feel uncomfortable, but the point is to make you feel that way so you can empathize with Robinson. Still, if you or your family can’t handle hate speech, then this is definitely not the film for you because there’s a lot of it.

            “42” is an exemplary baseball movie that doubles as an exemplary historical movie. The performances and technical details are all top-notch. In fact, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Oscar nominations for Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. It is easily the best film of the year so far, not that the competition was all that stiff. By all means you should support this film so Hollywood can get back to really trying again.

 

Three and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:02 pm edt 

Evil Dead

            The ads for “Evil Dead” claim that the film is the scariest you will ever see. This is untrue unless you almost never see horror movies, in which case why would you want to see a movie called “Evil Dead”? The ads also claim that the film is the bloodiest you’ll ever see. There is some truth to this. The film may not be scary or funny or interesting, but in terms of straight-up blood quantity I think we have a champion.

            The characters are a group of twentysomethings who are staying at an isolated cabin while one of them tries to kick a drug habit. Her name is Mia (Jane Levy) and her well-meaning friends are determined to keep her there until she’s clean. These friends include a bossy nurse (Jessica Lucas), a pessimistic teacher (Lou Taylor Pucci), her ever-absent brother (Shiloh Fernandez), and his warm body of a girlfriend (Elizabeth Blackmore). They want her to be calm, so they take her to a creepy cabin in the middle of the creepy woods which I imagine is a long way from anything not creepy. I’m not convinced that the seclusion of the cabin is worth the triple-creepy environment. People have died in this cabin and if you don’t leave now the next victim could be you.

            Things start to go awry when the teacher finds a book wrapped in barbed wire. This turns out to be a book of dark magic that nobody should ever read, especially not out loud, and especially not in Latin. The teacher does all three and unleashes an evil spirit into the vicinity. The spirit chooses to possess Mia, turning her sick and evil. Oh, and homicidal. The others attribute this behavior to Mia going through withdrawal. That theory goes out the window when acts of violence occur while Mia is locked in the creepy basement. It only takes the group about an hour to realize that Mia is possessed, something we knew from the minute it happened. Of course now they have to protect themselves while trying to figure out a way to save Mia.

            The film is essentially divided into two parts. The first is the “Jump” portion, where all the scares come from the film trying to startle you. Often these are red herrings (like maybe a friendly character will pop into frame when you weren’t expecting them), but they nonetheless make you jump out of your seat and then sit down sheepishly. I suppose these scares are passable, but you can find similar ones in just about any horror movie.

            The second part of the movie is the “Gore” portion, where the film just tries to be as disgusting as it can with its blood and violence. A lot of the violence involves power tools. I find it strange that a demon knows how to wield these instruments, but even weirder that it knows all sorts of contemporary obscenities to antagonize the humans. The victims are resilient, and on more than one occasion you’ll wonder what it will take to finish them off after gruesome injuries. For the conclusion of the film, everything is drenched in blood. It’s hard not to imagine that the filmmakers somehow got a discount on fake blood by buying it in bulk from an oil tanker.

            I’ve never seen the 1981 version of “Evil Dead” all the way through, so I can’t say for sure how faithful this remake is to the original, but I’ve seen years of ripoffs. That’s what this new film is – a ripoff. The most positive thing I can say about it is that it comes up with some creative methods of violence if you find that sort of thing interesting. Seriously, the film is counting on you finding it interesting. It has nothing else to offer.

 

One and Half Stars out of Five
4:02 pm edt 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Here’s a brief rundown of my thoughts from 2009’s “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra”:

 

            I’m dreading this movie. I still haven’t recovered from that awful second “Transformers” movie from a month back. Or that awful first “Transformers” movie from two years ago for that matter. Wait, this isn’t so bad. Sure it’s a glorified toy commercial, but at least I like these characters and the gags are landing better than I thought they would. Marlon Wayans actually makes a pretty effective action hero, Dennis Quaid has a wise presence, gotta love Rachel Nichols as the hot nerd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt kills it as the villain, and this Channing Tatum kid seems to have a bright future. Now it’s over and I realize that I didn’t spend the entire time longing for it to end. Well done.

 

            And now my thoughts on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”

 

            This sure doesn’t look promising based on its commercials, but the first one was a pleasant surprise, maybe this one can pull it off again. We’re getting an introduction to the characters and apparently all of my old favorites are gone except Channing Tatum. But we’ve got Dwayne Johnson now, maybe he can salvage this movie. There’s a confusing action scene and some unfunny banter, and we’re off to a bad start. Now Jonathan Pryce is onscreen as the kidnapped U.S. President and his evil duplicate, a Cobra henchman. I like the way Pryce gnashes the scenery. Confusing action scene, unfunny banter, confusing action scene, unfunny banter. It’s official, Johnson cannot come close to saving this movie. So much for all that range he showed in “Snitch”. Channing Tatum takes his leave after fifteen minutes, and it’s goodbye to any connection to the original. The Joes are down to Johnson and two dull new characters played by Adrianne Palicki and D. J. Cotrona. This movie is hemorrhaging star power, but I don’t blame Tatum for wanting out as soon as possible. Here’s the inevitable “Cobra Commander breaks out of prison” sequence where Walton Goggins plays the sleazy warden. I despise this character, but it’s comforting to know that he’s probably not long for this world. Cobra Commander breaks out with the help of Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson). Like I’m going to be intimidated by a villain called Firefly. And why does Cobra Commander have zero personality? Awkward location shift to Tokyo where we catch up with Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Young). Snake Eyes looks like a rejected “Power Rangers” villain. Some nonsense about them needing to settle a score with Storm Shadow. The Joes reach out to the original Joe (Bruce Willis) for help and we get more unfunny banter. There’s a confusing action sequence in Tokyo, but at least I’m not used to seeing zip-line action scenes, so that’s something new. Too bad the special effects are unconvincing. Generic undercover mission in America, followed by a terribly-acted sad scene. Laughable resolution to the situation is Tokyo. The American Joes meet up with the Tokyo Joes and we get way too much unfunny banter. The evil President reveals Cobra’s plan to destroy/take over the world. Clearly the plot isn’t very well thought-out since Cobra Commander can’t seem to make up his mind between the two. But at least Pryce is still fun. Confusing action sequence, confusing action sequence, make it stop, make it stop (sixty more “make it stops” omitted for space). So glad it’s over, that was painful. Should I give it one star? No, I liked Pryce too much, one and a half stars. But it’s really, really close to one star. And no, I do not want to buy the toys.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five
4:01 pm edt 

The Croods

            Longtime readers know that I have a soft spot for animated movies. Sometimes when I go on a streak of bad reviews, people will ask me if I ever praise anything. I’ll point to some delightful animated films and then those people will roll their eyes and say, “Okay, besides them”. I keep hoping to see an animated Best Picture Oscar winner, and I consider it a grievous oversight that “Wreck-it Ralph” wasn’t even nominated for the award for 2012. “The Croods” is the first major animated feature of 2013, and it is proof that animation can be just as boring as all manner of live-action junk.

            The story follows a family of cave-dwellers, led by Grug (Nicolas Cage). Grug’s main concern is the survival of his family, which he maintains by keeping everyone cooped up in a cave where nothing can harm them. This doesn’t sit well with his daughter Eep (the aptly-named Emma Stone), who, like so many animated heroines, wants to go on adventures and see the world. She sneaks out one night and meets a guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who vaguely warns her of an upcoming apocalypse. A symptomatic earthquake soon destroys the Croods’ cave, and the family joins up with Guy to venture to a new home on a distant mountain. The whole situation drives Grug crazy because he hates leaving the cave and encountering new things. He also doesn’t like the way the family (especially Eep) takes to the forward-thinking Guy. Grug is opposed to the very idea of ideas.

            The human cast is extremely small. There’s Grug, Eep, and Guy, then there’s Grug’s traitless wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), sassy mother-in-law Gran (Cloris Leachman), dimwitted son Thunk (Clark Duke), and an infant daughter who just grunts instead of talking. Everything else is a prehistoric animal. The story could have used a villain, the closest we get are natural predators who want nothing more than a nosh. And even among them some of them turn out to be friendly.

            The obligatory message of the film is that you shouldn’t go through life hiding in a cave and playing it safe. I can’t accuse the film of “tacking on” this message since it hits us over the head with it in almost every scene. There are also some agreeable messages about the importance of family and perseverance, and some muddier stuff about chasing the sun and its tomorrows or some nonsense.

            The humor is uninspired. A lot of the jokes involve beating a single character trait into the ground. The film never lets you forget that Thunk is dumb, Gran is crazy, and Grug is overprotective (and also dumb). The worst gags are “Flintstones” knock-offs where the characters come up with modern technology using primitive materials. I cringed especially hard at the bits with conch shell cell phones. And while I can’t get too mad at gags with cuddly animals, please know that the film loves to have Guy’s pet sloth dramatically yell “DUH-DUH-DUHHHHHHH” in a squeaky voice. This gag has been shoved down our throats in the film’s advertising, and sounds exactly the same in the feature film. Kids are practically encouraged to repeat the phrase ad nauseam. You have been warned.

            Actually, consider this your warning for “The Croods” as a whole. It’s annoying and mostly uninteresting. The most involving thing about the film comes toward the end when a character decides to make a tremendous sacrifice. This is not to say that the film is inherently better in its bleakest moments, only that specific moments late in the film are more tender and powerful than the scenes leading up to them. But mostly the film is just unfunny and unmemorable. It’s as if the writers were living in a cave while humor was evolving.
3:59 pm edt 

The Call

            This past weekend saw an upset at the box office as “The Call” became the weekend’s most successful new release, beating out the star-studded but formulaic magic comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”. Maybe it was just my relief at not having to review that bomb, or maybe it was the excitement of rushing out to a movie after midnight Saturday, but I found the film to be surprisingly endearing. The same thing happened with “Chronicle” last year, and while “The Call” isn’t worthy of the near-rave review I gave “Chronicle”, I was at least glad to have gone out of my way to see it.

            Halle Berry stars as Jordan, a 911 operator who is traumatized in film’s opening moments when she mishandles a call about a home invasion that leads to a girl’s death. She resigns from doing the job so she can teach it, but six months later she’s compelled to take a call from another teenage girl. Casey (Abigail Breslin) has been kidnapped and locked in the trunk of a car that’s speeding down the L.A. freeway. Casey notes that the trunk contains a shovel, which implies that kidnapper plans to kill and bury her. Personally, I’d be grateful to see a shovel that I could use as a weapon or an escape tool, but she doesn’t find it comforting. Oh, and the kidnapper is the same creep from the home invasion (Michael Eklund) who left Jordan shaken and defeated.

            Casey is on a disposable phone which can’t be traced (of course), so she and Jordan have to come up with ways to lead police to the car from inside the trunk. It’s certainly convenient that the car has an easily-breakable taillight that provides an opening. Jordan also has to help Casey emotionally, since she needs her to cooperate even though the girl is understandably hysterical. Casey’s constant wailing is annoying at times, but I suppose it lends itself to the movie better than going into silent shock, which would probably be the realistic reaction. Berry and Breslin have good chemistry in their interaction, and they’re more sympathetic than a lot of the “heroes” I’ve seen lately.

            For its final act, the film realizes that Jordan has yet to really get in on the action, so it sees her personally follow a supposed dead end and confront the killer. It feels forced to have Jordan pursue a hunch alone, especially when she has a cop (Morris Chestnut) for a boyfriend. For the record, the killer doesn’t even know that he and Jordan are mortal enemies. The film could have had a funny moment where he gets his mind blown by the coincidence of his victims reaching the same 911 operator. I consider it a missed opportunity. The killer is planning to do some gruesome things to Casey, and different gruesome things transpire. I was satisfied with the punishment in the film’s final scenes, though I do question what kind of peace of mind the survivor(s) can have in walking away from a deadly enemy, no matter how badly they’re injured or restrained.

            “The Call” isn’t particularly smart or original. Its special effects aren’t great and the main character spends most of the time at a call station. The intelligence of its villain is distractingly inconsistent, though Michael Eklund is effectively despicable in his performance. He might actually be the film’s most pleasant surprise, though I wouldn’t call anything about his character “pleasant”. I doubt the film will make a lasting impression. But if you really have a bug to go see a movie, you could do worse. You could wind up in “Burt Wonderstone”, for example.
3:58 pm edt 

Oz the Great and Powerful

            I was talking with my mom the other day and we agreed that 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” was my first favorite movie. When I was a toddler I would make her impersonate the characters for hours on end, I owned toy models of all the characters, my first Halloween costume was the Tin Man, and of course I watched the movie enough times to make my poor parents sick of it. I knew there was basically no chance that the new prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful” would prove to be a worthy successor, but even with relaxed expectations the movie is a letdown.

            James Franco stars as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a sleazy carnival magician from black-and-white Kansas who wants to do great things with his life, but cons people and takes shortcuts at every opportunity. In an effort to avoid consequences, he escapes the carnival in a balloon. The balloon gets caught in one of those trademark terrible tornadoes and he soon finds himself in the colorful Land of Oz. Local witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) thinks he must be a legendary Wizard because he’s named after the land and can do some slight-of-hand “magic”. Oz lies and says that he’s the Wizard to impress the lovely Theodora and keeps up the lie when he learns that the Wizard gets to be a king with a palace full of treasure in the Emerald City. Oz visits the palace where Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) informs him that the one catch in the process is that in order to become king he has to kill Glinda (Michelle Williams), the “wickedest” of the sisters.

            Oz, figuring he can defeat Glinda without using magic, sets out on his journey with his flying monkey sidekick (Zach Braff). They come across a decimated porcelain village and rescue a damaged china girl (Joey King). The group soon encounters Glinda, who reveals that they’ve been deceived by the real Wicked Witch. She sees everyone through a flying monkey attack and introduces Oz to a peaceful community of farmers, tinkerers, and Munchkins. Realizing that the citizens of Oz need inspiration more than magic, Oz sticks with the lie, leading the community in a crusade to foil the Wicked Witch and another familiar villain.

            This film should have at least made for passable entertainment, but it gets ruined by its acting and special effects. James Franco is even less suited for this role than he was to host the Oscars a few years ago. He and Kunis are painfully stiff. The sets are often cartoon-like and unconvincing – it’s easy to tell that the actors are standing in front of green screens or that the scene is entirely CGI. The worst parts of the film are the action sequences that combine the two detracting elements. We’ll see a bit of action with bad special effects where we can’t quite see the actors, then we’ll get a shot of the actors doing a bad job of reacting to the action, then back to the action with the bad special effects.

            I’m so mad that we’re getting “Oz the Great and Powerful” when there’s a perfectly good “Wizard of Oz” prequel just waiting to be made. For years I’ve been dying to see a big-screen version of the Broadway musical “Wicked”. Now I’m afraid that it’s even less likely to come to fruition because studios will think that we’ve had enough updates on the classic. On the other hand, the new film had a terrific opening weekend, so maybe the opinion will be that “Wicked” needs to be made while the property is still hot. In any case, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a disappointment that isn’t likely to end up as anyone’s favorite movie.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:56 pm edt 

Jack the Giant Slayer

 

            Earlier this year, I had the displeasure of reviewing “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”. The R-rated update on the fairy tale made for one of the most miserable moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had in my life. So I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see another action-packed take (though with a more family-friendly PG-13 rating instead of an R) on a children’s classic in “Jack the Giant Slayer”. I even had to see the film at the same obviously-neglected theater that hosted “Hansel and Gretel”. While I can’t say that the theater itself has gotten any better, I can safely say that the evening’s entertainment was much more tolerable, even enjoyable, this time around.

            The film is of course based on “Jack and the Beanstalk”, but the adventure elements don’t seem out of place. Nicholas Hoult stars as Jack, a good-hearted but bumbling farmboy who trades his uncle’s horse (not cow) to a monk for magic beans (which the monk promises is just collateral for coins to be paid later, in case you’re wondering why Jack makes such an unwise trade). Local princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) stops by Jack’s house one night while running away from home in a storm. One of the beans picks that minute to grow, and does it ever grow. Jack gets thrown to the ground, but Isabelle gets carried up to the clouds and the land of the giants. The giants, led by the two-headed General Fallon (Bill Nighy), aren’t too happy to see a human again after a centuries-long banishment to the clouds (there’s some nonsense about the giants being ruled by whoever wears a special crown). They’re content to have Isabelle for a snack and be done with her.

            Isabelle’s father the king (Ian McShane) assembles a ragtag crew for a rescue mission. Leading the group is Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the dashing captain of the guard. No doubt some viewers will see Elmont as the real hero of the movie, and really there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be two. Also along is Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci), Isabelle’s scheming fiancé who is only too eager to make a run at usurping the throne. Jack tags along too, and surprises everybody including himself when he acts heroically, rescues the princess, and leaves the giants snarling in the dust.

            Up to this point, the film, though inoffensive, has been about as bad as it looks in the trailers. Jack and company have had some generic adventures dodging CGI giants. But then the giants figure out a way to come down to Earth and attack the kingdom. This leads to a climactic battle that far exceeded my expectations. Medieval weaponry is put to good use, proving that action scenes in such a setting do not require automatic weapons. The king himself gets in on the action, proving to be a surprisingly effectual leader. Plus we’re treated to one of the more creative villain deaths I’ve seen in a while. It’s nice that the film’s best scenes come at the end, it caused me to leave the theater with a certain bounce in my step.

            I can’t decide if “Jack the Giant Slayer” is helped or hindered by the comparisons to “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”. It’s bad company for sure, but it also looks like a giant of quality next to it. I’m not trying to make it seem like the film is award-worthy, only that it isn’t the same crushing disappointment (or completely expected failure) as every other film I’ve seen this year. The good news is that we finally have the first half-decent movie of 2013. The bad news is that we had to wait this long to get it.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.


3:54 pm edt 


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