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Monday, December 9, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

                I wish I could be more supportive of “The Hunger Games.” Here is a blockbuster franchise that has nothing to do with superheroes, nor does it contain tired recent tropes like wizards or vampires. I’m all ready to endorse the strong heroine of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and I’m intrigued by the society that watches intently each year as teenagers battle to the death as a sacrifice to a corrupt government. But something always seems to go wrong in the execution of these films that prevents me from enjoying them or being able to recommend them.

                “Catching Fire” picks up six months after the events of 2012’s “The Hunger Games.” Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned as champions to District 12, though the dual nature of their victory does not sit well with the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). They embark on a tour of the other districts and can’t help but notice that a rebellious spirit has swept the nation. Snow always allowed the Games to have one winner so the population would live with a glimmer of hope for their own future, but apparently two winners (which means 22 dead participants instead of 23) gives them too much hope. Snow believes that the former winners have too much power as celebrities, so he decides that the next Hunger Games will have nothing but winners tearing each other apart. Katniss is once again chosen to represent District 12 and Peeta is back in as well, volunteering to take the place of mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson).

                A bunch of familiar faces are back. The ghoulish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is still the team’s chaperone. The tender Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) remains Katniss’ loyal stylist. Katniss once again greatly misses her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and sister Prim (Willow Shields). And the Games’ preshow coverage is again handled by emcee Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), who in the first film added an element of delightfully twisted showmanship to the proceedings, now his lightheartedness suggests that he’s too dumb to comprehend the consequences of the Games.

                There are new characters too, which is no surprise given the high turnover in the deadly Games. There is, for example, first-time Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who basically serves as a director for the atmosphere of the Games. Other contestants include the outspoken Johanna (Jena Malone), pretty boy Finnick (Sam Claflin), and the genius Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). I was extremely disappointed by Wright, who usually gives movie-stealing performances, here cruising by as a nerd caricature.

                A few decent scenes take place before the announcement of the new Games (just try to get through Katniss’ eulogy for Rue without sniffling), and a few take place as the characters prepare for the Games (I’ll admit I snorted with laughter at a lie Peeta tells to try to get the Games cancelled), but of course these movies are all about the Games themselves. And what underwhelming Games they are this time. The violence is even more neutered than before, but the real problem is that most of it doesn’t come at the hands of the contestants. Plutarch made the venue so dangerous that people die without anyone killing them, which defeats the whole purpose of the Games.

                “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is the second part of a four-part film series (the book series is a trilogy, but the films will continue the recent trend of splitting the last book into two parts). There’s still hope for this franchise; it has a good cast, a unique setting, and plenty of interesting elements. I just hope that next year’s “Mockingjay - Part 1” has something more interesting for the characters to do than fight in a soulless new Hunger Games.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:01 pm est 

The Best Man Holiday

Previously, in 1999’s “The Best Man”…

 

                Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) got engaged to his girlfriend Robyn (Sanaa Lathan) at the wedding of their friends Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia (Monica Calhoun). The happy ending came despite Harper’s temptation to have an affair with old friend Jordan (Nia Long) and Lance discovering that Harper had an affair with Mia years earlier (he forgave them both and got married with Harper as his best man). Elsewhere in the wedding party, Julian (Harold Perrineau) fell instantly in love with dancer Candace (Regina Hall) and broke up with his annoying girlfriend Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), who at the wedding hooked up with Quentin (Terrence Howard), the swinging bachelor of the group. “The Best Man Holiday” opens with a montage to try and get you caught up, but the clips make little sense if you’re coming in without a frame of reference.

The new film sees all the old friends gathering together for a weekend-long Christmas celebration at Lance and Mia’s. Harper wants to be happy that his wife Robyn is pregnant, but is distracted because his writing career is in a rut and he’s having financial trouble. He can get things back on track if he writes a biography of football superstar Lance, but is afraid to ask him for any favors because there are still some hard feelings over the affair with Mia. Julian just lost a $2 million grant for his school because of a past indiscretion by his wife Candace that puts both the school and his marriage in jeopardy. Jordan is in a happy relationship with a co-worker, but they have a fight early in the weekend that threatens to dampen the holiday spirit. Shelby has since become a star of trashy reality TV and looks to spend the weekend spreading drama, especially involving her ex-boyfriend Julian and now-wife Candace. Quentin is still enjoying the bachelor lifestyle. Lance and Mia seem to be the most content, happy and open, which in a film like this means that they must be hiding scariest secret of all.

                The story bounces around a lot, so I’ll just share some loosely-connected observations. Harper is a strikingly unlikable main character; he’s deceitful as ever and now he hurts his family with his pride by refusing to take gifts like much-needed money (somewhat understandable) and used baby furniture (no good reason). Jordan is barely involved in the story, which is surprising considering how much she factored into the first one. It’s actually a smart idea to say that Shelby is a trashy TV star, because the only way to explain her grating mannerisms (which I attribute to De Sousa’s acting and not the script) is to say that she’s been conditioned to speak in sound bites and antagonize people for the sake of ratings. She used to do these things for no reason. On a more serious note, I think Lance’s Christian beliefs are integrated into the story much better this time as opposed to the first film, where they were wedged in as a way of forcing him to consider forgiveness.

                Beware, “The Best Man Holiday” is far from the cuddly romantic comedy it’s been marketed to be. I knew there’d be some conflict, but I wasn’t prepared for the constant hostility, sexually explicit arguing (in front of children no less), and the film’s darkest plot point. It’s handled touchingly, but it’s incredibly saddening. I do think the film is better than the bland original, though that isn’t saying much. It’s curious that this film was made at all, as the original made only $34 million 14 years ago. I didn’t know people were clamoring for it, but judging by the $30 million it made this past weekend, I guess they were. It’s a gamble that is paying off a bit creatively and a lot commercially.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:59 pm est 

Thor: The Dark World

                I believe Thor to be the second most popular of the Avengers, and here’s the breakdown. Iron Man is the most popular; his solo franchise is already at three movies, they get the best reviews, and make the most money. Hawkeye and Black Widow are the least popular since neither has been asked to carry a film yet. The Incredible Hulk probably went into the “Avengers” franchise as the most popular, but his solo films have been plagued by bad reviews and casting changes. And this may just be my opinion, but Captain America is lame and I think people are onto him. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get behind a superhero that got his powers from taking questionable injections.

                Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the second most popular because his films’ releases feel like the second-biggest events (he’s the only one other than Iron Man to be granted an opening in the coveted first-weekend-in-May slot). It also doesn’t hurt that his series contributed the official villain for “The Avengers” in his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It is therefore no surprise that “Thor: The Dark World” dominated the box office this past weekend despite being largely unimpressive.

                The new film sees the universe under attack from a bland villain named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who is trying to obtain a powerful weapon that will destroy everything in the world, allowing him to conquer all the nothing he wants. Thor, meanwhile, wiles away his days enforcing peace on various planets with the help of his trusty hammer before going home to his planet Asgard. He’s doing good work, even earning the approval of his withholding father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but he isn’t happy. Some of this has to do with the family drama triggered by Loki’s imprisonment, but mostly it’s because he misses his girlfriend Jane (Natalie Portman). Luckily he gets an excuse to go to Earth and see her when she stumbles across the weapon that Malekith is seeking. The weapon inhabits Jane’s body and Thor takes her to Asgard for medical attention. Malekith invades Asgard and kidnaps Jane, so Thor has to stop him for three reasons: 1) to save his girlfriend, 2) to save the world, and 3) for revenge. The third part even motivates Loki to join him, though it’s pretty evident that his brother can’t be trusted.

                The plot is hard to follow and it really shouldn’t be. It’s not like the film is truly concerned with developing its characters or universe, it’s just Thor being Thor and saving the world from the threat du jour. Personality has been sucked from all but three characters, one of whom (a friend of Jane’s played by Kat Dennings) is super-annoying, another which is good for a few scenes before making a grand exit (email me for the character’s identity), and Loki. Yes, Loki has gone from being the wimpy villain in “Thor” to being the wimpy villain in “The Avengers” to actually being a decent character. His lines and jokes provide more entertainment than anyone else’s and there’s a surprising emotional impact to a scene where he just doesn’t feel like playing a trick.

                “Thor: The Dark World” has three things going for it; Loki, a Viking funeral, and the choice of venue (or should I say venues?) for the final battle. Other than that, it’s a routine and charmless superhero movie. It adds little to “Avengers” lore, yet fans will have to see it strictly for continuity. Its release comes only six months after “Iron Man 3” and only five months before “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The world clearly isn’t going to lose interest in the Avengers any time soon, and with success so certain, can you blame the various entries for making increasingly weak efforts?

 

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

Ender's Gane

                It’s hard to take movies like “Ender’s Game” seriously when they make it obvious early on that they’re building to a huge surprise at the end. As if the title and the name of the main character weren’t enough of a clue, there’s an early scene where we see Ender (Asa Butterfield) use a last-minute ploy to win a video game battle against a bully who had been soundly beating him for the whole match. The scene drills it into our head that he is going to do something in the last minute of the movie that will negate a lot of what came before it. Maybe everything that came before it. It’s no surprise that there’s a surprise, but I was surprised by how much I liked the surprise. I later decided that the reason I liked the surprise was that I hadn’t much cared for the rest of the movie and it was good news when something came along to shatter the setup.

                The movie takes place in the future where much of the planet has been destroyed by aliens (many films don’t think we’d fare well in our first alien invasion). We fought them off, but we need to be prepared for their return. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of the many who want to defend the planet someday. Ender starts out on Earth where he’s good at video games, but yearns to do something greater. He then goes to a school in outer space where he’s good at laser tag, but yearns to do something greater. He then goes to a school on another planet to play a really elaborate video game and if he does well there, he’ll finally be able to do something greater. The film refers to these training activities with fancy terminology like “battle simulations,” but come on, it’s laser tag and video games.

                Ender is selected for these constant promotions by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) who, even at the preliminary Earth school, is convinced that Ender will be the next great defender of the human race. As a result, all his attention for the entire movie seems to be on Ender. As a matter of fact, all of everybody’s attention seems to be on Ender. It’s laughably rare for any of the other students to get a word in edgewise. The film is based on a book, and on paper the characters can get away with this kind of interaction because we can’t see a roomful of students being ignored in favor of Ender. But on screen it looks weird and the adults come off as downright neglectful.

                Speaking of the adults, the film doesn’t quite know how to use them either. The exception is Ford, who is adequately menacing and memorable. Between this and his performance as Branch Rickey in “42,” this has been a good year for him. But Viola Davis is completely wasted as a major serving under Graff. Ben Kingsley looks like he’s ready to turn the movie on its head as a war hero mentor to Ender, but disappointingly little comes of his involvement. The film can, however, boast a scene stealer in Nonso Anozie. He’s a drill sergeant with a booming voice that commands respect, fear, and jealousy. Jealousy as in, “I wish I had your voice, sir!”

                The film has a decent ending, which means I left in a better mood than if the good five minutes had come at the beginning and then fizzled out. But the main character gets too much attention for someone who frankly isn’t that interesting and too much of the plot revolves around laser tag and video games, from schooling to battle training to recreation to dreams. I guess what I’m saying is that “Ender’s Game” would have been a better movie if it had less Ender and fewer games.    

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:56 pm est 

Carrie

                “Carrie” tells the story of a teenager who goes on a killing spree at her school. Since we see her get bullied, we’re supposed to feel sympathy for her. The film seems to have an attitude that even though she does a bad thing, that doesn’t make her a bad person. I say that anyone who murders classmates in cold blood is a bad person.

                The film is of course a remake of the 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek, itself adapted from a novel by Stephen King. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Carrie White, and while her acting skills are certainly up to snuff, it probably wasn’t the best decision to cast such an established starlet in the role. She epitomizes the often-mocked cliché of the undesirable outcast who just has to fix up her hair and makeup and she looks beautiful.

                Carrie’s mother Margaret is played by Julianne Moore, and boy does she make me miss Piper Laurie from the 1976 version. She’s a religious zealot, the religion being a brand of Christianity pretty much invented by her. She tortures Carrie with these beliefs and Julianne Moore tortures us with her acting. The character is written so over-the-top that the scariest way to play her is straight. But along comes that scenery-gnasher Moore, who adds so many embellishments that she manages to be the least believable thing in a movie about a girl with telekinesis.

                Carrie is harassed at home and at school, where she’s humiliated during an incident in the girls’ locker room. The gym teacher (Judy Greer, one of my favorite actresses who nevertheless has no chance of making sense of this character) punishes the girls who bullied her, but at no point does she encourage them to reach out to her and maybe not bully her for the right reasons. The girls just want to get back at Carrie even worse, especially Chris (Portia Doubleday) who defies the punishment and gets banned from prom as a result. Sue (Gabriella Wilde) feels sorry for Carrie, so sorry that she convinces her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Egort) to invite the ugly duckling to prom.

Carrie is at once scared, overjoyed, and several different types of confused. She knows it’s probably a trick to set up further humiliation, but she hopes against hope that it isn’t. She doesn’t know what to do around a boy, or even other girls for that matter. Her mom promises to interfere even before she verbally promises to interfere, but a little help from some newfound telekinetic abilities can take care of that. She goes to prom knowing that it’s her social Do or Die time. As it turns out, it’s more of a Do, Die, or Kill time.

The film is billed as a horror movie, but the last quarter of the movie isn’t really scary, just violent. Your monsters are Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore and realistically, how scary can they be? The only time the climactic sequences approach terror is when someone gets ahold of something sharp that is scary in and of itself. And even then their edge is taken away by dicey special effects. Plus they’re further dulled by choppy editing. My apologies for not working “cleave” in there somewhere.

Poor quality aside, it’s the very idea of the killing scenes that I find most offensive. The minute Carrie starts harming people who mean no harm to her, she loses all sympathy from me. Real-life killers often have a history of abuse, but do we relish in their revenge, especially if they aren’t targeting the individuals who abused them? No, we think that it’s a shame they were abused, but that doesn’t make them any less horrible people. At the end of the film, it’s supposedly the ignorant people who still think of Carrie as a freak. I know Carrie’s story, I’ve considered the evidence, and I’ve decided she’s a freak.

 

One Star out of Five.
2:54 pm est 

Captain Phillips

                “Captain Phillips” is a movie that gets progressively better. It starts out almost painfully bad and it builds to perhaps the best ending scene of the year. You’ll probably start off feeling pretty smug since the real-life story was big news back in 2009. Obviously, that gives the movie an element of predictability. But somewhere along the way your pride will shrink and your heart will swell. You’ll be actively rooting for Richard Phillips and you may just have some compassion left over for his abductors.

                The film follows the plight of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) as he fights to protect his ship and then himself from Somali pirates. We don’t get much of a feel for his personality; we see him with his wife for about a minute, he mentions a son with a questionable work ethic, he has his crew work harder than they’d like; the film doesn’t paint much of a picture. We sure know he’s from Vermont though, because Hanks plays him with a thick, distracting accent. It becomes less of a distraction as the film goes on, I can’t say if this is because I just got acclimatized to it or if Vermont accents disappear when one is terrified.

                We get a welcome break from Phillips’ boring routine as the film establishes the pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). There’s some debate over how much control Somali pirates have in their choice of livelihood. The film sees Muse’s village threatened by a warlord’s goons to make a piracy quota or else. Later in the film Muse and his men talk of bringing in millions of dollars, and they don’t seem to be thinking of a better life, they’re thinking of a single good meal and buying some time from the warlord. These men are doomed in a way that may have nothing to do with being defeated by our heroes.

                The pirates attack Phillips’ cargo ship, not even sure of what they want to do once they’re onboard. Phillips does what he can to get them to go away. He offers them money, he offers them a lifeboat, he even wounds one of them and suggests the others take him to go get treated. The method of the injury is taken straight out of “Die Hard,” and I was ready to proclaim this scene derivative until I realized that it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Phillips and his crew have seen the film and used one of its better ideas.

                The pirates realize that they can’t control the entire ship so they head out on a lifeboat with Phillips as a hostage. Phillips proves even more resourceful, playing mind games to get water, send out help signals, and even turn the pirates against each other. The situation attracts the attention of the U.S. Navy, which the pirates consider a good thing since these can be the people who get them their ransom money. The Navy of course has different plans and stages a daring rescue reminiscent of the climactic sequence of “Zero Dark Thirty.”

                Both Phillips and the pirates become more interesting as their desperation grows. Phillips’s calm exterior slowly fades away as his resilience is tested and the pirates, who weren’t exactly calm in the first place, really go crazy. It all leads to multiple acts of deadly force, followed by a scene that is much less violent and yet much more haunting. This final scene more than makes up for any complaints I had about Hanks’ accent at the beginning of the movie. “Captain Phillips” may build suspense slowly, but it will win you over in the end.

 

Three Stars out of Five.
2:52 pm est 

Gravity

            The theater where I saw “Gravity” was packed with people, packed with human flesh. The heft of the huge crowd made the house very hot. And yet, it wasn’t five minutes into the movie when my blood ran cold. The fingers on my right hand soon hurt from the death grip I had on my armrest. Even my legs were weirdly locked, as if subconsciously I was determined not to lose my balance – while I was seated. Such is the experience of “Gravity,” a film so intense it can affect you on a physical level.

            The film stars special effects orchestrated by director Alfonso Cuaron. The lead actors are George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. They play astronauts whose mission is interrupted when debris from an exploded Russian satellite destroys their spaceship, leaving them stranded in outer space. If they want to get home, they’ll have to get to the International Space Station without a ship, use a badly damaged escape pod to get to a Chinese space station, and use an escape pod that might not even exist to make it back to Earth. The task would be harrowing enough on Earth if they were just transferring between cars; the disorienting climate of space makes it seem all the more hopeless.

            Clooney’s Matt Kowalski is about as experienced as an astronaut can be; he is the person we’d most like by our side in this situation. Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is a very smart version of the rest of us. She has minimal training and experience, and isn’t prepared for the setbacks that occur. Which is to say that she’s scared and stripped of all composure and rationality. I’d call her whiny and idiotic if I blamed her for a second.

Stone gets separated from Kowalski and we’re with her through every desperate, self-doubting moment as she struggles for survival alone. I was unhappy a few years ago when Bullock won an Oscar for “The Blind Side” because I didn’t like the idea of prefacing her name with “Academy Award Winner” before her typical dumb romantic comedies and insipid weepies. Now that I’ve seen “Gravity,” not only do I fully support her title of “Academy Award Winner,” but I can’t think of any other actress I’d rather see win for this year.

Speaking of Oscars, expect this film to run the technical categories. It has the best special effects I’ve seen since at least “Life of Pi.” Cuaron and his team have clearly taken this opportunity to challenge themselves and the result is a space film with an atmosphere unlike any I’ve ever seen before. The actors and set pieces move around beautifully in tranquil scenes and terrifyingly in intense ones (Beware: the intense scenes include a lot of spinning and shaking and may give viewers motion sickness). I’m terrible at science, so I don’t know how well some of the film’s incredible elements would hold up in the real world (real outerworld?). As it is, the only nitpick I’m confident making is that I don’t think NASA would send up a team of astronauts who are such strangers to one another.

“Gravity” is the best film of 2013 so far. The performances, effects, and script are all impressive and tight. The film threatens to destroy itself for a moment in favor of an implausible twist, but the twist turns out to be a false alarm and we’re all the more grateful that the film didn’t go in this direction. The film poignantly taps into the universal fear of isolation while never looking like it’s cutting corners with its simplicity.

 

Four Stars out of Five.
2:50 pm est 

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

            The original “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was one of my favorite movies of 2009. The film was based on a book that I absolutely loved as a child, it gave the lead role to the awesome Bill Hader (though surprisingly it was Mr. T who stole the movie), and it was sweet and funny at every turn. Now comes this ill-advised sequel with no connection to the book, voice performances with no personality (and no Mr. T!), and humor that’s decent but not on the level of the original.

            The film takes place minutes after the end of the first film. Flint Lockwood (Hader) has apparently destroyed his food/weather machine, but the small fishing island of Swallow Falls has been badly harmed. In comes science magnate Chester V (Will Forte) to evacuate everybody and offer Flint a job as an inventor. Flint tries his best to impress Chester V, but falls short and embarrasses himself. No matter, Chester V has important mission for Flint: return to Swallow Falls and finish off his resilient machine, which is now churning out food/animal hybrids. Along for the adventure are Flint’s girlfriend Sam (Anna Faris), his fisherman father (James Caan), his loyal monkey Steve, Sam’s multi-talented cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), tough cop with a sensitive side Earl (Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T), and bully-turned-friend-also-turned-chicken Brent (Andy Samberg).

            First the good news: the film has plenty of parts that are funny. It’s hard to not fall in love with the food animals, especially a baby strawberry. The best gags seem to center around Flint’s father, with his charismatic eyebrow, his affinity for teaching watermelons how to fish, and a trophy catch that is hardly a trophy. Steve the monkey is welcome as always, and admittedly Earl’s macho act still holds up with Crews doing the voice

            But I wouldn’t be saying “First the good news” if there wasn’t bad news to come. Flint is less likeable this time around, with bossiness as his defining trait. Chester V is a predictable, underwhelming villain whose ulterior motives can be sensed way too early. The film goes to great lengths to argue that the food animals are actually friendly, only for the argument to fall apart ironically at the film’s climax. Most unforgiveable is that a lot of the humor is just subpar. Bathroom gags fall flat, as do bits about Flint’s useless inventions. The idea of food animals is funny at first, but there are only so many times you can hear hybrid names like “Shrimpanzee” before the act gets old.

            There’s also something off about the voice performances. They’re so clearly read off a script and drained of life. I didn’t see much chemistry between the characters, and I was very aware that the roles were recorded separately. The Flint/Sam relationship, so touching in the first film, is now useless and forced. The relationship between Flint and his father fares a little better, but again falls short of its predecessor.

            “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was just fine as a standalone film. It didn’t feel like a commercial for anything except maybe the book, whereas this one seems like it’s trying to sell toys of the food animals and Flint’s inventions. Sure, some of the humor works; though it seems like the good original ideas started and ended with the food animals. Once we get used to them, we’re left with a pretty lame movie. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables in “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” but that doesn’t stop the film from being cinematic junk food.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:48 pm est 

Prisoners

            I see “Prisoners” as the unofficial kickoff of awards season. Little by little, we’re going to be seeing more movies that rely on critical praise to sell tickets instead of blatant bankability. “Prisoners” deals with heavy subject matter, mostly involving child abduction, so the story has little to offer the blockbuster crowd. It’s not that the film completely eschews commercial success; it boasts an impressive cast including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano. But the film doesn’t promise fun of any kind. It wants you to be moved by its forceful elements and for you to leave knowing that you’ve seen a good movie.

            One dreary Thanksgiving, two children go missing. One’s parents are played by Jackman and Bello, the other’s by Howard and Davis. The safe, reasonable explanations quickly fade away and it becomes apparent that the children have been taken. A cocky young detective (Gyllenhaal) is sent to track down a suspicious RV seen in the area. Behind the wheel is Alex (Dano), a mentally unstable young man who lives with his aunt (Leo). It looks like the police have their man, but the vehicle doesn’t contain any trace of the girls and Alex’s IQ is too low to pull off an elaborate crime with discretion. The police have to let Alex go, but Keller (Jackman) doesn’t think they interrogated him vigorously enough. He takes matters into his own hands.

            The angry Keller is the most memorable character in the movie. Distrustful of the police even before they let Alex go, he is determined to take control of the situation. He lets out his rage and aggression often, and yet you still get the feeling he’s keeping a lot bottled up. He interrogates another character claiming to want answers, but he chooses to attack the mouth, which of course would prevent the suspect from giving an answer. Perhaps inadvertently, he has put his own bloodlust ahead of his desire to find a solution and we wonder what kind of price he’ll pay for it.

            Detective Loki is an interesting character in his own right, slowly realizing that he’s not as good as his reputation. They say early in the film that he’s solved every case he’s ever been assigned, but it seems that those were easy cases. Now he has this challenge before him and his competence is becoming more and more questionable by the scene. At one point it looks like he’s botched the case entirely. He’s also learning that he can’t live with himself if he has even one defeat on his conscience.

            The plot takes twists and turns, theories come and go, suspects shuffle around. Alex’s fate is hotly debated, risky since it’s not even clear if the girls have been taken. The characters’ decisions become increasingly inexplicable, and frankly the film tries to fill too many logic gaps by using the characters’ emotional state as an excuse for their irrational behavior.

            I said I see “Prisoners” as the unofficial start of awards season, do I see it as an awards contender? Not in most categories. The mystery is compelling, but it doesn’t break any new ground. Nor does the movie have a look or feel that I don’t think I could get anywhere else. Most of the performances fade into the background as Jackman and the scenery-chewing Leo dominate the movie. Those two I could see getting acting nominations. Jackman is incredibly intense for a guy known for playing a relatively apathetic superhero and Leo has a way-over-the-top style that I find somewhat off-putting, but it won her an Oscar for “The Fighter” three years ago. I recommend “Prisoners” for people who have been longing for a good serious movie to hold them over until we get better serious movies.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:47 pm est 

Insidious: Chapter 2

            Simply put, if you’ve never seen 2010’s “Insidious,” then you should not see “Insidious: Chapter 2.” This is not to say that you shouldn’t see “Insidious” and then see “Chapter 2,” as a matter of fact it would do you well to see the first film as closely as you can to the second. “Chapter 2” demands that you have an intense familiarity with its predecessor and isn’t afraid to leave you behind if you don’t. I’ll give you a quick recap, please be advised that the following section contains spoilers for “Insidious,” though if they really are spoilers then that means that you’ve never seen “Insidious” and therefore aren’t the audience for “Chapter 2.”

 

            Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) had successfully rescued the soul of his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from the purgatory-like dimension known as The Further. This of course came as a great relief to his family, including his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), not just because they had Dalton back, but because freaky things would assumedly stop happening around his Earth-bound body. However, paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) sensed something was wrong with the returning Josh. She discovered that his body was actually inhabited by an evil spirit who then killed her and rejoined the family, likely set on killing them as well.

           

            The new film takes place right after the first one. By “right after” I mean that it continues a scene that was cut off for dramatic effect. The first act of the film is very much like the first act of the original. Freaky things happen around the Lambert house and it’s clear that they’re not out of trouble just yet. Renai is scared out of her wits, but “Josh” insists they’re not in any danger. But at least he can’t deny that the scariness is caused by spirits this time, so there’s no frustrating journey where he eventually comes to accept something that we already knew from the commercials.

            The spirits from “Insidious” were pretty loosely defined; this film does a lot more to identify the source of the terror. There’s a whole backstory with a serial killer and his abusive mother. For once I don’t think it was a good idea to develop the villains as characters. There’s something about understanding them that makes them seem less threatening. They were much scarier as unknowns whose random attacks lent an uneasy unpredictability to the proceedings.  

            I liked the way the story was structured, with layered approaches to time, identities, and planes of existence. I can’t say I was able to follow all of it (I’m still not sure which violent episodes were carried out by the serial killer and which ones were carried out by his mother), but I got the gist enough to know when the film was giving us some clever payoffs. And that includes the details that go back to the first film. But again, be warned, you really have to have a memory of details from the first film, especially in a scene that is played again nearly shot for shot but this time with a new context.

            The puzzling plot works to the film’s advantage, but not a lot else works. The scares are less effective once they start coming with explanations. The Lambert family is less fun this time around and the characters who are supposed to be fun (like the bumbling comic relief scientists) are just annoying. Also, Patrick Wilson doesn’t bring enough madness to the role of the possessed killer, whose family-threatening antics are straight out of “The Shining.” If you were a big fan of “Insidious,” don’t let me stop you from seeing “Chapter 2.” But if you didn’t like it, you won’t be won over by this follow-up and if you didn’t see it, you won’t be able to win a game of catch-up.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:46 pm est 

Riddick

            I have no idea why anybody would want to see a third “Riddick” movie in 2013. We first met Riddick (Vin Diesel) in a 2000 sci-fi/horror movie called “Pitch Black.” The film turned a small profit, making $39 million at the domestic box office on a budget of $23 million. Four years later, Vin Diesel was a bigger star, and so a bigger budget was allotted for a sequel. “The Chronicles of Riddick” cost $105 million and flopped at $56 million. It also got dreadful reviews and took years off Diesel’s career. Now we’re being asked to rejoin a franchise whose last installment was a movie that lost nearly $50 million nine years ago.

            To be fair, the new film tries its best to distance itself from “The Chronicles of Riddick.” All too quickly Riddick forfeits his title of Lord Marshal of the Necromongers (don’t ask) in exchange for a ride to his home planet. The Necromongers instead take him to an unfamiliar desert planet where they leave him for dead. And just like that, “Chronicles” is written off and I say good riddance. The elaborate fantasy world of that film was too expensive and it was a bad fit for Riddick’s goonlike disposition. Of course, this does mean that we’ll probably get an unfortunate sequel where Riddick gets revenge on the Necromongers.

            Riddick does his best to survive on the new planet (even domesticating a hideous zebra-dog), but realizes he won’t last long with cyclones of scorpions living in the planet’s water supply. He’s very much a wanted fugitive, so he decides to bait two groups of bounty hunters into landing on the planet. One team is led by Santana (Jordi Molla), a character so instantly annoying it’s a wonder his men don’t kill him themselves on the ride over. The other, more intimidating group is led by Johns (Matt Nable), who has a personal score to settle with Riddick. The movie assumes that you’ll recognize the name Johns from “Pitch Black,” a film that made less than $40 million 13 years ago. The film also assumes that you won’t question why the 41-year-old Nable is playing the father of the 38-year-old Cole Hauser. Riddick’s plan is to steal one team’s ship and let them all escape together on the other one. The teams don’t cooperate with him, or each other, and soon it looks as though nobody may get off the planet alive.

            Like “Pitch Black,” the bulk of “Riddick” is a typical slasher movie with alien scorpions as the killers. We’re supposed to get enjoyment out of guessing which of the bounty hunters will live the longest and how creative and gruesome the deaths will be. Riddick gets in a few funny lines, usually pertaining to how violent he is or how dumb everyone else is to mess with him. The same can be said of Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), a female bounty hunter from Johns’ team who likes to flaunt her violent tendencies. She also does another kind of scene that gets the male audience howling, though not with laughter.

            If you look hard enough, you can find some fun moments in “Riddick.” But there’s no reason why this film should exist. The main reason why “The Chronicles of Riddick” flopped (aside from that it was horrible) was because Diesel and director David Twohy saw a franchise where there wasn’t one. And now they want to continue this franchise that never was, using characters and storylines that nobody remembers. I know it makes sense to release a movie where Vin Diesel shoots and fights a lot, but why add to this disaster of a series? If anything, they should have just remade “Pitch Black.”

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

2:43 pm est 

One Direction: This is Us

            “One Direction: This Is Us” is a concert movie, so it doesn’t have to play by the same rules as other movies. There’s no pressure for it to be clever or exciting. All the movie promises is One Direction – the British boy band consisting of Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson. The film has a lot of One Direction, so if nothing else the film delivers what it promises. As I am not obsessed with One Direction, I am not the target audience for this movie. But at least I got to see it with a very responsive audience (mostly teenage girls, and yes, I was very much out of place) Bear that in mind as I share the following thoughts:

 

-The most popular member of the band by far is Harry Styles. The audience squealed for him even when he was talking in voiceover as opposed to singing. He’s popular now, but I doubt that in ten years he’ll be the artist that Justin Timberlake turned out to be. Then again, I never would have guessed in 2003 that Justin Timberlake would turn out to be the artist he is now.

 

-Though the audience reaction was largely positive (cheers and squeals), there was one massive booing. It came before the movie in a Diet Coke ad starring Styles’ ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift. I never thought I’d see an audience side against Taylor like that. It’s officially time for her to move on from her image as a jilted lover.

 

-The film is roughly a third musical performances, a third footage of the members goofing around, and a third talk of how great it is to be in One Direction. They really overdo it on that last part. Of course it’s great to be in One Direction, it’s a lifetime of fame and fortune for performing pop songs. There’s the slightest talk of early mornings and hard rehearsals, but that’s just to appease detractors who insist that they have it entirely on Easy Street. While I wouldn’t wish misery on any of the members, I did have a chuckle as I imagined one of them whining incessantly just to be different.

 

-There’s a lot of emphasis on the role Simon Cowell played in the members’ careers after they got cut from “The X Factor” in 2010. I guess Cowell learned from the success of people like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry that there’s a lot of potential in people who lose on his shows.

 

-I was taken off guard about halfway through the movie when the group launched into a cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag.” That song came out when I was the same age as a lot of One Direction fans. It was creepy that I could sing along to this one and most of the audience couldn’t.

 

-The film is obviously short on suspense, but I found something to give me anxiety anyway. I wondered if the final performance of the movie would be “What Makes You Beautiful,” the group’s most famous song, or “Best Song Ever,” recently voted Song of the Summer at the MTV Video Music Awards. One song serves as the film’s grand finale, the other is relegated to playing over the credits without performance footage. Whatever your thoughts on this movie, you have to admit it’s a bad idea not to feature a performance of such a popular song.

 

            These are the thoughts that got a bored adult through “One Direction: This Is Us.” The film is quite agreeable in that “glorified commercial” sort of way. If you’re a fan of One Direction, you’ll find a lot to like. If you’re seeing the movie with a fan of One Direction, you’ll probably like that they’re finding a lot to like. But if you have no interest in One Direction and out of sick curiosity you see this movie, you’ll only want to head in One Direction – to the theater exit.
2:41 pm est 

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

            “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” gets off on the wrong foot with its terrible title. It’s bad enough when sequels have that annoying colon, but “The Mortal Instruments” is not yet a series, so there’s no need for this film to differentiate itself from other films. It would be like presumptively putting a “1” at the end of the title; it might make sense down the line if the film spawns sequels, but we don’t know that yet. What if this film bombs and they don’t make any sequels? Then you’re just left with an awkward title with a superfluous subhead. After “City of Bones,” I’m certainly not wishing to see any more of “The Mortal Instruments.”

            Clary Fray (Lily Collins) is an average teenager who lives with her mildly overprotective mother (Lena Headey). One day Clary unwittingly draws a mysterious symbol and strange things start happening. She sees more of the symbol, she gets into a club that shouldn’t admit her, and she thinks she sees a murder. Soon her mother goes missing and she has to fight off a demonic dog. She’s desperate for answers, so she asks the nice young man who committed the murder. His name is Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and he tells her that she, like him, is a Shadowhunter: a mostly immortal race bred to fight demons.

            Other Shadowhunters include Alec (Kevin Zegers), who doesn’t like Clary, Isabelle (Jemima West), who is fairly supportive, and Hodge (Jared Harris), the wizened mentor who for centuries has been protecting a secret that he reveals in his second scene. We get hit with a lot of details about the history and practices of Shadowhunters, but so little of it matters. What really matters is whether Clary will hook up with dangerous stranger Jace or if she’ll stay with her safe friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) who wants to be more than friends. She makes an impulsive choice that results in an overblown make-out scene followed by a ridiculous turn of demeanor that makes no sense and only serves to create conflict. After some chasing, fighting, and other Shadowhunter shenanigans, one of the suitors is disqualified so the decision is pretty much made for her.

            I understand that “The Mortal Instruments” is a series of books, which probably explains (but does not excuse) the film’s convoluted title. Because the main character is a teenage girl in a love triangle, the film is sure to be labeled a “Twilight” knockoff. But to do so is to ignore the fact that the film is also a “Harry Potter” knockoff. I’m not just talking about the way the main character suddenly finds out she has magic in her blood or that the magical characters have a word for non-magical people (they say “Mundanes” but we all know they mean Muggles). I mean that the movie touches on a lot of characters and details that fans of the books probably demanded, but don’t translate well to film. For example, for the climactic battle, the characters get help from werewolves. Maybe in the book the werewolves are richly detailed or they prove crucial to the story, but when I see them onscreen, all I’m thinking is, “Okay, now we have werewolves. I thought this movie didn’t want us thinking of it as a “Twilight” knockoff.”

            It’s hard to watch “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and not think about how it’s trying to start a franchise. We’re meeting characters that we’re supposed to befriend and follow for who knows how many more films. These characters are so charmless that even “Twilight’s” biggest detractors will be wishing for Bella, Edward and Jacob. As the film opened in third place this weekend below two holdovers (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “We’re the Millers”), I don’t see “The Mortal Instruments” going beyond “City of Bones.”

 

One Star out of Five.
2:39 pm est 

The Butler

            “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a film very much like 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” This is not to say that the main character has below-average intelligence or that the film is going to win an Academy Award that rightfully belongs to “Pulp Fiction.” Rather, the film follows a character as he experiences American history of the 1950s through 80s. The character, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), is an African-American butler at the obviously white-dominated White House. Try as he does to remain a discreet presence, he can’t help but be affected by the social changes that are going on all around him. He might even be affecting the changes more than he knows.

The film follows three major storylines: Gaines’ career as a butler, the journey of his son Louis (David Oyelowo) as an activist for Civil Rights, and the family drama that includes both of them. Aside from a few commercially appealing aspects of the family drama, it’s the White House parts that people are coming to see. And it’s no wonder they’re curious given some of the gimmicky casting choices. You’ve got Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan.

My quick thoughts, respectively: I can take Williams seriously in the occasional dramatic role but not as a historical figure. Marsden, being a former fashion model, will convince viewers that Kennedy was the first toothpick elected President. Schreiber is so unrecognizable that when his name came up in the end credits, I wondered which role he played. Cusack doesn’t look or sound anything like Nixon, and his obviously fake nose doesn’t help. And finally, what was Lee Daniels thinking when he cast Rickman, who has one of the most distinctive British voices I know, to play All-American Ronald Reagan?

The scenes with the Presidents are actually the least effective. By no means are they totally ineffective, but they’re too concerned with showcasing the big name actors in the important roles with the detailed sets (I’m excluding scenes set in staff areas where Cecil can yuk it up with his friends played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz). They feel like expensive educational vignettes that spent big money on everything expect a decent Nixon nose for Cusack. Plus everyone has to be so polite at the White House; it’s an unwelcome break from the brutal honesty of the rest of the film.

That’s right, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is best when Cecil isn’t on-duty as a butler. Then he and his family can grapple with more serious issues. Cecil drifts apart from his wife (Oprah Winfrey), who takes up drinking and has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). He has many heated arguments with Louis over the latter’s participation in peaceful-yet-dangerous protests when he follows Dr. King and his more hostile behavior when he follows Malcolm X. Then there are the protests themselves, and those scenes are riveting. And this is all before Cecil’s youngest son (Elijah Kelley) goes off to Vietnam. These scenes serve up the kind of emotional punch that wins Oscars.

Occasionally the film will throw in one of those awkward scenes where the President is holding a meeting about a major issue and Cecil will be in the room and then the President will turn to him and ask him his opinion. Cecil then gives a non-answer because he’s been ordered to remain politically impartial and the President takes a good long look at him and wonders what decision will be best for his friend Cecil. I’m not a fan of these scenes because they try to forge a relationship between Cecil and the political and historical aspects of the story that just isn’t there. As a historical drama, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is average at best. As a human drama, it is much better.

 

Three Stars out of Five.
2:36 pm est 

We're the Millers/Elysium

            It happened again this weekend. I couldn’t decide which new release was more popular. “We’re the Millers” opened on Wednesday and had more money at the end of the weekend. “Elysium” opened on Friday and clearly made more money over the weekend, but fell short in the cumulative numbers. There’s a case to be made for either film given the two-day handicap, so I’ve decided to review both.

 

“We’re the Millers”

 

            I think the makers of “We’re the Millers” came up with the movie’s gags first and then wrote the story around them. They knew they wanted (1) strangers having to act like a family, (2) a road trip gone bad, (3) a comedic stripper scene, (4) a dirty game of Pictionary, (5) a humorously swollen appendage, (6) a villain with decadent interests, and (7) a kissing scene that could be sickening when taken out of context. Maybe there was a contest among the writers to see who could combine these elements the hastiest.

            The plot finds mild-mannered pot dealer David (Jason Sudeikis) in debt to his boss (Ed Helms) who has decadent interests (6). The boss sends him on an errand to Mexico after which the debt will be forgiven. David decides to get people from his neighborhood to pose as his family since allegedly Border Patrol never suspects families. It’s a stretch, but it’s the movie’s excuse to get strangers having to act like a family (1) and a road trip gone bad (2). David’s “wife” (Jennifer Aniston) is a stripper responsible for (3), his “son” (Will Poulter) is a dork responsible for (5), and his “daughter” (Emma Roberts) is a gutter punk who initiates (7). (4) is most contrived of all. Who brings a giant Pictionary pad on a camping trip?

            The built-up gags aren’t very funny, the exception being (7) only because the movie spends so much time building it up that we feel like we’ve earned it. There are surprising laughs to be had from throwaway lines, the supposedly minor jokes that earn themselves a promotion with everything else falling apart around them. I’m fine with these jokes looking effortless, but does the whole movie have to look like it isn’t trying?

 

One and Half Stars out of Five.

 

“We’re the Millers” is rated R for crude sexual content, pervasive language, drug material and brief graphic nudity. Its running time is 110 minutes.

 

 

“Elysium”

 

            Let it not be said that “Elysium” is not a great-looking movie. Director Neil Blomkamp (“District 9”) has once again created stirring slums and spectacular spaceships. Unfortunately the movie is yet another bleak look at the future with an annoying “if these shadows remain unchanged…” call for change.

            The movie takes place in the 22nd century where the richest humans live on the space station paradise Elysium. The rest of humanity lives on Earth, which of course we’ve gradually turned to ruin. Max (Matt Damon) has always hated living on Earth, but he suddenly gets very sick and absolutely must get to Elysium if he hopes to live another week. Elysium has these magical healing pods that can cure any sickness or injury including loss of organs, apparently.

Max and some criminal buddies try to steal a code that will let them sneak onto Elysium. What they steal instead is a code to overthrow Elysium’s president. Whoever has this code essentially controls both worlds. Everybody wants this code including Max, his buddies, the current president, the power-hungry Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster) and a violent goon in her employ (Sharlto Copely). Not surprisingly, a lot of chasing and bloodshed ensues.

The message is that we should all share our resources, especially healthcare. This argument would be a lot more convincing if 99% of the people on Earth weren’t depicted as lazy criminals. At least the film’s special effects are so good that you’ll think you’re watching a better movie.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

2:34 pm est 

Smurfs 2 Guns

            At the end of their first weekend, new releases “The Smurfs 2” and “2 Guns” were practically tied at around the $27.5 million mark at the box office. “Smurfs 2” must have sold more tickets since much of its audience was children who got in for a reduced rate and therefore had to come out in larger numbers for the film to equal its R-rated rival. On the other hand, “Smurfs 2” (which opened last Wednesday) had a two-day head start on “2 Guns”, which means that the latter had a much larger day-to-day average and made money more quickly. It’s hard to say which film is more popular at this point, so I’ve decided to do mini-reviews on both.

 

“The Smurfs 2”

 

            “The Smurfs” was my choice for the single worst movie of 2011. Now the little blue buffoons are back because apparently they didn’t lower their audience’s IQ enough the first time around.

            The plot sees Smurfette (Katy Perry, delivering every line like she’s on the verge of tears) kidnapped by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and held hostage in Paris. Papa Smurf (the late Jonathan Winters) grabs a few second-tier Smurfs and travels to the human world where they meet up with their friends Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace (Jayma Mays), along with their toddler son and Patrick’s estranged stepfather (Brendan Gleeson), and go off to rescue her. Smurfette, meanwhile, is tempted to join Gargamel’s side because it was he who created her in his lab and naughty fellow creation Vexy (Christina Ricci) argues that she can never escape her origin.

            The humor is as annoying as ever. Slapstick havoc gets wreaked everywhere, painful jokes are abundant, and the film still thinks it’s funny to use the word “Smurf” as much as possible, especially as a substitute for profanity. But I can’t trash the film too much this time around because it contains positive messages about unconditional familial love and how that love doesn’t necessarily have to come from biological family members. So the film gets bumped up half a star to the point where it’s merely a bad movie and not the worst of the year.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“The Smurfs 2” is rated PG for some rude humor and action. Its running time is 105 minutes.

 

 

“2 Guns”

 

            “2 Guns” is a pretty standard buddy cop movie made more tolerable by the performances of stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. It’s not exactly a career high for either actor, but it shows the kind of personality they can give to even mediocre roles.

            Washington plays an undercover DEA agent assigned to befriend Wahlberg, use him to help rob a bank believed to be controlled by a drug cartel, and then arrest him. Wahlberg plays an undercover Naval Intelligence officer assigned to befriend Washington, use him to rob the bank, and then kill him. They turn on each other, but soon realize they’ll have to work together to combat everybody affected by the robbery, including the cartel, the CIA, and their own organizations.

            It’s a web of betrayal and violence that includes Washington’s handler (Paula Patton), Wahlberg’s C.O. (James Marsden), a high-ranking Navy admiral (Fred Ward), a corrupt CIA agent (Bill Paxton), and the cartel boss (Edward James Olmos). Critics seem to be gushing over the Paxton performance, with his southern-fried monologues during torture and interrogation scenes. I found them to be pretty standard for villain monologue scenes. Instead I took interest in Olmos’s drug lord. There’s never any question as to where he stands and he has access to a whole evil cattle ranch.

            “2 Guns” never really works as an action film, but is an effective comedy if you focus on the witty repartee involving Washington and Wahlberg. Both actors are above this humdrum material, yet their combined forces make it more enjoyable than it should be.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:32 pm est 

The Wolverine

            It has been four years since Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine got to carry a movie in the pile of cinematic garbage that was “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” The entire “X-Men” franchise would be a joke right now if it hadn’t creatively rebounded with the (mostly) Wolverine-free “X-Men: First Class” two years ago.  I have to question the wisdom in letting him stand alone again, but then again there’s no denying that he’s the face of the franchise. Many critics argue that he shouldn’t be, favoring other mutants with “better” powers, but it’s a harsh fact that we’re expected to find him terribly interesting. The good news for “The Wolverine” is that fans aren’t likely to find it as appalling as “Origins.” The bad news is that it’s such a hollow victory to be considered better than “Origins.”

            I’m sure that the Wolverine of the comics is a complex, well-defined character, but the movie version basically limits him to three traits: he’s surly, he has those metal claws, and he’s indestructible. The bad guys have to keep coming up with loopholes for that last one for there to be any conflict. But I guess it’s better to have him face new challenges than to dig through his bloated backstory again.

            The new film sees the ageless Wolverine travel to Japan so he can say goodbye to the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whose life he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki. Yashida, a technology magnate, offers Wolverine the chance to remove his powers and live a normal life. Wolverine declines, but someone slips him something that drains him of his powers anyway. Of course as soon as he starts to lose his powers, he gets sucked into a deadly mission to protect Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is set to inherit her grandfather’s company much to the consternation of her father (Hiroyuki Sanada).

            Other characters include Rila Fukushima as an eye-candy bodyguard. Judging by her bright red hair, that candy would be Twizzlers. Will Yun Lee is a lovesick ex-boyfriend of Mariko who is determined to protect her even though he doesn’t even know what side he’s on. Svetlana Khodchenkova is a secondary villain called Viper, a chemist who kills men with kisses. The character is a lame ripoff of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy from 1997’s “Batman and Robin”, a comic book film somehow even more despised than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Then there’s the main villain, a character from the comics who I’m told is portrayed all wrong. The film drops many easy hints as to his identity. Several scenes before he was revealed, I was calling out, “Have they seriously not figured it out yet?”

            The scenes that are supposed to garner audience reactions are clumsy. The best example is a scene where Wolverine recovers from an attack and says, “I’m Wolverine.” The scene recalls Batman’s first use of “I’m Batman” in 2005’s “Batman Begins.” But the difference is that in that scene, Batman said it as a surprise, and we got the impression that it was the first time he had used the name; so in that context it was original. Wolverine has been Wolverine for five films now and this isn’t a prequel. There is nothing surprising or original about him saying his name at this point.

            I’ve been hard on “The Wolverine,” but it’s not all bad. I got a kick out of an action sequence on the Tokyo Bullet Train. And when I say “on” the train, I don’t mean “in” the train (George Carlin would be proud). It’s also worth noting that there’s a refreshing brightness to the movie, as opposed to the drowsy dimness of “Origins.” “The Wolverine” represents a step up for Wolverine, but a step down for the “X-Men” franchise. The next film promises to feature a team effort, let’s hope that everybody can pull together and make a better film than this.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:29 pm est 

The Conjuring

            When I see horror movies in a theater, one of my favorite moments is when everybody screams and then everybody laughs. Usually they’re laughing at each other for screaming, and of course sometimes they’re laughing at themselves for the same reason. This happened at several points during “The Conjuring”, and to be fair the scream/laughs are just as fun here as with any other movie. But the problem was that most of the time I didn’t scream. I didn’t gasp. My eyes didn’t bulge. I skipped right over all the parts where I should have been scared and just laughed. I don’t say that as a macho brag (and in fact I spent more time than I care to admit trying to cover various head holes), but to convey that as a horror movie, “The Conjuring” is somewhat silly.

            The film follows a team of paranormal investigators as they try to make sense of a rural family’s haunted house. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are brought in to help Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) when freaky things start happening in their new home that terrify them and their five kids. Some research shows that the house used to belong to a devil worshipper who died under unpleasant circumstances and since then many people in the area have died under unpleasant circumstances. The Perrons want to stay in the house for financial reasons that seem trivial when compared to death by demon. The Warrens do what they can, but things get tricky when Carolyn becomes possessed and their interference leads to the haunting of their own home.

            The scares are of the standard haunted house variety. Things move without being touched, mysterious bangs interrupt quiet scenes. We get glimpses of unfriendly figures that the characters can’t see and if they do see them they think it’s a bad dream. One of the Perron children sleepwalks, another has a friend that may be invisible but is by no means imaginary. The Warrens keep the world’s creepiest doll locked in a case in their home and it’s inevitable that at some point the case is going to be found empty. Unique to this film is a Perron Family game called “Hide and Clap” where a blindfolded seeker follows the sound of clapping to a mischievous hider. For purposes of this film, the seeker can be led into a trap or they can follow clapping to a place where there is no family member to clap. You know it’s a tame horror film when more than one of the key scare scenes revolves around clapping.

            The film’s R rating seems unfair. Yes, there’s blood during an exorcism, and the house’s previous residents are either yucky or they had something yucky happen to them. But there’s very little actual violence and the language never gets too coarse despite the rising tensions. I don’t think a teenager who can handle one of the nastier PG-13 horror movies won’t be able to handle this one. It makes me wonder if the backers of this film didn’t actually want the R rating. They’re sacrificing a huge chunk of the teenage audience, but they’re getting a crowd that wants something violent, a crowd that will pay before they realize that the film can’t deliver on what its rating implies.

            “The Conjuring” isn’t a particularly effective horror film. It keeps implying that something truly terrifying is right around the corner, but it’s almost always a disappointment. This movie has been done a hundred times before and it will be done another dozen times before the year is through. “The Conjuring” gets claps and creepy toys right and that’s about it.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five
2:26 pm est 


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