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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Non-Stop

It’s been over a year since Liam Neeson has starred in a bad action movie. “Non-Stop” is the end to this drought. Pass the time on this one by playing some Popcorn Games:

 

-Neeson plays a Federal Air Marshal, a government agent who acts as undercover security on commercial flights. Eat a piece of popcorn every time he casually does something that should get him fired for irresponsible personal behavior. Examples include drinking, smoking in the plane’s restroom and being afraid of flying.

 

-Neeson is informed via anonymous text from an unknown passenger that someone on the plane will be murdered every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to an untraceable account. Eat two pieces of popcorn every time he does something that should get him fired for mishandling the situation. Examples include not turning the plane around immediately and instilling panic in the passengers.

 

-Eat three pieces of popcorn every time Neeson does something that should get him fired, but establishes him as a hot-blooded rebel who plays by his own rules. Eat four pieces if breaking protocol actually gets results.

 

-Eat a piece of popcorn as you try to guess who the first victim will be. Eat a piece of popcorn if you’re right. Do so again as the stage is set for subsequent murders. Also, try to guess the methods and circumstances of the murders and eat three pieces if you’re right about those. I think in a few cases you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the film’s creativity.

 

-Neeson sits next to a passenger played by Julianne Moore. Eat a piece of popcorn every time she’s given elaborate dialogue that was clearly written so the role would seem deeper than it is, thus tricking a big name actress into taking it.

 

-Eat one piece of popcorn the first time you see someone with a gun on the airplane. Eat two pieces the second time you see it, three times the third and so on. The film is trying to build suspense around the gun, which it knows can’t be fired until the last minute because of the inevitable depressurization.

 

-Once Neeson starts interrogating passengers, eat a piece of popcorn every time someone complains about him violating their rights. Eat another piece if they demand to know what’s really going on. Eat two pieces every time someone is an uncooperative smart-aleck and Neeson puts them in their place.

 

-Eat a piece of popcorn every time someone takes a turn at being the prime suspect. Again, eat two pieces when suspicion falls on them a second time, three pieces the third time, etc.

 

-Eat a piece of popcorn every time the passengers suspect that Neeson is a hijacker. Eat two pieces if you suspect Neeson of being the villain. Eat three pieces if you think that Neeson is going so crazy that he’s starting to suspect himself.  Eat four pieces if you think the film is going to go with some really cheap twist like split personalities.

 

-Recent Academy Award winner Luptia Nyong’o has a small part as a flight attendant. Eat a piece of popcorn every time she’s onscreen. Eat two pieces every time you wonder why she isn’t being given more to do. Eat three pieces if you suspect that she’s the villain and she’ll have a lot to do at the very end.

 

-Once the motivation behind the threat is revealed, eat a hundred pieces of popcorn if you can make any sense of it. I seriously doubt that you’ll have to count to a hundred.

 

-If you have any popcorn left after the movie, go out and look at the theater’s marquee. Eat a piece of popcorn for every option you had that was probably a better choice than “Non-Stop.” It should be most of them.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

3:16 pm edt 

3 Days to Kill

                About a month ago, I saw a sad, serious movie called “Philomena.” There was a big part of me that didn’t want to see it because I was in the mood for something lighter and easier. But I had heard good things about Judi Dench’s performance in the film, so I dragged myself to see it. For about the first half hour I was unhappy with the film because it wasn’t what I wanted, but eventually I found myself very interested in the Dench character and her journey. I proclaimed that the nice thing about a movie like that having a 90-minute runtime is that it has plenty of time to win me over. Now comes “3 Days to Kill,” a humor-tinged action movie that I did want to see, has a fine first half hour, and then spends the rest of the time gradually ruining itself.

                The film stars Kevin Costner as veteran CIA agent Ethan Renner. An important mission goes south when he’s stricken with a sudden illness. It turns out he has terminal cancer. He’s in no condition to continue working, so he decides to spend his final days in Paris reconnecting with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). But there’s a wrench thrown in the works courtesy of a fellow CIA agent (Amber Heard). She wants him to root out and kill the leader of the terrorists from his last mission, and in return she’ll let him have an experimental drug that may extend his life. The rest of the film sees him trying to balance his dangerous mission and his newfound determination to connect with his family.

                Again, the film starts out with a lot of promise. There’s a creative kill, an exciting shootout, some funny early moments with Costner and the daughter (including a great gag with a purple bicycle), some intrigue with the Heard character and some funny banter between her and Costner over henchmen’s facial hair. So far, so good except for an unnecessary subplot about a family of squatters in Costner’s Paris apartment. He’s forced to go about his CIA business with them living there, fully aware of how dangerous he is. There’s some symbolism about how he comes to see them as the family he could have had. It makes for an occasional touching moment but it also makes him look like an incompetent agent for involving them.

Eventually the good things about the movie run out of steam too. The action scenes become less interesting, the daughter becomes more annoying and the comedy becomes more awkward. It also becomes clear that the film has no idea what to do with the Heard character other than have her act mysterious and sexy. Even the purple bicycle wears out its welcome.

Perhaps the worst thing about the film is the way it relies on all the tired clichés of the violent professional who combines family with his lifestyle. Yes, there’s a scene where he intimidates a potential boyfriend. Yes, there’s a scene where he beats up some lecherous guys. Yes, there’s a scene where he teaches his daughter to do something violent. Surprisingly, there’s never really a scene where the daughter is put in danger by the terrorists, but that’s only after a panicked search for her in the nightclubs of Paris that’s ripped off from “Taken” (Costner is basically playing the Liam Neeson character anyway). By the way, having the daughter be put in danger by the terrorists would actually make sense since their paths cross in an unbelievably contrived and curiously unresolved way.

“3 Days to Kill” will be remembered as a bad movie, but it isn’t a uniformly bad one. It just can’t keep its good ideas coming, and for that reason I recommend it, at least not very highly. Only see it if you can’t make it to something better like, say, “Philomena.”

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:09 pm edt 

Robocop and About Last Night

“Robocop”

 

                The 1987 “Robocop” is by no means flawless, but at least it was fun. The action scenes were creative, the villains had personality, the robot jokes landed and there was that great catchphrase about getting an excellent deal on hedonism. In the 2014 remake, the choppy action scenes are going to give people seizures, the villains are either dull or not that villainous, the robot jokes are almost nonexistent and the catchphrase is turned negative and drained of life.

                Joel Kinnaman stars as a Detroit cop on the verge of making a huge bust when he’s severely injured by a car bomb. An inch from death, he’s saved by a scientist (Gary Oldman) who integrates his few remaining human parts with a robotic super-suit that lets him fight crime more efficiently. Oldman does this at the behest of his greedy corporate boss (Michael Keaton) who wants to release a line of robotic cops with human consciences (so he can get around a law that prohibits him from just using robots) into the population.

                The Keaton character’s evil traits are basically greed and sneakiness, but he needs to be more dangerous. The only person he really wants to kill is Robocop, who he honestly regards as little more than a malfunctioning computer program. Keaton actually shows potential to make a fun villain, but there’s just not that much to the role. Like everything else in “Robocop,” it’s a wasted opportunity.

 

One Star out of Five.

 

“Robocop” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action including frenetic gun violence throughout, brief strong language, sensuality and some drug material. Its running time is 108 minutes.

 

 

“About Last Night”

 

                “About Last Night” is an updated version of a David Mamet play, and that works to its advantage. The characters engage in long, stage-like conversations that make us feel like we’re really getting to know these people, even if they aren’t people we want to get to know. It also doesn’t hurt that the actors have good chemistry and a lot of the jokes are effective.

                The film follows two couples, Danny and Debbie (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant) and Bernie and Joan (Kevin Hart and Regina Hall). Bernie and Joan introduce Danny and Debbie, only to quickly break up and spend the rest of the movie snapping at each other while they flank their friends to bars and parties. Danny and Debbie, meanwhile, are determined to avoid the mistakes of their impulsive friends and pursue a more serious relationship. But eventually this too runs into trouble.

                The storylines about the relationships are fairly standard and predictable. What people are really going to remember from this film are the conversations. The date scenes and the fights play just fine, but the main attraction is the constant sex talk in the conversations between friends. The date recaps and sexual theories get really graphic. A lot of it is funny (this movie actually makes me understand why Kevin Hart is a popular comedian where “Ride Along” definitely didn’t), but some of it gets uncomfortable. If you can handle a lot of over-the-top sexual banter, you should see this film, but if you find it unappealing, you’re not going to find much here for you.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“About Last Night” is rated R for sexual content, language and brief drug use. Its running time is 100 minutes.
3:07 pm edt 

The Lego Movie

                If I could sum up the appeal of “The Lego Movie” in one word, that word would be “detail.” There are so many intricacies and hidden treasures stuffed into every second of this film that it’s easy to forget the delightful movie that’s right in front of your face. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy the film at face value, but this film is going to earn itself a fan base that enjoys it for much more than that. These fans are going to watch the film frame by frame, catching all the subtle jokes, hidden messages, complex designs and extensive cameos. In an animated film based on a line of toy bricks and other bric-a-brac, I suppose it’s appropriate to say that not a brick is wasted.

                The plot is pretty standard for a kids’ movie. An everyman named Emmet (Chris Pratt) discovers that he fulfills an ancient prophecy and somehow he’s so special that only he can save the world. Nobody believes this, especially himself. But his positivity and resilience pay off and it turns out that he does have something to offer. Other characters include a love interest (Elizabeth Banks) and a mentor (Morgan Freeman). And of course there is a villain, the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who wants to control the Lego universe with a weapon called the Kragle. It’s a bit of a plot hole that Lord Business’s plan to use the Kragle to drench everybody is not going to have its intended effect; he needs to use it with more finesse if he’s serious about succeeding.

                I’m not sure what to make of the animation. On one hand, it’s incredibly awkward, especially when it comes to the characters’ movements. Lego characters just aren’t built for mobility. But then again the movie needs to be given credit for doing absolutely everything it can with the clumsy physiques. This is a movie whose look has to play by an odd set of rules, but it’s a better movie for sticking to them. The scenery, of course, is all excellent Lego designs.

                A lot has been made of the film containing characters from multiple franchises and properties. The good news is that you get to see Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Gandalf, Dumbledore, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Shaquille O’Neal and plenty of others (there are some big surprises) in the same movie. The bad news is that there’s disappointingly little interaction between them. If you’re expecting this to be an unofficial “Justice League” movie, you will not be happy.

                The humor is chaotic and constant. Perhaps it skews a bit too young at times, but there are plenty of jokes for all ages. My favorite gags are just the details of Emmett’s everyday life, as little by little we become accustomed to his silly world. I also liked the voice work of Liam Neeson as a henchman with a split personality who’s always arguing with himself. There are a ton of other funny moments, these are just the first that came to mind.

                I don’t want to give away too much about the last act of the movie, but there’s no way I can’t mention it at all. You can probably guess what it involves based on some fuzzy mythology mentioned early in the film, but I had no idea it would play out the way it does. The sequence contains one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, kids’ or otherwise. “The Lego Movie” doesn’t seem like a film that would make such an emotional impact, but believe me, it does.

                “The Lego Movie” is going to become a classic. It’s being seen by a lot of people right out of the gate, it will be seen by a lot more people through its reputation, and it will be seen many more times on repeat viewings. This generation has found its “Toy Story.”

 

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

That Awkward Moment

                I have a feeling that the original title for this movie was supposed to be “So…” The “awkward moment” of the title refers to the point in a relationship when a woman starts a sentence with the word “So…” because it invariably leads to talk of the future of the relationship. This kind of talk scares the men in the movie and is supposed to scare the men in the audience. The “So…” theory comes up at least three times in the movie, and I don’t believe I heard the phrase “awkward moment” more than once. This movie can’t even get its own title right, which is appropriate because it can’t get anything else right.

                The film stars Zac Efron as Jason, Miles Teller as Daniel and Michael B. Jordan as Mikey. The plot kicks into gear when Mikey, who married very young, gets divorced from his wife (Jessica Lucas). The commitment-phobic Jason decides on behalf of the group that if Mikey has to be single, they’ll all be single together. All three soon find themselves in potential new relationships and the question is, will they honor their pact? Actually, the real question is, does anyone care about the pact? It’s a somewhat valid question for the characters, but a redundant one for the audience, who will undoubtedly say no. The pact is introduced in the first act and not mentioned again until the third, where it’s a source of forced conflict.

                Although it is Mikey’s breakup that sets the plot in motion, his storyline after he recovers is pretty bland; with him continuing to see his wife even though he’s pretty sure that she doesn’t love him anymore. Daniel starts getting serious with a plutonic friend (Mackenzie Davis) but is hesitant to tell others, maybe because of the pact, maybe because he doesn’t want the humiliation of telling people that he’s seeing a woman who is way out of his league. Jason finds he has good chemistry with a woman named Ellie (Imogen Poots), falls out with her due to a misunderstanding, has to win her back again, and then completely sabotages himself. This storyline gets the most focus because Efron is the most proven as a romantic lead. I suppose there is some charm to the scenes where he has to win Ellie over, but what he does to damage the relationship is so unforgiveable that I simply didn’t want him to have a happy ending.

                The humor falls flat, consisting mostly of tired sex jokes, bathroom jokes, and jokes about how men can be just as emotional as women in matters of love. If you don’t think it’s funny when Mikey wants to pig out on ice cream after his divorce, this definitely isn’t the movie for you. If you do think the ice cream gag is funny, this still probably isn’t the movie for you because it never gets any funnier than the ice cream gag. There’s also an unfunny running gag about an off-screen mishap. It’s probably for the best that the gag can’t be shown, but the extended telling should have been scrapped as well. The best thing I can say for the humor in the movie is that Miles Teller gets in a funny line here and there.

                There’s so little of value in “That Awkward Moment.” The scenes with the relationships proceed and run into trouble like clockwork. The scenes where the guys interact with each other are filled with a lunkheaded charm that, while tolerable, has been done better before and will be done better again. So… maybe see something else?

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
3:00 pm edt 

The Nut Job

                Thanks a lot, “I, Frankenstein.” On Friday I paid $14.50 to see the weekend’s only new wide release thinking it would have to be #1 at the weekend box office, or at least make the most money of any movie I hadn’t reviewed yet. It bombed, coming in sixth place. In order to see the highest-ranking holdover, I had to scramble and see the animated kids’ movie “The Nut Job,” which came in third behind “Ride Along” and “Lone Survivor.” I guess it’s a good thing, since “I, Frankenstein” would have been a one-star review for sure while “The Nut Job” is at least good for one and a half.

                Our main character is a jerk of a squirrel all too appropriately named Surly (Will Arnett). He only looks out for himself, using his superior nut-thievery skills to feed himself without sharing with any of the other animals in his park (he does have friendly rat sidekick Buddy, but he gets a much smaller share). Surly botches a heist of a nut cart (his non-plan makes for the funniest gag in the movie) and destroys the meager food supply of the other animals right before winter. He’s banished from the park and forced to live in the city, where he discovers an entire nut store owned by some humans who want to rob a bank next door. The problem is that if he wants to rob the store properly, he’ll need help from the park animals who don’t trust him and some of whom have plans to double cross him anyway. All the bickering about dividing the nuts seems pretty pointless since no squirrel or other small mammal could ever eat a fraction of the nuts in the store, or in the smaller cart for that matter.

                The film has the annoying habit of giving the squirrels unique names while most of the other animals just have animal names. Squirrels include Andie (Katherine Heigl), who is compassionate and sees the potential for good in Surly, and Grayson (Brendon Fraser), an inept would-be hero who only slows down Surly and Andie. Raccoon (Liam Neeson) is the leader of the park and Mole (Jeff Dunham) is his constantly flip-flopping assistant. There’s also a sycophantic guard dog voiced by Maya Rudolph, who seems to be the only one not sleepwalking (sleepvoicing?) her way through her performance.

                Most of the gags are just painful. I hope you like puns where “nuts” is used to mean crazy because there’s a lot of them. Humor involving bodily functions comes up more than I like, which is to say that it comes up at all. And of course it wouldn’t be a terrible kids’ movie if the animals didn’t dance not once but twice to “Gangnam Style.” No kidding, the story comes to a complete stop so they can have a pointless dance sequence right in the middle of the movie. I bucked out of the theater while they were dancing during the credits and was disappointed with how many eyes were still glued to the screen.

                The plot is a mess. The characters’ loyalties change by the minute, and that goes both for the animals and the humans robbing the bank next to the nut shop. Speaking of the humans, the movie can never decide if they know just how clever the animals are. Even worse than the overall plot are the disjointed action sequences, where the characters’ positions in relation to each other are subject to change without notice.

                The movie isn’t particularly good at anything. The story is incoherent, the voice actors have no chemistry and the humor plays to the lowest common denominator. Very young kids might like it, but this isn’t the kind of movie you can enjoy alongside them. It’s hard to hate a harmless movie about animated squirrels, but “The Nut Job” comes really close.

 

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

Ride Along

In 2011, the MTV Video Music Awards had no official host. The opening monologue was performed by Kevin Hart, who also did other comedy segments throughout the night. Hart was clearly acting as the host, so why wasn’t he advertised as such? I don’t think it was because they thought Hart wouldn’t bring in viewers (he had a fanbase even back then) or that they thought people would avoid the show because of him. I think they were thinking that viewers were going to tune in, not like Hart, and change the channel rather than see more of him. In other words, they sacrificed a built-in Kevin Hart audience in favor of tricking people into thinking that he wouldn’t be on the show that much.

Cut to three years later and Kevin Hart is definitely being advertised as the lead in “Ride Along,” a buddy-cop movie costarring Ice Cube. The movie made over $40 million in its first weekend, a January record. So MTV made a mistake because Hart brings people to the show, right? Maybe. But keep in mind that with “Ride Along,” Hart undeniably got people to purchase a movie ticket that can’t be easily refunded. MTV, meanwhile, needed to keep people from changing the channel. And there were several points during “Ride Along” when I wish I could have changed the channel on Hart.

The film follows bumbling prospective cop Hart as he spends the day tagging along with hardened veteran cop Cube. Hart wants Cube’s blessing to marry his sister (Tika Sumpter) and Cube doesn’t believe that Hart is fit to be an officer, provider, protector, and especially a husband, Cube gives Hart the day to prove his competence as a cop. This is a flawed premise because Hart has not yet received training and cannot reasonably be expected to function as a cop. Maybe the idea could work if Hart was just coming out of the academy and only knew the job in theory or if he had gone through training and then settled into an unchallenging job, but no, the movie decides to have the Hart character be dangerously unprepared.

But a movie like this doesn’t want you to put too much stock in the setup, it wants you to put your stock in the gags. This too is a bad idea because the humor in this film is even worse than the setup, which ironically is a joke. The humor can be broken down into 5% Ice Cube (who can actually be funny at times), 5% violence, and 90% Kevin Hart being an idiot. The man never knows what he’s talking about and is never at a loss for words, a dangerous combination in comedy. I can see where he’s good at standup, where the ability talk at length is endearing, even essential. But for him to carry a movie and never shut up is just painful. This is not to say that the story-driving plot about a crime ring with an unknown boss is particularly captivating, but at least getting through it without Hart’s constant yammering would mean the movie would end sooner.

The violence isn’t that funny either, but then again I’m not sure it was supposed to be. It isn’t always done with the wit, timing or presence of physical comedy. Maybe it was supposed to be played straight or maybe it was just another type of gag that fell flat. The audience at my screening cheered and laughed at it a lot, though. Maybe they were just thrilled that the explosions and gunfire were preventing Kevin Hart from his being annoying. “Ride Along” is an unfunny comedy that makes for an unimpressive Kevin Hart vehicle.

One and Half Stars out of Five.

2:56 pm edt 

Lone Survivor

                As good as this film is, “Lone Survivor” is a pretty terrible title as it contains a huge spoiler. The story follows a four-man team of Navy SEALs sent to Afghanistan to assassinate a Taliban leader. As soon as I saw the trailer, I said aloud, “So… three of them die?” Granted anyone who is familiar with the real-life incident, has read the book by lone survivor Marcus Luttrell, or has seen Luttrell in his various media appearances knows what’s going to happen, but I still would have preferred some mystery. Fortunately there are enough positive elements in the film to make up for the lack of suspense over the characters’ fates.

                The team is made up of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) and Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch). After an opening montage on the toughness of SEAL training, we’re introduced to our characters and learn a bit about their personal lives (ironically Luttrell’s seems to come up the least). We also follow Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig), a new arrival at the characters’ camp, as he introduces himself to the others. I probably could have done with less Patton in favor of developing the others, as his character is barely seen after the main four go off on their mission.

                The mission goes awry when the team runs into radio trouble. And they put themselves at a bad angle for the shots they need. And the target’s entourage is bigger than expected. And they’re found out by some local goat herders. The trailers make it look like the team spends a lot of time trying to decide what to do with the civilian witnesses, but the scene is actually quite quick. Then again, the decision carries a lot of weight, so to Luttrell it probably felt like it took forever.

                Action scenes ensue and they are by far the best parts of the movie. The shooting is less bloody than I expected, but what these scenes lack in crimson they make up for in sound. The film’s sound team really outdid themselves here because every single gunshot will strike the fear of death into you. Even more powerful than the gunshots are the sounds the team makes as they tumble down embankments. There’s a lot of crunching and we can’t tell what’s breaking but we know it can’t be good. The falling scenes are the movie’s secret weapon.

                Less exciting is the final act of the movie. These scenes are undeniably important to the story (and to Luttrell personally) but they feel anticlimactic. It’s like the film wanted to end at a certain point and then remembered that it had to include these scenes so it tacked them on. There’s an odd tonal shift to these scenes, perhaps because Luttrell was in a damaged state at the time and it affected his memory and narrative voice.

                “Lone Survivor” will be best remembered for its action scenes, and what excellent action scenes they are. They go on for a long time too; once they’re over you’ll have a hard time remembering the last time the movie was relatively quiet. The rest of the film is just okay, a pretty standard “brothers in arms” story with a controversial debate scene thrown in. There’s some real-life argument over what the debate actually entailed, as well as whose fault it was that the mission got botched. Surely there are some people to blame, but I didn’t leave the film blaming anyone. Indeed it’s hard to leave “Lone Survivor” without the utmost respect for these men who in all but one case fought for our freedom until the very end.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:46 pm edt 

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

                I have to wonder why the new “Paranormal Activity” movie is coming out now instead of October. The franchise had carved out a nice little niche as an annual Halloween tradition (thankfully replacing those disgusting “Saw” movies) and I don’t know why anyone would want to mess with that. Did the filmmakers miss their deadline? Did the studio not want to compete with that lousy “Carrie” update for Halloween horror crowds? Or, after 2012’s “Paranormal Activity 4” barely made $50 million, did they think that people had just lost interest in the franchise? I saw the movie in a crowded theater with lots of loud, excited people. There is clearly still interest.

                The release date may be bafflingly different from the rest of the series, but the film itself isn’t. It’s still “found footage” of a gradual demonic possession. The only difference this time is that the main characters are a group of teenagers instead of a family and it’s pretty much all handheld camera footage as opposed to wall-mounted cameras. This means that the film can’t do the standard “cut between four cameras” device, which is sorely missed.

                The story follows some recent high school graduates, including Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). The kids take an interest in their elderly neighbor Anna (Gloria Sandoval) who is suspected of being a witch. And when I say “take an interest” I mean that they gossip, call her names and sneak a camera into her apartment so they can spy on an unholy ceremony with promises of nudity. Their curiosity increases further when Anna is murdered by a formerly mild-manned classmate named Oscar (Carlos Pratts) who seems to have been affected by something otherworldly. They go snooping in her abandoned apartment and Jesse wakes up the next morning with a weird bite mark. Strange things start happening with Jesse and we know no good can come of it.

                Fans of the franchise know what to expect: some funny false alarms, some suspicious stuff, some acts undeniably perpetrated by the forces of evil, and of course a bunch of heart-stopping jump scares. Unique to this film are scenes of Jesse having fun with his supernatural affectations – shades of 2012’s underrated “Chronicle.” The kids themselves are pretty agreeable characters, even if they’re a little too mischievous for their own good. Even Oscar’s dangerous gang member brother (Richard Cabral) isn’t as standoffish as one might expect; the film could have actually used more of him. I do have to question the film’s decision to have the kids communicate with an otherworldly being using the electronic game Simon. I think these scenes are supposed to be simultaneously silly and creepy, but in actuality they’re all the way silly.

                If you’re hoping that “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” will do something drastically different from the other “Paranormal Activity” movies, you will be disappointed. But if you’re not sick of the franchise by now, this will probably make for another fun go-around. Still, I wonder why we have to put up with all these changes that undermine a winning formula. Why can’t the film open at Halloween? Why can’t it cut between four cameras? Why is there a colon in the title when “Paranormal Activity 5” would have been just fine? There’s a good built-in audience for this movie and there will be a good built-in audience for “Paranormal Activity 6” if it’s given a chance. The box office performance of this film is going to be underwhelming (it made only $18 million in the first weekend, down from $29 million for the fourth film), I just hope the lesson learned will be to return the franchise to its former glory instead of punishing it further.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:44 pm edt 

American Hustle

                “American Hustle” is a movie about con artists, but it might as well be a movie about magicians or dreams. A movie about magicians (like “Now You See Me”) is going to wait until the last minute to clue you in on what the big trick really was. A movie about dreams (like “Inception”) is going to wait until the last minute to clue you in on what was really a dream. And a movie about con artists like “American Hustle” is going to wait until the last minute to clue you in on which characters are really conning the others. There’s little point in getting invested in the story up to that point because you know it’s going to get turned on its head by some twist at the end.

                 This is not to say that it isn’t worth becoming invested in other elements of the film like individual scenes or the performances. The film is directed by David O. Russell (“The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”) and he has assembled an all-star cast for this outing. Four of the main actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) received Academy Award nominations for previous Russell films, two of whom (Bale and Lawrence) won. Keep in mind, that’s just among the top-billed actors.  

                The story follows professional con artist or “hustler” Irving Rosenfeld (Bale). He’s so charismatic that he has his partner Sydney (Adams) and wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) fighting over him even though he’s doughy and puts a lot of effort into a hairpiece/comb-over combo that isn’t fooling anybody. Sydney gets busted by an FBI agent named Richie (Cooper) who agrees to release her if she and Irving use their skills to catch other criminals. They set out to trap a crooked New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) and this leads to a larger plan to take down corrupt politicians and even high-value Mafia targets. You don’t need to worry so much about who’s bribing who as long as you’re thinking about who’s conning who. I suppose the winner is the ultimate hustler.

                Again, the appeal of the movie doesn’t lie in the plot, it lies in the characters, especially the women. Sydney is such a skilled liar that the people who come closest to understanding her are the people who know that they will never understand her. But I think it’s Rosalyn that people will most remember from this film. She’s completely crazy (don’t trust her around anything flammable) and this makes her the least likely to be lying because she’s too crazy to get away with the lie. She reminds me of a Jack Sparrow quote from the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “…a dishonest [person] you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly. It's the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they're going to do something incredibly... stupid.”

                The characters and performances in “American Hustle” are a lot of fun and it’s a shame that they aren’t part of a better movie. As it is, the film gets so bogged down in the complicated bribery storyline that it distracts from the intriguing character interactions that should be the focus. And then of course there’s that nagging “don’t trust anybody” device that makes all the action and characters seem so distant. It’s one thing for a story to make us wonder what twists lie ahead. It’s another thing for a film like “American Hustle” to make it obvious that a twist is coming at the last minute.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:39 pm edt 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

                A few minutes after exiting “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” I posted to Facebook that the film had three types of gags: Will Ferrell screaming, Steve Carell spouting nonsense, and beaten-to-death celebrity cameos. A friend of mine later said that he was going to see the film based on my post. I guess he was just impressed to hear that the film had three types of gags. But I never said they were funny gags (in fact I thought I implied that they weren’t) and for the record, they aren’t.

                The film is a sequel to the 2004 blockbuster “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” The film was an enduring comedy, lending itself well to repeated viewings and quotes. This won’t be one of those times where I question the wisdom in continuing a dead or nonexistent franchise like I did with “Riddick” or “The Best Man Holiday.” This sequel is definitely eagerly anticipated, though I do question the wisdom in waiting nine years for this update instead of striking while the iron (and the cast) was hot.

                The new film trades the 70s for the 80s and local news for 24-hour cable news. Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) gets fired from his anchor job in San Diego and somehow gets hired for a risky but arguably more appealing venture on a national stage. He’s allowed to reunite with his old news team: partying playboy Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), vulgar cowboy Champ Kind (David Koechner) and unpredictable man-child Brick Tamland (Carell). The foursome  are given a graveyard shift on a debuting cable news network and turn the format on its head, throwing out journalistic integrity for shameless ratings grabs. In other words, they invent all the clichés of modern cable news.

                Subplots wander around without much urgency. Ron goes through a messy breakup with his wife (Christina Applegate) and briefly dates his producer (Meagan Good). Brick finds love in an incompetent receptionist (Kristen Wiig) and the two go on dates where they swap disconnected one-liners. Ron loses his vision and spends several months in isolation feeling sorry for himself . He also feuds with a rival news anchor (James Marsden) and this leads to a battle royal among several cable news sources of varying respectability.

                The film’s humor is very much what you’d expect, which is a problem. Take Will Ferrell. In the first “Anchorman,” his scream-based comedy style hadn’t yet worn out its welcome. In the nine years since, it has, and it’s largely annoying now. The same can be said of Brick’s “nonsense” shtick. Back in 2004, this kind of random humor was considered imaginative, even endearing. Now it’s really noticeable that the film’s writers were just goofing around in a meeting that itself was more fun than the finished product. And no, taking the “Beavis and Butthead” approach by having Brick and the Wiig character say these lines to each other doesn’t give them another dimension, it just means we have to endure twice as many of them. But at least the main cast gets lucky with a funny line here and there. As for all the cameos, you’re supposed to be so busy cheering these people just for showing up that you won’t notice that they have absolutely nothing funny to say.

                George Carlin once said that “America can be counted on to do one of two things: take a good idea and run it completely into the ground or take a bad idea and run it completely into the ground.” “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” exemplifies this quote perfectly. Whether you think that Ferrell’s screaming, Brick’s nonsense, and a multitude of cameos make for good ideas or bad ideas, please know that this film runs them all completely into the ground.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

2:37 pm edt 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

                I gave up on movies about Hobbits being any good a long time ago. To me, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy from the last decade was ridiculous, overrated, and ridiculously overrated. Now in this new decade I have another Jackson trilogy to deal with in “The Hobbit.” I knew things were still shabby last year when I saw “An Unexpected Journey” and it made me as miserable as ever with its confusing story, unfunny comedy, dubious motivations, and awful, awful special effects.

So my attitude going into “The Desolation of Smaug” was, in a word, negative. The bad thing about having a negative attitude is that it makes you unhappy and it affects the mood of people around you. The good thing about having a negative attitude is that it can only set you up for pleasant surprises. And there are a few pleasant surprises in this film. The plot is easier to follow, the jokes work a tad better, and the dreadful special effects are at least used with imagination. I can’t say that any of this makes the film “good” but I can say that it’s an improvement.

The story once again follows the adventures of Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he assists a company of Dwarves on their quest to defeat the evil dragon Smaug and return the kingdom of Erebor to rightful king Thorin (Richard Armitage). This installment sees Bilbo and the Dwarfs fight Orcs, evade Elves, and confront Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). The company is aided by the ever-loyal Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a reluctant bargeman named Bard (Luke Evans). They encounter Elves as well, including familiar face Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and newcomer Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). There’s also the small matter of Bilbo secretly having the power of the One Ring. I know it all sounds like a lot to take in, but most of these elements were introduced in the last movie and are pretty easy to swallow this time around.

The problems with the film are roughly the same as always: it’s too long, the special effects are unconvincing, it’s too long, a lot of the subplots are uninteresting, and of course, it’s too long. But I did notice two problems unique to this film. First, Bilbo is uncharacteristically quick to pull out his weapon in battle, which goes against his timid nature even if the Ring is slowly corrupting him. Second and more aggravating is that Smaug is a terrible character. All he does is boast about how easily he’s killed people in the past and how easy it will be for him to kill our heroes now. He’s the embodiment of that mockable villain trope of talking endlessly about his inevitable victory instead of just roasting the hero while he has a chance.

I did say there were a few good things about this film. For example, I think it ends on a decent cliffhanger. Unlike the other Peter Jackson Hobbit films that I was just glad to see end, this time I was genuinely wondering about the characters’ fates (except for Bilbo, Legolas and Gandalf, of course). The best reason to see this film is an action sequence about halfway through that features the Dwarves in barrels that I just think is a hoot. The special effects may be a joke, but the creative impossibilities in this scene are too fun to scrutinize. My favorite was a split-leg gag that Jean-Claude Van Damme would call over-the-top.

The best thing I can say for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is that it’s a dumb, fun movie. This is a step up from previous Peter Jackson Hobbit films that I would label as dumb, painful movies. I’m going to have a slightly more positive attitude going into next year’s “Hobbit” entry “There and Back Again,” which may or may not be a good thing.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:34 pm edt 

Frozen

                It is so frustrating how close “Frozen” comes to being a good movie. Disney hasn’t done a big flashy animated musical for a while, but the last one was 2010’s “Tangled,” which to date remains my only five-star review. Needless to say, my expectations going into “Frozen” were lofty. The good news is that the film’s voice performances are terrific, the animation is dazzling, the songs are mostly decent, and the humor has its moments. The bad news is that the script is so lousy that it degrades the whole film.

                The film stars a pair of princess sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa has the power to create snow and ice out of thin air. A lifetime that promises infinite fun snow days is disrupted when she learns the hard way that her power is extremely difficult to control; she unintentionally creates deadly conditions whenever she gets scared or angry. She spends her whole life as a recluse in her castle, never letting the world (including a memory-wiped Anna, who also has to live locked up in the castle for some reason) know about her condition. That is, until the day when Elsa has no choice but to open the castle and throw a big party for her coronation.

On the day of the coronation, the optimistic Anna is thrilled to meet a handsome prince (Santino Fontana) and decides that night that she wants to marry him. Elsa objects to her sister’s hasty decision, and gets so upset when Anna argues with her that she loses her poise, reveals her power, and blankets the kingdom in winter. She then goes off to live in seclusion (“ice-olation,” as she puts it) in the mountains with the kingdom essentially, you guessed it, frozen. Anna goes on a mission to talk some sense into her sister, getting help from an unhappy ice salesman (Jonathan Groff) and an enthusiastic snowman (Josh Gad).

                When the film works, it works really well. Bell is great as the upbeat (dare I say sunny?) Anna, and I love her chemistry with Fontana as they fall instantly in love. Menzel is less showy as Elsa, that is except for her big musical number, which is the film’s crowning achievement. Please tell me she’ll get to perform her song “Let it Go” at the Oscars. Speaking of music, I enjoyed most of the songs, especially the ones sung by the women, though I wish Groff and Fontana had gotten at least one big number apiece. Menzel, of course, could have gotten ten more for all I care. I can’t say I was a fan of the film’s spoken jokes, but the slapstick and funny bits incorporated into the songs were just fine. Those of you dreading the comic relief snowman should know that he isn’t as annoying as the ads make him out to be (Josh Gad always seems to rise above his apparent obnoxiousness), though I could have done without the deservedly unadvertised comic relief trolls.

                But any time “Frozen” seems like a winner, along comes the script to knock it off its pedestal. Let’s start with the fact that Elsa’s powers are poorly defined, the writers are clearly using them conveniently as they go along without keeping track of their own rules and loopholes. The two villains are pathetic, one’s evil intentions are introduced in what I swear is the clumsiest way I’ve ever seen, the other pulls off an admittedly great heel turn before it becomes apparent that they’re playing their cards all wrong. And the film’s conclusion is particularly unsatisfying since the same problems are clearly going to come up again unless the one with the snow powers can just wear gloves forever, not that that’s unheard of for a Disney character. These and a ton of other plot holes keep “Frozen” stuck in a state of permanent mediocrity. Actually, “stuck” isn’t the best choice of word. I trust you know the right one.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
2:29 pm edt 


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