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Monday, August 11, 2014

Lucy

            For years, popular culture has perpetuated the myth that humans use only 10% of their brain and anyone who can unlock the rest of it will basically develop superpowers. This is a bogus theory, the truth (and this is the short version) is that while you may be using only a small portion of your brain at any given time, the rest is so specialized that it is not relevant to the task at hand. I’m sitting down to type this, so I’m not using the portion of my brain I use to walk. But apparently the idea of characters with super brain power is really appealing to filmmakers, which is why we have movies like “Lucy.”

            Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American student living in Taiwan. She’s pressured into participating in a drug deal between her loser boyfriend and a local crime boss (Min-sik Choi). Things go south, and she’s forced into mule-dom. A bag of mind-expanding crystals is inserted into her intestine, but the bag breaks and the drug is soon in her bloodstream. This causes her brain power to skyrocket, and she has to decide just what to do with her newfound abilities. She also becomes a real pain for the bad guys.

            So what does it mean for Lucy to have more of her brain unlocked? There are the usual parlor tricks like remembering obscure tidbits, being able to perform split-second medical diagnoses and learning new languages almost instantly. She also has control over matter, forcing people and cars to move at will by just thinking at them. Perhaps the most flaunted new ability is that she can manipulate her cells, changing her eye and hair color whenever she wants. She doesn’t change her appearance that often, probably because she already looks like Scarlett Johansson and there’s not much improvement to be made.

            One thing Lucy can’t control is that her cells are rapidly multiplying and she’ll soon be dead. Basically, she’s growing new body parts that are interfering with her regular body parts. A professor (Morgan Freeman, mostly in this movie to explain via a lecture what’s going on with Lucy’s body) convinces her to transfer her brain onto a computer so the world can know what she knows. The climax of the film is Lucy racing through a cerebral journey to do this while the bad guys try to catch up to her.

            The biggest problem with “Lucy” is that the film decides around the halfway mark that it wants to cut way back on the action. The first half sets up this cool plot about the violent gangsters having control over Lucy and we get excited at the idea of her using her newfound abilities to get back at them creatively. But her payback mostly consists of disinterested shooting and after that she just dismisses the gangsters as a nuisance. By the end of the movie she’s just battling herself while a local police captain (Amr Waked) deals with the gangsters almost as an afterthought. The film makes the mistake of thinking that all the “deep” imagery swirling around in Lucy’s head is more interesting than the potential for an ingenious final battle. The film is short enough that it could have done both without seeming overlong: first the exciting action sequence that is sorely needed and then the eggheaded Kubrick tribute that ends the film on an abstract note.

            I was ready to embrace “Lucy” as a silly (if bloody) action movie with a flawed premise. It was supposed to be one of those “turn off your brain” movies that can be fun if you accept how dumb it is. But as the film wore on, it became apparent that it was taking itself way too seriously. This probably goes against the film’s supposed celebration of brain power, but “Lucy” fails to be a fun movie because it never accepts how dumb it is.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five

6:51 pm edt 

The Purge: Anarchy

            “The Purge” turned out to be quite the sleeper hit last year. The otherwise basic home invasion horror movie was masked by its cool setting: a future where once a year for twelve hours, all crime is legal. This typically translates to rich people taking to the streets to murder the poor and homeless. A splatter-fest was promised and a splatter-fest was delivered. I saw the film opening day and I have rarely seen my favorite theater so crowded. It was seriously on par with “The Avengers.” I daresay audiences were just as bloodthirsty as some of the characters. But the film barely scratched the surface of its inventive premise, which is why we’re getting “The Purge: Anarchy.”

            The first film pretty much restricted itself to a supposedly safe family home, but the sequel takes place on the mean streets of Los Angeles. We follow characters who are dumb or unlucky enough to be outside when the rest of the city is Purging. They can’t hide because apparently every nook and cranny in Los Angeles is either locked up or under surveillance by Purgers. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul) are forced out of their apartment by a team of assassins. Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are a young couple whose car breaks down. And an unnamed Sergeant (Frank Grillo) is seeking vengeance against a drunk driver who killed his son. The Sergeant is a survival expert who reluctantly takes the others under his wing and tries to corral them to safety. They, in turn, take turns being annoying and endangering the team, not that I blame them in the nightmarish landscape.

            The team scurries from one deadly situation to another. Enemies tend to not last very long, though government assassins and a roving motorcycle gang keep popping up. The bad guys would have more success if they just killed the main characters on sight, but they keep blowing the element of surprise. Sometimes they give away their location by using firepower on peripheral characters, but more often they do that thing where they hold weapons on our heroes and monologue about what they’re going to do to them (usually involving talk about how good the Purge is for society). We wait patiently for these blowhards to get taken out by off-screen characters who don’t feel like taking their sweet time. There’s so little to make you jump that the film doesn’t even qualify as a horror movie like the first one. It’s more of an action thriller, though I suppose the environment in general is pretty horrifying.

            This is a violent movie, but the violence is less interesting than one would think. Perhaps that’s due to its overuse, perhaps it’s due to it mostly happening to characters with no dialogue. A lot of it is shooting, which makes sense, but I was hoping for more creativity. This isn’t to say that we don’t see any machetes or flamethrowers, just not as many as I would have liked. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.

            Like its predecessor, “The Purge: Anarchy” isn’t a strong movie. Most of the characters are either bland or annoying, storylines are raised and dropped carelessly and the action, despite its quantity, is mediocre. There are a few positives, like Frank Grillo’s breakout performance as an action hero, and the comedy that comes from watching rich snobs turn into violent whackjobs. But really, the only reason to see this movie is to watch it with friends and heckle it. There’s still promise in this premise, and I’m sure we’ll get a third movie (I imagine we’ll see annual installments for years to come), but the franchise has yet to fulfill its potential.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

6:50 pm edt 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

            2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ended with a virus enveloping the world and dooming humanity, leaving apes to inherit the earth. It also ended with audiences thrilled about the reboot of the sci-fi franchise from the 60s. Here was a project that was likely to fail; a resurrection of a silly-sounding premise with a lot of money and special effects thrown at it that we were supposed to take seriously. Tim Burton had tried to do the same thing back in 2001 and it was one of the biggest bombs of his career. And yet this time it worked, owing largely (but not entirely) to a touching motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis as main ape Caesar. Serkis was so acclaimed for the role that he landed a few unprecedented nominations for major acting awards (not the big one, but how cool would that have been?) Now comes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a sequel to the prequel that is arguably more beloved than the original.

            The plot follows a human colony and an ape colony as they struggle to coexist in a barren, post-virus world. The apes, not surprisingly, are thriving. They’ve formed a successful little society where they raise families, educate themselves and live off the land. At its head is Caesar, majestic as ever. His chief aide is former enemy turned follower Koba (Toby Kebbell). Koba hates humans and would be happier living in a world completely dominated by apes. And he’d be even happier living in a world dominated by him.

The humans, on the other hand, aren’t doing so well. They’ve spent the years dying from the virus, warring with each other and depleting their resources as always. If an important dam isn’t repaired in the next week, civilization will collapse all over again. The dam happens to be in ape territory. A good-natured human leader (Jason Clarke) decides to reach out to the apes to see if they’ll allow them to rebuild the dam, and Caesar wearily agrees. A bad-guy human leader (Gary Oldman) believes that apes aren’t to be trusted, and with apes like Koba in the mix, he’s not entirely wrong. Can humans and apes learn to live together? Or is one side destined to destroy the other? Can the sides even keep from destroying themselves?

            What the film does right, in short, is the apes. Everything the first film did right about them as characters is here again in greater quantity. The apes get the better personalities, better storylines, better action scenes. Andy Serkis is great again, but all actors behind the motion capture technology deserve praise, especially Toby Kebbell as the tyrannical Koba. One complaint I have is that the apes have a tendency to look alike. Koba has a distinctive scarring to him, but even with Caesar there were times where I couldn’t tell him from other apes. Maybe that’s just the fault of my ignorant human brain.

            What the film does wrong, in short, is the humans. There’s not an interesting character among them. Either they’re dull sweethearts like Clarke or trigger-happy meanies like Oldman. Every time the characters approach a complex subject like loyalty to a flawed species or making peace with the apes vs. destroying the apes, there’s always some sort of shooting or explosion to render the argument moot. To be fair, there’s some of this with the apes as well.

            “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” breaks the streak of terrible movies I’ve seen lately. The filmmakers know exactly what they want to do with the apes and the results make the audience go bananas (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’m optimistic about the future of the franchise. I just hope that the next installment can come up with something better for my own species.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

6:46 pm edt 

Tammy

            “Tammy” is a movie where we’re supposed to laugh at bad things happening to a pathetic character. Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is responsible for a lot of the bad things about her life, but the world keeps piling problems upon her anyway. She is not likeable or resilient enough to us to root for her, but not heinous enough for us to root for her misfortune and comeuppance. We’re not rooting for anything except for the movie to be over.

            As the film opens, Tammy loses her job, her car and her marriage in short order. Her level of fault in these matters is debatable, but the temper tantrums she throws in response are definitely ill-advised. Needing to run away but with nowhere to run to, she agrees to a road trip to Niagara Falls with her drug-addled grandmother (Susan Sarandon, getting eaten alive by the dumb script).

            The plot is pretty much your standard road trip movie. The women bond, they party, they argue, they fight. They do irresponsible things that make them desperate for money. They do irresponsible things that land them in jail. Romantic interests are introduced in the form of the game-as-ever Gary Cole for Sarandon and an uncomfortable-looking Mark Duplass for Tammy. I get that their relationship is supposed to be initially awkward, but I never got the impression that the Duplass character was doing anything other than indulging Tammy just to be polite.

            The humor mostly revolves around Tammy’s obnoxious personality. McCarthy brings her typical outspokenness to the role, but is sorely lacking the charm needed to make the character tolerable. The film is directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband. I think the goal was to push the two as some sort of comedic power couple and prove that Falcone is just as talented as his Oscar-nominated wife. Falcone’s direction is meandering and otherwise poorly paced. If I am to think that the two are equally talented because of “Tammy,” it’s because Falcone has dragged McCarthy down to his level.

My last two reviews (“Think Like a Man Too” and “Transformers: Age Extinction”) have each been one-star. I don’t want to earn a reputation as a sourpuss, but those were both terrible movies. “Tammy” is pretty lousy too, and it was on track to the same fate as I found nothing remotely enjoyable about its first hour. But then a ray of sunshine peeked through in the form of Sarandon’s distant cousin played by Kathy Bates. Bates gives the movie a shot of respectability that it doesn’t deserve. That backhanded compliment is the nicest thing I’ve been able to say about any movie in the last three weeks.

            I think my feelings toward “Tammy” can best be summed up by that scene where she robs the fast food joint, the one that they’ve been showing in the trailers for what seems like forever now. Tammy is breaking the law, but her intentions are good. She’s threatening the employees’ lives, but she’s kind of nice about it. She bumbles and bungles at every turn, but she’s technically successful. Do these conflicting elements give the character or the film a complex dual nature? In a better movie they might, but here they just cancel each other out into in a dull mush that I wish I could have avoided altogether. In this case, I sympathize with the employees she robs. Tammy’s fake gun isn’t fooling anybody, but they have to take it seriously because of corporate policy. Similarly, “Tammy” isn’t fooling me into thinking it’s an interesting movie, but I have to take it seriously because it made the most money of all the new releases this past weekend.

           

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

6:43 pm edt 

Transformers: Age of Extinction

            “Transformers” was the single worst movie of 2007. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was the single worst movie of 2009. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” broke the pattern and was not the single worst movie of 2011 (thanks a lot, “Sanctum,” “The Smurfs” and “Playing for Keeps”). Now comes “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which gets the franchise right back on track, as it is now and is likely to remain the single worst movie of 2014.

            We’re thankfully done with Shia LaBeouf as our main human character. In his place is a lowly Texas tinkerer played by Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is charming enough that I didn’t spend the whole movie hoping a Transformer would topple over and crush him, which is more than I can say for LaBeouf. The Wahlberg character has an assistant played by TJ Miller and a daughter played by Nicola Peltz. The daughter has a boyfriend played by Jack Reynor. The group is eventually joined by an industrialist played by Stanley Tucci. All these characters take turns being “the whiny one” and I found myself wishing blunt metal fists on the lot of them.

            Wahlberg finds himself in the middle of a war between good-guy Autobots led by Optimus Prime and evil government agents. This turns out to just be a smoke screen for an attack by an evil Transformer called Lockdown. Lockdown gets help from some reincarnated Decepticons, the Autobots enlist the help of some long-thought-dead Dinobots and there’s a big showdown in Hong Kong. Needless to say, the fate of humanity lies in the balance.

            The non-action scenes are garbage as always. The characters’ decisions make no sense except as an excuse to set up action sequences or create conflict for the sake of conflict. The humans don’t behave like relatable humans and the Transformers’ bickering is unbecoming of giant alien robots. As for the dialogue, any attempts at tenderness or profundity are laughable and any attempts to get laughs are hopeless. The film once again makes the mistake of playing to teenagers who like PG-13 humor instead of the toy-buying kid audience that they’re supposed to be targeting.

            Then there are the action scenes. So much money was clearly spent on them, and somehow they still look cheap. The dinosaurs we see at the beginning of the film are composed of unconvincing CGI. Backgrounds and scenery are lifeless as the actors have negative chemistry with the green screens. The Transformers are supposed to be both robots and aliens. I say they’re neither; they’re just really bad cartoons. They thrash around without much gravity, landing with those infamous metallic whoosh sounds instead of proper crashing. On top of all this, the sequences are poorly edited. I saw a minor character running away from a danger zone in Hong Kong and I didn’t even know she was in the country.

Perhaps the best word to describe the action scenes is “numbing.” You like shooting? There’s so much shooting you’ll get bored with it. You like fighting? There’s way too much of that as well. How about explosions? This is a Michael Bay film. There are going to be explosions. The film is 165 minutes. Without explosions, I don’t think it would qualify as feature length. A few weeks ago, I complained about “Godzilla” not delivering on its potential for action. This movie has the opposite problem. It’s hard to find the action scenes (especially these action scenes) interesting when they’re all you’ve been watching for what feels like forever.

I actually think that people who liked the other “Transformers” movies are going to like “Age of Extinction.” Whatever those movies did to get people to like them, there’s more of it here. But for people like me who already despise the “Transformers” franchise, “Age of Extinction” is quite possibly the biggest piece of junk yet.

 

One Star out of Five.

6:41 pm edt 

Think Like a Man Too

                2012 brought us “Think Like a Man,” a painful romantic comedy that served as a two-hour commercial for a book of dubious relationship advice by comedian Steve Harvey. The film told the stories of four couples in rocky relationships. All four stories followed pretty much the same formula. The women used the book to secretly gain an advantage over their men (because the book supposedly has that power). Then the men used the book to secretly gain an advantage over the women. The women found out that the men were using the book to manipulate them, which made them feel used. The couples broke up, but then they got back together like clockwork. Actually, the selling point of the movie wasn’t the relationships or even the book, it was Kevin Hart as a mutual friend of the men “provided comic relief” at every opportunity. And by “provided comic relief,” I mean he acted like an obnoxious little twerp in the way that only Kevin Hart can.

                Now comes “Think Like a Man Too,” which sees all the couples in Las Vegas for a wedding. All the relationships are tested over the course of the weekend, but there’s hardly any attempt for profundity this time, just a straight-up Vegas romantic comedy. There are bachelor and bachelorette parties, casino gambling, a desperate need for cash, club dancing, arrests and all manner of trouble with the wedding itself. Almost all traces of Steve Harvey and his book are gone, save for an admittedly clever way of shoehorning him in during the film’s epilogue. But if the movie is going to break so much from its source material, why make it at all? My guess is because it gave the actors an excuse to goof around in Vegas.

                Here we go with the breakdown of the storylines: Michael (Terrence Jenkins) is getting married to Candace (Regina Hall), even though his mother (Jenifer Lewis) doesn’t care much for the divorcee who is already a mother herself. Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) is scared at the prospect of having a child with his wife Kristen (Gabrielle Union). Zeke (Romany Malco) is scared at the prospect of proposing to his girlfriend Mya (Meagan Good), especially with Sin City constantly reminding him of how much fun he had in his promiscuous early days. Dominic (Michael Ealy) and Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) are considering taking jobs thousands of miles apart from one another. Bennett (Gary Owen) and Tish (Wendi McLendon-Covey, who was in “Bridesmaids,” so she’s been to this wedding comedy dance before) are a boring couple who take advantage of this rare opportunity to let loose. And yes, Kevin Hart is back as Cedric, the annoying friend who takes it upon himself to direct traffic as the best man. This is the kind of movie where the writers think that bouncing around between multiple storylines will make people forget that none of them are interesting. Few people, if any, are going to be fooled by this tactic.

                I almost considered giving “Think Like a Man Too” a star and a half just because it’s so inoffensive. I’ll even say that the odd joke does land, usually involving the lame-o couple (there’s a curious running gag involving the husband wanting to go see “Jersey Boys” on stage and everybody shooting him down; meanwhile this movie is opening on the same weekend as the bombing movie version of “Jersey Boys”). And unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t have anything questionable or dangerous to say about relationships because it doesn’t have anything original to say about relationships. But because it is so unoriginal, there’s no reason for this movie to exist aside from money-grubbing reasons like brand recognition and Kevin Hart’s inexplicable star power. Speaking of Hart, the real reason I give this movie one star is that anything remotely funny about it is cancelled out by his grating presence.

 

One Star out of Five.

6:39 pm edt 

22 Jump Street

                I only laughed a little at “21 Jump Street” two years ago. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as a pair of bumbling cops undercover at a high school; it was just that for me a lot of the jokes fell flat. There were certainly some exceptions (I still like to pull up the online video of Tatum botching a science formula), but I couldn’t get into the movie overall. “22 Jump Street” has a lot more jokes that land, many of them in a style that I didn’t like last time.

                Officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are doing badly as big-boy cops, so they’re sent back to the Jump Street undercover program. Since they’re too old to pass for high schoolers anymore (as if they ever could), they’re sent to college to bust another drug ring. Their wacky adventures include frat parties, car chases, poetry slams, Spring Break, forbidden love and tension in their own relationship. It’s about what you’d expect plot-wise from a movie that combines college, cops and comedy.

                So what makes this film stronger than its predecessor? For starters, there are a lot more memorable performances in the supporting cast. You can tell from the advertising alone that Jillian Bell is going to be impactful as the disapproving roommate of Schmidt’s girlfriend (Amber Stevens, herself not very impactful). Audiences will be instantly drawn to Keith and Kenny Lucas as a pair of mellow twins who have a chemistry that Schmidt and Jenko try feebly to duplicate. Rob Riggle returns in a cameo where he is allowed to be much funnier than he was in first movie, where he basically played it straight until his final moments. And Ice Cube is back as the duo’s hostile captain. He nails the role, though in fairness he nailed it in the first movie as well.

                The film has a lot of scenes that had me pounding my armrest in delight. These include the aforementioned Riggle cameo and any scene involving Ice Cube. Schmidt engages in an unfortunate college tradition usually reserved for females. Schmidt and Jenko find themselves in a therapy session with a misunderstanding psychologist. The inevitable showdown between Schmidt and the film’s villain is sure to be nominated for Best Fight at the next MTV Movie Awards. But my absolute favorite gag is the world’s most awkward Parents’ Day, followed closely by Jenko’s reaction to the bombshell dropped at the event.

                There’s even a punch-up to the reflexive gags that I loathed so much in the first movie. At the time, I constantly found myself thinking, “We get it. Movie versions of old TV shows are usually lame. You know what else is lame? Your jokes about how lame they are.” A few of the tongue-in-cheek jokes in this movie are indeed painful (and I wish it wouldn’t take a cheap shot at Tatum’s role in “White House Down,” that movie was a lot of fun), but in general I think they work a lot better. The best gags have to do with the future of the franchise, including a surprisingly lengthy sequence that plays over the film’s credits.

                To be sure, “22 Jump Street” is not what you’d call a smart movie. Perhaps it goes to the wells of Schmidt’s awkwardness, Jenko’s stupidity and homoeroticism a bit too often. But then again there a lot of jokes that do work; more than there were in “21 Jump Street.” Also, the film never takes itself too seriously, unlike its predecessor, which devolved into a pretty straight action flick toward the end. If you’re a big fan of dumb, raunchy comedies, “22 Jump Street” will probably make your summer.

 

Three Stars out of Five.

6:35 pm edt 

The Fault in Our Stars

                I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience collectively cry as much as they did at my screening of “The Fault in Our Stars.” It should come as no surprise, really. The film is a love story about two teenagers with cancer. There are highs to be sure, but we know the lows are coming. Let’s just say that this won’t be one of those YA adaptations that gets a whole series with the final book being split into two movies. And yet, even though we have good idea what looms ahead, that doesn’t make it any less saddening.

                The film is based on a YA (Young Adult) novel by John Green, one that I’ve heard of for once. I’m glad that kids are reading this hard-to-market book. It’s not that I object to “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games” per se, but I am tired of books and movies insisting that they’re the “next” in those lines. Of course, it would have been cool to think that some studio executive took a chance on such tragic subject matter as an original pitch, but I guess some publishing executive took on that challenge.

                The film stars Shailene Woodley as Hazel, our 17-year-old heroine who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 13. She was very close to death at one point, but thanks to some experimental medicine is now relatively better. “Relatively” meaning that she’s constantly bedridden and is hooked up to an oxygen tank at all times, but at least she isn’t being called to walk into the light. Woodley was terrific in “The Descendants,” my favorite movie of 2011, and still this is by far her best performance.

                Hazel is dragged to a support group by her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, who steal a lot of scenes in this movie). There she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a fellow survivor who is missing part of his leg. The two start a cute friendship that is destined to turn into a passionate romance. Their date scenes are enjoyable enough, though about what you’d expect. They share wisdom, debate philosophies, and engage in some self-deprecating humor. It’s typical romantic comedy stuff in a movie that will not end as a romantic comedy.

                Things get steamy when Gus performs an act of kindness for Hazel and takes her to Amsterdam. There they are drawn together closer than ever by graceful champagne, cultured food, and their admiration followed by disillusionment with author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), a character we can tell we’re not going to like the second we lay eyes on him. They visit the Anne Frank house, where they share a romantic moment in a frankly inappropriate setting. They do so during a portion of their audio tour where an optimistic Anne talks about the beauty of the world, but it’s still weird.

                Then comes the sad part. There’s no sugar-coating it – their deterioration affects us. Even though we’ve only spent a short time with these characters, we’ve come to love them. Not unlike their relationship with each other really. In a move of bad taste, the managers of my theater took this opportunity to pump dust and onions through the ventilation system during these scenes. At least I assume they were, based on my physical reaction.

                “The Fault in Our Stars” is the next great American weepie. It isn’t a depressing movie so much as a highly emotional one. There is something comforting about being in a theater or room full of people going through this rocky ride of emotions alongside you. It’s like that Elton John song where we’re all united by sad songs (I forget its title). And make no mistake, there will be large groups of people watching this film together for quite a while.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

6:34 pm edt 

Maleficent

                In preparation for Disney’s “Maleficent,” I watched Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the animated staple from 1959. I say “staple” because I refuse to call it a “classic.” Talk about a movie that doesn’t hold up, if in fact it was well-regarded in the first place. People who associate Disney with vapid, cutesy princess movies are thinking of “Sleeping Beauty.” The rare compliment that I do hear is usually praise for the film’s villain, Maleficent. Truth be told, I didn’t much care for the animated Maleficent. She’s plenty scary, but she lacks motivation and frankly competence. Disney is apparently aware of these weaknesses, because the goal of the new live-action film starring Angelina Jolie as the “evil” fairy queen seems to be to correct them.

                One scene that both versions share is one where Maleficent curses the baby princess Aurora. She shows up uninvited to the royal baby shower and announces that sometime on or before the girl’s sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. A stipulation is later added where the princess will not die from the finger pricking, but will instead fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by True Love’s Kiss. In the animated version, this scene is the first we see of Maleficent, and it establishes her as cartoonishly evil (pun intended). In the new film, this scene is roughly in the middle of the movie, and we see what led Maleficent to be this way and a very different version of what happened after.

                The lead-up is fairly predictable. Sweet fairy Maleficent was a childhood friend of human Stefan. A war between the fairies and humans drove them apart and Stefan ascended to the throne by turning on fierce warrior Maleficent and cutting off her wings. Now she’s out for revenge against King Stefan (Sharlto Copely), and figures she can hurt him most by threatening his daughter Aurora.

                I thought the rest of “Maleficent” was going to parallel “Sleeping Beauty,” but surprisingly it doesn’t. It tells an all-new story, one where there is no question that Maleficent is good and Stefan is evil. In this version, for example, Maleficent figures out in about half a second that Aurora is going to be raised by three fairies at a cottage far away from her father’s castle (there’s that previously-missing competence I spoke of earlier). She watches over the child throughout the years, first out of disgusted curiosity, but eventually out of genuine love. There’s even a major deviation as she and Aurora become friends after Aurora makes a blissfully wrong assumption about the evil sorceress who has cursed her to death.

                This is not to say that the story or movie is great on its own. Angelina Jolie nails Maleficent’s voice, but I could detect that she was uncomfortable under all her makeup. A lot of the CGI creatures and greenscreen settings are unconvincing. And speaking of bad special effects, the three fairies who adopt Aurora are comprised of the actresses’ faces superimposed on tiny, disproportionate bodies. The results are downright creepy. But perhaps the worst offense is that the movie features a “twist” ending that rips off a Disney movie that is barely six months old and technically still in theaters.

                It does somewhat defeat the purpose of “Maleficent” to change the story so drastically from “Sleeping Beauty.” We’re supposed to be getting the villain’s side of the familiar story, not a whole new one. But one thing Disney didn’t count on was that I wouldn’t be pining for the familiar story. The familiar story is garbage. “Maleficent” may not respect its source material, but the source material doesn’t deserve to be respected.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

6:32 pm edt 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

                It’s appropriate that the title of the new “X-Men” movie should imply a confusing timeframe, since “X-Men” hasn’t been the most linear of franchises. The first three films (“X-Men,” “X2: X-Men United,” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”) took place in their proper order, but then “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” came before any of those and “X-Men: First Class” took place before that. Last year we got “The Wolverine,” which got us caught up, taking place after “The Last Stand.” Now we get “Days of Future Past,” which starts out in the time after “The Wolverine,” but largely takes place in the time between “First Class” and “Origins: Wolverine.” If you think that summary is confusing, wait until this film’s third act.

                As we start out, the planet is overrun by deadly robots called Sentinels. The Sentinels were designed to hunt mutants, but at some point they got confused and just started blasting everyone. All the remaining mutants have forgotten their differences and banded together for a last-ditch effort to save the world. The plan is to send the indestructible Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time the 1970s to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), an event that made the world scared of mutants and persuaded the government to use Trask’s research to build the Sentinels.

                For reasons that are frankly unclear, Wolverine needs help from the 70s versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, later Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender, later Ian McKellen). Surprisingly it is good guy Xavier who needs the most convincing, as he would rather risk the future of the world than team with the murderous Magneto and suffer the curse of his own powers again. Magneto goes along with the plan, but as usual he has an agenda of his own. The mission goes haywire as Trask is saved, but the mutants cause such a scene fighting with each other that humanity still becomes scared of them. The government allows the now-living Trask to build the Sentinels after all.

                Like a lot of the “X-Men” films, the real conflict here is amongst the mutants and not a third party like Trask or The Sentinels. Xavier wants mutants and non-mutants to live in harmony (actually, what he wants is to be left alone, but that’s just not an option with the stakes so high), Magneto wants mutants to dominate the non-mutants, Mystique is conflicted on the matter and Wolverine wants to prevent the Sentinels from turning the planet to rubble. A lot of time is spent on the characters convincing, arguing, and threatening each other. Perhaps it is a bit too much time as the film is shorter on action than I would have preferred.

                Probably the best thing about this film is the wide range of potential outcomes. The prequels can be predictable as we know that certain characters are going to make it since they appear “later” in the series. But all bets are off here. The “present” team watching Wolverine’s body as his consciousness travels through time (including the older Xavier and Magneto) are in immediate danger from the roaming Sentinels. As for The Sentinels themselves, they could wipe out human life when they do, or earlier with their rushed production, or, under Trask’s supervision, function as they should and only go after mutants. Also, what happens if an important character like Xavier or Magneto dies in the past? Can characters who have died since the 70s be saved through Wolverine’s actions?

                “Days of Future Past” may not be the best “X-Men” film (“First Class” set the bar pretty high), but it does breathe new life into the franchise. It will be best remembered for its ending and the way it sets the surviving characters up for all new adventures. My hope is that those new adventures will prove more interesting than this one.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

6:31 pm edt 

Godzilla

                It isn’t a good idea to approach a Godzilla movie with a “less is more” attitude. The gold standard of the “less is more” horror movie is “Jaws,” which this movie wants to be so badly. In that film, you didn’t actually see much of the shark, but you were scared nonetheless. There isn’t much of Godzilla in this movie, and the attitude seems to be that if you’re impatient waiting for her to show up, then it’s your fault for not appreciating the nuanced way the film is subtly toying with your expectations.

The problem is that Jaws, as big as he was, had a whole ocean he could hide in, and it was believable that he was doing all his damage beneath its surface. It made sense to keep us in suspense about his appearance and actions. Godzilla, on the other hand, is the size of a skyscraper and spends a lot of time on the surface. It does not make sense to shroud her appearance and actions. Yet we spend most of “Godzilla” not quite getting a good look at her. It quickly becomes apparent that the film simply does not have the money to represent the creature properly.

The first half of the film where we wait for Godzilla to first show up is boring, but at least it can get away with saying that it’s just building suspense. Eventually there comes a point where it has to give us one good look, and then it spends the rest of the time coming up with one reason after another to not give us subsequent good looks. Sometimes Godzilla is underwater with just her spikes sticking out. Sometimes it’s dark or rainy. Sometimes there’s an obstruction like a slowly-closing door. Watch the scene where Godzilla is blocked by a closing door and tell me you don’t feel cheated.

There’s some bare-bones plot about Godzilla only coming out from hiding now so she can stop a pair of even more dangerous creatures called MUTOs, who have just escaped captivity on two continents. The army naturally wants to nuke all three of them and we’re supposed to see them as reckless for doing so. They just won’t listen to the reasonable alternate plan of trusting the giant monster with animal instincts to defeat the MUTOs and then walk away and leave us alone.

The human characters aren’t very interesting. There’s a scientist played by Ken Watanabe, a general played by David Strathairn, a soldier played by Aaron Taylor-Johnston, and his wife, a nurse played by Elizabeth Olsen. None of these roles are written with any personality. The only character who comes even close to being memorable is Taylor-Johnston’s father, the requisite broken-down conspiracy theorist that no one believes until it’s too late played by Bryan Cranston. And if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve gotten the extent of his passion. Also, there is zero comic relief in the movie. Say what you will about the poorly-regarded 1998 Godzilla movie that this one thinks it’s so superior to, but at least that one knew enough to have some fun with the absurdity of a giant radioactive creature destroying a city.

Every now and then we’ll get a hint of what this version of “Godzilla” could have been. Godzilla does look pretty good in the brief glimpses we do get, and the MUTOs don’t look half bad themselves. Of course everyone cheers when the creatures roar or smash or do that other thing that Godzilla is known for. But the film just takes one shortcut after another, and this is definitely not the place for a “less is more” approach. The less people waste their time on this movie, the more happy I’ll be when it bombs.

 

One Star out of Five.

6:29 pm edt 

Neighbors
   

                “Neighbors” is making a bid to become the big R-rated comedy for the summer season. It will probably succeed. It’s opening on a good weekend, Seth Rogen is pretty much the current king of this genre and the frat-boy antics of the Zac Efron character are sure to appeal to the film’s target audience. Whether or not the film is actually funny is almost incidental at this point, and it is reasonably funny, so it’s going to do very well.

                Rogen and Rose Byrne star as Mac and Kelly Radner, a married couple with a newborn baby and a newly-purchased house. They’re settling comfortably into adult life (though they’re yearning just a bit for their carefree early days) when the house next door is bought by a fraternity. They try to get in good with the frat’s leader Teddy (Efron) in hopes that he’ll keep the inevitable loud partying to a minimum. He invites them to a party, which isn’t exactly the same thing, but it seems like a step in the right direction and the grown-ups have fun. But the polite requests to keep the noise down fall on deaf ears, and after a call to the police that is unsatisfactory to both sides, hard feelings are born between between the parents and the brothers.

                The rest of the film mostly follows Mac and Kelly as they try to get rid of the frat. The police are no help (Hannibal Buress has a pretty funny cameo here), nor is the antagonistic dean of the college (Lisa Kudrow has a pretty unfunny cameo here). Eventually they resort to some really dirty tricks like causing dissention among the members and straight-up vandalism. The frat boys pull some pranks in retaliation, but they achieve victory enough just by being their vulgar selves.

                There are some serious moments late in the film that feel forced. Mac and Kelly get in an over-rehearsed fight over who’s supposed to be more mature and Teddy gets into a fight with his best friend Pete (Dave Franco) about the former’s short sight on his future and the latter stealing his girlfriend. My guess is that somebody pointed out that the characters were underdeveloped and these scenes were wedged into the script in compliance. Usually I’d be in favor of fleshing out the characters, but these awkward scenes disrupt the film’s comedic rhythm.

                The humor is about what you’d expect from a Seth Rogen movie. Almost everything is crude, usually involving sex and anatomy (surprisingly skewing toward anatomy in this one). And of course there are enough pot jokes to fill the state of Colorado. There’s a fun multi-stage fight scene late in the movie that seems destined to at least be nominated for Best Fight at the MTV Movie Awards. But I could have done without the grating best friend character played by Ike Barinholtz. He never comes off as anything other than dumb for the sake of dumb. Some will call him a scene-stealer, I call him an unwelcome distraction.

                I do like the idea of a comedy where Seth Rogen plays the mature one to an immature up-and-comer. He does have a little growing up to do in this movie, but this isn’t yet another romp where he starts out as a loser with no ambition and we follow him as he learns responsibility from scratch. Zac Efron isn’t without his charms either, though the character he plays is pretty charmless. There’s some good chemistry in the early scenes where the two bond, and they make good foils for each other later. Rogen and Byrne make a pretty good team too as the young married couple. It’s just too bad that there isn’t a lot of originality to the film’s story and humor. I can’t say that “Neighbors” had me consistently laughing, but I’ll admit that I did smile quite a bit.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

6:26 pm edt 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
   

                Here’s how much affection people have for Spider-Man. Last night, while coming home from work, I paid particularly close attention to the various posters in the 49th Street subway station. Almost all of them had been defaced. People had scratched out the subjects’ eyes, drawn moustaches and beards on them, and given a few of them captions that I don’t care to relay. But the only graffiti on the “Amazing Spider-Man 2” poster read simply, “My Boy Spidey.” Positive graffiti – a true New York City honor.

                The film is of course a sequel to 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy of 2002 to 2007. The 2012 film basically restarted the series, which meant that we had to watch Peter Parker get his superpowers from a radioactive spider bite and endure the Uncle Ben saga all over again. The prevailing opinion was that the story didn’t need to be told again with the 2002 version still relatively fresh in everyone’s minds. I’m happy to report that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” doesn’t fall into this trap. I suppose a few plot points late in the movie are inevitable (I’m told this is especially true if you’ve read comics from 40 years ago, which I haven’t), but at no point does the film feel like a pointless remake.

                As the film opens, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is enjoying life as a costumed superhero. He’s even starting to get a little drunk on his own celebrity. He lazily foils a weapons robbery by a Russian gangster (Paul Giamatti, hardly ever in a clear shot for some reason) and in the process saves wimpy electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx, playing a nerd caricature that would be more at home in a Joel Schumacher Batman movie), who turns into a somewhat creepy Spider-fan. Peter has fun in the moment, but he has some tough choices ahead. Does he pursue a relationship with the love of his life, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), despite his promise to never put her in danger? Does he use his mutated blood to save dying friend Harry Osbourne (Dane DeHaan)? Does he want to know the ugly truth about his father (Campbell Scott), and his mysterious disappearance several years earlier?

                The film likes to throw setups our way, but doesn’t concern itself enough with payoffs. It keeps hinting at great action sequences to come, but except for the opening and a relatively early one in Times Square, they all come off as rushed and anticlimactic. For every villain whose story plays out (like Max Dillon, transformed by an accident into the electricity-themed Electro), there are about a dozen more that the film basically promises to get around to in the next movie. Or should I say upcoming movies, if the third installment is as uninterested in rewarding its audience as this one.

                “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” does conclude one major storyline, and to its credit, it is a powerful and heartbreaking sequence. It’s an excellent way to distract us from the fact that this film has been disappointingly short on action. The final fight sequence especially seems like a rip-off. The film ultimately falls into a trap that a lot of second films in a series do – it serves as an expensive commercial for the third movie without amounting to much on its own.

               

Two Stars out of Five.

 

NOTE: Marvel Comics movies have become known for featuring bonus scenes during and after the films’ credits. I’ll save you some time and say that there are no additional Spider-Man-related scenes in this movie. There is a preview of the upcoming “X-Men” film during the credits and nothing after.

6:25 pm edt 

The Other Woman
   

                Cameron Diaz gets top billing in “The Other Woman,” and I guess that’s technically appropriate. She does play the main character, a lawyer who finds out her boyfriend is married. But if you see the movie, you’ll soon discover that Diaz isn’t the main attraction. That honor goes to Leslie Mann as the jilted wife. She’s the real star of this show, and she turns this otherwise vanilla comedy into something quite funny and enjoyable.

                Carly (Diaz) engages in a whirlwind romance with pretty-boy investment banker Mark King (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He blows off meeting her father (Don Johnson) so he can go to his house in Connecticut. She goes there to surprise him, but is greeted instead by his wife Kate (Mann). The two were never supposed to know about each other, let alone meet.

                Embarrassed, Carly tries to distance herself from both Nick and Kate, but the wife soon catches wind of the affair and confronts her. Surprisingly, she’s not out to attack her for being a home wrecker, she just wants to know what’s become of the man she married. Despite Kate’s needy nature, the two become friends. That friendship is tested when Kate learns that Nick is still being unfaithful. Carly swears she is not the mistress, and the two investigate together. They soon meet Amber (Kate Upton), who has been deceived as well, and the three of them conspire to take down Nick.

                The key to the movie is the Leslie Mann performance. She talks in such a way that I find it hard to believe that she had lines written for her, I think she’s just riffing. The longer she goes on, the funnier she is. And I don’t mean that the joke is that she’s going on too long; I actually hate it when comedies do that. What I mean is that she has a tendency to work herself up, to get on a roll and not stop. This style could be irritating to viewers (it’s even irritating to the characters, especially Carly), but I say it pays off big time. The only times Cameron Diaz comes even close to getting the kinds of laughs that Mann does are the scenes that involve physical comedy. With these scenes, Mann and Diaz are about equally matched.

                Kate is basically the Dumb One to Carly’s Smart One for the first half of the movie and it works great. Once Amber is introduced, she becomes the Dumb One and Kate is left to reinvent herself as the Strong One, finding it in herself to move on from her attachment to Nick. The change to the dynamic doesn’t work so well. The humor surrounding Amber mostly relies on tired “dumb supermodel” jokes, though Upton makes them land better than they should. Worse is that it forces Kate to become a straighter character, which slowly sucks the comic energy out of the room. By its end, the movie has to rely on slapstick from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for laughs. Between the actor’s sliminess here and his detestable actions on last week’s “Game of Thrones,” the movie is at least coming out at a time when people want to see him punished.

                “The Other Woman” is getting slammed by critics, most of whom disagree with me on the Leslie Mann performance, so I doubt it will wind up with an Oscar nomination. But the Golden Globes have separate Lead Acting categories for comedies and dramas. I could see her picking up a nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy. The movie isn’t very ambitious, it goes for some cheap laughs and there’s little to enjoy outside of the one performance. But that one performance had me cracking up more than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

 

Two Stars out of Five

6:23 pm edt 

Rio 2

                I actually liked 2011’s “Rio,” even though it made me physically ill. My stomach couldn’t take the slobbering bulldog voiced by Tracy Morgan, and yet I still gave the movie three stars. “Rio 2” sees all the birds flying deep into the Amazon, and they have to leave the bulldog behind (they also leave Rio de Janeiro behind, making the title somewhat misleading). This should set the sequel up to be even better, or at least more tolerable, but apparently the birds have left behind all of the franchise’s charm as well.

                Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) are rare Blue Macaws living the high life in the big city with their three bland kids. They party at Carnival, they eat blueberry pancakes and the kids tie the babysitter to fireworks in a scene I fear younger viewers will want to imitate. One day they see on television that their human researcher friends (Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro) have discovered more Blue Macaws in the Amazon rainforest. Jewel is eager to fly down there and meet more of their kind. Blu reluctantly agrees to the glorified camping trip, even though he’s not thrilled to leave behind all his creature comforts.

                But don’t worry, they’re not leaving everything behind. They’re bringing along their friends: toucan Rafael (George Lopez), canary Nico (Jamie Foxx) and cardinal Pedro (will.i.am). In pursuit is old nemesis Nigel (Jemaine Clement), a cockatoo grounded by an unfortunate run-in with an active propeller in the first movie. He’s flanked by a hapless mute anteater and a poisonous frog named Gabi (Kristen Chenoweth) who is madly in love with him.

                Once everyone gets to the rainforest, they find out that not only are the rumors of more Blue Macaws true, but it’s Jewel’s long-lost family. Her father Eduardo (Andy Garcia), the leader of the tribe, is overjoyed to see his daughter and the kids, but less so Blu, who he immediately dismisses as soft. Also still around is Jewel’s childhood friend Roberto (Bruno Mars), now a heartthrob with a great singing voice. Blu frets about being accepted by Jewel’s family and friends, and ponders if she only coupled with him because she thought that he was the last male of his species.

                The film is top heavy of characters and storylines. I saw no reason for there to be a feud between the blue birds and the red birds over a dwindling food supply, except as a flimsy excuse to set up a sport sequence (they say the sport is close to soccer, but it looks suspiciously like Quidditch). There’s also a needless conflict involving a logging company. The whole storyline exists so just so Blu can save the day and to remind us that in movies about cute animals, logging companies are evil. The film should have just let Nigel and his henchmen be the villains; the rest of the obstacles could have just come from the jungle itself.

                Most of the humor falls flat, consisting mainly of tired slapstick, gross-out gags and “bumbling Blu” bits ripped off from “Meet the Parents.” The only jokes that work are cutaways where various creatures audition for a talent show, and even a lot of these are played-out gags involving rapping, break dancing and booty shaking. To be honest, the funniest thing about the movie was hearing the girls in the audience squeal over the Bruno Mars character. It’s funny enough when they go crazy over Robert Pattinson or One Direction, but Roberto is animated and a bird.

                “Rio” was cute and funny, “Rio 2” is clumsy and annoying. Adults will be bored out of their skulls, kids may be entertained, but only because it is junk food. Somehow this franchise has managed to go downhill from a movie that made me sick.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

6:20 pm edt 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

                Regular readers know that I’m usually quick to attack Captain America. I argue that he got his powers from taking questionable injections and I consider him a glorified steroid case. I can’t do that with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Injections can’t make our hero so tactical or incorruptible or handy with a shield. So already things are looking up.

                The new film finds Captain America a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, at his most charming) carrying out various missions for spy/superhero agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Good old S.H.I.E.L.D, they’ve been a dependable home base for The Avengers since 2008. That’s all about to change, as the agency has been compromised by evil organization HYDRA. There are undercover bad guys left and right, and this possibly includes senior leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). I suppose it’s just as well; doesn’t it seem like the good guys have a bit of an unfair advantage with a huge organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. backing them up?

                Captain America does have some help, including fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). I’ve often said that Black Widow deserves her own movie, and she still does, but at least she’s all over this one. We also get a new hero in Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a hang-gliding master who can, for all intents and purposes, fly. And it wouldn’t be an Avengers movie without an appearance by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. director who warns Captain America not to trust anybody right before he is neutralized by a HYDRA assassin known as The Winter Soldier.

                The film goes to great lengths to keep The Winter Soldier’s identity a secret for as long as it can, which I found a strange move. The implication is that it’s some sort of familiar character. But “Captain America: The First Avenger” mostly took place in the 1940s, so everyone Rogers knew from that era should be either dead or really, really old. Maybe it’s someone left over from one of the other “Avengers” films or a debuting character from the Marvel universe? When the character’s identity is revealed, you’ll understand why the film built it up as a big surprise.

                HYDRA wants to take over the world with a device that can target and eliminate large groups of people based on biographical snippets. The message is supposed to be that we shouldn’t be so accepting of the government collecting personal information and that a world under constant surveillance isn’t really free. This is the wrong movie for that kind of message. Why take it seriously when the consequence presented is an unrealistic doomsday machine?

                The action scenes are about as fine as you’ll see in an “Avengers” movie. The fighting is crisp and the editing isn’t distracting. Unique to this film are the many creative uses for Captain America’s shield. My favorite is whenever he builds up momentum, hops on it, and uses it as a sort of street-sled. I just wish there was a scene set in the snow so he could use it as an actual sled. You’d think that a film with “Winter” in its title would have at least one scene like that.

                “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is one of the better “Avengers” movies. Captain America has become a more likeable hero and the film provides some much-needed development for Black Widow and Nick Fury. The story does seem a little routine at times, but the film makes up for it by promising that the routine is about to change. If nothing else, the film serves to prove that Captain America deserves his spot in The Avengers.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

6:19 pm edt 

Noah

                “Noah” stars Russell Crowe as the Biblical hero tasked with building an ark to save two of every animal from a flood that destroys most of humanity. It’s a story that can be filmed pretty straightforwardly given its epic nature. There’s no need for director Darren Aronofsky to embellish or deviate, especially given how many viewers will surely be unhappy with any changes that don’t stay true to the source material. And yet the story of “Noah” goes in some strange directions that some will find offensive, some will find imaginative, but all will find different from what they expect.

                For example, I don’t recall the part in the Bible where Noah is assisted by giant rock monsters filled with the spirits of fallen angels. I guess this does make the construction of the ark seem more - “believable” is the wrong word because it involves rock monsters – feasible. Nor do I remember a bad guy stowing away on the ark waiting to overthrow Noah as leader of the new world (a whole storyline I find particularly unnecessary). Oh, and I’m also unfamiliar with the part where Noah is certain that humanity is supposed to end shortly after the task is completed, to the point where he resolves to murder his newborn granddaughters.

This depiction of Noah going all “Shining” on his family is the part most likely to upset and anger people. It does, however, present an interesting question: what did Noah think God’s policy on killing was, exactly? Remember, the story takes place after God punished Cain for murdering Abel, but before the book of Exodus where “Thou Shalt Not Kill” became a Commandment. At any rate, Noah considers the lives of the animals more valuable than the lives of humans.

Speaking of humans, Jennifer Connelly plays Noah’s wife Naameh, whose high point comes when she pleads with her husband not to misinterpret God’s plan. Anthony Hopkins plays his aged father Methuselah, who begins as a source of wisdom and ends up as comic relief once he starts craving berries. Emma Watson plays his adopted daughter Ila, whose shocking pregnancy by his son Shem (Douglas Booth) sends him into madness. Ray Winstone plays a local king who sneaks aboard the ark and survives by eating animals who I assume are the end of their line. Logan Lerman plays his son Ham who hates his father for costing him a chance at a wife. And Leo McHugh Carroll plays his son Japheth who has zero personality and whose name you struggle to remember.

                The visual style is where the film has room to be creative. The ark, for example, is depicted more or less as a giant box instead of a boat as is often the case. I’m not sure how the characters plan to steer it, but at least it’s an interesting choice. There’s also a neat way to mark the passage of time, featuring one of the best versions of time-lapse photography I’ve ever seen. But problems arise when it comes to the CGI: the animals and water look incredibly fake. I got a funny picture in my head of one of the characters trying to hop up on an animal to ride it and instead they pass right through it and fall on the ground without the blatant hologram even blinking.

                “Noah” would have worked much better as a straight-up retelling of the classic story. Sure, it would have been predictable, but at least all the changes wouldn’t be such a distraction. As it is, we spend much of the film wondering just how the story is going to be warped next. Add in a near-villainous Noah and terrible CGI and you’ve got an ugly, unpleasant film that provides none of the inspiration that we are supposed to gain.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

6:16 pm edt 

Divergent

                “Divergent” takes place in a future where everyone is divided into five factions. There are smart ones, peaceful ones, honest ones, tough ones and kind ones. You’re expected to choose a faction at the age of sixteen and stay with them for the rest of your life, living among them and having little to do with your actual family. Everyone takes a test to see which faction is best suited to them, though they are allowed to choose whichever one they want. A girl named Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) takes the test and doesn’t fit into any category. People like this are called Divergents, and are considered such a threat to the faction system that they are to be killed. There’s some vague explanation about how they upset the necessary balance of society, but my guess is that the main reason they’re being hunted is so the leaders won’t have to admit that they did a lousy job of designing the test.

                The film is based on a series of books aimed at teenagers and is drawing nearly automatic comparisons to the “Hunger Games” series. Despite a handful of similarities, I don’t consider it a knockoff. Yes, they both star a strong female protagonist. Yes, both stories feature teenagers put in mortal danger. Yes, they both take place in a strictly-regulated future society. And if you really want to stretch it, I can see where the faction system is similar to the District system, though you choose the former and are born into the latter. But I bet if the movie wasn’t based on a book series with sales comparable to “The Hunger Games,” people wouldn’t get so hung up on the similarities.

                Actually, the film feels a lot closer to “Ender’s Game” than “The Hunger Games.” That’s because the film largely follows Tris (as she rebrands herself) as she schools and trains with Dauntless (the tough ones), her chosen faction. As such, we get stock characters like a best friend (Zoe Kravitz, which I guess is another “Hunger Games similarity in that they both feature a Kravitz), a bully (Miles Teller, badly miscast as someone who could take Shailene Woodley in a fight), a mean teacher (Jai Courtney, who I have yet to forgive for that awful fifth “Die Hard”) and a gruff but helpful mentor Four (Theo James). This time the mentor doubles as a love interest, and we get some laughably over-the-top scenes of affection reminiscent of “Twilight.”

                The villain is an Erudite (smart one) played by Kate Winslet in a role much juicier than Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. She wants to use the Dauntless to overthrow the government of Abnegations (kind ones), which includes Tris’s parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). She brainwashes the Dauntless with a serum that works on everyone except Divergents. It’s up to Tris to fight back against the Erudites, and for once I can buy the single protagonist beating a swarm of villains because Tris has gone through a rigorous training regimen while the Erudite look like they can barely carry their books. But they still have guns.

                “Divergent’s” training and action scenes are pretty routine, and the romance storyline is awkwardly wedged in. It’s the characters who sell this franchise. The future society of the film isn’t as bleak as a lot of others, and the characters are allowed to have loftier goals than mere survival (though it does come down to that eventually). Tris is refreshingly ambitious and Four’s flaws make him more interesting than your average movie hunk. Tris’s mother turns out to be a hidden treasure, as how many movies have a mother and daughter side-by-side in a shootout? Not enough, I say. The next film, “Insurgent” is likely to go easy on the training scenes, so I’m interested in seeing it and following up with these characters.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

6:12 pm edt 

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

                Hollywood is really scraping for franchises now. I doubt many kids today have even heard of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” let alone the “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments contained therein. They haven’t missed much; the segments were little more than filler while the moose and squirrel were on break. I guess it doesn’t matter. The film, for all its faults, does not require knowledge of the cartoon to be enjoyed.

                The animated film follows the adventures of world’s smartest dog Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) and his adopted human son Sherman (Max Charles) as they travel through time getting into all sorts of trouble. The whole thing is set in motion when a classmate of Sherman’s named Penny (Ariel Winter) teases him for basically being a dog since he has one for a father. Sherman bites her, and Mr. Peabody has to invite her and her parents (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert) over for an apology dinner. Penny dares Sherman to show her Mr. Peabody’s time machine known as the WABAC, they take a joyride, and Sherman promptly loses her in ancient Egypt. It’s up to the dog and his boy to set things right, both with Penny and with history.

                We take trips to Egypt (where Penny wants to marry King Tut because she knows he’ll die young and she mistakenly thinks she’ll inherit the kingdom after he croaks), France during the Revolution (where Sherman wants a piece of cake, but Marie Antoinette is hogging it all), Italy during the Renaissance (where Mr. Peabody has a mishap that causes an otherwise unhappy Mona Lisa to smile for Da Vinci) and Troy (where Sherman wants to be the youngest member of the Greek army, and yes, he invades in that big wooden horse), among others. The film is never consistent on whether or not the trio actually affect history with their antics. On one hand, Mr. Peabody is single paw-edly responsible for the Mona Lisa’s smile, but there are no reports in the future of a talking dog showing up for important historical moments. Another thing I found odd is that Sherman corrects Penny for believing the legend that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but practically the next scene shows him and Mr. Peabody flying a kite with Benjamin Franklin, which is equally fictional. Is the movie interested in an accurate version of history or not?

                The film spends a lot of time on the adoptive relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Several people, including a meddlesome social worker (Allison Janney) don’t believe a dog is fit to raise a boy. I’m not sure what lesson we’re supposed to be learning from this storyline, is it that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge anthropomorphic talking dogs? Got it, I guess. One common complaint I’ve heard about the movie that I do not share is that Mr. Peabody is an unlikeable character because he’s an arrogant know-it-all. While he does sometimes venture into this territory, he’s above all a loving parent and it’s hard to stay mad at him.

                The humor is hit and miss, mostly miss. The gags tend to center around Mr. Peabody being an expert at everything and the fiddling he and Sherman do with history. The film’s target audience is young kids and there’s just not that much for adults to enjoy too. I found myself laughing at the darker gags (my favorite involve the violent practices in Egypt), which probably isn’t healthy. Viewers of all ages beware: Mr. Peabody uses puns more painful than anything about the mummification process.

                “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is an admirable enough movie, especially for the loving relationship between the two leads. Parents probably won’t enjoy it on the same level as their kids, but it’s not so cutesy that it qualifies as insulting. It won’t go down in history as a classic, but it’s an okay way to get in some family bonding.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
6:11 pm edt 

300: Rise of an Empire

               2007’s “300” told the story of a small Spartan army that stood up to an insurmountable Persian army.  The rebellion didn’t go very well. The ending set the stage for a sequel where armies from other Greek cities would band together to face the Persians with better odds. “300: Rise of an Empire” is not that sequel. It tells the story of a small Athenian army that stands up to a different version of the insurmountable Persian army around the same time as the Spartan army. The first film was dumb and violent. The new film is also dumb and violent, with the added failure of being unoriginal. One “300” is more than enough.

 

                The Athenian army is led by Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who killed off the leader of a Persian army years before. He’s hailed as a hero, but secretly he’s consumed by guilt for not killing the leader’s son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, the only cast member from the original “300” with a role bigger than a cameo), who has since become much more tyrannical that his father ever was. The Persian army, under the supervision of Xerxes, is led by Artemisia (Eva Green), a lifelong warrior who manipulates Xerxes into becoming a tyrant. And yes, the movie does expect you to keep track of names like “Themistokles” and “Artemisia.” When the most retainable name in your story is “Xerxes,” things might be too complicated.

 

                The film mostly consists of battles, buildup for battles or damage assessment immediately following battles. It’s in these scenes where Green really gnashes her teeth as Artemisia. I refuse to say that there is anything good about this movie, but Green is the closest thing to a good thing. The problem is that she rarely does anything right in these battles, and her formidability suffers because of it. Themistokles, meanwhile, spends a lot of time stuck in a subplot about the son of one of his officers tagging along without permission. It’s a lame storyline, but I guess it’s better than watching him mope around because he let Xerxes live. Xerxes, for his part, is pretty useless as the film is determined drive home the point that Artemisia has him under her thumb. The wimp-ification of this once mighty character is akin to the widely disliked final scenes of Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.”

 

               Now we come to the part that people pay their money to see: the action sequences. Truthfully, there isn’t much here that wasn’t in the original “300.” There’s swordplay galore, and I guess the film comes up with some new ways to skewer people, but is that really something to be proud of? There’s also a ton of blood in these scenes but it looks like ink, not precious life fluid. The blades don’t even look like they hurt that much. I think it’s because the characters usually fight wearing black so blood doesn’t show up on their clothes. Highlights of the battle scenes are shown in animation over the credits, and they’re actually much easier to watch than the rest of the movie.

 

                “300: Rise of an Empire” is just an unpleasant experience. The plot is confusing, the photography is murky, the battles get boring quickly and Sullivan Stapleton is no match for Gerard Butler as a leading man. Perhaps most insulting is that the film promises that a battle featuring a united Greece is coming, and it turns out that they’re saving it for the next movie. I’m not mad at the idea of not seeing the battle so much as I’m mad that I’ll have to see another one of these movies.

 

One Star out of Five.
6:07 pm edt 


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