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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"American Sniper"

            “American Sniper” follows the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a U.S. Navy SEAL with 160 confirmed kills in Iraq. It is technically a 2014 film because it opened in limited release in time to qualify for the Academy Awards (for which it got six nominations including Cooper for Best Actor and the film for Best Picture). But it has made no shortage of headlines in 2015 due to its record-breaking box-office performance and controversial subject.  There have been accusations that the real Kyle was too trigger-happy, but the Kyle of the movie never shoots anybody that isn’t a definite threat to his fellow soldiers.

            Early scenes are pretty standard for a war movie. We see Kyle as a child where he’s a decent shot with a hunting rifle and he’s told that it’s okay to use violence to protect people he cares about. His early adult life (circa late 90’s) is rather aimless until he joins the military, and then he goes through what I thought was a relatively tame version of SEAL training. He also meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and they have a cute little courtship. It’s at his wedding in 2003 that Kyle learns he’s about to be deployed. These early scenes aren’t bad, but you know the movie is just going through the paces until it can get to Iraq.

            Once in Iraq, Kyle is assigned to protect ground-based Marines by overseeing their operations from a high vantage point and shooting any threats that come their way. He excels at this, neutralizing several threats and saving the lives of many fellow soldiers. He quickly earns himself a reputation as an expert sniper with the nickname “Legend.” Not that he doesn’t deserve credit for his skilled shooting, but I think he should get even more credit for his talent for spotting enemies. 160 kills meant that he was able to identify 160 individual threats.

            The action scenes in Iraq are by far the best in the movie. There is of course the extremely intense scene from the trailers where Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a child who almost certainly poses a threat, and it’s not even the only scene where he has to make a tough decision involving a child. Plus there are many other scenes with standoffs, interrogations, firefights and other hostile confrontations. And they aren’t always from far-off sniper distances, which is not to say that military snipers like Chris Kyle aren’t incredibly brave and selfless for entering war zones and engaging in deadly combat just because they protect themselves with distance and cover.

            Between and after his four tours of Iraq, Kyle has to live with what he’s seen. Supposedly the movie is just as much about his struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as it is his war efforts. But I don’t think the film dives deep enough into his psychological issues. The few scenes we do get are decent: arguments with his wife, an inconsiderate trip to a bar, an unnerving exchange with a playful dog at a barbeque (though I would argue that a minor freakout in a maternity ward could be expected from any new father regardless of PTSD), but there are too few of them and the storyline doesn’t seem to account for much of the film’s energy.

            Aside from the heart-stopping combat scenes, “American Sniper” is little more than an ordinary soldier movie about an extraordinary soldier. It’s competent to be sure, and I can see why Bradley Cooper got an Oscar nomination. I’m sure he could have handled more responsibility with the PTSD material, as he’s demonstrated in public appearances that he’s passionate about the subject. I wish the film would have let him be more dynamic with his performance. This is a respectable project, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “Oscar-worthy.”

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“American Sniper” is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including sexual references. Its running time is 132 minutes.

5:06 am est 

"Taken 3"

            “Taken” has always been a pretty lowbrow franchise. The appeal of the films is little more than Liam Neeson’s intimidating line delivery and the promise of shooting and explosions. I get that these films aren’t meant to be held to a particularly high standard. But in “Taken 3”, the action is so weak that the film can’t live up to even lowered expectations.

            Liam Neeson is of course back as Bryan Mills, likely a former CIA operative who might as well have the official job title of “action hero.” His constantly-endangered daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is still in the picture, as is his constantly-endangered ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), though not for long. Mills soon finds himself framed for a crime perpetrated by Russian gangsters. We don’t know why the Russians committed the crime, but we get the feeling that Lenore’s current husband Stuart (Dougray Scott) is somehow involved. Mills needs to solve the crime, clear his name, and beat the bad guys, all without getting caught by the police, led by Inspector Dotzler (Forest Whitaker).

            Because he’s being chased by the police, Mills spends a lot of the movie in evasion mode. While it certainly makes sense that he’d be pursued, it doesn’t work to the movie’s advantage to have him constantly just slipping away from people he’d rather not hurt. Think back to that iconic phone conversation from the first movie. Remember that whole “I will find you and I will kill you” bit? It’s aggressive. The audience for this movie wants to see aggression. This movie needs to give the character more time on offense and less on defense.

Then again, even when Mills is on offense the movie is a mess. Or rather, it’s too clean. Close-range shootings are laughably bloodless and so much impact is edited out of the fight scenes that we can’t tell what’s being done. I know this movie wants a PG-13 rating, but there are less sloppy ways of making it clean enough. Example: One of the Russians is making a phone call, and in the middle of the call, he shoots a guy. What we see is him shoot the guy in what appears to be the leg, with no blood, and it apparently kills him. It’s an underwhelming scene. Easy solution: the camera stays on the bad guy’s face for the entire call. He still shoots the guy; we hear the gunshot and see a brief flash of light against his face, but all the violence is happening off-screen. As long as we have something interesting to look at (an unflinching villain expression), we can forgive the film for leaving the visual of the shooting to our imagination.

The best thing I can say about the film is that the actors at least try. Neeson is his usual intimidating self. Maggie Grace does what she can to make her character seem like more than the typical daughter in distress (to no avail). Forest Whitaker goes for a few nice touches with his police inspector, but they’re all unintentionally funny. One example is that he pays particularly close attention to a food-related clue, but all I heard was laughter over how quickly the portly character found his way to food. Another is a scene in a diner (more food) where he holds up chess pieces to illustrate the “game” he’s playing with Mills. The rest of the chess set is back at his office, so there’s no reason for him to be fooling around with chess pieces except that someone thought it would make the scene look cool, which it doesnt.

It should come as no surprise that I think “Taken 3” is a bad movie. I think even “Taken” fans are expecting a bad movie, just not to this degree of uselessness. So let me hit this movie with a harsher insult: “Taken 3” isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a bad “Taken” movie.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five

 

“Taken 3” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language. Its running time is 109 minutes.

 

5:05 am est 

"Into the Woods"

            “Into the Woods” is the big holiday offering from Disney, a jaunty yet dark adaptation of a Broadway musical from the 80’s. The story follows famous fairy tale characters as they interact with one another and their stories spin out of control. It actually manages to stay relatively predictable until about the two-thirds mark, when what seems to be Happily Ever After turns into destruction and despair.

            The film is an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to say that there is really a “main” character, but if anyone would qualify, it would be The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt). They’re promised a much-desired baby if they can get a list of items for a Witch (Meryl Streep) in three days’ time. They need to get a golden slipper, most likely from Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t know if she wants to pursue a relationship with the Prince (Chris Pine); a white cow, most likely from Jack (Daniel Huddlestone), who foolishly trades it to them for magic beans; yellow hair, most likely from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Maury), who is also wooing a Prince (Billy Magnussen); and a red hood, which pretty much has to be from Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who seems doomed to be eaten by The Wolf (Johnny Depp, not playing a giant like the ads imply).

            The singing is impressive, and for better or worse the songs by Broadway virtuoso Stephen Sondheim are terribly addictive. But I feel that with the choreography, something was lost in the transition from stage to screen. Everything seems cramped and camera cuts are a major detraction. Take the sequence where The Baker and his Wife dance around with each holding onto one end of a long lock of Rapunzel’s hair. On stage, I’m sure this was a detailed, intricate number. But on screen, with multiple takes allowed, it doesn’t look as spontaneous or creative and a lot of the magic is gone. And people who are on the fence about the musical genre should be warned that singing accounts for almost the entire script, so don’t expect much of a break between songs. Some people will like that style, others will hate it; I’m not exactly a hater but I’m not crazy about it either.

            The movie is very dark and mature. I’m not even sure it’s meant to be marketed to kids despite the fairy tale characters and Disney logo. Gruesome violence happens offscreen; it’s never shown but boy is it implied. There’s a storyline about marital infidelity and the super-sleazy Wolf seems to want Red Riding Hood for more than his lunch. A much-admired character dies toward the end, and while the death of a loved one is nothing new for Disney, it is disheartening that they do it near the end. They should have learned from the maligned finale of a certain recent CBS show that the death of a beloved character followed by a sliver of hope and redemption still makes for a downer of an ending that leaves the audience with a bad taste in its mouth.

            All the appeal of “Into the Woods” lies in the musical numbers. The film is at its best when the characters are madly bouncing off each other or Streep is belting out a showstopper. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be serious or following storylines that go nowhere. Musical high points aside, this is an ugly film that can’t pull off its twisty final act.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Into the Woods” is rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material. Its running time is 125 minutes.

5:03 am est 

"Unbroken"

            “Oh no, the depressing POW movie “Unbroken” was somehow the hottest new release of the Christmas holiday. Shoot, now I have to see it.” That was how I first reacted to the film’s box office success. I actually wasn’t surprised; the movie was playing on nearly 700 more screens than its nearest competitor, the fairy tale musical “Into the Woods.” Still, I was hoping that families would turn out in droves for the more upbeat film so I wouldn’t have to cram something as off-putting as “Unbroken” into my busy weekend. But the success of the film turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because although it is not an “enjoyable” film in the lighthearted sense, I am definitely glad to have seen it.

            The film tells the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic track star turned World War II hero. We follow him from his unpromising beginnings to his athletic accomplishments (which aren’t very interesting) to his service in the war (much more interesting) to a harrowing imprisonment of sorts on a lifeboat (even more interesting) to a more harrowing and much more literal imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp. He faces hardship at every turn, but of course, he will not break.

            It should go without saying that Zamperini is a highly captivating main character. How can you not root for him as he overcomes every obstacle? And it’s not like there’s a shortage of obstacles in this movie. Zamperini has to push himself to conquer bullies, rival runners, enemy combatants, starvation, dehydration, isolation, beatings, beatings and more beatings.

            The beatings are usually delivered by The Bird (Miyavi), the sadistic warden of the camp. Here we have one of the most memorable villains of the year. He’ll find any reason to beat up Zamperini, and when he can’t, he just beats him up for no reason. He refers to Zamperini as his “friend” on several occasions, and you can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or if he’s whacked out enough to really feel that way. He gets promoted out of the camp and shortly thereafter the prisoners are transferred to a new camp. When it is revealed that The Bird is the warden of the new camp, Zamperini loses his composure more than he does at any other point in the film.

            This is a beautifully shot movie. It opens on an appropriately distressing aerial dogfight, complete with exploding black clouds of doom that contrast nicely with the innocent sky. The water underneath the lifeboat looks oddly inviting, even when it’s infested with sharks. And there’s a magnificent shot at the end during a group bathing session that alone will probably get the film nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.

            The only real detraction from this film is its first quarter, the troubled childhood followed by the athletic stardom. There’s no new territory here. Young Louis drinks, smokes, fights and considers himself a loser. His older brother gives him some tough love and inspires him, and gives him wisdom that he uses throughout life. Then there are the races, which aren’t very impressive. Louis never seems to be running very fast because what we’re always seeing the tail end of a long-distance race. The film never successfully conveys the spirit of Louis’s endurance (at least not in the races), so what we’re left with is an exhausted runner puffing to the finish line slightly faster than the other exhausted runners.

            “Unbroken” does get a little cheesy at times with its relentless “triumph of the human spirit” theme, which is why I think a lot of people don’t want to see this movie. But you should see it and fight through the parts that make you roll your eyes. You’ll find that in the end it’s hard to scoff at two hours of inspiring, heroic behavior.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Unbroken” is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality. Its running time is 137 minutes.

 

I’d like to thank my longtime friend Amy Ko for sponsoring the next several weeks’ worth of columns.
5:02 am est 

Exodus: Gods and Kings

            The Exodus story has been depicted onscreen many times before, most notably in “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “The Prince of Egypt” (1998), though there are plenty of others. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” promises to be one of the more exciting versions, with blockbuster director Ridley Scott in charge and millions of dollars in special effects to play with. The question that looms over the film is: what will we see here that we haven’t seen before?

The story pretty much has to be the same one that we’ve seen before, at least when it comes to the high points. Moses (Christian Bale) is a general in the Egyptian army, having been raised by the royal family as a brother of sorts to prince Ramses (Joel Edgerton). It is revealed that Moses is in fact of Hebrew descent, a heritage that gets him banished. Moses comes to embrace his Hebrew identity, and is told by God that he is to lead all the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. The prospect of losing 400,000 slaves does not sit well with Ramses, who is now Pharaoh. Simple demands and minor rebellions by Moses do not yield results, so God punishes all of Egypt with ten plagues to force Ramses to give in. A defeated Ramses dismisses Moses and the slaves, but then decides take his army and pursue them out of need for revenge. Only a miracle can save Moses and the Hebrews, fortunately this is a story filled with miracles.

So what does the film do that’s unique? Perhaps the thing that stands out most is the depiction of God as a boy of about ten. He first appears next to the famed burning bush, which itself is scant and unimpressive in this film. I have to say I don’t care for this creative decision. I think the idea here is to portray God as having a childlike innocence, but He comes comes off looking like a spoiled brat. All I could think about during these scenes was comparisons to the child with God-like powers from that one episode of “The Twilight Zone.” God is more intriguing and impactful in this story when He’s just a disembodied voice coming out of a magnificent burning bush.

The most powerful part of the film is the Ten Plagues of Egypt. The film comes up with an interesting explanation for the transformation of the waters of the Nile into blood, but the effect is lost because of poorly-rendered CGI animals. The same can be said for the other animal plagues (and I’m sorry but how does a person wake up to find that they’re covered in frogs? One frog in my room, much less on me, and I’m awake and freaked out). But the multitude of skin boils are appropriately disgusting and the quiet depiction of the final and deadliest plague, while a bit transparent, is a graceful, haunting way to handle such devastation.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” tries to bring new life to the sacred story, but it fails at too much. The scenery is gaudy, the hair and makeup are too clever for their own good, and the computerized special effects are terrible (were the artists seriously proud of their work?). Plus I feel that the film doesn’t do enough to make us sympathize with Moses and the Hebrew slaves. We do see them suffer, but not on the level that we see the Egyptians suffer during the plagues. Simple text saying that they’ve been slaves for 400 years just doesn’t do it for me. The film serves as a good jumping-off point for a discussion about its subject matter, but it does not achieve the greatness one associates with its epic journey.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. Its running time is 150 minutes.
5:01 am est 

"The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies"

            For better or worse, “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is little more than a long, drawn-out action sequence. I think it’s for better. These Peter Jackson “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” movies are notorious for taking forever to have anything interesting happen. This film does still have plenty of filler, but at only 144 minutes, it takes up less time than any other entry in the whole Middle Earth saga. And a lot of that 144 minutes consists of fighting and fire-breathing.

            The new film picks up where the last one left off, with deposed dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) getting revenge on his Dwarf conquerors by attacking the nearby village where their human “friends” live. The few humans who helped the Dwarfs are more reluctant partners than friends, but Smaug doesn’t know that and sets out to roast them all anyway. Much burning ensues. Smaug actually leaves the story pretty early, which makes me wonder why the sequence wasn’t the end of the second film instead of the beginning of this one.

            This is followed by the real focus of the film, the conflict between the Dwarfs who have taken over Smaug’s castle and the humans who just want a small share of the dragon’s treasure and a place to live after he took out their village. Leading the Dwarfs is Thorin (Richard Armitage), who quickly becomes a greedy tyrant after assuming control. By his side is the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who sees a need to save Thorin from himself. The humans are led by unlikely hero Bard (Luke Evans) and soon align with an Elf army led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his superstar son Legolas (Orlando Bloom). It looks like the three sides are about to go to war, but then they’re all attacked by an army of Orcs who just want to kill everybody. Of course, it’s also worth mentioning that all-powerful wizard Galdalf (Ian McKellen) tries to play peacemaker between the first three armies and introduces an army of his own after the Orcs show up.

            The climactic battle is indeed exciting, but I do have some issues with it. First of all, the Orcs are way too easy to kill. For a race of war-ready brutes, most of them offer about as much resistance as a line of dominoes. The heroes could beat them if they fought them with giant cotton swabs. I’ve got one more, and I say it as an employee of Hershey’s Chocolate World – they have all the durability of one of our Cookies n Crème bars.

            More troubling is that the special effects in the film are terrible. It’s bad enough that all the Orcs look alike (there are two main leaders among them and for most of the film I thought they were the same character), but the use of green screens is really obvious. I half expected one of the actors to accidentally bump into one of them and make the whole background reverberate. It’s a huge fall from grace considering “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won eleven Oscars eleven years ago, and most of them were in technical categories.

            My many complaints aside, all the action does make “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” go by rather briskly. And I’ll give the film credit for its humor, which works almost every time. As for the storylines, most of them are forgettable, though Thorin’s descent into madness and tough love from his friends is surprisingly engaging. All in all, I’m just glad that the overstuffed “Hobbit” franchise is finally over and that the final installment was relatively painless.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Its running time is 144 minutes.

 

4:58 am est 

"Penguins of Madagascar"

            The most noticeable theme that runs throughout “Penguins of Madagascar” is probably cuteness. It’s the penguin heroes’ greatest asset and the octopus villains’ biggest scourge. The heroes undeniably possess it, the villains possess it more than they think they do (I was delighted by the squeaking of their suction cups), and even toward the end when some of the penguins are turned into “monsters,” they’re actually still pretty cute. They look a little sickly, but in a way that makes you want to nurse them back to health, like when you see footage of animals covered in oil after a tanker spill. My point is that this is an extremely cute movie, one that’s nigh impossible to resist.

            The plot follows the scene-stealing side characters from the three “Madagascar” movies, who have always followed their own agenda anyway. We see their origins as they defy the pointless penguin tradition of marching nowhere in particular, and soon find themselves adrift in search of adventure. We then cut to the end of the third movie, and the story picks up from there. They break free of the circus, break into Fort Knox, get captured by evil octopus Dave (John Malkovich), and get rescued by a team of arrogant Arctic animal spies called the North Wind. Our heroes set out to stop Dave and rescue all the penguins of the world before their polar opposites can do so and steal all the glory for themselves (assuming, of course, that either team can succeed).

            The Penguins consist of bossy leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brainiac Kowalski (Chris Miller), expert swallower Rico (Conrad Vernon) and loveable bumbler Private (Christopher Knights). Private is the “baby” of the group, as the others have known him since he was just an egg. They caused him to be hatched prematurely, and thus might be responsible for his somewhat stunted development. He’s a constant subject for ribbing by his older “brothers,” especially Skipper, and you can probably guess that it won’t be until he goes missing that everyone realizes that they should have been nicer to him. You’ll probably also guess that he’ll be the one to save the day. I’m not saying you’ll be right, just that the film definitely seems to be setting up for it.

            The action and humor of the movie are both highly frantic. As far as the action, this sounds like it would be a problem because it would result in the film coming off as confused and unfocused. In reality it keeps the pretty standard spy story from getting too comfortable with itself. In fact, the film is at its dullest in its third act when it becomes focused and has to wrap itself up in conventional fashion.

The frantic pace lends itself even better to the film’s humor. Simply put, the film has a lot of gags. There are bound to be some hits (I liked Skipper’s insistence that the team has popped up in Ireland when in fact they’re somewhere very different) and some misses (there’s an increasingly forced running gag where Dave yells orders to his henchmen and unintentionally forms the names of famous actors, which doesn’t work because the film doesn’t establish the names of the henchmen), but at least there are a lot of them, so there’s never any doubt that the film is working hard to please you.

“Penguins of Madagascar” doesn’t strive for greatness, though I did like it more than any of its “Madagascar” brethren. The kids at my screening really ate it up and the adults seemed to enjoy watching it with them. And yes, I cracked up myself a few times. It’s a cute movie that makes a cute effort and is a cute way to spend an afternoon.  

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Penguins of Madagascar” is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. Its running time is 92 minutes.

4:56 am est 

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"

            “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is probably going to be the biggest movie of 2014. The two previous “Hunger Games” films have both made over $400 million at the domestic box office. “Mockingjay – Part 1” can afford to make $90 million less than its predecessor “Catching Fire” and still make more money than this year’s current leader, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” at $331 million. Yes, the “Hunger Games” franchise seems unstoppable right now, except that “Mockingjay – Part 1,” more than any competition, may be just the thing to stop it.

            The story once again follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she struggles to stay alive following her escape from the arena and her second Hunger Games in “Catching Fire.” Her survival does not sit well with the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who sees her as a symbol of rebellion in the brutal continent of Panem (though her motives actually have to do more with self-preservation than big-picture upheaval). She’s taken in by the “lost” District 13, led by the frill-less President Coin (Julianne Moore), who wants to use Katniss to unite the other Districts in a rebellion against The Capitol and Snow. Katniss has no interest in being a military leader, even a symbolic one, but she is interested in the favors that the militarized District 13 can do for her, like rescuing her partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from imprisonment in The Capitol. This strategy backfires for Katniss when Snow starts targeting her and her loved ones more than ever before, but clearly that response is going to backfire on Snow once Katniss decides to target him. This film deals mostly with the “him targeting her” part.

            And therein lies the problem with splitting the “Mockingjay” book into two movies. I’ve never read “Mockingjay,” but I’m guessing that things get worse before they get better, but they do get better. Here things just get worse. Katniss and the rest of Panem suffer devastating losses in this movie and Snow suffers a few mild inconveniences. Even a symbolic victory at the end is heavily tainted. I’m not saying that good things necessarily have to happen to our heroes, but the movie lacks uplifting moments where I know uplifting moments ought to be.

            Cheer is very much missing from “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” I miss the pomp and pageantry, the sickening luxury of The Capitol. Come to think of it, I miss The Hunger Games themselves. True, they were never organized or explained as well as they should have been, but at least it was fun to speculate on how long minor characters would last and how they would be eliminated. If the series is going to be called “The Hunger Games,” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect each movie to feature a Hunger Games. Maybe Snow could recapture Katniss and put her back into the arena with twenty-three assassins with orders to take her out at the first opportunity. Or put her up against twenty-three impoverished peasants to show the rest of Panem how much compassion she really has for other people. I’d take pretty much anything compared to this lame “slowly picking away at The Capitol from District 13” angle.

            There are just enough powerful moments in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” to keep it from being truly terrible. Usually it involves heartfelt speeches from Katniss. I’ll admit, there were a few times where I whispered to myself, “There’s the Jennifer Lawrence that won the Oscar.” But overall, this is a dreary, unpleasant movie. It isn’t going to be remembered as anyone’s favorite “Hunger Games” installment, nor does it do an effective job of building anticipation for the grand finale a year from now. All is does is make me wonder even more how anybody can care at all about this numbingly bleak franchise.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:55 am est 

"Dumb and Dumber To"

            It has been twenty years since the Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey first played to the lowest common denominator in “Dumb and Dumber.” Though Daniels certainly held his own as one half of the dimwitted duo (as a matter of fact, the film wouldn’t have worked without the excellent chemistry of both actors), the film was often seen as a vehicle for Carrey, who was quickly becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. That star has since dimmed thanks to “safe” roles in movies like “The Grinch” and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Doing a sequel to an earlier hit might seem like another “safe” choice, but there’s nothing safe about the manic energy he and Daniels bring to their roles.

            The plot finds Harry (Daniels) and Lloyd (Carrey) traveling across the country to meet “Harry’s” long-lost daughter Penny (Rachel Melvin) so Harry can hit her up for a kidney. I put Harry’s name in quotes because the mother (Kathleen Turner) was with many men, including Lloyd, who develops an immediate crush on Penny that is already creepy and threatens to get much creepier any second. There’s also a subplot about various villains trying to steal away a billion-dollar invention that Penny’s adoptive scientist father has entrusted with Harry and Lloyd. But the plot doesn’t really matter, just know that Harry and Lloyd are once again going on a road trip where they get to bother a whole lot of people.

            The film plays to the nostalgic nature of the original’s target audience of juveniles, who are now in their late 20s and early 30s (I was eight when the first one came out, and in fact it was the first PG-13-rated movie I saw in theaters). I was waiting for a lot of the callback jokes to bomb, but surprisingly most of them didn’t. I especially liked Lloyd’s revealing of the second most annoying sound in the world. But the fact remains that there are a lot of callback jokes in this film. Newer viewers should watch the first film before watching this one, and even longtime fans might need a refresher. The downside of watching both films close together is that you’re spending a total of about four hours with these characters, and a little bit of them goes a long way.

            What can I say about the humor in this movie? I don’t really need to say anything because everything you need to know is right there in the title. The film is one dumb gag after another. Notice I’m not saying “unfunny” or “ineffective,” I’m saying “dumb.” Used correctly, dumb gags can be very funny even for the smartest viewer. As a matter of fact, there is an art to dumb gags that, if mastered, makes the artist very smart. And a lot of the dumb gags in this movie are indeed smartly constructed. But there are even more that are just plain dumb and bad and painful. A lot of them are vulgar too. Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly are known as purveyors of gross-out humor and this movie sees them sink to some new lows. I’m honestly surprised that the MPAA let this movie slide with a PG-13 rating.

            I will say that, as dumb as they are, “Dumb and Dumber To” at least has a lot of gags. Even if you laugh at only one out of ten, there’s still a lot to like. Carrey and Daniels have maintained their chemistry and the comic energy is kept consistent. Even if a particular gag doesn’t work, there’s a strong possibility that the next one will. So by all means, watch this movie. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll cringe, you’ll cringe, you’ll cringe some more and then you’ll laugh again.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Dumb and Dumber To” is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, partial nudity, language and some drug references. Its running time is 110 minutes.

4:53 am est 

"Insterstellar" and "Big Hero 6"

            This past weekend brought not one, but two new films that made over $50 million in their debut. Their numbers were pretty close, so I’ve decided to review them both.

 

“Interstellar”

 

            “Interstellar” is three hours long and you feel every minute of it. It’s an epic about the race against time to save humanity from a dying earth. We go from sickly cornfields to scraped-together spaceships in the outer reaches of space to uninhabitable planets to a virtual hall of mirrors that violates the laws of physics.

            Matthew McConaughey stars as a promising engineer turned corn farmer who is the closest thing the Earth has to a competent astronaut after famine made pretty much everybody have to focus on corn farming. Humanity’s only hope is to relocate everyone to a new planet on the other end of a wormhole. McConaughey and a small crew are sent on a mission to check out the three most promising candidates. The mission will take decades and he has to leave his family behind. And then it turns out that his family may have been the key to saving humanity all along.

            The movie on Earth is pretty bland, though McConaughey proves that his Oscar last year was no fluke. But of course it’s in space when things get really intense. The characters find themselves in one situation after another where you can swear they’ll never make it out, and yet there is that sliver of hope thanks to McConaughey’s absolutely believable resilience and intelligence.

            Speaking of intelligence, in a way that’s the movie’s biggest problem. I couldn’t keep up with all the science talk, especially when it came to time manipulation. Like the species, I was lost and needed McConaughey’s relatability to rescue me. But even then, it was clear that “Interstellar” was doing everything it could to accomplish something important and amazing.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Interstellar” is rated PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong language. Its running time is 169 minutes.

 

“Big Hero 6”

 

            “Big Hero 6” is Disney’s only major animated offering this year, the first fruit of its highly-publicized partnership with Marvel Comics. It’s an agreeable movie with some cute gags and clever details, but I don’t see it becoming as iconic as some of Disney’s other output.

            The story follows a boy with the unsubtle name of Hiro (Ryan Potter) as he tries to revolutionize the world of robotics at the age of 13. He suffers the loss of his even-smarter older brother (it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a child suffering a loss), who leaves behind a prototype of a medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).

            Baymax is eager to help, but he’s clumsy. His body is inflatable and puffy, so as to be appealing to children. He’s not built to travel long distances and subject himself to harmful elements. But Hiro is impressed by the technology behind Baymax, so he makes a few upgrades and turns him into a (very compassionate) fighting robot. Hiro enlists four of his brother’s awkward lab friends to hero-fy themselves as well and together they set out to discover what happened to the brother.

            Baymax is a loveable, memorable character, but the rest of the team seems to have been created by marketing people trying to sell action figures. The same can be said of the film’s plot and action scenes. Disney has gone down the superhero route before with “The Incredibles” and I never could never shake the feeling that this film is not as heartfelt as its predecessor. It’s clear that the more creative Disney people were allowed to have at least some influence on “Big Hero 6,” but the finished product is a disappointing superhero movie with a few outstanding elements.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Big Hero 6” is rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements. Its running time is 104 minutes.
4:52 am est 

"Nightcrawler"

            Almost all of the memorable scenes in “Nightcrawler” are ones where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, is trying to get the better of people. Sometimes he’s trying to get a job. Sometimes he’s negotiating the price of his crime scene footage with local news director Nina (Rene Russo). Sometimes he’s negotiating with Nina for something more than money. Sometimes he’s exploiting his hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). Sometimes he’s trying to explain his way out of trouble with the police. Whatever he’s doing, Lou rarely sees people as anything more than opponents – opponents who need to be beaten.

            Some of this he does out of necessity (the movie takes place in the unforgiving world of late-night Los Angeles), but often he does it just because he’s him. This is a character who can only live with himself if he has the upper hand on people. I’ve heard Lou compared to Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale’s character in “American Psycho”) and it’s certainly an apt comparison, but I saw him as more akin to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in “There Will Be Blood”). Plainview had many great quotes, but the one that applies best here is, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” This is an exaggeration, of course, both Plainview and Lou Bloom can allow other people to succeed. There wouldn’t be anything to take away from them otherwise.

            The story follows the unemployed Lou as he tries to make a living filming the grisly aftermath of crime scenes. He seems like the kind of guy who would hang around a crime scene anyway, so why not get paid for it? He sells his footage to a fledging local news show, one whose ratings absolutely hinge on violence and misery (but mostly violence). These characters not only believe in the cynical rule of “If it bleeds, it leads,” they live by it. They certainly don’t seem to believe in any others.

Things get even darker when Lou decides that to stay ahead in the game, he can’t wait until the crimes have been committed to do his filming. The conclusion of the film sees him unfurl an evil plan that is frankly far-fetched even for this movie. The film’s advertising has promoted Lou using the phrase, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.” He has about the same odds of winning the lottery as he does of everything coming together with the timing and circumstances that it does.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career as Lou. Obviously Lou is a person who doesn’t sleep at night, but thanks to Gyllenhaal, he looks like a person who doesn’t sleep ever. He has a formal way of talking that makes it clear that he understands the importance of social skills in becoming successful and equally clear that he has none. For better or worse, Gyllenhaal is going to be synonymous with this role for some time. “Better” because he’s really good at it, “Worse” because he’s going to have a hard time getting work as anyone likeable. It’s also worth mentioning that Rene Russo turns in an equally twisted performance as the jaded news director who becomes Lou’s favorite foil.

“Nightcrawler” is a fully-realized movie to be sure, but by no means an enjoyable one. There’s a certain deliciousness to the way Lou takes advantage of people, but it’s not a rewarding feeling. The climactic action sequence is brutal and intense, but the actual ending seems abrupt and is something less than the epic fall that this character deserves. Still, this is a well-made movie that does an excellent job of making you detest its main characters. It’s called “Nightcrawler,” but it’s your skin that will be doing the crawling.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Nightcrawler” is rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language. Its running time is 117 minutes.

4:50 am est 

"Ouija"

            Here it is: the official scary movie of Halloween 2014. I have to say I’m disappointed. This is a pretty unoriginal slog through murky spiritual territory. The ghosts featured are relatively unconvincing, but I can see being startled by the occasional loud noises. The best thing I can say for this film is that it has enough cheap jump scares that it will make the audience scream a few times, and then they’ll laugh at themselves for screaming. This means that the movie is only effective with a big, screaming audience.

            A Ouija board, by the way, is a board game of sorts that allegedly allows players to talk to spirits in other realms. The game is controversial because it supposedly encourages players to dabble in the dark arts. My mother told me that I should consider it an automatic deal-breaker in a friendship if the friend ever wanted me to play with a Ouija board. Clearly they don’t work, because if they did, they would be exploited for a lot more profit than just selling ill-reputed board games.

            The movie follows a group of teenagers who use a Ouija board to make contact with a friend who committed suicide. The girl was a Ouija fanatic, and something about a message she received pushed her over the edge. Her friends decide to reach out to her spirit using the same game. They don’t connect with the friend, but they do find themselves the next targets of the same supernatural danger.  

            Fans of horror movies know where we’re going from here. There will be a few fake scares that gradually turn into real ones. Most of the characters will maintain a state of denial until it’s too late. Silent scenes will be interrupted by bumps in the night. One by one the characters will get picked off in PG-13 fashion (after the original victim there are five members in the group, so that should give you an indication of the body count). The promiscuous member of the group will probably be the first to go. The characters will investigate darkened houses and never turn on the lights (or the electricity will go out at the worst possible time, ditto for flashlight batteries). They’ll split up and individually encounter horrors that the others won’t believe. The spirits will do little more than manipulate furniture and shriek. And of course, nobody will be able to destroy the stupid board.

            I should be saying that the movie is a glorified commercial for Ouija boards, but that isn’t the case. At no point in the movie do Ouija boards look cool. They only summon murderous ghosts bent on killing the players. This movie can’t even be bothered to make the game look enticing. A better horror movie would let the kids have fun with the board at first (“Nice talking to you, Mr. Andre the Giant sir”) and then things spin out of control. Nope, we get evil, evil, and more evil. I’m not saying that I’d be supportive of a Ouija craze, just that the movie fails at its supposed goal.

            “Ouija” was the #1 movie in the country this past weekend and it will almost definitely retain its spot on Friday and probably Saturday and Sunday by extension. Then its numbers will fall off a cliff. It gives people an excuse to go to the movies on Halloween and scream and laugh. It makes for a fun party, even if the movie itself is lousy. You’ll remember going to see this movie more than you’ll remember anything about it.

 

Two Stars out of Five if you can see it in a crowded theater on Halloween night, One and a Half Stars every other night.  

 

“Ouija” is rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content, frightening horror images, and thematic material. Its running time is only 89 minutes.

4:49 am est 

"Fury"

            “Fury” is a brutal war movie that wants to provide a jarring, emotional experience. It succeeds on the first front, though its emotional moments do feel forced. It’s trying to be Oscar bait, but I don’t see it getting many nominations outside of its admittedly impressive sound effects. Audiences are supposed to see it and say, “It’s not pretty, but it’s powerful.” It’s definitely not pretty, but I don’t think it has quite enough redeeming qualities to be considered powerful.

            The story follows a five-man tank crew in Germany during World War II. Brad Pitt plays Collier, the leader. Serving under him are characters played by Shia LeBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal. You’ll probably think of them respectively as the American guy with the moustache, the Mexican guy with the moustache and the guy with the funny hair. LeBeouf is actually quite good here, much more tolerable than he is in “Transformers” and real life. Pena is a disappointment, doing little more than blending in when he’s usually the best thing about whatever he’s doing. It’s Bernthal who steals the show as the most antagonistic member of the team who believes that his bullying tactics are completely appropriate.

New to the team is Norman (Logan Lerman) a typist randomly assigned to the field. He has no idea what he’s doing and it’s arguable that his incompetence leads to the deaths of fellow soldiers. Yet it’s not an annoying incompetence since it’s clear that he’s simply not ready. The character is meant to be a stand-in for the non-soldiers in the audience who wouldn’t know what they would do if they were suddenly thrown onto the battlefield.

            The crew goes from one battle to another with too little time to lick their wounds in between. The most notable non-battle scene comes in a small German town when Collier and Norman invade the home of two German women and take them prisoner while somewhat forcefully forming a bond with them. There is a lot of tension in this scene, but it would be more impactful if it didn’t go on for what seems like forever.

            As for the battle scenes, they are of course the highlight of the movie. You can hear the terror in every gunshot and explosion, and several visceral images make for haunting memories. On the other hand, I can’t say I agree with the film’s decision to track bullets with colorful flares. The last thing this supposedly highly-realistic film needs to be doing is reminding me of “Star Wars.” Also, in the otherwise-epic climactic sequence, it’s a little ridiculous that the enemy soldiers are such poor fighters that our heroes can hold them off in such a drawn-out battle.

            What disappointed me most about this movie is that we get very little sense of what it feels like to spend an extended amount of time inside a WWII-era tank. It’s not that we never see the inside of one, but the glimpses that we do get make it appear suspiciously roomy. I never got a true sense of the inevitable discomfort and claustrophobia.

            “Fury” is definitely a “gritty” war movie (I’d say “dirty,” but that would imply something else). Everything is covered in dust, mud and general grime. It’s even really hard to follow the action in the final battle because there’s so much dirt and smoke in the air. What I’m saying is that it’s an unpleasant movie, not that it claims to be anything else. You have to be in just the right kind of mood to get anything out of “Fury,” but as long as you are, I think you’ll find it to be a decent movie.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Fury” is rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout. Its running time is 134 minutes.

4:47 am est 

"Gone Girl"

            “Gone Girl” is one of those movies that is so twisty that it’s hard to tell where the setup ends and the spoilers begin. It’s based on a bestselling novel, which means that some people are going to know going in exactly what to expect. I feel a little sorry for those people, though I suppose they’ve already had their turn to be deliciously surprised. The people I feel really sorry for are the people who read spoilers and only spoilers and know what to expect without letting the story take them on a wild ride in one form or another.

            Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star as an unhappy couple named Nick and Amy. They were once madly in love, but over the years he has fallen into boorishness and she has become emotionally drained (though there may have been little to drain in the first place). On the day of their fifth anniversary, Nick comes home to find the living room overturned and Amy missing. This leads to a criminal investigation, which leads to a media circus, which leads to secrets about Nick and Amy coming out one by one by one.

Is Amy still alive? Has she been abducted? If so, who abducted her? Has she been murdered? If she was murdered, was it by Nick? Will Nick take the blame for Amy’s murder regardless of the truth? These questions are answered surprisingly early and abruptly, though it doesn’t mark the end of the film’s suspense, it just takes it in a different direction.

Other players include Carrie Coon as Nick’s loyal twin sister who becomes increasingly frustrated with Nick’s secrecy, Kim Dickens an Patrick Fugit as detectives investigating the disappearance, Tyler Perry (sans drag) as a hotshot defense attorney and Neil Patrick Harris as a former boyfriend of Amy’s. Harris is best known for comedic and musical work and I wondered why he was cast in this thriller. Several cringe sessions later I see that he was an excellent choice for this role.

Speaking of excellent performances, the whole cast is top-notch. I didn’t know who Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens were before this movie, but I’m eager to see more of them. Tyler Perry proves that he can be effective when he’s not distracted by his directing duties. Affleck can now officially say that he’s just as respectable an actor as he is a director. But what people are going to remember most about this movie is Rosamund Pike. Even when she’s gone, she still has a twisted dominance over the story. With this performance, Pike jumps to the front of the Best Actress Oscar race, but at a price. Men are going to be scared of her for years to come.

There are a few things that prevent this film from getting to that next level where I’m only too eager to hand it the Best Picture Oscar. We’re supposed to suspect Nick of killing Amy, but the way he behaves when he’s alone prevents us from getting behind that possibility. More frustrating is the way the film’s ending drags. I kept thinking that the film had found a good stopping point, but it just kept going to gradually diminishing returns.

“Gone Girl” is one of the most suspenseful, exciting and shocking films I’ve seen in a long time. It has been #1 at the box office for two weekends now, which gives me faith in the movie-going public. Plus I’m thrilled to finally have an excuse to write a positive review. You should of course see this film, but if you see it with a significant other, be prepared for some awkwardness on the drive home.

 

Three Stars out of Five

 

“Gone Girl” is playing at Hershey Cocoaplex. The film is rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language. Its running time is 149 minutes.

4:45 am est 

"The Equalizer"

                “The Equalizer” is a story that we’ve seen plenty of times before. A former professional killer is trying to enjoy his new life in peace, but he can’t help but get sucked back into killing. I was hoping that the team of Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua (who directed Washington to an Oscar for “Training Day”) would bring something new, or at least interesting, to the table. For a short time, it looks like they’ve succeeded. But then slowly the opportunity slips through their fingers until the film seems to get away from them entirely. Unfortunately, this takes up much more time.

            The film starts off expectedly, but compellingly. We’re introduced to Robert (Washington), a lower-manager at a home supply chain store. He has some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, often involving time in seconds. He’s friendly enough, even helping a buddy (Johnny Skourtis) train to become a security guard. He goes to a diner at night where he reads books and makes small talk with a prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). It’s typical “establishing that he’s leading a peaceful life” material, but it’s elevated by Washington’s charisma and his chemistry with Moretz.

            The action part of the movie has to kick into gear eventually, and it does so when the girl is beaten. Robert goes to her handlers to try and work out a deal for her to leave that life. The meeting does not end with a hearty handshake. The men Robert takes out are connected to the Russian mob, and now Robert is a target for assassination. A problem solver (Martin Csokas) is dispatched to solve the problem that is Robert.

            The rest of the movie follows Robert as he single-handedly takes on the Russian mob. He deals with lower-level associates in short bursts with definite beginnings and ends that play almost like vignettes. Then there’s a messy climax at the glorified hardware store, at which point the film has officially squandered its early promise.

            Even with some creative violence, the action scenes rarely come off as original. The first one is pretty cool, with Robert rigidly timing himself while he efficiently blazes through a room of bad guys. But most of the others are unimpressive. I’m especially referring to an interrogation scene where he manages to trap a guy in his car in a garage with the motor running and a hose pouring exhaust into the vehicle. That method might be scary in the real world, but by movie standards it’s pretty wimpy. As for the showdown in the store, the sequence does little more than rip off “Die Hard.” Actually, I take that back. It does much more than rip off “Die Hard.” It also rips off “Home Alone.”

            The plot is overstuffed. The movie really wants to sell us on the storyline with Robert and the wannabe security guard, but I never found it to be anything more than a time-waster. There’s also a well-publicized detour where Robert visits some old friends played by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman. The cameos are pointless and serve only to pad the film’s cast. But nowhere does the story ramble more than at the end, with the drawn-out store showdown (there had to be at least four times where I was sure Robert was fighting the last henchman before Csokas), an awkward trip to Moscow and what feels like several final conversations.

            It’s ironic that Robert puts so much emphasis on timing and quickness because he’s in a movie that badly needed to trim its running time. There’s a decent movie buried in “The Equalizer,” but the longer it goes, the stupider it gets. By the end you’ll be wondering why Denzel Washington took this project at all. Or more realistically, you’ll be too busy being grateful that the movie is over to wonder about Washington’s choice in projects.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“The Equalizer” is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, including some sexual references. Its running time is 131 minutes.

4:44 am est 

"The Maze Runner"

            “The Maze Runner” is supposedly the beginning of yet another franchise based on a violent book series aimed at teenagers. The easy label is that it’s a “Hunger Games” knockoff, I see it more as an “Ender’s Game” knockoff. Whatever it’s primarily knocking off, it still seems like a movie we’ve been seeing a lot of lately.

            The film follows Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), a teenager who wakes up in a moving elevator with no memory of how he got there, or of anything else for that matter. He’s deposited in a compound called The Glade, which is populated by about thirty other boys. All of them have had their memories wiped out as well, but they’ve been there for months and years longer than him. The Glade is surrounded by a big stone wall with a single opening that leads into a maze. Every day a few guys called Runners go into the maze to look for a way out, but they never find one. And if they don’t get back through the entrance by sundown, they get killed by giant mechanical insects called Grievers.

            The other characters have one trait at most. There’s a best friend (Blake Cooper), a competent leader (Aml Ameen), a back-up leader (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a helpful jock (Ki Hong Lee), a mean jock (Will Poulter) and eventually a girl (Kaya Scodelario). Somewhat laughably, almost all of the other boys function as little more than scenery. Our fear it that their real function is as inevitable victims.

            The boys have set up a tight-knit society in The Glade, but there’s not much focus on getting out. The Runners do their jobs without much drive, hope or urgency. Thomas suggests several ways of escaping without having to run the maze, and the other boys insist that whatever he can think of, they’ve tried. I say they haven’t tried hard enough, especially when it comes to building a ladder to the top of the wall. It’s up to Thomas to be brave and survive the maze from the inside. He does so pretty easily despite the experience and pessimism of the others.

            The action scenes in the movie are pathetic. I don’t think I’ve ever been less scared of a movie monster than I was of the Grievers. The only way I could see a Griever hurting somebody is if it got them to lunge at it. Then, since the Grievers are obviously bad CGI and there’s nothing there, the lunger would run right through them and smack into a wall or fall over a precipice. There is supposedly a lot of death at the hands of the Grievers, but all we ever see is people getting dragged off screen because the film knows that we won’t buy the Grievers succeeding at anything.

            The maze is somehow connected to a corporation called WCKD (pronounced “Wicked”). Call it a hunch, but I think the folks at WCKD are bad guys. WCKD’s motivations are a complete mystery for most of the movie until they’re explained by a scientist (Patricia Clarkson), at which point they go from mysterious to confusing, even inexplicable. I fail to see how making teenagers run a maze where they can be killed by giant insects (not to mention the slow rate in which they introduce new participants – once a month for several years) is useful to solving the problem at hand.

            Perhaps the most annoying thing about “The Maze Runner” is that it wastes a lot of time and energy setting up cliffhangers that will supposedly be resolved in some far-off sequel that as far as I know isn’t even in production yet. This film will therefore be remembered as one that raised more questions than it answered. I doubt that many people will remember what those questions were exactly, but they will remember that this film failed to answer them.  

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“The Maze Runner” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including disturbing images. Its running time is 113 minutes.

4:43 am est 

"Dolphin Tale 2"

            2011’s “Dolphin Tale” told the story of Winter, a rescued dolphin who was missing her tail. The humans around her worked tirelessly to help, and in the process they learned to help themselves. Needless to say, it was a super cheesy movie, the sort of cutesy inspirational fluff that adults have seen countless times (including “Air Bud,” by the same director) but kids probably enjoy when it’s new to them. Now comes “Dolphin Tale 2,” which is pretty much more of the same.

            The conflicts this time are a little less urgent. Winter’s tank-mate, a 40-year-old dolphin named Panama, passes away. Government regulations require captive female dolphins like Winter to be paired with other females, and her human friends have 30 days to find her a new buddy or else their aquatic center will lose its star attraction and they’ll lose their muse.

            Winter can’t be paired up with just any female dolphin. The center is technically a rehab facility, so anything that’s healthy enough to release back into the ocean is out. It also can’t be one that’s freaked out by her prosthetic tail. Or one that might attack her. Or one that she might attack. I know there are legitimate reasons for being picky, but I can’t help but think that the humans worry a little too much about indulging the animals. You won’t find the police chiefs in buddy cop movies worrying so much about potential partners being compatible.

            The human cast remains about the same. You’ve got Winter’s teenage handler Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and his supportive mother Lorraine (Ashley Judd). Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) runs the aquatic center with his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and his father Reed (Kris Kristofferson). And Morgan Freeman is back as a prosthetics developer who serves the all-important function of saying things in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

            The film’s comedy is forgettable at best. The film loves its gags where people get splashed or fall into water. It also expects us to laugh at the antics of a pesky pelican named Rufus. Actually, we’re not even supposed to laugh at his antics, we’re supposed to laugh at him for just showing up. I’m sure the animal trainers for this movie worked really hard on Rufus, but he isn’t inherently funny.

            There’s a lot of drama for the sake of drama. Dr. Clay and the kids get in a huge fight over whether to release a healthy dolphin or pair her up with Winter (Hazel argues her point with an annoying “scream and then run away” approach followed by an even more annoying “mature” approach). Sawyer might go on a three-month study abroad program, but how can he leave with Winter in trouble? Dr. Clay somehow has to keep the business alive with investors and the government breathing down his neck. Losing Panama causes Winter to go berserk: she won’t eat, she injures Sawyer, and she once again rejects her prosthetic tail, rehashing the central conflict of the first movie. There’s a storyline about the team rescuing a turtle that never really goes anywhere and teases of a romance between Sawyer and Hazel that never really go anywhere. All this is to distract us from the fact that the search for a new companion for Winter just isn’t that interesting.

I can’t imagine people getting much out of “Dolphin Tale 2” unless they really like dolphins or marine biology. To be fair, I can see the appeal of the animal and science-centric scenes and I suppose the emphasis on hard work is a good thing, especially for kids. But anybody who has seen one of these inspirational animal movies before is going to know exactly where the story is going. Therefore, the target audience for the film is kids who are too young to have ever seen an inspirational animal movie before. In fact, if they’ve seen the first, slightly better “Dolphin Tale,” that alone might make them too jaded.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Dolphin Tale 2” is rated PG for some mild thematic elements. Its running time is 107 minutes.
4:40 am est 

End of Summer Blowout

            With no major new releases this week, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the movies from the summer season that I saw but never reviewed. Most of these were bombs, but a few were actually decent hits that just never quite made it to the top of the charts. In chronological order, starting in May…

 

“A Million Ways to Die in the West”

 

            Seth Macfarlane writes, directs and stars in this interminable comedy about how miserable life is in the Old West. It’s like he’s arguing against a conception that Old West life was somehow glamorous, but I don’t know of anybody who thinks that, so what’s the point of arguing against it? It doesn’t help that Macfarlane’s character is one of the whiniest protagonists ever put on film. One Star out of Five.

 

“Edge of Tomorrow”

 

            Tom Cruise lends his fading star power to this sci-fi action movie about an unwilling soldier who discovers a way to kill evil invading aliens. The twist is that he gets stuck in a “Groundhog Day”-style time loop, getting killed over and over presumably until he can destroy them once and for all. The concept is executed fairly well with some good comedy spots, but the character’s seemingly unlimited chances do detract from the suspense. Two Stars out of Five.

 

“How to Train Your Dragon 2”

 

            I’ll be honest, the main reason for the retroactive theme this week is so I finally have an excuse to review this movie. The continued story of a Viking teenager making the world a safer place for dragons is heartfelt and visually impressive. Cate Blanchett is terrific as the boy’s long-lost mother, her broad acting style lending itself extremely well to animation. Though some of the side characters and B-plots make for some dead weight, this was still one of the best kids’ films of the year. Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Hercules”

 

            The good ideas for this movie begin and end with casting Dwayne Johnson as the mythical strongman. The characters and plot are threadbare, the special effects are pathetic and the overall look of the film is dirty and ugly. A rare bit of creative violence does not save this film from being a downright mess. I’m disappointed in Johnson, who I thought was trying to distance himself from these useless action movies. One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“The Expendables 3”

 

            Speaking of useless action movies, Sylvester Stallone and his “all-star” cast are back to prove that they can still fire guns and knock people out. The “turn off your brain, it’s mindless violence” excuse does not justify this movie’s dullness. Maybe an occasional one-liner will land, but really the funniest thing about this movie was the bored silence of my crowded theater every time something happened that they were supposed to cheer. One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

 

            Yes, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller waited too long to release a sequel to their hyper-stylized, hyper-violent 2005 masterwork. That doesn’t stop this follow-up from being a worthy companion piece. The noir atmosphere and visceral action scenes are as welcome as ever. Everything about these movies is the epitome of cool. Three Stars out of Five.

 

“The November Man”

 

            Much like with “Hercules,” the appeal of this movie is in the very casting of former Bond Pierce Brosnan and former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko in a spy thriller. The “super-competent older agent who runs circles around brash rookies” angle has been done to death lately and this installment adds nothing new. I can actually tell that the cast and crew of this movie are putting their backs into it, but the script is so idiotic that they don’t stand a chance. One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.

4:39 am est 

As Above/So Below

People like to complain about how the Christmas season starts earlier every year. They’re right, but I’ve also noticed that the Halloween season starts ridiculously early too. I work at Hershey’s Chocolate World in Times Square and we’re already pushing the Halloween candy. I’ve walked past a few darkened stores that I can tell are going to be open any day now selling costumes. And the biggest new release over Labor Day weekend was a horror movie called “As Above/So Below.”

To be fair, it’s not that big of a hit. It opened in fourth place behind holdovers “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and “If I Stay.” I can’t remember the last time I had to go down to fourth place to find a movie to review. It’s even arguable that it lost the holiday weekend to “The November Man,” a movie that has a slightly higher cumulative total, but opened on Wednesday, giving it a two-day head start. Still, my point about horror movies doing well on Labor Day weekend remains the same. The top ten Labor Day performers of all time include 2011’s “The Possession,” both “Jeepers Creepers” movies and, at #1, the 2007 remake of “Halloween.” With or without quotes, Halloween movies really do dominate Labor Day.

So what does “As Above/So Below” have to offer? Not much, really. It’s an underwhelming Found Footage horror movie trying and failing to grab the “Paranormal Activity” crowd. The story follows a group of disposable adventurers looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. Actually, that’s the European version of the premise. In America we’d say that the story follows a group of disposable adventurers looking for the Sorcerer’s Stone. At first I thought it was a derivative coincidence that these characters are looking for an artifact that shares its name with the driving force of the first “Harry Potter” book, but it turns out they’re one and the same.

The Stone is supposedly hidden in a system of caverns underneath Paris. The caverns also serve as a mass grave, the final resting place for millions of plague victims. It’s a creepy setting made more unsettling by the fact that that certain areas don’t have very durable overhead support, so cave-ins are an issue. Plus, as a cave, there are uncertain drops and crawlspaces (though it’s hard to feel claustrophobic when you’re in a movie theater that more than likely is uncrowded). And since this is a horror movie, the cave also includes some psychos and demons.

The scares aren’t very effective. For starters, there are long stretches where nothing happens that is even supposed to be scary. A lot of the film is just the team solving lame riddles and finding secret passages. But even when the film tries to be scary, it falls flat. The violence isn’t shocking, and there’s less of it than you’d think. The monsters and demons they encounter are good only for popping out at them before our heroes defeat them with one strike. Then there’s some nonsense about the team having to face their haunting pasts, which has more to do with imagery that only makes sense to them than universal terror.

I’m giving “As Above/So Below” my lowest rating of one star, but it isn’t a film that constantly insults my intelligence, patience or taste. Quite frankly, it doesn’t have the ambition to do any of that. It’s just a film with nothing going for it. Some of it is bad, but most of it is dull. If I could think one thing I liked about this movie, I’d bump it up another half star. I like that I’ll probably have forgotten about it by this time next week, but that doesn’t count. 

 

One Star out of Five.

 

“As Above/So Below” is rated R for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout. Its running time is 93 minutes.

4:37 am est 

"If I Stay"

            “If I Stay” is a pretty depressing teen romance about a young couple who love, lose, and one of them might die. It’s based on one of those “YA” (Young Adult) books that are so hot as film projects right now. There’s a temptation to compare it to “The Fault in Our Stars,” another teen romance where the characters spent a lot of time on the brink of death. That film was sweeter, sadder and made more sense than this one. “If I Stay” would be wise to distance itself from the superior film unless it wants its legacy to be that of a cheap knockoff.

The “present” version of the story follows Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage cello prodigy, as she and her family are involved in a horrible car crash. Mia is thrown into a coma, but has an out-of-body experience where she rushes to the hospital to check on the rest of her family. She’ll occasionally see the bright light of the afterlife and debates going into it. I can understand the film not letting us know what exactly is on the other side of that light, but I wish we knew what Mia thinks is on the other side so we can better understand her internal struggle.

            Much of the film consists of flashbacks. We meet Mia’s parents (Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos), former rockers who gave up their dream without hesitation to become loving parents. We also see Mia fall in love with Adam (Jamie Blackley), an aspiring rocker who is enamored with the way Mia plays cello and oddly little else. They go through a cute courting process where they challenge each other to appreciate the other’s music but their relationship hits the rocks when their futures seem to be taking them in opposite directions. His career takes off and he needs to spend a lot of time touring, meanwhile her cello skills might get her into Julliard. The two aren’t even speaking at the time of the accident. In the present, Mia’s decision whether or not to wake up is going to be largely influenced by his feelings for her. (and also the decision from Julliard).

For me, one of the biggest problems with the movie was Adam. I didn’t find him interesting or likeable. In his first or second scene, he exhibits poor social skills when talking to a friend of Mia’s. I also didn’t care for his music, but then again neither does Mia and she can overlook it. I thought he was going to be the guy that Mia thinks she’s in love with before realizing that she doesn’t need that jerk. If this were a romantic comedy, she would probably realize that the right guy was her shy friend who was by her side the whole time.

The pacing is all off. Almost every flashback scene is some kind of musical discussion, and they can’t all qualify as major life events. Frankly a lot of them make the movie feel padded. The “present” storyline takes forever to unfold, with scene after scene of Mia being scared and devastated with little development. Every time we think the story is going to evolve, it just cuts to another flashback.

            It’s hard to find things to like about this movie, but there are a few. Stacy Keach, playing it sweet for once as Mia’s grandfather, has some powerful scenes. I guess if you like cello music, there’s lots of good cello music (though it’s not Moretz playing). And I’m not made of stone, I did sympathize with Mia losing and gaining hope for her very life. None of this “saves” the movie, but it does make it a bit more tolerable.

            If I could sum up “If I Stay” in one word, that word would be “mushy.” Characters are constantly talking about how hopelessly devoted they are to each other, be they family, lovers or friends. Individually these scenes are harmless, even touching and effective. But when combined en masse, they become repetitive and grating. The audience for this movie is teenage girls, which admittedly leaves me out, but I think that even they will see that this is a particularly weak romance and drama. 

 

One and a Half Stars Out of Five.

 

“If I Stay” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material. Its running time is 146 minutes that feels more like three hours.

4:35 am est 

"Let's Be Cops"

            This past Sunday, I was getting ready to slog my way through a one-and-a-half-star review of “The Expendables 3,” which I saw Friday night, when I decided to check the weekend box office results to make sure it was really the right film to review. Much to my surprise, the latest installment of the tired action franchise lost out on even the #3 position, getting upset by the debuting comedy “Let’s Be Cops.” I scrambled out the door to get to whatever showing of the winning film I could find, all the while muttering about how I was going to have to waste my time and money on a film that had been getting some of the worst reviews I’ve seen all year. Perhaps it was because the bar was set so low that I couldn’t help but find something to like about this film.

The film stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. of TV’s “New Girl.” I’ve given “New Girl” a few chances over the years and have never found it funny enough to follow. I am, however, a huge fan of “Happy Endings,” a show that starred Wayans and was arguably one of the best comedies on television during its too-short run. My love of “Happy Endings” probably makes me biased toward Wayans and might explain why I found his character in this movie more tolerable than Johnson’s, though both are jerks who should have their mouths washed out with soap.

            In case it wasn’t clear from the film’s over-advertising, the story follows Johnson and Wayans as they impersonate cops after some confusion at what Johnson thinks is a costume party. They soon find that strangers do respect their fake badges, and they use their newfound authority to pick up girls, get free food and drinks and boss people around. All is fun and games until they tangle with some local mobsters led by the surprisingly scary Mossi (James D’Arcy). This puts them in legitimate danger from criminals, plus there’s the possibility that a real cop (Rob Riggle) could discover that they’ve been faking this whole time.

            A good rule of thumb when it comes to the humor in this movie is that the spoken jokes aren’t funny and the physical gags are. My favorite gag was Wayans ordering captive criminals to do embarrassing dance moves. I also liked it when the characters got hit, beaten up, or otherwise hurt. These guys, especially Johnson, are really unlikeable at times with their whininess, selfishness, obnoxiousness and of course the way they abuse their phony power (not to mention that they pretend to have the power in the first place). That’s why I say that I don’t care for the film’s verbal humor, though I did like a segment where they interrogate and turn a suspect (Keegan-Michael Key), if for no other reason than that they make a crack about rapper I actively dislike.

            The film really falls apart in its final act when it inexplicably turns into a straight-up action movie and takes itself way too seriously. There’s a stretch that lasts a double-digit number of minutes where I didn’t detect a single joke being made. This “comedy” had a hard enough time getting me to laugh when it was trying to be funny, playing it straight really wipes out any momentum it had.

I’ve been hearing bad things about “Let’s Be Cops.” Terrible, savage, worst-of-the-year things. It’s a bad movie, I won’t say otherwise. But it doesn’t deserve the hate that critics are piling on it. Their ire would be better spent on “Expendables 3.” Technically, the film was a pleasant surprise. I can’t deny that I left the theater in a positive mood. And of course, it helped that the crowd in my theater was really into it. Again, I’m not saying that “Let’s Be Cops” is a “good” movie, but at least it made for a decent party.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Let’s Be Cops” is rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, violence and drug use. Its running time is 104 minutes.

4:34 am est 

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

            Was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” ever a quality franchise? I don’t think it was. I think the movies and especially the cartoon are regarded as thinly-veiled toy commercials even by their biggest fans. A lot of times when I see a movie this bad based on a childhood “classic,” fans are quick to cry out that the movie oversimplified the complex, interesting characters (I heard a lot of this when it came to “The Last Airbender”). I’m not expecting a lot of these complaints when it comes to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” because the characters were never complex or interesting. The Turtles fought bad guys, they ate pizza, they made bad jokes and used really lame slang. The Turtles of this movie do all of those things so maybe the movie is faithful enough.

            The plot initially follows tough reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) as she tries to crack the case/break the story of a crime syndicate attacking New York. The story takes a turn when she sees the gang get fought off by a shadowy vigilante. Actually it’s four vigilantes. Who happen to be teenagers, mutants, ninjas and turtles (I’ll spare you from the unfunny running gag about the traits being listed out of order). Also, she played a major part in their origin, which also involved her late scientist father and his still-living boss (William Fitchner), who you can tell from one look is up to no good. If I were a cop I’d arrest him just for looking so evil.

            Once April meets the Turtles, the focus largely shifts over to them. You’ve got the leader Leonardo, tough one Raphael, comic relief Michelangelo and smart one Donatello (you can tell he’s the smart one because one of his first lines is “according to my calculations…”). They live in the sewer where they’re strictly watched over by mutated rat Splinter. But he doesn’t watch them closely enough to keep them from sneaking out and fighting crime in secret. Apparently they’re the only ones capable of saving the city from the gang its leader, the diabolical armor freak Shredder.  

            My biggest problem with the movie was the choppy narrative. Plot threads and side characters are picked up and dropped as haphazardly as any film I’ve ever seen. I kept waiting for the film to return to April’s boss played by Whoopi Goldberg or her roommate played by Abby Elliot. Even April’s reporting career is pretty much forgotten by the end of the movie. It isn’t that I really cared about any of these elements (okay, I wanted to see more Abby Elliot, but her character was irrelevant), just that their lack of payoff is conspicuous.

The trauma of the most recent “Transformers” movie is still fresh in my mind, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to fully hate “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” True, “Transformers” director Michael Bay is a producer on this movie, but compared to that one, anything is tolerable. Maybe one out of ten action scenes is somewhat cool. Maybe one out of twenty jokes works, though there are definitely some groaners in the bunch, usually from Michelangelo. It’s a bad movie to be sure, but it’s not like it made me cringe so much that I nearly broke my armrest.

            You know exactly what you’re getting with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” If you happen to enjoy the Turtles’ dumb exploits, you’ll probably find more to like in this movie than I did. I can’t guarantee that the established fanbase will like this movie, only that they’re the only ones with a chance of liking it. But if you go in already hating the Turtles, the movie is not going to change your mind. The best thing I can say for it is that it moves along at a good clip and is over pretty quickly; not at all paced like a turtle.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. Its running time is 101 minutes.
4:32 am est 

"Guardians of the Galaxy"

            The Guardians of the Galaxy come from the same Marvel universe as The Avengers. But it doesn’t take five solo movies to get us to the big team-up project. The idea here is that the cast is so diverse that there has to be somebody you like. And if it turns out that you like all five main characters, so much the better.

            Here’s the lineup: Quill (Chris Pratt) is a human raised by alien criminals to be a master thief. The phrase “master thief” conjures up images of someone who is sneaky and subtle, but the loudmouth Quill bucks the stereotype. Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a furry science experiment gone wrong. He’s a tech genius who loves shooting things (I’ll admit to laughing way too often at the sight of the heavily-armed raccoon) and is even more obnoxious than Quill. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is a plant monster who skewers, strangles and crushes with his branches. He’s the sweet one of the group. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking fighter bent on avenging his murdered family. He has trouble communicating and looks like he does all his talking with his fists (to which he would furiously respond that his fists do not have mouths). Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is an expert assassin raised by ultimo baddie Thanos who is trying to turn her life around. Agreeing to help save the galaxy is as good a start as any.

            The members first meet while fighting each other. Quill and Gamora fight over who gets to sell an orb that can destroy planets. Rocket and Groot fight with Quill over a bounty placed on his head by his jilted former boss (Michael Rooker). They all get arrested and go to prison, where an already-incarcerated Drax wants to fight Gamora because she’s related to Thanos. The five wrongdoers reluctantly form a partnership so they can escape prison, sell the orb, get their money/revenge, and go their separate ways. The sale falls through and the orb winds up in the hands of the evil Ronan (Lee Pace), who wants to put it to use destroying peaceful planets. Our heroes decide that it’s up to them to Guard the Galaxy (for free, no less).

            The driving forces of the plot are all incidental. All of these Marvel moves have a villain of the week that wants to use a weapon of the week to conquer a planet that about half the time is Earth (in this case it isn’t). The action is more interesting; it’s more crisp and creative than I’ve been seeing lately, especially when Groot is involved. But the appeal of this movie isn’t in its plot or its action, it’s in its characters, its dialogue and its humor.

            In case the cheesy 70s music used in the advertising wasn’t enough of a clue, humor is a major component of this film. Chris Pratt gives Quill the same schlubby charm that he brought to “The Lego Movie” and here he dances too. Rocket is golden enough just by being a talking raccoon, and on top of that most of what he says is funny. Groot is good for physical gags and it’s fun to guess what’s going on inside his wooden head. Drax specializes in taking figures of speech literally (his head is almost as wooden as Groot’s). The only one who doesn’t pull their weight comedically is Gamora, whose funniest line feels like it was written for Drax.  

            “Guardians of the Galaxy” has a bright future as a franchise. A sequel has already been greenlit, and I doubt we’ll only see the one. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the characters pop up in an upcoming “Avengers” movie. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these characters, though I hope that next time they go on an adventure more worthy of their offbeat nature.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language. Its running time is 121 minutes.
4:30 am est 


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