Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Boy Next Door
Jennier Lopez, Ryan Guzman
In this R-rated thriller, a divorcee (Lopez) falls for a younger man (Guzman) who just moved in across the street, though their torrid affair takes an obsessive, dangerous turn. The Plus: The genre. Someway somehow, even despite poor reviews, some sexy thrillers end up at the top of the box office. For proof, just look to 1992’s Basic Instinct, 1999’s Cruel Intentions, 2009’s Obsessed and 2014’s No Good Deed. Here, The Fast & the Furious and xXx director Rob Cohen wrangles Lopez (Parker), Guzman (Step Up All In), Kristen Chenoweth (Frozen) and John Corbett (NBC’s Parenthood). The Minus: The scheduling. There’s a reason why January consistently earns a reputation as H’Wood’s dumping grounds. Also, the Ice Age series aside, Lopez hasn’t had a hit since 2002’s Maid in Manhattan. For proof, just look to 2003’s Gigli, 2004’s Jersey Girl, 2004’s Shall We Dance, 2005’s Monster-In-Law, 2006’s Bordertown and 2010’s The Back-up Plan … or better yet, don’t.

 

Mortdecai
Johnny Depp, Gwenyth Paltrow
In this R-rated comedy, art dealer Charles Mortdecai (Depp) searches for a stolen painting that’s reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold. The Plus: The players. After the back-to-back-to-back blockbuster success of the first three Pirates of Caribbean flicks, Johnny Depp became the biggest movie star in the world. Here, David Koepp (Premium Rush) directs a cast that includes him (Rum Diary), Paltrow (Iron Man 3), Ewan McGregor (August Osage County), Olivia Munn (HBO’s Newsroom), Paul Bettany (Transcendence) and Jeff Goldblum (The Grand Budapest Hotel), (screenwriter, The Break-Up). The Minus: The competition. One weekend, two new movies, an already crowded box office brimming with awards contenders. Even though this flick aims squarely for the adult demographic, it faces a lot of other contenders this weekend. Also, Depp has run hot (Dark Shadows) and cold (The Lone Ranger) at the box office since the last Pirates flick sailed, 2011’s On Stranger Tides.

 

Now Playing

Selma
David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo
****1/2 — Civil Righteous
An electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a history lesson, Selma’s authenticity and timeliness make for a rousing spectacle that never feels like an epic. Ava DuVernay’s PG-13-rated drama chronicles Martin Luther King’s (Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The director puts you wholly in the moment, never letting style (and the film boasts a great deal) get in the way of passing down an imperative piece of our country’s narrative. Even with so much attention to period detail and historic figures, Selma speaks so truthfully in the present tense not just because current events eerily reflect the story to a startling degree but because screenwriter Paul Webb’s multidimensional characterization of all involved articulates the still-ongoing struggle for equality. As realized by David Oyelowo in a brilliantly layered performance wrongly denied an Oscar nomination, Martin Luther King has never been represented on screen so letter perfectly. In fact, everybody from Carmen Ejogo, who looks like news footage of Coretta Scott King come to life to Tim Roth’s on-the-racist-nose portrayal of George Wallace rings completely true … except for Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Why DuVernay would go to extreme lengths to flawlessly present the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and NOT have the actor nail down LBJ’s distinctive Texas drawl is beyond comprehension. Still, this mostly British contingent (DuVernay, Oyelowo and Wilkson hail from the UK) gets it damn right. Just like with the production team behind 12 Years a Slave (also mostly British), sometimes it takes an outsider to hold up a proper mirror to our society. Regardless, you don’t have to be American for this tale to resonate and echo in your heart and mind … and it does.

 

American Sniper
Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
**** — American Bustle
Taking aim at realizing it’s real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood’s straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle’s (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag (in the hands of a more left-leaning director, American Sniper might have emerged as a “tsk tsk” cautionary tale), but Jason Hall’s script deftly puts forth the book’s War is Hell moments. Yes, there’s a sobering emotional toll and high body count, but the titular character sometimes comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Ultimately, however, Eastwood’s film smartly romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Still, he takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush. Since Bradley Cooper acquired the rights to Kyle’s autobiography in 2012, this real-life actioner proved a hot property around H’Wood, attracting interest from A-List directors David O. Russell (The Fighter) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) before thankfully landing in Eastwood’s (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) very capable hands. In terms of Oscar caliber quality, Eastwood’s recent CV doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence (Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys), but American Sniper ends up to be one of his best projects to date. His films rarely indulge stylish bells and whistles, which serves the frank forward material exceedingly well. Then, there’s his lead actor. Not only did his star’s voice star in the biggest box office hit of last year (Guardians of the Galaxy), but he also helped to headline back-to-back Best Picture Oscar nominees (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). Here, however, he unquestionably deserves the award. Beefing up physically while maintaining Kyle’s straight-talking, humble, dyed-in-the-wool Texas manner, Cooper transforms fully into the troubled heart and soul of this gripping story.

 

The Gambler (2014)
Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange
**1/2 — Booger Nights
Slickly directed, well acted, but ultimately lacking the dramatic punch it needs to sell through the story, The Gambler just about breaks even instead of completely going bust. In this R-rated remake from director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), lit professor and gambler Jim Bennett’s debt causes him to borrow money from his mother and a loan shark while a relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson) further complicates his situation. It tries operating as a cautionary tale on two fronts — gambling away one’s money and gambling away one’s soul — but succeeds more in dealing with the former. Though Mark Wahlberg proves utterly convincing as a charming, albeit degenerate, gambler, he doesn’t make tenure as a troubled associate professor. Oh, he lectures on Shakespeare and Camus to a believable degree but the existential crisis plaguing his character never gets fully explained. The characterization (add troubled rich heir to one of California’s largest fortunes into the confusing mix) comes up short. Even when some gangbuster action and intrigue keep the story moving at an even clip, the pace grinds to a halt thanks to long rambling suicidal bents that ultimately go nowhere. The blame falls on The Departed scribe William Monahan, who creates an interesting character he doesn’t fully know what to do with. Overwritten and overly complex, his character study needs Cliff’s Notes. Yes, he stakes his own life as collateral … but why? Filmgoers don’t need to know the full story — just enough to stay invested. The Gambler boasts some beautiful photography and some very quotable dialogue but ultimately doesn’t come close to earning a spot at the 1974 originals table.

 

Small Screens
The Gambler (1974)
James Caan, Paul Sorvino
**** — Time Enough for Counting
Instead of slogging through Rupert Wyatt’s flawed remake, stick to the much better 1974 original. In this R-rated drama available for download, literature professor Alex Freed (Caan) borrows from his girlfriend, his mother and some bad men to quench his gambling addition. James Caan’s ace performance gets credit for carrying this often forgotten ’70s gem but James Toback’s sharply written script ultimately deserves the true credit. Tense beyond belief, the film ratchets up the drama to a fever pitch and provides a much more nuanced and textured character study than what follows 40 years later.

 

 

Screens: Jan. 15, 2015

Screens: Jan. 15, 2015

OPENING THIS WEEK

 
Blackhat
Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis
In this R-rated techno-thriller, a furloughed convict (Hemsworth) and his American (Davis) and Chinese (Wei Tang) partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.
The Plus: The players. Given that his touts more than a few commercial and critical triumphs (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, Collateral), writer/director Michael Mann deserved a short respite. For his first film since 2009’s Public Enemies, he chose a white-hot star in Chris Hemsworth to headline the action. After establishing himself as Thor in three Marvel properties (Thor, Thor: The Dark World, The Avengers) plus a few well-received side ventures (Snow White & the Huntsmen, Rush), this young actor booked an impressive 2015. Next up is Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (March 13) and May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1) … after the legendary Mann’s latest, that is.
The Minus: The odds. Mann’s last two films, Miami Vice and Public Enemies, divided critics and filmgoers alike. Even his interim project, the HBO series Luck, got mercifully cancelled.

 
SHOWBIZ Paddington 143077
Paddington
Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville
In this PG-rated family flick, a family befriends a talking bear (voice of Ben Whishaw) at a London train station.
The Plus: The players. In an age when many H’Wood insiders believe that star power is on the wane, this flick boasts more mega-watt British actors than at a BAFTA open bar. Here, Harry Potter producer David Heyman presents Kidman (Before I Go to Sleep), Bonneville (The Monuments Men), Julie Walters (One Chance), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Peter Capaldi (BBC’s Doctor Who) and Jim Broadbent (Closed Circuit), plus the voices of Whishaw (Skyfall), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) and Imedla Staunton (Maleficent).
The Minus: The scheduling. If this movie was worth a damn, it would have taken its chances during the holiday season when good family flicks soar (Penguins of Madagascar) and bad family films scour (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb).
 
 
The Wedding Ringer
Kevin Hart, Josh Gad
In this R-rated comedy, a shy young groom (Gad) needs to impress his in-laws, so he turns to a best-man-for-hire (Hart) to help him out.
The Plus: The player. Having busted out in back-to-back-to-back smash hits Think Like a Man, Ride Along and his stand-up concert film Let Me Explain, Kevin Hart is the marquee selling point of this comedy. Here, he headlines a cast that includes Gad (Frozen), Kaley Cuoco (ABC’s The Big Bang Theory), Cloris Leachman (The Croods), Olivia Thirlby (Dredd), Mimi Rogers (Almost Human), Whitney Cummings (NBC’s Whitney), Josh Peck (Fox’s The Mindy Project) and Jorge Garcia (CBS’s Person of Interest) in the feature-length directorial debut of Jeremy Garelick (screenwriter, The Break-Up).
The Minus: The competition. One weekend, three new movies, an already crowded box office with awards contenders. Even though this flick aims for the adult, it faces a lot of other contenders this weekend.
 
Kevin Hart;Josh Gad
 

NOW PLAYING

 
Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin
*** — Bogie Nights
Inherent-ly muddled, Paul Thomas Anderson’s roll of the Vice satisfies Thomas Pynchon fans and few others. In this 1970s-set R-rated dramedy based on the novel by the author of V and Gravity’s Rainbow, detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend through a drug-fueled Los Angeles. Of course, this was the point. On the Penguin Press website, the publisher teases a work that’s “Part-noir, part-psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon … private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.” So far as realizing this vision, one of this generation’s most gifted auteurs succeeds to a startlingly perfect five-star degree. For filmgoers in general though, especially those who qualified as “square” in the ’60s or weren’t even born yet, Inherent Vice proves only mildly entertaining. In fact, the film tends to get downright boring at points. If Raymond Chandler helped to hard-boil detective fiction through his character Phillip Marlowe in the ’40s and Robert Altman somehow satirized and elevated the genre at the same time with the idiosyncratic Me Generation film classic The Long Goodbye in the ’70s, then Inherent Vice continues this tradition and takes the detective story to the next level … we just don’t know what or where that is. Purposely meandering and muddied with sudden Spartan moments of crystal-clear clarity, much like a drug trip and/or a lost soul trying to find their place in a changing culture and society, the story proudly sports a Byzantine plot navigated by a stoner. We get it. Most of us just don’t enjoy it. Oh, like all of Anderson’s films, it’s always interesting. The director’s telltale stylistic touches pop up to mostly great effect. Working against type, an amazing cast brings some wild characters to life. His long takes, however, actually feel long for a change. Even after weaving toward the solution, only one thing remains certain about Inherent Vice: It assumes the title of “Most Divisive” film on Anderson’s resume from Punch-Drunk Love.
 
Taken 3
Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker
** — Taken Asunder
Going back to the Mills for another fisticuff-filled man-against-the-clock mystery, Liam Neeson unwittingly remakes The Fugitive in his unfortunate three-quel. In this PG-13-rated actioner, ex-government operative Bryan Mills gets accused of a ruthless murder of his beloved ex-wife, so he brings out his particular set of skills to evade police, find the true killer and clear his name. Taken 3 takes awhile to really get its blood pumping but, once it does … well, the movie only boasts a few real thrills because it mostly rips off a certain 1992 who-done-it. Part three clumsily tries weaving its DNA into the proven man-on-the-run formula that made The Fugitive such a smash success, injecting the lead’s hard-hitting detective skills into the mix with middling success. It must get stated, however: Brian Mills, you are no Richard Kimble. Hell, Taken 3 isn’t even on an entertainment par with U.S. Marshals, the unnecessary Fugitive follow-up that Harrison Ford smartly skipped. Most of the repetitive goings-on of this flick offer standard issue action with very little intrigue. Sure, it easily one-ups the painfully redundant sequel that precedes it, but moviegoers have seen more fist-pumping action in some wedding videos than in Taken 2. All in all, this is not to say that Liam Neeson is a poor man’s Harrison Ford. He believably doles out clenched fist revenge just like in Taken … and Unknown …and Taken 2 … and Non-Stop. Truthfully, this very likeable actor has gone to the mills one too many times. Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker makes the most of a supporting role that’s largely beneath his certain set of skills, assuming Tommy Lee Jones’s Fugitive role as a duty-driven cop who kinda sorta believes that the protagonist is innocent. Also, here’s a final word of advice: No villain comes off as menacing when he sports the page boy bowl haircut of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.
 
EC15SCREENS_6_WEBBig Eyes
Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
**** — Big Fishing Deal
Big on colorful vision and colorful storytelling, Tim Burton’s somewhat uncharacteristic latest Eyes up an exquisitely painted portrait of an artist cheated of self-expression. Tim Burton’s (Dark Shadows) PG-13-rated drama centers on the awakening of painter Margaret Keane (Adams), her phenomenal success in the 1950s and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband (Waltz), who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s. The framing proves masterful, 1950s San Francisco dyed with a vibrant palette of eye-popping hues matched brilliantly with complimentary set design and period detail. Not unlike the vintage crayon-colored neighborhood featured in Edward Scissorhands, this location pulls you into the fabric even moreseo because it’s an actual place. Sure, the reality gets heightened — just not to surrealistic lengths like Ed Wood. In fact, this stylish telling of fascinating real events here resembles that Burton picture most of all, presenting history dappled with this auteur’s unique verve and wit. Of course, these films share the same screenwriters: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Quirky but fact-filled, their bio-pic scripts (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon) never fail to gleefully entertain while serving their subjects respectfully. Indeed, Keane emerges as much more than a rough sketch and her fight resonates as social commentary without becoming too heavy-handed. Aside from a few arch moments (a trial verging on cartoonish chief among them), laughing comes to crying comes to understanding. The same goes for Burton. Usually purveying a sort of Gothic hyper-reality as picture postcard America (Beetlejuice, Batman, Sleepy Hollow), he instead channels this dark undercurrent just below the surface with Big Eyes. Controlled but still characteristic, the sun-dappled Northern California suburbs (not unlike those in Frankenweenie) hold a lot of stylized beauty, but there’s a sense of real world dread pouring through the cracks in the sidewalks. It speaks the truth, as do the brilliantly layered performances by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Taken 3
Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker
In this PG-13-rated actioner, ex-government operative Bryan Mills gets accused of a ruthless murder he never committed or witnessed, so he brings out his particular set of skills to evade police, find the true killer and clear his name. The Plus: The player. After years of supporting gigs in blockbusting franchises (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, The Chronicles of Narnia, Batman Begins), Neeson emerged as a one-man Expendables, doling out some fisticuff and box office ass-whoopings in Taken ($145 million), The Grey ($51 million) and Taken 2 ($139 million) before landing a reported $20 million payday for this third go-round of the tired action franchise. Oh and starring gigs in The Clash of the Titans, The A-Team and Non-Stop certainly didn’t hurt either. Here, Oliver Megatron (Columbiana) returns from part two to direct Neeson (The LEGO Movie) Whitaker (The Butler), Maggie Grace (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), Famke Janssen (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Dougray Scott (Netflix’s Hemlock Grove). The Minus: The burnout. Compared with the first chapter, an actioner whose success came out of left field, chapter two got savaged by the critics … wait, where are you going? To line up already?!

 

Inherent Vice
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin
In this 1970s-set R-rated dramedy based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon (V, Gravity’s Rainbow), detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend through a drug-fueled Los Angeles. The Plus: The auteur. You know that saying that goes, “I’d watch so-and-so actor read the phone book?” Yeah, well, this critic would watch Paul Thomas Anderson direct the Yellow Pages. For proof, just consider three of his films: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. Hell, even when he’s not at the peak of his game (The Master), the story still provokes your mind, the camerawork still astonishes your eyes and the performances still dazzle both. Here, he directs Phoenix (Her), Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris). The Minus: The genre. The jokey tone of the trailer brings to mind Anderson’s last out-and-out comedy (and least respected film), Punch-Drunk Love. Again, his worst stands light years above some other writer-directors best, but he needs to improve upon The Master, which divided critics and audiences.

 

 

Now Playing

The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
****1/2 – Don’t Hate the Game
In attempting to solve the near-impossible puzzle behind the life of one of WWII’s most compelling unsung heroes, The Imitation Game puts forth a fascinating history lesson and intriguing character study. In this PG-13-rated historical drama, English mathematician and logician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) helps to crack the Nazis’ nearly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II. Though it outwardly seems like the success of this film comes down to it being a great performance piece, the genius-level script and precise direction in form deserve equal credit. Unlike the somewhat similar mathematician bio-pic A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game fears no corner of its intriguing and complex figure’s life. His homosexuality — then a crime of indecency in England — comes to the forefront nearly as much as his game of attrition against a computer. Benedict Cumberbatch’s irascible megamind shtick almost seems like just an effortless extension of his take on Sherlock Holmes in the brilliant detective drama currently produced by the BBC. There’s a deep emotional well mined by this amazing actor, however, and he boldly jumps into Graham Moore’s loose but absolutely ace adaptation of Alan Turing: An Enigma by Andrew Hodges without abandon, exposing the live wires behind this machine-like riddle-of-a-man. Oh, there’s no buying into the fact that every scene brims with absolute historic accuracy, but the layers get peeled back on a perplexing soul. It never attempts to fully solve the riddle, just make you ponder the inner workings of the man while you just happen to be learning about an engrossing moment that changed the course of WWII. Steeping the production in a winning amount of period detail, director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) keeps the suspense gripping and action flowing even during the headiest of moments.

 

Unbroken
Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson
***1/2 — War and Appease
Imperfect but far from broken, Angelina Jolie’s sophomore directing effort soars more than scours thanks to a compelling subject and his powerful life story. This R-rated drama based on Laura Hillenbrand’s (Seabiscuit) bestselling nonfiction book by the same name chronicles the life of Louis Zamperini (O’Connell), an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. The rich and authentic trappings provided by the director, however, flesh out the story to almost epic lengths … for better and worse. Just reading the bullet points of this amazing man’s life alone raises you to your feet and screams ‘cinematic.’ It didn’t need to ape so many of the audience-pleasing Oscar dramas of the past to lay the awe-striking resonance of this real American hero on thicker. While Jolie’s gorgeous use of photography and period detail roots you in an often inhuman and superhuman experience, but it also frames a fluffed-up script that hits too many rousing crowd-pleasing beats to feel completely true. Also, Unbroken boasts an adaptation partly written by Joel and Ethan Cohen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). Notice the words ‘party written.’ Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson also get credited with screenwriting. The old saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth” applies to many industries but it often proves true in regards to film and, specifically, screenplays with more than two writers. Whether Zamperini’s brother actually said “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory” to his departing brother on a train platform is besides the point. It needs to feel honest, not smarmy. Thankfully, Jack O’Connell’s brave Grade-A performance elevates the overwrought pages at his feet.

 

Wild
Reese Witherspoon, Gaby Hoffman
**** — The Mostly Great Outdoors
When given an intelligent adaptation of a somewhat familiar tale that’s played out by an amazing performance and framed with stellar direction, filmgoers can’t help but get Wild about Reese Witherspoon’s latest. In this R-rated drama based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by the same name, director Jean-Marc Valee chronicles a recovering addict’s (Witherspoon) 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Unless it’s Into the Wild, which falls far from being merely Wild with less estrogen, films about redemption borne out of rugged journeys usually head down one particularly formulaic road. Everything from Harry and Tonto to Eat Pray Love pretty much has somewhat of a pick-me-up bouquet waiting for audiences at the end. Oh, this doesn’t intend to take anything away from Strayed’s real-life personal struggles, which comprise the true story framed here so beautifully in digital. Sure, Wild’s redemption tale doesn’t present the most original two hours on-screen, but therein lies the “A-Ha” moment: the film proves more about maintaining some semblance of order in a world of chaos. Plus, the powerful lead performance and non-linear storytelling present enough of a twist to keep viewers riveted. Stripping herself bare in more ways than one, Reese Witherspoon anchors the film with a ridiculously emotional performance that never feels anything but full-tilt authentic. Also, Nick Hornby’s wonderfully glib and devilishly detailed reordering of Strayed’s memoir moves the story forward even though it’s hop-scotching around her life. Without Valee at the helm, however, these brilliant spokes wouldn’t turn as smoothly. Giving all involved a very worthy follow-up to The Dallas Buyers Club, he invests the sadness and joy with a verve that keeps us on track to a satisfying end.

 

Small Screens

The Interview
James Franco, Seth Rogen
*** — Creaks and Geeks
In this R-rated comedy available for download, tabloid talk show host Dave Skylark (Franco) and his producer (Rogen) find their interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, turning into an assassination mission after they get recruited by the CIA. In trying to make a connection between Pineapple Express and Midnight Express, the team behind This is the End presents an occasionally funny movie that’s more of third world than superpower comedy. Please understand that, even if they found that this comedy’s laughs were found to cure cancer, The Interview would never live up to the epic hullabaloo that it’s created on the international scene. For a flick that puts forth such a high-minded premise, the comedy proves too juvenile. Some of the jokes, bits and gags hit the target, albeit never a direct bullseye. Most of the script simply gets mired and muddied in too much schoolyard potty humor. Sure, This is the End and its writers/directors earned raves with much the same tone and standard, but their latest already tries to be offensive in so many ways other than dick and fart jokes — politically and culturally chiefly among them. Notice the word “tries.” Though it never attempts to act as outwardly smart as war-minded comedies like 1,2,3, Dr. Strangelove and Don’t Drink the Water, The Interview’s premise asks that you at least know what’s going on in the headlines and cable news scroll, which strangely asks a lot of our accelerated culture. Ultimately, it lacks the moxie to deliver a ‘smart’ bomb on moviegoers

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening This Week

Unbroken
Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund
Angelina Jolie’s R-rated drama chronicles of the life of Louis Zamperini (O’Connell), an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. The Plus: The players. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s (Seabiscuit) nonfiction book by the same name, Unbroken boasts an adaptation partly written by Joel and Ethan Cohen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). The Minus: The material. Notice the words “party written.” Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson also had a hand in the script. The old saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” applies to many industries, but it often proves true in regards to film and, specifically, screenwriting. Also, Jolie, who recently announced that she would be spending more time helming films than starring in them, got mixed reviews for her directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey.

 

Into the Woods
Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp
In this PG-13-rated adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, a witch (Streep) conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack and the Beanstalk (James Corden) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). The Plus: The players. Have you seen the players headed Into the Woods? Chicago director Rob Marshall helms an A-List cast including Streep (August: Osage County), Depp (Transcendence), Kendrik (Pitch Perfect), Chris Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness), Corden (One Chance), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!) and Tracey Ullman (Corpse Bride). The Minus: The odds. Marshall’s last star-studded sure thing musical … well, it wasn’t (Nine).

 

The Gambler
Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange
In this R-rated crime-thriller, debt-ridden lit professor and gambler Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) borrows money from a loan shark (John Goodman) and begins a relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson) in vying for a second chance. The Plus: The players. Here, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) directs Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Lange (FX’s American Horror Story), Goodman (The Monuments Men), Larson (Don Jon) and Michael Kenneth Williams (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire). The Minus: The glut. Released amid a sea of Oscar hopefuls (Wild, Big Eyes) and H’Wood holiday fluff (Annie, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), The Gambler is risking a lot by opening this particular weekend.

 

Now Playing

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan
***1/2 — Here and Flak Again
Battling its way not quite to the top spot of either Peter Jackson’s Tolkien series in general or even The Hobbit series freestanding on its own hairy feet, Five Armies nonetheless entertains a ready-made audience with technical magic and over-fluffed storytelling. In this PG-13-rated conclusion to the fantasy saga, Bilbo (Freeman) and company (McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, et al) become embroiled in a war against an armed flock of combatants and the terrifying dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-Earth. It’s a tough patch to pull through, serving as the concluding chapter to one series and the jumping off point for another more highly regarded series. Star Wars pulled it off with Revenge of the Sith, albeit only because the preceding chapters (Episodes I and II) proved to be such letdowns. Here, Jackson and his co-conspirators/writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens continue to color outside the lines of source material held in an almost religious devotion by fans, forwarding the story of one invented character (Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel) and embellishing the involvement of Lord of the Rings fan favorites (Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel). By this go-round, we’re already over the fact that this prequel series never came close to equaling the first trilogy in terms of character development, powerful storytelling and pure dramatic punch. How could it? One slim book got ballooned into three epic movies as opposed to three epic books getting slimmed down into three movies. On the minus side, this go-round’s more about action than words. On the plus side, the battle scenes and heroic derring-do never disappoint. This goes double for the special effects, which somehow impossibly immerses you in the front line skirmishes of Middle Earth. Smartly, the action starts from the get-go and never lets up until the sentimental ending. More stream-lined and rousing than An Unexpected Journey but less entertaining and cerebral overall than The Desolation of Smaug, Battle of the Five Armies provides a fine enough keystone for bridging Peter Jackson’s Wonderful World of Tolkien.

 

The Pyramid
Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley
* — Dumb of the Dragon Emperor
A found footage thriller that should’ve stayed lost during the development stage of production, The Pyramid schemes moviegoers into more paranormal inactivity. In this R-rated horror flick, an archaeological team (Hinshaw, Buckley) attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. In regards to it being a faux documentary, they don’t even try. In one scene, all of the cameraman stand on a floor and suddenly there’s a POV from the ceiling. Funny, it doesn’t look like recently discovered footage from a documentary crew. It just looks like the cameramen have the shakes. Then, the camera turns on them … the only ones WITH bloody cameras. Yes, continuity ends up to be the scariest aggregate of The Pyramid. If only it happened faster. Even at a trim 90 minutes, the end of this horror-bull can’t come fast enough.

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
*** — Cecil B. De Meh
Though it doesn’t necessarily inspire an Exodus of angry moviegoers from theaters, director Ridley Scott’s impressive and grandiose staging of the story of Moses ultimately feels neither entirely Biblical nor epic. In this PG-13-rated historical epic from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus), defiant leader Moses (Bale) rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues. It’s not for lack of trying. Audiences haven’t seen specially constructed sets this big and sprawling and costumed extras this numerous since the last days of Studio System H’Wood, when seven companies pretty much ran the industry from soup to nuts in an almost factory setting. It’s this expertly mounted grandeur echoing the classic H’Wood scale — along with some decent acting — that keeps Gods and Kings in our good graces. The story, however, lumbers around like it’s lost amid the immensity of the buildings and sea of faces. Sure, it’s based on books of The Bible, but some creative liberties reduce the historic events to pure stock. Between sniveling villains and climatic showdowns, this overcooked script wants for more truthfulness.

 

Top Five
Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson
**** — Top Dawg
After years of failing to find a project that wasn’t beneath his prodigious talent or concocting a vehicle worthy of his razor sharp wit with his own hands, one of the greatest funnymen ever gives audiences a hilariously and heart breakingly true piece of the Rock. In this R-rated comedy from writer/director/star Chris Rock, a comedian (Rock) tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union) talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. Despite a brilliant stand up career that ranks among the Top Five best in comedy today, Rock hasn’t seen this success translate to screen whether he’s producing (Death at a Funeral), starring (Bad Company), writing (Head of State) or performing all-of-the-above (Down to Earth). Finally, Rock channels his amazingly funny stream of consciousness into the perfect outlet — a thinly veiled take on his own life. Taking laser-sited aim at everything from celebrity to the film business to reality TV the valleys of his own career to modern love in one tightly rolled joint, Top Five — in a comedian’s terminology – kills it. Oh, not every joke split your gut and there is a formulaic nature to the proceedings, but the characters speak with such refreshing honesty that all is forgiven. Plus, there’s a great twist and every true-working-blue comedian in a supporting role (Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove) delivers the goods pitch perfectly–the furthest thing from stunt casting. Also, Rock has never performed better in an acting role. Alongside the ridiculously great Dawson, however, how could he not? Lastly, Freddie Jackson’s silky smooth ’80s R&B ballad “You Are My Lady” gets used to brilliant comic effect, soundtracking one of the film’s many very real and very funny laugh-out-loud moments.

Screens: Dec. 18, 2014

Screens: Dec. 18, 2014

OPENING THIS WEEK


 
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan
In this PG-13-rated conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy saga, Bilbo (Freeman) and company (McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, et al) become embroiled in a war against an armed flock of combatants and the terrifying dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-Earth.
The Plus: The franchise. Okay, you’re over it. Quality-wise, The Hobbit trilogy can’t compare to the Lord of the Rings three-fer. Box office-wise, however, the series definitely proves a winner. Plus, Desolation of Smaug proved more entertaining than An Unexpected Journey. In wrapping up the franchise, producer/director/co-writer Peter Jackson welcomes a returning cast that includes Freeman (FX’s Fargo), McKellan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) Andy Serkis (the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens), Richard Armitage (Into the Storm), Evans (Dracula Untold), Bloom (The Three Musketeers), Evangeline Lily (Real Steel), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Christopher Lee (Dark Shadows), Hugo Weaving (Cloud Atlas) and Stephen Fry (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows).
The Minus: The truth. Uh, quality-wise, The Hobbit … hey, wait, where are you all going in record droves with money in hand?
 
EC18SCREENS_1_WEBAnnie
Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis
In this hip hop-infused PG-rated update of the Broadway musical, a hard-nosed tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Foxx) makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes in young, happy foster kid (Wallis) enduring a hard knock life with her foster mom, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz).
The Plus: The material. Already a hit many times over on Broadway and on big screen (1982) and small (Made-for-TV, 1999), this musical and its songbook (“Tomorrow,” “It’s a Hard-Knock Life”) have long proven to be hits with audiences. Here, Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits) directs Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Foxx (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Diaz (Sex Tape), Rose Byrne (Neighbors) and Bobby Cannavale (Chef).
The Minus: The material. Audiences fell in love with Charles Strouse (composer), Martin Charnin (lyricist) and Thomas Meehan’s (writer) 1977 version, not this contemporary version produced by Will Smith featuring with new songs from Jay-Z. Nothing against Hova, but what gives?
 
EC18SCREENS_3_WEBNight at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Ben Stiller, Robin Williams
In this PG-rated comedy adventure, nightwatchman Larry (Stiller) spans the globe while uniting favorite (Williams) and new characters (Stevens) while embarking on an epic quest to save the museum magic before it disappears forever.
The Plus: The series. Thus far, these movies proved very popular with moviegoing families, banking nearly a billion dollars worldwide. This third installment stars Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Dan Stevens (A Walk Among the Tombstones), Owen Wilson (Grand Budapest Hotel), Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect), Ben Kingsley (Hugo), Dick Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), Steve Coogan (Philomena), Ricky Gervais (Muppets Most Wanted) and the late great Williams (Old Dogs).
The Minus: The standard. The unfunny trailer features a monkey peeing on Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan … to the delight of no one. Does potty humor really equal successful family holiday film?
 
 

NOW PLAYING

 
EC18SCREENS_4_WEBExodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
*** — Cecil B. De Meh
Though it doesn’t necessarily inspire an Exodus of angry moviegoers from theaters, director Ridley Scott’s impressive and grandiose staging of the story of Moses ultimately feels neither entirely Biblical nor epic. In this PG-13-rated historical epic from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus), defiant leader Moses (Bale) rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues. It’s not for lack of trying. Audiences haven’t seen specially constructed sets this big and sprawling and costumed extras this numerous since the last days of Studio System H’Wood, when seven companies pretty much ran the industry from soup to nuts in an almost factory setting. It’s this expertly mounted grandeur echoing the classic H’Wood scale — along with some decent acting — that keeps Gods and Kings in our good graces. The story, however, lumbers around like it’s lost amid the immensity of the buildings and sea of faces. Sure, it’s based on books of The Bible, but some creative liberties reduce the historic events to pure stock. Between sniveling villains and climatic showdowns, this overcooked script wants for more truthfulness. Granted, some might scoff over the historical accuracy of The Bible, but there’s no discounting the lure of the narrative as it stands. Right in his wheelhouse, Ridley Scott delivers jaw-dropping recreations of ancient vistas. He’s done slave rebellion before (Gladiator) and religious persecution as well (Kingdom of Heaven), but Exodus takes the grandiosity up to whole other eye-popping level that we’ll probably never see again. His choice of actors proves impressive as well, even if their roles leave something to be desired. Joel Edgerton’s Pharaoh, for instance, seems to have crawled out of a children’s illustrated Bible story and not the pages of The Old Testament. Between missteps like this along with poor pacing, the dramatic punch never fully connects or comes close to channeling the powerful storytelling of the source material.
 
The Pyramid
Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley
* — Dumb of the Dragon Emperor
A found footage thriller that should’ve stayed lost during the development stage of production, The Pyramid schemes moviegoers into more paranormal inactivity. In this R-rated horror flick, an archaeological team (Hinshaw, Buckley) attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. In regards to it being a faux documentary, they don’t even try. In one scene, all of the cameraman stand on a floor and suddenly there’s a POV from the ceiling. Funny, it doesn’t look like recently discovered footage from a documentary crew. It just looks like the cameramen have the shakes. Then, the camera turns on them … the only ones WITH bloody cameras. Yes, continuity ends up to be the scariest aggregate of The Pyramid. If only it happened faster. Even at a trim 90 minutes, the end of this horror-bull can’t come fast enough.
 
 
EC18SCREENS_2_WEB

SMALL SCREENS


 
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill
* — The Farce Awakens
In the film industry, the word ‘miscalculation’ gets thrown around a lot when a production flops over questions ranging from tone, release date, casting, direction of the story, or target demographic. In the case of the horribly miscalculated Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, all of the above apply. In interviews, Star Wars creator George Lucas expressed a firm desire to destroy every remaining copy (and this from the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks in the interim). For one of countless reasons why, just look at the synopses: On their way to the Wookie’s home world of Kashyyyk for Life Day, Han Solo and Chewbacca face Imperial forces searching for members of the Rebel Alliance among Chewie’s family including father Itchy, wife Malia and son Lumpy. And this is just the flimsy wire holding the bizarre goings-on together. Bea Arthur runs a Tatooine nightclub, Art Carney plays a Rebel-friendly trader, Harvey Korman pops up in a series of thankless comic roles and Jefferson Starship deliver a rock performance via hologram. Nothing, however, prepares you for an elderly Wookie getting heated while watching a virtual Diahann Carroll. The only portion of true Star Wars importance remains the special’s animated adventure featuring Boba Fett. This marked the character’s actual introduction to pop culture until The Empire Strikes Back thankfully erased the history books two years later. Only broadcast once and never released on home video, the special is regardless readily available on the Internet and worth a glance if only to cement its place as one of TV’s Worst Moments. Here’s a warning, however: It’s so poorly designed and executed that it’s rarely even funny — just baffling and odd.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
In this PG-13-rated historical epic from director Ridley Scott (Prometheus), defiant leader Moses (Bale) rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues. The Plus: The players. The legendary Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) directs Bale (American Hustle), Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty), Ben Kingsley (Enders Game), Sigourney Weaver (Avatar), Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) and John Turturro (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) in a Biblical epic on the scale of a D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille motion picture. The Minus: The flotsam. Reportedly, Gods and Kings isn’t aiming for Biblical accuracy. The production also drew ire for casting white actors in non-white roles. Noah, another Biblical epic likewise checking off these boxes banked some healthy numbers, but ultimately underwhelmed both critics and filmgoers. Fox won’t release the Exodus budget figures, but just based on the star salaries, huge sets built and costuming 500-600 extras, the amount must be kingly or ungodly. Plus, a number of Scott’s recent flicks divided both critics and audiences (Robin Hood, Prometheus, The Counselor).

 

Top Five
Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson
In this R-rated comedy from writer/director/star Chris Rock, a comedian (Rock) tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union) talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. The Plus: The sale. Financed for $8 million, Top Five started a bidding war at the Toronto Film Festival and went on to sell for $12 million. Also, it’s chocked full of stars including Rock (Grown Ups 2), Dawson (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), Union (Think Like a Man Too), Adam Sandler (Blended), Kevin Hart (Ride Along), Whoopi Goldberg (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Jerry Seinfeld (the web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), Tracy Morgan (Rio 2), Cedric the Entertainer (Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted), J.B. Smoove (A Haunted House) and Romany Malco (Last Vegas). The Minus: The odds. Despite a brilliant stand up career that ranks among the Top Five best in comedy today, Rock hasn’t seen this success translate to screen whether he’s producing (Death at a Funeral), starring (Bad Company), writing (Head of State) or performing all-of-the-above (Down to Earth).

 

Now playing

The Pyramid
Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley
* — Dumb of the Dragon Emperor
A found footage thriller that should’ve stayed lost during the development stage of production, The Pyramid schemes moviegoers into more paranormal inactivity. In this R-rated horror flick, an archaeological team (Hinshaw, Buckley) attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. It’s not even scary, dammit. Worse, audiences just saw similar — and, sadly, more frightening — goings-on in As Above, So Below, a trashy scarer that suddenly seems as A-Level as The Exorcist following a viewing of this creaky feature. In regards to it being a faux documentary, they don’t even try. In one scene, all of the cameraman stand on a floor and suddenly there’s a POV from the ceiling. Funny, it doesn’t look like recently discovered footage from a documentary crew. It just looks like the cameramen have the shakes. Then, the camera turns on them … the only ones WITH bloody cameras. Yes, continuity ends up to be the scariest aggregate of The Pyramid … until CGI sphinxes get thrown into the mix, that is. These NES-quality pixelations convince no one that terror lurks in these cinematic catacombs. In fact, they invite many rounds of laughs instead. It truly becomes a pleasure watching these uninteresting characters get picked apart one by one. If only it happened faster. Even at a trim 90 minutes, the end of this horror-bull can’t come fast enough. In what’s perhaps the dumbest misstep of the movie, the producers cast a recognizable face in Denis O’Hare. Even though he doesn’t equal the familiarity of, say, George Clooney, you definitely know the face which takes you light years away from suspending any disbelief for this cheap piece of Barnum.

 

Beyond the Lights
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker
***1/2 — XO Factor
American idling just short of excellence, the sometimes predicable but oftentimes impressive Beyond the Lights gives a Voice to an Idol truly worth hearing. In this PG-13-rated romantic drama, the pressures of fame push superstar singer Noni (Mbatha-Raw) on the edge, until she meets Kaz (Parker), a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be. Oh, you’ve kinda sorta heard this tune before … albeit, like a tune stuck in your head that you just can’t quite place, by much different artists. Yes, moviegoers know where this mix-tape consisting of everything from The Bodyguard to Glitter is heading. The unique spin on the formula and performances prove so engaging, however, that you just don’t care. Everything, from the faux music videos to procedural police work to strong supporting players, feels so legitimate that we’re perfectly happy to get lulled into a trance by this hip hop-infused ballad. In making Gugu Mbatha-Raw the marquee player of Beyond the Lights, a star is born. Granted, she gives just as compelling and authentic a turn as an uncharacteristically black member of British aristocracy in Belle. Here, however, this hypnotically beautiful actress sings and talks such a brilliant game that you wonder how to possibly quantify such a ridiculously high level of talent into a quotient. Devious and alluring in the same breath, Minnie Driver earns the right to demand a supporting part in ANY flick she wants for the foreseeable future. Hats off to writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood for crafting such delicious roles for her and all involved.

 

Horrible Bosses 2
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis
** — 9 to Low 5
In serving the same Bosses with material that’s not nearly as strong, Horrible is the word for this redundant deuce. In this R-rated follow-up to the 2011 hit comedy, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) pull off an inept kidnapping scheme on the son (Chris Pine) of a slick investor (Christoph Waltz) who steals their business idea. Business gets conducted in relatively the same manner with three bickering, potty mouthed friends seeking vengeance on some double dealing executives … only this time, they zero in on the same executive … oh and they downgrade from murder to kidnapping. You see, Horrible Bosses succeeds because of its moxie. Put upon, low level wage slaves who turn to murder? It takes balls to pull off an unapologetically offensive comedy like that with raunchy laughs to spare. The only offensive aspect of Part 2 is its lack of originality and chutzpah.

 

Small Screens

Kids for Cash
Directed by Robert May
***1/2 – Children of a Lesser Judge
New to DVD, Blu Ray and downloading, this R-rated documentary looks behind the notorious judicial scandal that rocked the nation, exposing a shocking American secret where millions got paid and the justice system got waylaid. Ripped from the national headlines, this locally bred American Horror Story makes for a ridiculously engrossing documentary even though it leaves an ill feeling in the pit of your stomach by proxy. Sadly, the true events prove too unbelievable to be mistaken for a narrative film — despicably stranger than fiction. The fact that Pennsylvania’s justice system became a Draconian super villain to children would almost be deemed too melodramatic if sold as a drama. The staggering facts play out almost like a Dickensian tragedy, which makes this subject and its subjects well worth documenting. And aside from some stylistic gaffes, the documentation gets expertly presented. Robert May produced amazing films from both the narrative (The Station Agent) and documentary realm (The Fog of War). These experiences obviously provided a brilliant training ground for shooting hundreds of hours of interview footage, securing actual news coverage and compiling them both into an informational but digestible piece of pop culture. Of course, there are the missteps. To offset the monotonousness of watching endless interview footage, some devices start to lay this editorial voice on too thick. Also, the film leaves audiences with multiple codas, statistics well worth knowing … at first. Then, the information overload continues … ad nauseum. This statistical glut almost derails the whole experience.

Screens

Screens

Coming Soon

Wild
Reese Witherspoon, Gaby Hoffman
Think: Into the Wild with more estrogen. In this R-rated drama based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, director Jean Valee (The Dallas Buyers Club) chronicles a recovering addict’s (Witherspoon) 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from the recent death of her mother (Laura Dern). The Plus: The players. Reese Witherspoon already has a Best Actress Oscar for playing a real-life person in Walk the Line, but Valee just directed Matthew McConaughey AND Jared Leto to Oscar wins in Dallas Buyers Club. So far, her latest performance is garnering a June Carter Cash-level of awards buzz. Also, filmgoers will be hot to see Valee’s follow-up, which boasts an adaptation by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy). The Minus: The contention. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Birdman, The Theory of Everything, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a not-so-exclusive club.

 

The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
Think: Sherlock with decoder rings. In this PG-13-rated historical drama, English mathematician and logician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) helps to crack the Nazis nearly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II. The Plus: The accolades. Between playing the world’s greatest detective in the ridiculously well-written Sherlock on the BBC to voicing villainous dragon Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy, Benedict Cumberbatch is a hot property. Since launching at the 41st Telluride Film Festival in August, this British-American co-production keeps receiving reviews lauding its Oscar worthiness, especially for Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave), who leads an amazing cast that also includes Keira Knightley (Begin Again), Matthew Goode (Belle), Mark Strong (Before I Go to Sleep) and Charles Dance (HBOs Game of Thrones). The Minus: The contention. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher … oh, you get the point.

 

Now Playing

Horrible Bosses 2
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis
**— 9 to Low 5
In serving the same Bosses with material that’s not nearly as strong, Horrible is the word for this redundant deuce. In this R-rated follow-up to the 2011 hit comedy, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) pull off an inept kidnapping scheme on the son (Chris Pine) of a slick investor (Christoph Waltz) who steals their business idea. Business gets conducted in relatively the same manner with three bickering, potty mouthed friends seeking vengeance on some double dealing executives … only this time, they zero in on the same executive … oh and they downgrade from murder to kidnapping. You see, Horrible Bosses succeeds because of its moxie. Put upon low level wage slaves who turn to murder? It takes balls to pull off an unapologetically offensive comedy like that with raunchy laughs to spare. The only offensive aspect of Part 2 is its lack of originality and chutzpah. Unfortunately, this sequel sports the same basic premise and an R-rating, but the sophomoric humor just isn’t that funny. Like the painfully bad The Hangover Part II, the stars simply dial up their character’s comic traits for comic effect to cover for the lack of uniqueness. In other words, dry terminally sarcastic Bateman, goodtime doofus Sudeikis and explosively irascible and childlike Day turn their usual shtick up to an 11, which gets old really fast. Also, Kevin Spacey has no business being in this movie save for checking off a box called “gratuitous cameo.” His screen time moves the story forward in no way. Jaimie Foxx and Jennifer Aniston at least color in some sort of plot point. Colin Farrell proves the smartest Bosses alum, sitting out this unnecessary and oftentimes unfunny sequel. The captain must go down with this sinking ship, however. In replacing original director Seth Gordon and, along with his writing partner John Morris (the equally unfunny Sex Drive, She’s Out of My League, Dumb and Dumber To), replacing the original Bosses screenwriters, director/co-writer Sean Anders flubs this recycling job.

 

The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
****1/2 – A More Beautiful Mind
In trying to solve the remarkable equation behind the life and loves of Stephen Hawking, director James Marsh’s remarkable drama burns bright with a star-like intensity and brilliance not unlike the subject himself. In approaching such a monumental figure who’s still very much alive and active in his field, all involved thankfully focused on a particular bent: his marriage. Smartly, this PG-13-rated bio-pic looks at the relationship between the famous ALS-stricken physicist (Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane (Jones). Rather than present some fuzzy math in a whimsical manner like the flight of fanciful bio-pic A Beautiful Mind, Theory of Everything mostly grounds filmgoers in a home setting that points up the true wit and wisdom of this genius. Like that same Oscar winner, the direction proves polished but the story’s less mawkishly sentimental. Of course, some science works itself in but this film mainly tries figuring out the man’s human element. Marsh’s time traveling drama doesn’t always present smooth sailing, which is what makes it such a profound human viewing experience. In overcoming adversity and disability, he suffers, his wife suffers and his family suffers. The audience is just along for the ride, but the magnificently constructed trappings evoke some strong emotions be it laughing, crying or thinking. In adapting Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, screenwriter Anthony McCarten beautifully presents a well-rounded and tight digest of a life and mind truly worth celebrating. Without believable performances to root viewers, however, all of this would be for naught. Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Hawking defines “transformative.” To paraphrase Spencer Tracy, you never catch him acting, which makes his brilliant performance a lock for an Oscar nod and — hopefully — the prize itself. Likewise, Felicity Jones’s awe-striking turn pulls you into Jane’s world and holds you captive for a brief but altogether rewarding history of their romance.

 

The Penguins of Madagascar
***1/2 – Tux for All Occasions
Lean, loud and laugh-filled, this intentionally silly flightless water fowl-up fires at a fast, funny and unfuzzy clip. In this PG-rated animated spin-off of Madagascar, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) join forces with undercover organization The North Wind to stop a villainous doctor from destroying the world. In taking these Madagascar fan favorite supporting players and giving them a solo adventure, DreamWorks Animation gambles big with a popular cash cow franchise — and wins. Smartly forsaking sentimental syrupiness for wiseacre comedy team antics, this movie moves at a breakneck pace that keeps it from getting bogged down in a cartoon-killer called seriousness. Most flicks of this ilk wear their hearts on their sleeves, teaching the importance of family, friends and working together. Oh, Penguins doles out these One-to-Grow-Ons by proxy but never affects a professorial lecturing tone. Mostly, it just serves to zing and zip gags and one-liners at the audience. Granted, not all of the jokes hit a bullseye, but this spin-off surges ahead at such an accelerated pace that you don’t have time to notice. From writing to celebrity voices, DreamWorks Animation always assembles an impressive roster of talent and harmless madcap vehicle is no exception. This flick boasts the A-List pipes of Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock), John Malkovich (RED 2), Ken Jeong (The Hangover Part III) and Peter Stormare (NBC’s The Blacklist). More than just stunt casting, these actors legitimately bring the funny.

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
*** — Hungry Ayes
Mostly satisfying the Hunger of moviegoers despite keeping its head in the Games too long, Mockingjay, Part 1 nonetheless keeps the fires of excitement and contemplation burning toward the conclusion. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) works to save Peeta (Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends. Without question, many scenes in this third chapter thrill and engage to an amazing degree. These scenes also drag on too long, nearly losing their dramatic punch. The Hunger Games, however, had a good thing going, offering up a rare sequel that improved upon its forebear. The suspense as well as societal commentary and political intrigue continue to rouse, but the narrative had no business (beyond cashing in, at least) padding what should’ve been a taut driven storyline like the last go-round. There are long points where we just stare at Katniss for an uncomfortably long period.

 

 

Small Screens

Doctor Who — Series 8 (2014)
Peter Capaldi, Jenna-Louise Coleman
***1/2 – Time Heist
As a longtime viewer of the longest-running science fiction program in TV history, this critic has hitched many rides on the Tardis. The latest season equals something more Timey Wobbly than Timey Wimey to paraphrase an expression coined by the fans’ favorite take on the doctor, David Tennant. In this latest run of the legendary BBC series, however, Peter Capaldi makes his debut as the latest incarnation of the quirky Time Lord, who must embrace his latest form in order to conquer a sinister threat lurking in the background of events. If Series 8 doesn’t come close to attaining the rarefied quality previous doctor Matt Smith’s brilliant opening season (Series 5), it’s not due to the lead actor’s performance. Indeed, Capaldi’s bold, eccentric and often hilarious embrace of the ‘new’ character proves to be Series 8’s biggest selling point. Likewise, Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald — once a greatly underused and seemingly listless companion — finally gets her due with an arc that’s nearly as fascinating as the Doctor’s. The lack of quality comes down to writing. The gems (“Deep Breath,” “Listen”) and decent standalones (“Mummy on the Orient Express,” “Kill the Moon”) can’t outshine the absolute crud (“Robots of Sherwood”) in a season that’s mostly middle-of-the-road. Even the two-part finale (“Dark Water,” “Death in Heaven”), which is usually a crowd-pleaser, fails to arouse many cheers despite some rabble-rousing tweaks to the canon. As executive-producer and head writer Steven Moffat (Sherlock) heads into Series 9, his new direction for the program needs a course correction. There’s still a millennia of potential left for television’s greatest time traveler. We’ll keep the faith. After all, he also began this tenure with the wonderful Series 5.

 

 

 

Screens

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Horrible Bosses 2
Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis
Former child actor Jason Bateman knows horrible bosses. He cut his teeth in the H’Wood trenches (Little House: A New Beginning, Silver Spoons, The Hogan Family), but recaptured the industry’s attention and reignited his career by playing Michael Bluth on Fox’s irreverent sitcom Arrested Development (Season 5 of which has recently been confirmed by Netflix). After earning his stripes in raunchy comedies (Couples Retreat, Bad Words), Oscar-baiting fare (Juno, Up in the Air) and summer blockbusters alike (Hancock, The Kingdom), he’s earned himself a sequel. In this R-rated follow-up to the 2011 hit comedy, Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) pull off an inept kidnapping scheme after a slick investor (Christoph Waltz) steals their business idea. The Plus: The genre. When they connect, R-rated comedies ignite the box office (Neighbors, 22 Jump Street, Let’s Be Cops). Horrible Bosses grossed just less than $120 million in the U.S., making it a bona fide smash. Let’s face it, not everybody has kids and is looking for clean family fun come Thanksgiving, the one holiday when most people return home because of the long weekend. Here, writer-director Sean Anders (That’s My Boy) reunites cast members Bateman (This is Where I Leave You), Sudeikis (Fury), Day (FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Jennifer Aniston (We’re the Millers), Kevin Spacey (Netflix’s House of Cards) and Jamie Foxx (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) with newbies Waltz (Django Unchained), Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Keegan Michael Key (Comedy Central’s Key and Peele) and Jonathan Banks (AMC’s Breaking Bad). The Minus: The material. For the most part, critics didn’t hate Horrible Bosses. Sequels, however, rarely come close to equaling the quality of their forebear. Here Anders replaces original director Seth Gordon (the forthcoming video game adaptation Uncharted) and, with his writing partner John Morris (Sex Drive, She’s Out of My League, Dumb and Dumber To), replaces Bosses’ original screenwriters.

The Penguins of Madagascar
Voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller
In this PG-rated animated spin-off of Madagascar, Skipper (McGrath), Kowalski (Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights) join forces with undercover organization The North Wind to stop a villainous doctor from destroying the world. The Plus: The franchise. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted banked nearly $150 million in the U.S. From writing to celebrity voices, Dreamworks Animation always assembles an impressive roster of talent. This flick boasts the A-List pipes of Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock), John Malkovich (RED 2), Ken Jeong (The Hangover Part III) and Peter Stormare (NBC’s The Blacklist). The Minus: The odds. Dreamworks Animation isn’t exactly exempt from critical and audience rejection. In 2013, the title of Turbo proved rather appropriate at the box office when compared with expectations.

 

Now Playing

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
*** — Hungry Ayes
Mostly satisfying the Hunger of moviegoers despite keeping its head in the Games too long, Mockingjay Part 1 nonetheless keeps the fires of excitement and contemplation burning toward the conclusion. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) works to save Peeta (Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends. Without question, many scenes in this third chapter thrill and engage to an amazing degree. These scenes also drag on too long, nearly losing their dramatic punch. After Harry Potter successfully extended its ending chapter into two parts, it suddenly seemed en vogue to split your finale like aces. For that franchise, an impressive six above average episodes into the action by that time, the extension of Deathly Hallows paid off in spades, story wise and box office wise (plus, when you’re already capping it at seven chapters, is the audience really going to mind an eighth?). In regards to The Twilight Saga, the series’ material never proved very entertaining or thought-provoking so prolonging the brand hurt nothing in regards to quality because very little existed. The Hunger Games, however, had a good thing going, offering up a rare sequel that improved upon its forebear. Also, a trilogy provides a solid round three-act structure that’s perfect for storytelling. Instead, Mockingjay could’ve provided a last hurrah full of awe-striking bite and might … but it gets stretched to an almost uninteresting level like a once-edgy tattoo on a person quickly becoming obese. The suspense as well as societal commentary and political intrigue continue to rouse but the narrative had no business (beyond cashing in, at least) padding what should’ve been a taut driven storyline like the last go-round. There are long points where we just stare at Katniss for an uncomfortably long period. At least, Jennifer Lawrence shows up for a good fight, leading a charged cast all on their A-game. Their Part 1 is good but could’ve been great.

Whiplash
Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
**** — Ringo of Fire
Drumming up an exhilarating and emotional rollercoaster of a drama, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s blistering music-story plays so fast and furiously with the audience’s sympathies that whiplash nearly occurs. In this R-rated musical drama, a promising young drummer (Teller) enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where a driven instructor (Simmons) stops at nothing to realize the student’s potential. If the Great Santini taught at Fame, it might look a lot like this. What price, greatness? That’s a question that Whiplash nails down violently and profanely. On one hand, the teacher goes too far. On the other hand, the student gives a better performance. Anybody pushed by a mentor or who strives under their own worst critic — themselves — surely relates. It’s the authenticity of the acting and, by proxy, to the performance, instrument playing that really makes you consider this price, however. In an intentionally polarizing role that makes Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket come off like Pooh Bear, J.K. Simmons gives the greatest performance of his already great career and one of the best dramatic turns of the year. As a filmgoer, you bristle at his maniacal slave-driving. When hot-headed, blister-handed Miles Teller drums himself into a seemingly possessed absolute frenzy at the climax, however, you practically sweat and bleed along with him. Due every bit of recognition surely coming his way this awards season, this actor plays every note of Tim Simonec’s amazing, original jazz songbook. Yes, what results from their hard work truly makes you think … but you’ll be tapping your knee to keep time while the brain toils all the same. With such frenetic performances and an improvisational jazz influence, filmgoers might suspect that writer-director Damien Chazelle would mostly take a handheld approach. They’d be wrong. Using stead-cam to capture the on-screen madness only keeps the explosive goings-on that much MORE in focus.

Birdman
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton
****1/2 – Birdman Forever
Daringly taking filmgoers on an ambitious flight of fancy, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s brilliantly layered, acted and staged bit of fuss and feathers surges the boundaries of filmmaking and filmgoing forward. In this R-rated absurdist comedy, a washed-up actor known for playing an iconic superhero (Keaton) must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory. Birdman might serve up the existential crisis of a man who may or may not be suffering a breakdown, but the film fails to provoke an ounce of sadness. Pity’s another thing entirely. As funny as it is dazzling, the film keeps the audience amused as they unwittingly get whipped up into the director’s imaginative frenzy. Birdman effortlessly whisks you into its intoxicating insanity because the story feels so real, the performances so true and our own delicate bruised egos so exposed, just like characters themselves.

Dumb and Dumber To
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels
** — Dumbed Thumbs Down
Gagging moviegoers as it goes, second place sequel Dumb and Dumber To proves chock full o’ bits … for fans’ betterment and everybody else’s worsening. In this PG-13-rated comedy set 20 years after the dimwits bungled their way through their first adventure, simpletons Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) head out in search of the latter’s long lost daughter in the hopes of gaining a new kidney. This deuce impressively follows up its forebear with near-perfection, seamlessly cut from the same poo-stained cloth. If you like Dumb and Dumber, however, you’ll like this follow-up a lot … because it’s practically the same movie. For the rest of moviegoers, however, it’s the exact same yawn and dance recycled two decades later. Frustratingly, the Farrelly Brothers already floundered at making a Dumb and Dumber sequel with The Three Stooges. Think about it: through several connected comedy bits, some knockabout best friend lamebrains make a mockery out of the upper class and anything qualifying as “the establishment.” Harry and Lloyd are one Howard Brother short of being a classic comedy team … minus the classic comedy, of course.

 

 

Small screens

The Merv Griffin Show (1962-1986)
Merv Griffin, Jay Leno
***1/2 — Bain Glorious
Clocking in at 2520 minutes and 12 discs, this new super-deluxe Merv Griffin Show release can’t inspire a complete review … yet. Still, just perusing the highlights of these programs — some complete and some segments — shows off a wealth of nostalgic retro-cool glee. For the older set, this way-back machine offers conversational gems from some late greats (Salvador Dali, Bette Davis, Dr. Timothy Leary, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Warhol, Richard Pryor, Ingrid Bergman, Whitney Houston, George Carlin and Orson Welles, who died hours after his interview). For the younger set, however, this open time capsule offers an opportunity to hear the voice and watch the mannerisms of icons rarely seen or heard outside of history books (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Pres. Ronald Reagan and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy) as well as stars just getting their start (Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and George Clooney). Griffin may not have been as quick as Johnny Carson, as witty as Dick Cavett, as smart-alecky as Tom Snyder or as polished as Mike Douglas (indeed, his sometimes fumbling manner of interviewing can make you feel uncomfortable), but his couch boasted a lot of wisdom, talent and bon mots nonetheless.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) works to save Peeta (Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends. The Plus: The franchise. Here, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) directs returning stars like Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Hutchinson (Red Dawn), Liam Hemsworth (Rush), Woody Harrelson (HBO’s True Detective), Donald Sutherland (The Mechanic), Elizabeth Banks (Walk of Shame), Stanley Tucci (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Philip Seymour Hoffman (A Most Wanted Man), Jeffrey Wright (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Sam Clafin (The Quiet Ones) and Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as well as such new additions as Julianne Moore (Non-Stop) and Natalie Dormer (HBO’s Game of Thrones). The Minus: The split. Lionsgate decided to break the final Hunger Games book, Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, into two separate flicks. Tinkering with the formula that made the first two go-rounds so successful (the last chapter, Catching Fire, banked over $864 million worldwide) is a gamble, especially considering the total budget for both parts reportedly tops $250 million. Granted, splitting the finale didn’t hurt Harry Potter (The Deathly Hallows) or Twilight (Breaking Dawn), so expect some record-breaking numbers for this hotly anticipated sequel.

 

Foxcatcher
Steve Carell, Channing Tatum
Blame Step Up. Since hoofing it in that star-crossed dancers-in-love flick, Channing Tatums star has been on the rise mostly thanks to sitting out Step Up 2 through 5 (All In). Since banking two of the biggest hits of 2012 (The Vow, 21 Jump Street), however, Tatum’s star has continued to burn white hot (Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, White House Down, 22 Jump Street). In 2015, he’ll put another notch on his H’Wood belt with the sequel Magic Mike XXL before going on to play mutant hero Gambit in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse … after THIS much buzzed about drama, that is. In this R-rated drama based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler sponsored by millionaire John du Pont finds his life leading to unlikely circumstances. The Plus: The players. Here, director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) directs a cast that includes Carell (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Tatum (22 Jump Street), and Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again). The Minus: The odds. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Interstellar, Wild, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a not-so-exclusive club.

 

Now Playing

Dumb and Dumber To
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels
** — Dumbed Thumbs Down
Gagging moviegoers as it goes, second place sequel Dumb and Dumber To proves chock full o’ bits … for fans’ betterment and everybody else’s worsening. In this PG-13-rated comedy set 20 years after the dimwits bungled their way through their first adventure, simpletons Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) head out in search of the latter’s long lost daughter in the hopes of gaining a new kidney. Not surprisingly, this flick brings the dumbness. Surprisingly, it amounts to a few decent chuckles. Granted, it’s very few, but why split Harrys? This deuce impressively follows up its forebear with near-perfection, seamlessly cut from the same poo-stained cloth, which is its blessing and curse. The broken mold, 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, never induces the out and out hysterics of the writers’/directors’ masterpiece, There’s Something About Mary or even the knee-slapping gem in-between that and Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin. If you like Dumb and Dumber, however, you’ll like this follow-up a lot … because it’s practically the same movie. For the rest of moviegoers, however, it’s the exact same yawn and dance recycled two decades later. To cement the do-over status of the flick even more, the story even works in some favorite moments from the original (unsurprising spoilers: the dog car rolls again and Lloyd utters some choice catchphrases). Rinse. Repeat. Castaway prequel aside (Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd), the Farrelly Brothers frustratingly already floundered at making a Dumb and Dumber sequel with The Three Stooges. Think about it: through several connected comedy bits, some knockabout best friend lamebrains make a mockery out of the upper class and anything qualifying as “the establishment.” Harry and Lloyd are one Howard Brother short of being a classic comedy team … minus the classic comedy, of course. Appearances aside (Carrey looks 20 years dumber, er, younger while Daniels looks like an aging vaudevillian in need of hanging it up), the stars channel their inner stooge brilliantly. Still, what results ranks among the brothers’ other sophomoric, second rate, comedies as Stuck on You, Osmosis Jones, and even another ill-fated Jim Carrey-starring vehicle, Me, Myself, and Irene.

 

Birdman
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton
****1/2 — Birdman Forever
Daringly taking filmgoers on an ambitious flight of fancy, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s brilliantly layered, acted and staged bit of fuss and feathers surges the boundaries of filmmaking and filmgoing forward. In this R-rated absurdist comedy, a washed-up actor known for playing an iconic superhero (Keaton) must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory. As subtitles go, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance offers up a mouthful and mindful that’s definitely less playful than Dr. Strangelove’s How We Learned to Worrying and Love the Bomb. What results, however, proves nearly as ridiculous and engaging as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 comic masterpiece. Birdman might serve up the existential crisis of a man who may or may not be suffering a breakdown, but the film fails to provoke an ounce of sadness. Pity’s another thing entirely. As funny as it is dazzling, the film keeps the audience amused as they unwittingly get whipped up into the director’s imaginative frenzy. Birdman effortlessly whisks you into its intoxicating insanity because the story feels so real, the performances so true, and our own delicate bruised egos so exposed, just like characters themselves. Stretching his creative wings after the mosaic patchwork dramas 21 Grams and Babel, Inarritu keeps the action flowing seemingly as one long take. The camera follows the characters walking and talking before turning to catch the next scene already in progress. In what must have taken a mind-boggling amount of preparation, the technical aspects of Inarritu’s latest manner of filmmaking simply astound the viewer. Of course, it’s hard to gauge how remarkable this feat is when you’re marveling at the acting. Michael Keaton always demonstrates an innate gift for pulling off oft-kilter comedy, but his transformation here is absolutely hypnotic. He leads a brilliant cast likewise swept up into its exhilarating and bizarre ether.

 

Rosewater
Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia
***1/2 – Captive Audience Favorite
A timely tale of bravery bravely told, Rosewater’s stylish tics and unbreakable sense of humor smell sweet even while charting some familiar waters. In this R-rated true story, journalist Maziar Bahari (Bernal) gets detained by Iranian forces who brutally interrogate him under suspicion that he is a spy. The film presents a very modern story that needs to be told. Though it ultimately (and thankfully) sides with the western world perspective, Rosewater gives a liberal view of Iranian life, painting a broader sympathetic portrait of Middle Eastern life than such other modern Arabia-set takes as Argo. Still, if you’ve seen any wronged detainee film, be it anything from Papillon to Hurricane, the story starts to feel like déjà viewing during the second act. This is not meant to slight the perilous unique ordeal of Barhari. Keeping this jailed journalist story within the context of modern media victim (a jokey segment Bahari does for The Daily Show, for instance, cements his dubious guilt in the minds of his captors) keeps things fresh, as does the style. Still, the overall story rings reminiscent of many other films, intentionally or not. Like the daunted but positive hero at the story’s center, first time writer/director Jon Stewart flies in the face of authority. Oh, it’s not like we haven’t seen Twitter Tweets overlayed on buildings and over people in scenes of workaday life, imagined figures conversing with the main characters, and real news footage juxtaposed with our narrative, but he holds these tricks back until just the right moment, when they move the story forward and/or underlie a plot point that transitions to the next scene. Gael Garcia Bernal gives an achingly true performance, leading a magnificent cast reading from an ace adaptation of Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me.

 

Small Screens

Locke
Tom Hardy
**** — Bain Glorious
If last week’s painful-to-watch Hollywood Film Awards ceremony taught us anything, it’s that awards season is nearly upon us. It’s time to check out a contender that you may have missed: Locke. In this R-rated drama, a dedicated family man and successful construction manager (Tom Hardy) receives a phone call on the eve of the biggest challenge of his career that sets in motion a series of events that threaten his careful cultivated existence. Locked down in a simple premise that’s entrancingly driven home, Tom Hardy’s compelling latest pits a troubled family man, his BMW, his phone and a historic construction job as the most invigoratingly complex drama of the year. Admittedly, it’s a tough sell: One principled man drives and talks his way through personal and professional crises for a little under an hour and a half. What transpires, however, is a ridiculously suspenseful one-man show. There’s that cliché that claims you’d watch such-and-such actor read the phone book. Interestingly enough, we more or less get that scenario presented here. Hard sell, amazing payoff. Moving through his smart phone Rolodex in a high stakes game of attrition, Tom Hardy develops a character pretty much from a crouch. Writer/director Steven Wright pulls off an amazing hat trick, single handedly making fools out of anybody who adapts a play and makes it look stagey. This risk-taker sets every nail-biting moment of his drama in a car and the intensity never lets up.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Dumb and Dumber To
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels
Blame In Living Color. After breaking out on the Fox sketch comedy series with such roles as “Fire Marshall Bill” and “Vera de Milo,” seemingly rubber-faced comedian Jim Carrey launched a film career with back-to-back-to-back hits with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. Since then, he’s courted Oscar (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) while keeping his comedy freak flag flying (Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar, Yes Man). Lately, however, it’s been tough going for Carrey at the box office (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23, Mr. Popper’s Penguin) prompting a return to one of his earliest successes, Dumb and Dumber. In this PG-13-rated comedy set 20 years after the dimwits bungled their way through their first adventure, simpletons Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Daniels) head out in search of one of their long lost children in the hope of gaining a new kidney. The Plus: The dumbness. Certainly Carrey (Burt Wonderstone, Kick Ass 2) and Daniels (Looper, HBO’s Newsroom) defined themselves away from these characters, but the box office success and fan devotion to this kept bringing a follow-up back into production many times over since 1994. Even the critically despised prequel Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, which didn’t star Carrey or Daniels, made a modest profit. The Minus: The odds. Writers/directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly boasted a few successes (Fever Pitch, Hall Pass) since their heyday (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary), but their recent record remains spottier than a spotted owl (Me, Myself, & Irene, Osmosis Jones, Stuck on You). Getting the band back together after 20 years brings a great risk.

 

The Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones
This PG-13-rated bio-pic looks at the relationship between famous physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his wife, Jane (Jones). The Plus: The material. Since premiering at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, this adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen has generated a lot of critical praise, mostly for the acting. Here, director James Marsh (Man on Wire) directs a cast that includes Redmayne (Les Miserables), Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Charlie Cox (Netflix’s forthcoming Daredevil), Emily Watson (The Book Thief) and David Thewlis (War Horse). Already, the film has been bandied about as an Oscar contender. The Minus: The odds. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Wild, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a not-so-exclusive club.

 

 

Now Playing

Interstellar
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway
*** 1/2 — Almost Stellar
Putting forth pop science as pop science fiction, Christopher Nolan’s awe striking latest always fascinates and entertains even while it grows too big for its britches. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, a group of explorers (McConaughey, Hathaway, Wes Bentley) make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and find a new home for the human race. Like 2001 and Contact before it, this space adventure chooses metaphysics and the human factor over Buck Rogers in spinning its tale of mankind looking to the stars. Indeed, to stay timely, the film presents a global-warmed-over Earth that has descended into a worldwide dust bowl where 90 percent of the population farms to survive … only the crops are dying. Not only does an ex-astronaut race to the stars, the story races along with him. Sometimes, Interstellar feels like a full season of a pay cable TV series boiled down into one ultra expensive three-hour episode. The journey proves to be an extremely rousing and surprisingly cohesive trip, but the narrative rushes filmgoers along. Even with the long running time, a lot of story passes the audience by and, for better or worse, the science behind it gets compressed into an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). Still, with characters so intriguing and performances so engaging, Interstellar still rockets to near greatness. Ambitious, but strangely not sprawling, Nolan’s star trek serves up a big pill to swallow at a full sprint. As with every film on his CV, he streamlines this film to be realistic, thought-provoking and enjoyable. In the case of Interstellar, this process ends up to be a blessing and curse. It makes you think, yes. It also strives to be popcorn entertainment, which is why we get hurled along at seemingly infinite speeds toward a satisfying ending. This is not to say it’s a crowd pleaser — just pleasing. Following up his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey astonishes in a role that’s nearly as complex as the material. As a father driven to explore even while eaten by heartbreak for his children, the actor grounds this perpetual motion machine. What comes out of his mouth might sound like Wormholes for Dummies, but his heart — and that of the film — remains intact. Hans Zimmer’s powerful, haunting pipe organ-driven score likewise deserves notice. Also, an uncredited star in a supporting role nearly steals the show.

 

Big Hero 6
Voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit
***1/2 — Fox Force High Five
Enjoyable and imaginative beyond simple computation, Big Hero 6 powers up an original story and unique characters for moviegoers young and bold. In this PG-rated animated offering from Disney, plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax (Adsit) and robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (Potter) team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes. In the face of princess burnout and A-Grade competition from Pixar, Dreamworks and Fox Animation, Disney needs a Plan B. Here, we get a solid Plan B+ but with stipulations. While Big Hero 6 fails to birth the franchise potential of, say, the impossible-to-follow-up Frozen, this delightful flick emerges as a funtastic standalone experience. This doesn’t mean that the Mouse House won’t squeeze out sequels, just that Big Hero 6 neither deserves a series, nor does it deserve a tarnishing at the hands of increasingly poor codas. Each character comes across as fully formed and original but never achieves the standout megastar marketability of Disney’s fairy tales. True, following in the successful footsteps of The Incredibles and Megamind, the story seems all-too-familiar even with its own stylish tics. Also, the tech and technical jargon flies way above most children. Still, the movie offers a highly enjoyable, fast moving, witty ride that only needs to be boarded once.

 

Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo
**** — Fit to Print
Making his living on the evening news and giving us something we can definitely use, Jake Gyllenhaal gives his already edgy, thought-provoking, latest drama an extra lift thanks to a cagily can’t-miss performance. In this R-rated crime-thriller, a driven young man (Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon the dangerous underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism. In 1976, Network examined yellow journalism as a biting satire. Just over 10 years later, Broadcast News did the same, albeit more in the vein of a thinly-veiled romantic comedy. Nightcrawler follows this same cynical chestnut, the moral responsibility incumbent upon people operating under the auspice of freedom of the press, down the rabbit hole. What results is an at-times fascinating adrenaline-fueled take powered by a brilliant performance. His eyes bulging from analmost skeletal frame, Gyllenhaal gives a brilliantly manic turn as the titular graveyard shift sociopath with laser-sited focus. He’s still somehow exudes a charm and handsomeness which keep your eyes peeled to the screen. Of course, that’s the point. Like being an active voyeur to murders and war from the comfort of your easy chair, you can’t turn away.

 

Small screens

Batman: The Complete TV Series Blu Ray (1966-1969)
Adam West, Burt Ward
**** — Pow! Bam!
Any resemblance between this series and a punchline is purely intentional. Unlike the franchise-killing Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, which derailed Tim Burton’s stylish, dark, groundbreaking vision, all involved in the camptastic 60s network TV itineration of the Caped Crusader set out to produce something entirely tongue-in-cheeky. Any TV show that casts this iconic a shadow — one that Christopher Nolan’s legacy co-exists with but does NOT erase from the zeitgeist — deserves a watch if not just for nostalgia’s sake. Hell, even DC Comics recently began a series based solely on this bastion of high-camp, Batman 66. For the younger set, watching Adam West and Burt Ward deliver Airplane!-worthy dialogue completely straight-faced failed to trigger any trace of a sense of humor. Instead, the heroics got taken literally. It’s doubtful that today’s kids, growing up in the post 9/11, irony-filled, accelerated culture that they are, could do the same. In an age when the trippy, wit-infused derring-do of Adventure Time captivates their time, however, the all-ages humor of vintage pre-Dark Knight Batman should remain intact. Plus, the villains, each realized by a B-Level H’Wood star from that are, still emerge as the highlight. Indeed, film fans can gleefully spot cameos throughout the entire run of the program like an ornithology expert checks off birds while walking in the woods. Watching all 120 episodes on this new long overdue Blu Ray set flirts with tedium, but the extras bear some tasty low-hanging fruit.

Screens: Nov. 6, 2014

Screens: Nov. 6, 2014

OPENING THIS WEEK

Interstellar
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway
The first time that Christopher Nolan made a movie in-between Batmans (Batman Begins and Dark Knight, specifically), moviegoers got dueling magician thriller The Prestige with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Then, in-between The Dark Knight and his Batman trilogy closer, The Dark Knight Rises, the director made the fantastical heist caper Inception. With the caped crusader bowing in May’s Superman V. Batman: Dawn of Justice (of which Nolan is a producer), audiences will be hot to see what he’s cooked up in the meantime: Interstellar. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, a group of explorers (McConaughey, Hathaway, Wes Bentley) make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and find a new home for the human race.
The Plus: The player. Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) is the rare director rightly on the good graces of both moviegoers and critics. Here, he directs a, ahem, stellar cast that includes McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Hathaway (Les Miserables), Bentley (The Hunger Games), Jessica Chastain (Mama), Michael Caine (Now You See Me), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Casey Affleck (Out of the Furnace), John Lithgow (This is 40), Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day) and David Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ the Butler).
The Minus: The odds. Batman aside, a new Nolan release doesn’t necessarily ensure interstellar box office. The Prestige tapped out at $53 million at the U.S. box office … with a budget of $41 million, barely eking out a profit domestically. With a reported budget of $165 million, Interstellar will have to pull some Inception numbers (just south of $300 million domestically) to hit infinity and beyond.
 
 
EC06SCREENS_3_WEBBig Hero 6
Voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit
Standing in the shadow of a production house that it actually owns, Disney found itself competing against animation superstar Pixar for years, building on the modest success of The Princess Frog to the blockbuster success of Tangled. Then came Frozen, their biggest box office and marketing success of all time. Audiences are keen to put eyes on Disney’s follow-up, Big Hero 6. In this PG-rated animated offering from Disney, plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax (Adsit) and robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (Potter) team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes.
The Plus: The calendar. Time (Megamind) and time (Puss in Boots) and time (Wreck It Ralph) again, there has been a strong family ‘toon standing its ground against Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen at the Turkey Day box office. Last year, it was Frozen. Here, co-writer/directors Don Hall and Chris Williams direct a cast of voices that includes Jamie Chung (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), T.J. Miller (HBO’s Silicon Valley), Damon Wayans, Jr. (Let’s Be Cops), Maya Rudolph (Turbo) and James Cromwell (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire).
The Minus: The expectation. Frozen is a nearly impossible act to follow. Also, it’s not a given that families will show up, especially if the materials not strong (Free Birds and The Nut Job, we hardly knew ye). If critics diss on Disney’s latest, Big Hero 6 might quickly get Frozen out of theaters.
 
 

NOW PLAYING

Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo
**** — Fit to Print
In this R-rated crime-thriller, a driven young man (Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon the dangerous underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism. Making his living on the evening news and giving us something we can definitely use, Jake Gyllenhaal gives his already edgy, thought-provoking, latest drama an extra lift thanks to a cagily can’t-miss performance. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says Rene Russo in the trailer, repeating a newsroom cliché. This movie reviewer edited newscast scripts at CNN’s Washington, D.C. bureau, remembering well the giddy Christmas morning joy held by producers when calamities struck and celebrities croaked. They even charted this “success” with a banner sprawled across a sea of worker bee cubicle walls spanning the length of most of the entire floor of a metro high rise. The Gulf War charted highest. If it bleeds, it leads. Nightcrawler follows this same cynical chestnut, the moral responsibility incumbent upon people operating under the auspice of freedom of the press, down the rabbit hole. In 1976, Network examined it as a biting satire. Just over 10 years later, Broadcast News did the same, albeit more in the vein of a thinly-veiled romantic comedy. Both tackle the same issue, the same brought up when William Randolph Hearst reportedly cabled to photographer Frederic Remington in 1897, “You furnish us the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” But here we are, watching an at-times fascinating adrenaline-fueled take on this same talking point in 2014. For the most part, the photography and narrative electrify, as do the performances. Indeed, the City of Angels has rarely looked seedier and that’s a huge compliment. Like Gyllenhaal’s predatory videographer, you feel driven toward the chase and it’s an intoxicating ride, albeit not an entirely bumpy: Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s script cheaply offs a central character for the sake of hammering down the point. Sure, it drives home the moral ambiguity of this profession and us as purveyors all the more, but filmgoers were already clued into that nugget from the get-go. His eyes bulging from an almost skeletal frame, Gyllenhaal gives a brilliantly manic turn as the titular graveyard shift sociopath with laser-sited focus. He’s still somehow exudes a charm and handsomeness which keep your eyes peeled to the screen. Of course, that’s the point. Like being an active voyeur to murders and war from the comfort of your easy chair, you can’t turn away.
 
 
EC06SCREENS_1_WEBBefore I Go to Sleep
Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth
** — Dread Again
A cheap disposable Memento from a much better film, muddled mystery Before I Go to Sleep ultimately evokes more cries of “who cares?” than “who done it” from moviegoers. In this R-rated mystery, a woman (Kidman) who remembers nothing upon waking everyday as a result of a traumatic accident in her past, begins to question everyone around her when truths emerge. Yes, that old stale chestnut amnesia rears its achy head again. To what end, we’ll never know because the title to this coma-inducer comes off as a warning more than an alluring marketing siren’s call. Even in blatantly ripping off key plot points from one of the most dizzyingly brilliant puzzlers of the last 25 years (memories getting wiped clean come morning, photos used as puzzle pieces), this ploddingly boring flick fails to drum up either suspense or, frankly, interest in the characters. Unlike Memento, however, it plays out in a forward manner that’s not necessarily straight-forward. Our forgetful heroine proves unreliable which makes the narrative unreliable. This means that the audience puts together the puzzle piece by piece just as she’s figuring it out. Unfortunately, the end result packs little whammy — laughingly more of a gut bust than gut punch. Writer/director Rowan Joffe imbues the goings-on with great flourishes of style but just can’t get away from the clichés of this genre, amnesia highest among them. Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth give some great oftentimes emotional performances but the material never rises to meet their high mantle. Even at a usually-brisk 97 minutes, the muddy story manages to drag.
 
 
EC06SCREENS_5_WEBSt. Vincent
Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy
***1/2 – Earns His Stripes
Far from saintly but definitely worthy of your blessings, Bill Murray’s oftentimes hilarious latest succeeds chiefly thanks to the some ace performances. In this PG-13-rated comedy, a young boy whose parents have just divorced (Jaeden Lieberher) finds himself getting babysat by the bawdy, curmudgeonly war veteran who lives next door (Murray). We’ve seen this brand of deadpan sarcasm numerous times before in recent memory, served up light (Charlie’s Angels), dark (Rushmore) and really dark (Lost in Translation). Moreso, we’ve seen this situation before as well. After all, W.C. Fields made an entire career out of hating kids. Writer/director Theodore Melfi, however, manages to make the whole he-bang seem fresh again save for a few gripes. First of all, the Queens setting adds some local color into the mix, a defining trait that the titular character proudly wears like a medal. Secondly, the kid in question isn’t entirely cloying like so many Paper Moon faces before him. Of course, the overall story sometimes plays out predictably (life lessons get learned, unlikely friendships develop) and waxes too sentimental, but the movie earns points for not completely melting its killjoy’s icy veneer. As realized by Bill Murray, the irascible Vincent keeps you rooting for him even when he’s demoralizing those around him. Stone faced and nailing every nuance and line, the actor proves more than worthy of having roles written expressly for him again and again. Likewise, Melissa McCarthy, dialing down her usually over-the-top antics, gives a beautifully sympathetic turn as a mother struggling to keep it together. Naomi Watts, meanwhile, plays Vincent’s sometime girlfriend with an unnecessary and annoyingly flawed Russian accent. The bedlam Melfi presents with a PG-13 rating is commendable but he should have gone full R and made this saint a little more devilish.
 
 
EC06SCREENS_4_WEB

SMALL SCREENS

Quantum Leap — The Complete Series (1989-1994)
Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell
**** — Time Travelogue
96 episodes. 40 years. 5 seasons. 2 stars. 1 cult classic. Like Twilight Zone and Star Trek before it, Quantum Leap fell into a cult status … only, unlike those fantastical sci-fi gems which eventually spawned sequels, spin-offs and motion pictures, Quantum Leap was denied a follow-up chapter, but kinda sorta gets it’s due with a long overdue release of the entire NBC series. A guinea pig in his own awry government-funded time travel experiment, Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula) leaps within his own lifetime and occupies the bodies and lives of a myriad of personalities, aided only by his best friend via hologram (Stockwell). Like another time travel classic, Doctor Who, the show proved most interesting when playing with its only mythology (“A Leap for Lisa,” “Killing Time”) and developing the characters’ backstories (“M.I.A.,” “The Leap Home”). True, sometimes the program sermonized too much (“Liberation”), courted camp (“Blood Moon”), aped film plotlines a little too closely (“Color of Truth”) and shouldn’t have waited until its final season to introduce Sam into real historical figures (“Memphis Medley”), but the drama and laughs were genuine, as were the history lessons. Also, with its brilliant finale (“Mirror Image”), the show presented one of the greatest series closers of all time.

Screens

Screens

Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo
Jake Gyllenhaal first turned heads in the tender 60s drama October Sky and sophomoric comedy Bubble Boy, but the young actor looked destined to be forever associated with the title role in Richard Kelly’s trippy cult hit Donnie Darko in 2001. After establishing his star status with big budget extravaganzas for better (The Day After Tomorrow) and worse (Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time) as well as garnering an Oscar nomination for one particular critical favorite (Brokeback Mountain), however, he’s taken more artistic chances, mostly as offbeat characters in edgy crime thrillers (Zodiac, End of Watch, Prisoners). Nightcrawler, his latest crime thriller, perhaps showcases the actor in his most oft-kilter role yet. In the R-rated crime-thriller from, a driven young man (Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon the dangerous underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism. The Plus: The material. Here, writer/director Dan Gilroy (screenwriter, Freejack, The Bourne Legacy) directs a cast that includes Gyllenhaal (Love & Other Drugs), Russo (Thor: The Dark World) and Bill Paxton (Edge of Tomorrow). Based on early reviews, however, the screenplay is the thing. It seems that Gilroy’s dark violent though-provoker is an early favorite for awards season. The Minus: The odds. Lump this flick in with such other early contenders as Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Wild, Birdman, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes and Unbroken and you have yourself a crowded group.

 

Before I Go to Sleep
Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth
In this R-rated mystery, a woman (Kidman) who remembers nothing as a result of a traumatic accident in her past begins to question everyone around her when truths emerge. The Plus: The genre. Whether the reviews are good, bad or worse, some thrillers just have that head scratching knack for becoming hits (No Good Deed). The Minus: The odds. Rowan Joffe, a screenwriter known for one decent hit (28 Weeks Later) and one marginal effort (The American), made his directing debut with a 2010 remake of 1949 British Cinema classic Brighton Rock … to little aplomb. As for Nicole Kidman, remember Rabbit Hole, Stoker, The Paperboy or Grace of Monaco? Didn’t think so. Not only has her output been spotty as of late, but two of her 2011 performances (comedy Just Go with It and thriller Trespass) even garnered several Razzie Awards, which “honors” the worst offerings in cinema.

 

Ouija
Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto
*1/2 — Bored Games
Playing with the dark forces with such formulaic redundancy that they pretty much become dark farces, horrid horror movie Ouija follows Battleship into the abyss of poor board game movie adaptations. In this PG-13-rated horror flick, a group of friends (Cooke, Coto, et al) confront their most terrifying fears when an innocent game awakens the dark powers of an ancient spirit board. Well, here we groan again. Pretty young things get dead, like, bad. And, if we hadn’t seen these trappings so many times before in better thrillers, the unique supernatural plaything twist might’ve provoked some new thrills. Instead, it plays out as predictably as a Little Golden Book. Once the game offs one of the childhood group who innocently played Ouija as kids, the now-teenage players reunite for — wait for it — one more game. They act like it’s a way to help them grieve, but the goings-on meet such predictable ends that you wonder how these pretty libel liars walked into this scenario having watched so many similar set-ups on-screen. Granted, they set up their own closed-mouth ghost story, but its derivative stuff. Honestly, the two minutes of screen time dedicated to a Ouija board in The Exorcist generates more legitimate jumps and screams than the entire 90-minute running time of this flick. Emerging as a standout from the decent scarer The Quiet Ones, Olivia Cooke’s performance remains serviceable even if the dialogue comes off as pure stock. The rest of the cast can’t act their way out of a paper bag, which the mostly recycled script seems to have been written on. As for first time feature director Stiles White. Most of the actual thrills come from people walking in on the POV unexpectedly. This doesn’t count as horror; it simply counts as bad timing.

 

John Wick
**** — Apex Reloaded
Brilliantly burning at a fast clip toward excellence, John Wick lights a ridiculously exciting fire under the action genre. In this bloody R-rated actioner, an ex-hitman (Reeves) comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him. Remember the Christmas morning level of excitement building toward the sequel to the techno-charged adrenaline rush known as The Matrix? Yeah, that deuce never fully delivered. It’s star’s latest, however, fulfills the kickass promise of that moment in spades. Boasting swivel-armed battle-grip fighting, quick fingered gunplay and a loaded chamber of wit to a nearly perfect degree, this flick takes the well-worn revenge thriller and turns it on its cauliflower ear. It puts forth a purposely streamlined simple story and turns it into a locomotive payback thriller of the highest order. It’s the intricacies that make this flick so exciting. Shaded (and the movie is not so much black and white, but colorless) with a great degree of vision and wit, the story unfolds in a slow progression of precise detail, then unleashes in a double barrel fury of Hong Kong ballistics. An original spin on the retired-killer-works-one more-job angle, this far-from-average John pits the hit man culture in a unique Gentleman’s Game society that converges as a hotel-cum-nightclub. Someone breaks the rules, of course, but a lightbulb has already appeared above the heads of weary action fans. Lighting struck. Moreso, fists and bullets fly and land in nearly all of the right places. Of course, because it follows a traditional action storyline, there are some all-too-familiar beats amid the fresh bedlam. The fact that this John-on-the-spot purposely means to build the better actioner out of there same rusty pieces can’t totally forgive all of the formulaic moments. Like a misfiring handgun that’s stripped down, cleaned and rebuilt for precision, however, the sportsmanship feels fun and new again. Even as Neo, the reluctant hero of The Matrix’s virtual reality, Keanu Reeves never wowed with his acting so much as with his martial artistry and wirework. Here, however, he keeps emotion restrained in a clenched fist until just the right incendiary moment in his best performance yet. Reeves’ former stuntman Chad Stahelski deserves most of the credit though. All of those years taking bodily abuse were good for more than a paycheck. This laser-sited Hal Needham obviously took notes, doling out a slick, vervy, original shoot-‘em-up for the ages.

 

Fury
**** — Glorious Bastards
Gutsy, gritty and grippingly gun-toting, Fury powers forward at a rousing and realistic clip that won’t win it any Oscars but will accumulate many audience accolades. In this R-rated war drama set in 1945, a battle-hardened army sergeant (Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew (LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines during the Allies’ final into Germany. The World War II period details ring harrowingly true. This is not just a nod to the brain-splattering fighting but to the Sherman-borne camaraderie as well. Yes, Fury is a buddy flick. In fact, it’s a very solid buddy flick. Believable and brutal (in the case of the embattled situation presented, these ‘B’s’ must go hand and hand), these relationships truly ground you when the spit starts to fly … and it flies from the get-go. True, it becomes sentimental at some predicated points, but that’s why it’s a rewarding but violent history lesson and not a guaranteed award designee.

 

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — Abbott & Costello

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948 (**** — Meet Cute): Reuniting the Universal Monsters to brilliant comic effect, Abbott & Costello saved the studio and cemented their appeal beyond simply being the team behind the classic routine “Who’s on First?” This success comes, of course, at a price. This motion picture also signaled the peak of their slapstick period where once the vaudeville-turned-radio stars used to be known for their once-genius back-and-forths. Thankfully, their awesome 1952-53 TV series restored this cerebral sparring, but Frankenstein emerges as a high point all of its own. It shouldn’t have worked. The biggest comedy team in film sharing the title with the classic creature features that established Universal Studio? Bonkers…until it strangely worked. Sure, director James White dealt horror AND humor as a winning hand with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, but this juvenile 1948 vehicle got played chiefly for laughs. Energetic and entertaining, the spoof is neither as funny nor as thrilling as it needs to be. Still, this is a freewheeling and fun forebearer to all of the classic horror comedies to follow (Fearless Vampire Killers, Evil Dead II, Gremlins, Zombieland and TV’s Buffy the Vampire Killer).

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man, 1951 (*** — H.G. Well Done): The best of Abbott & Costello’s follow-ups to meeting Frankenstein and way superior to most of the Invisible Man sequels, Meet the Invisible Man actually boasts the most laugh-out-loud moments from their monster team-ups. Oh, like the film before it, the story and action play out at an almost childlike level. Still, the boxing match alone demonstrated the high points of each franchise: great special effects and hilarious visual gags.

Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy, 1955 (** — Mummy Merest): Repetitive more than rascally, Meet the Mummy sadly captures the classic comedy team near the end of their long road toward breaking up. Funny enough, they re-ignited interest in the classic Universal monster franchises even while they were losing popularity. Not only was their brand of humor going out of style, but they show pretty much zero interest in performing their craft well. Throughout the film, the Mummy actually shows more energy than this once-great duo. He even gets the most laughs with a bandaged outfit that looks less convincing than those worn by most pint sized trick or treaters.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

 

Ouija
Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto
For the better part of the last decade, when Halloween rolled around, moviegoers were tricked or treated into seeing one of two franchises: Saw or Paranormal Activity. With Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension relegated to March 2015, however, the pressure now falls on Saw to regain All Hallow’s Eve. Well, horror fans’ scares, er, prayers, might just get answered. According to film website Schmoes Know, while speaking at Ithaca College recently, co-producer Daniel J. Heffner reportedly confirmed that a script for Saw VIII is being developed. Until then, audiences have Ouija. In this PG-13-rated horror flick, a group of friends (Cooke, Coto, et al) confront their most terrifying fears when an innocent game awakens the dark powers of an ancient spirit board. The Plus: The genre. Horror flicks have a knack for becoming surprise hits. Last year, The Conjuring scared up over $318 million worldwide and its just-released prequel, Annabelle, is doing quite well. The Minus: The gamble. Stiles White, a veteran special effects production coordinator, is making his directorial debut with a cast of relative unknowns. Thankfully, the flick’s reported budget of $5 million shouldn’t be too hard to make back, but the spectre of failed board game-themed flicks like Jumanji and Battleship casts a deathly pallor at the box office.

 

Now Playing

The Judge
Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall
*** — Tinder Mercies
Sentencing audiences to a mawkish color-by-numbers crowd pleaser, The Judge thoughtlessly entertains more than thought-provokingly engages filmgoers. In this R-rated drama, a Chicago lawyer (Downey) returns to his childhood home where his father (Duvall), the town’s judge, is being tried for murder. Granted, it ends in a hung jury. Oh, there’s no shot at award nominations for this Easy Bake feelgood drama, but the pure acting caliber of all involved raise the bar even if the screenwritten legalese wouldn’t pass the bar. As if on cue (and its all head shakingly cued up like a well-oiled trick pool shot), the script hits every predictable beat possible with this, a homecoming legal melodrama too predicated to ever ring true. There’s enough charm, however, to keep you mildly invested in the all-too-familiar goings-on. Seriously, if you’ve seen a film where a cocky big city professional returns to his quaint hometown and learns what’s truly important in life, you’ve seen MOST of The Judge. The familial twist to the legal angle sets the flick apart, but even the courtroom action seems recycled. Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall lead a cast that fires on all cylinders, but their talents are clearly better than the material provided them, which seems better suited as the set-up for the first season of a folksy USA series. Hell, if Tony Stark and Tom Hagen put on dresses, they could even aim for Lifetime. Aside from Clay Pigeons, director David Dobkin is mostly known for comedies and even his success rate with that genre remains spotty (Fred Claus, The Change-Up). Here, he gives the drama the same polished warm and fuzzy sheen afforded his biggest comedic hit, The Wedding Crashers. Perhaps, this wasn’t the best tonal approach for a drama that’s trying to be hard hitting, not fun-loving.

 

Fury
Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf
**** — Glorious Bastards
Gutsy, gritty and grippingly gun-toting, Fury powers forward at a rousing and realistic clip that won’t win it any Oscars, but will accumulate many audience accolades. In this R-rated war drama set in 1945, a battle-hardened army sergeant (Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew (LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines during the Allies’ final surge into Germany. The World War II period details ring harrowingly true. This is not just a nod to the brain-splattering fighting, but to the Sherman-borne camaraderie as well. Yes, Fury is a buddy flick. In fact, it’s a very solid buddy flick. Believable and brutal (in the case of the embattled situation presented, these B’s must go hand and hand), these relationships truly ground you when the spit starts to fly … and it flies from the get-go. We follow the plight of a weak-kneed young raw recruit who knows he’s in way over his head. Despite using this very familiar war POV, however, Fury easily conscripts filmgoers into its war-is-hell trek through enemy lines. The better-than-average dialogue helps (“All you understand is the fist and the boot.”), but it’s the sincerity of the narrative that drives us onward. True, it becomes sentimental at some predicated points, but that’s why it’s a rewarding but violent history lesson and not a guaranteed award designee. Fury has flaws but is far from being furiously flawed. David Ayer’s ace directorial work on End of Watch served him well on this blistering war picture. Considering his work as the skipper and screenwriter, this is fantastic feat indeed. Oh, it’s not trying to be a faux documentary by any stretch but the fly-on-the-wall grit and attention to detail gives amazing traction. Brad Pitt leads a ridiculously on-their-game cast that color in some very distinctive characters. Pitt may’ve led the excellent ensemble in Inglourious Basterds, but his screen time here truly earns him captain’s stripes.

 

Dracula Untold
Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper
**1/2 — Dracula Undone
Blander as opposed to bolder, the skinteenth telling of Bram Stoker’s vampire tale approaches the character from a unique angle but ultimately shows very little bite elsewhere when it comes to originality. In this PG-13-rated thriller, besieged ruler Vlad the Impaler (Evans) looks to make a deal with dangerous supernatural forces with the stipulation that he not succumb to the darkness himself. Sure, the author based the title character on aspects (true or not) surrounding the legend of this Transylvanian ruler. Borrowing just as liberally from Francis Ford Coppola as Bram Stoker, this Untold chapter outright steals costume and production design from the director’s stylish 1992 re-telling of the literary classic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So it falls upon Dracula Untold to boast some edge and style of its own. Sadly, this comes in the form of stale sounding dialogue, formulaic plotting and rehashed SFX from better flicks.

 

Gone Girl
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
***1/2 — Gone Shady Gone
Smartly playing filmgoers like a tightly strung violin up until the divisive ending, Gone Girl provides audiences with a scrupulously plotted puzzler that’s as thrilling as it ultimately is depressing. In this R-rated mystery, a husband (Affleck) sees the media circus spotlight shift to him when it’s suspected that he might be a player in his wife’s (Pike) disappearance. Director David Fincher knows how to frame a thrilling who-done-it, building suspense in slow burn reveals through steady tracking shots and tight editing. Here, however, he relies strictly on these substantive devices without the stylistic tics evident in his other dark mysteries, Se7en and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In adapting her bestselling novel, Gillian Flynn retains some intriguingly complex characters while maintaining the narrative tension. Thankfully, Fincher chose two brilliant actors to realize her flawed, unreliable and, at times, highly unlikeable characters. The end of the novel takes a definite stand; the end of the film leaves it up to the audience. It’s a smart choice but doesn’t make the conclusion any less of a bummer.

 

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man, 1933
(****1/2 – Full Transparency)
Boasting awe-striking special effects that still seem remarkably trailblazing even today,  landmark sci-fi adaptation The Invisible Man keeps the wit and thrills fresh 70 years on. Science can’t explain the film’s seemingly timeless hold on audiences. Film criticism can, however and it comes down to proven visionary director James Whale and the debut of stage actor Claude Rains. Just a year before, Whale gave audiences a stylish, unqualified classic with Frankenstein, demonstrating a knack for combining humor and horror in a complementary manner that only heightens both. In fact, The Invisible Man at times feels like a folksy English comedy with some frightening moments thrown in. Whatever the approach, it succeeds brilliantly. The only reason the film gets thrown into the horror ring is the title character’s descent into murderous madness even if the rest remains strictly science fiction. Thankfully, Rains pulls it off in spades without ever fully physically appearing save for one scene. Broadway honed his voice well, which bodes well for his run through this maddening gauntlet.

The Invisible Man Returns, 1940
(*** — See Through Mire)
A highly (special) effective sequel that smartly makes the main character more sympathetic, this Return to the series works even when the acting’s wonky. Part Two boasts an early starring turn by Vincent Price … although ‘boasts’ is probably the wrong word. In realizing a wrongly imprisoned man using the invisibility serum in trying to clear his name, the actor often goes too arch as the character’s madness sets in.Still, the SFX team step up their game from the first film and offer some truly thrilling moments.

The Invisible Woman, 1940
(*1/2 — Hollow Mange)
Unsuccessfully working off of just the comedy end of Whale’s successful horror-comedy quotient, The Invisible Woman makes a mockery of H.G. Wells’ source material and the superior films that came before it. Played for laughs that never come, the story of a model volunteering for a test-run of an invisibility machine creates science friction for all involved, which sadly includes John Barrymore and Peter Lorre in thankless roles.

The Invisible Agent, 1942
(**1/2 — Spy Gamey)
Tailoring the series for the war effort, the occasionally entertaining The Invisible Agent does little for morale, but winningly keeps the SFX at the forefront. Aping Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator) and The Three Stooges (You Nazty Spy!, I’ll Never Heil Again) in making the Third Reich out to be a buffoonish laughingstock, this harmless film keeps the tone light even when it’s trying to be serious.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge, 1944
(** — Jeered Science)
At this point, the special effects are the star as the franchise scrapes the bottom of the invisible barrel. At this late point, the suspense is negligible, as is the story.

Screens: Oct. 9, 2014

Screens: Oct. 9, 2014

Opening this Week

 
The Judge
Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall
Following the blockbuster success of Iron Man 3 in 2013, Marvel Studios announced that Robert Downey, Jr. officially signed on to return as superhero Tony Stark in The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015) and The Avengers 3 (TBA). Iron Man 4, however, still remains off of his to-do list. Until he (hopefully) signs on the dotted line, audiences can get their Downey fix in The Judge. In this R-rated drama, a big city lawyer (Downey) returns to his childhood home where his father (Duvall), the town’s judge, is being tried for murder.
The Plus: The players. Here, David Dobkin (Clay Pigeons, The Wedding Crashers) directs Downey (The Avengers), Duvall (Crazy Heart, Jack Reacher), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, AMC’s Bates Motel), Billy Bob Thorton (Faster, FX’s Fargo), Dax Shepard (This is Where I Leave You, NBC’s Parenthood) and Leighton Meester (That’s My Boy, The CW’s Gossip Girl).
The Minus: The odds. Downey’s last hard-hitting supposedly Oscar-baiting dramas wowed neither critics nor filmgoers (The Soloist). Also, aside from Clay Pigeons, Dobkin is mostly known for comedies and even his success rate with that genre remains spotty (Fred Claus, The Change-Up).
 
EC09SCREENS_4_WEBDracula Untold
Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper
In this PG-13-rated thriller, besieged ruler Vlad Tepes (Evans) looks to make a deal with dangerous supernatural forces with the stipulation that he not succumb to the darkness himself.
The Plus: The genre. Horror flicks have a knack for becoming surprise hits. Last year, The Conjuring scared up over $318 million worldwide and its just-released prequel, Annabelle, looks set to do quite well. Gary Shore, in his feature debut, directs Evans (Fast & Furious 6, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Cooper (Captain America: The First Avenger, Need for Speed).
The Minus: The gamble. Gambling a reported $100 million budget on an unproven director is risky. With horror flick with Annabelle still in release and Ouija hot on its heels, Dracula Untold needs a lot of opening weekend bite to stay undead.
 
 
EC09SCREENS_3_WEB

Now Playing

 
Gone Girl
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
***1/2 — Gone Shady Gone
Smartly playing filmgoers like a tightly strung violin up until the dissatisfying ending, Gone Girl provides audiences with a scrupulously plotted puzzler that’s as thrilling as it ultimately is depressing. In this R-rated mystery, a husband (Affleck) sees the media circus spotlight shift to him when it’s suspected that he might be a player in his wife’s (Pike) disappearance. Oh, we’re chess pieces … pieces in a intricate game planned from the outset by two master players. Director David Fincher knows how to frame a thrilling who-done-it, building suspense in slow-burn reveals through steady tracking shots and tight editing. Here, however, he relies strictly on these substantive devices without the stylistic tics evident in his other dark mysteries, Se7en and The Girl on the Dragon Tattoo. As always, his film boasts some downright amazing photography. Teetering between a romantic shadowy glow and sobering white light, Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography beautifully betrays a contrast between the loving and loathing days of a marriage gone wrong. It comes down to story. In adapting her own bestselling novel, Gillian Flynn retains some intriguingly complex characters while maintaining the narrative tension. Thankfully, Fincher chose two brilliant actors in Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike to realize her flawed, unreliable and, at times, highly unlikeable characters. Then, there’s supporting players Neil Patrick Harris, Casey Wilson and Tyler Perry. Sure it’s stunt casting … but its really great stunt casting that informs the story’s dark corners. If only all of these great choices amounted to more reward than remorse. The end of the novel takes a definite stand; the end of the film leaves it up to the audience. It’s a smart choice, but doesn’t make the conclusion any less of a bummer.
 
The Equalizer
Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas
***1/2 — Training Melee
In stripping down an 80s TV crime drama and rebuilding it as a vehicle for ever-reliable tough guy Denzel Washington, 2014’s Equalizer succeeds mostly on the strength of its leading man but boasts more than a few white knuckle moments on its own slick merits. In this R-rated crime-thriller based on the 1980s CBS TV series, a mysterious man (Washington) armed with dangerous skills comes out of his self-imposed retirement when a young call girl (Chloe Grace-Moretz) comes under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters (Csokas, et al). Of course, this update shares some DNA with the original. Like the Edward Woodward version, Washington plays a former intelligence operative with a secret past who uses whatever’s on-hand to brutally take down oppressors of the weak. Sadly, some of these pathetic victims happen to work alongside our anti-hero at a Home Depot-esque super-store. It’s not enough that we watch them become easy prey, but we have to get sucked into their sadsack lives as well, which just kills the tone and adds unnecessary padding onto what could’ve been a tauter killing machine.
 
IMG_8783.dngThis is Where I Leave You
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey
*** — The Big Chill Pill
In presenting the umpteenth tale of a homecoming rife with relative dysfunction in umpteen years, This is Where I Leave You paints an interesting family portrait but brings nothing new to the table save for a few keen performances and very little umpt, er, oomph. In this R-rated comedy, four grown siblings (Bateman, Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stall) return to their childhood home for their father’s funeral, forced to live under the same roof with their over-sharing mother (Jane Fonda) and ne’er-do-wells. The Family Stone. Death at a Funeral. Home for the Holidays. Four Christmases. At least this movie has the decency to take place away from the holidays. Oh, there are quirky characters, situations and revelations aplenty but the narrative struggles to feel unique in the undertow of numerous other such stories without the benefit of much verve to distinguish it. Instead, it’s just another broad pratfall-laden helping of fubar family matters. Director Shawn Levy handles the overstated family friendly comedy of The Pink Panther reboot and the Night at the Museum flicks exceedingly well but fails to apply a defter touch in relation to the adult material here.
 
 
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Small Screens

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — The Wolf Man
 
Werewolf of London, 1935, ***1/2 — Tooth and Awe
Showing a lot of suspenseful bite, H’Wood’s first mainstream werewolf movie plays out more like a lycan Jekyll and Hyde than the iconic reboot that was to follow. True, it leans a little too closely to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic split personality tome, but evinces an entertaining bite all of its own. Bafflingly, the film never caught fire on either side of the Atlantic. Stuart Walker’s (1934’s Great Expectations) direction proves atmospheric enough and the cast delivers beautifully. While title character Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is never as sympathetic as The Wolf Man’s Larry Talbot, his plight nonetheless keeps horror fans’ fur flying.
 
The Wolf Man, 1941, ****1/2 — King of the Beasts
An expertly told monster story, The Wolf Man might not boast the most complex storytelling, but it nonetheless claws itself to top of the Universal horror stable through pure entertainment value. So long associated with the many monstrous roles he continued playing (he later realized Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy on-screen as well), Lon Chaney, Jr. deserves great acclaim far outside of the shadow of his more-famous silent screen icon father (1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera). Afterall, he rightly garnered great critical acclaim for playing Lenny in 1939’s Of Mice and Men two full years before donning Jack Pierce’s legendary hirsute yak hair make-up. Under the handsome direction of George Waggner, you truly feel sorry for his tragic once-bitten full moon conundrum. Much credit belongs to screenwriter Curt Siodmak, however, who single-handedly invented most of the werewolf lycanthropy himself, coloring outside the lines of the legend. Twilight and so many other wolf tales owe his legacy a fat royalty check.
 
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, 1943, *** — Fast and Furry-ous
The first and best of the monster mash-ups, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man boasts Bela Lugosi in his only turn as the monster made famous by his professional nemesis Boris Karloff. Sporting the best bad B-Movie monster movie title until Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula came along, the film puts nearly impossibly tasked screenwriter Curt Siodmak through the paces of pitting two legendary characters together in a somewhat believable manner in an unbelievable world of gods and monsters. As a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, the results remain dodgy. As a battle royale with cheese, however, the far-from-dusty dust-ups always equal fun.
 
She-Wolf of London, 1946, ** — Hot Hairy Mess
Honestly, the bland recycled title says it all about this cast-off that’s more melodrama than horror flick. The one true hairball in the franchise, She-Wolf of London is only worth watching to see young June Lockhart in the title role before she went on to play the mother in both Lassie and Lost in Space. Otherwise, the Warren Zevon song “Werewolves of London” sadly offers more scares than this final serious bark at the moon for Universal.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

Gone Girl
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
Actor Ben Affleck already had an Oscar for screenwriting Good Will Hunting when he stepped behind the camera for two critically acclaimed Boston-set crime-thrillers based on Dennis Lehane books, Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Then came Argo, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Screenwriting (Chris Terrio) and Editing (William Goldenberg). So what could possibly lead Affeck in front of the camera for another director? Playing the Dark Knight in 2016’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice … after working with David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) on Gone Girl, that is. In this R-rated mystery based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, a husband (Affleck) sees the media circus spotlight shift to him when it’s suspected that he might be a player in his wife’s (Pike) disappearance. The Plus: The players. Here, Flynn adapts her novel for Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who’s directing Affleck (Runner Runner), Pike (Jack Reacher), Neil Patrick Harris (A Million Ways to Die in the West), Tyler Perry (Cross), Scoot McNairy (The Rover), Casey Wilson (NBC’s Marry Me), Patrick Fugit (We Bought a Zoo), Sela Ward (Fox’s House) and Missi Pyle (The Artist). The Minus: The gossip. Flynn reportedly tinkered with her own twist, throwing the novel’s ardent fan base into an absolute tizzy. Also, Fincher’s last thriller adaptation, Dragon Tattoo, banked some decent box office, but still fell way below expectations. With a reported budget of $50 million, this Girl has a lot to prove.

 

Annabelle
Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis
In this R-rated prequel to the hit horror flick The Conjuring, a couple (Ward, Wallis) begins to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences stemming from a vintage doll after satanic cultists invade their home. The Plus: The genre. Horror flicks have a knack for becoming surprise summer hits. Last July, The Conjuring scared up over $318 million worldwide. This summer, The Purge: Anarchy shot up the worldwide box office, taking in over $100 million. The Minus: The odds. One weekend, four new releases (the Rapture-themed Left Behind and imposter thriller The Guest round out the newbies), three rated R. This box office isn’t big enough for three new flicks, let alone a horror flick with Dracula Untold and Ouija hot on its heels.

 

Now playing

The Equalizer
Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas
***1/2 — Training Melee
In stripping down an 80s TV crime drama and rebuilding it as a vehicle for ever-reliable tough guy Denzel Washington, 2014’s Equalizer succeeds mostly on the strength of its leading man, but boasts more than a few white-knuckle moments on its own slick merits. In this R-rated crime-thriller based on the 1980s CBS TV series starring Edward Woodward, a mysterious man (Washington) armed with dangerous skills comes out of his self-imposed retirement when a young call girl (Chloe Grace-Moretz) comes under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters (Csokas, et al). Of course, this update shares some DNA with the original. Like the Woodward version, Washington plays a former intelligence operative with a secret past who uses whatever’s on hand to brutally take down oppressors of the weak. Sadly, some of these pathetic victims happen to work alongside our anti-hero at a Home Depot-esque super-store. It’s not enough that we watch them become easy prey, but we have to get sucked into their sadsack lives as well. Sure, Washington hasn’t donned a long dark coat and started taking beat-down requests like his forebear yet, but that’s just because this is an origin tale. Even a weekend tete-a-tete with a former high-ranking associate smartly keeps his mystery veiled and brings to mind a thinking man’s actioner vibe. Whenever moviegoers get another glimpse into the world of, say, a heavyset wannabe security guard, however, it just kills the tone and adds unnecessary padding onto what could’ve been a taut killing machine. With every line spoken and fist thrown, Denzel Washington delivers times 10. Honestly, you could gleefully watch this man read a self-defense manual, which oddly defines this performance to a T. Liam Neeson and The Expendables might pop up more frequently and not have their fights edited so tightly, but this actor makes you believe every bone-crunching and revenge-plotting measure to your core. Also, don’t count Chloe Grace Moretz among one of those supporting Achilles heels. Her perfect grasp of her character’s plight gives the story the emotional heft it needs to spin into a more sinister — and NC-17-courtingly bloody — conspiracy tale. Antoine Fuqua exhibits great chops as an action director, giving Washington some of the tightest and most jaw-dropping hand-to-hand combat moments ever committed to digital.

 

This is Where I Leave You
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey
*** — The Big Chill Pill
In presenting the umpteenth tale of a homecoming rife with relative dysfunction in umpteen years, This is Where I Leave You paints an interesting family portrait but brings nothing new to the table save for a few keen performances and very little umpt, er, oomph. In this R-rated comedy, four grown siblings (Bateman, Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stall) return to their childhood home for their father’s funeral, forced to live under the same roof with their over-sharing mother (Jane Fonda), an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens. The Family Stone. Death at a Funeral. Home for the Holidays. Four Christmases. At least THIS movie had the decency to take place away from the holidays. With enough entries to warrant its own genre, flicks of this ilk pretty much follow the same pattern, unveiling unlikeable sibling and significant other after unlikeable sibling and significant other while generously gifting us with a semi-reasonable everyman to latch onto. In this case, the honor falls upon perennial put-upon do-gooder Jason Bateman, who’s given the thankless task of navigating us through the failings and fisticuffs of a family that came apart at the seams years ago, but needs to deal with it now … hopefully with comedic results. The only laughs, however, come out of sympathy for the material. It’s rather mishandled. Oh, there are quirky characters, situations and revelations aplenty, but the narrative struggles to feel unique in the undertow of numerous other such stories without the benefit of much verve to distinguish it. The characters’ misadventurous lives should’ve at least played out even a bit differently than, say, the PG-13-rated Christmas Vacation. Instead, it’s just another broad pratfall-laden helping of FUBAR family matters. Director Shawn Levy handles the overstated family-friendly comedy of The Pink Panther reboot and the Night at the Museum flicks exceedingly well, but fails to apply a defter touch in relation to the adult material here. Instead, he just serves up R-rated material in the same heavy-handed manner. The ensemble cast boasts some impressive names but few throw any real sparks save for Bateman and Tina Fey as simpatico siblings. There’s genuine warmth generated from their interactions, which can’t be said for this Jonathan Tropper adaptation as a whole.

 

 

Small Screens

The Universal Blu Ray Collection – The Mummy

The Mummy, 1932 (**** — Nile High Club)
Presenting a subtler horror film that trades in a manmade monster for a monstrous man, The Mummy uses atmosphere rather than a traditional fright night to generate  thrills. For those who haven’t actually seen this austere yarn unfold, the shambling rag-wrapped corpse only appears in an early scene. Most of the film centers around Boris Karloff, bowing in his high-profile follow-up to Frankenstein, as undead flesh-faced high priest Im-Ho-Tep. His powers never get fully explained (indeed, the film’s biggest weakness involves Egyptian hocus-pocus and casting Caucasians as, well, everybody but the camels), but super strength and hypnotism seem to be among them. The true star of this non-creature feature ends up to be director Karl Freund, whose mastery of lighting creates a ethereal shadow-drenched mood all its own. Frankenstein director James Whale may’ve used expressionistic devices, but The Mummy is pure Expressionism.

The Mummy’s Hand, 1940 (*** — Pyramid Scheme)
Digging up the Mummy name for a new story of hieroglyphic hocus pocus, the bizarrely comic, but often entertaining Mummy’s Hand has nothing to do with a certain appendage, but introduces the title character as a rag-wearing shambler who kills on command. With this deuce, the franchise wraps itself in the B-Movie threads that audiences would associate with the brand more than Karloff. Lead-footed silent creature? Crazy cultist using said creature to enact revenge? Damsel carried away by creature? Yep, these boxes all get checked. Fun more than frightful, however, The Mummy’s Hand strangely stands on its own ragged feet. Interestingly, Abbott and Costello weren’t the first comic duo to bring slapstick to this creature feature. In an overlong buildup to the action, Dick Foran and Wallace Ford enact hi-jinks.

The Mummy’s Tomb, 1942 (** — Grave Mistake)
Of the two preceding chapters, The Mummy’s Hand shouldn’t have been the one to receive a sequel … but it strangely and sadly does. In this proto-slasher film that brings the non-action stateside, some much-needed humor goes the way of the Sphinx.

The Mummy’s Ghost, 1944 (**1/2 — Tut Tut)
Looking for love and horror in all the wrong places, undead shambler Kharis returns with Lon Chaney, Jr. in the stuck-on-Band-Aid role. Better than its predecessor but a far cry from the Frankenstein series, Mummy dearest searches for the spirit of his long-dead lover in a museum and — pause for laughter — college campus. By now, the thrills and story are enjoyably laughable … even when this chapter proves to be a bummer.

The Mummy’s Curse, 1944 (** — That’s a Wrap)
Moving the inaction of this series to the Louisiana Bayou, the Mummy gets extricated by archaeologists, only for an evil Egyptologist to resurrect him and his thoughts of endless love. An original story not pieced together from other Universal Horror staples, this creature feature nonetheless sputters to a stop simply because the series is out of gas.