Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Boxtrolls
Voices of Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris
With The Boxtrolls, the company that used stop-animation to wow audiences with Coraline and ParaNorman turn their meticulously crafted attention to Alan Snow’s children’s book Here be Monsters. In this PG-rated family flick, a young orphan (Isaac Hempstead Wright) raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors (Kingsley, Harris, Nick Frost, et al) tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator. The Plus: The genre. In the absence of a Pixar or DreamWorks Animation release, moviegoing families are starving for something new. Here, the celebrity pipes include Kingsley (Ender’s Game), Harris (The Quiet Ones), Frost (World’s End), Richard Ayoade (The Watch), Tracy Morgan (Rio 2), Elle Fanning (Maleficent), Toni Collette (The Way Way Back), Simon Pegg (Star Trek Into Darkness) and Wright (HBO’s Game of Thrones). The Minus: The odds. Even with some critical plaudits, ParaNorman failed to make back its budget. Perhaps, moviegoers will hold out for Pixar-owned Disney (Big Hero 6, November 7) or Dream Works (Penguins of Madagascar, November 26) after all.

 

The Equalizer
Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas
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 girl (Chloe Grace-Moretz) comes under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters (Csokas, et al). The Plus: The players. Over the past three years, Washington clocked a trio of action-packed hits with Unstoppable, Safe House and Two Guns while garnering an Oscar nomination for Flight along the way. Here, Antoine Fuqua (Brooklyn’s Finest) directs the man himself (Inside Man) plus Csokas (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Moretz (If I Stay), Haley Bennett (The Haunting of Molly Hartley), David Harbour (HBO’s Newsroom), Bill Pullman (Starz’s Torchwood: Miracle Day) and Melissa Leo (Prisoners). The Minus: The odds. Fuqua and Washington made magic before (Training Day, for which the latter won as Oscar), but the director’s CV has occasionally run hot (Olympus Has Fallen) and occasionally cold (Shooter), but mostly just runs lukewarm (The Replacement Killers, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur).

 

Now Playing

The Maze Runner
Dylan O’Brien, Kala Scodelerio
*** — Running with Sniggers
Aping Lord of the Flies more than The Hunger Games, the entertaining, but sometimes pedestrian, puzzler Maze Runner raises pulses more than piffle with this, an oftentimes exciting dystopia tale that boasts more style than smarts. In this PG-13-rated adaptation of James Dasher’s novel, Thomas (O’Brien) gets deposited in a community of boys after his memory is erased, soon learning he must join forces with fellow “runners” to escape a deadly maze. Frightening enough to sometimes feel like an R-rated thriller, this teen-starring and teen-friendly YA book adaptation proves distinctive enough to cast off direct comparisons to its contemporaries, but still manages to check off most of the same cliche boxes afforded this sub-genre. The first in a series with built-in sequel potential? Check. Post-Apocalyptic setting? Check. Heartthrob protagonist? Check. There’s more to this list, but providing such detail would duly qualify as spoilers. Smartly, the movie races ahead at a rousing clip, filling the audience in judiciously as we move along without ever courting boredom. Then comes the big — but rather lackluster — reveal, cramming a chapter’s worth of exposition into a few minutes. Still, the novel’s shortcomings don’t take away from director Wes Ball’s verve. This former effects adviser knows how to craft a sometimes terrifying crowd-pleaser. With Dylan O’Brien, he’s found a very capable leading man with great star potential. Coloring outside of the lines of an almost stock character, he runs Ball’s rewardingly dour gauntlet to often great effect.

 

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens
*** — Taken to Task
Pot boiling his way through a sometimes crackling genre piece, Liam Neeson takes a Walk on a wilder side with this, a gritty detective thriller that doesn’t require him to constantly kick do-badders in the head. In this R-rated thriller, a private investigator (Neeson) gets hired by a drug kingpin (Stevens) to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife. This is not to say that A Walk Among the Tombstones boasts little action. In fact, the flick begins in a flurry of gunfire. It doesn’t stay there, however, trying to evolve into a noirish and pulpy private detective story. It gets a lot right, slowly playing out a serial kidnapping scheme perpetrated by thrill-killers as the slowburn mystery. The movie also falls victims to some of the genre’s cliches, infuriatingly introducing a street kid sidekick to play on the main character’s — and our — sympathies. He doesn’t. Still, director Scott Frank, in adapting novel, gives a private detective tale indicative more of the artistically edgy 70s (Chinatown) than the studio stylings a of the 40s (The Maltese Falcon). He’s more assured here than with his directorial debut, The Lookout, also a noirish tale. Less steeped in shadows than grit, he gives Liam Neeson a great wonderfully photographed setting — the hard, cold, dark streets of Brooklyn — to play out this thinking man’s caper. Hell, Neeson’s even on the receiving end of some beatings for once, which makes his character more relatable than most of the avenging roles he’s been saddle-sored with lately.

 

 

Small Screens

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — Frankenstein

Frankenstein, 1931
***** — Hails from the Crypt
Still unnervingly scary after more than 80 years, James Whale’s atmospheric macabre masterpiece maintains its vaulted place as the definitive Gothic horror film. As sloppy as Tod Browning’s production of Dracula sometimes feels, this creature feature shows off a meticulousness in design and preciseness in tone and awareness in feeling. Every choice — from Franz Waxman’s hypnotic score to Jack Pierce’s iconic make-up design to Boris Karloff’s sympathetic performance — helps to build the perfect beast. Expressionistic without being a piece of Expressionism, Whale’s shadowy stony world defies period and place but becomes an unforgettable setting all of its own.

Bride of Frankenstein, 1935
***** — Monster High
Building on the excellence of the first film with more wit, vision and pathos, the sequel of Frankenstein continues the Grand Guinol tradition of its classic forebear while upping the creative ante, gifting filmgoers with the greatest monster movie of all time. Most importantly, this macabre masterpiece winningly employs a great degree of humor, dipping its toes into camp without becoming campy.

Son of Frankenstein, 1939
***1/2 — The Son Also Surprises
Going off book for a straight up creature feature, this overlong and often over-the-top sequel boasts enough style and scares to give Karloff a proper and monstrous send-off. Between the lead-footed plotting and arch performances, the film’s ripe for the nit pickings. Basil Rathbone turns the scenery into an absolute buffet, screenwriter Willis Cooper over-complicates the monstrous resurrection with a revenge sub-plot and Bela Lugosi’s gleefully insane Igor somehow steals the show from Karloff in his last turn as the monster. Still, directors Michael Gordon and Rowland V. Lee employ a great deal of noirish Art Deco-inspired style.

Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942
*** — Ghost in a Shell
Still ALIVE! despite missing the stylish H’Wood Golden Age DNA that links it with the classic Karloff years, Ghost takes the franchise from A-Level fright-fest to B-Movie fright-fussed with only occasional bolts of energy to keep audiences invested. Picking up right where the last chapter left off and forsaking continuity for combustibility, Part 4 turns Dr. Frankenstein’s once-sympathetic patchwork man into just a one-note rampaging Boogeyman. Fun but far from scary, this series officially became a Ghost of its former self with this, a hulking almost soul-less Golem that’s more entertaining for its laughs than thrills.

House of Frankenstein, 1944
**1/2 — House of Cruds
Now completely composed of dead body parts, Universal’s ultimate Monster Mash-Up somehow feels more ho hum than haunting when it pits Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man in a lackluster Battle Royale with Cheese. More lifeless than the Mummy, the story goes to ridiculously laughable lengths to bring together the now-legendary monsters … only the stock scares and characters no longer boast any electricity, only occasional snickers.

 

 

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Maze Runner
Dylan O’Brien, Kala Scodelerio
In this PG-13-rated adaptation of James Dasher’s novel, Thomas (O’Brien) gets deposited in a community of boys after his memory is erased, soon learning he must join forces with fellow “runners” to escape a deadly maze. The Plus: The material. Staying on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year, Dasher’s post-Apocalyptic young adult thriller spawned two sequels (The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure) and a prequel (The Kill Order). Here, special effects supervisor Wes Ball makes his big screen directing debut with a cast including O’Brien (MTV’s Teen Wolf), Scodelerio (Clash of the Titans) and Will Poulter (HBO’s Game of Thrones). The Minus: The odds. For every YA box office hit like the Twilight Saga, Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games franchise, there’s many more false starts like The Spiderwick Chronicles, I Am Number Four, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or recent flub The Giver waiting in the wings.

 

This is Where I Leave You
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey
In this R-rated comedy, four grown siblings (Bateman, Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stall) return to their childhood home for a week for their father’s funeral, forced to live under the same roof with their over-sharing mother (Jane Fonda) and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens. The Plus: The players. Here, Jonathan Tropper adapts his own novel for an amazing cast that includes Bateman (Horrible Bosses), Fey (Admission), Driver (HBO’s Girls), Stoll (Netflix’s House of Cards), Fonda (HBO’s Newsroom), Rose Byrne (Neighbors), Kathryn Hahn (Bad Words), Connie Briton (ABC’s Nashville), Timothy Olyphant (FX’s Justified), Dax Shepherd (NBC’s Parenthood) and Abigail Spencer (USA’s Suits). The Minus: The talent. Mostly a director of softball comedies where the tone is simple and slap-sticky (The Pink Panther, A Night at the Museum, Date Night), Shawn Levy hasn’t had much luck transitioning to more adult material (The Internship). He even managed to turn robot-boxing drama Real Steel into a miscalculated dose of the warm-n-fuzzies. If the trailer is any indication, This is Where I Leave You doesn’t evince much — if any — out-and-out hilarious adult humor — just feel-good sibling bonding.

 

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens
In this R-rated thriller, a private investigator (Neeson) gets hired by a drug kingpin (Stevens) to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife. 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 Taken 3. Oh, and starring gigs in The Clash of the Titans, The A-Team and Non-Stop certainly didn’t hurt either. Here, Scott Frank (The Lookout) adapts the screenplay for and directs Neeson (The LEGO Movie) and Stevens (PBS’s Downton Abbey). The Minus: The competition. One weekend … four new releases (joining Kevin Smith’s horror flick Tusk) … three of them R-rated. All of the sudden, the barren September box office is loaded to the gills.

 

 

Now Playing

No Good Deed
Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba
*1/2 — No Good Deed
A criminal waste of talent and the audience’s time, only viewers of the insufferably formulaic No Good Deed end up getting punished. In this PG-13-rated thriller, a devoted wife and mother (Henson) finds herself fighting for survival when a charming but dangerous escaped convict (Elba) shows up at her door claiming car trouble invades her home and terrorizes her family. Oh, and it’s during the most torrential rainstorm ever. With dialogue borrowed from two dozen much better B-Movies, cheap scare tactics stolen from two dozen other dark ‘n’ stormy night thrillers and a decent twixt twist that’s still not good enough to save it, this potboiler seemed destined for Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week status and yet somehow made it to the big screen. Instead of a strong female, we get a supposed criminal defense lawyer pulling bonehead moves, one dumber than the last. The scariest thing about this flick is that this woman passed the bar. Worse, the stars prove much better than the material. Why Idris Elba, so brilliant in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, chose this pedestrian home invasion flick, defies logic. Though he may feel comfortable being helmed by Sam Miller, his regular director on BBC’s Luther, moviegoers feel anything but comfortable presented with cold leftovers. This goes for Taraji P. Henson, too. So beneath them, this movie could very well qualify as a career killer.

 

The Drop
Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace
**** — Dropping Da Bomb
An excellent short story hard-boiled into a exceptional feature length crime-drama, Tom Hardy’s great and gritty latest definitely gets The Drop on award season. In this R-rate crime-drama, Bob Saginowski (Hardy) finds himself at the center of a robbery gone awry at a bar that’s the drop-off point for mob money. Every beat — from the way the blue collar city dwellers converse to the specific mechanics of the criminal underworld — rings with such authenticity that the Brooklyn pavement and smog is almost palpable. If the devil is in the details than this carefully plotted thriller is downright hellish. Every set, wardrobe and line of dialogue comes off as lived in and rolled around the tongue as Brooklyn itself. Better yet, there’s a brilliant twist that stands in your blind spot through the third act, exquisitely laying unsuspecting filmgoers out like suckers. Brimming with suspense at so many corners, the film threatens to but rarely actually uses the R-rating. When it does, however, the violence comes quickly and realistically, underlying the need for force in this hardscrabble urban jungle gym. Though filmgoers rightly think of the late James Gandolfini as the focal point here (it is, after all, his final role), all eyes inevitably fall on the electric Tom Hardy, who plays a deceptively simple kind of man in a complicated kind of numbers game. When his dog and lady friend get threatened, you truly feel a snapping point, eye twitch and all. In one of the bar scenes, you actually see dirt under his finger nails as if he just worked open to close in an actual watering hole. Gandolfini and Rapace, meanwhile, play every scene with such menaced and dreadful qualities that legitimately feel sorry for them. Director Michael R. Roskam, working from Dennis Lehane’s (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River) screenplay of his own short story, gives H’Wood a hypnotic crime story with this, his first U.S. feature length project.

 

Small Screens

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — Dracula

Dracula, 1931 (***1/2 — Vampire Bask): Memorable for it’s mostly dead right casting more than it’s often dead wrong direction, classic Universal horror flick Dracula rightfully birthed a worthy screen legend regardless of its notorious flubs. Owing more to Lon Chaney than Bram Stoker, director Tod Browning’s take gives filmgoers the silent treatment more often than not. Continually seeing pieces of cardboard taped over bedside lamps to offset the studio lighting, for example, demonstrates a sloppy devil-may-care attitude that often kills the film’s atmosphere. Heavily accented and looking VERY Eastern European, however, Bela Lugosi brought a menacing authenticity to the part even if he hardly matches the book’s description of a gaunt bearded count.

Dracula – Spanish Language Version, 1931 (**** — Fangs for the Memories): A stunningly atmospheric horror tale shot during 1931 Dracula’s off time, this Spanish language version bests it’s legendary English counterpart by a bloody great degree, taking full advantage of the production’s studio resources and crafting an oftentimes more frightening scaremaker (the casting of Lugosi and Browning’s spine-tingling take on the ghost ship, however, can’t be touched).

Dracula’s Daughter, 1936 (**1/2: Lady Sings the Blah Blah Blah): Making little effort to raise the hairs on the back of your neck but much effort to raise film fans’ ire. Based on the pure caliber of quality on display in Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein, it seems downright criminally insane that that same studio didn’t invest in a direct sequel to Dracula with Lugosi. Instead, the boring action shifts to the Count’s offspring, a non-threatening dowager wishing to be freed from a vampire curse by psychiatry.

Son of Dracula, 1943 (** — Slow Count): Sucking out whatever blood remained in the inspired and inspiring original, this oftentimes silly creature feature turns a Gothic classic into classic camp. Humdrum vampire Lon Chaney, Jr. brings about as much terror to the proceedings as fuzzy Muppet Count Von Count on Sesame Street in this story of vamped up voodoo phooey.

House of Dracula, 1945 (**1/2 – House of Pain): Fully committing Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic character to unfortunate camptastic heights, this unnecessary but occasionally fun monster mash-up mercifully put the stake in the original Dracula franchise’s heart. Here, the doctor who tries to cure the Wolfman and fend off Dracula, injects himself with the Invisible Man serum and tries to reanimate Frankenstein’s monster. The best part about this film inadvertently calling the down Count is the fact that it gave full license to England’s Hammer Studios to pick up the Gothic horror torch in the 50s.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

No Good Deed
Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba
Coming off of an Oscar nomination for Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, former Wire actor Idris Elba reportedly has two flicks set for release (Second Coming, The Gunman), two movies currently filming (A Hundred Streets, Beasts of No Nation), a number of other projects already lined up, including voice work as villainous tiger Shere Khan in Jon Favreau’s forthcoming live action take The Jungle Book. Someway, somehow, he managed to squeeze in one of this week’s new releases, No Good Deed. In this PG-13-rated thriller, a devoted wife and mother (Henson) finds herself fighting for survival when a charming, but dangerous, escaped convict (Elba) shows up at her door claiming car trouble invades her home and terrorizes her family. The Plus: Not much. Working from a script by Aimee Lagos (96 Minutes), Idris Elba (Prometheus, Pacific Rim, Thor: The Dark World) acts for Sam Miller, his director on the BBC detective series Luther. Here, they’re joined by Henson (Think Like a Man Too, ABC’s Person of Interest) and Leslie Bibb (Law Abiding Citizen, NBC’s About a Boy). The Minus: The season. Last weekend marked the lowest earning period of the year yet at the box office. As September already made clear (November Man, The Identical), early September is the dumping grounds for H’Wood’s less viable projects. Also, Elba’s already been down this road with Obsessed.

 

Dolphin Tale 2
Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd
In 2011, a certain Dolphin Tale based on real events swam away with over $70 million at the box office. This made catching the cast and crew in a tuna net of a sequel relatively easy. In this PG-rated family drama, the team of people who saved dolphin Winter’s life in the first go-round reassemble in the wake of her surrogate mother’s passing in order to find her a companion so she can remain at the Clearwater Marine Hospital. The Plus: The material. It’s a family film with a built-in fanbase … oh, plus, there’s nothing by Pixar or Dreamworks currently in release. Here, Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) directs Freeman (Lucy), Judd (The Identical), Harry Connick, Jr. (Fox’s American Idol) and Kris Kristofferson (Joyful Noise). The Minus: The material. In H’Wood, there’s not many flicks that warrant or even get a sequel … and with good reason. What’s there left to say?

 

Now playing

Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks, Sally Field
****1/2 — Super is as Super does
An at times overly sentimental favorite that just keeps running, Forrest, running, Gump & Company still says very little but nevertheless maintains its aw shucks charm and history-retelling whimsy in the post-9/11 age. In this 20th anniversary re-release of the Oscar winning PG-13-rated dramedy based on Winston Groom’s celebrated novel, simpleton Forrest Gump (Hanks) accidentally finds himself present at many historic moments while searching for his true love, Jenny (Robin Wright). Though the film panders too much to a Disney-fied sense of nostalgia and romanticism, there’s no denying the compelling decades spanning narrative, murky message and all. Yes, Forrest Gump proves childlike and syrupy, but so does the title character, which all involved knew all too well and played to the hilt. What this collective gets wrong, however, is in insisting that the film is weightier than it actually is. There appears to be a heavy-handedness but where does it lead the audience?  To the fact that ignoring the harsh realities of life paints a dishonest historical portrait? Regardless, it’s an intriguing concept that’s beautifully presented and amazingly acted. Ridiculously ambitious, this often offbeat but always entertaining gem mostly hits the mark. At times, Groom’s story as adapted by Eric Roth seems like a blue collar Zelig. Woody Allen’s 1982 mockumentary at least ruminated on individuality and American ideals amid the historic cameos. Having crafted Back to the Future into the almost quintessential time travel classic and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? into the greatest live action-animation mash-up ever, Robert Zemekis handles the epic scope and monumental scale special effects (still quite effective, mind) with a strong but ingeniously creative hand. Sure, he creates an easy-to-swallow feel-good pill but — without a suitable actor to play the main man — this would all be for naught. Thankfully, Tom Hanks gives a nuanced performance of a very simple man.  When he finds out that he has a son and tears up in asking if the boy is as “slow” as his father, the result proves heartbreaking, heart-tugging and heart-soaring in just mere words. It’s a masterful turn, perfectly played such that any impressionable qualities get overshadowed but his eternal heart and optimism. Corny? Yes. Forgettable? Not a chance.

 

Ghostbusters (1984)
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd
**** — Who Ya Still Gonna Call?
A riotously funny inter-dimensional channeling of high concept sci-fi and low concept comedy, Ghostbusters scares up just as much adulation today for the same reasons it did back then: Bill Murray’s deadpan delivery and Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’s hilariously fun script. In the 30th anniversary re-release of this PG-rated modern classic comedy, three unemployed parapsychology professors (Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis) set up shop as a unique ghost removal service. Aside from the scarily poor special effects, the climax still ranks as Ghostbusters’ chief sticking point. The third act lead-up drags and the rooftop showdown is never as out-and-out funny as anything in the first two acts. When this is all you have to complain about, then — ahem — Boo Hoo. The arrival of the skyscraper-height Stay Puft Marshmallow Man more than fills the final act’s joke quotient and, frankly, the dodgy SFX weren’t paraded around as the best of the best back then either. This is Murray’s vehicle, however — we’re just riding in it. Sure, he’s often more readily identified with Groundhog Day than this ensemble piece, but the actor’s perfectly played performance as a dubious scientist — one who rarely takes anything seriously — never lets up with laughs. Seriously, root through the now-iconic scenes and dialogue to re-discover the rich wealth of one-liners he delivers at an almost machine gun clip. Reveling in showing audiences both oddball actors at the top of their game and literally otherworldly situations, Ivan Reitman’s direction points up the academia and modern science-skewing humor in the script while making you wonder how this often biting flick could’ve ever only be rated PG.

 

The November Man
Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey
**1/2 — Sigh Another Day
A standard-issue spy story rife with more flubs than an elementary school Christmas pageant, November Man only goes to prove that an entire film crew can become culture shocked when it tries to go all Red October. In this R-rated actioner, an ex-CIA operative (Brosnan) gets brought back in on a very personal mission and finds himself pitted against his former pupil (Bracey) in a deadly game involving high level CIA officials and the Russian president-elect. After all, it stars 1990s James Bond, a Man for all seasons still capable of kicking ass and oozing charisma as much or even more than current pensioner action heroes like Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Oh, this star brings an impressive skill set … only the script he’s given lacks ingenuity and the production lacks a lot of oomph. It if weren’t for a few legitimately pulse-pounding action sequences, this flick could’ve very well been called Old World is Not Enough. Though clearly up the challenge, Pierce Brosnan’s latest just doesn’t prove very challenging. Just because a production features an older hero doesn’t mean that the story needs be older than dirt. Hell, 1960s James Bond Sean Connery gave it a go time (The Rock) and time (Entrapment) and time again (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) well into his 70s. Will November Man live to see December? Tomorrow Never Dies, er, Knows.

 

Small Screens

The Knick
Clive Owen, Andre Holland
****1/2 — Gore’s Anatomy
This very adult Cinemax program looks at the professional and personal lives of the staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early part of the 20th century. It’s gleefully repulsing in a can’t-turn-away voyeuristic kind of way, but wholly counts as a history lesson. With the incomparable chief bottle washer and head chef Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) directing this operating theater of methodology and madness, The Knick presents a bloody and bloody well done hour of entertainment. So many of us critics worried that H’Wood lost one of its best ever craftsman when the cinematographer/editor/producer/director announced his big screen retirement after helming HBO’s Behind the Candelabra. Instead, this meticulous but edgy surgeon brings much verve to the visceral gaslit world of Victorian era Manhattan. Clive Owen, so subdued in more button-down parts (The International) even when the world’s falling apart (Children of Men) is given carte blanche to go full-on-bonkers here … only he doesn’t, giving an electrifying turn as a drug-addled, falsely cocksure surgeon who’s as coated in professional doubt as much as patients’ blood.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Identical
Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta
After releasing a diverse but nevertheless successful roster of movies, including horror flick An American Haunting (2005) and fantasy mystery The Illusionist (2006), distributor Freestyle Releasing recently happened upon a singular profitable niche — faith- based entertainment. After the PG-rated atheism-challenging drama God’s Not Dead opened to the tune of $60 million at the box office, this company started praying that God would likewise smile down on their latest new release, The Identical, which boasts the tagline “When he is in your dreams, nothing can stand against them.” Next up for Freestyle: the Rapture-set Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage. In The Identical, a PG-rated drama loosely based on the life of Elvis Presley, twin brothers (both Rayne) get separated at birth and take separate paths in life — one of them becoming an iconic rock ‘n’ roll star, while the other struggles to balance his love for music and pleasing his father (Liotta). The Plus: The demographic. Aside from God’s Not Dead, recent feel-good Christian-baiting drama Heaven is for Real made more than $90 million domestically. Besides newcomer Rayne, this flick stars Liotta (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), Ashley Judd (Divergent), Seth Green (Fox’s Family Guy) and Joe Pantoliano (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief). The Minus: The quality. Though neither God nor Heaven fared well with critics (let’s be honest — not the target demographic), this is still the distributor responsible for releasing The Collector and Dragon Wars on the world. This does not necessarily bode well for a Bible-thumper about Elvis’s stillborn twin brother.

Forrest Gump
Tom Hanks, Sally Field
In this 20th anniversary release of the Oscar-winning PG-13-rated dramedy based on Winston Groom’s celebrated novel, simpleton Forrest Gump (Hanks) accidentally finds himself present at many historic moments while searching for his true love, Jenny (Robin Wright). The Plus: Run, Forrest, run. During its first theatrical run, the film earned more than $677 million internationally and then went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Zemeckis), Best Actor (Hanks) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth), as well as Best Visual Effects (Ken Ralston) and Best Film Editing (Arthur Schmidt). Since then, the Library of Congress selected Forrest Gump to be preserved in the National Film Registry. The Minus: Not much. Though some critics have since swiped at Forrest Gump for pandering too much to sentimentality and an almost Disney-fied sense of nationalism, such scorn only solidifies this beloved film’s high standing with audiences. Yes, it’s childlike and syrupy — but so is the main character. And yes, all involved knew it was childlike and syrupy when they made it, which is why filmgoers took to it like a box of chocolates.

 

Now Playing

The November Man
Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey
**1/2 — Sigh Another Day
A standard-issue spy story rife with more flubs than an elementary school Christmas pageant, November Man only goes to prove that an entire film crew can become culture shocked when it tries to go all Red October. In this R-rated actioner, an ex-CIA operative (Brosnan) gets brought back in on a very personal mission and finds himself pitted against his former pupil (Bracey) in a deadly game involving high-level CIA officials and the Russian president-elect. You so wished that this so-called actioner was good. After all, it stars 1990s James Bond, a Man for all seasons still capable of kicking ass and oozing charisma as much or even more than current pensioner action heroes like Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Oh, this star brings an impressive skill set … only the script he’s given lacks ingenuity and the production lacks a lot of oomph. First off, why do so many Russians speak English with very little trace of an accent? Well, to move the story along, of course! Some flicks at least TRY interspersing in more subtitles — not November Man. Also, in one scene, a henchman clearly has blood pellets visible in his mouth before he receives a pounding. The writing is just as sloppy, however, laying down a second-string political conspiracy stitched together from Tom Clancy’s back catalogue. One example of this crap convergence occurs when Brosnan’s pupil-turned-antagonist’s next-door neighbor in Russia, a beautiful American blonde, shows up practically with ‘love interest’ tattooed across her head. Were this a smart spy scenario, moviegoers would be right to expect she was a rival agent out to kill him … but nope, she’s just a ridiculously attractive and lovesick American who just happens to live next door. It if weren’t for a few legitimately pulse-pounding action sequences, this flick could’ve very well been called Old World is Not Enough. Here’s mud in your Goldeneye! Though clearly up the challenge, Pierce Brosnan’s latest just doesn’t prove very challenging. Just because a production features an older hero doesn’t mean that the story needs be older than dirt. Hell, 1960s James Bond Sean Connery gave it a go time (The Rock) and time (Entrapment) and time again (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) well into his 70s. Will November Man live to see December? Tomorrow Never Dies, er, Knows.

 

The Giver
Brendan Thwaites, Jeff Bridges
**1/2 — Lazy Heart
Giving little until it nearly hurts, the interesting ideas born out of Lois Lowry’s fantastical novel just aren’t Divergent enough onscreen. In this PG-13-rated drama, a young man (Thwaites) gets chosen to learn from an elderly man (Bridges) about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world a seemingly perfect community without war, pain, suffering, differences, religion or choice. Apparently Jeff Bridges bought the rights to this award-winning tome more than 20 years ago with the intention of forging a revolutionary thought-provoker that appeals to all ages … only it got made at least 10 years too late, after YA book series (Harry Potter) after book series (The Twilight Saga) after book series (Hunger Games) already hit the screen with much aplomb. Now, the fascinating talking points in Lowry’s future-flung just seem, well, like old news. Picture this: A boy-girl-boy trio come of age (Harry Potter, Twilight) in a dystopian society separating people into segments (Harry Potter, Divergent), only to rebel against the false utopia (Divergent, Hunger Games) and find love along the way (all of the above). Is it Lowry’s fault? Absolutely not. She’s clearly written a creative think-piece. In all honesty, the cast stands and delivers as does director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Constant Gardener), who smartly imbues the black-and-white world with color once our protagonist starts seeing the truth. Aside from some dialogue deliberately delivered archly, you can’t point to one wrong turn aside from the fact that the book revisits themes and situations we’ve seen before in recent flicks. What’s the movie going to do, change the plot? Make it darker? Sorry, that’s the Ender’s Game for franchises.

 

As Above, So Below
Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman
**1/2 — City of the Meh
Neither Above nor Below average, this Quarantine-d thriller sadly falls somewhere in-between. In this R-rated horror flick, a team of explorers (Weeks, Feldman) ventures into the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris and uncovers a dark secret lying within this city of the dead. Sometimes, you wish that some found footage would just remain lost. Shakier than the hand-held footage that captures it, As Above, So Below’s story doesn’t demand much (faux horror documentaries pretty much just require camcorders and some sorta monster) … though it definitely should. Following in the footsteps of such recent similar mockumentary scaremakers as Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism, this flick needed to present something different. Long story short, we’ve seen it all before. Oh, the overall details ring new, but the plot points play out beat for predictable beat. The main character (a strong female protagonist, mind you) proves to be an academic (but beautiful, mind you) driven to discover otherworldly secrets (lunging baddies, mind you), which is a fine save for the fact that her father hung himself during this same Descent into madness. The use of Descent is purposeful as THAT was a found footage thriller that wrung new thrills out of a similarly claustrophobic setting. Once again, we’ve seen it all before. Why can’t an intelligent woman seek out an ancient evil by her own inspiration rather than be a Lara Croft: Tomb Raider knockoff that falls into the clichéd honey pot called “daddy issues”? If the thrills actually, well, thrill, the story is negligible, however. Here, not even the scares are out-and-out unique. As the writers and director of Quarantine and Devil, brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle aren’t new to this genre but their approach should be. Instead, loud sound design and lunging creeps rule the day. Again, we’ve seen it all before. Perhaps, As Before, So Again makes a better title.

 

Small Screens

The Walking Dead — Season 4 (2013-14)
Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey
***1/2 — Night Shrift
Compulsively addictive despite being hopelessly flawed, AMC’s graphic, zombie apocalypse-set Walking Dead soldiers on with storylines both re-animated and invigorating. Just like with an actual living dead outbreak, there’s no set handbook on how to handle such goings-on (indeed, this show intriguingly doesn’t even stick to the comic book it’s based on). Four seasons in and enjoying the longest tenure for a show runner yet, the program chooses to stay put for the first half. While entertaining an idyllic false front of gardening and community chore-sharing while unholy terror shuffles just beyond the gates proves interesting, the arch, mustache-twirling, over-the-top return of the governor (in a performance worthy of 1960s Batman villainy by Morrissey) and airborne pestilence thread (antibiotics for the flu … really?!) just prove embarrassing. Short story long, the prison/Governor business needed to get wrapped up last season. It’s when the second half invests in standalone episodes centering on individual characters that the Walking Dead truly lurches to life. The show smartly always put human before horror and this strong suit has never more on display than in this impressive breadth of storytelling — some of the program’s best yet). The fact that it all leads up to one helluva great cliffhanger only points to the fact that Season 5 might just be the best yet.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke
For his next trick, writer/director Robert Rodriguez will produce the second season of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, the TV update of his own cult vampire flick. Hell, he can do as he likes … it’s the cornerstone of his very own cable network, El Ray. First, however, he’s releasing Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the follow-up to his 2005 hit. In this R-rated adaptation/sequel to pulpy comic by Frank Miller (who’s credited as co-director), Basin City’s most hard-boiled citizens cross paths with some of its more reviled inhabitants. The Plus: The players. With the first Sin City, Rodriguez trailblazed a green screening style that perfectly aped the noirosh look and feel of Miller’s works. In this continuation, audiences have Alba (Valentine’s Day), Rourke (Iron Man 2), Josh Brolin (Oldboy), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Rosario Dawson (Unstoppable), Bruce Willis (A Good Day to Die Hard), Eva Green (300: Rise of an Empire), Powers Booth (ABC’s Nashville), Dennis Haysbert (Think Like a Man Too), Ray Liotta (Killing Them Softly), Christopher Meloni (HBO’s True Blood), Jeremy Piven (HBO’s Entourage), Christopher Lloyd (A Million Ways to Die in the West) and Lady Gaga (Machete Kills). The Minus: The gamble. This project has stopped and started more than Mickey Rourke’s career. Also, based on the fact that this prequel/sequel got written specifically for the screen and was not based on Miller’s highly regarded series, the prospects seem iffy for these Sin-ful denizens.

 

If I Stay
Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos
In this PG-13-rated drama, a car accident victim in a coma (Moretz) finds herself in an out-of-body experience where she must decide whether to wake up and live a life far different than what she had imagined. The Plus: The source material. Not only has Gayle Forman’s novel won both the 2009 NAIBA Book of the Year Awards and a 2010 Indie Choice Honor Award, it was popular enough to warrant a sequel (Where She Went). Its adaptation stars Moretz (Kick Ass 2), Enos (World War Z) and Stacey Keach (Nebraska). The Minus: The odds. For every young adult literary-based box office hit like The Fault in Our Stars or My Sister’s Keeper, there’s a dud like The Lovely Bones or The Spectacular Now. Despite great reviews, Now didn’t even break $7 million at the U.S. box office.

 

Now Playing

The Expendables 3
Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham
** — Drudge Match
The most Expendable chapter in the franchise, a third go-round only goes to show that it’s three times the chum for this gathering of rusty and retired action figures. In this R-rated actioner, mercenaries Barney (Stallone), Christmas (Statham) and the rest of the team come face-to-face with arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who years ago co-founded The Expendables. Actually, in consideration, that first sentence isn’t fair. Some amped-to-the-max whippersnappers show up only to get shown up by these veterans, so some respect is in order … only sadly, it’s not for the audience. Yes, it’s the many moments like this that make this script as lunkheaded as the steroid-addled characters they play. Sadly, with the rewired star wattage attached, moviegoers would be right to expect a much more exciting and smarter go-round. And, sadder still, new additions Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas came ready for a good fight. They’re just not given much to play with outside of recycled tough guy shtick and comic relief. Their contemporaries including Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Expendables newbie Harrison Ford, however, are starting to look more worn, chipped and craggy than distressed furniture. Geez, will someone get Steven Segel to sit on the cast, get Liam Neeson to slum it or take a car battery to Bruce Lee’s chest so moviegoers can get some real action in this franchise? Some critics already gave this series two passes for nostalgia’s sake but, in fooling us three times, it’s shame on we. Not surprising at all, Mel Gibson seems to be having the most fun as the fearlessly whacko Big Bad. He’s already pulled this duty in Machete Kills, however, so it looks like his public disapproval punishment needs to get suspended before this ridiculously talented star becomes an amnesty case. Seriously, between the reheated leftovers passed off as action sequences and the anticlimactic, well, climax, it’s as bad as the substandard notches in their filmic CV referenced in their groan-worthy one-liners. It’s like Charles Bronson took a crap and that crap produced this movie.

 

A Most Wanted Man
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams
**** — Tinker Tailor Soldier On
Most definitely Wanted and desired despite a pitch black view of the world, the latest powerfully acted John Le Carre adaptation proves to be a clench-fisted thriller with a gutpunch finale. In this R-rated spy thriller from Anton Corbijn (The American), a Chechen Muslim (Grigoriy Dobrygin) illegally immigrates to Hamburg, where he gets caught in the international war on terror. Le Carre’s storied works personify both British spy craft and Britishness itself. Basically, his books feature emotionless players moving precariously across a chess board that’s actually a minefield. Granted, much of his plotting involves clerical work, but there’s still a simmering intensity. Even when his characters find themselves in a highly emotional situation, they hide that lit fuse behind a steely veneer. It’s clichéd to lionize a recently departed actor’s actor, but Phillip Seymour Hoffman always astounded and heads a wonderfully brilliant ensemble here. Pop culture spies were never more in fashion than the 60s and this modern Eastern Europe-set thriller somehow feels like a retrograde tale, as if the Spectre of Communist East Germany still colors inside and outside of these geopolitical lines.

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Megan Fox, Will Arnett
*** — Story on the Half Shell
Throwing everything from turtle soup to nutso visuals at the eyes and ears of moviegoers, the predictable, but occasionally likeable, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knows karate and crazy and demonstrates both qualities quite often. In this PG-13-rated fantasy-adventure, four unlikely supersized outcast turtle brothers must work with fearless reporter April O’Neil (Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Arnett) to save the city and unravel Shredder’s (William Fitchner) diabolical plan. Full of cheap jokes and expensive thrills, the movie proves to be what every young Turtles fan dreams of. Teenage fanboys didn’t write this reboot, however, but it feels like they did. Turtles overly busies itself with sugar rush action sequences and a myriad of plot points borrowed from other superhero flicks. Despite being dizzying, the movie never bores though the paper doll-cutout characters sometimes grate on your patience. Oh, it’s not Mutant Shakespeare, but it hits the teenage demographic square in the PG-13, giving its target audience a pop culture bullseye while keeping adults mildly amused.

 

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Helen Mirren, Om Puri
***1/2 — Eat Pray Grub
In Slumdogging the audience’s way through The Art of French Cooking, the eye-pleasing and sometimes delicious spread known as One Hundred-Foot Journey often boasts Millionaire credentials despite a few cheap moments. In this PG-rated drama based on the book by Richard C. Morais, the Kadam family clashes with Madame Mallory (Mirren), proprietress of a nearby celebrated French restaurant, until the Madame takes their gifted young chef and son Hassan (Puri) under her wing. Overall, it’s a polished affair, worthy of two Michelin Stars in terms of direction and content. Conversely, there are some specific scenes, that — presentation wise — unfortunately knock this Journey back down a star. Well, for better and worse, this is the two-headed serpent known as Lasse Hallstrom. After all, this is the director who nearly ruined the entire experience known as Chocolat by over-stating the final scene with a smiling statute. We got it, the town’s happy. Here, filmgoers get treated to similar chicanery — fake fireworks behind a burgeoning romance. Still, these few moments of gristle aside, the grounded performances, zesty adaptation and overall style make for a tantalizing recipe that cooks up like an adult tale even though the rating’s PG.

 

Small Screens

Robin Williams (1951-2014)
Based on the hilariously manic, improvised mannerisms and expressions of the titular alien from Ork on the then-hit sitcom Mork & Mindy, my extended family — mother, brother, cousins, aunts and all — excitedly filed into General Cinemas late one morning to see the funny stylings of Mork actor Robin Williams in the 1982 film adaptation of John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp … only this rather sad eccentric character piece proved to be the first of (thankfully) many films to showcase Williams’s dramatic — rather than comedic — edge. Five minutes in, my aunt turned to me and said, “Stop laughing … it’s not supposed to be funny.” Thankfully, I never stopped laughing at Williams until Monday, Aug. 11, when the H’Wood legend sadly took his own life. His legacy holds many serious and well regarded high points (Good Morning, Vietnam; Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting), as well as humorous ones (Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage). Chances are, you’ve seen these gems and need to rub the genie’s lantern to fully appreciate the amazing breadth of his talent. Lesser bandied about films Garp (1982), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), The Fisher King (1991) and Insomnia (2002) remain favorites of mine, demonstrating this tragi-comic’s razor edge wit, creativity and deep-seeded well of emotion. To experience one of his purest and most brilliant performances (he did, after all, begin in and continued doing stand-up), however, you need to see his never-funnier guest spot on Johnny Carson’s last regular episode of The Tonight Show, broadcasted on May 21, 1992. There’s a reason why the “King of Late Night” chose Williams to help close out a 30-year career.

Screens

Screens

Opening This Weekend

 

The Expendables 3
Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham
After years of direct-to-DVD gems (D-Tox, Avenging Angelo), Sylvester Stallone resurrected his career with updates of two of his most popular franchises, 2006’s Rocky Balboa and 2008’s Rambo. He truly staged his comeback, however, with 2010’s The Expendables, an explosive mercenary tale chocked full of more action heroes than the discount rack at the video store. Next, he’s rumored to be starring in Creed, a proposed spin-off of the Rocky franchise centered on his old opponent’s grandson … after The Expendables 3, of course. In this R-rated actioner, mercenaries Barney (Stallone), Christmas (Statham) and the rest of the team come face-to-face with arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who years ago cofounded The Expendables. The Plus: The player. The $312 million global box office of The Expendables 2 cemented the return of Stallone (Grudge Match), once the biggest H’Wood star in the world, to blockbuster filmmaking. Here, he has such action icons as Statham (Parker), Gibson (Machete Kills), Jet Li (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), Antonio Banderas (Haywire), Wesley Snipes (Brooklyn’s Finest), Arnold Schwarzenegger (the forthcoming Terminator: Genisys), Dolph Lundgren (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning), Kellan Lutz (The Legend of Hercules), Terry Crews (Draft Day), Kelsey Grammer (I Don’t Know How She Does It), Robert Davi (Kill the Irishman), Randy Couture (Redbelt) and — drum roll, please — Harrison Ford (42). The Minus: The expectation. Outside of this franchise, Stallone’s prospects have been iffy as best (Bullet to the Head, Escape Plan) — Schwarzenegger too (The Last Stand, Sabotage). Even stocked to the gills with has-beens, does this franchise still have momentum?

 

Let’s Be Cops
Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans, Jr.
In this R-rated comedy, two struggling pals dress as police officers for a costume party and become neighborhood sensations … until getting tangled in a real life web of mobsters and dirty detectives, that is. The Plus: The genre. Going back to the 90s (American Pie, There’s Something About Mary), H’Wood happened upon some counter-programming to summertime comic book movies and sequels: the R-rated raunchy comedy. Time (Wedding Crashers) and time (Superbad) and time again (The Hangover), the dog days boast at least one blockbuster adult laugh riot. The Minus: The odds. And 22 Jump Street may very well be that one hit. With a roster of funny-but-hardly-marquee sitcom actors headlining the latest such flick (Johnson, Fox’s The New Girl  and Wayans, ABC’s Happy Endings), the funny trailer needs to do most of the heavy lifting approaching this weekend.

 

The Giver
Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi drama, a young boy (Brendan Thwaites) gets chosen to learn from an elderly man (Bridges) about the difference between the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world from their seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice. The Plus: The players. This adaptation of Lois Lowry’s celebrated, award-winning young adult novel (the 1st of 4) boasts a stellar lineup. Here, Philip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Catch a Fire) directs Bridges (True Grit), Streep (Iron Lady), Thwaites (Maleficent), Alexander Skarsgard (HBO’s True Blood), Katie Holmes (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) and pop star Taylor Swift (Valentine’s Day). The Minus: The odds. For every young adult box office hits, like the Twilight Saga, Harry Potter series or Hunger Games franchise, there’s many more false starts like The Spiderwick Chronicles, I Am Number Four, Beautiful Creatures or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones waiting in the wings.

 

Now Playing

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Megan Fox, Will Arnett
*** — Story on the Half Shell
Throwing everything from turtle soup to nutso visuals at the eyes and ears of moviegoers, the predictable, but occasionally likeable Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knows karate and crazy and demonstrates both qualities quite often. In this PG-13-rated fantasy-adventure, four unlikely supersized outcast turtle brothers must work with fearless reporter April O’Neil (Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Arnett) to save the city and unravel Shredder’s (William Fitchner) diabolical plan. Full of cheap jokes and expensive thrills, the movie proves to be what every young Turtles fan dreams of. Just as horny fan-fiction dowagers didn’t get to write their versions into the canonical Harry Potter, however, so hyped up teenage fanboys didn’t write this reboot … but it feels like they did. In the post-9/11 era of presenting dark ‘n’ dirty vigilante cinema and, conversely, every old toy and cartoon is new again, it’s only natural that Eastman and Laird’s black and white cult comic book get remade again. If the 1990-1993 Jim Henson creature features aped Tim Burton’s dark, gothic and slightly camp Batman, then the current TMNT gleefully falls in the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s realistic, modern and sociological commentary-pieces, The Dark Knight Trilogy. Whereas this threesome boasted a whiz-bang kinetic style that kept the drama, action and thought provocation moving at a generous clip, however, Turtles just overly busies itself with sugar rush action sequences and a myriad of plot points borrowed from other superhero flicks. Despite being dizzying, the movie never bores though the paper doll-cutout characters sometimes grate on your patience. Surprisingly, in throwing so much at the wall, some decent moments actually stick. Plus, the CGI-rendered heroes look authentic and the eye-popping costume and set design catch the mind’s eye. Oh, it’s not Mutant Shakespeare, but it hits the teenage demographic square in the PG-13, giving its target audience a pop culture bullseye while keeping adults mildly amused.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy
Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel
****1/2 — A New Hope
In presenting the most fun, exciting and inner child-inspiring tale of star warriors since, well, Star Wars, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is set on warp speed to become an instant, modern, popcorn classic. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure based on the Marvel comic book, five miscreants sprung from the far reaches of space — an American pilot named Peter Quill (Pratt), a being shaped like a giant tree called Groot (voice of Diesel), a deadly assassin named Gomara (Zoe Saldana), a talking raccoon named Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and a brute named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) — find themselves the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan. Oh, it might be based on a third tier comic book title, but the fist pumping adventure that results here automatically elevates the material to first tier status. Before the opening credits even start sprawling across the screen, the story engages, the characters ground you and the action pops, never once letting up. Also, amid the fighting and ray guns, this derring do-filled opening chapter proves to be outright hilarious at times.

 

Small Screens

A Normal Heart (2014)
Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch
**** — Angelic in America
See HBO’s A Normal Heart when it comes to DVD and Blu-ray on August 26 before it sweeps the Emmy Awards in September. This drama focuses on the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984 and gets seen through the eyes of writer/activist Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), the gay Jewish-American founder of a prominent HIV advocacy group. A heartbreaking work of genius illustrated with a classic H’Wood feel, A Normal Heart truly gives audiences a history lesson worth repeating. Modern filmmakers like Roland Emmerich made careers out of recreating disasters in an epic star-studded fashion, but none come close to the hard-hitting drama evident in Ryan Murphy’s film version of Larry Kramer’s award-winning play. The furthest thing from stagy, the film sometimes feels sprawling and at other times feels rather intimate, which grounds the characters all the more in this historical fiction character piece. This is, after all, a matter of context and we quickly understand these beautifully drawn victims’ place within the global catastrophe chronicled here. Yes, there’s a foreboding feeling of insignificance and hopelessness but — with 30-Year hindsight — we leave the film with the understanding that the plight of their real-life counterparts was ridiculously significant and hopeful. Murphy successfully shepherded Glee and American Horror Story to the small screen and Eat Pray Love to the big screen, but Normal Heart feels achingly personal. His brushstrokes are controlled and precise but arty at just the right moments, painting an unarguably authentic landscape. This only comes about because he’s so confident in both Kramer’s letter perfect script and the brave performances, especially sure-thing Emmy winner Mark Ruffalo.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Megan Fox, Will Arnett
In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” In a summer full of comic book (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), toy (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Saturday morning cartoon adaptations (the forthcoming Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out of Water), it’s disconcerting, er, refreshing when H’Wood mixes it up and presents all three-in-one. In this PG-13-rated fantasy-adventure, four unlikely supersized outcast turtle brothers must work with fearless reporter April O’Neil (Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Arnett) to save the city and unravel Shredder’s (William Fitchner) diabolical plan. The Plus: The material. Based on Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s black-and-white cult comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their way to the big screen twice before (not counting sequels), in live action form (1990, 1991, 1993) and in animated form (2012). Here, producer Michael Bay is taking a little from column A and column B, rendering CGI-generated turtles in a live action world. Here, Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans) directs a cast that includes Fox (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), Arnett (The Lego Movie), Fitchner (Elysium) and Whoopi Goldberg (ABC’s The View) with Johnny Knoxville (Bad Grandpa) and Tony Shaloub (Pain & Gain) providing voices. The Minus: The odds. Any big screen comics worth seeing this summer have already opened by now. Speaking of which, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has to compete with the already released blockbuster hit Guardians of the Galaxy, which broke August box office records by opening to $94 million.

 

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Helen Mirren, Om Puri
In this PG-rated drama based on the book by Richard C. Morais, the Kadam family clashes with Madame Mallory (Mirren), proprietress of a nearby celebrated French restaurant, until the Madame takes their gifted young chef and son Hassan (Puri) under her wing. The Plus: The players. Here, Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Hoax, Dear John, Safe Haven) directs Oscar winner Mirren (The Queen, State of Play, The Last Station, RED). The Minus: The competition. Even though this feel-good drama is aimed mostly at the senior demographic, it still has to contend with three other new releases: Into the Storm, Step Up: All In and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

 

Now playing

Guardians of the Galaxy
Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel
****1/2 — A New Hope
In presenting the most fun, exciting and inner child-inspiring tale of star warriors since, well, Star Wars, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is set on warp-speed to become an instant, modern, popcorn classic. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure based on the Marvel comic book, five miscreants sprung from the far reaches of space — an American pilot named Peter Quill (Pratt), a being shaped like a giant tree called Groot (voice of Diesel), a deadly assassin named Gomara (Zoe Saldana), a talking raccoon named Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and a brute named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) — find themselves the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan. Oh, it might be based on a third-tier comic book title, but the fist-pumping adventure that results here automatically elevates the material to first-tier status. Before the opening credits even start sprawling across the screen, the story engages, the characters ground you and the action pops, never once letting up. Also, amid the fighting and ray guns, this derring do-filled opening chapter proves to be outright hilarious at times. Of course, it’s hard to take it all so seriously when the galaxy’s your canvas and a talking raccoon and walking tree are two of your protagonists, but that doesn’t stop Marvel Studios from some brilliant universe — never mind — world building. No wonder the sequel got greellit before moviegoers ever laid on these Guardians. A lot of this comes down to the stars aligning and burning brightly. We’re not talking gas-composed celestial bodies. Well, perhaps, this definition also applies, but the point is this: From an unlikely leading man to some suspect A-List H’Wood pipes, the casting nails the comic’s Guardians on the head. Funny and unassumingly battle ready, Chris Pratt instantly proves his mettle as a wise-acre galactic thief. Likewise, Zoe Saldana, who already cemented her geek status with Avatar and the new Star Trek franchise, continues to awe as she shape shifts into another unrecognizable, but likeable, alien hero. Without the ridiculously talented director James Gunn, however, cinema wouldn’t have one of the best Saturday matinee sci-fi serials since Buck Rogers on their hands, eyes and ears.

 

Get on Up
Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis
***1/2 — Vex Machine
At times hypnotically gripping thanks to a brilliant lead performance dancing his way around a wonky narrative, Get on Up might fall short of the storytelling genius of Ray and Walk the Line, but it paints a mostly fitting portrait of the Godfather of Soul nonetheless. In this R-rated biopic, director Tate Taylor (The Help) chronicles R&B singer James Brown’s (Boseman) rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history. Despite a winning subject, musical biopics (and biopics in general) often stumble due to a tripped-up script. In the case of James Brown’s life, ‘tripped up’ becomes literal, as the storytelling shifts back and forth through ages and decades. This non-linear approach is welcome when compared with a filmstrip grave-to-cradle presentation (HBO’s Truman always comes to mind as a glaring example of this boring method), but filmgoers never get a clear or completely accurate picture of the man behind the music. There’s no faulting the soundtrack, however, which burns through any flaws in the action and drama with a white-hot flame. Chadwick Boseman feels good … at least, he should. Having already played one historic figure to the awards-worthy hilt (Jackie Robinson in 42), this ludicrously talented actor instantly earns the title “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” by singing and dancing his way through the life had songs of, well, “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Truly, it’s an adrenaline-rushed and chameleonic turn assured an Oscar nomination. Under the sometimes overstated and too arty direction of Tate Taylor, he looks and sounds the part even if he’s confusingly jumping around his own storied timeline more than Dr. Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. Regardless, Get on Up is dynamic even if when it’s not dynamite.

 

Lucy
Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman
* — I Loathe Lucy
Going from brainy to brainless in no time flat, the title character of this muddled mess of an actioner manages to go from hero to zero before the opening credits even stop rolling. In this R-rated sci-fi action flick, a chemically engineered drug mule (Johansson) turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic. It’s so ironic that a movie about a woman using a high percentage of her brain capacity asks that the audience only use less than 1 percent of their own. Lucy is a low-concept flick trying to be high-concept by throwing scientific hokum at the audience right from the get-go. And yes, the great thinker/killer predictably reads and comprehends lightning fast a la Prometheus, as well as maps out entire fight sequences in her mind before a punch even gets thrown a la Sherlock Holmes, but she also goes all Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in one fell swoop. Worse, Lucy becomes more transcendent than Johnny Depp in Transcendence. This is not a spoiler so much as a warning.

 

Hercules
Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt
*1/2 — Rock with Ew
A gag gift from the gods, this terribly miscalculated hamfisted reimagining of the legendary strongman hopefully presents The Last Gasp of the Titans for any future installments. In this PG-13-rated fantasy adventure, the famed Greek demigod (Johnson) has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace (Hurt) and his daughter (Irina Shayk) seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord. Basically, this umpteenth take on Hercules unravels the mythology by revealing him to be more of a ‘Demi’ than ‘god’ before the — wait for it — ultimate test of courage. Indeed, the story pits the titular hero as the perpetrator of his own manufactured legend, a Barnum mercenary who kicks butt but also employs a small gang to help rue the day. Unfortunately for moviegoers, crap always rises to the top. Here, director Bret Ratner and star Dwayne Johnson both not only mishandle the legend of Hercules, but their own attempt to re-imagine the legend of Hercules, gratuitously aping scenes and dialogue right out of Braveheart, Gladiator and 300 in the process.

 

Snall Screens

Marty (1955)
Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair
****1/2 — Plain Dealer
In this unrated drama just released for the first time on Blu-Ray, a middle-aged butcher (Borgnine) and a school teacher (Blair) who have given up on the idea of love, meet at a dance and fall in love. What’s amazing about Marty is how well it holds up. In the current age where everything is cool (minus criminal activity, mind you) and the losers rule (well, the geeks at least), the story of two unlucky-in-love city dwellers — a below-average-looking blue collar worker and plain dowdy dressed college grad — still rings astoundingly true. Hell, it rang true back then which is why it swept the 27th Academy Awards and won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, trumping more polished, somewhat more melodramatic  H’Wood spectacles like East of Eden and Mister Roberts … because even now, it looks and sounds authentic. A fourth of the credit goes to the pitch-perfect performances, as distressed and lived-in as antique duds. A fourth of the credit also goes to Delbert Mann’s atmospheric direction, drenching New York City’s concrete jungle in shadows that easily hide the forgettable faces. The rest of the credit, however, goes to the great Paddy Chayefsky (Hospital, Network), adapting this screenplay from his own stage and TV script. Always light years ahead of his colleagues when it comes to injecting biting satire into popular culture, his tale of harangued lovelorn losers — living in an age when being unmarried by 30 was something akin to being an axe murderer — ages way better than the year’s other “real” drama, Otto Preminger’s Frank Sinatra-starring heroin corker The Man with the Golden Arm.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Guardians of the Galaxy
Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel
Blind Faith. Humble Pie. Power Station. The Honeydrippers. The Traveling Wilburys. These are what music fans call supergroups, glorified garage bands stuffed with more over-the-hill rock stars than an episode of Celebrity Rehab. But what about comic book movie supergroups? Well, with the blockbuster success of The Avengers in 2011, Marvel Studios realized its creative vision of uniting several franchises in one butt-kicking package. Blockbuster hit Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: the Winter Soldier kicked off Phase 2, which will close out with The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015) and Ant-Man (July 17, 2015) … after Guardians of the Galaxy, of course. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure based on the Marvel comic book, five miscreants sprung from the far reaches of space — an American pilot named Peter Quill (Pratt), a being shaped like a giant tree called Groot (voice of Diesel), a deadly assassin named Gomara (Zoe Saldana), a talking raccoon named Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and a brute named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) — find themselves the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan. The Plus: The franchise. With a domestic box office of over $245 million and going, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is already a supersized hit for Marvel. For Marvel Studios’ next trick, James Gunn (Super) directs an ensemble cast led by Pratt (The Lego Movie) and comprised of Zoe Saldana (Star Trek Into Darkness), Bautista (Riddick), Diesel (Fast & Furious 6), Cooper (American Hustle), Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Michael Rooker (AMC’s The Walking Dead), Karen Gillan (HBO’s Doctor Who), Djimon Hounsou (Push), John C. Reilly (Wreck-It Ralph), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) and Benicio del Toro (Savages). Also, have you seen that slick laugh-filled trailer yet? The Minus: The expectation. So far, all of Marvel’s properties have been based on well-known superheroes. With a guess-timated budget of over $150 million, Guardians has to pull in some Avengers-sized numbers, despite sporting a star who’s never fronted a feature film and a director whose last effort only cost $2.5 million. Seeing that the sequel has already been greenlit for 2017, however, it pretty much looks like smooth sailing for this franchise starter.

 

Get On Up
Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis
In this R-rated bio-pic, director Tate Taylor (The Help) chronicles R&B singer James Brown’s (Boseman) rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history. The Plus: The sub-genre: The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Ray and Walk the Line. Filmgoers love a good musical bio-pic when it’s done right. Thankfully, main attraction Chadwick Boseman already boasts some success playing a real-life legend (Jackie Robinson, 42). Here, he’s joined by Ellis (HBO’s True Blood), Viola Davis (Prisoners), Octavia Spencer (Snowpiercer), Lennie James (AMC’s The Walking Dead), Craig Robinson (This is the End) and Dan Akyroyd (HBO’s Behind the Candelabra). The Minus: The odds. As the flat box office and critical response to musical bio-pic Jersey Boys attests, success all comes down to quality — not just the songbook.

 

Now playing

Hercules
Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt
*1/2 — Rock with Ew
A gag gift from the gods, this terribly miscalculated hamfisted reimagining of the legendary strongman hopefully presents The Last Gasp of the Titans for any future installments. In this PG-13-rated fantasy adventure, the famed Greek demigod (Johnson) has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace (Hurt) and his daughter (Irina Shayk) seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord. You know that expression, “When fact becomes legend, print the legend”? Well, this umpteenth take on Hercules plays with this notion in reverse fashion, unraveling the mythology by revealing him to be more of a “demi” than “god” before the ultimate test of courage. Indeed, the story pits the titular “hero” as the perpetrator of his own manufactured legend, a Barnum mercenary who kicks butt but also employs a small gang to help rue the day. Unfortunately for moviegoers, crap always rises to the top. Here, the ice cracks right from the start. At the outset, Herc gets built up to epic proportions by a storyteller and then shows up only to have his deeds accomplished behind the scenes by his merry band of psychopaths. Oh, so the man built like a tank isn’t really a fighter? Well, he is, but the screenwriters wait until the second act to show him throwing a horse. Oh, so he is a fighter, but the flick is just playing fast, loose and humorous with his reputation, right? Well, yes, but the goings-on become so jokey at times that Hercules: The Legendary Follies seems like a more apt title. Oh, so Hercules is a comedy then? Well, no, because the movie becomes so archly serious in the third act that The Legendary Solemnities seems like an even more apt title. Truthfully, the result comes off like a three-headed dog of a flick, never getting the tone or direction right. January’s The Legend of Hercules was a much poorer movie, but the egregious outcome of this Hercules feels so much worse because of the players involved. Oozing charisma and action hero chops in spades, Dwayne Johnson seems born to play this character while Brett Ratner, though often despised by critics, rarely makes an out-and-out bad movie so much as failed attempts at five-star popcorn entertainment (Rush Hour, Red Dragon, X-Men: The Last Stand). They both not only mishandle the legend of Hercules, but their own attempt to reimagine the legend of Hercules gratuitously apes scenes and dialogue right out of Braveheart, Gladiator and 300 in the process.

Sex Tape
Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel
** — The Five-Year Disengagement
Re-teaming for the first time since the bad education given moviegoers in Bad Teacher, Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz fare even worse here, never managing to turn their sex-capades into laugh-Olympics. In this R-rated comedy, a married couple (Diaz, Segel) made harried by being parents decide to spice up their relationship by filming their first sexual encounter in months … only the video doesn’t stay their secret for long. The focus falls on the proposal of making and aftermath of making — not the actual filming of — a Sex Tape, slow-building toward some expected hilarity that just never shows. As an audience member, you kind of hang back patiently waiting for this slow burn approach to finally deliver a whammy moment, fully thinking the long awkward scenes and drawn-out plotting is part of Sex Tape’s eventual comedic payoff. Even the post-ending scenes shown over the credits, scenes where we finally get to the see the filming of the actual Sex Tape in a delayed manner similar to The Hangover’s photographic reveal of their hazy fun-filled night, ultimately sets viewers up for disappointment. Worst of all, despite boasting an R-rating and salacious title, Sex Tape plays out tamer than the characters’ humdrum lives.

 

 

Small Screens

Leftovers (2014)
Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman
***1/2 — The Dread Zone
In the wake of similarly themed Rapturous dramas such as Left Behind, The Sundance Channel’s The Returned and ABC’s Resurrection, HBO’s Leftovers asks a lot of viewers. If patience is your virtue, however, than reheat the sub-genre anew with this fresh take. This pay cable drama revolves around the remaining residents of the suburban community of Mapleton, New York, who try to rebuild their lives after a mysterious worldwide phenomenon made millions all over the world inextricably disappear into thin air, including 100 of their own. Halfway through its first season, this richly interesting, but hopelessly depressing adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel (the author is credited as co-writer on all 10 episodes as well), greatly wants for levity even when it’s making you think through the impossible human puzzle at its core. And thankfully, that human factor is always present, realistically presenting the theological, societal and personal struggles of people mourning something that they don’t understand. Cults. Messiahs. Disciples. Pariahs. They’re all here, watched over by a flawed put-upon lawman who chooses to maintain order in a seeming post-Apocalypse. As this sheriff, Theroux, in a transfixing turn, leads an amazing cast that includes Brenneman, Liv Tyler, Christopher Eccleston, Ann Dowd and Scott Glenn under the weapons grade directing of blockbuster helmers like Peter Berg (Battleship), Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress). Without these talents present, however, audiences would barely make it beyond the average Pilot and its only-slightly-better follow-up. Thankfully, the episodes get better from there. Never prosaic, the series proves to be a long commitment, however. Here’s hoping that the meta-physical big reveal gets a better handling than in executive producer Damon Lindelof’s final episode of Lost because here, the morose plotting likewise leaves you in a fog monster malaise.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

Hercules
Dwayne Johnson, John Hurt
After years of dishing his signature “People’s Elbow” move on countless testosterone-fueled WWE opponents, H’Wood found a place for pro wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson: as franchise rejuvenation. With Fast Five, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the Rock stepped into three series that were thought to be long past their sell-by dates, only to see both movies bank their respective franchises’ biggest paydays yet. Now, Paramount and MGM hope that he can kick off a whole new franchise with Hercules. In this PG-13-rated fantasy adventure, the Greek demigod (Johnson) has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace (Hurt) and his daughter (Irina Shayk) seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord. The Plus: The players. Here, Brett Ratner (Tower Heist) directs Johnson (Pain & Gain), Hurt (BBC’s Doctor Who), Ian McShane (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), Joseph Fiennes (The Escapist), Rufus Sewell (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer) and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Irina Shayk. The Minus: The odds. Outside of existing franchises (add The Mummy Returns to the list above), Johnson hasn’t had a lot of success lately (Snitch, Faster). Also, in January, Summit Entertainment’s The Legend of Hercules failed to wow audiences and critics.

Lucy
Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman
In this R-rated sci-fi actioner, a genetically engineered woman (Johansson) turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic. The Plus: The player. Following critically lauded turns in both award-nominated films (Her, Don John) and a blockbuster franchise (The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Johansson is having quite a professional run. Here, she’s acting under Luc Besson, the writer-director behind La Femme Nikita, Leon: the Professional and The Fifth Element. The Minus: The player. The most recent of those flicks dropped 17 years ago. Since then, Besson’s directing yielded little success (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Family), save for the critically despised Arthur & the Invisibles. As a screenwriter, he turned out back (Columbiana) to back (The Family) to back (3 Days to Kill) duds. This speaks poorly for Johansson continuing her winning streak, despite an action-packed trailer.

 

Now playing

The Purge: Anarchy
Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo
**1/2 – Anarchy in the OK
Purging any trace of the deathly hollow The Purge, save for the whipsmart premise, halfway-decent thriller Anarchy improves upon the original exponentially by takin’ it to the streets. In this R-rated thriller, some victims ousted from their homes struggle to survive on the streets as the annual purge commences, but a vindictive stranger (Grillo) can’t turn a blind eye. Granted, this improvement doesn’t elevate this chapter anywhere near A-grade entertainment but it is exhilarating at times … and then an unwanted and unnecessary story thread involving a safe house made unsafe by jealous spousal infidelity pops up and nearly unravels the whole suit. In Screenwriting 101, it’s what’s called plot point B, which propels us into Act 3. It’s plot point B-movie, however, which isn’t necessarily bad for a horror flick with such an exploitive incendiary hook. Thankfully, it doesn’t derail the blood-splattered action or arch social commentary much. If this slice of urban horror is meant to establish Frank Grillo as a star, consider leading man status achieved. After ace supporting turns in The Grey and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he more than holds his own amid the, well, Anarchy. Considering he just signed on for a remake of Death Wish (not-altogether-different story-wise), this review bodes well for all involved. Wiping his previous slate clean, writer-director James DeMonaco improves upon his own Purge with a streamlined — if occasionally predictable and daffy — torture porn sequel.

Sex Tape
Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel
** — The Five-Year Disengagement
Re-teaming for the first time since the bad education given moviegoers in Bad Teacher, Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz fare even worse here, never managing to turn their Sex-capades into Laugh-Olympics. In this R-rated comedy, a married couple (Diaz, Segel) made harried by being parents decide to spice up their relationship by filming their first sexual encounter in months … only the video doesn’t stay their secret for long. At the outset, Sex Tape turns a funnier and more acerbic eye on the truisms of being Married…with Children than Segel’s co-hort Judd Apatow did with This is 40. There endeth any moments resembling comedy, however. Also, This is 69 just wouldn’t cut it as a title, so the focus falls on the proposal of making and aftermath of making — not the actual filming of — a sex tape, slow-building toward some expected hilarity that just never shows. As an audience member, you kind of hang back patiently waiting for this slow burn approach to finally deliver a whammy moment, fully thinking the long awkward scenes and drawn-out plotting is part of Sex Tape’s eventual comedic payoff. Even the post-ending scenes shown over the credits, scenes where we finally get to the see the filming of the Sex Tape in a delayed manner similar to The Hangover’s photographic reveal of their hazy fun-filled night, ultimately sets viewers up for disappointment. Worst of all, despite boasting an R-rating and salacious title, Sex Tape plays out tamer than the characters’ humdrum lives. It’s a shame too because the case is firing on all cylinders. Cameron Diaz has never been better. She may’ve cut her teeth in comedy (My Best Friend’s Wedding, There’s Something About Mary) and honed it along the way (Being John Malkovich, In Her Shoes), but she doesn’t make a wrong move here, save for signing off on the half-baked script. Meanwhile, Jason Segel excels at playing a goofy put-upon everyman even when the only one putting anything upon him proves to be himself. Any beef with Segel gets directed toward his screenwriting. He and partner Nicholas Stoller have turned out A-grade hilarity before (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, The Muppets). In working from Kate Angelo’s story idea and first draft, however, they just can’t mine many funny moments.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
**** — The Chimps are Alright
While the interesting, but hopelessly flawed, last chapter gave Rise to a rousing, but slow, franchise rejuvenator, the latest Apes marks the Dawn of something much better, a thinking man’s crowd pleaser every bit as solidly entertaining and thought provoking as the 1968 trailblazer. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, survivors of the simian plague (Oldman, Russell, Jason Clarke) trigger an all-out war between humanity and Caesar’s growing forces. Set not so much in a YA Dystopia but in a post-Ape-lyptic San Francisco where humans have sought refuge in a heavily guarded compound – Ape semi-civilization meets Simian flu-ravaged humanity — starts heating to a white-hot intensity right from the outset. When humanity’s last stand gets framed for an assassination and geo-politics turn into outright war, however, that’s when Dawn truly boils over with some timely social commentary that never seems too preachy. Thankfully, the action and intrigue rarely let up which bodes exceedingly well for the forthcoming sequel.

Begin Again
Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley
**** — Once More with Feeling
Singing a similar tune in a bigger venue, John Carney’s fun soulful follow up to Once mostly hits high notes. In this R-rated musical-dramedy from director John Carney (Once), a chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive (Ruffalo) and a young singer-songwriter (Knightley) turns into a promising collaboration. Sure, New York City replaces Dublin and the main character proves to be another heartbroken singer-songwriter finding a career-making muse but the canvas becomes much bigger. The stakes, of course, remain the same which grounds this melodic character piece. Knowing that the achingly tuneful, youthful and beautiful Once is a hard act to follow, writer-director Carney doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, he changes the playing field and takes a more pointed acerbic look at the music industry. Backed by some amazing casting and a hit worthy songbook, Begin Again gracefully sets toes tapping and hearts fluttering.

 

Small Screens

Snowpiercer (2014)
Chris Evans, Jamie Bell
**** — Hella Good on Wheels
Snowpiercer easily ranks among the year’s biggest and best event films, so embrace this rare opportunity to see a summer blockbuster in your own home even if it’ll make you want to run right to the cinema and see it again. In this R-rated sci-fi thriller set in a future where a failed global-warming experiment kickstarts the next Ice Age, a combustible class system evolves on a train that travels around the globe non-stop. A visually awe-striking piece of popcorn buttered with some rich social commentary, Snowpiercer’s loco motive never feels preachy because the action and humor moves at a bullet train pace. Entertaining and thought-provoking, the film boasts an expert script, pitch perfect casting and Oscar-worthy production design. Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho (with help from Kelly Masterson) develops the original’s class struggle story into a post-Great Recession tale that resonates with truth and, amazingly, laughs. He also paints us a brilliant canvas brimming with an arresting amount of detail. Each train car — from slums to plaza suites to engine — gets its own distinctive motif. Here, he helms a none-greater cast headed by once and future Captain America Evans. Tilda Swinton, however, manages to steal the show with a loopy and androgynous supporting turn. Reportedly, Weinstein Company (the flick’s distributor) head Harvey Weinstein took his scissors to Joon-ho’s cut and there was talk that the writer/director’s artistic vision got compromised. It doesn’t seem possible that this high concept futuristic tale could be any better, however.

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

Sex Tape
Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel
Leading back to her debut in The Mask, Cameron Diaz has certainly had her share of box office hits (Charlie’s Angels, the Shrek franchise). With My Best Friend’s Wedding, this former model proved that she had comedy chops too. It was with raunchy adult comedy There’s Something About Mary, however, that this comedienne truly achieved star status. With Bad Teacher, Diaz gets dirrrrrrty again (think: Dangerous Minds meets Bad Santa). In this R-rated comedy, a foul-mouthed and inappropriate teacher (Diaz) sets in motion her plan to win over a rich handsome substitute (Timberlake) while fighting off the advances of an irreverent gym teacher (Jason Segel). The Plus: The players. Director Jake Kasdan has done comedy before (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and done it well besides (Orange County). Here, he directs Diaz (Knight and Day), Timberlake (The Social Network), Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and Lucy Punch (Dinner for Schmucks). The Minus: The competition. In a summer full of superheroes and sequels, the box office could sure use some counter-programming like this original comedy. The problem is, this is the third of three R-rated comedies being released in a month, following in the heels of Bridesmaids and loafers of Hangover Part II.

The Purge: Anarchy
Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo
In this R-rated thriller, a young couple (Grillo, Ejogo) struggles to survive on the streets after their car breaks down right as the annual purge commences. The Plus: The genre. Horror flicks have a knack for becoming surprise summer hits. Last July, The Conjuring scared up over $318 million worldwide. Despite poor reviews, The Purge also proved a hit last summer at the U.S. box office, opening at $34 million and going on to make nearly double that amount. It looks like the producers are starting over, smartly keeping the basic premise, but bringing in a cast of relative unknowns. The Minus: The odds. One weekend, four new releases (the PG-13-rates Rob Reiner-directed And So it Goes starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton and the PG-rated Planes: Fire & Rescue are also bowing this weekend) … there’s not room enough for all of them in an already crowded box office. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will rue the weekend again, but achieving second place will truly be a dogfight.

 

Now Playing

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
**** — The Chimps are Alright
While the interesting but hopelessly flawed last chapter gave Rise to a rousing, but slow, franchise rejuvenator, the latest Apes marks the Dawn of something much better — a thinking man’s crowd pleaser every bit as solidly entertaining and thought provoking as the 1968 trailblazer. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, survivors of the simian plague (Oldman, Russell, Jason Clarke) trigger an all-out war between humanity and Caesar’s growing forces. Set not so much in a YA Dystopia, but in a post-Ape-lyptic San Francisco where humans have sought refuge in a heavily guarded compound, the flick is kind enough to catch up both the forgettable and those who didn’t see Rise of the Planet of the Apes with an introductory catch-up summation that’s never obtrusive. In fact, done mostly with mock news footage, it actually plays into the narrative quite nicely. But that’s when the exiting dynamic — Ape semi-civilization meets Simian flu-ravaged humanity — starts heating to a white hot intensity. When humanity’s last stand gets frames for an assassination and geo-politics turn into outright war, however, that’s when Dawn truly boils over with some timely social commentary that never seems too preachy. Thankfully, the action and intrigue rarely lets up which bodes exceedingly well for the forthcoming sequel. Boasting A-Grade talent that’s not necessarily A-List so far as bankability, the actors never overshadow character. Thanks to motion capture technology making leaps and bounds despite already looking sharp in 2005’s King Kong, mo-capped actors now generate photo-realistic performances. When you have an actor as ridiculously spot-on brilliant as Andy Serkis, however, you’re guaranteed a gold standard. Here, the Apes are the thing, which director Matt Reeves emphasizes to a T. Taking over for Rise director Rupert Wyatt, he imbues the adventure and human beats with all if the dark emotional resonance on display in his criminally underappreciated ace horror remake Let Me In.

Begin Again
Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley
**** — Once More with Feeling
Singing a similar tune in a bigger venue, John Carney’s fun soulful follow up to Once mostly hits high notes. In this R-rated musical-dramedy from director John Carney (Once), a chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive (Ruffalo) and a young singer-songwriter (Knightley) turns into a promising collaboration. Sure, New York City replaces Dublin and the main character proves to be another heartbroken singer-songwriter finding a career-making muse but the canvas becomes much bigger. The stakes, of course, remain the same which ground this melodic character piece. Knowing that the achingly tuneful, youthful and beautiful Once is a hard act to follow, writer-director Carney doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, he changes the playing duke and takes a more pointed acerbic look at the music industry. Backed by some amazing casting and a hit worthy songbook, Begin Again gracefully sets toes tapping and hearts fluttering. We knew Carney was aces at marrying music and material. We just didn’t know that Kiera Knightley wound realize this role so lovely. Warbling as beautifully as she conveys heartbreak and passion, this actress astounds. Likewise, minus the singing, gives an excellently nuanced performance — desperate, energetic and blue in one fell swoop. Adam Levine assumes the usually thankless heel role. Evincing a voice as polished and a swagger as knowing as the greatest 70s singer-songwriters, he falls so seamlessly into the tapestry that you begin to wonder if he’s really aware that a lot of the film’s cynical music biz critique gets aimed squarely at his real-life pop star persona.

Tammy
Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon
*1/2 — Serenity Theft
Discontinuing a hot streak that began with the hilarious bouquet Bridesmaids and carried through the average, but still amusing The Heat, comedienne Melissa McCarthy bottoms out with this Tourist Trap of a roadtrip comedy. In this R-rated comedy, a woman (McCarthy) hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother (Sarandon) after getting fired and catching her husband two-timing. The main character proves to be a woman undergoing a personal crisis but the trailer focuses on her perpetrating a burger joint stick-up which — before you’ve ever entered the theater — makes her wildly unsympathetic. Unfortunately, this moment ends up as the only stretch of Tammy that even approaches being humorous. When a flick uses the main character’s name as its title, you would expect some sort of character development to occur at some point. With Tammy, you’d be dead wrong, however. Worse, despite boasting an R-rating, this comedy circumvents the traditional bawdy route … not because it’s high minded, but because the raunchy gags and bits completely miss their mark.

 

Small Screens

Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows
** — Shark Weak
In honor of the Everhart shark exhibit, trap, er, treat yourself to an I-Tunes or Amazon download of Deep Blue Sea. In this R-rated thriller, a scientific crew (Jane, Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J) on an isolated research facility become the bait as three intelligent sharks fight back. If you take a ludicrous plot involving super smart sharks, an impossible setting aping Sealab 2021 and improbable casting pitting LL Cool J, a failed Punisher and the future Nick Fury against a CGI dino-fish, you know you’ve just stepped in Deep Blue something. Just because this muddled undersea non-thriller winks at the audience as if to say “Hey, we’re going for a B-Movie feel” doesn’t excuse cheap filmmaking tricks, lazy writing and/or make this Z-Grade pill go down any easier. Your ears get subjected to “Beneath its glassy surface … a world of gliding monsters.” And THEN Michael Rappaport shows up! Chewing more scenery than Sterling Hayden on a bender, he and the rest of the cast go for broke, proactively using histrionics to drown out the inevitable Rifftrax quipping that surely followed. Sure, it puts forth a phony baloney backstory about using shark brains to find an Alzheimer’s cure, but the only ones who will want to perpetually forget this moment are moviegoers. “What you’ve done is knocked us down the god damn food chain.” Yep, this line gets delivered by Jane … with some deathly serious rage-tinged vigor, it must be said. Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger director Renny Harlin is capable of crafting over-the-top thrills and, truthfully, Deep Blue Sea boasts a few. Here, however, everything — from the lines spoken to the bodies eaten — gets over-the-top treatment. Only two of the cast make it out of this Grindhouse wannabe (think: Locked Jaws) alive, but no one truly gets away without some psychological damage … audiences mostly.

Screens

Screens

Opening This Week

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Gary Oldman, Keri Russell
Those damn dirty apes are at it again! After 1968’s Planet of the Apes went, well, ape at the box office, it spawned four sequels (Beneath the …, Escape from …, Conquest of… and Battle for…), a TV series (duh, Planet of…) and an animated series (Return to…). Since Tim Burton’s lukewarmly received remake in 2001, however, the franchise lay dormant … until 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes reignited the franchise to the good graces of audiences and critics, paving the way for this inevitable sequel. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, survivors of the simian plague (Oldman, Russell, Jason Clarke) trigger an all-out war between humanity and Caesar’s growing forces. The Plus: The players. Here, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) directs Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell (FX’s The Americans), Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), Codi Smit-McPhee (The Road) Andy Serkis (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Judy Greer (Carrie). The Minus: The switcheroo. After signing on for this sequel, Rise director Rupert Wyatt got replaced by Reeves. Then, the release got moved from May to July 18 to July 11. Lastly, Rise star James Franco, who reportedly wasn’t approached about returning, publicly rebuked the producers for including leftover footage of the actor from the previous flick. With another sequel already scheduled for July 29, 2016, 20th Century Fox had better make up its mind on a lot of factors.

 

Now Playing

Tammy
Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon
*1/2 — Serenity Theft
Discontinuing a hot streak that began with the hilarious bouquet Bridesmaids and carried through the average, but still amusing, The Heat, comedienne Melissa McCarthy bottoms out with this tourist trap of a road trip comedy. In this R-rated comedy, a woman (McCarthy) hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother (Sarandon) after getting fired and catching her husband two-timing. The main character proves to be a woman undergoing a personal crisis, but the trailer focuses on her perpetrating a burger joint stick-up which — before you’ve ever entered the theater — makes her wildly unsympathetic. Why would Warner Brothers do this? Well, this moment ends up as the only stretch of Tammy that even approaches being humorous. When a flick uses the main character’s name as its title, you would expect some sort of character development to occur at some point. With Tammy, you’d be dead wrong, however. Worse, despite boasting an R-rating, this comedy circumvents the traditional bawdy route … not because it’s high minded, but because the raunchy gags and bits completely miss their mark. The advertising lures moviegoers in for a buddy comedy, but there’s virtually no comic back and forth between the leads. Such a format usually employs a straight woman/stooge dynamic, but neither McCarthy nor a wasted Sarandon assume these roles. Here, only audience members end up to be the stooge. Any discussion about this talented funnywoman’s plus-sized weight needs to get squashed. America boasts a high percentage of overweight citizens and it only makes sense that H’Wood cast beyond stick figures to depict a more representative demographic. The more important question comes down to a funny quotient, as in “Does she get laughs?” Sadly, she doesn’t. The story isn’t even half-baked — it’s raw ingredients in need of numerous drafts and script doctoring. Tammy doesn’t necessarily follow a predictable path because the movie has no direction. In a recent Variety cover story, it was reported that McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone (who directed and co-wrote the script with his wife) have six projects lined up for production in the near future. If Tammy is any sign as to what’s to come, they should just stop while they’re behind.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz
** — Daft of the Moon
Transmogrifying from a potentially cool blockbuster into an overlong muddled mess in five easy feces, this fourth live action big-screen go-round for the Hasbro toy can’t even manage to break even for eager moviegoers. It only nearly breaks even, mind you, because of the weapons grade CGI, special effects and sound effects.  In this PG-13-rated sci-fi auctioner, an automobile mechanic/inventor (Wahlberg) and his daughter (Peltz) make a discovery that draws the warring Autobots and Decepticons — and a paranoid government official (Kelsey Grammar) — in on them. About halfway through the action, the story loses you…not because it’s overly complex like Pi or, say, Back to the Future II, but because the script just ceases to matter in a deluge of quips and explosions. Funny enough, it starts out with great promise, slow building a streamlined down home, weird science conspiracy take into an overly bombastic TV mini-series length product placement crap-travaganza. The length, of course, seals the deal. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Age of Extinction feels like it lasts longer than the same childhood in which you actually made up better stories while you played with Transformers.

Deliver Us from Evil
Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez
** — American Borer Story
Despite rocking an edgy setting and some hard-charging performances, H’Wood’s latest dust-up with paranormal activity can’t manage to Deliver Us any original thrills. In this R-rated horror flick based on real events, a NYC police officer (Bana) joins forces with an unconventional priest (Ramirez) to investigate a series of possessions that are terrorizing the city. Granted, the flick boasts some decent hair-raisers, but it’s nothing audiences haven’t seen in countless other big screen ghost stories. What makes the movie compelling is its urban hook. Yes, we’ve seen investigators tracking down the demonized Evil that men do, but the investigators are rarely cops and usually in isolated houses. Plus, you throw in a hard-drinking roughneck man of god and moviegoers are sold American … only these elements never deliver on their promise. Flashlights going dark. Cats jumping out. Deranged ladies acting creepy. This horror flick manages to check off just about every cliché box afforded this genre. Thankfully, a couple of ace performances and some atmospheric direction scare up the entertainment factor a bit. Even when a project’s not worthy of his talent (Deadfall, Closed Circuit), Eric Bana elevates the material a notch just through shear watchability. Despite cutting his teeth as a comedian, he always gives great seemingly effortless turns, whether it’s a hard-hitting drama (Munich) or popcorn blockbuster (Star Trek). Likewise, Edgar Ramirez (Che: Part 1 and 2, Zero Dark Thirty) is scary good — literally scary. Like an exposed live wire, you want to keep your distance but also keep your eyes directly on him at all times. Despite demonstrating a knack for helming great edge-of-your-seat moments (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister), director Scott Derrickson’s script for Deliver Us from Evil doesn’t show much bite because it’s loaded with recycled spine tinglers. Hopefully, he brings his A-Game to the hotly anticipated franchise to which he’s just been attached: Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange.

The Rover
Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson
****1/2 — Beyond Thunderstruck
Making the bullet-ridden, dust deviled, brains splattered western The Proposition look like the Australian equivalent of a plucky Disney princess story, The Rover presents a palpable vengeance tale badder than the actual badlands. And yes, bad means good for filmgoers. In this R-rated crime-drama set in a near futuristic wasteland, a hardened loner on a dangerous journey forms an uneasy bond with the brother (Pattinson) of one of the thieves (Scoot McNairy) he’s pursuing to kill. This is not to say that The Proposition charts anywhere near bad film territory. In fact, it is a blisteringly visceral re-examining of identity, allegiance and justice told with a revisionist’s style. The same could be said of The Rover, only principles and scruples often blur and disappear in this film’s Dystopian horizon more readily, unlike its forebear. The film beats with humanity and the brilliant ending displays great heart … albeit heart held in a clenched fist. Guy Pierce brilliantly conveys the menace, weight and dread of a grizzled victim pushed over the edge.

 

Small Screens

Hell on Wheels: Season Three (2013)
Anson Mount, Colm Meaney
***1/2 — Hells-a-Poppin’
In the third season of this AMC TV western (coming to DVD this Tuesday), Cullen Bohannon (Mount) abandons avenging his wife’s murder in order to continue driving the westward expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad, while battling Thomas “Doc” Durant (Meaney) for control. HBO’s Deadwood ranks among this reviewer’s top five television series of all time which, admittedly, makes any serialized western a hard act to follow. Hell on Wheels never comes close to the brilliant meta-Shakespearean narrative of David Milch’s landmark, but remains an entertaining also-ran. Here, after season one course-corrected following a rocky start and season two literally went out with a rousing bang, round three dusts off any weak strands and powers forward in a compelling new direction right from the get-go. Sure, a new love interest gets gratuitously shoehorned in and the Mormons replace Native-Americans as the obligatory antagonists (understandably antagonistic given that the railroad impedes upon their lands), but the characters get to go to some fascinating places. Mount’s Bohannon makes an even greater anti-hero now that he’s become a ‘father’ while slow-burning fuse slave-turned-lawman Elam (rapper Common, in an ace performance) exudes powder keg unpredictability. Over 10 episodes, the writing starts out strong, but becomes melodramatic and over-reaches its grasp by the finale. Still, there’s enough loco-motion for at least one more season, which begins an expanded 13 episode run on Aug. 2.

Screens

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Opening this week

Transformers: Age of Extinction
Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz
Okay, there’s an elephant in the room. True, Mark Wahlberg began his career as Marky Mark, lead rapper of the Funky Bunch. That’s ancient history, however. Since then, he’s earned the right to lose the Marky after generating a lot of good vibrations in H’Wood (Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, Italian Job, Invincible, The Departed, The Fighter, Ted), which is why we must indulge detours like the current A&E reality series The Wahlburgers, which chronicles the struggles of his brother Paul’s hamburger chain. Before Wahlberg puts in a cameo in the Entourage movie (he produced the hit HBO series), he’s starring in the latest Transformers flick. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi actioner, an automobile mechanic/inventor (Wahlberg) and his daughter (Peltz) make a discovery that draws the warring Autobots and Decepticons — and a paranoid government official (Kelsey Grammar) — in on them. The Plus: The players. Giving Wahlberg (Ted) the starring role in this franchise is a potential win-win. He needs a hit after a spotty run (Contraband, Broken City, Pain & Gain, Lone Survivor) and this franchise needs to establish itself away from the critically-derided chapters starring Shia LaBeouf. Here, Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon) also directs Peltz (A&E’s Bates Motel), Jack Reynor (Delivery Man), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Sophia Myles (Outlander), Grammer (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) and Titus Welliver (ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The Minus: Burnout. After three noisy, explosive, CGI-crammed flicks, how many moviegoers are still primed for more transforming robots? Paramount and Hasbro (which makes the on which Transformers is based) hopes $165 million worth, as that’s this flick’s estimated budget.

Coming soon

Snowpiercer
Chris Evans, Jamie Bell
Even though the name Snowpiercer isn’t exactly as well known as Batman, The X-Men, or even, say, Jonah Hex, it does ring a bell for fans of this sub-genre. It’s based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. In this R-rated sci-fi thriller set in a future where a failed global-warming experiment kickstarts the next Ice Age, a combustible class system evolves on a train that travels around the globe non-stop. The Plus: The players. Here, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho works from his own screenplay adaptation (co-written by Kelly Masterson) and helms a cast that includes once and future Captain America Evans (The Avengers), Bell (Man on a Ledge), Kang-ho Song (The Good, the Bad and the Weird), Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Ed Harris (Pain & Gain), John Hurt (BBC’s Doctor Who), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Ewan Bremmer (Jack the Giant Slayer) and Alison Pill (HBO’s The Newsroom). The Minus: The scuttle. Reportedly, Weinstein Company took his scissors to Joon-ho’s cut and compromised the writer/director’s artistic vision. With a reported budget of $39 million and a producer notorious for making such cuts, this drama doesn’t sound all that unlikely but does create bad buzz for this high concept actioner.

 

Now Playing

Jersey Boys  John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken    **1/2 — Cease is the Word
Inspiring more brow furling than toe tapping, Clint Eastwood somehow manages to take a beloved Broadway hit and turn it into a melancholic, brokedown jukebox musical miss. In the R-rated musical biography Jersey Boys, Eastwood presents the true story of four young men from New Jersey (Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza) who formed the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons to escape a mobbed up past on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s not as if Eastwood doesn’t understand what makes a musical tick. He’s directed several music-themed dramas (Play Misty For Me, Bird), composed the score for several more (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) and even sung a tune or two on film himself (Paint Your Wagon, Honkytonk Man). He just doesn’t seem to understand what makes this particular musical — a smash that won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), mounted two North American tours and sold out shows all over the world — tick. Jersey Boys boasts a look and narrative voice that feels reminiscent of Martin Scorsese with its themes of guilt, redemption and machismo set in a dark and violent world that’s occasionally soundtracked by popular music. Jerzy Kosinki Boys may have been a better title. Indeed, Eastwood’s 32nd feature film as director proves more moody and broody than his last decent flick, Changeling … and yes, that particular piece of LA Noir centered around a serial child killer. Oh, the film is well shot, mind you. And yes, there was a lot of infighting and underworld activity associated with the development of this landmark act. Such drama should remain behind the music, however, hence the genre. Wearing the label “musical” implies that a film is going to possess a certain energy that naturally comes along with singing and instrument playing. Perhaps, like the characters in the story, this flick just tires itself out with all of the incessant arguing. When the soundtrack kicks in, it comes as a welcome reprieve from monotonous melodrama. Indeed, hearing such Four Seasons chart toppers as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry,” “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Stay” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” offers relief from the stagnant script. What’s truly a pity is that the phenomenal cast (especially John Lloyd Young, who reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli) seemed game for a good sing-along, too.

Think Like a Man Too
Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union
*1/2 — Think Like a Yawn
In taking the dysfunctional couplings from Think Like a Man and giving them a Vegas Vacation, this deuce doesn’t exactly earn points for originality, but it’s contrived storytelling certainly wins an award for banality. In this PG-13-rated comedy sequel, all the couples are back for a wedding in Las Vegas, but plans for a romantic weekend go awry when their various misadventures get them into some compromising situations that threaten to derail the big event. Steve Harvey didn’t write a sequel to his bestselling relationship advice book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, mind you. Screen Gems just took it upon itself to capitalize on a certain 2012 surprise hit, which apparently involves pitting their continued romantic hijinks in — wait for it … as if it’s never been done before — in Sin City. That’s right, the characters that laudably, but improbably eked out an enjoyable first go-round, take things to the world’s most famous adult playground for a bachelor party. Oh, what misadventures they get in! Suite parties. Strip clubs. Heavy drinking. Characters not developing. Wait, what?! That’s right, the loves and losses unfurled in the first flick apparently didn’t teach this bunch any life lessons. They’re stuck in second gear and down shifting. If a third movie rears its head (Think Like a Man Too Bad), these characters might just revert to infancy rather than actually detail the highs and lows of monogamy in the spirit of the book. Any resemblance between this amazing cast and an awesome story is purely inaccessible. All involved stand and deliver to the best of their ability, especially Kevin Hart, a white-hot star to whom most of this broken-down wagon gets hitched to. Like a bad night at the casino tables, the script is just a bust. Oh, it’s funny in parts, but there is no Las Vegas comedy cliche too insignificant for screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman to ignore. Certain audiences and film industry professionals decry the lack of movies centered around the African-American demographic, but is this what it’s come to? Churning out recycled plots with tired gags and just adding in an African-American cast to act their way out of a steaming pile of H’Wood poo? The cast deserves better. African-American moviegoers deserve better. Frankly, we all do.

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
*** — The Booker Thief
Following up an unlikely hit laugh-riot with a joke-stuffed sequel that almost makes you want to put on your laugh-riot grrrrr, 22 Jump Street equals bust in blackjack terms but somehow breaks even for moviegoers looking for some raunchy guffaws. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. Throughout this flick, blurbs get dropped regarding the sophomoric slump that usually follows a second helping. Well, just because you wink at the audience in reference to your inadequacies doesn’t make you any less inadequate. Several literal laugh-out-loud moments rise to the top of this warmed over plate of leftovers (indeed, it’s the same story as in 21 Jump Street, just with Tatum and Hill’s sadsack-hero roles reversed and strung out over collegiate and spring break settings). It quickly becomes apparent — with its sequel one-liners laid on so thick as if to say it’s truly a joke that their misadventures even got a second go-round — that 22’s still welcome company, but 23 will prove an unwanted crowd on your time if the series is allowed to keep going.

 

Small Screens

The Raid: Redemption
Iko Uwais, Ananda George
**** — Block Rocking Beast
Before The Raid 2 brawls, ahem, bows on DVD on July 8th, get your fight up for the propulsive Part one. In this R-rated adrenaline-laced piece of popcorn, an Indonesian S.W.A.T. team becomes trapped in a tenement run by a ruthless mobster and his army of murderous thugs. Stripped, blood-stained and eye peeling, The Raid does for action what Iron Man and The Dark Knight did for the comic book movie in 2008 — gives the genre a much needed shot of cool in the arm. Oh, it doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel. In the wake of recycled 80s action porn like The Expendables and A Good Day to Die Hard, however, The Raid offers an unapologetically straight-ahead kill-or-be-killed story that you’ve kinda sorta seen before and somehow makes it seem brand spanking new. In fact, when this breakneck flick stops to catch its breath and – gasp – forward the story, it feels like the script stepped in molasses. What brought Welshman Gareth Evans (V/H/S/ 2) to Indonesia? Who knows? Maybe he fell in love with Asian shoot-‘em-ups as a kid. Regardless, Redemption marks a hard-charging feature debut exploding with style.

 

 

Screens

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Opening this week

Jersey Boys
John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken
Though Clint Eastwood hinted that 2012’s Trouble with the Curve would be his acting swan song (hell, he also said the same thing about 2008’s Gran Torino), the 84-year-old H’Wood legend shows no signs of actually letting the fat lady sing. He’s directed several music-themed dramas (Play Misty For Me, Bird), composed the score for several more (Mystic River, Changeling) and even sung a tune or two on film himself (Paint Your Wagon, Honkytonk Man). His 32nd feature film as director, however, marks his first out-and-out musical. In the R-rated musical biography Jersey Boys, Eastwood presents the true story of four young men from New Jersey (Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza) who formed the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons to escape a mobbed up past on the wrong side of the tracks. The Plus: The material. Since opening in 2005, this smash Broadway jukebox musical won four Tony Awards (including Best Musical), mounted two North American tours and sold out shows all over the world. In addition to direction by Oscar-winner Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), this adaptation smartly boasts original playwrights Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice on screenwriting duties, Tony winner (and originator of the role on Broadway) John Lloyd Young as music legend Frankie Valli and — lest we forget — a soundtrack that includes such Four Seasons chart toppers as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry,” “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Stay,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and more. The Minus: The odds. Eastwood’s last three films, Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar, didn’t fare well come Oscar time or at the box office.

 

Think Like a Man Too
Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union
Though comedian and Family Feud host Steve Harvey never penned a sequel to his 2009 book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, this hasn’t stopped H’Wood from churning out part deux. In this PG-13-rated sequel to the 2012 hit comedy Think Like a Man, all the couples are back for a wedding in Las Vegas, but plans for a romantic weekend go awry when their various misadventures get them into some compromising situations that threaten to derail the big event. The Plus: The players. When the first flick opened, comedian Hart wasn’t much of a draw. Now, however, having busted out in the smash hit Ride Along and well received stand-up flick Let Me Explain, he’s a marquee selling point. Here, returning director Tim Story (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) has assembled a cast that includes Hart (Grudge Match), Union (ABC’s FlashForward), Ealy (Fox’s Almost Human), Wendi McLendon-Covey (ABC’s The Goldbergs), Meagan Good (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Regina Hall (About Last Night), Jerry Ferrara (Last Vegas) and Taraji P. Henson (CBS’s Person of Interest). The Minus: The competition. One weekend, two new movies, an already crowded box office … even though this flick aims for a specific demographic, it faces a lot of other contenders this weekend.

 

Now Playing

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
*** — The Booker Thief
Following up an unlikely hit laugh-riot with a joke-stuffed sequel that almost makes you want to put on your laugh-riot grrrrr, 22 Jump Street equals bust in blackjack terms but somehow breaks even for moviegoers looking for some raunchy guffaws. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. Throughout this flick, blurbs get dropped regarding the sophomoric slump that usually follows a second helping. Well, just because you wink at the audience in reference to your inadequacies doesn’t make you any less inadequate. Several literal laugh-out-loud moments rise to the top of this warmed-over plate of leftovers (indeed, it’s the same story as in 21 Jump Street, just with Tatum and Hill’s sadsack-hero roles reversed and strung out over collegiate and spring break settings). Still, the thin premise remains a shotglass as opposed to keg when it comes to how much of an engaging plot it truly holds. Granted, you don’t need much story when you have decent gags. To its credit, 22 Jump Street puts forth several hilarious moments but it quickly becomes apparent — with its sequel one-liners laid on so thick as if to say it’s truly a joke that their misadventures even got a second go-round — that 2’s still welcome company, but 3 will prove a an unwanted crowd on your time if the series is allowed to keep going. There’s even a series of humorous tagged-on codas over the end credits that jokes about how ridiculous the prospects of continuing the franchise would be (Medical School?, Correspondence School?!). But once again, winking at how tedious something is fast becoming doesn’t make it any less of a drain on your time. Thankfully, Tatum and Hill present a hilariously heartfelt bromance that’s not unlike some classic comedy team back-and-forths (Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, etc.). Also, when you consider that co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller also churned out the ridiculously entertaining Lego Movie this year, the likability of 22 Jump Street becomes that much more impressive. Just don’t push it, guys.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Voices of Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig
***1/2 — Your Ace is a Dragon
Building on an inventive but predictable introduction, Dreamworks Animation gives moviegoers not so much an all-out Viking conquest as a decadently Valhallan stellar second act brimming with enough humor, creativity and adventure to warrant a curtain closer. In this PG-rated animated sequel, Viking Hiccup (Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and winged fire-breathing lizards. An old adage tells us that devil is in the details. If this is the case, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a hotbed for demonologists. So much thought and precision goes into the design of the characters and their craftwork that the audience can’t help but get swept into this dragon tale. As with all sequels, the ante gets raised by adding more humor, heart, action, players, gadgets, derring-do and more, well, everything. This follow-up nonetheless manages to meld all of this excess into an engaging story that just about reaches the rarefied heights of the raised stakes. All of the marquee pipes from the first flick manage to breathe even more fire than the first time around. The new components (including Cate Blanchett as Hiccup’s mother) make for even more of a ridiculously fun outing, but it’s writer/director Dean DuBlois (working off of the book series by Cressida Cowell) who truly rues your day. His dragon riders unfurl detailed widgets and dragon breeds of such animal hybrid specificity that you can’t help but stare slack-jawed in pure wonderment. And all the while, the whipsmart story keeps flying you along at a rousing clip. As with the first chapter, we’re working with a bit of formula here, but it’s a proven recipe that works so long as you have some bite. Thankfully, this go-round boasts a Dragon-sized bite.

 

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
**** — Stuck in High Gear
Edging dangerously close to pure excellence, this brilliant, time looping, Tomorrow-set, sci-fi tale quickly establishes itself among the genre’s best. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi-actioner based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill, a soldier (Cruise) fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, dying each time until he can find the way to beat his enemy. Call it Groundhog Day as envisioned by Phillip K. Dick. Call it whatever it takes for you to stop pigeonholing Edge of Tomorrow instead of just seeing it and realizing you can’t cast aside this unique and often humorous thinking man’s thrill ride as a one-off pop culture comparison. The film boasts a gritty verve-filled look that sets the stage for a clever and entirely fresh Twilight Zoned premise that pays off over and over and over … well, you get the point. Also, enough talk of not seeing movies starring Tom Cruise because you dislike the actor. If you can’t mentally separate this man’s personal life from his ridiculously impressive CV than you have far greater problems than biased moviegoing.

The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
**** — Ill Commemoration
Tear soaked, infectiously charming and exceedingly well played, a certain best selling love story plays out beautifully on screen, even when it occasionally comes off as slightly feverish from a malady called formula. In this PG-13-rated romance based on John Green’s bestselling novel, two cancer-battling teenagers (Woodley, Elgort) meet, share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional and a love that sweeps pits them on an unforgettable journey. Even Shakespeare, from whom author John Green borrowed his title, worked from a blueprint for his comedies and tragedies. Even when Green’s tome plays out beat for H’Wood beat on film, however, it still evinces the best qualities of both comedy and tragedy. Even when predictably pulling our strings a bit, the story serves as a sincere feel good antidote to the modern popcorn blockbuster. If moviegoers can’t fall into tune with the strains of this, one of the most uplifting romances in recent screen history, then the fault lies in ourselves as a too-cynical culture, dear Brutus.

 

Small Screens

A Hard Day’s Night
John Lennon, Paul McCartney
****1/2 — Great Enough to Watch 8 Days a Week
In the Criterion Blu-Ray/DVD combo-pack release of the Beatles 1964 film debut, available for purchase on Tuesday, director Richard Lester captures a, ahem, “typical” day in the life of the world’s greatest rock band at the height of Beatlemania. Call it a pseudo documentary. Call it a musical comedy. Call it the umpteenth home video cash-in of this particular title. Regardless, A Hard Day’s Night ends up to be a series of fortunate events for both fans of the band and fans of anarchic comedy in the style of the Marx Brothers. What’s remarkable is that Lester, who takes to some remarkable handheld framing with his fly-on-the-wall shooting style, turns out a slapstick sing-a-long that owes as much to Jean-Luc Godard as Groucho’s favorite director, Leo McCarey. Most importantly, in an era when it’s nearly impossible to latch onto one face or personality in the rock bands that have sprung to popularity over the last 2-3 years, this film evinces four distinct players who each shine with enough charm and wit to fuel the slapdash goings-on in the madcap kinda-sorta parody of their own early success. Loaded with too many extras to list here, this “director approved” version is the perfect way to celebrate 50 years of an unlikely film classic.

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Opening this weekend

 

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
Blame Step Up. Since hoofing it in that star-crossed dancers-in-love flick, Channing Tatum’s star has been on the rise mostly thanks to sitting out Step Up 2 through 5, the forthcoming 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). In 2015, he’ll put another notch on his H’Wood belt with the sequel Magic Mike XXL … after this sequel, that is. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. The Plus: The players. Here, Tatum (Side Effects) joins Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Ice Cube (Ride Along), Dave Franco (Neighbors), Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers), Ron Riggle (The Internship), Peter Stormare (Pain & Gain) and Richard Grieco (A Night at the Roxbury) again under the direction of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie). The Minus: Sophomore slump. Expectations weren’t very high for 21 Jump Street, an adaptation of the popular ‘90s FOX cop drama … which is why critics were shocked and praised it when it actually turned out to be quite funny. Capturing lightning in a bottle twice is tough enough, especially since this outing doesn’t have one of the previous flick’s most winningest aces up its sleeve: a cameo by former Jump Street star Johnny Depp.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Voices of Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig
Pixar isn’t the only game in town when it comes to blockbuster computer animation. With the gi-normous back-to-back-to-back-to-back success of Kung Fu Panda 2, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Rise of the Guardians and the Croods, DreamWorks Animation capped off an already impressive roster that also includes the blockbuster Shrek franchise (add Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots to that list above). Next up is Kung Fu Panda 3 … after How to Train Your Dragon 2, that is. In this PG-rated animated sequel, Viking Hiccup (Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and winged fire-breathing lizards. The Plus: The players. From writing to celebrity voices, this animation division always assembles an impressive roster of talent. This flick boasts the A-List pipes of Baruchel (This is the End), Wiig (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen), Cate Blanchett (The Monuments Men), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), America Ferrera (End of Watch), Kit Harrington (Pompeii), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Neighbors), Craig Ferguson (CBS’s The Late Late Show) and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond). The Minus: The odds. Already positioned as the keystone in a Dragon trilogy, this sequel has a lot riding on it so the quality had better be good … especially considering DreamWorks’ last animated flick, Turbo, proved to be a snail so far as industry expectations.

 

Now playing

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
****— Stuck in High Gear
Edging dangerously close to pure excellence, this brilliant, time looping, Tomorrow-set, sci-fi tale quickly establishes itself among the genre’s best. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi-actioner based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill, a soldier (Cruise) fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, dying each time until he can find the way to beat his enemy. Call it Groundhog Day as envisioned by Phillip K. Dick. Call it whatever it takes for you to stop pigeonholing Edge of Tomorrow instead of just seeing it and realizing you can’t compare away this unique thinking man’s thrill ride. The film boasts a gritty verve-filled look that sets the stage for a clever and entirely fresh Twilight Zoned premise that pays off over and over and over … well, you get the point. Enough talk of not seeing movies starring Tom Cruise because you dislike the actor. If you can’t mentally separate this man’s personal life from his work than you have far greater problems than biased moviegoing. Amid his ridiculously impressive CV, there sits an underrated gem that sports a wholly unique futuristic story masquerading as noir. It’s called Minority Report and as good as it is, this Tomorrow tale takes a slight edge. Here, he’s not playing his often typical hero self. Rather, his actions often prove deplorable … but only because he sells it so well. Emily Blunt, on the other hand, moves against type and gives audiences one of the strongest female soldiers on the never-level playing field of the sexes. Under the direction of Doug Liman (no matter what anybody says, his edgy template on Bourne Identity allowed Paul Greengrass to run free with shaky handheld on Supremacy and Ultimatum), the narrative of Christopher McQuarrie’s excellently nuanced screenplay takes hold because the setting’s already completely sold and established … again and again and again.

The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
**** — Ill Commemoration
Tear-soaked, infectiously charming and exceedingly well played, a certain best selling love story plays out beautifully on-screen even when it occasionally comes off as slightly feverish from a malady called formula. In this PG-13-rated romance based on John Green’s bestselling novel, two cancer-battling teenagers (Woodley, Elgort) meet, share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional and a love that sweeps pits them on an unforgettable journey. This is not to say that The Fault in Our Stars is entirely colored by numbers. Hell, even Shakespeare, from whom author John Green borrowed his title, worked from a blueprint for his comedies and tragedies. Even when Green’s tome plays out beat for H’Wood beat on film, it still evinces the best qualities of both comedy and tragedy. Even when predictably pulling our strings a bit, the story serves as a feel good antidote to the modern popcorn blockbuster that feels entirely sincere. If moviegoers can’t fall into tune with the strains of this, one of the most uplifting romances in recent screen history, than the fault lies in ourselves as a too-cynical culture, dear Brutus. Shailene Woodley’s heart-wrenching and heart-tugging turn elicits such an emotional response from the audience that — days later — you’ll sit and wonder how the quite healthy actress is feeling. It takes two to tango, however and Ansel Elgort’s stricken ying to her yang plays out beautifully,even when the adverb of the moment is sadly. True, sometimes his philosophizing do-gooder across as annoying but much of that stems from the character — not the performance. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are fast making great names for themselves after crafting three ace romances in a very pessimistic age (the pair also worked on 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now). Even in the moments touched by Screenwriting 101’s often heavy hand, their screenplay works quite brilliantly. Likewise, director Josh Boone paints a hauntingly pretty picture.

Maleficent
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
**1/2 — Schlepping Beauty
Magically dreamt up, but humanly flawed, this modern Disneyfication of Sleeping Beauty stirs up some beguilingly clever witchcraft … but it sits in a cauldron nonetheless. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly. In this PG-rated fantasy adventure, a vindictive fairy (Jolie) is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child (Fanning), as she grows up, may be the only one who can restore peace to the kingdom. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly … too much so. It lacks much of the edge and verve of, say, the revisionist Snow White and the Huntsmen. Entertaining, but not nearly as inventive, Maleficent also trades live action Magik for computer-generated trickery that’s doesn’t quite cast a complete spell. It’s worth seeing if not just for Jolie’s impossibly sympathetic turn, but what price, story? Though we’ve become distant cynical in our post-9/11 accelerated culture, a lot of moviegoers still crave a solid fairy lively told. This attempt doesn’t reach magnificence but it’s a valiant attempt. Please try again.

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron
** — Blazing Saddlesores
Riding the range with a million gags and what feels like a million minutes, Seth MacFarlane’s overlong latest comedy nevertheless wants for a million laughs. Actually, we’d gratefully settle for a solid 20. In this R-rated comedy, a cowardly sheep farmer (MacFarlane) begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town (Theron), so he puts his new-found courage to the test against her husband, a notorious gun-slinger (Liam Neeson). This is not to say that the flick plays out with the tear-soaked heaviness of John Ford’s ultimate cowboy drama The Searchers. In fact, this sometime genre spoof doles out some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, most of the rest are sophomoric (sometimes literal) hat-fulls of excrement. The problem is, to use a Western analogy, they’re spread out through the streets of a dusty frontier town amid piles of manure. Plus, it’s not an outright spoof. It’s a comedy set in the West that occasionally happens to wink at Zeitgeist-dwelling moviegoers … for better and worse.

 

Small Screens

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 — Plaza Sweet
In this R-rated comedy coming to DVD this Tuesday, Wes Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the Limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. Here Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt
The 21st century didn’t start out so well for the biggest movie star in the world. After Tom Cruise’s headline-grabbing departure (ahem, firing) from Paramount in 2006 after 14 years, the actor began an unsuccessful tenure as the new head of United Artists (Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie). With the gi-normous success of 2012’s Mission: Impossible  — Ghost Protocol, however, Cruise again cemented his star in H’Wood and got the sequel greenlit for 2015. Now comes his latest, a project based on a graphic novel called All You Need is Kill. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi-actioner, a soldier (Cruise) fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, dying each time until, he can find the way to beat his enemy. The Plus: The players. The Cruise name can still equal box office gold if Protocol’s $750 million dollar worldwide take has anything to say about it. Just in case, Blunt (The Five Year Engagement), Bill Paxton (2 Guns), Jeremy Piven (HBO’s Entourage) and Brendan Gleeson (Safe House) are acting under the ace direction of Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith). The Minus: The gamble. Cruise’s last four starring efforts — the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, Knight and Day, Jack Reacher and Oblivion — certainly didn’t bomb at the box office, but they definitely didn’t achieve blockbuster status either. Even though Jack Reacher’s getting a sequel in 2016 (Never Go Back), Edge of Tomorrow seems like a risky gamble for Warner Bros., especially considering the reported $175 million price tag.

The Fault in Our Stars
Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort
After turning heads as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendents, actress Shailene Woodley signed on to star in two teen romances, one laugh-filled (The Spectacular Now) and one tear-filled (this week’s new release, The Fault in Our Stars). Then came the smash hit Divergent, which put sequels Insurgent and Allegiant, the second and third novels of Veronica Roth’s young adult fantasy series about a dystopian version of Chicago, into pre-production to meet their respective 2015 and 2016 release dates. First, however, comes this adaptation of John Green’s beloved bestselling novel. In this PG-13-rated romance, two cancer-battling teenagers (Woodley, Elgort) meet, share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional and a love that sweeps pits them on an unforgettable journey. The Plus: The source material. Not only has the novel received accolades from critics including Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and USA Today, the book is also a favorite among such green contemporaries as Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper). Most importantly, the book has a ridiculously sizable and loyal fan base of readers who will be hot to see if H’Wood got it right. The Minus: The odds. For every YA literary-based box office hit like Breaking Dawn or Deathly Hallows, there’s a dud like Beautiful Creatures or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones waiting in the wings. True, this isn’t a big budget fantasy adventure like those examples, but consider The Spectacular Now. Despite great reviews, it didn’t even break $7 million at the U.S. box office.

 

Now Playing

Maleficent
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
**1/2 — Schlepping Beauty
Magically dreamt up, but humanly flawed, this modern Disneyfication of Sleeping Beauty stirs up some beguilingly clever witchcraft … but it sits in a cauldron nonetheless. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly. In this PG-rated fantasy adventure, a vindictive fairy (Jolie) is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child (Fanning), as she grows up, may be the only one who can restore peace to the kingdom. It’s a dark tale, yes, but one that happens to be family friendly. Even though the most grotesquely spooky moments stand firmly within a PG-13 rating, only toddlers or younger will fear the tale of Maleficent. But that’s this fairy tale’s blessing and curse. It lacks much of the edge and verve of Snow White and the Huntsmen, reaching instead for the heights of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal instead. While these remain highly entertaining and inventive 80s benchmarks, the descendant is often entertaining but not nearly as inventive, trading live action Magik for computer-generated trickery that’s doesn’t quite cast a complete spell. Nevermind the phone book — Angelina Jolie could read a Dollar Store receipt and hold us all in the palms of her hands. The funny thing us, her hypnotic performances have always possessed a bewitching quality whether it be her feral beauty or wicked gift for character immersion. It’s worth seeing if not just for her impossibly sympathetic turn. However, what price, story? Though we’ve become distant cynical in our post-9/11 accelerated culture, a lot of moviegoers still crave a solid fairy lively told. This attempt doesn’t reach magnificence but it’s a valiant attempt. Please try again.

A Million Ways to Die in the West
** — Blazing Saddlesores
Riding the range with a million gags and what feels like a million minutes, Seth MacFarlane’s overlong latest comedy nevertheless wants for a million laughs. Actually, we’d gratefully settle for a solid 20. In this R-rated comedy, a cowardly sheep farmer (MacFarlane) begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town (Theron), so he puts his new-found courage to the test against her husband, a notorious gunslinger (Liam Neeson). This is not to say that A Million Ways to Die in the West plays out with the tear-soaked heaviness of John Ford’s ultimate cowboy drama The Searchers. In fact, this sometime genre spoof doles out some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, most of the rest are sophomoric (sometimes literal) hat-fulls of excrement. The problem is, to use a western analogy, they’re spread out through the streets of a dusty frontier town amid piles of manure. Plus, it’s NOT an outright spoof. It’s a comedy set in the West that occasionally happens to wink at Zeitgeist-dwelling moviegoers…for better and worse. Playing a man-before-his-time, MacFarlane’s farmer looks at the world with century spanning foresight, which works well … until all of the other characters start adopting the same field of vision. As the overall batting average of Ted and Fox’s animated sitcom The Family Guy evince, Seth MacFarlane is a proven laugh-getter. Take a look at Fox’s sh*tcoms The Cleveland Show (animated) and Dads (live action), however and audiences start to see a spottier record emerge. Boasting more joke duds than darlings, more of a high concept as opposed to straight-ahead story-telling and — like Ted — one too many storylines that pushes the running time to an uncomfortable length, MacFarlane’s West-world often proves as rewarding as watching a tumbleweed roll across the screen. Plus, in his first live action starring role, this former Academy Awards host often comes off as a stagy stand-up (which makes the title all the more appropriate) while the rest of the marquee cast (especially Theron) seem to be having the time of their lives. If only moviegoers were.

Chef
Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo
**** — The Art of Fresh Cooking
Simply planned but exquisitely prepared, writer/director/actor Jon Favreau’s return to Swingers-style indie filmmaking gives audiences the cinematic equivalent of a culinary triumph, keeping things awesomely cool while warming hearts. In this R-rated comedy, a chef (Favreau) loses his posh restaurant job, so he starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise while piecing back together his estranged family (Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony) and friends (Leguizamo). Chef-based films serve up a variety of dishes, be it a raison d’être like Big Night or cold leftovers like No Reservations. Granted, there are occasional comfort food indulgences like Julie and Julia, but most prove to be empty calories. Chef itself, however, is a sumptuous — well, if not feast, then — chow-down of a high order. It’s not meant to be a bill-o-fare featured in a 5-star New York Times restaurant review — just a ridiculously tasty menu of sandwich salvation you’d gratefully stand in line for. Swingers established Jon Favreau as a rising star in H’Wood. Though fewer people saw it, his directorial debut Made kept this star shooting higher. With Elf and Iron Man, however, he never burned brighter in the industry’s eyes. For this, his return to a low budget fun ‘n’ filmmaking production, he’s thankfully gone food truckin’, calling in some big names (Scarlet Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman) in some delicious roles that don’t detract from the story. And yes, that story’s purposely simple. Still, his blockbuster style remains top-shelf even if his bottom line ends up way lower. The script works exceedingly well and Favreau’s humble pie-eating title character does scrubby and awe-inspiring in equal but brilliant measure. Also, for once, here’s a flick that features a tween-age kid (played by Anthony) who’s not completely cloying. Tres magnifique!

Blended
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
* — Punch Drunk Crud
Whether it got blended, mixed, crushed, shaken, or stirred in development, Adam Sandler’s latest cocktail of romance and comedy nevertheless proves an abomination to both genres. In this PG-13-rated wannabe rom-com, a man (Sandler) and woman (Barrymore) find themselves stuck together at an African resort for families … after going out on a disastrous blind date just days before. It’s not as if Blended was ill conceived. Pairing Sandler with Drew Barrymore gave the veteran funnyman the best notch on his spotty CV yet with The Wedding Singer (leaving more serious side projects such as Punch Drunk Love and Funny People off of the books). The twosome’s follow-up, 50 First Dates, wasn’t altogether horrible but that’s because it stands among such filmgoing nightmares as The Waterboy and Jack and Jill. Offensive, unromantic and unfunny, Blended is just another laughless Sandler vehicle for which our intelligence keeps footing the bill. For God’s sake, there’s actually a scene that features this SNL alumnus riding an ostrich. Ah, Sandler! Ah, humanity!

 

Small Screens

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Chris Pine, Kevin Costner
*** — Executive Derision
In this PG-13-rated reboot of the late great Tom Clancy’s espionage franchise debuting on DVD this Tuesday, a young covert CIA analyst (Pine) uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack. Bond-ed and Bourne too late, Jack Ryan nonetheless gets reinvented for the 21st century with excitingly mixed results. Recruit’s as thrilling as hell, then as daffy as heck. It’s intricately plotted, then ploddingly silly. It’s a worthy follow-up to Patriot Games, then a Clear and Present Wanker. Ultimately, the film lays out some interesting thinking man’s groundwork full of death-defying espionage and breakneck fist and firefights, but simply arrives too late to the party. Dammit, even the action sequences that work beautifully betray the whiff of been there/done that. Though it didn’t prove to be the franchise-re-starter as intended, however, it at least showcases Costner in such top form that you’ll long for the days of No Way Out.