Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

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

 

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

 

Now playing

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

 

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

 

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Coming Soon

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

 

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

 

Now Playing

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Small Screens

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

 

 

 

Screens

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Screens

Opening this week

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

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

 

Now Playing

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

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

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

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

 

 

Small screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

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

 

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

 

Now Playing

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

 

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

 

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

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

 

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

 

 

Now Playing

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

 

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

 

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

 

Small screens

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

Screens: Nov. 6, 2014

Screens: Nov. 6, 2014

OPENING THIS WEEK

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

NOW PLAYING

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

SMALL SCREENS

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

Screens

Screens

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — Abbott & Costello

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

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

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

 

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

 

Now Playing

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Universal Blu Ray Collection — The Invisible Man

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

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

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

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

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

Screens: Oct. 9, 2014

Screens: Oct. 9, 2014

Opening this Week

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

Now Playing

 
Gone Girl
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike
***1/2 — Gone Shady Gone
Smartly playing filmgoers like a tightly strung violin up until the dissatisfying ending, Gone Girl provides audiences with a scrupulously plotted puzzler that’s as thrilling as it ultimately is depressing. In this R-rated mystery, a husband (Affleck) sees the media circus spotlight shift to him when it’s suspected that he might be a player in his wife’s (Pike) disappearance. Oh, we’re chess pieces … pieces in a intricate game planned from the outset by two master players. Director David Fincher knows how to frame a thrilling who-done-it, building suspense in slow-burn reveals through steady tracking shots and tight editing. Here, however, he relies strictly on these substantive devices without the stylistic tics evident in his other dark mysteries, Se7en and The Girl on the Dragon Tattoo. As always, his film boasts some downright amazing photography. Teetering between a romantic shadowy glow and sobering white light, Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography beautifully betrays a contrast between the loving and loathing days of a marriage gone wrong. It comes down to story. In adapting her own bestselling novel, Gillian Flynn retains some intriguingly complex characters while maintaining the narrative tension. Thankfully, Fincher chose two brilliant actors in Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike to realize her flawed, unreliable and, at times, highly unlikeable characters. Then, there’s supporting players Neil Patrick Harris, Casey Wilson and Tyler Perry. Sure it’s stunt casting … but its really great stunt casting that informs the story’s dark corners. If only all of these great choices amounted to more reward than remorse. The end of the novel takes a definite stand; the end of the film leaves it up to the audience. It’s a smart choice, but doesn’t make the conclusion any less of a bummer.
 
The Equalizer
Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas
***1/2 — Training Melee
In stripping down an 80s TV crime drama and rebuilding it as a vehicle for ever-reliable tough guy Denzel Washington, 2014’s Equalizer succeeds mostly on the strength of its leading man but boasts more than a few white knuckle moments on its own slick merits. In this R-rated crime-thriller based on the 1980s CBS TV series, a mysterious man (Washington) armed with dangerous skills comes out of his self-imposed retirement when a young call girl (Chloe Grace-Moretz) comes under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters (Csokas, et al). Of course, this update shares some DNA with the original. Like the Edward Woodward version, Washington plays a former intelligence operative with a secret past who uses whatever’s on-hand to brutally take down oppressors of the weak. Sadly, some of these pathetic victims happen to work alongside our anti-hero at a Home Depot-esque super-store. It’s not enough that we watch them become easy prey, but we have to get sucked into their sadsack lives as well, which just kills the tone and adds unnecessary padding onto what could’ve been a tauter killing machine.
 
IMG_8783.dngThis is Where I Leave You
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey
*** — The Big Chill Pill
In presenting the umpteenth tale of a homecoming rife with relative dysfunction in umpteen years, This is Where I Leave You paints an interesting family portrait but brings nothing new to the table save for a few keen performances and very little umpt, er, oomph. In this R-rated comedy, four grown siblings (Bateman, Fey, Adam Driver, Corey Stall) return to their childhood home for their father’s funeral, forced to live under the same roof with their over-sharing mother (Jane Fonda) and ne’er-do-wells. The Family Stone. Death at a Funeral. Home for the Holidays. Four Christmases. At least this movie has the decency to take place away from the holidays. Oh, there are quirky characters, situations and revelations aplenty but the narrative struggles to feel unique in the undertow of numerous other such stories without the benefit of much verve to distinguish it. Instead, it’s just another broad pratfall-laden helping of fubar family matters. Director Shawn Levy handles the overstated family friendly comedy of The Pink Panther reboot and the Night at the Museum flicks exceedingly well but fails to apply a defter touch in relation to the adult material here.
 
 
EC09SCREENS_1_WEB

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

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

 

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

 

Now playing

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

 

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

 

 

Small Screens

The Universal Blu Ray Collection – The Mummy

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.