Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

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

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

 

Now playing

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

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

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

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

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

 

Now Playing

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

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening This Week

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

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Opening this week

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

Coming soon

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

 

Now Playing

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

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

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

 

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

 

Now Playing

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

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

 

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this weekend

 

22 Jump Street
Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
Blame Step Up. Since hoofing it in that star-crossed dancers-in-love flick, Channing Tatum’s star has been on the rise mostly thanks to sitting out Step Up 2 through 5, the forthcoming All In. Since banking two of the biggest hits of 2012 (The Vow, 21 Jump Street), however, Tatum’s star has continued to burn white hot (Magic Mike, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, White House Down). In 2015, he’ll put another notch on his H’Wood belt with the sequel Magic Mike XXL … after this sequel, that is. In this R-rated comedy, former high school undercover officers Schmidt and Jenko (Hall, Tatum) go deep undercover at a local college. The Plus: The players. Here, Tatum (Side Effects) joins Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Ice Cube (Ride Along), Dave Franco (Neighbors), Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers), Ron Riggle (The Internship), Peter Stormare (Pain & Gain) and Richard Grieco (A Night at the Roxbury) again under the direction of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie). The Minus: Sophomore slump. Expectations weren’t very high for 21 Jump Street, an adaptation of the popular ‘90s FOX cop drama … which is why critics were shocked and praised it when it actually turned out to be quite funny. Capturing lightning in a bottle twice is tough enough, especially since this outing doesn’t have one of the previous flick’s most winningest aces up its sleeve: a cameo by former Jump Street star Johnny Depp.

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

 

Now playing

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

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

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

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

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

 

Now Playing

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

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

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

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

 

Small Screens

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

Screens

Screens

Screens

 

Opening this weekend

 

Maleficent
Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning
In a city full of dreamers, it only makes sense that fairy tales became all the rage in H’Wood. ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm have played out on the small screen since 2011. On the big screen, so far there have been darker retellings of Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood in 2011, two takes on Snow White in 2012 (cracked dud Mirror Mirror and the ridiculously successful Snow White & the Huntsman) and 2013’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. This Christmas, the Stephen Sondheim fairy tale musical adaptation Into the Woods will bow (Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep are among the stars). First, however, comes Maleficent. In this PG-rated fantasy adventure based on the witchy villain from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a vindictive fairy (Jolie) is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child (Fanning) may be the only one who can restore peace to the kingdom. The Plus: The players. Though production designer Robert Stromberg is making his feature directing debut, his fun hypnotic trailer of Maleficent is currently wowing moviegoers in theaters. Here, he’s directing one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Jolie (The Tourist), along with Fanning (Super 8), Sharlto Copley (Elysium), Juno Temple (The Three Musketeers) and Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1). The Minus: The odds. Jack the Giant Killer fell down the proverbial beanstock with critics AND audiences. For Disney, it’ll all come down to story. If it’s as good as Snow White & the Huntsmen, Maleficent will see magnificence.

A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth McFarlane, Charlize Theron
Sure, big-time H’Wood live action directors have tried their hand at cartoons before (Robert Zemekis: Beowulf; Steven Spielberg: The Adventures of Tin Tin), but what about vice-versa? Hell yes. Shrek director Andrew Adamson helmed The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian; The Incredibles director Brad Bird directed the blockbuster smash Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Seth MacFarlane, the mind behind Fox’s animated comedy trifecta of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, helmed Ted to the tune of $550 million worldwide. Next comes Ted 2 in 2015 … after A Million Ways to Die in the West, that is. In this R-rated comedy, a cowardly farmer (McFarlane) begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town (Theron), so he puts his new found courage to the test against her husband, a notorious gun-slinger (Liam Neeson). The Plus: The genre. R-rated comedies are big business when done right (The Hangover, Bridesmaids). Based on the hilarious Red Band trailer, MacFarlane seems to have channeled the funny. Plus, the star power of Theron (Prometheus), Neeson (Non-Stop), Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables), Neil Patrick Harris (The Smurfs 2), Sarah Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Giovanni Ribisi (Gangster Squad) will only help matters. The Minus: The competition. In his stab at a big screen starring role, McFarlane has to contend with the star power of Angelina Jolie and Maleficent. True, one’s PG-rated and one’s R-rated, but both are still high profile H’Wood projects aiming for the top spot.

 

Now Playing

Blended
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
* — Punch Drunk Crud
Whether it got blended, mixed, crushed, shaken or stirred in development, Adam Sandler’s latest cocktail of romance and comedy nevertheless proves an abomination to both genres. In this PG-13-rated wannabe rom-com, a man (Sandler) and woman (Barrymore) find themselves stuck together at an African resort for families … after going out on a disastrous blind date just days before. It’s not as if Blended was ill-conceived. Pairing Sandler with Drew Barrymore gave the veteran funnyman the best notch on his spotty CV yet with The Wedding Singer (leaving more serious side projects such as Punch Drunk Love and Funny People off of the books). The twosome’s follow-up, 50 First Dates, wasn’t altogether horrible, but that’s because it stands among such filmgoing nightmares as The Waterboy and Jack and Jill. Offensive, unromantic and unfunny, Blended serves as a slap in the face to anyone who struggles to finance independent film projects. Getting the lovers-to-be to Africa, for instance, stands as such a slapped together moment that it makes you think that this outing was simply an excuse for the cast to get a paid vacation on us. And sadly, Sandler publicly admitted this week that this was pretty much the case. Director John Ford had John Wayne (over 20 films together, including The Quiet Man and The Searchers). Martin Scorsese had Robert De Niro (eight films together, including Taxi Driver and Goodfellas). Unfortunately, Frank Coraci has Sandler (four films and counting, including Click and this flick) for which our intelligence keeps footing the bill. For God’s sake, there’s actually a scene that features this SNL alumnus riding an ostrich. Ah, Sandler! Ah, humanity!

Godzilla
Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
***1/2 — Monster Jam
Though he technically builds a far-from-perfect beast, director Gareth Edwards nonetheless unleashes a mean, green and monstrously entertaining machine on moviegoers. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, the titular skyscraper-sized fire-breathing lizard gets pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten mankind’s very existence. Godzilla takes a ridiculously long time to show up, but once he does, the titular star sure breathes a lot of fire. Neither a remake nor a reimagining, the story purposely takes a slow building approach because this American production attempts the near impossible: bringing realism to a long-stomping creature feature synonymous with Japanese culture. Just as Christopher Nolan lent naturalism to the comic book movie by striving for authenticity in The Dark Knight trilogy, so too does this production ask: It’s a far-fetched tale but how so we make it seem like it COULD happen? It took a lot of moxie for Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein to make a genuine-feeling and looking version of this franchise, especially considering that it used to center around a man in a rubber dinosaur suit. That cast is in fine form but almost beside the point.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan
**** — Glory Days
Putting the “X” in excellent moviegoing, Days of Future Past presents the greatest homo superior tale yet, upping First Class by presenting the Best Class. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure that’s thankfully not an adaptation of the classic Moody Blues album, the X-Men (Stewart, McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in his seventh outing as the character) to visit their past selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult) in a desperate effort to change history and prevent giant Sentinel robots from wiping out mutantkind.
Geek confession time: While in junior high, this reviewer read Uncanny X-Men religiously. In fact, he read writer Chris Claremont’s “Days of Future Past” storyline AND the issues where Magneto runs the Xavier School in Professor X’s absence for the sake of maintaining harmony in mutantkind — a brilliant allusion to disparity that any racial, spiritual or teenage outsider could readily identify. This flick realizes the emotional heft and action-packed blockbusting of those comic book landmarks times X. And X, in this case, marks a treasure spot for fans of comic book flicks who’ve just been gifted with one of the genre’s best “x-amples” yet. The time-bending POV between bleak futuristic dystopia and swanky shagadelic ‘70s could’ve easily become twisted up in a confusing narrative knot but Bryan Singer, returning to directing the franchise since the beautifully conceived and executed X2, keeps the storyline running smoothly with enough style and verve for two blockbusters. Jaw-dropping action gets combined with laugh-out-loud moments as well, thanks in no small part to Simon Kinberg’s letter perfect screenplay, which got fleshed out in story form by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. The script gives the awesome cast — composed of franchise favorites and some welcome newcomers — many moments to shine. It’s so good, it makes you wonder: Where was this edgy magic when he wrote franchise low-point The Last Stand? Smartly, this scribe uses Days of Futures Past as an excuse to clean up some of the franchise’s missteps, presenting moviegoers with a clean slate and level playing field for the 2016 follow-up, Apocalypse.

Neighbors
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
***1/2 — ‘Burbs is the Word
Thanks to a riotous script full of sophomoric humor and performances cranked up to a Freshman 15, good fencing definitely makes for a great Neighbors. In this R-rated raunchy comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) moves in next door. No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much more popular Belushi comedy: Animal House. As benchmarks go, Neighbors has pretty much zeroed in on the frat comedy gold standard. Similarly, it powers itself on a lot of puerile gags that are cogs in a straight-ahead story, but it takes a lot of intelligent wit to pull off laughs this consistent and solid. Normally, you can’t choose the scumbag neighbors who’re going to inevitably move in next door, but you can and should choose these Neighbors if you have any shred of a sense of humor.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan
The last time that Marvel put the X in X-Men, it was with 2011’s First Class, an origin tale that proved popular with audiences and critics alike. Now, hopes are high for the next installment, which unites the original cast from the 2000-2006 trilogy with their First Class counterparts in a time-bending tale that is not an adaptation of the classic Moody Blues album. How high? 20th Century Fox already greenlit the follow-up, X-Men: Apocalypse, for 2016. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, the X-Men (Stewart, McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in his seventh outing as the character) to visit their past selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult) in a desperate effort to change history and prevent giant Sentinel robots from wiping out mutantkind. The Plus: The franchise. Director Bryan Singer is returning to helm his first X-Men flick since 2003’s X-2, one of the greatest comic book flicks ever by this critic’s estimation. Here, he helms an epic tale pulled from the comics with a cast including Stewart (Ted), McKellan (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Jackman (Prisoners), McAvoy (Trance), Fassbender (The Counselor), Lawrence (American Hustle), Berry (The Call), Page (Inception), Hoult (Warm Bodies), Peter Dinklage (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Anna Paquin (HBO’s True Blood), Shawn Ashmore (Fox’s The Following), The Minus: The gamble. First Class only became profitable once the overseas grosses came in. Also, Singer has recently become embroiled in a H’Wood-rocking controversy involving the alleged sexual abuse of minors. Selling this high-fallutin’ time travel concept is tough enough without blowback from the industry.

Blended
Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
Director John Ford had John Wayne (more than 20 films together, including The Quiet Man and The Searchers). Martin Scorsese had Robert De Niro (8 films together, including Taxi Driver and Goodfellas). And, for better or worse, Frank Coraci has Adam Sandler (four films and counting, including The Waterboy and this week’s new release, Blended). In this PG-13-rated comedy, a man (Sandler) and woman (Barrymore) find themselves stuck together at a resort for families … after going out on a disastrous blind date years before. The Plus: The players. Love him or hate him (and critics often love to hate Sandler), the Sandman has laughed all the way to the box office despite horrible reviews time (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, $100 million) and time (Jack and Jill, $74 million and time again (Grown Ups 2, $133 million). Moviegoers might be hot to catch his and Barrymore’s third movie together if the grosses of The Wedding Singer ($80 million) and 50 First Dates ($120 million) stand as testament. The Minus: The competition. Even though X-Men will storm multiplexes this weekend, there remains the chance that Blended may take a strong second place. Not everybody’s into superheroes, after all. That’s My Boy ($36 million) stands proof that not every Sandler flick is an out-and-out winner.

 

Now Playing

Godzilla
Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
***1/2 — Monster Jam
Though he technically builds a far-from-perfect beast, director Gareth Edwards nonetheless unleashes a mean, green and monstrously entertaining machine on moviegoers. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, the titular skyscraper-sized fire-breathing lizard gets pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten mankind’s very existence. Godzilla takes a ridiculously long time to show up, but once he does, the titular star sure breathes a lot of fire. Neither a remake nor a reimagining, the story purposely takes a slow building approach because this American production attempts the near impossible: bringing realism to a long-stomping creature feature synonymous with Japanese culture. Just as Christopher Nolan lent naturalism to the comic book movie by striving for authenticity in The Dark Knight trilogy, so too does this production ask: It’s a far-fetched tale but how so we make it seem like it COULD happen? Oh, the science is pure Barnum, but that B-word also brings to mind the thought of can’t-miss show-stopping theatrics, which this flick boasts in blockbusting amounts. Ever since the Tokyo-based Toho Company let loose Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film on international audiences, Godzilla retained the title “King of the Monsters” by turning his screen-time into a wrestling match with increasingly laughable monster opponents. Here, 60 years on, it took a lot of moxie for Edwards (whose only previous feature was the low-budget sci-fi thriller Monsters) and screenwriter Max Borenstein to make a genuine-feeling and looking version of this franchise, especially considering that it used to center around a man in a rubber dinosaur suit. That cast is in fine form but almost beside the point. Sure, the audience experiences the destruction through the character’ eyes and ears, but the saga of a soldier reuniting with his family often detracts from the monster mash around them. Yes, Godzilla does battle with other behemoths. More importantly, this battle is pure popcorn-munching fun.

Million Dollar Arm
Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi
*** — Underdog Millionaire
Conditioned to be feel-good sports flick using a rigorous but proven workout regimen, the predictable but likeable Million Dollar Arm nonetheless mostly hits the sweet spot. In this PG-rated sports drama based on a true story, a sports agent (Hamm) stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Indian cricket players (Suraj Sharma, etc.) to play Major League Baseball. Just like the ‘61 Yankees, Disney has an amazing and track record churning out star-studded, audience-baiting, heart-tugging sports dramas. Million Dollar Arm easily joins the ranks of 2000’s Remember the Titans, 2002’s The Rookie, 2004’s Miracle, 2006’s Invincible and 2010’s Secretariat as crowd-pleasing notches on this well-worn belt. Of course, therein lies the problem as well. Like the features listed above, it’s a solidly built mixture of laughs and tears that elicits moments of Rah Rah fist-pumping, but the whole endeavor feels manufactured like a decent weight lifter getting his game enhanced by steroids. Disney put together a great team in Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Lake Bell and Alan Arkin. Most of the movie’s scant success goes to ace screenwriter Tom McCarthy, however. Though he’s more widely known for pulling double duty writing and directing Oscar-worthy projects such as The Station Agent and The Visitor, here he only provides script duties, giving Disney exactly what they wanted: a grounder that plays out like a heavy hitter.

Neighbors
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
***1/2 — ‘Burbs is the Word
Thanks to a riotous script full of sophomoric humor and performances cranked up to a Freshman 15, good fencing definitely makes for a great Neighbors. In this R-rated raunchy comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) moves in next door. No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much more popular Belushi comedy: Animal House. As benchmarks go, Neighbors has pretty much zeroed in on the frat comedy gold standard. Similarly, it powers itself on a lot of puerile gags that are cogs in a straight- ahead story, but it takes a lot of intelligent wit to pull off laughs this consistent and solid. Normally, you can’t choose the scumbag neighbors who’re going to inevitably move in next door, but you can and should choose THESE Neighbors if you have any shred of a sense of humor.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
**1/2 — 2 Webbed Feet
Though it should’ve been an outright Spectacular Spider-Man, the supposedly Amazing second adventures of our friendly neighborhood web crawler ends up to be occasionally entertaining but entirely too screen-burstingly busy. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Fields). It’s so ironic how Marvel Studios is planning a TV series around Daredevil but Sony, in its bid to spin Spidey’s web into an Avengers-sized franchise, gives this deuce enough story for a full network run. Not that it’s boring, mind you! The CGI swings and connects, the fight sequences shoot and score and some of the moments (dramatic and comedic) evince a strong bite. It’s the tone overall that falls down the waterspout, however. Chock full of supporting characters bound for their own features and plotlines threading into future installments, all of the world building can’t help but wash the spider out of his own sequel.

Screens

Screens

OPENING THIS WEEKEND
 
Godzilla
Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
A TV program that never jumped the shark and was just starting to peak, the brilliantly scripted, acted and directed Breaking Bad went out on top with a bang last year in its fifth and final season. This left its stars, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, eyeing up their H’Wood prospects. While Cranston Paul just starred in the video game adaptation Need for Speed, Cranston is the second biggest star in this week’s Godzilla. In this PG-13-rated creature feature, the titular skyscraper-sized fire-breathing lizard gets pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten mankind’s very existence.
The Plus: The brand. Ever since the Tokyo-based Toho Company unleashed Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film on international audiences, Godzilla has retained the title “King of the Monsters” through his numerous appearances on film, on television and in comic books. Here, 60 years on, Gareth Edwards (Monsters) directs a reinvention with a cast that includes Cranston (Argo), Taylor-Johnson (Kick Ass 2), Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy), Ken Watanabe (Inception) and a CGI behemoth called Gojira who’s thankfully NOT played by a man in a rubber suit.
The Minus: The odds. In 1998, Sony tried remaking Godzilla with director Roland Emmerich and his producing partner, Dean Devlin (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) … to zero acclaim. Edwards’ 2010 debut, the brilliant sci-fi thriller Monsters, was a minor sensation, evincing his talent for crafting eye-popping visual effects and creating a Dystopian atmosphere with virtually no budget. Legendary Pictures gambling $160 million on an unproven blockbuster director is truly a ballsy move, especially considering one American remake of a franchise synonymous with Japanese culture has already failed.
 
EC15SCREENS_6_WEB
Million Dollar Arm
Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi
In this PG-rated sports drama based on a true story, a sports agent (Hamm) stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Indian cricket players (Suraj Sharma, etc.) to play Major League Baseball.
The Plus: The genre. Domestically, Disney has had VERY good luck with “Based on a True Story” feel-good sports flicks before. 2000’s Remember the Titans ($115 million), 2002’s The Rookie ($75 million), 2004’s Miracle ($64 million), 2006’s Invincible ($57 million) and 2010’s Secretariat ($59 million) all stand as proof. Million Dollar Arm has the potential to do well overseas as well given the India-based plot and casting. Playing for this team, Disney’s brought in Hamm (AMC’s Mad Men), Mandvi (The Internship), Bill Paxton (2 Guns), Sharma (Life of Pi), Lake Bell (Mr. Sherman & Peabody) and Arkin (Grudge Match) as well as ace screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) on script duties.
The Minus: The competition. Sure, they’re completely different genres and ratings, but even Million Dollar Arm is going to get tired trying to outlast Godzilla at the box office, especially with X-Men: Days of Future Past as next week’s follow-up.
 
NOW PLAYING
 

Neighbors starring Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne

Neighbors starring Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne


Neighbors
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron
***1/2 — ‘Burbs is the Word
Thanks to a riotous script full of sophomoric humor and performances cranked up to a Freshman 15, good fencing definitely makes for a great Neighbors. In this R-rated raunchy comedy, a couple (Rogen, Rose Byrne) with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after a fraternity (Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) moves in next door. No, it’s not a remake of the 1981 John Belushi comedy of the same name. Instead, Neighbors aspires to be a much more popular Belushi comedy: Animal House. As benchmarks go, you’ve pretty much zeroed in on the frat comedy gold standard. Similarly, Neighbors powers itself on a lot of puerile gags that are cogs in a straight- ahead story, but it takes a lot of intelligent wit to pull off laughs this consistent and solid. Hats off to first-time feature screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien for pulling off this raunchy party with wink and smile firmly in place. Whether he’s acting, writing or directing, Seth Rogen always brings the funny. When you think back on how many four-star comedies he’s been in since appearing on NBC’s Freaks and Geeks in 2000 (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, This is the End), it’s simply staggering. Here, he’s merely acting but this is a top-notch funnyman playing a put-upon everyman letter perfectly without the benefit of canned laughter. Plus, when they’re as good as Rogen, real laughs will come anyway. Still, his on-screen wife (Rose Byrne) and nemesis (Zac Efron) meet him beat for comic beat under the always-stellar direction of Nicholas Stoller, who always churns out A-Grade adult humor like a well-oiled machine (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Five-Year Engagement). Normally, you can’t choose the scumbag neighbors who’re going to inevitably move in next door, but you can and should choose these Neighbors.
 
The Quiet Ones
Jared Harris, Sam Clafin
*** — Cum On Fear the Noise
Smarter than the rest despite some dumb trick, the ironically titled but true blue scare-maker The Quiet Ones undoubtedly leaves you screaming for more. In this ‘70s-set PG-13-rated horror flick, a university professor (Harris), a team of students (Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne) and their film cameraman (Clafin) conduct an experiment on a young woman (Olivia Cooke), uncovering terrifyingly unexpected forces in the process. Most of the big frights come from the sound design, ear-defeating bangs and blood curling cries amped up to a Spinal Tap-approved level of 11. It’s a cheap but effective method made even better by the clever hook that this is often a vintage found footage thriller. True, it plays with all-too-common horror possession themes seen countless times, but puts a thinking man’s spin on them, debunking disbelievers given a voice as well. For this critic, it was always Hammer Time. As a child, it wasn’t black and white Universal Creature Features that defined horror. Instead, that honor fell on this Britain-based studio’s 50s, 60s and 70s monster mashes. The fact that they’re producing solid intelligent heart-stoppers (Let Me In, The Woman in Black) speaks VERY well for the genre. The Quiet Ones bears this out pretty well. The second act’s a mixed bag, throwing in some neat twists concerning the professor and, on the flip side, the inevitable hokum trying to explain away the terror on cult activity but this doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up any less. Plus, the movie does a lot with its PG-13 rating. Thanks to the slow building terror and near-nudity cutaways set-up by director John Pogue, you’d swear this creep show was a Hard R.
 
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
**1/2 — 2 Webbed Feet
Though it should’ve been an outright Spectacular Spider-Man, the supposedly Amazing second adventures of our friendly neighborhood web crawler ends up to be occasionally entertaining but entirely too screen-burstingly busy. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Field). It’s so ironic how Marvel Studios is planning a TV series around Daredevil but Sony, in its bid to spin Spidey’s web into an Avengers-sized franchise, gives this deuce enough story for a full network run. Not that it’s boring, mind you! The CGI swings and connects, the fight sequences shoot and score, and some of the moments (dramatic and comedic) evince a strong bite. It’s the tone overall that falls down the waterspout, however. Chock full of supporting characters bound for their own features and plotlines threading into future installments, all of the world building can’t help but wash the spider out of his own sequel.
 
Oculus

Oculus


Oculus
Karen Gillian, Brenton Thwaites
** — Through the Crooking Glass
Scarily middle of the road, all eyes on this time jumping take of possession will want to look away but not for the right reasons given the genre rhymes with borer. In this R-rated horror flick, a young woman (Gillian) tries to exonerate her brother (Thwaites), who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon. Oh, the action dregs up some thrills but they’re nothing audiences haven’t seen before… time and time and time again. The story, for the most part, holds the potential to intrigue but just doesn’t deliver because of the familiar bag of horror tricks. There’s the rather large matter of the mirror, mind you. Possibly a portal to a supernatural underworld or possibly a gateway to otherworldly evil, this device remains a unique trope for hair-raising. What ultimately results, however, is a standard issue clip reel of cheap scares that pulls everything from a lunging demonic woman to a crazed knife-wielding man to traumatized kids to terrorized beautiful people from it’s dusty hat. At least, the casting bears fruit. After a brilliant stint on the BBC’s Doctor Who, Karen Gillian certainly deserved a great jumping off point to the big screen. Well, consider Oculus more worthy of a jump cut … as in, cut it out of her CV. Her next H’Wood notch, Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, will most likely provide this. On her former TV gig, period hopping set is up for adventure. Here, it’s the most interesting story device in a horror flick that’s often as fulfilling as checking out your mirror image in cracked glass.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone
Merely five years after the conclusion of director Sam Raimi’s super-successful Spider-Man trilogy, Sony looked to start from scratch by reinventing Marvel Comics’ famed web-crawler under the direction of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer). At the worldwide box office, this comic book flick took in nearly $500 million — nearly double its estimated budget. In the hearts of many critics, however (this one included), the new Spider-Man banked a lot less lucre. In this PG-13-rated comic book adventure, Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man (Garfield) run the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him and his loved ones (Stone, Sally Field). The Plus: The franchise. Spider-Man consistently ranks as Marvel’s most popular and endearing characters. Here, returning Spider-stars Garfield (The Social Network), Stone (Gangster Squad), Field (Lincoln) and Campbell Scott (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) join newcomers Jamie Foxx (White House Down), Dane DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), Felicity Jones (Like Crazy), B.J. Novak (Saving Mr. Banks) and Chris Cooper (August: Osage County) again under the direction of Webb. The Minus: The gamble. Fans and critics alike disliked Spider-Man 3, in which Raimi overloaded the story with multiple villains. With Foxx playing Electro, DeHaan playing the Green Goblin, Giamatti playing the Rhino and Jones potentially playing Black Cat, this 2 hour and 26 minute sequel looks to be stocked to the gills. More so, Sony has already planned a spin-off for the villains (The Sinister Six) as well as set a release date for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (June 10, 2016). News that critics have largely been divided following press screenings shows that Sony might be getting ahead of itself, forsaking story in lieu of rushing an Avengers-style franchise into theaters.

Walk of Shame
Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden
In this R-rated comedy opening in select cinemas and on On-Demand, a one-night stand leaves a reporter (Banks) stranded in downtown L.A. without a phone, car, ID or money and only eight hours to make it to a career-making interview for a news anchor job … on the other side of town. The Plus: The genre. From The Hangover ($277 million) to Project X ($100 million) to Horrible Bosses ($117 million) to Ted ($218 million) to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa ($102 million), American moviegoers love their Hard-R comedies. Here, Steven Brill (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds) directs Banks (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Marsden (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) from his own screenplay. The Minus: The odds. From The Change-Up ($37 million) to 21 & Over ($25 million) to Movie 43 ($8 million), American moviegoers are finicky when it comes to their Hard-R comedies, especially considering it follows the as-yet-unsuccessful multi-screen roll-out formula (movie and home theater release on the same day) as 2012’s R-rated Bachelorette, which banked less than a $1 million domestically.

 

Now playing

The Other Woman
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann
** — Woman of Ill Repute
Despite some winning femme fatales, er, pratfalls, The Other Woman comes on to us aggressively but just doesn’t have enough feminine wiles to make audiences fall head over heels with the end results. In this PG-13-rated comedy, three women (Diaz, Mann, Kate Upton) team up to plot mutual revenge on their three-timing SOB of a husband/boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). You can see how this all looked great on paper. Based on a ‘Black List’ script (a survey of H’Wood insiders’ insiderimost lauded as-yet-unproduced screenplays) by Melissa Stack, the movie does — to her credit — feature several chuckle-worthy moments that come THISclose to becoming out-and-out laugh riots. What’s seems to be holding these gags back from awesomedom? Well, it generally appears that most of the adult comedy bits have been spayed so that the movie warrants a more general audience-friendly PG-13 rating … because teens are obviously the target demographic for comedies about a three-timing married man and the mostly middle-aged women left in his wake. Based on the boffo box office of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa, the decision to go soft should’ve gotten the flick re-titled Bad Decision. Now, it just plays out like thinly veiled knock-off of First Wives Club. Not for lack of trying on the part of the cast, however. Thanks to cutting her teeth on comedy at the very start of her career (The Mask, There’s Something About Mary), Cameron Diaz’s comic chops have only gotten better with age as evidenced by underrated gems like In Her Shoes. Likewise, Diaz’s co-star Kate Upton (also a model-turned-actress) shows great promise. Leslie Mann, however, steals the show, killing every scene she’s in with a ditsy but heart-tugging turn and letter-perfect comic timing. A veteran of husband Judd Apatow’s comedies (Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40), she’s more than earned a starring role. If only her material behaved much more badly.

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

Brick Mansions
Paul Walker, RZA
**1/2 – Escape from New Yawn
Propulsive and explosive but not quick witted enough, late actor Paul Walker’s penultimate adventure moves fast and furiously but still manages to come across as slow witted. In this PG-13-rated crime thriller, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) navigates a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by a containment wall in order to bring down a crime lord (RZA). Even though it ultimately involves an actual rocket, Brick Mansions never pretends to involve actual rocket science. The story unapologetically embraces preposterousness at an automatic clip. Still, some of the sequences hit moviegoers like a ton of Brick Mansions, especially those involving free running fisticuffs. Sadly, however, all involved don’t think twice about including poorly edited filmic tricks like jump shot editing in lieu of continuity. Despite knowing exactly what it is, this ‘Slam Bam Thank You, Ma’am’ actioner gets average results because it holds back. It should’ve been built like an R-rated brick craphouse. With a set-up this ludicrous, this flick needed to be funnier, ballsier and out-and-out crazier like the flick it’s based on, Escape from District 13. Moviegoers keen to catch one of the last notches on always entertaining actor Paul Walker’s CV may want to pump their brakes until Fast & Furious 7 bows next year … though, if you saw the last chapter, this too holds dubious prospects. Not surprisingly, moviegoers subjected to sometime screenwriter Luc Besson’s recent output of dummy bullet stories (Columbiana, The Family, 3 Days to Kill) will find that he hasn’t improved his craft much with this adaptation of his own story. Most of the problems prove technical, however. Editor-turned-director Camille Delamarre should’ve spent more time honing her former vocation before remaking a well regarded French actioner. Brick Mansions is more choppily stitched together than a dollar store Frankenstein.

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
** — Stranger Tides have Happened
Transcending disbelief and sometimes even entertainment value, Johnny Depp’s foray into weird science jacks into a concept that’s too high fallutin’ for the blockbusting H’Wood presentation. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. True, the glitzy movie compellingly presents some potentially prescient themes but, because it very much wants to be a crowd pleasing techno thriller as much as a critically lauded ‘Thing that makes you go hmmm,’ the flick can’t help but make any thought-provoking moments feel like penny arcade sociology.  Here, first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s story just can’t elevate this head-scratching — but beautiful looking — science project beyond wannabe sci-fi blockbuster.

 

Small Screens

Labor Day
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin
***1/2 — Thank You for Stoking
In this new-to-DVD PG-13-rated adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 1987-set novel, a depressed single mom (Winslet) and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man (Brolin) shelter, only to gradually learn his true story as the police close in. Far from being a déjà vexed sequel to Groundhog Day, Jason Reitman instead gives filmgoers a textured and nuanced love story beautifully set against a 80s backdrop that’s the furthest thing from laborious. If the look of Labor Day belies a 30 year-old drama unfettered by modern cynicism, it’s completely intentional. The film mirrors such straight ahead, death-tinged 80s coming of age stories as River’s Edge and Stand By Me. It’s the feel, however, that truly sets the suspense and emotion on a perpetual simmer. It’s not a simplistic film; it’s an intricately constructed doomed romance masquerading as a simplistic period piece. Unfortunately, by proxy, the photography occasionally brings to mind dated sudsy TV movies more than the modern classics listed above.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

 

The Other Woman
Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann
Cameron Diaz is keeping busy. This year alone, she has two projects set to bow. Next, she’ll co-star with Jason Segel in the raunchy comedy Sex Tape (July 25) and then take on the villainous role of Miss Hannigan in the big-screen remake of Annie (December 19) … after The Other Woman, of course. In this PG-13-rated comedy, three women (Diaz, Mann, Kate Upton) team-up to plot mutual revenge on their three-timing SOB of a husband/boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The Plus: The players. Here, Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) directs a cast that includes Diaz (The Counselor), Mann (This is 40), Upton (The Three Stooges), Coster-Waldau (HBO’s Game of Thrones) and Don Johnson (Django Unchained). The Minus: The odds. Though based on a “Black List” script (a survey of H’Wood insiders’ insiderimost lauded as-yet-unproduced screenplays) by Melissa Stack, this looks to be a thinly veiled remake of First Wives Club by a director who’s never done a straight comedy. Based on Captain America and Rio 2’s continued battle for the box office, this Other contender faces stiff competition, especially if left up to the graces of critics.

 

Brick Mansions
Paul Walker, RZA
In this PG-13-rated crime thriller, an undercover Detroit cop (Walker) navigates a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by a containment wall in order to bring down a crime lord (RZA). The Plus: The player. Following his tragic death in a high speed car wreck, some fans might be hot to see the late Paul Walker in his second to last performance (Fast & Furious 7 is set to bow on April 10, 2015). The Minus: The results. This is the directorial debut of Camille Delamarre, the editor of Taken 2 and Transporter 3. Plus, the participation of screenwriter Luc Besson, who’s turned out back (Columbiana) to back (The Family) to back (3 Days to Kill) duds, speaks poorly for Walker’s penultimate adventure, despite an action-packed trailer.

 

Now Playing

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
** — Stranger Tides have Happened
Transcending disbelief and sometimes even entertainment value, Johnny Depp’s foray into weird science jacks into a concept that’s too high fallutin’ for the blockbusting H’Wood presentation. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. True, the glitzy movie compellingly presents some potentially prescient themes but, because it very much wants to be a crowd pleasing techno thriller as much as a critically lauded thing that makes you go hmmm, the flick can’t help but make any thought provoking moments feel like penny arcade sociology. Yes, to an accelerated culture that lives most of its life not so much in the ether as the Ethernet, it seems very possible that someone’s consciousness could get lived out on the worldwide web … just not as a War Games retread with more beautiful people. If it weren’t for the well-crafted trappings, Bona fide movie star Johnny Depp has been down this trippy megalomaniacal road before (Captain Jack Sparrow, the Mad Hatter, Barnabus Collins … actually, ANY flick he stars in these days, it seems), but for most of Transcendence, he’s relegated to performing a Max Headroom — a literal talking head pulling the technological strings of terror. He accomplishes this not to the Oscar-worthy level of quality rightly afforded Scarlett Johansson’s voice-only turn in Her, but more with the it’s-my-world-you’re-just-living-in-it self-important bravado of Space Ghost as the host of Coast to Coast. This leaves impossibly pretty Brits Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Cillian Murphy to do much of the ‘heavy’ lifting by ruffling their brows whenever a moral conundrum pops up because Morgan Freeman’s just there to play his usual sage-like self when this plan goes awry (thankfully, the producers opted out of having him perform obligatory narration duties). Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister creates a rousing spectacle full of breathtaking SFX-infused action that generates more than a few hair-raising moments. First-time screenwriter Jack Paglen’s story, however, just can’t elevate this head-scratching science project beyond wannabe sci-fi blockbuster. For a benchmark, all involved should have looked to Pfister’s ex-boss Nolan, who brilliantly bridged entertainment and introspection in an easily digestible sci-fi-inspired pill called Inception.

 

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
**1/2 — Way to Keep it Rio
Birds of a familiar feather flocking together for more of the same, the loud, colorful, but ultimately so-so sequel. Rio 2 doesn’t go south so much as stick to the same no-frills flight pattern. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and Jewel‘s father (Andy Garcia). Stocked full of Brazilian nuts, the Amazon-set follow-up rightly tries upping the character count, “dramatic” ante, slapsticky gags, and adult-pleasing one-liners … but the end result still often feels like reheated leftovers. Of course, families with non-discerning children won’t care much but this second helping is more of a deuce than the original, pushing in its chips on an Eco-themed Be Yourself theme that feels like it was culmed from the deleted scenes from the cutting room floor of Happy Feet.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, spring or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek, and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek. All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a ‘70s spy caper. Without the razor-sharp casting and direction, however, this flick would tinkle like a spring shower rather than rage like a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

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

 

Small Screens

True Detective
Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson
****1/2 — In the Fete of the Night
You know how most hero worshiped programs never live up to the hype? Well, everything you’ve heard about this blistering Detective tale rings ear-piercingly True. This HBO crime thriller anthology for adult audiences follows Louisiana State Police Criminal Investigations Division homicide Detectives Cohle and Hart (McConaughey, Harrelson) as they hunt for a serial killer across 17 years. Hard-boiled and hard-wired, this eight episode gem turns the police procedural on its head with a gritty look into the dubious Jambalaya justice doled out during a puzzling Bayou crime spree. So great that it makes vanilla network shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Criminal Minds suitable for a laugh-track, True Detective only works so well because of its Emmy-worthy turns by McConaughey and Harrelson as well as the brilliant writing by creator Nic Pizzolatto, who not only penned every episode but gifted pay cable viewers with two of the most hypnotic and eccentric TV cops yet.

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
Thanks to Disney, Johnny Depp has a full dance card in 2016. Sequels to both Alice in Wonderland (Through the Looking Glass) and Pirates of the Caribbean (Dead Men Tell No Tales) will bow that year. Not that he’s slacking off in 2014, mind you. He still has three projects to be released (Mortdecai, London Fields and Into the Woods) … after Transcendence, that is. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. The Plus: The players. This high concept flick stars Depp (Dark Shadows), Hall (Iron Man 3), Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Rises), Cole Hauser (Olympus Has Fallen), Paul Bettany (Priest) and Kate Mara (Netflix’s House of Cards). The Minus: The gamble. With Transcendence, Christopher Nolan’s (The Dark Knight, Inception) longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister is making his directorial debut. A reported budget of $100 million makes this an expensive set of training wheels for a first-timer, especially on a holiday weekend known for courting families.

A Haunted House 2
Marlon Wayans, Jaime Pressley
In this R-rated send-up of everything from Paranormal Activity to The Conjuring, Malcolm (Wayans) starts fresh with his new girlfriend (Pressley) and her two children by moving them into their dream home … which, of course, gets plagued by bizarre paranormal events. The Plus: The genre. Love them or hate them, spoof comedies have ruled at the box office before, regardless of quality (Not Another Teen Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie). The Wayans family (Marlon stars in, writes and produces A Haunted House 2) has found a particular knack for mining fool’s gold out of this genre. Keenan Ivory, Shawn and Marlon Wayans all had a hand in the Scary Movie franchise, which turned the art of parody into a money-making machine for Dimension Films. Likewise, Haunted House scared up over $40 million. The Minus: The odds. Superhero Movie and the Wayans’ own Dance Flick brought diminishing returns to the genre, bringing the genre to all but a stop as of 2009. With the Scary Movie franchise still in the mix, is this genre plain scared out?

 

Now Playing

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
**1/2 — Way to Keep it Rio
Birds of a familiar feather flocking together for more of the same, the loud, colorful, but ultimately so-so sequel Rio 2 doesn’t go south so much as stick to the same no-frills flight pattern. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurdled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and meet the most fearsome adversary of all: Jewel’s father (Andy Garcia). Stocked full of Brazilian nuts, the Amazon-set follow-up rightly tries upping the character count, “dramatic” ante, slapsticky gags, and adult-pleasing one-liners … but the end result still often feels like reheated leftovers. Of course, families with non-discerning children won’t care much, but this second helping is more of a deuce than the original, pushing in its chips on an eco-themed “Be Yourself” theme that feels like it was culled from the deleted scenes from the cutting room floor of Happy Feet. Mind you, it’s a visual feast for the eye and, occasionally, the ears but why not just re-watch the superior first go-round? There’s not a bad note among the celebrity pipes hired to give lip service to the fuss and feathers. Director Carlos Saldanha (the Ice Age series) and Blue Sky Studios definitely possess a gift for bringing funtastic characters to life and Rio 2 definitely boasts its share, even if some returning faces literally and ridiculously get airlifted into the action. When a ballad by a poison tree frog emerges as the flick’s standout moment, however, it might be time to put the ixnay on chapter three.

Draft Day
Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner
*** — Any Driven Sunday
An occasionally white knuckle Draft worth not dodging, Kevin Costner’s latest seizes the Day for diehard sports fans. For a football flick, there’s decidedly very little gridiron action. In this PG-13-rated sports drama, general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he sacrifices all to trade for the number one pick (Chadwick Boseman) at the NFL Draft. Moving the game from the backfield to the back offices, Draft Day plays out more like a political thriller with laughs and romance shoehorned in. The movie does most of this surprisingly well, juggling comedy, drama, and sports references in equal but awkward measure. Granted, many of the yuks and NFL worship get laid on too thick, but it’s the clever machinations behind the trade negotiations that truly keep audiences invested … that and the MVP-worthy lead performance, that is. If only the movie didn’t often feel like a Rah Rah advert for Monday Night Football. Kevin Costner made a name for himself with baseball flicks (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game) but he takes to this pigskin dramedy brilliantly. Rather than The Longest Yawn, he makes a somewhat decent flick outright enjoyable for moviegoers. Under the direction of veteran filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), who makes split screen suddenly seem fresh and new, Draft Day is better than the material provided. Screenwriter Rajiv Joseph is the kind of guy you’d want on your pub trivia team for sports statistical minutia alone but the sometimes predictable storytelling feels quite Screenwriting 101 … until the ticking clock chess match of a climax recovers the story from any previous fumbles.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, spring, or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek, and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek. All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a ‘70s spy caper. Without the razor-sharp casting and direction, however, this flick would tinkle like a spring shower rather than rage like a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

Noah
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in 2 hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure, a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman). Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. It’s a Goldilocks tale — sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but occasionally produces many that are JUST right. It’s a successful failure, earning points for not playing it safe.

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

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
Pixar and Dreamworks aren’t the only game in town when it comes to blockbuster animation. With the gi-normous back-to-back-to-back-to-back success of the Ice Age series, 20th Century Animation found further franchise potential when Rio proved a carnival at the box office. Next up is Epic and Ice Age 5 … after Rio 2, that is. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and meet the most fearsome adversary of all: Jewel’s father (Andy Garcia). The Plus: The franchise. Rio banked $143 million at the domestic box office. Moviegoers will flock to the follow-up — it’s just a question of: How much? Given that a holiday weekend is approaching, it’ll probably bank a lot. Plus, this flick boasts the A-List pipes of Eisenberg (Now You See Me), Hathaway (Les Miserables), Leslie Mann (This is 40), Kristin Chenoweth (Hit and Run), Clement (Men in Black 3), Rodrigo Santoro (The Last Stand), George Lopez (The Smurfs 2), Garcia (City Island), Jamie Foxx (White House Down), Tracy Morgan (NBC’s 30 Rock), Miguel Ferrer (CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles) and Will.i.am (Date Night). The Minus: Sophomore slump. As Dreamworks recently discovered, for every hit like The Croods there’s a relative disappointment like Turbo waiting in the wings. It all comes down to quality.

Draft Day
Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner
It seems like it was just months ago that this column raved that Kevin Costner was the best part of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and deserved to be given a another shot at leading man status …uh, actually it was just weeks ago. Then came 3 Days to Kill. Be careful what you wish for. In this PG-13-rated sports drama, general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he sacrifices all to trade for the number one pick (Chadwick Boseman) at the NFL Draft. The Plus: The players. In addition to Costner (Man of Steel), Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) directs a cast includes Garner (The Dallas Buyers Club), Boseman (42), Joe Mangianello (Sabotage), Sam Elliot (Ghost Rider), Rosanna Arquette (Joe Dirt), Terry Crews (The Expendables 2), Frank Langella (Muppets Most Wanted), Denis Leary (The Amazing Spider-Man), Sean Combs (Get Him to the Greek) and Ellen Bursytn (Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic) plus appearances by sports figures such as Arian Foster and Deion Sanders. The Minus: The reality. Remember when Reitman was a hot H’Wood commodity? Nope? Well, that’s because the film industry has a short memory when it comes to box office duds (Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached). Though Costner certainly deserves a Liam Neeson-style career rejuvenation (Taken, The Grey), 3 Days to Kill shows evidence that he’s not being too choosy script-wise.

 

Now Playing

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, Spring or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The First Avenger proved better than average though not by much. Of course, it held the dubious distinction of setting up a decades-spanning origin tale of a whitebread do-gooder who’s never seen the rock star popularity of fellow Marvel-ous heroes Spider-Man or the X-Men. With so much story and, perhaps, not as much audience interest, director Joe Johnston carved out an impressively rollicking niche in pre-Avengers moviedom. The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek (see: Rogers walking through a Smithsonian exhibit on … well, him). All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a 70s spy caper. Capping off a star-making series of performances as super soldier Steve Rogers, Chris Evans perfectly provides the pulse behind the action. Blond, blue-eyed and chiseled, he looks the part of a white-hatted lunk but he genuinely shoulders the world as a superman-out-time. Providing whipsmart backup and whiplash moves, a knee-weakingly vampy Scarlet Johansson nearly makes moviegoers think this a double bill despite her supporting status. Without the razor-sharp precision of directors/brothers Anthony and Chris Russo, however, this flick would tinkle like a Spring shower rather than a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 – Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree, or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Who DOES that? Well, it’s more of a question of: Who COULD do it? At first glance, with its patchwork of numerous A-List stars and minute details, Grand Budapest Hotel looks as dangerously over-indulgent as the way-too-whimsical Steve Zissou, which failed to tether filmgoers much — if at all — to reality. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics, and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity. As for the myriad of stars, they’re not simply stunt-casted. Rather, every character and performance plays an integral part in Anderson’s madcap mechanics. Fiennes, however, manages to wrap every viewer around his pinky — a high accolade given there’s nothing close to resembling a low point in this talent roster. True, you could gripe that Saoirse Ronan has a hard time hiding her Irish brogue, but that’s just nit-picking apart Anderson’s most adult, maudlin, yet loveliest work yet.

Noah
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in 2 hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure, a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman). Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. It’s a Goldilocks tale — sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but occasionally produces many that are JUST right. It’s a successful failure, earning points for not playing it safe.

Bad Words
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn
***1/2 – Bee Cool
This reviewer has words for Bad Words and they’re mostly really good. In this R-rated foul-mouthed societal dust-up, a former spelling bee loser (Bateman) sets out to exact revenge by exploiting a loophole and attempting to win as an adult. Oh, the comedy is not without its bell-ringing missteps but nonetheless ends up to be a solid continuation of the H’Wood trend of adults behaving badly—Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, and Bad Grandpa. Littered with laugh-out-loud moments throughout its short running time, the movie succeeds chiefly because of the name above all others. Given that it’s a directorial debut, however, this name — B-A-T-E-M-A-N — deserves more than an honorable mention. True, the flick does cop out by un-Scrooging its curmudgeon, but it’s done with such style and, ahem, character that it’s definitely worth sitting a spell.

 

Small Screens

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
***1/2 – Beautiful Dreamer
In this PG-rated fantasy adventure premiering on DVD on Tuesday, a day-dreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies (Stiller) embarks on a globe-trotting journey more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined. A colorful and rich fever dream that could’ve easily played out like a nightmare on screen, Ben Stiller’s not-so-Secret Life as a director instead colors outside of the H’Wood lines to great affect with his latest. Even Walter’s job in Negative Assets sounds innocuous, but the film presents a vibrant palette and expansive canvas that’s every bit as ambitious as Life of Pi. Finding invention in convention, Stiller expands James Thurber’s whimsical short story about a lovelorn daydreamer into a fantastical feature-length narrative about a forgettable everyman whose life turns unforgettable when his dreams inexorably become realities. Sure, the storyline becomes contrived at times but this rare shot of optimism truly taps into a fun-filled dreamstate.

Screens

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by Jeff Boam

 

Opening This Week

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
Blind Faith. Humble Pie. Power Station. The Honeydrippers. The Traveling Wilburys. These are what music fans call supergroups, glorified garage bands stuffed with more over-the-hill rock stars than an episode of Celebrity Rehab. But what about comic book movie supergroups? Well, with the blockbuster success of The Avengers in 2011, Marvel Studios realized its creative vision of uniting several franchises in one butt-kicking package. Blockbuster hit Iron Man 3 kicked off Phase 2, which led the way for Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1, 2014), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015) and Ant-Man (July 17, 2015) … after The Winter Soldier, of course. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The Plus: The franchise. With a worldwide box office of over $370 million, Captain America: The First Avenger proved a super-sized hit for Marvel. The early buzz on its sequel, however, is even better. For this outing, we have Evans (What’s Your Number?), Johansson (Don Jon), Stan (Black Swan), Frank Grillo (The Grey), Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop), Anthony Mackie (Pain & Gain) and Robert Redford (All is Lost) starring. The Minus: The expectation. The First Avenger ended up to be Marvel’s least successful performer so far as box office and reviews. With a 3rd Captain America reportedly already slotted for 2016, is Marvel getting ahead of itself and setting the bar too high?

 

Now Playing

Noah
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in two hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman) from the coming flood. But to what end? Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Instead of two giraffe heads sticking out of a wooden boat captained by a robed man with a big bushy white beard, filmgoers get a morality tale drenched with fantastical elements for better and worse. It’s a failing success. And a successful failure. But it’s bold and gets big points for not playing it safe. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. Like Goldie Locks, sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but does produce many that are JUST right. Fallen angels reimagined as giant rock creatures might prove irksome to some but how is it any more unbelievable than a 1,000 year-old-man named Methusaleh? Thankfully, part of the ‘just right’ results from the casting. Biblical hero and villain, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-his-badass-self Russell Crowe carries most of the weight to great effect. Emily Watson, however, steals away from her Harry Potter legacy with a gut-wrenchingly emotional turn.

Bad Words
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn
***1/2 — Bee Cool
This reviewer has words for Bad Words and they’re mostly really good. In this R-rated comedy, a former spelling bee loser (Bateman) sets out to exact revenge by exploiting a loophole and attempting to win as an adult. Oh, the comedy is not without its bell-ringing missteps but nonetheless ends up to be a solid continuation of the H’Wood trend of adults behaving badly — Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa being the dubious — but often hysterical — pioneers. Littered with laugh-out-loud moments throughout its short running time, the movie succeeds chiefly because of the name above all others. Given that it’s a directorial debut, however, this name — B-A-T-E-M-A-N — deserves more than an honorable mention. A former child actor who cut his teeth in the H’Wood sitcom trenches (Silver Spoons, The Hogan Family … Little House: A New Beginning), this actor re-captured the industry’s attention and re-ignited his career as Michael Bluth on Fox’s brilliant and irreverent cult hit sitcom Arrested Development. In raunchy comedies (Couples Retreat, Horrible Bosses), Oscar-baiting fare (Juno, Up in the Air), and summer blockbusters alike (Hancock, The Kingdom), he’s certainly earned the equivalent of a Purple Heart in comedy. Thankfully, for his first helming gig, he chose the appropriate laugh-getter in Bad Words, screenwriter Andrew Dodge’s foul-mouthed societal dust-up. True, the flick does cop out by un-Scrooging its curmudgeon, but it’s done with such style and, ahem, character that it’s definitely worth sitting a spell.

Sabotage
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington
**1/2 — True Sighs
An ambitious, bullets and brawn, blood-splattered bust, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s convoluted latest nonetheless ends up to be his best post-politico flick thanks to pure gall. Granted, calling the once and future Terminator’s new project his ‘recent best’ is as empty an accolade as calling Peter Dinklage H’Wood’s tallest short actor. In this R-rated actioner, members of an elite DEA task force (Schwarzenegger, Worthington, et al) find themselves being taken down one by one after they rob a drug cartel safe house. Twisty rather than straight-ahead, Sabotage falls far from being a lyric-for-lyric interpretation of the Beastie Boys song … though that narrative may’ve made more sense in the long run. Instead, moviegoers get presented with a tangled web of dirty Feds, dirtier drug cartels, and Hard R violence verging dangerously close on NC-17. A glorified shoot-‘em-up crammed with too much story, the script proves to be this project’s most gratuitous saboteur. Just because a who-done-it angle gets worked in doesn’t make it any less of a piece of action porn. For Schwarzenegger, it’s been a long crawl back, littered with C-Grade actioners that get appreciably better (The Last Stand, Escape Plan). These days, he seems to turn out higher grade flicks while working amongst more of an ensemble (The Expendables and its sequel), which Sabotage bares out. In allowing his fellow players more scenery chewing moments, this H’Wood legend actually elevates the material because he’s more thoughtful and restrained than in his other recent movies. Still, more was expected of David Ayer considering that this is the follow-up to his thinking man’s buddy cop flick End of Watch. Like James Ellroy with less of a sense of humor, this writer/director made a name for himself crafting oblique LA cop conspiracy tales mired in blood and bad decisions (screenwriter, Training Day; writer/director, Street Kings) before giving critics an A-Ha moment with Watch. With Sabotage, however, he seems to be regressing back to Harsh-er Times.

Divergent
Shailene Woodley, Theo James
*** — Deftly Hollows
Better than The Twilight Saga but never as good as The Hunger Games, Divergent is the latest YA fantasy adventure to make it to the big screen with all of the aplomb of a soggy paperback. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Tris (Woodley) learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in a world divided by factions based on virtues, so she infiltrates a war-like faction to discover her destiny. This adaptation skews way closer to Games, presenting a dystopian near-wasteland where its government-fearing denizens live an almost Quaker-like existence until unrest causes … hey, wake up! The ideology and theocracy behind the plot points are as paper thin as the script pages it was typed on, but Woodley runs with the role and never stops, hitting all of the emotional marks and taking countless beatings. Let’s hope the inevitable follow-up aspires more to Catching Fire than catching Eclipse though.

 

Small Screens

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd
***1/2 — Anchors Aweigh
In this PG-13-rated comedy new to DVD, former top rated San Diego newsman Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) returns to broadcasting to make New York’s first 24-hour news channel a ratings success in the 80s. Anchored by a sometimes bizarre but oftentimes gut-busting brand of humor, the continuing misadventures of Ron Burgundy defy the odds of comedy sequels and gives moviegoers a very worthwhile follow-up. A deuce to what’s very possibly become the most quoted comedy of the last quarter century could’ve turned out very (Ghostbusters 2) very (Caddyshack 2) very (The Odd Couple 2) badly for moviegoers. The Legend Continues proves quite the opposite, milking huge laughs, shoehorning in many funny cameos, and making a dead-on assessment of cable television news even when the jokes are too indulgently reverential to the first flick.