by Jeff Boam
Opening this weekend
Voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez
In 2008, the MTV Movie Awards presented ‘veteran’ comedian Adam Sandler with the career-spanning MTV Generation Award. Even by MTV standards, recognizing the 45-year-old “Sandman” for a lifetime of H’wood gigs seemed a bit presumptuous given that such an award usually cues retirement. In the last year alone, this former SNL cast member released two comedies (Jack & Jill, That’s My Boy), which makes Hotel Transylvania his trifecta … not to mention the fact that he’s currently filming Grown Ups 2. In the PG-rated animated comedy Hotel Transylvania, Count Dracula (Sandler) runs a 5-stake resort that caters to monsters like Frankenstein (Kevin James), the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), and the Invisible Man (David Spade), but things go awry when a commoner (Andy Samberg) checks in and develops eyes for Drac’s 118-year-old daughter (Gomez). The Plus: The players. Even when the critics hate him, Sandler rakes in moviegoers (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Just Go With It, Grown Ups). Here, Gomez (Monte Carlo), James (The Zookeeper), Buscemi (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), and Spade (CBS’s Rules of Engagement) are lending their pipes to acclaimed animation director Genndy Tartakovsky (Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars). The Minus: The odds. Thanks to Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy, Sandler’s in a bit of a box office slump. Based on the lackluster “success” of his last animated vehicle (Eight Crazy Nights), the Sandman could very well find himself in a monster mash—not smash.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis
Blame 3rd Rock from the Sun. The ‘90s NBC sitcom may have introduced Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the world, but the actor then toiled for years before making another H’wood break (Mysterious Skin, Brick, The Lookout). Since then, however, his career (500 Days of Summer, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Inception) has been on somewhat of a Premium Rush, which was also the title of his last starring effort. Now, he’s headlining Looper as a young Bruce Willis … thanks to prosthetics, of course. In this as-yet-unrated, sci-fi thriller, director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) presents a future where the mob dispatches targets 30 years into the past to be eliminated by a hired gun, thus closing the loop … only one gun-toting looper (Gordon-Levitt) gets presented with a future version of himself (Willis). The Plus: The players. Here, Gordon-Levitt (50/50, The Dark Knight Rises) and Willis (Red, Expendables 2) join Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau, The Five-Year Engagement). The Minus: The sell. The trailer’s a visual knockout, but audiences may not be willing to devote the time it takes to wrap their head around the trippy time travel-gone-bad premise. Granted, presenting a head-scratcher didn’t stop Inception from becoming a hit, but Gordon-Levitt doesn’t exactly have the bankability of Leonardo DiCaprio.
Won’t Back Down
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
Hey, you Dangerous Minds and Freedom Fighters: Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, and listen to the Music of the Heart—H’wood’s ready to take on the educational system … again. In this PG-rated family drama based on a true story, two determined mothers (Gyllenhaal, Davis) stop at nothing to transform their children’s failing inner-city school. The Plus: The players. Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Crazy Heart) and Davis (Doubt, The Help) headline a cast that also includes Oscar Isaac (Drive, The Bourne Legacy), Holly Hunter (The Incredibles, Thirteen), and Rosie Perez (Pineapple Express, The Other Guys). The Minus: The competition. One weekend, three new releases, two of them PG-rated … in an already crowded box office, this flick will be forcibly backed down by the heavily marketed likes of Hotel Transylvania.
End of Watch
Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena
Copping to an interesting hook and a police story that’s well played out, End of Watch lights ’em up on a tired genre that’s been all but impounded. Cop dramas used to be a dime a dirty dozen, patrolling cinemas with either a semi-comic buddy formula (see: the Lethal Weapon franchise) or out-and-out badge-wielding shoot-’em-out blueprint (see: the Dirty Harry franchise). Starting in the late ’90s (and escalating dramatically post 9/11), however, cinema depicting metro men-in-uniform took a gritty clenched fist form that’s culminated in this: a found footage cop thriller that pretty fully realizes boys in blue, police-issue warts and all. It’s flawed, yes (there is a grandiose shootout worthy of blockbuster ’80s action movies), but the movie deals an even hand to the hard-knock lives of policemen. In this R-rated police drama, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena play LAPD officers who patrol South Central’s most dangerous gang-infested streets, only to stumble upon a dangerous sect of the Mexican drug cartel. If this most modern bent to the police drama seems tired, End of Watch writer/director David Ayer is partly to blame. The man who wrote bad cop procedural Training Day also helmed substandard flatfoot vs. thug yarns Harsh Times and Street Kings. Here, however, he embraces a faux documentary gimmick usually afforded to horror flicks. Although, this particular drama gets sold through rather well, putting forth an authentic day in the LAPD life. Gyllenhaal and Pena make for a crack team, carrying the heavy — at times too heavy — material through to the sobering end. Bottom line: Good to the end.
House at the End of the Street
Jennifer Lawrence, Max Thierlot
Lowering the property value on the entire horror genre, House at the End of the Street eventually just leads moviegoers down a dead end. To its credit, this residence evil tries to build up the characters before bumping them off. Unfortunately, trying isn’t doing when the end product of any character building results in a nearly scare-less thriller that sells off the cow while the milk’s still pouring for free. Not only does this wannabe thriller’s reveal arrive too early, it’s patently absurd from the word whoa. Despite the talent involved, this House razes — as opposed to raises — any spine-chilling moments. In the PG-13-rated thriller House at the End of the Street, Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence and her mother (Elizabeth Shue) look for a brand-new start in a small town, but a relationship with a reclusive boy named Ryan (Thierlot) pulls her into the mystery of a house haunted by an old murder. Reduced to more of a Screaming Mimi than Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence trades in most of her keen action skills but not her smart acting chops — both already brilliantly evinced in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Sadly, this young star’s winning combo of wits and looks can’t tap dance away from the pathetically long lead-up to the actual horror. Up until the poorly played twist, this thriller weaves a tangled web of cheap thrills and shoddy filmmaking that just gets increasingly and scarily worse as the minutes click on. Truthfully, audiences should’ve just turned back after Last House on the Left. Bottom line: The Blunder Games.
Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham
More agreeably combustible than expendable, this nostalgia-heavy franchise still has a lot of life in it so long as they keep stacking the deck with musclebound H’wood pensioners. In this R-rated actioner, a group of old-school mercenaries (Stallone, Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews) go on a personal vendetta against a dangerous adversary (Jean-Claude van Damme) who kills one of their own in a plot to smuggle weapons-grade plutonium. Sure, it often plays like a bullet-ridden It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World cast with juiced-up action movie dinosaurs, but this reviewer has come to praise geezers — not to bury them. Truthfully, it’s also a stand-alone, ham-fisted, crowd-pleasing shoot-’em-up, albeit one that’s perhaps too tongue-in-cheek. Moviegoers already came in droves for star cameos. They didn’t need Arnold Schwarzenegger snarling “I’ll be back” to Bruce Willis umpteen times. Bottom line: First Blood, then cheers.
Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf
Encouraging nearly as much listlessness as lawlessness, this fascinating, but flawed, bootlegging drama comes packing a lot of heat but ultimately runs a little cool. In this R-rated crime-thriller, three bootlegging brothers (Hardy, LaBeouf, Jason Clarke) battle the law (Pearce) and a crime boss (Gary Oldman) in Prohibition-era Virginia. Everything, from the locations to the dialogue to the Hard-R violence, feels wholly authentic. Still, despite the fact that this crime thriller boils down real events, it sometimes feels hackneyed and formulaic. Perhaps, the title sums up this dichotomy best. Originally, this flick shared the name of its source material, Wettest County in the World, which — though not the easiest sell to filmgoers — at least has some spit and grit. As a title, Lawless rings true but feels as bland as watered down moonshine, much like the film itself. Bottom line: Smokey and the blandness.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick
Levitating between being scarily good and scarily bad, The Possession floats fearfully in a cinematic purgatory. In this PG-13-rated horror flick supposedly based on a true story, a father (Morgan) teams with his ex-wife (Sedgwick) to seek an end to a curse affecting their daughter (Natasha Calis), who bought an antique box containing a malicious spirit. What the movie paints frightfully well is a family suffering the opposing sides of divorced parents who shuffle two girls from house to house like carpetbaggers torn between homes. It would be an analogy for the psychological terror perpetrated on the children of divorce, of course, if the script had a ghost of a chance of being prescient. Instead, when the scares come, The Possession falls back on cheap, albeit well orchestrated, scares. It’s just another example of how this horror flick exorcises both average and poor moments from the same material. Bottom line: The least exorcism.
Resident Evil: Retribution 3D
Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory
The Resident drivel in the room, umpteenth sequel Retribution proves to be an endgame for moviegoers’ intelligence. In this R-rated zombie thriller, genetically-enhanced undead killer Alice (Milla Jovovich) fights her way out of the Umbrella Corporation’s most clandestine operation to hunt for those responsible for the zombie outbreak that’s put mankind on the brink of oblivion. As smartly plotted and executed a zombie series as AMC’s The Walking Dead is, the Resident Evil franchise gratuitously works the opposite stripper pole. Granted, it doesn’t have to play out like a video game to illustrate its origins, but Resident Evil wears its gamer pedigree like a badge of honor regardless, giving the audience patently absurd shoot-em-ups, leather-clad heroines, and monster mash-ups with occasional short breaks for exposition. It’s well shot, yes, but such trappings can’t detract from the poor writing, shoddy acting, and obligatory sequel-baiting curtain-closer that seems to be building toward nothing. Bottom line: Dawn of the dreck.
Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons
In this PG-13-rated multi-layered intersection of separate stories within stories (think: The Hours, but with egomaniacal good-looking novelists and less culpability), a celebrated novelist (Dennis Quaid) dogged by a persistent student (Olivia Wilde) presents the story of a young writer (Cooper) who sees his literary star rise after having the great American novel published in his name … only the purported real author (Irons) returns to haunt him. Showcasing Words to be appreciated, this crowd-pleaser shows near limitless A-team entertainment potential despite its literary pedigree. Not that the world of book publishing is stodgy, mind. It just doesn’t prove a sexy selling point when it comes to movie marketing…and that goes double for this flick’s title, Words. And no, it’s not a sequel to The Reader. Rather, this film enfolds as a slick H’wood presentation of a complex well-written script that strangely never feels like slick H’wood filmmaking. Indeed, like sands through an hourglass, The Words smartly fall into place. Bottom line: More than Words.cinemark