October 17, 2012

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) strides into the CIA building for a meeting with the director to receive his next assignment. He is charged with the task of getting six American diplomats, who are hiding in the Canadian Ambassador’s home, after they escaped from the takeover of the American embassy in Teheran by the Iranians. Mendez devises an elaborate scheme in which the diplomats become members of a film crew that is supposedly shooting a movie in Teheran.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States embassy in Teheran, taking 52 Americans hostage with the intent to exchange them for the recently deposed Shah. What ensued was a 444-day ordeal which would last long after the despised despot died in exile without standing trial.

While that standoff occupied the world’s attention as front-page news, almost no one knew that a half-dozen Americans had managed to escape unnoticed during the assault and take refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Of course the discovery of their whereabouts by the rabidly anti-Western Khomeini regime would have undoubtedly triggered another international incident.

So, they surreptitiously contacted the CIA which assigned their rescue to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a specialist with a perfect record of freeing captives from similar perilous predicaments.

Agent Mendez proceeded to hatch an attention grabbing scheme that was the antithesis of the sort of clandestine operation one might expect from the CIA.

His plan involved creating a cover for the stranded diplomats by making a movie that was actually a CIA front. First, he enlisted the assistance of a veteran Hollywood executive (Alan Arkin) and an Oscar-winner (John Goodman) and swore them to secrecy. They lent an air of authenticity to the ruse by posing as the picture’s producer and makeup artist, respectively.

Figuring that “If you want to spread a lie, get the press to sell it for you,“ they launched the project at an elaborate press conference that had actors who appeared in gaudy costumes. The media fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and soon Hollywood was abuzz about Argo, an upcoming science fiction movie set to be shot on location in Iran.

In truth, Mendez would be the only person venturing on the dangerous mission to Teheran and when he arrived there the film’s tone shifted from flip and lighthearted to stone cold sober. Upon arriving at the Canadian ambassador’s house, he hands the six Americans newly-prepared passports that identitify them as members of a Canadian film crew.

The tension rapidly ratchets-up as the Iranian authorities close in just as the diplomats are making their escape to the airport, where the slightest slip during an interrogation could mean the difference between life and death. An edge-of-your-seat thriller not to be forgotten at Oscar time!

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and violent images. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

October 10, 2012

BOY AM I EVER OUT OF SHAPE: Scott Voss (Kevin James, facing the camera), a biology teacher, is being coached and trained by a retired kick boxing champion (Mark DellaGrotte, back to the camera). Scott is training to fight in a mixed martial arts prize match in order to win enough money to donate to his school so that his best friend Marty Streb (Henry Winkler) won’t lose his job as music teacher, which the principal wants to cut in order to balance the school’s budget.

Scott Voss (Kevin James) is a bored biology teacher at mythical Wilkinson High in Massachusetts, a cash strapped school suffering from low morale. Scott is part of the problem, because he sets a horrible example for his students, such as stealing candy from vending machines and always arrives late for class.

During recess, the bored 42-year-old bachelor always flirts with the beautiful school nurse, Bella (Salma Hayek). However, she routinely rebuffs his advances with gentle reminders of how often she’s rejected each of his requests for a date.

The plot thickens when Principal Betcher (Gregg German) assembles the faculty in the auditorium to announce the latest budget cuts. The measures include plans to eliminate after school activities such as the debate club and field trips, and also the entire music program.

That means Scott’s colleague and friend, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), will be callously laid-off right before earning tenure. And to add insult to injury, the dedicated music teacher’s firing comes at a time when his wife (Nikki Tyler-Flynn) is pregnant.

This dire state of affairs inspires Scott to prevail upon the principal to preserve his pal’s position. But Betcher says the school simply doesn’t have the $48,000 to pay Marty.

Therefore, Scott, who hasn’t wrestled competitively since college, decides to raise the cash by moonlighting in the ring as a mixed martial arts fighter. With the help of Marty and a retired kickboxing champ (Bas Rutten), he proceeds to whip himself, a middle-aged couch potato, into shape.

Here Comes the Boom is a sweet-natured sports story that combines familiar elements from Rocky (1976) and Nacho Libre (2006). Directed by Frank Coraci (The Waterboy), the movie showcases Kevin James’s comic genius at his best, such as pratfalls in a mask while wearing ill-fitting stretchy pants, or futilely wooing the woman of his dreams.

The plot inexorably builds to a showdown between Scott and an intimidating adversary (Krzysztof Soszynski) for a purse that conveniently matches Marty’s salary. Wouldn’t it be nice if Wilkinson’s student body and school band were on hand in the Vegas arena to cheer for their altruistic teacher, and better yet if Bella had a change of heart and also arrived ringside for a kiss at the moment of truth?

Here Comes the Boom is a pat Hollywood tale of redemption where a perennial loser transforms himself into a beloved hero who wins the match, saves his best friend’s job, and gets the girl!

Very Good (***) Rated PG for sports violence, crude humor, and mild epithets. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

October 3, 2012

WE DID IT, WE DID IT: Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, left), Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal, center) and Jamie’s daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lynd) are overwhelmed with joy when they learn that their attempt to change Malia’s school from a public to a charter school has succeeded under the new, so-called Parent Trigger Law.

In 2010 California passed the nation’s first “Parent Trigger Law,” a bill which enables a district with an under-performing public school to fire the principal, replace the staff, and convert it to a charter school, if a majority of the parents with students attending it sign a petition. The legislation has proved very controversial thus far, with opponents alleging that the measure is merely anti-union, whereas the sponsors call it an overdue reform intended to give children who are stuck in so-called “dropout factories” a fair chance.

Consequently, Won’t Back Down is opening under a cloud of controversy, which is unfortunate since the film is otherwise a quite engaging and entertaining tale of female empowerment. The reason why the picture has generated so much interest is because it was produced by Walden Media, the same studio that just a couple of years ago released Waiting for Superman, a documentary that came under attack for blaming teachers’ unions for the dysfunctional education system.

Although based on actual events that transpired in Los Angeles, Won’t Back Down is set in Pittsburgh, where we find Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to make ends meet. Between selling used cars by day and bartending at night, the single mother barely has any energy left to attend to the academic needs of her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind).

Convinced that the lagging 8-year-old hasn’t learned to read out of neglect by her teachers at school, she enters the little girl in a lottery for one of the few spots opening up at Rosa Parks, a nearby, highly-regarded, charter school. But when Malia’s name isn’t chosen, the frustrated mother decides to do something about the school the child’s in.

Inspired by the state’s new “Fail Safe Law,” Jamie becomes a tireless child advocate hell-bent on wresting the reins of control from an administration and staff that have low expectations for their students. Along the way, she enlists the assistance of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a jaded teacher who had almost given up trying to fight the system.

Initially, Nona is reluctant to get involved, because she could very easily get blacklisted for trying to bust the union. Furthermore, she’s an emotional wreck because she is overwhelmed at the prospect of having to raise her son (Dante Brown) on her own after her husband (Lance Reddick) recently left them.

However, Jamie and Nona bond and, over the objections of bureaucrats, not only garner the requisite number of parental votes but even talk the teachers into surrendering job security in favor of performance-based salaries. The movie is an uplifting Hollywood story that suggests that the solution to public education’s woes might be as simple as a couple of women picking up picket signs.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Walden Media.

September 26, 2012

BUT DADDY, I LOVE HIM!: Count Dracula (left, voiced by Adam Sandler) desperately tries to convince his daughter that a vampire is not a compatible companion for a mortal person. However, Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) has fallen hopelessly in love with Jonathan (not shown) who managed to crash the lavish birthday party that Dracula was giving for Mavis and refuses to listen to her father.

I know it’s a little early in the season, but if you’re ready for a Halloween film that’s a lot of fun for the whole family, have I got a cartoon for you. More romantic and funny than spooky and spine-tingling, Hotel Transylvania is a tenderhearted tale that gets most of its laughs by turning the basic scary movie convention on its head.

The picture unfolds from the point of view of Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) and a beleaguered brotherhood of peace-loving creatures who have not only been unfairly demonized as monsters but are actually more afraid of humans than humans are of monsters. Who knew? As victims of bad press and paranoia, they naturally shy away from making any contact with humans.

After his wife’s untimely demise at the hands of an angry mob, an understandably overprotective Dracula restricts his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), to the safe confines of the family’s hilltop mansion, which is far removed from any prejudiced townsfolk who might be armed with torches and pitchforks. Inside that protective bubble, “Daddy’s Little Ghoul” was raised on nursery rhymes in which all the villains were people.

Figuring that his fellow social outcasts might also enjoy a sanctuary of tranquility safe from humanity, Dracula transforms his sprawling estate into the Hotel Transylvania, a swanky, 5-stake (read “5-star”) resort that caters strictly to fellow monsters. The plot thickens when he lowers the drawbridge over the moat to the castle to welcome his friends to celebrate Mavis’s birthday.

A passing hiker, who stumbled upon the place, manages to slip in alongside Frankenstein (Kevin James), The Mummy (CeeLo Green), The Werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz), The Invisible Man (David Spade), and other invited guests. Jonathan (Andy Samberg) may be a mere mortal, but the party crasher is just the right age to appreciate the blossoming beauty of a rebellious teen-age vampire.

It’s cross-species love at first sight, much to the chagrin of Count Dracula whose desperate efforts to discourage his defiant daughter prove futile. His cries of “You’re barely out of your training fangs!” and “There are so many eligible monsters!” fall on deaf ears, as Mavis opts instead to heed her late-mother’s sage advice that “A zing comes along only once in a life.”

A child-friendly Halloween adventure that sends a universal message of tolerance through the oft-repeated maxim in the movie that monsters are people too.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for action, rude humor, and scary images. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

September 19, 2012

MOWING DOWN THE MUTANTS: Writer director Paul W.S. Anderson’s real-life wife Milla Jovovich returns yet again as Alice in Mutant Land in “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the fifth in the Resident Evil series.

The Resident Evil film franchise is proving to be every bit as enduring as the hordes of flesh-eating zombies featured in its every episode. The movies are based on the popular series of high body-count computer games which has also spawned some comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, and a line of merchandise with action figures and more.

This fifth screen adaptation marks yet another collaboration between writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and his wife, cover girl-turned-actress Milla Jovovich. She, of course, reprises her lead role as Alice, the pistol-packing protector of a planet once again threatened with extinction.

As usual, Anderson does his best to exploit his supermodel spouse’s good looks, between keeping her clad in form-fitting latex for the duration of the adventure and seizing on any excuse to take a pause in the action for a lingering, extreme close-up of her flawless facial features. Otherwise, RE 5 offers formulaic zombie fighting fare, with Alice and an intrepid team of defenders (Michelle Rodriguez, Boris Kodjoe, Bingbing Li, et al) representing the last hope of humanity.

At the point of departure, our heroine, by way of voiceover, quickly recounts the back story of what’s transpired in the prior installments. We learn that the trouble all started when an industrial accident triggered a viral outbreak which in turn led to the rise of the undead.

Today, the diabolical Umbrella Corporation is apparently again up to no good, and on the verge of unleashing an army of mind-controlled minions, including clones of our pretty protagonist. Over-plotted to the point of absurdity, there’s no reason to try to follow RE 5’s storyline.

For while Milla might be up to the challenge of executing the script, the same can’t be said about her supporting cast’s wooden delivery of every last line of dialogue. The worst in this regard is Hong Kong star Bingbing Li who is crippled by the English language making a disastrous Hollywood debut here. A visually-captivating fantasy for teenage males with raging hormones, the demo most apt to appreciate enjoy watching an invincible vixen in spandex waste wave after wave of mindless mutants.

Fair (*). Rated R for partial nudity and pervasive graphic violence. Running time: 95 minutes Distributor: Screen Gems

To see a trailer for Resident Evil: Retribution, visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fetL5JuKGv4 

September 12, 2012

WE MEET AT LAST: Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper, left) finally meets up with the real author (Jeremy Irons) of Jansen’s runaway bestseller first novel “The Window Tears.” See the movie in order to find out what they said to each other.

The latest stop on Clayton Hammond’s (Dennis Quaid) book tour has the renowned author in New York City to promote his latest work. It’s a cautionary tale of overwhelming regret recounting the rise and fall of a presumably fictional character called Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper).

In a series of flashbacks, the story open; with Rory as an aspiring novelist who is being pressured to find a job after years of relying on handouts from his father (J.K. Simmons). The young man grudgingly capitulates and takes a job in the mailroom of a leading literary agency.

The steady pay enables Rory to save enough money to finally propose to his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who has been patiently waiting to marry him. The newlyweds spend their honeymoon in Paris where the grateful bride impulsively buys her husband a weather-beaten briefcase that she finds in a dusty antique shop.

When they return home Rory opens the valise and discovers that it contains a yellowed handwritten manuscript written by someone who is far more talented than him. However, instead of trying to locate the author, he succumbs to the temptation to submit the novel to publishers under his own name.

Lo and behold, the book, The Window Tears, becomes a runaway bestseller, and Rory finds himself in the midst of the literary career he’d always dreamed of having. However, because the real author (Jeremy Irons) could step forward to expose the fraud, Rory faces the prospect of spending his life looking over his shoulder.

Co-written and co-directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, The Words is constructed as a series of flashbacks narrated by a visibly-haunted Hammond as he reads excerpts from his new book. It gradually becomes obvious that he is emotionally agonizing over the material on the pages as the tension mounts around whether his audience is hearing is autobiographical or fiction.

Unfortunately, the problems with this slow-paced production are plentiful. First, it’s hard to accept the film’s farfetched premise, and harder still to fathom how its protagonist has managed to maintain the charade for so long, especially given his guilty conscience and being confronted by the aggrieved party he’s impersonated.

Additionally, neither of the parallel plotlines is particularly engaging, the only issue of interest being whether Hammond’s new book is a confession that his debut novel had been purloined. For this reason, the film’s biggest flaw rests in its cliffhanger ending failing to resolve if Rory Jansen is indeed a thinly-veiled version of the author.

That anticlimactic conclusion proves to be quite unsatisfying after an investment of what feels like an eternity waiting for the answer to the question “Did he or didn’t he?” The only thing worse than a movie without an ending, is a ninety-minute endurance test without an ending.

Fair (*). Rated PG-13 for smoking, sensuality, and brief profanity. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: CBS Films.

September 5, 2012

MAKING BEAUTIFUL MUSIC TOGETHER: Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner, left), Timothy Green (CJ Adams, center), and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) perform an impromptu musical song and dance routine in their living room. Cindy and Jim are ecstatic because Timothy miraculously appeared in their garden overnight, after their doctor had told them that Cindy would not be able to have children.

Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) are very happily married, however, they don’t yet have children. After being informed by Cindy’s gynecologist (Rhoda Griffis), that she can’t conceive, they write down all the qualities they’d hoped to pass on to the child they’ll never have, starting with Cindy’s good heart and Jim’s honesty.

Then, they bury the wish list in a box in the backyard right before a torrential rainfall. To their astonishment a real live boy sprouts up in their garden overnight who, other than having leaves growing out of his legs, seems to be perfectly normal.

What’s more, 10-year-old Timothy (CJ Adams) not only exhibits the positive traits desired by Cindy and Jim, but he refers to them as mom and dad without any prompting. While the Greens are certainly happy to welcome their miraculous blessing with open arms, they are hard-pressed to explain the sudden addition to their family to skeptical relatives and friends.

For sensitive Timothy, life is also rather rocky because he is being teased by bullies at school for wearing long socks and rejected at home by his macho grandfather, Jim Sr. (David Morse), for not being manly enough. Timothy even frustrates his mother when she’s fired by her boss (Dianne Wiest) because of his compulsive frankness.

However, he does find a kindred spirit in Joni (Odeya Rush), a shy classmate who is hiding a painful secret of her own. The harder Timothy tries to measure up to the world’s expectations, the more he retreats to a magical oasis of solitude he shares with this newfound friend.

Directed by Peter Hedges (Pieces of April), The Odd Life of Timothy Green is an enchanting fairy tale designed for young and old alike. Thanks to a combination of seamless special effects and a talented cast it is easy for the audience to suspend disbelief in the face of a supernatural storyline with an implausible premise.

Once that hurdle is scaled, a  very satisfying payoff — which tugs on your heartstrings — awaits anyone who see this instant Disney classic. Buy an extra ticket for the box of Kleenex you’ll need to have sitting on the seat beside you.

Excellent (HHHH). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

August 29, 2012

LISTEN SON, THERE’S BEEN A MISTAKE: Posing as the Dean of students at Columbia university, Ackerman (Michael Shannon, right), who is really a crooked police officer, attempts to persuade the bike riding courier Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levin) to give him the package that Wilee is supposed to deliver to Chinatown ASAP. When Wilee refuses and gets on his bike to deliver the package, Ackerman pursues him in his car and a dizzying chase through Manhattan traffic begins.

Traffic is so congested in Manhattan that it’s hard to see how it can be a viable setting for high-octane chase scenes. Yet that is precisely what we have in Premium Rush, an adventure about daring bike messengers who dart between cars and dodge pedestrians in order to make their deliveries.

At the film’s point of departure, we’re introduced to several staff members of a bonded company called Security Courier. Employee of the Year Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Columbia law school graduate who prefers this line of work to being stuck sitting behind a desk in a business suit.

Similarly, his girlfriend Vanessa, (Dania Ramirez), sees it as a preferable alternative to waiting tables in a restaurant. Although she does have to fend off the overtures of both fellow messenger, Manny (Wole’ Parks), and the dispatcher, Raj (Aasif Mandvi).

However, this picture is more about non-stop action than romance, and the adventure starts soon after Wilee receives an assignment to deliver an envelope designated “Premium Rush” from Columbia University to Chinatown ASAP. However, before he even leaves the campus, a gentleman (Michael Shannon) named Ackerman identifies himself as the Dean of Students and asks that he be given the parcel.

Wilee’s becomes suspicious when Ackerman goes ballistic in response to a polite explanation that it can only be handed over to the addressee. Wilee’s concern escalates to fear when Ackerman starts chasing Wilee in his car and even runs lights and drives against traffic while trying to catch him.

Wilee manages to give him the slip, but the plot thickens when he stops at the police station to report the attempted theft. There, he discovers that he’s on his own because it turns out that Ackerman is a crooked police officer who wants to get the package.

Premium Rush proceeds from this juncture forward at a breakneck pace that doesn’t give you a chance to pause to consider whether what you’re watching is even credible. But it doesn’t matter because the urgent bike ride manages to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, ethnic slurs, and profanity. In English and Mandarin with subtitles. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

August 22, 2012

HER SWAN SONG: Playing the character of Emma Anderson, Whitney Houston sings her heart out in a Sunday church service. As it turns out, this was her last performance before her untimely death.

Emma Anderson (Whitney Houston) didn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps by having babies when they were teenagers, while squandering their future in the futile pursuit of celebrities and boys who wouldn’t respect them as women. That’s why the overprotective single mother is glad to be able to raise them in a middle class suburb of Detroit where she keeps them on the straight and narrow path by using a combination of Christianity and high moral standards.

All three of her daughters have inherited the ability to sing from their mother, a blessing they put to good use in the church choir every Sunday. However, the girls also have their own distinctive personalities and are yearning to express themselves.

Dolores (Tika Sumpter) has her mind set on attending medical school. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is a gifted composer who’s too shy to perform any of her ballads in public. However, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is a confident extrovert who craves the limelight and the attention of men.

Consequently, it’s no surprise when Sister rebels and runs away from home, rather than abide by her mother’s restrictive house rules. She’s only been back in town for two months, but already has a couple of suitors competing for her hand  — Levi (Omari Hardwick), a penniless, perfect gentleman, and Satin (Mike Epps), a flashy, silky smooth operator.

Given Sister’s materialistic nature, it’s easy to guess that that she would be more interested in the attentions of Satin, a misogynist who has a dark side that hasn’t yet been revealed. Meanwhile, Sparkle starts dating Stix (Derek Luke) who encourages the talented sisters to form a trio and try and become superstars.

So unfolds Sparkle, a modern morality play with a sobering message made all the more telling because it’s Whitney Houston’s cinematic farewell. Several of her lines in the movie induce goose bumps, such as when she asks, “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?”

The film features standout performances from Whitney Houston and Carmen Ejogo, with Derek Luke and Mike Epps also appearing at their best. Jordin Sparks certainly holds her own when called upon to sing, but she doesn’t seem to be quite ready to handle the acting demands of a title role.

The movie is written and directed by the husband-wife team of Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, and is very loosely based on the 1976 musical of the same name; with the point of departure, the timeline, plot developments, and the score being tweaked for the overhaul. A must-see, if only for Whitney’s sentimental swan song and Carmen’s coming out party.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, drug use, smoking, mature themes, and domestic abuse. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

August 15, 2012

I THINK I’D RATHER BE KISSING BABIES: The incumbent congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell, center) is desperately seeking votes by appearing at a meeting of a religious sect of evangelists who handle rattlesnakes as part of their religious services.

If you’ve been looking for a comedy film that is a refreshing alternative to all the kiddie movies and summer blockbusters currently at the megaplexes, your wait is over. And what could be more timely than a picture about dirty tricks being employed during a cutthroat political campaign?

The Campaign was directed by Jay Roach, best known for making Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers trilogy. The movie stars Will Ferrell as Cam Brady, a popular North Carolina congressman who’s running unopposed for his fifth term in office until an embarrassing sexual peccadillo becomes public knowledge.

That blunder opens the door for an opponent like Marty Higgins (Zach Galifianakis) to enter the race. He is being bankrolled by a couple of very wealthy businessman, Glen (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd), who are sleazy, power-hungry brothers.

Bragging about being “candidate creators” more than “job creators,” the Motch brothers chose naïve Marty because he’s so malleable. Behind the scenes, they orchestrate a complete overhaul of Marty’s image with the help of a no-nonsense campaign manager (Dylan McDermott).

Brady soon realizes that he’s in the fight of his political life, as both sides resort to increasingly devious tactics in order to win on election day. For instance, we find Marty wearing what he calls a “Yamaha” on his head during services at a synagogue, while Cam sings in the gospel choir of a black Baptist Church and plays with rattlesnakes in order to curry favor with a congregation of serpent-handling evangelists.

Despite his best efforts, Brady continues to sabotage his own campaign at every turn, whether by accidentally punching a baby and a puppy, or by being caught having en flagrante dalliance with a supporter. When the polls indicate that the tide is turning decisively in Marty’s favor, the question becomes will he be a puppet of the Motch brothers or choose to do what’s best for his district, thereby alienating the Motch pair.

Will Ferrell’s over-the-top approach to Cam serves as the perfect counterpoint to Zach Galifianakis’ subdued interpretation of Marty. The film also features several inspired support performances, most notably from Dylan McDermott and Jason Sudeikis as the devious campaign managers, and Karen Maruyama as an Asian housekeeper.

Throw in amusing cameos by a string of political pundits like Bill Maher, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Piers Morgan, Joe Scarborough, Lawrence O’Donnell, Willie Geist, Mika Brezinski, Ed Schultz, and Dennis Miller, and you’ve got the makings for a bona fide election year hit. Ferrell and Galifianakis hit their stride as the funniest candidates money can buy!

Excellent (***½). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, nudity, and crude humor. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers

August 8, 2012

I CAN’T STAND THIS GHOST STORY: Rowley ( Robert Capron, left) covers his ears because the ghost story being told by Fregley (Grayson Russell, right) is too scary. Rowley’s best friend Greg (Zachary Gordon, center), on the other hand, is eager to hear how the story turns out.

This episode of the Wimpy Kid film series is based on a combination of wacky misadventures culled from both the third (The Last Straw) and fourth (Dog Days) books in the best-selling series created by Jeff Kinney. The movie was directed by David Bowers (Wimpy Kid 2) who reassembled his principal cast, including Zach Gordon in the title role as the beleaguered Greg Heffley, and Robert Capron as his rotund BFF, Rowley Jefferson.

The picture’s point of departure is opening day at the overcrowded public pool which is where we find Greg unhappy at the prospect of sharing the water all summer with smelly adults and infants who aren’t potty-trained. He’d prefer to be frequenting the facilities at the Plainview Heights Country Club, especially after he learns that Holly Hills (Peyton List), the cute classmate he has a big crush on, will be teaching tennis to children.

After all, Greg’s only vacation plans involve playing video games at home and hanging out with Holly. However, when he asked her for her phone number on the final day of school, she was distracted in the middle of writing it down and never got around to finishing it for him.

As luck would have it, Rowley’s family happens to be members of the same country club, so Greg can gain access to the place as his pal’s personal guest. Anything would be better than the boring activities his mother (Rachael Harris) and father (Steve Zahn) already have planned for him like fishing, starting a reading club, and attending Civil War reenactments.

Therefore, in order to see the girl of his dreams every day, Greg tells his folks that he’s found a summer job at Plainview Heights. Of course, in accordance with the “One Big Lie” comedy formula, it’s just a matter of time before the truth comes out.

However, the boys’ futile attempts at a cover-up sets in motion a series of silly slapstick scenes. Between a steady diet of sight gags and bodily function fare, Wimpy Kid is entertaining enough to engage youngsters. Adults might not find the film’s unfocused style of sophomoric storytelling all that compelling, but they will nonetheless laugh a lot and appreciate the squeaky clean brand of humor so rarely found in films anymore.

A comfy, feel good comedy movie for the whole family.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG for rude humor. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

August 1, 2012

ALFRED, WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT HER?: Trusty and crusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine, right) is being asked by his employer, wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who also becomes the Caped Crusader Batman when circumstances require it, what to do about the pesky cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, not shown) who is making a nuisance of herself in Wayne’s mansion in Gotham City.

The Dark Knight Rises brings an end to the brilliant Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman. Each of the earlier episodes, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), earned a spot on this critic’s annual Top Ten List, numbers 9 and 1, respectively.

Because the late Heath Ledger played the part of the Joker to perfection, and delivered an Oscar-winning performance in the previous movie, you knew it would be hard for Nolan to find as compelling a character for his finale. If The Dark Knight Rises does have a weakness, it’s because the primary villain pales in comparison. Otherwise, the movie measures up to the previous two films expectations, although its convoluted plot and 2¾ hours running time is likely to have younger kids squirming in their seats.

The picture opens eight years after the end of the last adventure, when Batman selflessly accepted the blame for the untimely demise of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The broken, embittered vigilante has kept a low profile over the intervening years, allowing the Gotham police department to fight crime on its own.

But, the situation changes with the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a member of the association of assassins known as The League of Shadows. Although Banes speech is somewhat muffled by a contraption affixed to his face, you don’t need to understand his unintelligible mumblings to know that he’s a maniacal menace. The masked terrorist is bent on blowing up the city with a nuclear device and it isn’t long before Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) needs help handling the situation.

Meanwhile, Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, has his hands full with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar he catches snooping around his mansion. Fortunately, Wayne still has his loyal assistants Alfred (Michael Caine), the butler, and weapons/vehicle/gadgetry specialist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Plus, he develops a new friendship with John Blake (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), a cop with excellent instincts who might become Batman’s sidekick Robin should the series be continued.

Outfitted with a state-of-the-art motorcycle and hovercraft, a revivified Batman enthusiastically engages his evil adversary. And between Nolan’s loyalty to 35 mm film and live action stunts, what’s served up on screen is spectacular.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, and intense violence. Running time: 165 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

July 25, 2012

TOO BAD THIS HOLIDAY ONLY COMES ONCE A YEAR: Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) runs excitedly through the bayou holding a lit sparkler in each hand. She is clearly enjoying the holiday as only a six-year-old can.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is growing up in “The Bathtub,” a backwoods bayou located on the swampy side of a Louisiana levee. The self-sufficient tomboy divides her days attending to her sickly father (Dwight Henry) and she lives in harmony with a handful of other hardy refugees from civilization.

Hushpuppy feels sorry for the children growing up in nearby New Orleans because they eat fish wrapped in plastic and have been taught to fear the water. While those city kids were confined to strollers and baby carriages during their formative years, she’s been free to explore her surroundings that are teeming with vegetation and wildlife.

Yet, her existence is far from idyllic, because she pines for the mother whom her widowed father explained simply “swam away” one day. The heartbroken little girl tries to fill the void via flights of fancy. Using her vivid imagination, she has imaginary conversations with her long-lost mother.

Hushpuppy is also concerned about her father’s failing health and by an ominous foreboding that climate change is ruining her surroundings. She’s been warned by Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), a sage soothsayer, who is her surrogate mother, that “The trees are gonna die first, then the animals, then the fish.”

So unfolds Beasts of the Southern Wild, a compelling tale which is also the directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin. The movie, an early entry in the Academy Awards sweepstakes, is a surreal fairy tale about the prospects of the planet that richly deserves all the accolades it received at Sundance, Cannes, and other film festivals.

Considerable credit goes to Quvenzhané Wallis, a talented youngster who not only portrays protagonist Hushpuppy but narrates the film as well.

A clever mixture of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the movie repeatedly reminds us of a pre-pollution, pre-digital era when children were encouraged to plunge headlong into nature to experience the world firsthand rather than through electronic media.

The movie is a visually enchanting fantasy told from the perspective of a naïve waif untouched by the 21st century.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, child imperilment, disturbing images, and brief sensuality. Running time: 91 minutes.Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

July 18, 2012

SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR: The whimsical prehistoric animal Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge), who is half squirrel and half rat, is obsessed with burying his acorn for future use when food is scarce. Unfortunately, Scrat tries to bury the acorn in the frozen tundra of the north. His efforts set off a series of cataclysmic events which results in the world’s land mass separating into separated continents.

Unfortunately, the people behind the latest installment of this animated series of movies abandoned the family-friendly formula which made the earlier films so popular with children of all ages. Instead, they decided to produce a comedy that is more concerned with generating cheap laughs by any means possible than with spinning a coherent tale that will also engage adults.

In addition to the unfocused, scatterbrained storyline, Ice Age 4 features a plethora of preposterous anachronisms which suggest that pirates, togas, and telephones existed in the age of prehistoric creatures. Plus, the picture makes a number of distracting allusions to everything from the movie Meet the Parents, to Trix cereal TV commercials (“Silly Rabbit!”), to Homer’s Odyssey (seductive sirens as characters), and to the Bible (Book of Jonah).

The result is an adventure designed to enthrall tykes at the expense of appealing to older audiences. In addition to the principals who are reprising their roles, newcomers to the voice cast include Jennifer Lopez, Drake, Wanda Sykes, Joy Behar, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, and Keke Palmer.

The fun starts when half-squirrel/half-rat Scrat (Chris Wedge) accidentally triggers the tectonic division of the planet’s continents when he tries to bury an acorn in the frozen tundra. Elsewhere, Woolly mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and his wife, Ellie (Queen Latifah), exhibit concern about their daughter Peaches’s (Palmer) crush on Ethan (Drake). Predictably, the smitten teen rides roughshod over the feelings of a secret admirer (Josh Gad) whose existence she barely acknowledges becauses he’s just a molehog.

Additional subplots involve sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) who is caring for his sassy grandmother (Sykes), and saber-toothed tiger Diego’s (Denis Leary) pursuit of a love interest. However, the film’s primary concern is reuniting the families who were separated from each other and ended up on different land masses in the wake of Scrat’s cataclysmic hijinks.

Too bad the resolution of every piece of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle proves predictable.

Fair (*). Rated PG for rude humor, action, and scenes of peril. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

July 12, 2012

WE SHOULD SAVE THESE OUTFITS FOR HALLOWEEN: Partners in the marijuana drug trade in southern California Ben (Aaron Johnson, left) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) prepare themselves for a dangerous mission in which they clearly don’t want to be recognized.

If you’ve seen the documentary Cash Crop, then you know that violent Mexican drug cartels have begun to force their way into the United States to claim a share of the lucrative marijuana market. That eye opening exposé suggested that it’s only be a matter of time before the same sort of violence occurring in Mexico also starts erupting in this country.

Although Savages is fictional — based on Don Winslow’s best-selling novel of the same name — its chilling account of a California turf war is so realistically depicted that you easily forget that what you’re watching isn’t a true story. The movie was directed by three time Oscar winner Oliver Stone (for Platoon, Midnight Express, and Born on the Fourth of July), who directs the film with a highly stylized flair akin to Miami Vice (the TV series) while grounding the grisly goings-on with a sobering gravitas reminiscent of Traffic (2000).

The picture pits a pair of home growing pot producers operating out of Laguna Beach against a ruthless Chicano gang that wants a piece of the action. At the point of departure, we find Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) living in an oceanfront mansion, with the help of a crooked DEA Agent (John Travolta), and a very potent strain of weed that has made the duo millionaires several times over.

The pair complement each other nicely, since Ben, as a Berkeley graduate who majored in business and botany, supplies the brains, while Chon, a former Navy SEAL who served a couple of tours in Afghanistan, provides the brawn. The partners share the same girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), a blonde who says that she loves both of her beaus.

The three share a hedonistic existence until they’re paid a visit by an emissary (Demian Bichir) sent to the states by a brutal Mexican crime boss (Salma Hayek), who make the threesome an offer they can’t refuse. They grudgingly enter into a partnership with the Mexicans in order to avoid the thinly veiled threat of being decapitated.

What ensues is a gruesome game of cat-and-mouse where it’s often difficult to discern who’s got the drop on whom. When the smoke finally clears, look for a mind bending twist that leads to a rabbit-out-of-the-hat resolution.

An unsettling vision of America degenerating into a lawless dystopia.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, gruesome violence, ethnic slurs, and pervasive profanity. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

July 3, 2012

I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S COME OVER ME: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, right) is amazed at his new found capabilities that resulted from the spider bite he received when visiting a biotech company. Nonetheless, he is happy to finally be able to impress Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and have her become his steady girl friend.

When Columbia Pictures first brought Spider-Man to the big screen in 2002, the Marvel Comics adaptation was such a box-office bonanza that it spawned two equally successful sequels. Now, a decade later, the studio has seen fit to revive the popular series.

Although that might strike some as too soon to attempt to replicate a winning formula, director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) is up to the challenge. The Amazing Spider-Man easily eclipses the earlier trilogy by using a combination of shadowy cinematography, dialogue, seamless special effects, and romantic chemistry.

The film stars Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker who becomes the superhero Spider-Man, with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) as his love interest. At the point of departure Peter is a 98-pound weakling who is being bullied in school and secretly harboring a crush on Gwen.

We learn that Peter has been raised by his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and is consumed with solving the mystery of his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) who disappeared years ago. So, he pays a visit to a former colleague of his father, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a leading research scientist at Oscorp, a biotech company that is attempting to develop a revolutionary limb regeneration serum.

Connors claims to be trying to create a world without weakness by splicing human genes with those of other species. But his interest isn’t entirely altruistic, since he also happens to be missing an arm himself.

While visiting Oscorp labs, Peter is bitten by a mutated spider which causes him to develop incredible strength as well as the ability to climb walls and spin webs. This evolution conveniently gives him a new physique with which to impress Gwen, and the strength to get even with his tormentors back at Midtown Science High.

Concurrently, the murder of his uncle by a mugger inspires him to embark on a crime fighting campaign as a masked vigilante. That doesn’t sit well with Gwen’s father (Denis Leary), a New York police department captain, who is opposed to citizens taking the law into their own hands.

Nevertheless, the ante is upped when Dr. Connors morphs into a formidable lizard-like creature after injecting himself with an experimental elixir. Worse, the drug made the power hungry madman hell-bent on hatching a plan for world domination which the cops are ill-equipped to fight, but is tailor-made for Spider-Man to combat.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action. Running time: 136 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

June 27, 2012

TAKE IT OFF — TAKE IT ALL OFF: Mike Martingano (Channing Tatum), aka Magic Mike, struts his stuff in a male revue in the Xquisite club in Tampa, Florida. Realizing that he isn’t getting any younger Mike dreams of getting out of the exotic dance business and setting himself up as a furniture designer.

Channing Tatum held a number of odd jobs before he became a matinee idol, including a brief stint as a male stripper. Rather than deny that embarrassing episode in his life on his way to becoming a superstar, he has opted to make a semi-autobiographical movie recounting his foray into the adult entertainment industry.

The result is Magic Mike, a raw and revealing drama directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) who has also collaborated with Channing in the movie Haywire. The two have also just finished shooting A Bitter Pill, a crime caper film set for an early 2013 release.

In Magic Mike, Channing stars as Mike Martingano, an exotic dancer who goes by the stage name Magic Mike when titillating the ladies at a seedy Tampa dive called Xquisite. The place is managed by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a silky smooth operator who has promised his most popular performer 10 percent equity in his business if Mike follows Dallas when he relocates the club to Miami.

Unfortunately, Mike isn’t getting any younger, and his big plans for himself definitely don’t include stripping into his 40s like Dallas and the other members of the aging revue: Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer), and Richie (Joe Manganiello). Instead, he dreams of saving up enough money to set himself up as a custom furniture designer and settling down with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of the 19-year-old (Alex Pettyfer) he’s just recruited for Dallas.

Unfolding over the course of a long hot Florida summer, Magic Mike is such an unpredictable and raw-edged adventure that you soon forget that you’re even watching actors performing on sets. In that regard, the picture is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s similarly realistic Jackie Brown (1997), a masterpiece which also featured a flawed protagonist ensnared in a sticky predicament at an unpretentious oceanfront setting.

Will Mike summon up the requisite resolve to extricate himself from the stripping game? Or will a financial setback cause him to rationalize moving to Miami, leaving his hopes and girlfriend behind for the sake of easy money?

A compelling character study not to be missed, if only to witness the gutsy performance delivered by Channing Tatum.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, drug use, nudity, and sexuality. Running time: 110 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

June 20, 2012

OH HIM — HE’S ONLY MY FATHER: Hans Solo (Andy Samberg, left) reluctantly introduces his father Donnie Berger (Adam Sandler) to an unseen person. Unfortunately, Donnie was the product of a one time liaison between Donnie, who was a teen ager in junior high school who was raped by one of his teachers. Ashamed of his origins, Hans changed his name and disappeared into the woodwork and reemerged as a successful business man about to get married and was completely surprised when his ne’er do well father showed up.

Anybody familiar with the work of Adam Sandler knows he built his career playing dim-witted characters like Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), and The Waterboy (1998) in coarse comedies that appealed to the lowest common denominator. So, his loyal fan base won’t be disappointed by this latest offering, a film about yet another pea-brained protagonist.

In case you’re wondering, That’s My Boy is not a remake of the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin college football classic, but is based on an original script by David Caspe. Sandler stars as Donnie Berger, a father desperate for a reunion and chance of redemption with his estranged son, Hans Solo (Andy Samberg).

However, Hans was so ashamed of being born as a result of the statutory rape of Donnie, who was an adolescent, by his junior high school teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) that Hans changed his name and disappeared the first chance he got. His unremorseful mother was sentenced to a long prison term for statutory rape but Donnie Berger, his slacker of a father, never really amounted to anything.

Fast-forward to the present where we find Donnie down-on-his-luck and $43,000 in debt to the IRS. He is wasting his days drinking at Classy Rick’s Bacon and Leggs, a seedy suburban strip club.

The plot thickens when Donnie accidentally discovers the new identity of his long-lost son. It turns out that he is Todd Peterson, who is a successful hedge fund manager about to get married to a refined socialite (Leighton Meester) from a prominent family. Donnie decides to track down his son with the help of a fellow has-been, a one-hit singer named Vanilla Ice.

Not surprisingly, Todd is embarrassed by the arrival of his disreputable father, and does his best to distance himself from him. Consequently, much of the ensuing humor is drawn from the shocking contrast between upper and lower class sensibilities.

A cross between The Three Stooges and Meet the Parents, That’s My Boy trades in typical Sandler fare, namely cheap jokes at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society such as: minorities, the disabled, and the mentally-challenged. When you factor in the profusion of profanity, graphic sexuality, and pedophilia, it adds up to a tasteless waste of time with no redeeming value.

Poor (0 stars). Rated R for nudity, sexuality, drug use, ethnic slurs, crude humor, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

June 13, 2012

MAKE SURE YOU FIND A SAFE AND SECURE LANDING SPOT: Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, left) who is the expedition’s leader exhorts Captain Janek (Idris Elba) to make sure the trillion dollar expedition is not going to fail because the spaceship Prometheus crash lands, or is destroyed by the aliens who inhabit the moon LV-233.

Dateline: Scotland, 2089. While spelunking along the shores of the Isle of Skye, archaeologists Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover an ancient painting etched into the ceiling of an abandoned cave. The researchers immediately realize that the primitive object is an invitation from aliens to visit a moon located in a remote constellation that might very well have been the birthplace of humanity.

Fast-forward a few years and we find the couple en route to LV-233 on a daring expedition to try and find proof that people were either created by God or were genetically engineered by sentient beings from another galaxy. Clearly, unearthing such evidence will have a profound effect on Dr. Shaw who is a devout Christian and always wears a cross that was a gift from her late father Patrick Shaw.

As the spaceship Prometheus approaches its destination, Captain Janek (Idris Elba) and his crew of sixteen are roused from a cryogenic state of hibernation by an android named David (Michael Fassbender). Upon landing, command of the operation falls to Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a coldhearted corporate executive employed by Weyland Corporation whose late CEO (Guy Pearce) underwrote the trillion-dollar mission.

The trip is just a job to the jaded Vickers who is skeptical about what she refers to as “the scribbling of dirty little savages in caves.” In fact, she orders the disembarking explorers to refrain from making any direct contact with aliens.

Of course, contact with alien life forms is precisely the point of Prometheus, a horror movie directed by three-time Oscar-nominee Ridley Scott (for Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Thelma & Louise). At this juncture, the picture divides its time between raising probing philosophical questions about the intersection of science, religion, and ethics, and graphic depictions of body invasion, mutation, and gruesome vivisection.

Although initially conceived as a prequel to Alien (1979), also directed by Scott, the movie was ultimately released as a stand alone adventure. Regardless, this riveting visually captivating and thought provoking science fiction film is recommended for avid science fiction fans, even if the heavy handed faith-based symbolism (“Where’s my cross?” and “After all this, you still believe!”) gets to be a bit much.

Very Good (***). Rated R for intense violence and brief profanity. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

June 6, 2012

HEIGH HO, HEIGH HO, IT’S OFF TO WORK WE GO: In this instance, their work is to save Snow White from having the evil Queen Ravenna suck the life out of her. The intrepid huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth, second from left), and the seven dwarfs have banded together and are on their way to rescue their heroine.

The primary problem with Snow White and the Huntsman is that it was released right on the heels of Mirror Mirror. True, a new version of Snow White has been made about once a decade since its debut in 1902, but how much of a call could there be for another one just a couple of months after the last one opened in theaters?

Secondly, while Mirror Mirror is a wholesome family film, this darker reinterpretation carefully courts the teen demographic by incorporating the popular vampire theme coupled with graphic violence. The film stars Kristen Stewart, of Twilight series fame, opposite Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in the Marvel Comics series of movies.

Charlize Theron turns in the picture’s sole dynamic performance as Queen Ravenna, a vain villainess in constant need of reassurance that she’s still “the fairest of them all” from her magical mirror. Like a bloodsucking vampire, she preserves her “most beautiful” status by literally draining the youth out of all of her competitors.

The narcissistic queen keeps Snow White imprisoned in a dungeon with plans to suck the life out of her as soon as she comes of age. Somehow, the spunky girl escapes, taking refuge in the forest following a spectacular mountaintop plunge down a waterfall.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the angry monarch dispatches the huntsman Eric to track down and slay Snow White. However, the widowed hunter shifts loyalties as soon as he meets her and realizes how evil Ravenna’s true nature is.

Directed by Rupert Sanders, Snow White and the Huntsman is an emotionally flat special effects filled film. Unfortunately, the movie fails to measure up to Mirror Mirror, despite the presence of Kristen Stewart.

A blasphemous revision of Snow White that is designed to exploit the popular vampire formula.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and brief sensuality. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

May 30, 2012

I’LL ALWAYS HAVE YOUR BACK: Special Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, left) and Special Agent J (Will Smith) are surrounded by enemies, but each one is able to protect the other by keeping their backs to each other.

One sign that scriptwriters have run out of fresh ideas is when they recycle the time-travel theme in order to extend a film series. This approach has been employed over the years in sequels such as The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991), to name a few.

Even Back to the Future III (1990) doubled-down on the cinematic device when it had Michael J. Fox teleported back to the Wild West instead of to the fifties like the earlier installments.

Fortunately, Men in Black III is more than just another rip-off. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (MIB & MIB II), the picture reunites Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as alien-hunting Agents J and K, respectively.

However, don’t expect to see much of Jones since he only makes what amounts to a couple of cameo appearances during the film’s wraparound opening and closing sequences. Otherwise, Josh Brolin plays K in the story which unfolds in the summer of 1969.

At the picture’s point of departure, we find a one-armed convict called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) sitting behind bars in a maximum security prison located on the moon. The evil alien soon escapes with the help of his cake-bearing girlfriend (Nicole Scherzinger), his first visitor in over 40 years.

Next, Agent J catches wind of the missing fugitive’s plans to travel backwards in order get even with Agent K for having shot off his limb. The vindictive Boris also intends to spearhead an intergalactic invasion of Earth by the Boglodites, a bloodthirsty race of his rogue relatives. Of course, J decides to return to the past too, to keep the world safe for humanity and to make sure his partner survives any attempted rewrite of history.

Courtesy of some preposterous pseudo scientific mumbo-jumbo, J learns that he must accomplish his mission and return to the present in less than 24 hours before a breach in the temporal fracture (huh!) closes. Upon arriving on July 16, 1969, Agent J introduces himself to the 29-year-old incarnation of Agent K, and does his best to loosen up Agent J’s Type-A personality.

What ensues is an engaging mix of special effects mirth and mayhem, with the tension centered on the launch of Apollo 11 at Cape Canaveral. Since there’s never a doubt that Boris and the Boglodites are destined to be subdued, the true payoff arrives after the action subsides by way of an emotional revelation that it would be unfair to spoil.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence and suggestive content. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

May 23, 2012

SCORE ONE FOR THE UNITED STATES NAVY: Intrepid sailors on the high seas manage to fend off the attack from one of the seemingly invincible attack vessels from outer space that are determined to take over planet earth.

Though ostensibly inspired by the Hasbro board game of the same name, Battleship is a special effects driven science fiction adventure that has more in common with blockbusters like Armageddon (1998), Transformers (2007) and Independence Day (1996). The movie devotes considerable attention to developing a back story before the action begins.

That gives the audience a reason to care about the characters when war with bloodthirsty invaders from outer space breaks out. Another positive is director Peter Berg’s cast, led by Liam Neeson, Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, and Brooklyn Decker. Also pop icon Rihanna more than holds her own in her acting debut as Petty Officer Cora Raikes.

The picture opens in 2005 where we meet Stone (Skarsgard) and Alex Hopper (Kitsch), two brothers seemingly headed in opposite directions. The former is serving his country as captain of the destroyer USS Sampson, while his ne’er-do-well brother lands in jail over an incident with an attractive blonde (Decker) whose father (Neeson) is in charge of the entire Pacific fleet.

Fast forward to the present where we learn that Alex has not only enlisted in the Navy, but has already risen to the rank of Lieutenant. He is also dating Samantha over the objections of her disapproving father who doesn’t trust her hot-headed suitor.

Alex is summoning up his courage to ask Admiral Shane for permission to marry his daughter when five vessels arrive from planet G and proceed, without provocation, to decimate an international armada on maneuvers in the middle of the ocean. Suddenly, wedding plans have to take a back seat to defending the planet.

Furthermore, as the most senior officer aboard his ship who survives the initial attack, Alex assumes command of the U.S.S. John Paul Jones. This affords him a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his future father-in-law.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and intense violence. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.


May 16, 2012

I WANT TO DRINK YOUR BLOOD: Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, left) a 200-year-old vampire, looks longingly at Elizabeth’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) neck as they discuss the goings on in Elizabeth’s mansion Collinwood Manor.

Dark Shadows was a daytime soap opera which originally aired on ABC-TV on weekday afternoons from 1966 to 1971. What made the program unique was its gothic storyline about Barnabas Collins, a 200 year-old vampire in search of blood and a reunion with his long-lost love, Josette.

The television series developed a big cult following among youth who never took the show’s fright fare seriously, but merely enjoyed it as a mindless diversion to help them unwind after school. It is with that same lighthearted spirit in mind that Tim Burton approached the screen version of Dark Shadows.

The movie is the Oscar nominee’s (Corpse Bride) eighth collaboration with Johnny Depp; a series of movies that includes Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). And the two have reportedly agreed to work together on a remake of the Vincent Price classic, The Abominable Dr. Phebes (1971).

Set in 1972, Dark Shadows opens as we meet Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) en route to Collinsport, Maine to apply for a position as governess at Collinwood Manor. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the quiet coastal village, construction workers at an excavation site unwittingly unleash an undead monster by cutting the bolts that were keeping Barnabas’s (Depp) cast-iron casket sealed tight.

Both Barnabas and Victoria arrive at the sprawling Collins estate and find the mansion in a state of disrepair due to the decline of the family’s fortune. The place is presently presided over by an imperious matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) who controls an assemblage of oddballs: her spoiled daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Moretz); her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); Roger’s troubled son, David (Gulliver McGrath); a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter); and a pair of servants (Jackie Earle Haley and Ray Shirley).

The ensuing mix of slapstick violence and tongue-in-cheek humor is often amusing, nostalgic, and clever but never really laugh out loud funny. Johnny Depp’s performance leads the movie with his bloodthirsty character Barnabas’ deadpan delivery, as when he mistakenly salivates over gobs of red goo undulating around a Lava lamp.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, smoking, drug use, and violence. Running time: 113 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 9, 2012

HERE WE COME TO SAVE THE WORLD: Captain America (Chris Evans, center) flanked by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, left) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are coming to join with their cohorts Thor, Iron Man, Hulk (none of whom are shown here) to thwart the plans of Loki — Thor’s evil brother — to conquer the planet Earth.

The Avengers is the sixth movie in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations that was launched in 2008 with Iron Man, and quickly followed by The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America. What makes this adventure unique is that it’s the first film in the series about a team of comic book superheroes.

The actors playing the above title characters reprise their roles with the exception of Edward Norton who has been replaced by Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. We again have Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, and Chris Evans as Captain America. The film also features the return of Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, who first appeared in Thor and Iron Man 2, respectively.

Since we’ve already met all the members of the team, director Josh Whedon doesn’t have to waste time familiarizing us with their unique abilities. Instead, the plot unfolds right on the heels of the post-closing credits scene of the previous sequel which had Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) ominously enlisting the assistance of Captain America for a dangerous mission with global ramifications.

So, it’s no surprise that we find Fury assembling The Avengers. After all, as the director of the top secret espionage agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. (an acronym for Strategic Home Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division), it is his job to protect humanity, especially from a diabolical villain bent on world domination.

In this case, that villain is Thor’s exiled evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has managed not only to escape from an outer space abyss on the planet Asgard but has gotten his hands on the Tesseract, a cosmic cube which taps into a limitless supply of sustainable energy. With Loki en route to Earth, Fury has to plan a coordinated defense of the planet.

That task is easier said than done, since it calls for cooperation among a bunch of egotistical superheroes with fragile egos who aren’t used to sharing the limelight. We are given a taste of this posturing when Iron Man teases Thor about his accent and costume by asking, “Doth mother know thy wear her drapes?” Or when he sarcastically compliments Dr. Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk) by saying, “I’m a big fan of how you lose control and turn into a giant green monster.”

Of course, such witty bantering turns into camaraderie once Loki arrives with his army of alien warriors called Chitauri. Each Avenger’s talent comes in handy, of course, during the ensuing eye-popping fight sequences and include Hawkeye’s bow-and-arrow, Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s shield, and so forth.

Thanks to a sophisticated script and thrilling special effects, The Avengers easily is the best Marvel Comics screen adaptation yet. It is a remarkable movie that increases our expectations for the next film in the series, Iron Man 3.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and a drug reference. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.


May 2, 2012

DARLING, PLEASE SAY YES!: Tom Solomon (Jason Segel, right) gets down on his knees to propose to Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) during the course of a romantic dinner in a restaurant. As soon as she says yes, they both agree to postpone the wedding until each one of their careers has had a chance to develop. Needless to say this is the beginning of a long engagement.

This underwhelming movie has been heavily promoted as being “From the producer of Bridesmaids,” thereby implying that Judd Apatow has a golden touch that ensures the success of any movie project he touches. However, the undisputed King of Crude has been associated with about as many flops (Wanderlust and Year One) as hits (Superbad and Knocked Up).

Unfortunately, The Five-Year Engagement fits more in the former category. Remember how the hilarious movie Bridesmaids kept you howling from beginning to end in spite of yourself? Well, don’t expect to laugh out loud even once while watching this funereal two hour endurance test.

The film does have all of the anticipated Apatow staples such as male nudity, coarse profanity laden jokes, and sexually suggestive sight gags. Much of this comedy is delivered by a diverse support team comprised of an Asian (Randall Park), an East Indian (Mindy Kaling), and an African American (Kevin Hart).

The tortoise-paced picture has an abysmal script and the romantic leads generate no screen chemistry. The oil-and-water casting of Jason Segel opposite Emily Blunt has disaster written all over it.

Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) is a sous chef who dreams of opening a restaurant in San Francisco, while Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) is a new PhD with hopes of landing a position teaching psychology at Berkeley. After the opening credits, Violet accepts Tom’s marriage proposal and puts on her engagement ring. However, they both agree that it might be wise to delay the wedding until their careers have had a chance to develop. That decision doesn’t sit well with their parents, but at least the couple can postpone the decision of whether to be married by a minister or a rabbi.

As time passes, the couple find additional excuses to put off the nuptials, such as when her sister Suzie (Alison Brie) becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Over time, Violet and Tom drift so far apart that it’s not much of a surprise when Violet sleeps with the head of her department (Rhys Ifans) or when Tom’s seduced by a co-worker (Dakota Johnson).

“Can this relationship be saved?” may be the burning question. But don’t expect to care when you’ve never really been asked to invest emotionally in such an unsympathetic couple.

Fair (*). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, coarse humor, and profanity. Running time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.