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.


April 25, 2012

LET ME SHOW YOU HOW IT’S DONE: The alpha male Freddie, (center), of a clan of chimpanzees living in the Ivory Coast’s jungle patiently shows Oscar (left) how to crack and clean nuts for food. Oscar became an orphan when his mother (not shown) disappeared during a battle with a tribe of rival chimpanzees who were trying to take over Oscar’s clan’s territory. Much to the surprise of the documentary’s crew members, in a never before observed behavior, Freddie undertook the task of raising Oscar.

This delightful Disneynature documentary, narrated by Tim Allen and shot in the wilds of Africa’s Ivory Coast, is about the adorable antics of an infant chimpanzee named Oscar. Co-directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the film chronicles the little fellow’s adjustment from an infant who is completely protected by his mother, but who overnight becomes an orphan due to circumstances beyond his control.

At the point of departure, we find 3-month-old Oscar living in the heart of the jungle where he’s surrounded by a tight-knit extended family of 35 chimpanzees. There, under the watchful eye of his mother, Isha, he plays with other youngsters while exploring the world around him.

Oscar is completely oblivious to all the surrounding threats to his existence, such as ferocious leopards and the rival group of chimpanzees located nearby that covets his clan’s grove of fertile nut trees. Defense of the clan’s turf is a collective affair that is directed by the alpha male, Freddie. The two clans skirmish intermittently but Oscar’s family generally gets the better of the exchange even though they are outnumbered.

Monkeys are a little lower than chimpanzees on the food chain and are the chimpanzees’ favorite meat to eat. One monkey provides enough food to feed the clan. Interestingly, the chimps have developed a complicated scheme to trap a monkey that calls for members of the hunting party to play different roles, such as stalkers, blockers, and ambushers, in order to trap their prey.

Oscar’s situation changes drastically when Isha disappears one day during a battle. When it looks like unprotected Oscar might soon succumb to a predator or the elements, Freddie, the alpha male of the clan, spontaneously adopts Oscar as his own.

This never before seen bonding prompts the observing primatologists to exclaim: “The loss of his mother could’ve meant the end. Instead it’s a new beginning.”

The film is a must-see for animal lovers and people who liked March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

Excellent (****). Rated G. Running time: 78 minutes. Distributor: Disneynature.

 

April 18, 2012

WHO’S DOWN HERE?: Curt (Chris Hemsworth, center) accompanied by Marty (Fran Kranz, left rear) and Jules (Anna Hutchinson) are investigating a strange noise that is emanating from the basement of the isolated cottage they are staying in during their weekend break from college.

At first glance, The Cabin in the Woods appears to be a run-of-the-mill slasher film. After all, it’s about unsuspecting teenagers who are alone in a secluded setting and who find themselves stalked by a homicidal maniac. At the picture’s point of departure, we’re introduced to five naïve college kids setting off on a weekend getaway to a lakefront cottage that has no cell phone reception and even can’t be tracked by GPS.

Such a break off the grid from school is just what the overstressed quintet of college students assembled by Curt (Chris Hemsworth) need. It turns out that he’s been given free use of a cabin that is owned by his long-lost cousin. Each of Curt’s classmates who were invited to join him for the trip is a typical horror film archetype. There’s Jules the blonde (Anna Hutchinson); Marty the wasted stoner (Fran Kranz); Dana the innocent virgin (Kristen Connelly); and Holden the straight-A student (Jesse Williams).

En route, they blithely dismiss the ominous warning to avoid the place that is given by a creepy local resident (Tim De Zarn) who is familiar with the grisly history of their destination. Of course it isn’t long after their arrival that the evil forces at the haunted house start picking them off one-by-one.

That is where the similarity to the stock scary movie plot begins to unravel in this film which is the directorial debut of Drew Goddard. Our heroes have no idea that their ensuing struggle for survival is a high-tech ordeal orchestrated from an underground bunker by a couple of government bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) who are assisted by an army of techno-wizards.

It’s impossible to discuss the storyline further without spoiling the many surprising supernatural developments. Suffice it to say that there is a host of bloodthirsty ghouls and goblins who can kill in creative ways. Overall, this hair-raising movie keeps you on edge for the length of the picture, although its frustrating game often feels unfairly rigged in favor of the sadistic manipulators.

This horror film definitely deserves its R rating given the incessant gore. Nevertheless, it remains highly recommended for fright fans interested in a more cerebral brand of bloodletting.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, drug use, sexuality, nudity, and graphic violence. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.


April 11, 2012

SON, MAYBE IT’S TIME WE TALKED ABOUT THE BIRDS AND THE BEES: Father and son Noah Levenstein (Eugene Levy, left) and Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) sit down for a heart to heart talk when Jim comes home to East Great Falls, Michigan, with his wife and child (not shown) for his and his wife’s high school class’s thirteenth reunion.

To some, it probably seems like only yesterday that the high school seniors in American Pie were on a mission to lose their virginity before their graduation. But that was actually two sequels (American Pie 2 and American Wedding) and four spinoffs ago, and the high school friends have long since graduated and gone their separate ways.

Thus, at the point of departure we find that Jim (Jason Biggs) has married former band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) and the couple are raising a toddler (George Christopher Bianchi) who gets into everything. Meanwhile, Oz, the jock (Chris Klein), is now a high-profile TV sportscaster in Los Angeles; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is married and working as an architect; and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a bohemian fantasizing about doing something more daring than managing a Staples store in New Jersey.

As middle-age approaches, the buddies decide to put their lives on hold and return to East Great Falls to attend their 13th high school reunion. There, they encounter former classmates Stifler (Seann William Scott) and The Shermanator (Chris Owen); Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid); Oz’s ex-wife Heather (Mena Suvari); as well as Stifler’s mother (Jennifer Coolidge); and Jim’s father (Eugene Levy).

In the ensuing weekend, the band of friends reminisce and become embroiled in sordid affairs and sophomoric hijinks. For example, Kevin gets so drunk that when he wakes up in bed with Vicky, he can’t remember whether he’s cheated on his wife (Charlene Amoia). Jim is pursued by his 18-year-old next door neighbor (Ali Kobrin) whom he used to babysit.

Frankly, the group is a little long-in-the-tooth to over-imbibing in alcohol, ecstasy, and sex. A telltale sign that the cast members might have run its course is the lack of enthusiasm (other than Eugene Levy and Seann William Scott) with which they deliver their lines.

Good (**). Rated R for nudity, profanity, drug use, teen drinking, crude humor, and graphic sexuality. Running time: 113 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 4, 2012

TO HELL AND BACK: Perseus (Sam Worthington, center front) accompanied by his band of valiant warriors, are setting out on their descent into hell to rescue Perseus’s father Zeus, who has been imprisoned by Hades (Ralph Fiennes, not shown) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez, not shown) in an underworld dungeon. On the way to rescuing his father, Perseus must overcome a series of mythical creatures such as a cyclops, a minotaur, and fire breathing dragons.

I don’t understand why the characters in movies that are set in ancient Greece invariably speak with British accents, since the English language didn’t even come into existence until centuries later. Other than that, I have no complaints about Wrath of the Titans, a 3D sequel which actually exceeds the original in quality.

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles), this visually captivating action adventure is about another epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Danny Huston, and Ralph Fiennes have returned to reprise their lead roles as Perseus, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, respectively.

The story unfolds a decade after the previous film ended with our hero Perseus’s defeat of the Kraken. After slaying the monstrous sea monsters, the widowed demigod had been passing an unassuming existence as an ordinary fisherman, quietly raising his now 10-year-old son, Helius (John Bell).

However, when Perseus learns that the Titans Hades and Ares (Edgar Ramirez) have imprisoned his father, Zeus, in an underworld dungeon, he has a good reason to take his mighty sword out of its scabbard.  Because, after Poseidon was killed, the two renegade titans entered into a diabolical pact to dominate the world.

Accompanied by the lovely Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) with comic relief Agenor (Toby Kebell) tagging along, Perseus and his band of warriors descend into a subterranean hell on behalf of humanity.  While searching for Zeus, they encounter a host of mythological creatures, including a one-eyed Cyclops (Martin Bayfield), the half-man half-bull Minotaur (Spencer Wilding), an addlepated fallen god (Billy Nighy), and fire-breathing dragons.

Of course, the quest culminates in a spectacular showdown which takes full advantage of advances in 3-D technology. Be prepared to find yourself frequently ducking or squinting to avoid boulders or flaming embers that appear to be aimed straight at your head.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action and intense violence. Running time: 99 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers


March 28, 2012

READY, AIM, SHOOT: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a doe in her sights, but this time it gets away. She has had to learn how to survive in the woods outside of her district, which are out of bounds for the residents of the 12 Districts, because of the harsh conditions of her family’s life in District 12. She has taught herself how to track and and shoot game in order to keep herself and her family from starving to death.

Picture a post-apocalyptic North America devastated by a combination of fire, famine, drought, and wars. The United States has been replaced by a centralized totalitarian regime that is run with an iron fist by the president (Donald Sutherland) with the support of a group of effete elites who are living in the capitol city.

These wealthy elites are insulated from the suffering of the rest of the population that lives in the country’s twelve outlying districts. As a result of an attempted coup 74 years earlier, the government has been punishing the districts by staging an annual fight to the death, called the Hunger Game. It takes place in an unsettled wilderness area, and each district is represented by a boy and a girl.

The 24 participants are chosen by lottery and, as the story unfolds, we find 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) consoling her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has had her name picked to represent District 12. Katniss altruistically volunteers to take her terrified sibling’s place, and soon finds herself riding on a train to the site of the nationally-televised Hunger Games.

En route, she and her fellow District 12 entrant, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are mentored by a former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). But the alcoholic Haymitch only has discouraging words to share, warning them to, “Embrace the possibility of your imminent death, and know there’s nothing I can do to save you.”

Nonetheless, Katniss is determined to survive the ordeal. Fortunately, she has a host of survival skills at her disposal, since she is adept at archery and camouflage.

Based on the first installment of Suzanne Collins’s popular trilogy of the same name, The Hunger Games is a riveting adventure which will not disappoint the book’s loyal fans. The movie addresses a number of timely themes such as greed, loyalty, exploitation, and corruption.

It is a futuristic science fiction movie about a reality show where humans hunt humans they don’t even know in order to survive.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and disturbing images. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.


March 21, 2012

HERE WE COME TO SAVE THE DAY: Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum, left) and his partner Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) received their first assignment upon graduating from the Police Academy. They were responsible for patrolling a downtown park and were doing fine until they neglected to read a perpetrator his Miranda rights while arresting him.

Aside from their both missing the senior prom, popular jock Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) and social outcast Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) had nothing in common when they were in high school. However, they missed the prom for very different reasons; Greg didn’t attend because of poor grades and Mort simply couldn’t find a date.

However, seven years later while attending the Police Academy, the pair has met again. This time, the academically challenged Greg and out of shape Mort help each other pass the written and physical portions of their final exam.

Upon graduating, these opposite personalities launched their law enforcement careers as partners. However, when they were patrolling a downtown park on bicycles they failed to read a perpetrator his Miranda rights. They were called on the carpet and ordered to report to 21 Jump Street, a clandestine detective unit based in an abandoned church with a dusty, Korean Jesus crucifix dangling over the altar.

Their new boss, Captain Dickson, (Ice Cube) assigns Schmidt and Jenko to work undercover at Sagan High School in order to crack a drug ring that is selling deadly narcotics. The disgraced officers leap at the opportunity to make amends for their earlier mistake, unaware of how hard it will be for them to pass themselves off as students.

Not only do they look older, but the culture has substantially changed since they left school. They soon discover that macho misbehaving and bullying are out; while studying, drama club, and caring about the environment are in. Even being gay is considered cool thanks to the television show Glee.

This change in culture sets the stage for the awkward scenarios which abound in 21 Jump Street, a hilarious comedy co-starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. What makes the film so endearing is the camaraderie that the leads cultivate when the handsome ex jock has to rely on the goofy outcast geek to figure out how to fit in at school.

The movie is more than just a screen adaptation of the eighties cop drama of the same name. However, to its credit, the picture does pay homage to the classic TV series when it features cameo appearances by three of the original cast members: Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, and Holly Robinson-Peete.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, drug and alcohol abuse, coarse sexuality, crude humor, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 109 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.


March 14, 2012

WELL SHUT MY MOUTH: Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) is sitting underneath a tree that has magically appeared in his back yard. It seems that every time Jack speaks, a leaf falls from the tree, and he soon realizes that when the last leaf falls, his life will be over. Can Jack break the spell put upon him by changing his life and redeeming himself?

Whether starring in a comedy (like Trading Places and 48 Hours), a children’s film (such as Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle), a standup comedy performance (such as Raw and Delirious), or in an animated adventure as a donkey (Shrek) or a dragon (Mulan), Eddie Murphy’s best movies have invariably featured him talking trash. Even his Oscar nomination (for Dreamgirls) was for playing a jive talking motor mouth where he played a character inspired by James Brown.

In light of the above, you really have to wonder how a project like A Thousand Words ever got off the ground. Instead of taking advantage of Murphy’s strong feature, the movie actually goes to the opposite extreme by buttoning up his lips for most of the film.

The studio probably realized it had a lemon on its hands, since it let the picture sit on the shelf for four years before releasing it. The movie marks the third collaboration between Eddie and director Brian Robbins, after Norbit and Meet Dave.

A Thousand Words portrays a familiar anti-hero archetype; the backstabbing corporate conniver sorely in need of an attitude readjustment. When we’re introduced to Jack McCall (Murphy) he’s a high powered Hollywood agent who is very successful and living in the lap of luxury in a sprawling, mountaintop mansion with a pool and a view.

The insufferable bully takes pleasure in intimidating everyone he encounters; his assistant (Clark Duke), his spouse, Caroline (Kerry Washington), and even perfect strangers. But Jack’s comeuppance begins the day he lies to his latest client, a popular New Age guru (Cliff Curtis) who has just written a self-help book.

Abracadabra! A magical tree that sheds a leaf for every word that Jack utters suddenly materializes in his backyard. And by the time he figures out that he will die when the last leaf falls, so few leaves are left that he has no choice but to take a vow of silence.

Mute Jack is then beset by a host of woes, including the loss of his job and the love of his wife and son Tyler (Emanuel Ragsdale). At this juncture, the picture turns to heavy handed sermonizing in lieu of humor, as our humbled protagonist learns his lesson about what really matters most in this world.

Poor (0 stars). Rated PG-13 for PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, and drug-related humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.


March 7, 2012

WHEN IT’S GONE, IT’S GONE: The Lorax (Danny DeVito), who is a defender of the Earth’s plant life, is horrified and saddened to discover that another Truffula tree has been cut down. He pleads with Ted, who cut the tree down, to talk to the Once-ler (Ed Helms, not shown), who then explains to Ted the importance of preserving the ecology of the Earth’s plant life by keeping pollution and deforestation in check.

Twelve-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) has a big crush on the girl next-door (Taylor Swift), so he makes up excuses to ring her doorbell just so he can see her. He finally realizes he actually has a chance with Audrey when she mentions that she’d marry the first boy who could bring her a real live tree.

She’s never seen one, because their hometown of Thneedville is an artificial environment where everything is plastic except for the citizens. What the children don’t know is that their idyllic community is also walled-off from the contaminated outside world that has been turned into a vast wasteland as a result of environmental pollution.

Intent on impressing Audrey, Ted asks his grandmother Norma (Betty White) where he might find a Truffula, the species of trees that once thrived in Thneedville. She suggests he seek out the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a reclusive elder who lives outside the city.

So, Ted hops on his scooter and drives out of town for the first time. He is shocked to see the widespread blight that he’s been shielded from his whole life. Also, it’s apparent that the desolation is due to the smog and sludge being spewed by an operation owned by Thneedville’s avaricious Mayor O’Hare (Rob Riggle).

Ted finally finds the wise old Once-ler who, in a series of sobering conversationss, teaches Ted a valuable lesson about the importance of protecting the environment from greedy corporations. And the Once-ler even admits to the role he played in the destruction of the forest when, over the objections of a tiny, planet-protecting creature called the Lorax (Danny DeVito), he harvested all the trees to make a quick buck.

Loosely based on the Dr. Seuss children’s classic of the same name, The Lorax is a parable about the importance of preserving the Earth’s natural resources.

While the movie’s dire apocalyptic message might scare some impressionable children, most of them will likely take it all in stride, especially with the film’s fairy tale ending.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mild epithets. Running time: 86 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

February 29, 2012

WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS THIS?: George (Paul Rudd, left) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) discover that the “quaint bed and breakfast” inn that they checked into the previous night is really a commune of nudists who believe in free love. Ready to try anything, the happily married couple decides to give the alternative life style a try, which results in them ending up in some hilarious situations.

Happily married Linda (Jennifer Aniston) and George (Paul Rudd) bought a home after being convinced by their realtor (Linda Lavin) that a “micro loft” in the West Village of Manhattan would be a great investment. However, when George subsequently loses his high paying, high stress job, the couple is forced to sell their postage stamp-sized studio apartment at a considerable loss.

Unable to afford to live in Manhattan any longer, they decide to take up George’s brother’s (Ken Marino) generous offer of a job and a place to live in Atlanta until they can get back on their feet. So, they pack up their car and start the long drive to Georgia.

En route they book a room for a night at what they think is a quaint country bed and breakfast located off the beaten path. But they quickly realize that something strange is afoot when they are greeted in the driveway by a naked man (Joe Lo Truglio) who isn’t the slightest bit modest. They learn that they have just checked into a free love commune that considers monogamy tantamount to sexual slavery.

Linda is initially put off by the free love idea while George is intrigued by the alternate lifestyle. However, she grudgingly agrees not only to move in but even to have an open relationship in order to make her husband happy.

Then, lo and behold, Linda does take to the arrangement, and she soon seduces Seth (Justin Theroux), after he serenades her with his guitar. George, on the other hand, has a harder time bringing himself to cheat on his wife with the attractive young blonde (Malin Akerman) who is propositioning him.

Can this marriage survive the infidelity and ever present temptations? That is the question posed by Wanderlust, a comedy directed by David Wain.

The picture was produced by Judd Apatow, whose string of coarse films includes Bridesmaids, Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Fortunately, the conviction which Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd bring to their parts as the couple in crisis succeeds in holding together an implausible storyline. The talented leads are ably assisted by a gifted supporting cast of veterans like Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, as well as scene-stealing comediennes Kathryn Hahn and Kerri Kenney.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, drug use, and nudity. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.


February 22, 2012

ARE WE DOING THE RIGHT THING?: Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry, left), the successful CEO of Deeds Corporation, is having second thoughts about going through with his impending marriage to Natalie (Gabrielle Union), who is a successful realtor. Wesley finds Natlie to be a shallow person, and she thinks that he is boring and predictable. To add to the tension, Wesley finds himself attracted to a homeless war widow who has a young daughter.

Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry) seems to have it all. He is the CEO of the Deeds Corporation — a thriving computer software company — and is about to marry a successful, if shallow, San Francisco realtor Natalie (Gabrielle Union). Wesley was chosen to be the CEO by his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who picked him over his hot-headed brother Walter, (Brian White), to replace their late father, the former CEO of the Company.

However, it seems that Wesley has spent most of his life trying to satisfy his domineering mother, and it looks like he might be getting married more to please her than himself. Even Natalie finds Wesley to be boring and predictable, despite his being a great catch.

Then, as the couple is putting the final touches on their elaborate wedding plans, an unlikely other woman, Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton) — who is a single mother living in a car with her 6-year-old daughter, Ariel (Jordenn Thompson) — enters the picture.

Lindsey’s world crashed around her after her husband was killed in Iraq. She was forced to drop out of nursing school and was able to find a job as the night janitor in Wesley’s office building.

The gruff woman initially rubs Wesley the wrong way. She is definitely not the class of women that he is accustomed to meeting.

However, the tension between the two starts to dissolve the night she offers to give him a back massage while he’s burning the midnight oil at work. And upon hearing all the details of her pitiful plight, Wesley altruistically offers Lindsey and Ariel an apartment to live in indefinitely.

Will Wesley develop deeper feelings for Natalie? If so, will he be able to summon up the courage to break off his engagement and defy his mother?

That difficult dilemma is the center of the plot of Good Deeds, the latest morality play written, directed, and starring Tyler Perry. Avoiding his usual staples of comic relief, courtesy of Madea and clownish support characters, Perry presents this soap opera in a straightforward fashion.

As a result, the plot is not only perfectly plausible, but remains refreshingly grounded in reality from start to finish. The veteran lead actors, Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, and Gabrielle Union generate a convincing chemistry that will keep you interested right up to the surprising resolution of the love triangle.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and mature themes. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.


February 15, 2012

HOW DID THOSE GUYS KNOW WHERE WE WERE?: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, left) and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) barely manage to escape alive from the CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Now they must figure out who compromised the location and bring the guilty parties to justice.

Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is a veteran CIA agent who has been on the run for close to 10 years after he was suspected of selling military secrets to America’s enemies. However, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a newcomer to the agency who’s been itching for some action. Unfortunately, he’s stationed in South Africa where he’s been assigned to maintain a backwater safe house that’s never been needed for a clandestine operation.

Until now. The two meet soon after Frost decides to come in from the cold in Cape Town because an army of assassins is closing in on him. The renegade spy surrenders himself at the U.S. Consulate, which in turn is directed by the CIA brass to deposit Frost in the safe houuse with Weston for debriefing.

However, all hell breaks loose right after the team of interrogators arrives, and the safe house unexpectedly comes under attack by a gang of mercenaries. Frost and West barely escape with their lives out the back door while the rest of the CIA agents perish during the siege. With no idea why the supposedly secure location had been compromised or whether there’s anybody whose word they can trust, the rookie and the rogue realize that their survival depends on their mutual cooperation.

That is the intriguing point of departure of Safe House, a riveting espionage thriller with non-stop action. The film is best described as a combination of The Bourne Identity (2002) and Taken (2008), with the former’s “spy on the run desperate to clear his name” theme and the latter’s wanton slaughter and sense of urgency.

The movie is the English language debut of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who has obtained a great performance from Denzel Washington. In addition, he has also allowed Ryan Reynolds to show that he is a capable actor.

The co-stars not only acquit themselves well in the fight sequences, but the chemistry that develops between them enables the audience to forgive the periodic holes in the picture’s plot. They are helped by powerful support performances from Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, and Ruben Blades.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. In English, Afrikaans, and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.


February 8, 2012

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT?: In the process of exploring a mysterious cave that suddenly appeared in Steve’s (Michael B. Jordan, center) backyard, Steve, Matt (Alex Russell, left), and Andrew (Dane DeHaan), encounter a mysterious object glowing in the cave. At this point the three boys pass out and when they awake, they realize that they have been magically imbued with super powers.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) bought a camera so he could videotape every waking moment of his day. The proverbial 98-pound weakling is routinely teased by bullies, but fortunately his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell) frequently intervenes on his behalf. The situation at home is just as bad because he is the butt of his disabled father’s (Michael Kelly) verbal abuse while he is watching his terminally-ill mother (Bo Peterson) slowly die.

Everything changes the evening Matt invites his cousin to attend a party with him. Once there, Andrew is asked by a classmate Steve (Michael B. Jordan), to bring his camera outside to film a strange hole he’s found in the woods. The three proceed to descend deep into a cave where they encounter a mysteriously glowing object and instantly pass out.

Fast forward a few weeks where we find that all three teens have been magically transformed — they have developed psychic powers, superhuman strength, and the ability to fly. Initially, they use their newfound powers by doing some sophomoric pranks such as telepathically moving a parked car to a different spot on a lot, or scaring a child in a toy store by levitating a teddy bear.

Matt and Steve are satisfied with such benign experiments, however, social outcast Andrew sees this as his opportunity to turn the tables on the cruel world that has treated him so badly. After running an annoying tailgater’s car into a ditch with the wave of his hand, he ignores his buddies’ pressure to employ his powers only for good things. Instead, he indulges his darker impulses, while Matt and Steve become increasingly worried about him.

That is the premise of Chronicle, a riveting, science fiction thriller marking the directorial debut of Josh Trank. Given that this is a “found-footage” film, it makes sense that much of the dizzying production would have been shot from the perspective of a shaky, hand-held camera. However, the movie measures up well against movies such as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project.

Surprisingly sophisticated for a teen-oriented adventure, Chronicle’s script has intellectual asides about the philosophies of Plato, Jung, and Schopenhauer. My only complaint about the film is the pessimistic picture it paints of humanity, implying that we might be naturally more inclined towards malice than compassion.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, sexuality, teen drinking, and intense violence. Running time: 83 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.