Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Just one beer? Sure, what could go wrong?

 

By George Wolf

 

If your name happens to be Randy, you’ll get some extra chuckles out of 21 and Over, thanks to a running gag about a d-bag of that name and his overly supportive friends.

For you non-Randys, the first directing effort from a seasoned writing duo will seem plenty familiar. It is  funny in spots, it’s just not too concerned with doing anything remotely original.

Jon Lucas and Scott Moore boast a resume full of comedy screenplays, some very funny (The Hangover, The Change-Up) and some..not so much (Ghost of Girlfriends Past, Four Christmases).  For their first foray into directing their own script, they don’t stray far from the comfort zone of bawdy dude humor and beer-fueled mayhem.

Stressed out college boy Jeff Chang (Justin Chong) has no plans to hit the bars on his 21st birthday, thanks to a big job interview his taskmaster father has arranged for early the next day.  This doesn’t sit well with Jeff’s buddies Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin), and as they coax Jeff out for “just one beer,” the night goes horribly wrong in record time.

The drunken adventure unfolds with plenty of nods to Weekend at Bernie’s, Animal House and of course, The Hangover, as Lucas and Moore unveil most of the shenanigans via the “what happened before” angle of their biggest hit. What’s missing from this, and all, Hangover imitators, though, is the sharply drawn characters and the talented chemistry of the actors.

21 and Over does earn an “A“ for effort, painting Miller as the crazy party-hound, Casey as the good-hearted nerd, and JeffChang (always called by this one name, which remains funnier than you might think) as the nutty Asian guy because, you know, The Hangover had one. No Mike Tyson? What gives?

Teller also starred in the high school party flick Project X, and he seems to relish playing a character with more of a grown-up edge.  He goes a bit overboard though, as Miller’s obnoxiousness nearly renders the character unlikeable.  Astin is basically recycling his nice-guy role from Pitch Perfect while Chong, when his character isn’t passed out entirely, does manage some humorously unhinged antics.

Ironically, Lucas and Moore may have been better suited to follow Project X’s lead and offer no apologies for the debauchery. Ultimately, though, they can’t resist lessons about maturity as they chase the cheesy “I’ve learned something today” moment.

2 ½ stars (out of 5)

 

Something’s Up with Jack

By Hope Madden

Have you ever wanted to see a nose so big you might be swallowed whole by its gaping pores? In 3D, no less? Director Bryan Singer (X-Men) hopes so, because he means to shake up our chilly moviegoer blahs with an enormous adventure filled with ill-tempered, poorly groomed giants. It’s Jack the Giant Slayer, Singer’s attempt to cash in on teen romance, 3D, and the dearth of late winter entertainment.

The story veers a bit from the nursery school fable, in that there’s an adventurous princess, a back stabbing egomaniac suitor, a crown made of giant heart, and no golden goose at all. Plus, there are an awful lot more giants than I remember.

Wisely, Singer sees the opportunity for medieval battle on a grand scale. Like a giant scale. And once we finally get to some action, the film’s a lot of fun. But beware: its prelude is a long slog.

Singer’s first foray into the third dimension bores. Giants look like unconvincing cartoons, the views are nice but not spectacular, and the action sequences – though entertaining – benefit in no way from the technology.

Nicholas Hoult finished Twilight-ing zombies for Warm Bodies just in time to pull that same shit with this old fairy tale. While he’s a very likeable soul, he brings too little energy or magnetism to the screen.

A sly Ewan McGregor, on the other hand, charms as the princess’s main guardian, his ever wackier hairstyle (who knew so much product was available in days of yore?), captivating smile and over-the-top gallantry injecting the flick with some much needed vibrancy.

The great Stanley Tucci finds himself underused – a particular shame because he makes such a great villain, and his comic timing could have helped the film find more enjoyable footing. Also underutilized is Bill Nighy, voice of one of evil giant General Fallon’s heads. Plus, the usually wonderful Ian McShane just looks silly in that suit of gold armor.

Singer’s pace is leaden, and his patchwork script puts off action far too long to keep your attention. The film’s slightly too violent and far too slow for very young viewers, yet too earnest and lumbering for anyone else. The FX can’t even impress.

There’s nothing especially awful about Jack the Giant Slayer (though, I, for one, was hoping for a slightly different ending). Maybe Hollywood thought that good was enough for late winter at the movies.

2 stars (out of 5)

Drugs are Bad…Mmmkay?

 

By George Wolf

 

In the first few minutes after we meet the main character in Snitch, he utters the line, “I’ve been rolling the dice all my life.” Ugh.

Normally, an eye-rolling opening such as this does not bode well for the rest of the film. Happily, though, Snitch is able to squeeze a nice bit of human drama into an otherwise standard Hollywood whitewash of a complex issue.

Snitch is, as they say, “based on true events” that occurred when a man named James Settembrino went undercover for the DEA in exchange for leniency toward his son’s sentence after a first-time drug offense.

The film version centers on construction company owner John Mathews (Dwayne Johnson), a successful businessman with a new wife and child. When his estranged son from a previous marriage agrees to hold a package of drugs for a dealer, all involved quickly learn harsh realities about mandatory sentencing.

John’s pleas to the federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) go for naught, so he offers to help the Feds nab more major players in the drug trade.

Johnson has made his mark as a action star, which might explain pairing him with director Ric Roman Waugh, a longtime stunt coordinator still fairly new to helming feature films. There certainly are action sequences, but Snitch works best when Waugh dials it down to focus on smaller moments.

Particularly effective is a side plot involving John’s employee Daniel (Jon Bernthal of The Waking Dead). Daniel is an ex-con trying to distance himself from his drug-running past, but John needs him for an introduction to a local dealer named Malik (a menacingly good Michael Kenneth Williams).

Waugh wrings palpable tension from John’s foray into the drug world, and Bernthal skillfully articulates Daniel’s internal struggle, giving the film the emotional pull that should have come from John and his family.  Those scenes, flush with overwrought writing and uninspired acting, barely rise above the level of a daytime soap.

The problem really isn’t Johnson, who pulls off his best performance to date. Wisely, his massive physique is kept under wraps as much as possible, in an effort to paint John as little less Superman and a little more common man.

Unfortunately, the superhero element eventually wins out, and the film walks away from the moral ambiguities it was contemplating to instead deliver an over the top finale clearly designed to draw empty applause.

 

3 stars (out of 5)

 

 

Yippi Ki Yawn

 

 

By George Wolf

 

Okay, full disclosure:  the original Die Hard is my all time favorite movie.

One of that film’s many great qualities is, back then Bruce Willis’s John McClane character was a regular guy in extreme circumstances. While each of the three sequels has been at the very least decent, McClane himself has morphed into more of a wise-cracking superhero.

That has never been more true than in A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth, and definitely the weakest, in the series.

This new adventure has John traveling to Russia, where there apparently is no police force. He’s there to help his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) out of a jam, but John is barely out of the cab from the airport when things start exploding, drawing father and son into a ridiculous yarn involving a Russian political prisoner and a secret file.

There may have been an acceptable action flick at the heart of Skip Woods’s script, but director Jon Moore (Max Payne) buries it under misguided pacing and wretched excess.

The extended car chase that kicks off the film becomes downright tedious, setting the stage for a film that never has a chance to build any tension or interest. Though the film’s finale does boast some action that’s worthy of the Die Hard name, getting there just isn’t enough fun. Moore keeps his foot on the gas until he abruptly stops for some father-son bonding time, and much of the film feels slapped together (the bad editing job doesn’t help matters).

Producers may be grooming Courtney (Jack Reacher) to take over the franchise, but his charisma, in this effort at least, is lacking.

Sadly, so is the film.

2 stars (out of 5)

 

Hey, your sandwich is talking to you

by Hope Madden

“You don’t choose the soy sauce. The soy sauce chooses you.”

If you hear these words while holding a bratwurst to your head like a cell phone, it would seem the soy sauce has indeed chosen you, as it has Dave and John in the mind-bender John Dies at the End.

Slacker vigilantes hunting the supernatural, Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) “handle unusual problems.” Like dealing with that meat monster in the hot girl’s basement – things like that. How did they come to this occupation? Well, that’s just what Dave is going to explain to a curious journalist (Paul Giamatti).

The tale he spills comes together in shades of Cronenberg, Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, spun with the sensibilities of Sam Raimi circa Evil Dead. And that, my friends, is fine company.

Directed by Don Coscarelli (best known for Phantasm, but personally beloved for Bubba Ho-Tep), John Dies offers a fun hallucination on film. Its trippy logic doesn’t hold up for the full running time, but it’s certainly never dull, it boasts some fun cameos (Clancy Brown is particularly cool), and its “whatevs” style of clever remains surprisingly enjoyable.

3 stars (out of 5)

Do Not Mess with The Formula!

 

By George Wolf

 

Rule number one:  do not  mess with the formula (I know it’s not really rule number one, but we’re not supposed to talk about the real rule number one so this is the fake rule number one, now shush!)

The formula in question comes courtesy Nicholas Sparks, whose novels, from Message in a Bottle to The Notebook and beyond, have all become films with very recognizable elements. Attractive, lovestruck people in an idyllic setting are kept apart by emotional damage, family tragedy and ties to the past but somehow fight through the melodrama to find each other just in time for a tear-filled finale. And rain, don’t forget getting soaked by rain.

So far, the films have ranged from heinous to barely watchable.

The latest, Safe Haven, ranks as one of the better efforts. Not good, but at least a wee bit of an improvement.

The quaint setting this time is Southport, a small town in North Carolina that seems a perfect landing spot for Katie (Julianne Hough), a young woman running from..say it with me..her past.

Is she emotionally fragile, and pretty? Why yes, and so is local nice guy Alex (Josh Duhamel), the single father who is still reeling from the death of his wife.

Even if you haven’t read the book, you’ll guess most of the rest, though director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat) does an admirable job of exercising some restraint as long as possible.

In the end, though, the emotional manipulation ingrained in each Sparks story will not be denied, as secrets from both Katie and Alex’s past collide in a melodramatic mess.

But wait! Sparks then adds the coup de grace, a shameless device that, though easily omitted to benefit the film version, showcases the formula so well all you can do is tip your hat in disgust.

These stories aren’t designed to be average. They are meant to be remarkable, if only for the sheer bombast of their sentimentality, and Safe Haven will keep the customers satisfied until the next installment.

2 stars (out of 5)

 

 

Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!

 

By George Wolf

 

When Nirvana blew up the music scene with their 1991 album Nevermind, they drew instant comparisons to many legendary bands of the past.

Fleetwood Mac wasn’t one of them.

But to business owner Tom Skeeter, Nirvana was “Fleetwood Mac all over again,” as both bands recorded their breakthrough records at his Sound City recording studio during periods when it was badly in need of success stories.

Now, former Nirvana member Dave Grohl tells the story of that legendary studio in Sound City, his informative and endlessly entertaining documentary.

Grohl, who has gone on to massive success with Foo Fighters and various producing projects, proves an able documentarian, filling the story with a genuine love for the human element in music and indeed, in all things.

Through interviews, still photos, and some classic behind the scenes footage, Grohl traces the history of LA’s Sound City. It was, by all accounts, a dump of a place that just happened to have a great staff, a first rate drum room and one of the best recording consoles in the world.

Word spread quickly, and as early critics (like Tom Petty’s producer, caught on camera saying “this place should be firebombed”) became converts, Sound City played host to a litany of big names.

Of course, the rise of digital recording posed a threat to Sound City’s traditional methods. Grohl brings the story full circle by recruiting such legends as Trent Reznor and Paul McCartney to illustrate how, in the right hands, the two approaches can effectively mesh.

A sentimental yearning for “the way things used to be” is hardly groundbreaking, but Grohl and his friends present a solid case for less digitized rock and roll. For music geeks, Sound City is a must, and even casual fans will be won over by the film’s humor, heart, and passion.

Rock on!

4 stars (out of 5)

 

The Notebook it Ain’t

 

Amour – the sure winner February 24th in Oscar’s foreign language category – comes to the Drexel just in time for Valentine’s weekend. It is a love story, after all. The Notebook, however, it is not.

This French-language film is the handiwork of Michael Haneke, also nominated by the Academy for his efforts in writing and directing the film. Those unfamiliar with the filmmaker should look into his catalogue; he’s never made a film undeserving of multiple viewings.

Indeed, Amour is not even Haneke’s first masterpiece. (See: The White Ribbon. Seriously. You should definitely see the film The White Ribbon.) In fact, Amour is his second Golden Palm takeaway from Cannes, and his second Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s his first nod for best film altogether, though. With Oscar leaving such brilliant movies as The Master and Moonrise Kingdom empty handed in the Best Picture nomination department, Amour has a lot to live up to.

Meticulous and unsentimental, Haneke seems an unusual helmsman for this tale of an elderly couple facing the devastating physical and emotional consequences of a stroke. In fact, he’s perfect. He sidesteps every inclination to be maudlin, melodramatic or sentimental and instead delivers a film as quietly devastating as it is beautiful.

Oscar nominee for Best Actress, a flawlessly honest Emmanuelle Riva compliments the equally genuine Jean-Louis Trintignant, as the two create a truthful love story wrapped in the unadorned poetry of decay.

The understatement and authenticity work together to detail a lived-in love, a livelong merging of the soul that transcends all other worldly entanglements. There is not a false note, not a single moment of sap or romanticism. There is much tenderness, though, and that’s what will demolish you.

Amour is a film like no other: an intimate, unsentimental portrait of aging, love and death. Who but Haneke has the nerve to pull that off?

For tickets, showtimes and more information, visit www.drexel.net.

Side Effects may include unusual career choices

by Hope Madden

Director Steven Soderbergh has worked with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns three times now, each instance a bit weaker than the last. Their first collaboration, The Informant!, was an unhinged gem of a flick owing as much to Matt Damon’s outstanding performance as to Burns’s knack with the English language. Next came Contagion, a better box office performer, but a less inspired effort.

Their third collaboration, Side Effects, offers a mystery thriller inside the world of pharmaceuticals. As is often the case with mystery thrillers, to say much more would be to give away too much. Coursing with Soderbergh’s cynicism and varnished with his laid back style, the film has more in store for you than the diatribe against Big Pharm it appears to deliver at first.

Unfortunately, plot holes seriously interrupt the impact of the mystery, but a solid cast helps bridge those gaps. Jude Law evolves cleverly from the modern doctor – overworked and ambitious – to something more raw, dirty and real. As his patient, Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) carries the film. It’s her picture, and she does with it what she wishes, thank God.

Like Soderbergh’s last several efforts – all mid-budget, off-season genre pics – Side Effects is an absorbing bit of entertainment you’ll dismiss after viewing. It’s better than most February releases, but worse than most Soderbergh pictures. What a funny turn for a career that began with the game changer Sex, Lies & Videotape.

3 stars (out of 5)

A Tale of Two Sandys

 

 

By George Wolf

As far back as his childhood days in the 80s as Ricky Schroder’s wise-cracking friend Derek on Silver Spoons, Jason Bateman has displayed flawless comic timing. Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, has burst on the scene in the last few years, with 2011’s Bridesmaids firmly establishing her as a major comic talent.

Put them together in a road picture, and you’ve got comedy gold, right? Well….

Don’t get me wrong, Identity Thief does deliver some laughs, just not as many as these  two stars would suggest.

Bateman is Sandy Patterson, a financial manager in Denver who deflects constant comments about his first name (“it’s not feminine, it’s unisex!”) while wondering if his jump to a new job at a start-up firm is a good move for his growing family.

McCarthy is also Sandy Paterson, the illegal Florida version. That is, after she makes him her latest identity theft victim and starts racking up credit card bills and arrest records in his name.

As the real Sandy discovers why his life is unraveling, he hatches a plan to travel South and bring the veteran conwoman back to Colorado authorities so she can prove his innocence.

After some great moments of physical comedy as Bateman struggles to apprehend McCarthy, the film settles in as a cross between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Due Date.

Director Seth Gordon, fresh from the very funny Horrible Bosses (also with Bateman), does his best to bring the same breezy, ad-libbed approach to his latest, and that is a wise move. Writer Craig Mazin’s script, weak on its own, is rescued by the sheer talent of the two leads.  Even when the story makes the inevitable turn toward sentimentality, Bateman and McCarthy keep it from collapsing.

3 stars (out of 5)