30 December 2011

The best of 2011

"There's a hundred thousand streets in this city. If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes, then I'm yours, no matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that, and you're on your own. Do you understand?"

The opening lines of "Drive," the best movie I saw in 2011, set the tone for the entire picture.

Like the Driver's (Ryan Gosling) approach to his nighttime gig as a wheelman, Nicolas Winding Refn's filmmaking is deceptively simple and direct. Dialogue is spare. Action is sudden and brutal. Car chases appear to be composed solely of stunts.

The tight-lipped Driver remains a mystery to the end, even as he romances his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), bonds with her young son (Kaden Leos), tries to help her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) out of a jam and runs afoul of two gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks).

29 December 2011


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23 December 2011

War Horse

Jeremy Irvine is shown in a scene from "War Horse."

Coming from Steven Spielberg during the year-end Oscar-bait season, "War Horse" is exactly the kind of movie you probably think it is.

It is gorgeously shot by the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, features stirring music by the always reliable composer John Williams, boasts several harrowing World War I battle scenes, includes bits of slapstick humor and has at its center a protagonist that virtually defines the term "rooting interest."

It has all these things, and they all work well.

Yet it feels a little routine, like Spielberg and his ace team of collaborators could have made this movie in their sleep. I suppose that's not a bad problem to have, and more than anything else, it's a testament to the superb work Spielberg has done for nearly four decades. So I'm trying not to hold that against "War Horse."

The Artist

Jean Dujardin, left, and Berenice Bejo are shown in a scene from "The Artist."

"Retro" does not even begin to describe "The Artist."

From French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist" not only takes back to Hollywood in the late 1920s, when sound revolutionized the art of movie-making and the entire film industry, it takes us back to the filmmaking of the time, too. It is a black-and-white, silent film presented in the square-like 4:3 aspect ratio.

It celebrates the movies by focusing on a time when the term "movie magic" actually had meaning. The purely visual filmmaking, accompanied by Ludovic Bource's musical score, is an absolute delight.

20 December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara is shown in a scene from "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."

Early this year, in an interview with W magazine, director David Fincher divided his work into two categories: "movies" and "films." A movie, he said, is a commercial undertaking, with pleasing the audience its only goal. A film is to be daring and also is intended for public consumption but even more so for fellow filmmakers. On his resume, "Fight Club" (1999) and "Zodiac" (2007) qualify as films, Fincher said, while last year's "The Social Network" is merely a movie.

We now can add "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to Fincher's "movie" list.

His version of the internationally best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson is as pulpy and noirish as the book—and as engrossing as the written version is page-turning. And though it trades in dark, dark subject matter, it's ultimately disposable, a Hollywood tentpole movie designed to kickstart a screen franchise, entertainment that treads into lurid territory with the comfort of the bad guys getting their due and an unlikely heroine taking justice into her own hands in a dramatic, emphatic manner.

16 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Noomi Rapace, left, and Robert Downey Jr. are shown in a scene from "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."
For a man known as the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes doesn't do much detecting in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," Guy Ritchie's second stab at bringing the master sleuth to the big screen.

This Holmes, again brought to roguish, mischievous life by Robert Downey Jr., favors running, jumping, shooting and stabbing his way to the answers. In fact, it's his sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), who gets most of the opportunities for deduction.

And, with apologies to Holmes purists, that's OK, because after 2009's "Sherlock Holmes," audiences should be aware that this franchise is traveling a path leaning more toward action and adventure than mystery.

The now-familiar formula is in place: the buddy-movie-style banter and bickering of Holmes and Watson; Holmes acting quirky, if not downright kooky (he drinks embalming fluid in one scene and takes his disguises to a whole new level); and lots of things going boom in creatively staged action set pieces.

Young Adult

Charlize Theron is shown in a scene from "Young Adult."
 "Young Adult" is the rare film that I'm having trouble wrapping my head around.

Its central character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a former high school beauty queen, now approaching 40 and still a knockout, is deplorable at the start, and we like her less and less as the movie progresses.

She escaped small-town Mercury, Minn., after high school, moving to Minneapolis, where she ghost writes a series of young adult novels, once popular but now coming to an end due to cancellation. We sense she had everything handed to her when she was younger, and has grown bitter and resentful of everything and everyone around her because that's not how the real world works.

A typical day starts with her waking up with a hangover (or possibly still drunk from the night before), still wearing yesterday's clothes, with one of many vapid reality shows on her TV.

09 December 2011

The Descendants

George Clooney, left, and Shailene Woodley are shown in a scene from "The Descendants."

"The Descendants," director Alexander Payne's fifth feature, is all about taking things that could be salacious and sensational, and paring them down to a realistic, deeply affecting, human level.

The setting is Hawaii, and though there is beauty here, it comes from a love ingrained in its inhabitants through generations, not the luxurious images used to attract tourists.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a real estate lawyer descended from one of the first land-owning white families in Hawaii. He's now the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of unspoiled land owned by his extended family. A new law will dissolve the trust in seven years, so the family must sell the land, their choice of buyer coming down to a Hawaiian developer or one from the mainland.

11 November 2011

Jack and Jill

Adam Sandler portrays both Jill, left, and Jack in a scene from "Jack & Jill."

Why, Al Pacino, why?

I know it's been a while since you were truly great on the big screen, but have you really fallen this far?

Is this the best we can get today from Michael Corleone, Serpico, Tony Montana?

Did you owe Adam Sandler money? Does he have embarrassing, incriminating photos of you?

Please, give me something. Help me make some sense out of your involvement in the cinematic atrocity that is "Jack and Jill," a movie not content simply to be horrifically awful; it seems intent on retroactively tarnishing your entire career.

04 November 2011

Tower Heist

Ben Stiller, left, and Eddie Murphy are shown in a scene from "Tower Heist."

"Tower Heist" feels like it got a green light based on the timeliness of its premise alone.

Because once you look past that, aside from Eddie Murphy's best comedic performance in many years, there is nothing there.

The movie clearly aims to be a more relevant "Ocean's Eleven," but the scenario—a high-powered Wall Street trader (Alan Alda) is arrested on fraud charges, inspiring a group of employees of the luxury high-rise where he lives to plan a robbery of his condo to pay back him back for losing their pensions—is too grim for the kind of breezy fun that came from knocking off a Vegas casino.

And remember that Steven Soderbergh directed the heck out of "Ocean's Eleven," giving it a jaunty rhythm that carried it through some of the contrivances and plot holes. "Tower Heist" has Brett Ratner at the controls, he of the "Rush Hour" series and the much-maligned "X-Men: The Last Stand."

27 October 2011

Shaun of the Dead

From left, Nick Frost, Penelope Wilton, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield and Simon Pegg are shown in a scene from "Shaun of the Dead."

There are many signs "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) is a step—or two or three or four steps—ahead of its zombie movie counterparts: the wit of its screenplay, the performances, the filmmakers' reverence for classic zombie movie tropes.

But the real reason? It's flat-out better made, with its filmmakers' technical skill on full display, and real thoughts and ideas behind its undead hordes.

The movie, directed by Edgar Wright, who also co-wrote with star Simon Pegg, reaches its pinnacle with a pair of long Steadicam shots following Shaun (Pegg) on his morning walk from his London flat to the market across the street.

The first shot follows Shaun, a 29-year-old electronics salesman, through his normal, brain-dead routine, buying a can of Coke and returning home.

07 October 2011

The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling is shown in a scene from "The Ides of March."
"The Ides of March" is a political thriller that concerns itself more with issues of loyalty and trust than advancing a particular agenda. That's a surprise considering the presence of George Clooney, known for being a liberal political activist, as director, producer, co-screenwriter and co-star.

With this movie, which is based on a play by Beau Willimon (who also shares the screenplay credit with Clooney and Grant Heslov), Clooney keeps his politics mostly in check, shying away from making any grand, new statements. The thought he leaves us with is politics is a dirty game, which you probably know even if you have never watched a minute of CNN or Fox News.

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a hotshot press secretary for the presidential campaign of Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). It is the eve of the Ohio Democratic primary, though winning the support of an influential North Carolina senator (Jeffrey Wright) virtually will ensure the nomination for Morris. That support, however, will not come without a price—a price the rival candidate appears willing to pay.

06 October 2011

Interview: Trick 'r Treat writer-director Michael Dougherty

I conducted this interview about a year ago. You can find the feature story I wrote then on this blog, but this seems an appropriate time to post the entire interview.

I know your birthday is very close to Halloween, so how much did that influence your interest in the holiday, growing up?

Michael Dougherty: I think it played a massive part in my interest in Halloween. October just kind of became a magical month. A lot of times my birthday party and Halloween pretty much merged. They still do today. I've been having a Halloween party for the last 10 years, and it kind of doubles as a birthday party for my friends who know. But even as a kid, it was, “Let's go trick-or-treating and then come back and have birthday cake.” So the importance of the holiday kind of doubled for me as a kid.

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What was Halloween like growing up in the Dougherty household?

It was really traditional. One of my earliest memories was carving a jack-o-lantern with my dad, which is partially where the Dylan Baker story comes from. It was very much a father-son tradition. I remember seeing my dad carve it and thinking it was the neatest thing in the world but not understanding it or understanding what he was doing. And then you put the jack-o-lantern in the window and you light it, you step back from the sidewalk and you look at it, and it's magic. You just look at it and go, "Wow, we made that." Yeah, it was as simple as carve a jack-o-lantern, hand out some candy and then hit the streets with the parents and my sister. I think it was great to have a very traditional Halloween upbringing. Charlie Brown found his way into the mix. It evolved as I got older, but it just got better.

26 September 2011


Ryan Gosling is shown in a scene from "Drive."
 "Drive" is proof action movies need not be a deafening assault on the senses nor a nonstop barrage of explosions and feats that defy the laws of physics. "Drive" is an action movie with a brain, that allows its characters to use theirs, that spends more time focusing on its characters than the action around them.

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is at the movie's center. He's a taciturn protagonist in the tradition of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name; one even wonders if his employer ("Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston), who owns an auto repair shop, knows his name. He also works as a stunt driver for Hollywood movies and moonlights as a wheelman.

He doesn't carry a gun or go inside to take an active role in his clients' heists. He drives. He gives his clients a five-minute window to get the job done while he waits in the car, his watching ticking away.

23 September 2011


Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill are shown in a scene from "Moneyball."

Baseball long has been a popular subject in the movies, but "Moneyball" is not about the drama on the field. Its concern is the behind-the-scenes action that, in 2001-2002, revolutionized how talent is evaluated and teams are built.

And it just might be the best movie I have seen so far this year.

The subject of Bennett Miller's ("Capote") film, which is based on a book by "Blind Side" writer Michael Lewis, is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Following a 2001 playoff loss to the New York Yankees, a team with a payroll nearly three times that of the small-market A's, and the offseason defections of several star players to clubs with deeper pockets, Beane realizes a change in philosophy is in order.

09 September 2011


Jennifer Ehle is shown in a scene from "Contagion."
The disease/pandemic movie has grown up. And with "Contagion" in the hands of Steven Soderbergh, we should expect nothing less.

During the past two decades, the director has swung wildly from populist fare (the "Ocean's" series) to award-winners ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich") to obscure indie pictures ("Bubble," "The Girlfriend Experience") to everywhere in between and back again.

"Contagion" falls into the between category. Soderbergh employs a cast of Hollywood stars, but this is no "Outbreak." Rather, it is a clinical, procedural telling of how a disease spreads from a bat to a pig to one woman to virtually the entire world.

Starting on "Day 2," Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Soderbergh's "The Informant!") mark the passage of time by counting the days and measure the threat by identifying on screen the population of each new location.

06 September 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Adam Scott, left, and Paul Rudd are shown in a scene from "Our Idiot Brother."
"Our Idiot Brother" is a misleading title.

Ned, brought to life by the great Paul Rudd, isn't an idiot at all. He merely is naïve, possessed of an innocence stemming from a good-natured, well-meaning manner that completely overwhelms him at times.

Take the event at the movie's start. A uniformed police officer (Bob Stephenson) approaches Ned at his organic vegetable booth and asks to buy marijuana. Ned refuses and laughs it off until the officer appeals to his senses of compassion and trust. "It's been a really rough week," he says. Ned offers to give him what he wants, but the officer talks him into letting him buy it for $20—then arrests him after the money changes hands.

At the end of his jail term (which is shortened due to good behavior, naturally), Ned returns to the organic farm where he had lived with his girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), for the previous three years. But Janet has a new man (T.J. Miller) and won't even let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson, when she kicks him out.

30 August 2011


Zoe Saldana portrays Cataleya in a scene from "Colombiana."
Early in “Colombiana,” young Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg), recently a witness to her parents' murder at the hands of a Columbian drug lord (Beto Benites), tells the man who has taken her in, an unspecified relative (Cliff Curtis), that she does not want to go to school; she wants to be only one thing: a killer. To make a point that never becomes clear, her uncle(?) pulls a gun, shoots up a random, passing car, causing it to crash (the innocent driver's fate is left a mystery), then continues the conversation—on a busy city street—in front of a school—as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

The movie, too, never gives another thought to this character's evil act and later tries to use him as a sort of conscience for its young heroine, who grows up to become Zoe Saldana (”Avatar,” “Star Trek”).

The adult Cataleya is a killer all right, one of the serial nature. She even leaves behind a signature at each of her victims, a cattleya, the variety of orchid for which she is named. Her body count tops 20, each one connected to the man responsible for the death of her parents. She appears to be able to kill at will—in one ludicrous scene, she gets herself arrested to take out a man behind bars—so I'm not sure why she hasn't gotten to the big bad sooner.

26 August 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Bailee Madison is shown in a scene from "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."

In this hyperactive digital age, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is almost antiquated in its approach to horror.

And that is its greatest strength.

Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker responsible for "Pan's Labyrinth" and the two "Hellboy" movies, and directed by rookie Troy Nixey, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" stays away from the blood and guts that dominate so much of modern horror in favor of building suspense and creating scares through whispers in the dark, the production design of its creepy old mansion and placing the audience in the shoes of its protagonist, a young girl sent away from her mother in California to live with her dad in Rhode Island.

Guy Pearce is Alex, the father, an architect living in the dilapidated Blackwood Manor while he restores it with his new, younger girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). He's lost when it comes to dealing with Sally (Bailee Madison), a sullen little girl who desperately wants to return to her mother.

20 August 2011

Conan the Barbarian

Jason Momoa portrays Conan in a scene from "Conan the Barbarian."
I'm trying hard not to come off as a broken record, but 3D at the movies needs to go away. And it needs to go away yesterday.

"Conan the Barbarian" surpasses last year's "Clash of the Titans" for the worst use of 3D I've seen. Director Marcus Nispel has a hard enough time presenting a coherent action scene in two dimensions; add a third and what a mess we have on our hands.

And it's not just in the action scenes, of which there are many. The use of 3D—which was added in post-production via computers—is a constant distraction. A fantasy film must draw the audience into its world; an unrelenting reminder that you're watching a movie might as well be its death knell.

Beneath this nonsense, there actually is a kind of entertaining movie, in a pulpy, B-movie sort of way.

18 August 2011

Fright Night

Anton Yelchin is shown in a scene from "Fright Night."
Evil has a new name.

And that name is ...

... Jerry?

Actually, it's not new at all, as "Fright Night," with refreshingly old-fashioned, bloodthirsty, bursting-into-flames-in-the-sun (no sparkling allowed) vampires, is a remake of the 1985 film written and directed by Tom Holland.

This new version, directed by Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl") and written by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" veteran Marti Noxon, is a tight little horror movie, well staged and acted, and with a fair amount of comedy sprinkled among the scares.

Right off the bat, the movie establishes its suburban Las Vegas setting, a cookie-cutter neighborhood in the middle of the desert, the kind of mind-numbingly ordinary locale that is the perfect spot for a monster hiding in plain sight. It's a place where teenagers can go missing without the outside world taking notice.

12 August 2011

30 Minutes or Less

Aziz Ansari, left, and Jesse Eisenberg are shown in a scene from "30 Minutes or Less."
The principals of "30 Minutes or Less" all appear to be acting in different movies.

Jesse Eisenberg, as Nick, the pizza delivery guy who's kidnapped and ends up with a bomb strapped to his chest and orders to rob a bank, plays it straight and sincere. He's suitably terrified and desperate both to save himself and prevent harm from coming to those close to him.

Aziz Ansari, as Nick's best friend, Chet, a substitute elementary school teacher, employs the loose, riffing style of a Judd Apatow movie. It works for him, and he gets most of the movie's laughs.

Then there are Danny McBride and Nick Swardson doing what they do—whatever that is (it certainly isn't comedy).

07 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis, is shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
Their endgame is the planet. But first, San Francisco.

In "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a prequel to the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes," it is there, in the not-too-distant future, that scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a virus for use in gene therapy that not only repairs brain cells but improves them. His goal is a cure for Alzheimer's disease, which has all but taken his father (John Lithgow) from him.

Of course, before it can be used on humans, the virus must be tested. That's where the apes—chimps, specifically—come in. When one test subject goes on a violent rampage, Will's boss (David Oyelowo) attributes it to the virus, ends the program and orders the chimps put down. Only the virus is not to blame. The ornery chimp was protecting a perceived threat to her baby, which she birthed in secret.

Will takes the little simian home, names him Caesar and, to his astonishment, watches him learn at a pace that far outdistances that of a human of the same age, the smarts inherited from his test-subject mother. Will also uses the virus to treat his father, who makes a remarkable recovery.

05 August 2011

4th Chesapeake Film Festival set for September

EASTON — The Chesapeake Film Festival returns from Sept. 23 to 26 for its fourth year, with screenings of more than two dozen films at venues in Easton, Cambridge and, for the first time, Chestertown and Chesapeake College.

Each year, members of the CFF board of directors and advisory committee travel to film festivals across the country, including the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, to scout films and network with filmmakers and producers—all in effort to bring the best in independent film to the Eastern Shore.

“Not all of us can go to Sundance. Not all of us can go to South by Southwest,” said Liza Moore, the festival’s filmmaker liaison. “But somebody from the committee will go, and they actually can bring them back here. So you’re getting that same experience.”

The CFF slogan is “Watch. Think. Discuss.”

Zombies invade Delmarva in Cambridge couple's horror-comedy

From left, Stefan Gural, Wendy Renee Cade, Connor Smith, Lacey Hancher, Brett Cover and Alexis Droke from the locally made movie "Dead on Delmarva" are pictured.
CAMBRIDGE — John McDonald and Karen Harrison had never made a movie. They have no background in filmmaking. But that hasn’t stopped them.

“Have you ever sat around and watched a movie and said, ‘I can do better?’” Harrison asked. “That is what happened with this.”

The “this” she is referring to is “Dead on Delmarva,” a zombie comedy she and McDonald, her fiancé, wrote together and shot last fall at locations in Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline counties.

“I’ve just loved stories since I was a kid,” said McDonald, who is also the director, during an interview at his and Harrison’s Cambridge home.

McDonald and Harrison each write short stories—“She’s a big-time horror freak, and I’m a science fiction/fantasy freak,” he said.

They’ve always enjoyed watching zombie movies together and had been joking about making one of their own when they learned the late ‘80s film “Redneck Zombies” had been shot—on a $10,000 budget—in Delmar and that Harrison works with one of the writers and one of the actors.

04 August 2011


Rainn Wilson is shown in a scene from "Super."
Available Aug. 9, 2011, on Blu-ray and DVD.

Superheroes have been deconstructed so much that it is practically its own genre at this point. In the tradition of such wildly different films as “Watchmen” and “Kick-Ass” comes “Super,” writer-director James Gunn’s independent feature mixing humor with disturbing acts of violence.

Frank (Rainn Wilson, better known as Dwight Schrute on “The Office”) is a good guy but a bit of a loser. He spends his days as a fry cook, and he’s experienced exactly two perfect moments in his life—marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, and helping a police officer catch a mugger. He’s so clueless that he doesn’t notice his wife slipping back into her old ways. When the man who steals her away from him, a drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon) who operates out of the local strip club, comes to their house looking for Sarah, Frank lets him in and cooks him breakfast.

Late one night, mired in depression, parked in front of the TV, Frank comes across the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a superhero on the religious channel. The Avenger comes to Frank in a dream, giving him all the inspiration he needs.

29 July 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Harrison Ford, left, and Daniel Craig are shown in a scene from "Cowboys & Aliens."

“Cowboys & Aliens”—just saying the title is fun, isn’t it? Too bad that’s the only real joy the movie offers.

How did it go so wrong?

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) team up. “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau is at the helm. It’s a mash-up of two of the most iconic genres.

Based on its credentials, boring probably is one of the last things one would expect it to be. But that's exactly what it is: a lifeless Western story injected with uninteresting sci-fi elements.

Craig is our hero, a literal man with no name when we meet him, waking as he does in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is or how he got there, and a strange metal bracelet stuck on his wrist.

22 July 2011

Horrible Bosses/Friends with Benefits

From left, Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis are shown in a scene from "Horrible Bosses."
Much has been made of the glut of R-rated comedies hitting theaters, with this year already seeing the highs of “Bridesmaids” and “Paul;” the lows of “Your Highness,” “No Strings Attached” and “Bad Teacher;” and the middle ground of “The Hangover Part II.”

Add two more to the high category—“Horrible Bosses” and “Friends with Benefits.”

“Horrible Bosses”" easily is the best of the bunch, with an ingenious though not quite original premise, genuine wit and a fantastic cast.

Nick (Jason Bateman, the best comedy straight man we have today) works for a man (Kevin Spacey, at his smarmy best) who all but promises him a big promotion only to later take the job himself. Dale (Charlie Day of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is a constant victim of sexual harassment by his boss (Jennifer Aniston, cast completely against type). Kurt (Jason Sudeikis of “Saturday Night Live”) actually enjoys his job, but that changes when his kindly boss (Donald Sutherland) dies and his maniacal, cokehead son (Colin Farrell, sporting a wicked combover) takes over.

15 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe is shown in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2."
WARNING: This review may contain spoilers for previous Harry Potter movies.

It all comes down to this.

J.K. Rowling’s book is four years old, so millions already know how the story ends. But many do not, and even if you have that knowledge, it is an entirely different experience to see images and events previously confined to your imagination projected onto the big screen.

With the eighth film, the Harry Potter saga comes to an end, and this final picture assures it will go down as one of the great achievements not just in cinema, but all of popular culture.

Picking up where we left off last fall, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” wastes no time in jumping back into the action, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) stealing the all-powerful Elder Wand from the tomb of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), while Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) continue their quest to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, the items in which the dark lord placed pieces of his soul to attain his apparent immortality.

Through the years: Harry Potter on the big screen

WARNER BROS. PICTURES From left, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe are shown in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
 “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)

The adaptation of the first book chronicles year one at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for 11-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). Tasked with introducing a boatload of characters and essentially creating the look and setting of the entire film series to come, director Chris Columbus has a lot of grunt work to do. His solution is to stay slavishly loyal to J.K. Rowling’s writing, resulting in a movie that is entertaining in fits but plagued by pacing problems throughout its 152 minutes. Like the book, it is the most kid-friendly entry in the series, even though the child actors are painfully wooden at times. Luckily, an esteemed cadre of British actors (including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, John Cleese and John Hurt) classes up the entire production, and a typically brassy John Williams score enhances the excitement. Greg's Grade: C+

03 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

From left, Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till are shown in a scene from "X-Men: First Class."
The ideas, themes and characters of “X-Men: First Class” feel fresh and relevant despite its position as the fifth film in the series and taking place in the early 1960s during the build-up to the Cold War.

The action actually begins in 1944 for brief glimpses of the children who will become Professor Charles Xavier and his archenemy, Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto.

We meet young Erik, who has power over metal, in a concentration camp in Poland and watch as a doctor, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), murders his mother in front of him. Shaw then presumes to take the boy under his wing to teach him how to control his powers.

The telepathic Charles, on the other hand, lives in luxury, growing up in a palatial mansion and befriending a pretty, young intruder in his home who also happens to be a blue-skinned, shapeshifting mutant.

26 May 2011

The Hangover Part II

From left, Bradley Cooper, Ken Jeong, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis are shown in a scene from "The Hangover Part II."
Did you enjoy “The Hangover?” Judging from the box office receipts, many of you did. So did the people who made it, so much so that they essentially made the same movie again and called it “The Hangover Part II.”

Before I get into what director Todd Phillips and company did wrong, let me say this: “The Hangover Part II” is consistently funny and entertaining. Leading men Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis easily slip back into their roles, and it is a joy to watch them play off each other.

It was their chemistry and the camaraderie of Phil (Cooper), Stu (Helms) and Alan (Galifianakis) that gave the first movie its heart. That and a wildly unpredictable story made “The Hangover” an instant classic and possibly the funniest movie of the past decade. Yes, it has its moments of shock humor, but it’s secondary to the characters and the plot.

Not so with “The Hangover Part II.”

20 May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Johnny Depp portrays Captain Jack Sparrow, left, and Geoffrey Rush portrays Hector Barbossa in a scene from "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
You know the old saying “less is more?” I present to you exhibit A: “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

Of course, it’s only within the context of this franchise that anything about this, the fourth movie inspired by the Disney theme park ride, could be considered “less.”

“On Stranger Tides” is nearly wall-to-wall action, with swashbuckling aplenty; daring escapes and rescues; zombie pirates; vicious mermaids; the British navy; the Spanish navy; and the Fountain of Youth.

But while parts two (“Dead Man’s Chest,” 2006) and three (“At World’s End,” 2007) were bloated, convoluted messes drowning in special effects, “On Stranger Tides” gets back to what made the franchise such a hit in the first place: Johnny Depp as the outrageous, flamboyant pirate Captain Jack Sparrow and action scenes powered more by impressive stunt work than computers.

13 May 2011


From left, Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig are shown in a scene from "Bridesmaids."
More and more these days, you just can’t trust the advertising for movies.

Based on what you’ve been able to see of “Bridesmaids” so far, it probably looks like a “chick flick” or the female equivalent of “The Hangover.” The title gives the impression of an ensemble-driven movie.

Though there is a fine cast around her, “Bridesmaids” is principally a vehicle for Kristen Wiig, one of the most valuable performers in the current cast of “Saturday Night Live” and a frequent supporting player in big-screen comedies (“Knocked Up,” “Ghost Town,” “Adventureland,” “Paul”).

The movie, from a script by Wiig and Annie Mumolo and directed by “Freaks and Geeks” creator Paul Feig, isn’t really about a wedding, and it isn’t a wild, “Hangover”-style romp. Sure, it has some of the R-rated raunch typical of a picture from producer Judd Apatow—a dress-shopping scene in which food poisoning leads to vomiting and other unpleasant bodily functions easily springs to mind. But at its heart, this is a movie about friendship.

06 May 2011


Chris Hemsworth, left, and Natalie Portman are shown in a scene from the film "Thor."
As Marvel Entertainment ramps up for next year’s all-star superhero bash “The Avengers,” the trickiest part of the process is undoubtedly “Thor,” one of its lesser-known titles. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because this is the same Thor you might have learned about as a child, the Norse god of thunder.

Despite his superhuman strength, mighty hammer that only he can wield (and only after he’s proven himself worthy of it) and formal way of speaking, this Thor (Chris Hemsworth), when it comes down to it, is just a man, the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and brother of the trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

It’s a comic book movie with gods as characters, but “Thor” is, at its heart, the story of a father and two sons. Thor is the favored child, heir to Odin, the king of Asgard. But he is reckless and arrogant, his actions threatening to start a war with the dangerous frost giants.

15 April 2011

Scream 4

Neve Campbell is shown in a scene from "Scream 4."
"New decade, new rules."

Or at least that's what "Scream 4" director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson would have us believe.

Eleven years have passed since the disappointing "Scream 3" seemingly put an end to the franchise, but despite a new, young cast of corpses-in-waiting mingling with the returning characters, it's basically back to the same old, same old. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing in this age of endless "Saw" sequels.

With a movie franchise within the movie, based on the original movie (there's even a movie within the movie within the movie at one point), the meta commentary is back in full force—Craven does well to avoid drowning in it in the early scenes.

08 April 2011

Your Highness

From left, Natalie Portman, Danny McBride, James Franco and Zooey Deschanel are shown in a scene from "Your Highness."
"Your Highness" feels like a live-action version of a really bad game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Or maybe something director David Gordon Green cooked up with actors Danny McBride and James Franco as they got a little too into character on the set of their 2008 stoner comedy "Pineapple Express."

Maybe "Your Highness" plays better if you're in a similar state of mind. I wouldn't know.

This is a comedy without a whisper of wit. There are no punchlines, no jokes—not even failed ones. Every pitiful attempt at humor is nothing more than the insertion of modern vulgarity in its medieval fantasy setting. Why waste time and thought trying to be clever when you can simply utter a four-letter word?

01 April 2011


Russell Brand is shown in a scene from "Arthur."
The 1981 Dudley Moore comedy "Arthur" was successful on multiple levels. Its $82 million domestic box office take was the fourth best of the year, and it garnered four Academy Award nominations, winning best supporting actor for John Gielgud and best original song.

But it's not exactly a familiar title to movie-goers who were either not alive or too young to have seen it during its initial run, making it an unusual choice for a remake three decades later.

It makes a little more sense when you consider who is stepping into Moore's shoes in the lead role: British comedian Russell Brand, best known on these shores as hedonistic rock star Aldous Snow in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008) and its spin-off, "Get Him to the Greek" (2010).

11 March 2011


From left, Simon Pegg, Kristen Wiig, Nick Frost and Paul the alien (voice of Seth Rogen) are shown in a scene from the film "Paul."
Watching their movies, especially the ones they make together, you get the sense that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost would be lined up to see them on opening night if they were not the stars.

"Paul," like "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) and "Hot Fuzz" (2007) before it, is filled lovingly with references to other films and pop culture—science fiction and general movie geekdom in this case. It gently pokes fun but never openly mocks its protagonists, sci-fi nuts Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), playing like a love letter more than anything else.

Pegg and Frost wrote the screenplay together, and when the movie opens with Graeme and Clive attending that hub of geek activity, Comic-Con International in San Diego, you easily can imagine the two actors doing the very same thing.

04 March 2011


Spoons (voice of Alex Manugian), left, and Rango (voice of Johnny Depp) are shown in a scene from the animated feature "Rango."
"Rango" boasts sparkling computer animation rivaling the output of Pixar; its characters include talking lizards, toads, an armadillo, a turtle and various other rodents, bugs and desert animals; and international movie star Johnny Depp headlines its voice cast.

Now here's the thing Paramount Pictures doesn't want you to know: It's not a kids' movie.

Though the littlest ones might be scared by the intensity of the action (which includes a handful of character deaths), there probably is enough excitement and comedy to keep most children entertained. But "Rango" is a full-blown Western, one of the best of the past 20 years, and younger viewers won't recognize its references to other movies (which are wide-ranging enough to include the expected Westerns and other classics, such as "Apocalypse Now," "Chinatown" and "Star Wars") and its near-giddy celebration of genre conventions. They won't know what to make of its hero's existential pondering—"Who am I?" he asks himself several times.

Cedar Rapids

Anne Heche, left, and Ed Helms are shown in a scene from "Cedar Rapids."
"Cedar Rapids" is the rare movie that feels too short.

After a vastly entertaining 87 minutes, most of it in the title city at an annual convention of insurance salesmen, I wanted to spend more time with these characters—idealistic Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), who has never left his hometown of Brown City, Wis., and is positively giddy over his affair with his former junior high teacher (Sigourney Weaver); crude but surprisingly kind-hearted Dean "Deansy" Ziegler (John C. Reilly); friendly, supportive Ronald "Ronimal" Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.); and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), who uses her weekend in Cedar Rapids as a yearly vacation from all aspects of her daily life.

Helms, known to fans of "The Office" and "The Hangover," takes on his first big-screen leading role with ease. He makes Tim so darn good-natured and likeable that you can't help but root for the guy.

All the characters begin as specific stereotypes, but in short order, Phil Johnston's script allows the actors to develop them into living, breathing people.

11 February 2011

The Roommate/The Rite/No Strings Attached/The Green Hornet

Natalie Portman, left, and Ashton Kutcher are shown in a scene from "No Strings Attached."
January and February of this year are living up to their hard-won reputation as a cinematic wasteland. With Oscar bait still going strong in theaters and bad weather frequently keeping many moviegoers at home, the studios use these two months almost exclusively to unload pictures they know will have little to no chance of succeeding at any other time of year.

That's how we get drivel like "The Roommate" finishing atop the box office over its opening weekend.

Directed by Christian E. Christiansen without a hint of subtlety or any mind toward building suspense, "The Roommate" features Leighton Meester (of TV's "Gossip Girl") as Rebecca, an off-her-meds college freshman who obsesses, "Single White Female"-style, over her new roommate, Sara (Minka Kelly of TV's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood"). Don't waste your time about what has made Rebecca this way; no one who made the movie gave it a second thought either.

28 January 2011

The King's Speech

Colin Firth, left, and Helena Bonham Carter are shown in a scene from "The King's Speech."
"The King's Speech" tells the story of a monarch left virtually impotent by democracy and, even more so, his own insecurities.

"If I am king, where is my power?" asks King George VI of Britain (Colin Firth). "Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because (the people) think that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can't speak, because I have no voice."

When we meet the king in 1925, he is Prince Albert, "Bertie" to those close to him, the Duke of York, and he is about to speak at the closing of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. What comes out, though, hardly could be called a speech, plagued as it is by Bertie's uncontrollable stammer.

07 January 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Annika Hallin, left, and Noomi Rapace are shown in a scene from "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest."
Late in "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," Noomi Rapace, as Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant, misfit computer hacker recently recovered from taking a bullet to the brain, wrongly accused of three murders and abused throughout her life by officials within the Swedish government, cracks just a hint of a smile. There is nothing that speaks more to the greatness of Rapace's performance than the fact that this small moment, one that might go unnoticed by some viewers, serves as an emotional release for not just this film but the entire "Millennium" trilogy.

A young woman hardened by the hand life dealt her, Salander has gone to great lengths to guard not just the secrets of her past but the emotions of her day-to-day life. Her distrust extends beyond authority figures to include virtually everyone she meets. She doesn't have friends so much as a handful of people whose presence she can tolerate—but only in small doses and on her terms. She has been a victim, and more than anything, she wants those who prey on others—specifically, men who commit acts of violence toward women—to know what it means to be victimized.