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Underworld: Awakening

Kate Beckinsale returns to the Underworld film series for the fourth installment, which finds fierce vampire Selene (Beckinsale) escaping captivity and taking up arms against humans after mankind discovers the existence of vampires and lycans, and launches a massive war aimed at wiping out the creatures of the night. Stephen Rea and Michael Ealy co-star.


Ham-fisted storytelling undermines this otherwise clever found-footage epic.

Big Miracle

When a family of gray whales becomes trapped in the Arctic Circle, a Greenpeace volunteer and a small-town reporter go to extraordinary lengths to save the majestic creatures in this romantic adventure inspired by actual events. Alaskan newsman Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) has grown weary of working in such a small market. He's eager to move on to bigger and better things when the story of a lifetime lands right in his lap

Man on a Ledge

An NYPD hostage negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) attempts to talk cop-turned-fugitive Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) down from a high ledge, but she learns that he may have a hidden motive for threatening to take his own life.

The Grey (2012)

Liam Neeson stars in producer/director Joe Carnahan's tense adventure thriller about a group of tough-as-nails oil rig workers who must fight for their lives in the Alaskan wilderness after their airplane crashes miles from civilization. With supplies running short and hungry wolves closing in, the shaken survivors face a fate worse than death if they don't act fast. Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, and Frank Grillo co-star.

Saturday, 16 March 2013


If you're looking to see Snitch because you can't get enough of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's blend of electric charisma and unbridled machismo, you're destined to be sorely disappointed. Helmed by stuntman turned director Ric Roman Waugh, this is decidedly more father-son drama than action film, wasting Johnson's best assets and demanding he bring his acting ability to a new level. It just sets him up to fail.

Based on a true story, Snitch centers on John Matthews (Johnson), a successful business owner with a big house, loving family, bitter ex-wife and an estranged son named Jason (Rafi Gavron). But Matthews is deeply devoted to his boy, even when a stupid decision lands him in jail for drug charges that could earn Jason 10 years in prison. Seeking re-election, US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) refuses to pull strings to get Matthews' son out of jail?unless he can snitch on a bigger dealer. So, Matthews steps into the world of hard drugs, hoping to find enough intel that he can spare his boy conviction.

This drama is earnest in its storytelling, but stumbles in its execution. Johnson is painfully miscast, playing a supposedly powerless everyman who must pose as a tough guy to win the trust of dangerous drug dealers. The costume department diligently attempts to play down Johnson's massive muscles with dress shirts, but it doesn't work. He still looks like a professional bodybuilder, which makes it laughable when he is beaten up with ease by a bunch of teen pushers. Worse yet, there are no fight scenes for Johnson to show his stuff in. There are action sequences?including a pretty intense one involving a high speed chase with loads of gunplay?but never any hand-to-hand combat, which means his trademark brawn is not just hidden, it's wasted.

Instead, Johnson is asked to rely on his acting chops?which let's be honest?is not his strongest skill set. He's a great screen presence; he's not a great actor. Scenes between him and Sarandon are actually hard to watch. The dialogue doesn't help, filled as it is with clunky and on-the-nose lines. But barred from being a badass, Johnson delivers his lines with dead eyes and a flat tone. In response, Sarandon goes into overdrive, chewing scenery to the point where?I admit?she won me over completely. It was bonkers, but at least she was entertaining.

There are also some strange structural issues. Nearly half of the movie is spent on an ex-con gone legit who Matthews bullies into getting him into the drug game. Played by The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal, the character is compelling but seems a distraction from the main plot line. The question of what would happen to this two-strike offender when Matthews brings in the DEA is ignored for most of the film, which is bizarre considering we meet the guy's entire family and get monologues about his attempts to start over. Similarly strange is Matthew's neglect of how his actions (dealing with deadly drug cartels to save his son from a previous marriage) will impact his new wife and young daughter.

Snitch is a movie that overreaches. Waugh, who co-wrote the script with Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), doesn't seem ready for such straightforward drama. Johnson isn't prepared for a role this emotionally demanding, and really he is physically unsuited for the part of an underestimated everyman. There are amusing turns from Sarandon and Barry Pepper?as a DEA agent with the worst facial hair ever constructed?but even with Bernthal's soulful subplot, this drama lacks momentum and weight. The highlight of the film is definitely the final action sequence teased on its poster, where a semi truck careens around a highway, fending off gun-toting baddies. But there's not enough action for this feature to satisfy on that score. All muddled together, this makes for a movie that's sometimes crazy enough to work, but often bland.

Dark Skies

There are times when I think that the horror genre is a club that?s slowly trying to exclude me because I?m not afraid of children. In the past six months I have reviewed three underwhelming horror movies that used creepy children to spook audiences, but with each one I was left pleading for studios to find another trope to run into the ground. Instead I get Dark Skies, or as I like to call it, ?Number Four.?

Unlike The Posession, Sinister and Mama, at the very least writer/director Scott Stewart?s new film trades demons and spirits for aliens, but doesn?t do much more than put a sci-fi twist on a plot device that has sincerely worn out its welcome. It?s not hard to see what the filmmaker was trying to do with the story; the problem is that it fails in execution.

The film stars Kerri Russell and Josh Hamilton as parents of two kids (Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett) who are dealing with the usual suburban family problems when they begin to experience strange events that could be the work of extraterrestrial forces. Of course, it?s the children that have the most direct contact with the otherworldly beings and come to harm as a result. To his credit, Stewart broaches on interesting themes and social conflicts, like innocent parents being suspected of abusing their children, but anything even remotely interesting is dragged down by the languid pace and overuse of clich?s. How many more times do I have to see a stoic youngster draw a crude crayon drawing of their spooky invisible friend?

Dark Skies isn?t a found footage film, but it uses a very similar story structure to the Paranormal Activity films and succeeds in being just as boring. Each night Russell?s character wakes from her sleep, walks around the house and discovers something weird. The next day they deal with the weirdness, call the proper authorities, and try and figure out what?s going wrong while the youngest son acts strange and talks about the Sandman visiting him at night. This pattern is repeated multiple times with each night escalating the situation and therefore the drama between family members. It doesn?t take long to see the structure and it gets old fast.

Slow as it may be, the film shows some flashes of subtlety. While Stewart has a long background in visual effects he keeps them to a minimum here, taking the Jaws approach and understands that sometimes less is more. The film does occasionally take a heavier-handed approach to scares, such as scenes where small birds suicide bomb the family?s home and Russell gets put into a trance and bashes her head against a sliding glass door (which comes across as absurd more than frightening), but sometimes you have to appreciate convention being bent when it?s not being broken.

In the film?s second act the parents go to visit an alien expert played by J.K. Simmons who proceeds to give them a test to see if they are legitimately experiencing extraterrestrial contact. As he reads off the list of strange events and the parents begin to nod and share worried expressions you begin to realize that this was the same list that the writer/director got his hands on before writing the script and used it to structure the film. But while Dark Skies may live up to ?Believer? codes, that doesn?t make it an entertaining time at the cinema.

Escape From Planet Earth

It?s one thing for a movie to have weaknesses. Even the better films released every year have some flaws, or at least a few areas that could use improvement. The problem with Escape From Planet Earth is that it doesn?t have one single strength to counteract any of those weaknesses. Every single facet of the film is at best, slightly below average and at worst, downright terrible.

The characters are poorly conceived stereotypes that lack depth. The animation is not bad but still below recent standards set by DreamWorks and Pixar. The jokes are mostly obvious, base level gags that will seem too foolish and immature for any child above the age of four that?s ever been described as ?advanced? or ?accelerated?. The song choices are misguided and occasionally even uncomfortably disconnected from the action. And the plot, well, multiple paragraphs need to be devoted to that lunacy.

The basic premise follows two brothers named Gary Supernova (Rob Corddry) and Scorch Supernova (Brendan Fraser). The former is an inventor and proud employee of the Mission Control Department of planet Baab. The later is an astronaut and arguably, the most famous member of the blue species. Together, they partner to save babies and fight the more malevolent alien races, but after a falling out, Scorch winds up imprisoned on Earth by the evil General Shanker (William Shatner), and it?s up to the normally reserved and office-bound Gary to save the day.

Along the way, Gary meets both aliens and human beings, but more importantly for viewers, he also meets that aforementioned story arc that doesn?t stand up to scrutiny or even a basic level of common sense. Anyone paying attention will be left with dozens of unanswered questions that director Cal Brunker doesn?t even bother attempting to answer. For the hell of it: let me throw out a couple of questions I?m still wondering about.

How is a fired employee able to steal a large spacecraft from a secure facility? Why is General Shanker allowed to make universe-altering decisions without anyone informing the President or anyone else in government? How do so many different aliens from so many different races land next to desolate 7-11s that it?s a running joke? Why does Ricky Gervais? OnStar knockoff sometimes have agency and sometimes behave like he?s powerless to counteract orders? Why? Why? Why? There are no good answers.

You know how great children?s movies work on two different levels in order to entertain both kids and adults? You know how mediocre children?s movies work on one level to entertain kids? Escape From Planet Earth doesn?t work on any level, and even worse, it doesn?t seem bothered by that failure. It?s as if every single person involved thinks children are so stupid that they don?t deserve entertainment with any effort behind it. It?s as if someone thought, ?They?re kids? so, who gives a damn?? In short, kids do. They do give a damn, and there?s a reason why they?ll rewatch The Lion King until they?re blue in the face and immediately forget this waste of time even exists.

As we speak, people involved in this production are currently in court arguing over who should get the profits or lack thereof from this movie. Well, let me save the court some time. No one should profit from this movie. No one. Not one single person. If there is any money left over, which there shouldn?t be, it should be burned because not even a charity should see a piece of this blood money. Everything about this movie sucks. It's so boring and listless that I can?t believe so many talented people were a part of it.

If you?re looking for something to do with your kids this weekend, take them to the park. There?s nothing for you or them to see here except frustration.

Side Effects

Side Effects is set in New York City, but it barely looks like it. Steven Soderbergh, acting as always as his own cinematographer, makes the city look colder and more modern than ever, putting his characters in front of anonymous glass buildings and generic streets, robbing the city of its character and warmth at every turn. It's a brutally effective choice for what he claims is his final theatrical release, a twisty and surprisingly sexy thriller that, despite its heat, is actually about how cold and disconnected the world can be.

The film, written by Soderbergh's frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, is being sold as a tense drama about evil pharmaceutical companies and the beautiful young woman Emily (Rooney Mara) who becomes their victim, but that's barely the beginning of it. To talk about much about how Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Siebert, fits into the story would be spoiling too much. It even hard to talk about Channing Tatum, who plays Emily's white collar criminal husband newly released from jail, and whose gentle goodness Soderbergh once again brings out beautifully, but with sinister results.

Hopefully it's not unfair to reveal that Jude Law, not Mara, is the true star of the film, playing the psychiatrist she turns to when she falls into depression after her husband's return. He prescribes her the drug Ablixa for what seem like the right reasons, but it's not hard to see the factors that might lead him astray-- fancy lunch meetings with drug reps, offers of cash from pharmaceutical companies who want his seal of approval, and a wife (Vinessa Shaw) and kid who need his support. When the Ablixa causes some tragic, uh, side effects for Emily, Law's Dr. Banks seems like a well-meaning guy blindsided by a bad drug? but, again, like those shiny corporate surfaces on New York City skyscrapers, what's beneath it is a whole lot more complicated.

After stellar supporting work in Anna Karenina and Soderbergh's own Contagion, Law slips marvelously into the main role here, a would-be hero of his own story who is also, clearly, unraveling. He's well-matched by Mara, whose implacable stillness makes her seem quiet and enigmatic, until it's too late to recognize what was actually happening. The story that surrounds the two of them is more of a mixed bag. It is satisfying to watch Soderbergh tighten the screw on the audience, leading us in one direction then dropping us off a cliff, sliding in new character motivations and backstory at finely tuned moments. But where the story goes isn't necessarily as satisfying as where you thought it would, and though the film still leaves room for some pretty scathing commentary on the pharmaceutical industry, it's ultimately more about the tingling thrills than a larger social purpose. It didn't have to be Traffic, but it could have used a bit more heft to fill in the gaps.

If Soderbergh is indeed retiring, this will be his swan song in the movie theaters, and a not entirely inappropriate one-- the crisp digital cinematography, fine performances and air of cynicism about the modern world are perfectly Soderberghian. But it's more of a clean shot down the middle than one of Soderbergh's wild curveballs, like The Informant! or Magic Mike, that make him great. In the end it might be the upcoming HBO film Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic, that is the best way to Soderbergh fans to say goodbye to this iconoclastic, irreplaceable filmmaker.

Identity Thief

Shitting in a sink is a tough act to follow.

Melissa McCarthy may have logged hours on Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly, but her star broached the stratosphere the moment she soiled a posh, cream-white dressing room in Paul Feig?s irreverent Bridesmaids. That scene-stealing performance earned McCarthy two chances this year to convince audiences she?s capable of carrying oneleg of a harmless buddy comedy (the next being Feig's The Heat). So far, though, the gifted comedian?s only being asked to recycle the obnoxious, uncouth and inappropriate persona that she already milked for laughs.

If you weren?t paying attention to the credits, Identity Thief could be mistaken for the latest Todd Phillips comedy. Whether that?s an endorsement or a warning depends on your tastes.

McCarthy plays Diana, an unseemly Floridian con artist who ? in the opening scene ? dupes her mark into sharing his vital statistics (name, date of birth, credit card number) over the phone. That would be Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman) a mild-mannered Denver accountant with a gorgeous wife (Amanda Peet), two precocious kids, and a selfish boss (Jon Favreau) who is screwing him at every turn.

Sandy?s thrown a lifeline by an entrepreneurial colleague (John Cho) starting his own company. Better salary. A vice president?s title. It all sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, before Sandy can move in to the corner office, he?s told that his credit scores are in the toilet and he?s wanted in the Sunshine State for skipping a mandatory court date. His identity has been stolen.

Proper authorities would attempt to assist Patterson at this point. But because Identity Thief was plotted by Craig Mazin ? whose screenwriting credits include two Scary Movie sequels, two Hangover sequels and Superhero Movie -- we instead plunge headlong into the improbable and flail around in search of broad comedy.

Sandy convinces his employers to give him one week to lure Diana back to Denver. He cooks up an elaborate sting operation that will trick the diminutive crook into confessing her crimes. Apparently flying from Florida isn?t an option (because a deceptive identity thief like Diana supposedly doesn?t have false credentials that will get her on an airplane), so Mazin and director Seth Gordon do their best impersonation of Due Date, putting polar opposites behind the wheel for a series of ludicrous, violent and demeaning pit stops.

McCarthy and Bateman riff on variations of the established snob-and-slob personalities. Twenty years ago, this vehicle would have been shaped around Chris Farley and David Spade. The pair does find ways to make the inevitable odd-couple clich? click, though. Thief works best when its leads can dance around whatever silly situation Mazin hands them, be it a motel tryst with an amorous cowboy (Modern Family?s Eric Stonestreet) or the film?s purest blast of guilt-free comedy involving Bateman and a six-foot-long snake.

For whatever reason, though, Thief keeps slowing down to introduce new characters through subplots that ultimately add little to the mix. Comedy might be the only genre that can be done in by too much plot. Do we really need Genesis Rodriguez and hip-hop artist T.I. as gangsters looking to kill Diana because she scammed them with bogus credit cards? No. They answer to Paolo (the great Jonathan Banks), a Godfather-type mob boss who pulls strings from his prison cell in a series of scenes that likely beefed up a subplot that landed on the cutting room floor. Speaking of, that?s where Gordon should have left Robert Patrick?s contributions as Skiptracer, a bounty hunter also assigned to capturing Diana. Remove any ? or all ? of these characters from the mix and you?re left with a blessedly shorter version of basically the same movie.

Identity Thief isn?t odious. It?s just predictable. Lazy comedies cast the overweight McCarthy as the bullish deadbeat and the conservative Bateman as the buttoned-down bean counter. Gordon could have helped his film establish its own identity by having his talented leads switch characters. Make Bateman ditch his uptight comedic crutch to play a low-life criminal dirt bag. Gamble on McCarthy as the respectable female executive who?s victimized by a con. The gifted comedian has to start playing against type in big-screen comedies if she wants to be remembered as anything other than that heavy-set woman who crapped herself in a Kristen Wiig comedy.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Safe Haven

Nicholas Sparks has become such a massive force in American romantic films that it only takes a few signifiers to recognize his work. A beach setting, with marshes in the background glinting with sunlight. A couple, almost always white, either in casual resort wear or bathing suits, embracing. There's always something dark looming, be it a secret from the past or a tragedy the characters don't see coming, but the glowing smiles of the lovers overcome it-- these are movies painstakingly engineered to bring its fragile audience just to the brink of raw emotions before planting them back in the pastel-colored, soft and generous Sparksian world.

Safe Haven, the latest film to roll off the Sparks assembly line, follows every one of those instructions to the letter, though he fiddles with the formula enough here that longtime fans might be wooed. The darkness in Safe Haven comes not from some looming future tragedy but from the past, as Katie (Julianne Hough) tries to start a new life in Southport, North Carolina while her abusive husband Kevin (David Lyons) tracks her from Boston. The parallel narrative structure is unusual for a Sparks film, as we watch Katie flirt and fall for local shopkeeper Alex (Josh Duhamel, 16 years older than Hough but who's counting?) while Kevin, a detective, hunts her like a bloodhound.

The contrasting styles of a stalker thriller and a fluffy romance could lend Safe Haven some interesting wrinkles, but director Lasse Hallstrom has no idea how to play out that tension, offering pointless misdirection about Kevin's real identity and revealing clues about how he'll hunt Katie down well after the audience has noticed them. He's more comfortable with the brighter romantic scenes, thanks to experience on the likes of Dear John and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The North Carolina locations are sumptuous as ever, and Alex's two moppets (Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland) are actually cute, at least when not saddled with dialogue. Hough and Duhamel have no chemistry whatsoever, and their characters are bland and featureless as a bowl of grits, but you paid money to see them romance each other in bathing suits, and they dutifully comply.

Even though it's essentially the same as every coastal Southern town depicted in a Sparks novel, Southport and its easy way of life is surprisingly alluring, and credit to production designer Kara Lindstrom for the effectively weathered general store that Alex owns, and Katie's bungalow in the woods that's the kind of place we'd all run away to, abusive husband or not. Safe Haven's February release is obviously timed for Valentine's Day, but it works as a mental summer vacation as well-- when you get bored of watching Katie and Alex gaze at each other or the convoluted plot that keeps them apart, you can admire their summer clothes and the coastal greenery and start counting down the days until your own beach vacation.

Until, that is, the film's climax, which includes one twist you definitely saw coming-- that abusive husband wasn't going to stay away forever, now was he?-- and one you might not have, a twist so gutsy it will probably be all anyone talks about after. As it turns out, you can complain all you want about Nicholas Sparks's conflict-free stories, but when conflict is introduced it totally ruins the gauzy vacation vibe. Safe Haven doesn't have a whole lot to offer, with a plot so familiar and stars so uninterested in each other, and its resolution only undermines what it's truly best at being-- a cheap North Carolina vacation.

The Master

In his last and possibly best film, There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson dove headlong into a character who is a very specific, very important American archetype. Daniel Plainview, who was almost an instant icon, was the American Dream embodied and curdled, a salesman and sociopath who shaped the wilderness of the country in his own image. In his new film The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a uniquely American character not unlike Daniel Plainview, a man who chooses to shape people rather than nature. But the film's focus is divided between Hoffman's cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a drifter who falls under Dodd's spell. It gives the film a range of themes and some powerhouse scenes between the two, but also muddles its focus; The Master is beautiful and thought-provoking, but also frustratingly inaccessible and opaque about its meaning.

In a way that's always always been Anderson's style-- who can claim they know the deal with those frogs at the end of Magnolia?-- but The Master is a film about ideas that's also oddly disconnected from them, exploring the nascent cult Lancaster Dodd has founded without ever giving real meaning to his teachings. Hoffman plays Dodd as a fiery but uniquely entertaining man, holding his followers and the audience in rapt attention through vague speeches about achieving higher awareness and the existence of past lives. He is calm when prodding his followers to new "revelations" but quick to anger in the face of skeptics, ebullient on his daughter's wedding day but cold the next. He's mercurial but giving and endlessly confident, which is what makes him such a great leader-- and such a fascinating figure to follow and never quite understand throughout the film.

But he's nothing compared to Freddie, the film's untamable and menacing heart, a man cut loose from the all-or-nothing morals of World War II into a country that doesn't have room for him. We meet him first on a Navy beach outpost where he takes every joke too far and does insane things like drink rocket fuel; after the war he's left taking portraits at a posh department store, and who can be surprised when that blows up in his face. Like any good American origin myth, Freddie's meeting with Dodd happens entirely by accident, hopping on board a gleaming party boat that's sailing away beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. After a intense kind of psychotherapy called "processing" and some straight talk with Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams), Freddie is brought into Dodd's confidence-- and the insular, unblinking world of The Cause-- before he or we quite understand how it happened.

Despite all the talk of Dodd being a thinly veiled take on L. Ron Hubbard, nothing in The Master reflects that heavily on the real world, and for all the ways we see Freddie and Dodd straining against the confines of post-war American life, their story isn't presented in the mythic tones you might expect. The best parts of The Master are when it condenses down into tinderbox scenes between Freddie and Lancaster, the two of them probing and defying each other, sometimes exploding-- as in an unforgettable scene in a prison cell-- or gazing at each other with the kind of sadness and affection you might expect from lovers. Freddie is not like the devoted, thoughtful followers Dodd has already amassed-- he's like a feral animal, with poor impulse control and disturbing sexual obsessions, and that challenge to overcome his base nature fits neatly into Dodd's rambling teachings about connecting to a higher self.

Shot in rich, detailed 70 mm that adds unexpected depth and clarity to even the simplest scenes, The Master is gorgeous in its careful construction, but also a little distant and hard to grasp. A second viewing seems practically a requirement, like many of Anderson's films, and it's a little painful to write this review now, knowing I haven't yet gotten the whole picture. Based around undeniably great performances, impeccable design and Anderson's unnerving confidence behind the camera, The Master is unforgettable, but like the mercurial men at its center, the harder you try to read into it, the more it slips away into the distance.

Beautiful Creatures

Your Twilight alarm may be screaming at first glimpse of Beautiful Creatures, a supernatural romance between two teenagers-- one human, one immortal-- who long to be together, and express that longing in a lot of gorgeous natural locations while scored to modern pop music. And while the world of Beautiful Creatures is no less absurd than Twilight, filled with witches called "casters" and curses from the Civil War and an all-knowing Viola Davis, it possesses a crucial self-awareness to actually allow you to get in on the fun. It's not always easy to follow the rules of this new supernatural world, but by not getting caught up in the details and exploring the giggly thrill of teen romance, Beautiful Creatures is way more fun than your Twilight-weary soul might imagine.

It starts, surprisingly enough, with the two attractive young leads, both of whom commit to the high emotions of romance without forgetting that they're supposed to be, y'know, enjoying each others' company. Alden Ehrenreich slaps on a syrupy Southern accent to play Ethan Wate, a sweet-natured kid itching to escape his South Carolina hometown, but also stuck caring for his dad following his mother's death. He's drawn immediately to the new girl in town, Lena (Alice Englert), who's staying with her uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) in a run-down old mansion that everyone thinks is haunted (the connection between Macon and To Kill a Mockingbird's Boo Radley is stated early, one of many hints that Beautiful Creatures is smarter than it looks). Ethan pursues Lena not with smoldering glances but an easy smile and a willingness to look silly, and the imperious Lena eventually softens-- but not before revealing the family secrets that could keep them apart.

You see, Lena is a caster-- the terms for witch used in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's novels-- and on her approaching 16th birthday she will be "claimed" for either the dark or light side. In the chaotic group of supporting characters we see both the light side (Margo Martindale in an insane wig, mainly) and the dark (Emmy Rossum's vampy Cousin Ridley), and Lena's own dark caster mother Seraphine comes to town, possesses the body of the local Moral Majority snoop (Emma Thompson) and tries to meddle in Lena's life enough to make her dark transition a guarantee. On top of all that, there's also a curse left over from the Civil War that guarantees that Lena's love for a mortal will make her dark forever. Being 16 ain't easy, y'all.

When Thompson first appears as the schoolmarmish yokel she seems wildly out of place, but when she transforms into Seraphine with one delicious monologue delivered to Irons, she lights a rocket under the movie and delivers its purpose. Yes, all the Southern accents in this movie are awful. Yes, it's impossible to keep track of which caster is meddling with Lena in which way. Yes, there are moments where we peek into Lena's magical world and something completely nonsensical-- like a man with his entire body painted like clouds-- is presented as if we should understand it. But even when Beautiful Creatures is nonsense, it is stylish, captivating, gloriously enjoyable nonsense, with all of its performers well aware of what they're given. Director Richard LaGravanese, seemingly grateful to have assembled this kind of cast, lets his actors cut loose, but all are smart enough not to turn it into a joke. You'll find yourself believing in it all despite yourself; like the Civil War re-enactments featured in the final action scene, it all looks insane on the surface, but has a mighty power to suck you in.

Englert, with her moody eyes and powerful charisma, is an obvious star in the making, but Ehrenreich matches her not in sex appeal, but boy-next-door relatability-- the two of them alone are worth a sequel to dip back into this loony-tunes world. As a South Carolinian I think I finally understand what it's been like for Louisianans to watch True Blood all these years, seeing their culture transformed into something howling and maybe even offensive. I also can't wait to see it happen again.

Oz The Great And Powerful

In a world of sequels, reboots, remakes, re-adaptations and re-imaginings, prequels have become one of Hollywood?s hardest nuts to crack. There have been far fewer successes than notorious missteps, from George Lucas? second Star Wars trilogy to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In directing Oz The Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi was facing an uphill battle working to live up to the legacy of Victor Fleming?s classic The Wizard of Oz, but by embracing what was great about the old film while introducing plenty of new to the world, he has succeeded.

The legacy of both Disney and Oz both could have found a way to stifle Raimi?s style, but Oz The Great and Powerful is undeniably a Raimi film. The director brings all of his little flourishes that he?s had since The Evil Dead to the new blockbuster - most notably the quick-zooms that distinguish scenes of chaos ? and he?s also even able to play around with some scarier elements. The film is never any more frightening than The Wizard of Oz is, but between dragon-winged baboons, intense witches and a scene involving some freaky plant monsters, the movie will raise your pulse at times.

And credit to Raimi for actually building Oz for his actors to interact in instead of a bunch of green screens. Not only does it give the film a surreal quality, convincing the audience of its otherworldliness, it?s also a boon to the 3D cinematography, which succeeds in not making the characters look like cardboard cutouts against a matte painting. But where the CGI does come in its fantastic, particularly in the design and integration of the China Girl, who looks impressively photorealistic.

As an origin story for The Wizard of Oz, this film cleverly balances its own story while also embracing the elements that made the original great to begin with. Raimi includes many nods to Fleming?s movie, including the sepia-toned 4:3 aspect ratio opening that turns to color and widescreen in the Land of Oz, and the fact that both stories have a group of unlikely heroes joining together to go on a great adventure, but keeps the story surprising and clever enough for it all to play as loving homage. The troupe that the movie pulls together - which includes Oz (James Franco), the con-man/magician/presumed wizard destined to save the land from the wicked witch; Finley (Zach Braff), a flying monkey who owes a life-debt to Oz; and the aforementioned China Girl (Joey King), a sassy young porcelain doll who Oz rescues ? has wonderful chemistry and conflicting personalities, while the three witches Glinda, Evanora and Theodora (Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis) all get interesting new backstories that add surprising depth to previously underdeveloped characters.

Fun as Franco is in the eponymous role, it?s surprisingly his CGI co-stars that wind up stealing the show. As Finley, Braff has the benefit of getting the lion?s share of the funniest one-liners and quips, but the actor deserves the credit for his great timing and simply having the perfect voice for the part. King, meanwhile, brings the ideal level of pluck and cute humor to the China Girl without ever being cloying or reducing the character to being a stereotype.

Unlike 2011?s The Thing, Hannibal Rising or Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, Oz The Great and Powerful is the rare prequel that fans will want to rewatch back to back with the original classic, not only finding the places where the stories sync up, but also just enjoying the story of it all. It?s an entertaining family movie, a true Sam Raimi film, and a fun return to a merry old land.


The best way to watch Stoker, the new film from director Park Chan-wook, is as if you have the senses of its lead character. India Stoker, played by the brilliant Mia Wasikowska, has a special gift where she can hear and see things imperceptible to the rest of us, seeing the world for all of its smallest details and elements. Watching the movie, audiences should completely absorb themselves in it, pushing back reality to focus on every line, every cut, every pan and every sound. It?s the only way to properly view something this magnificent.

Mixing elements of the modern day, the Victorian gothic era and the mid-20th century, Stoker is a stunning mix of coming of age tale and horror/thriller that begins on India?s 18th birthday ? the day her father (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a terrible car accident. But it isn?t until the funeral that she discovers she won?t be alone in her giant house with her unbalanced mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman). It is there that she first learns of her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), family she has never knew existed. From there, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller weave a captivating and phenomenal tale of mystery and terror, as sexual and psychological tension constantly rises between the mother, daughter and uncle and India?s fascination with her estranged relative unravels not only his past, but also her future.

Every frame in Stoker feels like it was crafted with satin-gloved fingertips and a pair of tweezers held by a filmmaker in complete control. Park makes regular use of long, flowing shots that take the audience around the palatial Stoker estate, lending the film not only a feeling of elegance, but a creepy, underlying voyeurism. ?The sound design is otherworldly, as we occasionally dip into India?s perceptions and listen to the world the way she hears it, from the light breathing and shallow gulps during a quiet family dinner to the shatter of a gunshot and gurgling blood. The film creates an opulent, wonderful landscape of senses that lures you in and snaps like a bear trap when the dark undertones become extreme overtones.

Leading the cast and lending a stoic, mesmerizing quality to India, Wasikowska is a stand-out in a cast replete with awesome performances. The young actress creates an impressive balance for the character, accentuating her great strength (like when she strikes back at bullies tormenting her at school) while also making her vulnerable (particularly when in the presence of Uncle Charlie). Goode?s take on the film?s mysterious antagonist is frighteningly reminiscent of Anthony Perkins? Norman Bates in Psycho, while Kidman?s turn is blessed with subtlety that makes Evie?s instability all the more engaging. When the three gather in one room you can palpably feel the emotions between all the characters and it?s immediately clear you?re watching something special.

You won?t find any jump scares in Stoker. Nor will you find any demonically-possessed children, CGI beasts, or half-assed twist endings. The movie forgoes any stunts and tropes and instead generates genuine terror from flawless filmmaking, a collection of outstanding performances and a story of bubbling monstrosity and bad blood. If this is what Park Chan-wook can bring to the American film world, then hopefully he will stay for a very long time.

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