The Conjuring 2 (The Enfield Poltergeist)


There's nothing worse than getting caught by a nun.

There’s nothing worse than getting caught by a nun.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Bob Adrian, Robin Atkin Downes (voice), Bonnie Aarons, Javier Botet, Steve Coulter, Abhi Sinha, Chris Royds, Sterling Jerins. Directed by James Wan

 

Horror franchises have a way of decreasing in quality the farther along you go. They also have a tendency to repeat themselves. This sequel to a movie based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, has all the makings of a good franchise. Will it fall prey to some of the sins of the sequels?

In a house in the small town of Amityville, New York, Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) and her husband Ed (Wilson) are conducting a séance to investigating the haunting of the Lutz residence. She sees a small boy while in a psychic trance and follows him into a basement. There she encounters a demonic nun and has a vision of Ed’s death.

She is understandably shaken and convinces Ed to take a break from taking on new investigations. In the meantime the Amityville Horror comes out and Ed and Lorraine become famous…or more accurately, infamous as they are accused of perpetrating a hoax. Ed is beginning to get a little bit frustrated that he can’t really defend himself (and his wife) against these charges since so much of what they’ve seen is anecdotal and go against established science.

Across the Atlantic, single mom Peggy Hodgson (O’Connor) is barely making ends meet with her four children who are being bullied in their local school in Enfield, a suburb of London. Her daughter Janet (Wolfe) soon begins hearing and seeing things, mostly revolving around a recliner left behind by the previous tenant, Bill Wilkins (Adrian). Soon, furniture is flying around on its own, witnessed by a pair of incredulous Bobbies, and parapsychologists and the clergy become involved.

The Roman Catholic Church has been contacted to see if an exorcism is in order. They want to send Ed Warren to make that determination. Lorraine is reluctant, particularly after having another vision of the evil nun in her own home, but Ed points out that this is a single mother with four children who have nowhere to turn to. Lorraine knows that her husband is right.

The goings on in the house are increasing in degree and malevolence and the family is essentially sleeping across the street at a neighbor’s home, but when an apparition known as the Crooked Man (Botet) makes an appearance over there, it becomes clear that Janet is the focal point of the hauntings, so Peggy and Janet return to their home to sleep, with the Warrens and their team also hunkering down in the haunted dwelling.

Soon Lorraine begins to realize that it isn’t just Bill Wilkins haunting this house; there’s something else behind it, something far more evil and far more ancient. She also begins to realize that the target of the haunting may not be the Hodgson family after all.

James Wan may be the pre-eminent genre director working today. He has initiated no less than three franchises now, and considering the two Conjuring films have set horror film opening weekend box office records, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more genre work on the way for the director. Here again he sets a nice, creepy tone and uses set design to his advantage; there are always plenty of shadows for gruesome things to leap out of.

The trouble is, that he seems to be relying more and more on what are called jump scares, which are aided by loud noises and tend to be things that, ahem, leap out of the shadows. They are the cheapest of all horror movie scares and the hoariest of tropes; either way they’re well beneath Wan who in the first film came by his scares honestly.

Not so much here. I can applaud Wan for setting up a big bad that might well power through the rest of the franchise, but it seems that the producers want to create  as many spin-offs as they possibly can. There’s already one for Annabelle in the can and one on the way and the nun from this movie has reportedly received the green light for a feature of her own. I’m looking forward to finding out more about her because we don’t get a whole lot of information about the character here.

At the center of this movie is the relationship between Ed and Lorraine and the love that is there. Farmiga and Wilson are so adept at creating an affectionate environment between the two characters that it’s hard to believe they’re not married in real life. There’s a scene in which to lighten things up Ed grabs a guitar and does a credible Elvis impression (and yes, that’s actually Patrick Wilson singing) of the King’s classic “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” While ostensibly to calm down the Hodgson family, it is also a message to his wife – and she receives it loud and clear.

Not quite to the level of the first film which is in my opinion a new horror classic, this is nonetheless a satisfying sequel that won’t disappoint fans of the first film – or fans of the horror genre in general. While I wish Wan would have spent a little time on earning our fright rather than going the route of the cheap jump scares, there is enough here to make your skin crawl in a good way that I can give it an enthusiastic recommendation to all.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Ed and Lorraine is at the center of the film.
REASONS TO STAY: An excess of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terror and horror violence, disturbing images and some strong language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director James Wan turned down what he termed a “life-altering” amount of money to direct Fast 8 in order to return to his horror roots.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Violent Prosecutor

The Conjuring


Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Morganna Bridgers, Zach Pappas, Amy Tipton, Joseph Bishara, Ashley White, Rose Bechtel, Desi Domo. Directed by James Wan

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we know, things we can guess at and things we don’t have a clue about. If the sum total of all that can be known is represented by a volume of War and Peace the collective human knowledge to this point would fit in the first letter on the front cover of the book. Things we don’t know much about – the paranormal – we tend to disbelieve. If it can’t be proven scientifically, the rationale goes, then it isn’t real. Poppycock. Balderdash! All that it means is that we don’t have the wherewithal to prove it at the moment. Our scientific understanding of the paranormal hasn’t reached a point where we can do much more than rule out the mundane. The fact of the matter is, there have been plenty of phenomena captured either anecdotally or on video and for us to say that there’s no such thing as the paranormal is a bit arrogant at best.

One of the first paranormal investigative teams were the Warrens, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga). Lorraine, a clairvoyant and Ed, who tends to be the more pragmatic of the pair, make a pretty good team. They tell people going in that nearly all of the cases they consult on end up having a non-spiritual explanation. There are the few though that do – and often those cases involve some kind of entity. Something malevolent. Something not human.

The Perron family, on the other hand, are salt of the earth sorts. They’ve just moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse that has enough room for the seven of them – trucker husband Roger (Livingston), his wife Carol (Taylor) and daughters Nancy (McFarland), Christine (King), Cindy (Foy), April (Deaver) and Andrea (Caswell). However, it soon becomes evident that the family isn’t the only tenant of the farmhouse. Things are going bump in the night (more like BANG!), there are disembodied voices of children, things are misplaced and moved at random and the dog refuses to go inside the house. As Roger is frequently away for work Carol is left to protect her daughters and she is beginning to suspect that is something she’ll be unable to do. Desperate, she contacts the Warrens.

At first Ed isn’t very enthusiastic about taking on a new case. In a recent case, Lorraine was endangered and ended up suffering injury and he is very concerned for her well-being. However, even he can’t deny that the Perron family is in grave danger and he and Lorraine just can’t turn their backs on them.

Their investigation leads them to the conclusion that this is not explainable by conventional means; there is a malevolent spirit in the house, that of an accused witch named Bathsheba Sherman who had died by her own hand in the house centuries before. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers in her domicile and she means to get them out by any means necessary.

This is the movie that spun off the recent hit Annabelle and the doll figures in the action in a pre-credits sequence and then later on near the climax of the film. However, she definitely takes a back seat in the movie to the Warrens themselves (although she decidedly makes an impression). Wilson, who has worked with Wan in the Insidious movies is excellent here – Wan seems to bring out the best in him. His chemistry with Farmiga is wonderful; they are completely believable as a married couple. In fact, both married couples have good chemistry. The casting in this movie is impeccable.

Let’s be frank; this movie is as scary as any that has come out in the last few years, maybe the scariest. Wan does this wonderfully, establishing the ordinary and building slowly to the terrifying. He does it in a very matter-of-fact way without resorting to a lot of CGI (most of the effects here are practical). A children’s game of hide and clap turns into something menacing as phantom arms come out of an armoire or a basement to lead players astray. All of this leads to one of the best climaxes in a horror movie that I’ve seen in ages.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, this should be a priority especially during the Halloween season. With a spin-off already under its belt and a sequel on the way, the success of the movie financially is equaled by its success cinematically. While critics tend to give short shrift to horror movies in general, this is the sort of ride that fans tend to love – and make converts out of non-fans. You can add this to your list of horror classics, folks.

WHY RENT THIS: Scary as all get out. Great chemistry between Wilson and Farmiga as well as with Livingston and Taylor. Sets up ordinary and builds nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A raft of 70s-set horror films lately.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of disturbing violence and scenes of intense terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is the third-highest box office opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, behind only Paranormal Activity 3 and Hannibal.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes both on the real life Warrens and the real life Perrons. The surviving Perrons and Lorraine Warren are all interviewed for the disc.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $318M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Five!

Code Name: The Cleaner


Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

(2007) Action Comedy (New Line) Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu, Nicolette Sheridan, Mark Dacascos, Will Patton, Callum Keith Rennie, Niecy Nash, DeRay Davis, Kevin McNulty, Robert Clarke, Bart Anderson, Tom Butler, Beau Davis, Rick Tae, Kurt Max Runte, David Lewis, Gina Holden, Doug Chapman, Jacquie Steuart, Joanne Pesusich. Directed by Les Mayfield

I like a good spy movie as much as the next guy, maybe even more. Sometimes, you want something that isn’t James Bond, but the truth of the matter is that few spy films that are action-oriented can live up to the Bond series. Does this one?

Jake (Cedric the Entertainer) wakes up in a plush hotel room and from that moment nothing seems right. It’s a nice hotel room and all and there’s a briefcase stuffed full of cash in the room but things are off. For one thing, he can’t remember how he got there. In fact, he can’t even remember his own name. To make matters worse, he can’t remember what that dead body is doing next to him in the bed. He needs time to think, so he runs out, taking the briefcase full of money out with him. Unfortunately, he is seen leaving the scene of a homicide, and as if things weren’t bad enough, the dead body is in fact an FBI agent.

As he scurries out of the hotel lobby, he is intercepted by a beautiful blonde calling herself Diane (Sheridan) who claims she is his wife. She smuggles Jake out of the hotel one step ahead of the police and drives him to a gorgeous estate, which she tells him he owns. He is met there by an obsequious butler (Clarke) and a sinister doctor (McNulty). Jake, not quite believing any of this, overhears a conversation between the doctor and his “wife” explaining the need for the truth and that a high dose of sodium pentothal should do the trick. Unfortunately, it might also give Jake cardiac arrest. While Diane is fine with this, Jake is not and he escapes out the window.

Some of Jake’s memories are beginning to return, and he seems to be in the military. He believes himself to be a spy, and he disguises himself as a Dutch folk dancer (don’t ask) to sneak back into the hotel and retrieve an item he’d left in their property check room, which turns out to be an electronic pass into a high tech corporation called Digital Arts. Jake goes to a diner across the street from their headquarters and meets Gina (Liu), a waitress who tells him she’s his girlfriend.

She takes him to her place to see if it’ll jog any memories, but the memories that are coming back are disturbing. Something is definitely smelling bad at Digital Arts and it isn’t the game developers after a marathon code writing session. This could only be a job for The Cleaner.

Cedric the Entertainer can be considered a poor man’s Martin Lawrence, but that’s not accurate since these days, Martin Lawrence is a poor man’s Martin Lawrence. He’s full of shtick but for whatever reason he has enough charm to pull it off. I’ve always liked Lucy Liu, but she just has the most atrocious taste in scripts. For every Kill Bill that she does, there are far more Charlie’s Angels. Mark Dacascos, a terrific martial artist who was so good in Brotherhood of the Wolf is wasted here, getting to use his considerable skills in only one badly choreographed scene. I’d love to see him get some of the stuff that is offered to Jason Statham.

There is a little bit of charm here in what is ultimately highly disposable entertainment. The movie gets by on the charm of Cedric and Liu, and having Nicolette Sheridan strip down to her bra and panties doesn’t hurt either.

The story is very cliché – the plot is lifted whole cloth essentially from Total Recall  – and the action sequences are pretty pedestrian. The budget wasn’t high enough to permit spectacular visuals, so the filmmakers had to get by on a few fight scenes. The Dutch Riverdance sequence is excruciatingly painful, but most of the jokes merely fall flat.

This is a comedy that isn’t funny and an action movie without any real exciting action sequences, so you do the math. I caught this on late night cable and it made nice insomniac viewing, but for the most part this is disposable entertainment that is more disposable than entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Cedric and Liu are charming. Sheridan is beautiful in her lingerie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks laughs and the action sequences are dull. Story is predictable and payoff doesn’t pay.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a good deal of sexual innuendo. There’s some violence but not enough to satisfy the more extreme crowd.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ecks vs. Sever
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Stop/Loss

Tammy


Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

Susan Sarandon tries to give Melissa McCarthy some career advice.

(2014) Comedy (New Line) Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd, Sandra Oh, Ben Falcone, Sarah Baker, Rich Williams, Steve Little, Dakota Lee, Mark L. Young, Mia Rose Frampton, Steve Mallory, Keith Welborn, Oscar Gale, Justin Smith, Barbara Weetman. Directed by Ben Falcone

Sometimes we manage to become people we never intended ourselves to be. Through circumstances that are sometimes entirely out of our control – but not always – we find ourselves being the very people we swore we’d never be. Generally that revelation is accompanied by bitterness and self-loathing.

Tammy (McCarthy) has it in her to be happy but it doesn’t look like she is. She does seem self-possessed on the exterior – belting out renditions of the Outfield’s “Your Love” in her car. Not a cappella and not on the car stereo but from an ancient boombox which may or may not be older than the Toyota Corolla she’s driving. After an unsettling encounter with a deer, her car which was already only a hair or two away from breathing its last gives up the ghost.

Not only that but the deer encounter makes her late for work, which her prissy boss Keith (Falcone) uses as an excuse to fire her. Tammy’s reaction to the news is how you might expect – she’s not the sort to take that kind of thing lying down. Having to walk home essentially she returns home early to find out that her lackadaisical husband Greg (Faxon) is having an affair with a comely neighbor (Collette).

Convinced that she needs to get out of town or go crazy, Tammy heads over to her mom’s (Janney) house. However, her mom won’t lend Tammy her car, nor front her some cash so she can go walkabout. However, her grandmother Pearl (Sarandon) has a Caddy and seven grand that says road trip to Niagara Falls  which Pearl has always wanted to visit.

 

On the surface, this seems like a very bad idea. Tammy is mulish and a wreck – it’s not hard to figure out why her husband would cheat as she has taken zero care of herself and can’t be easy to live with. Worse yet, it turns out grandma is an alcoholic and a bit of a nymphomaniac, getting it on with a Louisville rancher (Cole) while Tammy is forced to sleep outside the hotel room. Only Bobby (Duplass), the sweet son of the rancher who treats Tammy decently – the first man to do so in ages – makes it anything more than excruciating.

The two women’s shenanigans cause them to blow through their cash faster than expected forcing Tammy to take some desperate measures that lead the two of them to go on the lam over at the beautiful home of Tammy’s cousin Lenore (Bates). Lenore, a lesbian who owns a chain of pet food stores and whose partner (Oh) is as sweet as pie, is a no-nonsense sort who sees what’s really going on. When Pearl and Tammy’s problems lead to a painful moment at a Fourth of July party at Lenore’s place, it becomes obvious that Tammy needs to make some changes if she’s ever going to be truly happy. The question is, is it obvious to Tammy?

McCarthy has become a star comedic actress with not only her TV success on Mike & Molly but also a string of hit movies to her credit. She co-wrote this with her husband Falcone who also directed the movie; you’d think it would be an absolute slam dunk.

Sadly, it’s not and it isn’t due to McCarthy the actress who actually does a pretty fine job in a role that is pretty similar to the ones she’s played in the past three movies; foul-mouthed, gross, obnoxious and highly sexual. The trouble is that the role isn’t given depth so much as it’s given mannerisms and the blame lies with McCarthy the writer.

McCarthy the actress isn’t alone in this issue either. None of the characters here are particularly well drawn out,  mostly given a trait and essentially left to flounder with a script conspicuously short on jokes. I get the sense the writers weren’t sure if they wanted a comedy or a heartwarming buddy movie and ended up with neither.

Reading that back, it sounds a little bit harsh and if I’m gonna be honest, there are some laughs here (some of which may be found in the trailer) and if I had to recommend the movie, I could do so grudgingly; McCarthy is an engaging enough actress that she can provide life to any movie no matter how terrible. This isn’t the funniest summer comedy ever but at least it’s better than last year’s truly awful Grown-Ups 2 – now there’s a franchise which could use McCarthy’s talents. In any case, fans of the actress probably will end up liking the movie anyway; she basically has this kind of role down pat enough that she could do it in her sleep. Those who want better from her however will have to wait for the next one.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Sarandon battle gamely through subpar material. Bates does her usual impressive job in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks real humor. Could have used some depth in the characters who mainly end up as caricatures.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon is only 24 years older than McCarthy, who plays her granddaughter. In addition, Janney – who plays Tammy’s mother and Pearl’s daughter – is 13 years younger than Sarandon and 11 years older than McCarthy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thelma and Louise

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Begin Again

The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


A merry company indeed.

A merry company indeed.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey but that isn’t always true. Sometimes the journey really begins when the destination is reached.

For the company of dwarves under Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) that couldn’t be more true. After the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they must travel through the Mirkwood, a once-green and pleasant forest grown dark with corruption. There be spiders in them words, big ones the size of Volkswagens. There are also wood elves, led by the dour King Thranduil (Pace) who isn’t exactly on Thorin’s Christmas list – when Erebor originally fell, Thranduil failed to aid the dwarves in their hour of need, turning his thin aristocratic back on them. Thranduil’s isolationism mirrors that of America and Great Britain (for that matter) in the pre-World War II days when the original book was written and reminds us that Tolkein wasn’t just writing a children’s story – there was plenty of allegory to go around too.  Among the wood elves is a familiar face – Legolas (Bloom) who happens to be Thranduil’s son. Also there is Tauriel (Lilly), an elf Legolas is a bit sweet on. She also is the object of attention for Kili (Turner), one of the dwarf company.

Also on their tails are a party of Orcs led by the gruesome Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who appears to be answering to a mysterious Necromancer (Cumberbatch). Gandalf (McKellen), fearing the worst, goes to Dol Guldur accompanied by fellow wizard Radagast (McCoy) to investigate and gets more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile the company has made their escape from the elves with Tauriel and Legolas hot on their trails and make it to the human village of Laketown where they receive aid from Bard (Evans), a ferry captain who is dissatisfied from the corrupt regime of Laketown’s master (Fry). Still, Thorin manages to convince the Master that a dwarven presence in Erebor will only mean prosperity for Laketown. They are sent on their way with weapons and provisions leaving behind Kili who is gravely hurt after an Orc attack.

Once at the Lonely Mountain, the company will need to find the hidden doorway into Erebor and Bilbo (Freeman) will have to search for the Arkenstone, a powerful talisman and symbol of the right of the King Under the Mountain to rule Erebor without waking Smaug (Cumberbatch again) which is beastly difficult when you consider how much a dragon loves his treasure. Can Bilbo retrieve the jewel before Smaug becomes fire…and death?

To tell the truth I was more impressed with the visuals of the first movie than the overall film which I thought was more exposition than action. I’m pleased to report that’s thankfully not the case here where the film moves at a more suitable pace for fans of the original trilogy. There’s also more of Middle Earth to be explored (we’d already been in Rivendell and the Shire where the first film was primarily set) and a lot more action sequences.

Freeman remains a pitch-perfect Bilbo although he’s given less to do here. While Thorin and Balin (Stott) remain the primary focus within the dwarves, Kili gets a lot more attention here while we get to spend a goodly amount of time with new characters Tauriel, Bard and Thranduil although returning Legolas gets his share of screen time as well.

Once again the visuals are remarkable, particularly in the IMAX 3D High Frame Rate presentation, which is one of those rare instances where the upcharge is worth it. Of special note is Smaug, who is done through motion capture but the detail to his look is so exquisite you can see the individual scales as his muscles ripple under his skin. This may well be the most life-like CGI creature ever captured on the big screen.

Some Tolkein purists are grousing about the character of Tauriel who is a whole cloth invention of the filmmakers but I for one appreciate the inclusion of a female character in a book that was distinctly male-centric. Personally I don’t get that kind of complaint. It’s not like it’s headline news that the film version of a classic book is going to be different. That the movie version is different does nothing to diminish the original source material. You can still read it; it’s not like once the movie shows up in the local multiplex all the copies of the book are confiscated and burned. If you don’t like the movie version, don’t watch it. It’s really that simple.

This is definitely fine holiday entertainment. Jackson’s Middle Earth films may not have the same appeal as they once did but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. This is a great improvement over the first movie of the new trilogy; if the second film makes the same kind of improvement we’re in for a crackerjack of a time in 2014.

REASONS TO GO: A distinct improvement over the first film in the trilogy. Smaug is an amazing creation.

REASONS TO STAY: Still lacks the heart of the first trilogy. Cliffhanger ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some seriously frightening images and plenty of fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tauriel is a complete invention of the filmmakers and doesn’t appear in any of Tolkein’s writing. She was brought in to add female characters into the film as the book has very few of them.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring

RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part III

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas


Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

Neil. Patrick. Harris. Is. God.

(1988) Comedy (New Line) John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Danneel Harris, Tom Lennon, Danny Trejo, Elias Koteas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Neil Patrick Harris, Amir Blumenfeld, David Krumholtz, Patton Oswalt, RZA, Richard Riehle, Jake Johnson, Melissa Ordway. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family. For bonding with those friends who have been beside you the entire year. To have kindness and concern for others, to have peace and compassion on your mind.

This movie is about none of those things. Our heroes, following the events of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay have drifted apart. Kumar Patel (Penn) has left medical school after failing the drug test and lives in the same ratty apartment he once shared with Harold Lee (Cho), who has become a big-time Wall Street investor (and has protestors ringing his office). He is married to Maria (Garces) whom he is trying to get pregnant in order to impress his father-in-law (Trejo) who doesn’t impress easily.

Kumar has been dumped by Vanessa (Harris) who is pregnant with his rugrat. He’s also scored an impressive stash from a mall Santa (Oswalt) which he intends to spend Christmas smoking himself into sweet spliff oblivion. But he receives a package that is meant for Harold and decides to deliver it in person to his former best bud.

Harold though has problems of his own. His home has been invaded by his future family (who arrived by the busload) and his dad-in-law wants this Christmas to be perfect. To that end he’s brought a 12-foot Douglas Fir that he has spent the last eight years raising, making sure that the dimensions were just right, that the branches opened up just so. Once decorated, it is indeed a magnificent tree.

As he and his family go to celebrate Mass, Kumar comes by with the package which turns out to be a gigantic joint. As Harold no longer partakes, he tosses the massive thing out the door. Kumar, irritated, decides to light it up for himself but somehow, almost by magic, the joint floats back into the house and lights the tree on fire.

Harold is mortified. He has only a few hours to replace the tree and potentially save his marriage. Kumar, feeling a little guilty, decides to help out along with his friend Adrian (Blumenfeld) and Harold’s friend Todd (Lennon) and Todd’s toddler. In the course of the night, they will deal with Ukrainian mobsters, ghetto tree lot entrepreneurs, a coked-out infant, emergency surgery on the real Santa after they accidentally shoot him, and appearing in the chorus line of a Broadway musical starring Neil Patrick Harris which is a bit disconcerting to our intrepid heroes since he was killed in the last movie. Listen, he’s N.P. Freakin’ H, motherf****r so don’t be hatin’.

It’s been said in other places by finer writers than I that Harold and Kumar are essentially the Cheech and Chong for the 21st century. That’s cool by me; not being a stoner I don’t really get the humor as much but then there’s room for all sorts of movies and who am I to deny the Stoner Nation their due. I’ve seen the first and now this, the third, movie in the franchise and in all honesty, the first is a much better movie than this (to the surprise of no one). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s worthwhile moments however.

This is no Christmas movie for the entire family to gather around the flat screen for. There is a lot of sexual humor, some of it quite crude as well as plenty of nudity and drug use. While some will laugh out loud at some of the pretty consistently lowbrow humor (it wouldn’t hurt to fire one up before you fire up the Blu-Ray), I don’t think even those toasted out of their skulls are going to find this a laugh fest from start to finish.

I will say that Cho and Penn have an easy-going chemistry and I think it was a bit of a mistake to have them on the outs for most of the movie. Part of the charm of the first movie was the relationship between the two and that’s largely missing here until the end. However, one cannot discount the contributions of Neil Patrick Harris. Even though he’s essentially in one scene, it’s the best scene and illustrates why the man’s an icon, a credit to the human race and just a gosh-darned all around nice guy. While he’s no Dr. Horrible here, he constitutes one of the main reasons to see the film – or any film for that matter. Even if he’s not in it.

The 3D is pretty nifty although I suppose at this point it will largely depend on if your 3D set is nifty as well – I’ve found a pretty staggering range of quality in 3D televisions. The jokes are more or less uneven although I found some sequences (as one where they start hallucinating that they are Claymation figures) to be pretty worthwhile. This isn’t a family holiday movie by any stretch of the imagination – but I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing if there are a few out there that aren’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Three words: Neil. Patrick. Harris. Also, Cho and Penn still have good chemistry. Some nifty 3D effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is a bit tired and not all of it works.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of sexual content with occasional nudity and regular crudity, plenty of drug use, a boatload of foul language and a bit of violence. Just a bit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian calls Harold “Sulu” at one point. John Cho plays Sulu in the Star Trek reboot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Actor Tom Lennon rants about his fellow actors and the films in six separate interview segments and there’s also a bit on the brief Claymation sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.4M on a $19M production budget; the numbers were disappointing enough that a fourth Harold & Kumar movie isn’t on the radar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Holly & the Quill concludes!