Central Intelligence


Black spies matter.

Black spies matter.

(2016) Spy Comedy (New Line/Universal) Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, Ryan Hansen, Tim Griffin, Timothy John Smith, Sione Kelepi, Dylan Boyack, Thomas Kretschmann, Megan Park, Slaine, Annie Kerins, Nate Richman, Robert Woo, Kumail Nanjiani, Phil Reeves, David Stassen, Rickey Eugene Brown, Kadian Clarke. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

 

When we’re in high school, we have dreams and inspirations – and sometimes nightmares. The people we become are generally not the people we thought we’d be. And as for those who we went to school with, they often turn out much different than we imagined as well.

In high school, Calvin Joyner (Hart) was the golden boy. In fact, his nickname was the Golden Jet. A star athlete, picked the most likely to succeed and going out with the head cheerleader Maggie (Nicolet). He had everything going his way. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Robert Weirdicht (Kelepi), fat and a little bit off-kilter, the target of every bully in school. During a pep rally, he’s dragged naked out of the shower and paraded in the buff in front of the entire school. Calvin, maybe the only kid in school who could stand up for him, does so, covering him with his Lettermans jacket. Weirdicht runs out of the gym and never returns to school again.

Twenty years later, Calvin is not the success he thought he’d be, even though he married his high school sweetheart and is working as an accountant which pays pretty well. His 20 year high school reunion is approaching and he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to kill the legend of the Golden Jet by showing up as a mid-level accountant.

Then he gets contacted by a gentleman named Bob Stone (Johnson) who turns out to be Robert Weirdicht. He asks Calvin if he wants to get together for a drink and although Calvin is reluctant, Maggie insists and so Calvin meets Bob, completely shocked at the way Bob turned out; nearly a foot taller than Calvin and built like a pro wrestler (see what I did there?) which is humiliating in and of itself.

As it turns out, Bob is a bit of a renegade. Okay, he literally is a renegade agent for the CIA. He is being sought after for stealing classified data and murdering his partner (Paul). Bob claims he’s been set up, while the agent in charge (Ryan) is pursuing him relentlessly. Is Bob the hero he seems to be or is he using Calvin in a fiendish plot to get revenge on a world that treated him shabbily?

Well, you should be able to figure that one out without much effort. Central Intelligence is just the latest in a string of spy comedies which feature top comic actors putting themselves through action hero paces. In many ways this is the most promising of the lot because there’s a genuine action hero in the center (Johnson) and quite frankly, he’s pretty adept at comedy as well. Right alongside him is maybe the most popular and successful comic working in 2016.

And quite frankly, these two aren’t the problem. In fact, the two of them are a good reason to go out and see Central Intelligence; their interactions are that good. They make a surprisingly strong comedy team with Hart often playing the straight man role, surprisingly enough. Johnson is outstanding, with his hero-worship and his social awkwardness and his somewhat jaw-dropping eye-popping geekiness. Johnson has oodles of charm and he brings all of it to bear on the audience, who are helpless before it. The dichotomy between him and Hart also proves to be a comedy gold mine.

Sadly, the two are serviced by a plot that is predictable and at times nonsensical. While Jason Bateman has a fairly substantial role as the school bully 20 years later, the other big cameo by Melissa McCarthy is a blink-and-you-missed-it affair. There are plenty of gun fights but very few gunshot wounds, as you might expect from a PG-13 movie.

There is a running gag about the John Hughes classic Sixteen Candles whose references might escape modern audiences (younger viewers might be well-advised to watch that movie before going out and seeing this one) that is pretty funny and constitute some of the most well-written portions of the script. Somewhere, Molly Ringwald is smiling no doubt.

Sadly, those moments are more isolated than I would have liked and the best scenes in the movie are mainly given away in the trailer. Calvin spends way too much time protesting he’s not in, whereas Bob spends too much time being oblivious. You would think that a superspy would be a little bit more savvy.

I think that the studios were hoping this would be the beginning of a franchise and by all rights it should have been. Sadly, the writers went for safe and ended up with a bland, generic comedy that is adequate for its needs but not exciting enough to stir genuine love from the audience. Definitely not a waste of your time, but not time well-spent either.

REASONS TO GO: Hart and Johnson make a fine team. The Sixteen Candles references work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The best moments are in the trailer. Not very inventive.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of crude and sexually suggestive humor, some brief nudity, plenty of action violence and a smidgen of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Warner Brothers (who owns New Line) and Universal have jointly distributed a film since 1996 (Twister).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Independence Day: Resurgence

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


Live and on location.

Live and on location.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones, Scott Takeda, Eli Goodman, Soledad O’Brien, Thomas Kretschmann, Vic Browder, Ava del Cielo. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

There is a certain glamour in war correspondence. Being close to the front lines, embedded with fighting units, hearing the bullets whine overhead, seeing the results of the carnage…it takes a certain kind of personality to love it.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a copywriter for a cable news network whose career is going nowhere. So, too is her love life as her boyfriend (Charles) is rarely home and when he is he’s not really engaged. When the opportunity to volunteer to cover the war in Afghanistan arises, she seizes at it like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver.

Once in Kabul, her perceptions change. What was a desperate move to save a floundering career and a boring life becomes a lifestyle. Aided by a crusty Marine Crops general (Thornton), a lecherous local public official (Molina) and a gentle but effective local fixer (Abbott), she begins to learn her way about the armed forces and Afghanistan. She is befriended by a blonde and beautiful rival (Robbie) and an irreverent Scottish photographer (Freeman) with whom she shares moments of terror – and drunken revelry as well.

However, modern mass media is a monster with an endless appetite and the sorts of stories that should be getting told aren’t. Kim’s frustration begins to tell, particularly as her star – once on the rise – is definitely on the wane at the network. She needs a big new story to save her and when it finally presents itself, might just end up being a little too close to home.

This is based on the memoirs of an actual war correspondent, Kim Barker (the first “R” is inexplicably left out) who worked for the print media (not cable) and whose life story only slightly resembled what appears in the film. Ah, Hollywood – but then again, nobody ever said this was a documentary anyway. It was also mostly filmed in New Mexico, standing in for Afghanistan.

There has been some controversy regarding the casting, with white actors Molina and Abbott playing Afghan roles and I can see the point. Then again, both of them do very fine work here – which is likely why they were hired. I don’t know that you necessarily have to hire the same ethnic group to play every single role – and there is more scrutiny on Hollywood’s non-white employment record as of late. I’m not insensitive to that. However, it also must be said that the PC press can take that to extremes, so let us be wary of that. There’s inclusive and there’s impractical.

Fey does some of the best work of her career. That said, she is the queen of the smug look; she is also the queen of the cabbage patch which she seems to work in to her every film (stop it, Tina…just…stop it). There are occasions when that is inappropriate in the film and you’re taken out of a serious moment and thrust into an SNL sketch. However, throughout most of the movie, we get to see a greater emotional range than we’re used to from Fey. She still hasn’t shown the kind of range that one needs to be a great dramatic actress but I think it’s within her grasp. She certainly takes a step in the right direction here.

We’ve seen the life of a war correspondent in films like The Year of Living Dangerously and I’ll be honest, in some ways this film is a bit redundant but in other ways it makes a nice companion piece. We get that it is indeed a masculine profession but there are plenty of women who do it now and seeing the experiences of one is certainly welcome and worthy.

The movie isn’t exactly action-packed although it has its moments; there are an awful lot of expository scenes and that might irritate the attention-challenged. Plus one other roadblock is that films about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have traditionally not done well at the box office (with one or two exceptions); perhaps the American public is war-weary but I think it is more that the American public really doesn’t care.

I do like the concept behind Whiskey Tango Foxtrot but I’m a little disappointed about the execution. There is plenty to recommend about it here, but the movie fails to take advantage of some of its potential by going for easy when they should go for deep. Don’t expect a movie that’s going to ultimately give you a ton of insight (when it could have) but at least it will be entertaining while it is not terribly illuminating.

REASONS TO GO: Solid dramatic performance by Fey. Nicely illustrates the allure of a war correspondent’s life.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the slow-paced side. A little bit too glib at times.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, some brutal war images, a little bit of drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fey dedicated the film to her father, who passed away during filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Forbidden Kingdom

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden


A family portrait of the Wittmers.

A family portrait of the Wittmers.

(2010) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Cate Blanchett (voice), Sebastian Koch (voice), Thomas Kretschmann (voice), Diane Kruger (voice), Connie Nielsen (voice), Josh Radnor (voice), Gustaf Skarsgärd,  Octavio Latorre, Fritz Hieber, Steve Divine, Teppy Angermeyer, Jacqueline De Roy, Gil De Roy, Jacob Lundh, Carmen Angermeyer, Daniel Fitter, Rolf Wittmer. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Late in the film, one of the interview subjects proclaims “Paradise is not a place; it’s a condition.” However, in the 1930s, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America must have seemed a paradise to Europeans who were already feeling the winds of war blowing. Full of tropical beauty and lush vegetation, it must have seemed an ideal place to get away from civilization and lead productive lives.

=Friedrich Ritter (Kretschmann) was a devoted follower of Nietzsche who had a devoted follower of his own in Dore Strauch (Blanchett). Scandalous even in Wiemar Germany, she left her husband and took up with Ritter; the two left Germany to make a life for themselves in the Galapagos, where Friedrich would be freed of the troubles and cares of civilization so he could write the philosophical treatise that he had been longing to (but had been unable to make time to) write. Of the islands, they settle on one called Floreana.

However, things don’t go the way he envisioned them. Strauch, who had multiple sclerosis, is unable to meet the physical demands of living on their own on a tropical island and Ritter, rather than being the understanding lover, seems to embrace the misogyny of his mentor and berates her constantly about her shortcomings.

Things don’t get any better when another German couple, Heinz Wittmer (Koch) and his pregnant wife Margret (Kruger) arrive having heard of Dr. Ritter’s experiment and decide to make their own homestead. The two families are somewhat antagonistic towards each other, Ritter and Strauch viewing them as interlopers while the Wittmers see the other couple as standoffish and arrogant.

However things go from bad to worse to terrible with the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner (Nielsen) from Austria who is loud, brash and sexually forward for her time. She is accompanied by Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorentz whom she identifies as her architect and partner but are in fact her lovers. She has plans to build a luxury hotel on the island but seems somewhat cash-poor. She immediately locks horns with both families who are united in their distaste of her.

The tension on the island reaches a boiling point and real fear begins to grip some of the people on the island. Then, when someone disappears off of the face of the earth, suspicion points in every direction. Who done it? And who was it done to? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This isn’t an episode of Murder, She Wrote; these events actually happened and it was something of an international scandal back in 1933. What sets this documentary apart from a recreation of events is that the filmmakers use home movies taken by the actual participants, and the words you hear spoken in the voiceovers are from the letters and journals of those who were there and witnessed it – including the victims.

That lends a distinct air of poignancy and a little bit of creepiness; we’re literally hearing voices from beyond the grave and seeing apparitions of those long dead. Particularly chilling is a short silent film made on the island starring the Baroness as a kind of pirate queen. John Garth (Radnor), a scientist on board a vessel that made regular mail stops at Floreana, helped film the one-reel film and his observations of the effect the Baroness had on the tranquility of the island is quite telling.

What doesn’t work is the plethora of modern day interviews – some of the descendents of those on Floreana including the son born to Margret Wittmer on the island who was in his 70s when interviewed as well as other residents of neighboring islands. Few of them give much more than analysis of the environment and observations of island life and quite frankly, their contributions are neither illuminating nor entertaining. The movie could have done without them.

But there are some interesting points. The ruins of the Hacienda and of the Baroness’ compound are chilling. The presence of the famous tortoises of the Galapagos not only ground the movie in location but make a nice allegory for the passing of time – some of the tortoises on the island were there when these events happened. That certainly gives one pause.

This really had a dynamite premise and all the ingredients to make a great documentary but that’s not what we got. Instead we got a movie that is a bit frustrating for we have this amazing footage, a great voice cast reading the words of the actual participants and then we break off to hear some inane commentary from someone who once had coffee with the son of someone who knew someone who was related to someone else. I would much rather this have been a much shorter film than padded out with unnecessary analysis.

WHY RENT THIS: What a fascinating subject!  Archival footage is priceless.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Modern-day talking head interviews offer more analysis than exposition and are of little value. .
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the survivors of the events on the island wrote books on the subject which were contradictory but all were consulted by the filmmakers.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage of the filmmakers during their Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $247,159 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ten Little Indians
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: They Will Have to Kill Us First

Hitman: Agent 47


Shoot first and and don't bother to ask questions later.

Shoot first and and don’t bother to ask questions later.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow, Rolf Kanies, Sebastian Hulk, Jerry Hoffman, Dan Bakkedahl, Emilio Rivera, Helena Pieske, Johannes Suhm, Angelababy, Tom Jester, Charlene Beck, Jesse Hergt, Daniel Stockhorst, Mona Pirzad. Directed by Aleksander Bach

Videogames are a multi-billion dollar business. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of gamers in the United States and around the world. Why, then, are movies based on videogames so bad and why have none been embraced by the gaming community? One theory is that gaming is an interactive medium whereas watching movies is a passive undertaking. Gamers prefer to influence their games, make decisions, determine the shape of the story. They can’t do that in a movie.

Which is horse hockey. Sure, gamers prefer an interactive medium, but that pre-supposes that gaming is the only medium they subscribe to. In fact evidence points to gamers also being readers as well as moviegoers. The reason that gamers can’t get behind movies based on games is because the studios, notorious for not understanding games or gamers, put what can only be described as a cursory (no pun intended) effort behind the film adaptations and the results are movies that aren’t just bad videogame adaptations but just bad period.

Take Hitman: Agent 47 for example. Games are by their nature cinematic and one gets the sense that Bach actually understands this; the movie is beautifully rendered, mainly lensed in Singapore (which is a city of fantastic architecture) and Berlin. The look of the movie is sleek and futuristic. There are some shots of a bikini-wearing woman slowly entering an infinity pool at the top of an exclusive Singapore hotel at dusk; cobalt blues, neon reds and greens blend to give the scene a surreal urban glow. However, this shot is also a microcosm for what’s wrong with the movie; the shot only exists for us to see Hannah Ware in a bikini. She has no reason to be swimming at that moment and it’s not germane to the plot.

The plot consists of Agent 47 (Friend), a genetically engineered assassin who is smarter, faster and stronger than the average human. He is on the hunt for Katia (Ware), a young woman who has shall we say hidden talents. What he’s really after is her father Dr. Litvenko (Hinds), who originated the Agent program. Many have tried to duplicate his work without success; one multinational corporation – known only by the obviously non-sinister nomenclature of The Syndicate, really wants an Agent. An army of them, in fact and their director, the Belgian Le Clerq (Kretschmann, a German) has sent a genetically modified assassin, John Smith (Quinto) to fetch the girl and find out what she knows. However 47, with a barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head, has his own agenda.

The story is weak and cliche and to be honest, I think that the studios really believe that the gaming community has to be pandered to rather than giving them stories that have depth and innovation. It hasn’t occurred to them that gamers are used to vast universes with complex back stories and games that not only challenge the gamer to think but require him/her to. Videogames are not all shoot-em-ups or football simulations.

This is a beautiful looking film, with lovely cityscapes and urban environments. The syndicate’s headquarters is all glass and fiberglass, with computer terminals the size of desks and cubicles that look like they were designed by the same person who does the W Hotel chain.  The film is well-lit for a change, which means that the movie isn’t murky throughout like a lot of action movies seem to be these days.

There are also some nifty action sequences with Syndicate goons going after 47 and Katia, or vice versa. Generally the movie is at it’s best when the action takes center stage. Friend is fairly limber which is necessary when making some of the moves 47 does, pirouetting and tumbling about like a demented gymnast in a suit. The choreography, while not up to some of the great Hong Kong action films, is nonetheless superior to most Hollywood action movies.

Friend goes through the movie essentially trying to play a Vulcan, which he could have gotten pointers from Quinto on. He mostly speaks in a monotone which really isn’t the way to go and from time to time I get the feel that the actor is frustrated with his role. Quinto is a good deal of fun when he’s onscreen, the reliable Hinds does what he can in a standard aging mad scientist role and Ware is pretty much wasted in a role that could have been a strong feminine heroine but isn’t.

This is like a supermodel with a lobotomy; great to look at but really nothing inside which is a shame; there’s a lot of potential in the franchise but the producers and the studio bungled it in a depressing way. The studios will probably go on thinking that the gamer market should be dumbed down to and will pour money into all the wrong things when it comes to videogame adaptations and audiences and critics alike will continue to go on thinking that the studios don’t have a clue what to do with these franchises, which is a frustrating situation for those who’d love to see some really good movies come out of these great video game franchises. Why is it that Hollywood can make great movies out of comic books but not of video games? I think that someone like Blizzard or Square Enix will have to do what Marvel did – create their own film division – before we see that happen.

REASONS TO GO: Visually impressive. Quinto is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Inane plot. Wasted potential.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Walker was set to play the title role until his untimely death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meru

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

New Releases for the Week of February 28, 2014


Non-StopNON-STOP

(Universal) Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

A Federal Air Marshal on a transatlantic flight receives a message that someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes unless a ransom demand is met. When it turns out the message is deadly serious, he has to discover who’s sending those messages – only to find out that there is something far more devious going on than a mere hostage situation.

See the trailer, clips, an interview,  a promo and footage from the premiere here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some language, sensuality and drug references)

Odd Thomas

(RLJ/Image) Anton Yelchin, Willem Dafoe, Patton Oswalt, Addison Timlin. A nondescript fry cook in a nondescript small town has a special gift – he can see dead people. When a mysterious stranger brings in an entourage of truly nasty demonic sorts, Thomas realizes that a disaster of apocalyptic proportions is upon them. From writer Dean Koontz and director Stephen Sommers who has The Mummy on his resume.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: NR

Raze

(IFC Midnight) Zoe Bell, Doug Jones, Sherilyn Fenn, Tracie Thoms. After being abducted, a woman wakes up in a concrete bunker and is forced to fight in a tournament of 50 women. If she loses or refuses to fight, her loved ones will be murdered.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Horror

Rating: NR

Repentance

(CODEBLACK) Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Mike Epps, Sanaa Lathan. A life coach with a dark past takes on a man fixated on his mother’s recent passing mainly to get some cash to bail out his brother who is deeply in debt to the wrong people. However, it turns out his new client is far more than he seems to be and his issues run far deeper.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for violence including torture and language)

Shaadi Ke Side Effects

(Bataji) Farhan Akhtar, Vidya Balan, Vir Das, Ram Kapoor. A young married couple who had a very difficult time getting their wedding pulled off finds that the most difficulty comes after the wedding.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Son of God

(20th Century Fox) Diogo Morgado, Roma Downey, Nonso Anozie, Amber Rose Revah. From the producers of the hit cable series The Bible comes this focus on Jesus of Nazareth.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG-13 (for for intense and bloody depiction of The Crucifixion and for some sequences of violence)

Stalingrad

(Sony Classics) Thomas Kretschmann, Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Bondarchuk, Maria Smolnikova. An epic retelling of the crucial battle that broke the Nazi stranglehold on Europe and eventually turned the tide of the war. Shown from a post-Soviet Russian point of view.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D

Genre: Historical War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language)

The Wind Rises

(Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short. A young Japanese dreamer sees the breathtaking work of early aviation pioneer Caproni and dreams of flying aircraft. His extreme nearsightedness prevents him from becoming a pilot but he determines to design the planes that will bring Japan into the air age. Acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki says this will be his final film and it may well be one of his best; it has been nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar for this Sunday’s ceremony.

See the trailer, a video and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Anime

Rating: NR

U-571


The crew of a WW2 sub has 99 problems and you're not one of them.

The crew of a WW2 sub has 99 problems and you’re not one of them.

(2000) War Thriller (Universal) Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, David Keith, Thomas Kretschmann, Jack Noseworthy, Tom Guiry, Will Estes, Terrence “T.C.” Carson, Erik Palladino, Dave Power, Derk Cheetwood, Matthew Settle, Rebecca Tilney, Burnell Tucker, Robin Askwith, Carsten Voigt. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

After the success of Saving Private Ryan, movies about the Second World War began to creep into the studio release schedules in the first years of the new millennium, with this film and Pearl Harbor (among others) both hoping to recapture the magic of the Steven Spielberg classic.

This time, the focus is on the submarine service of the U.S. Navy. Lt. Tyler (McConaughey) is the very competent exec of the S-33, one of the Navy’s older rustbuckets. He is chafing for his own command, but hasn’t been able to get the recommendation of his commanding officer (Bill Paxton), so he continues to be second in command as the battle in the Atlantic shipping lanes continues to go badly for the Allies. German U-Boats continue to sink allied ships at a terrifying rate and the navy is virtually powerless to break their codes.

However, that’s about to change. During a battle at sea, a U-boat is left crippled and sends a radio signal to Berlin. Allied intelligence manages to figure out what happened (don’t ask how, since they supposedly don’t know German codes) and have sent a taciturn intelligence officer, Lt. Hirsch (Weber) and a gung-ho Marine (Keith) to lead a mission to rendezvous with the crippled German sub posing as its supply vessel and steal the Enigma decoder and codebook. Along with them they bring Tyler, his respected by the men chief (Keitel) and a group of seamen to help take over the sub.

After a bloody battle, they manage to secure the German U-boat and get the decoder, when the REAL supply boat arrives and sinks the American submarine. The survivors are left aboard a vessel that’s unfamiliar and in which everything is written in a language they can’t read. To make matters worse, the U-boat is still crippled (although they manage to make some jury-rigged repairs) and is engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with a German destroyer.

Mostow manages to capture the claustrophobic feel of submarine service of the time, and the amazing stress that comes with avoiding depth charges, enemy torpedoes and the pressure of the deep. The sacrifice and bravery of the men and the coming of age of Tyler are the center of the storyline. Along the way, you get a pretty good idea of what terror a depth-charge barrage can be.

In the early years of his career McConaughey was a bit wooden more often than not but here he plays the heroic role with a certain amount of stoicism. Keitel plays the cliché gruff ole seadog pretty well, considering it’s not the kind of role he’s known for. But then nobody really expects the acting to be this film’s strong point. It’s the stomach-knotting tension that makes or breaks U-571 and there are times when this movie makes you want to leap out of your skin. However, they are unable to maintain the atmosphere consistently.

The reality of submarine service during the war, as nasty as this movie depicts it, was way more intense. If you are looking for a more realistic portrayal, try Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, which is THE best submarine movie ever done. If that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat, nothing will.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic sub battles. A good sense of tension. Keitel makes a terrific seadog.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Inconsistent. McConaughey was a bit too laid back.

FAMILY MATTERS: A pretty goodly amount of violence and some scenes of extreme tension and fear.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Enigma machine depicted here wasn’t a prop; it was an actual Enigma that was loaned to the production by a collector.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some newsreel and archived material which are used to explain what inspired the making of the film. The Blu-Ray version makes this available in the U-Control Picture-in-Picture function.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.7M on a $62M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thor: The Dark World