“The Kings of Summer” review: a sweet but forgettable teen comedy

You have to wonder what a filmmaker like Wes Anderson would have done with “The Kings of Summer.” A likeable but disposable coming-of-age comedy that was one of the buzzed-about hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the indie movie follows three outcast Ohio teens as they decide to escape society and live out in the woods in a ramshackle house they built themselves. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts, “The Kings of Summer” boasts some of the deadpan melancholy one associates with Anderson’s best work, but it doesn’t have quite the same bite or insight. It’s quirky, but not in any way that’s really memorable.

Nick Robinson plays Joe, the leader of this geeky trio. Raging with hormones and uncomfortable around his newly-widowed father (Nick Offerman, slightly less ornery than on “Parks & Recreation”), Joe has decided that he needs a break, figuring that some time in the wilderness will clear his head. Joining him on this adventure is his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and a deeply odd guy named Biaggio (Moises Arias) whose short stature and quietly strange disposition make him almost more of a mascot than a companion.

Working from a script by first-timer Chris Galletta, Vogt-Roberts has set out to craft a comedy about the seemingly endless freedom of summer during your youth, spiking the jokes with a determinedly off-kilter tone that values improvisational bits and throwaway gags. (The cast also includes Alison Brie, Tony Hale and Megan Mullally.) “The Kings of Summer” is a salute to the warm-weather months, but Vogt-Roberts wants to undercut the nostalgia a bit, allowing for an emotional undercurrent to run underneath the laughs without permitting the proceedings to get too goopy.

Unfortunately, despite some distinctive camerawork that makes the boys’ adventure feel almost like a dream, “The Kings of Summer” remains frustratingly conventional. Predictably, their imagined Eden is ruined by the presence of a potential romantic interest. Erin Moriarty plays Kelly, Joe’s true love who starts to take a shine to Patrick, causing the sort of complications one would expect. But the problem comes from the utter ordinariness of these three. With the exception of the increasingly bizarre Biaggio, the movie’s central characters are mostly sweet, dull sorts: They’re all nice enough, but the filmmakers haven’t dug deeply enough to make any of them particularly compelling. It’s a soft, safe movie in which even the kids’ parents aren’t really that bad, just mildly annoying, which makes Joe and Patrick’s desire for independence not all that urgent.

There’s an argument to be made that a lackadaisical teen comedy like “The Kings of Summer” is a modest rebuke to the over-amped shenanigans of button-pushing peers like “Project X” and “21 & Over.” (And to be fair, it’s also probably a more “realistic” portrait of young love than Anderson’s finely tuned eccentricity in “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Rushmore.”) But as the film pleasantly ambles along, you may wish it had more shock value or wit. It’s an underdog tale that never really asserts itself.

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“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review: J.J. Abrams’ sequel sets phasers to familiar

J.J. Abrams accomplished what many thought impossible with his 2009 reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise that simultaneously recast the main characters and created a fresh start for future films, so there’s been no shortage of interest in what he’d do for an encore with “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

While hardcore fans and armchair Trekkies alike speculated about the plot and potential cast of characters in the second installment of the rebooted franchise, the real question at the heart of it all boiled down to this: Would the new “Star Trek” follow the course laid out by the previous franchise, or would the crew of the USS Enterprise boldly go where their predecessors had never gone before?

If “Into Darkness” is any indication, the answer is mostly the former, with a little bit of the latter to keep things interesting.

Without revealing too many of the film’s surprises, “Star Trek Into Darkness” finds James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) booted out of the captain’s chair by Starfleet after a routine exploratory expedition takes a bad turn. His demotion doesn’t last long, though, and he soon finds himself commanding the crew of the Enterprise with Spock (Zachary Quinto) at his side, in pursuit of a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison’s one-man mission to destroy Starfleet takes the crew of the Enterprise and their quarry across the far reaches of space and into Klingon territory, and sheds light on some dark secrets that could bring the universe to the brink of war.

In some ways, “Into Darkness” is an improvement on its predecessor, taking the outer-space action and ambitious effects sequences of “Star Trek” to the next level and upping the visual ante. The spaceship battles are more intense, the stunts are more fantastic, and even the villain gets an upgrade with Sherlock star Cumberbatch.

Eric Bana’s villainous Romulan miner Nero served as a nice foil for Kirk and the Enterprise crew in the previous film, but his character never managed to stand out from the events unfolding around him. The opposite is true for Cumberbatch’s turn as Harrison, who commands your attention every moment he’s on the screen and also provides a nice distraction from some of the flaws in the film. In fact, the “Sherlock” actor is such a powerful presence in the film that it does him a disservice when his character’s true identity – a classic character from the original television series – is finally revealed.

Rather than letting the audience sit back and enjoy the fascinating character that Cumberbatch is crafting, the film’s big “surprise” removes any uncertainty regarding his motives and what his future holds. It’s all too bad, really, because in the run-up to the big reveal, Cumberbatch manages to give the rebooted “Star Trek” universe an original, memorable villain that differentiates it from everything that came before – much like The Borg did for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In tying this particular character’s identity to the past, “Into Darkness” misses a great opportunity to give the rebooted franchise its own identity.

As for the returning cast, the entire crew of the Enterprise gets a bit more time to establish themselves in their roles, and it serves each of them well – particularly when it comes to Kirk and Spock and their relationship. While Simon Pegg is a bit underused as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, we do get a bit more time with Karl Urban’s version of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who hams it up with his trademark metaphors and curmudgeonly spin on the events transpiring around him. Where the first film went a long way toward selling audiences on the new cast, “Into Darkness” finds the actors settling into their roles a bit more comfortably – particularly John Cho (as Sulu), who continues to be one of the standouts in the new-generation “Star Trek” cast.

As a science-fiction adventure for summer-movie audiences, “Into Darkness” does a nice job of providing all the excitement and explosive moments one expects from a blockbuster of this sort, but it might try a little too hard to hit the obligatory beats for fans of the franchise. At times, the amount of catchphrases and call-outs to the past becomes a bit distracting, with each famous line inviting comparison to the previous actor’s delivery and tugging you out of the moment.

“Into Darkness” also suffers some technical issues that could be worth considering when you decide which version of the film to see. While the IMAX format serves the scope of the story well, the 3-D treatment creates a lot of blur whenever the camera pans over a detailed environment. This is especially frustrating during some of the action scenes set against lush backgrounds, as there’s a real sense that the setting would make the sequence even more epic if it wasn’t so blurred. If you’ve had problems with films presented in IMAX 3D in the past, “Into Darkness” will probably offer more of the same.

Still, despite its technical issues and some missed opportunities, “Star Trek Into Darkness” manages to deliver as an effects-fueled summer blockbuster that both advances the new franchise and tells a wildly entertaining story. Most importantly, it leaves fans looking forward to exploring more strange new worlds, new life forms, and new civilizations with the crew of the USS Enterprise.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” hits theaters May 17, and stars Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Zoe Saldana, among others. The film is directed by J.J. Abrams.

“Iron Man 3” review: Shane Black gives Marvel’s armored Avenger an upgrade

Historically, the third chapter of superhero movie franchises tends to be a disappointment. “Superman III” was too goofy, “Spider-Man 3” was too crowded, and “Batman Forever” was too, well… Bat-nipply. Heck, even “The Dark Knight Rises” had a fair share of detractors.

And now “Iron Man 3” comes along and destroys our expectations with a high-powered repulsor blast.

Co-written and directed by franchise newcomer Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), “Iron Man 3” picks up an unspecified time after the events of “The Avengers,” with billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) burying himself in his work in order to cope with everything that’s happened since the first “Iron Man.” It doesn’t take long for a new threat to emerge – this time in the form of The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley), an international terrorist with a vendetta against the U.S. government. Drawn into The Mandarin’s world after a series of attacks that take a personal toll, Tony soon finds himself facing an enemy that may be more than his armor can handle.

As a writer and director, Black has always shown a knack for blending intense action with clever comedy in films like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (his directorial debut) and his scripts for “The Last Boy Scout” and “Lethal Weapon.” Still, there was some uncertainty whether he was the right choice for a big-budget blockbuster like “Iron Man 3” when it was first announced that he’d be taking over the franchise from previous director Jon Favreau.

Fortunately, Black seems right at home in this corner of the Marvel movie-verse, and his involvement likely has a lot to do with “Iron Man 3” offering the most entertaining version of Tony Stark that we’ve seen so far.

Where Downey seemed to have something to prove in the first “Iron Man,” then go darker than he was comfortable with in “Iron Man 2,” the third film gives us a significantly more clever, genuine Tony Stark who makes it clear why he’s more than just a man in a suit of high-tech armor. Whether it’s his level of comfort with the script or the person behind the camera, Downey packs a lot into each scene without any of it feeling too rushed, too ad-libbed, or too tonally incongruent with the rest of the franchise or the Marvel movie-verse.

Possibly the greatest evidence of this new-and-improved Tony Stark is how much time Downey spends out of the Iron Man armor over the course of the film – and how these scenes not only make perfect sense for the story, but are just as entertaining (if not more so) than the armored action sequences.

Without giving anything away, Marvel deserves a lot of praise for its handling of The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3,” with Sir Ben Kingsley delivering what’s likely to be remembered as one of the most memorable characters in the Iron Man franchise up to this point. Gwyneth Paltrow also does a great job with an expanded role in “Iron Man 3,” handling Virginia “Pepper” Potts’ action sequences like a natural and continuing to be the perfect complement to Downey’s eccentric hero.

As far as villains go, it’s refreshing to see the “Iron Man” franchise finally get away from armored bad guys challenging Tony to heavy-metal slugfests, and the super-powered soldiers Iron Man faces this time around mix things up nicely.

“Iron Man 3” does suffer from a few relatively minor plot holes that could leave you wondering what was left out of the final cut, but it still manages be one of the most entertaining, enjoyable films in Marvel’s growing movie-verse. Not quite as complete a package as “The Avengers,” but better than “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” (which both rank higher than “Iron Man 2” and “The Incredible Hulk” in the Marvel movie hierarchy), “Iron Man 3” defies typical third-chapter drop-off and makes it clear that the franchise is in good hands with its new director.

“Iron Man 3” hits theaters May 3 and stars Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, and Sir Ben Kingsley. The film is directed by Shane Black.

Gore Vidal: The Last Patrician Comedian

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are,” is one of the many quips that made Gore Vidal one of the funniest men on the planet during his lengthy sojourn. Of all the documentaries about comedians at the Tribeca Film Festival this year – Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, immediately come to mind – it is the documentary about Gore Vidal, “The United States of Amnesia” that made on me the strongest impression.

What’s that? You never thought of Gore Vidal as a comedian, per se? Perhaps more of a literati, a polemicist, an intellectual, you say? And yet it is impossible to extricate the comedic side, the acid wit, from the politics. Go ahead: I dare you — try. Have you ever heard Gore talk about human sexuality? Have you ever heard Vidal describe Charlton Heston’s limited acting range? Gore Vidal, particularly on the lecture circuit, was one of the smartest stand-up comedians of all time, employing impersonations as well as improvised skits illustrating, always, the stupidity of politicians. The stupidity of the ruling class – which Gore was born into – is his favorite target. It was with the honey of comedy that Gore administered his medication, a frank political populist message delivered to the masses. Vidal was “occupying Wall Street” decades before the movement sprung up around him and he was still preaching its gospel after everyone went home.

The film begins on a morbid note: Gore, intoning with that patrician accent, as he stands over the grave he will soon occupy in Washington DC. The tomb is half full, already occupied by Howard Austen, his partner of five decades. The film doesn’t remain as maudlin throughout. The cinematography, as well as archived film footage from a memorable life on two continents (Ravello, Italy; Venice; Beverly Hills) as well as interviews with friends and sometimes foes – Vidal had quite a few of those — is beautifully done. The film features candid vérité footage of Vidal in his final days, and while he is brilliantly witty, there is also a sense of sadness because he is about to die, that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and that the country he loves so much – these United States – is in rough shape.

At the screening during the Tribeca Film Festival rarely a minute went by without Vidal’s on-screen commentary eliciting raucous laughter from the knowledgeable fans, critics and VIPs assembled. Even Robert DeNiro, the festival’s founder, has said that the film stands out. Nicholas Wrathall, the film’s director, had full access to Gore Vidal’s last months and captures the man in full, winding down his worldly affairs, moving out of his house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Ravello, Italy because he can no longer walk unaided. The film briefly looks backwards at Vidal’s vivid life. But Wrathall mainly focuses on the last days, allowing Vidal and his contemporaries to give their impressions of his life and times. It is like Gore presiding and present at his own wake. That is something that every author craves.

The cinematography is exquisite. The directors of photography: Derek Wiesenhahn, Joel Schwartzberg, Armando De’Ath do a fine job of capturing everything from that gloomy cemetery in Washington where the film begins to the unique natural light of Venice. Everything is gloriously vivid, and the archival footage blends seamlessly into the meat of the film, the present, where Gore Vidal is getting ready to exit stage left.

Gore Vidal was, in many ways, the last patrician comic. . “As I looked back over my life,” Gore Vidal once said, “I realized that I enjoyed nothing–not art, not sex–more than going to the movies.” When he died, at age 86, in 2012, Nicholas Wrathall was still editing this documentary. It is to all of our benefit that this winding down of affairs was captured for posterity. Vidal’s lived an extraordinary life on two continents: he wrote great books, he threw legendary parties, he spoke great truths honeyed with a sparkling wit. Nicholas Wrathall had the luck to be at the right place at the right time, but also the great skill and the help of solid collaborators to present the Gore Vidal story.

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“Admission” review: Tina Fey aces college comedy

The college-admission process can be the stuff of nightmares. You can have the greatest grades in the world, but let’s face it: what really decides whether a potential student will be accepted generally remains a mystery. In “Admission,” director Paul Weitz (“About A Boy”) ventures beyond the admissions-office doors for a comedy that might not teach you how to get your child into an Ivy League school, but does offer one key element that makes it infinitely more interesting than any other college prep course: Tina Fey.

The talented “SNL” alum is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars these days, and “Admission” casts her opposite Paul Rudd in this romantic comedy about a Princeton admissions officer who has a crisis of faith when she’s introduced to a quirky teenage prodigy who might be the son she gave up for adoption years ago. The film is based on the book of the same name by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a former reader for Princeton’s admissions program tasked with evaluating prospective students.

From start to finish, “Admission” is a film that feels tailor-made for Fey – and it’s no surprise that the screenplay was written with her in mind. Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan is essentially Liz Lemon (“30 Rock”) filtered through the tweed and sweater vests of Ivy League culture, equal parts smart and quirky, brilliant and awkward. Without the sort of personality Fey gives the character, Portia’s crisis of faith would never be believable, and both Fey and screenwriter Karen Croner do a nice job of first giving her a reason to believe in what she’s doing – and then giving her a reason to change.

“Admission” also benefits from an outstanding supporting cast headlined by Paul Rudd (“This Is 40”), whose chemistry with Fey makes it seem perfectly reasonable to want this duo to pair up for at least one movie together every year. They really are that good whenever they share a scene.

Also among the standouts in “Admission” is Lily Tomlin as Susannah, Portia’s razor-tongued, feminist mother who serves up some of the film’s best lines, as well as Nat Wolff, who finds the right balance of quirky brilliance as the teenage prodigy who may or may not be Portia’s child. Wallace Shawn and Michael Sheen do a fine job with the brief roles they’re given in the film, and fill out the performances nicely.

Even though “Admission” is saddled with the “romantic comedy” label, it’s worth noting that the film is more of the latter than the former, and lets the romantic element naturally spin out of the comedy rather than simply forcing two funny people together. Rudd and Fey’s relationship is a byproduct of events and not the main narrative of the film, and “Admission” is better for it.

To its credit, “Admission” manages to be a film that speaks to more than just the typical “date night” audience of parents and couples, and with any luck, will find that wide-reaching appeal validated at the box office. It’s not often a film comes along that’s just as much fun to watch with your parents as it is to watch with your partner or friends, but “Admission” is just that sort of film.

“Admission” hits theaters March 22. The film is directed by Paul Weitz and stars Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Wallace Shawn, Michael Sheen, and Nat Wolff.

“Oz The Great And Powerful” review: The yellow-brick road revisited

About halfway through “Oz the Great and Powerful,” there’s a scene in which James Franco, playing the smooth-talking circus magician Oz, grins at the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) for an uncomfortably long amount of time. He squints as his smile slowly widens, and the camera stays locked on his face well past the moment when you expect it to cut away. As Franco continues to grin, the tone of the scene shifts from a sweet, funny moment to the awkwardness of a joke that’s overstayed its welcome.

The scene is a nice metaphor for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which manages to be a fun and entertaining adventure despite a habit of going one step too far on too many occasions and over-reaching a bit.

Directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”), “Oz the Great and Powerful” casts Franco as the titular title character of “The Wizard of Oz” in a prequel that explores how the former sideshow huckster found himself in the magical world of flying monkeys, dancing munchkins, and powerful witches of good and wicked varieties. After a tornado deposits him and his hot-air balloon in a stream filled with nasty faeries and oversized, brightly colored flowers, the “great and powerful” Oz (whose full name is revealed to be Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs) finds himself caught up in a feud between three witches angling for control of the Emerald City: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda (Michelle Williams). Saddled with a case of mistaken identity that pegs him as the wizard whose arrival was foretold in prophecy, Oz must use all of the illusions and trickery at his disposal to defeat the wicked witches, save the land, and earn the throne of Emerald City.

From the very beginning, Raimi reels his audience in with a beautifully, digitally rendered opening that takes full advantage of the 3D format and the presence of yet another great Danny Elfman score. And though Disney was somewhat limited in how much it could tie the new film to the 1939 classic produced by Warner Bros., “Oz the Great and Powerful” manages to feel like the spiritual prequel it was intended to be thanks to little elements like the decision to present the opening in black-and-white and a 4:3 aspect ratio and switch to bright, vivid color and a 16:9 ratio when Oz lands in, well… Oz.

In most cases, Raimi makes good use of the 3D environment, allowing it add another level of detail to falling snow or wisps of smoke instead of the usual excuses to have a character reach out of the screen or “it’s coming right at us” gimmicks. However, in his efforts to make the land of Oz as bright and detailed as possible, scenes with a lot of motion tend to create that headache-inducing blur that quickly turns 3D from a positive to a negative. The end result is something akin to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which had a similar problem with hyper-detailed, brightly colored backgrounds becoming a messy smudge whenever there’s any 3D action.

Blurring problems aside, much of the set design in “Oz” – and Raimi’s integration of live actors with some of the weird, wonderful environments they fly, run, or ride through – takes full advantage of modern-day technology’s ability to bring L. Frank Baum’s world to life on the screen. While older audiences will likely be turned off by the crisp, polished presentation of everything from the munchkins’ outfits to the crayon spectrum of flowers and leaves that make every background pop, younger audiences have come to expect a ridiculously high level of detail and bold, bright color in what they see on the big screen, and in that “Oz” delivers.

Much of the cast also delivers in their roles, but it’s worth keeping in mind that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a Disney project aimed at young audiences, and the cast’s performance falls right in line with what one expects from the studio and its target demographic for the movie. Over-acting is the norm, but everyone seems to be enjoying their roles – especially Kunis and Franco, who chew up every scene they’re in and do an admirable job of yanking your attention away from the extravagant sets.

Unfortunately, the living, breathing actors’ interaction with their computer-generated counterparts are less impressive. When Franco and Williams are called upon to pick up, carry, or otherwise physically act with one of the digitally created characters – such as a miniature girl made of porcelain voiced by Joey King – their movements and the position of their hands often appear ever-so-slightly off, and make it a little too obvious that the characters were added in post-production. It’s a minor issue, but it stands out due to the level of precision and attention to detail seen throughout the rest of the film.

Visual and technical issues aside, “Oz” delivers on much of what Raimi and Disney clearly set out to do with the film. While it’s impossible to capture that nostalgic appeal of the beloved 1939 movie for older audiences in this modern era, Raimi does a nice job of positioning “Oz the Great and Powerful” as a bridge to Baum’s world for younger audiences, hinting at what came before and teasing future adventures lying just ahead on the yellow-brick road.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” hits theaters Friday, March 8. The film is directed by Sam Raimi and stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz.

“Warm Bodies” review: A zombie story with heart… and a lot of brains

Just when you thought the zombie genre had shambled off into the sunset bereft of any fresh ideas, a movie like “Warm Bodies” comes along and makes the undead seem, well… very much alive.

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”) and based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, “Warm Bodies” unfolds in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse that has made humans the food of choice for hungry zombies and the savage, skeletal “bonies” that some of the undead turn into after a certain point in time. However, unlike the zombies portrayed in most media, some of the undead in this story still show signs of life, stringing together thoughts and even communicating with the occasional grunt or single-syllable word. “R” is one such zombie, and when he falls in love with a human girl that he saves from some of his fellow zombies, their relationship ignites a spark that not only changes him, but also has a cascading effect on both zombies and humans alike.

While it’s easy to dismiss the concept of “Warm Bodies” as just another young-adult supernatural romance that exchanges vampires and werewolves for flesh-hungry zombies, Levine’s film shares more in common with the modern, clever takes on the genre like “Shaun of the Dead” than it shares with the “Twilight” franchise.

British actor Nicholas Hoult (“X-Men: First Class”) carries much of the film on his slumped shoulders as R, complementing a smart, funny inner monologue with physical acting that just might make him the funniest zombie since Tarman in “Return of the Living Dead.” Emoting shouldn’t be easy when your character is a trudging, near-mindless corpse, but Hoult certainly makes it seem so, adding just the right inclination of an eyebrow or tilt of his chin to give R some genuine depth. The subtle exaggeration of these small movements as the story progresses makes R’s evolution even more believable, and provides a nice showcase for Hoult’s talents.

Playing opposite Hoult, Teresa Palmer (“I Am Number Four”) puts in a good, safe performance as Julie, the object of R’s affections and the daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the leader of a nearby, militarized human sanctuary. Although her character never manages to steal the spotlight away from R, this says more about Hoult’s performance and the focus of the film than anything she brings to the role. The same goes for Malkovich, who plays more of a cameo than anything even remotely as memorable as the characters he’s played in the past.

Still, “Hot Tub Time Machine” actor Rob Corddry does manage to stand out as R’s zombie pal “M,” and the pair have a nice chemistry that translates into some of the film’s funniest moments. Like Hoult, Corddry does a lot with every scene he’s in, right down to the smallest twitch of a shoulder or well-timed grunt, and makes a strong case for M as the character most deserving of his own spin-off film.

In fact, that may be the most impressive achievement in Levine’s adaptation of Marion’s novel: the most interesting, compelling characters in the story are zombies.

Even with all of the story’s allusions to “Romeo & Juliet” (from star-crossed lovers R and Julie, to R’s best friend M serving as the Mercutio to R’s Romeo), “Warm Bodies” never feels like a traditional romance dressed up in a post-apocalyptic theme. The reverse feels more appropriate, with the costume of a classic romance disguising a very smart mash-up of horror and comedy that somehow manages to bridge the divide between two very different audiences and — maybe even more importantly — stand out in an increasingly overcrowded genre.

“Warm Bodies” hits theaters Friday, February 1.

“John Dies at the End” review: A demented, dimension-hopping good time

Some films are easy to review. You assess the director’s presentation of the story, note the highs and lows of the cast’s performances, offer some critique of the writing, set pieces, or any other standout elements of the film, and then call it a day.

“John Dies At The End” is not that sort of film.

Like “Naked Lunch” or “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” before it, “John Dies At The End” is a weird, wild, and wonderfully unique film that defies just about every convention that critics – and traditional media – throw at it. And while that’s usually a recipe for disaster, “John Dies At The End” somehow manages to make all of its disparate elements work together into a fun, crazy adventure that carries you along for the ride instead of making its audience feel perpetually left behind.

Directed by Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Phantasm”) and based on Jason Pargin’s trippy horror novel of the same name (published under his pseudonym David Wong), “John Dies At The End” follows a pair of slackers whose experience with a new drug called “soy sauce” reveals the existence of an interdimensional invasion occurring all around them. As they get caught up in thwarting the invasion, the drug’s effects on time and space push them into confrontations with all manner of strange creatures and leave them uncertain of what’s real and what is simply another hallucination.

The film stars Chase Williamson as protagonist and narrator David Wong, and a similarly unfamiliar face, Rob Mayes, as David’s stoner pal, John. Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones highlight a short list of well-known actors who appear throughout the film in a variety of appropriately weird roles.

Not having read Pargin’s 2007 novel, I can’t speak to Coscarelli’s faithfulness to the source material, but given the surreal nature of the story, “John Dies At The End” deserves praise for somehow finding the linear narrative in what could’ve been a terribly messy, tangled adaptation. Instead of falling apart into a series of weird, sci-fi vignettes, “John Dies At The End” manages to constantly move forward with the story it’s telling – even when it seems like a plot point or timeline has veered off into tangent territory.

Coscarelli’s knack for putting an unsettling, sinister spin on just about any type of scene – one of the hallmarks of his “Phantasm” films – gets a heavy workout in “John Dies At The End,” as there’s rarely any certainty about what’s real and what Dave and John have unintentionally conjured from their drug-addled, reality-warping subconscious. Still, there’s an underlying sense that the pair are taming the drug as the adventure progresses, and by the end of the film the ratio of chemically-induced terror to chemically-induced heroism (a twisted, non-traditional sort of heroism, but heroism all the same) gradually shifts into their favor. It’s a subtle transition that could’ve been easily overdone – or even not done at all – but Coscarelli does a nice job of turning his aimless slackers into our dimension’s best hope for survival.

Williamson and Mayes both offer up great performances in their respective roles, with Williamson playing off Giamatti particularly well during their scenes together. Neither Giamatti nor Brown (or Jones, for that matter) have particularly meaty roles in the film, but Coscarelli puts them to good use providing a big dose of flavor to scenes that might otherwise be a little dry. The entire cast, in fact, seems to find just right the balance in their performances to sell the over-the-top weirdness going on around them.

Still, despite all of the diverging, mingling, and meandering timelines that constitute the narrative of “John Dies At The End,” the story being told in the film still manages to stay on a linear course that separates it from many other failed adaptations of unconventional stories. There’s no shortage of mash-ups out there that try to blend elements of horror, sci-fi, and black comedy – often with a heavy dose of the surreal to lubricate the mix – but few of them manage to pull it off with any success.

“John Dies At The End” is a great example of what can happen when a writer and director’s vision syncs up with that of the author of something very unique, and very special. Only time will tell if “John Dies At The End” will achieve as similar a level of under-the-radar success as Coscarelli’s “Bubba Ho-Tep,” but it’s hard not to believe the film is well on its way to becoming a cult classic.

“John Dies At The End” hits theaters in limited release Friday, January 25. The film is directed by Don Coscarelli, and is based on a book of the same name by Jason Pargin (written under the pseudonym David Wong).

“Total Recall” review: Some memories you just can’t erase

When a studio decides to remake a movie, it generally tends to be an all-or-nothing gambit. In the best-case scenario, the new film improves on its predecessor’s flaws, offers some surprises, and samples from the story and tonal elements that made the original film so memorable. What usually happens, however, is that the film collapses under the weight of the movie that inspired it, with every similarity and difference judged against those of its predecessor and — more often than not — found lacking.

And that’s why the remake of “Total Recall” hitting theaters this week has two factors working against it: not only was the first film very, very good, but the general public’s threshold for remakes simply doesn’t allow for mediocre imitations, no matter how entertaining they manage to be.

It’s probably worth noting early on that yes, I’m aware that “Total Recall” isn’t technically a remake. It’s actually another big-screen adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. However, anyone familiar with the original story will find that the new film veers even further away from the source material than Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film, which was itself a loose adaptation.

For those not familiar with the 1990 film or the 1966 story that inspired it, the narrative thread shared by all three projects follows an ordinary guy who longs for something more than his hum-drum life, and decides to visit a company that implants made-to-order memories in your brain. Things go awry, however, when the company’s technicians discover that someone’s already been fiddling with his brain. But is he really a secret agent, or is it all just a part of the adventure he paid for?

And that’s about the extent of what the three projects have in common, with the new “Total Recall” existing as sort of a remix of a remix, with the latest version bearing little resemblance to the original material beyond an occasional sample or recycled verse.

Still, that’s not to say that “Total Recall” is a bad movie. Unshackled from the burden of its title and the expectations that come with it, the movie manages to be an entertaining, action-packed adventure peppered with interesting science-fiction elements. Director Len Wiseman has a knack for creating great fight sequences filled with epic gun battles and moments that slow down, speed up, and zoom in at just the right points to make a scene more impressive than it has any right to be, and Kate Beckinsale is endlessly fun to watch as Lori, the government agent masquerading as the wife of reluctant hero Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). Her role combines the characters played by Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside in the original film, and the result is a one-woman killing machine who steals every scene she’s in.

Unfortunately, the elements that set the new film apart from its predecessor in positive ways are far too rare, and it feels like the creative team behind the remake never quite recognized what made Verhoeven’s film so great. Time after time, when the new movie has opportunities to push the limits and set itself apart from the previous film, it stops shy of the benchmarks set two decades ago. Basically, it has all the polish and shine of a 2012 movie, but lacks any of the heart and personality that would make it feel like a successor to the original “Total Recall.”

These shortcomings are especially apparent in the changes made to give the project a more mainstream-friendly appeal. Where Verhoeven pushed the limits of the “R” rating with brutal gunfights that left bodies — including scores of innocent bystanders — strewn about in bloody heaps, the new film puts Quaid up against a task force largely composed of lifeless, infinitely replaceable robots. This removes much of the shock and the feeling of high stakes at play in the 1990 film, and instead of wincing at every death along Quaid’s adventure, you’re left shrugging (if any reaction at all) each time a robot is decapitated, blown apart, or otherwise dismembered.

Even the nods to the original film seem forced and included as placeholders to justify the title instead of necessary plot elements that advance the story in any way. The overweight woman who was revealed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s disguise in the first film makes a cameo in this one, and so does a triple-breasted prostitute who’s wealth of assets is never quite explained. The film even recreates a few memorable fight scenes from the 1990 film — albeit with Quaid fighting robots instead of people this time around. Quaid also makes passing mention of Mars at one point, which is as close as the new film gets to the Red Planet, opting to ditch the interplanetary adventure of the original film for a mission that shuttles him between two colonies here on Earth.

And though the decision to make the fundamental conflict in “Total Recall” a class war between two Earth colonies instead of Earth and Mars seems questionable (and eliminates the chance to put a 2012 spin on some of the 1990 film’s most iconic scenes), it does provide one of the more entertaining plot devices in the movie.

In the world of the new “Total Recall,” the remaining human civilization is split up between the exploited working class of “The Colony” (Australia) and the wealthy elite of the United Federation of Britain. People travel from one area to the other via “The Fall,” a shuttle capable of going through the Earth from one side to the other. (It’s basically the science-fiction evolution of “digging a hole to China.”) The commute between UFB and The Colony is not only a key element in the film’s plot, but it also serves as a great example of how much potential the film had with some of its more inventive sci-fi elements.

Along with some great scenes that unfold during (and after) commutes via The Fall, “Total Recall” also features some cool pieces of future-world tech which seem to indicate that at least some of the elements that made the original film so great were noticed. Guns that fire glowing, electric restraint harnesses and phones surgically implanted in people’s hands are just two of the many notable pieces of sci-fi tech that earn the film some legitimate sci-fi cred.

For all of its achievements in tech, however, the film falls conspicuously short in the way it utilizes its cast. It seems strange to write this, but Farrell’s take on Quaid shows little of the personality that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to the role, and Jessica Biel does little to make the role of resistance fighter Melina anything more than a pretty face. Even Bryan Cranston seems criminally underused — or more accurately, misused — as the villainous despot Cohaagen, who spars with Quaid physically, but is rarely given the chance to be the psychological threat we know he’s capable of playing.

Perhaps the most egregious flaw in “Total Recall,” though, is the way it assumes the worst of its audience’s ability to handle uncertainty. Both the original short story and the 1990 film did a masterful job of keeping you uncertain whether the main character’s adventure was really happening, or a figment of his imagination. For every piece of evidence that pointed toward it being a reality, there was a strong argument to be made that it was all in the hero’s mind. The remake removes that uncertainty entirely, and leaves little doubt as to what’s real and what’s imagined in Quaid’s adventure, and relegates that feeling of uncertainty to just another homage to the source material instead of an actual element of the story.

In the end, there’s a case to be made that “Total Recall” would probably be more successful with a different title, as it’s a fun, entertaining sci-fi adventure with flaws that come from the comparison to its source material more often than the movie itself. And no matter how enjoyable of a film it is, those comparisons will be made — and should be made — because that’s the nature of remakes and the gamble studios make when they go down that route.

Does “Total Recall” succeed as a movie? Sure. But unfortunately, the movie never quite succeeds as “Total Recall.”

“Total Recall” hits theaters Friday, August 3, and stars Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel, and Bokeem Woodbine.

“The Dark Knight Rises” review

To say that “The Dark Knight Rises” has a lot to live up to just might qualify as the biggest understatement of the year. The follow-up to Christopher Nolan’s record-breaking 2008 sequel “The Dark Knight,” and the final chapter in the award-winning director’s critically praised Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises” has been one of the industry’s most closely watched projects since the credits rolled on its predecessor.

And that’s why it’s so unfortunate that, in his last adventure under Nolan’s guidance, the Dark Knight never quite rises to the occasion.

Possibly the most egregious flaw in “The Dark Knight Rises” is that the character we see the least of in the film is, well… Batman. For a film that clocks in at nearly three hours of running time, we get only four or five major sequences with Christian Bale in the cape and cowl. Over the course of the film’s 165 minutes, Bale’s Bruce Wayne seems relegated to a supporting role, and someone we check in with occasionally instead of the narrative’s main character.

Make no mistake: Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are clearly Nolan’s focal points in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and their time on the screen reflects this fact.

Of course, that’s not to say Nolan’s focus on Hathaway and Gordon-Levitt is a bad thing, as the pair happen to provide the film’s best performances. As Selina Kyle (who’s never actually referred to as Catwoman in the film), Hathaway manages to prove skeptics (including myself) wrong with a pitch-perfect portrayal of Gotham’s greatest cat burglar, and finds just the right nuances of moral ambiguity and personality to bring the character to life in Nolan’s Bat-verse.

Gordon-Levitt also does a nice job of playing feet-on-the-ground cop John Blake, who struggles to define his role in a world filled with costumed heroes and villains. Sadly, his prominence in the narrative seems to come at the expense of Gary Oldman’s return as police commissioner Jim Gordon, who seems to have become just another flawed cog in the Gotham machine in the time since the last film.

Oldman’s character isn’t the only one to have undergone some drastic, fundamental changes since the last film, either.

Along with Jim Gordon’s shift from paragon of urban wisdom to burned-out relic, Batman himself seems to have forgotten many of the lessons he learned in the earlier films. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” we’re presented with a Batman who charges into fights without thinking and overlooks important information, and a Bruce Wayne who shows little regard for the still-living people in his life and callously disregards his most trusted friend. (It’s this last element that relegates Michael Caine’s role to nothing more than a series of scenes in which he cries at Christian Bale for several minutes.) It’s the sort of situation that usually develops when a new director takes over an existing franchise, and seems odd in the continuity of Nolan’s meticulously shepherded Batman universe.

Still, none of these flaws are as destructive to “The Dark Knight Rises” as the film’s villain, Bane, who manages to cause just as much damage to the fictional city of Gotham as he does to the movie itself.

It’s worth noting right from the start that none of the problems with Bane rest on the shoulders of the actor who played the hulking, masked behemoth, Tom Hardy. The British actor does everything asked of him to the best of his considerable talents, and were it not for a number of factors outside his control, he’d likely provide the standout performance in the film. Sadly, those factors are present in the film, and they make Hardy’s character memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Months ago, when some early footage of “The Dark Knight Rises” was screened for a select audience, Bane’s muffled, unintelligible dialogue caused enough controversy to put the studio into damage-control mode, with Warner Brothers and Nolan seeming to be at odds over how to handle the villain’s mask-induced garble. Their answer, it seems, was to waver between two extremes. At times Bane sounds like a circus ringmaster trying to reach the cheap seats with a dollar-bin megaphone, and at other times his dialogue has all the clarity of a subway intercom system. The gritty realism of the surrounding film only amplifies the silliness of Bane’s dialogue.

Still, if there is one positive to come out of the troubles with Bane’s voice, it’s that you barely notice Bale’s Bat-growl, which earned more than a few unintentional laughs during “The Dark Knight,” but seems entirely tolerable alongside Bane’s over-dubbed, sideshow-barker tone.

Unfortunately, the film’s villain has problems with more than just his dialogue. Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Bane’s intentions with regard to Gotham and its protector go from uncertain to outright contradictory over the course of the film, with the character flip-flopping between a desire to empower Gotham’s populace (at times seeming like the spokesperson for the real-world Occupy movement) and an urge to obliterate every living person in the city. The end result is a character that never quite sells the whole “criminal genius” thing, and instead comes off as a bit, well… crazy.

Of course, this flaw with Bane is likely a result of the character being shoehorned into a role that was meant for Heath Ledger and The Joker, who would have been right at home as the orchestrator of the chaos that overtakes Gotham. It’s during the moments when Bane seems the most out of place that you can see how perfectly Ledger’s Joker would’ve fit in the film.

Even with so many problems, however, “The Dark Knight Rises” still manages to meet – and occasionally exceed – expectations in some of the areas that will play the biggest role in the film’s success with the mainstream audiences. Nolan’s trademark grasp of breathtaking visuals and fantastic cinematography are on full display in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and the film features a number of set pieces – including the catastrophic destruction of Gotham’s football stadium – that set the film apart from nearly everything else in theaters. While it never achieves at the level of a film like “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises” is full of reminders that it is a film made by one of the industry’s greatest visual directors.

Also to its credit, “The Dark Knight Rises” manages to avoid the traditional pitfalls of the third movie in a genre franchise. It never feels overcrowded or rushed, though it does contain a few obvious, forced tie-ins to the greater universe that feel jammed in at the last moment.

However, none of these achievements change the fact that the film falls short of expectations, and rather than being the grand finale of the franchise, it ends up being both the weakest film in the trilogy and the weakest superhero movie of the year thus far. Sadly, “The Dark Knight Rises” never manages to match the epic spectacle of “The Avengers,” the genuine pathos of “Chronicle” (a comic book movie without a comic), or the earnest, heroic heart of “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

While there’s little doubt that the concluding chapter of his trilogy will earn a pile of money, one can’t help thinking that Nolan has done the next Batman director a favor by taking a bar that was set to an almost unreachable height after “The Dark Knight” and lowering it to a more manageable level with the serviceable but under-achieving concluding tale that is “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters Friday, July 20.