Movie Review: “Inherent Vice”

Starring
Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterson, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro
Director
Paul Thomas Anderson

After years of toying with my patience (first with “There Will Be Blood,” and more recently with “The Master,” both of which feature such great acting that it papered over their respective cracks), Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice (or hidden defect) of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the film, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the big joke of “Inherent Vice,” it’s not a very funny one.

Set in the seedy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator who receives a visit one night from his free-spirited ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), requesting help with a personal matter. She needs Doc to track down her new boyfriend, hotshot real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), after learning that his duplicitous wife plans to have him committed and steal his fortune, only for Shasta to go missing herself. While investigating the pair’s disappearance, Doc takes on some additional cases – including a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang – that are curiously all connected in some way. Doc doesn’t exactly know why or how, but one thing seems certain: he’s not going to get any assistance from hippie-hating LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with whom he has a strange love-hate relationship.

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Movie Review: “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Rebel Wilson, Dan Stevens, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Ben Kingsley, Steve Coogan, Rami Malek
Director
Shawn Levy

In a move that is both shrewd and a bit cynical, the final installment of the “Night at the Museum” series takes place (mostly) in London. The first two “Museum” films earned $560 million in worldwide box office, so the move makes financial sense as well as creative sense, since it gives the writers a chance to try new things. This turns out to be a smart move on all fronts, as “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” is easily the best of the bunch. The scripts have gotten progressively smarter, and director Shawn Levy executes a couple of stunning visual sequences the likes of which the “Museum” series has never seen.

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), night guard at the New York Museum of Natural History, is about to pull off a mind-blowing presentation with the help of his magically re-animated friends, but they start to behave erratically and cause a panic. He eventually discovers that the tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) is running out of power, and the only person who knows how to restore its power is his father Merenkahre (Sir Ben Kingsley), of whom there is a figure in the London Museum of Natural History. Larry pulls some strings to get both him and his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) transferred to London to solve the problem, and they get a bunch of unexpected help along the way. Now they just need to get past every wax figure in the London museum, who have awoken for the first time and have no idea how this whole thing works.

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Movie Review: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

Starring
Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom
Director
Peter Jackson

The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy is being marketed as “The Defining Chapter,” so why does it feel like less of a triumphant celebration than a weary sigh? It’s probably because the films as a whole have been such an exhausting experience, largely due to the decision to expand the initial two-part plan into three movies. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it simply wasn’t necessary, and that’s never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece (one that’s contained within a single chapter in Tolkien’s novel) makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. The fact that “The Battle of the Five Armies” is the shortest of any of Jackson’s Middle-earth films proves the futility of the three-movie model, but that hasn’t stopped him from dragging it out anyway. After all, a two-hour film just wouldn’t feel as epic.

The story picks up right where “The Desolation of Smaug” left off, with the treasure-hoarding dragon flying towards Lake-town to wreak havoc on the city. While the townspeople flee as their homes are burned to the ground, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) manages to slay Smaug by shooting a dwarven-made black arrow into a weak spot in its armored scales. But when Bard and the survivors head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge and payment for their services, Thorin (Richard Armitage) – who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness that plagued his grandfather – refuses to help them, believing that it’s all a ruse to steal his beloved gold. As Thorin and his fellow dwarves prepare for battle against the men of Lake-town and Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) elven army, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) escapes from Dol Guldur just in time to warn them of a much bigger threat: Azog the Defiler is marching upon Erebor with a battalion of orcs to seize the stronghold, and they’ll need to put aside their differences and fight alongside each other in order to stop them.

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Blu Tuesday: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

WHAT: New York City is being terrorized by a criminal organization called the Foot Clan under the command of a shadowy figure known as The Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). But there’s a group of vigilantes silently serving as the city’s protectors, and ambitious news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is determined to uncover their identities… only to find that the mystery men aren’t men at all, but rather oversized mutant turtles skilled in the art of ninjitsu.

WHY: Jonathan Liebesman’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot isn’t nearly the disaster that many people feared. In fact, it’s actually quite entertaining at times provided you check your brain at the door and don’t mind that the film is basically feeding off the fumes of your childhood. The movie has its share of problems – from its assembly-by-committee script, to the generic action sequences – but the four actors who play the Turtles make up for some of those shortcomings by really capturing their spirit and brotherly camaraderie. The visual effects wizardry that’s been applied to their mo-cap performances is top-notch as well, proving once again why this technology is incredibly useful in not only creating more realistic CG characters, but giving them a human element that could never be achieved by men in rubber suits. There are some fun in-jokes for adult fans who grew up watching the Turtles as kids, but “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is essentially a live-action cartoon and should be judged accordingly. It’s far from a great film, but it also doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, and if that means going easier on the film, then so be it, because that’s a perfectly acceptable cost of a little nostalgia.

EXTRAS: There are five featurettes covering a range of topics, including the digital evolution of the Turtles, the technical aspects of 3D, scoring the film and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“This Is Where I Leave You”

WHAT: When their father passes away, four siblings (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver) return to their childhood home to fulfill his dying wish by sitting shiva. Forced to live under the same roof for a week with their loquacious mother (Jane Fonda), each child must deal with their respective personal problems and the ghosts of their past.

WHY: Adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his book of the same name, “This Is Where I Leave You” represents an interesting change of pace for Shawn Levy, who’s best known for big blockbusters like the “Night at the Museum” films. But while it’s always great to see a director explore new territory, Levy seems to be a little out of his comfort zone with this family dramedy, never quite sure how to handle the more serious moments when there’s always another joke right around the corner. It was smart to cast actors that could handle both comedy and drama, but sadly, the material wastes a lot of their talents. Though Jason Bateman is solid as the middle brother, Tina Fey is miscast as his protective sister, Corey Stoll’s eldest brother barely registers as a three-dimensional character, and Jane Fonda’s mother is given giant breast implants… and not much else. Adam Driver and Rose Byrne are the only two bright spots, but even their characters are majorly underserved. To be fair, movies like this are a difficult balancing act, and even more so with such a large cast of characters, but despite Levy’s best efforts, “This Is Where I Leave You” falls disappointingly flat.

EXTRAS: In addition to a pair of production featurettes, there are outtakes of Ben Schwartz as Rabbi Boner and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Magic in the Moonlight”

WHAT: World-renowned magician Wei Ling Soo has a bag of tricks, but his biggest trick of all is that it’s just a ruse – the terribly racist stage persona of grumpy Englishman Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who despises charlatans that give his profession a bad name. So when longtime friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks for his assistance in debunking a young spiritualist named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), whom he believes is scamming the heir of the wealthy Catledge family, Stanley heads to their mansion to catch Sophie red-handed.

WHY: Woody Allen has made some real stinkers over the course of his 50-year career, and though “Magic in the Moonlight” isn’t quite bad enough to be included among the director’s absolute worst films, it’s not very good either. While Allen has proven that he’s still capable of delivering a good movie on occasion, he seems more concerned with maintaining his yearly output no matter what the cost, and that quantity-over-quality way of thinking only underlines the many problems with his latest comedy. At the top of that list is the complete lack of romantic chemistry between Colin Firth and Emma Stone, which proves to be detrimental, since so much of the film depends on their playful interactions. Both actors are usually very charming, but they look hopelessly lost in their roles due to a half-baked script that goes around in circles. Everything about this movie seems like it was rushed, from the stupid title, to the horrible poster, to the uninspired direction by Allen, who fails to provide an engaging story beyond the initial premise. “Magic in the Moonlight” doesn’t make you believe in magic, or love, or anything, really, although maybe that’s just the cynic in me, eager to expose the film as the fraud that it is, because the whole thing feels less like a genuine Woody Allen comedy than a pale imitation.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and footage from the premiere.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “Top Five”

Starring
Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, JB Smoove, Kevin Hart
Director
Chris Rock

“Top Five” has a secret: the movie’s “B” story is about sobriety, and the struggles many entertainers have with capturing the magic that came so easily to them when they were high. You can see why the studio would downplay that in the ads, because there is nothing funny about sobriety. As it turns out, the movie is plenty funny even with the heavier subject matter. It paints with a broad brush, and it’s clear how things are going to end within the first five minutes, but the journey is nonetheless entertaining, and at times wildly funny.

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a former standup comic who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. His new film, which covers the Haiti Massacre of 1804 (!), comes out the same weekend that Andre is scheduled to marry his reality TV star fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union) on live television. Andre does a ton of press to promote the movie (where nearly everyone berates him for not being funny anymore), but while he’s hopping from junket to junket, he has an all-day assignment with New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). Andre is suspicious of her because one of Chelsea’s colleagues has made a career out of savaging Andre in the press, but he and Chelsea develop a rapport, and before long, Andre opens up about when he hit rock bottom (there are no words to describe that scene). Now sober for four years, Andre still finds himself tempted, especially when Erica is changing aspects of their wedding, per the network’s instructions, without informing him.

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