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  • ‘Wreck It Ralph’ and Denzel know how to fly

    Though they don’t seem that similar, both “Flight” and “Wreck-It Ralph” focus on what distinguishes heroes and villains.

    In the Disney computer-animated tale, Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is the destructive bad guy of the Donkey Kong-inspired arcade game, “Fix-It Felix Jr.” When the arcade closes each night, however, Ralph is a nice guy (albeit with Hulk-size anger issues) who is shunned by the game’s other residents.

    Set out to prove he can be a hero, Ralph leaves his own game in search of redemption, which eventually leads him to a candy-inspired racing game and a motor-mouth computer glitch named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). While she’s got her own in-game problems, Ralph is pursued by his sincere colleague Felix (Jack McBrayer) and a relentless soldier (Jane Lynch) straight out of a modern first-person shooter game.

    “Wreck-It Ralph” opens with some amusing cameos from a variety of classic video game characters, notably those in attendance at a “bad-anon” meeting. These gags help the movie through the necessary exposition, and just when the novelty wears off, “Wreck-It Ralph” redirects its focus to the main characters. (more…)

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  • ‘Cloud Atlas’ an audacious, polarizing experience

    Cloud Atlas movieMost movies play it safe. They focus on just a few characters, stay within a single genre and tell a straightforward story from beginning to end. As much as we all might complain about the lack of originality in theaters, we as the audience are comforted by the familiarity. We know what we like and we know what kinds of films will entertain us.

    “Cloud Atlas” can’t really be categorized or measured by the same standards we see other movies. It tells six different stories across six unique time periods simultaneously, using the same actors in each storyline… but not always in obvious ways. Sure, you can recognize Tom Hanks in every segment, but he’s only the protagonist in one of them, and you probably won’t spot the likes of Hugh Grant, Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess in every segment until they’re revealed in the end credits.

    The film offers few story connections between the timelines. These aren’t reincarnated souls progressing towards a larger truth. The connections are more thematic – that of revolution, cultural progression (sometimes regression), corruption and love. It’s an epic mood piece, and one that will leave the unwilling shaking their heads in frustrated disbelief. (more…)

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  • Director Ben Affleck hits again with pulse-pounding ‘Argo’

    The story of Ben Affleck’s Hollywood comeback has reached its apex with “Argo,” his third and most assured movie as a director. It’s a perfectly constructed Hollywood thriller that effortlessly blends sparks of humor with tense plotting that doesn’t rely on gunfire and explosions.

    And Affleck makes it all look easy. Anyone still want to make “Gigli” jokes?

    Based on a true story, Affleck stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez, an expert at getting people safely out of hairy situations. The setting: 1979, Iran. The American embassy has been invaded with several Americans taken hostage, but six of them escape the building and take shelter at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. With tensions rising, Mendez concocts a plan to sneak the Americans out as the Canadian crew of a fake science fiction film. (more…)

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  • Tim Burton stages a creative comeback with ‘Frankenweenie’

    This summer’s abysmal update of “Dark Shadows” marked a career low for Tim Burton, the visionary director of “Ed Wood,” “Edward Scissorhands” and the best Batman movie NOT directed by Christopher Nolan (that’s “Batman Returns” for those keeping score at home).

    Truth be told, Burton has been in a major creative funk for years, directing a string of mediocre-to-lousy films dating back to his “Planet of the Apes” remake in 2001.

    But it only takes one good movie to spark a comeback, and for Burton, the black-and-white, stop-motion animated “Frankenweenie” is an exceptional return to form. An expansion of the 1984 short film that launched his career, “Frankenweenie” is a playful ode to classic horror movies as well as a heartfelt story about a boy and his (undead) dog. (more…)

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  • Character-driven ‘Looper’ a smart piece of sci-fi

    Look beyond the residents of “Hotel Transylvania” and the monsters in “Resident Evil Part 18” and you’ll notice fascinating, character-driven films playing at a theater near you.  And no, not all of them fit nto the artsy-fartsy, “for-film-snobs-only” genre.

    Nope, the most surprising winner so far this season is “Looper,” a sci-fi thriller with more than a few scenes of a gun-toting Bruce Willis laying waste to nameless bad guys.

    Willis has a small but integral part to play in a twisty and pleasantly time-travel adventure from “Brick” director Rian Johnson.

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hitman living in 2042 who kills people sent via illegal time travel from 30 years in the future (it’s the snazzy way of ditching bodies AND all the evidence). (more…)

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  • Spectacular performances highlight enigmatic ‘The Master’

    The bravura, off-the charts-crazy performance of Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master” isn’t a subtle piece of acting– and really, what were we expecting following his faux-rapping shenanigans in “I’m Still Here.” In “The Master,” he plays an unstable war veteran who becomes mesmerized by the enigmatic leader of The Cause, a religious/psychological movement with all-too-familiar connections to Scientology.

    The “master” is played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in predictably spectacular fashion, and, sure, the connections to Scientology are provocative, but Phoenix’s broken soldier remains the focus of the film. He gives a jaw-dropping performance in scene-after-scene as a man who searches for serenity and purpose but instead repeatedly boils over into self-loathing and violence.

    “The Master” is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the talent behind “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” It’s a dense and beautiful film worthy of a lot of interpretation and speculation that won’t even be attempted here… at least for now.

    The challenging subject matter and lack of traditional plotting has earned “The Master” its detractors and has contributed to the film’s swift exit from theaters (and possibly its Oscar chances beyond acting categories). It’s definitely this year’s “Tree of Life,” a movie that critics loved and recommended but general audiences seemed to hate. I would say “The Master” is more straightforward than most are assuming, and its themes easier to grasp than that of “Tree of Life.”

    Still, you definitely need patience for a slow-burn movie like “The Master.”

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  • Quick-take: ‘End of Watch’ takes real approach to buddy cop pics

    Any good buddy cop movie is dependent on the chemistry of its two leads. In “End of Watch,” Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña develop such a convincing rapport that their famous faces all but vanish within the roles. The adventures of Officers Taylor and Zavala on the streets of Los Angeles may not be entirely representative of day-to-day LAPD routines, but the performances are more “real” feeling than most police procedurals.

    The episodic structure of “End of Watch,” depicting a string of interconnected days on the job with these two officers, brings an added sense of reality, as does the film’s frequent use of “found footage” style camerawork. Gyllenhaal and Peña bring it home with comfortable banter and precise execution of police protocol. There isn’t a moment where it feels like acting.

    Grade: B+

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  • Best Summer Blockbusters Year-By-Year

    Ever since “Jaws” terrified audiences back in 1975, summer has been the go-to season for event-level filmmaking. And in many cases, extinction level events like asteroids and malevolent aliens are the focus.

    From May through August, there’s at least one new, expensive blockbuster every week. Not all are created equal. Many make money, but only one or two truly enthrall the moviegoing public for months at a time.

    So we break down the best blockbusters, year-by-year, since 1990. The measure of criteria is threefold: Thrills, Fun and Buzz. These movies aren’t necessarily the “best” from each summer, just the ones that best embody the term,“blockbuster.”

    Meaning this is the only list where “Armageddon” will ever rank above “Saving Private Ryan.”

    2012 – The Avengers
    Apologies to the Caped Crusader. “The Avengers” brought fun back into the superhero epic.
    2011 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
    There were better movies last summer (“Super 8”), but EVERYBODY had to see if the boy wizard could stick the (broom) landing. For the most part, he did.
    2010 – Toy Story 3
    Just edges “Inception” for being the quality, must-see for ages 2-102. The complicated plot of “Inception” might slice decades off each side of that scale.
    2009 – Star Trek
    The nerds griped about how it deviated from the source material, but everyone else had a blast.
    2008 – The Dark Knight
    Heath Ledger as The Joker was the highlight of Christopher Nolan’s epic second installment in his Batman trilogy.
    2007 – The Bourne Ultimatum
    In a year of disappointing trilogy cappers (“Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Shrek”) Matt Damon punched and kicked his way to the top of the heap.
    2006 – Mission: Impossible 3
    2005 – Batman Begins
    The last “Star Wars” was OK, but nobody expected Batman to return to such form after the disastrous “Batman & Robin” in 1997.
    2004 – Spider-Man 2
    2003 – Finding Nemo & Pirates of the Caribbean
    Too close to call. They’re both water-centric, so a tie seems appropriate. (more…)

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  • ‘Expendables 2’ is expendable… except for Van Damme

    Professional baseball players should stay far away from “The Expendables 2,” a bombastic action movie sure to cause a suspicious spike in testosterone levels.

    This celebration of 80s action movies is a definite mark up from the laziness in the original “Expendables.” Sylvester Stallone hands the director’s chair over to Simon West (“Con Air,” “The Mechanic”) but remains the grumbling, wisecracking star alongside Jason Statham. They get the most screen time and the good action, but there’s also room for returnees Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and (best of all) madman Dolph Lundgren.

    Honestly, though, the main attraction is seeing Stallone work alongside Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom get beefier roles this time around.

    For a few fleeting moments near the end, “Expendables 2” delivers the goods – as all three mow down an army of baddies with really big guns. Sadly, it’s one of the few moments the movie utilizes its former mega-stars. (more…)

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  • Too much (or not enough) Bourne in ‘Bourne Legacy’

    The trailers for “The Bourne Legacy” suggest an expansion of the world introduced in the Matt Damon-starring “Bourne” trilogy. There’s a lot of talk about Damon’s character, Jason Bourne, and the promise of familiar faces explaining more about the mysterious government programs the first three films tease.

    Forget all that. “The Bourne Legacy” basically amounts to a slick franchise reboot, and any mention of Jason Bourne proves to be a fleeting distraction.

    Jeremy Renner is coldly effective as Aaron Cross, another superspy bred out of a secretive program similar to that of Bourne.  We first meet him trekking through the snowy woods and fighting off wolves like he’s Liam Neeson. We don’t know what he’s doing or where he’s going, but he really needs a new supply of blue and green pills. These pills are what “The Bourne Legacy” is really about. (more…)

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