The Mouse House is on the verge of becoming the Big Cheese at theaters around the country. Four big releases from studios under the ginormous Disney umbrella are opening over the next six weeks. Yes, 4 in 6 weeks! How will they stack-up against each other and the rest of the competition?
"Need for Speed" (3/14) - DreamWorks and Touchstone partner-up for this adaptation of the popular car racing video game series. Lots of action and attempts at humor, but no laughs. The only impressive elements are the driving stunts (not a hint of CGI was used). "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul is the only actor draw. It's the biggest release of the weekend, but the 18-35 male crowd (who likely just saw "300: Rise of an Empire") may not get behind the wheel for this. Opening Weekend Prediction: $15M; Total Gross Prediction: $40M
"Muppets Most Wanted" (3/21) - After families flocked to "The LEGO Movie" once or twice (and "Frozen" two or three times), they didn't quite respond to DreamWorks' "Mr. Peabody & Sherman". They likely are saving their money for something they can count on - The Muppets! Still, having potential juggernaut (or disaster) "Divergent" as direct competition will make for a close-call weekend. OWP: $45M; TGP: $120M
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (4/4) - Marvel's action-packed superhero sequel to 2011's underrated, "The First Avenger" already has lots of buzz from the online community. With Chris Evans' Star-Spangled Man with a Plan joining Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, as well as newcomers Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford, I don't see how this can't be a smash hit. However, it's rare for a big blockbuster like this to open in one of the most disregarded months of the year. OWP: $85M; TGP: $225M
"Bears" (4/18) Last year Disneynature did not release an Earth Day documentary. But they're clawing back with this inspiring story of a courageous family of Alaskan bears. John C. Reilly (who voiced the character Wreck-It Ralph for Disney) is the narrator. These films don't do huge business, but this one could attract a larger crowd than usual. OWP: $12M; TGP: $30M
And, as if this wasn't enough, Disney will also be releasing two more films this Spring: the sports drama "Million Dollar Arm" starring Jon Hamm on May 16, and the eagerly anticipated "Maleficent" (w/Angelina Jolie in the title role) on May 30. Following six movies in only 11 weeks, the studio will take a break in June. But if you add the continual runs of "Frozen" and "Saving Mr. Banks", and the English-language version of the Oscar nominated animated "The Wind Rises", you get a total of 9 Disney films that have been or will be showing in theaters over the first five months of 2014. And they only released 10 movies all last year!
Father-son relationship issues, bullying at school, parent/principal/social worker meetings, loads of anger, frustration, serious tones and no laughs. All the ingredients of a bad, live-action family comedy. But, amazingly, these are only some of the unnecessary plot elements in DreamWorks' latest animated feature, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman", which lacks all the fun and wonder of the classic 1960s shorts the movie is based on.
This unusual father-son duo (it's an adoptive relationship) made time travel and history exciting in the segments on "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show", thanks to clever, imaginative stories, filled with intelligence, witty puns and an overall positive attitude.
Unfortunately, director Rob Minkoff (who 20 years ago co-directed the Disney's classic, "The Lion King") decided to incorporate real-life issues and drama into an animated movie about a seven-year-old boy and his genius, talking dog father. The trailers and the adorable teaser posters make you think this is going to be light, funny ride through time. That's what makes the experience of watching "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" so stunning.
The introductory on-screen narration from the initially likeable Mr. Peabody (voiced by "Modern Family"'s Ty Burrell) and human son Sherman (Max Charles of fellow ABC sitcom "The Neighbors") is promising. But then the tone changes. Outside of a few effective scenes, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" tries way too hard: to get laughs, get us emotionally involved in the story and make us care for these characters. Frankly, watching this film left me a little depressed.
The script is so focused on setting-up conflicts: Young Sherman and classmate/bully Penny, Peabody and Penny's father, Peabody and the school social worker and, yes, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, that it completely ignores the reason people were anxious to see this duo on the big screen - to ENJOY them. There were times when I couldn't believe what I was watching. The overall mean and negative feel is so far off from where it needed to be for this material.
If you're not familiar with the premise: Mr. Peabody has invented a time machine (the WABAC) that he uses to take Sherman back to historical events so he can learn history the best possible way - by living it. So the possibilities for the writers of "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" were endless. And yet all the supporting characters are flat and uninteresting, which is incredible because they include Leonardo Da Vinci, King Tut, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Even Peabody's puns, made famous in the shorts, fail to work here because the writers feel the need to point them out to the audience, instead of being confident with their work.
On the positive side, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. But that's simply not good enough. There's only one scene, early in the film, that truly works and, oddly enough, it's a flashback sequence involving Peabody looking back at his early years as Sherman's dad. It's smart, charming and effectively sweet. Four great minutes out of 90.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is rated PG for some mild violence and rude humor. It's appropriate for kids 8 and up. This isn't a terrible movie, and will be a mild distraction young audience members. But for fans of the originals, or fans of top level animation, it's a major disappointment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" gets a C.
Debuting before "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is the short, "Almost Home", a teaser for DreamWorks' upcoming animated film, "Home", which will be out for Thanksgiving. The short (and the film) star Steve Martin as the voice of the leader of a group of aliens. The good news is the studio has some time to make the upcoming feature much stronger than this very average effort.
Liam Neeson has become one of the top action stars of the 21st Century. With the "Taken" and "Titans" franchises, along with about a dozen other action/mystery/thriller hits (including the voice of the Good Cop/Bad Cop in "The LEGO Movie"), Neeson is someone we always root for as he attempts to save the day and be the hero. And his latest role is no exception.
After seeing the enticing trailer for "Non-Stop" several months ago, I was immediately hooked by its unique premise. Neeson plays US Air Marshal Bill Marks who receives threatening messages from an anonymous person during a flight from New York to London. The texter claims to be a passenger, and writes that he'll kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a special account. And even though, at times, everyone else on the plane (and in the audience) is led to believe differently, Marks makes it very clear: "I'm not hijacking the plane! (dramatic pause) I'm trying to save it!"
But are we sure? Director Jaume Collet-Serra (re-teaming with Neeson following 2011's guilty pleasure, "Unknown") provides plenty of suspicious close-ups to get us to think the bad guy (or gal) could be at least a dozen different passengers. Neeson's Marks has the badge and the gun, and also tons of baggage. And all of this is taking place 35,000 feet in the air. No wonder this was my most anticipated early release of the year.
So, I sat back, relaxed and enjoyed what is a pretty good trip. "Non-Stop" is not extraordinary, or even great, but it does exactly what it's designed to do: lock you in and keep you glued and guessing to the end. And it also makes that next plane flight you take a little more uncomfortable.
A trio of writers are credited for the complex script that goes in several different directions, often at the same time. "Non-Stop" fulfills the action/suspense genre requirements: surprises, twists, false alarms...and adequate acting. There's also a little social commentary on the airline industry and the current state of airline security, including a sharp series of sequences early on depicting every category of flyer there is. And the film does have a few things in common with 2012's "Flight" (though it doesn't reach the level of Denzel Washington's insanely cool upside-down landing sequence).
"Non-Stop"'s early "edge of your seat" excitement level gives way to more of a mystery feel in the second half. However, keeping us on course the entire time is Neeson. Not only does he give a truly believable performance, as either a flawed good guy or evil bad guy, but he also keeps potentially corny and predictable scenes from going in that direction.
Julianne Moore co-stars as a mysterious passenger who, like everyone else, could be the killer. But she's a bit miscast - too much of a big name to square-off with Neeson in key moments. A lesser-known actress would have worked better in the role. Michelle Dockery ("Downton Abbey") and Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") play the two main flight attendants. And we all know that flight attendants could never do anything evil. Or could they? The visual effects (vital in the climactic final minutes) aren't spectacular, but work well enough that they're not a complete distraction.
"Non-Stop" is rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, language, and a whole lot of peril. It's a solid thrill ride, with a few bumpy patches, that delivers what it promises.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Non-Stop" gets a B. For a film that takes place almost entirely up in the air, it's pretty grounded.
"Pompeii" is exactly what I expected it to be: a disaster film that truly is a disaster. The popular Bastille song of the same name is much more upbeat than this mindless action/romance/drama. But it does offer one comparison: if you close your eyes, you will be demolished by a crumbling arena and volcanic ash.
"Pompeii" receives the honor of having the Stupidest Plot Devices of any movie so far this year. We begin in 62 AD, a young boy named Milo wakes-up to witness an all-out battle involving his family and neighbors and the powerful Roman Army. This little kid walks around while all the fighting is taking place, is never hit by a horse or flying body and eventually plays dead so he can stay alive. Improbable? Of course - but this is the only way that little Milo can witness his parents being killed by Senator Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland, talking exactly like present-day Jack Bauer).
Flash forward 17 years (or 149,000 hours). Milo (now played by Kit Harington) is a slave, while Corvus and his soldiers look as if they haven't aged a day. Milo has become a top gladiator. His roommate is a fellow slave named Atticus. The two predict they're going to kill each other in the arena the next day, but somehow form a friendship. Meanwhile, Milo has his eyes and heart set on Cassia, a wealthy merchant's daughter (played by Emily Browning, all grown-up since "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"). But Corvus wants to make Cassia his bride, along with potentially conquering Pompeii itself.
And just when it looks like they couldn't fit another movie formula element into the plot, that dastardly Mount Vesuvius starts erupting, causing chaos everywhere. So now, not only is everyone fighting each other, but they have to try to defeat Mother Nature - and she never loses. Each volcano victim dies in glorious fashion, to the point where it quickly gets very funny. "Pompeii" has other unintentionally hilarious moments both in the calm first half and action-packed finale: facial expressions, the embarrassing visuals, and corny dialogue that you only hear in movies. Sutherland, the only big name actor in the cast, has a larger role in the film than you might expect, to the point where he ends up having more lives than Jack Bauer by the end. Apparently he needed some cash before the new "24" checks start rolling in.
The only lesson, or reinforcement, we get from "Pompeii" is that we should never build a city so close to an enormous volcano. We also learn that when you find your significant other, in the wake of a disaster, you should never let her out of your sight. I didn't think we needed that one by now, but in order to get to the ridiculously drawn-out conclusion, that's where the script takes us.
"Pompeii" is rated PG-13 for all the action/violence. Sure, the costumes look good, but thanks to this mediocre attempt at a "Titanic" story in lava, my Worst Movies of 2014 list has a new, serious candidate.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Pompeii" gets a D-.
2014 has been promoted as the Comeback Year of Kevin Costner. Last month's "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" was enjoyable (and the veteran actor was solid), but it made no impression at the box office. Maybe Costner can find success back in his wheelhouse with two sports dramas coming-up: "Draft Day" (April 11) and "McFarland" (Nov. 21). His latest film, the action/thriller/dramedy, "3 Days to Kill", is one of the worst movies of the year.
I knew about 3-minutes in that "3 Days to Kill" was going to be a struggle. A roughly-edited boardroom scene featuring the heads of the CIA and operations agent Vivi (played by Amber Heard) leads into Costner's Ethan Renner - a longtime top agent - coughing-up the screen. After a mission to take down a terrorist in Serbia goes poorly, Ethan learns that he has brain cancer and is going to die in 3-5 months. I'll admit, this was the only element in the entire film I didn't see coming (no Spoiler Alert necessary because you're not going to see this film).
So Ethan realizes he needs to spend the little time he has left with his ex-wife and teenage daughter, who he hasn't seen in five years. She's played by "True Grit"'s Hailee Steinfeld. At the same time, Vivi wants Ethan to tackle one last mission, and in return, she'll give him an experimental drug that may extend his life. It's a ridiculous plot, even for CIA spy mystery standards.
When 30-second montages are a film's best quality, you know you're in trouble. Almost nothing in "3 Days to Kill" works, which is somewhat surprising considering the extremely predictable script was co-written by Luc Besson ("Taken", "The Family") and the director is McG, whose "Terminator: Salvation", was a better-than-average sci-fi effort.
And even though 2013 was "The Year of the Misguided Action Dramedy", "3 Days to Kill" incorporates the same juvenile and bizarre attempts at humor mixed with graphic violence that were so common last year. And the result is the same. Costner tries his best to save every scene he's in (which is most of them) - but can't, while Heard is simply trying to act - but can't. Her Vivi is a laughably bad character - the tough, female killer, with a different outfit and hairstyle every time she pops-up on screen to simply try to keep the audience's attention. It doesn't work.
But the worst part of "3 Days to Kill" is the clumsy audio re-dubbing. And it has nothing to do with foreign-speaking characters. Throughout the film characters are reciting dialogue that doesn't match-up to the movement of their lips. I laughed-out loud several times during one conversation between Ethan and Vivi inside a car that was clearly re-recorded later in a booth, which is fine, but there's a little issue of matching-up the words and the lips in post-production that the technical team forgot about. Sloppy filmmaking.
"3 Days to Kill" is rated PG-13 for some action/violence, brief adult content and language. This isn't even worth your time if you have 2 hours to kill at the theater and you've seen everything else.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "3 Days to Kill" gets a D.