Early year movies — Highs, lows, mostly right in the middle
May 28, 2012
“The Grey”* 2.5 out of 4 stars
“Red Tails”* 2 out of 4 stars
“Big Miracle,” 2.5 out of 4 stars
“Chronicle”* 2.5 out of 4 stars
“The Woman in Black”* 3 out of 4 stars
“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” 3 out of 4 stars
“The Vow”* 2 out of 4 stars
“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” 1.5 out of 4 stars
“Project X” 3.5 out of 4 stars
“The Lucky One” 2 out of 4 stars
“The Raven” 1 out of 4 stars
— * indicates a movie available on DVD
Movies released from January to April have a reputation for being placeholders between the award winners of the previous year and the summer fare to come. Though there are a few exceptions to the rule, the early months of 2012 have proved that status is all but a fact.
"The Grey" — A group of Alaskan oil workers are stranded in the wilderness after the plane carrying them back to civilization crashes. Facing subzero temperatures and a lack of food is the least of their concerns as a wolf pack descends on them, leaving one cryptic member (Liam Neeson) of the party to help them all stay alive.
Out of all the questionable action movies Neeson has done lately, this is one of the more thoughtful ones with his character deeply conflicted about whether or not he wants to survive, though it's still less than remarkable as an account of man vs. nature. The battle of wills between the protagonist and the alpha wolf is fascinating, but it ultimately freezes up and dies just when things start to get good.
"Red Tails" — In World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen remain purely in the background of American combat. The all-black squadron of fighter pilots finally gets the chance to prove its mettle by flying a new line of missions while stationed in Italy, though it is always a step away from getting grounded.
An oft-overlooked part of the saga of WWII is earnestly but clumsily told with stiff dialogue, minimal support from stars like Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., and bland character development that makes every white officer look like a plantation owner and less likable than the Nazis.
The saving grace is some spectacular aerial sequences, no doubt with a little creative input from executive producer George Lucas, for whom this was years in the making.
"Big Miracle" — In 1988, a small-time TV reporter (John Krasinski) discovers a pod of California gray whales stuck within an enclosure of ice near the Arctic Circle. What starts as a regional human-interest story suddenly explodes into a nationwide concern as people from across the country flood the area trying to help the poor animals, including his Greenpeace ex-girlfriend (Drew Barrymore).
This family whale tale chases after the same good vibes as "Free Willy" but can't quite crack the ice when it comes to touching on the bigger social issues present, such as the animosity between Americans and the nearby Soviets, or the beliefs of the Inupiat tribe, whose heritage includes hunting the marine mammals.
A better-than-average animal film is helped along by a sizable cast and a clever cameo by Sarah Palin via archival footage.
"Chronicle" — Three Seattle teens (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan) are imbued with special abilities after coming across a mysterious crater in the woods. As they hone their newfound talents of telekinesis and flight, the trio only becomes more powerful until things start to get out of control for one of them.
Presented as found footage, the story of super-powered high school seniors starts out good and gets better before coming apart completely at the end once the main kid, Andrew, begins a rampage. As a commentary on the fragile mind of a teen it makes sense, but just imagine if the perpetrators of the Columbine shootings had been able to tear out people's teeth with their mind.
"The Woman in Black" — In the early 1900s, a young British lawyer (Daniel Radcliffe) overcoming recent tragedy in his life is charged with handling a deserted seaside estate. The undesirable job becomes worse when he learns of a specter (Liz White) on the property that is the terror of the locals and their children.
Though he's hard to fathom as a widowed father, Radcliffe is brilliant in his first role after Harry Potter. Credit goes to the designers who made such a terrifying period set for him to tromp around, with the chills never once dying down.
Lord knows the shrieking of the lady in question will keep you up at night.
"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" — Young adventurer Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) persuades his new stepfather (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) to let him seek out Jules Verne's famous uncharted island, where he believes his grandfather (Michael Caine) has been residing for years. When they and their guides (Luis Guzmán, Vanessa Hudgens) actually find the tropic paradise that holds giant creatures, a volcano of gold and more, the only question is how to get back alive.
A sequel to the sleeper hit, "Journey to the Center of the Earth," this new chapter in the Vernian chronology is brighter, more exciting and simply must be seen in 3-D. The Rock's "Pec Pop of Love" in particular is enhanced by the technology.
Go ahead, bounce a berry off them.
"The Vow" — Following a car wreck, married couple Leo and Paige Collins (Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams) are divided when brain trauma leaves Paige with absolutely no recall of their relationship. As he tries to jog her memory, she drifts more toward her estranged parents (Sam Neill, Jessica Lange) and her ex-fiancé (Scott Speedman).
Everyone's favorite soap opera ailment, amnesia, is trotted out in this romance supposedly taking its details from a real occurrence. Tatum and McAdams have some OK chemistry, but they can't prevent this snoozer from being ultimately forgettable.
"Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" — Motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has tried to forget his dual identity as Ghost Rider, a fiery, otherworldly entity doomed to a life of seeking out and destroying the wicked. When the man (Ciarán Hinds) who made him what he is takes an interest in a young boy (Fergus Riordan), the Rider may have to come out of hiding to save mankind from darkness.
What little flame there was in the first "Ghost Rider" has been snuffed out for this excruciating excuse for a comic book movie. Even Cage can't justify scenes involving a urine stream resembling napalm and he barely seems to care anyway.
Granted, it's not the worst Marvel movie, compared to the "Punisher" duo and "Elektra," but still…
"Project X" — An unpopular high schooler (Thomas Mann) hosts a party for his birthday without much hope of turnout. With his best friend (Oliver Cooper) handling the arrangements, the shindig becomes an enormous booze-fueled, drug-induced gathering with hundreds of lascivious folks turning the premises into an unstoppable orgy.
Another movie about a kid with a camera running amok, this looks exactly like it was shot by a 15-year-old boy with no values, and that is its greatest strength. You'll either love it or despise it in all its craziness, but nobody can ignore a party like this,
"The Lucky One" — A young Marine (Zac Efron) narrowly avoids being killed in action when he picks up a photograph in the middle of a war zone. Returning home, he decides to find the woman (Taylor Schilling) in the snapshot to thank her, only to fall in love with her when they meet face to face.
Another Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation where beautiful people have slow but complicated romances and encounter antagonists who are about as threatening as a bowl of sugar-free vanilla pudding, in this instance, single mom Schilling's possessive ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson).
Efron and his love interest aren't all that entertaining traipsing around the Louisiana setting, but Blythe Danner has some good moments as Schilling's observant grandmother.
"The Raven" — A series of murders in 1840s Baltimore bears a striking resemblance to the works of author Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack). When he is asked by police to assist with the investigation, the incidents only increase, leaving lawmen to wonder if Poe is trying to live out his twisted stories.
Cusack is an alright likeness for the famously troubled writer and has no trouble tapping into his fantastically sick mindset, but the similarities end there. Recreating "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Masque of the Red Death" is worthless without Poe's sense of suspense, and director James McTeigue doesn't even come close to this standard.
At least Roger Corman had the right idea when he made his Poe films in the 1960s, but this mess is clearly made for an audience who couldn't be bothered to pick up a book in high school English class.
One can only think of one word when considering a repeat viewing: Nevermore.
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