‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ a worthy sequel

Andy Serkis, who despite being under layers of makeup, managed to make us weep for King Kong and freaked us out as Gollum. Now he has scored again as Caesar, the intelligent chimpanzee who leads the simian colony in the superb sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the screenplay for the reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” are joined by Mark Bomback (“Wolverine”) in picking up the story, which ended with the ominous possibility of a lethal virus being spread worldwide while Caesar, the super intelligent chimp, is leading his simian group, immune to the virus, to set up residence in the woods outside of San Francisco.

“Dawn” opens with a montage of grim images covering about 10 years as the ALZ-113 virus, originally developed to battle Alzheimer’s, has decimated the human population to possible extinction.

Caesar is now married to Cornelia (Judy Greer) and they have a son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) who is likely a teenager in chimp years, and a new son is soon born. Caesar is the undisputed leader of the simian colony and uses sign language to communicate with most of the colony. He and his lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), also can speak.

One day Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (Doc Shaw) stumble upon a human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who in a panic shoots and wounds Ash. The gunfire draws not only Caesar, Koba and others but a group of humans of which Carver is a member. Malcolm (Jason Clarke from “Lawless”) is the leader of the humans and is fortunately a cool head, who along with Caesar, manages to extinguish a tense situation. But Caesar demands that the humans leave.

The humans, however, need to get through the woods to a nearby dam where a dormant generator can be reactivated to provide much needed energy to a colony of people in the city.

Now aware that humans still exist and needing to keep his colony from panicking, Caesar leads a huge group of simians to the city in a show of power and tells the humans that although they want no war, they will fight if the humans try to come into their territory. As a gesture of faith, Caesar returns a satchel dropped by Malcolm’s teen son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee)  while fleeing the forest.

The human colony is led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who also would prefer not to go to war but realizes they must get the power plant operational. Malcolm pleads with Dreyfus to give him three days to go back and negotiate with Caesar. Dreyfus OKs this but as a backup plan has some of his men go to an armory where weapons are stored and to prepare for possible armed fighting.

Caesar and Malcolm work out a fragile peace that allows the humans on the power plant detail a chance to work on the power plant, on the condition they surrender their weapons.

But as happens there are loose cannons among the cool heads. Carver is discovered to have an additional gun stored away. And among the simians, Koba, carrying scars and distrust of humans after being subjected to their cruelty, takes a couple of apes with him on a reconnaissance mission to the city, where he sees two men testing weapons outside an armory full of weaponry and ammunition.

Koba reports his findings to Caesar, who is concerned but still believes allowing the humans to work on the plant is the best option to assure peace. Koba concedes but with reluctance.

Malcolm banishes Carver from the power plant project, but this enables Koba to manipulate things to trigger animosities. When Caesar is shot and apparently killed, Koba is easily able to rally the simians to attack the human colony.

Director Mark Reeves, whose previous works includes “Cloverfield,” is skilled in creating action scenes loaded with chaos, violence, panic and heroism, and the trio of writers have created a story that highlights the conflict within each faction. Caesar has seen the best and worst in mankind, and in Malcolm he slowly develops a trust akin to that of which he had with Will Rodman (James Franco), who raised him. Koba is a destructive force but he has legitimate reasons to hate the humans. Blue Eyes is at the stage of life where he questions his father but ultimately realizes Caesar’s wisdom and compassion.

Malcolm is supported by Ellie (Keri Russell), a woman he met after losing his wife to the virus and who becomes his lover. Her medical expertise comes in handy when she is able to treat the ill Cornelia, an action that seals the trust between Caesar and Malcolm. Another touching development is the friendship between the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), who is steadfastly loyal to Caesar, and Malcom’s son Alexander.

Even Drefus is given a moment to reflect the tragedy he suffered and why he is driven by his obligations to protect the people he now leads. This creates an effective drama amid the action. For all the trouble they cause, Koba and Dreyfus are worthy of sympathy.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ends with a sobering realization that despite some real bonding between key members of the simian and human colonies, conflict is inevitable. But the movie also sprinkles a little hope among the grim realities.

For Roger Ebert, ‘Life Itself’ was a grand adventure

For millions of people, the lasting impression of film critic Roger Ebert was that of a heavy-set man, looking like an academic — the kind of person who knew all the answers in class and jacked up the grading curves with his ridiculously high scores. He wore glasses and was every school’s top nerd. He also was charismatic and charming in his own way.

For years people would tune into a show, “Sneak Previews,” that starred Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel as they offered critiques of the latest movies. The show featured clips of the movies being reviewed, and if you were lucky, an intense disagreement between the two hosts on the merits and flaws of the films.

This was a formula that worked for years and added a spontaneity and human element. It also made Siskel and Ebert the most famous film critics ever. But it all was a compromise, because of those who watched these two on TV, initially very few had access in those days to reading their material in print.

Fortunately, via syndication, book publishing and Internet archives, the writings of Siskel and Ebert have been made available, and with the touching and informative documentary “Life Itself,” now in theaters and soon to hit the pay TV and DVD/Blu-ray market, interest may spike in people seeking their print work.

“Life Itself” is based on Ebert’s autobiography and it is a rich collection of history and commentary on the life of a man who was born to write.

Directed by Steve James, “Life Itself” has a lot of footage that is difficult to watch, following Ebert in the final months of his life in late 2012 and early 2013, almost entirely in the hospital. The ravages of the cancer he had battled for years had deformed his face, making his mouth virtually useless. He could no longer talk or eat.

Thus, the laptop keyboard became his mouthpiece, and despite the miseries he suffered, he was able to exude an inner strength, dignity and humor that is inspiring.

Between these emotionally draining scenes, James puts together a biography of Ebert, rich in photos and clippings, along with recollections from Ebert’s friends and colleagues, including some surprising insights by director Martin Scorsese (who along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian served as executive producer for this film).

Roger Ebert knew at an early age that he was a writer, and as a child he published his own neighborhood paper, and delivered it door-to-door.

He was a driving force at his college newspaper and already had accumulated an impressive portfolio of work when he was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1960s. When the paper’s film reviewer retired, Ebert was assigned to replace him. Ebert settled into this niche nicely and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his film commentary.

While he excelled in his work, he also became seduced by the night life in Chicago, an indulgence that led to the realization he was an alcoholic. He quit drinking, and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was able to stay sober the rest of his life.

The core of “Life Itself” centers around the two biggest forces in his life — his late-in-life marriage to Chaz, an inter-racial union that made Ebert instantly a stepfather and step-grandfather; and his many years co-hosting his show with Siskel.

Chaz was 10 years younger than Ebert and they hit it off and were married in 1992, when Ebert was 50. Although an only child and a bachelor for a half-century, Ebert thrived as a family man — in one segment, Ebert fondly recalls (Stephen Stanton provides the voice-over in reciting Ebert’s words) taking long walks with his step grandson.

The Eberts’ love story is richly displayed here, with photos from their life together, and especially in the sobering footage of Chaz at Ebert’s side during his hospitalization, not showing pity but a reinforcing support. Even after some procedures that are clearly uncomfortable, Chaz could read when Ebert was ready to move on and continue working.

Also of great interest is the detailing of the Siskel and Ebert collaboration. In the beginning it had possibilities of being a failure. Siskel and Ebert were competitors: Ebert writing for the working-class Sun-Times and Siskel for the powerful Chicago Tribune. Siskel, before marrying and settling down, was a jet-setter and part of the inner circle at the Playboy mansion.

There are some wickedly funny outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert shows, with these two competitive and driven men taking verbal — and often profane — swipes at each other. Comments from others conceded that although Ebert could hold over Siskel that he had a Pulitzer, and although Ebert was older, Siskel seemed to be the big brother in their relationship.

Initially, the show was not offered in the major markets of Los Angeles and New York, and was a hard sell, with two men sitting in a mock theater, and dressed casually (like clowns, one commentator noted). But when L.A. and New York picked up the show, it really took off.

These were two strong personalities and clashes were constant. Both men were coy when asked how it was decided that Siskel’s named would precede Ebert’s. Despite their disagreements, a true bond developed between them. Siskel’s two daughters served as flower girls at the Ebert wedding in 1992.

When Siskel learned he had a terminal brain tumor, he did not let Ebert know, to Ebert’s dismay. It also motivated Ebert, when he became ill, not to conceal it, which is why he allowed his battle with cancer to be widely known.

In the end, as Siskel’s wife, Marlene, noted, Siskel and Ebert respected each other, “and I believe they loved each other.”

Although he was robbed of his voice, Ebert became a stalwart of the Internet and social media, continuing to write reviews as long as he could, and filing a blog up until the final days of his life.

“Life Itself” does conclude with Ebert’s passing on April 4, 2013, and his funeral, but  uplifting is that he died at peace with his life, holding Chaz’s hand. And we are left with the  knowledge that his writing will be out there for all time. Yes, Ebert had a likable TV presence, but his writing was truly his gift to the world.

 

A simple story in ‘The Rover,’ but it sticks with you

The lead character in the Australian import “The Rover” does not speak until about 15 minutes into the movie, and this sets the tone for this grim but surprisingly engrossing film, directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”).

The character is named Eric and is played with a quiet intensity by Guy Pearce. His name is Eric, but the only way the audience learns that is by seeing it in the credits.

Michod wrote the screenplay, based on a story on which he collaborated with actor Joel Edgerton (“The Odd Life of Timonty Green”). The film moves slowly and requires patience but before long it is easy to get hooked.

The story takes place in Australia “ten years after the collapse.” What collapsed is not elaborated but as the narrative unfolds it seems to be a breakdown of the economy and infrastructure throughout the country. In the opening moments, Eric is seen sitting silently and solemnly in his dusty car. He eventually exits the car and shuffles into an old rundown building, which turns out to be a karaoke bar.

While he is gloomily having a drink, the scene cuts to a speeding pickup truck in which three excitable and armed men are fleeing from what probably was a botched robbery. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is upset because they had to leave his brother Rey behind, possibly dead from gunshot wounds. The activity in the vehicle gets so intense and out of the control that the truck goes into a roll and ends up tangled in debris right outside the karaoke bar.

The three men climb out of the truck, spot Eric’s car, hot-wire it and drive on.

By the time Eric sees what is going on and runs outside, the three bandits have sped off in his car. He climbs into the wrecked truck and finds it still runs and manages to free it from the debris. He goes after his stolen car and follows it until the armed men stop and confront him. Eric demands they return his car and gets knocked cold and left by the road.

Meanwhile, Rey (Robert Pattinson from the “Twilight” series) is not dead. He regains consciousness and manages to stagger to a Humvee used by the military unit now serving as law enforcement, and drives off, nursing a wound to his left side.

Eric awakes to find that at least the thieves left him the truck. He continues on, making stops at whatever settlements he finds in this vast, mostly uninhabited Outback area of Australia, asking if the car with three men passed through. He also obtains a gun in a rather abrupt and bloody way.

During one of Eric’s stops, Rey also pulls into the area and seeing the truck thinks it is his brother and partners in crime, only to learn it is now in the possession of Eric.

Eric, upon learning Rey is a brother of one of the criminals, takes the man to a doctor (Susan Prior) for treatment, and afterward demands that Rey take him to wherever his brother and partners are hiding out. Rey is a bit handicapped mentally and is easily taken under control by Eric, who eventually convinces him that his brother must not have cared much for him if he was willing to leave him for dead.

Eric and Rey develop an uneasy alliance, and it is the interplay between these two men that captures the viewer’s attention. Eric is a man of few words and we learn very little of his background. Rey soon is revealed as a simple-minded man who is coerced with little difficulty. When he is rebuffed impatiently by Eric for talking about things in his past, he pouts and says, “not everything has to mean something.”

Another gripping aspect of the movie is why Eric is so obsessed with getting his car back. Because he has the truck, which serves just as efficiently for transportation as a car, there must be more to the stolen vehicle than just a possession.

Along the way, Eric mostly has to take charge of situations, only to be surprised when Rey proves resourceful at times.

Serving as a backdrop to shaky association between Eric and Rey is the gorgeous but unforgiving landscape of remote Australian Outback territory. During their journey, the two men encounter desperate people torn between trusting others as a means of survival or just fending for themselves.

Michod tracks the story along so that it is impossible to figure out what will happen if and when Eric and Rey catch up to the thieves. In the end, the viewer has been treated to a very simple story, yet the character development is so skillful, using minimal dialogue, that “The Rover” will rattle around in the viewer’s mind for a while.

Eastwood uses the right pieces to make ‘Jersey Boys’ work

Here is something you do not see often in movies these days. As “Jersey Boys” opens, the camera settles upon a street in New Jersey in the early 1950s. Then Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) comes into the scene and immediately addresses the audience, laying the foundation for the story and giving the film an intimate one-on-one feel. This is a device employed in the stage production as written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice — who also wrote the movie screenplay — and used occasionally throughout the movie, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the popular award-winning musical.
Because of the success of “Jersey Boys” on stage, the story is well known, chronicling the rise and eventual fall of The Four Seasons, the pop group that had several huge hits in the early 1960s. Also, because of the high profile of the play, the screen version has been widely anticipated, especially in the directorial hands of Eastwood, already a proven talent behind the camera.
Eastwood’s smartest move was casting John Lloyd Young, who already has won a Tony Award, in the pivotal role of Frankie Valli, the falsetto-voiced singer who provided the Four Seasons with its unique sound. In fact, Eastwood opted to have stage actors rather than film performers, wanting to get people who have become familiar with the roles from playing them repeatedly.
Of the major characters, only Piazza, who has played Lucky Luciano in “Boardwalk Empire,” and Christopher Walken have extensive film experience.
The result is an exhilarating film, loaded with music, along with its share of drama, humor and tragedy. It’s early, but “Jersey Boys” could be a contender for Academy Award nominations.
Young’s ability to mimic Valli’s voice really cements the authenticity during the many song productions in “Jersey Boys.”
Young’s Valli is a basically decent teenager when “Jersey Boys” opens, a youngster in New Jersey who falls under the influence of the street-wise DeVito, and although DeVito briefly leads Valli astray with some illegal activities, their brotherhood is sealed.
DeVito also is the leader of a pop group, featuring Valli as lead singer, that goes through several name changes before a neon sign inspires the group to become The Four Seasons.
The story follows the usual path of a group struggling to establish itself, doing gigs wherever it could get bookings while trying to generate interest in demo records.
The key relationships that help propel The Four Seasons is the hook-up of songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) with the group, introduced to the band by Joe Pesci (yes that Joe Pesci, but played by Joseph Russo), who starts cranking out the hits; and meeting up with producer-songwriter Bob Crewe (a scene-stealing Mike Doyle).
Fame and fortune follow, along with the inevitable problems. Although devoted to his wife Mary (Renee Marino, also reprising her stage role) and family, Valli’e excessive absences while he is on the road leads to the crumbling of his family.
Meanwhile, DeVito’s irresponsible handling of finances amounts to massive debt, which in turn triggers a splintering of the group.
Before that, Gaudio, a lot more savvy about the music business, forges a partnership with Valli so that once The Four Seasons are no more, the two can continue to make music.
Tragedy almost has Valli completely dropping out of the business until Gaudio brings him another song that he reluctantly takes a look at. It turns out to be “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” another enormous hit that revives Valli’s career.
Walken adds some nice touches as Gyp DeCarlo, a neighborhood boss in New Jersey who takes a liking to Valli’s singing and later proves to be a valuable ally in solving the Devito-generated financial disasters.
Amid the great scenes of The Four Seasons peformances is the familiar story of the glory of success and how easy it can disintegrate. But it also is a story about loyalty and allegiance that became a foundation to the lives of Valli and his fellow group members.
“Jersey Boys” is a throwback to those great musically-centered movies of decades ago and a viewer does not have to be a fan of The Four Seasons to appreciate the production, which concludes with an all-cast dance routine to “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” as the credits begin to roll.

’22 Jump Street’ is a rehash, and it knows its

The pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill for a cop-buddy comedy was inspired and led to the 2012 hit “21 Jump Street,” based on the television series that featured Johnny Depp. Thus it was a no-brainer that a sequel would hit the screens.
The bad news is that “22 Jump Street” is pretty much the same plot as its predecessor. The good news is that the co-directors of the original, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with one of the “21” screenplay writers, Michael Bacall, are back, and they cleverly poke fun at the fact the movie is a rehash.
Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum), who were pushing it in “21 Jump Street” by trying to pass themselves off as high school students in an undercover assignment, are again posing as students, this time in college, in an effort to break up a drug ring. Ice Cube is back as Capt. Dickson, still antagonistic, still employing colorful language.
Once on campus, the two officers, who had prided themselves on being a team, doing everything together, find themselves splitting apart. Jenko finds a kindred spirit in the college’s starting quarterback, Zook (Wyatt Russell) and fits in comfortably with the partying jock element on campus.
Schmidt, meanwhile, cannot compete there but hooks up with the bohemian art majors, drawn there by Maya (Amber Stevens), who brings out his sensitive side.
Amid their investigation, Schmidt and Jenko feel the tension as they continue to drift away from each other, especially when Jenko begins to consider pursuing a college football career.
There are a few twists along the way, including a stunning revelation involving Capt. Dickson.
Per usual, there are the slapstick scenes that exploit Schmidt’s athletic shortcomings, as well as Jenko’s stumbling efforts at improvising. The age jokes are prevalent also, mostly coming from Maya’s roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell), who delivers relentless zingers at Schmidt.
The chemistry between Hill and Tatum is again a strong point of the movie, and Ice Cube offers a hilarious presence with his unabated rage and disgust. Surprisingly, the unlikely pairing of Schmidt and Maya has a sweetness that makes it authentic.
As amusing as “22 Jump Street” is at times, the highlight comes at the end, while the credits roll, and everybody involved in this comedy flat out make fun of the concept of sequels. So stick around to see it.

 

The more he dies, the more heroic Cruise becomes in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

In a way, the gift that Tom Cruise’s Maj. William Cage receives in “Edge of Tomorrow” is enviable. It is the ability to relive past moments in life and correct the mistakes made to ensure a better result. The down side: You have to die in order to “reset” the time and go back.

That is the premise behind “Edge of Tomorrow,” yet another in the nasty-aliens-invade-Earth genre.

With a relentless assault of “mimics” gaining more ground in an attack on the planet, mankind has found that even technological advances in weaponry cannot thwart these creatures. Amid all this, Maj. Cage, a PR officer quite content with his job that leaves him “in the rear with the gear,” is summoned to Europe to meet with Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who tells the major he is going to be on the front lines of a massive land attack that will make or break the humans’ defense of the planet. Cage resists and is seized and rendered unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself at the military base where the massive assault is being prepared. He is assigned by Master Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton) to a squad and given a crash course in combat.

The next day the assault commences and is a disaster. Cage dies within minutes and at the moment of his death wakes up with a start and is back at the base and it is the previous day.

So once again he goes through the preparations and dies in the attack, and wakes up again back at the base. He soon realizes to his amazement he is in some sort of time loop. This is baffling to him but at least every time he goes back into battle he lasts a little longer, knowing what has happened and how to delay his death. In these battles he encounters the Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who soon realizes what is happening to Cage and tells him, “When you wake up, find me.”

Cage has to AWOL but does track down Rita on the day before the attack, and she enlightens him on what  he is experiencing and how they should be able to use this ability to gain an advantage over the enemy. Cage does not want any part of this, but Rita tells him it is either this or confinement to a psycho ward or a final stop on a dissection table. Rita takes him Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a scientist whose theories on the alien species have been dismissed as looney but hold the secret to victory.

Once Cage has been trained — a darkly-humored sequence in which Cage’s mistakes require a “reset” — the major and Rita must go into the battle repeatedly on that deadly beach, advancing a little more in their quest to administer a crushing blow to the aliens.

Maj. Cage is not a recycled Cruise hero like Maverick of “Top Gun,” Ethan Hunt of “Mission Impossible” or Jack Reacher. For much of the movie he is bumbling and inexperienced, exasperating Rita, but eventually develops into a man now capable of rendering the final blow to the enemy.

Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), maintains a swift pace, slowing only as Cage and Rita analyze what they have learned and go from there. There is little time for quiet moments between Cage and Rita although they obviously have grown fond of each other. There are no back stories on either character, so their actions and reactions amid the deadly chaos have to be the key in drawing the audience to them. Fortunately, Cruise and Blunt have a chemistry together that blends well with all the action.

The screenplay, by Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”), Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, manages to keep things rolling, with touches of humor, despite repeated scenes. The audience is held in suspense on what the next challenge will be for Cage and Rita and whether there will be yet another “reset.”

 Seth MacFarlane offers a funny view of the Old West

Seth MacFarlane, whose “Ted” has forever changed the way we view cuddly teddy bears, takes a step into Mel Brooks’ territory with his raunchy look at the Old West in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Fans of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” animated series know he likes to push the envelope in his humor, and those going in to see his “A Million Ways” can expect to be exposed to very crude material that mostly is not sophisticated — although some of the jokes may go over most people’s heads — but is infectious.
As director and co-writer — along with his collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild — MacFarlane had the power to put himself in the lead role as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer of minimal success living a few miles outside of the dumpy town Stump Hill and a man who is quite aware he is out of his element trying to survive in the harsh conditions of Arizona in 1882.
The opening credits appear to be a salute to Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” which in turn played homage to the serious old Westerns, using the same bold and colorful type face on the screen, accompanied by a majestic orchestral theme by Joel McNeely as the musical backdrop to the panoramic views of a gorgeous land  still mostly untouched by progress.
Then there is the opening scene of a typical showdown gun duel on the main street of a town. At that point, all the seriousness breaks down.
Albert, challenged to a draw, does not approach this with narrow-eyed confidence. Instead, he talks his way out of the gun fight, promising instead restitution to the challenger in exchange for likely being shot to death.
All of this is conducted in front of the town folk, including Albert’s girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who then dumps him and soon takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the conceited owner of the town’s mustache grooming shop.
With what little confidence he had now imploded, Albert, while sitting in a bar with his best friends, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), laments the lethal trappings of living in the West.
In a sidebar plot device, despite Ruth being the most popular of the town’s prostitutes, she and Edwards have a chaste relationship.
Meanwhile, the notorious gun slinger and robber Clinch Eastwood (Liam Neeson, having fun in a rare villain role) and his gang are active, and while he is conducting his work, he dispatches his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) and  Lewis (Evan Jones), one of his minions, to lay low in Stump Hill.
Lewis foolishly shoots a man in the town bar, sparking a free-for-all brawl. Albert and Edward do everything they can to avoid getting involved in the melee until Albert sees Anna in danger of being injured and saves her.
Soon, Albert and Anna strike up a friendship, as Anna lends a sympathetic ear to Albert’s lamentations. She suggests they attend the upcoming carnival as a couple in hopes of sparking jealousy in Louise. Albert is reluctant to go because, he says, people always get killed at the carnival. But Anna talks him into it.
Yes, there are some macabre but sickly humorous deaths at the carnival, but also more humiliation for Albert, who in a fit of anger challenges Foy to a gunfight. Upon regaining his senses, Albert is in a panic as he is lousy with a gun, but Anna assures him she can teach him how to shoot.
As in many adult-oriented comedies, amid the raunchiness there is a sweet undertone, and the friendship between Albert and Anna, that is able to develop because she never tells him the truth of her circumstances, is a nice pause in the hilarity. It appears that there might have been some improvisation in the conversations between Albert and Anna, as Theron’s laughter does seem spontaneous.
Of course, just as Albert and Anna fall in love, Clinch comes to town and throws everything into chaos. Before long, Albert has fled Stump Hill and is out in the middle of nowhere, where he is captured by a tribe of Native Americans, led by Cochise (Wes Studi), and this encounter is the key to Albert becoming a man who can summon the courage to face Clinch.
The story is rudimentary and predictable, but the humor comes in loud and hardy, sometimes with an unexpected bang.
“A Million Ways” is not a gentle comedy by any means, nor is it destined to be a classic. It is deeply embedded in guilty pleasure territory.
MacFarlane’s Albert is a likeable goof, and the supporting cast, particularly Theron, Ribisi and Silverman, provide some gems. Only Seyfried comes off as being under-used.

‘Godzilla’ rocks once the humans get out of the way

After being dormant for a decade, Godzilla is back and recharged in a $160 million pre-summer extravaganza. And although he gets top billing in “Godzilla,” he has to share screen time with the humans, who just have a knack for getting in the way.
Those humans in this movie are the usual characters plugged into the typical science-fiction roles, led by Joe Brody (Brian Cranston), the conspiracy-sniffing man, dismissed as a person so wracked with guilt and grief that he has become nothing more than a pesky looney whose frightening prognostications are inevitable.
Then we have Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Navy bomb-disarming expert who ultimately is more adept in the clutch than anybody else.
Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his able assistant Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are the scientists whose “let nature do its thing” suggestions are ignored despite Vivienne’s graphics that illustrate pending doom if action is taken. Representing the military might, which turns out to be hopelessly over-matched by Godzilla — didn’t these guys do their homework and see that the giant reptile just swats away fighter jets and artillery like they are mosquitos? — is Adm. William Stenz (David Strathairn), looking perplexed as all the weaponry at his disposal has all the firepower of squirt guns against these monsters.
Of course there are the collateral characters like Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde), who are put in harm’s way.
The real stars are Godzilla and the two MUTOs — Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms — that once they unfurl their gigantic and ferocious forces really ignite “Godzilla.”
The build-up story takes about an hour to unfold, and Cranston’s Joe Brody gets to holler and growl about cover-ups while trying to retrieve the old data he had accumulated that proved the tremors causing a nuclear meltdown on the coast of India in 1999 had far more ominous implications. Once that data reach Dr. Serizawa, it all is moot.
Two MUTOs, one male, one female, have risen after being dormant, and zeroing in on radiation sources from which to feed, are moving to rendezvous and make soon-to-be MUTOs. Godzilla, meanwhile, driven by some instinctive force, is zooming across the ocean toward the U.S. west coast in pursuit of the MUTOs in what Dr. Serizawa says is an effort to re-establish a balance to nature.
Also, by this time, the audience in the theater is getting itchy to see Godzilla in action.
When Godzilla is finally seen, it is worth the wait. This Godzilla is about 355 feet tall and more agile than the lumbering ’Zilla that has become so familiar via the Toho Studios’ run of films from the 1960s to 2004.
The MUTOs are pretty imposing themselves — one can fly while the other stomps around — and they look like a couple of insects that mutated when sprayed with a can of radioactive Raid.
Honolulu and Las Vegas are laid to waste before the main event commences in San Francisco, a two-on-one match that seems grossly unfair. But there is only so much abuse Godzilla will take before his scales start glowing, meaning, OK, you’ve gone too far and now I’m mad.
The battle is the highlight of the movie, but again triggers frustrations, as the action cuts away from the fight to bring us updates on the people.
Director Gareth Edwards does a good job with the extensive budget he was given. Edwards, who was first exposed to Godzilla as a child via the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, accumulated experience with digital effects while working on TV documentaries “Perfect Disasters” and BBC’s “Hiroshima.”
Edwards has said in interviews that he considers “Godzilla” to be screenwriter Max Borenstein’s movie, adding that he and Borenstein worked together for more than a year on “Godzilla.”
The result is a new Godzilla that owes a lot to its predecessors but appears quite capable of carrying on a tradition that has gone 60 years.

Soska twins find adoring fans at Texas Frightmare Weekend

Jen and Sylvia Soska have directed "American Mary," and have "See No Evil 2" coming out in October.

Jen and Sylvia Soska have directed “American Mary,” and have “See No Evil 2″ coming out in October.

They call themselves the Twisted Twins.

Jen and Sylvia Soska are definitely standouts in the movie industry. They are 31-year-old identical twins who are up-and-coming forces in the world of horror films.

The Soskas have enjoyed seeing their film, “American Mary,” gaining more fans. The movie has also opened doors for the twins, who have directed “See No Evil 2″ and “The ABCs of Death 2,” both slated for fall 2014 releases.

The Soska twins have traveled extensively, meeting people who admire “American Mary,” a growing fan base. During Texas Frightmare Weekend, held May 2-4 at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, Jen and Sylvia were kept busy, with a steady line of people eager to meet them, get a signed photo and a photo opportunity.

The twins also were guests of a panel, moderated by Bekah McKendry, marketing director of Fangoria magazine. McKendry opened the panel by asking the twins how they got started in the movie business.

“We were proudly failed actresses,” said Jen. “We started as child actresses and we really never did anything momentous, and when we got to puberty it got to the stereotypical Penthousey slutty syndrome, so it was ‘sexy this and slutty that’ and eventually we got to slutty Martians, and it was:  even a Martian has to be a slut. Really?”

The twins also were trained in martial arts so they tried out stunt and film school.

“Grindhouse was in the theaters and we were huge (Robert) Rodriguez nerds, so after film school, we’d go to ‘real’ film school,” Sylvia said. “We would watch the movie for three hours and we would say, ‘I want to do that.’ “

It was Jen who thought up the title “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” from which the Soskas developed their first movie.

Sylvia said that their movie was a project they put together as part of the film school work, and even though there was a list of things deemed inappropriate topics for film projects, the twins took a chance with their off-the-wall film. When it was shown in the class,  half of the people walked out while the other half was cheering so wildly “you could barely hear the intentionally disgustingly crude dialog,” Sylvia said.

With “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” the twins experienced every aspect of making a movie, from writing to directing to finding locations and props.

“American Mary” followed. The story of a disillusioned medical school student, Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle), who becomes drawn into the world of body modification, and then later uses the skills she developed in this under-the-radar business to extract a hideous revenge on a mentor who abused her, “American Mary” has become a popular film in the horror movie realm.

Sylvia said about the Mary character being assaulted, “I think it was more than a physical rape, but a rape of everything she held so dear, so I wanted her (to react) in a very physical way. When she does her surgery on Rat (her first body modification client, played by Paul Anthony), she’s disgusted and she has like a complete mental breakdown. But then she does the surgery on Ruby (Paula Lindberg), where she’s disgusted with herself, but she’s not crying about it anymore, and by the time the Doctor Grant thing happens to her, she’s done, she’s finished with the mainstream, she’s just going to do it all on her own.”

The Soskas admitted “American Mary” was a tough sell, as the subjects in the movie were dismissed as freaks, but the twins stressed the themes of individuality and acceptance.

The twins’ parents re-mortgaged their house to help Jen and Sylvia finance their quest to find a distributor for “American Mary.”

The twins said they wrote the Mary Mason role specifically for Isabelle.

Said Sylvia, “ ‘American Mary’ looks like we had a lot of money, but a lot of people came out and worked for free. Everybody did a favor on that movie. They’d bring things from home, or they would make costumes, or they’d bring prosthetics and they’d donate music. Everybody got so behind that movie, and I think that’s why it is such a success. You can see that people actually cared as you watch it.”

Jen credited Mike Hewitt of Universal for pushing so hard to get “American Mary” distributed not only in the U.S. but overseas as well.

Despite Universal’s commitment to distributing the film, the company did not finance the promotional tours and festival appearances Jen and Sylvia made. That all was financed by the Soskas’ parents.

“We kinda owe Mom and Dad another house,” said Sylvia. “If you feel bad for my parents, please go see ‘See No Evil 2’  (to be released in October).”

When asked how they work together, Jen said, “We do plan everything together ahead of time. However, I like to say that I’m an unstoppable force and she’s (Sylvia) an unmovable object, and sometimes the force has to go around the object. We see the same goals but get there in very different ways.”

“On set Jen and I are mom and dad,” Sylvia said.  “Jen is the one you always want to talk to.”

Added Jen, “If there’s something awful you have to tell us, please tell me before you tell Sylvia, and let me tell her because she’ll get mad at me, but she’ll get worse at you.”

The Soskas’ other film, “The ABC’s of Death 2,” also is due out in October.

On “ABC’s of Death,” Sylvia laughingly said their aim is to have people come out of the theater saying: that was disgusting. The twins admit that they pushed the envelope in this movie, but promised to shoot “artfully” some scenes that might make the studio nervous.

The twins admit that “See No Evil 2” has a stigma in that it is under the auspices of World Wrestling Entertainment’s studio company, known for showcasing some of its wrestling stars in adventure B movies.

Jen said that at WWE, the film studio is separate from the wrestling enterprise and that Vince McMahon, head of WWE, is not hands-on involved with the movie-making. He usually sees the movie as a finished product.

“I’m proud to say — I’ve been told — that we’re the only two directors that Mr. McMahon knows by name,” said Jen.

“That’s probably because we keep tweeting him that we love him,” added Sylvia.

Sylvia said that WWE is a good place for underdog movie-makers to produce their films. “They are going the art house way now and are making good films (such as “Oculus”).”

As far as the writing process is concerned, Jen said, “We almost share like a hive mind; we have 30-plus years of in-jokes now. We love all the same things. We take a lot of influences from video games and comics. When we write, we pitch each other until we find something we don’t hate. We’re cutthroat when we pitch. And then we start warming up to something we both like, and then we pick up the characters and we break them down, and then we do a little timeline – first act, second act, third act – and we fight over what happens, and when.”

Jen said that they do “tag team” writing – one is working, the other is playing video games until the writer says, “I don’t have anything else.” The other one comes over and reads and offers usually positive reinforcement like “That’s awesome.”

Regarding “See No Evil 2,” Sylvia said, “Basically, what they wanted was for the modern woman to be reflected in this film, not only for that but for everyone else to seem like a person.” The Soskas are calling it an “action horror film.”

The Soska twins knew from an early age they were “twisted,” and they found that it could be a lonely existence.

“It was difficult and sad and lonely,” Jen said. “We were bullied a lot. They hated that we liked Goth stuff, that we liked horror movies, video games, comic books, that we wanted to be actors.”

“It also didn’t help that we were quite tiny and fit quite easily into lockers,” Sylvia added.

The Soskas said their mother would watch horror movies with them when they were children.

“I’m so grateful to my mom, being cool enough to let us like the stuff we liked when we liked it,” Jen said. “We liked horror movies and she let us watch them, and it became a big part of who we ended up being.”

Added Sylvia, “And she would go to the principal’s office when they said there’s something wrong with your daughters, and she said, are they still straight-A students? They’d say, yeah, and she’d say, well shut your mouth.”

In “The Quiet Ones,” a lot of noise adds up to very little

“The Quiet Ones” is anything but quiet.

It has people screaming, doors and walls being pounded, loud arguing and ear-splitting rock music. All this racket adds up to a standard but not standout spooky movie.

Said to be inspired by true events, “The Quiet Ones” addresses the issue of whether or not supernatural incidents are real or are just a manifestation of mental illness.

The movie takes place in 1974 at Oxford University in England, where Professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris, who plays Lane Pryce in “Mad Men”), in his class shows old films of a case he worked on years earlier in which a boy apparently is under the influence of some spiritual presence. Joseph’s experiments on the boy, he said, were terminated when the child’s mother took him away.

Now, Joseph has another subject lined up, a teen girl named Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke, who plays Emma, schoolmate and friend of Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates in “Bates Motel” on A&E). Jane, an unwanted child, has spent her life either with foster families or in institutions and seems to be possessed by a spirit she calls Evie. Joseph has drafted two students, Harry Abrams (Rory Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi Dalton (Erin Richards), to assist him with his experiments, and then hires Brian McNeal (Sam Claflin, who resembles a young Terry Jones from Monty Python) to film the events.

When Oxford cuts off the funding for Joseph’s project, he and the three young people hustle Jane off to an abandoned house – naturally – old and creaky, multi-level with numerous rooms, the perfect venue for ghosts and other restless and possibly evil spirits to engage in their unnerving activities.

Joseph’s theory is that he can get Jane to externalize this so-called presence through energy, and once it is drawn out can be harnessed, thus curing Jane of this mental horror. In the meantime, Jane is kept locked up in a room with blaring rock music piped into it, for reasons never explained.

With Brian hauling around a movie camera and filming, the handheld point-of-view element now can be used. Thankfully, unlike other POV horror movies, most of the footage in the movie is not what is seen through Brian’s camera.

“The Quiet Ones” is lifted by the casting of Cooke as Jane, who is a cross between Regan from “The Exorcist” and Carrie White from “Carrie.” She easily presents the most sympathetic character in the film, and ultimately, the most rational, and is a sobering sight – dressed only in a hospital gown, Jane is pale, constantly clinging to a doll, and is often drenched in perspiration or bloodied by self-abuse.

The electronic equipment used in the experiments to measure the energy emitted by Jane/Evie are primitive compared to what is employed now, and Brian is burdened with the movie camera that is nowhere near as compact as today’s models.

Brian also finds himself falling for Jane, something Joseph sees as potentially dangerous but also as tool is curing Jane. As efforts intensify to draw Evie out of Jane, this entity responds with increased violence. Soon all l three young people are having misgivings about the project. And as they begin to question the validity and results of the tests, Joseph evolves into the typical mad scientist role.

On the pretense of going into town to obtain more film, Brian goes to Oxford and does some research, learning the real story of Jane. When he returns to the old house to confront Joseph, everything is set up for the inevitable horrifying conclusion.

Director John Pogue, who wrote the screenplays to “U.S. Marshals” and “Ghost Ship,” working on a script he co-wrote with Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman, employs a lot of quick, easy scares such as sudden thumps and crashes, but the most effective moments are when the camera focuses in close on a seemingly sedate Jane with the unnerving sense that something terrible is about to happen.

“The Quiet Ones” is really a blend of earlier stories of nasty spirits and possession, so there is nothing original here. But the work of Cooke helps lift this movie — barely — out of the muck of run-of-the-mill ghost/possession stories. The scariest aspect of the movie is when the credits role and to the side are photographs of the real people who were involved in this ill-fated project.

“Oculus” offers scary mind games

If life is full of non-excitement, there are ways to liven things up and guarantee mixing it up with restless spirits. Buy a house built on a former cemetery site where the bodies remain underground. Open a hotel on ancient burial grounds. Reside in on old, creaky house with a dark and murderous past. Or, as in “Oculus,” purchase an eye-catching antique that has mysteriously moved around a lot, with various owners.

The piece featured in “Oculus” is an old mirror with a gorgeous, intricately design wooden frame. The glass could use some Windex, but that is a minor problem compared to what this antique has in store for its latest owners.

“Oculus” is a movie that may annoy those expecting a rip-snorting, jump-in-your-seat ghost story. Instead, it unfolds with a slow but growing anticipatory dread, much like “The Shining.” The opening moments are scary, as two siblings, a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, are hiding from a gunman in their house. Soon they are facing the gunman, whose face is unseen, the weapon pointed at them.

The story then jumps ahead 11 years to the present, when a young man, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), institutionalized for several years, has been deemed fit to return to society on his upcoming 21st birthday.

Meanwhile, a young woman is seen at an auction where an old mirror with a beautifully carved wooden frame is sold. She has gained temporary possession of the mirror until it is shipped to its new owner, and she has some plans.

But first, she meets Tim as he is released. It turns out she is his older sister, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, who plays Amy Pond / Soothsayer in “Doctor Who”), and these two are the now grown siblings who were terrorized that night 11 years earlier.

Kaylie has been researching the past of the mirror and has learned that it seems to have supernatural powers that have led to deaths of previous owners. She has brought the mirror to the Russells’ old home, which is outfitted with all sorts of gadgetry to record events and prevent the mirror’s powers from derailing her quest for truth. Now she is asking Tim to help her not only amass evidence of the mirror’s sinister history, but also to “kill” it.

Tim, fresh from years of therapy, is skeptical of Kaylie’s claims, having been convinced over the years that the horrifying night he and Kaylie endured was the result of simple mental madness, not some supernatural manipulation.

“Oculus” jumps back in forth in time, as the terrible story unfolds. The Russells, Alan (Rory Cochrane), a computer software designer, his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff from “Riddick”), along with children Kaylie (the young version of is played by a marvelous Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan), are moving into a new home, and among the items carried into the house is the antique mirror that Alan has purchased and placed in his home office.

The audience is forced to really pay attention as the movie recalls the days leading to that deadly night, with madness overtaking the parents and the children becoming increasingly confused and helpless. Some scenes are shown from the differing perspectives of Kaylie and Tim, but before long, Tim witnesses things that have him conceding Kaylie may be well on target in blaming the mirror’s power on the deaths of its owners.

Incidents escalate as the battle is on and the mirror appears to be fighting back. As the characters become more baffled by what is real and what is not, so does the audience. This is where the movie flourishes.

“Oculus,” co-written by director Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, adapting a short screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman, is not going to startle viewers with ghosts leaping out from nowhere. Instead, it feeds upon dread. As resourceful as Kaylie seems to be, there is a an unnerving feeling that the mirror’s powers will trip up her and Tim.

As mentioned above, Basso is exceptional as the 12-year-old Kaylie, a girl forced to keep her head and protect her brother amid the growing peril. Gillan and Thwaites as the adult Kaylie and Tim spend a lot of time debating, then trying to analyze what is happening, and in the end may find themselves over-matched despite the preparations.

Cochrane also is effective as a father who is not overly demonstrative but dedicated to making a good home for his family, and Sackhoff is particularly tragic as a loving mother whose life unravels into a living hell.

Horror movies are designed to ensure you do not walk out of the theater feeling good. If its creepiness sticks with you, it succeeds. “Oculus” may not induce nightmares, but it may cause just a little apprehension every time one faces a mirror.